Monday, February 28, 2011

Bakuman - 21

This was certainly one of the most "shounen" of all the Bakuman episodes so far - a reminder that this is indeed a shounen manga in spite of it's somewhat unorthodox storyline. For one week this was a battle series - all about the fighting spirit and the coming struggle for supremacy in the Golden Future Cup. But the series still maintains the unusual level of thoughtfulness and self-awareness that distinguishes it from most other shounen titles.

The rush of new characters continue fast and furious. This week it's Ko Aoki, a very pretty mangaka who has been working in the shoujo field and is only now venturing into the shounen realm for the Golden Future Cup - partnering for her fantasy manga with with Nakai, no less, as her drawings are too shoujo for "Jack". This is a big chance for Nakai and she's a hottie besides, so he's pretty much being led by the nose from all appearances. Aoki-san is not shy with her opinions - she didn't like "Money & Intelligence" because it was too serious, or Fukuda's manga because it was too mature for a shounen magazine. She has very specific ideas about what should and shouldn't be shounen.

But she does like Colorfusical, the fourth entrant into the Cup, brought to us by the other major new character we meet this week. That's Koogy, AKA Koji Makaino. He's a popular rock musician who fancies himself a renaissance man - he's done fashion, graphic design and acting already. So manga is just another medium for him, a tool to elevate his public persona - and his fans a built-in ticket to winning the fan polls for the Golden Future Cup. That seems a little underhanded, and we may have our first real villain of the series.

As for our heroes Ashirogi Muto, things are looking up. Master manipulator Hattori - who seemed to be hopped up on about 20 energy drinks this week - told them he'd been gaslighting them yet again, and they should start getting ready for serialization. He wants to win the GFC, but he's prepared to back them even if they don't because they proved they could deliver a 19-page chapter every two weeks. Of course it nearly kills Masahiro in the process, but never mind that - mission accomplished for Hattori. He finally reveals to the boys that he told his colleague after their first meeting that they would surpass Nizuma Eiji after three years, and he appears to have totally drunk the kool-aid now. Let the battle begin! And a battle it is - as Fukuda leads a revolt by the other contestants to protest Koogy's manipulation of the voting. I can't imagine that's going to go well - in fact, I think a case could be made that it actually helps the others because the manipulation renders any Koogy victory as tainted. Of course, it's even more likely that "Jack" wouldn't care, as for them, the publicity of having a rock star serialized would trump anything else.

It looks like we're headed towards a less subtle and more conflict-driven time in the story, perhaps permanently. With Hattori's full backing it's really about winning at all costs at this point - Takagi seemed to take some motivation from the revelation that Eiji has already earned about a million dollars, and Masahiro obviously has motivation enough knowing that Azuki's career is taking off big-time. Most of the major players seem to have been introduced, and we know which horse Ashirogi Muto is going to ride into battle with Death Note "Shady Detective Trap". The pace has obviously picked up tremendously, and with only a few eps left until the show goes on hiatus until the fall we're clearly headed towards some sort of cliffhager/crossroads moment in the story. All that should be some satisfaction to those who complained about the pacing early on, and I've certainly enjoyed these last few eps. I just hope the series doesn't lose the quirky, introspective quality it showed during those buildup episodes.

Gosick - 8

OK, I have to get this gripe out of the way - why the hell didn't Ambrose and Grevil do anything when Victorique grabbed Kujo after the bridge collapsed? Why are two grown men leaving it to a tiny little girl to keep Kujo from falling - and how exactly did she support someone who obviously weighs twice as much as she does?

There. That aside, it was another pretty solid episode. Not as good as last week's, but a satisfying way to wrap up the Horvitz arc. As this show does very well, it mixed plot and judiciously allocated revelations about the main characters' past. It helps if the mysteries are interesting, of course - and this one was fairly interesting - but they're really the sideshow here. What matters is the characters, and their story advances just a little bit further with every arc.

As so often seems to be the case with this show, there were two more or less unrelated mysteries unfolding simultaneously here. The whole business with the murdered guests was a red herring to the larger plot - with the three guys turning out to be a trio of thieves. A squabble amongst them led Derek to kill his cohorts and set it up to look like accidents or unrelated foul play. It was feasible enough, if a bit of an anticlimax. The most interesting thing to come out of that kerfuffle was the revelation that Horvitz is not in fact a village, but a country - at least in the Elder's eyes. Apparently it's a tiny nation called "Seyrun", named for a gang of fictional forest tribes that dominated Eastern Europe in the middle ages with their short height and fierce intelligence (sound familiar?).

Of course the main mystery here was the issue of Cordelia Gallo, Victorique's Mum. That one needed to have a good resolution for the arc to feel satisfying, and fortunately it did. Herminia the maid, of course - the crazy eyes gave her away. She was hiding in the grandfather clock, which neatly explains all the oddities of the case - the disagreements over timing, the gold coins (that's where Elder Theodore hid them), the powerful trust of the dagger. A cleverly disguised Kujo sets off the confession, which sets of Herminia on a loony rampage of burning and spear thrusting, which sets off the Kujo falling into the gorge bit which I won't re-hash. The only part of that resolution that didn't hit with me was Herminia's motive - she was pissed at Theodore for telling her she'd die at 26. Hey - don't stab the messenger, Girlfriend!

Kujo is emerging as a nice foil for Victorique. I wish he'd be a little quicker on the uptake, it's true - but he's very much a soldier's son. For all that Victorique lives in a world of subtlety and hidden meanings, Kujo is completely straightforward. He doesn't get the joke on the first try, but he always charges straight ahead bravely, even if the odds are hopeless - especially where Victorique is concerned. Obviously these two are officially an item now - the way she cried over him was a tell if ever I saw one, and he - incapable of deception as he is - tips his hand with every other word out of his mouth. It was nice to know what her real question to the elder was - and it says a lot about Victorique that she wouldn't admit it.

Oh, and by the way - Cordelia Gallo is apparently alive and well. That should set up some very interesting moments down the road.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Mitsudomoe Zouryouchuu! - 8

I admit there have been a lot of times, especially this week, when I've been angry or wanted to feel sorry for myself that Mitsudomoe only got an eight-episode second season. But I try to remind myself how many great shows never got a second season at all, and that does soften the blow a bit. As does the fact the this abbreviated run was every inch the equal of the first, something not even the great Minami-ke could claim. Perhaps if that show had kept Omori-san at the helm, it could have.

It wouldn't be Mitsudomoe without crude humor, nastiness, and dancing right on the edge of acceptability - and the finale definitely does that. But this is a show that can be sneakily sentimental at times, and this episode certainly had the feel of a wrap-up - there was a warmth to the material that you don't see too often. For starters, we had one of the great misunderstandings of the series actually cleared up - Hitoha finally "confessed" to Yabechi that she was a Gachi otaku, at a meet 'n greet event for Gachi Pink. it wasn't spectacularly funny, but it felt like a hard-earned reward to see those two finally on the same page. I still think Hitoha is a little hot for teacher myself.

In fact, it was great to see things not breaking badly for Yabechi in general this week - it's not as if the poor, Job-like guy hasn't earned it. The next scene was a brilliant one, the all-school relay race at the sports festival. Like the parent-teacher day, this one was hilarious in the way it played up the weird idiosyncrasies of all the characters - in this case the kids in Class 6-3. It was full of great dialogue and perfect timing, and hilarious moments - the misadventures with the baton, watching (and listening to) Mitusba run, Yuuki's face... And it also had the class banding together with a real sense of team, and - through Chiba's mad genius and Yabechi's winning burst - a happy ending when Class 6-3 won the relay. Of course there was that little moment at the end was Yabechi was mistaken for a pervert...

The sweet potato vendor sketch is one I think will be impossible to explain to a non-viewer of this series - there's just no way that's understand why it was so riotously funny. But it was - for it's absurdity, unapologetic crudeness and the battle-of-wits between Hitoha and the vendor. And as for the final sketch, well - as the first season did, this one ended in a burst of unabashed warmth. The flashbacks to the adorable Marui triplets and the hunky Sourjiou were sad and funny at the same time - much as Soujirou himself is. The truth is, the guy might just be the best parent in anime - he's literally worked himself from being a healthy hunk to being a physical wreck for his kids, and the only one of them who ever shows him any love is Futaba. Until this week, that is - it was fitting to see things come to an end with Hitoha and Mitsuba holding his hands as they walk off into the distance, he on Futaba's shoulders (and what a freaky little girl she is). Like everyone else was, I think, I was half-expecting the cops to come in and break up that lovely scene - but I'm glad they didn't. Like Yabe-chi earlier, Soujirou earned it.

It's such a shame that this series isn't hugely popular, and I really can't figure out why. I suppose the lack of romance or teenaged females has something to do with it, and there was always talk that the unconventional art style turned people off. It may sound snobbish, but I really think one problem is that the show is just too smart for it's own good. Most viewers don't stick around long enough or think about the material enough to appreciate just how brilliant it is, and on how many levels the humor works. They never get past the crude jokes and the physical gags and they dismiss the series out of hand as a trifle. But it's not - it's the best pure comedy of the last two years (at least) as far as I'm concerned.

But then, I'll wax poetical on that a lot more next week - since we're getting a previously unaired "bonus" episode and not a recap next week, I'll save my series review for then.

Welcome to the Space Show

In glorious Blu-ray comes Welcome to the Space Show, the latest import from the Japanese big screen to grace my screen. I actually saw a trailer for this when I was in Japan last May, at a screening of Bungaku Shoujo and it caught my eye immediately. And boy, does the real deal look great - gorgeously animated with eye-catching character designs. It has some terrific music, too, mostly in English. But what of the movie itself - is it worth your time?

This is one of A-1 Pictures first ventures into film, though they've certainly had a great run on TV in the last couple of years. Given the production values they generally deliver it's not surprising what they can do with a real budget. In the director's chair is Koji Masunari, best-known as the director of the Read or Die works, and for being the creator and pretty much one-man gang behind Kamichu. And it's that series that should give you a decent template for what to expect here thematically, for better and for - well, not worse, but less better.

I'm not going to try and really explain the plot, because it's incredibly convoluted in the details. This is a long movie, clocking in at a legit 145 minutes - and there's not a lot of dead time in there. It drags at times, frankly, and suffers from plot overload. Make no mistake, this is a children's film - it's not edgy or dark or experimental. It's fun and heartwarming and the emotional palette is as straightforward as the visual one is bright. But 145 minutes is a lot of time to sustain story and character development that isn't even trying for complexity.

In brief, the story concerns five kids - two boys, Kiyoshi and Koji and three girls, Natsuki, Noriko and Amane - from a small mountain town who go away for a sort of unsupervised week-long sleepaway camp during their summer break. Why unsupervised? Because all the grown-ups trust Kiyoshi, the oldest of the kids at about 13 (the youngest, Amane, might be 6 or so). They're all voiced by real kids and that lends an air of authenticity to their scenes together. They're archetypes, for sure - the responsible one everyone admires, the geek, the screw-up... And there's tension between siblings, too. It's all pretty standard, but that's not surprising when you're trying to connect with a young audience. During their adventures they meet a talking dog named Pochi, who turns out to be an alien from the planet BOW, a sort of botanist doing some research who was injured protecting the planet from poachers. They take care of his injuries and in gratitude he offers them a "class trip" - to the moon - and the adventures begin.

What works? There are terrific visuals, as I said - I love the conceit that the moon we see from Earth is just a facade, a kind of billboard with a thriving intergalactic spaceport hidden behind it. There's a plethora of bizarre and comedic aliens that will surely appeal to sci-fi geeks of all ages. The hook - wasabi is actually a powerful controlled substance in great demand throughout the universe - is cute. And the warmth between the five characters and Pochi is genuine. All of the child actors are at least pretty good, and Pochi is voiced by the wonderful Keiji Fujiwara. There's an avalanche of interesting visuals that just never seems to stop, as the story flows from one magical place to another.

What doesn't work so well? The dreaded third act, for starters - it really does drag, a victim of the aforementioned length and plot fatigue. The villains are pretty generic and don't leave much of an impression. If you're not a child, all of the cliches at the heart of the movie will be apparent and occasionally distractingly painful. It really is the magic of Miyazaki that he can make a movie for children that will never bore adults, but there aren't many others who can do it.

On balance, though, if you're able to check your cynicism at the door and watch "Space Show" with a sense of fun and a willingness to be moved by straightforward emotional drama, you'll enjoy it a lot. It's a great-looking movie that's all heart - a space adventure the way a kid would dream it up. And surely, that's exactly what it's trying to be.

Tegami Bachi Reverse - 21

All the cards are pretty much on the table after this episode. Lawrence has revealed his true nature, the true intentions of Reverse are exposed, and Gauche is forced to choose a side once and for all.

I can't say I found much of what happened in this episode surprising, but it was still effective and had its impact on the audience. We've been seeing the set-up for this morally ambiguous battle between the Amberground Government and Reverse coming for pretty much the entire second season, and by this point the sins of the government have pretty much been exposed. So it had to happen sooner or later - we had to see the explicit nature of the dark side motivating Lawrence and Reverse. And it's pretty dark - he plans to use the hearts of those who could not become spirit - much stronger than a normal human heart - in a kind of mass sacrifice to strengthen the Cabernet and allow it to destroy the Amberground sun. To this end he has Noir free the two surviving brothers of the three who survived the airship crash - the gatekeepers, kept as prisoners by the government for their heart-sharing powers. They're the ones who tip Noir off to Lawrence's real plan.

Of immediate import is the dilemma this sets up for Noir, who seems to have joined Reverse primarily out of compassion for those who could not become spirit, especially Roda. Whatever the state of his heart he obviously can't continue to work for them in this light, and he confronts Lawrence - who gives him a bout of maniacal laughter as he expounds on his plans and then pulls a gun on Noir, who escapes by crashing through a window and diving over a cliff and into the river below.

If Noir's moral dilemma has been resolved, Lag, Connor and Zazie seem to be resolute now in their plan to destroy the Cabernet. Gus tracks it down, and they determine that it's headed for the capitol. As they race off to try and cut if off, Aria - subbing for Largo, away on a mysterious business trip - discovers the key to the Gatekeepers' cages missing.

So what are we left with here, as we approach the end of all things? Seems like there's really nobody to root for as things stand - our boy heroes are obviously pure of heart, but their cause and the one opposing both appear to be morally repugnant (again, I see similarities to Fractale here). We still don't know the source of Lawrence's hatred for the government specifically but it appears not to be altruistic - if he's not one who could not become spirit himself (he has the scars and eyes to prove something isn't normal about him) he has a specific and very personal reason to hate the government. Surely, Noir will come over to Hive's side now - indeed, we see him with Sylvette in the preview - but to what end, ultimately? The government's system, like Fractale, appears to be built on a foundation of lies and suffering. To what end are Lag and the others fighting, whether Noir is with them or not? Is Lag representative of some kind of "third way" - a morally true and innocent island in the center of all this evil, with the power to transform the world? The Maka - remember it? - certainly thought so.  We're surely going to learn over the next few weeks just what it meant.

To Aru Majutsu no Index II - 20

Things are pretty rough all over. Academy City is being invaded on multiple fronts, Accelerator has gone all psycho big-time, and the streets are running deep with blood. There wasn't a lot of humor in this week's episode, that's for sure.

As things start out, Touma and Accelerator are continuing to look after each others charges. Kihara and his Hound Dogs are about to finish off Accelerator when, in a final burst of energy, he hijacks a car through unique methods and scoops up Index along the way. As they speed off - she reading him her own take on "The Ugly Duckling" - Vento shows up on a hit of her own, with Touma as the target. She tries to engage Kihara but he dismisses her out of hand.

The entire ep pretty much focuses on non-stop action from beginning to end. Touma and Last Order, fleeing the Hound Dogs, end up taking shelter in a family restaurant, where Vento catches up with them. Of course, she and the Hound Dogs are after different targets - so after Touma sends her off to get help she engages him rather then chase. After a good fight and a fair amount of verbal posturing from Vento, she starts coughing up blood and flees the scene.

While all this has been going Accelerator and Index have also separated - he sends her off the get a message to the frog-faced doctor while he proceeds to decimate the Hound Dogs with extreme prejudice. If all that weren't enough we have a brief intercut with Railgun - who looks to have a bigger role next week - and the execrable Kuroko. And Tsuchimikado shows up to investigate why Academy City residents appear to be collapsing left and right, linking it back to God's Right Seat.

What really fascinated me this week was the confusion that permeated everything, both strategically and morally. There were so many different competing interests out there that it was hard to keep one plot separated from another, and as for Accelerator... He's a fascinating and dodgy character to say the least. He's shown interacting quite domestically with Last Order and Index, but when he's stressed and confronted he's an absolute beast - a being of incredible power with no hesitation whatsoever in using it to kill - and in some of the ugliest ways you can imagine. It's hard to root for someone like that, but he's clearly intended as something of a hero in this arc - and knowing his background and what's being done to him now, you can't help but sympathize. I also found the mysterious kappa doctor interesting - his comment to Accelerator about the hells he's seen was as revealing about his character as anything we've heard from him in two seasons.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Infinite Stratos - 8

It was only a matter of time before Laura joined Inchika's harem, though I have to give these writers credit for the inventive little twist they took on that front. The rest of the episode was pretty standard issue, but standard issue is what Infinite Stratos does so that's fine.

Not too surprising that the cliffhanger at the end of 07 - the tournament draw - served up a match between Ichika/Charlotte and Laura/Houki. This episode started badly for Houki and never got any better - she has to fight against the guy she loves, bad enough, but her partner ignores her totally and she's summarily dispatched by Charlotte before she can become any kind of factor in the match. And that ends up being the best part of her day.

The stellar teamwork of Ichika and Charlotte proves to be too much for Laura. Just when she's on the ropes and about to go down, however - at the hands of Charlotte, interestingly - we see via flashback the (rather silly) source of her hatred for Ichika, as well as the fact that she's something of a genetically engineered warrior. Then comes the first Laura twist of the episode - her IS turns into a sort of gray-black Michelin Man and appears to consume her, then proceeds to wreak havoc in the ring. For what seems like the hundredth time in the series the klaxons ring, the blast doors come down and the instructor machines are summoned to restore order. But before they can take over Ichika - pissed that the Laura monster is using his sister's signature moves - gets a power-up (and a sexy finger-point) from Charlotte and proceeds to defeat her, quite literally one-handed.

At this point Charlotte appears to have moved well into the lead, much to Houki's chagrin. She's clearly set her marker on Ichika, she's developed a close bond with him, and her behavior in the bath - snuggling her breasts against his back - suggests she's not taking no for an answer. When she declares her true gender to the world the next day the rest of the harem is understandably pissed - but it gets worse when Laura enters the classroom, blocks Rin's killing jealousy-blow, and promptly French-kisses Ichika and declares that he is to be her wife. That last bit was a nice touch.

Ichika's proving to be quite the stud indeed. both on the battlefield and off. He's quite talented and forceful, for starters, but also refreshingly willing to stand up to the girls in his life. As entertaining as Laura's entry into the fray was, I don't really consider her a serious factor - she's more in Cecelia's class, a distraction. Houki has a fighter's chance as the main tsundere and osananajimi #1, but Charlotte seems to have all the momentum. Her relationship has a level of comfort and familiarity with Ichika that belies the short length of time they've known each other. And one suspects that if Ichika were going to fall for Houki or even Rin, he would have done so before now...

Yumekui Merry - 8

I didn't get much out of this episode, to be honest. It was pleasant enough and even had some action and plot advancement, but it just didn't make much of an impact for some reason.

Maybe it feels as if some of the material is feeling a bit repetitive, like Merry and her donut fetish. I enjoyed the humorous aspects of the beach episode, but not so much this week. Some stuff did happen, of course - we had another appearance from Yui (this time in a cute nurse's outfit) and Engi. We had another muma attracted to the real world by Pharos, who we still haven't met. We had Glasses-sensei continuing to act mysterious and possibly sinister, with an unnatural interest in the students' dreams. We had Tachibana almost seeming as if was ready to make a move for Yumeji, but not quite. But it all felt somehow forced, at least to me.

In fact, the only scene in the entire episode that really held my attention was the somewhat surreal scene at the doctor's office, with Yui in the aforementioned nurse's uniform. The weird old doctor whose dentures flew out and hit Yumeji in the head, the whole "Brother-in-law" bit with the parents, the witches' brew... It had an appealingly bizarre feel to it that was totally out of sync with the rest of the episode. Oh, well - it's just one week, and maybe it's me. I still like the characters and the premise, so I'll certainly give this series the benefit of the doubt.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Fractale - 6

Poor old Fractale. It was eminently predictable, of course, that if the series proved to be anything less than a masterpiece the critics both in Japan and in the West would turn on it like piranhas. Yamakan brought it on himself to some extent of course, but even if I knew it was coming I can't help but feel it's largely undeserved, On balance, if this series were helmed by another director - say, one not so prone to controversy - it would have been received as what it is. Namely, a beautifully animated and imaginative if flawed project - a complex story told in very simple terms.

This week we saw some acknowledgment that Clain's view of the terrorists from Lost Millenium had turned a little too quickly. Of course it's easy to forget that the leads in this series are kids - Clain seems to be about 14 - and as such, quite naive about the world. Another layer was added to the moral dilemma this week when we met another faction of Lost Millenium - this one called Alabaster and led by a charismatic figure named Dias. They meet Sunda's faction in the wilds outside of Fractale's range, where a group of "Dead Zone Refugees" are trudging in misery, helpless with their connection to Fractale's blessings having been cut. Alabaster offers them assistance - free food and even vaccinations in an abandoned village nearby. Clain's fickle head is turned again, as he sees Alabaster as the kinder, gentler Lost Millenium. Unfortunately they have their own ulterior motives - that vaccine was actually a treatment to remove the terminals from the refugees, making them forever unable to connect with Fractale. The villagers are given a choice - join the fight or die, a choice they're willing to illustrate by gunning down the man who tries to flee.

Of more interest is the odd man who seemingly snaps photos of a skinny-dipping Phryne with his antique digital camera - except those turn out to be of Clain. Clain follows the man to his house and is immediately entranced by his treasure trove of antique technology, sheer heaven for an antiques otaku like Clain. He invites Clain to return at midnight for something really special, Phryne tags along, and what they see is a reproduction of a beautiful city, visible only through the man's antenna on the night of a full moon. While in his house, Phryne palms some of the man's photos and the man - coughing and clearly ill - makes a gift of his camera to Clain. Those photos are obviously important, as one of them shows a yellow-haired baby in his parents' arms. Obviously, that baby is Clain - but who is the coughing man? Clain's father was seemingly alive, although we only saw his doppel - and the man in the photo with baby Clain might or might not be Coughing Man. And how did Phryne know who the baby was - just a good guess, based on appearance?

Lots of questions, still. This was a pretty serious episode, especially after last week's low-key one. I think the simplicity of the storytelling style and the cuteness of the character designs has thrown people a little bit - there are actually some pretty complicated things going on here, and what seems to be setting up is a potentially cruel wake-up call for Clain. His whole world has literally been make-believe - now he's finding out more about real life than he'd probably care to. Nessa is obviously as innocent as can be but Phryne is a different matter - she's a child by appearance, but though still naive about some things, she's seen enough terrible things to have apparently lost her innocence long before Clain came into her life...

Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica - 8

Never a dull moment with this one, Boy - either on-screen or with the fans. Tempers are running high in both places - mostly as it surrounds the little parasite Kyuubey. Or should I say, Incubator? And guess what - it's evil! Who could have guessed?

There weren't too many surprises in this fantastically powerful episode. The revelation that Incubator is evil could hardly have as a surprise to anyone but the hard-headed few who were defending it - and even they, I suspect, were mostly doing it for the purpose of being annoying. Neither could the end of Sayaka - that may in fact be the most foreshadowed demise/transformation in any anime for years. But like a Greek tragedy, the drama came not from suspense but from the powerlessness of knowing it was coming and being unable to stop it.

What did come as something of a twist was Homura's emotional breakdown. It was really the first crack in her facade for a full eight episodes, which gave it a pretty powerful dramatic effect. The hints that she was from the future were running pretty strong, but Incubator more or less confirmed it this episode. She knows way too much about Madoka's future for that not to be the case, though she hasn't parceled out all her secrets to the audience yet. What finally drove her over the edge was Madoka's relentless lack of self-worth - not so much her flirtation with becoming a Puella Magica (that generates mostly anger) but the reasons behind it.

So now we know, officially, that Incubator is evil - its game is to turn girls into Mahou Shoujo so they'll turn into witches. We don't know why, yet - that tidbit of information is still to come, though Walpurgisnacht will surely shed some light on it. We also know that its furry body is nothing but an avatar - the real being (and its real form) hidden somewhere. So when that body is killed by Homura (for the second time, apparently) it represents nothing more than an inconvenience to it - it simply reappears and devours its old body.

In the end, here's where things stand - Incubator's true nature is revealed, if not its motivation. Sayaka is apparently dead or transformed into a witch, a victim of her own consuming despair, though Kyoko says in the preview that she plans to try and save her. Walpurgisnacht is coming, and Madoka's fate is apparently a grim one unless Homura can find some way to change it - and she doesn't seem too optimistic about making that happen. As dark as this one has been all along I guess it should come as no surprise that it's pulling no punches now - but for all that the major events of this week were well foreshadowed, I sense the potential for some major surprises lurking under the surface.

Hourou Musuko - 6

For a show that's basically school life with a small side of romance, Hourou Musuko can be as nerve-wracking for me as any fast-paced action or horror series. The show does a great job of capturing the looming anxiety that permeates every part of adolescent existence - the looming threat of hurt of embarrassment that always seems to be hanging overhead. And a school play - a cross-dressing one, no less - is certainly fertile ground for anxiety.

It was quite remarkable how this arc tied together the fates of all the major characters. Nitori basically wrote a play about himself and Yoshino - a chance for him to live out the desires he dare not in real life. Chiba put her own stamp on it, using it as an opportunity to act out her feelings for Nitori. For Mako, it was a terrifying opportunity to step out of Nitorin's shadow at last - to confront his great fear that he would forever be a supporting player in life. For all four of them it was a cathartic episode in their lives, but in the end this arc ended up being more about Mako and Chiba than Shu and Yoshino.

I enjoyed the culture festival scenes that built up to the play itself, especially the screaming through the lame haunted house that had the resident ghosts terrified. I also liked the building sense of nervousness in the classroom - not just among the kids - especially Mako, obviously - but also Saisho-sensei. He's a hapless one, this guy - but you can't help but admire the obvious concern and affection he has for his kids. His obvious anxiety wasn't helping matters but having lived through that build-up to the junior high school play I can tell you they nailed it - that sweaty excitement mixed with abject terror knowing the stage lights will be on you in a few moments. There's nothing quite like it.

As for the play itself, I think it's fair to say it went more or less as expected. Chiba was wonderful, Mako-chan was terrified but eventually steeled his resolve and got through it, and Nitori was a more than interested observer as the narrator - rooting for Mako-chan, but also knowing Mako was really playing Shu, not Juliet. The key line of dialogue from the play itself, of course, was the switching of the names - the moment that mattered most to Shu. The most important moment of the aftermath was when Chiba gave her annoying friend's flowers (I really want to strangle that kid) to Mako, telling him they were an anonymous gift - a sign that he had reached at least one person in the audience and to them, he was Juliet. That was as close to an act of selflessness as I've seen from her in six episodes.

So what does the play arc tell us about our main characters, in the end? Nothing so much new, I suppose - it mostly acts as a confirmation of what we already knew. Mako sees himself as a caterpillar but longs to be a butterfly like Shu. Chiba wants Shu for herself and is willing to put her endless reserves of intelligence and energy towards the goal. And for Shu, all he wants is for he and the person he loves to be able to be who they truly want to be - and be together - even if it can only happen on stage. Next week it appears that Maho's model friend - the one who "looks mean" and has already taken an interest in Shu - is going to step up the pursuit. These characters are so complicated, and there's so much development in store - what a shame to only have five more episodes to barely scratch the surface. It's like Kuragehime all over again - probably even more of a shame as these are kids with even more untapped potential waiting to be explored. As was the case with that show, I'm just going to enjoy it for as long as it lasts.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Oreimo 12.5 - True End

The long awaited "True End" route of Ore no Imouto begins at long last, after having been mercilessly teased by the animated commentaries in the first three volumes. And, while not ranking with the best episodes of the series, it nevertheless represents a pretty successful continuation of the TV arc.

For starters, the first half of the episode is identical to the first half of episode 12, the "Good End" finale of the TV series, as far as I can remember - right up to the point Kyousuke buys the eroge in Akiba. Things begin to change when he misses the last train, and finds himself stranded outside a locked JR station with no way to get home. He cajoles a fellow "Onii-chan's Pantsu" purchaser into loaning him his bike, and arrives homes a sweaty mess, jumping straight into the shower.

So, Kyou and Kirino again find themselves in her room playing the eroge, and things remain pretty much as we remember them (apart from Kyou's wardrobe change) until Kirino offers to show him her even deeper, darker secret. After a pretty shocking gag about a certain very "niche" porno that falls out of her stash, we get to the crux of the moment - Kyou refuses to look at her photo album, and instead Kirino pulls out a box of reports cards and sports meet medals, telling her brother how she always looks at them whenever she's feeling beaten down. They have a nice moment, he promises to keep her secret, and goes off to bed.

So in this version, Kyousuke is totally blindsided when he asks after Kirino at breakfast, only to be told she's left for America. Her room is an empty shell and he's left to ponder life without the annoying Imouto who made his life a constant misadventure. She left him on a good note - their last moment was a rare smile from her and a polite "Good night, Aniki", but she still left without a word to him. Fast forward to the first day of school and a pleasant moment between Kyousuke and a surprisingly impish Manami, when he spots a familiar face. Kyou dashes after it and finds Kuroneko (how can a smile look so innocent and so evil at the same time?), in the uniform of his high school. That "something else" she was going to call him? I guess it was "Senpai" - at least for now...

I'm not sure which version of the Kyousuke-Kirino parting I prefer at this point - I'm not in love with either, but in some ways the confrontational one in the "Good End" felt a little more true to character. Either way, the gist is the same - Kirino is an America at track camp, but now it's explicitly spelled out that we have the prospect of Kyou and Kuroneko attending school together to look forward to. That could potentially be a wildly entertaining three episodes, though it'll be interesting to see how their relationship plays out in Kirino's absence. It'll also be interesting to see how the mild-mannered Manami reacts to having Kuroneko there - while Kyou may or may not have feelings for her, I think it's very apparent that Kuroneko has set her sights on him. And it will certainly be fun to see Kuroneko in an environment so different from where we typically see her. In many ways it feels like we're going to be watching a different show, but that's the nature of the beast - change one detail and the whole route is different. In that sense the direction change felt pretty natural and true to the game format, and besides, I'm pretty sure Kirino will be back in the picture before too much time has passed.

2009 Chariot Gypsy Red

This one is something of a Trader Joe's legend - eagerly awaited every year as a potential value blockbuster. This year the price point is $4.99 - is it worth it?

For starters, what is it? This year Jim Neal Wines brings us an interesting blend of 34% Zin, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Petite Sirah, 15% Merlot, and 4% Sangiovese. It clocks in at 13.5% ABV, which makes it a positive lightweight for a Zin-heavy blend. I got a lot of pepper both in the nose and initial mouth impression. Fruit is straightforward cherry/plum, with a pleasant hint of chocolate. It's a fairly sweet wine but not a fruit bomb, with extremely soft tannins that urge you to drink it now, because there's no point in waiting. It's not complex or challenging by any means, but a pleasant enough wine for 5 bucks - it would do well enough with pizza, spaghetti with meatballs or maybe a nice pulled pork sandwich...

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Dragon Crisis - 7

For my money that was clearly the best episode of Dragon Crisis since the premiere, and maybe period. It was well-paced, exciting, had a couple of nice hooks and tied up the Ai arc (for now) very neatly.

Turns out Furomori is a former Society member pissed off because they refused to let him use a lost precious he needed to save a female colleague, presumably a lover. He was part of an experiment to fuse lost precious with breakers - and so was Ai. Both their powers come from the lost precious embedded in their bodies - she was a normal human girl once.

And how does she know this? The pair of earrings - half of which was in Eriko's possession - grant the wearer the ability to hear the truth behind the words of the person speaking to them. Thus Ai finds out that she was actually kidnapped 15 years earlier, and that Furomori basically thinks of her as a pet dog. She also finds out that Ryuji is trustworthy and wants to protect her - which he tries to do when Furomori catches them in the act of his attempted escape (with her help). Furomori has 5 LPs embedded and Ryuji, without a single LP on him, is no match for his wicked powers. Fortunately Rose, courtesy of Eriko's insane driving, arrives just in time with the dagger and the battle is joined. Ryuji is still in trouble but Rose manages to free him with a sort of cleansing flame, which burns four of Furomori's LPs away. Rather than allow himself to be captured by the hated Society he uses the fifth to immolate himself, leaving Ai in tears.

All that was played out really well - it carried a lot of dramatic impact. The same can be said of the little dramatic twist in the end, where Tokura informs Ai that she was in fact the kidnapped daughter of the Society member we met at the party - Makihara, the guy who was heartbroken when his child was stolen 15 years earlier. That was clever. Armed with the knowledge that she has a family after all, Ai goes off to Makihara - surely destined to return, given that she appears in the ED.

That was a very nice, solid, well-paced episode that did it's job beautifully and featured some really nicely written material. I hope the rest of the series is as good as this ep was.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Level E - 7

I mentioned last time that this isn't a show that you have to work hard to enjoy - and I think that's true - but it's also definitely a show that you want to pay close attention to. The devil - and the hilarity - is in the details, and they fly pretty fast and furious. For example, take my favorite part of the episode - the pitched battle between the Color Rangers and the Demon Lord's minions. As far as I can see, the attacks were:

- Blue: Looking cool
- Red: "Bus gas explosion!"
- Black: Composing haiku
- White: Tongue twisters
- Yellow: "The chief of the Tokyo Special Patent Approval Office suddenly takes vacation and rejects all applications!" This is my favorite, as it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

My close second choice for favorite sequence would be the Prince - as the Princess - in cosplay mode as the Demon Lord reads up about what to do on their wedding night.

Ever clearer as this series progresses is just what a total dick Prince Baka is. But he's no bigger a troll than the mangaka, Yoshihiro Togashi, because he does a masterful job pulling the rug out from under the audience (or reader, as the case may be) time after time. There were so many red herrings in this arc that it could have stocked a fish market for a week. The "girl you like" passwords? Fake-out. The teacher? Nothing to do with the plot whatsoever, really - though I suppose we can't totally ignore the possibility that she shows up later to take the Prince out and rescue the kids - who, as we leave them apparently for good, are back on the RPG planet Calvary in their swim trunks with a giant Prince Baka as the Demon Lord to menace them. And the cute Little Demon Lord who fell off the cover of "Le Petit Prince"? Well, he could be dead - or maybe he never existed in the first place, and was just part of the Prince's troll of the kids.

That's part of the fun here, I guess - hating the Prince but admiring his cajones at the same time. But the hard truth is that if you take this series even a tiny bit seriously - which I suppose is a bad idea - it's impossible to ignore the fact that he's not just mischievous, he's a very evil person. Just ask the Color Rangers, or Craft, or any of the other poor saps he's going to troll over the next six episodes. Me, I'm rooting for sexy Tachibana-sensei to go after the kids and off Prince Baka once and for all - that would be a helluva ending.

Kore wa Zombie Desu Ka? - 7

I'll state it for the record - that might be one of the strangest 22 minutes of anime I've seen. There's no question that the POV of this show is rather warped, but they may have topped themselves with this one - all the more because it was coming on the heels of two fairly serious episodes.

So let's see. First of all, we had genius Haruna trying to explain super-string theory to Ayumu so he can pass his high school math exam. Then we had Haruna calling out Ayumu during his math exam so he can help her battle a megalo, which turns out to be a perpetually cheerful horse in a school uniform who seems intent on seeing Haruna's pantsu and pleasing his mother. Then more megalo show up, this time jellyfish (also in school uniforms) who try to tentacle rape first Ayumu in his Masou Shoujo garb - with predictably disastrous results - then Haruna. And just when all is lost, a strange boy shows up who seems to know Seraphim - and turns out to be a girl. A girl who defeats the megalo by dousing them with tonkotsu ramen and then then ends up married to Ayumu because he accidentally kissed her after being shoved by a jealous Haruna.

Surely things got normal after that, right? Well, no - when Ayumu gets home from school the next day Haruna is putting up a Tanabata for some reason, and proceeds to spin a tale about some demented killer Santa Claus who flies around at night granting the wishes of anyone with a pony tail. When Ayumu  gets to school the next day Yuki - aka the tonkotsu girl - brings him lunch as a wifely duty, a girl hands him a pair of glasses from Dai-sensei and they turn out to be X-ray goggles. There - that wasn't so hard, was it?

It's not the first time I've said it, but absurdity like this sometimes works best when no effort whatsoever is made to explain it. And that's pretty much the case here - we get a little background and find out that Yuki is a vampire ninja from a rival clan opposing Sera's - but there's really to attempt made to rationalize the really weird stuff, like horny jellyfish and why tonkotsu ramen should kill them. In fact, the lack of explanation is even brought in as part of the joke - and you get the sense that no one on either side of the fourth wall knows why any of this stuff is happening, anyway.

For the record, I love tonkotsu ramen - I still dream of the version Santa Ramen in San Mateo, CA used to make before they moved... And their chashu - oishi! It's no wonder they always run out... But I digress - I love tonkotsu ramen, and I could easily believe it has supernatural powers. Since it makes my brain hurt to think too much about why any of this stuff is happening on screen, I think it's better to just enjoy it and not worry about it. Bottom line - Ayumu has a new member of his harem, she's of the loli variety and this a direct rival for Haruna, and she's Orito's neighbor. Oh, and her ninja clan has made a giant pig machine to spray tonkotsu ramen broth all over the city when megalo attack and Sera's clan is trying to destroy it. There'll be a quiz on all this (and super-string theory) next week.

Natsume Yuujinchou Third Season Confirmed

On the heels of the great news about Shinryaku Ika Musume's second season comes an even more exciting and long-awaited announcement: Natsume Yuujinchou will get a third season in 2011!

Readers of this blog know that this is one of my favorite series - in terms of pure emotional punch, few series can compare. You can read my series review if you want the details of why - but suffice to say there have been few series that I've loved more than this one over the last half-dozen years. It's a classic, and it'll be wonderful to see it continue. Even better, most of the original staff will be back - most critically series director Takahiro Omori. He's one of the best in the business and I would hate to see this adaptation in anyone else's hands.

Also announced was a movie adaptation of Natsume Yuujinchou mangaka Yuki Midorikawa's one-shot manga, Hotarubi no Mori e, which will also be produced by Brain's Base and directed by Omori-san. I don't know much about this one but it seems to be quite well-liked by her readers, so that should be interesting. Both of these projects will be on display at Anime Contents Expo in Chiba next month - and as I will be attending, you can look forward to a first-hand report from me!

Monday, February 21, 2011

A Joyous Occasion ~Degeso!!!

Let the invasion begin anew - Shinryaku Ika Musume's second season has been confirmed, ~degeso!

Anyone who followed this blog knows this was one of my favorites of 2010 - consistently funny, really smart and often quite emotionally involving. In a great year for comedy, this one held it's own with any of them. Given the strong BD/DVD sales and the foreshadowing in the finale (the Octopus Girl) it seemed likely that we were headed for this sooner or later - but it's still wonderful to see it confirmed, ~degeso.

ANN says no date has been set. It looks to me like the announcement in Shounen Champion says 4/8, which would place it as part of the Spring season lineup, but until I see that confirmed I'm not going to assume that. Whenever it happens, it can't be a day too soon for me.

Bakuman - 20

That was certainly an eventful episode. Not only did about six months seem to go by, but we had Death Note references, marriage proposals and the arrival of one of the most popular characters from the manga. Though there's another full season on the way, the anime has started to go at a breakneck pace.

It was interesting to see the interplay between Hattori and the boys in this episode. He's come to view himself as a sort of master manipulator, but it was Ashirogi Muto who was doing the manipulating - turning Hattori's "keikaku doori" right back on him, and no amount of apples could change that. He's bound and determined to keep throwing obstacles to serialization in their faces, but they - especially Masahiro - are equally determined to surmount them. If they survive all this and persevere - and it wouldn't be much of a story if they didn't - they'll surely be all the better for it as mangaka. A charitable interpretation of Hattori's actions might conclude that this was his plan all along - but I think he really did want to keep them down until after high school. In his mind he was doing it for their own good, of course, though I doubt they saw it that way.
Keikaku Doori!

What's striking is how much damn work these poor manga writers have to do for so little reward. The boys have to come up with a name every two weeks, plus a manga for the Golden Future Cup - with no hope of immediate financial reward. This is truly a labor of love, because it's hard to imagine anyone who didn't truly love it doing it for long. Their new story, "Detective Trap", seems like a winner - a synthesis of Masahiro's character design and Takagi's writing. Even Hattori has to admit it's good, and that's saying something. He agrees to try and serialize if they can get it into the Golden Future Cup - which they do - and deliver him a new chapter every two weeks.

There was lots of interesting stuff happening in this episode just beneath the surface. Besides the aforementioned DN references, there was a very interesting device in which a random character handing out leaflets in the park was used to show the passage of time - snow, cherry blossoms, monsoon season. I assumed at first she was someone important but no, she was only there to show us that two seasons were passing by. Why the rush, I wonder, with at least 30 more eps to play with and the manga (the real one, Bakuman) still unfinished?
The KOOGY has landed...

As Azuki advances in her career - a second season for St. Visual, with her singing the ED (badly) - Miyoshi decided to abandon her dream of being a cell-phone novelist and throw herself totally into supporting Ashirogi Muto. Since Takagi was writing her novel anyway that's probably not a bad thing, but does that mean the whole episode about how she wanted a dream of her own was a waste of time? Ah well - at least she proposed marriage to Takagi, although I think she takes it a little more seriously than he does. And in the PV, another long-awaited treat for the manga fans. Itadakimasu!