Thursday, March 31, 2011

Kore wa Zombie Desu Ka? - Series Review

I don’t think there’s any question based on the posting traffic on Animesuki that this was one of the more popular series of the winter season. And it’s no wonder – it certainly hit a lot of the checkpoints. Busty girls, flat-chested but genki loli, uber-kawaii necromancer. Zombies. Magical girls. Unfortunately, the series as a whole was never able to live up to the promise it showed in its better moments.

Perhaps as much as any show this season – in competition with Yumekui MerryKore wa Zombie suffered from inconsistency. But where the primary problem with YM has been pacing, in this case it seems to me that it’s laziness. Lazy writing, lazy plotting, cheap humor. I don’t so much have an issue with the multiple personality disorder the series had. Some episodes were deadly serious, some outrageous, and some inexplicably changed course in mid-episode and acted almost as if the first half hadn’t happened. But that’s not all bad – I don’t mind different faces that keep things unpredictable and interesting.

But where I ran into problems was that too often, the humor was repetitive and lacked imagination. Really, how many times do I need to hear Sera call Ayumu a piece of shit? How often does Haruna need to beat him up for no reason? How often do we need to see him chopped up into little pieces and put back together? We get it, already. And as far as plot, way too many things happened that were never really explained – or at least not in depth. Why was Yuu able to speak in episode 11, for example? We’re more or less supposed to absorb all the vampire ninja politics as part of the plot, but there’s not much effort put in to giving it any context. Same with King of the Night and his death wish. It’s an interesting premise for a conflict, but we never really learn enough about him and how he got that way to care.

It’s certainly not all bad. I liked Ayumu as a male lead – his back story had some genuine pathos, and the episodes dealing with it – featuring Kyoko – were probably the best arc of the series. When I call the show a tragedy posing as a comedy this arc exemplifies what I mean, and it shows why the show has some real power when it’s at its best. Ayumu, Yuu, KotN, even Sera to some extent – these are really tragic characters. The undercurrent of their lives is death and sorrow, and – despite being powerful beings – powerlessness when it comes to being masters of their own fates. Even Kyoko is a tragic character – a wayward masou shoujo driven by base desires down a terrible path. I wish her arc had been given better closure.

When the show stuck to the pathos of the situations, it did pretty well – and some of the humor was pretty clever as well. While the sight of Ayumu in masou shoujo garb lost some impact from overuse it’s a pretty good gag on the whole, and often played well. Haruna in general was a positive, if a mixed bag. She’s undeniably adorable and her manic insanity was responsible for some of the biggest laughs. But she became shrill and one-note just a little too often for my tastes. Sera was the weak link in the cast for me – her act stopped being funny after seeing it once, and it pretty much never changed. Maybe with a little more backstory she would have been more sympathetic, but with that not forthcoming she really needed to be softened a bit to be attractive. Tomonori was likable enough, but again never really had the screen time to feel substantial as a character.

Yuu, of course, was probably the strength of the series overall. Her circumstances are indeed tragic, and she managed to convey both power and frailty at the same time. The fantasy sequences with guest voices were one of the cleverer running gags in a show full of them. Her relationship with Ayumu was genuinely moving at times, and I thought it was wrapped up pretty well – openly admitting they were both in for a rough time of it, together or not.

I don’t know if I can recommend the series on the whole, but there are certainly some moments here that are worth your time. The problem is, you have to slog through a lot of flat comedy and inexplicable plot to get to them. Maybe with two cours this would have been a more coherent, involving universe – there was a lot going on in the background that seemed interesting that we just never learned enough about to care. But I wonder if 12 more eps would have meant just that much more time wasted on meandering story and failed gags. In the end, it’s a matter of personal choice – would you rather watch a series that’s consistently mediocre, or one that veers between genuine inspiration and outright inanity in equal parts? In a perfect world you don’t have to make choices like that, but as in any other field the bulk of anime series probably fall in that pool.

Kore wa Zombie Desu Ka? - 12 (End)

That went pretty much as expected. The finale of Kore wa Zombie was more or less episode 11 – 12 was a complete throwaway episode primarily concerned with comedy and fanservice. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

So what did we get for our 22 minutes? A pool episode. All of the main female cast (and most of the supporting) in increasingly revealing swimsuits. Ayumu dressed in a somewhat disturbing parody of Yuu’s outfit. A rather too-lengthy send-up of idol worship. Lots and lots of Haruna being hyper. And, interestingly, Yuu singing.

What we didn’t get, unfortunately, was any explanation as to why Yuu was suddenly able to talk last ep. In fact, what we saw was that the only way she was able to talk (well, sing) this time was by transferring her magic – first via Dai-sensei’s machine to Ayumu, than by Haruna’s magic hand-holding. Since there was no such precaution last time, one wonders why vast torrents of death weren’t unleashed. Plot hole? Well – whatever…

Don’t feel you’ll have missed anything if you skip this one. In terms of importance and quality, it feels pretty much like a DVD bonus episode. But it has it’s amusing moments, so there’s certainly no downside to checking it out – if leaves things off in a rather happy place, anyway. Haruna was cute, Yuu looked great in her final swimsuit outfit, and Sera’s abusiveness was even toned down. On balance, no one was harmed in the viewing of this episode.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Level E - 12

Looks like Level E is going to wrap with a two-parter that takes us more or less back to the original storyline. Certainly Yukitaka and Edogawa are back, with no sign of any of the one-off arc characters from in-between making a reappearance.

The closing arc, as it should, focuses squarely on Prince Baka. This time, though, the wild card is the introduction of his little brother Mohan and fiancee, Princess Luna. He's a goody-twoshoes overachiever, responsible, sensible, and beloved of his people. She a Princess Kaguya type, from the moon planet Magura, which was oft-times almost at war with Dagura. Their marriage was arranged at birth and they'd never met until her arrival on Earth. Though she seems quiet and demure, there's more to her than meets the eye.

The premise is classic Baka - due to a sham law he had passed, he doesn't have to become King - there's nothing he'd like less - if he can avoid a marriage ceremony for a month. Mohan is here to see that that doesn't happen, and he's careful - he's surrounded Earth by a huge fleet hidden by a fake sky in order to keep Baka from fleeing. Luna is more subtle - turns out she'd recruited Colin as a mole, and he's been spying on Baka and his team all along. With inside info about their movements, it's a breeze for Mohan and Luna to track Baka to Yukitaka's place - where they end up staying as he flees again.

This battle of minds is shaping up as rather interesting. Kraft wants to help Baka for the simple reason that he doesn't want him to become King - a common interest. Mohan is smart but I suspect he'd be no match for Baka's deviousness - he's too direct. It's Luna the Prince has to worry about - she's not only smart (she studied from the time she was small to impress him) but as devious as he is, and a bit of a yandere to boot. Scary combination - though it probably makes her more appealing to him as a life partner. There are also hints of a strange plan Baka has hatched for the Earth, though that may just be for comic relief - hard to tell (as it often is with this show).

This series has never been less than fascinating and wildly entertaining, so it's fitting that I can't even guess how this is all going to end. Will Baka win, and escape - which seems like the best solution for everyone, quite frankly? Will Luna outflank him and carry him back to Dogura as her prize? Will they end up falling madly for each other and flee together, leaving Mohan and Kraft holding the bag? The only thing that seems certain is that Yukitaka will be annoyed, we'll get trolled somehow and the process of sorting everything out will be entertaining. With a show that doesn't feel compelled to follow any dramatic rules, anything and everything is possible. That's one of the things that makes it such fun to watch.

Dragon Crisis - Series Review

I'll admit it up front - there's not a whole lot that's original about Dragon Crisis. There's nothing that's going to change your life, or the way you think about anime. It doesn't possess spectacular animation or background music. But in spite of all that, I rather liked it.

I don't think there's any question that the strong cast helped elevate this series beyond what it might otherwise have been. There was some awfully good work here - Hiro Shimono, Emiri Katou, Yui Horie, Yukana... They brought the right sense of whimsical energy to the material. Although it's nowhere near expansive, I enjoyed the look of the show. The character designs were interesting and the backgrounds had a definitive sense of style that generic series usually lack. The characters were likable, with Ryuji and Rose providing a nice anchor at the center and the supporting characters - especially Eriko, Ai and Tokura - providing a lot of nice moments. The premise, while hardly groundbreaking, was at least somewhat distinctive and coherent.

For all that, I'll be the first to say this is not a great show, or even a very good one - just decent. But like Wagaya no Oiniri-sama - to which I've already compared it - the final product ended up appealing to me more than the sum of the parts. It's pedestrian, yes - but just a bit more quirky, stylish and likeable than it had to be. I certainly don't mind a series here and there that doesn't require much from me to follow it - I wouldn't want all my shows to be that way, of course, but you can't be passionate about all of them. Dragon Crisis is certainly less ambitious than many of it's competitors from the winter season, but it's also totally unpretentious about it. In the end, that's enough to earn a mild recommendation from me.

Dragon Crisis - 12 (End)

Dragon Crisis ends as it ran, with an enjoyable though unexceptional conclusion. It was nothing if not comprehensive though, I'll give it that.

The good? For starters, we got not only a confession of love from Ryuji, but an actual kiss. How many romance series never even give the audience that much closure? We also got a rather adorable twintails Rose at the end, and just about every character in the series managed to at least make an appearance at one point or another that was relevant to the conclusion. We even got a pop-in from Ryuji's parents, at long last.

Not so good was the action sequence leading up to the end. A couple of moments were genuinely cringeworthy, especially Eriko driving her car over a helicopter and onto the roof of Onyx' jet. There was also a bit too much deux ex machina to have everybody show up at just the right moment, which is the downside of a comprehensive ending.

On balance, it was a pleasant conclusion. I think Ryuji and Rose not shying away from growing up was the right decision. I like the fact that Ryuji - and the series - made an actual choice and didn't leave the stereotypical harem end. Given the limitations of this show I don't think I could reasonably have expected any more than that.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Kore wa Zombie Desu Ka? - 11

Well, in many ways that played like a finale. In fact, I'm guilty of not checking the episode count and with about a minute to go, I was pretty sure that was that. But given that the next ep is titled "Yes, There's More" it's pretty safe to assume the ride continues for another week.

I said a few weeks ago that this show was a tragedy disguised as a comedy, and I think that's more or less turned out to be true. When the central conflict involves a character who wants only to die - and is willing to destroy a city to get his wish - that's pretty heavy stuff for comedy. But you also have a hero who's undead after being brutally and senselessly murdered, and a heroine who despises herself because she brings chaos and death wherever she goes. And a cast of characters who are basically together because they don't fit anywhere else.

The issue of Ayumu's status after blowing himself up was kind of a let-down - Haruna and Sera picked up the pieces and put him back together, though he did stubbornly refuse to wake up for a while. The real drama here was what came after - the confrontation with KotN and the resulting surprise. Sera had a chance to shine, being forgiven by her clan because she was the only one who could close the gates of the underworld KotN had opened to unleash his mega-megalo. Haruna got her masou shoujo mojo back after calling Dai-sensei for help. But it was really all about Ayumu and Yuu. My favorite part of the episode was when she made him turn away as she took KotN's life at last - it says so much about her. In keeping with the morose tone of the show all she could promise him was "you'll be unhappy" - but as long as it was with her, Ayumu could live with that. And yes, she did promise - Yuu has voice outside Ayumu's fantasy at last, and as far as I can see it's unknown (to me) 20 year-old seiyuu Midori Tsukimiya. I'm not quite sure how this works, as her very voice was supposed to carry the power of death - but she was blabbing away pretty good there by the end.

So our finale looks like a beach episode, a light-hearted romp to finish things up no that the drama has been sorted out. That's still a fairly unusual choice, though a few shows have gone that way. As it happened, the preview mostly showed chibi-Yuu staring down the Dyson Air Multiplier - which was pretty damn cute.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Bakuman - 24

At this point it's become pretty clear where the cliffhanger for the end of season one is going to be. It's obviously going to be the serialization meeting, but will it end with the results of the meeting - or just before the results? I suspect viewers will be pretty pissed if it's the latter.

Looks like we know what Eiji's rankings were after all, assuming Fukuda and Nakai asked him off-screen. "Shady Detective Trap" and "Kiyoshi Knight" tied for the Golden Futures Cup, with "Hideout Door" (my favorite) third. But they all did well, even the third-place finisher - and they all apparently have a shot during the all-important serialization meeting. And that's where this series dives into the nuts & bolts, insider stuff it does so well.

While this wasn't as superb as the frantic and thrilling 24th episode, this one was still very effective as setting up the events of the finale and building suspense. I always love it when this series gets into the mechanics of manga writing and the business - I feel like I'm learning something as well as being entertained. You really got a sense of what the editor's life is like - their mutual frustration at not being able to attend the meeting and champion their authors brought Hattori & Hattori together to commiserate at a Yakitori bar. While obviously fierce rivals, they have the same frustrations and the same goals. Nakai & Aoki's editor is apparently more senior, as he will be allowed to attend - a fact that Ashirogi Muto's Hattori uses to his advantage by asking him to present his case. Of course, he'll be arguing for "Hideout Door" too, and I don't know how that's going to play out. Judging by the beer conversation it sounds as if the competition is fierce, and it's likely only one newcomer will make the serialization cut. With each contender skewing different demographics - "Trap" strong among younger teens, "Knight" among older teens and "Door" among women, it might come down to marketing potential. And what of Koogy's "Colorfusical"? Well, apparently fandom only goes so far. In a somewhat disappointingly mundane close of his arc, it tanked and he smashed his guitar before the opening credits.

We had some development of sorts in the romance department as well, if you can call it that. Masahiro and Azuki exchanged congratulatory texts, and she even spoke to Takagi to express her thanks for helping Masahiro pursue his dream. But when Miyoshi put Masahiro on the phone she hung up on him - still afraid even to have a phone conversation. Her Mom gently scolded her about the hazards of this kind of relationship, she having never gotten beyond the snail mail stage with Nobuhiro and lost him because of it. Azuki finally relents and asks for Masahiro's phone number, but that's a cliffhanger too - for now. I know the audience is a little frustrated with this relationship, and I can see it - the level of idealism involved is a bit extreme. But you know, Masahiro is a romantic and a purist, and while those are dangerous qualities (just look at what happened to his Uncle) he is who he is.

Lastly, of course, we have the continued striptease the manga is playing with the "mysterious stranger" who keeps popping up at random moments, reading manga on the train and at the convenience store, having cell phone conversations with... someone. If you want to know who he is, it's easy enough to look it up - but the manga readers certainly know already, and they're all amped up about him. So there's another teaser for season two for you.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Tegami Bachi Reverse - Series Review

I'd say it takes a pretty cynical person not to feel at least a little something for "Letter Bee". One of the things that's appealed to me about this show from Day One is that it's quite different from the overwhelming majority of anime. In short, the emotional palette of the series is distinctly un-Japanese, and that's been apparent from the initial episode of the first series when Lag told his Aunt that he loved her. Yes, Lag's constant crying has been the subject of much ridicule - but that's who he is, and it's who this series is. It's unabashedly sentimental and revels in it, and while I wouldn't want every series I watch to be that way it makes a refreshing change of pace.

I suppose it would be natural enough to consider where "Reverse" ranks alongside the original Tegami Bachi series. I don't think it would be wrong to think of them as one 50-episode series, because in general the show has been thematically consistent, but I see enough between the two shows besides a year in time to call them a distinct entity. On balance, this series was grittier and more violent than the first one. It also used broad humor a little more than the first show did - often to very good effect, since it wasn't used all that often. Most importantly, I think "Reverse" was less episodic and has a much more consistent pacing from start to finish. While both series veered off towards anime-original material out of necessity, there's no question in my mind that this one did a better job of it than the original series did. For that reason alone I'd be prepared to call this the better of the two.

For "Letter Bee", of course,it starts and ends with Lag Seeing. I totally buy Lag as a character, again, because he's quite different than much of what we see in anime. Lag is simply, unabashedly good - no matter what else he may be (ask The Maka for a better answer) he's a pure-hearted, kind and gentle soul who wants to be with those he loves and spread heart throughout the dark world he lives in. Yes he's a crybaby boy, and that got old at times - but you know, that's just Lag. He feels everything deeply and cares way too much. And while he was never a super-powered hero until the finale, he wasn't a weakling either - his courage and persistence made him formidable enough, especially as he was never too proud to rely on his friends for help.

There was a pretty strong stable of characters here - starting with the dingo, Niche. Absurdly cute and yet a bit of a badass - especially after her power-up training from Onee-san - Niche was a lot of fun and often the source of the best humor on the show with her mangled language. The rest of Lag's posse got a chance to step out of the shadows much more this year, especially Zazie and Conor. Conor was a comic relief character for too long, but became quite a tragic figure with the Sunny arc. Tsundere Zazie was always a delight, but his act was toned down a bit this season and he was a more sympathetic figure. Sylvette too had a much more prominent role, given the importance of Gauche/Noir this season. Lots of new characters were introduced - The Maka, Lawrence, Garrard and Valentine, etc. - and many old ones returned, and the result was a crowded cast that didn't always leave much spotlight time for most of them.

Of course, the crucial secondary character this season was Gauche/Noir. He was always the most important person in Lag's life - the one whose ghost he chased from his hometown all the way to Central, the reason he became a Bee, the one whose heart he longed to feel again. Noir's arc was very effective - his appearance as a marauder, the feint and uncertainty about his identity, his slow evolution from a cold, distant figure to yet another who was touched by Lag's warmth and simple, honest love. The most emotionally intense moments of the season took place between those two, and that's as it should be. I was happy there wasn't a sell-out return to Gauche in the end - Noir is who this young man is, now. But that's not a bad thing - Noir is capable of kindness and unfailingly brave, and as Lag's feeling slowly warms him we come to see that there was a lot of Gauche in Noir all along.

Of course, one of the elements that made this season so interesting is the entire Reverse storyline. It added an element of moral ambiguity and complexity that the first season could not match. Thus, it was the major disappointment of the season for me that these difficult questions were basically punted on in the finale. Reverse's means were unquestionably wrong - that became even more clear when Lawrence's plan to use the hearts of Those Who Could Not Become Spirit to strengthen The Cabernet was revealed. But it seemed to me that their ends might not be wrong at all. If indeed the government has performed the terrible experiments that led to the poor half-human hybrids we met, if they used TWCNBS and tossed them away when they were no longer needed, if they fed their sun with stolen hears and powered it with sadness - and I see nothing in the finale to make me thing they didn't do those things - then Reverse was right to oppose them and they have a lot to answer for. They didn't in the series - that topic was given only slight attention in the finale, and that's too bad. It will apparently be up to the manga to resolve that moral dilemma but if the series had managed to do so successfully - or even tried and met with noble failure - that would have given it the stamp of greatness in my eyes. The lack of an effort to resolve that moral dilemma goes down as it's biggest failing..

On the whole though, while this series wasn't always easy to blog it was almost always easy to watch. I appreciated its emotional directness and unapologetic sentimentality. I appreciated as well its unique and gorgeous look, so faithful to the manga and yet transcending it. In terms of creating a distinctive and instantly recognizable world few series can match Letter Bee. It's beautiful twilight landscapes and bizarre Engrish names could belong to no other show. it had a fairy-tale quality to it, and that made it a real escape every week. I'll miss that escape and I'll miss these characters as well. All the best, Lag - keep on smiling and delivering those little bits of people's hearts. After all, that's what a Letter Bee does.

Tegami Bachi Reverse - 25 (End)

I am... the light!
I can't really complain about the entertainment value of this final episode of "Letter Bee". It was moving, exciting, sad and hopeful. In short, it stuck to what this series does well and achieved a predictably agreeable result. But the fact is that it dodged the big question that loomed over the series, and as such it can't rank as a truly great conclusion.

After the frantic and frenetic action of episode 24 - which felt a little out of place for this series - 25 was a much more comfortably paced effort. In fact at least half the ep was given over to epilogue, which I wholeheartedly endorse - a long series like this one needs an opportunity for a benediction of sorts, especially one as emotionally transparent as Letter Bee was. That doesn't mean the final battle wasn't a bit of an anti-climax - it was over almost before it started.

With Noir seemingly dead, a tearful (shocking, ain't it) Lag calls on The Maka for help. After having been lifted high in this sky he reveals his spirit amber and unleashes a veritable torrent of heart to lure The Cabernet away from the artificial sun. In effect, Lag turns himself into a second artificial sun - Niche's Onee-san comments that, as she suspected, Lag is only "using human form" (and no, we don't get a better answer than that). Using the combined force of his own shinadan and Noir's Gymnopedies, Lag unleashed the shindan from hell and The Cab basically, well, blows up. And that's more or less that - with Lawrence gone, Garrard and Valentine see the writing on the wall and vamoose, and that's all-she-wrote for Reverse.

As I said, I'm glad we were allowed the emotional payoff both the fans and the characters deserved. Noir was, of course, not dead - he's there, bandaged and smiling, when Lag wakes up in the hospital. Not surprisingly he decides to take Roda and live with Those Who Could Not Become Spirit at Blue Notes Blues, but Lag's heart has clearly reached Noir - in a Gauche-like moment he tells Lag that they're friends and will see each other again, and they have a monster hug. All of the loose ends are touched on after that - Sunny is talking and smiling though still amnesiac, as Thunderland and Hunt continue their research to help her and all TWCNBS. Jiggy moves up to Blue Notes, tsundere Zazie's cat harem grows exponentially (he's deredere, but just for cats) Sylvette changes up the puke soup recipe and I get just a whiff of romance between Largo and Aria. Most importantly Lag is delivering letters with Niche and Steak at his side, smiling - because that's what a Letter Bee does, you see.

So there you go - a nearly out-and-out happy ending. Only problem is, only passing mention is made of the whole issue that gave birth to Reverse in the first place - their claim that the artificial sun (otherwise known as Lag's Mom) is made up of stolen hearts. Largo chooses to hope that it's not true, but we're really given no answers - just an open question that lingers after the ED like a slightly off scent in the room. It's a shame, though perhaps unavoidable. The manga is ongoing and that was an issue of sufficient complexity that I wasn't really expecting it to be resolved here. It does bother me that the government - after all the pains to show us how terrible their actions were - gets off basically scot-free. Who created all those poor hybrid creatures, after all? Maybe someday we'll get a third season and all this will be sorted out on screen, but if not we'll have to rely on the manga for answers. And given the affection I feel for these characters, I'm happy we get to leave them in a good place.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Fractale - 10

All of the big ideas that are wrapped up in Fractale are finally starting to come together in a coherent and impactful way as it nears the conclusion of its 11-episode run on NoitaminA. Yet, it's the increasing bond with the characters that makes the series a success at this point - the trio of Clain, Phryne and Nessa has developed beautifully - collectively and individually - as the series progressed.

There remains a sense here that there are really no good adults in this universe - or at least, not ones in a position of influence. As Clain himself says, Lost Millennium are murderers - yet, also his friends. And not only that, but the only "real" friends he's ever had. There are no good people in L.M. - only a range of moral ambiguity and determinism-driven violence. Yet even among their group, in the end it appears no one is as vile as the people at the temple. The folks who brought you the Fractale system are a seriously messed-up bunch.

Among our heroes it's only Phryne that has a true sense of just how wrong the world is - although Clain is definitely learning - and about the temple, she knows all too well. The Head Priestess, whom Phryne calls her big sister, is apparently responsible for the grisly process of restarting the system every few years. She hates Phryne for being "beloved of the people" when she, in fact, is loathed by them - though they're apparently genetic clones. Phryne speaks of a process of being "defiled, over and over" every time the system restarts, and of all the experimenting on the girls to find the true key. Truly, it's a grisly image.

A hint of that is brought to life only too vividly by the return of Barrot. "Daddy" is a disgusting, vile pig and he makes it clear he's done his share of defiling. Mercifully we don't get too much detail, though one does wonder about it given the apparent need for Phryne to be a virgin. His behavior towards Phryne is hideous, but so is the impact it's had on her - she truly feels defiled, referring to Nessa as the Phryne from "when she was still beautiful". It's no wonder she's so willing to sacrifice herself - but of course, the truth is that she is beautiful, and if not innocent she's certainly blameless. And Clain, bless his heart, sees all this in her. That's the real tragedy of the story - that poor Phryne has been made to loathe herself by the evil inherent in maintaining the Fractale system. And that's enough to make me side with the L.M. as the lesser of two evils in both the large and small picture.

As for the aforementioned terrorists, they have their share of secrets up their sleeves. Alabaster apparently have Fractale terminals - Dias does anyway - and they used them to hack into the system and make the temple defenseless to invasion. Sunda goes with Clain to try and retrieve Phryne, but Dias' only goal is to kill her. And he would have already succeeded if countless elderly priestesses hadn't sacrificed themselves as human shields to save her. But Clain, though he took up the gun to defend the girls he loves, did not stoop to murder - he used it on machines only, not on flesh. Not that it stopped the bloodbath. One wonders if Clain would have been willing to kill if there was no other way to save Phryne. Has his time with Sunda's group taught him to believe that the end justifies the means?

With the Head Priestess planning to launch the restart process, Barrot terrorizing Phryne with a pane of glass blocking Clain from assisting and Nessa starting to fade away as Fractale breaks down, things are looking grim indeed. I still don't see a way out of this that leaves all three children alive and well and happily ensconced in Clain's cottage - it doesn't seem possible that Phryne and Nessa can both survive. I do believe Fractale will be destroyed in the end, and the dead-eyed population left to start over - but I find myself caring less about that than about what happens to the kids. My money says Clain and Phryne make it due to a sacrifice by Nessa - though there are holes in that scenario, I admit - and I think Sunda is a dramatic casualty as well. We'll all know in a week - hopefully I'll be reporting on it from my hotel in Tokyo.

To Aru Majutsu no Index II - 23

Due to the particular timing, this series may just have had the longest layoff of any series due to the disaster in Japan. Maybe that's why the transition from episode 22 felt so jarring to me - my memory is of things ending in the midst of chaos, but it's a quiet and reflective ep right from the beginning.

The Fuse Kazakiri arc ended with a whimper, and a short one at that. She woke up and Touma comforted her as she tried to wish herself out of existence, and that was that - she was gone from the episode almost as soon as the OP credits stopped rolling. In fact, there wasn't a whole lot of wrap-up from the crazy and frantic action of the last two eps - we went straight from chaos and gore to slice-of-life.

I must confess I have a hard time keeping up with the avalanche of competing interest groups that populate this universe, and we had so many acronyms this week I felt like I was drowning in a bowl of alphabet soup. The gist of it is that all-out war appears to be coming between The Vatican and Academy City. God's Right Seat is licking their wounds and analyzing for weaknesses, though the mercenary Acqua would just as soon launch a direct attack. Meanwhile Academy City is also gearing up attacks from internal terrorist groups trying to take advantage of their movement of defenses to protect them from invasion, and Accelerator is drafted into support of this effort. While this is happening the gang at school decides to have a sukiyaki party to enjoy the bounty before impending war makes it rare and/or expensive.

It was all fine, but as I said, this felt like a pretty jarring transition from last week. It's a "calm before the storm" ep if ever I've seen one - both Alastair and The Vatican are moving their forces into place for the major battle that will surely provide the season's final arc. I don't mind these slower-paced episodes in this series as a rule, but this wasn't one of the better ones - it was light on the comedy and as a result, felt like treading water more than anything else.

Hourou Musuko - 10

To get the mechanics of the situation out of the way, as I understand it this was a "compilation" of episodes 10 and 11, with full unedited versions of both to air on the DVDs. I don't quite understand, but it may have something to do with the earthquake or other production delays. In any case, what we see next week may either be episode 12 - which may or may not have been the planned DVD bonus episode - or another compilation of episodes 11 and 12. Whichever, it will definitely (sob) be the last TV episode.

That makes the staggering quality of this episode all the more remarkable. In no way did it feel disjointed or cobbled together - it was another magnificent offering from the best series of the year so far. In some way I guess it should bother me more that this show isn't popular, but I guess I'm just used to great series never finding mass audiences.

Those who felt annoyance that the kids in Shuichi's life didn't torture him enough should take some comfort in the tone of the episode this week. In short and not surprisingly, the shit really hit the fan after Shu's dress-up disaster last week. Chi is fully supportive, naturally - trying as usual to make things better by talking her way through the crisis. But it's Momo who shows her true stripes. She urges Chi to throw Shu under the bus, telling her she's be tagged a freak if she hangs out with him. Her response is true to character - she tells Momo that she's a freak too. But Momo just drives the knife further into Shu's back, arguing that he's a much bigger freak and dragging Chi away.

It's no better with the rest of the kids outside Shu's support group. The snickering and the name-calling is endless, and they even lock the door against his entering the classroom. Shu ends up taking shelter in the nurse's office. It's a blessing that he has friends to support him because things would be intolerable otherwise, but it's still heartbreaking to see what he has to go through. The instigator Doi pointedly ignores him in the hallway and doesn't say a word in his defense, and his parents - though not angry - are reduced to helpless stammering ineptitude and self-doubt. Shu isn't getting much help from his family, that's for sure, and the double-standard he faces is only too obvious to all concerned - especially Yoshino. As for Anna, she breaks off their relationship in as kind a way as she can - she clearly cares for Shu and hates the idea of him being hurt, but this is all too much for her to deal with. In a way, I really can't blame her.

If there's anything that's galling to me (but alas, very much true to my memories of the middle school years) it's how inept all the adults are at providing any kind of support and protection for the vulnerable Shu. Other than Yuki none of them can grasp the situation and do anything to help - including the homeroom teacher, who again reveals himself to be a kind-hearted screw-up. He sits idly by and lets Doi goad the class into holding another gender-bender play for the culture festival, despite the obvious dangers inherent in the situation for Shu. Maybe this will actually prove to be a positive in the end - they end up using Shu's original play from grade 7 - but if so, it will have been a happy accident.

In the end, more than anything, this is a series about Shu's growth and his journey, so it's fitting that the focus is most squarely on him as we enter the final stages. He's a heartrendingly kind and smart kid, but so naive about the world around him. But he shows strength at this terrible moment, not lashing out or dissolving into self-pity. Having seen the terribly unfair nature of his reality as opposed to Yoshino's, he resolves never to dress up as a girl to be laughed at again. He musters his courage and tells Doi what he thinks of him. He even starts to grow his hair out, much as Yoshino did - perhaps as a defiant gesture. And he agrees to direct his play, which seems to win him back a tiny measure of social acceptance from his class.

Ultimately, what makes a great series for me is one that makes you feel something strongly. This one meets and exceeds that standard. It would take a cold, cold heart not to want to take these kids in your arms and protect them, let them know everything is going to be OK - especially Shu. Problem is, of course, it probably won't be - they're all in for a rough time of it just being adolescents, but for Shu the way forward is clouded indeed. Whatever path he chooses is going to be a minefield of pain and confusion and self-doubt, and all through no choosing of his own. The ED is always a relief because it's so bright and full of hope, showing Shu happy and full of life - and it's not insignificant that the last shot is of him looking up and seeing Yoshino. They're the center of this universe, and they're the one thing that stands between the other and misery even at the worst of times. It seems to me that they always look to each other at their darkest moments, wanting to know that there's at least one person who understands and accepts them unconditionally. So any conclusion that doesn't find them together will feel unsatisfying to me on some level, at least - though given the limits of the anime's format it would be understandable. I have full faith and confidence that the staff will find the right place the leave this story, much as they found the right place to enter it.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Yumekui Merry - 11

Now that was more like it. This episode of Yumekui Merry was the best in a long while. There was a real current of menace and suspense running through it, start to finish. Some things weren't perfect, true, but on the whole it was free of the pacing issues that have too often plagued this show.

Isana has been living on borrowed time for a couple of episodes now, but it really became clear this week. It was obvious that Mistleteen and Iijima-sensei were toying with her - and with her would-be protectors as well. Yumeji, Merry and Kawanami seem to have a sort of rotating watch on Isana, but it's only a matter of time before Treesea strikes, and they know it. A short trip into Isana'a dreams introduces us to her muma, a timid little jawa-like figure named Palete. Clearly, this little muffin-top is not going to prove any challenge for Mistleteen, and though Yumeji and Merry - and the enlisted Three-Act Play - tell themselves they're going to protect her it's pretty clear even they don't much think it's going to work.

You can leave your hat on
Kawanami remains the wild card in all this. Clearly she likes Isana, but her behavior is unreadable most of the time and so is her role in everything we've seen so far. We finally meet her muma when she turns up with him inside Isana's dream for the climactic scene of the episode. He's a stealthy-looking fellow who looks like he just stepped off the Galaxy Express 999 but we don't get his name just yet. Iijima - who seems every bit as malicious and sadistic as his muma - implies that Kawanami had been a position to save all of the mumas Treesea had killed and did nothing. But this is different - Isana is a friend. So Kawanami steps in just as she's about to finish off the girl and her tiny muma.

Of course, all this happens only after Treesea has thoroughly kicked Merry and Yumeji's asses. Why, she even knocks Merry's hat off - the fanboys will be all a-twitter about that one I'm sure. Never mind the apparently helpless Palete, the difference in skill and power between Mistleteen and Merry is abundantly clear. She may be an anime-original character but she's a good one - a really effective and frightening villain who genuinely enjoys the suffering of her victims.

Unfortunately, the episode goes off track at the last moment as Treesea and Iijima retreat for some reason. I have a hard time believing she's afraid of Kawanami so one can only assume it's a dramatic convenience to set up the finale - that's how it played, anyway. Not the best writing, and it does undercut some of the effectiveness of the episode (which I'd still give good marks to on the whole).

So now we sit with only one ep to go, and as always a ton of questions left to answer. Who is Kamanami's muma - is it the legendary Pharos, perhaps? And what of John Doe, so crucial in the first episode - maybe he's Pharos (there are flaws in that theory)? Will he be back at all for the final battle? Will Merry end the story staying in the real world, or will she find a way home - and would she leave, even if she did? This is a series that's playing as if it's hoping for a second season, and while lots about this first one didn't click for me I certainly wouldn't mind that. If they can chart another season free of the pacing problems of the first one it could be quite good.

Infinite Stratos - 11

I hate to harp on it, but the last time I blogged an episode of this series was before the earthquake. It hardly seems possible, but it's true - it's been almost two weeks since that fateful day that changed everything for Japan and those of us that love it. I blogged this and went to bed that night, already excited about the flight I'd be taking to Tokyo in 5 days. When I woke the next day, the world had changed - and in ways we could only suspect at that moment.

As for Infinite Stratos itself, this has been of those old reliable shows that doesn't ask too much of the audience and doesn't deliver anything unexpected. And no surprises this week either. The ep can pretty much be summed up this way: the first half was combat, and the second half was Houki sulking. Unfortunately neither of those elements is a strength of the series, so as a result we end up with one of the lesser episodes so far.

The battle was pretty well set up by the end of episode 10 - Ichika and Houki against the mysterious enemy (they're all mysterious in this show) Orimura-sensei starts calling "The Gospel". The fight looks to be pretty much a draw until Ichika notices an illegal fishing boat down on the sea below them, and holds back on a crucial attacking opportunity out of concern for the vessel. Houki berates Ichika (why should he care about protecting criminals?), Ichika lectures Houki (you've become strong and forgotten about the weak) until finally Ichika stops a bullet for her, as her IS is out of shield power. Cut to the eyecatch, and then he's in bed, unconscious, and she's brooding over him and feeling sorry for failing him in battle and in his esteem. Finally Rin comes and slaps some sense into her (literally) and then she and the others invite Houki to join their war party, off to attack The Gospel in defiance of teacher's orders.

Pretty much all textbook stuff, though that's not a major problem for me with this series generally. I just enjoy it more when it's being silly than when it's being serious - a show this formulaic and predictable doesn't do too well in serious mode. The relationship-based eps show a self-referential, mischievous tone that reveals a series that takes itself lightly, and I think that's something it really needs to click on however many cylinders it has. Next week is the finale, so hopefully we'll get back to at least a little of that once this combat sequence is wrapped up. I don't expect a conclusion on the relationship front, of course, but I'd at least like to see a little closure - especially between Ichika and his sister, Houki, and Charlotte.

Spring Season Preview 2011

Spring 2011 is an interesting season for a couple of reasons. For starters, we have 46 new shows (47 if you count Moshidara, which I count as part of Winter). That represents a sizable jump from the last couple of spring seasons. Does that mean a new renaissance for the anime industry - a financial spring after a long winter of contraction and financial problems? The financial numbers don't support that hypothesis, so I'm skeptical that it's anything more than a blip. It does mean a wider variety of options to choose from, but I find myself looking at this season as outstanding in terms of quantity rather than quality. There are a lot of shows that merit a look, but very few that really look exciting.

It's an interesting season for me as well. As of now my plan is to be in Japan from 3/30-4/11, so while the blog should see a lot of first-hand reports from the trip, it's going to make it a bit challenging to log first impressions (and series reviews from the winter shows) on a timely basis. I'll just have to wing it - and due to the other odd factor about this premiere season, that could be unpredictable. With so many winter shows delayed by anywhere from a few days to week due to the tragedy in Japan, it's still a crapshoot when many of these new shows will actually premiere. Like I said, I'll wing it...

With that, here's a quick look at the new season. I'm not going to do a comprehensive run-down of all 46 shows - there's plenty of excellent wiki out there if you want to check that out. I'll limit this to the shows I'm likely to review or at least watch, though there are always a series or two that sneak onto that list out of nowhere. This blog is strictly a one-man operation, and it occurs to me that covering a dozen or more shows - as I am now - is a bit much. So hopefully we'll settle on eight or nine this time, but if the season turns out that great, I'll find a way to cram a few more onto the roster somehow.

Deadman Wonderland - Manglobe

Right off the bat, here's a series that could be impacted by the quake.  The entire plot is set off by a massive earthquake, so I wonder if that might be changed for sensitivity issues.  In any case, it's an excellent manga and I like the casting choices.  New director, but Koichi Hatsumi did some episode direction on the spectacular Moribito.
Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae wo Boku-tachi wa Mada Shiranai - A-1 Pictures

This is probably my most anticipated series of the spring and - big surprise - it's NoitaminA.  The previews of have been spectacular - great visuals and music.  Casting looks excellent and A-1 has been a reliable quality engine for these last couple of years.  Director Tatsuyuki Nagai has worked on Toradora and Honey & Clover.
C: The Money of Soul and Possibility Control - Tatsunoko

Not a studio whose work I'm intimately familiar with, but it's the other NoiraminA offering and they haven't whiffed in a long time.  I love the concept art.  It's sci-fi, too, which is always a plus -  a futuristic melange of intrigue and violence that sounds as if was written by a cross between Phillip K. Dick and Ashirogi Muto. Direcor Kenji Nakamura has some good cred with darker-themed anime.

Lotte no Omocha! - Diomedea

How many studios can say they have a 1.000 batting average?  Diomedea can - Shinryaku Ika Musume being the sum of their work as lead stuido.  On that basis I'm giving this odd-sounding comedy a chance.  The premise - an alien child princess needs to consume semen in order to survive - probably wouldn't have hooked me otherwise.

Ao no Exorcist - A-1 Pictures

A-1's other spring entry, this is a manga adaptation about Satan's 15 year-old illegitimate son and his decision to become an exorcist to avenge his foster father.  I like the casting of Fujiwara Keiji and Nobuhiko Okamoto and I hear good things about the manga.  Plus, it's A-1.  Director Tensau Okamura (Darker than Black, Cowboy Bebop Movie) is a rock-solid veteran.

Hen Zemi - XEBEC

I haven't seen the OVAs, but I have a morbid curiosity about this supposedly off-the-charts ecchi adaptation of the story of a college sexual perversion seminar (which, regrettably, did not appear on my electives lists).  I take no comfort in the behind-the-camera staff, but I'll watch at least a few just to see what all the fuss is about.
Yondemasu yo, Azazel-san - Production I.G.

My favorite studio has been less active in TV of late, and hasn't hit a home run for a couple of years.  This gag manga adaptation about a detective and his demon servant doesn't look like the series that will break that streak, but I.G. always gets a long look from me on principle.  Director Tsutomu Mizushima (OoFuri, Hare Guu) has a good track record with comedy and character-driven material.

Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko - SHAFT

It's SHAFT, it's Shinbo, and it stars Irinu Miyu - 'nuff said.  None of these things are a clincher on their own, but together they make this one of my most anticipated spring series.  It's the story of a boy named Makoto and his very weird cousin Erio (Nanoka Ai) who thinks she's an alien.  You never know with Shinbo but this sounds like an agreeably insane premise and the casting is golden.

Hyouge Mono - Bee Train

I don't know how this happened, but this series is getting three cours. It's an adaptation of an award-winning manga about a retainer of Oda Nobunaga who becomes a legendary tea master. I can see this on the cover of Newtype real soon... It figures to be reflective, smart, subtle and almost unnoticed.

Sket Dance - Tatsunoko

Tatsunoko, you sure are busy all of a sudden.  This a well-known manga, a long-running weekly Shounen Jump series about a high-school club that fixes problems for the other students.  There's nothing anywhere in the premise, casting or staff that seems especially exciting but I'll check it out based on the popularity of the manga.


This is another studio I'm not much familiar with, and arguably the most anticipated series of the spring in terms of sheer numbers.  From the creators of CHAOS; HEAD.  It's another sci-fi with futuristic, big-brother themes and time travel elements.  A manga adaptation, it's a two-cour series - rare enough these days - and figures to be one of the most popular shows of the year.
Hoshizora E Kakaru Hashi - Dogakobo

Dogakobo has been around almost 40 years but has almost no record as a lead studio; director Takenori Mihara has never manned the big chair for a series.  So this adult dating sim adaptation is definitely a mystery.  I'll check it out given the interesting game adaptations we've had lately and the relative lack of romance this series this series, with my expectations fully in check.
Ore-tachi ni Tsubasa wa Nai - NOMAD

NOMAD has done pretty ecchi stuff (Kampfer, Chocotto Sister) along with the masterwork Sola.  It's another dating sim adaptation, but with an interesting angle - three protagonists and three heroines, so no harem angle apparently.  If I get one keeper between this and "Hoshizora" I'll be quite satisfied.

Showa Monogotari - Wao World

A couple episodes of this series have leaked out but were never subbed, though it's officially a spring series with a movie to come as well.  Marketed as "the first ever anime aimed at seniors" it's the story of a fifth-grader and his family in the era leading up to the Tokyo Olympics.  What I've seen looks interesting and this could be a sleeper.  I hope someone subs it.
Hanasaku Iroha - P.A. Works

Masahiro Ando (Sword of the Stranger) directs, with heavyweight scripter Mari Okada on-board as screenwriter.  It's the story of a 16 year-old girl who leaves the city to live at her grandmother's onsen resort in the mountains, and the odd cast of characters she meets there.  It's an original series and two cours, and has the feel of substance to it.  I have high hopes.

Tiger & Bunny - Sunrise

This one looks very, very odd - corporate salarymen and women who have superhero alter-egos and pick up bonus points by appearing on a superhero TV show.  This is a weird choice for Sunrise, one of the titans of the business, but that alone piques my interest.  It should look great, anyway - we'll see if the bizarre plot goes anywhere.
Dog Days - Seven Arcs

The staff - studio, director, writer - from Nanoha is back in this intriguing story of a 13 year-old boy summoned into an alternate world to serve as a hero for the Republic of Biscotti.  So much of this sparks interest - is this going to be a real Mahou Shoujo series, a rarity?  The female lead is my waifu Horie Yui, and all of the characters of Biscotti are named after pastries.  I don't know just what this will be, but I hope it's light-hearted and a satirical look at the mahou shoujo genre.  Definitely one of my highlights for spring, going in.

We're definitely not hurting for options here - the sheer volume of series is pretty staggering. To my eye, the tone is shifted more towards drama, action and sci-fi, with romance, comedy and moe a bit less dominant than they have been. In principle I don't have a problem with that trend, though the quality of the individual series is obviously more important in determining the quality of the season. I look forward to sharing a lot of first impressions - please don't hesitate to comment.