It’s that time of the season and a bunch of our senior writers over at Random Curiosity have revived the monthly review to give you an overall impression of how the summer (winter over here) has been: definitely go check it out.
As for me, I happened to have some notes for some shows I’m watching this season, so I thought I might as well write it up.
I share the common belief that after three episodes of any anime series one should have a good grasp of what it’s all about. To put it another way, a series basically has at most three episodes to strut its stuff. One episode for the hook, three for the full sell. So having seen ~three episodes (give or take) of a number of different shows this season let’s get on our high horses and pass some judgments. If you were looking for an excuse to drop a show; well, now’s the time to release yourself.
And don’t worry: I’ve kept things spoiler free. And in alphabetical order.
Akame ga Kill
Aku soku zan?
I went into Akame ga Kill hoping for something akin to Darker than Black where secret organisations play with political intrigue in a dystopian setting. It’s a lesson against carrying too many expectations into a show because it turned out to be nothing like that at all. Akame has a horror aesthetic (and also plenty of blood) but it’s not really all that dark, or at the very least not consistently dark. In fact I’m not really sure what it is, since every week we get a smorgasbord of comedy antics, fanservice, and monster-of-the-week combat. At the very least it’s not dystopian, because dystopian fiction is largely about oppression, and it’s hard to feel any of that when our merry assassin team basically just goes around doing whatever. In fact, the capital wouldn’t have that bad an image if not for everyone saying it was and the occasional crucifixion or whatever to remind us that ‘help, we’re being oppressed!’ etc. That, and a throwaway evil villain whose only defining trait is EVIL. Still, Akame ga Kill never fails to at least entertain, which I suppose is probably the important part.
The geopolitics is suspect but nobody came for that anyway.
At its heart Aldnoah is an alien invasion story, much along the lines of Independence Day crossed with BattleTech (or, for an example closer to anime…I guess Shingeki no Kyojin. Seriously.) and as such follows very familiar formulae. The details are variable, of course, but the overall flow of the narrative is not going to be the most original. And indeed, many of the developments are easily telegraphed (either by blatant flags or a spoiler-ish OP) but in Aldnoah we see an example of how originality plays second fiddle to simply good execution. While the writing sometimes has a tendency to long fits of exposition and a savoury hint of cheese, the occasional failings are made up for with a plethora of strengths. Quality animation and a sweeping score carry big scenes, making for an engaging ride every week. Sure, that may make it melodrama but it’s good melodrama. If you’re looking for the summer blockbuster of this anime season Aldnoah.Zero is it.
Ao Haru Ride
Standing around being awkward is a Japanese national pastime.
Ao Haru Ride is one of those rare shows you don’t see a lot of these days. It’s shoujo, and unashamedly shoujo. It almost gets to the point where it is stereotypically shoujo to the point where it could almost be a caricature of itself if only it didn’t play everything seriously. It’s a show where the characters can literally spend 20 minutes just talking about their feelings. Otherwise, it’s a love story but the questions of ‘who’, ‘when’ or even ‘if’ are set aside for an almost complete focus on ‘how’. Plot-wise events are moving rather fast (we’ve already blown through a year) but the character developments and interactions subtle (some of the time, anyway). It also touches on some sensitive issues (especially for Japanese society), like peer-pressure and group mentalities to reasonable depth but perhaps insufficient length. At least it’s a surprisingly good looking show, though I may just be a sucker for the watercolours they use in flashbacks.
Fate/kaleid liner Prisma Illya Zwei!
Don’t worry, it’s not really.
I…don’t remember the manga being this raunchy. That said, I don’t remember much of the manga at all. It’s been a long time. In any case this season we slowly see a bit more of Fate leak in and a bit more of the magical girl spinoff leak out. Sure, we still have much of the framework (young girls with magic powers, talking mascot things, A RIVAL APPEARS, blah) but after playing it pretty straight for the first season it gets a bit weirder from here. It’s interesting that once again Prisma Illya is airing alongside another magical girl show this season, and this time it’s none other than the archetypal Sailor Moon itself. Prisma Illya shows that it’s more of a quasi-shounen offering like Nanoha was while Sailor Moon is presumably sticking to its shoujo roots (though the shounen/shoujo distinction is a bit harder to justify these days, even in Japan). It makes for an interesting study, if nothing else.
The production quality is still quite high and for Fate fans having Illya be the pure, innocent, completely out of character magical girl protagonist is still worth some novelty. From her consistent straight man position it may be that even she, deep down, is aware that something is not quite right here. And that’s worth plenty of laughs. If you enjoyed the first season there’s no reason not to enjoy the second as well.
Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun
♪On a bicycle built for two~♪
I’m glad I picked this one up because Gekkan Shoujo is surprisingly good. I expected the girl who can’t express herself/guy who’s thick as a brick routine to be rather generic but I’m still laughing each week. The zany cast is obviously important but I attribute a lot of the success to lively animation and well-coordinated sound design. Together they serve to give the comedy a lot of energy and momentum. I think I once listened to John Cleese talk about how comedy should have an avalanche effect where the jokes need to keep hitting the audience to build up the laughter until they completely lose it. When anime is used as a comic medium bringing the humour from numerous angles (verbal, circumstantial, visual, etc.) is key, and Gekkan Shoujo does this well. It doesn’t hurt that the heroine is easy to root for; have you noticed that she has by far the widest face of the entire cast? This is intentional.
(One side thing to note: anime has never seemed to embrace laugh tracks like the West has. It’s interesting how this may have influenced sound design in comedy. But that’s a topic for another day.)
Free-range does expose chickens to more risks. Support battery farming.
If I had to describe Glasslip in one word it would be: disjointed. Consider its art style which is usually pseudo-realistic except for when it suddenly dips into chibi-fied characters for certain (not even all) comedy scenes. Glasslip evidently wants to be a lot of things–slice of life, comedy, drama, a mess of love-polygons–but sometimes it tries to do all this at once and comes out as a bit of a mess. Recently its introduced its plot-converging conceit and has been a bit more consistent for it, but some scenes still feel a bit choppy (but still looking rather fabulous; have to love the landscapes). At least we have a sense of where it’s all going. But we still have to deal with Nishimura Junji’s continued obsession with chicken metaphors, carried all the way from True Tears. If anything, though, I’d compared Glasslip with Anohana, but looking forward instead of looking back.
Persona 4 the Golden Animation
Persona 4 the Golden is the one series I’m actually writing about regularly on Random Curiosity, so you should go there for all my hard hitting (not really) commentary on it. I will note, though, that P4GA is a very niche show, and it fully embraces its niche. That makes it better for its target audience, but greatly decreases its accessibility. Perhaps because of this it’s felt a lot less like a TV series and more like one of those bonus OVAs bundled as bonus merchandise. They do seem to be making taking a turn towards a more cohesive narrative, though those not familiar with Persona 4 must have already given up for one at this point.
Sailor Moon Crystal
What will they do with Pluto? And I know moon is not a planet either. Whatever.
As a child, Sailor Moon was one of those shows that I wasn’t allowed to watch. Or rather, it was something my peer group wouldn’t let me live through and I wouldn’t be caught dead doing. Because it’d give me cooties. Or something. Gender stereotyping was weird back in the day. Still, the forbidden fruit is the sweetest and Sailor Moon remained interesting, and curious minds would still sneak glimpses at it like it was a dirty magazine. My strange upbringing aside, Sailor Moon has a bit of a legendary status in anime, but that does its remake no favours. I’m of the philosophy that you shouldn’t really remake something unless it was bad, because then you’re setting up yourself to be ‘not as good’. It’s hard to carry all those expectations. I don’t think it’s possible for Crystal to match the hype or the myth,
I hear some complaints about Mitsuishi Kotone’s voice work but considering her very wide range (even at 47 years of age) I can’t help but wonder whether her voice for Utsugi is not designed specifically to be annoying. Even her original one. Now it’s both annoying and doesn’t sound exactly like the original. I can see why it irks. But Excel’s voice grew on me. Maybe Utsugi will too.
Sword Art Online II
Of course, the Star Wars jokes are endless. Starting with how it’s a trap.
It says something when the protagonist of your story finally intrudes on the narrative and the entire thing feels worse for it.
Of course this is a very subjective opinion, but my issues with this season of Sword Art Online are largely the same as my issues with the first one. Mainly, both the protagonist and antagonist–arguably some of the most important parts of the narrative–are weak. Make no mistake, SAOII has a lot going for it. As is often the case of light novels the world and premise are very interesting and A-1 Pictures is again delivering some top notch visuals. But Kirito simply does not make for a very poignant hero. For starters, heroes need to be flawed because that is how where we get humanity, development and conflict. Kirito is not really flawed, or alternatively his flaws don’t matter, to the point where he approaches Gary Stu levels of awkwardness. The more the story devolves into ‘look how awesome Kirito is today!’ the less compelling it is. I was hoping Asada (Sinon, whatever) would step up and play the central position this arc because while she isn’t exactly a flawed hero either at least she has unresolved trauma and that would do in a pinch for inner conflict.
Speaking of conflict, the other half of our equation, the antagonist, is also mostly undeveloped, being at this point merely a ‘Bad Guy’ than a full fledged villain. This isn’t as much of an issue because we don’t necessarily need to see much of the antagonist, only their actions that spur on the protagonist. And good villains are hard to write, so keeping them behind the curtain allows the writer to rely on the audience’s imagination to fill blanks while building an air of mystery. Hopefully SAO gives us a better villain this time; it’s a series with a lot of potential.
Zankyou no Terror
V for VON
Zankyou no Terror was, to me, definitely the biggest anime to watch this season. It has some big names behind it (Watanabe Shinichiro directing! Kanno Yoko composing!) and airs in the noitaminA slot, which doesn’t always offer something good but often offers something different. It also had a very bold premise, starting with having terrorists as protagonists. Could this show even be made two or three years ago? Could it be made in the West even today? Something to think about.
In any case Zankyou no Terror is not just wantonly avant-garde because this kind of plot already had a trailblazer in the form of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. You can see many general archetypes in place already: the mysterious anarchists (Nine and Twelve), that one cop (Shibasaki), the useless hanger-on who hopefully grows into something meaningful (Lisa) all held together by hints of conspiracy. Notably missing is the authoritarian government (for now it’s been mostly just terrorists vs police). Is Watanabe insinuating something? We’ll have to wait and see.
So far the production has been top notch and the writing very solid. Suspense is built every episode and the mystery very tantalising. The pacing has been careful and deliberate with the audience left just enough breadcrumbs to want to follow the plot. I do wonder why they chose to use a Greek mythology motif for the riddles though, since they feel like they need to explain it every single time. If you don’t trust your audience to get it then perhaps you could just use something else? It also makes Shibasaki look like the only literate person in Japan (don’t you have interns? Make them do research). I suppose that’s a really minor gripe. It’s still a great show.