The Fall 2008 Anime Preview Guide
Carl Kimlinger

by Carl Kimlinger, Oct 4th 2008
Carl's Bio:
Carl is a white, currently single male from the exciting state of Oregon. He enjoys long walks in quiet forests, watching incomprehensible foreign films, and listening to vulgar punk music. He loves cats, dotes on house plants, and likes most people. An action connoisseur from way back, he'll crawl over broken glass for a good gunfight, fistfight, or decapitation, but his real passion is unforgiving (melo)drama and heart-warming romance. He also has a bewildering array of weaknesses for things like frilly cuteness, iconoclasts and cool robots, and is easily bamboozled by superior production values.

Mōryō no Hako

Rating: 5

Review: This is as close to perfection as any series is likely to get within the span of a single episode. It doesn't seize you by the throat the way Shikabane-hime or Kurozuka did; instead it drops you shivering into the middle of a coldly alienating world of inhuman beauty, to grope your way down dark alleys of all-too-human desire filtered through a bewildering screen of cryptic mysticism. And if that sounds confusing, that's because it is confusing—beautifully, powerfully confusing.

A man travelling with a severed, still-living head nestled lovingly in a box of flowers, a detective riding a train as the bleeding hands of dead war-time comrades pound accusingly on the windows—the episode is filled with gorgeous grotesqueries of unknown importance, but the plot ultimately settles its focus on two girls who develop an all-consuming obsession with each other. Convinced that they are living reincarnations of one another, each sinks into the other to the exclusion of the rest of the world, until tragedy inevitably strikes.

This is director Ryosuke Nakamura's first time at the helm of a television series, which is perhaps why he's supported on all sides by consummate veterans—from the animators at celebrated Studio MADHOUSE, to character designers Clamp, from whose dark obsessions the series could easily have sprung (though it didn't, it's based on a novel by Natsuhiko Kyogoku), to screenwriter Sadayuki Murai, into whose oeuvre (Boogiepop Phantom, Perfect Blue, Gilgamesh) the series fits snugly. If so, it's a strategy that pays off brilliantly: nearly every frame is a work of art, and Murai's treatment of Kyogoku's obsession with human evil is so nuanced that it makes otherwise superb series like Kurozuka look childish in comparison.


Skip Beat!

Rating: 3

Review: Does anyone else find it somewhat insulting that the highest aspiration of anime girls seems to be to enter show biz? Whatever happened to astronauts and doctors? To be sure, it's better than the apparent goal of all anime boys (to live in a cramped apartment with a nudity-prone alien), but it still comes as a pleasant surprise when Skip Beat! provides a powerful and unusual reason for its protagonist to aim for the glitzy stage of stardom.

Kyoko is busy living the life of a groveling doormat for her childhood friend and up-and-coming musician Sho. She does everything for him—including working a series of thankless jobs to pay for his apartment—and is glad to do it. That is, until she overhears Sho confessing to his manager that he brought Kyoko with him to Tokyo for the sole purpose of having someone to cook, clean and worship him. When he discovers that Kyoko has discovered his misogynistic little secret, he expects her to break down. But instead the experience wakens the beast slumbering in Kyoko's demure breast. When he has security throw her, raging impotently, from the building, she vows to enter the entertainment industry to get close to him and have her revenge.

The gurl power message is less than entirely effective—if Kyoko were a truly independent person she'd forget Sho's preening ass and get on with her life—but it's still nice to see a female lead who can and will stick up for herself when romantic disaster strikes. The series’ look is decent enough—a workmanlike reproduction of the SD humor and flowery look of a shoujo manga—but Kyoko is the series, and ultimately it will be her evolution that determines the series’ merit.



Hokuto no Ken Raoh Gaiden: Ten no Haoh

Rating: 1 ½

Review: On a dusty street in a ruined town, a crowd of bad, bad people ride down the innocent on their souped-up post-apocalyptic jalopies. Luckily for the innocent, they run afoul of a blonde giant with godlike fists who reduces them all to hamburger. The giant and his sidekicks head for the castle of local lord Kioh, and likewise reduce him and his sidekicks to hamburger, securing their place as up-and-coming rulers in a world where the only law is the power of one's steely thews.

Based on Youkow Osada's spin-off of Buronson's manly-man classic Fist of the North Star, Ten no Haoh deals with the beginnings of Raoh, elder brother and oft-times nemesis of Fist’s Kenshiro. Of course, where exactly a series fits in a franchise isn't terribly important when that franchise's appeal is based solely on meaty men going at it like kung-fu-trained beeves. Viewers tune in to watch pierced, mohawked punks get punched in half, not to waste precious brain cells on profundities like plots and characters. And get punched in half they do. And pulped with motorcycles, blown to bits by shock waves, and diced like tomatoes with swords.

The production values are bargain-basement, the fights are ridiculously one-sided, and the gore is extreme—in other words, everything one expects from Fist of the North Star. Which is unfortunate. “Laughably idiotic” is usually just a turn of phrase, but it's quite literally true when applied to this franchise. It's impossible not to snicker at the pure randomness of the plot, at the staggering simplicity of the characters, or at the patent ridiculousness of its meatheaded philosophy. Of all the evils perpetrated by Mad Max, this is possibly the worst.


Kurozuka

Rating: 4 ½

Review: After a pitched battle with a small platoon of zombie samurai, two men hole up in an isolated compound run by an ominously reserved woman named Kuromitsu, with whom one of the men falls foolishly in love. The set-up has the feel of a campfire tale, and given the zombies and the fact that campfire tales have been known to spawn things like Friday the 13th, that isn't exactly an auspicious start. However, director Tetsuro (Death Note) Araki's approach is more akin to Kaidan, opting for a surreally atmospheric brand of horror that is haunting and unsettling in its spare unreality. He punctuates the creeping inevitability of the plot—you know exactly where it's going the moment Kuromitsu says to absolutely never, ever peek in her room—with bursts of balletic bloodletting that would give Yuen Wo Ping a run for his money, but doesn't let his action instincts interfere with the winding tension or the sinister romanticism that underpins it all.

It's hard to see exactly where, if anywhere, the series will go from here, but there is no more instantly striking opening to any show this season. The samurai action is beautifully brutal (Madhouse was the studio behind Ninja Scroll, after all), the atmosphere is eerily disorienting, and it ends on a darkly romantic note that is no less compelling for its maturity and restraint.



Hakushaku to Yōsei

Rating: 3

Review: Of this season's slew of gothic-tainted series, Yōsei is by far the lightest. The whimsy of its lead's occupation—she's a fairy doctor—ensures that, but that doesn't mean all is sweetness and light. Lydia Carlton is the name of the fairy doctor, and when she is invited to London by her father, she gets embroiled in a cutthroat race to find a mythical sword. The only clues to the sword's whereabouts are in fairy verse, and everyone needs a fairy doctor to unravel its mysteries. The problem is that Lydia is pretty much the only doctor left. From rogues after the sword's jewels to a suspicious noble who claims to be its rightful owner, everyone is out to get their scheming hands on Lydia, and none of them is very particular about how they go about it.

The series’ take on fairies is very much in the whimsical Sir Arthur Conan Doyle vein (God rest his gullible soul), and Lydia is all brightness and spunk as she argues with her hard-drinking feline sidekick and tries to eke out a living in a world that laughs at the idea of naughty sprites.. Indeed, the obvious attraction that Lydia feels towards suspicious noble Edgar, a man that the opening makes out to be cruelly ruthless in the pursuit of his ends, is pretty much all that prevents the plot from devolving completely into sugary fluff. Of course, being a hoary cliché itself, it does nothing to prevent the crushing march of hoary shoujo clichés that constantly threatens to flatten the series. Edgar's ecstatic ode to Lydia's eyes is simply embarrassing, as are the slow pans over his shining bishounen perfection, and one can't help but wonder why all of London's villains are pretty enough to bend straight men.



Kemeko Deluxe! Episode 2

Rating: 3

Review: The further Kemeko stays from its central love triangle, the better it is. Sanpeita's sister Tamako is this episode's emotional anchor, and she keeps the dispiriting romance at arm's length throughout. As a result it's really quite good. Tamako is the family's sole dependable force; she cooks, cleans, and generally takes care of everything that her manga-writing mother and spineless elder brother should do but don't. But when she walks in on Sanpeita in a misleadingly romantic clinch with Kemeko, seeing her brother enjoy the fun, love-making life denied to her is just too much, and she simply falls apart. The ensuing battle rages across room, roof, and sky and only resolves itself when Kemeko intervenes.

Not every joke works—the extended sound-effects battle that rages upstairs while Sanpeita's mother and her editor work in a sleep deprived stupor is an unfunny wasteland amidst an otherwise consistent barrage of hilarity—but the series’ central comic conceit is as potent as ever. In fact, so good is the byplay between Sanpeita and his hideous robotic suitor, that whenever Emuemu emerges to blush shyly like the luscious bait that she is, one can't help but wish that the Kemeko power-suit were the true appearance of Sanpeita's love interest. The prospect of a serious relationship between a sweet but worthless high-schooler and an upstanding, repulsive-yet-cool robot (as opposed to a worthless teenager and an obviously-out-of-his-league hottie) is an awfully seductive one. As it is, Kemeko skirts the edge: obviously struggling, but unwilling to fully commit to revolting against the wish-fulfillment trappings of its genre. ‘Tis funny though.


Toaru Majutsu no Index Episode 2

Rating: 4

Review: Where the first episode was largely efficient character building, the second is pure action. Picking up where the first episode left off, Index is bleeding all over Toma's welcome mat, and Toma is facing a nasty customer with an infinite supply of hellfire. What follows is a fifteen-minute face-off wherein smarts are as important as power-ups, and the outcome is literally life-or-death.

If there's one thing anime does well, it's polishing genre formulas until they're things of hard, stripped-down beauty. Index makes no claims to originality; instead it takes the super-powered teenager thing that is flogged like a dead horse every season, and does it exactly the way it should be. Index and Toma are sympathetic, the villain is heartless, and the action has a sharp edge that is missing in lesser works of the genre. With high stakes, expertly deployed upsets, and a conclusion that is deeply, viscerally satisfying, Toma's violent cat-and-mouse game is a miniature study in underdog-turnaround fight structures tuned to pulse-raising perfection. And after it's finished, perhaps most importantly of all, the episode segues flawlessly on sad, tense note into the next episode.

Director Nishikiori handles J.C. Staff's shiny visuals and I've Sound's techno dance-beats with a clean confidence that is lacking in his sloppier efforts, coolly emphasizing turning points in the fight with attendant shifts in visual and sonic tempo, and making this perhaps the first time since Azumanga Daioh that both his direction and his source material have consistently exceeded expectations.


Chaos;HEAd

Rating: 2

Review: You want horror? Chaos;HEAd stirs the freakiest things in anime—twisted wish fulfillment, disturbed otaku, harems—into a stew of gore and techno-horror a la Pulse, and then wraps it all in that air of anomie peculiar to visual novel adaptations. Talk about scary. After some apocalyptic mumbo-jumbo, the series tosses us into the life of deluded otaku Takumi Nishijo. Takumi is no normal deluded otaku: his delusions take human form—busty, animated human form—and he lives in a storage container on the roof of an apartment building with only his beloved (far, far too beloved) figurine collection to keep him company. His sister occasionally visits and the class blowhard/ladies man sometimes brags to him, but otherwise his life consists of online gaming, anime, and paranoid delusions. When he stumbles across a body in an alley being mutilated by a beautiful girl, his paranoia takes on a dangerous new edge, especially since someone in a chat room sent him a picture of the crime before it was ever committed. Needless to say, the lines between his delusions and his increasingly bizarre reality begin to blur.

Combining otaku alienation and horror isn't a bad idea, but the series’ treatment of otaku social disorders is muddied by self-reference and real-life circularity (the series is based on a computer game aimed at otaku), and the horror-mystery is an uninteresting hodgepodge of When They Cry and any dozen Japanese psychological horror films. The further inclusion of harem-comedy tropes only serves to make the tone wildly inconsistent and the female cast painfully artificial. Add to that the fact that the lead character is not only a dick, but also an unpleasant otaku stereotype, and you have a sci-fi horror whose occasional queasy-making power can't prevent you from yearning for the comparatively clean head-games of Serial Experiments Lain.


Nodame Cantabile: Paris

Rating: 4

Review: If there was a sure bet this season, it was the continuing adventures of Nodame and her music-school buddies. And sure enough, the first episode could charm the pants off of the grumpiest of anime fans. Ayako Kawasumi and Tomokazu Seki continue to inhabit flaky Nodame and uptight Chiaki as if to the roles born, their chemistry charmingly off-balance; the jokes are funny and unpredictable; and the series’ honest treatment of youths struggling with their futures is always on hand to lend weight to the celebrations of quirkiness. The new digs and new friends in Paris open up new opportunities for competition and add a dash of exoticism, and if the loss of the first season's supporting cast was cause for trepidation, watching French Japanophile Frank learning the terror of genuine Japanese otakuism from Nodame or lovelorn Russian Tanya awakening the demon in Chiaki will dispel any doubts about their ability to fill the shoes temporarily vacated by the likes of Mine and Masumi.

The folks at J.C. Staff do their utmost to keep visual continuity between the two chapters, bringing back the vast majority of the crew that created the unique look of the first season, and for the most part it works. Paris looks gorgeously hand-drawn, the character designs are pleasantly normal, and while the time will undoubtedly come when we'll miss the warmly understated touch of first-season director Kenichi Kasai, it hasn't come yet.


Toradora! Episode 2

Rating: 4 ½

Review: While the first episode showed promise, no one expected it to blossom this quickly. Toradora! wastes no time in establishing a you-scratch-my-back agreement between Ryuuji and Taiga, and faster than you can say “foreshadowing,” the expected misunderstandings about their relationship have surfaced. But more than just a source of laughs and flashes of romance, the series uses the misunderstanding as a springboard from which to explore the unexpected depths of their newborn friendship. And then charges headlong through the fulfillment of Taiga's avowed intent to confess to Kitamura, the result of which forges yet stronger bonds between the odd couple.

It isn't just the amount of ground this episode covers that impresses—though when was the last time a main character confessed in episode two?—it's also the sheer emotional breadth of it. The pain of being perpetually misunderstood, the loneliness at a friendship drifting away, the fulfillment of the realization of one's regard for you, the pleasure of being a support to someone—this one episode packs in more warmth, humanity and power of feeling than many series manage in their entire run. Taiga's confession alone is an embarrassment of emotional riches, both hers and Ryuuji's, and even further, manages to also flesh out Kitamura, who obviously sees something in Ryuuji and Taiga that neither is able to see yet. And if all this sounds terribly mushy, the series also has a surprising mastery of gentle but effective humor, and the good grace to let feelings seep rather than hammer their way home.


Vampire Knight Guilty

Rating: 4

Review: Its title appended with the ironically appropriate “guilty,” spring's Vampire Knight is back for another season. The relationships have grown complicated, the plot is adding twists, and the cast is gaining characters, but its combination of gothic thrills, stinging emotions and mounting romantic tensions remains as tremendously entertaining as ever. Zero's already unstable relationship with Yuuki only gets more confusing with Kaname's vampire blood now flowing in his veins. Alien memories suggest themselves to his unconscious, nightmares plague his sleep, and he even fears that Yuuki will begin seeing her beloved Kaname in him. Regardless, Zero's feelings for her are intensifying, even as her fierce but undefined loyalty to him puts her at odds with Kaname and around them whirl the remnants of the events that led to the death of Hiou Shizuka. As Kaname plots to cover his crime and the vessel for Shizuka's soul regains consciousness, executioners from the Supreme Vampire Council close in on the academy, intent on destroying Zero for a murder he didn't commit.

While there's intrigue enough for the less honest to hide behind, everyone knows that what really brought us back is the promise of emotional fireworks. The first season tangled us deep in the web of emotions entrapping its two protagonists, and the desire to see them through now runs deep. Zero inspires empathy that belies his terse exterior and Yuuki is a potent mix of strength and vulnerability, and when the two tear themselves apart struggling against the circumstances that both bind them together and force them apart, the result is ridiculously affecting. Emotionally complex, darkly romantic, and thoroughly preposterous—and all of it wrapped in a gothic atmosphere so rich it should be fattening. Delicious.



Bihada Ichizoku

Rating: 2

Review: A bald-faced ad for the eponymous line of cosmetics (the manga was touted as the first “comic/cosmetic bundle”), Bihada kinda works as a straight-faced parody...so long as you don't think too hard about it. The Bihada sisters Sara and Saki have just won the World Beautiful Skin Competition (WBC). Unfortunately they didn't both get first place. Sara, the younger of the two, got first and Saki came in second, much to Saki's obvious displeasure. At the after-party, their ruthless mother takes Sara aside, telling her of the secret scroll that only the most beautiful of each Bihada generation can inherit. Having won the WBC and thus proved her superiority, the scroll goes to Sara. Kind-hearted Sara is horrified at the thought of leaving her sister out of the loop, but is saved from making a decision when Saki steals the scroll.

Drawn in a style reminiscent of the shoujo hits of yesteryear (think The Rose of Versailles), Bihada works best as a parody of over-the-top beauty-contest stories. There's the rich, hunky potential love interest, the evil beauty-contest judge, a ready-made rivalry, and most of all, the constant emphasis on the importance of physical perfection—and all of it so consistently overplayed that there's often no choice but to laugh. The judge carries a cat with him everywhere so that he can ominously pet it, the emotions in the rivalry are telegraphed using hilariously dated shoujo techniques, and even the “sympathetic” characters are blithely narcissistic. All of which would be quite amusing if it weren't so damnably hard to ignore the fact that it's hawking the very obsessions it pretends to skewer.


Kemeko Deluxe!

Rating: 2 ½

Review: An absolutely bizarre mix of hilarious humor and truly awful teen romance, Kemeko is quite possibly one of the weirdest shounen romances ever. It begins with its protagonist, Sanpeita, having the sanctity of his bedroom violated by a fat, green-haired thing that can only be charitably described as a “woman.” The woman, Kemeko, is soon followed by a platoon of crab robots. She makes short work of them with her minigun and declares Sanpeita her husband. Sanpeita naturally assumes he's dreaming. He goes to school, but Kemeko soon follows, wedding him in a makeshift ceremony before the eyes of his unbelieving friends. Later, in a rooftop battle with another robot, Kemeko disgorges a beautiful pink-haired girl who bears a striking resemblance to Sanpeita's childhood love. All of which is just a prelude to Kemeko moving into his house.

There's some nonsense about giant corporations and an alien seed-thing that lives inside Sanpeita, but Kemeko is pretty much 100% romantic comedy. Mixing romance and comedy is nothing new of course; what makes Kemeko unique is how brilliantly it succeeds at the latter while so utterly failing at the former. It swings between gut-busting sight gags and excruciatingly clichéd fan-service romance with bewildering speed, one minute staging an incongruously cool action scene starring the pot-bellied Kemeko, and the next smooshing Sanpeita between the ample busts of his two love interests. Any given minute will find you alternately laughing your head off and banging it against a wall. The humor is often ribald—the end sequence is practically obscene—and the fan-service quite extreme, so fans of ecchi fun as well as humor will likely have a fine old time...so long as the line “when I come back, I'll be Sanpeita's bride” doesn't send them scurrying for cover.



Yozakura Quartet

Rating: 3

Review: Pretty and polished, Yozakura delivers exactly what you expect from a series about superpowered teenagers and yōkai : cute characters, a dash of humor, and plenty of supernatural action. It's just a shame that it can't provide more. The town of Sakurashin is special. Built around the NANA-gou, trees that serve as gateways between the human and demon worlds, it's a haven for yōkai living in the inhospitable world of humans, and the only place on Earth where humans and yōkaican co-exist. Peace in the town is upheld by the town's mayor Hime, a dragon-girl with both the power and the imperious attitude to match her station, her oni side-kick, and the members of the YōkaiLife Consultation Office, headed by Akina, the one human capable of banishing yōkaicriminals from the human realm.

The series’ greatest strength is its look, which, while fairly standard, is skillfully presented and highly attractive. The characters are cute, but mature enough to make believably serious leads. Lighting and the towering pillars of the NANA-gou lend the town an appropriately mysterious air, and the special-power showboating is coolly competent. What the series doesn't have is an identity of its own. The characters are still collections of stereotypical traits as opposed to actual people, and nothing happens that isn't fully expected and that hasn't been done elsewhere, and better. The oddball humor of the “I don't like this Hime” segment at the end is a start, and Hime herself is a refreshingly self-possessed heroine, but the series still has a long way to go if it wants to compete with the likes of this season's Shikabane-hime: Aka.


Ga-Rei: Zero

Rating: 3

Review: While not the best, Ga-Rei most certainly has the most surprising first episode of the season. Toru Kanze is an operative for a government-led organization that fights supernatural beasts. Invisible to most humans, the man-eating monstrosities are visible to people like Toru and his colleagues. While visiting the grave of his dead girlfriend Toru is summoned to the scene of a supernatural incident. He arrives with Natsuki Kasuga, his partner, to find the government's foot-soldiers being slaughtered. After summarily dispatching the creature, he learns that yet another of the beasts has been detected elsewhere. Convinced that the monsters are being summoned by the mysterious boy who killed his girlfriend, he heads to the scene, only to find something beyond all expectation.

The episode meanders through most of the standard monster-busting material: introducing a tight-knit team of monster specialists, detailing the protagonist's tragic past, and dropping hints of romance and greater powers at work in the world. Despite stellar visuals, director Ei Aoki makes enough beginners’ mistakes to derail full submersion in the series. The opening action sequence tries so desperately to be cool that it ends up silly—blame it on the pulsing techno backbeat and gunfighter posing—and most of the episode is composed of imagery drawn from anime's vast stocks of pre-fab visuals. All pretty standard. And then it ends in charnel-house butchery so grim that the episode has to be either the opening act of an end-first story structure or a supremely sadistic fake-out. Either way it certainly grabs one's attention, and for the series’ creators, that can only be a good thing. Whether it's a good thing for viewers remains to be seen.


Shikabane-hime: Aka

Rating: 4 ½

Review: The cream of the monster-hunting crop. Ouri Kagami is awakened one night by a ghostly cat. It leads him to his orphanage's temple, where he finds a dead girl lying before the statue of Buddha. When his brother, the temple priest, barges in covered in wounds, Ouri hides and bears witness to the girl's apparent resurrection in his brother's arms. Some time later Ouri is preparing to move out of the orphanage, despite warnings from his friends about a wanted serial murderer who is on the loose in the neighborhood. While hauling his belongings uphill, he again meets the girl from the temple, this time as she plummets from the sky while fighting the hideous beast that the serial murderer transformed into upon his death. She is the Corpse Princess, and her sole purpose is to destroy the corpses that, like her, walk the earth after death.

The atmosphere is genuinely creepy, the action brims with fierce energy, and it all centers on a heroine who is as tragic as she is cool. This is no rote foray into monster-bashing. Brought to life by animation giant Gainax, the series’ look is perfect—all sinister shadow and bold fluidity—and even as the episode hits full throttle, director Masahiko Murata, whose work on Gilgamesh proves his aptitude for this kind of thing, doesn't skimp on the human side of his story. As the episode moves on nimble feet to its violent conclusion, it touches briefly but poignantly on subjects as diverse as Ouri's conflicting feelings about his coming of age, the Corpse Princess's ambivalence about her own un-death, and the prejudice of the living towards the dead. Simply superb.


ef – a tale of melodies

Rating: 3 ½

Review: Unlike the other sequels this season, ef is as accessible to newcomers as it is to returning fans. Of course, that's at least in part because the returning fans may well find themselves just as lost as the newcomers. However, even with its overzealous mysteriousness, ef’s second season, like its first, is a gorgeous, gradual romance steeped in a sad, vaguely supernatural atmosphere.

Shuiichi Kuzeis an eccentric professional violinist. He's a longtime friend of the mysterious Yuu Himura and lives next door to first season's Reiji. When Reiji's cousin, forthright Mizuki Hayama, moves in, he and his mother introduce her to Kuze. Mizuki is fond of his violin, and he happens to have plenty of space in his apartment for a girl to goof around in (he sold off all of his belongings), so the arrangement proves fortuitous. While the two get to know each other, Yuu remembers his days in high school and his connection to the equally mysterious Yuuko.

As often as not, the willfully nonlinear plot and incessant stylistic flourishes of director Shin Oonuma are impediments from under which the characters and their emotions must claw their way, but they always do eventually, and there's no denying that the series is a work of real beauty. Every scene is shot as if lit by a golden sunset, expressionistic touches lend an artiness to the sluggish everyday rhythms of the plot, and the atmosphere is a pall of supernatural melancholy that hangs over the entire production. There is a pretentiousness to the series’ poetic ambitions, but underneath it all beats a genuine romantic heart that is often missing from visual novel adaptations.


Kuroshitsuji

Rating: 4

Review: The allure of Victorian culture, with its suffocating politeness, institutionalized subservience, and false-hearted reserve, continues to elude me. However, as trappings for gothic horror, no other milieu will do. Ciel is the creepily self-possessed heir to the Phantomhive family. Orphaned and virtually alone, he rules his family's toy manufacturing empire with an iron fist that belies his tender years. His only companions are his servants, all of whom are charming incompetents, with the exception of Sebastian Michael s, his frighteningly perfect butler. Sebastian is handsome, erudite and supremely competent in all fields of service, from cooking, gardening and cleaning, to protective martial arts. What no one knows is that he's also a hell-spawned demon with whom Ciel has a binding contract.

Anime tends to focus on the “institutionalized subservience” part of Victorian culture with tales of maids, the worst of which can be even more misogynistic than the era that inspired them. Kuroshitsuji is part of a growing countermovement focusing on subservience involving the beefier sex, specifically butlers. What the coupling of unquestioning devotion with lanky sex appeal, indestructible martial prowess and dazzling domestic skills says about the fantasies of the movement's followers is really beside the point here, however. Kuroshitsuji isn't just fangirl fantasy (replete with suspiciously close boy/man relationship); it's also expertly executed gothic horror. The darkly elaborate clothing, dank environs, and unhealthy relationships of Victorian society are the perfect breeding ground for tales of creeping, atmospheric terror. The episode may spend its first half dabbling in disarmingly goofy humor (centering on the incompetence of the other servants, one of whom tries to cook a beef with a flamethrower), but the second half, in which an unpleasant visitor is executed according to the whims of a gruesome board game, is a finish to make Edgar Allan Poe proud.


Macademi Wasshoi!

Rating: 1

Review: Why is it that whenever Joe Schmoe the anime hero summons a supernatural being it's always a young girl and not, say, a dirty old man? Can you imagine the fun that could be had when a hopelessly average high-school student starts cohabiting with a crotchety, super-powered senior citizen? Just the thought of all those Depends jokes and accidental glimpses of nudity leaves me in conniptions.

Needless to say, nothing so unconventional happens here. Takuto Hasegawa is indeed a hopelessly average high-school student (we know, because the pop-up character intro says so), and he does indeed summon a supernatural familiar. But instead of Walter Matthau in a leotard, we get Tanarotte, a busty (yet still loliciously under-aged) nature girl with the mind of an-ill-trained puppy dog. She immediately pastes herself on Takuto, something that sits ill with Suzuho Hasegawa, Takuto's cousin and apparent love interest. Suzuho, whose pop-up intro says something about boobs, glasses and extreme shyness, removes her ribbon and quite naturally transforms from a brown-haired mouse into a blue-maned, trash-talking super-warrior. The resultant destruction only stops when both Tanarotte and Suzuho move into Takuto's flat.

This is exactly the kind of series that Genshiken and Welcome to the NHK take such unholy joy in skewering. If only skewering could actually kill it. There isn't a character in here that isn't a moldy mummy of a stereotype, the visuals are a senseless riot of loli-cute girls and wandering clumps of vaguely magic-ish stuff, and the plot vomits a stream of otaku-pandering monstrosities without pause for breath. Its habit of censoring ecchi scenes by replacing the characters with bad claymation stand-ins is pretty funny, but the laughs pop out of your mouth, get lonely, and quickly crawl back inside to sulk.


Toaru Majutsu no Index

Rating: 4

Review: Nothing about this series spells promise. Its director is the wildly unreliable Hiroshi Nishikiori, its screenwriter is best known for Ikki Tousen: Great Guardians, and its premise is strongly reminiscent of its roughly two million superpowered-teenager predecessors. It even has the usual psychic rating levels (the protagonist begins the episode by going head-to-head with a “Level 5” psychic). And yet it consistently performs above expectations; when the episode ends, the week-long wait until the next seems impossibly long.

From the moment when it becomes clear that the main character's opening intervention in a classic punks-bothering-girl situation is intended to save the punks, it's obvious that the series has a few more brain cells than average. Lead character Touma Kamijou is no pushover. He has powerful supernatural abilities and he isn't afraid to use them. Unfortunately his ability is a power-nullifying right hand that is so potent that it nullifies the godly blessings in the air surrounding him, making him really, really unlucky. For instance, when he goes to air out his futon, there's a starving nun draped over the rail on his eighth-floor balcony. The girl's name is Index, and she's being pursued by some manner of thugs. However, it's only when she shows up again, unconscious and bleeding on his doormat, that it becomes clear just how unfortunate their meeting really was.

Slick and stylish, Index is obviously heading deep into action-series territory—the next-episode preview promises oodles of exploding magical eye-candy—but for this episode it's supported entirely by the characters. The exchanges between earnest Index and acid Touma are excellent, a perfect example of how to make a infodumps entertaining, and the episode-end twist only works as well as it does thanks to the economical brushstrokes with which the series paints their spontaneous friendship.


Kyo no Go no Ni

Rating: 3

Review: The second adaptation of Coharu Sakuraba's slice-of-life comedy about a group of fifth-graders and their in-class adventures, this television version shares only the source material with its OVA predecessor: Xebec has taken over animation duties from hentai specialists Shinkuukan, the cast and crew are brand-new, and the tone is distinctly different. The series focuses on Ryota, a lively fifth-grader, and his circle of friends as they deal with Earth-shattering dilemmas such as what to do about loose baby teeth and whether smaller bouncy balls really are better than big ones.

The episode is divided into four “periods,” each a short comedy sketch involving everyday occurrences. The series’ strength lies in its ability to milk good-natured laughs from surprisingly honest fifth-graderish antics without waxing either obnoxious or precious. At times it inevitably wanders so close to real life that it ceases to be entertaining—Ryota and his buddies’ epic air-guitar concert continues far too long without a punch-line—but it makes up for it with cute silliness such as an fierce bouncy-ball duel that ends in sudden tragedy and a harrowing encounter with an indiscriminately teething classmate.

The television series covers much the same ground as the OVA (two of this episodes’ “periods” were previously animated), but its artistic approach is all faded pastels and shifting, almost sloppy character animation, as opposed to the solid colors and smooth, shiny characters of the video version, and it wisely reduces the squirm-inducing fan-service of its predecessor to near non-existence.



Tales of the Abyss

Rating: 2 ½

Review: A fantasy series based on the popular PlayStation 2 game, Tales of the Abyss takes no pains to hide its origins. From its explanatory opening narration to its climactic warrior/magician pair-up against a herd of mindless beasts, the first episode practically screams “game adaptation.” Its protagonist, Luke, is a classic greenhorn warrior with “hero” stamped all over his destiny, and after a few perfunctory introductions, the plot wastes no time in throwing him into a journey, during which he will undoubtedly discover the truth about his obligatory mysterious past (he's an amnesiac, you see), all while growing into his powers as a 7th Fonon. Whatever that is.

Luke is the son of a nobleman. Spoiled and impetuous, he is coddled by nearly everyone because of the amnesia he suffered as a result of something that happened when he was kidnapped as a child. He is rude to his fiancé, rude to his father, and rude to his gardener, but dotes on his sword instructor, Van. When Van is attacked by a beautiful magician, Luke defends him and is flung to the far corners of the kingdom in the resultant clash of energy. He and the magician, Tear, must cooperate in the wild to survive, after which Tear promises to take him straight home. Like that'll ever happen.

Predictability and Luke's irritating personality aside, this is a top-notch production. Sunrise's production values are impeccable, Kenji Kodama's direction is swift and assured, and Kousuke Fujishima's characters are a genuine eyeful. Unfortunately all of the gloss in the world can't prevent the RPG tropes and occasionally rushed pacing from raising, somewhere in the back of the mind, the sneaking suspicion that these tales would have been better left in the abyss.



Kannagi

Rating: 3

Review: Jin Mikuriya, whose bandaged nose brands him as a spunky, somewhat mischievous youth, is given the remains of a sacred tree by a friend. From it he carves the figure of a “tree sprite” that he saw once in his youth. To his utter astonishment, upon being finished it explodes, revealing the very sprite he fashioned it after. Before he can even come to grips with the fact that his homework has self-destructed, the girl introduces herself as Nagi, a local god, and he realizes he has bigger fish to fry. Like what to do about the spiritual impurities that the death of her sacred tree has introduced into the local ecosystem. And how to divide up household chores, retain his modesty while bathing, and keep his hormones in check.

It's best to keep the lofty expectations in check here. Screenwriter Hideyuki Kurata is a past master of the gut-wrenching mid-season turnaround, so it may do to keep an eye on, but as of now Kannagi is a slight fan-service comedy built around a premise that was old when Ah! My Goddess was young. That said, Nagi is sufficiently charming to justify her leading role, Jin isn't the spineless loser he could have been, and the pairing of his blithe confidence with her imperious naiveté is amusing. The fan-service is mild but pleasing, both lightly titillating and utterly inoffensive, and the character byplay is refreshingly free of romantic baggage. As a follow-up to director Yutaka Yamamoto's ignominious exit from Lucky Star, it's far from a home-run, but the result is as diverting as it is derivative, and his success in aping the distinctive lighting and human movement patterns of Kyoto Animation should give his old bosses reason to pause.


Rosario + Vampire Capu2

Rating: 2

Review: Who would have ever thought that the time would come when the sugary sweet vulgarity of a harem comedy would actually feel nostalgic? No pretensions, no dramatic baggage, just one guy, four or five girls, and two thousand panty shots. Of course, vague nostalgia and a stable of some of the shiniest, cutest characters out there don't change the fact that the series is candied garbage.

Tsukune has grown comfortable in his role as Yokai Academy's most available bachelor. The fact that he's surrounded by powerful monsters no longer fazes him, and he spends his days idly fantasizing about romantic clinches with luscious vampire Moka that don't include exsanguination. Moka for her part finds herself the object of adulation by the freshman class, a fact that rubs Tsukune's other suitors—busty succubus Kurumu, little witch Yukari, and self-possessed stalker Mizore—the wrong way. But that doesn't stop them from rallying behind her when she receives a series of death threats—from her own little sister.

The best part of the second season's opening episode is the closing, during which the cast dances with eye-grabbing abandon to the peppy, poppy closer. The worst part is impossible to single out. There are the syrupy, achingly false romantic interludes between Moka and Tsukune, the constant ego-stroking affirmations of Tsukune's hold on his harem, the tiresome addition of another girl to the cast, the “warming” introductions of characters that we're inexplicably supposed to have grown attached to, and the eternal cycling of each character's set behavior pattern. The series’ modest charms are still in place—“unleashed” Moka has lost none of her glamazon appeal, and the fan-service flows like wine—but they're lost in a series that sees no reason to even momentarily deviate from the established formula.


Linebarrels of Iron

Rating: 2 ½

Review: Pathetic loser Koichi is receiving his daily dose of humiliation at the hands of the usual band of scruffy high-school ruffians, only to suffer the ultimate embarrassment of having his friend Risako—a girl!—save him. Galled, he agrees to the delinquents’ request (fetching curry bread from the local bakery) just to spite Risako, and Yajima, another over-concerned friend. Koichi is convinced that he's destined to gain incredible power, and is biding his time until the day it awakens, bitterly resenting anyone who tries to help him or remind him of his helplessness. When his dream, unbelievably, comes true, it takes the form of a giant menacing robot accompanied by a beautiful, naked amnesiac. Newly empowered, and with a trio of “villains” to face, Koichi goes gleefully, self-righteously ballistic.

Linebarrels kicks off in a flurry of technobabble, faithfully working its way through a checklist of kids-in-robots tropes. Shadowy schemers scheme in the shadows, military types panic as their plans go awry, Koichi deludes himself with dreams of superhero-hood and plays knight in shining armor to the naked lady, and all the while viewers yawn at the chugging predictability of it all. It isn't until the episode is wrapping itself up that it drops even a hint that it's going somewhere worthwhile. But it's a heck of a hint. The minute Koichi, drunk on power, begins wreaking spectacular havoc in his city, exposing the cankerous effects of years of submission, it's clear that the series is deliberately setting itself in opposition to the usual peacenik/fiery ideologue-in-a-robot paths available to such series. It's too soon to tell if it will succeed—the episode's reliance on clichés isn't promising—but at the very least it keeps alive the hope of better to come.


Casshern Sins

Rating: 3 ½

Review: Dark, muddy and action-packed, this remake of the goofy ‘70s classic is a confused but gorgeous post-apocalyptic adventure with a nostalgic kick. A menacing figure in a white jumpsuit and crescent-topped helm tears apart robots on the rocky plains of a ruined world. His enemies call him Cass>hern and inexplicably blame him for the destruction of the world, but he remembers nothing. Pursued by a mysterious hooded man and a slender woman who has a habit of inexplicably vanishing an reappearing, he shares a gentle respite with a bubbly child robot named Ringo. However, when Ringo is abused by a passing robotic brute, Cass>hern's response is so vicious that the rescued girl flees in terror. Alone, he encounters the slender woman again, whereupon she tells him of her hatred and prepares to do battle.

The series is so pointedly obtuse that this first episode makes virtually no sense, but the plot is less the point than the grimy, beautifully dystopian future-vision that it's wrapped in. Whether the series ever explains all those inexplicabilities is far less important than whether it can maintain its mix of 70's visual pastiche, very modern brutality and timeless desolate splendor. And really, who needs long explanations? The sight of Cass>hern and Ringo perched on the edge of a wind-scoured rock, quietly bonding, says everything one needs to know about Cassherns vision of inevitable doom shot with fragile veins of hope.


Hyakko

Rating: 3 out of 5

Review: No season would be complete without a visit to an elite private school. This time, however, the focus isn't on the elite, but on four ordinary students who are thrown together by circumstance. Nonomura Ayumi is new to the all-grades Kamizono Academy. On her way to class, she gets lost in the byzantine byways of the enormous campus, and despairing of her chances of escape, is overjoyed to run into uptight classmate and long-time Kamizono student Iizuka Tatsuki Unfortunately, Iizuka is also lost. The two are joined by similarly lost wild-child Torako and her laconic sidekick Suzu after they jump from a second-story window, determined to head towards class in the absolute straightest line possible. The four embark on an epic, and epically straight, journey that charges through field, over fence, past cafeteria stand and through kindergarten classroom, culminating in accidental vandalism, assault, and lasting friendship.

The ordinariness of the predicament in which the four leads find themselves marks the series as a slice-of-life comedy, but their behavior and personalities are so extreme that it quickly becomes obvious that this is no navel-gazing celebration of the reassuring beauty of ordinary life. Timid Nonomura's desire to reinvent herself does occasionally lend the series an air of quiet introspection, but Torako's antics ensure that the energy level remains high and that the laughs keep coming. Bright, surprisingly atmospheric art emphasizes the emotional content, while the humor finds support in animation that is prone to bursts of fluid, sometimes hilarious action. The characters are too broad for the introspection to fully succeed, and the humor isn't sharp enough to qualify as incisive, but there are far worse diversions than this.


Akane-Iro ni Somaru Saka

Rating: 2 out of 5

Review: Akane would make a pretty good horror film. Not a rock ‘em, shock ‘em horror flick, but a study in slowly mounting dread that builds to a cascading symphony of terror. The first inkling that something is awry comes during the opening “hero saves girl from delinquent pick-up artists” gimmick. When protagonist Junichi's cute, doting sister and perky female best bud are introduced, your palms begin to sweat. When a mysterious transfer student turns out to be Junichi's damsel in distress (whose name is Yuuhi), the hair begins to prickle on the back of your neck. When she beats the crap out of him in a fit of daintily cute rage at his stealing of her first kiss (for chivalrous reasons), you struggle to wipe from your brow the clammy sweat that threatens to blind you. And then comes the climax. The doorbell rings, Junichi goes to open it. Your stomach knots in queasy anticipation. On his front porch stands Yuuhi, claiming to be his fiancé and insisting on moving in with him. Your strangled scream echoes down the alleyways, sending cats and rodents alike scurrying for cover.

To be fair, the series could be worse. Director Keitaro Motonaga is no stranger to the adaptation of bishoujo games, and while that doesn't mean much in terms of overall quality—both Yumeria and ToHeart were pretty awful—it does mean that he knows enough to give Junichi the personality necessary to avoid becoming Generic Dating Sim Guy, and to fill the screen with lots of sparkly bishoujo goodness. It's just too bad it didn't prepare him for the task of creating something that actually entertains. Little of the characters’ behavior makes sense, effectively destroying any chance at emotional gravity, and the humor is baffling in its limp unfunniness.



Toradora!

Rating: 3 ½ out of 5

Review: Ryuuji Takasu is a high school student with a domestic bent and a romantic streak a mile wide. The problem is that no one realizes it, because his soft heart is hidden behind the evil-eyed tough-guy looks that he inherited from his deceased gangster father. Classmates hand their wallets to him after accidentally bumping him in the streets, his teacher is afraid to properly discipline him, and naturally girls avoid him like the plague. He has an impossible crush on spunky classmate Minori, but his awful self-image prevents him from acting on it. Things start to change when he is KOed in the hall by Minori's best friend, the infamously ill-tempered Taiga Aisaka, and later discovers that the diminutive terror has a similarly impossible crush on hisbest friend Kitamura. He promises to help her in her romantic endeavor, and naturally the inevitable begins to happen.

The words “romantic comedy” and “predictable” are like the words water and “wet.” Toradora! makes no secret of where it is going—the opening shot links Taiga and Ryuuji before they are even properly introduced—and it practically glories in the tropes of odd-couple romances. That said, the pairing of Taiga and Ryuuji is inspired—imagine a domesticated version of Midori Days’ Seiji Sawamura playing opposite of Shakugan no Shana's Sh>ana and their dynamic has a sweet, innocent edge that more fan-service-minded romances often lack. Director Tatsuyuki Nagai who has worked in various capacities on romances ranging from Chobits to Honey and Clover handles the humor with a sure hand, playing very deliberately with traditional gender roles and deftly avoiding the temptation to insert face-in-the-crotch gags, and further imbues the series with a vague aura of romantic longing that echoes its misfit leads’ earnest desire to experience the elusive magic of love.



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