The Fall 2008 Anime Preview Guide
Casey Brienza

by Casey Brienza, Oct 4th 2008
Casey's Bio:
Jersey girl Casey Brienza currently splits her time between academia and otakudom. She has been employed in the field as a freelance journalist since 2005, and her writings on anime and manga can also be found in Anime Insider and Otaku USA. One of her readers characterizes her as "well-read, intelligent, and unapologetically cutthroat." Casey plans on getting her PhD and hopes one day to beat the odds and become a university professor. She is hopelessly addicted to books and websurfing and therefore feels right at home anyplace she has access to a high-speed Internet connection and ample printed matter.

Michiko to Hatchin

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: Should the title of this show be written, “Michiko to Hatchin,” “Michiko and Hatchin,” or “Michiko e Hatchin”…? The anime makes official use of the first and third, which are Japanese and Spanish, respectively. Waitaminute. Japanese and…Spanish?! Nope, that's not a typo. It's definitely an unusual combination, and this show is definitely a mash-up of some very different styles. The setting, richly described, looks vaguely Mexican or Wild Wild West in its dust and sunburnt decay. The color scheme is intensely psychedelic, heavy on the hippie nostalgia. The music, meanwhile, skips along to a groovy jazz beat.

And all of it is delivered by a star-studded production crew that seems to have made Michiko to Hatchin into a slavish tribute to cinematic stylings Quentin Tarantino. Sayo Yamamoto is directing, Hiroshi Shimizu is providing the character designs, and Shinichiro Watanabe, of Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo fame, chips in which musical direction. The studio, of course, is Manglobe, and they deliver 100% on the realization of this dream team's aesthetic vision.

Unfortunately, as of now, it's not yet clear whether the storyline as such will be able to live up to the steep promise that its visuals seem to be making. The premise as revealed in the first episode is, at its base, pretty straightforward. The free-spirited, Bratz doll lookalike Michiko Malandro has escaped from the prison Diamandra and is on the run. Meanwhile, long-estranged daughter Hana has been living with the Belenbauza Yamadas, where she is treated as a latter-day Cinderella. Michiko shows up one day to reclaim the girl, and the two head off into the sunset on an adventure. What sort of adventure? We do not yet know. Future episodes will decide whether or not this dream team will deliver a winner or an abrupt crash back into reality after the novelty wears off.


Skip Beat!

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review: Kyoko is a huge fan of up-and-coming pop idol Sho. She also works her ass off at multiple part-time jobs. These two facts of her life are connected: Kyoko has been paying all the bills while Sho chases his dream of superstardom. And she is fine with that—and his selfish, moody behavior—because she loves him. But her love turns to rage and thirst for revenge when she finds out that Sho knows full-well that he has been taking advantage of his amicable little slave. Now Kyoko plans to beat him at his own game; her star will outshine his…if it's the last thing she does!

If there one thing that anime does well, it is to make characters and situations that were already monstrous in Yoshiki Nakamura's original manga even more beastly in real time onscreen. The first episode of Skip Beat! is almost unbearably difficult to watch; Sho redefines the extremes of that masculine category of “selfish, enough-about-me-now-tell-me-what-you-like-about-me bastard,” and the fact that Kyoko fawns so unquestioningly over him is equally stomach-churning, even in its original context in patriarchal Japan. But of course, this repulsion on the part of the viewer is the point, and boy oh boy will you be cheering Kyoko on when she declares undying vengeance. 

Visually and aurally, there is nothing particularly spectacular or even noteworthy about this show. The animation and the soundtrack simply do what they need to do…and that, rest assured, is plenty. ’Cause if the point of the first episode of a new series is to keep you coming back for more, this one succeeds beautifully. You will not want to rest or change the channel until you have seen the villainous Sho get his just desserts.


Mōryō no Hako

Rating: 5 (of 5)

Review: First Casshern Sins. Then Kurozuka. Now we have Mōryō no Hako. Madhouse just keeps getting better and better this season. This show is so darn good, in fact, that it didn't even need the additional cachet of much-ballyhooed character designs by CLAMP (though this is not to suggest that all those pretty faces do not contribute to the pleasure of this anime). Beginning with the ominous image of a girl's head in a box, the first episode takes us back to post-WWII Japan and the lives of Yoriko Kusumoto and Kanako Yuzuki, two schoolgirls who, at least according to Kanako, are reincarnations of each other. Their relationship quickly builds to a feverish level of mutual fixation…and then Kanako throws herself in front of a train.

The back story of this compelling mystery tale, based upon the original novel by Natsuhiko Kyogoku (Requiem from the Darkness), is bounded by the portentous Yin triad of femininity, moonlight, and death, and director Ryosuke Nakamura (Death Note, NANA) cultivates it like a night-blooming flower. The intensity of the girls’ forbidden attraction to each other—more profound than mere friendship or sexual desire—and their rejection of ordinary life is impeccably balanced between the erotic and the horrifying. There are demons at work here, but some demons can be heart-rendingly beautiful. And so, for that matter, is this show. The animation is elegant yet not overdone; the seiyuu are all decorated veterans of the field. People with a taste for the morbid may in fact dream fondly of receiving the head of a lovely lady in a box, but at this rate, this “box of goblins” is fast proving the greater gratification.


Tytania

Rating: 1.5 (of 5)

Review: Selected classics of the medium such as Memories aside, it is rarely a good thing when an anime series takes the phrase “space opera” too literally. This, unfortunately, is exactly what Tytania does, and the cringe-worthy opening tune sung by a José Carreras opera tenor sound-alike bodes tremendous ill. And sure enough—it's all downhill after that final warbled note. The story, based upon a novel series by Yoshiki Tanaka (The Legend of the Galactic Heroes, The Heroic Legend of Arslan), is set in an age of intergalactic expansion where the space ships are ornate and the uniforms even more so. Ruling the empire with an iron fist is the Tytania family, and only the scrappy but resourceful rebels from Euria dare challenge their domination.

The first episode might wrest a giggle or two from generous souls, but the less generous among us will merely groan. Why does it have to be so awful? The answer remains a mystery for now, but suffice it to say that Tytania is the height of camp. The story is contrived, and the majority of the characters are pretty paper dolls cut along fascist despot lines. The heroine of the piece, who only appears for a split second, looks like she might shape up to be even more irritating. Worse still, this one-dimensional effect of the characters is left unmitigated by the equally poor animation quality; Artland is also the studio responsible for Earl and Fairy, and the production values here are almost as bad. Give this one a pass. Your valuable time will be better spent watching old Star Trek reruns.



Kannagi episode 2

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review: Surprise, surprise. It only takes a single episode before Jin tires of his divine houseguest in a big way. Nagi may be a goddess, but she is a capricious one who is entirely willing to play on the emotions of Jin's childhood friend Tsugumi and to roll around the floor laughing when she mistakenly superglues her toy wand to the center of Jin's table. Her behavior would be enough to drive even the most patient of modern-day Pygmalions to distraction, and Jin, who has seen plenty already, kicks her out. Unfortunately, she realizes, when she attempts to exorcise an impurity that has taken the shape of a frog, that she still needs Jin.

After a delightful first episode, the second episode of Kannagi is downright disappointing by comparison. Although the scenery of provincial Japan is as attractive as ever, it has become backdrop to a story that is suddenly going nowhere. We finally meet Tsugumi, for example, but we learn next to nothing important about her. We learn conclusively that Nagi cannot fight the bad guys without Jin…but if that revelation came as a shock to you, well, I've got a Bridge to Nowhere that you'd be interested in buying. Even the little subplot about the kittens feels contrived. This show needs to get back on narrative track right quick, or it risks being derailed permanently.


Mobile Suit Gundam 00 Season 2 episode 2

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: If you're in the market for Big, Important Thoughts on the Meaning of Fighting and Freedom, wrapped up in distractingly convoluted package, look no further: Mobile Suit Gundam 00 should leave you satisfied and then some. The distractingly convoluted part comes in the form of five—count ’em five—parallel plots in the space of twenty-odd minutes. (So much for nuanced character development. That's awfully hard to do when you're leaping from plot line to plot line to plot line every three minutes.) The Big, Important Thoughts involve rumination on what is the moral thing to do if your failed rebellion has succeeded only in making the oppression many magnitudes worse.

At its base, though, this episode boasts only two major plot points that you need to remember. Namely, that Kataron and A-LAWS are marshalling their respective forces and that Setsuna gets Gundam 00 to work for him. The rest is just window-dressing…and like window dressing, it's all for show. This anime series is slick, with a coherent, internally-consistent world and respectable production values. But like its character designer Yun Kouga, whose admittedly imperfect artwork was somehow more appealing before she turned to Photoshop, this show often feels like a Gundam that has been so marketed and mainstreamed that it soul has been sucked dry. The second season only serves to heighten that uncomfortable sentiment. It reaches broadly yet does not touch profoundly. And on a lighter note…even the fangirls nostalgic for Gundam Wing while noting the tantalizing similarities here surely feel obscurely cheated by Sunrise; fewer Gundam pilots means fewer yaoi pairings!


Kurozuka

Rating: 4.5 (of 5)

Review: Fleeing inter-family politicking that could be bad for his health, Yoshitsune, also known as Kuro, and his servant Benkei hike high into the forested mountains. There, they meet a beautiful woman named Kuromitsu. She welcomes them into her home—but not before warning them sternly not to enter her private chambers. One guess as to where Kuro decides to go late one night. And when he does, he sees a horrific sight: Kuromitsu licking the blood off of the neck of a man's upside down corpse. Then, in the wake of an ambush, Kuro learns that she is immortal and that she is willing to invite him into her eternity…

Well, what can you say? It sure is a good time to be Madhouse. While other studios such as Gonzo and Gainax have fallen of late from their respective pedestals, Madhouse just keeps on chugging along with more and more of the sort of anime it does best—gloom, doom, and richly sensuous violence. True to form, Kurozuka is exquisite and lush, resonating with the weight of myth, not a discordant note sounded anywhere. The feudal Japanese setting is transporting in its evocative detail, and the character designs are equally beautiful, particularly around the faces. (Although the spindly, toothpick-like legs on the guys didn't quite do it for me; thankfully, Kuromitsu's kimono hid hers.) Baku Yumemakura's original story is quite ambitious in its scope, and it's a pleasure to see an animated adaptation rise so confidently to what is undoubtedly going to be a formidable challenge of execution in subsequent episodes. Stay tuned.


Linebarrels of Iron episode 2

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: The story premise of Linebarrels of Iron remains irritatingly opaque, but it is possible, with multiple viewings of the second episode, to get a broad-stroke sense of what is going on: 1) An organization called Juda has a fleet of special “Arma” (mecha) called “Machina” (super-duper mecha); 2) These Machina have a symbiotic relationship with their “Factors” (pilots); 3) A rival organization called Kato-Kikan wants Juda's Machina; and 4) Linebarrel is a Machina, and Emi brought Kouichi back to life after landing on him with Linebarrel by making him it's Factor.

Whew. Okay, so it's not the most original premise out there by a long shot, but it's not totally idiotic. And now that the aforementioned four points are all cleared up, this show gets marginally more tolerable. Heck, if the action scenes didn't whiz past at light speed, one might even sit back and enjoy the various mecha designs; one of them has a pretty snazzy set of wings, for example. Unfortunately though, “marginally” is the operative word, and those sequences that do not involve giant robots trying to reduce each other to so much scrap metal (and sometimes even those that do) continue to grate on the nerves. Nothing much of importance really happens in this episode, save that Kouichi rightfully claims his Annoying SOB Prize once and for all. Superpowers have made him arrogant, foolhardy, and indiscriminately destructive—we don't need his friends’ expression of concerned gravitas to be horrified by the behavior. Whether or not you will be horrified enough to stop watching this show will be determined by your own personal level of tolerance for Kouichi's hubris.


Akane-Iro ni Somaru Saka! episode 2

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: Astounding, isn't it, what a difference one episode can make?  In the first episode of Akane-Iro ni Somaru Saka!, nothing made sense. In the second episode, pretty much everything does—and it all gets knotted up together neatly into a nice little bow. We learn that Yuuhi is being forced into an arranged marriage by the Chairman of the über-wealthy Katagiri Group and that she will not tolerate having her husband decided for her. The best she can do, though, is get them to agree to letting her live with her bridegroom-to-be for a sort of trial period.

And so, we see Yuuhi hating on Jun'ichi with a passion that ought to be reserved for romance…while becoming fast friends with his little sister, who teaches her how the “other half” (a.k.a. normal people of normal means) lives. In a bit of sincere girl talk late in the episode, we also discover what up until now we have only suspected—that the Saito-lookalike who began the show with a bang (literally) is the Hayase paterfamilias. Oh, and his sexy sidekick is his wife.

All in all, this installment is a modest, pleasant departure from what has come before. The gals in particular start to get really interesting here, and they are revealed as more than just cute distractions. Also, the protracted periods of female bonding—that don't involve heart-to-heart discussions about men—are unusual for these sorts of anime series. This is really the only show thus far this season to improve significantly in the second episode. Hopefully, it's just getting started.



Hokuto no Ken Raoh Gaiden: Ten no Haoh

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review: Ah…good ol’ 80s anime, how we miss thee! 70s styles and storylines have been experiencing a renaissance for the past few years (the latest offerings in that vein being Bihada Ichizoku and Casshern Sins), and the 90s hasn't yet been forced off the proverbial creative stage, but the 80s—of muscle-bound, invincible heroes and gruesome, post-apocalyptic anxieties—are in short supply these days. So thank goodness for the Hokuto no Ken franchise, which has been swinging away undefeated for the past quarter-century.

The Raoh Gaiden: Ten no Haoh TV series is the franchise's latest offering, and it stars Raoh, a popular villain who is now taking his turn in the spotlight as protagonist. Raoh, accompanied by his sidekicks, the siblings Souga and Reina, plans to rule the world…or the blasted, crumbling urban wasteland that passes for “world.” He does not waver in his goal, using his Hokuto Shinken to punch his way through whatever stands in his way, be it a gang of hooligans or a concrete wall. In this episode, he defeats the monstrous Kioh and claims his fortress.

If nothing else, this show is a great reminder as to why shounen manga evolved toward whiny loser protagonists as the 80s drew to a close. Where's the fun in watching the exploits of a guy who has mastered a fighting technique that has never been defeated? The end is practically predestined, and if you stop to think about it, you will quickly conclude that, where there is no suspense, there is little to sustain interest. Unfortunately, this anime's dreary, washed out colors and lugubrious narrative pacing are unlikely to win over new fans. It's supposed to be about power and excitement, but all the first episode does is limp sullenly along. Still, longtime fans will certainly appreciate this hearty helping of man-sweat and violence after the cloying, all-you-can-eat banquet of moé.



Hakushaku to Yōsei (Earl and Fairy)

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: Hakushaku to Yōsei looks a lot like Angelique in subject matter, style, and questionable animation quality, but the similarities, at least for now, otherwise seem superficial. Based on a series of light novels by Mizue Tani, the story is set in a 19th century Great Britain where fairies are real, albeit largely forgotten. Heroine Lydia Carlton is a fairy doctor, a liaison of sorts between the fairy world and the human one. While traveling to London to meet her father, she instead ends up tricked onto a ship with the Earl Edgar Ashenbert (voiced by fangirl favorite Hikaru Midorikawa), supposed descendant of a fairyland noble. Edgar wants to claim his birthright, and to this end he needs her help in acquiring the Sword of Merrow.

Plot-wise, this isn't a bad first episode, although there are a few places that may be momentarily confusing. Fortunately, those don't matter much, and you will find yourself much more preoccupied with questions about the characters. The first minute, for example, shows Edgar shooting (and presumably killing) someone in cold blood, so despite his charming, accommodating attitude toward Lydia, you are just waiting with bated breath for that pleasant façade to crack. The largest disappointment of the show has to do with the aforementioned façade, however; novel illustrator Asako Takaboshi, long beloved for her many parody doujinshi and occasional boy's love yomikiri, does not draw in a style well-suited to anime adaptation. The lines are too wispy and uncertain, and eyes that look pretty as jewels on paper look uncomfortably beady on the screen. Even so, shoujo anime have been in short supply this season, and this show should fulfill any craving of that sort sufficiently well.


Kemeko DX episode 2

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: You just know that a show which begins on a shot of a monolithic television screen rising up from an otherwise generic urban cityscape like a phallus of overbearing corporate power—set to an instrumental tune with a distinct kinship to the one that 2001: A Space Odyssey made infamous—is gonna be great fun. And sure enough, the second episode of Kemeko DX does not disappoint.

This episode is told primarily from the point of view of Sanpeita's little sister Tamako, a little girl who has grown old before her time under the weight of domestic responsibility. She makes the mistake of inserting herself between the ongoing violent conflict between Sanpeita and his aspiring bride-to-be Kemeko and ends up taking an evening ride on a rocket ship with the “happy” couple. To her brother's chagrin, however, she soon allies herself with her amenable sister-in-law, and Mama Kobayashi, delirious from a string of all-nighters, acquiesces to the new domestic situation with little more than a distracted whimper.

A veritable truckload of pop culture references and insider jokes, combined with a narrative pacing that the anime's creators have put into seemingly permanent hyper-drive, makes this show an unexpected joy to watch. In fact, it doesn't even matter that no clue is yet on offer as to what the Kemeko-bot actually is, what her relationship to Sanpeita is, or what the deal is with the Mishima electronics corporation—the sadistic fun of watching Kemeko bully her beloved bridegroom is more than enough entertainment for now.



Hyakko episode 2

Rating: 1 (of 5)

Review: The quartet of unlikely companions is back for another round of self-inflicted misery. In this episode, they plan to join a club and spend a long afternoon investigating the enormous range of extracurricular activities available. Only Torako is particularly gung-ho about the process; Tatsuki, by comparison, does not want to join any clubs and grows increasingly frustrated by her classmates’ refusal to pay attention to her. Soon, testing the waters with a half-dozen clubs, from baseball to flower arrangement, becomes a tense competition between the two. The whole scenario begs the obvious question: Why doesn't Tatsuki just hightail it out of there? She definitely wants to, and staying onboard with this train wreck of an episode is causing her—and the viewers—unnecessary pain and suffering.

For that matter, why are these four girls still hanging out together period? Surely getting lost together on their monumentally large but bizarrely empty campus shouldn't really be strong enough social glue to keep them together! From the extreme extent of injury she suffers here, it's clear that Tatsuki would be better off without Torako…and so, for that matter, would the anime fans of the world be better off without Hyakko. The visuals are annoying and the characters even more so. The sorry excuse for a story is worst of all, and the only way it succeeds is in causing migraines. This show is, hands down, the most loathsome and pointless new anime series of the season; if you do not wish to feel sullied by the very experience of even one more atrocious episode, you would be well-advised to stay far away.



Toaru Majutsu no Index episode 2

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review: Oh super-powered silliness and rancid stir-fry, where art thou? Talk about a one-eighty. Now that it appears Touma has answered Index's question, “Will you follow me to the ends of Hell?” in the affirmative, Toaru Majutsu no Index looks like it might be going straight to Hell as well. The second episode is devoted almost entirely to a battle—if Touma using his right hand to defend himself against a fiery inferno counts as a “battle”—outside Touma's dorm room with a Gojyo dead-ringer who has a barcode under his right eye and claims to be a magician. The man, who calls himself both Steel Magnus and Faltis 931, wants Index. Touma isn't going to let him have her.

Pleasing pyrokinetics with decent production values and interesting camera angles aside, the great character interaction and intriguing world-building that made this show such a pleasant surprise in its first episode are almost entirely absent. There is a bit of background information about what magic is in this world and how Index's abilities as a human library function, but it feels more perfunctory than profound. Hopefully, subsequent installments will be better-balanced between various sorts of narrative components. Battles are a dime a dozen in anime, and if the initial, frail assets that the series appears to have plowed under to not resurface quickly, the pleasure of the first episode will fast decay into disappointment.



Rosario + Vampire Capu2 episode 2

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: The first-year stalker who has been tormenting Moka with hate mail is actually her little half-sister Kokoa! And now that her identity has been revealed, she is chapping at the bit to take Moka down. She quickly proves to be a formidable opponent, and none of Tsukune's supernatural friends can stand up to her…least of all Moka, the full extent of her vampiric powers suppressed. Good thing that Tsukune has the wherewithal to rip off the cross she wears at the last possible second so that the silver-haired, ruby-eyed version of Moka can put the brat in her rightful place.

Rosario + Vampire continues unabated as the worst show that you will find yourself unable to thoroughly despise. Its bright, solid blocks of color, infectious cheerfulness, and unabashed fanservice match the original manga's creative intention to a tee, and it never takes itself too seriously. How, for example, can you not be charmed by Kokoa's obscurely obscene-by-implication use of her bat minion? Characters also routinely break the fourth wall—they have amusing remarks on the identity of the bat, who has been with them since day one, in this episode—which also helps keep the tone light. So while other shows of this sort might try too hard, taking their wackiness into an overtly strained overdrive, GONZO always executes exactly the right balance of between warm and wild here. Despite the otaku-ish subject matter of magical girlfriends and panty shots, this show is, as befitting of a Shounen Jump title, actually as accessible to casual viewers and as mainstream as anime this season get.



Clannad ~After Story~ episode 2

Rating: 2 (of 5)

Review: Tomorrow's a new day, and yesterday's baseball game is but a memory. Alas, the soft-focus banality that is Clannad ~After Story~ continues in the second episode, which focuses on an ill-conceived plot to find Sunohara a sham girlfriend so as to relieve the worries of his little sister Mei. Needless to say, he has trouble finding any takers, and the show yet again marches viewers through a pointless roll call of its cast of female characters. By the end, it is Nagisa's mother Sanae who has agreed to play the game…but will Mei be convinced?

Unless your life will not be complete until you see an older woman dressed up as a schoolgirl and doting—rather disturbingly, despite the ostensibly inoffensive, itty-bitty tones of her voice actress—on a boy her daughter's age, it's safe to skip this episode. The humor, mainly revolving around Sunohara's cross-gender relations missteps, isn't funny; the vaguely Celtic background music does not improve matters. Worse still, next to nothing is happening, and the soothing atmosphere of the show ends up being downright soporific instead. Any narrative arc of the second season thus far has been perfunctory at its most generous, and not even the big-eyed eye-candy is just compensation. Even the surreal sequence in the beginning featuring a weirdly cute robot and wisps of golden light seems pitched precisely to put viewers to sleep—or to persuade them change the channel.


Chaos;HEAd

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: Well, if there is a show that takes the prize this season for most deceptive advertising in its opening and ending themes, Chaos;HEAd, based upon a visual novel of the same name, has thus far come in first place…and perhaps broken a world record in the process. Not that this is a bad thing. While the opening and ending themes are all bright but boring, candy-toned colors and bishoujo with wings, the story itself—at least as evidenced by the first episode—is a cross between a CLAMP-style plot (think X) and eroge-style character designs.

And at its best, it is thoroughly enthralling. The protagonist is Takumi Nishijou, an otaku living in a converted shipping container who also suffers from apparent paranoid schizophrenic delusions. Sometimes he imagines that his favorite magical girl is hanging out with him, but other times he imagines that some girl from his school is out to kill him.  Or this all this just his imagination? Meanwhile, a wave of frightening crimes strikes Shibuya, and Takumi fears that someone who he met in an online chat room is going get him caught up in the hysteria. The show is reminiscent at times of Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue, albeit with otaku and their toys instead of pop idols and their careers. Takumi is having trouble telling what is real and what isn't, and Chaos;HEAd’s narrative structure ensures that viewers will too. Nevertheless, chances are the provocative images of horrid deaths and the destruction of Tokyo will intrigue many apocalypse-oriented and curious-minded anime fans alike.


 
Nodame Cantabile: Paris Chapter

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: The second season of Nodame Cantabile begins with Shinichi and Nodame's relocation to Paris to further their study of classical music. Overall, it's a bit of a slow start. The humor feels strained in the first half; too many outbursts of “Gyabo!” from Nodame, as if that is still supposed to be cute on its own merits after over twenty episodes, and not enough sadistic retrospective of Shinichi's traumatizing flight. Instead, we see Shinichi obsessing over his upcoming concours and bullying Nodame. Again, this is not especially exciting: Shinichi is always super-serious about his study, and Nodame always makes a tempting target. What else is new, and why should we continue to care?

Things improve dramatically, though, when the two heroes of this tale get to know their new neighbors better. Both Tanya, a vampish young woman who moved to France from Russia at the age of seventeen, and Frank, a French anime otaku, are traumatized in their own ways by their respective encounters with Shinichi and Nodame. The last third or so of this episode was well-worth working through the tedium of the first two-thirds and quite amusing in its own right..

Nothing much from a production or stylistic standpoint has changed from the previous season, although the confused profusion of multiple language is worse than ever. The animation palette is still soft and pastel, laid over attractive watercolor backgrounds. Tomoko Ninomiya's original manga looks as good as ever on the screen. Overall, it's not a bad season opener, but it's not great. Nodame Cantabile surely has better things on offer for the future.



Casshern Sins episode 2

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: The second episode of Casshern Sins really only has one purpose and one purpose only—to show us how much life sucks for the remnants of the robotic populace left in the wake of some horrific disaster that, we are assured, our slim, spandex-clad hero is somehow responsible for. As such, it packs nowhere near the punch of the first episode and is, alas, disappointing by comparison.

We meet ROOT and Wrench, two robots in love facing “The Ruin” with resignation, and their robotic Doberman Friender. They are living like refugees with a ragtag group of other rusting robots who are all trying to accept death gracefully. Unfortunately, when Casshern appears and they find out who he is, their lust to survive overcomes their Zen-like peace, and his is forced to dispatch all of them himself.

Save Friender, who is likely to become a sidekick, these supporting characters that appear in this episode were all disposable flunkies, and they do not do particularly well at yanking on the heartstrings. Yet the show's strengths still lie in the weird beauty of its visuals, the plot's ongoing mysteries, and its heady robot-on-robot action. There are a good three battle scenes here to keep action lovers preoccupied, but I could not help but note that the editing of the first two in particular was executed in a very confused, rapid-fire Western action flick style…which is not necessarily becoming in an anime. The third, though, remained as good as what we saw in the show's debut episode. All in all, this is a very good series and definitely strong enough to warrant coming back for more.


Vampire Knight: Guilty

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Rating: The second season of Vampire Knight picks up where the first left off: the death of the pureblood Shizuka Hio and its aftermath. Zero has returned to his duties at Yuki's side as one of the Cross Academy's guardians, having staved off Level E-dom at least for the present by drinking Kaname's blood. Unfortunately, it is still just a matter of time; Yuki's friendly overtures cannot console him. And, to make matters worse, the Council wants him dead, believing that he killed Shizuka. When the real culprit leaps to his defense, it may be that the Academy will be insulated from the real world no longer.

If you are not at least familiar with the Matsuri Hino's original story thus far or do not derive visual pleasure from boatloads of vampiric bishounen eye-candy, you will not enjoy this show. Hardly any recap of the show's premise is on offer in the first episode, and practically every frame oozes slick gratuity. If, on the other hand, you adore pretty boys in distress, look no further—the larded on sexual tension of this show will give you new reason to exist. The storyline is about to take a much darker turn; the “Guilty” subtitle is appropriate, and the opening and ending themes alone take the aesthetic bleakness up to a whole new level. Indeed, even comic relief is in very short supply. Vampire Knight: Guilty does its genre extremely well, and it is one of the strongest second season openers thus far.


Toradora! episode 2

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review: When their first plan to hook Taiga up with Kitamura goes very awry, she and Ryūji find themselves instead doing damage control when everyone at school assumes that they are dating. Yet even when Taiga works up the courage to confess her love to Kitamura, he misunderstands her intentions and agrees instead to be her friend. Looks like the Tiger and Dragon tag-team have a long way to go.

By all technical rights, there should be nothing remarkable about this anime series. The animation quality at best average, the soundtrack instantly forgettable, the cinematography and editing workman-like. In short, the anime by itself adds little experiential value. No, the strength of Toradora! resides almost entirely in its source material, the original novels by Yuyuko Takemiya. And what source material it is.

While the first episode wowed us with the spectacle of Taiga's fearsomeness, the second episode digs deep into her vulnerability with novelistic precision. We learn that she is so violent and angry because she is lonely, enraged by her parents’ emotional absence—and that, of course, her anger just functions to further drive any potential human connection further away, thereby making her even more lonely. Ryūji's eccentric life with his mother and parrot is a rock of stability by comparison, and he is the first in a long time to see through Taiga. Viewers are made to care about these characters, and this sentiment, when combined with the already-established pleasure of watching the Tenori Tiger's kicks and punches fly, should be enough to keep them coming back for the rest of this series.


Bihada Ichizoku

Rating: 1 (of 5)

Review: love labo's Bihada Ichizoku is to Japan what Geico's Cavemen is to the United States—corporate mascots come to monstrous life and given their own television show. The problem? These mascots were originally conceived to sell stuff—facial cosmetics in the case of Bihada Ichizoku—not to entertain audiences with their own linear narrative. Shows like this one and are among the finest examples of transparent product placement…and little else. Although less than ten minutes long, by the end of the first episode, you will be wishing you'd spent the time watching an infomercial instead.

The story, such as it is, is set in the gentile but backbiting world of the Japanese glitterati, where everything is pastel-colored and even the laughter sounds infuriatingly cultured. The central conflict is the rivalry between Sara Bihada, the innocent heroine, and her jealous twin sister Saki. (They have the same face, but guess which girl is blonde.) After Sara wins the World Bihada Challenge, Saki takes matters into her own moisturized hands and seizes the reins of power. What will happen to poor, poor Sara? Obviously, this show is intended to parody Riyoko Ikeda-esque vintage 70s shoujo. But unlike those esteemed classics of Japanese manga and anime, Bihada Ichizoku lacks even a rose-scented whiff of those classics’ complex characterization and emotional sincerity. All it is is poorly animated campiness that pushes product—and does not even do that in a way likely to persuade many viewers to buy.


Kemeko DX

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: Long, long ago, at a poolside far, far away, Sanpeita and a girl named Kemeko were engaged to be married. Now, ten years later, Kemeko has returned—just in time to save Sanpeita from giant, destructive rice cookers! Unfortunately, she seems to spend all of her time encased in a super-powered, ovoid-humanoid mecha that is anything but a boy's dream girl.

Like Macademi Wasshoi!, this is yet another example of the done-to-its-deathbed, shounen romantic comedy where the ordinary boy torn between the magical girl and the ordinary one (in this case, a classmate named Izumi). But unlike Macademi Wasshoi!, which is an offense to otaku everywhere, Kemeko DX is done-to-its deathbed, shounen romantic comedy done right. The first episode alternates deftly between the languid pace of Sanpeita's everyday life and the lurching overdrive of the Kemeko-robot's appearances, which are bizarre, even by anime standards, and instantly addictive. At first, we don't even know that the ovoid creature isn't entirely human, and its intimidating insistence that it is his bride—the wedding gown it wears proves it!—is both sadistic and funny. In fact, we don't even know for certain whether nor not he is just dreaming it all, but by the end of the first episode reality sets in when Kemeko informs Sanpeita that she is moving in with him. This show is one insane ride, and even a taste is certain to leave many craving more.

Yozakura Quartet

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: The first episode of Yozakura Quartet privileges style over substance…and, for that matter, coherency. Things were looking good for the first couple of minutes, which provided a succinct and easy-to-understand explanation of the city of Sakurashin, where humans and youkai co-exist and certain folks are charged with defending the peace. It all goes downhill from there, though, once we are actually introduced to said defenders of the peace, which include serious girl wearing a long scarf named Hime whom everyone calls Mayor and her compatriots. Watching them go after an escaped prisoner with a trench coat full of guns feels a bit like tuning into an action flick halfway through. Most of what we learn about any of these characters—of which there are five, not four, as the title of the show implies—relates to their superpowers. Because naturally the extent of the damage you can do is the most important thing about you.

Plot-wise, it's not much of an improvement over Suzuhito Yasuda's original manga. The sole human Akina's powers are more advanced, for example, but this isn't necessarily an improvement per se. Still, like Shikabane-hime: Aka (hey, two Himes and counting this season!), this anime series has serious style to burn. The classic rock soundtrack is a nice change of pace, adding crisp texture to what is otherwise a pretty normal-looking Japanese city. Character designs are simple but appealing, and the animation of Hime and her scarf in particular is handsome. Actions scenes are also pleasingly cinematic, albeit blink-and-you-miss-it fast, and they may well be enough to keep some coming back for more—even given what little we thus far know or care about the characters or overarching storyline.


Shikabane-hime: Aka

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: Makina is a walking corpse. She fights crime! Or, to be more specific, she fights other Shikabane, bodies of the dead that have been reanimated by souls which refuse to pass on. But you get the point. Shikabane-hime: Aka is told from the point of view of Ouri, a naïve orphan who grew up on the grounds of a Buddhist Temple. Sinister happenings he does not fully understand swirl around him, but the last straw is seeing his older brother Keisei, a Buddhist monk, seem to bring a girl bad to life late one night. Moving to his own place, paradoxically, only brings Ouri closer to the heart of his family's mystery when he sees Makina in action…

Plot-wise, there is nothing here anyone has not seen a thousand times before, and it seems likely, especially given that the anime is based upon a shounen manga, that story will basically devolve into a Shikabane Beastie of the Week parade. After episode one, we are already down one pimp-turned-vampire. The show is much more interesting purely from a visual standpoint, with an atmospheric, slightly nostalgic setting and a coherent stylistic worldview. Of course, this would be the minimum most would expect from Gainax. All in all, this is not the most impressive action-horror anime series ever to have been thrown onto the airwaves, but it could have been much worse.


Tales of the Abyss ep. 2

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: Although the opening credits are still a gratuitous two minutes long and although the battle scenes still feel a bit too much like watching someone else play a videogame, the second episode of Tales of the Abyss goes a long way toward assuring viewers that it is a solid selection for anyone in the mood for a swords ’n spells fantasy series. Perhaps some of this anime's success is owed to the quality of the original game's plot; Japanese RPGs at their best are second to none in their narrative complexity, subtlety, and scope. And already, Tales of the Abyss is angling in that direction.

In the second episode, Luke and Jade, having just discovered that getting home is not going to be as straightforward as they expected, take a detour through a small village whose storehouse is being raided by fire-breathing balls of cuteness known as Cheagles. There, they meet Fon Master Ion, help the local Cheagles with their liger problem. This episode also marks the first appearance of fan-favorite Jade Curtiss, voiced by the inestimable Takehito Koyasu.

Visuals continue to be attractive and—even better—consistent throughout, and the plot moves at a pleasantly rapid clip. The highlight of the episode, though, was Luke's interaction with the Cheagle Mieu. Anyone who has ever briefly nurtured homicidal thoughts when confronted by yet another cute anime creature will rejoice at his comedic whack-a-mole treatment and die laughing at his instantaneous hatred of its high-pitched squeal. Granted, there aren't any deep thoughts here, at least not yet, but thus far this fantasy adventure has not been the any less for the lack.


ef: a tale of melodies

Rating: 1.5 (of 5)

Review: On the plus side, it's pretty. The show's vibrant use of lighting and color is an textbook example of what Japanese anime these days can do right when the studios are trying. On the negative side, however, is the sorry fact that not even attractive visuals will save viewers of the first episode of ef: a tale of melodies from stultifying boredom. The talking heads and surreal atmosphere are supposed to be profound in their obscurity, but they are actually just obscure.

This season, which appears to be adapting the original ef game's fourth chapter, begins by jumping back and forth a bit between the school years and adulthood of one of its frame narrators, Yuu Himura. But by about halfway through, it settles into the burgeoning relationship between professional violinist Shuichi Kuze and schoolgirl Mizuki Hayama. The enormous age difference adds a special tension, as does some rather inappropriate conversation, but it does not go anywhere in particular, at least for now. The only nudity in question—tasteful, of course, in keeping with the show's risible high-minded attitude—comes earlier.

Some people need a bit of story to help assuage their guilt about the porn, which is all fine and good. But when that bit of story becomes the raison d'entre in its own right, assuming monumental, monstrous proportions, something has gone very wrong. The ero genre has lost its way; it's ridiculous. So would it be too much to ask for the creators of ef: a tale of melodies and others of its ilk to get found and hurry up with the sex in subsequent episodes? If not, well, a least it will be good for chronic insomniacs; a few nights of this on their screen will definitely cure them.


Ga-Rei –Zero–

Rating: 4.5 (of 5)

Review: Time to lay my cards out on the table: I have not the slightest clue what relationship this anime has to the Shounen Ace manga by Hajime Segawa, which is the same-old same-old about a high school boy with supernatural powers who gets caught up in Serious Business in Spades. Not even the anime's official website is particularly illuminating on that matter. But guess what? It doesn't matter. Ga-Rei –Zero– is great because it is nothing like anyone would have expected.

Let's start with the obvious. 1) It isn't cute. The brooding, shadowy palette and mature, sometimes decaying infrastructure of post-Industrial Japan is the last thing one could call cute. 2) The hero and his girlfriend aren't especially cute (by the Japanese definition of the word, at least). They are both adults, and they look it. 3) The story is intense. And moreover, what starts as a reasonable but not expectation-upending battle on the streets between the members of the Supernatural Disaster Prevention Agency and a duo of beasties called Kasha that look like mutant Komodo Dragons, fast becomes a fraught encounter with the ghosts (perhaps literally) of a traumatizing past.

If that's not recommendation enough, there is more: The cinematography is just spectacular by anime standards, and many of the shots and scenes are constructed with a technique more common to live-action action film than anime for television. Music also evinces impressive range, from techno to orchestral. Arguably best of all though, the first episode of Ga-Rei –Zero– ends on an awesome cliffhanger. To spoil it here to be a sin, but suffice it is probably the last way in which viewers would have supposed the half-hour would end—and that is just the beginning!


Kuroshitsuji

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review: The season's offerings thus far have been so appalling that even a bishounen gothic horror show as fundamentally derivative as Kuroshitsuji feels like a breath of fresh air by comparison. Or maybe like the choking dust of a haunted Victorian mansion. But never mind the semantics; this one is a keeper. The first episode sets the stage nicely by showing viewers what an “ordinary” day in the life of Sebastian, an unflappable butler of—key word—inhuman proportions is like. His youthful charge Ciel Phantomdive, heir to the Phandomdive toy fortune, is to receive a guest at the family estate. However, preparations do not exactly go smoothly because the rest of the staff are bumbling fools. Fortunately, Sebastian manages to keep everything from teetering over the precipice and into a yawning chasm of disaster. But we soon learn that the objective of the evening is not to wine and dine the guest but rather to punish him his transgressions…

In any case, the demonic butler, though gimmicky, proves to be effective character type, invigorated less by any Japanese maid fetish and more by the rich, literary tradition and style of Victorian England (think Dracula and Jekyll & Hyde) and the fujoshi taste for sinister bishounen with ambiguous relationships to other bishounen. (The “other bishounen” is Ciel, of course.) Obviously, the anime is also deeply indebted to shoujo horror classics such as Yami no Matsuei and Earl Cain. Yet what is arguably most pleasurable is the way in which it will have you chuckling one second at the characters’ unlikely antics and shivering the next at their unspeakable acts. Those sorts of pleasures never get old or stale.


Macademi Wasshoi!

Rating: 1.5 (of 5)

Review: Okay, Japan's obsession with the Harry Potter-esque magic school stories has officially hit its nadir in Macademi Wasshoi! (also known as Magical Academy, just in case you thought the word “nadir” is an exaggeration), an anime series whose first episode makes even a veteran fan shake her head in despair and wonder where it all went wrong.

On the plus side, it does prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that a sloppy amalgamation of a half-dozen or more popular anime tropes does not exceed the sum of its parts. The sorry excuse for a story revolves around Takuto, a student of magic who casts a summoning spell that calls forth a—wait for it—big-breasted, pointy-eared cutie whose vocabulary is confined to “myuu~” and who clings to Takuto like a leech. (Oh, and somehow morphs into a near-featureless claymation blob when clinging to the wrong, shall we say, Takuto parts.) Her presence pisses off his cousin Suzuho, who is a veritable Avatar of Destruction when she isn't a mute shadow of Takuto. Before the first episode is over, she and “Myuu~” girl are engaged in a tug-of-war for Takuto…literally.

If this tired magical girlfriend plot isn't irritant enough, the poor execution is nigh unbearable. Character designs and development are uninspired, for example, and the humor fails to amuse. Animation quality skirts the boundary between mediocre and appalling. Yet, arguably worst of all, random, meaningless inclusion of dog-girl maids, giant robots, and broom-riding lacrosse players lets slip the true depths of anime industry cynicism. “If we animate it, they will come?” Do not let them get away with it! Show them up, and don't bother showing up for this show.


Toaru Majutsu no Index

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: Toaru Majutsu no Index takes place in an alternate universe Japan where high technology, psychic powers, and magic are intermixed and revolves around the life of an unprepossessing boy named Touma Kamijou and little nun named Index whose appearance on his balcony one morning heralds the end of life as he knew it. Incidentally, the protagonist looks like Ban from Getbackers, the first flunky antagonist looks like Gojyo from Saiyuki¸ and the magical girl looks like Shaolin from Mamotte Shugogetten. In short, no one and nothing we haven't seen a thousand times before.

Yet despite the above, and despite exhaustive voiceover monologues that betray this anime's light novel origin, this show is actually shaping up to be a lot of fun to watch. The main reason for this is its off-beat, slightly sadistic humor. You see, Touma is a walking bad luck charm. And while this means that superpowers as a rule don't work on him, it also means that anything bad that could happen to him—does. Happily, the show milks this sorry state of affairs for all its worth in comic relief. It also mills plenty of laughs from Index's naïve willingness to eat Touma's rancid food, which is undoubtedly the funniest sequence to show up in a series this season so far.  All in all, an improbably promising series that needs to be seen to be believed. 


Kyo no Go no Ni

Rating: 2 (of 5)

Review: Anime series about the day-to-day lives of ordinary elementary school kids come in two broad types: 1) Shows for elementary school kids, and 2) Shows that are not for elementary school kids. Kyo no Go no Ni, based upon a manga of the same name by Coharu Sakuraba, is emphatically of the second type—and this anime cannot, as others of its ilk sometimes can, be repurposed out of its original Japanese context and into the first.

This is because the series vibrates with finely-tuned sexuality. Nothing too overt, of course, or it would not be airing on TV Tokyo. But this series—or the first episode, at least—explores the fumbling emergence of fifth grader Ryouta Sato and his classmates (both male and female) from, to borrow terminology from psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, the latent homosexual stage. In other words, we get to watch mutual disgust on the part of boys for girls and vice versa slowly but surely morph into mutual desire. So when, for example, Kazumi Aihara starts to gnaw on Ryouta's finger because her loose tooth is bothering her, it is both silly and erotic simultaneously.

At least, that's the theory. But in practice, it's mostly just creepy. Not to mention that the washed out colors and slow, stilted animation feel nothing like the hyperactive intensity of childhood. So never mind whether you are inclined to empathize with the characters or fetishize them—either way, it's hard to believe that most people would consider revisiting the awkward beginnings of puberty vicariously to be great weekly entertainment.


Tales of the Abyss

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: In the first minute of the first episode of this show, we learn that there are two rival kingdoms whose uneasy truce is about to come to an explosive, destiny-fraught end. At the center of it all is Luke, a young nobleman who has spent his life sequestered within his family's estate. But before he knows it, he finds himself far away from home with only a woman of questionable motives as his companion…

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about Tales of the Abyss, an animated adaptation of the Namco RPG of the same name, is its opening sequence, which clocks in at an embarrassingly long two minutes in length. Normally, such a thing would not bode well for a show's prospects purely on the basis of its own merits; either the creators are wasting time because they do not have actual story to fill that time with, or the anime is in fact a vanity project on the part of its creators, pitched primarily toward those already sold on the franchise.

Given that the song in question used for the opening theme is BUMP OF CHICKEN's “Karma,” also used in the video game, and the seiyuu who contribute their talents to the game also reprise their respective roles here, it is tempting to conclude that this show is an example of the latter. But surprisingly, although unquestionably formulaic in all particulars, it stands reasonably well as light entertainment on its own merits. The character designs are attractive, the animation is reasonable in quality, and the palette is sensuous and vibrant. Indeed, except for one battle toward the end of the episode, the viewing experience does not—as in the case of many animated adaptations of video games—feel like sitting by while someone else mashes buttons. Anyway, Tales of the Abyss should be a good pick for anyone on the market for a high fantasy hero's journey.


Mobile Suit Gundam 00 Season 2

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: Anyone who has taken a turn around a Gundam anime or two over the years surely knows that Gundam 00 is basically a jumped up version of Gundam Wing, made newly relevant with the inclusion of allusions to the politics and paranoia of the 21st century. Now, however, Gundam 00 goes where its predecessor never dared—into the protagonist's adulthood. It's been four years since we saw Setsuna last, and the time elapsed shows on his handsome, Yun Kouga-designed visage. In this episode, we learn that an autonomous counterterrorism force known as A-LAWS has been oppressing humanity with “peace” and press-ganging anyone suspect of opposition into labor camps on the Proud colony. Setsuna emerges from hiding to help free the prisoners, whose number happens to include Saji Crossroad, but his now-obsolete Gundam Exia is damaged beyond repair in battle.

So how is Sunrise doing? Well, from a production standpoint, nothing seems to have changed from season one; for example, the digitally drawn backgrounds mesh as poorly as ever with flat, retro style of the characters and mecha. Otherwise, suffice to say that this is a Gundam anime, which means an enormous cast of characters and space colony-loads of convoluted politicking, not to mention a storyline that only recaps specificities when it is damn well ready (not this episode, apparently). Anyone familiar with the franchise should be able to read the genre codes well enough, though, to get a basic grasp of what is going on. There are only so many directions a Gundam show will go. (One guess as to who has donned a Char/Zechs-like mask and what that means.) All in all, this is a solid season opener that includes a couple of intriguing reveals that will be more than enough to keep fans riveted in coming weeks.


Kannagi

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: Jin Mikuriya becomes a modern-day Pygmalion when the statue of a shrine maiden he sculpts for a school crafts project from a piece of a felled sacred tree comes to life. Unfortunately for Jin, the adorable Nagi coming into his life is something less than unequivocal good news; while she is learning how to use the telephone, she is not out there protecting the land from corrupt intrusions. She will need to find another way to do her duty as a protective deity. Guess who is going to help her!

Although this Kannagi probably will not be the best series to debut this season, it is definitely the best first episode I have reviewed thus far. The animation is attractive, and the story thus far is well-constructed and comprehensible, and the warm, comforting depictions of ordinary domestic life and nature surrounding the shrine of Jin's youth leave plenty of room open for a darker narrative turn. Also, the obvious conflation of Shinto god, magical girl, and pop idol is intriguing cultural commentary and would make a great undergraduate honors thesis topic. (Any takers?) In any case, the eventual trajectory of this show is easy enough to guess, and if one episode should be enough to decide whether or not you want to watch more.


Rosario + Vampire Capu2

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: The new season of Rosario + Vampire picks up at a logical starting point: the beginning of a new school year at Youkai Academy. A convenient recap of the premise and characters occupies the first third of the episode and gets newcomers well up to snuff. In any case, Tsukune returns with his eyes open this time, eager to see Moka again. When he returns, he finds that his supernatural friends have become veritable celebrities, but things take a sinister turn when Moka starts getting letters from a stalker which threaten her life. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, the stalker proves to be someone Tsukune would never have expected…

An ordinary boy who attends a school catering exclusively to supernatural creatures? A standard anime premise, but fair enough—and a bit like Vampire Knight for boys—could be good or bad, depending upon the execution. Which, surprisingly, is not bad. This series is basically light-hearted and cheerful, with a vibrant palette to match. Not to mention very easy to enjoy mindlessly, even if you are just picking up an episode or two randomly. It stays well away from hard questions or heavy themes. While, granted, the creators of this anime series have never wandered past an opportunity for a panty shot that they were willing to pass by, it's hard to judge this show too harshly. Rosario + Vampire is like that bubbling, bouncy friend whom you would never trust to help solve your problems but can always be relied upon to play when you are in the mood for a bit of guilt-free fun.
 


Casshern Sins

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review: A superpowered dude in a Space Age-styled white spandex suit with a jagged “C” on his chest? Must be a remake of some 70s show. Well, close. The jury is still out on whether this is supposed to be a sequel of or loosely inspired by a series from the 70s called Neo-Human Casshern. Either way, familiarity with the original is not required.

Which is not to suggest that the first episode of Casshern Sins makes much sense, naturally. The setting appears to be some barren, post-apocalyptic world where even the humanoid robots are struggling to survive. Legend among them holds that killing or devouring a being called “Casshern” will bring salvation, which means that for the robot?/human?/cyborg? known as Casshern, life is a daily battle for survival. All he lives for is killing, as a matter of fact—until he meets a cute little girl called Ringo. Where the series is going to go in subsequent episodes remains a big question mark.

Happily, you will find that this question mark does not bother you. You will be too busy having so much fun that it almost feels sinful. Madhouse has gone all out, with choreography, soundtrack, and design harmonizing perfectly into a product of stark beauty that is half The Lord of the Rings and half The Matrix. Only Casshern himself strikes the least kitsch note, but you will be too busy wondering how the creators managed to make a blasted wasteland look so heart-rendingly lovely to think Power Rangers.


Linebarrels of Iron

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review: Anyone not born yesterday knows that stories about ordinary people who acquire superpowers by some miraculous twist of fate function as wish-fulfillment fantasy for their audience. But rarely does one go about this purpose as blatantly as Linebarrels of Iron. Kouichi Hayase, a good-natured but unaggressive teenager so often bullied by his peers that his female friend feels the need to rescue him, fantasizes openly about becoming superhuman…and when something falls from the sky and crash-lands in a forest near his school, his wish is granted. With the help of Emi, a mysterious girl he finds lying beside him at the crash site, he becomes a “Factor” capable of piloting the giant robot that had nearly flattened him only hours before.

Of course, the awesome destructive power of the sinuous machine that looks lifted straight from Blassreiter, another of GONZO's offerings from earlier this year, goes straight to Kouichi's head. By the end of the first episode, he has become nearly as insufferable as this sorry excuse for a mecha series. Frantic, digitally rendered action scenes mesh terribly with the rest of the animation, and they are not well-choreographed enough to distract us from the fact that we still do not know who is fighting whom—or why. Not even the character designs are particularly attractive. All in all, Kouichi's overweening self-confidence coupled with perhaps unlimited violent potential harkens just a bit too closely to current events these days for a half-hour of easy escapism. You will not be missing anything if you skip it.


Akane-iro ni Somaru Saka

Rating: 1.5 (of 5)

Review: The following is a rough dramatization of my thoughts while watching the first minute of the first episode of Akane-iro ni Somaru Saka: Ooohhh, Saito (of Rurouni Kenshin) dead-ringer, big explosion, this show must be an espionage thriller. Definitely looking promising… Hey wait, isn't “feng” the name of an eroge studio? Whoa, holy bishoujo montage. Huh?! So it's really a high school harem anime, then? What the heck is going on?!

Alas, “What the heck is going on?!” seems to have been a question beneath the creators’ concern. The first episode's disjointed, jerky narrative is impenetrable and paired with animation quality that is passable at best. But perhaps this should not be surprising, given that the anime is adapted from an erotic game. Erotic games are not generally known for their scintillating storylines or artistic inspiration, after all, and purging all traces of sexual content, as this anime does, just leaves its pathetic excuse for a plot embarrassingly exposed.

Inasmuch as anything makes sense here, we have Jun'ichi Nagase, an ordinary boy who has garnered a fearsome reputation as the juvenile delinquent nicknamed “Genokiller.” Note that harem anime are evolving away from the loser protagonist that everybody else knows is a loser to the loser protagonist whom everybody thinks is a veritable He-Man. Anyway, we also have transfer student Yuuhi Katagiri, whom Jun'ichi rescues from a couple of toughs before either of them realize that they are soon to be classmates. These two are obviously destined for each other—and that is about all that is obvious about Akane-iro ni Somaru Saka! Suitable for the anime fan in need of background noise while doing chores around the house.


Hyakko

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review: You are to be excused if you have never heard of Flex Comix. A Japanese publisher specializing in free, ad-supported web comics, Flex Comix is one of the newest players in the manga industry, and its brand does not yet mean all that much to most fans. This may be because the publisher is still trying to find its way in a vast but saturated market. If so, then the animated adaptation of Haruaki Kato's Hyakko—the first ever Flex title to get the anime treatment—is an apt metaphor for this frustrating and potentially frustrated quest for market share.

The first episode begins with Ayumi Nonomura, a timid girl who gets hopelessly lost wandering about her new school's vast campus. She soon meets the elegant Tatsuki Iizuka, who despite having attended the school since a young child, proves equally lost. Ayumi and Tatsuki soon pick up two more fellow travelers along the way, Torako Kageyama and Suzume Saotome, and after much exploration find their way back to their classroom…but not before punching out their homeroom teacher. Cue the start of a beautiful four-way friendship and some potential for yuri.

Watching these children wander about is like being a rebellious teen trapped with both parents in the car for the duration of a cross-country road trip. Although there is nothing especially wrong with the plot, pacing, or characterization per se, the soundtrack is jarring in places, and Ayumi's high-pitched, whiny voice will leave you wanting to take an ice pick to your eardrums. Character designs also happen to be extremely ugly, and the liberal use of comic relief is funnier in theory than in practice. Clearly, the Flex brand is still lost, but there is no need for you to stay lost with it.



Toradora!

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review: Schoolgirl moé and post-modern yakuza silliness collide in Toradora!, an animated adaptation of the Dengeki Bunko light novel series by Yuyuko Takemiya of the same name. As the Engrish mash-up title implies, the story is about a “tora” (tiger) and a “dora” (dragon). The “dora” in question is Ryūji “Ryuu” Takasu, whose squinty little eyes lead everyone around him to assume that he is a dangerous juvenile delinquent. The truth of the matter is quite the opposite, however; he is in fact a neat-freak and a hopeless romantic who lives with his mother in a dilapidated house sitting in the permanent shadow of a new luxury apartment complex. One of the people living in said complex is the “tora,” Taiga Aisaka an adorable, pint-sized misanthrope who talks like a yanki and throws a mean uppercut. When she discovers that Ryuu is in love with one of their mutual classmates, she blackmails him into becoming her manservant. Thus begins a most unusual friendship.

For what is, at its base, another clichéd storyline about a man and a woman who team up as friends to help each other find love and (one can presume) eventually end up falling in love with each other, Toradora! feels surprisingly fresh. The scrupulously detailed interiors are evocative of the seedy sets of a gangster flick. The play on audience expectations of character archetypes—optimized for comedic effect, naturally—is refreshing. Indeed, it seems that moé girls are starting to power up in a big way like their bishoujo counterparts before them. Taiga is, no other word for it, fierce.



Clannad ~After Story~

Rating: 2 (of 5)

Review: It seems exceedingly difficult to justify the existence of a bishoujo anime series like Clannad that, while long on big-eyed, big-busted heroines, is woefully short on the fanservice. So one has even more trouble imagining how Japan justifies a second season of this lugubrious collection of ladies…but there you have it. The story operates under the assumption that you already know the plot premise and cast of characters; nothing is reintroduced. Instead, it barrels headlong into the Story of the Week, which involves a baseball game between the Clannad crew and a neighboring city. It takes about half of the episode for all of the characters to assemble, which is quite a long time but still way too quick for any newbie viewer to glean real backstory from current events, and another half of the episode for them to *yawn* win. The game in question proves to be boring even by baseball standards.

Although this anime series seems to be going for a modest elegance, the absolute best it ever achieves is inoffensive mediocrity. At its absolute worst, it descends into heretofore unplumbed depths of lukewarm, non sequitur idiocy…with the Idiot of Idiots being Yusuke. Okay, so shimmying up and down a telephone pole all day would make me crazy too, but come on! Anyway, if you haven't already been won over by last year's installment, this one is likely to leave you lost in the outfield, scratching your head. And besides, aren't Tomoya and Nagisa an item already? Even diehard Key fans will be asking, “What is the point of more?”


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