The Spring 2006 Anime Preview Guide

by Zac Bertschy, Apr 19th 2006

Well, it's springtime again, and what does that mean? A metric ton of new shows hitting the airwaves in Japan, all desperately begging for your attention like a gang of adorable puppy dogs begging for your bacon at the dinner table. What it also means is that Anime News Network's Spring 2006 Preview Guide is here to help you pick up and snuggle the cutest puppies while banishing the ugly ones to the doghouse outside in the rain... er, you get my point.

A few important disclaimers. These are NOT INTENDED TO BE SERIES REVIEWS. They are simply overviews of the first (or the first few) episodes of a new series, intended to give you a taste of what the show's like, present you with my early take on the show's quality and then let you decide which ones might be worth your time. That's all there is to it; these are not blanket damnations or sweeping statements of praise meant to discuss the show as a whole. Think of it as a wine tasting, minus the pleasant buzzed feeling and free liquor.

Also, bear in mind that there are literally a ton of new shows and we simply don't have the time (or the patience or the sanity) to watch every last one, so what's included here are highlights, lowlights and a few inbetweens. You may notice the absence of some blockbuster sequels, like School Rumble 2 and Digimon Savers; that's because we assume if you loved School Rumble, you're gonna check out the sequel regardless of what anyone says, so why bother reviewing it? In addition, some new series we simply didn't have time to sample; shows like Zegapain, Strawberry Panic! and Utawareumono. Thankfully (or not, depending on where you go) there are countless anime blogs out there dying to give you their opinions on shows we may have missed (or would like to violently disagree with us). So if the show you were keeping an eye on isn't here, just venture out into the internet; surely someone will have opined on it by now.

So, without further ado, on with the show...



THE MELANCHOLY OF HARUHI SUZUMIYA

What's it about?
An effortlessly practical and down-to-earth guy on the surface, Kyon used to be fascinated by ghosts and demons and ESPers, until he found himself in high school and shelved those fantasies for stark reality. On the first day of class, he meets Haruhi Suzumiya, a beautiful and intelligent – but extremely eccentric – girl who proclaims on the first day that she isn't interested in “normal humans”, and unless you're a ghost, an alien, or a psychic, she doesn't want to talk to you. Kyon finds himself strangely drawn to the girl, and winds up being instrumental in the forming of her new club (created after Suzumiya joined all the other clubs for precisely one day and abandoning them just as quickly). Their goal? Well, Kyon doesn't know yet, but with Haruhi in charge, anything goes.

Is it any good?
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya isn't just a clever name; this is, hands down, one of the best new shows of the season (and probably would be the best if it weren't in such good company). The very first episode – in which we see the hilariously terrible student film Haruhi's new club produces as its first project, complete with an equally hilarious commentary by the cameraman - sets the stage, while the “real” episode one introduces us to most of the main cast. The student film in and of itself is an absolutely brilliant satire of your average high-school-kids-with-superpowers anime series, and manages to thoroughly skewer the entire genre without succumbing to over-the-top parody. That there's an entire series after the student film – apparently in which we see what went into the production of it – is icing on the cake.
There are a few things that make this series so special. Firstly, there's brisk, snappy dialogue that seems as though it'd be at home in a clever American sitcom, and the pacing matches the dialogue, meaning no long slow pans over backgrounds or silent characters staring at one another to fill time (all of which slow any good high school series down to a crawl). Kyon, the lead character, provides a sarcastic narration that really brings the proceedings to life. Secondly, the animation is brilliant and fluid, with distinct character designs. Haruhi and the other female characters might look a little typical, but that hardly matters; the sheer quality of the writing eclipses any unfortunate clichés the rest of the production might dip into from time to time. Based on simply the first two episodes, start begging your favorite American licensor to pick this one up ASAP.


AIR GEAR
What's it about?
Ikki is your average every-day guy who lives in an elaborate house with four girls. One day, he's terrorized by the Skull Sabers, a group of punks with super-powered rollerblades called Air Trek that allow them to jump huge distances and go extremely fast. After a particularly nasty run-in with the girls, Ikki discovers a closet full of hidden Air Trek gear – it appears the ladies are part of an Air Trek group called Sleeping Forest. Strapping on a pair of the skates, Ikki takes them for a test drive, winding up at a “meeting” for Air Trek kids, and comes across a beautiful pro skater named Simca. Just then, The Department for the Counteraction of Delinquent Special Aviation Footwear Users arrives to bust up the party… and all hell breaks loose. What has Ikki gotten himself into?

Is it any good?
Let's face it: this is a show about gangs of teenagers on super-powered rollerskates who form gangs, get in fights, and are beaten down by The Man. If this were a live-action Hollywood film, we would all collectively laugh at it and shake our heads at how far beyond the bottom of the barrel they've had to reach for new story ideas.
That said, it's nearly impossible to take Air Gear seriously. The story is pretty routine – the obvious parallels to skateboard culture aside, this series (based on mangaka Oh! Great's original manga) is your average run-of-the-mill “rookie teenager with busty friends fights the man with the aid of his awesome powers” anime. Nothing here really stands out. The characters are all quite typical and underwhelming, and there's nothing special about the storyline.
The biggest problem with Air Gear, however, is also the biggest problem with its predecessor, Tenjou Tenge. I'm not sure what it is about mangaka Oh! Great's artwork that causes it to lose so much in the translation to animation, but perhaps most of the charm in his stories is actually in the art, and when all that extreme detail and beautiful artistry is removed and simplified for animation, the thrill of the story goes with it. Whatever the case, Air Gear is likely to inspire unimpressed yawns, unless you're a huge fan of the original manga, and even then it's underwhelming.


SOUL LINK
What's it about?
Ryouta, a cadet in the Central Military Academy, is sent with his friends Sayaka and Nao to the Space Station Aries to complete his training. There, he meets a few new people and discovers that his brother is coming to the same station, a revelation that shocks and pleases Nao.

That's pretty much it.

Is it any good?
Boy, they'll let anyone make a sci-fi anime series now, won't they?

Soul Link is, far and away, one of the most amateurish anime series I've ever seen, complete with generic character designs, laughably bad animation and completely contrived dialogue. It doesn't help that the show moves at a snail's pace; if you want a show that seems to gleefully point out everything The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi gets right (at its own expense), check this show out.
It might be easier to focus on the nap-inducing story and uninteresting stock characters if the animation weren't so embarrassing. Character movement is stilted and awkward, everyone's off-model all the time and there are even a few poorly-drawn attempts at fanservice, including the shy lead character's slow fall into Pretty Girl Character A's big breasts. Even the CG looks as though the show's animators took a time machine and traveled back to 1995 to use whatever technology existed at the time to animate the space scenes. Seriously, this stuff would look bad in an old Playstation video game. Furthermore, I refuse to believe that this show was written by professionals; it goes simply from uninteresting event to uninteresting event, clumsily introducing bland characters with bland dialogue.
I'd like to appeal to Japan for just a moment if I may: please stop making shows about space station schools where bright young military cadets learn the ins and outs of space and experience angsty teenage melodrama. They've become a dime a dozen, and what's worse, most of the new ones are dreadfully boring. Find another genre. Please. I beg you.


KIBA
What's it about?
Zedd is a troubled young delinquent who's constantly looking for a way out of Calm, the big city he lives in; naturally, he's called to by a distant voice, which leads him to a rift in space-time that houses another dimension. There, he learns of Shadow Casters, magic users who call upon a power named “Split” that allows them to summon monsters and magic spells to combat one another. Zedd, of course, thinks this is the promised land he's been searching for, but what he doesn't know is that inside his body lies the spirit of Amil Gaul, a powerful beast that could change the course of history.

Is it any good?
Good heavens, no. I'm not sure how it is exactly they managed to make a show about a delinquent kid who finds out he has magical powers boring but oh, did they. The show has a little bit of potential; the animation is quite good, the character designs are pleasant and well done, but otherwise, this is a drab, lifeless bit of often confusing shonen drama that doesn't really appeal to any one demographic.
It's difficult to be interested in characters like Zed, who spends all of his time in this episode brooding. It takes far too long to go anywhere and the screenwriters are assuming that we find Zed and the bland, uninspired sci-fi city he lives in to be so interesting and compelling that we don't care about the fact that nothing at all happens in the first 15 minutes or so. Once it finally gets to the point, the result is yet another “troubled boy has powers he didn't know about” series that fails to be even remotely creative or interesting.


.HACK//ROOTS
What's it about?
Haseo is a brand new player in The World, a hugely popular MMORPG. Immediately upon entering the game, he's resurrected after being attacked by assassins by Ovan, the leader of a guild calling itself the Twilight Brigade. Although he's only a newbie, Haseo finds himself in the middle of a seemingly sinister plot – a theory aided by two player-killers who track him down and attempt to slay him once more… good thing another Twilight Brigade member is there to save him again.

Is it any good?
In the earlier installments of the .hack series, the show managed to remain compelling by limiting the number of times it referred to “The World” as being simply a game; there wasn't a lot of jargon involved, and the entire series focused on the fact that there was an anomaly within the game rather than attempting to persuade the audience that there was something inherently fascinating about the mundane day-to-day drama found in an MMORPG. .hack//ROOTS seems to toss that notion out.
The show is beautiful, to be sure; well-animated in most spots, with impressive CG blending. The music isn't half bad either. The real problem with this show – at least in this initial episode – is that it focuses far too much on letting the viewer know it's all a game. The characters have extended discussions about the difference between “party” chat and “open” chat, where the map is on the player's HUD, and warring guilds attempting to recruit new players. There's a whole lot of obnoxious MMORPG jargon in there and the effect is not unlike reading drama on a forum about an MMORPG you don't play, which is to say, it's a struggle to remain interested. Still, there's potential here; I refuse to believe there isn't eventually going to be more to the series than this, and for .hack fans and MMORPG players alike, there's probably a lot to enjoy here. Don't give up on it yet, but proceed with caution.


NANA
What's it about?
Two girls, both named Nana, meet seemingly at random on a snowed-in train bound for Tokyo. While at first glance these two couldn't be more different – one's plucky and naive and still appears to be in high school, and the other's an edgy, world-weary rocker with an enigmatic past – in reality, the two seem to share a common destiny. They're both moving to Tokyo for bittersweet reasons, following their hearts and dreams.

Is it any good?
This beautifully animated, sharply-written adaptation of superstar mangaka Ai Yazawa's shoujo masterpiece is easily the best new show of the season, which should come as no great surprise thanks to the pedigree of the source material. The story has been altered a little bit; instead of first learning the complicated back story behind why both Nanas are moving to Tokyo, instead we're tossed into their first meeting on the train, where they initially get to know eachother and share a beer; by the end of the episode, they've moved into the same apartment, which doesn't happen until volume 2 of the manga; one assumes future episodes will catch us up on the history behind these two characters, all in due time. Frankly, the slight change of events from the manga allows the viewer to get a little more wrapped up in the story's immediate events, which will help grabbing fans unfamiliar with the Nana storyline.
The animation is top-notch, as is the voice acting and the music (the score tends to be a little melodramatic, but hey, it's a shoujo drama after all). It's paced briskly, with enough story elements packed into this single episode to drag anyone into the plot. While it isn't as flashy or as instantly captivating as last year's Paradise Kiss, there's a lot more potential for a much longer and more involving storyline here, and the characters – while they might initially seem a little one-dimensional – have a lot more depth and development going on than the cast of Yazawa's previous show. All in all, this is a great animated complement to the stellar manga. If you haven't read the comics (or are already a big fan), and can appreciate a mature, involving shoujo story, Nana is the one to beat.


OURAN HIGH SCHOOL HOST CLUB
What's it about?
Middle-class Haruhi Fujioka is the only student at the uber-exclusive Ouran High School whose family isn't filthy rich, and when she breaks an $80,000 vase, she's left in the hands of the Host Club, an enigmatic group of six impossibly good-looking and ludicrously wealthy young men who mistake her for a boy. Initially they plan on putting him – er, her – to work to pay off the debt, but once it becomes clear she – er, he – is a hit with the ladies, they make her a full-time member of the Host Club!

Is it any good?
For being a wacky shoujo comedy, Ouran High School Host Club is a heck of a lot of fun to watch. Sure, it's just a slightly tweaked, rehashed version of Boys Over Flowers, but in terms of pure entertainment, there's a lot to like here. It's beautifully put together; smooth animation, strikingly pleasant and distinct character designs and some of the most elaborate and gorgeous background art I've seen in a TV anime lately. While the story is grossly derivative and predictable, the show's manic pace and fun characters will leave you wanting more.
There's something about the design of this show that's really eye-catching and unique; there's a soft, refined quality to the art that really suits the subject matter. There's even a catchy opening theme (with some really gorgeous animation to complement it). The characters are fairly one-dimensional and predictable, and it's hard to overlook the sheer number of obvious similarities between this show and Boys Over Flowers, but at the same time, it almost doesn't really matter; just sit back and enjoy it and you'll have a grand time.


XXXHOLIC
What's it about?
Kimihiro Watanuki leads a pretty bizarre life; it seems the kid can see evil spirits, and in turn, evil spirits seem strangely attracted to him. One day, he comes across a strange little shop owned by a mysterious witch named Yuuko, who tells Kimihiro that she's got the solution to all of his life's problems. The catch? Yuuko doesn't do pro bono work, so Kimihiro gets to work off his debt to the witch before she's willing to lend him a helping hand. What he sees during his days in her shop is decidedly strange, even for someone accustomed to dealing with evil spirits…

Is it any good?
Despite being a little slow, XXXHolic is a faithful, fun and engrossing adaptation of CLAMP's hit manga. It's a bit of an acquired taste; unless you're already familiar with the tale via Del Rey's release of the manga, this first episode might feel a little unaccessible, but there's a lot of potential here and if the show sticks to the proper story then it'll be a lot of fun once later episodes start getting into the real meat of it all. The manga's lush (and somewhat bizarre) design style is translated pretty well, even if the character designs are somewhat simplified and the backgrounds might be a bit too heavy on the vague watercolors for some.
The biggest problem with this series, so far, are the characters; Yuuko is obviously the most compelling and interesting character in the show, and yet she gets comparatively little screen time compared to Kimihiro, whose role as ‘panicky milquetoast’ isn't exactly gripping, to say the least. Hopefully, future episodes will feature a lot more of the witch and a bit less of the nerd, but the show remains entertaining regardless. It's a lot more fun to watch than Bee Train's adaptation of Tsubasa Chronicle, at any rate, and fans of the manga will probably like what they see.


HIGH SCHOOL GIRLS
What's it about?
Eriko has always dreamed of attending an all-girls academy; prestigious and overflowing with massively intelligent, graceful and well-mannered aristocratic girls who she can look up to. Her dream finally comes true one day when she and her two friends get accepted into an academy, but unfortunately, it isn't all it's cracked up to be; girls, as it turns out, can be just as vicious as boys!

Is it any good?
The first thing most people will probably do upon viewing this first episode of High School Girls is compare it to Azumanga Daioh, and they wouldn't be wrong to do so; this thing is obviously influenced by that massively popular title and the comparison isn't going to help this show one bit. Essentially a less funny or compelling version of Azudai, High School Girls turns down the random humor (rather, it exchanges it for “silly” rather than “wacky”) and turns up the fanservice, making this show not entirely uninteresting but, thanks to the excessive panty shots, a little too creepy.
That's not to say the show isn't amusing enough. The animation is serviceable the character designs are distinct enough, but in general, the girls’ personalities seem to be a little one-dimensional and uninteresting. They go on a zany adventure in this episode, and it's easy to assume the bulk of the show will center around future zany adventures in which the girls also learn a little bit about life, love and the rules of high school. It's all a little routine, to be frank. Regardless, this show has its audience, and its audience – people who really loved Azumanga Daioh and would like to see something similar – will probably get a kick out of it, even though the humor in High School Girls is substantially different from AzuDai. If you're not looking for more of the same, however, High School Girls probably won't fit the bill.


DISGAEA
What's it about?
Pint-sized Prince of the Underworld Laharl has been asleep for two years; when he's brought out of his slumber by an angel named Flonne, he finds his precious kingdom in total chaos! It turns out his dad, King Krichevskoy, has choked to death on some snacks; so now, it's up to Laharl and his trusty vassal Etna to cut a swath of destruction across the Underworld and proclaim himself the new King.

Is it any good?
Based on the cult smash RPG published here in the US by Atlus, Disgaea is a somewhat fun little diversion that will make fans of the game very happy and probably alienate anyone who isn't already in love with the source material. The jokes are pretty rapid-fire, the characters are fun and the situation is all suitably wacky, but there's a strange sense of disconnect here. It's all very zany and crazy and whatnot, but the show seems to be straining under the weight of its own wackiness; it's hard to believe the series will be able to keep this up for very long without becoming tiresome.
Special mention needs to be made of the animation quality; frankly, it just isn't very good. It's not clear if this will be retouched for the DVD release, but as it is, Disgaea is a relatively simple-looking anime already, and the subpar animation only calls even more attention to that fact. If you're looking for something lush and fluid, this isn't it. However, part of the show's charm is in its simplicity, so some fans might take pleasure in how basic everything looks; to each their own. If you were a big fan of the game, then this is already on your must-buy list if and when it comes out here in the States; otherwise, unless you've an unquenchable thirst for over-the-top “wackiness” and can tolerate cheap animation, you might want to give this one a pass.


 

 


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