The Spring 2008 Anime Preview Guide
Casey Brienza

by Casey Brienza, Apr 8th 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.


Bus Gamer
Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: Welcome to a bizarrely arbitrary plot about a bizarrely arbitrary high-stakes game. In the world of Bus Gamer, powerful corporations pit three-player teams against each other in a no holds barred game and bet on the outcome. ("Bus," in case you were wondering, is an abbreviation for "business.") Victorious players stand to win large sums of money. Enter Toki Mishima, Nobuto Nakajo, and Kazuo Saito, three handsome young men in desperate need of funds...for reasons they agree to leave unstated.

This three-episode anime is based upon a single-volume manga by Kazuya Minekura, who is most famous for Saiyuki. Fans will note countless obvious stylistic similarities, although Bus Gamer boasts a darker, noir atmosphere. Interestingly, the anime's plot is not an adaptation of the manga's storyline. In this episode, the trio that becomes Team AAA meets for the first time and enters their first competition, which takes place in an abandoned bowling alley. The manga, conversely, begins after they have some experience under their belts and ended abruptly way back in 2001 after the magazine in which it was being serialized was discontinued. It has never been completed, so perhaps this anime will at last fill in some blanks. It also happens to be reasonably watchable in its own right, which is fortunate--and not just for those new to the series, since the manga is, to put it mildly, awful.


Kanokon
Rating: 2 (of 5)
Review: The extreme bust volume of the heroine or the extreme boyishness of the hero...? I can't decide which made me detest this new animated adaptation of a light novel series more. The respective dominant physical features of the two main characters made things seem perverse in a fashion that adolescent content (panty flashes, brief nudity, sexually suggestive language, and one very wet kiss) alone does not seem to indicate. I was so disgusted that I had to walk away. Three times.

Which, granted, can make it a trifle difficult to figure out what's going on, but I kept forcing myself to come back, so here it is: The boy in question is Kouta, a shy transfer student. The girl is Chizuru, an irrepressible upperclassman with a fervent crush on Kouta, who reveals to him one afternoon after school that she is really a fox spirit. She also tries to seduce him, which is like watching a statutory rape fantasy. When that doesn't quite work out, she resigns herself to possessing his body as a supernatural creature (as opposed to as a young woman a head and shoulders taller).

Anyway. The calm, radiant beauty of Kanokon's soft-focus lighting and soundtrack is exquisitely affecting—the best I've encountered in a long time. Too bad it's totally wasted on such a senseless story. I suspect that only the hardest of hardcore otaku will be much amused.



Chi's Sweet Home

Rating: 3 (of 5)


Review: Why hello there kitty! Or, from the perspective of the kitty's mommy, goodbye. The opening premise in the first episode of this quirky new series is simple: an adorable kitten of no name and indeterminate gender gets separated from its mother and taken in by a kindhearted human family. Subsequent episodes depict rather banal interactions between kitten, little boy, and parents. At least initially, the lost kitten is haplessly desperate to be reunited with its mother, repeating the sentence "Uchi kaeru!" [I'm going home!] ad nauseam, while the humans come to grips with this new member of their family.

Chi's Sweet Home
is a bald attempt to win its audience over by sheer cuteness alone. Thank goodness each episode is only two and a half minutes long; any more than that at one time, and I'm sure the kitten's shrill voice would perforate my eardrums. But to be perfectly honest, I couldn't bring myself to feel strongly one way or the other. The animation is unremarkable and doesn't ever manage to achieve that signature stylistic simplicity some Japanese cultural products have turned into examples of design genius. Still, I wouldn't be surprised if it doesn't provoke lots of strong reactions—good and bad. If I didn't know anything about this series beforehand, I would assume that it is being targeted at preschoolers. That in actuality its manga inspiration can be found in Kodansha's Morning, a seinen magazine, is something I dare not contemplate too closely.



Itazura na Kiss
Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review:
Calling something from 1991 "retro" gives me a weird, prickly feeling deep inside, but that's the first descriptor that popped into my head within seconds after cueing up the first episode of this anime. Even updated for the 21st century, the character designs especially are unmistakably vintage. Indeed, when you think about it, it's been eighteen years since the Itazura na Kiss manga began serialization in Margaret and nine years since much-beloved, much-mourned mangaka Kaoru Tada passed away so tragically at such a young age. And only now is this shoujo school romance being animated. For an object of popular culture in fad-conscious Japan, that's impressive staying power—and more than enough pedigree to demand at least a few moments of an otaku's day.

The story begins with a stock romantic comedy convention: future lovebirds who have ample reason to despise each other. Naoki Irie, the coolest, smartest boy in class has nothing but contempt for Kotoko Aihara, a spunky but intellectually ordinary girl who has a crush on him. Yet fate, as fate is wont to do in these sorts of stories, throws them together; after an earthquake destroys the Aihara home, Kotoko and her father take up residence with the Irie family…where even the baby of the family thinks she's a total moron! At this rate, this funny, fast-paced first episode could well evolve into one addictive anime.


The Tower of Druaga


Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review: If laughter is good for the soul, then the first episode of this GONZO anime is a respectable half-dose of spiritual medicine. Most of the episode, which turns out to be a fond figment of the rookie PC hero Jil's imagination after he is KOed in the midst of his very first battle, is a clever pastiche of geek culture structured around your standard Beat Bad Guy/Get Girl plotline. The riffs on RPGs, videogames, shounen series, and sentai shows come fast and furious. In particular, I laughed aloud at the "I am your father!" Star Wars allusion (and the characters' subsequent reactions) and found myself smirking at the Roper (tentacle porn!) attack.

Alas, it's all over too soon. Jil awakens, humiliated before his more experienced teammates, and finds himself back to the Serious Business of a slightly less clichéd and significantly more intimidating “Tower of Druaga” game. Well…I'm assuming it's a game because the anime's opening sequence is a montage depicting the life of an ordinary Japanese boy and his girlfriend. None of the hero's presumed real life has been otherwise shown thus far.

I readily admit that I'm more than a little bit intrigued, and this is mainly because I can't yet guess where the series is going to go. Game? Real world? Unpredictable intersections of the two? While, sadly, the pastiche is most likely a one-time indulgence, there is still plenty of room for the plot to move in a number of different directions. I hold out hope that, wherever it goes, The Tower of Druaga will not disappoint.


Blassreiter


Rating:
3.5 (of 5)

Review: After a Demoniac attack on the race track, champion motorcyclist Gerd is certain that he's going to have to trade the winner's seat for that of a wheelchair. But then he's given a Heaven-sent promise of recovery in the form of a mysterious pill with some most unexpected side-effects. Meanwhile, Gerd's dishy, spandex-clad ex-protégé Hermann hunts down Demoniacs as a member of an elite riot squad.

Suffice it to say that the first episode of Blassreiter is long on the action, short on the explanation. Much of it felt like watching someone else play a videogame, and the too-fluid digital animation only heightened that undesirable impression. The Demoniacs, meanwhile, which appear to be some sort of cyborg-like killing machines capable incorporating other machines such as cars and motorcycles into their bodies, are a complete mystery. As are Gerd's transformation and the motives of the green-haired gal behind it. Oh and while I'm at it, what the heck does "Blassreiter" mean?

Naturally, my inner fujoshi can't help but notice the homoerotic charge between Gerd and Hermann. Significant stares, angsty dialogue, absent girlfriend, a complicated past—it's all there. And it's too bad, really. 'Cause my inner fujoshi can also read the writing on the wall, and she knows full well that there's no chance of it ever going anywhere.


Zettai Karen Children

Rating: 1.5 (of 5)

Review: Err. And I thought Kanokon was going to take home my Most Offensive Show of the Season prize. Looks like I was smart to give myself a bit of wriggle room because guess what? Zettai Karen Children takes it to a whole 'nother level.

Okay, this anime is what you get if the three heroines of Magic Knight Rayearth were to cosplay as the The Powerpuff Girls...minus the girl power and the appealing character designs. In the first episode, we are introduced to Kaoru, Aoi, and Shiho, powerful but unpredictable Espers known as "The Children" who fight crime for the Japanese government, and the young man who will become their new handler, Kouichi. The four of them take on Muscle Okama and foil his plot to steal a solid gold statue from the National Museum.

This Muscle Okama is presented as a gay man. He swishes, he talks in feminine language, he hits on Kouichi, he humps nude male statues. He also shoots bizarre psychic beams from his groin. At first I was amused by the ridiculousness, but it wore off quickly, and I can't remember the last time I've seen an anime series portray a minority group so offensively. No anime these days would represent even black people in so blatantly stereotypical a fashion.

Arguably worse, however, is Kaoru's apparent lesbianism and her characterization as a perverted old man. You know, I get that oogling boobs and butts can be an important part of the pleasure of these sorts of things. But showing a little girl doing it—as if that makes objectifying behavior somehow morally excusable? That's inexcusable in a way that no amount of cheerfully bobbing breasts alone will ever be.



Vampire Knight

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: Cross Academy has two student bodies that operate on a split schedule...but little do the ordinary young people of the Day Class know that all of the members of the Night Class are actually vampires! Protecting the vampires' secret (and protecting the humans from the vampires) are Yuki Cross and Zero Kiryu, appointed guardians of the school. As the story begins, we learn that Yuki has an intriguing past with a vampire named Kuran and that Zero, who otherwise seems to despise vampires, may be hiding a bloodthirsty secret of his own.

The much anticipated adaptation of Matsuri Hino's manga proves, at least for now, scrupulously faithful to its source material in all particulars. A number of the scenes even match Hino's layouts frame by frame. This could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending upon your point of view. The first episode merely sets the stage for events to come, and those already familiar with the story may find twenty-odd minutes of background info tiresome. On the other hand, the Vampire Knight anime appears to be a coherent, self-contained representation of the story, eminently accessible to those new to the franchise. And I'm sure that for many, the abundant eye candy will be more than enough incentive to stay tuned.


Bus Gamer episode 2

Rating:
2.5 (of 5)



Review: Well, there's one good thing about anime series based on manga by Kazuya Minekura that are only three episodes long, even those that embarrass themselves with appalling animation quality—one knows that they will not mutate into another Are We There Yet?! (a.k.a. Saiyuki) abomination. Moreover, the Bus Gamer plot itself provides at least a nominal defense against infinitely expanding series bloat; it's stated at the outset that Team No Name must win eleven matches for the jackpot one billion payout.

And given the substance of the previous episode, I was hoping that the anime would proceed with its prequel trajectory.

But I wish for too much, apparently, and the previously remote possibility that this anime would provide fans with some sort of closure has receded almost entirely. After finishing off the first game, the second episode takes a giant temporal leap and plops down into the sixth round of the game, a subplot that can also be found smack dab in the middle of the manga. Naturally, our boys win (Was the outcome ever in doubt?), and then the rest of the episode hops into another bare-bones manga story about a tense encounter at an arcade between Saito and a righteous female cop. Guess what their game of choice is. (Hint: Starts with an “S”...)


Macross Frontier

Rating: 4.5 (of 5)

Review: Beyond your basic name recognition, I wouldn't know Macross if a mecha from the series dropped out of the sky and squished me underfoot. This, I believe, gives me a unique perspective on this newest installment of the franchise; after all, the last time there was a new TV series was way back in 1994—before today's much-yearned-for baseline audience of thirteen year old boys was even born!

And to my pleasure, I found that I did not require previous Macross experience to thoroughly enjoy the first episode of Macross Frontier. A quick and dirty summary of the series' space opera SF premise in the first fifty seconds got me up-to-date in the time it would have taken for me to yawn. The year is 2059 A.D., and humanity has abandoned the Earth for space on fleets of colony ships, including one named Macross Frontier. The nominal hero of the piece appears to be Alto, a bewitching, blue-haired bishounen who is so darn pretty that even the girl thinks he's a girl. And speaking of the girl, she's a flat-chested free spirit with green pigtails. The two young people meet at a concert, but their inevitable mating call is interrupted by a devastating alien attack that compels Alto to take up arms for the first time.

The saturated color palette, heady soundtrack, and dynamic cinematography is exhilarating and intoxicating. It practically begs for an IMAX “experience.” Macross Frontier is far and away the most slick of the spring's animated offerings thus far, and I predict a bright future for its popular reception.


xxxHOLiC: Kei

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review: In the off-chance possibility that you weren't paying attention, xxxHOLiC: Kei is a new season, not a new series. If it weren't for the time lapse between the previous 24 episodes and this one, I doubt there would be a distinction at all, and if you didn't know anything about the basic story premise before diving in headfirst, you're going to be miserably disoriented after bumping your forehead against the bottom of the pool.

Anyway, the story begins with the first part of a chapter from volume seven of the original manga. While helping Doumeki clean his family's property, Watanuki gets caught in a spider web. Doumeki casually notes the web and destroys it, thus earning a spider's grudge. How will the two deal with its curse?

Visually, xxxHOLiC is quite similar to the X TV series (also based on a manga by CLAMP); both are characterized by a washed out palette, a languid narrative pace, and a surreal yet decidedly flat affect. Those, as far as I'm concerned, are the good parts. Bad parts include faithful adaptation of CLAMP's 21st century character designs, which make everybody look deboned and then forcibly stretched. There is also a disturbing degree of moral relativism circulating through the series, a departure from the sincerity of older CLAMP-inspired anime. Still, it is what it is, and what it is is a finely-crafted piece of art well-worth watching.


Code Geass –Lelouch of the Rebellion– R2

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: I must to admit, that until today I knew nothing of substance about Code Geass save that it had character designs by CLAMP. Epic mecha shows can be downright intimidating, ya know! Large casts of characters, a tense political backdrop, convoluted plot twists—the best of the genre is therefore not something in which to become committed lightly.

So I was not in the least bit surprised that the first episode of the second season was not a crash course but rather a refresher one.

Multiple allusions were made to an alternate universe arrangement of nations and empires and to the events that concluded the first season, but unless you've either watched the first season yourself or (as I did) scamper off to do a bit of independent research, you will be wholly unable to make heads or tails of it. The story begins with an amnesiac Lelouch, who skips out on school to go gambling. A subsequent skirmish between the Black Knights and Britannia forces culminates in Lelouch regaining his memory and once again assuming the mantle of Zero, vowed to bring down the Empire to which he is heir.

Am I just imagining things, or is this anime a cross between a Sunrise Gundam Wing-esque tale of social tyranny and CLAMP X-esque tale of supernatural destruction? If so, it's an uneasy mix that might well lend itself to insanely complex development culminating in only a couple of basic, logical outcomes. I sincerely hope not, for that would be the worst of both worlds. But I'm gonna keep watching for now, in any case; I want to see where it goes.


Special A

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review: Do boys really bully girls they like? Well, in the world of SA they do, boy genius Kei Takishima most of all. Set at an exclusive academy where the top seven students wear special uniforms and take tea in a stadium-sized greenhouse, number two student Hikari Hanazono lives for one objective and one objective only: to unseat the arrogant Takishima from his proverbial throne. Of course, she is eternally unsuccessful, but little does she know that while futilely trying to crush him he's developing a crush of his own on her...

Given what I've seen of Maki Minami's SA manga, which is an unremarkable, stylistically generic romantic comedy, I went into my first screening of this series with exceedingly low expectations. But consider my expectations more than exceeded; the anime bears only superficial similarity to its source material and relies heavily upon some of the quirkiest animated visual gags since Kodomo no Omocha (the anime not the manga).

Not to mention that Takishima is so perfect it's unreal. I dare anyone—male or female—to tell me that they don't feel at least the tiniest twinge of burning hatred when they see how effortlessly he defeats Hikari in every conceivable competition, from tests to ten-storey leaps. This sort of affective intensity is key to the success of any shoujo story, so by that measure, at least, this new anime starts out succeeding spectacularly.


To Love-Ru

Rating: 2 (of 5)

Review: High school student Rito Yuki is desperate to confess his love to classmate Haruna Sairenji but fails comically again and again—in part because he has so little experience with girls. But if it's experience with girls that he needs, he's about to get more than he ever dreamed because a runaway alien princess with a totally arbritrary-looking tail and a host of weird gadgets has decided to take up residence on Earth, and she's dead-set on marrying him.

You'd think that a new anime based upon a Weekly Shounen Jump manga would merit animation of a slightly higher production quality. Even the opening sequence is just a montage of still images that end on an extreme close up of Princess Lala's crotch (taste questionable at best). Perhaps the lack of monetary investment signals a corporate lack of confidence in this series' long term prospects.

If that's indeed the case, I wouldn't be surprised. Magical girlfriend stories have been shounen staples since Urusei Yatsura, and To Love-Ru is notable only in the care that it takes not to stray into unexplored territory. Both series, in fact, begin with a beta-male human who mistakenly proposes marriage to an alien girl! The transparent lack of effort expended by all parties involved in this newest iteration of a now stale storyline is downright depressing. I weep for the state of anime today.


Allison and Lillia

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: This is a tale of two nations that have been at war for over a hundred years…but you'd never guess that from the countless nostalgic, pastoral scenes of cottages, fields, and classes conducted outside under a shade tree. The first half of the story moves so slowly, in fact, that it nearly put me to sleep. Those who think they might be tempted to snooze, however, should stock up on caffeine before cueing up Allison and Lillia; by the second half, things start getting super-interesting. While on a carefree excursion through the countryside, childhood friends Allison and Will learn from a war veteran that somewhere in the buffer zone between Rokushe and Sou Beil is a treasure that could end the war. Though they might have been inclined to disbelieve him, given his penchant for telling false yarns, Allison and Will know something is up when a sinister figure shows up to escort the old man away. By the end of the episode, the two have taken to the air in a stolen airplane to save him.

Despite looking, for all intents and purposes, like an updated edition of Dog of Flanders, this anime is fast proving to be among the most overtly political of the season. The conflict between the two nations, which involves competing ancestral claims, is a transparent reference to the often tense relationship between Japan and the Koreas. There is also an explicit reference about the questionable veracity of school history textbooks, a subject of perennial controversy between the Japanese left and right. Anyway, this kind of plotline is definitely not what I'd expect from a Dengeki Bunko series; now I'm curious and want to see more.


Kure-nai

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: Those on the market this season for a cryptic new series that will leave you pondering the storyline for at least as long as it took you to watch the first episode need look no further: Kure-nai is all that and more. The protagonist is Shinkurou Kure-nai, a young man, presumably an orphan, on his own and splitting his time between school and a part-time job settling disputes. One of his most important clients is a mysterious woman named Benika, and she has a dangerous new task for him—to protect Murasaki Kuhouin, a sheltered little girl seeking to escape her powerful but tyrannical family.

The atmospheric, indirect approach taken by the anime's writer and director Matsuo Kou seems quite at odds with both Kentarou Katayama's original light novel and Yamato Yamamoto's artwork. The story in question is not, fundamentally, a particularly complicated or original one; the anime's convoluted narrative structure just makes it seem so.

Indeed, despite an occasional gesture toward the surreal and a hint of the supernatural, Kure-nai's appeal lies in its elegantly described scenes and costumes. The juxtaposition of the Kuhouin's expansive estate and wall murals with Shikurou's tiny apartment and TV in the corner is a striking and effective metaphor for imbalances of social and political power. An inordinate amount of animation is likewise spent on Murasaki's kimono. In any case, I recommend watching this series, if you absolutely must, for its visuals, not its plot.


Soul Eater

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review: Hey, bet you didn't know that sentient edged weapons could have kids! (Neither did I.) But the Grim Reaper's Death Scythe does indeed have a daughter; Maka is a weapon meister, dedicated to helping living weapons become armaments worthy of the Grim Reaper himself by collecting rogue souls. She has been entrusted with a scythe named Soul, and the partners have only to devour the sould of a witch before Soul is able to ascend. Unfortunately, they mistake a voluptuous cat for a witch and are doomed to start the process of soul collection all over again.

Though Soul Eater should not be surprising anyone with its standard tournament plot structure, it has some serious style to burn. Like D.Gray-man it is deeply indebted to Tim Burton's idiosyncratic gothic-fantasy imagery (think Beetlejuice and Nightmare Before Christmas), but this series does, if possible, execute it better. Candlelit cobblestone streets, a bloodthirsty crescent moon, a sculpted marshmallow-like Shinigami—it's all there, and it makes this otherwise ordinary shounen fare extraordinary. In fact, this is the very first anime series of the spring season that make me want to run out—Right Now, This Second, Dammit!—and buy its original manga counterpart. 'Cause if this anime is the slightest indication, mangaka Atsushi Okubo is a talent to watch closely.


Kamen no Maid Guy

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: High school student and kendo champ Naeka Fujiwara want her and her little brother Kousuke to live ordinary lives—even if their parents are missing. Even if their doting grandfather happens to be a billionaire. But Naeka does not realize that she stands to inherit her grandfather's vast fortune next year when she turns eighteen and that money-hungry folks will surely target her life. To protect them (and clean house for them), Grandpa Fujiwara hires two maids. One of them, Fubuki, is your typical male fantasy, but the other is something else entirely. Known only as “Kamen no Maid Guy,” he's Fist of the North Star's Kenshiro in a skirt and apron, and of course he scares the shit out of his new charge…

While Naeka's resistance to this male maid is quite comical, his behavior toward her is vastly more so. What I loved about it all was the plausible deniability. Is he a pervert, or is he just doing his job? For example, when he slices her shirt open it's to see if her undergarments are properly cleaned. Likewise, he knows her exact weight and size with his x-ray vision, but this is apparently in order to assess her health and assure her that she does not need to diet. Good thing Fubuki's around to curb his excesses with her club. I really do hope that subsequent episodes flesh out Maid Guy's character a bit; it would be a shame to leave him merely as a recurring comic device.


Wagaya no Oinari-sama

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: The Mizuchi family has given rise to a line of priestesses with control over the element of water for generations, but now their powers are declining, and for the first time there is no female to continue the line. Instead, there are only brothers Noboru and Tooru, who have been called back home to the family seat because a demon is targeting Tooru. To combat this demon, the kitsune Tenko Kugen is awakened. And after they are saved, this beautiful but unpredictable “Kou-chan” makes a bargain with the boys to become their guardian spirit for the likely trials ahead.

What in the world is it about blonde kitsune this season? Kanokon, and now Wagaya no Oinari-sama. Perhaps the Japanese have gotten tired of cat girls and have moved on to fox girls. After all, you can draw both with cute, prick ears. But at least Tenko Kugen is actually pretty cool, and her true fox form was suitably awe-inspiring, as befits a Japanese deity. Her human female form—an adult woman, not a child—was somewhat less so, but not bad. (She made some comment about taking male form instead; I lay odds that happens in the next installment.) In any case, I can't tell from one episode if this anime is going to turn into a supernatural drama or a magical girlfriend comedy. One trajectory is infinitely better than the other—it depends upon your perspective which one.


Neo Angelique: Abyss

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review: One of the most important appeals of the dating sim/adventure is the way in which it gives the player a say in the development of the plot. Without that interactive element, the plot of these sorts of games is quickly revealed to be bathetically superficial. The animated spinoff, subtitled “Abyss,” of the Neo Angelique game for girls (the latest installment of the venerable Angelique franchise) is a case in point.

Arcadia is being overrun by life-sucking monsters called Thanatos, and only the Purifiers have the power to thwart their bottomless hunger. Legend speaks of a female Purifier whose immense power will herald the dawn of a new day. Angelique, a young woman training to be a doctor at Melrose Girls Academy, turns out to be she; soon, presumably, the Nine (male) Guardians will join her side, and together they will fight evil.

Right. Well, you get the idea. It's a male harem show: one painfully one-dimensional heroine plus more bishounen at her beck and call than you can shake a stick at. And, true to form, most of the anime's budget appears to have been spent on the characters—their designs, which are handsomely detailed, and their animation. Angelique even gets a white-winged transformation scene of sorts! Ah, shoujo anime. Sometimes you make me smirk. Anyway, stay away from this fanservice exercise unless you're already a fan.


Itazura na Kiss episode 2

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review: Irie may be the genius, but in this episode Kotoko reveals herself to have a genius for extortion! Before he was born, Irie's mother was so certain that he would be a girl that she purchased only clothing for girls, which he wore until he was old enough to protest. The family's many photographs document his humiliation, and Kotoko borrows one which she then uses to blackmail the arrogant Irie into helping her study for their mid-term exams. He won't get the embarrassing baby picture back unless he helps Kotoko break into the top fifty high scorers in the school.

With its second episode taken into account, I can safely conclude that Itazura na Kiss is quite simply one of the best shoujo manga-inspired anime to debut this season. It doesn't need a non-stop parade of over-the-top visual gags a la Special A or a non-stop parade of over-the-top-sexy vampires a la Vampire Knights. Instead, it relies upon ordinary human characters of ordinary human proportions and their often strained interactions to drive the story. There is a straightforward honesty of sentiment to this story that is wonderfully refreshing after a decade or more of post-modern animated parody (on both sides of the Pacific). This is what first brought me to anime, and it is for this that I stay.


Kanokon Episode 2

Rating: 1.5 (of 5)

Review: Can already bad anime get worse? Why yes, Virginia, they can! And the scary part is that, after two episodes of Kanokon, I am fast becoming inured to the exponentially rising level of badness in question. 'Cause it's not as if everything I hated about the first episode suddenly abates in the second. Quite the contrary. Kouta again spends much of his time with his face pressed up against Chizuru's ample breasts, and Chizuru again tries to have her way with the semi-resistant, shrieking Kouta.

The addition of Nozomu Ezomori, a wolf spirit girl newly arrived from Hokkaido provides a new, but not especially novel, layer to the series' perversion. Nozomu's expressionless exterior and disinterested monotone doesn't, naturally, stop her from throwing herself at Kouta. (Nor does the fact that she looks like a seven-year-old and should thus be too young to be looking for a mate.) Of course, Chizuru is not about to lose to her new rival, and their no-holds-barred competition means that Kouta now officially finds himself in the middle of a youkai sandwich. Older Sister Complex, Shotarou Complex, and Lolita Complex—what could possibly be next for Kanokon? I think it's safe to say that we can all have a happy and fulfilled life without ever finding out.


Kure-nai Episode 2

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review: Still unnecessarily confusing…and still going absolutely nowhere fast. The second episode manages magnificently not to convey anything new about the Kuhouin family's reasons for keeping Murasaki sequestered, Benika's reasons for liberating her, Shinkurou's tragic history, Shinkurou's present circumstances and apparent physical alteration, or the direction this pretentious excuse for an anime series is eventually going to take. Instead, we get Shinkurou taking Murasaki to a public bathhouse and a rather silly crash course in ordinary manners. That's about it, alas.

Kure-nai is fast becoming one of the worst disappointments of the season. The carefully-described Japanese imagery mixed together with stylish film noir atmosphere is quite appealing, but I have trouble believing that the plot, wherever it does decide to go, is going to be capable of living up to so excellent a set of visuals. I lay odds that the creators know they have a most intractable problem, and this is why they are attempting to delay the inevitable letdown for as long as possible. In any case, nothing I've seen in these past two episodes has convinced me that there will ever be sufficient payoff, and I have had quite enough of this striptease. I'm officially dropping the series. There are tons of other options out there, and a good proportion of those are better bets.


Macross Frontier Episode 2

Rating: 4.5 (of 5)

Review: In the second episode, Alto learns of the existence of the private military organization SMS but gets coldly rejected by squad leader Ozma Lee. He also comes face-to-face with Sheryl and Ranka, both of whom he has now rescued, at the same time. Looks like a love triangle is in the offing.

Waitaminute, how could I have possibly failed to notice until now that Alto's surname is “Saotome”?! Wow. Well don't that just top 'em all. TV shows in Japan, from Ranma ½ to Water Boys, use that name to underscore an unusual degree of femininity in a male character. As a Japanese friend once put it to me, rather undiplomatically, Saotome is a very “gay” name, which leads me to believe that when we find out in episode two that Alto's dad was a famed Kabuki actor and that Alto for a time was continuing the family tradition, what we're really meant assume here is a career in female impersonation. (Note that, traditionally, the most dedicated Kabuki female impersonators practiced their womanhood offstage, too.) Cue the soundquake of millions of yaoi fangirls screaming in unison.

This sort of blatant pandering to the female fan base has become an integral part of the formula for a successful mecha anime series, and Alto's presence has already unquestionably assured Macross Frontier a long and lucrative afterlife. Thankfully, the show richly deserves it on all counts; I haven't fallen so hard and so fast for an anime series in years.


Nabari no Ou

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review: Square Enix sure knows how to get girls…and they do it, of course, by tempting the girls with hordes of hot guys. Though it is technically a shounen manga magazine, G Fantasy has brought the fujoshi into the fold at least since its serialization of Kazuya Minekura's Saiyuki, and this hallowed tradition continues with Yuhki Kamatani's Nabari no Ou, which has been adapted into one of the more interesting anime series to debut this spring.

In the Japan of this story, ninja clans duke it out for the Hijutsu, a powerful martial technique that confers upon its possessor the rulership of Nabari, the ninjas’ secret world. Unbeknownst even to himself, brooding bishounen Miharu Rokujou is the current bearer of the Hijutsu—which of course means that hordes of bad guys are after his life. Rallying to his defense are his classmate Kouichi and English teacher Kumohira. Will Miharu ever come to grips with his destiny?

I was quite surprised to see that Kamatani's eccentric style had been so faithfully animated. The emaciated, bony (invariably male) characters look just as out of proportion on the screen as they do on the page, Exhibit A of anorexic chic. While I can't say that this look does much for me, there's plenty of mysterious happenings and homoerotic angst shot through this magical boy tale to keep a fujoshi content. Heck, her male counterparts might even be impressed.


To Love-Ru ep. 2

Rating: 2 (of 5)

Review: Rito's engagement to Lala is now official, and events are proceeding without his consent. A Deviluke-mandated “cooling off” three-day period gives him one last chance to break it off…but to do that he must do the unthinkable and grab Lala's breasts again! He must also, he soon realizes, break her heart, and his softer side relents just a moment too long. Now Rito is further away from his cherished Haruna than ever. Lala, meanwhile, is closer than ever—and enrolled at Rito's school.

Yes indeed, if there has been a more contrived excuse for a series of grope jokes in an anime series of recent memory, I have been blissfully unaware of it. Even so, I might be persuaded to look upon such things generously; they are, after all pretty funny. (As are Rito and Lala falling nude out of locker right in front of Haruna.) What I am far less willing to forgive, however, is who completely predictable To Love-Ru is turning out to be. Not one single second of the series has been a surprise thus far, and none of it has been particularly skillful in its creative execution, either. Life, dear readers, is far too short to be wasted on such banal tripe.


Allison and Lillia episode 2

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review: Allison and Will fly into enemy territory and end up crash landing. Will then gets kicked in the head by a mother deer protecting her fawn (he was trying to protect Allison), which leaves Allison eaten up with guilt. Fortunately they are able to find shelter with a Sou Beil woman who bequeaths upon them uniforms belonging to her deceased children. Now they may travel about in the country unmolested as they continue their search for the old man and the legendary hidden treasure.

Well, it's not everyday that I find a show that simultaneously puts me to sleep with boredom and awakens in me a hot flame of feminist outrage. Nothing much of import happens plot-wise in the second episode…save that Allison gets pointedly put in her place. And here I had hoped that Allison would live up to her title character status and take her place in the ranks of anime's few and far between strong women. But no. Her assertive, headstrong behavior doesn't even last two episodes, and by the end of this one she's vowed never to order the beta male Will around again. Just because he took a hoof in the head for her. Oh, gimme a break.


Kyōran Kazoku Nikki

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review: An animated action show-cum-sitcom. Which, I suppose, qualifies as a somewhat novel idea. But if there is a dysfunctional family bound to make you feel good about yours by comparison, is has just got to be this one. Poor Daddy Ouka. He's got his work cut out for him.

Legend has it that a thousand years ago a dying monster laid a curse upon the planet, vowing that one day its offspring would annihilate the world. That day now seems to be at hand because the Children of Enka (note the plural) have been positively identified. Unfortunately, no one knows which Child—the lonely girl, the lion, the gay boy, the battle android, or the octopus—will be the one to enact Enka's revenge. To find out, or to prevent it from happening at all through the power of familial loyalty and affection, Ouka Midarezaki is forced into marriage and parenthood with autocratic cat girl Kyouka. Operation Cozy Family—START!

Argh. I really wanted to like this series, but it's just too ridiculous. Kyouka, a diminutive motor mouth who vacillates between megalomania and maternal instincts at a snap of the fingers is amusing…for about the first ten minutes. After that, it's all you can do not to wish yourself forever away from her and these cracked up problem children, and that's a bit too much like real life for this sort of anime.


Blassreiter episode 2

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: In response to one of my many rhetorical questions from last week, a German friend informed me that “Blassreiter” is faux-German for “pale rider.” I see. Well, if this is because “Ghost Rider” was already taken for stories about motorcycle-riding modern warriors and GONZO decided to (mis)use German to further hedge their bets, I officially don't want to know.

Heck, this anime even appears to be going for a superhero-like theme. After Gerd's abrupt recovery and transformation into an Amalgam-slaying Amalgam, the public hails him as their savior. Meanwhile, however, Hermann's superiors are suspicious and decide to keep Gerd under confinement. Their suspicions prove warranted; upon discovering that his manager and his girlfriend were in cahoots, he loses his temper and nearly kills them. The Amalgam that appeared in the first episode and saved Gerd's life reappears, and it proves to be a man who has concluded that Gerd is a security risk and must be eliminated.

Anyway, Blassreiter continues to be a solid new show, and if it's not the most original ever to make it to the screen by a long shot, that alone shouldn't discourage you. The visuals are quite pleasing, reminiscent of the Korean anime Wonderful Days, and there's plenty of high-speed action to keep a downshifting brain entertained.


xxxHOLiC –Kei– episode 2

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: xxxHOLiC sure does a magnificent job of plowing through plot at breakneck pace. This episode, which incorporates story to be found in consecutive pages of both volumes seven and eight of the original manga, begins with a late-night encounter with a book worm (Looked more like a book viper to me!) in Doumeki's outbuilding, continues on to a brief encounter with a cat girl and concludes, Watanuki's blinded eye forgotten for the moment at least, with an urgent request from the Karasu Tengu, desperate to free the Zashiki Warashi girl from some evil force. To this end, Yuko drafts Watanuki and the Pipe Fox into their service.

I continue to be reasonably impressed with the quality of I.G.’s adaptation of this heavily-stylized CLAMP manga. Though the pastel palette seems a rather odd choice when so much of Mokona's color art is so intensely hued, it works surprisingly well with the series’ ghostly atmosphere. Unfortunately, because the anime hews so closely to story that is territory already mapped out in detail, there just isn't all that much left to recommend to the many already-addicted xxxHOLiC-holics out there. So, if you're a newbie—by all means. But veterans might find their time more profitably spent on another lesser-known series.


Golgo 13

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review: Left to my own devices, the likelihood of my screening <i>Golgo 13</i> would be about equal to the likelihood that someone would feel the need to take a contract out on my life. I can say with confidence, however, that it wasn't quite as bad as I thought it would be. It was, in fact, almost bearable.

But terribly boring. You'd think that they'd be able to make an anime series about a fictional assassin by a mangaka who has been churning out new installments since 1968 a bit more exciting. I mean, sure, taking out an airplane hijacker with a single shot is pretty impressive, but this is the first episode, after all, and failure just ain't in the cards. The primary pleasure, then, is the route by which you're escorted to that anticipated finale—and that felt terribly perfunctory.

The anime doesn't seem to feel particularly comfortable in its own skin, as it were. The washed-out palette is quite modern and did not mesh well with old-school gekiga conventions. The “Even Prostitutes Kneel to the Power of My Penis!” sex scene felt like a last-minute addition rammed into the middle of the episode; I think Golgo spent more screen time talking shop with the gun maker than lying stone-faced in bed while the woman did all the work. Heck, even his trademark bushy brows were blurry! Now that's insane. I doubt either fans or newcomers will be much impressed.



 Kyou Kara Maoh! Season 3

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review: Well, looks like the Japanese boy who got flushed down the toilet and into another world is back for another swirl…err, I meant <i>whirl</i>. Two seasons and 78 episodes later, we've made it to the third season of one of the least enjoyable anime series I've ever wasted over three straight days and more of my life on. And I can't even tell you why I did it.

Certainly, this episode offers me no enlightening answers. After a brief sojourn in the human world, Yuuri Shibuya and Ken Murata dive headfirst into a bathtub and return to the magical land of Shin Makoku, where they are the royal Maoh (Demon King) and Daikenja (Great Sage) respectively. Something doesn't seem quite right though, and it's clear that the Mazoku nobles are hiding something from Yuuri. Maybe his coming of age ceremony will help clear up the mystery.

The longevity of Kyou Kara Maoh! alone speaks for its continued popularity. But that means that the creators aren't about to mess with success, and all of the things I detested about the series before are back for a third inning: the lame-brained humor that never actually makes me laugh, the appalling quality of the animation and the backgrounds, and the lack of narrative direction. Fans will already be sold, but for everyone else it's gonna be hard to convince them to buy.


Nabari no Ou ep. 2

Rating: 4.5 (of 5)

Review: If Naruto's Ninja Way is never to break a promise, we could say that Miharu Rokujou's Ninja Way is never to make an effort. If ever there was a bishounen who doesn't sweat, it's this guy. But in fact, all of the characters of <i>Nabari no Ou</i> have some bizarre quirk or another. Raimei Shimizu, an impetuous girl who shows up in episode two to challenge the bearer of the Hijutsu, seems at times unable to recognize faces. And the children's English teacher Kumohira, who faces down shuriken without blinking, is deathly afraid of any and all moving vehicles that achieve greater speeds than a bicycle—which makes an otherwise uneventful trip to the Fuma Clan's hidden village on Raimei's suggestion quite an experience. Once they get there, however, will they find succor…or just a pile of dead bodies?

What can I say? Attractive visuals, well-choreographed action scenes, perfect comedic timing—Nabari no Ou has it all. It also has motifs borrowed from The Matrix (unreadable text dripping down the screen) and Shrek II (a character with a disarmingly dewy-eyed stare), among others, but this does not make it feel in any way derivative. If anything, it just makes it better. I'm totally loving this series and can't wait to see what happens next.


SA -Special A- ep. 2

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: The world has changed, but Hikari Hanazono doesn't know it yet. In this episode, the student council president challenges Special A to a duel. If he wins, he gains admittance to Special A. For inexplicable reasons, he chooses to wage war with them in a pro wrestling match, hoping that his muscle-bound proxies will emerge victorious. Hikari is thrilled, naturally, and rises to this challenge, but Kei Takishima, newly infatuated with his rival, doesn't want her to get hurt. So he tries to protect her, even in the face of dirty tactics…and then he realizes that coddling her is not the best way to win her affection. Besides, it's only when they work together that they win.

Eh. A bit of a letdown, to be honest. The gags, which were so funny the first time, are largely recycled here, and I'm having trouble laughing at the same joke twice. In fact, a Takishima in love is proving to be a deadly boring Takishima; he works much better as a character one loves to hate. I'm also getting tired of Hikari's perennial position as Number Two—it's amusing for awhile, but at the end of the day it's just mean. When will the girl get to be Number One? Do I have the willpower to sit through the rest of Special A to find out?


Amatsuki

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: Whoa. The protagonist's name is Tokidoki!!! How totally weird is that?!

Ahem. Sorry, couldn't resist.

Unfortunately, having been given the name “Sometimes” by his parents is the least of Tokidoki Rikugou's problems. A more pressing one is his utter ignorance of history—a trip to a high-tech Bakumatsu era museum exhibit turns out to be more than just a make up exercise for a lousy exam score when he is actually transported back in time to that era! And the trip is a violent one; he is attacked by a being called a Nue and loses the use of his left eye. At least Tokidoki finds friends in the past, including another time-displaced student whom he met previously at the exhibit and a fierce woman who wears her hair like a scarf, to help him on what will undoubtedly be a long road home.

Time travel fantasies are a perennially popular subgenre, and Amatsuki, based on a Zero Sum manga by Shinobu Takayama, is shaping up to be a solid new entry. The animation is attractive, and the first episode takes a few unusual whacks at socio-historical criticism. Even the standard “You don't know how easy you've had it, kid!” shounen manga-type admonishment acquires an extra bit of gravitas when spoken by a person from a feudal age to a person from a modern one. Anyway, this series is shaping up to better than I had anticipated going into it, and I think it's worth following for the present to see how the story evolves.


Crystal Blaze

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: Something strange is afoot, and women are being turned into shimmering glass statues, leaving the authorities baffled and frustrated. Clearly (ha ha), it's a conspiracy of some sort, and a private detective agency staffed by both a deadly-serious adult and untried, happy-go-lucky young people is about to find themselves up to their eyeballs in it when they unwittingly take a job that involves protecting a mysterious living “glass maiden” from the equally mysterious parties that want her.

Crystal Blaze (or Glass Maiden) is quite the mixed bag, and I felt like I was watching two different series in one. The sequences involving the glass maidens had a torrid noir feel to them—lots of gunfights, high-speed chases, female nudity, and male glowers. The sequences involving the junior members of the detective agency, on the other hand, were quirky and almost cartoony, populated by such figures as an anthropomorphized dog and a guy in an apron that the girls endearingly call “Chi-Boss.” Only the bartending okama seems capable of transcending both worlds. Still, despite the stylistic schizophrenia, it's an intriguing story with plenty of potential. I plan to watch at least a couple more episodes to see if it lives up to that potential or not.


Penguin no Mondai

Rating: 1 (of 5)

Review: Guess what? Beckham has a secret he feels a desperate need to confess to the world: He's actually a penguin!! Err… Rii~ght. Because that blue, vaguely-ovoid shape might have left us confused, and of course we're already clear on just why, exactly, a talking penguin would be attending elementary school along with human children. Aren't we?

No, we're not, and it's not supposed to matter. Though I wouldn't care even if I did know why. To be perfectly honest, I've never hated a cartoon of any stripe so much in my entire life, and this one was less than ten minutes long! (Which was, I maintain, more than ten minutes too much. Having blood drawn with a blunt syringe would've been more fun.) Suffice it to say that if you're a five year old suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, this anime was made for you. All others, however, ought to proceed with extreme caution. Based on a CoroCoro gag serial by Yuuji Nagai, Penguin no Mondai was created for boys too young even for Weekly Shounen Jump, and it reproduces the supposed aesthetic tastes of that demographic—you know, the ones who think that watching a penguin bow and scrape for telling a girl that his best friend likes smelling her shoes is a howl and a half.


Himitsu –The Revelation–

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review: What if you could read minds after they are dead? In the world of Himitsu, you can, and the law utilizes this new technology to apprehend murderers. That's the raison d'etre, at least, but it still gives expert lip reader and Section Nine newcomer Aoki a bit of a shiver. As, for that matter, does the youthful but cold Chief Maki. In the first episode, Section Nine solves the case of a murdered housewife. Turns out that an ex-lover had returned after many years and tried to renew their relationship. She, however, was resistant, so he killed her.

Needless to say, the science here is a bit scronky. Run an MRI scan of a brain up to 48 hours after is original owner died? And all you need to do is store it in a portable cooler until then? Sorry…but no. I also find it quite interesting that the memories extracted from this process take the form of silent images. Perhaps this is the bias of the visual-centric of manga and anime, but to think that memories might not also just as reasonably be expressed as, say, sound seems quite odd to me.

Still, the premise offers intriguing ethical possibilities that the anime is just beginning to explore here. Mangaka Reiko Shimizu (Moon Child, Kaguya-hime) is a master of her craft and one of the most important creators alive today. This is the first time one of her works has been animated—for that reason alone, Himitsu is a must-see.


 Monochrome Factor

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review: Akira Nakaido is more accustomed to spending his time jamming on the school's roof than studying, but even the guitar is about to take second fiddle to the appearance of the mysterious Shirogane, a silver-braided bishounen modeling the ugliest excuse for high fashion since Tokyo Babylon’s Subaru Sumeragi. For some strange reason, normally benign creatures of the Shadow world are attacking humans, and when placed in a rough spot along with some of his classmates, Akira's only recourse is to exchange a reluctant kiss with the rather overeager Shirogane and become a Shadow himself!

Question: What results when a manga from the mid-list gets adapted into a thirteen-episode anime series? Answer: An equally middling onscreen experience, naturally. While I've no objection whatsoever (Quite the contrary!) to lustful bishounen as a matter of course, this just seems over the top silly. As do the random Shadow attacks. What damns this anime eternally, however, is its poor quality; action scenes are choreographed poorly, and what effort was expended felt misdirected. I'm quite willing to bet that Monochrome Factor looks cheaper than it actually is. It really makes me wonder sometimes—why do the Japanese bother? Well…I hope, dear reader, that you will be smart enough not to.


 Vampire Knight ep. 2

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: Vampire Knight’s faithful reenactment of Matsuri Hino's original manga continues in this episode. St. Valentine's Day is coming to the Cross Academy, and the girls of the Day Class are all gearing up to offer chocolates to their idols in the Night Class. The holiday is anything but fun and games for Yuki and Zero, however. Zero's mysterious ailment is getting worse, he's picking fights with the vampires, and the blood tablets that certain personages tell him will relieve his suffering don't seem to help at all.

Watching a large number of new anime series at once for the purposes of this Preview provides an unusual, large-scale perspective on an array of new titles across the field, and one of the newer trends that seems to be fast proliferating is the use of a soft-focus, washed out color palette. Vampire Knight utilizes lots of pastels as well, and, like say xxxHOLiC, I think the anime would have been better served by a more vibrant, saturated palette. Think about it—what's more vivid a red than fresh blood?

Even so, this is a decent series that will surely please both newcomers and fans alike. It does, after all, take its cues from the artistry of a mangaka at the height of her powers—and has the wisdom not to make dramatic alterations.


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