The Spring 2008 Anime Preview Guide
Carlo Santos

by Carlo Santos, Apr 8th 2008

Carlo's Bio:
Carlo is an engineer by trade, which doesn't really have anything to do with anime and manga, except for the part that involves obsessing over minute details and memorizing lots of useless information. He can most often be found curled up with the latest manga releases in America as he works on his biweekly manga column. When not consuming various forms of Japanese entertainment, he can also be found parked in front of the PS3 enjoying the latest in "next-gen gaming" (whatever that means these days), or at the piano playing the hits of Mozart, Chopin, and Berryz Kobo. Thankfully, his apartment is not nearly as messy as Nodame's.



Kanokon

Rating:
1 (of 5)

Review: Hey guys! It's the ecchi high school version of Spice and Wolf! Actually, in all seriousness ... it's just ecchi and high school. For those who can't get enough of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed (literally) moe girls, Kanokon has come to fill that void. Episode 1 sees undersized high-schooler Kouta constantly bombarded by the romantic advances of his classmate Chizuru, who comes equipped with a Saaya Irie-sized chest. Unfortunately, that is not the only thing she comes equipped with, as Kouta soon discovers—Chizuru turns out to be a fox spirit too! Even more shockingly (and this is where the episode really starts going off the rails), Chizuru also has the power to possess Kouta and talk to him while she is inside him. Creepy, I know.



It's hard to say why anyone would find this appealing—maybe it's the whole "Aww, but it's a fox girl, and that's cute!" thing. But what exactly is so cute about shoving her breasts in some boy's face and flashing her panties at him? The second half of the episode is particularly nauseating, as fox-Chizuru starts coming on to Kouta in a way that approaches borderline porn. One could probably guess the entire plotline for the rest of the series from here, as Kouta will continue to run like hell from Chizuru's shameless advances (the preview for Episode 2 promises hot springs action). Visually, the animation is average or worse—except for the fanservice scenes, of course—and the theme songs will be just as quickly forgotten as the singer who performed them. The series gets a single point for warm pastel colors in the artwork.



Chi's Sweet Home



Rating: 3 (of 5)



Review: If you want to complain about the wussification of the hobby, don't blame it on Shinji Ikari or the moe genre—blame it on men's manga magazines that keep running namby-pamby domestic cutefests like Yotsuba&! and, well, Chi's Sweet Home. That said ... Chi's Sweet Home is actually not bad, and one would have to try pretty hard to actively dislike it. The premise is simple and likable enough—a kitten named Chi gets separated from its mother, then ends up being taken in by a human family—and the 2-minute episodes present the ideal bite-size slices of life. The simple character designs and artwork suit the show perfectly; if it got any more complex, you'd have to start worrying about things like plot and character development. Instead, Chi is simply about the ups and downs of cat life, whether it's trying to go outside or dodging the horror of horrors known as a bath.



Obviously, if your idea of anime is epic 100-episode slugfests where people power-up and fight over the course of several seasons, this is not going to fit the bill. Even slice-of-life fans accustomed to the smooth, languid pace of series like Aria might find Chi too shallow and jumpy, with its teeny-tiny episodes, crude animation technique, and lighthearted throwaway music. But in the space of just two minutes, Chi's feline misadventures always manage to generate a little jolt of happiness and wash away one's troubles. And that can be worth just as much entertainment as a 100-episode slugfest.



Bus Gamer



Rating:
3 (of 5)



Review: Make no mistake: Bus Gamer is about bad dudes being ... bad. Are you a bad enough dude to play the "Biz Game"? That's the premise of this series, where three unconnected young men (the main character, the rebel, and the kid) are drawn into an underground blood sport run by big corporations. Win enough fights, and you win big money—which is basically what motivates these characters. Although the idea is interesting enough, the way it's presented in Episode 1 is a bit overdone—everyone's hellbent on acting as tough as possible (except for the kid, who is hilarious) and they keep repeating the symbolically ominous scenes where black crows fly over the city. Okay, we get it, the story is dark and the characters are dark and even the first streetfight they get into occurs when it's dark.



Although the story lumbers along in introducing the characters, things start to run more smoothly once the action kicks in—an all-out brawl in an old warehouse, complete with blunt weapons and a hard-rock soundtrack. This is good old macho-man anime, and if you don't mind your macho men looking a bit on the bishounen side (this is by the creator of Saiyuki, after all) then it's probably worth it for the action—and possibly some corporate intrigue in the later episodes. Just don't expect it to be terribly cerebral or emotional—bad dudes don't have time to talk about that sissy crap.




Blassreiter

Rating:
3.5 (of 5)



Review: One of Gonzo's flagship titles in its new digital distribution program, Blassreiter showcases what the studio likes to do best: shiny sci-fi action with a touch of personal drama. Episode 1 starts out as action-packed as possible, with a motorcycle race that goes awry when an "Amalgam"—a reanimated corpse enhanced with mechanical parts—starts attacking people at the track. One of the victims is Gerd Frentzen, a world-class racer whose career is shattered after the incident leaves him wheelchair-bound. But a mysterious doctor offers Gerd a miracle pill ... and suddenly, the task force that hunts down Amalgams finds itself equipped with a new superhuman weapon. Sure sounds like a Gonzo project! And if the story concept didn't clue you in, the heavy use of 3D CGI animation should—this one goes all-out in showing off slick motorcycling technique and the freakish, insect-like movements of the Amalgams.

A highly dramatic music score also adds to these ultra-dynamic battles.

However, back in 2D-land, viewers will find the visual style less dazzling—there's still plenty of that modern-futurist shine, but the main characters move pretty stiffly when they're not on their amazing CGI bikes. As for the actual story, it's too early to say how things will develop, but there are a number of promising points: Gerd clearly has some bitterness and motivation behind him, and the anti-creature task force will probably spend lots of time digging into this cyborg-demon mystery. While fighting monsters on motorbikes. Did I mention that part? Even if the rest sounds like typical sci-fi blather, I'm coming for the motorbike fights.



Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion R2

Rating: 3.5

Review: I can still remember watching the first episode of Code Geass, being mildly horrified at the wacky "YAY JAPAN! BANZAI FOR 10,000 YEARS" jingoism, and walking away never to return. Those who continued watching the show, however, enjoyed a gripping mecha-flavored war drama. Quick recap: the Empire of Britannia (AMERICA) is currently oppressing the people of Region 11 (former nation of JAPAN), and the rebellion in the previous series failed after their leader Zero was executed. Or was he? Series 2 begins with Lelouch, an idealistic young Britannian, witnessing some discrimination that leads to a confrontation with an older, conservative Britannian. Soon after, mechas come storming in, Lelouch looks death in the eye, but a mysterious girl saves him at the last moment as he recovers lost memories and realizes that he is Zero! The rebellion lives!

If nothing else, the new Code Geass is a visual showpiece, flaunting its through-the-roof budget with rich colors, slick action scenes, and surreal effects when Lelouch regains his memory. CLAMP's distinctive curvilinear character designs also catch the eye. As for the story, well ... the ethno-political undertones still weird me out personally, but the oppressed vs. oppressor conflict is a timeless theme, and Episode 1's final scene promises plenty of drama to come. Perhaps too much drama—the villain's "There is no sin or injustice" speech and Lelouch's booming "Zero voice" are where it just gets silly, and that whooshing sound you hear in the background is the rating taking a nosedive after seeing that scene. But if you like flashy futuristic action and intense personal drama, you've probably already decided to watch Code Geass R2.


To-Love-Ru

Rating:
2.5 (of 5)

Review: From the manga-ka who gave us the most generic shounen action series ever (Black Cat) comes ... the most generic shounen romance ever! (Okay, so he only did the art, but still.) Here's the checklist: a weedy high school boy, a busty and promiscuous fantasy girl, a bratty best friend, a shrill mascot character, bathtub nudity, and even a time-wasting transformation scene. Goodness, my brain shuts down just thinking about it. In this story, Rito is a high school boy whose every attempt to confess to the girl of his dreams has ended in disaster. The latest disaster turns out to be a UFO crash, and when Rito gets home, he meets the UFO's pilot: an overly friendly alien girl named Lala who doesn't quite understand the concept of clothing. Let the fun times begin!

Surprisingly, there are some redeeming traits to the first episode: namely, the brilliant slapstick sequences like Rito's history of failed confessions and Lala's over-the-top vacuum attack. In fact, if this series could survive on pure energy alone—the pacing is almost hyperactive at times—it'd be a surefire winner. But outside of that, it's the same stuff we've seen in every boy-meets-girl anime. Who wants to bet that the second episode will involve more of Rito fleeing from Lala while she tries to "marry" him?

The animation technique doesn't stand out very much, although rapid-fire scene changes do help to boost the aforementioned manic pacing. The pop-rock comedy soundtrack doesn't leave much of an impression either. In fact, you could say that about the whole package—apart from the occasional comedy brilliance, it's really rather dull.


xxxHOLiC: Kei

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review: It's time to go to my happy place. And where is that happy place? The surreal world of xxxHOLiC: Kei, which picks up where the original series left off and plunges straight into one of the best story arcs from the manga. Spirit-seeing Watanuki is still working for eccentric sorceress Yuuko, while also fawning over school cutie Himawari and getting in fights with rival Doumeki. Watanuki and Doumeki's latest spat leads to serious business as Doumeki accidentally brings misfortune upon himself—and Watanuki tries to make up by bearing the brunt of the curse. This turn of events brings out all the things that make the series among the best in the genre: muted colors, subtle-but-ominous imagery (beware of spiders), chilling music, and a brooding pace that makes even a 5 a.m. conversation in the playground feel intense. There's also a good balance of comedy to keep things from getting too serious—Watanuki's cantakerous outbursts, Yuuko's self-centered demands, and an elaborate Alice in Wonderland gag that beats everything else so far this season.

The only disappointment is that there is no way the anime is ever going to match the stylishness of the manga: the characters' lanky proportions look horribly wrong in a number of places (most notably when Watanuki and Doumeki are walking to school), and it's easy to spot cheap animation at work during less-than-critical scenes. But these shortcomings are easily compensated by the ethereal mood, an intriguing story (Watanuki and Doumeki's friendship just got a whole lot more complex), and a sophisticated design aesthetic. Oh, and as a reader of the manga, I can safely say it's only going to get better.


Vampire Knight


Rating:
2.5

Review: Some anime series are sponsored by Pizza Hut. This one ought to be sponsored by Hot Topic! Vampire Knight goes for the "dark but beautiful" side of the undead, with lanky bishounen guys, elaborately trimmed school uniforms, and pseudo-classical music for added gothic ambience. The story follows Yuki Cross, who as a young girl was attacked by a pedophile vampire, but was saved by another vampire. Now a teenager, Yuki is a prefect at Cross Academy, a unusual boarding school where humans attend the Day Class, while the Night Class consists of—you guessed it—vampires! Among them is Kaname Kuran, the vampire who saved Yuki's life, which leads to all sorts of emotional complications. Yuki's fellow prefect, Zero, has complications of his own (he hates all vampires), as well as a shocking secret...

Now here's the shocking secret of this anime: so far, it actually makes more sense than the manga. With backgrounds and colors a requirement, it's pretty easy to follow the action and tell characters apart (despite having fairly generic designs). Unfortunately, the animation work also happens to be in the hands of notorious cheapskates Studio DEEN, which means lots of slow pans and still frames. The story, too, comes out rather awkward—frequent flashback interruptions, long stretches of dour dialogue, and then bursts of comedy that don't quite fit the mood of the series. All right, so they're trying to lighten things up from the overly melodramatic manga, but this ham-handed approach isn't really working. As things go, it's a tolerable vampire story with some nice design touches, but with the new xxxHOLiC also running this season, where do you think I'm going to go to for my horror/supernatural fix?


Special A

Rating: 2.5

Review: Congratulations! S.A wins the Lazy Animation of the Year Award! This blandly drawn effort appears to have been outsourced to the nether pits of the industry. At least they preserved the premise of the manga: Hikari Hanazono is a student who attends the elite "Special A" class at her school, but she's still only second best because she's been never been able to defeat longtime rival Kei Takishima. And while Kei loves picking on Hikari, he does show a tender side by coming to her aid (which apparently involves ripping open his shirt; why hello there Hosaka) when she's confronted by school thugs. As entertaining as this rivalry might be, though, the real fun is to be found with the other members of the Special A class—Megumi the mute, Akira the tomboy, Tadashi the wandering flake, and other brilliant but bizarre students.

Like a previous show mentioned above, if this one ran on pure energy alone, it'd be a winner—the rapid-fire sight gags and amusing characters make sure of that. But the level of production is poor enough to drag everything else down: a flat art style that turns the character designs into mush, forgettable color schemes, and every imaginable cheat to avoid having to draw more than a few frames of animation per second. And don't remind me about the idol-pop reject theme songs. Then there are the contrived, unfunny scenes like the procession into school, Kei and Hikari's overblown gym class battle, and their pink-colored shoujo-bubbly "romantic moment." Aside from this awkwardness, there are some honest laughs to be had in this series, but you'll have to ask yourself if your eyes can take it.


Itazura na Kiss

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: Poor Kotoko Aihara! The guy of her dreams, Naoki Irie, has just rejected her without even looking at her love letter. At least she's got friends coming over to help her commiserate—until an earthquake flattens the Aihara house, leaving Kotoko and her dad in search of a new home. Luckily, a friend of Kotoko's dad has agreed to help her out ... but who should happen to be a member of the host family but cold-hearted Naoki. Can Kotoko survive the awkwardness of living with the heartthrob who rejected her for being a "stupid girl"? More importantly, can viewers survive a modern adaptation of a groundbreaking (for its time) shoujo manga that's almost two decades old?

The answer to the second question is mostly yes—the old-school aesthetic and "soft" 90's character designs are still evident, but today's digital animation techniques add a pleasing level of clarity and polish. The story, too, covers a surprising amount of ground in the first episode, and if the gears of romance between Kotoko and Naoki keep turning as fast as they are right now, this should be a fun, bouncy love-love ride. But as much as We Love The 90's, there are some things best left in the past: the marriage fantasy in the first scene feels awkwardly archaic, the school-life scenes are kind of generic and draggy, and the opening and ending sequences are a little too in love with neon colors and funky fashions. Gotta love that Go!Go!7188 ending theme, though. All in all, it's not terribly mind-blowing or ambitious (however, I look forward to being proven wrong), but it's still darn cute.


Kure-nai

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review: What kind of anime does it take to grab my attention? A super-stylish opening sequence and perfectly choreographed action in the first few scenes should do the trick. The latest project from studio Brains Base (Kamichu!, Baccano!) is another triumph of their distinctive visual style: memorable character designs, a wide-ranging color palette, and fluid gesture animation that would make even Ghibli sit up and take notice. But what's it about? Seven-year-old Murasaki Kuhouin is an aristocratic daughter who longs to break free of her family's stifling bonds, and she gets just the opportunity when a mysterious, influential woman named Benika helps her escape. Benika leaves Murasaki in the care of a high school boy named Shinkurou Kure-nai, thus leading to an unusual new living arrangement for the two kids.

All right, so it sounds like an advanced version of Baby and Me for now, but there's more—it appears that various secondary characters will play a role later on, although this episode does a lousy job of introducing them and just confuses the issue. But if you can ignore the distractions of the supporting cast, the relationship between Shinkurou and Murasaki is what really shines—the boy suddenly has to grow up several years as he learns to take care of her, while the girl must survive the culture shock of being moved from extreme wealth to common city life. Being a character-driven drama, however, it probably won't hit its stride until the story moves further along and the audience gets emotionally attached. But if there's one thing I'm already emotionally attached to, it's the gorgeous piano jazz/ballad soundtrack. Great music, great art, great characters ... sounds like a great show to me.


Zettai Karen Children

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review: Sugar, spice, and everything nice. These were the ingredients chosen to create the perfect little girl ... until Zettai Karen Children mashed it up into this crazy spoof of the mahou shoujo, tokusatsu, and psychic genres! When there's crime to be fought, the city calls on the "Absolutely Lovely Children"—three grade-school girls with remarkable ESP abilities. Episode 1 sees them battling the flamboyantly homoerotic villain Muscle Okama, who shoots energy beams out of his crotch, thus catapulting the series past the threshold of "Stupid comedy that's just stupid" and over to "Stupid comedy that comes out the other end as awesome." Although it's a kids' action show on the surface, ZKC is clearly up for some nod-nod wink-wink gags: the aforementioned Muscle Okama, the lead heroine's obsession with female body parts, a sentai-style heroic entrance, and plenty of self-parodying jabs in the dialogue. With the energy and pacing so frenetic, if there's one gag that didn't hit your funnybone, there'll probably be another one right around the corner.

What may be even more surprising is that it doesn't rely on comedy alone—the battle between the girls and Okama is a fine action sequence in its own right, with slick moves and dynamic angles that show effort on the animators' part. A hint of big band jazz in the bubblegum soundtrack also adds a retro touch, reminding us that this is all a big joke about those classic action-hero shows. Sure, the whole thing rides on a generic formula, but when you're twisting the formula like this, it becomes a campy delight. And really, is it even possible to say the words "Absolutely Lovely Children" without breaking into a goofy smile?


Allison and Lillia

Rating: 4.5 (of 5)

Review: Ever watch the first episode of a series and you just know you've got to follow it all the way through? Allison and Lillia falls into that must-see category, with its unique setting, visual style and the promise of adventure. The story takes place in an alternate world similar to the early 20th century, where a boy named Wil finds himself reuniting with his old friend Allison, who makes her dramatic entrance by landing a biplane in a meadow. They later run into an old man who shares some intriguing war stories, but the conversation is cut short when a "government official" takes him away. Something isn't quite right, though, and Allison—ever eager to make use of her pilot training—convinces Wil that they'll have to take to the sky to rescue their elderly friend.

It may sound dorky on paper, but one look at it on screen and the sense of adventure comes alive. With detailed old-school airplanes, lush countryside backgrounds, and young kids on an epic quest, it's like everything you love about Miyazaki without actually being directed by Miyazaki. The design aesthetic evokes pre-WWII nostalgia in the best way possible, along with a music score that soars with orchestral grandeur. I can't remember the last time it felt so freakin' cool just to watch anime characters riding vintage vehicles—Porco Rosso, maybe? The only gripe is that this episode takes forever to get to the good stuff. The pace drags its way through the first 18 minutes, but once the chase begins, it's on. And the clincher? The original novels were written by the creator of Kino's Journey. Now go watch.


Soul Eater

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: This is it, guys? This is the big fancy ultra-hyped new project from Studio Bones? Soul Eater may be big on stylishness and action, but the story appears to be another wearisome retread of the supernatural genre. Meet Soul Eater, a boy who isn't exactly a boy—he's actually a spiritual weapon who hopes to someday become a Shinigami's Death Scythe. Helping Soul in his quest is Maka, a girl who wields Soul in his scythe form as they capture the souls needed for Death Scythe status. Unfortunately, all it takes is one bungled mission and suddenly they have to start all over. Not exactly innovative, is it? It doesn't help that the characters take on predictable traits—Soul is the overeager shounen brat, Maka is the sassy voice of reason, and various side characters provide obligatory comic relief. With a setup like that, I am hoping beyond hope that "it gets better later on."

Fortunately, there are some parts that have already gotten good—the spiky, dynamic art is so modern, so ultra-cool, that it might be best described as Shibuya-esque. Because that's how Soul and his peers dress, and the world that they fight in has that funky neon city glow. The action scenes, too, make fantastic use of tilted perspective and unexpected angles to drive home the fact that you ain't seen nothing like this. The raw, irreverent visual style—along with an energetic pop-rock soundtrack—might be the only thing carrying this series right now, at least until the story gets out of genre-land and develops into something cool. (It does get better down the line, right? Promise me? This is Studio Bones we're talking about, after all...)


Neo Angelique ~Abyss~

Rating: 1 (of 5 ... or 10, maybe)

Review: I'd like to think I'm an equal opportunity reviewer. If I give a harsh grade to a piece of tawdry, male-oriented fanservice, you can bet I'll give that same grade to a piece of tawdry, female-oriented fanservice. The game-based Neo Angelique ~Abyss~ is this season's bishounen-packed atrocity, plowing through clichés the way a fangirl plows through yaoi: Angelique is a boarding school student whose AMAZING DESTINY is revealed when she meets a gorgeous older man. He tells her that she is a "Purifier," equipped with the ability to defeat the Thanatos (evil creatures) that are plaguing the country. What's more, she is the only female purifier, meaning that her powers could potentially save the world ... and score her a lot of dates with hot guys. What, they didn't have time to spirit her away to an alternate world that resembles an ancient historical country?

If there's one area where this series succeeds, it's in providing eye candy: the male characters are uniformly gorgeous, and apparently the cast of Kyo kara Maoh! managed to find some work in between series. But everything else fails miserably: the bland fantasy-RPG landscapes, the ultra-cheesy action and special effects, and the unintentionally hilarious choir music that starts up when Angelique awakens her powers. See, what'd I tell you about the horrible clichés? Also seen in this episode: some dude with a midriff-baring shirt, an obligatory flashback of Angelique's oh-so-traumatic childhood, and (for God knows what reason) the freakin' Aurora Borealis. If that hasn't scared you off completely, just be careful not to gaze too long at Neo Angelique ~Abyss~, lest the ~Abyss~ also gaze back into you.


Kure-nai Episode 2

Rating: 5 (of 5)

Review: With the introductory material now out of the way, Kure-nai begins to make its case as one of this season's true masterpieces. Episode 2 sees Shinkurou trying his best to take care of mischievous Murasaki—don't leave the house, there's food in the fridge, call me if you need anything—but this poor little rich girl doesn't even know how to open packages of convenience food. When Shinkurou finally gets home, he takes Murasaki to the public baths, but even that becomes an adventure as she must learn proper manners towards others. And at the end of the day, Shinkurou's work still isn't over—he has another job from Benika, one of a more serious nature...

This kind of character-driven episode is exactly what the series needs, and best of all, it does it with great charm and a sense of humor. It's all the little details that make it so delightful: Murasaki trying to open a tuna can bare-handed, or meeting the flaky neighbors, or blowing bubbles in the bath. Her quirky conversations with Shinkurou also reveal an amusing culture clash—"What's a convenience store?" Meanwhile, the final scene where Shinkurou does his dirty work as a "dispute mediator" reminds us that there's still some serious business at hand. Once again, every minute of the episode is animated flawlessly; even mundane actions like biting into a cookie or shampooing one's hair have an expressive quality. The piano-centric soundtrack also reveals new tunes that make the CD a must-buy, from light, jaunty pieces to more sentimental moods. When all the elements of a great anime start coming together like this, it's about as close as you can get to perfection.


Kamen no Maid Guy

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review: In theory, you'd think a series like Maid Guy would be an instant comedy hit. It's about a guy ... who dresses as a maid. How could it possibly go wrong? As it turns out, repetitive lowbrow gags and substandard visuals are enough to ruin the concept. Everything comes out thoroughly mediocre, including the storyline: Naeka Fujiwara is six months away from her 18th birthday, but certain unsavory folks are trying to get their hands on the Fujiwara family fortune before it's legally passed on to her. In order to protect Naeka and her brother, Naeka's grandfather sends a little help her way: a musclebound, frilly-dress-wearing toughie who goes by the nickname of Maid Guy. Unfortunately, Maid Guy's idea of "help" often borders on sexual harrassment, and thus the hilarity begins. Or not. Most of the jokes are unimaginative riffs on Naeka's breast size or Maid Guy's brutishness, with no comedic finesse or clever timing to be found—it's just crude bursts of ecchi humor and random acts of violence.

Of course, that kind of crudeness might be expected considering the low animation budget: most of the scenes involve outrageous static images, talking-head dialogue, or repetitive motions. If there's one strong point to be found, it's that the characters' outbursts of emotion are a whole lot of fun, especially when Naeka starts lashing out, and a couple of the gags are genuinely worth it (the last scene where Maid Guy sets himself on fire is gloriously wacky). Actually, Maid Guy's behavior by itself is pretty entertaining; it's the whole part about coming up with enough material for a full episode that drags the show down. Great concept, poor execution.


Nabari no Ou

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: Hey guys, I have a great idea for an anime! What if ninjas secretly existed in the modern world? Quick, I need the contact number for Japan so I can get it made by an anime studio!

What? It's called Nabari no Ou? And it's about a high school boy named Miharu Rokujo, who gets pulled into a secret ninja war because he has a power called Hijutsu that marks him as the future ruler of a hidden ninja society called Nabari? All right then.

While this series' premise hews a little too close to the hopes and dreams of Naruto fanfic writers, it does come with some seriously slick presentation. Episode 1's hand-to-hand ninja battles are an animator's paradise of smoothness and quick pacing, and Miharu's manifestation of his Hijutsu is a true special-effects extravaganza. But the more subtle side of the series excels as well: hand-drawn watercolor backgrounds add an unusual softness to the artwork, and the strong symphonic influences of the soundtrack bring style and grace to the concept of ninja warfare.

It's just the story part that gives cause for concern: we've been through this whole "teenage hero discovers amazing hidden powers" song-and-dance before, and it'd suck if it turned out that the next several episodes were all about Miharu training his abilities by fighting increasingly difficult opponents. However, the opening and ending sequences suggest that more interesting characters are on the way to join Miharu's team (watch out Bleach, these guys are almost just as stylish). Add in the strong visuals and classy music, and the battle for Nabari looks to be a treat for the eyes and ears.


Kyou Kara Maou! Season 3

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review: The one thing I always liked about Kyou Kara Maou! is that, for all its epic-fantasy bishounen trappings, it never took itself too seriously. Episode 1 of the new series starts out on the right note: Yuuri Shibuya, the once-and-future Maou (Demon King), is living his normal teenage life when he runs into classmate (and Demon King's right-hand-man) Murata. They decide it's time for another trip to the kingdom of Shin Makoku, which involves ... magically traveling through bathtub water. Hilarity (mostly on the part of Yuuri's family) ensues. Something is rotten in Shin Makoku, however, as Yuuri's staff seem to be hiding things from him, and fellow nobleman Wolfram is attacked on the road by bandits. Is the kingdom's stability in danger?

I don't know about the kingdom, but the series' stability is in no trouble—this new season puts the episode count into the high 70's and beyond, promising a guaranteed viewership even if the studio completely mails it in. Unfortunately, that's exactly what they seem to be doing: the character animation looks stiff, the one major action scene is unconvincing, and the backgrounds—apart from some nice establishing shots of the kingdom—are stylistically boring. The storyline, too, is only setting the stage at this point and lacks a strong hook to keep on watching. At least the humor is still on point: the aforementioned bathroom scene, Günter's flamboyant gushing over "His Majesty," and a test of strength that involves a raging killer panda. Mildly entertaining stuff, but it looks like the real point of the series is to cater to fans who were already there in the first place.


Golgo 13

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: In the world of hardcore badass dudes, few are as hardcore as Golgo 13, he of the hundred-plus manga volumes. The debut episode of the TV series sees him doing what he does best—the impossible. A terrorist has hijacked a plane and redirected it to Colombia, but there's a chance to stop him while it's refueling at an intermediate airport. The authorities call on Duke Togo (Golgo 13's real name ... perhaps) to come in and snipe the target from a ridiculously long distance right through the airplane cockpit window. No ordinary human could pull off a sniper shot under those conditions—but then again, Golgo 13 is no ordinary human. Now if that's not a hardcore badass plotline, I don't know what is. Unfortunately, it also sounds like the plotline of a bajillion summer blockbuster movies, so your mileage may definitely vary with this one.

What does work in the show's favor is its cool, detached atmosphere—subdued colors, jazz-tinged background music, and the suspenseful pacing that carries all the way through to that final sniper shot. Yeah, we all know that Golgo always gets his man, but seeing how he goes about his business is what makes the story tick. However, being a grown-up manly man's series, it also lacks much of the energy or creative spark of more typical anime—the animation quality is merely adequate, most of the character designs consist of stern-looking guys, and watching Important Political People discuss the situation in the early part of the episode is a bore. In terms of capturing the spirit of the manga, this show nails it—but whether that spirit will attract new viewers is really a matter of personal taste.


Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion R2 episode 2

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: In Japan, the nail that sticks up gets hammered down—unless he has the power to control people's minds! Having regained his "Geass" powers and memories as the rebel leader Zero, Lelouch continues on the warpath of uncivil disobedience in Episode 2. Britannia is sending in reinforcements to deal with the rebels who have stormed a major skyscraper, but Lelouch has a plan. After talking things over with his allies, it's time to demonstrate his tactical brilliance with some hot mecha action and full-scale explosions. One fallen building and one dead military leader later, he addresses the world as Zero and announces that he has resumed his quest to topple Britannia.

Bringing down the establishment has never looked so cool—giant robot combat is the highlight of this episode, and the animation gives a true sense of size and power as the machines grapple with each other. A climactic exploding building and clever tactical maneuvers don't hurt, either.

Unfortunately, this "good stuff" doesn't happen until the last third of the episode, and the rest of it involves patchwork flashbacks (aha, here's another part of Lelouch's memory!) and various secondary-character activities. Let's also not forget the wordy technobabble durring the planning phases—"Interceptor will go up to 1500 and make a turn," whatever that means—and pardon me while I laugh at Lelouch's booming, over-dramatic speeches as Zero. If this series is going for epic grandeur, it's certainly got that nailed down—high-budget visuals and fully orchestrated music usually do the trick—but overall, the execution is a little off in this episode. It'll probably take a while longer to really get all the pieces moving.


Kyōran Kazoku Nikki

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: What's with all the furries in anime these days? 2008 has already brought us a wolfgirl show and two foxgirl shows, and now Kyōran Kazoku Nikki comes waltzing in with the world's most inane catgirl. Kyouka-sama lives life on her terms and thinks she's a god, but a twist of fate leads to her getting shotgun-married to a paranormal investigator (and the only normal person in the cast) named Ouka. You see, there's a very good reason for this: Kyouka is the reincarnation of an ancient monster, and domestic life is the safest way to keep her in check. However, other fragments of that monster also remain, and Ouka and Kyouka must adopt them as children: a little girl (okay, that's normal), a jellyfish, a lion, a cyborg, and a flamboyantly gay boy. Clearly not the average family.

Although not necessarily a comedy masterpiece, this show is definitely high entertainment, relying on amazing speed and energy for laughs. Jump onto Kyouka's bullet train of dialogue and you'll be clinging for dear life until she finally shuts up—the mealtime conversation between her and Ouka is particularly epic, with a plate of badly cooked fish for extra hilarity. The quest to find their new "children" also leads to plenty of golden slapstick moments—there's never a moment to rest because the next gag is always just a few seconds away. However, the art and animation style are decidedly average, and one has to wonder how long the series can last before the speed gimmick wears off. Kyouka's constant patter is a remarkable feat of voice acting (as are the rapid-fire theme songs), but can the material stay fresh and funny?


Penguin no Mondai

Rating: 0 (of 5)

Review: What on earth is this crap? It looks like an Adult Swim cartoon, and not the good kind. If you thought the CGI in Blassreiter was headache-inducing, you haven't seen Penguin no Mondai, which resembles an animation student's first project in cel shading. Ten minutes per episode is far too long for a series that basically involves the exploits of a mischievous penguin named Beckham who goes around making trouble for his grade-school pal Naoto. Yes, I know it's a young children's series, but that's no excuse—children deserve to see better than this trash. As a comedy character, Beckham is the lowest of the low, a one-dimensional mascot whose sole purpose in life is to be loud and annoying. The gags are woefully formulaic, even by kids' standards—hur hur, Naoto kicked Beckham all the way to the moon!—and aren't even worth cracking a smile for.

But none of this could possibly prepare you for the visual assault that passes for "animation" in the show. The Doraemon-esque character designs are understandable, but the awkward use of technology is a mess: the uneasy marriage between 3D model and cel shading is blatantly obvious, even to the point where you can see graphical glitches, and the gestures and motions look like a badly orchestrated puppet show. You could probably find video games with better image quality ... from last generation. And because the visuals are so horrible, forgive me if I ended up tuning out the childish background music. (I probably should've quit after hearing the asinine theme song.) Yeah, you know how people say Japanese animation is better than Western animation? Make them watch this sometime.


Allison and Lillia episode 2

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: I'm sorry folks, I lied. I know I promised you ENDLESS ADVENTURE! ... but the second episode of Allison and Lillia does not deliver on that front. It opens with a bit of adventure, as our heroes Wil and Allison fly into the enemy country of Sou Beil to rescue their elderly friend (and possibly find some historical treasure)—but end up crashing their plane instead. What happens next is talk, talk, talk: they take refuge in the home of a woman who is, at first, hostile towards Wil and Allison because of their nationality. However, as they learn more about each other, she warms up and realizes that people from the other side of the border are just like you and me. With that, Wil and Allison continue on their journey ... and the credits roll. What? Where's the flying? Where are the chases and epic gunfights with bad guys? Apparently, this adventure is taking the scenic route.

Not that there's anything wrong with the scenic route: this episode offers another picture gallery of rustic landscapes and sepia-toned sunsets, with lush music scoring to really set the mood. Character development is also handled well—we learn about Wil and Allison's orphaned upbringing, and the lady that they meet has her own stories about the tragedies of war (if a tad heavy-handed). Their conversations also reveal more historical background between the two warring countries—it's just that these conversations take up most of the episode. Looks like they really want us to have a solid grounding of the characters and the world they live in before digging into the action. I only hope they start digging into the action soon.


Nabari no Ou episode 2

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: A challenger appears! Her name: Sakura Haruno Raimei Shimizu, a feisty katana-wielding blonde who wishes to see Miharu's rumored "Hijutsu" powers in action. All she gets, however, is an apathetic schoolboy who still doesn't want to get mixed up in this whole Nabari thing, despite the best efforts of his ninja classmate Kouichi and ninja teacher Thobari. At Raimei's urging, they decide to take Miharu to the Hidden Leaf Village ninja village of Fuma for some training, but something is amiss over there...

Luckily, nothing is amiss with the series itself, which continues to apply its formula for success in Episode 2: a couple of well-choreographed action scenes, spiky and stylish character designs, eye-catching watercolor backgrounds, and a sprightly symphonic soundtrack. (Gershwin? Copland? Anderson? I was busy bouncing along to the music during the train-boarding scene.) More importantly, this episode also shows what sets it apart from other series of its kind: a sense of humor. Miharu's apathy is downright comical, the perfect foil to Raimei's hot-headedness, and even Thobari turns out to have some flaws of his own. In the wrong hands, these character traits would end up as tiresome gags, but the energy of the show and well-timed punchlines make it fun to watch even when the characters are just messing around. (Allison and Lillia, you could take a few lessons about how to do character development without getting boring and talky in the middle.) The action-adventure elements are dialed down this time around, and the plot hasn't take any dramatic turns, but it's still entertaining to see a squad of ninjas who can laugh about their work.


Da Capo II: Second Season

Rating: 2 (of 5)

Review: Believe it or not, it is not my mission to go out and hate every bishoujo-game-based anime out there. In fact, I enjoyed Kimikiss pure rouge very much. That said, D.C. II S.S. (good lord, what an acronym) is nowhere near the level of Kimikiss, and instead succumbs to every pitfall of the genre. It begins with our hero Yoshiyuki being woken up in the morning (hmm, that's normal) by pigtailed cutie Sakura (right, of course it's a girl) because he's late for school (kinda saw that coming) and a couple of his gal pals are waiting outside for him (uhhhhh). Congratulations, you have minced through several major clichés in just five minutes! Achievement unlocked! The rest of the episode sleepwalks through more high school slice-of-life drivel: Yoshiyuki's class is putting on a Christmas play where he plays the male lead, while his one-time sweetheart Koko plays the female lead, leading to all sorts of awkwardness. Then mysterious things happen in the last few minutes as Sakura stands near a cherry blossom tree for dramatic effect.

With its painfully slow pacing and insipid characters, this might as well be To Heart with a fresh coat of paint. Well, the fresh coat of paint does have its advantages—crisp lines, vivid colors, and some attractive background effects involving sakura petals—but apart from that, you'll be looking at a generic art style and unexciting animation technique. The twinkly, ultra-lite-pop soundtrack doesn't really help either. There's nothing particularly horrible about the show; it's just that the plot goes absolutely nowhere and everything feels so ... boring. It's as soft and sweet as cotton candy, with about the same nutritional value.


Himitsu ~The Revelation~

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: Would this make a great CSI spinoff, or what? In the near future, forensic investigators have turned to a technique called MRI (Memory Reproduction Imaging), which involves taking the brains of murder victims and extracting their memories as video footage in order to find their killers. However, the technique is still highly experimental and ethically questionable, so when lip-reading specialist Aoki joins the MRI team, he obviously has his doubts. Their first case involves a housewife who was murdered right outside her house, and despite her husband's desperate attempt to maintain privacy, her brain eventually ends up with the investigators, who dig up some bittersweet memories that she had been hiding her whole life ...

Ridiculous and cheesy? Well, sure! This one goes through a lot of headslap-worthy silliness: an emotionally unstable husband who tries to steal his wife's preserved brain, a dead-giveaway scene that totally tells you who the killer is, and every investigator's favorite trick, the miraculous image zoom that enhances the resolution of everything. Yet it's still mildly enjoyable for a crime series, if only because of that memory gimmick—looking into a dead person's recollections is bound to pull on a few heartstrings. Visually, the show goes for a serious, mature look: lots of shadow, contrast and detail, plus character designs that could have stepped straight out of some dead-serious seinen comic. It's not breaking any framerate barriers in the animation department, but eh, that's not the point of the crime-mystery genre anyway. This one basically takes the path of a standard police procedural, with all the wacky pseudoscience and improbable plotting that entails, and adds an unique quirk that might interest fans of the genre.


Amatsuki

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: What would you do if you were transported to a distant historical era? Embark on an epic adventure? Start a harem of the opposite sex? Or putz around and try to get your bearings? The third option is what happens in the first episode of Amatsuki, which ends up dragging through its second half despite a promising start. Tokidoki Rikugou is a student who just failed his History test, so for extra credit he visits a museum where attendees wear VR goggles to immerse themselves in the Bakumatsu era. Things are going swimmingly until Rikugou is attacked by a mythical beast called a nue—and when his goggles get smashed, he realizes he's trapped in the real Bakumatsu! Later on, he discovers that one of the guys he met at the museum also got sent back in time, and now they must survive in this old-fashioned world.

Out of all the ways to get sucked into a different time period, this ranks as one of the most interesting—if only because of the technology aspect. As far as creating a historical world, this one turns out pretty convincing, with architectural background details and a soundtrack laced with folk songs. The pivotal event of the episode—the battle with the nue—also works nicely, with its fast-paced combat set against an eye-catching sunset background. Unfortunately, it's all downhill from there, as the rest of the episode involves Rikugou trying to make sense of his new surroundings by talking to people, wandering around town, and talking to more people. That's not historical anime, that's boring anime. Barely adequate animation and dull colors also detract from a series that could have gotten off to a spectacular start if they'd tried a little harder.


Zettai Karen Children episode 2

Rating: 3(of 5)

Review: There's a very good reason why I found the first ZKC episode so entertaining: adorable little girls saving the world while using their psychic powers in amusing, self-parodying ways. Unfortunately, this episode botches it: you get people using psychic powers in amusing ways, you get adorable little girls saving the world, but not together. The intro scene nails the comedy portion, as does the tour of the psychic research facility, which even manages a mild spoof of Minority Report—this is the "people using psychic powers in funny ways" part. But the girls don't show up until later on, and when they do, it gradually descends into this overblown melodrama where Kaoru's powers go haywire and everyone tries to save her. NOT funny, not entertaining—in fact, this is the kind of psychic-genre junk I thought we were trying to make fun of. The only part where this episode gets it together is in the middle portion, where other psychics predict future disasters and the team heads out to avert them, only to find that they end up causing the disasters. That kind of irony is awesome (and very Grecian), yet it only takes up about a third of the story.

There are still some things this episode gets right: the bright, colorful visuals, a good dose of action and energy, the brassy retro-cool soundtrack, and a number of character-driven gags—but the absence of the girls in the first act and the sudden dip into Serious Business just don't hit the right note. One thing for sure, though: Kaoru's obsession with dirty magazines will never get old.


Monochrome Factor

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review: And this season's unoriginality award goes to ... the one where a bratty schoolboy meets a mysterious stranger from an alternate world, discovers that he has amazing powers, and fights evil monsters! The schoolboy: Akira Nikaido, a slacker who decides to just walk out of school one day. The stranger: Shirogane, who shows such an interest in Akira that I think Chris Hansen would like for him to have a seat over there. The alternate world: the realm of "shadow," because all the good names were already taken. The power: the ability to transform into a shadow. And the monsters: Kokuchi, a bunch of generic black lizard-things that have been breaking out of the shadow realm and into the real world. Yes, if you ever want an example of how to take the supernatural genre and bore everyone out of their minds, this would be the way to do it.

Even the art and design aspect is woefully generic: apart from his stylish hairstyle and a snazzy new outfit when he goes into shadow mode, Akira looks like every other world-saving special-powered teen out there. The shadow realm is just a mirror image of our own world with special effects thrown on top, and even worse, the fight scenes with the monsters are rendered against plain black/red backgrounds, because hey, it's a magical realm and we don't have to draw anything. (Well, I guess they nailed the "Monochrome" part.) For added unoriginality, you can also enjoy the bland pop-instrumental soundtrack that comes with the show. It's as safe and predictable as they come, and some viewers may be happy with that, but I like my supernatural monster-battling action with a little more spark.


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