The Spring 2009 Anime Preview Guide
Carlo Santos

by Carlo Santos, Apr 3rd 2009

Carlo is an engineer in real life, which has little to do with anime except for the part that involves memorizing useless facts and nitpicking obscure details. As an ANN writer, he is best known for the "Right Turn Only!!" column, where fans can keep up with new and noteworthy manga releases. Like most twentysomething males, his personal favorites typically involve hot-blooded action (Bleach, FLCL) or zany comedy (Lucky Star, Yakitate!! Japan), but he also has a soft spot for silly girly things like Nodame Cantabile and Shugo Chara!. His dream in life is for someone to get his name right and realize that it is spelled WITHOUT an "s" at the end.


Hatsukoi Limited

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review:
It happens every now and then—the Overproduced Bishoujo Series, where the production staff puts in way more effort than the story content probably deserves. Hatsukoi Limited is this season's piece of high-grade eyecandy, where the girls are doe-eyed and desirable, yet lack the banality of the erogame world (the source material is, in fact, a manga) and the soft-colored backgrounds are an artistic work in their own right. Even more unlikely is the series format, which leans more toward short story rather than romantic serial; each episode is set to focus on a different character while loosely tying them together through friendships at school.

Too bad, then, that the first episode doesn't make that great of an impression. The story is little more than young male wish fulfilment, where an impossibly cute girl (Ayumi Arihara) gets a love-letter of confession from the most oversized and frightening guy in school. The path to Ayumi's heart, it turns out, is to save her from a contrived and overly dramatic bullying incident, which of course would not be complete without the customary panty flash. Of course, before all this Ayumi is hemming and hawing about the implications of turning the guy down, while also wishing that a handsome prince would come to her rescue (Middle school girls: harboring unrealistic expectations since the age of 12!). Simply put, this would be a lot more appealing if the plot weren't so cut-and-dried and the characters weren't so transparent.

Oh well—one can still sit back and enjoy the visuals anyway, as the animation technique is fairly adept and even manages a couple of sight gags. Even more surprising is that the theme songs are among the best of the new season; to the untrained ear it may sound like so much idol warbling, but it's got a core of tuneful songwriting that most other titles don't have. In a way, it's a shame that such polished production is attached to such cotton candy fluff; at the very least, it'll appeal to those with a sweet tooth.


Basquash! episode 2

Rating: 5 (of 5)

Review:
If Basquash! had plot depth of any sort, it would probably score 6 out of 5. As it stands, though, all it's doing is charging through the shounen-sports-action-mecha genre and flattening everything in its path with sheer awesome. Episode 2 picks up where Episode 1 left off, with Dan trying to get his life back after revolutionizing the game of Big Foot Basketball and spending a year in jail. A number of fairly predictable events follow: Dan gets into bigger trouble as he learns of the debt that he owes for wrecking the stadium, tries to raise money by running a delivery service, discovers a new rival on one of his routes, and engages in a hot-blooded one-on-one match. Along the way there's also the obligatory flashback where we learn just how Dan's little sister lost her leg in a Big Foot accident, and while that does help to fill in a gap, it's pretty obvious that everyone's just here to watch more eye-popping robot basketball. And given the way Satelight studios are handling it right now, who could blame you?

Admittedly, the early scenes tend to drag as Dan tries to take care of personal business; there are still the stunning backgrounds and out-of-this-world designs, but presumably by now everyone's finished wiping up the drool from gawking at the artwork the first time. There are plenty of visual delights later on, though, as Dan gets his delivery service going (action with a hint of comedy) and later gets into some one-on-one acrobatics (pure action guaranteed to blow your mind). At this point, the integration between CGI and 2D is starting to drift just a little bit, but it's still miles ahead of most other mecha titles. Throw in some more high-energy music, thank the basketball gods that Basquash! has not caved to the easy stereotype of equating hoops with hip-hop, then just sit back and enjoy the continuing Shaqtitude of this series.



Phantom ~Requiem for the Phantom~ (Episode 2)

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review:
It would be so tempting for Phantom to just stop putting in the effort and start blindly going through the motions of the average "X with guns" series—after all, people would still watch it—but what it does instead is to go through those motions in t'ai chi slow motion, stopping to reflect on the very nature of "X with guns." The result is another quietly fascinating episode, which dwells as much on the characters' psychology as it does on action-adventure. This installment returns to the earlier part of Zwei's career, right after where he wakes up from amnesia and passes his first trial. What follows is a deliberately paced training montage where he learns to fire a gun, being told that the secret to success is to clear one's mind and body. A well-known tip, perhaps, but a lot more interesting than hearing mountains of technological jargon or the commonly accepted shounen practice of just screaming and grunting until you finally master the skills.

The psychological element shows up in the second half, where Zwei has a number of conversations about what it means to be an assassin, to have no memories, to have nothing to live for—some of it gets a little too pretentious as people start talking in circles, but there are still some thoughtful moments to be pulled from that segment. The nature of the crime organization Inferno is also explained, but at this point digging into the characters' heads proves more satisfying than fiddling with plot details.

Once again, the slick visual presentation continues to impress, with startlingly bright desert colors during Zwei's training montage and a flair for the dramatic even during the slowest of scenes. Of course, having a chilling music score to back you up helps to add intensity to just about everything (although this would be a really good time to start coming up with other ideas besides pulsating low strings and ethereal vocals). Although not quite as dazzling and action-packed the first episode, this proves that Phantom is still worth sticking with.


Saki episode 2

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review:
GEEK TEST! Question 1: Right now, your major concern about Saki is: (a) the gratuitous exploitation of Nodoka's breast size and Saki's skirt length; or (b) how any human has enough luck to go out with a supplement tile selfdraw on a kong of West two episodes in a row. If you didn't answer (b), your mahjong-geek level might not be quite up to snuff ... but that's okay. Seasoned players and laypersons alike can still appreciate the intensity of the game, thanks to intentionally ridiculous animation involving CGI tiles and fantasy imagery, plus the pulsing techno-pop soundtrack. (Shades of Initial D!) In short, Saki Miyanaga accomplishes another improbable victory when the club members force her to play with a handicap, causing her to adopt a cutthroat approach instead of just playing to plus-minus zero.

Of course, Saki's blowout win causes resident champ Nodoka to break down and run out of the room, leading to the most forced and emotionally awkward part of the episode. Yes, they're trying to play up the yuri angle. No, it's not working very well. Much more effective is the poignant scene where Saki chats with her dad and checks out her family's old mahjong table, thinking back on how their sore-loser attitude almost destroyed her enjoyment of the game. Note the word "almost," because this episode turns it around with an energizing finish of the kind that every sports/games series needs before charging into serious competition.

The disparate two halves of this episode—one ablaze with intense, exaggerated mahjong action, the other more restrained in its emotional introspection—show just how much range the series is capable of, despite obvious technical limitations. The animation and design are never going to win any prizes, and the storyline is going to lead predictably down the path of Saki achieving mahjong glory, but the tale of a mahjong savant still has the potential to grip the imagination—just like any other competitor in any other game.


Saki is currently available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Ristorante Paradiso episode 2

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review:
A shocking plot development! Nicoletta tries to puts the moves on Claudio ... and it's not a dream sequence! Yes, this is what passes for a major story event in Ristorante Paradiso, which seems content to glide along with "good enough" instead of actually being "good." Come on, the setting and theme are failproof, so why are the characters so uninteresting? We do learn eventually that Claudio wears a wedding ring for an unusual reason (hint: he's not actually married), and the ongoing tension between Nicoletta and her mother reaches a crossroads when Nicoletta kinda-sorta-blackmails her mom into getting her a job position at the Restaurant of Hot Bespectacled Old Guys.

All this would sound like pretty saucy stuff if it didn't move at the approximate pace of the Slow Food movement. There's far too much talking and internal monologue going on, plus a number of superfluous scenes that typically serve the purpose of "Oh hey, here's Nicoletta hanging out with hot old guys, because we know how much you like hot old guys if you're watching this show." Of course, while checking out these gentlemen, one might take in the nuances of line width in the character designs, the tasteful choice of colors and couture throughout each scene, and the Old World class of Rome's city streets. One might also lay back and enjoy the jazz-tinged soundtrack, which continues to be the shining jewel amidst the dullness.

It's a thin line between laid-back restraint and flat-out boredom, and Ristorante Paradiso is continuing to straddle that line very precariously. Nicoletta, you'd better find something else to do besides going on leisurely walks with Claudio and feeling ambiguous about your affection toward him. Maybe the part-time cooking  job will help. Because if being a "sophisticated and adult anime" means being boring, I'd rather be a kid forever.


Hayate the Combat Butler 2nd Season (Episode 2)

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review:
Now this is the show we came to see! After Episode 1's poorly paced stop-start action of having to re-introduce every single character, Hayate quickly gets back into its groove with a comedy-packed follow-up. According to the wager made last episode, Nagi's second-place finish in the marathon means that Hayate is now relieved of his duties. Or is he? Head butler Klaus offers him a second chance by taking some training at the "Butler's Tiger Den" (Shitsuji no Toranoana—get it?), and along the way, Hayate runs into all sorts of cultural spoofery, like a nun who doesn't quite practice what she preaches, a thug who needs money for anime DVDs (ever hear of the Internet, buddy?), and the episode's crowning glory, a nod to Densha Otoko. And the parodies don't stop there: Hayate later discovers that his training exercise is essentially a real-life RPG dungeon-hack.

Even the character-driven comedy seems to have picked itself up, with Nagi's jealousy kicking into full gear when she suspects that Hayate may be associating with "a strange woman," and Hinagiku giving Hayate the business in a verbal sparring match as he tries to recruit her for his adventuring party. Now that the humor has finally found itself, it's a bit easier to overlook the unexciting animation style—too many straight-ahead shots and talking-head scenes—and the repetitive musical cues that wore themselves out way back in the first season. If familiarity breeds contempt, Hayate ought to be the most hated show on the planet, yet its familiar brand of humor continues to entertain because, on a good day, if they focus on the right mix of characters and nail the pop-culture gags, it can still be pretty fresh and irreverent.



Shinkyoku Sōkai Polyphonica crimson S

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review:
From time to time, an anime comes out about the miraculous redeeming power of music. But for every Nodame or Beck or even Macross, there's a mediocrity like La Corda d'Oro, or this series, which is built on the idea that the musically talented can summon magical spirits. In the real world, this would make you a complete fruitcake; here, it makes you a "dantist," and they send you to a special private school to hone these skills. This is where our young hero (and falsetto singer) Phoron finds himself, except that he still hasn't passed his qualifying exams, because the only time he successfully summoned a spirit was when a beautiful enchantress appeared to him as a child. But when an evil presence suddenly starts wreaking havoc on the school, Phoron approaches it and uncovers ... the enchantress from his childhood!

Except she's now a feisty teenage girl. And all the clichés that come therewith. Is it any surprise that this is based on a visual novel franchise?

Thus, in accordance with all visual novel-related things, the character designs are pulled straight from the bishoujo-of-the-week playbook and the animation technique is barely enough to get by. But the most striking visual feature is the choice of "instruments" that the other characters play; there are just no words to describe when a guy flips a switch on his fabulous backpack and out pops the world's silliest synthesizer keyboard setup. I couldn't come up with an uglier instrument if I drew a piano left-handed! And those wacky modernist violins? I'll show you a modernist violin! Then again, maybe this is to cover up the fact that drawing real musical instruments is really hard. But surely composing good music itself is easier? Well, this one's got some cute-sounding melodies, but none of the emotional depth or harmonic complexity that would make it truly a "music anime." It's just more random teenagers traipsing around with special powers. Which involve musical instruments.


Tayutama - Kiss on My Deity-

Rating: 1.5 (of 5)

Review:
Last time I had an encounter with a young girl I'd never met before in my life, Chris Hansen of Dateline NBC popped out of a doorway and asked me to take a seat. Not so for Yuuri Mito, a shrinekeeper's son who accidentally summons the goddess Kikurami and—after a tussle with some supernatural bad guys—ends up taking home Kikurami (and her posse of Pokémon-looking creatures) in pint-sized corporeal form. Since this adorable little girl is a scaled-down manifestation of the goddess, she prefers to be called Mashiro, and even more shockingly for Yuuri, he wakes up the next day to find that Mashiro has "matured" overnight! Pro tip for all future creators out there: if you want to introduce a lead character, having her show up in three different character designs is probably not the best idea. Then again, it could be worse—it could be Yuuri, who is so bland that he probably counts as zero.

This episode valiantly tries to straddle elements of multiple genres, but all that means is it starts with pathetically predictable supernatural-action and transitions to pathetically predictable romantic comedy. In fact, do not be surprised to find yourself constantly rewinding because you keep falling asleep while the characters recite dull old lines of script that have already been in every other single story like this. Yes, Mashiro wants to gather more power to defeat the supernatural bad guys. Yes, Yuuri's dad and childhood friend are very shocked that a hot girl has moved in with him. Wake me up when something interesting happens.

A very interesting confluence occurs in the audio-visual aspect, where the animation style is neither particularly attractive nor particularly ugly, but rather sits in the black hole of no style at all. The same might be said of the music, which suffers from the same tunelessness as Nora the piano-playing cat. No, that's not really fair to Nora, who is actually quite endearing and puts in some creative effort. Tayutama, on the other hand, does not


K-ON! episode 2

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review:
There is no feeling in the world quite like acquiring—and playing—a new musical instrument. That feeling is captured perfectly in the second episode of K-ON!, where Yui sets out to buy a new guitar, only to discover that the best things in life are ... rather costly. Luckily, her fellow bandmates are willing to help out by taking part-time jobs so that they can pool together some money for her. That's where the episode starts to sag, because really, who wants to watch schoolgirls counting traffic for several minutes? But after a little more financial wrangling and haggling—plus some string-pulling on the part of keyboardist Mio—Yui finally gets her guitar, falls deeply in love with it, and realizes she has a long way to go before playing any actual music.

It's easy to dismiss this as a dull, procedural "tools of the trade" episode where the characters chatter aimlessly and do what must be done in order to start a band. But then you'd be missing the subtle points of how the girls continue to open up to each other: the discussion of how one's instrument reflects one's personality, their different modes of behavior while doing part-time work, even the way they conduct themselves in the music store. Certain extremes of personality also seem to be mellowing out: Ritsu is less hyper than before, and Yui is starting to show some backbone, making for a more balanced (if perhaps blander) experience. The lack of musical performance scenes (aside from Yui's guitar-noodling) is a bit of a letdown, though, and it's hard to find any opportunities for visual showboating when most of the episode involves dialogue. Still, the characters' expressive body language and allegretto pace from scene to scene provide some modicum of interest.

What's genuinely disappointing, though, is that a series about a rock band seems bent on punishing everyone's ears with lounge music. Yes, that's probably how high school slice-of-life is supposed to sound, but still. Are we here to rock, or are we here to snooze?


Eden of the East

Rating: 4.5 (of 5)

Review:
Somewhere between the "excellent" of 4 and "masterpiece" of 5 lies a fudge factor where you win an extra half a point just for having a really cute girl in the lead role. But there's much more than that to Eden of the East, which is Production I.G's fancy way of saying "For those of you who were easily impressed by Sengoku Basara, here's our REAL flagship series for the season." The story begins with twenty-something Saki Morimi recalling that her childhood friend left years ago to become a prince (whether figurative or literal, who knows). Cut to present day, where she gets into trouble while sightseeing in Washington D.C., and who should come to her rescue but ... a stark naked Japanese guy! If that's not strange enough, Mr. Nudity has no memories, is carrying only a cellphone and a gun, and—upon returning to his apartment—discovers that he might be an international spy named Akira Takizawa. He agrees to help Saki catch a flight home, but while at the airport, they find out that missiles have just struck Tokyo. Cue political intrigue and adventure!

There's only one reason this episode falls short of perfect: it's not until the end that the story really takes off. But getting there is 90% of the fun, with the effervescent chemistry between the lead characters and the air of uncertainty that keeps driving the plot forward. Will Saki ever get home? How did Akira end up as the Asian equivalent of Jason Bourne? Is he really the "prince" from Saki's childhood? Only one way to find out: keep watching.

And with the visuals as crisp as they are, how could anyone not keep watching? The character designs are appealing all the way from lead role to random American person, the city of Washington is (I can only assume) captured in perfectly-researched detail, and the slick, expressive animation is captivating to the eye even if it doesn't involve historical superheroes glowing bright colors and fighting each other. Add in a pleasant pop-jazz score and this series is pretty much flawless from top to bottom.

Or, I could have just said "by the director of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex" and saved myself 350 words.


Hanasakeru Seishōnen

Rating: 1 (of 5)

Review:
There's always one every season: some piece-of-trash shoujo series that appears to have been drawn by people who weren't good enough to get into art school. What else is there to say about a show where the lead heroine appears to have a mullet from certain angles, the backgrounds are all faded and blurry to hide how ugly they are, and the animation quality is slightly worse than a slideshow with lots of .gifs in it?

Oh, hold on, if you think the visuals are bad, just wait until you try to piece the story together. Mullet-girl is Kajika Kugami, who transfers to a Japanese school and immediately captivates everyone with her exotic looks and silver eyes. (Watch out! It's a Claymore!) After befriending a weedy girl-next-door type, engaging in suggestive lesbianism, and standing up for herself, Kajika becomes embroiled in the World's Most Unrealistic Bullying Incident, at which point she is saved by a dashing bishounen in traditional Chinese robes. And as later scenes will reveal, this guy is apparently incapable of wearing anything other than traditional Chinese robes.

If this sounds ridiculous so far, just wait until the story really starts going off the rails. The latter part of the episode sees Kajika summoned back to New York by her aristocratic father, who forces her into a "game" where she will meet three exemplary young men and must choose to marry one of them. This would totally be the plot of a girls' dating sim except that the original work was created in 1987; then again, a late-80's text-based dating sim would probably still be more tolerable than this. For one thing, it wouldn't have any of the dull, pointless music, or the unwatchable visuals, and you could get through the story at your own pace. A pace that ought to be very, very quick, in order to make the suffering as short as possible.


Guin Saga

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review:
What do you do when the dreaded "Mongaul" army invades your kingdom? Perform a crazy song-and-dance about their illustrious leader, or flee for your lives? Young royal siblings Remus and Rinda choose the latter option, and their mystical escape pod lands them deep in a forest full of dangerous creatures. Yet the most powerful creature is the one that saves them from getting killed by patrolling soldiers—and this studly leopard-headed warrior, who goes by the name of Guin, is nice enough to accompany the kids as they try to find a safe haven. Guin is on a quest of his own, however, as he struggles to remember his mysterious past (which is just such a convenient plot device).

Between this, Tears to Tiara, Arad Senki, and the Fighting-Girls-Show-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, spring 2009 seems to be on a major fantasy binge, and it's a very depressing sign for the genre when this is probably the most decent effort so far. Guin Saga's slight edge over the others comes from its intense, action-packed nature; right now it's more of a survival story than a standard good-versus-evil affair, and that seems to add an extra layer of dramatic tension. But factor in the hokey genre elements—to be fair, the original series of novels started in 1979—and it's hard to imagine any stunning twists or surprises coming out of this one.

Solid production values do help this episode along, however; the characters' costumes are decidedly eye-catching, the landscapes are a wonder to behold, and the action scenes get a boost from special effects and hard-hitting hand-to-hand combat. Then there's the music score by famous video game guy Nobuo Uematsu, who does the smart thing by letting it hang subtly in the background rather than trying to beat you over the head with his compositional skills. But all in all, this is not the greatest fantasy anime in the world. This is just a tribute. (To the novels.)


07-Ghost

Rating: 2 (of 5)

Review:
To get an idea of 07-Ghost's cheese factor, imagine a world where all the people in positions of power are wearing religious garb from Trinity Blood or Toaru Majutsu no Index, and the military grunts appear to have swiped some black-and-gold-trim uniforms from Code Geass. Because, man, if they can't come up with original outerwear designs, there's not a whole lot of hope for much else.

These fears are duly justified once the story is revealed: Teito Klein is your average pretty-boy protagonist (doe eyes, pointy chin, swishy hair) who hopes to climb the ranks of the Barsburg Empire Military Academy. (Someone, please explain why so many anime shows insist on glorifying military service as some kind of froo-froo fantasy experience where you get to wear fancy uniforms and go on thrilling adventures.) After barely passing a harrowing graduation exam, Teito makes a vow of eternal friendship with his ambiguously gay roommate, which is pretty much a guarantee that something terrible is going to happen to them later. Sure enough, a hazy dream-memory comes rushing back to Teito—because, y'know, fuzzy memories as a form of plot exposition aren't overused or anything—and he turns against the Empire after recalling a tragic incident involving his father. So Teito runs off and becomes a rebel!

By the way, who wants to bet that Teito's former roommate ends up as his mortal nemesis in the final battle? Why, if it weren't for the Studio DEEN logo in the opening credits, I'd have thought this was Sunrise ripping themselves off again.

The fact that such a steaming pile of unoriginality can garner a nonzero score is probably a testament to its decent production values: the backgrounds are genuinely impressive, there are no obvious gaps in the animation, and Teito's hand-to-hand gymnastics in his one battle scene are ridiculous but still fun to watch. Too bad that everything else is so pathetic you'll probably be too busy introducing your face to the palm of your hand.



Ristorante Paradiso

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review:
With its European setting, jazz soundtrack, and central theme about a gourmet restaurant, Ristorante Paradiso is easily the classiest series this season. It's also one of the most plotless, which could ultimately be the make-or-break factor. See, the problem with this right now is that it doesn't have a storyline so much as a concept. And the concept is this: Nicoletta is a young woman visiting Rome so that she can settle a score with her mother, who abandoned her years ago to marry a restauranteur. Nicoletta's search leads her to a fine little establishment where all the staff are older men who wear glasses (fujoshi fetish alert!), and soon enough, Nicoletta finds herself drawn to a kindly waiter named Claudio.

Then the episode promptly forgets about the conflict regarding Nicoletta's mother and the entire second half is about Nicoletta hanging out with Claudio and friends.

Which isn't to say that the show is bad. Oh, it does a lot of things right, like the eye-catching backgrounds (being set in Rome, it's pretty much impossible to fail at this), the stylish characters, and the soothing pace that's a welcome change from too many damn teenagers discovering amazing special powers or falling in love with their classmates. But when most of the action involves simply chatting or eating, it's going to take much more creative animation technique to keep things interesting (and it can be done—just think of any slice-of-life series that scores a B grade or higher), and again, the storyline had better show up soon because we can only ogle bespectacled gentlemen for so long.

It's a shame, because there's a lot of potential here that isn't being put to use right now. How about some food-geekery over Italian cuisine? Or a primer on the sights and sounds of Rome? And, uh, when does Nicoletta's mother finally get what's coming to her? Get to it, Ristorante, or I'm leaving to get some junk food.


Ristorante Paradiso is currently available streaming on Crunchyroll.

Tears to Tiara

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review:
All right, so here's the non-awful fantasy series that could use a musical boost from the Queen's Blade soundtrack. Because the score for Tears to Tiara is kind of predictable and stodgy, much like the show itself. Borrowing elements from all over the swords-and-sorcery map, this episode tells of the Age of Iron (a.k.a. the Age of Humans), where an evil warmonger with a "W" in his name has decided that it'd be great fun to resurrect an ancient Demon King of untold power. In order to do so, however, he has to kidnap a priestess named Riannon, which takes way too long because he spends half the episode taunting and threatening her at her home village. The action finally kicks in later as Riannon's brother Arthur, a warrior of reasonable proficiency, sets out to save her. (Took ya long enough, buddy, you were busy hunting in the woods in the middle of the night!) The episode culminates with the Demon King revealing his corporeal form, which thankfully is not Yûri Shibuya, because that'd be all sorts of trouble.

Basically, one's enjoyment of the series will depend on how much one falls in love with the setting and atmosphere, because all the other elements of story and character are plucked straight from standard archetypes. It is, at the very least, watchable: the overall designs and production values are pleasing to the eye (and it takes a lot of guts to do an entire opening episode in the darkness of night), the animation is competent (even if there are some obvious shortcuts taken as Arthur goes around slashing his sword), and the order of events makes sense. No wacky jargon words, no pointless chucking in of otaku fetishes or incongruous genre elements, just plain straight-up fantasy the way they teach you in creative writing class.

Unfortunately, it's the "plain straight-up" part that puts Tears to Tiara firmly in the average category. Don't expect to be impressed, don't expect to be repulsed, just expect that good triumphs over evil 11 episodes later.



Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review:
Meet the new Fullmetal Alchemist, same as the old Fullmetal Alchemist. Or is it? The basics of the story are the same: vertically-challenged Edward Elric is a genius alchemist with a gift for transmuting metal (hence the nickname), and accompanying him on his adventures is younger brother Alphonse, whose soul is trapped in a suit of armor after a failed experiment. Military man Roy Mustang still shoots columns of fire, Alex Louis Armstrong still flaunts his muscles, and Maes Hughes still adores his family. But Episode 1 takes a totally different route, featuring an epic showdown against a violent rebel named the Ice Alchemist, thus confirming that we are getting a unique re-telling of the series.

It's implied that most viewers already know what FMA is about, as this episode wastes no time jumping into the action—Ed is whisked from one battle to the next, perhaps a little too briskly at times, and the climactic setpiece is a high-altitude duel where the fate of an entire city hangs in the balance. Geez, Studio BONES, how do you top that after one episode? Don't worry, they probably will eventually, as right now things seem to be more style than substance. Behold, flawless fight-scene animation; behold, the distinctive character designs and locales just as you remember them; listen, the stirring melodies of a well-scored soundtrack (especially when the Ice Alchemist meets his bitter end) ... and yet, all it adds up to is the start of a typical boys' adventure series. Funny, though, that's how the original started out as well, and we all know what that turned into.

An early tip for the folks at BONES, though: please, please, do not keep ganking FMA2's comedy sensibilities from Soul Eater. Yes, we know that series also stars an irritable guy who keeps making wacky faces, but don't let an overrated shounen seep into what may be the anime of the decade—and is so "decade-y" that it was worth making again.


Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is available streaming on Funimation's official website.

Cross Game

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review:
If Basquash! is the series that takes sports anime into the future, then Cross Game is the one that pays homage to its rich traditions. The formula is simple: take a fifth-grade boy (Kou Kitamura), add childhood crush (Wakaba Tsukishima), mix in with unforgettable baseball memory (Kitamura hits game-winning homer in a sandlot game), and then provide dramatic impetus with a shocking turn of events later on. Truly, if Greg Maddux is the greatest pure pitcher and Manny Ramirez is the greatest pure hitter, then Mitsuru Adachi—the manga-ka behind Cross Game—is the greatest pure storyteller, able to grab your heart right from the outset with an arresting and nostalgic tale of youth.

And it's not just Adachi's storytelling that translates so beautifully into anime, either. The down-to-earth character designs and small-town setting create an atmosphere that is at once familiar yet fresh, with bright summer colors filling the landscape and simple, efficient linework. Conventional wisdom says that you're supposed to praise the obsessive-compulsives who draw in every little detail and go 60 frames a second, or who try to pop your eyes out with visual acrobatics, but this series proves that expressing one's self with just a few well-placed lines is a form of artistry all its own. Then there's the musical artistry that adds just the right emotional touches at every moment; it may be heavy on orchestral strings and acoustic guitar, but never does it feel forced or maudlin. The transition into the ending song, which starts up during the last few scenes, is especially effective.

It would be easy to criticize this first episode for its almost too-languid pace, or the lack of dynamic angles (front view, side view, front view, front view...), or how it throws in that last plot twist out of nowhere (I always find random tragic events to be, well, random). But then you would be missing out on something that is in short supply these days: honest and heartfelt storytelling, authored by a master and animated with love.


Basquash!

Rating: 5 (of 5)

Review:
What was it like to see Julius Erving soaring to the hoop back in the day? Or Wilt Chamberlain dominating the hardwood? Or Jerry West scoring at will? I don't know. I wasn't born yet.

But after seeing Basquash!, I have an idea of how it must have felt.

The future of basketball, as it turns out, is a dreary one. Human players have been supplanted by mechas, leading to this lumbering, comical game known as Big Foot Basketball (which is only slightly goofier than concept behind, say, Rideback). Despite its popularity, though, there's at least one kid—a troublemaker named Dan—who has no patience for the sport. However, after stepping into a Big Foot and crashing a live game, Dan proves to the world that there is athleticism to be found in "BFB". You know, like when someone made the first ever jump shot. Or the first slam dunk. Or the first crossover dribble.

One could go on and on about the visual audacity of the series, the way it's impossible to distinguish where 2D stops and CGI begins, the way Dan's moves put the NBA greats to shame, the way every quirk and detail of character design has been fleshed out—but the real star of the show is the world Dan lives in. This series could be the ultimate study on how to do backgrounds; never has sci-fi urban sprawl been raised to such a level of high art. It's enough to make the guys who worked on Tekkonkinkreet throw up their hands and give up animation forever.

Because of such artistic flair, it's easy to forgive some of the series' more obvious clichés—like Dan's hoop-dreaming little sister being wheelchair-bound (and thus being the cause of his bitterness toward BFB), or how Dan's busty friend Miyuki has more jiggle than a Gainax girl, or Dan's instinctive command of a Big Foot once he gets in one. Sure, you could see it as an iteration on "young boy pilots mecha, saves world"—but this boy is saving the world with basketball.


Valkyria Chronicles

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review:
The words "video game adaptation," "faithful," and "well-produced" are rarely found in the same sentence, except just now, as Valkyria Chronicles proves to be one of the lucky exceptions. Fans of the PS3 strategy-RPG-shooter will find plenty of things to gush over in the opening scenes of this episode, from the dead-on character designs, to the gorgeous countryside backgrounds, to the subtle hatching in the art, to the stirring musical cues borrowed straight from the game, to the supporting characters—goodness, they even got the supporting characters!—that show up as needed. With so much love and care put into the world-building aspect of the original, this is one anime where the premise pretty much writes itself.

Oh, right, the premise. Welcome to the idyllic town of Bruhl, where young foot-soldier Alicia Melchiott is helping folks prepare for an impending Imperial invasion. As she patrols the countryside, she runs into a "spy" named Welkin Gunther, and she's so busy trying to prosecute him that it takes her three-quarters of the episode to realize that he's actually the son of a great war hero. Then, in the final scene, it's pointed out that Welkin and his little sister just happen to have the World's Greatest Tank hiding in the family garage. So basically the entire first episode gets through half of the game's first cutscene, padding itself with galumphing-through-the-countryside filler. Hey, if this is a war anime, where's the war?

If the draggy pace weren't disappointing enough, there's the oh-so-slightly clunky animation that reveals itself in the action scenes: the awkward cocking of rifles, or maybe the occasional stutter as characters move around. Seems that they were so busy trying to nail the look of the game that they forgot to establish the fundamentals of animation. There's still enough polish for viewers to enjoy the series, but remember: the true Valkyria experience is best found by turning to Sony's big black box.


Sengoku Basara

Rating: 3.5 manly spear thrusts (of 5)

Review:
Wow! If Sengoku Basara (based on the video game of the same name) were any more manly, then famous historical figure Sanada Yukimura would be piercing the heavens with his spear. Instead, he glows bright red and engages in superhuman combat with rival historical figure Date Masamune (who glows bright blue), in a gloriously exaggerated recreation of Japan's Warring States period. Suffice to say, if it weren't for Production I.G's level of visual polish and attention to detail, this would be one of those oft-disparaged bishounen affairs where unbelievably handsome tough guys grunt at each other while fujoshi write naughty doujins about what these guys do off the battlefield.

Given the story content so far, however, maybe that's what I.G was aiming for anyway—the thinly-plotted premise basically amounts to "well there's a lot of guys defending their territory in feudal Japan, so they go out and battle each other to claim more territory." The sheer number of characters and nicknames only makes it more confusing. Apparently, the viewer is expected to fill in the rest with their knowledge of Japanese history and military strategy, which may be a bit of a hard sell outside of its home country. It's probably the same reason Japanese audiences haven't quite glommed onto those thrilling History Channel epics where General Grant and General Lee fire their cannons passionately at each other.

Thank goodness for production values, then, which save this series from being too historically obsessed and over-the-top—when the animation is this slick and the music this energetic, one can't help but be pulled into the excitement of battle, despite its unholy marriage of superhero camp and historical chronicle. One can only imagine that the final episode might involve Oda Nobunaga trying to "unify Japan" by making the archipelago rise out of the sea and combine as a 375,000-square-kilometer mecha.


Shangri-La

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review:
Oh, Gonzo! I heard you guys got delisted from the Tokyo Stock Exchange, and you totally phoned in Arad Senki and Saki,but apparently there is enough pocket change to blow it all on Shangri-La. Well, the splurge was worth it, because this series is nothing if not visually sumptuous, with its post-apocaplyptic urban backgrounds, lush color palette, and yet another Range Murata-designed doe-eyed girl with short hair in the lead role. Yes, that pink-coiffed cutie is Kuniko Hojo, who will save us all from  militaristic governments with her explosive killer boomerang. (Which is infinity times better than acidic breast milk.) And the reason for this societal conflict, it would seem, is that the "carbon credits" system for emissions reduction has gone completely haywire and turned into a freewheeling market where countries make shady deals with each other in order to reduce environmental taxes. Oh man, we'd better overhaul the Kyoto Protocols fast or we're going to end up like this.

Unfortunately, the middle section where Big Important People make these shady deals is the one black mark against Episode 1, along with Kuniko's conversations with her pals using jargon words we don't fully understand yet. This kind of woolly dialogue just gets intensely boring, and the last thing Shangri-La needs is to turn into an Al Gore mouthpiece when it's supposed to be a vibrant, butt-kicking sci-fi series. Luckily, the butts that need to be kicked finally show up in the last few scenes, and Kuniko's acrobatic moves are some of the most beautiful sequences of animation you'll see all year. Couple that with the dynamic, modern soundtrack and it's things like these that make people say, "Now this is why I watch anime!" It's also things like these that are very likely to be licensed for DVD in America, so start your countdown timers.


Shangri-La is currently available streaming on Crunchyroll.

Natsu no Arashi!

Rating: 1 (of 5)

Review:
It's never a good sign when the opening and ending sequences are the most interesting things about a new series. Studio Shaft has all sorts of visual tricks up their sleeve in the space of 90 seconds, but it's the 22 minutes in between that are killing this show faster than a cicada in late August.

Our story begins with Hajime, a bratty 13-year-old who looks like an underdeveloped version of Keitaro Urashima (thus making him annoying right from the get-go). Despite his cheeky attitude, Hajime is good friends with Arashi, a girl who is way prettier than he deserves, and together they help out at an idyllic roadside café. If this sounds like the most boring thing ever, it is. That's why there's the added quirk of Arashi being a time traveler, which allows Hajime to play all sorts of fourth-dimensional pranks! However, anyone who's vaguely familiar with time-travel stories has seen all these plot gimmicks before, and the introduction of another time-traveling girl in the episode's second half (which also ties up some clever little plot points from earlier) doesn't help much. It's like someone tried to recapture the summery nostalgia of Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo, except that TokiKake is sweet and poignant, whereas this is just plain cheesy and the characters have little to no appeal.

Or maybe that's just the way the characters look. It's hard to be drawn to Arashi's beauty when she's mildly cross-eyed, and it's even harder to marvel at her time-traveling ability when the transformation sequence keeps skipping frames. There are kiddie magical girl shows with better transformations than this. From the 80's. If anything, the mildly sloppy visuals and irreverent tone seems directed at the 8-to-12-year-old demographic—except that the 8-to-12-year-olds who would have enjoyed this have already all grown up. Shaft, would you like to travel back in time and try doing this show over?


Natsu no Arashi! is available streaming on Crunchyroll.

Dragon Ball Kai

Rating: 9.001x10^3 (of 5)

Review:
Trying to assign a rating to Dragon Ball Kai is pretty useless. Depending on your personal background, Dragon Ball is the series that got you into anime, or the series that made you want to be a manga-ka, or the series that inspired you to spike your hair and dye it blond, and there's just no putting a number on feelings like that. That said, this "remake" was clearly designed to help fans relive their anime youth ... and all the terrible things that come with it, like grainy picture quality, shaky lines, and Akira Toriyama's character designs just as ugly and childish as they were 20 years ago. For you see, they didn't actually re-animate the series—they just re-scanned and touched up the original hand-drawn cels for digital broadcast.

After the thoroughly modernized opening animation and theme song, that's just a bit of a disappointment.

Even worse is that they're not actually picking up where Dragon Ball really began—you know, the part where Son Goku is an adorable little monkey boy fooling around—instead, there's an introduction about some epic space war and Goku being the last son of his home planet and being sent to Earth to become the greatest warrior, which he does, and then years later some crazy alien dude in a hilarious outfit shows up to challenge Goku in battle. So basically we're starting with Dragon Ball Z. At least they're trimming it down from 271 episodes to 100, but since we're talking about the foundation of modern shounen, you'd better be ready to sit through lots of taunting, powering up, and brute force fistfighting. In fact, it feels kind of weird trying to "preview" something where you already know exactly what's going to happen.

The remake does benefit on the audio side, though, with the aforementioned new theme songs, plus re-recorded music and fresh voice tracks (even if Goku does sound like he's still waiting for puberty to kick in). But for those who want to see what a real remake looks like, Fullmetal Alchemist is over that way.


Saki

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review:
Who says anime today is lacking in variety? This spring, you can choose between a moeblob about a rock band or a moeblob about mahjong! For those of you who picked mahjong, here's the lowdown: Saki is a high schooler who hates mahjong because playing against her family sucked all the fun out of it. However, her schoolmate Kyou tries to get her back into the game by inviting her to the school mahjong club. As luck would have it, the selection of opponents is despairingly predictable: there's Kyou (the token male), Breasts, Loli, Class President, and later on, Glasses Girl. But never mind that—the real highlight is the dramatic revelation that Saki can always play to a plus-minus zero score, which is even more probabilistically difficult than constantly winning or losing! And which probably makes no sense to about 95% of the people reading this!

Now, I've been playing mahjong since I was 12, but Japan's interpretation of it always weirds me out because the scoring and rules are totally different. It's like rugby versus American football. So imagine how mind-boggling it must be for those unfamiliar with the game. Yet Gonzo's CGI theatrics and visual exaggeration manage to capture the intensity of play anyway, especially in the last scene where Saki gets her perfect zero with EPIC SELFDRAW FROM SUPPLEMENT TILES. But if all the flashy animation goes into the mahjong scenes, guess what falls by the wayside? The character designs are forgettable (see aforementioned list of club members), the school scenery looks like every other anime school in Japan, and they try to get away with as many static dialogue scenes as possible. Even the cutesy-pop soundtrack suggests that the production staff are sticking with "just good enough."

As for deciding whether to continue with the show, well, ask yourself how much you want to watch high school kids discuss and play mahjong for 25 minutes a week. Factor in your level of understanding and experience with the game. Calculate accordingly.



Saki is currently available streaming on Crunchyroll.

Asura Cryin'

Rating: 1.5 (of 5)

Review:
Hey everyone, let's play a fun game! It's called "Guess what magazine the manga version of Asura Cryin' is serialized in!" Here are some hints to help you out: it stars an ordinary teenage boy named Tomo with dark, mildly spiky hair. He's moved into a new house to live on his own (just like 80% of Japan's youth population in anime), and all the hot girls at his school secretly have special powers. Oh, and his absent older brother left him a mysterious suitcase that turns out to contain a mecha. Only problem is that it takes Tomo the entire episode to open the suitcase because he's too busy freaking out over people in ridiculous outfits demanding important things from him like the "Asura Machina," the "Extractor," and the "Metallized Wire-Bond Pad." Okay, I made the last one up, but you get the point. Now, what kind of manga magazine would be dumb enough to serialize this mishmash of completely incongruous genre elements that will nonetheless appeal to a very specific sector of the fandom?

If you answered Dengeki Daioh, you are absolutely correct! But what's even more shocking is that the manga is NOT the source material for this show; it's actually based on a series of light novels that goes up to 11, suggesting that someone had actually said "hey, this story is worth publishing" eleven times in a row. Unfortunately, the opening episode makes it very difficult to see that appeal, given the completely predictable origin story, unimaginative character designs, and animation technique that barely passes the level of "people move when they fight each other." Oh, and it's not really a good idea to have your dramatic revelation scene occur at night where everything is dark and dull.

The show is rounded out by two theme songs from pop duo angela, who were also bitten by the lack-of-creativity bug and resort to their usual yodel-and-techno style, which apparently is how anime is supposed to sound whenever a teenager discovers amazing special powers.


Arad Senki -Slap Up Party-

Rating: 2 (of 5)

Review:
The nation of Korea has made many valuable contributions to the modern world— affordable electronics, one hell of a national baseball team, some seriously fine ladies—but level-grinding fantasy-themed video games do not deserve to be counted among them. That's where Arad Senki comes from, and that's where it should have stayed. As an anime project, it seems to be nothing more than Gonzo goofing off with one of their preferred genres, dishing out sloppy (but not choppy) animation and character designs that seem just a step away from those pretend-anime shows that Cartoon Network is always dipping into.

But maybe goofing off is the whole point. This episode starts with an obligatory fantasy cliché, where a band of warriors awakens a sleeping demon (yeah, that's real smart) and unleashes evil upon the world. Skip several years, and the more lighthearted main story introduces us to Baron, an underdressed young warrior on a quest to rid himself of a skin condition demon's curse. Unfortunately, this demonic mark gets him in trouble with some rural village folk, and only after teaming up with flamboyant gunman Cabensis and exterminating some real demons is Baron finally recognized as a hero. That last spot of action, where Baron pulls off some fancy sword-slashing moves and Cabensis does his best impression of a John Woo film, is where the comedy element kicks in and proves that Arad Senki might have some entertainment value after all.

The rest of it looks like a totally predictable drag, though, and it's a safe bet that the next several episodes will involve Baron meeting more folks in the wilderness, adding members to his party, and comically fighting off more demons. While this might work for diehard RPG lovers (you know who you are, people with Final Fantasy ringtones), it's going to wear out really fast on everyone else. But even if you do choose to pass on this series, don't miss the amusing 8-Bit ending sequence with music to match.


Phantom ~Requiem for the Phantom~

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review:
I don't know what story-enhancing drugs Nitroplus puts in their visual novels, but it must be some kind of suspense thriller crack that leads to edge-of-your-seat anime adaptations like CHAOS;HEAD and now this. So effective is Phantom's air of foreboding that even studio Bee Train, best known for ruining Tsubasa and trotting out multiple lookalike "girls with guns" shows, can't drag this one down to their usual  level of mediocrity.

At first glance, though, it does look like the usual drivel Bee Train might come up with: there is indeed a girl with a gun (wearing a maid outfit, no less), plus an amnesiac guy who only remembers how to kick ass and take names, a shady criminal organization, and well-dressed scientists performing morally questionable experiments. Where things stop being blah and start being good is in the execution: the flashback story surrounding Zwei (the amnesiac) moves at a taut, suspenseful pace, peppered with action and mystery and drama, and the present-day scenes that bookend this episode are pure gunplay at its best. Admittedly, the shady organization's appearances are the low point—the whole "we'll stand around talking about mysterious things" is a worthless and overused device—but the interplay between Zwei and the gun-toting girl named Phantom is clearly the centerpiece here.

What also saves this series from the usual Bee Train miasma is a daring approach to visuals: a straight-on camera view is never used when a tilted one can make things more dynamic, the fight scenes come alive with unexpected angles and timing, and the overall look is just a lot more polished and nuanced than one might expect. Did the studio suddenly come into a lot of money? Even composer Hikaru Nanase steps up, managing to out-Kajiura Yuki Kajiura with gorgeous choral lines and full-orchestra blasts. Whether the series can maintain this quality past the first few episodes, however, remains to be seen.


Hayate the Combat Butler 2nd Season

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review:
In these trying economic times, no story resonates quite like that of Hayate Ayasaki, an earnest young man who fell into debt through no fault of his own but is able to achieve financial sustainability through diligence and hard work. Of course, when that hard work involves a life of servitude to a bratty, manga-obsessed heiress, one might start to have second thoughts. But that's how the story goes, and it's also summarized at the start of this sequel series by the omnipresent narrator (who continues to be a highlight of the show with his deadpan delivery).

Hayate the Combat Butler jumps right back into its usual brand of nonsense comedy as Hayate, Nagi and friends all decide to enter a "freestyle marathon" footrace. However, it's hard to get excited about a scenario that was basically the plot of the Homestar Runner video game (as well as dozens of old-school sitcom cartoons), and the constant interruptions to re-introduce all the characters don't help either. Things start getting better in the second half, though, with Hayate doing what he does best: combatting other butlers. His rivals are as delightfully nutty as they've always been, and the sheer energy of battle—along with a well-placed parody scene, one of the other things the show does really well—drives this episode to a promising finish.

We can only hope that the humor continues to maintain that energetic level, however, as the overall production values rarely rise above adequate. Although it's not unwatchable, the visual presentation will always be second-rate with the cookie-cutter character designs, intentionally goofy action scenes, and lots of standing around and talking. Audio doesn't fare much better, with the tinkly sort of background music that goes in one ear and out the other. On a positive note, though, I've never been a big fan of Hinagiku (too perfect and overrated) but she does turn in a charming performance on the ending song.


Hayate the Combat Butler Season 2 is available streaming on Crunchyroll.

K-ON!

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review:
It may not exactly be Lucky Star ~After Story~ (Tsukasa dies in childbirth!), but the first episode of K-ON! shows Kyoto Animation returning to the comfortable world of Cute Girls Doing Cute Things. The story begins with Yui, a freshly minted high schooler who's trying to pick which club to join. As luck would have it, the light music club—headed by energetic drummer Ritsu—desperately needs members, or else will be disbanded. There's just one problem: Yui has no sense of tempo and can't play an instrument, but hey! A club that offers free snacks can't be all bad.

With shades of the live-action movie Linda Linda Linda, which of course also connects to the "Live Alive" episode of Haruhi Suzumiya, the series adds a welcome dose of rock flavor to the overly homogeneous slice-of-high-school-life genre. For some, it may still be too big a blob of moe to handle—Yui's skittishness is downright maddening (why isn't this girl in psychiatric counseling?), and Ritsu appears programmed to annoy people to death with her gung-ho attitude—but when it comes to capturing the vivacity of youth, it's hard to go wrong with starting a band. If there's any element that feels underdeveloped so far, it's that the humor lacks the energy and physicality that KyoAni is known for, but that will probably emerge as the characters become more familiar.

The other thing that KyoAni is known for, of course, is their obsessive-compulsive approach to animation, which reveals itself in a handful of lovingly detailed scenes like Yui's childhood flashback (look at her go on the castanets!) and her mad dash to school in the opening scene. The opening and ending sequences are devoid of wacky dance routines this time around, but if there was ever a studio to convincingly animate a rock performance, it would be these guys, with a couple of deliciously catchy theme songs to back them up.  Let's just hope the story moves along fast enough for Yui to actually learn how to play something ...


Mainichi Kaa-san

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review:
Well, I didn't think there was genre even more worn-out than the "ordinary teenager discovers amazing secret powers" subset of anime, but whaddya know! Apparently the family sitcom is just as stale in Japan as it is in America. Mainichi Kaa-san follows the trials and tribulations of Rieko Kamohara, mother to two preschool-aged children and wife to a somewhat flaky (and sometimes alcohol-guzzling) husband. While the Chi franchise may be inherently cuter, Kaasan has a slight edge with its kooky characters and longer format, which allows more room for jokes to develop. This works especially well in the "mommy accidentally starts a manga series in her kid's school record book" gag, which escalates to brilliantly absurd heights but never would have been possible in three-minute bursts.

Unfortunately, one flash of brilliance does not make up for the various other shorts in Episode 1, which often resort to being loud and irrational as a substitute for humor, or driving a joke into the ground by repetition. Of course, one also gets a handful of cutesy-poo family moments, which are exactly as forced and mawkish as they sound.

The animation has its occasional moments of virtuosity as well—the scenes where the kids are horsing around are executed pretty smoothly, and Mom's ocean dream sequence is a calming display of aesthetics—but again, it's all the ugly stuff elsewhere that ruins it. With a style that barely rises above stick figure art, and a lead character who apparently only has one facial expression, it's hard to find much visual appeal in this. But hey, even Shin-chan eventually made it in America, so who knows.


Queen's Blade

Rating: 0.5 (of 5)

Review:
Meticulous research reveals that the Queen's Blade franchise is a series of cheesecake artbooks that also serve as "gamebooks" for a turn-based combat game. This means there is something in the world that combines the sheer dorkitude of Soul Calibur, D&D, and Yu-Gi-Oh!. It also means there is a really, really awful anime based on this product.

The story is simple and mind-numbing: Leina (or possibly Reina) is a wayward princess who wants to see the world, which apparently means battling a demon girl who squirts deadly acidic milk out of her boobs. (I swear I am not making this up.) Luckily, Leina is saved by a roving bandit named Risty, who talks Leina into returning to her royal family—but bandits being what they are, Risty really just wanted to swipe some loot! Along the way, she helps Leina escape once and for all, so that she can have a rematch with the milk-squirting demon girl and participate in a fighting tournament known as the Queen's Blade. And yes, this is basically some flimsy pretext for having scantily-clad young women fight each other to the death.

Since nobody really gives a poop about the storyline, let's turn to the most critical element of a series like this: the character designs. They are, in a word, stunning, in the sense that if you got in the way of these ladies' bazongas, you would probably find yourself with a severe concussion. The fantasy setting makes for lots of fanciful and illogical costumery, along with exotic locales, but the fights themselves rely almost entirely on animation shortcuts or staged poses. So basically, the sex appeal element has all the sensuality and tease factor of a brick to the head, and the action element could probably have been done better if people just waved the artbook illustrations at each other really frantically.

The only redeeming feature of the show might be its grandiose music score, which maybe one day can be recycled for use in a non-awful fantasy series.


Chi's New Address (episodes 1-2)

Rating: 2 (of 5)

Review:
Do you really, really care about the ongoing adventures of an adorable little kitten? Apparently, enough of Japan did, because Chi's Sweet Home has entered a new season of production. As always, the three-minute format and tales of everyday family life make this difficult to grade by typical anime standards, as that would be like trying to analyze Dilbert by the same rubric as Watchmen.

In any case, some vital developments occur early here: it's been getting harder and harder to hide Chi in a no-pets-allowed apartment complex, and her owners have decided that it might be best for the growing kitten to move out to the countryside. It's a surprisingly somber start: the opening episodes are basically about the feelings of loss that will eventually come when a housepet who's practically a member of the family has to leave. Of course, one still gets the obligatory scenes of Chi being rambunctious and cute around her family, but having it tempered by these uncertain emotions is a pretty unexpected move.

What is to be expected, though, is that the series is still presented in standard gag-strip style, with unapologetically simple character designs and backgrounds. Primary colors further accentuate the feel of modern suburban life, and what may come as a surprise is that the animation technique actually passes muster—in fact, there are some pretty slick transitions in the brief dream sequences about Chi's eventual departure. Hey, if you've got enough financial support to produce a second series of a five-minute show about a housecat, you might as well splurge a bit. Similarly, one will find the background music simple, pleasant and unintrusive, much like the rest of the show.

However, that pleasant simplicity is also what dooms the series. Yes, it meets the standards of its given genre. But is that genre going to grab viewers by their eyeballs and compel them to watch episode after itty-bitty episode? Probably not, unless they went through the entire 104-episode run of the original Chi. Or if they really care about what'll happen when Chi moves out.


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