The Spring 2010 Anime Preview Guide
Carl Kimlinger

Apr 1st 2010

Carl Kimlinger lives in Oregon's Willamette Valley, where he frequently watches My Name is Earl because it is, in his words, "the only television show about my people." Which doesn't jibe terribly well with his avowed Marxist leanings and love of British folk rock, though no one points that out because he is also large, ill-tempered, and a frequent contributor to the NRA. Carl loves ambitious, trashy and violent anime as much as the next guy, and maybe even a little more, but in his heart of hearts he knows that nothing can beat a quiet tearjerker of a romance. Or a shameless heart-stomper of a melodrama.


Tatami Galaxy

Rating: 3 ½

Review: If ever a show was ruled more by its stylistic quirks than its content, it's The Tatami Galaxy. A half-hour of abstract art overlaid with a sea of dialogue and sequenced into something that just eludes temporal comprehensibility, it is far and away this season's most bizarre offering. The plot concerns an unnamed college student whose desire for a "rosy college life" was demolished when he learned that a rosy college life required social skills. Egged on by a pointy-toothed excuse for a human named Ozu, he carries out a campaign of romantic sabotage aimed at assuring mutual misery for all. Which, by the time he meets a Popeye-chinned local freak who claims to be a matchmaking god, he heartily regrets. When the Popeye freak offers him the opportunity to get together with odd but interested (in him, though he can't seem to see it) neighbor girl Akashi, he does a little soul searching and decides to take the man up on his offer.

As the plot synopsis indicates, somewhere beneath the protagonist's tongue-shredding monologues and Masaaki Yuasa's fun-with-LSD visuals there lurks a bitterly funny and tentatively hopeful grown-up romance. Our nameless hero is an antisocial misanthropist with a Frankenstein-like desire to belong in a world that won't have him, and his reaction to the rejection is both funny and more than a little ugly and sad, as is his blindness to the less conventional potential happiness embodied by the absolutely adorable Akashi. The problem is that those narrative charms must be excavated, with no small effort, from underneath layers of deliberately alienating visuals and impossible to follow dialogue. The result is both rewarding and frustrating, likely to appeal only to a very particular segment of fandom. You know who you are.

Tatami Galaxy is currently available streaming at Funimation


House of Five Leaves

Rating: 5

Review: Though this season has been comparatively strong, thus far none of its new series has hit an out-of-the-park home run. Until this one that is. The concept is simple: a period piece about the newly-hired bodyguard to a group of kidnappers. The end result is anything but. To begin with, things are complicated by Akitsu the bodyguard's terminal timidity and the fact that when he accepts the job he has no idea that he is signing on as protector to a house of A-list bad guys. Complications that are in turn complicated by the fact that Akitsu is monstrously strong in addition to cowardly, and that kidnapper Yaitsu has his own, less-than-villainous reasons for being in the ransom game.

Everything about House of Five Leaves feels effortlessly new. The way it calmly adds wrinkles to its plot and characters, firmly resisting the easy pigeonholing of either. The laid-back way it approaches jidai-geki tropes, quietly nixing any expectations of high adventure. The way it finds subtle humor in its grim proceedings. And most of all, the way it looks. Caught somewhere between traditional Japanese painting and the almost-ugly artistic conventions of mangaka Natsume Ono, it looks quite literally like nothing else on the market. And feels like nothing on the market either. Call it slice-of-life jidai-geki if you will, but regardless of name it's thoroughly enchanting.

House of Five Leaves is currently available streaming at Funimation


Uraboku

Rating: 2

Review: Pulling off a shameless gothic melodrama is no simple matter—regardless of how easy Vampire Knight made it look. Apparently Uraboku's creators thought it would be, and they pay the price for their hubris. Somewhere and sometime, presumably the past, a girl named Yuki was romanced by a darkly handsome man whose choice of dress screamed "vampire!" Likely as not she died, as sometime later she is reincarnated as a delicately beautiful boy. Boy Yuki is an orphan who spends his days worrying about others and reading to adorable orphaned tykes. Lately he's been receiving death threats, which causes him to mope about questioning the meaning of his existence. When a plot by some evil black mist threatens his life, who should swoop from the sky and save him but the dark stranger who has been haunting his past-life dreams. Gasp! Could this be a fated encounter?

Pick a gothic accoutrement, any gothic accoutrement, visual or narrative, and chances are you'll find it here. Roses, thorns and fetishistic leather adorn the opening sequence, love that transcends time and death forms the basis of its story, and reincarnation, vampires, vague evil forces and supernatural gifts are all somehow horned in. As ridiculous as the resulting vortex of gothic detritus is, though, it isn't the series' real problem. The problem is that at the center of the vortex is a cold emotional vacuum, a vast emptiness presided over by a cast with all the flavor of braised cardboard. Without the emotional core that fuels series like Vampire Knight, Uraboku is little more than a catalogue of stylistic obsessions, and few things are more boring.


Rainbow - Nisha Rokubō no Shichinin

Rating: 4

Review: The go-to series this season for anime fans looking to slake their thirst for something different. Six juvenile offenders are shipped, hooded, to a "reform school," a filthy prison with only the most cursory trimmings of a school. There they are sexually humiliated by the "teachers" and thrown into a dingy little cell with a grumpy upperclassman. Who promptly baits them into a fight and just as promptly beats them to the floor. An inauspicious start to be sure, but when it is made brutally clear that they all have a common enemy in their sadistic guard/teacher, the newbies side with their cellmate, whose strength and unflappable cool draws them together.

Grim, unflinching, and old-fashioned, Rainbow is a public service announcement in the guise of a violent prison drama. Don't take that wrong, that's a good thing. Frankly an unwavering social conscience is a rare thing in our postmodern age, and it doesn't detract from Rainbow's ugly power. Rather it adds to it. So determined is the series to capture the squalor and brutality of post-WWII Japan and the injustice of the era's juvenile reform system that it sometimes borders on the lurid (anal probing teachers, for instance) and is never less than nauseously fascinating.

Unfortunately it's also saddled with one of the worst voice-over narrations ever and character designs that are stamped so obviously with each character's salient personality points that they are caricatures as much as people. There's also a surfeit of smack-you-in-the-face symbolism and some seriously corny bonding. It's fine to be old-fashioned, but there's no need to strip away the intervening years of cinematic sophistication. Still, it's undeniably potent stuff, and even if it's unlikely to unseat Ashita no Joe as the paragon of this kind of thing, it still deserves kudos for trying.


Ichiban Ushiro no Daimaō Episode 2

Rating: 2.5

Review: In the tug of war between Ichiban Ushiro no Daimaō's intriguing premise and its jiggly trimmings, the jiggles seem to be winning. It's second episode is all harem nonsense, panty-peeping and naked misunderstandings—and not of the metaphorical variety. As Akuto tries to make up with Hattori and deal with cute android observer Korone he inadvertently starts yet more rumors about his demonic philandering and ultimately ends up, as is quite natural for a harem hero, grappling with a buck naked invisible girl. Who happens to be a childhood acquaintance. Preoccupied with romantic fluff and viewer titillation, the series only touches on Akuto's fate for purposes of humor and in a brief scene illuminating the depths of his magical powers. The episode does end with him caught in a web of deception spun by a new character, but does so at the expense of having him act like a complete moron (the better to be caught in an obvious trap) and is transparently building to yet another addition to his quickly growing harem.

The jiggly stuff isn't without its appeal of course. The bare butts, panty shots, nude wrestling and other harem tropes will naturally have their fan base, and newest harem addition Korone is the source of much dead-pan humor (just watch the chaos she creates by "observing" guys at the urinals). Nevertheless it's all silly, pointless, and predictable, and wastes valuable time better spent on Akuto and the path he must, or must try not to, walk. It's infuriating that the series sees the need to bury its solid premise (and solid protagonist) in fan-pandering bells and whistles, and on exiting it's that frustration, rather than the series' potential or humor, that leaves the strongest impression. A pity, really.


Heroman Episode 2

Rating: 4

Review: That a mildly retro superhero/super robot hybrid can be this much accursed fun is a tribute to the enduring entertainment power of a simple, well-told story. Something you can be sure that Stan Lee is fully aware of. The cockroach aliens have finally reached Earth and begun their search for the source of the signal that brought them hence. This naturally leads them straight to Dr. Denton's doorstep and by association to Joey. After saving Lina from a burning car, Joey has been asking himself what he should do with the incredible power thrust upon him. Thus the arrival of homicidal cockroaches the size of vending machines is propitious. What more logical use for unworldly power than to thrash otherworldly invaders?

If any conclusions can be drawn from the upward trend between two data points, Heroman is improving. The overture to the impending alien invasion not only boots Joey's rear directly onto the highway to herohood, but also creates an opportunity for BONES to strut its stuff, creating magnificent mayhem and choreographing one mean mother of a mechanized bug squashing. The no-frills story is deceptively simple, touching on some of Lee's favorite themes (the responsibility that comes with power) and efficiently altering relationships (Joey's friendship with Lina and animosity with her brother Will) even as it dives with streamlined ease into heavy action territory.

There's some silly stuff to be sure, including Will's hair and those big bugs (the Scrugg), but it's all part and parcel of the show's throwback charm. Can we expect crazy doctor Denton to analyze the alien weapon that can be seen conveniently separating itself from its owner while he's making his acquaintance with Heroman's fists, and perhaps derive an equally convenient destructive device from it? Probably. Do we care? As the Flash-Gordon-esque "To Be Continued" flashes across the screen and we gleefully anticipate the escalating destruction promised by the next installment, probably not.


Ookiku Furikabutte ~Natsu no Taikai-hen~

Rating: 4 ½

Review: Ookiku Furikabutte (AKA Big Windup!) did poorly stateside; poorly enough, in fact, that its distributor Funimation swore off sports anime altogether. But in Japan, where it had consistently strong DVD sales, it was popular enough to warrant a second season. Thank god. Ookiku Furikabutte's second season picks up where the first left off: as Nishiura basks in the warmth of their victory over tournament contenders Tousei. The match brought attention to their fledgling team, enough so that other teams are starting to sniff around them and a couple of girls from the dance team approach their manager about being the team's first cheerleaders. The lazy warmth doesn't last for long, though. Coach Momoe is not one to sit on her laurels and she's already looking to whip the team into shape for its next match.

Ookiku Furikabutte is a quiet kind of series, with a quiet kind of charm. It doesn't march out any big developments its first episode, preferring to give the time over to its real weapon: the cast. The series has one of sports anime's all-time most huggable ensembles. From insecure pitcher Mihashi down to pragmatic manager Chiyo and especially fiery coach Momoe, the cast is simply bursting with vivid, believable and downright loveable characters. All of whom get their little moment to shine here. Even the new characters—the two dance-team girls, the hard-edged coach of a rival team—jump from the screen to stake out little claims in your heart. It's all such easygoing, perfectly balanced fun that the fierce anticipation you feel at episode's end, with its promises of a new match, comes as a bit of a shock. Rarely has baseball been such a blast, and such a laid-back one. May it have many a season to come.


Senkō no Night Raid

Rating: 4 ½

Review: Spy intrigue set in 1930's Shanghai, with an anime action twist. A Japanese businessman has been abducted in Shanghai by kidnappers demanding weapons in exchange for his life. Knowing that the weapons will be used to battle Kuomintang nationalists, Sakurai Kikan, a Japanese military spy organization, is dispatched to retrieve the hostage. Sakurai Kikan consists of four spies with abilities that are...unusual. Like telescopic X-ray vision, telekinesis, teleportation and telepathy. Their plan: to infiltrate the camp where the hostage is being held and remove him, by force if necessary.

TV Tokyo and Aniplex's Anime no Chikara project, of which this is a part, is aimed at creating animation without recourse to original works (manga, light novels, etc). Perhaps that is why, instead of another tale of superpowered teenagers fighting evil, Senkō no Night Raid is (aside from its ESP twist) a straight-up espionage thriller in the vein of, say, The Bourne Identity. You know, the kind of thing with efficiently sketched characters, tricky double- and triple-crosses, and lots of lurking in shadows punctuated by people jumping off of buildings and blowing crap up. The milieu is exotic, the action frequent, and the members of Sakurai Kikan reasonably principled people wading hip-deep in a sea of opportunists, thugs and untrustworthy allies. If it weren't for all those tele-whatevers, this could have been written by Ian Fleming or any number of other pulp espionage experts. The fact that it is set in China at the onset of the hostilities that would eventually lead to the second Sino-Japanese War and culminate in the Rape of Nanking only adds dark resonance that (one hopes) will eventually lend Sakurai Kikan's activities a queasy ambiguity. That it kicks ass too is icing on the cake.


Mayoi Neko Overrun!

Rating: 3 ½

Review: An average schlub, his never-honest-with-her-feelings childhood friend, his 2D-obsessed otaku buddy, and a stray catgirl, all caught up in a frantic romantic comedy. If the series were barely palatable it would be a miracle; that it somehow ends up tasty fun...I don't even know what to call that.

There really is little to say about the series' plot that that opening encapsulation doesn't encapsulate. The schlub's name is Tsuzuki Takumi, his childhood friend's name is Serizawa Fumino, the otaku is Kikuchi Ieyasu and the catgirl...no one's gotten around to naming her yet. There is also Umenomori Chise, a spoiled heiress who isn't honest with her feelings either; and as you might expect both her and Fumino are interested in the schlub.

And how does this translate into quality entertainment? That...well, that's bit of a mystery. It has something to do with the series' energy, which is high without being irritatingly so. It also has something to do with how the characters are always one step beyond the stereotypes they first appear to be. And there's an honest affection, a kindness even, to the way the show treats them that is winning. There're also the little glimpses it allows of Takumi and Fumino's childhood that are just long enough to guess at how miserable it was and just short enough that they don't smack of callous manipulation. Add to that a high cuteness factor, a pleasant visual style, and an unexpected level of emotional maturity and you have a series that is good (if not great) when every fiber of your being tells you it shouldn't be.


Giant Killing

Rating: 4

Review: As its competition is the sophomore season of Big Windup! and the sixth of the baseball warhorse Major, you could say that Giant Killing is this season's new kid on the block, sports-wise. It doesn't feel like it, though. It's the story of the ETU, a Tokyo soccer team that has seen better days. All of their best players have left, their fans have turned on them like a pack of cannibals, and even the local kids' soccer team thinks they can take them. To rectify this, the team sends two representatives to England in search of the team's prodigal son, soccer-star-turned-manager Tatsumi Takeshi. While in England he took a village team straight to the big time and the ETU's owners hope he can do the same for their flailing team. That he begins his reign by cutting all of the experienced players out of the starting lineup doesn't seem promising though.

Giant Killing has no lack of ambition. Unlike most sports series, which tend to focus on the players' side of the story, Giant Killing encompasses every aspect of the sport. It touches down in the team boardroom, where businessmen discuss profits; it goes onto the field, where the players are showing the effects of poor morale; it even gets down on the ground with the fans, who are split between anger at Tatsumi for his abrupt exit and excitement at his return to the fold. But most of all it follows Tatsumi, who as manager is the team's grand vizier and military strategist. The focus on strategy is refreshing, as is the confidently holistic viewpoint, and the opening scene at a British soccer game promises solid on-field action, but the real treat is watching a character—and an intriguing one at that—fight for his team not with mad sports skills but with a sharp mind. This is sports anime as it should be: smart, unpredictable, and aimed squarely at grown ups.


Hakuōki

Rating: 3

Review: Using the Shinsengumi, an historical group of famed swordsmen, as a reverse harem is certainly a novel idea. Perhaps even more novel is applying solid production values and writing to make them an interesting reverse harem. (Relatively speaking). Yukimura Chizuru is the center of the harem, a girl who traveled to Kyoto looking for her missing father. Dressed as a boy, she is pursued by outlaw samurai, who are immediately slaughtered by slavering red-eyed men in Shinsengumi uniforms. Who are, in turn, slaughtered by Saitou Hajime, one of the Shinsengumi elite. She is trussed and transported to the Shinsengumi headquarters, where the squad's members debate whether they should kill her outright or let her wander the compound unconsciously seducing them all. No prizes for guessing which they choose.

Based as it is off of Idea Factory's romance adventure game (read violent dating sim), the reverse harem should come as no surprise, nor the hunky men, but the clean overall look and unobtrusively stylized fights do. Osamu Yamasaki is a veteran of violent, demon-ridden 80s fare like Yotoden, so his casual skill with Hakuōki's atmosphere of dislocated supernatural unease is understandable. He also handles the handsome male cast and cute little Chizuru well, giving them clearly defined personalities while never allowing the series' harem nature to grow too blatant. On the plot front, the revelation about the place of Chizuru's father in the monster mash promises a few interesting developments down the road. It isn't a flashy series, preferring solidity to excellence, but if it continues to look this good and deliver solid action and character drama...well, you could certainly do worse. Like Neo Angelique Abyss.


Working!!

Rating: 3

Review: Count on a show adapted from a 4-panel gag manga to be good, substance-free fun. Taneshima Popura is in high school but looks for all the world like a precocious child. She works part-time at a family restaurant, where her height and demeanor are frequent causes of heckling. When the restaurant needs a new employee, she hits the streets looking for a good candidate. What she gets Takanashi Souta, an underclassman at her school with a real thing for cute stuff like puppies, kitties, water fleas, and of course, Popura. At the restaurant he must contend with lazy, sarcastic, armed and occasionally dangerous co-workers, irritating customers, and a manager who apparently does nothing at all.

There is nothing to Working!! beyond its humor. You aren't going to care deeply about these characters, and neither is the series going to do anything to capitalize on your nonexistent deep caring. There is nothing stylistically adventurous about it, nor any depth beyond its workaday observations about getting along with co-workers and customers. It isn't terribly smart and definitely isn't going anywhere of import. But there is that humor: relatively gentle, often amusing, and entirely inoffensive. Sure the sugary light-humor show about nothing has been done before, and better (K-ON! anyone?), but this is nonetheless diverting. Plus Popura is adorable and it's nice to see a guy like Souta who is into cute stuff but isn't a total creepazoid. It won't blow your mind, but won't dunk it in sewage either. Enjoyable.


Kissxsis

Rating: 0

Review: There is a right way to make an ecchi comedy and a wrong way. This is the wrong way. Keita Suminoe is an everyday, average, nothing-special-about-him-at-all normal student. He has two sisters, Ako and Riko, who are not related to him by blood. They want to jump his bones. He's reluctant to let them. Ah, the humor and heartbreak of youth.

If you want to see an ecchi comedy done right, check out this season's B Gata H Kei. It isn't exactly quantum mechanics: A twist here, some reasonably rounded and likeable characters, a few good gags, a smidge of heart, an interesting viewpoint (try the female characters for once), and nothing that makes you want to retch in your shoes and throw them at the animators. Kiss×sis misses all of that, particularly that bit about vomiting. To begin with, the basic plot is a fake-incest love triangle (having had adopted siblings, I can tell you that the thought of fake incest is every bit as disgusting as the real thing). And then there are Ako and Riko, two exceedingly gross girl-bots whose brains were obviously wired by male perverts whose own skulls were awash in their own semen. They attack Keita at night, flash their boobs at him upon coming home, steal his underwear and lovingly inhale its fragrance, and sniff his used "special" Kleenexes...after rummaging through his garbage.

And after all that the show has the gall to try to cover its essential vileness by stitching on some hackneyed family drama; no matter that the "drama" is half-baked (or unbaked) and the stitches so unprofessional that you can see the narrative pus seeping from the wounds they make. For use only as a visual emetic.


Arakawa Under the Bridge

Rating: 4

Review: Ichinomiya Kou is wealthy, handsome, and most of all, self-possessed. In fact you could say he has taken the latter to unhinged extremes. His family has long lived by the motto "never incur a debt," and he has internalized the lesson with Hitler Youth fanaticism. So it is no small trauma when the first debt he incurs in his life is the granddaddy of them all: his life itself. And worse yet, he ends up owing it to a deadpan-crazy homeless girl named Nino who has, it turns out, no desires whatsoever. How do you repay a debt to someone who wants nothing? Well, almost nothing. Nino does want to experience love...

What follows is pure hilarity—of a very peculiar kind. The scene where Kou incurs his debt is a veritable tower of bizarre jokes as his rock-headed insistence on doing everything himself leads him pants-less up the side of a bridge, through an explanation of his seriously f-ed up childhood (which he seems oddly proud of), and finally, and ironically, into the deepest debt a person can possibly owe. All served up with that love-it-or-hate-it SHAFT humor that Akiyuki Shinbo and his collaborators polished with shows like Pani Poni Dash! and Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei, yet with a heart that those series often lacked. Comedy is Ayakawa Under the Bridge's primary objective, but even within a single episode Kou's withered soul can be seen re-hydrating, and the greatest joke of them all is that, for all his buttoned down respectability, Kou belongs right alongside his new Venusian girlfriend and her loony bin o' buddies.


Shin Koihime Musō: Otome Tairan

Rating: 2

Review: The ongoing adaptation of BaseSon's titular "adult adventure games" begins its third season as it began its second: frivolously. Ryuubi Gentoku and her band of maiden warriors is resting up after quashing the Yellow Turban Rebellion (so to speak). The inactivity and attendant gluttony has Ryuubi fearing for her waistline, so she tries a series of escalating diets. Her comrades, seeing their leader worrying about her stomach and losing her appetite but denying being ill, come to the most logical conclusion: she's pregnant. And very female Bachou is the father. Temporary chaos results.

After announcing their intent to cross-promote, Koihime Musō and Ikki Tousen have become sort of de facto sister series. And no wonder. They're both loose adaptations of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms that recast the story with female warriors and subsequently reduce it to something utterly ridiculous. But there the comparisons end. Where Ikki Tousen's girls drip sex and engage in gory and occasionally exciting fights, Koihime Musō's radiate cloying cuteness and participate in sing-offs. Despite its yuri overtones and periodic jiggle comedy, Koihime Musō as fluffily harmless as Ikki Tousen is leeringly perverted. It's also as lifeless as Ikki Tousen is lively, and impossibly disposable. By the time its cuddly misunderstandings have ironed themselves out, you'll be begging for someone to slap you in the face with a topless fight.


Angel Beats!

Rating: 3

Review: An attempt by Key to move beyond downbeat supernatural romances like Kanon and Clannad, Angel Beats! is a downbeat supernatural action comedy. Way to expand your horizons. The story begins with a nameless amnesiac awakening in a quiet courtyard...next to girl with a sniper rifle. Though initially skeptical he soon discovers, at the expense of much blood and pain, that he is dead, that this is the afterlife, and that he cannot die, whether stabbed through the heart or minced with a halberd. The girl, Yuri, is the leader of an afterlife resistance group that fights Angel, an indestructible death machine in the form of a quiet little girl and the enforcer of their little slice of purgatory. As not fighting means disappearing and presumably resurrecting, our amnesiac hero joins the resistance, if only to buy time until his memories are restored.

It is undeniably bracing to see visual novel impresario Key take on something that doesn't involve a single guy and a bouquet of girls doing nothing in some atmospheric little town. Bracing, but not necessarily better. Their new series is a choppy affair, with far too many about-faces in tone (from mystical atmosphere, to black slapstick, to blood-drenched violence) and poorly integrated infodumps to flow the way, say, Kanon did. It also owes a visible debt to Phillip Jose Farmer's Riverworld books, but without Farmer's sweeping vision or sense for the heroic human spirit. And it doesn't help that Yuri borrowed her personality (and hairstyle) from Haruhi Suzumiya. That said, the episode's finale, in which Yuri and her undead brigade stage a joint concert/firefight, is genuinely thrilling, and like all Key series it plays its cards close to its chest, making a precipitous judgment a bad idea. Oh, and it's gorgeous.


Kaichō wa Maid-sama!

Rating: 3

Review: The title translates to "The Class President is a Maid," which fairly screams otaku pander-fest. As it turns out, wrongly. Instead we get a shojo tale of an overachieving class president who falls under the thrall of the local stud. An improvement to be sure, though not as large a one as one would like.

Ayuzawa Misaki is the overachieving class president, a hard worker who has clawed her way up the high-school political ladder so as to impose order on the sloppy male students at her formerly all-male school. Misaki's home life has been pretty much hell since her father lit out for parts unknown leaving her mother saddled with his debts, and in order to make ends meet she works (reluctantly) at a maid cafe. Where quite naturally she is seen by Usui Takumi, the boy she most detests, giving him potential blackmail material that he seems curiously disinterested in using.

Potential maid-fetishism notwithstanding, Maid-Sama is a pretty straightforward shojo romance. Its romantic pairing is obvious from the outset, its female lead strong, and its male lead a standard-issue cool-but-kind ikemen (think Hayama from Kodocha, only grown up). Family drama buzzes in the background, school drama ticks in the foreground, and in between are the expected barriers to the inevitable blossoming of love (namely Misaki's pride and Usui's reticence). It will all be of fair interest to fans of shojo romance and of little or none to non-fans. It has its distasteful undertones—why, for instance, its writers feel the need to continually disempower their strong female lead—but overall it's a harmless romantic diversion.


Ichiban Ushiro no Daimaō

Rating: 3 ½

Review: The touching tale of a brave premise struggling against the machinations of a venal market. Sai Akuto is a nice guy. He himself is the first to admit it. He makes it a point to help those in need, his goal is to create a kinder world, and his choice of professions is High Priest—a job he could lose merely for littering. So when he transfers to the Constant Magical Academy, he is understandably shocked when the school's supposedly infallible oracle proclaims his future occupation as "demon lord." Soon the well-meaning boy finds himself terrorizing his classmates and dodging assassination attempts by justice-minded students, not to mention attracting attention from wannabe underlings.

Ichiban Ushiro no Daimaō has a fantastic premise, rife with comic and dramatic potential and peppered with little ideas that beg to be explored. As such it is more than a little frustrating to watch it floundering in a sea of naked flesh and romantic comedy mush. So much of this first episode is spent introducing an extensive female cast and goofing around with romantic misunderstandings that the interesting stuff gets sort of horned in sideways. There are the repercussions of the school's occupational forecasting, implicit in Akuto's struggle to get others to see past his dark fate, which really only get mentioned during a motormouthed speech Akuto gives to his unreceptive class. There are the disturbing powers that Akuto displays under duress which go unexplored while the show lingers on their girls-stripped-naked aftermath. And of course there's Akuto himself, a strong and principled male lead (for once!), whose flashes of brilliant leadership and inner conflict must muscle their way past all of the unintentional seduction and pinballing from girl to girl. Enough of the good stuff makes it past the fan-service dreck to make it worthwhile, but it's a shame that it has to.


B Gata H Kei

Rating: 3 ½

Review: Yamada is an exceptionally beautiful high school student with a serious agenda: to eventually have 100 sex partners. Her problem? She's a virgin and deathly afraid she'll be humiliated during her first sexual experience. The solution: find a partner even less experienced than her. Enter Takashi Kosuda, the exceptionally ordinary schlub she first encounters at a book store. After (too) bluntly ascertaining that he is indeed a virgin ("with that face, he has to have trouble getting girls"), Yamada sets her sights on getting him inside of her. Luckily he also happens to sit next to her at school, though it takes some time for her to notice since she can't remember his face. Let the seduction begin.

Just when you thought there was nothing new under the romantic comedy sun, along comes Yamada: an incredibly vulgar and incredibly inept sex obsessive casually wrapped in the skin of a traditional bishoujo. Told through her eyes, what could easily have been a hentai-ready wish-fulfillment fantasy instead transforms itself into a very funny comedy of discomfort. Not only do her glaring personality flaws and carnal fixation give an unusually compelling reason for a gorgeous girl to pursue a terminally plain guy (the bane of shonen romances), but they're also an endless source of comic misunderstandings and epically awful situations. In her first few encounters with Kosuda, Yamada manages to publicly humiliate him, bully him, and sexually assault him...multiple times. Far from seduction, it's a campaign of harassment.

It's also a weirdly sneaky romance. When Yamada finally finagles her way into Kosuda's home, it becomes clear that in her headlong charge to get in Kosuda's pants she has been unintentionally living a very conventional, and very sweet romance (with all the wrong intentions of course). Not to worry: it all ends in amusingly sadistic disaster for poor Kosuda, but nevertheless it is clear that the series is intent on walking a fine line between bald perversity and naive sweetness. An odd mix under any circumstances, and certainly a recipe for potential disaster, but for now a source of real promise.


HEROMAN

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: Take hoary American comics-god Stan Lee, hook him up with the Japanese animation gurus at BONES and what do you get? You'd think something with a better name than Heroman. If you were hoping the pairing would produce something revelatory, knock your expectations down a notch or two. Heroman isn't a revolution; it's a gentle look back at the simpler heroes of simpler times. Its protagonist Joey is a put-upon geek who dreams of heroic robots. Heroman is the extraterrestrial machine who comes literally from the sky to fulfill those dreams. And the evil they must fight? Space invaders of course.

If that sounds like a load of retro corn to you, don't pack your bags a leave Heroville just yet. Lee is a veteran writer and he sketches his characters with economy and insight. Even within the twenty-minute confines of this opening episode we understand both Joey's place in life (he's poor and not well-liked by the upper crust) and his attitude towards it (resignation tinged with hope). We understand that he likes outgoing rich girl Lina but is too timid to honestly respond, just as we understand that Lina knows this and likes him despite it. A few of the characters fall into unflattering stereotypes—Lina's nerd-hating jock brother primary among them—but the series overall is too breezily well-written to hold that against it.

That said, it's Bones' presentation of Lee's old-fashioned tale that elevates it definitively above the crowd. The studio gives Heroman's world a smooth gloss that is at once wholly modern and vaguely behind the times. Heroman himself embodies the aesthetic: a sleek machine with patriotic 50s coloration and Tetsujin 28 eyes in a landscape of clogged freeways and SUVs. The look is both unique and appealing, though not without its worrisome quirks. I mean, seriously—cockroach aliens?

Heroman is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Ikki Tousen: Xtreme Xecutor

Rating: 3

Review: The uncontrollable Sousou Moutoku defeated, peace settles over the battling schools of Tokyo. You'd think peace would be fleeting in a land populated by bloodthirsty highschoolers imbued with the souls of ancient Chinese warriors, and you'd be right. No sooner are the sundry fighters of Kyoshou high school getting used to their leader Moutoku's return to normalcy (and the dull routine that accompanies it) than Bachou Mouki, sister of one of Moutoku's victims, hits them broadside looking for revenge. Several casualties and some exploding clothes later the prognosis for peace doesn't look good.

Another season of over-plotted fighting trash from the guys who brought you exploding clothing and the "boobie bomb." You could exhaust yourself recounting this latest installation's shortcomings, from the petty to the vile. It's ridiculously over-sexed, overstocked with random events, and just generally vulgar and preposterous. This episode, even with its opening recap, will be nonsense to anyone who hasn't kept up with the franchise, and probably to a great many who have.

No matter though. Ikki Tousen's assets aren't found in its writing. They're found attached to its female cast's chests. And, to be fair, in the fights that frequently expose said assets. Viewers tune in for violent fights and loads of nudity, and that's what Ikki Tōsen XX delivers. It's unrepentant trash done as well as unrepentant trash can reasonably be expected to be: colorful, lightning-paced, and inexplicably involving. The episode's climactic fight is a ridiculous rooftop rumble whose clean buildup and defenestrating payoff bespeak long experience with this brand of garbage. Yes it's baldly exploitative, yes it's likely unhealthy, and yes it's dumber than a lobotomized brick. But in a way, that's exactly why we tune in.


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