The Summer 2010 Anime Preview Guide
Carlo Santos

by Carlo Santos, Jul 7th 2010

Carlo (spelled without an S) lives in beautiful San Diego, where he makes ideal use of the weather and scenery by staying indoors. When not immersed in the surreal worlds of anime and manga, he is usually found hammering away at his piano or electric violin, which is named after Aya Hirano because it is made in Japan and is also frequently out of tune.


Asobi ni Iku yo!

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review: Asobi ni Iku yo! is a show with an identity crisis. Either it wants to be a bacchanal of busty bishoujo bounciness, or it wants to be a dramatic sci-fi action piece with a dash of cute on the side. The problem is, if you do the former, that basically precludes you from succeeding at the latter. And while the opening episode does manage to throw in some intriguing sci-fi allusions—Orson? Ender?—the final result still ends up in Fanservice Land.

It begins with a few minutes of hardcore gunslinging action on the high seas, one of those "ha ha fooled you" openings where they purposely act all serious before digging into wacky harem hijinks. Then we get to meet the real cast of characters: Kakazu, a bespectacled schoolboy completely indistinguishable from any other male protagonist ever, and Elis, the alien catgirl who has crash-landed on Earth and somehow insinuated herself into Kakazu's bedroom. Of course, this brings Kakazu much embarrassment due to Elis's lack of modesty and her overflowing bosoms. And it doesn't stop there: apparently every girl in Kakazu's life is a teenage hottie, even the one who is secretly a government operative dealing with extraterrestrial affairs! Will the predictable plot elements ever stop?!

It's only in the episode's brief moments of seriousness that it shows any signs of promise: apparently this alien crash-landing is a serious thing among paranormal investigators, which leads to an ominous plot twist very near the end. The slick animation quality and nuances of color are able to carry this aspect of the series, but ultimately, the production values are mostly wasted on showing off Elis's unrealistic curves. In fact, if Asobi ni Iku yo! were being produced strictly as a sci-fi action show and had all the cheesecake elements removed, it'd be visually sharp enough to work. It's just that every time Elis starts hamming up for the camera, and the other characters feel the pressing need to point out her extraordinarily gifted anatomy, well ... you kind of wish she'd just go back to her home planet.

Asobi ni Iku yo! is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Kuroshitsuji II episode 2

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: After a first episode that went way out on a pointless tangent, the true face of Black Butler finally shows itself—and it turns out to be, well, another tangent. At least the likable characters show up for this one: preteen aristocrat Ciel Phantomhive and his trusty butler-of-all-trades, Sebastian, are out and about surveying a riverbank on Phantomhive land. This, of course, means being followed about by brown-nosing society types, including a blonde, shrill-voiced ingenue by the name of Elizabeth. Elizabeth, being the blonde that she is, insists that she, Ciel and Sebastian go searching for an elusive white stag—an omen of good luck in English folklore. Ah, such fun and frolic in the 19th century! Such meaningless twaddle in contemporary anime!

All right, so it has no apparent bearing on the overall plot, but as far as pure entertainment, this episode does have its good points. Its tongue-in-cheek nature makes it a livelier experience than the first one was, and few can resist the visual appeal of elegant Old World dress set against a backdrop of lush greenery. It's like a cosplay picnic, only real! Some may take issue with the antics of the Phantomhive household's "idiot trio" (i.e. Sebastian's underlings), but that kind of levity is a refreshing antidote to a franchise—and an entire genre—that is often in danger of taking itself too seriously. Even the ongoing wager among the socialites (will they find the white stag? Won't they?), irrelevant as it may be, adds an extra twist of amusement.

It's only in the episode's third act, when a sudden rainstorm puts Elizabeth in danger, that things get serious—and tellingly, it's the least enjoyable, most predictable part of the story. (Even the color palette turns more drab.) Everyone already knows that Sebastian is going to bounce around being awesome, and that Ciel will make some deadpan comments, and that Elizabeth is going to be saved. Typical. So now that the kids have had their fun, when will the real depth and purpose of the series show up?

Kuroshitsuji II is available streaming at Funimation.com.


Occult Academy episode 2

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: For all its slick production values, gushing ominous music (which still periodically rips off Beethoven), and sophisticated character design, Occult Academy is still a creature born from standard supernatural tropes. Episode 2 is no exception, and while it's not as schlocky as the opening chapter, this follow-up—which explains more about the mysterious goings-on at Waldstein Academy—still falls back on familiar old gimmicks. Consider the arrival of time-traveler Minoru Abe (the naked guy from the end of the first episode), who eventually explains to our heroine Maya that he has been sent from 2012 to 1999 to help prevent the apocalypse by finding the "Key of Nostradamus." Goodness gracious, there are so many goofy end-of-the-world sci-fi clichés in that last sentence that the only thing missing is a quote from the Book of Revelation. In a way, the whole time-travel aspect plays out like the Kyon/Mikuru side of Haruhi Suzumiya, except taking itself waaaaay too seriously.

Other so-serious-it's-silly moments in this episode include: Maya hopping out of the shower in a towel due to some menacing specter, more idle schoolyard gossip about the weirdness of the academy, and Maya inflicting random acts of violence on Minoru. It's that last one that seems particularly out of character for the series—are we trying to tell a spooky tale of paranormal intrigue here, or just goofing around in a giant boarding school in the middle of nowhere? (God forbid this suddenly morphs into the Waldstein High School Host Club.) The good thing is, the plot still makes sense at this point, and the time-travel element, campy as it may be, does add depth to the story. Even the wry technological commentary about cellphones in 1999—behold, the classic turn-of-the-century candybar design!—is a clever touch. Yet it is all those moments of genre weakness, like the Maya fanservice, the Minoru slapstick, and melodramatic pronouncements of DOOM, that keep this series from achieving its true potential as a horror thriller.

Occult Academy is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan episode 2

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review:
This week, we ask the question that is pressing on everyone's minds: does Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan get better? Technically, yes, even if the improvement is only by a small increment. This episode sees the introduction of Zen, a big-brotherly character who visits the Nura household and reminds bratty, bespectacled Rikuo of the responsibility that has fallen upon his shoulders as chosen heir of the clan. At first, Zen's visit seems like a pointless waste of plot—did we just waste 10 minutes of our lives seeing Rikuo get lectured about the importance of his yokai heritage?—but a surprise twist in the middle suddenly makes this episode interesting. It is at that moment that Nura finally starts to show signs of promise: monstrous transformations, feats of sorcery, and fierce combat to go with the fantastical beasts that already populate the series.

The abrupt change of tone is more than just a dose of action-packed eye candy, though (not that anyone's complaining about the jump in artistry and animation quality); the middle of the episode also reveals more about the world of yokai in general and how Rikuo is connected to its denizens. It is Rikuo himself, however, that turns out to be the biggest highlight of the entire episode. Even though his shining moment relies on the old shounen cliché of cool spiky-haired guys with swords, it's still most dynamic, most macho aspect of the series so far.

Shame about the rest of the episode, though—especially in the final third, which wipes away all that coolness and dark atmosphere in exchange for silly school antics yet again. If regular-mode Rikuo seeems like a brat, his friends are even worse, and trying to throw more cute girls into the school environment isn't going to fix that. So how about it, Nura? Are we really going to get a supernatural tour-de-force of advanced swordfighting and sorcery, or are we doomed to this constant flip-flopping between everyday school life (yawn) and everyday yokai battle (woohoo)? Only another episode will tell.

Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan is available streaming at VizAnime.com.


The Legend of the Legendary Heroes

Rating: 2 (of 5)

Review:
Okay, everyone who has checked out this series is invariably going to make some crack about the Redundant Title of Redundancy. So let's just get that out of the way now: the title of this show is stupid.

So is the rest of it.

Legendary Heroes, despite being based on a multi-volume light novel series, fails to show any of the depth or reason for its longevity in its first anime episode. Like many large-scale fantasy works, it tries to establish a complex setting ("LONG LONG AGO, WHEN MONSTERS HAD THE POWER TO RULE THE WRZZZZZzzzzzzz"), but I forget what it was about because it sounds like all other fantasy settings and I wandered into the kitchen to have a snack. The story then focuses on a number of storylines: spellcasting adventurer Ryner and his sword-swinging ladyfriend Ferris Bueller, who are in search of "ancient hero relics" in a hostile country, and also the King of Long Flowing Locks, Sion, who is trying to bring justice to a kingdom named after a Brazilian soccer player. Unfortunately, neither of these scenarios are particularly engaging, due to the mechanical "they-did-this-and-then-they-did-this" approach, and besides, one could accomplish the same results by rounding up a few friends and starting a D&D campaign. Which would at least be interactive.

What saves Legendary Heroes from utter failure at this point is the competent visual quality—plenty of costume details and nuances of color that may have otherwise been skimped out on if they'd gone to a cheaper studio. And the story, for all its banality, is at least comprehensible—more so than the ones where they throw fifty fantasy names at you in one go and make reference to past and future events that won't even matter until Episode 21.

Ultimately, while the show does not contain any elements that make it outstandingly bad, it's still hard to imagine anyone taking an interest in this unless you have a pressing need to watch at least one fantasy anime every season.

Legend of the Legendary Heroes is available streaming at Funimation.com.


Moyashimon (live-action)

Rating: 4.5 (of 5)

Review:
Ladies and gentlemen, your 2010 anime of the summer ... is a live-action series.

Let's see: 90% of everything is horrible (Sturgeon's Law), the industry has come down with a severe case of sequel-itis, and the last best hope for mankind (the Noitamina block) is running a couple of good-but-not-great series. That leaves, by elimination, the live-action Moyashimon as this season's shining example of Japanese visual entertainment.

It is by no means a perfect show. It loses half-a-point for cramming several chapters of the manga together to form this gooey, plotty mess that kinda-sorta rehashes the beginning of the original. The protagonist remains mostly unchanged—it's still Tadayasu Sawaki, a university freshman with an uncanny ability to see microbes with the naked eye—but the episode then sets his best friend Kei off to the side, jumps right into the storyline with the two meatheads trying to brew their own sake, and later down the line introduces the eccentric Professor Itsuki and his temperamental graduate student Haruka Hasegawa. In other words, it pretty much does what the manga and anime did, except condensed and in a totally different order. Think Moyashimon: The Abridged Series.

At the same time, though, the natural charm of the show is undeniable. Every scene bristles with the energy of a classic screwball comedy, making it one of the few cases where goofy J-drama overacting works in a show's favor. The cute, computer-animated microbes are also a plus: the effect may be campy, but they stay true to the original manga designs, and blend into the live-action scenery smoothly enough to make the implausible premise work. It's the characters, though, that really carry the show, and they are the reason why a few plot inaccuracies can be forgiven. As long as we get our weekly dose of Sawaki's wide-eyed innocence, Prof. Itsuki's madness, Hasegawa's self-righteous rage—and a healthy chunk of microbiological trivia, of course—then these tales of agriculture are a surefire winner.

Moyashimon live-action is available streaming at Funimation.com.



Shiki

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review:
The Shiki hype train is quickly filling with passengers, but a series that stands out as "best of the summer" would probably be just middle-of-the-road fare during busier times of the year. As it stands, this horror-mystery does a lot of things right—the foreboding atmosphere, the oblique storytelling, the striking imagery—but still needs more time to really establish itself as the cream of this season's disappointing crop.

The story begins with Megumi Shimizu, a teenage girl who is bored out of her mind living out in the sticks and can't wait to move to the big city. Things start to get weird over the next few days, though, as a new family moves into town and takes up residence in a huge European-style house on a nearby hill. Megumi thinks it might be fun to check the place out, but when she is suddenly found unconscious in a nearby forest, things quickly take a tragic turn. Y'know, when your parents tell you to be careful about wandering off into the woods alone, listen to them. Otherwise you, too, could end up in a slickly animated mystery series that relies on the great Japanese tradition of summertime ghost stories.

The story may seem unfocused and overloaded with characters at first, but that's probably just to get all the cast members in place so that the plot can begin to unfold. There are also times when the episode seems to be waffling on for no reason—hey, look at Megumi crushing on the cute guy at school!—but that's eventually balanced out by the darker subject matter later. Where this episode also succeeds is in presenting the sights and sounds that creep us out without being overtly scary: the unsettled chirping of cicadas, the haziness of summer air over the town, even the blank look in Megumi's eyes after she is found in the woods. Although it doesn't expressly point out where the bad stuff is coming from, the series makes it clear that something not-quite-right is going on—and that kind of subtle terror is the real secret of success in the horror genre.

Shiki is available streaming at Funimation.com.


Kuroshitsuji II

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review:
Late 19th-century Anglophiles and Hot Topic shoppers rejoice! Sebastian the Combat Butler has returned! Except not really, as this oddly roundabout first episode reveals.

The first half of the episode suggests that one may have wandered into the wrong series by mistake, or possibly be watching a bootleg version with incorrectly drawn characters. Who is this bratty blond kid who lies through his teeth and tortures his servants? Who is this butler who clearly is not Sebastian Michaelis (despite reaching similar levels of awesome)? And where, for God's sake, are the main characters of Black Butler?

The answer to that comes in the second half, where a mysterious visitor shows up and asks for a certain brand of tea. Suffice to say, this is where the spirit of the show truly comes to life, as we get to see butler-on-butler dueling and acts of physics that would clearly be impossible anywhere else. All it is, however, is a teaser for the rest of the series, as truth behind Sebastian and Ciel's lack of screen time is not revealed until after the ending credits. Everything else is there just to establish the setting—the gorgeously rendered interiors, the elaborate costumes, the social formalities between characters, the background music ripping off Vivaldi's "Summer" from The Four Seasons for a touch of Old World class. And while some will be instantly hooked just for the sake of the Victorian era and butlers doing what they do best (like flinging cutlery with perfect throwing-knife precision), others may wonder if this sequel series forgot to pack a plot or something.

Well, that's what the remaining episodes are for, right? "It gets better," as they say, and while this first episode may have nailed the style, it missed out on the substance. Then again, the majority of those following Black Butler II are the ones who already saw the first one—and you don't need to be told whether to watch the next episode or not.

Kuroshitsuji II is available streaming at Funimation.com.


Digimon Xros Wars

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review:
You know what is ironic and maddening? That a kids' show, designed specifically to sell toys and merchandise, is more coherent, purposeful and intelligent than the schoolyard sap marketed at a twentysomething otaku audience. This is because kids are not stupid. Too young to be fooled by the artifice of character types (Tsundere this! Imouto that!) and lame excuses ("It gets better!"), they demand the kind of stories that deliver instant, meaningful entertainment. Such as ordinary schoolchildren being technomagically whisked away to an alternate world where they fight giant monsters with robots. This is exactly what Digimon Xros Wars is about, and it is awesome. In fact, it's the kind of anime that makes you remember why you fell in love with animation in the first place.

From the hard-rocking theme song, to the bright colors and modern fashion of the characters, to the wild beasts and mechanical marvels of the Digital World, this entire first episode crackles with energy and external stimuli. Sure, a lot of it relies on the old formula of young children discovering special powers—but it is a formula that the show has perfected and refined over a decade. The pacing doesn't miss a beat as it builds up to our hero's shining moment, and all the big hits in battle are delivered on the dot. Digimon nostalgists will also appreciate how the character and creature designs remain true to the style of the series.

This episode still has its misfires, however, like the title itself (apparently the tween-marketing trend of sticking an "X" on everything to make it "XTREME" has carried over to Japan), and the rather shameless CGI drivel during some of the battle scenes. Franchise purists may also bemoan the use of robots and combinatorial moves in a series that's supposed to be about digitally generated life-forms. In other words, this better not turn into Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagannmon somewhere down the line. But in a season where much of the "grown-up" fare is failing miserably or barely scraping by, this surprisingly fired-up juvenile adventure may be our last hope.


Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review:
In the supernatural genre, there tend to be two types of powers: the ones that suddenly manifest themselves when you reach a certain stage of puberty, and the ones you've had all your life and grudgingly put up with. Twelve-year-old Rikuo Nura, the hero of this series, belongs to the second type—and he's just not interested in being an ambassador for human-yokai relations. But Rikuo finds himself getting caught up in spiritual matters anyway, whether at the request of his grandfather, or because his idiot classmates want to explore an abandoned school building at night and Rikuo has to covertly chase off any real yokai so they don't terrorize his friends.

The one good thing about using yokai as a basic element is that it opens the doors to lots of neat visual designs—creatures bridging the gap between natural and supernatural, anthropomorphic forms, and a certain spooky elegance that can't be had from psychic warriors shooting beams at each other Dragon Ball-style. Yet Nura often misses the boat on these visual opportunities, focusing more on Rikuo and his dealings with his classmates, or worse yet, Serious Guys In Traditional Robes Having Serious Conversations. It does pick up a little toward the end of the episode with the obligatory dose of action, and the big-eyed, cuddly character designs should help draw in the Shonen Jump crowd that's still too skittish to get into harder horror fare.

The story, meanwhile, holds absolutely no surprises for anyone—even the  foreshadowing about Rikuo's true powers being "awakened" is remarkably cookie-cutter in its execution. The series is clearly trying to build a complex world about Rikuo's yokai upbringing and the paranormal conflict that surrounds him, but it's hard to get invested in yet another bog-standard tale of some schoolboy spiritualist (hello, Kekkaishi). Will Rikuo accept his yokai fate or continue to defy his grandfather? Will Rikuo eventually awaken his frightening alter ego? Do I care enough to keep watching up to where "it gets better"? For that last answer to be a "yes," this show had better do something other than chasing monsters every week.

Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan is available streaming at VizAnime.com.



Shukufuku no Campanella

Rating: 1 (of 5)

Review:
All right, how many of you have actually played the Shukufuku no Campanella visual-story-thingy-game that this anime is based on? If so, could you please stop reading this review and leave the room? It's okay, I'll wait.

Now, everyone else who's still reading this ...

DO NOT WATCH THIS SHOW. EVER. ESPECIALLY IF YOU ENJOY HAVING BRAIN CELLS.

As an adaptation, this series may be half-decent. Perhaps fans of the original are excited to see their beloved characters moving at several frames a second, speaking in carefully chosen voices (that all sound the same), and interacting with each other in a way that just doesn't happen in still images and text. Everyone else, meanwhile, will see a plotless mishmash of fancy cosplayable outfits and a fantasy town so idyllic that nothing actually happens. The lone male protagonist, Leicester, basically spends the entire first episode socializing with the lovely ladyfolk of the town, which includes going to see a live puppet show, maybe grabbing something to eat, and viewing a meteor shower that evening. This is not anime, people. This is what you put in your Facebook updates.

The actual plot finally shows up in the closing credits, where we learn that one of the meteors from that night has crash-landed close enough for Leicester to investigate. What he discovers is a little girl who addresses him as "Papa!" ... and palms meet foreheads as everyone wonders why it took 25 minutes to reveal that plot point.

It's a shame, because the series really had something going with the art design—lots of picturesque backgrounds, high-fantasy costumes, and something at least visually different from usual contemporary high school setting. But with an animation technique that is so flat, and clearly more interested in pointing out, "Hey, remember this character from the game?" instead of actually telling a story, there is little in this first episode to actually draw in the viewer. And the part that would draw in viewers only comes long after everyone's walked away in frustration and boredom.

 


OŌkami-san to Shichinin no Nakama-tachi



Rating: 2 (of 5)

Review: Great, so we're already watering down the "ass-kicking wolf girl" archetype just a couple of years after Spice and Wolf came out. With her flowing light-brown locks and wily ways, high school student Ryouko Ookami bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain lupine goddess, except without the deep characters and storyline to back her up. Instead, we are treated to a ho-hum ensemble comedy where our heroine goes around being cooler than everyone else. Episode 1's plot is twofold: first there's the issue of a certain Ryoushi Morino confessing his love to Ookami, and then there's a young girl who wants to enlist Ookami's services in reaching out to her senpai in the Tennis Club. For you see, Ookami runs a special club called the Otogi Bank—where various students based on classic fairytale characters use their skills to help people out. Morino, with his uncanny ability to disappear into the background, must prove himself worthy to Ookami by successfully resolving the Tennis Club issue.

Where this series works is in its clever appropriation of Grimm/Andersen/Aesop/whoever-else elements—the episode's final twist is a spoof on Cinderella, Ookami's companions include Red Riding Hood and a fairy godmother, and the whole thing is narrated in a traditional grandmotherly voice (who apparently isn't above commenting on Ookami's chest size). Where the series fails is in having anything of value beyond that gimmick—the characters are run-of-the-mill anime high school occupants, with run-of-the-mill high school problems (help me confess to the person I have a crush on!) and few distinguishing visual traits as far as character design. Just slapping the Horo hairstyle and Haruhi eyes on a protagonist isn't going to instantly make her iconic.

The animation in this episode has its moments, most notably in the climactic bicycle chase scene, but otherwise imitates the style of most other entries in its genre. Heck, even the school uniforms look like they were rented right off the rack. How long a fairytale gimmick can support a weak story and weak visuals remains to be seen.


Highschool of the Dead

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review:
Wait ... it took this long for someone to slap the zombie trope on top of a high school anime? Well, some things are worth the wait, because this series is a much-needed shot in the arm. After years of discovering supernatural powers, goofing off in their spare time, and falling in love with each other, it was about time 2-D Japanese high school students did something interesting, like beating the guts out of their recently-reanimated classmates. Highschool of the Dead's first episode focuses on students Takashi, Hisashi, and Rei, whose everyday school life (and love triangle) takes a macabre turn when the entire staff and student body gets zombie-fied in a single afternoon. Once the creatures start to attack, the episode morphs into a symphony of destruction—jaws crunching into flesh, blood spurting out and dripping everywhere, and the indescribable panic of knowing that they are out to get you. Other recent zombie works in Western entertainment have tried to play it ironic, or postmodernist, or just plain silly, but this one goes for straight-up horror—and pulls it off admirably.

It's the frantic, unpredictable pace that really make the episode work: intense battle and chase scenes, interspersed with quiet moments of dread, and never knowing which one is going to come next. Deep shadows, plus certain visual tricks, also add to the effect: the use of 3-D modeling on the backgrounds is almost dizzying at times, but melds into the animation beautifully and really puts the viewer "in the scene." And sometimes it's the most basic imagery in the horror genre that hammers home a point—like a baseball bat making solid contact with a zombie's head.

Where this episode messes up is in the first several minutes, which drag on and on trying to establish Takashi's character and his relationship with his schoolmates. To be fair, though, the relationship aspect turns out useful in bringing out the emotional impact of the final scenes. And are all the Rei pantyflashes really necessary? Either way, this horror piece shows plenty of promise.


Occult Academy

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review:
With all the money that Aniplex and A-1 Pictures have available to throw at their anime projects, why can't they pay for someone to write them an original plot? Occult Academy dives into all manner of clichés right from the start with a pretty girl in the lead role, a haunted high school as the setting, and rampaging spirits as the antagonists. To its credit, the first episode does try to add some twists to the premise: our heroine, Maya, turns out to be the daughter of Waldstein Academy's recently deceased principal. She arrives at his funeral uncharacteristically late, at which point an audio recording left behind by the principal accidentally summons an evil spirit that takes possession of his corpse. The rest of the episode, as one can imagine, involves predictable attempts to exorcise said spirit as it terrorizes the halls of Waldstein Academy.

At least this series has slick production values on its side: the sharp colors and linework give this episode a visually appealing look, and the possessed bodies are surprisingly lively as they run around scaring the pants off of everyone. When one of the students gets taken over by the spirit, things really start to get crazy Exorcist -style; the only thing more exciting than that is when Maya corners the creature in the finale and makes use of her weapon skills. So clearly, the animators have what it takes to win over the eyes of viewers ... but whether they can win over their hearts and minds with an engaging story remains to be seen. There may be many mysteries left to uncover, but it's still too early to tell.

Oh, and the use of Beethoven's "Waldstein" Piano Sonata as a musical cue to match the name of the school? Super gimmicky. Music producers should know better.


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