The Fall 2010 Anime Preview Guide Carl Kimlinger
by Carl Kimlinger, Oct 1st 2010
Carl lives in Oregon about six miles from the end of the world. The proximity, he explains, is why he isn't overly fond of apocalyptic anime. When not inflicting his views on anime on the world he splits his time between charitable causes, including volunteer work for the Bald Men's Anti-Defamation League and Scientists for the Development of the Kamehameha Wave. If asked what kind of anime he prefers, he will generally answer "good ones." As to what that means, let us just say he devoutly believes Koi Kaze to be the greatest anime ever made and speak no more on the subject.
Review: Kuragehime isn't the most sophisticated series to air on Fuji TV's late-night Noitamina time slot, but it is one of the more enjoyable, and like any good Noitamina series there's nothing like it on today's market. The Amamizukan apartment complex is a charming little building populated solely by female otaku. Tsukimi, one of the tenants, is a manic fan of jellyfish. The others are fans of martial arts, trains, dolls, and so on. When one night Tsukimi tries to rescue an ill-kept jellyfish at a local pet store, she herself ends up rescued—from an irate clerk—by a royal, statuesque woman. Tsukimi brings the jellyfish and the woman back to Amamizukan, though not without trepidation. A stylish beauty isn't the most welcome sight to a group of social lepers...particularly when it turns out she's no she.
There isn't a whole lot to Kuragehime. The intrusion of Tsukimi's rescuer into the lives of the Amamizukanites provides a little excitement, and Tsukimi's reminiscences about her deceased (one assumes) mother provide a little emotional weight, but otherwise this is straight slice-of-life comedy—gentle, sweet-natured, and fun but hardly what you'd call gripping. It is, however, in possession of a wonderful lead character, which really makes all the difference. A blob-like vision in sweat-pants, glasses and braids, Tsukimi is short, ill-groomed, and crippled by social phobias. She's also kind and thoughtful and, in her own way, brave and strong. She has a long-standing admiration for strong-willed beauties ("princesses" in her mind), the obvious irony being that she is, unbeknownst to herself, one of them. That her rescuer will eventually point that out to her is pretty much a given, as is the bedlam s/he will cause at Amamizukan, but Tsukimi is so darned loveable and chameleonic helmsman Takahiro Omori's direction so sprightly that begrudging them some predictability seems downright boorish.
Otome Yōkai Zakuro Episode 2
Review: J.C. Staff's surprise pleasure continues to hit all the right notes, strengthening the ties between its cast and delving farther into its allegorical racial tensions without neglecting its action component or easing off on the sheer beauty. Aware that his ignorance and fear cannot continue, Agemaki makes a concerted effort to understand his half-spirit partners better. The books he reads, however, are as ill-informed as he is, and his newfound "knowledge" only ends up embarrassing him—and angering Zakuro. There's no time for him to apologize, though. A request has come in: A hotel developer is having a spirit problem, and he wants the Ministry of Spirit affairs to deal with it, preferably permanently. No one at the Ministry likes the man, or his extermination fixation, but a request is a request, and they head to the site to sort it out.
Zakuro's greatest strength—aside from its gorgeous art—lies in the pleasing balance it strikes between shojo romance, light humor, supernatural action, and social consciousness. The classical Meiji romance between gentle Susukihotaru and brusque but caring Riken is still about the cutest thing ever, with Agemaki and Zakuro's equally classic shojo antagonism not far behind. Much fun is had with gap between Agemaki's lady-killer looks and the earnest, clumsy oaf within, providing the necessary laughs along with some much-needed sympathy. In the meantime the resolution of the hotel haunting balances elegant action with the series' call for understanding and mutual respect, while also highlighting the barriers to both and sneaking in a little Miyazaki-esque environmentalism (yes, light pollution is a real problem). Of course, there's nothing particularly profound about any of it—even with its social context, the series is more bonbon than meal—but it's a delight to watch regardless, and a beautifully animated one at that.
Samurai Girls Episode 2
Review: Samurai Girls will act on certain viewers much the way the Ark of the Covenant acts on Nazis. You can almost hear Indiana Jones yelling: "Whatever happens, don't open your eyes!" Seriously, don't. After falling from the sky and smooching Muneakira, Jubei Yagyu makes mincemeat of Hattori Hanzo. Only Muneakira's cries stop her from chopping the ninja enforcer in two. At his intervention, Jubei reverts to nakedness and unconsciousness and Hazo's forces subsequently round everyone up. Some ridiculously light fan-service-friendly sentencing later, Yukimura Sanada and Matabe Goto decide it's necessary to determine whether Jubei is a "Master Samurai." Verification quite naturally requires much probing and prodding of her naked body.
If episode one was Samurai Girls dazzling us Ark-style with its beauty, this is the episode where the heads start exploding. From the dumb missteps of the opening fight (seriously, DBZ scouters?) to the explosion of catfighting girls and stick-to-the-eye romantic twaddle that destroys the rest of the episode, this installment is tailor-made to turn your skull inside out. It's a study in escalating horrors: First there's villainess Sen Tokugawa's devolution into a tantrum-throwing childhood friend, complete with agonizingly phony slip of the tongue to reveal her true feelings. Then there's a bunch of worthless mumbo-jumbo about a prophesized disaster, followed by Yukimura and Hanzo butting heads and gritting their teeth in one of those curious rituals bishojo who can't get along always seem to go through. And just when you think all the squealing and tossing of clichés couldn't possibly get worse, in walks Jubei, freshly transformed from a psychotic badass into a mewling, helpless innocent. And boom! you're cleaning your brains off the screen.
Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru
Review: Maid cafes are so 2007. A maid cafe run like a run-of-the-mill Japanese shop, now that's 2010. You know a trend is getting on in age when it needs to tweak itself to get into anime. The maid cafe in question is the blandly named Seaside Maid Cafe. It's owned by an old woman (or man?) named Uki, who runs it exactly like a mundane cafe—replete with bar and cheap bench-seated booths—except everyone dresses as maids. Everyone meaning Uki and her one employee, carefree high-school student Hotori Arashiyama. Not surprisingly, business is lax to the point of nonexistence. In fact, their only regular is a student with a crush on Hotori. Things get a little livelier when Hotori's friend Toshiko also starts working there (she has a crush on the guy who has a crush on Hotori) and their math teacher tries to stop them.
The sight of maids working a shabby little shopping-street cafe is worth a few smiles, as is Toshiko's attempt to train forthright Hotori in the subservient subtleties of maid-hood, but overall this is one comedy that is gets by more on its visuals than its comedy. The fragmented edits, elaborate backgrounds, and fluid jolts of motion that are SHAFT's hallmarks are all in evidence here. Even if the novelty has worn off some, it's still a great-looking approach to animation, and coupled with Hotori's potato-faced cuteness makes Soredemo a treat to look at. Hotori, for her part, is a treat of another sort. Her manly manners and straight-shooting ways have a naturalness that defies easy classification, and when applied to Toshiko's lessons on maidliness, puts in stark relief the artificiality of moe mannerisms. Unfortunately, her charm is offset by Toshiko and the insufferable math teacher. Still, there are worse ways to get your eye candy. Oh, and the ending sequence rocks.
Review: Sherlock Shellingford, Nero Yuzurisaki, Hercule Barton, and Cordelia Glauca are Holmes Detective Academy's superstars. Each has a powerful "Toy" which grants them superpowers and uses it to pursue Lady Arsene, the most infamous thief in their city. Collectively the four are known as Milky Holmes and are adored by the student body, to say nothing of doted on by the administration, which provides them with superior food and lodgings. All of that changes one night when a lightning strike robs all four of their Toys. They immediately drop to the bottom of their class and lose the respect of their peers. When the student council president, who is secretly Lady Arsene, notices their laxity, she gives them an ultimatum: regain their powers within three months or be expelled. She also moves them into a dusty attic and makes them eat commoner swill. Curses!
Don't let the word tantei (detective) in the title fool you; this is no mystery series. It's straight-up magical girl fluff, far closer to Saint Tail than Detective Conan. Though without an iota of Tail's charm. Its tone is frantic, its humor tone-deaf, and the quartet of leads is so underdeveloped and over-privileged that not even their public humiliation can make you feel for them. The series is obviously aiming for bright, light fun, but its sugary emptiness, girly frou-frous, and sticky-sweet mannerisms smack more of marketing desperation than of a genuine desire to entertain, which kinda sours the experience. The homages to classic fictional detectives can occasionally be fun—famously corpulent PI Nero Wolfe would have approved of his namesake's taste for whole roast pig—but they also miss the mark with dispiriting regularity (ascetic Sherlock Holmes would have been repulsed by his flighty namesake). Granted, the whole business is fairly harmless, but so is sitting in your room staring at a wall. Which, all told, might be preferable.
Tantei Opera Milky Holmes is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
Rating: 3 ½
Review: What this season needs is a really good comedy. A dedicated, laugh-out-loud, forget-your-troubles comedy. So far one hasn't been forthcoming, meaning we may have to pin our hopes on this modest little charmer of a comedy. And while it has yet to break out the guffaws, the signs are good. On a peaceful beach somewhere in Japan two sisters run their beachside restaurant, ignorant of the threat looming over humanity. Enraged by humankind's callous misuse of the sea, one squid is about to launch an all-out invasion of man's domain. And her first target is the Aizawa sisters' restaurant. Unfortunately, when Ika Musume takes human form she's about four feet tall and maybe ten or eleven years old, which makes it a little hard for anyone to take her ambitions of world domination seriously. And they're right not to. Polite, essentially kind, and easily distracted, Ika Musume is the worst invader ever. She is, however, a fine waitress.
Admittedly, only one of this episode's three mini-episodes is heavy-duty funny. While light, fun, and very silly, the first two sections are generally more interested in introducing Ika Musume and her adoptive human family than busting your gut. But even when busy establishing the simple cast or delineating Ika Musume's powers, the series fairly radiates mellow good humor and feel-good warmth. This is the kind of show where everyone is kind at heart and the world is made of sun and surf and good times. It's pretty much guaranteed to put a smile on your face. That Ika Musume could conquer the world with her cuteness alone doesn't hurt anything, and neither do her darned-near-cuddly (and spiffily animated) pratfalls. As for the series' raw comic potential, director Tsutomu Mizushima has a long line of incredibly funny comedies under his belt (Dokuro-chan, Haré+Guu), and if you need something more tangible, there's the uproarious squid-ink gag that closes out the episode. Here's hoping for more good times ahead.
Review: I mentioned in Arakawa Under the Bridge x Bridge (a couple of reviews down this page) that the best sequel this season had yet to be determined. No longer. In one self-contained episode of lean, polished action, Index sinks every other sequel this fall. Index and Touma are enjoying a rare time of peace. After having his memory purged and a wide variety of magicians and espers try to kill him, Touma now just wants to get his summer homework done. Index just wants to eat. As a compromise they hit a family restaurant, where Touma can study and Index can snack to her heart's content. As Touma is the universe's dumping ground for bad luck, things don't work out quite that neatly. A large, stern man with a magical crossbow kidnaps Index, shreds Touma's homework, and leaves the restaurant in ruins. So much for peace.
There's little indication of Index's former political complexity just yet, and there's a definite feeling that Touma and Index's confrontation with the old crossbow dude is little more than a convenient way to reintroduce the duo, but the series' efficient execution and pulse-raising power are in full effect. You can feel the show moving you towards the edge of your seat as the episode progresses, almost in spite of yourself. It's proof positive that Index II is fully capable of replicating Index I's execution-over-content balancing act. And this time it has the advantage of having its intriguing world and alternately cool and huggable cast already established: The beautiful yet forbiddingly sterile Academy City remains a draw, and Index is as insanely cute and Touma as hangdog likeable as ever. As for those political complexities, the coda tacked onto the end broadcasts loud and clear the series' intent to dive right into the murky middle of Index's tangled web of magic and ESP. It'll be a mean wait for episode two.
Squid Girl is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt Episode 2
Rating: 2 ½
Review: Fallen angels Panty and Stocking are back for two more half-episodes of vulgarity and flagrantly wasted animation genius. First they re-enter high school. Supposedly there's a Ghost on campus, so nominally they're there to hunt it, but Panty at least is more interested in becoming school idol. Which brings the wrath of reigning queen bee Barby down upon them. Barby shows her true colors soon enough, transforming into a real queen bee, whereupon Panty and Stocking know they've found their Ghost. Taking a break from Ghost hunting, Panty and Stocking get ready to star in their very own movie. Unfortunately Panty lets slip that she once starred in a cheap porn film, which dooms the project. With no other choice, she and Stocking travel the globe to collect every last copy of the film and threaten its viewers into silence.
Panty & Stocking needs to get funny, and fast. Sure it's fun to watch Gainax's virtuosic explosions of cartoon chaos, but the novelty will inevitably wear off, and unless something steps in to take up the slack, the series will be left as nothing more than a noisy annoyance. And, given that Panty and Stocking are hateful little witches and the chances of something meaningful emerging from the series' mess of bodily functions and mean-spirited humiliation is close to zilch, humor is about the only option. Which is a problem. Because so far Panty & Stocking has been remarkably unfunny. It consistently mistakes brazen confrontation for humor, expecting us to laugh at Panty laying an entire football team or Stocking complaining about the sticky white stuff on their stolen porn tapes just because they're inappropriate. It's like Hiroyuki Imaishi watched a bunch of American gross-out humor and decided to replicate it without understanding what makes it tick. There's only one genuine laugh this episode (a glimpse of Stocking's fan-base), and the show has to do better than that if it wants to keep its viewers.
Review: Another day, another adult game, transformed into an anime. Eroge adaptations are now ubiquitous enough that they have to be treated like shonen action series: namely you have to start ignoring the broad outlines, since they're generally the same, and start enjoying the variation in details. Taken that way, Fortune Arterial isn't half bad. If you're into this sort of thing. The broad outline: Kouhei Hasekura has been moving all his life. He's never had a lasting friendship, much less a meaningful romance. Which is why he's happy to be moving to a new school, this one with a dorm. A dorm means no more moving. A dorm also means living with a slew of girls. There's student council vice-president Erika Sendou, who might be a vampire; possible nun-in-training Shiro Togi; twin childhood friends Haruna and Kanade Yuuki; and probably several more.
Dispiritingly familiar, yes? Guy moves to new school/town to frolic amongst the walking female clichés—it's the most basic of adult game setups. But Arterial almost immediately begins distinguishing itself on a few important particulars. To begin with, it actually has a male cast. Not a main character + lame-duck best friend male cast, but a real honest-to-goodness male cast, including Kouhei and his too-cool roommate Tsukasa Hachimandaira, and Erika's meddling elder brother Iori and his positively frosty subordinate Seiichirou. Kouhei is also a pretty likeable cuss. His habit of distancing himself with a wry comment is both endearing and understandable, given his history. In the meantime the vampire element adds atmosphere and a smidge of menace, while Erika's attraction to Kouhei (for is blood?) provides a plot independent of harem hi-jinks. The girls are uninteresting and director Munenori Nawa's history with harem series ranges from vile to boring, neither of which is a good sign, but by episode's end you actually want to keep watching. Which is definitely a good sign.
Fortune Arterial is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
Review: Bespectacled, rude, and proudly antisocial, Keima Katsuragi is absolutely and completely uninterested the real world. And real girls in particular. They're complicated and unpredictable, not to mention they refuse to obey the Laws of Gal Games. Track girls who don't wear burumas? Bah! Keima prefers the perfectly controlled, behaviorally circumscribed world of gal games, where he's the Wilt Chamberlain of virtual bachelors, with 10,000 conquests under his belt. When he's offered via email what appears to be a challenge to his gal game supremacy, he angrily accepts. The challenge turns out to have been a poorly-worded contract with the devil, which basically states that he has to seduce real girls—in order to dislodge and capture the evil spirits in their hearts—or be beheaded. Keima resigns himself to headlessness.
There's nothing overtly wrong with Kami Nomi. It's pretty funny, has a clever(ish) premise, and even shows signs of having a heart. It has a cute and, even better, super-nice female lead in Elci, the demon sent to partner up with Keima, and it doesn't glorify Keima or balk at poking fun at his lifestyle. Heck, if you squint a little you can even see the outlines of a critique of otaku isolationism taking shape beneath its ostensible wish-fulfillment: Keima's reaction to the too-real feelings inspired by his first real girl hints that fear, as much as disdain for real people, is what drives his social withdrawal. The problem is that Kami Nomi is itself a derivation of reality—actually a derivation of a derivation, possibly with a few more iterations. It's like thrice-filtered anime, with all real-world impurities removed. Which makes any lessons it might have about Keima's reconnection with reality ring horribly false—even after Keima re-enters the real world he and we are still safely ensconced in fantasy.
The World God Only Knows is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
Arakawa Under the Bridge × Bridge
Rating: 3 ½
Review: In a season swamped with sequels, Arakawa Under the Bridge × Bridge is neither the best (still to be determined) nor the most essential (probably Toaru Majutsu no Index II). It is, however, the most welcome. Perfectionist Ko Ichinomiya, AKA Recruit, AKA RIC, is not quite so perfect anymore. He tries, but it's hard to maintain a flawless facade when his batsh** neighbors keep messing with his head and his feelings for Nino, the homeless girl who once saved his life, keep making an ass of him. True to form, he unintentionally makes a spectacle of himself while over-competing in a marathon, accidentally trespasses on homeless territory ruled by She-ra, and makes himself even more homeless while trying to offer succor to Nino.
Admittedly, there was no pressing need for Arakawa Under the Bridge to sequel up. The first season didn't leave any huge plot threads dangling, and indeed didn't really have any in the first place. And season two isn't looking to be much more ambitious. A couple of glimpses inside Nino's screwy subconscious suggest that this season will focus on Nino's past much the way the previous one focused on RIC's, but given how the series "resolved" RIC's issues, it wouldn't do to get one's hopes up too high. Instead set your sights on another season of, um, idiosyncratic humor leavened by the sweetly weird progression of Nino and RIC's awkward love. Expect to be dazzled by the rare sight of Akiyuki Shinbo applying his directorial kinks to something worthy of his stylistic skills, and expect to unwind each episode with a romantic comedy that, for all its bizarreness, has its heart in the right place—namely in its romance and its comedy (not necessarily in that order), as opposed to its libido or its pocketbook. Just don't expect to be taken anywhere significant.
Rating: 2 ½
Review: How to ensure that cutting the sex out of your adult game won't tank your anime adaptation? Leave the sex in. After the death of their parents, Haruka Kasugano and his damaged sister Sora move to a small rural town that they once frequented as children. Haruka is determined to make the most of the move and wants very badly for Sora to do the same, but she's mortified by the lack of modern amenities like internet access and supermarkets and for reasons that remain unclear cannot bring herself to attend school or even leave the house much. Which leaves Haru to his own devices most of the day, which in Haru's case means charming the pants off of most of the local female population. Unfortunately for them, and Haru, Sora has no intention of letting anyone else have her brother.
Keeping the sex in Yosuga definitely has its benefits. It puts some real danger in the series' potential romantic entanglements, and the sexual tensions lead in some very disturbing directions, none of which the series shies away from. Haru and Sora's too-close relationship begins as merely creepy, but once the show introduces explicit sexual overtones, beginning with a very wrong childhood kiss, and you get something authentically unsettling. That fearlessness can make it rather easy to overrate Yosuga. The genuine shock value of Haru and Sora's relationship distracts from the ludicrously aboveboard harem-building that makes up the rest of the episode, and the frank sexuality of some of the other girls hides the fact that they all fit too easily into prefab character moulds like "the girl next door," "the class president," or "the heiress." If you really must have an unsettling romance, you'd be better served by visiting (or revisiting) Koi Kaze, which combines true fearlessness with razor writing, beautiful sentiment, and plenty of intellectual muscle. Leave this one for those with the stomach for its harem plotting.
Review: Bee Train's stolid reworking of Manabu Kaminaga's supernatural mystery novels won't be blowing minds anytime soon, but it delivers the requisite sleuthing thrills and ghostly goings-on, and with an emotional bonus just big enough to justify its continued existence. The emotional bonus comes in the shape of Haruka Ozawa, a college student on her way to her school's Film Research Association. She isn't looking for filmmaking tips but rather for Yakumo Saitō. Yakumo is reputedly a psychic and Haruka has a possessed friend who could use some supernatural help. The meeting doesn't go well though. Yakumo wants rather a lot of cash to help and Haruka catches him conning money out of students with a fake card-guessing trick, ruining her faith in his abilities and his character. Yakumo, though, takes something approaching a shine to her. And just as well he does: it's soon deadly clear that the evil surrounding Haruka is very real and very human.
This isn't the first adaptation of Kanimaga's Yakumo novels. There're two manga adaptations, a live-action series, and even a play. This episode offers no compelling reason for that kind of popularity. Yakumo is kind of an ass, his powers are Sixth Sense cast-offs, and the mystery is poundingly obvious. Its biggest asset is Haruka, whose realistic strength of mind and little core of sadness allow her to carry the series' emotional heart with becoming ease. Of course, being an introductory episode, you can't expect it to dive straight into an extended mystery or vomit up all of Yakumo's nuances and secrets. And there are big hints at episode's end that nuances, secrets and continuous plotting are all in the offing. Unfortunately, unless director Tomoyuki Kurokawa does something about his screamingly unsubtle musical cues and dispiriting lack of visual imagination, it's unlikely that they'll ever push the series beyond solid competence.
Otome Yōkai Zakuro
Review: Humor, romance, action. A novel setting and a dash of Japanese mythology. And comely characters, beautiful art and sleek animation to cover for the holes in its imagination. This is how anime should be. It's the Meiji Era in Japan. Japanese culture is just opening up to Western influences. Not everyone is pleased with the change; specifically the spirits (don't call them demons, that is way un-PC) who have traditionally dwelt in the nation. In an attempt to improve spirit/human relations the Japanese government and spirit elders decide to establish a Ministry of Spirit Affairs. It will be run by a select group of soldiers in tandem with ambassadors from the spirit world. Blunt man's man Riken Yoshinokazura, impulsive wunderkind Ganryu Hanakiri, and spirit-phobic ladies’ man Kei Agemaki are chosen to represent mankind, while the spirits carefully select four half-spirit girls—the most humanlike of the spirits—to represent them: spirited Zakuro, shy Susukihotaru, and mischievous twins Hozuki and Bonbori.
Naturally the girls and guys are immediately paired off—Zakuro with Kei, Susukihotaru with Riken, and the twins with Ganryu—and naturally romantic complications ensue. Even more naturally, something is causing normally tame demons to rampage, requiring the girls to do some exorcising. It is a very familiar arrangement—part shojo drama and part magical girl romp with a little demon action thrown in—and so charmingly executed that it hardly matters. Director Chiaki Kon (When They Cry) handles the adorable relationships with a light touch, navigating the series' pastel moods with surprising ease, while Mari Okada's script flirts openly with the premise's social subtext. The episode's climax, during which Kei's gory expectations of Zakuro's fighting prowess meet the lyrical reality of her spirit powers, mixes evolving relationships, shifting racial perceptions, and gorgeous visuals to stunning effect. A few clichés can't compete with that.
Otome Yōkai Zakuro is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
Review: The flagship of super robot excess returns with master of mecha indulgence Masami Obari at the helm. Predictably, robotic mayhem ensues. Super Robot Wars champions a form of mecha action in which silly frivolities like plot and character and logic and basic comprehensibility are ejected to make room for maximum mechanical carnage. The plot of this episode boils down to this: Kyousuke Nanba, Excellen Browning and Bullet Luckfield destroy stuff in their giant robots, only to find that more and harder stuff to destroy lies just around the corner. The end. As the series goes on the stuff to destroy will inevitably get bigger, more diverse and harder to break, requiring the addition of more pilots and more giant robots and perhaps a few antigrav battleships. And that, in a nutshell, is all there is to look forward to. Whether that prospect seems grim or glorious will determine on which side of the SRWOG fence you'll find yourself.
For those who need more detail than that, there is some interpersonal drama—though not in this episode—and a healthy dose of politics (represented here by a long speech that doubles as a recap of the Divine Wars TV series), along with plenty of scheming. None of which is worth the paper it was scripted on. Super Robot Wars is strictly for enthusiasts of drill arms, laser horns, and mid-air mecha merges. The addition of Obari, and his penchant for fan service (check out that ending sequence!), doesn't change that. Nor should it. His own Gravion and Dangaizer 3 fed on the exact same folks, with a side-dish of dirty old men. Obari understands perfectly the somewhat fetishistic appeal of giant robots, and packs the episode from start to finish with a bewildering rush of manly bots ramming objects into artistically exploding war machines. Just the way a SRWOG episode should be.
Super Robot Wars OG is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
Review: We are introduced to Muneakira Yagyū in an alternate version of Japan where the Tokugawa Shogunate still reigns supreme and foreign influences have been indefinitely staved off. While visiting the Yagyu dojo at Buou Academic School he meets Yukimura Sanada and Matabei Gotō, a pair of anti-Tokugawa students who are for some reason naked. They are attacked by Hanzō Hattori and her ninjas but escape in the knick of time. The ninjas pursue them onto a bridge where a naked glowey girl descends from the heavens, calls Muneakira oniichan, kisses him, and turns into Jūbei Yagyū. Who needs parodies of otaku anime when the real deal will do just as well?
Not that Samurai Girls is funny, even unintentionally. It plays its arbitrary mess of flogged-to-death tropes dead straight, except when trying on fan-service humor for size...and failing miserably at the humor half of it. Even the potentially comic furor with which it casts about for hooks to reel fans in on—flat-chested tsundere! lesbian dominatrix! feudal warfare! superpowered babes who charge up with a kiss!—is more pathetic than amusing. Generally in a frantic, pointless exercise in fan-pandering such as this you're confined to one of two reactions: laugh or cringe. Unfortunately Samurai Girls leaves you only the one.
To be completely fair, the series isn't a complete wash. For one it looks great. Animated in sepia tones with lines that evoke brush-strokes, it has an aged look that nicely complements its alternate history. Action is fluid and the fan service excellent, and the watercolor backgrounds are unimpeachable. Its other strength is Muneakira, whose samurai pride and occasional ferocity stand in stark contrast to the spinelessness usually associated with anime harem-masters. Which, if not enjoyable, at least makes the gal-game underpinnings of the needlessly overcomplicated plot (fan hook number fifteen or so) a little less painful.
Samurai Girls is available streaming on The Anime Network.
Yumeiro Pâtissière Professional
Rating: 2 ½
Review: Skipping two years into the future, Yumeiro Pâtissière Professional returns the series to its light comedy roots while adding a hint of maturity to take the edge off of its painful sugar highs. It's hardly the Second Coming of Shakespeare but it is infinitely preferable to the hideously uplifting end of season one. It's been two years since Ichigo Amano won the World Cake Grand Prix; two years that she has spent studying sweets in Paris. She returns to Japan to re-enter St. Marie Academy only to find that many familiar faces are absent, most conspicuously those of the three Sweets Princes. Ando and Hanabusa have both left the academy to pursue their careers, while Kashino has skipped a grade and is no longer in her class. Ichigo has no time to mourn the demise of Team Ichigo however. Henri-sensei has big plans for her: Ichigo is going professional.
The two-year jump does Pâtissière an incalculable service. Older Ichigo isn't just more visually appealing, she's also gained a little self-possession and a more pleasant pitch in her relationships with Kashino and her various friends. The leap to professional sweets-making also (hopefully) dumps the tournament structure of season one. And the chronological gap provides the perfect opportunity to dismantle season one's slapdash reverse harem and reconstruct it as a more sensible love-triangle (featuring a hilarious American stereotype named Johnny). In the new milieu the sick-making sweetness of the series' messages about the power of friendship and dreams and love-infused pastries temporarily takes a back seat to harmless romantic comedy hijinks and vaguely amusing character byplay. On the whole, it's a considerable improvement, though not enough to make it worth your while to sit through a fifty-episode prelude that could put A Little Snow Fairy Sugar into a diabetic coma.
Yumeiro Pâtissière Professional is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
Rating: 4 ½
Review: I really hate Death Note. It's a pathological hatred that defies all logic. Because of Death Note I've never been able to finish a Testuro Araki anime, and even Hikaru no Go curdled in its shadow. It's quite the handicap. I mention this because Bakuman. is Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata's follow-up to Note. And even with my favorite active director (Kenichi Kasai) and perhaps third or fourth favorite writer (Reiko Yoshida) attached, I still had to be dragged into it kicking and screaming. It is a testament, then, to its quality that I loved this episode to pieces.
It's a simple enough story: Apathetic but supremely skilled artist Moritaka Mashiro is asked by wannabe writer and star academic Akito Takagi to collaborate on a manga together. Moritaka turns him down cold—his uncle was a mangaka and the pressure killed him—but Akito is one persistent SOB. He gets Moritaka to commit to at least considering the offer, and then turns the fact that Moritaka's crush Azuki is an aspiring voice actress into an incentive to commit to the project as a whole. Moritaka one-ups him though, when he proposes to Azuki on the spot—on the condition that the marriage take place when his manga gets animated and she gets the lead in it—and, to everyone's astonishment, she agrees.
There's humor here. It's in Akito's obsession and unpredictability, in Moritaka's horrified reactions to his own impulsiveness, and, especially, in the uproarious opening sequence to the uncle's awful anime. There's drama as well: in Moritaka's longing for Azuki and, particularly, in his remembrances of his deceased uncle. But the real shock, given its conspicuous absence in Death Note, is that there's heart here as well. Give Kasai's typically sensitive direction its due, as well as Yoshida's intelligent script, but no matter how you slice it ultimate props must go to Ohba and Obata for their cheerable dual leads and serio-comic understanding of the inner workings of teens. For pure promise this is the season's series to beat.
Rating: 3 ½
Review: Anyone who sat through season one's cliffhanger ending knows this already, but for those not in the know: This isn't a sequel; it's a direct continuation. When we last left diminutive Letter Bee Lag Seeing, he had finally met up with his mentor Gauche, only to discover that Gauche wasn't Gauche anymore. After Gauche the Marauder (AKA Noir) stole his letter and left him unconscious in the wastes, Lag is lugged back to civilization by faithful dingo Niche, who herself has had an unpleasant experience with Noir's partner Roda. Upon awakening and reporting his encounter to the higher-ups Lag mopes about town feeling sorry for himself and agonizing over how to tell Silvette about her brother's fate. It's up to Silvette to pull him out of the pit of self-pity he's dug, but not before it does its damage to Niche.
A languorous pace, direct emotional attack, and gorgeous art are Tegami Bachi's primary weapons, and its second season comes out brandishing all three. If it doesn't hit as hard as its armaments suggest it should, that's primarily because the middle armament—that direct emotional attack—happens to be a two-edged sword. It's nice that the series makes no bones about being weepy and depressing, but when Lag spends an entire episode wallowing in misery the direct approach can be a little much. Too much, really. After a couple of minutes the wallowing backfires and instead of feeling for Lag you just want him to quit blubbering and man up. Luckily armaments one and three feed enough otherworldly atmosphere into the moping and crying to keep them from spilling over into pure melodramatic excess, and the effect they have on Niche—who as ever hogs the lion's share of the cast's appeal—is genuinely and, not coincidentally, subtly affecting.
Tegami Bachi: Reverse is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
Review: The titular M (short for masochist) is Taro Sado. Hit him enough—if you're a pretty girl—and he'll turn into a slobbering pain addict, oblivious to all but the call of pleasure/agony. As you'd expect, it's a bit of a social hindrance. He has only one friend, gentle Tatsukichi, who was the one person to accept him when the extent of his sexual kink was revealed. Yuuno, the girl who brought out the masochistic beast in him, can't even look at him without getting sick. And his crush, the beautiful girl who frequents the convenience store where he works part time? He can't even talk to her, must less confess, what with the hairy pervert monkey on his back. So, on Tatsukichi's recommendation he visits the Second Volunteer Club, hoping the club—which helps those in need—will help him find a cure for his pain addiction. Instead he finds a supplier, in the form of club president and budding sadist Mio Isurugi.
It isn't that S&M isn't funny. Exploiting sexual perversion is a comedy industry unto itself. It's just that MM! isn't. It relies far too heavily on Taro's ecstatic reactions to being beaned in the balls, pummeled in the face, or stomped in the gut, along with tired character shtick like Mio's MPD girl-sadist thing to rank high on the hilarity scale. But don't count it out of the rom-com running just yet. There's a deeply twisted romance lurking somewhere in here, and under all of those S&M gags and crude stereotypes is a surprisingly effective message about acceptance, of yourself and others, even in the most unacceptable of circumstances. How the series follows up on that will largely determine its future worth. That, and how far it will go in defying shonen romance tropes (the fate of Taro's crush is a good start).
Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt
Rating: 3 ½
Review: Panty & Stocking with Garter Belt is one of those series that you really want to love. A raucous action comedy immersed in an eye-bleeding phantasmagoria of twisted cartoon imagery, there is quite literally nothing like it on the anime market. With the possible exception of director Hiroyuki Imaishi's own Dead Leaves, that is. It's a breathless, hyperkinetic, kandy-colored wonder; a pulsing testament to the mad genius of Gainax's animators and a hefty kick to the balls of the whiners who complain that there's nothing new in anime. Unfortunately it's also curiously unpleasant to watch.
Imaishi's obvious inspiration is the gross-out comic chaos of American cartoons like The Ren & Stimpy Show and Invader Zim. He even goes as far as borrowing Gir from Zim to stand in for the obligatory mascot animal. But there's a surprisingly delicate skill to making sickening humor, and Imaishi doesn't have it. Broken into two parts, this episode's first half deals with an enormous poop monster and its second with a blatantly metaphorical speed demon (technique is more important than speed; get it?) who has stolen a crucial pair of panties. Both must be extinguished by Panty and Stocking, a pair of angels who have fallen to Earth and have been given the task of destroying such ghoulies, via which they can incrementally earn their way back into God's good graces. And neither is funny in the least. Okay, maybe the running puke gag in the first half is a little funny, but on a whole all of the fecal humor and crude sexual innuendo is just that: crude.
And the twin leads aren't doing anyone any favors either. Stocking, as the candy-addicted loli-goth apathetic and the lesser of the two evils, is (only) mildly irritating. Panty, as the sex-addicted blonde with a vulgar streak only paralleled by her selfish one, is intolerable. It isn't easy to immerse yourself in the thrilling anarchy of Imaishi's vision when you're constantly recoiling from the company it keeps. Still, it is possible; and pretty wonderful when achieved.
Review: Moderately less disgusting than the beginning of its first season, Sora no Otoshimono's second season begins with a great deal of purportedly cryptic hinting and enough nauseating fan-service humor to let you know that, yes, it hasn't changed its stripes. Tomoki, the series' resident Ataru Moroboshi wannabe, now lives with two devoted cybernetic servant-girls and is more deeply involved with Synapse, the world where they were once slaves. Other than that little has changed. His "friend" Eishiro Sugata is still obsessed with the world Ikaros and Nymph, Tomoki's Angeloid cohabitants, came from. Childhood friend Sohara Mitsuki still likes him but violently denies it. And Angeloids from Synapse are still falling from the sky, looking to retrieve Ikaros and make Tomoki's life hell.
The actual plot of this episode revolves around Tomoki's recurring dream and Nymph's attempts to "dream dive" into it, but that's little more than an excuse to drop hints about Tomoki's connection to Synapse and frolic about in the dreams of supporting characters like Sugata and Sohara. The frolicking is apparently intended as humor, an assumption you have to make based on its presentation rather than any actual response from your funny bone. As is par for the series the humor ranges from merely unfunny (Sugata's Indiana-Jones-ish dream perils) to skin-crawlingly nasty (Tomoki-as-baby sucking lasciviously on Sohara's dream-breasts).
The not-really-cryptic hints on the other hand actually manage to strike a few sparks of interest, and the series still looks great, prompting one to wonder how so much skill got squandered on something so vile. There is a sense that if only Tomoki were jettisoned in favor of Sugata, that if the disturbing SD sex was left in whatever mental cesspool it was spawned in and some of the uglier male fantasies excised, Sora no Otoshimono might actually have been a decent sci-fi action vehicle. Which, as faint of praise as it sounds, is more can be said of it at the opening of season one.
Sora no Otoshimono: Forte is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
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