The Winter 2011 Anime Preview Guide
Carlo Santos

by Carlo Santos, Jan 4th 2011

Born in a hospital named after a famous dead person, Carlo discovered his obsessive-compulsive powers at an early age and began to consume art, culture and technology at an alarming rate. This led to his current 6-year stint with Anime News Network where he contributes reviews, writes the Right Turn Only!! manga column and can sometimes be seen prowling convention halls with a camera in his hand and a violin case on his back. Heaven help those who have to be subjected to either of them.


Wandering Son

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review:
Maybe one day, anime will treat subjects like pedophilia and incest with delicacy, instead of as fetishes for crass entertainment, and then we can stop raging about I Can't Believe My Little Brother Likes Me! or whatever it is now. Until that day comes, however, we will have to content ourselves with other aspects of sexual psychology, like Wandering Son's treatment of transgender issues. It is a subject that the series approaches very gently—not so much a political statement or a call for justice as it is simply an exploration of the human drama behind it.

The series' titular protagonist is Shuichi Nitori, a newly minted middle school student. His childhood best friend is the boyish Yoshino Takatsuki, and while there are some rumors that he's going out with her, the truth is more complicated: he once tried to ask her out, but she turned him down, and now things have gotten a bit awkward. But what's really awkward is that Yoshino and her friend would occasionally dress Shuichi up in girls' clothes—a habit that he's actually gotten into.

The first part of Episode 1 lacks direction in trying to set up this premise, drifting between flashbacks and present-day school life as it explains Shuichi's unusual state of affairs. However, the plotting improves dramatically in the last few minutes, as Shuichi's sister discovers his habit for the first time and he flees outside in embarrassment. Although 99.95% of all other shows would have played that moment for stupid laughs, this one handles it with thoughtfulness and grace, with the piano strains of Debussy's Clair de Lune adding to the ruminative atmosphere.

But subject matter isn't the only area where the series breaks new ground: the subtle watercolored style seems to have jumped right off the pages of Takako Shimura's manga, even more so than in the previous adaptation of her work, Aoi Hana. Between the nuanced animation and its touchy subject matter, this series takes a very quiet approach, but may end up making the biggest impact this season.

Wandering Son is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Fractale

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review:
The trouble with Fractale is that less patient viewers may quickly jump aboard the hate train and accuse it of being yet another formulaic clone where some wishy-washy boy meets a mysterious, superpowered girl and embarks upon a fantastical adventure. But what Fractale teaches us is that if you're going to steal, steal from the best. And in anime, there is only one BEST:

Hayao Miyazaki.

Indeed, the entire first episode feels like an homage to the greatest mind the genre has ever known: our young hero Clain begins with a leisurely stroll across a gorgeous, pastel-toned landscape, although subtle cues soon make it clear that this is not a medieval idyll. Surreal avatars known as "doppels" (which represent actual humans) inhabit this world, a post-futuristic Earth where a supercomputer known as Fractale runs the show now. Things get seriously Ghibli-esque when a girl aboard a Nausicäa glider, on the run from some Porco Rosso rejects, crash-lands in almost the same style as Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Clain takes in the girl and treats her injuries while keeping her pursuers at bay, but she disappears later that night, much to his bemusement. However, more mysteries (and cute girls!) await when Clain loads up a flash drive he picked up at the market earlier ...

If anything, Fractale plays it almost too clean and safe, relying on elements designed to pander to critics—just as five or six other shows this season relied on elements designed to pander to the masses. The character designs and backgrounds are beautiful, but bland, and the high-concept story elements (a hint of technology crossing with religion?) are nothing new to those who know their way around speculative fiction. But the execution is solid, with charming background music, no animation hiccups to speak of, and a quietly intriguing storyline that promises it'll explain everything later. Like why are humans like Clain still around when everyone else has gone doppel? And is Fractale a good supercomputer or an evil supercomputer? Hopefully all will be revealed in the coming weeks.

Fractale is available streaming on Funimation.com.


Dragon Crisis!

Rating: 0.5 (of 5)

Review:
Like many of this season's bottom-feeders, Dragon Crisis! is powered by nonstop clichés and genre-driven plot points that make no sense. Or, let's put it this way: anime trends have shown that schoolboys make good main characters, and fans enjoy seeing busty mature women kick butt, but they also like vulnerable little girls with special powers, and everyone loves goofy sitcom antics. So Dragon Crisis! melts all these ideas into a foul-tasting stew where a schoolboy (Ryuji) teams up with a busty woman (Eriko) to retrieve a "Lost Precious" treasure, except that it's not an object but a vulnerable little girl (Rose) who is a humanoid red dragon. No, that's not a code word for anything, she's just a scaly wing-flapping fire-breathing dragon. In cuddly moe form. And of course Rose is barely mentally functional, so she repeats Ryuji's name over and over and wreaks havoc around the apartment (there's your sitcom material, are you happy now?) like all mysterious, special-powered little girls do.

If you detected anything original in that plot summary, your senses are stronger than mine, because this is little more than a patchwork of popular anime ideas slapped together. It inexplicably transitions from classroom slice-of-life to car-chase action to slapstick moefest with a vague fantasy twist. And that's just one episode! What do you think will happen by Episode 4—will Ryuji meet up with one of his school buddies for some tasty yaoi action? After all, that's a fairly popular genre too.

What's even more maddening is that none of these disparate genres are handled well at all; the car chase is especially horrid due to the choppy framerate that looks like an attempt to recapture the style of Speed Racer. Even when not in high speed motion, though, the characters are still an eyesore, with bland designs that have trouble remaining consistent from scene to scene. And how about the loud, overbearing music that seems to play everywhere in the background? While this show ostensibly has the elements of what one may call "an anime series," it is barely one at all.

Dragon Crisis! is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Level E

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review:
Nuanced, semi-realistic character designs? Carefully rendered backgrounds? A storyline that manages to keep things mysterious without becoming confusing or inane? Yes, against all odds, Level E is one of those series that actually deserves to be taken seriously. Despite being a bit stodgy and old-fashioned in its execution, the overall result is promising.

Based on a distant mid-90's manga (ever notice how there's always at least one of these every season that just comes out of nowhere?), Level E begins with the supposition that Earth is secretly populated by hundreds of aliens. One of them is about to make contact with the protagonist, a high school baseball prospect named Tsutsui. Our extraterrestrial visitor is a princely type with delicate features and flowing locks (old-school bishounen stereotype alert!), who just happens to be occupying Tsutsui's new apartment when he moves in. So begins a waaaacky roommate comedy with biting one-liners and zany attempts to romance the girl next door! Actually, no, what begins is a subtle sci-fi mystery as the alien tries to recover an important artefact aboard his crashed spacecraft, while keeping out of the authorities' reach. Because, as Tsutsui later learns, Mr. X-Files here is ... a murderer.

The funny thing is, there actually are elements of wacky roommate comedy in the first episode, keeping viewers interested while the main storyline gradually takes root. The alien acts like the classic annoying roommate, moving furniture without asking, making unilateral decisions about dinner, and jerking Tsutsui around with snarky asides. Yet when the time comes to get serious, the animation crew steps up with enthralling special effects (just watch the healing sequence) and tense, action-thriller pacing despite a lack of large-scale action scenes. If there's one thing that feels like untapped potential so far, it's the number of blocky, straight-on camera views throughout the episode—there's obviously enough budget to make use of more dynamic visuals, but maybe the time for that hasn't come yet.

FUN FACT: Chiaki Kuriyama (of Kill Bill fame) sings the opening theme song—and it rocks hard. Hopefully this series will too.

Level E is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Oniichan no Koto Nanka Zenzen Suki Janain Dakara ne—!!

Rating: 1 (of 5)

Review:
Deep down, Oniichan no Koto (My Big Brother Can't Be This Perverted!... or something, who cares about translation accuracy anyway) has something important to say about the role of the individual within the family. It just says it really poorly, like when people try to make a "political statement" by showing up for a rally with firearms.

And the statement goes like this: Nao Takanashi is a sprightly young girl who keeps trying to get her big brother Shunsuke to creep on her. This involves activities like sneaking into his bed while he's asleep, sniffing his laundry, and trying to share a bite of his half-eaten popsicle. Yet she has her limits: Nao is not happy when her bath towel slips off in front of Shunsuke, and also goes into a rampage when trying to throw out the dirty magazines under his bed.

(Except for the siscon mags. Obviously.)

Anyone who hasn't been completely scared off by such depravity will find the episode's dramatic content tucked away behind the third act, when Nao learns that she's actually adopted—and that it was a young Shunsuke who had insisted on taking her in due to her unfortunate circumstances. So the series is actually trying to say something about the transcendent bonds of familial love, but this thoughtful voice is completely drowned out by the incestuous titillation that precedes it. Not to mention the panty shots. And the partial nudity.

Yet despite the series' fanservice-driven nature, the skinny, gangly character designs are far from appealing—unless teenaged walking sticks with huge hands are your type. The bland domestic setting also offers little opportunity for visual inventiveness (at least in Oreimo the artists had fun outfitting Kirino's room with geek goods). The rinky-dink light-pop soundtrack also lacks any creative merit, thus completing the circle of cheap production values.

The worst thing about Oniichan no Koto, however, is that it provides proponents of Bill 156 with even more ammo for their censorious ways. And worser than worst? I think this show makes me want to support Bill 156 now.


Freezing

Rating: 1.5 (of 5)

Review:
Freezing feels like the brainchild of that one person you knew in high school. You know, the one who wore pop-culture shirts everyday, wrote for the Literary Magazine, and had immense creative talent ...but frittered that talent away on their Big Epic Space Adventure that no publisher would be dumb enough to accept because it was too unwieldy and confusing.

Except that in Japan, someone actually did accept that Big Epic Space Adventure. And made an unwieldy, confusing anime out of it.

Episode 1 alone packs such a mind-boggling plotline that it would be best explained with a glossary. When you've got this many jargon words to deal with, it's the only way:
Nova:Big evil robots trying to kill humanity.
Pandora: Schoolgirls (when is it ever not schoolgirls?) with special powers capable of destroying Nova.
Freezing: A pompous word for releasing some fancy-looking forcefield ... I guess?
Ereinbar: Another ridiculous made-up word used to describe when a young boy (when is it ever not a young boy?) is enlisted by a Pandora to further boost her powers.
Kazuya: The young boy at the heart of this story.
Satellizer L. Bridget: The hilariously-named, top-ranked Pandora whose reputation as the "Untouchable Queen" is about to take a dramatic turn when Kazuya enters her life.

And that explains maybe 40% of what's going on. Seriously, this is like a headache-inducing mashup of everything that's helped make anime popular—butt-kicking babes, elite academic institutions, buckets of blood, insane hand-to-hand combat, giant robot warfare, important-looking people standing in glowing computer rooms—without any regard for the logic behind it. Making matters worse are intermittent flashbacks that only serve to scramble the information. The series' saving grace is solid production values, as evidenced by the flashy fight scenes and plenty of detail in the tech-pocalyptic backgrounds. But whether the impossibly busty female characters and Random Acts of Panty can also be considered "solid production values" is a more delicate matter of taste. It doesn't take a master anime expert, though, to tell that this show simply has too much junk in it.


Beelzebub

Rating: 2 (of 5)

Review:
Beelzebub sounds like a great name for a metal band, the kind that tries to make up for its technical shortcomings by being as loud and fast as possible. The same could be said of this show, where the characters seem to be constantly yelling and being subjected to exaggerated acts of violence (or at least running from them). The story begins with Tatsumi Oga, a delinquent who is hated by the other troublemakers at his school—and weirds them out even more when he shows up one day with a baby in tow. As he explains to his best friend, Oga found the baby floating down the river (a covenient excuse that requires no further backstory!) and took it into his care. However, Oga's adventures in babysitting take an abrupt left turn when an imperious woman bursts in and tells him that the baby is the spawn of the Demon Lord and must now be raised to destroy all humanity. Well, that would certainly explain why he crackles with lightning and causes minor calamities everytime he cries.

This is one of those comedies where the premise itself is a lot funnier than the actual execution, which relies too much on repeating the same lowbrow jokes: Oga is a real tough guy!!!!! But he's trying to raise a baby. Ha ha, contradiction! Also the baby shoots lightning when it gets upset! It's like one of those Vince Vaughn goofball movies combined with supernatural-fantasy theatrics. The visuals are dialed down accordingly to meet these middling standards: Oga and company look fairly detailed with their sneering facial features and intense yanki poses, but the action itself lacks finesse, resorting to still-frame pans, looping animation patterns, and occasional cheap special effects. But they're yelling a lot and people are fighting and there's falling electric pylons so who cares!

If low-budget cheeseball humor suits your tastes, then by all means, enjoy this series as much as possible. Just don't expect subtlety and substance in a show where the title character has his privates hanging out.

Beelzebub is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Gosick

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review:
I said it when I reviewed the Gosick light novel, and I'll say it again: it's hard to go wrong with a loli tsundere detective girl. Studio BONES seems to agree, staying true to the original as they adapt the period mystery series into one of the few decent offerings this barren winter season.

The story begins in an alternate early-20th-century Europe, where the decidedly foreign Kazuya Kujo attends a prestigious school in the pretty-sure-it-wasn't-in-Hetalia nation of Saubure. One day, a chance encounter brings Kujo face-to-face with another outsider: Victorique, a doll-like blonde who spends all day in the botanical garden at the top of the school library because she's too smart and too bored to hang out with the plebes. Instead, Victorique's daily brain exercises come from Grevil, a daffy police inspector who comes to her with cases that she solves on the spot while he takes the credit. However, the latest whodunit leads Victorique and Kujo to accept a ominous invitation aboard a cruise ship... and that's where the fun really starts. Unfortunately, that's also where the episode ends.

Much as I hate saying it, Gosick does get better later on—well-developed mysteries are not the kind that achieve greatness in a single episode. But the opener does enough things right to keep viewers interested: the setting carries much of the visual appeal, with rich details and pastel tones that make up the rolling countryside, the quaint city streets, and the gorgeously decorated garden where Kazuya and Victorique meet for the first time. (Too bad they won't be seeing that place again for a long while.) The characters, despite being fairly typical archetypes, have their charm points too: Victorique with her eccentric rolling around on the floor, the inspector with his self-assured dandyism. Elegant pretend-classical music in the background adds the final touch in evoking the right time and place, and if the script works out as planned, our loli tsundere detective girl and her Japanese friend should have one hell of an adventure on that boat. Trust me on this. I've read the book.


Gosick is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Cardfight!! Vanguard

Rating: 0 (of 5)
Hairstyling: -15

Review:
Welcome to the thrilling world of Cardfight!! Vanguard, a world where shampoo no longer exists! This is the only logical explanation for the epidemic of bedhead that has struck all the protagonists in the show. I mean, just look at those spiky, gravity-defying hairdos. It's like they hired a character designer who used to work in topiary! Actually, that may not be too far-fetched, since the choppy, unrefined visuals make it look like the entire production was outsourced to the planet Mars.

Bankrolled by the Bushiroad game company—the same cretins who funded last season's zero-scoring Milky Holmes—Cardfight!! Vanguard is not so much an anime as it is a 25-minute commercial for the collectible card game of the same name. Aichi Sendou, who resembles a lost DeviantArt drawing, is a shy schoolboy whose only solace is his extremely rare "Blaster Blade" card. When bullies forcibly take the card from him, Aichi heads to the local game shop and challenges the supposedly unbeatable player who now owns his card. What follows is a groundbreaking moment in Japanese animation: the first-ever CCG instructional video embedded into an anime series. Between the overbearing synthesizer music, the jargon-loaded narration that still manages to miss important points, and the painfully cheesy sci-fi-meets-fantasy look of the "fighting in another dimension" scenes, this how-to-play segment will either leave you pleading for sweet death or (if you're like me) laughing uncontrollably at its sheer badness. And perhaps also wondering why collectible card game mechanics has remained essentially unchanged since Magic: The Gathering.

The real kicker, though, is that they got JAM Project to perform the opening theme. How is it that one of the most audacious anime theme song bands of all time, testosterone oozing from every lyric and electric guitars ablaze, got themselves pulled into this embarrassment where the protagonists are so "manly" that they do their fighting with little pieces of cardboard? Personally, I imagine myself entering the world of Cardfight!! Vanguard with a nice, heavy set of mahjong tiles. Now those babies do some real damage—especially when hurled at your opponent.

Cardfight!! Vanguard is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Yumekui Merry

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review:
Midway through the first episode of Yumekui Merry, the titular heroine yells a question at the villain that very often applies to shows of this type:

"Why are you saying stuff that doesn't make sense like it's so profound?!"

That, in a nutshell, is what's wrong here. There's a thin line between "withholding information so that the viewer wants to find out more," and "withholding information so that everything is really confusing." Unfortunately, Yumekui Merry errs on the side of the latter, with a haphazard exposition that goes something like this: schoolboy Yumeji (oh ha ha ha, his name contains the word for "dream") is renowned among his peers for being able to sense the auras surrounding their dreams. However, things start getting weird when Yumeji's dream from the previous night—an unsettling experience where he's being chased by dozens of cats—resurfaces in the waking world. At this point, he is threatened by Chaser John Doe, an evil apparition who looks like the love child of Jack Skellington and the Grim Reaper. Coming to Yumeji's rescue, however, is Merry Nightmare, a mysterious girl from the dream world who has crossed over into the physical realm (though she's not sure how). Thus begins a supernatural adventure that makes little to no sense!

Now, don't get me wrong about the show: it does have positive elements, like decent background art (Yumeji's hometown has a convincing liveliness and depth to it), a well-choreographed fight scene between Merry and John Doe, and the kind of premise that guarantees some suspenseful, mind-bending intrigue. It's just that those elements have been thrown into this hodgepodge called Episode 1 without any sense of organization. Just look at the early scenes where Merry is wandering about town; although it works as foreshadowing, those scenes lack any logical connection to Yumeji's activities. It's just a random girl wandering about town. That kind of scripting ultimately results in some kind of bizarre anime Mad Lib, where individual parts work out well, but the overall result just feels "off." And that may be what stops a lot of people from sticking around for Episode 2.


Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Rating: 4.5 (of 5)

Review:
On a list of anime directors least likely to work on a magical girl show, Akiyuki Shinbo (Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei, Bakemonogatari) would probably rank just behind the likes of Hideaki Anno and Mamoru Oshii. Yet here he is, offering his idiosyncratic take on a genre typified by the swirls and sparkles of Sailor Moon, Card Captor Sakura and Shugo Chara!. If those shows represent the pinnacle of the form, then Madoka Magica is the one that arrives at that pinnacle by descending from the sky upside-down: an artistically daring work that succeeds on its own unusual terms.

Madoka Magica's only major fault is deigning to follow the formula of all magical girl origin stories: Madoka Kaname is an ordinary student who has her life turned sideways when the gorgeous but mysterious Homura Akemi transfers into Madoka's class. After a few languidly-paced scenes of school life and hanging out with friends, Shinbo and Studio SHAFT finally put their madman psychedelic animator hats on and give us some of the most surreal, eye-meltingly beautiful sorcery/transformation/I-don't-even-know-what scenes ever to grace a TV or computer screen. All right, so maybe a lot of it is just the cut-and-paste techniques that Shinbo has mastered over the years, but no one does it like he does. Plus it melds incredibly well with Ume Aoki's (Hidamari Sketch) character designs.

With all the gushing over Shinbo, one must not forget the unmistakable Yuki Kajiura on the soundtrack—the early and middle scenes are punctuated by some light acoustic balladry, as befits their slow pace, but Kajiura is still at her theatrical best when the OMINOUS CHORAL MUSIC starts up for key action scenes. Obviously, this series has armed itself with top-notch visual and musical elements (not to mention some lively, punchy voice acting) ... but will the story be able to match it down the line?

Consider, if you will, Homura's utterance that says everything that ever needed to be said about the magical girl paradox:

"Don't try to become something you're not. You'll only lose everything."

Deep stuff.


Infinite Stratos

Rating: 1 (of 5)

Review:
In a clever ploy to lure unsuspecting viewers, Infinite Stratos invokes the entertainment-industry form of the Pareto principle and spends 80% of the animation budget on 20% of the pilot episode. Yes, as you may have guessed, the show begins with several minutes of seriously intense, mind-blowing, mid-air mecha combat.

Followed by twenty minutes of seriously intense, mind-blowingly bad high school harem hijinks.

This is the story of one Ichika Orimura, who apparently is the luckiest teenage boy on earth because he is the only male to ever qualify for the IS (Infinite Stratos) mobile suit pilot-training program. (Don't even ask why the IS system only works with females; proper science is obviously not a priority for this series.) This also makes things incredibly awkward when he realizes that his next three years of schooling will be spent entirely in the company of lovely young women! Further adding to the embarrassment is his older sister taking on the role of homeroom teacher—gee, what a surprise—and his childhood friend turning out to be his roommate. This parade of clichés continues with the introduction of another one of Ichika's classmates—an English-born beauty whose traits include long blonde hair (to denote how foreign she is, clearly) and a horrifically annoying stuck-up attitude. If they were trying to kick off an anime series with the most unlikable characters ever, this one would be quite the contender with its underachieving sad-sack hero and a cast of heroines who exist only to batter his self-esteem.

Unimaginative character designs and sloppy animation also mark this series as a candidate for the scrap heap—watch the extremely awkward camera pan right after the eyecatch, where Ichika and friend appear to levitate in their dorm room. The credits sequences are similarly uninspired, with Minami Kuribayashi, queen of mediocre action anime theme songs, giving us yet another techno-laced pump-it-up number that sounds like everything else she's ever done.

And to think, this was adapted from a light novel? This is barely good enough to qualify for a shovelware dating sim.



Rio - Rainbow Gate!

Rating: 2 (of 5)

Review:
New anime fans are often indoctrinated with the notion that "Japan can make a cartoon out of anything." But just because they can, doesn't mean they should. Case in point: Rio – Rainbow Gate! , which will probably be remembered more for being "the anime based on a line of pachinko machines" than for any actual artistic merits.

Episode 1 begins by introducing the series' mind-boggling cosmopolitan setting, where the Vegas-like "Howard Resort" rises above a city dotted with San Franciscan cable cars upon a sun-kissed resort island. Sadly, this geographic mashup is about where the inventiveness stops, as the rest of the episode congeals into a fanservice-laden slop about the joy of gambling. The story centers around Rio, a curvaceous casino dealer who apparently cannot afford enough clothes to cover up her midsection and is rumored to bring incredible luck to those graced by her presence. However, Rio gets caught up in some action-thriller shenanigans when a skeevy guy in a Miami Vice-inspired outfit tries to accost a little girl named Mint and her teddy bear, CHOCO.

Naturally, this conflict of interest between a would-be predator and a watchful casino dealer forces Rio to resolve the issue in a manner befitting a gambling series: with a round of poker! The outcome of the game cleverly reverses the "everybody is impossibly lucky" trope that plagues other similarly-themed titles, but one poker match with a twist isn't enough to support an otherwise flimsy plotline that fizzles out with a lightweight ending involving the teddy bear.

Passable but unspectacular visuals set the tone for this episode, where most of the animation budget goes into a fight scene between Rio and Miami Vice Guy's goons, plus a blatant CGI sequence where Rio enters a magical dreamspace to summon her luck. Character designs are bland and forgettable, even among the scantily-clad bunny girls that work the casino floor. At least the series comes with a big band jazz soundtrack to match the casino theme—but like most real Vegas productions, it's all just empty glitz and glamour.

Rio - Rainbow Gate! is available streaming on Crunchyroll.



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