The Winter 2011 Anime Preview Guide
Theron Martin

by Theron Martin, Jan 4th 2011

Gosick episode 2

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: The first episode of Gosick suggested that this might be an episodic mystery series, but if so then the “episodes” look to be more akin to be mini-arcs, as this episode clearly directly continues story themes dealt with in the first episode and ends on a cliffhanger within the current story line, with a Next Episode preview indicating that this arc still has much more story to tell. Granted, this episode features its own mystery story, too, and a classic one at that, but it is still cast within the overall context of a larger story.

Victorique and Ryūji have taken the invitation to the Queen Berry, only to find themselves caught squarely in the midst of another mystery. The entire cruise, it seems, is a death trap, one apparently perpetrated by ghosts but perhaps actually masterminded by once-exploited children seeking elaborate revenge for a deadly game involving “hares.” Someone amongst the dozen guests who are drugged to sleep and wake up in a locked room doesn't belong, but who? Why does one of the victims seem to know Veronique, and can Ryūji protect her while all of this danger is going down?

On the plus side, this episode shows some nice further character development and provides hints about both short-term and long-term story elements. The suggestion that we're going to see a fuller picture of the events ten years past which set this story up also helps keep it from being washed out by the retread mystery elements. On the downside, the mystery here is retread and feels a little oversimplified. Still, those who got caught up in the series based on its first episode should see no letdown here.


Wandering Son

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: To be clear, the seeming girl in the middle of this screenshot is actually a boy - lead male character Shuichi Nitori, in fact - and he isn't the only character in this picture prone to cross-dressing. The one of the left, lead female character Yoshino Takatsuki, has a similar predilection, one that helped make them close friends in elementary school. As they enter middle school together, Yoshino has apparently turned down a romantic overture from Shuichi, but that hasn't, for the long term, hurt their ability to stay friends; after all, they do still have the same little peculiarity, and there are suggestions that these peculiarities might not remain “in the closet” for much longer.

Anime actually has a pretty good track record when it comes to dealing sensitively with sensitive topics, and some of its best-written series have been of this type. This one seems to be aiming in that direction all the way, with the low-key vocal performances (by apparent newcomers), gentle music, and soft, usually pale artistry all contributing to that. (Notably, though, the one time the episode shows very sharp artistry is the scene that Shuichi and Yoshino have alone together on a bridge, where they are most within their comfort zone. This is surely not a coincidence, and a nice touch if it isn't.) This could be one of the most tender and yet also hard-hitting series of the series of the season...

...Except that it has one big problem, and it has nothing to do with the subject matter. This anime adaptation of the source manga is apparently not beginning at the beginning, and that hurts it badly for anyone who does not follow the manga. There are far too many references here to previous events which require fleshing out, which can leave newcomers in a confusing mess of character relationships. It even takes a while just to sort out who the important characters are. That's fine for people who follow the manga, but a killer for those who don't. Those who aren't fans of washed-out art styles will find a second strike against this first episode, too.

This new effort from AIC feels like it could ultimately be quite good, but from an outsider's perspective they really dropped the ball on this first episode.


Wandering Son is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Fractale

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: Although the basic plot of the first episode - boy meets mysterious girl being chased by thugs, briefly shelters her, and then has her disappear on him with only a strange pendant left behind - sounds very bland and perhaps ripped off from some Miyazaki film, there is little that is conventional or ordinary about this curious new offering from A-1 Pictures. One distinction is almost immediately apparent: for whatever reason, the artistry and technical merits have the undeniable feel of a mid-to-late ’80s series, all the way down to that period's sensibility on fan service. That gives the series a classic feel belied by the more recent conceptual eccentricities of the setting, as this takes place in a world a couple of centuries into the future where a massive computer system called Fractale, which apparently draws even on human bodies for its networking power, allows most people to live a comfortable life with little effort. It also allows people to wander around as holographic projections called Doppels, which can look like just about anything and often take some really weird shapes.

It is in this setting that Clain, whose hobby seems to be antique technology, encounters the mysterious girl Phryne, who is being pursued by a bumbling trio who (along with their airship) look like they jumped straight out of Laputa. Who Phyrne is, and why she was being pursued, is a mystery, but she leaves behind with him a pendant which, in the episode's closing moments, leads to another girl almost magically appearing. Granted, these are low-key and time-worn mysteries, but combined with the potentially intriguing implications of this Fractale system (which will doubtlessly be explored as the series progresses), they offer considerable fodder for getting a viewer involved. An opener with fractal pattern-based visuals and a closer which uses a Gaelic-sounding song offer further distinctive touches.

Way too soon to tell if this is going anywhere worthwhile or not, but its gentle charm certainly has my interest piqued.


Fractale is available streaming on Funimation.


Rio - Rainbow Gate! episode 2

Rating: 1.5 (of 5)

Review: When given the choice between dancing in a review and training a new female dealer, Rio naturally opts for the latter. Just as naturally, newcomer Ania Helsing (from Russia, of course) is quite proficient with card-dealing but an epic-level klutz otherwise. Rio has a bigger looming problem on her hands, though. In this world an organization of dealers exists, and within that organization certain top-rate dealers get special cards called Gates, which designates them as Gate Holders. Collect all 13 gates by winning them in dealer-on-dealer duels and you're pronounced the strongest dealer of all (whatever that means). Rio is one such Gate Holder and does indeed aspire to eventually become the strongest, but here and now she has to deal with Elvis, a playboy dealer and master number manipulator here to win her card (and heart!) in one of the most ridiculous roulette games ever made.

So they had to make something resembling an ongoing plot to sustain this series through its scheduled 12-episode run, and this is the best that they could come up with? Really? The uber-klutz character (who is, of course, a well-endowed girl) has been done to death and the mere concept of a “strongest dealer” ranking that can be earned by collecting prize cards is too ludicrous and hackneyed to even play as a joke. The series does look decent, those seeking fan service will certainly find some here, and the Gate concept gives a hint at what the series’ name refers to, but the second episode shows no more sign than the first episode did that the series will in any way be compelling enough to be worth watching over the long haul.


Dragon Crisis!

Rating: 2 (of 5)

Review: High school student Ryūji lives alone because his parents are off seeking Lost Preciouses (cue Lord of the Rings jokes here) for a treasure-hunting organization. One day he gets dragged out of class by his busty second cousin Eriko, who has just returned from America, as part of a scheme to recover a Lost Precious being traded to a mafia-type organization. Although they succeed despite great peril, in the process the case containing the Lost Precious opens, revealed a collared girl who seems to know and adore Ryūji. She also turns out to be a dragon, as quickly evidenced by the immense amount of fire she hurls at pursuers. With her looking so vulnerable (despite, you know, the fire-hurling thing) and with her so firmly attached to his arm, Ryūji feels he has no choice but to look after her for the time being and even gives her a name: Rose. But those appear to be just the beginning of his problems, and what will her presence do to the shy girl trying to work up the courage to confess to Ryūji?

There might be a story here worth watching, and this is certainly a different take on the classic image of dragons, but the preposterous business about the treasure-hunting organization and the seeming compulsion to force fan service in wherever possible stand against a first episode that was already pretty weak on the writing front. It does have an unusually catchy soundtrack, but its technical merits are mediocre and these characters and situations are just tiny variations (if that) on content that we have seen innumerable times before. In other words, the biggest blow against the series so far is that it's as stale a two-week-old bread. Even Rose's cutesiness - arguably the series’ biggest draw at this point - cannot compensate for that.


Dragon Crisis! is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Level E

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review: Yukitaka Tsutsui is a baseball player from a champion-caliber middle school who has been recruited to Kisaragi High School in the city of Conan. He lives alone, but cute Miho Edogawa has just moved in next door and will be attending the same high school, so things are looking up - or would be if it wasn't for the strange, almost impossibly handsome blond-haired man sitting in his apartment claiming that he's an amnesiac alien. As Yukitaka soon discovers, an alien escape pod really did crash-land nearby, and blondie soon shows both an unknown artifact he's carrying and some powers and abilities that seem well beyond human range. When police come by looking for blondie, Yukitaka must sort out what he will do about this mysterious visitor, and Miho's father being the head of the science team investigating the alien escape pod only complicates things further.

The most immediately striking feature about this new series from David Production and Pierrot is the incredibly high quality of its artistry and animation. This is, almost without question, the prettiest-looking series of the new season, and the blond (supposed) alien's design cannot be adequately described in any other way than “gorgeous.” Other character designs look great, too, with Yukitaka and Miho both looking vastly more mature than high school students normally do in anime, but everything about the look of this one is sumptuous. It is worth watching for these visuals alone, but it does have a potentially interesting story going on here and the sometimes-comical interactions between Yukitaka and the alien have their own appeal. The not-so-subtle Detective Conan references here feel a bit odd, but that is the only thing off about this one.

The low-key style shown so far make this one unlikely to be a big hit, but it won't be for a lack of quality.


Level E is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Kore wa Zombie Desu ka?

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: At one point the male lead, who's already a zombie, transforms into a male version of a chainsaw-wielding magical girl. If that alone doesn't pique your interest, then this just may not be the series for you.

Ayumu Aikawa was just a normal high school student until he was offed by a serial killer. For as-yet-unexplained reasons, he was turned into an indestructible, lifelike zombie (think Yakumo from 3x3 Eyes) by a cute, apparently mute necromancer who now lives with him. A fateful graveyard encounter with the chainsaw-wielding magical girl Haruna, who is battling some random monster, somehow deprives the latter of her magical powers (hence her being naked in the screenshot above), so she comes to live with him, too. When a “super evil nefarious crayfish” attacks them at Ayumu's school, Haruna still finds her powers unreliable and so convinces Ayumu to do the transformation for her - a move that will almost certainly ultimately ruin his reputation.

We've all seen the scene where a character selflessly jumps in front of a vehicle to save an animal or person countless times in anime, but in this case the potential hero, right before being struck, turns his head towards the screen and says, “oh, yeah, I'm a zombie.” That sets the tone for this perverse, silly melding of several assorted genres, including magical girl, harem (apparently), and supernatural action. For the most part this comical approach works, though it sometimes feels like it could have pushed the humor a little farther. Still, the utterly absurd parody of a magical girl transformation scene, complete with the sexy gasp, involving Ayumu is a hoot and the ensuing panty shots of him show that even the series’ fairly frequent fan service isn't immune to parody, either. The technical merits are nothing special (although Necromancer Eucliwood Hellscythe's Gothic-moe look is a joke unto itself), but the soundtrack also plays into the parody tone by consistently going against type.

This one stands a good chance of eventually devolving into a mess if not handled correctly, but for now at least its quirky gimmicks make it a fun and funny little diversion.


Kore wa Zombie Desu ka? is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Freezing

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: If the idea of plentiful fan service freely intermixed with plentiful graphic violence, all perpetrated by gorgeous gals, appeals you then Freezing is probably the series for you this season. It makes its intent to focus on the former absolutely clear from its very first scene, which features the central full-figured blond stripping in preparation for activating her battle uniform. Later scenes provide all manner of panty flashes, jiggling breasts, shredded clothing, and even outright defined nudity - only in this case we also see the girls getting torn up as much as their clothing. Throats get slashed, limbs get severed (or just plain fall off) on a couple of occasions, and loads of blood gets splattered. As combat-schools-training-to-fend-off-hostile-aliens series go, this is one of the most brutal.

The premise is that, at some point late in the 21st century, mankind starts having problems with invading giant aliens called Novas, so they set up training for cybernetically-enhanced girls called Pandoras (why they have to be girls hasn't been explained yet), who can manifest Volt Textures and Volt Weapons to fight the Novas. After a certain point the girls are paired up with Limiters, who must always be boys younger than the girls, who can use their own “Freezing” powers to help protect their paired girls and allow them to move freely in the Nova's aura. One boy destined to be a Limiter is Kazuya Kazuha (who is incorrectly listed as “Aoi Kazuha” in multiple sources, but that's his sister's name), whose older sister was a Pandora who sacrificed herself to fend off a Nova assault four years earlier. And he seems destined to hook up with the absurdly-named Satellizer L. Bridgette, the training academy's top student and a seemingly coldly brutal killer who keeps everyone at a distance until, of course, Kazuya comes on the scene.

The look and set-up of the story are a mishmash of elements borrowed from numerous other anime, including RahXephon and My-Otome, the concept is pretty standard otaku-focused fare, and the play-out of events so far is fairly predictable. Some have complained about Satellizer reacting inconsistently at the end, but other yet-to-be-revealed factors could be in play there. The artwork and animation is very good at times but inconsistent, although the series hits big-time on the female character designs. Any of the series’ other potential weaknesses aren't going to matter if you have a sweet spot for the fan service/violence combo, though, as on that front it scores big-time.


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

Rating: 1 (of 5) for incest-averse viewers, 3 (of 5) otherwise.

Review: This is a series where intended brother/sister incest is a central component - or at least seems to be, anyway. If that kind of thing creeps you out then there's really no point in reading further.

Junior high student Nao has such an intense Big Brother Complex that she goes to great and very deliberate lengths to promote her one-year-older brother Shuusuke's prurient interest in her and tries to entice him along, including setting up situations for him to “accidentally” ogle her panties and hunting down and throwing away all of his porno mags that aren't incest-related. Even she occasionally admits that her predilections are creepy, and her friends certainly think so, but that doesn't stop her fantasy. What does give her pause, though, is a hidden photo album from Shuusuke's younger years which lacks any pictures of her. This leads to the Big Plot Twist which throws her for a moment, but only until she can sort out how the ramifications can play out in her favor in her relationship with her onii-chan.

Oh, yeah, this one is one heaping load of crassness, but if you can get by any aversion to the incest elements then it is also be rather funny, surprisingly cleverly written and, at one point, actually a little heartwarming, too. The nature of the plot twist isn't hard to see coming, but it does put an interesting spin on how things will play out. Watching the mental hoops that Nao jumps through to make everything work for her can be entertaining , too, if also extremely lowbrow. The very distinctive character designs, which give the girls frames that feature long, thin upper bodies atop broad hips, certainly stand out in a crowd but in a negative way, which cuts down a bit on the attractiveness of the fan service, too.

A new girl looks to be arriving next episode to liven things up, but for now this series lives or dies on playing the incest card for fan service, humor, and perverse fun.


Beelzebub

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review: First-year high school student Oga Tatsumi is the baddest of the bad in Ishiyama High, the most delinquent school in all of Japan. One day, while polishing off a beatdown by a river, a big man floats by. When Oga hauls him in, the man splits open, revealing a green-haired baby boy who quickly takes a liking to Oga because of his mean disposition. Oga soon discovers that this is no ordinary baby, as making him cry gets everyone in the vicinity severely shocked. In fact, he's the son of the Demon Lord, sent to Earth to find a human father-figure and grow up to destroy humanity. And that “father figure” is Oga.

A delinquent teen having to serve as father for a baby who seems to delight in scary faces and fights? Why not? The first episode certainly milks the premise for all its worth and, in the process, proves to be rather funny. Oga is the fairly standard tough guy who may have just a bit of heart, and saddling such characters with cutesy elements has worked before, but the baby, with its perverse delight in the perverse, is the real winner here. A demon maid also gets thrown in later on in the episode to serve as the straight woman. Technical merits aren't anything special, but the opener rocks, hard rock themes pop up throughout, and it has little writing gems like an advisor to the Demon Lord telling his boss, “the day after is the hell-wide chupacabra-hunting bus tour.”

While some aspects of this set-up may look and feel familiar, this isn't the same old dry retread. If it can keep the humor flowing, this could be the season's funniest series.

 


Beelzebub is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Cardfight!! Vanguard

Rating: 1 (of 5)

Review: Aichi Sendou is a cowardly kid who has exactly one thing going for him: he is in possession of one of the most powerful ultra-rare cards for a popular card game called Cardfight!! Vanguard, which was given to him by a “special person.” When that card gets taken from him by a bully intent on beating another boy who's moved in on the bully's turf as the top card player in his store, Aichi pursues and discovers the bully losing his prized card in a game to Kai, the encroaching wunderkind. Since the only way to get his card back is to win it, Aichi challenges Kai to a match even though he's never played before (but has built a deck).

Um, yeah, so it's an anime series which is clearly trying to promote a new card game aimed at the Yu Gi Oh! crowd. That has to hold some kind of appeal for you or the show simply won't work, as it is essentially a documentary on how to play the game spruced up with just the thinnest of kid-oriented plots. Neither the game nor the story execution has the faintest shred of originality and technical merits are mediocre at best, so the first episode has to carry itself on the tension of the confrontation. Buy into that and this could be at least minimally entertaining. Otherwise there's no spark of hope here.

 


Cardfight!! Vanguard is available streaming on Crunchyroll.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: Any description of the seeming premise for the series and the plot for the first episode will characterize this annoyingly complexly-named title as a very run-of-the-mill magical girl series. It has the cutesy mascot creature which serves as guide and recruiter, the transformation scenes (albeit a limited one), and the heroines being asked to assume magical roles to combat some threat. What separates this one from the pack is some of the most extraordinary uses of art design ever likely to be seen in a magical girl series.

The character design and rendering is fairly plain and the battles and animation are not that flashy. The architecture, however, is another story. The heroine's house is a cutting-edge modern design and her school, with its clear walls and equally cutting-edge accoutrements, stands apart from every other school that has ever appeared in an anime series. At the beginning of the first episode the heroine is in a bizarre environment with checkered black and white coloring before exiting into a warped cityscape and later in the episode she finds herself in an even more bizarre setting which cannot be easily described here. It is a visual feast for the art student and should impress anyone else tired of the same-ol’, same-ol’ in the way anime looks.

The plot isn't much to speak of: heroine Modoka has some strange dreams where she sees a girl who later appears in her school as a transfer student. Said girl warns her off of becoming anything beyond what she currently is, but a chance encounter with the mascot creature, who is being chased by said girl, throws her into the midst of a magical battle beyond her comprehension and earns her an offer to become a magical girl herself. The real reason to check out at least the first episode of this one is the visuals and Yuki Kujiura score, though.


Gosick

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review: Amongst the early series of the new season, this one shows the most potential. Based on a light novel series, Gosick tells the story of Kujo Kazuya, a young Japanese man who has come to the fictional European country of Saubure in 1924 to attend the exclusive St. Marguerite Academy. His foreign looks and demeanor have earned him the nickname Dark Reaper (a reference to a local legend), which he detests. In one of the school's tower-like libraries he finds Victorique, a doll-like girl who speaks oddly about a “fountain of wisdom” within her but also soon proves very adept at sorting out the particulars of a recent murder. As Kujo soon learns, though, resolving the murder may only be the beginning of the story rather than the end, and Victorique represents no shortage of mysteries herself.

Last year's Dance in the Vampire Bund and the earlier Death Note and Le Portrait de Petite Cossette reaffirmed anime fandom's fascination with the blond-haired Goth loli character, but this looks like an entirely different take on the concept; in fact, the series seems determined to show that it will be different. Victorique certainly has the look down to a science - her adorable character design will undoubtedly make her highly popular - but only gives a vague tsundere vibe rather than taking the all-out approach one would normally expect here. Parts of the series seem dark, yet affectations like Inspector Grevil's ridiculous hairdo and a matter concerning luggage are clearly designed to keep the story from taking itself too seriously. Rather than making this establishing episode merely a self-contained plot, it spins things into a bigger picture at the end, and there is that ominous prophecy at the beginning, too. Victorique also embodies all sorts of her own mysteries; clearly there's a lot to dig into there. Perhaps most importantly, Kujo and Victorique are already starting to click by the beginning of the episode.

BONES makes a sharp debut this season with the artistic effort here, the series has solid fun and mystery factors going for it, and the execution of the concept feels at least somewhat fresh. That's a lot going for the series to start.


Gosick is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


IS: Infinite Stratos

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review: 15-year-old Ichika Orimura has a singular and uncomfortable distinction: he is the only male who can pilot the IS (short for Infinite Stratos) mecha-like suit system, a system that, due to certain treaty restrictions, is currently only used for sport. Naturally, that makes him the only male student in the otherwise-all-girl boarding school exclusively for those training to be IS pilots. Worse, his childhood friend Houki is in the same class but seems to be ignoring him, and worse still, his big sister, a renowned IS champion pilot, is his homeroom teacher. Things get even more complicated when he discovers that he's rooming with that same Houki and gets on the wrong side of a British ace, but most of the girls have already started to regard him as a curiosity.

An anime season just wouldn't be an anime season these days without some kind of harem show, and this one seems intended to be an action/romance with a bit of comedy thrown in. The gimmick to create the harem structure is, of course, a big contrivance, but at least this time the series has an excuse which sounds somewhat credible. Many of the expected complications are present, too, including the full-of-herself student, the now-sexy childhood friend, misunderstandings about living arrangements, and so forth. Toss in hints of amnesia and we practically have a paint-by-numbers set-up. The mecha elements only appear in a flash-forward at the beginning to some kind of climactic battle, so we'll have to wait ‘till next episode to see more actual action.

So yeah, everything is quite generic here, but there is at least a hint of a promising feel to it, and that vibe mostly comes from Ichika (who seems like he may actually have a backbone) and the first episode's refusal to resolutely exploit fan service options or use the expected hyper-exaggerated reactions. The series also looks very good, with plenty of sharp background art, and sounds pretty good, too. Other series have shown that training-school scenarios can succeed, so perhaps this one can also show us some meat instead of just sauce.


Yumekui Merry

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: Things always get strange when dreams form a major component of a show's content, and this new offering from J.C. Staff, which feels like what Tim Burton might make if he got into anime, is no exception. It has characters with names like Merry Nightmare and Chaser John Doe (the latter horribly mispronounced by the Japanese voice actor) running around and eventually fighting each other, the main character gets chased by an army of anthropomorphic cats through a dreamscape filled with fish bones, and so forth. It also has more conventional elements like an amnesiac girl, a male character living with a female childhood friend, and the mysterious girl who falls down on a guy and ends up in what could easily be regarded as a compromising position, so it isn't all strangeness, but the series definitely seems determined to straddle the line between the typical and the really weird.

The story features Yumeji Fujiwara, a high school boy with the curious ability to see colors around people which can predict their dreams with reasonable accuracy. For many nights he has dreams about being chased by cats through a strange dreamscape, but one day he gets pulled into the dream in the middle of the day to meet the cats’ boss man, who wants to use Yumeji's body to sojourn into the Real World. Then Merry, the amnesiac girl who previously fell on Yumeji, shows up in the dream and defends him.

Yeah, it doesn't make much sense yet, but this also seems to be one of those series where figuring out what's going on should be half the fun. Merry's design, with the distinctively curled coattails, is more than a little ridiculous, but the overall art design isn't bad and the scene framing certainly promotes the dreamlike quality. This series also has the most overactive and eclectic musical score you're likely to hear this season, though it would probably make a good independent listen. Whether or not this one has potential overall remains to be seen, but it should be interesting to find out.



Rio - Rainbow Gate!

Rating: 2 (of 5)

Review: Young Mint's grandfather is a big casino buff, so she and her stuffed bear Choco find themselves dragged along for the ride to notable casino cities and generally left to their own devices. While visiting the prominent Howard's Casino, Mint makes the acquaintance of Rio, a sexy dealer who has earned a reputation around the casino as the Goddess of Victory but suffers under a rather perverted boss. Though Rio also seems quite capable in a physical pinch, she also seems to have some kind of probability-manipulation ability, which she uses to help Mint when a man with an interest in Choco all but forces her to gamble for it.

This thin excuse for a sexy, fan service-centered show is based on a popular type of pachinko game, and its first episode suggests that it has all that much depth, too. Granted, depth is hardly a requirement for a fan service-centered series, and this one certainly offers no shortage of curvaceous ladies in scanty apparel or jiggling bosoms, but it just doesn't seem to have much room to go anywhere and the sex appeal simply isn't enough. The exact nature of Rio's powers and how she's able to go all bad-ass on thuggish types is about the only thing that the series has to build on, and given how weak and dumb the first plot point is, the series will need more than that. The artistry is fairly good and the musical scores keeps it light and jazzy, but this one feels more like dead weight.

Rio - Rainbow Gate! is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


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