The Spring 2011 Anime Preview Guide
Carl Kimlinger

by Carl Kimlinger, Apr 2nd 2011
Carl's natural habitat is the dank forests of the Pacific Northwest. He thrives on rain and a diet of cute furry animals. He should be approached with caution, particularly when in an ill temper. He's a sucker for slick visuals and epic sweep, as well as emotional abuse, so with the right combination of Eden of the East and Touch he can be lured into an anime stupor, whereupon it is a simple matter to shoot and mount him in your living room, making for a unique conversation piece.

[C] - CONTROL

Rating: 3 ½

Review: Control is about money. No, it isn't some cynical anime cash-grab. It's a story about money. Kimimaro's problem is that he doesn't have any. He's a diligent student and works his tail off at two terrible part-time jobs, but he never, ever has enough money. He can't go drinking with classmates, he can't afford to ask the girl he likes on a date, he can't do anything. Not that he wants much; a government job, a nice secure one, is all—enough to raise a small family in frugality and happiness. Unbeknownst to him, forces elsewhere are at work destroying that dream. The Financial District is a possibly-supernatural realm where occupants can battle each other for money—using their futures as collateral. Broke and desperate, one such occupant picks a fight with a philosophizing dandy and ends up bankrupting his future. After a train makes paste of him, his spot in the Financial District opens up. And Kimimaro is chosen to fill it.

If, like Kimimaro, Control could use its future potential as collateral, it'd be able to buy almost any series this season. It's a very ambitious work—the opening sequence, during which money morphs into war, bureaucracy and politics, promises nothing less than an exploration of the very nature of money. Its premise is sophisticated enough that it could head in virtually any direction—philosophical, visceral, even emotional—and succeed. Kimimaro is a deceptively simple soul, seemingly ordinary yet deep and contradictory enough to suggest all manner of dramatic possibilities. His potentially destructive relationship with the girl he likes, the equally contradictory Hanabi, is particularly delectable in its possible ramifications. The problem is that, like Kimimaro, Control has nothing but potential. It's all future and no now. There is nothing this episode, especially not its Yu-Gi-Oh! battles and hideous supporting players, to ensure that we tune in to see its potential fulfilled. The smart money is on continued viewership paying off, but for now it remains a gamble.

C – Control is available streaming at Funimation.


Blue Exorcist

Rating: 4 ½

Review: Ever wonder if you were cursed? Rin Okamura does. He's a high-school dropout who can't seem to keep a job or keep out of trouble. He can't help breaking everything he touches, which makes him a liability on any job, and can't help butting into the business of pretty much any punk he meets. His fuse is so short that he doesn't have one, so punk encounters rarely end well. So rarely, in fact, that his polar opposite twin brother Yukio has no shortage of practice for his future occupation of emergency room doctor. His dad, a priest specializing in exorcism, is supportive—if deeply weird—but still Rin hates being such a drag on his family. Has to be a curse, right? In a way, yes. Everything makes a bit more sense when he learns that he's quite literally the spawn of Satan. Super strength? Crappy luck? Bad temper? Able to see demons? Aaahhh...so that's what that was all about.

Yes, Blue Exorcist is an anime about a teenager who learns he has special powers and a correspondingly special fate. Yes, it peddles the exact same mixture of action, humor and pathos that every Shonen Jump wannabe property does. Yes, it bases its action on alternate world nonsense about demons invading our realm, blah, blah, blah. But it's also a reminder of why Japan keeps pumping these kinds of series out: when done just right, they kick humongous ass. And Blue Exorcist does everything right. Rin is cool, sympathetic, and just that little bit vulnerable and little bit terrifying that any good hero must be. Director Tensai Okamura handles Rin's personality and feelings with a certain grace and stages excellent pratfalls, but most importantly has a proven knack for action. Darker than Black: Ryūsei no Gemini alone kicked more butt than most directors' entire oeuvres. Ryota Yamaguchi, whose uncanny ability to lead genre series in fruitful directions has resulted in some of the nicest surprises in anime, takes lead writing duties, completing the series' promise. If your faith in anime's action potential has been flagging, this is just the kick in the rear it needs.

Blue Exorcist is available streaming on Crunchyroll, Hulu, VizAnime.com and ANN.


Hyouge Mono

Rating: 2 ½

Review: History and the deadest of deadpan humor combine in this maybe-comedy from Bee Train. It's the Warring States period (again). Nobunaga Oda's push to unite Japan is in full swing. Among his many retainers is a field messenger by the name of Sasuke Furuta. Immersed in strife to his fabulous eyebrows, Furuta still harbors deep within an irrepressible love of art and aesthetics. In war councils he occupies himself by mentally correcting the generals' dress rather than planning wars, and when sent to request the surrender of a rebellious former ally, he's more interested in seeing the rebel's near-mythical teapot than he is in executing his mission. His aesthete's ways amuse Nobunaga to no end, which earns the ire of Nobunaga's vaguely toadyish vassal Hideyoshi.

Wouldn't you know, Bee Train founder Koichi Mashimo has actually found another use for his dreary, inflexible directorial style: po-faced humor. Actually his portentous music, static compositions, atmospheric backgrounds and slow pans add such gravitas to Furuta's inherently silly story that it's often difficult to tell what is supposed to be funny and what isn't. Still, treating Furuta's antics with the solemnity usually reserved for battleground heroics and steely-eyed political maneuvering yields enough laughs to validate the approach. And it certainly makes for a unique experience. Nowhere else are you going to see the rescue of a tea-pot lid played like a Three Stooges gag as directed by John Woo. Or for that matter, Nobunaga's ruthlessness combined with tea ceremony and played so straight that you know it's crooked. Unfortunately, while of value as an (extreme) oddity, it isn't terribly fun to watch. Unless, perhaps, you have the exact right sense of humor.


Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Boku-tachi wa Mada Shiranai.

Rating: 5

Review: The Noitamina timeslot earned its lowest ratings to date last season. Producer Kōji Yamamoto claimed it had nothing to do with the quality of the timeslot's programming. It did. Other factors were at work, of course, but Wandering Son was a stubbornly niche series and Fractale was frankly disappointing. Content shouldn't be an issue this season, though. Not with anohana in the mix. An original production from the folks behind the stellar teen romance Toradora!, it's a poignant examination of growing up and apart, with a little supernatural twist.

Once upon a time there were six good friends. They played together; did everything together. They even had their own name: the Super Peace Busters. Now they're in high school and their friendship may as well have been a fairy tale. Leader Jintan is a shut-in, sweet-natured Anaru is an embittered kogal, cool guy Yukiatsu is a prep-school snob...everyone is the worse for the years of wear and none of them is on anything approaching good terms. The only one who hasn't changed is Jintan's slightly odd crush Menma. And with good reason. She's a ghost. Or perhaps a figment of Jintan's imagination. Either way, she's causing problems for Jintan. Everyone thinks he's a couple donuts short of a police picnic, and worse yet Menma wants her last wish fulfilled—and it requires that the Super Peace Busters reunite.

No overview of anohana's plot does it justice. It's basic premise gives the mistaken impression that it's some kind of atmospheric sad-girl-with-a-secret visual novel in the Visual Art's/Key vein. Heaven forbid. Director Tatsuyuki Nagai, who to all intents and purposes is infallible, has a lively, vivid touch, and he and his creative team have only a peripheral interest in romance. More important to them are the irreversible effects of time, the inevitable drifting of friends and feelings, and the outward-ripping effects of personal tragedy. The tale they weave is really very simple, but rich in feeling and complex in its relationships—even this early in its run. There is literally no telling where it will go, but it will undoubtedly be a beautiful, deeply affecting journey there.


Deadman Wonderland

Rating: 4 ½

Review: There was a time when bloody, nasty fare such as this was what anime was known for. Now it's the exception…and after gagging on sugar all season, a welcome one. Our story begins with Ganta Igarashi: a run of the mill middle school student who is about to enter a world previously unthinkable to him. When his entire class is butchered by a masked man in a bloody mantle, Ganta is the only survivor. He is arrested for the massacre and after a brief trial sentenced to death. From the courtroom he is carted to Deadman Wonderland, a prison-cum-theme-park where criminals are forced to perform for public amusement. The worst of the worst are required to perform in life-threatening attractions and win…or die. It's the worst possible meeting of capitalism and capital punishment, and Ganta is right in the middle of it.

Taking its cue from countless sleazy prison films, Deadman Wonderland offers lean, mean exploitation with a dose of mystery and a whiff of high-concept pseudo-intelligence but little pretense of being anything other than merciless genre entertainment. There're plenty of mysterious goings-on to keep the intellectually restless busy. Things like the deeply damaged albino girl who befriends Ganta in prison yet claims to know him from elsewhere. Or whatever the hell it is that's going on with Ganta's public defender and the blood-dripping "Red Man" who killed Ganta's friends. And for the more morally minded, the intersection of capitalism, entertainment, and law enforcement that the show imagines is pregnant with potential social commentary.

Of course, one gets the sense that the answers to the mysteries will be nonsense, and that the moral content is just a fig leaf, but that's all—mysteries, morals, and their respective flaws—beside the point. The point is to jam a poor innocent into a contrived situation in which he'll need to slaughter lots of people, and the series does that very well. Its premise has the nebulous feel and inexorable progression of a particularly horrible nightmare—a nightmare that we, at least, will be all too glad not to wake from.

Deadman Wonderland is available streaming at Crunchyroll.


We, Without Wings Episode 2

Rating: 2 ½

Review: In the name of fairness I gave We, Without Wings one more episode to win me over (or at least fail to disgust me), and wouldn't you know it, it turns out that the show just might be interesting after all. The basic plot remains the same: Three guys living life in the city. Takashi continues to dream about being a hero in an alternate world. Hayato's handyman business finally gets a job request—from an innocent girl named Naru, who happens to be the younger sister of the biggest psycho Hayato has ever met. Shusuke has a horrible mix-up when he mistakes a serious novelist for the one-time porn star whose tell-all book he's been hired to promote. Later he discovers that the novelist, Hiyoko, has been hired at his favorite cafe. And is coming to his long-awaited mixer. Oh hell.

We, Without Wings still has mountains of issues. Its fan-service is still in pretty bad taste and the broad self-referential winks and DJ Whatsisname interludes are plain awful. No one will ever mistake its characters for Tolstoy's and it still isn't entirely clear if Takashi's magical-harem storyline is a parody of stinking eroge crapfests or actually is one. That said, it is fast improving. For one there's no lolicon content to put your teeth on edge and torpedo your faith in anime fandom. The series also confines the worst of its meta-fiction affectations and condiment-squirting fan-service to the episode's opening minutes and wisely sidelines Takashi. The addition of Naru fleshes Hayato out enough that you can distinguish him from Shusuke's friend Kakeru and perhaps even care about where his story is going. The series' smartest move, however, was giving Shusuke the lion's share of the episode. He is far and away the show's most likeable character, and if the events of the mixer are any indication, it's most complex as well. (The recurring fish-eye joke about Hiyoko's reaction to him is also pretty darned funny.) It is thanks to him that the show, while a mess, is an increasingly watchable mess.

We, Without Wings is available streaming at Crunchyroll.


Sekai Ichi Hatsukoi Episode 2

Rating: 2 ½

Review: Sekai Ichi Hatsukoi gets into the romance proper in its second episode. As it turns out, it probably should have stuck to workplace drama. Working in manga is hard, whether you're an artist or an editor. Ritsu gets a bellyful of both sides when Takano drags him to an artist's studio to help her complete a chapter that she is woefully behind on. Already worn to nub by the month-end work crush, he nonetheless offers the stressed and demoralized artist some moral support—support Takano seems constitutionally unsuited to provide. Takano is able to provide essential logistical support however. Both men come away from the encounter with a better impression of the other, which prompts Takano to push their relationship up a notch. Though Ritsu has purged it from his memory, Takano was once a very close acquaintance of his. Something Takano, at least, has not forgotten.

It kind of defeats the purpose of having adult characters if falling in love makes them act like kids. Ritsu in particular ends up behaving like a twitterpated teen in denial. Takano, in contrast, knows his mind and treats romance with a realpolitik matter-of-factness that fits his brusque personality, but that doesn't stop the pair's romantic scenes from coming across forced and unbecomingly mushy. That the series seems intent on blowing past the manga-editing framing story to get straight at them only heightens the disappointment. One of the first episode's charms was its focus on Ritsu's work life, as well as the deep-seated cynicism it revealed in him. Not only does the onset of full-blown romance push Ritsu's job out of the picture for the last half of this episode, but in forcing him into the role of blushing uke it also betrays his established character, turning him from a battered, jaded adult into a male variant of the tsundere. Not good. Prior to that the show could easily appeal to fans outside of its target audience; afterwards its appeal is strictly limited to yaoi fans.

Sekai Ichi Hatsukoi is available streaming at Crunchyroll.


Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko

Rating: 4

Review: After being buffeted by romantic comedies lazy (A Bridge to the Starry Skies), prurient (We, Without Wings) and plain discomfiting (Astarotte's Toy) it's easy to despair for the shonen romantic comedy. The genre has always been spotty, but seriously, this season had me worrying that it was well and truly deceased. And then along came this strange, beguiling little charmer. Like a great many great romantic comedies before it, Denpa Onna takes the bones of a flogged-to-death romantic premise and on them builds something fresh, interesting, and even exciting, in the process reminding us of why we slog through the Bridge to the Starry Skies of the world. I believe mind-hugs are in order for everyone working on the show.

We begin with the bones. Makoto Niwa, like so many romantic-comedy leads before him, is moving to a new town, where he'll live with his perpetually absent aunt. Unlike his predecessors, however, Makoto isn't heading unawares into romantic complications. He's counting on them. He's been living in cow-pie central his entire life and he's damned well going to take full advantage of his new situation. This is not to be. His plans die a messy death when he spots what appears to be a legged mattress in his aunt's foyer. Makoto, it turns out, won't be living alone. He'll be living with his futon-encased, thoroughly insane cousin Erio.

The raw beauty of SHAFT's production is quite stunning. Akiyuki Shinbo keeps his worst impulses in check, turning out animation that is sleek and instantly captivating without being batsh** crazy. Makoto makes a fine lead: sarcastic, self-possessed, resourceful, and with a perfectly healthy interest in the opposite sex. His aunt, an exceedingly odd woman whose conversation is the verbal equivalent of drunken boxing, adds energy and unpredictability. But the real reason Denpa Onna works so well is Erio. She's no moefied eccentric; she's a genuine basket case, unique in the annals of romantic comedies, capable of making the most mundane events thoroughly surreal by her mere presence. She is also, when finally and fully revealed, the most eye-poppingly gorgeous lead in years. Not to be missed.


Aria the Scarlet Ammo

Rating: 3 ½

Review: Takashi Watanabe at the helm, JC-Staff-powered visuals, Rie Kugimiya as a tiny girl with an outsized temper and mayhem-wreaking skills to match, and a plot that combines violent intrigue with standard-issue romantic comedy...could Aria the Scarlet Ammo be the de facto return of Shakugan no Shana? Maybe, but hey, there are worse things to be.

Our hero is Kinji Toyama. Only he doesn't want to be a hero. Thanks to a rather dubious genetic ability, the Toyamas have been heroes for generations. Kinji wants no part of that. To that end he intends to transfer out of his current school, which is less a school than a fully-armed boot-camp for kids training to become mercenaries (called "Butei"). On the day he decides to withdraw, however, he is targeted by the "Butei Killer," who plants a bomb on his bike and sends an automated Uzi after him. He's saved by one Aria H. Kanzaki, a slip of a girl with some serious combat skills. In the ensuing shootout, Kinji's congenital affliction manifests itself, turning him briefly into a bon a fide knight in shining armor. Aria is not pleased.

There's much about Aria the Scarlet Ammo that is worn, but there's no denying it has promise. It's action-packed and good-looking, and its world is amusing as well as riddled with possible mysteries and machinations. Rie Kugimiya is basically just reprising her role for Shana, but this time she's paired with Junji Majima, with whom she has proven chemistry (think Toradora!) and whose character is both instantly likeable and refreshingly strong (physically and mentally). Kinji's white-knight transformation, and ensuing fight with a gang of Uzi-armed Segways, is alone worth the price of admission. The show does have an unfortunate habit of following heartening revelations (the emergence of Kinji's strutting alter-ego) with disheartening ones (Aria instantly moving in with him), but the good generally whips the bad. If it builds some emotional depth and works in a few good sucker-punch twists, there's no reason it couldn't replicate Shana's little-series-that-could performance.


Sket Dance Episode 2

Rating: 3 ½

Review: Episode one relied on a one-time trick (a fake main character) to pull off a surprisingly sneaky standalone mystery. Doing so showed spunk and no small measure of smarts, but left open the question: how will Sket Dance perform on its own merits, sans trickery? The answer, given this episode: just fine, thank you very much. The Sket Club will help anyone with just about any problem. If a living anachronism asks them to help him find out why he can't perform as well now that he's the captain of the kendo team, they'll drop everything to help. Not that there's anything to drop. Mostly the Sket Club just spends their spare time squabbling. And when an, um, unconventional cheerleader asks them to baby-sit her monkey (no, that's not a double entendre), they gladly accept. Okay, maybe not gladly, but they accept. Their club advisor drops by soon thereafter to ask them to dispose of a bomb that he may or may not have accidentally made. Bomb + monkey...not a good combination.

For its second episode Sket Dance shortens the stories, cranks up the color, and pumps out a half an hour of the purest, dumbest fun of which it is capable. If you thought the Sket members were odd ducks, wait until you meet their schoolmates. The world's homeliest cheerleader, say, or their school's samurai-loving, sword-toting, mint-chomping, arcane-speaking, seppuku-committing kendo team captain. There's also their evil scientist of a club advisor and a softball coach with a seriously girly throwing stance. The series crams them all into tiny half-episode stories that unfold at a giddy, Coyote-and-Roadrunner pace and culminate not in dramatic denouements or climactic uplift but in goofy punch-lines. It's all very frivolous, even by the standards of the opening episode, but also hugely enjoyable. The humor never flags, and neither does the pace or the cast, especially Bosson and Hime, who have a priceless comedian-duo thing going on pretty much non-stop. And if the dearth of substance irks you, the next episode looks like it'll start mixing things up with Sket Club back-stories. Good stuff, and still good-looking too.

Sket Dance is available streaming at Crunchyroll.


A Bridge to the Starry Skies

Rating: 1

Review: And another bishojo game makes the leap to our televisions (or computers or whatever). There is such a thing as a good bishojo-game adaptation, but searching for one is like playing Russian roulette with all of the cylinders loaded and hoping for a misfire. A Bridge to the Starry Skies isn't the miracle we roulette players have been looking for; it's just one more time that the maid'll be using the spatula to clean the ceiling.

Meet Kazuma Hoshino. He's your run-of-the-mill ordinary dude with a god-like aptitude for getting into compromising situations with pretty girls. Take his latest day. He's just arrived in the countryside, where he'll be staying at a local inn with his sickly little brother Ayumu. He takes the bus the wrong way, gets off with Ayumu, and has to run into the woods to catch a monkey that has stolen Ayumu's hat. This naturally leads to him slipping as he jumps across a river, falling on top of a girl, and accidentally playing tonsil hockey with her. When he gets to the inn, he walks in naked on the cleaning girl and runs away straight into the owner, giving her a panoramic view of his genitals.

Kazuma's adventures continue, but you get the idea: lots of girls, lots of hideously fake girly behavior (bring on the speech affectations!), lots of dumb, contrived, and cruelly predictable "romantic" hijinks. In terms of sheer pain, the show is a good match for this seasons other eroge stinker, We, Without Wings. However, unlike We, which was a mixture of decent characters and moderately ambitious writing brought down by some vile content, Bridge comes by its crappiness the old-fashioned way: by being crappy. It is one enormous, Frankensteinian conglomeration of crappy clichés played out by crappy characters given crappy character designs and delivering crappy dialogue while crappy music diddles around in the background. The monkey that steals Ayumu's hat could get together with a couple of his monkey friends and make a better series than this, and for much cheaper I'll bet.

A Bridge to the Starry Skies is available streaming at Crunchyroll.


Toriko

Rating: 2

Review: An outrageous main character; a ridiculous world full of goofy adventure; an amusing central idea; oodles of man-on-beast battling—Toriko has everything it needs to be rollicking Shonen Jump fun. Except one thing: the fun. A world ruled by food, where gourmet eating has become a way of life. In such a world, the role of the Gourmet Hunter is of greatest importance. Gourmet Hunters are hired to hunt down and acquire the rarest and most dangerous of ingredients: giant lobster-fish, snake-tailed hawks, giant serpents, saber-toothed tigers...whatever it takes to make a tasty dish. One of the finest Hunters in the land is Toriko, a muscle-bound freak able to go hand-to-hand with the fiercest that the animal kingdom has to offer, and subsequently eat it. Some government muckety-mucks need a particularly ferocious croc for a meal, so they hire Toriko to get it. Bring on the hand-to-croc combat.

For a series so steeped in hyperactive craziness, Toriko is strangely leaden. Perhaps it has something to do with all of the world-building nattering that clogs the episode. Perhaps it's the pauses it takes for Toriko to explain his carnivorous philosophy. Maybe it's the fatigue we feel at being faced with another story about another wacky dude chasing another crazy dream (blurted out during a campfire confessional of course). Or is it the lack of tension that comes from having a main character who is obviously indestructible? Or perhaps the colorless supporting cast? After all it's hard to get excited when it doesn't matter who becomes croc chow. A setting that has yet to really distinguish itself and visuals that could belong to just about any anime aren't doing much to help, and neither is the disappointing action. That it lifted its premise from one of Hunter x Hunter's lesser story-arcs probably isn't doing anyone any favors either. It has a nice parodic edge to it and a healthy respect for its own absurdity, but that's hardly enough to keep its competition—like One Piece, which it has unwisely compared itself to—from crushing it like a bug.

Toriko is available streaming at Hulu and Funimation.com.

Battle Girls - Time Paradox Episode 2

Rating: 3

Review: Some answers—if they can really be called that—and more light fun are in the offing as Battle Girls makes it through its second episode without self-destructing. Considering its origins, that's quite an achievement. Hideyoshi awakes to find that, yes, she's still a guest of Nobunaga Oda in some strange all-female version of the Warring States period. She accompanies Oda on her rounds as the warlord visits the devastated village the Hideyoshi first arrived in. Distressed by what she sees, Hideyoshi pitches in to help and Oda is impressed by the ease with which she captures the hearts of the peasants. In appreciation, Oda gives Hideyoshi her own room, which she promptly redecorates, pissing Mitsuhide off and leading to a martial-arts competition that Hideyoshi is very much doomed to lose.

Battle Girls firmly establishes itself here as an action-comedy of the lightest, slightest sort. Hideyoshi's total idiocy keeps the tone airy and silly, ensuring that even the uglier aspects of medieval society don't drag the mood down. A tiny whiff of shojo-ai keeps her relationship with Oda amusing, despite the potential seriousness of its repercussions (its effect on Mitsuhide doesn't bode well given Mitsuhide's historical role in Oda's death). The episode's solitary action scene—a duel with staves between Hideyoshi and Mitsuhide—stalwartly refuses to be taken seriously. (It's also more lucidly staged than last episode's action scenes, which is a relief.) Even the show's "revelations" are that's-just-the-way-it-is narrative shrugs tossed out by a talking dog. Why is everyone female? It's an alternate world, duh. How do they reproduce? Storks leave babies on doorsteps; how else? Entertainment doesn't get much more brainless or effort-free. The aftermath of episode one's village-burning does darken the mood enough to ensure that the series doesn't fluff itself into nonexistence, but hardly enough to justify watching the series for its realism. Keep watching for the irrepressibly likable Hideyoshi, and for the shock you just know she's going to get whenever she gets around to reading the rest of that history book she totes around.

Battle Girls - Time Paradox is available streaming at Crunchyroll.


Astarotte's Toy

Rating: 2 ½

Review: Combining young (very young) girls with an explicitly sexual premise means walking a very fine line. So far Astarotte's Toy falls on the right (or more accurately, the less-wrong) side of it. Whether it can continue to do so will be the largest factor in determining its ultimate value. The premise is rooted in the nature of succubi. Ten-year-old Astarotte is their princess, and she has just found out that she'll have to suck the, er, "life-seed" from men to survive. That means establishing a large harem to ensure that she's never without sustenance. One problem: Astarotte hates men. As a deal with her tutor, Judit, she agrees that she'll establish a harem if it's populated by human men—knowing full well that one hasn't been seen in a thousand years. Judit is a sore loser, so she goes to open a portal to the human realm and, to Astarotte's dismay, succeeds.

The idea of establishing a harem as kind of a farm for, er, "life-seed" is actually pretty amusing, particularly in how it reverses the usual direction of sexual exploitation. But it belongs in a thinking-man's hentai (if there is such a thing), not in a silly romance starring a prepubescent girl. Still, through a combination of Astarotte's genuine childishness and a level of (relative) restraint, it manages to come down on the innocent side of hair-raisingly creepy. For now the princess's feelings for her all-female entourage are just as important as her pending need for, er, "life-seed," and there is reason to believe that her relationship with Naoya, the man Judit brings back with her, will be less icky than it could be (for one, he has a daughter her age). There's still plenty of time, of course, for the series to go in for full-blown lolicon romance, and much will depend on what exactly sucking, er, "life-seed" entails. If it's exactly what it sounds like, then it's best not to think too hard about what Judit means when she says that Astarotte's mother was already "sucking men of their life-seed" at Astarotte's age, and probably best not to keep watching either.

Astarotte's Toy is streaming at Crunchyroll.


Hanasaku Iroha Episode 2

Rating: 4

Review: Ohana makes a concerted effort to learn the ins and outs of her new job, getting up early to weed the yard and putting everything she has into cleaning rooms. But nothing seems good enough for her grandmother, and it's only a matter of time before she screws up again. Which can make this episode rather difficult to watch. Despite appearances, Ohana is a vulnerable girl, so waiting for her inevitable mistake and the equally inevitable humiliation she'll suffer at the hands of the inn's unpleasant staff is not a pleasant experience for us. And sure enough, she slips up—twice. Once while cleaning a customer's room and again when she takes the initiative and cooks for the staff. But then something unexpected happens: Ohana reaches deep inside and finds the strength to change her circumstances, to change herself, and perhaps even change her co-workers.

It's a great moment. Iroha's one overriding problem prior to this episode was its thoroughly unlikable cast. Ohana's grandmother was intolerable, co-workers Minko and Nako were a sullen witch and a timid mouse respectively, Minko's boss the cook was an asshole, and even Ohana was an insensitive, self-pitying whiner. The moment Ohana decides to stand up and take control of her situation that begins to change. Ohana immediately sheds her poor-me attitude and determines to work on her deeper personality flaws, in the process forcing Minko to finally re-examine her hostility and Nako to show a bit of spine. Even the cook reveals an unexpected streak of understanding. Ohana's grandmother, despite what might or might not be signs of softening, remains as hateful as ever, but it's still a vast improvement over the first episode. Now it's possible to anticipate rather than dread future developments, to look forward to finding out what Ohana's hatred of the term "go die" means and what it is that drives Minko, safe in the knowledge that the characters (and thus we) are in good hands.

Hanasaku Iroha is available streaming at Crunchyroll.


Yondemasu yo, Azazel-san

Rating: 4

Review: Take a lust demon, an evil private eye, and a hemophiliac assistant and what do you get? Something you don't want your church group to catch you watching. PI Akutabe will take any job, no matter how dirty. Following cheating husbands? No problem! Taking compromising pictures of said husband? Why not? Devising a cruel revenge at the behest of the betrayed wife? With pleasure. It is when tasked with the latter that Akutabe takes Rinko, his assistant of two months, behind the agency's locked back door for the first time. Behind it is a fully-stocked studio for the practice of the black arts, which Akutabe uses to summon demons to do his dirtiest work. Specifically a lust demon named Azazel. Azazel is a horny, sexually harassing teddy-bear-thing whose powers and interests are strictly carnal. He's also a total incompetent, as Rinko soon learns when his plans for getting the cheating husband back in line start going horribly awry.

Tsutomu Mizushima has been directing feel-good anime like Shinryaku! Ika Musume and Big Windup! for long enough now that it's easy to forget that he once made his mark directing vicious black comedies like Magical Witch Punie-chan. And while his direction may have grown glossier and smoother in the intervening years, he hasn't lost the wicked bite that made shows like Punie-chan mean-spirited kicks. Azazel-san is as nasty a slice of blood-squirting, casually raunchy comedy as Mizushima has ever produced. A keen eye for mean sight gags and an aptitude for squeezing hard laughs from malicious behavior keep it hilarious, while Rinko provides just enough of a moral anchor to keep it from becoming genuinely vile. It isn't deep, terribly smart, or even that original, and it certainly isn't wholesome or uplifting, but it is loads of fun. Perfect for washing away the sticky-sweet taste of things like A-Channel.


Softenni

Rating: 2 ½

Review: A rural setting, some minor amusement and a handful of directorial tricks imported from SHAFT are about all that this good-natured but empty sports comedy has going for it. It takes place at a rural middle-school, where farm-girl Asuna Harukaze is a member of the soft tennis club. She's enthusiastic about it, but not very good. And her tendency to skimp on training isn't making her any better. Chitose, the club's thoroughly inept captain, is even worse, but the rest of the club clearly a class above Asuna. Kotone, the club's disciplinarian, is a solid journeyman, and Kurusu, the club's star player, is a soft-tennis machine. Together they are preparing for the local tournament, though between squabbling, milking cows, wrestling giant salamanders, and rounding up their members, they get very little actual practice done.

Softenni isn't a sports show. Sports shows have competition, perhaps accompanied by excitement, and usually a subtext or two about bettering yourself, striving towards a goal, working as team, or some such. What Softenni is, is a gag comedy: a silly, mildly ecchi collection of short jokes chained loosely into something that sort of resembles a story. There're a lot of SD hijinks, a lot of "quirky" behavior, and, unfortunately, not too many laughs. Chitose's abnormal love of food gets the occasional chuckle, as do the jokes involving cows (what can I say? Cows are funny), but that's about it. Ryouki Kamitsubo brings a mild version of SHAFT's trademarked abstraction with him to Xebec, so the show is rarely boring to look at, but neither is it particularly impressive. The fan-service, of which there is plenty (Asuna has an awfully dirty mind for a middle-schooler), might be good, but it's nearly impossible to tell, what with the giant cow faces that the show pastes over it. Having a genuine, hay-forking farm-girl as a main character is nice, but it'd help if she had a little more depth than your average summertime mud puddle. Which could also be said for the show overall.


Tiger & Bunny Episode 2

Rating: 3 ½

Review: The instant hook of its premise behind it, Tiger & Bunny must now turn to more mundane means to keep us on the line: character, plot, mega-sized superhero action—you know, boring stuff like that. After years of working alone in tights, Wild Tiger is now working as a duo in a powersuit. His partner, arrogant youngster Barnaby Brooks, isn't any more thrilled about the deal than he is. But crime won't wait, and they set out on their first foray together to subdue a rampaging statue. It goes poorly. Through a fortuitous mixture of poor coordination and lack of powersuit training the two end up tied together and very nearly crushed by the behemoth they're supposed to stop. They have to get their act together, and fast. Not only is the nation watching thanks to "Hero TV," but the mission is about to become very personal for Tiger, who soon realizes that the perp is heading straight for his daughter's skate competition.

Kotetsu "Wild Tiger" Kaburagi is a great main character. He's an older man, with an older man's self-possession but a younger man's passion and idealism. It's impossible not to like the man. Barnaby is another matter. He's basically impossible to like. No matter, though. The real question isn't whether you like him; it's whether he has the requisite odd-couple chemistry with Wild Tiger. And...well, there's no answer to that. So far they aren't striking too many sparks, but a few remarks by Barnaby about Tiger and some last-minute hints about his reasons for becoming a superhero are enough to indicate that there might be some in the future. Until then we'll have to be satisfied with the series' continuing portrayal of the effects of commercialization on hero-hood, its corporate-culture-meets-superhero-culture humor, and its ass-kicking fights. There are worrying signs that the series might not handle its emotional conflicts as well as its physical ones, particularly during the rather corny resolution of the statue crisis, but that too will have to wait for future developments.


Tiger & Bunny is available streaming at Hulu, VizMedia.com and here on ANN.

My Ordinary Life Episode 2

Rating: 3 ½

Review: After a debut of surpassing strangeness, My Ordinary Life follows up with a sophomore episode that is, if anything, even more enamored of weirdness. More random sketches from the lives of Yuko, Mio and their compatriots: Mio wakes up late for school, to be stalked on her way to class by a sprinting bear-headed student. Yuko forgets her math homework and borrows Mio's notes, sparking an epic battle when Mio realizes that she left a compromising doodle un-erased on the last page. Schoolgirl robot Nano discovers yet more functions that she really wishes her inventor hadn't installed. Mio's crush Sasahara plans for the cultural festival with Misato Tachibana, the world's best-armed tsundere. Much rock-paper-scissors is played, along with a little jump-rope; dress codes are discussed and clouds are gazed at.

What to take from My Ordinary Life's second episode? That the series is highly unlikely to change. It shows remarkable consistency. Like the previous episode, episode two is built around a handful of extended comic set-pieces surrounded by tiny unconnected vignettes. Like the previous episode it is best when it combines its penchant for bizarre happenings with its spectacular, and spectacularly incongruous, animation and at its worst when pissing our lives away with cloud-gazing nonsense or otherwise living up to its name. Like the previous episode, the mundane is generally overpowered by the insane and the unfunny generally outweighed by the comically inspired.

The episode does clarify some of the previous episode's quirks—the rock-paper-scissors and jump-rope non-sequiturs turn out to be recurring jokes (brilliant ones in the case of the jump-rope pratfalls)—but nothing changes substantially. That's no criticism. Maintaining a level of insanity as high as My Ordinary Life's is no mean feat. Dreaming up fresh comic inventions, resisting the temptation to recycle the character shtick, finding new ways of turning seemingly normal events surreal—these aren't easy tasks, and their fruits should be enjoyed wholeheartedly...for as long as they last.

My Ordinary Life is available streaming at Crunchyroll.


Hen Zemi

Rating: 2

Review: Hen Zemi is all the proof you'll ever need that outré doesn't necessarily equal funny. For outré behavior, it's hard to beat the members of Professor Meshiya's so-called hentai seminar. It's a college course dedicated to studying perversion of all forms, and the members take their studies very personally. Some are fairly straightforward—like the camera voyeur. Others are completely unhinged. The seminar's star student, for instance, who raises flies inside her ears and salivates at the mere thought of being groped. And then there's Nanako, a thoroughly normal girl who's in the seminar because she's smitten with its quiet but deeply screwed-up number-two student, Komugi. She tries hard to fit in and do well, but she just can't quite grasp the concept of true perversion, or handle true perverts. Who, knowing that, make her life hell.

Hen Zemi isn't much to look at and has no truly likeable characters, nor anything that resembles a cohesive plot. It's pointless and kind of unpleasant, even verging on sadistic at times. None of which would be a real problem, if only it was funny. But it isn't. The behavior of the seminar's members is certainly outrageous—running a maggot-farm in your ear canal couldn't be called anything else—but that's all. Their behavior never leads to anything particularly amusing, more often simply resulting in Nanako being forced to squirm as it's inflicted on her. While we squirm alongside her. She's a decent sort, but a miserable straight man (woman?), as she lacks the temper and resourcefulness to inflict the comeuppance that the rest of the cast so richly deserves. So we are left to watch helplessly as the show's only decent person endures her classmates' sexual harassment like a born victim. Yippee. It's at times like these that one appreciates the skill that goes into making something like Mitsudomoe. Crass humor, it turns out, isn't as easy as it looks.


Dororon Enma-kun Meeramera

Rating: 4

Review: Fans who only know Go Nagai through bloody horror series like Devilman and super-robot extravaganzas like Mazinger Z may be surprised by Enma-kun. Based off of the 1973 television series Dororon Enma-kun, it sticks closer in tone to its progenitor than the bloody, nasty Demon Prince Enma (also a remake), delivering rollicking action-comedy with a faint hint of horror. It's the Showa period (that's the 1970s to us foreigners) and average girl Harumi is just out of the public bath, a gossiping granny's warnings about demons at her school still ringing in her ears. Her friends, by freakish coincidence, are on their way to school at that very moment to hijack some toilet paper. Harumi goes along, and is justifiably terrified when everyone else has their faces stolen. Luckily for her, the Demon Patrol—an anti-demon unit comprised of ice woman Yukiko, kappa Kapaeru and royal hellspawn Enma-kun—lives just under the school, and they'd like nothing more than a crack at a face-eating demon. If they can stay awake long enough.

Despite its light tone, Nagai's fingerprints are all over Enma-kun. The sideburns and eyebrows run long and wild, the fan-service is boldly old-school, and the jokes are vulgar as all hell. The gossiping granny, for instance, occupies herself by swinging her pendulous breasts like bolas, and before Enma can defeat the face-eating demon, he must first contend with its thirty-foot steel penis. The more important creative voice in Enma-kun, however, may well be its director, Yoshitomo Yonetani. The series' cheerfully anarchic, charmingly hokey comedic energy is clearly his, as are the motormouthed script, the barreling pace, and the very way the characters move. Some will find his breakneck retro goofiness abrasive, but just as many will find themselves swept up in it and loving every silly second. It is rather difficult to see the show's monster-of-the-week plot going anywhere important, but it bears remembering that Yonetani was the guy who tore our hearts out midway through the equally episodic Brigadoon and subsequently steered it towards disquieting romance.


A-Channel

Rating: 2 ½

Review: Will the world implode if it's afflicted with yet another not-comedy about the mind-destroying minutiae of school-girl life? Apparently not, since we're still here. But there were times while watching this episode that I felt like my brain would. This is exactly the series I feared My Ordinary Life would be (but wasn't): a floating, weightless thing spun of nothing but whimsy and precious, oversweet cuteness. It's spun around the everyday lives of four schoolgirls: space-case Run, gentle nice-girl Yuuko, unflappably even-keeled Nagi, and ferocious, Run-obsessed underclassman Tooru. Tooru has just gotten into the same school as Run, and she's terribly protective of her. Nagi and Yuuko are leery of Tooru at first—she has a thing for baseball bats that isn't exactly endearing—but soon warm to the diminutive spitfire. Adventures in splitting candy and eating lunch ensue.

A-Channel is a genuinely beautiful series, smoothly animated and gorgeously illustrated, with simple yet cute characters and lots of sunny, open space through which cherry petals drift dreamily. It's also perfectly innocuous, its most offensive element being its lighter-than-air yuri undertone. Tooru's fierce personality is a welcome divergence from the whimsical moe norm, and the obvious alienation she feels not being in the same class as her beloved adds a tiny emotional sting to the episode's end. Only in K-ON! (that's the sequel, not the original) has a not-comedy about the mind-destroying minutiae of school-girl life been done better. Still, the thought of spending an entire season choking down its idealized vision of the cutesy innocence of adolescent female friendship is enough to make one nauseous. What I wouldn't do to see the series shape Tooru's affections into a genuine romance with someone unexpected, say Yuuki, or for it to grow a real plot about Run getting a hobby or a boyfriend and drifting away from Tooru...anything, really, besides spending the next eleven or twelve episodes watching endless disconnected vignettes about eating omelets and walking happily home together.


30-sai no Hoken Taiiku

Rating: 3

Review: Can a guidebook be made into a reasonably entertaining anime series? The answer is yes, though it little resembles a guide at this time. In his lonely bedroom, as he approaches the final minutes of his 29th year, Hayao Imagawa tries to sort-of lose his virginity by getting it on with an inflatable woman named Momoko. Before he can consummate the union, however, he is interrupted by a naked sex-god named Daigoro. Daigoro has been sent to help Hayao rid himself of his virginity. He's overflowing with knowledge, but between his brutally frank treatment of delicate matters and his use of questionable educational tools (exploding breasts, for instance), he mostly just makes Hayao's life miserable. He does, however, force Hayao to be honest with himself, which is a start.

30-sai no Hoken Taiiku is based off of a guidebook designed to help men in their thirties who have no sexual or romantic experience. How useful the book is, I don't know, but the anime is as questionable an educational tool as Daigoro's exploding breasts. Aside from a gimme about the importance of hygiene and a cursory lesson in the fine art of fondling, the show seems far more interested in entertaining than educating. Of course, it's possible that there's some useful information hidden in the scenes that are destroyed by the heavy censoring apparently necessary to allow the show on television, but it seems doubtful. The series does, on the other hand, provide a sizeable amount of fun. Daigoro's "teaching" is a vulgar kick, and the scene in which he forces Hayao to admit that he doesn't want to throw his virginity away (using his godly ass) is priceless. Still, it lacks the consistency, to say nothing of the depth, to be anything but a mildly interesting oddity. There's better ecchi entertainment out there (far better) and if you really need to learn about sex and romance (and aren't ready for hands-on learning)...well, that's what books are for.


Sekai Ichi Hatsukoi

Rating: 3 ½

Review: Don't let the sappy title (translated as World's Greatest First Love) or the sparkly, embarrassing first minutes turn you away; Sekai Ichi Hatsukoi is a nice, straightforward, grown-up romance. That happens to take place between two guys. One of them is Ritsu Onodera. At one time (specifically during those sparkly, embarrassing first minutes) he believed strongly in true love, overflowing feelings and all the other stuff that young people in love are wont to believe. Now... well, now he's a twenty-five-year-old cynic without a drop of romance in his jaded, venomous heart. That may not have been a problem in his previous life as literature editor, but now that he's about to become a shojo manga editor—albeit very reluctantly—it's proving to be quite the hindrance. He's a hard worker, and he's got a good head on his shoulders, but what use is that when he's fundamentally unable to understand shojo manga? Perhaps his hunky, strangely familiar boss Takano can help him with that...

Sekai Ichi Hatsukoi's main weapon is the age of its cast. Its characters aren't angsty teens or fumbling adolescents; they're grown men who know their minds and have better things to worry about than whether so-and-so likes them and how to hook up. Things like work. The series has a refreshing focus on the pressures and problems of starting a new job in general, and on the peculiar challenges of the manga business in particular. Don't take that to mean that it's dull. Takano's editorial department is, shall we say, unconventional, and it's a gas to watch Ritsu trying to cope with its quirks. Nor should you take it to mean that there's no romance. The chemistry between Ritsu and Takano is immediate, antagonistic, and far from platonic. It's also the chemistry of equals—which is nice. Boys-love isn't everyone's cup of tea, but even coffee drinkers, so to speak, should give this one a try. It won't rock anyone's world, but adult (as in not juvenile) romances are to be treasured, whatever the genre.

Sekai Ichi Hatsukoi is streaming at Crunchyroll.


We, Without Wings - Ore-tachi ni Tsubasa wa Nai

Rating: 1 ½

Review: Sigh. Another season, another eroge adapted to the little screen. Any more it's hard to even get up the energy to be upset about it. There're these three guys in a city. One, Takashi, is a high school boy surrounded by fields of luscious girl flesh. Another, Shusuke, is a terminally hyperactive layabout who spends his time hanging out amongst the cute waitresses at his favorite cafe. Lastly is Hayato, a "handyman" with a foul mouth and a fouler temper, none of which stops him from being a massive hit with the ladies. Each does their shtick and meets lots of girls, one of whom they'll eventually fall for. The end. Try not to hurt yourself rushing to watch it.

Helmed by the guy behind the odious Omamori Himari and spawned by the minds behind the tedious Shuffle!, Tsubasa wa Nai's pedigree isn't one to inspire confidence. Holding a pre-production panty-drawing contest—the winners of which get their panty designs featured in the show—only lowers one's expectations. Interestingly, the show that results isn't quite as loathsome as you'd think. Oh, it's pretty loathsome at times, particularly when a precocious elementary-school girl flashes her lacy black unmentionables at Hayato and asks him if he wants to put his "monster" in her "kitten." It's to the series' credit, though, that Hayato isn't the least interested in taking her up on her offer. He isn't even flustered by it. It helps that the potential harem factor is diluted by using three leads and that one of the three—Shusuke—is sort of likeable (in an irrepressible puppy-dog kind of way). The show loses points for the way its meta-fiction gimmicks (channel flips and intrusive DJs being just two) jumble its already over-complicated structure, and for its tasteless fan-service, but at least it doesn't leave you gagging yourself in the hopes that the vomit will cleanse your palate.

Ore-tachi ni Tsubasa wa Nai is available streaming at Crunchyroll.


Sket Dance

Rating: 3 ½

Review: Let's get this out of the way: Sket Dance has nothing to do with dance. What it does have to do with is a group of high-school troubleshooters called the Sket Club. Teppei Sugihara has just transferred to Kaimei Academy. He doesn't stand out much, being your average bespectacled wallflower, and doesn't much care to. Unfortunately for him, he immediately catches the eye of the Sket Club, a three-person solve-any-problem team that would really, really like to have a fourth member. They're massive weirdoes--exactly the kind of people that a guy looking to blend in should avoid. There's the hat-wearing, ruckus-loving club president "Bossun" Fujisaki, his main investigator "Switch" Usui, who speaks only through a voice synthesizer, and his strong right arm "Himeko" Onizuka, who just can't quite leave behind the yankee mannerisms of her youth. Teppei would rather not have anything to do with them, but when he's attacked by a masked, paint-throwing fiend he's got no one else to turn to.

Odd-jobs agencies are a long-time staple of anime, which can make it a little hard to get excited about another show starring a group of misfits fulfilling the silly requests of troubled folk. Unlike a great many of its peers, though, Sket Dance understands the core appeal of its premise: namely short, varied stories and colorful characters. This episode alone mixes comic action with surprisingly tricky sleuthing, adding in high-school drama and goofy character-based humor just for flavor. The Sket Club, for its part, supplies the cast with plenty of color, as well as surprising depth (for the extremity of their personalities, that is), and a good base-level of charm. It hurts nothing that the show is also refreshingly positive, particularly in the way the Sket members throw themselves heart and soul into their clients’ petty problems, or that there's a brain behind its fun-and-games facade. Compound that with solid production values and you have one of the better series of its stripe to come down the pike in some time.

Sket Dance is available streaming at Crunchyroll.


Steins;Gate

Rating: 3

Review: Don't tune into Steins;Gate if you want a good time. This is muddy, deliberately obtuse stuff whose primary purpose is to be mysterious and whose primary pleasure is puzzling out what is happening. The episode begins with Rintaro Okabe, a self-styled mad scientist, attending a talk on time travel. The lecture doesn't go well. Okarin, as he's known to his friends, makes a scene and is pulled from the room, after which he investigates a commotion upstairs and finds a girl he just met lying face-down in a pool of her own blood. Like any good citizen he bolts and texts his friend about the incident, whereupon everyone around him disappears. A moment of confusion later and everything's back to normal—except there's a fallen satellite in the building he just left and everyone thinks that the lecture was cancelled before he ever got there.

It's actually a fairly simple task to devise a sequence of events that explains most of this episode: Okarin's text leads to him discovering that his cell phone can text people in the past, allowing him to tinker with past events such that the lecture, and the murder, never happen. Since he did the tinkering, he remembers the original time-line while no one else does. The disappearing people are a symptom of the cosmic shift that happens when his action leads to an alteration of the past. Yay. Mystery solved.

The real mystery is where all of this time-travel hocus-pocus is leading. The series is so busy serving up murk and mystery that it fails to provide its plot with any clear direction. Presumably we'll have to tune into future episodes to get that, but aside from finding out if our deductions are right, there's little reason to. Hiroshi Hamasaki's direction is labored and humorless (this despite the inherent humor of having a wannabe mad scientist as a lead character), the visuals are oppressive, the air of paranoia and alienation that Nitroplus does so well has grown wearying, and we're given no compelling reason to care what happens to the characters. Give it a couple of episodes to sharpen some kind of hook and it could be pretty interesting. If not... well, there's always Serial Experiments Lain to watch again.

Steins;Gate is available streaming at Crunchyroll


Battle Girls - Time Paradox

Rating: 3

Review: You'd think with the number of students who get magically transported to other worlds that there would be a police division or two devoted to interdimensional teen retrieval. They'd extract the abductees from whatever world they're stuck in and we wouldn't have to watch their TV shows any more. The abductee this time is an unfortunate slip of girl named (or more accurately, nicknamed) Hideyoshi. Hideyoshi attracts misfortune the way roadkill attracts buzzards. It's always circling, waiting to bite her in the rear when she's least expecting it. Mostly they're just nips: a crush of commuters on the bus that makes her late for school, a perceptive teacher who catches her when she tries sneaking into class late. But one day, while visiting a shrine to pray for good grades, she gets bitten bad. Really bad. Magical-accident-that-transports-you-to-the-past-where-you-become-Nobunaga-Oda's-flunky bad. Luckily Hideyoshi's a girl who can take things in stride... when she has any idea what's going on. Which isn't often.

Actually, to be fair, Battle Girls is pretty decent as far as alternate-world anime goes. Particularly when you take into account that it's based off of a pachinko game. It's silly, moderately fun, and not without its mild points of interest—how Hideyoshi fits into the show's all-girl version of the Warring States Period not least among them. It helps that the show avoids romantic complications (and even if there were some, the cast is all-female. Go yuri!) and that Hideyoshi is such an unmitigated idiot. The tragic fates of its historic players (Oda and Mitsuhide, seen here as devoted friends, will eventually fall out, leading to Oda's death, after which Hideyoshi will kill Mitsuhide) ensure that the proceedings don't descend to the dippy depths of Koihime Musou or this season's Dog Days, and the script even works in a bit of educational content. Yes, an item-gathering quest already looms on the horizon, and yes, the battles are incomprehensible, but at least the episode inspires a (slight) desire to see future ones.

Battle Girls - Time Paradox is available streaming at Crunchyroll.


Hanasaku Iroha

Rating: 3 ½

Review: Hanasaku Iroha is a picturesque coming-of-age tale in a Japanese inn, complete with soft emotions and hard lessons but missing anyone to really identify with. Ohana lives a fairly carefree life in the big city with her flighty mother. Until her mother's no-good boyfriend racks up some heavy debt and decides to flee, with her mother in tow. Ohana is sent to the countryside to live with her grandmother, who owns a traditional inn. Unfortunately for her, her grandmother turns out to be a hard old bat whose milk of kindness has long since dried up, leaving only iron-fisted discipline and total intolerance for weakness. She has no intention of treating the offspring of her disinherited daughter as her own blood, and promptly puts Ohana to work. Which wouldn't be too bad if her co-workers didn't either ignore, taunt or openly loathe her.

Do a little thought experiment: You're an employee at an inn and a sixteen-year-old girl moves in. She's obviously lonely and uncertain, though she tries to hide it. She's kind of self-centered and not terribly sensitive, but her heart seems to be in the right place. Do you A) Give her some encouragement; B) Goof around a bit because mushy stuff makes you uncomfortable; C) Befriend her; or D) Tell her to go die because you've got your own sh** to deal with and she's obviously a f***ing spoiled brat. Oh, and if you're the boss, there's also option E: Put her to work and beat her when her kindness inconveniences the guests. The series is obviously trying to provide a quiet, realistic alternative to the bawdy, hyperactive, alien-and-ninja school of teen anime, and that's very nice of it, but harshness isn't realism, and cruelty doesn't make your characters complex; it just makes them bad people. Still, the show is beautifully animated and scored, as well as refreshingly sensitive and serious-minded. Plus, there's little doubt that future episodes will have Ohana ferreting out the reasons why the innfolk behave as they do, which will hopefully mitigate future unpleasantness.

Hanasaku Iroha is available streaming at Crunchyroll.


My Ordinary Life

Rating: 3

Review: Will the world implode if it's afflicted with yet another not-comedy about the mind-destroying minutiae of school-girl life? Maybe, but luckily we won't have to find out for now. While everything from its title to its animators and yonkoma origins suggests that My Ordinary Life will join K-ON! and Lucky Star in their quest to turn otaku brains into puddles of (sweet!) green goo, it has one quality that sets it apart from its precious moe peers: it's actually funny.

The plot is virtually impossible to describe. And not just because it has none. It has something to do with the everyday ramblings of mildly insane high-schooler Yuka and her sensible best friend Mio. It includes their interactions with their class's deeply weird resident introvert and Mio's goat-riding wannabe-aristocrat crush. There's also a robot girl with a giant wind-up key sticking out of her back and limbs that detach too easily, plus her five-year-old creator. Pet abuse and town-demolishing explosions also enter into the picture.

My Ordinary Life trades primarily in strangeness. It has its meandering conversations about nothing and celebrations of meaningless cuteness, but they tend to be sandwiched between or riven by bizarre non-sequiturs. There's the random scene of quiet classmate Mai playing a dangerous combination of Frisbee and skeet with her dog. There's robot girl Nano discovering that her wind-up key is used to power her rocket toes. And most memorably, there's Yuka's epic pursuit of a really slippery octopus sausage...across desk, through mohawk, past baseball mitt, off of locker and onto floor. Much of it is senseless and even more of it flat-out unfunny, but enough moments combine WTF happenings with Kyoto Animation's over-the-top animation to create big laughs that it's worth sitting through the rest. For now.

My Ordinary Life is available streaming at Crunchyroll.


Dog Days

Rating: 2

Review: The world of Flonyard is in upheaval. The nations of Biscotti and Galette are at war, a decidedly one-sided one if Biscotti's impressive run of miserable losses is anything to go by. Down to her last stronghold, Princess Millhiore of Biscotti decides desperate measures are called for and summons a Hero-with-a-capital-H. Enter Shinku, an acrobatics-loving middle-school student from Japan. While exiting school in his customary manner—by jumping from the roof—he falls into a magical vortex and ends up taking the meteor express to Flonyard. After meeting Millhiore and learning that Flonyard wars are basically athletics competitions, Shinku gladly accepts the mantle of Hero and enters the fray against Leonmitchelli, the powerful lady leader of Galette.

And that is more than anyone will take away from Dog Days. It is so determined to be harmless that it bleaches itself of all flavor, leaving no impression, good or bad, once it passes. The advantage of that is that it's harmless. The characters are uniformly nice, the visuals cute and basically fan-service-less, and the plot a blend of tried-and-true clichés as smooth and easily digestible as cream of wheat. Shinku and Millhiore's relationship is pure puppy love—appropriately enough, given that Flonyardians are all dog-people, complete with little tails and adorable floppy ears—and even the wars are more American Gladiators than Gladiator. The downside is that the show is completely devoid of entertainment value. Comatose patients have more fun in their vegetative states than you'll have watching Dog Days. If you must have your hero-is-summoned-from-Earth-to-save-alternate-world anime watch The Familiar of Zero, or better yet, The Twelve Kingdoms. Or Fushigi Yûgi, or... well, you get the idea.


Tiger & Bunny

Rating: 4

Review: A sudden mutation has given a certain percentage of humanity superpowers. Will they face persecution and prejudice? Pshaw! That's old hat. No, the Man doesn't come down on their backs; he makes them into the newest reality TV fad. In Schternbilt City the biggest show on the tube is "Hero TV," a program that follows the town's superheroes as they put the hurt on crime and then rates them according to their stats. Winner gets crowned king, and gets the juicy sponsors (one assumes). Losers get their agencies bankrupted and bought up by multinational corporations looking to show off their newest powersuits. And maybe try out a new gimmick or two. Wild Tiger is an old-school hero—you know, the kind who wears spandex and actually believes in justice. He's also kind of a goof and hasn't been a ranking hero in some time. After his latest stunt leaves his company in the red for the very last time, he's sold like merchandise, given a powersuit and told to form Schternbilt City's first superhero duo. With an upstart whelp who has the exact same powers as him but none of his old-fashioned scruples.

The scary thing about Tiger & Bunny is that this is exactly what would happen if people gained superpowers right now. Media conglomerates would jump on them like a pack of hungry wolves and strip every shred of dignity from the pursuit of truth, justice and the American way and turn it into the pursuit of money, money and more money. Corporate sponsors, flashy reality TV shows, trading cards, merchandise, hero-sung theme songs—it may be played for laughs (and get them) but more so even than things like X-Men, this is superhero realism. Where the series goes from here will determine its exact worth, but there is so much potential—the aging athlete trying to make a comeback in a world obsessed with youth, the fist-to-the-face media commentary of its premise, Tiger's fight to maintain a semblance of heroism in an increasingly venal business—that it'd have to be pretty lazy not to go somewhere interesting.

Tiger & Bunny is available streaming at Hulu, VizMedia.com and here on ANN.


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