The Spring 2011 Anime Preview Guide Zac Bertschy
by Zac Bertschy, Apr 2nd 2011
Zac Bertschy is the executive editor of Anime News Network. He enjoys vodka, bunny rabbits and the icy grip of a life lived with regret.
We see a few brief moments of middle-school mophead Ganta's normal life before the mysterious grinning Red Man shows up and slaughters his entire class, tossing his childhood friend Mimi's severed head at him and injecting his chest with a strange red element. Ganta is the lone survivor of the attack, but the incident is pinned on him and he's sentenced to death at Deadman Wonderland, a privately-owned theme park prison where the inmates are the main attraction. Ganta is convinced he didn't kill his classmates – a theory refuted by strange footage of him cruelly discussing his own falsified defense with his lawyer (who is apparently also the sardonic warden of Deadman Wonderland – what?) – and is confronted with the terrors of life on the inside, including a sadistic prison guard captain and a pack of thugs looking to make an example of him. It's then he meets a strange girl (who directly resembles Mimi) who tries to defend him from the thugs, shortly before a bomb explodes on the scaffolding holding up the prison's iconic sign. Just before the massive ball crushes Ganta and his new friend, the red element in his chest activates, enabling him to destroy it with what appear to be psychic powers.
A bunch of other stuff happens too – this is one of the most plot-heavy first episodes I've ever seen – but rather than being intentionally confusing, Deadman Wonderland is refreshingly straight-forward and jam-packed with interesting concepts and ideas. There's a very heavy Hollywood influence here – a lot of the basic concepts are lifted from the shlock classic Death Race 2000, and even the direction takes cues from American prison movies (smash cuts accompanied by pounding metal soundtrack? Check. Prisoner lineup intercut with shots of the guard captain's dominatrix heels smacking against the concrete? Check!), but not once does any of this feel stale. Ganta is clearly innocent and a pawn in a game much larger than he is – that much we're clear on by the end of this episode – but there's a mountain of unanswered questions and dangling plot threads; thankfully, this thing is executed so well that all it does is leave you begging for more. The only thing I can really knock it for is treading a very thin line between what feels realistically and organically brutal and edgy and what feels like something written by an obnoxious sociopathic teenager, but thankfully it stays just on the right side of that particular dichotomy. The production values are nice and tight as well, with decent animation and unique character designs. Easily one of the most promising and best-executed shows this season; drop what you're doing and go watch it.
Deadman Wonderland is available streaming at Crunchyroll.
Rating for Tree-Huggin’ Animal Lovers Like Me: 1
Rating for Unconcerned Carnivores and Turn of the Century Pith-Helmeted Elephant Hunters: 4
Note: while a special One Piece/Toriko crossover aired last week, this is the first proper episode of this series.
It's the Gourmet Era, a time when the whole world is obsessed with food. The International Gourmet Organization sends plucky young Komatsu, a boy who dreams of becoming a world-class chef, after Toriko, the mega-muscled legendary Gourmet Hunter, who travels the world chasing down the rarest and most delicious ingredients (usually in the form of gigantic, exotic beasts that dwell in secret places and Eden-like jungles). His task? To hunt down the Galala Crocodile, beast of legend with a ‘capture rating’ of 5 (meaning it's doubtful that even an IGO tank could take the creature out) in order to harvest its tender meat for an upcoming IGO dinner. But to get to the croc, they must brave the dangers of the treacherous Baron Archipelago.
So we have Shonen Jump Aliens, Shonen Jump Pirates, Shonen Jump Ninjas and Shonen Jump Pretty Much Everything Else, so why not Shonen Jump Safari Gourmands? It's all here, exactly what you'd expect from a mainstream mass-market Jump franchise: Action! Adventure! Comedy! Muscles! Heroes in Bright Orange Activewear! Burning Passion! and of course, A Premise That Could Easily Last 300+ Episodes!. The production values on this are kinda limited but aren't significantly better or worse than your average Giant Toei Show (read: good but not great, quality that's sustainable over hundreds of weekly installments). There are the prerequisite ingredients (durp!) that will keep this engine going forever, too: an easy classification system for ranking the difficulty of beast-capturing, Toriko's personal checklist of perfect dinner items (he refers to it as his Full Course) that would make up his Ultimate Meal, some kind of shadowy supervillain organization that's also hunting rare animals, and the hint that Toriko is part of a larger group of super-powered hunters who will invariably get involved further down the road. It's following the formula to a tee, and hey, this formula works for a reason. Toriko is at least entertaining and it's the kind of thing where you shotgun 20 episodes in a row when you're home sick with the flu.
There's one small catch to all of this: if you're an animal lover, or a conservationist, or let's say a yearly donor to your local zoo, the entire idea behind this show might rub you the wrong way (as it did for me). Toriko basically travels the world to find amazing rare creatures so he can slaughter and devour them; sure, there's a moment where he shows his “respect” for the incredible creature he's about to murder, but this is the exact same bullshit rationale eccentric billionaire “safari hunters” use when they're out killing and consuming panthers and white tigers and bull elephants and other endangered species that we cherish as rare and wonderful members of the Earth's incredible biodiversity. In particular, Torkio's exploits at the very top of the episode capturing and killing a giant rare fish made me instantly remember the harrowing documentary The Cove, about the Japanese whaling industry, which is really not something I want to be reminded of when I'm trying to enjoy heroic manly Shonen Jump fun. Not everyone is bothered by that sort of thing, but I sure as hell am, and it's enough to keep me away from the show. So hey, you've been warned.
Toriko is available streaming at Hulu and Funimation.com.
Rating: doesn't matter
The premise of this show is that Astarotte is a 10-year old succubus who has to suck the “life-seed” out of men in order to live. She hates men, though. It's all tied up in some unnecessarily complicated fantasy nonsense, but that's the joke. It's executed in a super cutsey-poo manner, with occasional fanservice.
If that premise sounds totally sexy and/or knee-slappin’ hilarious to you, then watch this show, because they made it especially for you and no one else.
It's interesting, really; Astarotte's Toy represents a kind of anime that basically defies criticism. It's specialty product, packaged for a very specific audience that wants this kind of thing. The show's basic premise is the barrier of entry; all you need to know about whether or not this is for you is that one-sentence description of the central gag. Everything else is basically irrelevant, save maybe production value, but even then, it doesn't matter how beautifully animated the show is if you can't get past the premise. No amount of plot contrivances, fantasy vocabulary, cutesy gag comedy or sugar-coated “innocent” aesthetics will negate what the show is ultimately about. That barrier of entry is foolproof, really.
So there you have it. One sentence tells you exactly what you need to know before deciding whether or not you want to try this series. On the plus side, that really does make things easier for all of us, doesn't it?Astarotte's Toy is available streaming at Crunchyroll.
Dororon Enma-kun Meeramera
Dororon Enma-Kun Meeramera is the third animated version of this particular manga by Go Nagai. The original premiered on TV in the mid-70's and was remade in OVA form in 2006. The premise is pretty basic: King Enma is a demon kid from Hell who resides in his Hell House underneath a haunted school, who, along with Ice Princess Yukiko, a Kappa demon and a talking hat named Grampa Chapeu, form the ‘Demon Patrol’ and hunt down escaped evil ghoulies, returning them to Hell. In this version they encounter hapless schoolgirl Harumi, whose friends decide to investigate rumors of the supernatural at the nearby school and promptly get their faces removed by a face-eating demon. Naturally, Harumi and the Demon Patrol must take out the face-eater and save her friends.
This is Go Nagai comedy, and if you're at all familiar with his particular style, then you'll know what to expect. One of the first images we're confronted with is Granny Gossip, an old lady with no teeth, a helmet that says GOD on it and pancake clown makeup who wears overalls and literally spins her sagging breasts around like airplane propellers. Pretty much everything is played for crude laughs – there are a lot of panty jokes and the climactic battle at the end involves Enma shattering the demon's giant stone dick. The character designs are glossier versions of the original retro 70's designs, and the show has that distinctive “new animation, classic look” thing going on that other modern adaptations of Nagai's work have boasted. The animation is pretty decent and fluid, and overall the production values are quite nice, especially for a lark like this.
It's certainly not for everyone, exactly in the same way that nearly everything else based on Go Nagai's manga isn't for everyone; the basic aesthetics here are widely considered to be virtually anathema to modern Western anime fans, where everything looks far more like a squash ‘n stretch kids’ cartoon than what people typically expect from anime. There are a few solid gags and some decent laughs but the comedy is pretty juvenile (this is exactly the kind of childish bawdy gag humor that Japanese kids are fed a steady diet of, a'la Dragonball, that American parents would shriek at in pure moral panic). This first episode actually feels like it's padded out a bit; it might benefit from a 15-minute format rather than having to fill up 24 minutes every week.
Check it out if your yearly recommended allowance of Go Nagai is getting a little low; otherwise, it's pretty skippable.
Sekai Ichi Hatsukoi
Ritsu Onodera is a jaded 25-year old literature editor who gets transferred by the company from his prestigious job editing “real” books over to the shojo manga department, which is apparently staffed entirely by handsome dudes. Ritsu carries around a lot of baggage – his first romantic encounter was with an enigmatic sempai in school, whose face and name he can't remember.
Go ahead and guess who his new supervisor is. I'll give you a minute.
I'll just wait here until you figure out this brain-teaser. Take your time.
It's tough, I know, but just try to connect the dots. You can do it.
Got it? Alright, moving on.
It's predictable and rote to a strange extreme, but as a pleasant, fluffy BL romantic dramedy, Sekai Ichi Hatsukoi works pretty well. The key here is the writing – the characters are all particularly well-written, and we spend most of the episode inside Onadera's head, with his cynical and jaded inner monologue. It's sort of a refreshingly realistic personality, and the storyline just breezes right along. Even though you can see every plot turn coming from a few thousand miles away, the show is very well-executed and entertaining, so it rises above the standard-issue BL storyline. Production values aren't stellar but for a show rendered in pastels with minimalist character design, it's perfectly functional. Sekai Ichi Hatsukoi won't blow you away with its originality, but it's easy breezy fun for BL folk (and open-minded others). Still, I'm imagining the what the pitch session for this show was like.
"Well, it's about a shojo manga magazine run entirely by hot dudes and there's this..."
"STOP RIGHT THERE, YOU'VE STRUCK GOLD!"Sekai Ichi Hatsukoi is available streaming at Crunchyroll.
Here's the premise: the SKET-Dan is a team of teenage specialists who preside over the campus of Kaimei, helping troubled students in their time of need. Their club name is an anagram: Support, Kindness, Encouragement, Troubleshoot. Bossun is the leader; he rallies the team and keeps a close eye on the student body. Himeko is the muscle, and Switch, who speaks only through his laptop's text-to-voice, is the brains of the outfit. In this first episode, they take in Sugihara, an insecure new transfer student who makes fast friends with the trio and is also being terrorized by a bully from his past, one who is has noticed his newfound friendship with the SKET crew.
If someone had pitched this show to me before I knew it was an anime series, I would've assumed it was a made-up premise for a non-existent, hilariously didactic 1980s syndicated American cartoon, or maybe a retro After-School Special I'd never seen. It is, after all, a team of likable but spunky outcast kids who Totally Show Those Bullies What's What and teach us all a lesson about being who you are and standing up for yourself. All that's missing is the GoGurt commercial. Maybe a Lunchables sponsorship.
All that aside, SKET Dance succeeds in a few key areas. While it is undoubtedly a show with a very basic message for kids, the three principle characters are at least somewhat interesting and mostly well-written. The story we're given here is kind of a red herring – Sugihara is presented as the episode's protagonist up front, but it's really Bossun, Himeko and Switch who are the focus of the show. It's easy to see how this whole thing could fall into a generic “let's save the latest dork from the bully of the week” format, but there's enough playful energy among the main cast to hold your attention for 20 minutes and maybe wonder about their personal relationships and how they formed this club. The scenario between Sugihara and his nemesis is pretty well-handled, too; it isn't completely black-and-white and the writing suggests the show is interested in telling stories that aren't entirely simplistic morality plays.
It isn't anything special, and it is a little tough to shake the feeling that you're watching the first in a long series of Public Service Announcements, but it's decently animated and entertaining enough to hook you for a little while. Give it a shot. SKET Dance is available streaming at Crunchyroll.
Battle Girls - Time Paradox
Clumsy airheaded schoolgirl Hideyoshino goes to pray at a shrine so she doesn't have to study and gets sucked into a magic portal that transports her to a fantasy version of Japan's Sengoku period, where everyone is built like a porn star, traipsing around in skimpy battle armor, wielding magic and swords and magic swords. There's a redhead calling herself Oda Nobunaga and she recruits Hideyoshino to help her fetch the complete set of Crimson Armor, which legend tells will help her unite Japan.
That's pretty much it. The gimmick in Battle Girls - Time Paradox most resembles a made-for-dudes version of Sengoku Basara (note that the Japanese title is Sengoku Otome) but without any of the crazy winking over-the-top hilarity that made that show fun. This show is written like nobody's ever created a series with this exact basic premise a hundred billion times before; we spend the entire first episode following around the series’ frustratingly idiotic and endlessly self-narrating Hideyoshino - who never ever shuts up - and accomplishes in these 21 minutes what any other self-aware show recycling this premise would've accomplished in the prologue. Normally if you're leaning on an idea that's beaten into the ground as much as this one has, you would at least attempt to get the boring rehashed story idea out of the way quickly and then sell us on some kind of twist or turn that would help the show stand out among the myriad other ‘hapless student transported to fantasy kingdom' shows. Hell, the prologue here is the 2-minute stretch from the middle of the episode where Hideyoshino meets Oda Nobunaga, which happens barely 10 minutes in, which I think might be the land speed record breaker for a series tipping us off to just how many corners they're going to cut.
There's a bunch of lame, predictable fish out of water humor (get ready to bust a gut at the ‘what's a celphone’ scene! Oh, my sides!) and the episode wraps up by introducing a grumpy talking dog mascot character. The closing credits feature all of the show's various girls posing in the nude making kissy come-hither faces at the camera while floating ribbons barely cover their not-safe-for-network bits. It's all so utterly been-there-done-that that it's hard to even muster up any sort of emotion about any of this other than to wonder how something like this makes it through the production cycle without anyone asking “wait, shouldn't we at least be trying to introduce something fresh here?”. Sad.
Battle Girls - Time Paradox is available streaming at Crunchyroll.
My Ordinary Life
My Ordinary Life is yet another in a very long line of anime series based on the premise of “cute little girls doing cute little funny things in a wacky school setting”. There really isn't much more to say about the “plot” than that – a bunch of cute little cartoon girls act out what is effectively a series of 4-koma comic gags. You've seen this show before, back when it was called Azumanga Daioh.
There are a few surprising things about this particular version of the cute-girl-gag-machine thing, though. This is a KyoAni series, which means the production values are better than average – for a show that relies on minimalist character design, the animation is surprisingly high quality, and very consistent. It certainly looks better than what you'd expect something like this to look like. It's also got a handful of pretty solid jokes in it; the humor – while totally hit and miss - is at least attempting to be actual comedy, not the usual “it's funny because she made a cute face and burped up a catchphrase when some sort of adorable accident happened” thing. It seems to be much more interested in making you laugh than simply selling you on "how cute these girls are and boy wouldn't it be swell if you could buy 8,000 different action figures of each of them", which is a welcome shift away from what this genre has traditionally been known for. It does start to derail around the bit when we're asked to spend a little too much time around the show's most cloying and uninteresting premise – pint-size professor girl and her self-made windup robot housekeeper aren't as amusing as the rest of the cast – but I laughed a couple times overall and the experience didn't feel poisonous.
This thing airs on Sunday mornings, so hey, there are worse ways to kill 20 minutes while you're waiting for the coffee maker to finish up.
My Ordinary Life is available streaming at Crunchyroll.
So there's a fantasy kingdom called Fronyard which is populated entirely by oh-so-adorable doggie-people and kitty-people, and in this kingdom there are two continually warring countries: the Biscotti Republic (yep you heard that right) and the Galette, and the Biscotti are continually having their fuzzy little butts handed to them in combat. So the pink-clad pink-eared pink-haired Feudal Lord Milhiotte decides she needs to summon a hero for the upcoming conflict. Cut to modern-day Japan; a super-athletic blonde kid named Shinku who obnoxiously leaps around everywhere tossing his gym bag in the air accidentally leaps right into a magical portal summoned by a dog wielding a jeweled knife and bingo-bango, he's transported to Fronyard to be their savior.
You really can't get much more generic and forgettable than this, although it is admirable just how far they decided to go with the sugary sweetness; “war” isn't really war, the cute little dog and kitty people run through playground-style obstacle courses while energetic sportscasters describe the goings-on, and nobody gets injured or killed (fallen warriors revert into these kittyblob things). There is effectively nothing at stake and nobody's suffering any sort of consequence for any of this. There's a relative minimum of fanservice; the fearsome super-skilled Galette knight Leonmichelle wears your standard skimpy lady warrior outfit, but that's about it. Shinku doesn't really seem to take issue with or question his new surroundings; he just assumes it's all a dream and plays right along. They're clearly setting up some kind of chaste romance between him and Milhiotte; hopefully he can woo her without having to resort to using a jar of peanut butter.
Dog Days isn't really worth anyone's time, but it's so dedicated to being Nothing More Than Just Cute Pabulum that it's inoffensive to a strange extreme, like a show constructed entirely out of Nerf materials.
Tiger & Bunny
The metropolis of Stern Bild has an interesting way of dealing with crime: a legion of corporately-sponsored superheroes who stop the bad guys in a televised event called Hero TV, with each heroic act earning a set number of points, overseen by a ruthless and cynical producer who milks every moment for maximum dramatic impact (even when real lives are on the line). Kotetsu is Wild Tiger, a veteran of the system who's approaching middle age and finds himself constantly falling behind the others, particularly Sky High, the city's most popular hero. To make matters worse, a new hero arrives on the scene in a flashy suit that grants him the exact same powers as Kotetsu – but he's younger, better-looking and more capable. After Kotetsu's sponsor shuts down their superhero division, he finds himself under the employ of a new boss – Apollon Media, who fits him with a brand-new suit and pairs him up with a partner, making them the first hero team in the city.
Well, here we have it. Great premise, great writing, great characters, great execution all around. Obviously created with the tastes of Western fans in mind, Tiger & Bunny not only sidesteps the mountain of clichés that have slowly consumed anime as a medium over the last decade or so, it also manages to set up a really clever superhero premise that mashes up both Eastern and Western comic book sensibilities, adding a couple unique twists that give the whole thing a great satirical edge. This is in the same smart, exciting, crowd-pleasing range as Cowboy Bebop or Trigun; it's identifiable as anime but has the potential to win over new fans (particularly the giant audience for superhero movies), and it doubtlessly belongs on American TV, preferably yesterday. The only thing I can ding it for is the tasteless "har har he's gay" character, but he has extremely limited screen time so I can forgive it this once. It's only the first episode, but if they can manage to keep the writing at this level, Tiger & Bunny has the potential to be the kind of smash hit we haven't seen in a long time.
Tiger & Bunny is available streaming at Hulu, VizMedia.com and here on ANN.
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