The Fall 2011 Anime Preview Guide
Bamboo Dong

by Bamboo Dong, Oct 2nd 2011

Guilty Crown

Rating: 3.5 (out of 5)

As an action series, Guilty Crown hits all the right spots. It's fast-paced, it's exciting, it fires up the imagination, and there's just enough mystery to keep viewers on the hook for the second episode. Production I.G's latest offering, it's also an absolute blast to stare at, packing great animation and innovative mech designs. Every scene brings scores of sweet new robots to gawk at, and it's no wonder—serving as the mechanical designer is veteran Takeuchi Atsushi, whose resume includes renowned sci-fi properties like Appleseed, Ghost in the Shell, and Halo Legends. It's the kind of show that's easy to get lost in and totally geek out over.

In the future, Japan is hit by a massive virus outbreak that cripples the nation. Capitalizing on the country's weakened state, an multi-national organization known as GHQ takes control of Japan, overseeing everything from its military to its postwar restoration efforts. It doesn't take a wide stretch of the imagination to see how the writers might have drawn inspiration from Japan's history. To counter GHQ, there is a growing grassroots resistance movement. We're introduced to it via a hapless high schooler named Shu Ouma, who stumbles upon an injured woman named Inori, a famous singer who's also a member of the resistance group, Undertaker. In trying to help her, Shu unlocks a power in which he can literally pull weapons out of people's bodies. Imagine pulling a gnarled three foot sword from inside of someone. That's the kind of nerdy imagery that permeates Guilty Crown.

What makes the series so fun to watch is its relentlessly fast pace. Everyone is always on the go, and something is always happening. Fortunately, the show still finds time to fill in the proper backstory and introduce viewers to characters. Japan's sordid history with the virus and the subsequent GHQ takeover is explained without turning into dry exposition. The only complaint is the overused cliche of Shu as the zero-to-hero high school coward, who suddenly gains a new power. Then again, that is the foundation of escapist anime fantasy so it's understandable, if not fully forgiven. As escapist pop entertainment goes, Guilty Crown is a solid offering. The first episode was dedicated mostly to action, but as the series progresses and develops more meat on its bones, it may end up being one of the more fulfilling blockbusters this season.

Guilty Crown is available streaming at Funimation.


Un-Go

Rating: 3 (out of 5)

Un-Go could be a really interesting show, if it weren't mired in poor execution. Part Hell Girl, part Nancy Drew, the first episode is one aspiring teen detective too goofy, one shapeshifter too supernatural, and one misty-eyed flashback too cheesy. The first episode opens at a costume party held by a company president who's been accused of war profiteering. Among the guests is the teenage daughter of renowned police detective Rinkako Kaisho, who sends his daughter to the party in his stead because he prefers to watch the night's festivities from behind his computer monitor at home. Also in attendance is another detective, who's accompanied by someone who appears childlike, but who actually transforms into a gorgeous woman/monster(???), who can force anyone to answer any one question of her choosing. It's kind of a neat trick, but in a show that already has so much going on, it borders on overkill.

In this one episode, we get four separate incidents of suspect accusation. The first is from the teenage girl, who stands up on stage and wildly accuses two men of committing a crime. The second is from her father, who taps into the venue's security cameras and offers some opinions via webcam. The third is the renegade freelance detective who accuses someone else. And the fourth is the hallucination-causing mystery woman, who makes her suspects have terrifying psychotic trips. That is four detectives too many for one show. Especially since at the end of the day, the police detective just sweeps everything under the rug and offers a compromise that essentially lets the killer get away. The justice system at work, folks.

What would have worked a lot better is if the series only focused on one detective. Perhaps the precocious daughter, or the supernatural duo. The show is already interesting, without all these detectives barging in on it. Whether intentionally or not, the first episode painted an intriguing indictment of bureaucracy and the red tape that surrounds everyone involved. What we got was a mildly interesting conclusion to a murder that we weren't particularly invested in, and too much magical crime solving. The first murder was already committed before viewers even got the chance to figure out who the victim really was. And the conclusion… well, it's a bit of a stretch.

Un-Go is one of the more tepid offerings so far this season. It carries a lot of promise, but the first episode was just too all over the place. Hopefully once the season carries along, the characters' motivations will become more clear, and the series will be less of a dog and pony show.

Un-Go is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere ep. 2

Rating: 2 (out of 5)

Despite having another 20-some minutes to present its case and going through not one but two expository monologues, Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere still makes zero sense. It's still unclear what's going on with the two worlds. In the first episode, the characters made it sound like there was originally only one world in the sky, but after that crashed, humans returned to Earth and then made two identical worlds. But now in the history review that was unhelpfully presented by one of the students, the reason they're trying to re-live history is because one of the second worlds crashed into the first one?

Look, I went to college. I consider myself a fairly smart person. I shouldn't be defeated by the premise of an anime series. Especially not one that might have been invented solely to be the vessel for some serious fan pandering. But try as I might, I do not understand this show. The premise continues to make little to no sense, and on top of that, the characters (of which there are too many) spouted off some more history lessons about Lords and Kings that only add to the confusion. After two episodes, I shouldn't be this baffled at what's going on. It could be ego talking, but I don't think it's me. I think it's the writing.

What does make sense in the series is that there is a whole lot of fanservice. At least that's one thing that Horizon is doing well, because they've got every base covered. On top of all the busty girls, there are also robot girls, amnesiac robot girls, sentient mech suits, and a girl that's had her breasts removed when she was on the cusp of forced gender reassignment surgery. That's on top of all the other characters, like the angels and demons and monsters, so there is definitely something for everyone here. For whatever reason, the world of Horizon is also weirdly predatory and seems to relish situations that definitely qualify as sexual harassment. There's one scene in the classroom where one of the male students has to be punished for getting an answer wrong, and he's forced to strip in front of his peers. There's another scene where a highborn girl offers her chest to be groped by one of the guys (and of course, punches him when he actually does it). Maybe the reason the sky world collapsed is because it wanted to crush the immorality out of the Earth world.

Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere simultaneously succeeds and fails. It completely succeeds in presenting diverse fanservice. No one can deny it that. It has pleasant character designs, cute girls, and enough variety that almost anyone can get their tingles somewhere. It completely fails in terms of story clarity. There is a grand concept floating around somewhere, but the series hasn't found a good way of explaining it yet. So right now, Horizon is just eye candy.

Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere is available streaming at The Anime Network.


Majikoi - Oh! Samurai Girls!

Rating: 2.5 (out of 5)

It seems like Japanese students fight a lot. Every season, there are three or four shows about high schoolers who battle each other on a regular basis. Maybe that's what prevents them from developing ABC Family-esque teen cliques. The fighting in Majikoi is so large-scale that even the local TV crew is there. But maybe they're just confused by how many students are participating—with some 1300 students fighting (split only between two classes), that's more than the total enrollment of most high schools. Of course, this also means that the entire first episode is utter pandemonium. There are dozens of featured characters, most of whom look exactly the same, and were it not for the fact that the two classes are wearing colored armbands, no one would be able to tell who's on which side.

The students of Majikoi attend a high school in which class disputes are settled via mock battle. Presumably, their Model UN team doesn't do very well. In this episode, the students from the prestigious class 12-S are fighting the underdogs from 12-F. They slash at each other with replica swords, shoot each other with dulled arrows, and use sophisticated technology to plan their attacks. The cause of their fight is not explained. Maybe someone accidentally sat at the wrong lunch table or something. Whatever happened, this massive fight seems like an overreaction. It may be that even the writers don't know what started the fight, because they're too consumed in the chaotic aftermath.

There are simply too many characters. There is some hint at the existence of powerful warriors, but it's all lost in the noise of the fighting. It's impossible to tell what's going on, who's who, nor why viewers should care. But, to the show's credit, it is fun to watch. It's guiltily entertaining, and there were even a few scenes that were laugh-out-loud funny. Everything is so absurd, that one can't help but crack a smile at times. Sadly, that doesn't save the show from being a logical mess. Until the action slows down enough to roll out some character development and backstory, the jury's still out on this one. It seems like Majikoi could end up being interesting, but it's way too early to tell.

Majikoi is available streaming at Crunchyroll.


Maken-Ki!

Rating: 0.5 (out of 5)

Back in junior high, our school's requirement for skirts and dresses was that the hem could be no shorter than our fingertips. Of course, we'd still try and wear short skirts anyway, and just raise our shoulders up whenever we walked by an administrator. Even so, we were nuns compared to the girls of Maken-Ki!. They go to a school where skirts just barely graze the roundest part of the ass, giving all passersby a blinding eyeful of panties whenever they run. It's not sanitary. Nor can it possibly be that warm, come winter time.

Then again, they also live in a world where everyone's breasts are the size of dodgeballs, which is either the product of divergent evolution or haywire agricultural standards. But all's fair in trashy, consumable anime where the primary goals are to titillate and entertainment. The titillation goes without saying in Maken-Ki!—the girls are modest only in personality, and the animation is bountiful when it comes to chest bouncing. The entertainment comes from the silly fighting subplot, wherein our lecherous male hero transfers to a new school that teaches its student body to fight using elemental powers.

Even so, it's not the senseless fighting and the panty shots that make this series so eye-rollingly bad. It's the fact that this series swims in clichés. Of course our protagonist ends up living with a bevy of hot girls. Of course he accidentally falls on top of a girl or two, and gets punished for it. Of course the childhood friend gets jealous when we discover he has an unknown fiancée. With all of these cookie cutter tropes, why even bother making a new series? Why not just watch the same shows that already exist on countless shelves? This show has nothing new to offer, except the mental anguish that comes from trudging through something that's already been seen before a hundred times.

Fanservice has a time and a place, as does mystical fight scenes. They are not the problem here. The freakishly shiny panties are strange, yes, but if that's the kind of thing needed to weather the down economy, that's understandable. What's unforgivable is the utter lack of creativity and originality in Maken-Ki!. Obviously there are fans of such series, but they should be offended that studios no longer try when it comes to pandering to their target audiences. The least they could do is try and tell a story that isn't riddled with clichés. Rise up, otaku, and demand something new.


Persona 4

Rating: 3.5 (out of 5)

Video game-based anime series tend to run the risk of being blatantly obvious that they were adapted from a video game. Characters endlessly level up, and they meet NPCs that placidly offer information on their whereabouts or missions. But every now and then, it actually works out, and what you get is a fun (albeit still obviously video game-based) adventure like P4. Based on the Persona 4 video game, the P4 anime doesn't deny its origins, but its fast pace and secret-laden storyline make for great popcorn entertainment.

Our protagonist is Narukami Yu, a generically handsome high schooler who has to move from Tokyo to a small suburb when his parents decide to go abroad for a year. Soon after transferring to his new school, tragedy hits the town when a TV commentator is found skewered on an antenna nearby. Even weirder, Narukami discovers that he can stick his hand into his TV. Luckily, his pals don't have any reason to doubt him, because the next time they're together, all three of them get pulled into the TV world. Once there, they meet a weird bear who warns them of Shadows, which can only be defeated when Narukami powers up and gets his shadowy avatar to fight for him.

For those who have played the video game, it's incredibly faithful to the story. For those who haven't, it's still very straightforward and easy to understand. The main protagonist is believably written as a developable character, so it's easy to care about what happens next. If there is one major gripe, though, it's the pacing of the last ten minutes—it's very rushed, and it's not entirely clear why the bear would hand Narukami magic glasses or why the glasses allow him to figure out how to unlock his avatar. Right before he does so, too, he gets this evil glint in his eyes like he already knows what's going to happen. What's up with that? In an anime series, it's important for the first episode to deliver viewers to something exciting (i.e. the fight scene) before the end credits in order to hook them, but there's no sense in rushing something.

Still, it's an interesting series so far, and it's well animated. I pity the animators that had to draw every white stitch on the black uniforms, but I appreciate them for doing so. And all that houndstooth? Those were not easy uniforms to animate. So good for them. And at the end of the day, good for us. P4 isn't a masterpiece, but it's fun, mindless entertainment.

Persona 4 is available streaming on The Anime Network.


Chihayafuru

Rating: 4 (out of 5)

Steel trap memorization, lightning fast reflexes… it's a hardcore game that sends paper cards flying across the room and slicing into walls. Ladies and gentleman, this is karuta. I didn't think a flashcard speed game would ever be interesting, before Chihayafuru. But it's not the game itself that makes it so great. It's the people playing it. In particular, the title character Chihaya, who could reasonably be called the Nicest Girl in the World. She's so sweet and so earnest that you can't help but smile every time she's on screen… then scowl when you realize that you'll probably never be as likeable as her in a million years. She's the younger sister of a famous model, but she's never felt resentful or overshadowed; rather, she's her sister's biggest fan, and only has praises to sing. Chihaya herself is beautiful, but she doesn't know it and she doesn't care, and when boys tease her for being ugly, she just laughs. If the writers claimed that she's never had a negative thought in her entire life, somehow it'd be believable.

Chihaya's greatest passion is a card game called karuta. Wikipedia tells me that there are several versions of this game, but the one played in the series involves a famous anthology of one hundred classic poems. Players face off against each other with a set of cards, each imprinted with the last verse of one of the poems in this anthology. Then, as the game warden intones the first line of a poem, players have to snatch the matching second half. The Asahi Shimbun tells me that kyogi karuta—competitive karuta, has risen steadily in popularity in recent years amongst the high school crowd, due in part to the popularity of the Chihayafuru manga. And who can blame them? If there is anyone who can make this (admittedly dull-sounding) game look fun, it's Chihaya.

One can't say this enough—it is Chihaya that sells this show. I don't know if later there will be episodes where the focus is actually on some intense karuta game, but it doesn't matter. Right now, the highlight is this sweet character, who has so much intensity and love for this weird game that by proxy, viewers are interested too. It also helps that the artwork is exceedingly pretty to look at. The character designs are gorgeous, the backgrounds are soft and serene, and there's something about the relative detail on Chihaya that makes her pleasantly stand out in every scene.

Storywise, there's one thing that has me very intrigued. In one scene, when a young Chihaya befriends a quiet transfer student, he chides her for saying that her dream is to see her sister becomes the most famous model in Japan. “Your dream has to be about yourself,” he says. He then later reveals that his dream is to become the greatest karuta player in Japan. We find out in the present that that has become Chihaya's dream too. Readers of the manga will already know if there's any character significance to the appropriation of his dream, but I'm interested to see how this all unfolds.

Chihaya is available streaming at Crunchyroll.


Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere

Rating: 1 (out of 5)

In the future, Earth has diversified its population. It now plays host to delightful creatures like buck-naked (but genital-less) incubi, puffy slime ball creatures, and… maybe angels? The human population has also evolved to only include two types of women: flat-chested ones, and those with breasts swollen to cranial proportions. How everyone got to that point is a bit of a mystery. By mystery, I mean that the writers offered a few words of explanation, but chances are, don't really know themselves. Basically, at one point, Earth became so ecologically devastated that humans had to live in sky colonies. But war broke out, and that world also fell to ruin. Forced to live once again on a now feral planet, the inhabitants decide to recreate history by creating two livable areas, so that they can once again reach the point in humanity where they have their sky colonies again…

I think?

As far as one can tell, there's some hullabaloo about how the two inhabitable areas are just like Warring States-era Japan, but there's more wars. Or something. Basically, I think the writers just wanted an excuse to have the story vaguely set in some alternate universe Sengoku period, except with demons and blob creatures, and a spell-casting system that lets warriors launch attacks by pulling up virtual cards.

For as convoluted as the backstory is, the first episode is more of just a meet-and-greet with the large cast of characters. They're tasked with the challenge of chasing down their PE teacher and hitting her by any means necessary. Via their virtual placards, the students launch a myriad of attacks, to the dismal boredom of the audience. Rarely have I seen an action scene that is so relentlessly pointless. The only interesting thing that happens comes at the end of the episode, when a young man announces that he's going to ask out a girl on the anniversary of the death of someone named Horizon. Who's Horizon? No clue, but she may or may not be in the middle of nowhere.

Which is exactly where the story is. The middle of nowhere. The episode plays out like a doodle in a middle schooler's math notebook, filled with scrawls of fun characters, but with nowhere to be, and nothing to do. First episodes are often awkward, so maybe Horizon will pull itself from the quagmire, but the outlook is dire.

Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere is available streaming at The Anime Network.


Kimi to Boku

Rating: 2 (out of 5)

Kimi to Boku is completely harmless. Its pastels and soft character designs are easy on the eyes, and the tinkling music is soothing. And at the same time, it is completely bland and pointless. But, still, harmless. It's the kind of show that raises no negative emotions while you're watching it, but hardly makes you want to watch more.

Dedicated anime viewers may have seen this type of show before. Four friends go through their days, talking about mundane things, eating lunches, and staring wistfully at the cherry blossoms that pollute this type of slice-of-life show. A very small slice of a very boring life. These four boys have been besties since childhood, having encountered no strife in their placid lives. Their biggest conundrum so far is getting one of their buddies (one of the twins—an installment in many an anime) into a club at school. This consumes their thoughts, discovering along the way that the twin is great at sports and just about anything else he tries. As viewers, we largely discover that we don't really care. These boys have dull lives, without conflict or excitement, and we are the fly on their proverbial wall. Still, as rambling and trivial as this exercise is, Kimi to Boku rarely offends. It just exists.

What puzzles me the most is who the target audience for this show is supposed to be. It ran in Gangan Comics, whose alumni have included popular shonen titles like Fullmetal Alchemist and Soul Eater. Something tells me that the same people who like Soul Eater aren't the same people who like Kimi to Boku. But maybe I'm wrong. I also may not know that much about male friendships in Japan, but I get the feeling that guys don't brush each other's hair during lunch. Readers, please correct me if I'm wrong. Based on that aspect alone, I'm guessing the target audience is women, but of what age bracket or marital status, I can't tell. The demographic that likes watching men brush each other's hair, I guess.

It's hard to give Kimi to Boku a hearty endorsement, when it does so little to stand out. But I also wouldn't actively dissuade viewers from checking it out. My thoughts on this series are much like the lives these boys lead—vacant.

By the way, there are a myriad of cute, fat cats in this show. They might actually make up for the dull conversations.

Kimi to Boku is available streaming at Crunchyroll.


Phi-Brain - Puzzle of God

Rating: 4 (out of 5)

There's an urban legend that says that humans only use 10% of their brain. And while that isn't technically true, people love to think that if you could “unlock” the rest of your brain, you'd be unstoppable. So imagine you're some kind of genius already, and then get the chance to use deep recesses of your brain you didn't even know you had access to. You could be some kind of puzzle master! Every puzzle would bow down before you! And indeed, that's what we hope for the protagonist of Phi Brain, a master puzzler named Daimon Kaito.

Some people are puzzle hobbyists. This guy is obsessed with them. He takes puzzles about as seriously as most people take their stock portfolios. So imagine his surprise when one day, he receives an invitation from a mysterious entity known as Minotaur, asking him to participate in a puzzle that's never been solved by anyone before. This quest leads him to the ruins next to his school, a complex and deadly labyrinth built by some kind of mad man. Helped by his violent, man-kicking friend Nonaha, he reaches the end and fulfills the “Orpheus Contract,” something that allows him to fully unlock his brain for the purposes of solving some insanely hard puzzles. One gets the feeling that if Kaito were kidnapped by Jigsaw, he'd make it out easily.

Phi Brain sounds goofy, and it is. Here is a man whose life revolves around solving puzzles. Not only is he insanely good at it, but he lives in some kind of parallel universe where everyone else respects puzzle-solvers as much as he does. In this world, puzzles are serious business. On one hand, this is incredibly hard to watch with a straight face—but at the same time, this is really interesting stuff. It's actually kind of cool that puzzles can be a life or death matter. And just like Kaito, we want to know what's next. What else lies in store for him? Where will his puzzling take him? My only complaint so far is that Kaito's actual thought process behind each puzzle isn't shown. I want to know how exactly he magicked his way out of his last dilemma… but I'm guessing there will be ample opportunities in the series for this.

It also helps that Phi Brain is really nice to look at. Animated by the folks at Sunrise, this is a damned good-looking series. The puzzles are really complexly drawn, there's tons of stuff to look at, and the characters' movements are filled with momentum. Just watching Kaito and Nonaha run down the hallway is fun, as there's a real sense of speed in the way they're animated. Phi Brain may sound pretty dumb, but it's worth checking out. You might roll your eyes once or twice, but you'll definitely have fun.


Hunter x Hunter

Rating: 3 (out of 5)

As someone who has never watched the original Hunter x Hunter anime series, I am plenty entertained by this 2011 reboot. If it's faster and more condensed than the first time around, I don't know about it. Would I have liked to know more about the events that transpired before Gon ended up on a ship to go to the Hunter Examination? Sure, but it doesn't lessen my enjoyment of the first episode. For being the introduction to a shonen series, it does its job just fine. It sets up a few characters, hints that Gon is the golden boy who has great things in store for him, and leaves us to wonder what will happen when the ship finally docks.

When it comes to reboots, sometimes the biggest hurdle to enjoying them is having prior knowledge of the original. The original may have been one of your favorite shows, and understandably, it's difficult to watch a remake that doesn't live up to your memory or expectations. But new adaptations are made for new generations, and presumably, new viewers who haven't been exposed to the original material. That having been said, the pacing of Hunter x Hunter does seem a little impatient. Before we even know who Gon is, he's already packed up and ready to start his adventure. But if the question is, “Am I still interested in what's going to happen next?”, the answer is a resounding, “Yes.” Gon is an instantly likeable protagonist, and he's written to be that way. The fact that everyone in the series seems to sense he's special except the viewers only makes him more intriguing.

Getting into a new shonen series is always really daunting. If you get into it, you may be stuck watching it for hundreds of episodes. At the end of the day, when it comes to a potentially long-running series, the issue is not whether the first few episodes talked about X or showed Y scene in the manga, it's about whether or not it will have the momentum to carry itself for the long haul. And I think Hunter x Hunter does.

Hunter x Hunter is available streaming at Crunchyroll.


Fate/Zero

Rating: 2.5 (out of 5)

Clocking in at just under an hour, the first episode of Fate/Zero is a battle of patience and staying awake. Undoubtedly, those who are fiercely loyal to Type-Moon's popular Fate/[xxx] franchise will find something to enjoy, mainly as it diligently follows the beginning of the Fate/Zero light novel series. However, for the rest of us, and especially for those whose exposure to the franchise may only be through the Fate/stay night anime or manga, the first episode is a trying experience. The entire first episode is an info-dump devoted entirely to exposition, and asks viewers to sit there and listen to endless lines of dialogue, while the characters occasionally pace through a room or blink at the camera. In the case of this simulcasted subtitled release, it feels depressingly similar to just reading a visual novel.

Fate/Zero takes place ten years before the start of the events in Fate/stay night. The Fourth Holy Grail War is about to take place, and the different mage families are calling forth the servants who will fight for them. The details are exhaustively explained in great detail in this episode. We learn who the major players are, the relationship they have with the families, their motivations for participating in the war, and how they're regarded by the other families. It's good information to know, but it would have been a great deal more interesting if it had been spread out throughout the series. Instead, it feels like cramming the night before a big exam.

Even more insulting is the animation—or lack thereof. By far, Fate/Zero is one of the most poorly animated series (or at least inaugural episodes) I have seen in a very long time. The characters stick out from the CG backgrounds like neon signs, not unlike the various freeze frames that litter visual novels. Most of the shots are either close-ups of faces, or zoomed out shots where the characters become generic, faceless figures. The former requires only repetitive lip flap, the latter allows the animation team to just loop footage of the characters walking around. Even then, the walk cycles are stilted and unnatural, especially obvious in a scene where two characters shuffle around in a circle for what feels like an hour. If the animation cost more than $500 and a cup of coffee, I'll be stunned. Hopefully now that the exposition episode is over (please?), the series will be more visually interesting to look at. Still, rambling dialogue is no excuse for lazy animation. In a scene where two characters are talking in a playground, the background shows children in the distance, frozen midst play.

I truly hope this series picks up in the next episode. Even for staunch fans of the series, this episode can't possibly have been that interesting. With the almost non-existent animation and the endless dialogue, how different could it possibly be from just reading the books again? What's the point? If the Fourth Holy Grail War is the big deal that all the characters are promising, let's hope we're in for a ride.

Fate/Zero is available streaming at Nico Nico and Crunchyroll.


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