The Fall 2011 Anime Preview Guide
Theron Martin

Oct 1st 2011
To assuage his depression over his moribund teaching career and struggling beloved Colts, long-time staff reviewer Theron relies on his passion for anime, fantasy football, and tabletop board games and RPGs. At his lowest points he has even resorted to Facebook games, which have become an increasing addiction. (The current poison of choice? Empires and Allies.) He also eagerly looks forward to next year's Hunger Games movie.

Chihayafuru episode 2

Rating: 4.5 (of 5)

Review:  The card game karuta has no popular American equivalent, but claiming to be a master of the game will apparently get one about as much respect as an American claiming to be a master of Connect Four. Thus one might reasonably expect that making a tense, compelling story out of a karuta tournament would be extraordinarily difficult to pull off. Yet that is exactly what the second episode does and is exactly why this series is showing signs of being one of the season's best.

The second episode picks up where last episode's flashback left off, showing Taichi keeping good to his word about getting the class to ostracize Chihaya for befriending Arata. When Chihaya spills the beans about Arata's mad karuta skills, though, Arata vows to not only defeat Taichi in an upcoming tournament but to also not even allow anyone to take a card from him. When tournament time comes and Taichi sees that Arata's skills were not exaggerated, he does the only thing he can with his mother watching and videotaping: he cheats, first by hiding Arata's glasses and then by switching cards when Arata shows that he can play from location memory even if he can't read the cards. When Taichi's plan finally starts to get the better of Arata, Chihaya steps in and demands to take Arata's place.

Yes, the plot developments are predictable, but they play out so naturally and smoothly that most viewers won't care. While the game play may be slightly over-dramatized, a low-key musical score assures that it does not get out of hand and plays up the more sentimental side of the relationship (love triangle?) forming between the trio of leads. The episode also effectively brings in the side issues, such as how much Taichi is so driven to be a winner by his parents that he would resort to cheating, how dearly being the best at something matters to Arata, and how little accomplishments in the game are generally respected. Nice artistry - especially in the very appealing character designs - is another big plus, but the careful and deliberate pacing, and the way the storytelling takes full advantage of both its visual and musical support, are the real keys here.

If the first episode bored you to tears then this one is unlikely to change your mind, but those who at least tolerated the first episode are in for a real delight here.

Chihayafuru is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.


Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere episode 2

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review:  The first episode opted for an all-out action approach, resulting in a chaotic mess which did little to explain itself until an info dump at the end. The second episode, contrarily, focuses entirely on explaining things and developing characters when not carefully setting up a couple of fan service scenes. While the setting is still a hodgepodge of characters and elements taken from a wide range of genres, at least now it is starting to make some sense and show a decent balance of fun and more serious elements. The second episode also gives viewers a character to root for.

And that character is Masazumi, the school's vice president, who reveals here that she has a rather tragic past and even more drastic secret (and no, it isn't the normal anime gimmick). She seems like such a sensible type that one has to feel for her being stuck behind the popular idiot, Chancelor Aoi Tori, in the school's hierarchy of command. Aoi, for his part, seems to have written out a book of random punishments that people can give him for offenses he either makes or accepts on the behalf of other students, which in this case leads to the scene in the above screenshot. He also is sponsoring a party in honor of his attempt to propose to the girl who's been dead for ten years (who is vaguely implied to have something to do with an “automated doll” we've seen) and, since he is a breast man, needs someone of equivalent build to practice his groping on. Yeah. Meanwhile, something is implied to be afoot with a lord that Masazumi's family used to serve.

Even though this episode does show a tic up in writing quality and demonstrates a few worthy scenes, the story content still seems pretty random beyond this momentous upcoming date (which involves a girl whose name is in the series’ title, naturally, so it must be important to the plot). There may be a worthwhile story here once the series finally gets its act together, but despite improvements it has not done so yet.

Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere is currently streaming on The Anime Network.



Kimi to Boku (You and Me.) episode 2

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review:  Any synopsis of what happens in this episode is going to sound enormously bland and mundane, but the way the episode actually plays out isn't - or, at the least, isn't as bad as what it initially looks like it will be. Does this mean that the series has overcome its initial flaws and gained some degree of plot and/or meaning? No. What the series does manage to capture with this episode is the more genuine and heartfelt sentiment that it seemed to be aiming for in the first episode but not have the substance to manage. Here it does.

And it's not like the episode does anything special to accomplish it, either. Shun, the wussiest of girly-men, happens to see a small first-year girl with a scraped knee and tries to offer her a band-aid, but he winds up having to chase her down to give it to her after she runs off from his first attempt. Over the next few days various misfortunes arranged by the girl plague Shun, with his friends sometimes getting mixed up in it, too. Shun and friends eventually learn that the girl is averse to accepting help from anyone, which tends to isolate her, and seems emotionally immature. Shun's consistently caring nature ultimately starts to break through her resistance.

And no, this isn't as sappy in execution as it sounds, either, although it feels like it should be. Chalk it up to some good writing and directing, because the effect certainly doesn't come from the material. The dry stares and reactions of the twins to things are also starting to be rather funny, and the episode makes effective us of an insert song near the end. Even with the improvements, the series is still unlikely to draw in those turned off by the languid, plotless pacing of the first episode, but those who enjoy such things now may have a winner to watch.

Kimi to Boku is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.


Mobile Suit Gundam AGE

Rating: 1.5 (of 5)

Review:  At some point quite a ways forward into Gundam history, long after the warfare involving Earth has ended and humankind has settled massive space colonies, a new and apparently alien adversary - known only as UE (for Unknown Enemy) - arrives on the scene to threaten humanity with mobile suit-like weapons. In the originator of what is supposed to be a series of generational stories, young Flit watches his mother die to a UE attack, but not before she entrusts him with the plans for a legendary mobile suit called Gundam. Over the next several years Flit works to build Gundam under the watchful eye of childhood friend Emily and with the help of her mechanic grandfather. Naturally, the UE show up at his complacent new home colony of Nora just as the Gundam is being finished, and just as naturally, Flit finds himself stepping up in Gundam to be the hero the colony desperately needs when regular forces prove no match for the UE units.

The overall structure of Gundam AGE is an interesting one: apparently the protagonist role will pass first to Flit's son and then to his grandson as the series progresses over the course of a lengthy war against the UE. The first episode, however, could not have been more formulaic if the Sunrise/Level 5 production team had tried. The look and feel of the first episode also gives the distinct impression that the series is targeted much more at a new and decidedly younger fan base than the long-established Gundam otakus, as the character designs and overall artistic style have been kiddified. (Flit is supposed to be 15 but looks considerably younger than any previous Gundam series male lead.) The series does throw a couple of bones to the old-timers, as the design of this Gundam closely resembles that of the original in many ways and the irritating bouncing ball Haro, which was Lacus Clyne's toy/pet in Gundam Seed, is back, but that does not seem likely to be enough to pacify the Gundam faithful. Very mediocre technical and artistic merits (beyond some of the interior shots of the colony's layout) also may discourage more discerning fans.

If you're looking for an exciting and revitalizing mecha series, this isn't it.


Future Diary (Mirai Nikki)

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review:  Middle school student Amano Yukiteru has, for some time now, been obsessively recording everything in his phone diary, to the point that he has no real friends. He tells himself that he's fine with that, though, because he has his imaginary friends: Deus Ex Machina, the God of Time and Space, and the little girl Murumuru who hangs out with him. The only problem is that Deus apparently isn't so imaginary, and his promise to make things “interesting” for Amano is a gross understatement. Amano wakes up the next day to discover that his phone diary is now telling his future. Though he takes advantage of it at first, he soon discovers that he's not the only one with such a phone. Gasai Yuno, an idol-level classmate who turns out to be a stalker, also has one and uses hers to help Amano save himself from the local serial killer, who also has one. Eventually Deus makes the truth clear: Amano, Gasai, the serial killer, and nine others with similar phones are all involved in a winner-take-all survival game, with the ultimate survivor effectively becoming a god. To be that person, the players must use their phones to help figure out who the others are and then kill them, with those handy phones also representing their Achilles heel; if the phone is destroyed, so is the player. What Amano had thought was just his imagination has now become a very deadly reality.

The concept of this manga-based series - a dozen people involved in a cell-phone-based competition against unknown adversaries - invites comparisons to Eden of the East. Whereas that one opted for a more sophisticated, high-brow approach using older characters, though, this one focuses on younger leads and goes for a darker, more visceral mood; in fact, the mysterious opening scene involves a girl (who may or may not be Gasai) getting killed, and that isn't the only death in the first episode. The mechanics here are also utterly different, and in a fascinating way: the phones are literally the participant's lifelines, and the notion that tracking each other down requires the participants’ prognostications to interact and interfere with each other opens up an insane amount of enormously complex possibilities. The school idol turning out to be a stalker is yet another twist, and the feel of the story suggests that this is much more than just a random otaku-pandering element. What, exactly, Deus is really up to is another thread, as he seems to be deliberately setting Amano up as the biggest threat to the other participants. All of this makes this first episode the most plot-dense opener to date this season.

Production studio asread (Kiddy Girl-and, Shuffle!) turns in a visual effort whose quality varies widely over the course of the episode. The scene showing what happens to someone whose phone gets destroyed is immensely cool, however, and Tatsuya Katou's musical score provides a sturdier support with dark, tension-filled themes worthy of any thriller. And that's essentially what this series is setting up to be: a bloody, nerve-wracking thriller on the technological edge, one that should be good enough to win itself many early fans.


Ben-To

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review: Poor Satou. His school career at Karasuda Private High School has just started, and yet he cannot recollect how he wound up beaten half to death when he went to a grocery store to buy dinner. (He lives in a dorm which only supplies breakfast.) Earnest germophobe Hana seems quite pleased that he can't remember what happened, class rep Ume smacks him around because he can't explain how he knows Hana from the night before, and a pale-haired girl he comes to know as the Ice Witch warns him never to return to that particular grocery. Satou is on a tight budget, though, so he goes anyway to try to get some half-priced Ben-To. As Satou eventually discovers, though, the half-priced Ben-To are so highly sought-after by students (including the Ice Witch and one as-yet-unamed busty girl) that obtaining one is a violent full-contact sport requiring extensive martial arts prowess.  After a third failed attempt the Ice Witch takes pity on Satou and invites him to join her club: the Lovers of Half-Price Food Club.

Yeah, the concept is ridiculous, but it works, and in a big way. Amidst a field of cookie-cutter high school comedies, Ben-To stands out for its quirky style, wonderfully offbeat use of music, and inventive scene composition. Sure, it has a male lead who gets physically abused by young ladies around him and a girl with a very prominent bust, but the fan service remains a generally tame afterthought and Satou is one of the rare male leads in this position who actually might legitimately draw viewer sympathy; after all, all he wants is a cheap meal and he has utterly no idea what he's getting caught up in. The artistry animation are nothing special and the character designs are not necessarily flattering; the Ice Witch, for instance, has a surprisingly frumpy, hippy build by anime standards. However, David Production (which also made Level E) makes up for that with some shot choices in the climactic fight scene that actually give viewer the sense of Satou being caught in a chaotic melee. That is but one contributor to making that fight scene the season's most fun action exercise so far.

Any description of this first episode will make it sound more mundane than it actually plays out, however, as even when being conventional the content feels different. If future episodes can retain the spirit and style of this first one then this series has the potential to be one of the season's most pleasant surprises.


Fate/Zero episode 2

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review:  With most Servants already summoned, the relationships between Master and Servant begin to form. Waver struggles with his boisterous Servant Rider, aka King Iksander, who seems to have little respect for him, while Irisviel discusses with Saber (aka Arturia) some misconceptions that arose at the time of her summoning by Kiritsugu. Meanwhile, crazed murderer Ryunosuke Uryu commits heinous acts in an effort to summon a demon but instead finds himself as a Master summoning Caster (aka Bluebeard), who turns out to be an ideal match. With the final Servant in place, Kirei sees no need to wait further and begins the battles by sending assassin after Tokiomi Tohsaka. To do so, though, Assassin must contend with Archer.

In a sense this first regular-length episode is primarily more foundation-laying, as the only real action is one brief scene involving Caster and Assassin's exploits in the last two minutes. That does not harm the appeal of the series one bit, however, because establishing the vastly differing ways that Master and Servant interact with each other is both interesting and clearly a vital part of the series and the episode throws out plenty of other cool stuff to compensate: Kiritsugu playing with a young Illya is cute beyond belief, the power displays of four of the five shown servants (only Saber doesn't get to show off) are suitably impressive, and everything is beautifully rendered, albeit sometimes with dark shadings which match the dark tone and mask the sometimes-ugly content laying partly obscured underneath. Animation looks sharp in the action scenes, although the series is also almost painfully obvious in how it otherwise limits its animation by regularly having characters’ mouths obscured. Excellent use of the musical score and a closer which features past exploits of several of the Servants more than make up for that, however.

Unlike Shakugan no Shana III, Fate/Zero is firmly establishing an ability to draw in and keep the interest of newcomers to the franchise. It has the very real potential to be one of the season's major hits.

Fate/Zero is currently available streaming at Nicovideo.jp and Crunchyroll.


Majikoi - Oh! Samurai Girls

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review:  Kawakami Academy is an unusual school, one which resolves internal disputes through large-scale, medieval-style pitched battles between students. For unspecified reasons, Class C and Class F are having just such a conflict out on a mountainside. Though the higher-ability Class C has the advantage of numbers and a tougher commander, Class F has the advantage in strategy and can equal or outdo Class C's elites with their own. Even when Class C calls in a ringer, Class F can still counter and hold her off long enough to successfully go after the enemy commander directly.

The entire first episode is just a big strategic battle scenario punctuated by intense individual fights, so what this series will actually be about is unclear at this point. A broad cast of characters also gets introduced, so who the series will even focus on is also unclear. What is clear is that super-powered martial arts battles involving sexy girls will definitely be a major component, as numerous characters (many but not all female) toss around all sorts of named power attacks. That is enough to carry the series for now, as the battles offer plenty of flash and pop, the girls look good, and relative newcomer Lerche turns in some appealing artistry and technical merits. Figuring out what the series is about can wait for later, because what's here is fun enough.

Majikoi is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.


Shakugan no Shana III (Final)

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review:  If you're not already an established and fully-caught-up fan of the franchise then this series is not for you. Full familiarity with the entirety of the first two series is assumed; newcomers will likely be thoroughly lost.

One of anime's defining and most enduring tsundere characters is back for yet another go-around in what is supposed to be the franchise's concluding installment. The regular episode content picks up exactly where the last shot of the second TV season left off, this time clarifying the mysterious scene with the footprints that trail off: Yuji suddenly disappeared on Christmas Eve night as he went to meet Shana, as if he had flickered out of existence like all normal Torches do. Those involved in Flame Haze affairs remember him but no one else does, and the only hint to his continued existence is that the love letters that Shana and Kazumi simultaneously sent him still exist and have specifically been returned to them. Unsurprisingly, Bel Masque seems to be directly involved, as a very different-looking version of Yuji appears amongst them as their new leader.

The new version of Yuji is, by far, the most startling and exciting element in an episode that otherwise doesn't do much beyond laying the groundwork for where this new season will go, though seeing various supporting characters continue to move on down the paths that they chose during the course of the first two TV series is a welcome sight. Other fresh elements include Shana developing an entirely new application for her flame power (which will doubtless play a big role later on) and indications in the opener that a few new faces will eventually pop up, while the Next Episode preview suggests that at least one prominent old face will return. The absence of Shuji in the normal world also (thankfully!) suggests that this series will not get bogged down in the run-of-the-mill school life antics which dominated the second series. The various Shana series have usually been at their best when immersing themselves fully in their supernatural elements, and this continuation has little choice but to concentrate on that.

The minor disappointment is that J.C. Staff's artistic and technical efforts have not improved in the 3½ years since the last TV installment; in fact, the first episode looks rougher in some places than what fans are used to seeing. Still, that shouldn't be enough to discourage franchise fans, who finally get their long-awaited continuation.


Boku Ha Tomodachi Ga Sukunai

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review:  A month ago, transfer student Kodaka made a really, really bad first impression on his first day and is now widely regarded as a delinquent because of it. One day he overhears the normally standoffish Yozora uncharacteristically carrying on a conversation with someone who turns out to be an imaginary friend. Both soon admit that they have no friends and have trouble finding them, and both also admit that joining an existing club at this point would be an ineffective way to get them, so Yozora does the only logical thing: she starts a new club, one which will essentially be a place where friendless students can connect and make real friends. Surprisingly, the first person to respond to their advertisements for the Neighbors Club is Sena Kashawizaka, the seemingly perfect daughter of the school's Chancellor, who always has a gaggle of boys in tow but claims that she has had difficulty actually making friends because of that. Yozora and Sena instantly get on each other's nerves despite Kodaka's efforts to mediate.

This light novel-based series really, really wants to be the next Oreimo, and is even made by the same branch of AIC as Oreimo. While this one's concept has nothing to do with otaku, its more conventional concept is an interesting one which has even more potential: the notion of creating a club for the specific purpose of allowing friendless people to make friends, something which could easily be inserted into just about any high school anywhere in the world. The discussions that Kodaka and Yozora have about forming friendships are also remarkably insightful.

The first episode shows two fundamental problems that limit this one's potential, however. The first is the presence of Sena as the club's third member. She was doubtless deemed necessary from a marketing point of view, as stories about the kind of true social rejects who would genuinely want/benefit from this kind of club simply wouldn't sell as anime (those type of stories seem to work much better in live action anyway), and she does seem to have a legitimate reason for wanting to join, but her perfection harms the integrity of the concept and the credibility of the story. That and opener scenes which suggest that Kodaka may end up being the only guy certainly raise the specter that the series will hedge in a harem direction.

The other and bigger problem is that the caliber of writing simply is not there, especially not compared to Oreimo. Insight is a plus but isn't enough. The writing makes the mistake of letting Kodoka become more a hanger-on than an active participant, does not make Yozora an interesting enough character, and does not even come close to getting the same kind of combative chemistry out of Sena and Yozora as Oreimo did out of Kirino and Kuroneko. This could improve over time, and the artistic merits are reasonable and the series does have a pretty cool closer, but already it is starting out a couple of steps behind.


Maken-Ki!

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review:  Haruko Amaya is delighted that Takeru, a one-year-younger childhood friend/dojo sparring partner whom she has not seen in three years, is joining her at Tenbi Academy, a high school Takeru chose because 1) it has easy admissions requirements, and 2) it is a newly-integrating girl's school (yes, we have two series this season with this gimmick) and horndog Takeru is seeking to make up for attending an all-boys middle school. As Takeru quickly discovers, though, Tenbi Academy is no ordinary school. Students use Elements to attempt to control Maken; in other words, they participate in super-powered martial arts battles. A mark on Takeru's chest, combined with an unfortunate encounter with a girl in a tree, convinces that girl (for some as-yet-unexplained reason) that Takeru is her mortal enemy, but he also has a protector: the girl Inaho, who jumps to his defense at a crucial moment and then claims to be his fiancée - which is, of course, news to Takeru. Various circumstances and a flaky Principal naturally lead to Takeru rooming with Inaho, Haruko, and aggressor Kodama Himegami.

Unlike Mashiro-Iro Symphony, this one is a brazen harem fan service fest, one that also mixes in super-powered battles for good measure and does so in a setting conducive to an imbalanced girl-guy ratio. In those respects it invites comparisons to both Winter 2011's Freezing and last year's Samurai Girls, although the tone of the series so far is not as dark as the former and the style is more conventional than the latter. The first episode does not offer enough to appeal to those who normally detest these kind of series, as the fan service (primarily panty shots so far) is quite pervasive, the episode pulls many of the common fan service-conducive stunts, and the contrivances to set up the cohabitation are typical for the genre. Fans of the genre will find a lot to like, though, as the first episode offers up several enticing mysteries (why did Kodama feel she needed to literally try to kill Takeru, for instance?), the battle scenes have a sufficiently exciting amount of flash and pop, and at least some legitimate attempt is made at characterization and humor. AIC also shows once again that it knows how to handle this type of fare, as character designs and background art are appealing, special effects are well-done, and overall technical merits are rather high.

As series with a more prurient focus go, this one shows the most promise so far this season.


Persona 4

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review:  Due to his parents’ work, high schooler Yu Narukami must move to the Japanese equivalent of Hicksville for a year to live with his police detective uncle. (Yes, why he can't just live alone, like all kids in his situation do in anime, is a mystery.) He quickly befriends some of the locals, including spunky girl Chie and friendly Hanamura, but something never seems quite right. First there's a strange murder, then rumors about a Midnight Channel, which only appears on TVs on rainy midnights but is supposed to reveal your true love. Yu instead has a different experience: a test-run for the next day's event, where he, Chie, and Hanamura get sucked into a TV and find themselves in a strange world populated by stranger creatures, some of which proceed to pursue and lick them. At the height of crisis Yu finds himself empowered to fight back.

Evaluated as a stand-alone, this game adaptation's opener successfully lays down a foundation for mystery and super-powered action despite having to operate within game-like parameters. (The concept of a mysterious individual at the beginning who presents playing cards linked to a character's powers and/or stats predates the source game by a couple of decades.) The concept is basic but cool, although the bloblike critters with the big tongues at the end are hardly intimidating and the “bear” is entirely too cutesy. The artistry also has some other negative curiosities, such as how some characters have soullessly-blank eyes (especially Yu, until he puts on the glasses) and the stiff look of the character designs; how Chie and her friend Yukiko can get away with wearing sharp, stylish outfits rather than standard school uniforms in school is another as-yet-unresolved mystery.

With artistic and technical merits that are only mediocre, this one will need its writing and flashy action elements to carry it. Fortunately the first episode is strong enough in those respects to attract and hold the attention of newcomers to the franchise.

Persona 4 The Animation is available streaming at The Anime Network.


Mashiro-Iro Symphony

Rating: 2 (of 5)

Review:  Uryuu Shingo has a simpleton of a sister, Sakuno, who gets lost easily. While Uryuu looks for her on one such occasion, she encounters first a strange but cute little creature and then Airi Sena, another girl who is also lost. The next day Uryuu, Sakuno, and one of Uryuu's male friends head to a new school, a former all-girl's academy which is doing a test run for integration involving the trio and a few others from the school they used to attend. There they encounter a random maid and also Airi again, who resolutely declares that she and her fellow students will not tolerate the presence of boys in their hallowed academy, no matter what their principal says.

Yes, this is as bland as it sounds. As the premise and array of girls in elaborate school get-ups might suggest, this is based on an adult game, but what angle this series will take beyond putting the protagonist in the midst of a mostly-girls school where he will have to work to win over the long-term students is unclear so far. Certainly the first episode does nothing to distinguish itself beyond the fuzzy ball of a critter that hops around and occasionally encounters characters. Moe-soaked series like this can still get by if the artistry and character designs are sharp enough, but Manglobe only turns in a mediocre technical effort so far, all of the designs are run-of the-mill, and the costuming simply is not interesting or appealing. The musical score is pleasant enough but also fully contributes to the blandness.

If you're looking for your seasonal dose of moe or a sleeping aid then this series should do the job. Otherwise it must show much more in future episodes to be worth one's time.


Chihayafuru

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review:  Ever wondered what a shojo-flavored card game-focused series might look like? This is it. The biggest problem here is that the card game at the center of the series - a game called karuta, which involves beating your opponent at snatching cards bearing poetic verses based on the first sounds of those verses being spoken or played aloud - has no close equivalent in Western culture, so the learning curve for fully appreciating the content is rather steep. Fortunately the producers realized that and have, so far, made the series more about the characters than the game.

The story centers on Chihaya, a girl who has blossomed into model-caliber looks by high school but was much more of a tomboy back in elementary school. Paradoxically, though, her tomboyish inclinations didn't fade away as she became more girlish. She also retains a passion for karuta, which leads to a fruitless attempt to start a club focused on it. (Kurata is apparently a game that children typically grow out of by their high school years, so her effort is about equivalent to trying to establish a high school Connect Four-focused club in the States.) An encounter with old friend Taichi sparks a flashback to her first elementary school encounters with Arata, a poor, much-put-upon transfer student whose intense passion towards karuta inspired her own interest.

As befits the subject matter, the name of the series is a reference to both the heroine's name and the first part of the verse on one of the karuta cards, a phrase which translates as “impassionate” (which is also quite fitting). Although the first episode does sufficiently lay out the fundamentals of the game, it works far better as a character study. Chihaya seems gimmicky at high school age but becomes quite likable in the flashback, which employs some character byplay in the elementary class that is too credible to not at least partially be based on the original manga-ka's own experiences. The scene involving Chihaya being inspired by Arata's passion is a bit over-the-top, but that is a rare trip-up in a series that otherwise constructs its first episode quite well. Good artistry and animation are extra plusses, but this is a Mad House production, after all.

Can the charm and relationships that the series shows here overcome the natural resistance to an unfamiliar game over the long haul? Or might this descend into a romance with a game theme? That remains to be seen, but the beginning is strong enough to at least give the series a chance with Western viewers.

Chihayafuru is currently available in streaming form at Crunchyroll.


Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere

Rating: 1.5 (of 5)

Review: Every so often a series like Horizon pops up, one whose producers (in this case Sunrise) seem to think can be successful if they simply throw every fan-pandering element that they can think of into one big pot, mix it up, and say a Shinto prayer over it in the hopes that it will amount to something. This one's first episode proves, as so many of its ilk have in the past, that such an approach simply does not work. Even a series devoted to a kooky mishmash of genre elements still has to have structure, at least some sense of cleverness, and above all, cohesion. Horizon has, so far, shown none of these.

The largely incomprehensible setting details somehow involve a distant future Earth where something has happened which causes only Japan to be left as viable living territory, veritable flying cities to develop, and some kind of weird historical regression to happen. Basically, it's an excuse for all sorts of bizarre characters, from an Indian parody which looks like a racial stereotype left over from 30 years ago to aliens to ninjas to an incubus to blob creatures to whatever, to gather and chase their P.E. instructor across one of these floating cities in a lame excuse for showing off everyone's powers One guy even pops up at the end and declares that he's going to ask out a girl on the tenth anniversary of her death while holding an ero game.

Yeah, that's about how much sense this one makes.

While there may be some cool power usage going on here, it gets swamped under all of the negatives. Sunrise must be using their C team here, as this is one of their poorest animation jobs in a long time and far from their best artistic effort. Character designs which, in some cases, portray girls with racks that are ridiculously in-your-face don't help; there are appealing ways to do fan service and this is not one of them. The first episode throws out such an array of characters that keeping them straight requires a score card and caring about any of them will take more effort than this one provides. The freakish costuming takes in-series cosplay to an entirely new level too.

In short, this one is a total mess. Only some decent parts to the action sequences and the curious setting keep it above a minimum grade.

Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere is currently streaming on The Anime Network.


Tamayura - Hitose

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review:  Middle school student Fuu's father was a dedicated shutterbug, a passion that Fuu started to develop, too, until the father's (relatively recent?) death. Fuu set her photography aside in the wake of that, but her best friend Chihiro finally helps her sufficiently come to terms with his passing to take up the camera again. That, combined to a move back to a town she once lived in to attend high school, creates a big change for Fuu and sets her on a path that will apparently eventually lead to attempting to capture the mythical Tamayura on film.

Tamayura - Hitose initially seems to be one of these sweet slice-of-life series predicated on the premise that allowing cute girls to go through everyday life doing cute things is inherently entertaining. This one actually turns out to aim higher than that, though. Watching characters successfully struggle to come to terms with loss and move on has often proven to be cathartically entertaining in the past (see Cross Game), and the emphasis placed on photography here, with the implication that the way it can capture the essence of life can be a soul-salving exercise, provides a pretty touch. Every aspect of the production - from the artistry to the characterizations to the musical score - promotes a sentimentality that borders on treacle but never quite crosses that line, which will result in some finding this enormously sappy and/or boring while others feel like they have been wrapped up in a warm, fuzzy comforter. Watching friend Chihiro develop from an irritating crybaby to a surprisingly strong character by the end of the episode is also a treat, and anyone who has had to leave good friends behind (or be the one left behind) will certainly sympathize with the impact of Fuu's move.

The one big concern here is whether or not this series can muster enough material to achieve staying power. This episode would work excellently as a stand-alone project but actually looks more like a prequel to the real series. For what it is trying to be, it hits enough of the right notes to count as a success.


Kimi to Boku (You and Me.)

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: Four friends - the bespectacled Kaname, identical twins Yuki and Yuta, and the girlish-looking Shun - have been close friends since their earliest schooling days. As the spring of their 17th years begins, they reminisce about past events as they strive to get Yuki involved in some kind of club activity other than the “Go Home Club,” ostensibly to expand his high school experience.

And really, that's all that happens in the first episode of this light-hearted, introspective offering from J.C. Staff. The most amazing thing about the first episode is how swiftly it flies by despite essentially being about nothing. A light, deftly-handled sense of humor is a big reasons for that, one which turns a rather ordinary series of flashbacks to childhood concerning sleeping arrangements during naptime into a very amusing take on how one of those weird childhood superstitions can cause such a fuss. Some pleasant artistry, music, and character designs also help.

The opening credits suggests that a fifth boy will be added to the mix at some point, but he does not appear in this episode. Not a single girl has a significant current-time role, either, although one does appear regularly (as does a cat). Basically, this is the male version of those cutesy stream-of-life shows featuring groups of girls that have been a staple of moe content over the past few years. It will definitely be too boring for many viewers but those with more passive tastes will likely enjoy it.

Kimi to Boku is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.


Phi-Brain - Puzzle of God

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review:  Although high school student Kaito Daimon looks and dresses like a slacker punk, he is also the kind of guy who doesn't find even the most difficult of Sudoku to be much of a challenge. A seemingly unsolvable and rather deadly puzzle that he discovers under the mountain behind his school (and saves a self-proclaimed Puzzle King from) perplexes him, though, as does a strange puzzle-spewing hand-held device given to him by a friend. When a masked individual who calls himself Minotaur appears and challenges Kaito by name to solve the Sage's Puzzle (i.e. the one Kaito encountered before), Kaito cannot resist the challenge. With an assist from athletic friend Nanoha he solves the puzzle and obtains its prize: an Orpheus Contract, which will supposedly allow him to use the full extent of his brain's power.

This original production from Sunrise has the look and feel of a shonen action series, albeit one focused on brainpower rather than daring feats of athleticism. It is set in an improbable world where puzzle-solving seems to be an incredibly big deal, but hey, contrivances like that are allowable to make series work. The most important factor is that, for all of the cheesy style on display so far, and for all that Kaito is impossibly cool for someone who focuses on solving puzzles, the first episode actually works. How the maze puzzle that is the episode's centerpiece actually works is an inspired twist, Kaito shows early on that he is fallible, and feisty friend Nanoha shows that she is not there just to aggressively punish Kaito for misbehavior or be rescued/protected by the hero (although Kaito does, in fact, do that, too). Good pacing, surprisingly good animation, and an enthusiastic musical score also help. Puzzle lovers will also get to see many of the classics in play.

The concept here, and the direction that the series seems to be heading, is corny enough that the series may not be able to sustain this level of quality, but at least the series is off to a solid start.


C3

Rating: 1 (of 5)

Review:  Haruaki Yachi's father has a habit of collecting antiques and other weird objects while traveling abroad and then sending them back to Haruaki. The latest such item is a large, puzzle box-like cube which Haruaki initially sets aside. That night, though, the cube turns into a petite, sexy girl (a tsundere, naturally) who calls herself Fiya and claims to have taken human form because of a large number of curses that she has collected, curses that she wants to get rid of - and since Haruaki is apparently immune to curses, he's the natural person to help. Naturally she gets along famously badly with Haruaki's busty childhood friend when the latter arrives in the morning with Haruaki's breakfast. Being new to the human thing, she also fares fantastically poorly at cleaning the house but does have some odd but pleasant encounters with local venders.

There are series that are bad because they offend the viewer or just do not suit the viewer's tastes. There are series that are bad because they're boring. There are series that are so bad that they're funny. And then there are series like this one, which are so purely and obnoxiously bad that they have no redeeming qualities or easy way to argue off their badness. Although the gimmicks about a box turning into a girl and a guy being immune to curses might have some promise, the poor execution drowns out any potential this first episode might show, as beyond those elements the series is just a mess of poorly-executed clichés. Fiya is one of the most quickly and thoroughly irritating tsundere characters yet conceived (and yes, I know that's saying quite a lot), her breast size insult-laced argument with “childhood friend” Konoha merely retreads every past such argument from previous anime series, and only one attempt at humor - a moment when Fiya gets truly overzealous with the cleaning - generates any laughs. The art style and production values will not impress anyone, either. The first episode's only redeeming feature is a respectable closer, and that is far from enough. Even the fan service isn't enough to salvage anything here.

Seriously, folks. As much as you may be curious about this one, do yourself a favor and do not waste your time on it. Watching almost anything else is better than spending 23 minutes of your life on this.


Hunter x Hunter

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review:  12-year-old Gon aspires to be a Hunter (essentially a licensed adventurer) in order to find out what was so great about the occupation that his father left him behind to pursue that career. His aunt sets a task for him: she will allow him to take the Hunter Exam if he can catch the Lord of the Lake, the largest fish on Whale Island. Gon does and begins on his journey. While traveling by ship he encounters several other prospective Hunters but only two stick out: a boy named Kurapika, who seeks to use the accesses that Hunter status provides to help him get vengeance for his slain clan, and Leorio, a lanky man who sees being a Hunter as a path to wealth. When their ship gets caught in a storm, the three of them learn that just getting to the prestigious Hunter Exam is, in fact, just the first part of the test.

Fans of the original 1999-2001 Hunter x Hunter series have longed for a continuation ever since it ended, but this new effort is instead a direct remake. It is a faster-moving version, too, as this episode adjusts some details and condenses the contents of the first three original episodes down into one fast-paced, action-packed sequence that retains most of the key original scenes and character designs (save for some coloring changes in a couple of cases) but exchanges the more leisurely pace and earthy look of the original series for the look, pacing, and feel of more recent shonen action series. Whether that's an improvement or a downgrade will depend largely on how much of a nostalgia trip (if any) a viewer is on. The new version should be quite popular with kids, though, as Gon has the same kind of honest, fresh-faced appeal that young Goku showed 25 years ago and the straightforward, thrill-a-minute style should draw in some older fans, too. Don't expect anything sophisticated here and this can be a fun viewing experience.

Hunter x Hunter is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.


Fate/Zero

Rating: 4.5 (of 5)

Review:  This prequel to the Fate/stay night  anime series is based on the light novel written as a prequel to the original series’ source visual novel. Like most prequels, its main purpose is to show what happened to set up the original story and one of its main draws is seeing characters who were referenced and/or appear in the original story in earlier forms; fans of the franchise will doubtlessly delight in seeing youthful versions of Rin, Sakura, and Illyasviel and seeing Kiritsugu Emiya and Kirei Kotomine at the heights of their powers. Being familiar with the franchise is not necessary for understanding the proceedings here, however, for this double-length premier entirely eschews action in favor of spending its full time carefully setting up its main players and explaining the franchise's premise. Few beginnings to follow-up series in anime franchises are as accessible to newcomers as this one is.

The first episode covers a time frame from eighteen to ten years prior to the events of F/SN, beginning with the birth of Illyasviel, child of a descendant of one of the most prominent bloodlines of mages and Kiristugu Emiya, a former mage-killer who married into the family. It concludes with the prelims for the fourth Grail War, a battle between seven mages held every sixty years for the right to make a wish upon the Holy Grail. Kiritsugu and Kirei are not only two participants but the ones who worry each other the most due to thier unknown  motives. Another mage bloodline scion, Kiriya, struggles to fulfill his family's part in the Grail War in an effort to protect young Sakura from getting drawn into the mess, while a fledgling mage absconds with his teacher's relic in order to participate himself. Each mage chosen to participate gets to summon a Servant, a representation of heroic spirits from across history who hail from one of seven types, and those Servants - including, yes, Saber - finally appear in dramatic fashion as the episode ends.

Even from a newcomer's viewpoint, this beginning shows a lot of promise. The technical merits and artistry, courtesy of ufotable, are superb and, for a change, the basic premise is quite clear. Despite the lack of action, it finds just the right amount of drama and pathos to keep viewers involved and has enough hooks to keep the attention of established fans who might find the lengthy set-up boring. It provides plenty of plotlines for story development, too. Overall, it marks a great start for the new season.

Fate/Zero is currently available streaming at NicoNico.com and Crunchyroll.


Squid Girl 2

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review:  It's a new season, and Eiko has made Squid Girl painfully aware that her “invasion” of the surface has accomplished squidding nothing so far. Like a certain frog, she returns to her invasion plan with renewed determination, with every sense primed to detect potential threats, but with Chizuru around she, of course, can't get far. Later, Sanae senses that she may have some new rivals for Squiddie's affection (which isn't directed towards her anyway). Later still, an overabundance of jellyfish is causing problems on the beach, and Squid Girl is determined to take the lead in resolving. Naturally, her efforts don't go as planned.

Sgt. Frog, the series whose formula this one borrows, ran for more than 350 episodes, so it should be no surprise that Squid Girl earned a second season. The first episode here merely continues the same kind of shtick that made the first season a success, and with similar results: a fun and silly ode to an inept girl with tentacle hair who wants to be a rapacious invader but cannot conquer one formidable human and winds up being friends with almost everyone instead. This episode serves up three stories, with the first and longest - the one concerning the renewed enthusiasm for invasion - being by far the best. The Sanae-focused and jellyfish-focused segments, though still entertaining, are not quite as sharp-witted.

Didn't see the first serason? That will leave you at a disadvantage for identifying some of the regular cast members, but the learning curve on series like this is not steep. Production quality remains constant and the subtitles laden with all of the squid references also remain, so this season looks like it will continue to be the light diversion that the previous season was.

Squid Girl 2 is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.


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