The Spring 2012 Anime Preview Guide
Carlo Santos

Mar 31st 2012

A veteran of Anime News Network for over 7 years, Carlo is on a neverending quest to get people to spell his name right. He is best known for his manga review column Right Turn Only!!, in addition to other reviews and convention reporting for the site. His favorite series of the last few seasons include Steins;Gate, Hana-Saku Iroha, Mawaru Penguindrum, Chihayafuru, Sket Dance, Another, and Black Rock Shooter, which should give you a good idea of his tastes. Or lack thereof.


Arashi no Yoru ni

Rating: 1.5 (of 5)

Review:
I try to go easy on stuff that's obviously for kids. But after spending one's youth being spoiled by Pixar's entire output, all other attempts at CG animation—like this one—fall short. Maybe it's the robotic cartoon-animal eyes, or the lack of fur textures on their bodies, or the way the leaves and grass remain perfectly still instead of rustling with the breeze. In any case, the visual presentation of Arashi no Yoru ni is the most distracting thing about it.

The story itself isn't all that bad: one stormy night, a little goat named Mei takes shelter in a run-down shack, and is joined by a wolf named Gabu also looking to get out of the rain. Sitting there in the dark, totally unaware of each others' species, the two animals bond over their similar lifestyles and upbringing. (They both like to feed in the same valley, but for totally different reasons.) Mei and Gabu agree to meet again on a sunny day, and only then do they realize the massive predator-and-prey gap between them. Instead of being all dramatic about it, however, they decide to continue with their unlikely friendship—which is where the story starts to crumble. By not playing up the potential conflict between them, this tale of a mismatched animal pair quickly gets boring: all they do is talk, stroll through the woods, and help each other out. Even Gabu's sudden outburst in the final scene leads to a weak, deflating punchline.

But hey, maybe the series' younger target audience won't mind a story that gently floats along like this one. Still, they shouldn't have to stand for such shoddy animation: in addition to the lifelessness mentioned above, the basic visual design suffers from a lack of imagination. The hills, forests and plains all blend into one generic expanse of green, and the main characters look like student animation projects or direct-to-DVD protagonists. Ironically, the story was previously adapted into a 2D animated movie in 2005 ... and looks far more convincing that way.


Shining Hearts: Shiawase no Pan-

Rating: 1 (of 5)

Review:
There are some great anime series about baking. There are some great anime series about fantasy and sorcery. Shining Hearts tries to straddle both topics, and fails miserably at all of them. This is the story of Rick, a baker who makes the best bread in town and is assisted by three lovely girls who run his store. While this might make for a good business model, it's a weak story idea, and much of the episode is wasted on Rick and company's idyllic life where they get to go on cheerful jaunts through the woods. The plot doesn't start happening until past the halfway point, when Rick's party runs into a stern-looking elf who doesn't want humans rooting around in their precious Elven forest. Moments later, they run into a much friendlier elf—the sister of that other guy—and she gladly tries some of their bread as a gesture of friendship. But later that night, we get a hint that dark forces may soon disrupt this peaceful lifestyle.

Really? This is supposed to be a premise that gets people all excited for what happens next? It's just one pointless scene after Another, with hardly any sign of progression or conflict. When Mister Meanie Elf shows up, that's as close as this story gets to plot development—but all he does is mutter things in an ominous manner that translates to "something dramatic is coming up, but I can't say what it is yet." Right, just like every faux-medieval series that predictably turns to epic magical warfare.

This bland story and setting has uninspired animation to match: still frames and slow pans eat up a lot of running time, the countryside backgrounds are flat and forgettable, and unimaginative camerawork turns most of Rick's encounters into dull talking-head scenarios. On the character design side, the girls get to wear some pretty (if impractical) dresses, but that seems more geared towards selling figurines of them than actually being good art. Throw in some bland easy-listening music on top of that, and this show really is the complete package ... of mediocrity.


EUREKA SEVEN AO

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review:
EUREKA SEVEN AO is the kind of series where you fall in love with Episode 1 not because of what it is, but because of what it can be. Like the original Eureka Seven, this one visits many familiar sci-fi themes, but remixes them in a new way. Our hero, a young boy named Ao, does NOT go skateboarding in the sky or awaken a giant robot in this episode. Instead, the story begins with Ao venturing around his tropical island home. One night he collides with a motley band of couriers transporting secret equipment to the Japanese military. Their encounter turns bizarre when the Scub Coral—the mysterious alien antagonists of the original series—emerge from the ground and light up the sky. No one is hurt in the incident, but Ao comes home with an odd bracelet that the couriers dropped. The next day, things get dramatically worse: the Scub Coral re-emerge, while an alien craft appears and starts terrorizing the island. The bracelet, meanwhile, glows in reaction to the chaos, and triggers a vital memory from Ao's childhood.

So there it is: a futuristic adventure with plenty of potential. How will humankind fend off the Scub Coral this time? What is the military up to? And are Ao's legendary parents who we think they are? The only problem with this exposition is how disjointed the scenes are, as well as all the technical jargon being thrown around. But it's an issue that can be fixed with proper storytelling.

If the opening storyline is a little jumbled, at least the visuals make up for it: between gorgeous island scenery and psychedelic special effects, every moment of this episode is designed to dazzle. The character designs, too, show a level of detail and individuality that stand out from the crowd—even with the generic bad guys. Crisp lines and seamless animation also make it easy to enjoy the action, while an eclectic music score (watch out for that head-bobbing dance beat) sets the mood. The adventure is just starting to get good, while some may say it already is.


tsuritama

Rating: 5 (of 5)

Review:
Who'd have thought that a fishing show would be the standout of this season? tsuritama gets everything right, with bright, eye-catching visuals, instantly memorable characters, and a setting that brings a fresh spark to the "random kids hanging out" formula. Episode 1 introduces us to Yuki Sanada, a schoolboy who moves to the coastal town of Enoshima and goes through the usual struggles of trying to fit in. This is especially hard for him since he easily gets panic attacks (cleverly represented by the visual metaphor of drowning in a rising pool of water). On the flip side is easygoing Haru, a self-proclaimed alien who loves fishing and immediately takes Yuki on one such excursion after school. Thus begins an unlikely friendship—even though one of them is still stuck on the "how to make friends" part and the other is so flighty he might just start flapping and soar off into space one day.

While the series doesn't offer any deep or dramatic turns of plot right away, it does have its unique moments. Haru impulsively moves into Yuki and his grandmother's new house when they arrive, the fishing scene gets the technical details of the hobby right, and there's a mysterious guy with a goose observing them from a tower. Maybe it tries a little too hard to be weird for weirdness' sake, but better to grab the audience's attention that way than bore them to death.

The fanciful animation is Another strong point—perhaps the strongest point—with vivid colors, distinctive linework, and characters that move with a sense of purpose. Even little things, like the unwinding of fishing-pole reels, show a high level of attention to detail. But most impressive of all is when Yuki has his moments of panic-attack-by-drowning—a surreal experience that only animation can bring to life. The fun, folksy music adds to the series' positive vibe, although the sheer repetition can start to feel overbearing after a while. But as a whole, this show hits all the right spots, providing a shining example of how slice-of-life comedy should be done.

tsuritama is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Kids on the Slope

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review:
Kids on the Slope starts out with a little nervousness in its step, as if afraid to reveal how incredible it is to have Cowboy Bebop's Shinichiro Watanabe and musical legend Yoko Kanno teaming up again. The story centers on Kaoru Nishimi, a recently transferred high school student who finds himself out of place among all the small-town kids. Other students talk about his privileged upbringing and geeky appearance behind his back, but what really bugs Kaoru is the fellow sitting behind him—Sentaro, a big, outspoken guy who seems intent on bothering poor Kaoru when all he wants to do is relax on the school's roof.

If this all sounds like dull slice-of-school-life banter, that's because it is, at least for the first several minutes. Things finally start to pick up once the story looks into the characters' personal interests: we learn that Kaoru is a pretty decent classical pianist, while Sentaro is all about jazz drumming. This clash of musical viewpoints comes to a head when fellow classmate Ritsuko invites them into her dad's private music studio, and the two boys simply refuse to get along.

The episode's main fault is that it spends too long on Kaoru's personal awkwardness, thus leaving little time to establish character relationships and conflicts. But even those who were simply excited for a "jazz anime" will be disappointed by the lack of music-making in this one. Ironically, the best music comes not when Kaoru or Sentaro are playing the instrument, but when Sentaro beats up some school punks. (Then again, the concept of slickly directed fistfights set to modern jazz should make perfect sense to Bebop fans.)

Like the story, the animation is polished but doesn't make any dramatic impressions just yet. Its greatest accomplishment is overcoming the challenge of musical instrument animation—the piano-playing and drumming look reasonably accurate, and as anyone who's seen Nodame Canatabile knows, that's not easy. But conservative character designs and lots of typical schoolroom interiors make it hard for the show to visually stand out ... unless they're saving the good stuff for later.

Kids on the Slope is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Medaka Box (Episode 2)

Rating: 2 (of 5)

Review:
If there was a way to be even more uninspired than the first episode of Medaka Box, here it is: Episode 2! Medaka Kurokami's ongoing quest to help her fellow students is built on such flimsy plotlines that this episode has to string two half-sized stories together. In the first one, a track athlete has her shoes sabotaged by a teammate, and Medaka—in an impressive, Holmesian flash of brilliance—quickly figures out who it is. After she apprehends the culprit, the story takes an unexpected turn when Medaka proves that a gentle approach sometimes works better than brute force.

The second half of the episode puts Medaka's minion Hitoyoshi in the spotlight: he tries to retrieve a lost dog, but bungles the task because the beast has reverted to its vicious wild state in the six months it was missing. Medaka steps in to save the day, and once again we get an unexpected twist and a snappy ending: as a child, Medaka had some unusual issues with animals ... yet that childhood trauma actually comes in handy for catching the lost dog.

Short stories with twist endings (and occasional bursts of cheeseball humor—what's with Hitoyoshi's gym jacket?) are not a bad thing. But what's bad is the series' complete lack of ambition in telling these stories: Medaka and company take on a case, they try to fix it with unorthodox methods, and boom! Problem solved. Not to break out the Sket Dance comparison again, but at least that series goes down some weird, creative paths—and that's the one that's supposed to be more mainstream, for goodness sakes.

Animation is Another hit-or-miss area for the show. The character designs are striking, but suffer from sloppy linework, and the attempts at fanservice are laughable—let's pick the most contrived camera angle possible just to show off Medaka's cleavage, shall we? The show's production values only excel in flashy action sequences, usually accompanied by dramatic swells of music. But a handful of eye-pleasing chase scenes, and cute little plot twists, don't excuse the formulaic execution everywhere else.

Medaka Box is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Zetman (Episode 2)

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review:
Zetman shows more promise in Episode 2, now that it can fully devote itself to the series' true purpose and not have to go through a messy, all-over-the-place setup. However, some story glitches remain: the episode jumps a few years ahead without telling anyone, then opens with some disjointed scenes of Sinister Old Guys Plotting Things. Only after several minutes does the real story kick in: homeless kid and self-proclaimed "fighter of justice" Jin is now a studly teenager, still trying to help others. This episode also re-introduces Kouga and Konoha, a privileged brother and sister who knew Jin back in the day but parted ways. However, their paths cross once more when Kouga and Jin—both of their own accord—decide to hunt down a serial arsonist who's been terrorizing the city.

After the halfway mark, the episode shows its true strengths: life-or-death suspense as Jin and Kouga try to save the arsonist's vicims, and a thrilling superhuman battle between Jin (transformed into his "Zet" alter-ego) and the hybrid monster that's been causing all these fires. If it's raging macho-man energy you want, this show's got it in spades. However, the subtler aspects still leave something to be desired: Jin's dealings with the homeless community are a contrived attempt to make him look like a saint, while Kouga's conflict between social justice and family prestige is a pretty old cliché. The villains' activities also remain annoyingly cryptic.

The visuals continue to make a strong impression, with detailed highlights and shadows in the art, plus characters with distinctively realistic (and sometimes even grotesque) looks. The scene where Jin transforms and fights the monster amid tongues of flame is an animator's dream, with tons of eye-candy opportunities. However, there's a bit of slacking off in the more ordinary scenes—crowds remain static, characters move stiffly, and the illusion of realism stutters a bit. This is a series that saves itself up for the big fights, but it would be nice if it explained why Jin has these powers and what the evil rich old men plan to do with him.

Zetman is available streaming on Viz Anime and Hulu.


Dusk maiden of Amnesia

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review:
Dusk maiden of Amnesia sounds like a stupidly pretentious title—but the actual series is not. This paranormal-themed show is at once serious and tongue-in-cheek, and succeeds on both ends of the scale. At the start we meet Momoe Okonogi, the bubbly secretary of her school's Paranormal Investigation Club. While taking notes, Okonogi fails to notice all the poltergeist activity going on in the clubroom, while her more level-headed clubmates Teiichi Niiya and Kirie Kanoe quietly join her. They head out to investigate a haunted elevator in the school building ...

... And then the episode starts all over again.

Or does it? The "trick" to this episode is that, after seeing everything through Okonogi's unaware eyes, the first act is repeated, showing how resident ghost Yuuko has been making mischief the whole time. She constantly bothers Niiya (causing Okonogi to misinterpret his responses), and makes a prank out of their elevator investigation, and funniest of all, they can't get rid of her because she's the club president. Eventually the club heads out to visit the grave where the real Yuuko is buried, and the story fills in some serious details (although Yuuko still can't help but play more jokes on poor, supernatural-impaired Okonogi).

Telling the same story twice can be a narrative gamble, but in this case there are enough clever details to make it work—plus a sense of humor to keep viewers from getting bored. Each of the characters have clearly defined personalities, and while the horrors they investigate are a bit clichéd, the way that each club member deals with it is what gives the series its unique flavor.

Striking camera angles, smooth animation, and a color palette that goes anywhere from shadowy to glowing also earn this show a high visual rating. The character designs show strong attention to detail, and even more so with the backgrounds—note the intricate clutter in the clubroom. Top it off with background music that is appropriately creepy (and just a touch melancholy), and this polished take on the oft-used supernatural formula emerges as one of the season's best.

Dusk maiden of Amnesia is available streaming at Crunchyroll.


Saki Episode of Side A

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review:
Remember how Saki told the story of a high school mahjong club but inconveniently placed an epic finale in the middle and a dull in-between arc at the end? Well, sorry, this spinoff series does nothing to fix that. Rather, Saki Episode of Side A steps back a few years to tell Another tale. It pays tribute to the original by having pink-haired prodigy Nodoka Haramura pass through, but the real story is about Ako, Shizu and Kuro, three girls who meet in 6th grade and discover a common love for mahjong. They play a few matches at the mahjong club hosted at nearby Achiga Academy, but as the girls enter middle school, they drift apart. However, the sight of Nodoka playing a nationally televised match a few years later compels Shizu to restart Achiga's now-inactive mahjong club—and as fate would have it, her old friends have been waiting ...

Surprisingly, this episode avoids the usual "new kid shows up and has amazing skill" cliché that starts off most sports and gaming anime. Instead, it plays the slice-of-life angle, focusing on friendship and following one's passion. The most effective part of the episode is a subplot where we learn that Achiga's club advisor is a former high school talent, taking some time for "rehab" before getting back into the competitive scene. The main characters aren't terribly deep to start out, but their camaraderie comes across strongly, and that's what looks to be driving the plot.

The other surprise is how little mahjong is actually played in the episode—better to establish the characters first and not drown everyone in terminology just yet. The CGI during gameplay is obvious, but smoothed out with a nice layer of cel-shading; elsewhere, the animation is pretty average (even stooping to the level of a still-frame montage). However, a bright color palette and lots of glowing afternoons in the clubroom add some visual polish. The character designs could stand to be more memorable, but ... maybe that'll happen after getting to know them better? We can only hope.

Saki Episode of Side A is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Space Brothers (Episode 2)

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review:
Space Brothers is a little less impressive in Episode 2, with the animation dropping a notch and the story taking a more leisurely pace. At this point, recently-jobless Mutta has reached the first round of the recruitment process at JAXA (Japan's space agency), so now get to see all those little baby steps toward becoming an astronaut. The first half of the episode is heartwarming, if a little puzzling—Mutta pays a visit to his old Aunt Sharon, who taught him English and music and also happens to have a mini-observatory at home. While it's fun to see the two of them bond and learn a few more things about Mutta's youth, it's kind of a dead spot in the storyline that doesn't really push the whole "I'm going to become an astronaut!" part forward.

The second half is probably more what viewers had mind for this series, with Mutta going through a high-pressure job interview. Along the way we witness one of those "secret job interviewer tricks" that helps pick out the truly talented engineers, and Mutta meets a couple of fellow job candidates with quirks of their own. Just like last time, the show is all about presenting these characters as believable folks that you might meet in real life—as opposed to predictable schoolyard types or over-the-top superhumans. And of course, everyone's still rooting for Mutta to make it all the way.

Although this episode still manages one of those inspiring reach-for-your-dreams sequences (Mutta playing his childhood trumpet while the sun sets around him), it's less inventive and flashy with the visuals overall. A lot of time is spent with Mutta in close-up, and if it's not him in the frame, it's a straight-ahead shot of one of the other characters. Most of the progress in this episode is made through dialogue, and trying to keep scenes like that interesting is never easy, although Mutta's expressive gestures help—as does the upbeat, tuneful soundtrack. In any case, whatever opinion you might have of the show, it's the only one of its kind this season.

Space Brothers is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Kuroko's Basketball

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review:
I'm not saying every basketball anime has to be Slam Dunk, but when your pilot episode is struggling just to match the standards of current sports series like The Knight in the Area, there's clearly room for improvement. This is the story of unassuming basketball whiz Tetsuya Kuroko, who surprisingly has no interest in training to become stronger or becoming the most lauded player. Rather, Kuroko was the "phantom sixth man" of a legendary middle-school team, and now he's bringing his (non-existent?) talents to Seirin High School. His counterpart is red-headed giant Kagami, a center who overshadows the rest of the incoming freshman class with his height, skills, and blazing temper.

Episode 1 takes a predictable path in introducing the series' premise, reminding us about 50 times of Kuroko's near-invisible presence and how everyone forgets he's standing there on the court. Then come the 50 reminders of how strong Kagami is. When the whole Seirin team gets on the floor for a scrimmage game, Kuroko finally reveals his hidden talent (hmm, no surprises there) by making pinpoint passes to the rest of the team while confused defenders can barely spot him.

It's an interesting idea, but haven't we seen enough "ordinary guy with extraordinary ability" types of sports series already? Kuroko's skills might make him an intriguing side character in Another franchise, but surely not a lead. Then there's the fractious partnership between Kuroko and Kagami, which seems to be more about establishing yaoi fan-fodder than establishing future character development.

The shoddy animation is what really kills it, though—Kuroko and Kagami's talents are revealed through a series of still frames and awkward, slow-motion gestures. Even less ambitious character movements look choppy, and the predominantly male cast is built upon the most common traits of bishonen character design. The synth-heavy, repetitive background music also makes it hard to take the game action seriously. You'd think that a sports anime should at least make the "sports" part look and sound good—but this one fails to accomplish even that much.

Kuroko's Basketball is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Sankarea

Rating: 1.5 (of 5)

Review:
If there's one thing worse than dumb, plotless shows, it's the ones that try to act all fancy and high-concept but just come out a mess. Sankarea falls into the latter category with its attempt at supernatural affairs. The main character is Chihiro, a boy whose life takes a tragic turn when his pet cat Babu is run over. However, Chihiro also happens to be a zombie enthusiast who believes that a certain arcane ritual could bring Babu back to life. (Is this ridiculous enough yet? Keep going, it gets better.) While preparing for the ritual in an abandoned building one night, Chihiro crosses paths with Sanka Rea, a student from the local girls' school. Apparently Sanka is trying to invoke the powers of a nearby wishing well, but when she meets Chihiro, she gets roped into his scheme, and Chihiro asks if she would consider "dying and being reborn as someone else." Creepy much?

This entire episode is a dogpile of conflicting messages—is it taking a tongue-in-cheek stab at the genre, or trying to put a supernatural spin on school life, or simply going for straight-out horror? One thing for sure, it fails at the last one because it's so all over the place, and besides, Another set the standard for that already. Trying to understand Chihiro's motives is a lost cause as he acts like an ordinary schoolboy one moment and then a total weirdo the next. If you can't get a hang of one single character, what hope is there of even understanding the plot?

The muted colors, flashes of occult imagery, and stabs of creepy music try to reinforce the serious tone—but again, the jumbled subject matter doesn't always fit with the presentation. Unimaginative directing also hurts the animation, as we see too many shots of people looking directly ahead or to the side, and the character designs don't show any creativity aside from Chihiro's wacky bed-head hairstyle. Whatever it's trying to be—mainstream horror, dark school tale, user manual for resurrecting dead pets—Sankarea fails.


Natsu-iro Kiseki

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review:
Well, it's about time someone started taking the "random schoolgirls hanging out together" genre seriously. This much-abused formula, so often the subject of unfunny comedies, gets a much more thoughtful treatment in Natsu-iro Kiseki. The series throws a slice-of-life spotlight on four middle-school friends—Natsumi, Saki, Yuka and Ringo—as the bonds between them start to change. Natsumi and Saki are partners on the school tennis team, but their friendship takes a sharp downturn when Saki quits and later announces that she's moving away entirely. As a last resort, Yuka and Ringo gather the four of them together at the local shrine, so that they can wish on an enchanted boulder to remain friends forever. Unfortunately, this leads to Another argument over personal life goals, but that is promptly interrupted when Ringo "accidentally" wishes for the ability to fly and the four girls find themselves floating over the town. That unexpected outburst of magic brings the episode to close ... and will surely leave some wondering what happens next.

The drama between the characters is what really carries this episode: Natsumi and Saki's impassioned disagreements are a step above the usual fluff that students talk about in a school-themed anime. A flashback about childhood dreams also adds depth to the characters' backgrounds, and while the pacing drags in some spots (it's a show about kids who attend school, what else are they going to do?), there's still enough development to push things forward.

Still, the heart of Natsu-iro Kiseki would not be complete without the visuals, which emphasize the bright blues and greens of summer. The animation is smoothly executed throughout—especially in the flying scene, where the staff gets a chance to show off—and believe it or not, the character designs are pretty memorable after just one full episode. (Credit that to distinctive acting and personalities to go with their looks.) The sentimental soundtrack doesn't make that strong of an impression, but it's just enough to capture the gentle, contemplative mood of the series—a mood that we could all use once in a while.


Sengoku Collection (Parallel World Samurai)

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review:
Sengoku Collection starts out by presenting all the tropes people are sick of by now— let's re-imagine the most famous period of Japanese history, and turn all the warriors into cute girls, and throw them into the modern world with hilarious fanservice-laden results. But then something weird happens: the absolute worst expectations never come to fruition, and that characters are almost ... endearing? In this episode we meet Oda Nobunaga, a pink-haired beauty who falls dramatically into a fire and re-emerges in the suburbs of modern-day Japan. Immediately she tags along with a young man who works at a convenience store, and because of her forceful badgering (she's a legendary warlord, what do you expect?) he agrees to show her around town. By the last few scenes, it looks like the seeds of warm, genuine friendship are starting to form. Who'd have guessed?

With such a flimsy concept, of course there will be gaping flaws: the early part of the episode makes a big deal about Nobunaga getting undressed as she tries to take a shower, and the middle scenes rely too much on slice-of-life narrative where nothing ever happens. But as the minutes pass, we get a lot less of Nobunaga and her body parts mugging for the screen; instead it becomes more about two strangers getting to know each other and Nobunaga learning to tone down her demands.

The simple but charming visuals are a big key in lifting this series to "better than it probably deserves to be" status. The crisp lines and bright colors are instantly pleasing, while the character designs have a softness to them that take the edge off the harsh, big-eyed moe aesthetic. The backgrounds may seem like hasty marker scribbles at first, but it turns out that the slight gaps and overlaps between different areas of color give the scenery a bit of life. The animation also moves smoothly enough that there's no reason to complain about choppy motion. This show may not be the greatest, but there's enough artistry to stand above the truly brain-dead stuff.

Sengoku Collection is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Medaka Box

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review:
Author NisiOisin is best known for wordy novels adapted into equally wordy anime—Bakemonogatari, Katanagatari, Nisemonogatari—so his newest project Medaka Box is something of a shock, the way the characters talk in normal lines instead of rambly paragraphs. But that's because the source material is actually a manga, not a novel ... which turns out to be the worst possible thing for NisiOisin. The resulting anime is as bland as they come, robbed of the writer's personality and populated by watered-down versions of his usual character types. In the role of the domineering, take-charge girl is Medaka, the student council president at Hakoniwa Academy. Medaka maintains a suggestion box where students can submit their problems and she tries to solve them, while long-suffering childhood friend Hitoyoshi (the obligatory beta male who provides third-party commentary) tags along. If this sounds like an otaku-geared version of Sket Dance, it is, except not nearly as funny. Even more infuriating is seeing Medaka fetishized as "that big-chested girl" for most of the episode's first half.

Fortunately, the story picks up and shows promise in the latter part of the episode. Medaka's first assignment, which is to chase some punks out of the school's kendo dojo, takes an unexpectedly positive turn: she reforms the punks and fixes the attitude of the resentful student who submitted the suggestion in the first place. But getting to that point of character development requires wading through a painfully generic school-life scenario in the first place.

Top-notch production values are the one thing that saves this first episode from being a total write-off. The animation is technically accomplished, with high-spirited action scenes and some gorgeous splashes of color in the closing scenes. A varied, richly-scored soundtrack makes Medaka's shenanigans seem more epic than they really are—which is probably a good thing, because you'd be bored out of your mind otherwise. But no matter how slick and polished that exterior, the predictable characters, soulless writing and all-too-familiar setup make it a ho-hum effort at best.


Is This a Zombie? of the Dead

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review:
Those who watched the first season of Is This a Zombie? know that it's all about supernatural-themed comedy antics: Ayumu is a high school boy who just happens to be a zombie, reanimated thanks to the magical powers of silent necromancer Eucliwood Hellscythe (or Yuu for short). When he's not trudging his way through school, Ayumu teams up with Masou Shoujo ("Magically-Dressed Girl") Haruna to fight monsters known as Megalos, which means he frequently transforms into the frilliest, pinkest outfit imaginable while wielding a chainsaw.

When the new season revisits these themes, however, it feels utterly devoid of energy—a mechanical retread of all the old gags. Worse yet, Episode 1 opens with a painfully dull 12 minutes where Ayumu and friends hang out at home and at school, having unfunny conversations with each other. Things only get interesting when a new character appears: a Lolita-clad girl that Ayumu dubs "Miss Fairy," who's been sneaking around school swiping ethyl alcohol from the lab so she can get herself drunk. But as soon as a creepy, trenchcoat-wearing man shows up and turns into a Megalo, it's back to standard magical-combat mode for Ayumu. The end of the episode is much more entertaining than the start, with lavishly animated transformation scenes, intense chainsaw-slashing action, and the frilly pink cross-dressing everyone's been waiting for. But again, it's the same thing fans saw throughout the first season, so this episode carries the stale odor of Been There, Done That.

While the fight scenes are visually impressive, the day-to-day school scenes are practically the opposite: it seems like a struggle just to get characters to move from one side of the screen to the other, and the backgrounds are as flat and static as they come. Major players like Ayumu and Yuu get to wear distinctive outfits, but the overall character designs still fall firmly in a generic mainstream rut. This is a show that works best when surprising viewers with goofy genre mashups—yet the sequel seems to have completely forgotten that.


Kuromajo-san ga Tooru!!
Rating: 2.5 (of 5)
Review: Short-form series tend to fall anywhere between horrible and mediocre. So it's an anomaly when Kuromajo-san turns out to be ... almost decent? Episode 1 introduces Chiyoko "Choco" Kurotori, a schoolgirl whose fascination with the occult backfires when she accidentally summons the black mage Gyubid (and not Cupid). Gyubid immediately starts trying to train Choco in the dark arts, which is totally not what she wanted. However, Gyubid's expertise ends up being useful after all when a haunting happens at Choco's school, and he explains that patching up relations between a certain teacher and student would fix the problem.

Yes, believe it or not, this seven-minute miniature manages to have actual characters, a plot, and throws a little tongue-in-cheek mockery at the "ordinary kid discovers supernatural powers" trope. The biggest knock against it, however, is that the animation appears to have been done by a staff that just discovered MS Paint and Windows Movie Maker, so be prepared to shield your eyes. The character designs themselves are decent, but putting in the effort to make them look okay on-screen was obviously last on this show's list of priorities.

Gakkatsu!
Rating: 2 (of 5)
Review: Gakkatsu! charges forth with so much raging energy that it almost gets away with it. Set in the homeroom ("Gakkatsu!") class of a typical Japanese school, the series' blaring hard-rock soundtrack and simplified, thick-lined animation—what is this, Cartoon Network?—are about the last thing anyone would expect from a typical school series. And the subject matter is just as strange, with the class president leading a discussion on what to call that bony bump everyone has on their wrist. (It has a proper anatomical name, of course, but why no colloquial one?)

However, looking and sounding different can only go so far. The lack of a proper story, besides the bump-on-the-wrist discussion, makes this a glorified trivia tidbit more than anything else. The script manages a couple of funny and unexpected gags, but only because the students keep yelling out ridiculous lines for a full five minutes. Throw anything at the wall and see what sticks, as they say. Despite a striking first impression, Gakkatsu! turns out to be a disorganized mess that doesn't have much to say.


Polar Bear Cafe

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review:
Sometimes it feels like the entire comedy genre has pigeonholed itself into two opposing camps: the obnoxious, pointing-and-screaming "Look how funny I am!" style and the obtuse, deadpan style where random characters talking about nothing is meant to pass for humor. Polar Bear Cafe, however, lands somewhere between those extremes and comes out all the better for it: the show has its puns, pratfalls and visual gags, but doesn't feel forced. At the same time, laid-back moments of conversation have enough wit and energy to them that that viewers won't start wondering when the next scene is.

The title is self-expanatory: a sentient polar bear runs a cafe with his trusty penguin partner, and part of the humor is the surrealness of seeing biologically correct animals standing on their hind legs and coexisting with humans. However, the real main character of Episode 1 is a lazy, bamboo-chewing panda who is forced to get a part-time job (or risk being vacuumed by his mother as punishment). The panda applies for a job at the cafe, but given his horrible work ethic, it's no surprise that he gets rejected. Fortunately, the nearby zoo is hiring, and Panda wins the job by simply being himself. Again, here's the show's surreal humor at work—how silly is it that animals have to apply for the position of being a zoo exhibit? That whole "being able to communicate with regular humans" sure throws a screw into the works of real life.

Choppy animation quality is the biggest weak point, but one that can be overlooked—it's not like the show needs any epic 60-frame-per-second jaw-droppers. Rather, it's the warm, soothing colors and careful attention to animal anatomy (a sloth, an anteater, and a llama are just some of the realistically drawn supporting cast) that give the series its visual charm. It would be nice if they didn't keep looping the same background music over and over, but maybe that repetition makes it easier to just sit back, relax, and enjoy this strange funny-animal ride.

Polar Bear Cafe is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Rock Lee & His Ninja Pals

Rating: 1 (of 5)

Review:
As much as people complain about the fillers in Bleach, at least they never got this bad. Occupying Bleach's former time slot is a Naruto gag spinoff about green-clad ninja Rock Lee, and just like his canon version, Lee tries his hardest at everything despite not knowing any ninjutsu techniques. Although it's meant to be exaggerated for comic effect, the series ends up more like "Rock Lee does all the things he normally does" ... for a mind-numbing 25 minutes. First, he saves an innocent girl from predatory loan sharks, and then he challenges Naruto to a duel over a food coupon. The resulting jokes are woefully predictable—Lee turns his pratfalls into physical attacks in the first story, and in the second he tries to mimic Nar>uto's Sexy Jutsu and Shadow Clone techniques in the goofiest way possible.

As far as appealing to the original target audience of Shonen Jump (grade-school children), this brand of humor does the job—most kids will cackle madly at seeing someone's pants pulled down or a flying attempt to dodge a pile of dog poop. But the opening episode does little else besides that: it sets up these lightweight gag situations and recycles the same slapstick formula every few minutes. The super-deformed visual style further emphasizes the show's low standards: by drawing the characters and scenery as simply as possible (was this done in crayons and magic markers?), it also means being able to animate each scene as cheaply as possible. For those who thought Rock Lee's displays of effort might look impressive, think again—all he does is strike gag poses while big words flash on the screen to show what attack he's using.

Even the presence of Lee's comrades adds little to the comedy mix: Neji stands around grumbling and sniping at him, fan-wielding Tenten waits for every opportunity to slap him into a wall, and Nar>uto is reduced to a one-dimensional screaming-and-fighting rival. The title character may be a guy who puts in a lot of effort, but this show clearly does not.

Rock Lee & His Ninja Pals is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Zetman

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review:
Zetman is thematically confusing—it tries to live up to the standards of "dark urban action-adventure" but drowns itself in too many genre elements. Episode 1 starts off with sci-fi/horror undertones, telling a back-story about deadly genetic mutations that live secretly among humans. One of them, a creature with a long razor-sharp tongue, goes around slashing people to death on the street, and his methods look like inexplicable serial killings to anyone else. Only an equally powerful form of technology can stop him.

It's an intriguing enough concept by itself, but then the show has to throw a shonen cliché into it: here's Jin Kanzaki, a homeless boy of about 10 or 11 who goes around "fighting for justice" on the streets. When the mutant serial killer takes the life of Jin's grandfather, the boy falls into despair—and once again the story whiplashes in an entirely different direction. Now it's this weepy, tragic melodrama, and Jin goes running into the arms of Akemi, a hostess that he befriended while fighting goons on the streets. When the serial killer goes after Jin and Akemi, the boy's hidden powers are unleashed (did anyone not see that coming?), and the episode's sci-fi undertones come full circle as we see the beginning of an epic war between deadly monsters and a super-powered crusader of justice.

For fans who like their anime dark and violent, the bleak tone of the series, semi-realistic character designs and muted color palette should suit their tastes. There isn't much flashy animation to be found here, but the action sequence at the end—with the enemy's inhuman movements and Jin's sudden outburst of energy—proves that quality visuals are being kept in reserve for when it really matters. Dramatic background music adds to the seriousness of these moments as well. At its core, however, the scattershot plotting of this episode makes it difficult to grasp: what genre is it meant to be anyway? Boy-hero adventure? Sci-fi thriller? Human tragedy? If they were going for "all of the above," well, that's a bit too much to absorb in one shot.

Zetman is available streaming on Viz Anime.


Space Brothers

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review:
Usually it takes half a week of shows to find the first big winner of the season, but Space Brothers bucks the trend by coming out right on Day One. This inspiring tale of space exploration lies somewhere at the crossroads of Planetes, Moonlight Mile and Twin Spica, but strikes a different tone with its blend of wit and human drama.

Lead character Mutta is a thirtysomething salaryman who's just lost his job after headbutting his boss—but if your boss made fun of your little brother for being the first lunar-bound Japanese astronaut, wouldn't you do the same? That's right, Mutta's overachieving younger brother Hibino is in the space program, while poor Mutta feels like a disgrace to his elder-brother status. (Apparently this is due to him being born during one of Japan's greatest sporting disappointments—how's that for serendipity?) So while the "mature and responsible" brother bums around his parents' house looking for a job, the little brat is about the reach the pinnacle of achievement. Just when all seems lost for Mutta, he recalls a childhood memory with Hibino and considers aiming for Mars ... and as luck would have it, the Japanese space agency has taken an interest in his resume.

It sounds like a lot to take in, but that's what happens when characters are actually well-developed to start out. A dreamy coming-of-age flashback, a realistic portrayal of the Japanese economic situation, and the strong dynamic between Mutta and Hibino give the story lots of depth—as well as a clear sense of purpose to the plot. The visual design also shows attention to detail with its wide-ranging color scheme and an interesting portrayal of near-future technology (check out the curvy car that Mutta designed at his old job). The animation could be smoother at times, but critical scenes like the childhood flashback do get a quality treatment. Meanwhile, the soaring, fully-orchestrated soundtrack adds an extra layer of polish to the developments in the first episode. After this strong start, things are surely looking up.

Space Brothers is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Folktales from Japan

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review:
Anime has its fair share of series based on Japanese folklore, like legendary creatures getting caught up in epic magical battles (Nura), or tales of horror and mystery built on folklore elements (xxxHOLiC). But Folktales from Japan goes straight to the source and does exactly what it says: it tells traditional Japanese tales, many of which will be fresh to Western viewers.

Think of a children's anthology of fairytales and short stories, and that's basically how this show works. The first story is something of an expanded goose-with-the-golden-eggs tale: an old couple takes in a magical puppy that keeps bringing them good fortune, and the greedy folks next door only run into failure every time they try to replicate that success. The second tale isn't quite as exciting or clever: a merchant follows a business hunch from a dream, then prospers because of his diligent, honest ways. (Snore.) The third story also seems dull at first, but actually executes well—it's about a con-man who pretends to be a monk and swindles a poor old lady, but after seeing the consequences of his actions, eventually changes his ways. So there is a story there, just not one that involves a direct conflict like one would expect.

The biggest barrier to entry in this series may be the super simplified, comic-strip character designs, but anyone who can sit through Crayon Shin-chan can surely sit through this (albeit without the promise of dirty jokes). The different artistic teams on each sub-episode also add variety: one episode takes a pastel-crayon approach in bringing the scenery to life; Another one goes to the school of brush calligraphy and fills in the colors from there. See? No reason to be bored when there are so many neat little things that aren't "traditional mainstream anime." And who would believe that otaku princess Shoko Nakagawa sings the sweet, folksy theme songs in this series? These folktales may not be wild creative masterpieces, but they're a soothing oasis of calm among the clamor of more typical genre fare.

Folktales from Japan is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Hiiro no Kakera

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review:
It's easy to be fooled by a pretty face. Hiiro no Kakera certainly puts one on at the start, with its eye-catching autumn landscapes, detailed and well-proportioned character designs, and a couple of nods to traditional Japanese folklore. The opening scenes introduce us to Tamaki, a young lady whose journey to the countryside takes a supernatural turn when she runs into some mysterious spirits in the woods. Luckily, a gruff but good-looking fellow named Takuma saves her from demonic dangers, and escorts Tamaki to the home of her grandmother where she will be staying. Tamaki learns from her grandmother that she is, in fact, a distant descendant of the Princess Tamayori—with all the historical and spiritual responsibilities that entails. That's the real reason Tamaki and her family are moving out to the boonies, and so she's now going to enter a world of supernatural adventure ... right?

Oh, just you wait.

The second half of the episode covers Tamaki's transfer to the local school and the friends she makes, most of whom happen to be seriously attractive guys. Oh, you got me there, Hiiro no Kakera! This is actually an adaptation of a bishonen dating-sim game—and the plot mechanics become painfully obvious as the latter part of the episode progresses. Takuma plays the stone-faced leading man, but there are plenty of other harem options to drool over: the laid-back guy, the babyface, and (when Tamaki gets home after school) the mature older man. As the characters interact with each other, it becomes clear that the animation is struggling to keep up with the very basics of motion—even the simplest gestures come out looking stiff, and the camerawork is as flat and uninspired as they come. The understated soundtrack doesn't add a whole lot either, but at least it stays out of the way rather than being a distraction. As this first episode shows, striking art and design can be an attractive lure at first, but good anime needs more to survive on than just pretty boys and lush backgrounds.

Hiiro no Kakera is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


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