Carlo Santos

Jul 2nd 2012

Growing up, Carlo spent too much time with the TV, computer, and books ... and regrets nothing. He is best known on ANN for the Right Turn Only!! column, which has survived the manga boom and bust and looks at various new manga releases in North America every other week. His favorite recent anime series include Kids on the Slope, Dusk maiden of Amnesia, Another, Chihayafuru, Black Rock Shooter, and Sket Dance.


Joshiraku

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review:
Joshiraku shows no fear in tackling that most maligned of comedy subgenres—cute girls doing cute things. In the first five minutes alone, it breaks the fourth wall, makes fun of itself ("Why would you make an anime adaptation of a manga where all they do is talk?"), and warns of lightweight dialogue designed not to interfere with the cuteness.

In one sense, this is obnoxious. It's like third-rate comedians who pre-emptively laugh at themselves in case their jokes backfire. But in Another way, this is exactly the fresh slap in the face that the genre needs. Rather than diluting the Lucky Star formula over and over to the point of Yuruyuri-level brain mush, this one employs quick-fire humor that demands a sharp mind as well as sharp eyes. (Did everyone catch the ridiculous jump in framerate when they quipped about the pointlessness of animating a talky manga?)

Even the basic premise has an unexpected quirk: the five main characters are all fellow practitioners of the traditional Japanese performance art known as rakugo. Not that this makes the show dry or old-fashioned—rather, the group's common interest in an ancient form of stand-up comedy (usually told while sitting on a pillow) is just the starting point for all sorts of tangential riffs. This episode covers how to properly suit up for "casual dress" events, ridiculous misspellings of the kanji character for "dog," what to yell when you visit the seashore, and even makes a couple of eyebrow-raising political jabs. Now that's some pretty unexpected material.

Even the production values show what can be done when people are actually trying—the vivid colors, distinctive character designs, and high-energy theme songs all add to the enjoyment factor. And just like they say in the disclaimer, the animation isn't exactly action-packed eye candy, yet the flights of fancy and snappy pacing from scene to scene make it fun anyway. The only downside? If this takes off, everyone else is going to start making copycat shows about traditional performing arts ...


The Ambition of Oda Nobuna

Rating: 2 (of 5)

Review:
In any other season, The Ambition of Oda Nobuna might have gotten a fair reception. After all, it boasts solid production values: vivid landscapes and detailed battle scenes, a decent variety of character designs (if somewhat generic on the bishoujo side), and appropriately heart-stirring music during pivotal moments. What's more, the alternate-history conceit is enough to make the show interesting while staying true to real Japanese history.

Unfortunately, it's also about the 11,537th series in the last 5 years to run with the "What if the Warring States Era generals were all girls" concept.

This time, the time-traveler is a schoolboy named Sagara Yoshiharu, who finds himself in the midst of Japan's most famous historical period. As fate would have it, he crosses paths with Oda Nobuna—not Nobunaga—a teenage girl whose army is on a quest to conquer Japan. Conveniently enough, Sagara's obsession with the Nobunaga's Ambition video game makes him able to "predict the future," thus earning him a spot as one of Nobuna's lackeys. His skills come in handy in the episode's latter half, as Sagara helps Nobuna negotiate an alliance with the leader of Mino province by basically saying, "This is what happens in the history books so you should do it."

Although time travel is always a fun concept, especially with a modern-day schoolkid steering (and possibly altering) the course of history, this one runs the risk of becoming a dry textbook recitation. Outside of the negotiation scene, most of Episode 1 involves Sagara watching and commenting from the sidelines, with character names being flashed on the screen every time a new girl appears. Hopefully the amount of exposition will go down as the plot progresses, because nothing gets boring faster than a laundry list of names and events—even if it comes with pretty illustrations. There are times when the animation drags as well, resorting to slow pans and static characters when there's no major action going on. Ultimately, the series is doing just what it needs to get by—but in a genre that's completely oversaturated right now, that's not nearly good enough.

The Ambition of Oda Nobuna is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita (Episode 2)

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review:
After a mind-boggling first episode, here's Another attempt at understanding the downfall of humanity (and the takeover of the garden-gnome fairies). Episode 2 continues the adventures of the "U.N. Mediator" and her companions as they tour the mysterious FairyCo factory, where a talking loaf of bread has just tried to kill itself. As our heroine continues to explore, bizarre events keep happening—including her friends subtly disappearing—until she arrives in an executive boardroom full of sentient slaughtered chickens. Yes, the story finally comes full circle by the revisiting the "chickens escaped from the village" plot point in the craziest way possible. Rather than become meat, the chickens have apparently decided to revolt and take over the Earth ... until the Mediator's camera-wielding friend pops up out of nowhere to film this madness, which sends the chickens on a wild chase through the factory. In an action sequence that is both hilarious and exhilarating, the intrepid humans stop the chicken invasion, restore the social order of fairies and humans, and—in a cleverly placed epilogue—solve their village's food-shortage problem.

On the plus side, this episode ties up all the loose plot threads from before, but insists on being totally absurd in the process. Certainly it's better than seeing one cliché after Another, but viewers will be disoriented by having to pass through Points X, Y, and Z just to get from Point A to Point B. Perhaps the best approach is to accept the illogic as part of the series' humor—if the 20th and 21st centuries were full of nonsensical chaos, then the post-apocalyptic era ought to be even stranger.

Strangeness is also part of the color scheme, where unnatural pastel hues still dominate—but shades of darkness also come up, most notably during that mood shift where the chickens appear. The lively gestures of the skinned chickens also show genuine effort on part of the animation staff, no matter how weird the subject matter that's being thrown at them. These elements, along with a whimsical soundtrack, add up to a series that—if nothing else—will take one's imagination to the most unexpected places.

Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita (Humanity Has Declined) is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Sword Art Online

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review:
The future of gaming arrives in Sword Art Online, where we learn that "the Citizen Kane of video games" has yet to be made because developers are still recycling the same old genres. But they have created a viable Virtual Reality system, which gives us this series' launching point. A fantasy MMORPG called Sword Art Online has captured the public's attention, most notably because of its "NerveGear" headset that allows players to project their entire consciousness into the game. One user taking this virtual-reality plunge is a boy who goes by the handle of Kirito, and for the first half of the episode the show seems like a well-produced but ultimately uninteresting .hack ripoff. Then comes the kicker: Kirito and his newly-made online friend can't seem to find the Logout button.

After discovering this odd bug, Kirito and all the other players are spirited back to the starting point where they get an even nastier surprise: the game's creator, Akihiko Kayaba, purposely designed it that way. Appearing as a giant hooded figure, Kayaba explains that anyone wishing to exit the game must clear its 100 fiendishly hard levels, or literally die trying. That's when the panic and chaos set in, followed by Kirito putting on a brave face as he decides to take on the insurmountable challenge.

Yes, there are logistical loopholes (How will people poop or eat? How can something so unethical happen without world governments taking drastic measures to stop it?), and the setting makes it no different from any fantasy-themed media, but the strict life-or-death conditions give the story an extra edge. The lush, fantastical backgrounds and dramatic soundtrack also make it easier to take the show seriously—this is an epic adventure, people's lives will be at stake, and it isn't just blindly walking through the usual clichés. Character designs and battle outfits don't stand out much, but hey, it's only Episode 1 and Kirito probably won't get the good armor until Level 50 or something. Between the polished production values and a powerful twist on a familiar story, this one's got a fighting chance.

Sword Art Online is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Kokoro Connect

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review:
Right after everyone else has hammered the "school students doing school things" concept into the ground, SILVER LINK picks it up, dusts it off, and shows everyone how to make it good. Or at least tolerable, in the case of Kokoro Connect. The premise revolves around a misfit school club whose members suddenly find themselves switching bodies—hardly a fresh idea, but one that works well enough when presented with a bit of wit and personality.

Leading the way is average high school boy Taichi, whose narration at the start of the episode comes with a subtle humor that most other school-themed shows lack. After some light banter with his clubmates, the mind-switching madness begins in earnest. What's most interesting about this series' approach is that there is no magical ritual or shower of special effects when it happens—instead, the characters suddenly just notice they're seeing the world through someone else's eyes. In Taichi's case, that means occupying the body of average high school girl and fellow club member Iori (insert obvious boob-grab joke here; there still has to be some concessions to lowbrow humor after all). What the show does better than its peers is to capture the disorientation that comes with these supernatural circumstances: Taichi, Iori and the club trying to figure it out logically (and failing), the quiet but uneasy background music, even the subtle changes in the switched characters' voices. When they revert back to normal at the end, even that comes as a surprise, given that it just happens.

While everyone else is complaining about the characters being cookie-cutter designs modeled after K-ON!, let's at least spare some appreciation for the backgrounds and interiors. In a world where every Japanese high school looks the same, the classroom details and shades of sunset give this series' setting a distinctive quality. The characters' tics and gestures, too, add an extra touch of life to the visuals—these are real kids facing some strange, unreal situations. And that's what it takes to elevate a school-life series from "ugh, make it stop" to "interesting enough."

Kokoro Connect is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Campione!

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review:
Were it not for a thrilling last five minutes, the first episode of Campione! could easily be dismissed as yet Another Shakugan no Index clone where an ordinary guy discovers a secret world of magical warfare because a cute girl. Indeed, that's what it looks like at first glance: average Japanese teen Godou Kusanagi finds himself in Sardinia, Italy, after his globe-trotting grandfather asks him to return an ancient stone tablet to its owner. His errand is interrupted by a blonde beauty named Erica who insists that he turn over the "grimoire." But a bigger interruption comes up when a flaming 50-foot boar appears and almost destroys the town—at which point Erica explains to Godou the existence of destructive "rogue gods" that walk the earth.

Conveniently enough, however, Godou's stone tablet is imbued with the power of Prometheus, the mythical figure who stole fire from the gods—a fact that he learns when he finally meets his grandfather's acquaintance. Obviously, Godou must now take great care to guard this powerful artifact. So far, so formulaic.

The episode's big selling point comes Godou and Erica get caught up in a showdown between two other gods: in a flash of incredible special effects and larger-than-life staging, Godou "steals" a Divine Sword that allows him to challenge the gods on their level. As epic as it sounds, it's even more awe-inspiring to see on the screen; between the swords and spells, we're talking Fate/Zero levels of visual grandeur. A full orchestra blasting away in the background further adds to the impact of this scene.

The make-or-break factor, then, is whether the characters and plot are deep enough to back up such bombast. The use of ancient gods is pretty fresh, but is there an actual story to tell besides just people hurling bolts of energy at each other? And are fans willing to tolerate the bland animation quality when characters are just standing there, spouting out expository dialogue? The series could end up being highly entertaining or highly mediocre, and it'll take a few more episodes to confirm.

Campione! is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Koi to Senkyo to Chocolate

Rating: 1 (of 5)

Review:
Like many shows that try to pretend they're interesting, Koi to Senkyo to Chocolate starts off with a misleading teaser scene that has nothing to do with the real theme of the show. Sorry, folks! The real point of the series is to lull viewers to sleep with its brain-numbing rendition of everyday school life.

In the center of the action is Yuu, one of two boys in the female-dominated Snack Club at Takafuji High School. As the name suggests, the club's members hang around eating delicious snacks and sometimes invent new ones. Despite the mention of "female-dominated," this episode's attempts at fanservice and wacky boy-girl hijinks are embarrassingly weak—not even worthy of being called clichéd. It's as if Yuu's clubmates exist just to be mildly annoying, without the actual spark of goofy character interaction. As for the plot itself, that doesn't come into play until past the halfway point. In an incongruous, hard-to-follow scene transition, we learn that the school council plans to disband any club that isn't producing something of merit. This is due to a power struggle at the top, where a ruthless officer is going to take over unless someone can beat her in the student elections. So after a whole lot of roundabout political discussion—which is probably the least interesting part of anyone's high school experience—Yuu and company decide to run for office to keep the Snack Club alive.

Ask yourself this: why should anyone care about such a ordinary school activity? Especially with such bland, poorly written characters? Heck, the personalities and intrigue at my own high school were more interesting, and I barely participated in anything. The sloppy, generic character designs will put off viewers as well: scruffy-haired Yuu and his lineup of friends could easily be interchanged with the cast of any high school anime. The barely adequate animation speed and predictable school backgrounds aren't doing them any favors either. Surprisingly, the theme songs are more pleasant than they have any right to be ... but a few minutes of quality isn't worth the other twenty-plus minutes of awful.


Natsuyuki Rendezvous

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review:
Remember that one guy in Honey and Clover who said he couldn't win the girl of his dreams because he could never compete against her dead husband? Well, Natsuyuki Rendezvous re-examines the question and asks: What if you could? That's the challenge faced by twentysomething part-timer Hazuki, who starts working at a flower shop to get close to its proprietor, Rokka Shimao, only to learn that the ghost of her former spouse, Atsushi, is still lurking there. The episode does a clever job of hiding Atsushi's true nature, keeping both Hazuki and the viewer fooled until it's time to expose the truth. After the revelation at the halfway mark, the episode just keeps getting better as we see Hazuki and Atsushi taking verbal jabs at each other, while Rokka remains blissfully ignorant of the romantic turmoil right under her nose.

This love triangle with a supernatural twist may not be the most innovative premise, but it's well-executed for what it is. The sparks of rivalry between Hazuki and Atsushi are strong enough to drive it forward, while the atmosphere and small talk surrounding the flower shop give the series a welcoming slice-of-life feel. However, it loses points for having Hazuki start out too apathetic—it's hard to connect to a character like that, and his personality doesn't start to shine until he has the ghost to compete against. The casual chatter about jobs and family also makes the pacing too laid-back for some tastes; clearly this is a romantic drama designed to run on subtlety rather than heart-wrenching twists.

As expected from a josei manga adaptation, the character designs are built out of simple but expressive lines, and everyone looks just a bit too attractive to be running a humble neighborhood flower shop. Visual appeal also comes in the form of all the colorful flora in the background, while a light, jazz-tinged soundtrack adds the right emotional undercurrent during key moments of conversation. Whether or not Hazuki can defeat a dead husband in the game of love, it'll be fun watching it unfold.

Natsuyuki Rendezvous is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Utakoi

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review:
If you're like me, you have a Chihayafuru-shaped hole in your heart and are anxiously waiting for the second season of that show to come out. Thankfully, there's Utakoi to tide fans over in the meantime. Think of this as a Chihayafuru companion: each episode dramatizes the verses featured in the Hyakunin Isshu (Hundred Poets) collection, giving the inside story behind the poems used in the game of karuta.

Guiding the story forward is Fujiwara no Teika, the actual poet who compiled the Hyakunin Isshu. He introduces each of the two stories in this episode before letting the narrative speak for itself. The first half is a fairly standard tale of passion where Narihira, an incorrigible playboy, falls in love with Takaiko, a high-ranking lady at the imperial court, and tries to elope with her—with bittersweet results. The second story is less dramatic, but still interesting: it tells the tale of Narihira's more level-headed brother Yukihira, who has a stable marriage and a promising career but must take care to balance the two. Naturally, the high point of each story comes when the protagonist is inspired to compose a poem about his feelings. While these heart-stirring moments don't quite measure up to storylines that develop over 12 or 26 episodes, the portrayals do help to bring some personality (and even some sensuality) to a seemingly dry work of literature.

The artwork has a personality to it as well, with bold outlines and textured areas that give it a flat, "painted" appearance. Although clearly produced on a computer, the visuals have a strong, consistent style that pleases the eye, rather than looking fake. Animation ends up being the weak link, however, with the characters gliding across the screen from one pose to Another; that's the trade-off with having an unusual art style. Still, it's easy to be drawn into the historical ambience—the ornate costumes, the charming palace grounds, the wistful background music—and come out with a better understanding of the "hundred karuta poems."  

Utakoi is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse

Rating: 1.5 (of 5)

Review:

The only interesting thing to come out of Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse's first episode is its unique alternate-history take on 1990's Japan: Kyoto is the capital, the government still runs under the feudal system, and streetcars ply the city streets like it's 1920 all over again. Yet this is also an era where humanity has already made contact with aliens known as BETA, who unfortunately are a hostile species bent on taking over the Earth.

That's pretty much the only good part of the show. Everything else is a clumsy merger of two very overdone genres: schoolgirl drama and mecha warfare. That's right, these lovely young ladies who worry about personal friendships and doing well in class are also training to pilot extremely complex bipedal robots! Hey, who cares about plausibility when Japan still has a shogun and aliens are attacking Earth? (And just to remind you of the series' true target audience, there's a gratuitous changing-room scene where the girls are putting on ridiculously tight-fitting battle suits.) The heroine of the story is Yui, the daughter of a well-to-do family who finds herself and her friends called into combat after the BETA breach Kyoto's defenses. That's really all anyone needs to know, because the rest of it is as clichéd as they come: giant robot explosions, shady government dealings, and families putting on brave faces as they send their kids off to war.

The animation also comes across as a half-hearted job: most scenes are shot from boring straight-ahead angles, the characters have no life to their gestures, and the CGI work on the robots is painfully obvious. (Think they could borrow a few people from the EUREKA SEVEN AO crew to help?) The generic schoolgirl faces that pass for character designs also make it hard to remember or care about any of the main cast; they might as well just hide themselves in those clunky machines and go shoot off a few aliens. Oh wait, that's exactly what's going to happen anyway.

Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review:

Science fiction and storybook fantasy meet in Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita ("Humanity Has Declined"), which normally would be a good thing. But Episode 1 stumbles awkwardly in trying to make its point, coming out more as a collection of ideas than an actual story. The setting is a rustic world where the human race has regressed so badly that people don't even know how to slaughter chickens for meat. That's where the series' pink-haired protagonist, the so-called "U.N. Mediator," steps in: she helps the locals by communicating wisdom from the fairies living in her cottage. That's right, a bunch of adorable garden-gnome-like creatures are now the most intelligent species on the planet, and if it weren't for their assistance, Homo sapiens would probably die of starvation.

From this curious premise, however, stems a number of odd, disjointed scenes. The Mediator tries to help the village retrieve some chickens that went missing; she finds a stash of canned food from "FairyCo" that might relieve the current shortage (although she's not sure about how safe or tasty they are); she even grows back her long, flowing hair thanks to a bottle of FairyCo formula—which prompts the question, what was the point of her starting out with a short haircut anyway? The episode ends on the strangest note of all: a visit to the FairyCo plant, where the Mediator learns that these synthetic goods are actually coming from a surviving 21st-century-era factory. Cue the standard lecture about the evils of mass-manufactured goods. At the end, we see a cute little bread mascot explain how he is made ... then keel over in a pool of blood. In one word: What?

The sights and sounds of the series are all warm and inviting: pastel-toned colors, delicate character designs, rustic backgrounds, and gentle folk music playing along. The animation isn't anything spectacular, but works well enough to bring out the idyllic pace of the world. However, laying down some ideas and creating an appealing setting will only get you halfway; this one still lacks a sense of purpose to hold it together.

Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


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