The Summer 2013 Anime Preview Guide
Theron Martin

Jul 3rd 2013

When not bashing enemies on the Facebook game King's Road, engaging in board games like Agricola, Lords of Waterdeep, or Carcassone, or being envious of fellow staff members who could make it to Anime Expo, Theron pays the bills via tutoring and working in high schools, watches copious amounts of anime, and looks forward to upcoming movies like Pacific Rim, the Hunger Games and Thor sequels later this year, and especially next year's X-Men: Days of Future Past. In his evaluation, top anime titles so far this year include The Devil is a Part-Timer!, A Certain Scientific Railgun S, Attack on Titan, Kotoura-san, and the second half of From the New World.


Hyperdimension Neptunia

Rating: 1.5 (of 5)

Review: Hyperdimension Neptunia is derived from a like-named 2010 RPG for the PS3, which was itself meant to be a reference to/parody of the seventh generation era “console wars” between the PS3, Wii, and Xbox 360. Based on what's shown in the first episode, this series is either a sequel or a prequel to the original game, as the peace treaty being signed as the episode begins does not line up with the major thrust of the game's plot. Knowing this helps very little in explaining the largely nonsensical content, however.

The setting is a world not-so-subtly named Gamindustri, which seems to be populated entirely by girls and young women and which is divided into the lands of Planeptune, Lastation, Lowee, and Leanbox. (Can you guess which countries correspond to which game systems?) Each has a distinctly different theme, and each is ruled by a Goddess, whose public appeal earns her country all-important Shares. Though Goddesses had previously fought each other over Shares, they begin the series by signing a peace treaty which ends that practice so that each country can concentrate on internal development. The problem for Planeptune is that Neptune, the normal form of Planeptune's Goddess (each one has a Goddess form and a normal form), is something of a slacker in her role as CPU (i.e., the country's leader), so her country's Shares have been dropping of late. In order to dodge the criticism of friends and advisers, Neptune decides to seek training from a fellow Goddess of more regal bearing: Noire of Lastation. Some general foolishness and monster hunting transpires as part of this “training,” including Neptune and her compatriots nearly being overwhelmed by a pack of critters which look like meat buns with dog ears and mouths and Noire nearly being overwhelmed by a dragon who companion manages to negate her Goddess form. As the mess is cleaned up afterwards, a new threat seems to emerge.

A lot more inanity actually goes on than this, but this concept is enough of a mess as it is. The first episode is a feast for those who demand little more from their entertainment than a horde of creatively-dressed girls, and the magical girl-styled Goddess transformation scenes even allow satisfying both cute and sexy preferences. (And while this does involve some fan service, it isn't pervasive and mostly of the “jiggling while in sexy dresses” or “being molested by cute critters” types.) The computer/game–themed naming conventions – sisters named Ram and Rom pop up at one point, for instance – are also good for an occasional smirk or groan. So is the notion that magic use specifically looks like CG effects. If those factors do not quickly win you over, though, then the first episode does not offer much to latch onto or hold interest, as the concept, content, and world-building are all aggressively stupid and inane and the artistry and animation are not good enough to compensate.

Hyperdimension Neptunia is currently streaming on Funimation.com.


Fate/Kaleid Liner Prisma Ilya

Rating: 3.5 (of 5) for franchise fans, 2.5 (of 5) in general

Review: Back in the 1990s, the Tenchi Muyo! franchise generated an OVA spin-off called Magical Girl Pretty Sammy, which was based on a gag from one of its main-series episodes and featured one of the supporting characters as the star of a magical girl series where many of the other cast members were recast into various supporting and villain roles. This looks like pretty much the same exercise for the Fate/ franchise, only in this case there was no originating gag. And while it probably could be understood just fine by a complete franchise novice, those unfamiliar with at least Fate/stay night are going to miss quite a few in-jokes and sly references.

In this set-up Ilya von Einzbern is an ordinary upper grade school student who lives with her older step-brother Shirou. (The exact arrangement is not spelled out here, but apparently she was left in the care of Shirou's family.) She is a big fan of a particular magical girl series, and while sitting in the bath after marathoning it she idly wonders how it would be to be a magical girl. That catches the interest of Magical Ruby, a magical rod which just happens to be flying by nearby after it and its compatriot Magical Sapphire abandoned former masters Rin Tohsaka and Luvia, who were sent to Japan with the rods to accomplish a mission but wound up fighting each other over an ongoing scrap instead. Though Ilya is suspicious when Magical Ruby arrives and offers to turn her into a magical girl, the rod gives her no opportunity to refuse and transforms her anyway. The transformation spectacle catches the attention of Rin, whom Ruby literally left to plunge out of mid-air and who seeks to get the staff back – by force if necessary. When that doesn't work, she confronts Ilya with the duty that she must now perform in her role as a magical girl: to gather the Class Cards.

Those who were fans of Ilya and Rin in Fate/stay night will almost undoubtedly take a liking to this one, regardless of normal like or dislike for magical girl series, as they are the main focal points so far. (The original seiyuu for the characters even reprise their roles.) Naturally the personalities are substantially but not completely different - which is, of course, half the fun of a project like this – and naturally the series is laden with all of the standard magical girl trappings. It also definitely has its comedy moments, as Magical Ruby can be quite snarky, rude, and even a little perverted – definitely not the sugary-sweet and lovable mascot/companion item one normally sees in this kind of role. Those looking for a healthy dose of cute should also be aware, however, that this series is aimed much more at otaku than young girls, and as such it has elements in it that could easily be labeled as lolicon content, with a possible stepbrother complex thrown in for good measure. If that kind of stuff squicks you out then avoid this one.

The visuals and technical merits are only mediocre, but with a built-in fan base at its disposal it hardly needs to rely on quality artistry draw viewers in. While it doesn't do anything impressive as a magical girl series, the guest appearances suggested by the owner indicate that this should be a fun ride as a new franchise work.

Fate/Kaleid Liner Prisma Ilya is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.


Danganronpa The Animation

Rating: 1.5 (of 5)

Review: Makoto Naegi is a perfectly normal student who won a lottery to get into a special school supposedly designed for incredible talents: Hope's Peak Academy. He passes out immediately upon arriving, though, and wakes up in an empty classroom whose windows are bolted shut with steel plates. Following a notice for an entrance ceremony, he goes to the gym to find fourteen other rather unique individuals, each of whom is “super” in some category, whether it be as a super-idol, a super-gambler, a super-scion, a super-outlaw biker, or whatever. (Some of the categories are pretty ridiculous things to be “super” in, and seem to be used mostly to give a shell personality to the character.) No one knows what's going on until Principal Monobear, who looks like half-white, half-black teddy bear with a fixed half-grin and a freakish left eye, appears and explains that they are all stuck here for the duration – of their lives, that is. One can only get out sooner by killing a fellow student by any means. Naturally the students reject this and look for another way out. After three days of such piddling around Monobear apparently gets bored and decides the up the ante a bit by showing each of the students pictures implying violence to their loved ones. Meanwhile Makoto connects with Sayaka Maizono, the super-idol, whom he went to middle school with but never thought that he was on her radar.

So yeah, this is just the latest angle on the people-caught-in-a-deadly-game concept, and it is not off to a promising start. Its biggest overall problem is that it is a slave to the widely-used formula: it has the requisite closed environment, the requisite madman/sinister organization with motives that seem inscrutable if they are not just pure sadism, and the requisite diverse array of different backgrounds and personality types. Following that formula would not necessarily be a problem, as it has worked in the past, if the series had not made a grave misstep in judgment: it places too much emphasis on making a super-colorful array of characters that are outlandish to a silly degree, both visually and behaviorally and to a degree that, by the end of the episode, some viewers will be anxiously awaiting certain characters getting killed off just to be rid of their obnoxiousness. (And apparently characters will die, too, as the episode ends with a “students left” counter. This also raises the mildly interesting question of how the extremity of a character's personality will correlate to their life expectancy in the school.)  Studio Lerche is handling its first full TV series with this project, but director Seiji Kishi and scripter Makoto Uezo have teamed up on several other projects before (including last year's Humanity Has Declined and Kamisama Dolls) and should have known better that such stories depend much more heavily on setting the tone than outlandishness, and a convincing tone is the thing that this first episode most desperately lacks. But perhaps they were constrained by its game origins?

Either way, the first episode suffers from lack of freshness, lack of sufficiently compelling content or characters (one might get suckered in by Sayaka, who will probably eventually turn out to have some kind of dark side), and artistry that is more stylish than good. Its musical score is respectable, but otherwise this is, so far, a failure in almost every way.

Danganronpa The Animation is currently streaming at Funimation.com.


Gatchaman Crowds

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review: The original Gatchaman was one of the defining anime titles of the 1970s and is one of the most important and influential of all anime titles, so any reuse of its name, logos, and “Bird, Go!” catchphrase is a big deal. That's about all that this new effort from original creator Tatsunoko Productions has in common with the original. It is otherwise substantially different conceptually, takes itself nowhere near as seriously, and seems much more willing to follow existing anime trends than establish new ones. In being modernized it becomes a completely different animal. Whether or not that matters may largely depend on whether or not you have ever seen and appreciated the original.

This time around Gatchaman are individuals, chosen by a godlike being named JJ, whose spiritual prowess has been extracted from them and embodied in a NOTE, a sort of special notebook which allows holders to transmit messages between each other, use an Amnesia Effect to mask their presence, and in some cases manifest a power-armored form. Their assigned task is to deal with alien criminals and other threats to humanity, with the most prominent recent problem being the MESS, tentacle-sporting aliens who absorb people and can take on a wide range of alternate forms. While the overall leader of the team is Paiman, an alien who looks like a miniature panda, the team's main striker is the serious-minded Sugune. Both of them have a difficult time dealing with the newest recruit, the hyper-enthusiastic Hajime, who is a complete fruitcake but nonetheless seems to catch on quickly, even manifesting her armor (see screenshot) in her very first mission appearance, which some Gatchaman cannot do at all.

The series seems to simultaneously be aiming for both youthful and otaku crowds, an attempt which results in some weirdly silly affectations and mixes of elements, such as one Gatchaman who wears a bikini in their HQ and another who is a cute, talking panda. The transformation scenes are distinctively tame in terms of fan service, but there is nothing tame about the visuals. Gatchaman HQ is an explosion of riotous color, fantastic art design, and psychedelic flavoring and the combat armors are somewhat suggestive of Tiger & Bunny, while characters and normal settings look somewhat flat. Expect some funky dance beats in the musical score, too. The villains look worrisomely uninteresting, however.

In all, the first episode is just plain weird, and that's mostly what it has going for it so far. Get beyond that weirdness and it's just another series about sometimes-flaky super-powered individuals protecting the world.

Gatchaman Crowds is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.


Silver Spoon

Rating: 3 (of 5)
 
Review: Yuugo Hachiken, a city kid from Sapporo, chose Oezo Agricultural High School entirely on the strength of it being a residential school, as he doesn't (for as-yet-unexplained reasons) want to ever go home. Though he meets the pretty, friendly Aki (atop a disturbingly huge horse!) early on, he otherwise quickly realizes that he is utterly out of his element. He is the only student in his class who does not already have a fixed goal that involves taking over or establishing a family farm or some other agricultural-related goal, he does not know his way around the animals that he must deal with at all, he has adverse reactions to the sights and smells of a farm setting, and while his classmates are hardly gifted at traditional academics, they can talk well above his head on matters like breeding and cloning cattle. He doesn't have the stamina that many of his farm-background classmates seem to have, either, and has a difficult time reconciling how eggs are actually produced. How will he adapt?

The first episode largely succeeds at what seems to be its two main goals: to produce a lightly humorous fish-out-of-water story and to explore the details of life in a farm setting. Whether or not that's actually interesting is another story. At the very least the emphasis on such a radically different setting provides a fresher angle for what it otherwise a fairly standard approach and opens up a fresher batch of possibilities for humor. Sometimes it does actually succeed in being funny, too, although some jokes are practically beaten to death by the end of the episode; the whole business with where a chicken egg comes from is one of these. It also does toss in a couple of comments that might be of particular interest to Western viewers, such as how the way the chickens are managed at the school would probably not be regarded as acceptable by U.S. standards. And woe to anyone watching this who's a little squeamish! The scene where the chicken gets its head cut off is done so matter-of-factly that it comes off as a joke, though one sure to inspire more than a few uncomfortable laughs.

The technical merits are decent but nothing exceptional, with an odd mix of normal and caricatured character designs, so the series will not carry itself on its visuals. The emphasis on the farm content does not leave much room for character or relationship development, either, although it does establish a diverse bunch of characters to be Yuugo's teammates. Thus how much entertainment value this one has may largely come down to how entertaining you find farms to be and/or how enthusiastic you are about learning how farms actually work.

Silver Spoon is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.


Free! episode 2

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: Rin gets his desired swimming match with Haruka, and even though we later learn that he wins, he seems dissatisfied with Rin's nonplussed reaction to his loss. After Haruka, Nagisa, and Makoto get chewed out for their unauthorized visit to another school, Nagisa proposes that they establish their own swim club at Iwatobi High School, partly in the hopes of getting to swim again with Rin at competitions, and to Makoto's astonishment, Haruka agrees. They manage to convince Miss Amakata, whom they learn was once a swimsuit company employee, to be their faculty advisor, even though she has sworn off ever wearing a swimsuit again. (The implication here is that she was actually once a swimsuit model and doesn't want that to be common knowledge.) Their application is approved on the condition that they round up another member and fix the school's pool, which has pretty much gone to pot. That necessary fourth member turns out to be Kou, who offers to be their manager and perhaps sees this as a chance to eventually reconnect with a brother (Rin) who won't communicate with her. In encountering an old coach from their elementary swim club, Makoto also get an inkling of what the problem is that caused Haruka to quit his middle school swim team and have such a strained relationship with Rin.

Whatever else one might say about this series, it looks damn good. The second episode only reaffirms that this is one of the best-animated and most attractive-looking series so far this year, and even some obvious shoujo styling cannot interfere with that. And it isn't just the guys, either; Kou is rather fetching in her own right, as one male character pointedly notices. The male hardbodies are the main feature, though, and the female-oriented fan service that was so prominent in the first episode gets taken to obvious parody levels in this episode, as typified by Kou's starry-eyed reactions. First-time director Hiroko Utsumi and her (?) Kyoto Animation team seem to perfectly understand that they could not so blithely pass these scenes off as jokes if  they featured girls instead of boys, so they are exploiting that for all it's worth. Now that the character establishment is out of the way, the second episode also much more freely flashes its sense of humor, such as taking Haruka's obsession with being in water to such an extreme that Nagisa and Makoto have to stop him from stripping down and stepping into a swim tank (clearly this will be one of the series’ running jokes) or Makoto imagining Haruka as a swim club coach/president. And it mostly works, too.

But there's also some actual story and character development here as well. Yeah, Nagisa is stereotypically annoying – why does it seem like every shoujo series has a character like him? – but he still has his moments and more is revealed about Rin and Haruka's relationship which gives insight into both. Kou looks like she has some actual character, too, and Miss Amakata is not short on personality, either. Granted, the development is still pretty shallow so far and none of the characters are particularly fresh, but it's a step in the right direction. Sadly, the singing on the opener still stinks.

Even if you find all of those pecs and triceps to be a turn-off, there's still enough entertainment value here for this one to be worth watching.

Free! is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.


Sunday Without God

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review:  
On Monday, God created the world. On Tuesday through Friday, God did a lot of other things that don't match up well with the biblical Book of Genesis's account. On Saturday God rested. And on Sunday he told everyone that they're pretty much screwed.

Okay, that isn't really what heroine Ai explains to the viewer shortly after the opener, but that is essentially what it amounts to: God told everyone that he had failed, and that there was no room left on the other side for anyone, so in effect no one could die anymore. The only way to put someone to permanent rest who would otherwise become the living dead is for that person to be buried by a Gravekeeper. At age seven, when her mother got into that state, Ai was told that she would have to take up her mother's mantle as the village Gravekeeper, a duty she takes to quite seriously over the next five years even though no one else has needed her services since then. When a strange, pretty man shows up in the village and “immobilizes” everyone, Ai initially thinks he's her father, as he claims the name Hampnie Hambart, which Ai was told was also her absent father's name. As it turns out, though, that is the name of a fairy-tale character, and Ai cannot possibly be a Gravekeeper since she does have parents, and Gravekeepers don't. With Ai left alone and with her world crashing down, she can find nothing else to do but follow the strange man – which leads to her supposedly meeting a real Gravekeeper.

The concept here, if it turns out to really be the truth about the world and not just some enormous troll, is a fascinating one with lots of ugly implications. So of course an anime series is using a cute, too-fragile-looking girl clad in an incongruously-elaborate outfit to explore it, complete with a cute-looking spade, which gives the visual impression of a magical girl set-up. That and a random semi-comedy exchange between Ai and the newcomer very nearly sink the dark tone and sense of mystery and misdirection that the story is carefully trying to build, especially when director Yuuji Kumazawa (The Ambition of Oda Nobuna) and his Madhouse Studios team feel the need early on to throw in a scene that is virtual lolicon bait. Fortunately the concept may be strong enough to weather that, as the first episode raises an awful lot of intriguing questions. Chief among them: why did this man kill off everyone in the village if he was merely looking for one woman? Why did everyone insist that Ai was a Gravekeeper if she really wasn't? Why did her mother lie about her father? And what is a Gravekeeper, really, and how much else of what Ai was told was a lie?  It is definitely enough to entice someone to see a second episode, but that the series’ gritty content is actively at war with its cute element is worrisome. If the series does not find a better way to integrate them then it will always be a problem and the series will miss a golden opportunity to do something truly interesting.

Sunday Without God is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.


WATAMOTE

Rating:
4.5 (of 5)

Review:  
Tomoko Kuroki is a social misfit par excellence. Though supposedly normal when younger, she found it so difficult to speak to people in middle school that she made no friends, much less boyfriends. She firmly believes that becoming a high school girl will change that – because, you know, high school is the best time of one's life. (The implication here is that she also believes that not-ugly high school girls are also inherently desirable.) A couple of months into high school, though, she finds that nothing has changed, and even starts finding herself getting irritated with those around her who lead normal social lives. She decides that she has to change, but that's not so easy when she's too timid to speak to anyone outside of her family and gets more of her notions about interactions with boys from otome games. (The implication her is that she is starting to realize that such communication is fake, though.) When changing her appearance turns out to be something she feels uncomfortable with, she decides to change her inner self, but that's not so easy and her reluctant brother isn't much help.

WATAMOTE,
which is the mercifully short anagram for No Matter How I Look At It, It's You Guys’ Fault I'm Not Popular!, is a series meant to come across as very funny, and it is – unless you were (or are) a painfully shy social outsider at that age, in which case it may strike uncomfortably close to home. Sure, some of this is exaggerated, but probably not much; how many teenagers feel like they have a fiery personality on the inside, but simply cannot break out of their self-imposed shells and relate to classmates because they are socially awkward? While this topic has been broached in many other series over the years, and has even been dealt with from a female perspective before, this first episode sticks out because it seems determined to approach the issue from an anti-moe, anti-shoujo, anti-everything-anime-normally-does perspective. And that's a big part of why it's great and why Tomoko is easily one of the most interesting and refreshing characters to come along this year. She probably could be cute if she tried, but that's not in her nature; she is an emo-leaning punk rock-chick-to-be, whether she want to admit it or not.

The impression is reinforced by a musical score heavy on metal pieces and an outstandingly-animated, outstanding funny heavy metal paean of an opener, which is easily the year's best to date. She has a spectacular character design, too (see the screenshot) which is also easily among the year's best to date – not because it's pretty, but because it stands out and declares her as an individual rather than just another anime cardboard cutout. Director Shin Oonuma and his SILVER LINK team depart quite a bit from the visual gimmickry he showed last year in Dusk maiden of Amnesia by using an entirely different set of visual gimmicks, such as characters other than Tomoko usually being shown with undefined features, but it still works. Kudos also to Izumi Kitta (Cordelia in the Milky Holmes titles) for bring Tomoko  to life and the original and adapted writing for crafting a character who seems semi-aware that she's entirely to blame for her own problems but still looks to cast blame elsewhere.

Maintaining what this series starts in its first episode is going to be tricky, but so far it looks like a major winner.

WATAMOTE is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.


Dog and Scissors episode 2

Rating:
3 (of 5)

Review:  
The series’ advertising copy pitches it as an “absurd mystery comedy.” Since the first episode was tied up with establishing the premise, this second episode seems to go out of its way to show how that description is deserved. To an extent it succeeds at that, although it is more than a bit tonally erratic in the process and a little too random for its own good.

As shown at the end of the last episode, Kirihime takes Kazuhito to the apartment building where he used to live to do a bit of investigating. What last episode did not show us is that, along the way there, the duo encounters a couple of very strange characters: the buff maid shows up again randomly and the blond idol singer makes an equally random debut, too, although what she's trying to do and why is a mystery. (The implication is that Kirihime might know her personally.) Once they get there, it turns out that Kirihime is pretty sharp at sleuthing, too, and soon the two have Kazuhito's killer confronted on a highway overpass. Then the series once again turns randomly strange as a bizarre, poorly-executed fight sequence commences involving the killer attempting to fight using fictional fighting methods seen in the books Kirihime wrote. Then the series turns sober again as the emotional fallout from Kazuhito's death comes to a head – although from Kirihime, not Kazuhito, who is remarkably less bitter about his fate than one might expect. (At least in this case, though, the groundwork for Kirihime feeling guilty over this was laid last episode.) Then, as they are returning home, things turn strange again as Kirihime shows some uncharacteristic vulnerability and starts contemplating the impracticalities of mating with a dog. Then, to close things out, we get random flashes of a couple of other characters who will presumably fit into the story as things progress.

Notice how often “randomly” came up in the preceding paragraph?  It's an apt description for this series so far. It seems to be aiming to be eccentric, and it does succeed fairly well on some points, but right now it is trying to do and be too many things at once. Its saving grace so far is that Kazuhito is great  as a dog – far more interesting than he would have been as a human, without a doubt. The relationship he's forming with Kirihime is pretty cool, too, when the series dispenses with the forced bits about her making implied threats towards him involving scissors, and hints are dropped that the series will deal with the consequences of Kazuhito's death on his family. It has shown the capability to handle serious content, so that looks promising. For the series to succeed overall, though, it must find a smoother balance of its various elements and decide more firmly what is most important to prioritize. And definitely, keep the action scenes to a minimum if they aren't going to be any better than that!

Dog and Scissors is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.


Stella Womens’ Academy, High School Division Class C3

Rating:  5 (of 5)

Review:  Every so often a series comes along which defies expectations to such a jaw-dropping degree that it deserves special recognition, and so far this is the one for this season. Its first episode is nothing less than a complete reimagining of what “girls with guns” can be, one which dispenses with all of the trashiness, crassness, and stock personality types that all-too-often litter this subgenre and instead produces something that is compellingly sweet and cute while still being amazingly conceptually convincing.

Yura Yamoto badly wants to change her timid, socially awkward self, hence the reason why she worked hard and passed the entrance exam for the exclusive, palatial Stella Women's Academy. Although she still feels isolated, as she does not easily fall into the friendships that she sees forming around her, all seems wonderful until she feels a lump under her bed's pillow and discovers a rather large hand gun. She then further discovers that her upperclassman roommate has a copious collection of military gear and movies. That leads to her playing Rambo in the room, and her getting discovered doing so by one of the few people on campus who would fully appreciate her weird behavior: one of the girls of the C3 club, a club devoted to airsoft (essentially pellet gun) play, although they also eat cake and sweets and drink tea. They eventually manage to cajole Yura into joining them for a group game of Rambo – an experience which definitely opens Yura's eyes, for the other four girls take the exercise quite enthusiastically and seriously.

Fledgling director Masayoshi Kawajiri hits a home run in his first effort here as he leads a Gainax crew in a first episode that is a technical marvel. The artwork at the beginning may be cutesy, and the school may be one of these ridiculously overblown academies for the wealthy, but seeing such a reserved-seeming girl as Yura playing Rambo on her own is a sputter-worthy moment, and the artistic and animation effort in the group Rambo game at the end is no joke. Gainax has somehow made a sequence in which the girls remain marvelously sweet and gloriously cute even while engaged in very real-looking, no-shortcuts-taken military tactics; viewers will easily be able to appreciate the awe Yura feels as she watches this play out. (And it's all scrupulously clean, too, without even the faintest hit of prurient fan service – a surprise for a Gainax title.) But there's more to it than just that; this episode, without being forceful about it, shows us how Yura may be discovering the place and people which will allow her to break out of her social shell, and it does so with a resonance and feel that one typically only finds in Gainax projects.

If the rest of the series can maintain what this first episode sets in motion then this one could be the season's surprise winner.

Stella Women's Academy is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.


High School DxD New

Rating: 4.5 (of 5) for fan service, 2.5 overall.

Review: The first season of High School DxD ranked up with So, I Can't Play H! and Queen's Blade: Rebellion as one of the most fan service-focused, nudity-laden titles of 2012, so it being popular enough to warrant a second season is hardly a surprise. The first episode of this second season does not lose track of what made its first season so successful, as it waits all of four seconds (literally!) before showing its first bared nipples. Many other such scenes, panty shots, and other provocative scenes also come up before the episode is over, including a closer that is virtually wall-to-wall nudity involving the entire young female cast, and most of it is quite attractively – even lovingly – portrayed, too. If male-oriented fan service is primarily what you're looking for then this should be a treat, as the second season looks like it will fully maintain the standards set by the first season.

The first episode does actually have a story, too. In the wake of the first season's events Rias is now living at Issei's house, which means that Issei occasionally wakes up with a naked Rias in his bed – which delights him but seems to make Asia jealous. While having a club meeting at Issei's house (because their normal club room is undergoing its annual cleaning), Issei's mother brings out embarrassing pictures of a young Issei, but one particular photo of Issei playing with a onetime childhood friend catches Yuuto's interest because of a sword in the background. The next night he is still distracted, to the point that it interferes with efforts to smoothly take down a Stray Devil. Issei and Asia learn from Rias that the sword in the picture is probably a Holy Sword and that Yuuto has a past bad connection to one particular blade, enough so that his true purpose is to find and destroy that sword. While a couple of new female characters show up on the scene and look likely to cause some trouble, an old problem also resurfaces.

Studio TNK and director Tatsuya Yanagisawa are back producing this sequel, so the production values remain about the same as the first season: not stellar, but definitely a grade above average. The storytelling offers enough potential plot threads and complication that the series cannot fairly be accused of purely being a fan service vehicle, and it is far from the most reprehensible example of its type in terms of being crudely exploitive, but fan service is still the focus here. If that is not your thing then you shouldn't be trying to watch this franchise.


Blood Lad

Rating: 4.5 (of 5)

Review: Based on a manga by Yūki Kodama (which is being released in the States by Yen Press), Blood Lad tells the story of the misfortunately-named Staz, who looks like an unemployed slacker but happens to be both a vampire and one of the territory bosses of the Demon World (which essentially makes him a gang leader). Unlike his ancestors, Staz has never encountered humans and doesn't suck their blood, but he is a total otaku who adores all things Japanese, so when he learns that a human girl has wandered into his territory he is practically beside himself with joy and is even more ecstatic when she turns out to be Japanese. He also finds himself inexplicably attracted to Fuyumi (the implication being that it's more because of her blood and her cuteness than because she's busty), so he decided to protect her. When that fails and she gets eaten by a plant, resulting in her being reborn as a ghost, he loses the attraction but decides to get it back, so he vows to find a way to restore her to life. First, though, is a trip to the human world – something that he's long been dying to do – through a portal that brought Fuyumi here in the first place.

Blood Lad may not end up being the best new series of the season, but without question it has the potential to be one of the most entertaining. Its production by Brains Base creates a vibrant-looking, visually appealing world with all sorts of interesting-looking characters, a very stylish look, and surprisingly high production values, which make this one a visual treat to watch. Even more importantly than that, though, the first episode is just flat-out fun. Yeah, the whole business about Staz being a otaku may seem a little too gimmicky at first, but that doesn't keep him from radiating plenty of attitude, and an action scene where he quickly and decisively deals with someone trying to push into his territory makes it absolutely clear why he's a boss despite his odd proclivities. His dedication to being an original rather than just a stereotypical vampire has sometimes-comical results, but it definitely establishes him as his own person rather than just another archetypal cliché. Fuyumi, for her part, seems to take being slain and turned into a ghost (which seems to give her physical form in the Demon World) in stride and quickly and smoothly fits into the dynamics. Clearly she's meant to be the eye candy, but she is instantly more likable than that – and boy, does she have a cute skull.

This one's a winner, folks. And mark my words: it will (or at the very least should) make its way to Toonami at some point.

Blood Lad is currently streaming at Viz Media.


Fantasista Doll

Rating: 2 (of 5)

Review: Uzume was once a world-class card tournament player, but by the time she gets into middle school that's a thing of the past for her. After someone slips a smart phone-like device into her bag on a train, she starts seeing things – images briefly appearing in glass and reflections – and gets the sense of being followed. In a panic after one such incident, a voice offers her a chance to fill out an entry to get assistance. When she does, a girl who later introduces herself as Sasara appears, claims that she is a Fantasista Doll, and will act on Uzume's behalf to defend her from an attacker seeking a “card.” Uzume soon figures out that cards that came with the phone can be used not only to equip Sasara but also, later on, to summon up four other Dolls as well, which she initially mistakes for being servants that she can order around rather than acting on her behalf by mutual agreement. A mysterious figure named Lord Rafflesia also appears to welcome her into the game.

Cross a magical girl series with one of those card-playing games where the hero/heroine used a card to summon a critter to fight for him/her and you essentially have this new offering, which is apparently being released as a cross-media production. (Three related manga are also being released simultaneously and a cell phone-based game is due later this year.) The mechanics of it are closer to Pokémon than Cardcaptor Sakura, though, as Uzume does not transform herself and the Dolls, once summoned, are quite capable of sticking around for a while and acting independently. It has a definite “dress the doll” element to it, too, as unless a card is used to equip them the Dolls appear in basic white shifts (see the screen shot) similar to the way unclothed paper dolls often look. That suggests that the content is more aimed at girls than pandering to otaku, although given the basic personalities shown so far it could still easily be interpreted that way, too. Presumably each of the Dolls will eventually show some kind of specialty, but all we get to see in this episode is that Sasara is super-strong and a quite capable physical fighter.

Hoods Entertainment, the studio behind The Qwaser of Stigmata and Mysterious Girlfriend X, creates a very different-looking production here, one which places the greatest emphasis on the uniforms in general and designs of the Dolls in particular. The artistic effort is otherwise nothing special and the one fight scene definitely does not have the animation quality or visual zing to it seen in Qwaser. It also does not have any overt fan service, although the camera focus is a little suggestive at times.

In all, this one will have to show quite a bit more than it has so far to be classified as anything more than just fluff.

Fantasista Doll is currently streaming on Crunchyroll


The Eccentric Family

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review: Although Kyoto has developed into a great city inhabited by humans over time, it is also inhabited by tanuki who move through the earth and tengu who soar through its skies. One such tanuki is Yasaburo, a young adult male who has not really lived up to expectations but largely doesn't care, as he has devoted himself to leading “an interesting life.” That often results in him masquerading in human form, and his form of choice for most of this episode is that of a pretty high school girl. When he makes a visit to an old, crippled tengu whom he regards as his former Master, he is imposed upon to deliver a love letter to a female tengu whom both of them once knew and whom the Master is still sweet on, even though she has changed dramatically over the years. Yasaburo's method of delivering the message – with a bow shot aimed near her while she attends a social gathering – does not sit well with Satomi (now known as Benten), which results in some words exchanged at a bar as the rest of the patrons scurry off. And while Satomi does ultimately go to visit the Master, clearly she has mixed feelings about doing so.

This series is based on a novel by the author of the source novel for The Tatami Galaxy, and it first episode has much the same kind of breezy, conversational feel. The story is much more about what the characters say than do, a style which is definitely not going to work for everyone. For those who do not mind this storytelling style, though, it is an intriguing departure from the anime norm. So is Yasaburo, a Free! spirit who smokes and drinks and talks like a man despite looking like a schoolgirl (and yes, this is a bit unsettling, though not necessarily off-putting); he does not easily fall into any normal anime character archetype. This results in a slightly perverse sense of humor to go along with numerous potentially interesting story hooks.

Also defying expectations is the artistic effort by P.A. Works, a studio which has made a name for itself with quality animation efforts over the past couple of years. Here, though, they are either off the mark or aiming for a peculiar artistic style, one in which characters commonly have boxy-looking ears and character rendering is not as sharp as one is used to seeing from them. Still, the animation is good and has some interesting attention to detail, such as how Yasaburo does not quite move like a girl while in girl form. (While this could be accidental, it seems a little too deliberately-shown for that to be the case.) One scene where he decides to alter his appearance slightly because one of his breasts gets in the way of making his bow shot is definitely worthy of a sputter. Combine that with a solid writing effort and the series shows a lot of potential.

The Eccentric Family is currently streaming on Crunchyroll


Maji Ouji: Devils and Dealist

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review: William Twining is a member of one of England's most prestigious lineages, and he knows it. As it turns out, though, he is from an even more prominent lineage than he could have possibly imagined. Ever the realist, William eschews thoughts of God or the supernatural in favor of science and formula, a belief that isn't easily shaken even when he comes home to find that his uncle has bankrupted the family with bad investments, that only his loyal butler Kevin remains, and that a magic circle in a basement room summons a man who claims to be Dantalion, a Grand Duke of Hell. William, of course, doesn't believe him and has him hauled off as a trespasser, but he soon discovers that the whole business with him being a descendant of King Solomon and thus an Elector for Hell (a job which means that he gets to choose a stand-in for Lucifer while the big boss sleeps) may have something to it when he gets transported to a different world, is attended by a butler who has the head of a goat, and is visited by Gilles de Rais, another devil who came seeking to pick a fight with Dantalion for reasons of politics and personal advancement. Of course William discovers before the end that he has some kind of power that can shut demons (or at least Dantalion!) down, and of course Dantalion shows up at the end as a transfer student in William's school, because Grand Dukes of Hell apparently have nothing better to do than play school.

An opening scene featuring Dantalion and Solomon getting closer than most guys would be comfortable with quickly indicates that this is a series aimed at female fans, a fact indisputably reinforced by the closing post-Next Preview scene. (If you've seen Hiiro no Kakera, it's the same kind of thing.) The first episode also does not take too long after that to show that, for all of the metaphysical trappings, it is not intended to be taken seriously. That's good, because the premise is utterly ridiculous. The characters are entertaining enough so far that the series can get away with it, and the first episode does show a significant action component, too, so the series is not entirely dependent on its handsome male character designs to carry the load. It also inserts a weird bit of history by including Gille de Rais, though it could explain who he is so that the reference to his “virgin” makes sense; that he was one of the key loyalists of Joan of Arc, and was later executed under the strong suspicion that he was a serial killer of children, is hardly common knowledge. (And the closer suggests that Joan might appear herself at some point.) Of course, the notion that Solomon was blond-haired and blue-eyed is rather silly, too, so historical accuracy clearly isn't a priority.

The technical merits of the series are good enough but nothing outstanding. Director Chiaki Kon has a directing background primarily in female audience-oriented titles but has also directed fare like Zakuro and the Higurashi series, and she uses that more diverse experience here to restrain the content from doing too much to scare away potential male audiences; the two aforementioned scenes are the only ones that could reasonably make a straight male viewer uncomfortable. The artistic style is not heavily ground in shojo manga style points, either, which helps a lot. Ultimately, though, this series mostly just looks like a gender-reversed version of a gimmick that has played out countless times in male viewer-oriented titles.

Makai Ouji: Devils and Realist is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.


KINMOZA!

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: Middle school (?) girl Shinobu gets the chance of a lifetime: a homestay for a week in the English countryside as a guest of one of her mother's friends. There she meets the small, like-aged daughter of the Cartalet household, the blond-haired Alice, who is initially very timid around Shinobu and, unlike her mother, does not speak Japanese. Shinobu can only speak a little English, so the language barrier is a problem, too, but Alice eventually warms up to Shinobu to the point where the two are friends by the time Shinobu leaves to return home. A couple of years later Shinobu is attending high school back in Japan when an air mail letter arrives from Alice, but she and her friends can only partly read it because it is written in English. The basic gist of it is that Alice is coming to Japan, and as Shinobu soon discovers, she's going to be attending school with Shinobu – and now she speaks rather good Japanese, too!

From watching the first episode, one would never guess that this series, whose full name is Kin-iro Mosaic, is actually based on a four-panel manga, as it has the narrative smoothness more typical of a novel or regular manga adaptation. This appears to be just a foundation episode, though, as the main thrust of the series seems like it's going to be about Alice living with Shinobu and attending school in Japan. (What will presumably be the opener, which is shown near the end of the episode, also shows another blond character who may be a foreigner, but she is not introduced here.) It is pleasantly cute, even merry, in the way it spins its set-up story, and it provides enough reason to justify why Alice might want to take the big step of going to school in Japan. The gentle tone suggest that this will be more a light comedy with some fish-out-of-water content than a slapstick comedy, but that's fine; low-key comedies are in short supply in anime, so this could be a pleasant change of pace show.

The artistry and technical merits of the show provide some curious contrasts, as some parts have sharply-drawn backgrounds but others use scenes that look like they were lifted from a water color painting. Character design and rendering quality also varies some, but the music stays consistently low-key. The most attention-catching aspect of the production is that it does, in fact, use quite a bit of English dialogue, and the accents and slightly hesitant manner of delivery make it clear that Japanese voice actors are doing it. (It also make an interesting detail catch by having Alice give her name in English order when introducing herself in class.) Still, they at least made the effort, and this language duality does allow the insertion of language misunderstanding jokes, such as one amusing scene where Shinobu is saying “hello” when she really should be should be saying “good-bye. Overall, though, the series is off to a promising start.

KINMOZA! is currently streaming on Crunchyroll


Monogatari Series Second Season

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: Once again, a series with problematic naming conventions. Although it is the fourth title to date to be released in the franchise, this one gets the “Second Season” designation presumably because its first story is technically a follow-up to last December's Nekomonogatari (Black). (It is based on the franchise's seventh novel, Nekomonogatari (White).) To complicate matters even further, its events actually take place about a week after the end of Nisemonogatari and will apparently interact with another arc that will presumably follow, as the circumstances behind where Araragi is during these events and what Mayoi has to do with them are described in the following novel.

In this story Koyomi Araragi is completely absent, so the focus is on Tsubasa. On the morning of August 21st she has a strange encounter with Mayoi, who claims to have been dragged off to the Araragi household the night before and left her trademark backpack there. After promising her that she will tell Koyomi about it, Tsubasa encounters a massive, talking tiger which she suspects is an aberration. Though she talks some with Hitagi about it, she is distracted from worrying about it by the house in which she lives burning down. Under the guise of staying at a friend's house, Tsubasa instead goes to stay at the ruined cram school, where Hitagi finds her and takes Tsubasa to her place. While Hitagi provocatively teaser Tsubasa about wanting to show with her to see her naked body, Koyomi sends a message to inform them that he's busy.

If you're not already a fan of the Monogatari series way of doing things then this new one will not change your mind, as stylistically speaking it is just more of the same. The only difference here is that the artistic standards seem to have taken a significant drop-off, even though SHAFT and Shinbo are back animating it again, as nothing looks quite as crisp or sharp as the earlier series in the franchise. The content delves a little more into Tsubasa's problematic family situation, and offers a couple of big hooks for story threads, but as per the norm for the franchise, it frets a lot of time away in self-reflection or verbose conversations. It maintains the franchise's fan service traditions, too, by putting Ms. Senjyogahara in her underwear for a significant amount of time late in the episode and once again having her act in a manner where it is hard to tell whether or not she is deliberately being provocative and whether or not it's serious or a joke.

The entry barrier is pretty high on this one, so it is recommended for dedicated franchise fans only.

Monogatari Series Second Season is currently streaming on Daisuki


Genshiken Second Season

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review: First, a clarification is needed on some potential naming confusion. Although this series is named “Second Season,” after the name assigned to its source manga (which is regarded as a continuation of the original Genshiken manga rather than a separate series by some listings), it is actually the third TV series (and fourth series overall, if one counts a trio of OVAs separately) in the franchise. As a result, merely being familiar with the original 2004 anime series is not enough; those who have not seen or at least familiarized themselves with the events of Genshiken 2 will be lost about who some of the characters present at the beginning are and what happened to most of the original members, as Kanako Ohno is the only regular from the first season who is integrally involved. The rest make only cameo appearances.

But that's fine, because it looks like this season will have its own diverse bunch of characters to work with, and besides, the natural feel of the series would take on an unnatural caste if members did not regularly graduate and move on. At this point in the story Chika Ogiue has taken over the club president duties, which means trying to correct the previous year's failure to draw some new blood into the club. That's precisely how she does it, too: draw. Her creation of a bulletin board-sized picture in the club recruitment alley does attract a trio of new members, all girls – or at least it seems that way at first, because one of them is actually a guy cross-dressing very convincingly as a girl, and he insists on only coming to the club room as a she. That creates a dilemma for the club, mostly not because of the gender-bending but because there is no good place for him to change on campus without stirring up trouble. The obvious solution is, of course, to impose on a former loyal club member who still lives near campus.

The new cast members offer a lot of promise, as it adds an ardent fujoshi (the subtitles use “rotten girl”), a more level-headed big girl, and the cross-dresser who acts like a timid girl but also knows some judo – and really, where better would a cross-dresser fit in than in a club which includes dedicated cosplayers? Ohno's American friend Sue is also back as a permanent fixture as a student, resident screwball, and hard-core cosplayer, including her eerily accurate portrayal of the Monogatari series' Shinobu. The writing is par for the course for the franchise as the new members comfortably settle in with amazing speed, but Michiko Yote, who has scripted all previous installments of the franchise, has a lot to do with that, and director Tsutomu Mizushima is also back after not being involved in Genshiken 2. Production has moved on to Production I.G with no drop-off in visual quality; in fact, the artistry and animation may never have looked better. The only disappointment is an incredibly lame musical score, but otherwise this is a strong start to what looks like a promising new season.

Genshiken Second Season is currently streaming on Crunchyroll


il sole penetra le illusioni ~ Day Break Illusion

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: Akari is a friendly, generally cheerful girl who lives with her aunt, uncle, and cousin Fuyuna and apprentices at a fortune telling house. Like her dearly departed mother, she uses Tarot cards and is unfailingly accurate. That and a special Tarot deck handed down from her mother are about to get Akari into some very dangerous situations, however. The Wheel of Fortune is turning, and that means that monsters manifested from Tarot cards (or perhaps people warped into those monster by Tarot cards?) are on the prowl and seem to be out to get her. Akari seems to be able to manifest an alternate form based on one particular Tarot card, however, and she's not alone in that regard; while she is struggling with a fiery monster who is also threatening her friends at the fortune telling house, three other girls who also each have their own powers show up to save the day. But seems to be just the beginning for Akari.

Any notion that this is going to be some cute, sweet magical series based on Tarot cards starts to fade by the midpoint of the first episode and is completely dead just a few minutes later – or at least the “sweet” part is, anyway. By the end this has become such a dark, ominous production that not even the elaborate designs of the presumed magical girls can brighten its feel. A wonderfully-used musical score deserves a lot of the credit for setting this tone, but there are other warning signs, too: normal middle school (?) girls like Fuyuna don't go around reading absurdist, nihilistic works like Albert Camus's L'Etranger, a random comment from one of the other fortune tellers about how something about the Tarot cards troubled Akari's mother, a brief scene where Akari's bedridden mother wouldn't let her daughter touch the Tarot cards. Sweet magical girl series don't normally show a slain character laying in an expanding pool of blood, either, or play games about whether or not that incident actually happened.

The artistic merits here are not impressive except when the action scenes kick in, and the elaborate character designs for the empowered girls are typically ridiculous, but this first episode has enough going for it to overlook that. Many will undoubtedly look on this one as a successor to Puella Magi Madoka Magica because of the tone it sets, and while that is not entirely accurate, it is not far off-base, either.

il sole penetra le illusioni ~ Day Break Illusion is currently streaming on Crunchyroll


Love Lab

Rating: 2 (of 5)

Review: Riko Kurahashi and Natsuo Maki are the two most admired and adored second-year students at Fujisaki Girls Academy, a school renowned for its proper young ladies, albeit for entirely different reasons. While Natsuo is the almost-too-capable honor student and class president known as Fuji's Princess, Riko is the easygoing, athletic tomboy known as Wild One, somewhat to Riko's chagrin. One day while running an errand for a teacher Riko makes a startling discovery: the very elegant Natsuo is actually love-crazed, or at least crazy about wanting to be in love, to the point of practicing her kissing on a hug pillow with a boy drawn on it. When Riko unwisely claims to know a bit about love, Natsuo pounces, conniving Riko into being a Student Council assistant so that Riko can coach her in her love research. Much to Riko's dismay, Natsuo has some very clichéd notions about falling in love and carrying it out.

Love Lab is based on a four-panel manga, and indeed, after the initial set-up the episode does play out as a series of short bits all thematically linked by Natsuo's earnest pursuit of Riko's help and Riko's reluctance to admit that she doesn't have any first-hand experience with romance, either. The underlying gags (if you can call them that) are that Natsuo, for all her perfection in work and study, has a few screws loose in romantic and social realms and that Riko is unwilling to admit that her experience with romance consists of boys not acknowledging her romantically because she is regarded as “one of the guys.” Yeah, that's so fresh. Such a weak premise leaves little room for good jokes (although it does pull off a couple), and while it does drop a note of sincerity near the end, that is hardly enough to keep the series from wallowing. It looks like the recent of the absent Student council members will get involved next episode, so hopefully that will help, and those who favor yuri content may find at least the legitimate potential for it here.

The animation on the show isn't bad, with plenty of chibi moments and sparkly effects, but the character designs have such stock features that one can easily recognize the typical “short orange hair = tomboy, black back-length hair = more elegant and girly” configuration. The music is largely innocuous when present at all. Hence the aptly-named Love Lab will have to come up with some better material if it hopes to reel viewers in and keep them on the hook.


Rozen Maiden Zurückspulen

Rating: 2 (of 5)

Review: A tuxedo-clad anthropomorphic white rabbit seals a letter and sends it through space and time. In lands in the room of Jun Sakurada, who is faced with a curious question when he reads it: “will you wind it” or “will you not wind it?” He chooses the former, and soon a wooden case arrive which has an exquisite red-clad doll in it. When he winds it up, she comes to life, introduces herself as Shinku and declares that she is the fifth of seven Rozen Maiden dolls and that Jun is her servant. The other six Rozen Maiden dolls also appear, and as they are bound to fight in the Alice game until the mystical essence split amongst them is united into one, some conflicts arise which take some of the dolls out of action.

This newest series in the Rozen Maiden franchise is billed as something of a relaunch and will supposedly involve some parallel-dimension-jumping between a timeline where Jun answered “wind” and one where he answered “not wind,” but the only sign of that in the first episode are some visual hints in the opener. Otherwise this is a highly condensed retelling of the first two series, one which introduces all of the Rozen Maidens and briefly covers events from the first 21 episodes. Those not familiar with the original two series will find events to be flying by so quickly that they are hard to follow or derive much sense of the character relationships from. Presumably this will slow down and spin off in a new direction once the summary finishes next episode, so newcomers will just have to bear with it until it settles down.

Sadly, the technical merits are not sufficient to give viewers much eye candy to salve their patience. Studio DEEN has taken over for Nomad, and the only prominent figures from the production staff to carry over are the music director and Ali Project, who perform the opener again. As a result, the series does not have the same visual look or feel as the original; the elegant flair is partly lacking, and the artistic quality is much lower in every respect. While the voices of all the dolls return, Jun has been recast.

The series still has a chance to show that it can go in interesting new directions, but so far it is a big disappointment.

Rozen Maiden Zurückspulen is currently streaming on Crunchyroll


Chronicles of the Going Home Club

Rating: 2 (of 5)

Review: Natsuki Ando has finally made it to high school but does not know what club she wants to join. Karin, a friend from middle school, suggests checking out the Going Home Club, which to Japanese students generally means going home after school rather than participating in club activities. Natsuki is startled to discover the club actually does exist and has three rather eccentric members: twin-tailed Club President Sakura, rich girl Claire, and martial artist Botan. The club's purpose is for its members to simply have fun, which in this episode includes reviewing an account of Botan's bear-fighting journey over summer break the previous year, Botan demonstrating her unusual method for opening plastic bottles, and a journey to a café for crepes.

Yes, this is about as bland as it sounds. The series tries hard to be funny, but many of the gags it pulls are old and tired ones. Exceptions include Natsuki's recurring fourth-wall-breaking attempts to keep the episode from ending before it should and certain aspects of the Bear Fighting tour, but for every joke that succeeds at least a couple of others fail. It simply generates too little originality beyond the odd obsession with seals, and a cast full of stock character types doesn't help. The artistry is very ordinary, too, with Natsuki sporting one of the most obnoxiously oversize cowlicks you will ever see on an anime girl and none of the designs showing even the faintest hint of freshness.

While this series may manage some entertainment value, it is not a serious contender to be one of the better or funnier series this season.

Chronicles of the Going Home Club is currently streaming on Crunchyroll


Servant x Service

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: Despite the kinky-sounding name, this is actually one of the very few (only?) titles this season which entirely features an adult cast. Yamagami, Hasebe, and Miyoshi are all newly-minted civil servants being introduced and shown the ropes in the Welfare Department. Each has a peculiarity: Yamagami has both a highly atypical first name and an embarrassing list of names, Miyoshi is working her first job ever despite being 24, and Hasebe is good at everything he does (especially dealing with troublesome clients) but a playful slacker by nature. Each has a very different experience with his/her first days: Yamagami approaches the job with a fiery intensity and is motivated by a desire to seek revenge on the civil servant who allowed her parents to stick her with such a ridiculous name, Miyoshi gets trapped into having old ladies prattle on to her, and Hasebe manages to collect women's emails and slack off when not (or even while) bailing out his fellow newbies. Their immediate supervisor, who has no previous experience training people, isn't too much help, so they must muddle through troublesome clients and the reality that a civil servant pretty much exists to be complained to.

Series about the lighter side of the adult workplace do not often get made in anime, so this is a nice change of pace from all of the teen-oriented fare. Much of the humor is predicated on fairly typical situations that anyone who has ever worked a government or service industry job can probably relate to, but it adds in just enough over-the-top craziness (such as Yamagami's regular efforts to bean Hasebe with a book over something he's said or done) to keep the humor from getting too mundane. Neither the visual merits nor the musical score is anything special, but the voice acting uniformly uses just the right touch to quickly give viewers a good sense of what each character is like. The fact that Yamagami is rather busty is occasionally emphasized, but otherwise it is a relatively clean series, too.

Shows like The Office have shown over the years than an office workplace can be a ripe source for humor, so this should have some staying power.

Servant x Service is currently streaming on Crunchyroll


Tamayura – More Aggressive

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: More Aggressive is a sequel to the fall 2011 TV series Tamayura – Hitotose, a simple but heartfelt story about a girl who uses her love of the camera to help overcome the loss of her father as she makes a momentous move to her father's home town. This first episode explains itself well enough, though, that the only background knowledge from the first series that one needs to know up front is that the Chihiro referred to in the series is the best friend of main character Fuu (nicknamed Potte here) from before she moved to Takehara, a friend that she apparently still stays in touch with. The rest of it can be pieced together from excellent use of flashbacks and character comments.

As this story begins, nearly a year has passed since Fuu moved to Takehara and got settled in with a good and supportive bunch of friends. She has clearly adjusted well, although she has a tendency to space out for several minutes while contemplating an important decision. And the big decision this time? In the wake of a successful photography showing (which apparently took place late in the first series), Fuu decides that she needs to become “more aggressive” in pursuing her interests, and that means attempting to start a Photography Club in her school when she begins her second year. Naturally she gets many pledges of support in this endeavor, although Chihiro and her friend Tomo decide to tease a bit and create a new character in her spacy honor: Potenyon.

Yeah, this is as low-key as it sounds, but this is the kind of mellow “watch girls be cute” kind of series that one watches to relax after a long day rather than to get one's enthusiasm super-charged. Everything is handled with a deftly gentle touch, whether it be the mild humor and friendly teasing, very sentimental narration to displays of photographs, fond reminiscing over the past year, or emphatic shows of support for Fuu's new project, all without going overboard on sentimentality or moeness. The artistry is nothing special beyond its ongoing efforts to show off the locales of Takehara (an actual small city located in Hiroshima Prefecture), but the musical score and opener and closer flawlessly establish and maintain the desired tone. In all it's a very pleasant-seeming addition to the new season, one which does its intended task quite well.


Free!

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: No new series for the Summer 2013 season has sparked anywhere near the degree of controversy that this one has, and without good reason. So Kyoto Animation, a studio normally known for producing male-oriented series focused on cute girls, is now doing one featuring sexy guys aimed mostly (okay, exclusively) at female audiences? So what? All that really should matter is whether or not the series is going to be any good. And, in fact, it's off to a pretty good start.

Haruka Nanase, a young man who lives for being in water, is one of four guys with girlish names who once formed a close-knit elementary school swim team, although things fell apart when one member moved out of the country. He and Makoto stuck together and were eventually joined in high school by Nagisa (who had gone to a different middle school). One night, while checking out their old swim club before the building gets demolished, they run across wayward member Rin for the first time in years, but his attitude has changed drastically and he now attends an academy with a premier swim club. And he's got a yen for challenging Haruka to a head-to-head swimming showdown, an ambition which cannot be fulfilled immediately but comes to a head when the other three visit his school after hours to check out him and his pool.

The personalities of the guys are, so far, mostly stock archetypes, and the story so far is a standard one about a past close friendship which has evolved into a rivalry over time. And let's not even get into how awful that opener is, although the nicely-animated closer sung by the lead male seiyuu is considerably better. What impresses here, and should draw attention, is the animation. Any scene showing characters swimming is beautiful to watch and the animation in general could set a new, positive standard for a genre notorious for mediocre animation. The significant presence of two female characters assures that this will not be a total sausage fest, either – although, let's be honest here, the ripped swimmers' builds applied to the shoujo-styled character designs is going to be the main attracting factor.

While Free! may not be the most exciting series of the new season, its first episode is made well enough that it should weather whatever scorn gets heaped upon it.

Free! is currently streaming on Crunchyroll


Gifu Dodo!! Kanetsugu and Keiji

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: Keiji Maeda and Kanetsugu Naoe are two prominent samurai from the late Sengoku and early Edo periods who were involved, in service or opposition, to great figures of the period like Oda Nobunaga, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, and the Tokugawas. Despite a significant age difference, they are known to have become close friends while in service to daimyo Kagekatsu Uesugi (a prominent Toyotomi supporter). This manga-based series apparently intends to detail how that came to pass as a flashback from later days (early 1600s, perhaps?) when both are more settled men.

The plot is fairly simple so far, although it is also so deeply entrenched in period cultural elements that even those well-versed in Japanese history might learn a few things. Kanetsugu is working for Karekatsu when he gets word that a rather eccentric samurai is interfering in a matter called uwanariuchi, which is essentially a conflict between women fought with non-lethal weapons over bad blood between former and current wives. (If this sounds like a ghetto brawl over man-stealing, that is basically what it is.) When he investigates, he discovers that the samurai in question, one Keiji Maeda, is the same man who once thwarted Uesugi forces in battle and impressively shot at Kanetsugu from long range. Kanetsugu's investigation leads him to a brothel, where he listens to Keiji play the biwa for an audience of prostitutes and helps thwart a rogue samurai attack, though Keiji hardly needed the help. Both men part having been impressed by the other.

As mundane as this all sounds as period pieces go, it does not even begin to hint at how silly this series actually is. All of the prominent male figures are giants who are buff to utterly ridiculous degrees, with bulging necks and musculatures that look more grotesque (and anatomically incorrect) than impressive. The prostitutes are all impressively busty and show lots of cleavage, and even Kanetsugu's horse is monstrously big. Other characters are often caricatures in other ways, too, and battle auras stray into the ridiculous range. Despite that, the artistry and animation by Studio DEEN are actually pretty good, and the classical Japanese music used in the score is quite fitting. If you don't mind your Japanese history served with a generous helping of corn then this one might be of interest.

Gifu Dodo!! is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.


Dog and Scissors

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: High school student Kazuhito Harumi loves books more than anything else, so much so that he earned his way into a Tokyo high school so he could stay in the city when the rest of his family moved to the country (where timely book releases aren't as common, naturally). His wish to read the last novel in a series being penned by his favorite author, the highly popular and eclectic Shinobu Akiyama, seems like it will go unfulfilled when he is shot and killed in a robbery attempt at a café, but then he gets reincarnated as a dog and meets Kirihime Natsuno, a dark-haired beauty who seems to be able to read his thoughts and has a bit of a sadistic streak. She also turns out to be the woman that Kazuhito was trying to protect when he got shot and the real identity behind the pen name Shinobu Akiyama. The potential for a compatible relationship arises, if only Kazuhito can weather her penchant for threatening him with scissors.

The most remarkable thing about this new light novel-based series is that its first episode resists the inclination to play the concept completely as a farce, even though it is clearly intended to mostly be a comedy. The scene where Kazuhito gets killed is played shockingly straight, and the series is clearly not aiming for humor in how seriously Kirihime takes Kazuhito's story, how her attitude towards him changes once she learns his truth, and her apparent intent at the end of the episode to investigate his death. How this aspect will be balanced with the sillier elements (the series is pitched as an “absurd mystery comedy,” after all) remains to be seen and could ultimately determine how good the series is, especially considering that the opener and closer suggest that more oddball characters – including a sexy idol singer and a beefy maid – will eventually get involved. So far, though, it does make smooth transitions into and out of the mildly funny comedy.

The artistic merits of the series, courtesy of studio Gonzo and first-time director Yukio Takahashi, are decent but nothing exceptional, and certain shots suggest that at least mild fan service will be an occasional but not predominant component. Even so, the first episode shows more promise, and is better in execution, than its concept suggests that it should be.

Dog and Scissors is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.


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