Winter 2013: Carl Kimlinger

Jan 4th 2013

If we are the accumulation of our life experiences, Carl Kimlinger is an accretion of pop culture detritus—the result of a life wasted on anime, old movies, and white trash rock. If we are what we eat, Carl Kimlinger is bacon.


Vividred Operation

Rating: 3 ½

Review: From the guy who brought us fighter jockeys in burumas comes a show about transforming superheroines in burumas. Lord knows anime fans hear this a lot, but sometimes it's still true: it's better than it sounds. It's the future. A revolutionary power plant called the Manifestation Engine has made all forms of energy production obsolete, providing unlimited clean power for the whole world. So the world is at peace—especially on the island where Akane Isshiki lives her spunky life. It is home, after all, to the Manifestation Engine itself. And also to Akane's nutty grandpa Kenjirou, the disgraced inventor of the engine. Akane and her level-headed sister Momo keep the house running, living busily but happily while grandpa tinkers in secret in his mad-scientist lab. Naturally it isn't to last. The accident that lost Kenjirou his job and scarred Akane for life was no accident. Evil forces are at work, and grandpa has been hard at work inventing the world's last, best hope—an invention that will inevitably upend Akane's peaceful life.

Kazuhiro Takamura, Vividred’s writer/director, is best known for Strike Witches, and like Witches before it, this is an amiable cliché-construct: assembled whole from borrowed tropes and prefabricated characters, but so cheerfully unconcerned that you can't really hold that against it. It's a breezy little action trifle, with plenty of laid-back small-town atmosphere and a nice offhand sense of humor. The dynamic between plucky Akane and her even pluckier grandpa is a particular delight, all unforced affection and humorous intergenerational synergy. The whole thing is ably directed by Takamura, who handles slice-of-life capering and mecha mayhem with the same easygoing verve, and written with a certain genre-entrenched cleverness by My-HiME scribe Hiroyuki Yoshino (with whom Takamura shares writing credit). The way they use technology to sneakily fulfill the requirements of a magical girl show (complete with mascot character!) is particularly slick. Not to mention funny. Why anyone thought burumas and crotch-cams were necessary to sell the show, I'll never know. If anything they're a liability: the overt fan-service grossly out of place is such a good-natured concoction.

Vividred Operation is available streaming at Crunchyroll.


Oreshura Episode 2

Rating: 3

Review: The fate of Oreshura hinges on one thing: who's story it really is. If it's Eita and Chiwa's, all is well. If it's Eita and Masuzu's… ugh. Not even romance goggles can hide Masuzu's rotten personality. She's one of the least likeable romantic interests around—and given that her competition includes Haganai’s poison-tongued Yozora, that's saying something. The show gets downgraded this episode for the sole reason that it's setting her up as a viable romantic lead (and not as an agent provocateur, which really, she'd probably be quite good at). When Chiwa hears of Masuzu and Eita's fake relationship, she takes it poorly. She starts to act quite peculiar, going to even odder extremes in her quest to get popular with the guys. Eita knows he's to blame, and Masuzu knows he knows it, so she hatches a plan to keep him from spilling the beans to his childhood friend. She forms a “how to make yourself popular” club, ostensibly for Chiwa's benefit. Though really it's an excuse to abuse the one girl who could challenge her for Eita's attention. Chiwa, however, turns out to be a tougher opponent than she thought.

There was a time when anime romances had enough of a relationship with reality for twisted sadists to at least be love-triangle underdogs. Not so in our age of fetishized psychosis. Not that Masuzu's a psychopath. At least, probably not. But in what world would a blackmailing, manipulative sadist be a serious romantic threat to someone like Chiwa? Chiwa is cute and hard-working, honest and awkward and possessed of an inner strength that we only begin to understand now. Masuzu spends this episode setting Chiwa up for humiliation, torturing Eita, and heartily enjoying it before getting all creepily possessive. In the real world, you'd be getting a restraining order; not getting hot and bothered. Of course Masuzu could get what's coming to her, and Chiwa could prevail—an anime-romance Rocky taking down a genre-favored Apollo Creed. And it's that possibility that'll keep us tuning in. Damn it.

Oreshura is available streaming at Crunchyroll.


MAOYU Episode 2

Rating: 4

Review: When the Hero and the Queen left her palace, MAOYU could have gone any number of places. A Spice and Wolf style journey, say. Or a fantasy action blow-out. The Hero and Queen could have battled their way out of demon lands, or faced the armies of humankind. They could have played political games on either side of the human/demon divide, made deals with kings, or matched wits with nobles. Instead they settle down in the country and raise turnips. It's as definitive an answer to the question “where to from here?” as any bold twist or run of thrills. And it's a good answer, even if it won't please everyone.

Having left the castle, the Hero and the Queen teleport to the human lands. There the Queen's Head Maid has set up a household in a small, rural village. The queen intends to use the village as a proving ground for her plans to remake the world. Her first step: turnips. Or, more accurately, nitrogen-fixing crop rotation tailored to swine husbandry. Food is the foundation of prosperity, and the Queen intends to improve agriculture so that the village has year-round surpluses. Unfortunately the villagers aren't listening. In the meantime a pair of escaped serfs endanger the mission.

What this episode tells us is that MAOYU is not in a hurry. It plans to build and to think; to take the time to savor. The opening sequence promises action and the ending promises future complications—if you pay attention to its picture-book illustrations—but for now the show is building and thinking. It's shaping up to be a thoughtful portrayal of a campaign, not to end a war, but to change the conditions that make war profitable. It's RPG fantasy as written by a sociologist. A sociologist with a romantic's heart. The Hero and the Queen are just wonderful together, and the episode lingers as they learn and comfort and just enjoy each other. This isn't the most gratifying of episodes, but it has something even better: intelligence, heart, and most of all, promise. Powerful, slow-burning promise. The very best kind.

MAOYU is available streaming at Crunchyroll.


Problem children are coming from another world, aren't they?

Rating: 2 ½

Review: That's a fun title. One advantage of the current vogue for light novel adaptations is the titles. And among them, this has to be one of the more opulent—as much a synopsis as a title. Get your anime muggle friends to ask you what your new favorite show is and then feed them this title. They'll think you had some kind of babbling seizure. Though chances are you'll be lying to them. The show itself isn't nearly as much fun as its title.

It is, however, faithful to its name. It's indeed a show about problem children. Three of them, all with special powers. Izayoi is a wild boy with super strength and speed. Asuka is a rich girl who can force her will on others. Kasukabe is a quiet girl who can take on animal traits and communicate with other species. They each receive a letter that, upon opening, transports them to the world of Little Garden. As their guide Black Rabbit tells them, Little Garden is a world of high-stakes games where anything can be gambled, anything gained, and anything lost. Bored with their own world, the problem children decide to stay on and play.

There's nothing particularly wrong with how this show is put together. It moves well enough—pretty zippy, in fact—and explains itself clearly, usually without bogging down too bad. There's action, there's a smattering of laughs, there's a big ol’ world to explore, and it all looks fairly decent. The problem is that there just isn't anything particularly interesting about any of it. The problem children are all too annoying or one-dimensional to care about: Izayoi is an indestructible bastard, Asuka a prickly witch, and Kasukabe a mild-spoken cipher that we don't particularly care to unravel. Little Garden itself is essentially a huge video game, its rules and divisions and factions too artificial to be worth any notice. The plot is almost guaranteed to be a numbing chain of gaming showdowns. There's just no possible reason to get excited about future episodes…and thus no reason to watch on.

Problem children are coming from another world, aren't they? is available streaming at Crunchyroll.


Haganai NEXT

Rating: 3

Review: New director, new writers, a couple of new animators—with a staff reshuffled to the extent that Haganai’s is, it's reasonable to expect change. And change can be scary. There's nothing, however, that the new staff could do to the show that could be worse than what season one did to itself. Watching the show take a slow-motion dive into the deep end of the harem pool counted as one of the less pleasant experiences of the last year. So maybe the shuffle is a positive move. Then again, maybe it means squat. There's no telling just from this episode. Mostly it's content to follow the mid-season pattern of the previous series: light comedy centered around Neighbor Club activities with a minimum of ongoing plot and only slight advancement in the lives and relationships of the central characters. Easy mark Sena is convinced by evil rival Yozora to try out an awful hair fad. Kodaka learns the evils of cell phones before being invited to Sena's place to study, where he learns a tad too much about her.

With all the new blood, you'd expect the show to feel different, but this is essentially the Haganai of old: silly, pointless, and fun enough to excuse its continued existence. It is still satisfied with skating by on the power of its characters, and that is still enough (if just barely). As for the new crew, their presence is most felt in the visuals, which seem to dampen the first season's idiosyncrasy: moving the fan-service in more conventional directions and losing what directorial panache Hisashi Saito had. The addition of original author Yomi Hirasaka to the crew is promising. He ends the episode with an overture to an ongoing plot, and starts the show in more or less the right place. Which is to say, with Sena. Busty princess Sena is a rival with a wealth of awkward, underdog charm, and starting with her starts the series on its best rom-com foot. We may wish Haganai didn't have rom-com feet, but at least the first of them out is a good one.



Winter 2013 Shorts II

Senyū

Rating: 3

Review: The second show this season to feature characters in an RPG-esque fantasy setting who have no names. We have a Hero, a Royal Soldier, and quest to find a Demon Lord that in no way, shape or form advances during this episode. Unlike MAOYU, this is a straight comedy—as it has to be, each episode being a mere five minutes long—and a reasonably funny (if cheap) one. The sequence where the king, who we know is king ‘cause his crown says so, sends out the (possible) descendants of the previous hero to fight the resurrected Demon Lord is a particular hoot. Look for a cameo by Wooser, the star of one of last season's better shorts.

Senyū is available streaming at Crunchyroll.

Ishida and Asakura

Rating: 1

Review:  It's hard to judge a show from only two minutes of footage, of which fully a quarter is the opening song. But still it's safe to say that this is a terrible ****ing show. Asakura is an afroed high-schooler who loves boobs; Ishida is a buzz-cut high-schooler who loves Asakura. It would seem everyone loves Asakura, and for no particular reason: he's kind of perverted and dim-witted, with no other redeeming qualities. Which is, I suppose, the joke. It has to be because there's nothing else that resembles humor, despite the show's obvious comedic intent. Unless maybe you count the guy whose buck teeth are so long that they reach his belly button. Har har. Oh yeah, the show is also uglier than a smoker's lung.

Ishida and Asakura is available streaming at Crunchyroll.

gdgd Fairies Season 2

Rating: 3

Review: At fifteen minutes per episode, this one may not be strictly speaking a short, but it certainly has the feel. Like season one, this is a collection of comic vignettes about three CG-animated fairies: pkpk, krkr, and shrshr. The show is in many ways like a live-action variety show, with the main vignettes falling into certain patterned categories: one where the fairies sit around and talk, a second where they use magic in a special room, and a third where they imagine different sources for a disembodied sound. In season one the third segment was about making up dialogue for soundless videos, which is pretty much the only difference between both seasons. The whole thing has a very ad-libbed feel to it—especially the third section, which without doubt is ad-libbed—and is a surprising amount of fun. (The mystery sound section in particular goes in some dark and hilarious directions.) It's formulaic as heck though, so be prepared.

gdgd Fairies 2 is available streaming at C runchyroll.


Tamako Market

Rating: 4 ½

Review: Any resemblance to K-ON! is entirely intentional. Kyoto Animation's latest is basically a K-ON! reunion. Same director, same writer, much of the same visual team. It's not unexpected. K-ON! looked like it was a blast to make, plus it was hugely popular, so who wouldn't want to bottle that lightning? And oddly enough, it would appear they succeeded. Tamako Market combines the best of what the K-ON! team has learned with a touch of magical realism, a whiff of (no!) romance, and something verging on an actual plot. The concoction that emerges is as fluffy and sweet as the treats its main character cooks up and, one imagines, equally delightful.

The treats in question are mochi rice cakes. Tamako is the daughter of a (very) traditional mochi maker. She loves mochi and helps as much as she can. She's beloved in the marketplace where she works, has a solid group of friends at school, and, unbeknownst to her, has the son of the competing mochi shop's owner wrapped around her finger. On one of her rounds through the market, she stops by the florist and finds something odd in one of the bouquets: an emaciated tropical bird of some sort. A talking bird, apparently of island-bird nobility. The annoying thing takes a liking to her and sticks around, despite his mission, which involves a princess of some sort.

The visual style on display here will be instantly recognizable to the K-ON! faithful: the personalized body language, the wish-you-were-there settings, the effortless yet idiosyncratic flow of the episode. This is a crew that loves the animation art, and understands the power of movement. The bird, for instance, could have been just another animal sidekick, but his haughty bearing and arsenal of snooty expressions turn him into a unique—and apparently inexhaustible—running joke. There's joy in Market’s movement, and it's contagious. That Naoko Yamada and her compatriots are working from an original script, with a broader cast and more story opportunities than before, is almost beside the point.

Tamako Market is available streaming at The Anime Network.


Kotoura-san

Rating: 4

Review: Well, this was a nice surprise. Adapted from a four-panel comedy manga, sporting a generic romantic-comedy premise, and directed by a man whose only real aptitude is for gags, Kotoura-san is a romantic comedy frontloaded with a megaton emotional punch, and finished with a big hopeful smile. Its mercurial mixture of goofy gags and unutterably sad back-story is far from seamless, but it works, and works well, so who cares.

Kotoura is a high-school girl who can read minds. Her gift has brought her nothing but grief, as she can't control it and is too honest not to reveal what she hears. It has cost her friends and family over the years. Living alone, she transfers to a new school, where her spooky ways again alienate everyone around her. Except, that is, for the oddball with the seat next to hers. Manabe is a goober, but an utterly honest, thoroughly fearless one. For the first time Kotoura has met someone whose mind is pleasant to read, and who really doesn't mind that she's rummaging through his head. Has she found her first friend?

Watching the first half of this episode is like being run over by a freight train full of sadness. Seeing Kotoura as she uncomprehendingly sends everyone around her into an emotional tailspin and is abandoned, one person at a time… It's shameless, triple-hanky stuff, delivered like a thumb to the eye-socket. She even loses her cat. It's a Hank Williams song starring a little girl, only worse. Which is to say, right up my alley. And then Manabe pops in. The brightening of Kotoura's life is as heartening (and periodically funny) as her origin story is awful and tragic. The result is a very pleasant form of whiplash.

There are caveats though. Director Masahiko Ohta and his collaborators (mostly from Mitsudomoe) are not delicate types, and parts of the first half step over the line into possibly-unintentional black humor. The ESP Club promised by the premise also has a whiff of after-school creampuffery to it, and the threat of self-destruction is very real. Still, the recommendation stands.

Kotoura-san is available streaming at Crunchyroll.


Hakkenden: Tōhō Hakken Ibun

Rating: 2

Review: The original Hakkenden was an epic written in the 1800s about eight samurai warriors of canine/human descent. This Hakkenden is a pretty-boy anime about…well, I don't quite know. It involves plagues and autocratic churches and anthropomorphic crows though. And two brothers, one of whom is a dog and the other of which has a crow in his arm that can turn into a sword. Or is it a sword that turns into a crow? Oh hell. At any rate, the brothers are Shino and Sousuke. Shino is small and spunky and apparently not supposed to go frolicking in haunted forests, though he does anyway. Whereupon he is scolded by big, handsome disciplinarian Sousuke. Counting a girl named Hamaji, they're the only three survivors of a plague that prompted the locals to burn their village. They live in a church with a couple of priests. One day a gang of fox-people visit them at the behest of an evil blonde boy-toy. They are sent packing by Shino's arm-crow. Then a local boy runs afoul of a giant spider that has a girl who looks like Shino affixed to its head. The girl apparently is Shino, from the time of the plague. Shino kills the spider with his crow-sword, but in the meantime the fox-people have spirited away Hamaji, which Shino and Sousuke take as a declaration of war from…somebody.

If you watched a few more episodes, this horrible hodge-podge of traditional mythology, shonen action nonsense, and mysterious mysteriousness would probably start to make some kind of sense. But it's so ill-formed and ill-paced that it's hard to imagine that it'd be any more enjoyable even if we knew what on earth was going on. The show drops hints and portentous names willy-nilly as it throws unexplained powers and events and transformations and religions in our puzzled faces. If the characters were compelling enough, or the whole mess handled with a modicum of grace or imagination, it might have been salvageable. As it stands, however, it's an irredeemable muddle. An attractive muddle though.

Hakkenden: Tōhō Hakken Ibun is available streaming at Crunchyroll.


GJ-bu

Rating: 2 ½

Review: There's a theory that the Earth will reverse rotation, causing the sun to rise in the west and set in the east and civilization to fall into fiery ruin, if a year passes without some nonsense anime about an after-school club where everyone sits around yammering about nothing and generally doing jack. No one has ever had a chance to test the theory, and they never will if the anime industry has anything to say about it. The latest show to save us from worldwide annihilation is GJ-bu. The GJ Club is the name of the club, and really, no one knows what kind of club it is. Club meetings consist of all the members doing whatever they feel like. Shion, the club's born lady, plays chess. Kirara, the terse wild child, eats meat. Megumi, the smiling good-girl, serves tea. Tiny club president M.A.O and token guy Kyouya loll around reading manga. This episode the club talks about manga, does battle with a big spider, and changes a light bulb.

Which of course begs the question: how many over-simplified moe girls does it take to change a light bulb? The answer: one, as long as there's an oatmeal-bland harem lead around to lift her up. Though with the falling and biting and tsundere tantrums, it'd have been better had he done it himself. If we wanted to, we could go on being cruel like this forever. But it isn't really warranted. This isn't an awful show, just a boring and pointless one. It's pleasant enough; just twenty-odd minutes spent in the company of a harmless collection of stereotyped eccentrics. Sometimes it's vaguely amusing—as when the huge and incongruously ugly spider crashes their after-school party (a sequence that would probably be funnier if I wasn't an acute arachnophobe)—and sometimes it's a meandering waste of time. All the rest of the time, really. Always it is reasonaby cute, always there are useless character tidbits to be gleaned, and always it is painless. No one ever got hurt watching this kind of thing. That said, few were ever rewarded either.



Amnesia

Rating: 2 ½

Review: The reverse harem show: proof positive that, as biologists have been telling us for years, women and men aren't really that different. On a whole they tend to be more serious, more atmospheric, and no higher in quality than your average guy-centric harem show. Amnesia fits that mold pretty much to a T. The heroine of Amnesia is called simply Heroine, because—you guessed it—she has Amnesia (and thus no name). After waking from an apparent faint with no memory, she is haunted by some kind of invisible sprite and walked home by two boys who appear to know her. At home the sprite explains that he accidentally displaced her memories when he came to our world and that she'll need to stimulate old relationships to regain them. So the next day she returns to work, where she gets to know the variety of oft-mysterious guys that work there. Things go well enough until she's ambushed by a group of girls who may or may not know her.

The weakness of Amnesia lays mostly in its characters. Male characters aren't people so much as fetishes given human form (kind boy-next-door, tsundere boy-next-door, potentially evil player, misunderstood grumpy guy), and while the Amnesia thing may have been a clever move when the show was a game, it basically means that the show's heroine has no personality. Not that that's an unfamiliar state of affairs for harem fans. It is difficult indeed to care what happens to anyone or any potential relationship. If you're able to get past that, though, it's a show with stellar aesthetics and a wealth of mystery. Like the heroine, we're thrown into an established situation with no info, in which the show does a good job of making everyone seem potentially threatening—even the innocent boys-next-door. It's all exceedingly handsome too, with loads of vaguely menacing atmosphere and smartly-dressed (and drawn) boys. The weird, shifting coloration of the guys’ eyes is a particularly nice touch. If this is your kind of thing, you could hardly ask for a better-produced example.

Amnesia is available streaming from Crunchyroll.


Love Live!

Rating: 3

Review: If you loved your school and your school was going to be closed down for lack of new students, would you do anything to save it? Even sing in an idol group? That's what the three protagonists of this likable school comedy are considering. And it's a testament to the show's unexpected depth that it treats the idea as if it's exactly as crazy it really is.

Crazy, though, is Honoka's forte. Honoka is the type of heroine who throws herself into crazy things with a wholehearted enthusiasm that tends to drag others along. Those others mostly being her two childhood friends, gentle Kotori and stern Umi. When they get the news that their school will be shutting down over the next three years, they're all depressed, and Honoka is determined to do something. But what? And then a pamphlet for the city's most popular new school gives her a brilliant idea: a school idol group! Apparently it's the hot new thing, and schools with popular idol groups get flooded with new students. Start an idol group, get popular, and bingo! School saved.

Who isn't sick of idol singers by this point? There has been a horrible glut of idol shows of late—a product, no doubt, of the double-dip merchandising opportunities they provide. The parade of glitzy, group-dancing, sweetly harmonizing teen cuties has gotten fairly nauseating (especially for a fan of dirty American rock like myself). But while the idol-singing part of Love Live! is off-putting, the actual story is pretty good. The premise is treated with winning humor and new director Takahiko Kyōgoku effectively plumbs the emotions of students facing the demise of a beloved school, bamboozling us into caring a surprising amount about the lovely old campus. The scene where Honoka realizes what the school means to its generations of graduates is among the season's best: a sensitive little sequence during which both the girl and her school manage to worm their ways into our hearts. You can't help wishing, though, that she'd find another way to save it.

Love Live! is available steaming at Crunchyroll.


Senran Kagura

Rating: 2

Review: Even if it isn't an immutable law, it's a pretty good rule of thumb that anything involving ninjas and a large number of boobs is going to be miserable. Certainly Senran Kagura upholds the rule. On the surface Hanzo Academy is an exclusive private school, but in secret it's a training school for modern-day ninjas. There are currently five students in the school's ninja class: Asuka, the cheerful screw-up; Ikaruga, the stern sword master; Katsu, the breast-loving martial artist; Yagyuu, the one-eyed prodigy; and HIbari, the timid freshman. After passing a practical exam, Asuka returns and is sent with the other girls on a delinquent-hunting mission to the local market. There they are assaulted by a mysterious group of girl ninjas.

The mystery ninjas appear to be interested in Asuka, though god knows why. Certainly we feel no pressing interest in her. Or in anyone else in the show. Or in anything about the show. It's got the unmistakable scent of an enormous waste of time. The girls are all dead boring; the humor is of the breast-groping, lascivious-sushi-roll-eating variety; and the whole production has an air of good-natured apathy. The story, what can be discerned of it, has something to do with a Legendary Ninja, and will almost certainly entail ninja matches against other ninja schools. Which isn't something to look forward to given the ho-hum action in this episode.

Takashi Watanabe did direct Ikki Tousen, so titillation is always an option, but keep in mind that among Ikki Tousen incarnations, his was the shoddiest. And even if that weren't true, Senran Kagura lacks the blood ‘n boobs resolve of the best of Tousen. It's too eager to be liked to have the older show's trashy magnetism, born of a single-minded devotion to fleshy curves and sadistic girl-on-girl violence. If you really love ninjas, it may be worth watching—it's a surprisingly straightforward ninja show—but otherwise avoid it.


Bakumatsu Gijinden Roman

Rating: 2 ½

Review: Monkey Punch delivers another good-natured thief, this time by way of a pachinko game-turned-anime. He's no match for the original, however. His name is Roman. The time is the Bakumatsu. (That's just before the fall of the Japanese feudal system). By day Roman is a “helper” who'll help anyone with any problem, no matter how insignificant. By night he's a mysterious thief who steals back what was stolen, be it the gold of the poor or the smiles of the townspeople. He's helped in his thieving by a skilled team of town notables, from his no-nonsense little sister Koharu to the town doctor, inventor, and priestess. Against him stand the greedy and the corrupt, as well as a sinister organization that is just now showing itself.

Roman is essentially Lupin transplanted into the past. And made goofier, stripped of his less savory appetites, and given a Robin-Hoodish sense of social justice. You can see the problem. He's Lupin without Lupin's roguish charm. And without it, his show is just a cobbled-together mess of tropes from better stories: the retrieval-mission episodes of Getbackers, the thieves-for-justice of Robin Hood, the eternally broke jacks-of-all-trades from dozens of good and bad anime over the years. It even takes a page from the sentai hero playbook for Roman's super-powers—and yes, he has super-powers.

The show isn't without its charms. Though not up to his prestigious predecessor, Roman is fun and easygoing. Director Hirofumi Ogura manages a few eye-opening moments of grand spectacle (a golden firework in the beginning, an exploding palace at the end). And the action isn't entirely inept all of the time. The series’ art, with its goofy Monkey Punch designs and surprisingly beautiful traditional clothing, is also quite pleasing (though the animation can be downright embarrassing). But ultimately Gijinden Roman is a forgettable trifle, as devoid of lasting enjoyment it is of inspiration. Stick with Lupin; he always gets the job done.

Bakumatsu Gijinden Roman is available streaming at Crunchyroll.


The Unlimited - Hyōbu Kyōsuke

Rating: 4

Review: Spun off of the girls-with-powers action series Psychic Squad (originally Zettai Karen Children), The Unlimited discards the sometimes creepy pseudo-family at the core of Squad to focus on the original series’ primary antagonist: Hyoubu Kyousuke, the ruthless leader of the criminal esper organization P.A.N.D.R.A. It's a smart move. The resulting series is a throwback to the days of things like s-CRY-ed: a straight-up psychic action show with a strong male lead, no squishy emotional undercurrents, and a few more twists and moral shades of grey than you might expect.

We meet Hyoubu—if we haven't met him already—as he's laying waste to an army of human soldiers. He eventually surrenders and is taken to a special prison for espers. Naturally, he's there for reasons of his own: a member of P.A.N.D.R.A. is in the prison's secret basement, being experimented on by the prison's vile warden, who plans to use the information to make esper super-soldiers. In the course of his rescue mission Hyoubu “befriends” Andy, an esper prisoner with mismatched eyes and unknown abilities. Andy piques Hyoubu's interest, prompting the criminal mastermind to invite the unknown prisoner into his organization.

Hyoubu makes an even better protagonist than he does an antagonist. He's vicious and manipulative, godlike in his power and magisterial in his judgment, and yet still human—as his rage when he sees what the warden has done proves. Protagonists of Hyoubu's type present a different kind of tension than the usual hero. It's less about whether he'll come out on top and more about how far he'll go to come out on top. Which in Hyoubu's case is pretty far. The show keeps him sympathetic mainly by making his opponents even nastier than he is, though that's set to change with the episode's final revelation—one of those welcome twists mentioned earlier. As for the series’ action, like everything else in the show it's nothing new, but as the opening rampage demonstrates, that doesn't mean it can't be pretty damned cool—and as the closing rampage also demonstrates, surprisingly satisfying.

The Unlimited - Hyōbu Kyōsuke is available streaming at Crunchyroll.


Oreshura

Rating: 3 ½

Review: Are you familiar with romance goggles? They're kind of like beer goggles, but instead of alcohol making your date look better, romance makes your anime look better. If you've got ‘em, put ‘em on. There's a lot to sniff at in Oreshura—including the age-old romantic conflict between childhood friend and mysterious newcomer, and a thoroughly contrived premise—but it's all good because the romance shows promise. Which is rather ironic, because Oreshura’s hero, Eita, hates nothing more than people who see everything through the prism of love.

At any rate, Eita hates romance because his parents abandoned him to pursue their love lives. He wants nothing but to be left to his studies so that he can become a doctor and repay Saeko, the aunt who raised him after his parents split. His childhood friend Chiwa has a pretty obvious crush on him, but he either doesn't notice or ignores it. It's a state of affairs that is not to last. Masuzu, the silver-haired beauty who has every heterosexual boy in the school going gaga, notices Eita's lack of interest and decides that he's the perfect guy for a plan she has to create a fake boyfriend and get all the hormone-addled guys and jealous girls off her back.

The set-up sounds pretty miserable, I know, but with our romance goggles on it isn't hard to pick up on enough telling details to make one surprisingly hopeful for the future. There's a little lapse in Eita's blasé attitude towards Chiwa that hints that maybe he isn't as unfeeling or oblivious as he lets on. The last minutes of the episode intimate that Chiwa may not be the romantic victim we expect (aren't childhood friends always romantic victims?). As for Masuzu, she has the makings of a pretty decent romantic villain (though a miserable romantic interest), and the focus on characters who have ostensibly spurned the idea of love is intriguing. Give it a few episodes to be sure, but it could be a nice little romantic comedy.

Oreshura is available streaming at Crunchyroll.


Cuticle Detective Inaba

Rating: 2 ½

Review: You know you're stretching for new twists on old ideas when your title has “cuticle detective” in it. Next, I'm assuming, is Epidermis Detective Momo. And after that, Peritoneum Detective Jun. Eventually we'll have a whole genre of anatomy-terminology detective shows. What fun it will be! It goes without saying Cuticle Detective Inaba is a comedy, and not an altogether bad one either. Neither is it a particularly good one though. Inaba is, of course, the detective in question. He's a legendary bloodhound, said to be able to sniff out any culprit with only a single strand of their hair. In real life, however, he's a capricious PI whose thing for hair is more of a fetish than a tool of the trade. His crew consists of a cross-dressing would-be beaux and a level-headed (but poor) assistant. He only takes cases if the hair involved is to his tastes. Which is how the coppers rope him into the case that introduces him his nemesis: Don Valentino, counterfeiter extraordinaire.

That may sound reasonably normal, but it's only so long before things start to get really weird. Don Valentino turns out to be an inept mafia goat. Yes, a Mafioso farm animal. As for Inaba, it turns out he's a werewolf who can take on the powers of whatever hair he happens to be chewing on. Oh yeah, and if his cross-dressing assistant does some sort of acupressure thing to him, he can also generate lightning. As you might assume, the show is more hectic gagfest than elegant whodunit. In fact, there isn't a mystery to be found—excluding, possibly, the disappearance of Inaba's little brother, which is what passes for an overarching plot. There's lots of tsukkomi/boke back-and-forth (with the level-headed assistant as straight man), perhaps a bit too much manic SD nonsense, and plenty of straight-up sight gagging. There are some chuckles to be had, and the episode as a whole is reasonably fun, but it's hard to imagine watching thirteen or more episodes of it without blasting your TV with a shotgun.

Cuticle Detective Inaba is available streaming at Crunchyroll.


MAOYU

Rating: 3 ½

Review: Generally Heroes are on bad terms with Demon Kings. Not so in this amiable twist on fantasy tropes. Sure the Hero (yes, that's his name) goes to the Demon King's castle looking to righteously slay some evil, but when he gets there he meets, not a heinous monster, but a sweet-natured beauty who is, indeed, the Demon Queen. The Demon Queen has less violent plans for the Hero. She wants him to join her. As she carefully explains to the Hero, the war between demons and humans can't be unilaterally ended. Too much is economically and politically tied up in the ongoing conflict. If one side or the other triumphs, both sides will suffer catastrophic economic and human (or demon) costs. She wants the Hero by her side as she tries to bring about a true and peaceful end to the war, one that will leave both sides stable and prosperous. Until then she believes the war should continue. Of course the Hero eventually succumbs to her logic (with perhaps a little help from her winning personality and, not incidentally, her boobs).

There's little chance MAOYU will revolutionize anything. Its mixture of light humor and sweet romance, self-conscious anime convention and archetypical adventure is ultimately pretty familiar. It's the kind of show that literally has no character names, just roles (Hero, Demon Queen, Archer, Lady Knight, Magician), and that exploits its heroine's, er, assets shamelessly. But it's a darned good mixture, even if it isn't a new one. Despite being essentially one long explanation of the Demon Queen's view of the war, this first episode is good fun: full of entertaining byplay and surprisingly sophisticated political ideas. The twist—that a Hero and Demon Queen would embark on a romantic tandem journey, possibly to extend a war—is a nice one, and the future possibilities for intrigue, action, and interesting personal complications seem good. Seeing what happens when queen and hero rejoin the Heroes’ entourage, or deal with the Queen's minions, should be quite fun. And that both Queen and Hero are strong, independent types (and easy on the eyes)certainly sweetens the pot.

MAOYU is available streaming at Crunchyroll.


Winter 2013 Shorts

Mangirl!

Rating: 2

Review: No this isn't a show about transsexuals. It's a show about manga editors. Four of them, all cute girls, all intent on starting their own manga magazine. There's some humor here, and near-subliminal flashes of the friendship between the magazine crew's first two members, but mainly this three-minute episode comes across as educational: a lighthearted serial designed to teach the logistics and economics of manga publishing to, say, fifth graders. At a slim three minutes it hardly has time even for that, and no time whatsoever for actual entertainment. The girls are one-quirk wonders (the level-headed one, the gluttonous one, etc.) and their interactions kind of hyperactive and annoying. Take a pass.

Mangirl! is available streaming at Crunchyroll.

Ai-Mai-Mi

Rating: 1 ½
Review: And after manga editors we get manga writers…sort of.  In this three-minute episode we are introduced to three members of a high school manga-writing club, though mostly they goof around rather than write. Crowded with jokes and antics, self-referential and pointedly bizarre, this is a pure comedy rather than a comedic PSA, but it isn't much more fun for all that. Its energy is more irritating than winning and its jokes go by too fast to really register. It's the kind of comedy that makes you think that maybe you're missing something; that perhaps you're slowing down, or aren't the pop-culture wiz you thought you were. Then again, it could just be a miserable comedy. An unattractive one to boot.

Ai-Mai-Mi is available streaming at Crunchyroll.

Encouragement of Climb

Rating: 3

Review:
This is the queen of the season's short-episode anime (so far). Aoi is a new high-schooler who prefers to have her fun alone. Others leave her to herself. That is, until an old friend returns to make good on a promise they made during Aoi's mountain-climbing(!) youth. Only, in the meantime Aoi has developed an extreme fear of heights. Though no longer than the other short shows, this one has a recognizable plot and characters who actually deserve names. Aoi has a real personality, as does her friend, and both are surprisingly fun. The pace is of necessity lightning quick, but it doesn't defy comprehensibility or wreck the nice character humor. The quality visuals and potent cute factor don't hurt either.

Encouragement of Climb is available streaming at Crunchyroll.

Boku no Imōto wa "Ōsaka Okan"

Rating: 2 ½
Review: Mangirl! was an educational video about the manga industry. This is an educational video about Osaka culture. Our hero is a self-professed normal guy who has just been reunited with his long-separated Osakan sister. They wander town as his sister teaches him about the differences between Tokyo and Osaka culture. This is a flash-animated show, so it's cute but incredibly cheap. The information about Osaka, with its distinctive nature (and dialect), is interesting, and nothing objectionable goes on, but the show just isn't very fun or involving. It should be mentioned, though, that the sister is adorable.

Boku no Imōto wa "Ōsaka Okan" is available streaming at Crunchyroll.

PUCHIM@S

Rating: 1 ½

Review:
The immortal Idolm@ster franchise gets another incarnation, this time as a short-episode ONA about blobby SD pets patterned after the usual Idolm@ster girls. Naturally the pets make the Producer's life heck. Heck, as you know, is a slight, cute, not-so-bad version of hell. Which is as good a way to describe this show as any. It's super-fast, treacle-cute, and sometimes creepily weird. (The Producer—the player's character in the game—is a guy in a suit with a huge “P” for a head). If you've a fondness for the established characters it may be fun watching cuddly blob-things with their personalities. If not, it'll just leave you scratching your head.


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