The Stream
Card Captor Chihaya

by Bamboo Dong, Nov 29th 2011

I hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving holiday. My family started a tradition last year of spending Thanksgiving weekend up in Breckenridge, and it's been great. The powder's always densely packed, and the lift lines are never too long this time of year. So for all you suckers who were stuck in a suboptimal climate, here's a big ol' raspberry for you.

Let's dive in.

 

#1 - Chihayafuru [ep. 7-8]

My biggest worry was that once Chihayafuru launched into its “We need to find more members for our club!” mini-arc, it would dilute the character pool I had already grown to love. Luckily, that was not the case. If anything, the past two episodes have just proved to me that Chihayafuru can go in any direction it wants and still be interesting.

For starters, the new additions to the karuta club are delightful, and all have their own complex backstories and reasons for joining the club. One of them is a loner who spends every waking minute studying. He finds solace in his studies, but is all too aware that he's not well liked by his peers, and even with all his studying, he still can't surpass Taichi as the #1 student. The last to join is a former karuta player, who quit the sport after he was demoralized by losing to Arata. Granted, neither of them are as easy on the eyes as Chihaya or Taichi, but they're fun characters, and they're pleasant. Plus, having newbies like the bookworm around actually gave the series a chance to explain some of the rules of karuta.

It's somewhat miraculous that the series manages to talk about a card game every single episode without becoming dull. At this point, viewers have learned about the various penalties, the rules of card slapping, strategy tips for placing cards and lunging for the tricky ones… and yet, it's still interesting every time. There isn't really an American equivalent for this, and maybe that's what's part of the allure. Karuta is absolutely foreign to me, so everything they tell me about it is new information. Plus, if Chihaya is this passionate about this game, then I want to know everything about it. Watching her every week is like having a surrogate friend—I care about her as deeply as anyone could care about a fictional character, and whatever she's interested in, I want to know about too. I want her and her friends to succeed. I want them to find happiness.

Somehow, Chihayafuru makes me smile every single episode. Literally, smile. By all odds, that shouldn't even be possible. But consistently, every single episode has a moment or two that plasters a giant grin on my face, because I feel so uplifted. Watching Chihayafuru is beyond just entertaining—it actually makes me happy. And that's something well worth the time and energy to invest in a series.

Status: If you're not on board the Chihayafuru train yet, you should really hop on. It's one of the few shows every week where I actually count down the days until I can watch the next episode.


 

#2 - Fate/Zero [ep. 7-8]

Man alive, there are some great-looking fight scenes in Fate/Zero! I bet if you never even watched a single episode of this show before, you could pick it up mid-season and still appreciate the action scenes. All the money that was saved in previous episodes were dumped into these fights. We get sweet glowing talisman bird creatures, mercurial tentacles that kill people, and creepy undulating starfish creatures. Even completely detached from the story, these episodes are intensely fun. I daresay they may even inspire ambitious viewers to start the series from the first episode and do a catch-up marathon.

Stuff has officially, as they say on the streets, "gone down." All the servants are involved in intense battles and as viewers, we get to reap the visual benefits. There is just no describing how creative these battles are. Sure, we've all seen your typical sword and gun fight, or your typical monster fight, but the battles in Fate/Zero deserve major credit for thinking of new ways to kill people. Even the people who don't get cool weapons and are only given sticks and swords, find unique ways to make people bleed.

Better yet, every episode still manages to have those one or two great scenes where the action slows down long enough for a Master and Servant to have a heart to heart. Sometimes they reveal something about their pasts. Usually, they reveal how psycho everyone is, like grinding up someone's ribs and stuffing the powder into bullets. Like I said, very creative. That's something that can't be undervalued. There are thousands of action series out there. It really takes some brainstorming to come up with something new. I don't typically advocate watching a show just for the fights, but Fate/Zero might have to be an exception.

Status: Rising back to the number 2 position, Fate/Zero is really outdoing itself in terms of animation and visual panache.


 

#3 - Future Diary [ep. 6-7]

Kids these days and their murder games. When will they learn that electrocuting their friends isn't going to make their dead parents come back to life! Don't they know they're just begging for a knife in the throat or a hammer in the noggin? Future Diary is one of those great shows that's shocking at every turn. It's the perfect blend of Cute and Psychotic, like watching a rabbit eat a human hand. Or, in the case of the series, watching a kid inject poison into a cherry tomato. Despite all the craziness that's happened in this series, and all the bad guys that have come and go, this new child character might be the best. And she brings out the good in Yuno.

Previously, I harbored a complicated love/hate relationship with the obsessive Yuno, whose Futury Diary literally gives her stalker powers. I was wary of her one-note psycho wannabe girlfriend characterization, but the last couple of episodes have really tried to make her more endearing. At the very least, Yukki himself has grown to the point where he realizes that he needs her help to survive. Start the countdown to their inevitable battle.

The concept of survival in Future Diary is riveting. On a surface level, it may purely be about dodging a bomb or a flying dagger. But there's a more human (or animalistic?) side that's hidden under the blankets of blood. Every time Yukki smiles at Yuno, it's a survival tactic. He's appalled by the actions of some of the other Diary users, but he's not much better. It's hard to like him knowing that he's playing her emotions just as deftly as another diary user might use firearms or brainwashed followers. In the end, survival is survival.

Future Diary is best enjoyed when not taken seriously. It's meant to be fun, in a really disturbing way. If you overanalyze it, or start to poke at the billions of holes, it falls apart. Just sit back and enjoy. Then you can laugh at great lines like, "Let's have fun killing each other!" Kids say the darndest things.

Status: Future Diary still continues to awe week after week, but it got knocked down a place this week due to the sheer visual awesomeness of Fate/Zero. It's still high on the list, though. After all, who doesn't like children who turn a suburban home into a gas chamber.


 

#4 - Hunter x Hunter [ep. 7-8]

Hunter x Hunter is deceptively cheerful. The colors are bright, the monsters are cute, and there's a relentlessly chipper soundtrack. But under all that pep, there is a truly dark undercurrent. Case in point, Gon's buddy Killua. He seems like a happy-go-lucky kid, maybe just slightly less plucky than Gon, but underneath that smile is a deeply disturbed child. I don't want to give away too much about his character's backstory for those who haven't caught up yet, but let's just say that he can say some dreadful things with a smile tacked on his face. It might be that Gon is the only character who doesn't have some serious skeletons in his closet—but then again, he thinks his absentee father is the greatest role model in the world.

Unfortunately, episode 8 ends on a hell of a cliff-hanger. Our friends have stumbled into a labyrinthine exam where their path through the maze is determined by majority rule… and fights to the death. Of course, the episode ends just as things are getting interesting, but the journey up until that point is still a lot of fun. The episode barely feels like it lasted ten minutes, and that's a strong testament to just how engaging it is.

In terms of depth and story complexity, Hunter x Hunter isn't exactly one of the front runners this season. What makes it so incredibly captivating is its strong characterization and its pacing. Something is always happening, and that “something” perpetually keeps viewers on the edge of their seats. Because of that, it's one of the best series of the season, and it's comforting knowing that it'll likely be around for a while. Every time an episode ends, I'm hit with disappointment, but every Saturday, I get excited knowing that I'm about to watch more. At the end of the day, that's what you want most in a weekly show.

Status: This cliffhanger is a killer! I can't wait to see what happens next, and considering I've felt that way for eight weeks in a row now, I'd say that says good things about this series.


 

#5 - Phi Brain [ep. 7-8]

There is nothing less interesting to me than the idea of staying in a puzzle resort. Look, I like puzzles as much as the next chump who buys a book of crosswords at the Hudson Newsstand in airports, but a vacation themed around solving puzzles sounds like a recipe for Hell. Even the menus at the puzzle resort mentioned in the latest episode of Phi Brain are in code, and if you can't solve a jigsaw puzzle in under 30 seconds, you don't get dinner. Pure Hell. I hope this fictional resort goes out of business within a day.

Phi Brain continues to entertain purely because it's so ridiculous. There are so many puzzles that I didn't even stop to realize that there are some serious plot holes in this show. What's the deal with that white-haired kid who was forcing Kaito through that POG complex of terror? And where did he go? And who are all these new black-suited men who are trying to kill Kaito? What are these Puzzles of God, really, and why do people give a damn? Why the hell do they live in a world where everyone cares so much about puzzles? This series basically makes no sense. Maybe that's why it's so insanely fun.

I was originally cheesed that the writers didn't spend any screen time on the puzzles, but apparently we're just not special enough to be in Japan. Right after each episode airs, there's a special that goes back through each puzzle and explains every one, so us dumbos can figure them out. I don't know if that's something that can get bundled into the eventual DVD release as an extra, but I would love it. As it is, that's still the most frustrating part about this series. These puzzles are just breezed through way too fast. It feels like getting a jigsaw puzzle for Christmas and opening it to find out that it's already been put together.

Status: Phi Brain is stupid fun. I love watching this show every week because I know it's going to deliver something ridiculous.


 

#6 - Last Exile ~Fam, the Silver Wing~ [ep. 5-6]

Last Exile -Fam, The Silver Wing- is painstakingly beautiful. Every last detail takes my breath away, from the moss lining a damp cave wall, to the rust spots on the ships. It's computer technology at its finest, and I'm glad the artists working on Fam, the Silver Wing have taken the time to add in these little touches. If this series didn't have its beautiful backgrounds and intricately rendered ships, it wouldn't be half as delightful.

That having been said, I'm having a difficult time following this series from week to week. Not because the story is unclear— that's not a problem at all. The problem is that this series is so deliberate and slow-paced that I'd rather just buy the boxset and marathon it over a weekend. It's the kind of show that eventually sucks you in and grabs your attention, but it needs time to do that. Every time a streamed episode ends, that hold is released. By the time the next episode rolls around, there's a waiting period before you're sucked back in. Fam, the Silver Wing is a show that needs to be watched for hours at a time. It needs time to latch itself into your brain, so that you can't help but need to know what happens next.

No one can deny that Last Exile is a visual treasure. I love watching the girls zipping around in their ships. There's an amazing scene in the sixth episode where the girls participate in a race, with a gunship at stake. It's a beautiful scene. This series was built around scenes like this. The animation is top notch, the CGI ships are sleek, and the semi-first person camera view makes you feel like you're on a roller coaster. But it's just not as exciting watching it on a computer. Even plugging it into a TV doesn't do it much good because you're limited by the resolution of the stream and the speed of your internet connection. Imagine if you were watching this show on BD on a 55” HDTV. It would be amazing.

I like Last Exile -Fam, The Silver Wing- a lot, but I'm getting to the point where I'd rather just watch it on BD later.

Status: Anticipate this show dropping in the rankings over the next couple of weeks. It's still a great series, but some shows are just better on DVD or BD.


 

#7 - Persona 4 [ep. 7-8]

This show has a lot of weird hang-ups about homosexuality. I'm not one to get easily offended, but even I raised an eyebrow at Persona 4 constantly using homosexuality as a punchline, and its portrayal of gays as flamboyant, sex-crazed maniacs. I realize these kinds of jokes are common throughout a lot of anime, but it's 2011. Aren't we kind of over this yet? The same goes for the “Oh man, look at that hilarious fat chick, who's hilarious because she's fat and also a chick! It's like she's a fat dude!” shtick. It's tiresome. These recycled jokes are all over entertainment—both Eastern and Western (Glee archetypes, anyone?), but at some point, the chuckles are reduced to mere eye rolls.

That's not to say that I didn't find other things to enjoy about Persona 4—it's just that I found my entertainment greatly dampened by some of these overused gags. Would I have found these same jokes funny ten years ago? Yeah, maybe. All jokes are funny the first time you hear them. To the show's credit, it did mix in some good scenes with the eye rolls. After the characters finish being creeped out by their new hooligan friend's gay inner demon, he reveals that he only pretends to be a street-hardened thug. On the inside, he's just a big ol' softie that likes cute things, and only beats up bikers when they're harassing his family. Aww. A stripper with a heart of gold. Notably, after his friends accept him for who he is, they go camping and then are grossed out at having to share a tent.

Fortunately, the series never strays too far from its murder mystery backstory. Even amongst the wacky hijinks, links are still being drawn between the victims, which helps move the plot along. I'm actually really enjoying the pace that Persona 4 has settled into. I like that the characters have time to turn green from bad curry while out on a class trip, without the episodes fully descending into filler. I like that they're still collecting Persona cards without it feeling like endless Pokémon battles. In short, Persona 4 isn't without its problems, but at the end of the day, it's still enjoyable to watch, if not good enough to really look forward to.

Status: Persona 4 has settled firmly into a nice groove of mediocrity. The pacing and judicious use of side stories has helped distance itself from feeling too much like a video game, but it still has a ways to go.


 

#8 - Un-Go [ep. 6-7]

Well, at least it can't be said that Un-Go is still stuck in its same old rut. The latest episode throws Shinjirou into a dream world where he plays the part of a cameraman working on a movie set. He's frustrated with the director's apathy, but he feels bolstered by the passion of the three lead actresses. However, when the director turns up dead, he's framed for the murder and he must crack the case to clear his name. Or presumably, I think that's the direction this mini-arc is taking. Undoubtedly, it's a bit of a mind trip—earlier, we're introduced to an imprisoned novelist who says he uses reality as his medium. Perhaps he's more alike to Shinjirou than we know; there's a mystery woman with him who might be his version of Inga.

Whatever is really going on, it's an amusing diversion from the main series, although not entirely welcome. The series still feels like it's dancing around something amazing, and whisking this detective into an alternate reality isn't necessarily the way to fix it… although it may inadvertently answer some questions about Inga that fans have been chomping at the bit about. But supernatural elements have never really been Un-Go's strong suit—the most interesting thing about the series is the way it represents bureaucracy and its follies. In that sense, the previous episode is a bit more interesting. Once again, we're presented with a mystery, but once again, Kaishou steps in to reveal how he's swept the scandal under the rug.

My biggest problem with Un-Go is that it doesn't seem aware of what the good and bad parts the series are. There are some aspects of the show that are really great, and deserve more limelight, such as the petty political games and the way governments massage the truth. If the entire series was reconstructed around this, I really think it would be better. The supernatural elements are fluff in comparison, as are the mysteries. The introduction of the mystery novelist and his weird dream-producing sidekick is neat, I guess, but it doesn't really serve any purpose. If anything, upon watching it, I just felt like the series was killing time. Each episode of Un-Go has its moments every week, but ultimately, I always leave feeling unsatisfied.

Status: Watching Un-Go feels a bit like taking a lukewarm bath. It's mildly pleasant, but mostly just disappointing, and you can't help but feeling it could be a lot better. I'm a little curious to see where they're going to take this daydream storyline, but I think the series is still floundering around.


 

#9 - Guilty Crown [ep. 6-7]

I can't decide if Guilty Crown knows it's over-the-top or not. Sometimes it seems as though it embraces its goofiness and runs with it. Sometimes I think it's blissfully unaware that it's impossible to take the show seriously, but tries really hard anyway. After several episodes of action-heavy setup, episode seven takes things down a notch. Shu's mom walks in on him and Inori accidentally stuck in an awkward position, but refreshingly, she doesn't care. As quickly as that comedy bit is brought up, it's dropped. It lightens the mood of the show, without dragging it through a bog of romantic comedy hijinks.

There's also a great scene in the most recent episode where a party on a cruise liner is being bombarded by hundreds of missiles. The attack is set to the Tchaikovsky's “Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker, but if it was intended to be serious, it backfires. It's hard to watch Guilty Crown without bursting into laughter at the sheer absurdity of some of the scenes. The characters take themselves way too seriously, but do they know??? I'd like to hope so. There's no other way Gai could awkwardly romance some girl, only to have Shu pull a massive shield out of her chest. If the characters aren't aware of how cheesy they are… well, maybe that's what makes this show so fun to watch. It walks a fine line between drama and unintentional comedy. The action sequences are intense and exciting to watch, but every time there's storybuilding, the laughs start to come out. GHQ is painted as such a monstrous, villainous organization they may as well have t-shirts on that say, “I'M THE BAD GUY.”

Despite the enjoyment I feel while I'm watching each new episode, I always find that week after week, I forget to watch Guilty Crown. It's not that it's not exciting or that it doesn't captivate my interest while I'm watching it, but I don't look forward to it. I don't ever really care enough what happens next for me to even remember what day of the week it comes on. If this was on TV, it'd be one of those shows that I always DVR, but never touch until months later when I feel bad for not watching it. I can almost say at this point that were it not for this column, I would never remember to tune into Guilty Crown. And maybe that will ultimately be its downfall as far as The Stream is concerned.

Status: Everybody likes missiles and explosions, but if they don't make an impact (hyuk), you lose interest. I've had a rocky relationship with Guilty Crown. Some weeks I really love it because I'm so satisfied after watching an episode. But come next week, I always have to ask myself, “Hey, what about that uh… Guilty Crown show? Didn't you forget to watch it again?”


 

#10 - Majikoi - Oh! Samurai Girls [ep. 5-6]

Finally, Majikoi takes a rest from its endless girl parade and goes back to what made the series so head-scratchingly fascinating the first episode—bizarre action sequences that are still just basically fan service, except of a different variety. Less shower scenes, perhaps, but fan service nevertheless. In the most recent couple of episodes, Momoyo finds herself restless, aching for rivals to fight. She gets her chance when she runs into the smugglers they met earlier in the season, one of whom has cybernetic limbs. There's a whole backstory about the identity of these warrior chicks and how they relate to the Kawakami school, and it's a nice change of pace from watching the girls throw themselves at Yamato.

Majikoi is one of those shows that's just really easy to watch. Week after week, it's easy to hit “play” because it's brainless enough that you can idly breeze through it. It's like entertainment white noise. It's the kind of show that was meant to be watched every week, because you can throw it on after a long day, or just before bed. I don't think I could marathon this in a box set. It's simply not good enough. Either I'd grow frustrated with the characters, or be angry at the inconsistent pacing of the show. But when it's only on once a week, it's easier to kick back and enjoy it.

I will say that it's definitely nice to have some action back in Majikoi. While the girl-talks-to-Yamato-and-has-a-nip-slip formula was sufficient as a guilty pleasure, it was starting to stagnate. The dialogues were growing long in the tooth, and there was always the glaring question of, “But what about the smugglers???” And that's finally answered in these two episodes. It still remains to be seen if this arc will go anywhere, but right now, it's a start.

Status: Majikoi is the worst kind of buttery popcorn. It's all artificial butter topping and lard, but once you start robotically eating it, it's hard to stop. Now with this new storyline, I'm going to stick around for another couple weeks to see where it goes.


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