The Fall 2005 Anime Preview Guideby Zac Bertschy,
It's that time of year again, when the Japanese airwaves fill to the brim with brand-spankin' new anime. There's so much of it to sift through, so much of it to consider; what's a fan to do?
Well, we here at Anime News Network have an annual tradition where we (meaning I) sit down and marathon the first episodes of these shows to offer you a quick rundown and a capsule review, so you can determine which shows sound like fun and which shows sound like pain.
So, without further ado, welcome to the Anime News Network Fall 2005 Anime Preview Guide!
Disclaimer: These are reviews of the first episode only. These are not to be taken as judgements on the series as a whole, simply a cursory examination of the show based on the first episode. Yes, we realize some of these shows might get better.
Yuuji Sakai leads a pretty normal life as a high school senior; that all changes one day when a magical circle appears beneath his feet and transports him - and all the bystanders - into an alternate realm swarming with mythical beasts, including a gigantic demon baby-thing and a huge glob of disembodied heads. The demon child begins consuming the mysterious blue flames that eminate from within those around it, and is just about to chow down on Yuuji when Shana, a magical girl with brilliant red hair, shows up and makes short work of the fire-eating demons. Shana quickly determines that Yuuji is a Mizutesu - a human "treasure chest" - and reveals to him that he is No Longer Human, but a vessel, one who can see the blue flame within certain human beings who are, like Yuuji, mere substitutes for those consumed by the monsters she has dedicated her life to hunting.
Is it any good?
Despite being fairly complicated and at some points unnecessarily convoluted and bizarre, Shakugan no Shana has enough good stuff going for it to warrant at least checking out the first volume when it arrives stateside. There are a handful of dangerous pitfalls this show could have easily succumbed to - pandering to the "moe" crowd, excessive fanservice, harem-style comedy or cliched Japanese spiritual ghostbustin' adventures - but thankfully it falls into none of these. It's a spin on the usual magical girl genre, to be sure, but it avoids being totally cliched and silly by generally sticking to an interesting and not totally ridiculous storyline. The animation is top-notch, as well; all in all, there isn't much to complain about, aside from the fact that the main character is already setting himself up to be a totally worthless wimp and the Shana character does little more than talk in a monotone and stare determinedly into the distance, as though she can't focus on anything but what a mysterious badass she is. Regardless, this one definitely has potential.
A treaty has been signed by the Rubels that allows the LeGrante Kingdom to occupy their territory; the Rubel's man-made soldier factory, an apparatus that produces clones for use in wartime, is locked up forever. Meanwhile, on a train to the prestigious Cluster E.A. school (an academy reserved for the hyper-talented or hyper-wealthy), we meet the down-to-earth Agate, who's sneaking around the train to forage for a meal; he bumps into wealthy, bored aristocrat Beryl Jasper (of the noble Jasper family), with whom he shares a vague, yet palpable connection. When the train is stopped by a military blockade to prevent it from getting too close to a violent raid, Agate leaps into the aircraft stowed on the train and takes off, determined to help young Calce, a pilot involved in the raid, from harm. Just when it seems all is lost after two destroyer ships open fire on the boys, Agate's mysterious power is awakened and a yellow shield protects both him and Calce from enemy fire.
Is it any good?
If Gundam Wing was a little too heterosexual for you, then Cluster Edge is going to be a home run. The two shows were directed by the same guy, so when you realize that the entire cast is composed of bishonen that barely resemble men, the plot is chock-full of totally convoluted political stuff that makes very little sense and there's a whole bunch of over-the-top homoeroticism, you shouldn't be surprised. Frankly, Cluster Edge just isn't off to a good start; none of these characters are given enough screen time to seem like anything more than the usual lame bishonen cliche archetypes (spunky, good-natured kid, icy aristocratic bastard, badass soft-spoken pilot), so it's like we're expected to care about what happens to them solely because they're all really good-looking. I can't tell if this show is nothing more than a crass marketing exercise designed to fuel the celphone strap/pencil board/pornographic doujinshi industry or it's a legitimately failed attempt at recreating the success of Gundam Wing, which at least had Gundams in it. I'm waiting to find out if the opening and closing theme songs are sung by the seiyuus for the five main characters or not; if that's true, then I'm convinced these things are being written and produced by a machine somewhere. Skip it, unless you just want to stare at the pretty boys, and even then you'll probably be bored.
What's it about?
There's a rumor going around school that if you type in the name of someone you want to exact revenge on at the website "Hell Correspondence", that person's soul will be dragged to the underworld. The only catch? When you die, you're doomed to a life in hell. Mayumi, a tortured high school student who's incessantly and cruelly bullied by a nasty brunette girl and her toadies, eventually gathers he courage and submits the bully's name to the website. To her surprise, it wasn't just a rumor; Hell Correspondence produces the creepy, raven-haired Jigoku Shoujo, who hands Mayumi a doll with a red ribbon that, when untied, seals the pact, sending the bully's soul straight to hell. Mayumi's life gets better, but an eternity of damnation awaits...
Is it any good?
Jigoku Shoujo is probably the best new show of the season. Fans of Geneon's Requiem from the Darkness will find a whole lot to like here, and horror fans who simply enjoy a good story should fall in love with this title right quick. Each episode seems to deal with a different person calling on the Jigoku Shoujo and her entourage to send someone screaming to the pits of hell as revenge, which is great news, considering that this premise wouldn't hold up if it was simply one person agonizing over the choice and dealing with the consequences for 13 episodes. The animation is nigh-experimental, as are the character designs, and as with any experiment, some of it works and some of it doesn't, especially in some of the scenes shot with a fisheye lens effect. Occasionaly the characters will appear to be off-model or wildly distorted, but for the most part they remain consistant. The soundtrack gets high marks for being melodic, creepy and at times downright catchy and beautiful, and the storyline moves along at a pretty brisk pace. Surprisingly, the horror scenes are remarkably effective and disturbing, which is rare for a modern horror anime. Really, this is the finest, most interesting and unique show of the season. Don't miss it.
LEGEND OF THE SILVER FANG: WEED
What's it about?
Long ago, in a place called Dog's Paradise, an epic battle with a giant bear was fought; the undisputed hero of the battle was Gin, a brave dog who felled the beast with the Attack of the Wolf. 14 years of peace and freedom for the dogs ensued, until one evening a terrible beast invaded their valley. Gin's wife, pregnant with his young, escapes with GB, a lieutenant of Gin's. Six months later, Gin's son Weed, a plucky young husky pup with a heart of gold, is tasked with taking care of his mother while GB's cruel stewardship of the family crumbles. When it's discovered - after some angst-ridden battles between Weed and GB - that Weed is truly his father's son and shows some of his dad's skill in battle, things start to look up, and Weed starts down the long road towards filling his father's pawprints.
Is it any good?
This is a show about talking dogs.
Japan is officially out of ideas.
It's your basic shonen hero-rises-to-the-challenge story, except it's a bunch of dogs who hang out in the countryside and bark at eachother in a militaristic fashion about some nonsense involving a giant bear. Weed is the hero of the story, a blue husky puppy who, I'm sure, is destined for greatess and acceptance among all talking dogs. This show is impossible to take seriously.
The animation is totally questionable, as well. Instead of having mouth flaps that match the words, the dogs are animated as barking at one another, with Japanese dialogue dubbed over the barking animation, not entirely unlike an old English-dubbed Godzilla movie. To make matters worse, the show has absolutely no sense of humor about itself, so the entire thing is very dry and run-of-the-mill. I desperately wanted someone to make a butt-sniffing or toilet-drinking joke, but much to my dismay, no such comedy could be found. The character designs are patently ridiculous; the lone girl dog seems to be a Chow-Chow, so she has big glimmering red eyes and a fluffy curly tail. I suppose they needed a way to distinguish between the males and females without giving the girl dogs gigantic breasts.
I've seen crappy American live-action talking dog movies that were more entertaining than this, and that's saying a lot, considering that no movie with talking animals (aside from that pig movie that got nominated for an Oscar) has ever been good in the history of things being good. If you can take Legend of the Silver Fang: Weed seriously, then more power to you, but this show is about as ridiculous as they come.
What's it about?
Sven Volfield is a "sweeper", a detective with a unique ability to see into the near future by lifting his eyepatch. Hot on the trail of a mob boss, Sven finds himself entangled with Train, an assassin with the number 13 carved in his chest, who works for the mysterious Chronos organization. Infamous for his swift, deadly and untraceable kills, Train, also known as Black Cat, brings the mob boss (now an elected official) down in an amazing display of stealth and skill. Determined to unravel the secrets behind Train's dark and bloody occupation, Sven starts following his trail instead, only to discover that he may be in over his head.
Is it any good?
Black Cat is a long-running manga in Shonen Jump, the same magazine responsible for stuff like One Piece, Naruto and Dragon Ball Z. While it might be easy to pidgeonhole Black Cat as being yet another endless "shonen hero with super powers fights off other dudes with super powers for 198 episodes and 4 theatrical films", you'd be only kinda wrong to do so. Thanks to some creative art direction by series producer Gonzo, Black Cat (at least, in this initial episode) has more in common with the out-there stylings of something like King of Bandit Jing than it does with Naruto, although that could very easily (and, let's face it, probably will) change. Basically what we're looking at here is the story of a super-powered assassin who's chased by a cop (outfitted with a number of embarassing cliches, like being gluttonous and endearingly befuddled); it's pretty obvious that Train will end up spending those 198 episodes fighting against the other assassins working for Chronos, but that has yet to happen. Right now the show feels more like a dark version of Lupin the 3rd, but that's basically guaranteed to change.
Really the outstanding quality here is the art direction, which is stark and noir-ish, with lots of solid colors and jump cuts and music video angles that give the show a much larger visual edge than others of its pedigree. Unfortunately the show's plot isn't much different from its kin; in this episode, Black Cat is assigned to assassinate an elected official with the last name Tyrant (I don't know about you, but I'd probably think twice before voting for someone named Tyrant), the detective chases after him, we find out a few clues about Black Cat's past and there's a big battle against another assassin. I can see them repeating this formula for a long time, which is what prevents me from seriously recommending this series to anyone who's even a tiny bit sick of long-running formulaic shonen action shows. The art direction is unique enough to warrant a cursory glance, though.
BLOOD + What's it about?
Saya Otonashi, a high school student and track star, doesn't remember anything about her past, but leads a pretty average life nonetheless. It's not to last, however; unexpected aircraft appear in the skies and a military hunt for mysterious "Type-Bs" gets underway. To make things even stranger, an encounter with a cellist performing in a strip mall conjures an image in Saya's mind of a young girl running through a monastery with a key in hand. During a fateful trip back to school to retrieve her missing running shoes, Saya encounters the cellist once again, who seems to recognize her. When he produces a dagger, Saya runs off in fear; she bumps into a teacher, who tries to help by finding the cellist but winds up getting ripped to shreds by a fearsome grey beast that's invaded the school. As it happens, the monsters are "Chirpoterans", beasts who feed on the blood of the living. The cellist, in a struggle to defend Saya from the Chiropterans, winds up force-feeding Saya his own blood. Her eyes turn red, awakening the hidden monster within and revealing Saya's bloody secret!
Is it any good?
Blood + is probably the most-hyped show of the season, thanks to its connection to the multimedia franchise Mamoru Oshii cooked up a few years ago. To say that this TV series is better than the mostly awkward 45-minute feature film that was released on DVD a while back would be an understatement. While it eschews most of the hyper-dark, brooding nature of the original and adds a few more cliche anime touches - like making Saya a typical cute Japanese schoolgirl instead of a pouting death machine - the narrative, the characters, and the storyline all make a lot more sense. All in all, this version is a vastly more entertaining enterprise than the original film. Although not a lot about the characters is revealed in this first episode, there's enough mystery, intrigue and action to keep people on their toes, which is more than enough to give it a shot. The absolutely beautiful animation from Production I.G - which ditches the poorly-lit, muddy visuals of the film for a much more vibrant color palette - certainly helps. The music is mostly forgettable, but that's really the only complaint to be made. Blood + comes from a well-regarded and highly popular pedigree and will probably be a smash hit when it eventually shows up here in the States. Thankfully, it's worthy of the acclaim.
What's it about?
Akira is an orphan with a strange pendant who wants to become a high-ranking warrior (or "Otome") at Garderobe Academy in the Kingdom of Windbloom. In her journey she meets the princess of Windbloom, Mashiro, and Nina, a brave girl with a serious daddy complex. When the academy is under siege by a strange mechanical monster, Nina takes it upon herself to battle the beast alone, but quickly determines that she can't defeat it by herself. Enter Akira, whose strange pendant allows her to transform into a fully-fledged, winged Otome, and Shiziru, the academy's lead professor; together, they bring the monster to its knees, and Akira suddenly finds herself full of determination to become an Otome.
Is it any good?
Fans of the original ridiculously hyped-up Mai-Hime don't need to be told to watch this, since they're probably already pre-ordered the first DVD and the lenticular pencil board clear file cel phone strap. The hype, though, even for fans, might not ring true; this isn't a sequel to the original series, it's a complete reimagining, with a totally different (albeit somewhat similar) cast. Some of the original cast members seem to appear in the opening theme, but for now, that's it. If you were hoping for a sequel, get ready for disappointment.
For everyone else, Mai-Otome comes across as yet another cute-girls-who-fight-monsters show, where everyone's gifted with an archetypal personality, and very little of the storyline makes a whole lot of sense. The action scenes are nicely animated and it's clear this is designed to be a commercial mega-hit but there isn't a lot of soul or creativity here. Outlandish costumes, characters with personalities you've seen a hundred million times, character designs that bait the doujinshi crowd and a lot of strange, seemingly meaningless and arbitrary throwbacks to the original series... I had a hard time figuring out what exactly the point of Mai-Otome was. It'll probably become clearer in later episodes, but for now, this is pretty mediocre and as far as I can tell, doesn't even really give Mai-Hime fans what they really wanted. Here's hoping it gets better.
ARIA: THE ANIMATION
What's it about?
Akari Mizunashi is a gondolier for the Aria company in the city of Neo Venezia, located on a newly-terraformed Mars (now referred to as "Aqua"). On a particularly unusual escort trip, Akari winds up ferrying a strangely quiet girl named Ai and President Aria (the head of the company). Although standoffish at first, Akari gets Ai to open up a little about her troublesome family life. Happy to have made a few new companions who seem to understand her, Ai goes home to her parents while Akari and her friend Aika discuss the day's adventure.
Is it any good?
Like the manga it's based on, Aria: The Animation is an action-packed thrill ride of epic proportions that will keep you on the edge of your seat, biting your fingernails with pure excitement.
Actually, that's a lie. Aria is pretty boring.
This show follows the same design principle as Yokohama Shopping Log, which means there are a lot of very nice and proper discussions about the characters' mundane way of life in a pastel-colored science-fiction world, followed by slow pans across pleasant backgrounds, accompanied by beautiful character design. Other than that you're basically watching someone who ferries people from place to place in a boat and generally doesn't do anything of interest. I'm not sure how successful this premise would be if it were set in modern-day Venice; it's as if solely because they're on a terraformed Mars, we're supposed to find this all very fascinating.
Shows like this certainly have their fans, and they'll be pleased as punch with Aria, especially given the show's handsome production values and art direction; this is a very pretty series to behold. The problem is, nothing happens. It might be easy to use this as a prime counterpoint in the endless argument about the value of action-packed shonen fluff, but this is simply the opposite, a show that's not really about anything and doesn't have much of a story as opposed to something that has too much story and tries to cram too many plot points into a single episode. Aria has its good points, but so far, its best feature is being a cure for insomnia.
What's it about?
Although she's a slender and attractive high school girl, Yukari's most notable features are her crass distrust of those around her and her unrelenting drive to get into a decent college. That all changes when she's accosted by Arashi, a loudmouthed punk with a few too many piercings, who's convinced she's the perfect model and introduces her to the world of fashion via the Atelier bar. The bar is home to a number of art students who have cobbled together a small design house, lead by the smooth-talkin' bishounen George, accompanied by the mysterious Isabella and the adorable gothic lolita girl Miwako. Although she initially refuses to become their model, Yukai is coerced into it thanks to a notebook she leaves behind at Atelier - a notebook that contains information about her secret crush, information Arashi uses to blackmail her into her first modeling gig for them. As it happens, Yukari might have a taste for this after all...
Is it any good?
Probably the other "best show of the season", Paradise Kiss is a relatively faithful, blisteringly artistic, enjoyably mature and entertaining drama, based on the lavish manga. Obviously produced on a fairly large budget (no doubt thanks to the manga enjoying very brisk sales here in the States), Paradise Kiss is brought to life with stunning animation quality and vibrant color. The lush artistry of the manga is out in full force, with the anime incorporating a few brilliantly experimental touches of its own. The characters are all quite nicely set up, and there isn't really anyone in the cast who doesn't appear to be at least mildly interesting. There are also no two-dimensional archetypes on display here; each character is written in a very natural and likable way. The dialogue flows very well, which is unusual for a drama like this one.
While the star of the show is undoubtedly the spectacular animation, really it's the premise here that's so intriguing. The fashion world - specifically the underground fashion world and the misfits, artists and geniuses that inhabit it - are rarely discussed in manga, and it's never been done with this level of laid-back authenticity before. These characters and this situation feel realistic and yet fictionalized at the same time; it's a delicate balance. Here's hoping the animation and the storytelling can maintain this level of quality for a while.
One thing that's really groundbreaking about this show that needs to be mentioned: the closing theme, believe it or not, is the smash hit Franz Ferdinand song, "Do You Want To". This is an unprecedented mix of east and west; to have a a brand-new hit song that's all over the radio and topping the billboard charts in America be the closing theme for a big new anime in Japan.
What's it about?
Sakurano is a world-class figure skater on her way to becoming the best in the world... until she royally screws up at a competition and gets hounded by her fellow skaters and the media. To add to the pressure, Sakurano also has to deal with day-to-day high school life, which is never simple or easy. Just when it seemed like things couldn't get any worse, Sakurano finds herself haunted by the ghost of Peet, a former skater who was recently killed. Now, Sakurano's life is full of questions: how did Peet die? What's his personal history? Can these two get along? Why is he haunting her in the first place?
Is it any good?
Let me put on my Psychic Cap and predict how the rest of this series will go:
Sakurano tries for a few episodes to get rid of Peet
Sakurano realizes Peet isn't all that bad and can help her with her skating
We eventually learn Peet's tragic death, causing Sakurano to sympathize with him
We eventually learn why Peet and Sakurano are bound together in the first place
Sakurano wins world championship, but has to let her slowly developing love for Peet go when he eventually disappears forever.
Happy tears are shed when it's revealed that Peet has moved on to a better place.
There's really nothing about this show that makes it stand out at all. It's a pretty generic premise - one already covered by the vastly superior Hikaru no Go, except this time there are serious romantic implications (no matter what the doujinshi authors might have said about Hikaru and Sai). The animation's very run-of-the-mill and none of the characters are particularly original or interesting. All in all, this is as generic and forgettable as anime can get. It's totally harmless and a lot of people will probably enjoy it for the mindless entertainment it provides, but to give this thing anything more than a mildly disinterested glance is a waste of time. Unless you're bored and have nothing else to watch, skip it.