The Spring 2008 Anime Preview Guide
by Carl Kimlinger,
Carl Kimlinger is the alias of a homely troll named Grot who lives under an abandoned toll bridge subsisting on the frogs and toads he harvests from the toxic waters of nearby rivers. Occasionally he visits local anime conventions and pelts the convention-goers with copies of Battle Arena Toshinden in some form of cryptic protest, but no one ever notices since everyone knows that trolls don't actually exist. Though the bare decade that has passed since his introduction to anime doesn't really qualify him as a veteran, the sheer volume he has consumed in that period sometimes makes Carl feel that he should be sporting a grizzled beard and hobnobbing with Odysseus. An avid fan of anime's quieter, more sensitive side, Carl also has a soft spot for big, dumb spectacles and is easily fooled by slick visuals into grading things higher than they deserve. Carl lives in rural Oregon and has a degree in anthropology (with a focus on bioanthropology and archaeology) that serves as a great party trick if folded into a crane and made to levitate.
Kanokon ep. 1
Rating: 2 (of 5)
Xebec's latest addition to the wild and wooly world of shonen romance takes a more explicitly sexual tack than is usual, but douses any ecchi sparks with a pair of limp leads and a moldy, shopworn premise. Ex-country-boy Kouta Oyamada finds that the city isn't the only big thing in the big city: there are big boobs too, something he can't help but notice since Chizuru Minamoto, an upperclass(wo)man at his new school, insists on rubbing them all over him. What Chizuru sees in a squirt like Kouta isn't the only mystery surrounding her—she's also a fox spirit, something that Kouta learns the hard way when she lures him into the music room and molests him until their “bond” allows her to possess him, thus unleashing her massive... powers.
Where to begin... To start with, Chizuru is nothing but a raging sex drive crammed into a pair of boobs and a butt (the three of which get more screen time than her face), and Kouta hasn't the personality that God gave a dead twig. The set-up—ordinary boy hooks up with cute monster in the midst of some sort of inter-monster conflict—is deadeningly cliché, and the series takes place in that romantic fantasy land where hot girls throw themselves at boys like lemmings into the sea. Even the ecchi content is undermined by the fact that the sexual dynamic between voluptuous Chizuru and prepubescent Kouta is really, really creepy. If searching for excellence in a new season of anime is like searching for a needle in a haystack, then this is the haystack. And like hay, you may need four stomachs to digest it.
The Tower of Druaga
Rating: 2.5 (of 5)
If a talented staff were all it took to make great anime, then Tower of Druaga would be pretty darned great. The series reunites Koichi Chigira and Shoji Gatoh, the director and the writer of Full Metal Panic, and tosses in character designer Ugetsu Hakua, whose artwork was the most compelling reason to buy Burst Angel, just for good measure. Unfortunately, the result is considerably less than the sum of their talents, though not without its charms.
The episode sets a humorous tone early on, positioning itself as a parody of standard-issue RPG fare, only to pull the “it was all a dream” card at the end. It's an irritating move, but it does allow Gatoh and Chigira to compose an amusing one-episode parody of all things RPG. After the lead Gil grandiosely introduces himself as “the Hero,” the episode bolts through an entire fantasy epic in a machinegun-paced twenty minutes, during which time Gil romances a princess, gathers a party, proves his worth to them, and eventually battles his way to a showdown with the evil god Druaga. Gatoh gets all of the mean little details down pat—Druaga is actually Gil's father, characters always speak spontaneously of their plans to return home and get married before they die, and the tentacle monster attack is pointedly allowed to go on just long enough—while the parody format makes the cheap fights excusable and Chigira's slow devolution into stylistic outrageousness understandable.
Unfortunately, wasting the entire introductory episode on a dream makes determining the series intended tone and direction impossible, especially given the more somber feel of the post-dream coda, and even the parodic tone can't erase the unease generated by Gil's ominously familiar party-mates. That the charm of Hakua's illustrations continues to defy animation doesn't help either.
Review: For those wondering about the funky title, it's sort of a pun—if you pronounce it Japanese-style it sounds kind of like "trouble." And anyone taking stock of the series' plot will definitely agree that it sounds like trouble, and not the good kind. The plot concerns runaway alien princess Lala and hapless high-schooler Rito who accidentally wins her heart while trying to save her from pursuers who turn out to be her own family. You've got your boy with acute girl phobias, your alien babe that materializes naked in his bath, your wacky gadget-based humor, and your end-of-episode accidental marriage proposal. Ah, the things that Urusei Yatsura must answer for, not the least of which is all of that aspirin viewers have free-based while coping with its knock-offs.
However...call it "Fun With Lowered Expectations," but To Love-Ru actually isn't that terrible. Rito is athletic and well-liked by classmates, not a Generic Loser Guy, and while the plot is all sloppy seconds, something that the series acknowledges with repeated visual quotes (from Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind for starters), it has the good sense to give Rito a viable romantic interest before dropping naked Lala literally onto his crotch. As a result the climax's inevitable botched confession actually has emotional consequences, to the consternation of all. Lala is a weak link, but only future episodes will reveal whether she'll really start shredding nerves or not. Ditto for the occasionally amusing but hyperactive humor.
For the fan-service hounds out there, the service is plentiful and—at least in the opening sequence—surprisingly high-quality. Of course, it's integrated into the plot with all the finesse of a low-rent porno, but that won't bother the hounds.
Series that want to be everything to everyone are a dime a dozen, but the ones that can actually do everything—action, intrigue, light humor, misty-eyed drama, and even hints of romance—in a single episode without breaking a sweat and look good in the process are considerably more valuable than that.
High school student Shinkuro Kurenai works as a general contractor for a rather shady woman named Benika, and while he wants desperately to be assigned bigger and higher-paying contracts, his promotion comes in the unexpected shape of a seven-year-old girl named Murasaki. Brash, bossy, and mature beyond her years, Murasaki is the only daughter of an apparently very rich man who kept her prisoner in a posh compound, from which she escaped with Benika's help. Murasaki needs protection from her father and Kurenai needs a job, and luckily the two share an immediate rapport, though their relationship gets bumpy the minute Kurenai leaves Murasaki in his dingy apartment to go to school, prompting her to run away.
This wouldn't be the first time that Brains Base's intricate backgrounds, mobile faces, and active, flexible character designs have fooled me into watching pap, but Kure-nai seems unlikely to be another Innocent Venus. It balances the wealth of characters and information in the opening half of the episode well, respecting viewers enough to let them piece together events on their own, but never allowing itself to get busy or confusing. But most importantly, the chemistry between Murasaki and the gentle Kurenai is sweet and believable, and the second half pleasantly emotional. Oh yeah, and the brief ass-kicking sequences are promising too. A good ass kicking is currency I'm willing to trade in any time.
Step one of making a good sequel to a good show is to reunite the talent that made the original a success. xxxHolic: Kei puts in director Tsutomu Mizushima's hands exactly the same tools that made the first season such a unique, enchanting experience. Kazuchika Chise returns with his distinctive anime-friendly interpretations of Clamp's spindly Jack Skellington-esque character designs. S.E.N.S. provides another quiet, eerily supernatural score, and the retention of Clamp's obsessive high-contrast set designs, abstract color patterns, and omnipresent swirling, spiral textures continues under the watchful eye of veteran art director Hiromasa Ogura.
Step two is restarting the story at the right point. The series' second season begins with the tale of the spider that curses Doumeki's eye, closing it with a web-shaped scar. The story is one of the series' rare forays into serious character-building, revealing much about both Doumeki and Watanuki as they demonstrate the burdens that each is willing to labor under in order to remove the curse from the other, while also being exemplary of the spooky, fable-like ambience that sets the series apart from run-of-the-mill tales of supernatural happenstance. While the repetitive rhythms of the humor have something to do with that ambience, they can nevertheless grow tiring, and as always Mokona is unbearable, but otherwise this is a uniquely magical experience whose continuation is to be roundly celebrated.
Review: The latest series made under the auspices of the tag-team of director Shoji Kawamori and composer Yoko Kanno, Macross Frontier returns the franchise to the space battling that it made its bones on, opening its first episode in a flurry of pop music, live concert drama, and teenagers being teenagers, and ending it in a hail of missiles and indestructible alien death machines. The plot concerns two teenagers, effeminate amateur flyer Alto and happy-go-lucky weird-girl Lanca, who meet at a concert both are attending—Alto as part of the show's high-flying opening act and Lanca as a fan—only to run afoul of a murderous alien machine after first running afoul of concert songstress Sheryl Nome.
But really, the plot is so fully subordinated to sheer spectacle that here in the first episode at least it not only can be ignored, but practically begs to be.
The series' positively obscene budget yields a lively, colorful world with a clear vision of the future, and the concert once it opens is pure shameless, exhilarating audio and visual showboating, an epileptic smear of soaring mechanized teenagers, shouted songs, and bare flesh. And the dance between the alien invaders and the constantly transforming mecha defenders and their swarming clouds of missiles is hypnotic enough that it really is a chore to remember who is doing what or why. All of which doesn't stop the cliffhanger ending, when Alto mounts an abandoned mecha to defend a terrified Lanca from a towering organic machine invader, from being pretty tense.
Naturally, the music—particularly the achingly sad closing ballad—is superb, though Sheryl's pop songs don't hold up as well as Sharon Apple's from Macross Plus.
Itazura na Kiss
Rating: 2 ½ (of 5)
Review: Here to give us a shojo alternative to the spate of shonen romances hitting the market, it's Itazura na Kiss, a story about a scatterbrained everygirl who falls in love with a jerk and is forced to cohabitate with him. At the risk of belittling the work of a manga artist who died tragically (Kaoru Tada died at age 38 from complications associated with a domestic accident), one really must question whether trading stock male characters for stock female characters and booby face-plants for precipitously piled coincidences really makes for a better show.
At any rate, it does make for a considerably less vulgar one. This first episode is squeaky clean, and the humor tends towards wan slapstick, making it fine for younger viewers.
Unfortunately the chain of circumstance leading to Kotoko's cohabitation—Kotoko is coldly spurned by her secret crush Irie, after which her house collapses and a family friend, who just happens to be Irie's dad, takes them in—is so transparently contrived that even tots will see through it. And unfortunately Irie, who is obviously being groomed as the romantic lead, is also a grade-A dick, which seriously undercuts whatever charm the series manages to establish with Kotoko's underdog spunk. Even Irie's little brother is a dick. The scene in which Kotoko tries painfully to make nice with the unpleasant duo could have been lifted verbatim from a movie called Meet the Assholes. Not that Kotoko's a peach either. She ignores her lone suitor, whose homely appearance hides a heart the size of a watermelon, and her reason for falling in love with Irie is spectacularly superficial. Nothing like a shallow lead to dig a series a shallow grave.
Rating: 3 (of 5)
Review: Where would the world be without vampire anime to watch? We'll probably never know, as there's never a season without one. This one focuses on a human female protagonist, Yuki, who was saved by one vampire from another and was adopted afterwards, with no memory of her past prior to the rescue, by the headmaster of an elite school. Ten years later she is protecting the school's “Night Class”—a group of vampires led by Kaname, her rescuer, who is apparently dedicated to coexistence with humans—from discovery by the rest of the student body. Though overtly distant with each other, she and Kaname share a powerful bond, something her adopted brother Zero, who bears an unquenchable hatred for vampires, believes to be less than healthy.
Vampire Knight’s take on vampires is somewhat more traditional than those of say Karin or Rosario to Vampire, laying on the gothic atmosphere thick and focusing more on the predatory masculine sensuality of vampires than on busty vampire babes. Its hooks—and they're certainly effective ones—are the pile of heavily-hinted secrets that practically clog this first episode and the possible ramifications of the ambiguous relationship between Yuki and Kaname, but the series is simultaneously creaking under the weight of its entertainment antecedents, ready to collapse at any time into a mess of vampire and shojo clichés. The requisite love triangle rears its head early on, and the makings of the usual tale of a girl and her supernatural protector are present, though whether that comes to pass or not will depend heavily on how the dynamic between Yuki, Zero and Kaname develops. For if it develops correctly, the series also has the potential to become a solid romantic melodrama. For now, just watch the beautiful boys and hope.
Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion R2
Rating: 3 (of 5)
Review: You can always tell the popular series—they're the ones that not only get sequels using the same high-profile cast and crew as the original, but also get new theme songs by uber-popular bands like Orange Range. Season two of Code Geassopens with the rebellion crushed, Zero declared dead, and Lelouch living a normal life, the memories of his true identity and purpose wiped clean. However, CC is looking to revive his ambitions, and agents of the Britannica Empire are lurking nearby hoping for a chance at assassination when she makes her attempt. And thus the stage is set for Zero's return from the grave.
No one really needs to be told that Code Geass’ sequel is bombastic, filled with skinny, beautiful boys, and loaded with melodramatic developments so overwrought that they're like a form of visual Shakespearean poetry, but for the record it is. It isn't hard to see, even from this single overcrowded episode, why the series has such a following. Director Goro Taniguchi wrings as much impact from those melodramatic developments as his considerable skills will allow, composing some truly striking imagery in the process. Zero's climactic awakening is simultaneously utterly preposterous and downright cool, and Taniguchi's long collaboration with composer Kotaro Nakagawa pays off with a score that, in his hands, matches the overdramatized bluster of the script to perfection. Not every stylistic flourish succeeds—Zero's grandiose gesticulations are hilarious rather than impressive (perhaps he's Italian?)—and the writing is often awful, but it's hard to hate a show that has a bunny-girl terrorist bringing the kung-fu to a bunch of hapless Imperial soldiers.
Review: There's a stink of desperation that clings to Blassreiter like sewage. It's in the sweaty urgency with which it mashes together waste products from different genres, it's in the bludgeoning, overhyped attempts at coolness, and in the wild, clumsy swings it takes at every tone—emotional, adrenalized, inspirational—known to anime. The plot—in which a special motorcycle squad fights demons with the help of a cripple-turned-superbeing—veers randomly from motorcycle racing drama to Bubblegum Crisis-like demon-hunting to superhero origin story within the space of a single episode. Neither director Ichiro Itano—a veteran of violent sleaze—nor writer Gen Urobuchi has the skill to juggle the various plot elements and moods and their transitions gracefully, and the end result is an unsightly mishmash of borrowed genres. And one further blighted by a script that was Frankensteined together from stock phrases and obvious blocks of exposition that are inserted into the plot with excruciating ineptitude.
Gonzo banks heavily on their skill with 3D imagery, even going so far as to render characters in 3D while in combat. While it's impossible to deny the beauty of their CGI work here, Itano's self-conscious action-film posturing and a tendency to over-utilize slow motion betray that stink of desperation, a frantic desire to be cool without any real plan for how to go about it. Cool action should be like the proverbial swan—it doesn't matter if the legs are churning like PCP-pumped paddlewheels under the water so long as above the surface it's nothing but effortless grace. Instead what Itano has created here is the action equivalent of the doggy paddle—maybe it'll get him somewhere but the clumsy strokes are out there for all to see.
Allison & Lillia
Rating: 4 ½ (of 5)
Review: A simple adventure told at an easygoing pace with the kind of cleanly beautiful visuals that made Hayao Miyazaki famous, Allison & Lillia is a refreshing breeze in a season of hot air. Best Friends Wil and Allison have been separated for sometime, Wil attending school and Allison flying planes for the air force, when one languid summer day Allison drops from the sky for a visit. While biking along a road, they give an old man a ride, and in gratitude he offers them tea and conversation. When the old man is kidnapped before their very eyes, the two youngsters give chase, eventually taking to the skies in an adventure that just may lead to a treasure with value beyond mere money, a treasure whose reward might be world peace.
Though Miyazaki is in no way involved, his shadow looms dark over this project with its feisty female lead, obsession with flying, and strong flavor of classical adventure. Far from an imitation, however, Allison & Lillia has a seductively simple allure all its own. Allison and Wil make an atypical pair of juvenile sleuths, with Wil providing the brains and Allison the brawn and determination, and their relationship—Allison makes no secret of her romantic interest in Wil, who is too thick to notice—is sweet and chaste. Masayoshi Nishida keeps his direction effectively understated, though the lyrical opening with its lilting song and floating, restful camerawork bodes well for future aerial journeying. The natural dialogue and sharply drawn personalities betray a quiet intelligence which, given the series' genesis in a pair of novels by Kino's Journey author Keiichi Sigsawa, promises a bright and possibly unexpectedly complex and relevant future.
Rating: 3 (of 5)
Review: Maka is a rookie at the shinigami technical school for weapon meisters, a school that trains young folks to create Death Scythes, weapons with human form that transform into blades that are the preferred armaments of the death gods. Maka's partner is Soul Eater, an uncouth but ambitious scythe (his goal is to become a “cool man”) with more attitude than looks. But in order for Soul Eater to become a full-fledged Death Scythe, he and Maka must first collect 99 corrupted souls and one witch's soul.
Can anyone else smell the sizzling flesh of viewers frying in shonen action hell? Okay, cheap shot aside, no one comes to a series like this expecting to be swept away in storm of originality, so the real question to ask is, is it cool? The series' aesthetic is atypical, with a pervasive Halloween theme and an emphasis on simple art, cartoony designs, and fluid animation that feels more American than is the norm. Indeed, touches of American culture crop up throughout. Maka's superior Shinigami-sama is a cartoony version of the popular conception of Death, the witch Maka and Soul Eater fight is named Blair, and one of Blair's signature moves is called the “Smashing Pumpkin.” Anything with '90's alternative music references in it is pretty cool in my book.
But most important of all is the fighting. In a genre where lame fights mean certain death, director Takuya Igarashi delivers athletic, super-distorted battles animated with impeccable smoothness by celebrated animation studio BONES. Fast, fluid, and smartly choreographed, they're fun and easy on the eyes, if not particularly exciting just yet. Taku Iwasaki's slick, rockin' score helps immensely, and the series' distinctive look keeps the attention from wandering during the in-battle down-times. All in all: stupid, predictable, and really quite fun.
Rating: 3 (of 5)
Review: You can ask yourself as many times as you want whether the world really needs another story about the hijinks of the quirky folks who top the rankings at some prestigious high school, but the cold hard truth is that they seem to be here to stay, so we're just stuck. And so long as you resign yourself to the premise, this series at least makes for effective light entertainment. The focus of the series is Hikari, the number two student at a school where some moron had the brilliant idea of isolating the top seven students from any potential interaction with rank-and-file students by placing them in a separate class with separate facilities and separate uniforms. Hikari's sole purpose in life is to defeat Takishima, the haughty number one student and the only man she's never been able to beat at anything. But does Takishima see her as nothing but a rival? Of course not.
The rivalry thing is old hat—His and Her Circumstances did it with more honesty and feeling and was funnier to boot—but there are moments when the series nails the frustration engendered by an insurmountable inferiority to another person dead on. In between bouts of manic humor that is. The series is a comedy first and a drama second (and a distant second at that). The slapstick is generally worth a smile if not a chuckle—especially once the series proves willing to romantically humiliate its “perfect” male lead—and the episode ends with a surprisingly fun smackdown. Occasionally its indefatigable energy is tiresome and its humor flat, and one can't help questioning why Takishima has to unbutton his shirt to make a dramatic declaration, but anything that ends with a smile is more good than bad.
Neo Angelique Abyss
Rating: ½ (of 5)
Review: The trouble begins early—the episode opens with a door exploding to reveal the silhouettes of four men wielding signature weapons; on the stairs before them is an effeminate but obviously evil boy who says “I've been waiting for you, Orb Hunter gentlemen.” From that moment, it's obvious that the series will be undiluted crap. And that's just the first twenty seconds. What follows are the most awful five minutes since the horrors of the opening episode of Beet the Vandal Buster.
Angelique is a schoolgirl in a world besieged by monsters that can only be defeated by Purifiers—hot guys with special powers, one of whom believes that Angelique may be the rumored “miracle girl” with purifying powers beyond those of... Oh, for the love of God, none of this matters. What matters is that no one with a nerve in their body should ever be subjected to this torture. And torture it is. The only physical reaction it elicits is a fearful puckering of the anus, and the only laughs it inspires are hysterical chuckles of fear at the possibility of the series trotting out more soul-shreddingly inane dialogue or plot developments to assault one's quivering intellect with.
The beginning and ending of the episode are studies in sadistic psychological torture, but the real revelation comes during the merely boring middle half, where one learns that the mere absence of pain can be bliss. And that's all the bliss you'll be getting, unless male harems are your idea of bliss, regardless of the stinking narrative garbage they're clothed in.
Zettai Karen Children
Rating: 2 ½ (of 5)
Review: Take your average group of magical girls—the feisty one, the quiet one, the smart one—and throw some psychokinetic powers, family values, and crass crotch jokes at them, and presto! you have brilliance. Or so the makers of Zettai Karen Children would like you to believe. The truth is far uglier: the series' combination of magical girl tropes, science fiction, and oddly adult humor doesn't improve it—it only makes it feel like an attempt to snare an audience of both children and middle-aged otaku, and a tired one at that.
The plot—a trio of supernaturally gifted children are used by a government agency to fight other “gifted” humans—is simple, the characters are basest stereotypes, and the attempts at complexity aren't very complex at all. So gifted mutants are discriminated against and exploited. Amazing, be sure to call the X-Men and tell them they got trumped. The series spends the entire first episode screaming lazy genre-piece, and just to sweeten the pot, some of the series' undertones are a little...odd. The relationship between the three girls and Kouichi, their handler, is properly paternal, but the scene in which the girls are attacked by big Freudian snakes is definitely rather distasteful and the girls dodging the villain's crotch cannon is symbolism that everyone could have done without. On the other hand, the fact that Kaoru (the feisty one) talks like a dirty old man is actually kind of endearing, and the super-powered fights are reasonably diverting.
Kamen no Maid Guy
Rating: 4 (of 5)
Review: Maid shows. Paeans to the wonders of servile women and fodder for drooling fetishists all over the world, right? Not when they're about maid GUYS they're not. Nor is it some reverse harem fantasy for female fetishists. Not when the Maid Guy in question is a fanged, claw-fisted tower of muscle in a frilly dress. When Naeka and her otaku brother's obscenely wealthy grandfather hires a pair of maids to keep their filthy abode livable, her brother is delighted to find that his maid Fubuki is a beautiful woman, but Naeka is horrified to discover that her caretaker is Kogarashi, a giant, uncouth monster of a man whose every attempt to help her borders on molestation. Soon Naeka is at her wit's end, but unbeknownst to her, Kogarashi and Fubuki have been hired to protect her from someone who is offing their grandfather's heirs and are there to stay, whether she likes it or not.
If ever a comedy was beholden to a single character, it's Kamen no Maid Guy and Kogarashi. With his overpowering presence, monstrous physique, constantly wind-blown black mane and petite apron, the very sight of him is enough to inspire fits of hilarity. His attempts to serve Naeka are gut-bustingly misguided, and his attitude—all manly arrogance, indestructible confidence, and insensitive honesty—only exacerbates every awful offense he commits. The prudish and over-sensitive should steer clear, as the often bawdy jokes are delivered gloves-off and the series isn't shy about nudity, but it isn't exploitative or distasteful. Even Kogarashi's outrageous behavior is informed by ignorance rather than lust or malice—he simply has no idea how perverted his behavior appears.
Maid Guy isn't the best series this season, nor the most visually sophisticated, but it is without doubt one of the funniest.
Nabari no Ou
Rating: 3 ½
Review: A detached youth finds that he is the possessor of an extraordinary power in this, the latest in a long list of series about youths that find themselves the possessors of extraordinary powers. Sound boring? Well then you figured without the ninjas. Everything is better with ninjas in it. Okay so that's a lie. However, what does make a difference are slick ninja fighting, distinctively designed characters with properly over-the-top personalities, and the occasional shonen-ai joke.
Miharu is an apathetic, rather girly-looking young man with a talent for disappearing at the most opportune times. Miharu likes being apathetic, so he resents it when his classmate Aizawa and Aizawa's advisor Kumohira-sensei try to get him to join a martial-arts club. Even more so when it turns out that the club is a front for a ninja-training curriculum. While staving of the insistent duo's advances, Miharu is attacked by a group of ninjas. When cornered he unleashes a torrent of lethal, strangling vines, for it turns out—quite naturally—that Miharu is a living ninja scroll for an ultimate technique that grants him, from time to time, tremendous powers.
No, there isn't anything new here. Even the modern ninja slant has been worked to death, and we won't even begin listing the infinite number of series that fit the “teenager discovers their amazing super powers” mold. But, if it's old hat, it's polished old hat. The characters are good-looking, the visuals memorable, the fights exciting—and brutal when need be—and the tone is neither overly serious nor overly frivolous. It's unlikely that the series will ever surprise or surpass expectations, but it is mightily entertaining.
Wagaya no Oinari-sama
Rating: 2 ½ (of 5)
Review: The second series this season to feature a buxom fox-spirit (why is it that fox spirits always become beautiful women with twitchy ears when they transform?), this is far and away the superior of the two. Not that anyone gets bragging rights for beating out Kanokon.
Brothers Noboru and Tooru are going to visit their ailing grandmother at their family's ancestral home when they are told that not only is their grandmother up and spitting, but she was never ill to begin with. It turns out that a snake spirit is bent on eating Tooru, and their grandmother feigned illness to lure them to the family shrine where they can be defended by Kou, the family's protector maiden. However, Kou isn't confident in her abilities, so as acting head of the family, Noboru is asked to free Tenka Kuugen, a fox spirit and the family's powerful but unpredictable guardian. When she decides to become their personal guardian spirit, things start getting out of hand.
The production values are good, and Kuugen is impressive once she enters battle mode, but otherwise there is little that is memorable about this first episode. Of course, this is merely a prelude to the “living with a fox spirit” story that the series appears to be setting up, but nevertheless the leads are watery and Kuugen—the character on whom the series wagers all its charm—has an imperious manner that could easily become abrasive if not checked.
Rating: 3 ½ (of 5)
Review: For forty years now Golgo 13, a hulking, silent assassin of almost supernatural prowess, has been manga's last word in taciturn manliness. After tooling around in several movies and more volumes of manga than anyone cares to count, he makes his television debut at long last, and it's good to see the indestructible man in black back in action, mopping up the scum of the world one bloody body at a time.
When a turncoat informer hijacks a plane in attempt to smuggle top-secret military information to the cartels, the CIA turns to the one man who can make the impossible shot necessary to snipe the hijacker before he blows the plane, and its 160 passengers, to bloody scraps: Duke Togo, AKA Golgo 13. Languishing in a cell after the assassination of a local mafia don, Golgo 13 is freed to do the government's dirty work, and with the son of the don he murdered hot on his tail, he sets about planning his one, deadly shot.
Full of ugly middle-aged men and procedural details and starring an amoral killer, this is entertainment aimed squarely at fans of ice-cold espionage thrillers past. The entire episode builds to a single rifle shot, and much attention is given to Golgo's meticulous methodology (he insists his weapons be tested and never gets into cars or elevators before his partners have). The episode's stripped-down momentum is unfortunately disrupted by a gratuitous sex scene and the mafia side-plot, but the payoff as his bullet wings its way over snipers and tarmac to its lethal destination makes everything worthwhile.
Kyouran Kazoku Nikki
Rating: 3 ½ (of 5)
Review: From the moment it careens on screen, its leading lady Kyouka glittering like a harem comedy bishojo before revealing her feral nature as she leads a platoon of police on a merry back-alley chase, Kyouran Kazoku Nikki is a prickly ball of wild comic energy. It isn't minutes after Kyouka and Ouka (the leading man) meet that he's been quite literally forced to marry the diminutive but explosively ill-natured Kyouka and put in charge of their five “children” who include a lion, a bioroid, a jellyfish, a pretty teenager, and a flaming homosexual. It's all part of some plot to save the world from an ancient curse, but Ouka really hasn't time to think of that as he careens from painful situation to painful situation at the whims of seriously unbalanced Kyouka.
There's high-energy and then there's unbridled slapstick madness. Nikki is one step beyond that; it's a comedy natural disaster, a wash of comic hellfire bent on obliterating linear thought. There's hardly a cut that lasts longer than five seconds, dialogue is fired at a machinegun pace, and hardly a moment passes without a comic role reversal, act of mad violence, or some unbelievable Kyouka outrage. She chops lettuce with a chainsaw, cheats outrageously at everything, and paralyzes police officers out of pure spite. Deliriously weird Mother and Father moments abound as Kyouka abuses Ouka, Ouka battles his “son,” and their jellyfish child just looks on helplessly.
The art is sloppy, but the animation is decent and the whole thing is edited at warp ten. If occasionally exhausting, it's also undeniably funny (the talking, purple-goo-spitting fish dish that Kyouka makes is a highlight), and the scene where the sobering cause of teenaged daughter Yuka's shy, submissive personality reveals itself hints at a depth that belies the brain-rattling surface.
Penguin no Mondai
Review: There aren't many series that require less explanation than this. This is a comedy about a penguin. He goes to school, has human friends, and is extremely odd. The episodes are ten minutes long—and split into five minute segments no less—so depth, character or anything past the sophistication of a sight gag or silly situation is beyond its scope. It's pretty funny at times, in a mindless Di Gi Charat kind of way, just without all of that cuteness—it's animated with deliberately crude 3D CG and is populated with generic, simplistic character designs.
The simple visuals, ADD-friendly structure and slight, utterly inoffensive content label the series as children's fodder, but the off-the-wall nature of the humor will appeal to some adults as well. When his skin is pulled off, the penguin becomes a roaring, hyper-aggressive bear, he has an “escape” button that blasts him into space when pressed, and when he find that his buddy is fond of stupid puns, he tries to use one to excuse every wrong he ever committed. The frequent nonsequiturs—a mohawked boy in a locker who spouts nonsense at random intervals, the entire opening sequence—are obviously not intended for tots, so if you do like the lack of commitment and stupid humor that Penguin offers, you can assuage the damage to your ego by telling yourself that a certain adult following was expected.
The penguin's name is Beckham by the way. Not that that is in any way important.
Rating: 3 ½ (of 5)
Review: Toki, a supremely incompetent student of Japanese history, arrives at an exhibit on Edo-era life with orders from his teacher to write a report to make up for his miserable performance on a test. At the exhibit, which combines real buildings and virtual reality to recreate the historic city of Edo, Toki quickly befriends Shinonome, a schoolmate of his. When Shinonome disappears, Toki searches for him but encounters instead a vicious beast with a creepy bandaged rider, both of whom he assumes are computer projections. Until, that is, they make it brutally, physically clear that that is not the case—Toki isn't in some simulation, he's in honest-to-goodness Edo along with honest-to-goodness Edo monsters and, luckily for him, honest-to-goodness ass-kicking samurai babes.
While it doesn't sound like particularly fascinating stuff, director Kazuhiro Furuhashi treats his story with an unusual gravitas that sets it apart from your run-of-the-mill time-travelling fantasy. Toki's introduction to Edo is brutal and scary, and a streak of existentialism runs throughout the episode. Furuhashi's experience with sword action—he did direct Rurouni Kenshin after all—is evidenced in the episode's one brief and bloody battle, but more important is his deft touch with characters. Personalities come across clear and strong—even for barely-introduced samurai girl Kuchiha, but especially for detached, apparently easy-going Toki—and their interactions carry surprising emotional weight.
With its science-fiction opening, sudden side-step into mysticism and frequent forays into action, it's frankly hard to tell where the hell the series wants to go, but, in a field of preprogrammed predictability, perhaps that in itself is a good sign.
Rating: 3 (of 5)
Review: A detective action series with supernatural overtones, Crystal Blaze (AKA Glass Maiden) sets out to hook with mysteries and action aplenty, but doesn't quite seize the attention the way it should. Something is turning teenaged girls to glass, and it has the police baffled. However, when quiet junior PI Ayaka spots a living specimen of the glass girls, she and fellow PI Manami are too busy scrambling to get out the way of a firefight to pay much attention. The glass woman proves not only to be made of flesh and blood (most of the time) but also to be a deadly shot as she, with the help of Ayaka's and Minami's boss Shu, takes out the attacking party in a blaze of gunfire. Shu's agency ultimately takes her in, and in doing so embroils everyone in the mystery of her origins.
Though Shu is obviously the lead, the focus is on Ayaka and Manami this episode, and they make cute, realistic teenaged leads. Their terrified reaction to being caught in a crossfire not only exemplifies the series serious tone and reveals interesting truths about the two, but also demonstrates an emotional realism that hints at real dramatic potential. Despite that and the solid visuals and attractive characters, there's something curiously underwhelming about the series. Perhaps it's Shu's suspicious resemblance to City Hunter's Ryo Saeba. Or perhaps it's the fact that the central mystery—the undeniably captivating visual of a woman made of transparent glass aside—feels so pedestrian. Or maybe it's just supernatural mystery burnout. However, that shouldn't stop you from keeping an eye on the series: on top of that little edge of emotional realism, it's also directed by Mitsuko Kase who previously helmed the devastating Saikano. Which has to count for something.
Vampire Knight Episode 2
Rating: 3 ½ (of 5)
Review: After limping a bit through its first episode, the series’ second episode thickens the gothic atmosphere and beefs up the central characters and relationships in grand shojo style. Surprisingly, it's Zero, a character who last episode appeared stuck in a thankless childhood friend role, who takes center stage this episode. We learn about his past, his introduction to Yuki and the cause of his erratic, brusque treatment of her when she so obviously means so much to him. As his relationship with the vampires of the night class worsens to the point of open hostility, it becomes clear that he may have more in common with his hated enemies than he'd like to admit. Yuki in the meantime struggles with her feelings for Kaname and with a very real, possibly dangerous concern for Zero's well-being.
The real surprise here is the emergence of Zero as a viable rival for Yuki's affections. With the development of his character and clarification of his place in Yuki's life, he transforms from a romantic paper tiger into a real contender for leading male, and in the process gives the central love triangle a much-needed injection of tension and uncertainty. With a strong, vital love triangle to anchor itself on, the series solidifies its lock on the kind of big emotional melodrama that shojo excels at. Even the cracks that Zero's behavior puts in the fragile peace between the vampires and humans are now fraught with emotional consequence. The goofy humor feels a little out of place, and the squealing girls with hormones for brains are already getting irritating, but overall it's gearing up to be a good, beautifully unsubtle shojo drama.
Allison & Lillia Episode 2
Rating: 4 (of 5)
Review: After a quiet opening episode, Allison & Lillia gets to the adventure in earnest, and if it lacks something of the opening episode's subtlety and feels a little over-eventful, it's still intelligent, compassionate and sometimes lyrical in a way no other series this season is. Hot on the tail of the kidnappers who nabbed the old man from under their noses, Allison and Wil narrowly escape being shot down, only to crash-land in the enemy territory of Sous-Beil. With Wil wounded by an encounter with an overprotective mother deer, Allison is forced to take cover in the house of Travas Radia, a woman embittered by the death of her sons at the hands of the Roxche military. As Radia gets to know the open, honest youngsters, she begins to thaw and even offers a helping hand in their quest to locate their elderly abductee.
A quick opening bout of energetic aerial maneuvering and then the series slows down again, taking time to linger on the scenery and delve into Allison and Wil's past, and to dwell a little upon the breaching of wartime hostility with simple honesty and trust. Radia's conversion is too swift and convenient to be entirely believable, and the events leading to their meeting are rather contrived (killer deer indeed), but everything it lacks in realism it makes up for in warmth, and the entire situation opens a revealing window into the depth and nature of Wil and Allison's relationship. Still very good stuff, plus the opening sequence remains one of the best this season, Allison and Wil make adorable tots, and the super-cute eyecatch certainly doesn't hurt. Oh yeah, and there's a chance that archaeology may save the world. That's cool.
Rating: 3 (of 5)
Review: Officers use supercomputers and MRI technology to extract and analyze memories from the brains of murder victims in this realistic near-future police procedural. Aoki is a detective newly assigned to Section Nine of the police department, a group whose efforts focus on evidence provided by the memories of the dead. Hired by the young, severely neurotic chief of the section for his lip-reading abilities, Aoki is instrumental in solving the murder of a housewife but begins to have serious doubts about his ability to handle the work when he is forced, via the memory recovery procedure, to witness firsthand the very personal reasons for murder.
Hard science-fiction with down-to-Earth practical applications, deep emotional complications, and thorny moral dilemmas—what's not to love? The music—as petty as that may sound. The series’ clumsy Dragnet-esque score turns what should have been subtly affecting scenes into brain-bludgeoning exercises in rank, painfully obvious emotional manipulation and what should have been sequences of quiet discovery into melodramatic revelations. A series with as intelligent and well-considered a premise as this really deserves a more restrained and nuanced treatment. Nevertheless the series deals intelligently with issues of privacy, moral responsibility, and the psychological damage dealt to those whose job it is to viscerally relive murder. If only the music didn't sabotage the emotions and suspense. Oh yeah, and it could have done without that weird shonen-ai moment between Aoki and the chief.
Rating: 2 (of 5)
Review; A word to the wise: when writing a show it is perhaps prudent not to have your characters complain incessantly of their boredom while your show is boring its audience to tears. To its credit Monochrome Factor, unlike the work of certain independent filmmakers, isn't trying to put you to sleep. It's just so derivative and predictable that it does. Akira is the bored character—a teenager with nothing in the world that interests him, a poor attendance record, and enough of a sense of justice to thrash punks who bully little kids. One day, while skipping class he meets a mysterious effeminate man who claims to be a shadow and to be bound to him by fate. Later, while being forced to play bodyguard to bossy class representative-type Aya, he is attacked by shadowy snake-men and loses his doppelganger.
All of this somehow leads to him becoming a shadow warrior, with the help of the aforementioned mysterious effeminate man, but frankly none of it makes any sense just yet. And not because it's overly-involved and steeped in the specialized terminology that plagues shonen fighting series—though it is both—but because there's simply no reason to waste brainpower puzzling it out. The series goes through the paces, tossing in throwaway SD humor and constructing an elaborate mythology that justifies the battling, but has none of the spark or energy that brings good fighting genre shows to life. The fights are lame, the monsters sadly lacking in menace, and the guy-on-guy snogging (yes, you heard right) too tastefully implied to be a draw in its own right. On the other hand, it's quite useful as a soporific. Say goodbye to insomnia.
Nijū-Mensō no Musume
Rating: 4 (of 5)
Review: If you're going to create a story around a principled thief with nearly supernatural skills who always leaves advance warning and steals only from the boorish rich, then it pays to take your inspiration from the first of his kind. Nijū-Mensō no Musume (or Chiko, Heiress of the Phantom Thief) has the good sense to actually use Edogawa Ranpo's most famous villain, Twenty Faces—the inspiration for countless copycat thieves to come—instead of simply imitating him, but that isn't all that makes this series stand above its thief-worshipping peers.
The combination of old-fashioned plotting (the titular protagonist's home life could have been written by Agatha Christie) with a retro setting (it appears to be set sometime in the ‘50s) creates an atmosphere in which noble thieves, murderous relatives, and vicious inhuman villains seem not only appropriate, but even normal. It demonstrates some expert mystery-story misdirection, allowing the main character, young Chiko, to come across as a spoilt, ill-tempered dreamer before revealing the true reasons for her behavior. Twenty Faces’ capers are appropriately complicated and improbable—he escapes a house full of police officers by tearing the roof off with a zeppelin—and the action is lively and fun. Whether the series will evolve into something more serious than a retro caper series is yet to be seen, but the scene that prompts Twenty Faces to “steal” Chiko, beginning her life as his daughter, is ugly enough to be promising.
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