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The Spring 2009 Anime Preview Guide
Casey Brienza

by Casey Brienza,
Thank goodness Japanese popular culture has gone global because Casey Brienza is currently gearing up to leave her home state of New Jersey far, far behind in order to pursue a PhD come the fall. Unfortunately, she has not yet decided where to go and has been losing sleep weighing her options…which may be a good thing from an otaku's perspective, since she will surely have plenty of sleepless nights to devote to this season's deluge of new anime! Casey is one of those rare fans who became interested in anime through manga, and she retains a soft spot of CLAMP's X, her first ever manga series. These days, though, she loves everything from the take no prisoners hack'n slash of Berserk to the take no prisoners hack'n slash of…uhh…Skip Beat!.

Ristorante Paradiso episode 2

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

In the second episode of Ristorante Paradiso, Nicoletta is settling into her life on the periphery of the Casetta dell'Orso. Her mother, eager to continue keeping her daughter's existence a well-guarded secret, agrees to get her a job in the restaurant's kitchen in return for her silence. Meanwhile, the attraction that Nicoletta feels for Claudio deepens, and she learns that, despite the ring on his finger, he is currently unattached. Throwing herself at him goes precisely nowhere, however. (Oh well.)

With two installments under its proverbial belt, the show is now settling comfortably into the groove of its narrative, and the shape of things to come are fast becoming visible. The decadent, oddly claustrophobic hothouse atmosphere of female desire and craving—both gustatory and sexual—may make some viewers intensely uncomfortable. But for those in the market for a mature title that does not mean bouncing books and blood splatters or, alternatively, intentionally obscure plotting, this may be the show for you. Okay granted, there are occasional surreal moments, and you aren't certain until after the sequences are over whether or not they were actually happening or merely being played out in the characters’ own heads…but they are brief and soon over.

Ristorante Paradiso is modest in all respects, including its ambition, but no other anime this season seeks to interpellate anything approaching the same audience demographic—and for this reason alone, it is a must-see.

Ristorante Paradiso is currently available streaming on Crunchyroll.

Eden of the East

Rating: 4.5 (of 5)

Well, what the heck; might as well be blunt right from the get-go: I loved it. For reasons, by the way, that have absolutely nothing to do with the plot premise, which, if the first episode is any indication, has been ripped whole cloth from a Robert Ludlum novel. (The Bourne Identity, anybody?) The hero of the piece is a guy who, despite his total loss of memory, appears to be a member of some secretive organization of assassins and will undoubtedly, in later episodes, end up committing terrorist acts for reasons that he most likely won't fully understand. He doesn't even know his name, but for his purposes now, he has taken the name Akira Takizawa.

All that's fine and good, but what I loved was the package Production I.G slid this hackneyed plot into. The scrupulous, realistic detail of the Washington D.C. setting—including English speaking voice actors—was nearly magical, and Chica Umino's character designs add a gentle, whimsical innocence to a story that by all rights should be nothing but Doom and Gloom. In fact, the scatological humor (Akira's first appearance involves streaking the White House while waving a pistol) and tender hopes of the heroine Saki Morimi, who wants to make a coin toss wish at the fountain in front of the White House, reminds me a lot of Hayao Miyazaki. And any favorable comparison to Miyazaki, needless to say, is the highest of compliments an anime can receive.

Hanasakeru Seishōnen

Rating: 3 (of 5)

The only living creature, besides perhaps her father, that the half-Japanese teenager Kajika has ever loved was the white leopard Mustafa. Now her father, reigning at the top of an enormous corporate empire, has decided that it is time to be thinking of whom she will marry. He has chosen three men for her and challenges her to identify them and pick one. Oh, and she also has quite the handsome, if remote, childhood friend…

Okay, what a weird plot setup for a reverse harem show. It's easy to imagine a lot of people being turned off by it. But this series is based upon a late 1980s manga by Natsumi Itsuki (Jyu-Oh-Sei, OZ), and she is consistently great, so you can bet your britches that there is more to Hanasakeru Seishōnen than meets the eye. Even as it is, in the first episode, you think it is going to be another one of those transfer student clichés, and it ends up blindsiding you.

Production values are, at best, only mediocre. Unfortunately, shows based on shoujo manga tend to get the short end of the quality control stick, and Hanasakeru Seishōnen is no exception. Still, there is plenty of eye candy—be assured that the boys are all gorgeous—and if you were in this for the special effects, you're in precisely the wrong place, anyway. If it weren't Itsuki behind this, it would be totally different story, but it's almost certain to get much, much better.

Guin Saga

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Well, if the first episode of this highly anticipated anime series is any indication, Guin Saga is one of those rare properties that improves upon adaptation into a different medium. When reading the original novels by Kaoru Kurimoto, particularly the early ones, it's hard to see through the stilted prose and the slavish indebtedness to Western fantasy series such as those by Michael Moorcock.

The anime though, with its saturate hues and beautifully articulated visions of Kurimoto's world, dispenses with such sentence level problems, and what remains is a rollicking high fantasy adventure of the old school vein. The tales starts, appropriately, with the fall of the kingdom of Palo and two high-profile refugees, the royal twins Linda and Lemus, who get deposited by mistake into the twisted Forest of Lude. There, they almost get captured…but they are saved by a mysterious, muscle-bound brute named Guin who has a leopard mask grafted frighteningly to his face. Guin has virtually no memories of his past, and for now the twins, Palo and their parents no more, have nowhere to go. In short, they're all the perfect traveling companions!

All and all, Satelight delivers a very good production. Action scenes are intelligible and the characters, particularly Linda, are appealing. This show is much better than I expected it to be, which is a very good sign. Stay tuned.


Rating: 3 (of 5)

When it comes to Studio DEEN, anime (short as it is for “animation”) is rather an aspirational category; what is actually produced seems to fall slightly short of that. Most of what they do involves still images with the camera cleverly panning over them in order to simulate the appearance of live action. Perhaps this is why the studio is responsible for so many adaptations of eye candy manga series; the fans will be too busy staring deep into the big eyes of all the pretty boys to notice that their faces never move.

07-Ghost is the latest of these, based upon an archetypal magical boy manga with homoerotic overtones by Yuki Amemiya and Yukino Ichihara. The first episode starts with Teito Klein and his military academy's final exam—of which only a few will survive. Fortunately, he and his best friend Mikage are among the most gifted students, and it seems that they will have a bright future serving their country. But then Teito encounters a powerful but sinister man named Ayanami. Memories of Ayanami killing his father surface, and Teito's life takes an unexpected path…

Anyway, this is a great fujoshi series that presses all the right buttons. Yaoi fans will squeal when the friends share a bed one night. Unfortunately, the first episode is weak and not a particularly good prequel of what's to come. Pay attention to the opening sequence for a truer representation of what 07-Ghost is like—and if you like things like X, Saiyuki, or Code Geass, stay tuned. If the anime stays true to the manga, things will get better very quickly.

Ristorante Paradiso

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Reverse harem shows set in Western-style restaurants and cafes have been quite the fad over the past few years, and off the top of my head, I can think of such bishounen vehicles as Antique Bakery and Café Kichijouji de. Ristorante Paradiso takes this popular type a couple of half-steps further by actually locating the story in the “real” West (Rome, Italy), and using sexy older men instead of dewy bishounen. If you've got an oyaji fetish, look no further: Ristorante Paradiso will be heaven in animated form for you.

The story begins with the young Nicoletta, daughter of a widow who remarried and left her behind with her grandmother. When she tries to meet up with her mother in Rome, she learns that her stepfather, owner of a restaurant called Casetta dell'Orso, does not know she even exists—and her mother plans to keep it that way. Yet Nicoletta sticks around because the five handsome, bespectacled restaurant staff intrigue her, and she is becoming especially infatuated by one of them, the one named Claudio…

Based on a manga serialized in Manga Erotics F by Natsume Ono, this anime is definitely among the most unexpected offerings of the season. Its carefully articulated European feel and unusual character designs (with very wide mouths) invoke a ladies manga sort of style…a refreshing change of pace from the oceans of otaku-type game and light novel adaptations. Even though it looks like it'll probably end up being “just” a bodice ripper.

Ristorante Paradiso is currently available streaming on Crunchyroll.

Tears to Tiara

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Tears to Tiara was originally produced as an erogame. Later versions of the RPG were also released with explicit content excised. The animated adaptation here appears to take its inspiration from the latter version…more's the pity. If this show were pornographic, one wouldn't have to be so concerned by the quality—or lack thereof—of the story, and needless to say, the story in this case is decidedly less than inspiring.

It starts with a female priestess type named Riannon praying to the North Star while her village is being overrun by enemy forces which hope to use her in order to revive the so-called Great Demon King Arawn. She is kidnapped, and said Demon King is summoned, using Riannon as an offering. Her archer brother Arthur arrives to the proverbial rescue just in time to see Arawn transform from oversized shadow beastie into a super-pretty, ectomorphic, silver-haired bishounen. Waitaminute, silver-haired bishounen Demon King? Oh no. I can see subsequent episodes going in one of two directions, and neither of them feel particularly promising.

Visually speaking, this show isn't bad. Animation quality seems about average, and characters are of the animated otaku vintage sort. White Fox knows its target audience well and is catering as effectively as possible, given the unimpressive quality of the source material, to it. You should know immediately if this show is “for” you or not, and if it is, you may find it marginally tolerable. If it isn't, you probably won't.

Cross Game

Rating: 3 (of 5)

If you know anything about manga, you will have known the following within the first five seconds of the first episode of Cross Game: Mitsuru Adachi. Everything about the character designs and the limpid, pastel color scheme screams his name to the heavens, and sure enough, Cross Game is an adaptation of an ongoing shounen baseball manga currently being serialized in Weekly Shounen Sunday.

The plot of the first episode, meanwhile, screams “Prologue!” to the heavens. It starts with the protagonist (and future Hall of Famer?) Kou Kitamura while he is still in elementary school and, at this point in his life, knows only how to bat. His childhood friend is Wakaba, the daughter of a family that owns a batting center, and she has a little sister Aoba, who is a fearsome pitcher. Needless to say—and not to spoil anything—the way in which this episode concludes seems foreordained by the time it is a third of the way through. Especially if you know Adachi's particular brand of slice of life melodrama. At least they have the perfect soundtrack to go with it.

Anyway, the quality of the anime's production values per se is, at best, mediocre and, at times, brushing up against the marginal. Where it succeeds, it succeeds because Adachi is a master mangaka and a gifted storyteller. If you need your tale of a baseball player's rise to fame on the screen, then by all means keep watching the Cross Game anime. But it's hard not to wonder if you might not be better off just reading the manga.

Valkyria Chronicles

Rating: 3 (of 5)

The fictionalized European town of Bruhl is under attack by Imperial forces, for reasons as of yet unstated. Alicia, an aspiring baker turned member of the town militia, encounters a rather bumbling young man while on patrol who she assumes is really a spy. As it turns out, his name is Welkin Gunther, and he is not a spy; in fact, he is the son of the much revered General Gunther. These two unlikely allies, along with Welkin's sister Isara, find themselves under siege in the Gunther mansion. Will the various armaments—and a tank!—that they just happen have in the basement be enough to dissuade their attackers…at least temporarily?

Of course, Valkyria Chronicles is based upon a videogame of the same name, and the beautiful soft-focus visual style is unmistakable. It is, however, the most “un-videogame”-like videogame-inspired anime series that I have seen in a long time. Although the larger political circumstances surrounding the events in the first episode are not self-evident, there is a good investment of narrative time spent on developing the setting, the characters, and the proverbial “call to adventure.” In fact, it's exceedingly hard to render any concrete judgment on this show as of yet, since all we have been privy to thus far is but prologue. The anime definitely has promise, though, so if you like Europhile fantasy adventures, be sure to stick around for more.

Natsu no Arashi!

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Fans of offbeat gag shows take note: Natsu no Arashi! is based upon a manga of the same name by Jin Kobayashi (of School Rumble fame)—and the animated adaptation is, if the first episode is any indication, even more deliciously weird. “Delicious” being the operative word, since the conflict in question here is over something passing as food.

It starts off looking like just another a slice of life show, of so so animation quality, centered around the characters’ employment at a café. With some random, unexplained strangeness here and there for a bit additional “color.” About the most interesting thing going, at least in the beginning, is the boy Hajime's Cutie Strawberry-chan bombs, edible objects that look like strawberries but are actually highly potent, super-spicy edibles. (The anime is good at leaving what happens when people eat these nightmarish inventions to the viewer's own comic imagination.)

Then the characters start transporting themselves back and forth through time. Both Hajime's friend Arashi and another café employee named Kaya have this ability. Who are they, and why can they do this? Unknown. But you'll love watching them struggle to see who can get to that horrific strawberry first.

Like School Rumble, the Natsu no Arashi! thrives when it parodies that which has come before. I noticed shot by shot parodies of Sailor Moon and Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei to name just two. There is also a whiff of sexuality here and there that gives the anime an unexpectedly tense, almost dangerous edge. All in all, this show is something that you would never expect to be good from the outset—that certainly is.

Natsu no Arashi! is currently available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Whoa. Talk about a screen load of visual bling. And it's about…? A boy who is clearly, clearly destined to become the next big thing in Big Foot Basketball (otherwise known as basketball played while piloting giant robots that looks like a cross between Star Wars and Speed Racer)? Sure, why not? A sports show and a mecha show at the same time is somewhat novel. Bring it on!

The boy in question is Dan, a rapscallion who spends his time vandalizing televisions and stealing components to sell on the black market. In this incarnation, he is known as Dunk Mask. His main characteristic is that he has nothing but contempt for the sport of Big Foot Basketball (BFB), and believes that basketball played by human bodies is eminently superior. This sentiment has something to do with some tragedy in the past of Coco, one of his intimates.

Then he meets Miyuki, a busty mechanic who provides viewers with plenty of (ahem) bouncy fanservice and Dan with a mecha. There is a scene involving an extended double entendre between the two which is reasonably amusing. The first episode concludes with Dan's first time behind the proverbial joystick playing BFB.

Honestly? If it weren't for the beautiful visuals—an almost neurotic depth of detail a la Satoshi Kon that looks built expressly for HD that hasn't been invented yet—this show would be a yawn at best. But shiny or shabby, you'll glut yourself taking it all in; Dan's world is so compelling, in fact, that you'll want to join him in it. Guess that until we get virtual reality faithfully watching all 26 episodes is going to have to be the consolation prize.

Shin Mazinger Shōgeki! Z-Hen

Rating: 1.5 (of 5)

What would you do if you were given a giant robot? Would you use your newfound powers for good or for evil? This question is straightforwardly posed at the beginning of Shin Mazinger Shōgeki! Z-Hen by the ostensible hero Kouji Kabuto (who presumably chooses the side of good)…but needless to say, it is not explicitly answered.

Instead, what follows is a nigh incomprehensible twenty-odd minutes of giant robot battles, pseudo-divine politicking, and mythological maundering. It's so hard to make heads or tails of anything without extensive prior background with the Z Mazinger manga by Go Nagai that you may find yourself wondering if you are even watching episode one. Did you pick up the show halfway through by mistake? But alas. They are messing with your head on purpose.

And there is hardly any payoff. Sure, the characters looked convincingly like Go Nagai designs, but nearly all of the expected quirks seemed to have been buffed out by the digitized polish of 21st century animation techniques. There wasn't even much of lowbrow, bawdy humor that anyone who knows the first thing about Go Nagai would expect from a show based upon his works. A bad guy that grabs the breast-like protuberances on a female-shaped giant robot in order to get at the pilots housed in said protuberances? Okay, that's getting there—but barely a quarter of the way. On the basis of the first episode, I cannot in good conscience recommend this show to anyone.

Dragon Ball Kai

Rating: 3 (of 5)

There are surely a large number of veteran anime fans for whom the Dragon Ball anime was one of their first—if not their very first—fandom. For these people, watching Dragon Ball Kai will be a warm, all-embracing exercise in nostalgia, and it will be a show that can do no wrong. For the record here, I am not one of those people, but I nonetheless felt a pleasant stab of nostalgia for something I more or less opted out of experiencing back in the day.

Because that's the way in which this anime was intended, and it achieves its intent. Dragon Ball Kai is like a blast from the past, from the olden days of Japanese anime before computer animation and Photoshop layers. Everything about it looks scrappy and improvised; expect none of the slick lines and saturated colors found in all of the other shows to debut this season. These are Akira Toriyama's own cartoons come to life on the screen.

The first episode is deceptively modest…yet quite well-constructed from a narrative standpoint. Newcomers get the fast recap, and then you get a bit of the ordinary before a gradual uptick toward the extraordinary that culminates in a confrontation between Goku and a very powerful, otherworldly adversary. The timing is elegant; nothing lingers too long. And, you get a whiff of Big Things to Come in future episodes. There's nothing brilliant or high-art here, but the stolid, workmanlike quality feels both consistent and comforting. Fans and newcomers alike could do far worse.

Sengoku Basara

Rating: 1.5 (of 5)

Okay, why is the guy in the samurai suit bellowing a war cry in (poorly pronounced) English? Don't expect an answer to that question. Come to think of it, don't expect anything from
Sengoku Basara, and you will be much better off. This anime is based upon a PlayStation 2 game called Devil Kings in North America, with all of the historical references to Japan's Warring States Period removed (to intense critical derision). Though if this show is any indication, intensive localization might have actually been a good idea.

The first episode starts at incomprehensible and ends at Oh My God This Is So Awful Somebody Make It Stop Please. There are a whole bunch of characters with violent proclivities and conflicting objectives going head to head. The most important of these characters seem to be Date Masamune and Sanada Yukimura—needless to say, their first encounter is explosive. Literally. (By the way, this summary probably sounds funny, but it's supposed to be taken in seriousness. The humorous parts are nigh unspeakable. Don't get me started on the “Yukimura!” “Oyakata-sama!” “Yukimura!” “Oyakata-sama!” “Yukimura!” “Oyakata-sama!” “Yukimura!” “Oyakata-sama!”)

The only thing that saved the first episode of Sengoku Basara from netting a cool “1” is the quality of its visuals. Production I.G was, it seems, painfully aware of the franchise's narrative limitations and decided that the only face-saving avenue left open to them was enough eye candy to rot a whole Mongol Horde's worth of teeth. Animation quality is superb, and the character designs—both male and female—are very, veeeeeery pretty. Maybe the creators are hoping for a fujoshi crossover audience here, since the main characters’ rivalry could easily be reread as homoerotic subtext. The use of an opening theme by abingdon boys school reinforces this presumption. Guess they figure that if viewers are too busy wiping away the drool, they'll be too busy to notice how damn bad it is.

Pandora Hearts

Rating: 3 (of 5)

What would be a new season of anime without the obligatory adaptation of a GFantasy manga series? It's Pandora Hearts this time around, and the show is of the usual type: Brooding bishounen tossed headfirst into some vaguely sinister, supernatural situation of as of yet unknown pedigree. Aforementioned bishounen's name is the young nobleman Oz, who is busily avoiding preparations for his upcoming coming of age ceremony with is little sister Ada and servant boy cum loyal friend Gilbert. While playing about the grounds, Oz stumbles upon a mysterious pocket watch which, when wound, transports him to another world where a very scary spirit girl awaits.

Now, far be it from me to knock mangaka Jun Mochizuki's storytelling capabilities; this certainly is an intriguing prologue to what may well be a thoroughly enjoyable gothic fantasy yarn. Unfortunately, XEBEC does not seem inclined to give this show a good faith effort. The visuals are among the poorest I have seen thus far this season, and the backgrounds and character designs are slapdash at best. Even the standard limited animation looks, well, appallingly limited and cramped in its ambitions. The worst offense, though, is the way in which the all the bits that are supposed to be scary…aren't. Still, Pandora Hearts is not a wholly unworthy new anime, and with a bit of yaoi subtext happening in the opening clip, this will be one of the shows female fans are certain to flock to en masse this spring.


Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Shangri-La, based upon a science fiction novel by Eiichi Ikegami,means Serious Business, and since it boasts character designs by otaku-favorite Range Murata, you know GONZO is taking this Serious Business very seriously. Of course, like most anime series of the serious sort, its first episode is virtually incomprehensible—quite deliberately so, of course.

Call it CLAMP's X with a seinen twist. What we know for sure: There is this girl named Kuniko Hojo with a pink bob and a big boomerang who has just been released from prison for some unknown offense. She's got transvestites for companions, and she's Very Important in some unspecified way. She returns home to a post-apocalyptic, now forested cityscape that we eventually learn is Tokyo…just in time to get attacked by a military force taking orders from some unknown authority. Meanwhile, a creepy chick with a teddy bear is manipulating the international carbon credit markets…this is hitting a bit too close to current events for my tastes.

If nothing else, this show is one of the best-looking to air so far this season. Kuniko's world is majestic and fantastical, yet it pulses with the finest of detail and feels entirely believable even as it inspires awe. The cinematography here is also quite good (though not as experimental as in Phantom); it feels like “real” art, not a throwaway animated expendable item.

Anyway, Shangri-La could well be one of those shows that ends up being truly spectacular. On the other hand, it could end up being tremendously stupid. It's impossible to tell after only one episode, so be sure to stay tuned.

Shangri-La is currently available streaming on Crunchyroll.

Hayate the Combat Butler Season 2

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

If there is one thing to love about mainstream shounen anime and manga series such as Hayate the Combat Butler, it is this simple fact: You do not have to start at the beginning. Shows like this one are fiercely episodic and can be consumed on their own terms. In fact, it might be argued that appeal actually declines with increased familiarity—only when you have seen it all before do you realize how repetitive it can be.

Fortunately, an offbeat narrative recap that lasts a painless two minutes summarizes everything of importance—shockingly little, to tell the truth—that has gone before. The protagonist is an earnest boy named Hayate who feels so grateful to the little rich girl Nagi for loaning him the money to pay his parents’ debt that he is determined to serve her as best butler ever. Got it?

Now, cut to the first episode of the new season. Nagi's school is holding a sports festival, and if the unathletic girl cannot win the freestyle race, Hayate can kiss his butler days buh-bye. The show does a run through of the overlarge cast of supporting characters which, though dizzying, neither adds nor detracts unduly to what is, at its base, mindless entertainment. Needless to say, a cliffhanger ending that nudges you back for more implies that Hayate's worst fears are soon to be realized…

If there is a cartoon that knows it is a cartoon, it would be Hayate the Combat Butler. Vibrant colors, silly situations, and plenty of fanservice in the form of cute characters distracts from the standard limited animation. Don't expect much from this show because it doesn't deliver. But if you expect nothing, you may—who knows?—find a little something somewhere to enjoy.

Hayate the Combat Butler Season 2 is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Rating: 2 (of 5)

If you don't like mahjong, GONZO's gratuitous fanservice of decidedly questionable taste may—operative word being may—be just enough to compensate. Because regardless, one thing is abundantly clear after but a single episode of Saki (based upon a Young Gangan manga by Ritz Kobayashi of the same name): If you do not already know how to play mahjong, this anime series will not teach you, and if you don't want to learn, your eyes may well start crossing as seemingly interminable boredom starts sinking glumly in.

Anyway, the unlikely star of the show is, well, Saki, a Chise (of SaiKano) lookalike whose “superpower” is an improbably mediocre game of mahjong. Her school's mahjong club is eager to recruit her, despite her own lack of enthusiasm for the game, and if she does end up sticking around (as she undoubtedly will, or the story will go precisely nowhere), it will be because she has a, ahem, vaguely homoerotic “thing” for big-breasted babe and mahjong master Nodoka.

Speaking of Nodoka. Whoa bouncing, balloon-like breasts, wet school uniform, and water dripping suggestively between the legs. So unnecessary. Or maybe it's actually necessary, depending upon how you feel about the ostensible subject matter. Honestly, though, I can't decide if the fanservice is worse than watching characters play impenetrable games of mahjong for minutes at a stretch. But on the plus side, at least you should know immediately whether or not Saki will be to your tastes.

Saki is currently available streaming on Crunchyroll.

Phantom ~Requiem for the Phantom~

Rating: 4 (of 5)

It's been five years since the television debut of Studio Bee Train and director Kōichi Mashimo's Madlax and nine years since Noir. High time, don't you think, for another Girls with Guns in Exotic European Locales show set to ostentatious orchestral themes? There are undoubtedly many anime fans out there who would say amen to that, and in the case of Phantom ~Requiem for the Phantom~, I honestly cannot say that I blame them.

Never mind the specificities of the storyline, which are, at best, thin: a secretive organization called Inferno is erasing the memories of selected people in order to create super-assassins. One of them is a girl bearing striking resemblance to Noir’s Kirika. She calls herself both Ein and Phantom—she even wears a mask!—but she might as well be another Gunslinger Girl. Yawn. The newbie second assassin is a well-built but sweet-faced man now named Zwei who is tormented by his amnesia. Pardon me while I stifle another yawn.

No, what makes this show so unexpectedly awesome is its cinematography; the quality is higher even than many animated feature films. Foregrounds and backgrounds mesh seamlessly in nearly all cases, and the richness of detail is exquisite. Each and every shot is a veritable work of art. Some of the angles are intriguing with an unusual preference for shots that are taken from the below and looking straight up into the sky. Such things are often easier to achieve with animation than with live sets, and it's nice to see an anime take full advantage of the artificiality of the medium…while coming so vibrantly, seductively alive.

Asura Cryin'

Rating: 2 (of 5)

Asura Cryin'’ is a tale about an ordinary schoolboy who unexpectedly finds himself heir to Untold Power in the form of a giant robot. Hmm, where have I seen that particular anime plot premise before? Actually, let's rephrase that question: Where have I not seen that particular anime plot premise before?

Okay, so aforementioned ordinary boy Tomoharu Natsume has a ghost named Misao following him around, but he is otherwise unremarkable amid his clique of school friends. Then a mysterious woman drops of a super-heavy suitcase at his new apartment, telling him that it was his big brother's. By the end of the first episode, four different interests of questionable pedigree coming to blows over the suitcase. Needless to say, the suitcase has a weapon in it, and that weapon is…

The animation and soundtrack quality seem about average for a television show, but the character designs are exceptionally poor. It's bad enough that the first episode deluges viewers with an overlarge cast of characters; worse still is the way in which these characters—sort of like the plot premise, actually—look exactly like everything you have ever seen before. The Asura Cryin'’ anime is based upon a Dengeki Bunko light novel series of the same name, and the characters all look like they could be switched out (with no detrimental effect) with more than half of the Dengeki Bunko-inspired anime to debut of late.

Anyway, this anime series may improve if subsequent episodes help to clarify its many confusions. But given how derivative it looks out of the gate, whatever improvement there may be seems liable to be only a matter of degree. If this show doesn't already push all the right buttons for you, I would hazard a guess that it will not do so in the future.

Arad Senki -Slap Up Party-

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Was I the only one who saw the subtitle, “Slap Up Party,” and instantly started to imagine something strongly sexual and in stunningly poor taste? Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending upon your point of view), it should have been “Slapstick Party,” and while it is indeed in stunningly poor taste, it is not even remotely sexual…at least in the first episode.

The anime, co-produced by GK Entertainment and GONZO, is an adaptation of a Korean PC game of the dungeon-crawling, multiplayer RPG sort. And it certainly looks it: the first episode begins with your archetypal Party of Four making their way through a sinister looking forest in order to take on some pulsing white blob turned nude Shadow Lady who is, it seems, causing nice people like the pointy-eared Roxy to turn into demons with her curse.

Whether they win or lose is unclear, but then the show cuts to the future and to the improbable duo of demon-cursed Baron and his wispy sidekick Roxy. (Hmm. “Roxy” again? A coincidence? I think not.) On their travels, they are unlucky enough to meet Cabensis, a vaguely Vash-like gunslinger and Master of Pratfalls. He is the sort of guy who indulges in romantic flights of fantasy and then twists his ankle upon landing. Anyway, after a run-in with some hostile villagers and a demon attack, these three characters have, it seems, become reluctant companions. The final objective, presumably, is to break the curse on Baron, but that could be a long ways away.

This show is attractively animated, and it has a pleasing retro, if derivative look, especially to the character designs. The lurches back and forth from serious and the silly are considerable but equally convincing. Though Arad Senki is not a must-watch anime by any means, it is a reasonable choice for fans of RPG fantasy and lowbrow humor.

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