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The Winter 2011 Anime Preview Guide
Bamboo Dong

by Bamboo Dong,

Wandering Son

Rating: 5

Without a doubt, Wandering Son is one of the best anime series debuts in the past five years.  Of course, a statement like that comes with necessary caveats—you must like slice of life shows, you must be willing to shelve action for character interaction, and you must be willing to trade patience for a story that ambles along at its own meticulous pace.  That said, Wandering Son is a masterful piece of art that's not easily forgotten.  It's not only thought-provoking, but it has real substance.  It takes the idea of gender identity and, unlike so many of its hyukked up comedy contemporaries, takes it seriously and actually challenges much of the old-fashioned views on gender roles held by Japanese society.

The title of the episode, “What are little girls made of?” recalls the famous old nursery rhyme.  Sugar, spice, everything nice.  But what of the boys who want everything nice, and the girls who have no taste for sugar?  Sure, you see it in comedies all the time.  Crossdressing—what a lark!  But even the characters say at the end, it's more than just clothes, though even that can be a big first step.

Although gender identities appears to be the main conflict around which Wandering Son revolves, it's not the only piece of the puzzle.  The episode opens when a new class of students start their first day of middle school.  Some are old classmates who used to be friends, but have somehow since had a falling out.  Others have their own sets of insecurities and issues that come with entering middle school.  It's a little hard to keep track of the character web being spun in the first episode, but it looks as though this is something that could potentially flourish over the season into a really riveting series.

It's difficult to talk about this show without just waxing lyrical over its qualities.  Because truthfully, it's something that needs to be watched to be truly appreciated.  There are so many intricate layers in this show that it needs to be experienced firsthand.  Even the socially perceived difference between a boy who wants to dress as a girl, and a girl who wants to dress as a boy.  The latter is viewed as cool and rebellious, while the former is recoiled from and looked upon as a sexual deviant. Yet one gets the sense that for one of the girls in the show, dressing as a man isn't about being cool, or wanting to rebel.  But once again, that's something that has to be seen to be understood, so that it can be fully processed.

There's a scene that I found fascinating, though I wasn't sure if it was intentional or just a well-placed coincidence.  At one point, there are two plates of fried shrimp. One plate has two shrimp in an X.  The other has four shrimp placed into an XY.  Is it an additional coincidence he eats part of the Y?  I'm not sure, but it's interesting to think about.

Wandering Son is available streaming on Crunchyroll.

Kore wa Zombie Desu ka?

Rating: 3.5

Any show that prominently features a Dyson Air Multiplier bladeless fan in the background immediately deserves a second look.  Not because it's necessarily good, nor interesting, but because it inherently has a love of the weird and eclectic.  In the case of Kore wa Zombie Desu ka?, that penchant for the nutty might be a case of Trying Too Damned Hard, but at times it does succeed.

Stop me if you've heard this premise.  There's a high school boy who lives in a house with two cute gir—oh, wait.  Okay, try this one.  There's a zombie who lives in a house with a “necromancer of the underworld” and a snaggle-toothed magical girl who slays giant animal monsters with a chainsaw.  It's a riff off a zillion other shows, and it borders on desperate fan pandering, but eventually the absurdity wins over.  By the time our hero ends up donning a frilly dress to battle a giant blubbering crayfish, it's over the top enough to be funny.  It's not clever and it's not wholly original, but it's quirky, and sometimes that's all you need.

For anyone who's asking, the zombie in question isn't your typical brain-eating, foot-shuffling Hollywood zombie.  He's a high schooler like any other, only he was brought back to life by a necromancer so that he can track down who murdered him.  Conveniently, because she lives with him, he doesn't have to worry about trivialities like getting his bones shattered or being torn in half or being impaled by a giant bear.  All in the first episode.  However, there should be a boo and a hiss to the necromancer's name, Eucliwood Hellscythe—apparently it's now the anime norm to name all gothic lolita characters a jumble of English Halloween words.

Watching Kore wa Zombie Desu ka? is somewhat like watching a bad comedian with no comic timing deliver a poorly written joke with no punchline.  At first, the only response is silence.  Then there's some uncomfortable fidgeting, and maybe some coughing.  Then, because the Awkward Silence has nowhere else to go, the tension erupts into laughter.  The audience sits back and realizes, “Man, this is really terrible.  I can't stop laughing.”  And for some reason, there's a Dyson Air Multiplier.

Kore wa Zombie Desu ka? is available streaming on Crunchyroll.

Level E

Rating: 4

Aliens are everywhere.  On our trains, in our schools, and especially in our apartments… uninvited.  In the new dark comedy Level E, a high school student comes home to his new apartment to find all his stuff already unpacked, and a strange man wearing his clothes.  The stranger claims he's an alien who's just crashed a few miles away and can't remember a thing.  He's obnoxious but kind, and before even the halfway mark, we know these two characters are going to be buddies. 

Aside from your usual setup, where the government is keen on finding out more about extraterrestrial lifeforms, generally to the detriment of the wayward alien, not too much else is revealed about the eventual storyline of Level E.  Of course, fans of the manga already have a sense of where the show might be heading, but for fresh audiences, it's all new.  Based on the series by Yoshihiro Togashi (whom shonen fans will instantly recognize as the author of Yū Yū Hakusho and Hunter X Hunter), Level E shades a little to the dark and creepy side.  It's biggest draw, though, is it's delightfully morbid sense of humor.  Case in point, a scene where main character Tsuitsui thinks he's just accidentally killed dozens of workers by remotely detonating the alien's spaceship.  Rather than comforting him, the alien launches into an estimate of the tragedy left behind, of grieving widows, and fatherless children.  It's horrible, but one can't help but laugh.

At the same time, the show also has some immensely freaky moments.  There's a beady-eyed macaw that watches the characters throughout much of the show, whose creep factor is surpassed only by a shot of two strange kids with heavy circles under their eyes.  Whatever's going on, I get the sense that I sure wouldn't want to be living in that town.

What's instantly laudable about Level E is that it also looks really nice.  Due in part to the marvels of computer graphics, this series uses a lot of textures to make sure everything looks as realistic as possible. From the pockmarks in the cement walls, to the weather damage on the balcony railings, the backgrounds could've been lifted from a photo.  It's not a crucial element of the show, but it's always a nice touch.  I'm not sure where this show is headed, as most of the episode was devoted to developing the dynamics between Tsuitsui in the alien, but this seems interesting enough to follow for the time being.

Level E is available streaming on Crunchyroll.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Rating: 3

Great talent does not necessarily produce great work. Puella Magi Madoka Magica is proof of that. Headed by lauded director Akiyuki Shinbo, who's known for his love of unique and surreal visuals, this dark twist on the magical girl genre is all flash and no substance. Backed by the now stale chants of composer Yuki Kajiura, whose soundtracks now grace every production whose primary color palette is black, Madoka Magic is a show that's an absolute joy to look at, but a total rehash of every magical girl show in existence. Just because you replace pink tutus and go-go boots with goth lolita outfits doesn't make it new and fresh, just like painting stripes on a donkey doesn't make it a zebra.

Madoka is your typical schoolgirl who has a dream—she's standing amidst an apocalyptic world where she's offered the chance to become a magical girl. In the corner of her eye, she spies a mysterious girl she's never seen before. So lo and behold, the next day in class, that girl struts in as the new exchange student. Naturally, she's good at everything, but as luck would have it, at the end of the day she transforms into a cosplaying magical girl who's hell-bent on something or other.

Quite frankly, the story doesn't matter. Fans can moan until the cows come home about how a dark, gothy take on mahou shoujo is some kind of mind-boggling paradigm shift in the land of anime, but it's the same story. Just with sadder music.

What is worth being excited about are the visuals. Madoka Magic is absolutely gorgeous, from beginning to end. The dream sequences are frantic and surreal, like a visceral kaleidoscope of nightmares, from cryptic otherworldly writing, to giant cotton balls with mustaches on them. They swirl in and out of focus until you completely forget that you're watching little girls chasing each other around a mall. Even in the “real world,” the artwork is stunning, with characters colored in soft pastels to offset the dark, yet dynamic surroundings. It's so hard to describe the visuals of this show that it's worth recommending at least one episode to anyone who's tired of the same old anime look.

Forget the hokey magical girl storyline and the neverending soundtrack. If you're going to watch Madoka Magic, do it because you want to see something pretty.

Cardfight!! Vanguard

Rating: 0

This is a joke, right?  This isn't a real show, right?  Someone accidentally mixed up the tapes and popped this one into the VCR over at the station, right?  Because Cardfight!! Vanguard is literally just one long tutorial for a card game. A poorly drawn, poorly animated tutorial for a trading card game that's meant to be sold alongside a special roll-out velour playing mat, with a McDonalds Happy Meal tie-in.

The anime industry has done some sick, sick things, but this is the sickest of them all. Cardfight!! Vanguard plays itself off like a shonen tournament show, where Vanguard Fighers (kids with Vanguard decks) compete against each other and yell silly attack moves at each other, but the entire series is just a ruse to get kids to buy a stupid card game. One of the characters actually sits down and explains, step by step, the mechanics of the gameplay. Not only are we, the viewers, supposed to be really riveted by this dinky little card game, we're supposed to believe that it's the greatest card game ever invented!  One of the combos is so crazy, that when the main characters gets hit with two damage, he physically jumps backward.

Let me repeat that. When the rival plays his hand, the hero pushes himself back from the table in shock, as though he was actually blasted by a powerful attack.

Because that's the power of the Vanguard!  It's SO IMMERSIVE that as you are playing this ridiculous convenient store card game, you feel as though you're transported onto a faraway planet and you're fighting for your life against these armor powerups and creature summons.

This is pure trash. It's one thing to shamelessly create a show to sell toys and merchandise. Hundreds of shows have done that. But they were at least interesting. Cardfight!! Vanguard commits the biggest sin of all—it's simply a terrible, terrible show. It spends well over half the episode explaining the rules of this card game, so there is almost zero plot advancement, unless you count someone playing a Nehamenwhatever card. The character designs look like they were puked up from a teenager's seventh grade math notebook.  They have swirls for pupils and misshapen claws for hands! And on top of that, the animators were so lazy that they spent at least two whole minutes animating some shopkeeper looking up in surprise, over and over again, because she really gives a damn about who wins a card game.

Folks, we have officially reached The Bottom of the Barrel. It can only go up from here.


Cardfight!! Vanguard is available streaming on Crunchyroll.

Rio - Rainbow Gate!

Rating: 2

Is it possible to have an anime riddled with clichés and stereotypes, yet have a premise that's so ridiculous that it results in a viewing experience so unique that it can't even be categorized? Perhaps that was the question posed to a Xebec during a brainstorming session.  There is no other possible explanation for the inception of Rio – Rainbow Gate!, a show that bewilders with its inane premise, and its unabashed love of light-reflecting breasts.  The latter is a puzzle—with the exception of saunas and female bodybuilding competitions, I've never seen breasts that actually shine in real life, but in anime, they are a dime a dozen. This series, especially, loves this concept, and for every pair of heaving bosoms, there are two glints of radiant sunshine.

Rio, the titular character, is the most popular dealer at Howard Resort, a gorgeous beachside community with towering architectural styles borrowed from all over the world.  Known as the Goddess of Victory, she exudes luck, and anyone who touches her hand or merely basks in her presence cleans up at the card tables and slot machines.  How the casino manages to stay in business is anyone's guess.  Aside from dealing, though, she also does various odd jobs for the owner, like dress up and entertain wealthy clients.  Although, it does beg one very big question. It's obvious that Rio hates dressing in skimpy outfits and doing whatever perverted thing the owner asks of her, but—why stay at that job?  Why not just use her talent for gambling, use that to earn a living, and stop working for some pervert?  But maybe at Howard Resort, logic is a rare commodity only sold in the High Rollers room.

See, Rio doesn't just have a knack for luck.  She can actually become “one” with whatever game she's playing and pick the cards she wants.  In the first episode, she goes head to head with some bad guy who's after a little girl's teddy bear in a hand of five card draw.  After the cards are dealt, both players suddenly enter some sort of fantasy dream state, where they actually start walking around a world of life-size cards and reach out to the ones they want.  What?  Can they actually manipulate the order of the already shuffled cards?  Or is it a simple matter of ESP in terms of predicting what card is next?  And even though the fantasy sequence is some five minutes long, how long does it appear to the bystanders watching this game? 

Once again, logic is not one of the chips at stake here.

To the show's credit, there are two things that I was unprepared for.  One, the show looks really nice.  The animators put a lot of time and effort into making sure every person in a crowd looks different, and all of the architectural effects in Howard Resort are stunning.  All of the cards are drawn with great detail, and every groove in the roulette wheel is carefully brushed in. I even had to admire the effort that the animators expended making sure every single set of breasts in the entire casino had a nice, freshly waxed sheen to it. 

Secondly, I was completely unprepared for the motive of the bad guy.  When he was trying to steal the little girl's bear, I naturally assumed her wealthy grandfather had hidden corporate secrets inside, or perhaps some kind of key to a safe.  No.  The actual motive was so ridiculous I audibly cried out in disbelief.  As if the Gambling Goddess premise of the show wasn't enough.  As if the money shot of the token ermine mascot pulling at a half-naked girl's bed sheets weren't enough.  This show is simply too much, and not really in a good way.

Rio - Rainbow Gate! is available streaming on Crunchyroll.

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