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The Winter 2011 Anime Preview Guide
Zac Bertschy

by Zac Bertschy,

Zac Bertschy is the executive editor of Anime News Network. He enjoys vodka and bunny rabbits, and one day aspires to own the world's largest sense of ironic detachment.



Plucky teenage Clain lives alone on an idyllic, sparsely populated island with two abstractly-designed automatons that represent his parents (called “doppels”). One day on his way back from the market, he encounters a mysterious girl on a glider being pursued by an airship, which naturally ends with her evading the pursuers and healing her wounds at Clain's place. The girl's origin is unknown, but it seems tied somehow to the “22nd Century God” Fractale, a sort of cloud network that gives everyone an income in exchange for being jacked in. So the mysterious girl wanders off, leaving Clain her mysterious pendant, which of course starts glowing and produces yet another mysterious girl (this time she's an energetic redhead). ~Fin~.

So Fractale is a magical girlfriend show – it's got all the plot trappings of one, after all; pretty girl falls out of sky into bland hero's lap, gets naked while bland hero goes WHAAAAAA YOU'RE NAKED?!?!, has mysterious past that will likely drive the show's narrative, yadda yadda. This time it's been soaked in a heapin’ helpin’ of Ghibli (the Castle in the Sky influence is undeniable), with a dash of Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou. It's tastefully done for the most part, and when you have a story that's as well-worn as this one is, execution is pretty much the only thing that matters upfront, and Fractale is at least pleasant to look at and inoffensive with some nice music. There are plenty of hints that all the vague sci-fi stuff going on in the background will eventually come to the forefront, and it'd take very little for this to go south really quickly, but for now, let's just call it “mildly interesting, competently made magical girlfriend show”.

Fractale is available streaming on Funimation.com.

Level E

Rating: 5

Near the beginning of this first episode, there's a really good sight gag that recalls E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. As it turns out, a whole lot of this show's plot structure is lifted right from E.T., although minus the schmaltz and they've replaced the creepy little scrotum creature with a classically designed blonde bishonen. It works wonderfully; this show is a lot of fun.

The lead is Yukitaka, who winds up playing straight man to the eccentric alien dude. He's been recruited by the local high school to play baseball, and his apartment is conveniently located right next to a recent UFO crash site. Upon moving in to his apartment, the aforementioned alien has moved in ahead of time, but he's lost all of his memories and has nowhere to go. His next door neighbor is the cute daughter of the head scientist who happens to be working on the alien technology found at the crash site. This is pretty much all you really need to know going in to this episode, and after watching so many other series this season, it's kind of a miracle that I can describe the plot in less than 500 words.

Mostly a (really well-written and funny) comedy that hints at a more serious sci-fi tale lurking underneath, Level E doesn't stretch itself too far right away; we conclude by seeing the blonde alien's “true form” and it's clear the government is after him. There's a ton of promise in the show's premise, though; right up front we're told that Earth is swarming with aliens in disguise, and while the classic “government agents chasing benevolent alien” thing has been done before, the writing here is solid enough that I can't wait to see the next episode. Great characters, great comedy, great premise, great first episode. I loved it.

Level E is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Rating: 1

Okay so Freezing is the latest in what is now a long line of shows where busty chicks in improbable outfits fight aliens/eachother/their own latent Sapphic desires/the crushing sense that this has all been done before. This time around they're called Pandora because they have these implants that give them super powers and super weapons, and they're supposed to fight off giant alien things called the Nova. Mostly though they seem to fight eachother a lot and there's a blonde (who has the biggest rack in the show, always an indicator that she's the most special or important in this sort of thing) who has really super magic powers and everyone refers to her as the ‘untouchable queen’. Then everyone starts killing eachother for some reason. I wasn't paying much attention, to be honest with you - once they get to the Ham-Fisted Military Academy Exposition Scene I started having Infinite Stratos flashbacks and kinda checked out upstairs.

For the most part, Freezing is forgettable and feels like just another “one of these” dumped out of the script machine, until the show starts getting really gruesomely violent. Like, bizarrely violent – normally in these shows the girls knock the spit out of eachother just enough to shred their clothing, but in this thing, they're hacking eachother up, losing limbs, bleeding out gallons of blood, breaking eachothers bones, that sort of thing. I don't really get the appeal here – seeing a girl with giant breasts have her throat slit and her arms broken is supposed to be… what, sexy? (ooh la la, the crunch of bone and sinew! Nothin’ like a throat slashed open to get my mojo workin’! That girl isn't hot until she's missing a leg and her intestines are spilling out!) So we're looking at either ‘director with weird fetish’ or ‘miscalculated how much visceral gore someone wants in the middle of wanking’. Anyway don't watch Freezing,  it's pretty weird and gross.

Yumekui Merry

Rating: 1.5

Fujiwara's life is strangely impacted by the supernatural; in addition to being able to read someone's aura colors, he's been having strange lucid dreams at night, where he's fighting off (rather, mostly running from) an army of cats wearing cartoon gloves and booties. Enter Merry, a mysterious girl in a weird coat who falls on him one day on his way home from school (in the reverse cowgirl position for those keeping tabs on all the different ways someone's magical girlfriend can fall on them during the initial “whoops we accidentally set the plot in motion!” scene). She drops her hat, which Fujiwara finds and instantly triggers a lucid daydream where he's fighting this sinister character named Chaser Jon Doe who apparently wants to break through the dream world into the real world. Merry shows up in the dream, reclaims her hat, fights off Chaser – all while spouting a bunch of cryptic dialogue that I guess is supposed to hint at what in the living hell is happening in this show – and then concludes the episode by collapsing into Fujiwara's arms, crying.

I honestly cannot tell what the hook is supposed to be here; the visual style bites from Soul Eater just enough to not feel like it's doing anything different or remotely unique, and they've crammed in so many “wait, what?” moments to disconnect the viewer from the story right off the bat. Maybe there's a weird belief among the people who write scripts like this that being intentionally obtuse, cryptic and disjointed is supposed to be the hook that gets people to stay tuned, but at least in my case, if you're not bothering to establish your characters at all in the first 20 minutes, then all your teasing and hinting and vague dialogue is just more of a reason for me to not bother watching more. Yumekui Merry is dreadfully serious too, which is really a problematic tone for a show like this to take, considering the character designs and the funny little cartoon kitties at the beginning. Worst of all, both the opener and the closer (and the episode's climax) suggest this is going to be a dreadfully angst-ridden series where the lead girl has some tragic history and there'll be a bunch of shots of her weeping at the overcast sky while flying upward through broken glass or some other melodramatic shenanigans. I refer you once again to Soda Box Kitty below for a more satisfying entertainment experience.

Infinite Stratos

Rating: quiet I am trying to nap here

The Infinite Stratos are a line of powerful mechanized suits that can only be piloted by women. They aren't used for military purposes, only for sport. Orimura is the world's first male IS pilot (say whaaaaaaaaaat?!) It's his first day at academy, where all of his classmates are female and one of them is his old childhood friend Houki and it turns out they're sharing a dorm room, and he walks in on her coming out of the shower WHOA! And oh all the girls in the all-girl robot school are totally in to him and follow him around, and his hard-as-nails professor at Girl Robot School is also his sister, a famous IS pilot who punches him in the head while zany music plays when he makes simple mistakes and at the end he gets into a duel with the bitchy British princess “oh ho ho ho ho” pilot girl who thinks she's better than him and then zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz ZzzZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzz *snort* zzzzzzzzzzzz

Here just watch this instead:

Puella Magi Madoka Magica

Story: whaaaaatever
Visuals: 5

So here we go: pink-haired cutsey-poo Madoka has a terrifying vision of an apocalyptic future where an unnamed threat is being fought off by a struggling magical girl with long hair. A little Sanrio-lookin’ cat mascot character tells her that if she wants to stop all this from happening, she has to become a Puella Magi. Next day at school a mysterious, stern, soft-spoken girl shows up and wouldn't you know it, it's the same girl from her dream. During a fateful trip to the mall, she gets a mysterious telepathic distress call from said Sanrio cat mascot thing and winds up having to save it from the mysterious girl, who's trying to kill it for some reason – then the Benevolent Magical Girl finally shows up, a bunch of crazy shit starts happening and then they ask Madoka to join the Puella Magi and presumably get the story moving.

In terms of plot, this is no different from your standard “late night magical girl show” where there's obnoxious loli fanservice in the opening credits (although surprisingly none in the episode itself) and the characters are mostly pasted-together moe archetypes. The story here is predictable, and it seems like they're taking a lot of cues from the last big “serious business” magical-girl-show-aimed-at-otaku, Nanoha. Normally I don't like this kind of thing.

But that “5” up there in the ratings box is entirely for how stunningly visually inventive Puella Magi Madoka Magica is. We open on a beautifully rendered apocalyptic landscape with some intense colors going on, and then transition into the “real world” where the backgrounds are all very pleasing to the eye – they look like modern art museum interiors or maybe Futurist Frank Lloyd Wright, with lots of intense but carefully placed angles. Then later in the episode things get really cool and the screen is awash in some really nifty street-art-meets-abstract-surrealism stuff, with elements pasted on like some kind of Banksian collage. I haven't seen anyone try to get this artistically ambitious in an otherwise boilerplate genre show since King of Bandit Jing; I have to assume that it's the hand of director Akiyuki Shinbo, whose stuff I also don't usually like, but the man is known for trying some crazy things visually and whatever he's doing here, it works. It's exciting to see someone try something different. It's a little jarring to see the extremely generic character designs wandering around through all this artistic madness; I can't say I care one bit about the story or what's going on, and I can't say I'd watch more of the series unless I were fast-forwarding until all these elements start popping up again, but I'm more than happy to applaud even a glimmer of visual inventiveness.

Rio – Rainbow Gate!

Rating: 1.5

Here is what Rio – Rainbow Gate! is pretending to be about:
At the fabulous Howard Casino, Rio, the “Goddess of Victory”, reigns supreme as everyone's favorite dealer; her presence alone brings people good luck at the tables. Mint, a little girl visiting the casino with her grandfather, finds herself in awe of Rio, and the two become fast friends – but not before a sleazy gambler named Olin Dunhill catches up with the pair and decides he wants Mint's beloved teddy bear Chōco. He challenges Rio to a hand of poker, and Mint decides the stakes – if she loses, Rio's gotta strip naked!

Here is what Rio – Rainbow Gate! is actually about:

This is a Dumb Fanservice Show™ through and through, running on so little story that even this first episode is padded out beyond belief (we get not one but TWO extended sequences where it is made clear to us how much everyone worships Rio and how lucky she is when she enters the pit). Mostly it's an excuse to cram Rio's ridiculous body into as many fetishy outfits as possible (usually at the demand of her skeevy boss), and there's a bizarre magical girl element at the end where during the poker game Rio enters some weird magical gambling fantasy world with lots of swirling numbers and cards and leaves and crap and apparently this gives her some measure of control over what the outcome of the game is (which I believe would be referred to as “cheating” by anyone playing cards with Rio).

The show isn't boring, it's just stupid as hell and not really any more or less offensive than - oh, let's say Ikki Tousen, but boy, it sure would be nice if one day one of these fanservice shows decided you can mash T&A all over the screen and least attempt to accompany it with something resembling a decent story or characters worth caring about beyond their measurements.

Or hell, maybe you can't.

Rio - Rainbow Gate! is available streaming on Crunchyroll.

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