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The Spring 2011 Anime Preview Guide
Theron Martin

by Theron Martin,

In between rooting for his hometown Butler Bulldogs to win the NCAA men's basketball national championship, playing his bladeling avenger, and cleaning out ANN's spam filter, Theron (aka Key) finds the odd moment to watch a wee bit of anime and obsess over things like whether or not Spice and Wolf II will ever come out on DVD, whether or not he can find uncensored versions of dedicated fan service shows, and the mysteries of Evangelion. His next project is to figure out a way to engineer an easily-accessible extradimensional space to store all his anime DVDs and Blu-Rays.

Showa Monogatari

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: This is one of the easiest shows to overlook in the new TV season because it has gotten so little attention, no doubt because it is as far off the beaten anime path as a 2000s-era anime series can get. There are no gimmicks to be found here, nor any of the typical elements which might normally attract younger viewers or otaku. It is, instead, a simple, very low-key, slice-of-life story about a very ordinary Japanese family entering the year that Tokyo will host the Olympics: 1964, aka the 39th year of the Showa era.

Although the Next Episode preview suggests that future episodes may feature other characters, the first episode primarily focuses on Kouhei Yamazaki, a 5th grade boy whose father owns and runs a small factory next door to their home. He has a 17-year-old sister who is just entering high school (and, perhaps, entering the first stages of love), a college-aged brother who quarrels with their father, a fully domesticated mother, and a grandmother. His home gets regular visits from neighbors that include a single old man and a young man apprenticing in “TV manga,” including during New Year's Even and New Year's Day festivities, the latter of which are disrupted by the quarreling and the Dad going out drinking. Oh, and Kouhei and friend have a close encounter with a man that they at first think may be a kidnapper.

Anime simply does not get more mundane than this, but this is supposed to be an experiment to see if an anime series can successfully target much older audiences, particularly including those old enough to remember this era fondly. It is well-drawn and nicely-animated, with all of the artistry except for a CG-animated table-flipping scene evoking an older and more earthy style than the flashy fare which typically predominates. That gives the first episode a warm, comfortable feel loaded with a wealth of subtle period detail. Its most fascinating aspect is its opener, which takes video clips of modern Japanese locations and transitions them first into their 1964 equivalents and then into the animated equivalents of that. For all that, though, the content is rather boring, so the grade on this one more reflects a respect for what the series is trying to do rather than its actual entertainment value.

Pretty Rhythm Aurora Dream

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review:  Middle schooler Aira Haruna may has a keen fashion sense and in-depth knowledge about top models but (strangely) knows next-to-nothing about the Prism Show, a figure skating-based show which blends music, fashion, and ice dancing into the ultimate in modern entertainment. Aira is something of a klutz, though, and being set up by her father to take over the family cake shop, so such a venue is hardly a consideration for her - at least until a talent scout out looking for a wayward teen model happens across her and another girl, Rhythm Amamiya, and recognizes something special in both of them. He quickly recruits both as last-minute replacements for the absent model Mion (whom Aira idolizes) and gives both Prism Stones, which can generate special costumes that will allow them to perform in the Prism Show. And since this kind of performance is more about heart than physical talent, Aira naturally is able to bumble her way into a new and original Prism Jump, the Prism Show's defining gimmick.

Pretty Rhythm is based on a Japanese arcade game, and the ice dancing performance by Rhythm near the episode's end certainly has the look and feel of a game cut scene. The episode as a whole is a mix of magical girl and idol singer elements and will likely appeal to devotees of either or both genres. It is clearly aimed at middle school-aged girls rather than otaku, though: it has a light, inoffensive feel, plenty of genuinely girly elements, and a heavy dose of sanitized, fashion-sensitive cute utterly devoid of even a hint of prurient fan service. Characterizations are typical so far; Aira is the standard klutzy girl who will alternate between being clumsy and the dashingly graceful heroine, while Rhythm looks like she is being set up to be the friendly rival. A hunky boy band and seemingly magical transformation tokens are also present. All that is lacking is a mascot character, and the opener suggests that such a character will eventually show up.

Aside from the novel gimmick of focusing the performances on ice dancing, Pretty Rhythm’s only distinguishing feature at this point is a closer which plays like a live-action music video. While this series won't have a broad appeal, it is a cute, innocuous addition to the spring season.

C - Control

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review:  The concept presented here is a fascinating one, a fully modern version of the old concept of a Faustian bargain: an otherworldly realm called the Financial District exists which allows “randomly-selected” individuals, called Entrepreneurs, to use their future prospects as collateral to draw upon sizable financial wealth; in a sense it's playing with futures in the most literal sense possible. A special taxi ferries those carrying special credit cards to the Financial District, where battles involving summoned creatures can be involved for the truly desperate. (Exactly how and why this works is not clear from the first episode, but it certainly looks cool.) Clownish-looking Masakaki is apparently a recruiter for the Financial District, and he has his sights set on 19-year-old college student Kimimaro Yoga to fill a recent vacancy. Kimimaro could certainly use the financial help, as he is working two jobs to struggle his way through only on scholarship money and laments that he is regularly broke, and the possibility that a classmate who has been helpful to him - one Hanabi - might be interested romantically, too, if he has money is dangled before him. Warily, Kimimaro finds himself on a visit to the Financial District.

Director Kenji Nakamura, who also helmed Mononoke, brings a distinctive vision to this original project, especially in the early Financial District scenes and the way the disembodied voices who speak to users of the special credit cards are handled. The early battle is a brief but breathtaking affair, while the later scenes describing Kimimaro's situation are executed without a hint of sappiness and the scenes involving Masakaki are just the right degree of vaguely unsettling. The result is a first episode which carries the stench of danger hidden beneath a masking whiff of perfume, and for a series like this, that's exactly the right impression to leave to entice viewers to keep coming back.

C - Control  may be one of the last series of the new season to premiere, but it looks like it was worth the wait.

C - Control is available streaming at Funimation.


Blue Exorcist

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review:  15-year-old Rin Okamura and his twin brother Yukio have been raised in a monastery since birth, but while his twin excels both athletically and academically, Rin has become a hard-nosed troublemaker who must struggle just to keep a part-time job for long. Spotting a strange creature that no one else can see attempting to harass a little girl starts to open his eyes to the reality that there is more to the world than is commonly known, and an encounter with a rich boy he's had previous problems with, who turns out to be demoniacally possessed, reveals to him a startling truth: he is the son of Satan born of a human mother, and that is undoubtedly going to attract a lot of attention from other demons.

The concept here is hardly anything new; bad boys with a heart of gold have been a staple of anime for years now, and heroes who must overcome demoniac heritages to play for the side of the angels have been around since at least the early ‘70s. (See the Marvel Comics character Daimon Hellstrom.) This take on the concept might succeed because it showcases an enjoyable sense of humor mixed into the very dark content while at the same time also giving Rin a character that can be appreciated and empathized with. The artistry and technical merits are nothing special, but the end of the episode does show some effective action and demon designs.

Blue Exorcist may not be the freshest or sharpest-looking fare you'll find this season, but it is at least watchable.

Blue Exorcist is available streaming on Crunchyroll, Hulu, VizAnime.com and ANN.

Astarotte's Toy episode 2

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: Here's a surprise: although the first episode gave many indications that this could be one of the season's seediest series, the second episode instead turns out to be one of the season's most gently charming episodes to date. People on the fence about this one after the first episode will likely find themselves won over by the second; even those tired of tsundere characters voiced by Rie Kugimiya may not find that to be a barrier.

In the wake of episode one, Judit has succeeded in bring human harem candidate Naoya to the Monster Realm of Ygvarland, and now Princess Lotte must deal with the consequences. Though the princess tries to sabotage Naoya in various ways, Naoya soon learns about why the princess hates men, guesses at the princess's state of mind, and decides to be kind and understanding about it. His attitude is not lost on the servants around Lotte, nor, ultimately, on Lotte herself. In the end, Naoya earns the position, though he must suffer with the official job title of “Toy” (hence the name of the series).

The Norse theme suggested by the first episode gets more firmly-established here, with Norse naming conventions becoming the norm. Conversely, the penchant for fan service and perverse content regresses. Oh, sure, there are still a couple of panty shots and a big joke about where the residence's milk supply really comes from (let's just say that there is a reason why a certain character wears a bell), but the “sucking life seed” business turns out to be a more traditional succubus method. The focus is instead much more on Lotte's petulance about dealing with Naoya and Naoya's efforts to work his own brand of magic on Lotte. These are simple, honest ploys that are not overplayed, allow Lotte the dignity of being insightful as well as appreciative, and are wonderfully supported by low-key background music instead of more typical hijinks.

The technical merits of this series are not the greatest (and what's up with the R-shaped part of Lotte's domicile?), but the funny, endearing, and just slightly saucy tale being set up here now looks like it has a lot of promise.

Astarotte's Toy is available in streaming form at Crunchyroll.

Hyouge Mono

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: Like Battle Girls, this one is set in the 1570s during the height of the Warring States era and prominently features Nobunaga Oda. In this case, though, the characters all have their traditional genders and the story focuses on Sasuke Furuta (aka Kageysau or Oribe Furuta), a real historical figure who was, later in life (during Iyesau Tokugawa's reign), one of the most famous tea masters of his era. In 1577, Sasuke is still the vassal and chief messenger of Nobunaga, and in this fictional interpretation, he is also a total aesthete, one who has to be careful lest he becomes completely absorbed in the visual and designs elements of anything from clothing to a ship to a famous work of pottery. Around him trek many notable names and plenty of typical samurai machismo, discipline, and scheming, but Sasuke has his own priorities.

This series likely won't get much attention from anime fans because it is far outside of mainstream anime interests; it is a hard-core work of historical fiction likely aimed at older male viewers, one heavily ground in period detail and featuring none of the usual anime style points. It throws out plenty of bones for history buffs and has some good artistry and technical merits (and a jazzy opener reminiscent of ‘70s American TV series), but much of the entertainment value of the first episode actually comes from watching Sasuke's bemusing facial expressions as his obsession gets the better of him. One scene has him imagining fellow vassals and military officers in more conspicuous styles of dress during a meeting with Nobunaga, while others have him chasing down the lid of a famous pot that has been flung through the air, daydreaming about said pot, or rolling around on the floor petulantly when something doesn't look right. The net effect is one of the oddest takes on a traditional samurai series. If you are looking for something well off the beaten anime path, this might be it.

Deadman Wonderland

Rating: 1 or 4.5 (of 5) - see below

Review: Middle school student Ganta is having an ordinary day with his classmates, including the lovely Mimi, when the Red Man shows up outside the classroom window and messily slaughters everyone but him (including beheading poor Mimi) and implants something within Ganta's chest that will, of course, later result in him having Special Powers. First, though, he must contend with being accused and convicted of the crime of murdering his classmates, a set-up that includes a damning video he doesn't remember making and a public defender who clearly (to the viewer) has ulterior motives. He is sentenced to death and shipped off to Deadman Wonderland, a private prison where prisoners become the attractions in a cruel amusement park-like setting. There he meets the sexy but cold dominatrix/warden and, more oddly, a beautiful albino girl wearing mittens and a striped body suit who is a dead ringer for Mimi and can kick some (but not all) butt. When Ganta and Shiro's (i.e. the Mimi look-a-like's) lives are endangered, his Special Powers activate.

Deadman Wonderland is an extremely well-made series, featuring some of the season's best artistry and technical merits, especially in character design and rendering (Shiro could easily compete for being the season's hottest-looking female character), and an effective, hard-edged musical score. It is also the season's bloodiest title, with some hazy censoring used on the most intensely graphic parts. The pacing is brisk and loaded with all sorts of plot hooks to draw viewers in and the concept, even though it rips off the collars from Battle Royale and borrows from several Hollywood movies, still feels sharp in execution.

It also has one of the most odious set-ups of any recent anime.

The beginning moments - where the Red Man shows up and Ganta must deal with the immediate consequences of the attack - are fantastic, but then it subjects viewers to the “railroad Ganta” process which, even for a semi-dystopian, near-future set-up where ethical practices have clearly changed, seems improbable and forced to the point of revulsion. (An appointed defender who refuses to file appeals? Ganta being allowed to carry any kind of video device in court? Really?) Get over that hurdle and you have a potentially great series here, but it is a hurdle which could turn away some viewers.

Deadman Wonderland is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: 15-year-old Makoto Niwa is living the cliché: his parents are going to work overseas so he's moving to the big city to live with his aunt and attend school. Though he was led to believe that his aunt lives alone, upon arriving at her house he immediately discovers something very curious: what may (or may not) be a girl whose upper half is wrapped up by a futon that she does not take off, even to eat. Even stranger, Makoto's aunt resolutely discounts the presence of this individual who may or may not be her daughter and who, when sufficiently poked, spouts off a lot of strange babble and claims to be an alien. Assorted odd behaviors eventually lead to her unveiling in a supermarket parking lot one night, where Makoto discovers that his cousin Erio Touwa, for all her odd behavior and insistence on being a half-alien, is also stunningly gorgeous.

Of all the wide variety of titles coming out this season, this one may be the most eccentric. Nothing much actually happens plot-wise beyond the introduction of what appears will be the principle characters; instead, the story depends entirely on Erio's weird behaviors, Makoto's reactions to it, and the aunt generally avoiding reacting to it. In this case, though, that's enough to carry the story for now, for clearly something abnormal has happened with Erio and sorting out the truth of the matter should prove to be interesting. On the downside, the writing has a tendency to be overly talkative and seems to be reaching to try to be clever, with an extreme level of familiarity with modern Japan (not just anime) required to catch all of the random references. The business with Erio does have a certain degree of sweet charm, though, and the cutesy closer is quite pleasant. It looks good, too.

If the gently eccentric nature doesn't work for a viewer than the title will come across as boring, as it does not yet have a foundation beyond that, but at least this isn't just another random weird events title.

Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Bokutachi wa Mada Shirinai (aka AnoHana)

Rating: 4.5 (of 5)

Review: Jinta “Jintan” Yadomi was once the leader of the “Super Peace Busters,” a group of friends who hung out together in elementary school. The group drifted apart in high school, though, with Jintan becoming a virtual shut-in. The only one from the group that he still associates with is Meiko “Menma” Honma, a girl whose wish he once promise to fulfill. There's just one big catch: Meiko is dead, and has been for several years. No one else can see the Menma who hangs around with him, though she does seem to have a physical presence. Jintan is not the only one of the former friends who seems to carry regrets about Menma, though his are the biggest, for the day she died was the day he had intended to apologize for something mean that he had said to her, something that he didn't mean at all.

Although the first episode doesn't make it clear, the premise of this apparently original anime project will involve Jinta having to reassemble the members of the old gang to bring resolution to Menma's last wish - and, by implication, to themselves as well. Given what has been shown so far, that won't be easy to do, as the friends have drifted far apart in the wake of Menma's death, but that is also exactly what gives the series so much potential. While the first half of the episode has a lighter feel, the second half (i.e. from the point where viewers should figure out that Menma is dead) has all of the feel and form of a weighty drama, the kind which seems determined to explore deeply-ingrained emotions rather than just treat them as tools for manipulating viewers, and so far it is executing that well. The writing is definitely a grade above most series this season; one scene where Menma returns to visit her family is silently wrenching, but little of the other dialog seems trite, either. The background art is sharp, the character designs, while not up to the background art standards in rendering, are not entirely generic, the gentle musical score hits just the right note, and the opener is one of the neatest of the season to date.

The “ghost girl” idea may be a little gimmicky, but the execution so far makes this one a winner.

Aria the Scarlet Ammo

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: You certainly can't fault this one for trying to make a thrilling first impression. The episode begins with a young man frantically pedaling a bike while being chased by what looks like a souped-up Segway outfitted with an Uzi. We soon learn that there's a bomb under the seat of the bike, Speed-style, even while a girl with long ponytails parachutes out of the sky, guns blazing, to rescue him.

The rest of the episode, after the opener, furthers the impression that this light novel-based series is a mishmash of assorted Hollywood movie and action anime franchise concepts. Kinji Tohyama, the boy in question, attends the special Tokyo Butei High School, which trains its students to be Butei, which are essentially licensed vigilantes/bounty hunters who can carry guns and blades and use them to apprehend criminals in the police's stead. Students are expected to arm themselves while on school ground and the school jacket is bulletproof, but that doesn't stop Kinji from apparently getting picked on by a copycat of an earlier Butei Killer and needing a rescue from the fiery, gun-toting Aria - only he turns the tables and later rescues her, too. Naturally, Aria winds up being a transfer student into Kinji's class and ends the episode by showing up at his apartment. And Shinji already has a girl who hopelessly mewls over him, too. . .

The biggest twist in this oddball tale, which is so gun-happy that it must be an NRA devotee's wet dream, is that Kinji isn't a wimp who's going to need regular attention by the action-figure girl to keep himself out of trouble. In fact, under the right circumstances he puts the title character to shame for raw bad-assery and can deliver attitude with the best of them, much to her consternation. That and Kinji's amusing attempts to restrain his arousal might be enough to keep this series afloat, because the petite tsundere gimmick (Rie Kugimiya again!) is already wearing really thin, as is the oh-so-shy and cute-sexy childhood friend Shirayuki (although she apparently also has a yet-to-be-seen bad-ass side). The musical score does try hard to pump up the pace and energy, while the visuals are ordinary beyond loving gun detail. Fan service is surprisingly low, as the episode passes up on numerous easy opportunities for panty shots.

Right now Aria is teetering on the brink between mediocrity and a solid action-themed show. If upcoming episodes don't fall prey to silly harem-styled relationship traps then the series has a chance to succeed.

A Bridge to the Starry Skies

Rating: 2 (of 5)

Review: Kazuma Hoshino and his little brother Ayumu are moving to a mountain village ahead of their parents (so they can get adjusted to school) but get sidetracked on their way to Yorozuyo, the inn where they are planning to board. When a monkey steals Ayumu's cap at a bus stop, Kazuma pursues into the forest, gets lost, and comes across a pretty girl named Ui, whom he ends up accidentally kissing due to a stream-crossing mishap. He also gets kicked by Ibuki, Ui's tsundere friend, who (predictably) misinterprets the scene. Later, after making it to the inn, he accidentally exposes himself to the female proprietor and a teenage waitress apprentice, the latter of whom also leads him to school the day - where, of course, he's in the same class as Ui and Ibuki. Kazuma briefly visited this area when he was much younger, though, and also has vague recollections of a cute brunette girl, who doesn't match to anyone he's met so far.

Is anyone going to be even remotely surprised to learn that this apparent harem series is based on an adult visual novel? While the concept and execution are not necessarily bad, they are as bland and generic as they come for titles like this. Not one ounce of what the first episode does is at all fresh (really, they couldn't come up with something better than the hackneyed trip-kiss?), nor is anything about the natures of the characters introduced so far even a slight variation from adult VN formula. The one bright spot is that the writing does muster a couple of good jokes at Kazuma's expense concerning the exposure incident, but that is hardly enough and the lack of fan service beyond a couple of panty flashes gives the series little to fall back on. The background art is good but the character designs are unflaggingly typical, too.

The opener, closer, and Next Episode preview indicate that a few more harem members have yet to be introduced, but future episodes are going to have to do much better than this to keep audience attention.

Bridge to the Starry Skies is available on Crunchyroll.

Qwaser of the Stigma (aka Seikon no Qwaser) II

Rating: 2.5 (of 5) for censored form, probable 3.5 otherwise

Review: The original series, which aired during the first half of 2010, was one of the most (if not the most) perverse mixes of action and fan service ever aired on Japanese TV. Though it offered decent super-powered action and storytelling, it was far more notorious for its heavily-censored fan service, especially its S&M elements and regular breast-sucking scenes; the latter, you see, is how the Qwasers in the series’ title juice up their element-based powers. Not surprisingly, that proved popular enough to warrant a second animated season, and also not surprisingly, the first episode provides more of the same.

This episode only includes scant flashbacks to the events of the first series, so full familiarity with it is assumed. It leads directly from the epilogue of the first season's last episode, which placed Alexander Niloleivitch Hell - aka Sasha the Martyr - on another mission for Athos at a different school, but this time he's undercover as a girl at the elite, all-girls Seirei Private Academy. (Not that much of a stretch, really, since he spent one episode of the first series convinced that he was a girl.) His goal this time is to find the Magdalena of Thunder, another of the five members of the powerful High Ancient Circuit, which is supposed to be within one of the students; that will, of course, involve him surreptitiously going around fondling and sucking as many breasts as possible. Seirei also specializes in using virtual reality to develop special mental potential, and within that realm he comes into conflict with the leader of the school's sorority - i.e. the elite of the elite - whom he must defeat and, of course, investigate. But others who might or might not be Qwasers are also poking about.

Though the cast of the first season figures prominently into the opener and closer, the only recurring cast members who appear at all in this episode are the eye patch-sporting priest (briefly) and Hana (Katja's plaything), who is accompanying Sasha undercover. Several new characters get introduced, suggesting that the overlap between the two series will stay minimal. The VR gimmick leaves no need for an elemental power-based battle in this episode, but the heavily-damaging censoring still abounds; waiting for an uncensored version is recommended, especially if the fan service is your main interest. The first series had some quite notable openers and closers, but the ones here seem like mishmashes of new elements and snippets either styled like, or lifted directly from, those of the first season. The writing, contrarily, may be a little crisper, and the series‘ sense of humor has not been lost.

Seikon no Qwaser was a series focused towards a narrow fan base, and the second season, despite a radical setting change and the amusing gimmick of Sasha having to pretend to be a girl, repeats that. Those amenable to this kind of fan service, and who know what they're getting into, should find the first episode to be solid fare; others are best staying well away.

Steins;Gate episode 2

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review: Rintarou/Houoin's encounter with Kurusu Makise, the young woman he thought he had seen murdered a few hours earlier, goes poorly when Rintarou comes off as a raving lunatic, and getting thoroughly trashed by her in a later conference debate over the impossibility of time travel knocks him for a loop. No one else can remember the details he does, but a chance encounter with another young woman sets him on a path to hunt down information on a vintage computer. He later piddles around, spreading his delusions in encounters with a girlish shrine keeper's son, a waitress at a catgirl maid-themed café, and the new part-timer of his landlord Mr. Braun, but nothing seems terribly out of the ordinary until he has trouble locating any information on John Titus's claims about time travel back in 2000, including his own books on the subject. Things get weirder still when yet another banana/microwave experiment takes a shocking turn and an unexpected visitor shows up.

Most of this episode simply plays up the probability that Rinatrou is just a raving paranoid with complicated delusions, but this being the mind-screw series that it is, there are regular hints of something else afoot. With all this talk about time travel floating about, one girl's comments about things that are popular “in this time” instantly seems suspicious, and the girl looking for the old computer and taking photographs to confirm reality takes on a different meaning, but those could just be red herrings set up to give fodder to Rintarou to support his delusions. Same with the John Titus business.

And then the two eye-popping close-out scenes happen and change everything. Which is exactly how it should be for a series like this.

The first episode may have been a confusing mess, but this one hits its notes just right to create a good mix of mix of modest fun, paranoia, and strangeness with just a touch of suspense. Make no judgments about it until you've seen the final scenes.

Steins;Gate is available on Crunchyroll.

Battle Girls - Time Paradox Episode 2

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: Though still completely flummoxed by her surroundings, Hideyoshi starts to adapt. Her effort and cheerful presence bring a lift to peasants whose homes were burned out by the previous day's events, but she also starts to notice that there are not only women using the names of traditionally male figures but also that there are no men around, period. A conversation with a talking dog (who only talks around her) helps her realize that she has world-hopped as well as time-hopped. The dog Shiro is curiously evasive about the lack of men and whether or not Hideyoshi can get back, though. Shiro is not the only problem Hideyoshi is having problems with, as Mitsuhide finally has enough of Hideyoshi's slights and behavior and challenges Hideyoshi to a match of warrior skill, a match Hideyoshi is ill-suited towards.

The most important - and unexpected - thing that the second episode does is to prove that inclinations to toss the series on the garbage heap after the first episode may have been premature. Oh, this has hardly turned into quality fare, but at least the content here is genuinely entertaining; Mitsuhide's “duel” with Hideyoshi is played for great comedic flair (and, surprisingly, does not let Hideyoshi off the hook for her lack of martial arts training), and those are not the only fun moments in the episode. Hideyoshi's efforts to help the burned-out peasants could have easily gone in all kinds of wrong directions but instead proves to be sweet, honest, and hardly entirely clueless. The behavior of Shiro, and what he tells Hideyoshi, also raises all sorts of interesting questions, and the fan service one would have expected to be endemic in a series with an almost-exclusively-female cast (Shiro seems to be male) has mostly been limited to Nobunaga's cleavage-exposing dress. There is some nice use of background arts scattered throughout, too.

If you decided to pass on this one after the first episode, give this second episode a chance. It may change your mind.

Battle Girls - Time Paradox is available on Crunchyroll.


Rating: 3g (of 5) of fat, 400 calories, 330 mg of sodium. . .

Review: As a series, Toriko is as corny as corned beef cooked in peppercorn sauce and served in a corn tortilla with a side of sweet corn cakes. This is a family-friendly series apparently meant to serve as a complement to One Piece (they air back-to-back in Japan), though, so those expecting sophistication or mature content have been undercooking their meat. Go into it expecting nothing more than silly fun focused on an odd blending of action and cooking theory, though, and you may find it as palatable as a side order of crocodile dipped in sweet barbeque sauce.

And speaking of crocodiles, a rare and difficult-to-capture on is the focus of this episode. The story is set in the Gourmet Era, a time and place where food is apparently abundant and gourmet meals made from the most exotic of ingredients are all of the rage - and, of course, there are all kinds of tasty beasts out there to be hunted down, too. Such hunting is the purview of the Gourmet Hunters, elite specialists who gather the most savory and ornery of ingredients, and Toriko is one of the mightiest of that lot. Komatsu, a timid gourmet cook, tracks down Toriko to get his help in obtaining a prized rare ingredient to be cooked for a meeting of the International Gourmet Organization (IGO): a Galala Crocodile. Toriko jumps at the chance and the two sojourn to the Baron Archipelago to hunt it down and savor its splendid taste, but only after Toriko has to resort to his ultimate Knife and Fork technique.

Although preceded by a One Piece/Toriko cross-over special, this seems to be the series’ true first episode, as it features the meeting and teaming up of Toriko and Komatsu and has the feel of premise-establishing content. The critter designs are at least a bit inventive, the animation isn't half-bad, the writing finds a decent balance between action and cooking elements, and the story certainly captures the high-spirited energy necessary to make a concept like this work, so this episode has enough in its favor to be tastier than two day old donuts. Its concept is broad enough to keep it going for a long time with all sorts of ridiculous food-focused endeavors, too, and there are ominous bad guys hanging around and referring to Toriko as one of the “Shitennou,” so there may actually be some story here, too. Ultimately the series is akin to honey-flavored rice cakes: sweet and yummy but with no substance.

Toriko is available streaming at Hulu and Funimation.com.

Maria Holic Alive

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: First, a primer for those who never saw the first series: heroine Kanako chose to attend the all-girls Ame-no-Kisami school because her parents met and fell in love there (her mother was a student, her father a teacher) and she wants to try to repeat the stunt - but she's a flaming lesbian who gets nosebleeds while thinking about other girls and hives when she comes into contact with boys, so her prey is her fellow students. Unfortunately for her, she gets saddled with Mariya, a seemingly cute girl who's really a sadistic, cross-dressing guy, and his cynical maid Matsurika as her roommates. Mariya also knows Kanako's secret and torments here about it. Of this, Mariya's true gender only thing that's not clearly explained early in the first episode, so any newcomer who knows that should be able to handle this one, as it's hardly like there is an ongoing plot to worry about.

The first episode of the second season is more of the same. This time, Kanako has heard about the legendary tree where her parents confessed their love, so she wants to see it, too, but that means braving the First Girls’ Dorm, which was abandoned years ago because the previous inhabitants had gone overboard in trapping the place to ward off lecherous boys from a neighboring school. Several friends accompany her on what turns out to be an expedition through a succession of rather silly challenges.

The charms of Maria Holic have always been Kanako's overactive libido and imagination, Mariya's sadism, and the odd personality quirks of the supporting cast, and all of those are firmly in evidence here. The second season even replaces the great, premise-explaining original opener with an equally inventive option: a premise-explaining twist on a ‘70s shonen action theme. While this ultimately comes off as only an average entry by franchise standards, it still provides no shortage of light-hearted fun.

Maria Holic Alive is available streaming at Anime Network.

Astarotte's Toy

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Review: One of the oldest races in the Creature Kingdom is the race of Succubi, females with the ability to mate with males of any species to reproduce their kind. Once they mature they must regularly suck the “life seed” of males to sustain themselves in much the same way that vampires suck blood, which is a problem for ten-year-old Succubus Princess Astarotte (Lotte for short), since she avowedly hates men. As part of her efforts to change the Princess's mind, stern tutor Judit (who has a secret S&M fetish) seeks to unlock Yggdrasil, whose gates to other worlds in this Norse-themed universe have been sealed for a thousand years, and hunt out a human man. Thanks to the accidental interference of Astarotte's apparently magical tail, Judit's effort succeeds. She finds herself in the Realm of Man, when she runs into (literally) a little girl and her young father Naoya, the latter of which is heading for a job interview. Judit gives him a different job offer to consider, which involves coming back to the Creature Realm to be part of Astarotte's fledgling harem.

Some of the details in the last two lines of the above synopsis aren't explicitly explained in the first episode but are necessary clarifications for understanding the direction in which this series is headed; Naoya, in fact, is not even named in this episode. Just as he enters Astarotte's harem and tries to convince her not to hate men, his daughter Asuha, who is Astarotte's age (yes, Naoya was a very young father, even though he's older than he looks; that's him in the screenshot, and he's supposedly 23) will apparently befriend Astarotte. Naturally, there's a past connection at work here, too, because you can't have a series like this without some kind of past connection, but that's a revelation best saved for later in the series.

What's also not clear from the first episode is just how ribald this one is going to get and how much it's going to flirt with lolicon trappings. Though not as consistently brazen as many other fan service-heavy titles, this one does have the S&M allusion and the indication that Astarotte's mother was taking “life seed” from males (read: sexually active) at Astarotte's age - i.e. squarely in the underage zone. On balance the series is more cutesy than raunchy so far but it is going to have to walk a fine line here to succeed with even a remotely clean nose. It does have one of the season's best closers in its favor, and Astarotte is (predictably) voiced by Queen of Tsundere Rie Kugimiya, but the concept, storytelling, and antics so far are only mediocre.

This one appears to need a second episode to finish laying down its basic premise, as there are hints that it may have a sweeter side. It is off to a shaky start so far, however.

Astarotte's Toy is available streaming at Crunchyroll.

Yondemasuyo, Azazel-san

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review: College student(?) Sakuma is a part-timer who has worked for the detective Akutabe for a couple of months now. When a client whose husband is cheating on her seeks a remedy for her problem, Akutabe shows Sakuma her other side: he is also a demon summoner. One particular demon under contract to him is Azazel, a short, dog-faced lust demon - albeit not a terribly competent one, as he keeps screwing up the job Akutabe set for him. When Akutabe offers him freedom from his contract in exchange for getting the job done right, Azazel bites, only to find himself instead under contract to the less-than-willing Sakuma.

The 12 minute episode length on this series feels exactly right for its adult-oriented, slapstick comedy routine. Do not assume in this case that “adult-oriented” necessarily means “laden with fan service” in a conventional sense, either; in fact, part of the joke here is that the scenes which should be sexy really aren't, and that actually makes situations that are already funny even funnier. This kind of darkly-shaded screwball entertainment would feel right at home in Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block, only its production values - courtesy of Production I.G. - are immensely higher than any of AS's home-grown programming.

Yondemasuyo, Azazel-san won't tax your mind, but as long as you don't mind ribald comedy it will make you laugh.


Rating: 2 (of 5)

Review: Farm-dwelling middle school student Asuna and classmates Chitose, Kurusu, and Kotone compose the members of her school's soft tennis club. (“Soft tennis” is a real variation on tennis using soft rubber balls, rather than hard balls, that is played mostly in Asia.) Each is dedicated - if not necessarily competent - towards playing soft tennis and eventually aspiring to a national championship, to the point of showing up for morning practice. Despite many distractions, they eventually get around to some actual practice and play time.

For its first two-thirds this newest entry in the genre of sports anime is as inane and insipid as they come. Each of the girls shows some big oddity paired with a basic personality trait - Chitose is incompetent and food-obsessed, Kurusu is the minimally-talking one with a penchant for mascot heads, Asuna is the idiot who insists on interpreting everything in the most sexual manner possible, and Kotone is the martial arts-practicing straight woman - but that isn't enough to put much enthusiasm into the content and low-level artistry and technical merits don't help. Even the series’ penchant for frequent fan service (primarily panty shots) might not be enough to keep viewers awake until the actual tennis finally starts. Once it does, though, the comedy potential of the series ramps up considerably. From that point on the first episode is actually funny, including a scene involving a cow and a soft tennis ball that may be the biggest laugh-out-loud moment yet this season.

So which is the real show? Is it the boringly humdrum slice-of-life content or the considerably more entertaining “minimal tennis competence” content? If future episodes have more of the latter then this could be a watchable series. Too much more of the former will sink it quickly, however.

My Ordinary Life episode 2

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: The first episode established this slice-of-life series as a lightly humorous mix of mundane events with randomly bizarre ones. The second episode only confirms that. Whatever your opinion was about the series after episode 1, episode 2 is unlikely to change it.

In this set of four main vignettes, one intro short, and several minor interlude shorts, Mio and friends start by playing a stair-climbing game that goes a little out of whack, while later Mio wakes up from school only to find herself confronted by a mysterious student wearing a bear mascot head and offering her a golden fish. Meanwhile, the robot girl discovers that her Professor has been using her body to store sweets. Later, Mio lends her homework to Yuko before realizing that she has left some reputation-destroying yaoi doodles in it and must chase her down or suffer the consequences. The episode rounds out with Yuko and uppity goat boy (and fellow committee member) Sasahara, whom she may have a crush on, having trouble coming up with ideas for the upcoming school festival. Yuko resorts to heavy weaponry to encourage Sasahara to stay on task.

The randomness of the series shows in obvious things like the recurring bear mascot head and the roll cake in the robot girl's arm, but sharply observant viewers may catch less obvious treats like the piece of toast sticking up out of the tissue box, too. (It's only on the screen for about half a second.) The technical merits are still mired in mediocrity, though they do have some fun with stylistic variations, but the orchestrated background music spruces up the playful spirit. This is hardly quality stuff, but it can be entertaining.

My Ordinary Life is available streaming at Crunchyroll.

Hanasaku Iroha episode 2

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review: At a young age Ohana learned from her mother a harsh lesson: that she shouldn't rely on anyone. Being independently entrepreneurial in an establishment like a traditional inn is not necessarily a welcome trait, though, as she discovers when her initiative on both cleaning a guest's room and cooking breakfast for the staff backfires to some degree. As she struggles to learn her role and how to relate to her grandmother/manager and fellow employees, Ohana resolves to overcome her supposed biggest fault - her lack of consideration for others - and help her fellow teenage employees overcome their faults, too. But a problem with one of the long-term guests may complicate matters.

While this description may sound bland, more is going on here than can easily be described in a simple plot summary. Earnest heroes/heroines who enthusiastically tackle tough jobs are a dime a dozen in anime, but over this episode Ohana shows more depth than most. Her earnestness is more often criticized as praised, which frustrates her, as does her trouble dealing with the easily-offended Minko, the too-timid Nako, and her too-demanding grandmother. Hers is a struggle to find a place to fit in, and this episode shows her thought processes as she tries to puzzle out how to make that happen. That nothing is played for laughs helps legitimize her efforts and make them feel more real.

The storytelling so far can be justly criticized for using some stock elements and situations, though a plot twist at the very end could have some interesting implications. There is certainly nothing wrong with the artistry or technical merits, either. This episode may not have quite the “wow” factor that the first episode did but it is still a solid entry in what looks like it could be one of the season's best series.

Hanasaku Iroha is available streaming at Crunchyroll.

Tiger & Bunny episode 2

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Review: Newcomer Barnaby is now Wild Tiger's official partner, but Barnaby's attitude doesn't sit well with Kotetsu, nor does his relegation to sidekick status. Things go miserably wrong in their first effort to deal with the giant walking statue, but on the second time around they figure out that the NEXT controlling the status may, in fact, be a boy. When that same boy uses a different animated statue to assault the skating arena where Kotetsu's daughter is performing, Kotetsu steps in to try to talk the boy down and do the same inspirational “take the hero's path” turn that a former hero named Mr. Legend once did for him as a youth. In the process, though, his daughter winds up idolizing Barnaby instead.

The second episode is not as visually sharp as the first episode, nor is writing quite as fine (the development with the boy is very predictable, for instance, as is the endangering of Kotetsu's daughter and how that plays out), but the drop-off from the first episode is not huge and there's still a lot to like here. We get to see where “Bunny” gets his nickname from and the humor ratio is certainly higher, particularly in the way the first assault on the statue backfires and the graphic demonstration of how Wild Tiger's new suit compares to his old one. Though it involves one of the most minor of the action sequences, arguably the freshest moment is the appearance of Mr. Legend, which could have been played for a joke but instead shows an older, paunchy man still performing with admirable and effective heroic dignity. If rock bands can still keep performing even into their 60s, why not super-heroes, too?

Do be sure to watch past the credits, as this series seems to be making a habit of tossing in important scenes as epilogues.

Tiger & Bunny is available streaming at Hulu, VizMedia.com and here on ANN.

Hen Zemi

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: Probably moreso than any other new series this season, this is one that will be either a huge hit or a huge miss for most viewers, as it can be very funny but is also seriously twisted.

This 12-minute episode features short vignettes mostly centered around Nanako Matsutaka, an innocent, first-year university student who finds herself decidedly in over her head in the title seminar, which is run by a sharp-toothed professor who essentially grades on the degree of aberrant behavior his students report about. In the vignettes presented here, Nanako must deal with fellow students (including the one she's sweet on) who insist that physical contact of the naughty kind isn't the only kind that can give a thrill,  students conducting a project that involves getting panty shots of women as they walk down a staircase,  farting underwater, and a rather disturbing means for growing flies.

Those who have seen and liked the previous two OVA episodes will be disappointed by the comparative tameness of this half-episode (which is the main reason I'm giving this only a mediocre rating), though the humor is done in the same style, is still at least somewhat raunchy, and can still click. Those who have not seen the OVAs may find themselves a little confused about the character relationships being tossed around, though the essence of all the principle characters comes through pretty clearly. The artistry is rather rough and has only a little visual fan service, but this is a show where the content being talked about is often as much the fan service as what you actually see. It isn't all about sex, either; the OVAs also delved into things like poop farming, and there is no reason to believe that, even in toned-down form, future episode won't stray into territory like that. If you can tolerate content like this, though, then watching Nanako's reactions to it alone can be quite entertaining.

Dororon Enma-kun Meeramera

Rating: 4.5 (of 5)

Review: The original 1973-1974 TV series Dororon Enma-kun was a horror/comedy based on one of Go Nagai's most famous manga. Though the 2006 OVA based on the same subject matter took a more purely serious route, this inventive reimagining returns to its roots, resulting in a series that may look at first like a kids’ show but most certainly is not, as it gleefully captures both the fun-loving high spirits and perversity for which Go Nagai's works are well-known.

The heroine of the story this time around is Harumi, a primary school student who, despite her better judgment, cannot resist following some boys who are daring to investigate their haunted-at-night school (appropriately named Youkai Primary School). When the boys literally lose their faces to a demon, Harumi flees in terror and eventually runs into Kappaeru, a “lady-killer” kappa who leads her to his teammates, who are holed up under the school's warehouse's basement. There she meets the fire-wielding Demon Prince Enma and his childhood friend, the ice-controlling Princess Yukiko, who join with Kappaeru and a talking hat to form the Demon Patrol, a team charged with sending escaped demons back to Hell. With Harumi reluctantly serving as bait, they gallivant off to find, confront, and defeat the Face-Stealing Demon.

The above synopsis cannot even begin to capture how much fun this first episode is to watch. Brains Base has turned in an outstanding visual effort here, especially in its high-quality and occasionally inventive use of animation; animated TV series which have the degree of depth in visual treats that this one has (even in its opener) are rare indeed. The use of musical numbers in the series is equally inspired, including great opening and closing songs, and the writing is sharp and witty. And what would a Go Nagai production be without fan service? The opener has a one racy scene, but the first true indicator that you're in for something truly different is the suggestion about what, exactly, the old lady in the bath house is actually twirling. Further naughty treats await, though even with them this one doesn't seem as heavy-handed as many of the only-exists-for-fan-service shows that have come out in recent years. Here, that content is just a nicely-balance complement.

This one gets a nex-maximum rating because it is hard to imagine that this kind of concept could be done any better. Don't overlook it in your quest for the new season's hidden gems.

A Thirty-Year Old's Health and Physical Education

Rating: 0 (of 5) for the censored version

Review: Studies done in 2001 and 2010 rank Japan dead last (by a wide margin) on frequency of sexual activity by its citizens, a phenomenon that has no doubt contributed to its worrisomely low birth rate. That's the only way to explain why this series, which is adapted from a guide book designed to educate older virgins about sexual activity and how to get it, even exists. In what will apparently be 13 minute blocks, each episode explores a quartet of lessons from the guide book about how to get and please a woman, with shy 30-year-old salary man Hayao Imagawa as a guinea pig being taught the tricks of the trade by a persistent “sexual love god.” A potential candidate for love shows up at work over the course of the episode and Hayao has to deal with some shenanigans involving an apparent Dutch wife, a mouse pad shaped like a woman's chest (these really do exist, incidentally), and a god determined to help Hayao lose his virginity by any means possible, even if it means getting Hayao to “experience a god's butt” (an actual quote from the episode).

And yes, this is even more tasteless in execution than the concept sounds in writing. In fact, this may be the most tasteless non-hentai anime series ever made - and that's saying a lot. Very basic artistry and animation don't help, but even those aren't the real problem with the first episode. No, that belongs to the pervasive censoring, which is so prevalent both on-screen and in the dialog (and even episode and lesson titles!) that it entirely defeats the purpose for the episode even existing. What is the point of having an episode which is supposed to teach lessons about becoming successfully sexually active when a viewer cannot even read the advice being given? Why even bother to broadcast something that is going to be censored so heavily?

Even if you have an interest in the concept, do not waste your time with this version. Wait until an uncensored broadcast or the inevitable DVD/Blu-Ray release is available.

Sekai Ichi Hatsukoi

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: Back in high school, Ritsu Onadera developed a deep crush on a male upperclassman, but years have passed since then and he has now become a jaded 25-year-old editor. While he had intended to take up a job in literature when he transferred to a new publishing house, he instead ended up in the shojo manga department, a division staffed by an oddball bunch of bishonen, including a chief editor who finds Ritsu vaguely familiar. After being labeled as “useless” by his new chief editor due in part to his lack of enthusiasm for the content (but also being caught in a surprise kiss by said chief editor), Ritsu responds by taking a crash course on the ins and outs of shojo manga publishing.

Let me be straight about one thing up front: I generally abhor Boys Love manga/anime and all of the style points that go with it, in part because I find the actual BL content repellent, and this one certainly has full doses of both the style (all of the guys have the requisite tall, lanky builds) and guys being romantic with other guys. Set that aside, though, and this one has some promise. It looks like it will be walking viewers through the process of creating and publishing shojo manga, which in itself could be interesting, and gives Ritsu a somewhat twisted personality which flares up on a couple of occasions to the backing of some delicious perversions of the normally-fluffy musical score. The first episode also shows a functional sense of humor, too, especially in the extremes of the “cycle“ that the shojo manga division goes through. Studio DEEN's artistic technical merits are not particularly strong here, but for content like this they don't need to be.

If you're already a fan of BL, this looks like it could be a good one. Others might appreciate it if they can tolerate the BL content.

Sekai Ichi Hatsukoi is available in streaming form at Crunchyroll.


We, Without Wings - Ore-Tachi ni Tsubasa wa Nai

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: Anyone who has watched previous anime adaptations of ero games should almost instantly recognize this effort as being of the same pedigree. Based on a game developed by Navel (the creator of Shuffle!), We, Without Wings launches with an enormously confusing first episode which throws out at least a dozen named characters in little introductory snippets without a clear indication of how everything is related (or even if it is) and what direction things are going. Events seem to center around three male characters: high school student Takashi Haneda, who has a ready-made harem of enthusiastic classmates and who may or may not really be a knight from a fantasy kingdom on some kind of special mission; Susuke Chitose, an excitable young man who hangs out at the maid café Alexander and is on either friendly or combative terms with some of the waitresses; and Hayato Narita, an antisocial young man trying to scrape by as a handyman who has various encounters with girls on the busy streets. A gimmick involving an old TV is used to switch between these scenarios and some kind of dedicated fan service channel.

And oh, yes, the fan service is definitely where this one's bread and butter is at. The first episode does not hesitate to show frequent panty shots, characters dressed only in lingerie, or how a girl's breasts might be moving under her blouse. It also does not hesitate to have a seeming little girl speak, in broken Japanese, a very inappropriate line or two involving kittens and monsters. (Think about it a second.) The girls look and act like a standard ero game distribution, too.

Given the lack of clarity on where the series is going or what its intent is (if any) beyond its fan service, the rating given here reflects total ambivalence on this one. Another episode or two will definitely be required to determine where this series stands.

Without Wings is available in streaming at Crunchyroll.

A Channel

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: If categorized in terms of other anime titles, this series based on a 4-panel manga collection would come out somewhere between K-ON! and Lucky Star and was almost certainly either inspired by, or meant to be a spiritual successor to, one or both (and, by extension, also Azumanga Daioh, too). While it does not have the musical theme of the former, or the blatant otaku pandering of the latter, it nonetheless has stylistic and character design similarities to both and either one will be a good determiner for how tolerable this series will be. And yes, that means that if moe titles make you break out in hives, you might want to stay well away.

The dangerously dippy Run, who seems to have an abundance of guy friends, is a longtime friend (and implied love interest) of tiny Tooru, who is known to drag a bat around and assault people who get too close to Run. Because Tooru is a year younger, she got separated from Run for a while when Run entered high school but passed the entrance exams to join Run at her high school the next year. There she discovers that Run has also made two newer friends from her class: the pig-tailed, sardonic Nagi and the more full-figured Yuuko, who makes Tooru unreasonably jealous even though her behavior towards Run seems innocent. As the threesome gradually develops into a foursome, they experience all kinds of mundane activities together.

Relative newcomer Studio Gokumi, whose only other production credit is the borderline hentai OVA Koe de Oshitogo!, gives the series some very pretty background aired paired with some mediocre character designs but does get ambitious on a couple of its animated sequences, especially the opening run through the school by Tooru. Pony Cannon dishes up some appropriately light and fluffy background music to properly set the mood. The writing suggests at least a thread of story involving the Run/Tooru relationship running through the background, and speculation will certainly be rampant about the yuri possibilities therein, but for the most part this one succeeds or fails on the execution of its vignettes and, so far, they are more hit than miss.

SKET Dance

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: Teppei is a new, timid transfer student to Kaimei Academy when he encounters three odd individuals: Onihime, a former Yankee who carries around a field hockey stick; Switch, a guy who uses a laptop-based voice synthesizer to talk for as-yet-unexplained reasons; and Bossun, a guy who wears a horned cap and goggles, the latter of which allows him to enter a “super-concentration mode.” They form the student support club SKET-dan (an acronym for Support Kindness Encouragement Troubleshoot) and their self-appointed task is to do whatever they can to aid their fellow students. Teppei quickly needs their aid, too, when a mysterious figure dumps paint on him. As SKET-dan gets to the bottom of that mystery, they gradually earn themselves a new friend.

This concept has certainly been done before; last summer's Okamisan had a very similar premise, including a tough-minded girl who served as the team's striker, a timid guy who makes a connection with the support group in the first episode, and a generally high level of oddness amongst the team members. This version makes a better first impression because it finds just the right balance of enthusiasm, oddness, and mystery, doesn't depend as heavily on silly sight gags, and features considerably better artistry and technical merits. The final few minutes throw in a couple of surprising twists, including the suggestion that the business with Teppei may be more a one-off mission than a recruiting drive, and the wordplay involved in the series’ name, which actually mostly carries over into English (“SKET-dan-su,” as the principles say at one point), is rather clever, too. The challenge here will, of course, be to keep coming up with concepts as functional as Teppei's predicament, but the sharp byplay between characters already shows a lot of promise and the closer suggests that we will see quite a few more oddball characters in upcoming episodes.

Sket Dance is available in streaming at Crunchyroll.

Gyakkyo Burai Kaiji: Hakairoku-hen (aka Kaiji 2)

Rating: 3 (of 5)

The first Kaiji anime adaptation ran in the Fall 2007 and Winter 2008 seasons, but the first couple of minutes of this sequel's first episode recaps the original sufficiently enough for this series to be fully accessible to newcomers. The title character is a a two-bit crook who originally got into trouble with some shady individuals when a loan that he had co-signed on defaulted, leaving Kaiji liable for the original plus an enormous amount of interest. Though Kaiji survived the perils he faced in the first series in a desperate attempt to pay off the loan, he is even worse off now after needing to use a lot of money to fix some health problems. Thus he practically jumps at an offer from an individual he shouldn't have trusted and finds himself working deep underground along with other men who have been unable to pay off their debts. He determinedly makes a plan to work his way out of there by carefully saving up the necessary money, but once again temptation threatens to get the better of him.

Kaiji 2 is produced by Madhouse Studios, which uses a very old-school artistic style featuring noses that are either huge or lethally sharp, extra-heavy lines in the character designs, and limited animation. In fact, only the high level of artistic technical merit belies this as 35+ year old series. The main attractions of this dramatically-narrated work are watching Kaiji make a progression of bad decisions which draw him even deeper into a hole and seeing how others around him use his poor decision-making to manipulate him. This can be interesting in a perverse way and it is certainly a different kind of entertainment than anything else that has come out so far this season. The first episode wars between being a psychological character study and just clinically depressing, though, and that could easily be a turn-off. It is a title clearly aimed at an older male audience, too; all of the characters are adults (and generally not young ones, either) and not a single female character appears in it beyond crowd scenes. If you prefer teen-centric fare then this one is definitely not up your alley.


Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Review: The latest take on the total-mind-trip series, this oddball focuses on the trio of denizens of the Future Gadget Lab, a group led by the self-proclaimed “mad scientist” Kyouma Houoin (aka Rintaro “Okarin” Okabe) which is dedicated to developing and using futuristic gadgets to combat the “Organization” which controls the world (or at least that's Rintaro's take on things, anyway). While attending a conference on a time machine that he discovers is based on fraudulent theories, Rintaro gets pulled aside by a young woman he doesn't recognize who claims that, a few minutes earlier, he was trying to tell her something. The mystery deepens when, a few minutes later, she turns up dead, a satellite strikes the building that he was in, and his cohorts seem to have divergent memories on what's going on. The mystery deepens further when a text message seems to have been sent into the past and Rintaro encounters the woman he had seen murdered standing around as if nothing had happened... yet.

Based on the advertising blurb for this series, this newest effort from White Fox (Tears to Tiara, Katanagatari) really does involve time travel and a secret organization trying to track down the apparently loony main character and his associates, who have stumbled across something momentous without realizing it, but only the first hints of that come out in the first episode. What transpires here, beyond character introductions, is more an exercise in setting mood and plot elements for the main bulk of the story, which will apparently begin next episode. (The episode isn't titled, “Prologue to the Beginning and End” for nothing.) Will the foundations being laid here be strong enough to support a full-blown mystery/suspense series? At least the writers are trying on this one, and the production values, as seen in Crunchyroll's official stream, are actually pretty good, so I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt for now. It will likely need another full episode or two to truly hook people, though.

Steins;Gate is available streaming on Crunchyroll.

Battle Girls - Time Paradox

Rating: 2 (of 5)

Review: Pig-tailed Hideyoshi struggles with misfortune and poor grade but is about as typical as modern middle school girls get. Thus she doesn't handle it well at all when stumbling into someone's magical ritual at a temple accidentally gets her transported back to the Warring States era of Japan - only in this version key figures like Nobunaga Oda are women who somewhat resemble people that Hideyoshi knows in modern-day Japan. Faced with deadly danger and totally out of her element (she can't get any bars on her cell phone, you see) Hideyoshi freaks and must rely on the good graces of the female Nobunaga. Still not accepting of her circumstances, Hideyoshi nonetheless agrees to help Nobunaga assemble the legendary Crimson Armor - because, you know, she knows about getting bonuses from completing sets.

So the first episode has already borrowed from Inuyasha, The Wizard of Oz, and Koihime Musou, creating an odd little character-out-of-time series which feels precisely like what it seems to be: an uncomfortable mishmash that takes itself too seriously. KM showed that this kind of concept can work well if played as a cutesy, fan service-laden gag reel, but the first episode here gives little sense that it intends to go in that or any other direction. What it does deliver isn't necessarily bad, but it just does not do anything to merit attention; the artistry is nothing special, the music is uninspired, it has only minimal (and cheesy) action, and Hideyoshi is hardly a girl who will intrigue viewers on her own. She isn't even that interesting as a fish-out-of-water character.

Last season's Rio - Rainbow Gate suggested that basing anime on themed pachinko games isn't a wise idea, and this first episode only further reinforces that impression.

Battle Girls - Time Paradox is available streaming at Crunchyroll.

Hanasaku Iroha

Rating: 5 (of 5)

Review: Superior writing and execution can take even the most bland-sounding concepts and turn them into something special. Such is the case with the first episode of this manga adaptation. If the anime version can hold onto the quality seen in this first episode, it has the very real potential to be one of the season's best.

The story is simple. Pragmatic 16-year-old Ohana is saddled with an irresponsible mother who sends her to live with the grandmother she's never met (the mother was disowned, and it's not hard to see why) when the mother decides to take off with her boyfriend. She has to leave behind a friend who's just confessed to her, but that ultimately isn't as troubling as adjusting to her grandmother treating her as nothing more than a live-in employee at the Taisho-era inn she operates. Ohana immediately gets off on the wrong foot with another girl her age who also boards at the inn while struggling to adjust to life at the inn.

As boring and unoriginal as this may sound, this is actually a wonderful, low-key story which simply and frankly follows Ohana as she deals with the most difficult transition of her young life. It does not use gimmicks or exaggeratedly colorful characters, nor does it try to impress with Ohana's resilient, take-charge spirit; it doesn't need to, as viewers will naturally be won over by Ohana and her circumstances. A surprisingly high level of technical achievement for a series like this certainly doesn't hurt, but this was made by P.A. Works, the same studio which brought us last spring's Angel Beats!, so it comes from a fine pedigree. The way the episode uses - or, rather, does not feel a need to use - music also impresses.

Even if slice-of-life series don't normally appeal to you, give this one a look. It may surprise you.

Hanasaku Iroha is available streaming at Crunchyroll.

My Ordinary Life

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Review: After first glance this looks like just a bland, slice-of-life sketch piece. Then we see a girl with a giant wind-up screw in here back, one who runs into a boy with all the force of a nuclear explosion. And then we see the boy riding to school on a goat.

And at that point you figure that pretty much anything can happen.

My Ordinary Life is a sketch comedy very similar in spirit to Lucky Star and Azumanga Daioh and told in the same sized chunks, albeit without the fan-pandering self-consciousness of the former and with an even greater proclivity for outright weirdness than the latter. The girl with the screw, it turns out, is a robot, one who, for no apparent reason, can shoot her little toe off like a missile. She works for a “Professor” (her creator) who looks like an elementary school girl. The guy with the goat gets rather insistent about riding it as a prestige thing. Much shenanigans goes on about a slippery piece of wiener, a completely random squid tentacle, and seemingly random objects falling from the sky (due to the earlier nuclear explosion). And so forth.

While the quirkiness and some of the individual skits can be quite entertaining, this is absolutely not a series for everyone. If you didn't care for either of the aforementioned titles then this one will almost certainly not suit your tastes, either. The basic, washed-out artwork is nothing special to look at, but if this kind of humor and laid-back pacing works for you then that won't matter.

My Ordinary Life is available streaming at Crunchyroll.

Dog Days

Rating: 1.5 (of 5)

Review: Izumi is an especially athletic middle school boy attending an international school in Japan, so naturally he'sthe one chosen to be the Hero of the Biscotti Republic, an otherworldly  magical realm which has recently been losing many “wars” to the neighboring kingdom of Garrett. Wars in this world, it seems, are more like athletic contests than bloody fights, ones broadcast as entertainment for the masses complete with commentary. Since Izumi was a runner-up at the previous year's Iron Athletics tournament, he is a natural forsuch battles and looks forward to the challenges and seemingly fun setting with great relish.

In some many senses this series stands at the polar opposite end of the anime scale from Tiger and Bunny even though there are some vague similarities. Whereas T&B takes a bold and innovative look at super-heroes featuring top-rate visuals, DD uses artistry and animation which could only generously be described as mediocre (although some of the background art, with the floating islands, looks very cool).Whereas the showmanship in T&B was cool, here the running commentary about the battle, its athletic theme, and what happens to combatants who get struck down all feels like cheap gimmicks which pander to kids and diehard anime fans with a fixation on cute. Even the key character design feed into this impression; the title comes from all of the fantasy world characters having animal ears and tails, with Biscotti Republic's Princess Millhiore and her dog theme being taken to a magical girl level of extreme cute.

It is entirely possible that I'mgiving this one an unduly hard time because it had the misfortune to be watched right after Tiger and Bunny, but I doubt it. Utawarerumono proved that this kind of fantasy theme can be done reasonably well, but based on the first episode this one is looking vastly inferior.

Tiger & Bunny

Rating: 4.5 (of 5)

Review: In the future city of Stern Bild, super-heroes have been commercialized. They wear sponsor labels just like real-world race car drivers do and compete in a points-based system based on heroic deeds in a rough equivalent of a reality show to win accolades as the year's top hero. Ten-year veteran Wild Tiger is one such hero, but a mediocre season performance has left him and others wondering if he's past his prime. When his sponsor company gets bought out, he discovers that his new sponsor also has a new idea in mind: the system's first super-hero team! And the person he's teamed up with is none other than a dashing, mysterious young newcomer with a similar power (Wild Tiger can temporarily increase his physical characteristics a hundredfold), one who helped him out earlier at a key moment.

And so starts what may be the best new concept for the new season: super-hero action turned into a reality show, complete with all of the attendant trappings one would expect of a popular pro sports league. The first episode is worth watching for the visuals alone - Sunrise has done a truly spectacular job with the CG animation and hero designs - but an equal wonder is that the first episode finds just the right balance between camp and seriousness, giving the series a vaguely Buffy the Vampire Slayer feel. Being a super-hero doesn't come without complications, such as not being able to reveal what you really do to loved one, trying to reconcile a desire for justice with the need to showboat for the cameras, and facing up to the fact that, just like pro athletes, there comes a time when you are no longer at the top of your game, and the first episode makes a  strong (if maybe a little too deliberate) effort to deal with that. The one knock that could be made at this point is that things seems to be developing in a predictable direction, but the first episode does so much else right that such a flaw can be overlooked for now.

Tiger & Bunny has more the look and feel of an American-animated series, but it is still a strong prospect for leading off the 2011 spring anime season.

Tiger & Bunny is available streaming at Hulu, VizMedia.com and here on ANN.

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