The Summer 2011 Anime Preview Guide Carlo Santos
The Mystic Archives of Dantalian
Rating: 3.5 (of 5)
Wait a second, this is Gainax? FLCL, Evangelion, Gurren Lagann, and Panty and Stocking Gainax? Yes, the ever-surprising studio pulls another fast one by turning out a series that is about as un-Gainax as possible. Dantalian is disciplined, refined, and—most shocking of all—remarkably low on fanservice. This supernatural period piece introduces us to Hugh "Huey" Disward, a young man who has just inherited his deceased grandfather's collection of rare books. When he arrives at the estate to claim the goods, he is surprised to discover an impeccably dressed little girl named Dalian hanging around the house. (Okay, there's your fanservice: a goth-loli tsundere character not too far off from Victorique of Gosick.)
The episode continues to reveal its premise slowly but surely: we learn that a rival book collector was responsible for Huey's grandfather's death, and when he and Dalian head to the suspect's house to investigate, they discover a labyrinth of nasty supernatural surprises. It turns out the stolen artifact was a circus-themed pop-up book, and by some dark sorcery, the circus attractions have come to life as bloodthirsty creatures. Only by "unlocking" Dalian's secret power, and accessing an inter-dimensional library called the Mystic Archives of Dantalian, is Huey able to find a spellbook that undoes the curse.
What, you were expecting some insane twist? Giant robots falling from the sky? Busty babes jumping in with 19th-century machine guns? No, the story execution remains conventional and low-key throughout, only turning up the excitement for a couple of well-timed action scenes. Gleaming multicolored special effects help to accentuate the magical aspect of Huey's newfound library, while carefully detailed backgrounds and costumes complete the Jolly Olde England look. A restrained, classically-themed soundtrack also sets the right tone. If anything, Gainax's greatest accomplishment is making this show look like Bones or Madhouse did it.
The young hero, a mysterious girl, and magical powers waiting to be discovered—it's all pretty familiar stuff. But as they say, sometimes you just have to take something familiar and do it really well.
The Mystic Archives of Dantalian is available streaming on NicoNico.
Blood-C Episode 2
Rating: 2.5 (of 5)
Is it too early to start worrying about the state of Blood-C? With story exposition moving at the speed of government bureaucracy, and a main character about as exciting as watching paint dry, this show is fast becoming the ultimate "inaction" series. Episode 2 is almost identical to Episode 1, spending far too much time on Saya Kisaragi's rosy-cheeked school life and cramming the intense, monster-battling part into the last few minutes. To be fair, it makes an effort to fill out Saya's relationships with the other characters—the slightly awkward admiration she has for café owner Fumito, the possible attraction (if only she noticed it) between her and cheerful classmate Itsuki, even a kindly attempt to reach out to the dark and brooding bishonen in her class. (Isn't there always one?) But something still rings hollow about these characters, the way they're built on one-note personalities and behave in a precise, scripted manner instead of like normal human beings.
Those patient enough to sit through all this are finally rewarded with a sprinkling of actual exposition, as Saya's father discusses the mysterious origin of the monstrous "Elder Bairns" and their family history in fighting them. Then Saya actually goes and fights one—cue three minutes of gorgeous swordfighting and bloodshed—then roll credits.
Even the show's solid production values are starting to show signs of slipping. Delicate, CLAMP-designed characters and richly colored backgrounds may provide a good artistic base, but as soon as they're put into motion, the stiff gestures and static camerawork ruin the moment. Meanwhile, the overwhelmingly dark palette used for action scenes makes it difficult to appreciate when the animation staff does put in the effort. At this point, only the soundtrack, with its wide range of orchestral colors, is still chugging along at top quality. Well, that and Nana Mizuki's effortless a cappella singing whenever Saya strolls through town. But as the show's heroine, she needs to hurry up and actually start doing heroic things.
Blood-C is available streaming on NicoNico.
No. 6 Episode 2
Rating: 4 (of 5)
Okay, I never should have doubted Studio Bones. No. 6 delivers the goods in Episode 2, getting to the real point of the series. The story picks up four years after Episode 1, where we learn that young Shion's decision to harbor the escaped criminal Nezumi ("the Rat") led to him being apprehended and demoted to a much less privileged part of town. Now 16 years old, Shion spends his days doing custodial work at the local park. His job takes a gruesome turn when he discovers an aged, dead body out there—and turns even more gruesome when Shion's co-worker dies in the same bizarre fashion. Just before that, however, Shion was muttering some rebellious sentiments, which is a big no-no in the authoritarian society of No. 6. Because of that, Shion is quickly taken away by the police ... but guess who comes to his rescue?
That's right, Nezumi is back, and he's here to fight the good fight! The last few minutes of the episode are a pitch-perfect chase scene, with the two boys hijacking a police car, escaping into the woods, catching another stolen ride to the border, and then sneaking out underground. Even the pickiest fans couldn't ask for a more slickly produced action scene—or a more slickly produced series in general, for that matter. Strong visual design is key in bringing this world to life: the post-21st-century gadgetry, the gleaming high-end homes and haphazard shantytowns, and on a more technical level, the crisp, smooth animation keeping everything together. Throw on some synth-laden electropop on top of that, and the sci-fi atmosphere is made complete.
Admittedly, some plot points from earlier in the episode are left hanging, and it's hard to tell where they're headed. What will become of Safu, Shion's childhood friend who is now moving away? How about those mysterious deaths while Shion was working at the park? Maybe this series is still a bit ragged on the storytelling side, but it's definitely worth sticking around to see what happens.
No. 6 is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
Rating: 1.5 (of 5)
Cat God does what it says on the box. It's about a god—or rather, a goddess—who has the traits of a cat. And it's about the scrapes she gets into ever since she was banished to the human world. That's it. No calamitous shredding of moral fiber, no detestable human boy beset by lovesick girls, no ridiculous thousand-year back-story. It's just a light, goofy story about the travails of traditional folk gods in Japan.
But while everyone breathes a sigh of relief that this series contains no overtly offensive elements, it's also disappointing to see how cheap and poorly developed it is. The story introduces us to titular character Mayu, a game-obsessed slob who lives with the far more responsible Yuzu. Together they waste the first several minutes of the show doing chores and getting into squabbles that mean absolutely nothing. Later on a fellow god, Gonta, comes over and warns them that the God of Poverty is nearby, leaving shuttered businesses and collapsed corporations in her wake. The pace picks up as Mayu and Gonta meet more characters, get into arguments about how best to defend the town from financial disaster, and then realize all is lost because Yuzu accidentally took the God of Poverty home with her.
The story proceeds in dull "they-did-this-and-then-they-did-this-and-then-they-did-this" fashion, simplifying things to the point of stupidity. The humor fails just as badly, relying mostly on the characters yelling at (and sometimes physically abusing) each other. So even though it packs a coherent sitcom storyline into the first episode, the results lack any flair to keep viewers interested. Even worse is the elementary sense of character design, somewhere on the verge between Sanrio and four-panel gag manga; the dull cut-and-paste backgrounds are also an eyesore that make you wonder how little they paid the animation staff to work on this. The big surprise is that they somehow got a couple of members of The Briliant Green to write the ending theme. Maybe some of those song licensing fees should have gone to actually paying for a decent plot and sense of humor.
Cat God is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
Kamisama Dolls (Episode 2)
Rating: 3 (of 5)
Now that Kamisama Dolls has established itself as a collision of magic and technology, with telekinetic youths and a supernatural secret hidden from the rest of the world, here comes the real test. Can it stay interesting enough to stand out from all the other shows that have a similar concept?
Episode 2 wisely dials down the action from the first one, choosing instead to focus on fleshing out the plot. There's a sprinkling of back-story as we learn how young psychic-powered Utao gained the ability to control her towering kakashi, the mechanical doll that is the focus of the series. The story also sets relationships in motion as Utao's older brother and series protagonist, Kyohei Kuga, adjusts to his new life—he lost his apartment to an explosive kakashi battle and has since moved in with Hibino, the girl he likes. (A predictable contrivance, but one that plays out innocently, thank goodness.)
The episode also achieves its required action quota as Utao, in the midst of some kakashi-training exercises in the woods, uses her power to rescue two paranormal hobbyists who had ventured out in search of mysteries. Then the story threads really start to twist as we learn that one of the mystery hunters attends the same college as Kuga, is a friend of Hibino's, and her father is the detective investigating the apartment explosion from Episode 1. Maybe that's a few too many unlikely coincidences, but it keeps the suspense rolling.
Crisp linework, vivid colors, and fluid animation also show plenty of effort going into the visual side. The highlight, of course, is Utao's kakashi zooming around in the sky, all sci-fi and mystical with its Rahxephon-like design (but on a smaller scale). The character designs aren't quite as striking, as Kuga and friends lean a bit toward the bland side, but we can allow them one flaw for all the other things the show does right. It may not be the most original work, but as a mainstream action series, it's a solid production that holds up well enough for continued viewing.
Kamisama Dolls is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
YuruYuri (Episode 2)
Rating: 2 (of 5)
I'd like to think I give every new series a fair chance. So now YuruYuri gets another shot to prove itself. Unfortunately, when it's got dinky imitation-Lucky Star music playing in the background, and every character has the same wide eyes and squishy face, those hopes do not run high. Episode 2 sees the Student Council entering the fray, increasing the number of characters but not adding a whole lot to character relationships. The one notable development is the rivalry that emerges between carefree Kyoko and high-strung vice President Ayano, who has recently discovered that Kyoko aces tests while barely studying and decides that—for the sake of her pride—must beat Kyoko at something.
The first part of the episode, where Kyoko and Ayano bicker with each other and try to settle on the terms of the challenge ("If I win, you have to leave the club!"), is your usual forgettable schoolroom drivel. The middle portion, however uses clever timing and plotting to make itself entertaining: Ayano and personal lackey Chitose go on a school-wide hunt for Kyoko and her gang, only to miss them every time because (ironically enough) Kyoko is in the Student Council room helping out the other officers. This sprinkling of wit, however, is not helped by the other elements of the episode, which basically uses the same old sketch-comedy clichés to fill out the remaining minutes. There's the old boob-jiggle gag, a "frenemy" relationship between competing Student Council officers, and perhaps most egregious of all, Chitose's constant girl-on-girl fantasies about her peers (followed immediately by nosebleeds). Okay, I get it, this series is supposed to derive its appeal from saucy-yet-harmless yuri fanservice. However, it just does it in the clumsiest way possible.
To its credit, at least the show avoids anything overtly risqué and makes no pretenses of seriousness. But the cheap animation and uninspired humor provide little incentive to bother watching the rest of it.
YuruYuri is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
Rating: 0 (of 5)
It's official, folks: unless there's some ridiculous card-game-commercial anime coming out, R-15 is where the bottom of the barrel lies this summer. In just one episode, it manages to bring together the worst high school clichés and the most tasteless humor. If normals still think that Japanese cartoons are for kids, it's because of trash like this, which—to be more specific—seems to have been made for kids who have just learned how to look up dirty words in the dictionary.
In predictable fashion, the series' protagonist is a mild-mannered boy named Taketo who happens to be a "genius erotic novelist." (The implications of high school kids writing porn is a debate for another time.) Anyway, because of his promising talent, Taketo is enrolled at an academy where exceptional students in all fields of endeavor come together. One of the new incoming students is Fukune, a genius clarinetist (and lovely young girl—no surprise there) whom Taketo has been asked to interview for the school newspaper. When Taketo finally encounters Fukune, he is so moved by her musical expressiveness that he is inspired to write non-pornographic fiction for the first time in his life! By this point, the show's moral priorities and sense of logic have flown so far out the window that even the entire harem genre is embarrassed to be associated with it.
Although the episode tries to introduce Taketo's schoolmates through traits like "so-and-so is a genius mathematician" or "so-and-so is a genius inventor," it looks like the character relationships are never going to get any deeper than that. Even worse, the attempts at erotic humor are so heavily censored for TV that watching this as a simulcast makes no sense—if you're here for the fanservice, the services have all been cancelled. Then again, with the animation being as plain as it is ("Here, draw a school! Make it mildly futuristic!") and the character designs as forgettable as they are, perhaps the less there is to look at, the better. It looks bad, it sounds bad, it is bad. Enjoy.
R-15 is available streaming on NicoNico.
Uta no Prince-sama Episode 2
Rating: 2 (of 5)
Now that Uta no Prince-sama has captured the eyes of viewers with its gleaming parade of pretty boys, here comes the hard part: keeping those viewers. Episode 2 retains the same polished animation as the pilot, with flawless bishounen faces and picturesque boarding-school scenery gracing the screen, but the series begins to show cracks in its armor as it tries to get some semblance of a story going.
Tell me if this idea sounds a just little bit far-fetched: heroine Haruka Nanami is enrolled in a prestigious pop-music academy, but can barely read or write music. Yes, that's the implausible conflict behind this episode, where Haruka has to team up with friendly boy-next-door Ittoki and—as part of a class exercise—record a song with her music and his lyrics. While everyone's busy shaking their head in disbelief, Haruka also embarrasses herself in front of a piano, and tries to clear up what happened when she met man-of-her dreams Hayato last episode. (As it turns out, it's not Hayato, but his younger twin brother, which just screams of ORIGINAL PLOT DEVICE right there.)
As one might expect from a shallow piece of fanservice like this, Haruka miraculously emerges one night later knowing how to read music, then gets her songwriting inspiration by recalling a childhood memory about her grandmother. Geez, if composition were that easy, you wouldn't have to earn a four-year degree in it; you could just get your certification by having Emotionally Moving Life Experiences. The episode concludes with another pleasant but pointless male-idol ballad—this time with Ittoki on acoustic guitar—while real musicians everywhere roll their eyes.
But even if one can forgive the show's improbable flights of fancy, it still struggles at basic things like character development. The middle of this episode has a lot of sit-down-and-chat sessions between the boys (and sometimes Haruka), but the drab dorm room interiors and rambling conversations make it hard to get interested in these scenes. As expected, the only point to any of this is just to watch pretty boys being pretty.
Uta no Prince-sama is available streaming on NicoNico.
Rating: 4.5 (of 5)
With anime becoming ever more regimented as the years wear on, it's harder to find a series that revels in pure, unbounded creativity. Mawaru Penguindrum is one such title, with its magical-realist touches that mercifully have nothing to do with every damn schoolkid suddenly discovering they have secret supernatural powers.
Now, Penguindrum does have supernatural elements too, but they arrive in such surprising ways that everything feels fresh and clever. The story begins with brothers Kanba and Shoma taking care of their sister Himari, who has a terminal condition they've only recently been informed of. The early scenes are filled with the ups and downs of domestic life, all sprightly and technicolor, a mood that carries over when they visit the local aquarium. However, just as the siblings are ogling the sea creatures and trying on souvenir penguin hats, tragedy strikes: Himari collapses and dies.
Or maybe she doesn't, as a mysterious entity suddenly possesses Himari, announces "Survival Strategy!", and gives her a new lease on life. Later, an icebox of three chubby penguins (looking more like mascot characters than real penguins) arrives at the family's doorstep, and suddenly Kanba, Shoma and Himari are getting avian assistance in their daily chores. There's just one problem: no one else can see the penguins. And then Kanba and Shoma have this trippy hallucination about the souvenir penguin hat that has possessed Himari's mind ...
Yes, this may all sound like nonsense, but it's good nonsense. Every scene is an outpouring of ideas and feelings, from the eclectic interior design of the siblings' home to the emotional weight (and purposeful color schemes) surrounding Himari's sickness and "death." And it's not just a wild rollercoaster ride in terms of story content, but in visual style as well, where trippy modernist imagery coexists with slice-of-life urban realism. An avant-pop soundtrack layered on top of that adds the final touch, making this perhaps the most unique production of the summer. In a world where playing it safe has become all too common, willful weirdness deserves to be celebrated.
Rating: 1.5 (of 5)
For sheer ridiculousness this summer, go no further than Sacred Seven, which appears to have been written as part of a Mad Libs challenge. Not content to just be a cookie-cutter show about Some Guy who discovers his Amazing Hidden Powers, this one takes all the cookie-cutter shapes available and melts them into a head-spinning mess. Our hero is Alma Tandoji, an orphaned high schooler who looks angry and supposedly beat up 18 kids a few years back, but is actually a sensitive soul who only fights out of a sense of justice. (Come on, girls! He's a tortured bad boy with a kind heart!) After Alma witnesses a ship exploding on the bay, he forgets the shocking incident until a young girl named Ruri—equipped with a magical amulet and a talking ancient artifact, naturally—comes to his door and asks him to utilize his Amazing Hidden Powers.
Of course, Alma refuses to believe in such supernatural nonsense, until he learns that a re-animated statue from the capsized ship is terrorizing the town and shooting lasers at everything. Yes, that is correct: this show has a Laser-Shooting Zombie Statue. Alma, noble soul that he is, heads out to protect a vulnerable classmate of his, and in doing so transforms into a character from Tiger and Bunny. No, actually, his powers awaken, resulting in animated pyrotechnics that make absolutely no sense to the untrained eye.
Although packed to the gills with striking visual designs (Mobile suit mechs! Bionic exo-armor! Explosions! Magic!), as well as constantly dramatic music, the overwhelming impression of Sacred Seven is how incoherent it is. It's as if a whole class of delusional eighth-grade geeks teamed up and said, "I like maids!" "Well, I like robots!" "I like superhero suits!" "I like ancient historical magic!" and for lack of creative direction, just chucked it all together. The high-octane set pieces may provide a quick thrill, but if this series continues to thrash about aimlessly, it'll soon land in the pile of action anime that no one cares about after a few months.
Sacred Seven is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
A Dark Rabbit Has Seven Lives
Rating: 0.5 (of 5)
You know, at least Sacred Seven is mildly entertaining in its train-wreckish dogpiling of every trope imaginable. A Dark Rabbit Has Seven Lives never gets that far, instead digging deep into the "schoolboy with a supernatural secret" formula and coming out the other end with excrement.
This time our protagonist is a student named Taito, who in his childhood years formed a pact with a mysterious girl named Himea. Fast forward to Taito's high school years, where he now has an awkward budding relationship with classmate Haruka and a respectful fear of class president Gekkou. (Gekkou's eyes are always frowny; that's how you know he's the bad guy.) Taito discovers his strange powers when he gets into a road accident and not only finds himself still breathing despite being decapitated, but is able to reattach his head to his body! After these bizarre events, Taito suddenly recalls Himea from his youth, at which point she leaves the pocket dimension she's trapped in and miraculously returns to Taito's side. Really, what else were you expecting?
It's clear that nobody was thinking this story through when they slapped the usual magical girlfriend/high school fantasy elements together. Is Himea some kind of witch or vampire or what? Why was Himea trapped inside a lava-lamp multicolored box, where she waited nine years for Taito to remember her name? And what was the point of her giving Taito the power to heal from fatal injuries? It's one thing to throw dramatic and supernatural plot points out there, but they need to at least make sense. None of these do. (And whatever it is Gekkou's up to, I'm still too confused to even ask.)
From an animation standpoint, only the multicolored psychedelic effects during Himea's dalliances with Taito are of any interest; maybe they just wanted to play with the color filters before turning the rest over to the in-between squad. Otherwise, the typical suburban setting, predictably designed characters, and total lack of style are instantly forgotten by the end of the episode. Along with everything else, hopefully.
Rating: 3 (of 5)
Okay, this whole "nothing really happens for the first 15 minutes" thing needs to stop. No. 6, which tries so hard to establish its shiny sci-fi setting, almost deflates to the point of nothingness before it can ever get started. The story makes its way forward gingerly, introducing 12-year-old protagonist Shion and his classmate Safu, who live comfortable lives in the gleaming city-state known as No. 6. The first half of the episode makes a point of showing off all the amenities of the future: laptops on every school desk, a cutting-edge rail system, and eco-friendly wind turbines rising above the greenery. But all this lovingly designed tech porn doesn't make up for a sleepy start to the series.
Things pick up in the second half, when a typhoon comes rolling in and a wounded boy inexplicably drops into Shion's bedroom. He introduces himself as Nezumi ("mouse"), gets some much-needed medical aid, and drops a few hints of budding male friendship. (Doujinshi creators, GO!) Shion finds this mysterious houseguest to be an exciting new development in his life—but perhaps too exciting when he learns that Nezumi is actually a criminal on the run.
At this point, the embryonic relationship between Shion and Nezumi is what propels the series: can Shion provide the comfort (and secrecy) that Nezumi needs? Can Nezumi bring adventure and growth to Shion's dull utopian life? However, the rest of No. 6's concept still remains so raw that one fears this is going to turn into Studio BONES doing an imitation of Gonzo: great sci-fi ideas to start out, then the writing just goes down the hole.
There is, at least, the crisp visual design to keep viewers interested—a fully imagined world where everything from the tallest buildings to the littlest household items have been worked out. The character designs are likable enough, if a little bland, and the animation glides along smoothly. Clearly, it's got the sound and the look of the future down—but now we're waiting for the actual story to show up.
Rating: 1 (of 5)
Now that's more like it, summer! Bring on the trash shows that only get to see the light of day because they need something to take up the filler blocks between spring and fall! Mayo Chiki does a splendid job with its cringe-worthy attempts at raunchy school comedy. Cleavage and panty shots are thrown about with wild abandon, characters pop in and out for no reason (Did anyone see that fox-eared girl go by? What was she even there for?), and the main cast is a concoction of the most annoying personality traits in the world.
Meet Kinjirou Sakamachi, a good-for-nothing teenage boy who keeps getting beat up by his sister (again, for no reason). While walking to school in the most clichéd manner possible, Kinjirou and his pals take note of two popular fellow students: aristocratic beauty Kanade and her dashing butler Subaru. As the day predictably wears on, Kinjirou catches Subaru conducting some strange business in the school bathroom. His suspicions are confirmed when he gets into a fight and uncovers the truth about Subaru's gender. But Kanade, in her own devious way, reveals some ridiculous back-story that forces Kinjirou to keep Subaru's secret hidden.
This show brings together the bizarre gender-bending politics of Maria Holic with the BDSM "humor" of MM!, thus combining the traits of two series I didn't particularly like into something I really, really don't like. The characters are nothing more than placeholders for tasteless comedy tropes—Kinjirou is allergic to the touch of girls! Kanade is a domineering mistress type!—and the moments of implicit homophobia make it even less appealing.
There is a one redeeming moment, when Kinjirou and Subaru have their fight and dynamic visuals grace the screen, but other than that, it's a cheap production from top to bottom. Character designs are just various school-age types mix-and-matched together, and Kinjirou's school (say it all together now) looks like every other school in Japan. Perhaps this brand of humor will appeal to someone, but it certainly won't be anyone looking for a well-made anime.
Rating: 2.5 (of 5)
Despite the prestige of running on Fuji TV's critic-bait noitaminA block, and being based on a well-liked manga series, Usagi Drop (Bunny Drop to the Yen Press faithful) falls strangely flat in its anime incarnation. The story centers around 30-year-old bachelor Daikichi, whose life is thrown into turmoil when his grandfather dies and he has to attend the funeral. The uneasy family reunion is made all the more awkward by the presence of Rin, a wisp of a girl who is rumored to be the grandfather's illegitimate daughter. With no one else willing to support her, Daikichi takes her in and suddenly finds himself having to do the job of a parent.
While this premise in itself sets up some interesting situations to come, it is also the content of the entire first episode. And you can't build an entire episode on just setup. Most of the twenty-plus minutes are spent with Daikichi and company sitting around looking somber, which of course is what you're supposed to do when you're at a funeral, but it also makes for lousy TV viewing. Ever go to a family party and end up feeling bored and awkward because there's nothing to do, and you don't know anyone really well? This is exactly like that, in animated form. To make matters worse, the personality-deficient behaviors of both Daikichi and Rin make both of them rather unlikable to start out.
This wouldn't be so bad if it were well-produced, but the animation feels like a failed attempt at stylish cuteness, with watercolor and pastel tones slapped lazily onto the backgrounds and a lot of flat, faded-looking visuals. Yes, they're trying to capture the understated look of the manga, but all it does here is make it look like the artists didn't draw enough lines or add enough shading. The sleepy pop ballads that make up the music score echo that half-hearted effort, resulting in an overall product that—while mildly pleasant to the eyes and ears—lacks an essential spark that tells us why we should be watching.
Usagi Drop is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
Rating: 3 (of 5)
Given its illustrious credentials, Blood-C practically sells itself. It's got character designs by CLAMP, animation by Production I.G, a lead character voiced by Nana Mizuki, and is an offshoot of the ever-popular Blood franchise—the perfect amalgam of a high school heroine, action-packed swordplay, and vampire hunting. But watch the first 15 minutes of this and you'll start to wonder if they forgot the swordplay and vampire hunting part. Bespectacled Saya Kisaragi spends the first part of her day tripping over her own feet, being (almost) late for school, and kinda-sorta embarrassing herself in front of her classmates. You couldn't ask for a more boring first act than if this were a gag-strip adaptation called Saya's School Days or something.
But still, isn't this supposed to be a CLAMP/I.G collaboration? That name-brand pedigree finally makes itself evident in the episode's last several minutes, where Saya's father asks her to take up her sword and dispose of a supernatural beast. This leads to the big fight scene everyone's been waiting for, with fast-paced moves, striking poses and torrents of blood. That glorious moment, however, does not make up for the episode's clumsy execution overall: the vapid first half, the lack of context in Saya's first mission ("Just go there and fight it," apparently), and the pointless pauses that are there just to stretch the episode out.
Ultimately, it's Blood-C's high production values that carry this episode rather than the weak storyline: the animation is smooth, the colors rich and crisp, and CLAMP's delicate character designs come shining through. (Assuming, of course, that you don't mind seeing the obvious ripoffs from xxxHOLiC to Legal Drug to X and everything in between.) A classically-influenced soundtrack sets the show's serious mood, going more for quiet piano balladry at first and only turning up the full orchestra towards the end. For the rest of the series to succeed, however, it'll have to be a lot more like the second half of this episode—and a lot less like the first.
Blood-C is available streaming on NicoNico.
Rating: 3 (of 5)
Like many other series, Kamisama Dolls begins by trying to lure viewers in with a dramatic, carnage-ridden battle that doesn't actually happen until much later. Only after the stylish opening credits does the real story begin, revealing that the show is actually a lazy dating-sim adaptation.
Ha ha! Just kidding about the dating-sim part.
As the prologue scene suggests, Kamisama Dolls is your typical hard-edged action show, with ordinary college boy Kyohei Kuga being pulled into a world of techno-magical conflict. Kuga's home village, it turns out, has a tradition of spiritualists who control massive mechanical dolls known as kakashi—and despite cutting off ties with the village, Kuga's past has come back to haunt him in the guise of good-natured sibling Utao and bloodthirsty antagonist Aki. After a fierce kakashi battle between Utao and Aki wipes out Kuga's apartment, he moves in with a lovely girl about his age (funny how that works out) and starts trying to get his life back in order.
For all its crisp production values and (in the episode's latter half) intense pacing, Kamisama Dolls shrinks a bit under closer scrutiny, revealing its repertoire of action-adventure clichés. The wide-eyed everyman hero, the sneering gray-haired villain, a dark and mysterious past, a potential love interest, eight-foot-tall robo-thingies that shoot lasers—heck, all we're missing is a pair of creepy underage twins and we'd be all set. Beware of the lazy animation as well, with static crowd scenes and a number of uninspired urban interiors.
And yet, somehow, there are still signs of promise. The confrontation between Utao, Aki and Kuga, which apparently is where all the real effort went into, captures the thrill of the fight with slick animation and dramatic staging. A subtle yet ominous music score provides the right atmosphere without veering into campy territory. And despite the clichéd characters and prefabricated plot elements, one can't help but wonder what'll come next. In that respect, Episode 1 accomplishes one of its most critical goals—make people stick around for Episode 2.
Kamisama Dolls is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
Ikoku Meiro no Croisee
Rating: 4 (of 5)
Man, what is it with summer this year? Where are all these gorgeously produced shows coming from? Maybe I'm just having ridiculous luck cherry-picking which titles to check out, but Ikoku Meiro no Croisee is another winner, this time capitalizing on the beauty of late 19th-century Paris and the elegance of a continental-style jazz soundtrack. Frankly, if this series could serve me a cup of coffee and a croissant, it probably would.
This laid-back slice of Parisian life centers around Yune, a young Japanese girl who is taken in by Oscar, the elderly owner of a signboard shop. Like many old-time merchants, the shop is a family business, but Oscar's old age has forced him to leave the actual labor of signmaking to to his grandson Claude. Naturally, this marriage of art and engineering gives the series plenty of chances to impress viewers with classic French metalwork and design. (What, you didn't think Yune was going to work somewhere inelegant like a butcher shop, was she?) Yune spends much of the first episode having communication issues and apologizing for herself—often with Claude looking on angrily—but an act of sacrifice involving a beloved kimono finally begins to cultivate the bonds of friendship.
The first episode is by no means perfect: Yune's character can be grating at first, especially with that traditional Japanese humility that goes so far overboard, and there can be long stretches of waiting for something interesting to happen. But this one gets the benefit of the doubt because it sets the atmosphere so well, with subtle colors, lovingly painted backgrounds, a sophisticated music score, and appealing character designs (yes, even the old guy). It's only after purposely trying to find fault that one notices the sometimes choppy animation, where a few frames are sacrificed here and there to maintain the detailed artistry.
But seriously, if they keep tossing out masterworks like this, how am I supposed to complain about summer being the worst season of the year for anime?
Natsume Yujincho San
Rating: 3.5 (of 5)
Sometimes, an anime's selling point isn't about visual pyrotechnics or a heart-stopping storyline. Sometimes it's simply about being consistently good, and Natsume Yujincho—now returning for its third 13-episode block after a couple of years off—proves that eminently.
The premise remains the same as always: Takashi Natsume is your average small-town high-schooler, except for the fact that he inherited from his grandmother a "Book of Friends" (yûjinchô) that gives its owner dominion over the yokai whose names are listed in the book. However, being the nice guy that he is, Natsume just wants to find these mystical creatures and give them their names back. The first episode of the new season has Natsume helping out a yokai in the guise of a blind old woman, which consequently unravels a tale from his grandmother's past, and also connects to a subplot about an enchanted teacup clattering around Natsume's house. It's that kind of multi-layered storytelling that makes the series superior to the average spirit-hunting escapade, taking the plot in unexpected directions and adding unique dimensions to each character.
The show's laid-back pacing is also a key part of the refreshing Natsume Yujincho experience; quiet strolls through the countryside and thoughtful monologues are as much a part of this episode as spiritual encounters and folk rituals. It does sag a bit in the middle, but there's a poignant payoff in the last few minutes, proving that stand-alone episodic anime can be just as satisfying as cliffhanger-driven shows.
Fanciful yokai designs and lush forest backgrounds also add to the ambience, emphasizing the connection between these spirits and the natural world. The human characters come off a bit bland, however, and there are a few too many slow pans across static scenery as a budget-saving trick. On the audio side, meanwhile, the variety of orchestral colors in the music score is a treat for the ears, adapting with ease to the show's changing moods. This series may not be a life-changing experience, but for reliability and likability, it's hard to beat.
Natsume Yujincho San is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
Rating: 1.5 (of 5)
The thing about schoolgirl slice-of-life shows is that, for all their brain-dead shallowness, they should at least look like they're trying. K-ON! does it by being themed around music. My Ordinary Life (Nichijou) pulls it off on account of sheer weirdness.But there is no excuse for YuruYuri, which basically throws a gaggle of helium-voiced tweens in a pot, shakes vigorously, and awaits results. What comes out is a directionless mess, where ostensible lead character Akari wakes up late, gets dressed in a hurry ... and is mortified to realize she's wearing her elementary-school gear despite it being her first day of middle school. (Cue nervous, awkward attempt at laughter.)
What comes next is a dull litany of first-day-of-school activities, ending with Akari signing up for the vaguely-named Amusement Club. Joining her are upperclass pals Kyoko (the gung-ho one), Yui (the level-headed one), and petite, pink-haired Chinatsu, who accidentally thought she was joining the Tea Ceremony Club. Chinatsu's resemblance to Kyoko's favorite magical-girl character instantly makes her the target of Kyoko's affections, but it's Yui's stoic attitude wins over Chinatsu's heart, resulting in a pointless yuri love triangle within an even more pointless school story.
A bland color scheme and rudimentary moe character designs do little to make this series interesting; it lacks even the eye candy factor that sometimes saves a schoolyard romp. The only time the creative energy starts to pick up is when Akari starts dreaming up fantasies about making herself more a prominent character in the show (a little bit of fourth-wall cleverness right there), but since it doesn't happen until the last few minutes, many viewers will have already wandered off in frustration.
As one can imagine, the background music is even more unimaginative than the animation, being a mere collection of honks and squeaks cobbled from other comedy shows. Everything about this production just screams of being an amateur copy of more polished works in the same genre—and considering how low the bar is set in that genre, it's a very damning sign.
YuruYuri is available streaming onCrunchyroll.
Uta no Prince-sama
Rating: 2.5 (of 5)
Uta no Prince-sama is no more (and no less) than a harmless piece of bishounen wish fulfilment. This is the highly unlikely story of Haruka Nanami, whose aim in life is to become a songwriter so she can work with the man of her dreams, pretty-boy idol Hayato. Haruka's career path leads her to Saotome Academy, a performing arts school for promising young talents hoping to enter the idol business. When Haruka arrives too late to take the entrance exam, guess who comes to her rescue—a couple of dashing young men! Things only get more boy-crazy as hunks make dramatic entrances in the classroom, the cafeteria, and any other place you care to imagine, culminating in a chance encounter with Hayato himself.
What saves this show from being a harem atrocity is its willful tongue-in-cheek attitude, taking a playful jab at the bishounen genre as well as boy bands in general. Sure, it deals in all the usual stereotypes like the friendly boy-next-door, the privileged rich kid, the cool and quiet type, and others, but the characters play it with enough over-the-top flair to be mildly amusing. There are also knowing nods to the industry, like an eccentric producer who serves as the school's headmaster, and the coordinated dance routine that is the opening credit sequence.
With so much effort having been put into the opening, though, the rest of the episode feels more like a well-produced slideshow where we're supposed to drool over picturesque backgrounds and gorgeous character designs. The colors and detail are pleasing enough, but the sedate theme of "hanging out with pretty boys at school" doesn't lend itself to a whole lot of visual pyrotechnics.
Music, of course, is also a key element in the series, and this episode alone turns out a fairly convincing playlist of crooning ballads and midtempo dance numbers. Close your eyes and you can almost pretend it's Arashi! Then open them again and realize it's just a mildly goofy fantasy for those who want to bask in the pretty-boy glow.
Uta no Prince-sama is available streaming on NicoNico.com.
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