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The Fall 2011 Anime Preview Guide
Carlo Santos

Guilty Crown

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

The first episode of Guilty Crown absolutely excels at setting the time, place, and mood of the series. As for having a story to tell? Ask again 11 episodes later. The show starts out in typical fashion, mashing together various sci-fi tropes while hoping that the elaborate visuals and a roster of famous names (it's a noitaminA series! The guy from supercell wrote the music!) will keep viewers interested.

Seriously, though, do any of these ideas sound familiar? After a deadly virus outbreak, the Japanese government has resorted to drastic measures to protect the population. Amidst this uneasy dystopia, a beautiful, mysterious girl is trying to transport an important item to someone named Gai. Meanwhile, a schoolboy named Shu unexpectedly runs into the girl while she's recuperating in an abandoned warehouse. We learn that she is Inori, a pop singer who's also part of a dangerous political scheme—so dangerous, in fact, that mean-looking guys with guns suddenly bust into the warehouse to kidnap her. This leaves Shu with the responsibility of delivering the goods to Gai, but as soon as he gets there, guess what? More government goons and their fancy-looking robots arrive to blow everyone away. Luckily, Inori runs into Shu again, and technomagically gifts him with an incredible, robot-slashing sword!

So yes, it's basically a boy hero discovering amazing powers and scoring a magical girlfriend ... on sci-fi steroids. There'd better be some incredible plot twists waiting in the wings if this is going to be an A-grade series by the end. On the animation side, though, everything runs smoothly; the fully-developed backgrounds, special effects and mechanical designs show meticulous planning from top to bottom. Inori's provocative character design is a bit much, but everyone else fits neatly into the sci-fi world, and composer Ryo proves his versatility on the soundtrack with both bittersweet ballads and searing rock-guitar riffs. (Does everything have to be an insert song, though?) It's a very polished production overall—but one hopes that there's actually some substance under that polish.

Guilty Crown is available streaming from Funimation.


Rating: 3 (of 5)

Anime series from the NoitaminA family are well-known for sophisticated content that appeals to older audiences. But Un-Go looks more like it's trying to appeal to older audiences' nostalgia, of happier and simpler times as an anime fan. How else to explain why the main character dresses like a Yu-Gi-Oh! duelist and the story sounds like something from the Detective Conan casefiles?

Episode 1 introduces us to Yuuki Shinjurou, the so-called "Defeated Detective," who gets his nickname from always riding on the coattails of someone else's deduction—in this case, the eccentric crime-solving genius Professor Kaishou. This mystery in this episode involves Kaishou's associate, a successful tycoon named Kanou, whose celebratory ball goes awry when Kanou is fatally stabbed in the back. Apparently the police were planning to arrest Kanou for embezzlement, and his death was the fastest way to duck out of the problem. Did one of his financial partners do it? Or one of the security guards? Detective Shinjurou works his way through the possibilities, Kaishou provides some crucial hints, and a mild supernatural gimmick at the end confirms the culprit's surprising identity.

As the story unfolds, the characters' motivations turn out to be quite complex, and the overall setting—a near-future Japan rebuilding after an unspecified war—provides some brain food to chew on. But the crime-solving aspect is nothing special, relying on tricks found in every whodunit: "Here's a miniscule observation that you probably missed!" "Here's some background character information that explains a whole lot!" And of course, the detective narrates his thought process the whole time.

The character designs are distinctive and appealing (even if their costumes are a tad outlandish), but that's about as far as quality artwork goes here. The backgrounds are unremarkable despite the lavish setting, and the animation just plods along, failing to truly breathe life into the characters. The soundtrack also settles for "just good enough," punctuating key scenes with subtle musical cues that are too easily forgotten. Ultimately, this first episode is a good example of the genre—but only good, and never great.

Un-Go is available streaming on Crunchyroll.

Chihayafuru (Episode 2)

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Deep down, I had this unnerving fear that right after singing the praises of Chihayafuru's first episode it would turn out to be Yu-Gi-Oh!: Poetry Edition. Fortunately, a solid second episode has dashed these fears away. While not quite as fresh and striking as the pilot, the story remains one that is worth following. Most notably, this episode continues the extended flashback from Episode 1—a daring move that tells viewers to sit down, shut up, and enjoy the story as it unfolds at its own pace. Jumping back into the present day and going into game-of-the-week mode is for weaklings.

Now that our heroine Chihaya has learned the joy of the poetry-memorizing card game karuta, she returns to school with her new friend Arata ... only to find that everyone—including Chihaya's good friend Taichi—is ostracizing her because she's hanging out with the "lame" guy. Again the series brushes up against the complex isse of bullying, but this quickly detours into what everyone really wanted to see: a nyaa-nyaa-I'm-better-than-you karuta match between Taichi and Arata, with personal pride on the line. The showdown is a classic (if predictable) nail-biter, with Arata dominating early, only to have Taichi pull a dirty trick to turn the tables midway. Chihaya steps in to save the day, Taichi learns a Valuable Life Lesson, and everyone makes up afterward.

At times, the show leans too much toward melodrama—it's only one game, yet there's some silly overacting like Taichi's mom getting on his case (honestly, these helicopter parents) and Chihaya going above and beyond all sanity to defend Arata's honor. But the sentiments about the value of friendship are admirable, and on a lighter note, the exaggerated card-swiping action makes the game pretty entertaining. Some animation shortcuts start to show—freeze-frame pans, slow-motion shots—but the impeccably drawn character designs and rich colors continue to impress, especially in the final scene set outdoors. Top it off with a varied, sophisticated soundtrack, and this series is all set to please fans who like their anime not only as entertainment but also as art.

Chihayafuru is available streaming on Crunchyroll.

Mirai Nikki (Future Diary)

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Okay, so let's say you're hankering for some thrills and action, but don't feel like getting into Fate/Zero due to intolerable levels of pompousness and back-story. In that case, Mirai Nikki might be the answer, with its violent collision of ordinary life and some extraordinary twists.

The story centers on apathetic high-schooler Yukiteru, who spends all day blogging pointless observations on his cell phone while having a godlike imaginary friend called Deus Ex Machina (is this name trying to be cheesy or trying to be clever? Who knows). Yukiteru's life takes an bizarre turn when one day he wakes up and finds that the diary entries in his phone are predicting the events that will happen that day. Even weirder is that Deus himself claims to have created the "future diary," despite being an imaginary entity. As expected, the episode involves a little fun at first—Yukiteru uses the future diary for cheating on tests and avoiding bullies—but the real excitement begins when the phone predicts Yukiteru's death at the hands of a serial killer. Using the phone to stay one step ahead, and with the assistance of classmate Yuno (who has a mysterious phone of her own), Yukiteru outwits the killer ... all before the episode ends. Premise, conflict, resolution. It tells a sharp, suspenseful story to get viewers hooked, while also opening the door for future plot developments. Why can't more first episodes be as effective as this one? 

The stylish visuals also help this series to stand out, with a rich color palette (check out the moody sunset lighting when Yukiteru and the killer meet) and striking character designs (being faithful to the style of the manga helps). The ominous appearance of Deus and his imaginary realm, as well as the tense, eclectic soundtrack, also add to the series' distinctive, edgy vibe. The only gripe? The animation is a bit on the choppy side, with the characters stuttering from one dramatic pose to the next. However, the production as a whole is a winner.


Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Ben-To should, by virtue of its premise alone, be some kind of manic action-comedy masterpiece. Instead the pilot episode stands as an example of how to screw up an idea that sounds hilarious on paper. Following in the mold of comedies that take an everyday concept and exaggerate it to the point of absurdity, this is the story of high school students who literally battle for convenience-store bargains when all the bento (box lunches) go on half-price sale in the evening.

Unfortunately, the actual contents are a soggy mess compared to what was advertised. We begin with an ordinary high schooler, Yo Satou, trying to make sense of the injuries he suffered on the first day of school. It's a typical amnesia hook—"Find out how he ended up with all those bandages!"—but suffers from poor, aimless pacing where Satou wanders around school meeting the (mostly female) characters he will be battling with. Short, bespectacled Hana is on his side, but aloof dark-haired beauty Ume just wants to scare him away forever, to say nothing of the mysterious, white-haired "Ice Queen" who looks to be the top bento warrior. This would all be very interesting ... if the show bothered to expand on the characters' personalities instead of just shoving them out there like conveyor-belt sushi. The bog-standard character designs also make it difficult to connect with them; how are you supposed to differentiate a mildly cute schoolgirl ensemble from all the other mildly cute schoolgirl ensembles out there?

The last few minutes of Episode 1 reveal signs of promise, as Satou realizes the situation he's in and accepts the bento challenge. A full-scale battle ensues, complete with in-your-face camera angles and all manner of martial arts moves, but it's clear that the production budget stops short of being a grand, eye-popping experience. (Using a cheap supermarket jingle as background music is a clever, ironic touch though.) In the end, this series emerges as the equivalent of a frozen meal warmed in the microwave—palatable, but barely so.

Sekai Ichi Hatsukoi – World's Greatest First Love Season 2

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

The new season of Sekai Ichi Hatsukoi cleverly begins with the same shot that ended the last one: a view of the Marukawa Publishing building, ground zero for this series' romantic merry-go-round. But that's where the visual creativity ends, as Episode 1 (or 13, depending on how you're counting) quickly reverts to its lazily-animated ways. Behold, the blandly colored backgrounds devoid of life! The dialogue scenes where wacky reaction faces substitute for proper gesture animation! The hordes of gorgeous lookalike young men gazing into each other's eyes!

But here's guessing that if you're tuning into the new Sekai Ichi Hatsukoi, it's notbecause of dazzling artistic virtuosity or groundbreaking experiments in the animated medium. No, it's because this series knows how to play emotional tug-of-war better than any other. Episode 1 is a bit slow in getting started: first there's the task of re-introducing the show's mostly male cast, who (funnily enough) all work in the shoujo manga department at Marukawa. The story centers on Ritsu Onodera, a young editor who's recently taken on the stressful responsibility of taking manuscripts from deadline-challenged artists and delivering them to the printers on time. But what's really stressing him out, of course, is his supervisor Takano, who has been putting the moves on Ritsu ever since he joined the company.

The episode drags its feet through the first half, with boilerplate workplace activities like screaming about deadlines and clashes between different departments (it's the job of Sales to check up on bookstore numbers, not Editorial). But in the final ten minutes—with Onodera sharing a few celebratory drinks with Takano—the momentum  picks up at last, as a drunken Ritsu lets his emotions spill out and Takano gets physical with him. But not too physical, mind you! Foreplay and teasing always end up being more fun than consummation anyway; the buildup of tension and sudden cut to a morning-after scene is what makes this series work. It may be all the same stuff as last season, but a drug this potent will keep the addicts coming back for sure.

Sekai Ichi Hatsukoi Season 2 is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Rating: 1.5 (of 5)

With Maken-Ki! and Ikki Tousen sharing the same director, is it any surprise that they also feature near-identical subject matter? Just in case high school students engaged in boring everyday life isn't your cup of tea, here's a throwback to anime triends of the past: high school students engaged in fanservice-laden combat! Yes, Maken-Ki reminds us that there will always be a audience for busty beauties flashing their underwear with every improbable high kick. And when you're sitting there in a daze, brain switched off and libido switched on, who's even got time to bother with story?

Oh, but this show still comes with a flimsy a excuse for a story, just in case anyone wanted to pretend it was deep and meaningful. Takeru is the a newly enrolled student at Tenbi Academy, which has recently converted from from being an all-girls school to co-ed—and guess what that means? It means he is about to be surrounded by all manner of lovely ladies, from his childhood friend Haruko to mysterious blonde beauty Kodama to pigtailed "fiancée" Inaho. What's more, the school has an unusualextracurricular program wherein the entire student body must fight each other for eight mystical weapons known as the Maken ... but for the girls in Takeru's life, they're probably more likely to spend their time fighting over him. It's harem, it's (lowbrow) comedy, and it's martial arts, all applied in the most predictable way possible.

What's also predictable is the cheap production values, where the only real creative effort goes into fight scenes or fanservice. Not surprisingly, the good parts are censored out, so that all the horndogs will have to buy the discs for full satisfaction. The battles, meanwhile, feature vivid colors, special effects, and dynamic moment-to-moment transitions—but those inspired sequences are brief compared to the endless footage of stock bishoujo characters going about their forgettable lives on a forgettable school campus. Well, that and flashing their panties. But if you just wanted to see some anime panty-flashing, why'd you even read the rest of this?

Persona 4: The Animation

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Hey, remember when Persona: Trinity Soul came out and it had almost nothing to do with its supposed source material, Persona 3? Of course you don't! All good Persona fans have tried to wipe that abomination from their minds. Persona 4, on the other hand, does everything right as far as being true to the game—and swings so far in that direction that it ends up being Episode 1's biggest problem.

The series is a mystery-tinged take on the "schoolkid discovers supernatural powers" concept, with high schooler Yu Narukami moving from the city to a small, sleepy town. Once there, he moves in with his uncle, makes friends in class, and discovers he can enter an alternate dimension by pulling himself through a TV screen. That last point is where the clichés stop and things get interesting—Yu and his classmates find themselves in a mysterious, foggy world where sinister "Shadows" roam the area. So it's time for Yu to discover his "Persona" abilities, which means summoning a mystical warrior to dispose of the monsters. At the same time, this supernatural incident seems linked to a recent high-profile murder in town—but how? With different plot points being patched together like cutscenes, it can be hard to understand where the flow of the story is headed.

Overall, the first episode looks polished, with striking character designs pulled straight from the game, detailed backgrounds both in the real world and "inside the television," and some decidedly unusual-looking creatures battling each other. But the actual job of animation is where the flaws appear: the camera often goes for boring straight-ahead shots, consistency in character design drops once they're standing further away, and just trying to maintain a smooth sense of motion seems like a struggle. Even the sophisticated jazz-meets-hip-hop soundtrack fails to spice up the action, instead just looping over and over while the scene plays on. It's clear that Persona 4's staff did everything to please the fans and make it just like the game. The only problem is, they did it too well.

Persona 4: The Animation is available streaming on The Anime Network.


Rating: 4 (of 5)

If you had told me that the first genuinely good show of the season would be about a poetry-memorizing card game, I would have laughed in your face.

Then I would be picking up my jaw off the floor 24 minutes later after finding out this was actually true.

At first, Chihayafuru's premise sounds like typical genre fare—the main character, Chihaya, is a high school girl whose hereditary good looks (her older sister is a model) belie her tomboyish demeanor. But things get interesting when we learn that her passion in life is the traditional card game karuta, where players must use quick reactions and their knowledge of Japanese poetry to snap up cards that have famous lines printed on them. An extended flashback into Chihaya's childhood, where she befriends a transfer student named Arata, is where the show reveals its true depth. Even with straightforward storytelling, each scene reveals a new layer to each character—Chihaya's individualistic streak and willingness to stand up against bullies, Arata's shyness and his genius-level memorization skills, and the friendship that forms between them when he introduces her to karuta. The game itself is presented with dynamic visuals that call to mind other well-received anime series about go and mahjong.

But the selling point of Chihayafuru is not simply that it covers an unusual subject, or has a rich, character-driven storyline. It's also the way the first episode is so polished from top to bottom—the character designs are appealing and precisely drawn, the colors are enhanced by subtle highlights and shadows, and the animation doesn't skip a beat when Arata goes into hyper card-grabbing mode. Even the music goes through a wide range of sounds to create moods that are comical, heartwarming, intense, and everything in between. The show isn't going to win any awards for edginess or innovation, but it goes down a fundamental checklist of all the things that make anime good, and turns out the best possible effort in every category.

Chihayafuru is available streaming on Crunchyroll.

Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere

Rating: 2 (of 5)

Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere may be this season's most spectacular failure as far as introducing action-packed, futuristic fantasy worlds. Episode 1 is not so much an actual episode as it is a half-hour long concept video, possibly the brainchild of scrappy young artists whose online profiles all say "I love making up character designs! And fight scenes! But don't ask me to make up actual stories; that's boring!" Yet therein lies the rub: the lack of story is exactly what makes Horizon boring. It takes this wondrous, multi-disciplinary cast of characters (warrior, ninja, miko, robot pilot, Wonder Twins, Racist Indian Stereotype, and so on), throws them into a sleek airborne city modeled after feudal times ... and then has everyone chasing and sparring with each other mindlessly for twenty minutes. Apparently this is all part of a training exercise, as the main characters are students at an academy where they study how to battle. But that's not a storyline. That's an excuse.

The only thing resembling a plot point arrives in the final five minutes, when roguish slacker Aoi Tori shows up and declares his intent to ask out a lovely girl named Horizon. There's just one problem: she's been dead for ten years. There's also another problem: no one explains why Horizon is important. A long-winded closing narration tries to fill in more political and historical details about the series, but only succeeds in sounding confusing and pompous.

Ultimately, the show is only saved by vivid, slickly-produced visuals; this really is pure character design and fight scene indulgence at its finest. The twenty-or-so active combatants all bear a unique costume and fighting style, and the dynamic, high-framerate animation shows off everyone's attacks in the best light. Be warned, however: these dazzling fight scenes may not be for you if repetitive, eight-beat technopop constantly playing in the background is your aural kryptonite. Horizon delivers some impressive punches, kicks, and things we don't even have words for, but one thing it doesn't deliver is a promising anime series.

Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere is available streaming on The Anime Network.

Tamayura ~Hitotose~

Rating: 3 (of 5)

There is a very happy pianist out there right now, gorging on all the solos and lead parts on Tamayura's sentimental soundtrack. As the wistful music suggests, this series leans toward the introspective side of the moe aesthetic, focusing on matters of the heart rather than raising everyone's hackles with inappropriate objectification of thirteen-year-olds. The story goes something like this: Fuu is in her final year of middle school and is getting over the death of her father, who was an avid photographer in his lifetime. One day she digs up her father's old stuff and decides to honor his memory by getting back into photography, which Fuu's dad had tried to teach her when she was younger. At the same time, her mother feels that enough time has passed for the kids to move back to their childhood home, and re-connect with old friends without constantly being reminded of their father. As Fuu arrives at the station, the music swells and emotions wash over her as she realizes she has truly "come home."

In a single episode, this series teaches—by counterexample—everything that Four Guys Hanging Out In School got wrong about the slice-of-life genre. The characters of Tamayura have genuine back-stories to them; they have internal struggles we can understand and feelings to overcome; the episode shows forward progress as Fuu makes a major life change and takes that first step toward coming of age. The series tries a bit too hard to be precious with the baby-talk voices and a best friend who constantly breaks into tears, but its sentiments are in the right place.

Even the animation itself shows how to do slice-of-life right: green, richly colored backgrounds emphasize the idyllic suburban setting, and scenes are framed with enough variety that Fuu's day-to-day life is actually interesting to look at. The photographs taken by Fuu and her father also serve as a storytelling device. The characters, although being of the typical saucer-eyed schoolgirl type, are convincing enough in emotion and gesture—a sure sign that real effort and heart is going into this production.

Kimi to Boku (You and Me)

Rating: 1 (of 5)

Perhaps in an attempt to fool unsuspecting viewers, You and Me apes the style of Wandering Son and Usagi Drop, using soft pastel tones and an easy-listening pop soundtrack to make us think this is another one of those heart-tugging shows about serious issuesand personal struggle. Then it pulls a horrifying bait-and-switch and turns out to be about NOTHING. Not the the stupid-cute Lucky Star/Yuruyuri type of nothing, or the boy-meets-girl dating-sim nothing, but quite literally a total void of story progression or character dynamics. Episode 1 introduces us to four high school boys—uptight Kaname, devil-may-care Shun, and identical twins Yuki and Yuta—who spend all their time hanging out and occasionally bickering. Seriously, this is all they do in the episode. They have lunch together, reminisce about childhood, and about halfway through they try to get Yuki involved in a school club, only to be thwarted by his overwhelming apathy.

Wow, a bunch of cool, laid-back schoolmates are concerned because one of their peers is too cool and laid-back to join a club? Stop the presses, this is a major plot development!

Sarcasm aside, this episode (and presumably the entire series) basically takes the everyday school experience and tries to elevate it as "something worthy of being made into an anime." But everyday school life is only anime-worthy when there are dramatic situations, and interesting characters coming in conflict with each other, and guess what? This has none of that.

Even worse is that animation is being handled by the not-too-well-renowned J.C. Staff, who have tried to hide the iffy visuals behind a soft-light filter. Sorry guys, but if you even have to animate a rolling basketball in conspicuous CGI (to say nothing of falling sakura petals), we need to have a serious talk about things like "quality" and "effort" and "cheapness." This is one of the easiest things you'll ever have to draw—guys hanging out and chatting at school!—and it still looks stiff and dull. Well, at least with the 2 a.m. timeslot in Japan, you've now got a cure for insomnia.

You and Me is available streaming on Crunchyroll.

Phi Brain – Puzzle of God

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Reality and believability take a long vacation in Phi Brain, a new entry in the "guy who is ridiculously good at intellectual challenges" genre popularized by Kaiji and Liar Game. This time, the intellectual challenge in question falls in the nebulous realm of "puzzles"—in other words, activity-book pursuits like Sudoku, mazes, and connect-the-dots. (Okay, maybe not that last one.) Like most shows that focus on a specialized subject, common fundamentals like characters and storytelling are glossed over because the series is too busy emphasizing how difficult or life-threatening these puzzles are.

Our heroic puzzle-solver is, predictably enough, a sassy high school boy named Kaito. Like most older-shonen/seinen protagonists, Kaito struts about like a badass rebel, acting too cool to join the official Puzzle Club despite being better than anyone else at it. But the real drama begins when a mysterious gaming device leads Kaito into discovering a massive underground labyrinth near his school. Accompanied by obligatory sidekick Nonoha—who does turn out useful for her observational skills—Kaito discovers the "trick" hidden in the labyrinth and uncovers supernatural forces at work when he reaches the exit. (Is this getting wacky enough yet?) Apparently Kaito has unlocked the ability to maximize his brain power, but the catch is ... he must use that power to solve a timed puzzle right now, or die trying to get out!

The one thing this pilot episode does better than other similar-themed series is that the hero doesn't stand around for five minutes explaining how he got his solution. This leaves more room for white-knuckle action as Kaito and Nonoha explore the labyrinth, and the last few minutes go even further with dramatic visuals and ominous music. But where some see impressive, fantastic locales and riveting action sequences, others will see a completely unbelievable world—who builds a giant labyrinth in a mountain right by a school?! And also makes it a hiding place for secret supernatural brain powers? The ideas here are wondrously strange and ambitious, but your sense of disbelief will have to be suspended really, really high.


Rating: 2 (of 5)

Whether you call it Working!!, or Wagnaria!!, or Denny's In Japan, this sprightly slice-of-life comedy is back, with another season of hijinks among the staff of a suburban family restaurant. As usual, the show strings together various amusing situations set in the Wagnaria restaurant, although that really depends on how far you are willing to stretch the definition of "amusing."

Taking his position as the sort-of-kind-of lead character is Takanashi, a young man with a fetish for all things small and cute. Coincidentally enough, also working at the restaurant is the energetic, sub-five-foot Poplar Taneshima, whose likable attitude has won her the adoration of Wagnaria's staff. Thus, most of the humor in Episode 1 comes from Takanashi fawning over Poplar and making wisecracks about her height, which wouldn't be so bad if it weren't the only type of interaction between the two. Worse yet, most of the other character relationships are defined by the same type of monotone jokes: Inami struggles to control herself from reflexively punching Takanashi in the face (and later gets insecure about being compared to a bug), klutzy Yamada gets all upset about her tally of dropped plates, manager Kyoko goes around being a nonchalant boss, and so on. If a lighthearted series with minimal plot and goofy characters sounds like a good time, by all means enjoy this one! But it feels like the gags are repeating themselves and going nowhere—and this is only Episode 1.

That the animation in the credits sequence is livelier than anything in the actual episode says all that needs to be said about Working'!!'s production values. (The bubbly but forgettable background music says plenty as well.) Most of the action involves people doing typical restaurant work, and while the character designs show enough variety with the different heights and hairstyles, their range of movement is fairly limited; making wacky faces seems to be the extent of physical comedy around here. Ultimately, that attitude of settling for "okay but not great" is where this series is headed.

Working'!! is available streaming on Crunchyroll.


Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

The live-action version of Fate/Zero will be played by popular boy band Arashi, at least if the bishonen quotient of the first episode is anything to go by. Gorgeous young men account for a majority of the cast as they prepare for an epic magical battle in the expansive (if wildly confusing) Fate universe. Fortunately, this double-length episode breaks it down for the uninitiated: several clans of mages are at war over the Holy Grail, which will grant the wishes of whoever possesses it. But the "Holy Grail Wars" play out more like a ritual sporting competition, with the Grail itself magically selecting seven "Masters" who must fight each other to elimination using "Servants"—seven representative beings that more or less approximate to the most popular RPG classes.

If this sounds like the delusions of your art-school buddy who takes Harry Potter, Naruto and Homestuck waaaay too seriously, that's because it kind of is; even at 45 minutes the pilot episode almost buckles under the weight of exposition. The first twenty minutes or so transition wildly between Germany, Italy, England, and Japan over a period of several years, with only names of familiar Fate characters to keep things anchored. (Check out the pint-sized Rin Tohsaka!) And because everyone has to spend so much time explaining the current situation, the overall pacing moves more at slice-of-life speed than the action-fantasy masterpiece it's supposed to be.

Because this episode is so low on action, it also stands to reason that the animation finds few opportunities to shine, aside from the dazzling summoning ritual in the last few minutes where everyone's Servants show up. But elsewhere it's a struggle to remain visually interesting—one particuarly hilarious scene has the characters pacing in circles because there is literally nothing else to do. Still, the detailed background art (especially in the European settings) and crisp linework show a commitment to solid production quality, although the character designs are somewhat forgettable. A richly orchestrated music score also moves slowly at first, but like everything else here, it promises plenty of serious drama in episodes to come.

Fate/Zero is available streaming on NicoNico and Crunchyroll.

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