The Spring 2012 Anime Preview Guide
Bamboo Dong is the assistant editor, and writes the biweekly column The Stream, which follows each season's streaming offerings. In her time off, she enjoys Tweeting gratuitously about her favorite sports teams and fantasizing about punching King Joffrey in the face.
Mysterious Girlfriend X
First, the positives. Newcomer Ayako Yoshitani is incredible as the weird and forward Mikoto Urabe. This series could've very easily gone the pre-teen “uguuuuuuuu~” voice route, and been way, way creepier than it is, but the casting for Mikoto is perfect. Yoshitani's husky voice is simultaneously confident and mature, and when she breaks out into laughter, I can't help but really like her. Sure, the character is bizarre and unconventional, but at least she's not hugging teddy bears and pouting at things.
Now if only this show didn't have such a profound fascination with saliva. Look, kids, I'm 27. I know what happens when two people kiss. Saliva is exchanged. That's fine, but when someone's swirling their finger around in their mouth, pulling out a wet, shiny globule of saliva, and shoving it in someone's mouth… blegh. It's just weird and gross. Halfway through the show, I sincerely wished that the series was about a different kind of fetish, like maybe Mikoto really liked rubbing balloons with her feet, or the male protagonist couldn't stop rubbing lemon meringue on his groin. Anything but their viscous depictions of drool, glistening like morning dew, with the thickness of buttered grits.
Backstory for those who aren't keen on watching a spittle anime—Akira is taken when a new girl, Mikoto, transfers into his class. She sleeps constantly and occasionally bursts into laughter mid-class. One day, after he wakes her up after school, he inexplicably decides to taste some of the spit puddle that she leaves on her desk. He falls ill, but she later points out that it's because he's going through spit withdrawal as a symptom of his lovesickness. Either that's the most romantic thing anyone's ever said, or… or not. Gosh. Kids these days. Well, after a courtship involving lots of spittle-sucking, they become boyfriend and girlfriend.
Really, if this didn't involve wet, shiny pans of drool, this could be a lot more enjoyable. As it is, as much as I love certain aspects of the show (the choice of voice actress for Mikoto, for one), the idea of sucking on someone's saliva-covered finger like a lollipop kind of makes me retch a little bit. I guess it could be worse; it could be a show about a vomit fetish.
Mysterious Girlfriend X is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
The confession is, I'm okay with this show. I think it's cute. Yes, it's also pretty sexual, considering half of the first episode revolved around a girl getting ready to blow her pants because she was thinking of a man gripping her, but I gave it a pass because I totally bought into the, “Oh yeah, the girls are actually guns” thing.
Wait, what? Yes, you read that correctly, and all the rumors you've been hearing about the show are true. Upotte!! is actually a show about assault rifles personified as cute girls, who go to a school where they train to be crack marksmen. It's a little hard to follow if you think about the logistics, because why would girls who are guns need to handle real guns? And if they're guns, do they shoot bullets from their mouth? The questions are endless. But, with shows like this, it's best to not try to think about it, and just enjoy it for the silly and cute fan pandering that it is. Japan has a long history of personifying masculine toys as cute girls; admittedly, I own many figures of such things. From airplanes to operating systems, objects masquerading as girls is as common as the sun, and I've learned to roll with it.
Upotte!! feels like a strange amalgam of Hetalia and Strike Witches; the latter having similarities in that both series are about anthropomorphized objects, and the former being similar in that Upotte!! is also riddled with country stereotype jokes. The only difference is that Hetalia relies on history to draw its humor, whereas this gun show relies on bizarre gags like comparing skeleton grips to thongs. And yes, triggers as clits. For someone who finds firearms fascinating, though, there is something fun about this show. Sure, it's super moe and hypersexualized, but you also learn a thing or to, and I was amused to learn why American assault rifles only rapid fired in three-shot bursts.
If I did have one major complaint, it's that the artwork is pretty terrible. For a show about cute girls, the body proportions are really funky, and vary from scene to scene. Sometimes the girls are drawn with weirdly stocky legs, and other times with misbalanced mid-sections. Many of the girls end up looking squashed at one point or another, and I'm fairly certain it wasn't just a design choice.
Aside from the eyebrow-raising artwork, Upotte!! is charming, in its own twisted way. It's certainly not a pillar of feminism, but for gun freaks and those willing to accept the show as a fun character merchandise cash cow, it's good for some low brainpower entertainment.
Upotte!! is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
Saki Episode of Side A
It's possible that Saki Episode of Side A is a great show in the making. It's just really hard to tell right now, because the first episode feels so muddled with the vaguely delineated time skips. Within an episode, a few years swim by, although those years are only alluded to contextually. Considering the characters barely age, it's a little jarring, although not altogether unpleasant.
We're first introduced to the characters of Saki Episode of Side A—based on a manga spinoff of Ritz Kobayashi's Saki—around early middle school. Nodoka is a transfer student who reveals that she likes mahjong. Upon hearing that, her two new friends take her to the mahjong club room at nearby Achiga, an all-girls high school. Although the school's mahjong club has long since disbanded, one of the former teammates now teaches a mahjong class for kids. Flash forward a bit and one of the trio of friends announces that she's going to change schools so she can go to a high school with a stronger mahjong team. Flash forward even more and girls have since gone their separate ways, but are motivated when Nodoka appears on TV at the inter-middle school mahjong tournament. Before the end credits roll, protagonist Shizuno makes up her mind to resurrect the club at Achiga High.
Being able to explain it in a paragraph means that one episode is definitely enough time to set up the backstory for Saki Episode of Side A, but it feels awfully rushed. Sure, it hits on some readily empathic themes, like the disintegration of a childhood friendship, and the bittersweet feeling of watching your best friends slip away—but it's presented in such a choppy way that by the time Shizuno decides she wants to restart the mahjong club, audiences have barely had enough time to catch their breaths, learn all the character names, and, for mahjong newbs like me, even figure out what they were talking about.
I suspect that the show will get better from this point. I'm already looking forward to seeing how well the girls kick start the club and start gunning for nationals. And even though the first episode felt more like a chore that the writers needed to get done to set up the story, without it, we wouldn't be able to see the significance of the friends reuniting, or even the reason why the club shut down to begin with. Still, I wish they had spread out the backstory out a bit more, at least over two or three episodes, because it feels like a lot of good content was wasted. If other viewers were anything like me, they might've felt a pang when they saw the girls start drifting apart, but it would've been that much better watching the girls deal with it at a more thoughtful pace. Regardless, I'm a sucker for esoteric sports(??) shows, so I'm eager to see what happens next.
Sake Episode of Side A is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
Bullying is no joke, and poor Haruyuki has had his fill of it. Meek and tubby, he's picked on constantly at school, and his only respite is an online gaming world where he's a cute little pig that excels at squash. In real life, though, he only has a couple of friends, but his life changes when he's approached in the virtual world by school president Kuroyukihime, whose avatar is some kind of butterfly goth princess, which is sure to explode into the cosplay scene by the time Anime Expo rolls around. For whatever profound reason, she takes an interest in him and tells him to download a program called BRAIN BURST. It allows him to accelerate his brain and essentially freeze time to assess the real world situation around him.
All of this kind of sounds intriguing, but the series throws a curveball at the end of the episode when Haruyuki steps out of his house and is thrust into a battle with a motorcycle thug. Whaaaaaaaaat? Pretty sure the prez didn't fill him in on that side of the story! No longer a squeaky pig, Haruyuki's avatar becomes this chiseled metallic warrior, and we can only assume that he gets to live out his fantasies in his new accelerated world via a series of e-challenges. Having not previously read the light novel series by Reki Kawahara, I don't know what this series has in store for viewers, but I'm hoping it builds more towards Haruyuki taking control of his life, and less about cyber battle after cyber battle.
Accel World doesn't immediately dazzle out of the gate, but it has promise. If anything, it's a sobering reminder of how much bullying can destroy someone's self-esteem, but at least Haruyuki has the luxury of being given a true out, in the form of a program that lets him reconstruct his reality. For everyone else, perhaps they'll be able to use this series as an escapist fantasy, filled with shiny distractions and butterfly girls. The premise is a little silly, considering it comes almost out of nowhere, but a few more episodes will be needed to see if this show is worth following.
Accel World is available streaming on Viz Anime.
Saint Seiya Omega
Saint Seiya Omega is good old-fashioned fun, like the kind of fun that wakes you up Saturday mornings and glues you to the TV. It's not a particularly involving show, and barely requires enough brain cells to register on an EEG, but it awakens the inner kid inside of you. The central conceit is this—in times of need, the Saints reawaken to save the day. That's it. For those familiar with the original, you may recognize the fabled Golden Saint, the titular Seiya who represented the constellation Pegasus. In Omega, he appears as inspiration to Kohga, who witnessed him in his childhood.
Flash-forward to now, and Kohga is being trained in the art of fighting, but he's incredibly mediocre and insecure about it. Luckily, the plot interferes, and soon him and his protectors are assaulted by Mars, the god of war, who has somehow been unsealed from his cosmic prison. Through this, Kohga learns that his guardian Saori is none other than Athena, and through some anime magic, he learns how to harness his inner powers and becomes the new Pegasus Saint. Within an episode, he transforms from a brittle would-be to a knight in shining armor, complete with meteoric punching abilities that let him blast away his foes.
It's silly, to be sure, but it's Saturday morning cartoon silly. I found myself yawning a lot during the first part of the episode, but by the time Kohga becomes a Saint, I perked up. The series harkens back to the old school, complete with epic power-up music and crazy shots of hair that writhe around like snakes. There's one laughable scene near the end where, although Kohga is wearing a helmet, somehow his hair is circling around him like a band saw. If anything, that's more magical than his meteor punch, but I tried to ignore how the entire episode looked like a cheap ONA with goofy character designs. I chalked that one up to, “They just wanted to make the series look old… right?”
I think I may have only watched a handful of episodes of Saint Seiya in my lifetime. It was before my time, and would've aired when I was one year old. Maybe because of that, it always felt dated to me, due more to the era-specific character designs, which have aged less gracefully than the sleek lines of 70s and 80s mech designs of robot lore. Even so, I found myself enjoying Saint Seiya Omega. It made me feel nostalgic, even though I never watched the original. I might stick around for this one.
Saint Seiya Omega is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
Polar Bear Cafe
*Caveat—I love cute things. When I am around cute things, my mind goes blank, and I can no longer function, outside of involuntarily reflexes like breathing. That having been said, I absolutely adored Polar Bear Cafe, to the point where I was flailing my arms and rolling around helplessly. I'm vaguely aware of the fact that the show is also kind of boring, and kind of repetitive, but I didn't really process it. And, given the large number of groan-inducing puns, I'm convinced the show's target audience includes a large population of old men.
Polar Bear Cafe exists in some kind of magical dreamscape where animals co-mingle with humans, holding regular jobs, drinking coffee, and talking. If I were given the choice to possess all the riches in the world or spend an hour at the Polar Bear Cafe, I might choose the latter. The lead protagonist thus far is a cute panda cub named Panda. He doesn't like to participate in many activities, but he excels at eating bamboo and rolling around. Unfortunately, those skills don't do much to pad a resume, but nevertheless he decides to try for a part time job at the Polar Bear Cafe. As you might guess, the cafe is run by a polar bear whose knack for running a small business is matched only by his ability to be adorable. Along the way, we also meet a penguin, a tortoise, a sloth, and a handful of other furry creatures. Like I said, magical.
There's a scene in the middle that is either funny or disturbing, but it's hard to tell which. When Panda initially gets turned down from the Polar Bear Cafe, he gets a part-time job at the zoo as a panda, where his duties involve giving visitors fan service in the form of eating bamboo, playing on a tire swing, and doing panda things.
Most of the episode actually seems to showcase Panda doing very panda things, and it's impossibly cute. The things that we love most about pandas—the way they fall down, roll around, and lounge around eating bamboo, are all things that Panda is good at. In a way, this is the anime version of a long Youtube spiral. The characters are even relatively photo-realistic, down to the bears' cute set of teeth and their tufty ears. Everything that's cute.
It goes without saying that Polar Bear Cafe is specifically made for people who a) love animals and b) go wild for cute things. Removed from that, the series itself is not that interesting. Even as far as slice-of-life shows go, not that much life happens, but it more than makes up for it with its characterization of animals. And of course, its panel of old man pun jokes. If the idea of watching animals sitting around chatting to each other doesn't appeal to you, then this show will do very little to hold your interest. But if you're like me, you'll lap this up.
Polar Bear Cafe is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
In the dark, distant future, where mankind lives in a dog-eat-dog world of terribleness, thirteen monsters roam freely. Previously bred to be murderous cage fighters, they of course escaped, and are now terrorizing the streets. One in particular is a razor-tongued menace who has been wandering around killing people, slicing them in half. That's when we're introduced to Jin, a kid who grew up in poverty with his grandfather, but is somehow a really talented fighter. His life falls apart when he wanders back to the Undertown slums (so called because Poorville and Trash Abbey were presumably taken) to find his grandfather slain.
This sets the stage for your classic tortured hero story, where Jin must save everyone from these beasts, along with the emotional help of a nurturing escort named Akemi. Spoiler alert, Jin is actually a Z.E.T., which makes him some kind of super human being, capable of fighting off these mutants. We aren't really privy to most of that backstory yet, nor do we really know how the rest of the series will take place, but so far, Zetman shows promise. It's a lot grittier than one might expect, and although the tale of Surprise Genetically Engineering Hero Defeats Monsters has been told before, Zetman's somber atmosphere adds something visually to the experience.
Given that the series hasn't really expanded into the Z.E.T. aspect of the story yet, it still has a lot of room to stretch its wings. The next few episodes will really tell whether or not this show is worth following.
Zetman is available streaming on VizAnime.
Rock Lee and his Ninja Pals
If you've ever wanted to experience the feeling of being trapped in a carnival fun house, surrounded by pandemonium, bright colors, and bulgy eyes, then Rock Lee and his Ninja Pals is an adequate substitution. It's 25 grueling minutes of loud noises and high energy, dulled by the uncomfortable feeling that you're watching the same joke being repeated every 30 seconds.
At one point in my life, I was a huge Naruto fan. I loved all of the characters, including Rock Lee, and was recently excited about the prospect of there being an SD spinoff. Little did I realize that what Rock Lee and His Ninja Pals would be is a merciless onslaught of gag after gag, some hilarious—others not so much—but all repeated until every last drop of humor is milked from their fibers. Which is unfortunate, because in each given mini-episode, there are at least two solid jokes—the kind that make you laugh out loud and feel nostalgic about Naruto. The rest of it makes you stare at your watch and wonder how one episode feels so long.
Rock Lee and his Ninja Pals is literally just a show about Rock Lee and his ninja pals going on missions and doing ninja things. In the first episode, Rock Lee, Neji, and Tenten help a girl fight off loan sharks by watching Rock de-pants people. They also joke every two minutes that Rock doesn't possess ninjutsu. In case it's been a while since you've watched the series and have forgotten what his whole shtick is, you'll be reminded. Several times. In fact, every mini-episode reminds viewers again that no, Rock Lee doesn't know ninjutsu, but he sure does try hard.
The second is a bit more amusing and involves a minor contest between Rock Lee and Naruto to fight over the last voucher in a pastry line. We're treated to some oldies, like the Sexy no Jutsu, but also Rock's amazing version, which is just him prancing around in a bikini. Neji deadpans perfectly, “How long have you been wearing that?” There is some solid material buried under all the rubble, but it's almost so exhausting to dig through that it doesn't feel worth it.
What kind of confuses me about this spinoff is that it treats viewers like they've never seen Naruto before. Each returning character is introduced again, sometimes with cheeky comments referencing the original series, but almost always in a manner that makes me wonder if they're hoping to target an audience that might not be intimately familiar with the original manga or TV show. But then again, who the Hell else is watching this Rock Lee spinoff, if not for diehard fans?
Rock Lee and his Ninja Pals has its moments, and it certainly has some laugh-out-loud ones, but I can't see this sustaining itself for more than a few episodes. Before one goes crazy, that is.
Naruto: Rock Lee and his Ninja Pals is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
Folktales from Japan
When I was a kid, my father would always tell me morality tales before bedtime. They'd usually involve some patient kid outsmarting a bully, or someone using his scientific know-how to win a contest. Some of them were gems, others weren't. I learned early on that not all morality tales can be good. Sometimes the message gets muddled somewhere along the way, lost in a soup of flavor.
Folktales from Japan doesn't always kill the material, but it tries gosh-darned hard, and its feel-good atmosphere reminds me a lot of listening to bedtime stories. Illustrated with big, goofy character designs that look like they're pulled from the Sunday comics, each episode is a collection of morality tales with different messages. Some are about waiting patiently and honestly for a reward; others are about karma and the kindness of strangers. Some… mean well, but are mildly disturbing, like the first folktale in which a mean-spirited neighbor buries someone's dog alive. And when that dog magically turns into a tree, his (kind) master chops it down to make a mortar. Dark.
This isn't really the kind of show where one would be on pins and needles waiting for each week, but is a perfectly pleasant way to whittle away some time. Given the short runtime of each segment, too, it's good for those moments in which you want a nice story without the hassle of having to invest half an hour of your time.
What's fascinating about this show already is that folktales are universal. Almost every culture has their own version of a specific fable or tale. It gives the series a sense of universality, so that even if you didn't grow up hearing these particular stories, it feels like you already know them. It transports you back to your childhood, and that's a nice feeling.
Folktalkes from Japan is available streaming at Crunchyroll.
Hiiro no Kakera
Schlocky, but pretty, Hiiro no Kakera is based on a PS2 game of the same name, where female players get to magic themselves into a fantasy setting and be whisked away by a bevy of attractive, but sexually non-threatening, men. As such, it's filled with beautiful faces, perfectly conditioned hair, and scenery pulled out of brochures for Japan's countryside. From a fan service point of view, it works. It has everything that squealing girls might need to get themselves into a tizzy, including cute fox ghosts, the vague idea of being a shrine maiden pre-destined for greatness, and the aforementioned pretty men. From an entertainment standpoint, it falls somewhere between Terrible Generic Crap and If I'm Already Drinking, I Might As Well.
The series opens up when wide-eyed protagonist Tamaki is dropped off at a bus stop in an idyllic mountain village. Soon, she's assaulted by strange creatures, but her life is saved when Hot Male #1 urges her to repeat an incantation. Within minutes, the rest of the story catches up—because of her family lineage, she is destined to be Princess Plot Device, who must fulfill her role as the protector of the village and help quarantine the Big Awful Scary Thing being sealed inside the town. To help her, she's assisted by five Hot Males, whose own family blood lines dictate that they must serve her and protect her with their lives. But mostly, they function as the objects of affection and fan art for all the teenage girls watching.
When one has been around the anime block a few times, it's hard to watch something so helplessly generic as this series and not have one's eyes roll out of their skulls. To the show's credit, sometimes these types of series start off slow and build momentum along the way. Hiiro no Kakera could eventually learn to distinguish itself along the way, but the onus weighs heavy on its shoulders to pull itself up from its quagmire of clichés.
Right now, Hiiro no Kakera is good for surface level eye candy. It's good for people who want to see bishonen and cute ghosts, but that's about it. Whether or not it ends up being something more substantial, only time will tell.
Hiiro no Kakera is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
It may be personal bias, but I instantly fell for this show the second they showed an animated rendition of my beloved Colorado Rockies as they fell victim to Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo's no-hitter. Even without that, though, I think I would've fallen for this show just as hard, with its quirky characterizations, its reverence for visual detail, and its portrayal of how it feels when life skids off the rails.
Two brothers, Mutta and Hibito, were born during major sports events—the former when Japan missed their chance to qualify for the World Cup, and the second, when a Japanese baseball player became the first (and only) to pitch a no-hitter in the MLB. Years later, the brothers witnessed what they thought was a UFO and vowed to become astronauts, but as their births might have foretold, their life paths are uneven. Hibito realizes his dream of becoming the first Japanese national on the moon, whereas Mutta is fired from his auto design job for head-butting his supervisor.
In a pivotal scene, Mutta trudges from firm to firm, getting rejected from every job interview for his headbutting incident. Suddenly, he stops and looks forlornly at a McDonald's, but instead of the series taking the turn one would expect, viewers find him wolfing down his problems via a Big Mac. And because he still has a shard of pride left, he darts his eyes around the room to make sure no one notices as he snatches up a stray fry crumb in a corner of his tray. That scene alone might have easily been my favorite scene from the entire episode, because it encompasses so much of what Mutta is going through and feeling, all in one furtive fry snatch. Luckily, all is not rainclouds, and when he makes it back to his parents' house, he finds that he's made it through the first round of JAXA's trainee selection to go to Mars.
Usually it takes a while each season for a series to show up that immediately stands out, but Space Brothers has already taken that spot. Its themes of personal insecurity and career dissatisfaction are relatable and well-written, and within one episode, it's already easy to root for Mutta. Visually, Space Brothers is strangely beautiful, with its reliance on important details. There's a scene during a NASA press conference where the camera chooses to pan across the astronauts' uniforms, and across their national flag patches. It's subtle, but effective, and it says more in five seconds than five minutes of exposition would have. Space Brothers is the series to follow this season.
Space Brothers is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
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