The Stream
Dear Diary

by Bamboo Dong,

The honeymoon phase is officially over. Whatever quirks made so many series so fascinating in the first few weeks is quickly fading away. The shiny new toys just aren't shiny any more. That just makes the good shows even better, and the others… wear on my patience. Killer puzzles? Please.

The next column falls squarely on the holidays, so the last column of the Fall 2011 season will by pushed back a week. And guess what happens after that? The Winter Preview!

Let's dive in.


#1 - Chihayafuru [ep. 9-10]

It's series like Chihayafuru that keep me writing about anime. Each episode goes beyond my expectations. Every week, the day before a new episode premieres, my best friend and I obnoxiously text each other nonsensical messages that just say, “Chihayafuruuuuuuuuu!” in anticipation. It's the kind of show you can get excited about. The characters are so colorful and lovable that you're instantly invested in their lives; when Kana won her first karuta match, I squealed and clapped my hands like a teenage girl at Junior Prom. When potato-headed Desktomu-kun reached his own personal crisis, my heart shattered into a million pieces. Chihayafuru is so character-driven that I think this could be a series about Guess Who enthusiasts and I'd still be glued to the screen.

This series has managed to strike a great balance between giving all the new characters enough screen time, but still furthering the quasi-love triangle between Chihaya, Taichi, and the absentee Arata. The latter is harder to root for, since we've yet to really see him since his hissy fit a few episodes ago, but I desperately want him to make a reappearance soon purely because Chihaya seems to care for him so much. Then again, that tension makes for some great scenes between her and Taichi, who's soon becoming one of my new favorite characters. He's infinitely caring and patient, despite his unrequited love for Chihaya, and I'll be shocked if he doesn't become the object of a few teenage crushes around the world.

I don't know that I'd be able to adequately summarize Chihayafuru to a friend without completely shortchanging it. How do I explain that even though the show is about a card game, it's actually not about a card game at all, even though 80% of the scenes involve the characters playing karuta? In the same way that many brilliant Hollywood directors in the past have been able to make heartwrenching films set in war time, without actually being war films, Chihayafuru manages to be set around karuta, without actually being a karuta show. More than a “sports” show, more even than a show about romantic relationship, it's a show about passion and chasing after things that matter to you. Episode ten closes on a shot of foot calluses. It's deeply moving.

Status: Still the best. Every person I've recommended this to has fallen madly in love. That's a pretty good track record. Seriously folks, get on this.


#2 - Fate/Zero [ep. 9-10]

This Fall season of anime is full of psychopaths. Between the murder game in Future Diary, the murderers in Un-Go, the murderers in Phi-Brain, and the murderous loons in Fate/Zero, it's just a buffet of homicidal maniacs, brigands, and abductors. I don't know what it says about me that I'm enjoying most of it. In particular, Fate/Zero has gotten insanely fun, despite its high ratio of characters who are absolutely bonkers. Caster, in particular, is devastatingly fun to watch, as he might be one of the vilest and most fascinating villains to ever be scripted. All he does is kidnap and murder, and I imagine his eHarmony profile would read, “Loves candlelit dinners and slaying innocent children.” Luckily, he's also present in most of the episodes, which really kicks up the horror quotient a notch.

He also serves as a pretty decent barometer for the constitutions of the other characters. As in, “Well, they're pretty awful too, but at least they're not as bad as Caster.” When Waver threw up in Caster's lair, I suddenly liked him a lot more. But the greatest episode might have been the most recent, in which a young Rin finds herself tangled up in the Fuyuki City kidnappings (led, of course, by Caster's master, Uryu). It's a change of pace from all the Holy Grail War fights, and it shows a different side of the series. It shows Rin as a really sweet and loving girl who just wants to do right by her dad and her friends, and if the scenes of her running into harm's way to save her friends don't melt your heart a tad, then you are more hardened than I.

So far, I've really been enjoying this series. Every time I start wishing the series would shake things up a bit, it does. It's balanced the (freakishly cool) fight scenes really well with some open and honest one-on-ones between the masters and servants, and this last episode with Rin shows that Fate/Zero can take a step back and look at some of the characters outside of the war, all while keeping things relevant. This is one of the better series out there this season.

Status: Fate/Zero knows how to keep an audience around. It delivers action when it needs to, and story when necessary, and always in the right doses. This is really enjoyable to watch every week.


#3 - Hunter x Hunter [ep. 9-10]

I have limited patience when a scene drags on for too long. I know that it's sometimes necessary to stretch out a scenario for a few episodes to set up tension and suspense, especially if the series is trying to match the original source material, but I get frustrated when it focuses on characters I don't care about. Here's a very specific reference, but bear with me. In George R. R. Martin's popular Song of Ice and Fire books, each chapter is told from a different character's perspective. Over the course of several chapters and books, each reader starts developing favorites, be it because of a character's personality or storyline. Inevitably, when you turn the page to a character you don't care about, you're crestfallen.

I felt that way several times during the last two episodes of Hunter x Hunter. Gon and his comrades are still at the site of the third Hunter test, stuck somewhere deep in a labyrinth. In order to get to the next part of the trip, they need to win a series of fights against prisoners. Some of the prisoners want to fight to the death, some of them want to gamble away some time. Very few of the situations are actually interesting. To be sure, there are new things revealed about some of our heroes—Kurapika's dark, murderous side comes out, but I couldn't stop to enjoy this new revelation because his next actions are so irritating that I kind of wish the other characters had piled on and punched him a few times. Leorio's trial was cute, but ultimately unsatisfying. And to seal my frustration, the series spent several minutes following that clown guy, whom I really couldn't care less about at this particular point in the series. Hunter x Hunter has always been so exciting and fun to watch, that these past two episodes were a total let-down. I don't want to watch the characters sit around in a hallway for ten hours. If they're going to sit around, at least talk about something interesting.

I know why the episodes had to be stretched out this way. I do. There was no other way around it. They had to burn time with the other characters, setting up the scene for Killua's fight. They had to make it so that our protagonists were faced with a high-stakes make-it-or-break-it moment. Mostly, they had to make us really want this scene to finally be over. But it doesn't stop these two episodes from being deeply unsatisfying. If I was watching this series on DVD, maybe I would've just fast-forwarded through the scenes I didn't like, like the fight with clown guy. I know he's going to matter later on in the series, but right now, I just want a change of scenery. Get out of the hallway, folks. I'm tired of staring at those sandstone walls.

Up until this point, I've really enjoyed Hunter x Hunter because I find it really clever. I think the characters get out of prickly situations in unique ways, and there's always a surprise around the corner. I just didn't feel that way about these last two episodes. It kind of just felt like they were killing time, and I came out of the whole experience feeling slightly used. I have higher hopes for the next few episodes, but the last two were a bummer.

Status: The problem with weekly shows is that when fights last for several episodes, each fight feels like it lasts for eternity. I can't wait for this phase of the Hunter exam to be over. The characters have been in that tower for so long, I'm getting cabin fever.


#4 - Future Diary [ep. 8]

These diaries are out of control. Most of them seem to serve completely esoteric functions that only help the users kill people. I mean, a Breeders Diary? Really? Supposedly it helps someone control dogs that will break through windows and rip people apart, but I wonder how the diary itself works. Maybe it teaches you how to train dogs, or tells you which dogs to breed for the nastiest bite. Maybe it will just warn you ahead of time when one of your dogs is about to piss on your couch.

After all the drama with the murderous little kid (hey, at this point, which characters aren't murderous little kids?), Yuki decides to switch schools. Partially because his last school blew up, and I assume partially also because he's got a pretty bad reputation for leading death around him like a puppy. He immediately makes some new friends, and we can tell they're destined to be important characters because they're dressed funny. Before the episode is even over, we find out that pretty much everyone and their mom has a Future Diary of some kind, and if you don't have one, you should probably think about moving to a nicer neighborhood.

On the one hand, I enjoy the sheer lunacy of Future Diary, and I love the shock value that it comes with. On the other hand, I think the story is kind of falling apart. The first few episodes were really clever in the ways that the diaries worked, but now the writers are just making crap up. They might as well just scrap the storyline and have an all-out melee to the death with kids, because that's kind of what it seems like they're doing anyway. As it is, I feel a little overwhelmed with all the new characters, and I wish there'd be an episode or two without anyone dying in a gruesome way. I want Yuki to get a chance to just regroup and figure out what's going on. Maybe give the city's crime rates a chance to drop a little.

Status: I'm still enjoying each episode, but I feel like this series is slowly spiraling out of control. It's gotten to the point where there's just too much going on, and I want the action to slow down long enough for everyone to catch their breaths.


#5 - Phi Brain [ep. 9-10]

What's up with this long-haired guy from the POG headquarters who really wants to kill Kaito? What's his beef? Also, not to knock the organization's stupid puzzles or anything, but if he really wants Kaito dead, he should just use a gun. Or like a knife or something. Just saying. There are more simple and surefire ways to kill a teenager than hoping he falls to his demise in an incredibly intricate and expensive puzzle.

Phi-Brain started out for me as one of those, “Man, this show is so weird! Isn't it weird? It's definitely weird!” traps where my love for the obtuse drove my mild fanaticism for the series. Unfortunately, after ten episodes, that novelty has really worn off and I'm now aware of just how many gaping plot holes exist in this series. I'm also finally acutely aware of just how insipid the story is, kind of like waking up the next morning after a night of drinking and realizing you made a fool of yourself at the bar. The first eight episodes of Phi-Brain were like a night at the bar. I was so drunk on novelty that I forgave the series for everything it threw at me, as though a boy could really be orphaned because his parents died in a puzzle accident. Come on.

I can pinpoint the exact moment the magic died for me. It was in episode nine, in the middle of the obligatory school festival. Nonoha is whisked away by that evil long-haired POG guy and dangled unconscious above some animatronic gnomes. As the building she and Kaito are in begin to burn down, Kaito must figure out which of the gnomes are holding good apples, and which are holding poisoned apples. However, he doesn't have enough clues, so the student president secretly feeds him some more clues. Basically, the puzzle is kind of pooh-poohed and the answer is fed to Kaito, much like the solutions he arrives at when he uses his magic Orpheus bracelet.

I feel mildly cheated every time I watch Phi-Brain. It kind of feels like I'm watching the activities of a crazy person who terrorizes kids in the neighborhood by forcing them to solve puzzles for candy, but then opens his hand to reveal that there is no candy. What kind of society do these characters live in where people have the time and money to build these damned puzzles? Like I said, this season of anime is full of psychopaths.

At one point in time, I really liked Phi-Brain. I thought it was delightfully kooky. Now I just feel sad for all the characters, and wish them a blessed release from the drab, puzzle-obsessed world they reside in. Week after week, they're confronted with another damned puzzle, and every week, the only thing they “win” is the view of a sunset or some Hallmark lesson like learning to love your friends. If the series would explain why the POG wants Kaito to die, I'd feel a lot better. Or if Kaito was even aware that people were trying to kill him. It's hard to have suspense when the victim doesn't know he's being hunted. It kind of just makes the POG look paranoid and crazy.

Status: I keep watching this series, but I've really lost my zest for it. It's gotten really repetitive, and the story is just crumbling to pieces. I hope something actually happens soon.


#6 - Guilty Crown [ep. 8]

The best Guilty Crown episodes are the ones where we actually get a chance to know the characters. As much as I love watching giant mecha zip around the city, and Shu pull weapons out of people's chests, it's not as good as when Shu grows as a character, or when two characters have an “aha” moment. In the latest episode, Shu is dispatched to another city under the ruse of going on a trip with some friends. While there, we get some requisite beach episode shots, but soon learn that he's there to help Funeral Parlor break into a GHQ facility and steal an item. To do this, they need Shu's classmate Souma's Void, a gun that can open anything in its path.

There's some jibber jabber about what they're actually there to steal, and about some guy that's after the same object, but the best moment comes near the end when Shu finally blurts out some of the feelings he's been harboring for a while about both Inori and his rocky friendship with Souma. Up until now, Shu's been a bit of a limp rag. He just does what people tell him to do, and spends a lot of time whimpering to himself. For the first time, we really see him stand up for himself, and it's a solid moment for the series.

We also learn a little something about Shu's father, although the series glosses over it pretty quickly for what's actually a fairly big revelation. Unfortunately, dramatic emphasis has never really been Guilty Crown's strong suit. It's always favored fast pacing over deliberate reveals and emotional moments, but with this latest episode, I hope there's a permanent shift. Plus it makes Shu a little easier to like, instead of the twerp that I would want to slap if ever I encountered his doppelganger in real life.

Guilty Crown has really changed over the season. It's struggled a little with findings its own voice—sometimes it's nonstop action, sometimes it tries to be goofy, and sometimes it takes itself so seriously that it's comical, but as the series has progressed, it's slowly settled into a comfortable groove. It took eight episodes to get here, but the series is slowly becoming more entertaining every week.

Status: And to think, all this time I was just waiting for a chance to stop hating Shu so much. Now that he's less one-dimensional, I'm finding this series a lot more enjoyable.


#7 - Un-Go [ep. 8-9]

Un-Go is going off the rails. I suspect the original source material is much better than the anime adaptation. It's easier to read short stories than it is to watch a disjointed series, because one inherently expects a series to have an underlying cohesion to it. Instead, Un-Go jumps from theme to theme, without ever really settling on anything. For a while, it dabbled in social commentary, a little bit of Nancy Drew, some conspiracy theories, and now it's just knee-deep in good ol' fashioned demon-perpetuated hoodoo.

Last we saw our heroes, the Defeated Detective was trapped in a demon's hallucination. This particular witchy lady is kind of like Inga, except she forces a false version of truth on others, to the point where she can make people see things and hear things that don't exist. After we wrench ourselves from the prison-turned-movie set, our protagonists now find themselves in a fake terrorist plot that's supposedly perpetrated by Kaishou himself. But is it??? Or is it just that demon lady? Since there's no suspense whatsoever in this show, we already know it's the latter.

What's interesting about this episode is that just like all the ones preceding it, there's slight tickling of something bigger. Perhaps a civilian group that's trying to reveal something about the government, or some sort of cover-up of a bigger political ill. But since Un-Go never actually follows through on any of its thoughts, this, like all the others, lies impotent. Viewers are merely left to sigh and wish for something deeper.

Status: At least I can't say that I know what to expect anymore. So that's a huge bonus. And yet I'm still left wildly unsatisfied after every episode. I can't win.


#8 - Persona 4 [ep. 9-10]

Here's how each new character arc goes. Our loveable band of TV-adventuring misfits watch the Midnight Channel and catch a glimpse of the “killer's” next victim. Then they follow the next person around town for a while, order some take-out, then realize that the TV world has kidnapped the target anyway. So they go into the TV world, weird stuff happens, the new character screams, “You're not part of me!”, everyone gasps, but then after some Persona-summoning, the character defeatedly accepts their alter-ego. Then they get a card too.

I'd honestly rather be playing the video game.

When you're playing video games, repetition doesn't feel so… repetitive. You can sit there for hours, doing the same thing for hours on end. I've spent days leveling up, taking breaks only to use the restroom and pay the pizza delivery guy. But I don't have that same kind of patience when it comes to TV shows. At least shake up the dialogue or something. Instead, it's the same formula time and time again, and it makes me wish for those delightful filler episodes again.

There was one pretty amazing scene, though. After the latest victim “finds herself” and learns to accept her inner self, the robot bear has an existential crisis. There is something precious about seeing a toy bear writhe around, questioning who he is and what his purpose in life is. It's poetic. I'd like to see more objects in Persona 4 questioning their own self worths. But until then, I guess we're trapped in an endless spiral of déjà vu.

Status: Snooze. I'm tired of this. This might be the first time in a while where I wish we'd go back to filler episodes.


#9 - Last Exile ~Fam, the Silver Wing~ [ep. 7-8]

As American anime fans, we've had a somewhat unique experience, in that for most of our lives, we've experienced most series in four-episode volumes or half-season boxsets. For anime fans that only entered fandom in the mid-2000s, it's most certainly the latter. Because of that, we're used to being able to sit down on a Sunday afternoon and watching 13 episodes at a time. Ultimately, there are some shows that I like being able to do that with, more so than watching them on a weekly basis, as they're meant to be viewed. I find that I'm able to focus on the series more, appreciate the characters more, and get into the storyline more.

For weeks, I've struggled to pinpoint exactly how I feel about Last Exile ~Fam, the Silver Wing~. As I've said before, this series is absolutely stunning, and even now, there are scenes in every episode that take my breath away. There's a great scene in episode eight where the crew of the Silvius is scanning the bedrock of a mountainside, looking for a way through. You wouldn't think that a computerized scan of a fictional geological surface could look as good as it does. This series just knows how to look pretty.

I say that every week. “This show is so pretty!” “I'm not captivated by it, but this show is so pretty!” “It's not you, it's me!” Ultimately, that's where I'm at with Fam, the Silver Wing. It's really gorgeous, but that's all I ever have to say about it. The characters are cute, sure, and the atmosphere is nice and relaxed. Even when ships are shooting missiles at each other, the mood of the series is eerily relaxed, but I think that's an effect of all the pastel. At the end of the day, I don't really find myself caring what happens next. Whether or not Princess Millia ever makes it home is of little concern to me. I know she will. Maybe she'll learn some life lessons along the way. I don't really care that much about the outcome of the war; I know the good guys will win. Cliffhangers don't really exist in this show. Things are just kind of pleasant.

But for all the superficial praise I have for this show, I don't want to follow it anymore. I can comfortably say that I can wait for the eventual BD release—whenever that may be—without pining over this series too much. I'd like to eventually see the resolution of this story, but it doesn't have to be now. It's charming, but it's not gripping, and that's what I want in a weekly stream.

Status: It took me a while to come to this conclusion, but I'm dropping Last Exile ~Fam, the Silver Wing~. It's not because I don't like it… I just don't want to watch it right now. I don't feel that “Gotta know what happens next!!” with this series, so I'd rather just wait for the home video release.


#10 - Majikoi - Oh! Samurai Girls [ep. 9-10]

Every time I think I'm starting to warm up to Majikoi, there's a scene or three that makes my eyes roll into the back of my skull. Of course there's an awkward scene where some cyborg is re-charged by having her boob sucked by another woman. Of course the girls get into a catfight over who loves Yamato more and who's going to marry him first. Of course everyone's going to clambor over each other for this dud of a useless dude. Of course Yamato's secret move is whipping out some kind of glowing light saber that he packs in his pants.

But then the other kind of fanservice kicks in and we get to see Momoyo and Takae beat the hell out of each other. Seriously, if you've ever wanted to see two women just brutally pummel each other, this is your golden chance. At some point, they leap off a high-rise and pile drive each other into the pavement below. We're talking moves that would instantly kill everyone except maybe Superman and Wolverine. One of the women expels bullets from her body just by flexing her abs.

Also, if you've ever wanted to see a robot maid pull a bayonet out of her knee-high boots, hey, you're in luck! This is pretty much just one of those fantasies that men have about sleepovers where girls just giggle and slap each other with pillows. Except in this case, it's women who shoot each other and try to stab each other with things. There's an unintentionally hilarious scene in the tenth episode where all of Yamato's ladies are fighting with robot maid girl. IN SLOW MOTION. Literally, for two minutes, it's just slow motion slicing and dicing. It looks ridiculous and it's not the least bit dramatic. I'm not even really sure what the intended effect was, since it was neither cool nor exciting. But it did make for a good laugh.

Part of me wants to just finish watching this show since I've come so far. But it's not fun anymore. I was momentarily fascinated with the series when it turned from constant fanservice to an action-driven fight fest with a smuggling subplot… but now that's the new norm. The fights don't really seem to have any purpose to them, and since basically no one stays injured, the stakes are impossibly low. That smuggling plot that could've been interesting was just a way to introduce this endless barrage of fighting, so even that's fallen by the wayside. Drama just doesn't exist in Majikoi. Something big happens in terms of the cast list, but the series doesn't even give it the gravitas it deserves. I know I'm almost done with this season, but I can't wait any longer to justify watching this show.

Status: I had my ups and downs with Majikoi, but I have to say goodbye. The few gems that this show has delivered over the season aren't enough to make up for the monotony—first with the fanservice, and now with the fighting. It's not worth my time anymore.

Thanks for reading, folks. Have any disagreements? Head on over to the forums to hash it out. I hope everyone has a great holiday season, and I'll see you all next year!

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