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The Stream
Winter is Coming

by Bamboo Dong,

Fall 2011 has drawn to a close. There were some ups, there were some downs. But there are a few good things that can be milked from this season. First, we have a clear winner as to my recommendation for Best Show of the Season—Chihayafuru, which has made a clean convert of almost every person who's tried to sit down and watch it. Secondly, now that we've reached the end of the season, all you slackers who've been waiting for the dust to settle can just pick from the pile of winners that have been carefully culled from the previously gargantuan list of contenders. There are a few titles that I have dropped that other readers may enjoy, but I truly believe that the titles that are still standing will please you. Lastly, the Winter 2012 preview is about to start, which means a whole new season of anime to look forward to.

This column will go on a quiet hiatus until after the preview is over, but it'll be back before you realize it.

Let's dive in.


#1 - Chihayafuru [ep. 11-12]

I try not to cry too much when I watch cartoons. People look at you funny. Yet time and time again, Chihayafuru reduces me to a blubbering mess. When Chihaya realized for the first time that her parents took pride in her karuta accomplishments, I bawled like a toddler. No matter how old you get, making your parents proud is one of life's greatest feelings, and I celebrated vicariously through Chihaya's tears. She's such an infinitely loveable character that any victory feels shared. In the same way that I cheer and cry with my favorite sports teams, I cheer and cry for Chihaya and her teammates. It's an emotional investment that pays off every episode.

A few days ago, I marathoned the first twelve episodes with a few of my friends. This may very well mark the first time in my life that I've re-watched an entire season within days of finishing it (although the last episode of season one has been postponed until this week). It's even better the second time around, now that viewers are more familiar with later-reintroduced characters like Porky and Retro. All the poignant moments are still poignant, and every heartfelt scene still brought a damning tear rolling down my face. This is just a solid show, and it still breaks my heart a little that it doesn't quite get the love and recognition it deserves.

According to online sources, Chihayafuru is slated for 25 episodes. I want to read the manga, but I don't want to spoil myself. I want desperately to know how the team does at Nationals, and I'm prepared to break out the pom-poms for Desktomu's first victory. I can't remember the last time in the past few years that I've felt this personally attached to the outcome of an anime series. There's not a single drop of cynicism in this show, and it's incredibly refreshing. This is a series about a group of friends who are truly passionate about something. But more than that, they've embraced that nebulous ideal called Teamwork, and they champion it in such a natural way that no one could ever roll their eyes at it, unlike so many other sports titles out there. I can't wait to see the last half of the series. Spring feels so far away.

Status:The breakaway winner of this season, Chihayafuru is my number one recommendation for every fan looking for a solid story, great characters, and at least one guaranteed smile per episode.


#2 - Fate/Zero [ep. 11-12]

Fate/Zero has accomplished some form of Pavlovian training where every time I see a glass of red wine in real life, I expect to sit down and talk about my feelings. Every time a character busts out the cabernet, we're in for a good sit. There seems to be no middle ground with this series. Either it's breakneck action and whirlwind fighting, or its people drinking and talking. To give the series the credit it's due, I've enjoyed both immensely, but I wish there was more in between. I love watching Caster's scenes because I feel like he's a good balance of exposition and crazy. I also loved Rider's powwow with some of the other Servants because it was nice seeing people talking outside of their Master/Servant pairs.

Still, despite my griping, I have greatly appreciated the dialogue scenes, because this series brings in a lot of deep conversational topics. When the characters aren't talking strategy, they ask each other a lot of meaningful questions. One exchange in particular was between Waver and Rider, when the former questioned the latter whether he was upset that history books often recorded him as being short in stature. What ensued was a surprisingly substantial conversation about strength and courage. If there is one thing that Fate/Zero nails, it's that it tackles some of the more philosophical aspects of fighting as a means to a greater end.

Between the flashy fights and the heart-to-hearts, though, I'm still waiting for the field of contenders to start whittling down. It's been admirable how deftly the series has been handling a large cast of characters, but this late in the game, we should be paring the numbers down a bit.

Status: Fate/Zero is a solid bet for Fall 2011. It strikes a decent balance between storytelling and action, and it's sure to be a hit for fans of Fate/stay night.


#3 - Hunter x Hunter [ep. 11-12]

There are few things more dreaded in anime land than The Recap Episode. I just watched the damned show. I don't need a recap episode. In a Perfect World, such episodes would be supplied online as bonuses between seasons for viewers who either skipped a season, or who are starting late. For me, it was a special kind of Hell. After rejoicing the end of Trick Tower, I was back in its sandstone walls again.

Aside from the mind-grating recap episode, Hunter x Hunter is effortless to watch. It's fun and easy to enjoy. If anime was a food, Hunter x Hunter would be like drinking soda. It's sugary and refreshing, and it almost always hits the spot. Except in this analogy, the underlying seriousness and bloodlust in the series is kind of like those videos on the Internet of Coke eating through a layer of rust. Hunter x Hunter may look like a kids' show, but it packs a lot of adult themes. That's what makes it so fun to watch, though. It's serious without feeling dreary, and it's fun without feeling frivolous. It's the perfect combination.

As weary as I was of Trick Tower, I absolutely adored the conclusion, in which gumption and ingenuity led Gon and his pals to success. Gon's pluck makes him one of the highlights of the show, and it's a good balance for the dark pasts that the rest of the characters harbor. For every Killua, you need a Gon, or else the series becomes unbearably depressing. Instead, the only thing that's depressing is that cursed recap episode, which greatly dampened my excitement for the second season. I think I would've vastly preferred a whopper of a cliff hanger.

Status: It was a weak ending to a good season, but it was a good season nevertheless. I'm loving the pace of the new series, and I'm looking forward to Gon and Gang's next adventure.


#4 - Future Diary [ep. 9-12]

After a season of senseless violence and killing, the first season of Future Diary wraps up with more brutality and bloodshed, although not without the sweet romantic interlude of a boy falling for his psychotic stalker girlfriend. It's a somewhat disappointing twist in Yukki's character arc, since only a few episodes ago, he was bemoaning having been arm-twisted into declaring Yuno his girlfriend. By far, that was the most interesting scene in their relationship, as it takes the theme of survival and shows how emotionally manipulative Yukki can be. Sadly, that's all undone a bit with the last episode when he simpers over how cute she is and decides he really wants to be her boyfriend after all, but teenage love is riddled with error.

There's a fine line between action and overkill, and Future Diary steps just to the right of that line. Viewers are so inundated with violent scene after violent scene that the series loses its edge. After so much killing, one becomes desensitized, especially once the novelty of the future diaries has worn off. However, the second season looks like it could be good, especially if it chooses to focus more heavily on Yuno slowly stepping off the rails. We already know she's a bag of nuts, but she's much more interesting to follow than simply one diary user after another.

Status: Boys, don't just date the first girl that looks at you. Make sure she's not a lunatic murderer first. For examples of lunacy and murder, check out Future Diary. That's pretty much all you're going to get.


#5 - Un-Go [ep. 10-11]

Here's the thing about Un-Go. It will probably get a second season. It was reasonably popular, and there's plenty left to yet say about Inga, Bettenou, and the rest of the Scooby Gang. But if I got my wish, they'd fight that urge and just stop. One season is enough. We got a taste, and I don't know that the full course is really necessary. At the end of the day, Un-Go is probably one of those series best hand-waved away with a dismissive, “You should just read the books. They're better.” comment. The series is a jumbled mess that wants to be grandiose and thorough, but comes off more as someone's vision board of what their ideal adaptation would have been.

Midway into the first season, we're introduced to Bettenou, a mysterious girl/demon/spirit who's able to push alternate realities unto other people. She was responsible for Shinjurou's prison hallucination, and she definitely has something to do with the Boxcar Children and the Case of the One or More Dead Kaishous. The problem is, we're never fully introduced to what exactly Bettenou is, and how she came into being. She seems to have hierarchy over Inga, too, but then again, Inga is another one of those entities that are only vaguely explained by the end of the series. Even knowing how she and Shinjurou came to work together, it's an unsatisfying answer for a still hazy question. She and Bettenou seem to serve a purpose when they're needed—as supernatural plot devices—but as integral pieces of a larger puzzle, they don't quite fit. I almost wish Un-Go was split into two separate shows—one about the wacky adventures of Bettenou and Inga, and one about the power politics that are orchestrated by Kaishou and other members of the government. As two separate shows, they could both be amazing, but as one, it's like drinking watery soup with soggy cookies floating in it.

There were arcs of Un-Go that I found fascinating—I particularly enjoyed the one that introduced Kazamori, an AI program that can inhabit any machine, but mostly takes the form of a weird but cute stuffed panda. It had an interesting take on artificial intelligence dolls, and what humans would naturally use such technology for. And at the end, there was an unforeseen twist. But for the most part, a lot of the other arcs were at best drab, and at worst muddled. The inclusion of Bettenou turned the latter arcs into more of a mind trip than was necessary, and it really detracted from the series. At the end of the day, I have a small list of positives regarding Un-Go, but I don't know that I would ever recommend the series to anyone.

Status: Overall disappointing. The entire series feels like a battle of wasted potentials. Other fans might recommend this series, but I'm not one of them.


#6 - Persona 4 [ep. 11-12]

The ending of the first season of Persona 4 left a funny taste in my mouth. It felt like a conclusion, but because I know the story hasn't finished, I'm left hanging a bit. They caught a bad guy, but it was so rushed that I feel the writers were just finding a way to kill time until they could really dig their heels in for season two. So instead, we're left with a mostly unsatisfying battle, a Who's Who of all of Yu's personas, and a cooking contest.

By far, the biggest highlight of Persona 4 is KUMA, the strange robotic bear mascot that inhabits the TV world. I've loved him ever since he had an existential meltdown, but when he unzipped himself to unveil a creepy/cute blonde boy that he had organically grown within himself, the grotesqueness won me over. Coupled with two perfectly timed scenes of a child crying in hysterics over the site of KUMA's disembodied head on a shelf, he was my favorite. I'm also really glad that for the time being, the endless parade of character introduction is over. The cast of characters that we're left with is an amicable lot, and they're a lot of fun to watch. Yu's deadpan sense of humor grounds this cast, and I often wish I could join them for lunches at Junes. You know you have a good set of characters when you wish you could hang out with them in real life, and you don't want to punch any of them in the face.

Persona 4 hasn't fully won me over, but with its fidelity to the video game, I imagine a lot of fans of the game will find this a blast to watch. As someone who hasn't played the games, all I can do is enjoy it as popcorn entertainment, and for that purpose, it works. The characters are likeable, the story is frivolous and entertaining, and I don't mind tuning in every week. As to whether or not you should watch it, I would say that unless you're already a big fan of the video game, I would check out some of the other shows on this list first.

Status: Given the choice, I'd much rather play the video game, but I still enjoy myself every time I watch an episode of Persona 4. The characters are great, and KUMA is a national treasure.


#7 - Guilty Crown [ep. 9-11]

Guilty Crown is a soap opera. And not just because Funeral Parlor cured Tokyo of the Apocalypse Virus with a song, but because I can type sentences like that without stretching the truth. So much stuff has happened over the last three episodes that it can't be succinctly recapped, although all you need to know is that Shu gets to scream a lot while he shakes Voids at people.

You'd think an action-packed show like Guilty Crown would catch and hold my attention, but it doesn't. I don't retain an episode in my memory for longer than a day. In part, it's because the series is trying too hard to pack an explosion every two minutes, but also because nothing that happens really means anything. Sure, it's fun to look at, kind of like a fireworks display or a pinwheel, but that's about it. There are a lot of elements within Guilty Crown that have the potential to be great standalone story particles, but as a whole, it lacks a sense of purpose. The Apocalypse Virus is neat, I guess, but releasing a crippling, humanity-destroying virus kind of seems like a generic bad guy thing to do. A bigger picture could've been painted, perhaps, with who gets vaccinated and which parties decide this, but that isn't tackled nearly as well as it could've been. Shu's Void-drawing ability is kind of cool, but once again, it's all flash and no substance.

In principle, I don't really mind shows that are pure pizzazz, but in any given season, it's hard to justify continually giving over hours of your time to something just because it's shiny. No one can deny that Guilty Crown is shiny. If it's bright colors and mech fights you want, Guilty Crown is your show. It's visually dynamic and frantically paced, like two raccoons fighting over a nickel, but there are better shows to catch up on from this season.

Status: Guilty Crown is the worst kind of junk food. I keep eating it, even though there's zero sustenance and it makes your teeth rot out. I don't even particularly like watching it. If I could go back in time, I might've dropped this earlier.


#8 - Phi Brain [ep. 11-13]

I fell out of love with Phi Brain just as suddenly as I fell in love with it. One day, I was riding on high with this weird show about puzzles that took itself way too seriously… and the next, I hated myself for ever having watched this much of it. The same reasons I instantly took a shine to this show became the exact same reasons I turned against it. It irritated me that everyone took puzzles so seriously. It irritated me that these massive, interactive puzzles even existed. But most of all, it irritated me that even though the main characters of Phi Brain were so-called “geniuses,” they were dumb as hell.

In the last set of shenanigans that Kaitou finds himself in, he's trapped in a puzzle called the Puzzle of Fools. The purpose of this puzzle is to create Phi-Brains, weeding out those deemed unworthy by mercilessly slaughtering them. One of the levels has Kaitou scrambling to the top of a tower, but on each floor, he's met with massive spinning blades that shoot out of slits in the wall. Anyone who has ever played a video game knows that you just simply avoid these slits, and wait on either side of them until the spinning wheel leaves. But Kaitou doesn't. He just jumps around like a jackass, relying on his Armlet of Orpheus to eventually magic himself out of the puzzle.

Enough with the Armlet already. The Armlet is a cheat code for puzzles that sucks all the fun out of watching a show about puzzles. I've said time and time again that the only fun aspect of a show about puzzles is figuring out how to solve them. But as simulcast viewers privy only to the anime series, and not to the supplemental material that is provided to Japanese viewers, it feels like we're given a book of puzzles with all the answers already scrawled in by another child. That alone should be sufficient reason to stop watching these series forever. It's simply not fun.

To rub salt in the wound, Phi Brain is also immensely ridiculous, but not necessarily in a good way. At the end of the season, we're finally introduced to the puffy white-haired kid that Kaitou knew as a kid, but for some reason is a maniacal little twerp working for the POG. He's apparently evil for no other reason than the series needs more villains with bad hair. He tells Kaitou that the Puzzle of God was created by Pythagoras to hide the Book of God, which holds all the universe's answers and grants the receiver god-like status. Someone get Nicolas Cage's agent on the phone, because I smell an adaptation.

I was a magpie, and Phi Brain was my shred of tin foil. I liked it because it was new and shiny, but once it lost its sheen, I saw it for what it was—trash. Save yourself the trouble and don't watch this series.

Status: Don't make the same mistake I did and get sucked into this fool's errand of a show. Hit it and quit it if you must, but one episode is enough to get it out of your system. Anything beyond that is a colossal waste of your time.

So there you have it, folks. Agree? Disagree? Agree to disagree? Make your voices be heard over in the forums where we can hash out who'd win in a fight, Inga or Hell Girl.

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