The Stream
Bend It Like Kakeru

by Bamboo Dong,

If there's a theme to this season, it's that there is a lot of wasted potential. Many of these shows have the ingredients to be really great shows, but poor execution leaves much to be desired. In cases like these, maybe fanfic writers could really punch things up for the better.

Let's dive in.


#1 - Chihayafuru [ep. 18-19]

My heart aches for Taichi. He tries so hard, and he cares about his teammates so much, and yet he'll never be more in Chihaya's eyes than just a really good friend and karuta partner. Unless, of course, the shoujo wheels keep turning and they end up together in the end. But for now, my heart aches for him. At the end of his match with Porky, I wanted to throw my hands in the air and stand in the rain in anguish.

At the same time, I'm beyond happy for the other members of the karuta club, who have all been steadily moving up in the rankings. Kana and Desktomu, who had been the struggling newcomers all last season, are now holding their own and slaying their competition. Chihaya mentioned that she wanted to do more team competitions; I for one, can't wait.

What's made the past few episodes of Chihayafuru so interesting is that they've focused a lot more on karuta strategy. I've written before that these episodes are inherently fascinating to us Americans because the idea of karuta is so foreign to us. Indeed, when Taichi starts rattling off the remaining cards in his head, I'm riveted, even though I have no idea what he's talking about. I get what he's doing, of course—but to me, the “I think” and the “I should” cards mean nothing more than just props in a competitive match. Still, his thought process is interesting to follow, and it gives me a greater appreciation for the game from a strategic point of view.

The match between Kana and Desktomu was a joy to watch for the same reasons—every move is broken down, and as Chihaya learns more about the way her teammates play, so do we. We see the way Kana's hakama affects her posture, and her intense concentration; we see the way Desktomu's thought process leads him to a risky set of plays that lets him bridge a card deficit. It sounds boring for anyone who hasn't been watching the show, but somehow, the episodes feel as though they're only ten minutes long. There's something about the intense focus of each character that transports viewers onto the tatami mat next to the players.

Earlier in Chihayafuru, karuta often took a backseat to the characters, and I appreciated it. As the team advances in skill, though, the game play is becoming more and more important. As viewers, we're so fascinated by karuta now that this shift comes at a good time. If Chihaya cares about it, then I care about it too.

By the way, for anyone who hasn't seen this Youtube video yet of a karuta Masters match, I highly recommend it. It's pretty crazy.

Status: The series knows how to strike the perfect balance between play-by-play karuta analysis and character development. I love watching the club members interact, but I love watching their matches just as much. This show is terrific.


#2 - Bodacious Space Pirates [ep. 6]

There's something incredibly endearing about the way the girls aboard the Odette II were sneakily trying to handle an enemy's incoming attacks without letting their teachers know. It reminds me a lot of the books I used to read when I was a kid, about kid detectives and adventurers. It's the, “Look how grown-up we are!” mentality, but under the secret, wary eyes of nearby grownups. It makes the series a bit more fun and adventurous.

That same air of whimsy is carried over into episode six, even after Marika agrees to sign all the paperwork to become the next captain of the Bentenmaru. The only catch? She has to do some pirating before her Letter of Marque expires in 45 days. Naturally, her first act of piracy is just as quirky and endearing as one would expect, as she announces to a joyful cruise ship that they are being boarded and raided.

I mentioned this a couple columns ago, when Marika first has an earnest discussion with her mother against a gorgeous galactic backdrop, but Bodacious Space Pirates has a reverence about space that I miss in sci-fi. I was reminded of this when I watched Chiaki and Marika floating around in space, and Chiaki reminded her that it was easy to get lost in the vastness of space. It seems we're so jaded these days about being able to go to space that a lot of TV shows and movies never stop to soak it all in. The first time you take a spacewalk or see an ocean of stars should blow your mind. Early in the space program, astronauts would often experience space euphoria, in which they expressed a profound connectedness with the universe and/or God. I remember reading an account of an astronaut who refused to return from his space walk, and had to be coaxed and scolded back by Mission Control. Whether it's physiological or a simple case of wonder, space is incredible. Bodacious Space Pirates realizes this, celebrates this, and I respect it immensely for this reason.

It's not just space—I feel like we, as consumers, are jaded about everything. Bodacious Space Pirates tries to shake us of our cobwebs by presenting a good, clean story that emphasizes wonder, bewilderment—and above all, fun—in a simple and coherent manner. The girls positively beam when they figure out an offensive strategy. They tingle with excitement at the possibility of piloting a ship by themselves. Marika is so excited about getting to train with Chiaki that she forgets about her long work hours and instead now focuses on being able to experience new things with a good friend. This show feels nostalgic, without being old, and that is an irreplaceable feeling.

Maybe I'm getting old or something, but I sure could use more shows like this.

Status: Bodacious Space Pirates continues to dazzle with its smooth storytelling and positive characters. I had fun aboard the Odette II with the other gals, but now I'm looking forward to seeing how Marika will handle her new tasks.


#3 - The Knight in the Area [ep. 5-7]

If you're looking to lose some weight, I hear the magic anime diet is pretty good. That's the diet where you just clap your hands and, because of a necessary plot point, you shed 100 pounds in ten days and turn into a lean, mean, futbol machine.

Kakeru and his gal pal Seven enroll in Enoshima High School, intrigued by the rumors of a crack midfielder with a killer pass. When they get there, though, they discover that the school has two soccer clubs—the competitive club, and the “play for fun” club, where all the talented but unconventional players go. As it turns out, the midfielder they're looking for, Araki, is on the latter team, but only barely. In his disillusionment with soccer, he's gained about 100 pounds and now just snarks on the sidelines at people. Until, of course, the necessary plot twist. Until then, Kakeru gets to be the scrappy striker he is, showing everyone how much heart he has. Or rather, how much of his brother's heart he has?

Ridiculous plot contrivance aside, in the unlikely reappearance of Araki restored to glory, this new segment of The Knight in the Area is vastly more enjoyable than the last. Now that we've all just come to accept Suguru's sacrifice, the show can stop playing discordant horror music, and just focus on Kakeru's new dream of playing soccer. He's come to accept his brother's gift to him as well, which produces a well-needed change of character. Instead of crying and wringing his hands, he's more determined than ever to live up to his brother's dreams. As such, more of the conversation is shifted over to the game itself, instead of his love/hate relationship with playing. In fact, the most recent episode focuses more on soccer than many of the previous episodes combined, and it's a nice switch-up.

Every year, the school has a friendly between the competitive and “play for fun” team to see which team gets to represent the school competitively. So naturally, after a few quick scenes of training, we're throw into a match. Speaking as a soccer fan, these are some pretty exciting episodes. The action is well-animated, the plays are realistic, and there's plenty of suspense on the field. It's the most fun I've had with this show in a long time, and even the reappearance of Araki only added to the series. As long as the series keeps going in this direction, I think it'll be worth keeping up with.

Status: I call straight-up bollocks on the Araki plot twist. Please. I know anime can be pretty ridiculous sometimes, but let's not veer into the “biological impossible” territory. Even so, The Knight in the Area has massively improved over the last couple of episodes, and I can honestly say I'm looking forward to watching more.


#4 - Hunter x Hunter [19-20]

When I first sat down to write this review, I had just finished episode 19. I had already written several paragraphs on how unenthused I was about the upcoming tournament-style Final Exam. Luckily, after watching episode 20, it appears all my frustrations were put to rest. The tournament was mercifully short. Even so, the series really showed its weakness for pacing. Not in the length of the tournament, of course—I cheered when I found out that the entire tournament wouldn't be shown. But in the way they reveal the results of the tournament, and the off-handed way they rush through the events. Hunter x Hunter (2011) is not one for suspenseful storytelling.

Essentially, the tournament is set up in such a way that the last one standing loses. It's a competition to see who gives up first, or is beaten into submission first. If an applicant kills someone, he automatically loses. Just so we're not left on the hook about whether or not Gon gets to be a Hunter, he's put in the first match-up . Plucky and ambitious as ever, he plucks and ambitions his way into a top spot, in a rather prosaic and un-climactic episode. Then in the next episode, after he wakes up from his injuries, he's told that the tournament is already over. This is fine, but the way they do it makes it feel more like a recap episode than anything else, and I was left with a sour taste in my mouth. There's almost no way to successfully build suspense when dramatic experiences are being relayed second-hand. Case in point, the Killua fight was the biggest thing about the tournament, but the dry manner in which it was told sucked all the fun out of it.

I think had we been able to see the events of the tournament for ourselves—in a condensed manner!—the the eventual outcome would've been much more exciting. We would've been right there in the middle of the action, living the events in “real time” along with Killua. Instead, we hear about it from an examiner, and it's told so matter-of-factly that we're not given the time to process the events. This is a really big scene that could've done a lot for the series, but instead, it's wasted due to bad storytelling.

I like Hunter x Hunter a lot, but on a few occasions, I've wished that another set of writers and another director was telling the story. I wonder if the series would be better then.

Status: I'm still in it for the long haul, but these past few episodes were a bit of a let-down. The events were cool—but not the way they were told.


#5 - Another [ep. 5-6]

Okay, I was wrong about Eyepatch Girl. I assumed things about her that turned out to be completely erroneous. At the same time, I'm not necessarily happy that I was wrong. The revelation of the truth really just makes me more convinced that the kids at that school are really dumb and are handling this whole gotta-jump-through-crazy-hoops-to-prevent-everybody-from-dying thing in a bad way. Hell, if I was the school, I'd just ixnay that class permanently, like when hotels skip the 13th floor. I'm not on any school boards or anything, but, “Hey, one of our classes has an insanely high death rate” seems like a poor endorsement for that particular institution.

So basically, there is some kind of evil at this school. The librarian claims it's not an actual “curse,” but it sure is something unsavory. The only way to slow down this evil is to live by a stupid set of rules where the kids pretend like one of their classmates isn't there. Except even then, that doesn't always work. In fact, I think the librarian said it was something like 50%, which seems like a pretty shoddy success rate. And once the deaths start, there's essentially no way to stop them. Essentially, the kids are screwed either way, and their rules are terrible and not well thought out, and somehow the parents just sit back and numbly accept everything.

Who is running this school district, and why hasn't that person been replaced?

I'm not trying to piss on anyone's parade here, but the best part of Another is definitely not its storytelling or its logical problem solving. If anything, the series manages to be entertaining despite its main premise. I like the kooky vibe of the series, the limited animation, the eerie music, the gruesome deaths… all but the fact that this entire series revolves around a ridiculous contrivance that mostly just points to poor academic management. What especially irritates me is that after five episodes of the characters hemming and hawing about their actions, when they finally do reveal what's going on, nobody actually has a reasonable explanation for why they're doing what they're doing. Even the faculty member, whom I'd trust the most, says that it only sort of maybe kind of works 50% of the time. So unless Koichi is about to ring up Mulder and Scully, I don't think we're going to get any concrete answers.

I will say, though, that episode six had a fabulous scene where Koichi has a daydream that he and Misaki seize their opportunity to dance around the classroom and take advantage of their peers' terrible choices. I was deeply disappointed when that ended.

Status: Is it really a horror story when most of the “horror” revolves around some dumb kids and their terrible ideas? Let's go back to the killing.


#6 - Ano Natsu de Matteru [ep. 5-6]

After several episodes, Ano Natsu de Matteru has finally hit its stride. This is the type of love triangle soap opera that fans of such shows want, and it's finally being delivered. Upon finishing the fourth episode, I complained that the characters didn't seem to care about each other. I knew who was supposed to be crushing on whom, based on character archetype alone, but I wasn't convinced that they really liked each other, based on their actions. All of this changed in episode five.

For fans like me who love this kind of thing, episode five is incredibly satisfying. With Kaito and Ichika getting closer every day—and with the unstable situation of them living under the same roof—childhood friend Kanna gets more and more upset. But bless her heart, she's not aggressive enough to actually confess her feelings, so she goes to great lengths to casually drop by his house and see him.

Look, I know that the target audience for shows like Ano Natsu de Matteru is teenage boys. But I'm about to have a heart to heart with my female readers, and explain why shows like this are also deeply appealing to us ladies. Girls, we have all been in one of these situations. Either as Kanna, or Ichika, or Mio, the sweet girl who has a crush on her womanizing friend Tetsuro. I can definitely say that in the past, I've pulled a Kanna and thought, “Oh… I'll totally invent an excuse to call this guy or swing by his house… If I keep it totally casual and off-hand, he won't realize I'm wild about him and that it's killing me inside.” To see other characters do it makes your heart break, and I was so thankful when Tetsuro spilled the beans to Kaito about the situation. Not only was it an incredibly kind thing to do for a friend, but I appreciate a romance show that will lay all the cards on the table up front.

Ichika, despite being the hot new girl in town that everyone's supposed to be jealous of, has her own emotional angst as well. She's crushing on Kaito just as hard, but she's worried about every other woman in his life, including Kanna. It's funny how that works sometimes. Especially since he hasn't had the guts to spill his feelings to anyone yet, and I doubt he even knows what he really wants.

I get it. Ano Natsu is supposed to be the male fantasy where a hot alien and the cute childhood friend (and friends from the past that show up at a beach outing) pine over a guy, but I think there's a lot to be enjoyed by female viewers, too. Especially since the girls are a lot more level-headed and realistic than some of the simpering idiots in other romcoms, like the piece-of-trash harem Shuffle. Kanna and Ichika aren't battling over Kaito—they're just teenage girls who don't know what to do about a crush. It's really compelling. Honestly, I'd skip the first four episodes, and just start from five. The alien backstory isn't nearly as interesting as the love triangle.

Status: I was getting really bored with this series, but it really turned around in episode 5. I'm looking forward to seeing where this goes.


#7 - Listen To Me, Girls, I'm Your Father [ep. 5-6]

Listen to Me, Girls, is 60% cute, 30% irritating, and 10% just really creepy. For every “awwww” that the series inspires from me, there is inevitably some kind of repulsive recoil. Right now I'm thinking about Shuntaro, Yuta's employer/friend who is way too into little girls to justify his feelings as just “moe.” In episode five, when he calls Yuta's cell and gets Miu on the line, he practically pants himself into a fervor, imagining her as a supple young, prepubescent angel. Then later, when he hears Hina's voice, his boner of joy at her age made me want to hurl things at my screen. One can't even use the excuse, “Oh, he just thinks kids are cute,” because even Yuta acknowledged that he was dangerous and creepy.

On the upside, that's really the worst of it. I'm still uncomfortable with how the show won't let this whole Yuta/Sora one-sided crush die. I realize they're not blood-related, but because he's her guardian now, I'd like there to be a stronger line drawn. If there's a Team Sora out there, I'm not in it.

It's unfortunate that these questionable moments have to be in the series, because it really detracts from some genuinely enjoyable moments. The episode where they go back to their house for the first time since their parents' death was bittersweet. Having personally never lived through such a tragedy, I can't even begin to imagine how hard it must be, especially for young children. More than all the scenes combined of the girls shopping or trying to cook dinner, this one episode shows just how strong they really are. I wish there were more moments in the series like this. I don't need to see Sora trudging through the rain to know she's trying her best—the fact that the girls can even sleep in their old house shows me how fast they've had to mature.

Ultimately, it's also episodes like this one that make me appreciate more what Yuta is doing for the girls, by giving them a chance to grieve and support each other. One shot of the girls clutching a photo of their parents is worth a hundred shots of the girls curled up next to him in bed. It makes me wonder if maybe the show doesn't really know the difference. It's disappointing that the series starts with a tragedy that gives so much legroom for emotional and impactful writing, but chooses to wallow in filth and cheap laughs instead. We'll see how things go.

Status: Listen to Me, Girls has a lot to work with, but I don't know if the writers know how to use their material. I don't think the incessant comic relief is really that necessary, and I think the show could benefit from focusing on what it's good at—the sisterly bond between the girls—and less on trying to force cheap laughs.


#8 - Lagrange ~The Flower of Rin-Ne~ [ep. 6-7]

I always watch this show last in my rotation. Not because I want to save it for last, but because I never want to watch it. Try as I might, I just can't bring myself to really care about the characters and the predicament they're in. I still dislike Madoka and her thick-headed optimism, and I dislike Lan for every time she “woof”s at the camera.

Beyond the characters, though, my main problem with Lagrange is that it just feels shallow. Even when the characters are going through emotionally tough times, I feel like the series is just going through the paces set by another show. We see the aftermath of Muginami's fight with “Brother,” but despite all the flashbacks to her home planet, we aren't really given enough substance to tie that in with what's going on in the show. We've only barely scratched the surface of why the aliens are invading in the first place—padding that with a semi-tragic story doesn't do much to bolster the big picture. One could argue that these small character interactions make up for it, but when the entire conceit of the series revolves some aliens and a lot of hand-waving, it doesn't give viewers much to go on.

We do see something new in the Vox mythos though—upon having a strong emotional reaction, Madoka manages to level up her machine. It's not really shown or explained, but there's a huge burst of energy and green flowers start raining down from the sky—the flowers of Rin-ne. What that really means has yet to be seen. Then again, that's true of most of the motives in the show, on both sides of the war.

Lagrange has potential, but I don't think it's living up to it. It wants to treat the war as a serious thing, but the series doesn't really lend the conflict the gravitas to pull it off. Neither the protagonists nor the villains have really tried to establish an emotional connection with the audience, and ultimately, that may be the source of my boredom. When I can't root for or against any side, the conflict becomes meaningless.

Status: Lagrange continues to putter along in my book. I don't dislike it enough to drop it, but I certainly don't like it enough to enjoy it every week.


#9 - Inu X Boku SS [ep. 5-6]

I'm done with this show. Yeah, it's kind of funny every now and again, and the last episode ended on some kind of snake woman monster fight, but it's not been a satisfying viewing experience. The pacing in Inu X Boku SS is incredibly stilted, and I feel like it bounces around between side stories with the attention span of a gerbil. First there'll be a side story about one of the agents, then they'll go on a shopping trip and something will happen, then an old flame comes back but he's a total S&M freak, then there'll be a—enough. There is too much unimportant crap going on in this show, for a show that basically has nothing going for it. The whole “throwback demons” premise was so threadbare that it was explained again in the sixth episode, just to remind viewers that the series had a reason to exist.

I really enjoyed Inu x Boku SS for the first few episodes. I thought Ririchiyo was incredibly sweet (and still do), and I found her strange relationship with Shoushi to be charming, if not a bit odd. My one condition on continuing with it, though, was that it develop into something more substantive. It didn't. The last five minutes of episode six had a glimmer of hope with a demon fight, but I didn't feel it was that much stronger than the random demon fight in the second episode. We've basically been wandering around in filler episodes for half a season now. Life is too short for this nonsense.

Inu x Boku SS is another one of those shows that has good starting material but doesn't know what to do with it. It has a ton of great scenes dispersed into the series, mostly involving Ririchiyo, but they're not expanded on. Some of the best moments are the flashbacks where Ririchiyo talks about never getting attention from her parents, or the scenes where her hard exterior cracks long enough to show how much she cares about people. But inevitably, those scenes are quickly ushered away, and we're back to more empty filler. The entire ordeal where Ririchiyo's fiancé pointed at inanimate objects and proclaimed them as either sadists or masochists was long and dull, and it was then that I realized the show itself was a sadist.

At the end of the day, the cute factor of the show just isn't enough to carry it. I appreciate it for painting Ririchiyo as a truly complex and pleasant protagonist, but the series just wasn't going anywhere.

Status: Dropped, like a sack of potatos. Boil 'em, mash 'em, stick 'em in a stew. Except potatoes are at least hearty and delicious, whereas Inu x Boku SS was meager and thin. More like cabbage soup.

Alright crazy kids, that's my bit for this round. Agree or disagree? Want to start a fight? Head on over to the Talkback forum and hash it out there. If you're into the social medias, you can follow me in the Twitterverse at @ann_bamboo. See you next week!

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