A Brewer's Dozen
by Bamboo Dong,
1 (1) Space Brothers
2 (2) Polar Bear Cafe
3 (7) Tari Tari
4 (6) Kokoro Connect
5 (8) Binbogami Ga!
6 (4) Humanity Has Declined
7 (3) Natsuyuki Rendezvous
8 (5) Sword Art Online
9 (11) Kuroko's Basketball
10 (10) Hunter x Hunter
11 (9) Utakoi
12 (x) The Ambition of Oda Nobuna
13 (13) Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse
Let's dive in.
I will give Space Brothers kudos. I thought I knew where it was going with the astronaut selection process based on the characters it was profiling, but it seems I was thrown for a loop. Not only does the final selection process still have a lot of open ends, but the series is doing a really great job of giving every character ample screen time.
Furuya, who's mostly been cast as the irritating brat this entire series, finally gets his moment in the spotlight. A couple episodes ago, we see a brief glimpse of the earnest guy inside him—the space nut that wrote a fan letter to a scientist—but in the most recent episode, we finally see what drives him. As it turns out, he's a much more complex character than originally we thought, and he's survived his fair share of personal hardship. To characterize his attitude problem as a Napolean Complex isn't that far of a stretch at all, and one begins to feel a bit sorry for him.
It's nice to have a show in which one feels so close to almost all the characters. At this point, I definitely want all of them to realize their dreams to become astronauts, but I know that won't happen. I love that Space Brothers has made me feel personally attached to the outcome of the selection process, and it's done so in a way that's been both riveting and heartwarming.
Status: I think no matter who ends up being rejected from JAXA, I will be sad. I maybe wouldn't care for some of the auxiliary characters, but all of the people whom Mutta has interacted with up until this point have a soft spot in my heart, and I wish them all well. Even though they're fictional characters. That's how well this show has developed its characters.
It's true—king penguin chicks really do look like dirty mops. I know this because after the incredible episode 19, I went on a 30-minute Google and Youtube spiral on king penguins. Emperor penguin chicks are cute, but my god, the angry, mangy stares of the king penguins… too cute for words. Every couple of weeks, I seem to say, “THIS was the best episode ever!” but this time, episode 19 wins. Mostly focusing on the expansive set of penguins that reside within the magical world of Polar Bear Cafe, it not only delivers some interesting (and slightly self-deprecating) facts on penguin etymology, but features the cutest penguin chick friendship of all time. Throw in more of Penguin's problems with his brood of Penkos, and you've got an unforgettable episode.
I try my best to not just regurgitate jokes in reviews, but I have to pull out this example of why I continue to love Polar Bear Cafe: when another human character visits the cafe and tries to introduce himself, Polar Bear deadpans, “I just call him Human.” Considering most of the animal characters in the series are just referred to by their animal name (Penkos not withstanding), this is a killer line. I'm glad the writers have a good sense of humor and are aware of the absurdities in the series. That self-awareness makes Polar Bear Cafe one of the best comedies I've ever seen, and the extra wit is appreciated.
I've talked to several people who have all told me that Polar Bear Cafe is somewhere on their “To Watch” list. The only thing I can say to that is, people need to hurry up and just watch this already. It's only getting better with every new episode, and you're missing out by not watching it now.
Status: Every time I think I've hit a plateau of love for Polar Bear Cafe, another great episode comes along. Both 19 and 20 were good, but the first half of 19? Priceless. Bonus: it's also insanely cute.
Tari Tari has improved by leaps and bounds. The characters are coming alive, and when they feel sad, we feel with them. Wakana's story touched me deeply, not only in the way her regrets and remorse about the way she treated her mother in the final days of her life fueled her depression, but also the way she picked herself up and learned to move forward. When she told her father to get rid of her piano, I think I was more upset than even she was, so when she welcomed it back, I cheered.
In high school, we had to read a short story by Willa Cather called “A Wagner Matinee” about an older woman who gave up a career in teaching music in order to move out to the countryside with her husband. When she revisits Boston with her nephew and listens to the symphony, she can only weep. The entire time I was watching Wakana struggle with the promise she made with her mother to write a song, I couldn't help but think of that story. For those who grew up with music, giving it up is near impossible.
Seamlessly transitioning into Sawa's story, we see that she has dreams she doesn't want to give up, either. In her case, it's her love of riding and her dream of becoming a jockey, but she's being blocked not only by her father's wishes, but also by the weight limitation set by the riding school. Earlier in the season, I complained that Tari Tari was too fluffy, and that none of the characters had any real problems. I was wrong. While I still have misgivings about some aspects of the choir club (why is that vice principal still such a giant bitch?), I recognize now that it serves as a catalyst for these characters to really get to know each other, and each other's worries.
Tari Tari has shot up in my rankings over the past few weeks, and I don't anticipate that stopping any time soon. Now if only the series would give me a reason to stop hating the vice principal.
Status: Another strong set of episodes. I'm glad I hung onto this one.
Heartseed is up to his crazy shenanigans again, but this time, he's messing with the Student Cultural Club by forcing them to act on their deepest desires. This is a welcome change of pace for Kokoro Connect, especially after they pulled that hospital stunt with Iori. Whereas I thought the body switch “arc” had unnaturally quick pacing, I think this current plot device fits the series much better. Yes, the body switching was a pretty efficient tactic that allowed the characters to (literally) step into each other's shoes, but with so many characters switching so often, it got hard to follow all of them and do each character revelation justice. In comparison, having each of the characters unleash their desires is a much more reliable way to get to know them.
One example is Yui, whose fear of men I thought was brought up, and resolved, a little too quickly during the course of the body switching. However, this time around, when she sees a group of men badgering some girl, she snaps and sends a bunch of the guys to the hospital. While this serves to not only highlight just how terrified and angry she is at predatory men, it also assuages my worries that they glossed over her past way too easily. Clearly, that's not the case. And also, her remorse afterward goes a long way to illustrate how not in control she feels of her emotions. In an eloquent follow-up, when her friend apologizes for yelling at her, she points out that the apology is useless because the actions represent what one's truly feeling.
It was a nice surprise to have Kokoro Connect shake things up the way they did. I was a little worried that the body swapping had nowhere else to go after the hospital incident, but now it's getting a pair of fresh legs. Plus, watching the characters try to logically figure out how to circumvent tragic situations is a step above the come-what-may attitude that seemed to pervade the first arc. I'm having a good time with this new twist, and I'm looking forward to what will happen next.
Status: Heartseed may be playing these kids like a fiddle for sport, but from a viewers' perspective, this is a nice change of pace. Having the kids act out on their suppressed desires is clever, and I'm wondering if they'll be able to weather this new challenge.
Although this show might appear a little rough around the edges with its hyperactive energy and over-the-top slapstick, it's got a surprising amount of heart. Under her cocky exterior, Ichiko is a really sweet girl, and there are a lot of great moments where she reveals a much softer, much more endearing side. The set of episodes where Ichiko becomes mini Michiko are funny, but the best moment is by far the one where she realizes that her overabundance of luck can't make up for the one thing she lacks. This moment is amplified when a new student transfer into her class and Ichiko has a chance to put aside her competitive nature to stick up for the new girl.
Sweet scenes aside, Binbogami ga! has also been consistently delivering the laughs. It not only has the kind of referential humor that anime fans love, but it does it in a way that's clever and not too lazy. It drives me nuts when series and movies use referential humor as a cheap replacement for real comedy, but Binbogami ga! does it in a way that flows naturally. It's also the first to point out when it uses a stereotype, which helps nudge the scale from trite to satirical.
Part of me worried that the series would get lost in its LOOK AT ME!!! circus of crazy characters and wacky, mad-cap action, but with the past couple of episodes, it's shown itself to be capable of introspection and more heartfelt moments. I love the catfights between Ichiko and the poverty god, but I love even more the scenes in which Ichiko can truly be herself. It's a breath of fresh air in this otherwise frenetic comedy.
Status: The more I watch this series, the better I like it. The comedy is fun and enjoyable, and I'm glad that Ichiko is moving away from just being a one-note character.
While I've largely been enjoying Humanity Has Declined and its cynical humor, I wasn't head over heels for the last arc. It had its moments, sure, mostly involving those ever-creepy fairies, but I grew tired of this story a little too soon. Moving a little further back in time, we get to see a fun little time paradox, whereupon our protagonist meets the Assistant for the first time… after a few tries. Sent on an errand to go pick him up, our mediator keeps getting shuffled back to the same point on different time loops. It sort of raises an interesting point about people's identities as seen through others' eyes, but it got a little muddled along the way.
I like the idea of stories where people keep having to relive the same event over and over again, except with mild changes each time much more than the actual execution of them, possibly with the exception of Groundhog Day. In execution, I really don't want to see anything more than maybe two or three times, especially if nothing is really being added in subsequent iterations. New things kept popping up in these episodes of Humanity Has Declined—more copies of the protagonist would be made, or there'd be different models of fairy bananas available… but because they're all as nonsensical as everything else, it didn't really add anything. Changing the wallpaper in a room doesn't make it a different house.
Luckily, with Humanity Has Declined, we only have to sit through every arc for two episodes. If it's an awesome arc, I enjoy myself immensely for 44 minutes, and if I'm not as intrigued, then at least I know we'll soon be on to the next one. I hate on the creepy fairies a lot, but they were the saving grace this time around.
Status: Not my favorite. I love time loops as much as the next sci-fi nerd, but this one got old fast.
I'm starting to wonder if Atsushi will ever vacate Ryosuke's body. His invasion has provided us with some great moments, but I'm ready for the story to move on. I'm tired of seeing Ryosuke piddle around in storybook Thumbelina dreamworld land, and I'm tired of seeing Atsushi jerk Rokka around with his (understandable) mood swings. I get that he doesn't quite know what he himself wants—he'd like to be intimate with his wife again, but resents having to do it in another man's body—but the more he muddles Ryosuke's character, the less I'm sure I really understand Rokka's character.
There was one scene in particular that I really loved, though. After Rokka once again backs away from an intimate moment with Atsushi/Ryosuke, he tells her that she's yet to really seriously refuse one of his advances, and that she should stop using her dead husband as an excuse. This is a telling moment, especially coming from Atsushi, that both resigns him to the realities of Rokka's feelings, and also acts as a gentle prod that it's okay for her to move on with her life. He has a difficult time of it, of course, but it's seeming like the relationship between Rokka and Ryosuke won't be stalemated forever.
Still, while it's understandable that Atsushi/Ryosuke and Rokka both have a lot of unresolved feelings to explore, it doesn't really feel like their relationship going anywhere. Because of this ghost-in-a-man's-body twist, the relationship development that's occurring isn't actually occurring, and as a result, any plot developments feel impotent. The series is hinting as though they'll rescue Ryosuke out of Dreamland soon, and that's a relief. The body swap was interesting for a while, but now I'm anxious for the new relationship to actually materialize.
Status: I like that Atsushi is seeming a little more willing to let his wife move on, but I don't know that dwelling on this body swap is the best way to push things forward. Things are getting messy, so I hope they clean things up soon.
Yeah, Kirito is totally a Gary Stu. Psycho super programmer serial killer premise aside, most of the action in Sword Art Online now involves Kirito wandering around various towns, getting girls to fawn over him. The basic structure of Sword Art Online is this: Kirito meets a girl who either wants an item, or is hiding from someone, or needs to kill something, or is good at making bread or whatever, and then he helps them do something. He kills something, or protects someone, and then at the end, he tells them that he's actually part of the lead party that's helping to forge the path to everyone's eventual rescue from the game. When he finds time to help out this lead party is a mystery. It seems that he actually spends most of his time dicking around villages looking for girls to impress.
What I've liked the most about the past few episodes of Sword Art Online is that it's bringing to light the real villains of this world—other humans. Sure, psycho programmer dude is the giant mega overlord mastermind of this entire circus, but we haven't really heard from him at all. Now, the biggest evils are the player killers that are running amok, either out of malice or ego, or just out of sheer disbelief that Psycho Programmer's threats are real.
While I'm mostly okay with the completely episodic nature of Sword Art Online, I really wish the series would give us a glimpse of what's going on in the real world. I want to know how the authorities are dealing with this situation. I want to know if there are any engineers at work trying to figure out how to remove these helmets without triggering the kill device. I want to know how they managed to move the players into hospitals without unplugging their helmets first. Why aren't scenes of player deaths matched with real world scenes of people crying and mourning? There are a million unanswered questions that are vastly more interesting than whether or not Kirito receives a rare item that are being denied the light of day. Yeah, it's great that Kirito is a teenager's escapist fantasy come to life (black garb and all), but isn't the real world component of this premise equally interesting?
At the very least, I wish the series would show us what the lead party is up to. Aside from the confrontation with all the player killers, that's where all the real danger is. I want to see what's going on at the front lines, instead of just Kirito's Big Dicking Around Town Adventure. I still look forward to watching Sword Art Online every week, but it's leaving a lot of items on my wish list.
Status: Sword Art Online is still fun to watch, in a brainless, sword-bashing kind of way, but it's really not living up to its potential at all. Why won't it address the elephant in the room, which is that there are still hundreds of thousands of people trapped in a video game and presumably people in the outside world are working to remedy this? Show me the goods, SAO.
What Kuroko's Basketball desperately needed was a loss, and it finally got it. Sure, the stakes for the last tournament weren't as high as we were previously led to believe because there's another big, giant, super tournament right around the corner, but a loss is a loss. After Seiren was crushed by Aomine's team, they lost their will to keep fighting and eventually fell apart. What follows is some much-needed character development. Both Kagami and Kuroko are battling their own doubts and are questioning how much further they can go in basketball, while a returning team member shakes things up a bit. What makes this set of episodes so much better than the ones preceding them, though, is that finally, we see the unrelenting optimism of the Seiren basketball team finally crack.
There are lodes of inspirational quotes about how one must pick oneself up after loss and defeat. That everyone must lose at some point in their lives is inevitable, but how they conduct themselves afterward is what defines the rest of their existence. This is that pivotal moment for the Seiren basketball team. Frankly, it's about damned time. It was cool watching the boys zip around a basketball court for a dozen and a half episodes, with blue laser passes and impossible jump blocks, but it's even cooler watching them struggle with defeat. We learn more about Kuroko in these two episodes than we have in the past 18 episodes combined, and it's an appreciated change.
Judging from how Kuroko's Basketball has been paced so far, I don't know if we can expect this period of character development to last too long before the looming Winter Classic comes 'round the bend, but it's a good break from the endless games. I'm a little tired of hearing about the Generation of Miracles, but I'm thankful that for the first time, we're really learning how Kuroko fit in with that team, and what it means to him to become a noted basketball player in his own right. Kuroko's Basketball has been a nonstop highlights reel up until now, but I'm happy for the chance to actually get to know our main characters a little bit more.
Status: Something about the continual adrenaline and suspense in Kuroko's Basketball has kept me hooked up until now, but I'm relishing the opportunity to actually learn more about our protagonists outside their super basketball skills.
This show is harsh! It does not hold back on the gruesomeness at all, nor does it lack in unique ways to kill people. Kurapika and the other bodyguards are finding themselves up against some members of the Phantom Troupe, and let me tell you, there are few grosser ways to kill someone than letting leeches lay eggs inside someone's bladder and eat themselves alive from the inside. Oh my gosh. Part of me cheered the creativity of Hunter x Hunter, while part of me felt sick to my stomach. Throw in some crazy body-sucking Nen vacuums and people who spit their enemies' skull fragments back at them, and you've got a couple of episodes that really up the ante in the killing department.
Back during the Heaven's Arena arc, I remember noting to myself that Hunter x Hunter has a really diverse set of villains. Luckily, the creative well is deep and well-sourced, because the gamut of creative villains has yet to dry up. I've been digging this darker alternative of the Yewnork City arc to Gon's happy-go-lucky adventure, and I'm eagerly waiting for Kurapika to unleash the beast. Should be a good time.
Status: The fact that Hunter x Hunter still makes me say, “Oh sh--!” out loud while I'm watching it is testament to its ability to keep pulling out surprises episode after episode. This latest slew of villains has been top notch.
Right after I praised Utakoi for using recurring characters to knit a tighter story, it took a phenomenal nosedive in the sixth episode. Whereas I thought the recurring characters would be good to, you know, delve more into their romantic entanglements and share their poetry, the show thought, “Hey, now that we have these main characters set up, let's just throw them into this wacky dog ‘n’ pony show.” Episode six is one big filler episode, in which the characters are shoehorned into anachronistic situations. Some of them take part in a television program, while a few of them are part of a “Grand Prix” ox cart race. If you're watching this series and you haven't quite gotten to that episode yet, you can safely skip this episode.
In general, I wish Utakoi would cut out the cutesy nonsense, including the narrations at the beginning of each episode. They don't really serve any purpose. We're not really given any insight as to why any of the poems were chosen for the compilations, or even any character introductions. All we see is Fujiwara in goofy situations, like chilling out at the beach or hanging out at a construction site. Does anyone even like this character enough to enjoy the minor thrill of seeing him in different scenarios?
By the time episode seven rolls around, things are back to the same ol' love stories, this time with a new set of characters. One guy picks up the courage to finally visit the woman he's wooing, rather than perpetually sending her letters, while another tries to convince a woman that he'll be a faithful husband. The latter story pleasantly surprised me with the main female protagonist's outspokenness about her expectations for marital fidelity. Rather than grinning and bearing womanizing behavior like many women of her time were expected to do, she simply refused to give in to her suitor, waiting first for a promise of fidelity. Sure, in this story it worked out and he never reneged on his word, but it was nice to even have a female character (especially in a story that takes place in the 1200s) put her expectations and desires ahead of what was socially expected of her.
I'm a little disappointed Utakoi didn't keep going in the direction I was hoping it would go in, with the previous set of characters, but the most recent set of stories will likely continue to deliver the same romantic goods that viewers have come to expect. Episode six was absolutely abysmal, but the rest… well, it's just more of the same. If you like one-off love stories, then this isn't so bad. A lukewarm recommendation indeed.
Status: Utakoi kind of led me astray when it seemed to promise a more complex storyline with recurring characters. However, that met a fiery end, and now we're back to square one. It's disappointing, but it's not much worse than the slighty-above-mediocre stories it was telling earlier.
I was convinced to check out Oda Nobuna again after some readers felt like I ousted it too early. I will admit that while subsequent episodes have been more entertaining than the ones I watched, and the show wins plenty of Cute Girl points, the problems that I had with the series have not entirely been alleviated. Namely, because the series is following the chronological events of a period of history that the target audience should already be familiar with, it goes too fast. Each new major player barely gets enough screen time to make an impact, unless the historical figure in question is a cute girl, which in that case she gets added to the collection like Pokemon. There are so many battles and strategy meetings that I wish the series would just slowwwwww down and let viewers enjoy each one a little more.
One of the episodes I liked the most did exactly that—it slowed things way down, and actually allowed the dramatic tension to build up. In this episode, Monkey advises Oda that if she wants to occupy a strategic area, she needs to build a fortress overnight. While she and some of her fighters create a diversion, the rest of the people get to work erecting this structure. Things don't go exactly according to plan, but in that interim, things are actually suspenseful and exciting. We all know Oda and her troops are going to make it back to the fortress on time, but how will the skirmish play out? What will be the immediate aftermath? There is a way to make past events fresh again. With historical series, it's not about the landmark events—it's about the journey leading up to them. The Ambition of Oda Nobuna's biggest fault is that it doesn't dwell on the journey enough.
For the time being, I'm going to keep watching this series because I'm curious how far history will diverge, but I'm forever struggling with the pacing in this show. There's a lot of history to cover, but the series is much too ambitious. That's not a pun on the series' title, but it ought to be.
Status: The Ambition of Oda Nobuna's version of history just feels too frantic. There are a lot of historical figures to cover, and lots of important battles to go over, but I think the series bit off more than it could chew.
I am a total sucker for shows and movies where, even in the midst of a giant war against aliens/zombies/demons/overlords/whatever, we learn that the Great Enemy is actually other humans. I eat that crap up. (Note how I can't stop watching Sword Art Online! Player killers! Love that stuff!) On that same token, I like that Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse is doing that thing where the human characters are constantly butting heads with each other, despite being in the middle of an alien crisis. However, this show is really playing the race card pretty hard.
I found the conflict between Yuuya and Yui to be really interesting at the start of their relationship. Despite having to deal with racism growing up, Yuuya still had to put up with flak from Yui for being an American, a duality that I thought worked well to set up his character. At some point, though, I suspected the horse was not just tired, but dead. There's only so much, “Americans suck!” “Yeah, well, the Japanese are terrible” one can watch before it starts to feel forced. The two characters eventually reach a truce, but it's not without some forced bonding, like when you put pets in a moving car and hope they bond out of fear.
Once we think that's over, though, nope! Fake out! Now the whole gang has to go to Russia, where there are really hostile Georgians and Kazakhs who threaten to rape the Russian girls because there's bad blood between the countrymen. Enough already. Yeah, humans can be total dickbags. Nationalism really gets in the way of cooperation sometimes! But if this entire show is going to awkwardly shove geopolitical noise in every frame, then it needs to find a new melody to hum. As I said earlier, I love human conflict. It's interesting. But even that needs to be crafted better than just, “Look how much this country hates that country!” That's just getting lazy.
Status: I fear that Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse is trying too hard to get people to take it seriously. It's possible to write human drama without everyone just hating each other all the time.
It seems that every week, I watch Moyashimon Returns and just wistfully wish that it was more like the first series. It's like listening to a favorite band's new album and just wishing you were listening to their previous hits instead. For me, I'm interested enough in Moyashimon Returns… but I think it's mostly out of nostalgia for the first season.
I don't think the characters' lives are nearly as interesting in this season, and so far, the only “big” thing that's happened is Haruka's secret marriage and disappearance to Europe. It's sort of interesting? But the more I think about it, the more I realize I don't really care about why her father is setting up this marriage for her, and I don't really care if her coworkers track her down or not. The fiancé hasn't really been set up as anyone but this doofy bit character, and we don't really know any more about this arranged marriage than the other agro students. At the end of the day, I'd much rather sit around learning sake facts.
Someday, I'll sit back down and marathon the rest of Moyashimon Returns. Right now, it doesn't seem pressing. It doesn't seem like this season has a concrete trajectory and the characters seem like they exist mostly to fill up space. I like the idea of this franchise a lot, but right now, it's not holding my interest enough week to week to keep watching.
Status: Dropped, sadly. I was excited for this new season, but I just don't look forward to watching new episodes every week. Maybe some other time.
The number of women in So, I Can't Play H! has reached a saturation point. I was digging Ryosuke's ridiculous perv powers while he was just finding new and improved ways to be a total skeeze, but at some point, the series went from Ryosuke just finding silly (and dirty) ways to help Lisara, and every grim reaper in town deciding to throw themselves at him. It's one thing for Lisara to grudgingly accept Ryosuke's help while she's looking for the “Singular Man,” and along the way appreciate that he was willing to “train” to recharge his energy faster, but it's another for all these other women to somehow hail Ryosuke as this super hunk.
Around the time that I rapidly fell out of love with So, I Can't Play H!, Ryosuke had decided that the best way for him to increase his perv powers was to memorize the dictionary. This didn't quite make sense to me, but here was the show's reasoning for it—basically, by improving his vocabulary, it would help fuel his creativity so he could think of more erotic situations.
Really? Would this really require the memorization of an entire dictionary? And the page numbers of each of the words? I would understand if he was just trying to up his SAT scores, but I don't know that reciting to oneself, “Page 456, cilantro” would really be an efficient catalyst to dream up a pervy scenario.
Anyway, Ryosuke gains the most useless “super power” ever and all the girls go nuts for him. They also discover that he's the mythical Graham that they're looking for, and then they go even more nuts for him. Now he can not only recite a dictionary, but also pull a sword out of his chest. It was the most logical progression for the series to follow, but I think somewhere along the way, the series lost its sense of fun for a much more generic, R-rated harem show. The second the series switched over from being this goofy, blatant excuse for fanservice into this degrading display of women fawning over him, my candle went out. I've mentioned before that my criteria for fanservice depends heavily on intent, and this series has finally tripped my trigger.
Status: It was fun while it lasted, but I'm getting weary at the increasing number of women that I have to keep track of. The boob parade has turned into this weird, tacit Stockholm Syndromey approval of Ryosuke's perviness, and now it's time for me to bow out.
The list is finally getting whittled down to a manageable size! What do you think about the standings? Head on over to the Talkback forum to hash things out. You can also follow me on Twitter at @ANN_Bamboo to continue the discussion. Thanks for reading!
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