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by Bamboo Dong,

I hope everyone had a wonderful Labor Day weekend! I had intended on going out and doing something exciting, like loitering on the beach or going for a bike ride, but I pretty much spent my whole weekend playing Tetris. It's kind of incredible—despite all the $60 games that I have, I find that I still get the biggest kick out of the $5 classics. Except now every time I close my eyes, all I can see are infinite Tetris blocks falling through the sky. Apparently this is a documented phenomenon, so I can rest easy knowing that I'm not alone in my craziness.

We're nearing the end of this season, and most of the shows only have a few more episodes to go. What have you all thought about the summer's offerings? I don't regret dropping any of the shows that I've stopped watching. There are still a couple titles left on my viewing list that I feel blase about, but for the most part, I'm fairly happy with the much smaller list that I've ended up with.

Oh, and on someone's recommendation, I watched another episode of So, I Can't Play H! While I appreciate that the scenery has shifted and now we get to kick it in Lisara's world, I had to repeat my resounding "No!" after watching a maid ride someone's face. But hey, if that trots through your wildest fantasies, then you're welcome, because now you know where to look.

Let's dive in.

#1 - Space Brothers [ep. 22]

Finally, the conclusion to what we've been wanting to know all along—who made it to Houston. It's… surprisingly satisfying. I'm just as surprised with the people who didn't make it, as I am surprised by the people who did. Namely, I thought the series was setting us up for all the characters we were supposed to root for, but it did almost the opposite. What it did was make us care for many of the characters, so that we'd be shocked and upset when they didn't make the cut. After learning how badly some of the various examinees wanted to be astronauts, as well as their personal motivations and the sacrifices that they've made, it's even more head-turning that some of them won't see their dreams come true.

Now that the action's moving back to Houston, I think we're going to be in for some sweet space jargon and space nerdery. Space Brothers has never skimped on the details, and I've always appreciated this, even if the side effect is that it slows down the pacing. We'll likely get some good training exercises and peek in on some mission briefings, and I'm very excited for this. In my childhood, my family and I spent a summer in Galveston, and on the weekends, I'd always beg to go to the space center up in Houston. I was obsessed with space at the time, and that's carried over into my love for Space Brothers. Whatever our new crew is going to learn in Houston is going to be a delight, and I for one am super stoked.

Status: While we say goodbye to some of the characters that we've grown to like over the past several weeks, we'll probably get a whole new crew of lively personalities to like in Houston. I can't wait!

#2 - Polar Bear Cafe [ep. 21-22]

The greatest joke in Polar Bear Cafe is that no one can tell penguins apart. It's true. Until I watched this series, I barely even knew there were more than four, maybe five different types of penguins. When you go to the zoo, you simply go to the “Penguin Pool” and sometimes there are signs that point out the difference between the ones with the yellow feathers on their head, and the little ones with the spots on their face. In Polar Bear Cafe, the penguins of this wonderful town have decided that they need to make penguin cards so the ignorant denizens of the world will learn to eventually tell the difference between the seventeen species of penguin that exist. Even other animals can't tell them apart—Panda barely even tries to recognize the differences, while Polar Bear is tickled by the difficulty of this task.

But, what makes this whole scenario beautiful, is that Penguin himself can't even tell the difference between the bevy of penguin ladies that are after him. Why they haven't told him to shove off yet is a mystery, but it's a solid joke, albeit one that's creeping towards its expiration date. It's a cheeky jibe, too—us humans certainly can't tell one emperor penguin apart from another, so why would Penguin be able to?

At this point, I'm slowly learning that I like the penguin episodes of Polar Bear Cafe most of all. It's when the writing is the most cohesive, because the writers have been able to build up this nest of jokes over several episodes. The Penko gag has been going on for quite some time now, and those cute little baby penguins? Cut me open with a knife, because they are too cute.

In contrast, I don't quite like the other bits as much, simply because they are a little more random. It's hit or miss. The episode where Panda's sister decides she has a crush on Mr. Hanada… well, that's just weird. It's smile-funny, but perhaps not laugh-out-loud-funny, though that's completely subjective. Still, a not-so-funny episode of Polar Bear Cafe is better than a lot of the comedies out there, so I'll take it with gusto. Especially if that means I get to see awkward and slightly disturbing things like Panda masquerading as other animals at the zoo.

Status: Polar Bear Cafe is a fantastic thing. I'm not slapping my knees at every episode, but I'm firmly in love with 90% of them, so that's a pretty good success rate.

#3 - Tari Tari [ep. 9-10]

I'll admit it. I was ready to drop some hate bombs all over these two episodes of Tari Tari because I thought they were silly and senseless, but I was proven wrong again. I need to just learn to give this series some credit, because every time I roll my eyes, it shows me up an episode or two later.

In order to raise some money for the school festival, the choir club (that also plays badminton sometimes) gets Evil Bitch Lady's permission to hold a part-time after-school job. They end up doing some advertising for a local shopping center by dressing up as super sentai heroes and putting on shows. This is where Wien comes in, who's obsessed with a super sentai show on TV. He's the most enthused about the project, but his shining moment comes when a petty thief snags a tote from the group. Wien dashes after him, unrelenting, and events culminate in a confrontation that involves the choir members cheesily singing a sentai theme song.

Sometimes I feel awkward watching this show because there are some seriously cheesy moments. They're pure of heart, to be sure, and well-intentioned, but whenever the characters spontaneously break out into song to show solidarity, the cynical part of me rolls my eyes. I couldn't help but do the same when I saw our costumed pals sing in unison as they walked toward the thief, but it was a sweet moment. Wien hasn't gotten that much screen time up until this point, so it was nice to see him participate in something that held a lot of personal meaning for him.

Now that we've covered most of the characters, there's one very large puzzle piece remaining—the vice principal. We know that much of her cold exterior and anger towards the choir club is because of Wakana's mother, but it's still a story that needs to be told. We've seen glimpses here and there of her relationship with Wakana's mother and how deeply it's affected her, but I think it'll be the bow on this series. Tari Tari has been great so far, and I'm optimistic for a strong ending.

Status: Only a few more episodes to go, with things culminating at the school festival. The series has done a solid job of characterizing all of the choir members, and there's just one more major player left. I have very high hopes for these last few episodes.

#4 - Binbogami Ga! [ep. 8-9]

Look at that, Ichiko's cold heart is slowly melting away. Underneath, she's just a vulnerable girl after all, who wants girl friends and a nice boy, and her whole act is just a cover-up for who she is inside. Aww. After several episodes of crazy, high-energy hijinks, we're starting to see a new side of our main protagonist. We've known all along she's had a sweet side—she's helped Ranmaru stand up to her father, and she's had a few pensive moments, but for the first time, we get a glimpse of why she acts so aloof and tough. It's not really the most original backstory, but it works well enough, and it does plenty to help set the stage for her actions.

As usual, the otaku humor in Binbogami Ga! continues to deliver, and in the most recent set of episodes, we get some great references, from Prince of Tennis to One Piece. The references flash by pretty quickly, but they're there for just the right amount of time. Most of them are visual—characters are drawn in another art style, or they'll do some signature move, and nine episodes later, it's still funny. I appreciate that the writers know how to hit a joke and quit it, before it has a chance to stagnate.

I've been happy with the way that Binbogami Ga! has been progressing. As awkward as the episode was in which the mean girls at Ichiko's school try to “punish” her for stealing on the boys' attentions, it's been nice seeing her open up to Ranmaru. The two are an unlikely pair, but I'm liking watching their friendship grow, and it's adding a softer dimension to the series.

Status: Adding Ranmaru to the cast was the best thing this show ever did. She was a fun addition a few episodes back, in terms of just having someone else with a loud personality, but she's also a great catalyst for Ichiko to reveal her inner self.

#5 - Kokoro Connect [ep. 8-9]

It's amazing how Heartseed's latest trick—making the club members act out their deepest desires—is affecting the characters in a much more powerful way than when they were just switching bodies. When you're somebody else, the worst you can do is maybe commit crimes or something, or muddle with someone's trust. But when you can't control yourself, and the dark tendencies you have within… well, I guess that's even scarier. It's the old proverb that “you're your worst enemy,” and in this case it's certainly true—Yui hasn't been to school in a while because she's worried about losing control again and sending someone to the hospital.

Because of this, you learn much more about the characters, though not any more about Heartseed. He's still as enigmatic as ever. After being fairly silent after Iori's bridge-jumping incident in the last arc, he's up to something again, although the audience still isn't privy to what it is. What's nice, though, is that the characters are at least trying to fight against him, without giving him too much ammo for his games. I can't imagine what he'll try to spring this time, though, so I'm looking forward to the next episode.

Kokoro Connect has really grown on me over the weeks. I've definitely found myself favoring certain characters over others—Iori and Yui are amongst my favorites, because I feel like their backstories are more interesting. Taichi might be my least favorite, simply because I don't think his pathological need to help others is really that interesting for viewers. I enjoy the dynamic that the characters share, though, and I'm looking forward to seeing what the rest of the season has to offer.

Status: I don't know what Heartseed is, but he's up to no good. I'm not sure if this twist will be any more reasonable than the bridge stunt, but I wouldn't mind a good shake-up.

#6 - Humanity Has Declined [ep. 9-10]

These fairies are magnificent creatures. I have a definite love/hate relationship with them. I love the idea of them, and their sinister little grins, but if I ever met one in the wild, I'd either run away screaming or try to hit it with a shoe. Their penchant for dark humor is unreal, and the mystery of how fast they procreate is simultaneously grotesque and fascinating.

These recent sets of episodes cover the beginning of the mediator's tenure with the UN. Only the latest episode has her meeting the fairies for the first time (as well as discovering how disturbingly easy they are to buy with sweets), but there's a common thread between episodes nine and ten—it is strangely effortless for the fairies to create structures and material goods. We already know that they can create a myriad of things out of what is seemingly thin air, like bananas, but they can also whip up entire cities overnight. It's both a testament to the absurdity of industrialism and unchecked consumerism, but also an added layer of mystery and weirdness to the mythos of these fairies.

Of all the arcs of Humanity Has Declined that I've seen, these might be my favorite so far. The fairies are captivating in their abilities and mannerisms, and they provide for solid TV. They even pee pure water. Absurd. There's a fabulous scene in which the mediator cracks jokes about eating the fairies, and each time, they drench themselves in a puddle of water.

There's a creepy naivete about the fairies that I find delightful. They look naive and they talk naive… but they're obviously incredibly smart and technologically sophisticated, so there's a disconnect between what is and what seems to be that I can't get enough of. I will be sad when this series ends.

Status: What a delightful group of episodes. These fairies are like a nightmare come true, and I could watch their antics forever.

#7 - Sword Art Online [ep. 8-9]

Finally, we're done with the standalone side stories and we get to see what things are like on the front lines. This is a welcome change of pace, as I've complained a bit about how Sword Art Online felt like it was stagnating a bit. There are things about the standalone episodes that I liked—I'm glad we got a chance to meet characters who were actually afraid to die, as well as characters who scoffed at the death threat and didn't even hesitate to kill other players. At the same time, I also desperately wanted to see what was going on in the higher levels. Wandering around towns is great and all, but I wanted a change of scenery.

The nice thing about Sword Art Online being on the main storyline again is that it can build suspense more efficiently. Rather than having to introduce a new character and a story and deal with rising and falling action in 22 minutes, it has the luxury of being able to spread things out. We see this used with good effect in the boss battle that Kirito and Asuna stumble into. Not only does the boss room give us a good chance to see the party dynamic on the front lines, but we also see something that we haven't seen before—Kirito's special ability. More intriguing is that it seemingly just appeared out of nowhere one day, and I hope the series delves into this a bit more.

I'm all for Kirito being a lone wolf most of the time, but it's nice seeing him partnering with other characters. Asuna is a bad-ass, and I relish the idea of being able to get to know one of the other characters for longer than just an episode. I hope we get to spend the rest of the season on this storyline.

Status: We're out of the standalone woods at last, and I'm enjoying this plot thread much more. I appreciated being able to get a feel for the game with the standalones, but I want to see the risk from where all the action's at.

#8 - Utakoi [ep. 8-9]

Aside from the anachronistic slapstick that serves as bookends for the love stories in Utakoi, the series is a fun primer for those with a casual interest in ancient Japanese culture. For instance, I didn't realize that much of the courtship back in those days (at least at court?) involved the woman of interest sitting behind a bamboo screen, blushingly exchanging coy comments with her male suitor. They would write poetry to each other, declaring either their feelings or intentions, or perhaps occasionally barbed comments if a subtle rebuke was needed. Judging from the events depicted in Uta Koi, though, I think there were a good number of behind-the-screen trysts, though most likely didn't end up in approved unions.

In the most current round of episodes, we are introduced to Sei Shonagon, a court lady who served Empress Teishi in the middle Heian period. Those acquainted with the literature from that period may recognize her nom de plume as the author of The Pillow Book, a collection of writings about court life, as well as observations and comments about her contemporaries. She was also an accomplished poet, and as depicted in Utakoi, she had her share of bamboo screen courtships and waka exchanges.

It's been interesting, even in the most recent grouping of poets, to watch their lives slowly mingle together and influence their world views. For instance, we're introduced to Sei Shonagon at an early age, in which she cultivates a negative impression of relationships and their lasting potential. This translates into her adult view on relationships as well, and shapes how she treats the men around her. It's a clever way to contextualize the poems and get readers to empathize with characters that, ultimately, don't stick around that long.

At the end of the day, though, I still kind of feel the same way about Utakoi that I've felt so far—it's cute, and it's entertaining, but I'm not in love with the series. It's a good way to pass the time, but I can't imagine ever wanting to watch it again. But for a one-time pass through, it's fine, and you may learn a bit about court life in the process.

Status: If only they would get rid of the goofy intros. I just don't think they add anything to the series. Mercifully, they're short, and we haven't had to deal with any filler episodes since last time.

#9 - Kuroko's Basketball [ep. 21-22]

Even in the off season, the Seirin basketball team still finds a way to play against other teams. Of course. I'm not surprised from a practice point of view—it makes sense for a team to play scrimmages against other teams—but I like that a show like Kuroko's Basketball, which relies so heavily on incessant game play, has found a way to keep showing infinite basketball games even outside a tournament. In Seirin's case, even though they're at training camp, they're still scheduled to play a few practice games against Shutoku. This leaves plenty of opportunities for rival players to make snide comments at the expense of Kuroko, who's still insecure about his playing abilities.

As much as I loved the infinite loop of basketball highlights that was Kuroko's Basketball, I'm enjoying this off-season even more. Sure, there are some goofy throw-away moments—do we really need to watch a trite joke about how the female coach makes ghastly food? But there are some interesting training moments, too. The coach has the players play basketball on the beach, and it helps them realize that they're using the wrong part of their feet to run and jump. Meanwhile, Kagami's been made to run countless errands on the beach in lieu of participating in the scrimmages, and he's realizing that his legs are stronger and his jumps are higher. This is exactly the kind of stuff that I was missing with the first twenty-something episodes. Games are fun, but training sessions tell you a lot more about the characters, their mindsets, the coach's strategy, and how they're growing as a team.

The amount of attention that the show is giving Kuroko's insecurities is especially interesting. I mean, yeah, the show is called Kuroko's Basketball, so of course we're going to talk about him. But seriously, his self doubt is selling the show for me. As a sports fan, I've always been riveted by the mindset of athletes. Games are won and lost because of the confidence or insecurities of players and teams, and this show is finally jumping into that. I kind of hope the winter tournament gets put off for a while, because I'm liking these pre-season practice sessions a lot more.

Status: Kuroko's Basketball is reaching a clutch place in the series. We've seen what the players can do, but now we're learning what they can't do, and watching them push past their barriers is much more fascinating than all the previous games combined.

#10 - Hunter x Hunter [ep. 45]

Let's talk about how ridiculous this show is for a second. Kurapika's special ability is the use of these special nen chains. One of them traps victims in a “chain jail,” but in order to make that jail unbreakable, Kurapika's set a condition for himself that it can only be used against members of the Phantom Troupe. If he breaks that personal rule, he'll be killed by another chain wrapped around his own heart.

That, in a nutshell, is why Hunter x Hunter is so freaking entertaining. It straddles that line between ridiculous and awesome. I appreciate that Kurapika has his own personal system of justice and self-control, but wrapping a nen chain around his heart is just too much! Then again, we're also introduced to another person's nen bag that can shrink anything, and a bad guy with giant bat wings.

Most importantly, Hisoka's back. This is cause for celebration like no other, because he's a brand of creepy cool unlike any other. He raises a proposition for Kurapika involving the Phantom Troupe, and if it goes through, we'll get to see a sweet partnership. I'm all for this continuing circus of crazy Hunters and freaky bad guys, so bring it on.

Status: It's been a while since I've seen an episode of Hunter x Hunter that doesn't involve somebody dying. This is a wild show, and I'm psyched for Hisoka's return.


#11 - Natsuyuki Rendezvous [ep. 8-9]

Finally, a break in the Atsushi-Stuck-In-Hazuki's-Body-While-He-Wanders-Around-In-A-Book clouds. This has been going on now for something like four episodes, but it feels like much longer. I barely even remember what this series was like before the soul swap happened, and I'm questioning if I even like this show anymore.

There's two main problems with this soul swap thing. Firstly, Hazuki in Wonderland is frankly not that interesting. I guess one could slap the “Cute” adjective on it if one really wanted to find a pleasant word for it. The art style is certainly neat—I love the sketched pencil effects, and I like the myriad of fantastical places that Hazuki has been—but it's just not that substantial otherwise. The insights that we get into Atsushi and Rokka aren't enough of a payoff, and certainly nothing better than we'd get directly from the mouths of either character. That leads to the second problem, which is that Atsushi's feelings feel dampened by being uttered from Hazuki's lips, since they're being reinterpreted by Rokka. And since all of their interactions feel like one giant miscommunication, any character or relationship development feels impotent.

Luckily, the end of the ninth episode seems as though things are being pulled from the quagmire. Rokka is starting to suspect that Hazuki isn't who he appears to be, and whether or not this ends up as a cathartic moment for either character will remain to be seen in the upcoming episodes. At the very least, it might finally snap us out of this soul swap lull.

Status: Hopefully, a break in the clouds. I want to say that I've been enjoying it, but I haven't been. I've just patiently waiting for all this to be over, and it's looking like that's finally happening. Just talk it out, guys. You can do it.

#12 - The Ambition of Oda Nobuna [ep. 8-9]

The Ambition of Oda Nobuna is like Cliff Notes for the Sengoku Era, except, you know, with slightly changed history. It just feels a study guide because it's just dashing through all the major events and major historical figures of the time period like it's dashing off check boxes. Major Battle? Check. Famous warrior? Check. Notable merchant? Check. Important meeting? Check. It'd be like summarizing all the events of the American Civil War in a mini-series, except trying to cover everything in the Index of a textbook. With tits. There's a scene where one of the characters seductively squeezes one of her breasts because she's so turned on by the idea of a fight.

To the series' credit, the fanservice has been very mild. Yes, all the characters are women, but it's not absurd, and the cheese factor is kept at a minimum. There are notable exceptions—the breast-groping incident that I mentioned above, as well as a nun whose breasts seem to jiggle independently of her movements, but everything else is pretty tame. The ladies occasionally sport flirty outfits, and there are a smattering of super moe characters, but the focus is not on fanservice.

In fact, most of the attention in this series is diverted to slamming through all of these historical events at a breakneck pace. As a result, I think much of the suspense and excitement is lost en route. Even though we get to see this growing connection of trust and friendship between Oda and Monkey, the actual unification events are racing by. One barely gets any chance to reflect on the events gone by before the next one is already in place. If it slowed down, it would get a lot more mileage out of the writing. And its characters.

Status: Slow down, Ambition of Oda Nobuna!! You can just focus on a few of the events! You don't need to cover everything! It is making things way too hectic.

#13 - Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse [ep. 9-10]

This show has a real chip on its shoulder about national pride and jingoism. At first, it was kind of fascinating. I liked seeing the juxtaposition between Yuya's memories of racism as a Japanese-American growing up in America, and anti-American sentiment from Yui… but beyond that point, the show just beat that horse until it was mincemeat. It's not just anti-Japan/America feelings between those two characters—it's everyone. There were anti-Russia sentiments and anti-former Soviet bloc sentiments too, to the point where every other line that was uttered had some snide, nationalistic line about something or other. I've been whining about this for weeks now, and it's finally hit a tipping point for me.

The problem is, all the side characters in this show are colossal, insecure assholes. Nobody's just kind of mean, or kind of grumpy in the mornings—everyone has to season their jibes with, “OH WELL, I'D EXPECT THAT FROM [insert nationality here].” When our main crew gets sent on a real battle against BETAS with the other pilots, there's nonstop trash talking. When Yuya saves their butts, things are celebratory for about two minutes before one of the other pilots confronts him and gives him a piece of her mind. Along the way, she makes some snippy comments about the nationality of one of his colleagues.

It's just tiresome at this point. We've been watching Yuya's troupe of pilots for a while now, but nothing's really come out of it. Yuya's been snipping about being an Eishi for weeks, except he never gets the chance to prove himself, because [insert nationalistic comment here]. We get it. People act like this. But I don't want to hear about it every episode. That's why I'm dropping this show. I'm not really getting any enjoyment out of watching it, and I sure as Hell am tired of hearing everyone whine about other nationalities.

Status: Dropped. I stuck with this show for a while, because I kept thinking that something interesting would eventually develop, either with the robots or the BETAS, but none of that ever happened. People just bitched at each other the whole time.

Alright folks, that's it for this week. What do your lists look like? Anything that I'm totally wrong about? Discuss it in the forums!

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