The Stream
These Girls Can Jump Rope Too, Can't They?!

by Bamboo Dong,

The biggest thing I learned this month was this—things are only new until they're not. "What the Hell are you talking about, Bamboo?" you ask. This happens every now and again with a smattering of shows, but this past season seems to have a lot of examples of this. You have series that have interesting ideas or premises which make them unique, but when it's the same thing week after week, episode after episode, it wears you down. I loved Maoyu for the unconventional way it practiced conflict resolution, but after watching the same old stuff every single week, it started to feel like I was back in school again, reading a textbook. I loved Love Live! School Idol Project for its infectious optimism and energy, but recently it's just felt like an endless stream of advertisements for CDs. I appreciated Oreshura for its self-awareness and the way it ribbed harem stereotypes, but like everything else, it just got old. All I can say is, I'm glad the end of the season is here, and I'm already mentally clearing the way for next season's offerings.

Let's dive in.

#1 - Chihayafuru 2 [ep. 7-11]

It's a Pavlovian effect. That must be it. There is no other explanation for why tears spring into my eyes every time the main theme from Chihayafuru starts playing. You know, this one. It's used generally in these following situations: someone comes back from a particularly grueling karuta match, but not before they come to a realization about themselves or their lives; someone has a nostalgic moment; team members realize how much they cherish/need/respect each other; characters start crying from happiness. Almost instantly, I start crying too, from a weird place inside me that's a swirl of exultation and sadness. Most recently, this occurred when the Mizusawa team came bursting out of their last karuta match, bounding towards their waiting teammate Desktomu, with the facial expressions of desert travelers seeing water for the first time in days. At that point, I was already getting misty (from that cursed theme song!), but once Porky demanded that Desktomu play in the next match, I lost my cool.

Look, I'm not the super sappy type, but Chihayafuru hits all the right emotional buttons inside of me. This is a series that's been running for over thirty-five episodes already, maybe 70% of them focused on karuta matches. And yet it finds time between all the card slapping to develop the characters better than most contemporary series, and somehow wring emotional meaningfulness from one look, glance, or outburst. Just one blush from one of the characters can speak volumes about their emotions—Chihaya's pining friendship (or crush?) toward Arata, and Taichi's heartache over her thick-headedness regarding anything not karuta-related, for instance. It's actually kind of incredible. In any given episode, fifteen minutes is probably devoted to karuta, and while they're fascinating in their own way, it's the remaining seven minutes that drive this series forward like an emotional bullet train. Part of it is Chihaya's tunnel-visioned love for karuta, which grounds the series and prevents it from ever running away from itself and veering into melodrama. That would be the kiss of death, and it's something that the series has deftly avoided.

Maybe it's my own tunnel-visioned love for Chihayafuru, but I feel satisfied week after week. Every episode fulfills me. I get my action fill from the suspenseful karuta matches, and I get my emotional tingles from watching the characters interact with each other. In the last batch of episodes, we see a swell that encapsulates not only Desktomu's mild hesitation towards playing karuta, but also his ingenuity and necessity as an information scouter and strategizer, and his crucial role on the team—not only as the brains in the group, but also as a valued friend. It's a great set of episodes, and as the playoffs continue at Omi Jingu, I eagerly await what's coming next.

#2 - Space Brothers [ep. 46-50]

The road to being an astronaut is a long and arduous one. Not only is the astronaut selection process extremely difficult, but once you're picked, it's entirely possible you'll never even make into space. Appreciably, Space Brothers recognizes that, and why wouldn't it? Up until now, it has been the pinnacle of realism and almost documentary-precision storytelling, and I would have been extremely disappointed if it had let Mutta go into space without a fuss.

The latest task for our JAXA crew is to go through survival training. They're plopped in the middle of nowhere Texas, and asked to walk to Amarillo. Along the way, they'll have to forage for food boxes, and try to beat the teams from other countries. Incredibly, it's riveting. Especially since we also learn a lot about the personal lives of some of the astronauts. For the first time, Nitta opens up to Mutta about his shut-in brother, and it's a moving arc that not only teaches us about his character, but Mutta's as well.

I'm so happy that Space Brothers is scheduled for at least another season. Watching this series is one of the highlights of my week.

#3 - Polar Bear Cafe [ep. 46-49]

It's with a heavy heart that I approach the finale of Polar Bear's Cafe. This is a show that I've grown to love immensely, and that's found a way to grow with its viewers. Rarely before have I seen a show that's managed to so seamlessly transition between just a comedy, to something that's much more sentimental and meaningful. Over the last several seasons, we've seen slapstick, we've heard puns, and we've watched as characters formed lifelong friendships and matured. A few months ago, I might've described the series as being increasingly nostalgic, and in fact, the most recent episode confronts nostalgia directly in a one-two punch of stories (all while mixing in Polar Bear's Cafe's trademark brand of absurdist humor).

For a while now, we've laughed as Grizzly's hibernation has been interrupted by Polar Bear, but when his mom comes to visit, we see a softer side of him. (The best line, by the way, is when someone tells mama bear that she looks young, and she replies nonchalantly, “Well, I'm a bear.”) There's an endearing scene when all his predator friends drink her miso soup and exclaim simultaneously, “Mom!” in fond remembrance of their mothers' cooking. Later, too, we see more fond reminiscing when everyone accompanies Sasako and Llama to their hometown, and we're reminded of Sasako's dream of visiting a distant wind tubine.

There's something really comforting about Polar Bear's Cafe, especially for adult viewers. Here is a show with offbeat humor appreciable mostly by grownups, that talks about life and nostalgia in a way only understandable by those who've lived enough years to understand it, packaged into a show with cute animals in a way that's like a warm blanket. It's a really fantastic series, and one that I think everyone should try out for themselves.

#4 - Psycho-Pass [ep. 19-22]

And with episode 22, Psycho Pass ends, much in the same as it began—as a crime thriller. Except now, Akane has dramatically changed, and it's noticed by everyone around her. No longer the dull and meek woman she was for over half the series, she's now confident and capable, doling out commands that are instantly followed and respected by her comrades. Her actions are riskier now, too, but driven by the thoughts of a woman who's shaken the confines of naïveté that had been holding her back all this time. As a viewer, this change is welcoming, and it's the overhaul that we've long been waiting for. For the first time since pretty much the beginning of the series, Akane is a main character worth paying attention to, and her presence on screen is the perfect complement to the much more complex side characters that populate the show.

The hunt for Makishima continues in these last few episodes, with Kogami hot on his heels. Knowing what we now know about the Sybil System, and the way it treats outliers, this chase feels different from the ones at the beginning of the show. Previously, having a system of justice where decisions were made by an omniscient third-party made the detectives and enforcers seem impotent, but there's a finality that's felt when characters are armed with knives and revolvers. I appreciated the showdown between Makishima and Kogami more because of this, although their armchair psychiatrist evaluations of each other seemed a little forced. It's as if the series was making a last ditch effort to humanize a villain that it had spent the entire time trying to portray as a social aberration. Still, I think the episodes in which Psycho Pass focuses more on police chases rather than fiddling with its grandiose ideas of Sybil Systems and computerized social monitoring are the stronger ones. I was enamored with the premise of the show from the beginning, but after all the episodes are said and done, it's the most straightforward ones that I think were executed the best.

#5 - Problem Children Are Coming From Another World, Aren't They? [ep. 7-10]

Slowly but surely, Problem Children Are Coming From Another World, Aren't They? is winning me over with its go-get-'em attitude and its frivolous, but engaging, action sequences. I've stopped fretting over its lack of exposition and character development, and I've long since stopped worrying about its bad habit of jumping around from game to game without following a strong narrative. Instead, I've learned to take it for what it is—a fun, albeit shallow, show about kids with super powers who almost always win their fights, and will most certainly restore honor and integrity to the nameless community they've made their home. When I watch these scrappy, infallible youngsters battle, I get that same sense of adventure I once had as a child, reading Boxcar Children novels and knowing with certainty that the Aldens would eventually figure out who stole the vase from the museum.

If it sounds condescending, I don't mean for it to be. Problem Children is truly fun in that kind of Saturday morning cartoon / adventure novel kind of way, in that it doesn't try to be anything more than it is. There is no hidden social commentary, there is no greater story about personal growth—it's just a fun, action-packed hero story. Once I realized that, and swallowed my prejudice against mindlessly fun entertainment, I began to enjoy the series much more. Even from the get go, I realized that this was amongst the top five series I looked forward to watching every week, but I chalked it up to a guilty pleasure. Part of me may still view the series that way, but I've come to accept my love for it.

In this most recent slew of episodes, we're faced with yet more gnarly Demon Lords. This time, it's the old legend of the Pied Piper, except its sinister tale of young, lost souls has been reinvented as a madcap Gift Game involving giant robots, glowing fairies, mind-controlled salamanders, and the Black Plague. And although Izayoi is just as nonsensically unstoppable as ever, his know-it-all penchant for always knowing how to save the day has transformed in my heart into more of a delightful Encyclopedia Brown-esque persona. Because there's no trace of ego behind any of his actions, he's much more stomachable as a Gift-wielding, teenaged Superman. No, it's not a masterpiece, but this show's a lot of fun, and I find that it's managed to claw its way into my heart.

#6 - From the New World [ep. 21-24]

The war between the Monster Rats and humans have escalated, and things are getting pretty crazy. A large part of that is the introduction of the “Ogre” character, whom we're lead to believe is a human infant raised in a Monster Rat colony that's been corrupted by its uncontrolled power. Saki is the only one who doesn't believe that to be true, thanks to insight she's getting from Shun's spirit. Fascinatingly, because humans are physically incapable of killing their own kind, she and Satoru have traveled to what remains of Tokyo. There they hope to find a secret weapon that will allow them to kill the Ogre.

With only one episode left of From the New World, I've appreciated the sinister undercurrents that have permeated the entire series. There's a level of cynicism regarding human society in the show that's almost palpable (rivaled, perhaps, by last summer's bizarre Humanity Has Declined). Although its volume within the show has ebbed and flowed, the moments in which it's been the loudest have been successful in building a truly dark story. Every time the characters realize secrets about their own identities—like the selective breeding for or against certain traits, or the truth about what happens when their powers aren't properly developed or go unchecked—it's been chilling to the bone. All of that has served as the backdrop for this conflict against the Monster Rats, and even though I've complained along the way that this conflict hasn't been the most interesting, I think the last few episodes have done a really good job of marrying the two aspects of the series together. I still wish that we could've delved a little deeper into the path that humanity had taken to get p to this point in history (rather than just a quick data dump from the False Minoshiro), but I'm eager to see what we'll learn about the Ogre. After that, I think I'll be happy enough to see the series go.

#7 - Pet Girl of Sakurasou [ep. 20-22]

In a way, Pet Girl of Sakurasou is one of the most realistic shows I've ever seen. I don't mean that in the way like real life is literally a run-down dorm filled with ambitious nerds, but that real life is filled with spurts of motivation, determination, and optimism, which is more often than not brutally torn down by the harsh dagger of failure. Earlier in the series, when everyone was in the midst of their “I can do anything I set my mind to!!!” phase, I grew weary of the show. I thought I knew where the story was going, because I'd seen it so many times before. The last couple of episodes smacked me in the face, and I was simultaneously hit with an appreciation for the series, and a pang of bitterness for the unfairness of life. In a way, even though I was prematurely begrudging a show for its portrayal of success, part of me wasn't anywhere near prepared to see main characters not see their hard work come to fruition.

Pet Girl of Sakurasou has had moments of absolute brilliance. The first time I realized this show was special, it was when Jin told Sorata that being friends with talented people was brutally difficult. You want to support your friends, but you can't help but resent them for having the things you don't. In the last two episodes, the show's occasional flashes of genius struck me again. After some of the characters face failure, one of them snaps, lashing out at a much more successful peer. He doesn't begrudge her for her success, so much as he voices what everyone's felt at some point in their lives, “Why not me? When will it be my turn?”

I've had a rocky relationship with Pet Girl of Sakurasou this past season. It constantly surprises me with how unconventional it is, especially in the way that it portrays failure and resentment. At the same time, I have to admit that although I deeply sympathize with the characters and relate to them, I don't feel that compelled by them. As a result, even though their trials ring true with me, I'm not necessarily moved by them. Maybe that's why I've cooled off this season. I deeply respect the series for the directions it's taken, and for its bravery in taking a less travelled path, but it's those blips of brilliance and life awareness that keep me going, more so than the story or the characters.

That having been said, I still encourage everyone to check out this series. I know that the first few episodes are a little difficult to get through. I, too, almost chucked this show into the bin because I thought it would be a creepy power fest, but it completely shattered my misconceptions. It is a surprisingly genuine show about people who are so relatable that it hurts.

#8 - Kotoura-san [ep. 7-11]

Well that got real serious real fast. There's a criminal on the loose who's exclusively been preying on high school girls in secluded places and beating them to shreds. It's a quick departure from the quirky romantic comedy that Kotoura-san has been as of late, but I guess it lets her come to grips with her powers, as well as let Mifune face her own demons. I can't say that I was expecting this turn of events, but I think the series handled it well. It gives Kotoura something productive to do with her mind-reading abilities, and it advances some of the character relationships, although I think it might've been a wasted opportunity for her to feel a little more confidence about her powers.

The real gem of these episodes, though, was the confrontation between Kotoura and her mother. That is, of course, if you enjoyed the screaming and drama of the first few episodes like I did. If you didn't, and you vastly preferred the more light-hearted middle episodes, then you might very well roll your eyes at her mom's evil witch persona. I thought it was a nice touch, though, especially since it did look as though Kotoura was able to break through her mother's demon bitch exterior and scratch at the maternal instincts inside, but unless this series is extended and that relationships is explored more in depth, it seems a little extraneous.

#9 - Tamako Market [ep. 8-11]

While Tamako Market has certainly delivered plenty of slice-of-life charm up until this point, I think it ran out of steam. I can't speak for everyone, obviously, but at least in my case, I feel like I've seen everything that this series has to offer. I enjoyed several aspects of the series—I enjoyed laughing at Dera's mocha-eating antiques, as well as his one episode effort to diet; I smiled at Tamako's love/obsession with mochi, and how deeply she cared for the people and shops in the shopping district; I also enjoyed the series' tales of love, whether it was the blushes of first loves, or flashbacks to departed loves. But now… what else is left? There are only so many times I can listen to Tamako talk about mochi. There are only so many jokes that Dera can wise-crack. Even with the introduction of Choi, and the big reveal on who the sought-after bride is (don't hold your breath), the series feels like it's stagnated.

Luckily, the series only has one more episode left. We can probably all extrapolate how this show will end. For the most part, I don't regret watching the series, and even enjoyed most of it. I grew to like the characters very much (even if I got to the point where I never wanted to hear the word “mochi” ever again), and I thought Tamako was impossibly endearing. In the end, though, I'm glad it's coming to a close. It ran out of interesting things to talk about a few episodes ago, and now it's time to say goodbye.

#10 - Robotics;Notes [ep. 17-22]

Robotics;Notes comes to an action-filled, robo-heavy, punch-laden, supernatural end in its series finale. Everything you heard about throughout the show came bubbling to the surface, from the electronic spirits of dead scientists, to grey-haired girls locked in cryosleep, to those pesky scientists at SERN, to more Kill-Ballad than you could shake a stick at. Did it deliver a satisfying ending? I'd say so. In the grand scheme of things, now that 22 episodes have come and gone, did I really like this show? Eh… It was enjoyable in spurts, tedious in others, but I'm kind of glad it's over.

All the questions you had about the mysterious solar flares are answered, as well as just about every other query you might have had. Robotics;Notes actually does a pretty solid job of wrapping up all the loose ends. Delightfully, it even channels the gung-ho optimism of a classic mecha show, ala Gunvarrel, with characters citing friendship and determination as qualities needed to solve problems.

I don't want to compare this to Steins;Gate (but if I had to compare it, I'd say Steins;Gate was better), but I didn't feel 100% fulfilled by Robotics;Notes. For most of the series, I felt slightly lost as to what kind of vibe it wanted to communicate. I thought the pseudoscience and supernatural elements were really interesting (a guy who uses his slow-down-time powers to play video games? Why not!), but I felt trapped between several shows. Half of the series is this incredibly slow slice-of-life show where boring kids are building a boring robot in a boring hangar. The other half of the series has crazy murders, self-realizing AIs, dead guys who possess computer programs, and massive conspiracies. I couldn't very well just fast-forward through one to get to the other. It's a show that's interesting in premise, but not necessarily in execution, and I'd be hard-pressed to recommend this to another fan, especially if I could recommend Steins;Gate instead.

#11 - Love Live! School Idol Project [ep. 8-11]

Even though Love Live School Idol is about a gaggle of teen girls who want to be pop stars (in order to save their school), I'm convinced it's actually a sports show. First they have to recruit all the right kids and convince them to play football sing, and then they have to play a scrimmage match against the mean kids down the street hold an impromptu concert in Akihabara, but their real goal is to make it to regionals perform at the Love Live so they can be state champions and live out the rest of their lives as washed out has-beens be popular on the internet. In a sense, the formula works really well. You know what to expect, and the training montages along the way are neat, in the way that all training montages are.

Increasingly, though, it's very obvious that Love Live School Idol is indeed a multi-platform collaboration between lots of companies that have a lot of money at stake. Now that the girls of µs are an established group, they are doing costumed and choreographed song-and-dance numbers almost every single episode, which screams, “Please for the love of God buy this album (available at the Animate! near you) [and then please, please, please go see the live concert please].” If there was a slider bar that moved between [Character/Plot Development] and [Canned Pop Tunes], the slider would be steadily inching towards the latter. There's an episode where one of the girls says, “Hey, we should have a pop-up show in Akihabara to generate some buzz,” and ten minutes later, after some slight songwriting-related brow-furrowing, it happens, complete with (tasteful) maid costumes and a dance routine. Those singles aren't going to sell themselves.

One has to appreciate (or at least note) how remarkably conservative this series is, though. There isn't a drop of fanservice in this show, which I guess means they're hoping that teenage girls will help contribute to album sales and PV clicks. Even the “beach episode” just involves girls who happen to be at a beach, but absolutely no attempt is made to sexualize the characters in any way. I don't know if “refreshing” is so much the right word, as it is just a surprise. Although maybe that's just a wry observation on how conditioned we've all become in expecting certain things from our anime.

In any case, Love Live School Idol is… well, it's charming, but it's lost a lot of its appeal from earlier episodes. Now that the characters are just churning out songs left and right, it feels more like episodes of Glee than a heartfelt story about girls trying to Live Their Dreams (and save the school). Now it just feels like they're cramming advertisements for singles down my throat.

#12 - Oreshura [ep. 8-12]

I'm not sure who we're supposed to root for in this mashup of gals. I would assume not any of the ancillary girls, because the series openly mocks their archetypal roles in Eita's makeshift harem. In fact, in the buildup to the obligatory beach episode, the girls are put through a test in which an online forum decides who loves Eita best, based on their canned responses to a question. Each girl is slapped with an archetype label, and although the scene isn't laugh-out-loud funny, it's a clear nod to the overplayed genre. At the same time, though, I'm not sure the series has really set itself up for anyone to actually root for the Eita x Masuzu pair. They're simply not compelling characters, and even though it's fairly obvious that the two have real feelings for each other, it's difficult to car about whether or not they make their fake relationship real or not.

That's really Oreshura's biggest downfall. In trying to be the cool, aloof kid on the block who refuses to be a generic shonen harem show, it forgets that one must still have characters that the viewer can empathize with. If everyone's part of an elaborate wink-wink, nudge-nudge joke, then there isn't a drop of sincerity left. Earlier on, childhood friend Chiwa was the most relatable in her pained acceptance of Eita's relationship, but as more and more females were added, her emotions were drowned out in a sea of, “See? Aren't we so aware of this joke?” And while there are moments in which the humor works really well, there are even more moments in which I wish they'd let the facade drop, and let us actually get to know the characters. Or, at least just Eita and Masuzu. By the time Eita realizes he might have feelings for Masuzu, I realized that I was no longer invested in their relationship. There's still an episode left to resolve this, so it's possible the series will pull everything together at the last moment, but I think it's a little too late.

Overall, I enjoyed watching the series on a week-to-week basis, but I'm not confident I would recommend this show in a year, or even remember it. It certainly exceeded my expectations, and I was amused enough with its satirical take on harems, but I do think it missed an opportunity to deliver an actual emotional punch in the last few episodes. If you're hankering for a romance show to watch before the spring season starts, this isn't bad.

#13 - Maoyu [ep. 8-11]

The problem with novelty is that it fades. That's where I'm at with Maoyu. For several weeks, I was tickled pink with the idea of a series about a bloody conflict between humans and demons that was being settled not by swords, but by trade negotiations. Two months later, it's more of the same. Only now instead of teaching how to plant potatoes, we're onto other issues, like trying to teach people about freedom from religious persecution, or trying to fight inflation and currency manipulation. It's honestly getting a little tedious.

Meanwhile, the Demon King is off in the bowels of Hell, getting possessed by all the evil spirits of past Kings. While she's busy fighting herself (and her maid, and eventually Hero), the rest of the continent is slipping into chaos. War still looms, and the market prices of grains are being manipulated by some unscrupulous merchant. Hopefully Hero can save Demon King fast enough so that she can teach people some lessons or two about trade regulations and unchecked market speculation. Yikes.

Even just a month ago, I was singing the praises of Maoyu. I called it unique and interesting, and I still believe at least the former to be true. Unfortunately, new things can only be fresh for so long until they, too, start to go stale. That's where I'm at now with Maoyu, and it's in dire need of reinventing itself.

#14 - Da Capo III [ep. 8-11]

Here's what I think Da Capo III should do. I think they should take all the story elements and condense it into a feature-length film for those of us interested in the supernatural parts, but not the fanservice. Then, all the people who want to watch the fanservice (most of the target audience, I'm assuming) can do so, and the rest of us who like watching such shows for the quirky, cutesy supernatural stuff can just have our little nugget of plot. Then everyone wins. I can figure out why or if the magical cherry tree has powers or not and learn the truth behind the mysterious Sakura girl, and everyone else can watch the girls falling all over each other at the local indoor water park beauty contest.

If you like beach episodes, boy, you will love the indoor water park episode. It is chock full of goodies, and by goodies, I mean breasts. From a fanservice perspective, that episode is worth its runtime in gold. Girls' tops come off not once, but four times, and there's an utterly ridiculous beauty contest, in which the girls trot out in their skimpiest swimwear and strike a sexy pose for the audience. The first girl comes out and does the splits. Of course. The second girl gets on her knees and blushes coyly at the audience. The third girl, I kid you not, comes out and actually jumps rope, at which point I kind of lose my mind. I mean, if you've got giant knockers, why not jump rope for your on-stage trick? But you know, this is all glorious and amazing if that's the kind of stuff you're into. And if you are, hey, all the more power to you. These seem like lovely gals.

But what about if you're like me, and you're stuck watching this show because in the first few episodes, someone asked, “Why is this magic tree suddenly blooming??” and I thought, “I don't know!!! Tell me!!” And then someone asked, “Why did we all get this cryptic email from the 1950s?” and I said, “What?? Please let me know if you find out!!!” Then someone hinted that maybe Sakura wasn't real/or was a ghost/or was from the past/or something mysterious, and I exclaimed, “Jesus Christ, this is a huge development!! Please keep me updated as you discover more!” Alas, they were only toying with me, because I had to wait while all the girls got their chance to go on dates with the main character, or were walked in on in the bathroom while they were peeing. I didn't leave, though, because every now and again, a tiny spark of information would be released, and my curiosity would be piqued again. Is it true that Sakura's weird cat creature can't be seen by anyone else except her and the main character? What is it??

Watching Da Capo III is the most frustrating experience for someone who appreciates the idea of fanservice, but isn't the target demographic for it. I understand the appeal of seeing all these cutesy-pootsie girls wriggle and blush and go on dates with some boy, and I certainly understand the appeal of seeing their teeny-weeny string bikinis snap off in the frothing turbulence of a water slide, but I just want to know why the damned tree is blooming. What was with that weird flashback dream we saw? What is the giant mystery we're all dancing around? And so, I write to you as a heterosexual female viewer saying that yes, I'm frustrated that the actual storyline isn't being advanced fast enough, but that yes, there is also a ton of fanservice, so if that's what you're looking for, then Da Capo III has it. And I wish they'd make a condensed movie.

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