Anime Retrospective: Spring 2014

Now with more nuanced opinions!


Okay, so last season I had stage fright during my first ever attempt at anime blogging and put down phrases like “you probably know already whether you’ll like it or not” far too often. I’m not going to do that this time. I’ll also try to be more informative in general, in the unlikely event that anyone is reading this who doesn’t already know everything of interest I have to share.

Still Airing

Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei

Where do I even start?

Mahouka appears to be have written by someone who read Sword Art Online and thought Kirito wasn’t a complete dweeb, but demonstrated far too much personality and emotion to be a true badass, and only had a paltry four or five women lusting over him as a result. His ability to hack any MMO and become a gamer god was also small beans; true badasses hack reality to become real gods. Moreover, an immersive light novel needs incessant multiple-page tangents about such fascinating subjects as the intricate details of technomagic, the future of public transportation, and how in the year 2096 it’s considered immodest for Japanese women to wear clothing that reveals any skin between the neck and ankles.

Faced with this cosmic horror, Ono Manabu and his expert staff—who produced what is in my opinion the most impressive novel to anime adaptation ever created, Kyoukaisenjou no Horizon, and also turned Saki from a manga about girls playing mahjong to an over-the-top, thrilling, on-the-edge-of-your-seat clash of absurd psychic powers—appear to have simply given up friom the start. They’ve been doing an adaptation that is technically competent but makes absolutely no attempt to inject energy into the plot, which has the pacing of molasses, or into the lifeless characters.

By necessity, some of the constant infodumping is left out of the anime, but it’s still quite possible to zone out during most of each episode without missing anything of importance or interest. It’s halfway through the second arc and nothing has happened except for Tatsuya beating up some terrorists who for some reason thought a high school made the ideal target, and every named character effortlessly overcoming their prejudice against Course 2 students, which was never justified in the first place—they’re all as strong as, if not stronger than, the Blooms. Especially Tatsuya.

People swear that the novels get better later on. If you think that’s adequate reason to suffer through Mahouka, go expose yourself to another thing that’s painful at first but gets better later on, once the spirochete spreads to your brain and causes euphoria: syphilis.

Finished

Akuma no Riddle

With a manga by an author who has drawn mildly popular series in a variety of genres, and an experienced if not world-class staff (including a director with Asura Cryin’, Dog Days and Nanoha A’s under his belt) I expected this show—supposedly about a teenage assassin falling in love with her target and protecting her from other teenage assassins—to be at least fun to watch. Instead, the first half of the show established a painfully rigid Assassin Of The Week format which left no time for gradual development of any other character but the current antagonist, not even the main heroines. Word has it that this is a failure of the anime adaptation, and the manga has a respectable if not outstanding amount of character development for everyone.

As a consequence, neither of the main characters are likeable, with Haru coming across as nothing more than a garden-variety cute girl despite hints at her being something more, and Tokaku failing to establish herself as anything other than grim, moody, and rather dumb (she leaves Haru alone no less than three times to chase after assassins, and each time Haru nearly gets killed because of it.) The other assassins, meanwhile, display occasional glimmers of potential but suffer from being hastily shaped into something resembling characters via extensive flashbacks during their single episodes in the spotlight.

I actually dropped this show after episode 5, then was convinced to pick it back up at episode 8 when a friend told me it was starting to demonstrate signs of having a plot. I skipped the two interim episodes and missed precisely nothing of importance.

Episodes 8 and onward are actually competent, if not quite good. Isuke and Banba’s pasts are only subtly hinted at through a few choice flashbacks, and it paradoxically makes them significantly more interesting and likeable than the other assassins. Sumireko isn’t so fortunate, but she drops a major plot bomb to make up for it, resulting in the build-up to an intriguing climax that could have been pretty good had the anime staff had the chops to pull it off.

But nope, time for the direction and writing alike to go down the drain in the final episode!

All I need to spoil about the ending, I think, is that it reveals no one actually died. Stabbed in the heart? Nope, just a flesh wound (this happened with two characters, and for one of them the explanation was ‘her (not previously hinted at in any way) titanium ribs deflected the blade.’) Drank a full dose of deadly poison? Nothing some bed rest can’t fix. Fell a hundred stories from the rooftop of a skyscraper? No big deal when you’ve got a cyborg body. Moreover, the crisis that led up to the climax isn’t actually resolved in any way whatsoever—it’s just magically not a problem any longer.

In the words of a redditor, “I was promised assassinations and yuri. I got neither of them.” I’ll drink poison to that; it won’t kill me, after all.

Atelier Escha & Logy

Meh. I’m not sure I have much to say except it was a mistake to expect a plot out of this (the only reason I kept watching past episode 3 or so.) I half knew as much from the start, but they kept teasing stuff with Flameu only for it to be ultimately stupid and disappointing.

Even taken as a slice of life show it’s pretty mediocre in all regards. It occasionally demonstrate that it knows how to have fun but wastes too much time on subplots that never get a satisfying resolution, like Linca, or aren’t even slightly interesting in the first place, like Lucille. And when it’s trying to pretend it has a plot it’s full of bad CG.

You’d do better to watch… I dunno, Dog Days or something. Fantasy slice of life/comedy is a sparse genre, I have to admit, but being unique as an anime can’t redeem Escha & Logy.

Black Bullet

At the beginning of its run, I expected this to be my favorite show of the season. The writing was never anything special (other than the writer having the chutzpah to make his novel series about preteen girls with superpowers paired up with older men,) but Rentarou and Enju were instantly likeable, the action and production were solid, and the plot moved at the speed of a train with no brakes—a refreshing thing when most other anime plots move like a train being hand-cranked by a geriatric man who needs to take frequent breathers.

Unfortunately, after Kagetane jumped out of the carriage, the train unexpectedly collided with a lack of other compelling characters and derailed, slowing the pacing to a typical anime crawl and causing massive collateral damage to the show’s other aspects. Even Tina’s overwhelming cuteness couldn’t conceal the fact that her multi-episode plot arc was completely pointless except as a way to introduce her. From then on the show devolved into a confused mess of monsters threatening Tokyo with total destruction in the most boring fashion possible, nutcases hurting and killing unnamed little girls offscreen, and named characters dying for no reason other than to make the show appear grim and ruthless – and finally concluding with the dramatic revelation that… the latest reason everyone in Tokyo nearly died was due to some guy cutting corners during Monolith construction. How thrilling.

The most damning thing about Black Bullet‘s writing, as my friend Kefit observed, is that despite the considerable effort that it spends on humanizing the Cursed Children and on emphasizing Rentarou’s conviction that they’re more than mere tools, it uses them as just that. They’re around to be cute, to help fight when their man needs something dead, and to die tragically and wring tears from the viewers no matter how pointless their demises are from the perspective of story progression.

Comprehensive list of things that any of the Cursed Children have done entirely on their own initiative:

  1. Make sexual advances towards Rentarou
  2. Run away from home in a fit of momentary depression
  3. Pour lead in their own eyes to try and make their mother love them
  4. Ask Rentarou to kill them to stop them from becoming a monster
  5. Kill themselves to stop themselves from becoming a monster

I suppose you could add “Pull Midori’s panties down” to the list, or just change #1 to “Fanservice” and roll it into that. But I don’t think I missed anything important.

Date a Live II

Date a Live is weird. The inept direction and writing of the first season culminated in some of the absolute worst episodes of anime I’ve ever seen around its midpoint, and the first time through I dropped it with considerable prejudice at that point. Then, at a friend’s urging, I watched the rest… and was shocked to find that the show dragged itself up out of the mud and actually managed to become legitimately good during the last two plot arcs. A lot of people seem to attribute this bizarre comeback entirely to the strength of Kurumi’s character, but if it’s something intrinsic to her, Kotori has the same power.

Anyway, Date a Live II is more of the same, in neither a good way nor a bad way. The director has trained in the mountains and developed a penchant for juggling simultaneous dramatic happenings to occasionally impressive effect, such as during the climax of the Yamai arc. Likewise, the writers have stopped attempting to inject comedy into everything and are now strongly focused on plot instead (to a fault, according to some people.)

The problem is that neither the Yamai twins, Miku, or any of the other characters introduced this season have much in the way of charm or depth, and most of the recurring characters get much less screentime than them—Kotori in particular is all but non-existent. People naturally went bonkers over Kurumi’s reappearance, but frankly it just felt like fanservice to me. I was actually more impressed by Mana’s, believe it or not… which leads me straight to another issue. Late in S2 it finally becomes evident that the first season excised just about every moment the novels spent on exposition and worldbuilding, and as a consequence of this, the plot collapses into a confusing morass near the end of the season when the internal politics of the AST and its parent corporation suddenly rise to the forefront.

If you liked Date a Live and it wasn’t because of the hilarious date sequences, you’ll probably still like its second season. Just don’t expect it to get any better. Or worse.

Hitsugi no Chaika

Sakaki Ichirou is a novelist with quite the knack for getting animated. Back in the ’90s he wrote a series called Scrapped Princess, which he followed up with Magician’s Academy a few years later (known in anime form as Macademi WAsshoi!); one of his newest series, Outbreak Company, also had an anime recently. Among his only light novel series never to get an anime adaptation in any shape, way or form is Shinkyoku Soukai Polyphonica. Excuse me while I stick my fingers in my ears. Lalala. I’m not listening.

Anyway, Chaika actually has more in common with Scrapped Princess than might be immediately apparent. Sakaki’s gone on the record on Twitter that his publisher quite literally asked him to write another Scrapped Princess, and he obliged with Hitsugi no Chaika. Observe the similarities: It’s a mid-fantasy series (neither high nor low) with some sci-fi-esque elements, such as the floating fortresses. Instead of the antagonists being named after guns, all the characters are named after cars. We have a brother-sister pair, skilled in combat & magic beyond their tender years, protecting a girl that others fear will bring about the end of the world. There are dragoons and at the end one wants to make a contract with Tooru. You get the point by now.

Production-wise, Chaika ranges from shoddy to mediocre for the most part, which is disappointing after BONES gave us the incredibly impressive Noragami last season. The action is serviceable and even well done at times, but never thrilling to watch, though at least it’s far better than Soul Eater Not‘s. The voice cast is for the most part a bunch of terrible newbies, with the notable exception of the always fantastic veteran Saitou Chiwa as Fredrica, which is probably why her character gets no more than a minute of screentime per episode. And of course, there are the usual writing issues—several episodes create an impression of just being there to buy time without contributing anything to the plot, though it’s a challenge to disentangle what was lost in adaptation from Sakaki’s own shortcomings.

A couple of the issues lie squarely on Sakaki’s plate. Despite his penchant for expansive and elaborate worlds, he has a habit of only throwing together the details on the fly when it becomes necessary to do so, and the cracks start to show through after a while. An even greater problem is that Hitsugi no Chaika failed to introduce any worthy antagonists during the entire first season. The multiple Chaikas are neat at first, but quickly wear thin as soon as it’s apparent plot details are going to be siphoned to us through them in the most meager amounts possible, and pretty much every other antagonist can be summed up as “some insane guy/girl”—with the exception of marginal cases like Dominica and Gillette’s gang, which get to do very little actual antagonism.

All in all, Chaika ends up in the limbo of “not worth watching on its own merits.” If you really loved Scrapped Princess or Sakaki’s other novels-turned-anime, if you go gaga for fantasy shows, or if you have an fetish for thick eyebrows or girls who speak in broken sentences, feel free to give it a try; there’s plenty worse things out there, even in this same season. But don’t expect greatness.

Kanojo ga Flag wo Oraretara

I’ve been dropping a couple of famous names in this post, but Takei Touka is one that you’re quite justified in not knowing if you don’t also know Japanese. His main claims to fame are the eroge he wrote during the ’00s; the first of them, Cosmos no Sora ni, features a character named Sakuma Haruhi whom some claim the word ‘tsundere’ was first coined as a description of (others say it was to describe Daikuuji Ayu from KimiNozo.) Yes, despite tsundere characters being a mainstay of late ’90s harem anime, there was no word to describe them until the ’00s. It’s strange.

Takei has gone on to write some other well regarded but not legendary eroge and a smattering of unsuccessful light novels, including several Lucky Star tie-ins. Kanojo ga Flag wo Oraretara, aka Gaworare, is one of his current ongoing novel series. It collects terrible user reviews like trophies on places like Amazon due to its dense and heavy-handed (by light novel standards) narration, and no one is sure why it got tapped for an anime. The anime certainly hasn’t been doing it any favors. Most adaptations are made as a way of promoting the original work, but in Gaworare’s case, novel sales have actually dropped.

Which is a shame, because the anime is a lot of fun. As befitting of someone who had a hand in naming one of the classic cliches of otaku media (though he may have just gotten lucky there,) Takei adeptly updates the harem comedy for the modern age in Gaworare, avoiding all of the pitfalls that gave the genre its terrible reputation. Some people describe the cast as a “cooperative harem”—instead of the heroines doing stupid or violent things because they’re incapable of expressing their emotions, their attraction to Souta is always subordinate to simply having fun together with him and each other, with jealousy and rivalry nowhere to be seen.

Souta himself is a pretty good character. Rather than being constantly morose and refusing to reciprocate others’ feelings out of a deep-seated fear of women or something, he’s justifiably afraid of hurting them when the horrible fate he’s foreseen for himself finally befalls him. The original work is rock solid, and pretty much the only glaring weaknesses of the adaptation are its mediocre voice cast and one of those all-too-common budget collapses near the end.

And then there’s the plot twist. I’ll leave that to you to discover, if you don’t know it already. It’s quite something. Maybe a little too wacky to truly work, but better to try and fail than to be succeed and be mediocre.

It all adds up to Gaworare being the best anime of the season by a mile. Every single character is likeable and every single episode is entertaining (even if some are conspicuously less so than others.) It’s just a shame there’s unlikely to be any more of it coming.

Nobunaga the Fool

You really ought to know the name Kawamori Shouji. He created the Macross franchise and was intimately involved in almost every entry in it. What you might not know is that Kawamori has grown steadily more unhinged over the years whenever he’s allowed to take the reins of a new, entirely original project. Let’s review some of his creations since Macross: Escaflowne, Arjuna, Aquarion, Basquash, AKB0048, and now Nobunaga the Fool. Nobunaga the Fool was actually envisioned, written and performed as a stage play for live theater. I suspect it only got animated as some kind of mutual back-scratching deal so that Kawamori would create a new Macross afterwards.

So yeah, if you’re not already aware, Nobunaga the Fool is about Leonardo da Vinci flying Jeanne Kaguya D’Arc to Planet Sengoku (excuse me, the ‘Star of the East’) so she can meet the man whom her visions told her would save all of creation, Oda Nobunaga. They wage interplanetary war against King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, whose number include Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, and Niccolo Machiavelli (the latter of whom is female.) Sounds like fun, right?

Well, astoundingly enough, the problem with Nobunaga the Fool is that it takes itself too seriously. When Kawamori takes off his limiters and does shit like have Nobunaga get married and kiss his bride on the palm of his mecha with fireworks shooting off behind them, it’s genuinely hilarious. But the show is prone to spend entire episodes on boring and narratively dissonant subjects like Oda clan politics, Nobunaga’s inner emotional turmoil, and mourning the deaths of civilians in collateral damage from mecha fights. The plot moves at a snail’s pace, yet is incoherent and impossible to care about, especially at the end when King Arthur is dealt with in the most anticlimactic way possible.

At 12 episodes this show could have been a wild ride and proudly joined other monuments to Kawamori’s fractured psyche such as Aquarion and Basquash, but at 24 episodes it’s a plodding mess and ultimately not really worth the time it took to watch. Maybe the stage play is better.

No Game No Life

Flawless protagonists seem to be hot lately. Maybe it’s an overreaction to the new crop of manga and LN creators having grown up with sickeningly hetare protagonists from the ’90s. I can’t say which is worse.

Anyway, compared to the other two big offenders in that regard, NGNL is manna from heaven. It has a unique visual style that is sometimes overbearing but at other times awe-inspiring, generally snappy direction, a solid voice cast, and one standout character in Jibril. The conceptual similarity makes it tempting to compare to the series from a few seasons ago whose title is typically abbreviated as Problem Children, and while Problem Children has a much more likeable cast, No Game No Life is probably the better show overall.

So what’s wrong with it? Well, the games themselves are absurd to the point of stupidity, but most of them are entertaining if you force yourself to turn your brain off. The high point of those was shiritori with Jibril (not biased at all,) which was the only thing that kept me from dropping the series after the idiocy that was battle chess and a boring episode about Steph. On that note, pretty much every moment of NGNL that’s not a game does nothing except drag the show down. Perhaps they’re also amusing with your brain turned off, but the show seems to expect you to be paying attention and savoring the opportunity to learn more about the world’s deep and intricate political landscape.

Now let me rant about Sora. The concept of two people who individually have flaws and weaknesses but together are unbeatable could actually be interesting, but unfortunately, that’s not what Blank is. Blank is all about Sora. Shiro doesn’t complement his weaknesses, she complements his non-weaknesses. She’s better at zero-sum strategy games, which never last long before some wacky twist destroys them, and at FPSes, except Sora can still dodge like a monkey and line up a shot perfectly from hundreds of feet away. Chess game? Taken over by Sora when Shiro couldn’t handle Clammy’s cheating. Shiritori? 100% Sora. Othello? Sora orchestrated Shiro’s win. Galgun? Sora had everything planned out from the start. You get the point.

In that regard, NGNL is a disappointing waste of potential, although not an aggravating one—Sora at least has a personality and can be pretty entertaining, it’s simply that the way he constantly steals the spotlight from others character makes the rest of the cast feel weak and unimportant.

On the whole, though it has significant issues and drags badly in places, NGNL was still a pretty decent watch. S2 is on my list. (It will happen, considering the amount the novel sales increased as it was airing.)

Seikoku no Dragonar

This one doesn’t need or deserve to have a wall of text written about it. It’s pretty much just a trashy fantasy show that our gang of bad anime connoisseurs on IRC kept watching out of curiosity about just how trashy it would get. The answer was in episode 8 or 9 (hell if I remember which) where pretty much every named female character and many unnamed ones were tentacle raped by undead dragons.

Other than that, it was a bit refreshing at first how unashamedly cliché Dragonar is, but that wore off fast. Don’t watch it for any reason. If you want fap material, go watch some random 18+ OVA instead, it’ll probably be better written and better animated.

Dropped

Gochuumon wa Usagi Desu ka?

Cute girls doing cute things. That is all.
I might pick it up again if I get really bored, but I doubt it.

Ryuugajou Nanana no Maizoukin

I watched the first episode of this with some friends. I think we thought it was going to be some kind of action comedy thing about Tomb Raiders™ but instead it was just about some girl eating pudding and playing MMORPGs. We didn’t watch any further, possibly due to this causing our horrifying memories of Neptunia to resurface. Put a trigger warning next time, A-1.

Also Nyarlko is likely the superior show with a Kugimiya trap. Oops the trap in Nanana is Hanazawa. Okay in that case Nyarlko is likely just the superior show (and I don’t particularly like Nyarlko or anything.)

Soul Eater Not

Pretty much also cute girls doing cute things, except most of the girls and things aren’t actually cute. I watched the first several episodes of this with a friend who was a fan of Soul Eater; I still wonder if it’s less mind-numbingly boring if you’re a fan of the series, but he claims it’s just a snoozefest period. Considering how laughable the animation becomes on those rare occasions when it actually tries to depict something happening, maybe it’s for the best. But really, what would have been for the best is if it were never created.

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