Winter 2017 First Impressions

Hey everybody, welcome back to For Great Justice. Coming off a strong fall 2016 season, there seemed to be one thought front and center as the anime community approached the start of the new year:

“Ugh, this looks bleak.”

And while for the sake of getting some kicks, we’re bound to agree with that to an extent, there are also some gems in the rough this season worth keeping an eye on. The rest of the world may be entering a scary, unforeseen era which has partially inspired an ongoing scandal within the anime-osphere too, but here at For Great Justice, things remain the same as ever. Below, Yata writes far too much, Haru watches stuff but isn’t able to jot anything down in time, L-K is still floating in the aether somewhere probably, and newcomer Catche makes his return. This first impressions round-up is a bit slimmer than usual, but the world’s mitigating circumstances and a generally below-average season seem like worthy explanations. What’s worth watching? Read on and find out!

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ACCA: 13-TERRITORY INSPECTION DEPT.

cap-accaSummary: 99 years ago, the Dowa Kingdom’s 13 districts were united and the bureaucratic agency ACCA, separate from the state, was formed. In the present day, Jean Otis is Vice-Chairman of his district’s ACCA Inspection Department, an oversight wing whose purpose is to audit other branches and unveil corruption. But due to the supposedly peaceful times, the Inspection Department nearly got disbanded while some higher-ups have tagged Jean as suspect in potentially plotting a coup d’état. His dull days at the office will soon get a little crazier.

Yatahaze:
As someone who spent their fairly lonely young childhood filling notepad after notepad with imaginary universes, I’m a huge fan of series that can smoothly place a viewer into their own world without that world feeling like such a humongous stretch it’s impossible to envision as a reality. Within that love comes ACCA’s biggest draw for me: worldbuilding. While the exposition going over it ranges from clever to painfully infodumed, it’s all effective in establishing what kind of nation Dowa is. Along with Jean’s laid back demeanor, the fantasy aspects of ACCA (districts where all the food is jumbo-sized, for example) mix with the familiar, realistic scenery and relatable politics to make for an absolutely enveloping watch. These first two episodes have been a little slow, and I suspect that’s just a side-effect of adapting from an exposition-packed early few chapters of source material, but it in turn pulls off making Jean’s day to day traveling (before he realizes he’s being wrapped into a conspiracy) all the more comforting. When the plot really goes off the rails, it should be interesting to contrast its later drama to this relative early calm.

And while “bureaucrats play backstabby career tag” may not seem like the most compelling premise to some people, it confidently drives right up my alley. Every character shown so far is distinctive but rather down to earth, acting like actual adults each endowed with a complex array of behavioral tics and motivations. Add to that the artsy shot design, the minimal but expressive character animation, and all the little eccentricities of Dowa, its inhabitants, and its institutions, and you’ve got yourself a show totally primed to suit my tastes. It’s almost disappointing that my favorite non-sequel premieres this season are only more or less worth an 8/10, but while ACCA may be off to a slow start, it prominently shows off one of the most unique aesthetics this season and by far one of the highest ceilings to work with. In a time where “who watches the watchmen?” is a very real question, I’m hooked and ready to see where this political romp takes us.
Current score: 8/10
Still watching after 2 episodes.

Catche:
It is a bit hard to effectively critique a series in its early stages when everything about it seems to lean on the idea that “this will pay off later.” And yet here I am, writing about ACCA.

The bulk of any significant content in ACCA is split between exposition and a slow buildup of intrigue. The series does quite well in these two areas, but this leaves little for someone like me to become invested in. At the moment, there’s little in the way of a plot to advance, and though there’s a lot of implied depth within its characters, many are intentionally kept mysterious to add to that intrigue buildup.

There may even be some sort of deliberate attempt here to alienate the audience. The series takes place in a fantasy world, but we’re two episodes in and there has been nothing fantastical about the setting except that the continent is shaped like a bird. In fact, there is effort made to make everything feel more grounded and realistic.

There’s not a lot I can say about ACCA at this point. It has done well at everything it’s tried to do so far, but it feels like I’m still waiting for things to really get going.
Current score: 6.5/10
Still watching after 2 episodes

FUUKA

cap-fuukaSummary: Yuu Haruna is a fairly average high-schooler: he and his younger sister just moved to Tokyo to live with their older siblings while their parents are abroad, and other than spending all day checking Twitter, there isn’t a lot that catches his eye. That is, until a girl runs into him, yells at him that he’s a pervert, and breaks his phone. Later, she more formally introduces herself as Fuuka Akitsuki, and the two get along a bit better. Meanwhile, Yuu’s childhood friend-turned-idol messages him for the first time in years.

Yatahaze:
I know what you’re thinking: “wow, that sounds pretty par for the course with this kind of story.” But wait! There’s m-

weeeell, actually there isn’t a whole lot more to it. So far, Fuuka seems about as lame a self-insert high-school romance as they come. From generic characters to overused plot tropes, the show’s pilot has no original tricks up its sleeve, meaning that it never impresses and that it also never gets laughably bad (though it does come close!). The production is middle-of-the-road too, with uninspired set designs and a general lack of presence. Anything the series tries to set up as unpredictable is ultimately too safe to warrant much of a reaction, and the few times it made me produce a smirk, it was only one of the “wow, are they really doing this?” variety. This may be a slim season, but I see no promise in Fuuka, and thus no reason to to stick around with it.
Final score: 4/10
Dropped after 1 episode.

GABRIEL DROPOUT

cap-gabrielSummary: Gabriel was a caring and considerate angel at the top of her class in Heaven, but deployment to the human world quickly turned her into a lazy slob. The story follows her, her well-intentioned devil friend Vigne, an ambitious but stupid demon Satania, and a sadistic angel superior Raphiel as they adapt to living among humans.

Yatahaze:
Borrowing tricks from popular angel/demon subversions à la The Devil Is a Part-Timer! as well as the plethora of cutesy moe series that studio Dogakobo is renowned for, Gabriel DropOut is probably the least original of this season’s watchable comedies, but it still provides a decent number of chuckles. Even if it seems like it’s being done to death now, that whole “good guys and bad guys come to Earth and swap their stereotypical behavior” shtick is something I find inherently silly, and it’s neat seeing Dogakobo’s bright visual design accompanied by a show determined to take that premise and darken the comedy that results from it. Gabriel’s mopey disdain for mankind is enough to carry an episode by itself, and while Satania and Raphiel’s gags aren’t as consistently humorous as the writers may think they are (especially when Vigne straight-mans the hell out of them), the rest of the cast still presents solid personalities with room to grow. I’m especially curious to see how their interactions with actual humans go, should the show decide to tread that ground.

However, while Gabriel DropOut is certainly watchable, I don’t yet have any guarantee I’ll stick with it through season’s end. Where Interviews with Monster Girls and Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid cover similar territory but are respectively more humanizing and more surreal (and thus both more engaging,) Gabriel is in a tricky spot where settling for “kinda funny” might not be enough, especially as it airs early in the workweek. In particular, I’m hoping to see the cast’s motivations expanded beyond their current archetypes, as not only would that provide diversified material for a series that could find itself well in need of some soon, but it would also assist the show in creating a more unique sense of identity. Right now, it’s a successful enough comedy, but if it could cut the fanservice out of the picture (episode 2 did perform better in this regard) and rotate its gag structure away from repetitive manzai routines, it could become something significantly funnier. Director Masahiko Ohta’s résumé doesn’t exactly get my hopes up, but only time will tell the show’s course. For now, I’m on board.
Current score: 6.5/10
Still watching after 2 episodes.

HAND SHAKERS

cap-hand-shakersSummary: Tazuna Takatsuki is a high-schooler with a love for mechanics. One day, he visits a facility and sees a vision telling him that he is a Hand Shaker, and after touching a girl named Koyori’s hand, he’s informed that if he ever lets go of her, she’ll die. As this is all going down, someone shows up and attacks them with chains.

Yatahaze:
Fuck it, I know you’re not here expecting me to take Hand Shakers seriously, and even at the risk of beating a dead horse now, I’m not going to. I could get into how convoluted this story is, or how nearly all the characters have bland single-quirk personalities (some of which are “moaning bondage girl” and “tits bouncing while standing still girl,”) or how ridiculous the applied terminology of “Nimrod” and “Ziggurat” are, but instead, let’s talk about the easiest target:

The art.

Heavens almighty, have you ever wanted to shut off a show or movie not because it’s bad, but because its camera work and special effects are straight-up nauseating? That happened here. I persevered, so I guess we can give Hand Shakers points for still being theoretically watchable, but the visual direction was absolutely all over the place. I’m not necessarily turned off by integrating real-life graphics with animation (in fact, when done well, I love it), but aside from a few spare shots here and there, the guys at Studio GoHands just don’t understand how to do it well. The color saturation sucks all the life out of the setting, and the effects…I mean, just look at this. And then thank me, ’cause I’m sparing you the true agony of having to watch those things move. The still frames are ugly enough.

Whoever designed this show should be taken in a dark room and beaten. However, they have to live with the shame of continuing to release and advertise their failure for the next 3 months, and that suffices as punishment enough. On the bright side, at the end of the day, Hand Shakers’ pilot may be one of the worst things I’ve watched in years, but it still isn’t as appalling as Big Order. There are truly positives to everything, even when you’re the Corey Feldman of anime.
Final score: 1.5/10
Dropped after 1 episode.

INTERVIEWS WITH MONSTER GIRLS (DEMI-CHAN WA KATARITAI)

cap-interviewsSummary: Testuo Takahashi is a high-school biology teacher preparing to write a college thesis on demi-humans, or “demis,” who have existed in this world for years as a subject of persecution and have just recently begun to be accepted in society on a wider scale. At first disappointed thinking he’d have to go search them out to ask for interviews, three show up as new students at his school, with a fourth newly-hired as a fellow teacher.

Yatahaze:
Interviews with Monster Girls was the first pilot I watched this season. A-1 Pictures’ spotty track record had me not expecting much, and the teacher-student dynamics of its summary worried me a bit.

To be honest, they still do, but I’ll be damned if the show isn’t also consistently goofy and surprisingly humanizing. I don’t really “get” the whole “monster girl” fad that’s been going down in recent years with shows like Monster Musume, but if there’s one thing I am a fan of, it’s sharp character writing that forces people to take a look at themselves. Interviews does manage to include some of that, revolving around a hopeful message of acceptance and diversity, and while the show is undoubtedly a jump cut and slapstick-heavy comedy, it also has some great gut-punches of thematic heaviness. Moments like the dullahan girl Kyouko trying to joke with her friends and their reactions being notably uncomfortable reflect humanity’s bias against the unknown. Furthermore, I love the disparity in reactions between the visibly demi, and those who could pass for human – that’s a great dynamic I hope the show explores as it goes on.

And of course, like all high-schoolers, the kiddos we’ve been introduced to so far also just want to get along with their fellow students and have a good time. While their daily lives may function a little differently, the show’s core theme is “hey, look, monster people are just like normal people, we’re not so different after all,” and it’s in this space where the series finds its greatest strengths. Through seeing how the demis have to alter their routines, we’re invited into a world where both Takahashi-sensei and the other demis themselves learn of each others’ quirks and hobbies. The dialogue and character writing aren’t exceptionally detailed, but with the stereotype subversions and brilliantly-timed comedy at play, there’s still plenty to work with here, and Interviews’ first two episodes have mostly been a hoot.

The unnecessary fanservice ranges from kind of acceptable (because the vampire girl Hikari is a generally nosy, lewd, person) to downright awkward, and Takahashi-sensei’s demeanor sometimes feels too collected considering how involved in a few specific students’ lives he’s getting, but those are the only concerns keeping Interviews on iffy ground for me. Even if they continue to be present at the rate they currently are, this series should nonetheless remain one of the better comedy titles this season. It’s not perfect, but sometimes you’ve just gotta take what you can get, and I am more than fine with taking this.
Current score: 7/10
Still watching after 2 episodes.

Catche:
Interviews with Monster Girls isn’t really my kind of series. It’s fine, with a few good jokes here and there, but nothing to get too excited about. Honestly, in any other season, I probably wouldn’t have given have even given this series a second glance, but this is Winter 2017.

The cast here is charming enough, but none are quite entertaining or engaging enough to hold much more than a bit of passing interest. Whatever plot there is here simply serves as an excuse to string together various charming character actions.

It’s all really standard fare. I feel like this series has gotten a fair bit of praise because this season is just so slim. If this kind of series is your thing then that’s fine, but I can’t see much of a compelling reason to continue.
Final score: 5/10
Dropped after 2 episodes.

KONOSUBA: GOD’S BLESSING ON THIS WONDERFUL WORLD! 2

cap-konosuba-2Summary: The second season of adventure/comedy/ecchi hit KonoSuba, starting right where the first left off; Kazuma getting sued and jailed for Megumin’s destruction of a nearby lord’s estate.

Yatahaze:
When KonoSuba’s first season ended last winter after a brief ten episodes, I was one of those sticklers who insisted that while the series could be funny, it sometimes didn’t work hard enough at setting up situations where the final punchline wasn’t obvious from a mile away. Part of that had to do with the cast (especially Darkness, who I’m still not that fond of) having repetitive, predictable reactions to virtually every event. The show could pull off some brilliant gags, and its consistently off-model visual design made its characters’ reaction faces notably funny, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that under the schlock of repetition and a few more questionable ecchi goofs, KonoSuba was underperforming with its potential.

At its core, I don’t think anything about the show has changed, but KonoSuba 2 has gotten off to a much funnier start than its predecessor. By setting up its pilot as “none of the townspeople really like Kazuma enough to help him,” the show immediately answered my wish for its NEETy asshole lead to more directly suffer the consequences for his ugly behavior. And that’s entertaining! I mentioned in my 2016 Anime Year in Review that KonoSuba often felt like a show with characters I could only enjoy because I wanted them to suffer and thought the scriptwriters shared the same desire, and Season 2 is echoing that sentiment tenfold. By simultaneously setting the characters off guard with unforeseen developments and plunging them back into bizarre situations that have long become routine, we get a taste of how they’ve come to predict one another’s behavior over time. If that tone can be sustained throughout the course of the whole season, I feel it will make for a much more consistently funny experience.

Beyond that, the comedic highs of the first season are still present, and seemingly at a much snappier rate than before. Though part of my praise may lay with Darkness’ relative absence so far, the fact that I’m this excited about a series I was on the fence about before has to be a good sign. All I can really ask for with Kono2ba is that it takes advantage of the many things it does well and filters out some of the excess that we’ve already seen to death. As far as that goes, it’s making a strong early statement that it’s up to the challenge, with just as many silly faces to go around as ever.
Current score: 8/10
Still watching after 2 episodes.

Catche:
Man, KonoSuba’s funnier than I remembered, or perhaps the first episode of this new season was just particularly good.

KonoSuba took the number seven spot out of my Top 10 Anime of 2016, so I was hopeful that its second season could continue on being as good as its predecessor, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Kazuma’s trail was one of the series’ highlights so far, showing off the fickle nature of most of the series’ cast, as well as bringing back some stuff from the first season.

The second season of KonoSuba is pretty much more of the same. If you dug it before, you’ll dig it now, and if not, then it’s not going to change your mind. For me, however, it’s great to have KonoSuba’s dark sense of humor back and the main cast is still a treat.
Current score: 7.5/10
Still watching after 2 episodes.

LITTLE WITCH ACADEMIA (TV)

cap-lwaSummary: Inspired by a performance of the showy, entertainer magician Shiny Chariot in her youth, Atsuko “Akko” Kagari decides to become a witch. Getting accepted into the Luna Nova Academy was just step one, though; as a foreigner and someone who has no natural ability with magic, Akko quickly finds herself out of place, and vehemently defending Chariot’s reputation against an institution with a disdain for showy magic users isn’t helping either.

Yatahaze:
Both Little Witch Academia movies stand tall as two of my favorite pieces of family-friendly anime this decade, as well as what I think may be Studio Trigger’s best work to date, so my expectations were pretty high going into the franchise’s new television adaptation. What I didn’t expect was that it would be a reboot, not a continuation; whereas Akko’s initiation into Luna Nova is skimmed over in the films, the TV series’ first two episodes have slowly tackled her journey in chunks, from showing up in the academy’s nearby town misguidedly looking for a bus to saving the day solely due to conviction and an obsessive knowledge of all things Shiny Chariot. In the films, Akko’s big break came with all eyes upon her, but this time, it’s only her roommates, Diana, and the lurking-in-the-shadows Professor Ursula who witness her talent come out via Chariot’s rod. Because she’s not known throughout the academy as a troublesome hero virtually right off the bat, the TV series is granted much more time to explore the ways Akko is a fish out of water, both physically and mentally.

This is all great, as it allows for more nuanced characterization from not just Akko, but also Diana (who appears much less snobby here than she did in the films), Sucy (who in turn appears much more snobby), and Lotte, who for most of her first encounters with the rest of the cast just looks absolutely terrified and exhausted. I’m also really curious to see where this television version takes Ursula’s development, because anyone with a smidgen of intuition can tell that she is Shiny Chariot. As a facet to her character that the movies and this adaptation strongly hint at but haven’t yet directly stated, there are endless ways for her identity to be revealed in-story, and I’m curious to see how the dynamics will change as a result.

However, because Little Witch Academia has ample time to wander (it’s slated for 2 consecutive cours from now through June), that also means the overall story may not feel as compact and consistent as the material from the films. It was hard for me to not get the impression from its first two episodes alone that Director Yoh Yoshinari and Trigger have some idea of where they want to take their property but weren’t 100% confident in resetting their slate. What the movies’ characterization pulled off in less than 15 minutes, the series appears to be stretching out, and for anyone already familiar with the general disposition of these characters, that may make the first act a bit of a drag, especially when the exposition comes in occasionally unrelenting waves.

So I’d be lying if I said I thought Little Witch Academia had itself a stellar premiere here, but its future potential is still among the largest and most guaranteed of any show this season. If you haven’t checked out the franchise yet, you don’t lose anything from starting here. I just hope you don’t mind fansubs.
Current score: 7.5/10
Still watching after 2 episodes.

Catche:
Having been a fan of both the Little Witch Academia short film and the full-length sequel, The Enchanted Parade, it was clear to me once I heard about a Little Witch Academia TV series that I needed to watch it. It certainly hasn’t disappointed.

With its very first episode, this series makes it very clear that it will not be a follow up to the previous installments, but rather following its own continuity beginning with Akko’s arrival at Luna Nova. Now, despite the new continuity, all the old cast makes a return, but here they all seem a bit more fleshed out than before, presumably in order to set up long term arcs for multiple characters in order to fill out its announced 2 cours.

The animation is, as it was with the previous two installments, a standout, albeit on a smaller scale. With a TV production, resources have to be spread out for all 25 episodes, meaning that not every episode is going to be filled completely with stellar animation. However, what we have is still beyond what we normally see in TV animation.

The whimsical tone of the previous installments also makes a big return here, making the series a constant delight to watch. I doubt that Little Witch Academia is going to make too much of an emotional impact when it’s done, nor will it be filled with non-stop excitement, but I’m pretty sure it’s still going to be a lot of fun.
Current score: 8/10
Still watching after 2 episodes.

MASAMUNE-KUN’S REVENGE

cap-masamuneSummary: As a child, Masamune Makabe had a crush on a rich girl named Aki Adagaki, but all she did was humiliate him for being fat. Since then, he’s toned his body and built up his self-esteem to a narcissistic degree, and seeing that Aki not only attends his high school but still acts haughty and pretentious, he hatches a plan; to slowly gain her confidence and trust only to brutally let her down the same way she did him.

Yatahaze:
Does that sound petty and evil? I hope so, because Masamune-kun’s Revenge is petty and evil. Masamune is the epitome of an angsty “wahh I got friendzoned, but I deserve everyone’s admiration” asshole, and Aki is legitimately an alpha bitch. Both characters’ lackeys lack identity, at most being “the potential love rival” or “Exposition-kun,” and only reinforce what each one thinks of themselves. I’m assuming the show will explore just how crude Masamune’s plan is and in turn make him (and hopefully Aki too) realize their stuck-up demeanor is manipulative and smarmy, but I can’t say I’m compelled to stick it out myself and find out.

I’d admittedly be tempted to if the show had a few more tricks up its sleeve, such as the occasionally funny self-deprecating comedy it displays at a few key moments, but there’s just not enough of that to go around. The visuals are uninspired and bland too, with forgettable character designs, that same oversaturated color palette that’s cropping up in seemingly every “meh” show this season, and trite voice acting. Studio Silver Link doesn’t have the most consistent track record, but they have produced a couple hits under the radar despite their large back-catalogue of indistinct fluff. Sadly, just because this show’s tone is a little darker doesn’t mean it’s not right at home with their lesser titles.

To summarize, yeah, Masamune-kun’s Revenge has a plot and character motivations. But that plot is “to be assholes,” and their motivations are…you guessed it, “to be assholes.” Even I’m not that desperate, and off in the distance I can see shining clear their demise to be: they’re not listening to themselves.
Final score: 4.5/10
Dropped after 1 episode.

MISS KOBAYASHI’S DRAGON MAID

cap-miss-maidSummary: Miss Kobayashi is an office lady who accidentally stumbles upon a dragon while hiking in a drunken stupor, and surprised by her generosity, the dragon decides to take human form and hang around her apartment as her maid. Or rather, she tries to do maid-like activities, but mostly gets confused by human constructs while trying to forcefeed Kobayashi her roasted tail.

Yatahaze:
Given that Kyoto Animation is handily my favorite anime studio around today and they’ve only released one truly uninspired flop in the last handful of years (lookin’ at you, Myriad Colors Phantom World!), hearing that their new release would be a gag comedy about an adult office worker with a dragon maid suggested that they had once again picked up imaginative source material to work with, and KyoAni is nothing if not productive with good source material. As expected, Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid has overachieved virtually every step of the way so far, standing out as the clear front-runner among this season’s monster girl comedies.

Part of this is the obvious KyoAni production polish: the comedic timing is consistently superb, the dialogue is genuinely witty and bizarre, and the animation quality runs circles around the season’s next best offerings. But most importantly, Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid has a cast I can actually care about. It’s not completely above casually name-dropping aspects of otakudom, but that base isn’t used as an anchor for all the show’s shenanigans. Tohru the dragon maid’s culture shock with the human world spans devices far wider than the typical otaku fare, and because the show embraces the abstract silliness of seesaws and drivers licenses with the same fervor it does video games and undergarments, the dragons’ awe comes across as far more amusing and unpredictable than you’d expect.

And then there’s the not-so-subtext that Tohru has the romantic hots for Kobayashi too, twisting the typical “new girl becomes enamored with lonely adolescent boy” setup into “gigantic mythical beast wants to be in a relationship with jaded adult salarywoman.” Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s not an angle I’ve seen any works like this take before, and while the comedy remains the series’ biggest pull factor, it’s just as important that it presents its lead duo (and the other characters) with the back-and-forth reflective of people whose personalities are shaped by their lived experiences. Because this is a KyoAni work, it should come as no surprise that Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid does precisely that with shining success. I can’t wait to see where the show goes, be it focusing on the “romance,” Tohru’s more traumatic memories with humans before her escape, or her other dragon friends who we can assume will drop by sooner or later. Its first episode is admittedly weaker than its second, but anyone in the mood for a wacky comedy with a heart of gold should not go without giving Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid a chance.
Current score: 8/10
Still watching after 2 episodes.

ONIHEI

cap-oniheiSummary: In the late Edo period, a police chief named Heizou Hasegawa runs the Arson Theft Control with a ruthless reputation of bringing criminals to justice. When a recently captured convict overhears rumors of his former master committing atrocities outside the “thief’s code” (do not kill, do not rape, do not steal from the poor), he begs for Heizou to let him track the crook down himself.

Yatahaze:
I can confidently say that Onihei is the least awful show I’ll be dropping for this season’s first impressions round-up. As what appears to be an episodic procedural crime thriller with various cases revolving around Heizou, the newly-formed Studio M2 give me no reason to believe that each installment of Onihei won’t at the very least be competent from a storytelling standpoint. Heizou is already presented as a multifaceted main character, and the remorse of his criminal-turned-cohort for the series’ first episode was a great touch, letting us enter the chief’s world through a newcomer’s eyes while also empathizing with the decisions he has to make. The rest of its cast doesn’t look to be full of complex personalities, but it also seems absent of utterly embarrassing ones.

Sadly, the show’s lackluster visuals make for a tiring watch on the eyes. Overwhelmed by heavy blues, awkward lighting, and a near-constant feeling that the characters and backgrounds belong to fundamentally different shows (especially when the CG is thrown in, uggggh), it’s hard to feel sucked into the action. Not to mention there’s very little said action – bar one moderately-well-directed fight scene in the pilot, Onihei’s animation drags. The jazzy soundtrack suggests to us a firmer sense of style yet to be revealed, but I’m not sure that’s really enough to counteract the series’ other production stumbles.

And while yeah, this season is weak and Onihei is among its better titles as far as adherence to genre expectations goes, I also learned a lesson with Joker Game last spring; sometimes a period piece just doing its thing episode-in, episode-out doesn’t make for a wholly satisfying product. I’ll put it like this: if I were held up at gunpoint and forced to pick back up one of the shows I’m dropping here, I would choose Onihei. Not because it’s spectacular or innovative (it isn’t either), but because it’s the most forgettably alright of the bunch. But it’s exactly because it’s forgettably alright that I feel no hesitance to cut my losses and let it go here. For diehard fans of crime-thrillers or period pieces, there’s nothing here that’ll make you turn away in disgust, so go for it. For everyone else who’s curious, give yourself an episode and see where your thoughts lay.
Final score: 6/10
Dropped after 1 episode.

THE SAGA OF TANYA THE EVIL (YOUJO SENKI)

cap-tanyaSummary: The Empire (which is obviously a slightly-alternate “World War I started late”-era Germany) had a plan to conquer Europe, but it’s failing on multiple fronts now, and one of their last hopes is a girl named Tanya Degurechaff, a Second Lieutenant whose reputation as “The Devil of the Rhine” precedes her. Anyone who stands between her protecting her homeland, whether they be disorderly allies or the enemy, meets her wrath and a bloody fate.

Yatahaze:
Okay, so last season I claimed Izetta: The Last Witch didn’t get gritty enough. This season, Tanya takes things to the far opposite extreme, and without scrapping the silly magic.

Anime, why are you doing this to yourself?

But hey, let’s start with the positives. The dreary (but not overly grim) color palette is perfect, the fight choreography is rather impressive, and I personally (though it’s not an opinion shared by many) found the character designs to be distinctive and in place with the rest of the show’s art. The animation is fairly smooth and nothing stuck out as inherently poor or sloppy in the show’s score and sound design. As far as the production goes, the previously unknown-to-me Studio NUT did a satisfactory job making Tanya a watchable show.

But that’s where the story comes in: why would I want to watch a loli fighting for the cause of an authoritarian, nationalistic Germany smirk with maniacal glee as she explodes everything? What’s the motivator in that? Pure destruction? Some kind of masochistic bullshit? I don’t see the appeal.

And unfortunately, while the rest of the show isn’t necessarily caught up in Tanya’s gleeful abandon, it’s still negatively impacted by its framing of her as the hero. Viktoriya, that ambiguously Russian-sounding soldier with the huge head, sees Tanya’s crazed display of power over the course of the pilot and changes her previously awe-struck impression of her to one that’s far more skeptical about her true nature. But aside from her, the people we follow are either common soldiers dedicated to Germany’s cause, the German leaders themselves, or a band of oaf-ish Entente soldiers riding goddamn levitating metal horses, none of which instills in me confidence that Tanya will attempt to tackle serious questions about war’s moral ambiguity or technology’s harrowing impact in this particular one. Its mind seems pretty made up: “violence is cool, follow the person who causes the most of it!”

I just can’t get down with that for its own sake.
Final score: 4/10
Dropped after 1 episode.

Catche:
After its first episode aired, The Saga of Tanya the Evil was rightly eviscerated by many for being a fucking piece of garbage. However, upon watching the second episode, I’ve found that there is a bit of fun to be had here.

The key to making Tanya the Evil actually work as a series is the main hook of the series, which we don’t actually get until the second episode. The interaction between the godlike “Being X” and the salaryman (who at this point is yet to become the titular Tanya) is actually pretty well done and the idea that Tanya’s main goal is to just survive as a big “fuck you” to that being is entertaining enough.

The character designs on the two main female characters are still horrible though, specifically because they do not blend well with the grim and gritty aesthetic that the rest of the series follows. When you have a big-eyed anime girl show up on a battlefield that seems to otherwise be aiming to look dark and realistic only comes across as laughable, and while Tanya’s face can sometimes change to a more fitting, murder-y expression, Viktoriya just looks like garbage all the time.

So yeah, Tanya the Evil is actually just fine. Though it’s still got plenty of problems and I think I’ll probably end up dropping this show around the midseason, it has me interested for the moment.
Current score: 5.5/10
Still watching after 2 episodes.

SCUM’S WISH (KUZU NO HONKAI)

cap-scums-wishSummary: Hanabi Yasuraoka appears to be an average lovey-dovey high schooler, if a bit shy, but she and her “boyfriend” Mugi Awaya don’t feel any romantic attraction towards one another. Instead, because they’re each really in love with adults who would never requite their feelings, they’re using each other as substitutes to fight away their own loneliness. And that’s just the start of what’s shaping up to be a full-blown love dodecahedron.

Yatahaze:
ANN reviewer Jacob Chapman beat me to the punch here in diagnosing Scum’s Wish as one of those rare “so wrong, it’s right” shows. In a sea of ecchi, it’s still weird to me seeing sexual themes played straight in anime, that is, not for the benefit of fanservice or the audience’s vicarious pleasure. Sex can be thrilling and wonderful, but when you’re a teenager, as the majority of the characters in these types of shows are, it’s usually just confusing and embarrassing. And thus, while sexuality plays a prominent role in Scum’s Wish, it’s not really a positive one; Hana and Mugi both restrict themselves from pining after the actual targets of their lust, and instead place the responsibility of satisfaction on each other.

It’s fucked. It’s an unhealthy coping mechanism. And I think Scum’s Wish knows this, which is why it’s so gripping and I can’t seem to look away. In many ways, it reminds me of a mixture of the nihilistic Flowers of Evil and the more empathetically misanthropic My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU; we spend time in several characters’ headspace, but primarily in Hana’s, and she seems to recognize that chasing after her older childhood friend-turned-teacher is ultimately a doomed pursuit. She has a distinctive narrative voice, as does Mugi, who by episode 2 already seems a bit less on board with sticking out their deal for the long haul. They share a conversational casualness that to anyone would seem like that of a genuine boyfriend and girlfriend, and to be fair, I think it’s safe to call them friends, but the context of their relationship makes nearly every interaction shown between them tense and uncomfortable. The muted, minimally-animated art and manga-esque paneling are creative visual choices that give the series a lived-in feeling of blurry normalcy, and they pair well with the overall tone. In addition, they transform sequences like Mugi feeling up Hana for the first time from something that would be detaching and pandering in most other shows to something that feels invasive but non-violent here, thrusting the camera too close for comfort and by extension conveying the physical intimacy between the two.

I also love the way the crew has handled giving each of the supporting characters’ personalities plentiful gray area. Mugi’s childhood friend Noriko, for instance, acts like a stuck-up brat and gets scolded back for it, but her feelings are understandable and her intuition that something’s not right between Mugi and Hana hints that she’s probably more perceptive than they realize. The main duo’s love is complicated further by the fact that their forbidden targets are actually in love with each other. And then of course there’s Hana’s close friend “Ecchan,” who in the course of one episode goes from a bystander to jumping on her own sexual desires to be with Hana. I especially love the way Studio Lerche initially framed this to make the viewer assume that she would be just another conflict for Mugi; it’s not fair to operate on the heteronormative assumption that every female in a story will be gunning for said story’s male, but it is an established romantic trope, and I can’t deny I fell victim to believing it, making the role reversal all the more sudden when her advance ended the episode on a cliffhanger.

Past experience tells me to be wary of trusting a Studio Lerche show’s consistency and ability to finish what it starts well, but so far Scum’s Wish has been one hell of a ride. I’m a sucker for even the most so-so of shoujo-y romances, and when they endeavor to go a step beyond the norm and have the narrative tact to pull it off, then they really color me impressed. This will not be a show for the impatient, squeamish, or SFW-only, but for someone looking for a nuanced, low-key, and surprisingly thoughtful lovers tragedy, Scum’s Wish may be worth your time.
Current score: 7.5/10
Still watching after 2 episodes.

Catche:
If you hear anything about this series it’s probably going to fall somewhere along the lines of it being kind of uncomfortable to watch. It is not too common that an anime series comes around that actively tries to make its audience feel strongly unpleasant feelings, which is why I’m always kind of excited to see something like Scum’s Wish.

Though this series is a bit melodramatic, the conflict and hurt here manage achieve a level of realism that it can create a strong sense of anxiety in its viewers. Engendering a level of empathy with an audience to purposefully create such strong emotion is a sign of strong writing and direction, but to take it in such a risky direction really takes things up a notch.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on your perspective) it’s unlikely that Scum’s Wish will reach the level of some other anime which aim for a similar, unorthodox viewer response (such as Texhnolyze) due to the fact that the series never aims to become too dark or biting. Though I feel the intended discomfort while viewing, it doesn’t stick with me afterwards. This may change as the series progresses, but for now the series stands just short of being truly resonant.

It is also worth noting that this series probably isn’t best experienced on a week by week basis. Due to the series’ overall tone, I can’t say that I exactly look forward to new episodes each week. I would suggest that anyone who is interested but has yet to begin watching just wait until it has finished airing and try to watch it at your own pace instead.
Current score: 8/10
Still watching after 2 episodes.

SEIREN

cap-seirenSummary: Shouichi Kamita will be graduating soon enough, and with no definite goals, he bumbles along day to day chilling with his pals and studying for university entrance exams. Some girls seem to have their eyes on him, though he doesn’t think much of it until he and several others from his class go on a study trip and things start to get a little funky.

Yatahaze:
Seiren is special. In addition to being bland and unoriginal, most generic high school romance anime have at least one or two “wow, that’s really anime” fanservice tropes thrown in. Seiren does not. Its indistinctness is pure and its dialogue is relaxed and conversational.

And that is about all it has going for it.

The leads aren’t engaging, the inevitable harem is obvious, and there’s no sense of purpose to the show, which, judging by the synopses I’ve seen, will apparently juggle its heroines into their own arcs where they each get the spotlight trying to steal Shouichi’s attention. So not only is it a harem, it’ll supposedly be one where the story doesn’t even continue in a linear fashion. That’s fine if you’re making a visual novel, but as an anime, to see the format stay the same is just lazy.

…wait, this is an anime original?

Wow.

Now, I dropped Seiren after one episode, and from the anitwitter updates I’ve seen, I’m starting to think that maybe I just didn’t give it enough time to introduce its hooks properly. Screencaps with lines about navel fetishes and people accusing the protagonist of doing “lewd things to the vending machine” are…provoking, but they also don’t make me feel like I’m missing out on their actual context. That said, I like to think of myself as a fair critic, and I can’t rate the show for what I’ve selectively seen past its pilot. Based off its debut episode alone, Seiren is the firmest 5/10 I think I’ve ever handed out. You can certainly do worse (and maybe the show will get there!), but you can also do so, so much better.
Final score: 5/10
Dropped after 1 episode.

SHOUWA GENROKU RAKUGO SHINJUU: SUKEROKU FUTATABI-HEN

cap-rakugoSummary: The sequel to last winter’s superb drama Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu. Picking up where the first series left off, Yakumo (a.k.a Kikuhiko/Bon) has become the president of the Rakugo Association and Yotarou has just been promoted to shin’uchi, a true professional of his own taking on the Sukeroku name. In the midst of dealing with fleeting public interest and caring for Konatsu’s newborn child, the mentor-apprentice duo also reconnects with two turned-away figures from Yakumo’s past; Mangetsu, the son of a Kyoto-born rakugo performer, and Higuchi, an arts writer who encourages them to try their hand at writing their own rakugo for a new generation.

Yatahaze:
You know those “the top 1% controls too much of this nation’s wealth” charts? Well, those apply here too, and this is the only case where I’ll end up praising the untouchable anomaly. Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is so phenomenal, trying to compare it to any other show mentioned in this article would just be sad. This broadcast season may only feature one exemplary series, but I couldn’t ask for one with a richer sense of nuance, empathy, and resonance.

I’ve found it really interesting right off the bat how downplayed the melodrama is this season. It makes sense, as the first season of Rakugo was essentially all flashback, passed down in-universe as just another rakugo story, and thus producing a tone more romantically bittersweet than routine. Back in the present though, Yotarou and Yakumo find themselves rolling with the flow, and the whole production in turn feels much less overtly dramatic. While I enjoyed the first season’s lurking urgency, (and if this season’s OP is any indication, we’re not yet done with the deathly twists), the contrast between each half of Rakugo’s whole feels reinvigorating and fitting.

And I’m honestly kind of relieved the current-day cast has so quickly taken off in the course of these two episodes. Where Rakugo’s first season was very much focused on the relationships of Yakumo and the contemporaries and colleagues of his generation, its characterization of Yotarou and grown-up Konatsu felt stifled and one-note to me, even on rewatch. That’s not the case now; by giving us more leeway and tying Yakumo’s ongoing fatigue to both the contemporary world and his apprentices promoted and abandoned, Rakugo not only incentivizes us to invest in its newfound dilemma, but also the new players trying to solve it.

And already, those new introductions feel doomed: Higuchi seems more concerned about promoting the art (and maybe payback?) than the people making it, Yotarou is uncomfortable about an overblown “scandal” regarding his yakuza past, and Konatsu is still clearly an unhappy person, now with motherly duties for multiple people stacked on her plate. For better or worse, the rag-tag “family” unit they’ve formed simply doesn’t appear sustainable, and only Yotarou seems to fancy the idea in the first place; Konatsu continues to blame Yakumo for her parents’ death and only wants to keep him around so that her own child can hear the art she’s been denied. Yakumo himself expresses how he’d love to just be killed and take rakugo with him, but his word is at best a dramatic lament not entirely reflective of his innermost desires, whether he realizes it or not. The times may have changed, but misinterpreted maneuvers still command these characters’ lives, and the more they ignore them, the likelier it is that everything will end in tragedy once again. Even if they make it out intact, there’s no guarantee rakugo will, with audiences becoming less and less appreciative, and the press offering few outstretched hands.

And that’s the general overview of Rakugo 2’s launch out of the gates. There’s so much to unpack with this show that I know I’ll never be able to cover it all in these installments, but I hope to at least return with occasional insight into specific developments and threads in it that I find exceptionally interesting (like Yakumo hating babies!). After all, at this point Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu’s continued mastery is practically a given. What we get out of its story is ultimately up to us.

oh, and I’m still not over the fact that season 1 didn’t even place in the top 3 for Crunchyroll’s “Best Drama” Award. Hell, Orange beat it. Orange wasn’t even a listed choice. Remedy this for 2017. Watch Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu.
Current score: 9.5/10
Still watching after 2 episodes.

Catche:
And now we come to the second season of the series which sat at the very top of my Top 10 list for 2016.

This season of Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu has started off rather slow. There have been a variety of really good character moments, but much of the first two episodes has been spent reestablishing the cast and setting, as well as setting up the plot going forward. I expect this slower build to result in some solid payoff down the line, but for now it’s just great character writing.

The setup that we do get is rather compelling, though. Yotarou, though coming off a bit grating upon his reintroduction, faces the need to develop his own rakugo style beyond simple imitation of his master, Yakumo, and his predecessor, Sukeroku. This comes at the same time as Yotarou’s criminal past begins to catch up with him, discrediting him as a performer in the eyes of many. This conflict has quickly gotten him over as a sympathetic character, and I’m already invested in seeing how he grows from here.

I’m really excited for what Rakugo has to offer this season, but this is going to be a slow burn and for now there’s not too much too say.
Current score: 8.5/10
Still watching after 2 episodes.

URARA MEIROCHOU

cap-uraraSummary: Meirochou (or Labyrinth Town) is a city where spiritual diviners gather with the dream of rising in rank and helping travelers. Raised in the forest, Chiya shows up in Meirochou with another goal in mind: finding her mother. A string of complications distracts her from that at the moment though, and she ends up befriending three other entry-level diviners; Kon, Koume, and Nono.

Yatahaze:
“Fanservice” comes in a few different packages. There’s explicitly sexual fanservice, which nearly always sucks a viewer out of the show they’re watching, and then there’s platonic fanservice, which just presents the viewer with inessential feel-good scenes that either have a counterproductive or neutral bearing on the show’s story. Urara Meirochou somehow decided that throwing both together would be a good idea.

It wasn’t.

The sexual fanservice especially, because while Chiya constantly showing off her belly as an “apology” was a little funny and understandable at first, it was beaten into the ground by episode’s end, clearly used as an excuse to show some side- and under-boob. Ditto for Chiya looking up under her friend’s skirt in search of “her tail.” There’s “character quirks that fit the character’s personality” and then there’s “character quirks designed to pry the audience’s investment away.” Urara Meirochou could’ve stopped at the former, but it chose to impose time and time again until it became dominated by the latter.

Which is a shame, because between J.C. Staff’s consistently warm and cozy visuals here and an undercurrent of an actual plot, this show looks like it could have some aces up its sleeve. But all its pilot indicated to me was that it’s ultimately too tonedeaf to take advantage of what it set up well, instead trying to blend the jarring fanservice with the light-hearted jabs. The humor can be legitimately funny, but it’s wildly inconsistent, and the characters who aren’t actively obnoxious are all fairly forgettable so far. There are hints that a decent show could be hidden underneath the identity crisis that is Urara Meirochou’s pilot, but even in a season as dire as this, I’m not that desperate to see for myself if it will surface.
Final score: 5/10
Dropped after 1 episode.

gif-kono-subarashii-sekai-ni-shukufuku-wo-01
“Wait, that’s it?”

Yup. Told ya this wasn’t the best of seasons, but it’s better than nothing. Not to mention us getting four articles out within the span of a month is nearly unprecedented, so I’d say despite the desperate airing block now, we’ve had a fairly productive start to the winter. What’s next? Hell, we don’t even know – probably a mid-season update sometime in February, but we’ll see when we get there. ‘Til then, this has been Yata and Catche at For Great Justice. See ya next time!

 

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