Winter 2017 Mid-Season Thoughts

Well, I was right in predicting we’d get a new update article out in February. Guess I just underestimated how long it would take. But hey, for the first time in a while now, Yata, Catche, and even Haru were all able to dump together some thoughts on what they’ve stuck with this winter 2017 anime season. Some of the highlights are clear, some are…not quite what you’d expect, and there’s a fair bit of gray area in between. What shows have been doing great justice for who, and of course, the juicier question: what’s getting dropped? Read on to find out!

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ACCA: 13-TERRITORY INSPECTION DEPT.

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Yatahaze:

I’ve seen people growing frustrated with ACCA’s slow pace, and I won’t deny I’ve occasionally agreed with them; in my head, the show was going to start reserved and diplomatic, gradually snowballing into a chaotic mess that left none of its characters untouched, and perhaps its kingdom not even intact. And that may still be the outcome, but the mess so far has proven to be far less chaotic than expected. ACCA loaded its earlier dialogue with exposition, a weak point from its introductory episodes that still sometimes rears its head now, but I’m almost relieved that for the most part, a lot of it seemed to be essential, even if there were some red herrings.

See, in spite of the somewhat dry, explanatory tone, most of ACCA’s substance comes not from the content that people say, but in analyzing what they could be withholding and why. The latest episode doubled down on the suggestion that Jean and Lotta are royalty, and while that may have come as a shock to some, it was an idea I think most people had been jostling around for a while. Jean’s obliviousness to his inherited close ties to heads of business, he and the royal family’s shared sweet tooth, and the King’s fondness for looking at a certain deceased princess’ portrait in his castle all helped guide me to that thought – but the real clincher was right there in the show’s OP! Silhouetted and smiling, the figure wearing the crown looks far more like Jean than any other character, even the supposedly next-in-line self-righteous dunce Prince Schwan. Before, people were just praying for the current King to stay in power as long as possible, but now, there appear to be options…even if they’re not publicized.

Which would then easily explain why rumors about a national coup that may or may not even occur are nonetheless being taken seriously faster than you can tweet “fake news!” Mauve didn’t get the information of Jean’s royal status until now, but it surely came from somewhere trustworthy, and the Chief Officers likely knew as far back as the start of the show. It’s obvious none of these actors want Schwan in charge, and while they also have their own endgames and ulterior motives (Grossular wants to expand ACCA’s influence, Mauve and Lilium claim they stand with Jean prioritizing order above all else), they’re all given a chance to get their wish with Jean in power, more so than with Schwan at the helm, at least. It’s not exactly a stretch to say the prince’s self-absorbed, presumptuous demeanor isn’t fit for administrating a diverse kingdom with pockets in turmoil with a history of spilling over into total revolt.

That leads to what might be my biggest ACCA apologist claim yet: all that food these folks keep stuffing down their throats? Yeah, that’s a manifestation of each character’s willingness to engage with the commonfolk. In the Dowa Kingdom, each district seems to take great pride in their cuisine as a reflection of their own unique culture. Jean and the King have shown themselves to be eager and adventurous when it comes to getting a literal and figurative taste of each district they visit. For Jean, it may be second nature; raised in the more notably multicultural urban district Badon, it would stand to reason that he and Lotta have a broader palette than someone from the more insular Suitsu or Dowa District would, and he even seems disappointed when an official in Birra tells him they imported some of his meal. In stark contrast, Schwan seems disillusioned with the notion of leaving his castle, especially over something as trivial as bread or love, reflecting a disinterest in the swathes of people who will have to live with the choices he makes should he ascend to the throne. I don’t know about you, but we can laugh over the Ted Cruz butter cow photo all we want (and we should, it’s fucking ridiculous), but connecting with the distant locals on things that they’re proud of is good politics.

With Schwan realizing his position is threatened through legal means, the coup rumors now look irrelevant compared to the very plausible possibility that Jean will one-up him and accept the crown. If Jean’s intuition is correct, Grossular is being set up as a false enemy when it’s in fact more likely that simply he holds additional knowledge about the Otus’ parents because of the Rokkusu train accident which claimed their lives. Lilium’s casual leaking of information has also grown from friendly to suspiciously manipulative, especially since he seems to most distrust Grossular, who in turn seems less mischievous. Thankfully, with Mauve on his side and Nino more likely to be his assigned royal guardian than an untrustworthy mercenary, it seems like Jean will have backup getting to the bottom of whatever’s brewing in Dowa. But of course, that’s under the assumption that Jean even wants to inherit the crown. If he doesn’t, it’s not like most of these people will let him walk away free back to the inspection department. The future of their country is at stake, and between Schwan’s order for Magie to investigate and all the pressure Jean will face as a preferable alternative to a moron, ACCA’s pot is still being stirred. That’s understandably frustrated some people, but I can’t help but find myself transfixed watching the bubbles form.
Current score: 8/10
Still watching after 7 episodes.

Catche:
I feel inclined to write off ACCA as simply being a very boring series, but it is so confounding in its dullness that I find myself needing to break this crap down to find all of the places where the narrative fails to be at all compelling.

First, we can look at the characters, all of whom are just kind of serviceable. Most members of the cast are intentionally characterized in rather vague terms in order to create a sense of political intrigue where the viewer would find it difficult to determine anyone’s motivations. However, this type of narrative would therefore require a central character with whom the audience can connect in order to facilitate greater investment in the text. Jean is not a character who fills this role will, even at the most basic levels of his design. He has this constantly glazed-over expression, creating the immediate sense that he can barely be bothered to really give a shit about the proceedings, so that even when he does show genuine investment, it feels muted.

I get that a series doesn’t need to be completely character-based or even have very interesting characters in order to be entertaining or fulfilling. Sometimes, all you need is a fun and engaging plot to keep things rolling. Here too, though, ACCA fails to follow through. The central mystery of the rumored coup d’état develops extremely slowly, with no truly interesting information being brought about until almost three hours into the series overall, where a bunch of rather underwhelming revelations are all dumped at once. Despite how the big twists here do help to reframe much of what happened before, all I could think was “That’s it?” Now, this is in part my fault for having read a large number of politics-focused fantasy stories, so the “secret royalty” twist felt tired long before I watched ACCA. Clichés don’t inherently ruin a story, but when paired with boring characters and lackluster animation, they do.

Though not listed as a mystery series, ACCA is one, and it is a bad one at that. It is poorly structured and paced and manages to have some of the most dull character work this season. Even if the series were to be perfect from here on out, I doubt I could give it any higher than a seven out of ten due to just how poor the first half has been. It is a shame, honestly, as many aspects of the series show so much promise. The character designs look unique while still managing to be appealing, the animation can be great, and I really dig its soundtrack.

There are even some episodes (namely the first and fourth) which show that if the series had gone down a different, more episodic path, it could have actually been a pretty good watch. Seeing the dynamics of ACCA as a bureaucracy and the social conflicts of the districts in isolation from the crap main plot is actually pretty interesting. This would be a better place to nurture the series’ occasionally underplayed themes of intercultural cooperation and exploitation as well as bolster its rather labored bread metaphor. However, if the highest praise that I can muster for a series is that “I would enjoy it if it were given a radically different structure and plot,” it really doesn’t speak highly of the series’ quality.
Final score: 4/10
Dropped after 7 episodes.

GABRIEL DROPOUT

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Yatahaze:
At the start of the season, I predicted Gabriel DropOut could potentially remain a bundle of laughs until its finale, but to do so, it would have to step up its game and challenge its own conventions. As a gag comedy with a “been there, done that” premise, the worst thing it could do is get content with its early setup and settle into a predictable groove.

And sadly, it did just that – not only is an overwhelming amount of time spent on Satania, whose material is almost always either a step too far or a step too shallow, but the rest of the cast often feels muddled in the background, their crowning moments of awesome downplayed by the otherwise unremarkable tone of the show. The kind-hearted barista pursuing the perfect house blend, Gab truly not giving a shit about anything, those are the threads that just work, because they extend an invitation into the most empathetic and selfish parts of our conscience respectively. But the show has suppressed them into playing second fiddle far too much to feel like a success. DropOut is only ever funny when its situations are engaging, and it’s just not original enough to stand out on any other metric. As for the fan favorites, chalk it up to personal preferences or whatever, but Satania and Raphiel’s dynamic just isn’t amusing to me with its same outcome always obvious from miles away.

A weak character or two shouldn’t overpower an otherwise serviceable gag comedy, but that’s exactly what’s happening with me and DropOut. What that indicates to me is that, in spite of some genuinely fun moments scattered throughout, even the good characters aren’t really capable of pulling their weight far enough in the other direction. If it simply had a weak episode or two, that would be a different matter, but throughout nearly every week this season, this series has consistently ranked as my least favorite offering among the nine shows I’ve been watching. Taking that into consideration, I just can’t convince myself that sticking through with Gab and co. will be worth the time in the long run. In retrospect, the title probably should’ve tipped me off to as much.
Final score: 5/10
Dropped out after 7 episodes.

INTERVIEWS WITH MONSTER GIRLS (DEMI-CHAN WA KATARITAI)

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Yatahaze:
I love shows that reflect on the human condition: what it means to be oneself, how those individual differences make us who we are, and how they affect the ways we interpret the world around us. About half the time, Interviews endeavors to offer a show about precisely that.

The other half, it’s more inclined toward clumsy fanservice and awkward jokes about sexual harassment.

The effort is clearly there when it wants to be, but I fear that the show is routinely making something akin to a statement and then letting that thought stand without any meaningful elaboration. It doesn’t help that Interviews’ characters are generally more believable as light-hearted, comedic goofballs than they are as sociological experts. Despite my initial praise of Takahashi as a calm and collected, responsible adult, the show has continuously painted him in a light that’s too good to be true, and as a result, the already far-fetched dissonance of some of his students falling for him gets further strained the less he does about it. If there’s any hope left, it’s that he doesn’t see himself as a messiah, just someone who wants to treat people respectably with foresight to their potential disabilities. However, when he’s by and large the only guy at the school who consistently interacts with the demi kids and the romance thread is present even without him there, the harem elements can’t help but crop up in full force. A gag here or there works, but he lacks both a personality and a concrete goal strong enough to carry the show.

The demi kids pull their weight as best they can with mixed results. Hikari is a bundle of joy, and her sister Himari and their parents act like a loving, believable family. Kyouko’s dullahan quirks tend to dominate the scene whenever she’s around, and while those were funny for a while, the show is running out of original variations, instead now milking her awkward romantic rivalry against Satou-sensei for all its worth (despite the fact that it shouldn’t exist, she is a minor, cut it out). And Yuki is…well, she’s there, I guess? Her surface-level bullying arc wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t particularly memorable either. All things considered, Satou-sensei is the most interesting member of the cast, and that claim still comes with some caveats. Her self-narrated episode was a strong point, showing how her tiring daily routine differs from her colleagues’ and pondering what romance really means given her body’s aphrodisiac effects on men in close proximity. These could’ve been good threads to continue addressing, but they soon found themselves trivialized by the aforementioned romantic “rivalry” against Kyouko and this whole succubi-controlling police force conceit that just doesn’t mesh well with the tone of the show.

Interviews has some good ideas scattered here and there, but it’s yet to capitalize on them with any sort of consistency. I’m hoping that now that the main cast is established, we’ll reach a point where the series can coast to its end and float by on the strength of its comedic gags and simpler, more resonant themes. The other material isn’t awful enough to make me want to drop it, and either way, the series is at least fairly entertaining. The only problem is that its excess isn’t great enough to incline me to commend Interviews for anything more than it seems to be: a showcase of mostly underachieved potential with golden rays occasionally peeking through the clouds.
Current score: 6/10
Still watching after 7 episodes.

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

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Yatahaze:
It may have started off on the right foot, but the second season of KonoSuba has been nothing if not inconsistent. Not that I’m surprised – this is the exact same situation I found myself in with its first season, appreciative of its really strong comedic highs (best exemplified by the cast’s runaround banter and the world’s wackiness) but disappointed with its susceptibility to just as many uninteresting lows, like repetitive, predictable jokes that don’t land and adventures without the full quartet, limiting the characters’ potential to riff off one another.

I will admit though that the hit-to-miss ratio is perhaps faring a bit better this season, and the last two weeks’ episodes in particular were a nonstop hoot. The animation was actually impressive at points, the snickers were more consistent, and the show’s tonal range has started to widen, showing with greater sincerity that as much as these characters berate each other, they do honestly (at least attempt to) care. Granted, that effort usually ends up back at a spiteful square one, but it’s definitely a good sign that KonoSuba‘s rinse and repeat formula has far from worn itself out yet.

As for “new” developments, Aqua and Kazuma’s dungeon-diving made for the season’s weakest moments yet, but at least the introduction of the mastermind troll Vanir redeemed the second one. While his first scene as a villain was simply silly, he’s steadily grown into a more adaptable character since then, taunting Aqua and striking a business deal with Kazuma for some profits on his earthly “inventions.” That concept in and of itself presents loads of potential, and on the flip side, the battle scenes this season are more confident and engaging than many of season one’s repetitive anticlimaxes were. Hell, even Darkness received a bit more development that’s helping her feel like an actual character and not just one single gag in physical form.

So yeah, all things considered, I’m enjoying this season of KonoSuba a little bit more than anticipated, but it’s still got some work to do ironing out its fallbacks. At this point though, not only do I doubt it will bother to, but I’m content enough with what we’ve been getting that as long as we keep seeing these stupid fucking faces, I’ll be on board ‘til the end of the line.
Current score: 7/10
Still watching after 7 episodes.

Catche:
It’s hard for me to write much about KonoSuba, at least in a critical sense. It has a strong comedic formula, and when the series sticks to it, it’s quite funny. However, when it doesn’t and makes some passing attempt at sincerity, it almost always falls completely flat.

The comedy of Konosuba is based on a sense of overwhelming cynicism, both for the main characters (who usually reveal themselves to be self-centered, petty, stupid, or some combination of the three) or for the world they live in. Attempts at making the events of the series come off as more genuine, therefore, result in a sort of dissonance, making these elements feel out of place. Take, for example, the scene in episode three where Kazuma and Aqua confront the wizard at the end of the dungeon. As the wizard began to rattle off about his backstory and how he honestly wants to be purified, I kept expecting some dark punchline to come around and “ruin” the moment, but one never came. Though in this moment the series did manage to subvert my expectations, it left the whole scene feeling a bit unfinished, like something somewhere was left out.

I may criticize Konosuba, but it is still a great comedy when it follows its tried-and-true structure. I think I can say pretty confidently at this point that this second season has surpassed its predecessor in terms of quality, now that the series feels like it’s finally hitting its stride. As long as the series doesn’t forget what it is, it remains a lot of fun every week.
Current score: 7.5/10
Still watching after 7 episodes.

LITTLE WITCH ACADEMIA (TV)

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Yatahaze:
With Little Witch Academia’s television series mostly starting off covering the same introductory ground as the films in a new context, the question most fans seemed to be asking was “when will it start branching off into its own thing?” Each episode since the first two has at least given us a silly new morsel to latch onto, be it Lotte’s love for this universe’s Twilight saga or a magic shop staffed by none other than Pawn Stars’ Chumlee. The series has a quirky, somewhat Western-style sense of comedy with fantastic voice acting, and that’s helping it stick out even when the episode-by-episode development is a tad sluggish.

But thankfully, even that’s changing; the last two weeks have shown Akko coming to terms with just how often she fucks up, and how far behind in her studies she really is compared to the rest of Luna Nova’s students. Before, her steadfastness (see also: recklessness) often came across as foolish and unfounded, and to be fair, it still can, getting herself and her roommates in hot water time and time again.

But episode 7 presented us with a crucial turning point: supposed to be Akko’s advisor, Professor Ursula largely existed in the background until now, taking her own hits from the other faculty due to her past as the showy Shiny Chariot. Here, she stood up for both herself and her troubled apprentice, making the case that with Luna Nova’s finances as tight as they are, they can’t afford to be picky when students with as much heart and passion as Akko arrive, even if they’re slow to produce conventional “results.” Sure, blowing things up and almost killing professors is costly, but if only perfect, prestige kids like Diana were to make their way through the academy, it wouldn’t have enough of a student body to justify existing. In a world where non-magic users continue to see less and less use for the witches’ abilities anyway, Luna Nova’s options are limited: it can adapt to be more inclusive, or it can stay true to its traditions and eventually fizzle out.

With personal development slow and a knack for adventure omnipresent, Little Witch Academia doesn’t really feel like a “thematic” show, but director Yoh Yoshinari’s “animation as magic” analogy is what best ties the whole package together. Previous works of Studio Trigger graced us with lines like “nonsense is our thing,” but Little Witch isn’t so much an embrace of nonsense incarnate as it is a story of people learning to accept what they perceive as unrefined and rebellious. If the way Ursula’s treated even as an adult is any indication, Akko has a long road ahead of her in forcing people to acknowledge and welcome her unique spirit, but when we give up on the less-progressed, we give up on our own ability to challenge convention, usually ending up content with stale and dying ideas. Inflating this from an entertainment industry like anime into a whole cultural world like the academia doesn’t come without some stretching, but the message stays intact.

Which is good, because that theme is inherent to the show’s success, and its dragon loan sharks and unchained broom races work better as means to that end than they do as their own individual stories. If anything, I almost feel like despite the premise, Trigger isn’t going far enough with the cast’s actual shenanigans for each episode to register as a consistent success. There could be a little more creativity and absurdity, and I say this not just because the studio has proven itself capable of that madness, but because it would also drive home even further the point of welcoming the bizarre with open arms. But even with what we’ve been given so far, Little Witch Academia is an overall success, slowly honing in on its greatest strength by continuing to give us an endearing, magical story of personal growth.
Current score: 7.5/10
Still watching after 7 episodes.

Catche:
Though somewhat awkwardly paced at its start, Little Witch Academia has kept its momentum going almost solely through its charming nature. It had plenty of good episodes and moments which kept me eager to come back for more, but it wasn’t sitting up there with my most anticipated series each week. However, the last pair of episodes released for the series have really helped to elevate it. Still not up there with the best of the season, but LWA has really started to pick up steam.

The first of these two episodes revolved around Akko’s continued struggle to become a great witch like Shiny Chariot, despite her frequent failures. Here she sought to obtain power from the Fountain of Polaris. Now, the episode’s moral that “there isn’t a shortcut to becoming proficient in your chosen field” isn’t anything new, but it is always a welcome motivation booster, the execution was strong, and the little twist involving the fountain’s relation to Shiny Chariot and the Shiny Rod was pretty neat.

The following episode also followed well-tread ground thematically, but through strong execution it once again rose above its basic structure to feel snappy and likeable rather than a tired amalgamation of old tropes. With Akko’s success at the end of this little adventure, it feels as though the series may be transitioning towards a different structure which isn’t so dependent on Akko’s failures to drive the plot, which I would welcome, but even if it isn’t I’m still really happy to have this series around.

As always, the series’ great visual direction adds to its bouncy, whimsical nature, helping to ensure that even when the series hits a bit of a dull note, it still feels like a worthwhile watch. Also, there’s a giant dragon that is also a loan shark. I just thought that was really great.
Current score: 8/10
Still watching after 7 episodes.

MARCH COMES IN LIKE A LION (3-GATSU NO LION)

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Yatahaze:
Man, it’s been a while since I last got to talk about March in depth. That gap might actually be beneficial in examining the show’s core messages though; this is a series that moves very slowly, and it’s dealing with topics which don’t resolve themselves overnight, neither in real life nor here. Depression and abuse don’t just up and disappear; you have to work through them to settle yourself, and even then, answers don’t necessarily come easy – especially not when the causes keep showing up at your door.

Sometimes literally, in the case of Kyouko, Rei’s adoptive older sister. While I love nearly every character in March, from the one-offs to the second half mainstays, it’s probably Kyouko who I feel is the most compelling. She’s one of the roots of Rei’s confusion, but she’s far from inherently evil. In fact, she’s really just lost and empty, arguably even more so than Rei himself. Clinging to whoever will give her the attention she’s been robbed of at home, she never hesitates to show up at the worst possible time and complicate things for our unsung hero, but she’s there because she’s desperate for validation, not because she really “hates” him. Imposing and at times downright cruel, Kyouko makes for a tense and thrilling scene whenever she shows up, and Rei slowly coming to terms with her shattered feelings is one of the driving forces behind their interactions.

It isn’t just her either, though she’s probably the most pronounced example. Time and time again over the last few months, Rei’s ups and downs have brought him to points where he looks around and eventually sees someone for the petty, immature, and/or irresponsible person that they truly are. He initially looks up to these people in some form or another as adults, telling himself before he even gets to know each of them that he won’t ever reach their level of social grace or shogi aptitude. But that curtain gets pulled away every time, and it’s happened enough now that he’s starting to realize “adulthood” is a far more arbitrary construct than he first thought. Even the eldest among us have some growing up to do, and the self-defeating notion of “I can’t do this, I’m already too far behind” is effectively the only thing actually preventing him from moving forward.

The going isn’t always easy, but the Rei of last fall wouldn’t have sought out Shimada’s approval to join the workshop. The Rei of last fall wouldn’t have realized that Nikaidou, snarky ball of joy that he is, has emotionally matured far more than he has. And the Rei of last fall definitely wouldn’t have conceded to his school mentor Hayashida’s points that asking for help is necessary sometimes. But this Rei, as much as he probably doesn’t realize it himself, isn’t the same Rei that he was at the start of the series. The waves of awe, terror, and sickness still hit him, but between them, the downtime isn’t as lonely. Where he first feared that he’d never be able to leave a more comfortable setting, he’s starting to learn that there’s nothing wrong with seeking assistance and compassion. The first step to taking care of yourself is acknowledging that you’re a person deserving of care, and it can’t be understated how vital to his long-run trajectory of recovery this is.

This is obviously important, but to Rei, so is shogi. A couple early losses booted him from competing any further in the Lion King Tournament, one of the game’s largest sponsored events, but the solace he sought out in its aftermath has offered him more than the constant self-internalized pressure of success at the top ever could. He’ll have to build himself up again later, but already comparing the scenes of his isolated practice at home to his lively time at the workshop, it’s clear he’s not only found a place where he can be with people as an equal, no questions asked, but one where he can share his skill and opinion with a group of like-minded peers. The shogi aspect of March has become more prominent in the past month or so than it was before, but because the show has been able to tie in its other thematic threads to its newer characters and their styles and stakes, it loses nothing by honing in on the game as a focus point.

Aesthetically, despite a few weeks in the x-teens feeling a bit stilted in terms of episode structure and animation, the show’s twinkly beauty has largely stayed consistent. The end of its first cour as well its latest couple of episodes have been downright phenomenal, among the finest of any show I’ve seen in the past few years, and unless SHAFT totally blows the landing, I can’t see any reason why March Comes in Like a Lion wouldn’t end up as one of my favorite anime of 2017.
Current score: 9/10
Still watching after 18 episodes.

MARGINAL #4 THE ANIMATION

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Summary:
A new idol unit, Marginal #4, makes their big debut to much fanfare and critical acclaim. The story follows the new unit, comprised of the hot-blooded Atom Kirihara, the cool and collected Rui Aiba, and the twin brothers R and L Nomura, as they go about their rather normal lives off the stage, with the occasional foray into their profession here and there.

Harubruh:
This show is that one show I pick every season where I check out the pilot purely out of boredom just to pass the time, and Marginal #4 is very much a passable time-killing show, if nothing else.

For starters, I tend to enjoy these “bros hanging out and being bros” sort of shows, and that genre is squarely where Marginal #4 falls. Though the boys stick to their tropes perfectly to a T and do not deviate, the conversations, episode-to-episode happenings, and knack for gags carry the show a long way. Another bit I find enjoyable is how that aside from Atom’s prolific Twitter usage and corresponding following on said platform, these guys don’t seem to bask in their newfound fame all that much. Aside from getting rushed by a crowd of curious classmates immediately following their debut, these guys are given their space to do their own thing, and this show is all the better for that.

Understandably, there are always some ups and downs with these idol group shows, and some of the episodes have been a tad lackluster, but one of the better moments to be had was in the sixth episode, which introduced Marginal #4’s juniors, a three-member unit called Unicorn Jr., who were introduced in-show attempting to barge into their seniors’ clubroom through an open window only to discover an empty room, then going door-to-door, only to repeatedly find they’re still in the wrong rooms. It was good enough to get a chuckle out of me, at least. Also of note in that same episode is a Sekkou Boys cameo, albeit not an actual Rockie. Still nice of the newcomer boy band show to pay tribute to the all-time great.

In the end, Marginal #4 is an unremarkable show and I’ll likely forget most everything about it in a season or two, but for now it’s functioning as a adequately entertaining time-killer, and there isn’t anything wrong with that.
Current score: 6/10
Still watching after 7 episodes.

MISS KOBAYASHI’S DRAGON MAID

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Yatahaze:
By golly, Kyoto Animation have not slouched on this one at all. Every week, I find myself surprised that I’m still enjoying the show about a lesbian dragon maid and her friends. I’m just waiting for that other shoe to drop, where something too sketchy happens and it threatens to unravel everything Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid has done so well.

And as much as I want to proclaim “we’ll never reach that point, this is KyoAni bringing their comedy A-game,” we did inch pretty close to it a few weeks ago. Kanna, the adorable kid dragon staying with Tohru and Kobyashi, pulled an out-of-nowhere behavioral 180 on a friend from school and looked like she was about to go full Scum’s Wish on her had a timely distraction not intervened. In-universe, it could be justified from any number of directions – Kanna acting on behavior similar to her “guardian” Tohru’s, the camera emphasizing Saikawa’s awkwardness with the whole situation, etc. – but from the outside, there’s no escaping the fact that the show sexualized a scene involving elementary schoolers. It was just weird, a glaring swing and a miss in a show that has otherwise called shot after shot and proceeded to knock them out of the park.

That disaster and Lucoa’s misguided attempts at befriending a young mage notwithstanding, Dragon Maid has thrived on that classic KyoAni knack for strong comedic timing, be it represented through short little asides or after lengthy periods of dramatic setup. Kobayashi is a great deadpan protagonist, collected and smooth without ever coming across as cynical or disinterested, and because opposites attract, Tohru’s spunkier attitude and happy-go-lucky charm make the pair extremely amusing to tune into. Amazingly, their dynamic has again and again gone beyond simple comedy, putting ruminations on what it means to grow up in differing cultural circumstances under the microscope, and examining how fearing the “other” can prevent us from realizing that we’re not all that different after all.

It doesn’t run into Interviews’ issue of biting off more than it can chew either; the thematic subtext is constantly paying off. Dragon Maid is plenty enjoyable as a story about a couple of quirky monsters living with a kindly working woman, but it’s exponentially more satisfying as an encouragement to be oneself, even if that means not everyone will accept you. By nestling herself in with Kobayashi, Tohru has essentially said good riddance to dragonkind’s entire philosophy that humans aren’t to be trusted. “You’re growing too close to them now,” Fafnir warns her in episode five. “Will you be able to kill them anymore?” Her response reinforces that selective rejection of where she came from and sweeps aside some of the baggage and doubt she’s carried with her: “this is where I belong.” Even better, though the change is less pronounced, we can see Kobayashi herself embracing the dragons’ fiery spirit, becoming a happier person with their presence.

There’s not always an immediate connection when you reach out your hands, but Dragon Maid’s cast has shown that extending them and working to form one is still worth the effort. The romantic love in the air may be one-sided, but there’s no denying that these folks have carved themselves a family, and their daily adventures are simultaneously hilarious and heartwarming.
Current score: 8/10
Still watching after 7 episodes.

THE SAGA OF TANYA THE EVIL (YOUJO SENKI)

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Catche:
So, yeah. I’m still watching this series. I’ve got to admit, I underestimated just how entertaining The Saga of Tanya the Evil could actually be. Even though my opinion of the series had already begun to shift by the time we published our First Impressions piece, I didn’t expect to find myself enjoying this series quite this much.

Most of this change of heart comes from the very poor execution of the first episode. After watching it, I immediately assumed that Tanya would be some edgy grimdark piece of crap, and based off the presentation, that was a pretty fair assumption. Once the second episode comes around, though, the series begins down a path which it has continued down through its most recent episodes.

You see, The Saga of Tanya the Evil seemingly realizes that the premise of a sadistic little girl with magic powers fighting in an alternate WW1 is a bit silly, so instead of trying to make the whole thing feel grim and self-serious, the series instead goes all in, creating an experience that is bizarrely fun. Most surprising of all, the series is even occasionally (and intentionally) quite funny. It’s no hidden gem, but it is the most surprisingly enjoyable series that I’ve watched this season.

This is one of those “guilty pleasure” type of series. It isn’t really deep in any sense, nor is it a fantastic representation of its genre (and has a complete shitbag for a protagonist.) However, it is a rewarding watch for the right viewer.

If you are a person who dropped the series after its first episode, I sincerely suggest that you give its second episode a look. You might just find something worthwhile.
Current score: 6.5/10
Still watching after 6 episodes.

SCUM’S WISH (KUZU NO HONKAI)

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Yatahaze:
In my first impressions writeup for Scum’s Wish, I predicted that the show would steamroll into a full-blown love dodecahedron, every character pining for somebody who’s already taken in some way or another. As far as the show’s web of complexity goes, I don’t think I was too far off the mark. The critical difference is that instead of gossiping about who’s feeling up who and how far they’re getting, Scum’s Wish is much more interested in each character’s reflections on love and self-worth in general.

Which isn’t to say that Hanabi doesn’t have several interpersonal conflicts to sort through, but it’s interesting to me that as soon as her love for Kanai was shattered by Minagawa’s intrusion, she didn’t give up on her desire, she just disregarded her own intuition. Deep down, she realizes Minagawa is a sociopathic manipulator whose behavior she shouldn’t adopt, but she also sees how Minagawa has complete confidence in herself, something that she lacks as a result of her upbringing. Hana wants a relationship that validates her, one that tells her she’s worth something as a person, whereas Minagawa finds the whole notion of love trivial and a sign of weakness. By attempting to copy her actions as payback on the shallowest of levels (“you stole my love, I’ll steal yours”), the point flies right over Hana’s head: what Minagawa chases after isn’t heartstrings, but puppet strings, the fundamental opposite of Hana’s ideal codependent, gratifying love. Minagawa is simply bemused watching a high schooler stoop to her level and flop around like a fish out of water in it.

Hana can’t find love in her rival’s methods because unlike Minagawa, she isn’t satisfied that her friends with benefits aren’t really concerned about romance. Takuya, the boy Hana tries enacting her revenge plan on, is unphased by her half-hearted advances, and actually discombobulates her far more than she does him. Their “relationship” is shallow and she knows it; she doesn’t refer to him by name in his entire introductory episode, instead wallowing in her own self-pity about how she can’t seem to have the same affect on people that Minagawa does. But again, these are two totally different personalities whose ideas of “love” vastly vary, the closest similarities being that they’re both emotionally immature and they both crave security, Minagawa gaining it through a façade of interest while Hana can’t articulate it as well, just knowing the feeling when it’s there.

It’s sure as hell not there with Ecchan, who at this point is also manipulating Hana to fulfill her own desires. Ecchan still feels like a wild card in this story; she has the utmost belief that her love for Hana is validated, but it’s stiflingly one-sided, blatantly taking advantage of the fact that Hana’s longing for connection will prevent her from walking away and destroying their friendship in the process. She has little investment in anything but fulfilling her own sexual urges, and the closer Hana gets to discovering that she doesn’t need to put up with that, the more strained their dynamic will likely become. It doesn’t seem like whether they break away with a mess will be a matter of “if,” but “when.”

Thankfully, while in Hana’s head, her ideal comfort comes with Kanai, it’s increasingly there to some extent with Mugi himself, who she’s finding it easier and easier to fall back on when she’s in a dilemma. When she doesn’t, it’s out of a concern for his own wellbeing, further proving that she at least cares enough about him as an individual to factor in his feelings. Given that Mugi himself knows about Minagawa’s shifty behavior and has experienced his fair share of manipulation in his own right, it doesn’t surprise me that he’s starting to sidetrack his lust for her too. Mugi’s entrenched weakness is his philosophy that as a man, he’s supposed to be ruled by his sex drive, and other than that, the reasoning for his actions comes across as a little whimsical. Sometimes he’s in it for the sex, other times he doesn’t want to force himself. It’s still hard to get a full read on his character, but I’m left with the impression that his heart is usually in the right place, more critical on himself and demonstrative of society’s gendered stereotypes than anything really dangerous.

He and Hana may have found one another through awkward means, and they sure as hell have some emotional baggage to sort out, but I can’t help but root for the two of them, especially as they endeavor to now give their relationship a legitimate go and put their older out-of-reach crushes to rest once and for all. I’m ultimately unsure where Scum’s Wish is going with all this; it would be wonderful for these kids to find true “love,” but they’re still leagues behind even distinguishing what’s love, what’s lust, and what’s just self-gratification. It’s often slow builds which lend themselves to that type of growth, but “slow” isn’t in this show’s vocabulary; its most glaring weakness is that it’s fucking dense, frankly maybe a bit too overstuffed for its own good. Mugi’s misguided expectations of manhood, Noriko’s sheltered princess complex, and Ecchan’s lust are all plot threads worthy of discussing in-depth, but they all seem like currently shifting factors I can more thoroughly cover at season’s end, if they even get a proper resolution in the first place. As riveting a show as this is, I’m really worried it may not pull everything together for a satisfying conclusion.

Scum’s Wish built up unstoppable momentum by complicating things for weeks on end, but that tension can only rise so high. If it doesn’t tread carefully from here on out, we could find ourselves looking at a series with captivating thoughts but no real emotional payoff or thematic thesis. I really don’t want that to be the case, but unlike Hana, I don’t like ignoring my gut. Fingers crossed that it all pans out.
Current score: 7.5/10
Still watching after 7 episodes.

Catche:
I have many feelings about Scum’s Wish at the moment and as the episodes continue on, I feel more and more inclined to hold off putting too much discussion into the quality of the series until it has wrapped. Though Scum’s Wish started off strong, it has started to feel just a bit bloated and I’ve begun to fear that this series might not be entirely suited for a twelve episode run.

It would be a damn shame if Scum’s Wish did end up falling apart here at the end since it has done quite a good job of telling its story up until this point. Though my critique of the series not feeling quite biting enough still stands, its dark portrayal of love, particularly unrequited love, is still quite compelling, as are most of the cast.

Though most of the female members of the cast are quite well written and remain very interesting, the male characters feel a bit more lackluster. Takuya and Kanai feel as though they may be intentionally one note in order to facilitate their respective roles in the plot, and the fact that Mugi still feels like such an enigma compared to the rest of the cast really weakens certain scenes as his motivations can come across as a bit contrived.

Scum’s Wish is still a good series, but I worry about it going forward. I hope I can write a big piece in the seasonal wrap-up post about how well it managed to pull off its many character arcs, but as things stand, I worry that it will come out more like a mixed bag.
Current score: 7.5/10
Still watching after 7 episodes.

SEIREN

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Harubruh:
Yata had it right with his first sentence stating “Seiren is special” in this season’s First Impressions article. Nearly everything after that point was wrong. I will do what I must to recant that mistake on behalf of FGJ.

Seiren is indeed a special show, but not for its par-for-the-course animation, its so-so OP and EDs, or what have you. Oh no, this show is special because it is for most intents and purposes the Mayoiga (The Lost Village, for you ne’er-do-wells out there) of the romantic comedy genre — and no, despite the misconceptions you may get from the posters or the OP, this isn’t a harem show. With Seiren being a 12 episode series, it’s devoting 4 episodes per route to three girls in Shoichi’s school, with their respective arcs looking to take place in completely bespoke timelines. Yes, Shoichi is as generic run-of-the-mill adolescent dork as it gets. Yes, the other girls do show up with some regularity in the others’ arcs, and yes, all seem to be pre-acquainted with Shoichi and each other – but the show focuses on one arc at a time, so – it is not a harem. Rather, it is one of the most hilariously depraved romcom shows I’ve seen in a very long time.

So now that that’s been straightened out…

My reasoning behind referring to Seiren as “the Mayoiga of romcoms” is because this show shares that similar feeling of an intentionally absurd sense of humor. Literally every episode has at some point featured the protagonist Shoichi getting hot and bothered by something unexpectedly strange — some of the stranger fetishes featured were him being worked up over Tsuneki finishing his cup ramen, later on ogling sweat pants marks on her navel, fantasizing about being headshotted in a video game by Miyamae, or being aroused by the lingering smell of her all-night gaming binge in her room. The girls themselves seem to share similarly strange attractions, which just makes things all the better. If Myriad Colors Phantom World was an 8 or 9 on the weekly fetish dial, this show cranks that shit up to 11.

And then there’s the literal boner. Does this show have your attention now?

The sheer absurdity of Seiren doesn’t just stop with the fetish of the week, oh no. Shoichi’s good friend Araki bears a furry affinity that has been one of the constantand frankly best running gags of the show. Seiren seems to have a strange obsession with deer, with Tsuneki developing something of a fear of them and the Love Deer game prominent in Miyamae’s arc. There’s just a mischievous atmosphere with the lunacy of this show and it’s got a pretty decent knack for comedic timing, with some punchlines taking the full length of an arc to hit. Though the series’ art is mostly average, it will sometimes pull a decent shot out of the grab bag. My only real gripe is that Tsuneki’s arc had a very abrupt end to it that I hope doesn’t happen with the other two.

I’m grinning and laughing as I write this whilst sifting back through this show’s wilder moments to refresh my memory. For that alone, I’m happy calling this a good show. It’s certainly not going to win any awards on artistic or dramatic merit, but I’ll be damned if Seiren isn’t anything but a hoot of an entertaining show. I’m more impressed that this series seems to be an anime original series, so shout out to the folks at Studio Gokumi for this charmingly depraved romcom.
Current score: To hell with all of this and all of you, 7/10
Still watching after 7 episodes.

SHOUWA GENROKU RAKUGO SHINJUU:  SUKEROKU FUTATABI-HEN

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Yatahaze:
Despite several of the season’s speculative picks coming through relatively strong, none of them could possibly hold a candle to Rakugo. And sadly, while recapping a month’s worth of those other shows in a few paragraphs is a feasible task, every episode of Rakugo is worth like, double that. To further complicate things, we’re also chronologically several years further down the road in-universe than we were at the start of the season. Time flies in Rakugo, and I don’t have much of it, so I’ll focus on just a few of the most noteworthy developments and threads of the past 5 weeks.

On that note, we might as well start with time itself. Compared to the beginning of this season, rakugo has experienced something of a revival due to Yotarou’s increased popularity. Whereas he and Yakumo could barely pull together a crowd in their mid-career years together, the duo now routinely packs the theatre’s seats. Technology continues to advance, as Higuchi’s discovery of old, recorded rakugo performances pays dividends and serves as both a means of keeping the art alive and constant inspiration for his budding young comrade.

And yet the more things change, the more they stay the same: Higuchi’s advice that the Yuurakuteis write their own material doesn’t take off the way he’d hoped it would, the family unit doesn’t endure any particularly shaky change-ups (though young Shin’s true father is still unrevealed), and Yakumo keeps insisting he will accompany rakugo to its grave. Each new episode thus far has given us something gripping to latch onto (Yota’s impassioned standoff against a mob boss over fatherhood rights and Konatsu’s one-time rakugo performance were both tremendously gratifying), but it’s when Yakumo nearly gets his wish where this season really starts to take off on a darker track. When he achieved his loneliness at the end of season one, he realized too late that it was more of a burden than he bargained for. Much to everyone else’s delight, the same has yet to come true with his new desire; rakugo is trekking on as much as it can, and losing its renowned elder can’t guarantee that it won’t continue regardless for years to come. As long as these stories remain for people to discover themselves in, at least one person will be drawn in, finding their own way of navigating through each one’s lessons.

While we haven’t lost Yakumo just yet, keeling over on stage from a hallucinative heart attack doesn’t give me much hope he’ll make it to the series’ end. As he recovers, he acts distraught about “losing control of his voice,” something Konatsu immediately calls out as code for “I want to give this up,” and she won’t let him do that so easily. Though their relationship doesn’t really take a turn here, our perception of it soon does.

In the back of my mind, I knew the near-entirety of Rakugo’s first season was a “story” in the strictest sense of the word: a tale to be told, prone to unreliable embellishments and deliberate changes from historical reality. I just had no reason to believe Yakumo had anything to hide – if he was bearing his all, it’d make sense for him to explain himself properly. But Yakumo has also never been completely honest with himself, so not only does it make reasonable sense in retrospect that he’d alter his own story, but the manner in which he undersells the dramatic truth regarding Sukeroku and Miyokichi’s deaths says as much about his sense of responsibility as it does his obvious genuine care for Konatsu’s wellbeing.

It also introduces two more questions: what else, if anything, did Yakumo mislead us about in the first season, and furthermore, how much does Konatsu actually know about her parents’ death? It’s entirely possible that the show has played her straight and she actually believes from the shock that Yakumo “murdered” them both, but it would also be very much like her to recall the truth, however vaguely, yet keep up the charade because it’s easier than admitting that one of her folks stabbed the other and left her guardian in eternal emotional agony. Higuchi’s connection to Miyokichi is finally revealed as well, though we don’t know how much of the past he went over with Yakumo during their talk together earlier in the season. His hypothesis that Yakumo “destroyed” Sukeroku’s life seems just as projected and insensitive as any of his more self-gratifying musings have been, but at least we now have context for why his disposition towards Yakumo rubs off as noticeably love/hate.

The weight of these characters’ pasts is more intertwined and complicated than we were led to believe, and in a series that’s already grounded in reality and stuffed with complex character motivations, that’s really saying something. If Yakumo’s narrative is to be trusted, unspoken feelings and a lack of proper communication were what led to Rakugo’s first double-suicide. His attempt at a second encroaches ever closer with each passing week, but if the cast is able to learn anything from their history, he may not have to go out with bitterness. Back in episode 3, Yotarou was running into roadblocks trying to figure out why a character in one of his new stories would let his innermost feelings out in a verbose tangent, ultimately coming to the simple conclusion of “because he’d feel better afterward.” There’s a lesson to be learned there. Now these people just have to embrace it. Wherever Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu ends, it’s been one of the richest, most interesting, and most endearing anime I’ve seen in a long, long time. Only a complete disaster could prevent it from remaining one.
Current score: 9.99/10
Still watching after 7 episodes.

Catche:
The second season of Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu has been far and away the best thing airing this season. Similar to its fantastic first season, Rakugo continues in its path of being a fantastic character-driven drama, though I would say that it doesn’t quite surpass its predecessor in terms of quality.

Despite not being as tightly constructed as the first season, Descending Stories capitalizes on the momentum of that first season to deliver some of the best character writing around, with some of the most well-realized characters around.

At this point, I’m not too worried that Rakugo will continue its consistent run of high-quality episodes (where even the lesser episodes are still some of the best airing) but I do find myself concerned as to where the series will end up. Many signs, such as the reveal of Yakumo’s big lie in the first season, point towards a tragic conclusion and though I know that such a finale would be thematically appropriate, I just really don’t want that to happen. By this point in the series, such an ending would feel so deflating for me personally, despite the fact that I’m sure Rakugo could pull it off.
Current score: 9.5/10
Still watching after 7 episodes.

And that’s it for this update of For Great Justice! We’ll be back with our winter wrap-up article in about a month, and there may just be some surprises up our sleeves that surface before then. In the meantime, what have you thought about this anime season? Feel free to comment and converse below. Until next time, stay tuned, and as always, thanks for reading!

 

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