Welcome back, everybody! Spring’s already encroaching on the end of the winter season, but when it comes to jotting down some thoughts about anime, we’re better late than never. It also couldn’t be helped that Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid didn’t wrap up until a couple hours ago, so while we’re kinda down to the wire here with the seasonal overlap, what would be the point if we didn’t include all that we enjoyed? And what a surprising season it was, with several speculative picks taking off strongly, a couple solid sequels under its belt (2017 truly does look to be sequel heaven), and even our first 10/10 rating in about 2 years. What took that crowned spot? Where did everything else we watched stack up? And most importantly, what’s already contending for the most ridiculous surprise of the year? Kick back and read on as Yatahaze, Catche, and Harubruh run down their winter 2017 final thoughts.
After all the scheming and plotting, ACCA ultimately went out with a whimper instead of a bang. This probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, given how content the show has been with anticlimaxes up until now, and for all the talk of coups and conspiracies, ACCA was never really much of a “thriller.”
Fortunately, worldbuilding is something the series absolutely nailed, both in its narrative construction (which gave us insight into the quirks of every single district) as well as its visual detail, brought to life by the gorgeous background art of Studio Pablo and some undeniably unique character designs. It was difficult for me to care about Dōwā’s throne shenanigans for their own sake, but by stressing the potentially tumultuous ramifications a poor leader would have for a people as diverse as the kingdom’s citizens, I found myself invested regardless. The playful rapport between agents helped make the world feel real and lived-in, a sensation the show further extended to characters whose days in the limelight came long before now. In fact, the show’s peak arguably came in episode 8’s flashback-heavy montage revealing Nino’s past and his inherited ties to the royal family. Both touching and haunting, it worked as an emotionally-charged ode to his father and the Otus parents, making a stunning vignette out of what could’ve been reduced to an infodump. Moments like those – where the personal and the political got blurred beyond recognition – were where ACCA thrived.
However, the finale was not one of them. The gist is this: everyone was wary of a Schwan reign, and once it was discovered higher up that Jean was of royal blood, Lilium forced Grossular to set he and ACCA up as a replacement option, the audit trips really a means for each district to communicate in code via cigarette whether or not they would prefer him in power. Lilium was most fond of the possibility because with ACCA in charge, he could decentralize the districts, allowing his own already-wealthy home of Furawau to further condense its oil resources. Considering Lilium has struck me as outwardly suspicious for most of the show, it would be downright silly for none of the other characters to catch onto his bravado and what he stood to gain from the proposal. Thankfully, Mauve, Grossular, and Jean did well in advance, tiptoeing around the legal channels necessary to prove their suspicions while pretending to go along with the plan.
That Lilium was shocked when they turned on him publicly is perhaps the most disappointing part of the show. You’d think his family would have held a tighter hold on their district’s internal affairs to prevent this, and it simply doesn’t feel in character for him to not have a backup plan after thinking so far ahead of every other move. The stretches didn’t stop there, either: performing a phony armed coup at a mass gathering was a risky and frankly stupid act, and I also don’t feel like it would be in Schwan’s character to accept the ACCA members’ point (“don’t get too cocky or controlling”) so quickly; he’s proven himself stubborn and dismissive from the start, and if any government pulled that shit in real life, the target would likely harbor deeper feelings of suspicion after the fake plot than before it. In other words, for a political drama, ACCA was wonderful when it came to showcasing the daily workings of a bureaucracy with glimpses of its officers’ private lives, but kind of out of its element when it came to building and releasing realistic political tension. The same can be said of its “action” sequences, such as Rail and Lotta’s clunky escape chase in episode 9 or Jean’s attempted assassination in episode 11, further complicated by the fact that we never got to know the first princess (who initiated these twists) on a personable level and thus failed to invest in her motives.
Crisis averted for the time being (though Furawau does secede as a result of Lilium’s reveal as a self-centered ideologue), the kingdom also enacts some feel-good changes: the outdated positions of the Five Chief Officers are abolished (a good move, as I kept wondering throughout the show what the hell they actually did), Director-General Mauve becomes the head of ACCA, Nino’s boss (who appears to be Abend in permanent disguise as Owl) relieves him of duty, and various developments within the districts appear to put the rest of the nation on a more socially-united track by embracing their differences. As someone who grew fond of these folks over the last three months, the lengthy epilogue was precisely the kind of conclusion I had hoped to see, keeping the series’ laid-back optimism front and center.
But that’s also ACCA’s very same problem, because a good slice-of-life and a good political drama are not often made from the same ingredients, and in this case, while the product is certainly edible, it’s not exactly high in nutrients. The series is too playful to press into darker questions about governance but too proud of its politics to be recommended as a piece of iyashikei on its own. Fortunately, I’m exactly the kind of person this show appeals to despite its stumbles, appreciative of both its fluff and its core, but I’d be hard-pressed to recommend this to the average person with the hope that they’d get something incredible out of it. In years to come, I have a feeling I’ll remember ACCA more for its one-of-a-kind artistic flair (and a solid dub job, from what I’ve seen of it) than its substance – not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it could’ve easily been refined into an even more powerful experience.
Final score: 7.5/10
Completed after 12 episodes.
Man, why did Haruna have to become the bassist? He makes us look bad.
Yeah, I didn’t tell you guys that I labored through watching Fuuka, because I was definitely ashamed that I wasted my time on 12 episodes of this. While the source material is far from stellar, at least it had the guts to do what it did as it proceeded to stare its readers dead in the eye and flat refuse to admit to them what a convoluted fucked-up clusterfuck it was — that element alone was somewhat entertaining in a terrible, terrible way.
The anime arrived at the pivotal moment and looked at its options. “Nah, fuck that,” the anime declared. “How about instead of the tragic route, we turn this love triangle thing into an ‘I’m breaking up the band so I can go solo and leave you fuckers hanging’ route?” The anime was convinced it had a fool-proof plan. It then proceeded to trip over itself on the way out the door and get run over by a speeding truck. Uh oh, did I spoil something?
The anime then decided to pour it on, with Haruna convincing Fuuka to rejoin the band for one more performance, after which she decides to remain with the band with the corny title because she liked the song Haruna wrote. As the credits begin to roll, it’s shown that the label that had tried and succeeded in persuading Fuuka to ditch her band, ends up signing them all to a deal, and everyone proceeded to live on happily ever after; which is definitely not the direction this was supposed to go.
I don’t know if I was more annoyed by the played out milquetoast MC/childhood friend/new girl love triangle plotline, the choice to raise the white flag when it came time to off a character in favor of a played out band breakup plot, the fact that Fuuka shares a studio with Mayoiga, or how many times this show played fucking “Climber’s High”, aka the song in the OP. Toward the end of the season, I was annoyed enough with the frequency of it that I routinely fast-forwarded through this show. I may have missed some bits of “plot,” but this show got cringe-y enough that I don’t feel as though I inadvertently missed much.
I expected nothing and still got nothing. This show ended up writing a check it had no intention of cashing. Bad justice, Fuuka.
Final score: 3.5/10
Completed after too many episodes.
INTERVIEWS WITH MONSTER GIRLS (DEMI-CHAN WA KATARITAI)
Interviews With Monster Girls’ second half centered on more powerful plot threads than its first, rarely biting off more than it could chew while also developing its cast as people worth more than just vehicles for weird physical quirks. Yuki finally received some characterization, Kyouko was offered a scientific explanation about how her neck is actually a wormhole while also ruminating what she wanted to do with her life, and Hikari was…well, Hikari. Some things just never change.
But the tone of Interviews seemed to, and for the better, not just regarding the three girls, but also for the two teachers, the supporting cast, and the show’s broader themes. One of my lingering concerns from the series’ first half was how Takahashi’s over-reliable demeanor diminished the paths the show was able to venture down. By being there for seemingly every interaction or inquiry with the demis, we not only didn’t get to see much of the rest of their world, but they didn’t either. Sure enough, this was highlighted in the series’ penultimate (and best) episode, where the school’s Vice Principal asks Takahashi to step back and let them develop their own connections to other people instead of clinging to him. Where Interviews had disregarded its philosophical points as background noise before, this time it hit the sweet spot, as every party involved and then some thought the situation over and came to an understanding and humbling middle ground: Takahashi refuses to abandon them but also encourages they expand their social circle, and without necessarily being told, they do so anyway, befriending the classmates we’ve seen in the margins all series long.
In the process, Takahashi himself shows cracks in his “perfect lead” armor, scolding them when they start acting reckless and grumbling about work in informal moments. Those scenes are key to making him feel like a fully fleshed-out protagonist, especially considering how very little of the show was explicitly spent following his goal to research the demis. Even better, we see him internally admit his own selfish desires, adding a little humility to what for months had been an impenetrable hunk of a persona.
That isn’t to say some of the cast didn’t remain underdeveloped or just plain irritating, nor were all the problematic moments of the show’s first half avoided entirely in its second, but Interviews at least recovered enough to feel like a show I wasn’t ultimately disappointed in. I still think it could’ve touched on issues of discrimination, microaggressions, and social anxiety in a far more poignant or memorable way, and in that regard, yes, it was a little underwhelming, but Interviews also branded itself in part as a “high schoolers being goofy” show, and there was plenty of that handled relatively well. For a series whose ultimate message seemed to be “our differences shouldn’t be neglected, but our similarities should also be treasured,” the fact that I was indeed able to relate to these goofballs should be recognized as the success it is.
Final score: 6.5/10, but…
Completed after 12 episodes.
Back when the season started, no one was talking about Kemono Friends, but somewhere between then and now the internet just blew the fuck up about it, fan theories and artwork clogging up my Twitter feed more often than stuff of shows I was actually watching. Naturally, something had to be up with this at-first-glance unassuming kids’ show, right? Surely, there was some reason this pitiful game-inspired CG project by the virtually unheard of Studio Yaoyorozu was taking off, and “it includes animal girls,” didn’t seem to be the reason in and of itself. What else is a critic to do but marathon it and see why firsthand?
Well, I did, and two things became clear:
First and most importantly, this was a show whose hype was founded upon speculation, and thus probably felt far more intriguing and rewarding to someone who took the series week by week as it aired for reasons further elaborated on here. Second, because I didn’t do that and I had already entered the show with the notion that there would be some darker twist around the bend, I was kind of underwhelmed to find that the resolution was much more conventional than the buildup.
Ultimately, there isn’t anything wrong with that, especially considering how as far as narrative goes, I wouldn’t hesitate to call Kemono Friends a well-constructed show. Waking up in the savannah, the unnamed protagonist referred to as Kaban-chan (named after her backpack) beFriends an anthropomorphic serval cat and the two set out to determine what “animal” Kaban is and if there are any more like her in this place, Japari Park. The audience knows from the start that Kaban is a human, so the real intrigue lies in the world: what are these “Friends,” what is Japari Park, and how did these blob-like creatures known as Ceruleans start taking it over?
Along the journey, Kaban and Serval meet several other Friends on their search for answers, and between transmissions from a robotic guide named Lucky Beast/Boss and clues from some of the park’s more knowledgeable inhabitants, the duo learn that humans had set up the park but evacuated once a mysterious volcanic substance called Sandstar posed a threat, turning the animals into the humanoid creatures they now are and inanimate objects into the gelatinous, deadly Ceruleans. If they can prevent the Sandstar from spreading, they can limit the Ceruleans’ strength, and while Kaban has the option to leave the island Japari is located on and search for humanity elsewhere, she decides to stay and stamp out the threat to all she’s known as home first.
Spelled out like that, Kemono Friends’ finale is actually both more predictable and less sinister than a lot of clues had built it up to be, but that tends to happen when hype gets involved. For me, the show’s biggest strength didn’t lie in its premise, but its execution. There’s a creepy cognitive dissonance to the series’ darker implications and its lighthearted dialogue. This duality is reinforced through its visuals, the bright colors and beautiful background art clashing with the awkwardly animated CG characters and vehicles. Making Japari intriguing was the key to getting audiences invested in the show, and the 10-person production crew were on their A-game as early as the first episode, with shots constantly emphasizing the world’s natural beauty littered by scraps of humanity’s involvement. The more fantastical elements like Sandstar stay logically consistent and work wonders for the scenery, while the series’ most mysterious bits were bolstered tremendously by a lurking sense of dread.
That said, the characters were much less interesting, though I guess that’s to be expected. Aside from the main duo (who we follow almost nonstop), every other character in the show is reduced to episodic importance and a few finale cameos, and while that “the gang is all here” spirit is nice, their personalities until then were mostly developed around one single gag or character trait. Few if any were downright annoying, but in episodes where there wasn’t a lot of worldbuilding going on (like the episode where Kaban invents sport as an alternative for war between two rival parties), the narrative can drag hard. The show tries making up for the weak points with thematic inquiries of what it means to be a human, but there are only so many times it can be brought up before it starts to feel like schedule-padding overkill.
In the end, the big “surprise” of Kemono Friends isn’t that it’s some amazing deconstruction, but that it’s simply a well-written, sharp, and surprisingly captivating series with too many characteristics of kids’ shows to be sold to the average adult and too much deeper subtext about humanity for the average child to wrap their head around. There aren’t many franchises which occupy that middle ground, and thankfully the caveats lean less burdensome on the older side of that fence, so if you’re curious about what this show has in store for you, by all means, go for it. That said, Kemono Friends still feels mighty disposable, the kind of series which made a splash out of shattering low expectations as opposed to genuinely being a monumental piece of work.
Final score: 7/10
Finished after 12 episodes.
KONOSUBA: GOD’S BLESSING ON THIS WONDERFUL WORLD! 2
Unlike the other shows in this article, I’m not so much covering Kono2ba’s second half here as I am the show’s final arc alone: just like the first season, this sequel’s episode count barely reached double digits, ending two weeks earlier than most.
But holy hot springs, what an arc to go out on.
Maybe it’s just because I lived several years in a place where nosy, self-righteous proselytizing was commonplace, but those last 3 episodes felt more realistic than they did satirical, nailing the feeling of being hunted down for religious enrollment far too convincingly. KonoSuba is not the kind of series I thought would inflict upon me flashbacks about sidewalk solicitors, but this season has exploded my expectations and then some, and the gang taking a vacation to a resort town where it was impossible to relax was the clincher. If I had any doubt whatsoever that season two was handily more uproariously funny than its predecessor, this arc, possibly the franchise’s best to date, was where those doubts died.
It wasn’t just for the better setting material either, as even before then, KonoSuba’s fairly one-note characters and their subsequent issues of predictability were sidestepped, the climaxes this season feeling much more organic and spectacle-focused than ever before. I mean that as a compliment in the best possible way: Studio Deen has often been shat on for their off-model design choices, but a majority of their slips this season were intentionally funny, and when they really went all out, the show looked truly stunning. Even better, this offered an alternative way to cap off sequences where the same wisecracks we’ve heard for two seasons now would’ve otherwise dragged the buildup through the mud. The last act in particular was so refreshing in that instead of being the asshole protagonists they’ve always been, the enemies of Kazuma’s group were genuinely worse people than they were. Diversity was something I thought this franchise dearly needed, and Kono2ba offered plenty of it, be it through those tonal shifts or by fleshing out underutilized characters.
I stand by my opinion that KonoSuba’s first season was inconsistent and only offered peeks at the show at its best. I know that’s a minority opinion, but if you felt the same and avoided this sequel, the best advice I can give is to not let your prior opinion dissuade you. This still isn’t a perfect show, nor would I claim that it’s the second coming of anime comedy Christ like some, but Kono2ba is nonetheless a fantastic sequel that capitalizes on its previous installment’s successes and weeds out almost all its weak points. I couldn’t ask for much more.
Final score: 8/10
Completed after 10 episodes.
Konosuba was a big surprise when it showed up on the scene last year, an isekai show that, through its strong comedic sensibilities, managed to be something that even those who despise the genre could enjoy. This came through the series’ embrace of the aesthetic trappings of the usual isekai fare and combining that with lots of black humor and elements of parody.
This time around, Konosuba’s high quality doesn’t have that same sort of surprise underdog flavor, having to live up to a distinct expectation set by that previous season. Without the strong sense of “newness,” how does the second season of Konosuba fare? Better than before, actually. With its second season, Konosuba is far more consistent in its comedy and set ups than the first season was.
In that first season there were quite a few points where the jokes would just not quite click or would stop altogether, presumably in some attempt at playing the story straight. However, the more comedic elements were very cynical, and the isekai elements played straight felt well-tread and dull in comparison.
Though the second season of Konosuba also occasionally falls into this trap, it opts to more frequently lean on the comedy. And the rhythm and pace of that comedy just flows so much more smoothly than before, feeling like all of the elements involved, from direction, to writing, to voice acting, just lock into each other so much more comfortably.
Despite all of my praise, this season is, at its core, just a refinement of a previously established formula. A damn solid formula, mind you, but a formula all the same. It is neither particularly evocative, nor thought provoking, but it doesn’t really need to be. A purely enjoyable ride has its own merit, but it often leaves me with less to say about such a well-crafted series than I would like.
There are a few weird bits here and there that don’t jive well. There is one specific bit toward the middle of the series where Konosuba slips into that “playing things too straight” habit, and the episode suffers from a distinct mood whiplash overall because of it. Megumin is also surprisingly irrelevant to the season as a whole, in comparison to the emphasis placed upon Kazuma, Aqua, and Darkness, which isn’t that much of a problem but feels bizarre considering how popular she seems to be.
Konosuba is probably the most easy to recommend series that I watched this season; it’s fun, light, and smart in its own way. With another short ten episode season, though, I can’t say that it didn’t leave me wanting for more. It seems like we’ve seen the last of Konosuba for now, but I certainly would be happy if a third season were to come around.
Final score: 8/10
Completed after 10 episodes.
LITTLE WITCH ACADEMIA (TV)
In our mid-season update, I remarked how while I was pleased with Little Witch Academia, I felt like it could be doing so much more with its premise. Akko struggling to feel accepted at Luna Nova while forcing change upon the aging institution is a strong enough central thread to bridge the show’s fun little episodic adventures, but for a studio as wacky as Trigger and a setting akin to anime Hogwarts, I rarely came out of each week’s episode feeling like this crew had raised their own bar or given us fresh reasons to latch onto this story.
Then came week 8, which aired what I’ve taken to calling the “Hiroyuki Imaishi tells me to hold his fucking beer” episode. Now that was vintage Trigger: surreal scenarios, rambunctious comedy, cartoony design… I don’t expect all Trigger shows (much less every single episode by the studio) to exhibit these characteristics, but they do tend to pull them off well and this was no exception. From start to finish, the trip inside Sucy’s repressive brain is a series highlight and one of my favorite episodes of any show this winter.
What followed was only slightly less charming, even if it mostly reverted back to a relatively conservative direction. By finding ways to shake the formula up (Akko accidentally transforming into a Diana doppelganger and Sucy sadistically releasing a magic bee into a crowded hall filled with non-magical elites were two of my favorite bits), Little Witch keeps its snail’s pace bildungsroman narrative from feeling stuck. Not to mention that although its first half has largely felt self-contained, it’s entirely possible that many of the minutiae we’ve seen in each episode (the unchained broom, for instance) may turn out to be Chekhov’s Guns, and that would be a wonderful way to make the buildup worth it.
Speaking of worthwhile buildup, in the 11th episode, we finally got a clearer picture of Little Witch’s “plot.” When Akko and the Shiny Rod saved the day back in the first episode, she also (unbeknownst to us and her at the time) broke the first of seven seals in Arcturus to “the Grand Triskelion,” which hasn’t yet been disclosed as anything more concrete than “the power to change the world,” but hey, that’s a hook! And Ursula knew this whole time, encouraging the slowly-improving Akko to continue breaking the seals. With this, Little Witch Academia has reached the mid-season twist it needed to retain my interest in the second cour. Where the series takes its lore from here, who knows? I’m increasingly eager to find out.
Current score: 8/10
Still watching after 12 episodes.
Yeah! Now we’re getting somewhere! Little Witch Academia is really picking up at this point, we’re moving away from Akko being completely incompetent and we’re starting to get a bit of a tangible, overarching plotline.
Though the plot has been subtly set up since the beginning of the series, it kind of feels like I’m writing a bit of a first impressions piece going into this second cour. There has been a lot of content coming up to this point, but it also feels like the major thrust of the series has changed.
Little Witch Academia still has yet to make it over the hump of being “just really really good,” remaining in that same space that it has occupied for pretty much the whole season. It could get there, but even if it doesn’t, the light-hearted adventures presented remain good fun.
Current score: 8/10
Still watching after 12 episodes.
MARCH COMES IN LIKE A LION (3-GATSU NO LION)
With two episodes that I wouldn’t hesitate to label as “filler” rounding out March Comes in Like a Lion’s first season, the slack was all on Rei, Shimada, and Souya’s shoulders to close out the Lion King Tournament as well as the series’ main run with grace, and boy did they not disappoint. Riddled with stomach woes, Shimada is off his game physically and mentally, and as much as he pushes himself to the worrisome limit, the gap between he and Souya’s abilities is too wide to be overcome. Rei watches from the sidelines, standing by his new colleague-of-sorts through his pain and an impatient crowd’s ridicule as Shimada himself sorts through his humble origins and the journey he’s taken to get to this point.
Shimada feels like he’s letting his local countryside Yamagata down when it’s in fact the opposite; by giving back to his community and reigning as the highest-rank player from the area, he’s remaining in touch with his roots and offering as much help to them as he takes. The dude was a strong, endearing, and multifaceted character ever since his introduction, but seeing him in his weakest state emphasized just how much even the most compassionate and well-composed of adults remain subject to nerves and self-doubt. March has shown time after time that Rei’s journey of independence is based in the projection that as you age, you figure everything out. But of course, this is fundamentally untrue, and instead of secluding himself as he was prone to do throughout the series’ first half, we see him start to not only accept other people’s assistance, but be other people’s assistance. Taking care of Shimada – who, all things considered, carries much of the same quiet humor, fears, and sense of responsibility as Rei does – allowed him to fill a role he himself was often denied, and he performed in it wonderfully.
As if to compound those slight personality changes, March going out like a lamb was a smart direction choice; we’ve already got a second season greenlit for the fall, and allowing the tension of the tournament to naturally dissolve without a cliffhanger meant that we got to see the back side of the baby steps Rei’s made since the start of the show. Though he’ll be repeating the school year due to Hayashida’s miscalculations, he’s now got a club to help run, another friend or three on campus, and several acquaintances he’s gotten to know better over the course of the series all willing to help him keep trucking along. I’ve said from the start that depression isn’t something that just up and disappears one day, it’s something you have to navigate through constantly, and I applaud March for not offering an easy solution for all of Rei’s worries. But not to be a total downer, the show also stresses just how important it is for someone to fill that empty seat beside you and accompany you on your way. This journey is far from over, but pausing here for now feels timely and well-deserved. March Comes in Like a Lion is one of the most poignant and touching anime I’ve seen this decade and I have no reason to doubt its upcoming sequel will continue the beauty first shown to us here. If you held out on this show, lift your shogi fists like antennas to heaven and catch up.
Final score: 9/10
Completed after 22 episodes.
MARGINAL #4 THE ANIMATION
No real changes to report, here. Marginal #4 pretty much stayed straight on its course and came to an expectable conclusion with them and fellow idol groups Unicorn Jr. and Lagrange Point putting on a huge performance, but not without a little drama.
In the final episode, Atom is stuck on the other side of Japan due to a typhoon hitting the mainland on the big day, which put the aforementioned performance in jeopardy, but things eventually worked out, and the Marginal #4 boys made their grand entrance to the venue by skydiving through the eye of said typhoon and parachuting in through the retractable roof. Ah, you know, just the typical idol stuff.
The two episodes preceding the finale were probably the best of the whole series, with the 10th episode leading the three idol groups to split into different teams to cook up some fresh noodle dishes for their beleaguered trainer, all culminating in an absurdly funny bit with the trainer’s noodles sailing through the air, bringing these idols to tears at the beauty of the noodles in flight. The 11th entry featured Marginal #4 having an unwarranted scare over Atom possibly leaving to take a full-time acting role, but he ends up turning the offer down, opting to focus on his career with Rui, R, and L. These episodes were pretty damn goofy, but I appreciate silly dorky moments like these once in a while.
I maintain my point that Marginal #4 is a skippable, forgettable show when all is said and done. You won’t really miss anything here unless boy band anime stuff is your schtick, and even then, there are much better options available out there. If it wasn’t for it airing this season, I probably wouldn’t have given it a passing glance, and in all honesty, I wouldn’t even tell anyone to go out of their way to check this out. For what it was, it was still an okay time-killer and a mood-lifter for me during a continued rough spell with work. Even then, there are better pure time killers out there, too….*cough*Sekkou Boys*cough*
Marginal #4 was a mildly fun ride while it lasted, but this is likely the last I’ll ever see of it.
Final score: 6/10
Completed after 12 episodes.
MISS KOBAYASHI’S DRAGON MAID
Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid has been a joy from the start, and its final run of episodes continued to capture the sense of consistent, lovely warmth I’d come to expect from KyoAni’s comedy material. Even if the back half of the show’s run was more reliant on conventional premises like the field day episode and the “let’s direct a play” episode, those shenanigans offered us consistent insight into the family unit that Kobayashi, Tohru, and Kanna created for themselves while also keeping the humor sharp and playful. Some of the side character gags were well worn by the time the series ended (Lucoa in particular a common target among detractors of the series), but the core of this show and many of its frills remained strong.
Indeed, that core was highlighted flawlessly in the series finale, a confrontation between Tohru’s father and Kobayashi over whether or not Tohru should be allowed to remain in the human world. I was appreciative of how Papa Dragon wasn’t played as an exaggerated manifestation of Tohru’s own doubts and simply behaved like an overprotective, “thinks-he-knows-best” patriarch who doesn’t want his daughter to face the harsh reality of outliving her love for a (dragon time) short-term crush. Kobayashi wasn’t having any of this though, cutting through his excuses to the heart of the problem: his lack of faith in his daughter’s autonomy and ability to make her own choices. The standoff ultimately ends with Daddio leaving disgruntled and the duo reaffirming their love of one another’s presence and Tohru sticking around for the time being, giving the series a happy ending with plenty of room for a continuation.
Read into the Tohru x Kobayashi relationship any way your hormones desire, what can’t be denied is that Dragon Maid is a tale at least partially about family and independence, and it performs marvelously in that capacity. From Tohru’s inspiration for becoming a maid to Kanna and Kobayashi’s lonely days alone in the brief span where Tohru disappears, there’s so much to dig into on a thematic level and just as much to gobble up on a lighthearted, slice-of-life-y one (hold the tail though, please). This is a show where community and connections remain front and center, and for the anchors of the cast, there’s humility and humanity enough to go around, easily making up for some of the series’ more repetitive tropes (none of which I found particularly off-putting anyway). It doesn’t hold a candle to KyoAni at their most dramatic (Hyouka, Sound! Euphonium, etc.), but as far as the studio’s comedy work goes, Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid may well be their most well-rounded and heartwarming offering to date.
Final score: 8/10
Completed after 13 episodes.
THE SAGA OF TANYA THE EVIL (YOUJO SENKI)
So yeah, surprise of the season.
Back when I wrote my first impressions piece, I was certain that I would end up dropping The Saga of Tanya the Evil by the end of the season, and yet here we are, at the end of the season.
Though Tanya is a good series, “surprise” does not inherently translate into quality. The storytelling of the series is a bit scattered when it comes to tone, being both really nihilistic and quite fun. It still works as a package, yet another surprise, but when combined the two tones tend to blunt one another. It’s hard to have a lot of fun when Tanya is ordering soldiers to fire on civilian targets, and it’s hard to really buy into the nihilism when the series has so many comedy bits. Again, the tone does feel cohesive (somehow) but it can’t quite be as sharp or distinct as I would like.
Still, the whole thing is a really enjoyable time despite so many elements including Tanya’s (intentionally) unlikable personality. A lot of this comes from strong direction, allowing that strange balance between grittiness and silliness, that occasionally plays into some dark comedy.
The Saga of Tanya the Evil isn’t anything revolutionary, but it is a good time in a way that isn’t always easy to describe. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: It may not be for you, but it is definitely more than it may seem at first glance.
Final score: 7/10
Completed after 12 episodes.
SCUM’S WISH (KUZU NO HONKAI)
For a while there, Scum’s Wish had me really worried. The show started out so refreshingly uncomfortable, filled with twists and turns that complicated the love dodecahedron with each new addition to the cast. But what gets added must be resolved, and it was in this middle stretch where the show’s pace and prioritizing started to backfire.
Wasting time on other substitutes was something Hanabi and Mugi needed to come to grips with the unsustainable nature of their relationship, but sadly that meant wasting our time on characters the show failed to treat as complex people as well. In addition to Noriko (whose arc could’ve felt like a point of contrast to Hanabi but sped by so quickly it seemed more like an afterthought), Ecchan’s cousin Atsuya was both a terribly-written character and an utterly useless one, only serving to add another problematic unrequited love to the picture (incest this time, wow!) and encourage Ecchan to let Hanabi go, something she was already planning to do by the point of his introduction anyway.
But Catche can and will rant circles around that, I’m sure. Instead, I want to focus on the broader issue that plagued Scum’s Wish’s interior: it often lingered too hard on someone’s feelings yet also felt spliced, awkwardly sorted into its 20-odd minutes with little immediate connection between each episode’s individual parts. On top of that, the actual content felt like something we’ve seen before, not only robbing the show of its early strength of discomfort, but also blurring these developments together, creating the exact deluge of melodrama I thought the series would initially avoid. In the end, one of the main romances came to fruition and the other crumbled apart, and if you were expecting the kiddos to remain strong over the romantic ignoramus and the self-proclaimed slut, then uh…
Well, there’s no way to avoid the elephant in the room: Akane slowly turning over a new leaf through Kanai’s enthralled willingness to love her unconditionally made for a cathartic development in Akane’s own sense of self, but I couldn’t help but walk away from the episode with a sour taste in my mouth. I suppose that’ll happen when Kanai out of the blue implies he’s happy to be a cuckold and his love for Akane is at least partially based in her similar appearance to his own mother. I don’t mind digging for subtext, but even if I sat down and psychoanalyzed this turn for hours, I don’t think it’d leave me any more satisfied, mostly because we barely got to know Kanai in the first place. Seeing how out of her element Akane felt was what sold this relationship as a change, along with its aftermath where Mugi acknowledges he doesn’t love this new version of her. Akane’s development had a payoff, but only because it had buildup, something her new fiancé lacked. This penultimate episode was still a huge step up from the mid-series slog, but it didn’t register as the hit it needed to be to redeem Scum’s Wish as a whole.
The series’ finale – in which two timeskips occur and Hanabi and Mugi receive closure and space after their relationship fizzles out and their flings become blood under the bridge – fared much better. The tone throughout it is understanding and empathetic, recognizing that as real as the obsessive feelings of unrequited love felt for these folks at the start of the show, the relative peace in this aftermath is just as real. Instead of relying on contact, Mugi and Hana communicate verbally about all that’s happened and thank each other for the support they extended, however inconsistently.
They don’t end up together, and frankly, that’s probably a good thing. As lampshaded in-show, early relationships rarely last, as you need to grow through them, learning from your mistakes. Mutual self-interest laid at the heart of their connection for so long that they ultimately don’t “love” one another now, or if they do, not enough so to continue their “pact.” But the ultimate takeaway is that they now recognize their ability to appreciate themselves without another person’s approval, coming out the other side of this mess much more composed and knowledgeable about themselves than they did entering it.
This was the Scum’s Wish I loved, and as much as the show lost that vision at points, I was glad to see it scrap the drama for its own sake once more before it bid us farewell. On the plus side, I’d argue that for all its spottiness, Scum’s Wish features probably the best ending of any Studio Lerche show I’ve seen to date, and the art and shot design remained pleasant at worst throughout. Between that and the series’ raw, emotional high points, I’d still recommend Scum’s Wish to any romance anime fan who wants a deeper look at what it means to love and be loved. I just wish (no pun intended) it was a little more confident in its message and consistently effective in its delivery.
Final score: 7/10
Completed after 12 episodes.
Oh man, Scum’s Wish was kind of messy in the middle, but I had no idea just what was on the way. Now, there’s still a fair bit of good to say about this series, and I’ll get to that further down the line, but first I need to address one element of this show: Atsuya Kirishima, the worst character of this season.
This guy is grating in a very specific manner that makes me want to punch my screen and tear my fucking eyeballs out. He’s a loser who can’t really socially operate at the same level as most, which is a character trait that would usually generate some sympathy, but he’s also really pushy in a way that (while framed as well-intentioned) just comes off as uncomfortable and a bit asshole-like. I’ve known a lot of guys who are like Atsuya, guys who couldn’t comprehend that it was specifically their standoffish attitudes that led to a lot of their troubles, rather than simple communication issues. The resulting character is grating in a very visceral way, and it’s never really addressed. Though many of the characters in Scum’s Wish are, well, “scum,” they are usually forced to confront their demons in some form or another. It is not so with Atsuya. His pushy, uncomfortable attitude is never addressed by the narrative, and we’re just expected to move on. Worse still, the series seems to feel like we should root for this guy and hope that he ends up with Ecchan or something (which is an implication that is loaded with a lot of other uncomfortable baggage.) In short, he sucks and the show would probably be a whole point better if he never showed up because he doesn’t even matter to the plot. WHY DOES HE EXIST????
Scum’s Wish at least had the decency to end well, really nailing the bittersweet tone that it needed. In the end, despite feeling like a very mixed bag, I thought Scum’s Wish was a worthwhile experience. Watching Scum’s Wish is simultaneously really frustrating and really gratifying, in a way that never feels like it comes to form a cohesive whole. It feels like the series actually needed to be a bit shorter and more focused to have the more coherent feel that it needed.
Even if it is flawed in execution, the series does have a strong thematic center, with the bittersweet nature of both attraction and the process of coming to understand oneself in relation to others around them. I occasionally find myself wanting to like it more than is truly deserved, and as things stand I’ll have to settle for “pretty good.”
Final score: 7/10
Completed after 12 episodes.
I’m not afraid to admit when I’m wrong. That’s what helps us intellectually broaden our horizons, learn from our mistakes, and engage with people on a more personable level. When I said back in January that Seiren’s pilot was the most woefully underwhelming episode of anime I had seen in years, I wasn’t lying. But what came after that has truly and utterly confounded me. This is an anime which could only ever exist in unreality, a place where daily drudgery is emphasized by bland design and the only redemption is a bunch of high-school dorks’ obscure kinks. Seiren shouldn’t have enough material to exist, and it knows as much, recycling the cast through 3 mildly different timelines in which Shouichi strikes up a romance with a different heroine and the supporting cast around him falls into a slightly different place. But it goes for the gold anyway, and…
…well, I’ve described this before as similar to people-watching. Ever find yourself in a mall or some crowded street overhearing the awkward advances of horny teenagers and wondering, “Is this real? Am I in a simulation? Surely there’s some reason why these kids keep casually referring to Love Deer as wholesome entertainment, giving each other hand-knitted underwear, and doing lewd things with vending machines, but hell if I know the specifics.”
It’s that lethargic general tone which makes the bizarre one-liners and fetishes pop out so strikingly, and yet the show’s real charm lies in how it doesn’t go out of its way to emphasize those ridiculous details. Seiren feels lived in, somewhere where the bros’ tradition of fake wrestling on Christmas Eve or love interests sucking on phallic vegetables don’t need any explanation, because that’s just how these folks go about their days. In Seiren, the viewer is a vicarious spectator; we’re supposed to get cheap chuckles out of these relationships that progress at reasonable paces yet reach such unreasonable places. We’re supposed to feel separated from the stupidity, indulging in its moments of utter randomness. And by and large, we are and we do.
That’s why I was surprised to find myself enjoying Seiren for anything more than that; its second arc with gamer girl Toru Miyamae aside, I was able to feel invested in the romantic progression of 2/3 of the show’s attempted relationships, which is more than I can say for most “harems.” There’s no way in hell that Shouichi would have any chemistry with the “most popular girl” heroine Hikari Tsuneki, but their arc resulted in such ludicrous one-liners and a well-directed climax that I couldn’t help but be swept up in. And the show’s final heroine, Kyouko Touno, was even a believable love interest whose relationship with Shouichi felt natural and immersive, even if it involved unadulterated panty shopping and 3 holiday clichés overlapping with one another from a lack of planning. Better yet, the supporting cast was full of incomprehensibly specific personalities and felt just as developed as the mainstays, undergoing B-plots of their own no less mundanely twisted as those of the protagonists.
All things considered, Seiren by far exceeded my expectations for a quasi-harem, but therein lies the problem: its romantic pining is inconsistent, and despite a few endearing successes on that front, it’s much more enjoyable as a wacky comedy. That very comedy isn’t infallible either, and while it’s primed for shitposting, it’s also the kind of thing I could see sustaining only a certain…special…type of person’s interest. Seiren is still the definition of “average” on virtually all accounts. It’s a fun little ride, but by year’s end, I get the feeling we’ll be back to laughing at the show rather than with it. I’ll be damned though, despite massive trepidation I did not regret the time I spent watching this, and that’s gotta be worth something. If you’ve smirked along to the linked caps here, it might just be up your alley. If not, there’s no reason for you to bother with it. And if you’ve somehow made it through to the end yourself, well…congratulations. We are truly the chosen few.
Final score: 5.5/10. And also 1/10. Hell, why not an 8/10 too? I am too far gone as is, fuck it all.
Completed after 12 episodes.
I must be the “special” type of person Yata referred to, because I actually found Seiren very enjoyable right to that sweet, sweet end, despite the relatively vanilla favoring of Kyouko’s arc relative to the other girls’ arcs. Questionable taste in underwear aside, her arc definitely felt the most realistic of the three, with the zany kinks toned down to knitted underwear and hair whorls. Quite a de-escalation from the deer-mating games, incredible zipper placement, and lewd washing machine antics of the previous arcs.
Yata’s mostly covered all the bases for me on how Seiren just worked where others flopped, so I’m not going to bother with that. I will touch on my appreciation for the sense of consistency throughout the three separate timelines. Everyone’s the same old dorks that they are in any of the other arcs, with the only difference being who main dork Shoichi ends up falling for. Running jokes that are first established in Tsuneki’s arc such as Shoichi’s furry friend and the overarching deer theme of the series will recur and elicit chuckles through the remainder of the show — and that’s not even counting the arc-specific running jokes like the bus driver game.
Seiren had a good grasp for flow — with something as grand as the three arcs or even minute things like simple conversations between friends and classmates. You can chide this show all you may like for so-called bad dialogue, but you can’t look me in the eye and say you didn’t converse about some similarly silly topics when you were in high school. These kids actually come off as teenagers, fretting over things that seem so arbitrary as you grow older.
In other news, Studio Gokumi is slated to release another romcom anime coming this summer, an adaptation of one of my most beloved manga series of all time, the absurdly funny Tsurezure Children. In recent years, most of my eagerly anticipated adaptations have fumbled the ball in some major fashion. However, seeing the performance turned in by this studio for Seiren, I feel confident that my favorite 4-koma is in very good hands, and I eagerly await their next work.
Seiren: it’s the Memeyoiga of romantic comedy anime. It might be one of those “So bad it’s good” types of shows, but at least it’ll be THE ONE memorable show of all the irrelevant ones I’ve tasked myself with covering this winter.
Final score: 7/10 (for real.)
Completed after 12 episodes
SHOUWA GENROKU RAKUGO SHINJUU: SUKEROKU FUTATABI-HEN
With Yakumo in frail health at the ripe young age of really fucking old, it was all but inevitable Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu would end with his death, and just as inevitable that for all his morose threats, he would not take the art of rakugo with him. More precisely, he never could, and much of this season’s tension has hinged on whether or not he would accept this fact before the end came. With a season and a half of mournful flashback and current fatigue under its belt, Rakugo could’ve certainly ended in sustained tragedy, with Yakumo’s regrets being the last thing everyone had to remember him by.
But it wasn’t, and the ride getting there was absolutely breathtaking. I don’t want that to be taken lightly, because I’ve praised Rakugo as something similar before several times. These last few episodes were closer to transcendent in the way that only a series that’s near-flawlessly built up its themes of artistic expression, cycles, and love with a cast this empathetic and human can do. From life-threatening hallucinations of the other side to a community banding together in its darkest hour, this final stretch touched on extreme after extreme with a grace and beauty unparalleled by anything else I’ve reviewed as it aired since we started For Great Justice 2 and a half years ago.
This puts me in a really tricky spot, because as much as I’d love to actually talk about the show’s ending, for the first time yet, I can’t think of a way to do it that “great justice” we brand ourselves on in a way that the show couldn’t do much more eloquently itself. I don’t feel like I need to prove or justify anything that I haven’t already said before, especially as its final two episodes are essentially icing on the cake, one following Yakumo’s reunion with his long dead companions in the afterlife, the other set back on Earth 16 years down the road. By this point, the show hit its peak and gave itself so much room for falling tension that it allowed everyone to enjoy the final sendoff they deserved, be they accomplished and old or just getting started with etching their own path in life.
And so Rakugo ended, but it also never will: these characters will live on, stumble over whatever new challenges await them, and eventually pass down their love and pride for their stories to continue. It’s the sum of the human experience; You can spend your whole life worrying about your legacy or simply carve it out of what’s been given to you in the present. Whichever route you choose, Rakugo understands the ups and downs of the journey are what living is all about, and something that treasured could never die.
tl;dr: watch Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu.
Final score: 10/10
Completed after 12 episodes.
I’ve thought long and hard about what I would say about Rakugo since its final episode aired. At first, I wasn’t quite sure how best to judge the series, but at this point what I can say is that Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu is fantastic.
It’s rare that a series provides me with so much to meditate on and consider over a week after its completion. I am certain that I’m going to have to re-watch the series at some point down the road in order to get an even more solid appraisal of its quality, but the more I think about Rakugo, the more my appreciation for it grows.
I feel like I really would have to write a more detailed analysis of the series as a whole outside of just a recap in order to really dig into the minutiae for Rakugo’s presentation and quality (though I wouldn’t count on such an analysis ever being finished.)
I’m not sure that I can go all in, giving it a 10/10 just yet, but it comes damn close, and it’s likely that I’ll bump it up upon further consideration.
Final score: 9.5/10
Completed after 12 episodes.
And that’s it for winter! What did you think of this season’s offerings? Agree or disagree (or a mix of both) with our ratings? Feel free to leave a comment and start some discussion, be it here or on our Twitters (check the sidebar) or wherever. We’ll see you in a couple weeks with our spring first impressions. Until then, this has been Yata, Catche, and Haru. Cheers.