Winter 2020 First Impressions

Between long-awaited greenlit adaptations and surprising sequel announcements, 2020 is already looking like a mighty exciting time to be an anime fan, and while the rest of the world is uh…mostly continuing to be a shitshow, not all of these shows are shit! Kicking off the year in style, Yata and Haru are back with their first impressions on 20 seasonal premieres. Which ones have passed the litmus test all easy breezy? Which ones we did we low-key accidentally not save our writing for? (Asteroid In Love. It’s Asteroid In Love. Haru’s sticking with it, though.) And which ones are getting thrown straight in the fire? Find out below on For Great Justice’s first seasonal rundown of the new decade!

A DESTRUCTIVE GOD SITS NEXT TO ME.
(BOKU NO TONARI NI ANKOKU HAKAISHIN GA IMASU.)


Summary:
Seri Koyuki is a fairly average, if somewhat cranky, run-of-the-mill high school boy whose neighbor in class is the incredibly chuuni Kabuto Hanadori. Seri’s grades have dropped precipitously since being seated next to Kabuto; this series follows the former’s attempts to shake off the latter’s cries for attention.

Harubruh:
Jun Fukuyama is going to be forever doomed to voice high school boys reluctantly forced to put up with endearingly precious chuuni partners, isn’t he?

Nearly every season features at least a show or two that ends up being surprisingly enjoyable for me, and for Winter 2020 my first surprise show turned out to be A Destructive God Sits Next to Me., which I will henceforth refer to as “Bokuhaka,” because I am not typing all that out on repeat.

So what made Bokuhaka such a surprisingly fun watch for me?

Well, it’s got a very Haru-core formula: acceptable, possibly above average visual composition, a talented complement of voice actors, who end up voicing a bunch of varied personalities making some hilariously exaggerated reactions to one another, and a pretty good sense for slapstick comedy.

As I had no experience with its source material going into this watch, I had no real expectations of Bokuhaka, nor did I have any idea what to expect from it. I didn’t need to worry about that for long, as the show broke the ice very quickly, immediately introducing us to what appears to be our main trio of wannabe straight man Seri, token chuuni Kabuto, and this season’s actual embodiment of pure evil, Tsukimiya.

Despite all of Kabuto’s par-for-the-course chuuni references to pseudo-occult and demonic jargon, it’s pretty quickly demonstrated that the boy is a somewhat puny pushover. More often acting like a bright-eyed puppy dog around Seri than some edgy wannabe overlord, Kabuto’s antics have won me over. He’s a very good boy, too pure for this harsh world of ours. For what it’s worth, I also enjoy Seri, as his relentless dedication to shooting down Kabuto’s antics and his anguish at consistently being read like a book by Tsukimiya make for a near-constant barrage of reaction faces and one-liners that had me laughing from start to finish.

Bokuhaka has shown above-average polish compared to a lot of shows this season, and the voiceover work by Fukuyama, Takahiro Sakurai, and Ryohei Kimura has really carried this show that extra mile. Count me in for more of this goofy chuuni silliness.
Current score: 7/10
Still watching after 2 episodes.

BOFURI: I DON’T WANT TO GET HURT, SO I’LL MAX OUT MY DEFENSE
(ITAI NO WA IYA NANO DE BOUGYORYOKU NI KYOUKUFURI SHITAI TO OMOIMASU)


Summary:
On the invitation of a friend, complete newbie gamer Kaede Honjou starts playing a VRMMO called “New World Online,” where she proceeds to allocate all of her beginning status points into her defense. Despite sluggish movement and possessing no magic or attack abilities, she maxes out her defense, resulting in some accidental game-breaking fun.

Harubruh:
..aaand here we have surprise show number two.

I’m not sure why I didn’t expect much out of Bofuri, because as compared to Yata, I typically tend to get more enjoyment than he does out of the RPG shows. I guess I’d just wrote this series off as playing off of a one-trick gimmick, but I actually hadbo fun watching said trick much more than I’d anticipated.

What endeared Bofuri to me? Well, I tend to enjoy a good anime airhead, and they don’t get much airier than our heroine Kaede, who in-game goes by the handle ‘Maple.” Whereas most newbies to a JRPG setup will tend to opt for a relatively balanced status set, as her friend Risa does, Kaede dumps every status point she earns into her VIT (vitality) stat, which governs defensive ability. As a result, she has no AGI (agility) for quick movement, or STR (strength) for offense, so how does she move forward? By either letting monsters attack until they die of exhaustion, or by simply eating them! I would have never predicted this turn of events in a hundred guesses.

If there’s anything I enjoy about playing video games, it’s bending a game to your will by playing the most absolutely wrong way you can. Even if she’s doing it rather serendipitously, I get an absolute kick out of seeing how Maple accidentally broke the game in her favor, and everyone’s collective reaction to her antics. Bofuri does a good job of capturing that bewildering, yet glorious feeling of (accidentally) exploiting an inherently broken game system.

Compared to the other video game show I watched this season, Bofuri’s also a lot easier on the eyes. The visuals in this are nothing to write home about, sure, but this show certainly felt like a more pleasant and overall more entertaining watch. I’m still not completely convinced I’ll stick around for the whole ride, but Bofuri has proven its initial worth to me.
Current score: 6/10
Still watching after 2 episodes.

DARWIN’S GAME


Summary:
Average high-schooler Kaname Sudou obliviously downloads a phone app named Darwin’s Game and soon afterwards a bunch of randos start attacking him because guess what, it’s yet another “if you die in the game, you die in real life” battle royale anime—except this time, the game is real life.

Yatahaze:
In a first impressions week with as many “yeah, that was okay, I guess” titles as this one has, I’m a devoted practitioner of the rule of thumb that if I consciously check to see how long is left in a show’s debut episode, I probably shouldn’t bother going forward with it. I hit that point early in Darwin’s Game, and to my chagrin, that was how I learned its pilot was double-length.

Patting myself on the back, I stuck it out, and while I certainly won’t be sticking with Darwin’s Game for the aforementioned reason and some other turnoffs, credit where credit’s due: it somehow managed to make those 40-odd minutes fly by, constantly one-upping its own grimdark absurdity with every turn. After its lackluster opening minutes, Kaname getting chased by a murderous panda baseball mascot was at least something to chuckle at. He only won by default after a bystander accidentally struck the being dubbed Banda with a car, but a win’s a win, and it attracted attention from even more unhinged contestants. Still figuring out what in the world was going on and how to use the supposed “Sigil” power the game bestows upon its players, a second aspiring killer in this do-or-die jamboree, Shuka, attacked Kaname in a warehouse before he could fully get his wits about him. Just as their cat-and-mouse game began to get tiring, Kaname realizes his Sigil power is the ability to materialize weapons and he successfully disarms Shuka, who immediately surrenders and becomes his subservient psychotic love interest.

This ringing a bell? This feeling at all like Future Diary in a magnitude we’ve not seen since fucking Big Order? It should. Well, more accurately, it shouldn’t, because nothing should be this shallowly gruesome and helplessly derivative in 2020, but hey, here we are. Darwin’s Game is trying to live up to those phrases, and it’s more or less succeeding. Why anyone would love this stuff is still a step beyond me, though; there’s a certain gleeful irony in watching this story unfold as if it’s convinced what it’s doing is unique or a genuinely thrilling experience. It’s bad, and it’s a bad we’ve seen before, and it acts so confident that it’s not bad that it’s almost enviable to the point of vicarious pleasure. But that’s all, and it’s definitely not in on that joke either; Darwin’s Game was able to hold my attention for an hour with few troughs once the ball got rolling, but enduring a full season of this when it’s so obvious where it’s going would just be masochistic. If you’re a fan of grim and poorly-conceived action thrillers, giving this a shot couldn’t hurt. As for everyone else…you’ve heard this joke before.
Final score: 6/10
Dropped after 1 episode.

DOROHEDORO


Summary:
Caiman is an amnesiac, lizard-headed monster impervious to smoke magic who sticks people into his mouth so that a second, internal face in his esophagus can determine whether or not the unlucky sucker in his maw is the sorcerer who cursed Caiman’s head in the first place. He and his friend Nikaidou, who runs a gyoza restaurant, kill time eating well and hunting down the source of Caiman’s woes person-by-person.

Yatahaze:
There are a ton of anime each season that couldn’t tell an original story if they tried, and there are a ton of anime I’m not really into each season, and most of the time those categories overlap. Not the case here; if nothing else, Dorohedoro and its nearly 20-year-old manga serialization are about as uncompromisingly bizarre and singular as they come. It’s the adaptation itself that leaves something to be desired.

For starters, the 2D-3D integration is really offputting. Caiman and Nikaidou are rendered in sluggish CG while many of the other characters are drawn with notable fluidity and don’t pop out from the backgrounds as much. I’ve got nothing against traditional animation or CG modeling, but when the two are merged together this haphazardly, it’s a constant distraction that limits how invested I’m able to get in the story’s proceedings. Damn shame, too, because Dorohedoro’s world is otherwise one of its strengths; the slums exude that perfect balance of destitution and habitation, selling that it’s not somewhere you’d want to be, but that it is somewhere a lot of people without the choice are. The parallel realms, traversed through via wispy doorways are also cool. For all the grit in its aesthetic sensibilities, there’s also an unnerving sense of joviality to these characters, not unlike how the alien hodgepodge of a show like Blood Blockade Battlefront was often well-tempered by its oddball humor.

However, the humor here isn’t as sharp as I assumed it would be given everything I’d heard about Dorohedoro, at least in this pilot. Wataru Takagi’s performance as Caiman is irritatingly shrill, and he and Nikaidou don’t have the most immersive dynamic through their dialogue alone, which mostly consists of Nikaidou offering up platitudes with a smile and Caiman hollering about food. When the action arrives, the sheer unpredictability of it all carries those respective scenes, but the point is this: for all its potential and all its source material’s praise, I can’t shake the feeling that this is a rather middling attempt of an adaptation. It successfully got me curious about what exactly Dorohedoro is and where it will go, but it didn’t get me excited enough to actually tune in for a second episode of the story in this form. Coupled with Netflix’s release date-hoarding, I’m gonna spare myself the frustration of trying to stick with this title weekly, but don’t let anyone tell you Dorohedoro isn’t one-of-a-kind to the point that you’ll just have to check it out for yourself to see if you take to it.
Final score: 6/10
Dropped after 1 episode.

HAIKYUU!!: TO THE TOP


Summary:
The fourth season of the highly-acclaimed volleyball series.

Harubruh:
It’s great having my favorite team of volleybros back!

To the Top wasted absolutely no time getting down to business—no lengthy flashbacks or recaps of the prior events, just jumping right to it. It’s pretty refreshing in a way, as sport shows love to make extensive use of those techniques to spend screen time. Not the case here; Haikyuu!! just jumps right into the good shit.

Having recently bested the previous national champions at Shiratorizawa, we catch up with the Karasuno boys practicing hard for the upcoming appearance on the national stage. Well, for a little bit, anyways. The team learns that their star setter Kageyama has been selected as a prospect for the All-Japan under-19 team, and snarky blocker Tsukishima receives an invite to a first-year-only practice camp hosted by none other than Shiratorizawa’s highly regarded head coach.

The two immediately proceed to lord their respective selections over Hinata, whose ego takes a pretty strong hit from the two snubs. Adding insult to injury, after Hinata crashes the camp Tsukishima attends, the head coach tells Hinata straight-up that he sees no value in Hinata as a volleyball player without Kageyama as his setter, and ends up relegating the young spiker to humiliating ball-boy duty.

Everybody loves rooting for an underdog, right? Most people also enjoy the good old “hard work, dedication, and practice can defeat god-given talent” narrative, am I right?

Unfortunately, this right here is how shit usually goes with sports. You can have all the dogged love of the game in the world, but sometimes the game doesn’t love you back. You can put all of your passion into the game, practice and play with 110% effort, but because you drew a loser in the genetic lottery, you get completely passed up. It’s unfair, but that’s sports, and that’s life. Hinata’s diminutive stature forced him to adapt his game around his agility, but all the grizzled coach sees is a short-ass spiker who’s too quick, too short, and lacks the power to play the game what he’s convinced is the right way.

Hinata’s always been a sympathetic protagonist. If I recall correctly, he’s the second shortest player in this whole series ahead of defensive wizard Nishinoya. Quite literally the underdog, he’s kept his head up in front of the walls put in front of him, chased his dream, practiced hard with dogged determination, and hell, I personally think he’s a more talented player than Kageyama and Tsukishima combined.

The cold dose of reality Hinata got is almost painful to watch. It’s visceral. I’ve been there, and I have friends who have been in that same lonely spot too. This rant’s getting long, so I’ll wrap it up quick, but the affront feels almost as personal to me as it certainly does to Hinata. Shiratorizawa’s honcho may be a successful coach, but a successful coach certainly isn’t always a good coach, and I can’t wait for Hinata to prove him wrong. I know the kid has the heart and the guts to do it.

This has the makings of another highly rewarding watch, as Haikyuu!! has always been from the get-go.
Current score: 8/10
Still watching after 2 episodes.

HATENA☆ILLUSION


Summary:
Captivated by a magic show he attended as a child, Makoto Shiranui moves to Tokyo to seek an apprenticeship under the magician he watched all those years ago. Coincidentally, said magician’s daughter, the titular Hatena, happens to also be his childhood friend. Their relationship quickly turns sour after their reunion, after Hatena discovers she’d mistaken Makoto for a girl back then. Magic, and magic thief hijinks, quickly ensue.

Harubruh:
Well… at least the pilot was decent.

More a completely speculative pick rather than something I actually planned on watching, Hatena Illusion seemed to have enough elements to catch my attention. I mean, just barely enough.

An adaptation of a light novel with artwork and character designs penned by the To Love-Ru guy, Yoshitsugu Matsuoka voicing Makoto, the MC-kun of this show, and a fair bit of recognizable voice talent allocated for the rest of the roster, too. Oh hey, the Assistant Director for C: That One Show About Money and Gains is directing this, too. Cool.

Is this seriously the first work Children’s Playground Entertainment is front-lining on? ANN only credits them with some minor production assistance on Cerberus, an edgy looking show I’d never heard of prior to this carrying a lofty 5.72 rating on MAL as I write this. To be fair, MAL credits CPE with work on a handful of other shows, most notably the Yata cult classic Citrus. As for what manner of work they potentially have done on that handful of other shows, it appears incredibly vague to me, at least with the meager resources I have at my disposal.

Right, so on to the magic show!

The pilot featured a surprisingly fair share of snazzy shots and eye-catching visuals, an adequately watchable premise centered on Hatena’s family secretly being magical super-thieves attempting to retrieve some lost magical artifacts, and a passably affable cast largely carried by the comparatively high quality of their roster of seiyuu. The first episode kind of wrote a hot check that immediately bounced once the episode counter flipped over to “2.”

The second episode felt like an almost entirely different show. Even more inconsistent off-model character art, noticeably downgraded animation, voice work that even if done by a cast of stars I respect, still felt phoned-in, the list goes on. I mean, Hatena probably has more “actual” animation in it than Hanako-kun does, but I’m pretty sure the latter is the far superior show.

Hatena Illusion’s anime possesses some inspired ideas, sure. The earworm OP and ED are probably the most enjoyable aspects of this show, aside from the mischievous maid Ema, who is decent “she” material. I wanted to enjoy this series more than I did, as Hatena shares the same late author as Mayoi Neko Overrun, a ridiculously stupid show from long ago that I got a bunch of ridiculously stupid laughs out of.

I might give this show another week or two in the seemingly futile hope that it’ll right the ship. My hopes are not particularly high.
Current score: 5/10
Haven’t decided yet after 2 episodes. I’m terribly indecisive.

ID:INVADED


Summary:
The “Master Detective” Sakaido awakens in a jigsawed world with his limbs not completely intact and discovers a murdered body who he can identify is a girl named Kaeru, although he isn’t sure why. Zooming out, we see Sakaido is actually here on behalf of an investigative team from the real world, who have sent him to this “id well” space to gain clues about an active killer’s whereabouts and motives.

Yatahaze:
The occasional down-to-earth series notwithstanding, director Ei Aoki has become a household name in the anime fandom for his conceptually intriguing but ultimately divisive approaches to fantasy anime. The dude has more ideas than he knows what to do with, and in my eyes his shows often begin with potential but quickly devolve into a total mess. As such, I’m hardly the biggest fan of Aoki’s work, but I still give it a shot whenever he releases a new title, hopeful that my sensibilities and his will eventually align more.

They don’t with ID:INVADED, but of all this season’s psychological/action thrillers, this is definitely the one with the most identity and potential. The cold open in “The Perforator’s” id well makes for a stunning out-of-(in-)body experience and the mechanics of Sakaido’s deductions inside that space are straightforward without being so obvious that you could come to his conclusions long before he does.

As soon as the show shifted focus to the police squad, Aoki’s propensity for technobabble reared its ugly head hard, but they at least felt something like a true unit, each member referring to each other as colleagues in a field with an emphasis on teamwork would. For her character design and increased agency in the second episode specifically, Hondomachi kind of stole the show; this case’s villain walked straight out of a Psych 101’s lecture on Phineas Gage and thus felt kind of hard to take seriously, but the squad’s steadfast, spunky newbie countered The Perforator’s edge with charming courage. Some hits and some misses seemed to be the prevailing vibe.

With regards to the dialogue specifically, ID:INVADED has a lot of room for improvement, but as far as the mystery mechanics go, this opening arc utilized a series of inevitable yet clever twists that make sense in retrospect but seemed just beyond our reach until the show got to them. Sakaido’s re-emergence from the well, which he can only enter as a proxy of himself for having killed in the past also (think Psycho-Pass’ inspector-enforcer dynamic), immediately presented additional grounding for its initially-boundless possibilities. Even if the visuals of the scenes outside the id well weren’t anywhere near as captivating and ambitious as those that took place within it, it’s all still serviceable on the eyes.

The bigger setback is this: given my track record with Aoki shows, I’m skeptical that he’ll capitalize on this potential in a satisfying way over the course of the whole series. It’s true that his source material is different this time—novelist Otaro Maijo wrote the script and I have no familiarity with his other work, so I can’t rule out the possibility that ID:INVADED will pull through on its own consistent logic—but I’ve got less time than usual this season due to other projects on my plate and no one says I can’t come back to this show once it’s finished if its reputation remains positive. That’s the option I’m going with. Let me know your verdicts come April. Until then, anyone who’s bothering to check out the less successful of this season’s entries for this genre would be remiss if they didn’t also check out this one.
Final score for now: 6.5/10
Dropped after 2 episodes.

IF MY FAVORITE POP IDOL MADE IT TO THE BUDOKAN, I WOULD DIE
(OSHI GA BUDOUKAN ITTEKURETARA SHINU)


Summary:
A young woman nicknamed Eripiyo doesn’t have much else going on in her life, so why not go for broke on the one thing she does? As the most loyal (some whisper “only”) fan of Maina, a shy background idol in the unit Cham Jam, Eripiyo is at every concert, fan meet-and-greet, and merch event possible, but also growing subconscious of the fact that Maina seems emotionally distant in return.

Yatahaze:
Okay, this was a weird one precisely because it wasn’t; OshiBudo is a well-produced, well-performed, and comparatively (to expectations) tame title about one girl and some other tangentially-important fans who love their token idols to an unhealthy degree. In this show’s pilot, they withstand heat exhaustion and spend heaps of time and money in lines just to shake hands with their underdog cultural heroes every chance they get. There’s fandom, and then there’s devotion; you can publicly express appreciation for a person’s work without letting that admiration consume you. The characters of OshiBudo’s premiere—who I want to emphasize are really the fans, not the idol unit itself—have stepped far beyond that line, and while lead heroine Eripiyo is increasingly aware of it, that isn’t stopping her from pursuing this habitual, sanitized attention-clamoring. It’s not necessarily played for laughs, but it’s also not treated with any particular urgency. Instead, OshiBudo just presents itself as the daily life of an idol otaku. Until, that is, Maina secretly indicates that she appreciates Eripiyo’s support, possibly to a romantic degree.

But that makes me super uncomfortable. Not because they’re both women (that’s a dope subversion of the usual stereotype of idol maniacs as sweaty adult men, actually), but because the imbalance of power between them is so pronounced it’s frankly cringy to watch. Eripiyo lives an empty life, if I can be blunt enough to state outright what the show hasn’t. She treats her obsession with Maina like a crutch, the one thing keeping her passionately trudging along from day to day, and Maina seems lonely despite her position, a problem which Eripiyo’s barrage of humiliation-derived praise won’t actually solve. Seemingly beyond its own intent, OshiBudo depicts the sadder face of fandom at large and one specifically problematic side of it within Japan’s idol industry, wherein hordes of fans deprive themselves of opportunities to make their own lives richer in return for the shallower dopamine rush of shaking hands with their icons. To clarify, there’s nothing wrong with meeting your heroes, taking a selfie or autograph with them, and politely moving on, but making those encounters your sole purpose for living is simply crippling to one’s self-growth. Eripiyo’s own loneliness is hardly emphasized here, but OshiBudo can be just as damning for what it doesn’t show as for what it does.

All of which is to say that this was a very interesting premiere psychologically and it suggests OshiBudo has a bigger brain than it’s letting on, but with no indication on where it will thematically land (I’ve heard the second episode leans harder into the romance but that’s the only news that’s come my way), I’m going to have to give the show a pass for the moment. I’d love it if OshiBudo would flesh out these characters and demand some tougher choices of them, because as chirpy and entertaining as they are already (and Ai Fairouz’s performance as Eripiyo is great), lighthearted gags with an undercurrent of insecurity isn’t going to carry me for a season without some heftier thematic punches sealing the deal. Hopefully I can come back to this and enjoy the end result, but that’ll be a decision for future me and I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.
Final score: 7/10
Dropped after 1 episode.

INFINITE DENDROGRAM


Summary:
In the year 2043, the world’s first full-dive VRMMO, “Infinite Dendrogram,” is released to the public. A couple years following its release, the protagonist Reiji finally scrapes enough money together to acquire said game. With virtually infinite possibilities in this virtual world, what path will he follow?

Harubruh:
You know what? I was actually expecting worse with Infinite Dendrogram.

I mean, it’s about as inoffensive as it can get, but conversely, it’s not a particularly impressive show, either. For some reason, I was convinced this was supposed to be an isekai, but it’s more your standard VRMMOJRPG anime. Yay, acronyms.

The virtual world of Dendrogram is presented to us via an absolute fuck ton of constant infodumps as a sprawling, practically infinite world with similarly limitless paths for players to explore. Ironically, one of the aspects of Dendrogram I found most interesting was via one of those infodumps: the NPCs in this virtual world are sentient beings with the same cognitive ability as the actual humans playing the game. The NPCs also experience permadeath should they pass, whereas players merely cannot log in for 24 hours after dying. Three days pass in-game in those 24 hours, so I feel this time mechanic may make for some interesting drama in the future.

Aside from that, the visuals and setup are your typical MMO show fare. Pseudo-European style city, castles, walls, labyrinths, guilds, and all your expected fantasy character achetypes, with our main character Ray choosing to become a Paladin. Another mechanic we’ve seen before is a summonable partner who can transform into a weapon, referred to as “Embryos.” Ray’s partner, Nemesis, has been probably the most entertaining character of the show so far, but that’s not a terribly high bar.

It’s all pretty formulaic, but Infinite Dendrogram has been an acceptable time-killer for me to this point. I’ll stick with it for at least two or three more weeks to see if it can step it up a little more. I’m not expecting much, but hey, it’s worth a shot, right?
Current score: 6/10
Still watching after 2 episodes, I guess.

IN/SPECTRE (KYOKOU SUIRI)


Summary:
After an event in her youth, Kotoko Iwanagi became able to interact and talk with various supernatural creatures. She runs into Kurou Sakuragawa at a hospital and quickly becomes attracted to the emotionally distant young man, who it’s revealed those youkai fear because he’s technically immortal and can pulverize them if he so chooses.

Yatahaze:
After two episodes, the jury is still out regarding whether or not In/Spectre will spill the beans about Kurou’s full power, and it’s even harder to tell if the series is capable of pulling off supernaturally-tinted episodic crime cases. On that first point, Kurou is clearly hiding something from Kotoko and the audience, and I’m in no rush to see it revealed; most overpowered characters are either obnoxious right off the bat or underwritten to a debilitating degree, and he currently sidesteps both flaws, always giving off an aura of mystique despite going about his daily business with an expression that screams “please don’t bother me, I’m just trying to live here.” Forcing him out of his own way, Kotoko is the smugger and more talkative of In/Spectre’s protagonists, and as the dominant figure in most of their conversations, she dictates the show’s tone well. To Kurou, she isn’t much more than a nosy stranger, but Kotoko is convinced that they’re destined to be together. I mean, if you’ve got a rare ability to interact with youkai, you might as well choose a partner who can understand that crucial part of your life, and as the adage goes, opposites in all manners of personality do attract.

But they are still mostly strangers (not to mention there’s an age gap—Kotoko’s seventeen, Kuro’s in his twenties) and as such there’s little romantic chemistry between them. Kotoko’s futile attempts at manufacturing some are the primary highlight of the series so far; both of these characters can intrigue on their own, but In/Spectre is at its most gripping when it just seats them together and lets them verbally steamroll each other with passive-aggressive flirty nonsense. And take my word for it, it’s got a surplus of nonsense to toy with: this show’s source material was written by Kyou Shirodaira, the man who also penned Blast of Tempest, a series so self-absorbed in flowery Shakespearean dialogue that its eventual evolution into a dorky fantasy love triangle rendered it a breath of fresh air from itself. In/Spectre is giving us that playful shit-shooting from the get-go, but possibly at the expense of the show’s mystery elements.

For instance, the bulk of the second episode featured Kotoko theorizing why a woman recently dumped a dead body into a serpent god’s lake. The “mystery solving” wasn’t anything more than conjecture, Kotoko thinking up some new excuse every time the serpent retorted by pointing out a logical inconsistency in what she had suggested. At no point does it become clear what the actual rationale for this murderer/accomplice(?) was given the lack of hard evidence, and to top it all off, the episode ends on a cliffhanger despite the preview for next week’s installment indicating it’ll cover a completely different case. It’s a damn good thing that In/Spectre is so good at character dialogue and has a lead duo as entertaining as it does to make up for this; if I were going into this show for the myths and mysteries, this episode wouldn’t give me much confidence in its internal storytelling.

At this point I’m just waiting to see if the character drama or the one-off, hackneyed detective files will take top priority. If it’s the latter, I’ll probably walk away from this one a bit disappointed, but if elements of the former can stick around long enough to remain a crucial element of the weekly package, then there should be enough to keep me coming back to In/Spectre with a smile. Hard to tell which way the scale will fall at this juncture, but for now, consider me excited for more.
Current score: 7/10
Still watching after 2 episodes.

KEEP YOUR HANDS OFF EIZOUKEN! (EIZOUKEN NI WA TE O DASU NA!)


Summary:
Midori Asakusa has been fascinated by anime for years but lacked the courage to make her dreams a reality. As she and her money-loving friend Sayaka Kanamori enroll in high school, they happen to run into Tsubame Mizusaki, a rich model who not-so-secretly loves anime as well. Manipulating their school staff into giving them space and funds, the trio kick-start a Film Club and set forth making their first original anime feature together.

Yatahaze:
I’ve said it a bajillion times and I’ll say it as many more as I need to: art about being inspired by art isn’t a novel concept, but for any creator, it’s one that never gets old when treated with passion and creativity. The artistic process can be just as fascinating as the final product itself, and Eizouken’s early episodes masterfully depict a meeting of like minds that could charm even the most hardened of souls.

Asakusa’s an adventurer at heart and channels her playground-like surroundings into magnificent concept art and backgrounds. Mizusaki has a keener eye for expression and focuses on the characters. Kanamori…mostly finds ways to make extra dough and keep her friends’ project on track. They’ve stumbled their way through finding old equipment they can use, nabbing a warehouse of their own (that’s falling apart) as a club HQ, and slyly gave their effort a reason to come into existence by fibbing to a live-action fan of a faculty advisor that they’d be making a “film” for submission into a contest. That’s all fun and games until it’s not, which is to say that it’s constantly fun and games for the two animators and constantly a headache for Kanamori, who’s almost more of an accountant-turned-babysitter than an extra person to bounce creative ideas off of.

But—and it will please no creative mind to hear this—those intimidating, deadline-adamant types are critical when it comes to getting any idea off the ground. Asakusa and Mizusaki can imagine all manner of extravagant, jawdropping fantasy worlds, and they do just that with every episode in what are essentially Calvin & Hobbes-esque dream sequences that double as animator’s showcases. But while those are in and of themselves stunning, the real heart of Eizouken for me is watching a couple kids with restless ambition wrestle with the fact that for their passion to result in anything, they need to cooperate, compromise, and put in the harder work. There’s a special exuberance in the way Eizouken does it compared to the adult workplace drama of Shirobako; that’s as much an expose on the anime industry as it is a wacky comedy about never giving up on your dreams, whereas this is a tale only slightly dulled by the expectations of business (or physics, for that matter). First and foremost, Eizouken is a love letter to animation as a medium, a confession that it’s a worthwhile endeavor, and a celebration of those who also find that joy in it uniting to create something bigger than themselves.

As such, it’s also fucking incredible as a production. Despite starring novice voice actresses, all three leads are knocking it out of the park. Their lively, easily-distracted conversations flow with comfortable grace and their afternoons brainstorming fly by in-universe almost as quick as they do for me watching them on my laptop. These unique character designs and their urban jungle environment fit director Masaaki Yuasa’s fluid, free-hearted animation tendencies like a glove and his style feels omnipresent here despite his late arrival to the franchise; the source material is actually by the unaffiliated mangaka Sumito Owara, but Yuasa and his crew at Science SARU have imbued Owara’s characters and world with an even zanier, airier sense of wonder. The attention to detail has me stunned. from the multicultural signage at the girls’ school to their universe’s brilliant reinterpretation of spaces (where else will you see a backpack made out of two oversized shoes and a staff room converted out of a drained indoor swimming pool, for instance?)

There’s so much to love about Eizouken already, and whether it opts for a big-picture vision of the girls’ project or a string of smaller ones as they wander through more of their daily lives, I am so here for it. All of it. Any of it. Eizouken looks like the sort of confident, impassioned, and polished anime of an upper echelon that we only get to lay eyes on once in a blue moon. The Misadventures of Pretty, Tall, & Frog is already the highlight of my leisure time each week—and it’ll probably only get even wilder from here.
Current score: 9/10
Still watching after 3 episodes.

NATSUNAGU!


Summary:
Tokyo-based university student Natsuna Kunugi has a friend from an online game who lives in Kumamoto, but once the service abruptly shuts down and she has no other means of contacting her pal, she decides to take a trip southward in the heat of the moment to try finding her…with no other leads.

Yatahaze:
In better hands and with more time, this would make for a plenty compelling premise, especially with how adorable Natsuna’s impulsive lack of planning is and how gorgeous the series’ background art is, but Natsunagu’s status as a four-minute short (and only about three once you take away the ED) severely limits its possibilities, as does its stiff animation. Not a whole lot else to talk about, minus perhaps its funny representation of Kumamoto accents. I may give this show a run-through once it finishes airing, but there’s too little here per episode for me to get invested in it week to week. See you at season’s end on a boring afternoon with an hour to kill, Natsunagu.
Final score for now: 6.5/10
Dropped after 2 episodes.

NEKOPARA


Summary:
Some dude who runs a confectionery finds two “cats” amongst some boxes he was unpacking during a move. These “cats” are actually catgirls he ends up making his servants at the confectionery. Despite their humanly looks, they’re still frickin’ cats, with all the upkeep you’d apparently expect of your average housecats.

Harubruh:
Well, somebody here had to watch this.

So, catgirls are absolutely not a new concept in this medium we take part in reviewing, we all know this. It’s also somewhat common knowledge amongst our fandom that this anime’s source material, an ADULT visual novel, has been out there for over half a decade. How both of us at For Great Justice managed to somehow dodge all interactions with this series prior to this season appears to be a miracle.

It’s only natural that one of us would subject themselves to this. Perhaps one day Yata will be the less discerning of us two with regards to these crime against humanity shows that come out every now and then. Till then, I guess curiosity killed me with god damned Nekopara.

God damn it.

Despite them essentially just being humans, just with cat ears and tails, these “cats” still need goddamned potty training. I shit you not, there is a catgirl nicknamed “Nuts” in this goddamned show. When these catgirls get into fights, they stick their asses in the air, mimicking how actual cats arch their backs before a fight. They fawn over fish snacks and canned tuna, et cetera et cetera can I go the fuck to bed now, please?

Matthew 27:46 – “…And about the ninth hour, Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

Why do I keep doing this to myself?

I should’ve just watched fucking Uchitama instead; it seems like that would have been a better use of time if I was going to watch a show about cat-folks. I am absolutely not about to subject myself to a whole season of this nonsense.
Final score: 2/10
Fucking dropped after 1.5 episodes.

PET


Summary:
In this world there exist people who have the ability to enter others’ minds and alter their perception, and those who harbor that enormous power don’t always use it to positive ends. For instance, once the yakuza came into contact with some of these psychics, they enlisted them to torment victims to their deaths. These are some of their stories.

Yatahaze:
Or something. It’s honestly hard to tell since Pet’s pilot kicked off with not one but two seemingly unrelated instances of a mind getting hijacked; a man entering the brain of a dissociative, abused child hiding from his mother, and some guy who stumbled in on shady mob business at the wrong time and suffered the trip of his life as a result for payback. I can’t recall many more specifics than that, partially because Pet kept its ridiculous cards close to its chest for the majority of this episode and partially because it was really bland in spite of all the scheming and physics-bending. Director Takahiro Omori is no slouch, especially when it comes to adapting zany urban fantasy source material (Baccano!, Durarara!!, and Samurai Flamenco are all great shows to his name), but Pet is not as engaging as any of those shows, and this first episode likewise failed to intrigue me despite—or perhaps because of—how intent it was to remain obtuse from start to finish.

None of its characters, episodic or long-term alike, were particularly interesting, its visual setpieces were shockingly dull given how much freedom a premise like this holds, and the overall cynical tone here grew tiresome very quickly. While the plot beats themselves were otherwise sensible, Pet’s pilot mostly coasted on an absence of truly terrible turnoffs instead of a presence of invigorating ideas and interesting characters. Easy pass.
Final score: 5/10
Dropped after 1 episode.

ROOM CAMP


Summary:
Remember how in Laid-Back Camp, Nadeshiko, Chiaki, and Aoi ran an outdoors club that was unfortunately stuck with a crevice of a closet as its meeting space? This is a short spin-off series about some of their escapades, both inside the room and on trips they organize for outside school hours.

Yatahaze:
In other words, studio C-Station is buying time and satiating fans’ hunger until they eventually drop a proper second season of Laid-Back Camp. The production hasn’t suffered at all, but not unlike Natsunagu above, Room Camp is a short that’s too short to really accomplish anything when taking each episode at a weekly pace. I will breeze through this spin-off once it’s finished airing; even with Rin likely playing a lesser role, the club’s proper members have enough personality on their own to keep my heart warmed and my soul happy…but what’s the rush? Who’s laid-back now, huh?
Current score: 7/10
On hold after 2 episodes.

SCIENCE FELL IN LOVE, SO I TRIED TO PROVE IT
(RIKEI GA KOI NI OCHITA NO DE SHOUMEI SHITE MITA)


Summary:
Shinya Yukimura and Ayame Himuro are STEM graduates who can see that everything is imbued with math! But can they see why kids love the taste of Cinnamon Toast Crunch quantify the possibility that they might be in love with each other?

Yatahaze:
No, but that sure hasn’t stopped them from trying to. It’s a silly enough premise for the first three or so minutes, and Yuma Uchida and Sora Amamiya do a great job at trying to sustain the momentum of that opening skit with solid enough vocal deliveries throughout, but the simple fact of the matter is that this pilot dragged hard once I realized it wasn’t actually going to go much further than the initial gag. The ways Science Fell In Love (don’t ask why the official English title is a grammatical clusterfuck, I don’t know) tries to up the ante almost always fall flat and end back at square one. It bears some resemblance to last year’s Kaguya-sama: Love Is War, but without the bold, whimsical direction, engaging visuals, or morsels of true absurdity that a one-gag show like this would need in order to entertain for long periods of time. Is it watchable? Sure. Are there hints it might diversify its approach? Straight man Kanade was a welcome feature of the pilot’s second half and she’s surely not the last of RikeKoi‘s side characters. But this premiere didn’t really wow me in any way to warrant my attention going forward. It’s fine, nothing more.
Final score: 6/10
Dropped after 1 episode.

SMILE DOWN THE RUNWAY (RUNWAY DE WARATTE)


Summary:
Chiyuki Fujito thought for years that she could travel the world as a model for her father’s fashion company, Mille Neige, but not unlike a ten-year-old at an amusement park, she’s been deemed too short to get on that ride. She won’t let that stop her from persistently trying, though, especially once she realizes a classmate of hers, Ikuto Tsumura, is an aspiring designer himself.

Yatahaze:
I was almost sold after Runway’s first episode despite not having any significant interest in the fashion world. I do enjoy a good underdog story, and it seemed like it would follow two intertwined ones: Chiyuki getting a big break as a model (her height and bigwigs’ biases were the only things setting her back, she’s a beautiful character otherwise), and Ikuto getting access to the resources he needs to become a brand-name designer. Their mutual goal of breaking through in an industry dominated—to an outsider’s eyes, at least—by completely arbitrary frameworks and trends appeared like a solid enough premise and while neither character was particularly deep beyond that, they also weren’t bland per se. Ikuto’s wavering self-esteem and his delicate balancing act between creating through his hobby and taking care of his family immediately endeared him to me. Chiyuki being outright told by her father that she’s “not talented” and responding by continuing to show up for audition after audition anyway was charming as well, like all she needed was a ton of stickittothemaneosis and a little luck to achieve what she feels she’s capable of.

And that luck came in the second episode, albeit with a sequence that felt so brutally callous it instantly turned me off to seeing what would happen in the weeks ahead. To recap, upon realizing that Ikuto wasn’t yet a legal adult and couldn’t be hired into his company, Mr. Fujito instead sent the kid Hazime Yanagida’s way. Yanagida is an independent designer, one with a reputation for cruelty to the point of overworking his staff and only whining about how bad his luck is when a big day to show off arrives and a model calls out as his chief seamstress croaks. Chiyuki gets another foot in the door with a dress that barely fits her and as of the second episode’s closing scenes, Ikuto has mere minutes to make her not look ridiculous in it just to boost Yanagida’s name recognition. I get that in an industry this cutthroat, nothing is rosy as it seems and you’ve gotta make sacrifices in order to get anywhere, but I can’t help but look at Runway and feel utterly repulsed by its shrewd, black-and-white attitudes towards who “deserves” success in what’s still an artistic world and why.

Those flimsy metrics were sort of there from the outset, but the second episode was the nail in Runway’s coffin. As I’ve mentioned, I have no frame of reference for the aesthetic nuances that delineate cutting-edge fashion from tacky attire—if anything, the designs these characters praise seem to be the opposite of what I’d consider conventionally good-looking, so I’m utterly lost even trying to wrap my head around how this stuff has an audience, not that I doubt that there is one; everyone’s got their subjective art of interest whose features you’d be hard-pressed to explain to the uninitiated, and mine is just definitely not fashion. Studio Ezóla may be biting off more than they can chew in trying to replicate that to a broader audience, but while I don’t consider it their fault for not getting me interested in the fashion for its own sake, a better production would be getting away with more than what they are. Whatever temperament Runway aims to convey, the shot direction is often static and the dialogue stumbles around in loops of roadblocks, failing to build up any sort of momentum other than its characters stubbornly insisting on getting what they want.

I saw promise here at first and hoped it would overcome the parts of this premise I was less enamored by, but ultimately the opposite happened. I wouldn’t call Runway an abject failure by any stretch of the imagination (those are closer to its own terms for far less grievous mistakes), but it’s the sort of subject-specific genre material that likely won’t win over many converts to its camp if you’re not already interested in its chosen topic.
Final score: 6/10
Dropped after 2 episodes.

SOMALI AND THE FOREST SPIRIT (SOMALI TO MORI NO KAMISAMA)


Summary:
After waging an unsuccessful war against “monsters,” humans have been almost eradicated from a fantasy world inhabited by spirits, youkai, and mystical fauna. A human there is a rare sight now, and where they exist, they’re persecuted, attacked, or killed. A compassionate forest golem nearing the end of his life understands what he must do then when he stumbles upon Somali, a shackled-up human girl lost in the forest. Disguising her as a minotaur, the two embark on an adventure; Somali thinks it’s all fun and games, but the golem’s true aim is to find Somali’s parents before he passes and she’s left on her own.

Yatahaze:
I can’t even write that summary without a tear begging to form in my eye. I adore this show. I adore its touching concept, its fantastic visuals, its lovely voice acting, its rustic soundtrack, and how its cozy atmosphere shrouds an undertow of sadness. Somali is simply the most evocative and inviting fantasy anime I’ve seen this side of Made In Abyss, and it seems to be nowhere near as divisive in its darker moments as that title from 2017. Part of that comes down to there not really being many darker moments in and of themselves; though some creatures riff on how delightful a human would be (to eat or slavedrive, presumably) and the golem only has about a year and a half left to live, Somali herself is so carefree, positive, and fascinated by her surroundings that she hasn’t entirely grasped how precarious her predicament is. The golem hasn’t revealed his limited lifespan to her yet either—though he views everything through a lens of rationality and righteousness first and foremost, he’s also had plenty of time to understand emotions in a theoretical sense, and he’s exercising due caution when it comes to emphasizing danger to Somali. The girl refers to the golem as “Dad,” and can you blame her? He’s more like a great-grandpa in relative age and bodily condition, moving slowly and wisely, but the two-way sense of deep familial love is there despite the duo not having anyone to previously show such feelings to.

Somali herself is also just a bundle of joy to watch scamper around. Inori Minase is doing a wonderful job at providing a voice for a character whose primary traits are getting distracted, making happy sounds, and yelling “HEY C’MON” in English at little animals. Some might say a character needs to do more than that in order to be compelling. In my eyes, that’s missing the point; Somali’s not a blank slate, but she is very little, and living a nomadic life means she doesn’t have many immediate connections to feel attached to. Her sense of wonder and amazement becomes ours, all while she remains oblivious to the golem’s numbered days hanging over our heads. That dramatic irony is what makes Somali such a captivating watch, besides its already engrossing world and pleasant supporting cast. Come hell or high water, I can’t wait to see where this father-daughter adventure goes, and I’m bracing myself for a sadder shoe to drop after the bulk of the otherwise heartwarming journey is behind us.
Current score: 8/10
Still watching after 2 episodes.

TOILET-BOUND HANAKO-KUN (JIBAKU SHOUNEN HANAKO-KUN)


Summary:
At Kamome Academy, the talk of the school isn’t your average student gossip. Rather, spooky rumors and ghost stories spread like wildfire of the school’s Seven Mysteries, entities rumored to grant the wishes of those who summon them, one of whom is “Hanako of the Toilet.” Cue the lovestruck Nene Yashiro, who hopes Hanako-san can make her dreams of school romance come true.

Harubruh:
Wow, I actually get to review one of the more critically popular shows this season!

Well, I have been a dedicated follower of this series for nearly the entirety of the manga’s five year run now, so it makes sense that the longtime fan gets to review the long-awaited anime.

I’m a sucker for a manga with outstanding art, so after I ran across some scanlations of Hanako-kun’s manga a few years ago, I was instantly sucked in. AidaIro’s use of ornate backgrounds, rough-hewn and thick outlines, and a classically spooky aesthetic built off the old Japanese ghost-story of Hanako-san made for a captivating read. It’s just an added bonus that manga leaned more on its comedic and dramatic elements, rather than turning into some grotesque spectacle.

During my time in Japan back in 2018, I recall almost instantly spotting the Hanako-kun manga on the dedicated manga floor at Animate Akihabara, pointing it out to my companions that tagged along with me, and telling them that I’d bet that it’d make for a fantastic anime. Almost exactly six months to the night that I said that, I was ecstatic that an anime adaptation was announced to be in the works. A few months afterward, it’s announced that Lerche was the studio producing it, with Masaomi Andou at the helm. This gave me more reason to be excited, as this studio/director combo had produced one of my very favorite shows that was airing at the time of that announcement, the one and only Astra Lost in Space.

I had good reason to be pretty darn enthusiastic about this anime, as in the last couple of years, Lerche has really upped their ante and become something of a favored studio between Yata and myself, after turning out hit titles like Asobi Asobase, Given, AssClass, and the aforementioned Astra. You can laugh at me all you like, but hell, I even enjoyed their take on Kino’s Journey. A lot.

So how’d they do with Toilet Bound Hanako-kun?

Well, it’s not particularly animated, with Andou and crew opting for more of a motion comic approach. And there’s not really much in the way of motion with regards to the characters; rather it’s more a bunch of panning shots over rather lovingly done backgrounds. Even with the dearth of actual animation, the intelligent choices of lighting, color palettes, voice work, BGM, and playful use of paneling mimicking the actual pages of the manga have all really breathed a whole new layer of life into the Hanako-kun manga I adore so much.

Do I wish this had more actual animation? Sure I do. However, I’m actually almost relieved that Andou and the Lerche crew chose to faithfully reproduce and hell, even add their own colorful touch to AidaIro’s art. Looking back on some of the flaming train wreck adaptations of the past that I’d anticipated, I’m just pleased that Hanako-kun appears to be in some trustworthy hands.
Current score: 8/10
Still watching after 2 episodes.

22/7


Summary:
One day a socially anxious family girl named Miu Takigawa receives a letter alerting her that she’s been chosen to join a new idol collective called 22/7 despite having no singing, dancing, or PR skills. She goes to the designated rendezvous spot as the other seven members all meet each other for the first time, but they’re then chauffeured to an even stranger location and told that all their decisions as a group will be dictated by T H E    W A L L, an ornate…wall…located inside the group’s headquarters.

Yatahaze:
I can’t even. Last season THE BENCH took the cake as the most ominous inanimate object in recent anime history and right off the heels of that, this fucking monstrosity and its entrepreneur cult followers overshadow it. 22/7 is supposed to be an anime counterpart to a real-life “dimension-transcending” act, which as far as I can tell just means that they’re a virtual idol group voiced and motion-captured by live actresses (including Sally Amaki, probably the most famous idol in Anglosphere Twitter).

But none of that really matters when it comes to appreciating the 22/7 anime on its own terms, and I’m delighted to report that it’s easy as pi(e) to do. Miu is a great focal character for all the surrealism here; she’s the shyest of the octet by a mile and has no vested interest in going through the motions of this opportunity just because some shiny wall in a mysterious room said so. She’s not the only skeptic among the girls, but she’s the one who would be pushed outside her comfort zone the most by complying, especially once the wall dictates that she should be the “center,” or de facto leader, of the group.

Miu’s anxiety isn’t made light of—22/7 articulates it immaculately in her tense, withered body language, choked-up voice, and self-effacing monologues. There’s a tangible sense of separation whenever she’s on screen, withdrawing from the environment around her everywhere except when she’s at home taking care of her mother and little sister. There’s one thing she materially needs that this project does offer her, though; money. After getting fired from her previous job due to poor customer service and beef from her coworkers, the necessity of providing for her family is keeping her going, and leading an idol unit pays more than chump change. For now, and with the encouragement of almost everyone else in the group to support her insecurities (Nicole might need another minute to think about it), Miu will hesitantly step into the spotlight.

Is that gonna go well? Probably not. Her audition was terrible, but QUESTIONING THE WALL IS NOT PERMITTED, and Miu has catching up to do after missing the first few days of training. That process was mostly skimmed over in return for focusing on our lead character’s change of heart, but now that she’s joined the group in a more committed fashion, I expect 22/7 to blaze forward half-seriously, showing the inner workings of the job through character drama, and half-hyperbolically, leaning into the Mayoiga-tier “go with the flow” absurdity that’s planting it so far apart from other entries in the idol anime genre. The production looks solid, the direction is visually capable and vocally phenomenal, and if 22/7 can pull off a coherent story from start to finish here, it may just be the most impressive underdog of the winter season. If you’ve skimmed it over, give this strange little curveball of a show a look.
Current score: 8/10
Still watching after 2 episodes.


And that’s all for now! What were your favorite premieres of the season? Let us know in a comment below or over on Twitter. As always, we love it when folks reach out. More projects on the way too, the usual, you know the drill. Thanks for reading.

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