Anime and Manga — Reviews and Previews
Yesterday, I brought you the [first five shows] of this season’s new anime crop. From the good to the bad, from the slice-of-life to the sci fi mech action, things were already shaping up in interesting ways. That trend continues with the next six series, and the wildly varied genres began to make me feel a little schizophrenic! Historical action, paranormal romance, body-swapping, and online games that kill! Oh my! The six shows I’m going to talk about today are:
Plot: Xin and Piao are orphans of war, picked up by the chief of a small village as servants. But while they’ve temporarily resigned themselves to this fate, both boys dream of becoming all-important Generals of the Qin empire. They’ve practiced swordsmanship for years in order to achieve this dream, but while Xin is brutishly strong and fiercely focused, Piao is the only one who has developed any gentlemanly skills. In a world where your place is determined as much by courtly intrigue as by the strength of your sword arm, Piao quickly rises ahead of Xin. Will this drive a wedge between the two, or will Xin be able to catch up to his childhood friend and, perhaps, even surpass him?
Pros: The plot here is okay; it’s probably going to devolve into the usual shonen tropes, but for now it’s at least exploring some historical material that hasn’t been completely driven into the ground in anime. It helps that there’s just enough political intrigue going on to keep it from stagnating altogether. But this show excels most in the areas of the auditory: the voice acting is strong, especially Masakazu Morita as Xin (he channels a lot of his previous performance as Ichigo in Bleach), and the music perfectly complements whatever scene is playing at the time. From sweeping orchestral pieces to the wistful pop ending. Also, the episodes are an hour long, so you’re getting more bang for your buck when you sit down, and it allows the show to pace itself better than some competitors have lately. Finally, they’ve tried something new with their animation style, so the show deserves some bonus points for innovation, at least.
Cons: Unfortunately, this new animation style doesn’t work — half the time, it uses stilted, awkwardly animated 3D models that plunge straight into the uncanny valley (it looks like anime, but it doesn’t move or feel like anime), but then the show will shift into beautifully hand animated scenes that just draw more attention to the problems with the other style. I spent more time staring at the characters’ faces, trying to figure out just why I was weirded out by them, than I spent paying attention to the (decent if clichéd) plot.
Verdict: I just can’t handle the animation style; Kingdom is a no-go for me.
Plot: Ryūsuke Hazuki has fallen into a pattern: everyday, as the sun sets, he visits the local florist and buys a small plant. His tiny apartment is absolutely covered in greenery, but still he comes, and still the beautiful and quiet owner of the store, Rokka Shimao, greets him and thanks him for his business. But Hazuki doesn’t come for the flowers. He’s slowly but surely fallen in love with Rokka, and when the opportunity arises for him to work at the store part time, he jumps at the chance. A few months later, he still hasn’t worked up the courage to ask her out, but she invites him over to her home in order to shop for a going-away present for another co-worker. Imagine Hazuki’s surprise, however, when he discovers that Rokka has a man living in her home. He immediately resigns himself to his unrequited love, but is shocked to discover that Rokka cannot see the man at all. Instead, he’s the ghost of Rokka’s deceased husband, and while the ghost pretends that what he wants is for his wife to move on, he’s obviously still attached to his first love. What emerges from this set-up is a love-triangle rife with emotion.
Pros: What an unexpectedly cute show! It’s slow moving and subtle, and its characters are fully realized and charming. Hazuki is a relatable protagonist – a little insecure, a little jaded, but still hopelessly head-over-heels for this woman. Rokka in turn is a perfectly likable character with ambitions and feelings all her own. She doesn’t exist merely for Hazuki to pine after, and you can tell even from this first episode that the conflict between her love for her deceased husband and her burgeoning feelings for Rokka is going to drive the show’s plot. The husband himself is a surprisingly believable aspect of the show. You can understand why he can’t or doesn’t want to move on, but he does earnestly wish for his wife’s happiness, even if that means she has to move on with another man. The character designs are simple but nice. Hazuki has a naturally scowling face that reminds me of Ryūji from Toradora, and Rokka is adorable with her short, short hair. And I can understand exactly why Rokka originally fell for her husband, what with his baby face!
Cons: There aren’t really any cons for me, but I can see how someone who doesn’t really like shows like this wouldn’t find anything in it to change their mind. It might also turn off people who want their romance to be a purely realistic affair – the love triangle with a ghost does require that base amount of suspension of disbelief.
Verdict: Yes, yes, yes! I adore shows with a hint of hopeless love! Maybe I am a bit of a romantic at heart. (Between this and Utakoi, maybe this’ll be the summer of love anime for me?)
Plot: Godou Kusanagi has traveled all the way from Japan to Italy in order to fulfill his grandfather’s one request: that the stone tablet the old man received in Sardinia be returned to its rightful owner. But when Godou pulls out the tablet in order to examine it one last time, he is accosted by a knife-wielding woman in a red dress who demands that he hand over the dangerous grimoire. Godou barely has time to be confused before he is drawn into a battle against a wayward god: a mythic creature who has crossed over into the human plane to wreak havoc. Now, Godou must team up with the tempestuous Erica Blandelli in order to prevent such attacks from occurring again, and to turn back the tide in the hidden struggle between mankind and the gods.
Pros: It’s one of the few real action shows getting air-time this summer, and it actually delivers on its promise of grand battles. It’s hard to complain about a battle between two gods in the very first episode. Plus, I like the fact that this show just throws you right down into the thick of things from the get-go. No twenty-minute long waste of time while they sketch out backstory you have no reason to give a damn about yet; just wham, bam, gods-fighting-in-the-streets goodness. The animation is strong enough, especially towards the end when the animators show off a little prowess with dramatic lighting. Finally, I like that Erica is very close to a true strong female character. I say close thanks to that one unfortunate, “Oh no, I’ve drunk so much wine you must carry me to my room! Help me out of my dress! Allow me to pass out here in my lacy skivvies!” bit at the halfway mark. She is, however, one of the few female characters I can think of who changes into a more reasonable fighting outfit rather than a more racy one.
Cons: This show doesn’t have the most ground-breaking of plots nor the most mold-shattering of characters. Add to that the completely unnecessary fanservice and I’m forced to wonder if this show is going to run with its strengths or start to rely on the same crutches that have doomed other well-meaning series. There aren’t really a whole lot of negatives here, just a lot of maybes and potential that could very easily be squandered.
Verdict: I’m timidly optimistic about this one, though I will probably wait until the series has run its course before tuning in again. It seems like a better marathon show.
Sword Art Online
Plot: The year is 2022, and the massively anticipated MMORPG Sword Art Online has just been released. Kirito, like all excited players, logs in using the virtual reality technology, Nerve Gear, that has become popular. He’s transported to the world of SAO, and he relishes the chance to feel free from the discomfort of his daily reality. He wiles away the afternoon helping a new player, Klein, become acquainted with the game, but when Klein attempts to log out for dinner, both he and Kirito are shocked to discover that there is no way for either of them to leave the game. What seems to be a problematic bug is soon revealed to be a devastating choice made by the designer of the game. He reveals to all 10,000 players that the game world and reality have become irreversibly entwined: if you die in SAO, you die in real life. The only way to escape the game? Climb to the top floor of the game world and defeat the final boss!
Pros: Wow, this show may out-.Hack// the .Hack// series itself: the premise is handled so deftly and the rules of this world are laid out so well that I found myself on the edge of my seat pretty much the whole time. Sure, most of the first episode was an information dump laid out by the villain in classic monolog style, but it’s treated like the tutorial to a videogame and doesn’t feel out of place or lazy. Kirito as a character has just enough personality (an obsessive gamer, with dreams of grandeur and issues in the real world) but is enough of a blank slate that it’s very easy to identify with him. Or, rather, I was able to. I guess your mileage may vary on that front. The animation in this show is beautiful, and the colors are bright where appropriate and dark and mysterious at the right times. The music is suitably epic as well, with sweeping orchestral scores at key dramatic moments. I’m still in awe of how much I care about these characters after only thirty minutes, and there’s a darkness to the story that’s going to keep me from ever feeling that they’re all safe. Impeccable writing, expert pacing, and beautiful animation: what’s not to love?
Cons: Nothing. No really, I can’t think of any drawbacks to the first episode. The question is going to be whether Sword Art Online can keep up the pace and the quality, not to mention how they’ll handle the introduction of the female character in all of the promotional material. She seems strong and interesting, so as long as they don’t turn her into another tsundere blow-up-doll, I doubt I’ll be too disappointed.
Verdict: Definitely continuing with this one! In fact, Campione! might not have fared so well had I watched this show first.
Plot: The Student Cultural Club is a catch-all organization for students without a club of their own, a place where disparate interests can nonetheless find a home. It’s currently the home of five very different first year students: pro-wrestling fan Yaegashi Taichi; club president Nagase Iori; serious and snarky Inaba Himeko; would-be playboy Aoki Yoshifumi; and girly-girl Kiriyama Yui. But things takes a turn for the surreal when Kiriyama and Aoki show up to the meeting one day claiming to have momentarily swapped bodies overnight. Despite dubiousness on the parts of their fellow club members, such accidental and (blissfully) temporary body-swaps continue to dog the members of the Student Cultural Club. What changes will this affliction make to the burgeoning relationships within the group?
Pros: This is a show that will probably fare better as a dub than as a sub, since a lot of the humor in the idea is going to be brought out by stellar voice acting performances. As far as I can tell, the Japanese cast is doing a wonderful job of imitating each other’s tones and cadences, but as it’s not my native language or culture, a lot of the nuance of the individual performances is lost on me. If you like K-On! or Soranowoto, you’re going to like the look (and probably feel) of this show. The characters are practically cookie-cut from the same cloth. The show has a chance to explore high school romance in an interesting way, so long as it can avoid falling into the same breast-groping antics of most body-swap comedies. So far, it’s erred more on the side of seriousness/introspection/clean fun, and there’s a seeming villain making an appearance in the second episode, but we’ll see where it decides to go.
Cons: There were places in the story that I started to get invested, particularly towards the end of the episode, but on the whole I just couldn’t connect with the plot. It just feels… soulless. The look of it, the path of the story – everything feels very formulaic. The end result isn’t the bestseller I’m sure the staff thought they had on their hands; it’s an unimaginative blob that only has flashes of brilliance. To compound that, I find the whole K-On! moe look to be unappealing, and I spent the whole run-time of the episode trying to remember if the same production company had worked on both this show and it’s obvious spiritual predecessor. (They share the same character designer, Yukiko Horiguchi aka Shiromizakana, which should come as no surprise.)
Verdict: I won’t be continuing on with it, at least not for now. Fans of the genre or of the moe look will probably enjoy it much more immensely, however.
Plot: Sakura Ichiko has all the luck in the world: she’s rich, intelligent, beautiful, and has a rack that makes all the girls jealous (and all the boys drool). But all that good luck comes at a cost: Ichiko is unremittingly arrogant, and seems to suck the happiness right out of the people around her. This isn’t just a trick of the mind, either. Ichiko’s happiness energy is so overwhelming it actively steals good vibes from other people to feed itself, and a Poverty God by the name of Momiji has been sent to fix that for good. The only problem is that Ichiko isn’t going to lie down and take it; she’s going to give Momiji the fight of her immortal life! But there’s a possibility, however slim, that Ichiko might be redeemed of her conceited ways if she’s made to realize the effect she has on those she loves, and the sudden deadly illness of her butler – her one and only friend – may be just the lesson in humility she needs.
Pros: This show doesn’t slow down from start to finish: it’s pace is unrelenting and unforgiving, and if you miss one of its thousands of little gags and jokes per episode, there’s no catching up without rewinding the video. The character designs aren’t particularly attractive, but they fit with the theme of each character and don’t make your eyes bleed, so they ultimately fall on the positive end of that spectrum. Both the opening and ending theme songs are catchy little pop ditties that can easily get stuck in your head for days.
Cons: It’s trying to be funny, it really is, but most of the jokes have been done so many times before that the show feels more like a parody of itself than anything. At best it elicits a few ironic chuckles; the rest of the time, you’re way too aware of how they’re trying to work your emotions and how it’s just not working. You can see punch lines coming a mile away, and there’s really no excuse for that in a show that’s all about comedy. That having been said, it’s not a terrible show. It’s just very, very bland. I guess it could work for newcomers who haven’t already been beaten over the head with all the anime tropes, but you could really start them off on so much better, so why bother?
Verdict: I’m not on enough crack to keep up with this show. Pass.
Sword Art Online definitely seems to be the stand-out show for me this season. Will any of the final five shows have what it takes to knock SAO off its prestigious perch? Tune in tomorrow for the thrilling conclusion!
(On a side note, I took one of those little online quizzes to see how long I would last in SAO. I would apparently make it to level 85 of 100 but die 8 months in due to terrible party members. See, I knew there was a reason I disliked MMOs. 😛 )