Summer 2014 Anime: Part 2 – The Sophomore Class

So here is the long-belated follow-up to my post on the 2014 Summer Anime. Before getting to the original series, however, I’m going to take a look at some series that are continuing from the spring season. I didn’t plan to do a separate post on these, but I’ve noticed significant shifts in quality or tone in some of their second halves, so I figured they warranted their own post in examining how anime is doing this summer.

Of the series I watched this spring, three of them – Captain EarthHaikyu!!; and the new Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure series, Stardust Crusaders – kept episodes up into the current season. I’ll discuss what I think has changed or stayed the same about each of them, along with the new Black Butler series, Book of Circus. Since I left it out of the “sequel series” posts, it’s included here – especially because I watched the original series recently enough for it to feel like a “continuation” to me anyway.

In rough reverse order of how much I’m enjoying each of them:

CAPTAIN EARTH: Up to Episode 19

In which the series passes the Bechdel test.

At least it passes the Bechdel test?

Captain Earth is one heavily-anticipated series that sort of.. fell flat. It is and was never by any means bad, but it certainly didn’t live up to the high expectations for a Studio BONES coming-of-age mecha series written by Yoji Enokido, the brains behind RahXephon and FLCL. The first couple of episodes showed promise as each character was introduced, and then it went in circles with repetitive battles for its first half, making it hard for the viewers to care much about the conflict or the characters beyond the occasional slice-of-life moment among the four kids. And even those were ones we’d seen in plenty of other anime. Those first 12 episodes were quite the uphill battle, and I imagine most people dropped it if they weren’t invested enough in the creation team to hope it would improve.

Well, come summertime, Captain Earth is no longer a slog. The current arc, with the villains awakening more of their team in ordinary humans, resembles the “Rainbow Crystals” arc of the old Sailor Moon anime – contrasting these people’s (usually sad) ordinary lives with the dramatic personalities and goals they gain when awakened. They still don’t get the degree of development or sympathy that Sailor Moon pulled off with the Rainbow Crystal bearers, but they’re at least interesting enough to keep viewers tuning in. The trade-off, of course, is that protagonist Daichi has become a bystander in his own story as the focus has shifted elsewhere. Even Hana has become a more interesting character than he ever was as her backstory and reason for being were explored more in the last few episodes, and it’s hard to see why Daichi is the “main character” in the first place. The last couple of episodes at least seem to nod at exploring his psyche, and how it’s been affected by the enormous role he’s been given as the titular “Captain Earth”. But it’s just that: nods. Nothing substantial has happened. Akari, too, has only had tilts in the direction of her being more than a quirky hacker who sees herself as a magical girl, though those “tilts” still seem to hint at more than what Daichi’s been given lately.

At least with Captain Earth we can enjoy the high production values expected with a BONES effort. Not every series BONES has done is good, but it always looks good. It’s just hard to care much for that when the material is so lacking. Enokido has shown a real knack for character-writing and a depth of understanding of the adolescent mind in other series, like Ouran High School Host Club. Where is it this time?

HAIKYU!!: Up to Episode 19

Hinata, in an image.

Hinata, in an image.

Haikyu!!, on the other hand, is a show I didn’t go in with as high of expectations. I’m always a bit hesitant with sports anime; I’m terrible at sports myself and only been able to get into watching a few of them. Free! was the only one I watched before this, but it was more about the characters and their relationships with each other and the sport, than the actual competitions; plus, swimming happens to be the one sport I’m good at and where I’ve actually practiced.

Well, if Haikyu!! is any indication, “characters and their relationships with each other and the sport” is the rule for most sports anime. At least in the first half of it, which started with Hinata as a middle-schooler volleyballer who’s middling on talent, but high on spunk. Even when his team disbanded after losing in a tournament, he continued to practice spiking with anyone who would join him. The end of the episode then moves to his high school, where he finds out that the main player of the team that kicked them out of the competition is now his own teammate. The first string of episodes focuses on their initial antagonism developing into friendship, as well as the other characters on the team and their own relationships with volleyball.

The second season has slumped a bit, as it’s moved its focus to tournament matches. It’s done a little bit of the character-focus with other teams, and the Karasuno (main characters’ school) characters’ histories with each. For example, Karasuno’s victory over Dateko – whose defeat of them the previous year triggered enough anxiety in Karasuno’s ace Asahi to make him leave the sport – was a moral high point stretched out over several episodes. And one episode focused on all the teams who lost in the first round, including the one Karasuno defeated, and their own girls’ team. While those were interesting, overall it’s kind of hard to keep as closely-focused if you aren’t yourself fascinated with the sport of volleyball.

The first half of the series showed why sports anime is picking up speed with the success of Free! Even if you yourself are not an athlete, you can probably relate to the feeling of being a part of a team, and of practicing toward a larger goal. As someone who did a lot of band and orchestra in high school, I see a lot of my teenage experiences mirrored in sports stories – especially with the similarities between practicing an instrument and a sport. But when the focus is just matches and ball-hitting action, it will lose a few people who aren’t there just for that.

Well, at least the series continues to be eye-poppingly animated, and chockful of humor and heart. I know that that will keep me watching until the very end, even if I don’t find the curve of a particular serve all that engaging.

BLACK BUTLER: BOOK OF CIRCUS: Up to Episode 4

Sebastian Michaelis puts the rest of us crazy cat ladies to shame.

Sebastian Michaelis puts the rest of us crazy cat ladies to shame.

Black Butler started off its new series in traditional “recap” fashion – showing a typical episode of the original series to get viewers up to speed. Since it was my first experience with the franchise at all, I found it interesting, enough to get me to watch the original, but it was probably dull and unnecessary to those who are familiar with it and just want to jump into the circus-ing. Even the second episode, when the plot started in earnest, still featured reappearances of some favorite characters from previous arcs. (Not that I mind when they’re my favorite characters in the whole series.)

But now that that’s underway, this new series is starting to find its feet. The “Book of Circus” is many manga fans’ favorite arc, or so I’ve heard. Like most of the show, it involves creepy supernatural hijinks in the form of a crime for Ciel to solve: a traveling circus with a Pied-Piper-esque affect on local children. It’s good to see the series that’s infamous for “losing its way in order to please the shippers fanbase”, get back on track – returning to the heart of the series, the original manga that inspired it and that’s still running. If the anticipated “Book of Murder” specials are any indication, it looks like it will continue to adapt new manga arcs as long as there is more fan money to be spent. (And based on all the Black Butler cosplays and merch I saw this past weekend at Otakon, there will be for quite a while.)

The downside of having a built-in fanbase is the production team doesn’t feel the need to put as much effort into this latest installment. The animation took a noticeable step down from the first series, at least. But in a reverse of what I said about Captain Earth, this only matters so much if the material is strong. And so far, it’s easy to see why this arc is such a fan-favorite, from the unsettling mystery behind it all, to a colorful new cast of characters associated with the titular circus, to all the comedic potential of forcing privileged Ciel to live in a tent as a vagabond circus performer. There’s a lot to work with here, and the first three episodes of “plot” have shown a lot of potential.

Best, perhaps, is the sequence at the end of episode four, where the circus’s hypnotic effects on children is first revealed to the viewer – from the child’s perspective. The sequence depicting her fairy-tale hallucination and contrasting it with the actual action shows this team still has the potential for good visuals when they want to use it. Let’s hope they do.

JOJO’S BIZARRE ADVENTURE: STARDUST CRUSADERS: Up to Episode 19

Joseph Joestar: If you don't love this character, you're wrong.

Joseph Joestar: If you don’t love this character, you’re wrong.

I came into Stardust Crusaders a complete newbie to the franchise, not having read any of the manga or seen the 2012 anime adaptation of the previous two arcs (Phantom Blood and Battle Tendency). I was told it didn’t matter, that I’d still have plenty of fun with it. I doubted this pretty hard, but decided to give Jojo’s a chance anyway – and it turned out they were 100% right.

As something of an affectionate send-up of shonen battle anime, Stardust Crusaders is constant, breakneck action and fun from start-to-finish. It’s the one series from spring that hasn’t lost my interest at all – and in fact, even with the summer class added in, it’s the show I most look forward to watching every week. On top of the fact that I love travel stories (the early parts of Stardust Crusaders see the characters trekking across Asia on their way to face Dio in Egypt), each new location features even crazier enemies and Stands to battle. You can’t stop watching to see what bizarre new threat they’re going to face in the next country. It’s hard to see how a series could continually top itself in weirdness when one of its early episodes showed them fighting an orangutan on a mirage-boat – but Jojo’s can.

What’s more, it has a fun, colorful cast of characters – especially gruff protagonist Jotaro Kujo, flamboyant-but-dim Frenchman Jean-Pierre Polnareff, and grandpa adventurer Joseph Joestar. (As an American, Joseph gets the series’ most ridiculous lines, with exaggerated Engrish “OHHHHHH NOOOO!”s and “OHHHHH SHIIIIT!”s every time anything goes wrong. It’s enough to make one shriek with glee when they find out that he’ll be the focus of an enemy’s attacks in the next episode.) It’s hard to think of a single thing that isn’t engaging about this show, and indeed, I’m hard-pressed to think of any episode where it falls flat. It’s kept me on the edge of my seat through its entire run – again, even as a franchise virgin.

This excellence includes the production. While thick-lined character designs could be distracting in series like Attack on Titan, with Jojo’s it works, due to the art style in general emulating American comic books. It’s always bright and saturated, except when it shouldn’t be (as in a Pakistani town beset by a fog Stand), and a feast for the eyes. The music is also top-notch, varying from weird atonal piano and string slices in unsettling moments, to brassy, overwrought jazz for climactic battle scenes. Whatever it is, it always fits the scene perfectly and amplifies its mood, while also feeling like it couldn’t belong in any other anime. Everything about Jojo’s is special, and that’s what makes it an experience like no other.

Up next: The original summer 2014 series! Will include Aldnoah ZeroBlue Spring RideLove Stage!!Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun and Terror in Resonance!

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Serious Talk About Comedy: Monthly Girl’s Nozaki-Kun

Comedy often gets the short end of the stick when it comes to artistic discussion. Comedy is often viewed as a vehicle for escapism, something that makes you feel good rather than make you think. If you were to look at the Best Picture winners throughout history, drama almost always trumps comedy. But good comedy is just as important as good drama. Comedy is as necessary for the soul as thoughtful morose drama, and comedy can be just as intellectually stimulating. I say all of this because when it comes to writing about comedy, I feel less equipped to talk about it than I do about something serious. Good comedy is worth talking about though, so I’ll try my best to talk about why Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun is a great anime comedy and needs to be seen.

Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun is about a mangaka, the titular Nozaki, who writes for a popular shojo manga magazine. He’s assisted by Sakura, who works on the beta and has a secret crush on Nozaki, and a cast of eccentric schoolmates that often serve as inspirations for Nozaki’s manga. It’s a simple premise and there’s not much an overarching story or much progression for the characters. It’s structured like a sitcom, with two different situations filling out a 23 minute episode each week. There’s no guarantee that Sakura will ever confess to Nozaki, no guarantee that there will be any meaningful progression, but that’s okay because the jokes are amazing and timed perfectly. Sitcoms often lean on archetypes, and Nozaki-kun is no exception, but Nozaki-kun plays around with its archetypes in unexpected ways. The overarching theme of Nozaki-kun is expectations vs reality.

Expectations vs reality is a classic comedic theme. The best jokes are the ones you don’t expect, that genuinely shock you so much that you can’t help but laugh. Nozaki’s existence as a male shojo mangaka, while not unheard of in real life, is still something most people wouldn’t expect. The joke of the first episode is that no one believes Nozaki when he tells them what his job is, and the show sells the joke by making Nozaki a tall stoic man. The rest of the cast includes an indifferent troublemaker with a lovely singing voice, a beautiful prince who’s a girl, a shy lady killer, and an amazing actor who’s too short for the leading role. All of these characters fit into certain archetypes, but the show derives humor from theme not quite fitting those archetypes as neatly as they’d like.

How Nozaki Gets Into Character

How Nozaki Gets Into Character

Nozaki-kun’s premise also allows for good jokes about the relationship between fiction and reality, specifically, the way in which Nozaki conducts social experiments in order to better understand the protagonists of his manga. Nozaki claims to be an expert on girls because he writes for a girl’s magazine, but he’s never once dated a girl and his advice often shows that. The best episode so far, episode 4, uses this character flaw of his to build the funniest jokes around a visual novel that he and his friend Mikorin are playing. The utter seriousness that Nozaki has around every facet of his life adds to the absurdity when he role-plays as his female protagonist for a day to better understand her feelings.

For as absurd and large as the entire cast is, they’re all extremely likable and fun characters to watch. When an episode decides to focus on a different character, the show is still enjoyable even if that character isn’t your favorite one. I look forward to episodes featuring Mikorin, the pretty boy who’s easily embarrassed and the model for Nozaki’s female protagonist, but I’ll take an episode featuring Seo or Kashima and laugh just as hard.

Greatest Girl Prince since Utena?

Greatest Girl Prince since Utena?

High school romantic comedies are perhaps the most common genre in anime today, but few feel as fresh or funny as Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun. Its take on the genre’s conventions aren’t just cheap jokes that amount to “hey isn’t it funny how this always happens in this genre?” but instead truly original, and original high school rom-coms are a rare breed. How many other shows feature two straight boys drawing gay fanfiction after playing a dating sim? Exactly.

Mikorin is best girl

Mikorin is best girl

Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-Kun is currently being simulcasted on Crunchyroll.

Mixed Feelings About Sailor Moon Crystal

sailor moon moon moon

I’ll start this off by talking about one of my favorite and least favorite corners of the Internet: Tumblr. Shortly before the first episode of Sailor Moon Crystal aired last month, a post began circulating on the social networking site warning people not to jump to negative conclusions about the series. It mentioned that new versions could only enrich a franchise, that if you dislike it the old versions will continue to exist, and that squabbling could only make the fandom less fun and welcoming for newbies. It read: “Crystal is not here to destroy your childhood.  It’s here to add to it.  Appreciate it for what it is: something new, that builds on all that came before it.  It will be different, and that’s okay.  Every version of Sailor Moon is different, and the franchise is better for it.”

Now, it’s easy to see posts like this as the typical fan-posturing and -gatekeeping from hyperdefensive people who are terrified by criticism of any sort. And I’m sure some people reblogged it in that spirit. But I’ve been in plenty of “fandoms” where people just automatically hated things that were different from the version they came to like, regardless of quality and without thinking very much about what bothered them about the changes. Fanboys and fangirls are notoriously afraid of change; TVTropes even has a page about this mentality, and I’ve seen it ruin fandom communities I was in from Harry Potter to Fullmetal Alchemist to Skins. And you’ve seen it, too, if you’ve ever mentioned enjoying a movie adaptation to a fan of the original book/comic/whatever, and were met by them blathering endlessly about every little thing that was different. As someone who likes having multiple versions of a story I love, and prefers good original adaptations to dull faithful ones, I thought the post was absolutely necessary – and so I re-blogged it.

Thus, I felt like it was important to set all that fanwank aside right out of the gate here. I’m not someone who came in determined to find Sailor Moon Crystal lacking. In fact, I really wanted to see this anime succeed. I am a dedicated Moonie in every version I’ve encountered it in (anime, manga, even the live-action), and I was really excited when I heard that we’d have a new series coming out. I was apprehensive about the ultra-manga-faithful character designs and Usagi’s tentacle-pasta hair, but I was still bouncing up and down with excitement, staying up until 6 am to watch the first episode of the new series. I wrote about it positively both on my article about the franchise for Bitch, and my Summer Anime blog post here. I saw some things that gave me pause, but I decided to remain optimistic, to give the series a few episodes to find its footing.

As of episode 3, though, it’s hard to maintain my optimism anymore.

This series already had some issues with visuals and direction. My friend Gabbo detailed many of its issues in her post here about Sailor Moon Crystal, while comparing it to the original anime. As she shows, the series already had many problems in the first two episodes, but “Act 3: Rei – Sailor Mars” brings a lot of them into even sharper focus.

Let’s start with some positives. I really love the backgrounds on this show. The first anime had a lot of great ones as well, but the watercolor ones here look like something out of a storybook:

Also, hi, Phobos and Deimos!

Also, hi, Phobos and Deimos! You look a lot more distinctive this time around.

But when one zooms into the individual characters, the positives dwindle. The character designs are flat, generic and, to be frank, pretty clunky. My first thought with this moment (when Usagi first meets Rei) was, “wow, they aren’t being remotely subtle about her girl-crush! Cool!” My second was (as Zac Bertschy pointed out on Twitter), “…what are those EYEBROWS?”

sailor moon crystal 3 eyebrows

Luna continues to look more like a horse in her body shape than a cat, but even characters who were doing fine in previous episodes, like Mamoru, apparently change their face shape with every scene, when it’s not falling into the generic big-eyed pointiness that this series favors for everyone:

Poor boy, you were so much cuter back in the day.

Poor boy, you were so much cuter back in the day.

Rei (Sailor Mars) fares the worst, though. Plenty have already detailed how her eyes are oddly spaced, but it’s possibly even more alarming how often she goes completely off-model – to the point where it sometimes seems like the series doesn’t have a consistent “model” for her. It’s one thing to have your characters look a little “meguca” when they’re in the background or in motion; it’s another in a still shot where they’re the focus, like in Rei’s slogan scene here:

Also, is that a Jojo pose?

Also, is that a Jojo pose?

And while the backgrounds can be impressive, the series simply lacks the impressive direction and attention to detail that characterized the original. It could be simply due to its lack of talent – the first Sailor Moon anime boasted such directors as Kunihiko Ikuhara and Junichi Sato, the masterminds behind Revolutionary Girl Utena and Princess Tutu respectively – but you don’t need a genius director to just not be lazy here. And these directorial and cinematographic choices are just that: lazy, hoping the viewers will be entranced by the modernized style and ignore how sloppily it’s applied. Observe the lighting choices here, where the leaf shadows are applied so broadly as to appear unrealistic:

Even Usagi knows!

Even Usagi knows!

Sailor Moon Crystal‘s story may be just as engaging as that of the original – if it keeps following the excellent manga – but the presentation leaves a lot to be desired, and could make or break this series that can already be experienced in so many other forms. Toei just doesn’t seem like they’re bringing the budget and/or talent necessary for this project, which is a shame for something as heavily-anticipated as this series was.

Overall, it’s interesting to compare Sailor Moon Crystal with another “manga-faithful” reboot of a classic anime series: Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. I’ve never been particularly fond of FMA:B, though a lot of that lies with my finding the manga story far less compelling than the one in the first Fullmetal Alchemist anime – which takes a much sharper departure from its source material than the original Sailor Moon anime did. (FMA 03’s degree of departure is closer to what the Sailor Moon live-action series did with that first season arc’s plot, but that’s a story for another post.) With Sailor Moon, I had less reservations, since I like the first anime and the manga’s stories about equally at this point. I was excited to see the manga version of the story get an anime adaptation, with its much darker plot and greater protagonist-focus giving it the potential to pull in a different audience to one of my favorite anime franchises.

But I’m finding a lot of the same problems I did in FMA:B.

And in both FMA:B and SMC, the key to most issues is the manga-faithfulness. FMA:B struggled to adapt 109 manga chapters to 64 episodes, and that includes some truly sloppy pacing, especially in its beginning and end. But even then, it keeps so much manga material it could have easily left on the cutting room floor, that it fails to give the proper time to the essentials (as with the Ishval flashback episode). Worse, its visual adaptation is almost panel-by-panel, to a degree that shows serious ignorance for what works in animation vs. print comics. This is most evident in its comedic moments, where it repeats the same SD visual gags from the manga as literally as possible – but while they worked there, they’re just over-the-top and corny in anime. The first anime succeeded by rendering these same jokes with more subtlety.

But SMC’s issues here, at least as far as visuals, are far, far worse. FMA:B had a manga-inspired art style and character designs, but it did adapt them with an awareness for how things work differently in a three-dimensional plane. (It helped that Hiromu Arakawa’s more rounded, cartoonish character designs work better for this task, anyway.) SMC’s characters hew so close to its manga art style, though, that this goes right out the window. Gabbo puts it well in her aforementioned post:

Naoko Takeuchi is a great artist, and one her art’s most distinctive features is that she draws eyes to look like they exist on a flat plane. She doesn’t account for the curvature of the face, just changing the direction that the eyes are curved in order to indicate which way a character is facing, and it looks great in 2D. However, this choice doesn’t translate well into animation, where character models will often need to turn around or shake their heads or make other onscreen shifts in perspective. It just isn’t easy to transition one facial shot to another in a way that looks recognizably human.

 

The Senshi in the manga...

The Senshi in the manga…

sellamun crystal

…and the new anime. Can you spot the similarities?

To SMC’s credit, it does seem willing to deviate from the manga plot as necessary to make the anime plot more engaging, unlike FMA:B. But it does this by hewing closer to what the first anime already did differently, as in Ami’s episode – which is basically the same exact story as her introduction in the first anime, with some technology updates (a haunted CD-ROM instead of a haunted floppy disk!) and taking into account Usagi’s different characterization here (kinder and more cooperative, instead of competitive and argumentative).  It isn’t much of an argument for SMC being able to stand alone, as its own work separate from the first anime and the manga.

Those differences, though, do at least make SMC a curio worth observing for those who are already invested in the other Sailor Moon canons, and anyone interested in the art of adaptation. I, for one, like that Rei’s episode shows more signs of the manga version of her characterization and relationship with Usagi, even though I prefer her anime incarnation. (Competitive, snarky Rei was my first fictional crush and basically my role model as a sassy little girl, okay?) Both the cooperation emphasized in the manga/Crystal story and the spiritedness/assertiveness emphasized in Usagi and Rei’s first-anime characterizations, are valid approaches to empowering and mentoring young girls through entertainment. I’m glad that the latest generation of little girls, who might be put-off by the ’90s flavor of the original anime, have a new version of the story that they can call their own.

But for anyone other than youngsters and diehards, this series still leaves a lot to be desired.