Summer 2016 Anime Season: What to Watch – Part 2

Here is the rest of my list of “what to watch in the summer anime season,” with more long-winded explanations for each of them! The previous post is here.

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#5 Love Live Sunshine!

I should start this out by admitting that I am a Love Live virgin. I have no previous experience with the franchise, except for a few attempts at the mobile game. So I can honestly say that you don’t need previous exposure to enjoy Love Live Sunshine!, which follows a completely different group of girls from the previous series. You don’t need to know much about it except the premise and that the last series’ idol group was called µ’s (pronounced like “muse”). The new crop are admirers of the old one, with their own personalities and reasons for wanting to be school idols.

“Cute girls in a school club” anime are not really My Thing, so I should explain why I find Love Live so compelling. The first reason is the sheer amount of energy on display in every single episode. This isn’t sleepy, “healing” moe fare: Love Live is excited about idols and wants to make sure that you are, too. Its conflicts are all small stakes, always revolving around Aquors, the new series’ idol group, but they treat every single one like it’s a big deal. Love Live passionately demands your attention at every moment, so you can’t help but be taken in by it.

The other reason is just how good this show looks. Like its predecessor, Love Live Sunshine! has great art and animation. It makes everything feel shinier and more inviting, like you just want to get lost in its happy world. The seaside setting for this particular incarnation of the franchise just adds to this effect. Love Live Sunshine! puts a lot of its out-of-school scenes on or near the beach, making every visit to its world feel like a summer vacation.

I also think, for me, there’s something very familiar and nostalgic about idol shows, with the conflicts so similar to the old-school Hollywood backstage musicals I grew up watching. Maybe I should watch more of them. If they’re as good as this one, I think I’ll have a lot of fun.

Current Episode Count: 5/13. Streaming Saturdays on Funimation.

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#4 Thunderbolt Fantasy

So this one isn’t technically an anime, but how could I not include it on this list? Thunderbolt Fantasy comes from the twisted, fascinating brain of Gen Urobuchi, of Madoka MagicaFate/Zero and Psycho-Pass fame. For real this time: this is not a drill, this is not one where he’s just listed under “story concept,” he’s actually writing the thing. Crunchyroll even has a preview episode that discusses the conception and technical details of the series’ production: Urobuchi went to Taiwan and saw the puppet theater troupe that moves the characters in this show. He loved it, and wanted to make the art form popular in Japan, and so here we are.

Thunderbolt Fantasy is basically wuxia, a type of historical drama that’s China’s version of our lords-and-ladies medieval fantasy. The plot is a fairly straightforward version of the genre, but where Urobuchi sells it is by turning the camp up to 11. Thunderbolt Fantasy knows the whole idea of “puppet TV” is kind of silly, and what’s more, the puppets need exaggerated movements and speech in order to fully come off as “human.” It gives it a really strong charm that helps to sell the silliness of the plot.

It’s hard to tell yet if Thunderbolt Fantasy will show any of the same moral dilemmas or character archetypes that are familiar from his other series. But it’s definitely fun, and hopefully leads to a whole new trend of campy puppet shows from other anime auteurs.

Current Episode Count: 4/13. Streaming Fridays on Crunchyroll.

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#3 91 Days

91 Days is a pretty basic story: set in the Prohibition era in the United States, a young man returns to the town where he grew up on a mission. The mob killed his entire family except for him ten years ago. Now, he wants his revenge, and will do whatever it takes to get it–even if he has to compromise his remaining humanity for it.

There are so many stories like this in anime, and so many in the “gangster” genre worldwide. I think what makes 91 Days stand out from other “gangster” anime, such as Baccano! and, well, Gangsta, is how much it’s in dialogue with the previous works in that genre. It’s not just the obvious visual reference to The Godfather films in the series’ logo or in events like structuring a key plot point around a mob boss’s daughter’s wedding, but arguably the whole thematic struggle of how the bonds that make us most human can lead us to actions that deprive us of our humanity. So many mafia stories are rooted in the fact that people do these awful, bloody things for family.

91 Days is also indebted to film depictions of rural early 20th-century America, especially road movies. It’s an interesting mix of genres, along with the character focus and more drawn-out, breathable story typical of anime TV series. There is a lot more that I can say on this point, but I want to write a longer post about this series, so I’ll leave it there.

Oh, and it easily has the best soundtrack of this season, or at least tied with my next choice. That’s enough reason alone to check out this anime riff on a very American genre.

Current Episode Count: 4/13. Streaming Fridays on Crunchyroll.

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#2 Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable

This is the one exception to the “get in now so you can catch up to it” rule: the current Jojo’s is now 18 episodes strong, and it relies on a lot of references to the previous arc at first. You can’t really go into Diamond is Unbreakable blind. It’s very well-worth the engagement, though, because Jojo’s continues to be excellent, in a way completely different from the series that came before it.

Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure always involved some epic good-vs-evil battle, even if it played out in different ways across those first three arcs. Diamond is Unbreakable starts that way, but as former enemies turn to Josuke and Koichi’s side, it’s becoming clear what the point of the series really is: suburban teens goofing off, but with superpowers. And because it’s Jojo’s, and it’s goofy and over-the-top and also has top-notch production values, it’s strongly compelling. It might just be my favorite Jojo’s arc, and not just because it’s doing a great job with the sort of stories I tried and failed at as a teenager. I think it gets at a really tonally accurate depiction of suburban life, in a way all the moodier ’90s fare about it that I think the show is building off of didn’t. It’s not that bad, but it’s not that great, either. It’s mostly just weird, and also kind of boring unless you try to have fun with it. A lot of being a suburban teen is finding ways to have fun with it.

Diamond is Unbreakable is basically the version of suburbia that suburban teens wish it was: all the creature comforts but with just a little more excitement to them, to spice them up.

Also, the Stands are amazingly weird, as the picture shows. Rohan is a great addition to the group, a manga artist who lives pretty much purely for his craft, constantly in search of more story material and not caring who he has to cross to get it. Of course, he has a stand perfect for it, that just reflects how much more interesting the Stands are getting as Jojo’s moves further and further away from the theme-based “logic” of the Stardust Crusaders ones. The sky is the limit now, and anything goes. And against the mundane suburban setting, it just makes the weirdness all the more pronounced.

I haven’t read the manga, so I have no idea where the show is going with this. But I don’t care if it’s building to an epic confrontation with a Big Bad, or if it’s just another season and a half of Josuke, Okuyasu, Koichi and Rohan finding goofy ways to entertain themselves in Morioh. Either way, I’m game.

Current Episode Count: 18/39. Streaming Fridays on Crunchyroll.

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#1 Orange

Yep, the atmospheric teenage melodrama about suicide, romance and time-travel is my no. 1 pick for the season, surpassing even the inimitable Jojo.

I am also planning to write a longer post (or set of posts) about Orange, so I don’t want to use this section to spoil too much of that. But I think I should go into detail a bit about why this show wows me so much, because this genre isn’t usually the sort of thing that blows me away to the extent this series has.

Orange is just really good at capturing the emotions and high-stakes of adolescence. Something like Mob Psycho 100 tells, but Orange shows. It manages to find the perfect middle-ground between the extremes that anime usually goes to in depicting adolescence. It’s never too over-the-top or too subdued to be unrealistic. Not that there is anything wrong with either of those approaches, but it makes something that reaches for the perfect, most accurate middle feel refreshing.

I don’t think I’ve experienced an anime series that really got the emotional roller-coaster of adolescence since Paradise Kiss and Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad. Osamu Kobayashi was really good at that, in fact. Until he’s directing series again, we’ll always have Orange.

Current Episode Count: 5/13. Streaming Sundays on Crunchyroll.

Summer 2016 Anime Season: What to Watch – Part 1

So a few weeks ago, I said I would do a sort of “summer season so far” post. Well, when you’re writing a book, it has a way of catching up to you and delaying all your other projects. Still, I wanted to make sure I had this done before the first month of the season was over, so here we are.

We’re now several episodes into each of these shows, making it a little less “preview” than I wanted. Luckily, we’re only at episode 4-5 at most: so there’s still plenty of time to catch up anything you weren’t watching. And there’s a lot to watch: summer has an incredible number of shows, and a pretty high number of them are worth a shot! There’s a little bit for everyone, from comedies to dramas, to sports to idol shows, to slice-of-life. There are even a couple of historical fiction series. (Is it just me, or is anime making more of those? I like this trend. Please continue.)

This was originally a single post, but it was getting crazy long, especially for the higher entries. So I’m going to put #6-12 on here. The top 5 will go up later this week. This list will not include short series, but I might do a post on them later.

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#12 Cheer Boys

I don’t think there’s ever been as fangirl-friendly a premise as “boy’s cheerleading team.” I’m definitely of the fangirl mode in a lot of my tastes, so I went into Cheer Boys expecting to love it.

I didn’t…at first. The first episode was a little slow-paced, and it wasn’t helped by the occasionally sloppy animation. Luckily, by the second episode, it was already a lot better, and kept improving as the group added more members.

What’s interesting about this show is that, even though everyone is based on the same archetypes as every other sports show (for example, the glasses character has a very similar personality to Rei from Free!), they feel and act more like real people. They’re like the more realistic, grounded versions of those archetypes. Watching Cheer Boys, you feel like you’re sitting in on a real college club as they get themselves together.

Oh yeah, that’s the other thing: these characters are in college. How often do we get that in anime? So many high school shows, so few college ones.

Current Episode Count: 5/12. Streaming Tuesdays on Funimation

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#11 The Morose Mononokean

The Morose Mononokean follows a boy named Ashiya whose first day of high school is ruined by an energy-stealing yokai (a sort of Japanese nature spirit). When he calls an exorcist after many unsuccessful nurse office visits, he gets the creature off his back, but to pay for the service he’s now working as the exorcist’s assistant. This leads to Ashiya gaining a deeper understanding of these quirky creatures he’s supposed to exorcise, and the colorful world from which they came.

If this series is low, it’s only because this season is so stellar. If you’ve been reading my ANN reviews, you know I’m loving The Morose Mononokean. Its most recent episodes weren’t quite on the level of the previous three, but there’s still a lot to love about this show–and that sets it apart from other supernatural comedies.

Where others just stick to the biting humor, The Morose Mononokean has a big heart, making you well up with tears when you’re not laughing. It’s almost better at being a heartwarming slice-of-(magical)-life than it is at being funny, though there are lots of laughs to go around, too. Each yokai has a cuddly story that teaches a lesson about the need to appreciate, understand and value all life, making The Morose Mononokean sort of like a bishonen comedy version of Mushishi. Not nearly on that show’s level of quality, of course, but still a very special thing on its own.

Current Episode Count: 5/13. Streaming Sundays on Crunchyroll.

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#10 New Game!

I didn’t expect to love New Game! as much as I am, but from the first episode, I was hooked. Maybe, between this and Shirobako, “workplace comedy” is my kind of moe show, because this series is one of my most anticipated going into each week.

New Game! follows Aoba, a teenage girl fresh out of high school, and living the dream as a video game character designer. She’s at the company that made her favorite game, and now she gets to work on the sequel! Along the way, she meets the colorful characters who populate this all-female company, from a shy girl who can’t talk except through IM, to the goofy head of the art department who sleeps by her desk in her underwear.

The show doesn’t include nearly as much about game design as Shirobako did about anime production, so you might be a little disappointed if that’s why you’re watching. (There are a few details here and there, though, especially in episode 3, where Aoba has her first real crack at creating NPCs.) What it is great at is capturing the experience of your first job, and the camaraderie among female friends striving for their dreams. Which is another really strong thread in Shirobako, so if you loved the relationships on that show, I’d highly recommend checking out this younger sister anime.

Current Episode Count: 5/12. Streaming Mondays on Crunchyroll.

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#9 Battery

Amazon’s first show from its deal with Noitamina was the very atypical Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, a bombastic action show from the director of Death Note and Attack on Titan. It was a strange expectation-setter, when most of Noitamina’s shows tend to be more understated teen dramas and slice-of-life. Battery is closer to that mold, as a baseball anime about the friendship between two boys, from the creator of another Noitamina series, No. 6. Which, of course, means it might turn out to be something more than friendship down the line, but it’s hard to tell from these early episodes.

Either way, Battery is a very soothing character drama, the sort of series that gets labeled iyashikei (or “healing anime”). That might make it too slow for some, and it was for me at first, but it’s slowly crept into my heart as the episodes have worn on. This one doesn’t grab at the strong emotions of adolescent life the way that something like Orange does, but it has that same understated appreciation for the complexities of teenage relationships, whether that be with friends, family or their passions (baseball).

Current Episode Count: 3/11. Streaming Thursdays on Amazon Prime.

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#8 Mob Psycho 100

What a visual marvel. Mob Psycho 100 comes from the same mangaka as One-Punch Man, and reflects ONE’s iconic character designs just as that series did. Mob Psycho 100, though, takes it a step further. It’s animated by Studio BONES, and they take the series through a dizzying array of art styles. The second episode alone ranges from charcoal drawings to actual painting effects (as seen above). The featured image for this article is also from the series, just to get a sense of its range of art styles.

Originally, I had this series lower on the list because it seemed too thin on the plot and characters. Mob Psycho 100 is comedy about a psychic teenage boy trying to figure out his place in the world, while he works at an exorcist shop. (Is something in the water this anime season?) It’s funny and self-aware, with nods to other anime. It has nothing on One-Punch Man‘s affectionate parody of shonen superheroes, but it’s a hilariously surreal walk through teenage life in its own way.

And as of episode 3, it’s started to show some serious promise of its own on the writing front. The third episode featured a strange cult that hypnotized its followers into laughter and happiness, no matter how skeptical they were…everyone, except protagonist Mob, because he has no emotions. Rather than dismiss him as creepy and weird, Mob Psycho 100 decides to explore this side of Mob, and the social consequences he’s felt for lacking such a basic component of humanity. When the cult leader continues to push this button…let’s just say it does not end well for him.

So, bit by bit, Mob Psycho 100 is revealing its cards, making it clearer what kind of story it wants to be. Still, it’s the aesthetics that make Mob Psycho 100 such a marvel, They’re like nothing you’ve ever seen before in anime, and make the series well worth checking out.

Current Episode Count: 4/12. Streaming Mondays on Crunchyroll.

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#7 Sweetness and Lightning

Sweetness and Lightning should be familiar for fans of Bunny Drop (before the latter got gross, anyway). It’s the sweet story of a single dad and his daughter. In this case, it’s not that the daughter is adopted, but that her mother has passed away. Her father has to learn how to care for his preschool-aged tyke all on his own, while also navigating his job as a high school teacher. Luckily, he makes friends along the way, including with one of his students, whose family owns a restaurant and who helps him with making meals for his daughter when her mom is away.

The series lives up pretty well to the first word in its title. It’s basically just a big chunk of heartwarming every week, as we watch the tiny family make their way through the world. Tsumugi, the daughter on the show, acts like a real preschooler, getting in fights and misunderstandings with her friends at school, excited and curious about everything she comes across in the world. The relationship between the dad, Kohei, and the student, Kotori, so far shows no chance of heading into Creepytown. They’re just people who’ve found a family of their own in the absence of their real ones.

Oh yeah, and the food always looks delicious. The series also shows them making it step by step, so maybe if you paused a lot you could take down the recipes yourself!

Current Episode Count: 5/12. Streaming Mondays on Crunchyroll.

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#6 Planetarian

Planetarian is based on a Key visual novel, a phrase that comes with a lot of baggage. What makes this one different is that it’s a pretty early work from the studio, pre-Clannad, that’s just now getting an OVA. There’s a cute, sad girl, but the story has a strong emotional core based in real human feeling. That’s despite the fact that the girl is a chipper robot living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

The robot girl runs a planetarium and still enthusiastically greets any “customers” and offers a presentation, oblivious to the changes in her world. The story is based on her encounter with a gruff, jaded man who stumbles into the planetarium. There’s a cliché Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl sheen to the premise, of the cute, perky girl who has a brief encounter with a sad boy and gives meaning to his life, etc., but I think there’s more to Planetarian than that. There’s also a larger question about what life does mean in such a bleak, uncompromising world, where all the usual trappings of civilization are gone. As of the most recent episode, I get the impression that Yumemi, our robot girl, is wiser to the realities of her life than she lets on, and her continuing to play the planetarium attendant is her way of giving her life a purpose.

Planetarian also just appeals to me as someone who always wanted post-apocalyptic stories to be more about the people and less about the circumstances of their world’s demise. Sure, that stuff is fascinating in its own way, especially if there’s some meaty theme behind it, but don’t you always wish you knew more about everyday lives in these hypothetical futures? I did. Planetarian is pretty much all character drama, with very little fleshing-out of the world beyond the characters’ mundane observations. It’s a really simple, but surprisingly effective thing.

Also, it’s only five episodes! So when it finishes this week, you could breeze through it in an afternoon.

Current Episode Count: 4/5. Streaming Thursdays on Funimation.

That’s all for now! Tune in later this week for the top five.