Ranking the Anime: Spring 2015 Week 7 (May 15-21)

I’m putting Plamemo on hold until it stops getting mired in rom-com shenanigans. Frankly, I need to put something on hold if I’m going to keep doing this, because I’ll be really busy over the next week or so. I’m heading to a film music conference in New York next weekend, to present a paper on Michiru Oshima’s score for Fullmetal Alchemist! I am really excited, but it means a lot of prep ahead of time. I am probably going to take Week 8 off to focus on my work and having fun at the conference. See you all then!

Blood Blockade Battlefront: Don't you love Zapp?

Blood Blockade Battlefront: Don’t you love Zapp?

1. Blood Blockade Battlefront episode 7: I’d recently come to the conclusion on revisiting Trigun that music can do a lot to make up for a low budget and otherwise sloppy visuals. Well, Blood Blockade Battlefront delivers on those fronts, and yet its music still adds so much to each episode. I especially like that each episode has so much stylistic variety, and it still matches so well to every moment. Like this week, where we had operatic strains accompanying Leo meeting with Black and learning about White, and comparing her to his sister’s plight. (I’m not fully convinced White isn’t actually his sister on some level.) And then we had the hard rock for Zapp getting trapped and Klaus coming in to fight. There’s a lot to love about Blood Blockade Battlefront from week to week, and the soundtrack is no small part of that.

2. My Love Story!! episode 7: Full review here. This was probably the single cutest and most romantic episode of My Love Story!!, and that’s no small feat. Most episodes of this show are pretty adorable. This one did a lot to show you just how invested in each other Yamato and Takeo are. The answer: even more than you thought. I’m a little worried about how long My Love Story!! can run on this particular engine, but as for now I’m more than enjoying the ride.

3. Heroic Legend of Arslan episode 7: Full review here. This episode was a huge step up! It really fleshes out the Lusitanian side of the conflict, and gives us a bunch of new, fun characters and dynamics. I’m feeling good about where this show is going in a way I haven’t in weeks, and that’s awesome. Arslan has a ton of potential it needs to stop squandering.

Heroic Legend of Arslan: The king's exasperated brother.

Heroic Legend of Arslan: It’s hard being the brother of an idiot king.

4. Sound! Euphonium episode 7: This episode focused largely on the older students, showing how hard they’ve worked to keep the band alive when the previous seniors quit. Yet for some of them that isn’t enough to keep them in when the band starts interfering with their other dreams, like getting into a good university. This leads Aoi, tenor saxophonist and one of the leaders of the band, to quit. The band is finally the powerhouse she wanted it to be, but it also really doesn’t have room for her anymore if her sax isn’t going to be a priority. Sound! Euphonium in many ways is like the anti-K-ON!: it’s the real-world workings of a school music group, not the fantasy version that show serves up. It’s very refreshing, and the rich character interaction should make it work even for people who aren’t deep into the high school band world. We’ve all struggled with the trade-off between our goals and the things we do for fun. Some people take band as their top priority, like Asuka. For some people, it’s always going to be second fiddle, even if it’s still big enough to fight for it.

5. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders episode 43: When was the last time Jojo’s was this straight-up dark? Vanilla Ice sure knows how to bring the terror. Polnareff is probably one of my favorite Stardust Crusaders, but he can be frustrating when you’re expected to take him seriously. Still, this was a strong, interesting battle, especially in watching him and Iggy put aside their differences to defeat such a formidable enemy. I kinda know how Stardust Crusaders ends, but I’m still a little worried for our Boston terrier there. Vanilla Ice and his stand Cream are a terrifying pair, and he and Polnareff are pretty stuck. This is Jojo’s, though, so I’m sure they’ll get it out of in some bonkers way with a rocking soundtrack.

6. Sailor Moon Crystal episode 22: I can’t believe it, but I think this week Crystal was actually kind of good? The plot was easy to follow and the characters had personality (Venus even expressed regret that she’s so powerless during this arc). Usagi actually cared about her friends as much as her boyfriend. I could actually feel for the villains as they got frustrated over their Prince Demande going insane. And Black Lady is already a menacing, mysterious presence. I also think the show saved pretty much all its art and animation budget for this episode, as there was a noticeable lack of mistakes and upgrade in the visual quality. I especially liked the design for Wiseman, Neo-Queen Serenity and the other non-physical “projections,” with textures that reminded me of the character designs in Gankutsuou. Not a comparison I ever thought I’d be making for this show! I hope Sailor Moon Crystal can keep up this level of quality in the last few episodes. I might actually be pumped to watch them now.

Fate/stay night: Poor Lancer. As doomed as this show.

Fate/stay night: Poor Lancer. As doomed as this show.

7. Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works episode 19: This episode falls into one of the franchise’s major weaknesses: excessive talking that doesn’t translate well to film. I wasn’t as negative on this episode as Gabbo was—in fact, I mostly enjoyed it, apart from the creepy Shinji stuff—but it does make it clear how much they’re stalling for time. Now that we’re coming down the wire to our true, final antagonists in the form of KK and Gilgamesh, I’m not sure how this show expects to fill its remaining episodes. I surely hope it’s not all with Archer monologues.

8. Wish Upon the Pleiades episode 7: Full review here. Well, that sure wasn’t promising. Wish Upon the Pleiades gave itself a tall order last week, but one it could at least take some steps toward delivering. And it…didn’t even try. With the exception of a few moments hinting that something is seriously wrong with Minato, it was all meaningless friendship hijinks. Oh well. Better luck next time? Maybe? I don’t really know what to expect from this show anymore. I’m not sure if it even wants to try.

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Ranking the Anime: Spring 2015 Week 6 (May 8-14)

This week was a little more consistent than previous ones. Strong contenders that slipped a little before are back in shape, with some turning in their best episodes. Pleiades is as uneven as ever and Plamemo went back to weaker episodes, but that’s not a huge surprise. They’re both at interesting crossroads, though, so hopefully they’ll get it together for the rest of their runtimes.

BBB episode 6 for blog

Blood Blockade Battlefront: It’s burger time!

1. Blood Blockade Battlefront episode 6: BBB continues to be my favorite show airing, but this might be my favorite episode of the series so far. Trigun is the only anime that’s brought me to actual tears, and while this episode didn’t quite get there, it came close. Yasuhiro Nightow is one of those few creatures who can combine the silly and sad so seamlessly. This week’s installment also sets up well for “what this series is about,” with both Nej’s story and White’s cryptic messages. BBB may be a word full of colorful and creepy-looking aliens, but this isn’t Men In Black: some of them are perfectly benign and even sympathetic, like Nej this week, whose near-“death” broke my heart. The point is that there are good people and bad people, good aliens and bad aliens… good creatures from all walks of life. We have the power to decide who we want to be, independent of our natures. It’s not unfamiliar if you’re used to Nightow’s other work, but BBB may be his most fun presentation of it yet.

2. My Love Story!! episode 6: Read the full review here. We’re back to strong episodes of this show, and ones that dispense or play around with shojo genre conventions. Takeo and Yamato’s love story has the potential to be a different sort of love story, and I’d like to see this anime deliver on that. Really, this week earns high marks just for the Saran wrap scene.

3. Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works episode 18: Here it is: the best episode of this show and the one that spells out its themes. Fate is all about heroism, when it’s worth it and when it’s not, and how it can corrupt. Friends who played the visual novel told me ahead of time who Archer really was, and I’d always wondered how Shirou turned so cold-hearted. FSN: UBW answered all that and more in just a few minutes, in Rin’s artful introspective scene. It’s far from the first anime to deal with this topic, or the best (that would be what Utena did with Dios and Akio) but at least now I can see why the Stay Night half of this has such a fervent following. It doesn’t hurt that, unlike with Zero, this show has the direction its heavy material deserves.

My Love Story!!: Takeo loves (rescuing) kitties.

My Love Story!!: Takeo loves (rescuing) kitties.

4. Sound! Euphonium episode 6: This was a pretty strong episode, with a heavy focus on Hazuki. When their teacher announces auditions for festival competition, Hazuki figures she’ll just sit this one out, with how new she is to her instrument. She wasn’t even sure if she wanted to play tuba, after all! Her friends (and Asuka, of course) convince her to give it a try. The power of friendship reigns supreme in Sound! Euphonium, but also the power of “ensemble,” the joy of music-making with friends. I really liked this, since the thrill of playing in a large group was a big part of why I loved high school band and orchestra. It’s a very energetic, communal experience, where you’re just feeding off each other. Small groups (like when she practices with the rest of the bass section) have even more potential for that sometimes. My favorite parts of Sound! Euphonium are when it captures some of the excitement of music-making as a teenager, and this week was in prime form for that. It also does a lot to better develop and elevate Hazuki as a character, too.

5. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders episode 42: D’Arby the Younger’s ending is very similar to his brother’s, and in that way this episode stumbles. Still, it’s a fitting ending for a very frustrating, silly villain. It’s great to watch Jotaro’s (and Joseph’s) trickery tear him apart at the seams, and in a way that makes it clear just how much he pales in comparison to the other D’Arby. More importantly, the second half of this episode introduces one of the best and most popular Stand users, Vanilla Ice, and shows that stronger, darker, creepier things are to come for the remainder of this arc. Including Dio! Stardust Crusaders has putzed around for long enough. It’s about time.

IMG_3518

Wish Upon the Pleiades: Subaru gets caught in a….something. Even I’m not sure what’s going on here.

6. Heroic Legend of Arslan episode 6: Read the full review here. This episode solidifies a lot of Arslan’s ideas about power and what makes for a fair society. That said, the actual episode itself is pretty weak on its own. It doesn’t give us much from the more fun characters, just a larger struggle that makes it obvious to me how much I don’t care about any of the players involved. This feels like transitional stuff, so let’s hope Arslan moves on to equally smart but more interesting pastures.

7. Wish Upon the Pleiades episode 6: Read the full review here. The show finally does something with its larger plot, but it feels too little too late. It comes very abruptly after weeks of character-focused shenanigans, and with such a decisive victory. At least Pleiades has to keep moving forward after this, right? But who even knows with this show. Next week might be back to focusing on drive-shaft training, for all I know and how sloppy its pacing has been up to now.

8. Plastic Memories episode 6: This episode was actively difficult to finish watching. It’s not even the worst episode; the sections focusing on Isla’s feelings about her deteriorating state were strong. Those were at the beginning of the episode (fooling me into thinking this one wouldn’t be “too bad”) and the end. It was everything in-between that stunk, all the silly rom-com stuff between Isla and Tsukasa. We get it: They like each other, and they’re both awkward about and loathe to admit it. There is nothing new about the way the show has built up to or is presenting this. Nobody cares. I just want more of them retrieving Giftias and info about how they work. I like Isla’s personal business when it plays into that, but not when it’s just sitcom hijinks. Plamemo has never been good at that, and needs to stop trying. Just stick to what you can do.

Mad Max and Imperator Furiosa: The Future of Action Duos

Mad Max Fury Road premiered in theaters this week, and critics are already hailing it as the action movie masterpiece of the decade. I can’t help but agree with them. The 4th Mad Max easily triumphs over other contemporary action films due to its distinctive look and feel. Most of the stunts are practical with a few CGI touchups, the film smoothly transitions from chase scene to chase scene, and the characters have an immense depth behind their ridiculous names and limited dialogue. Much has been made of the film’s feminist themes. The film unsubtly reminds us that women “are not things” and the climactic scene involves the two heroes, Max and Furiosa, teaming up with an all-woman motorcycle gang called the Vulvani to fight back against Immortan Joe and his War Boys, the apocalyptic patriarchy. Go see this film if you haven’t yet, it’s an amazing treat and the rare nerdy action movie that I’d seriously want to see win Oscars. After seeing it, come back and read this.

There’s one scene at the end of the film that stood out to me not for its amazing stunts or creative design, but for how quietly it bucks a Hollywood trend that’s always annoyed me. A dying Furiosa is saved by Max performing an emergency blood transfusion. After an entire movie of throwing people off cars and fighting the ghosts he could not save, Max saves a life. But that’s not what made the scene bold in my mind. What made it bold was that in other Hollywood action films, this would have been the kissing scene. Other action movies feel it necessary to give the male and female lead of a movie romantic chemistry, because it’s expected that when two leads of the opposite sex spend a significant time together, a romance together. I was worried it would go down that route when Max holds Furiosa close and tells her his name for the first time, but shortly after it fades to black and we’re at the Citadel, with Furiosa standing triumphant as the woman that took down (the patriarchy) Immortan Joe. I appreciated how the filmmakers didn’t cave into the expectation that these two needed to a romantic item. Rather, they’re two broken people in a broken world that respect each other.

Max and Furiosa make for a great team, though they don’t know it yet. They meet each other by circumstance; they’re both escaping from Immortan Joe, but Furiosa is the one with a specific destination in mind. Action movies like The Avengers often contrive situations for their heroes to fight each other before they team up. It’s an easy way to build tension, but the artificiality of it can be distracting. In the case of Max and Furiosa, it makes sense that they wouldn’t trust each other at first and try to kill each other. They live in a world where mercy gets one killed, and Furiosa can’t afford to jeopardize her mission to save the wives of Immortan Joe. Max is also not a great negotiator. He mostly just grunts and speaks in single words, hinting at just how mad he is. This half-man, half-animal doesn’t get along with others, and neither does the one-armed matriarchal Furiosa.

Yet as the film goes on, one gets the sense that these two are very similar despite coming from different societies. Both have lost an important family member, and are driven not only by the need to survive, but to be redeemed. Both are strong fighters, but have emotional and physical weaknesses, which make for compelling heroes. Actions speak louder than words, and their harsh stares and grunts have more character than a billion Joss Whedon quips.

This brings us to that pivotal scene where Max and Furiosa defy the expectations of Hollywood romance. Firstly, the film already had a decent romance in the form of redeemed war boy Nux and the red-haired and aptly-named Capable, so to have another developing romance would have been going overboard. Secondly, Furiosa and Max don’t see each other as sexual partners, but as comrades. It’s why the kiss scene in last year’s Edge of Tomorrow, the main reason I was worried about them sharing a kiss at the end, didn’t work for me. There’s nothing wrong with two heroes developing romantic feelings for each other, but so many movies do it that feels more like an obligation than a natural part of the story. The main relationship of Edge of Tomorrow is of a mentor and student who become soldiers of equal strength. That kiss feels tacked on to an otherwise engaging male-female relationship that never felt all that romantic.  Mad Max Fury Road is proof that movies don’t need to romantically pair leads if they have different genitals. The small moments like Max giving up his sniper rifle to Furiosa and using himself as a stable platform for her are more powerful than a tacked-on kiss. And honestly, with so many movies about two dudes kicking ass and never kissing, do we really need to be reminded how much culture favors heterosexuality?

Mad Max Fury Road deserves all the praise for its action and stuntwork, but beneath the skull-adorned hood, there’s a beating human heart. Rarely do action movies make you care for characters who speak so little this much. Future action filmmakers should be looking at how director George Miller makes combining feminist humanism with flamethrower-guitars and granny bikers look so easy.

Ranking the Anime: Spring 2015 Week 5 (5/1-5/7)

I put Assassination Classroom on hold out of boredom, so we’ll be skipping that this week. Luckily, there’s lots of other, (not always) better anime to pick apart!

This is also a little bit later than I would have preferred to get it out, now that most of the first half of my next week post is out. Sorry about that! I’m working on a series review, so it’s been a busy weekend.

sailor moon crystal black lady

1. Blood Blockade Battlefront episode 5: Will this show ever not be my no. 1? Not if it keeps the good work, it won’t. The whole ketchup sequence alone earned it its top spot here. But so does the story: “monomaniacal” girl creates The Perfect Boyfriend only for the two boys she merged to fall in love with each other. So do the bouncy, colorful visuals, and the music to match. It’s really hard to talk about this show because it’s always good and it’s always because every single element is working in tandem to make it perfect. One specific thing that’s getting clearer with every week is how much this is a Yazuhiro Nightow creation: his very American-comic-books sense of style combined with humanistic values. It makes me wish we could get that Trigun manga reboot one of these days. But we won’t, so I’m happy to “settle” for BBB, which isn’t even really settling because it actually might be better than Trigun after all. Whoever thought I’d say that?

2. The Heroic Legend of Arslan episode 5: Full review here. We meet another exciting character this week in the form of master archer and musician Gieve. If Arslan keeps introducing fun supporting players with the potential to shake up the story, I’ll stay pleased and keep giving it good reviews. I know this isn’t really an “Arakawa story,” but a lot of what made FMA so appealing was her big cast full of bigger personalities. Arslan shows some other similarities even with a different writer, and that’s one I’d really like to be true for it, too.

3. Plastic Memories episode 5: Yep, this was exactly what this show needed. This episode is spent almost entirely with our characters on the job, and we finally see what happens to Giftias when they start to degrade with Marcia’s devastating breakdown. I felt like it pulled out some of my interest in this larger world that it was just “oh they go senile and go on a rampage,” but we also saw that there are competing organizations with perhaps more nefarious plans for them. Hint hint: That’d be a great place to explore in future episodes as much as you can, Plamemo. Keep on this track of plotting and you’ll stay golden.

plamemo marcia week 5

4. Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works episode 17: Yay Lancer, and Archer returning to the right side! Or not really, I guess. The show is making it clearer and clearer who Archer’s true identity is, and I’m eager to see how he got there. How he became so bitter and cruel, especially toward someone…who may or may not be… oh come on, you all know what the deal is here, right? Anyway, I know Unlimited Blade Works is one of the routes where that’s revealed, so I was glad to see that built on this week. And Lancer is always entertaining. A solid episode.

5. My Love Story!! episode 5: Full review here. This slipped a little, because I’m really not liking our new character, Ai, or what she might mean for the show going forward. She’s unnecessary and more than a little creepy. But the episode’s still largely solid, funny and cute, so how can I complain too much? Ai better not let it slip any further, though.

6. Sound! Euphonium episode 5: This episode is pretty much pure band-nerdery. Maybe that’s why I personally found it less appealing, since marching band is one of the few experiences I haven’t had (though I’ve known many who were really into it, including my sister). I play cello and bass, what can I say? There are some important character moments for Kumiko near the end, when she realizes why her current school band is so important to her. She’s given the opportunity to hang out with middle school friends, but refuses it to focus harder on their performance. That’s an important step forward for her, but just one moment in an episode filled with marching band minutia and high-school hijinks. (And for all that focus, we only got to see a tiny slice of their actual performance!) I didn’t mind it, but Sound! Euphonium has done better.

At least their uniforms are really cute.

At least their uniforms are really cute.

7. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders episode 41: It’s crazy, I should love a baseball episode. And there was a lot to enjoy this week (even if Jotaro really should have chosen to bat second. C’mon, dude). But D’Arby the Younger is just so tepid compared to his older brother. I’m sure he’d love to hear that, given his smoldering resentment toward said brother, but the show doesn’t even really develop that beyond one flashback, either. Granted, this is Jojo’s, I don’t exactly expect deep character writing. What I do expect is entertaining characters, especially villains. Or failing that, to make them shit-your-pants terrifying. Younger D’Arby is neither. So it’s time to move on, Jojo’s.

8. Wish Upon the Pleiades episode 5: Full review here. This episode wasn’t nearly as good as last week’s, but it’s still better than the first few. I think fleshing out its cast is a good move for Pleiades. At the very least, it’ll be more engaging to watch for me. This is the stuff I loved growing up about Sailor Moon and other magical girl series, and if it can at least stay in the neighborhood of that, I’m happy.

9. Sailor Moon Crystal episode 21: The perennial underperformer continues to underperform. Shocking, right? It wasn’t for lack of strong material this time: The whole Black Moon arc is some of the strongest stuff from the manga, but particularly when we get into Chibiusa’s character development. She got the short shift in the anime, so I was eager for Crystal to impart some of what made her so compelling in manga form. She’s a scared but curious little girl robbed of the chance to grow up by fate, and the Black Moon Clan gives her that golden opportunity. Crystal, of course, destroys most of that powerful emotional resonance in presentation. It’s as lifeless and by-the-book as ever, where the original anime often livened up listless material with color and creativity. You aren’t even trying anymore, are you, Crystal? And that stinks, because this stuff could be good, but who would know from the way you’re dealing it? I continue to wonder if I’m going to suffer through the sequel series or not, when this show turns the franchise’s strongest stuff into such a snooze.

Ranking the Anime: Spring 2015 Week 4 (4/24-4/30)

This was a pretty strong week for a lot of shows. Consistent winners kept up their streak (Blood Blockade BattlefrontMy Love Story!!), underachievers fielded better-than-average installments (Wish Upon the Pleiades) and shows that lost their way got back on track (Plastic Memories, Heroic Legend of Arslan). The state of anime is in good hands! Here’s a look at how I thought they all stacked up:

Blood-Blockade-Battlefront-Episode-4

1. Blood Blockade Battlefront episode 4: We’re finally getting into the meat of this story, and its characters and themes, and this episode bombards you with content. But surprisingly, I didn’t find it hard to follow at all. You might need to rewatch it to catch everything, but is that really a minus when the show is this fun? Blood Blockade Battlefront is just the gift that keeps on giving, with every episode a gem that’s both a thrill ride and rife with stuff to dissect. The technical aspects keeps improving too, even from a base of “excellent.” For example, I’ve always loved the music in this show, but I really like how it’s making specific references to famous works like Beethoven 9 (last week) and The Magic Flute (this one). I can’t wait to see where they’re going from that–and with the humanistic-yet-batshit Nightow themes and sensibility that should be familiar to any Trigun fan. BBB feels like everything I ever expected and wanted from anime, as both a fan and a critic. You don’t get shows like that often, especially in weak seasons like this one. Hey, I’ll suffer through a lot more for another one of these.

2. The Heroic Legend of Arslan episode 4: Full review here. This was a huge step-up, and a big part of that was the introduction of Daryun’s pal Narsus. I love politically-involved fantasy (if my recent obsession with Game of Thrones isn’t any indication), and he’s the biggest key to where it’s going with this—which could be good, could be bad, but looks promising at least. Also, Narsus is just really fun and packs a lot more personality than anyone else.

3. My Love Story!! episode 4: Full review here. This material isn’t as strong as last week’s, because how do you top the fated love confession? But My Love Story!! shows a real investment in what happens after, and keeping that exciting. Its characters also behave a lot like real teens in love! You don’t get that much in shojo anime, idealism vehicle that it is. So that’s nice.

oh young love

Oh, young love.

4. Sound! Euphonium episode 4: This week’s episode wasn’t nearly as cohesive as other ones, but I still loved the heck out of it. Watching a high school band get its shit together is something I could do all day, because it’s something I lived. Heck, I’ve even been on the teacher’s end of things a few times, so I love how he’s a character in his own right. Like all good teachers, he struggles to make sure things get done while also being nice and getting down to the kids’ level. It’s a tricky balance with any sort of teacher, but especially with something like music, supposed to be the “fun” class yet one that absolutely requires a baseline readiness. At the same time, I’m kind having trouble understanding what people get out of episodes like this if they aren’t an ex-band-geek or otherwise really interested in the specifics of teens learning music. There are still a few moe moments—like when Kumiko confesses how much the trumpet player inspires her—but overall it seems like it’s playing more to music fanatics than KyoAni’s usual audience. As someone who’s firmly in the former group I’m thrilled about that, but I really wonder what it’s doing for others.

5. Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works episode 16: I’m perfectly fine with talky Fate episodes so long as they’re done well, and contribute something to the story besides just worldbuilding, pretentious dialogue or (especially) domestic shenanigans. (You can never have too little of the domestic shenanigans, and FSN pads whole episodes with them. And whole hours in the original visual novel. Gag me.) And this was a “done well” one. It moved forward the plot by shoring up an alliance between Team Shirou/Rin and Lancer, and also developed that central romance a little better. It’ll never get your blood pumping the way Illya and Berserker’s final battle did, or even Lancer’s original confrontation with our heroes way back in episode 1. But it’s still fun, important, and certainly could be worse. Especially when the faces are this great.

6. Plastic Memories episode 4: There’s still enough bullshit from previous episodes here for me to rank it relatively low. But Plamemo is getting back on track, and not a moment too soon. The most interesting thing about this show was always the questions about memory and grief at its heart, and we explore those more by watching Tsukasa and Isla do their job of retrieving old Giftias. We don’t get that from shipping bullshit that every anime ever has beaten to death. We could also get it from digging into who Isla is more, and all the signs that her own time is up. Unsurprisingly, there’s more to that this week than either of the two previous episodes. Thanks for getting back on the rails, Plamemo, now please stay there.

Gripping stuff.

Gripping stuff.

7. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders episode 40: I didn’t dislike this episode as much as a lot of people! But it’s undeniable that it’s something we’ve seen before over and over in Jojo’s, and specifically, it’s an uninspired retread of the previous D’Arby’s battles. It’s also something that was probably a lot fresher in the early 1990s than it is now: video game battles. That was new when gaming was still more an untested, niche nerd product, but when AAA games are as mainstream as Hollywood movies and we have multiple mega-hit anime based on “living in the video game world” (Sword Art Online, Log Horizon, the .hack// franchise, etc.) it’s hard to make this feel exciting. Jojo’s tries its best without deviating from the source material, but maybe some deviation could have worked here.

8. Wish Upon the Pleiades episode 4: Full review here. Pleiades improved by leaps and bounds this week, and if it’s still near the bottom, that’s only because even a great episode of this kind of show can’t compete with the other stuff I’m watching. That said, this gave me hope about riding this show out might be a more fulfilling prospect than I thought.

9. Assassination Classroom episode 14: There was nothing outright bad this week, but AssClass rockets to the bottom out of mediocrity. Like too many recent episodes of this show, this one just had too much going on. It had no real central organizing principle to it. Not that that automatically makes for great installments, as we see with Irina’s focus episodes. But at least it makes me feel like I have some reason to care about this increasingly-tired premise. Plus, the jokes usually land better when they coalesce around one idea. This week still had some funny ones, but they were few and far-between. Eh. It’d take a lot to get me to stop watching this at this point, but it needs to stop chugging along. I want it to move forward with purpose.

Ranking the Anime: Spring 2015 Week 3 (4/17-4/23)

So I got sick of making separate posts for my ANN reviews pretty quickly, and felt like they highlighted how little of other, Real Content I was writing for this blog. Instead I’m going to compile them–and my thoughts on other anime this season, since I always watch a lot–into a longer “Week in Review” post. I know, I know, this is something every anime blogger ever does. It’s not particularly original, but it’s fun if you’re watching enough shows. So hey, why not me too?

Here are my rankings for the third week of Spring 2015, from best to worst. This is usually when I drop something if I’m not feeling it, but the only one that qualifies is one I’m assigned to cover for ANN, Wish Upon the Pleiades. Oh well!

Illyasviel's skeletons (well, evil zombie moms) in her closet.

Illyasviel’s skeletons (well, evil zombie moms) in her closet.

1. Blood Blockade Battlefront episode 3: So far clearly the best show of the new season, Blood Blockade Battlefront just keeps improving. This episode follows and fleshes out Klaus V Reinherz, as he gets to use his Prosfair skills in dealing with an unscrupulous alien. I’m glad this isn’t just going to be Leo’s story, but it’s going to play around with all its colorful characters. Frankly, there’s not much I can say about this show that hasn’t been said better by others, but I will say that I’m loving even more how well it uses its music. It was fantastic to start with, but it keeps improving week by week. I’m not just talking about the Beethoven 9 in the episode’s climax (though a great use of that always thrills me), but the trippy Indian wailing and the blocky techno. It all sounds awesome and it’s all so expertly placed. Everything about Blood Blockade Battlefront is perfect and makes me eager to watch more by Rie Matsumoto.

2. My Love Story!! episode 3: Full review is here. My Love Story!! takes a bold step forward that could spell doom for it later, but in the moment I’m just wowed by what a thrilling turn this was. And Suna and Takeo’s adorably strong friendship.

3. Sound! Euphonium episode 3: This is a great show, and I love how rooted it is in the struggles of actual high school musicians. Other moe shows that focus on this sort of thing–like K-ON!, the most obvious comparison as another KyoAni work–always present some idealized version of this. But the frustration and lack of cooperation in here relates so well to my own high school orchestra days. We had a big group, that ran the full gamut in abilities and interest, and there were always issues with those who didn’t take it seriously holding the rest of the ensemble back. It feels especially weird to have that in an after-school club, though–at least with a required “arts elective” course, you don’t have a choice. I love music shows, and I love ones focused on plucky underdogs who may not always be the most motivated, and on the sad, passionate feelings of high school musicians. Sound! Euphonium’s mains are a particularly well-written, realistic bunch, especially for a KyoAni school club show. This continues to be right up my alley.

Asuka sure loves her instrument-based innuendos.

Asuka sure loves her instrument-based innuendos.

4. Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works episode 15: This was a strong episode in many ways, and that’s largely due to anime-original material. Like with Caster the previous week, ufotable adds to Illya’s backstory here to better explain her motivations. It makes her a richly compelling character, but I agree with Nick that it’s too little, too late. If like me, you’re somewhat familiar with the original visual novel, this is understandable to a certain extent: Illya gets more focus and development in other routes, and this just happens to be the one where she cuts out early. If this is meant to work as a stand-alone series or as a sequel to Fate/Zero, though, it’s a problem that she gets the shaft so soon. And her extra material feels a little superfluous when the show’s unable to go anywhere with it. I get they’d risk the eternal rage of Type Moon diehards if they didn’t follow the VN for the major plot beats, of which character death is certainly one. That doesn’t make it any less frustrating for those of us who are primarily anime fans.

5. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders episode 39: I loved the whole Pet Shop battle, though the previous episode was a little stronger. I mean, little shit of a Stand-wielding bird faces off against little shit of a Stand-wielding dog? What’s not to love? It was still plenty of fun, though, especially with Iggy’s fake-out at the end. And even though it only lasts for half the episode, the rest of it was great, too, with Kakyoin’s return and the set-up for meeting DIO. We’re in Egypt now, and with only a few days left before Holly kicks it. It’s time for the boys to get their heads in the game. And Jojo’s got us there as best it could.

6. Assassination Classroom episode 13: This was stronger than a lot of recent AssClass episodes. I like this show best when it’s all about Koro-sensei’s strengths as a teacher, and this was one of those–albeit, by pitting him against a straw man of a Bad Teacher and having the students duke it out for who got to teach them. The best thing about this episode was it also fleshed out and focused more on Karasuma, as the teacher the Straw Asshole was meant to displace. The material was often uncomfortable at times, moving away from the series’ typical goofiness. I wouldn’t say this is the best of AssClass, but it’s certainly among the show’s better half-hours.

7. The Heroic Legend of Arslan episode 3: Full review is here. Arslan still stumbles quite a bit, but it’s going in the direction I want it to go. It’s introducing new characters and opening up new adventures for our two mains, and moving away from talking boring battle stuff. That’s what I want. Also, more characters who don’t look like carbon copies of FMA ones, but with the new bishie-tastic Narsus, that looks like it’s happening! Yay!

I hope this guy isn't the  closest we get to a Mustang lookalike. HE HAS THE WRONG FACE.

I hope this guy isn’t the closest we get to a Mustang lookalike. HE HAS THE WRONG FACE.

8. Plastic Memories episode 3: I don’t think I disliked this as much as many others did, but along with the previous episode, it sure isn’t the show I was promised at first. None of this rom-com stuff hasn’t been done before, and better, in other series, and it’s such a shame to see it wasted here. Plastic Memories simply has too many interesting ideas and too few episodes to develop them, that we don’t have time for High School Rom-Com Hijinks. The last few minutes save it from the garbage heap, though, giving some intriguing character-building for Isla. But it’s broadcast that since episode 1. Let’s actually deliver on that next week, maybe?

9. Wish Upon the Pleiades episode 3: Full review is here. Suffice it to say, it does a lot to turn Pleiades into a real, engaging story and clears up confusion, but also confirms a lot of my worst fears for this show. (By which I mean the baby-moe fanservice. EW EW EW EW EWWWWWWWW.)

10. Sailor Moon Crystal episode 20: Why am I still watching this? I don’t know, I guess I’m just that much of a completionist with Sailor Moon. Anyway, this episode gives the reveal that Mamoru and Usagi are Chibiusa’s parents, a big, emotional moment in both the original anime and the manga. It reveals all the backstory for the Black Moon’s conflict. It’s one of the emotional lynchpins of this arc. And… it still falls flat as a pancake. And the animation and overall presentation is still horrendous. Why did I think this was going to get any better with the second half? I’m guessing because the Black Moon stuff is better in the manga, but not like that’s ever mattered a wink for this series. Its philosophy seems to be there’s nothing it can’t make boring. Maybe I won’t stick around to watch it butcher my favorite Sailor Lesbians after all.

Wish Upon the Pleiades Episodes 1-2

A very belated post, since this went up on Thursday. Sorry about that!

I’m not sure what to make of this show yet. It sure is a typical magical girl show! As I said in the review, that is a little refreshing in the wake of all the Madoka rip-offs we’ve seen recently. (Madoka is great. Other shows riding its coattails with nothing but GRIMDARK OMG SO GRIMDARK!!! …not so much.) But I grew up on the older kind of magical girl shows, and there’s nothing to distinguish it from those.

But hey, it was an ONA that was apparently popular enough to make into an anime series. There’s gotta be something that appeals about it…right? Right?

Here’s my review.

My Love Story!! Episodes 1-2

The second of my episode reviews is up for the spring season! My Love Story!! is the cutest thing I’ve watched in a while, and easily my favorite of the season so far. (And it’s had some stiff competition there in the form of Blood Blockade Battlefront and Sound! Euphonium, so that’s not nothing.) You should watch it right now if you’re a shojo romance fan. You should watch it right now if you’re not. You should watch it right now if you’re worried it’s going to be a Nice Guy (TM) fest, because it’s nothing like that and my review should specifically address your fears.

Read it all here.

The Heroic Legend of Arslan Episodes 1-2

For the spring season, I’ll be taking a page from others’ books and trying to link my ANN reviews here, if only to get more content for this blog at least. Here’s the first of the three shows I’m covering: The Heroic Legend of Arslan!

I requested this one partly just because the first episode intrigued me so much. But also because of its connection with Hiromu Arakawa. I love Arakawa’s art style but I’m kind of glad she’s not writing something like this. Her handling of tense racial and religious conflicts was dicey in the Fullmetal Alchemist manga (and done much better by the less faithful 2003 anime adaptation). I haven’t watched Legend of the Galactic Heroes yet, but I hear that Yoshiki Tanaka is good at that sort of thing. So I’m eager to see how this goes.

Read my review here.

Maria the Virgin Witch and Compulsory Sexuality

Trigger Warning for discussions of sexual violence.

2015 in anime started off right, with an unusually strong winter season. The winter season is usually the dumping-ground for bad light-novel adaptations and harem fanservice, and sure, there was plenty of that. But even before that got off the ground, there was strong hype for Yurikuma Arashi, the latest work by Utena and Penguindrum creator Kunihiko Ikuhara (and something I’m sure will get its own post), as well as new seasons for fan favorites like Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, Durarara!! and Tokyo Ghoul. (One of those supposedly didn’t live up to its hype, but that’s beside the point.) Even among the new stuff this season, there were a lot of strong choices. Unfortunately, all that hype meant some of the best of them were overshadowed for all but the most diehard anime-viewers.

Then again, looking at the way a lot of the Fandom Feminist Internet (and by that, I mainly mean Tumblr) has wildly misinterpreted Ikuhara’s anime that aren’t Utena, I’m kind of glad that they’re not watching Maria the Virgin Witch–another new show with similar criticisms of the patriarchy (but far less trippy symbolism). This show deals directly with female sexuality and society’s oppression of it in ways that aren’t necessarily relatable or comprehensible to the socially awkward, sex-starved nerds who tend to spend a lot of time obsessing over this online. (Speaking as such a nerd myself.) Maria’s protagonist is a victim of something that a lot of these women—and most white, privileged women in the West—don’t often deal with, but is much more common to other women’s experiences, and comes up a lot in anime for whatever reason. That topic is: compulsory sexuality.

maria the vw 2

I was first introduced to the concept of “compulsory sexuality” when I saw it come up a lot as a critique to white straight women’s conceptions of the virgin-whore dichotomy like Jessica Valenti’s The Purity Myth. Books like hers focus a lot on how much the patriarchy sucks for the women seen as virginal and pure, when they decide not to act that way. Yet, they tend to ignore what it’s like for women on the other end of the equation. When you’re seen as already having “destroyed” your innocence, through sexual or other “deviant” behavior, or you’re born into that category by virtue of being a racial or sexual minority, the purity myth looks very different. Instead of being expected to keep your legs shut at all times, now you aren’t allowed to close them ever. You have to be completely sexually available to men, and if you’re not there’s something wrong with you.

“You’re already a bad girl,” you’re told. “So why aren’t you a bad girl in the way that makes men happy? How dare you define it in your own terms?” It’s another way that society defines women purely in terms of who we are to men, and denies us any kind of sexual agency. Because it primarily affects marginalized categories of women, though, it doesn’t come up in Western media that much. But maybe it works differently in Japan, because it seems to come up over and over again in anime, from Revolutionary Girl Utena to new Lupin III series The Woman Called Fujiko Mine. Of these, Maria is probably the most direct about this topic.

maria the vw 3

Maria is, as the title implies, a witch. And a virgin, having focused all her time and energy on improving her magic. Her fellow witches, her owl sex-demons (yes, really), and…well, anyone who comes to know this about Maria, finds this juxtaposition highly unusual. As a woman who’s already on the outs with the church and its traditional ideas about female sexuality, why hasn’t she popped her cherry yet? Even though Maria is still a young teen, she’s constantly subject to pressure about why she doesn’t just lose her virginity yet. Supporters of the church see this as a way to either win her over to their side, or weaponize her sexuality against her. All this is set against the backdrop of the Hundred Years’ War: Maria is in France, which saw the bulk of the conflict’s death and destruction, and wishes to stop the fighting. Both the church and the warmongers themselves, as well as many local people who rely on both, are opposed to this. Maria is a girl ahead of her time, and her time had swift ways to deal punishment to those who stepped too far out of line that way. Especially women, and especially witches.

Maria’s being a witch is important, given the legacy of the trope in anime and in popular culture at large. “Witches” have long stood as warnings for girls who focus too much on themselves and not enough on domesticity or finding a husband: this is what you will turn into one day. Your power will corrupt you and make you evil, and you will be lonely with no husband or child to love. In anime specifically, the “magical girl” genre was inspired by the American show Bewitched, and many early magical girls were explicitly described as witches. Madoka Magica plays with this by having its innocent, sparkly magical girls corrupt into witches when consumed by the world’s despair (a theme more than a few people have interpreted as a feminist parable about female puberty). But perhaps the most important Anime Witch here is Anthy Himemiya from Utena.

anthy the witch

Utena is all about the patriarchy, and the way that it strictly prescribes roles for men and women, as “princes” or “princesses.” Everyone is either one of these things, or looks up to and wants to be like them. Anthy is the exception: the last woman who tried to usurp the prince role and failed, but less for masculine heroism (like Utena aspires to) and more to protect her brother. She wasn’t either role, but instead, a strange and uncomfortable merging of the two. For that blow against the system, refusal to follow its rules, she became a witch—and is constantly punished for it with the swords eating at her. She is the Other Woman, with no place even in the future her now patriarchy-corrupted brother promises Utena. Even before that finale, she had no agency in the world of Ohtori Academy, and it was all tied in with her compulsory sexuality. She was the spoils of whoever won the duels, and why shouldn’t she be? She was already ruined, so she didn’t get to say no. Anthy could only ever be cast aside in the perfect Ohtori world, ignored or turned into an object. So that’s how she was treated, and she was “evil” and “deviant” either way, and especially when she tried to find some small amount of agency in manipulation of others. (Hell, even the fandom buys into this.)

There are also shades of this type of female character in how Princess Tutu deals with its own “bad girl,” Rue. She is not a witch exactly, but a dark “magical girl” framed against a more “positive” one, as a way to critique these distinctions. Rue is actually very interested in a boy, but in a way deemed as too predatory, obsessive in the wrong ways. So Drosselmeyer casts her as the villain in his story, ignoring the pain in her life that’s made her the way she is. Once again, it’s because Rue doesn’t fit in the ideal world of Princess Tutu’s fairytale. Luckily, Tutu rejects Drosselmeyer’s divisions and reaches out to Rue, and they all find a happily ever after in a newer, more just world.

All of these characters inform Maria, and both our perception of her as audience members, and how she’s treated in our world. She, too, is punished for a strange combination of an accident of birth, and her choice to color outside the lines.

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 7.36.20 AM

On the topic of witches, I should say it’s meaningful that this particular feminist critique is set during the Late Middle Ages. Though the Middle Ages in general are often associated with “witch hunts” and burning, it was really only at the very end of the period, moving into the Renaissance, when they became a widespread phenomenon. The publication of infamous witch-hunting manual Malleus Maleficarum in the late 1400s, aided by the recent invention of the printing press, ignited the early modern “witch craze” or at least, spread it like wildfire. Maria is set right before the beginning of this hideous, misogynistic stain on European history, and I can’t help but think the historical placement is intentional. The women who were punished by it were those in similar positions to the witches of Maria’s world and the aforementioned anime worlds: those outside of society, or at least the traditional roles of maiden or wife. As the Reformation spread around Europe and more formerly-Catholic areas turned Protestant, similar ideas were used to attack and marginalize nuns, particularly ones who weren’t so eager to sacrifice even their limited education and authority for rushed, forced Protestant marriages. “Witch crazes” were ammo in both the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and for those movements’ discontents.

Of course, the characters’ attitudes toward female sexuality aren’t just late-medieval with regard to witches, but women in general. The period’s great “thinkers” debated whether women were naturally “purer” than men or…get this…”more promiscuous.” And when we were the latter, female sexuality was seen as innately dangerous and predatory. There’s a reason that succubi show up way more in folklore and popular culture than incubi. They were the greater threat, since the people who believed in this stuff saw women as more erotically-driven. After all, women were believed to be less intelligent than men, and therefore more easily tempted by baser desires. It’s a view that shows up in female sexuality through the end of the 18th century, only really going away with the advent of Victorian sexual attitudes…but even that really only applied to privileged women. The “women are more sexual” ideal just went underground, applied only to women society had deemed “degenerate” in another way. In both cases, the “looser” sexuality of women was seen as more reason for men to control them.

maria the vw 1

Of course, one of the reasons why some women do fiercely guard their sexuality is the high personal cost if things go wrong. In the era before widespread contraception and safe, accessible abortions, casual sex was fraught with peril for independent, career-driven women. If you got pregnant, say goodbye to any other goals you might have: your job now was to take care of your baby. It also often meant swift marriage to its father, who legally owned you and controlled your entire life. Society still hasn’t fully moved past this—our society still isn’t comfortable with women who prioritize their careers over raising a family—but it was far worse in Maria’s time.

The show has a useful analogue to this, too: Maria will lose her magical powers when she loses her virginity, thanks to the meddling archangel Michael. This not only keeps her from getting together with the boy she wants (Joseph), but also makes her an easy mark for the church once they learn her secret. Raping Maria shuts her up, and leaves her powerless and no threat to them. Sexual violence has been weaponized against women who step out of line throughout the centuries, but especially in times when effective contraception and safe abortions were nonexistent. It’s a metaphor that hits a little too close-to-home for many women.

So like Penguindrum before it, I can easily see people dismissing Maria’s feminist credentials for that plot point. Sensitively portrayed though it may be, using sexual violence to advance the plot cuts too close for many, and it’s also poorly handled in just about every other show. But to me, that’s all the more reason Maria deserves kudos for getting it right. Maria is indeed a feminist anime, for the poignant and direct way it engages with the pitfalls of female sexuality in a deeply patriarchal culture. It’s a testament to how great this season of anime is that I can say that. We thought we were blessed just by getting a new Ikuhara show, and Yurikuma Arashi has hit it out of the park consistently with its portrayal of lesbian oppression in Japan. For once, though, there’s more than one feminist-minded, woman-centric anime to choose from among currently airing shows. Do yourself a favor and give them both a look.