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.

love live sunshine for blog x

#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.

thunderbolt fantasy for article

#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.

91 days for blog for real

#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.

did i mention this show is weird

#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.

orange-anime blog

#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.

Spring 2016 Anime in Review

I haven’t written as much about streaming anime here for a few reasons: a) I’ve been really busy with other projects, and b) I’ve had really bad anime burnout for several seasons. Covering every single show last spring (a whole year ago!) didn’t help, and contributed to my malaise with updating this blog. Luckily, sometimes all it takes to get you out of burnout mode is one really good season, to remind you why anime is good and why you got into it in the first place. That’s what came along for me for with this past season.

This spring season was very strong, with a whole bunch of stuff I really liked and kept following to the very end. I wrote about a couple of my favorites and my least favorite for ANN’s new “best and worst of the season” feature, so those three will have shorter impressions. Somehow, I still found more to say, along with the detailed explanations of how I felt about the other seven titles on this list. Here we go!

summer 2016 anime flying witch

#1 Flying Witch

Flying Witch is, to me, the gold standard of iyashikei (or “healing”) anime, up there with Mushishi, Kino’s Journey and the like. Granted, I didn’t love it quite as much as those shows; they’re thought-provoking as well as soothing, while Flying Witch is just really good at being soothing. I found myself looking forward to it week after week, more than any other show—because it was a break from my problems, but it also presents an engaging fantasy world filled with fun, lifelike characters that made it easy to see myself in it.

You can watch all of Flying Witch on Crunchyroll.

#2 Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable

My order shuffled a bit since the ANN Best and Worst. I debated hard even at the time whether to put this or Tanaka-kun second, and ultimately concluded—after I’d submitted my write-up—that Jojo’s was probably the more deserving title. As zany and nonsensical as Jojo’s is, especially this season, it knows how to have a good time better than any other anime. It always has stellar animation, art and music (even if it can’t quite reach the amazing soundtrack of the previous arc, Stardust Crusaders, this one is still up there). It’s uproariously funny, in the kind of genre-parody way where you’re not totally sure if it’s intentional or if the creator is just a very strange person (and the introduction in this arc of his “self insert,” the mangaka Rohan, makes the latter theory all the more likely).

Diamond is Unbreakable might be my favorite Jojo arc yet, though, which is no easy feat because I love them all. The main characters are all lovable and fun, the Stands and conflicts around them are even weirder, and it’s all about how incredibly bizarre suburban life can be. It’s immediately relatable to someone who hated the suburb she grew up in, but at the same time, remembers how much fun it was to explore as a kid. Something about suburbia’s aggressive normalcy makes you think there’s always a skeleton lurking around in some closet—and in Diamond is Unbreakable, this is as true as it will ever be.

You can watch the current episodes of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure on Crunchyroll, with new episodes every Friday. I highly recommend watching one of the earlier arcs before beginning Diamond is Unbreakable.

#3 Tanaka-kun is Always Listless

Tanaka-kun started off living up to its title, but it quickly improved as it introduced more characters and more jokes. Ultimately, it was that strong characterization and consistent, varied humor that lifted it ahead of Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto among the zany school comedies this season, even though I wasn’t initially watching it and only picked it up partway through the season. It didn’t matter; Tanaka-kun is as much of a joy to binge-watch as it is to watch weekly. It bears some similarities to Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun, although it isn’t quite on that series’ level of comedic excellence. It just manages to do similar things well in its own, listless way. It was enough that, with the previous two, it was my most anticipated show week after week, and I’m still sad that it’s over.

You can watch all of Tanaka-kun is Always Listless on Crunchyroll.

summer 2016 blog post mha

#4 My Hero Academia

I’m going to write a lot about this one, because I feel like a bit of an outlier here: My Hero Academia never connected with me as personally as it did with other critics. To sum it up, it was a little too Weekly Shonen Jump for my tastes. The big shonen hits that got so many of my friends into anime, from Dragonball Z to Naruto to One Piece, have always kind of bored me; it was the more “adult” aspects of anime, not so much the sex and violence but the more thoughtful themes and complicated morality, that got me hooked on the medium as its own thing. Jojo is my one exception, and that’s largely because Jojo feels like a parody of the camp and oversimplicity of shonen battle series.

All that being said, I still had fun with My Hero Academia. It gives you characters that are easy to root for, and there’s a lot of that kid wish-fulfillment feeling about going to a school that teaches how to fight and be AWESOME with your AWESOME POWERS! Deku is one of my favorite shonen heroes ever, and I think a lot of that is because he averts the usual “chosen one” narrative; he’s very much not chosen, but earns his place through his pluckiness and loveable nature. On top of all that, My Hero Academia has the amazing production values to be expected of Studio BONES, including a rousing soundtrack that feels as heroic as its characters.

I guess what I can say is that I liked MHA best when it was closer to the “superhero Hogwarts” side of things. Getting too deep into real battles left me a little bored. When I could focus, though, it was hard to deny MHA is one of the best anime of the year so far, even if it doesn’t reach me as well as it does apparently anyone else. I’ll definitely still be tuning in for the next season. I want to see where these characters and their heroic journeys go.

You can watch all of My Hero Academia on Funimation and Hulu.

#5 Concrete Revolutio

I fall somewhere in the middle of the Concrete Revolutio debate. I don’t think its messiness dooms it; there are still too many interesting ideas there. I do think it keeps it from becoming a masterpiece. Sure, it’s a visual explosion, with top-notch BONES animation, and a quirky comic-book art style that fits its attempt to be a Japanese Watchmen. The period setting made it a lot of fun to figure out which events each episode was referencing (as a Westerner where they wouldn’t be immediately apparent), and made it a loving homage of 1960s-70s-era anime superheroes.

Where ConRevo stumbles is with the themes, where it also promised as strong of a pedigree, especially considering who worked on it: director Seiji Mizushima and screenwriter Sho Aikawa, who also made my favorite anime, the first Fullmetal Alchemist. FMA manages the balance between the timeless/universal and the pointedly political far better than ConRevo does. The latter ultimately settles for a surprisingly simplistic theme about the need for the ideals heroes provide even in a complicated world, one that I’m not sure justifies its historical setting and political references. That and the weak character development (especially for the female characters) keep it from the top for me. Still, it raises plenty of interesting ideas along the way, and I still wholly recommend it for people wanting an anime that rewards their brain as well as their eyes and ears. This is especially true of the season that aired this year, which put aside the first half’s confusing attempts at character- and worldbuilding to tell a strong, cohesive set of stories.

I can’t believe I wrote this much about a show that I’ve already written so much about in my reviews for ANN. Go read those if you want my full take on this strange, uneven, but exciting and ambitious show. You can watch all of Concrete Revolutio on Funimation. The first season is also available on Hulu.

summer 2016 anime joker game

#6 Joker Game

Joker Game had a really intriguing first episode, that seemed to be setting up for a series that had a lot to say about World War II and the spies’ role in it. It had a few more episodes like that…and then it set into a pattern with that early potential not really going anywhere. It became clear Joker Game was just a cold period spy thriller, featuring a different character each episode. While the series did overall have a cynical worldview about war and the people who made it their business, it seemed to eschew politics in favor of just letting us into the lives of the spies. Unfortunately, it didn’t really do that either, because of the lack of character development for its spy leads. It was easy to believe at first that this was just a function of the episodic nature of the show, where each spy had his different day in the limelight. Yet at the end of the show, it confirmed this was the point; the show upheld the idea that spies are better spies when emotions and human connections don’t get in the way.

Like many western-style dramas, especially period pieces, Joker Game had the potential to reach a wider audience outside of anime fandom. Instead, it narrowed its audience, to two groups that don’t have much overlap with anime fandom: fans of fancy-looking historical dramas, and fans of terse spy thrillers. Luckily, both of those groups include me, especially the first one, so I enjoyed this extremely well-made (and, especially, well-scored) iteration of those. But even for me, this show exists in the shadow of what it could have been, especially a season after one of anime’s best period dramas, Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu.

You can watch all of Joker Game on Crunchyroll.

#7 Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress

At its best, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress was a non-stop thrill. Its visuals were so top-notch it almost felt like watching a Ghibli movie in its landscape scenes, especially with its mix of the historical setting and fantastical circumstances. Of course, once the plot starts up again, you remember immediately this is actually from the wild mind of director Tetsuro Araki, with its ultra-violence, frenetic action sequences, and pumping soundtrack (provided, as usual, by Hiroyuki Sawano). Kabaneri is Araki at his most Araki, inviting automatic Attack on Titan comparisons with the zombie-like monsters destroying what remains of humanity and the fighters floating around in their 3D gear. Unfortunately, Kabaneri was never as strong in its characters or themes as Attack on Titan; it was more purely pulp, and even the plot fell apart in the second half. I’m not sure if Attack on Titan was ever as energetic as Kabaneri, though, which helped keep it chugging along as the ever-cheesier plot twists threatened to derail it. (Okay, no more train jokes.)

You can watch all of Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress on Amazon Prime.

summer 2016 anime luluco

#8 Space Patrol Luluco

Space Patrol Luluco was a great dose of nugget-sized fun every week. I really loved it when it was a cute little story about Luluco trying to rescue her dad, and falling in love with another space patroller. It moved away from that in its later episodes as it became more of an extended homage to other Trigger and Imaishi anime, from Kill la Kill to Little Witch Academia to even Imaishi’s Japan Animator Expo short, SEX and VIOLENCE with MACHSPEED. Trigger is great at poking fun at itself, and I’ve seen most of this stuff so I get the references. Yet that shift in focus was away from what I liked the most about Luluco, the heartfelt little story that was at its core. I’d still highly recommend Luluco, but anyone starting now is probably better off, because they’ll know what they’re in for.

You can watch all of Space Patrol Luluco on Crunchyroll.

#9 Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto

I didn’t end up watching through all of Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto, so it says something that I still feel like it’s worth listing. I found a lot of the show funny, but it stretched my patience watching its repetitive gags play out over an entire half-hour. I think Sakamoto would have been better as a short anime, especially in this era that’s shaping up to be the golden age of under-five-minute series. Sakamoto excelled for me in the moment, but struggled as quarter-hours (to paraphrase a famous quote about Wagner’s music). I’m sure I’ll get around to finishing it eventually, but I’ll always wonder what could have been.

You can watch all of Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto on Crunchyroll.

#10,000 Kumamiko: Girl Meets Bear

I already wrote a detailed take-down of the final episode of Kumamiko: Girl Meets Bear in my final review of the show and my Best/Worst of the Season for ANN. I’ll just say here that I’ve never seen a show tank so hard in the space of one episode, and in a way that feels like it’s designed to give somebody the middle finger. Whether that’s the fans or it was just supposed to be someone on the creative team (with the fall-out that occurred on social media around the time the episode aired), it certainly reverberated for all involved as it was also a huge insult to the characters, with negative character development dooming them to the worst possible fates. Sure, the show always had issues with its portrayal of Machi’s social anxiety, and how it reveled in her and other female characters’ discomfort, but it at least usually ended on a hopeful note and had enough genuine laughs along the way to keep you happy. Not so with this mess of an ending, the kind that casts a shadow on the entire show.

If you must, you can watch all of Kumamiko: Girl Meets Bear on Funimation.

Next up: I’m posting a summary soon of how I feel about the Summer 2016 series so far, and possibly some episode recaps for my two favorite shows this season.