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.

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.

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.

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.

Top 10 Anime Soundtracks of 2014, Part 2

As the long-awaited follow-up to the first post, here are my top five favorite musical soundtracks of all the anime I saw in 2014.

5. Space Dandy

Composers: various

Space Dandy was a hard anime to place here, because it had such a huge team of people handling its music, to wildly varying results. The show was an anthology series in the truest sense, with the creative vision changing from piece to piece, and that included sonically. Some musical moments in Space Dandy are truly sublime, like those scored by the ever-reliable Yoko Kanno (who shows up again a little higher on this list), or any embracing the show’s love of all things funky. Others are…well, there was that weird “High School Musical” episode. Overall, though, I don’t remember many truly bad music choices in this series, and it always paid the close attention to musical placement that you’d expect from a Shinichiro Watanabe series. And it was fantastic enough times to earn its place on this list at number 5.

4. Tokyo Ghoul

Composer: Yutaka Yamada

Tokyo Ghoul’s composer seems like a newcomer to the anime-scoring biz, only 25 years old and with no other credits to his name in the ANN encyclopedia apart from this one and its sequel. What a debut it was! Tokyo Ghoul has a richly varied score, servicing the show’s many tones from the gentle slice-of-life scenes in the Anteiku café to, of course, its gory battles. It gets extra points from me for doing so much of the stuff I really, really love in horror scores: ominous chanting choirs (but not in the over-the-top way that Death Note ruined for all future anime), atonal piano and string flourishes, and punctuated low-string ostinatos. Consider how many different timbres, moods and harmonic progressions the above-linked track explores, and that’s just the battle music. Yamada’s score alone is enough to get me to watch his name on future shows, but the way the show uses the music adds even more to its greatness. The show knows just where to place each weird little cadence, and many of its best scenes wouldn’t be nearly as effective without his energetic music (up to and including Kaneki’s psychological torture sequence in episode 12).

3. Ping-Pong The Animation

Composer: kensuke ushio (various episodes of Space Dandy)

Ping-Pong itself left me a little cold, and I didn’t end up finishing it. But it was hard to deny how good its music was, and how well it fit with Yuasa’s unusual direction. Heck, most of the time I found I was watching more for the music than for anything else in the show. Sports anime can live and die by their soundtracks and how much they do or don’t match the energy of the action on-screen. That appears to result in more and more of them, from Free! to Haikyuu, embracing music that’s heavy on the electronic beats to match their high-intensity matches. Ping-Pong does this, too, for much of its soundtrack, but its much more ambient and minimalist than its brethren, with its tracks slowly building as gradual processes rather than rushing at you head-on. It’s like this even in its non-electronic tracks, like the one I linked above. I use the word “minimalist” to describe film scores a lot, but few go so far as to make you ask “are you sure Steve Reich didn’t write this?” Ping-Pong does, and in applying techniques like phasing to the click-clack of its plastic balls, it takes the trends of sports-anime scoring to their logical and transcendent extreme.

2. Terror in Resonance

Composer: Yoko Kanno (Cowboy Bebop, Wolf’s Rain, Escaflowne, Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex….need I really go on?)

It’s pretty much inevitable at this point that if Yoko Kanno composes the music to something, I’ll probably enjoy it on at least some level. Terror in Resonance was a muddled mess that I, nevertheless, still mostly enjoyed. It can’t just be excused as “not being what people wanted it to be about” like I saw its fans say; Terror in Resonance made it clear it wanted to say something about terrorism, and was way out of its depth in doing so. Yet, its smaller moments exploring the psychology of lost, abandoned children were powerfully resonant (hehe) in their grasp of the loneliness and ennui that comes from society leaving you behind. I don’t want to dismiss them because its larger aims failed.

Either way, though…those Watanabe production values! Especially the music!

Terror in Resonance is a little harder to categorize than most of Kanno’s scores. While she always traverses all over the stylistic map, there are certain trends that dominate one work or the other, from Cowboy Bebop’s jazziness to Wolf’s Rain’s orchestral heaviness. Terror in Resonance has its own distinct character for sure, but in a way that can’t be so easily summed up with a particular style. You’ll get the ballad linked above, in the style of Simon and Garfunkel or Pet-Sounds-era Beach Boys, or you’ll get gentle instrumental lullabies like this track. And then the steadily-creeping dread of this. And then…whatever this is. In general, it’s more atmospheric, less full of easily-hummable “tunes” than many of her other scores, but it sifts through a lot of different atmospheres. It shows the same great attention to detail, to episode, to moment that Kanno always does.

1. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders

Composer: Yuugo Kanno (Psycho-Pass, Birdy the Mighty Decode)

Hopefully this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, with how much I’ve gushed about how I adore the music for Stardust Crusaders on all my social media platforms. Maybe a surprise that I ranked it above a Yoko Kanno score. But now, you know…I really love the music in this show. Probably what I love about it is it’s just as weird, and wild, as the show itself. I talk about “variety” so much with music, but man, does Jojo’s score really show a lot of it, even though the series doesn’t vary much in tone from episode-to-episode. And it’s that variety that sells it so much for me. While none of the tracks alone are particularly bizarre or particularly “Jojo’s”—except for maybe the one I linked above—taken together, they’re a colorful rollercoaster of different instrumentations, moods and styles. It matches with the show’s own funhouse of Stands, environments and challenges as the characters make their way across Asia to confront Dio in Egypt. What’s more, the show has the bonus of bettering even the fantastic score and music direction of the 2012 series: not an easy feat!

Jojo’s is a music-obsessed series even in its silent manga form, so it deserves a killer soundtrack when transferred to film. From the unsettling dissonant strings of its tenser moments, to its characters’ distinctive leitmotifs, to the funky guitars of its sillier bits, Yuugo Kanno’s fun score more than delivers. It’s far from the most original music featured in anime, but it was the most entertaining and memorable for me. I was always aware of it when watching the show, but never in a way that pulled me out of the action on-screen. At the end of the day, there’s not much more I can ask for from an anime soundtrack, so I can’t help but give it no. 1.

Twelve Days of Anime #6: How Phantom Blood Made Me A Jojo’s Fan

2014 was the year I was introduced to the generation-spanning juggernaut that is Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. I started watching the Stardust Crusaders anime this spring, and enjoyed it enough to check out the 2012 anime series this past month. It’s a long, strange trip of a show unlike anything else out there, and fully deserving of its passionate cult following. But it wasn’t Stardust Crusaders that really made me a part of that following, that turned me into one of the Jojo’s obsessives who can’t shut up about it on Twitter.

Don’t get me wrong, Stardust Crusaders is an excellent show on just about every level; I put it on my top five for the year for a reason. It has great visuals, an awesome soundtrack, fun larger-than-life characters and is constantly topping itself in plot weirdness such that it’s impossible to look away. Yet, as much as I loved it, it wasn’t enough to suck me into the larger vortex of the Jojo’s franchise. I enjoyed its larger-than-life characters and ridiculous gags, but didn’t feel like I had a reason to care about the overarching story of the Joestar family and their dealings with Dio Brando. That only came this past month, when I started watching the 2012 anime that preceded it. Yep, Phantom Blood, derided by many as a boring slog and the weakest part of the Jojo’s anime so far, is what made me a Jojo’s fan.

JJBA PB Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 4.02.36 AM

It actually really puzzles me why people don’t like Phantom Blood. I get that Jonathan Joestar is pretty dull as Jojo’s protagonists go, although I personally found his selfless do-gooder personality endearing. But Jonathan is far from the only character, and the other ones—especially Speedwagon and especially Dio—are enough to carry a series on their own. Honestly, Jonathan’s simplicity and sincerity is a lot of why Phantom Blood works for me. It makes sense why he’s the kind of guy who would draw so many people into his orbit willing to help him—something his descendants have struggled with in Stardust Crusaders. It also adds a lot of humor to Dio’s intense grudge against him. It’s hard to understand why anyone would hate this guy, let alone hate him intensely enough to spend every waking moment trying to ruin his life.

Those two points distill the things that work so well for me with Phantom Blood compared to Stardust Crusaders. The first is the character relationships. The team in Part 3 hit off each other well, too, but that’s not fundamentally why they’re there. They just happen to have a common goal. Yet, so many characters join Jonathan’s fight against Dio simply because they’re enraptured by Jonathan. Of course I’m mainly talking about Speedwagon, a random London bum who is so overtaken by Jonathan’s forthright personality he instantly falls in love with him. (This isn’t debatable.) Will Zeppeli is so immediately impressed by Jonathan’s drive that he dedicates himself to teaching the boy a complicated art he’s spent his life perfecting. It’s these bonds that tie everyone together that make it so heartbreaking when these characters meet tragic fates as the series progresses. Even as little development as Erina gets in Phantom Blood, there’s enough that it destroys me when she watches her new husband die on their honeymoon. (Battle Tendency, of course, does a lot more with her character, and displays just how smart Jojo’s character writing is. How did the sweet girl turn into such a gruff old lady? Because, as one of my friends put it, life kept kicking her in the ass. Anyone would harden from that.)

The other thing that I love about Phantom Blood is the humor. Stardust Crusaders made me laugh out loud a whole bunch, too, but I knew when that was coming. All its jokes are completely intentional. With Part 1, sometimes you really can’t tell what is supposed to be funny and what is the show earnestly trying to make its silliness serious. I’m talking about moments like “my sword of LUCK and PLUCK,” or Dio bragging from his throne about how “this town is now mine” while surrounded by a menagerie of chimeras. Let’s not forget Speedwagon’s ridiculous expressions for every possible moment. How can you not love this face?

I'm committed to getting as much use out of this screencap as possible.

I’m committed to getting as much use out of this screencap as possible.

Phantom Blood–the 2012 series in general, really–also is extremely impressive on the visual front. I thought that Stardust Crusaders had some psychedelic color schemes, but the first part uses them to even greater effect, and more frequently. Not only does it just look way cool, but it highlights the characters’ psychological states to suddenly change their coloring and textures when we’re looking in their heads. Stardust Crusaders used this a little bit, but mostly only for battle scenes. It makes me feel like I’ve come to know Part 1’s characters a lot better. And…did I mention it looks cool? REALLY REALLY COOL.

JJBA PB Screen Shot 2014-11-25 at 10.26.15 PM

Now I’m well on my way into Part 2: Battle Tendency, which so far, combines the strengths of Parts 1 and 3 into what is basically the perfect Jojo’s arc. (It doesn’t hurt that Joseph is one of the show’s best protagonists, either, far superior to either his grandfather or grandson.) Battle Tendency is a fun show all on its own, as it introduces a new crazy cast of Joestar allies to fill out its Indiana Jones-style adventure plot. Yet, it’s more resonant knowing the piece it plays in the larger Joestar family saga, knowledge that can only come about because of that story’s first part. Phantom Blood is the heart of the Jojo’s story, what started it all and what makes it so meaningful. I would think that to love Jojo’s is to love it. Or, at least, Speedwagon.

Twelve Days of Anime #5: Streaming Anime and “Power Hours”

In the spring season, the two far-and-away best series (by most viewers’ estimations, anyway) were Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders and the new season of Mushi-shi. The latter’s new season was vastly superior to even the excellent first, and a lot of people felt the same way about Jojo’s (as I make my way through the first two arcs, I’m not entirely sure I agree with this). Since just about everyone was watching and enjoying both of these shows and they aired on the same day (Friday), they gained their own nickname on Twitter: the “Jojoshi Power Hour.” A lot of it was a joke about what completely opposite shows they were (as I briefly detail here), and how jarring it was sometimes to watch them back-to-back. Yet, a surprising number of us started doing that, including me. Those Fridays in spring were some of the best hours I’ve had in anime-viewing this year.

JJBA Screen Shot 2014-09-13 at 5.33.39 PM

“Power hours” as a concept, if I’m not mistaken, come from children’s programming blocs (or channels, like Toon Disney or Cartoon Network) that would air two episodes of the same show “back-to-back,” or ones of separate shows that were linked in some way. (At least, I remember those channels describing stuff that way when I was a toon-watching kid.) As an adult, where you’re voluntarily watching these series whenever you want, it’s a fun way to organize your viewing habits. A lot of us grown-up anime viewers also watch a lot of live-action American TV dramas, whose episodes are usually an hour rather than half-hour long. It can be a fun way to keep our attention spans stable across the two media. And when a bunch of people were doing this, it helped ensure you were watching along with everyone else—one of the best things about the proliferation of legal anime streaming. Anyway, 2014 gave us a lot of opportunities for “Power Hours.”

In the summer, there was the Fujoshi Power Hour on Wednesdays, with fangirl-bait Free! Eternal Summer and actual BL title Love Stage both airing that day. I loved both those shows and, with the exception of Free!’s weird (but excellent) streak of more psychological episodes in the middle, they usually hit the same tonal notes for me. So I could easily mix and match them, though Free! coming out a few hours earlier meant it was usually what I watched first. But not always. Sometimes, I just need to wake up my senses on Wednesdays with the clueless baby-gays.

No, not these two.

No, not these two.

This season’s “power hour” is the ART Hour on Thursday, when we have Shirobako and Your Lie in April. Both deal with the struggles of young people trying to make it in artistic fields, with a mixture of comedy and drama. (The latter is considerably more dramatic than the former.) This is one I can’t really “break,” per se, because I have to review both shows for ANN. It still makes it kind of difficult to watch them back to back considering their overlapping subject matter, and how much both resonate with my life as a writer and musician. I kind of have to put a few hours’ distance between my viewings of each just to make sure my impressions don’t bleed into each other. I envy some of my friends who can watch them days apart, and not have to go through an existential crisis about their career every Thursday.

With this pair, I’ve been pretty strict about watching Shirobako first, since it airs first and therefore my “deadline” for it comes up first. I’m starting to wonder, though, if that’s really the best decision, especially since I usually turn these guys in with ample time to spare. Your Lie in April’s last few episodes have been very emotionally draining, and now it’s hard to look forward to doing more work with that show if I’ve just been perked up by Shirobako. (At least, that’s how it makes me feel most of the time. It’s pretty good at laying on the pathos when it wants to, but rarely with the devastation that Your Lie in April achieves. Shirobako hasn’t broached child abuse yet, after all.)

Still, it can hurt when it wants to.

One of Shirobako’s more hurtful moments…

There were less “powerful” hours, too, this year. Saturdays in the summer, Aldnoah Zero and Captain Earth formed my “mecha” hour, and both ended up failures to various degrees. (Aldnoah Zero was at least like watching a trainwreck in slow-motion. Captain Earth was just boring.) That was a slog, and if I got through it, it was just that the “hour” gave me the chance to burn it out of my system really quickly. The things I do for you, anime, and my desire to be a well-rounded anime watcher who’s seen both the good and the bad.

I’m interested to see if the next year will bring with it any oddly similar (or in the Jojoshi case, strikingly dissimilar) shows that happen to be airing the same day, that we can organize these ways. Bring on the winter season and its own power hours!

(P.S. In case you’re wondering why this is so behind, I had a lot of work to do yesterday that left me unable to blog on here. I’m planning to write two posts today to make up for this.)