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.

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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.

Top 10 Anime Soundtracks of 2014, Part 1

Music is a very important part of how I experience anime, and film media in general. It’s something that I find is often underdiscussed among fans, and as a musicologist who focuses on film scores, I find that a shame. It’s a very key part of any film work’s emotional experience, just one that succeeds too well to the point that it slips under our noses. It’s usually subliminal, and on top of that, a lot of people don’t know how to talk about music. Well, I do, and since I already wrote up a top five favorite series of the year post for ANN, this one covers my favorite TV anime soundtracks of 2014.

I’ve been promising this post for a while, so here it is in the first of two parts. I kept getting delayed partly because choosing my favorite background music is such a difficult endeavor. There’s so much to consider: not only the quality of the music itself, but how it fits with the atmosphere of the show, and how the show uses it. (I should note: this is purely judging on stuff that was in the runtime of the episode, not OPs and EDs.) There were about four shows that I floated that didn’t make the list (that I might discuss in the second post as “honorable mentions”). Here are the ones that did, and why, starting with #10-6:

10. Your Lie in April:

Composer (of original material): Masaru Yokoyama (Arakawa Under the Bridge, Rolling Girls)

As a show about classical music, it’s predictable to put Your Lie in April on here, I suppose. Of course it has good music, with all the classics in its repertoire, and of course it uses them well, since the characters are performing them and usually picked them for highly personal reasons. (One such example in the above clip, where Kaori plays a piece by Beethoven. Both her and Kosei choose Beethoven pieces early on, representing their tortured paths to and forms of artistry.) Yet, the show’s original score also shines brightly, full of ambient minimalism as a backdrop to its many personal and psychological scenes. Even beyond the Beethoven and Chopin, Your Lie in April’s music is worthy of a standing ovation.

9. Mushi-shi: The Next Chapter:

Composer: Toshio Masuda (Naruto)

A lot of Mushi-shi is an exercise in “less is more,” and that’s as true with its music as it is with anything else. Mushi-shi is very minimally scored, preferring to let the sound effects of nature do its talking for it a lot of the time. So when it does have music, it can be quite striking, even if it’s just a quick motif on a solo instrument. The dissonant chimes that come in whenever Ginko starts explaining the mushi-of-the-week are jarring, shaking awake the viewer and the feature character to listen to his explanations for the cosmic-horror-of-the-week. Yet, its music can also gently sing you to sleep again, as in the lullabies that drift into the ending credits. The track I picked is one that falls somewhere in the middle, usually coming in as the mushi works its magic. Mushi-shi’s score is pure leitmotif, only coming out sparingly for a very singular idea or mood, like the shy mushi themselves.

8. Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun:

Composer: Yukari Hashimoto (Penguindrum, Yuri Kuma Arashi, Toradora!)

The slice-of-life comedy genre rarely climbs to the top of OST lists, since so much of it leans toward the predictable. It’s the same gentle piano flourishes with maybe a bit of bouncy pop when things get silly. Nozaki-kun had some of this, but it was always memorable and original in its own way. This was especially true in its choice of instruments. The tuba is the best comedy instrument, and it was the perfect accent for Nozaki, the deep-voiced stoic with a silly streak. Why don’t more comedy anime use the tuba? Why don’t more everything use the tuba?

7. Rage of Bahamut: Genesis:

Composer: Yoshihiro Ike (Ergo Proxy, Tiger & Bunny)

Like everything in Bahamut, its music sounds like a big Hollywood movie: from the frantic strings for rising action to the ominous choruses for big reveals. It’s the sort of epic fantasy scoring you’d expect in your Lord of the Rings and other movies about long journeys to fight CGI dragons or orcs, because that’s the sort of beast that Bahamut is. I think my favorite and most memorable part of the score is all the weird little western flourishes whenever Favaro did something badass, like trumpet fanfares. It’s not as creative as I initially expected it to be, which is why it isn’t higher on this list, but there’s a lot to love about Bahamut’s music anyway.

6. Kill la Kill:

Composer: Hiroyuki Sawano (Attack on TitanAldnoah.ZeroBlue Exorcist)

I didn’t do a 2013 list, so I decided to include shows that started then but continued into the next year–and with those parameters, I couldn’t not include Kill la Kill. It had some of the most memorable and fun OST tracks in a long time, the kind that fans download right along with the OPs and EDs. Personally, I wasn’t always a fan of the way the music was used in the series’ first cour, but it picked up steam by the time January rolled around. The musical styles fit the series like a glove: They could range in mood from silliness to pumping you up, but the score was always as bombastic as what was happening on screen. Like a lot of Kill la Kill viewers, my favorite track by far was Ragyo’s leitmotif, “Blumenkranz” (linked above), the singer’s clumsy German pronunciation aside. Hiroyuki Sawano sure has a knack for bringing the musical energy to battle-centric popular favorites.