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 #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.)

Summer 2014 Anime: Part 2 – The Sophomore Class

So here is the long-belated follow-up to my post on the 2014 Summer Anime. Before getting to the original series, however, I’m going to take a look at some series that are continuing from the spring season. I didn’t plan to do a separate post on these, but I’ve noticed significant shifts in quality or tone in some of their second halves, so I figured they warranted their own post in examining how anime is doing this summer.

Of the series I watched this spring, three of them – Captain EarthHaikyu!!; and the new Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure series, Stardust Crusaders – kept episodes up into the current season. I’ll discuss what I think has changed or stayed the same about each of them, along with the new Black Butler series, Book of Circus. Since I left it out of the “sequel series” posts, it’s included here – especially because I watched the original series recently enough for it to feel like a “continuation” to me anyway.

In rough reverse order of how much I’m enjoying each of them:

CAPTAIN EARTH: Up to Episode 19

In which the series passes the Bechdel test.

At least it passes the Bechdel test?

Captain Earth is one heavily-anticipated series that sort of.. fell flat. It is and was never by any means bad, but it certainly didn’t live up to the high expectations for a Studio BONES coming-of-age mecha series written by Yoji Enokido, the brains behind RahXephon and FLCL. The first couple of episodes showed promise as each character was introduced, and then it went in circles with repetitive battles for its first half, making it hard for the viewers to care much about the conflict or the characters beyond the occasional slice-of-life moment among the four kids. And even those were ones we’d seen in plenty of other anime. Those first 12 episodes were quite the uphill battle, and I imagine most people dropped it if they weren’t invested enough in the creation team to hope it would improve.

Well, come summertime, Captain Earth is no longer a slog. The current arc, with the villains awakening more of their team in ordinary humans, resembles the “Rainbow Crystals” arc of the old Sailor Moon anime – contrasting these people’s (usually sad) ordinary lives with the dramatic personalities and goals they gain when awakened. They still don’t get the degree of development or sympathy that Sailor Moon pulled off with the Rainbow Crystal bearers, but they’re at least interesting enough to keep viewers tuning in. The trade-off, of course, is that protagonist Daichi has become a bystander in his own story as the focus has shifted elsewhere. Even Hana has become a more interesting character than he ever was as her backstory and reason for being were explored more in the last few episodes, and it’s hard to see why Daichi is the “main character” in the first place. The last couple of episodes at least seem to nod at exploring his psyche, and how it’s been affected by the enormous role he’s been given as the titular “Captain Earth”. But it’s just that: nods. Nothing substantial has happened. Akari, too, has only had tilts in the direction of her being more than a quirky hacker who sees herself as a magical girl, though those “tilts” still seem to hint at more than what Daichi’s been given lately.

At least with Captain Earth we can enjoy the high production values expected with a BONES effort. Not every series BONES has done is good, but it always looks good. It’s just hard to care much for that when the material is so lacking. Enokido has shown a real knack for character-writing and a depth of understanding of the adolescent mind in other series, like Ouran High School Host Club. Where is it this time?

HAIKYU!!: Up to Episode 19

Hinata, in an image.

Hinata, in an image.

Haikyu!!, on the other hand, is a show I didn’t go in with as high of expectations. I’m always a bit hesitant with sports anime; I’m terrible at sports myself and only been able to get into watching a few of them. Free! was the only one I watched before this, but it was more about the characters and their relationships with each other and the sport, than the actual competitions; plus, swimming happens to be the one sport I’m good at and where I’ve actually practiced.

Well, if Haikyu!! is any indication, “characters and their relationships with each other and the sport” is the rule for most sports anime. At least in the first half of it, which started with Hinata as a middle-schooler volleyballer who’s middling on talent, but high on spunk. Even when his team disbanded after losing in a tournament, he continued to practice spiking with anyone who would join him. The end of the episode then moves to his high school, where he finds out that the main player of the team that kicked them out of the competition is now his own teammate. The first string of episodes focuses on their initial antagonism developing into friendship, as well as the other characters on the team and their own relationships with volleyball.

The second season has slumped a bit, as it’s moved its focus to tournament matches. It’s done a little bit of the character-focus with other teams, and the Karasuno (main characters’ school) characters’ histories with each. For example, Karasuno’s victory over Dateko – whose defeat of them the previous year triggered enough anxiety in Karasuno’s ace Asahi to make him leave the sport – was a moral high point stretched out over several episodes. And one episode focused on all the teams who lost in the first round, including the one Karasuno defeated, and their own girls’ team. While those were interesting, overall it’s kind of hard to keep as closely-focused if you aren’t yourself fascinated with the sport of volleyball.

The first half of the series showed why sports anime is picking up speed with the success of Free! Even if you yourself are not an athlete, you can probably relate to the feeling of being a part of a team, and of practicing toward a larger goal. As someone who did a lot of band and orchestra in high school, I see a lot of my teenage experiences mirrored in sports stories – especially with the similarities between practicing an instrument and a sport. But when the focus is just matches and ball-hitting action, it will lose a few people who aren’t there just for that.

Well, at least the series continues to be eye-poppingly animated, and chockful of humor and heart. I know that that will keep me watching until the very end, even if I don’t find the curve of a particular serve all that engaging.

BLACK BUTLER: BOOK OF CIRCUS: Up to Episode 4

Sebastian Michaelis puts the rest of us crazy cat ladies to shame.

Sebastian Michaelis puts the rest of us crazy cat ladies to shame.

Black Butler started off its new series in traditional “recap” fashion – showing a typical episode of the original series to get viewers up to speed. Since it was my first experience with the franchise at all, I found it interesting, enough to get me to watch the original, but it was probably dull and unnecessary to those who are familiar with it and just want to jump into the circus-ing. Even the second episode, when the plot started in earnest, still featured reappearances of some favorite characters from previous arcs. (Not that I mind when they’re my favorite characters in the whole series.)

But now that that’s underway, this new series is starting to find its feet. The “Book of Circus” is many manga fans’ favorite arc, or so I’ve heard. Like most of the show, it involves creepy supernatural hijinks in the form of a crime for Ciel to solve: a traveling circus with a Pied-Piper-esque affect on local children. It’s good to see the series that’s infamous for “losing its way in order to please the shippers fanbase”, get back on track – returning to the heart of the series, the original manga that inspired it and that’s still running. If the anticipated “Book of Murder” specials are any indication, it looks like it will continue to adapt new manga arcs as long as there is more fan money to be spent. (And based on all the Black Butler cosplays and merch I saw this past weekend at Otakon, there will be for quite a while.)

The downside of having a built-in fanbase is the production team doesn’t feel the need to put as much effort into this latest installment. The animation took a noticeable step down from the first series, at least. But in a reverse of what I said about Captain Earth, this only matters so much if the material is strong. And so far, it’s easy to see why this arc is such a fan-favorite, from the unsettling mystery behind it all, to a colorful new cast of characters associated with the titular circus, to all the comedic potential of forcing privileged Ciel to live in a tent as a vagabond circus performer. There’s a lot to work with here, and the first three episodes of “plot” have shown a lot of potential.

Best, perhaps, is the sequence at the end of episode four, where the circus’s hypnotic effects on children is first revealed to the viewer – from the child’s perspective. The sequence depicting her fairy-tale hallucination and contrasting it with the actual action shows this team still has the potential for good visuals when they want to use it. Let’s hope they do.

JOJO’S BIZARRE ADVENTURE: STARDUST CRUSADERS: Up to Episode 19

Joseph Joestar: If you don't love this character, you're wrong.

Joseph Joestar: If you don’t love this character, you’re wrong.

I came into Stardust Crusaders a complete newbie to the franchise, not having read any of the manga or seen the 2012 anime adaptation of the previous two arcs (Phantom Blood and Battle Tendency). I was told it didn’t matter, that I’d still have plenty of fun with it. I doubted this pretty hard, but decided to give Jojo’s a chance anyway – and it turned out they were 100% right.

As something of an affectionate send-up of shonen battle anime, Stardust Crusaders is constant, breakneck action and fun from start-to-finish. It’s the one series from spring that hasn’t lost my interest at all – and in fact, even with the summer class added in, it’s the show I most look forward to watching every week. On top of the fact that I love travel stories (the early parts of Stardust Crusaders see the characters trekking across Asia on their way to face Dio in Egypt), each new location features even crazier enemies and Stands to battle. You can’t stop watching to see what bizarre new threat they’re going to face in the next country. It’s hard to see how a series could continually top itself in weirdness when one of its early episodes showed them fighting an orangutan on a mirage-boat – but Jojo’s can.

What’s more, it has a fun, colorful cast of characters – especially gruff protagonist Jotaro Kujo, flamboyant-but-dim Frenchman Jean-Pierre Polnareff, and grandpa adventurer Joseph Joestar. (As an American, Joseph gets the series’ most ridiculous lines, with exaggerated Engrish “OHHHHHH NOOOO!”s and “OHHHHH SHIIIIT!”s every time anything goes wrong. It’s enough to make one shriek with glee when they find out that he’ll be the focus of an enemy’s attacks in the next episode.) It’s hard to think of a single thing that isn’t engaging about this show, and indeed, I’m hard-pressed to think of any episode where it falls flat. It’s kept me on the edge of my seat through its entire run – again, even as a franchise virgin.

This excellence includes the production. While thick-lined character designs could be distracting in series like Attack on Titan, with Jojo’s it works, due to the art style in general emulating American comic books. It’s always bright and saturated, except when it shouldn’t be (as in a Pakistani town beset by a fog Stand), and a feast for the eyes. The music is also top-notch, varying from weird atonal piano and string slices in unsettling moments, to brassy, overwrought jazz for climactic battle scenes. Whatever it is, it always fits the scene perfectly and amplifies its mood, while also feeling like it couldn’t belong in any other anime. Everything about Jojo’s is special, and that’s what makes it an experience like no other.

Up next: The original summer 2014 series! Will include Aldnoah ZeroBlue Spring RideLove Stage!!Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun and Terror in Resonance!