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Jul 05

Summer Anime 2016 First Episode Impressions – Part 1

No Arslan Around

No Arslan Around

Here we go again, as the Summer season has arrived! And unlike some years where it’s been a relatively lacklustre affair, this year’s lineup has plenty of big names.

This first part opens with one of the biggest in Berserk, but we’ve also got the return of shōnen stars Food Wars and Arslan, VN giant Rewrite, the current idol darling that is Love Live, and the life reboot wish-fulfillment that is ReLIFE. And no shorts! So let’s dive straight in to the opening dozen.

Berserk

Let’s be honest, I probably couldn’t ask for a better show to start off a new season of first impressions than Berserk. Often championed as one of the best mangas ever made, fans have been awaiting for the next arc to be animated after three excellent films a few years back, and now, at long last, here we are.

But… I hope you’re still familiar with that old content, because this is brutal to newbies. While the episode does a solid job of showcasing the kind of guy Guts now is, as someone who tries to keep to himself while being besieged by demons. And he’s strong. Really, really strong. What it doesn’t showcase outside of a very brief montage, is how he came to be like this.

As for the support cast of this episode, they’re… not good. Some generic bandits, an exceptionally stupid monk and a fairy that Navi wishes she could be annoying as, who only seems to be there to go “omg Guts what’s happening kyaa”. To be fair, the next episode preview seems to be the proper start of the next arc, but this episode does a crappy job at selling what makes Berserk so great.

As for the animation style, I know it’s ticked off a lot of people, but I thought it worked perfectly fine. The CG does a great job at making fight scenes feel more weighty and crowds feel more alive, but falls down in close-ups or when nobodies moving about much. But if anything, it makes me pine for the film versions which had time to fine tune and looked so much better because of it. I still imagine this’ll pick up, and if you already know the plot you’ll still get a kick out of it, but I just don’t think TV’s the best fit for Berserk.

UNLIKELY

ReLIFE

Another one of this season’s championed entries, ReLIFE is another one of those timey-wimey shows which always seem to go over well, as Erased proved back in Winter. This time around, our lead Arata is a NEET in denial, struggling to make ends meet, until one night he’s offered a year of expenses already paid life, and all he has to do is take this one little pill.

The ReLIFE drug, as it’s dubbed, helps you appear more youthful, and to help “rehabilitate” the NEET, the program has him re-enrolled into the final year of highschool. Cue the expected comedy hijinks as Arata tries to readjust to a life he left behind a decade ago, making new friends and forgetting old taboos, like being too young to smoke (Japan’s legal age is 20).

Visually it’s all fairly standard anime, albeit with an over-reliance on dumb faces that is more off-putting than funny. And while the cringe humour is as dire as ever, with highlights including Arata forgetting to bring a pencil, pen or anything to write with, his interactions with his classmates and teacher are more endearing, as he mulls over how to spend this next year of his life. The show even fits in a few ominous hooks, from flashbacks of Arata’s past to references to the previous ReLIFE test subject.

So yeah, I can see why people dig ReLIFE, and with all 13 episodes available now (seriously), if you want something to blast through while waiting for other shows, this is definitely one to watch. As for me? I’ll wait to see if it goes in a more serious or comedic direction, but I’ll certainly consider it.

POSSIBLY

Shokugeki no Souma: Ni no Sara

The first of the usual batch of split-cours, Food Wars has returned! I’d be lying if I said culinary challenge shows don’t appeal to me, but after flicking through a volume of the manga in a shop and seeing all the fanservice and orgasm faces, I put it back down and moved on with my life.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the premise, mind you. Soma Yukihira, a talented kid chef from the sticks, is invited along with a bunch of other talented kid chefs to compete for spots in some prestigious academy or scheme or whatever. This second season has it down to the final eight, with the first quarter-final in this episode pitting Soma up against a science queen to make bentos.

Sadly though, the show eschews the actual creation of the food in favour of having two-thirds of the episode dedicated to the judges various reactions of bliss at what they’re eating and constantly saying umami like they’re five year olds who’ve just discovered a clever new word. And of course, the lesson at the end is that heart beats science because who wants a better tasting meal when it lacks soul.

I did get a kick out of the interactions between the two competing chefs, a blend of sarcasm and curiosity, which also served as one of the show’s rare attempts at fleshing out characters. Otherwise, it’s standard shōnen fair where the fights are in the kitchen. I mean, it’s not as awful as I feared (only a handful of fanservice shots), but it’s nothing to shout about either.

UNLIKELY

Love Live! Sunshine!!

It’s weird to see the journey Love Live’s gone on. When I watched the original anime, it was a surprisingly good show that narrowly missed out on my top ten for the year, but that very few others tried. Then it became the biggest thing, and got a second season which (much like K-On S2) fell apart at the seams as it turned to pandering instead of focusing on the narrative.

But now we’re onto the “second generation”, as Love Live tries to live on past the original cast. Sunshine is the new name, and there’s plenty of parallel’s to be made between this new series and the first. Most notably are some of the new cast being dead ringers for Eri, Maki and, of course, Honoka. Chika is the lead girl whose passion will inevitably unite the nine (dunno why it’s nine again) this time around, and she is pretty much a carbon clone of Honoka.

And while some of the newbies are interesting, some of them are straight up anime clichés. Admittedly, the original had a couple too, but they felt way more understated. And with no “we’re doing this to save the school” plot thread this time around, I lack any faith in the long-term narrative of Sunshine.

But hey, it’s still nailed the most important bit, which is that the song’s are cool and catchy, and better still, the animation has abandoned that awkward 3D CG they love to use for songs in almost every idol show, and while we see glimpses of every character in this episode, the show doesn’t rush anything. So, much like the first time around, I’m on the fence. But I’d love to be pleasantly surprised for a second time.

POSSIBLY

Hatsukoi Monster

I kinda guessed from looking at promo art that this was gonna be a reverse harem show, but boy was I wrong. A pampered rich girl from the country moves to the city to escape what she feels is a choking life of forced friendships, and finally experiences someone getting mad at her. She falls in love at first sight and asks him out, before discovering he’s actually a primary schooler.

Yep, it’s one of those comedy shows where characters don’t look their age, with our three leading primary school boys all twice the size of their classmates (not a joke), along with deeper voices and mannerisms of those in highschool, until the show remembers its time for gags and devolves them to morons.

Add in our lead girl who just gets swept along and does nothing to make herself noteworthy, terrible writing that has a hard-on for saying weiner, and uninspired animation that thinks the rainbow colour change trick from Movie Maker is the height of style, and First Love Monster ranks as one of the weakest romcom’s I’ve ever seen.

DROPPED

Rewrite

It’s said that visual novel anime adaptations are the hardest to pull off. With multiple intricate routes, huge amounts of text to compress and no player to make choices they want, it’s a nightmare to reduce it down to 20 minute episodes. Some do pull it off, as my AotY 2013 White Album 2 (which still isn’t picked up for official localisation, sadface), but most fail. But Rewrite, by Key, seemed to have a better chance than most, especially as this opening episode is double length to really help set the scene.

As expected, we get introduced to a lot of characters. I think I counted about a dozen “story relevant” people by the end, though some only cropped up for a single scene. Not that that’s a bad thing, as you quickly cottoned on to who the most important cast members were. And the interactions between Kotarou, the lead guy, and the two main schoolgirls were interesting to watch. Even if one of them seemed a little too obsessed with romance…

However, this first episode still had plenty of confusing moments too. The supernatural elements added an extra layer of unnecessary complexity to proceedings, with a ribbon witch versus CG beast fight at the end with added garbage pixie spectators bewildering more than wowing. There’s also the second male lead whom had such bizarre interactions with Kotarou that I found totally indecipherable.

The whole thing is a lot to take in, and even after this first episode ends I’d struggle to tell you what the overall direction of the show is. Will it focus on romance? Supernatural elements? Add in some decent but little more animation, and I’d struggle to recommend this adaptation. Stick to the VN, whenever Rewrite+ comes out over here.

UNLIKELY

B-Project: Kodou Ambitious

I promised idols, and here ya go! What do you mean I already covered Love Live? Pshaw, who wants that girly nonsense when you can have an all-make lineup! Yes, the ten (see, one better) cast members of B-Proect are all guys. Luckily, to help you keep track, they’re broken down into three groups, known as MooNs, Kitakore and THRIVE, with the Kita duet being the focus of this episode once it gets past introductions. Which is all a smart way to stop the viewer from the usual character overwhelment that can happen.

Anyway, the lead is a random girl who’s been made A&R for all three bands because the company president said so, despite her lack of experience. Of course, the caveat is that she has a knack for music, spotting a bum note that was keeping Kitakore out of sync in their newest single.

That more music orientated focus is something I can dig, instead of the usual playing up of male harem elements (though based off the post-credits scene, that could all come crashing back). I enjoyed the songs too, and the various personalities on display managed to avoid becoming abrasive or off-putting.

I didn’t expect to get as much of a kick out of this show as I did… but I still can’t help but worry that with such a large cast that the writing will fall apart or nobody will develop or harems will occur or somesuch nonsense. I’ll certainly consider it though.

POSSIBLY

Days

Days! Yes, it’s one of those shows where the title tells you jack shit. So let me help, it’s a shōnen sports show about… football! Or futsal if the subs are to be believed. In theory I should hate football, but as of writing this my home team Wales are still in the Euros, so… Not that I should be worried, no sports show has ever passed my first episode test, despite some coming damn close (hi Haikyuu).

In this show, lead squirt Tuskamoto, who ticks some of the good old boxes of social awkwardness and struggling to make friends, catches the eye of Jin, a fairly normal cool kid, and gets invited to play football. Which his luck is awful (he manages to rip a toenail off for chrissake), he’s not afraid to run the entire pitch and then some, eventually scoring the deciding goal.

That night ignites a passion of the burning variety in him aimed right at this newfound sport, and so Tsukamoto pours that same heart and soul into tryouts… and sucks compared to the pros. Luckily this show also does a great job of having a supportive cast over the usual “what a scrub” attitude they have to overcome, which I really enjoyed, as I expected Jin to be a manipulative asshat and couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Throw in (ha) some neat stylistic shots, including some aerial stuff and the always good for sports shows chunkier and more defined lineart, and you’ve got a pretty swell production. I expected nothing, which is maybe part of why I’m stunned at how much I liked Days, but after years of watching sports series pass me by, maybe this is the one to turn that around. I hope so.

KEEPER

Fukigen na Mononokean

The Morose Mononokean… whatever that last word means. Maybe something to do with the ghosts and spirits that are abound in this series? Yep, it’s a yokai show. Lead kid Ashiya sees one poor fuzzball by the side of the road one day and helps it out (by sticking it in a bag, but whatever). Sadly for him, the critter is so delighted to meet someone who can finally see it, it latches onto him.

And from there the trouble starts, as it keeps draining his energy day by day, which no amount of determination can overcome. When all seems lost, he runs into Akeno, an exorcist, who relieves him of the yokai by… playing catch with it. Because it just wanted a playmate and to not be alone. Why it tried to convey that by curse and nearly killing a kid and not realising the harm it was having, who knows.

There’s a heap of writing inconsistencies like that throughout. “We need to shrink this yokai to exorcise it” Akeno says before opening gigantic doors to the underworld., for another example. And it’s not like the animation makes up for it, with bland characters and yokai designs that lack any charm or personality. The most noteworthy and original thing was Ashiya’s mother constantly expressing herself via flowers. Sadly, this show is not about her, so go watch Mushishi, Natsume or flipping Yokai Watch is you need a spiritual fix, and give this a wide berth.

DROPPED

Arslan Senki: Fuujin Ranbu

Oh neat, there’s a new Fullmetal Alchemist spin-off? Not quite. See, the Arslan manga is done by Hiromu Arakwa, creator of FMA, hence the similarities in character design. To magnify the confusion, this is the second half of a split cour, but if Shirayukihime could win me over from the same position, then anything’s possible, right?

So we rejoin in the middle of a colossal territorial war reminiscent of the warring states period, with Prince Arslan trying to regain control of his homeland and vanquish his numerous enemies, aided by his motley crew of various commanders and assistants who you’ll immediately recognise because they’re wearing less armour or have funny hair. Anime anime anime.

This show takes almost zero time to refresh your memory, with names and jargon that might ring a bell if the first season was fresh on your mind thrown at you in rapid fashion. What’s more, you can’t really attach yourself to the characters, as the cast feels like they lack the depth of anybody from FMA or Silver Spoon (another Arakawa creation, and my #2 AotY in 2013).

It’s a shame. Maybe I’m being harsh, and this is a show whose strength comes from world building I missed out on, but when  your resume includes multiple standout series, I expect way, way better. And as an aside, the manga and game for this have been release over here, but Silver Spoon? Nope. Screw you reality.

DROPPED

Tales of Zestiria The X

Ufotable have made a good name in the past few years for cranking out some absolutely beautiful shows, and this newest adaptation is no different. Though it probably helps they’ve been working with the Tales series for a while now, doing the anime scenes in the games, but given a 20 minute runtime to fill has let them take Zestiria’s cast to the next level. The action scenes in particular are joys to watch, and some of the best I’ve seen in recent memory.

This entire first episode, styled as a prologue, focuses on Princess Alisha. Outside of one brief appearance, you won’t see any of the other game leads until the opening plays at the very end of the episode (which also has an unexpected Berseria cameo). We see her go to investigate a mysterious dark mist that’s been lurking in the sky, draining the energy of its surroundings, and needless to say when Alisha approaches everything suddenly falls apart as both the mist and several chaos factions run wild.

Basically, everybody bar Alisha gets screwed, and while the writing can get a bit nonsensical to reach that conclusion, it still holds it together well enough to have an impact. The only real writing problem, stemming from this episode being a prologue as I mentioned, is that it lacks a beginning. You’re not overwhelmed, but the show assume base knowledge of the game and doesn’t feel like it makes an effort for those less familiar.

Of course, if you are familiar with ToZ, this is a brilliant addition, with ufotable’s superb animation plus a great pre-existing soundtrack helping everything gel together, but my gripes over the writing stop me from committing to it. As you might have expected then, this is one for people who played the game and want to know more.

POSSIBLY

Orange

Orange is one of those things I’d kept hearing about in weab circles but had never found the chance to check out myself. Doing some research, it sounds like a Futurama or Family Guy of manga, something that got cancelled but resurrected by fan demand. Which is a promising start.

So Naho, our lead girl, gets a letter from herself, sent from ten years in the future. In it, she warns herself not to live a life of regrets, and gives her advance notice of events to come. Today this kid will transfer in. And he does. This softball team will ask you to save them in a pinch. And they do. Oh, and in 10 years time, they boy you fall in love with, Kakeru, is gone, so don’t lose sight of him. It’s certainly not a take on romance that I’ve seen before.

What also helps is a tight-knit supporting cast outside of the main couple, with two other guys and two other gals who are all fun to watch interact with each other. There’s no confrontations or bitterness, at least at this point, just the usual teenage banter and self-doubt, making them all pretty relatable.

Add in some neat animation techniques, including smart use of rapid stills for montages and an opening that merges in some real world elements without becoming weird, and you’ve got an intriguing tale which promises to be full of heartwarming and heartbreaking moments, which I’m eager to see more of it. A definite keeper.

KEEPER

Always good to get the first part out of the way, until I realise how much more there is to come. Part 2 will hopefully be up this weekend, depending on how long it takes me to get through the deluge that hits over the rest of this week. But considering that lineup has D.GREY-MAN WOOP WOOP I’ll manage somehow. Stay tuned~