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Feb 19

Winter Anime 2018 – Three Episodes Later…

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So the first episode impressions are done for another season, but my work is far from over. You may recall back in the first part, I said I was gonna give six shows one more shot at winning me over, by watching their first three episodes. Afterall, sometimes a show needs an arc to establish itself (see Madoka). So I’ve selected five from the reserves and one lucky unlikely to join my four keepers in this post. Will any of them take this chance at redemption and run with it? And what of those I did champion, the Colors, the Cardcaptors, the Evergardens and the darlings? Let’s see how they’re all doing…

Keeper #1 – Mitsuboshi Colors

“A pleasant surprise, Mitsuboshi Colors radiates childhood glee out of every pore, from animation and palette to humour and characters. The premise and pacing should also allow it to come up with continually fresh scenarios and (hopefully) never drag. Roll on their next adventure.”

If I had one worry about Mitsuboshi Colors, it’s that the formula would start to grow stale and that the smile on my face would fade away. So I’m happy to report that’s not the case, as the show remains as gleeful as ever. Even when it’s repeating plot devices, such as another riddle given from Pops in the third episode, much like the one they solved in the first, the next 10 minutes remain a whale of a time as they explore an underground marketplace, scale structures, and talk a lot about poop. Well, Sacchan does, anyway.

It’s those characters that help take this show to the next level, a core cast who you can’t help but root for. From Yui, the “leader” of the Colors who acts as their “moral compass” but always gets dragged into the other’s schemes, to Sacchan, the poop-obsessed tomboy who dives into danger and says exactly what she thinks, to Kotoha, the gaming addict with a slightly warped world view, seeing every no entry sign as concealing a crime scene, every locked door hiding a body. The trio have great chemistry, and make even the mundane a marvel to watch.

One of the plots involves the girls trying to work out why there are No Entry signs everywhere, only to discover it’s because of wet paint. They play hide and seek and get hopelessly distracted, just like kids do. There is a skit where all they do is sell bananas, but each of the trio approaches it in their own, unique ways, making something that could so easily be boring end up being anything but. Every scene, every scenario, all of them do a great job of showing the innocence and mischievousness of children in that eight to ten bracket.

There’s so much else I could praise too, like the support cast. Saitou is the town’s cop and foil for the Colors, trying to get them out of his hair while they torment him. Pops, who looks like a retired Batou from GitS, comes up with new mysteries and challenges to help the trio pass away the time. Even characters who only get a few minutes of time across all three eps, like Nono and Sacchan’s mother (parents in anime alert, parents in anime alert) show a charm and wit lacking in so many other series, as they play the mental mindgames of youth against the Colors.

The visuals still play off great with it too. I raved before about how the three girls have numerous outfits that change from skit to skit, something surprisingly rare in anime, but even the styles remain consistent to what they like to wear, such as Kotoha always being in a dress and hat, or Sacchan wearing more unusual pieces like dungarees. Plus it’s all so bright and colourful, tying into that youthful vibe the show is going for.

So three eps in, Mitsuboshi is still the charmer it was in the debut. And I feel as long as the characters stay true to who they are, then this’ll still have me smiling by season’s end. If you’re after something more relaxed and episodic, this is the show to watch this season.

Keeper #2 – Darling in the FranXX

“The Trigger series I’ve been waiting for. Maybe it’s because it’s a mecha, maybe because it’s a collab, but for whatever reason everything clicks,and I’m fascinated to see what direction the show goes in and how everyone evolves as the scope no doubt expands. You might even call this my winter dar- okay I’ll stop now.”

Having given us a taste of the magic that happens when Zero Two and Hiro team up, in traditional narrative fashion, we spend the next two episodes being denied a second bite, with the second and third episodes instead highlighting what happens when they try to sync with other people… or parasites, as the show oh so affectionately refers to them.

As such there’s little in the way of bombastic action, instead focusing on characters and dropping the smallest of glimpses into the backstory of the cast and the world they inhabit. We learn that they were all (except Zero Two) part of some nursery where they were raised to be parasites, with Hiro giving everyone their names. We see the larger city underneath the “birdcage” they all inhabit, and get a glimpse into the world that’s been kept from them.

And then there’s character developments. Not just for the lead duo either, though we do learn Zero Two’s klaxosaur blood gives her this obsession with taste and desire to find the ideal partner. There’s Ichigo, the squad leader of all the parasites and one of Hiro’s few advocates during his darkest days, who takes a much bigger role, trying to prove that she can also transform Hiro into a pilot like Zero Two did, whatever it takes. Zorome and Miku, who act as the rivals of the squad leaders, have a cool love-hate relationship. And Mitsuru, whose desire to be the best leads to him getting in way over his head. FranXX does a great job introducing all these characters and more while still making Hiro and Zero Two’s relationship and desire to pilot together again the priority.

This being a part-Trigger show, there’s still a slew of great designs and touches too. Now we’ve gotten to see the FranXX mechs of the main cast, and they all look great. With faces and curves and plenty of flourishes, they remind me a little of Star Driver and how flamboyant that show was, which is only a good thing.

There’s plenty of cool visuals also, like the neon orange city underground and characters doing flips and leaps, though the random letterboxing from the first episode persists, coming and going for no reason I can fathom. And of course, this being Trigger means there’s a chunk of fanservice and lewdness engrained into the very fabric of the show, such as the way the mechs are piloted, with the handlebars being attached to the ladies derrière.At which point the guy has to go “deep inside them”. Mentally, of course. Why make mechs like that? Who knows. I doubt we’ll ever get an explanation.

Looking past that and to the future of Darling though, I still can’t help but be excited. There’s so many unanswered questions, not just about the past of the characters and the world they live in, but also about what’ll happen the next time the leads take their mech to the field. And those fights against the klaxosaur’s are only going to increase in magnitude and visual splendor too with Trigger at the helm. I’m certainly more confident 3 eps into this than I was with Little Witch Academia last year, so fingers crossed for a masterpiece from a studio who arguably haven’t produced a classic in 8 long years.

Keeper #3 – Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card-hen

“Sure, I’m biased. This was a core piece of my childhood, the distinctly anime show airing alongside Pokémon and Digimon. But it hasn’t lost a step, and while Sakura’s card count may be reset, the bonds and character developments of the original have not, giving the show more character and life than most others. So, yeah, I’m watching this. And I think y’all should too.”

When working with a classic and beloved property, it’s inevitable people are going to make comparisons between the two. This new series of Cardcaptors is no exception, as I can’t help but watch the fights and story and think back to the original. Mainly because a lot of the conflicts in and stories told by Clear Card… aren’t all that great. Take the second episode for example, which is purely slice of life antics with no worry or stress over the total overhaul of everything Sakura knew for the past few years, until Sakura, Kero and Tomoyo randomly get teleported into a cube, which they then burst with a pin and capture. That card is called Seige. No, I don’t understand either.

The third episode does a bit more work, with its first capture foreshadowed by endless rain, and the second again messing with the space around her (somehow, since it’s a card called Reflect), and for both Sakura has to use her brand new cards to isolate and capture them. Neither fight is particularly long or hard-fought, but there’s at least some build and substance to them.

My other main frustration I touched upon earlier is how… chill everyone is. The Clow Cards are gone. The town is being attacked by new magic creatures. The English cast member isn’t returning Sakura’s calls. Yet nobody panics or even really raises an eyebrow. A cast full of various magically orientated people all collectively shrug their shoulders. It’s beyond bizarre to see her entire support network just… do… nothing…

Instead, the show elects to focus more on the school cast. Side characters such as Naoko, Chiharu and Takashi get a lot more screentime to talk about their hopes and dreams as they hang out with the cast in the non-magical scenes. Li too, now free of his past angst and openly in a relationship with Sakura, gets to interact and be part of events far more, and their relationship is adorable, especially as you rarely see established romance in this kind of show. Even Meiling hasn’t been retconned!

Still, I feel some of my fears over a lack of exposition or transition from Clow to Clear may be addressed with the new mysterious transfer student arriving in ep 4 who will in no way be related to events no siree. And it’s not like Clamp have ever been in a rush, their work usually opting to take its time to set the stage and players. Plus as Sakura gets more strategic options I envision the magical combat getting better. In short, I’m still optimistic that this low key start will blossom into so much more as the series progresses. Now if only we could get some of the Nelvana soundtrack into the show…

Keeper #4 – Violet Evergarden

“Kyoto Animation have produced many great shows over the years, from Clannad to Haruhi to Euphonium, but this one feels like such a leap out of their comfort zone, with nary a highschooler in sight.It’s a refreshing change of pace for the studio, and if the story continues to build upon what was touched in this debut, this could be their magnum opus. Netflix made the right call to buy into this, and I urge you to do the same.”

Can you teach a robot to love? Or at the very least write about it? Because while Miss Violet Evergarden is technically human, she shares more in common with her adamantium hands than flesh, blood or soul. That becomes increasing obvious in these next two episodes, as while her blunt but totally honest demeanour wins her friends in 1 to 1 scenarios where her good intentions can be conveyed, it makes her ability to ghostwrite letters based on feelings utter garbage.

This show is defined by those interactions, both on paper and in person. In the second ep we see more of Violet’s doll coworkers, including Erica, who sees her insecurities reflected in Violet’s emotionless eyes. Episode three takes us to doll school and Luculia, who tries to draw out Violet’s emotions but ends up having her true feelings unmasked instead. That episode infuriatingly ends with Violet “passing” school after writing the shortest and most blunt feelings letter ever created, and taps into the idea that everyone seems to somewhat be taking pity of her. It doesn’t detract from the overall experience too much, but does leave a sore lump in the throat, and is something I hope gets addressed going forward.

There are some sidecast and stories with the show too, though none have yet to step out of Violet’s shadow. Cattleya, the master ghostwriter who leads the team Violet is on, has managed to show her talents, patience and empathy, with the business semi-relying on her, as well as some existing relationships with Benedict, the postboy, and Hodgins, their boss. Hodgins also continues to struggle to figure out the right thing to do with Violet, trying to do whatever he can to make her happy, like hunting down her favourite broach, while avoiding having the conversation where he has to tell her the one person she cares about may be slightly totally unequivocally dead.

His character is also where you’ll regularly see some of the best visual touches of the series, from throat swallowing to hand clenching. KyoAni are as on point as ever in the production department, from those minute gestures to broad sweeping vistas as suns set and rains abate. The score continues to use quiet and sombre tunes to bring out the more emotional beats the show is going for, and I must say I’m quite smitten with the ED song, going for a folksey tone you almost never see in anime.

All of these elements do a great job of enhancing the other, as a beautiful vista combines with a musical note and a character revelation, leading to me getting swept up in the emotion of it all numerous times, though a cringey or bizarre moment would never be too far away to pull me back to reality again. Still, I look forward to seeing the evolution of this show and its leading lady as she tries to tap back into her humanity. Will she get a happily ever after? Who knows, but I can’t wait to find out.

Normally, that’d be us done. Four keepers, four analysis…es, I could dance away until Movie March. But seeing as this year I’m giving reserve shows a chance, it’s time for me to pluck five possiblies and one unlikely and give them the three episode treatment as well. So let’s do that.

Reserve #1 – Karakai Jouzo no Takagi-san

“It’s always nice to be pleasantly surprised by a show, and that’s exactly what Takagi-san does. While I don’t see the show evolving too much, and maybe losing its luster over time, this debut is a real charmer by focusing on the natural feelings and back-and-forth interactions of its lead couple. In a word, d’aaawwwwww.”

I was curious to see if my prediction about the show losing some of its appeal as time went on would be true, or if the cute elements would hold up. The end result is a bit of the latter, but more of the former. The second ep focuses again on school based shenanigans, from calligraphy to distractions to swimming lessons, while the third takes us beyond the schoolgates, with the two walking home in the rain and killing time with their games. But while the scenery may change, the ebb and flow of all nine skits across the three eps remains fairly consistent.

Having a template format isn’t necessarily a bad thing, here it helps to ensure the light romantic elements remain charming time after time. But when you stretch it out across the course of a season, there’s diminishing returns. There comes a point when you look beyond the back and forth teasing… and realise this show doesn’t have a lot else going on. The main distraction comes from a trio of other girls in their class who get  a minute or two dedicated to them each week, but those segments are just inane banter that is utterly forgettable when compared to the main appeal of the series.

I still like a lot of what this series has to offer, from good facial animation that manages to tell a lot of expression through eye movements and blushes, to the endearing lead couple who I want so badly to get together for realsies… but that would break the status quo, which this seems obsessed with keeping. As such, the show gets a bit too familiar and it becomes all too easy for your attention to wander elsewhere as they go through the same beats. This is one best enjoyed in small doses, and now that I’ve more than had my fill, I won’t be keeping up with it. Well, not for now, anyway.

Final VerdictREJECTED

Reserve #2 – Yuru Camp

“Putting aside the whole “it’s a highschool girl club anime” and my many worries about how that’ll affect the show, this seems like a solid series. Rin is an endearing lead – calm and smart but not unsociable, and with a fairly unique appearance for an anime character. And the in-depth focus on camping makes it more interesting than a lot of similar shows, including the other anime camping show from a few years back, Yama no Susume. But my fears, including the potentially idiot black hole of Nadeshiko if the show goes down that route, means this goes on the reserve list. Still worth checking out for yourself though.”

It’s weird. My first episode analysis boiled down to “I enjoy that Rin girl but this is going to become highschool girl club anime number five thousand”. And then I watch the second and third episodes and… it doesn’t. The focus remains more resolutely on the camping than bland girls and mild drama. And yet I’m still not satisfied. God I’m picky.

Part of that might be just how low tempo it all is. There’s no particular scaling up in this opening arc. Rin goes to another campsite. Nadeshiko ends up tagging along after a bit. And all the other girls are practically nowhere to be seen. The atmosphere of the show feeds into that too, with nice relaxing music that often riffs on other tunes (the OP has the exact same first 10 seconds as Jackson Five’s ABC, and another OST track reminded me of Mazzy Star’s Into Dust), and some lovely vista shots of Mt Fuji and the great outdoors, making for a very… lackadaisical experience.

Any progress is slow. Rin is sort of mentally considering camping with others. Nadeshiko is just happy to be there. Other club members Aoi and Chiaki don’t really do much, helping to set up a tent in school grounds and that’s it. And Rin’s friend and text buddy (making for some of the best interactions in the show) Ena has barely gotten out of bed. It’s hard to judge personality or direction when the show remains firmly at a standstill.

I don’t foresee this going much further either when all five inevitably camp together, proven by a scene where Nadeshiko and Rin (with the other trio in the background) realise they go to the same school, and instead of using it as a catalyst… nothing happens. Which is a shame, as there’s plenty of neat little moments, and I already waxed lyrical on the audiovisuals (Rin’s grandmother look is still awesome three eps in). It’s just hard to muster the energy to care.

Final VerdictREJECTED

Reserve #3 – DEVILMAN crybaby

“If you’re a sakuga fan who likes animation tour-de-forces, then by all means, Devilman Crybaby is that and then some. But if you champion storytelling over visuals, this is a much harder sell, with the less interesting parts of the story and a child’s concept of maturity seemingly set to define the show. Not one I could get invested in, but with this being a Netflix series, it’s all out now, so if you want to binge or read more complete reviews from others, you can do so right now.”

So what caught me off guard with Crybaby was the insane amount of fanart I saw for it on social media. Maybe that’s because it’s a true Netflix Original, letting people binge the entire season in one day while other shows take months to tell arcs and develop characters. Maybe I was wrong, I thought. Maybe it gets truly good. You wouldn’t readapt a 90s show and put a chunk of money into it otherwise, right?

What does remain truly good throughout is Yuasa’s trademark stye. Not just in terms of more unusual animation, but shot angles and colour palettes too. Visually, this is without doubt, an anime with no parallels. I like the character designs too, from the now beefed up Akira to running girl Miki (not to be confused with the other running girl Miki), to Ryo’s flamboyant style and Devilman himself. And the rappers! They only get better with each episode. I love those guys.

There comes a part though where you have to tell a good story with narrative flow and logic and that is where Crybaby disintegrates. Some guy manages to film Akira transforming into Devilman, with Ryo saying “we must catch him before that leaks”. It takes them the better part of a day, yet they suffer no consequences. We see some random guy with a lot of watches get killed off, and are then told afterwards it was some priest Akira and family knew so we should retroactively give a shit? The show makes out that being able to control an inner demon is hard, yet Akira just controls the strongest of them all with no effort or struggle ever shown.

That’s not the only inconsistent element either, from one infection style devil making one person braindead and the next a-ok, to a guy hiding in a dumpster managing to film shots which are then shown to be the ones we saw as viewers, from a totally different perspective. And that’s before we even get to the fact the two lead guys are kinda assholes in their own ways, one being kind of a bully, and the other literally performing mass murder. Most annoyingly, we jump from scene to scene with nary an explanation in sight. Now we’re here, now he’s there, now the rappers are narrating, now it’s a Miki scene. Things just happen, and Devilman’ll be damned if it’ll pause to explain the moments inbetween. And this being a Netflix show with no age restrictions… yeah, there’s a lot of gratuitous porn.

I don’t get it. Three eps in, and I just don’t get what people see in this. Wait, that’s wrong. I do get what people see in it, just not why people give a shit. You can have the best animation in the world, but if your writing sucks, it’s irrelevant. Sorry sakuga fans.

Final VerdictREJECTED

Reserve #4 – Sora yori mo Tooi Basho

“A Place Further Than The Universe certainly evokes that adventurous spirit of youth, and the idea of standard anime characters in the frozen wasteland is something that I don’t recall ever really being tackled. It’s enough to make me curious, but not quite enough to keep me around.”

But, like, are they actually going to go to Antarctica, or was the real Antarctica the friends they made along the way (Kiznaiver jokes, woo). Well, three episodes in and… maybe they’ll go? I don’t see them getting there before the series ends, though. In the meantime, episodes two and three serve to each introduce one of the remaining quintet members, the lively shop assistant and home schooled Hinata and the celebrity stroke lonely Yuzuki.

Sadly, in adding more, it feels like its lost just as much. The original dynamic of a girl lacking drive and conviction paired with some defined by it is gone with the other two around. The great sign gags have all but vanished. The writing gets a lot looser too, including Shirase’s grand “been planning to get to Antarctica for years” scheme being to try and seduce a guy to get on a boat, leading to some huge chase scene across the city. Which looks and sounds cool, but feels utterly ridiculous and out of place. Almost as much as a child idol Yuzuki who was going to the South Pole walking up to the lead girls and handing them the keys to the journey, instead of them earning a dang thing.

Which is a shame, as there’s still a lot to like here. Yuzuki being isolated by success is a well trodden but effective narrative. Hinata brings a mad energy to proceedings. Shirase is still as focused on her dream as ever, not letting anything get her down. And Mari… well, Mari feels like her role is done, being the crutch Shirase leaned on before the other girls came along. Now she’s just… there, an extra to her own story. Back to the positive, I like a lot of the visuals and the way shots are directed (though characters have creepy as heck smiles). The soundtrack is great, and does particularly well in the show’s many montages. And if you pay attention to background bits such as phones and signs, you’ll notice hidden depth and foreshadowing.

Sadly though, it isn’t long before some nonsense plot point or anime ridiculous scene pulls you away from the potential serious elements of the story, like going to sodding Antarctica. And I get that, this is practically a highschool girl club anime, afterall. I just wish the show could stay a bit more focused on its overall goal. Maybe that’s still to come. If you’ve got the patience, or like the genre, do check it out. But this is where I bail on this journey.

Final VerdictREJECTED

Reserve #5 – Koi wa Ameagari no You ni

“A fairly straight romance show across generations, told pretty well with some great production values. Sometimes it doesn’t quite add up, from bizarre emotional responses to a mild over reliance on screen effects, but the well-meaning heart of After The Rain shines through all the same. It’s not quite at that must-see level, but certainly one to consider if you enjoy romance series.”

I tend to stick to romance shows that have a little more going on, such as Scum’s Wish or Orange, but I did enjoy the production values of After The Rain, and as a noitaminA series I had a little more faith in the storytelling than I would normally, hence me giving it another shot. Sadly, the end result is somewhat of an inconsistent mixed bag.

In the two episodes that followed, we see Akira restress her old leg injury… with little consequence. Sometimes she’ll blush and stay silent, sometimes she’ll be practically screaming “I like you” at Masami’s face. There’s nothing quite as egregious as the shirt sniffing scene in the debut episode which has literally no consequences even within the moment, but it’s hard to get invested in a show which spins its wheels for a bit, then makes a huge leap forward with a confession or date, then goes straight back to status quo.

None of the characters really take hold of your attention either. Akira is alright, but her most interesting aspect is her backstory of being forced away from the track. Masami is just some middle-aged man. The side cast includes Takashi, some kid from Akira’s school who can’t take no for an answer, another girl at the restaurant called Yui who is just there to be a young female for Akira to bounce dialogue off and show how unusual her romantic feelings are, and Kayo, who… well, I like her design and bluntness, but couldn’t tell you jack about who she actually is.

Actually, speaking of design, that is a positive of the show still. I like most of the character designs and the different ways they flow, from Akira looking straight out of Clamp to Takashi bending and looping whatever way he can to be in her scenes, to Masami’s middle-aged mannerisms. After the Rain still has its love of effects too, from frequent heavy showers to a cascade of bubbles, sparkles and other screen overlays that outstay their welcome pretty quickly. Well, unless you’re into that kind of romance series.

Which sums it up really. This is just another romance show, with the only gimmick being the 28 year age gap, and the only point of note the show has to say being “that’s a bit weird”. Look past that, and After the Rain doesn’t really have anything else to offer. I don’t dislike it, I just want more substance to my lovely dovey shows.

Final VerdictREJECTED

Reserve #6 – Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens

“I do have high hopes for Tonkotsu Ramens, but I’m not sure if it’ll ever quite live up to them. Durarara foreshadowed newer characters while focusing on a core few and slowly expanding over time, whereas this tries to establish almost everyone from the get go. I appreciate what it wants to accomplish though, and you don’t see shows like this too often, so if a city of hitmen (and hitwomen) intrigues you, do give this a whirl.”

I was kinda hoping with a couple more episodes, this would have time to better establish its large cast, the factions they’re part of and allied with, and some long-term plot direction. In some ways, it does do that too. Rewatching the first episode I gained a greater understanding of all the players in this city. And then the next few episodes had all the factions I was starting to get my head around bleed into one another, leaving a confusing mess of not knowing who’s with who or why I should care about almost anyone outside of one half of the lead duo.

There’s the lead detective, and he’s friends with this superhacker, who still sells him out to this hitwoman who’s working with the mayor for five years after she left the major hitman company in town, who hired this naive admin type guy who gets setup and abducted by these avengers, with their actual target being blown up by this other group with a grenade loving guy doing cleanup for the mayor after his son ran riot, needing them to make deals with the multinational mafia to get trafficked girls for him to play with, including the little sister of this crossdressing crazy killer who end sup hanging out with the lead detective! See. Now you know exactly who’s allied with who, right?

Tonkotsu Ramen’s other big problem is a lack of focus for the narrative. While Ling’s (the crossdresser) struggle to earn enough money to help his family, and declaration of revenge when he discovers they’ve been murdered, is the obvious narrative, the show’s inconsistent with what it deems important elsewhere. The first episode implies the mayor meeting with the leader of mobsters is a big deal, then it’s barely mentioned again. There’s a bunch of seemingly major murders which are forgotten minutes after they’re revealed. One guy gets kidnapped by mistake, and the kidnappers just go “whoops lol” ending that angle before it begins. And this is before I get to the show struggling to convey the flow of time as it leaps from scene to scene, making it all too easy to lose track of where people are and what’s going on as the sky shifts from day to night.

What’s more, if I didn’t know otherwise, I’d think the third episode was building to the show’s climax. It ends with Ling surrounded by most of the guys he wants to murder, and other characters all converging into the one place. It’s a weird way to pace things, and feels more like a symptom of the show never being entirely sure what it wants to do with its cast outside of the one story. Which is a shame, as said cast are all pretty enjoyable, and conjure up plenty of “oooh what if x met with y” fantasies. I just wish this was focused enough to make the reality more enjoyable and easier to follow.

Final VerdictREJECTED

Well there we have it. Never let it be said I don’t give shows a fighting chance. I’ll be sticking with my four keepers, and using my spare time to work on my backlog ahead of Movie March and my Top Ten 2017 list. So stay tuned to this blog next month for all that good stuff, before we leap into the Spring season in April. Can’t wait!