Anime World Cup – Summer 2014: Week 3, Group A

Inspired by this year’s World Cup, I’ve broken 24 different series into six groups of four, each group roughly representing a different genre. Each series will go head to head with the other three series in its group over the next three weeks, a letter grade for each episode used as the deciding factor. At the end of the three weeks, the two episodes from each group that have fared the best, will move on to the next round. Now in the third week, we’ll figure out which two shows from each group will be making it to the weekly review column.

Check out the preview page for an overview of all the groups.

Group A: Sports/Music/Idol

1st Match:

Images of Gou lusting after some muscle boys and Tommy reminiscing on his golden years

Free! Eternal Summer: B

This week’s episode of Free! Eternal Summer felt very much like a throw back to the first season, in which characters were always having a sort of inner turmoil. These episodes are particularly enjoyable to watch–so long as you appreciate the characters–because it allows them to stretch and to define themselves better within the swimming world. There’s also plenty of sitcom style comedy due to the misunderstandings that run rampant throughout the episode, leaving the viewer equally in the dark until the crowd pleasing–if not mundane–conclusion.

It starts with the Iwatobi swim club competing in a school-wide relay, where each club–basketball, tennis, wrestling, etc.–runs a relay race using a symbol of their club as the passing baton (the guys use a life board). Rei, though slow, has a momentary appreciation for the beauty of track racing, the club he was a part of before he joined the swim team. Later, Gou and the guys discuss how they will compete in the big swim competition, with Makoto and Nagisa pledging to compete in a race based on a swim style that they’re not the best at. Nagisa urges Rei to do the same, which forces him to consider that his lack of general swimming skills keeps him from competing in any style besides the butterfly stroke. Soon, Rei is in the library researching swimming styles and techniques when he runs into the captain from his track team days. The captain tells Rei that he’d be happy to have him back, if Rei ever feels the desire to leave swimming behind for the track club. The rest of the episode follows this trajectory, with neither the audience nor the Iwatobi swim club completely privy to Rei’s true intentions. But if Rei does leave, can things really ever be the same? Well, the fujoshi elements will still be in place, so at least that’s safe.

Returning to some of the feelings and emotions brought up in the first season of Free!, really struck a chord this time around. Though the episode–like much of Free!–is dramatic pomp with little circumstance, it’s still enjoyable to watch, whether its for the friendships in the show or the attention to swim styles and forms. Similar to a show like Fruits Basket, Free!‘s biggest appeal–besides the swim scenes–is how kind each of the members of the Iwatobi swim team and Gou are to one another. These characters truly appreciate and relish the ideals of both friendship and teamwork, always wanting to do things together–mainly led by Nagisa, who is consistently concerned about Rei’s distance from the team throughout the episode. Not to editorialize, but in a time of many friendships taking to digital spaces, it’s refreshing–very much in an escapist sort of way–to see people who genuinely like being around one another. And no, it’s not a gay thing. That’d be completely fine if it was, but it would certainly make for a different kind of show. Instead, the guys of Free! almost seem asexual, rarely–if ever–aware of ANY person as a sexual object of desire. They care about getting their swim on and being there for one another in times of need. Sure, they are sex objects for anyone who wants to put that on the show, but they aren’t to each other. That being said, an argument could be made involving the homosexual underpinnings of Haru and whichever male antagonist he’s pissing off, depending on the season–there was certainly an air of sexual tension in the confrontation between Haru and Sosuke in the last episode.

It was another strong episode of Free! Eternal Summer this week, so long as you can handle the fan service. But hey, women have had to deal with panty shots and faces stuffed in cleavage–in series that are otherwise quality works–since the early days of anime, so it’s time we man up and appreciate those washboard abs.

Shounen Hollywood: C+

This third episode of Shounen Hollywood proved to be decidedly better than the two previous installments, though the show’s unapologetic “rose-colored glasses” view of Japanese idols is in full force here.

The episode centers around Tomii, who became interested in the idol lifestyle at a young age after being visited by one of the original members of Shounen Hollywood, Tommy–yeah, it’s a little confusing. Add to this that both Tomii and Tommy grew up in a boys home, and the formula is ripe for a cloying story about Tomii seeing his own potential in Tommy, and deciding to pursue a dream of idoldom from that young age. In the present day, Tommy–now a successful actor–revisits the Shounen Hollywood theater and we get several stories about the days of the original idol group, along with some male bonding between the two Toms. It’s a simple story, and though it’s rather saccharine, it’s handled well through good pacing and the development of Tomii’s character.

While that’s all well and good, the episode is at its best when Tommy is reminiscing nostalgically about his and his fellow idols bygone days. Recorded footage from the time period is conveniently around, and the viewer gets a glimpse inside the hopes and dreams of the original idol group, from the guy who wants to make a solo record, to the one who wants to build a bigger theater for the group. When the video is over, Tomii–who’s been watching it–remarks that none of the dreams came true. In fact, Tommy is the only one from the original group who still has a level of fame. This touches on a level of realism about fame, mainly the idea that most celebrities are left with their 15 minutes rather than a consistent career in entertainment. It’s a sobering message in a show that largely serves to celebrate how amazingly awesome idol groups are and can be. Sadly, even in these scenes the writing is so stiff that it lacks heart. Try as it may, the audience can’t help but feel a little indifferent about the future of this new Shounen Hollywood group and its individual players. And that is the ultimate flaw of Shounen Hollywood. Oh, and that creepy Teshi guy who doesn’t age. He’s the Richard Alpert to Shounen Hollywood‘s Lost. Spooky.

Winner… Free! Eternal Summer
Image of Rei stoked about his new swim techniques

Shounen Hollywood may have had some decent moments, but Free! does such a better job with its characters. It doesn’t matter that their relationships may be overstated and unrealistic, because they work in the universe that the creators have set up for them. The pacing is also strong enough to keep the audience from checking their watch during the more naval-gazing scenes. Shounen Hollywood can’t do that on its best day. Farewell young idols, we hardly knew ye… thankfully.

2nd Match:

Images of Nanako looking determined and some of the Shinsengumi boys rockin' out

LocoDol: C+

Disappointing may be too kind a word to describe this week’s episode of LocoDol. Where the premiere episode had a small amount of fan service but an equal amount of charm, and the last episode thankfully focused on the growing friendship between our two heroines, this episode offers nothing of interest but a lot of people’s faces getting pushed into cleavage. Oh, and Nanako spends most of the episode lamenting the fact that her breasts aren’t larger. Come on LocoDol, you’re better than this.

Things move quickly at first, with Nanako and Yukari being introduced to the new mascot for the group, Uogokoro–a creepy looking creature that resembles a fat Wobbuffet (of Pokemon fame). Nanako’s uncle has an entire plan in place in order to get the max profit off of the new mascot, so it quickly becomes clear that Uogokoro needs to be well received. At the mascot unveiling event, quite the opposite is true, with many in the audience talking amongst themselves about how Uogokoro looks bizarre, etc. Eventually most of the audience comes around, easily entranced by Uogokoro’s flips in the air. Soon after the performance, it is revealed that the girl inside the Uogokoro costume is Yui Mikoze, a strong fan and the senior of Nanako and Yukari. The rest of the episode is uneventful at best, until the last few scenes, which involve a performance by the idol group that starts off blandly charming but turns into a much more pointed fan service scene than anything we’ve seen up to this point.

It’s a real let down that the series falters so completely in this episode as to let its assets fall to the way side. Nanako and Yukari’s friendship is barely seen or felt and any sort of dramatic tension with Yui–say she begins to steal away Yukari’s attention from Nanako, etc., etc.–is disregarded in exchange for a joke about Nanako having smaller breasts than her peers. Certainly it’s something that girls of that age think about, but let it be in addition to better writing and other character defining lines, instead of being the only way we can tell Nanako apart from the other two. The build-up to the lengthy fan service scene, is also pretty shameful. Nanako and Yukari are put in a situation where they practically have to strip down and the way the show delivers the scene, makes us feel as though said stripping makes the two girls heroic idols. That’s not a good message. And, contrary to previous thoughts, LocoDol isn’t a good show. At least not consistently. Like many other mediocre anime, LocoDol‘s biggest mistake is choosing style over substance. That is, if you can call heads stuck in cleavage, style.

Bakumatsu Rock: C

The third episode of Bakumatsu Rock felt like a retread of the last episode, with our gang of musicians showing up for yet another Shinsengumi concert but with even less interesting results. It’s too bad that the show is really spinning its wheels–the next episode takes place entirely at a bath house–but this episode in particular still has some moments of merit.

After reminding the audience that rock clubs in Japan are being shut down by the government, Kogorou and Shinsaku meet up with Ryouma, who is excited to show them new merchandise that’s been made for the group. Of course, Otose–the restaurant owner who manufactured the merch for the band–expects to get paid, whether Ryouma and the gang have the money or not. This forces the guys to get a job with the Shinsengumi idol group, which leaves them to hang around backstage most of the episode.

That’s about all that happens this time around, and it’s so annoyingly “been-there-done-that”–three episodes in, mind you–that it’s a hard one to get through. One of the only interesting gimmicks in the episode is the documentary style that is found sporadically throughout, built on the idea that some kind of television special is being made about the Shinsengumi and Isami in particular. This takes the show further into Isami’s character–which is nice, since he’s one of the more interesting people on the show–but what little uniqueness these segments bring to the episode, can’t save it. The last episode saw Ryouma and the gang go as far as they needed to into the Shensengumi camp, but this one continues to explore that path with no new revelations, plot point or character development–besides Isami, but that doesn’t require the band to be hanging around. Most annoying of all, Bakumatsu Rock buys itself unwarranted expectations through its appealing premise and the teasing of an eventual showdown between rockers and pop idols. This may never come though, with the rate at which the show is going and Ryouma’s new found appreciation for the Shensengumi. The creators of Bakumatsu Rock are themselves similar to Isami; they understand how to take an interesting idea, hollow it out until it lacks any meaning and fill it with fluff to keep the masses occupied. The main difference, is that there are few anime fans foolish enough to waste their time on Bakumatsu Rock.

Winner… LocoDol
Image of Nanako and Yukari meeting Yui

Neither of these episodes were very good, in fact both were the worst so far of their respective series. That being said, LocoDol‘s charming previous episodes and the damning lack of ANYTHING happening in Bakumatsu Rock means that LocoDol is the winner by a hair. Overall, LocoDol seems more interested in telling a complete story–with Nanako and Yukari’s friendship as a centerpiece–in spite of the over-the-top fan service which colored this particular episode.

That’s it for Group A. Free! Eternal Summer and LocoDol are the first two of twelve shows that I’ll be reviewing for the rest of the season. I may do more showdowns/matches in the next few weeks between those twelve shows, but I may also just shut up and review them. As for the next post, it’s mech on mech, with Aldnoah.Zero taking on Shirogane no Ishi Argevollen. Meanwhile, Rail Wars! challenges the fledgling Sabagebu!. Maybe Sabagebu! can get off a killing blow before packing it up and heading home.

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