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

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 C: Slice of Life/Romance

1st Match:

Images of Handa glancing skyward and Ikumi in a stupid outfit

Barakamon: A-

In its first two episodes, Barakamon proved to be a thoughtful show–each episode intent on passing along a message–while never feeling dull or preachy. The third episode follows suit, even better at times than the previous episod.

Slightly different in structure from the previous episodes, the first half of this one is largely devoted to Tamako–one of the girls that was holed up in Handa’s place before he moved in. She begins to bond with Handa when she confesses her desire to be a mangaka. Handa agrees to help Tomako improve, but before he knows it, she’s loaded him down with a grocery bag full of manga that she wants him to read so that he may better grasp the medium. Handa takes it in decent stride–though he finds Tomako to be a little intense–but once he leaves, Tomako wonders if she may have accidentally placed a boys love manga in the bag she gave Handa. The rest of the half plays this up, with Tomako fretting about being shunned by the community once she is outed as a fujoshi. Foolishness ensues. The second half is what really makes the episode, as Handa gets word that a recent calligraphy work he submitted to a competition didn’t win the grand prize. This leaves him thinking over his place in life and generally moping about with a dark aura all around him. Eventually Naru and the rest of Handa’s hanger-ons, convince him to join them for a local tradition, where a family with a new boat celebrates by tossing hand-made mochi out to the rest of the villagers. Handa is willing to participate–after his friends goad him into it–but does he have the desire and resolve to fight for the a piece of the mochi pie?

This last segment of the episode was not only refreshing, but needed, since most of the first half is relatively goofy. It’s funny at times, but we’ve seen the “woah, what an otaku” joke many times before, so it never feels fresh or interesting. When it gets into the boys love stuff, it just gets annoying with Tomako running around yelling and unable to cope with the fact that she is into boys that like boys–there is a funny scene where she is disgusted by a BL manga, yells about how gross it is and then can’t help but take a peek. It successfully captures the feeling of shame many of us have with the things we enjoy, but it feels a little lazy for an intelligent show like Barakamon. Luckily, the second half gets back to the level of quality we’ve become used to over the last few episodes, with a rumination on Handa’s ability to pick himself back up again after a defeat. He attends the mochi toss soon after finding out that he’s been beaten in a competition by a kid several years his junior. It’d be a hard blow to anyone, but after a conversation with one of the older women in the community, Handa picks up some great tips on how to get mochi during the toss, which can obviously be applied to his creative goals as well. Specifically, she tells him to keep his head low instead of high, because it allows him to find the mochi that everyone else has ignored or missed. Lastly, she points out that if someone else beats him to some mochi, he needs to move on to the next and not dwell on his loss. It’s a thoughtful message that teaches you to focus on your own abilities, successes and place in life, rather than constantly comparing yourself to others. It’s those comparisons that allow us to fall through the cracks and think that we’re not worthy or capable of doing great things. If, on the the other hand, we focus solely on our own goals–our heads low, quick to see the next opportunity instead of yearning for a big break–we have the capability to win out in the long run, just as the old woman does, a full bag of mochi in her hand.

Episodes like this are the reason to watch a show like Barakamon or Silver Spoon before it; there’s competent character work, the dialogue is funny a decent amount of the time and–most importantly–they actually have something of note to say. Put that against most other anime of any season–whether it’s moe’d magical girls or bad game adaptations–and it’ll win out, because the show and its message will stick with you. Of course certain scenes from bad shows will also stick with you, but never for the right reason.

Jinsei: D+

Another week gone, another bad episode of Jinsei to deal with. Luckily this week’s show is much less uncomfortable/rapey than last week’s. Hey, that’s a sign that things are looking up, right?

The episode starts with Yuuki and the gang getting a letter from a first year student asking about self-confidence. Soon, they’re at the park and they have Rino hop on a bike in order to prove that self-confidence is helped along by encouragement–she doesn’t know how to ride a bike and Yuuki, Fumi and Ikumi cheer her on. Eventually the Jinsei gang runs into a group of doppelgänger journalists from another school who also write advice columns. “Hilarity” ensues. Next, they all go to visit Fumi’s grandfather to get his permission that Fumi can join them on a camping trip. Yet again, “Hilarity” ensues. Lastly, Fumi, Ikumi and Rino try to sell products at the local supermarket in order to gauge which one of them is the best seller. For one last time, “hilarity” ensues.

There was nothing particularly annoying about this episode, only that it was generally bad and was a metaphorical desert, as far as comedic moments were concerned. Whatever jokes are here, don’t land the way the writers want them too and the characters rarely feel appropriate as the deliverers of such jokes. When the group preps to visit Fumi’s grandfather, she goes on a long tirade about the power he can wield when he becomes mad–say in the instance of meeting a boy that’s an integral part of Fumi’s school life. It is a reference to shounen action series–where characters have levels of strength and always seem capable of some serious mass chaos–that falls on its face, not only because it’s not funny but because of the delivery thereof. The fast pace of these episodes and the lack of focus on any one topic, tends to hurt Jinsei more than help it, as nothing is given the time it deserves to be developed, from the girls, to the situations and–especially–even the jokes.

Jinsei is one of the easier shows of the season to part with. It’s meaningless in the worst way, in that it lacks the usual entertainment value that fluff media tends to have. Good riddance.

Winner… Barakamon
Image of Handa noticing an uncontested bag of mochi

Through and through Barakamon rocked Jinsei‘s bland world this week. It packed a punch in the ideology department while staying true to its characters, a value that would make the world of anime much better if all shows could be described in such a way. It’s nice to be rid of Jinsei though. Things suddenly feel much more fresh and new. Funny, even.

2nd Match:

Images of Kou looking into the distance thoughtfully and Sakura looking slightly annoyed

Ao Haru Ride: B+

Ao Haru Ride is the kind of show that you want to see succeed. Sure, it can be melodramatic at times, and the relationship between Yoshioka and Kou feels a little cliche at times, but the series ultimately arrives with a lot of heart and characters that the audience can easily internalize because of their relatability. This third episode doesn’t disappoint, going so far as to build and strengthen the group dynamic that’s been ready in the wings.

The episode starts off directly after the last one. Yoshioka–having just accepted the loss of two big friendships–happens to run into Kou, after thinking about how much she wants to see and talk with him. They don’t have long before Kou’s brother–Yoichi Tanaka–pops up, introducing himself to Yoshioka. We get a hint from Yoichi that Kou may be more interested in Yoshioka than she realizes, but she doesn’t catch on herself. Later, Kou and Yoshioka walk home together and he seems to need her as a soul to rest his head on. The show luxuriates in this renewed–yet still somewhat emotionally distant, on Kou’s end–closeness between the two for most of the episode. Things end with several characters taking on a level of responsibility, as we see a clear ensemble forming.

One of the more refreshing qualities of Ao Haru Ride, is its ability to be a sweet, heartfelt show without ever feeling cloying. Many of these kinds of series leave you feeling as if you’re choking on the cheese; the unrealistic friendships, characters being TOO nice to one another, etc–see Shounen Hollywood. This series, on the other hand, seems to carry a tension with it–mainly because of Kou’s emotional background, which we’re not entirely sure about yet–that keeps the dramatics in play in spite of the charming characters. It’s almost as if we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, since things are seemingly going so well for Yoshioka. The main hope, would be that once that shoe does drop, it doesn’t come with overwrought character melodrama. Ao Haru Ride seems to straddle this line, sometimes tipping over into the melodrama but usually staying impressively balanced. This episode, for instance, seemed to handle the drama pretty well, whilst last episode’s scenes involving Kou seemed a little over the top–the scene where he held Yoshioka to him so that no one could see her cry, looked nice but was trying too hard. Here, we get shots of Kou looking off into the distance and ruminating over his life, but it simply doesn’t feel overstated, for whatever reason. Maybe the shots aren’t held as long or the hazy, dream-like filter isn’t used, but either way, the emotions come off nice and realistic.

Ao Haru Ride has quietly slipped itself into one of my favorite shows this season. It’s never the best from episode to episode, but I have a feeling that as a whole, it’ll end up being a very worthwhile show. From an anthropological perspective, it’s good to see that emo kids are still alive and strong in Japan. This one’s for you and your Sunny Day Real Estate album collection, Kou.

Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-Kun: C+

There’s something sensible about giving an anime series three episodes before deciding whether it’s one to keep up with or not–three seems to be the cut off point suggested by most anime fans. Usually it’s a good idea, in case a show gets off to a rocky start but eventually pulls itself together to become worth the time investment. Other series–like Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-Kun, for instance–start off with a good premise and charming characters, only to feel tired and border-line annoying by that third episode.

This week, we’re left with the same structure that served the show last episode; two new characters that have some type of involvement with Nozaki’s manga are introduced, each character structuring each half of the episode. First we get Kashima, a girl that’s labeled the “Prince of the School” due to her way with the ladies–she calls them all Princess and is shown to be a smooth romancer. We come to learn that Kashima is the basis for the male protagonist in Nozaki’s manga and that her and Mikoto are close friends, after being rivals for a short time. The second half of the episode focuses on Hori, a member of the theatre club who is constantly corralling Kashima into doing her part in the club–her aloof nature leading her to not be as involved or punctual as Hori would like. After some worries of Nozaki working closely with a female artist, Sakura finds out that Hori is the background animator for Nozaki’s manga, adding to the ensemble manga team.

It certainly wasn’t a bad episode–after all, nothing was particularly egregious–but this week’s Nozaki-Kun is a staunch reminder of the kind of show we’ll be getting for the rest of the season. It’s unappologetically light–which can be relieving in the right circumstance–but that lack of depth doesn’t work in Nozaki-Kun‘s favor. By now it’s seemingly unreasonable to hope for the show to get more into the production/creative side of a working mangaka and his crew. Sure, that’s present, but the show seems much more interested in doing short comedic character studies on characters who–arguably–don’t deserve to be studied. Kashima is a spin on an old trope, but its a character that we’ve come to see more and more in the last handful of years, as more shows focus on girl/girl relationships–though the scene in which she forgets a girls name and plays it off by calling her “Princess”, was classic in some ways. Hori is underwhelming as well, existing mostly to fill out the numbers of the manga crew and to knock Kashima around for not following his orders. Tidbits–like the fact that he feels too short to play a leading role in the theatre productions–only serve as corny jokes, rather than sketching out Hori’s character through storytelling. What’s worse, Seo–the tough girl that the second half of last episode introduced–only shows up here for a throw away line or two that prove her general crassness, which the last episode did just fine. Of course Mikoto does play a large part in the show now, but it still makes you wonder if Kashima and Hori won’t be relegated to a similar fate as Seo, next time around.

In a weaker season, Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-Kun would certainly be a show to keep up with, but as it stands, the lack of consequence, ideology or even comedy to a large degree, keep the show in the realm of the mediocre. That’s a bummer too, because the premise inherently has some promise to it, if you’re at all interested in the working of the creative process. Sadly, the first three episodes just don’t delve into those possibilities enough to warrant a follow through.

Winner… Ao Haru Ride
Image of the gang of five making up the classroom representatives

It would have been nice to see Gekkan Shoujo do more with its premise and characters, but it truly wastes them in its lack of substance. If you’re into a kind of “character of the week” series, then Gekkan Shoujo may be for you, but if you find yourself needing characters that grow and evolve as the series progresses, Ao Haru Ride is the show to watch.

With those results, it looks like Barakamon and Ao Haru Ride will be making it to my weekly review post. Just to note, this is the first category where I’d say that both shows earned the advancement, so I’m looking forward to see where they go from here. Tomorrow we’ll be wrapping up the Fantasy/Magical Girl group with Sailor Moon: Crystal fighting for it’s life against Akame ga Kill and Sword Art Online II packing in the dirt over Fate/kaleid liner Prisma Illya 2wei‘s desecrated grave. Good imagery? I hope so.

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