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

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 D: Fantasy/Magical Girl

1st Match:

Images of Ami in Sailor Mercury mode and Mine as a young outcast

Sailor Moon: Crystal: B

The second outing of Sailor Moon: Crystal is decidedly more entertaining than the first. Usagi isn’t as annoying this week–though there are some issues to deal with–Sailor Mercury already proves to be a dynamic addition to the group, even if her character is a cliche–though maybe the 90’s Mercury was the ORIGINAL nerdy girl who studies too much–and the animation as a whole seems better this time around, though oddly jumpy in some places.

We start out with a quiet introduction to Ami Mizuno, a bookish girl from Usagi’s school who’s seemingly sold her social life for good grades and intelligence. Kids at the school talk about her behind her back, and she comes off as envious of the tight knit friendship that Usagi and her girlfriends seem to have. Later, Luna drops onto Ami–literally–and this gives her a good reason to chat with Usagi, who quickly befriends her–we learn earlier in the episode that Luna has been planning all of this to some extent. Ami and Usagi go to the arcade together and start to become closer friends. The next day, Ami goes to a computer lab where a mysterious woman hands her a study disk which quickly brainwashes Ami once she starts watching its videos. Eventually Usagi and Luna walk past the computer lab where the mysterious woman is standing outside, handing out the brainwashing disks with her minions. Usagi and Luna investigate the disk back at her place–somehow they already assume that there’s something fishy about it–and soon realize that the disks have been brainwashing people. They rush to the lab, but can they save Ami in time, or will the brainwashing woman figure out a way to control Usagi as well?

This episode felt much better paced than the last, staying interesting and entertaining throughout, instead of being plodding at times. Ami exists as a nice foil to Usagi, making her moments of whininess somehow more endearing and less annoying. Last episode was a let down, due to a hope for some kind of feminist message underlying the show when all there was was Usagi being a “dumb girl”, in need of saving by Tuxedo Mask. Here, though, Ami is the smartest person at her school, and proves that she can handle herself physically by the end of the episode. If Usagi is a bad example of what a strong woman can be–and she is, as she has to be saved by Ami and Tuxedo Mask immediately after becoming Sailor Moon–then Ami represents the kind of woman than can overcome emotional negativity and physical abuse, finishing stronger for it. It is a bummer though, that Usagi is so easily bested by the villains that encounter her. Her biggest boon by herself, is her ability to whine and scream at such a frequency as to break windows, but that power comes from her sheer fright of the situation. It is only when Tuxedo Mask tells her exactly how to handle herself, that Sailor Moon has her act together enough to use her “Sailor Boomerang” attack. I’m sure it’s true to the original motivations and gender dynamics of the 90’s series–or the manga before that–but in this post-Frozen media landscape, can’t we reassess how this version of Sailor Moon acts and is portrayed? The ultimate argument to this point is the idea that Usagi’s lack of heroics is a source of comedy in the show, and maybe even something that sets her apart from the usual hero. To those points though, it isn’t funny–to be blunt–and that dynamic would be far more interesting and unique to a male protagonist, since the majority of media history casts females in the role of “damsel in distress”. Admittedly, I’m not overly familiar with the Sailor Moon franchise, so for all I know, Usagi could eventually grow to overcome these hurdles and be a reliant woman, Tuxedo Mask acting as a partner instead of a savior. Something with the imagery of Crystal though–the dream sequences where she walks hand-in-hand with a much taller Chiba, etc.–seem to prove my point, rather than invalidate it. Also, I realize that Japan has a different view on gender politics than many in the states do, but that doesn’t seem to invalidate the argument either.

All that said, this is an entertaining episode of the show and is a positive indicator that Sailor Moon: Crystal could be worth a watch this season, especially if you’re into magical girl anime or the Sailor Moon franchise as a whole. It is sad though that the only “updating” deemed necessary for this new version of the story is the animation, rather than the representation of strong women in a male-dominated society. Oh well, “Sailor Make Up!” right?

Akame ga Kill!: B

Akame ga Kill! is really shaping up to be a fun series, harkening back to the ultra-violent action shows of years past. For some reason, the show feels like something you would catch back in the 90’s, yet it’s hard to say why. Maybe that was a time when anti-heroes with loose morals were more prevalent in the industry. Akame ga Kill! certainly delivers them in droves.

Things start out in media res, with the Night Raid crew defending against several groups of ninjas and assassins that are attacking their camp. We get some info on imperial relics–the various weapons that the members of Night Raid wield–and a few demonstrations from their wielders on what sort of mystical powers they possess and how they work. If memory serves, this is the first we’ve heard of these weapons having some sort of supernatural energy tied to them, so it can’t help but feel somewhat shoehorned in, in this instance. Eventually, Tatusmi is tasked by Najenda to apprentice with Nice and to follow her orders, much like he did Akame in the last episode. Sadly, those marching orders come down to following her around whilst she shops, Nice talking down to Tatsumi during the majority of their time together. Things get a little darker once Tatsumi and Nice come upon an execution, and once the audience becomes privy to the inner-workings of the court of the child emperor and the potential advisors that have his ear. Things start to ramp up as the group gets a related case from Najenda that involves taking down one of the child emperor’s relatives on charges of corruption.

While the majority of Akame ga Kill!‘s cast is unique from one another, individually they each embody some of the usual anime tropes that we’re used to seeing. Because of that, the show is creating a nice pattern–in these last two episodes, at least–of sticking Tatsumi in one-on-one situations with the various characters so that he–and the audience–can get to know them better. This played out in the last episode, by keeping Akame generally mysterious while showing that she had an empathetic side and could have pride in Tatusmi’s accomplishments as an assassin. Here, we get Mine’s background, a tale that better defines her point of view and the overall ideology of someone who could murder people in mass without much hesitation. Mine, it turns out, was badly treated by the townspeople–for the simple fact that she was born half-foreigner–when she was younger. This has colored her whole perspective on the inequality of their society and pushes her to side with the Revolutionary Army, who–as allies of many foreign countries–plan to create a more accepting climate in the country that will benefit historically victimized foreigners. Of course, she goes on to say that she’ll also grow rich and live a cushy lifestyle from her role in the revolution, so much of this character development can be taken at face value. Still, this is indicative of what Akame ga Kill! has been doing since the beginning; creating a feeling of immense brutality in its characters, only to later explain where that brutality comes from. Agree or disagree with their methods, at least Night Raid seems to have good motives–or at least to them–for meeting such hatred and corruption with their level of violence. It isn’t particularly in the purview of a show like Akame ga Kill! to explain why its characters are who they are, but it still finds time amongst all the action–and Mime’s moment is all-to-knowingly shoehorned in–to make the world of the show a little less black and white and to remove a slight bit of the anti from the antiheroes.

Aside from the character development, the action scenes this episode are some of the best of the season, ranking up there with Aldnoah.Zero in sheer entertainment value. Seriously, where else will you get the camera pulling back through a freshly shot hole in a guy’s thorax?

Tie… Sailor Moon: Crystal and Akame ga Kill!
Images of Ami in pre-transformation and Mine seen through a gaping thorax hole

While they’re certainly shooting for different tones for different audiences, the quality of Sailor Moon: Crystal and Akame ga Kill! was about equal this week. Sailor Moon was able to bounce back from a rocky first episode–mainly through the introduction of the badass, Ami–while Akame kept up a consistency that it’s been building since the end of the first episode.

2nd Match:

Images of a young Shino acting in self-defense and Miyu defending Illya with a broom

Sword Art Online II: C+

The week’s Sword Art Online II proved to be neither terribly interesting nor particularly eventful. We get a handful of character moments that help us to better understand the mindset of these people–mostly Shino–but the tone of each is especially melodramatic, and sometimes hard to take at face value.

Shino is at a market when she is confronted by some school mates who try and bully her for some money. She has a physical reaction to one of the bullies pointing a gun finger at her–odd seeing as how she is one of the world champions in a VRMMORPG based on gun play–but the girls are soon scared away by a friend of Shino’s named Shinkawa. When Shino gets back to her home–after a dialogue-heavy lunch with Shinkawa–she peeks at a gun in a drawer and is immediately effected on a psychological level. We get a flashback of her at a much younger age, forced to protect her mother through a brutal and violent act that would be hard to deal with at any age, much less the preteen age that Shino would seem to be in the flashback. Meanwhile, in the Alfheim Online world–a fantasy based VRMMORPG–Kazuto finally breaks it to Asuna that he has to switch over to the Gun Gale Online universe, to help solve the case brought up back in the premiere episode. She capitulates but is concerned, and Kazuto quickly makes preparations for his departure, ready to sleuth around and solve some murder mysteries.

Sword Art Online II seems to have a tendency for overly long scenes where two characters go on and on, usually with some heavy exposition included. It was missing in the second episode–which is what made it so good, one could argue–but the first episode was basically half made up of a conversation between Kazuto and a government official that set up the trajectory of the series, at least for Kazuto. Where the long convo in the first episode involved discussing the murder of a gamer and the ramifications thereof, the lunch scene here between Shino and Shinkawa deals only in the two of them geeking out over the more specific details of the Gun Gale Online universe. They cover the guy that Shino/Sinon defeated in the last episode and the stats he had, tactics for an upcoming championship, what it means to be an “agility” type, etc. It’s hard–at least for some of us–to want to talk about this level of detail in a video game in real life, much less to have to watch two characters go on about it for five minutes. It’s not just that, because the dialogue feels overly stiff even when they move on to discuss making time outside of GGO to focus on school work and those more annoying things in life that keep us from our virtual reality selves (the ones that are so much better). Maybe that’s where this show derails for me; it’s utter love for the idea of virtual worlds where the protagonists can escape to in order to avoid the problems of real life. In Shino’s case, it goes even further, since she hopes to use her ability to kill and maim her opponents through gun play in GGO to calm her nerves over the shooting which she was involved in so long ago. It’s a romanticization of what a video game or virtual world can be that’s clearly made for gamers and by gamers. Largely, if you’re not drinking the cool aid, then you need not apply. Maybe that’s unfair. After all, Shino does urge Shinkawa to take care of himself outside of the world of GGO. Still, there’s almost a knowing wink to all of this, as if to say “We both know what we’re REALLY interested in”. After all, it would be easy to throw all of your time into a fictional world where you have more control over you role in society and the impact you can have therein. As the characters show, however–when they lay down to enter the game world–visiting that virtual reality is tantamount to sleeping here in the real world, and truly accomplishes nothing in reality. The show may try to argue otherwise, but something like Shino’s story of overcoming her fear of guns by shooting a whole lot of guns, just feels contrived for the needs of the show.

To keep it short, Kazuto’s segment of the episode–which involved him getting physically prepped to go into the GGO universe–is entirely underwhelming and rather boring to sit through. There’s always a need in storytelling to logically get from point A to point B, but writers and creators usually figure out a much more interesting way of doing that. This episode is never downright stupid and doesn’t seem to wade in tropes like many other series of the season happen to, but when the show is hitting at this level, it’s just not particularly entertaining. All of its higher aspirations to tell a story about psychological recovery or whatever, come off as just that; higher aspirations. The show doesn’t put enough thought into its characters for those loftier storytelling goals to take root in the way they should. Maybe if they cut out ruminations on just how easy it is to screw up your build as an agility type who can’t find any rare guns, the show would be leaps and bounds better for it. But hey, where else am I going to get all the info I need about character types and weaponry in a virtual game that doesn’t exist? This stuff is important, after all.

Fate/Kaleid liner Prisma Illya 2wei!: F

I say we skip to the end on this one… it wasn’t good. Alright, now that that’s out of the way… but alas…

The final episode we’ll be following of Fate/Kaleid liner etc. shouldn’t disappoint the crowd of hate watchers out there, staying as repugnant and infantile as ever, and even hitting a new low for the show–quite a feat, considering.

We get into the creepiness from the get go, with Chloe–that’s Illya’s evil doppelganger–being tied up for safe keeping in her skimpy outfit and interrogated by Illya and the gang. Luvia–one of the sorceresses who is slightly older than Illya and Miyu–puts a curse on Chloe that forces her to feel Illya’s pain, hopefully keeping her from killing Illya. Now that Chloe is a part of the group–through force of course–things get REALLY wacky. First, she starts blatantly hitting on Illya’s brother–many doting “onii-chan”‘s follow–and then she ends up making out with many of the other elementary school girls–just as a reminder about the age level we’re discussing–at her and Illya’s school. That Chloe. Will she ever learn? By the end of the episode, they’ve used the overplayed “she’s my cousin routine”, and Chloe is fully in the mix. Oh boy!

Wow. Commencing rant. By now it seems fruitful to say that if you are someone who is faithfully watching this show this season, buying its built in excuses for elementary school girls making out with one another–come on, she needs the mana!–then you, sir or madam, are a bankrupt individual, without a moral compass or the understanding of right and wrong. Too far? Fair enough. Too each his own, I guess. Different strokes for different folks and all… NO! These are ELEMENTARY SCHOOL GIRLS! What’s wrong with you? Do you have such issues with your own masculinity–ladies, I can’t psychoanalyze your reasons for watching this show–that you’re left to lust after the least intimidating, most impressionable version of the opposite sex? Now listen, if you happen to be one of those folks with this particular fetish, you could be doing far worse things than watching Fate Kaleid/liner Illya etc.. No one’s getting hurt, no real children are involved, etc. That means you’re already ahead because you’re not breaking any laws or putting anyone else’s rights in jeopardy for your own benefit. Now it’s time to go get some help. Seriously though, shows like this condone such fetishes and behavior and one has to wonder if they don’t foster it in new people who never would have been interested in such depravity, were it not packaged in a nice, innocent box. After all, it’s a magical girl show, so we’re all just having fun here. Hey, I’m here for the story, not any of that other stuff. No. The story isn’t worth a damn, mainly because the writers spend all of their time getting Illya, Miyu and Chloe into uncomfortable situations for the creepiest of the otaku fanboys out there. That’s not an excuse and there are something like 20 other shows out there this season that beat this one in storytelling eight ways to Sunday. Alright, concluding rant. So, if you skipped over that rant part, this show isn’t good. Not only that, but it has scared me away from trying anything else in the Fate series. Oh, and no, I won’t be reviewing the upcoming DVD/BluRay special Fate/kaleid liner Prisma Illya 2wei!: First Bra – Illya-hen though I’m sure it will deftly address all of my prior concerns. That title isn’t a joke by the way. Good game, Japan.

Winner… Sword Art Online II
Image of Shino getting bullied and psychologically damaged

It would have been nice if something of merit had challenged Sword Art Online II this week–especially since it had many problems–but it had the luck of going up against Fate/kaleid liner Illya etc., and we all know by now how I feel about that mess. At least SAOII‘s central premise–that they’re just now getting back to–is interesting and the second episode proved that the show knows how to do action, so all isn’t lost. SAOII could still prove to be a much better show than its widely lampooned predecessor, but only time will tell.

So it turns out that Akame ga Kill! and Sword Art Online II are the two shows that have made it to my weekly review post. SAOII ended with two wins and a loss while Sailor Moon: Crystal had a win, a tie and a loss, clearly making SAOII the winner. Honestly, I have a feeling that Sailor Moon will end up being the stronger show in the end, but it’s premiere was too weak to beat out SAOII that first week, and that really killed it in the long run. I’ll probably keep up with the show and do a separate review of it later on. After all, it’s only seven or eight episodes each season, so there’s no huge time commitment involved. Next time, it’s the end of the road for the Mystery/Horror/Thriller group with two of the best shows of the season–Tokyo Ghoul and Zankyou no Terror–duking it out for bragging rights, while Persona 4 the Golden Animation and Dramatical Murder decide once and for all which one is truly bottom of the barrel material.

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