Anime World Cup – Summer 2014: Bonus #1

While I would have liked to jump right into a weekly review post, reviewing 72 episodes of anime in a month’s time set me back a week or two–I’m re-evaluating this for the Fall season, by the way. In order to get back on track, we’ll take a week to look at episodes 4, 5 and 6 of the twelve series that made it this far and pick four series that I’ll just do season reviews of, come end of the Summer season. I’ll be reviewing each episode of those eight series leftover–starting with episode 7–throughout this week. Sound confusing? Then we’re ready to do this!

This time we’ll get started with a race between Free! Eternal Summer, LocoDol and Shirogane no Ishi Argevollen. Will it be pecs, mechs or weird mascot fish that are kicked to the curb and subjected to season review? Let’s find out.

Image of Rei freaking out over pizza

Free! Eternal Summer: B

Episodes 4-6 of Eternal Summer do not disappoint. While each falters somewhat in its own way, the three episodes do a fantastic job of keeping up the quality that’s been set so far, and go even further in the lead up to the swimming prefecturals in the 6th episode. The beef-cakiness is still there, sure, but by the 6th episode Eternal Summer has clearly slotted itself as a top tier sports show for anyone who’s willing to put the pretty boys behind them. Uh, no wait, I mean…

Episode 4 focuses mainly on the Samezuka Academy swim team, dealing with Rin and Sousuke’s tight-knit friendship as well as their competitive drives that sometimes cause them to clash. We also see Momotarou and Ai progressing in their abilities and becoming more integral parts of the team, leading up to Sousuke having it out with Rin for wasting his time helping others when he could be focusing on his own improvement. After convincing Sousuke of the power of friendship and teamwork–and thus, the awesomeness of relay races–Sousuke calls in an old favor and asks if he can join Rin on the Samezuka relay team. Rin says he’ll only allow it if Sousuke can beat him in a swim race, and we get one of the best animated showdowns of the series, so far. The 5th episode feels a little more filler than the other two, dealing largely with some problems Nagisa is having at home that may keep him out of the upcoming swim competition. He pretends to have a reason to stay at each of his friends’ houses, until they realize that something’s up and force out of him that his bad grades have made his parents apprehensive about him being on the swim team. Haru, Mako and Rei put their heads together to help Nagisa figure out how he’ll be able to stick with the team. Lastly, the 6th episode–the best of the three–finally takes place during the swim prefecturals and delves deeper into Haru and Mako’s friendship, while providing some really great swim matches. Haru thinks back on the first time he met Mako and what their friendship has come to mean over the years, Mako putting Haru ahead of himself more often than not. We get some glimpses into the Samezuka camp, with Ai nervous about his upcoming match against Nagisa and Rin and Sousuke watching over their fellow teammates with a certain level of pride. The Iwatobi swim team cleans up in the individual races, with the Haru/Mako match being especially tense at first. By the end of the episode, Iwatobi has proven themselves as a strong swim club and are ready to take on the relay race, where teamwork is the number one indicator of success.

Image of Rin and Sousuke in a showdown

These three episodes felt like they captured the best parts of Free while also shoehorning in the more annoying elements–the very same that drive many a potential viewer away. More than swimming, friendship seems to be the overarching theme we’ve seen with this series, and these three episodes certainly don’t break the mold. From Samezuka’s newly formed group dynamic, to the Iwatobi teammates working together to keep Nagisa on the team, to the numerous matches in the 6th episode, the characters seem driven and stronger thanks to their strong friendships with one another. Rin even considers he’s friendship with the members of Iwatobi to be crucial in his own abilities as a swimmer. What’s more, there’s an ideal of friendship and close bonds driving competition and vice versa. Rin and Sousuke seem to see the swimming world in different lights–though Sousuke is basically just a less jaded version of the Rin we got in the first season–but their varied points of view and competitive natures seem to drive their friendship and help it evolve. With Haru and Mako’s match, we come to find that Mako is particularly interested in competing against Haru because he’s somewhat jealous of the friendly rivalry between Rin and Haru. Something about Haru trying his best against Mako, and Mako getting to see Haru at the height of his swimming performance makes him feel as if they are closer for the competition between them. It’s a nice message that–more than anything–promotes healthy competition and rejects the idea that competitive nature comes from a strongly individualistic place. Instead, Free! Eternal Summer wants us to view these swim matches as a strong sign of a mutual love of the water and traversing it between two swimmers. The animation certainly supports this, as it’s gorgeous, especially during the swim matches.

Image of the Iwatobi swim club under the stars

Where Eternal Summer arguably does falter, is in its cloying depiction of these friendships, depictions that certain viewers just won’t buy. Everyone on the Iwatobi team, for instance, is nice to one another almost to a fault. If a scam artist worked their way into the club, they could take every one of the team members for so much money, with the right sob story–I smell a third season idea! The fact that every character on the show is so singularly focused on what it means to be a good teammate and a good friend–so Sousuke’s not there yet, but he’s willing to learn–is unrealistic to say the least, but it’s certainly a relaxing thought. Each guy on the Iwatobi team would bend backwards for any of the other three members, and this is going to be too much to deal with for some of the more cynical viewers out there. Personally, I’d like to think that we can only create a more perfect world by believing that one can exist, but the same people who couldn’t handle Eternal Summer, would probably pop me in the face for saying something so asinine. Beyond this, there are definitely moments that come off as fangirl bait–though Free never goes nearly as far as the opposite kind of series that’s aimed at guys. Take for instance a short comparison to last season’s If Her Flag Breaks; in Free, Nagasi surprises Ai at one point, and almost spooks his towel off him–the only thing covering his loins–while in Flag Breaks, a four or five minute segment is devoted to the white bread male protagonist squirting his harem of eight or nine girls with a water gun, exposing their bras through their white shirts. Which is more exploitative? I’ll let you decide. Of course, Eternal Summer has other scenes that seem to suggest certain things for certain audiences–Mako and Haru reaching for the dolphin key chain at the same time felt a little loaded–but that doesn’t keep the show from being an excellent sports anime.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; guys who are afraid of this show, need to push the worry that they’ll actually like the ripped abs to the back of their mind and actually give the show a shot. I couldn’t imagine any fan of sports anime not finding some kind of value here. Most importantly, Free! Eternal Summer does what every great sports series should do; it convinces the audience to see the merits of the sport and even the joy which it can bring to those who partake in the sport. Watching Eternal Summer, you can’t help but throw on your swim trunks and practice your butterfly stroke. That’s right. I said butterfly stroke with pride.

Image of Nanako, Yui and Yukari rasing their hands to grasp their futures... or maybe there's a bird up there

LocoDol: C+

The 4th, 5th and 6th episodes of LocoDol seem to waste their time with many a superfluous joke–most of which aren’t particularly funny–losing out on opportunities to tell a richer story and to grow the relationship between Nanako and Yukari. While we do get some scenes that lean in that direction, these episodes ultimately feel more like a waste of time and less like an intimate look inside the life of local idols.

The 4th episode starts a new arc in many ways, as we see Saori Nishifukai joining the Nagarekawa girls–taking over the role of manager while Nanako’s uncle moves to director–while Nanako and Yakari suspect a pervert in their midst. Saori seems to have the perfect mixture of business acumen and personal care for the girls, but she comes off as a bit trigger happy with her camera. Though the girls are oblivious, we the viewer come to find that Saori is obsessed with Nanako and Yukari, and is running a racy fan site that includes all of her pictures of the girls. The 5th episode starts with Saori mentioning that one goal of a locodol should be to create external relations between the town they represent and the rest of the world at large. Nanako particularly takes hold of this idea, and brainstorms with Yukari and Yui about how to spread their brand. Yui mentions off-hand that she has entered Uogokoro–the mascot that she plays–into the National Cute and Loose Character Field Day, meaning that the Nagarekawa girls will be on national television. The three deal with their classmates reactions to the news and prep for the upcoming event, while considering how they represent Nagarekawa. Lastly, episode 6 focuses extensively on the National Cute and Loose Character Field Day, with Nanako and Yukari acting as supporters and spokesmen for Uogokoro, introducing him–the girls refer to Uogokoro as he, even though Yui is the one portraying him–before the field day begins and later singing his theme song. Uogokoro competes in various competitions against other mascots from across Japan, such as Nishi Shirahama’s Pantaro and Segawa’s Chushakki–a mascot with a giant syringe for a head. Uogokoro manages to make it through to the next round by sheer luck, but Saori tells Yui to take it easy because the Nagarekawa team doesn’t care if she wins or loses, just that she is safe. With such forward momentum, maybe Uogokoro/Yui still holds a win in his/her back pocket.

Yukari and Nanako congratulate Yui while Saori gets camera happy

These episodes aren’t bad by any means, but they are quite mediocre and move the plot along at an odd pace. For instance, we get Nanako worrying for nearly half an episode about how the Nagarekawa girls will get a bigger audience, only to have Yui mention the national field day event in a 30-second window and completely shift the tone and focus of the episode. Nanako and Yukari even admit this, speaking to how easy it was for them to reach that larger stage, since neither of them had to take any action to get there, instead riding on Yui’s coattails. It’s an example of how an interesting storyline–say something like Nanako and Yukari exploring different avenues to expand their reach–is sacrificed in the name of an entire episode devoted to the field day, which is arguably funny, but still pretty pointless. Saori initially appears to be a nice addition to the cast, keeping the 4th episode almost fan service free–and less exploitative than the ridiculous 3rd episode–but the show focuses far too much attention on the fact that she is obsessed with the girls, takes way too many pictures of them and runs her own fan site. We almost get a patented panty shot by the end of the episode, all thanks to Saori’s creepy photo taking and her attempt to garner fans for the girls from risque photos. At one point, the point comes up that Nanako should be happy about the fan site–lewd pictures or no–because it will help their popularity. That’s true, but it’s also depressing if real idols have to put up with such non-sense–let’s not forget how old these girls are–in order to become super idols, as the show refers to them as. Ever since the first few episodes of LocoDol, the show has been wrestling with itself over if it wants to make a show about scantily clad high school girls, or one about the friendship between two girls pushed together for commercial reasons. While these episodes tend to lean in the latter direction, the former aspect is still a part of the show.

Image of Yukari and Nanako performing at the Field Day

That being said, whether the series is focusing on Yukari’s growing closeness to Nanako or Uogokoro facing off with a beefed up mascot, LocoDol carries a charm that the lesser shows of this season can’t muster. The series may be equal parts goofy jokes with little payoff and characters that don’t go anywhere, but the sweet interactions between the three heroines really stand out, while those lesser elements serve their functions in the wings rather than center stage. LocoDol certainly isn’t one of the better shows of the season–not by a long shot–but if you like keeping up with a good number of series each season, you could do far worse than this oft charming, oft misunderstood show.

Image of Jamie with Argevollen in the background

Shirogane no Ishi Argevollen: C

Over these episodes, Shirogane no Ishi Argevollen loses whatever steam it may have built up so far, ending in a decently interesting 6th episode that’s too little, too late. It’s the kind of show that draws you in with its potential and then completely squanders that very potential by the half-way mark. Except that we’re more at the quarter-way mark, since Argevollen is apparently 24 episodes long. That length could be to blame for the overly-slow pacing of these three episodes, but it doesn’t make up for the fact that the writers don’t develop most of the characters very well, even when they take the time to.

Episode 4 takes place directly after the skirmishes of the first three episodes, with the Arandan army getting a reprieve from battle while the Ingelmians are indisposed. Back on base, Lieutenant Samonji is scolded by his higher ups but told to hold on to Argevollen, Tokimune considers his feelings for Jamie and about piloting the mech and Jamie is asked by a supposed executive from her company to stay on base and help with Argevollen. In the next episode, Jamie–now resolved to her fate of staying with the Arandan army–follows Tokimune to a graveyard, where he mourns for his sister. Tokimune comes clean with Jamie that he’s trying to move up in the military so that he can find out how his sister died–he believes it has something to do with “the brass”. The two get illogically mad at one another and Jamie takes off. Meanwhile, the Arandan “brass” discuss an ongoing attack from the Ingelmians against a different calvary and Samonji is told to prepare Argevollen and the rest of his troops for a surprise attack. Samonji and company create a strategy to confuse the enemy, but when things go awry, the group may be in more trouble than expected. The 6th episode starts directly from the end of the 5th, with Tokimune trapped inside of the broken down Argevollen mech, unable to actually pilot it anywhere. The rest of Samonji’s crew recuperate from the attack, and continue on with battling the Ingelmian base that was their target from the beginning. Back at the base, Jamie is told to get over to Argevollen in order to save the mech and Tokimune. She travels with a private to get to Argevollen and the two are almost killed by an Ingelmian artillery round. They recover and when Jamie makes it to Argevollen, she’s able to free Tokimune and get the mech back up and running. Samonji’s forces prove successful in their attack on the Ingelmian base, but something sinister seems to be occurring amongst the higher ups back at the Arandan base.

Image of Argevollen looking up at a nearby flare

The most unforgivable crime that these episodes commit, is taking ample time to take a break from the action–in episodes 4 and 5–but not utilizing it to grow the characters in any real way. Don’t get me wrong, there are many attempts at character development here. Tokimune has a dead sister, all of a sudden–a plot point that could work to make the audience sympathize with Tokimune, but is instead written to create false drama. Jamie is forced to stay on base with the Argevollen mech–a development that she gets over rather quick, after being so against it at first. Samonji has to make difficult strategic decisions that end up getting a handful of his men killed–yet we never see him reacting too heavily to this pressure, or the ramifications of his power, for that matter. Other instances for character evolution abound, but somehow the entire cast still feels like the cardboard cutouts we were introduced to six episodes ago. Jamie and Tokimune’s relationship has advanced–seemingly on the brink of dating, or at least fooling around–but it hasn’t changed them in the least bit. Tokimune’s characteristics fluctuate wildly, in fact. Sometimes he seems in adoration of Jamie and others he acts as if he wants nothing to do with her. Often times he comes off as patriotic towards the Arandan army, only for us to find that he has some sort of paranoid, ulterior motive for his actions. Such transgressions could be forgivable, if there were amazingly crafted action scenes in place of all the downtime–Aldnoah.Zero does this on and off, to great effect–but Shirogane no Ishi Argevollen chooses instead to waste the viewer’s time whilst spinning its wheels, fruitlessly.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least touch on a few of the quality moments these episodes present. Episode 6 is certainly the outlier in the group, as it stands alone as a relatively entertaining and thoughtful outing. Most importantly, the storyline revolves around Jamie practically saving the day, and thus taking the role of hero that is usually reserved for the bland male protagonist, in many such action series–especially militaristic ones. Tokimune is left stuck in Argevollen–nervous, but relatively safe in the metallic shell–while Jamie is forced to traverse a dangerous landscape in order to save him. Switch the gender roles in that last sentence, and you have the usual “damsel in distress” scenario. What’s even better, is that this dynamic isn’t given much thought by the characters, allowing it to seem like a woman saving a man is a usual occurrence. She’s simply doing the job that any man in the same situation would do, and she accomplishes it with flying colors. Tokimune doesn’t act like less of a man for being saved by a woman, but instead seems preoccupied by his feelings for Jamie, and the current confusion that is their fickle relationship. Jamie doesn’t even seem to take on some of the usual tropes of masculinity, in the way a character like The Hunger Games‘ Katniss Everdeen clearly does. Instead, she makes it past falling artillery rounds and collapsed bridges to Argevollen, her pantyhose the worse for the wear. This handling of Jamie’s character, is one of the few bright spots of these three episodes.
Image of close-up Argevollen

What’s so terrible about Shirogane no Ishi Argevollen? Most notably, its willingness to string the audience along with promises of military strategy and big shiny robot battles, while not delivering much of those or even stories and characters that are worth watching or rooting for. Going into the season, it was an easy assumption–just looking at the vague storyline and myriad number of characters–that Aldnoah.Zero wouldn’t have too hard of a time taking the mecha throne over Argevollen. What wasn’t easily guessable though, was if Argevollen would be just as bland as it looked, or if it could overcome the tropes of the genre to be truly unique amongst the shows of the season. Sadly, it definitely fell into the latter category, and as any long-term anime fan will tell you, nothing’s worse than the series which had something to offer but didn’t know how to share it.

With Shirogane no Ishi Argevollen coming in with a ‘C’, it looks like I’ll be doing a season review of it based on whatever has aired of the show by the end of the season. Meanwhile, Free! Eternal Summer and LocoDol will be showing up in this week’s review post, which I’ll be starting later today and updating throughout the week.

In the next Anime World Cup bonus post, Tokyo Ghoul, Barakamon and Sword Art Online II will show up looking for a fight. See you then!

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