Posts in Category: Episode Eval

Epidsode Eval: LocoDol (Eps. 11 & 12) – Locally Grown

In Episode Eval, I take a look at a singular episode from one of the eight series I’m watching this season. At the end of the week these will be collected in the weekly Streaming Anime Round-Up for easier consumption.

Image of the Nagarekawa girls and company between events

LocoDol, Episodes 11 & 12: B

With their new theme song written, the Nagarekawa Girls prep for the Local Idol Competition, eagerly anticipating their chance to perform on a national stage. When it turns out that Nagarekawa’s summer festival occurs on the same day as the competition, Nanako and Yukari will have to decide between a chance at their big break or staying true to their roots.

It’s easy to read a synopsis of an anime series and quickly dismiss it because of certain tropes or character types, which run rampant throughout the medium. This face-value rejection is practically necessary with the large number of simulcast series we get in the states these days. Locodol would have easily landed in this category for me; at a glance, it’s more pop-fueled idol worship. Though the first few episodes were dicey–with several attempts to pull in an otaku crowd through blatant, quasi-relevant, fan-service–Locodol became considerably more enjoyable as the friendships evolved and the series carved it’s own niche in the growing idol genre.

Picture a tolerably saccharine narrative–much like the ones seen throughout Locodol–and you’ve got the feel for these last two episodes. Fitting perfectly with the mood the rest of the series has aimed for, these last two episodes have the idol-show tendencies of examining the price and meaning of fame, mashed-up with a slice-of-life aesthetic that luxuriates in the mundane qualities of Nagarekawa itself. Unlike other series about idols, Nanako and Yukari have a small, but tight-knit following, and are only able to perform for a larger crowd in the final episode. Yet, Nanako and Yukari aren’t failures. The two girls struggle with how they are perceived–what it means to be an idol and if they are serving the town of Nagarekawa in the best way–but neither complain about their lack of fame on a national level, even if the bright lights do entice them. With the girls reviewing local restaurants and eradicating a hive of bees from a nearby farm, in one instance, Locodol lands somewhere between an idol show and a series like Working, or Servant x Servant, wherein our heroes are caught up in their “minor-league” roles. Certainly Nanako and Yukari reach a level of success–we see Nanako’s classmates become deep fans of the Nagarekawa girls over the breadth of the series–but our heroines are still small fries once they participate in the local idol competition. Here they “face off” against groups that have garnered more success, notably the Awa Awa girls, local idols that have hit upon national fame within the last year.

Image of Yukari and Nanako returning for the Nagarkawa summer festival

Ultimately though, these last two episodes clearly paint the fame which the Awa Awa girls have garnered as illusory, and never as fully realized or as rewarding as the love which they received from their hometown fans. While the Nagarekawa girls do well in the local idol competition, the importance is not given to their rank, but to how quickly they can make it back home in time for Nagarekawa’s summer festival. The series consistently points out how staying true to one’s roots will result in true happiness, and is thus much more rural and mundane in nature than series which focus on the allure of the big stage. In this way, like Gin no Saji and Barakamon, Locodol carries a praise and appreciation for rural and small town life. Though Locodol‘s never as charming or as thoughtful as those two fan favorites, it at least warrants a skim through, if for nothing else than to catch the poignant series wrap-up.

One potential turnoff for Locodol is the characters, which, at face value, have a number of moe qualities. Nanako and Mirai are especially bashful or clumsy–depending on the day–while Yui is very petite and cheerful. However, these qualities are rarely exploited by the writers in the same way that many otaku-geared franchises tend to infantilize their female protagonists. Nanako’s shy nature is charming, and rarely cloying or distasteful. When an issue arises for one of the four heroines, they turn to each other for help or guidance, instead of an outside source. Yukari knows much more about speaking in public than Nanako, for example, so she acts as a guide through the world of a local idol for the amateur. Meanwhile, Nanako is more grounded than Yukari in her social status–Yukari comes from a wealthy family–and is able to help Yukari better understand socializing in a more personal way. Though Nanako’s uncle is a driving force for certain plot points, no male hero steps in to save these girls from themselves. In similar series, a male protagonist exists for the female characters to hang their sorrows or worries upon. This vanilla hero serves the role of constant savior for our downtrodden female characters, making their world seem chaotic and void at the thought of his departure–think Kanon or the even worse, If Her Flag Breaks. Locodol never stoops to this level, and even the Nagarekawa girls’ manager–the figure of authority here–is a woman by the fourth episode. She may have obsessive tendencies towards the girls at first, but she tends to mellow as the series progresses, and her role evolves from a male gaze insert to a motherly figure by the end of the series. Most importantly, Nanako’s growth from a shy girl who can barely handle the requirements of the stage to a young woman ready to accept the responsibilities of a hometown idol–as glib as those goals may be–comes solely from herself, instead of from an external character who “rescues” her.

Image of the Nagarekawa girls before their competition

Locodol is by no means a perfect show–and honestly, with as strong as the summer season was, it doesn’t even crack my top five of the season–but it is a series that’s easy to dismiss because of this character’s clumsiness or that character’s camera-shy tendencies. Like some of the best anime series, Locodol actively bucks the trends of its genres, both the alluring depiction of fame found in series about the idol lifestyle, and the lack of female independence rampant in “cute-girl” anime. It’s good for a lark, and most importantly, for as easily digestible as it might be, Locodol doesn’t feel like a waste of time. That’s high praise, at least among its peers.

Epidsode Eval: Zankyou no Terror (Ep. 8-11) – The Resonance of Expectation

In Episode Eval, I take a look at a singular episode from one of the eight series I’m watching this season. At the end of the week these will be collected in the weekly Streaming Anime Round-Up for easier consumption.

Image of Five intimidating Lisa

Zankyou no Terror, Episodes 8-11: B

The central problem with Zankyou no Terror is how quickly the show drops out of your consciousness once the last minutes of the series flash before your eyes. It’s pretty simple really; the series doesn’t seem to care about dipping too deep into any one particular message or thought system, leaving the audience with a show that’s a great thriller but that also lacks in the profundity which has been more synonymous with Shinichrio Watanabe in the past.

After Nine and Twelve prevail over Five in the 7th episode, she and her American cohorts work to put an end to Sphinx, once and for all. Will the two young men get their message out to the world, or will Five and the Americans use any piece on the table to stop them?

For all it’s action, political intrigue and well paced storytelling, Zankyou no Terror feels lifeless by the end of the series, leaving the audience empty and thoughtless. What are we to parse from the storyline? America bad, independent Japan good? Maybe so–and I’d certainly like to see the country lose it’s quasi-dependence on the U.S. military if that’s what it wants–but that’s not where this series started at. We started with a girl, Lisa, who seemed lost, sad and lonely. She was bullied at school and her mother’s severe anxiety disorder effected her quality of life at home. Enter Nine and Twelve, two young men who offer her an escape from her problematic life into a tense and morally ambiguous world of domestic terrorism. Not much of an escape, no, but Lisa took it because she too was an outsider in her own way. Now we’ve a character in Lisa that represents the outsider viewpoint of the audience, finally getting a behind the scenes look at what causes people to want to terrorize. Maybe we can even get a glimpse into the situations that got these young men to this place. Maybe we can… *gasp*… understand them. By it’s fourth episode, however, Zankyou no Terror largely throws much of this potential out the window by putting action over character development, and by continuing–up until these last handful of episodes–to shroud Nine and Twelve in darkness, even from Lisa. This mysteriousness–rather than a consorted effort to delve into the why of these boys’ actions–becomes one of the calling cards of the show. It’s terrific for the suspense of the show, and as mentioned earlier, the pacing is near flawless for what it’s trying to do. I just wish Zankyou no Terror strove to accomplish so much more. Even in the finale, when there is still a good chance to right this ship some of the way, we get all the wrong scenes; characters of great importance disappear, papier mache answers to series-long questions are pasted together and our three protagonists kick around the ol’ soccer ball to kill some time. I won’t be delving into the various plot lines which flesh out these last few episodes, but they simply didn’t work for me and my high expectations of what Watanabe and his crew had the ability to do.

Image of Shibazaki finally meeting Sphinx

And yet I read that last paragraph, and I realize how unfair I’m being to this series. As an anime convert from the Cowboy Bebop days, I place Shinichiro Watanabe–creator of this series–on an amazingly ornate pedestal. It’s funny that a creator can only have a handful of titles to his name, and yet we as viewers and audience members are quick to assume what type of art said creator will be regaling us with for their next project. Zankyou no Terror was really never it’s own series in my mind, but instead the little brother of Cowboy Bebop with some terrorism mixed in. Woah, Watanabe nailed one aspect of terrorism in the Bebop movie, so not only can this not fail, but I know just what to expect out of it. That’s the problem with expectations, especially of art; having our own ideas of what something will or should be going into it, blinds us from seeing what the creator is truly offering up. We look so hard for the message that we pre-built for the series, or movie, or book, that we can so completely miss out on what it was getting at in the first place. With that idea in mind, though I can’t recommend this series on its handling of characters or the way it squanders the very messages that I’d like to see, it’s beautifully animated by MAPPA studios, and the direction on the fight scenes–actually every scene, individually–is pretty outstanding. Say what you will about its purpose, but Zankyou is certainly one of the best looking shows of the summer season. Beyond that, the soundtrack is great, though not as memorable as some of Yoko Kanno’s previous work. I’ve constantly got the theme song for the series echoing through my head, haunting really. The voice acting is great too. Call me an idiot, but I have absolutely no problem with Five’s voice actor’s “engrish” pronunciation of some words. The character is Japanese and there’s no set amount of time for which she’s been in America, so I don’t understand what’s so crazy about thinking the character could have a defined accent when speaking english. But that’s neither here nor there.

Image of Five lit by a fire

It’s not an easy task with the new season just around the corner–not to mention several other projects availing themselves of my time these days–but I’m intrigued to return to Zankyou no Terror somewhere down the road. I can’t detract my opinion, but I can say that analysis and critique of cultural artifacts don’t have to be frozen in time. There’s no interest here in becoming some sort of Watanabe apologist, because even completely subjectively there are plenty of flaws to find in this series. But to decide before we’ve even finished the first episode of a series exactly what we want from the creators, is not only to rob those creators of their impact, but to deprive ourselves of the pure experience of interacting with a piece of art in real time. On a re-watch, I may find that I hate Zankyou no Terror more than ever before, and that’s fine. At least that interaction will be free of expectations.

Epidsode Eval: Free! Eternal Summer (Eps. 12 & 13) – Swimming with the Fishes

In Episode Eval, I take a look at a singular episode from one of the eight series I’m watching this season. At the end of the week these will be collected in the weekly Streaming Anime Round-Up for easier consumption.

Image of the four swimmers

Free! Eternal Summer, Episodes 12 & 13: A-

Though some scenes are laughable–and I did have a number of hearty chuckles at the show’s expense, rather than at its insistence–Free! Eternal Summer ends on quite the high note, somehow wrapping up its story with a message that goes beyond shirtless dudes with hot bods and even exciting swimming action, to touch on the importance of friendship and lifelong dreams.

After Haru’s blow-up with Makoto–and the general feeling of being lost that surrounds him–Rin takes Haru to Australia to give him a sense of the world Rin got to see when he lived in Australia all those years ago. The trip obviously has an impact on Haru, but is it enough to give him a place in the world of swimming and to bring him back to his teammates before the end of their last year as the Iwatobi swim team?

Over the length of the season, Free! Eternal Summer has surely floundered from time to time. There have been filler episodes which, at times, were hard to sit through. There have been over-the-top dramatic performances where one–or more–of our protagonists couldn’t help but have an entire conversation at the top of their lungs. Those elements which tend to weigh this series down and keep it from ever achieving anything greater than being a decent sports show, are largely missing in these two wrap-up episodes. So much so, in fact, that the conclusion to this series is not only entertaining but enlightening, conveying the central ideologies of the series better here than ever before.

Image of Haru and Rin in the Australian sunset

The last seconds of this season end with the camera pointed up at the clouds, the words “For the Future” filling the screen. It’s succinct, to the point and it encapsulates one of the main ideas behind Free! Eternal Summer. Haru spent so much of this season thinking ill of those people and elements that would try and persuade him to turn his art into a monetary venture–after all, aren’t Haru’s feelings tantamount to the musician who’s worried about selling out and losing the real reason for why he began making music to begin with? Thanks to Rin’s Australian adventure–which he takes Haru on in the 12th episode–Haru is able to finally peek out of his shell and understand that the “confines” of the swimming world give him the opportunity to freely swim for a living. Haru could care less about competition or the amount of time he makes in a given tournament, but he’s still willing to take on the worldwide notion of what swimming should be in order to continue on in his own personal endeavors. Nowhere is this more strongly felt than in the Iwatobi swim team’s final relay race. While up until now the timing and success of our four protagonists in the relay race has been tantamount to the storyline, here the “race” aspect takes a back seat to the majesty of the swim. Rather than showing the audience break-neck laps between Makoto and his opponents, we get Makoto meeting a metaphorical dolphin underwater, carrying the spirit of the majestic creature with him to the finish line. The same is true for the other three who meet there own spirit animals, leaving us with the idea that no matter how well they did in the competition–and we never actually see a score, or what place the team gets, further highlighting its lack of importance–what really matters is the way in which our four players are at one with their craft. In fact, they’ve gone beyond swimming being their craft, to it being a part of their very being. It’s even said throughout the episode that their teamwork in the sport will last forever, no matter if they all go their separate ways 2 months down the line. Sure, the animal representations made me chuckle because, let’s be honest, it’s a little cheesy. But Free!‘s always been cheesy, and at least this time, the message it’s pushing is one of earnest optimism for life and the things we do as humans to shape it. Either way, Haru has found his way to being inwardly at peace in his swimming while being able to outwardly play the game of life. Some may say that’s a rather capitalistic message–and I can’t entirely disagree–but it does represent Haru maturing in some way or another, as he’s able to make the decision an adult has to make of finding a purpose in the world for that which drives him. Finally, Haru is able to make a decision for the future, rather than living so stubbornly in the here and now.

Image of the Iwatobi swim team hugging after their final relay

All that considered, Haru’s future–and his acceptance of his place in the world–is so heavily impacted by his friends, that they are the main driving force in his life, even more so than swimming itself. Sure, it’s a type of escapism–in the real world, it’s rare to find the kind of friend who will pay for two round-trip tickets to Australia to wake you out of your teenage, angst-ridden malaise–but some of the best entertainment is able to balance the audience’s wish fulfillment with saying something of merit at the same time. It’s true too of the fujoshi leanings of the series; we get a scene here where the characters splash each other in a very female-gaze kind of way, but as a male who’s grown attached to our four protagonists, I can laugh at the pandering of it all but still appreciate the close bonds that the scene is showcasing. By the end of the series, Free! Eternal Summer is best seen as a show that can please many instead of answering to a particular niche crowd. In an era of shallowly formed high school dramas and shows about little girls aimed at grown men, I’ll gladly take these shirtless swimmers–and they do HAVE to be shirtless to play their sport, after all–who showcase what it means to realize and fulfill your dreams through the power of eternal friendship. Sound a little cheesy? That’s the best part.

Epidsode Eval: Tokyo Ghoul (Eps. 11 & 12) – There’s a Bad Moon on the Rize

In Episode Eval, I take a look at a singular episode from one of the eight series I’m watching this season.

Image of Rize showing up in Kaneki's head space

Tokyo Ghoul, Episodes 11 & 12: B+

These last two episodes–while including several amazing and riveting fight scenes–often obscure the point or, even worse, waste time when there’s barely enough time to be had as it is. Though they make a decent bridge between this season and the recently revealed next one, these episodes lack a sufficient closing to the season itself, leaving many plot points up in the air by the end of things.

As Kaneki gets tortured by Jason, things heat up between the 11th Ward ghouls and the CCG, leaving the Anteiku crowd to try their damnedest at slipping through both forces without being noticed in order to rescue Kaneki. Amon meanwhile, must deal with demons of his own as he takes on various high level ghouls with the central frame-of-mind of avenging Mado. With Kaneki coming closer and closer to insanity through the sheer exhaustion of his non-stop torment, will he come out of the situation the same person, if at all?

The problems here rest solely on the last episode of the season, as episode 11 is nearly flawless in its mixture of exciting action between the three warring parties and Kaneki’s slow and methodical unraveling at the hands of Jason. Episode 12, however, focuses solely on Kaneki, to the point that the viewer is given no inkling of an idea of how the conflict between the CCG/11th ward ghouls/Anteiku is shaping up–arguably the more interesting storyline, though the one with Kaneki is seemingly more important. The issue also arises that watching Kaneki get tortured for an entire episode is a little arduous.

Image of Amon prepping for his many fights

When the warring parties take up half of the screen time, it’s much easier to deal with what Kaneki is going through–though being able to “deal” with his torture isn’t something to be proud of, it is a necessity of this series to be able to handle a large amount of oft grotesque violence. In scenes where said violence is being hammered over your head, there begins to be a total lack of entertainment value, which makes the show harder and harder to want to sit through. The only reprieve we get is Kaneki’s own retreat into his mind and the conversations he has there with Rize, or at least a version of her that his brain has fragmented into. These scenes play in an almost Evangelion-esque manner, as we see Kaneki completely shift the kind of person he is all the way down to his belief system, after having a rather convincing conversation with Rize. We’ll get to this later, but suffice it to say, it lacks any sort of brevity which could possibly take us out of the head space which Jason’s proceedings put us in. To put it simply, the last episode of Tokyo Ghoul is some of the darkest anime I’ve yet to see, almost of the same ilk as Boogipop Phantom. That’s not to say it’s bad, but just that it’s a tonal shift from the slightly more action packed scenes we’ve gotten in the past. There’s still an engaging fight scene at the end here, but ultimately it doesn’t carry the same kind of gravitas which was found in the dove arc a few episodes back.

Most of all, the last episode suffers from the fact that Tokyo Ghoul already has plans in place to continue for another season. As a general fan of the show, I”m glad to hear that, but in many ways it hobbles the scope of this episode and blunts the impact of Kaneki’s transformation. Beyond creating an uncomfortably dreary mood for the last 24 minutes of the series, not bringing any of the Anteiku crowd (or even Amon) into the fold of this episode, reminds us that Kaneki would have no way of carrying this show on his own. Much like many people feel of Shinji from Evangelion, Kaneki isn’t a character who’s easy to like. Despite the fact that he seemingly cares for all humanity, it’s proven in this episode that more than anything, he’s really just scared to make a difficult choice, like giving up one life in the name of another. Much like his mother–as we see through flashbacks–Kaneki is so quick to sacrifice himself for the will of others, that he lacks any sort of command over his life or the direction it takes. Touka is the opposite of this with her need to defend her fellow ghouls at any cost, while Amon seeks the ultimate retribution for the death of his friend at the same price. These characters have things which drive them and push them to action, while Kaneki rarely has any, save for trying to save a pal of his when a truly critical emergency pops up.

Image of Suzuya shooting wildly at numerous ghouls

It’s not until the end of the last episode when Kaneki finally seems privy to his shortcomings and we are given a protagonist with a level of agency. Alas, this new Kaneki swings so far in the opposite direction, that he is–so far at least, since we only get a handful of minutes with him–completely removed from the character which we’ve been following over the last twelve episodes. Had Tokyo Ghoul ended at episode 12, or had it gone straight through to 24 without taking a season break, we wouldn’t have gotten this staunch volta which speaks to little that we’ve seen up to this point. Here Kaneki’s shift works solely as an attention grab, pushing the show into overdrive so that more people will be likely to return–after a long break, mind you–for the next season.

Looking at the season as a whole, it’s hard not to recommend Tokyo Ghoul, especially if you’re into violent action and quasi-horror story lines. The characters are interesting enough and the pacing of the arcs is pretty solid, up until the last episode. The finale does have me worried about the second season of the series though. Do I really care about this new, blank and seemingly-invincible Kaneki? The old version might not have had any command of his life, but at least he was more than his power set. Sad to say, I smell shounen tropes on the rise.

Epidsode Eval: Space Dandy S2 (Ep. 9) – Saturday Night Dandy

In Episode Eval, I take a look at a singular episode from one of the eight series I’m watching this season. At the end of the week these will be collected in the weekly Streaming Anime Round-Up for easier consumption.

Image of Ton and Dandy mid-danceoff

Space Dandy S2, Episode 9: A+

After a really strong episode last week, Space Dandy S2 outdoes itself in this episode, where the philosophical ideas are just as deep, but the plot itself is much more fun–though nothing will come CLOSE to last episode’s animation for the rest of the season, save for some kind of rainy day fund.

Dandy and the gang head to Planet Grease to win money in a dance competition and to try and catch some rare aliens–the Dancingians–that apparently visit the planet once every 100 years. Once their, the crew realizes that the Dancingians haven’t visited the planet in some time and soon, Dandy is roped into a plot by a local to fake the dance competition and pretend that he himself represents the Dancingians. When a mysterious alien named Ton Jravolta shows up with a space-ship/boombox, the dance competition is on for real, but can Dandy keep up, even with all his smooth moves?

Image of Dandy and Ton growing older

***This review is SPOILERIFIC*** Like some of the best episodes of Space Dandy, this one juggles science-fiction, pop culture references and philosophical ideologies, making that Herculean task look effortless in its delivery. Take for example the dance party which Ton Jravolta incites; it is at once full of wonderful sci-fi non-sense–various aliens of different builds and features get their groove on (there’s even a somewhat racist “MC Hammer” alien)–colorful exuberance–Ton Jravolta’s spaceship not only doubles as a giant boombox, but also puts on a laser light show–and an over-the-top dialogue on how quickly people forget last week’s news–Dandy is left in the dust, as his hula-hooping is no match for Ton’s advanced moves. And that’s only the beginning of the rabbit hole this episode dives down.

***Still spoiling away here*** Earlier in the episode, Dandy and Meow pick up an album from a local record shop, the entire scene washed out and shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio to give it a 1970’s feel–and some people say Space Dandy is only meant to be idiotic fun. The album, which the store owner says never to play out loud, comes back into the fold when Dandy interrupts Ton Jravolta’s display in order to one up him with his own dance moves. Soon after the music begins to play, the time stream is somehow affected, leading Dandy, Meow and everyone else to become withered and frail. Meow is able to reverse the album and set everything right, but little do they know, they’ve caused the rebirth of the actual Dancingians–an alien race of ring-like creatures that coalesce around the entire planet and destroy it. So what’s the philosophy here that I’ve been harping on about?

Image of the rings over Grease

Even leading up to the destruction of planet Grease, there is something apocalyptic about the outrageous and over-the-top dance scenes between Dandy and Ton. There’s almost a “dance-battle to the death” kind of feel, with the frivolity escalating until Dandy’s semi-ballet routine causes everyone to age rapidly. When the end-of-the-world destruction really heats up, Dandy and Ton don’t stop dancing to contemplate their impending doom, but instead intensify their grooving, completely and utterly wrapped up in the intensity of their dance moves. In a moment of armageddon, this intense focus points to the forthcoming planetary explosion as not such a big deal, but instead, a process which Dandy and Ton have themselves become a part of. This is even more clearly defined after the planet explodes and we get an abstract representation of the rebirth of planet Grease, Dandy and Ton going from two sperm that encircle the planet, always chasing one another, to each representing a half of the yin yang sign. In some ways, it even feels as if Dandy and Ton are an integral part of the destruction and rebirth of Grease, seeing as how the yin yang sign represents opposing forces that are actually elevated to greater heights by interacting with one another. Dandy and Ton’s dance not only entertains the beings of Grease as their home–and themselves–are destroyed, but contributes to the cycle of the planet. While Dandy and Ton’s non-stop dancing feels like utter insanity, in the larger view of things, it encourages us to accept our inevitable doom/death and to enjoy ourselves in the process, as well as to appreciate the part we get to play in the game of life.

Space Dandy is an oft stupid show–the lame references to American pop culture surely get in the way here–and it’s easy to dismiss an episode like this one as simple entertainment with a constant ramping up of stakes. But I have to argue that’s there more here, if you’re willing to accept that some of the most thought provoking bits of media have come in an entirely entertaining package–Dr. Strangelove, Blade Runner, The Matrix, etc. The title itself–“We’re All Fools, So Let’s All Dance, Baby”–implies what the entire episode is about; we are all apart of something larger than ourselves and must accept the fleetingness of life in order to truly enjoy the time we have here. Or maybe I’m just reading to much into it. You tell me.