Fall 2014 Anime Preview: The Essential

Now that Mushishi Zoku Shou S2 has FINALLY premiered, I can get on with my previews of the Fall 2014 anime season. I watched at least 10 minutes of the first episode of almost all of the series listed over at Stargazed Charts, and while some were QUITE a disappointment, the season as a whole looks promising. I’ll start with those series which I think are essential viewing.

Image of Akane and Mika, the new girl, prepped for action

Psycho-Pass S2

When deciding between Parasyte and Psycho-Pass S2 for the most promising Fall series, it was a difficult decision. I ended up going with Psycho-Pass S2 for all the wrong reasons. For starters, the first episode was enjoyable but nothing to write home about. It digs into the familiar “twisted police procedural” theme that the first season employed so often in the first half of that series. Several of the best characters from the first season of the show are ostensibly missing here, although all logic points to them popping back up in time, but it’s a disappointment to be sure. All that said, this episode is still better than the premiere of the first season of Psycho-Pass. While that episode clearly illuminated the type of dystopian future our characters would be traversing through, it ended up being considerably more over-the-top than the rest of the series–I often find myself suggesting Psycho-Pass as a series for non-anime fans to pick up, but quickly warn them to push past the first episode. Clearly, the first season went on to grossly out-achieve its meager beginnings, so I have hope that Psycho-Pass S2 is itself, still getting its sea-legs. If it’s half as philosophically probing as the first season of Psycho-Pass, this follow-up I will welcome with open arms.

Image of Shinichi and Migi peeking around the corner


Parasyte plays in the same realm of body horror that the first few episodes of Tokyo Ghoul did, except Parasyte portrays the Kafka-esque notion of body transformation in a much more interesting way, with less soap-operatic drama clogging up the storyline. In that same direction, Parasyte plays much more like a Cronenbergian horror film than Tokyo Ghoul, since the latter morphed into a straight-up action/fighting series with some sci-fi elements, after the first arc. Basically, if Ghoul pumped you up for a horror anime only to let you down, Parasyte picks up the pieces. It’s part The Thing, part Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and even Evil Dead II gives a hand to elements of the storyline. Best pun ever.

Image of Andou stuck in a bubble

Inou-Battle wa Nichijou-kei no Naka de

It’s gotten to the point in my anime fandom, that any series with a single male protagonist surrounded by cute girls immediately sounds warnings sirens in my head. Imagine my concern when I noticed that Trigger–the studio behind Kill la Kill who have proven themselves, in just a few projects, to be some of the more creative producers in the industry–had a new series with one male lead and four female leads. Luckily, Inou-Battle quickly proves that its female dominance in number of characters permeates through to the script. While the audience may be meant to root for Ando–our male lead–it is out of pity rather than admiration, as we learn that each of the girls have god-like powers in comparison to Ando’s ability to create a useless black flame with his hands. Add to that a thoughtful representation of the more mundane moments of a super-heroic life, and Inou-Battle feels like another Trigger success. Let’s just hope that Ando doesn’t have some sort of power upgrade before the end of the series. Knowing anime though… *sigh*.

Image of Ginko talking with another mushishi

Mushishi Zoku Shou S2

This second installment in the Mushishi series really did it for me back in the Spring season. Now comes its second season–the second installment’s second season, that is–which has every reason to be just as good as the first, although the hour long mini-movie that starts the new season out is one of the slowest pieces of fiction I’ve ever seen. Mind you, I’m used to the usual pacing of an episode of Mushishi; slow and steady wins the race, to the point where we are really lounging around in this week’s setting. This unique pacing works about 95% of the time–letting us really sink into the characters and situations of each episode–but sometimes Mushishi overstays its welcome. All that said, I’m going to chalk it up to this episode being longer than most, and thus stretching the story out even more than usual. The issue could also be that this season opener went much further into the world of a mushishi, something that I think is better served as a sort of unexplained mysticism.

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.

Toondiculous Podcast: Episode 2 – Josie and the Pussycats

Each episode, musical aficionado Dennis Harvey and I take on a beloved–or not so beloved–ridiculous cartoon from cartoon history, pointing out the crazy, the inane and the downright awful. Of course we love them too, so there’s that.

Image of Dr. Mandro eyeing one of his ape men

We check out Josie and the Pussycats this week, with an episode about a mad-man manufacturing ape men. The history of furries ensues.

This episode is dedicated to the hard working men and women of the small towns of America that support our delightfully mad scientists. May we always remember your dedication, in lieu of their evil deeds.

Check back next Saturday morning for a Josie and the Pussycats aftermath. How many racist episode titles can one 1970’s sitcom for kids come up with? Find out next time, on the Toondiculous Podcast.

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.

Toondiculous Podcast: Episode 1.5 – Eric, We Hardly Knew Ye

Each episode, musical aficionado Dennis Harvey and I take on a beloved–or not so beloved–ridiculous cartoon from cartoon history, pointing out the crazy, the inane and the downright awful. Of course we love them too, so there’s that.

Image of Bobby and Uni getting nabbed by a giant

The long awaited follow-up to last week’s–or last month’s–Dungeons and Dragons episode. From super cuts to Toondiculous theatre, we’ve got it all in a taught 15-minute package this week, so check it out.

This episode is dedicated to the hard working men and women of the Dn’D writing room. Our lambasting is all in good fun… hopefully.

Check back next Saturday morning–and it WILL be here–for the next episode featuring a fantastic Josie and the Pussycats viewing. It’s bound to be groovy, in that packaged and branded 60’s, death-of-the-dream, kind of way.