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.

Epidsode Eval: Barakamon (Ep. 9) – Handa Saw the Sun

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 Handa noticing the beauty of the stars

Barakamon, Episode 9: A

This week’s Barakamon gets the show back on track after a handful of episodes that, while plenty good, seemed to lack direction–though I guess that IS what this show is all about.

As a looming deadline draws near, Handa feels stalled in his calligraphy creativity. As luck would have it, everything from his water heater giving out to bigger kids disrupting Naru and her friends’ play, allow Handa to get away from his road blocks and focus on the simpler things in life.

Here we get a series of adventures with Handa and the crew that fit well with many of the episodes we’ve gotten throughout the season, as far as the central message goes. Barakamon has always been about escaping the rat race and clearing one’s head in order to free one’s self from the limitations of expectations. Handa has struggled to shrug off those very expectations ever since he first came to the island, and though he’s still weighted down by them, it seems he is closer each episode to being a truly free artistic presence. That plays out here through his consistent worrying about wasting his time out-and-about in the village, when he could be at home practicing or working on calligraphy–self-expectations.

Image of Naru trying to prep a home remedy for Handa

Though he enjoys himself in his fixed up bath–Naru keeps an eye on an external flame that keeps the bath warm–and potentially gains a better understanding of dealing with children–he and Hiroshi attempt to remove some bullying older kids from Naru and co.’s park–Handa still frets about the lack of calligraphy work he accomplishes. It’s not until a randomly transcendent moment–as most transcendent moments are–that Handa breaks through his barriers to creativity, and his imagination runs free. The new piece of calligraphy he produces is certainly unique, and the entire segment recalls the moment from the first episode, wherein Handa overcame his anger with the calligraphy movement as a whole by painting a wily and electric piece that simply read “fun”. This episode breathes new life into the running theme of allowing the world around you to influence your art, rather than trying to force the opposite. Sitting down at a desk and staring at a blinking cursor–or standing in front of a blank canvas, as the case may be–can only get you so far. It’s living life and experiencing the ways that the people around you work, function and live, that allows you to grow as a person, much less an artist. What’s more, when Handa loses himself in a particular action–let’s say figuring out the best way to scare off older grade school kids as an adult–he frees up his mind from the massive expectations he lays on himself, which allows his creativity to blossom outside of its usual box.

While the message is spectacular, I’m really digging the storytelling this time around as well. We have the overarching story of Handa accidentally getting away from his work through several different mini-adventures. It all reminds me of the best of the Peanuts specials, wherein there is a central theme that is surrounded by various and sundry scenes–usually built on jokes from the comic strip–that do their own thing. You’d think that these handful of stories wouldn’t really fit together and may even become unruly when appended to one another, but the core conceit of Barakamon allows almost any storyline to work, so long as it takes place on the island, involves Handa’s neighbors and puts him squarely in the “fish out of water” camp.

Image of Handa sitting defeated on his bathtub

Lastly, though I’m usually hesitant to put my thoughts down on a given episode’s animation–seeing as how I’m still learning the ins and outs of truly reviewing/assessing the art itself–it’s hard not to point to this week’s episode of Barakamon, as well as the series as a whole, as a shining example of animation at its best. Every scene is drawn, inked and painted with a level of care and consistency that allows the audience to easily get sucked into the show’s universe, without a badly drawn character or backdrop–see Sailor Moon Crystal–to take the viewer’s eye away from what matters. Even better, Barakamon isn’t cautious to employ different art styles just to land a silly joke, as seen above. Or is it silly? The exact skillfulness of the art in that particular scene, happens to impact the comedy therein by legitimizing it. Compare this scene to one in which we cut to our protagonist with a nose bleed in front of a blank backdrop, and it’s easier to see which version better showcases the comedy stylings of the series. This shot from the episode so perfectly captures Handa’s mood and level of defeat, as to not require a single word from him. With the average anime dialogue being as translucent and expository as can be–from series to series, of course–any style that can cancel out the need for words, is okay in my book.

Lately, I’ve been taking a cue from Barakamon; removing my ear buds when I walk through campus in order to hear the conversations of those around me. Great art isn’t informed simply by our inner being, but by each and every person we interact with throughout our day, from the stray conversation we hear on a bus, to the person we lay down next to each night. Though he may not know it, Naru and co. are doing more for Handa’s calligraphic talents than mere practice really could–especially at his level. Suffice it to say, were it built on its charm along, Barakamon would be a stellar series to check out. Luckily we get ideologies as strong as the one seen here, that truly push this series into the realm of the superb.

Epidsode Eval: Aldnoah.Zero (Ep. 9) – Breakdown at 20,000 Feet

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 Marito knealing below a giant burning mech

Aldnoah.Zero, Episode 9: B+

The 9th episode of Aldnoah.Zero is a mixed bag–aside from the few but terrific scenes featuring Slaine, per the usual–even up to a shocking ending that’s hard to square.

After being captured by Saazbaum at the end of last episode, Slaine is treated quite differently here, but is still interrogated for information on the princess for whom he is still loyal. Meanwhile aboard the Deucalion, Rayet–the girl who’s family was killed by Trillram the Martian–gets put through the paces in a training simulation that causes her to relive the moment of her family’s death. Lt. Marito goes through a similar moment of crises, as he is forced to relive the death of his friend in the last Earth/Mars war of 15 years past. With mental exercises pushed to their extremes, all does not seem right aboard the Deucalion.

This week’s episode was at least smart enough to push Inaho into the background somewhat, while bringing more interesting characters like Rayet and Lt. Marito to the foreground. That being said, there was an odd and eerie feeling to this episode–one that pays off in the last few minutes–that made it a relatively unenjoyable watch. I’m still struggling to decide if that says something about the quality of the writing or if the lack of comfortability with the viewing experience here adds to the overall mood and tone. After all, Neon Genesis Evangelion was rarely a fun show to watch–save for a handful of episodes in the middle of the series–but what it lacked in sun shine and daffodils, it made up for in some of the most engaging character development yet seen in anime.

One issue, is that Aldnoah.Zero still seems like it’s struggling to understand what it wants to be; until now, it has been more interested in telling an exciting action story with some darker elements, rather than the other way around. Here though, the series does a decently convincing job–at least for a mech anime–of approaching the PTSD that haunts Rayet and Lt. Marito. We see that both of the characters have borderline psychological breakdowns when confronted with some of the imagery from their individual experiences. Though hard to watch, these segments work as an asset to Aldnoah.Zero, planting the show solidly between the more flippant mech series we’ve seen over the years and their navel-gazing siblings. While Lt. Marito is digging up old wounds, he seems fairly capable of dealing with his memories, though they may haunt him. Rayet, on the other hand, seems particularly broken by the events that led to the death of her family, forcing the turning point for this series.

Image of Slaine threatening Saazbaum

***SPOILERIFIC SPOIL TOWN*** No, but seriously, this is a big one, so skip to the next paragraph like this, if you don’t want anything spoiled. The most controversial section of this episode involves the fallout from Rayet’s slowly decomposing mental state–though how unstable she actually is isn’t entirely known to us just yet–due to her growing hatred for any and all Martians. Whilst in the shower, Rayet hears Princess Asseylum several stalls over, her helper away on an errand and the Princess vulnerable in her assumed safety. Rayet coldly walks over to the Princesses’ stall, pulls back the curtain and proceeds to strangle her to death, leaving her cold body limp on the shower floor. It’s quite a shocking scene–probably the most surprising of the season–which begs the question, is Rayet’s unforgivable deed simply meant for shock value to garner attention, or will it serve some greater purpose, as far as the conclusion of the series goes? We already see some fallout–literally–as the Deucalion, usually powered by the Princesses’ aldnoah drive, begins to descend from the clouds and crashes onto the land. What’s more, the story has been set up so that many plot points hinge on Princess Asseylum NOT being dead, meaning that Rayet’s murderous ways have certainly shifted the direction of the show. So why call it shock value if it has purpose? Inherent in the fact that said murder occurs in a women’s shower room, both Rayet and the Princess are nude during this scene, the audience seeing the top half of each girl’s breasts. To be sure, it’s an unsettling situation to imagine a murder occurring in; Asseylum is rightfully at her most vulnerable, as are we all in such a situation. These shots even recall the murder scene from Psycho–both taking place in a shower–in that the action itself takes us by surprise in such a way, though the director here lacks any of the artistic hubris which Hitchcock employed in order for the audience to imagine more of the murder than they physically saw. Ultimately that’s my main issue with this ending; a lack of subtlety in the out-and-out nudity of the two girls, which takes us out of the moment itself. In Psycho, Janet Leigh is never shown below the shoulders because we don’t need to see her body to understand how vulnerable she is in that moment–just try taking a shower after watching that film without glancing a few times over your shoulder at the shower curtain. Here however, Rayet and Asseylum’s bodies are showcased for the same titillating reasons that I discussed in yesterday’s post about LocoDol; in other words, it’s completely unnecessary. Just another anime trope that weights down a potentially impactive scene. Don’t get me wrong. As mentioned earlier, the scene still plays as a shocking moment that truly takes the audience by surprise and
completely alters the direction of the show, but it could be handled with much more respect for the characters, especially considering that it’s the last moments of life for one of them.

Image of Magbaredge leaning against the ship

As it stands, this episode will likely be judged most by what comes after it. Will Aldnoah.Zero continue down this darkened past, or will it return to the rip-roaring mecha-on-mecha action we were served up in the first half of the series? Honestly, I’m good either way. The show’s action scenes are possibly the best of the season–the animation and direction superior to Tokyo Ghoul and right on par with Zankyou no Terror–but it also seems prepared to delve deeper into the psychology of its main characters, entering a Neon Genesis-lite phase. Whichever way it goes from here, I can safely say that Aldnoah.Zero is proving itself to be more than just a mech series, so check it out if you haven’t yet. After the way this episode ends, I’m really intrigued to see which route they’ll take next.