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Shakugan no Shana III Final (review)

Impression – the end of a legend that unfortunately, may not endure (8/10)

Fall 2011 to winter 2012 (24 episodes) (title literal translation – Shana of Burning Eyes, English synonym – Shana the Fire-Eyed)

After Yuji recovered Reiji Maigo from Bal Masque he, Shana and Kazumi resumed their Christmas Eve. It was to be Yuji’s responsibility to choose between the two girls in order to settle their rivalry in romance once and for all. But something happened that neither of his wooing ladies expected. Yuji just disappeared. It was as if his existence as a torch had been snuffed out as all of his possessions and remnants of him through the memories of others simply vanished. But Shana sensed that he still existed…somewhere. So they had no choice but to resume their lives as best they could and wait for his return.

For all of you who were put off by Shana II much more than I was, let me start by saying that Shana III is undeniably better. Gone is the love triangle between Yuji, Shana and Kazumi…as well as pretty much everything else to do with school life in general. It’s back to the much more action-packed style we saw in the first season that favors story progression. Please do try to ignore the first three or so recap episodes that start Shana III in a pitiful attempt to get new viewers up to speed. Rest assured that the old format is finally back, but it’s much colder and calculated—fitting of two worlds on the brink of war.

Although it tries its best to bring back everything that made season 1 awesome, there are a lot of new problems in Shana III that just can’t be overlooked. The most difficult for me to grudgingly accept was probably unavoidable because of where the story needs to go—the ever-expanding cast that seems to grow by about five characters each episode for the first half of the series. It gets really hard to keep track of names and loyalties after a while, especially when they only get about a thirty second introduction and then reappear a few episodes later to finish the tasks they’ve been given—major, plot-altering assignments at that. Occasionally, I had to just sit back and let them do their thing and most of them are so poorly characterized their presence hardly seems necessary.

Yes, I understand that this is war and there’s a hierarchy of commander and subordinates all playing their part in the big picture that needs to be established. But a lot of this is fine details that I feel could have been done without. It leads to getting things spread too thin and I wish Shana and Yuji could have had a stronger presence. Either that, or some of the bigger players should have been allowed a more gradual introduction so we could get to know them better and care about why they’re taking part in this endeavor—even if they’re just going to die in a few episodes. At least then it wouldn’t have felt like such a waste.

But as I said in my Shana II review, the amount of dead time back in the second season starts to show very clearly in the third because so much material is getting crammed in to make a mad rush to the conclusion. So while Shana II was painfully slow, Shana III has the exact opposite problem of being almost too fast to keep up.

But there’s a lot of high points, too. The psychological attributes of season 1 that had been mostly absent in season 2 have made a strong comeback. It’s also managed to up the ante from Shana I and push the limits a lot higher. Shana I simply dealt with the nature of existence on a very platonic level. But Shana III addresses a deeper theme in the purpose of existence. There are some very strong concepts dealing with loss of direction in one’s life as everything you devoted yourself to becomes irrelevant and a future full of nothing but aimless emptiness is all that waits after several lifetimes devoted to a single-minded cause that has suddenly disappeared. But if freed from this burden, there is also a chance to discover a new, greater cause if you manage to not despair and broaden your focus to look at the big picture.

One thing that has always endured through the Shana story is the very clear understanding that the Crimson Denizens are not all evil. Just as you wouldn’t call a lion evil for killing a zebra, the bad guys have always been simply acting on their nature, even if at times the terms excess and greed could be applied to their methods. Particularly in Shana III we are given a difficult-to-handle dilemma of just who is actually on the right side during this war—the Denizens attempting to achieve their own, personal paradise or the Flame Hazes who zealously deem such a paradise nothing but a dangerous delusion.

The ending manages to find a compromise between these two extremes, but it doesn’t feel half-hearted or conciliatory. It instead goes for a tone of understanding and inevitability even if that isn’t something that adequately ties up every loose end. And as much as I like the characters of Shana and Yuji as separate entities, the two could have avoided a lot of pain and suffering they inflicted on each other unnecessarily if they had just sat down and talked things through honestly, which is a sad little detail that undermines a lot of the dramatic strife of this series.

I’ll say it again, Shana III is better than Shana II because it takes a lot of cues from Shana I, making itself into a nice wrap-up to a really great franchise. The battles are suitably epic in the smart, well-composed flow that is a hallmark of the action sequences in the Shana series. It’s let down by a few writing and pacing problems, but overall is a solid and thought-provoking anime.

Shakugan no Shana II Second (review)

Impression – an epic fumble that does manage to recover a little (7/10)

Fall 2007 to winter 2008 (24 episodes) (title literal translation – Shana of Burning Eyes, English synonym – Shana the Fire-Eyed)

Picking up right where Shana I left off Yuji, Shana and Kazumi are confronted by a new classmate whose appearance so closely resembles Hecate—a powerful Crimson Lord they recently faced—that it goes beyond mere coincidence.  However, after their suspicions turn out to be unfounded, Fumina Konoe is found to be a rather nice, if simple-minded girl from a wealthy family who needs a friend.  Much to the dismay of Shana and Kazumi she attaches herself to Yuji and the four friends indulge in enjoying the summertime youth of their first year in high school.  But a few other strange occurrences surrounding Fumina keep them on edge and only time will reveal her true nature.

After such a spectacular first season, it was always going to be hard for a sequel to live up to that kind of quality, but to fall this far was truly sad.  It goes from a psychological, action series with romance elements to a low-key aimless high school drama (at least for the first half).  Season one dealt with big issues such as the nature of existence and season two’s change of tone is so jarring it doesn’t even feel like the same anime anymore.  The characters have also taken on such a wishy-washy passive-aggressive attitude it’s hard to believe the half-baked romantic rivalries that dominate much of this second season.  It’s clear that Yuji wants to be with Shana, but combined with his gentle nature and Kazumi’s home wrecker attitude that just won’t let him go, there’s no shortage of frustration in the direction of the plot.  And if this love triangle that’s already been well established wasn’t bad enough, Hecate’s way-to-obvious clone Fumina Konoe turns the triangle into a pyramid with the all-too-trusty Yuji being exploited left and right because he can’t find his backbone.

The second half of this series does manage to head back in the right direction and attempts to recapture the spirit of its predecessor, but by then it’s really nothing more than a simple matter of too little too late.  To its credit, the ending is spectacular; crowned by an epic battle that really satisfies with its brilliantly constructed flow and amazingly intelligent strategy as characters on both sides take advantage of the changing battlefield.  Also satisfactory is the final scene that, while a bit of a cliffhanger, at least gives the distinct impression that the indecisive romance that plagued the rest of this season has finally come to an end.

The most telling failing of the second season really gets revealed in the third season because it highlights how little actually happened in Shana II, making everything feel empty and futile.  What was the purpose of this series in the grand picture of the whole Shana franchise?  If it was to establish Shana as Yuji’s official love interest, we pretty much already figured that at the end of season one.  The cool, insightful Yuji of the previous season who was Shana’s greatest pillar of support also stagnates horribly—making him into a football that the characters good and bad pass around and occasionally punt to satisfy their own objectives.

All this negativity could easily be misinterpreted that Shana II is a bad anime, when it is absolutely nothing of the sort.  It’s just…well…a little above average…and that makes it pale in comparison to the awesomeness that was Shana I.  It’s really just an unacceptable fall from grace that highlights the wasted potential that deserved much better than this.

Shakugan no Shana (review)

Final impression – a triumphant beginning (10/10)

Autumn 2005 to winter 2006 (24 episodes + 1 OVA) (title literal translation – Shana of Burning Eyes, English synonym – Shana the Fire-Eyed)

High school has started and Yuji Sakai is already making the most of his youth.  But on his way home one day he steps into a sealed zone that is separated from the normal flow of time.  In here, he is attacked by monsters intent on devouring this strange human who can move within their trap.  But at the last second he is saved by a beautiful girl with flaming red hair; easily overpowering his attackers.  But despite protecting him from the monsters, it turns out Yuji Sakai is already dead.  His existence was eaten by a denizen of the Crimson World some time ago and all that remains of him is a tiny spark that will soon burn out.  He decides to spend his last few days before he disappears in the company of his savior, aiding her in any way that he can before he is gone without a trace.  However, a fortunate turn of events may give him an unexpected reprieve from oblivion.

Shakugan no Shana is a spectacular story.  It starts with the initial, horrifying concept of the enemies of humanity consuming people’s very existence as energy, leaving nothing behind to remember them by.  It’s a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness that is dramatically mitigated by Yuji’s ability to keep a positive attitude about the whole situation.  He never despairs and is always thinking about how he can best make use of his limited potential.  It’s a testament to the tremendous strength of character people can exhibit when cornered by the most trying circumstances.  The series expands on its intellectual, action-filled beginning and moves into a more romantic theme as the steely Shana realizes that she’s not an emotionless killing machine and her feelings for Yuji go beyond mere camaraderie.  Even the final battle is more than it superficially appears to be because the plot never misses a chance to include a thought-provoking discussion about the characters’ inner motives.  And then to top of the amazing writing is the gorgeous art style of Ito Noizi and excellent music courtesy of Mami Kawada, KOTOKO and several other bands and singers who knew just the right style to set the mood for this epic series.  In short, the first season of Shakugan no Shana struck a perfect balance between fighting, philosophy, artistic tone and romance to create an amazingly profound first season.

Guilty Crown (review)

Final impression – pretty but unpolished (6/10)

Autumn 2011 to winter 2012 (22 episodes)

In 2029 an outbreak of a mysterious disease known as the Apocalypse Virus hit Tokyo causing cancerous crystals to emerge from people’s bodies, reducing them to dust that blew away in the wind.  Now it’s 2039 and much of Japan’s policies are under the control of the GHQ—an organization devoted to researching and preventing another pandemic.  However, under the guise of public safety, the GHQ restricts the freedom of the Japanese people, which naturally makes them rather unpopular.  To counter this stifling new branch of government that sometimes descends into spontaneous martial law, the terrorist group Undertaker seeks to liberate Japan using covert, guerrilla tactics.  Shu Ouma is just an average high school student living in Tokyo who laments the current state of affairs and feels there’s nothing he can do to change things.  But he gets thrust into the heart of the conflict when his path crosses with the indie singer, Inori Yuzuriha.  On the run from the GHQ, she entrusts him with delivering a stolen package to Undertaker.  But an accident along the way imbues him with the power to change the course of fate.

Guilty Crown is very beautiful both in its crisp drawing style and harmonious music, which create a terrific setting with awesome potential.  This optimism further gets bolstered by the growth of Shu’s character as he goes through a transition of ordinary to mighty, then misguided and finally culminating in noble selflessness.  The flow of his personality follows an organic development that is as natural as it is elegant.  But looking past the artfulness and the excellent character development of Guilty Crown, the writing of this anime is thick and muddy.  As much as it wants to be epic and tell an amazing story of realizing your own weakness and overcoming your preconceived limits, it fails to accomplish this goal eloquently.  Whether it’s relying on misplaced tropes like a swimsuit episode, contrived plot points such as reviving a character who was supposed to be dead or some overused quasi-romantic sort of martyrdom, there’s plenty of wasted potential.  To its credit, Guilty Crown never goes so far as to allow its clumsier episodes to break up the flow of the plot.  But some of the characters’ motives are so unreasonable that it feels like they’re puppets of the writer rather than real people with free will and personalities.  So while Guilty Crown is easy on the eyes and ears, its story is frustratingly forced and rushes to finish in its shorter-than-average run.

Ore no Imouto ga Konnani Kawaii Wake ga Nai (review)

Final impression – prone to hyperbole, but respectably expressive (8/10)

Autumn 2010 (12 episodes + 3 OVAs) (title literal translation – My Little Sister Can’t Be This Cute)

Kyousuke Kousaka finds an anime DVD case lying around the house one day and is surprised to find an h-game disc inside.  Nobody in his family matches the image of the sort of person who would own this item.  Intent on discovering its owner, Kousaka brings up the topic of anime during dinner where his parents firmly rebuke the idea of anyone in their household watching anime.  But this elicits a very different reaction from his little sister Kirino whose shocked expression is enough to set off alarm bells for his suspicions.  Later that night, she confronts him and reveals her secret that she’s a closet otaku (and a pretty hardcore one at that).  Surprised at this frank honesty, Kousaka doesn’t try to belittle his sister for her unusual tastes. Instead, he begins to encourage her to be more honest and to pursue a happiness she had been unable to attain by hiding her true self.

Ore no Imouto tries to be a social discourse about the acceptance of otaku in today’s culture, but ultimately does a poor job by representing otaku as their stereotypes rather than real people.  Not all otaku play h-games.  Not all otaku cosplay on a daily basis in full view of the general public.  Not all otaku dress like creepy shut-ins who fear light and fresh air.  It probably wouldn’t have made for a good story, but most people who watch anime are not as passionate as Kirino, Kuroneko or Saori.  The fact that Oreimo depicts otaku coming from a variety of very unassuming backgrounds (including fashion models, ordinary high school students and upper-class) does do some good in legitimizing the culture and showing that it’s not limited to just one particular unsocial group.  What’s most telling about this anime is not the kinds of people otaku might be, but how the self-loathing of some can lead to the idea that it’s impossible for friends and loved ones to accept them for who they really are.  But none of this should be taken to mean that Oreimo is a failure—far from it.  It may have a few issues, but it’s funny, ironic and deals with the problems that some otaku face when their hobby is discovered by people they didn’t want finding out.

Bakemonogatari (review)

Final impression – a magnificent, philosophical escapade (10/10)

Summer 2009 to spring 2010 (15 episodes) (title literal translation – Monster Story, English synonym – Ghostory)

During spring break of his final year of high school, Koyomi Araragi had an encounter with a vampire. Fortunately, he was able to mostly restore his humanity through the aid of the supernatural specialist Meme Oshino, who was able to intervene before things got worse.  As part of a way of thanking the man who saved him from becoming a vampire himself, Koyomi has begun helping people he encounters rid themselves of their unnatural afflictions.  And it’s a good thing he retains some of his vampiric traits, because most curses are not willing to go down quietly.

Bakemonogatari is an amazing masterpiece of wordplay.  I’ll come right out and say that if you don’t like dialogue-heavy anime you’re not going to enjoy this series because its strongest attribute is the way it twists language and and plays with our perceptions of humanity.  But if you revel in the intellectual—the sociological—then you’re going to have a hard time finding anything better than this.  And the awesomeness doesn’t stop with its writing.  It has a great cast of voice actors including Kana Hanazawa and Yui Horie who are masters of their craft and depict their characters’ personalities perfectly down to every nuance.  Then, if you thought my praise was over, the music is absolutely spectacular with a fresh opening theme for each of the female protagonists, sung beautifully by their skilled voice actresses.  Dealing with such topics as love, hopelessness, responsibility, desire and lust, Bakemonogatari is passionate and insightful.  If you let yourself get caught up in its pace, your blood will start to boil with the brilliant energy radiated by this incredible anime.

Fortune Arterial – Akai Yakusoku (review)

Final impression – atmospheric and smooth (7/10)

Autumn 2010 (12 episodes) (title literal translation – Fortune Arterial – Red Promise)

Kouhei was always transferring schools throughout his childhood as his family moved from place to place.  But now that he’s a high school student and he’s been accepted to a prestigious private school, he’s decided to make some real, lasting friendships for the first time in his life.  But now that he’s made up his mind to finally enjoy his youth without worrying about having to leave it all behind again, he discovers that Erika, the beautiful student council vice president, is actually a vampire.  Her older brother, who happens to be the president, gives him an ultimatum.  He can either join the student council so they can make sure he doesn’t divulge any secrets, or Erika will erase his memories—ruining any chance he might have of recollecting his past relationships with the other students at his school.

The splendid symphony of Lia’s music for the opening and ending themes is the most wonderful aspect of Fortune Arterial.  Also, the story is deeper and twistier than most anime based on h-games.  Overall it gives me the impression of a Twilight rewrite with gender roles reversed and no werewolves or pretty boys—making it a version of Twilight with a male audience in mind and fewer plot devices stolen from Underworld.  However, for as much good as it does to fix the vampire-romance subgenre, Fortune Arterial’s greatest failing is how poorly it treats its side characters.  Those girls not important for the main plot get about one badly written episode if they’re lucky enough to not have any siblings.  Basically, it just sticks with the main girl all the way, which provides a steady pace for some good character development.  The ending is a bit wishy-washy, but impactful enough to not detract from the overall story.  And while this anime ultimately falls short of excellence, it is still very respectable.

Persona 4 The Animation (ongoing)

Impression – straightforward, yet philosophical

Autumn 2011 to winter 2012 (more info)

As good as the Persona 4 video game was, I wish its anime series would deviate more from the default script or fill in some more fine details that have thus far flown under the radar.  Arguably, fans of the video game are going to be the primary fanbase of the anime, but if there are no surprises for us we’re not likely to give very good opinions to more casual viewers who may only have a passing interest.  So the plot of Persona 4 is stuck in a weird catch-22 where it needs enough new material to keep the old fans interested but it also needs to stay true to the original story.  In some ways, it’s suffering from some of the same problems as Fate/Zero.  But it’s more than worth it to watch Persona 4 just for the killer music and sharp art style that is an intrinsic quality of Atlus.  One of the things the anime does get right that is a perfect mirror of the video game is the pacing of events to match real dates and create a tangible passage of time.  And while the story may have felt more natural in video game format, it’s still totally awesome.  Its best points are a cast of varied, loveable characters, a good sense for spinning elaborate mysteries and an overarching theme of emphasizing the importance of the bonds we share with our friends.  When you think about it like that, there’s not much else to be desired.

Fate/Zero (ongoing)

Impression – superbly grand, but hampered by some problems

Autumn 2011 and spring 2012 (more info / part 2)

I’m of the opinion that a little more time could have been spent waiting to get the series released in one 24 episode block without this huge lapse in pace, especially when it ends on such a big cliffhanger.  Because Fate/Zero is a prequel, it also means that in order to keep consistency with canon, the story needs to conform to some rigid guidelines to fit what comes after.  Knowing that none of this is going to end well puts an emotional barrier between the viewer and a lot of the characters, prohibiting real attachment.  The result is that the viewer feels like an outside observer waiting for the inevitable, rather than wanting to get invested in something that’s ultimately going to be futile.  It’s sad because the new side characters are colorful and there’s a lot of spirit in their personalities.  But I don’t want to suggest that Fate/Zero is a waste of time.  It’s gorgeous and emotional, but also deeply thought provoking; delving into some really fun, dark corners of the human psyche.  The twisted personalities of Ryuunosuke and Caster manage to contort morality to match their own ambitions and that’s always an interesting exercise of mental gymnastics.  However, the fact that this survival game that is the Holy Grail War has thus far resulted in no casualties for the participants is a telling sign that the writers are pandering to the fanbase rather than thinking things through organically.  Fate/Zero is beautiful and epic to watch in the way that Type Moon always puts forward, but it’s not nearly as immersive as I’d hoped it would be.

Dropped Anime (winter 2012)

Last Exile – Fam, the Silver Wing (4/10)

Dropped at episode 4 of 21 (more info)

I remember fondly the sense of urgency and mystery that filled the original Last Exile and made it a great introductory anime to anyone who wanted to take a closer look at the steampunk genre.  The magic of the original series has been lost over the years and its second season has become just a boring old pirating anime, set in a world at war that deals with issues of honor in very contrived ways.

High School DxD (4/10)

Dropped at episode 2 of 12 (more info)

There’s good ecchi and bad ecchi.  To its credit, High School DxD falls somewhere in the middle, but there’s still way too much ecchi for its own good.  The plot is really quite silly and the character designs portray the women with completely unreasonable proportions, purely for fanservice purposes.  Its redeeming feature is that it actually has a somewhat original and interesting story to tell, but that’s not enough when the rest of the anime feels as though there’s no effort invested in its creation.

Kill Me Baby (3/10)

Dropped at episode 2 of 12 (more info)

The super-deformed moe style certainly isn’t for everyone, but what kills Kill Me Baby is the serious lack of personality in its characters.  Sonya is supposed to be aloof and detached, but seems much more bored and apathetic all the time.  Agiri may always be up in the clouds and look spacey, but her voice sounds either like she’s about to fall asleep or maybe she’s on drugs.  Lively Yasuna does her best to make up for the two cinder blocks she hangs out with, but when they’re content to just leave her behind I can’t see how the plot of this anime could possibly go anyplace exciting.

Inu x Boku SS (3/10)

Dropped at episode 5 of 12 (more info)

The idea of tsundere Ririchiyo being naturally driven to adopt this personality by virtue of her cloistered and bourgeois lifestyle is a level of depth in character creation seldom seen from this character archetype.  Giving her a doting companion / bodyguard who will naturally be able to melt her icy personality through his devoted loyalty was the perfect complement to Ririchiyo and the beginning of something really cool was all set to wow the viewers.  And then it all went horribly wrong as it floundered in a sea of misplaced and pointless S&M jokes.  Really, this is one of the strangest changes of tone I’ve seen in a long time.

Senki Zesshou Symphogear (3/10)

Dropped at episode 3 of 13 (more info)

Hibiki and Tsubasa’s relationship is on bad terms, but it’s mostly because Hibiki seems to turn off her social skills in favor of playing the starstruck underdog to Tsubasa’s cold, professionalism.  It’s also paced way too slow, with too little information revealed about the origins of this war and with supporting characters who clearly understand more than the combatants.  Being a singing anime with less than mediocre music is also not a great way to sell a title to fans who are interested in that kind of genre.  Symphogear could have been a cool, technological / magic girl anime along the lines of My-HiME, but the fight scenes are clunky and the characters are either super bitchy or socially incompetent airheads.

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