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Persona 4: The Animation (review)

The cast of Persona 4: The AnimationFinal impression – play the game first (7/10)

Fall 2011 to winter 2012 (25 episodes)

Yuu Narukami is a city boy, who for various circumstances at home, ends up moving out to the countryside to live with his uncle and little cousin.  But being a naturally suave and likeable guy, he’s quickly able to shake off the aura of being a transfer student and makes some friends.  But when the tiny town of Inaba he finds himself in is rocked by a series of bizarre murders, he gets caught up in a creepy cold case where the victims are seen on a mysterious TV program called the Midnight Channel that airs on foggy nights when you have your TV turned off.  In the face of such unbelievable circumstances, Yuu and his friends become the only ones capable of rescuing the victims by diving into the television and fighting the bloodthirsty monsters that live there using a manifestation of their psyches called Persona.

Yu calls IzanagiWriting an objective review on P4 was difficult for me since I’ve played the game it’s based on.  This isn’t the same as reading the manga that serves as the source material for an anime since both of those media are non-interactive.  Video games on the other hand are and being put in the position of having no influence on the characters’ decisions or the pace of the story was a little unsettling.  I wonder if many other people feel this way about adaptations of video games that aren’t a loose reinterpretation of a concept, but instead a faithful retelling of the same story.

The girls can't cookThat being said, P4: The Animation recreates the events of the game as closely as is possible, with a few changes made that were probably necessary for the transition to TV.  This includes obvious things like completing a side character’s story in a single episode rather than the game’s slower progression that might be spaced out over the course of the entire play time (or even not completed at all if the player neglects that particular social link).  But one thing that always disappointed me about P4: The Animation was the fight scenes.  The game is something of a visual novel built around the framework of a really solid RPG.  That setup should have been a natural cue that the anime ought to be an action / drama.  And while the drama does well, the action is dry and has an air of inevitability to it that never feels the slightest bit suspenseful.

"Welcome to the velvet room."All in all, it makes me sad because, because I loved the game and my hopes were high that the anime would live up to that same level of quality.  If nothing else, the soundtrack for the P4 anime is even more amazing than the game and includes all of the original music in addition to new and expanded tracks with terrifically-written English lyrics that really gets me fired up.  In the end, Persona 4: The Animation is a supplemental anime for fans of the game, but still a very solid series.

Robotics;Notes Ep. 1

Initial impression – really just…eh

Autumn 2012 to winter 2013 (22 episodes) (more info)

The first episode of Robotics;Notes reeks of Tari Tari.  Does this sound familiar?  Unpopular club is in a pinch because of a stuffy vice principle and a charismatic student who wants to accomplish something big has to rally support to save the day—which includes finding new members, proving the club’s value at a small venue before being allowed to attempt the bigger challenge later and acquiring funding for their big project, which is already on a tight schedule.  Yeah, this is already feeling too close to the disappointing Tari Tari with the focus of mecha substituted for music.

The only character that even approaches likeability so far is female protagonist Akiho Senomiya with her go-getter attitude, overflowing optimism and willingness to literally get dirty.  Her male support in the form of Kaito Yashio is a die-hard gamer with so little interest in what’s going on I find it hard to believe he’d even join this club in the first place.  As much as this anime has been hyped and advertised over the past year or so, I was hoping for something much better.  It’s not bad at least, but if Robotics;Notes can’t differentiate itself in some way really soon, I’m not going to have any regrets about dropping it early.

Hayate no Gotoku! Can’t Take My Eyes Off You Ep. 1

Initial impression – it’s back and who knows? it could be the best one yet

Autumn 2012 (?? episodes) (synonym – Hayate the Combat Butler) (more info)

Hayate no Gotoku has always intrigued me.  It’s bursting with references to other anime almost to the degree that you have to be an extreme anime connoisseur like me to understand all the humor that’s going on.  It’s also just got a weird premise.  Hayate from a poor family gets strapped with his parents’ debt when they flee the country to avoid loan sharks, leaving Hayate to fend for himself.  Through a series of misunderstandings, he ends up the personal butler of a rich girl named Nagi Sanzenin.

Nagi is a paradox of character traits.  She’s an otaku who usually does nothing but watch anime, play video games and skip school when she can get away with it, but she’s also a genius prodigy who has skipped several grades and is currently enrolled in high school.  Her only sources of motivation are the constant nagging of Hayate and her maid, Maria, to coax her into going to school, or she’ll be inspired to try something she saw in an anime and an adventure will ensue.

When I explain the premise in such dry terms, even I think this doesn’t sound like a very good idea.  But this is a case where a very off the wall compilation has been saved by good writing and terrific voice acting.  Rie Kugimiya always shines her brightest when she plays tsundere characters and Nagi is as tsundere as they get.  Hayate also has a great actor in Ryoko Shiraishi and her coy, almost motherly tones coming through the male lead creates a funny role reversal.  The cast also has a lot of other good names in the lineup including Shizuka Itou, who plays the role of student council president and Hayate’s confidant, Hinagiku.

Even as this series indulges in tropes that feel somewhat dry and overused, considering that I’ve relished every other previous iteration of Hayate no Gotoku, I’m in no doubt that Can’t Take My Eyes Off You is also going to be loads of fun.

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.

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.

Shakugan no Shana III (ongoing)

Impression – finally living up to its legacy

Autumn 2011 to winter 2012 (24 episodes) (more info)

For Shana fans who endured the disappointment that was season two, the third and final season started pretty rocky and didn’t look very favorable as a contender to redeem the series.  There was a lot of really confusing, unnecessary summarizing of the previous season that I’m fairly certain didn’t succeed at getting new viewers up to speed and only served to delay new content for a couple episodes.  But once that got out of the way the story really started to take off and there wasn’t any sign of the romantic quagmire that stifled season two’s first half.  Once again we get treated to the thought-provoking scenario of existence itself being a harvestable resource and the continuation of the secret war that is to determine the fate of not only lives but memories as well.  The changes that have happened in the characters’ personalities are huge and could have had disastrous consequences if they hadn’t been so carefully constructed to match the growing ambitions of the young people as they begin to find the adults they are to become.  There’s a lot of names and faces to remember as the war reaches its crescendo, but if a slow start is my only other complaint, then I’ll gladly give Shana III my seal of approval.

Zero no Tsukaima F Ep. 1

Initial impression – you already know if you’re going to like this show

Winter 2012 (12 episodes) (title literal translation – The Familiar of Zero) (more info)

And so begins the final season of Zero no Tsukaima, the anime that contains the entire core voice cast of Shakugan no Shana and is unsurprisingly produced by the same company, J.C. Staff.  It’s a safe bet that if you’ve been following this series since it started back in 2006 then you’re going to want to watch the end of the story.  But if you’ve never heard of Zero Louise or her human familiar Saito, then you’re going to be completely lost.  Unlike Shakugan no Shana III, there is no introductory backstory to allow new viewers to transition into the adventure already in progress.  I prefer that style of sequel personally—especially since this is the fourth entry of Zero and I can’t imagine any amount of recap short of rewatching the whole series providing adequate information.

The iDOLM@STER (ongoing)

Impression – not bad at all

Summer 2011 to autumn 2011 (25 episodes) (more info)

To be honest, the only reason I gave The iDOLM@STER a snowball’s chance in hell is because I play the Japanese trading card game Weiss Schwarz, and The iDOLM@STER is a very popular title (it’s also quite strong for those who don’t know anything about the game).  So I wanted to learn more about the source material for this set of cards.  Overall, I’ve been intriuged.  The iDOLM@STER started out painfully slow, but it’s started to work its way into my heart and on a couple occasions I caught myself cheering for the girls.  When I first started watching, I had mistakenly thought the series was only 13 episodes and I was wondering how they were going to cover all the girls without feeling a nasty time crunch come episode 12.  Even with 25 episodes it’s a bit of a squeeze, but I’m seeing the method to the madness.  The writers have chosen not to focus on particular girls as facets while the story progresses, but rather on the whole gem that is all the girls working together as a cohesive unit.  Ocassionally one girl will be the target for a particular side sequence, but it’s always about highlighting the teamwork the girls share to accomplish their dreams together and that’s surprisingly powerful given this anime’s premise and source material.  There’s nothing earthshattering about The iDOLM@STER, but it’s fun and that counts for a lot.

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