Ashita no Anime

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Accel World (review)

Welcome to the Accelerated WorldFinal impression – smart action, sharp story (9/10)

Spring 2012 to summer 2012 (24 episodes)

Haruyuki Arita was your atypical rotund kid.  The target of bullies and dealing with self-esteem issues, he at least has a few good childhood friends to make his life bearable.  But one day, the gorgeous and unapproachable student council president, Snow Black (yes, that’s really the name she uses) offers Haruyuki a chance to break free of the chains the world has placed on him.  After installing the program Brain Burst, given to him by Snow Black, he becomes a burst-linker—someone who can accelerate his mind beyond normal perception to react to situations in ways that would normally be impossible.  But each use of the program costs a point and recharging will require him to enter the battlefield that is the Accelerated World.

Silver Crow confronts his hold rival, Ash RollerAccel World has everything a shounen action anime needs to be good, plus a whole lot more that makes it great.  One of the things I love about this anime is that it gets you thinking in some very creative ways right from its very premise.  The thought of slowing down time—or more literally, accelerating your perception of time—is not only exceptionally original, but proves to be a flexible enough concept to allow it to keep expanding its usefulness through granting access to new abilities and rewarding out-of-the-box thinking.  This subtlety of the powers granted by the Brain Burst program is where this concept’s true strength lies.  To truly master the system requires a burst linker to come to terms with the scars of his or her past, which is manifested in his or her duel avatar.

Snow Black congratulates HaruyukiAs much as I talk about how important aesthetics are to me when it comes to anime, Accel World’s choice to cast a short, plump, weak-willed, generally unattractive young man as the protagonist was both daring and genius.  His flaws are huge and conspicuous, leaving Haruyuki plenty of room for growth and opportunity to overcome challenges as the story progresses.  But this rather simple starting point pales in comparison to the metaphoric dichotomy that is Haruyuki Arita, the slow and tubby junior high school student and his sleek, shiny and fast duel avatar, Silver Crow.

Silver Crow outmaneuvers Scarlet Rain's attackRarely do we see the manifestation of someone’s desires visualized so clearly, and since all the characters are a part of this system of emotional scars that take on an incarnate form, this entire anime becomes one big canvas for depicting each character’s backstory through it’s visual design—even if it’s only speculative in some cases.  In this way, I could appreciate this series far beyond its beautiful art style.

Silver Crow faces Cyan PileSince Brain Burst is at its heart a fighting game, it would be a shame if Accel World didn’t have some excellent action scenes.  And once again, it delivers in this area as well.  From more simple, straightforward fights that give the message that in battle using your head is just as important as using your fists, to bigger, grand melees that have a pace to them that tests players’ abilities to read the battlefield and adapt to the pace of the fight, there’s no shortage of excellent skirmishe punctuated at the right times between the daily lives of the characters.

One thing about the fights that disappointed me slightly was that towards the end of the series things start to lose the cleverness that filled the earlier fights in favor of something more akin to a dry battle-of-wills where the winner just wanted it more.  But it never gets obnoxious because the focus always remains on the characters and they never feel defined by their powers—rather just the opposite, because the players are the ones who give their powers form.

Black Lotus issues a challengeOne of the things about this series that I think shouldn’t be overlooked is how deep its premise really goes.  Being able to accelerate your time and interact with people to grow and mature at a rate several orders of magnitude faster than is normally possible makes you wonder about these children’s futures.  The obvious advantage of their abilities is to analyze situations in detail and essentially, “cheat time” but they can also develop themselves mentally.  Are some burst linkers already many years ahead of their peers with respect to their maturity?  Will they accelerate through their childhoods and become adults far sooner than they otherwise could were they not given the Brain Burst program?  This even challenges our definitions of what it means to be an adult.  Can we really define that developmental stage in a person’s life correctly in a world of young people who experience time at a different rate compared to the rest of us?

Lime Bell doesn't realize how much her mere existence will shake up the Accelerated WorldThe story has a few flat spots that I felt messed with the pace a bit—most egregious being Snow Black’s trip to Okinawa—but if that’s my only complaint, I’m not going to hold it against this otherwise brilliant series.  Most pleasing is the ending that leaves things open to the possibility of continuing, but has none of the failings of a cliffhanger.  It’s complete and brings everything to fulfillment. Instead of leaving you wanting more, it’s simply the impression of “well that’s the end of that chapter.  Life goes on and maybe someday I’ll get to see more.” But more doesn’t feel necessary.  This makes Accel World one of my top shounen action anime in recent years.

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Ano Natsu de Matteru (review)

Impression – nicely redone (8/10)

Winter 2012 (12 episodes) (English synonym – Waiting in the Summer)

Last night, Kaito had a weird dream where something fell out of the sky and killed him. But he brushes off his perceived near-death experience as it’s close to the start of summer break and Kaito and his friends are thinking about making a movie as part of a project they can all enjoy together.  Coincidentally, their countryside school gets a transfer student in the relatively attractive Ichika.  On his way home, he notices Ichika wandering around town seemingly lost.  As it turns out she doesn’t have a place to stay because her transfer was so sudden and poorly planned.  Being the gentleman he is, Kaito invites her to stay at his house until she can get on her feet.  But the mystery of this summertime transfer student who is living with him takes on a whole new dimension when Kaito’s friend, Lemon recruits Ichika to be the heroine of their film project.

While Ano Natsu is a pretty standard school romance story on the surface—the seriousness about how it presents its story gives it an air of refinement, even when it’s being silly and having fun.  What I like most about this anime is the mere fact that despite being a romance story that sticks pretty close to familiar formulas, it doesn’t wait until the end of the series before allowing the hero and heroine to express their feelings.  This gives the plot some additional time to expand on their relationship and actually solidify them as a true couple with genuine feelings within the main story—something that is normally assigned as a lazy afterthought to an epilogue contained in an OVA that nobody ends up caring much about.

That’s where Ano Natsu scores big points for me.  Compared to other anime romances where the climax is the confession, this series goes above and beyond to give us something that feels more complete.  That extra time after their mutual confession is filled by a lot of loony, off-the-wall craziness.  But it sticks to the theme of doing whatever is necessary to avoid being separated from the one you love, which is a powerful story element so I don’t begrudge it too much.

The real kick in the pants for this whole premise though, is that Ano Natsu is basically just a revamped version of Please Teacher.  I’d call Ano Natsu a sequel if it wasn’t simply a nearly verbatim rehash of that loosely constructed mess.  It’s probably a good thing they didn’t hype up its links to material from ten years ago because otherwise I might not have watched it.  The story follows a suspiciously similar procession of events starting with having the hero and heroine living together because of extenuating circumstances.  Both series even have their token oddball characters Ichigo and Lemon, both voiced by the smarmy Yukari Tamura as well as animal-like support robots for the heroine—a pretty clear indication to me that we’re working in the same universe.

But even though it’s Please Teacher with a more modern spin, Ano Natsu simply does such a better job all around; so much so that the two anime feel worlds apart.  It takes care to make sure all of its plot elements are not only fun, but also not so over-the-top ridiculous that it leaves you with too much to swallow all at once.  Probably the most important change is that while in both series the main characters end up living with each other, Ano Natsu doesn’t try to pull the wool over our eyes by forcing them into a contrived marriage of dubious necessity.  Interestingly, Yousuke Kuroda wrote the script for both series, so in a weird way it’s as if this is an opportunity for him to show how his skills have grown over the past decade, which as it turns out is quite a bit.

All in all, I’d very much like to see more romance series take risks the way Ano Natsu managed to break the mold.  It challenges established storytelling rules.  While it’s not always as smart as I wish it would be, it ends up telling a compelling adventure that takes place during one wild summer vacation.

Please Teacher! (review)

Impression – priority-one bad (3/10)

Winter 2002 (12 episodes)

Kei Kusanagi is a high school student who was affected by a strange disorder that literally stopped his time a few years ago.  Falling into a coma-like state, he didn’t even age as the rest of the world passed him by.  Mizuho Kazami is an alien who is on a mission to conduct field research by posing as a teacher at his rural high school. When Kei inadvertently discovers the truth about her, he is forced to marry her to cover up the misleading circumstances that lead to her mistake and to ensure that he keeps her secret from the rest of the world.  What follows is the tenuous relationship between the two of them that slowly evolves into an awkward romance.

I’ve heard people call this anime a classic—a throwback to an older time when anime was younger and simpler.  I think these people have some pretty big nostalgia blinders on because not only has Please Teacher aged very poorly by every metric you could think of, it doesn’t even compare very favorably to other anime of its own era. This is a romance anime that makes Love Hina look like it was written by Shakespeare.

Most anime that are bad come right out and own up to their awfulness in a way that lets you know it was created with the intention of just having fun and providing something brainless for you to kill segments of your life in twenty-three minute packets.  But I’m having trouble thinking of another anime that is bad in the same way as Please Teacher because it has a tone of seriousness that gives the impression that its creators actually believed they were making something deep and worthwhile.  It throws around stereotypical tropes such as the alien girlfriend, unexplained supernatural tragedies affecting the lives of the main characters, a romantic rivalry with a childhood friend and a spineless male protagonist that manages to barely grow a little cartilage by the end of the series.  Traps bad romance anime still fall into even to this day.

If that wasn’t bad enough the voice actors sound less enthusiastic than the intentional bad-acting in Adventures of Mikuru Asahina (the purposefully amateurish first episode of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya) and Mizuho and her mother and sister have this overused one-liner that wears you out like you’re reading a glossy cardboard-paged picturebook to a one-year-old.  The only good I can possibly think coming out of this anime was the result of popularizing Pocky in America, but that’s no reason to give this series the venerated status of a genre-defining work.

Personally, I’d very much like to get back the time I wasted watching and rewatching this series in order to recall all the references Ano Natsu makes to Please Teacher (as it turns out, not that many).  My recommendation?  Only watch this series if you’re really, REALLY interested in the small amount of trivia that ties it together with the vastly superior Ano Natsu or if you want to experience a piece of anime history that is  probably worth forgetting.

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.