Ashita no Anime

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Rinne no Lagrange 2 Ep. 1

Initial impression – the same great enthusiasm

Summer 2012 (12 episodes) (title literal translation – Lagrange of Endless Rebirth) (English title – Lagrange: The Flower of Rin-ne) (more info)

Picking up after a few months of down time in the story, in the absence of her friends, Madoka has been down and is facing the decision of what she wants to do after graduation.  Lan is working with La Garte to push the limits of Vox Limpha and Muginami’s whereabouts are still unknown.

At first glance I thought this series would just be more of the same—a reflection of the first season, but after thinking about it a little more I’m inclined to think that there are enough new elements to tell a very different kind of story.  Most importantly a lot of the set pieces don’t need to be introduced and everyone’s role is slightly altered, even if most of the major players still have roughly the same motives.

To have Vox Aura reactivate right at the moment Madoka wills the machine back to life completely devalues having it inexplicably go offline at the end of the previous season.  It’s an excellent example of how the writing in this series is much more about feeling than substance.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but probably not everyone is going to appreciate this style that is very much about being in the moment rather than building up to something much bigger and grander by incremental steps.

Because of the nature of its storytelling, I don’t think Rinne no Lagrange 2 is going to attract any new fans who didn’t care for season one.  But those who liked the first half are going to enjoy reentering a world that’s starting to realize its potential.


Arcana Famiglia Ep. 1

Initial impression – the cards say that things look good

Summer 2012 (12 episodes) (title literal translation from Italian – Arcana Family) (more info)

Having played Persona 3 & 4 extensively and studying a lot of the mythos in those games I’ve become quite familiar with tarot.  It usually doesn’t get the service due for its complexity the way Persona gave it, so I’m interested to see if Arcana Famiglia can do something similarly respectable with its source material.

Unfortunately, I’m not optimistic about it because right off the bat this appears to be an anime that’s going to be centralized on a tournament to determine the successor to this mafia-style family.  Back when Naruto was young and Flame of Recca wasn’t ancient history, I made the discovery that pretty much any anime whose plot becomes entangled in a tournament has run out of ideas.  To lead in with that sort of catch as the story’s driving force isn’t encouraging to me.

The cast is already pretty big, but if there are presumably twenty-two or more characters, (one for each of the major arcana and side characters) I fear things will be spread too thin before long.  So far it has a style that is showing some well-planned fight sequences and the powers granted by each major arcana—while sometimes a bit too obvious—are being used creatively enough so that it doesn’t feel too drab.

The soft-spoken but authoritative voice of Mamiko Noto is a great fit for Felicita.

Putting the story’s heroine in a situation where she needs saving, but has the potential to save herself rather than having to rely on the two young men who have pledged themselves to her is fresh and reassuring.  It indicates to me that everyone is going to have a strong role to play, which ought to keep things interesting.

Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse Ep. 1

Initial impression – a solid introduction

Summer 2012 to autumn 2012 (24 episodes) (more info)

Ok, so Muv-Luv is your standard story about a young pilot in training who is going to have to grow up fast in order to fight back against the alien invaders (at least that’s my impression about how these things usually develop).  Fine, it’s not the most original premise, but if this series wants to make a name for self, it’s going to have to stand up on its technical merit.  The pacing is pretty good so far and while the characters are still by no means established, I can feel a definite atmosphere of impending doom, futility and desperation which is pretty impressive with the amount of history that was woven into the exposition of the progress of this war.  You just know things are going to get much, much worse before they get better.

The tone feels a little off at times with this supposedly being a military training facility and the real potential for death during practice being juxtaposed alongside high school girls living fairly normal lives.  Considering this first episode was a buildup of history and emotion leading to what is presumably the real battle in the next episode I’m not comfortable really calling this anime either way just yet.  I’m quite eager to see how it handles its action sequences.  Thankfully, Muv-Luv is staying away from the big mecha pitfall of blathering on in technical jargon about why their giant robots are better than everyone else’s.

However, the super-revealing flight suits these girls wear with their buttocks on full display make the plug suits from Evangelion look like petticoats.  If it’s relying on fanservice to get male viewers lured in at this early stage, my optimism is waning.  From past experience I know a lot of people are going to cringe at the poorly integrated CGI mecha against a very flat, out-of-place background.  The primary group of girls still only feel main-ish and I’m wondering if the series is going to continue to keep this broad view of the war at large or if Yui is actually going to be the focus of the story.  Perhaps the next episode will be a better gauge of how Muv-Luv is going to turn out.

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.

Elfen Lied (review)

Final impression – an often misunderstood psychological thriller (9/10)

Summer 2004 (13 episodes + 1 OVA)

Off the shores of Kamakura is a secret island that conducts research on the cutting edge of human evolution.  Called the Diclonius after a type of dinosaur, this genetic offshoot of humanity is distinctive by two small horns protruding from the sides of the head. The other quality that makes them worthy of scientific research is the female’s destructive psychic capabilities.

The first and most dangerous specimen named Lucy breaks her bonds and after an ensuing bloodbath manages to escape the facility.  But not before suffering a massive head wound that splits her personality between a dangerous beast and a helpless child.  She is discovered on Enoshima beach by Kouta and his cousin Yuka who take her in and decide to shelter her from her shady pursuers.  But when Kouta notices her horns, he senses there is a frighteningly deep connection between him and his new dependent that he must remember at any cost.

Elfen Lied and I have a bit of history that needs to be fully explained before I can go into a proper review of the title.  Back in 2004, I was still a wide-eyed 18 year old, fresh out of the nest and learning to fly solo at college.  At this point in my life I had only watched three anime that I actually knew were anime—Escaflowne, Cowboy Bebop and Evangelion.  I’d also seen Tekkaman Blade, Sailor Moon, Dragonball Z, Digimon and Pokemon as a kid, but I thought those were American series at the time so in my mind they don’t count (more on that some other time).

I had just joined my university anime club because I wanted to learn more about this genre and by some chance of fate the club president recommended Elfen Lied, which was still airing on Japanese TV.  Horror and R-rated media were things I’d never really been introduced to at the time, which gave Elfen Lied the privilege of relieving me of my innocent naivety.  It was such a shocker it felt like I’d been hit by a bolt of lightning (thinking back on it now, that metaphor is so apt it’s kinda scary how green I was back then).  I’d never experienced such an incredible emotional response in my life and I became immediately aware of something—I wanted more.  The rest they say is history because I’ve been hooked on anime ever since.  No other medium has been able to illicit such a heartfelt passion in me as anime and I foresee this to be one of my lifelong hobbies.

As I’ve matured over the past 8 years, my adoration for Elfen Lied has been tempered slightly.  I’ve come to realize it has a few flaws that can’t can’t fully be ignored and I may have been initially oversold on this anime’s shock value.  The years have also not been kind to its super large-eyed character style that is getting dated and was very indicative of the previous decade even at the time this series was made.  It also hurts its own potential with over-the-top violence and blood—important as that may be to its success—and lets us down with deceivingly simple writing about an exceedingly complicated story that needed a lot more time to be properly told (to be fair, there was a lot of contention within the staff to push this series into a longer run).

However, I continue to maintain that Elfen Lied is an excellent model for how to properly use nudity as a storytelling device. Whether it’s to accentuate Lucy’s animalistic savagery or Nyuu’s childlike innocence, what’s very clear by its direction is that this is not fanservice.  There aren’t any random panty-shots or views of cleavage made possible courtesy of deliberately maligned camera angles—every instance of the female form works to support the plot.

It’s a story that raises all sorts of philosophical issues about the nature of humanity—namely what constitutes being human.  Is it kindness, pure altruism and our ability to forgive past transgressions?  Is it nothing more than genetics?  Is it emergent in our sophisticated intelligence?  Is it our resourcefulness and ability to adapt to whatever circumstances we find presented to us?  Is it willingness to do whatever is necessary to survive?  Or is it the simple quality of possessing immutable instincts that go beyond mere desire for simple survival?  All of these themes and more are touched upon if ever so briefly in this anime and the only disappointment is that there wasn’t time to explore them more thoroughly.

Sadly, Elfen Lied is probably one of the most contentious, misunderstood and quite often underappreciated anime of all time.  Despite how well it reviews statistically, I suspect that like my younger self it gets a big boost from its emotional impact.  I hardly ever hear very much praise for it from a technical standpoint.  Ironically, it’s almost as if, in its attempt to reveal the intricacies of human nature, it was able to expose the superficial shallowness of the average person who so quickly and easily discredits it without making any attempt to reach for a deeper meaning.  However, the fact that it’s still capable of firing such powerful emotions eight years later is a testament to the kind of response it generates in its viewers.  As much as I can try to guide people on how to interpret the value of this show, it is ultimately going to be an exercise for the individual to undertake.

To this day I continue to hold the position that Elfen Lied is one of the best examples of an anime that not only deserves a sequel but NEEDS one.  What anime have you watched that had an open-ended or cliffhanger finale that you think requires a second season to properly wrap up the rest of the story?

Additional recommended reading—Elfen Lied Wiki, Real life scenes from Elfen Lied around Kamakura

Rinne no Lagrange (ongoing)

Impression – excellent character growth with energetic creativity

Winter 2012 and summer 2012 (more info / part 2) (best English equivalent – Lagrange: The Flower of Rin-ne)

Probably the most outstanding aspect of Rinne no Lagrange is how it tells a story reminiscent of psychological trips with mecha backdrops similar to Evangelion or RahXephon.  But very pleasingly it has managed to ditch the angsty boy pilot and replace him with a brave, cheerful young woman.

On the surface this does have a slight tendency to subvert the heavy atmosphere that naturally accompanies these types of anime, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.  I’m all for taking tried and true methods of storytelling that have produced some great anime and putting just enough twists on the formula to create a familiar, but fresh experience.  And that’s what Rinne has accomplished at the halfway point in its two-part run.

Though it’s often silly and a little too lighthearted at times for its own good, the depth of the characters is really something to be appreciated.  I think I started out hating every character other than Madoka at first.  Her pushy cousin Youko, the halfhearted Lan, deceptive Muginami, annoyingly larger than life Vilajulio & Co. as well as the sickeningly bourgeoisie Astelia all rubbed me the wrong way to start off.  But as a testament to the force of Madoka’s personality, they all started to shift ever so slightly as the story progressed and to my surprise, looking back I can’t indicate a specific turning point when they started to grow on me.

This anime has some unique, interesting flaws to point out—most notably being how it ungracefully tiptoes around how it wants to deal with the almost-fanservice moments that it seems to want to indulge in, but always backs off before doing anything too risqué.  To its credit it has an elegant air about itself, but that kind of flirtatious attitude can only go so far before it starts to become a little too obvious.

All in all, Rinne has enough originality and depth in the cast to leave me looking forward to seeing where things pick up again this summer.  But this break between the two halves got me thinking.  Between Fate/Zero and Rinne no Lagrange and then Jormungand soon joining the team, there’s a theme developing where anime are doing two twelve episode seasons separated by a one season gap (about four months).  How do you feel about that?  Would you rather get it all done in one go or do you think there is a benefit to breaking up a two season series like 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.

Black★Rock Shooter (review)

Final impression – not a second wasted (10/10)

Winter 2012 (8 episodes) (TV series)

It’s the first day of junior high school and Mato Kuroi decides she’s going to be friends with the gloomy girl who has a funny name, Yomi Takanashi.  The two soon discover they have a shared love of a children’s storybook and it looks like they’re going to get along great.  But when Yomi’s spoiled, childhood friend Kagari butts in to push them apart, Mato isn’t going to just give up accept this bleak turn of events.  She makes it her mission to liberate Yomi from Kagari’s possessive personality.  But doing so will have greater consequences than she knows.  In another world, the girls’ voiceless souls are fighting their own, very real battle with life and death on the line.  And when the results of their battles become reflected in the real world, it’s going to change the course of their lives in ways they cannot possibly anticipate.

Quality in writing is often not about a story’s content, but about how well that story is told.  Sometimes the best plot is the simplest and Black Rock Shooter tells a fabulously creative adventure about the subtleties of relationships and how the most well-meaning intentions can have unexpected, unintended consequences.  It’s a wonderful metaphor about allowing ourselves to be close enough to our friends that we can fight with them honestly and without inhibitions.  We must accept that we occasionally hurt people and that we are hurt by others; how we deal with that pain shapes our character and the ultimate fate of our relationships.  Balancing this emotional drama between real people and their actions mirrored by their duplicate selves locked in gallant combat is a poetic dichotomy flooded deeply with incredible metaphors.  Kana Hanazawa is perfect in her role as Mato Kuroi, depicting her exceptional personality and growth from naivety to strong, determined young woman.  But what’s most amazing about Black Rock Shooter is that it probably would never have existed if it wasn’t for the Vocaloid song by the same name, popularized by casual anime fans who wanted to know the story behind the music.  For something so spectacular to come out of simple fandom and not from a novel, manga or video game is truly remarkable.

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.