My (Twitter) reactions to the first episodes of the Winter 2018 season
As before I'm collecting here all of my tweeted reactions to the first episodes I've seen (in the order that I saw them).
- Lupin III Part V episode 1: It's Lupin. It's not bad. I wish I was more
enthusiastic, and I also wish that they hadn't explained one
particular trick Lupin pulled (the explanation was too crazy).
- SAO Alternative - Gun Gale Online #1: That was reasonably fun and left
me looking forward to finding out where the next episode will
go. However, this episode was all background setup, so I have no idea
where the show's going to be about in the long run.
- Persona 5 The Animation episode 1: This was quite stylish, kind of
okay as an action show, and relatively incomprehensible. It feels like
a show that's only aimed at people who've already played the game.
- Cutie Honey Universe episode 1: This seems pretty clearly made for
people who are fully familiar with the CH mythology. I'm not really,
so it was mostly a parade of bizarre & relatively inexplicable
things happening, one that left me with next to no interest in the
- GeGeGe no Kitaro episode 1: That was definitely fun, in a wholesome
old-fashioned style (I'd argue even including the surprise at the
end). I'm certainly going to watch more although I'm not sure it'll
hold my interest over the long run.
- Legend of the Galactic Heroes: Die Neue These episode 1: I'm not sure
I like any of the people we've seen so far (or the battle as such),
but it sure had me on the edge of my seat anyway and I want to see
the next episode. (Also, I hate the show's full name.)
- Golden Kamuy episode 1: Wow, that sure was a terrible couple of bears.
My eyes still hurt. Otherwise, it was okay but hard to get a grip on
for various reasons. Maybe I'll know what I feel about it in a couple
- Full Metal Panic! Invisible Victory episode 1: I'm not sure what I
feel about this episode after so long, but it's got all of the Full
Metal Panic! things going for it. It's good to see these people again;
it brings back fond memories.
- Hisone to Masotan episode 1: Oh wow, that was an excellent first
episode. Beautiful, funny, touching, lovely, and really well done. I
have no words. I want to watch it again, and then see the next episode
right away. This is great stuff so far.
- Hinamatsuri episode 1: That was unexpectedly charming, in addition to
being reasonably funny every so often (which is more than many comedy
- Megalo Box episode 1: That was an excellent first episode. The show pretty much nails the feel of its genre; the only bits that feel off are the shiny pretty bits. It may be a classic riff but it's a well told one. →
This pretty much covers all of the shows that seems reasonably attractive to me, given my usual tastes. Wotakoi is getting a fair degree of praise, but its setting and genre don't usually work for me (I dropped Recovery of an MMO Junkie back in the fall, for example).
(I've decided that if I'm going to make time for any of the 'Gundam Build' series of shows, I'd rather try watching the original Gundam Build Fighters than start with Gundam Build Divers.)
Some notes on watching Crunchyroll shows on Linux (March 2018 edition)
I use Linux and I I subscribe to Crunchyroll, which gives me a set of interesting problems since Crunchyroll's desktop video player is still Flash-based. There probably aren't many other people that this applies to, but I'm still going to write down some notes about whole area. Note that I'm using X, not Wayland; things very likely will be different for Wayland for various reasons.
First off, I use Chrome for this, not any other browser (including Chromium). Google's official binary Chrome packages include a bundled version of Adobe Flash that's more up to date and featureful than the separate 'NPAPI' Linux version that Adobe somewhat reluctantly still makes available as a separate download. This is especially relevant because apparently one of the things not in the NPAPI version is GPU acceleration (per here; Chrome is using the 'PPAPI' version).
(You can apparently download the PPAPI version from Adobe and integrate it into Chromium, but I don't know anything about this. I'm lazy, so I just use Chrome and hold my nose.)
The Linux version of Flash has historically not had the best support for efficient video playback, including hardware acceleration. Based on investigation with radeontop and intel_gpu_top on Fedora 27 on two difference machines, the current version of Chrome's Flash appears to not use hardware video acceleration for Crunchyroll's non-windowed full screen mode. Full screen video seems to be entirely CPU-based, and apparently single core only (so what matters is high single-core performance). However, playback inside a Chrome window is hardware accelerated, including their 'pop out' mode. Thus, if you want to be sure you're getting hardware accelerated video playback (and you probably do) and full screen, you want to use the 'pop out' mode and then maximize the resulting browser window (probably with your window manager's feature for this, not with F11).
(This probably won't be ideal if you have a 16:9 screen, because you'll lose some space to window manager decorations and probably shrink the video slightly. Luckily I have a 16:10 display so I'm not affected by this. Sufficiently clever people using the right window manager might be able to hack their window manager to skip decorations on these windows.)
I've mostly tested with Crunchyroll's 720(p) streams. I'm not entirely convinced that either of my Linux machines can really smoothly play back its 1080 streams even with (some) hardware acceleration at work, although it's hard to know for sure without some way of getting access to stats on frame drops. I'm also not sure how much improvement there really is in Crunchyroll's version of 1080 in general; I've at least heard rumblings about bitrate limits and other things (especially once an episode's been out for a few days), and also that a certain number of shows are not really 1080 to start with and the biggest benefit you might get is a slightly better upscale from 720.
As a disclaimer, your mileage may vary based on the specific GPUs involved. I expect these results to apply to any reasonably modern AMD and integrated Intel graphics, but I don't know about nVidia cards. Hopefully they're at least as accelerated for video playback from Flash in Chrome. Also, I'm not completely sure what's happening with Intel graphics, because I seem to get the same sort of GPU usage reported in straight playback and in fullscreen mode (unlike the AMD GPU, where Crunchyroll's full screen mode shows no GPU activity in radeontop).
I assume that Crunchyroll will someday switch over to HTML5 video playback (hopefully before browsers stop supporting Flash, unless CR intends to entirely abandon desktop users). When that happens, much of this will hopefully stop being an issue, since HTML5 is hopefully much better integrated and much more likely to be hardware accelerated. Certainly on my machine with integrated Intel graphics, full screen HTML5 playback of this pretty dynamic 720p YT video is smooth in both Firefox and Chrome.
(Conveniently, the Youtube HTML5 video player will give you data on frame drops, as part of the 'stats for nerds'. I see no drops in my playback runs.)
If you're playing videos in gmplayer
and quite possibly other standalone Linux video players,
you likely want to make sure you're using VDPAU on modern hardware
(see also the Arch wiki page on hardware video acceleration).
As I found out recently, if you ever explicitly told gmplayer to use some
video output driver (perhaps to override its defaults to pick a better
one on your system at the time), it remembers this and won't automatically
switch to the best video acceleration method that it can find. To fix
this you can either explicitly give it an appropriate
-vo vdpau') or manually delete the
vo_driver line from
~/.mplayer/gui.conf, which resets gmplayer to using whatever it
decides is the best option.
(Using VDPAU may require additional Linux packages that aren't installed by default, but hopefully not.)
PS: radeontop confirms that video playback in gmplayer with VDPAU is hardware accelerated, probably more so than Flash in Chrome based on the amount of GPU usage.
PPS: If you want to know system details for the two machines I'm testing on, they're this machine with a Radeon RX 550 and this machine with current-generation Intel UDH 630 integrated graphics. Both have very good CPUs, so their CPU should not be a limit unless there's no hardware acceleration going on at all.
Sidebar: Why it's hard to tell with integrated Intel graphics (and Wayland)
These days, even basic X uses the GPU with integrated Intel graphics, which complicates trying to tell if Flash is using special hardware acceleration; even perfectly normal X things can light up the GPU. This usually isn't the case on AMD GPUs. Also, for what it's worth, Flash playback on the integrated Intel graphics system seems to use more CPU than on the AMD GPU system.
(It's also possible that intel_gpu_top only captures some information about GPU usage. Strikingly, it reports no GPU usage for HTML5 video playback in Firefox on my test video, although the playback is drop-free and Firefox's CPU usage is not saturating a single core. Playing the same video in Chrome with HTML5 reports some GPU usage.)
Similarly, Wayland intrinsically uses OpenGL and thus the GPU's hardware acceleration for it. This may be at a different and lower level than genuine hardware accelerated video playback, but one would have to pay close attention (including to CPU usage) to be sure.
I guess the ultimate moral here is that Linux users won't know for sure unless video playback problems become clear and obvious, or Crunchyroll someday gives us access to stats on frame drops, bitrate reductions, and so on so we can see if there are quiet problems in our setups. Sane people probably use Windows (or Macs) and likely don't have to care about this.
Checking in on the Winter 2018 anime season 'midway' through
I know, calling this 'midway' is a bit rich, even for me. But I haven't seen the end of any of the shows I'm watching, so I want to write down some things before I start changing that, as an update on my earlier impressions of this season.
Smash hit of the season:
- Laid-Back Camp: This has stayed ridiculously engaging all the way through, with hardly a misstep. As I expected I'm much more interested in Rin's solo camping sections, with their focus on the mechanics and the beauty of the experience, than on the Outclub's 'gang of friends' segments. But even the latter are a solid experience (in moderation), and the whole show is my clear winner this season.
- March comes in like a Lion: After stalling on this for quite a while, I motivated myself into watching it and it's still as solid and as good as always.
Popcorn with flashes of something more:
- Darling in the FranXX: It's not that the show is bad; it's just that it's disappointing on multiple levels. But every so often it pulls off a surprise or a very good episode, and outside of that it's good popcorn entertainment if you can hold your nose about certain aspects.
Surprisingly good, I think:
- The Ancient Magus' Bride changed my opinion of it with the last episode, which is the first episode that I hadn't read the manga version of first. It came across as a quite good episode, so I'm swinging around to the idea that I've been somewhat too hard on the show because it generally hasn't been living up to the manga.
Either on the edge of being dropped or dropped:
- Violet Evergarden (#10): The show is beautiful (and I'm not just
talking about the art), and when I watch an episode it mostly pulls me
in to the moment. But then the episode ends and I immediately wind up
pulling back from it. I don't think I feel intrinsically engaged with
any of the characters; the show is so well put together that it makes
me care anyway when I'm watching, but outside of that I feel distant
from it, with very little urge to watch it. Between episodes, watching
feels more like an obligation than anything else.
I may finish up the show just because, but ultimately if you told me that I couldn't watch any more than I already have, I wouldn't feel at all annoyed.
- Katana Maidens - Toji no Miko (#9): I got tired of the show's generally
slow pacing and gave up on it after a while. I like the characters and
when things happened it was okay, but I couldn't take the stop/start
plot development any more. Even Evirus calls it 'okay'.
(I could say that I started picking nits in things, but when I start doing that it's because I'm growing disenchanted with the show.)
In Netflix mass dropped shows, I watched B - The Beginning and have been working through A.I.C.O. - Incarnation, which somehow feels like a show from a decade ago (it's not anywhere near as compulsive a watch as B was).
In general this has been a quiet, laid-back season for me. There's nothing I'm watching that really inspires passion, for all that Laid-Back Camp is a great charmer.
Brief impressions of the Winter 2018 anime season so far
Every year, the onset of January with its freezing cold gives me the urge to just hibernate until spring; my energy and drive drops, and it's very easy to put things off if they take some amount of initiative. This has hit me unusually hard this year, which is a large part of why I'm writing what is normally an 'early impressions' entry so far into the season. But still, I'm writing it, so as usual here's how my views of this season have shaken out so far, following up on my first episode reactions.
- Laid-Back Camp (aka Yuru Camp): This is simply ridiculously
charming and comfortable for me, in much the same way that
Long Riders was. The show is very
making fall and winter camping attractive. To my surprise it's also
completely sold me on the character I didn't expect to like, and overall
it's wound up being one of the two most compelling shows of the season
(Nick Creamer has convinced me that it's doing some clever structural things too, so this is not the simple show it sort of appears as; it has a lot of smarts and excellent execution behind the scenes.)
- Darling in the FranXX: I don't have very high expectations for
this show, which means that sometimes it's surprised me. I'm fairly
sure that the show is deliberately working on some big ideas but its
implementation so far is merely ordinary and sadly conventional. It
is pretty nice looking and well made, which makes it a good popcorn
show for me.
(It's the second most compelling show of the season for me.)
- Katana Maidens - Toji no Miko: The show has continued to execute pretty well with any number of nice little touches but without doing anything spectacular. I've seen it compared to Mai Hime and I sort of agree with that, although I don't think it's up to Mai Hime's quality. I'm enjoying it as a popcorn watch.
- Violet Evergarden: I have wound up feeling that this is good without
being compelling. I enjoy episodes when I watch them on a minute to
minute basis, but I don't feel much of a push to watch new episodes
when they become available (as a result, I'm currently behind). It
doesn't help that I find some aspects of the overall story to be
hard to believe in if I think about them too hard.
It is very pretty, though, and also very well directed and made. Kyoto Animation is pulling out the stops for this and it shows.
(This is close to what I expected before the start of the season, because the whole story premise we were given didn't sound like my kind of thing. I'm pleasantly surprised that I've found VE as interesting as I have; I expected to bounce off it almost immediately, but instead I'm enjoying it on an episode to episode basis.)
I'm not considering Devilman Crybaby as part of this season for the simple reason that I've already watched all of it, since the entire show appeared at once at the start of January. About all I want to try to say here is that watching it was a pretty wild ride and not at all what I expected at the start.
In ongoing shows, The Ancient Magus' Bride has trucked on much as it was last season, with a mixture of competently done stuff, disappointingly ordinary things that should be extraordinary, and some surprisingly great episodes that I've loved. This is not a truly spectacular adaptation, but it has its moments.
I'm theoretically watching March comes in like a Lion but in practice I haven't gotten up enough mental fortitude to face the two remaining episodes in the Hina bullying arc, which means that I haven't watched any of its episodes since the start of January. I understand that things pick up and it has a happy ending, but the whole thing is so heavy that I keep putting it off (my latest excuse is 'I'll catch up while March is off due to the Winter Olympics').
In practice all of this means I'm regularly watching four shows more or less promptly and eventually watching a fifth. I hope to increase that by one by catching up on March and letting it work its magic on me, but that requires energy and gumption instead of hibernation, and hibernation is really easy right now.
My (Twitter) reactions to the first episodes of the Winter 2018 season
As before I'm collecting here all of my tweeted reactions to the first episodes I've seen (in the order that I saw them).
- Laid-Back Camp episode 1: That was laid back and charming, plus it
had bicycles. Unfortunately I may get tired of the genki maniac girl,
which is a pity since the show seems pretty well directed. #yurucamp
- Devilman Crybaby episode 1: It's going somewhere and it's not the
personal turn-off I sort of expected from initial commentary. It is
very over the top, but I guess that's Go Nagai for you. The man doesn't
- Violet Evergarden episode 1 was interesting, intriguing, and very
pretty (of course). But it was all introduction and setup and as such
says very little about what the show will be like in the long run,
although it did persuade me to watch the next episode.
- Darling in the FranXX episode 1: That was a solid introductory episode,
even if it was a bit narration heavy. But as usual it doesn't say much
about what further episodes will be like; it's just doing a good job
of selling us the show's basic premise.
- Beatless episode 1: That was flavourlessly generic, with only an
occasional flash of anything particularly interesting. Nothing stands
out and I have no interest in more.
- Maerchen Maedchen episode 1: This was popcorn but decently fun and
amusing popcorn. It's good enough to entice me into watching the next
episode, at least.
- Katana Maidens - Toji no Miko episode 1: That was a quite snappy and interesting first episode, with surprisingly excellent fight scenes and an intriguing setup and more showing than telling. →
I took a brief run at watching the widely acclaimed A Place Further Than the Universe (aka the 'going to Antarctica' show) but didn't feel like watching more than a few minutes of the start, so I've tentatively concluded that it's not for me even though it's clearly very well made. This is not very surprising; I'm almost entirely burned out on watching high school teens in ordinary life.
(Laid-Back Camp is working for me so far because of the camping segments, making it like Long Riders and biking.)
I may at some point look at Hakumei and Mikochi, but it doesn't seem compelling based on current descriptions. Perhaps I will look at Pop Team Epic briefly just to experience it a bit, but I can't imagine watching even an entire episode much less the entire show.
Looking back at the Fall 2017 anime season
Once again it's time for my traditional look back at what I watched in this past Fall season, to follow up on my early impressions and my midway views. In general this has been a very good season for anime for me, with a couple of amazing shows.
(None of these shows changed what they were from my midway report, so I'll refer you there for fuller descriptions of all of the shows rather than trying to paraphrase them here.)
Excellent to amazing:
- Land of the Lustrous: The show was many things, but above all it
was stunning. It didn't have a conclusion or an ending or really a
climax, but as a story about how Phos changed it was a complete
success, including the generally contemplative last episode. I'll hope
for more some day, and if not there's the manga.
(I'm glad that Land of the Lustrous didn't try to sail off on an anime-original tangent to try to deliver an ending or a climax, because I honestly can't see how it could have delivered on everything LoL had built up.)
- Girls' Last Tour: The show did not give us a conclusion but it did
give us basically the perfect ending. We got as many answers
as we needed and a confirmation of what we already knew
about what happens next; the girls will continue their
last tour, because there is nothing else. To quote myself, the show
as a whole was a quiet, beautiful, and sometimes heartbreaking gem.
(Girls' Last Tour is what Kino's Journey (2017) should have been but it was also very much more.)
Excellent but wrenching:
- March comes in like a Lion: March has been very good lately but
also kind of oppressive, because it keeps coming back to Hina being
bullied. I'm honestly reaching the point where I'm not sure I want to
keep watching because it's just so painfully real and the emotional
doom and pressure is unrelenting. Rei wallowing in depression was a
lot easier to watch than Hina metaphorically getting kicked repeatedly,
and anyway we got to watch him emerge from that, grow, and learn life
lessons. No such thing seems to be on offer for Hina's situation,
which is extremely realistic but not exactly comfortable watching.
(You can see how much of an impact the Hina story has had on my impressions of March given that the episodes since my midway views have only lightly touched on it, yet I'm still spooked at the idea of a full chapter (aka half episode) putting us back in the middle of that oppressive environment.)
- The Ancient Magus' Bride: I continue to be unable to evaluate this
objectively. The anime hasn't surpassed the manga version in general,
but the manga version is extremely good (and the anime just doesn't
have the capabilities of, say, Made in Abyss's production). I think
the anime is starting to show the spots where it can shine over the
manga, and also to do things a little bit differently.
(On the not entirely great side, it also continues to periodically be awfully anime in conventional ways I don't think the story needed.)
A not good show that I still watched all of:
- Kino's Journey (2017): This certainly went out with a bang in its
last episode, which basically exemplified all of the overall failures
of the show. But even before then it was underwhelming in multiple
ways. Despite that, I finished watching the show and in a perverse
way I don't regret it, because thinking about all of its failures was
interesting and informative (eg).
I'm willing to believe that the basic stories here can be done in versions with genuine depth, feeling, and resonance (partly because Girls' Last Tour did it), but this incarnation of the show was almost never capable of delivering any of that.
- Blood Blockade Battlefront & Beyond (#10): This turned out to be a late season drop. To condense a bunch more words, I discovered that I needed this show to have an overall story and it didn't; it was just episodic meanderings around Hellsalem's Lot. That it ended with a Leo-focused two episode story didn't change this enough to make me want to watch the last two episodes.
I watched the first episode of Just Because! but it didn't hook me and I wound up not watching any more. I think ultimately this was because all of the people in it were regular high school kids, which basically made them too ordinary for me even with very good execution. I can see why people love it so much, though.
My top two shows of this season are something else entirely, and March and AMB are quite good (in my biased opinion about the latter). As for the rest, well, things happen. I'm starting to expect it; my tastes have apparently shifted to watching fewer shows that I'm completely happy with, and there generally just aren't that many of them in any given season.
PS: Looking back, it's clear that my views of a season are now mostly driven by the best shows that I watched, not the number of shows that I found worth following. In past years I'd probably have considered this season decidedly mixed, what with a number of promising shows ending up being subpar.
Sidebar: My reading of the manga for some of these shows
I'm well ahead of the anime in The Ancient Magus' Bride and I intend to keep on going with that, partly because that's how I started and partly because comparing and contrasting the two versions has been part of my enjoyment of the anime version. If the anime goes as far into the manga as I think it's hinted it will, it's going to be a wild ride; I look forward to seeing how anime-only people react.
While Girls' Last Tour has an ongoing manga, I'm not sure I want to read any more of the story, at least right now. To put it one way, the ending we got allows me to maintain the illusion of a non-tragic conclusion to things. The manga may be heading toward its own ending, so once we know how it finishes I may re-evaluate this.
I believe that the Land of the Lustrous manga is currently about to catch up to and pass the show (in the fourth translated volume that came out last week). In theory I could read onward to follow the story; in practice, I'm going to wait both to give it time and to see if the show gets a second season. If the show does, I'm going to sit on reading the manga until after the second season.
(I've picked up the first three Land of the Lustrous manga volumes, although I haven't done more than look at small portions of them, and I intend to continue doing so with future volumes. Even if I don't read them right away, I'm going to do it sooner or later.)
Some words on Flip Flappers ending and what I feel about it (and the show)
(There are spoilers here.)
Flip Flappers was always a show where the ending was going to matter a lot, and when the last episode aired I wound up somewhat uncertain about how I felt about it overall (and as a result, the show as a whole). This wound up being a big reason for the delay in my best N in 2016 entry, among other effects. In the spirit of the season, it's time to get some words down on this, starting with dry ones about the nature of Flip Flappers ending and how it's unusual.
I've written about how endings can be narratively or emotionally satisfying and also how they can be broad or narrow. In those terms, Flip Flappers' ending is clearly narrow, addressing relatively few of the outstanding issues (especially narrative ones), and it is also what I'll call oblique. By this I mean that the show only very rarely comes out to explicitly tell us things, confirm theories, or to say what emotional resolution characters have achieved. This obliqueness partly comes from being narrow, but it's also clearly a stylistic choice; all through its run Flip Flappers was very into 'show don't tell' and being subtle, letting us draw our own conclusions from what it showed us (often in passing). Narrow endings are uncommon and a fair number of people find them unsatisfying (especially people who want narratively satisfying endings).
(That Flip Flappers had a narrow ending is not surprising, because it was narratively narrow all through the show. While a great many things were going on in the show's world, the show itself generally followed only a few characters in essentially a third person limited perspective, especially Cocona, and it mostly focused on what mattered to understanding Cocona.)
As someone who cares more about emotionally satisfying endings, I'm basically fine with the narrative side of things in Flip Flappers' ending. Things like the story behind Asclepius and the Flip Flaps organization were ultimately unimportant to the story of Flip Flappers, which is Cocona's story (and sort of Papika's story too). There's one dropped bit that's hard for me to let go of because it influences how we see Papika and the people of Flip Flaps, and that's the question of whether the girl we briefly see sprawled out on the floor in Flip Flaps in the first episode is ultimately fine or if she was actually dead or damaged.
However, the narrowness and the obliqueness of Flip Flappers also limits the clear emotional answers that the show gives us in the ending. Does Yayaka get her fervent wish to reconcile with Cocona, for example? Well, almost certainly, since Cocona accepts her presence several times and Uexküll is happy to be with her at the very end, but Flip Flappers will not answer us explicitly. Many emotional developments with secondary characters are left at least partially open to our interpretation, for better or worse. This narrow obliqueness is a significant part of what gives me somewhat tangled feelings about the ending, because I'm not entirely sure what it's telling me, what I'm missing, and what I may be (incorrectly) reading into things I'm being shown.
(On the positive side, we are shown enough things and told about enough things so that we can make guesses. And if we're optimistic people, those will be optimistic guesses.)
But there are some things the ending gives us clear answers on, and one of them is Cocona's choice. Cocona started Flip Flappers as someone dutifully living an ordinary life and claiming to want it; in the final episode, she's given an opportunity to truly have that life and decisively rejects it, so much so that she spends her entire time there trying to find her way out. In the end, Cocona chooses joy, and specifically she chooses her joy of being with Papika. They rise together, flying with butterflies, and burst into the real world with exultant smiles and clasped hands. This ending is the heart of Flip Flappers, and as the heart it is purely joyous and thus basically a perfect emotional capstone.
In the most important way, the ending of Flip Flappers gave us an answer and completes a story. The details matter, but they are ultimately not essential and the show never implicitly promised us many of them anyway. I have wound up feeling that the ending says what it needs to say, it says just enough about some things to feel satisfying without falling into the trap of over-explaining things, and it says what it says very well (yes, including the fight with Mimi).
The show does not speak to me in the deep way that it does to some people, and it will probably never be something that I consider an all time masterwork (but ask me again in a few years and I may feel differently). To a certain extent, this entry and my entire tangled feelings about Flip Flappers is me coming to terms with that, that I don't love this quirky beautiful and very anime show quite as much as some people do and perhaps as much as I feel that I should.
(As a postscript, looking back on 2016 with the benefit of another six months of distance, I fully agree with my past self's selection of Flip Flappers as my best show of 2016.)
Kemono Friends and the magic of anime
Sometimes, anime is magic. There are many forms of this magic, and we saw a number of them this year, as we usually do; there were touching stories, dramatic spectacles, quietly true to life works filled with little details, emotionally wrenching scenes, shows that are over the top in the best way, and quiet meditations on life delivered by blobby characters in deliberately scratchy backgrounds. But one of the ways that anime is periodically magic is that it can completely surprise us, with a show coming from left field to be excellent.
These surprises are one of the reasons that I keep watching anime. When they happen, they're magical; what once looked like dross is transmuted into unexpected gold. It's an unlooked for present that usually leaves me stunned and awed and glad that I was there to see it. And there's a joy in it beyond myself, because it means that the people who made the show have achieved something beautiful in their work and I have to imagine that that's a great feeling for them.
Kemono Friends did not exactly start out promising, seeing as it was a CG anime made on a shoestring, by a tiny team who'd done almost nothing, with the premise of a basic kid's show, based on a mobile game about animal girls that had failed before the show started. Early views were strikingly down, for example Bobduh's capsule summary of the first episode:
Kemono Friends is a simplistic show for very young children starring grotesque CG. We are still multiple categories from the bottom of this list.
(Like many other people, Bobduh would wind up changing his mind on the show.)
Then the show's astounding qualities began to show through, probably first in Japan and then later in the west as news and buzz spread. Despite everything we did think initially (and for good reason), improbably and absurdly Kemono Friends was really good. More than good, it was excellent. The janky CG ultimately didn't matter when set against its honest sincerity and heart and the skill of its creators that let it pull off story beats that few shows can manage and deliver thrilling drama. Yes, it was a kid's story, but it was the best sort of kid's story, one of the ones that have significant depths and moments of great emotional impact for everyone. One of the kid's stories that are magical.
(The best kid's stories understand that you cannot talk down to kids; kids are just as sophisticated consumers of stories as adults are, they just have different tastes. Good kid's stories are made with just as much care and good writing as good adult stories.)
This year, Kemono Friends embodied the magic of anime, the magic of delivering a complete, unasked-for, unpredictable surprise of a beautiful, thought provoking show that I'm glad that I was there to see and that has left an enduring impression on me. To quote Bobduh again:
I don’t know how Kemono Friends exists, but it feels to me like a perfect example of why we watch anime at all. Sometimes the best stories come in the most unlikely packages. Well done, Kemono Friends.
So here's to you, Kemono Friends, and everything and every moment you earned with your heart and hard work.
Merry Christmas everyone, and welcome to Japari Park.
(This is part of the 12 Days of Anime for 2017.)
The importance of Kanna in Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid
(There are spoilers here, if you care.)
I'm not generally one for child characters. It's all too easy for a show to make them either grating or too sugar-sweet (and sometimes both at once), and if we're being honest most children are not infrequently brats. So when MaiDragon (to use its common abbreviation) introduced Kanna, I didn't initially think very much of her, especially since she was presented as sort of a joke. By the end of the show, my view had shifted and I now think that in many ways Kanna is the emotional lynchpin of the show, the point and character around which the central issues of the show revolve.
Kanna did not make Kobayashi and Tohru a couple, or even perhaps a family; they would have gotten there in the end even without her presence. But Kanna was the catalyst that crystallized the family into existence earlier than it might otherwise have formed and then made it obvious to us. Kanna was the force that pushed Kobayashi to make significant moves to recognize that family; the move to a larger apartment, the move to leave work earlier and to make time in her life for Tohru and Kanna (as exemplified especially in episode 9, the school sports festival episode). And in the final (TV) episode, it's my view that Kanna is a major force that pushes Kobayashi to recognize how much she misses Tohru. Without Kanna there to put burdens on Kobayashi that constantly remind her of Tohru's absence, I think Kobayashi might have quietly slid back into her pre-Tohru life; not because she really liked it, but just because it was the path of least resistance.
All of this leads to the emotional resolution of the series, where Kobayashi takes Kanna and Tohru to meet her parents. This is the point where Kobayashi implicitly takes into her heart that she's part of a family, even if it's an unusual one. The family may have formed quietly, but this is where it's officially acknowledged, even if no one says it out loud, and Kanna is at the heart of it.
Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid is one of two shows I watched this year that are clearly in large part about family (Alice & Zoroku is the other). It's about the accommodations you make to be in a family, and the changes that happen to you and others. More than its comedy, more than its amusing characters, more than its fun animation, this is why it's very likely to stick in my mind, and Kanna with it.
(This is part of the 12 Days of Anime for 2017.)
Old anime looks different, but sadly I can't tell you exactly why
One of the things I did this year was watch some older anime; the Crusher Joe movie (and one OVA) from 1983, and Iria: Zeiram the Animation from 1994. One of the things that struck me about both of these, especially Iria, is how they looked and felt clearly different from modern anime. This is more than a difference in the look of the art, the style of people's outfits and hair, and the kind of settings; it was also something distinctly different in how each work looked in a broader sense.
(Crusher Joe is very distinctly an 80s work; consider this scene, for example.)
Some of this is in the use of 'light gleam' effects that aren't used as much (or in the same way) any more, such as the bright beam blasts near the start of this Crusher Joe scene. My understanding is that this classical effect in cell-based animation is done by leaving sections of the cell either completely transparent or translucent (with coloured film behind them) and then letting the backlight from the rostrum camera show through the cells. This gives a vivid glow in a relatively simple to animate way (and it's a glow that can spread outside the lit up area).
Crusher Joe is a film and was clearly well-produced even at the time. Perhaps as a result, its 'old anime' feel is mostly confined to how things are drawn; there's an old fashioned feel to both the foreground and the background rocks along the roadway in this segment or the hand-drawn digital display in this scene at about four seconds in. But even then there's something that feels distinctly old about how the movie simply rotates the cell of Alfin in her cockpit starting at four seconds in this scene. I can see how this would be an easy effect to do in a cell-based world; you draw the cell a bit larger and then just rotate the rostrum camera when you film the frames.
A case with a deeper feel of difference is the opening for Dirty Pair: Project Eden here (or on YouTube with sound). This is from 1986 and undeniably beautiful, but at the same time it strikes me as something that you wouldn't see today and that looks definitely old fashioned (it too has a bunch of 'light gleam' effects). I suspect that a lot of the unusual feel is the use of silhouettes and of echoed movement (for example at 51 seconds). But I don't know if this was easier or harder in days of drawn and filmed cell animation.
Iria: Zeiram the Animation is an OVA and thus probably had less production resources that the Crusher Joe movie, which I suspect makes it lean more heavily on things that were easy to do in the cell animation days. Looking at its opening, I see things that stand out to me at various points; there are repeated inset frames of animation (at 25 seconds), 'light gleam' streaks (at 29 seconds), rotating cells (33 seconds), distinctly overlaid foreground snow (at 1 minute), echoed frames of animation (at 1:26), and then it just runs some earlier animation backward starting at 1:29 or so. Beyond that, there's a lot of scenes in the actual show that feel to me like they wouldn't be done today.
(For example, it feels like Iria uses a lot more held frames and panned frames than is normal today.)
However, this is where I run into the limits of my ability to analyze and explain animation this way. All of what I've talked about so far is basically hand waving and theorizing. I know both Crusher Joe and especially Iria feel distinctly different but I can't really tell you why, with chapter and verse and technical details. All I can do is look for some obvious things that feel unusual, when really it was a much more pervasive thing that ran all through my watching of both works and it didn't feel directly related to the different look of hand painted cell animation. I'm pretty sure that many shots were composed and designed differently than they would be today, but I can't tell you how (or why); at best I can theorize about obvious things, like rotating cells or those 'light gleam' effects and how they give the frames an overall glow.
This frustrates me a bit. I'd like to be able to understand this myself and be able to explain it, instead of waving my hands and doing what feels like nit-picking. Instead, it's another limitation I've discovered on my ability to analyze things.
(This is part of the 12 Days of Anime for 2017.)
Sidebar: The other way Iria looks different
As an SF show, Iria takes place in a different world (a couple of them, actually). It's clear that the show has worked hard to create a coherent yet decidedly different cultural feel for its setting, where the clothes, the buildings, the vehicles, and so on are all pretty different from what we'd usually see yet also clearly go together. This is a degree of work and imagination that doesn't seem to come up very often in modern SF shows, which generally look far more normal and conventional.