Brief impressions of the anime of the Winter 2013 season
As before it's time for my impressions of the new season's crop of shows, or at least the ones that I've bothered to try watching. I can't really call this 'early' any more since I've been kind of slow and unenthused about this and in fact a number of shows in the season. As a result I'm probably grading more harshly than usual.
(I'm not current on most of these shows; for some I've only seen one episode.)
- Yama no Susume: It's only a few minutes an episode, it's fun, and
it's surprisingly geeky about mountaineering. How could I not
keep watching? Three minutes an episode is perfect for this, partly
because it keeps the show tightly focused without room for meandering.
- Sasami-san@Ganbaranai: This is a questionable choice. The first
three episodes were a fast moving example of SHAFT being SHAFT (which
I'm fine with), but I have no idea where the show is going to go
from here because the initial big question and conflict has now been
resolved. If it can sustain the energy and interesting bits of the
first few episodes I'll wind up really loving it. I do like that the
show didn't drag the initial mystery out but instead went through it
at a nice brisk pace (and did explain everything).
(Okay, by 'interesting bits' I partly mean 'nicely done fight sequences'.)
Staying for now:
- Vividred Operation: First up, it's impossible to ignore the fact
that this show is shoving teen girl rear ends in the viewer's face. VO
is about butts in the same way that Strike Witches was about underwear
and it's not going to let you forget that (if you had any doubt,
the opening sequence is there to pointedly remind you).
(This should not surprise anyone who paid attention to the promo materials (hint: butts, butts, and more butts) but is a little bit disappointing. I kind of hoped that the show would mostly get it out of the way after the first episode; I should have known better.)
Ignoring the fanservice, VO ought to be a show that I quite like (after all, I fondly enjoyed Sky Girls). In practice I'm finding it kind of bland and lacking some vital spark of life for no particular reason that I can put my finger on. Maybe it's the cliched absurdity of the situation; maybe it's the generally paint by numbers nature of the characters. Maybe it's the fanservice getting to me. Despite this VO is technically good, its execution is competent, and it has some bits that are genuinely nice (eg, that the conventional military forces are actually important at one point).
(In part VO feels like someone awkwardly stuffed a bunch of things into a blender and hit 'frappe'; various elements remind me of other shows, often pointedly and not to VO's benefit.)
- Bakumatsu Gijinden Roman: A perfectly competent execution of a
reasonably interesting premise. Still, the whole thing feels a bit
bland and fails to entirely fill me with enthusiasm; right now it's
partly staying based on charm and charm often wears off fast.
- Mondaiji-tachi ga Isekai kara Kuru Sou Desu yo: I am a sucker for shows with competent, reasonably powerful protagonists (as opposed to your usual collection of spuds). The actual setting and premise are kind of goofy; I just like watching people who know what they're doing. I may well get bored of this as the novelty wears off since it kind of smells like your typical shonen fighting anime in a nifty getup.
On the edge:
- Hakkenden Touhou Hakken Ibun: The first two episodes were actually
interesting if sometimes cliched but the fight in the third episode
kind of went downhill. I'm planning to watch another episode but this
may be losing my interest soon.
- Senran Kagura: If you ignore the boatloads of fanservice this is a
decently competent but generally bland show that's not doing anything
we haven't seen many times before. Two years ago I would have found
it perfectly good mindless entertainment. These days I'd kind of like
to stop spending my time on stuff this ordinary, but we'll see.
(The difference between this and Vividred Operation is partly the density of annoying fanservice and partly the quality of execution.)
- Maoyuu Maou Yuusha: After one episode I see no reason not to just
keep on reading the manga instead. Most of the (manga) story is either
lectures or cheering on people as they cleverly use stuff they learned
from the lectures to win, both of which go better and faster in the
manga. I see why the anime did what it did in the first episode, but
I'm afraid that it just showed the weakness of a straight adaptation;
we spent most of an episode getting an unconvincing summary of what
the manga covered in more convincing detail in a few pages. Also,
the whole name thing is charming in the manga but irritating in the
anime for some reason.
(I'm glad for all of the people who were enthused about MMY before the show aired because they convinced me to read the manga. The manga is worth my time.)
In short: if you want a well done, affecting anime about romance and economics, watch Spice and Wolf. If you find MMY's basic premise charming and don't mind manga, read the manga.
(I may watch the second episode at some point to see if it changes my mind but the commentary I've seen suggests that it's not going to.)
- The Unlimited - Hyobu Kyosuke: After two episodes I decided that I
had no interest in watching the titular villain slaughter people,
even if they mostly didn't show the deaths directly and even if we're
supposed to either sympathize with his cause or find him cool.
If you have the spare time to watch this, watch Zettai Karen Children instead. Hyobu Kyosuke even appears in it every so often (and he might actually be cooler and creepier in ZKC than in this show).
- AMNESIA: I couldn't even make myself watch more than a few minutes
of the first episode. I should have remembered my otome game rule.
- Senyuu: I'm not really enthused about being beaten over the head with a rapidfire barrage of RPG jokes, even for only three minutes at a time.
Not for me (probably, subject to revision):
- Tamako Market: I want to watch this to see if (against all odds) I turn out to like it and be charmed by the bird and so on, but I need to face facts; I've had the first episode for weeks and still haven't gotten around to watching it.
Things I have no opinion on because I haven't watched the first season (yet):
- Chihayafuru second season: I actually watched the first episode of
the first season recently. It didn't set me on fire but it was good
enough to make me queue up the second episode, which I just haven't
gotten to in my general backlog.
- AKB0048 second season: everything I hear about AKB0048 sounds good
(and gonzo in a good way) but I'd have to watch the first thirteen
episodes and see if it works out in practice. Still, I'm getting more
and more tempted.
(Really I should just give the first episode a spin to see.)
Regretfully dropped from the Fall season:
- Jojo's Bizarre Adventure: I've concluded that this is just not for me on the grounds that after watching three episode (10-12) I just feel no real interest in watching the next one. I could watch it, I would probably enjoy it decently, but if I'm not enthused about the idea the smart thing to do is spend my limited time on something else.
I'm carrying on with the remaining continuing shows from the end of the fall season, although Robotics;Notes is sliding closer and closer to the edge. I'll note that contrary to my concerns, Zetsuen no Tempest has not missed a beat in its post episode 12 changes.
My (heretical) view of A Letter to Momo
When I watched the widely praised A Letter to Momo earlier this year (well, earlier in 2012), I had a rather different experience than what seems to be the usual one; I found the film pleasant enough in an anodyne way but kind of uninspiring. I mulled over this for a while, worrying that I was just being a grumpy sourpuss old fart in my reaction just because Momo didn't set me on fire (and perhaps wasn't from Ghibli). Then by coincidence and good fortune I saw Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror at the end of 2012. And I loved it. Haruka overcame major drawbacks (such as rather basic 3-d animation) to be an absorbing and compelling experience, one that sucked me in and left me smiling. Haruka and Momo are not the same film or story, but they share quite a lot of core similarities and the differences between the two illuminates the problem with Momo.
Put simply, A Letter to Momo is at its heart a lazy film. Like every anime involving a young girl having a heartwarming encounter with the supernatural, it exists under the long shadow of Ghibli's work, but unfortunately Momo makes no real effort to escape that shadow and do something interesting and novel. A lot of the time it's quite predictable, sometimes painfully so, and not particularly exciting; it only genuinely surprised me a few times and it only has one interesting and well done action set piece (and even that seemed obligatory). A fair amount of the writing and plotting also felt, well, flabby in various ways.
(For the curious who've seen it, my largest moment of surprise can be summarized as 'wait, there actually are wild boars?' Note that I did not find the action set piece at the film's climax to be all that impressive.)
A Letter to Momo is technically well executed apart from all of this. It's not a bad film and it's genuinely good every so often, the characters are decently engaging, the situation is believable, it comes to a good and heartwarming resolution, in short it carefully pushes all of the necessary buttons in the expected order. You could do worse. People who haven't seen Ghibli films like Spirited Away or Kiki's Delivery Service will probably love it. People who have seen a lot of Ghibli films may, like me, find it kind of old hat and unimaginative.
(Ignoring the animation style, Haruka is not a film that you can easily imagine being made by Ghibli; it rapidly departs from any number of their usual tropes. Momo is, although if Ghibli had made it they would have figured out how to make it more interesting and more different from their existing work. Really this is the problem; A Letter to Momo feels like something turned out by a Ghibli alumnus who gets the forms but doesn't really understand the magic that makes them work so well (yes, I know that the director is not and earlier directed Jin-Roh, which I've seen, liked, and thought was well done; this was an analogy).)
Sidebar: a little bit on the pacing and the action set piece
It's difficult to put it coherently, but a certain amount of the pacing of A Letter to Momo felt not so much predictable as obligatory. The one nice action set piece was good, but as things were starting up towards it I found myself thinking that yep, it was about at the point where a Ghibli film would insert an exciting action sequence to stir things up. And right on schedule, there it was. Except, afterwards, it all felt somewhat pointless because the whole sequence hadn't moved the story much. It was like the sequence was there largely because it had to be there because the template said 'an action sequence goes here', not because the story demanded it.
And yes, I was thinking all of this while watching A Letter to Momo. It was not an absorbing experience.
Looking back at the Fall 2012 anime season
This season is atypical (or at least feels so) in that almost all of the series that I'm following are continuing into the new year (even if one of them, Girls und Panzer, has simply been postponed to March). This is going to make for an unusual retrospective but also gives me no reason (or excuse) to delay writing this. So, as before this is an attempt at an honest look back at the shows of the Fall 2012 season (as much as that's possible with most of them not finished yet), following on my early impressions and my midway views.
(The quick summary is that my midway views haven't changed much with two exceptions.)
In more or less the order of enjoyment and quality, shows that I finished or am still watching:
- Shin Sekai Yori: The show started out being a mystery, shifted
for a bit to being horror, and now I feel that it's more or less become
tragedy. With a lot of answers revealed from episode 10 onwards, what's
going on has acquired the same sense of inevitability as an avalanche
coming down a hill (and I think that poor Saki sees a lot of it coming,
after what she's been told).
SSY is (and remains) my favorite show of the season and, on the strength of the episodes so far, one of my favorite shows of the year. I'm not bothered by the sometimes odd art or the stylistic shifts and the more I see the ED sequence the more I like it.
(Much like Star Driver, it could let me down during the remainder of its run and fall in my estimation. But the episodes so far are great.)
- K: I quite liked this in all of its oddity and peculiarity (and
frequent use of colour filters and other tricks). It wrapped up with
what I felt was an entirely satisfying conclusion. Yes, it doesn't
answer all our questions and leaves things dangling, but then life
is often like that. I'll be happy to watch the second season when
it happens but at the same time I don't think a second season is
necessary. K is a rare anime that said enough during its run and
came to an actual conclusion.
Many series would have stretched K's plot out over more episodes, focused on fewer characters, or explained things more; I feel that it's to K's benefit that it didn't make any of these missteps. The end result is something that feels like we're dropping in on the lives of these characters for a bit, even if it's a very eventful period for some of them; they all have pasts and futures that extend off the screen, ones that we are not magically privy to all of the important details of.
- Girls und Panzer: My midway views haven't changed;
it remains great and a good sports anime.
I just wish that it hadn't had scheduling problems so we could have
gotten the last two episodes already; however, I'm confident that
they'll be up to the standards of the rest of the show when they do
- Zetsuen no Tempest: The show keeps surprising me and the characters
remain great. I do wonder how it'll sustain all of this for another
season but I feel fairly confidant that it's going to manage. I really
liked the shock twist in episode 12 and how it now means that I've got
no real idea of what's actually going on.
- Psycho-Pass: This has turned into a show that I can't tear myself
away from without actually enjoying it (much like my experience with
RideBack). It's wrenching, compelling watching without
actually being, you know, pleasant; brutal things keep happening one
after another and any successes that the protagonists have are very
conditional and partial. It's almost horror and I suspect that people
who have bad reactions to horror will actively hate it.
I expect that at the end of Psycho-Pass I'll be happy that I watched it but also have absolutely no desire for a rewatch.
(Psycho-Pass is probably a better constructed show than Tempest and Girls und Panzer, but for me it's clearly less enjoyable than either; given a choice I watch either of them before PP. Sometimes I'll watch anything else before PP, simply because PP is wrenching.)
- Robotics;Notes: It keeps moving slowly but getting places in the
end. I have no idea what's really going on so I'm mostly watching
to see the characters bounce off each other. I'm sure it's going to
go all conspiracy theory and fate of the world on me at some point;
I can only hope that it will be well executed when it happens.
- Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo: The first 12 episodes prospered on
the strengths of periodic sharp edges and characters being brutally
honest. The end of the 12th episode clearly marks a sea change in the
overall plot direction but I'm going to trust that the show's team
will keep things edged even with the new direction.
(Translation: I could easily get let down here.)
- JoJo's Bizarre Adventure #10-#12: Although I bounced hard off the
first episode because it was too over the top for me at the time,
the ongoing praise for the show has gotten me to try jumping into
JoJo's starting with the second arc since it has a mostly new cast,
new setting, and a timeskip (I may backfill part of the first arc
later, since I understand it has internal breakpoints). I honestly
don't know yet how I feel about it. It definitely still has that MANLY
SHONEN ACTION thing going on and it's still painting with a roller,
but I can also see how it's EPIC in an all-caps way. For now I'm taking
it episode by episode.
- Sword Art Online: It ended. It's flawed. For the rest,
I will just quote my tweet:
In the end, for all that I said grumpy things about #SAO it did know how to be enjoyable and to craft likeable, watchable characters.
(Okay, see also Evirus's comments.)
Right at the end of December I also finished up two shows from earlier in the year that I feel are worth mentioning:
- Aquarion EVOL: My views about this
compared to the original Aquarion didn't change; I like
the original's characters and plot more, but EVOL is far
more gonzo. EVOL maintains this right through the end
and it gave me a smile throughout; as I put it on twitter, the ending
was cheesy but it was good cheese. I think it helps that I knew a
certain amount of spoilers when I watched eps 18 to 26, because I
could enjoy noticing certain things.
Andy and Mix remain the best EVOL couple. The drama only improved their status and I'm glad Mix got a happy ending.
Also, episode 23 is an epic troll. As someone who watched the original Aquarion, I can assure you that the big revelations in episode 23 were definitely not so much as hinted at in the original (at least as far as you'd notice).
- Joshiraku: This was fun to watch (generally in a low key way) but
generally not something that I actively found funny. I enjoyed
following the games of verbal tennis and keeping track of the topic
shifts even when it didn't make me laugh. To a certain extent I
appreciate the chance to see something like Joshiraku simply because
it's different and strange; it's a facet of Japanese anime and writing
that I don't have much exposure to.
(The translation notes for gg's Joshiraku subs were also quite helpful and definitely increased my ability to enjoy the show.)
Now declared a miss:
- Magi (#10): I realized that Morgiana was the only character I actually cared about and she's not the focus of the show. Alibaba is terminally naive and stupid in the finest shonen tradition and I got tired of Aladin's 'I'm an innocent and don't know anything' schtick.
Overall Fall 2012 has been my strongest season of the year, even if I can't call most of the shows in it because they're only half over. Looking back at the other seasons of this year, there are only a handful of shows that I'd currently stack up against anything down to at least Psycho-Pass.
(As always I may be suffering from a recency bias, plus all of these shows except K could still blow their foot off.)
How Girls und Panzer is a genuine sports anime while Saki is not
I've always felt that there was something different between Girl und Panzer and Saki, which it's reasonably frequently compared to. Recently I realized how the two are different in a way that makes the former a genuine sports anime while the latter is not. I know, that sounds inflammatory; given that Saki involves people playing a sport, how is it not a sports anime and if it's not, what is it?
My answer is that Saki is actually a shonen fighting anime in the guise of a sports anime, where the 'fights' happen at the gaming table and (generally) do not involve the characters punching each other. What makes the difference between Saki and Girls und Panzer is the presence (in one) and the absence (in the other) of magic powers and crazy special moves.
In Girls und Panzer the wins and losses depend on the actual strategy, tactics, and skills involved in the sport in question (in the real world). This is not obvious in GaruPan because there is no actual sport of tankery, but it's there none the less; the battles in GaruPan turn on actual things that real tanks and real tank commanders can do. This is not what happens in Saki. Saki is not really about mahjong and actual mahjong strategy and tactics (and usually low level play) are almost always irrelevant, in much the same way that punches and kicks are irrelevant background noise in shonen fighting anime. What the games are about in Saki and what determines victory and loss is who has what magic mahjong hack (and can use it best), in the same way as Naruto's victories generally turn on a carefully timed Rasengan or the like.
This is a large part of why Girls und Panzer is much more interesting to me than things like Saki. The presence of magic mahjong powers robs Saki's narrative of a great deal of predictability and suspense because the story becomes a game of 'okay, so what magic power is going to appear this time?' Conversely, the absence of unpredictable special tricks gives the battles in Girls und Panzer genuine tension and interest, because we can actually understand, follow, and predict what's going on (and in the process understand the problems Miho faces and make our own guesses at solutions). The reality of the contests makes them meaningful to watch.
(This is not the only reason that the battles in Girls und Panzer are good, because even with this the director has to make sure that you can understand, follow, and anticipate the action instead of getting lost in a muddle. GaruPan is very good at this.)
Girls und Panzer is not the only genuine sports anime, of course; there are plenty of them (just as there are plenty of magic shonen fight sports anime to go with Saki). For example, Cross Game is a genuine sports anime since the baseball in it revolves around real tactics and plays (instead of, say, some magic super-pitch).
(It looks like I don't watch much sports anime so I can't name any other examples off the top of my head with confidence, although from what I've read about it Chihayafuru is probably another genuine sports anime.)
Update: it figures that immediately after publishing this I remembered the other 'genuine sports anime' example I had in mind: Initial D, at least through the first few seasons. The car racing is probably not strictly realistic but it's real enough to feel grounded and limited, so you can understand the challenges that the racers face.