Roving Thoughts

2017-01-15

My (Twitter) reactions to the first episodes of the Winter 2017 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).

  • Akiba's Trip episode 1: That was decent, even sometimes good, which is well above what I expected. It has spark for an action genre show.

  • Schoolgirl Strikers episode 1: That was a perfectly okay but uninspiring. It could fill the Brave Witches popcorn watch niche this season.

  • Blue Exorcist Kyoto Saga ep 1: I don't think this was particularly good or compelling by itself, & it feels like characters got reset on me.

  • Chain Chronicle episode 1: Perfectly competent with decent action, but I found it flat and uncompelling. Nothing made me want to keep going.

  • Little Witch Academia ep 1: It's not the OVAs but it's solid, well done, and more relaxed; there's more time for development & fun here.

  • ACCA episode 1 was a good stylish start & had a number of interesting characters, but it didn't tell us much about where the show is going.

  • KonoSuba S2 episode 1: The best part of the episode was the little mini-adventure in the ED. Otherwise it was all Kazuma-focused setup.

  • Dragon Maid ep 1: That was quality work; nicely understated and nicely done, and fun all the way through even when it wasn't being funny.

  • Interviews with Monster Girls episode 1 was cute and nice, but I'm not sure it has staying power for me (it wasn't particularly funny).

This covers the first episode of everything that seems reasonably promising for me. It's possible I'll look at Gabriel DropOut at some point, but it doesn't seem like my kind of thing despite its supernatural-tinged premise.

(From all reports, Minami Kamakura High School Girls Cycling Club simply doesn't have enough biking in it to attract me the way Long Riders did. Apparently the most interesting biking thing is how they're using real brands this time, instead of the usual changed-just-enough brand names and so on.)

Winter2017FirstEpisodes written at 02:44:18; Add Comment

2016-12-31

In praise of Yomigaeru Sora - Rescue Wings, an underappreciated gem

The protagonist of Yomigaeru Sora is Uchida Kazuhiro, who joined the JSDF to fly fighter jets but halfway through flight school got transferred to the much less prestigious and far more blue collar job of search & rescue helicopter pilot. Since Uchida is both an adult and a JSDF officer, he doesn't do any sort of anime sulking about this shift, but the show leaves you in no doubt about his feelings about his new status in life; he is not happy with either his job or the path his life has taken, and he very much yearns for fighters. Yomigaeru Sora opens with Uchida arriving at his post-graduation posting as a green S&R helicopter pilot, and the core of the show is about Uchida coming to accept and even love his new work and life, with all of the many facets it has.

Above all, Yomigaeru Sora is an adult drama, by which I mean it's about grown up people with generally understated, grown up problems; I've described it as an anime about adults that's aimed at adults. This makes it a rarity among anime shows. The fate of the world does not turn on Uchida's personal growth, merely his own happiness, and in the end he finds it. This doesn't mean that the show is boring or without action. Seeing as it's a show about a search and rescue squadron, there are quite a few thrilling and tense S&R missions that Uchida and the entire cast have to tackle, and there's also the training and practice they do to be ready for them.

(Because this is an adult show about real life, not all of these missions are successful ones. This is sort of a spoiler but it's the sort of spoiler I think that you should know going into the show if it matters to you. Your heart will probably break at least once during the show; mine certainly did.)

In addition to Uchida himself, the show is full of well done characters; basically everyone is a real person, even some of the people who just walk on stage briefly. Over the course of the show I came to love the entire squadron, both the flight crews and the hard working ground support team that gets them ready to fly and then must wait tensely back at base hoping that the rescue mission succeeds. All of this helps the show a great deal, because you can't have a good drama without good characters. And Yomigaeru Sora definitely is a good drama, with good characters, good writing, and engaging, understandable situations.

(It looks pretty decent, too. It is a 2006 era show, but it's a well produced one.)

Yomigaeru Sora is one of the shows I think are underappreciated gems, so I very much recommend that you check it out if you think you'd like a quite well done drama about grown ups for once. Also, after you watch it, you'll never be able to hear the well-known Japanese theme song 'Hyokkori Hyoutan-Jima' in the same way. I'll give you this link, but you won't quite understand what I mean until you've seen the show.

(As an example of the sort of show that Yomigaeru Sora is, Uchida has a girlfriend. She visits him from Tokyo every so often and stays at his apartment. No one makes any sort of deal about it, because this is a show about adults.)

YomigaeruSoraPraise written at 19:03:35; Add Comment

2016-12-29

I watched Long Riders! for the bicycling (and I enjoyed it)

Long Riders! is a show that didn't even make my initial impressions this season, partly because early reviews didn't make it sound very good (especially Nick Creamer's). But then some people on anitwitter followed it and posted screen shots and persuaded me that while the show has many flaws, it also really loves bicycling. And, well, I'm a cyclist even if previous shows about cycling have failed for me. So I got sucked into not so much watching Long Riders! as skimming through it to watch the bicycling parts, ruthlessly skipping over character bits, attempts at non-cycling humour, and so on.

Well, you know what, the show's pretty decent at the biking bits, at least if you're a cyclist like me. It gave me an enjoyable mixture of general appreciation for the biking and nostalgia for when I started getting into cycling and went through experiences similar to the protagonist's. The character beats are cheesy, the CG is only decent, the 2D animation not infrequently disastrously off (which wound up being amusing since I wasn't taking this at all seriously), but the biking, the biking felt authentic and I could appreciate the love for detail that the CG animators and the production put into everything (and that the 2D animators desperately tried to keep up with when they had to draw the bikes, often failing). The show really loves bicycling and wants you to do so too, and it definitely shows. I can't help responding to that love.

I don't know why Long Riders! succeeded for me in this aspect where Yowamushi Pedal failed. I suspect that there are two sides to it. First, LR isn't about competitive racing and I'm not a racer, so I automatically have more connection to it (eg). Second, for the first time I aggressively skimmed a show rather than watch all of it, which is what I tried to do with Yowamushi Pedal. I did wind up watching a certain amount of the Long Riders! character bits when I couldn't be bothered to skip forward over them, but definitely not too much and that helped a lot.

(Long Riders! also gave me the chance to do hot bicyclist takes on Twitter and spot little details, amusing cycling related bits, and expensive tastes.)

As far as the details of the biking go in Long Riders!, I don't have any important nits to pick. A few things made me raise my eyebrows a bit but they're not all that important and a bit of exaggeration for effect is a fine anime tradition. I certainly can't say that Ami grew too fast as a cyclist; although I didn't do any 160 km rides in my first season of cycling, I did do multiple 100+ km rides (on flat terrain, though; we don't have mountain passes around Toronto), and I was riding a much less suitable bike for it than Ami wound up using.

(This elaborates my tweets after episode 10. Also, I wrote a bit about Long Riders! when I talked about bike lights in recent anime. Long Riders! loves its bike lights, among other little details; everyone has good rear lights as well as front lights, often multiple rear lights.)

LongRidersLovesBiking written at 21:01:56; Add Comment

2016-12-28

A bit on the story structure of Sound! Euphonium 2 episode 12

(There are spoilers here.)

In commentary about Sound! Euphonium 2's episode 12, a number of people have noted that KyoAni took the unusual step (for the show) of not showing Kitauji High School's performance at the Nationals. Instead of seeing any of their performance, we cut straight from going on stage just before the commercial break to the after performance wind-down after the commercial break. Nick Creamer's episode writeup at ANN is typical, and he says:

And then it was over. Sound! Euphonium's final performance, the nationals performance that this whole season had been leading up to, took place entirely during the episode's commercial break. I had to laugh at that - after all of this work, after performance sequences as stunning as last season's conclusion and this season's halfway point, it felt like an intentional flaunting of expectations to actually cut this one out.

In my opinion there's a very good reason that KyoAni did not include the performance and it has nothing to do with flaunting our expectations and everything to do with story structure (and a bit to do with how stunning those past performances have been). You see, this time around Kitauji lost. And not because anyone screwed anything up, as far as we're told; everyone played their best, it's just that at the level of the Nationals, their best was only bronze level.

In the two previous performances that Sound! Euphonium showed, Kitauji won; they took gold and moved onward towards the Nationals. Portraying this in a show is theoretically simple, as all you need to do is show everyone playing well. We the audience will read into the combination of a dynamic, well-done performance that sounds good and Kitauji taking the gold the implication that Kitauji had the best performance, without the show actually having to show this explicitly by, saying showing another, not as good performance by another high school.

All of this goes out of the window when Kitauji's performance is only good enough for a bronze. How do you portray a performance that is good but only so good, especially when you've shown Kitauji playing very well before? If you just show Kitauji's performance (and at their previous level), the audience is unlikely to be convinced that they only deserved bronze. So to really sell this you would probably have to show at least parts from both Kitauji's performance and a clearly better performance (ideally one that only got silver). That is a tall order both simply for time in the episode and also for showing relative performance level, especially when Kitauji is supposed to be good to start with.

(The one time Sound! Euphonium did a compare and contrast performance it had the significant advantage that one of the people involved was clearly not all that great at her solo. Portraying 'good, without errors' and then 'clearly better' for orchestral music is likely to be hard, especially if you want it to be unmistakable to the audience.)

Given all this I'm unsurprised that KyoAni skipped completely over the actual performance. There just wasn't any good way to portray it, at least not without a lot of work and risk of audience (dis)belief in the outcome. Skipping it was almost forced by the structure of the story. As much as we might have liked to see it, it would have been hard for the show to not let us down if we actually got the performance.

(And this way the show could preserve tension that held through to the revelation of the results. If the show had convincingly told us that Kitauji's performance was below the level of other bands at the Nationals, we'd have known they weren't getting gold well before the results were announced.)

(This elaborates on some tweets of mine, because I felt compelled to make my logic explicit.)

PS: To be clear, I don't fault KyoAni for this decision or think that it weakens the episode. On the contrary, I think it's a clever solution for a real problem, one that has significant advantages and helps the overall story of the episode.

SoundEuphonium2Ep12Story written at 23:05:27; Add Comment

2016-12-25

Where I think Flip Flappers' episode 9 Pure Illusion world comes from

This goes with my views on the Pure Illusion worlds of the first eight episodes. Pulled over from Twitter:

@cks_anime: Pure Illusion in Flip Flappers episode 9 isn't obviously based on anything (to me), but my theory is that we're seeing inside Yayaka's head.
It's certainly striking to me how the Pure Illusion world has a bunch of visual similarities to the locker room [that Yayaka is in] at the start of the episode.

[...]

@cks_anime: Also: Yayaka's desires clearly altered the world towards the end, which I don't think she's done any other time.
(It's not clear if she consciously willed things to happen or if the world just knew what she wanted & did it.)

While not all Pure Illusions worlds are tied into the cast, I think that the world from episode 9 is too on-point with what's going on with Yayaka and too visually similar to the real world scene we see her in at the start of the episode to not be related to her (and the world is the way it is even before she arrives in it).

I can also read the world responding to Yayaka's desires as similar to the Pure Illusion world in episode 1 responding to Cocona's feelings at the end of the episode. And it's now pretty clear that the episode 1 world really is Cocona herself.

(This all feels relatively obvious but I wanted to get it down anyways, and not just on Twitter.)

FlipFlappersPIWorldSourcesEp9 written at 20:35:13; Add Comment

Flying Witch shows me the limits of analysis

As an anime watcher, I typically seek out drama, by which I mean shows where something is happening and going on; often this means action of some sort, although not always. The further a show goes from drama the less likely I am to like it. I also tend to look favorably on shows that try to tell big stories with their drama, even if they don't entirely succeed (Concrete Revolutio is one example this year).

Flying Witch doesn't fall into this pattern. It has almost no drama as such (things happen but they're little self-contained things), and about the only thing that would normally attract me to it is the fantasy elements (which are a reliably way to get me to look at shows with otherwise ordinary settings). But I loved it in the spring season and it remains one of my favorite shows of the year. While not flawless, it was almost always fun to watch, it made me smile repeatedly, and it had a number of great moments of wonder and magic.

When I wrote my spring retrospective I attributed the show's success with me to 'execution', and when I was initially outlining this entry I was going to use Flying Witch as a springboard to praise shows that have modest goals but execute on them extremely well. But what does 'execution' really mean here? Can I actually put my finger on technical and story aspects that Flying Witch does so much better than average? The more I thought about it, the more I wound up feeling that when I said 'execution', what I really was doing was trying to find some reason that I liked the show so much when I didn't expect to. I couldn't find anything in specific, so I was attributing my liking to the intangible concept of 'execution' without being able to put my finger on anything concrete.

(This isn't to say that Flying Witch doesn't execute well; it very much does. It stages scenes very well, it looks beautiful, it has a great sense of place and of imagination, its comedic timing is spot on (as is its timing in general), and so on. But it does not have the kind of startlingly high quality execution that, say, Sound! Euphonium does. Regardless of what you feel about the story, Sound! Euphonium regularly knocks your socks off purely on a visual basis, and Flying Witch never did this in the same way.)

I'm someone who likes analysis on the whole, sometimes to excess. It helps me understand why a show works or doesn't work, and good analysis from other people can show me neat or important things that I hadn't realized (or hadn't consciously realized) when I was watching the show. But in thinking about Flying Witch here, I have come to really appreciate that analysis has its limits in trying to explain why I like a show.

Sometimes I just plain and simply like a show, and not only is that is all there is to it, that is all there needs to be to it. In the beginning and in the end, I'm here to enjoy the shows that I watch and a show that I enjoy is sufficient in itself; even to myself, I don't need to find reasons or justifications for my enjoyment. And I very much enjoyed watching Flying Witch, even if I can't tell you why in any coherent way.

Makoto watches not-fireflies

Merry Christmas, everyone.

(This is a 12-days post.)

FlyingWitchAnalysisLimits written at 17:19:10; Add Comment

2016-12-24

Thunderbolt Fantasy shows the power of fully embracing your genre

One of the best shows that I watched this year technically isn't anime. Thunderbolt Fantasy is a Taiwanese high-fantasy wuxia puppet show from a renowned Taiwanese puppet company; it slides into anime because it's co-produced by some Japanese anime companies, written by Gen Urobuchi, has a soundtrack by Hiroyuki Sawano, and so on. Basically it's anime not because of looks but because of one side of its lineage.

It would have been easy for Thunderbolt Fantasy to be pretty bad. Wuxia is awfully close to the kind of action fantasy that anime gives us in relative profusion (often from light novels), and those shows are only rarely even moderately good. Sure, Pili International was not going to do a bad job on the looks of the show (assuming that you can accept puppets and special effects in general), but just as important as the looks is the writing and Gen Urobuchi has written any number of stinkers to go with his solid work. And high wuxia is itself an inherently absurd and over the top genre, one that can easily fall into overblown camp.

But Thunderbolt Fantasy is good, in fact very good. Fundamentally it's good in large part because everyone involved fully embraced its genre. If they were going to do larger than life wuxia, they weren't going to be half-hearted about it; they were going to go big and dive in all the way. But fully embracing a genre isn't just about playing whole-heartedly into its cliches and its nature. It's also about not being lazy and about taking it seriously. There are absurdities that fit and absurdities that don't and things that are just lazy, and you must navigate through them all with care. Over all, you have to care and as part of that caring, you must work hard and do good work. Lazy writing, lazy planning, half-hearted gestures, taking the easy route, all of those will show through and send a show like Thunderbolt Fantasy plummeting in flames. Shows that are inherently absurd are balanced on a knife edge; they cannot forget that they're absurd but they must also commit to doing the absurdity with quality. That's what it means to embrace your genre.

(I won't go as far as to say that you have to love what you're doing, but I'm sure that it doesn't hurt. I'm pretty sure that all of the people involved in Thunderbolt Fantasy loved the whole idea, especially on the Japanese side.)

Gen Urobuchi did not take the easy way out when he wrote Thunderbolt Fantasy, and the results speak for themselves. Sure, there are crazy things but they are wuxia-crazy so they fit (such as the character who cuts his own head off so he can properly report his defeat to his necromancer boss), the overall plot is well thought out, and it has plenty of smart writing. The characters are all wuxia characters but they're well drawn and you can believe in them, a couple of them get character arcs, and the dialog often sparkles. There are genuine surprises, real laughs, and an actual understated romance that feels believable in a wuxia way.

(And there's also a spear-point, but just managing a spear-point doesn't necessarily make a work good by itself. All sorts of bad stories can manage one good moment where everything comes together for once.)

Of course Thunderbolt Fantasy is not the only show to achieve excellent results by embracing its genre whole-heartedly and truly understanding itself. This year many people praise Mayoiga (which I haven't watched as horror-ish stuff isn't my thing), and back in 2014 there was Witch Craft Works. Probably there have been others in genres that I don't pay as much attention to.

(Perhaps what Witch Craft Works did was slightly different, but I think of it as basically the same thing. Sometimes earnest is the wrong tone to take to make a work really shine, and sometimes it's exactly what you need. In both cases you can't be lazy and take the easy way out when putting the show together; you have to both care and commit whole-heartedly to what you're doing. Like Thunderbolt Fantasy, Witch Craft Works had smart writing with good characters and good dialog, and fully leaned into its nature with heart.)

PS: If you want to get an idea if Thunderbolt Fantasy is your kind of thing, you can do a lot worse than watching Thunderbolt Fantasy's OP. It's basically perfect for the show and is a great distillation of the whole experience. Certainly if you hate the OP and find it completely eye-rollingly absurd and over the top, you're unlikely to like Thunderbolt Fantasy itself.

(This is a 12-days post.)

ThunderboltFantasyEmbracingGenre written at 14:16:26; Add Comment

Why only a few people got character arcs in Thunderbolt Fantasy

Only a couple of characters in Thunderbolt Fantasy got actual character arcs, but I maintain that this is not a weakness in the show. Instead, in my opinion, it's due to differences in what sort of character everyone was. To simplify, dramatic characters change over the course of the story, while iconic characters reveal and/or affirm their essential nature.

As is relatively standard for wuxia, most of the protagonists in Thunderbolt Fantasy are presented as iconic characters. Over the course of the story they wind up revealing their nature and affirming it, but they don't change and so they don't have a character arc; their character is already set and for the most part the show doesn't bother giving them events that might provoke character growth in dramatic characters. This includes Shang, who is an iconic character even if his full nature is not revealed for most of the show.

(Perhaps the purest iconic character is the Screaming Phoenix Killer, who conceals nothing about himself and who constantly affirms his character throughout all his appearances, completely living his life according to his very wuxia iconic nature.)

Only two characters in Thunderbolt Fantasy are dramatic characters, Juan Can Yun and Dan Fei, and both of them get satisfying character arcs that see them growing and changing; they end the show as quite different people than they started. Indeed, Juan essentially forms his final character over the course of the show. I don't think it's an accident that they're the youngest and most innocent characters.

(It follows that it's deliberate that Thunderbolt Fantasy ends the show leaving them behind while the adventures of Shang and Lin Xue Ya continue. As dramatic characters who've experienced growth, their part in an overall story is done now. The iconic characters of Shang and Lin Xue Ya can continue on, running into more situations that let them affirm and reveal more of their essential natures.)

(I got this framing of dramatic, iconic, and picaresque characters from Robin Laws' writing (primarily) about tabletop RPG characters (eg iconic heroes, dramatic heroes, and picaresque heroes). I have paraphrased it here and so any mangling is my fault.)

ThunderboltFantasyCharacterArcs written at 14:15:00; Add Comment

2016-12-23

How Flip Flappers tells us a lot about Yayaka through visuals alone

One of the things that Flip Flappers has been very good at from the start is communicating through visuals alone. One example of this is how much it has told us about Yayaka's character just through how she looks and her body language. Since this is visual communication, I have to show you pictures (well, screenshots).

Read more »

FlipFlappersYayakaBodyLanguage written at 21:21:22; Add Comment

One moment in Concrete Revolutio that symbolizes my issues with it

(There are spoilers.)

When Concrete Revolutio finished in the spring, I had somewhat mixed views of it. My views have only become more mixed and uncertain since then, and I can illustrate some of my qualms with the show by talking about one particular striking moment that has come to symbolize the show's core flaws for me.

Throughout the show, Kikko Hoshino has been not so much the protagonist (that's firmly established as Jiro Hitoyoshi) as our viewpoint character. She is one of the most innocent characters in the main cast and is often shielded from (and therefor surprised by) the darkness orbiting the other characters in the Superhuman Bureau. While she has a powerful dark side, she's only allowed to keep it briefly once it manifests in the show; afterwards, it is forcefully stripped away from her and she goes back to being a normal innocent person.

In the climactic fight at the end of the show, Kikko straight up kills someone. Oh, she doesn't wind up with blood all over her, the show's a bit more subtle than that; she consciously uses her power to teleport the evil bad guy into an energy-draining cell that will suck away all his power and destroy him (and she knows what the cell is and will do, as the bad guy just carefully explained that he was going to do this to Jiro).

Kikko doesn't react. No one blinks. This event is never referred to again. We briefly see Kikko later (in the show's epilogue), and she is completely unaffected by it. As far as the show is concerned, it's as if Kikko killing someone has no effect on either her or anyone else; it's trivial, not worth mentioning or thinking about. If Kikko was one of the other members of the Superhuman Bureau, sure, this would be perfectly in character; many of them are soaked in rather a lot of blood and wouldn't blink at another death. But Kikko is different; she is the innocent. You'd think that killing someone, and choosing to do so, would have some sort of effect on her.

Throughout the show, Concrete Revolutio neglected Kikko. She was our viewpoint character, but this merely made her into a mobile camera; it didn't mean that the show was going to give her more than cursory character development or much of a role in events. Her job was mostly to watch as things happened around her, not to be a player. Neglecting and sidelining Kikko was already one of the letdowns of the show; having her do something that should have a significant impact on her but then ignoring it was the icing on top.

(Using Kikko in the story this way was also something that CR indulged in periodically throughout its run; every so often, Kikko would show up to solve some problem or otherwise bail people out. At the time this often came across as a moment of triumph for Kikko, in that the show was finally giving her an important role, but I'm now not quite so sure of that.)

As I've turned Concrete Revolutio over in my mind in the time since it finished, this moment has become a symbol both of how CR treated Kikko in general and of how CR bit off more than it could really chew.

(This is a 12-days post.)

ConcreteRevolutioOneFailedMoment written at 15:45:05; Add Comment

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