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.
Some words on Mimi in the last episode of Flip Flappers
(There are spoilers here.)
I have tangled feelings about both Flip Flappers as a whole and its ending, feelings that I'm still sorting out. However, there are some aspects of the ending that I'm completely behind, and one of them is the show's perhaps odd decision to spend most of the first half of the last episode on a knock down, drag out fight with Mimi when Cocona and Papika had already neatly punched her monster out at the end of the previous episode. As spectacular as all of the fighting might have been, was it really important or necessary?
My answer is that yes, it was, or at least it felt that it belonged to me. To put it one way, it would be nice if you could get your over-protective mom to go away just by you and your girlfriend telling her to buzz off, but life is not that nice. Getting your overbearing mom to ease off generally requires a big screaming argument, although this is usually delivered by words, not you and your girlfriend beating down dark mom's monsters and eventually her more or less directly. But this is Flip Flappers, so this particular psychological point was delivered through some spectacular fireworks.
(In the end it wasn't just this fight, of course, and it never is. Dark mom Mimi had to come around, not merely be beaten down. Beating people up doesn't generally change their mind, and Mimi had to have her mind changed in order to really resolve the situation. Multiple things ultimately contributed to this change of heart, not just Cocona and Papika, and I feel that even Dr Salt wasn't quite as completely decorative as he looked. His presence mattered, even if he didn't actually do anything except stand around.)
Mimi's possessive over-protection of Cocona was a pivotal development (as was Cocona's willingness to accept it), and disposing of it casually and briefly simply wouldn't have felt right. It and other unresolved issues around Mimi needed to be resolved with enough effort to make the result feel earned.
PS: One of the things Flip Flappers is about is external representations of internal psychological struggles and issues. See, for example, this discussion of the pivotal episode 7.
PPS: Yes, they're girlfriends. How much more on point does transforming under their own power into a matched set of armored wedding dresses have to be? Flip Flappers may not always come out to say things out loud, but it's not beyond hitting us over the head with them.
Made in Abyss passes the threshold and enters the unknown
(There are some spoilers here.)
"The Great Fault", Made in Abyss's ninth episode, is well known as anime-original content. Despite the stereotype that usually comes along with that, the episode is widely regarded as solid work that does important things with Riko's character and is simply enjoyable. You could quibble about the ending, where Reg is the one to make the climactic finish instead of Riko, but perhaps this was intended to be part of the point of the episode, to show that Riko could hand a fight to Reg when necessary and wouldn't insist on doing it all herself.
(I'm making an excuse for the show here. It's not flawless.)
It is my opinion that episode 9 is much more than this and that it shows that the show's creative staff fully understood what they were doing. Episode 9 does one very important but inobvious practical thing, which I'm putting in a sidebar at the end, but beyond that it carries a huge metaphorical and mythological charge that is the silent marker and foreshadowing of a phase change in Made in Abyss. This is because of just what Riko and Reg face and defeat at the end of the episode. What they face down and see off is not just any monster of the Abyss; it is the initial monster that Riko and Reg faced, the crimson splitjaw from the very start of their adventure together.
This crimson splitjaw is the gauntlet that has haunted and dogged Riko and Reg from the first episode onward; it was unfinished business from the past. In defeating it, they pass beyond the threshold of the past and enter the unknown, moving on into a new world. The crimson splitjaw was a lingering remnant of their old life that started in Orth, and now they're beyond it.
(Yes, this is a very Campbellian view of things.)
As people who have watched Made in Abyss know, episode 10 will go on to make this change very concrete.
In short, episode 9 primes us for episode 10, not in an obvious way but in a subtle, indirect one. I think it's deliberately designed to do so, since the staff of the anime adoption specifically brought back that crimson splitjaw, not just any monster and not even a generic crimson splitjaw (if they didn't want to design another type of monster). As a result, I like this episode quite a lot.
(This is part of the 12 Days of Anime for 2017.)
Sidebar: The important practical thing episode 9 covers
Episode 9 contains Riko's first serious encounter with the Curse of ascending in the deeps of the Abyss, and illustrates how hard and wrenching it is even in the third layer. This serves as an important lead in to the ascent she goes through in the fourth layer during episode 10, and means that the major impact of the Curse there doesn't come out of more or less nowhere.
(Being told about the Curse in exposition with semi-cute pictures isn't the same thing as having seen it in action the previous episode. The latter primes us much more; it's more visceral and real, especially with how Riko's hallucinations went.)
Rearrangements from manga to anime and how they alter the feel of the show
This year I watched a number of shows where I've also read the manga version (either before or after the show aired). One of the interesting things I noticed about the anime versions is how they rearranged and adjusted early elements of the manga, and how this changed the feel of the story being told from one media to the other. To make this concrete, I'm going to talk about three shows (and there will be some spoilers).
The most straightforward to talk about is Land of the Lustrous. As part of an interview available on Sakugablog, director Takahiko Kyougoku explicitly discussed how some manga elements were restructured to give us more focus on the main character so we'd know who it was:
To go into more detail, we took steps like giving the main character more close-up shots, or having them intentionally repeat important lines. It may not seem like much, but when you watch it, you can tell which character had the most presence and what their goals are. [...]
What doesn't get mentioned in this interview is that the anime also completely omits a big infodump that happens within the first few pages of the manga, when Kongo tells Phos to recite the history of the setting as the gems have been taught it; this exposition includes both information we only heard later in the show and some that we still haven't. This leads to a restructuring of the conversation between Kongo and Phos where Kongo gives Phos their job.
Next is Made in Abyss. As mentioned in this interview with the mangaka and the director, the early portions of the show are revised from the manga for various reasons (including that the mangaka explicitly asked for the first part of the story to be 'brushed up'). As in Land of the Lustrous, the MiA manga starts with an infodump about the nature of the Abyss. It then goes in to a relatively long lead-in sequence before Riko and her classmates head into the shallow end of the first layer of the Abyss as part of their training, which is where the first episode of the anime starts.
In Made in Abyss, the change from the manga to the anime does more than cut out some material and tighten the story up; to a certain extent it changes our view of Riko's character. The manga opens with Riko boasting and making wild theories up, then her classmates cutting her down to size and being dismissive, and it goes on somewhat in this line. In the anime, we pretty much start with the heroic and active Riko who throws herself into the line of danger in order to save a classmate from an unexpected menace. Manga Riko comes across as someone with rather more significant feet of clay than the anime version, someone who somewhat stumbles into things rather than throws herself bravely in.
(As a result of this shift from the manga to the anime, I'm glad I saw the anime first before I peeked at the manga. Manga Riko is a somewhat less attractive character than anime Riko, since some of her flaws are more front and center and more emphasized.)
The rearrangements in both of these shows have been made primarily for structural reasons; they've been done to show us who to focus on and tighten up the story, partly because what works and is seen as necessary in manga doesn't necessarily work in anime. Their effects on the story itself are secondary or incidental, although I suspect that at least Made in Abyss is conscious of them. This brings me to my final example, The Ancient Magus' Bride.
In The Ancient Magus' Bride, unlike the first two works, the rearrangement isn't in the form of chopping out early manga material; instead it's the other way around. The manga version of AMB starts with a very cold open, where the first panel is Chise on stage in chains, being auctioned off as an implied slave. Only somewhat later do we find out that Chise had more or less voluntarily put herself in this situation instead of committing suicide. In the anime, the show opens with Chise explicitly agreeing to all of this; it is immediately front and center both that Chise is in an extremely nihilistic and bad mental space and that this is voluntary on her part. The story effect is to remove a certain amount of the initial shock from the manga and tone things down and make them nicer in general. More is explicit and explained, and as a result the whole affair comes across as more sad and less shocking and horrifying, at least to me.
With that said, I suspect that part of the rearrangement was driven by the structural mechanics of storytelling in manga versus anime. The manga version of Ancient Magus' Bride gives us the background of Chise's situation in a series of flashback panels that are intercut when present-day dialog and events trigger Chise's traumatic memories. This fluid intercutting between past and present is harder and less natural to do in an anime, and also not as clear. With manga's variable-speed pacing, readers can slow down to take in the flashback panels; what's going on is clear to us even though the panels themselves don't take up much room in the manga's first chapter (probably about a page and a half in total, spread across several separate flashbacks and specific incidents in Chise's past). I'm pretty confident that a good direct translation into animated form would take a lot more time, and so doing the whole background as a more or less linear sequence at the start of the first episode takes up less time and may well be clearer.
(This is part of the 12 Days of Anime for 2017.)