Looking back at the Spring 2017 anime season
Once again it's time for my traditional look back at what I watched in this past Spring season, to follow up on my early impressions and my midway views. I could say that nothing really changed from the midway, but that's actually not quite true; I think that two shows actually picked themselves up at the end (WorldEnd and Alice & Zoroku).
Pretty much excellent:
- Eccentric Family second season: Okay, however painful it is for me to admit this, I will; Eccentric Family's second season is not as compelling as the first season was. That doesn't make it bad; the show was still great, beautiful, periodically both touching and scary, and funny, and it's clearly the best show of the season for me. But however intellectually interesting I found what I think is its broad theme, it's probably not going to stick in my memory and my heart the way that the first season did.
- WorldEnd: The show fully nailed its ending and in the process
become one of the rare shows that made me like what is basically
a tragedy. The characters were well drawn and great, the twists
stayed pretty interesting, the show is solidly structured,
and although I initially thought that the scope of the
plot was unnecessarily big, I wound up changing my mind.
See my Twitter reactions to the last episode.
- Alice & Zoroku: This show is simply a treasure; it's a show that focuses on children and makes it work (see @iblessall's article for more here). Looking back, everything drove Sana's story even when it didn't entirely seem to, and her character arc was a great one. Everything I said in my midway views still applies.
Alice & Zoroku is probably objectively better than WorldEnd, but WorldEnd is more my kind of show than A&Z is so it's got a slightly higher position in my heart.
- My Hero Academia: The second season of MHA has handily eclipsed the first one, not necessarily because the material is better but more because the show has worked out how to make its relatively slow pace work for it instead of against it. Since the basic material has always been compelling, removing this road block has turned a show that I liked despite itself into one that is genuinely interesting (despite structural problems like a sports tournament, which is fortunately over now and the show's moved on to more interesting stuff).
Still on the edge and maybe dropping off:
- Re:Creators: Each episode usually is just good enough to get me to watch the next one, but it pushes closer and closer to the edge almost every time. It doesn't help that some recent events have made me feel that a room full of smart characters are missing one obvious thing, and that I'm even thinking about plot holes means that the show isn't fully engaging me.
I solidly enjoyed the first four shows here and found myself pretty much satisfied with the season as a result. Would I have liked more good things to watch? Sure, but unlike in some past seasons I didn't feel sufficiently bored to go searching out other things for popcorn watching and so on.
Some different ways that story endings can be satisfying
I've said before a number of times that what I find satisfying in the endings of shows isn't necessarily what other people do. Today I want to write a bit about that and about some different ways that endings can be satisfying.
As humans, we have a natural desire for our stories to make sense. We can tolerate a certain amount of not understanding things during the story, but by the end we would really like to know what happened and why it happened and so on; we would like to feel that there was cause and effect, not just randomness. A satisfying ending is in part an ending that makes the story make sense (and makes sense given the rest of the story). However there are different ways that the ending can make things make sense and be satisfying, or perhaps a better way of putting it is that there are different things that an ending can make sense of.
A narratively satisfying ending is one that tells us what happened; it resolves the important open plot issues from the story and answers hanging questions, all in a way that makes sense. It gives us narrative closure. In a traditional mystery story, a narratively satisfying ending tells us who did it, how, and why; it is the master detective explaining everything to the audience and the criminal being led off in handcuffs. In an action show, it is the final confrontation with the villains and the victory of the heroes. In a show with important previously unexplained mysteries, a narratively satisfying ending explains them well enough to pacify us (shows often have trouble here, though).
(What is an important unexplained mystery varies from person to person.)
An emotionally satisfying ending is one that answers the emotional, character centered questions raised by the story, giving us emotional closure. When you have dramatic characters in a story, an emotionally satisfying ending resolves their character arcs and says that yes, they changed, grew, dealt with their issues, found the answers they were looking for, and so on. In stories with romances, an emotionally satisfying ending is often one that answers the question of whether the ostensible couple is going to get together.
It's entirely possible to have a story ending that's narratively satisfying or emotionally satisfying without dealing with the other side at all. An extreme example of this is the Neon Genesis Evangelion TV series, where the last two episodes were at least an attempt at an emotionally satisfying ending that said absolutely nothing narratively. The resulting fan clamour allegedly led to End of Evangelion, where Anno shoved a grotesque 'narratively satisfying' ending down everyone's throat. We wanted to know what happened? Anno would tell us, even though we weren't going to enjoy it in the least.
It's relatively common for romance-focused shows to have an emotionally satisfying ending that doesn't attempt narrative closure. Here the core question of the show has always been 'will they get together', and the ending says 'yes they will' without showing us the details of how that plays out. This is the ending with the couple finally kissing for the first time and we shift to the end credits. The first season of Nodame Cantabile ended this way; the core emotional question of the show was always if Chiaki would come to love Nodame, and the ending of the first season said 'yes', even though it didn't cover the actual process of them getting together as a couple.
For me, Concrete Revolutio is an example of a show with a narratively but not emotionally satisfying ending. CR's ending told us exactly what happened and how, and in the process explained the big villain and so on. But it didn't really feel like it resolved many of the character issues, and instead dropped some of them on the floor. An older example is the ending of Eureka Seven AO, and if I want to go to a really extreme point there is the ending of Gilgamesh.
As an anime watcher, what I generally care about are emotionally satisfying endings. The story has to more or less make narrative sense by the end and I don't like gaping plot holes, but I don't demand to know the narrative details of what happens next and how everything resolves itself if the broad outlines are clear from the emotional closure. For instance, I thought that the first season of Nodame Cantabile was perfectly fine on its own and didn't really need any sequels (and I eventually lost interest in said sequels). This is not a universal position by any means; there are plenty of people who care a lot more about narrative closure than I do (and they are not wrong; this is a taste issue).
(Nor do I need all the mysteries to be addressed, even relatively important ones, cf Shingu and some of its unaddressed ones, and also. What mysteries need to be addressed and which don't is something I'm going to wave my hands about for now.)
My (Twitter) reactions to the first episodes of the Summer 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).
- Hina Logic ep #1: A perfectly competent but uninspiring episode in
the 'girls have adventures at school' genre. It lacks any great spark.
- Katsugeki Touken Ranbu episode 1: The action is decent but the
writing comes across as pedestrian and merely functional. It's kinda
- Knight's & Magic episode 1: This is goofy popcorn fun, even if it's not
deep or complex. Sometimes I like competency porn shows.
- Fate/Apocrypha episode 1: One incoherent battle plus a ton of
exposition, minus any interesting or attractive characters. Nope, pass.
(Then I changed my mind.)
- Symphogear AXZ ep 1: Really it's the same as it ever was. The show's
wisely not tried to top the start of last season & just gone straight.
- Made in Abyss #1: On the one hand, this was a great starting episode;
it had fun, great characters, solid writing, great animation, etc.
On the other hand, I keep hearing that Made in Abyss's story goes really grim & dark. I guess I'll keep watching until things get terrible. →
- Princess Principal ep 1: Yes, this is a bit absurd. But it's also great;
it's an excellent genre piece with lots of smart & beautiful bits.
- A Centaur's Life episode 1: This has a certain amount of charm, but
it's mostly being carried by the manga & its visuals are only decent.
- Guru Guru episode 1: Too manic and didn't particularly tickle my funny bone. This isn't for me; I don't have the 8-bit RPG love necessary. →
In the end I've decided to skip Welcome to the Ballroom, especially after the sakugablog article on it carefully threw cold water over people who wanted it to be anything more than 'a well-made high school sports show about an unusual sport'. High school sports shows almost never work for me these days.
There are a few other shows that look potentially interesting if I was really wanted more things to watch, like Restaurant to Another World and maybe Altair: A Record of Battles, but so far I'm fine with only watching this much. As usual I'm skipping all of the shorts, especially since none of them sound particularly attractive.
One obvious thing characters in Re:Creators should be doing but aren't
(There are spoilers here.)
And the people in Re:Creators really need to stop allowing Altair to have a platform to build a larger audience & more powers with.
In the spirit of not doing all my blogging on Twitter, I'm going to write more here, mostly in the form of tweets with added commentary.
@UgokiGyokuyou: lol you want censorship? Take down all those fanvids/fanfictions and prevent new ones to be uploaded?
@cks_anime: Taking Altair stuff down would probably attract too much attention, but they could make sure that Altair-related content is kept quiet.
Eg have Altair stuff lower down on 'popular <X>' pages than it should be, and don't let new fanvids/etc show up very high no matter what.
The latter is especially important since we've been told that popular new fanvids can give Altair new, expanded powers. That's v. dangerous.
Re:Creators has essentially explicitly stated that Creations in general and Altair in specific derive their power and their abilities from having an audience see and accept things with the character in them (manga, games, novels, anime, art, fan works, and so on). Since Altair is a standalone creation, entirely based on fan-created materials, she has no 'canon' to shape, define, and limit her the way that other Creations do; instead, everything comes from fans watching fan-made videos and art on the in-show equivalents of NicoNico and Pixiv and making them popular. It's been explicitly stated that some of Altair's dangerous powers come from secondary fan videos, ones made not by Altair's initial creator but instead made as goofy bits and pieces by other fans, then given power by enough people seeing and enjoying them.
It's probably too late to wipe Altair's existing videos and art from the NicoNico and Pixiv equivalents; fans would probably notice, there would be a controversy, and you'd cue the Streisand effect, which is exactly what our protagonists don't want. A similar thing holds about actively blocking new Altair-related content from appearing at all. However, you can certainly do things to limit the damage. Visibility and popularity rankings are generally opaque and reasonably subtle manipulations of them are unlikely to be noticed and reacted to. So NicoNico and Pixiv could be coerced to slowly and quietly lower the ranking and prominence of existing Altair-related content, and especially to manipulate their systems so that new content would not be seen by a large audience by, for example, appearing at the top of 'hot new content' pages even if it normally should.
(New content is especially dangerous because popular new content can probably give Altair new and expanded powers, in the same way that secondary fan videos has already given her some that weren't in her original video source.)
This is not big or loud, and it's not fast, but the characters in Re:Creators are already playing a relatively long game with a six-month action plan. They might as well use the government power they have access to and this time in an attempt not just to build themselves up but to quietly undercut Altair's base of power, that being her audience. Every bit helps and they have an uphill struggle.
Concrete Revolutio: Raito Shiba as Jiro Hitoyoshi's tragic mirror
(There are spoilers here, in as much as I can spoil a show that's been over for a year.)
In the first season of Concrete Revolutio, one of the mysteries was what happened to Raito Shiba to turn him from a police detective into what he became instead (however you want to describe it). The first episode in Concrete Revolutio's second season finally answered this, and in the process it made Raito Shiba the most tragic character in Concrete Revolutio for me, because he is the tragic mirror to Jiro Hitoyoshi.
Both Raito and Jiro begin the show driven by the desire to follow justice and do right. This naturally raises the question of what is justice and rightness (this question is at the core of Jiro's self-definition), and the show spends a great deal of its run showing us that things in the real world are more and more complicated and more and more grey. There is simply not a clear, straightforward, general answer to the question. Justice, law, and right can all conflict with each other; attempts to use simple black and white answers can lead to terrible results. The truth, says Concrete Revolutio, is that concepts such as 'justice' are situational and even personal. You cannot boil them down to rules.
Both Jiro and Raito struggle with this over the course of the series. Both start out believing that this is simple and they can always see the way forward; they both find out that they are wrong. As the series progresses, Jiro becomes more and more willing to make situational decisions for the sake of his own personal sense of justice and rightness, and less and less willing to stick to rules and laws when they lead to a result that he feels are wrong.
The same conflict breaks Raito. In episode 14, "The Superhumans of November", he is fully faced with a messy conflict of justice where there is no simple morally correct answer. Raito knows it and admits it in his own thoughts. But rather than accept that the world is messy and complicated and not amenable to the rigid rules that he wants, Raito entirely rejects everything to do with the idea. He goes so far as to murder a sentient being in order to lobotomize himself, willingly locking himself into the shackles of a rigid black and white view of the world even though he knows this view is flawed (he rejects that knowledge, though).
This is what makes Raito the tragic mirror of Jiro (and a tragic character in general). Both faced the same issues and challenges, but Raito broke where Jiro made his way through. Raito shows both us and Jiro a path that a different version of Jiro might have taken, and I think that Jiro sees at least something of this and it's why he interacts with Raito as he does.
(Having locked himself into a black and white view of the world, having deliberately made himself completely convinced of the justice and correctness of his actions, Raito of course winds up reaching the morally horrifying decisions that he does in the third episode of the first season. If you make decisions based on logic and rules, with no regard for the reality of the world and the moral dimensions of what you're proposing, of course you wind up with horrors that you have perfect justifications for.)
(See also Emily's entry on Raito and Super Jaguar.)
(This is probably an obvious observation, but it's been on my mind for some time and so I'm writing it down to get it out of my head. Even a year later, Concrete Revolutio is still not a forgettable show, even if I feel it was a flawed one.)
The best N anime that I saw in 2016
Normally I write my 'best N' yearly entries relatively soon after the end of the year, although 2015's slipped into February. This time around things have been extensively delayed, and while part of that is because I got lazy after I initially missed my usual window, part of that is because I've felt genuinely conflicted and confused about my views this time around. This delay matters to me because the more I delay, the more my feelings can fade and the more perspective I can wind up with, so I like to write these entries while my feelings are relatively hot (I can always look back at them later).
As usual for these retrospectives, this is what I consider to be to be the best or most enjoyable things that I saw in calendar 2016 (regardless of when they were made or released, although this year most of what I saw was actually from this year). As is now standard, my general rule is that only shows that have actually ended count because you never know what eye-rolling things a show may finish up with. This year, this excludes March comes in like a Lion, which would otherwise rank highly (cf).
- Flip Flappers: I will summarize it this way; I have come to think
that Flip Flappers is ultimately about joy. Underlying all of its
events is a celebration of coming to enjoy life, of going from a grey
existence to a colourful one. In many ways it's not a deep show that
tackles complex subjects with delicate characterization, but I don't
care. Celebrating joy is as worthwhile as deep drama, when done well,
and Flip Flappers did it well (cf,
and). Flip Flappers is also
structured and written in ways that appeal to me; I'm always going
to have a soft spot for a smartly written show that plays with the
structure of the story, is confident enough to start things in media
res (and makes that work), and so on.
One thing worth special mention is that Flip Flappers, like Kyousougiga before it, is a show that could only have been done as anime. It would not work in any other media in anything like its current form; it absolutely requires and takes advantage of the particular strengths of anime. Even the contrast between realistic animation and how animation typically looks is something the show takes advantage of for story purposes in the last episode.
- Thunderbolt Fantasy: This is a show that delivered perfectly on what
it was aiming for, and as it happens I quite like its genre. It was
smartly written, well executed, and completely nailed some moments. I wrote more on the power of TF
fully embracing its genre to
explain its appeal to me. If you want the capsule version, it is
that Thunderbolt Fantasy had terrific execution on a story and
in a genre that I quite like.
- Flying Witch: This is another quiet show about joy and pleasant experiences. It is full of fun moments and run through with bits of awe, where the world unfolds in beauty in front of us and the characters, and it doesn't hurt that it is more or less in one of the genres that I like (broadly 'fantasy mixed with ordinary life'). But ultimately Flying Witch has also shown me the limits of trying to analyze something; beyond everything else, I loved it. And that's good enough for me.
Special mixed feelings award:
- Concrete Revolutio: Oh how the great wound up falling. At the
end of 2015 I expected CR to rate quite highly
when it finished, and I still stand by my very high views of its
first half. Unfortunately its second half was frustratingly mixed.
Some episodes were great (episode 14 is a special standout for me),
but others dragged even if (and when) they turned out to be
thematically important. And in the end the show got sloppy and left me with very mixed
feelings, and this was always a show where the ending was going
to be quite important for its overall impact. Still, the show
did some excellent work with the overall plot even in the second
half (I especially liked how the ultimate villain nicely made
sense in retrospect).
In the end I have wound up feeling that Concrete Revolutio ultimately bit off more than it could chew. It did very good work some of the time and the first season remains impressive but the overall result is not something that I can put into my 'best shows of the year' ranking, although there's part of me that wishes I could love it as much as some other people do.
(This impression has only grown on me since the show ended, as my ability to remember details about what happened in the second season and when has faded. That fading is not a good sign for a show's ultimate impact on me.)
Things I consider good but not necessarily memorable over the long term:
- Sound! Euphonium second season: I want to love this more than
I do, but in the end nothing in it seems as important or as driving
as the first season did. I at least saw an interesting and powerful
overall theme in the first season (one that was executed very well),
and I just don't see that in the second season; to me it came across
more as filling in side stories. Still, the second season has its
own beautiful and touching moments, some spectacular character work,
and funny bits (and a genuine surprise).
See more words in my fall retrospective.
My view of the second season is unquestionably brought down by how the show treats Reina's stupid crush on Taki-sensei in a relatively favorable light.
- Girls und Panzer der Film: This is a great film that takes
everything that made Girls und Panzer such a good sports action show and turned it up to movie quality
and movie length. I enjoyed it whole-heartedly.
- BBK/BRNK: The show was a well executed fun ride with more smarts
in its writing and characters than I would have expected. It had
moments of quiet beauty and affecting character turns and in
general it was straight up enjoyable. Yes, I'm waving my hands.
- Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash: This wasn't flawless but it was both
solidly consistent and good to excellent throughout. It had powerful
and affecting stories to tell and it told them well, and in the end
its flaws are sufficiently small for my memories to smooth them over
in a way that I can't for other shows.
(Bobduh wrote a good summary of Grimgar in his top shows of 2016.)
A short great show wrapped in a disappointing one:
- ERASED aka Boku Dake ga Inai Machi: At its best the show was beautiful and affecting, and it was at its best for quite a while. But outside of those episodes, it often rapidly descended into an unexciting, cliched thriller. In the end I cannot ignore the bad bits and focus only on the good ones, no more than I could for Concrete Revolutio, and so the overall show ranks no higher than here.
- Akagami no Shirayukihime: Taken as a whole (since I excluded
the first season from my 2015 views), this was a solid
show that remained reasonably appealing through its run. I enjoyed
the first season more than the second season, but the second season
delivered its own beautiful moments.
- Kiznaiver: If I was going to write an unkind summary of the show,
I would say that the show got the mood right but the plot wrong.
For the most part the show was about the characters interacting with
each other, and that part was great; the bits that didn't entirely
work were mostly at the end, where the plot heaved itself to the
surface. But I enjoyed the whole thing enough to forgive the show
those not so great portions and I look back on it reasonably fondly.
- Gakusen Toshi Asterisk: I didn't like the second season as much
as I liked the first season, but the whole show remains a great example
of a very well done popcorn show. Very well done popcorn shows are
unfortunately rarer than they should be; all too often the middling
quality of their source material also leads to middling execution
or worse. Asterisk stands for the premise that you can make an
unambitious but excellent show from such material (and not just by
throwing fight animation firepower at it).
- Long Riders: It's not often that I run into a show that might as well be aimed straight at one of my soft spots, but Long Riders is one and I'll probably always remember it affectionately for that. LR is the best bicycling-focused show that I've watched and I'm not sure there ever will be a better one, because I'm not really interested in bicycle racing (which is the obvious thing to build a bicycling show around, cf Yowamushi Pedal).
Special 'flawed but manic' award:
- Space Patrol Luluco: There was definitely something here, but it was hidden under a slather of Trigger callbacks and references and it didn't really speak to me in any case. See my spring retrospective for more.
My notes say that I finished 29 shows, OVAs, and movies in 2016, which is down significantly from 2015 but up slightly from 2014. A fair number of them were not memorable or good enough to make this year's list, although some hovered on the edge (the closest is probably Dimension W).
(I also dropped a significant number of shows, some of them otherwise well regarded like Macross Delta and Kuromukuro. Twin Star Exorcists was also a pretty good show until it stumbled with a timeskip and lost me.)
I'm not sure how the highs of 2016 compare to previous years. Probably nothing equals Shirobako from 2015, but then that is a very high bar. I'm likely to remember Thunderbolt Fantasy for quite some time, but partly that's because of how exceptional it is in both genre and style (I'm not going to forget the puppets any time soon, and Shang's character speaks to me). Will Flip Flappers stick in my memories as much as Kyousougiga has? Ask me in five years.