Thursday, May 20, 2010

Summer 2010 TV Preview

(But...I'm not done with Spring 2010 yet! - Ed.)

With the June months pressing closer, the Spring TV and OAV season starts to draw to a close in Japan. Most of the shows you have just started to enjoy are ending too soon, and the shows you've loved to hate can't end quickly enough. With that, the new Summer season rears its head during the rainy months and starts to gnaw leaves off the Tree of Life.

As the crowds disperse from the last race, 18 new shows load up into the blocks for the next starter's gun. (H/T to chartfag for translation of the next season's synopses)

Some of these shows have already been featured in the "Maker Oudan" catalog featured before. Each title is listed with its genre, as classified by Wikipedia.

学園黙示録 Highschool of the Dead (Horror, Mystery, Action)
世紀末オカルト学院 Seikimatsu Occult Academy (School, Occult Comedy)
戦国BASARA弐 Sengoku Basara Two (Action, Comedy)
屍鬼 Shi Ki (Horror)
黒執事2 Kuroshitsuji 2 (Black Butler 2) (Drama, Supernatural, Black Comedy)
ぬらりひょんの孫 Nurarihyon no Mago (Grandchild of Nurarihyon) (Action, Supernatural)
殿といっしょ Tono to Issho (Gag Comedy, 4-koma)
伝説の勇者の伝説 Legend of the Legendary Heroes (Fantasy)
大阪ハムレット Osaka Hamlet (Comedy)
アマガミSS Amagami SS (Drama, Romance)
オオカミさんと七人の仲間たち Ôkami-san to Shichi-nin no Nakama-tachi (The Wolf and her Seven Friends) (Romantic Comedy)
みつどもえ Mitsudomoe (Comedy)
ストライク・ウィッチーズ2 Strike Witches 2 (Military Science Fiction)
あそびにいくヨ! Asobi ni Iku Yo! (Let's Go Play!) (Science Fiction, Romantic Comedy)
生徒会役員共 Seitokai Yakuindomo (School Comedy, 4-koma)
祝福のカンパネラ Shukufuku no Campanella
セキレイ Sekirei: Pure Engagement (Action, Harem, Romantic Comedy)
Digimon Xros Wars (Action)

To put it bluntly, horror wants to dominate the season (Highschool of the Dead, Shiki), but the romantic comedy genre (Mitsudomoe, Asobi ni Iku Yo!, Ôkami-san) doesn't want to let go of its grip on TV. Sequels are also surprisingly high on the list, as Digimon is likely going to capitalize on the end of the Pokemon TV franchise.

Also high on the list? GACKT. Yes, the flamboyant soloist will be voicing characters in both Shi Ki and Tono to Issho, which might result in spikes in popularity.

Sadly, nothing really seems to jump out and grab my attention, but that could change once the TV season's cycle is set in motion. Best guess? Nurarihyon no Mago captures the most attention due to its attachment to the Shonen Jump franchise, just in time for Bakuman to light the airwaves on fire in the Autumn cycle.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Spring 2010 Distraction - B Gata H Kei

(While this series was not listed in the "Maker Oudan" catalog, it has been running during Spring 2010 and has been chosen as a "distraction"—a show that wasn't meant to be reviewed.)

I was totally set on destroying B Gata H Kei for what it appeared to be on the surface—an anime adaption that was capitalizing on the influx of moe into yonkoma manga. I was all prepared to rip it to shreds for being over-the-top and too direct in its aim at the otaku market. It was supposed to be just more fluffy teenage fan-service, but something weird happened on the way to Akihabara...

B Gata H Kei is the brainchild of Yôko Sanri, a female mangaka who has evolved into strictly a yonkoma artist after failed attempts at story manga. Since becoming a full-time artist in 1997, Sanri has worked on a dozen or so comic strips that have been built around sexier characters, primarily the "Office Lady" position in Japanese companies. While B Gata H Kei is the first of her titles that dives into high-school hijinks, it still contains the "OL" mentality—the idea that sex is a goal that even a high-school girl must shoot for.

The comedy centers around the pervy Yamada, an anonymous high-school female 15-year-old who decides to coin her infamy by...ahem...finding 100 "sex friends". However, Yamada's libido is countered by the anxiety of sex itself, so she seeks the "golden cherry", the first domino to push in order to accomplish her "task", as ridiculous as it may seem. Her fateful meeting with the confused and nervous Kosuda sends mixed signals—while Yamada wants to jump in the sack with Kosuda, she's inexperienced to the point of lunacy, and her dumb mistakes only terrify Kosuda more. The show works on their brittle relationship as both Yamada and Kosuda work towards middle ground.

The manga's yonkoma style makes the show a little easier to digest in smaller vignettes framed by the show's logo, while the other characters provide quick tsukkomi-style punch-lines to counter Yamada's bubble-headed boke nature. Yamada's friend Takeshita is constantly trying to help her understand love in as gentle a way as possible, although her own bust size and relationship just makes Yamada jealous. While there are other characters to fill the void, the story is also ushered by Yamada's own fictitious "ero-gami" ("ero-god"), a smaller version of herself who flies about on a cloud dressed like an old sage and breaks the fourth wall to explain things.

While the show is blatantly geared towards fan service (despite the use of the "Demon-Mark" for hiding naughty bits and the twittering bird sounds to drown out "condoms"), the story doesn't appear to be geared towards directly arousing the otaku viewer. Granted, some of the situations are as titillating as those in Kissxsis, but the comedy appears to be more for levity and actual humor, even if the subject matter itself is in poor taste. But the thing that pushes this sex-comedy more into the "comedy" zone and possibly tones down the outrage surrounding the subject?

Yamada's complete idiocy.

Sanri herself admitted that she modeled Yamada partly after herself, but part of me wants to believe that the high "ditz" factor in Yamada was not. Seriously, she's dumb as a box of hammers. Yamada jumps to ridiculous conclusions, blabbers the wrong words at the wrong times, and runs into sexual situations without considering the fact that she's just as much the virgin as the boy she's trying to "seduce". Safe to say, that makes the show laughable and the comedy...actually funny.

The ridiculous amalgam of Yamada's ditziness with the wiser explanations of her "ero-gami" manages to save B Gata H Kei from being a complete disaster, but there really isn't much more to the story after the chuckles subside. Neither Yamada or Kosuda are prepared for a relationship, and that may turn the "sex comedy" into a story about sex education, but the story just doesn't seem like a parody. There are better shows to watch out there, but B Gata H Kei isn't exactly the worst you can do.

It's just not the best you can do, either.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Spring 2010 - Shin-Koihime Musô: Otome Tairan

On a trip to Japan recently, I finally found just how immensely popular the Chinese classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms was in Japan. Naturally, it's not like you would bump into people on the street carrying the 800,000-word series with them or draining their cell-phone batteries as they read a digital version. Rather, the series has been converted into so many different entities—possibly more than the Monkey King tale—for so many different anime, manga, and video-game fans that it is likely has lost its identity.

Just in the past decade alone there have been the following incarnations:
  • A manga and OAV series about two minor characters reincarnated as magical eight-year-old girls (Magical Musô Tenshi Tsukisase!! Ryofuko-chan/Yawaraka Sangokushi Tsukisase!! Ryofuko-chan)
  • An SD Gundam version of the story for the kiddies (BB Senshi Sengokuden)
  • Comic Sangoku Magazine, a monthly anthology of nothing BUT Three Kingdom stories (featuring Stop Ryûbi-kun!, a chibi four-panel comic strip, and Kôtetsu Sangokushi, a loose interpretation of the story through battles with magical metal arms)
And that's pretty much just the (extreme) tip of the iceberg, as the classic has been also hugely successful in the video game market (The Romance of the Three Kingdoms wargame, Dynasty Warriors). Granted, the scale of the story itself allows for different interpretations and ways to use the thousand or so dramatic characters, but the recent trend started by the likes of Ikkitôsen to revise the physical descriptions of the characters themselves through either reincarnation (Blade Sangokushi) or complete rewritings of the characters (Rampage, Dragon Sister!), all while catering to more "fan service".

Overwhelmed? Just take a look at how different some of the characters in the major series appear.

In fact, Ikkitôsen itself is finding new life in its "Xtreme Xecutor" series, but the general shift in momentum appears to be with the Koihime Musô series, another recycling of the series to cater more to the "adult CD-ROM" crowd. The franchise is already in its third animated incarnation, Shin Koihime Musō: Otome Tairan ("Maiden Battle"). Considering the show is in a third season, all three directed by Nobuaki Nakanishi (Kashimashi, work on Happy Lesson and Myself, Yourself), the success is a bit surprising.

Jumping right into the Otome Tairan series, it appears simple to get the general gist of the show. The series takes place after the fall of the Han dynasty in Ancient China and is centered in the Shoku kingdom located in the west, where the warriors from the village of Touka, all of them of the female persuasion, have managed to return to daily life. The main protagonists—Kan'u, Chôri, and Ryûbi, three "sisters" who have bonded to protect the kingdom—have also resumed their training in the village, only to be presented with a new conundrum. A female general from one of their previous battles, Kashin, comes to the group asking for help, as she has been "arrested" by her commander and sentence to...turn into a cat. The situation causes the warriors to act, as they set out to seek ingredients in different parts of the country to cure Kashin and halt the false arrests.

Luckily, the shows haven't involved the CD-ROM game's main male protagonist, and that allows for more normal interaction between the characters, but that doesn't exactly mean the situations are any less awkwardly sexual by nature. The entire first episode involves Ryûbi's sudden attention to her body, as she fears she's getting fat from lack of battles. Her hunt for food late at night leads to an upset stomach, and her moaning and wailing leads the rest of the village to believe she's pregnant with a baby.

Pregnant. With a baby.

As comic as this sounds, let's realize a few things:
  1. Ryûbi is hardly fat or even a little bit plump in the tummy. All of the self-examination, tummy pinching, and glances in the mirror will not justify that, as much as it is played out on the screen.
  2. This is a village of females. You would think they would know when someone looks preggers.
  3. A reminder: this is a village of females. Despite the visits from a few older men and boys, there is no one in the village who could have possibly knocked up our ditzy heroine, not even the big-chested tomboy.
This situation goes about fifteen minutes, allowing for the rest of the show to focus on the nekomimi given to the once-tough Kashin. That's twenty minutes of fluff right there, and unless you have liked fluffy moe anime in the past, this probably won't be your thing.

But that appears to be the thing—people HAVE liked this in the past. While the costumes are pretty flamboyant, possibly targeted at cosplayers, and just like the classic, there are characters by the dozen, it's hard to really see anything earth-shattering coming from the first episode. The original feel of Romance of the Three Kingdoms appears to have been diluted into the challenges appropriate for a side mission in a Super Mario RPG. There is just too much cuteness and sugar for a story based off of a story that inspired millions.

I perhaps am being too hard on Otome Tairan without witnessing its previous plot, but it appears the show is merely borrowing the names and location in order to score points with historians and otaku, if not the subset of those two groups. The show probably merits a few more watches in later episodes, but at least Ikkitôsen had the sense to make all of their female characters fight to get their jiggle. Otome Tairan seems happy to just let warriors act more like women.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Winter 2010 & Beyond: Durarara!!

(YouTube is acting up on me, so no previews. If you would like to check the series out, Crunchyroll has been running subtitled episodes online.)

So far, it's too early to say that an anime, in my opinion, has hit it out of the park yet in 2010. Most of the anime shows that are running haven't ended, and those that have finished in the winter 2010 season likely were not been given a second thought regarding another 12-episode run in the first place. There are a few that appear to merit second looks so far (Giant Killing, Arakawa Under The Bridge, and others that will be reviewed soon), but races are meant to be watched until the end. (Editor's note: of course, look at me, going against my own advice by giving some shows only one glimpse. Way to go.)

If there was to be a guess, Durarara!! could quite possibly be front-runner behind the usual long-running programs. While the show is following the recent trend of converting light novels to manga and anime almost simultaneously, this may turn out to be a boon for the series, as the show tends to do an uncanny job at hiding secrets. People are already drawing parallels between Durarara!! and Baccano! for their multiple points of view, as both light novels were written by Ryohgo Narita. The show is directed by Takahiro Ômori and animated by Brain's Base, both familiar with one another from their work on Natsume Yûjinchô (Natsume's Book of Friends) and the aforementioned Baccano!

Durarara!! is centered in Ikebukuro, the main district of Toshima Ward and one of the most densely populated sections of Tokyo. The district's crowds make good fodder for the series and draws Mikado Ryûgamine, a quiet country-boy sort, to the city so he can join his friend Masaomi. What Mikado finds is that Ikebukuro has its own underlying pitfalls to deal with—rumors of gang wars, shifty business dealings, and slasher crimes abound—but it is the urban legend of the "Black Bike", a speedy motorcyclist in black with a vehicle that brays like a horse, that draws the most attention.

From this point, Mikado and Masaomi, along with their classmate Anri, get involved with a Wonderland of characters: a super-strong man in a bartender's suit, an eccentric troupe of otaku who claim to be part of the "Dollars" gang, a Black Russian sushi-ya employee, a pharmaceutical chief jealous of her brother's new girlfriend, and a black-market doctor. All of them appear to be connected with each other and to that "Black Bike" rider, who can command the shadows and a haunting scythe, or are they all connected to the schemer Izaya, who watches over the district like a black cat?

The diversity of characters makes the series work, as some episodes come from the perspective of a single character at a time, slowly revealing their good (or bad) intentions regarding the city. At times, we even get a digital glimpse of what the characters are thinking through an online chat-room session, invoking allusions to the Serial Experiments Lain OAV series from last decade that thrived off of the early stages of Internet-rumor culture. Durarara!!'s ability to unlock doors in the plot, only to reveal more doors in need of keys, makes the series hard to predict, and the characters aid in the mystery by being as shifty as possible. The music itself gives off a haunting vibe at times, a lone marimba occasionally wafting up like cigarette smoke.

At first, I made the childish association of Durarara!! to FLCL, as Mikado had the uncanny resemblance to Naota, and both series appeared to deal with female bikers on the hunt for something, but I found that to be the only real commonality between the two series. That being said, Durarara!! has the capability of being a solid hit that can keep attention spans until the end of the story with its shady nature and its constantly-evolving center of gravity. There's always a new explanation of events around the next corner, and the next character may completely change the story just by being introduced. It's obvious that Durarara!! will end at 24 episodes, but that ending may just be one of the most anticipated endings this year.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Spring 2010 - Ichiban Ushiro no Daimaô

Make no mistake about it—the Harry Potter series has affected the stream of narrative globally to the point that it is once again cool to be enthralled with magic. The storm's wake in Japan not only changed the dynamics of manga (especially in Comic Market, where the dôjin world drooled all over the series), but it made the inevitable introduction of magic into school comedies easier. Harry Potter made way for his Japanese cousin Negi Springfield (Ken Akamatsu's Negima!), only to have the series dramatically raise the panty-shot-to-magic-spell ratio. Since the lasting success of Negima!, there have been a few "magic-academy" titles known more for their comedic situations (Gakuen Alice, Zero no Tsukaima, To Aru Majutsu no Index), as well as their fan service (Maburaho, Happiness, MxO).

Late out of the gate is Ichiban Ushiro no Daimaô ("The Demon King In The Back"), this season's ode to embarrassing magical accidents. The show is directed by the experienced Takashi Watanabe, who has directed magic fantasy (Slayers, Lost Universe, Shakugan no Shana) and just a smidge of fan service (Ikki Tousen), while Artland is providing the production (Megazone 23, Mushishi, Kateikyô Hitman REBORN!).

Stop me if you've heard this one before, but the story deals with an orphaned boy coming of age by moving to a new academy (coughNarutocough). Akuto Sai comes into the new city with a cloak billowing about himself, looking to right the world in the future as a high priest, only to get a kick to the face by Junko, a female descendant of a class of warriors, when he tries to help her grandmother out. Of course, during the process we get a glimpse of just how devoted Junko is to the samurai class with...ahem...a peek at her fundoshi (0:33 in the above movie). While things are patched up afterward, Akuto gets an alarming revelation when the decider of future occupations, a comic chain-smoking crow, declares that Akuto is destined to be a demon king!

This throws the class into a frenzy of distrust and accusation, as everything Akuto does to deny the prediction only knits him closer to his destiny and pushes him to the back of the classroom (hence the title). Junko ends up vowing to destroy him during the first class, but the initial battles somehow unlock the hidden potential within Akuto, and the resulting explosion leaves Junko bereft of clothing (much like Asuna's scenarios in Negima!). The other characters end up assembling in due time—the ditzy Keena ends up fighting to protect Akuto by episode's end, while the emotionless Korone appears without a real reason to appear. The other harem characters make their presence known to the viewer and appear to have more conniving intentions.

There doesn't appear to be anything new about Daimaô, as the whole idea of the completely misunderstood male as a target of the other females is about as old as Urusei Yatsura. The redeeming value could come in the form of Akuto's steady success--if he can convince the others about his good intentions, I can see the series being decent, but the sexcapades just seem to drive the show towards ridicule right off the bat. The more important questions have been addressed elsewhere—Akuto, how in the world weren't you told about how the academy works before you got there, and how in the world haven't you figured this whole "Demon King" thing already? And is society so dumb that they have to listen to a talking crow spirit in order to get their marching orders?

It's hard to ignore the glaring similarities to the other "magic-academy" shows out there (hell, one character has a talking witch's hat straight out of the Harry Potter films), so I'm not sure if the series is worth following to an expected ending. If Akuto actually decided to change his tune and become a "demon king", as the pictures have tried to hint, maybe the show would have some unexpected direction. Otherwise, Daimaô is just another apprentice that will never become a wizard.