Sunday, January 30, 2011

Dragon Crisis! (Episodes 1 - 3)

Folks, we have a major (albeit fictional) socioeconomic crisis on our hands.

For too long the matter has been ignored by authorities for years. I'm not talking about anything that actually hits newspapers—I'm talking about the severe housing crisis in Japan in which teenaged males have been victimized by the sudden arrival on various females of differing persuasions and their forced occupancy into that male's animated residence.

Long ago, it had happened to one Tenchi Masaki when aliens moved into his residence, but in the past two years the situation has escalated. Cat-eared aliens (Asobi ni Ikuyo!), spade-tailed aliens (To Love-Ru), superpowered beings (Sora no Otoshimono, Sekirei), samurai warriors (Hyakka Ryôran Samurai Girls)...even the recent gathering of dream demons (Yumekui Merry), necromancers, magical girls, and vampire ninja (Kore wa Zombie desu ka?) have made living with goddesses seem perfectly sane.

Now, citizens of the celluloid have another invasion to worry about in the show Dragon Crisis!, the latest story to come from the gifted mind of novelist Kaya Kisaki (D.Gray-man, Nagisa Fortissimo). While the series is animated by Studio DEEN under the watchful eye of veteran character designer Masashi Ishihama (R.O.D. -The TV-, SPEED GRAPHER, Welcome to the NHK!), the show's direction is by Hideki Tachibana, a relative newcomer as a director (H2O: Footprints in the Sand).

The overall idea of Dragon Crisis! is linked to the existence of items called "Lost Precious", a general term for relics with spiritual, if not magical, value associated to them. While high-school student Ryûji Kisaragi is not particularly interested in them, his second cousin Eriko is absolutely enthralled by them, even to the point of challenging a mysterious organization known as "Fang" for them. During a particular two-man raid against Fang, Eriko and Ryûji manage to seize a large suitcase from them, only to find that their cargo is a mute blonde girl confirmed to be the human personification of a red dragon.

While "Rose" (named after the crimson scales embossed in a flowery design in her hand) is rather fond of Ryûji, he himself is unsure of what sudden dangers Eriko may have brought to his home. Rose is suddenly a major interest to many outside forces—aside from "Fang", a society of researchers studying the myths of dragons want to learn more about her existence and operations in the name of science.

However, as any good Dungeons & Dragons fan would tell you, there are many different flavors of dragons out there. One particular black dragon male named Onyx is determined to rescue her from the authorities and wed her in matrimony, but already the imprinting on Ryûji is too much for Rose. Ryûji, already knowledgeable about the power of the "Lost Precious" relics, uses a particular knife given to him by his parents, "Lost Precious" hunters in their own right, to challenge Onyx in an early series showdown.

There's no denying that there is star power in the voices. We get variety from Hiro Shimono as Ryûji—while he typically works as the "everyman" lead (Jin, Kannagi; Keima, The World God Only Knows), he actually provides a pretty good voice for a brittle character. We also finally get the bubbly Rie Kugimiya (Taiga, Toradora!) to play someone other than a tsundere character, but it's the brilliantly cold Hiroshi Kamiya (Izaya, Durarara!!) who reprises his icy voice talents as Onyx. Seriously, guys—throw Kamiya more villain roles.

While the vocal and audio tracks are good, the story itself is the certain aspect that has to be the pilot in Dragon Crisis!, as there's nothing really all that special about the artwork. The colors are bright for such a repressed show; there is too much attention to the sky-blue color of Rose's eyes, and even the darker colors from Onyx's powers are softened with violet tones. You do get the occasional blast of light from the "Lost Precious" items in action, but for the most part, there's nothing all that special to the animation.

At first, I had guiltily wanted to enjoy the story that Dragon Crisis! had presented to the audience. (I mean, Dragon Half was the last time a dragon girl had gotten a lead in an anime, and I certainly loved that show!) It is perhaps the overdramatic vibe of the show that ultimately reins in the creative juices of the show and make it a run-of-the-mill performance. It is definitely refreshing to hear familiar voices in new roles, but it's that inevitable imbalance of character distribution that sours the symphony; ultimately, this is just going to become another story about uninvited house guests and harems, even if there's real chemistry between Ryûji and Rose.

I suppose I had some hope that Dragon Crisis! would be better than it was advertised on paper. A major clash between good and evil only three episodes into the show would normally be a welcome change, but the standoff between Ryûji and Onyx only turned into a battle of Leiji Matsumoto laser cannons with both sides retreating to their corners. Considering that Episode 4 is promising us an obligatory beach scene, we're bound to get more corners added to the love polygon surrounding Ryûji, even with the relationship already cemented in place.

Promising at first but limp in the end, Dragon Crisis! is going to need a little more fire in its belly.

(Dragon Crisis! is simulcast on Crunchyroll every Monday at 2 PM EST.)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Kore wa Zombie desu ka? (Episodes 1 - 3)

There isn't much love out there for the zombie as an actual main character for a show. Yes, it's been fun running from them (Highschool of the Dead), partnering with them (Zombie-Loan, Corpse Princess), or even lusting after them (Sankarea...wait, what the hell?! Never mind!), but we really haven't seen it all from the vantage point of the zombie since Pai turned Yakumo into a Wu back in 3x3 Eyes.

Granted, you probably wouldn't get much of a story out of your traditional zombie, probably only a bunch of mumblings and grumblings about "brains" and all. The general portrayal of zombies in animation and live-action film from Japan has been that of the mindless horde (although you have to admit that there have been sparks of creativity at times), so having the main character a zombie takes away a large chunk of interaction with the audience.

Imagine if Jack Tripper was a zombie, and you'd have the gist here.

This obstacle between zombie and human is ultimately explored and torn down in the new dark comedy series Kore Wa Zombie Desu Ka? (Japanese for "Is This A Zombie?", although Crunchyroll elected to leave the name as is). The main protagonist of KoreZom, Ayumu Aikawa, is actually a member of the undead before the show begins, of which we are notably reminded when Ayumu rescues a kitten from an oncoming truck and is launched in a scene reminiscent of Nanaca Crash. We come to find that Ayumu is thankful that the silent Eucliwood Hellscythe, a mute necromancer who communicates strictly through writing, has resurrected him, as it gives him a chance to find the serial killer who killed him in the first place.

However, somehow being a zombie hasn't made him any less of a lightning rod when it comes to the supernatural. While trying to relax in a cemetery, Ayumu encounters Haruna, a reckless "magical girl" with a chainsaw who hunts down animal-based demons known as "Megalos". However, somehow during the process and despite being bladed in half by Haruna's "kick" (It's not a kick! - Ed.), Ayumu absorbs Haruna's powers, which just happen to conveniently keep her from becoming nude. The next encounter comes from Seraphim, a mysterious vampire ninja who appears in the house to ask Eucliwood for help, only to admit defeat from a battle with Ayumu and also move into the house. Considering the sales pitch for the series involves a fourth female, the crowded house will no doubt be getting more crowded.

Well, it does make saving seats at a table easier.

So what are we to make of this show? Judging by the playbook, most of the comedy ought to come from two sources—Ayumu getting bloodied, severed, and broken like Sakura from Bludgeoning Angel Dokuro-Chan, only to revive in the next scene, and the three girls getting put into arousing poses by the imagination of the staff. It's pretty much decided that Ayumu is competing against three bossy characters, and he's taking as much of the brunt as possible. It's like he's a Highlander version of Kyon from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya.

However, there are some surprising flashes of comedy and drama that keep the show from turning into a superhuman version of The Real World. The characters are truly unique to anime (I just may be going moe for pink chainsaws that magically display your name), and I'm getting the idea that the producers may be enjoying the chess game that Shinichi Kimura, author of KoreZom's light-novel series, is playing with these pawns. In a method that may be more a slap at the face of otaku novelty, we get a curious side-effect of Ayumu's funneling of Haruna's powers (and we'll only mention that it has Ayumu wishing he could die of embarrassment).

Okay, so it wasn't that hard to predict this.

There very well could be potential in KoreZom with this line-up of demanding females, but there could be equal potential for disaster if the show turns into something lesser than the sum of its parts. There almost seems to be too much crammed into Ayumu's apartment, yet there may be episodes where too little happens. For example, we get introduced to Ayumu's filthy-minded friend Orito (who may as well be the filthy-minded Ieyasu from Mayoi Neko Overrun!) and a girl that could hold the key to Ayumu's murderer, only to find the episode soaked up by a bowling competition between the girls for the last pudding in the fridge.

In other words, we're not sure about the direction of the series yet, but it seems a little absurd for the girls to be fighting over something so trivial.

Eucliwood outdoing Yuki Nagato in the "emotionless" category by never speaking.

KoreZom could do quite well for the season, but there's this nagging feeling that it may end up being lumped in with the other "one-boy-many-girls" shows being presented (Dragon Crisis!, Yumekui Merry, Freezing). That could be a shame, as so far KoreZom is the funniest of the bunch. It could probably impress people without having to resort to partial nudity and fan service, but the show has already gone through that door, vowing never to backtrack.

If KoreZom is unable to tell its story by tying all of these unrelated characters and their objectives together, the traffic jam could be hard to drive through. So far, the fireworks resulting from the interactions have been nice to watch, but we're going to need a nice big finale for KoreZom to stand by itself as a success. Here's to hoping that there's enough TNT in the package.

(Kore wa Zombie desu ka? is simulcast on Crunchyroll every Monday at 1 PM EST.)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

GOSICK (Episodes 1 - 3)

If you count the confusing advertisement of Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru as a "detective show", there were three less-than-stellar attempts at such shows last season—Psychic Detective Yakumo lost its emo-steam quickly, while Tantei Opera Milky Holmes failed miserably at trying to convert famous detectives into moe derivatives. There's no doubting it—if you want quality detective stories, Meitantei Conan and The Kindaichi Case Files are the archetypes for all Encyclopedia Brown and Nancy Drew wannabes out there.

As the calendar year turned to 2011, there seemed to be at least a little more promise in the genre with the announcement of GOSICK (think "gothic" with the Japanese corruption of the "th" sound) going to anime. The series of mystery light novels written by Naoki Prize winner Kazuki Sakuraba was so popular in Japan that all of the titles were republished as a mainstream set of novels, and Tokyopop had translated the first two stories for English fans. Perhaps there sincerely was hope for the genre, after all.

Or perhaps it's just the pint-sized lolita.

GOSICK takes place in the fictional European country of Sauville ("Saubure" in the inconsistent subtitles from Crunchyroll) following World War I. Our main character, Kazuya Kujo, in order to escape the shadows of his family and the attention thrust upon his older brothers, heads to Sauville to study overseas and attempt to impress his family. However, being the only Asian in his school, he soon is singled out for being dark and lonesome, a black "spring reaper" amongst his class.

Kazuya's teacher suggests he reads ghost stories in the meantime, and upon his trip to the large library in town, Kazuya comes across a short golden-haired girl in gothic clothing, mistaking her for a doll at first. Despite her bitter and demanding attitude towards Kazuya, Vicorique predicts he will come back to the tower, and Kazuya's inevitable return showcases the girl's brilliant intelligence. Victorique may be eccentric in the way she spends her days alone in the library, rolling on the study floor incessantly when bored, but she's actually the brains behind the star detective Grevil du Blois, giving her egocentric older brother insight as she solves cases for him.

In a twist of events, Grevil gladly provides an opportunity for Victorique to leave her studies, as she and Kazuya become guests of the ship, the Queen Berry, when they discover an invite in Grevil's new yacht. The unraveling of one murder leads to the sudden realization that those invited to the Queen Berry are to relive its fate, as the ship had been sunk ten years ago during a horrendous human experiment in psychology. Victorique and Kazuya are challenged to play Holmes and Watson as guests of the Queen Berry are killed one by one, but who is the twelfth guest in this dinner party of eleven?

If the character designs and European-style landscapes look a little familiar, you're likely correct in guessing the studio in charge of animation and the show that the designers worked on. Character designs are helmed by Toshihiro Kawamoto and Takashi Tomioka, and both worked on designs for the Fullmetal Alchemist TV shows. Studio Bones, who also worked on FMA's animation, provide some spectacular artwork, and the classical designs are given just a touch of modern style.

The first three episodes provide quite an exciting mystery to solve, even if some of the common characters between the Queen Berry's past submersion and its present emergency are easy to guess, but the interaction between Victorique and Kazuya is what solidifies the series into a quality story. The Holmes / Watson dynamic is pretty close to what we see in the duo—Kazuya has to convince the doubters both back home and in Sauville that he is a capable man, while Victorique is steadfast in her intelligence, yet genuinely afraid of the outside world and in real need of guidance by Kazuya. Considering the two have a full 24 episodes to help each other mature and understand trust, it will be interesting to see both of their pasts unfold.

It seems that GOSICK has little in the way to be a great crossover hit for Crunchyroll, as there appears to be more in terms of adventure with this series. Granted, you may still see fans fawning over Victorique like many did for Kuroneko in Oreimo last season, but the cast is much more gender-neutral than many female-heavy shows out there. More importantly, GOSICK seems determined to let the cases lead the characters, not the other way around—you'll likely find secondary characters come and go like they do in a Meitantei Conan show, and that will do wonders to build the relationship between Kazuya and Victorique.

Heavy in criminal psychology and light in comedy, GOSICK is required viewing for the winter 2011 anime season, as it will likely be your best shot at mystery and adventure without the risk of fan service or harem comedy. Come for the mystery, stay for the endless loop of Victorique's mocking patter of laughterGOSICK will be the best show this season, or else I will get a hairdo like Grevil.

(GOSICK is simulcast on Crunchyroll every Monday at 1 PM EST.)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: OH NO, I MUST TURN MY SHIP AROUND!


Music video entirely unrelated to this post, but very pleasant to listen to.

The list of anime I would be blogging about this season has been shot through, strung up and left to hang like an outlaw. I started out with seven series, and now I'm down to five, and only four of them were series I had originally planned to review. Here's the rundown:

Fractale (Status: Suspended)

There isn't a metaphor overblown enough to aptly describe the stupidity of the Fractale Production Committee's recent decision. I expect that Funimation will reach a deal with the FPC before Fractale finishes its run, though, since I just can't see a decision this dense and hypocritical lasting very long. But maybe I'm just being optimistic. Needless to say, I won't be watching or blogging about this series until I can watch it in a legal and timely manner.

Beezlebub (Status: Ongoing)

Wolverine (Status: Canceled)

G4TV holds the rights to airing Madhouse's Marvel adaptations here in the United States, and while it's obtuse of them to sit on their new acquisitions for two years before finally airing them—what, do they think it's still the Nineties?—I've decided that not watching or writing about the series until it's legally available is the right thing to do.

Infinite Stratos (Status: Ongoing)

Star Driver (Status: Ongoing)

Level E (Status: Ongoing)

Kimi no Todoke (Status: Replaced)

When I put myself down for this series, I had only seen the first episode about a year ago when it first aired, but I liked it enough that I had planned to go back and watch more of it. But when I sat down to make good on my plan, I regretted it. I dragged my feet through the first four episodes before calling it quits. It's a pleasant series, but very bland, with a romance that has few roadblocks and thus no suspense. I've replaced it with Bakuman, which I've enjoyed measurably more. Expect more words on it over the weekend.

I promised Geoff I would do six series this season, so this leaves me a slot open. I have several options: pick up a series from our draft's leftovers, write about something older, or do nothing at all. And hey, since this is the Web 2.0, that means I never have to make any decisions that I can't have my readers make for me! I've decided I'll write about an older anime, but there's a twist.

Most of the time anime blogs write about "old" anime, it's usually anime from the eighties or nineties. And while it's lovely of them to carry that torch for as long as they have, I think it's time someone stood up and reviewed forgotten cartoons... that people cared about in the early Aughts. Below is a list of anime people loved about back in the early days of Internet fandom, but are now largely forgotten. I'll revisit whichever one gets the most votes, soon as I figure out how pull the switch on the voting machine here in the backend.

Your choices are:

-Tsukikage Ran
-Pretear
-X: TV

Have at it, folks.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Puella Magi Madoka Magica (Episode 1 - 3)

In the first season of Magical Princess Minky Momo (1982), Momo dies in Episode 46 when she's hit by a truck, twelve episodes before the actual end of the series.

I did intend to spoil the series without actually warning you, but this bizarre twist of fate in a "magical-girl" series is not only well-known by elder otaku out there, but it is a notorious example of the genre embracing darker emotions. Yes, the likes of Pretty Cure and Tokyo Myu Myu did deal with forces of evil and darkness, but it has been a while since a magical-girl show has brought a sincerely dim and apocalyptic point-of-view, let alone even deal with death. The last vivid example off the top of my head may be the deaths of Sailor Senshi in the Sailor Moon shows, but much like Minky Momo the dead were merely revived in future episodes.

This softening and shifting of the "magical-girl" genre in recent years may have been a reason I wasn't convinced by the announcement of Puella Magi Madoka Magica as being anything different. Not to shoot down the industry, but it feels like the "magical-girl" trope has been embraced less by its actual target audience—young girls—and more by the adult fans. Call me an old codger when it comes to these sorts of shows, but I sense the genre has lost its way in trying to appeal to everyone.

The announcement of Madoka Magica was also surprising in two different senses. First of all, the show would be accompanied by manga instead of based off of one, meaning that the production crew would be providing an untested story for the public. Second of all, the show would be chiefly produced by Akiyuki Shinbô, who has produced many of his cleverly-animated shows with SHAFT, the animation studio in charge. This was surprising more from the fact that Shinbô produced the first Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha series, which has been one of those shows that seems to have a distinctly adult following.

Madoka Magica actually starts in a rather disturbing fashion with the main character, middle-school student Madoka Kaname, waking up from a dreary nightmare where she witnessed a dark-haired magical girl fighting off an unidentified force of darkness. Dismissing it as a bad dream, Madoka is startled to find that same girl, Homura Akemi, transferred to her class, and the uneasiness doubles when Homura vaguely warns Madoka about the future.

It isn't until Madoka and her friend Sayaka rescue a small white creature called Kyubey (whose unmoving mouth and vacant eyes will disturb me in my own dreams) that we realize that Homura's warning was not to be taken lightly. During a struggle to defend Kyubey from Homura herself, Madoka and Sayaka suddenly find themselves trapped in a dimensional void full of butterfly-winged monsters and shapeless witches. Their own rescuer, Mami Tomoe, is a capable magical girl who can defeat these ghouls with oversized Flintlock rifles, and Madoka and Sayaka are presented with their own opportunity to become magical girls like Homura and Mami, as long as they have a wish they would like granted first.

There is no doubt that Shinbô and SHAFT have done this sort of presentation before, as their trademarks are splashed all over the show. The architectural styles of Madoka's school and home are as angular and monochrome as those in Bakemonogatari, while the characters themselves, complete with pastel hair colors and boxy faces, are patterned after character designs from Ume Aoki, the mangaka for Hidamari Sketch (another SHAFT-spun anime). There's not that much to that seems to scream individuality from the story itself, as the "nightmare-scenario" depiction of the future has the traits of a Sailor Moon S episode. Seems like it's all been done before, eh?

However, when Mami leads Madoka and Sayaka on witch hunts to seek out "Grief Seeds", Shinbô is finally able to open a Pandora's box of surrealism that he likely didn't have the freedom to explore in Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha. If you have ever seen the opening sequences to the Zan: Sayonara Zetsubô-Sensei series, you've come across Shinbô's use of two-dimensional paper collages to shock the senses. By themselves, the images of random oversized doughnuts, Lego pieces, and puffy dandelions sporting handlebar mustaches seem obtuse and incoherent, but scattered about the fights between magical girls and witches, they become an eclectic wonderland that Alice herself never imagined. Combine these flights of visual fancy with the grandiose musical works of Yuki Kajiura (.hack//SIGN, Tsubasa Chronicle), and you have chaotic perfection.

I also remind the viewer that this isn't some cream-puff Magical DoReMi for the kids. This story, despite the characters and faceless villains involved, is darker than first imagined. It's as if Shinbô knew that adults would be drawn to the show like moths to flame and intentionally threw a curveball so wild that it may rival the non-sequitur truck accident that claimed Minky Momo's life. Let's just say that the first lessons taught by Mami to Madoka and Sayaka about witch hunts in Episode 3 end up disastrous.

It's this unspoiled disaster that makes the next three episodes so much more fun to anticipate. Puella Magi Madoka Magica could be the one show that saves the winter anime season from uncertainty and "magical-girl" fandom from itself.

UPDATE (9:38 PM): An additional link from @kransomwastaken providing an excellent read at Ani no Miyako on the "cut-out style animation" used in some of Shinbô and SHAFT's other shows (Sayonara Zetsubô-sensei, Maria Holic). Thanks!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Rio: Rainbow Gate! (Episodes 1 - 3)

Japan's fixation on gambling, particularly pachinko which developed from the American version of "Corinthian Bagatelle", has a pretty large overlap with its anime and manga industry. If a series does well (Lupan the 3rd, Hokuto no Ken) or produces characters that people go bonkers over (Lucky Star, Evangelion), you can guarantee that there is a pachinko machine that has taken advantage of its popularity. Heck, you don't even need those tiny metal balls; "pachislo", a similar game with the central slot machine dissected from the banging metal sounds, has been a booming diversion as well.

While "moe-slo" has managed to do well with the use of moe characters in these slot machines, it usually borrows the characters for the machine, not the other way around. Very rarely will you have a pachinko or pachislo machine series so popular that it spawns its own animated show, and such examples haven't necessarily translated into successes (such examples are Umi Monogatari and Kaitô Tenshi Twin Angel...wait, it's coming back?!)

Our heroine Rio in work mode.

Okay, maybe the industry is just big enough for another venture into animation. Rio: Rainbow Gate! is an odd attempt at glamorizing the gambling industry through the conversion of a pachislo game series to anime. Realistically in Japan, pachinko and pachislo are about as close to diversionary gambling as you might get, but the gambling racket is mostly dominated by horse racing circuits. Casinos, in the Vegas sense of the word, are a relative unknown and are almost nonexistent in Japan.

Perhaps this mystique about the casino has drawn people to the popular pachislo game and the title character Rio Rollins Tachibana, the game's buxom dealer. To some, she may be vaguely familiar, as she made cameos on the gaming disaster Dead or Alive Paradise, but Rio: Rainbow Gate! is her big debut on the anime scene. On the fictional island casino known as Howard Resort, Rio is known as the "Goddess of Victory" to its gambling patrons, as she is able to bring good luck to gamblers with her very presence. She's become such a big name at the resort that she's constantly being used as an advertisement by her employer, the nutcracker-like Tom Howard.

Mint following Rio's pet ferret Chip into the rabbit hole (ferret hole?)

It is Rio's popularity that has brought a variety of people to her inner circle of friends. One of Rio's sudden admirers in the show, the cherubic Mint, is left in Rio's care for the most part, developing a "big-sister" crush on her new guardian. In the first episode, we meet the rest of Howard Resort's main employees through Mint's wandering flight of fancy through the casino—the Hollywood starlet Rosa Canyon, buoyant bunny-girl waitress Tiffany, and twin sisters Elle and Ille.

Of course, Rio's charm and success rate as a "Gate Holder"—a dealer who possesses one of 13 special "Gate" cards—also brings a variety of ruffians to the casino. While her matches with the sparkly-eyed gambler Orlin and a ghost known only as "Misery" are for other wagers, Rio must accept gambling duels from other Gate Holders. The arrival of Elvis, a ladykiller of a dealer with an uncanny knack of mathematics and probability, puts Rio on the hotseat in a bizarre game of roulette bowling for her Gate, even though she never won her own card in the first place. Each opponent challenges Rio in a display of gallant hallucinations, where the game is animated in something bigger than it actually is (and with Rio in a multitude of costume changes).

This is NOT a commercial for Segram's 7 whiskey.

If you were to watch Rio: Rainbow Gate! with the presupposition of seeing a sincere story unfold, Lady Luck isn't on your side. There is very little coherence in the show's actual plot, as dull one-on-one card games and roulette spins turn into nonsensical scenes of mazes composed of playing cards and volleyball games with oversized numbers. The epic Orlin-Rio poker game is over Mint's teddy bear, of all things. While the stakes for the match between Rio and the ghoulish Misery are much higher (Misery wants the casino for herself), the scene of Rio fending off flying ghost chicken wings while trying to keep Mr. Howard from being sliced in half by Elle and Ille is so amazingly ridiculous that...

...it's actually fun to watch.

Yes, this is how we first meet Rio. (Eyes up here, pal!)

Seriously. In the same way that Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was hilarious to the MST3K crew, Rio: Rainbow Gate! is such a bizarre mishmash of unrelated imagery and inept characters (you'll love to hate the klutz Anya) that the unintentional comedy is off the scale. Fan service is sold at high premiums that rival gold, as revealing outfits are the norm and skin is buffed to such a shine that you'd be able to see Rio's breasts from orbit. The absurd characterization of Mr. Howard, in comparison to the other characters, is so over-the-top that the chain-smoking owner (voiced by the thunderous Kôji Ishii, Garterbelt from Panty & Stocking) rescues the show's cast from being bland.

Considering the expectations of Rio: Rainbow Gate! were basically in negative-number territory, the show's shipwreck of a plot unbelievably keeps it from submerging. Granted, the introduction of a particular character in Episode 3 does establish some sense of plot in the upcoming chapters, so the story may still be taking up water and sinking a slow death, but so far the show has a reason to exist, if only to make us wonder just how absurd it could end up getting. Perhaps Rio loses her top in a game of human Plinko?

No, Rio darling, dealer is showing 17.

Perhaps the best thing Rio: Rainbow Gate! has going for it is its self-awareness. Those who know Rio already will probably be her biggest fans, and much of them are have probably already lost ten thousand yen to a pachislo machine since the beginning of this review. Those who are left have to be snagged in the only way the show knows how—through the theater of the absurd.

Yes, Rio: Rainbow Gate! may be a slug compared to a shiny gold coin, but even a whole barrel of slugs has got to be worth something.

(Rio: Rainbow Gate! is simulcast on Crunchyroll every Tuesday at 10:30 AM EST.)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Confused? The Wandering Son Relationship Chart

I've come across a few people that have been a little perplexed by the characters in Wandering Son (Hôrô Musuko), and I don't blame them. The series is perhaps a little harder to follow in manga form, but the lack of distinguishing characteristics may make the characters unidentifiable. While the actual review will cover the differences between the players in the show, here is a translation of the relationship chart obtained from the Hôrô Musuko website. Click on the image to get a larger view of the chart.

(The heart marks between images should mean there is a mutual relationship. I left out the obvious relationship between the siblings Shuichi and Maho; it should be obvious who the two are.)

Got it? Good. There will be a test on this later.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Walking Backwards Through the Cosmic Mirror

(Welcome to the first article of our new season write-ups! A couple warnings before I begin: first, this isn't a review or preview making a judgment on whether or not Star Driver is any good. It assumes that the reader is following the anime, and talks more about how the series is progressing, what it's doing right and wrong, and speculation on where it will go next. It's meant to spark discussion and debate. If you haven't seen the series and plan to, avert your eyes before it's too late, since there are mild spoilers below.)

Islands are imbued with a special kind of mystique. They are the homes of giant sea monsters, strange tribes of cannibals, Gothic mysteries, recluses, crazies, revolutionaries, and psuedo-humans. They are isolated places, with a ferry being their only connection to the real world as the rest of us know it, if they even have one at all. An island is the perfect place to find buried mecha made with lost technology and a secret society of teenagers hell-bent on using that mecha for nefarious purposes.

Star Driver does a great job of capturing that mystique, creating a world that lives in a bubble, isolated from the rest of the reality as you and I would know it. This is what intrigues the most about Star Driver's concept: the idea that a truly weird and fantastic world is a ferry ride away. It's a fascination that has helped hold the series up even as it doesn't quite live up to its potential.

As enjoyable as the series has been, it feels like it has all the pieces to be an even better series that it can't quite fit together. A lot of that probably has to do with its very large cast. We have three main characters and a much larger rogue's gallery of villains in the "Glittering Crux". Until recently, we haven't gotten a chance to really know any of them, and more importantly, why they're doing what they're doing. What is the Departure, and why do they want it to happen? How and why are the island's maidens guardians against Glittering Crux unleashing the Departure? And why does Takuto care about any of this? And where does he get his own Cybody, and why does he have to transform into the Galactic Pretty Boy when he uses it?

Perhaps some of these are just conceits I should accept at face value, but in contrast to what I wrote above, this series feels like it has too many mysteries. It's getting hard to care about our characters without some much needed development, but I suspect this shouldn't be a problem for much longer.

Screenwriter Yôji Enokido's most famous series script, Revolutionary Girl Utena, is the obvious spiritual predecessor Star Driver, and while there are many similarities between the two, I'm only going to touch on one here. Utena's roots are in magical girl series like Sailor Moon, and similarly, Utena's episodes had a very rigorous structure. The series was divided into four arcs, each with a distinct visual theme and gimmick. Each episode in these arcs also had a predictable structure, usually culminating in a duel with Utena. This helped tie the series together, making it more satisfying even when the overarching story itself barely moved, since it helped flesh out each character.

An identical structure is emerging in Star Driver. So far we've had two arcs: one that introduced the main characters and each villain in the Glittering Crux's Evil Council, and another that mostly recycles those villains and fleshes out who they are and why they are members. Each arc seems to be divided by which "songstress" sings before "Zero Time" sets in, and who is heading the Glittering Crux council at the time. If this is true, I have several guesses about where this series is going. I suspect each "songstress" is a maiden, including the caged girl from the first arc, and if that is true, then two other assumptions seem probable. We know Glittering Crux wants to find out where the West Maiden is hiding to take their Cybodies to the next level and defeat the Galactic Pretty Boy. Perhaps the caged girl, Sakana, was a maiden whose seal was broken by Glittering Crux, and that subdual might be why they're able to use their Cybodies in the first place. This leads me to think that there is some key backstory about Sakana that will explain a lot of mysteries. For once, I would actually like a flashback episode!

Even if I'm wrong, this emerging structure suggests that my problems with character motivations should be cleared soon. We've already gotten a fascinating look into the screwed-up family politics of Mrs. Watanabe and her servants, and a bit about Benio and why she's a member of Glittering Crux, even if that revelation ended up creating a few more questions than answers. And I'm sure there's even better things to come. Like the soft patter of rain on your window before a thunderstorm sets in, Star Driver is building anticipation towards something much bigger.

Stray Thoughts
This will be a regular section of my recaps where I add thoughts too short or random to fit in the recap. For example:

  • Isn't Star Driver's opening theme perfect? Is it premature to put this up there with Cowboy Bebop and Paranoia Agent as a classic opening theme?
  • I also love Takuto's transformation sequence since I'm a sucker for dramatic gestures and large capes.
  • Gerald Rathkolb talks about a bit about some of his misgivings about Star Driver in Episode #91 of the Anime World Order podcast, and it's worth a listen.
  • To summon their mecha Cybodies, the pilots shout "Apprivoise!" Intriguingly, that's French for "to tame." Could that mean that the Cybodies are like the mecha in Evangelion—monsters that are barely under their master's control?
  • That moment when Marino realized why she was falling in love Takuto was pretty potent. I'm expecting this all to go pear-shaped in the next few episodes, since Marino can't possibly protect her sister and love Takuto. Eventually, she's going to be forced to reveal her true feelings to the rest of Glittering Crux.
  • Those meetings between the Head and Sugata are looking increasingly sinister.
  • I get that Takuto's pretty, but with every girl, friend or foe, falling for him, the series is starting to acquire the stench of a wish-fulfillment harem series. I hope this isn't a development we see more of.
  • Do you mind the glass?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Winter 2011 Anime Draft

Now that AniMaybe has two contributing voices, Bradley and I can spread the workload out and review shows more often. Granted, we're only human; you're not going to get twelve reviews for a twelve-episode show. However, reviews will be more periodic and thorough, about four per show. Currently, we plan to spread the analysis out in three-episode arcs, unless we really REALLY can't get through the muck of a series.

That being said, we sort of...you know...have to pick what we want to watch. Considering Bradley and I aren't even close to each other, dartboards, Bingo ping-pong balls, and other random acts of random distribution won't do. We're going to have to do this the ESPN way. It's time for a...

FANTASY FOOTBALL LOTTERY!


Okay, time to line up and pick our poisons. From all of the shows being shown in Japan this winter, Bradley and I have chosen our top seven shows that we'd like to review for the season and our reasons behind them.

1. Geoff - Rio ~ Rainbow Gate! (Crunchyroll)
Okay, I'll admit this is my "Sam Bowie" pick here. (For those not in the know, Sam Bowie was the guy the Portland Trailblazers picked instead of Michael Jordan in 1984.) I know that Rio Rollins Tachibana is Tecmo's prized pet when it comes to slot-machine fan service, so I'm not at all surprised to see her get an entire show devoted to her. I expect bounces to parts of the body that shouldn't bounce, abnormally shiny skin, and tons of costume changes for Rio. Yes, I may be wasting my pick on a show that could be disastrously bad, but there's always the possibility of it becoming so bad it's good. At least they picked the right studio, Xebec (Love Hina, To Love-Ru), to roll out the sex factor.

2. Bradley - Fractale
It's probably fair to say that Yamakan is more famous as a critic of the industry than as a director. That's not to undersell his skills at the helm of a series though- he's made enjoyable anime despite fairly cliché premises, such as the shônen romance throwback Kannagi or Black Rock Shooter. But if he made each of these projects while constrained by trying to appeal to a small otaku base, perhaps his turn in this noitaminA series will show what his talents are like when unleashed. There are other great names attached to this project, such as media critic Hiroki Azuma, and both Yamakan's Studio Ordet and A-1 Pictures have been a reliable source of good animation. While I'm concerned that the series may just wallow in nostalgia instead of trying to break new ground, it's probably the most promising anime I've seen in a long, long time. (For more on Yamakan's opinions and what he hopes to accomplish with Fractale, read this article on Asahi.)

3. Geoff - Wandering Son (Crunchyroll)
The Wandering Son manga is currently being written by Takako Shimura, currently one of my favorite mangaka, as her past and present focus on the confusions of sexual orientation have matched quite well with her wispy style. Her other concurrent work Aoi Hana was not only one beautiful manga, but it translated well into anime and made for a very touching tale. Wandering Son tells another taboo tale, this time from the perspective of gender identity at the middle-school level. The art style looks so bright for a story that could be stained with so much self-doubt that I had to pick it.

4. Bradley - Beezelbub (Crunchyroll)
An anime about a surrogate father sounds more shôjo than shônen, so it's surprising to find out that this series originated from the pages of Shônen Jump. Even if the child is the spawn of Satan, it's hard to imagine how it appeals to the same audience that reads Bleach and One Piece. Because of this, I'm intrigued to see where it's going, if only in the hopes that it has Super Powered Killer Babies, because as we all know, those are the best kind of babies.

5. Geoff - Dragon Crisis! (Crunchyroll)
I likely picked Dragon Crisis! out of reaction. Yes, you once again have one male lead with a multitude of female characters, but there seems to at least be some good background here with the male forced to protect a red dragon who comes in the form of a young girl. Since the show has only the light novel as a resource, written by award-winning novelist Kaya Kizaki (D.Gray-man), I think the show has a lot more to present to the casual fan.

6. Bradley - Wolverine
I don't read comic books. I have nothing against them, per se, I just have too many other interests to make the time for them. My knowledge of the Marvel Universe and X-Men is about as layman as you can get, since most of it comes from the movies. But I'm still curious about Madhouse's take on Wolverine, even though anime's history of adapting American books is spotty at best and outright awful at worst.

7. Geoff - Puella Magi Madoka Magica
The "magical-girl" genre has been pretty stagnant over the past few years, as franchises like Pretty Cure and Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha have dominated the airwaves and Comiket kiosks. After hearing that Akiyuki Shinbo and SHAFT (Bakemonogatari, Sayonara Zetsubô-sensei) would take their own shot at the genre, I felt it was a rather dangerous venture. However, it helps when you get the Hidamari Sketch crew back together for production work and star composer Yuki Kajiura for the soundtrack. I expect big things out of this "anime-first" project. Big things.

8. Bradley - Infinite Stratos
I picked this one because I felt bad for Geoff (I don't need your sympathy! - Geoff). His first pick was Rio, and he's also reviewing Dragon Crisis! and perhaps Kore wa Zombie Desu Ka? When it came time to make my fourth pick, I passed on GOSICK in favor of this relic, which I suspect was conceived by digging around in Gonzo's box of rejected ideas. It was a pity pick, and I suspect I will suffer for it.

9. Geoff - GOSICK (Crunchyroll)
I've been hearing some really good buzz about this show, and a little study of its author Kazuki Sakuraba has shown some surprising results. I never would have expected a light-novel author's works to even be considered for a Naoki Prize, let alone win it (she won with her story Watashi no Otoko in 2007). The series has nine novels to its name, all of them republished as mainstream novels, and I expect the Holmes/Watson dynamic between the main characters to really draw fans. Besides, the main heroine, a dead ringer for Kuroneko from the bizarrely-popular Oreimo, smokes a pipe!

10. Bradley - Star Driver: Kagayaki no Takuto
I've been following the series as it airs, and I plan to see it through to completion, so I may as well blog about it. It was one of the highlights of last season, and I see no reason why that can't hold true for this season as well.

11. Geoff - Kore wa Zombie Desu ka? (Crunchyroll)
Something feels completely acrid from the concept of this show, and I'm not talking about Crunchyroll's interesting decision to not translate the title into English. You have a necromancer without a voice (or a need for a voice actress), a magical girl with a chainsaw, a vampire ninja, a girl with a guy's name, and a high-school student who has become a zombie. It feels more like a weird Final Fantasy party to me. (By the way, if this approaches zom-cest in any way, shape or form, I'm out of here.)

12. Bradley - Level E (Crunchyroll)
Yoshiro Togashi is primarily known for his shônen fighting series, but he has well-known love for the supernatural and paranormal. Level E seems to be a straightforward way for him to indulge that love, and though I'm wary of watching another anime by Gonzo-affiliates David Production, I enjoyed the anime adaptation of Hunter x Hunter so much that I'm still looking forward to this series, if only because creative spirits are at their best when writing about what they love.

13. Geoff - Yumekui Merry
Boy, J.C. Staff—you guys need some sort of break after knocking out 22 television shows in three years. I suppose there is hope for this show, but I have this helpless feeling that it's got lots of overlap with the other shows I'm going to be reviewing. A boy who can predict dreams meets a demon of the dreams and promises to help return her to her actual realm while keeping those demons still in the dream world from reaching the real world. Okay, I'm game, but if it ends with Mario dreaming up the whole thing...

14. Bradley - Kimi ni Todoke, 2nd Season
Don't expect me to get to this series soon; I'm still watching the first season in preparation for the second. But I like what I've seen so far. It has good characters, bright animation, and some involving romance. Hopefully, the second season will be a continuation of that.

Undrafted
Cardfight!! Vanguard (Crunchyroll), Mitsudomoe 2nd season (Crunchyroll), Freezing, Starry Sky, Haiyoru! Nyaruani, Saint Seiya: The Lost Canvas (Crunchyroll), Oniichan no Koto Nanka Zenzen Suki Janai'n Dakara Ne!!

(We may get to some of these shows, but right now they're not on the radar. Have fun in the minor leagues, guys!)

Now that the starting lineups have been selected for the full season, our reviewing chops can be prepared for the regular season. As soon as the shows start to get rolling, we'll give you our perspectives on the shows that deserve All-Star recognition and those that deserve to be booed like an overpaid, underperforming third baseman. Until then, PLAY BALL!

Okay, I'll stop with the lame sports analogy...

Monday, January 3, 2011

Introducing AniMaybe's first contributor!

Happy 2011 to all of you loyal readers out there in the Internets! Yes, we may not have been able to escape from those ridiculous oversized novelty glasses (Seriously, there's one zero! Opt for the monocle instead!), but we can at least look to improve ourselves past last year.

We here at AniMaybe see our own opportunity to improve things. A new year, a new resolution, and a big announcement so big that it requires a generic YouTube drum roll!


(We spare no expenses here at AniMaybe.)

First of all, our New Year's resolution? Well, for me, that would be to stop talking in the corporate "we" when I type here. Seriously, I shouldn't be this schizophrenic when it comes to typing my mind. From now on, you're getting the first-person singular efforts from myself.

This resolution has a lot to do with the big blog announcement—AniMaybe now has a population of two! Introducing the first major contributor to AniMaybe's blogroll—Bradley C. Meek! You may have seen some of Bradley's work on the T.H.E.M. Anime Reviews website, as well as his "Snap Judgment" coverage of anime seasons at Anime 3000. A little introduction from the young squire himself would be appropriate, so take it away, Bradley!

When Bradley Meek was a small child, his life was saved from certain death by an anime blogger. Now as we all know, this isn’t something anime reviewers do often, since most of them are self-absorbed pricks, but this was a very special anime blogger. He was the mysterious King of the Anime Bloggers, that legendary writer who has forgotten more about Japanese animation than anyone could hope to remember, and prolifically wrote with wit and passion about his favorite hobby . But after a strange series of circumstances, he disappeared, leaving his crown up for grabs. Thus dawned The Great Age of Anime Bloggers, when every acne-riddled nerd with even a small shred of knowledge about these mysterious Japanese cartoons took a laptop into their sweaty hands and posted powerful screeds on their LiveJournal accounts. Inspired by his childhood hero, Bradley became one of these nerds. He quickly set himself apart from the others, for he had two special powers: a passionate love for anime and animation in general, and a legendary ability to bluff that made people think he actually knew what he was talking about.

Burning with manly spirit, he set off on a quest to join that legendary group of writers, the Habanaraburna’bumkiss, which roughly translates as, “They Who Actually Get Paid Do This Crap.” When he isn’t busy saving distraught princesses and defeating villains in excruciatingly long story arcs, he might be doing such heroic things as getting his degree in Computer Science, playing PC games, listening to classical music and watching kung fu flicks. His goal is to be a prolific, knowledgeable, passionate and articulate blogger about anime, and he hopes that by joining AniMaybe will make the online conversation about anime richer, wittier, and more introspective.

Thanks, Bradley! I'm not entirely sure if joining AniMaybe would help you save the kingdom—I'm still being told on each of my own quests that the princess is in another castle. Damn you, Toadstool!—but I'm sure your addition will bring a different and fresh perspective on the anime industry and its constant supply of moe. Thank you for volunteering your services, and yoroshiku!

Be sure to follow us both on Twitter for our opinions (you can follow myself at @GTebbetts and Bradley at @BradleyCMeek) and keep your eyes peeled for reviews this Winter anime season. Now that you all have a second blogger here from which you can get opinions, the two of us will do our best to give you more feedback and updates about the upcoming shows. If we don't, you certainly can't blame it on our lack of a staff.

(See, now I really CAN get away with using the corporate "we"!)

Saturday, January 1, 2011

2010: Yes or No...or VERY NOOOOO!


You know, there are just way too many shows in 2010 to cover. By Wikipedia's count, they have 109 shows listed, while The Cart Driver has it at an unofficial 110. That's probably not including all of the long-running shows (Happy 300th, Bleach! - Ed.) and the very long-running shows (Happy 2190th, Doraemon! - Ed.), but we started a little late this year. We're guessing we caught at least an episode of 67 series this year.

How many would we watch again?

Instead of giving the "Best and Worst of 2010"—we'll make it quick and tell you that Shiki, Durarara!!, and Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt were our Top 3, with Yosuga no Sora, Motto To Love-Ru, and kissxsis bringing up the rear—we're flipping a coin here and giving you the thumbs up and thumbs down for the shows we caught a glimpse of this year. You could probably call it our "Siskel & Ebert" coverage of 2010

Actually, make that "Siskel, Ebert & Pedro from Excel Saga". Some shows were just plain horrible.

Winter 2010
Chu-Bra!! - Yes
So Ra No Wo To - Yes
Ladies vs. Butlers! - No
Omamori Himari - VERY NOOOOO!
Baka to Test to Shôkanjû - No
Hidamari Sketch Mittsuhoshi - Yes
Qwaser of Stigmata - VERY NOOOOO!
Hanamaru Kindergarten - Yes

Spring 2010
Heroman - Yes
Ketsuinu - VERY NOOOOO!
Big Swing! - No
Working! - Yes
Hakuôki - No
Senkô no Night Raid - No
Mayoi Neko Overrun! - VERY NOOOOO!
Rainbow - Yes
K-ON!! - Yes
Uragiri wa Boku no Namae wo Shitteiru - No
The Tatami Galaxy - Yes
kissxsis - VERY NOOOOO!

Summer 2010
Amagami SS - No
Sekirei Pure Engagement - VERY NOOOOO!
Strike Witches 2 - VERY NOOOOO!
Shiki - Yes
Asobi ni Ikuyo! - VERY NOOOOO!

Fall 2010
Iron Man - No
MM! - No
Tegami Bachi REVERSE - Yes
Hakuôki Hekketsuroku - No
Bakuman - No
Oreimo - Yes
Arakawa Under the Bridge*2 - Yes
Star Driver - Yes
Psychic Detective Yakumo - No
Yosuga no Sora - VERY NOOOOO!
Motto To Love-Ru - VERY NOOOOO!
Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru - No
Togainu no Chi - VERY NOOOOO!
Toaru Majutsu no Index II - No
Super Robot Wars OG: The Inspector - No

Doing the math, that comes out to a total of 32 shows that we would watch again, 20 we wouldn't watch again, and 15 we wouldn't touch without a hazmat suit. That's a little under half of the shows that we would at least say were decent at some point, but that also means that we would be burying at least 20% of the past year in our backyard.

Call it an unscientific approach to the year, but it's better than ranking them all.

From all of us here to you...

Happy New Year!
May your next 12 months be ill-fated moderately lucky.