Monday, October 5, 2009

Anime: Fall '09 Season

Ugh, too much crap to deal with recently.

Anyway, I'm an anime nut, which means that of course I'm checking out the current season of new shows as they air over in good old Japan. That said, I'm going to post my thoughts on a few of the shows I've watched thus far.

Kampfer (Warrior)

First episode rating: 3/5

Synopsys: Girly-voiced ordinary high school boy is given a magic bracelet by a disemboweled tiger plushie and told that he has to fight against others with similar bracelets. The catch is that all fighters in this game, as a rule, must be female; so when it's time to fight, the magic bracelet turns him into a drop-dead gorgeous female version of himself who has the ability to shoot fireballs. Partnered with an adorably shy bookworm whose bracelet turns her into a gun-toting, foul-mouthed spitfire, our hero must not only figure out how to win against a mysterious, chain-wielding opponent, but also how to deal with going to the bathroom in female form and finding out that the girl he's been crushing on has the hots for his female half.

Opinion: It's very rare for me to find a series which uses Gender Bending as a central premise that I actually kind of like (See Ranma 1/2 for an example of one that does it right). However, the idea is played with somewhat skillfully here, despite the sorta forced reveal that resident cutie Kaede (enthusiastically played by Megumi Nakajima of Macross Frontier fame) has a lesbian crush on the well-endowed female form of cookie-cutter wussboy Natsuru (played in both male and female forms by Marina Inoue of Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann). Aside from the eyecatches and the ending sequence, Natsuru's female form is not particularly played for pure fanservice, as it might be in just about any other production. For example, the scene where s/he tries to figure out how to use the little girls' room is amusing if only because it's presented as a short gag and not too much time is wasted on it.

This episode was largely made up of exposition, with the mousy librarian Akane explaining what she knows about the combat system after accidentally attacking Natsuru while she (Akane) was in her much more violent battle mode. There were a few gags thrown around to fill time (such as in-character jokes about how Akane and her talking eviscerated black rabbit plushie sound a lot like their respective CVs, Yui Horie and Yukari Tamura), and the episode was capped off with Natsuru and Akane being attacked by a mysterious assailant wielding a chain tipped with a blade. Hopefully the next episode will focus a bit more on the action and a bit less on comedy, although I'm not getting my hopes up too much.

To Aru Kagaku no Railgun (A Certain Scientific Railgun)

First episode rating: 5/5

Synopsis: Located somewhere in Japan, Academy City is a technological metropolis boasting science that is 20-30 years ahead of the rest of the world. This science has in turn lead to the discovery of psychic powers in human beings, and a good 80% of the city's population is made up of students who are working to develop their abilities. The third most powerful esper in the entire city is Mikoto Misaka, whose ability to create and manipulate electricity allows her to accelerate objects and launch them with violent force, hence earning her the nickname "Railgun". Despite her high level of power, Mikoto herself is an ordinary tomboyish girl who likes hanging out at arcades, eating sweets, and collecting frog goods. But she also has a strong sense of justice that drives her to get involved in incidents ranging from beating up on guys trying to coerce unwilling girls into going out with them, to espers using their powers to rob banks.

Opinion: First things first. Railgun is a spinoff, detailing the adventures of the ensemble darkhorse from last year's To Aru Majutsu no Index (A Certain Magical Index), and because of that, it would have been easy to have characters and concepts dropped in with little explaination and just move along riding the popularity of its originator, as many spinoffs are wont to do. However, one of the things making Railgun an excellent watch is that there is little to no knowledge of Index required to enjoy it thus far. The exposition is delivered at a slow pace (unlike Index's, which tended to consume the vast majority of any given episode), and terminology and backstories are given out in just enough detail to make it accessable to those who had never seen Index, while still keeping it short enough to allow for the majority of the episode to focus on showing the relationships between Mikoto and her friends who will be making up the core cast. The grand finale pits Mikoto and her associate Kuroko Shirai (who has teleportation powers and harbors an exaggerated lesbian crush on Mikoto) against a group of bank robbers, and is capped off by Mikoto using her trademark Railgun ability to shoot a coin at an oncoming car, thus striking it with enough force to actually flip it over.

JCStaff, the studio behind both Index and Railgun, has been catching a lot of flak lately for shows like Shakugan no Shana, which fizzled out in its second season, and Zero no Tsukaima, whose later seasons have been showing a marked decline in quality. However, if the first episode of Railgun is any indicator, there may still be a spark of life left in them. Here's hoping the rest of the show is just as good.

Nyankoi! (Mewlove!)

First episode rating: 4/5

Synopsis: The Kousaka family is made up of a mother and daughter, who both love cats, Nyamsas, the family pet and a large, mean-looking female black cat, and the eldest child, only son Junpei, who ironically is completely allergic to cats and must keept them at a distance of 1.5 meters. Because of his allergy, Junpei hates cats. This unfortunately causes a major problem in his life as one day, he accidentally beheads a statue of a cat whose spirit supposedly protects his town; and is promptly cursed with the ability to understand what cats are saying and vice-versa. Unless Junpei can perform one hundred good deeds for cats, he'll become one and quite possibly die of his allergies. His first task is to help out a trio of felines who are the victims of excessive cuddling at the hands of Kaede Mizuno, a bubbly girl who doesn't understand that her overly affectionate manner is causing them psychological stress. Unfortunately, Junpei happens to have a major crush on Kaede, as they are classmates. Whether or not Junpei successfully completes his deeds may just be up to Nyamsas, who has no qualms about playing dirty to get what she wants.

Opinion: What we have here is a somewhat typical love comedy peppered with some novel ideas. Most people (especially in Japan) like cats, but having a protagonist who is allergic to them and yet is the only one who can understand them is an amusing little paradox. The show is obviously opting to go more the comedic route than the romantic, which is fine by me since there are so few shows that do so these days. Nothing has been hysterically funny thus far (although Kaede's reveal that she loves yakuza stories because of how manly the characters are comes pretty damned close in my book), but it's a decent production and shows real promise. Unless it succumbs to the usual lovcom sins of fanservice and unnecessary drama, it should be an enjoyable watch.

White Album

Synopsis: The year is 1986. Aspiring idol singer Yuki Morikawa, having just taken a major step towards stardom by selling out a concert on a hotly contested Christmas Eve, looks to be on the fast track to happiness... Or at least, she would be if not for the fact that her boyfriend Touya has become alienated by Yuki's inability to find time for him. Touya, who aside from dealing with his frustration with Yuki, also has to deal with his father (whom he had a falling out with) having suffered a heart attack, as well as being caught in a web of attraction between himself, Yuki, Yuki's friend and fellow idol Rina, and Yuki's manager Yayoi.

Opinion: Strange as it may sound, airing a single two-season show over the course of three or four seasons by stopping broadcast for one or two seasons seems to be becoming a big fad in Japan for some reason, and White Album is simply the latest victim of this effect. The first thirteen episodes aired last fall, and the new season starts up right where the previous one left off, with no character reintroduction or flashbacks at all, contrary to one would expect.

That aside, White Album is crushingly real. The characters (Touya in particular) make foolish decisions and endanger their relationships with each other just like people in real life. Seeing Touya act like a complete jerk to his ailing father simply because the latter had told a visiting Yuki to return to her schedule and not wait for Touya's arrival makes him look the villain, despite ostensibly being the "hero" of this story. However, there are very few people in reality who could accept the fact that Yuki didn't have time to be hanging around, and that makes him (slightly) sympathetic. A later decision Touya makes at the end of the episode concerning Yayoi, who has been repeatedly attempting to have Touya use her as a "physical replacement" for Yuki, further villifies him despite the fact that many real people would do the same thing.

What ultimately makes White Album an interesting watch is that it has the drama of a soap opera, without the cliched and overdone plot devices that soap operas rely on.

Of course, what would a show about idol singers be without good music? Aya Hirano (who voices Yuki) and Nana Mizuki (Rina's voice) put their musical talents to good use by performing insert songs (and in Mizuki's case, the opening theme).

The Sacred Blacksmith

First episode rating: 3/5 (average)

Synopsis: Ever since the death of her father, Cecily Campbell has been bound and determined to succeed him as a knight in defense of her home, a trading city independant from surrounding kingdoms and empires. However, Cecily herself is inept and undertrained, and when faced with a crazed war veteran, is promptly knocked on her back, her sword and family heirloom broken. Cecily is saved by Luke, a mysterious young man wielding a sword of unusual design, which allows him to cut through the veteran's sword and defeat him. Cecily seeks Luke out to ask about his sword and who forged it, but Luke is unconcerned with others and refuses her questions. However, when they come under attack by monsters and Luke's "katana" is broken, he and his young elven companion Lisa reveal the sword's secret, that they are able to forge weapons in a short span of time through an unusual magic ritual.

Opinion: The "average" rating I've given this one is reflective of my feelings on two seperate aspects of the show. The first fifteen minutes are purely generic and uninteresting european fantasy coupled with a pitiful female lead who tries to act bold with her proclaimations of being a knight and upholding her family's honor, but who is such a poor fighter that she has to be saved by Luke not once, not twice, but thrice within that span. If I had to rate just that stuff, I'd probably (generously) award it a "2".

However, the last five minutes completely turn things around with a wonderfully well done action sequence, including Cecily finally showing that she just might have what it takes to become a proper swordswoman, and the unveiling of Luke and Lisa's magic smithy, which allows Luke to create a sword on the fly simply by placing in materials and speaking aloud the steps that would be used to create a weapon of real quality (nothing like the "pour-in-the-mold-and-cool" work that today's replica swordmakers use which ultimately yields brittle display pieces). This sequence is done with such love and attention to detail, that I'd probably give it a complete "5" if the entire show were as good.

So this leaves me with mixed thoughts because the show could go to either extreme, balance itself out somewhere in a mediocre middle (not that mediocrity is entirely a bad thing), or go someplace else entirely. It's really hard to say whether or not this one will be worth sitting through the whole way through, though I'd say that a lot of it depends on whether or not our heroine continues her pitiful losing streak or not. It's not a completely bad thing for a woman to be weak and protected, but when you're supposed to be a freaking knight, you'd expect a little more capability.

As a side note, a couple of minor gripes for me on this one are the katanas > western swords trend that Luke seems to embody, and Cecily's decidedly useless wardrobe, made up of a literal breastplate (there are a multitude of reasons why armor shaped to resemble boobs is just not a good idea), a frilly headband, a miniskirt, and kneesocks. It's not all that bad (especially compared to the near-nonexistant armor in Queen's Blade, which I won't even touch with a fifteen foot pole), but for a show that gives such careful detail to blacksmithing, it just seems kind of off...

The above series are the ones I've seen that I will most likely watch all the way to the end and return here to complain about/sing praises of once they've run their courses. Tune in next week for more.

- Azure out.