Friday, December 29, 2006

Higurashi Matsuri Fun


We* here at Moetic Justice have been bullish about Higurashi no Naku Koro ni for some time now. The show's iconography is unique and unforgettable, and its complex story richly rewards close scrutiny. The D.I.Y. aesthetic of the whole enterprise is charming: what started out as a doujin sound novel created by two brothers, "Ryukishi07" and "Yatazakura," has expanded into a minor industry of anime, manga and games.

I'm really looking forward to the new PS2 version of the sound novels, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Matsuri, which is coming out sometime soon, though nobody seems sure exactly when. The game will be a bit pricey (though hardly out of line for a Japanese game), especially for those of us who elect to purchase the special edition, with soundtrack and other goodies. Preorders, complete with creative romanization, are also being taken by NCS. Of course, several people I know will also be forking over big $$ for Japanese PS2s or mod-chips, pretty much for the sole purpose of playing Higurashi Matsuri. Friends of mine, see. You understand. There will even be a Higurashi memory card available for $35, which doesn't seem so bad after you've blown $200, plus shipping, on a semi-obsolete game console.

I like the new Matsuri art style. At risk of offending orthodox Higurashiists, I find the painted backgrounds to be an improvement over the originals, which were just photos run through filters. The new character designs are professional, though still with a certain quirky edge. I'm expecting great things in the voice-acting department, as well, and spoken dialogue will give even a Nihongo poseur like myself a fighting chance to follow along (the sound novels really are novels, and pretty much hopeless if you don't read Japanese at a reasonably high level). There is said to be more actual gameplay in Matsuri than in the sound novels (where gameplay consists of hitting the key to bring up the next line of text), with choices affecting which scenario plays out, and requirements for clearing the first four "question" chapters before moving on to the "answer" chapters.

I've already pointed out the Higurashi Matsuri opening at YouTube. A high-quality version is available to download at Famitsu, if you register there, and can also can be gotten here, sans game-magazine entanglements. All technically for free, though like m... er, my friends, you may find that viewing the OP sets you back a half a week's salary in new hardware and software.

Another YouTube amusement is this quick tour of the 3-D village of Shirakawa, which was the inspiration for Higurashi's Hinamizawa:
A walking tour of Hinamizawa

*My Rena Ryuuguu garage kit and I.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

A Heart of Winter: the 2006 Anime Year in Review

A Heart of Winter
or, The 2006 Anime Year in Review

It’s been an extraordinarily busy year for new anime; too busy, really, for anyone to follow it all. At least, too busy for anyone with obligations that don’t involve watching Japanese cartoons to follow it all.

Akagi faces his greatest challenge: Suzumiya Mahjong.

Below is a list of my “big five” anime for 2006. Such lists are bound to be idiosyncratic, affected by inscrutable personal opinion, and limited to what the author had the time and opportunity to sample. I’ve tried to incorporate some more-or-less objective criteria for my selections: did a show become widely known, and did it generate positive commentary and intelligent discussion among anime enthusiasts? Does it accomplish things—visually or with its story or characters—that haven’t been done a hundred times before? Does it possess the potential to influence the direction of future anime productions? Some shows that I’m rather fond of got excluded based on these criteria: Yume Tsukai was great, but it never caught on, and six months later is all but forgotten. However, in the end these are really just the five shows that kept me more entertained than all the rest.

Eyebrows will probably be raised by various omissions from this list. I don’t have any way of viewing new Japanese theatrical releases, so three movies that have garnered a lot of attention are perforce ignored: Paprika, Toki o Kakeru Shoujo (The Girl who Lept Through Time), and Gedo Senki (Tales from Earthsea). On the TV front, Ergo Proxy is outstanding in numerous respects, but I just haven’t gotten around to watching enough of it to comment usefully. Death Note is huge right now, and understandably so, but I’ve already written about it and don’t feel inspired to write more at the moment. Then there’s Nana, Utawarerumono, Air Gear, etc., etc… If I’ve neglected your favorite, write a comment!

5. Kanon
A remake of a TV series from four years ago, based on a famous tearjerker romance video game, Kanon is probably the shakiest choice for this list: a more detached analysis would probably swap it out in favor of Death Note. The Kanon story has been kicking around the memetic ecosystem for long enough that most anime fans will have some familiarity with it. The 2006 version has been so enjoyable and so skillfully executed, however, that I can’t resist talking a bit more about it, questions of originality be damned.

Yuuichi. Hold on, there are guys in Kanon?

The essential problem, I think, that faces adaptations of video games to anime or other non-interactive medium is this: games very often allow the player to follow multiple paths, experience different events, and interact with a manageable subset of an unwieldy cast of characters, depending upon decisions made in different playthroughs. Faced with the challenge of creating a single narrative from this type of source, most filmmakers opt for what is really a series of barely interconnected vignettes. The resulting anime might cover all of the characters and events that fans of the original game will be expecting to see, but is ultimately unsatisfying and incoherent.

The original Kanon anime from 2002 suffered severely from the one-episode-for-each-character game anime syndrome. The current version of Kanon seems to be consciously avoiding the typical pitfalls of game adaptation, and with great success, as of the halfway point through the series. Part of the secret is merely that 24 episodes provides enough space to comfortably accommodate several separate plotlines, with sensibly paced introductions and segues. But much credit also goes to director Tatsuya Ishihara and the rest of the crew at Kyoto Animation, who have clearly put considerable effort into creating an anime that stands on its own merits.

Various techniques are employed to make the 2006 Kanon into a unified work. Most obvious is the famous snow: meteorology functions as an almost personal continuing presence in the Kanon world. In too many anime that take place in cold climates, the settings look like the usual Tokyo metropolitan locales, with white spots drifting around and neat piles of snow sitting on top of the lollipop street trees. In contrast, the weather in Kanon is an omnipresent unifying force, starkly setting off the heartwarming interactions of the characters. And the icy setting veritably oozes authenticity: heavy wet flakes look almost black against misty skies on stormy, mild days, and crystalline flurries from a brief squall sparkle in the sun on pitilessly cold, clear days. Somewhat less authentic are the improbably short skirts favored by the young women of Kanon. But I, for one, am willing to chalk those up to moetic license.

Nayuki. The animation (the OP, anyway) actually looks like that. Good god.

The actual continuing personal presence in a bishoujo game-based anime is the Hero, an audience proxy who is, by convention, a complete nonentity. Kanon, however, takes the risk of investing its hero, Yuuichi Aizawa, with a personality, and this works wonders; the viewer actually winds up caring about the main character in a bishoujo anime. Tomokazu Sugita, an actor who has recently been getting some interesting roles, voices Yuuichi with a distinctive gentle sarcasm, and is certainly someone to listen for in the future.

4. Ouran Koukou Host-bu (Ouran High School Host Club)

Ouran High School Host Club struggles under many of the same burdens as Kanon, but doesn’t overcome them through narrative finesse. Instead, Ouran charges ahead, turning its weaknesses into strengths by maintaining a sense of humor about the absurdities of its genre. Ouran is—as the characters themselves discuss in one sequence—a reverse-harem show. Heroine Haruhi Fujioka is an ordinary-looking, middle-class girl who attends prestigious Ouran High School on a scholarship. Haruhi winds up working for the Host Club, a group of beautiful young men from wealthy and powerful families, who while away the hours providing elegant entertainment for the female students.

The Host Club (Haruhi in center).

Nothing in Ouran Host Club is done halfway. The school is a Versailles-esque shoujo manga fantasy, complete with acres of rose gardens and a clock tower that looks like Big Ben, but painted pink. The Hosts themselves are a series of shoujo manga fantasies, from the handsome but none-too-bright king of the Host Club, Tamaki Suou, to the adorable Mitsukuni “Honey-sempai” Haninozuka, and reaching a peak of female-oriented moe in the pseudo-incestuous twins Kaoru and Hikaru Hitachiin. It’s all so hilariously over the top that Ouran has generated a considerable following outside of its target demographic (16 year old girls, presumably), even to the point of being featured in a poster in Megami Magazine (a bishoujo-character monthly), despite the fact that it has only two female characters of any significance, one of whom looks like a boy.


As mentioned in the discussion of Kanon above, the main characters in harem shows are almost always audience proxies: blank-slates with whom the viewers can identify. In Ouran, the proxy is Haruhi, whose primary characteristic is that she is aggressively noncommittal. While the personalities and pasts of the Hosts are covered in great detail, she stays comfortably ambiguous. We do see a bit of Haruhi’s eccentric family now and then, but her inner life is almost a total mystery. The fevered imaginings of the Hosts, gamely struggling to understand the plebeian among them—and coming up with mental images of a glassy-eyed half-starved Haruhi clutching a package of expired convenience-store sushi—are far more memorable than any of the scant details of Haruhi’s real life that we learn.

Ouran Host Club is by all accounts one of the year’s best shoujo anime, but I think it falls short of what it could have been. Haruhi remained an enigma to the end—with only faint cracks in her façade emerging in the last few episodes—genially aloof and unresponsive to the abortive romantic advances of various Hosts. If a relationship between Haruhi and one of the Hosts had been allowed to develop, the plot might very well have bogged down in contrived adolescent angst, and the fans of all of the other Hosts may have been upset. But if handled with enough skill, some serious romantic developments might have lifted the show into the realms of shoujo greatness. I suppose that in the end, the manga author and animators didn’t want to risk it.

3. Higurashi no Naku Koro ni (When the Cicadas Cry)

Eight months after it started airing, Higurashi has settled in as part of the anime landscape, becoming a familiar and almost comfortable landmark for its fans. But even now, a late-night viewing of the opening—with its rumbling electronic score and images of unnatural flowers and unhappy girls—is likely to serve as a reminder the powerful, unnerving strangeness of the show.

Fan art of an uncharacteristically placid Shion.

Higurashi is difficult to describe, in part because of the absence of similar works to which it might be compared. It takes place in the tiny agricultural village of Hinamizawa, which is modeled after a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Gifu Prefecture. Hinamizawa is portrayed in bright, cheery watercolors, and the cartoonish character designs of the anime suggest a light school comedy. But, come sunset, the higurashi (evening cicadas, Tanna japonensis ssp. japonensis) begin their uncanny whistling calls, and the dark forested hills start to press a little too closely around the quaint dwellings and rice fields of Hinamizawa. As newcomer Keiichi Maebara gradually learns, the ancient town and its friendly inhabitants hold many secrets.

The Higurashi anime is based upon a series of doujin “sound novels”—amateur electronic books with carefully choreographed music, sound effects, and images—and is divided up into chapters that initially seem independent, but which gradually build into a picture of the events surrounded a local Shinto rite called Watanagashi, in June of 1983. Higurashi is at heart a horror/murder mystery tale, with occasional scenes of disturbing violence. But as with any good horror story, it takes its time building atmosphere before delivering its chills. Rena Ryuuguu’s iconic machete always features prominently in Higurashi illustrations, for instance, but she doesn’t do anything with it until the show is almost over. But after many hours of buildup, when the time is right for the machete to see some action, it’s intense: you hardly know whether to cheer, or to hide underneath the blankets with your fingers in your ears and every light in the house turned on. Nor does the horror in Higurashi depend solely on blood and guts: other potent sources of primal dread are tapped: betrayal of sacred trusts, biological and spiritual contamination, and disintegration of the self.

Rena stops by for dinner.

It must be said that the Higurashi anime had more than its share of problems, though most of them were of a superficial, if distractingly obvious, technical nature. The introduction, Onikakushi-hen (The Abduction by Demons Chapter) is probably the strongest of the six chapters animated so far; one might have hoped for a bit more attention to detail in the backgrounds, but the overall effect was amazingly intense. The series reaches a low point in the third chapter, Tatarigoroshi-hen (The Death by Curse Chapter), where you’d swear—and it pains me to say it because I truly love this anime—that Studio Deen was luring homeless people off the street and forcing them to draw a few cuts of Shion wigging out. Tatarigoroshi-hen was also the point of maximum incomprehensibility in the plot; the other chapters do get complicated, but it’s possible to work out viable explanations of what is going on. Tatarigoroshi has its moments (Keiichi’s car ride with Takano-san is vintage Higurashi), but degenerates into a series of non-sequiturs.

Aside from animation malfunctions, the other frustrating aspect of watching Higurashi, especially for those of us who are not qualified to read novels in Japanese, is that the last two of the original sound novel chapters were not animated. The neglected portions of the story include the “answer chapter” which explains Tatarigoroshi-hen, among other things. Fortunately, the dedicated fans at (Best Domain Name Ever.) are working on translations that can be applied to the original sound novels. There is a PS2 version of the sound novels coming soon, called Higurashi Matsuri, apparently with voice acting (there was no spoken dialogue in the original version), and extra chapters. Holy crap, I need to buy a Japanese PS2. And, the official Higurashi website has announced that there will be a second season of anime next year. There are bigger-name and no doubt bigger-budget projects in the pipeline for 2007, but Higurashi no Naku Koro ni 2 is what I’m going to be waiting for with bated breath.

A girl's best friend is her Woodman's Pal (fan art).

2. NHK ni Youkosou! (Welcome to the NHK!)

Higurashi included any number of scenes calculated to induce terror and suspense—The two teacups, The Thing behind Keiichi in the phonebooth, Shion’s “distinction”—but one of the scariest moments in anime in 2006 actually occurred in a comedy, Welcome to the NHK. After one of a string of crushing disappointments, the main character in NHK, Tatsuhiro Satou, imagines what life would be like in 30 years if he remains a hikikomori—a jobless social parasite secluded in his appartment playing videogames and watching anime—and the image is enough to send even the most stalwart fanboy/girl running screaming from the room.

An anime about a 22-year-old traumatized shell of a man, who locks himself in his room for weeks on end, sounds fairly dubious as a source of entertainment, but NHK has proven to be one of the most compulsively watchable series of the year. I get the strong impression that the original manga creators, Tatsuhiko Takimoto and Kendi Oiwa, as well as the anime staff, have more than an academic knowledge of the hikikomori/otaku lifestyle. NHK is uncomfortably real, and often unpleasant; the hikikomori antics in the manga, where Satou’s tastes in internet porn are made all-too explicit, and his self-medication goes beyond nicotine and alcohol, are only slightly more revolting than in the anime, and I’m sort of surprised by some of the things that made it past the TV censors.

Satou's hikikomori hole.

Nonetheless, there’s a definite voyeuristic thrill to any glimpse of a world that is inaccessible to normal people, and NHK provides plenty of opportunities to examine the closed world of the hikikomori. The characters in NHK are also an unexpectedly sympathetic bunch: they’re selfish losers, incongruously arrogant, and not a little unhinged, but you can’t help rooting for them as they struggle against their inevitable doom. Nor is the situation for Satou and friends entirely hopeless. Amid the marathon ero-game sessions, failed schemes to find gainful employment, and disastrous drunken phone calls to semi-girlfriends, the characters do occasionally manage to make progress towards finding their places in the real world.

Animation production for Welcome to the NHK was handled by Gonzo, of all studios, but early worries about their ability to deal with such an un-Gonzo-like project have proved mostly unfounded. The overall animation quality has been quite good, though a few episodes were obviously handled by a B-team. There are a few weak episodes in the middle of the series (why is it that stories set on desert islands are always the low point of any anime that includes them?), but the later episodes are superb. The designs are true to the manga (which is now available in English, by the way): attractive, but with a grim edge.

NHK is like reality, but with more girls.

The NHK anime is sure to draw new attention to the hikikomori phenomenon, and it will be interesting to see what people outside of Japan make of it. There is also an (unrelated to NHK) English-language non-fiction book available about hikikomori; author Michael Zielenziger argues that hikikomori-hood is mainly a reaction to the restrictive social structure of Japan. The NHK theory of the hikikomori is simpler, and strikes me as being more plausible: vulnerable individuals retreat into their own worlds because they can, because the structure of Japanese communities and families allows them to. It is estimated that there are a million hikikomori in Japan… I wonder how many there are in the U.S., and suspect that the number is small, but growing. Welcome to the Future!

1. Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuuutsu (The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya)

On the first day of high school, Haruhi Suzumiya introduces herself to the class with what is destined to become one of the all-time classic anime monologues: “I have no interest in ordinary humans. But if there are any aliens, time-travelers, people from alternate worlds or psychics here, come to me. That is all,” then sits down and glares at no one in particular. The only person who talks to her is Kyon, and he’s perfectly prosaic, so Haruhi decides to create her own club, the SOS Brigade.

The better half of the SOS Brigade (promotional art from Newtype).

Exactly what the SOS Brigade is supposed to do is a mystery even to its members, who are shanghaied seemingly at random from the student population. One thing you do know about the SOS Brigade right from the start is that they film an amateur—very amateur—sci-fi movie. You know this because 95% of the first episode of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is taken up by a showing of Haruhi’s movie, which just starts, without any explanation at all, as the show begins. The movie—“Mikuru’s Big Adventure”—is painfully, hilariously awful—if lovingly rendered with what looks to be some expensive animation—but by the time it finishes, and Haruhi faces the audience and proclaims, “That was great, wasn’t it!,” its pretty clear that you’re watching one of the best anime of the year.

Mikuru’s Big Adventure was the most inventive way to start a new anime that I’ve seen in years, and a perfect baptism-by-fire for one of the more complex anime viewing experiences in recent memory. The first episode seems almost designed to alienate some portion of the potential audience, as do various aspects of later episodes, such as the playfully erratic series chronology, and the periodic philosophical digressions into topics like the Strong Anthropic Principle and the Omphalos Argument. The folks at Kyoto Animation took a lot of chances with Haruhi, but they delivered, in style, every time, with smart writing, simply perfect animation and voice acting, and a sense of humor that was alternately wry and absurdist. Also, lots of really cute girls, with designs based on original illustrations for the novels by Noiji Itou (of Shakugan no Shana fame). It's all coming soon to the US, via Kadokawa and Bandai, at whom I am ready to throw fistfuls of money.

Haruhi grabs life by the school tie.

It has been pointed out (by Shingo of Heisei Democracy) that Haruhi and Welcome to the NHK share an important similarity: both are fundamentally stories about bright young people coping with a post-industrial, post-bubble, post-Eva society, in which their successes and failures alike are largely irrelevant. But while the characters in NHK wind up hiding in dark corners, hugging their knees and trembling, Haruhi marches right up to Society, grabs it by the tie, and forces it to fetch her a cup of tea. In Haruhi, the deadening influence of modern culture is metaphorically represented by “Closed Space,” an empty alternate world that threatens to replace the cosmos whenever Haruhi gets too melancholic. Closed Space is always beaten back, of course, when Haruhi’s natural enthusiasm and monolithic will reassert themselves, with a little help from the SOS Brigade.

Haruhi is an extraordinarily rich anime, and even the weaker episodes (the two desert island stories...) only look bland in comparison to the rest of the series; they're still better than just about anything else out there at the moment. The clear fan-favorite is the school festival episode, Live Alive, and the festival’s ENOZ concert. In Live Alive, the supremely self-absorbed Haruhi, miracle of miracles, volunteers to help a student band whose singer and bassist are incapacitated. The concert looks like it’s going to be a joke: Haruhi is not the best singer or guitarist in world, and she’s wearing a bunny suit. She’s recruited Yuki Nagato, the SOS Brigade’s “silent character,” to play bass, and Yuki is still in the witch costume from her fortune-telling booth. But when the concert starts, the audience, on both sides of the TV screen, is helplessly drawn in: it’s remarkably effective, and I have to admit to getting a little choked up when watching this scene. Outside of the school auditorium, it has started raining, and the world is cold and gray, while inside, Haruhi is pouring her heart out on stage, and once again the SOS Brigade has foiled the creeping advance of Closed Space. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is a strong early contender for anime of the decade.

Yuki rocks.

Well, that’s it for 2006. In 2007, I’ll be looking forward to a return visit to Hinamizawa in Higurashi 2, and to more overpowered magical girl combat in Nanoha StrikerS. Makoto Shinkai (of the jaw-dropping one-man OAV Hoshi no Koe) is directing a new film, 5 Centimeters per Second, and Gainax is promising to release the first of a series of new theatrical productions that re-imagine the quintessential anime of the 1990s, Evangelion. Director Hideaki Anno is supposed to be involved, so maybe it won't just be a FLCL crypto-sequel with lots of Eva references.

Happy New Year!

Friday, December 01, 2006

Addendum: Autumn 2006 Anime

I've caught some additional fall series since October, and a couple of new anime have started up. Here are a few thoughts:

Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion
It doesn't bode well for an anime when it starts up with an involved explanation of near-future conflicts, complete with pseudo-archival footage and maps of troop movements. Code Geass takes place sometime after the 2010 invasion of Japan by the Britannia Empire, who enforce a repressive, borderline genocidal occupation with powered suits called Knightmare Frames. Lelouch (image, right) is a Britannian student with a grudge against his countrymen, who obtains mind-control powers and, shortly thereafter, his own Knightmare Frame, via the usual route to such things: releasing a mysterious girl (image, left) from a tube that was stolen from a top-secret military project.

Code Geass clearly owes a lot to Gasaraki, from mechanical designs (handsomely animated, by the way) right down to the strong theme of Japanese nationalism. Unlike Gasaraki, Geass doesn't seem to have a whole lot going on upstairs. Character design duties were given to--wait for it--CLAMP, possibly in an attempt to attract some kind of female audience to a Sunrise robot show, frequently a tough sell for the XX chromosome set.
Watching?: no.

Kekkaishi (Barrier Masters)
For centuries, the Sumimura and Yukimura clans have been patrolling the site of a castle that was overrun by evil spirits, and feuding with each other over who is the true successor to the guardianship of the location. In the present day, a school has been built over the ruins. Yoshimori (image, right) and Tokine (image, left)--the newest kekkaishi from the two families--compete every night to see who can seal and destroy the spirits that are constantly trying to sneak onto the school grounds.

Watching Kekkaishi is probably the most fun I've had with a shounen fighting anime since the early episodes of Bleach. All the elements you expect from a good shounen brawler are there--appealing characters, inventive visual setting, creative ass-kicking, and old fashioned storytelling skill--along with surprisingly high production values. Strongly recommended, if you have any interest in the genre.
Watching?: yes.

Kujibiki Unbalance (Lot-drawing Unbalance)
"Kujian" is the anime-within-the-anime that the characters in otaku-comedy Genshiken watch, which, in an alarming bid to retcon reality, has now become an actual TV anime. Three random episodes (the Kujian OAVs), from a hypothetical 26-episode series, had been made for use as props in the Genshiken anime, and were included as bonus material on the Genshiken DVDs. The OAVs are good fun, hinting at a show that is a brain-damaged melange of anime set-pieces, from cooking contests and RPG-ish adventure to hard-boiled gunplay and mahjong tournaments with the Yakuza.

With 12 episodes to fill, Kujian TV is more or less forced to develop a coherent plot, and to forego many of the stranger elements of the OAVs. It succeeds tolerably well: I like the new, more subdued character designs, and the less-insane personalities of the characters. It's kind of bland, though; for example, I'm really missing the manic OAV opening theme, which came courtesy of the chipmunk-voiced musical group Under 17. In an amusing touch, the cast of Genshiken narrates the previews, and the DVD release will include all-new bonus episodes of Genshiken.
Watching?: maybe.

Soukou no Strain (Strain, the Play of Light)
The simplistic character designs and stiffly-animated 3D CG robots of Soukou no Strain don't hold out a lot of promise, but then along comes the opening scene, where young Sara Werec (image, the blonde) bids a tearful farewell to her big brother Ralph, who is heading off to fight an interstellar war, and won't return until centuries after Sara is dead. Gunbuster sense... tingling! It's been four long years since Hoshi no Koe, and I've been jonesing for some hot relativistic combat in a new anime.

Sara joins the military as a candidate "Reasoner," which is nicely evocative jargon for giant robot pilot (the robots are called "Strains"). A disastrous betrayal during her training forces Sara down a different path to the place where her brother has gone; to say any more would spoil the plot. It's hard to tell whether Soukou no Strain is going to be worthwhile. The budget is low, and the pacing is funny, with much of the potential melodrama expended abruptly in the first episode. Then there's Emily, a doll containing cultured neurons, which (whom?) Sara needs in order to pilot her Strain. Is Emily endearing, or just creepy? I haven't decided. The space-opera aspects have been weak so far, but I'm holding out hope for future developments.
Watching?: probably, just in case. Damn, I need my subtitled Gunbuster DVDs.

Briefly Considered:
Gift: Eternal Rainbow. Bishoujo anime of the childhood-friend variety; the sort of thing that Kujian parodies.
Happiness!. More bishoujo game-based anime. The character designs are some of the best of the fall, or rather the most congruent with my tastes in moe, but the character animation is extremely uneven.
Kateikyoushi Hitman Reborn. Instantly and profoundly obnoxious kids' show about a pint-sized Sicilian assassin who frees people from their inhibitions by shooting them in the head with a magical handgun. Chances of this getting licensed in America: zero.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Autumn 2006 Anime Rundown II

Here’s the second half of the alphabet for fall 2006 anime (Part I is here)…

Lovely Idol
With a title like “Lovely Idol,” there isn’t much room for doubt about the contents of this show. The character designs are appropriately ultra-moe, and reasonably animated. The voice actresses are treacly. And there’s lots and lots of idol music; literally about a quarter of the first episode is musical interlude, and most of that comes before the main characters have even been introduced. If you like this sort of thing, go for it.
Watching?: no.

Negima!? Magister Negi Magi
Negima’s original author, Ken Akamatsu, is one of the biggest names in modern manga. So, it’s one of the great mysteries of anime that the TV adaptations of Akamatsu’s works have been so uniformly inadequate. Looking at the 2005 version of Negima, for instance, one is struck by the low-rent animation, limp OP, and most critically, the insertion of god-awful Wacky Highjinks in place of anything that might have been funny or charming or slightly naughty in the manga.

In general, Negima!? is a step up from the 2005 version: the usual problems are still there, but they’re not quite as serious. The animators have cleverly decided to pretend that the earlier series was never made, and start over with boy wizard Negi’s (image, center) arrival in Japan, and first day at his new job teaching middle school. The characters look odd in stills, but when animated manage to sustain a certain resemblance to Akamatsu art, if you squint. I’ll stick with the manga, thanks.
Watching?: probably not.

Otome wa Boku ni Koi Shiteru (That Maiden Loves Me [with “me” written as “older sister”])
High-powered interpersonal politics and convoluted yuri (girl’s love) relationships are de rigueur for anime set at the (purely imaginary?) elite parochial boarding schools of Japan. Modern examples of the genre, probably taking their cues from Shoujo Kakumei Utena, have much of the external form of shoujo anime, while also being tailored, in whole or in part, to a male audience.

Oto-Boku” is this fall’s closest approach to the girl’s school yuri genre, though it contains certain heretical elements. First and foremost, the possibilities for yuri frisson are much reduced by the fact that the main character, Mizuho (image, left), is really a boy disguised as a girl. As an aside, I have discovered that you can get a fairly gratifying reaction out of figure-collecting friends, who have bought Mizuho models solely on the basis of cute design, by informing them of this plot twist. The tone is relatively light, and the fanservice, while thin on the ground, is more of the prancing-around-in-sheer-negligee-type, as opposed to the traditional blushing-during-awkward-silence-type.
Watching?: maybe.

Pumpkin Scissors
Not that the title provides any indication, but this is a military action show set in an alternate post-World War I Europe. Alice is the enthusiastic young lieutenant leading Pumpkin Scissors, a war relief unit. She takes in Oland (image), a shell-shocked gentle giant who was formerly part of a shadowy and much-feared group of tank-killers. Alice, Oland, and comrades are under-funded and ill prepared for the work, but they set out to right wrongs and protect the weak in the lawless, burned out mess of a world that the war has left behind.

With a grittier atmosphere and more visual inventiveness, Pumpkin Scissors would have been an easy recommendation. As it is, the animation is kind of flat, and the mood is cheerier than it has any right to be. Oland’s corpse-candle lantern, which he unshutters when it’s time for some evildoer to get blasted to hamburger, is a memorable touch, at least.
Watching?: maybe.

Red Garden
Set in New York City, or a close Studio Gonzo approximation thereof, Red Garden starts with the mysterious death of a highschool student, and follows four classmates who have lost their memories of the fatal night. Our heroines start to see butterflies that are invisible to everyone else, and are led to a woman who informs them that they have been drafted as werewolf hunters.

Based on past Gonzo experience, I fear that Red Garden is going to devolve into a cheesily-animated sequence of meandering, pointless storylines and grotesque bloodbaths. In a less-crowded season I might stick around to see if it goes anywhere, but there are too many superior viewing possibilities out there right now.
Watching?: no.

SumomomoMomomo: Chijou Saikyou no Yome
(Both Sumomo and Momo: The Strongest Bride on Earth)
Momoko (image, center) is the heir to a family of ninjas, and engaged to marry Koushi, also of ninja extraction. Momoko’s father has decided that a woman can’t take over his school of martial arts, and that the best option for preserving the family legacy is for Momoko to produce a son, as soon as possible. Appallingly, Momoko agrees, and starts trying to seduce Koushi. The running joke here is that Momoko is actually very powerful, while fiancée Koushi thinks only of his dream of becoming a lawyer. Handled with great skill, this premise might be pretty funny, but handled poorly, as it looks like it is being handled, it will get annoying very quickly.
Watching?: no.

Super Robot Taisen OG: Divine Wars (Super Robot Wars OG: Divine Wars)
Back in the heyday of the Sega Saturn, I spent many a late night playing the Super Robot Taisen games. The games’ strategic play was addictive, but the real attractions were the robots: a buffet of justice-dispensing mechanical demigods, taken from most of the major robot anime up to that point, awaiting my commands. Add to that cutscenes of beloved characters from the various shows—picture Bright Noah and Gendou Ikari bitching at each other about how they’re going to fight the final battle with Dr. Hell—and you’re in robot fanboy Valhalla.

Anyhow, there will be absolutely nothing like that in Super Robo OG, because the OG stands for Original Generation, meaning all-new, non-anime, game-original characters and robots. Unless you’re a fan of the recent OG games, I can’t imagine any reason to subject yourself to this show.
Watching?: not unless someone pays me, which seems unlikely.

Tokimeki Memorial: Only Love
Coincidentally, the other videogame that laid waste to vast chunks of my youth in the mid to late ‘90s was Tokimeki Memorial, one of the first bishoujo games, and an important source for the conventions of modern bishoujo games and anime. Tokimemo: Only Love is based on a recent sequel, Tokimemo Online, with which I am unfamiliar, but which sounds intriguing. How exactly does an online dating-sim work? Do players from all over Japan compete for the affections of the virtual young women? Or do some play as the girls (as the website tagline “boys & girls school community game” would seem to indicate)? The mind boggles.

In Only Love, Riku is the name given to the Hero, with Sayuri (image) playing the role of Shiori-tan. Kirameki High alumni such as myself will be amused to see old game standbys like the dorky friend of the hero who keeps track of biographical information on the girls; the uninitiated will probably find these touches distracting. I can’t say I much care for Only Love’s comic moments, which run towards the frantic, as opposed the low-key, distinctively strange sense of humor I recall from the 1990s games.
Watching?: yes, but mostly for nostalgia value.

Tenpo Ibun Ayakashi Ayashi [~translation beyond me~]
It’s 1800’s Japan, and refugees, fleeing from starvation and monsters in the countryside, are overrunning Edo. Yukiatsu, a warrior with a connection to the red-lit Other World of the demons, is laying low among the refugees, but is forced to come out of hiding in order to protect a mother and child.

Ayakashi Ayashi is the latest from studio Bones, so you can be sure it will be a solid production, with some interesting visual elements, such as the portrayal of the Other World as an animated silk painting. Samurai drama/action is not really my thing, but fans of the genre will probably do well to look into this one.
Watching?: probably not.

Yamato Nadeshiko Shichi Henge (Seven Apparitions of the Traditional Japanese Beauty)
Four handsome but impoverished boarders at a fabulous mansion are challenged by their landlord to transform the heroine, Sunako, into a true lady. There are complications, of course: Sunako looks and acts like one of the pale, stringy-haired ghouls from Ju-on (The Grudge). Wackiness ensues.

Yamato Nadeshiko is basically a harem show for girls, and is burdened by the same canalization of story and character that affects all harem shows. It might still have been a lot of fun, though, even for male viewers (cf. Ouran Host Club). The whole J-horror parody aspect, for instance, has proven to be a rich source of laughs for other anime (cf. Muteki Kanban Musume). It just doesn’t click here, at least in part because of what looks to be a pathetically low budget.
Watching?: no.

Yoake Mae Yori Ruriiro na Crescent Love (Brighter than the Dawning Blue: Crescent Love)
Yoake Mae…etc. begins with a flashback to a devastating space war between Earth and her Lunar colonies, portrayed in stylin’ Gunbuster-esque black and white. The plot picks up many years after the war, when Earth civilization has rebuilt itself exactly to the level of early 21st century Japan. And then all of this backstory becomes irrelevant, as Moon princess Feena (image, right) moves in with ordinary Earth boy Tatsuya (image, left) as a homestay student, and Yoake Mae turns into a fair-to-middling harem show (of the male oriented variety). Among various issues that plague this show: the intricate, game-derived character designs are nice in theory, but were apparently more than the animators could handle on a consistent basis.
Watching?: probably not.

And that’s another 20% of the latest TV anime. For various reasons, I’ve missed a few things that I meant to cover, like Kujibiki Unbalance (the DVD release of which will include bonus Genshiken episodes!), Happiness, and Black Blood Brothers. Overall, while there probably isn't anything in the S-ranked, Instant Classic category this fall, there are plenty of potential entertainments. Death Note and Kanon are the best and most obvious examples, but there are others, as well as plenty of guilty pleasures.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Autumn 2006 Anime Rundown I

It's another busy anime season this fall, with more than 50 new shows starting up. Imagine: it would be more than a half-time job, with no lunch breaks, just to keep up with the anime that started airing in the past month, let alone the longer series from the summer, or stuff that's been going since the Silurian, like One Piece. Horror anime are overrepresented, which I suppose is a sign that Halloween is catching on in Japan. The association of October with ghost stories and spooky goings-on is (or was) mostly a British and American idea, with late summer being the traditional height of ghost season in Japan.

Here's a sample of what's coming out this fall, with my commentary based on the first episode or two. At the end of each entry, I indicate whether I plan on following the series or not.

Asatte no Houkou (The Course for the Day After Tomorrow)
Hiro and his little sister Karada live by themselves in a small town out in the country. Shouko (image) arrives from the city, apparently with some sort of past connection to the town, and to Hiro. Karada, who is worried that she's a burden on her brother, makes a wish at a roadside shrine while Shouko looks on, and the shrine grants her wish in an unexpected way...

That description is pretty concrete, and it doesn't really capture the feel of this show, which is peculiarly laid-back and vaporous. I get the impression that I'm missing something important as Asatte no Houkou goes through its languorous paces, though there might not be anything to miss: I suspect it's a mood piece, as opposed to one of your more traditional plot-oriented anime.
Watching?: maybe.

Black Lagoon: The Second Barrage
The "Baddest Motherfuckers in Asian Seas"--as the dustjackets of the first couple of volumes of the manga proclaim, in English--return, nearly three months after the original Black Lagoon ended its run. It's a delayed continuation of the first series, starting with episode 13, and using the same OP and ED as the original. No big changes in the content, either: Revy (image) scowls and looks good in short shorts, things explode in creative and interesting ways, Triad goons and colorful Russian mafia characters give each other a hard time, and salaryman-turned-bounty-hunter Rock acts as the Voice of Reason. Essentially, it's a John Woo-inspired Hollywood bone-cruncher done as anime. One critical difference from the first season to take into consideration: this time around there are way many more incestuous vampiric child-soldier twins.
Watching?: probably not.

Busou Renkin (Alchemic Arms)
What is it with anime heroes who get killed, symbolically or literally, in the first episode, then are resurrected to fight for justice, as happens to Kazuki (image, at right) in Busou Renkin? Is it just that people liked Yuu Yuu Hakushou, or is there something deeper going on? I smell fodder for a comparitive literature dissertation.

Busou Renkin is looking like a fairly mediocre example of this genre, with Kazuki and Tokiko (image, with pointy bits) using the power of alchemy to defend the world from homunculi. People liked HagaRen, too.
Watching?: no.

D. Gray-man
Lurid horror and fighting anime meet, by way of a Shounen Jump manga. Allen Walker (image, center) is an exorcist in 19th century England, battling the Millennium Earl (image, left) and his legion of Akuma (devils). The highlight here is the crazy Victorian/sci-fi ambiance, which I rather like. However, any chance for the development of tension, or an atmosphere of supernatural dread, is pretty much thrown out the window in the first episode, which includes a detailed explanation of what is going on and who needs to have his ass kicked. As near as I can tell (and I haven't read the manga), D. Gray-man is going to be an Akuma-of-the-week show.
Watching?: no.

Death Note
Death Note chronicles a deadly game of cat and also cat--as one of my Venture Brothers-watching friends put it--based on the manga by Tsugumi Ooba and Takeshi Obata (half of the Hikaru no Go team). "Light" (image, left) is an ambitious and talented highschool student, bored with his lot in life. Ryuk (image, background) is an ambitious and talented shinigami (death spirit), bored with his lot in the afterlife. Their paths cross when Ryuk leaves his Death Note--a notebook with the power to kill anyone whose name is written inside--in the human world, and Light picks it up.

You can imagine how most people would use a Death Note, if they used it at all, so Ryuk and the viewer are kinda surprised when they catch up with Light, who has written hundreds of names on its pages in just a few days. Light has come up with a plan to make the world a better place by killing off as many criminals as he can, in a way that makes it clear that the Wrath of God, or something close, awaits anyone who seriously violates the social contract. Interpol gives their greatest mind, luckily known to the public only as "L," the task of tracking down the mysterious killer. Thus begins a titanic intellectual struggle, in which both Light and L race to be the first to discover the other's true identity. Death Note is gripping in its morbid logic, with smooth and richly detailed animation. It'd be perverse to deny it a spot among the best anime of 2006, if it maintains anything like the quality of the first episodes.
Watching?: yes.

Galaxy Enjeruun: Galaxy Angel II
The latest of what have actually been half a dozen Galaxy Angel shows, courtesy of Broccoli, the Halliburton of the moe-industrial complex. There's a new cast of characters, though they map neatly onto the old cast of characters, and the premise of cute-girl troubleshooters having silly adventures in space remains the same. Some of the gags are fairly amusing, and the animation looks nice (I like the newsprint-style halftone opening), but at the end of the day it's hard to escape the fact that Galaxy Angel II is geared towards viewers who found Dirty Pair Flash a little hard to follow.
Watching?: no.

Ghost Hunt
Kazuya Shibuya, boy paranormal investigator and head of Shibuya Psychic Research, is staking out a haunted school building. Mai, a student of the school, stumbles onto the scene and injures Kazuya's assistant. Mai gets pressed into service for the investigation, and is joined by a motley collection of spiritualists, mediums, a miko (shinto shrine maiden, though none of the characters quite believe that she's a maiden), and a pretty-boy Catholic priest. Ghost Hunt, at least in the first episode, nicely balances character development, comic relief, and understated creepiness, and should be worth keeping an eye on. As of the first episode, it's somewhat unclear whether there even are real ghosts; it'd be amusing if the plot took the Scooby-doo route (i.e., old man Takada is using a movie projector and mirrors to scare people off, so he can tear down the school and build a maid cafe).
Watching?: maybe.

Hataraki Man (Work Man)
I don't think I'm clever enough to describe this show in a way that doesn't make it sound incredibly dull, but trust me, it's worth checking out. Matsukata (image) is an earnest young reporter who summons the spirit of Hataraki Man when she's got hold of an important story, enabling her to go without food, sleep, bathing other important things, until the job is done. The cast of characters is strong and carefully fleshed out, the animation is solid, and there are plenty of grown-up themes, including a pervasive but not overblown idealism about the role of a free press. One jarring element in an otherwise mature and sophisticated anime is the sexism inherent in the Hataraki Man phenomenon: in order to reach her full potential, Matsukata must adopt a masculine persona.
Watching?: probably.

Jigoku Shoujo: Futakomori (Hell Girl: The Two Prisoners)
The sequel to last year's Jigoku Shoujo serves up similar fare: stylish, beautifully gloomy animation, traditional Japanese chills in a modern setting, and heaping servings of ice-cold Revenge. Ai (image, manning the oar) is the Hell Girl of the title, a spirit forced to wander the Earth, exacting vengeance upon the wicked on behalf of those who contact her through her website. All that she asks of her petitioners, is that they join her for the boat ride to Hell after their natural deaths.

Jigoku Shoujo is more or less episodic: I'm guessing we'll see one act of revenge per episode most of the time, and not many continuing characters besides Ai and her lackeys. Still, there is more psychological complexity to this show than you might expect, and I'm finding it to be one the most enjoyable of the many new horror anime available this Halloween.
Watching?: yes.

[Prelude video on YouTube] Mmmmm... pretty. The Kanon franchise began in 1999 as a PC bishoujo game, regarded by connoisseurs as one of the all-time greats, with a powerfully affecting story and memorable cast of characters. It was ported to various consoles, and in 2002 received a respectable though abbreviated anime treatment. Anticipation has been running high for the present remake, from production house Kyoto Animation, who ruled the spring 2006 season with the delightful Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Kanon does not disappoint.

Highschooler Yuuichi Aizawa moves to the snowy north of Japan to stay with his cousin Nayuki, and gradually begins to recover some not-entirely-happy memories of his time there seven years ago. Exploring his new school and town, amid snow squalls and wan winter sunlight, Yuuichi meets the people with whom he shares a dimly-remembered past, including Mai, the local demon hunter (the supernatural battles are going to be insanely well-animated, if Kyo-Ani's work on Haruhi is any indication), and Ayu (image), taiyaki thief and She of the Winged Backpack.

Everything about Kanon--animation, voice acting, backgrounds, music, everything--is top-notch, simply orders of magnitude better than the other romantic comedies/dramas airing right now. The character designs look like complex constructions of colored glass, and they move, too. Settings are lovingly portrayed, with glorious attention to detail. Even the slapstick comic relief is outstanding: the scene where Makoto gets a gelatinous slab of konnyaku down the back of her PJs just about killed me. I only expect it to get better as it moves into more serious territory.
Watching?: oh god yes.

OK, that's 20% of the autumn anime. Check back soon for part II: Lovely Idol through Yoake Mae Yori Ruriiro na~Crescent Love.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Summer 2006 Anime Rundown

Just in time for the start of the fall anime season (well, not even on time for that, really...), here are reviews of some of the summer season shows:

Binbou Shimai Monogatari (Tales of the Poor Sisters)
Kyo and Asu are young sisters trying to get by on their own--living in a run-down one-room apartment, working odd jobs, and keeping a close eye the sales fliers from the local shops--after their saintly mother dies and their lowlife father abandons them. This sounds a bit depressing, but the mood is generally more hopeful than otherwise. The pacing of this show is nothing if not deliberate; really, nothing much happens in a given episode, with a representative plot being: Kyo decides to attend parents day at Asu's school, and struggles to rearrange her schedule and aquire some nice clothes in order to do so.

I have a weakness for these sorts of slow, calm stories about bohemian poverty, probably as a result of my own ca. 15-years in various university settings, so I'm possibly enjoying Binbou Shimai more than most will. It's not quite in the same class as Yoshitoshi Abe's efforts along these lines, like Niea _7 and Haibane Renmei, but still recommended.

Coyote Ragtime Show
Anyone who's been following anime over the past 10 years will be able to intuit about 80% of what goes on in Coyote Ragtime Show, just from knowing the title and the fact that it's set in a space-faring society in the distant future. Certain things are a given: the setting on wild-west frontier planets; the busty and heavily-armed government agent Angelica; Angelica's earnest but slightly dim partner Chelsea; and "Mister," the manly super-criminal, who is rumored to be hiding out at a top security prison. So far, so good.

The 20% of Coyote Ragtime Show that you couldn't have predicted manifests itself about 3/4 of the way through the first episode, when, in the middle of the hunt for Mister, 12 gothic lolita androids parachute from the sky and start slaughtering everyone who's not a named character, to no obvious purpose. This show's a train wreck, if a well-animated and modestly entertaining train wreck.

Chocotto Sister
It's Christmas morning, and a somewhat trashy-looking woman identifying herself as Santa hovers up to the Audience Identification Character's window on an air-bike, and leaves a present for him. The present is a 10 year old girl, who claims to be the A.I.C.'s new little sister, and who the AIC names Choco. Abunai, abunai! That premise, like a lot of things about Chocotto Sister, emphatically does not warrant closer examination. Taking its cues from one of the creepier subgenres of bishoujo game, Chocotto Sister's tenuous veil of innocent respectability is constantly fraying. Still, there is a certain fascination in watching it teeter at the edge of the abyss...

Sci-fi about some kind of robotic/alien menace, and the Saishuu Heiki Kanojo-esque heroine who is the only one who can stop them. Told in 4-minute (!) episodes, with one minute devoted to the OP (!!), Hanoka dispenses with the niceties of atmosphere, character development and plot, and gets straight to the military jargon and stuff blowing up, which is probably rendered about as well as it could be, given that this is supposedly the first Flash animation ever to be broadcast on Japanese TV.

Hachimitsu to Clover II (Honey & Clover II)
Charming and stylish anime J-drama, centered on a group of eccentric art students, and their byzantine webs of relationships. The first episode is a recap of H & C, but after that it appears to be all new material, though the look and feel of the original remain, right down to the distinctive earth-tone palette of the animation. Even the OP keeps its art-project theme, although I was relieved to see that the inexplicably disturbing stop-motion food tableaus of the original did not return. I love this show, though at times my asocial otaku brain stuggles to keep it all straight.

Hoshizora Kiseki (Miracle of the Starry Sky)
A one-shot, half-hour amateur OAV released by CoMiX Wave, who are famous for handling Makoto Shinkai's Hoshi no Koe (Voices of a Distant Star). An ordinary girl on a camping trip to view shooting stars, meets a mysterious boy who is confined to a bulky pressure suit and involved in a secret investigation of an orbiting alien spacecraft. It's pretty impressive for doujin anime, but all kinds of loose ends are left when everything wraps up, and the development of the two characters is predictable and unsatisfying; good effort, but this is not a new Hoshi no Koe.

Innocent Venus
Bandai Visual's slick new action-thriller is set in a gloomy dystopian future, where the elites live in a walled city amid the ruins of Tokyo, and tanks of explosive gas are left lying around the abandoned subway stations. Said subway stations are the backdrop for the spectacular machine gun and powered-suit battles waged between fascist goons and our heroes, Jin and Jo, who are protecting a little girl named Sana (no, sadly not THAT Sana) who is wanted by the government for some nefarious purpose. There's a street-smart ragamuffin, as well, and I defy you not to wish that he would wander into one of the streams of depleted uranium that are constantly sweeping across the scenery.

The 3D-CG battle sequences are definitely where the money went, and they're done with a level of technical excellence heretofore associated primarily with CG mecha extravaganzas from studio Gonzo. They're also on the gory side, and can feel out of place if not downright distasteful: Innocent Venus does not really have the gravitas (what with the annoying urchins and all) to match its sky-high body count. It doesn't help that bits and pieces of the action are lifted directly from Metal Gear Solid games... I got to the end of ep. 2 (snickering through the chaff grenade sequence), but doubt I'll proceed any further.

Muteki Kanban Musume (Invincible Pretty Daughter of the Shopkeep, Used to Attract Customers) (more or less.)
The latest addition to the Shopping Arcade Martial Arts genre of anime. Our anti-heroine is Miki, the violent, vulgar, easily distracted, and generally reprehensible daughter of the owners of a blue-collar ramen joint. Her rival is Megumi, who works at the French bakery across the street, and puts on a good show, at least, of being more classy and cultured than Miki. A typical episode follows Miki and Megumi as they fight a lot, egg-on the neighborhood delinquents, beat the snot out of punks, engage in absurd shopping district competitions, fight some more, get freaked out by the gym teacher who looks exactly like you-know-who from The Ring, and finally call it quits after Miki is beaten into submission by the only force she fears: Her stocky middle-aged mother. Shakespeare it ain't, but I'm enjoying it.

NHK ni Youkoso! (Welcome to the NHK!)
The first episode of NHK consists largely of following Satou--a young man who is a hikikomori (self-imposed shut-in)--as he kills time within the cramped apartment that he has hardly stepped outside of for the past three years. Satou is slowly being driven insane by boredom, cheep beer and cigarettes, isolation, and the soul-crushing barrage of noxious anime themes seeping through the walls from the unseen occupant of the apartment next door. The sole interruptions come from an odd girl named Misaki, who shows up claiming that she knows the cure to hikikomorihood. Satou decides to play along, if only to humor the cute and appealingly unreadable Misaki. Things mainly go downhill from there... lordy, just wait until the episode where Satou discovers ero-games.

I don't know if I'd call NHK exactly "funny." It's probably the cleverest thing on Japanese TV this summer, with one brilliant piece of black humor after another, but the material is too awful and too real to be classed simply as comedy. As with its spiritual predecessors Otaku no Video and Genshiken, watching NHK frequently gives rise to the uneasy feeling that one has been in 3-D versions of the situations and conversations on the screen. This is my pick of the summer; probably the only new anime that comes close is Honey & Clover II.

Night Head Genesis
Naota and Naoya are brothers with psychic powers, taken from their parents to be raised in a research facility sealed off from the outside world. After many years, the death of the facility's director allows the brothers to return to civilization, with potentially catastrophic results. If you can suppress the taglines from X that will be periodically springing to mind ("There are two Naotas."), and ignore the goony title, Night Head shows a good deal of promise.

Project Blue Chikyuu SOS (Project Blue Earth SOS)
Retro-futuristic sci-fi created by animators in the year 2006 imagining what writers in 1959 would think that the year 2000 would be like. Boy geniuses Billy Kimura and Penny Carter--along with a cast of assorted scientists' daughters, ace pilots and loyal dogs--shoulder the responsibility of defending the Earth's capitol city, Metropolitan, from a fleet of UFOs that conventional military forces are powerless against. It's all good, clean, old-school fun, but it feels forced-- you may be better off watching Giant Robo again on the shiny new region-1 DVDs that are now available.

Main-character-type highschool girl Kazuki is still vaguely pining for the boy who lived in the house next door many years ago, when she learns that his family is moving back in to their old place. However, Yuuji (the boy) has changed since childhood, reaching almost Ataru Moroboshi levels of adolescent letchery. Eh... I've seen it before, and I don't care for the place where it is inevitably going.

More highschool romantic comedy shenanigans, this time involving an all-tsundere female cast. It seems like the sort of thing that I could get into, but I can't remember much of anything about the show, from a viewing a few weeks ago, beyond the bare-bones description above. I have to assume that it didn't impress me.

For those not in the loop (like me, until recently), "tsundere" is a highly useful bit of modern anime-fan slang, describing the personality of a girl who is haughty, easily-angered, sharp-tongued, and maybe a bit aloof (that is, tsun-tsun), but with a softer, caring side that surfaces under the right circumstances (the dere-dere phase). Think Nadia or Souryuu Asuka Langley, the Ur tsundere-girls.

Zero no Tsukaima (Zero's Familiar)
An amusing bit of fluff, apparently based on a fairly racy novel that received the Bakuretsu Hunter treatment. Louise "The Zero" Valiel is an arrogant but inept young sorceress, whose magic academy is given the task of summoning familiars. Most of the students come up with your basic toads, ravens, snakes, etc., but Louise manages to summon Saito, an ordinary schmoe from Japan. Fish-out-of-water comedy ensues, mostly driven by Louise, who is so tsundere that she owns a riding crop. The crop sees a fair amount of use, both within and outside of legitimate equestrian situations. It is, by the way, an entertaining exercise to imagine what Maison Ikkoku would have been like if Kyoko had owned a riding crop. Or what Gundam would have been like if Char... wait, Char DID own a riding crop, didn't he?

That's most of the important shows for the summer. Also worth noting are couple of longer series continuing from the spring that I've been following avidly. Ouran High School Host Club, a sort of reductio ad absurdum of shoujo manga plot devices, is consistently hilarious, if also consistently episodic. Higurashi no Naku Koro ni (When the Cicadas Cry) is an elaborate murder mystery, with isolated mountain villages, ancient Shinto festivals, baleful local gods, trackless swamps, and cute girls with machetes. Higurashi is so much like my dreams, it's scary. Other than that, I'm pretty much twiddling my thumbs waiting for a US release of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, the extravagantly animated philosophical/theological school-comedy/social-commentary piece from Kyoto Animation. Haruhi is ultra-recommended.

The autumn season looks like it might include a few items of interest. KyoAni's Kanon remake will be jaw-droppingly beautiful, at the very least, and the Kujibiki Unbalance TV series--based on the previously imaginary TV anime that the characters in Genshiken watch--might be fun. Death Note, based on a popular manga by the Hikaru no Go guys, is certain to be a big deal. Until then, give Welcome to the NHK a try, and remember: Tsundere is the new moe.