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.

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