Monday, July 23, 2007

Summer 2007 Anime Rundown

A useful piece of otaku jargon I picked up recently is yandere, which describes a character who is gentle and loving, but with a capacity for anger that can turn murderous. Yandere is derived from the verb yanderu--"to be sick"--and deredere, which is slang for mushy and lovestruck, probably by analogy to tsundere ("haughty and aloof but turning loving"). With an anime adaptation of the notoriously bloody visual novel School Days, and a sequel to When They Cry: Higurashi airing in Japan, the cups of yandere fans runeth over this summer. (Just to clarify, by "yandere fans," I mean people who appreciate yandere characters, not fans who seem pleasant enough, if clingy, until they go on homicidal rampages with icepicks.)

From the new batch of TV anime (22 in total), I intend to follow five shows (in approximate descending order of enthusiasm): Higurashi Kai, School Days, Doujin Work, Sayonara Zetsubou-sensei and Moetan. I've caught an episode or two of some other possibly worthy entertainments (e.g.: Nanatsuiro Drops (Rainbow Drops) for high-quality pseudo-shoujo magical girl adventure, or Mushi-uta (Insect Song) for shounen fighting with giant arthropods), but there's still a bunch of good spring shows airing, and stacks of DVDs to watch; one has to draw the line somewhere.

Doujin Work (Fan-produced Work)
These days, the anime scene has almost reached the point where it's tough to find a show that doesn't include the odd otaku character or anime in-joke; even relatively mainstream productions like Sgt. Frog include episodes that consist of 20% Gundam and Eva references (by volume), apparently without anyone batting an eye. Still, it's rare to see an anime that unapologetically wallows in otaku subcultural ephemera to the extent that Doujin Work does.

Najimi, whom narrative clues mercifully indicate to be older than she looks (about 20, I'm guessing), has just been fired. Under the evil influences of her artist friend Tsuyuri and natty Comiket veteran Justice, she decides that working for a living is for suckers, and that the real money is in drawing porn doujinshi (fan comics). Doujin Work is decadent, if not downright offensive, but also fast and very funny. Overall, it's a nice change of pace from the more sanitized view presented in that earlier anime set in the world of doujinshi artists, Comic Party.

Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kai (When the Cicadas Cry: Solutions)
One of my favorites from 2006 returns, with somewhat more expensive-looking animation, a great new opening sequence (though maybe not quite as great as the first season's OP), and more clues to the mysteries that fueled many a late night bull session last spring. Higurashi Kai starts a bit slowly, with an episode set in the present day (i.e., 24 years after the main story), which functions mostly to review the events of Tsumihoroboshi-hen (The Atonement Chapter), where the first season left off. It then moves into new territory, with an anime-original story arc called Yakusamashi-hen (The Awakening Disaster Chapter), which will cover material from various early sound novel chapters that was omitted or downplayed in the first season of the anime. Yakusamashi-hen starts off innocently enough, with the Hinamizawa game club playing a round of "zombie tag" (definitely one of the more amusing club activities from the portion of the sound novels that I've read), but even here, there are hints of the paranoia, supernatural creepiness and abject terror that is sure to follow.

Higurashi Kai
is sort of an obvious summer recommendation from me. Higurashi's mix of cute anime girls and slow-burn rustic horror appeals strongly to my sense of aesthetics, although I can see where it might put off other viewers. But, damned if this show isn't shaping up to be the best of the season, with all of the strengths of the original series intact, and the defects pretty well plastered over, like the door to a hidden room in the basement of a decrepit mountain farmhouse.

Moetan (acronym: Methodology of English, the Academic Necessity)
Moetan is loosely adapted from, of all things, the first volume [] of a series of unofficial (very unofficial) English-language study guides with moe illustations, intended for Japanese high school students cramming for college entrance exams. A friend who teaches English in Japan tells me that some of her pupils have admitted--under pressure--to owning copies of Moetan and using it to study. English usage tends to be a bit funky in Moetan, but it's good enough for government work, I guess.

The Moetan anime has plot issues, as you might expect. The textbook incarnation included a running story about Magical Teacher Ink Pastel, and her mentor Aa-kun, who is a lecherous talking duck, trying to help ordinary teenager Nao-kun study and get into college, but most of the book is just English vocabulary and sample sentences (example: "Repair. The robotic maid was damaged to protect her master. It was impossible for her to be repaired."). The anime fleshes things out a bit, with more background for Ink and Aa-kun, and the addition of some new characters, but the story's a bit by-the-numbers. The main attractions in Moetan are definitely the POP character designs, which have made the transition to animation in fine form, and the periodic eruptions of mangled English. You can decide for yourself whether that's enough to carry a TV show through a season.

Sayonara Zetsubou-sensei (So Long, Mr. Despair)
Nozomu Itoshiki is a teacher in modern Japan (who seems to think that it's the year 1910), whose mood ranges from despondent to suicidal. His foil is one of his students, Kafuka Fuura, who is giddily, nay pathologically, optimistic. Together, they start a new school year, provide guidence and comfort to the troubled souls of Fuura's classmates, and generally do their best not to stumble into the black abyss of meaningless suffering and dread at the heart of existence. Without much success, I might add: it's Mr. Despair's world, and Fuura is just visiting.

Zetsubou-sensei is the sort of thing I might watch out of sheer amazement that somebody: A) animated it, and B) broadcast it on TV. But it's also quite an enjoyable viewing experience, if you appreciate gallows humor, obscure Japanese wordplay (Nozomu Itoshiki can be misread as "despair," if written horizontally with two of the kanji squashed together), and quirky to experimental visuals.

School Days
School Days is based on a visual novel (opening animation from the game, on YouTube), known for its lavish animated sequences, and love triangles that can go wrong in traumatic ways if the player doesn't pick the right path. Makoto Itou has a crush on Kotonoha Katsura, a school idol-type girl who is quiet and unapproachable. Makoto's classmate Sekai Saionji is a cheerful girl, who learns about his interest in Kotonoha and decides to help the two get together. In some bishoujo anime, relationships would develop smoothly towards a happy conclusion from there, at least for the chosen leads, but even someone who has avoided spoilers from the visual novel (as I've tried to) gets the impression that there will be serious complications and consequences in School Days.

The dark-eyed ultramoe character designs and high production values in School Days are reason enough to watch, as far as I'm concerned. Add to that the promise of sensitive characterization and the occasional shocking dramatic development, and the show is an easy recommendation.

That's it for the summer, so far. My selections this time are pretty heavy on disturbing stories, possibly involving off-label use of gardening tools, and totally "maniac" otaku-oriented stuff. If you're in the mood for some healthier viewing, check out the late-starting spring anime Dennou Coil (Cyber Coil), a slice-of-life/adventure show about children growing up in near-future Japan, where a virtual world is subtly superimposed on the the real world, for those wearing special glasses. Coil is a high-end production from Japan's public broadcasting system [Welcome to the NHK joke suppressed], and is excellent in every way, apart from a willingness to borrow from Hayao Miyazaki films that occasionally verges on the actionable. Then again, there are worse places to swipe ideas for your anime.


Anonymous said...

Nice reviews. Looking forward to a possible Part II???

Matt said...

Thanks! I don't plan on a part II, but there are still a couple of new anime I ought to check out (Baccano, Potemayo). Maybe I'll be inspired to write more after I see them...

I'm getting more and more interested in Sayonara Zetsubou-sensei, BTW. Any anime that features a class translating The Hapless Child is OK by me!

Alex said...

I've been checking out Higurashi and School Days and I plan to watch Sayonara Zetsubou-sensei, Dennou Coil and Doujin Work. Not sure about Moetan though. From all I heard its actually quite conventional. I like the figures we both got at ConnectiCon though!

Matt said...

Alex: Moetan is pretty marginal, but as a fan of the books, I feel obligated to watch! Speaking of hardcore otaku anime, I caught an ep. of Potemayo: scary stuff, and not in a good Higurashi sort of way, either.