Sunday, April 27, 2008

Spring 2008 Anime Rundown, Part II

Nabari no Ou (The King of Nabari)
Genre: ninja, action
Overall Rank: B+
MJ Rank: C+

A struggle is brewing to determine who will rule Nabari, the hidden society of ninja. One important player turns out to be Miharu Rokujou, who is heir not only to his family's okonomiyaki restaurant, but also to a dangerous sealed power. Classmate Kouichi Irie is aware of Miharu's potential, and sets about recruiting him for a school club that is a front for the local ninja organization. Nabari no Ou borrows a lot from Naruto, or at least makes use of the same underlying mythos, but is aimed at an older audience. Action sequences are slick in Nabari, and the impressionistic watercolor backgrounds stand out. It's unlikely that Miharu will replace He of the Orange Windbreaker in the imagination of fans, though, which is a bit of a shame.

RD Sennou Chousashitsu (Real Drive - Occult Brain Research Office)
Genre: science fiction
Overall Rank: A
MJ Rank: A-

The year is 2061, and Masamichi Haru is living in a nursing home on an artificial island, after emerging from a 50 year coma. The coma was caused by an accident during a psychological experiment, that for some reason involved free diving at great depths in the ocean. Haru and his volunteer assistant Minamo Aoi start noticing phenomena similar to what occured during the incident, and there is trouble on the island. The phenomena may be related to the Metal--a virtual simulation world created by cybernetic implants--or they may be part of the simulation, or it could be that something else entirely is going on.

Real Drive is of the school of science fiction storytelling that throws the viewer headfirst into a sea of jargon (thank you, original creator Masamune Shirow) and mysterious events, and hopes he or she learns to tread water, fast. This technique is often abused, but my initial impression of RD is that the story has been thought out, and that everything will fall into place, eventually. RD's animation--courtesy of Production I.G and veteran director Kazuhiro Furuhashi (Rurouni Kenshin, Chevalier D'Eon, etc.)--is impeccable. This is definitely the serious anime choice of the spring.

Special A
genre: comedy, romance, shoujo
Overall Rank: B+
MJ Rank: B-

Hikari Hanazono excels at everything she does, and is ranked second in the hothouse environment (literally) of the elite Special A class at her private academy. However, she always seems to be outdone by the dashing Kei Takishima, who has no qualms about rubbing it in. The romantic tension between Kei and Hikari is thick, and their good natured sparring looks like it will be a lot of fun. Special A is shaping up to be the superior shoujo anime option for the season.

To Love-Ru - Trouble -
Genre: science fiction, comedy, fanservice
Overall Rank: C+
MJ Rank: B

Rito Yuuki can never manage to confess his love to girl-next-door Haruna Sairenji, but through various fanservicey circumstances, he manages to get engaged to fugitive alien princess Lala. Vast swaths of the modern anime scene consist of fifth generation Urusei Yatsura clones, but To Love-Ru is one of the more straightforward attempts to reverse engineer Rumiko Takahashi's classic that I've seen recently. The differences are telling: gone is UY's adolescent swamp of hormones, jealous rage and topless nudity. In its place, we get pretty characters who are politely accommodating, and a lot of artful concealment of naughty bits. Times have changed in the bishoujo anime world. I'm still struggling to wrap my head around the fact that the To Love-Ru manga runs in Shounen Jump, where the times are apparently also a-changing.

Vampire Kishi (Vampire Knight)
Genre: supernatural, shoujo
Overall Rank: B
MJ Rank: C

Yuki Cross attends a boarding school with ordinary day classes, as well as a special night class, which consists of vampires who are theoretically learning to get along with humans. As a Guardian, Yuki attempts to keep the peace between the day and night classes, and prevent the norms from learning too much about their nocturnal school mates. Attending night class is Kurau Kaname, the gothically handsome vampire who saved Yuuki's life when she was a child. Vampire Knight is not at all my sort of thing, but it's well done, with a lighter touch than I would have expected from something in this genre.

Wagaya no Oinari-sama (Our Home's Harvest/Fox God)
Genre: supernatural, fighting, kitsune
Overall Rank: B
MJ Rank: B+

Tooru Takagami is being targeted by evil spirits, so his brother, Noboru, titular head of the Mizuchi clan of Shinto priests, is asked to unseal the guardian of the Mizuchi lands. Fox spirit Kuugen "Kuu-chan" Tenko defeats one of Tooru's supernatural tormentors, with some help from the shrine maiden Kou, but the boy is still in danger, and Kuu-chan follows the brothers back to their home in the city. On a technical level, Oinari-sama is not overly impressive, and I worry that it is going to settle into a monster-of-the-week rut, but the interplay between the Takagami brothers and the haughty Kuugen is zingy enough to convince me to keep watching, for at least a few more episodes.

That's it for me so far, though I still need to check out a few more new shows, notably Soul Eater and Code Geass R2. I'll probably hold off on Code Geass and wait for the Bandai Entertainment DVDs... I haven't seen much of the first series yet, and I just recently worked my way through the stack of Gundam Seed DVDs that had been sitting in a corner gathering dust. So, I have the sense that I've done my civic duty watching Sunrise scifi melodramas for the time being.

From the current crop, I'll be following Maid Guy, Kyouran Kazoku Nikki, Real Drive, and maybe a few others. I've seen some more of Kyouran Kazoku since writing my review, and I'd probably bump my assessment up to an A- now: the proceedings have been leavened with a healthy shot of drama and character development, while maintaining a suitably high level of crazy. The Op is catchy, too.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Spring 2008 Anime Rundown, Part I

It's kind of a slow spring, anime wise. There are 46 new shows premiering, which is, admittedly, too many for any normal human to follow. But, that's down by a third from spring seasons a few years ago. There are a couple of big deal, big budget projects, such as Macross Frontier and Code Geass R2, but as spinoffs from popular franchises, these smell like safe choices for production companies shell shocked by broad economic woes as well as the corrosive effects of illegal downloading. While I'd say there are no truly outstanding new anime this season, a fair number of solid shows are coming out, and most viewers should be able to find at least a few items of interest.

Rankings are based on the first episode or two and range from S down to F (with B- or C+ being about average). I give an attempt at an objective rating, then provide a wildly subjective Moetic Justice rank.

Bus Gamer
Genre: Action, Fighting, Shoujo
Overall Rank: B-
MJ Rank: C

Three mismatched hip urban pretty boys respond to a seriously suspicious piece of junk mail, and wind up entering an underground tournament called Biz Game, where teams representing corporations fight it out for trade secrets, using whatever means they think are necessary. Once you get past the improbable premise, Bus Gamer doesn't look half bad, and promises some interesting tactical machinations, as well as the possibility of good red-in-tooth-and-claw fight sequences.

Druaga no To - The Aegis of Uruk (The Tower of Druaga)
Genre: Sword and Sorcery
Overall Rank: B+
MJ Rank: B+

Tower of Druaga is based on an RPG, and follows newbie adventurer Jil, whose seemingly impossible quest is to reach the top of the eponymous tower, and defeat the eponymous evil god. Normally, a description like that is my cue to find something else to watch, but Druaga has a couple of factors working in its favor: studio Gonzo has apparently decided that this is a show where they are going to spend the money needed to make it look good, for one thing. Druaga also has a much needed sense of humor about itself. The opening sequence alone, which features the cast of characters mysteriously transposed to Tokyo, is worth the price of admission, and handily wins the Op of the season award. Druaga is notable for being available for legitimate download, subtitled, at Crunchyroll.

Itazura na Kiss (Mischievous Kiss)
Genre: Romance, Comedy, Shoujo
Overall Rank: C
MJ Rank: C-

Kotoko Aihara is a plain girl who has a crush on the cool, wealthy and smart Naoki Irie. Kotoko asks Naoki out, and is shot down. To add insult to injury, her family's new home collapses in a minor earthquake, and the Aiharas are forced to impose on an old friend, who turns out to be--you guessed it--Naoki's father. There's nothing new here, if you've seen the superior Marmalade Boy, or any of a dozen similar shoujo romps, and the Itazura na Kiss take on the genre looks to be thoroughly mediocre.

Kamen no Maid Guy (Masked Maid Guy)
Genre: Comedy, Fanservice
Overall Rank: C+
MJ Rank: A-

Naeka Fujiwara and her brother, whose parents are missing, are doing their best to survive on their own, but wind up living in squalor. Their grandfather, worried about the family reputation and the fact that someone seems to be killing off his heirs, decides to provide a pair of maids to clean up Naeka's act and protect her. One of the new hires, Fubuki, is pretty much what you'd expect from a maid show heroine, though handier with a nail-studded baseball bat than most. The other is the Maid Guy of the title, Kogarashi, who closely resembles a Hokuto no Ken villain in drag. Senseless violence and abundant fanservice (surprisingly explicit for a modern TV anime) ensue. Kamen no Maid Guy is morally reprehensible, but immensely entertaining.

Genre: bishoujo, kitsune
Overall Rank: B
MJ Rank: B+

It isn't clear yet if it's a trend or random chance, but fox maidens and cat girls seem to be all over the place this season. In Kanokon, the kitsune (fox spirit) turned busty human is Chizuru Minamoto. For reasons that are unclear as of this writing, Chizuru is constantly draping herself over inadequate-looking high school freshman Kouta Oyamada. Well, Kouta may be a late bloomer, but as the screencap demonstrates, he does have a nigh heroic capacity for maintaining eye contact. The character designs in Kanokon, based on illustrations by Koin for the original light novel, are clearly the main draw. The visuals in the anime are on the simple side, but consistent and relatively fluid.

Kyouran Kazoku Nikki (Diary of the Frenzied Family)
Genre: temporal lobe epilepsy simulation
Overall Rank: ??
MJ Rank: B+

Within five minutes of the Op sequence in Kyouran Kazoku Nikki, we meet the perpetually smirking Kyouka, who claims to be age 20, and is apparently the daughter of the legendary monster Enka. Befuddled government paranormal investigator Ouka Midarezaki brings Kyouka to his HQ, where the two are summarily married, and instructed to adopt the remaining children of Enka, with the hope that family life will mellow them. Or at least give Midarezaki the opportunity to keep an eye on the Hell spawn, and kill any that show inclinations towards destroying the world. For the remainder of the episode, the newlyweds track down the other children, who turn out to be a little girl, a jellyfish, a lion, an armored biological weapon, and a metrosexual guy who may have the hots for Midarezaki. This could easily degenerate into tedious weirdness for the sake of weirdness, but I'm watching closely for now.

Macross Frontier
Genre: robots, idol music
Overall Rank: A-
MJ Rank: B

Back in the day, the rule of thumb was that every other Macross sequel was worth watching, starting with Macross: Ai Oboeteimasu ka?, which is the most perfect possible earthly expression of the Platonic ideal of the franchise. By my reckoning, we're due for something good this time around, though it depends on how you count all the fiddly little Macross 7 offshoots.

Alto Saotome is an impetuous rebel without a cause who dreams of being a military pilot. In the chaos of an alien attack on the Macross Frontier space colony fleet, he crosses paths with galactic idol Sheryl Nome, and stumbles onto a Valkyrie transforming robot whose pilot has been killed. Parts of this may sound familiar: Macross F incorporates bits and pieces of characters, visuals, and plots from previous Macross series, with an emphasis on Macross 7 and Macross Plus. It's looking really solid so far, though, with my only technical complaint being the detailed but rather poorly integrated 3D CG sequences.

Mnemosyne no Musume-tachi (Daughters of Mnemosyne)
Genre: science fiction, action
Overall Rank: B
MJ Rank: D

Rin Asougi and her assistant Mimi are freelance troubleshooters--a la Gunsmith Cats--in an alternate 1990's world. Rin seems to be immortal, which comes in handy, because she's always running afoul of people who want to do terrible, terrible things to her. Mnemosyne is a not exactly congenial mix of female buddy anime and survival horror elements, but what really drags it down into the "actively avoiding" category is the show's pervasive recreational sadism. It's disconcerting to see fairly mainstream anime creators sipping the same torture porn Kool Aid that's all the rage in Hollywood lately, and I hope it's not a sign of things to come.

That's all for now; reviews for Nabari no Ou through Wagaya no Oinari-sama will be coming shortly!