Friday, August 01, 2008

Summer 2008 Anime Rundown

There are something in the neighborhood of 25 new anime starting up this summer [via Moetron]. The summer season is traditionally a bit slow, but there is a good range of material out there this year, and a couple of really strong new shows. I'll cover four that have attracted my attention, and briefly mention some others that I've seen. Ratings are based on the first two or three episodes.

Mahou Tsukai ni Taisetsu na Koto ~Natsu no Sora~
(Important Things for a Mage - Summer Sky / Someday's Dreamers - Summer Sky)
Genre: supernatural, slice of life
Overall Rank: A-
MJ Rank: A

Natsu no Sora is set in the same mildly alternate Japan as the original Mahou Tsukai ni Taisetsu na Koto (2003) and has the same basic premise, but involves a new cast of characters. Sora Suzuki has the innate ability to use magic, and so is required to leave her agricultural hometown in Hokkaido in order to train with the Bureau of Magic in Tokyo. Sora has great potential as a mage, but experiences an awkward first day of class. She arrives late and then gets snubbed by one of her classmates, surfer-dude Gouta Midorikawa, who is strong and silent, but apparently unsure of whether he deserves to be at the Bureau.
Staff-wise, Natsu no Sora is in good hands with long time director and occasional voice actor Osamu Kobayashi, who is possibly most famous for his work on seminal '80s romantic comedy TV series Kimagure Orange Road. Visually, it's the most interesting of this seasons offerings, with ridiculously detailed backgrounds that seem to be a mixture of retouched photographs, hyper-realistic paintings, and CG. The characters designs are quite simple, and sometimes clash in funky ways with the scenery, though generally everything is well integrated. Story-wise, Natsu no Sora is going to be too slow for some tastes, though it strikes me as an ideal entertainment for lazy summer evenings.

Other slice-of-life anime for the summer include Telepathy Shoujo Ran (Telepathy Girl Ran), this year's new NHK (Japanese public TV) anime. As is typical for NHK fair, Ran is a classy production, faintly old-fashioned and wholesome. In the shoujo-anime subcategory, there is Antique Bakery, a cooking show with boy's love undertones. Well, not even undertones, really; the shounen-ai themes are hot and heavy.

Natsume Yuujinchou

(Natsume's Book of Friends)
Genre: supernatural, shoujo
Overall Rank: A-
MJ Rank: A-

Takashi Natsume has always gotten into trouble because he can see yokai (traditional Japanese monsters) that are invisible to normal people. But his situation takes a turn for the worse when he moves to the country hamlet where his grandmother, Reiko, grew up, and yokai start to actively hunt him down. It seems that Reiko, who died young, really kicked ass--in the spiritual sense--and had gained dominion over the local yokai by collecting their names in her Book of Friends. Now, spirits who have gone bad, who are lonely without Reiko, or who want control over other yokai, are after Takashi and the book. Assisting Takashi in his quest to return the names to their rightful owners and not get killed in the process is Madara, A.K.A. Nyanko-sensei ("Master Kitty"), a cat spirit who is indebted to the boy.
The bonds and complex motivations that govern the interactions between Takashi and the yokai form the heart of Natsume Yuujinchou, and everything is influenced by Reiko's short but intense life, which is gradually revealed in flashbacks. In spite of a slightly cartoony look (which does grow on you), Natsume Yuujinchou is a serious and emotionally powerful drama.

Nogizaka Haruka no Himitsu
(Haruka Nogizaka's Secret)
Genre: comedy, romance, otaku
Overall Rank: B
MJ Rank: A-

Haruka Nogizaka is the quintessential school idol: talented and intelligent; a formal and demure girl from the best sort of family. She would be a true Yamato nadeshiko (traditional Japanese beauty), if it wasn't for a dark secret: she's really an otaku who loves goony fanservice anime. Our hero, ordinary schmoe Yuuto Ayase, runs into Haruka while she's guiltily borrowing back issues of an anime magazine from the library, and promises to protect her secret. Naturally, the two grow closer in spite of the social divide between them.
Haruka Nogizaka no Himitsu is looking like a fairly predictable example of the anime-about-anime-fans genre, and presents an idealized fantasy version of fandom (a la Comic Party), but so far it has been executed with enthusiasm and a sense of humor.

Slayers Revolution

Genre: comedy, sword and sorcery
Overall Rank: B+
MJ Rank: B+

Slayers returns to the airwaves, after more than a ten year hiatus since its last television incarnation, Slayers Try. Over-powered and quick tempered sorceress Lina Inverse--as always, voiced by omnipresent 1990s voice actress Megumi Hayashibara--has concerns about declining numbers of her usual bandit prey, and decides to head to sea to incinerate pirates while the bandit population recovers. She's joined by the old gang--Gaurry, Amelia and Zelgadiss--and comic mayhem ensues.
There are more than the usual number of revivals of older franchises out there right now (e.g. Macross Frontier, Birdy the Mighty Decode), but Slayers Revolution has the strongest lost-can-of-film-melts-out-of-glacier vibe going on. There's hardly any way to tell that it wasn't broadcast in 1996, apart from the aspect ratio and animation that is somewhat brighter and steadier than could be achieved with cels. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on individual taste, though Slayers Revolution clearly isn't going to break much new ground. Back in the mid-90s, ironically, Slayers really was revolutionary, with designs that were modern or even fringe for the time. It was also one of the first TV anime, if not the first, to be based on a light novel.

Other current fantasy anime include: Koihime Musou (恋姫 無双 ...I know all those kanji, but can't imagine what they're supposed to mean in that combination. I'm not even going to try: everything I come up with sounds incredibly stupid. For what it's worth, Google Language Tools--and I emphasize that this is Google talking, not me--renders it as "Princess Love no Twin"), which is set in feudal China. The character designs are pretty, but they're shackled to a somewhat uninspired plot. World Destruction: Sekai Bokumetsu no Rokunin (The Six World Destroyers) is from the RPG-esque end of the fantasy anime spectrum. It takes place in a world where beast-men rule, humans are a despised minority, and some destruction is apparently in order.

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