Apart from my reading schedule, the most media I’ve consumed in the last few months has mainly been anime. Since anime has comprised most of my entertainment diet, and since the 2013 winter season ended just a few weeks ago, here’s a set of capsule reviews of the stuff I’ve been consuming…
The Crunchyroll App
The huge anime influx is thanks mostly to the Crunchyroll app on my PS3. For those of you who don’t know, Crunchyroll is a streaming service that delivers Asian entertainment (mostly Japanese cartoons and dramas, though some K-dramas and Asian pop music as well) Stateside. And it’s 100 percent legal. You can watch the videos online for free or you can pay a modest monthly membership fee. Free is nice, but the commercial interruptions quickly become intolerable, and the membership has some nifty perks and options. You get to watch everything a week earlier than the free viewers, and you don’t get the same commercial over and over and over again. Not to mention that you can choose to opt for either anime or live action dramas — buying the whole package isn’t necessary if you’re tightening your budget or simply don’t care much for one format over the other.
The other — and biggest — perk is the console app itself, which is now offered for both PS3 and XBOX. The app was a real coup for Crunchy. Until it launched last summer, the only way to watch stuff on its site was to hook up a computer to the TV with an HDMI cable. For those who are more tech savvy than me (or my wife), this probably was not an issue. For us, it was kind of pain. My old laptop was too old to be compatible with our flatscreen, and the cable we had barely stretched from our chairs to the set. Not having to get a whole kit out just to watch some anime is wonderful. The app isn’t perfect. In its early days (and by “early days,” I mean about the first five to eight weeks), it was buggier than a Louisiana swamp. Episodes would freeze, voices would be out of synch with the pictures, subtitles would be out of synch with the voices, the hi-def would be crap-def, etc. After a few months, the software improved dramatically, though a few glitches persist. If you cycle through the queue too fast or watch too many episodes in a row, Crunchyroll might still freeze, or the app may simply shut down. Is the convenience worth tolerating these bugs? To me, yes. To a technophile, probably not.
The interface’s simplicity has its strengths and drawbacks. While not being complicated means that you can figure it out very easily how to access everything that’s available, it also means that it can be unwieldy, especially if you want to skip to a particular episode of a favorite show. The top L and R buttons let you skip to the front or back of an episode listing, but you can’t simply look at a list of them like you can on Netflix. Perhaps more annoyingly, if you leave off in the middle of an episode (as you do when — not if — the app crashes), there is no feature that saves your place. You’re forced to fast-forward through the episode from the beginning, and without the snapshots Netflix has to let you know what the scene looks like; if you don’t remember the precise timestamp at which you left off, you’re screwed.
That said, the visual design of the app is elegant-looking. Promotional artwork for each series pops up in the background of a gray/white/orange color scheme as you cycle through the series titles, and most episodes and shows have more evocative descriptions than you tend to find on Hulu or Netflix. If you have your queue arranged conveniently, even scrolling through the titles isn’t quite as annoying. I have been lumping my most frequently-watched shows near the top/front so that I only have to tap the d-pad a few times to get to the show I want. Unlike Hulu, Crunchy also includes a handy countdown to each new episode, so you know more or less exactly when it’s going to be available. Perhaps more importantly, the HD resolution (when it works, and it does work the majority of the time) is great.
If I were into giving grades, the Crunchyroll app would be about a C or C+, and that’s only because I’m not a terribly demanding consumer. In terms of raw functionality, it’s satisfactory, but it’s clearly not even trying to compete with its more mainstream rivals. My hunch is that they know anime fans, being a small, niche audience, are more likely to tolerate a less-than-stellar product that Netflix or Hulu users (that is, the lion’s share of the populace) would ignore. So far, Crunchy’s gamble is paying off, since folks like me are clearly willing to settle for something that lets us watch our anime this conveniently, even though it’s glitchy, but over the course of the next decade, I hope that the anime streaming market opens up a few more direct competitors, and that the competition drives up the quality.
Problem Children Are Coming from Another World, Aren’t They? (Winter 2013)
As stock genre fodder goes, this was fairly diverting. A trio of teens with ‘tude are abducted/invited from parallel dimensions to a demon realm where various communities participate in Hunger Gift Games in order to win fabulous cash, prizes, and the privilege of not being exterminated. These teens include an aggressively nonchalant boy, and two girls, one haughty, the other spacey. (Guess which one possesses godlike invincibility and omnipotence? Hint: it’s the one with spiky hair. And a penis.) Naturally, these “problem children” aren’t all bad; deep down, they hate bullies and have compassion for the underdog, which is what leads them to accept the offer to join the most impoverished community in the entire world, known as the No-Names. Their liaison is an uber-cute girl named Kurousagi (Black Rabbit) who is a game referee and No-Name loyalist, and, not-coincidentally, the one who summoned them in the first place.
Epic battles and personality clashes ensue, about as predictably as you can imagine. The animation is polished, the fights are fast-paced and flashy, and the world of “Little Garden” is intriguing, despite (or perhaps because) of its generic familiarity. Problem Children doesn’t offer a lot in the way of novelty, and, at ten episodes, it suffers from the typical problem of ending randomly without any sense of closure or definite direction for its characters. This is little more than an introduction; it gives you a taste of what could be (or could have been), and while this decalogue we got was promising enough, it didn’t give me a sense of investment in the world or its characters. Perhaps if it had run longer, the character development would have progressed, but as it stands, this is just one of those cut-above-mediocre, truncated series that was kind of fun while it lasted, but will really only be saved from obscurity by a stunning sequel series or an abnormally rabid cult following. We’ll see.
Recommended to people who like: asshole protagonists, superpowered tournaments, quasi-mythological mashups, bunny ears, kawaii ED animations, not having any closure whatsoever.
Kotoura-san (Winter 2013)
If the only preview you saw for this show were the opening credits, you’d be forgiven for feeling blindsided when you finally got around to watching the first episode, the first half of which is about as thoroughly punishing a treatment of a protagonist you can get, outside of physical abuse. Kotoura Haruka is born with the power of telepathy. Like a nascent X-Man, she doesn’t experience her power as a gift, but a curse. Her family and friends are totally weirded out by the fact that she can hear their thoughts (through no effort of her own), and they come to regard her as a monster, displacing their discomfort with being confronted by the truth about themselves onto Haruka, transforming her into a scapegoat. She is branded as a pathological liar or a demonically possessed freak. Her parents abandon her, her schoolmates bully her, and just when you think things can’t get any worse, she can’t even protect a kitty she finds abandoned in a box in the rain.
Then she meets one of those adorable teenage boys who fantasizes about sexual situations all the time, but whose generally positive outlook means that instead of finding her power offputtingly freakish, he thinks it’s kind of awesome. Soon enough, Haruka finds herself surrounded by a supportive social circle and forges friendships with them through many emotional trials of the sort only anime can produce. (Did you ask if Kotoura-san eventually uses her power to find a criminal who preys upon high school girls? But of course!) The emotional tone of the series veers from over-the-top hysterics to over-the-top silliness, but it is always sincere, and that sincerity is what makes it ultimately winsome.
Pacing is a bit of an issue in this series. Entire episodes are devoted to standard stuff like trips to the beach, a forced date-that-is-not-a-date, etc., while others shove traumatic events down your throat, only to have the lingering effects resolved neatly within the same episode. Indeed, the one big shadow overhanging the series is Haruka’s mother telling her that she wishes she’d never given birth to her. Its resolution isn’t entirely satisfying, but the show ends on a hopeful note that doesn’t necessarily negate all the bad stuff that’s happened, but simply asserts that there’s more love in the world than hate, and that love always overcomes. In a spiritual sense, I agree, but in a worldly sense, it’s hopelessly naive. But it’s still important for entertainment to supply these spiritual truths once in a while, and as unevenly as Kotoura-san expresses it, it’s a truth that feels necessary and refreshing nevertheless.
Recommended to people who like: telepathic kids; OTT DRAMA!!!; pervy grandpas; pervy love interests; high school clubs devoted to uncommonly specific interests; zany humor; warm, gooey optimism.
Oreshura (Winter 2013)
The full Japanese title means, “Caught in the carnage between my girlfriend and my childhood friend.” It’s a harem comedy, but two of the girls are obvious also-rans right from the beginning. The real meat of this series is that triangle indicated by the title. Eita has sworn off love so that he can focus on his studies, intent on getting into medical school and becoming a doctor. He’s in a comfortable rut with his childhood friend, Chiwa, until a glamorous and icy beauty queen named Masuzu shows up and blackmails him into being her fake boyfriend. Hijinks ensue.
In a way, this is a harem comedy for people who don’t like harem comedies (though harem fans will likely love it). There’s very little fanservice, and three of the four girls are actually given quite a bit of depth. They’re all very easy to root for, if you’re at all inclined to root for any high school girl so slavishly devoted to a guy who doesn’t have the stones to just pick-one-for-god’s-sake. Character designs are distinctive and appealing, and Eita is a shockingly sensible harem protagonist, sensitive to the feelings of his ladies while also possessing slightly more backbone than his stock character kin. Were it not for the leverage Masuzu has on him, things would likely not have gone a harem route at all. As a harem, it’s frequently funny and surprisingly earnest. The problem is the way it handles the consequences of its premise. You see, Masuzu is a manipulative witch, and Chiwa is a much more appealing heroine. As hilarious as it is to see Masuzu twist the knife in Eita’s chest, and as complicated as her backstory is, the fact remains that she treats everyone rather horribly throughout the series. Yet anyone with a practiced eye for narrative tropes knows which girl Eita will fall for, and though it makes sense, it’s a bit disappointing.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the tsundere trope, but Oreshura tiptoes a line between ticking off the boxes in its harem checklist and portraying character relationships as evolving in a plausible way. Maybe it would be easier to come to grips with the conclusion of this series had it erred on the side of the harem fantasy so that the heartbreaking outcome of its more plausible emotional developments would not sting so much. Yet this is the kind of series that, in trying to navigate this tricky tonal course, ends up treating both sides as two fantasies bordering each other. As a result, it feels like the creators have stacked the deck against the underdog a bit too heavily in order to make the central romantic arc work as well as it does.
My dissatisfaction comes more from a place of fanshipping than genuine criticism, but I suspect that I’m not the only one who has or would react this way. It’s a vibrant, well-executed series, and it might not mean to break your heart in quite the way it does, but in its effort to make a clean execution, it winds up being as emotionally messy as real life. Depending on your mood, this is either a positive or a negative.
Recommended to people who like: harem comedies; high school clubs devoted to uncommonly specific interests; childhood hotties friends; pervy aunts; infectiously flirty OPs.
Ixion Saga: Dimension Transfer (complete series)
Some fantasy/comedy series cultivate an undertone of seriousness that is at first buried in a heady mix of whackadoo nonsense, and is slowly unearthed until a weighty darkness settles over it like an ash cloud over an erupting volcano. (See: Trigun.) Ixion Saga is not one of those series. It’s utter nonsense from get to go, and all the better for it. Not that there aren’t a few poignant moments scattered throughout, but we’re talking about a series in which the most prominent running joke is that the antihero has his balls destroyed one at a time by the hero in the first two episodes. Yes, it’s lowbrow. And yes, I nearly lost consciousness laughing so hard at it.
This is a show that makes a virtue of being self-aware toward its own stupidity. Kon is an otaku from our world who winds up getting transported to a fantasy realm, where his familiarity with fantasy gaming tropes comes in not-so-surprisingly handy. Along the way, a band of idealistic soldiers dubbed “Incognito” try to thwart Kon and his party from achieving their goals. The plot, such as it is, exists as a pretext for skewering various cliches and pop culture references. This is comedy so scattershot that it’s like sticking a blunderbuss up a Thanksgiving turkey’s butt and pulling the trigger… but it’s shocking how well it works. (I guess stuffing tastes good whether it’s served from a bowl or scraped off the wall into a gravy boat.) A favorite episode was the one in which Kon becomes the deity of a new religion founded on his incoherent ramblings about the history of video game consoles. Guffaw-for-guffaw, I’d say it was about on par with The Life of Brian.
I’m not sure this is a series that would benefit from being marathoned on DVD or even on Crunchyroll. A one-ep-per-week regimen is about right, and it was frequently a very welcome ribald tonic to the kinds of days I had at work.
Recommended to people who like: spoofs of nerd culture; mouthy asshat protagonists; crotch shots; alternate world adventures; cheesecake EDs.
Maoyu (Winter 2013)
I’m not spoiling anything by saying that, while this series does have an ending, it by no means ties up all the plot threads. Despite leaving things off at what would seem to be the close of the first act of the larger story, Maoyu’s biggest problem is that it often feels rushed, and the telescoping of events often leads to a fragmented feel and weird pacing. Some characters get short shrift while others occupy center stage for prolonged periods, despite serving primarily plot (as opposed to psychological-character) functions. Of course, this may be entirely appropriate for a series about people fighting the overwhelming flow of history and attempting to divert its course. Maoyu is without question the single most ambitious series I saw from the Spring 2013 season, and even with its pacing problems, it mostly manages to straddle its mountainous height without teetering or falling off course.
The human and demon realms are at war. The human Hero and Demon King’s fateful clash does not end the series, but begins it. Rather than dueling to the death, they give themselves to each other in a pact, hoping that they an forge a new path for their respective peoples, one that does not require war, destruction, and tyranny for economic and cultural survival. Hero acts as Demon King’s enforcer and gopher while she brainstorms strategy and tactics. As a result, a series about international conflict set in a fantasy world is mostly about agriculture, trade, religion, politics, and scientific progress. In short, it’s a loose retelling of the European Enlightenment, and it’s utterly engrossing.
What struck me particularly were two elements. First, Maoyu underscores just how central the Reformation was to redrawing the lines of political power, and in doing so, it’s that rare series to acknowledge the cruelties, evils, and hypocrisies inherent in the structure of religion while still making room for the fruitful, pure potential of humble believers. Second, it is quite possible the most romantic presentation of classical liberalism I’ve seen in a long time. Economic freedom is the wedge that finally moves the parties involved to armed conflict, and it is also the lynchpin of all the scientific, religious, political, and agricultural progress that is made throughout the series. Were Milton Friedman an otaku, he’d might quite like Maoyu.
For all the epic scope, Maoyu also keeps up with the individual perspectives embroiled in its story. The personal and the political often clash, necessitating sacrifice, which in one climactic scene echoing the travails of Jeanne d’Arc is portrayed as perhaps as titanic in its heroism as the raw power at the Hero’s disposal. While I certainly do hope that a sequel series will arrive in a few years’ time, this 12-episode marvel was certainly gorgeous and engrossing enough wow me.
Recommended to people who like: libertarian theory; medieval allegory; bosomy heroines; uppity peasants; socio-historical fantasy; Risk; military strategy; hope.
Polar Bear’s Cafe (complete series)
Both my wife and I greatly enjoyed this series, which enjoyed a stunning full-year run. Structurally, it’s a slice-of-life comedy about characters who hang around a cafe. In execution, it’s a masterpiece of absurdism that hovered somewhere between deadpan and demented. Part of this has to do with the fact that most of the characters are anthropomorphized mammals who punch a time clock, hassle wait staff, and go to concerts like everyone else. But part of it has to do simply with the skewed lens through which it views the interactions of its cast. I can’t quite think of any other show that managed to create and sustain a tone quite like Polar Bear’s Cafe. The closest American analogue is probably Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, except that Polar Bear’s Cafe revels more in the mundane, and is often more ridiculous for it.
Initially, the show focused on four main characters: Shirokuma, the puckish owner and proprietor of Polar Bear’s Cafe; Panda, the thoroughly lazy narcissist with a jejune approach toward life; Penguin, who apart from his wry exasperation toward his chosen companions and blank slate of a personal life might as well be Norm from Cheers; and Sasako, the earnest and cheerful waitress. As time went on, these four continued to anchor the show, but we spent more time with an ever-expanding roster of characters, not limited to but including a handsome florist with a creepy panda obsession, Mr. Handa, the lovelorn Panda zookeeper (smitten with Sasako, natch), and a trio of penguin salesmen who stage a sentai show for the expressed purpose of educating the public about the different kinds of penguins. My personal favorites of the supporting cast are Llama, who is terminally dull and just about the nicest guy on the planet, and Grizzly, Shirokuma’s irascible childhood friend and the hapless object of most of his pranks.
Once it had the majority of its cast in place, Polar Bear’s Cafe had no end of new social quandaries or adventures to mine for comedy, but more surprisingly was how its tone grew to encompass not just dumb jokes and bad puns, but vignettes that illustrated the more melancholy rites of passage that we experience as we muddle our way through life. For a show that started out by firing overtly idiotic visual and verbal non sequiturs at its audience, its evolution into a richly detailed panorama of a 21st century community was supremely satisfying in addition to being often uproarious. This is precisely the kind of show I’m sad to see leave the air, because it is the kind of show I often feel I could grow old with. To me, that is a very special kind of achievement.
Recommended to people who like: anthropomorphized animals; terrible puns; coffee shop milieux; slice-of-life shenanigans; large casts; absurdism; that out-of-nowhere poignant moment that puts a lump in your throat.
Hunter x Hunter (episodes 1-77)
After putting if off for so many months (did I really need to expend my time on yet another shonen series?), I finally gave HxH a try this spring… and quickly glutted myself on the series up to the present. Not that it doesn’t have its problems. Some battles are often a matter of people calling out ridiculously long names of the things they’re about to do, then having their opponents (or onlookers) break down for the audience everything they just saw. The hero is a pint sized, improbably strong kid with spiky hair, and his best friend is a world-weary cynic with terrible social skills. If there’s a checklist for shonen tropes, chances are that this series hits most of them. Then it complicates them.
Take Gon, for example. He’s the main protagonist. Sure, he’s bizarrely strong, and he’s simpleminded. He’s got a prideful streak in him a mile wide. But his straightforward approach to life masks a shrewd cunning. His innocence is matched by a righteous fury that doesn’t shrink from violence. And his pride gets him into a lot of trouble that not even his strength and the efforts of his friends can always get him out of without sacrifice.
Adorable as Gon (and the artwork in general) is, there are some ugly realities in the world of Hunter x Hunter. While seemingly aimed at the 13- to 18 year old set, this can be an incredibly brutal show. The first arc of the series follows Gon and his friends as they try to pass the Hunter Exam, which will license them to be world-class mercenaries with privileges that put them oh-so-slightly above the law. Tournament/Trial arcs usually smell of danger and intrigue, but this one has a huge body count. Dozens, if not hundreds, of examinees are mutilated, killed, or murdered. All this in about the first fourteen episodes. Later on, an evil gang shows up and guns down a roomful of auction attendees. Blood literally coats the entire floor. Then there’s Hisoka, who truly enjoys nothing but the thrill of combat… and he enjoys it even more if it brings him into intimate contact with adorable little boys like Gon. Yeah. Like that.
Though by no means as graphic as it seems from my description, the brutality of this world is only significant in that it illuminates the uglier psychological complexities at work. Gon’s reason for becoming a Hunter is to find his father, Ging, who abandoned him as an infant. Ging preferred to carry on Hunting rather than deal with raising his child. Though Gon meets many characters who extol Ging’s virtues as one of the world’s greatest Hunters, a scholar, a gentleman, and all-round awesome dude, Ging strikes me mostly as a bit of an asshat. Not content with abandoning his child (and I when I say “abandon,” I mean he almost literally dropped him on the doorstep and ran off again), he lures him into the world of Hunting as… what? A means to show him how awesome Hunting is? To share his world with is son? Because he enjoys screwing with the people around him? Even more disturbing is that, for all his innocence, Gon really thrives on the challenge. His pride and his thrill at danger makes him a potentially great Hunter, but it also gives him more in common with the sadistic pedophile, Hisoka, than he’d like to admit.
This is only scratching the surface, though. By and large, each episode is packed with fascinating world-building, luscious animation, and continual evolution of character dynamics — not to mention great adventures. What I love most about this show is that even though it is a teen-friendly fantasy-action-adventure, it never feels cheap. Actions and decisions have consequences. While capable of warmth and sentimentality, Hunter x Hunter doesn’t shrink from the harsh realities that accompany its premise and the inner lives of its expansive cast of characters. It’s a vibrant, immersive world, and I look forward to seeing where it goes.
Recommended to people who like: spiky hair; precocious kids with godlike strength; creepy psychopathic antiheroes; whimsical world-building; epic quests; neverending stories; unbreakable friendships; deadly tournaments; douchebag absentee parents.
Space Brothers (episodes 1-54)
Easily my favorite show from the last year, and it came along at a time when I most needed it. For the most part, the word “inspirational” denotes treacly, idiotic, insulting pablum aimed at people with little to no self-esteem. As it happens, I’ve been in that latter category for quite a long time, but inspirational narratives frequently do nothing but fuel my faith in the cynicism of mass market publishers. That’s why it’s especially welcome surprise to have a series come along that is genuinely inspirational without being treacly, insulting pablum.
Oh, it’s sentimental. And has some long-term pacing issues. But Space Brothers is special in that accepts the disappointments in life without ever falling into cynicism. At it’s heart, it’s a story about brothers who share an interest in venturing into space. The younger brother, Hibito, has eclipsed his older brother, Mutta, by becoming the first Japanese astronaut to be selected for a moon landing. What’s more, he’ll be among the first group of astronauts in an international effort spearheaded by NASA to put a permanent base up there. Having believed his whole life that the older sibling must always lead the younger, Mutta struggles with a mixture of pride and envy at Hibito’s success. When he loses his job, Hibito gives his brother a much-needed push into applying to the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) as part of their mission to put a base on Mars. The series follows Mutta as he negotiates the obstacles to becoming an astronaut, but the focus is as much on his place in the mix of other candidates and his journey of self-discovery as it is on the details of the tribulations themselves.
There are plenty of reasons to love the series on its own merits. The character designs are offbeat and appealing, the music is memorable, the voice cast is impeccable (if Hirata Hiroaki — a.k.a. Kotetsu from Tiger & Bunny — is ultimately remembered best for playing Nanba Mutta, that would be a pretty fine legacy) and I dig the show’s sense of humor, which is both wry and fanciful. Yet the big reason it has stood out to me is that I’ve been going through a similar, ongoing process. Not for stakes quite as high as astronaut, nor am I quite as exceptional as Mutta, but Space Brothers really bullseyes the nexus where self-perception meets personal skill/talent, luck, and the social fabric that is constituted each time you really are being evaluated by others. Nobody likes to be judged, and what this show juggles really well is the emotional volatility of judging oneself while being judged by others. It gives the lie to the idea that tests, exams, application processes aren’t personal — they are, and they have different effects on different people.
One of the things that makes Mutta such a wonderful protagonist is that he’s hypercritical of himself and others, yet he has enough fortitude to recognize that, even while he’s overthinking things (which is both a blessing and a curse), there comes a point when you just have to say, “Hell with it,” and give it your best shot. Negative consequences would be devastating, and though Mutta isn’t really a positive person, there is a slender thread of faith — in himself, in his supporters, in luck — that carries him through at the end of each trial. To watch him struggle with these things and continue to move forward toward his goal has been truly inspirational to me along the path I’m forging. I don’t exaggerate when I say that there were times in the last year when I have only gotten through the week thanks to the emotional support I’ve gotten from my wife, a small circle of boosters… and Space Brothers. It’s very rare that pop culture delivers what I need in a way that personal to me, but that’s what makes this show so special.
Recommended to people who like: space exploration; competitive rivals becoming friends; obsessive-compulsive protagonists; Japanese perspectives on American culture; neverending stories; huge casts; inspirational tales; benevolent bosses who are also ingenious crackpots. ☕