So, looks like we’ve reached the season’s halfway point-ish, meaning it’s time for me to once again go against all my misgivings about turning art into some kind of reductive hierarchy and make a big ol’ ranking of my current titles. Keep in mind, I’m doing this not because it’s actually meaningful, but because lists are fun – if you disagree with my evaluation, you’re probably right. Opinions! They’re crazy.
Anyway. Overall, this season has been a little better than I’d expected, meaning it’s a good deal worse than average. While I’ve had a consistent shelf of shows I’m enjoying, there’s been nothing that really wowed me on the level of a Kyousogiga, Monogatari, or Uchouten Kazoku, and even the next tier down of “generally great” shows has been pretty barren. So yeah, sorry, this one might be kind of a bummer! Fortunately, a lot of shows have actually been steadily improving, and honestly, my own apathy towards some of my picks might just be because I’m watching Too Many Damn Shows, and no season is really that full of gems. But that’s enough preamble – let’s run down my picks.
#1: Sekai Seifuku
Seifuku’s most recent episode was a big stumble, but overall this show has been extremely funny, smart in a black-comedy-satire kinda way, and actually pretty damn endearing. It’s got a strong cast, a great way with dialogue, and excellent comedic timing, and outside of the most recent episode it’s shown an encouraging tendency to extrapolate on its premise in sharp, distinctive ways. Episode three was likely the highlight so far, largely because it accomplished something so clever and so different from most anime out there. Starting off with the premise of a little girl getting irrationally furious about smokers, it ended up telling an absurdist parable about the dangers of extremism and the ways we demonize those we disagree with. And it was really funny, and it made great use of the cast and premise, and it was sharp and dark and utterly lacking in a happy ending. Following up on this, episode four tipped in the complete opposite direction, telling a whimsical, endearing story about family, childhood, and what we choose to believe. That a show would change gears so completely is unusual – that it actually completely succeeds in doing so is remarkable. Sekai Seifuku is a weird show, but I have high hopes for it yet.
#2: Hunter x Hunter 2011
Honestly, HxH is almost certainly “better” than Sekai Seifuku in many ways, but it feels weird to put a show that’s been going on for three years at the top of a seasonal chart. But yeah, HxH is the best. Its direction is incredible – it’s only been covering between fifteen and forty-five seconds per episode for half a season now, and yet every episode is full of beauty, tension, and moments of actual fear. In fact, the show triumphs on pretty much every technical level – beautiful visual effects, wonderful sound design, excellent shot framing, and standout animation. And all this technical strength is working in service of one of the most ambitious and captivating battle-caper-spy-drama-identity stories I’ve ever seen. Hunter x Hunter is currently handling about six narratives at once, all of them are equally engaging for different reasons, and most of them all reflect back on this arc’s central questions of humanity and selfhood. It’s a remarkable show.
#3: Nagi no Asukara
Nagi no Asukara is a weird one to qualify. It’s good, certainly. Its characters are very human, its ideas are interesting enough, and it’s just friggin’ gorgeous. But it can be kinda hard to push through, all the same. It definitely has a problem with repetition – characters get stuck in stagnant drama loops, and tend to repeat the things we knew about them several episodes ago. And though nothing seems completely cuttable, I’ve also occasionally ended an episode wondering whether that episode even needed to happen.
But that said, it’s definitely a poignant, relatable character story. The ideas of change, and of disconnect both personal and societal, are smartly woven into the base nature of the narrative, and it’s hard not to care for the show’s varied and well-depicted cast of characters. And when it’s good, it’s really good – standout sequences like the flashbacks to Hikari’s childhood or the first half’s finale are tremendously impressive highlights. So even though it’s occasionally kind of a slog, I’d say it’s well worth the effort.
#4: Kill la Kill
It’s been a strange, bumpy ride for Trigger’s first big outing. In my first review post halfway through Fall, I referred to Kill la Kill as a “war of extremes,” and that’s remained true ever since. In fact, I’d say it’s become even more a mixture of strange strengths and weaknesses. Kill la Kill raises a number of possible themes regarding representation, government, ambition, performance, and other assorted nonsense besides, but at this point it’d be ambitious to call any of those ideas more than seasoning – frankly, it actually kind of gets worse the more you try to dig. But that’s the kind of show Kill la Kill is – it does things because it wants to, it does things because it can, it does things because they’re there to be done. Ryuuko’s speech from the most recent episode might as well be the creators themselves speaking – “Somehow I got caught up in this weird war of ideals, but all I really want to do is hit things!”
Fortunately, Kill la Kill is extremely good at hitting things. There was a rough patch of drama-repetition right after the winter break, but for most of its run, Kill la Kill has been a dynamic, visually inspired, funny, fast-paced thrill ride. The fights are great, the drama is ridiculous, and Mako is love. It’s dumb fun, but in the school of dumb fun, Kill la Kill is at the top of the class.
#5: Samurai Flamenco
If you like grounded character drama, earnest super sentai shows, and quirky, absurdist satire mixed with grounded character drama, then you’re apparently the precise target audience for Samurai Flamenco. Anyone else is gonna have to take their pleasures where they find them – I recommend enjoying the show’s snappy sense of humor, because virtually nothing else survives all of this show’s varied, completely disparate arcs. Oh, sure, the characters stay relatively the same – but given the context of their shifting world, that’s almost harder to believe than them changing with the times. And yeah, that itself is kind of a reflection of the show’s core theme of our general complacency and tendency to trivialize tragedy – but that doesn’t really reveal itself until fifteen episodes in, after a seven-episode stint in sentai fantasy land. It’s a slice of life. It’s a sentai throwback. It’s a meditation on the powerful, dangerous nature of heroes and idols. It’s a weird show. Is it a good show? I think so? Maybe. It’s a weird show. That’s what I’m going with.
#6: Chuunibyou Ren
Honestly, this one’s only as high as it is because I’ve already fallen for this cast – if this were a new show, I probably wouldn’t be so forgiving. Chuunibyou Ren suffers from the exact problem it always threatened to: being completely unnecessary. Though the third episode introduced a New Challenger and offered the promise of status quo-shifting, the episodes both before and after have basically just been the Far Eastern Napping Society of Summer screwing around like they always have. Which is fine as far as being a feel-good comedy goes, but the first season was actually a solid drama, and even the early episodes all served a purpose. This is just fanservice – funny, endearing, and well-animated fanservice, but fanservice nonetheless. I’m enjoying it because it is all those good things, but it certainly doesn’t match the first season (in fact, it seems to have forgotten the first season even happened). Fortunately, this will undoubtedly change in the second half, so I’m content to enjoy KyoAni riffing on their reliable sense of humor until then.
#7: Space Dandy
He’s a dandy guy in the space. As with most shows this season, there’s just not much to dig into here – it’s a nice showcase of various directors, its loose formatting allows for extremely varied vignettes, it has occasionally great visual sequences (the monster mash at the end of the first episode, the surfing finale of the most recent one), and it’s firmly, unapologetically not Cowboy Bebop.
I mean, I’m a drama guy. Comedy is great and all, but I like character stories. And the thing is, when Space Dandy wants to, it can pull a great Cowboy Bebop impression – episode 5 wouldn’t have been a highlight of Bebop, but it would have fit comfortably into that show. And to me, that’s just a higher caliber of entertainment than what Dandy’s doing.
But hey. Dandy is definitely good at what it does, so if you’re looking for a farcical comedy with great visuals and music that takes its cues equally from 50s-style hammy space drama and western cartoons, Space Dandy is the place to be. And I do enjoy it!
But it is what it is.
#8: Log Horizon
Log Horizon actually kinda suffers from being the second half of a 2-cour – judged on its own, this recent half would be right around Nagi no Asukara. With all the various pieces established, this show has finally settled into doing what this author does best – using politics and public theater to tell stories of humanity’s better and worse nature at the same time. The political games have been fast-paced and compelling, the characters have grown into reasonably well-rounded people, and the show’s unapologetic “you have to deceive a few publics to win a war” morality is both refreshing and well-executed. Log Horizon starts at “the ends justify the means,” and from there explores exactly what nasty, cynical means might get us to those necessary ends. Its aesthetics are only serviceable and its pacing could use some work, but three-quarters of the way through, Log Horizon is finally demonstrating the full strength of both this author and this premise.
#9: The Pilot’s Love Song
I feel bad putting Pilot’s Love Song at the bottom of my list, because it isn’t a bad show – I’m just not watching any bad shows, and this one happens to be the worst of the okay ones. I like the world, a couple of its episodes have been quite strong (the last couple flashbacks in particular were efficient and evocative), and the characters are reasonable enough – but it just doesn’t really distinguish itself. The writing is really just “serviceable,” the narrative is predictable, and the show’s aesthetics are frankly poor. I can see what they’re doing, and I actually like the base concept of contrasting the children they are with the soldiers they’re forced to be, but the execution just isn’t there. Not an actively bad show, not a good show – it just kind of is.
#10: Witch Craft Works
Wait, nevermind, I change my mind – I feel bad about putting this show at the bottom. Because frankly, in sheer enjoyment, it’s actually right near the top – but there’s no denying this is a dumb frickin’ show. The narrative is nonsense and the characters are basically nonexistent, but in spite of that, every week I find myself eagerly awaiting the next episode. It’s funny, for one thing – the show actually has a solid sense of humor, and the director’s sense of comedic timing is a real highlight. It also looks nice – it’s got a perky visual aesthetic, some solid animation, and the direction extends to some really well-shot action sequences. And the fact that it’s a reverse shoujo is kinda interesting, too, though it doesn’t seem like the show is actually interested in exploring that. But really, this is my comfort food. It’s dumb, it’s silly, it’s incredibly endearing. Don’t judge me!
…actually, you know what? Fuck that.
#3: Witch Craft Works
At least Witch Craft Works succeeds in being a dumb, endearing comedy – everything below this point, I have actual problems with. It’s not ambitious, but it doesn’t have to be – it’s fun to watch and I look forward to it and I like it. Take that, cynical criticism! And have some more tower witches.
I SAID MORE!