Welp, we’ve reached the season’s halfway point, which means it’s once again time to roughly shepherd everything I’m watching into a reductive hierarchy that through its very nature misses the point of art altogether. Everybody loves lists!
Incidentally, the fact that it is so reductive is why I do this nonsense in the middle of the season, and not the end. Lists are fun, but I don’t want lists anywhere near my actual takeaway from shows, so I use this mainly just to sort out my general feelings on the season’s overall tenor. This season has turned out to be very good, and I have already dropped every single show I’m not solidly enjoying – if anything on this list looks entertaining to you, I can confirm that even the lowest shows have been solid enough at what they’re doing. And the top shows… yeah, this is a season to be proud of. Let’s run it down!
#1: Ping Pong the Animation
Probably no surprise here, given that my usual ravings in the Week in Review posts have actually metamorphosed into full-length writeups. The direction is lively and purposeful, the sound design is phenomenal, and the characters… goddamn. Grounded and distinctive and vividly depicted, I feel for every one of them. Ping Pong’s actual matches are always enjoyable, but this is a show about people, and so every small character moment is given tremendous weight and respect. There’s multiple sides to every one of these people, and the impact of how their presence and actions result in meaningful changes among them is as clearly felt as the back-and-forth of the matches themselves. And all of them contribute to the larger narrative, telling a story of finding your place in a larger world that makes the personal universal. Ping Pong reminds me why I love this medium every single week.
#2: Mushishi Zoku Shou
I don’t really have any of the giddy nostalgia-vibes I assume many people are getting from this show – I finished Mushishi two weeks ago. Instead, I’m getting the slow realization that this season of Mushishi seems markedly better than the first season, and considering I already consider Mushishi one of the best shows of all time, that’s a pretty good place to be. The second episode in particular was just a gorgeous story, displaying Mushishi at the height of its power – a grounded personal story that reflects on itself in a variety of ways while speaking to larger human instincts, made magical through the slight influence of the Mushi. This isn’t really a show about the supernatural – they help to make it beautiful and unique, but they are more a device than a focus. This is a show about human nature, and as far as that kind of show goes, it is insightful, empathetic, and stunningly crafted.
#3: JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders
JoJo makes me happy. Every Friday I get a twenty-minute dose of style and hilarity and completely absurd, so-bad-it’s-good and so-good-it’s-amazing theatrics. The cast is endearing and ridiculous, the direction is flamboyant and ridiculous, and the dialogue is ridiculous and ridiculous. There’s no big secret to what makes JoJo compelling – it’s really just a natural master of the popcorn school of media appreciation. Whether it’s Joseph squealing at gross tentacles, Jotaro reeling off lame one-liners, or Star Platinum punching a shark, there’s always something to either marvel or laugh at around the corner. JoJo is probably exactly the kind of dumb show people who don’t watch anime think anime is like, and it is amazing at doing that.
#4: One Week Friends
While One Week Friends hasn’t remained quite as sharp as I expected it to be in the first couple episodes, it’s made up for that by being endlessly, relentlessly endearing. Its visual style, shot framing, and understated dialogue are all worth pointing out, but what sells this show for me is clearly the characters. This is a show about the difficulty of human connection, and so it’s very appropriate that none of these characters are particularly good at that. They’re all perfectly nice people, but the ways they are different from each other cause friction all the same.
Fujimiya would be a perfectly charming person, but she lacks confidence and trust due to her condition. Hase tries to be a good person, but has only a loose perception of what that is, and so comes off as stiff or unnatural while struggling against his more selfish urges. Kiryuu is perfectly comfortable with himself, but struggles to express that to others, and doesn’t feel compelled to improve at it. And Saki is earnest but blunt, too oblivious and self-assured to be careful with the feelings of others. They’re all very different people, and the show portrays their interactions with great insight and kindness. It is a very comforting show.
#5: Knights of Sidonia
Knights of Sidonia was one of my most speculative picks this season, grouped in the same “well, it might be super-popular, so I should at least have an opinion on it” category as Mahouka. Here at the halfway point, it seems that Sidonia has exceeded my highest expectations – though I figured it had a decent chance of appealing to the Attack on Titan crowd, at this point I’d actually describe it as “the show that Titan could have been.” Each new detail contributes to the evocative worldbuilding in a way that builds both atmosphere and drama. Every episode displays a great sense of direction and pacing, building tension out of unvarnished realities and exploding into brief, manic bursts of action. It’s solemn and stark and dripping with flavor, a rare and respectable scifi drama. The awkward 3D faces and very standard character drama drag it down a bit, but overall it’s still a very strong production.
#6: Hitsugi no Chaika
Up until this most recent episode, I would have described Chaika as my “adventure show comfort food” pick of the season and been done with it. And that’s still very true – Chaika’s main strengths to date are being full of endearing characters, silly faces, and respectably crafted mini-adventures. It’s also got great action scenes and, uh, did I mention the silly faces?
But anyway. After this most recent episode, I’m beginning to hope it’ll be something more. The show’s strongest thematic thread has always been the “old soldier” narrative – it concerns a group of characters trained for war as they discover their relative purposelessness in a time of peace, along with the relatively unstable nature of that peace. Toru exemplifies this – he fights for Chaika because he wants a purpose and his skills are fighting, not because he’s incredibly attached to her cause. And now, with the introduction of a second Chaika, it seems that the show’s overarching narrative itself is a metaphor for this process – we have one Chaika attempting to put her father to rest, and another Chaika seeking revenge. It’s like the individual Chaikas are each representative of different facets of the grieving process, or the tremors that still indicate this peace was built on bloodshed. Where the show goes with this, I don’t yet know – but I find the overall concept pretty fascinating, and it gives me hope this show really does have something poignant to say.
#7: Captain Earth
Sorry Captain Earth – honestly, you’re really not that bad. This time last season I still hadn’t dropped friggin’ Pilot’s Love Song, and compared to that show, you are a goddamn miracle of the universe. But you’re an uneven show in a very strong season, and so here at the bottom you must sit.
Captain Earth is actually a pretty structurally interesting show, in that it’s rare I see a show that is so dedicated to the specific things it cares about. Which is really a polite way of saying it sucks at the things it doesn’t care about, and when those things include “the actual narrative,” you kind of have a problem. Captain Earth is a story about family and adolescence – and so it’s full of scenes where the teenagers question their identity and try to connect with their parents, and the underlying narrative of the show seems to be acting as a metaphor for growth and connection in general. Unfortunately, Captain Earth is not a grounded family drama – it’s a scifi mecha extravaganza, and so each episode is also full of daring action capers that… don’t really make any goddamn sense.
In the third episode, the villains randomly invade the good guys’ base in a crepe-selling van. In the fourth episode, two of the good guys invade one of the other good guy bases, in a tangent that is overtly designed simply to let two kids spend some time bonding and have one of them meet his father. And in the fifth episode, a former villain/bureaucrat single-handedly sneaks into the allied base and tries to take one of the kids hostage, all soanother kid can demonstrate “I have found self-confidence and purpose” to his adopted father. The narrative events don’t just illustrate the show’s thematic and character concerns – they are overtly fabricated to do these things and nothing else, appearing as delusional tangents in any sort of strict narrative sense.
And yeah, this is a weird thing for me to complain about, considering I’m the guy who generally only cares about character and theme, and considers plot just details. But those details kind of have to make their own kind of sense – they afford the story the momentum and structure needed to smartly illustrate all that good underlying stuff without the show coming apart at the seams. Unless your narrative events are directly reflective of your thematic concerns (as in stuff like Sayaka’s arc in Madoka, where her emotional journey is the overt narrative), your narrative events can’t just be nonsense tied together with paperclips and bubblegum.
So yeah, Captain Earth’s kind of a mess. But as I said initially, it is pretty good at the things it cares about, and so I’m hoping it’ll reward the long haul. I’ll just have to steel myself for a whole lot of narrative lunacy in between now and then.