Spring 2014 – First Half in Review

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.

Ping Pong

#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.

Jojo's Bizarre Adventure

#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.

One Week Friends

#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.

Knights of Sidonia

#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.

Hitsugi no Chaika

#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.

Captain Earth

24 thoughts on “Spring 2014 – First Half in Review

  1. You’re not watching Mekakucity? Are you saving it for later or did you just plain dropped it? (Me, I’ve always had a hard time with Shaft works and Mekakucity feels like a particularly draggy one so it’s on hold for now)

    • I just dropped it. I watched the first two episodes, but nothing about it really grabbed me, and I’d rather just continue watching great backlog shows than an airing one I’m not enthusiastic about.

      • I really wish you could’ve watched the third episode, because Mekakucity Actors is employing a unique form of narrative storytelling (that is often referred to as nonlinear storytelling, but I’d prefer to use a more specific term…) that works beautifully with the meaningful lyrics of the songs they’re using. I wrote a message to the /r/anime subreddit concerning this since people didn’t seem to be getting it even after the 5th episode (link: http://www.reddit.com/r/anime/comments/259cw9/spoilers_a_note_on_mekakucity_actors/).

        If you genuinely have no interest in watching this show, I don’t mind (I don’t wish to force you to watch it or anything), but at the very least I want to let you know that the nature of Mekakucity Actor doesn’t allow one to form a proper opinion based solely on a few episodes. As someone commented on my reddit post, it’d probably be a much better experience to marathon through this anime rather than a wait-a-week schedule simply because of the pacing of the story itself means many questions that are left unanswered with each episode. I made a comparison to Baccano and Higurashi as reference, as they’re the most similar in terms of narrative storytelling that I’m familiar with. Kyoukai no Kanata and Ergo Proxy have been referenced by others, but I’m not as familiar with those.

        • I’ll see what people say once the season is over, but I’m honestly not that compelled. I know the story hasn’t been revealed yet, and I know it’s building towards something – I’ve watched many shows that take their time, but the buildup period still manages to invest me. Here that’s just not the case – I’m not really intrigued by the characters or storytelling, so I don’t think more stuff happening would make me like the show more.

      • Mekaku City Actors is a terrible series. It’s trying too hard to be Monogatari mixed with Boogiepop Phantom and it just isn’t pulling it off. It has less plot than those Avenger films and the animation is visual cancer.

      • EraZ3712,
        I dunno, the things you reprimand people for in your Reddit post are mainly about them being ‘impatient’ regarding the pacing and the plot of the show but this does not correlate with the discontentment I have with it at all. I’m fine with having no wordy expositions and with shows setting their groundwork slowly for an ensemble cast; hell, I prefer it—I’m a “Show, don’t tell” kind of guy—but at least for the first three episodes (of which the second was by far the best, imo) it just didn’t have anything substantial, not in its setting nor in its direction, and certainly not in its characters, to make me curious about the rest. I’ll try marathoning it once it finishes I guess, like you suggest, but I’m not exactly hopeful.

  2. I’ve seen a lot of people compare Sidonia to Titan now, and to an extent I can see why, but I honestly think the similarities are mostly skin-deep. That said, if I was going to be compare the two myself, I’d say that although Sidonia will never achieve the same commerical and fan success that Titan did, Sidonia is already way ahead of Titan in just about every other way. I’m so glad I picked the series up – I hadn’t intended to, but the only shows I’m enjoying more this season are Mushishi and Isshuukan Friends.

    • I’d say the similarities are “tone-deep,” and I actually think that’s something both of them greatly value – that general atmosphere of humanity on the brink of survival is powerful and fundamental to both of them. But yeah, they’re certainly different shows in all sorts of ways. I’m hoping the Sidonia Netflix experiment works out – Sidonia’s apparently already getting great local sales, but I’m not sure how western audiences will take the CGI.

      • Yeah, “tone-deep” is a perfect way of putting it.

        I haven’t yet seen anyone saying that they’re 100% sold on the CG, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens by the time the entire series is out and for sale. Even if the series does very well there though, the hype that Titan had (and still does have here in Japan) just isn’t present for Sidonia. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – just a notable one if we’re comparing titles.

    • Those people clearly haven’t seen Nihei’s previous works. Sidonia is basically “Nihei’s gritty postapocalyptic cyberpunk meets mainstream anime”.

  3. Hey lists in the middle are GOOD, this is the prefect time for me to go “hey guys, did X ever turn out to be any good?” and then catch up if it did (since the week to week streaming numbers are the most important numbers for shows getting licensed according to Funimation).

    “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. ” Man I STILL feel bad for recommending Love Song to some people when it was 3 or so episodes in, my write-up of that is going to be a very long, well-articulated rant going by what my rough draft looks like….

  4. Did you see that Chaika was just confirmed for season 2?
    I have to mention, that episode 2 of Mushishi Season 2 was my favorite too. It represented everything I loved about Mushishi. And how about that ending clip with the quadruple-enhanced animation effort?! Also, I see no mention of Hunter X Hunter yet. Still need to catch up?

    • Yeah, I heard. I’m very happy to hear that – I think the story as I see it so far would definitely take more than 12-13 episodes to resolve itself, so it’s nice to hear it won’t be rushed. And yeah, I still need to catch up on HxH. Apparently we’re actually nearing the end of the arc at this point, so I really should get to that…

  5. I really like One Week Friends, though I can’t help but wonder if the praise we’re giving it is really proportional to its actual value. Anime is so often lacking when it comes to knowing a narrative’s limits and not trying to overreach, and being self-aware, and not confusing clamour with emotional intensity and so on that you just feel grateful when you chance upon a humble, thoughtful one like Isshuukan.

    Voice actor of Saki is almost single-handedly ruining the show for me, though. I don’t hate the character per se but I can’t remember the last time I found a seiyuu performance this jarring.

    • I actually agree, and think One Week Friends kind of is being over-praised a bit. I really enjoy it, but it’ll probably end up around White Album 2 for me – a solid 8 or so by virtue of actually knowing how to write good characters, which is a rarity in anime. But if the second half pulls together into a more focused narrative, I could see it going higher.

  6. This new season of Mushishi is my first experience with the series, and it really is something. Much as I enjoy a larger overall narrative, I like having a really good dramatic episodic series in my life. I liked the second episode a lot, but I have a bias toward really good horror, and episode 4 and episode 6 scratched that itch so well, 4 in particular. This has bumped the first season of Mushishi up my to watch list quite a bit.

    I’ve enjoyed Chaika quite a bit more than I thought I would. Normally fantasy isn’t my bag, but Chaika is keeping everything lean enough that I can get into it. Really loving the portrayal of the characters for the reasons you mentioned. It’s not such a simple “good guy vs. bad guy” kind of thing.

    The scary thing about Stardust Crusaders is that it still isn’t at what I’d call the “good part” yet! Though David Pro really did surprise me a bit with the latest episode; loved it WAY more than I thought I would. It just makes me all the more eager to see the parts of Stardust Crusaders I really love.

    • Yeah, I think “lean” is a good word for Chaika. It keeps things moving and focused on the story/characters, avoiding getting dragged down by its mystery or world. Its strength is in avoiding basically everything Captain Earth is doing wrong.

      As for Stardust Crusaders, I could see this part of the season being a lot more divisive than Battle Tendency, but it’s definitely still working for me. I like the silly side of Jojo – it’s one of the few anime I actually find really funny, so I don’t need the plot to be barreling forward to have my fun. I’m certainly excited to see the parts everyone seems to love, but I’m perfectly happy just hanging out with this ridiculous team of macho men.

  7. Number of “Everything is AT Fields” shows: 4/7

    Is there any chance of Mushishi dethroning Monogatari as the top “supernatural as device to illustrate humanity” show?

    Star Platinum punching a shark
    But does he drink Dos Equis?

    I’d rather just continue watching great backlog shows and Sword Art Online than an airing one I’m not enthusiastic about.

    If the popularity of RWBY is any indication, CG faces aren’t really a deal breaker if the execution and marketting hold up. In some ways, it seems that having an anime fan background makes one more weirded out by CG animation than those who don’t watch anime. Compare to the animation of games like Ni no Kuni, or Flash animations.

    • Mushishi versus Monogatari

      Veeeery unlikely, at least for me. Monogatari is just much more my kind of story – it goes deep on a few very specific and well-illustrated people, it tries wild experiments that sometimes work and sometimes don’t, and it allows itself many more dramatic peaks and valleys. I’m impressed by Mushishi, but I love Monogatari.

      Star Platinum

      He fuckin’ brews it himself. He punches that beer into existence.


      That’s a very good point. And there have been western CG shows for decades now, actually, though they obviously don’t hold up visually at all. This actually could be a big thing.

  8. Really happy to see Ping Pong at its deserved spot.

    Will there be a writeup on yesterday’s episode? This series just keeps getting better and better.

  9. Checked out No Game No Life yet? By this time the first two arc has finish and the second one is an episode away from completion (or so), so it’d be a good time to understand what the show is getting into.

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