Things didn’t go so well this week! The majority of the shows I’m watching demonstrated some pretty lackluster episodes, from my favorites down through the bottom of the pack. Owarimonogatari’s new arc started off poorly, The Perfect Insider stumbled over its worst episode yet, and Utawarerumono tried to perform the same mediocre trick for a third time straight. In contrast, One Punch Man actually consistently impressed me, working as a satisfying episode of anime even outside of its visual tricks. We’ve got a lot of doldrums to get through, but let’s start with that positive note, and then maybe finish up with a guest appearance by something I really, really did enjoy.
So yeah, One Punch Man was solid. And not even the show’s usual “six minutes of gorgeous action, fifteen minutes of kinda meh comedy” solid – this week actually worked as a show I could legitimately invest in. In the episode’s first half, I was mainly thinking to myself how much more satisfying One Punch Man is when Genos takes the protagonist position. Genos has a compelling personality and can actually fail – his earnest articulation of the genre Saitama is only riffing on makes him far more interesting as a dramatic player. But then, in the second half, even Saitama got some great scenes, with his frustration at the city for not appreciating his help actually feeling like a rare point of emotional vulnerability. It’s still kind of weird to compare One Punch Man to something like Mahouka – there are clear similarities in the ways each show highlights a hero who’s awesome at everything, but everyone is just too dumb to appreciate him. But One Punch Man occasionally finds some fairly universal unhappiness in Saitama’s efforts, so it’s working for me so far.
Beautiful Bones took some time away from the main characters this week, which I think was probably for the best. The actual mystery this week wasn’t at all interesting, but the mysteries never are – instead, it was the atmosphere that mainly benefited, with a side of character interaction. Sakurako is just an extremely uninteresting character – her personal mysteries are obvious, she possesses very little personality, and what personality is there conforms extremely closely to a classic “eccentric detective” type. In contrast, Kougami and her teacher Isozaki both felt like actual people, and because they’re not the genius-wizard stars of the series, they were able to be petty and caught up in personal annoyances and not particularly great at solving the mystery. Plus there were lots of scenes that simply used the festival to create a great sense of space or put you in Kougami’s head, and plenty of beautiful backgrounds. I don’t ask a lot of Beautiful Bones, and this episode met my expectations.
This week’s Utawarerumono was underwhelming in pretty much exactly the same way the fourth and fifth episodes were, because it was basically an exact copy of those episodes. Like in the fourth episode, all the main characters were tasked with tolerating a new companion who was determined to cause trouble; and like in the fifth episode, the “surprising” last minute reveal was that this companion was an imperial princess, Anju. Utawarerumono got off to a strong start in its first three episodes, but it’s been faffing around with protracted character introductions for much too long now. I’m not going to drop the show, because its strengths still exist and it’s clearly going to get moving eventually, but it’s disappointing the show is taking so very long on every single one of these intros. If they were integrated into actually relevant narratives, or entered the plot as their roles became important, that’d be one thing – but all three of the recent introduction episodes have basically followed the format of “here’s a new person, here’s some incidental scenes establishing that new person’s personality, whoa-a-a looks like they’ll be sticking around for a while!” That is not particularly graceful storytelling!
Owarimonogatari’s new arc also didn’t start off all that well, unfortunately. Kanbaru can be an interesting person, but she’s one of the characters who suffers most through proximity to Araragi. Hanamonogatari, where she was trapped with her own problems, was wonderful – this stuff, where she mainly just makes sex jokes because that’s her Araragi comfort zone, is not. Not even in an “ugh, characters fawning over Araragi” sense (although that too) – it’s just that we’ve seen all this stuff before, and it wasn’t particularly funny the first time.
That said, the base concept of this arc is still very interesting to me. Araragi and Shinobu have one of the strongest and most weirdly broken relationships of any of the show’s characters, and until Ougi rose in prominence, I felt pretty sure it was going to be their separation that centered the finale of the series altogether. That might still happen, in fact – this arc is setting pieces in place long before stuff like Yotsugi Doll, and it seems very possible that Ougi and Shinobu each represent a different aspect of Araragi. Shinobu pushing him towards safety but also complacency with his early anxieties, Ougi shoving him towards danger but also potential self-knowledge. These characters work as people and as ideas, and I’m eager to see where the chips eventually fall.
As far as The Perfect Insider goes… look, at least this mostly-worthless, largely-infuriating recap episode had drunk Moe. You can’t take that away from me. Sure, maybe an eleven episode series that’s already slow as hell shouldn’t really be dabbling in useless episodes that switch between telling us things we already know and focusing on character relationships we don’t even care about, but hey. Drunk Moe. That’s pretty alright.
And then there was Iron-Blooded Orphans. I played up One Punch Man in this week’s intro, but Gundam’s episode was actually significantly stronger – I’ve just come to expect excellence from Gundam, and so it didn’t feel as noteworthy. But yeah, this was a fantastic episode. I briefly wondered at the end of last week’s episode how they’d tie their old boss into the show’s brilliantly consistent momentum, and we got the answer immediately here – their boss has joined up with their potential guides, and so this hurdle comes as the obvious next step between them and earth. Basically everything in this show feels purposeful and weighted; I feel like I can have near total faith that this story knows exactly where it’s going and how to get there. And the journey is just as thrilling, with this week’s battle making use of basically every character and throwing out a pile of new tactical tricks and fresh dangers.
Mikazuki and his friends don’t fight like they have nothing to lose – they fight like they have everything to lose, gambling every single chip on every single encounter because they’ve nothing to do but press forward. It’s thrilling to watch these well-constructed characters fight with their backs against the wall, and I’m already wondering what broader conflicts might be hiding in the show’s second half. Gundam is basically the opposite of Perfect Insider – it is the rock-steady, utterly consistent narrative, assured in its strengths and never disappointing on any level.
Finally, I also got around to playing through Undertale over the last couple weeks, which was a whole bunch of fun. I don’t think I had the earth-shattering emotional experience with it a lot of people seemed to, but I certainly enjoyed it. The soundtrack was great, the visual style was excellent, and there was a clear, strong sense of personality to the writing all throughout. Good structural tricks, and gameplay that ended up being enjoyable all the way through even though it didn’t feel like the focus. A great sense of humor complete with an internal joke vocabulary that built up over time, like a self-assured TV series referencing old favorite gags. The creativity to include lots of tonal and genre shifts, and the confidence to pull them off. The game was just excellent in general, really – I’d figured it was going to be one of those “quirky but flawed” indies that people gravitate towards, but this was just a really fully realized experience in every respect, from the aesthetic qualities to the style of storytelling to the cohesion of the gameplay.
It also presented a much stronger version of the “morality system” than most games get. That was the intent, of course – the game’s hook is that you can negotiate with everybody, and that you don’t need to kill anyone. Normally games basically ignore this necessary agency and still try to reap the emotional benefits of pretending it’s there – the classic “you were a monster all along” reveal that so many games jump for. But that reveal doesn’t have any emotional grounding if you weren’t given the choice to not be a monster, and Undertale prioritizes making sure that’s always true. I’d heard you only get the “real” ending of the game on a pacifist route, which I actually felt kind of limited my options – yeah, I really did like all the main characters, but I still felt Undertale was playing into that classic “being good won’t reward you… except it totally will, the game actually does want you to be good” dilemma games like Bioshock suffered from. And I’m not sure what the solution there is, because in this case, the “reward” is the narrative content you rightly receive for earning the trust of Undertale’s inhabitants.
This isn’t really a criticism against Undertale, either – the game makes a specific set of choices, and I respect the choices it went with. It’s “one possible solution” to a seemingly intractable problem, even if it still comes with its own issues. All I know is that personally, I wasn’t always playing in the way I would have felt inclined to play if I weren’t worried about screwing up my game progression. I’d have killed one of the final enemies – not because I wanted to out of some sense of violence or revenge, but because in my personal estimation their continued existence was far more dangerous to all the other characters I’d come to care about than me killing them, and I was willing to accept that blood on “my” hands even if the other characters would hate me for it. Was there an ending designed specifically to engage with that fear, the fear for people you care about that ends up instigating its own violence? After all, one of the other core characters is motivated by that exact fear to that exact action. But as far as I know, the game has “Genocide,” “Neutral,” and “Pacifist” endings, and that makes sense – no one can design a million permutations to make narrative sense of a million possible emotional journeys.
And again, it’s a credit to Undertale that it raises these tricky questions at all. The closer we get to an emotionally cohesive game, the more we see what games really can do, and the more we ask of them in turn. I definitely recommend picking up Undertale – it’s cheap, funny, creatively constructed, and actually satisfying even as a conventional game, outside of its whimsy and charm. In the way I once described my “10” category on myanimelist, I’d say it’s a game that’s good enough that the conversation about “grading” it is silly, because it’s a cohesive work that should prompt more interesting conversations than that. I hope it does prompt some conversations, and I hope some ideas result from that. I hope we get more games like it, or at least games in response to it. It’s a very nice thing.