I don’t tend to enjoy writing negative stuff. If I can make some kind of upbeat game or challenge out of it, like I did when writing about Strike Witches or Dragonar Academy, it can be pretty okay – but when it’s just a grim reporting of disappointment and failure, continuing week after week, that’s just the saddest kind of writing. I like being enthusiastic about stuff, and sharing that enthusiasm with people, and lately it’s been feeling like my week in review posts are just too dang negative. But like all good critics, I’m going to remain confident the problem isn’t with me, it’s with the media. I’m just watching too many bad shows! I’ve got bad shows I’m watching on contract and bad shows I’m watching on faith and mediocre shows I’m watching for their occasional glimmers of greatness. If not for all these bad shows, everything would be fine.
So yeah, I’m looking forward to next season. The only show I’ll really be sad to see go is Owarimonogatari, and that one ended so well that I can’t even complain (plus hey, Kizu’s on its way). Other than that, this shambling collections of rejects and ne’er-do-wells can just shuffle on into the past, and we can embrace a whole new collection of anime hopes and dreams. Plus I’ll be posting my top ten shows of the year about a week from now, and it doesn’t really get more positive than that! This cloud shall pass, but for now, let’s take a somewhat skeptical look back at this week’s shows and RUN ‘EM DOWN.
The first half of this week’s Utawarerumono had me vaguely wondering if the show was actually testing me. How bad can this show get before I actually lose hope there will eventually be forward momentum again? How frustrating can its episodic nonsense become before I wash my hands of it entirely? Haku has spent a lot of time collecting the vague equivalent of a harem, but what if he’s literally bequeathed an actual harem by the emperor? Will that convince me to stop thinking this show will ever be fun again?
Apparently the answer is no, because in spite of my desire to just turn the episode off right then and there, I ended up sitting through the somewhat more enjoyable second half. It seems like things really are about to start moving, ridiculous harem characters aside, and I’m at the point where I’ll happily just fast-forward through any future nonsense shenanigans to get to that juicy narrative center. I shouldn’t be here, but I am here, and the past is the past – even if Utawarerumono hasn’t earned this level of commitment, I’ve gone too far through the badlands to turn back now. Please, Utawarerumono. Please get good again.
Beautiful Bones decided to be bad in an exciting new way this week. Instead of its usual slow and unsatisfying mysteries that fail to earn their small emotional payoffs, the show went as bombastic as possible, whipping out the bulging eyes and counter-betrayals for a story about abuse and suicide pacts and evil bone collecting fedora guys. None of that worked, and all of it was pretty silly, and I mainly found myself relating to Hector the Dog, but it was also pretty interesting to me how unsympathetic the show was willing to make Sakurako herself. Sakurako has always been a distant and unrelatable character, one whose psychological context has generally been used for twists more than actual engagement, but in this week’s episode she came off as a straight-up monster. Tormenting emotionally shattered girls with the bones of their dead friend isn’t something I generally associate with allegedly sympathetic main characters, and Sakurako actually seemed to enjoy the experience. It’s not a good sign when the audience is disappointed the “hero” doesn’t actually get stabbed.
The Perfect Insider made one last mocking bow this week, tossing off a few more scenes of Magata and Souhei being ridiculous unintellectuals and an almost frustratingly good scene closing out Souhei and Moe’s relationship. I say frustrating because this show just isn’t that far off from a very solid version of itself. The aesthetics are strong, from the shot framing to the lighting to the occasional colorful flourishes. The character work is good, outside of the nonsense elements like Magata’s multiple personalities. But by doubling down on both its mystery and Magata’s assumed profundity, the show turned what could have been a perfectly reasonable character story into a totally nonsense philosophical one. If you replaced this show’s last two episodes with episodes of the show it could have been, you could basically fix the show without any other changes. I’ve actually heard this version of the story dives deeper into the character relationships than the live action drama version (understandably, since that’s only two hours), so I guess all I’m left with is the hope that this show’s solid team gets better material to work with next time.
Fortunately, we at least have Owarimonogatari to offer an escape from the darkness. This week’s final episode was straight-up transcendent, full of rich and satisfying conversations and character moments from the first minute to the last. Monogatari rarely gets to celebrate how much its characters have come to love and trust each other, but this episode was all about that. Araragi and Senjougahara getting what was probably their best conversation since That Bake Episode was just the first course in an episode that successfully framed Araragi in a better light than he’s ever seemed before. Araragi will likely never be a truly likable person, but the faith in his friends that he expressed here was both admirable and truly, satisfyingly earned. It’s rare to feel like a show that’s gone on as long as Monogatari has been going has actually made best use of all its episodes, but in sequences like this, you can feel the weight of every single trial these teens have challenged and overcome.
And beyond the base strength of all the conversations in this episode, this was also one of the moments when I found myself most appreciating the tricks Monogatari is pulling with chronology. You’d traditionally see an arc like this at the end of the series, as a capstone to all the characters have learned. But here, we’re actually way back at Tsubasa Tiger, prior to Sodachi Riddle, Nadeko Medusa, and Yotsugi Doll. The lessons Araragi articulates in this episode aren’t ones he’s truly internalized; or at least, his trust in Senjougahara and Hanekawa has not yet extended to a full understanding of his own limitations, and acceptance of his own value. Growth isn’t something that happens in a straight line – it comes in fits and starts, and often circles back around on itself (something also highlighted through how Riddle-era Hanekawa isn’t nearly as mature as End-era Hanekawa). Monogatari is using its shifting chronology to make satisfying narrative conclusions that through their placement reflect the complexity of personal growth. It’s a pretty handy structural trick.
Iron-Blooded Orphans was at its absolute angriest this week, pulling off a “glorious battle” that was about as grim and senseless as any fight can be. And that was the point, of course. As I’ve said before, Iron-Blooded Orphans is all about people who fight due to shitty circumstances, not high-minded ideology – aka 99% of people who are forced to fight at all. Masahiro’s debris companions cling to either revenge or the hope of reincarnation to bring meaning to their awful circumstances, and are killed by Mikazuki due to unfortunate circumstance. The camera emphasizes each death, making sure to capture both Mikazuki’s expertise (the classic giant robot focus) and the ugly collision of his horrible weapons. Masahiro is so rightfully disillusioned by his circumstances that even his brother can’t reach him. And in the end, Masahiro’s words come true – trapped between two groups working desperately for paychecks in service of ideological causes millions of miles away, debris “die in space like garbage.”
It was a furious episode, but even for that, there were still a scattering of nice little moments. I liked Mikazuki studying his basic vocabulary on the way into battle, using the terms of the next fight to give himself inspiration. And I really liked Orga telling Eugene that it “has to be him at crucial times,” a line that demonstrated how Orga’s growing ability to trust and delegate is making him a much better leader even in an emotional sense. Plus this episode also featured one ship ramming another in a space debris field, which is just an inherently good thing. Iron-Blooded Orphans is ticking a lot of very good boxes right now.
And One Punch Man ended as everyone likely expected, in an absolutely glorious but also kinda empty animation spectacle. The first half of this episode was basically one continuous beautiful ride, with Saitama’s fight against the head alien and his teammates finishing off the alien lieutenant being brought to life in spectacular and extremely diverse animation. There wasn’t any actual drama to this fight, since there never is, but as far as animation for its own sake goes, it was quite something. The second half was a lot less strong – it honestly felt like the show just then realized it should probably be about something, and basically danced between a few separate “but what if punching things is actually complicated” possibilities before just kinda ending.
In the end, One Punch Man leaves me kinda indifferent. It’s actually very similar to how I felt about Space Dandy – I could appreciate the stuff the show was doing visually, but it was attached to such lukewarm storytelling that I couldn’t really get invested. I’m really hoping the next standout animation spectacle has some emotional or thematic heft to match its visual highlights.
That’s it for airing stuff! As for other things I got to, I finally watched Little Witch Academia 2 this week, which was every bit as magical and full of lovely personality as advertised. This was gorgeous animation with an extremely important purpose – making Akko as endearing and relatable as possible, and making her world feel vibrant and exciting at all possible times.
Akko came off as a bit of a brat in this movie, but was wholly sold on the strength of her energy and physicality. Basically every exchange between her and the other characters involved rushing through a whole extended sequence of discreet expressions, each one clearly understandable and yet also totally unique. And the action setpieces, though a bit less consistent, were lovely as well, with one of Akko’s new friends seemingly existing purely because the animators realized a witch who was also an acrobat would make for some really great setpieces. They’re very different shows, but there’s a lot about LWA that really reminds me of Yozakura Quartet – each of them have a vibrant aesthetic and general energy that couples with their strong animation to create a rich sense of fun. Fun is a good goal.
And finally, I also went out to see The Force Awakens this week, which I thoroughly enjoyed. But I know plenty of people haven’t seen it yet, so I’m just gonna add some space here to avoid anyone getting unnecessarily spoiled…
There we go! Anyway, Force Awakens was great. I felt it threaded the needle of what people want from a Star Wars movie versus what a movie needs to do to be an actually good movie pretty admirably. The choice to essentially retell A New Hope worked for me – it’s a good story template, this version brought a lot of strong new ideas with it, and making one of the film’s central homages more a structural one than an in-story one made it feel extremely “Star Wars” without having nostalgia overwhelm the actual plot.
Basically everything this movie did that was new, I really liked, from its fun protagonists (I felt Rey was kind of boring as a character, but worked perfectly well as the protagonist of a textbook hero’s journey adventure flick, and her dynamic with Finn was excellent) to the way it reframed the dark side. Having the dark side be a political temptation in the prequel movies never really sat right with me – beyond those movies’ own bad writing, the dark side is just an inherently simplistic force, one that appeals more to primal urges than anything higher. And so having the dark side’s new acquisition be a very confused and straight-up emo maybe-teenager felt perfect – his choices don’t have to be rationally sympathetic, because he’s a dude who doesn’t know himself and thus is lashing out. Kylo Ren’s interpretation of the dark side might actually have been one of my favorite parts of the movie.
And of course, the movie in general was just really fun, with a whole bunch of great setpieces and a nicely understated sense of humor. I liked how grounded the dialogue was, and I liked how the story wasted virtually no time on exposition – these characters exist, they are Heroes, it’s time to Have An Adventure. If there’s anything I disliked, aside from the relative simplicity of the central characters (which I again see as a reasonable concession to the genre), it was feeling that the film occasionally wandered just a bit too far into nostalgic navel-gazing with the old generation of characters. That story’s been told, and I don’t care about their expanded universe – little “hey, it’s Star Wars!” nods felt a lot less interesting to me than the new, very compelling story that was being told. Which is certainly to the movie’s credit – “get out of the way, beloved heroes, this new story is way more interesting” is probably the kind of problem this movie wants to have. So overall, yeah, I had a great time.