And with preview week firmly in the past, it’s time to return to our scheduled week in review. So far, this season is actually turning out better than I’d hoped – I didn’t really expect most of the shows in my own preview post to actually end up doing well, and having two legitimately excellent shows in a season is basically all I can hope for from any season. Between Erased and Genroku Rakugo, we’re already there – both of those shows impressed with strong premieres and followed through with consistent second episodes. And even beyond the highlights, there’s a reasonable crop of middle-tier shows as well, depending on your own genre tastes. The season is strong enough that I’m currently deciding to be truly ruthless, and cut off both Utawarerumono and Iron-Blooded Orphans until I feel compelled either personally or through general fan noise to pick them back up again. There are too many good shows in the world to waste time watching things I’m not enjoying.
Speaking of good shows, I might as well start us off with a show that isn’t airing, but that I’ve certainly been enjoying the hell out of. Hyouka’s student film arc has been a treat to watch and write about, and I’m very happy with the set of articles I’ve put out on that one. If you haven’t been reading those, recent topics have included the craft of visual and narrative storytelling, as well as the importance of failure in growing up. I enjoyed Hyouka plenty as a character drama the first time I watched it, but seeing it after this many years really helps me appreciate how well its storytelling is integrated with its execution, and how smartly each episode uses its overt plot to gesture towards larger ideas. We’re currently about to hit the end of the covered writeups, so if you’re enjoying these, please consider giving them a push.
Shameless plugs aside, the big show I haven’t already written about this week is clearly Genroku Rakugo, which shifted from its original ’70s time period to cover the apprenticeship of Yotaro’s master. It’s pretty clear both in the economy of direction and limited animation that we’ve switched from the luxurious OVA back into regular television anime territory, but that certainly didn’t stop this episode from pulling off some painfully engaging performances. Yotaro’s master didn’t fall into rakugo for the love of it – he was abandoned as a child and given no other path to choose. His discomfort with his chosen profession and anxiety over not being good at it all come through with wincing clarity in this episode’s major performance, which employs a strong mix of stilted body language, intimate closeups, and stuttering delivery to perfectly convey the sensation of bombing on the stage.
You can see him basically wilting over time, and by the end, it’s clear he’s speaking faster and faster (accompanied by an increasingly urgent piano line) just to escape from his own performance. It’s a credit to how strong this show’s aesthetic execution is that I feel like I couldn’t really take this show if every performance was this bad. And directly after that, we get his fellow apprentice’s quick, tossed-off performance, like a breath of fresh air. In contrast to the head-on shots and awkward angles used to portray the first performer’s discomfort, his friend is entirely in control of the camera, with the show employing shots similar to Yotaro’s big debut in order to demonstrate how fully he embodies a variety of characters. It’s so damn nice to see an anime I’d like purely on a character and storytelling level actually have its execution be the element stealing the show.
Moving on from Rakugo, I was happy to see Active Raid actually significantly improve in its second episode. The first episode demonstrated some potential in its unique everyday policework aesthetic and nice incidental worldbuilding, but the second episode actually had characters, and ideas. Those are good things! Rin and Asami both came across as people worth following this time, and the contrasting needs of society and various government agencies should make for some meaty conflicts going forward. Active Raid is setting up a very sturdy foundation.
Dagashi Kashi, on the other hand, is basically just being itself. The show’s laid-back aesthetic and simple jokes and candy-crazed sexpot lead are what they are, and there’s really not much yet to demonstrate the show will be anything more than that. I’m hoping that a few more episodes will lend some texture to the three main leads, because combining that with the show’s generally solid atmosphere would basically by itself make for a reasonably pleasant ride. I have a little less confidence the humor will improve.
And ERASED continues to be just polished and excellent in basically every respect. While Genroku Rakugo is definitely the show closest to my heart at the moment, ERASED is undoubtedly the most “perfect” show so far – its storytelling is sharp, it balances hooks and depth with ease, and all of its narrative appeal is backed up by excellent direction and sound design. It also has a very clear visual personality beyond just “high quality” – there’s a strong sense of purpose in each of its shots, resulting in the show consistently nailing that mix of nostalgia, melancholy, and creeping fear it’s clearly going for. ERASED easily earns all of the praise it’s receiving.
Between Active Raid and Dimension W, it feels like we’re in the middle of some post-Conrevo justice squall at the moment. The introduction of Loser, an intentionally flamboyant masked vigilante who plays to the crowds while challenging the government to make up for wartime injustice, felt like the second coming of Claude in basically every respect. And I’m perfectly happy to see Claude again – Dimension W’s first episode felt like pretty by-the-numbers Bebop-aping material, but if this show actually has something to say beyond “the big corporation is secretly evil,” I’m all for it. This episode was also just a lot more fun in general than the first one; Loser’s schtick and visual flourishes were great, the narrative felt more unique and propulsive, and the brief turn towards body horror at the end was a very compelling change of pace. Dimension W still feels a bit more polished than passionate, but a few strong character scenes could easily change that, and it’s certainly got aesthetic strengths to spare. Episode two pushes Dimension W up into a solid recommendation.
Grimgar isn’t quite there yet, but it also had a much stronger second episode. The first half was the easy highlight, and one of the most individually compelling sequences I’ve recently seen. The group’s battle against one single goblin was vicious, ugly, and terrifying. Every attack on each side felt dangerous – swords generally just become meaningless objects in anime, but here, the expression work and close focus made you painfully aware of all these sharp, dangerous weapons. The kids didn’t want to die, and the goblin didn’t want to die, and each pressed viciously against the other to ensure that didn’t happen. The visual and narrative framing of this fight made a battle against a single goblin feel more tense, dangerous, and impactful than basically any fight in One Punch Man. This is how you create drama in violence – you don’t need scale if you can really, truly create danger.
The slow slice of life montage in the episode’s second half was also strong, though I obviously didn’t need Tarou 2.0 trying to instigate a hot springs episode at the end. The fact that that didn’t actually result in any fanservice felt like a collision of light novel origins and director intentions – “we’ll include these scenes, but damnit, I’m making this into an atmospheric character drama!” Either way, Grimgar has proven it can pull out some truly remarkable tricks at times. I’m sold for at least a couple more episodes.
Finally, stepping outside of anime altogether, I’ve been making a concerted effort to improve my general film literacy, and so checked out two of this year’s big Oscar contenders – The Revenant and The Big Short. The Revanant was pretty much exactly what its trailers would lead you to expect; a gorgeous evocation of the most inhospitable wasteland imaginable, largely carried by jaw-dropping cinematography and careful sound design. I previously described it as “Cormac McCarthy Presents Planet Earth,” and that still seems about right – it’s about 50% “I woke up at dawn, brushed the frost from my beard, and fasted on a brief meal of marrow and fish bones,” 50% “holy crap this scenery is gorgeous.” The story is intentionally simple, because this is intended to be a mood piece; it succeeds as that, though I can’t help but feel it wanted to feel a bit more emotionally epic than it turned out, and didn’t have to be quite as long as it was.
I know Leo’s Oscar has become a running joke, and so I almost feel bad saying he probably won’t win it for this; if the Oscar was for “most hardship suffered on-screen,” he’d be a shoe-in, but his character just doesn’t get much to do in this movie. Almost all of his costars are more rich and multifaceted characters, and thus get to prove themselves more, while he just stoically presses forward and eats some raw meat and burns some bear-wounds shut and thinks about his son.
The Big Short was also quite good, and about as far from The Revanant as you can get. While The Revenant stretches ten minutes of plot across three hours of wilderness, The Big Short is so stuffed with context that essentially the grand problem of the movie is “how do we make explaining financial fraud dramatically interesting.” The film’s answer to this is “we engage in extremely aggressive, energy-maintaining editing and sound design, and let the characters talking directly to the screen be an accepted in-universe device to make the exposition as clean as possible.” These are good solutions, and they work – The Big Short succeeds both as an explanation of the financial crisis and as a dramatic story in its own right. It’s never beautiful, and most of its characters are just role-players, but it’s a movie that definitely achieves the goals it set for itself.
My one major complaint given the film’s built-in limitations is that sometimes that frenetic editing got in the way of the big emotional moments. I’d have liked Steve Carell to have been allowed to carry a few of the climactic scenes all by himself, but a too-busy camera somewhat steals his thunder, making them blend into the film’s overall tone a bit too much. The movie is angry, but it could stand to be a little more heartfelt, and I think letting both Carell and Christian Bale (both of whom turn in phenomenal performances) dominate the stage a bit more would have helped brings its fury home.