Things are still settling to some extent here in the fourth week, largely due to the fact that a full third of my current watch group consists of comedies. Comedies are tricky, and comedies are inconsistent, and comedies have much less of a tendency to settle into a reliable groove than most genres. So while Rakugo and ERASED continue to be excellent week after week, this time Konosuba was pretty terrible, while Dagashi Kashi was actually consistently funny. Other than that, I’m beginning to lose patience with Dimension W – the show is reasonably watchable, but absolutely nothing beyond that, possessing virtually no personality and being more interesting as a demographic artifact than an actual piece of media. Grimgar, on the other hand, is all personality, personality to a fault, and that actually makes it my third-favorite show at the moment. All that and more in this week’s Week in Review! Let’s RUN ‘EM DOWN!
Rakugo led the pack as usual, with one more fantastic episode in an unbroken line of them. The opening conversation this week between Kikuhiko and the newly christened Sukeroku felt like a rakugo performance unto itself, demonstrating the easy, graceful camaraderie they’ve developed over years of friendship. The two play off each other perfectly, and even though they’re ostensibly rivals, they absolutely respect and even need each other. It’s easy to see how the present-day master would feel incomplete without his fellow student to compete with.
And then Sukeroku’s central performance was another stunner, featuring all the great tricks of shot framing and expression work that sell a great rakugo performer as a true assembly of characters. “That story could make them laugh or cry. A moment’s hesitation would kill it” thinks Kikuhiko, and in the context of this anime, that feels like it also reflects the seamless union of directorial and voice acting talent making this show possible at all. A lesser team wouldn’t make a slightly worse version of this show – they’d make a version of this show that was totally inert. Rakugo is currently centered on a character who only reveals his feelings through small asides, and who’s working to compete in a craft where his actual adherence to formal structure is his biggest weakness. That the show can make this conflict and the distance between him and his peers so utterly tangible is a continuous wonder to behold.
Dimension W‘s episode wasn’t really interesting for its own sake (there were some nice backgrounds and stark single images, but that’s about it), but did put my general thoughts on this show into a bit clearer perspective. From the very first minutes, it was clear this was going to be the first half of a classic two-part murder mystery story, and basically every beat of the setup and pacing fit into that pattern. Having the Numbers become a sort of generic catch-all for “characters have crazy powers” was a pretty expected turn as well. But aside from that stuff, basically all of this episode was dedicated to Mira being flustered, Mira being naked, and Mira being suggestively assaulted, with a dash of gothic loli with bat ear hairbands added for classic anime spice.
Based on Funimation’s investment in and promotion of this property, as well as the general aesthetic of the first couple episodes, it feels like they’ve been going hard on making this show appeal to the “why isn’t all anime like Cowboy Bebop” audience – so I have to wonder if the show leaning so heavily into its fanservice elements might scare off that crowd. Shows like Attack on Titan succeed at least in part because they avoid the overt appearance of “anime-ness” – they may be simple shounen action spectacles at heart, but they give that chassis a western paint job and a veneer of self-seriousness.
Personally, I don’t really have a horse in this race – shows that ride on what I perceive as this adolescent sense of cool, and which rely on you finding action exciting for its own sake to be appealing, are never going to be my bag. But I have to wonder if the producers are shooting themselves in the foot by attempting to split the difference between fanservice and self-seriousness.
This week’s KonoSuba had exactly one good idea – that in this world, ripe cabbages don’t just sit there waiting to be harvested, but instead fly around in crazy swarms and must be taken down by adventurers. The inherently ludicrous nature of that idea, and the way it was actually treated as an obvious tradition in this world, was great. Seeing cabbages fly around and framed as a great quest was great. That was all good stuff.
Everything else about this episode was, unfortunately, bad. This was not a good episode – instead of the surprisingly endearing slapstick and banter of the first two, the entire half of this one was dedicated to stealing panties and demonstrating that the new party member, Darkness, is a masochist. Panty shenanigans are the most played out anime comedy variable in all of anime history, and being a masochist is about as one-note of a joke as they come as well. Cabbages aside, this week’s KonoSuba was 90% Bad Anime Comedy, which unfortunately puts a show I really was enjoying on notice. The biggest issue is that Darkness is actually one of the main members of the party now – the panty stuff might well be a one-episode joke, but her one-note joke is now going to be a permanent part of the dynamic. We’ll have to see whether that hurts the show going forward, or if her issues become less relevant now that the show’s done introducing her character.
In contrast, Dagashi Kashi was both consistently funny and fundamentally likable this week, riffing on two great half-episode ideas while also making Hotaru and Kokonotsu come off as a more believable pair of friends than ever before. Having Kokonotsu actually buy into Hotaru’s ideas is just such, such, such a better idea than having him play the straight man. Hotaru’s ideas tend to actually make sense for a particularly weird and passionate kind of teenager, and having Kokonotsu play along makes him more likable for his own sake, makes the pair of them come off as a more endearing couple, and vastly increases the show’s comic potential. When a character’s response to someone doing something strange is to say “that’s strange,” you’ve generally hit a comedy wall – when their response is to actually riff on and one-up their comic partner, you can go basically anywhere. Hopefully this episode means the original author has figured this out, too.
ERASED maintained its usual consistency this week, with slight dips into too-loud drama (essentially the show’s one abiding flaw), but otherwise lots of its reliably great scene-setting and storytelling. It turns out this show won’t be a temporally slow thriller leading up to X-Day, because this one episode rushed right through and past Satoru’s birthday party all by itself. I was happy to see that – I’m generally not the kind of viewer who cares that much if a story surprises me, but ERASED is the kind of hook-heavy thriller that can really benefit from the element of surprise. This episode also did very strong work in further highlighting both Satoru’s current confidence and how its brittleness reflects on his future life. The show is still excellent all around, putting me at the point where I’m talking more about stuff that makes it “less than flawless” than stuff that makes it worth watching. That’s a good place to be!
Meanwhile, this week’s Active Raid was really just kind of dull. The show’s episodic conflicts have never been exciting for their own sake – they’ve always essentially been the filler story arc that everything the show cares about happens around, with even the cast itself seemingly half-asleep as they go through their professional tasks. But in this week’s episode, all that “stuff the show cares about” was stuff we’d already seen – the relationship between Sena and Kuroki, the sneaky machinations of the government, etcetera. The only thing I actually found compelling in this episode was the absurd choice to have Mythos straight-up eat popcorn while spouting his stupid hacker crap about the government being fools. That was pretty nicely self-aware, but one funny moment does not an episode make.
And finally, Grimgar dropped the other shoe this week, through a second-half ambush and death that managed to have some real dramatic power in spite of a generally clumsy execution. In contrast to a show like Dimension W, which is basically all polish and no soul, Grimgar has an extremely strong personality, one that sometimes overpowers its ability to actually tell its story. I really like the idea of a fantasy story with pacing and dialogue so grounded it feels almost out of place in an anime, and at its best moments, Grimgar lives up to the promise of that combination. The animation remains very strong in a variety of ways (the weight of a sword swing, the varied shifting of emotions clearly visible for each character), and the characters are gaining texture over time, so there’s plenty to like here. But the dramatic pacing of sequences like this episode’s big ambush, or the funeral sequence at the end, occasionally feel like they’re lacking the emphasis they really need.
You can tell this director isn’t used to this genre, and though in many ways that makes Grimgar a much better show than most action-adventure anime, lacking a confident hand at the wheel can remove the kick from some of the key moments. Having the tragic ambush come as a total surprise on the back of a slice-of-life lunch scene is a good idea – having that ambush be so confusingly storyboarded that it lacks a coherent arc of dramatic action, not so much. I think Grimgar is easily one of the most interesting shows of the season, and its highs are remarkable, but it’s also one of those shows that leaves me even more excited for its director’s next project. Just, y’know, quit it with the crazy leg fetishism.
Moving outside of anime, basically every minute that wasn’t spent watching shows or writing articles this week was dedicated to The Witness, Jonathan Blow’s awful monster of a new game. I’ve been keeping a close eye on The Witness pretty much since it was announced, finding myself immediately entranced by its Myst-styled aesthetic and clear focus on creating a sense of place. Exploring an island that actually feels like it’s full of secrets and mysteries, and not in the “if you walk down this other path to the side, there’s a treasure chest” sense, seemed like a pretty lovely game experience. The actual game has born that out – The Witness is an enchanting place to visit, possessing a generally peaceful atmosphere broken by all manner of beautiful setpieces, and it’s a pleasure just to wander its diverse settings. And the actual puzzles within those settings are a constant source of frustration/anger/satisfaction/delight.
Basically every puzzle in The Witness involves moving a line across a grid from a beginning point to an end point. That’s what the game is, and yeah, there’s basically no way to describe that and make it sound interesting. But holy crap does The Witness ever extrapolate on that concept. Games that have had entire decades to expand on concepts like “aim the gun at the guy and shoot” or “click the button and make the guy jump” generally do far less with their central concept than The Witness does with its puzzle boxes. The game teaches you, and you learn. You never gain a new power, but you become more powerful – you learn the secrets of its visual language, and train yourself to actually be aware of your surroundings. The satisfaction of The Witness as a gameplay experience and The Witness as a specific place are wholly linked; you come to admire and see meaning in this place, because that is the only way forward. You feel stupid, and then you feel smart, and then you feel stupid again. You go work on something else, and come back and realize you’ve blown away whatever cobwebs were blocking that one key connection. You learn and move on.
The Witness has been everything I’d hoped it would be, and at this point I’m mostly sad that it seems I’m getting pretty close to the end. I really hope I don’t have to wait half a decade for Blow’s next game.