Dear lord, one week after the retrospective and we’re already a quarter through the season. This season ended up offering a stronger collection of shows than I was initially expecting, meaning I get to be fairly discerning in choosing what I actually keep up with. At this point, I’m legitimately excited about everything I’m watching – we’ve got a great mix of pure fun (Love Live, Thunderbolt Fantasy) and engaging drama (Orange, Planetarian), with Mob Psycho offering a dash of action and visual creativity. Let’s start with those new Love Lives and run this week down!
This week’s Love Live Sunshine slowly built up to Aqours’ first performance, with a structure that was clearly designed to echo the first series’ own third episode. That was a pretty bold choice to make; after all, the original series’ third episode climax was arguably that show’s most emotionally effective moment altogether, as the reveal of their nearly-empty auditorium emphasized just how far Honoka and her friends had to go, and how much they would have to carry themselves down that road. Love Live isn’t terribly consistent in nailing its more emotional moments, but that one has always been a standout – and so framing this episode in the exact same way naturally invited a tricky comparison.
Fortunately, Sunshine rose to the challenge and then some. While the repetition of the auditorium reveal obviously meant the punchline was a bit less surprising here, I felt the execution was actually even more effective. Having Chika crumble a bit was a strong choice – while Honoka pretty much always seemed invincible, Chika has already expressed consistent vulnerability, and having her almost break down here and then be saved purely by the support of others nicely emphasized that humanity. But the episode was also just great fun in general because of how completely Sunshine has leaned into the eccentricity of its supporting cast.
Love Live has always been a pretty farcical show, but Sunshine has doubled down on that kinda campy sense of humor, and the results have been wonderful. We all assumed Yohane would be the “new Nico,” but beyond Dia already proving herself to be Nico’s true successor, this episode also featured Mari’s “IT’S JOKE,” You wearing a hat with her own goddamn name on it, and Rico attempting to somehow shimmy over Chika’s giant dog. While I appreciate this season working hard to nail the emotional moments, I appreciate even more the fact that it understands just how silly Love Live is supposed to be.
Planetarian’s second episode exhibited all of the understated strengths of the first, continuing to execute gracefully on its inherently poignant premise. I feel like a substantial portion of why this show works is simply that Yumemi never oversells anything – she doesn’t come across as overly helpless or overly tragic, her situation largely just speaks for itself. That makes it much easier to relate to the Junker’s feelings, since his actions feel like a more believable reaction to the events around him than many woman-saving heroes. What do you know, solid characters lead to solid stories.
Thunderbolt Fantasy’s second episode was nearly as fun as the first, even though it was substantially less crowded with exploding swords and flying heads. I’ve said it before, but Thunderbolt’s tone very strongly reminds me of Phantom Blood specifically – it shares that show’s precise combination of hot-blooded action and overwrought camp, leading to lines like “you’re still confused about who’ll die and who’ll do the killing here?!?” That tone is understandably a bit divisive, since it makes it tough to entirely believe in the show’s world as presented, but I have no trouble believing in the sincerity of this story. Hot-blooded action is inherently kind of silly, and Thunderbolt leans into that fact in the best way. I’m still having lots of fun with Urobuchi’s puppet extravaganza.
Mob Psycho 100 expressed some welcome sensitivity this week, in an episode largely focused on Mob’s insecurities about middle school. Mob really does come across as an entirely believable adolescent boy; his mundane personality feels almost like it was designed as a gimmick counterpoint to his extreme powers, but it actually makes him come across as far more realistic than most anime teenagers. And the show’s visuals were of course up to the task of conveying Mob’s feelings in a visceral sense, making for a compelling episode all around. I continue to be surprised by just how much I’m enjoying this show.
Orange continued its slow march towards tragedy, as Naho’s determination to change the future ran into the infinite sads of high school. Beyond the director’s obvious preference for heavy light saturation and off-balance frames, there’s always something that feels weirdly off-kilter about the presentation of this show. It’s clear in moments like the brief cut to Azusa laughing as Kakeru goes to get the group drinks (the show has a general tendency to make weird cutting/pacing decisions), but basically every element of the production contributes to the show’s odd sensibility in its own way, from the slightly stiff character designs to the emphasis on truly mundane, atmosphere-focused dialogue. I’m not sure I’d call the overall effect, well, “effective,” but it certainly makes for an interesting viewing experience. And the show is also really good, so this is less a complaint than a puzzled observation.
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure followed up the very silly Rohan two-parter with an episode that leaned entirely in the other direction. JoJo is rightly lauded for its stylish goofiness, but equally important to its success is how expertly Araki executes on the horror templates he loves. This episode’s shift from slow-burning Stand hunting to remote farmhouse horror and then to a tense sniper duel was a standout example of just how good Araki is at telling a pressure cooker of a story. The winding hillsides of Morioh felt like a real place, given a disquieting personality through off-kilter angles and panning shots across ominous fields of grain. And the slow discovery of their enemy’s Stand powers was paced perfectly to elevate the drama – first that awful rat-cube, then the tense discoveries at the farmhouse, and then a transition to classic “how do we win from this board state” action drama once all the cards were on the table. This episode was a basically flawless action-horror vignette, another demonstration of how thoroughly Diamond is Unbreakable is eclipsing everything that’s come before.
Battery had a premiere that was perhaps a bit less impressive than people might have hoped, but still a steady enough starting point for a solid drama. The rapport between the show’s leads is already fairly strong, which is certainly important, given their bond is literally the title of the show. And I also liked how well this episode created a sense of place through the drawn-out sequences of jogging through the woodland hills and bustling around the new house. The episode was functional and confident, basically – not ostentatious in its visual ornamentation or writing, but consistently grounded in its slow, effective storytelling approach. This director has been in the game forever, so I have to assume Battery will be a very steady ride.
And finally, Sweetness & Lightning was just as charming as ever, offering an episode that shined by emphasizing and deeply respecting Tsumugi’s feelings about a fight with a classmate. There were certainly many inherently cute moments here, like Tsumugi hiding in her skirt-bag and crawling over to the shoe lockers, but that stuff felt like garnish around a more fundamentally thoughtful center. Tsumugi’s feelings were extreme and methods of expressing herself obscure, but that’s pretty much how kids are, and it’s the job of parents to cross that distance and understand the real and legitimate feelings they’re struggling with. I really felt for the difficulty of her father’s position when he was stressing over her reaction to breakfast, and that carried through to his halting attempts to make things right later on. For all its breezy charm, Sweetness & Lightning also offers a clear reminder that life is a sequence of attempting to live up to more and more difficult audiences, from our teachers and bosses to the children we ultimately want to nurture and inspire.