Winter 2017 – Week 12 in Review

And so the winter season draws to a close. With the majority of my airing shows coming to an end this week, I’m ready to call the time of death for Winter 2017. This was far from a great season – Rakugo was pretty much the only unqualified recommendation, with my followup picks like Dragon Maid and Kemono Friends all coming with a variety of caveats. And even Rakugo seemed intent on tripping over itself a little at the end. Still, winter seasons are always pretty lean, and I certainly got through some powerful backlog – after all, I got to finish both Planetes and Nichijou this season. But let’s give this season’s airing contenders the round of applause they deserve, as I run down the winter season one last time!

Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid settled into its most K-On!-style comfy mode this week, offering an inconsistently thrilling but overwhelmingly rewarding picture of Kobayashi and crew’s winter holiday. Dragon Maid’s clear highest achievement has been the dynamic it’s developed within the core Kobayashi family, and that dynamic was embraced in the best way all through this episode’s lazy scenes of vacationing beneath a kotatsu. Kobayashi, Tohru, and Kanna have grown so naturally close that at this point, watching them spend time together is its own reward. The scenes with the larger group actually kind of emphasize the lopsided nature of the show – characters like Lucoa and Elma are mediocre single gags, and can’t really compete in the league of comfy the main three have now entered. Dragon Maid is a show of imbalanced talents, but its better elements do a lot of work.

Seiren’s third arc rambled to a conclusion this episode, using the school’s Christmas Eve festival to tie up Shoichi and Kyoko’s torrid story of wool underwear and romance. As usual, the show was a mix of somewhat underwhelming character drama, absurd one-liners, and scenes with no real purpose at all. The big confession scene between Shoichi and Kyoko was likely the show’s best climax so far, almost entirely because it successfully aligned the show’s inconsistent ear for legitimately convincing character writing with a scene where good character writing was actually needed. The two of them felt like the awkward, nervous kids they’re supposed to be, which is a higher standard of execution than I generally expect from the show. Between that and the tweet-ready lines about erect doe tails, I guess I can’t really ask for more from Seiren.

The finale of Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju treated us to one more fast-forward, as we witnessed the rebirth of the old theater sixteen years in the future. While this episode’s final performances were lovely and overall structure graceful, it was almost hard to appreciate anything outside of how perfectly Shinnosuke and Koyuki were their parents’ children. Seeing Yotaro’s mannerisms and even his broad facial features passed down into Koyuki was adorable, and seeing Shinnosuke embody the specter of Bon was endearing in its own way. Shin’s parentage was this episode’s one major point of contention, a narrative choice that made perfect sense as far as themes and cycles go, but felt pretty out of step for Bon and Konatsu’s relationship. It’s easy to see how Rakugo was using that reveal to tie a neat bow on a story that’s been consistently obsessed with succession and cycles of rebirth, but Konatsu was Bon’s daughter in terms of everything but genetics, and Rakugo’s character drama has generally been sharp enough that you can’t really handwave the ways that poisons their relationship.

Aside from that, this finale was basically all you could hope for in a conclusion to this story. The episode felt indulgent in ways that all justified themselves as dramatic/thematic payoff – stuff like the material with Yotaro and Konatsu’s kids and Yotaro performing Shinigami weren’t just wonderful fanservice, they were the right and proper place for these journeys to end. Rakugo wasn’t a perfect show, but it was a beautiful, thoughtful, and consistently rewarding drama. A few shows like this is all we can hope for.

And Saga of Tanya the Evil enjoyed a welcome star turn this week, as Mob Psycho/Death Parade’s Yuzuru Tachikawa dropped by to storyboard and direct an episode. The results were as thrilling as you might expect, with the first half (after a pretty generous recap, admittedly) being wholly dedicated to Tanya and co’s faceoff with a full air battalion. Tanya and Anson Sioux’s rematch was a visual delight from start to finish, mixing fluid animation with strong storyboarding and beautiful impact frames to create a vivid clash of desperate soldiers. Tanya the Evil isn’t generally much of an action spectacle, but this episode was a stunner – even if Tanya is Evil, it was still easy to relate to her desperation in this tense battle. This show just continues to pull off new tricks.

Finally, Kemono Friends concluded with an episode that gracefully tied its story together, made smart use of its legitimately well-paced character development, and offered a final party with the characters that felt earned and endearing from start to finish. In short, it was pretty much a perfectly constructed finale, one last strong hit by what turned out to be the winter’s secret weapon. The show 100% sold the bond between Kaban and Serval. Both Serval and Kaban were forced to demonstrate how much they’d learned from the other in order to achieve victory. All of the old Friends came back, and it was great. There was room for a sequel that didn’t require shortchanging the finality of this particularly story.

I don’t know how Kemono Friends exists, but it feels to me like a perfect example of why we watch anime at all. Sometimes the best stories come in the most unlikely packages. Well done, Kemono Friends.