Having honed an already-strong season down to a fine point, my experiences with this week’s anime were altogether pretty darn good. March comes in like a lion is perhaps the biggest surprise – I’d established fairly middle-of-the-road expectations for the show the first time around, but this time it’s consistently keeping up with the season’s top heavy hitters. And of course, both Just Because! and Land of the Lustrous have been great from the start and remained great, with only Just Because!’s production woes really pulling it down. We’re reaching the point where it’s time for me to settle on my favorite shows of the year, and the fall season will certainly be well-represented there. Could either Kemono Friends or Land of the Lustrous secure that top spot, marking a new dawn for CG anime? ONLY TIME WILL TELL! Alright let’s talk shows.
Was March comes in like a lion always this good, or has this season actually ascended to an altogether higher level of execution than the first? I remember the first season very fondly, but also remember its execution as being fairly hit or miss – great fundamental material, but often either uninspired aesthetic choices or far too much awkwardly executed comedy. But here in season two, we’ve had terrific episode after terrific episode, and even this more “conventional” March episode was buoyed by strong visual tricks and dynamic sound design. It’d been a while since we saw Rei actually compete in a match, and this episode managed to turn a relatively mundane faceoff into a unique thrill through its smart use of background noises. The frustration of fighting against the fidgety, tongue-clicking, fan-snapping Hachiya was made viscerally clear through this episode’s smart sound design, and there were plenty of beautiful visual choices too, along with some steady progress in Rei’s character arc. After a couple somewhat rough opening episodes, March has turned out to be one of the most reliable pleasures of the season.
Just Because! was also just as consistent as ever this week, though I suppose its “consistent” means “some super rough visual execution, but extremely strong underlying storytelling.” In spite of the show’s often jerky animation and occasional field trips into live action background land, this episode completely succeeded in selling both potential results of the Ena-Eita-Mio love triangle. I was completely on board the Ena-Eita train, but then this episode’s literal train scene arrived and offered possibly the most sympathetic moment Eita has had all season, all in service of making sure the girl he likes does well on her test. The similarities in Eita and Mio’s personalities can sometimes make it seem like they’d never be able to have a real conversation, but that sequence demonstrated that even though both of them are snarky and soft-spoken and bad with feelings, they can still connect emotionally, and still seem pretty right for each other. Which sucks, because I love Ena, and so now no matter how this plays out, someone I love gets hurt. These teens will be the death of me.
Recovery of an MMO Junkie finally Did the Thing this week, ending on Sakurai’s long-awaited declaration that he actually is Lily. I don’t think the show has any way of walking this one back, which I appreciate, but I was more struck this week by Sakurai and Moriko’s consistently precise articulation of just why we invest in online spaces in the first place, and the insecurities that lead us to feel more free on the internet.
Sakurai’s “I’m only comfortable by myself, but being alone is lonely” was about as tidy an explanation you can get as to why people with social anxiety gravitate towards online spheres. Face to face interactions are defined by expectations and potential disappointments, at least in the mind of a socially anxious person, where you’re expected to perform a “normal self” consistently all through the course of the encounter. Separated by screens and keyboards, we lose the expectation of continuous availability, and can appreciate the warmth of companionship without the fear of making serious mistakes. Moriko’s anxieties illustrated the flip side of this fear, when she apologized to Sakurai for her real-life self potentially not living up to the charismatic performance of her characters. MMO Junkie’s jokes are fine and characters great, but it may be its terrific understanding of the social dynamics of online versus real-life spaces that is its most impressive quality.
And Land of the Lustrous stayed as phenomenal as ever, sending off Antarcticite with an episode that ably and consistently demonstrated this show’s visual prowess. Land of the Lustrous’ CG art means it’s hard for the show to stand out in terms of strict animation – its figures are relatively consistent, and there’s not that much inherent beauty in their motions. Instead, the show triumphs as one of the best-storyboarded shows of the year, with its dynamic and diverse compositions constantly elevating Phos’s story. The introduction of Phos’ new arms intensified the show’s usual body horror appeal, with shots of the new metal first congealing around them and then blooming outward offering all manner of great shots. And seeing Phos finally take matters into their own hands, and then swiftly come up short, was as respectively thrilling and devastating as I could have hoped. It is remarkable what great source material and a fantastic adaptation team can do.
Juni Taisen has certainly gotten a lot less fun since its first half, but as far as second-half episodes go, this was probably one of the best. It was extremely Juni Taisen of the show to immediately kill Dragon after two friggin’ episodes of buildup, but considering he still wasn’t much of a character, I didn’t really mind that. And by the time Tiger’s backstory rolled around, it felt like that was something of the point. It’s a common complaint that war films are almost impossible to get right, because it’s very difficult to portray war without glamorizing it. Juni Taisen is emphatically unglamorous – its battles are constantly cut short, its heroic turns result in quick deaths, and those who run generally survive a lot longer than those who fight for what they believe. Tiger’s story was a summation of all that, an ugly story of an optimistic person draining every part of themselves that could feel hurt.
One of the main points of Juni Taisen is that our values are deeply based in our perception of the world, as is often the case for Nisioisin works, and this particular story emphasizes how that applies to violence. Warriors aren’t heroes – they’re either broken people, jaded professionals, or doomed dreamers like Monkey. War isn’t thrilling and honorable – it’s bloody and ugly and final, long tired moments spliced with momentary hyperviolence. Juni Taisen captures all of this, and the fact that it hasn’t been conventionally “fun” for a long time feels like it may well be the point.
Finally, Love Live! Sunshine!! unfortunately had another weak episode this time, sending off Aquors’ would-be rivals with a very anticlimactic fall. As with Aquors’ own failure, I liked the concept of focusing on the mundanity of failure, and the ways we work to pick ourselves back up when our big plans fall through. And to this episode’s credit, I felt the last third or so was actually quite strong, and some of the most effective drama and character writing the show’s seen. But that last third came after an episode that mostly just felt aimless and dull, full of simplistic comedy that simply repeated character gags we’ve seen many times before. Love Live’s greatest strength is generally its eye for snappy, farcical comedy, but this season on the whole has felt like a step down on that front. Love Live just isn’t a very good drama, and the more it asks us to take this story seriously, the worse it will likely be.