Fall 2017 – Week 10 in Review

It feels like all of these great shows are now just jostling to remind me exactly how great they are, right before the season ends and we’re all left in the winter void. March comes in like a lion rose to a dramatic crescendo, Land of the Lustrous had one of its most visually jaw-dropping episodes yet, and even Love Live Sunshine managed to shake off its recent woes and deliver a strong performance. With Recovery of an MMO Junkie already taking its bow, we’re really in the final days now – and with the end of the year prompting me to write way too many final lists, I’m getting even more reminders of how good this season is. Considering Land of the Lustrous is likely to be one of my future go-to gateway shows, I can’t really complain about all this anime ending strong. Let’s instead celebrate it while it’s here, and run this week’s episodes down!

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Simoun – Episode 4

Let’s return to the fantastical Simoun! With the first three episodes in the bag, we’ve established a solid dramatic platform for the show to come. Neviril’s misgivings about her role as a priestess were given plenty of room to breathe in the show’s compelling second episode, while the somewhat more straightforward third episode gave us a clearer picture of the overall team. Some initial character conflicts are clear enough already, and there’s a well-founded divide between the new cadets, who all seem eager to prove themselves, and the old guard, who are still dumbstruck by the idea that their guardianship is no longer just ceremonial.

On top of the overt narrative, we’ve also got the show’s intriguing mix of gender and overall societal critique, a far-reaching metaphor that, in spite of its fanciful details and general creative ambition, ultimately helps ground the show in some universal thematic conflicts. I’m very intrigued by this show’s world, but for all that stuff to land, we’ll first have to be sold on its central cast. So let’s jump right in, and see if this ragtag bunch can come together into a real team!

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Why It Works: The Ugliness of War in Juni Taisen

Today on Crunchyroll, I broke down the various ways Juni Taisen makes its visions of war tangibly horrific. War stories always have to manage a difficult balance of portraying violence without glorifying it, and Juni Taisen feels more dedicated than most such stories to emphasizing that war is brutish and inhumane, and that its violence is often less awe-inspiring than mercilessly sudden and utterly final. I hope you enjoy the piece!

The Ugliness of War in Juni Taisen

Just Because! – Episode 9

The kids are doing their friggin’ best in this week’s Just Because! The show remained as consistently acute and endearing as ever this time, with Ena in particular getting a serious bounty of charming new material. I feel a little sorry for Mopey Mio, but look, Ena’s the one out there putting the hard romcom hours into this relationship. If Mio wants a doomed adolescent romance, she’s gonna have to shape up quick.

You can check out my full review over at ANN, or my episode notes below.

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Mawaru Penguindrum – Episode 24

And so it ends.

Having followed the cursed Takakura family as they carried out the rambling will of fate, everything comes together on that inescapable train, icon of both terrorist violence and the inescapable nature of destiny. The tracks only ever go one way, and all we can hope to do is leap onboard and be carried where it goes. Kanba hopes to tame the beast that is fate, agreeing to Sanetoshi’s bargain if only to save his sister. Shoma knows Kanba’s route is hopeless, but has no clearer goal. The two stand apart, each desperately hoping to save Himari, each powerless before the will of fate.

As the two square off, we’re returned once again to their first meeting, when the two were both stranded in caged boxes. These boxes reflect Sanetoshi’s understanding of the world, his belief that we are all stuck in such cages. But they also reflect the fundamental struggle of Ikuhara’s works. Where are these boxes? What is the context of this meeting? Unlike sequences like Shoma’s introduction to Himari, Kanba and Shoma’s first meeting lacks the tangibility of scene-setting that gives thematic narratives emotional weight. Ikuhara’s narratives often struggle in their metaphorical pretensions, shifting from a narrative about individuals, to a fable about human nature, to a general philosophical statement. The messiness of his ambitions strains Penguindrum, though the poignancy of details like facing hunger by “eating in your dreams” work to keep this sequence grounded, human, and painful.

Back in the present moment, narrative and metaphor collide as Himari is revealed to be riding the train of fate. She lies on that wonderfully whimsical bed, introduced through billowing red sheets that part like the curtains of a stage. Her current state is a compromise between comfort and sterility – though she lies in the bed her brothers found, she is wreathed by heartbeat monitors and medical paraphernalia, icons of her fated demise. Himari is flatlining, but Kanba desperately argues that “completing this mission will save her.” Sanetoshi grins at this, and emphasizes again the intractability of their destiny. The world is one vast, self-contained ecosystem, where one creature eats another and is then eaten in turn. “In other words, no one can stop this fate.”

And again we return to those two boxes, Kanba and Shoma side by side. This flashback isn’t truly a sign of the story “coming together,” because it’s both a wholly new scene, and also one that seems to exist outside of the show’s established narrative. Like Masako’s impromptu exit, it’s a band-aid, a rope tethering two important loose ends that never naturally fitted together. The story doesn’t actually work without this sequence at all, but the fact that this sequence doesn’t naturally extend from our prior knowledge is a clear failure of storytelling. You can’t wait this long to decide where your story’s first domino stands.

Narrative shakiness aside, the fact that this scene is an emergency stop-gap does mean it’s tailor-fit to its dramatic hole. Facing mutual starvation, Kanba suggests the two of them make a promise, that “whoever survives shall do something in the other’s stead.” Each of them must send a message to someone precious to the other, making sure at least some part of their will lives on. Living in another’s stead is a concept that runs all through Penguindrum, from Ringo’s attempts to emulate Momoka to smaller things, like Double H living the life Himari never could. If fate has decided you are doomed, others can still do their best to carry you with them.

And then Ringo arrives, bringing the whole still-relevant cast together on the train of fate. Justifying Kanba’s loyalty to his message, Sanetoshi states that “people need light. And he has found his light.” Sanetoshi’s words evoke the light provided by the fiery scorpion, but he has twisted the message of that story. The scorpion realized he had lived a selfish life, and became a star in order to live selflessly, and give freely of himself for others. Sanetoshi frames the contrast of his path and Shoma’s denial as “I’ve given him light – what can you give him?” His framing reflects his belief in the mercenary, transactional nature of all things, and his view of fate as something that can be passed on, but is ultimately inescapable. No matter what you do, someone will suffer greatly – all you can hope to do is take what is available, and let the suffering fall on another. This fatalism is reflected in one more flashback, as we see Kanba is the one chosen by the apple, the one who survives.

But Himari has something to say about that. Rising from her deathbed, she initiates one more Survival Strategy – but this time, it’s not the Princess of the Crystal or Momoka waiting, it’s Himari herself. Glass shatters in the crumbling atrium, echoing the moment when Shoma sacrificed of himself to save Himari back in the child broiler. This time it is Himari who accepts the punishment, glass tearing at her dress and skin as she rises up the skeletal stairs. “Living was the punishment” she says, and we’re treated to a wondrous reflection of small familial duties, the tiny pains they suffered at each other’s expense. It is these tiny moments that bring this story home, these reflections of a familial happiness we’ve come to truly believe in. “All the punishments are precious memories,” Himari says, and we believe her.

And so the final truth is revealed. Back in those barred boxes, it was not some great destructive torrent that saved the two boys. They did not crush society to escape, didn’t escape at all, in fact. But though Kanba was the one “chosen,” he was still able to rebel against fate. He split the apple, sharing it with Shoma, saving the boy beside him. Because Shoma was saved, he was able to save Himari, dragging her from the child broiler into his own family. Because Himari was saved, she is able to stand here at the destination of fate, hugging Kanba close to her, drawing him back. The wheel of fate may turn uncharitably towards its end, but these children created their own wheel, saving each other and proving their love in turn.

One person need not wholly consume themselves for another – if the fate is shared, it might yet be borne by all. So Ringo believes as she states the magic words, defiantly declaring “let’s share the fruit of fate.” And she bursts into flames, and Shoma comes to her aid. And Himari’s heart starts once more, as Kanba deteriorates into those shards of glass. The brothers take on the punishment, but their reward is the safety of all those they’ve cherished. And as the credits roll, the end meets the beginning, with the cyclical nature of fate meaning that Shoma and Kanba will get to try again, and find a new path forward.

Mawaru Penguindrum’s conclusion is messy, incomplete, and not wholly satisfying. It gives up on a number of characters and plot threads entirely, and leaves us with enough mysteries to wonder who some other characters ever were. It hangs heavily on scenes that were clearly inserted just to make the story come together at all, and falls into Ikuhara’s usual issue of leaning so far into metaphor and thematic throughline that the human element can feel almost lost altogether. And yet, at the same time, it pulls together so many of the show’s other threads, and cares so deeply about its central characters. It validates Ringo’s dedication and the scorpion’s fire, Shoma’s kindness and the terror of loneliness, Kanba’s strength and the majesty of fate. As the train comes into its station, we are left with the simultaneous understanding that this is a cruel world full of isolated boxes, and yet we can still find warmth together. The Takakura siblings staggering through that glass to each others’ side is a symbol enduring through all the messiness, all the tangential threads and awkward turns. There is so much beauty in this show, and this show sees so much beauty in this world.

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Fall 2017 – Week 9 in Review

Land of the Lustrous is so good you guys what is up with that. I mean, the other anime I’m watching are good too, but seriously, Land of the Lustrous. I think it actually might be on anime of the year trajectory at this point, particularly if we hit any real payoff of its big threads by the end of this season. Aside from that, hey, guess it’s time for the Week in Review! The season’s holding pretty steady at this point, with most shows either moving towards or formally transitioning into their final act. Love Live is still messing around in side arcs, but I actually appreciate that in a structural sense, since I don’t think the show really improves by focusing on the drama of the Love Live itself. MMO Junkie had a criminally adorable episode, and Just Because stayed as well-observed as ever. Look, I don’t know how many ways I can say “this season is phenomenal and we should cherish it while it lasts.” Let’s get right on with it and RUN THESE SHOWS DOWN!

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March comes in like a lion – Episode 30

We were again pulled away from Hina’s story this week, as the approach of the Newcomer Tournament finals saw Rei reuniting with his old friend Shimada. It’s always nice to see Shimada, and this episode offered some solid insight into Nikaidou’s character, but on the whole it wasn’t really a standout. I am ready to see Rei square off in the finals, though – this season has been trauma-heavy but shogi-light, and I’m excited to see a major match again.

You can check out my full review over at ANN, or my episode notes below.

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Winter 2018 Season Preview

Well, all good things must come to an end. This fall has offered us bountiful great anime in a wide variety of genres, presenting the strongest single-season crop that I’ve seen in years. From great romantic comedies like Recovery of an MMO Junkie to sturdy character dramas like Just Because!, from action highlights like Blood Blockade Battlefront and Juni Taisen to the all-in-one spectacle of Land of the Lustrous, this season has spoiled us utterly. And now, with only a few weeks left in this magical season, it’s time to look forward and acknowledge that joy is fleeting and disappointment boundless, and that next season probably isn’t going to be very good.

The pickings are definitely slimmer for winter, though there are still highlights worth mentioning. And on top of that, the fact that fall all-stars like MMO Junkie and Just Because! didn’t really recommend themselves on first viewing should also serve as a reminder that every season will have its own surprises. As usual, I won’t be going down the names and synopses of every single upcoming show – you can easily find that info on anichart, and I don’t generally find premises that useful anyway. Instead, I’ll be focusing on the shows I have some semi-meaningful reason to look forward to, and explaining why I think these contenders have a chance. Starting with my top prospects and wandering on down, let’s explore the winter season!

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Why It Works: Managing Misunderstandings in Recovery of an MMO Junkie

This week’s Crunchyroll article focuses on something I briefly alluded to in a Week in Review a few weeks ago: the way romantic comedies are essentially built out of a series of inherent misunderstandings, or gaps in understanding, that are then consumed one by one in order to both create drama and keep the audience invested. I feel it’s an interesting way of framing narratives that really highlights the distinction between natural and artificial drama. I hope you enjoy the piece!

Managing Misunderstandings in Recovery of an MMO Junkie

Kuuchuu Buranko – Episode 2

Let’s get back to Kuuchuu Buranko! My experience with this show’s first episode was… messy. It felt like the show was embracing mixed-media visual experimentation purely for the sake of experimentation, and not in a way that facilitated any of its dramatic goals. On top of that, the show’s approach to mixed media, and its overall visual design, were just kinda ugly on the whole. “Garish” would be the generous description – the show’s incredibly loud mixture of colors and styles felt like a continuous assault on the eyes, meaning the choices that seemed to exist purely for their own visual sake didn’t even really result in a satisfying visual result. The episode felt like the results of giving a young visionary with plenty of ideas but not the most sense a blank check, which may well have been how this show started.

That said, the premiere also had to spend some time setting up its overall premise, which cut into the time that could be dedicated to instilling its narrative with some dramatic weight. If Kuuchuu Buranko can apply its wild stylistic digressions to a story with some real emotional heft to it, we might actually have a reasonable show here. Let’s see if episode two fits the bill!

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