Blame The Lag

Mushroom Soup For The Pixelated Soul

Anime Summer 2014 Season Impressions

summer

July 4th came and went with the typically deserved celebration, but for Anime fans everywhere, July 5th was the magical date that heralded the new summer season of shows. In the week leading up to the official season premieres, a plethora of events and announcements cropped up, either by timing or coincidence. There was the Anime Expo in LA (and the FL Supercon for me), the Netflix acquisition of Knights of Sidonia, Gen Urobuchi commenting on plans to begin work on the sequel to Madoka Magica, to name a few.

I personally have not kept track of previous seasons, as I tend to check out shows based on outside recommendations or personal interest. That changed last year when I purchased a Crunchyroll subscription, a decision I’ve not regretted since. Based on my own observation, this season is chock-full of terrific shows to stream, to the point that I’ve decided to offer impressions for each new series/sequel based on their premiere episodes. As with standard television, it’s impossible for me to follow every single show as they come out, so I’m only talking about Animes that I intend to follow over the course of their season. I may end up adding a few more shows to my already-packed queue, and I may even drop a couple based on various circumstances. For now, please enjoy my first impressions of what has already begun as an impressive season.

 

Tokyo Ghoul

 tokyoghoulanimeannouncment

Nothing like extreme violence and edgy drama to kick off a new Anime season. On the outset, Tokyo Ghoul’s concept is rather played out: carnivorous vampire/zombie hybrids that feed on human flesh. What makes it unique, however, is that “Ghouls” are a commonly known threat to the public, rather than a seldom-seen enemy only known to a select few while being hunted down by a black ops group operating in the shadows (that last part is still in there, though the details on them are still scarce).

The other neat thing about the Ghouls is that the majority of them tend to stay inconspicuous, living among normal humans while taking discrete measures in their feeding. The more violent creatures are known as “binge eaters” and are actually shunned by the more pragmatic Ghouls, creating an I Am Legend-inspired concept where not every Ghoul is a violent menace, yet all are judged as abominations by idealistic humans.

This is where our protagonist comes in, a weak-willed boy who received an organ transplant from a Ghoul in order to save his life (and forever cursing him to live as a hybrid of human and Ghoul). The first two episodes do an adequate job at showcasing his torment over the situation, particularly with the theme of starvation; too morally disgusted to eat human flesh, but also physically disgusted by normal human food, we are treated to some legitimately painful sequences of our protagonist dealing with hunger pains and madness (via hallucinations and a creeping bloodlust).

It’s raw, visceral stuff, even though the series suffers greatly from Japanese televised censorship (one scene has a black mosaic covering 3/4 of the screen, making whatever gruesome event occurred to be a complete mystery…which can be effective when done right, but was ultimately confusing in this context). Hopefully the series can stay this course, as certain scenes ran the risk of becoming as mean-spirited as Deadman Wonderland. Having our hero become increasingly feral is a good thing, but if it veers too much into making him an unstoppable killing machine it could lose the sympathetic angle.

Also, bonus points on naming a group of hockey mask-wearing lunatics “Jasons”.

 

Knights of Sidonia

 sidonia

Though being branded as “A Netflix Original” is somewhat misleading, the streaming service’s first Anime acquisition proved surprising for a variety of reasons. Not only was the first season released in its entirety (a common tactic with Netflix’s actual original programming), it was also released in multiple languages beyond the usual Japanese and English dub.

The other surprise is just how good Sidonia is; this show is hard sci-fi, with a multitude of futuristic concepts permeating throughout its setting (human photosynthesis, clones, anti-gravity belts, spacesuits with built-in urethras, and even a mono-gender race similar to Mass Effect’s Asari) as well as a strong narrative that establishes its large cast of characters well enough, not to mention a fair share of tragic outcomes that surround them. Calling it a “dark” series would be an overplayed description, but it is unflinchingly brutal at times.

The only downside is the animation itself; the series is rendered entirely in CG, which is typically clunky and outdated in every form of Japanese media outside of videogames. The visuals aren’t terrible by any means: many outer-space action sequences benefit nicely with the CG camera angles and shaders. The problem lies with the characters themselves, who at times can be difficult to differentiate outside of multicolored hairstyles and often possess a limited number of animations. The closest proximity would be the Tales Of games, particularly Vesperia and Xillia.

Regardless, you’ll grow accustomed to the animation, and will undoubtedly get hooked on the story with each passing episode. The advantage of Netflix’s seasonal releases is that you can choose either to marathon it or enjoy it slowly…though the manner of which later episodes end may tempt you to choose the former option. Either way, just be sure to watch it, as Sidonia has proven to be a surprise hit of the season, and a strong recommendation from me.

 

Sailor Moon Crystal

 crystal

Unquestionably one of the most anticipated Animes in a long while, the long-delayed remake of Sailor Moon has finally arrived. Ironically, while the hype for the series somewhat dwindled due to some admittedly poor teaser material, the fans were all gathered in droves once the show went live, as Crunchyroll’s servers actually went down in the early morning of the show’s premiere (couple that with the equally anticipated Sword Art Online II, and the streaming service suffered greatly during the Saturday onslaught of viewers).

As expected, Crystal is an adaptation of the original Manga, which the original TV series took quite a few liberties from. As someone who recently read the original story, I can attest that a more accurate adaptation of the source material will result in an overall better story, though some of the omissions from this more faithful retelling will no doubt disappoint a lot of oldschool fans (Zoicite no longer being a homosexual, Tuxedo Mask no longer using thorned roses as projectiles, and, to the outcry of fans everywhere, no toast in Sailor Moon’s mouth as she hastily runs to class).

One of the earliest criticisms regarding the new series is its change in animation style; Crystal attempts to mimic the more wispy, painted visual aesthetic of the manga, which results in thinner-looking characters with a smaller variety of expressions. For the most part the animation is fine, but it is an acquired taste that may take some getting used to. Even the CG transformation, which preemptively gained a lot of criticism, isn’t so bad once viewed directly (though a traditionally animated sequence would have still looked better).

The one thing really hurting this series is its biweekly schedule. For some reason, Toei will only be releasing episodes every two weeks. An odd decision, given the outright confirmation that they will be adapting the entire series, including the later storylines featuring the Outer Scouts. Perhaps this is to make the first arc feel longer than it actually is, since the original Manga is much faster-paced without filler (Sailor Mercury and Mars are already confirmed to join in the next two episodes, respectively), but the biweekly gaps can risk in decreasing the interest in this series, especially when every other show will be releasing its episodes in a standard weekly run.

 

Sword Art Online II

 saoLove it or hate it, SAO is without a doubt one of the most popular Anime properties worldwide right now. To be fair, the 2nd half of the first season had an assortment of problems that greatly marred the strong start of the first storyline, especially with its treatment of Asuna, who was downgraded from a capable heroine who saved Kirito more times than he saved her to a frilly-dressed damsel in distress forced to endure several moments of sexual humiliation.

While I am disappointed that the new season won’t entirely make up for that, as Asuna is reportedly kept in a supportive role, there is quite a bit of hype surrounding this season’s new female lead, Sinon. I have no knowledge of the novels that inspired this series, but judging by her introduction she does appear to be a fully capable player who can keep her cool in the middle of a shootout. Having a Kajiura-fied orchestra accompanying her during the big action moments is also a plus, and I’ve been told that she thankfully won’t be shoehorned into Kirito’s harem (which I can only hope will no longer grow from here on out).

Personally, I dug the romantic banter between Kirito and Asuna, and was glad to see the first episode open up with that. I’m also interested in the prospect of Kirito acting undercover inside the new game (which does look legitimately cool, making me wish that a similar game existed that combined open world MMOs with First Person Shooters….so far Destiny would be the closest thing we’ve got), though I won’t be surprised if he ends up becoming an ace player the moment he steps into Gun Gale Online, because Kirito is known for his asspull virtual abilities.

If you truly hated the original SAO, the second season isn’t likely going to change that, but I found it highly enjoyable in spite of its second-half stumbling. Call it a guilty pleasure if you want, but it’s a far better action series that hasn’t reached the all-time lows of Bleach or Naruto, and it’s still refreshing to see a main character romantically devoted to his female counterpart rather than the usual endless spiral of “will they/won’t they”.

 

Aldnoah Zero

 azIt’s Gen Urobuchi’s newest show. That alone made Aldnoah Zero my most anticipated Anime this season.

After several series filled with superb suffering, Urobuchi’s name most certainly carries a lot of anticipation with it….which has also led to quite a bit of debate regarding A/Z. Many have accused the producers behind the show of touting the Urobutcher’s name the same way Ubisoft uses Tom Clancy as a hook for their games….meaning that Gen’s actual involvement in the story is minimal at best, much like it was with Gargantia (a very good series for what it was, but still somewhat falsely advertised).

It’s all speculation for now, but if the first two episodes are anything to go by, the Urobutcher influence is all over this series. Marked from the get-go as a tragedy involving the bloody war between Earth and Mars (the “Martians” in this case are actually humans who colonized the planet decades ago, forming a nobility that considers “Old Humanity” as inferior beings), the premiere episode kicked off with a bang (or more accurately, a boom). If things continue in this fashion, we may end up with the largest Urobuchi death count yet. Aside from the brutal character deaths, there are other familiar tropes that have become commonplace in his series, including a battle-hardened cynic who uses alcohol/smoking as a vice, ironically-timed lines about peace and love, and two main characters with polar opposite personalities and ideals (not to mention the ongoing debate regarding one character’s mental stability).

Since Urobuchi’s name has increased in mainstream recognition, it’s no surprise that jaded fans are quick to criticize A/Z right from the bat, though some of the criticisms do have merit; the first episode was chock-full of exposition in order to clue you in on the history of the Mars colonization and the resulting conflict, while the majority of key characters had little time to establish their personalities. These are once again noticeable trademarks from Urobuchi, though perhaps it’s more noticeable since the storyline has already hit a devastating point of no return.

Perhaps I am blinded by my anticipation of what could happen more than anything else; by the second episode, several story seeds have been planted that could all bear fruit to more tragic outcomes. The intro alone also gives a few clues on what to expect, another familiar trademark with Urobuchi’s shows. The biggest hint of all, however, is in the subtitle “Let Justice Be Done, Though The Heavens Fall”. Nobody loves to showcase the destructive consequences of having a strong ideal like the Urobutcher, and if these early episodes are any indication, both sides of the conflict will be performing several countless acts of inhuman cruelty in order to come out on top. As it stands, this still gets my highest recommendation of the season, and hopefully things will pay off wonderfully as the series progresses.

 

Space Dandy Season 2

 dandyThe first season of Space Dandy started off as somewhat slow to love; the series, at least as of this writing, has foregone a linked narrative similar to its predecessors in favor of a completely random string of insane situations that at times can end with the main characters dying or being stuck in an inescapable loophole that is both ignored and undone in the next episode. Ironically, this still puts Space Dandy as an Anime that gains much of its inspiration from Western media, much like Watanabe’s previous hallmarks: think Duck Dodgers instead of Captain Harlock and you’ll have a better idea of what to expect.

That said, once you decided to just sit back and enjoy the crazy ride, the show became a weekly treat of wild visuals, hilarious characters and toe-tapping music. It also benefits greatly from an English dub that borders on phenomenal, making even 4chan purists preferring it over the original Japanese broadcast.

Season 2 is exactly more of the same, which instantly makes it one of the most anticipated shows this season. The first episode started off incredibly strong with one of the most consistently funny and visually exhausting episodes yet. If you haven’t yet embraced the Dandy way to live, now is as good a time as ever, baby.

 

Akame Ga Kill

 akameI had no prior knowledge about this Anime or its original source material, but was recommended to check it out based on the moderate amount of hype surrounding it. After the initial viewing, I was certainly surprised, but so far I’m not willing to say that it’s surprisingly great.

The concept is a fairly neat one, about a hopelessly naive swordsman dreaming of becoming a hero getting tangled together with a group of merciless killers. The assassins, in this case, are hired to punish the most wicked of people, the monsters who hide under the veil of authority and prestige, making them wanted vigilantes. Each character has their own unique skill in addition to a personality quirk, with the main character conflicted about joining a fugitive cause that is determined to stop the most absolute evil in the most gruesome fashion possible.

The main problem I have with this series is a common problem that has affected many Animes for years now: abrupt humor. Scenes of great loss and drama are routinely interrupted with the protagonist comically freaking out over something, whether it be the heaving bosom of one comrade, the icy cold personality of another comrade or the alleged homosexuality of another. Did I mention the boobs? Because there are a lot of jokes involving boobs (though it still isn’t as excessive as most ecchi comedies, or even mainstream shows like One Piece).

The other problem is that even though the protagonist is openly mocked for his naive sense of justice, the series so far paints a very black and white picture that justifies the violent actions of the assassins by making their targets unrepentantly evil. Admittedly, this does result in some cool imagery of said villains twisting their expressions into grotesquely evil portraits that would fit right at home in a Phoenix Wright game, and the characters interactions do have their charming moments. The copious blood splatter also gives an extra edge to the high-octane action sequences, and seems unaffected by the strong censorship plaguing Tokyo Ghoul.

Uneven tone aside, I will continue to watch this series to see if it wins me over the same way it has won over others. For now, it is merely a guilty pleasure that somewhat squanders its unique concept.

 

Yami Shibai: Japanese Ghost Stories Season 2

 ghostThe first season of Yami Shibai served as the perfect late night venue, a series of short ghost stories averaging no more than five minutes per episode. The show featured a unique comic-book style format of still images and grainy filters, which heightened the frightening mood of each story. While some tales would have been more effective without the abrupt endings, the standout episodes were truly the most memorable.

Season 2 keeps things completely unchanged, minus a new end credits sequence that will leave you even more leery of the masked narrator as he happily shares more terrifying tales to keep you up at night. Horror in Anime is very rare, and very rarely done well, so make sure to give this one a shot at a proper time (in the dark, with headphones).

 JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders (English Dubbed)

jojoIn a strange case of “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it”, Crunchyroll actually added a dubbed series to their current schedule. As bizarre as its namesake, three episodes JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure were dubbed and put online for viewing…for only a couple of days. Even stranger, these episodes apparently could only be viewed directly from Crunchyroll’s website, as no other external device (Apple TV, iPad, PS3) was able to play it.

For those who managed to catch it, they may share my opinion that the dub was very well done. Jumping ahead to the third (and most popular) story arc, the English actors of Stardust Crusaders did an adequate job of capturing the over-the-top performances of the original Japanese cast. The biggest standout was Richard Epcar as Joseph Joestar, who appropriately hams it up with expletive growls and complaints.

It’s unknown exactly when or what format the JoJo dub will be released, or if they will also go back and dub the first two arcs of the storyline. Hopefully Toonami will be the main venue, as it will finally ensure that the JoJo series will be as well recognized in the United States as it has been in Japan.

 

Persona 4 Golden

 personaHow many ways can a company milk the same story over and over? DragonBall Z and Evangelion have got nothing on Atlus’ repeated retelling of Persona 4’s original storyline. Despite having an adaptation last year as well as a movie, P4 is now receiving yet another Anime series just to tell the same story yet again, this time inserting all of the new characters and sequences from the game’s re-release on the Playstation Vita, hence the shared title “Persona 4 Golden”.

However, there is a slight twist: while the main character may be repeating the same events all over again, his stats have been carried over from the previous series. In videogame terms, this is known as New Game +, a concept that (to my knowledge) has never been attempted in Anime form. While Yu (supposedly) may not have any memories of the events of the original, his maxed out social stats allow him to quickly befriend and impress everyone that he talks to, leading to some legitimately hilarious first meetings with some of the characters. This also affects his battle prowess, as he starts off his first battle at such a high level that he effortlessly dispatches a literal swarm of enemies versus the half dozen he fought in the original.

Judging by the next episode preview, the show will be moving at a breakneck pace in order to quickly fill up the main roster of characters, leaving one to wonder just what the main focus of this new series will be. So far it’s been established that Marie (who was inserted into the original story courtesy of Golden) will receive a lot of screen time, but her scenes alone wouldn’t be enough to take up a whole season. The much more interesting rumor is that Adachi (who finally received his own Social Link route in Golden) will also be a prominent focus, which would be quite interesting for various reasons.

Since I’m still well behind on my Golden playthrough, it is uncertain whether I’ll stick to this series on a weekly basis. Plus, the English dub cast did such a wonderful job with the material that I find it difficult to enjoy the original Japanese cast with the same amount of reverence (especially Teddie, whose Japanese counterpart is far more annoying to listen to).

 

Fate/Kaleid Liner Prisma Illya Season 2

 illyaThe first season of Prisma Illya gained a cult following from longtime Fate fans, but felt rather uneven for me; it was hard to tell whether the series wanted to parody the Magical Girl genre or play it straight. The rather copious amount of Illya fanservice also proved rather uncomfortable, though some of its Yuri-flavored moments proved legitimately amusing. It also didn’t help that Illya herself made for a rather boring protagonist, lacking the intriguing backstory and jaded personality traits that she had in her original series. Had the series instead focused on Rin’s brief career as a cynical Magical Girl along with her busty, drill-haired rival/foil, this series would have gained a far bigger recommendation.

For me, Prisma Illya shined during its action sequences, particularly one out-of-nowhere moment of pure awesomeness that caught nearly everyone by surprise, and served as one of the biggest love letters to fans of the original Fate/Stay Night. It was moments like these that made me interested in season 2 in the hopes that they focus more on Ilya’s development as a Magical Girl powerhouse and less loli fanservice.

Judging by the first episode, they ramped up the latter. Once again causing confusion on whether there is meant to be a sense of irony during the shameless scenes of ice cream eating and upskirt shots (and by the time you read this, one instantly infamous make out sequence in the second episode), the animation is still pleasantly sweet and the majority of characters are likeable and often exhibit hilarious expressions. The fanservice still makes this series a bit of a hard sell for those who aren’t into it, but if you can accept it as mostly humorous rather than pandering, you may enjoy this spinoff to help pass the time until the proper Fate/Stay Night adaptation (which looks utterly fantastic).

 

Terror in Resonance

 terror

 

Terror in Resonance deals with a really ballsy premise: terrorists masquerading as highschool students. The two enigmatic youths maintain their cover by attending classes while simultaneously preparing (and openly advertising over the internet) their next attack of a majorly populated complex. Their motives for the attacks seem to be spurred by some sort of tragedy that killed many of their friends, but so far the two protagonists are presented as deviants, not heroes. Despite the charming personality of one of the two bombers, the way they “recruit” a bullied antisocial girl can be seen as both cold and/or bittersweet, depending on how you view it.

What really sets this show apart, aside from the highly controversial premise, is the stunningly gorgeous animation. Directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, who is known best for Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo and currently Space Dandy, the adrenaline-filled character animations and dizzying camera angles instantly bring to mind another masterpiece of Watanabe’s, the “Kid’s Story” short from The Animatrix. The edgy soundtrack by the always phenomenal Yoko Kanno also creates an appropriate mood to the story.

Right now, the biggest challenge for this series is whether it can tell its story without glamorizing the concept of terrorism. The first episode introduces a retired detective that will undoubtedly serve as the characters’ main opposition. So long as they can properly balance things so that the bombers at least come across as sympathetic criminals rather than justified antiheroes, this series may end up the biggest surprise yet this season.

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This entry was posted on July 17, 2014 by in Jawsome Japanimation.
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