Monday, 31 August 2009

Shangri-la - Episode 22

Episode twenty-two of Shangri-la commences with a shot of Lady Mikuni walking up a ridiculously long flight of stairs whilst wearing a ridiculous pair of platform shoes, which leaves me wondering whether Atlas needs more elevators or simply more royal fashion consultants.

Of course, had this been a KyoAni show we would have been able to enjoy eight whole episodes of Mikuni walking up some stairs (that was a cheap shot, I know... sorry), but as it isn't it only takes her around half an episode to reach the top of said stairs, in which time we get supersonic lift shafts (if only Mikuni had one of them), numerous more bad jokes from Momoko, and a rather bizarre Luke Skywalker/Princess Leia "oh, so we're really brother and sister" moment which shouts out "deus ex machina" at the top of its voice.

Once Mikuni reaches the top, she's told by Ryoko that'll she'll only be accepted as Atlas' successor if she jettisons Sayoko - Sounds like a pretty good deal to me, and it seems that it does to Sayoko as well, as she hilariously jumps from the balcony at the top of the stairs rather than simply leaving by walking down them again. Never a woman of half-measures is our Sayoko.

With that little charade out of the way, we're left with just enough time for more laughably ill-conceived plot twists surrounding Ryoko, as well as an equally weak reason behind her wanting to destroy the entire world, before Mikuni is also convinced in nonsensical fashion that blowing up the entire planet with nukes is a good idea and a great way to get revenge for Miko's death. Finally, we're left with a cliffhanger that just so happens to be yet another bizarre plot twist - All it needs now is for Takehiko to come out of the woodwork and save Kuniko, and we'll have the full set of stupid plot devices.

As you can tell, this episode of Shangri-la (like so many others before it) hasn't exactly filled me with admiration. There really is no other description for it, the plot as this series moves towards its climax is beyond stupid in myriad ways, and you know you're doing something wrong in terms of plot scripting and animation when one of the supposed emotional cruxes of the episode (that being Sayoko's suicide) turns out to be utterly hilarious, of only slightly more so than Karin's question of "What happens to Mum and Dad when the world is destroyed?". Oh, I don't know Karin, perhaps they'll discover they have superpowers, fly to Mars to escape and set up a margarine shop to help passing aliens to make delicious yet healthy cakes and snacks.... Actually, not a bad idea for Shangri-la Season 2 that. Are you reading this Gonzo?

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood - Episode 21

What with a week's break for the series and a twentieth episode that dwelled on Edward Elric an his father, the scrap involving Roy Mustang and company feels like it happened quite some time ago. However, episode twenty-one returns us to the aftermath of that skirmish with the Homunculus, ready and raring to get us well and truly back into the swing of things.

Before that however, there's a mixture of both bad and disturbing news to come to terms with, from the revelation that Lieutenant Havoc looks unlikely to ever walk again thank to a spinal injury, while a little research performed by Hawkyeye amongst others seems to implicate the highest possible levels of the military in the whole Homunculus conspiracy - Not the kind of news Roy Mustang will have wanted to hear on either count.

As if that wasn't bad enough, Scar is back and up to his old tricks again, killing some more State Alchemists and injuring countless other people as his thirst for vengeance continues. It's this news which prompts the Elric brothers to engross themselves in a dangerous plot, seeking to make themselves known to Scar so that he attacks them, which they hope will in turn lure out the Homunculus who they already know can't afford to let either brother die. To help with this task, the brothers also manage to rope in Ling Yao and Lan Fan, while even Roy Mustang ends up lending a hand. Is even that concentration of power and ability enough to pull off this stunt? I'm afraid we're going to have to wait until the next episode to find out, although the early signs certainly aren't good.

After a relatively sedate (but no less important) start to this episode, come the end of the instalment we find ourselves delving right back into Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood at its action-packed best, as the series continues its recent run of absolute terrific episodes. Once again, this offering manages to get just about everything right, with moments of humour that actually work in the context of those given situations, compelling plot development and absolutely top-notch action, giving us pretty much everything we've come to expect... nay, demand... from this franchise. With a big, fat cliffhanger for us to chew on until next week, episode twenty-two promises to be even more exciting to boot as this series goes from strength to strength.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

CANAAN - Episode 9

As CANAAN progresses as a series, so it seems more and more like one of those shows the progresses and develops in waves, with a run-of-the-mill and uninteresting episode one week followed by something with far more meat upon its complex bones the next. After last week provided (to my mind) one of those rather dull instalments, so episode nine manages to ramp things up again while solidly progressing the plot into the bargain.

After some oddly enjoyable comic relief thanks to the reappearance of Yun-Yun (that girl really does get around), we soon find out that she is in fact headed in the same direction as Maria and company, looking to return to the village where she was born so that she can die there too as her Borner medication looks set to run out. No sooner has she explained this (and been convinced that she needs to live rather than die by Canaan of all people) the group are attacked, but the normally reliable Canaan finds herself out of sorts without her synesthesia to fall back on.

Anyhow, with this danger out of the way the group's destination is reached, as they arrive at the now abandoned village that was the scene of the propogation of the Ua virus in the first place. We then get to learn from Santana just how this virus came about - A story which takes in conspiracy theories which implicate both the Snakes and the CIA in the US.

All of this is set against a backdrop of an increasingly maniacal Liang Qi, who is herself being hunted down by Alphard while simultaneously trying to hunt down the "other" Canaan for vengeance herself. This leads us on to another one of this show's fine action sequences, complete with helicopters and missiles, before Alphard comes face to face with an incapacitated Canaan before announcing her immediate intentions to the rest of the trailing group.

Compared to the last episode, this ninth instalment certainly managed to hit a lot more of the right notes - The comedy was brief and appropriate, the various inter-relationships between characters felt far better grounded, and most importantly of all the various threads of the series which looked too much like a tangle of randomness are finally being brought together into a coherent and more interesting structure which bodes well for the final four episodes of the series. Let's just hope that the next episode breaks that cycle of intermingling BB gun pellets with the real thing, and fires both barrels to keep my interest alive.

Zan Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei - Episode 7

After quite the absence (with a week of in Japanese airing terms, but longer for us poor English-speaking saps), Zan Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei is back - Although it appears that the pthey calacid and air-headed Oora has been sat at her blood-stained desk the entire time; a suitably hilarious revelation with which to start this episode.

From here, the first subject for discussion is the "loss leader" selling something at a loss for the producer just so that they can hook you in to spending lots of money elsewhere, something which happens everywhere from printers through to (and I'm surprised this one didn't get a prominent mention) game consoles. A similar technique is also deployed by those annoying multi-part magazines that allow you to build or collect certain things, and somehow from here we're introduced to a prt-by-part magazine that lets you build your own Zetsubou Sensei. Naturally, hilarity ensues.

Next up, Nozomu and company find General Frost passed out in the middle of the street, whereby he refuses to make the winter cold any more. It's time for a new job then, but just what jobs are out there for a General these days? After struggling to find anything suitable, Kafuka suggests that everyone can be a General in this day and age, and before we know it everyone is a General, with some potentially disastrous consequences.

Finally comes my favourite segment of this particular episode - A surprise birthday party for Nozomu! Of course, to make it a surprise, the class haven't actually thrown this party on his birthday itself, that would just be silly. So begins a discussion of what does and doesn't constitute a surprise in this day and age, before Chiri made me laugh until I cried with the most surreally surprising entrance fathomable - Pure genius.

As per usual then there are plenty of laughs here, from random references on blackboards to Basquash! through to the obvious glee the writers are having in lampooning the Japanese general election (which finished today) at every possible opportunity. Once again I just can't get enough of Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, and my week somehow just seems that little brighter for a new episode. This is General Normal, signing out until next time.

Bakemonogatari - Episode 8

From learning about the true nature of Kanbaru's "monkey's paw" that isn't last episode, this eighth instalment of Bakemonogatari launches us straight into the history of how this state of affairs came about for her, all the way from the loss of her parents in elementary school onwards. The story takes in how she became faster, how she ended up as a basketball ace, and the development of her relationship with Senjougahara.

The trouble for Kanbaru however is this: Now that she's made a contract with a devil, there are (as Oshino sees it) two ways to make the contract null and void - Either kill her, or lop her arm off. Not the kind of options you'd be jumping off the walls about in either case, I think it's fair to say. This rather inconvenient news is perhaps only secondary to the true torment that comes from Oshino's discussion of what to do next - The fact that Kanbaru's attack on Araragi, and her previous assault on elementary school kids in her class, were pre-meditated by Kanbaru's own sub-conscious, leaving her with no wiggle room to blame it on that pesky devil or the paw despite all of her attempts to do so.

As per usual though, it's Araragi who tries to be the knight in shining armour, suggesting a third way which could potentially come at a great cost to himself, but offering salvation for Kanbaru if he can beat her in a straight-up fight between them. It's probably one of Araragi's less intelligent moments, and it's left to another party to save him from Kanbaru's devil-powered frenzy before it's too late. No prizes for guessing who Araragi's saviour is though...

All things considered, this was an absolutely wonderful ending to the story arc; despite all of the supernatural powers floating around, it still managed to feel very human at the end of it all, from Kanbaru's deep-seated desire for vengeance through to Araragi's naivety in believing that her hatred and jealousy of him for taking Senjougahara away from her isn't that bad. Even Hitagi herself shows a perhaps surprising (but again very human) streak of forgiveness to both of them, despite having an awful lot to be angry about all things considered... and as we know, she's not the kind of girl you want to make angry. So, come the end of it all, coupled with its usual sharp dialogue and brilliant (indeed, brilliantly gruesome in places) visuals, I was left feeling really rather pleased and satisfied by an ending that, in other hands, would have felt far too convenient. Perhaps it's simply down to the wonderful characters that this show has delivered thus far that gives me that feeling, leaving me glad of a happy ending rather than questioning it as being overly trite - Either way, it works and works well, and that's what important at the end of the day.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 - Episode 8 redux

If there's one major drawback to my "stream of consciousness" style of 'blogging here, it's that sometimes pretty important points can go unnoticed until you sit down to actually think about it in a comprehensive way. It appears that in the case of episode eight of Tokyo Magnitude 8.0, the immediacy of my writing form has actually missed a hugely important point, and thus for the first time ever in the history of this site I've found myself sitting down the next morning to rewatch an episode and pen this "redux" entry about the aforementioned episode of this series.

The reason for this requirement of a complete rethink about the episode is, quite simply, a discussion of what is real and what is not in the context of the instalment - To a certain extent, this is due to Tokyo Magnitude 8.0's prior use of "dream" sequences, and on this occasion what appeared to be a nested dream sequence but, on closer inspection, is in fact only a single scene while the scene which immediately follows is unabashed reality.

Ergo, the question pinging around the Internet like wildfire this morning is - Is Yuuki alive? A question to which the answer appears to be no; instead, the Yuuki we see playing football and walking with his sister is simply a figment of Mirai's imagination, as she goes into denial about her brother's loss. Note how Mari doesn't speak to or acknowledge Yuuki at all in this episode, how she phones Mari's parents, the presence of only two sleeping bags outside the hospital rather than three, and how the concern and bottled-up emotion I mentioned in my original entry all appear concentrated towards the young girl.

I would say that this episode requires a second viewing just like the movie The Sixth Sense, but in a way this episode almost is The Sixth Sense, and to be honest I'm a little torn on how these revelations regarding this instalment affect my judgement on the episode. On the one hand I think the prior use of dream sequences has come back to bite the producers here, confusing reality and imagination to such a degree that it made this episode difficult to pick apart - Perhaps that was the aim though. Moreover, I'm vehemently argue that the scene where Yuuki's death is announced is animated and directed to too great an extent to look like a dream sequence - The angles, colour palette, lighting and even background audio all suggest an otherworldly atmosphere, which perhaps tips the balance beyond simply making an intense moment stand out towards making it seem unreal. Finally, there's also the question of why Mari says nothing to Mirai about her delusions during the remainder of the episode - Sure, she's upset too and to constantly remind a young girl that her brother is dead is a nightmare scenario, but she's a responsible grown-up (and has proved to be such throughout this series) so would she really shy away from it, let alone let Mirai leave the hospital grounds while she's suffering from such mental trauma?

Those points aside, my wider impression however is - Well done Tokyo Magnitude 8.0. We reside in a world where unhappy endings are almost unheard of, even in anime; we simply expect the protagonists to survive no matter what, and it's this blase attitude of the viewer which is at least partly responsible for taking Mirai's beliefs as "canon" over any other evidence. The death of someone so important to the story really rams home the impact of the earthquake on a personal level - Whether the coverage of the disaster and its human toll provided by this episode intensifies or dilutes that coverage is a subject for another day, but I think that as long as this whole "is he or isn't he?" saga isn't dragged on too far into the next episode then this is quite the masterstroke for this series that, in a sense, moves it onto a whole new level. We've spent this whole series watching other people left wondering whether their loved ones are alive or dead; now, Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 has managed to manoeuvre us into those shoes for ourselves.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 - Episode 8

"It never rains but it pours" it probably true of the situation in the midst and immediate aftermath of any large-scale disaster, but it certainly feels as though we've been run through the mill by Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 - Such concerns showed no sign of abating by the end of the last episode either, with Yuuki collapsing after a period of what seemed to be little more than some mild fatigue and illness.

Of course, this collapse requires immediate attention, and thus introduces us to a nightmarishly overcrowded hospital that is desperately trying to triage and handle its myriad patients. This quickly turns into one of the most heart-rending and upsetting segments of pretty much any anime I can remember watching, as we take on Mirai's viewpoint to see her worries regarding her brother graphically illustrated in ways that were absolutely and genuinely difficult to watch. I've criticised the use of "dream" ("nightmare" would be a more appropriate word on this occasion) sequences in this series on a previous occasion, but this time around it had a massive impact on me personally and emotionally, which really blunts any criticism I might have of the opportunity to over-dramatise things which it offers.

Aside from concerns about Yuuki, Mari is of course continuing to worry about her own family, and come the end of the episode she seems both distracted and upset, although we learn nothing beyond a television report that brings mixed news on this situation near her home. Is she hiding something from her young charges, and if so what? Looks like I'm going to have to sit and worry about it for the next week before I find out.

While Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 has managed to impress and overwhelm with its handling of a natural disaster from the off, this has to be the most powerful episode thus far - On the one hand, it reduced me to tears in just seconds, while on the other, it had me thoroughly enjoying the character development exhibited by Mirai in such testing circumstances; this is the time where she really blossoms and matures in terms of her relationships with others, not least her brother, and it made for a heart-warming counterpoint to those hard to watch moments I spoke of before. All things considered then, this is a raw yet fantastic piece of work that actually stands out on its own in the midst of an already impressively accomplished series.

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya - Season 2 - Episode 12 (aka Episode 22)

As this series take on the Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya arc continues, so does Haruhi's movie shoot, as what appears to be her harmless enthusiasm takes a decidedly more dangerous turn for all involved as we hit our third episode for this chunk of the story.

After feeling a little disappointed by the last instalment, this episode does at least feel a little sharper - The humour is slightly more prevalent and on the ball, and the actual contents in terms of story progression has more purpose to it as well; at least, as much as we can hope for from a story arc that is, in essence, simply fleshing out something that was covered with more brevity by the original run of this series.

Of course, the major incident around which this episode is focused is the infamous "Mikuru beam", which rapidly progresses from a figment of Haruhi's bizarre imagination into a particularly dangerous affliction for Asahina which causes Nagato to leap into action before any lasting damage is done. That aside, what we get here is just the usual really - Haruhi's exuberance, Kyon's daydreaming and wisecracks and so on.

That reference to this episode as "just the usual" does once again bring us to the crux of the matter however - That this story arc simply doesn't need this many episodes. While there are some decent enough moments in this instalment, I still stand by my initial feeling that this story arc was more or less fine as it was in the original series, and that fleshing things out to this extent actually spoils it somewhat. Sure, I can't argue that some points needed clarifying for anyone who hasn't read the novels (which is why I'd rate this episode more highly than the last as it does just that), but it still feels less snappy and fast-moving than it should be to my mind. Again, maybe I'm just hungry for some more genuinely, 100% new Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Hatsukoi Limited: Gentei Shoujo - Episodes 1-2

Don't you just hate it when you're in such a hurry that you forget to put on any underwear? No? Hmm, must just be then.... Or rather, me and Soako Andou, who features as a brand new character in this six-part series of Hatsukoi Limited special episodes which accompany the show's DVD and Blu-Ray releases.

As a tool to sell discs, Soako's remit in Gentei Shoujo is obvious - All fan service, all the time.... as if you hadn't guessed that from the premise of these episodes which involve a girl wearing no underwear. It's rather odd that the producers have chosen to create a new character to suffer from this debilitating self-inflicted wardrobe malfunction; I can only assume the decision was made to subject a new girl to this in an attempt to preserve the final shred of artistic merit afforded the original series.

So, with all of that in mind, these two episodes take us through the expected pitfalls of being a girl and not wearing any pants; everything from simply sitting at your desk through to falling down some stairs (where Soako shows great focus in worrying about exposing herself over and above breaking her neck, and bringing forth these first two episodes only genuinely funny moment in the process), and changing for PE through to splitting your shorts while vaulting.

I suppose credit has to be given to some extent for these episodes in that, for an entirely fan service-driven vehicle, it is actually pretty tantalising sexy, and every effort has clearly been made to sexualise the scenario as much as possible. Beyond those aesthetic and male-driven fantasy moments however, this really is nonsense of the highest degree, although I suppose to call it out as such is a bit like complaining about obscure grammatical errors in Penthouse.

Hetalia Axis Powers - Episode 31

It's Christmas in the world of Hetalia: Axis Powers. Again. These guys really haven't managed to schedule their seasonal episodes very successfully, have they?

Anyhow, the entire subject matter for this particular mini-episode is how various countries celebrate Christmas, from the downright scary in the form of Russia through to the rather more health and safety-conscious plans of China and on to the hugely stereotypical treatment of France. Meanwhile, England seems to be avoiding the discussion entirely, for reasons I can't quite fathom - Is Christmas really that bad over here?

Anyhow, there were a few mildly amusing moments here (not least the mention of Germany's "research" for a discussion on beers of the world), but still not enough to bring us close to some of the better episodes that seemed to come out of the latter portion of Hetalia's first series. Still, there are worst ways to spend five minutes at the end of your day.

Spice and Wolf II - Episode 8

Episode seven of this second series of Spice and Wolf took us right back to the core of what makes this show so great, and from there this eighth instalment continues in a similar vein, albeit with more of a focus on Lawrence than Horo, which in itself is actually quite nice to see.

Of course, through the eyes of Lawrence every conversation and every rumour is a potential hint at a big profit, and so before we know it everyone's favourite merchant is making full use of Horo's acute hearing - Of course, he's no cheapskate, ensuring that he rewards her handsomely in wine until she ends up drunk once again. So, with Horo sleeping off the effects of the alcohol, Lawrence manages to snag some very interesting information about the town, the fifty man meeting and what it's all about from a fantastically sassy and flirtatious barmaid who quite honesty deserves a series of her own in my opinion - Perhaps she can get a gig with Lawrence's much-neglected horse? Look out for Barmaid and Horse in the Spring 2010 anime season...

Anyhow, Lawrence also finds himself granted the opportunity to chat with the mysterious female merchant we saw briefly on a few occasions in the last episode, and once again as the dialogue comes thick and fast so it also becomes heavy with meaning, with an initial mistrust (particularly on Lawrence's part) seemingly broken down slowly but surely as the conversation goes on.

In fact, this episode really is all about letting Lawrence shine in conversational terms - Watching his deliberate flirting with the aforementioned barmaid could easily have you fuming as he comes across as quite the womaniser, only to later have you realise that he was simply playing the game and doing what was required to get the information he wanted. Compare and contrast this to his rather more defensive conversation later on with fellow merchant "Abe", which feels more like a cautious boxing match at times over and above anything else. Of course, there's still room for at least some wonderful moments between Lawrence and Horo; moments which are becoming increasingly adorable as the two of them spend less and less time hiding behind a façade and more time letting their true emotions shine through.

I know I'm simply gushing about this series once again, but I think if nothing else this episode serves to show the awesome powers of the script writers (and perhaps the original light novels) for this show - What other series this season (Bakemonogatari aside) could introduce two new characters and make them both so compelling that you wouldn't mind them having a whole anime series to themselves?

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Valkyria Chronicles - Episode 21

After the sadness of recent events, episode twenty of Valkyria Chronicles took an even more serious turn with death, war and trauma aplenty - A far cry from those oddly fluffy earlier episodes.

The big news of that episode was, of course, Faldio shooting Alicia as part of his continued and growing belief that there is more to her than meets the eyes - Of course, shooting someone probably isn't the kind of scientific experiment you should try at home, which I suppose is why Faldio ended up in the militia and not a biology lab.

As news of Alicia's grave injuries filter through, leaving Welkin torn between leading his troops and going to see her, so Faldio puts the rest of his plan into action, kidnapping Princess Cornelia and using her to bring Gallia's own Valkyrur sword and shield to Alicia to awaken the powers within her. With Selvaria running riot for the Empire against the conventional Gallian forces, this becomes something of a race against time before finally turning into the epic battle between Selvaria and Alicia that the opening credits to the series have been spoiling for some time now.

Compared to the raw emotion of recent episodes, this instalment of Valkyria Chronicles felt somewhat empty in those terms as it rushed to move the storyline forward in the direction I'm sure we were all expecting without too much time for nuances. This left us with a passable but pretty run of the mill episode that did okay in its own terms, but (for me personally) disappointed a little against the backdrop of some of the deeper moments the show has offered of late. Even Alicia's grand appearance to save the day just didn't feel quite as sharp or dramatic as you may have expected from such a climax to this story arc, to the point of clumsiness in the case of one or two aspects of the plot. This wasn't a bad episode by any means; it simply lacked a certain something that I thought the series had finally discovered for itself.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Shangri-la - Episode 21

The end of the last episode of Shangri-la saw the United Nations drop a huge amount of explosives onto Akihibara (and more precisely Karin's home), instantly killing everybody within range of the blast. Oh, and apart from pretty much everybody, and in particular all of the show's important characters who somehow manage to survive entirely unscathed.

These survivors include Mikuni, who is protected by Miko (who is pretty much the only person who does die here) before finding herself whisked away to Atlas on the whims of Ryoko and Karin, who somehow manages to escape despite her building having taken a direct hit just before the whole thing collapses.

As Kuniko and the ever-annoying Momoko arrive at the scene, so the former bumps into Karin and convinces her that she can't give up in her attempts to stop Medusa. While Karin is adamant there's nothing more she can do, Kuniko knows just the kind of annoying idiots who can help them, and lo and behold said irritating otaku stereotypes just so happen to have a secret, hidden underground layer packed with all the hardware and network connectivity required to try and hack Medusa. Really, they should have just called it "the deus ex machina" room or something, but then again maybe they're saving that for the other trick they have up their sleeve which is hinted at towards the close of this episode. Speaking of Medusa, it's obviously been watching far too many re-runs of the Terminator movies, as it's decided that taking control of all the world's atomic weapons to create a nuclear apocalypse is the way forward. Jeez, you'd have thought this super intelligent AI would at least think of something original, wouldn't you?

While this wasn't such a bad episode in pure entertainment terms, once you take the dangerous step of actually starting to think about the whole thing you soon realise that it's packed to the rafters with nonsense and those aforementioned dei ex machina; surviving characters who should by rights be deader than a very dead thing, hidden server rooms that could have resolved this series about fifteen episodes ago and other various moments that make you want to slap your forehead with your palm and shout "gah!" out loud. It's this complete lack of thought that has gone into the nuances of Shangri-la that's ruined it utterly, although to be honest I'm well used to it by now. No matter how much I try to ignore it however, I simply can't.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

CANAAN - Episode 8

Despite managing to save both Maria and a number of the hostages held by the Snakes at the International Security conference, the last episode didn't end too well for Canaan, and so she finds herself waking up in a hospital room at the start of this instalment whilst still shorn of her synesthesia.

This state of affairs leaves Canaan unable to see people's emotions, which offers up difficulties both when it comes to protecting Maria and during more every-day tasks. Despite this of course, Maria is as enthusiastic and pleased to be spending time with Canaan as always, and she explains these feelings to her friend later on in the episode.

Aside from those two, the US bombing of the security conference and the subsequent loss of face for the American president appears to have seen a shift in his thinking, as he now appears to be working with the Snakes to some degree after having his "love and peace" slogan made to look hypocritical by that aforementioned bombing. Elsewhere, Hakko seems to be more affected than most by the recent goings-on, leading her to cause trouble at a concert and eventually make her way to the town that was exterminated (supposedly) by the Ua virus alongside Canaan, Maria, Minoru and Santana.

While this may all sound coherent enough when concatenated and written down here, I have to be honest in saying that it all feels a little messy when shoe-horned into a single episode of anime - While this series has been able to hide behind its beautifully-realised action scenes and the like at times previously, when shorn of such moments it begins to feel like a show that has bitten off more than it can chew, and it seems unsure as to exactly how it wants to digest the mass of substance that it now has stuffed into its proverbial mouth. This means that we're bounced all over the place for much of this episode without feeling like we've achieved anything much in terms of plot progression, which can be as frustrating as it is slightly dull. Even eight episodes in we're still being served up subtle clues when it feels like this is the time for answers, and with the episodes running down fast I can't help but feel that time is going to run about before we get a neat and tidy ending to this series. Perhaps that's what the announced set of CANAAN movies is for?

Saki - Episode 21

After a week's break from the intense mahjong action after the ending of the team qualifying tournament, it's time to move on to the individual qualifiers for Saki's twenty-first episode, which is enough to leave me pretty excited, not least because I've been learning to play and trying my own hand at Japanese mahjong online over the intervening period. I still suck at it though, in case you're wondering.

With the qualifying round for this part of the tournament spread over two days, this episode largely sees all of the familiar faces from both Kiyosumi and other competing high schools coming up against nameless lightweights - Mere cannon fodder for our favourite girls to blast through like so many of Star Trek extras wearing red shirts. It's Yuuki who really blazes a trail though, making the most of the surfeit of East wind games thanks to the organisation of the individual tournament to storm into an overall lead in the race for the three places up for grabs based on who scores the highest.

The only really juicy game that comes our way (aside from a fantastic bit of beginner's luck on one occasion against Touka - Why do I never get hands like that?!) is between respective team captains Hisa and Mihoko, with the former's habit of choosing weird waits paying dividends until the latter takes an opportunity to pull out all of the stops.

As per usual, I find myself feeling both refreshed and excited having been treated to a hefty dose of mahjong-related excitement by this episode, which perhaps isn't quite as nerve-wracking as the team tournament we've been used to, but it managed to be satisfying nonetheless. Actually understanding what is going on in terms of how the game itself plays is proving to be a big help for me too, which is a relief as I was worried that being grounded in reality might detract from my enjoyment of the show, which it hasn't. Still, with tough times ahead for Saki herself next episode potentially, I'm once again left well and truly looking forward to see what this series serves up for us next.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 - Episode 7

With Mari having recovered from her dual crises of conscience and anemia, it looks like it's Yuuki's turn to take the brunt of the hardship in episode seven of Tokyo Magnitude 8.0, in the face of reports that the earthquake in question here has now surpassed that of the Great Kanto earthquake in terms of deaths and casualties.

However, for a while in this episode the entire thing seems kind of fun, as Yuuki finds himself meeting another robot enthusiast in the form of a middle school student the same age as Mirai named Kento Nonomiya, a guy who Mirai labels as a robot "otaku" on account of his interest in said machines.

Kento and those robots appear repeatedly throughout the episode, although this is offset against Yuuki apparantly suffering, and collapsing from, heatstroke, giving us something else to worry about as the authorities finally seem to be getting the city's fires under control while the aftershocks become less intense.

In a sense, Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 seems to be finding it harder to discover angles to cover by the week, with this robot-centric episode proving to be interesting withough managing to convey the same sense of reality as previous instalments and feeling a little more like a flight of fantasy thanks to its use of middle school kids chasing after robots. That said, the overall treatment of the earthquake scenario continues to be plausible, and the more practical human issues surrounding such a major disaster continue to be about as compelling as you can make them in dramatic, animated form, complete with a cliff-hanger to leave us worrying until next week - A sense of worry which is perhaps a good a validation as to the quality of this series as any.

Bakemonogatari - Episode 7

A week without a new episode of Bakemonogatari last week proved to be a rather depressing thing, but thankfully this glittering little show is back, and ready and raring to go to make up for lost time.

Of course, the last episode left us with quite a shock, in the form of Araragi being beaten to a pulp by some mysterious assailant (although I'm sure many of us guessed what was going on right from the off). Naturally, Araragi's regenerative abilities come in handy after such a mauling, and Senjougahara also appears to help things along in her own... ummm.... "unique" style.

This leaves us with the question of why Araragi was attacked - Again, the reasoning for this is already pretty clear before we've even started, but nonetheless we find ourselves paying a visit to Kanbaru Suruga's house. From here, she explains her side of the story regarding her friendship with Senjougahara, as well as revealing the problem which is currently afflicting her. A monkey's paw? Not quite...

As is now tradition for this series, episode seven of Bakemonogatari proves to be hugely dialogue heavy, although thankfully once again that dialogue succeeds in being in terms entertaining and amusing as it spills out thick and fast throughout the episode. Admittedly, it's not quite up to the levels of conversational wonder we've become used to from Senjougarahara but hey, beggars can't be choosers and it's about time someone else got their turn in the spotlight. So, this time around the conversation takes some decidedly risqué twists and turns, as Araragi takes Kanbaru to see Oshino regarding her problem.

Even when it's not at its absolute best, Bakemonogatari manages to be eminently watchable - The visuals are great on their own, the dialogue is as sharp as it is fast, and the humour hits the spot more often than not. I have to confess that I'm still not sure that three-episode long story arc suit the series, as it inevitably tends to "sag" in the middle, but then again perhaps two episodes would be cutting it a little fine. Regardless, this series continues to be probably the most visually eye-catching of the series, and thank goodness that it has the brains to back up that aesthetic brawn.

Friday, 21 August 2009

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya - Season 2 - Episode 11 (aka Episode 21)

With all of the required gear together, Haruhi's hare-brained movie project for the culture festival is all ready to roll, and thus this latest episode continues the Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya arc as the cameras roll.

What this means in essence is that we're still filling in the gaps left by the treatment of this particular part of the story from the first series, building up to the beginning of filming and then giving us what I suppose you could call behind the camera scenes during filming of the film's commercials, as well as the opening scenes of the movie itself.

As per usual, there are a few good lines scattered throughout the episode (and not just from Kyon either), and Mikuru dual-wielding toy guns is funny in its own right, but at the back of my mind I find myself questioning whether The Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya requires such an in-depth coverage in anime form - Perhaps it's just because I've read this particular novel as well, but I felt that the original series was "good enough" when it came to this part of the story, and seeing more of what happened during filming almost detracts from a little bit of that original magic.

Don't get me wrong, this is no Endless Eight, but it does mean that I'm still left impatiently waiting for some genuinely new storylines to step forth - We had it in spades with the first new episode of this series re-run but since then such hopes have felt rather barren, and with this series moving towards its close its hard to imagine that there will be time for anything other than fleshing out the current story arc. That lack of wiggle room for "the good stuff" somehow makes me frown at the thought of all those weeks of Endless Eight even more, and while it would perhaps be unfair to say these episodes only exacerbate things, it does feel a little lazy on KyoAni's part not to blaze some new trails if I'm absolutely honest.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Spice and Wolf II - Episode 7

After all the trials, tribulations, arguments, panic and plotting of the last few episodes, Spice and Wolf II's seventh instalment brings us a welcome return to the more traditional format which revolves almost entirely around Lawrence and Horo (although I'm starting to think that their trusty horse deserves a spin-off series, he never gets any good lines - Spice and Horse anyone?).

That isn't to say that wider issues are neglected entirely here, as once again our duo manage to plant themselves in a town where strange goings-on are afoot, from a mass of what seem to be other merchants "parked up" outside the town through to a distinctly unwelcome tone towards travellers, complete with the dishing out of some kind of medieval ID card to anyone new in town - Some things never change, I guess... There's also one other traveller who seems to be taking an interest in Horo in particular, which looks likely to be extrapolated upon next episode.

As is so often the case with Spice and Wolf however, such items of interest pale into the wonderful dialogue between the new characters, and following the trauma of recent times between the pair we see a whole new angle to Lawrence and Horo's relationship springing forth. For starters, Lawrence is finally starting to find the confidence and peace of mind to engage in a few witty comebacks of his own (with one fantastic one sticking out in mind; I won't spoil it here), although he still can't quite match Horo on that front. He does however manage to get one-up on her in the flirting department, albeit only temporarily, which brings us to perhaps the biggest shift in character of the lot - These two are acting far more like a couple these days, to the point of goofing around like a couple of lovestruck teenagers. All the teasing and knowing comments would seem cheesy elsewhere, but somehow these two make it all seem rather adorable, probably because we've been rooting for them as a pairing for so long now.

So, despite what I would argue to be a dip in animation quality this time around, Spice and Wolf II is right back where we expected it to be - A few mysteries and economically-bound stories about a visiting town which prove to be eclipsed almost entirely by the dynamite that is allowing a wolf deity and her humble merchant travelling partner take centre stage. As per usual, it's beautiful stuff in its own unique way.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Shangri-la - Episode 20

Even though Tokyo has been smashed to smithereens by Kuniko's plot to destroy the Daedulus plants that were threatening the populace there, things don't really get any easier for anybody as Shangri-la hits its twentieth episode. Indeed, they certainly don't get any easier for me, because I still have to watch this nonsense every week.

With nothing in the way to hide the secrets of Atlas and Tokyo any longer, we find out about a pattern that spans the city with Atlas at its centre - I'm not really too sure how to explain this plot point apart from it being "some crazy hippy stuff". This revelation somehow ties into the three knives carried by the three "Digma" citizens... Something which Kuniko discovers just before managing to lose Kunihito's knife (having sold her own earlier) in one of those atrociously, toe-curlingly embarassing action sequences.

Then there's Medusa, which is still on the rampage and making a pig's ear of the world's carbon economy, while also somehow managing to create typhoons to protect itself from attack by the UN. The same can't be said for Karin, who becomes the UN's new target at the behest of Ryoko, who continues to play the cliched "evil ruler" stereotype with boring precision. However, Lady Mikuni now holds all three Digma knives, which is probably important somehow, but to be honest I've lost the will to explain these convoluted ramblings which pass for a plot in this series.

Yet again, an episode of Shangri-la manages to tackle death, disaster and love and turn them all into heartless and unimaginative trifles that dare not get int the way of a plot that is, much like Medusa, spiralling out of control into the depths of moronic insanity. It's not even really a case of coherence any more, the entire thing is simply a mess, and no amount of rationalisation will help with that - Shangri-la has somehow managed to become some kind of ironic natural disaster, of the kind you'd be best advised to shelter from as quickly as possible.

Basquash! - Episode 20

Following what was really a pretty pointless recap episode (well, half-episode) last week, we finally get back to the real story for this twentieth instalment of Basquash!, although it seems that as per usual there are yet more obstacles in the way of our trip to the moon.

This time the issue is with the team's Bigfoots themselves - Put simply, both Dan and Sela have outgrown the capabilities of their units, to the point where the strain put upon them by the efforts of their respective operators are causing them to come apart at the seams. This gives Mizuki a chance to play the heroine for once, as she opts to single-handedly overhaul the team's trio of bigfoots to create something bigger and better ready for their trip to the moon.

Alongside Mizuki's own personal struggle (which occurs largely in memory of her deceased father), we also get a bit of an inside scoop on the past history of Haruka and James Loan, while we're also reminded as to the continued importance of Eclipse, and in particular Rouge, to the story as preparations continue for the group's final concert.

Although from a more personal perspective it was actually really nice to see the oft-neglected Mizuki get some time in the spotlight this episode, this did feel like a suspiciously unecessary episode, which is a little surprising when you consider we now have just six episodes to go and Team Basquash still haven't made it to the moon properly - I can't possibly imagine that they're shooting for a second series, so I'm just hoping they don't try to shoe-horn too much into the time remaining and make even more of a mess of things than they have at times already with this series. I'd love to be confident enough to unequivocably say that Basquash! hasn't lost its way, but I'm still not entirely convinced that isn't exactly the case - Only time will tell, and surely the series will fly us to the moon next episode? Pretty please?

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Valkyria Chronicles - Episode 20

Over the last couple of episodes, Valkyria Chronicles has proved to be incredibly downbeat and really quite depressing - A far cry from earlier episodes as the "fun" side of war has been replaced with a study of human loss and tragedy based around the death of Isara.

Although this twentieth episode of the series doesn't quite hit those melancholic lows, you certainly shouldn't expect any happiness or joy this time around either, with Isara's passing still keenly felt by certain members of the militia. However, this now pales into comparison as the real threat begins to loom large - With Maximilian looking to be deposed of commander of the forces attacking Gallia, he turns to drastic measures, forcing a decisive battle against Gallia while also deploying the Empire's secret weapon (although why they didn't use it from the start I really have no idea) on the front lines.

This shift in strategy is set against Faldio's own personal turmoil regarding the true nature of Alicia; a worry which he puts to one side in the belief that Gallia can win the battle in question, only to be left to face his worst-case scenario directly once the Empire's power (and I'm sure anyone who has watched the credits can guess what I'm talking about here) is revealed.

I think it's fair to say that this instalment was never likely to reach the emotional heights we've been dragged through by this series in recent weeks, and for all its twists, turns and shocks (complete with cliff-hanger ending) it can't really to anything to replace that kind of depth. Luckily, this episode has enough going on in plot progression terms to pretty much make up for this, instead delivering a solid episode that clearly has an eye to taking us through to the climax of the series, managing to keep the show trucking quite admirably in all honesty.

Hetalia Axis Powers - Episode 30

Episode thirty of Hetalia: Axis Powers takes us back in time a bit - To 1902 to be precise, and the signing of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance.

Of course, this means that England and Japan dominate the episode, which is really more an almost straight and comedy-free episode introducing a few aspects of Japanese folklore above anything else, from Tengus in the mountains through to a Kappa in Japan's bath.

There isn't really anything much to say about the episode beyond that - You probably got a kick out of it if Japanese mythological creatures are your thing, but otherwise it wasn't exactly a laugh a minute by any stretch of the imagination.

Zan Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei - Episode 6

I'm sure we've all been told how it's better to catch measles when you're a child rather than face it when you're an adult, but in the world of Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei that apparently isn't the only "disease" which you should prefer to face in your youth... So begins episode six of Zan Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei.

As per usual, we soon veer off into left-field, with suggestions to play lots of video games while you're young so you don't become addicted and lose your job later in life, and to immerse yourself in "moe" anime series before you grow up, lest you become... oh, I dunno, some crazy guy who writes numerous episodic anime 'blog posts every day or something. Ahem. Before we know it, this instalment is advising us to grope breasts and children rather than get arrested for it later in life. Don't try that at home, kids.

After an aside from Chiri about playing "meat doll" (really, it's best not to ask), we move on to the benefits of having multiple "points" over only one so as to make life less "prickly" - Thus, being barraged by multiple insults hurts less than one precise verbal attack, and getting involved in a ridiculous number of relationships is less liable to cause distress than engrossing yourself in one. Again, don't try this at home either.

Finally, we return somewhat to the "through life" skit that was used a couple of episodes back (although of course we're advised to ignore such things), which brings us the best gag of the episode resulting from a hit-and-run accident, before Chiri bizarrely decides that everything should be labelled with who it was made by, until we somehow end up with everyone wearing stickers on their back picturing gods that have been wrestled from packs of chocolate.

At times this seemed like a surreal episode even by Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei's standards... Not that this is a bad thing, mind you. I got a big kick and a laugh out of the none too subtle references to Clannad and Macross Frontier, while there were plenty of other laughs to be had throughout. Not up there with some of the classics provided by even this latest series of the show, but funny stuff as usual nonetheless.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Taishou Yakyuu Musume - Episode 7

As currently airing series go, I think Taishou Yakyuu Musume must be the least taxing of the bunch while it uses both its period setting and general storyline to ease you through each episode in the most relaxed of fashions.

Episode seven of the series is really no different in this regard, although it does take some time out to bring us slapstick comedy over and above what we've seen before from this show. The main source of this comes from the appearance of a pair of apparantly female "street batters", who are showing up late at night to challenge various secondary school baseball players to "duels". Of course, it's pretty obvious where these so-called mysterious characters have come from, and before we know it pretty much the entire Ouka-kai team are out at night trying to find themselves duels - Not least Akiko, who is having a real struggle pitching curve and drop balls.

While this episode is utterly daft in terms of its whole "street batter" and "street pitcher" storyline, that doesn't make it any less entertaining, and to be quite frank this episode contained some of the better moments of slapstick comedy I've seen in anime of late - Very simple, very under-played, but really quite effective at getting a laugh out of me. Perhaps that's because Taishou Yakyuu Musume is really turning into quite a lovable little show, with some fun characters who are none too deep but enjoyable to watch coupled up with plots to match. It's light and fluffy, but sometimes that's all you want from a series, and under those conditions Taishou Yakyuu Musume thrives.

Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 - Episode 6

Mari may have been the solid foundation against which both Mirai and Yuuki have been able to hold themselves upright in this series ever since the earthquake first struck Tokyo, but at the end of the day she's still human, and it's her own problems which come to the fore in this sixth instalment of the series.

Mari's previously unflappable demeanour is undone by radio reports coming through of spreading fires in Sangenjaya, which is where her daughter Hina is staying with her mother. This new-found panic and frustration, coupled with her own exhaustion leads her into some frenzied efforts to find out more information about the situation and eventually leads to her passing out.

After coming around, she is eventually faced with a pretty tough decision - Should she abandon Mirai and Yuuki or leave them with Aya, a work colleague of hers, to look after to speed her return to her own daughter, or should she continue to help these two kids along her way? This is a question that just won't go away, even in the face of some more large aftershocks which increase the level of danger in the area several-fold.

As per usual for this series, everything is very well done, with Mari's normally calm and collected facade slipping in a most believable way, and the aftershocks causing very believable panic, damage and destruction at completely random moments (although a head injury sustained by Mari at one point seems to disappear remarkably quickly if you ask me... perhaps she's related to Alicia from Valkyria Chronicles?). We do also wander off into the subconscious of Mari on a couple of occasions, and I'm a little torn as to whether this actually added anything to the narrative or not - For me, drifting into what were basically dream sequences almost detracted from the harsh reality faced by the characters. These qualms aside however, Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 remains as gripping and fascinating as ever in the way it handles both its characters and the situation they face.

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood - Episode 20

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood has been going from strength to strength in recent weeks, and so it is that episode twenty continues along that path while also retaining the dark overall tone of recent revelations.

The last episode left us, of course, with a bit of a cliff-hanger of its own, with Edward Elric coming face to face with his father for the first time in goodness knows how long - I think it's fair to say that this is hardly a joyous reunion, with some harsh words from Hoenheim for his son, although this does seem to belie a deeper sense of worry and compassion towards his family. No matter his inner feelings, there's clearly a sense of something even darker still beneath that already hardly friendly exterior; of course, we already know what that is, while his warning to Pinako suggests that something big is about to happen.

Away from that, albeit also tied in to Ed's conversations with his father, shocking revelations come to light regarding the exact nature of the result of the Elric Brother's human transmutation attempt; revelations which suggest that there is hope yet to return Al to his body, making for a pretty bitter-sweet side to the episode as the horrors of human transmutation in the name of the brothers reviving their dead mother is oddly transposed against the hope for the future as the boys move forward.

It's this kind of very human and emotional depth which really stands out in this episode, allowed to breathe on its own away from the action and the like of previous episodes. Indeed, it's episodes like this that really cement the superiority of the original manga over the story developed for the original anime series, which although fabulous in its own right never managed to plumb these kind of depths of darkness and subtlety. Quite simply, this twentieth instalment of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood was engaging to watch from beginning to end, from its grander themes through to those smart little moments that made you think twice about a characters intentions.

CANAAN - Episode 7

Come the end of the last episode of CANAAN, it seemed as though Alphard (who I suppose we should probably refer to as "the artist formerly known as Canaan") and the Snakes organisation looked to hold all of the cards, having taken over the International Security conference, kidnapped Maria and deployed the Ua virus right under the US President's nose.

The only peaceful outcome to this state of affairs is, in the US administration's eyes, to make use of Kenji Oosawa (the father of Maria, of course) as the man with an antidote to the Ua virus, but even this avenue appears to be exhausted as they see his car explode in a deadly fireball. In true American style, this only leaves one course of action - To blow up the entire conference centre to make everything "okay" again.

Meanwhile, Canaan herself is racing to save Maria, which to be honest is something we don't get to see as much of as I would have liked. After a wonderful scene which was more than a little reminiscent of The Matrix's infamous lobby sequence on fast forward, we see very little of her until the end, as she is left struggling to make sure the bomb about to be dropped on all and sundry lands off-course. Instead, the focus of the episode is far more on the political side of things, while also dropping some hints about the role of both Maria and her father in the grand scheme of things. It also sees a decidedly disgruntled Linag Qi walking away from her comrades and sister, which looks like it may well leave us with another faction to deal with for the remainder of the series (as if things weren't confusing enough).

For an episode that had the potential to be absolutely action-packed from beginning to end, I was actually more than a little surprised at the angle that was instead taken of focusing almost solely on the bigger picture; the macro of Alphard's plan and intentions over the micro of the Canaan-Maria dynamic - Perhaps I'm just too action-starved at the moment but I was hoping for a little more given the top-notch quality of this show's offerings in previous episodes. That said, a far amount was done to progress that bigger picture, although it all feels somehow jumbled slightly for reasons I can't quite put my finger on - I suppose I'm simply worried that the series is biting off more than it can possibly chew, especially now we're basically at the half-way mark of CANAAN and it still seems to be trying to set everything up.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Saki - Episode 20

With the team qualifying tournament polished off in spectacular fashion last episode, it's time for many of the characters we've grown familiar with over recent weeks to begin their preparations for the individual tournament. Well, somewhat at least...

In essence, what this preparation seems to involve (particularly in the Kiyosumi team's case) is lots of frolicking at a swimming pool in bikinis to ensure the maximum possible level of fan service, complete with references to water melons, blobs of fat and other such wonders - No need to write answers on a postcard for whom such phrases may be discussing there.

If the first half of the episode focuses on the "ooooh", then the second half if all about the "ahhhhh", giving us some of Koromo's cuteness to be enjoyed via the trip to Japan she had with the Ryyuumonbuchi high school girls the last time they qualified for the team tournament. There is just one last little feather to this episode's cap, in the form of some brief appearances which bookend this instalment of an ace Mahjong player who has (although she denies it) a younger sister...

Although there are a few important little snippets littered through this episode, it would be hard to define this instalment of Saki as anything other than both filler and gratuitous fan service... I suppose they had to find a way to write a beach/swimming pool episode into this series somehow. Perhaps the brief break from all that tense and exciting mahjong action was much needed, but at least it appears that we'll be moving on to the individual tournament from this point forth - It'll be interesting to see how (and perhaps even if) they can squeeze it into the final six episodes of the series.

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya - Season 2 - Episode 10 (aka Episode 20)

Now that the Endless Eight story arc is finally over, I suppose anything is going to seem like the heights of genius in comparison to such reptition; indeed, set against the low bar barely cleared by said story arc, this opening episode of The Sigh of Haruhi Suzumiya could be considered almost Shakespearean.

With the Summer holidays finally over (yes, yes, I know... insert your own witty comment here) it's back to school life for the SOS Brigade, starting with a sports festival which means embarrassment for the club's members as well as a decidedly difficult to explain relay race performance from Yuki.

With that done and dusted, attentions turn towards the forthcoming culture festival, with Haruhi once again considering how the SOS Brigade can make a splash at the event. The answer is, of course, to make a movie, which segues rather nicely into the elements of this story arc which were included within the original series. Thus, this instalment acts as a prequel of sorts to that classic episode depicting the finished move, allowing us to see a little of Haruhi's thought processes (assuming they're decipherable at all, of course) and also just how she managed to end up with a digital camera and firearms for the production.

I have to confess that compared to that wonderful episode that this is building up to from the original series (which remains a personal favourite of mine for its comical traits), this is actually a slightly dull offering that fails to live up to even that first new episode back from those heady pre-Endless Eight days. It isn't all bad though, as Haruhi's enthusiasm is largely as infectious as ever and both herself and Kyon have some great lines and exchanges which never cease to amuse or entertain. Overall then, a passable attempt as things go, but we're still not back to the classic Haruhi goodness of yesteryear.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Spice and Wolf II - Episode 6

So, hands up if you've spent the last week impatiently waiting for this latest episode of Spice and Wolf II out of sheer desperation to see how this awkward love triangle between Lawrence, Horo and Amati pans out? Yep, I thought so... Me too.

Of course, the first half of the episode gives us plenty of tension as Lawrence tries to execute his plan to crash the pyrite market right under Amati's nose, but despite his best-laid plans things simply don't seem to be working out for the poor guy - The price of pyrite just keeps on rising, and in his panic Lawrence sells what pyrite he owns too soon to have any real effect, before finding out that Deanna has failed to come good on her attempt to assist him. With his plan in tatters and Horo seemingly still ignoring him, surely it's all over between Lawrence and his travelling companion?

Of course not, this is only episode six! At the very last, Lawrence remembers one important facet of life which is nothing to do with the price of goods - Trust. With his head clearing, he realises what's going on and, lo and behold, the mysterious pyrite buyer of the last episode comes forth to save the day. With Horo and Lawrence reunited and Amati's plans (and no doubt his heart) in tatters, all that is left is for our favourite duo to argue things out and set the record straight between them.

Indeed, it's these final scenes that return Spice and Wolf II to its sparkling best that I couldn't help but miss a little in recent weeks - This series always does its finest work when Lawrence and Horo are in the same room, and so it is once again here. The reunion between these two was a near-perfect construction of that typical post-row awkwardness that lies somewhere between love and anger, apology and fiery admonishment. The whole thing was just wonderful to watch, brining the pair closer together yet at the same time still not cementing their relationship completely to leave a perfect little finale to this story arc. Oh, and yes, I did punch the air involuntarily when things finally came good for Lawrence, which pretty much says it all about the successful characterisation employed by this franchise.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Shangri-la - Episode 19

After making a tough decision last time around, as of episode nineteen of Shangri-la it's time for Kuniko to act upon her plan. So, out come the bombers once again, although at least she has the common sense to deploy them at night this time around... Even though being attacked isn't really an issue on this occasion. Oh well, it's the thought that counts.

The subsequent bombing of Tokyo is pretty much the sole focus of this instalment, as the bombs drop and the fires rage in the hope of clearing Japan's Daedulus infestation in the most violent way possible. Put simply, it works, although at the cost of the the country's carbon economy which is dragged into the doldrums by Kuniko's actions. While Japan finds itself newly "crowned" as the poorest country in the world thanks to the carbon economy, so Karin makes herself filthy rich - But at what cost? The problems could be mounting, as Atlas still has its own Daedulus problem to deal with, the UN has imposed an anti-Medusa ban, and the actual Medusa is... well, who knows?

If anything, this episode serves to highlight one of the big problems with Shangri-la - It simply fails to evoke any emotion from the viewer. Reducing almost the whole of Japan to fire and ash should have been a hugely emotive and upsetting topic for the series to cover, and although it tries to portray the serious nature of the decision made by Kuniko it somehow never manages to do so to the extent that you actually care - Simply showing her personally pressing the button (which seems to have been stolen from an iPhone) that sentences Duomo to destruction and playing a sad, slow version of the opening theme just isn't enough to cut it. Compare and contrast to Valkyria Chronicles tear-jerking moments in recent episodes, and that series gives a lot of lessons in how it should be done that Shangri-la simply lacks. Still, if nothing else we have ourselves an intriguing little cliff-hanger for episode twenty, so let's see what comes next.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Basquash! - Episode 19

After the holds-up, trials and tribulations of the past couple of episodes, Team Basquash's path to the moon is open once again - Assuming they can win one last game to seal their second attempt at a trip off-planet that is.

This offer means a return to Turbine City, which is now in military lock-down and with renovations underway, leaving the two teams to play sans supporters. Dan and company's opponents are none other than a trio of men who taught Sela to play basketball in the first place while working for her father - They may be old, but what does that matter when you're sat inside a Bigfoot, leaving only your skill to do the talking? This game also means a debut for Navi in place of the still-missing Iceman Hotty, but it's teamwork that wins the day to see Team Basquash take the victory in the short but action-packed game.

From here (and rather bizarrely considering we're nineteen episodes into this series), we suddenly enter recap mode for the second half of the episode - I really have no idea why they felt such a recap was required... perhaps they felt that the change in staff and therefore the focus of the story had confused anyone? Luckily, as recaps go this ended up being a pretty zippy "best of" highlights reel to all intents and purposes, complete with narration by Coco, but that aside there are few things worse than recaps that you have to watch just to pick up on one or two important points, and so this instalment somehow manages to sprinkle just such revelations into its coverage.

Thankfully, the first half of this episode would also have been worthy of any "best bits" compilation from Basquash!, simply for allowing itself to focus on the sport itself pure and simple, with only relatively underplayed overtones regarding Sela's family history to run alongside it. It might not be quite the in-your-face Basquash! of those early episodes (how I smiled at those memories during the recap segment), but when it doesn't get too bogged down in its own over-burdening story-telling devices, it can still prove to be a pretty nifty and visually pleasing series to watch.

Valkyria Chronicles - Episode 19

To call the previous episode of Valkyria Chronicles melancholy would be a pretty gross understatement; if you were expecting happier times from this nineteenth instalment of the series however, let's just say it would be best if you have some tissues handy just in case.

Following directly on from the last episode, we find ourselves continuing with Squad 7's life in the grip of the grief and unspoken emotions which have welled up following Isara's death; Welkin and Alicia continue to talk on a purely professional basis, seemingly unaware of the concerns of their fellow squad members. These two aren't the only pair with things on their mind however, as Faldio also has some intriguing thoughts surrounding Alicia's heritage which leaves him unsure of which path to tread next.

However, no matter what personal feelings are bouncing around there's still a war on, and thus Squad 7 are given their next assignment - To take the town of Bruhl as part of the Gallian advance. Of course, this location has been chosen precisely because it's the home of both Welkin and Alicia (amongst other members of the squad), and it's probably not too much of a spoiler to say that their homecoming is a successful and relatively-trouble free one in military terms.

What is surprising (to me at least) is just how much emotional depth Valkyria Chronicles has managed to convey over the past couple of episodes - The last instalment was obviously going to be emotional with plenty of material to work with, yet if anything this episode is even harder to watch, and once again come the end of it all I was left having shed a tear or two. For a series that I haven't invested myself in hugely from an emotional perspective prior to the events of recent episodes, it's a definite feather in the cap of this show that it has managed to ramp up my emotions and move me this much; supposedly greater shows have tried and failed in this regard.

It almost feels odd to be crying over a series that I've jokingly sneered at for not giving war due deference in the way it was handled previously - How times change... And although feeling sad and upset at the end of this episode is perhaps not something to look forward to per se, it is a ringing endorsement of how Valkyria Chronicles has portrayed both its major characters and what could have been a decidedly tricky storyline.

Hetalia Axis Powers - Episode 29

Oh Russia, you and your crazy Eastern European antics...

For episode twenty-nine of Hetalia: Axis Powers, we get to spend plenty of time with Russia, from jumping out of a plane with no parachute (while shouting "Vodka!" no less, as you might expect) through to quite literally keeping Baltic states such as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia down, much to their terror and, indeed, horror. A pretty apt social commentary on Russia both then and now I suppose, with a rather lash dash of national sterotyping thrown in for good measure.

Still, it isn't only Russia who gets that treatment here, with America falling victim to a leap to snatch some ice cream and France referred to as a "wino". Not one of Hetalia's sharper episodes in terms of comedy in all honesty, and thus also not one of its funnier instalments. Still, it looks like there's more to come from those Baltic nations, so who knows what we'll be regaled with next...

Monday, 10 August 2009

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood - Episode 19

The way the last episode of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood ended promised action and excitement aplenty this time around, and boy did this nineneenth episode not disappoint.

With Riza Hawkeye left facing off against Gluttony at the climax to that instalment, we rejoin exactly where we left off with the Lieutenant in a tight spot. Luckily for her she isn't alone, and eventually it's Colonel Mustang who saves the day in typically heroic fashion. Meanwhile, Alphonse has learned about Mustang and company's plan, and thus races off to see what he can do to help.

What follows is a fantastic blend of set-piece action and passion, with Mustang and his subordinates facing off against Lust. As well as allowing us to learn the secret behind the Homunculus (predictable though it is, perhaps), it also gives us some fanastic (and wonderfully realised) fighting from all-comers, easily surpassing pretty much anything we've seen from the Fullmetal Alchemist stable thus far if you ask me. The episode even finds time to leave us with another surprise as it reaches its climax, one that will be the absolute focus of the next instalment...

Really, in all honesty I can't praise this nineteenth episode of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood enough, it seemed to get everything right - The animation quality was about the best this show has offered in my mind, the story and pacing were both top-notch, the characterisation excellent, and the sprinklings of humour worked far, far better than some of the heavy-handed comedy we've seen in previous episodes. In short, this should be the template for everything that is good about this franchise in anime form, and it not only delivered upon but actually exceeded my expectations of it overall. Even by this franchise's high standards, this was an utter joy to watch.

Zan Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei - Episode 5

If episode four of Zan Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei was ever so slightly off the show's usual comic pacing, then thank goodness for episode five, which once again had me struggling to breathe with laughter at times.

First up on the agenda is the issue of "back-scratching" as Nozomu calls it, or otherwise the issue of things which are over-hyped, particularly by the media, and thus only end up leaving everybody disappointed. Of course, this means that The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya gets a not-so-subtle mention amongst other things, before we end up with some kind of bizarre back-scratching card game created by Rin, which sees the rebirth of Mr. Despair as Mr. Big Bang. Definitely some big laughs to be had here.

The we see a rather upset and blue Chiri, whose entire year has been ruined by the introduction of a leap second at the start of it. But never mind those pesky leap seconds and leap years, what about the leap people?! David Beckham is one, and so are all the people who buy those crappy pop CDs that somehow manage to top the charts. Hell, we even have leap organs. Zetsubou shita! Thank goodness then for the Leap Man Group who come along to collect all these leap "things" in a single place.

Finally, Nozomu and company use the "Houjoue" festival as inspiration to follow the Japanese (although it might as well apply to any country) concept of living a "through life" - In other words, moving through life entirely oblivious to anything negative going on around you, from the guy passed out in the street to the woman with an unseemly amount of stubble.

Top it off with the funniest Zetsubou sensei drawing song yet (although I say that every week), and you have another great episode - Some very sharp cultural references and generally outright random hilarity combines to make another brilliant episode of Zan Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei. As per usual, I simply can't get enough of this franchise.

Bakemonogatari - Episode 6

Mayoi Hachikuji's ghost may have been put to rest in general terms last episode as that particular story arc ended, but she's still well and truly present and incorrect in this sixth instalment of Bakemonogatari as she continues on as a wandering spirit with a penchant for following Rararagi around. Sorry, I stuttered.

It seems that Mayoi isn't the only one following Araragi however, as he appears to have picked up the interest of another girl - Kanbaru Suruga, an ace basketball player who looks likely to have been following Araragi around for a little while. She finally races up to talk to him, but the conversation is hardly an enlightening one.

Said conversation is cut short due to Araragi making his way to Senjougaraha's place to study for mid-term exams for her, although our male protagonist appears to be studying some different things entirely for at least some of that time. As you would expect of this series, it's the conversations between Senjougarahara and Araragi that stand-out this episode, with the former voicing her usual array of great lines and put-downs, as well as proving to be frighteningly quick -drawing with a pen. The conversation eventually turns to Kanbaru, who it turns out was a former friend of Hitagi, and also someone who offered to help her with her weight problem - A topic which led to her getting "the stapler treatment", and thus putting paid to their relationship in pretty dramatic fashion. If that isn't enough to muse over, the episode ends in both a shocking and surprising fashion, to leave us with plenty ponder for the next episode.

I hate to gush over this series too much, but once again Bakemonogatari seems to have it all - Visually the episode is a treat once again, managing to be both simple yet intriguingly eye-catching, and with a soundtrack to match. The dialogue is also impeccable, from Araragi's discussions with Mayoi through to Senjougahara's frankly quite terrifying love for her new boyfriend which is in equal parts cute and utterly, obsessively stalker-esque. I somehow love the fact that it's all-but impossible to predict where any given story arc is going, forcing you to simply dump any philosophies and pre-conceptions at the door and just go with the flow; a state of affairs which once again allows Bakemonogatari as a little bit of random genius.