Thursday, 31 March 2011

Wandering Son - Episode 11 (Completed)

Yes, I know, Wandering Son's episode count and layout has become decidedly confusing over the past couple of weeks, but here we are at the proper finale of the series, even though last week's instalment somehow felt like a proper and fitting end to proceedings as it was.

Despite that however, there's still quite a lot for this eleventh episode proper to explore - perhaps most important is the thawing in any tension between Chiba, Nitori and Takatsuki, who end up hanging out again at Chiba's house just like old times at her invitation... well, almost like old times, and probably about as close as things will get between the three of them I would imagine.  This episode also offers a surprisingly quick chance for Nitori to patch things up with Doi, who continues to baffle regarding whether he is teasing or helping Nitori but nonetheless proves himself to be an even more proficient script-writer for the culture festival's play than Nitori himself - thus, the two of them end up working together to make Nitori's original work even better.

If last week's episode was all about the growth of some of its main character, this time around the focus is very much on redemption for these characters, as others begin to accept their quirks and foibles as normal and therefore go on to accept those individuals themselves in what is perhaps a convenient but nonetheless satisfying way.  As we reach the day of the school culture festival, even Anna and Nitori's relationship is ironed out (although we don't get to hear the entirety of their conversation), and come the end of the series our main male protagonist is applauded out on stage very much as an accepted part of a group rather than the increasingly isolated individual we saw last week.

So, now we really do come to the end of Wandering Son, and I think even given this additional episode my summary thoughts from last week still stand true - this is a visually beautiful and surprisingly thoughtful series, that manages to fill itself with believable, well-rounded and realistic characters despite the slight incredibility of some of its scenarios - a combination that keeps you thinking, and even guessing, as to the motives and inner thoughts of those characters in a way that makes for a viewing experience which leaves you captive.  Add some neat touches of humour to the mix, and you have yourself a great series - so much so that I already have the first volume of the manga in English on pre-order.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Kimi ni Todoke 2nd Season - Episode 11-12 (Completed)

To be honest, Kimi ni Todoke 2nd Season could have comfortably finished last week and been timed absolutely perfectly, with any misunderstandings settled and Shouta and Sawako finally comprehending their feelings for one another properly.

Still, perhaps it isn't such a bad thing that we have this double-bill of episodes to wallow in the fun and happiness of this pairing finally coming to fruition, and these two episodes certainly do a good job of tying up all of the loose ends that I hadn't really thought (or particularly cared about) come the end of episode ten.

To that end, the series eleventh instalment takes us to the classes post-festival party, which unsurprisingly becomes a rather bizarre post-confession party instead with Kazehaya and Kuronuma at the centre of festivities as their new relationship gets thrust rather uncomfortably into the spotlight.  Of course, there's teasing aplenty aimed at both individuals, while even Sawako herself manages to find a way to tease and embarrass her new boyfriend via a perceived misunderstanding that is anything but.  All in all, this is probably one of the funniest episodes of Kimi ni Todoke yet, and a great change of pace after all of the drama and emotion that has underpinned a large chunk of this second season in particular.

A fair amount of this fun and frivolity extends into episode twelve, with the clean-up day after the school festival seeing yet another round of teasing, rumours and enquiries which leads to Kazehaya being forced into confessing to Sawako again in front of what seems to be the entire school, while Kuronuma's proficiency as a fortune-teller when it comes to romance is now a hot topic.  Of course, not all of the chatter surrounding Sawako is good, and there's a fair amount of jealousy bubbling under the surface, not least from the group of girls who bullied her early in the first series.  It's Kurumi of all people that does her part to diffuse the situation, although Yano, Yoshida and Sawako herself all have something to say too, before Sawako and Kurumi have their final "face-off" borne from a kind of mutual understanding.  In short, all's well that ends well, and come the end of the series we get to luxuriate in our new couple being fumblingly sweet and adorable on a date, thus proving that I'm really just a big, slushy romantic at heart.

So, that brings us to a gorgeous end for a fantastic anime - it has perhaps been slower in its pacing than the first season (or maybe it just seems that way because of the intense focus upon Sawako and Kazehaya), and I know the slow development of its primary relationship isn't for everyone, but for the record I loved every single minute of it.  It's been beautifully animated (more so than the first season from my memory), a fantastically entertaining blend of drama and emotion with light-hearted moments to break the tension when required, and I've loved each and every moment of it.  Would a third season be pushing the franchise too far?  I'm not sure having not kept up with the manga, but while my head says this is the perfect place to leave Kimi ni Todoke my heart has to confess that I'd love to see more.... and more... and more.  Like I say, I'm a big old romantic sometimes, and this particular show has grabbed me in all the right ways throughout to make it one of my favourites of the genre it resides within.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Ore no Imouto ga Konnani Kawaii Wake ga Nai - Episode 13

I don't normally make two 'blog posts in a row about the same series but hey, I make the rules around here, so there.  Anyhow, with episode twelve's "true route" out of the way, it's straight on to the first full-on bonus episode and the beginning of Kyousuke's school days as a senior to Kuroneko.

Of course, the first obstacle Kyousuke encounters is exactly what to call this new junior, meaning that we finally get to learn of what Kuroneko likes to refer to as her "human" name - Ruri Gokou.  While this makes things a little easier in school, outside of school Kyousuke finds himself continuing to spend rather a lot of time with Saori and Kuroneko, with the former vocalising how upset she is at Kirino moving to America without a word to either of them followed by a complete lack of communication since that time.

That aside, Kyousuke's real issue is what to do about Kuroneko at school, as she's clearly something of a loner while her outwardly biting and unfriendly personality clearly hasn't endeared her to her classmates.  Thus, Kyousuke does what he can to help her, coaxing her into joining the school's game development club and helping her out with cleaning duties when her classmates ditch said task and leave her to it - efforts which subsequently get thrown back in his face as Ruri accuses Kyousuke of simply using her as a replacement for Kirino, which may well be true to some extent.

Still, Kyousuke just won't quit, although he arguably only makes things more difficult for himself by outing the only other female member of the game development club (with the oddly familiar surname of Akagi) as a huge fujoshi, causing quite the commotion in easily the episode's most hilarious scene.  Still, come the end of it all things seem to be warming up quite nicely between Ruri and Kyousuke if nothing else.

Given how irritating Kirino has been at times during the course of this series, I know I'm not the only one to actually be a little relieved that  can enjoy at least one episode without her being present at all, and indeed this thirteenth episode works perfectly well thanks to that fact that Kuroneko is at least as strong a character (if not stronger), with a great line in biting dialogue that acts as a perfect foil to Kyousuke's own musings and the like.  Overall, this episode pretty much follows the trend laid out by Ore no Imouto ga Konnani Kawaii Wake ga Nai - a general sense of fun underlined by some hilarious comedy set pieces (most notably Akagi's outbursts) that helps to make the whole thing just that bit more memorable.

Besides, let's face it... Kuroneko is really pretty awesome as characters go, so the more screen time she gets the better.

Ore no Imouto ga Konnani Kawaii Wake ga Nai - Episode 12 "True Route"

Okay, I give in - I promised myself I wasn't going to watch these bonus episodes of Ore no Imouto ga Konnani Kawaii Wake ga Nai until they came out on Blu-Ray, pixel whore and High Definition junkie that I am, but the release of episode thirteen has seen me do a u-turn and check out the two bonus episodes now available, starting with this "true route" alternative version of episode twelve.

If you've seen the original, TV broadcast version of the episode then most of this instalment will hold no surprises for you - Kirino acts in a worryingly friendly manner towards her brother before requesting what she claims is her final act of life counselling for her, that being to queue up for a midnight launch of a new eroge title so that she can play it straight away.  Kyousuke duly does this, and even moves hell and high water (well, he rides an embarrassing bicycle) to get back to her with the game, and after making him sit through the completion of one of the game's routes she pulls out one final secret from her closet... no, not that game (cue one of the episode's funnier exchanges), but some mementos from her childhood.

It's here when things get very different from the TV broadcast episode - rather than changing her mind, Kirino does jet off to study in America, and what's more she doesn't even tell Kyousuke that she's departing, leaving him to lament her empty room.  Fast forward a little and Kyousuke is, by all accounts, a "changed man" (according to Manami), but whose this starting at his school as a new school year begins?  Needless to say, a very familiar face is about to become Kyousuke's junior...

There really isn't a lot I can add in terms of commentary to this episode - it is what it is to all intents and purposes; an episode with some great funny moments (not least Kyousuke and his friend's conversation in the queue for the midnight eroge launches), but with an ending designed to set up the bonus episodes to come.  Speaking of which, I'd better get onto episode thirteen, right?

Level E - Episode 12

We come full circle as Level Ereaches its final story arc - a story which sees Prince Baka looking for a place to hide as he tries to avoid the pursuit of some fellow Dogurians, a search which leads him to the apartment of one Yukitaka Tsutsui of course.

This time around, those in pursuit of Baka are no less than his brother and the Prince's bride to be, as it's revealed that not only has Baka been trying to avoid getting married to this girl who is doe-eyed over him, he's even changed the laws of his own planet in the hope of avoiding being tied down to what he views as an overly conservative woman and his even more irritating (to Baka at least) younger brother.

With that law stating that he has to step aside in the ascendancy to the thrown if he isn't married by the time he "comes of age" (which is one month away), even Craft and company are more than happy to jump on the bandwagon and help him out on this occasion - something which proves to be increasingly difficult as Mohan, the brother in question, always seems to be one step ahead whether it's creating a barrier around the Earth, inviting huge swathes of spacecraft to orbit the planet or performing surveillance of Baka's movements.  Indeed, it almost seems like someone is helping Mohan out from within Baka's unit of bodyguards...

As Level Ehas lost its way somewhat over recent weeks, I'm sure I'm not the only one looking fondly back to those earlier episodes and hoping for more of the same - in some ways, this final story arc is the answer to our prayers as it properly reunites Baka and Yukitaka to make their most of their dynamic while also throwing them into the midst of a reasonably interesting plot for any such character dynamics to work with.  However, even despite all that this isn't quite the Level E we loved earlier this season, as it struggles to really extract much humour from its scenario (managing only the odd smile and very few laughs) - perhaps its major characters simply don't stand up to a sustained period in the spotlight over thirteen episodes?  It would be too harsh to just these final episodes before this story as finished (we've learned all about the twists this show loves to hold in reserve by now), but I get the feeling this might be an okay but unspectacular end to a show that promised so much more early on.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Bakuman - Episode 24

Although the last episode brought good news to three of the contenders for the Golden Future Cup, it still remained to be seen what the wildcard in the pack that is musical superstar Koogy would do to proceedings.  The answer?  Not a lot - cue some good old-fashioned rock star guitar-smashing from our spoiled celebrity.

Still, despite their positive results thus far, it's still squeaky bum time for all involved as they wait for the final counting of questionnaire results and the declaration of an overall winner of the competition - a decision which proves to be incredibly tough as even with a 5,00 questionnaire sample there's effectively little between the three main contenders, and nothing at all between two of the works.  The end result however is some fantastic news for Ashirogi Muto... although the contest is so close that they aren't the only ones receiving a positive outcome.

The celebrations in the wake of this Golden Future Cup victory also stirs things up a little with regard to Azuki, as Miyoshi effectively tries to force her to talk to Mashiro on the phone, only for Miho to hang up at the prospect before going on to spend a lot of the rest of the episode regretting doing so while even her mum is now on her case about her romantic entanglements as she worries about her daughter making the same mistake she did.  A well-founded concern, it must be said.  Still, this is put to one side as this episode closes and the next serialisation meeting draws near - do Mashiro and Takagi have enough going for them to achieve their dream?  Hattori believes so and does everything he can to help them, but we'll have to wait until the series finale to find out if that is enough.

As per usual, as soon as the romance angle crops up in BakumanI find myself wanting to bemoan the daft principles upon which it's built, but thankfully on this occasion is doesn't detract overly from the real business of the episode, that being revealing the Golden Future Cup winners and setting the wheels in motion for that all-important serialisation meeting.  This element of the episode also allows us a bit more focus on both Hattori and his fellow editors, which makes for a refreshing break from the usual focus on the artists and writers while remaining entertaining and well-written in its own right.  It's all to play for as the first season ends next week, and I for one am now rather looking forward to seeing the outcome.

Fractale - Episode 10

It's time for the big face-off between Lost Millennium and the Fractale system's main temple - a conflict made all the more difficult thanks to Phryne's attempt to return to said temple in the hope of negotiating some kind of peace.

Of course, Clain and Nessa duly try to follow her, finding themselves picked up by the Granitz family airship at which point they explain their actions - an explanation which leaves Sunda deciding to help Clain's rescue attempt himself, while leader of another Lost Millennium faction (and all-round trouble-maker) Dias offers to help by acting as a decoy.

Meanwhile, Phryne tries to argue her case for a cease fire and some kind of peace with the Grand Priestess (aka her mother/sister); a debate which pretty much sums up the core question of the series, that being whether it's better to live free but in a harsh and difficult world or under the control of someone else but with everything you could possibly need provided for you.  Such arguments go out of the window somewhat on this occasion however, as it boils down to whether or not Phryne gets throttled by her own sibling/parent.  Luckily for Phryne, she escapes both this and also an attempt by Dias' forces to kill her (as he's decided this is the best way to destroy the Fractale system), only to run into her father just as it seems as though she may be reunited with Nessa and Clain.

I suspect that the biggest issue with this particular episode Fractale is actually the instalments that have come before it - instalments which jumped around so much that we lost any real sense of over-arching purpose or meaning to the story being laid out in front of us.  Thus, by this point it's hard to know exactly what we're supposed to think or feel, leaving us largely to simply not care as a result.  That's rather a shame, as the whole question of freedom versus control and hardship versus luxury are actually pretty interesting, but as it is all of this is lost in rather more salacious plot points like strangulation and face licking - an issue which looks almost certain to relegate Fractale into the realms of those shows with a few fascinating episodes that promote discussion aplenty, lost in a mire of mediocrity and an overall lack of focus.  Little surprise then that Fractale looks set to be the lowest-rated show in the noitaminA programming block's history (although why nobody in Japan was watching Wandering Son is another question entirely).

Star Driver - Episode 24

Even a show as largely dull and tepid as Star Driver can't screw up its penultimate episode on account of being too dull... although episode twenty-four certainly tries its best at doing just that before the sheer weight of interesting stuff available to the series finally forces its way through.

Ignoring the largely uninteresting slice of life angle to the episode, things start to warm up as Head's "experiment" (for want of a better word) Shingo awakes, transferring his powers to Takuto's daddy and thus bringing us a step closer to the prospect of some excitement.  It's up to Keito to do the rest of the work however, as she pledges herself to Sugata in the aftermath of his defection to the Glittering Crux (the guy just couldn't resist the opportunity to swan around in a daft costume, I suspect) and thus kicks off the beginning of the end... of this series, if not the whole island and beyond.

With Kanako showing a surprising amount of concern for the island's residents and Keito providing a flashback that neatly sums up the origins of her connection to Sugata and how it relates to Wako and Sugata's own relationship, it's finally Zero Time... err, time.  This gives the show the chance of two big reveals as Keito shows her face as a Glittering Crux member before Sugata makes his fabulous entrance for the Glittering Crux.  Head breaks Keito's maidenly seal (ooh-err missus) using his own newly procured Cybody, bringing them into the next phase and, with Sugata seemingly ready to make use of his own power to help things along, Takuto seems to be in an almighty pinch.

Okay, I have to confess, the end of this week's episode of Star Driver was pretty damn cool - once I'd suppressed my laughter at the sheer stupidity of nobody recognising any Glittering Crux member until they remove their mask and go "hey, guess who?!", there were some awesome visuals on show and everything seems set up right to deliver a finale free from all the fluff and nonsense that the series has drowned in up to this point.  The fact that it took half the episode to get to this "good bit" remains a blatant reminder of everything that's wrong with Star Driver, but at least for once it seems set to actually deliver on its potential - if only it hadn't left it so late to do so.

Friday, 25 March 2011

To Aru Majutsu no Index II - Episode 23

With Vento of the Front defeated and Kazakiri saved, it appears that Kamijou Touma has won the day once again - an event which leads us rather bizarrely to the episode beginning with what is practically the end of its story arc (complete with emotional climax) before moving on to other things.

In fairness, these "other things" are indeed all part of the fallout from the incident in question, with the destruction brought upon Academy City leading to a lot of talk and much concern about the possibility of a war breaking out.  While this worry offers practical and borderline irrelevant concerns for the students of Academy City (i.e. the cost and availability of good food, for starters), Touma is of course already thinking ahead to what he might need to do (and, I assume, what women he may have to punch) to protect the city and its inhabitants in the future.

Meanwhile, Accelerator finds himself with a new job offer to consider in the immediate aftermath of those earlier proceedings, leading him to a role of seemingly defending Academy City himself - in the first instance from those ruffians within the group known as Skillout; a job which also serves him up some competition to relish in the process.

To be honest, this episode has left me wondering just where To Aru Majutsu no Index II's pacing went so horribly wrong - a couple of episodes ago we were all set up for something truly epic, yet now we seem to have blown past a big chunk of that story line without anything much of interest happening, taking us in turn to this penultimate episode which felt rushed and clumsy from that out of place opening sequence (that felt like it should be closing out an instalment) onwards.  From that point on it was difficult to really "feel" anything for this episode, giving me the impression that it was just going through the motions towards its natural finale as quickly and uneventfully as possible.  That isn't really the kind of climax you want to see to a series like this, and I don't know whether post-earthquake disruption has gone some way towards shredding the work schedule on the show, but something definitely feels like it's gone wrong here - a sad to end to what has been a sub-par second season throughout, if we're completely blunt about it.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Wandering Son - Episode 10 + 11

Somehow, only a series with the quality of Wandering Son would manage to ram two of its episodes together into a single instalment and still turn our a coherent and fascinating narrative, which is basically exactly what we get with this "episode 10 + 11" medley.

Of course, the entire resulting episode deals largely with the fall out which comes from Nitori turning up to school dressed as a girl - something he's forced to face and discuss with both his school teachers and parents, and something he refuses to shrink from as he calmly and directly explains his actions while he quite rightly internally ponders why it's okay for Chi and Takatsuki to turn up dressed as boys but it's alarming or offensive for him to dress as a girl.

For all of Nitori's bravery in the face of this embarrassing barrage of questions, the effects of his cross-dressing being cast out into the open has effects far beyond Nitori himself - his sister is blamed for causing his desire to dress as a girl on the one hand while she's too ashamed to go to school on the other, while Chi finds herself labelled as part of a "bunch of freaks" (not that she cares) and Takatsuki finds herself getting some unexpected attention from various quarters.

The real motif of this episode however is growth - Nitori has grown from a shy, retiring kid into one who will stand up for himself (however hard it is to do), Takatsuki is more comfortable in her own skin and more determined to do things her way, and so the list goes on.  The physical comparison of Shuu and Maho at the end of the episode is really the telling one - this isn't simply a comparison of physical growth, but a pointer that Nitori as a person has now outgrown his sister; a beautiful way to end a visually and emotionally beautiful series that has, itself, grown and grown in confidence with an increasingly assured hand guiding its comedy, drama and emotion to a fantastic finale.  Well, a finale of sorts, with full versions of these episodes and a bonus instalment promised with the Blu-Ray release of the series in Japan.  Let's hope it does well enough to get a second season - it certainly deserves one, and seems to have plenty of material to hand to fill it.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Black Lagoon: Roberta's Blood Trail - Episode 4

If it wasn't already entirely obvious, episode three of Roberta's Blood Trail proved absolutely that this Black Lagoon OVA's titular character had completely lost the plot - not that this fact has dulled her combat skills one iota.

However, her insanity does mean that she loses sight of Garcia as this fourth episode opens, with the American forces saving him from Roberta's clutches and taking him to safety without realising his true identity.  In the meantime, Revy's ragtag forces catch up with Roberta but prove completely ineffectual against her wrath, with even the appearance of Fabiola unable to snap Roberta back to something approaching normality.

As the US forces realise the identity of the child they've rescued and with other machinations involving Balalaika's own forces swirling around the town, it appears that all of this is playing perfectly into Rock's hands and his own plans - plans that he shifts forward further by applying his knowledge and assumptions against Mr. Chang, and in turn hiring out his own Lagoon company crew mates as the transport vessel of choice for the US forces.  Cue the convergence of Balalaika's forces, those US troops and Roberta in what appears to be her last stand in a hail of missile and gunfire - except, of course, this rabid killer is made of sterner stuff, and the Lagoon Company's subsequent sailing trip looks set to be anything but a simple task.

If episode three was the final culmination of all that build up from the first two instalments into an orgy of gun-fuelled action, then episode four took a little of that violent magic but largely used it to punctuate the more intricate levels of the story - namely Rock's plans as he twists and manipulates the forces scattered around him in a surprisingly accurate and shockingly manipulative manner.  While this is fascinating in its own right, it also allows us to delve in more detail into some of the show's characters, with Balalaika in particular given some focus as parts of her history float to the surface while Revy's relationship with Rock gets a pretty thorough (and interesting) psychological examination by Fabiola.

Having applauded the previous instalment of Roberta's Blood Trail for doing what the Black Lagoon franchise does best in purely visceral terms, this episode is perhaps better served as evidence that the series is about far more than just blood and guns - its characters have a tangible, measurable depth to them, and when those depths are plumbed and explored it can create just as enjoyable and entertaining an outing as when it defers to just blowing stuff up.  I'm happy to admit that I primarily watch this series for the guns and explosions (and it does it all so well), but it would be unfair to assume that its story is dumb and vacuous on account of that, and this particular episode is an ample reminder that Black Lagoon knows how to mix the two approaches to maximum effect.

Kimi ni Todoke 2nd Season - Episode 10

Despite what seemed to be even the most blatant love confession we could hope to see from this show's main characters last episode, we still weren't at a point where we could consider Kuronuma and Kazehaya "together" in any definitive sense.  Still, at least relations between the two of them were improved, leaving hope aplenty for this week's instalment.

So it goes that preparations for the second day of the school cultural festival are rather different for our main pairing compared to their classmates, with a lack of sleep borne of excitement rather than hard work and the night seeming to drag on rather than fly by (although Sawako does manage to be put in the position of dishing out yet more love advice, ironically).  Come the day of the parade and the festival's second day, Sawako and Kazehaya only get to talk briefly, but despite the best intentions of others it goes uninterrupted before closing with some all-important words from Shouta.

Once the remainder of the festival and subsequent parade are over (complete with some cleverly conceived but ultimately futile bribery towards the judging panel acted out by Sawako but inspired by Pin), it's time for the fun and after-party to begin for those involved - an occasion which also finally grants us our cut and dried, 100% authentic, genuine, misunderstanding-free expression of feelings between Kuronuma and Kazehaya.  Awwwww....

To be honest, this series could probably finish at this juncture and leave us all satisfied - it's been an entertaining ride and incredibly enjoyable throughout despite the frustrations thrown upon us by its leading duo on an almost weekly basis, and on top of that this second season in particular has been beautifully animated and directed too.  However, we still have a couple of episodes to go, and it'll be interesting to see what (if anything) this series plans to do with its newly forged Sawako-Shouta dynamic now that the tension and confusion that has powered the series thus far all seems to be over - watch this space, but I really hope it doesn't spoil things after giving us what surely seems like a perfect ending this time around.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Bakuman - Episode 23

Their rebellion against Koogy may have fallen flat on its face, but the meeting of minds that was the revolt of his fellow Golden Future Cup contenders ended up being a positive result for all involved as they all make the decision to spend some time trying to improve and perfect their entries.

Thus, we get to see all and sundry working hard, with both facets of the Ashirogi Muto duo seeking to improve both the story and artwork of their entry - indeed, it seems to be only Koogy who is slacking as he falls into some of the same traps previously seen with Eiji Nizuma's work while generally not getting much done as he swans around performing interviews and the like.

Finally though, time is up and manuscripts submitted, before the painful wait for each contender to be released and questionnaire results compiled.  The immediate news seems to be excellent for each contender, with Moritaka and Akito told to prepare themselves for serialisation while their rivals get similarly positive responses - there can of course only be one winner of the Golden Future Cup however, but it appears that we're going to have to next week to find out the fate of the contest itself.

It's par for the course now that Bakuman will entertain in its depictions of the inner and outer workings of the manga industry, but perhaps what is most frightening about this episode is the way it happily depicts excerpts of all of the competing manga in the Golden Future Cup, all of which (well, apart from Colourfusical maybe) look like genuinely cool manga ideas in their own right, much like some of the earlier creations we've seen in this series.  This should perhaps be expected of the team behind this series and Death Note but still... these guys don't have to worry about quitting the industry any time soon methinks, although of course Bakuman itself still seems to have plenty of legs right now.

Level E - Episode 11

The Koshien stadium.... the one place where every up and coming baseball star wants to end up.  Then again, there are probably better ways to get there than seemingly finding yourself abducted by aliens and dumped into an eerie, silent replica of the stadium.

However, it's exactly this dilemma that the Kisaragi High School baseball team find themselves thrust into - a team which includes our friend Yukitaka from Level E's first story arc of course.  While it initially seems that the team have actually been transported, bus and all, from the middle of the highway to this famous stadium, it soon transpires that the Koshien they're standing in isn't the real deal, and it quickly becomes apparent that this location is little more than the figment of someone's imagination.

So, the team have been sucked subconsciously into someone else's dream, like a sports fanatics version of Inception - but how do they get out in time for the big game?  Luckily (and I use that word loosely) for them, our much-loved alien Prince has come along for the ride by smuggling himself into the back of the bus... although his suggestions as to how to escape prove to be useless as we learn the true extent of what has happened to the team and why courtesy of Craft and company on the outside.

While part of me gets the feeling that this instalment was just an excuse to squeeze a baseball episode in the series, the bigger problem on this occasion was that this particular story (much like last week's instalment) simply wasn't that gripping in terms of either concept or execution, and it certainly had none of the twists or turns that delighted us during earlier story arcs.  On the positive side of things, there were a fistful of full-on laugh out loud moments, so I can't fault the episode's entertainment value too much, and in terms of visual execution everything was nailed on pretty much perfectly as per usual.  In short, I quite enjoyed this episode, but at the same time I can't help but feel a tiny bit disappointed that Level E appears to have lost some of the zest it showed early on in recent weeks, suggesting perhaps that it was a bit of a one-trick pony after all even if it did leverage that trick to great effect on several occasions.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Star Driver - Episode 23

Another week, another sparring session in the dojo between Sugata and Takuto - however, this time it seems that Sugata is trying to up the stakes as he brings the love triangle between the two of them and Wako even more into focus; an attempt that might as well have been a big neon sign above Sugata's head for the entire episode reading "PLOT TWIST AHEAD".

Matters are further complicated a little later that same day, as Sugata receives a portrait of himself painted by Takuto's father - a revelation that doesn't really bother Takuto in the slighest... you'd have thought he could at least pretend to be invested in proceedings while we're all sat here at home trying our best to care in the face of utter mediocrity.  Anyhow, Sugata turns up the brightness on his plot twist sign by inviting Wako out on a date, where he goes on to ask her to kiss him, very much testing the waters of their relationship while Takuto mooches around, seemingly lost in his own thoughts of Wako before a brief interlude which involves punching his father in the face - this guy has clearly been taking too many relationship tips from Takuto.

That evening it's Takuto's turn for a date with Wako, which is of course interrupted by the appearance of Zero Time right on cue.  This time however Takuto finds himself facing not one, not two, but three enemies, making fending them off a seemingly impossible task for Tauburn.... except of course this is Star Driver, so instead of worrying about such things we just had to watch the clock and wait for Takuto to pull a new move out of his ass.  He duly does exactly that, albeit using Sugata both for the suggestion of how to win and the actual implementation thereof, emerging victorious once again.  Back in safety of the cafe, Wako confides that she's never worried about Takuto and Sugata losing - it's nice to know we aren't the only ones bored to tears by the action scenes, I suppose.  But what's this?  A major plot twist involving Sugata?  Wow, I never saw that one coming at all.

Okay, so Sugata's defection does make things a bit more interesting for the final couple of episodes, and it does also fit in better with the evolving relationship dynamic between the remaining maidens, Sugata and Takuto.  However, that doesn't make this anything less than another clumsy implemented slice of utter mediocrity where Zero Time also means Zero Excitement and Zero Peril.  Nothing has grabbed or surprised me even at this late stage of the game, meaning that the only real excitement I have left is the thought that in a couple of weeks I'll finally be done with this tepid series - fingers crossed it doesn't get licensed in the UK so that I have to watch it all over again though.

K-ON!! - Episode 27 OVA

Somehow it seems that I just can't get enough of K-ON - no matter how long since I last watched an episode, I find myself eagerly awaiting more as soon as the opportunity presents itself.  Enter this additional OVA episode to sate my needs for the time being as this merchandising juggernaut continues to roll on.

This extra episode sees the girls of the light music club deciding to plan a graduation trip for the following summer (with Azusa tagging along of course), with a rather ambitious plan to travel abroad for the first time.. unless you're Mugi of course, in which case you've seen and done it all before.  Whilst perhaps the most important decision of where to actually go on this trip is left unresolved even by the end of this episode (Mio, with impeccable taste, wants to come to England of course), the girls nonetheless busy themselves with researching possible destinations, preparing passports (which appears to be as much of a pain in the ass as it is here in the UK, incidentally) and so on in their normal light-hearted fashion.

In short, this is typical K-ON - it's light, it's fluffy, it provides a few good laughs and it's simply a slice of enjoyable entertainment; exactly why most of us are hooked on this series in the first place.  It's interesting how this episode seems to set the scene for the future spin-off and continuation of the franchise which were recently announced, but that aside there isn't much for me to say here.  This is more of the same, and that is most certainly a good thing - let's leave any questions as to how this series might survive a transition to the girl's university years for another day.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Wandering Son - Episode 9

For all of her self-doubt and reluctance to stand out from the crowd in general, Takatsuki shows herself to have rather a courageous streak during the course of Wandering Son's ninth episode.

Takatsuki's forwardness comes to the fore from the very off, as she (arguably unnecessarily) asks Anna for permission to hang out with Nitori sometimes (which is of course granted), before turning up at school wearing the boy's uniform - a first for her, and an event which brings forth questioning from teachers as you might expect.  Still, she manages to wear it well (both literally and figuratively) and thus achieves the admiration of classmates and the support of friends without too much effort.

Meanwhile, Nitori is having some interesting experiences of his own courtesy of his seemingly mismatched friendship with Doi.  Finding himself press-ganged into taking her to meet "the pretty woman" Doi spotted Nitori with, the former ends up learning that said pretty woman is in fact a transsexual... a pretty big culture shock for anyone, never mind a hormonal boy.  It's difficult to discern Doi's true reaction to this discovery, but next thing we know he's demanding to see Nitori dressed as a girl before suggesting that he try going to school wearing the girls uniform.  Is he just teasing or deadly serious?  Either way, Nitori seriously considers it, and despite the advice of both Chi and Takatsuki come the end of the episode he's turned up at school wearing full female garb - needless to say next week's episode is set aside for the fallout from this "stunt".

Once again, Wandering Son has turned in a fantastic and fascinating performance that happily prods at the oddities of gender inequality on the one hand (why can a girl dress as a guy and be cool but not vice versa?) whilst serving up wonderfully intriguing characters at the same time.  It isn't just the lead roles that still the "intriguing" adjective either, with Doi's character this week proving to be a decidedly interesting melting pot of hormones, experimentation and a big fat question mark over whether he's genuinely curious about Nitori's proclivities or simply a bully who has gotten smarter about dishing out his emotional pain.  It's this kind of clever writing and characterisation that keeps me glued to this series week after week, and I'll genuinely be sorry when it comes to an end - as an exhibit of how to mix these interesting elements with a genuinely entertaining viewing experience, Wandering Son is hitting all the right notes.

Fractale - Episode 9

Despite the Granitz family's element of Lost Millennium's rescue operation for Clain and Phryne almost being ruined by a rival faction, both individuals (and Nessa to boot) manage to make it safely out of the now-wrecked Fractale laboratory and back to the relative safety of their protectors/kidnappers (depending on how you look at it).

The loss of Phryne in particular is felt keenly within Fractale itself, leading to them playing a trump card in the current game of cat and mouse with Lost Millennium - a system-wide broadcast informing all and sundry that this "terrorist" organisation are nothing but bad news seeking to destroy their way of life, and that as a result they should be hunted down and killed as soon as possible.  Needless to say, this makes life rather awkward for the outfit, leading them to desert their current hide-out before finding that their own home villages have been raided by Fractale goons.

In light of these events, it's up to Lost Millennium to decide what to do next, with a sense of despair eventually giving way to a determination to fight, leading to the group's council eventually deciding upon an all-out attack on Fractale's main installation.  Of course, the intent is to carry this out without the group's own trump cards in view, so the plan is to attack while Phryne and Nessa are left under Clain's protection as far away as possible.  So much for that idea however, with Phryne deciding to make her own way back into Fractale to try and persuade her father of his folly, in turn forcing Clain to go after her while taking Nessa with him.

All in all, this chain of events makes for a pretty typical episode of Fractale, albeit one that points out the original of the show's title and the system that fronts it (which I suppose I really should have figured out in my head earlier) and moves things forward in a solid albeit rather predictable fashion.  The trouble is, it just isn't that exciting or gripping, but I suppose as a lead in to those final two episodes I can forgive it that in the hope that things are about to get very interesting for the show's finale.  To be honest, it really needs an impressive finish to perhaps make up for its mis-steps to this point so far and unleash some of that wasted potential that has been so apparent in earlier episodes.

Gosick - Episode 10

Kidnappings, missing gems, and now Kujo snatched away just as he was about to ask for a bed-ridden Victorique's help... what's the connection between all of these events?  To be honest, even after watching this episode as it brings its particular story arc to an end I'm not entirely sure.

Anyway, first thing's first it seems that the kidnapping of Kujo isn't as malicious as first thought, as it appears that this is in fact down to the frightening girl he previously found in a department store basement - a girl named Anastasia who relates her tale of how she was kidnapped by the store staff before being subjected to some kind of demonic ritual.  Kujo tells her to go to the police, and more specifically Grevil, to relate her story, before finding the young street urchin with a sharp memory to further request his help.  With his agreement, it's off to the police station so that the link between recent disappearances and goings-on at the Jiantan store.

As the evidence begins to mount, it's up to Kujo to make the inevitable phone call to Victorique so that she can dot the "i"s and cross the "t"s, which she duly does, using a rather smart little bit of cunning to reveal the department stores hidden room and thus lift the lid on a world of child abduction and the black market selling of priceless, ill-gotten pieces of art.  Thus, another mystery is solved, and all is well.... at least, it is if you ignore Victorique's nightmares.

Whilst all of this is well and good, the biggest problem with Gosick's story arc this time around is that so much is left unexplained.  Although I fancy that some of this is deliberate to pave the way for future episodes (particularly in the case of the magician who reappears in this episode and looks set to become central to developments going forward), other omitted aspects simply feel a little lazy - we never really get to the bottom of why this department store was kidnapping kids alongside its sales of stolen artworks, and "because they could" seems like a rather lame reason to do so.  This kind of hole in the plot makes for a slightly less than satisfactory end to what was otherwise a pretty decent story arc that didn't blow me away but entertained me well enough regardless - it still leaves me feeling like it needs to flesh out its concepts a little more however, which seems to be my recurring criticism of Gosick thus far.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Nichijou OVA

When Kyoto Animation does something, it's usually worth sitting up, taking notice and paying attention.  Is that going to be the case with forthcoming spring season series Nichijou?  Judging by this pre-emptive OVA episode (otherwise known as "episode 0"), probably not.

Nichijou is, quite simply, a slice of life anime (albeit one with a twist), with this OVA split into three segments.  The first section of the episode introduces us to schoolgirls Mio and Yuko, with the latter of the pair "boasting" (or rather, trying to avoid admitting the truth about) a truly terrible test score.  Once Mio finds out the truth about just how bad this score is even by Yuko's dumb standards, she tries her best to placate her friend with complements and empty statements aplenty with varying degrees of success, before finally safely reeling in Yuko (to use the show's clumsy fishing analogy) towards a more positive frame of mind.

From here, we skip to something completely different - namely a girl named Hakase with a cold (and a runny nose to boot), a talking cat named Sakamoto and a wind-up girl (well, she looks like one anyway) called Nano - a trio which probably fills in the blanks about why I call this a slice of life series with a twist.  Anyhow, the focus here in on attempts to get Hakase to take her cold medicine, with Nano's forceful methods failing and leaving it up to Sakamoto to provide a more cunning plan - well, he is a cat after all... Finally, we return to Mio and Yuko (together with mutual friend Mai) as they make the most of an empty station platform and train to enjoy some "irregular" pursuits - that is, irregular pursuits for a train and station, I don't mean dogging or anything, get your minds out of the gutter.

Anyhow, what to say about this taster of what is to come from Nichijou?  Oh, I know something to say here - It isn't very good.  Period.  Think Lucky Star without the reasonably sharp observational comedy, K-ON's quiet moments without the sense of energy, or Azumanga Daioh without.... well, all of the things that made Azumanga Daioh a great series.  For all of KyoAni's neat little touches of animation of directorship, this OVA was almost entirely laugh-free (saved only by aforementioned talking cat Sakamoto on a couple of mildly amusing occasions) while also proving to be incredibly dull as it went about its nondescript business.

Slice of comedy being what it is I'm not ready to write Nichijou off entirely just yet (even Hidamari Sketch took time to warm up, and to be honest most shows of this ilk do), but it does need to improve markedly if it's going to prove itself as anything other than a blot upon KyoAni's copybook.  Come on guys, we really need something truly funny to laugh at right now, so please don't let us down now.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Level E - Episode 10

After a disappointing end to its previous outing, it's new story arc time for Level E via another one-shot episode - this time, introducing us to a rather charming mermaid-esque alien with a penchant for skewering anyone who lies to her instinctively with her tongue (an ability which makes her my new number one candidate to appear on any future series of Big Brother, incidentally).

Anyhow, despite this rather fearsome trait our lovely lady mermaid appears to be at the mercy of three criminal types, who use her rarity to sell her at great cost and then wait for the buyer to lie to their new purchase before picking her up again, rinsing and repeating.  However, something clearly seems to have changed as, after this introduction, the next we see of said alien is her slumped and blood-stained against a tree.  This sight is discovered by none other than Shimizu, one of the Colour Rangers from a couple of story arcs ago who is coming to terms with the sudden news that his family is moving to America.

While Shimizu goes to find his friends so that they can help, our mermaid decides to go for a wander despite her injured state, so when the entire gang returns they have to hunt for her, eventually tracking her down just as she's about to be finished off by her malicious "owners".  While the Colour Rangers crew can quite clearly see this trio is lying when their leader tells mermaid-alien-girl that they're now ready to take her back to her home planet and that they only shot her by accident, she seems oblivious to this fact and is all set to believe them until the Rangers intervene, battling and defeating this alien threat with (unknown to them) a little help from their teacher.  To cut a long story short, the episode ends with our mermaid taking to the seas of the Earth to find a new life, while anyone who could be considered bad winds up dead.

Rather unusually for this series, there isn't a huge amount of comedy on show here, with this one-shot episode largely played straight - if you ignore the blatant absurdity of the Colour Rangers themselves, of course.  In that sense, this episode felt a little like episode four, which traversed a similar path, and while this instalment too had some very nice visual panache it didn't really match the overall quality of its earlier counterpart, while it also didn't have any particularly shocking twists to offer up either (which really is a first for this series).  Thus, at the end of it all I'm left feeling a little empty about this episode - it did nothing wrong and it certainly wasn't bad, and as a quick lump of entertainment I suppose it did its job, but it certainly wasn't up to the stellar standards of earlier episodes by a long, long way, which can only lead to disappointment from me overall.  I just hope this isn't a sign that Level E is on a downward slide - that would truly be a shame after offering up so many episodes of brilliance earlier in the season.

Spring 2011 anime preview

It's that time again - time to start forgetting any semblance of life you may have and planning your days around what new anime shows you should be watching for the duration of the spring season.  If you need some help with destroying your social life, I've compiled the usual new season preview over at UK Anime - check it out at the link below for images, trailers and discussion of the ridiculous numbers of new shows hitting Japanese TV screens in a few short weeks time!

Saturday, 12 March 2011

To Aru Majutsu no Index II - Episode 22

It's crunch time for To Aru Majutsu no Index's second season as we roll towards its finale, and the stakes are at their highest for Academy City as Touma, Index, Accelerator and Misaka all do their bit in the ensuing chaos.

However, this episode primarily concerns itself with two battles.  The first of these involves Accelerator and Kihara over the safety of Last Order, with what turns into little more than a fist fight between the two... that is, until Accelerator "runs out of juice" and becomes little more than a persistent yet largely powerless ragdoll for the opponent to toss around on a whim; a whim, incidentally, that seems to have caused him to forget all about Last Order.  This forgetfulness continues even when Index enters the scene, casually phoning Misaka for a chat to discern what she can do to help, before setting off with a prayer that seems to give Accelerator the power he needs to see off Kihara.

Elsewhere, Vento is still struggling with the effects on magic users currently caused by goings-on in Academy City as she battles with Touma at the "ground zero" that is Fuze Kazakiri.  This gives us some (frankly clumsy) exposition of what drives Vento and why she sides with religion over science, via a story that even Touma quite rightly picks holes in and tells her to stop being stupid.  Of course, this does little to help matters, leaving it up to Touma's fist to finish the job in traditional fashion for this series.  This isn't the end of his part in proceedings, nor indeed is it the final word from the Roman Catholic church by the look of things, while the whole problem of what to do with Kazakiri remains.

Having done such a good job of getting everything into place and set up for some big set pieces this week, this felt like a slightly disappointing episode truth be told - its action segments felt largely stale and without anything to make them stand out from the crowd (although in Touma's case to be fair there isn't much he can do apart from use his right hand to deflect magic or punch people in the face), and other moments of exposition or plot development simply felt weak or clumsy, from Vento's back story on to Index's part in proceedings.  The story arc isn't over yet so I don't want to damn the whole thing entirely, but on this showing a lot of potential has just been wasted; I just hope it can claw back some of that lost potential in the coming episodes, although using the rest of this series as a benchmark I won't be holding out my hopes for it too strongly.

Fractale - Episode 8

Last week's episode of Fractale ended a rather contrived instalment with a huge cliff-hanger that seemed to throw Clain's life into jeopardy as both himself and Phryne were finally tracked down by their far from friendly opponents within the Fractale system... what next for this twisting and turning series?

Unsurprisingly if we're honest, Clain is very much still alive and kicking as episode eight kicks off, albeit not exactly in great shape as both himself and Phryne are captured by proponents of the Fractale system, and a group headed up by who appears to be Phryne's father.  With Clain in need of medical attention, he uses this as leverage against Phryne to get what he wants, that being to ensure that Phryne is still a suitable "key", around which virginity seems to be a rather important aspect.

Meanwhile, after an incredible recover from his wounds, Clain awakens to find himself being watched over by Nessa... or is it Phryne... in fact, who or what is Phryne?  The truth is soon revealed to him via rooms filled with girls which look like Nessa, but who are very much real (no Doppels here) and are apparently clones of a younger Phryne.  From here, the order of the day for Clain is finding Phryne, and the pair are re-united (complete with a still unstable and downright angry Nessa) at just the right time, with a couple of Lost Millennium factions (one being the Granitz family) setting out to "rescue" their captured charges.

All in all, this certainly wasn't a bad episode of Fractale by any count - it peeled away another layer of what is going in within the Fractale system even if it doesn't entirely make sense yet, and watching Phryne's plight and Nessa actually being rather a bad-ass when she gets angry was interesting and/or entertaining in its own right.  It still feels as though there's something missing here however - while I could delve into questioning whether this is further commentary on otaku proclivities from Azuma (be it the cloned, empty vessels of Phryne or the obsession with Phryne's "purity"), this series continues to feel like a lot of disparate elements that have been stuck together without too much concern for its wider story.  This makes for some interesting episodes or even segments within episodes, but by this juncture I feel a desperate yearning for something to tie it all together and really get to the crux of matters without jumping around here and there with no real over-arching purpose in sight.  Perhaps the remaining episodes will bring this to light, but until then the nagging sense of dissatisfaction will linger at the back of my brain I fear.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Japan earthquake and tsunami - A moment of reflection

I'm sure I don't really need to write anything about this, but today an earthquake measuring as high as 8.9 on the Richter scale hit the north-east of Japan, followed by an equally large and destructive tsunami - a natural disaster which has caused massive damage and countless deaths.

On a day like today, there are more important things to think about than what anime to watch or whose opinion is "right" about episode x of your favourite show - instead, I'll be deferring my viewing of this week's episode of Fractale until tomorrow, while all other anime broadcasts are understandably on hold for now.

Rather than think about anime, let's take a moment to consider those affected by this terrible disaster, and send them our thoughts and condolences at this shocking time.  Better still, let's not just sit and think and do something to help, by considering a donation to the Red Cross.

Until tomorrow, and hopefully a brighter day, stay safe.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Puella Magi Madoka Magica - Episode 10

After the trial and tribulations of the past couple of episodes, this tenth instalment of Puella Magi Madoka Magica opens with a surprisingly mundane scene - Akemi Homura, stood in front of the class at school.  Except her hair is different.  She's wearing classes.  She's introduced as a brand-new transfer student.

That's right everybody, we've now jumped back in time to the very beginning of Homura's journey, as we join her in a world where Madoka is a newly crowned magical girl fighting alongside Mami, with the two of them saving a depressed and sickly Homura from a witches tricks.  However, as Walpurgis Night takes place, its powers prove to be too much for both Mami and Madoka, leaving Homura alone and distraught.  If only she could have one wish... if only she could have a second take of her first meeting with Madoka, the first real friend she could ever call as such...

Of course, there begins Homura's real story, from a fledgling magical girl with time manipulation powers who works alongside Mami and Madoka to learn the ropes, proving to be quite nifty when it comes to making explosives into the bargain.  More tragic endings see Homura turn the clock back to her first meeting with Madoka over and over again as she learns of Kyubey's trickery and Madoka's eventual fate, each time swearing to get it right no matter how many iterations it takes.  Come the end of the episode, we relive the scenes which bookended the first episode of the series, thus completing the circle and giving us everything that we need to know about Homura's plight and her detached, cold persona.

Wow.... what can I say about this episode to even begin to describe it and its effects to any proper degree?  Not for the first time with this series I'm going to border on sounding like I'm over-egging the proverbial Madoka Magica pudding, but this was quite simply one of the best episodes of anime I've ever seen.  Its action sequences were nailed on perfect almost every time, Homura's characterisation and behaviour was excellently realised, and the progress of her story through each iteration was compelling every single time without a hint of fat or unnecessary story-telling.  Visually, this episode blew me away, it contained scenes that shocked me, amazed me or simply dropped my jaw.... in short, it blew my mind.  I'm not sure how I'm supposed to go to sleep after this, but what I do know is that never mind my top three TV anime - I think Puella Magi Madoka Magica has now moved up into second place in my all-time list, shy of only Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Wandering Son - Episode 8

Time sure does fly within Wandering Son's world, as this eighth episode takes us to the beginning of a new school year for our medley of characters - just in time for Chiba's return to school after her Nitori-induced absence, incidentally.

Unfortunately, this new year also sees most of our characters separated into different classes, with Nitori perhaps given the toughest assignment as he finds himself sharing a class with Doi, a boy who used to tease him back in the day as well as his sister's boyfriend of sorts.

Speaking of relationships, Nitori and Anna are still hanging out together ("going out" seems like too strong a term for it), although a comment from Anna to his sister Maho querying his cross-dressing habits (which of course is passed down from sister to brother in rather blunt terms) leaves Nitori worrying that it will leave her disgusted by him.  However, he still plucks up the courage to ask her about it, and it appears that she doesn't mind at all, although it does also throw up a question as to the exact nature of their relationship as Anna not only treats Nitori as a kind of little sister, but also refers to him directly as being like one too.

Meanwhile, Chiba and Takatsuki have become surprisingly close despite their former love rivalry, to the extent of going on shopping trips and hanging out together themselves.  It's just such a day out which leads Chiba and Takatsuki (dressed as a boy) bumping into Anna and Nitori (dressed as a girl) - a chance meeting which turns into possibly the most awkward karaoke session in the world, complete with Chiba demanding that Anna order her a beer and all kinds of blurted revelations that, somehow, ends up with everyone friends and swapping mobile numbers.... an occurrence which brings us back to Doi, and his request to become friends with Nitori - exactly what does he want?

At the moment it just seems like Wandering Son is getting better by the episode - if the early instalments threatened to concern themselves too much with the whole cross-dressing angle, we're now at a point where this is very much secondary (yet still somehow hugely important) to proceedings.  This really allows the shows characters and their changing relationships to shine - witness the Nitori/Anna and Chiba/Takatsuki relationships here, both of which are utterly fascinating yet somehow believable even when the four of them come together and things threaten to get messy.  Gorgeous visuals aside, there's something beautifully fun and care-free about watching all these kids bounce off one another, and for all the arguments of the show being unrealistic the core nature of their relationships reminds me somewhat of my own childhood - arguments about seemingly important things that would be forgotten two minutes later, your biggest enemy and bully ending up as your friend, and those awkward "girlfriend but not quite" relationships.

Anyway, regardless of all that I can't tell you how much I'm enjoying this show - it both fascinates me and makes me laugh on a regular basis, which is a pretty potent combinations of assets in my book.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Kimi ni Todoke 2nd Season - Episode 9

After so many episodes of misunderstandings and our main pair of characters drifting apart, Sawako has finally decided to take action.... "and about time too!", I hear the legions of Kimi ni Todokefans shouting at the top of their voices.

So, we finally reach what looks set to be crunch time for Kuronuma and Kazehaya - just the two of them and an empty classroom, what can possibly go wrong?  Well, Sawako not even being brave enough to fully open the door and step inside isn't the most promising of starts, but soon enough conversation is engaged and a shaking Sawako comes out with everything; a full-blown and unmistakeable confession of love, which Kazehaya has clearly understood and comprehended as he pulls a by-now blubbing Sawako into the classroom for a hug.  Awwwww...

Of course, things can never be that simple - while Yano and Yoshida manage to keep Pin from tracking down Kuronuma, they can't prevent Joe from barging into the classroom to find Kazehaya, in turn sending Sawako running and Kazehaya missing another opportunity to explain his own feelings in return.  Still, as the rest of the episode progresses Sawako receives some wise words from Pin of all people (who seems to be making a habit of such things), calming her down at just the right time as Kazehaya finally seems to have comprehended what he needs to do to end any confusion once and for all.  Do we dare genuinely believe that these two will actually end up dating?

Contrived though its interruption of the big classroom confession may have been, this was a sweet episode that also managed to blend enough decent comedy into its innards to ensure that it wasn't simply a saccharine slush-fest, giving it some much needed rounding out.  Yet another potential misunderstanding between Sawako and Kazehaya strikes fear into my heart, but at least on this occasion it doesn't feel like one that will be overly elongated or played upon too heavily at all - a real relief with just three episodes to go because let's face it, we all want this pairing to get together properly before the series is out.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Bakuman - Episode 22

Koogy may have a stupid name but he certainly knows how to market himself, with the announcement that he's turning away from music to concentrate on his career as a manga artist a sure-fire way of getting votes aplenty in the Golden Future Cup.

Needless to say, his fellow contenders are none too pleased with his manipulation of the media, and thus they all join forces to take their complaints to Jack's editing department - complaints that get short shrift from the staff there who are, of course, more interested in selling copies of their publications than petty concerns about who wins what.  In the midst of the ensuing argument, Moritaka remembers some advice from the magazine's editor given to him previously, that being that any manga can be serialised as long as it's interesting.  This memory gives him renewed hope that they can win the day despite Koogy's publicity stunt, and this infectious enthusiasm soon extends to the others as they decide to join forces to a degree, choosing to check out and critique one another's work.

Using Eiji Nizuma's studio as their base, all of the competing names are laid out and read by all present (Nizuma included), only to find that everyone is so confident in their own work that they can't see any of their competitors winning... or so they say outwardly at least.  Even Nizuma is hard-pressed to choose a winner from the variety of manga on offer, suggesting that two of the three entries he's seen are tied for first although he refuses to say which ones.  With Azuki working hard and moving up the voice acting ladder, Mashiro's determination to become a serialised manga artist again comes to the fore, even if it means a lot more work for himself and Takagi before their Golden Future Cup submission.

Once again, Bakuman is at its best when it keeps things simple and focuses on its manga creation aspects, with another episode that just flows and somehow works (some dodgy animation aside) without doing anything sensational or out of the ordinary, instead letting the viewer bask in the vicarious nerves, excitement and thrills of moving up through the ranks and making progress towards our main duo's dreams.  It doesn't always get things right, but at the moment this show is on a roll, and looking good as it moves towards its climax to be followed by a second season later in the year.

Level E - Episode 9

As is par for the course with this series, last week's episode of Level E managed to throw in a shocking revelation... a twist in the tale that I was assuming to be some kind of fabrication, but apparently not.

Thus, it turns out that Kyouko Mikihisa actually really is a girl after all, which I suppose explains the reactions of the girl she was going away on vacation with.  Needless to say, this serves as something of a shock to Princess Saki as well, and it appears as though any danger to the human race from the visiting Macbac royal is over as she returns home, devastated....

...except of course this is Level E we're talking about, and Saki has done anything but given up on her prey - in fact, she was bugging her Doguran escorts the entire time, and upon finding out that Craft and company were doing everything in their power to stop her relationship with Mikihisa she returns to Earth to pursue her love once again.  There's still the small matter of Mikihisa's gender to consider naturally, but it appears this isn't such a big deal after all; after a quick abduction, she's allowed back "into the wild" until her body matures to Saki's liking.  Witness panic and desperation from the Dogurans as they try to find a way to prevent the eventual obliteration of the human race before Saki and Mikihisa meet again and mate.

If there's one thing to be said for Level E, it's that it never fails to make the most of the twists and turns which make up each story arc - once again, this episode thoroughly enjoys playing with the viewer by setting off down one path only to turn and shift in another direction; even though you know it's coming by this juncture it's hard to predict, and the knowledge that you're expecting a big surprise at any moment even works in this episode's favour on at least one occasion as it sets you up with a twist before shrugging its shoulder and saying "nah, just kidding".

Luckily, all of this does at least somewhat make up for a story arc which is probably the show's weakest so far - this episode in particular seemed to run out of steam once its big reveal about the Macbac returning for Mikihisa was over, and the ending simply felt like the product of a story that couldn't actually think of a clever or smart climax that would work effectively and so went with some generic science fiction bullshit instead.  It's a bit of a shock to see Level E stumble after being so imperious in its humour up to this point, but given the fact that it still proved itself to be full of snappy one-liners and clever moments I suppose I can begrudge it a relatively small slip-up this time.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Star Driver - Episode 22

Now that the lead female role for the drama club's school play has been decided, you can probably guess what takes up almost the entirety of Star Driver's twenty-second episode.  That's right, this week we get two contrived storylines for the price of one!

The play in question tells the story of a girl who nobody can see (played by Wako), aside from one man alone (played by Sugata) who sets eyes on her one day.  Of course, the two fall in love, but this man named Columner is still unable to touch or hold the girl, Kleis - something that he learns to live with until he's offered an opportunity to change this by a mysterious woman in return for sailing a ship.  This is no ordinary ship however but some kind of magical device, and drunk with power Columner forgets all about Kleis as he becomes king of this particular world, leaving Kleis alone until the appearance of another man named Mark who is played by Takuto and really doesn't do anything interesting at all aside from getting to kiss Wako at the end of the entire ordeal.  Which is, to be fair, a pretty awesome thing to do.

Aside from this attempt to paint Star Driver's story and character interactions with a different brush and offer some additional foreshadowing for the final few episodes, this episode also introduces Takuto's visiting middle school friend and first crush, while also seeing Sugata discover just what our East maiden has been up to with him in the dead of night.  Above all though, much of this episode is really just about hammering home the current state of Wako's heart when it comes to choosing between Sugata and Takuto, as though the end of last week's episode didn't make that entirely clear and we needed to sit through all of this to explain things.

I probably wouldn't be so harsh on this episode if it were ensconced within the first half of Star Driver, but with only three episodes to go the series still seems intent on pissing away what little time it has left on incredibly dull and forced plot devices in the hope of somehow seeming "deep" that really add very little to either the show or its characters.  I know that Star Driver is a lost cause now, but there's still so much I want to like about it that even at this juncture I get frustrated by its inability to do anything worthy of note with its setting and the individuals within them.  Goodness knows it has enough intriguing, likeable or downright cool characters to play with, so how we ended up with this tepid and clumsy cluster-fuck of a series is becoming increasingly mind-boggling.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

To Aru Majutsu no Index II - Episode 21

With Academy City about to go to Hell in a handbasket and chaos all over the shop, To Aru Majutsu no Index II continues with what we can realistically only refer to as "the good bit".

With Accelerator still on the rampage in his search for Last Order, he finds himself receiving a phone call from Touma, leading to the two pooling their knowledge of her possible whereabouts... or not as the case may be, with Accelerator keen to seek her out himself without any outside interference.  Certainly, our anti-hero here still has quite a lot of power to throw around, and speaking of throwing things around said power extends to chucking an entire skyscraper at the Imaginary District's Fifth Facility, not that it has any effect whatsoever.

While Vento of the Front still looks a little poorly and with people passing out everywhere out of the blue, it's that Fifth Facility which becomes the focus of the episode, as it seeks to up its game while using Hyouka Kazakiri as its centrepiece via a frightening blend of Last Order, science and magic which creates an "angel" which looks set to put everyone in the vicinity at risk - a fact which sees both the Misaka network and Mikoto Misaka seeking to join the fray.

To be honest, I'm a little bit lost in the intricacies of the plot at this juncture (I clearly wasn't paying enough attention to the first season back in the day), but at the same time I don't really care as this story arc is doing what To Aru Majutsu no Index II does best - using its most kick-ass characters in action set piece after action set piece against a backdrop of chaos, destruction and danger.  This is the point where the series turns away from trying to provide over-blown fan service or "smart" story-telling and becomes a popcorn anime where you can watch your favourite character look all brave and awesome while cheering them on overly loudly in front of your TV screen... and you know what?  I wish the Index franchise did this more often.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Fractale - Episode 7

Clain may be enjoying the digital camera given to him last episode, but as Fractale's seventh instalment begins he doesn't have much time to enjoy such antiquated luxuries.

In fact, the next thing we know Clain wakes up next to a beautiful woman... a woman who turns out to be a Doppel, as it's revealed that Clain is now in a place called Xanadu, which is as the name suggests is currently Fractale's utopia, pretty much the only place where the Fractale system is functioning completely and properly.  We're then filled in somewhat as to why Clain (and Nessa) have ended up in Xanadu, before Clain finds himself given a guided tour of this incredibly, if almost entirely false, city filled with the Doppels of actual people enjoying their lives vicariously via such mechanisms.

Elsewhere, Phryne and Enri are out on the hunt to find Clain following his aircraft crash; a search which leads them to what appears to be a bit of a paradise in the eyes of Lost Millennium, but a location which itself ultimately proves to be linked to Xanadu, filled with residents who enjoy playing at living a simple laugh while getting their thrills from those aforementioned Doppels within the city.  Come the end of the episode things very much come to the head, with peril aplenty for both Clain and Phryne just as they're reunited.

As seems to have become the pattern with Fractale, a sharp and well-focused episode is followed by something decidedly less so, and ergo last week's decently realised instalment is followed by this week's rather more clumsy (and less satisfyingly animated) affair.  That isn't to say that it does a bad job so much as an unconvincing one, rushing into getting its characters into the right place to continue its story in a most unsatisfying fashion.  This is rather a shame in fact, as once it manoeuvres everyone into place it has rather a lot to say as you might expect of this series, throwing out the pros and cons of both the Fractale system and Lost Millennium's point of view (as well as that of those in-between), before finally revealing just why Nessa is such a big deal before dealing out a shocking finale that has echoes of episode three about it.

There's a lot to take in here therefore, but rather like the Fractale system itself it's at risk of getting bogged down in a world that doesn't feel realistic enough to draw you in on this occasion, a problem that certainly isn't helped by such a rushed start to this episode.  I really want to like this episode a lot for what it's trying to do and portray, but this time around it just hasn't quite got it right.  That shocking cliffhanger however could well pave the way to a far more stellar episode next week once again.

Gosick - Episode 9

Having solved the mysteries of Horowitz and, more importantly, cleared the name of Victorique's mother, normal service is renewed as this next story arc of Gosick begins, with Avril obsessing over ghost stories and VIctorique desperate for some way of staving off boredom.

Enter Kujo, who has at least one item of interest for Victorique - a kimono, sent for her from Kujo's sister.  While Victorique's staunch refusal to be instructed on how to wear said garment comes back to bite her in the form of her catching a cold, Kujo himself heads off on what looks set to be a jolly shopping trip to the capital of Saubreme despite Victorique's absence and the misfortune of meeting Grevil on the train ride.

This being Gosick however, it goes without saying that Kujo manages to find himself entwined in a mystery and some less than innocent goings-on, as a case of mistaken identity against him leads to him being sent first to the lavish top floor of a department store where this mistake comes to light (albeit not before Kujo gets a glimpse of what he assumes is a replica "blue rose" diamond, and then to the basement where he finds a real, live girl inside a box in the midst of numerous mannequins.  Under the girls instructions Kujo looks to get the police involved, calling up Grevil to check out the scene only to find that nothing is as he remembered it.  Is he going crazy or is something more malicious at work?  Methinks we don't need a wellspring of wisdom to figure that one out...

As the beginnings of another mystery goes this is a pretty solid start to the latest story arc - it feels a little forced in places (namely in getting Kujo injected into whatever nefarious deeds are going on), but it has an interesting enough little set-up behind it thus far.  Even when Kujo and Victorique are separated it's their dynamic that stands tall over everything else within the series (although arguably it's Victorique's sneeze that wins the day on this occasion), but as the previous arc proved it works best when paired with an interesting story in the first place; let's just hope that's what we're building up to here.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica - Episode 9

Given her journey into the depths of depression and despair throughout the past couple of episodes, the writing was pretty much on the wall for Sayaka come the ending to last week's instalment, leaving it as little surprise that her transformation into a witch is completed as episode nine begins.

Despite the danger involved, Kyoko decides to rescue Sayaka's limp body from the aftermath of this transformation, before finding herself helped out by Homura whose arrival is as timely as ever.  Of course, the next step is to deliver the bad news to Madoka, which Homura does in her usual matter-of-fact tone while also revealing that final all-important fact about being a magical girl, that being that your Soul Gem will turn into a Grief Seed once it is sufficiently tainted.

This naturally leads on the next inevitable question... why?  Kyubey duly delivers the spiel to Madoka here, calmly explaining that humans are turned into magical girls and then allowed to become witches by an alien power simply to act as their power source - in essence, magical girls are little more than human batteries with emotion for lithium, and with Madoka as a potential Duracell Ultra Plus Supreme in the eyes of our emotive furry friend.

While Sayaka's death appears about as cut and dried as you can get, Kyoko refuses to give up on her fellow magical girl, hoping that Madoka's voice may awaken the real Sayaka within the witch that now exists in her place.  Thus, the two of them journey into the heart of Sayaka's dimension of grief in the hope of somehow restoring her humanity, but to no avail - again, Homura has to step in to retrieve Madoka before it's too late, while Kyoko's fate is the final seal upon the brief love-hate relationship she enjoyed with Sayaka.

It's really hard to know what more there is to say about Puella Magi Madoka Magica, but this episode proves if we didn't already know that it's a series that most certainly isn't afraid to pull its punches and reveal the full, brutal consequences for the action of each character.  This makes for as dark a viewing experience as you can imagine even without Kyubey's emotionless, chillingly logic-based way of thinking, while these final episodes look set to offer up some near impossible choices for both Madoka and Homura - choices that look likely to reflect the dream sequence which opened the entire series, which itself offers up some intriguing possibilities for what is about to be revealed in the weeks to come.  Whatever else it has left up its sleeve, at this juncture I can't imagine it doing anything but further strengthening the impact of this already incredible series.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Kimi ni Todoke 2nd Season - Episode 8

Although last week's episode seemed to be bringing both Sawako and Shouta's realisation that there might just have been a bit of a misunderstanding between them closer towards the light, there's still an undoubted gulf between them as episode eight kicks off.

While Kazehaya still seems convinced that he thought too much of himself and Kuronuma still hasn't completely got a grip on her feelings at all, there's little time to spare to ponder such thoughts as the school's culture festival looms large, taking us into a good old-fashioned montage (featuring the show's really quite wonderful opening theme) as the days count down and the hard work ramps up, with Chizu's birthday sandwiched somewhere in the middle of it all.

Eventually, the big day arrives of course, and Sawako's black magic cafe seems to be doing a roaring trade in jealous, bitchy girls preoccupied with their various love rivalries, leaving Sawako herself in the rather odd position of counselling said girls in how best to go about their romantic business; something she seems to be rather good at truth be told.  Still, although these discussions with her "clients" perhaps help to grease the wheels of her mind, it's Ken (again) who sees fit to stick his oar in with a rather rambling monologue which as per usual makes it hard to determine who (if anybody's) side he's actually on.  Still, for all of that rambling he does point out one very important thing - that it's Sawako who has built up a wall between herself and Kazehaya, deliberately or otherwise; a fact that finally seeps into her brain and leads her to a very determined and un-Sawako-esque conclusion.  Is there really a love confession on the horizon?

Of course, that question is one we'll have to leave until next week's episode as it teases us once again with a cliff-hanger - something that Kimi ni Todoke really seems to be revelling in doing this season.  Not that I'm complaining, as once again this was an enjoyable episode - absolutely beautifully animated at times, and effortlessly entertaining even though this particular instalment wasn't packed to the rafters with drama or comedy, rather allowing itself to just drift along under its own steam.  Of course, if we're honest it's that closing scene is what lifts this episode up from the average into something entirely more important, but now I shall have to simply take a deep breath and being another week's wait to find out what ridiculous misunderstandings will emerge from Sawako and Kazehaya's latest conversation... assuming they actually get as far as speaking to one another, that is.