Monday, 30 April 2012

AKB0048 - Episode 1

On a world where entertainment is banned, there's only one way for an idol group to perform - with their own spaceship to allow them to perform "guerilla" concerts.  Well, that and a lot of Tasers.

It's as one of these concerts that we meet our protagonists, a quartet of young girls that manage to sneak their way into the midst of an AKB0048 event - despite the massed crowds gathered to see them, it isn't long before the local armed forces arrive with water cannons and machine guns, determined to stop this outbreak of spontaneous entertainment at all costs.  Clearly, these are men who have seen what Britain's Got Talent can do to a nation, and you can almost see the flickering shadows of The X-Factor playing across the pupils of their cold, dead eyes.

Anyhow, I digress, and as we skip forward in time a few years we see that although AKB0048's guerilla concert hasn't changed the world, it has shaped it markedly - activists are now openly petitioning for entertainment to be allowed, and the powers that be have complied to some extent.  Still, with curfews in effect and what little entertainment there is heavily regulated within the industrial town of Lancatstar. where everyone has to travel to work and back uphill both ways, there's little opportunity to have much fun at all.  AKB0048's presence hasn't been forgotten however, particularly by three of our aforementioned quartet of girls, and as they get word of an audition for new members to the group, it's clear in which direction this particular adventure is headed.  Each of these girls have their own problems to confront however as they begin their journey to become galactic superstars in a world that has nothing but loathing for their inflammatory ideas and lyrics... or maybe they just hate cheesy pop music.

Despite trying my best to take this show's opening episode seriously, I have to admit that I laughed non-stop through the entire opening scenes of AKB0048 - seeing pop idols fight off an army with magic wand and ribbon Tasers and complaining about the use of water cannons is unceasingly hilarious, and the entire heavy-handed concept of the banning of entertainment (let's face it, faux-lesbianism aside there's nothing politically revolutionary about AKB48) and the way it's smashed unashamedly into our thick skulls throughout this instalment is rather more unintentionally amusing.  That said, I really enjoyed watching this opener, if only that I can see reams of comedy gold coming from its dumb concept - while part of me hopes that it doesn't take itself too seriously, another part of me really hopes that they do play the series with a straight bat so that I can tease it mercilessly over the coming months.

If nothing else, it has to be better than watching The Voice...

Hyouka - Episode 2

Having set out its main characters and their personalities last week, episode two of Hyouka shifts us forward by one month to find it's school Classics Club thriving - and by thriving I mean stagnating, exactly as Oreki planned and hoped for.

However, such peaceful reverie is short-lived once we rejoin the story, as club president Chitanda soon reveals that she wants to do something for the forthcoming culture festival - more specifically, she wants to write an anthology, with Houtarou's help of course.  While Oreki is hardly bowled over by the thought of doing this, the energy he may have to expend in trying to convince Eru to leave him alone is simply too great, leading to him caving in and agreeing.

With that decision set in stone, Eru wants to find some of the previous anthologies created by the club in the the past, with their hunt for these volumes ultimately taking them to the school library.  With the school's archive under lock and key until the teacher in charge returns from a meeting, Oreki finds himself reluctantly embroiled in another minor mystery to pass the time, with library supervisor and long-standing "friend" of Houtarou, Mayaka Ibara, recounting the story of a library book which is borrowed and then returned in short measure at the same times every single week.  Of course, with a little consideration (and thanks to Eru's surprisingly astute sense of smell), Houtarou quickly figures out the source of, and reason behind, the mystery, giving him some more brownie points in Chitanda's book.  Indeed, Eru seems more than a little interested in her club-mate's problem-solving skills, and she clearly has something altogether more important in mind for him.

Even though it feels as if we're a little way off really getting into the swing of Hyouka, I rather enjoyed this episode in a relaxed manner.  Admittedly, its core mystery was an incredibly simple one for the most part (or maybe I'm just smart like Houtarou?  Okay, maybe not), but the whole concept of solving otherwise rather mundane mysteries snatches my interest somehow, and Oreki's part as a reluctant smart aleck against Chitanda's over-bearing enthusiasm drives the episode rather well.  I'm not sure it has enough to it to last twenty-one episodes as it stands, but it has some important core components in place - gorgeous and occasionally eye-catching visuals, likeable characters and a sense of mystery to capture my imagination - so if it can move on and do something sufficiently interesting from this point then I can see Hyouka slowly developing into one of my spring season favourites.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Space Brothers - Episode 5

Thanks to a bit of a breather before the next round of astronaut training and testing, Mutta is able to fully enjoy the hospitality of his older brother courtesy of NASA's family support programme - thus, it's off to America we go!

Upon arriving in the area, Mutta wastes no time in making a new friend in the form of a dog called Apo - after an "enjoyable play session", we eventually learn that this dog does in fact belong to Hibito.  With the two brothers reunited, we soon begin to learn a little more about them, as we see Mutta's attention to detail come to the fore (a recurring theme within the series) while Hibito is obviously highly intelligent but tends to gloss over small but important details.

Perhaps more importantly however, Hibito suggests that he's rather frustrated that his brother seems to have no real drive to challenge him in his race to the moon, observing that he's really no fun any more as a result.  It's a pretty minor tiff all things considered, but it's enough for Mutta to avoid visiting NASA the following day as he ponders his history with his brother and how Hibito has overtaken him.  It's a discussion with one of Hibito's neighbours which puts things into perspective for him however, effectively pointing out that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, and thus everyone is missing something that another has in terms of ability - in short, Mutta isn't so much falling behind his brother as simply traversing a different path.  It's enough to reinvigorate Mutta's attitude... but is it too late for him?

I'll be the first to admit that this week's Space Brothers is kind of cheesy and saccharine in the way it goes about its business, and more importantly in the way it reveals Mutta's life lesson for this week - despite this however, I feel that I can't be too harsh on the series, mostly because I continue to really enjoy it.  Even when it's being a little obvious at making its point or tugging on heart strings, following Mutta's journey and the trials and tribulations it entails continues to be genuinely entertaining, feel-good stuff, while offering a little pause for thought about your own life to boot.  It's the kind of series that may not live long in my memory once it's over, but I'm happy to make the most of it and what it's trying to do while it's around.

Saki - Episode of Side-A - Episode 4

We've made it there in rather a hurry, but Episode of Side-A has at last brought us to its national mahjong tournament, and the girls of Achiga High School have already glimpsed a taste, however slight, of the power that resides within Saki Miyanaga.

That brief taste is all they'll have to sate themselves with for now however, as the draw for the tournament sees Achiga and Kiyosumi places on entirely opposite sides of the draw, meaning that the only way for our group of young hopefuls to achieve their dream of playing against Nodoka will be to make it all the way to the final.

After a day of watching videos of their first round opponents in action, we finally get to see a bit of Achiga's team going through their mahjong paces - more specifically, we get to see Kuro Matsumi's strange, unique and decidedly harsh way of playing the game applied perfectly as she does her beat for the team as their opening player.  Sadly, that's all we get as we dart away from the action again only to return after Achiga has already won their first match.  If that all seemed a little easy however, the next round gives them a far more dangerous opponent to play against, with Achiga pitted against the ultra-powerful Senriyama High School together with some other newcomers to the tournament.  Can they prevail against this well-established team?

I hate to sound like a broken record, but once again Episode of Side-A is leaving me frustrated by giving little more than lip service to the drama and tension that is this show's game of choice - by far the best part of an otherwise slightly dull episode was getting to see Kuro in action, while the rest of her team-mates had their own games skipped over entirely in favour of chit-chat and focusing on other teams.  While I'm not advocating that the whole series should have wall-to-wall mahjong, I still don't feel like I know or care enough about any of Achiga High School's characters, and not seeing them in action isn't exactly helping with that.  I seem to be ending each entry for this series with something along the lines of "it looks like we'll get to the real action next week", but it's fast reaching the point where I simply don't think it's going to happen any more.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Eureka Seven AO - Episode 3

Despite swearing never to pilot the IFO which defeated the G-Monster last week ever again (unsurprisingly given the number it did on the poor kid's hair), nothing is going to stop Ao from having to face up to the consequences of his actions in the eyes of Okinawa's residents.

Thus, it's no time at all before Ao is tracked down and kidnapped (alongside Noah the sloth, for some bizarre reason), before being locked away primarily to keep him hidden from any American or Japanese forces that might wish to use him for their own ends.  Meanwhile, Generation Bleu are now on the scene with an eye towards taking control of the area in light of the dangerous goings-on there, even if most of their party seem more interested in anything but the contract negotiations required to ensure that their presence is accepted.

Meanwhile, we finally get a solid feel for why Ao is treated like a curse by the island's residents, in a story which relates how his mother (Eureka, of course) fell from the sky, how she gave birth to Ao, and the events which they allege caused Eureka to summon the Scub Coral against them, the final act which saw both her and her son labelled as a force for evil.  Such petty, long-standing concerns may soon become moot however, with a massive G-Monster looming over the horizon.  Generation Bleu are on-hand to deal with the threat, but can they go it alone?  They may not need to, as Ao seems determined to go against his earlier decision and do whatever it takes to save the island and its residents.

Out of nowhere, a hefty chunk of the first half of this week's Eureka Seven AO turned to comedy - something it surprisingly proved to be hugely proficient at, whether it be impromptu Miku Hatsune cosplay or the never-decreasing brilliance of the show's resident sloth, Noah.  The downside of this humorous turn is that it proved to be entirely too proficient at lightening the mood, and as a result it was difficult to settle into the subsequent goings-on this week - a genuine shame, given that it's major talking point was a clear cipher for Japan's attitude towards foreigners while also providing a pivotal moral point within the series itself as it all but finished putting its building blocks in place to really get the story moving.  Still, although there was an obvious disconnect between its comedy turn and the "serious business" of the week, at least it provided an entertaining episode for the most part, even if that entertainment mostly came in an unexpected fashion.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Tsuritama - Episode 3

Thus far, Tsuritama has tried hard to be a different kettle of fish to other spring season anime, but although it's still a long way from shooting fish in a barrel, does it have what it takes to cast its line into a bucket?

It's this exact challenge (the casting a line into a bucket part, not the horribly laboured introduction part) that is set to Yuki and Haru by Natsuki as they continue their fishing education, and the all-important ability of casting your line properly which has far more to it than meets the eye.  Although his "pupils" quickly pick up on Natsuki's verbal timing trick to get the basic concept right, actually completing their challenge proves to be rather more difficult.

Come that evening however, fishing quickly becomes the last thing on Yuki's mind, as his grandmother Keiko announces that she'll be spending some time in hospital starting from the next day on account of her mysterious illness.  Of course, this worries Yuki greatly, and he isn't exactly helped by Haru's insensitive (yet true) comments, to the point where he's interested in neither attending school nor fishing.  However, time alone to think can be a great healer, and eventually Yuki has another cracking at Natsuki's challenge, to the thrill of all those concerned.  But what of Akira and his organisation, and how about Haru and his sister; what are they up to exactly?  There are still plenty of unanswered questions that look likely to be harder to snare.

While I'm certainly relieved to see some of Tsuritama's threads coming together from this episode, there's still something missing from this series - for starters, I'm yet to develop any kind of emotional bond with any of the characters even in situations where I can empathise with them somewhat.  The fishing side of things also hasn't exactly captured my imagination despite the show's best efforts to draw me in, which is also a concern.  Overall, I can't help but think of Tsuritama as a less charming version of NieA under 7 at the moment between its aliens and zany nature - I haven't given up on the series just yet, and as I just mentioned it's starting to feel as though things are coming together, but it certainly has a lot of work still to do if it's going to win me over.

Medaka Box - Episode 4

It's prodigies against hard workers as we kick off this week's Medaka Box - at least, that's how things line up in the mind of judo club president Nekomi.

In the hope of snagging Hitoyoshi, and using Akune's love of Medaka to her advantage, we're all set for an epic judo match to decide whether Hitoyoshi can continue to serve our student council president or switch places with and join the judo club.  Given his talents, Akune is given something of a handicap in this match, with a requirement to score ten points before his rival manages to score one.  As Nekomi and Medaka discuss the finer points of who or what a prodigy might be from the sidelines, things take a rather predictable turn in the match itself, with Akune looking to win out easily - he has, however, failed to calculate the potency of Medaka's secret weapon...

As a result, Hitoyoshi gets to keep his place alongside Medaka, while Akune finds himself kicked out of the judo club, leaving him free to join the student council himself and continue his fruitless pursuit of Medaka.  He's given an early chance to impress too, as the tomboyish Yatsushiro comes to the council in the hope of having someone write a love letter for her on account of her appalling handwriting.  When Akune's literal evaluation of this request fails to please Medaka, he (and Yatsushiro to boot) have to take a rather more long-winded and thoughtful approach to the entire affair.

While it would be unfair to categorise this week's episode of Medaka Box as "dull", it wasn't all that far from it - the end of its judo-based story arc was hugely predictable and the second half of the episode frittered away a potentially interesting side character in Yatsushiro to do.... well, nothing of any particular interest to be honest.  There's simply nothing captivating about the show at this juncture - Medaka herself isn't exact the most likeable of titular characters, Akune is rather annoying and Hitoyoshi is a decent guy but nothing to write home about.  It's becoming really hard to fathom exactly what Medaka Box wants to be - its story arcs aren't interesting enough to work in their own right, but there's very little in the way of comedy or anything else to supplement it.  At the moment I'm persevering with the series simply on account of tales about how the manga changes and shifts its priorities hugely further down the line, but it's becoming a harder slog to do so by the week.

Kids on the Slope - Episode 3

After a chance meeting with Sheryl Nome... sorry, I mean Yurika Fukahori... last week, Sentarou is very much in love - although slightly dim person that he is, he doesn't quite seem to have realised it yet.

Luckily for him he has Kaoru around to point out that he's as lovesick as a man can get, and furthermore his new-found friend seems jam-packed with ideas to get Sentarou together with the new apple of his eye, starting out with a group date featuring the three of them alongside Ritsuko.  Needless to say, Kaoru clearly has an agenda of his own in suggesting this idea, as he eyes the possibility of getting closer to Ritsuko as a result.

Despite an utterly bungled attempt to ask Yurika out, somehow our group date comes to pass, and while Sentarou's initial shyness slowly breaks down as he and Yurika begin to get on swimmingly, things aren't quite going to plan for Kaoru as he soon comes to realise that Ritsuko is decidedly upset about something.  Under the assumption that Ritsuko actually has eyes for Sentarou, Kaoru tries his best to reverse what he feels is a betrayal of his female friend's feelings, but the Sentarou-Yurika ship has already well and truly sailed.  But what does this mean for Kaoru?  Even though his assumptions seem to suggest that Ritsuko is beyond him, it certainly isn't going to stop him from trying.

Even though this week's instalment of Kids on the Slope threatened to fall into that time-honoured hole of romantic misunderstandings so beloved of love stories in anime, the episode managed to keep its head above water on a few counts - firstly, courtesy of having grown a trio of main characters (including Ritsuko) who we've grown to like pretty quickly over these three episodes and thus care about their feelings and actions, and secondly by having our male protagonists actually have the guts to show their feelings to the girls they like, however stiltedly.  Indeed, Kaoru's behaviour in particular ultimately saves him come the end of the episode after threatening to keep silent for too long in the face of these misunderstandings.  On top of all of this, Kids on the Slope has actually managed to keep its powder impressively dry as to Ritsuko's feelings throughout this episode - some of her behaviour could be read one of two ways to at least add a sheen of believability to any doubts as to where her heart lies, and we still aren't entirely sure about this even come the end of the episode.  It's a small yet powerful hook to hold over the audience, and no doubt it'll be played out a little further over the coming weeks - hopefully it'll make for a suitably strong continuing story against the backdrop of the show's increasingly enjoyable music and aesthetic.

Lupin III: Mine Fujiko to Iu Onna - Episode 4

It's time for a night at the opera as Mine Fujiko to Iu Onna hits its fourth episode, and with Fujiko herself seemingly having been captured by Detective Zenigata it seems that she's going to be working for the right side of the law for once.

Her mission this time around is, of course, to help Zenigata get his hands on Lupin III, who in turn is looking to get his hands on a bedazzling and jewel-laden mask.  The mask belongs to a much vaunted opera singer named Ayan Maya, who has worn the mask ever since an incident with an over-exuberant fan left her face with horrific burns.  Thus, Fujiko takes a place within the company of this rather odd opera house, complete with bee hives, unexplored catacombs and a seemingly magical river which runs through it.

In true opera tradition, it seems that the building also has its very own phantom, and it's the appearance of this supposed spectre that puts paid to Lupin's first efforts to snatch Ayan's mask.  Now that his presence has been exposed, he's going to have to play even smarter to outfit both Fujisko and Zenigata, while other incidents unravelling themselves around him and his plot threaten to put paid to any plans of thievery altogether...

The result of all of this is another terrifically enjoyable episode of Mine Fujiko to Iu Onna, that manages to combine clever plot twists with less clever ones (the reveal of our "ghost" might as well have come straight out of an episode of Scooby Doo), and a serious backbone to the story, which includes the briefest of glimpses into Fujiko's mind, with some great humour and the odd moment of utter slapstick as Zenigata chases Lupin around the place.  While it must have been tempting for this new animated take on Lupin III to simply rest on its laurels and let its animation style grab all the attention, it's certainly proving to be no slouch in the story-telling department either, and as long as it continues to make such marvellous use of its characters and their desires then I don't see that changing any time soon either.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Jormungand - Episode 3

Just in case you were concerned that Jormungand was filled with entirely too many normal, rational characters, this third episode kicks off a new story arc which introduces us to a pair of nutters with a penchant for "making music" with their array of weaponry.

The duo in question refer to themselves as Orchestra, and after getting to see them in sadistic action against a Mafia turncoat in the Middle East, we inevitably find them in the rather more civilised location of Monaco on the hunt for Koko as their latest assassination target.  Luckily for them, they run into Koko in no time at all as she enjoys a shopping trip at the behest of Valmer - unluckily for them, Jonah also happens to be in pursuit of Koko having sneaked out of an abortive attempt to teach him some maths skills.

Before we know it, we're sat slap-bang in the middle of a full on shoot-out in this normally quiet shopping precinct, with Orchestra's unusual but deadly combination happy to lay waste to anything in sight, be it the police, snipers or Koko's team of bodyguards.  Ultimately Koko manages to make good her escape thanks to Jonah and company, but for how long?  It seems as if Orchestra have plenty of other lethal weapons still at their disposal, and they certainly aren't afraid to use them...

I have to admit that my relationship with this particular episode of Jormungand has been rather a love/hate affair - I can't complain about the introduction of some more gun-toting, batshit crazy characters, and filling over half the episode with a pitched gun battle is pretty much what I imagine many of us are signed up for when it comes to our expectations for the series, but that doesn't detract from the fact that something feels "off" about the way the whole thing was delivered.  For starters, Orchestra's actions for supposedly lethal assassins veered from the crazily brilliant to the utterly lunatic, and the way their whole gun battle was presented left it feeling as if everyone involved was... well, a bit crap at shooting one another, frankly.  Add to that the stuttering and occasionally rushed delivery of the episode, and there were some deeply unsatisfying elements to offset the cool factor of the key tenets of this instalment.  I don't want to say that I didn't enjoy it, mostly because that wouldn't be even vaguely true, but there is something annoyingly half-baked about the series at times that I've been trying to give the benefit of doubt despite the fact that it's creeping up on me more and more.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Hyouka - Episode 1

What do you do after creating a disastrous surreal comedy series that nobody buys?  Try your hand at something entirely different, of course.  Enter Kyoto Animation's gambit to take up all the way through to the autumn, Hyouka.

The star of the series if Houtarou Oreki, although it seems that he's the kind of guy who'd rather not be in the spotlight as he lives his life always on the look-out for the path of least resistance to avoid him wasting needless time or energy.  Thus, the start of Houtarou's high school life sees him determined to avoid any kind of club activities - an idea quickly put paid to by his sister's demands from afar that he has to join the Classics Club of Kamiyama High, her former high school and Houtarou's new place of education.

While Oreki contents himself with the thought that he'll have a clubroom to himself in a quiet corner of the school, even this idea doesn't last for long as he finds that he isn't the only club member - a girl named Eru Chitanda is already there are ready to sign up to the club for whatever reason.  Add in Houtarou's slightly devilish friend Satoshi Fukube and we have ourselves a club, and with Chitanda's intense gaze and eyes you can lose yourself in even Houtarou can't find a good way out of the situation.  That said, no matter the scenario, Houtarou's ability to find that path of least resistance continues to be his primary concern.

Although it's hard to get any real feel for what Hyouka's aims are from this first episode, it's certainly an intriguing opening - if nothign else we have ourselves a trio of compelling characters who bounce off one another well in terms of both personality and their potential strengths.  Alongside that, of course, we have KyoAni's gorgeous visuals which happily break out into something a little different from the norm every now and again, which eases the progress of an episode that is really all about setting up those characters and little else.  Regardless of this, between the characters and aesthetics I'm well and truly on-board with Hyouka for now in the hope that it can deliver something that makes it worth watching beyond these aspects alone.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Space Brothers - Episode 4

While Hibito is enjoying an opportunity to try his hand at weightlessness (and, as his brother notes, to hang out with some rather attractive women), Mutta still has his nose to the grindstone as the second phase of JAXA's astronaut selection process comes to a close.

More specifically, it's time for the final interview which closes off this round of the process, and Mutta being who he is this soon finds him swimming in a sea of self-doubt, despite his occasional outward confidence that he'll soon be joining his brother on the road into space.  Little does he know that he might be joining Hibito at NASA sooner than expected however, for another reason entirely.

Still, with another phase of the selection progress complete, Mutta finally has time to let his hair down a little, although his lack of a mobile phone threatens to spoil the party as he looks set to miss out on a chance to get hold of Serika's number - thank goodness for Kenjo, who seems to be far more organised and bails his friend out once again regarding this particular matter.  As if his mood hadn't already picked up enough from holding Itou's contact details in his hand, it's time to head off to the US at the behest of Hibito, which could well give him a leg-up in his training ready for the next phase of JAXA training - assuming he makes it, of course.

By this point in the series, Space Brothers has well and truly gotten into its groove - although Mutta still feels like a somewhat unbelievable candidate to become an astronaut for the most part, to be fair even his perceived weaknesses show a smart attention to detail which I'm guessing will be his ticket to success as the selection process moves forward.  Regardless of his dumb and clumsy nature, you can't help but root for the guy, and it's this feel-good factor of wanting to cheer him on that powers the series alongside the undoubtable "cool factor" of space exploration.  I still worry that it might not have the legs to continue in this vein, but for now I'm continuing to enjoy the show rather a lot.

Saki - Episode of Side-A - Episode 3

With their team assembled and a suitably talented advisor in place, the rejuvenated Achiga Girls Academy is ready to roll for their initial qualifying tournament.

As if that isn't an exciting prospect enough, Achiga's team arrive to find themselves drawn against deadly rivals and hot favourites to qualify, Bansei High School, in the very first round, giving rise to a sense of panic that soon turns to enthusiasm - with good reason as well, after an impressive start leads to them wiping the floor with their opponents to win their opening round with relative ease.  What's more, they effectively breeze through the entire tournament, achieving their goal and setting themselves up for a trip to the National finals and possibly their fated meeting with Nodoka.  So much for all of the tension built up around those qualifiers...

Having sealed their qualification, the Achiga girl's obvious next concern is preparing for the Nationals themselves, which they do by travelling and playing as many of the runners-up from the various qualification tournaments as they possibly can.  At the top of their list is the defeated finalists against Nodoka's side Kiyosumi, where we meet some old faces in the form of Ryuumonbuchi High School's mahjong club - the only side with the ability to defeat Achiga's best in these practice matches.  Still, with some time remaining to hone the group's teamwork, it's off to Tokyo we go, where we soon get a fleeting glimpse of Kiyosumi's real powerhouse - a certain Saki Miyanaga.

Although part of me is grateful to Episode of Side-A for getting on with things at a fair clip, I can't help but feel that this episode has missed the point of the series entirely.  After spending its first two episodes building up the intense rivalry between Achiga and Bansei, and what victory means for both schools, why on earth did we breeze over the matches between the two teams in five minutes flat?  Similarly, there was plenty of room to explore Achiga's abilities against Ryuumonbuch, but once again we're treated to basically no actual mahjong action at all.  The only benefit of this is that we're now ready for the Nationals and the "serious business" it represents to begin in no time at all, but I can't help but look over my shoulder and wonder where all the promise of intense mahjong action has gone with the series thus far.  Saki might have been a little too slow in taking twenty-five episodes to reach its National tournament, but I'm not sure that Episode of Side-A managing it in three is particularly preferable either.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Natsuiro Kiseki - Episode 3 (Dropped)

Having stuck Natsumi and Saki together last week, it seems as if it's this duo's turn for vengeance this week as they set out to almost literally glue Yuka and Rinko together to see how they like having to put up with such an inconvenience.

Thankfully, this doesn't turn into a copy of episode two of Natsuiro Kiseki, as its group of girls have more importantly fish to fry, namely the fact that a friend of Natsumi's sister, Yuusuke Kimura, spotted them during their little flying session back in episode one.  While logic dictates that just ignoring what seems like little more than a kid making up a stupid story, the fact that Kimura's insistence upon what he saw begins to damage his relationships with his friends, in turn making some of the group feel rather guilty.

Eventually, after finding Kimura following her around, Saki decides that the only way to resolve this issue is to let both him and Daiki see what they need to, with Saki taking on the role of a "witch" so that she can reaffirm Kimura's friendship with Natsumi's brother.  However, magic is rather a fickle thing, and at the moment of truth the big rock which has become the group's... well, rock, refuses to grant their wish - luckily for those involved, friendships tend to be rather more robust than Saki assumes, so no proof is needed for Kimura and Daiki to become friends again.

If last week's episode was dumb, then this week's Natsuiro Kiseki is just plain dull - all of the machinations within it eventually come to naught, ideas from last week's episode get reused, and ultimately nothing of any interest actually happens as our cardboard cut-out characters lurch around and go through the motion's of the episode's plot.  It's utterly boring, and I really can't think of any good reason to keep up with the series based upon what it's shown us so far.  Thus, no amount of wishes or magic will save Natsuiro Kiseki from my list of dropped shows - sorry!

Friday, 20 April 2012

Eureka Seven AO - Episode 2

As a massive G-Monster (or Secret, depending who you ask) blasts away at the island of Okinawa, this doesn't exactly seem like the best time to argue over the ownership of a bracelet.  Regardless, our semi-titular protagonist Ao is determined to hang on to it no matter what, while political problems and shenanigans manifest themselves all around him as this second episode of Eureka Seven AO kicks into action.

Luckily for Ao, his pursuers who are also in need of the bracelet aren't willing to go to violent ends to obtain it, instead simply suggesting that Ao come with them to meet their Japanese "boss" as they explain that the bracelet could well be the component that saves the island for destruction.  Reaching said individual and the aircraft carrier on which he currently resides proves to be a rather more difficult proposition however, as the Secret in question suddenly takes more of an interest in said craft thanks to its cargo.

Needless to say, this cargo ties in rather closely to Ao's bracelet, and thanks to dumb luck he soon finds himself hanging onto a rather particular "FP" - the Mark I IFO taken out of service a decade previously, to which this bracelet is the key.  Once he realises this, and with little other choice as the aircraft carrier containing it is obliterated, it's time for Ao to take to the skies in his new toy - something which he determinedly does with a mind to seeing off the G-Monster currently laying waste to his island.  Although his tactical nous may be lacking, what appears to be his biggest error ultimately turns to his advantage, giving him the opportunity to defeat his opponent despite the IFO taking some hefty damage in the process.  With the day one, you might expect Ao to become a hero, but far from it, as every faction wrapped up in the current politics of the area seem to want to find the pilot of the Mark I, leaving Ao on the run - a matter made even more difficult by a rather striking change in his hair colour.

While it tends to lean a little too-hard on its in-universe jargon and terminology throughout, Eureka Seven AO continues to impress me for the most part - Ao himself knocks the original show's protagonist into a cocked hat (i.e. he actually has a backbone), and the tie-in between this series and the original is treading the line between adding an extra frisson for existing fans without alienating new viewers pretty damn well.  The show's action is also well realised this time around, with our first burst of mecha action revealing an IFO that feels weighty, hard work to pilot and oddly realistic given the rest of the show's content - exactly the kind of mecha that I like to see in anime, to be quite honest.  With the region's politics also clearly fractured, there seems to be plenty of room for both human and "alien" peril as the series moves forward, leaving me decidedly excited about what the series as a whole has up its sleeve.  There's till plenty of time for it to screw up, but as of right now Eureka Seven AO is up there as one of my favourite shows of the spring.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Tsuritama - Episode 2

As if Yuki didn't have enough to cope with due to his introverted demeanour and tendency to pull the most horrifying of faces when put under any kind of pressure, now he finds himself living with an overly exuberant and slightly crazy alien.

Worse still, we soon discover in this second episode of Tsuritama that Haru actually has a sister - who sister who demands that Yuki catch a particular fish will ensure that the Earth and humanity itself is saved.  Before he knows it, Yuki (along with Haru) are back begging the fishing "prince" Natsuki for lessons, helped along by the fact that the normally sullen fishing genius acts entirely differently when his little sister is around.

Given his reticence to act as a teacher for these two crazy classmates however, Natsuki isn't exactly the most accommodating of tutors, and even a shot from Haru's water pistol (which in turn gives us a glimpse of what it's capable of) isn't enough for Yuki to get the hang of tying the required not to attach bait to the line, which leads to him losing his chance to catch another fish at the all-important moment before running away in the face of Natsuki's criticism.  Still, it seems that Yuki has caught the fishing bug whether he likes it or not, and in the process he even begins to build (albeit every-so slightly) both his confidence and a friendship with Natsuki.  With another transfer student (and his duck) entering Yuki and Haru's class however, things look set to take some more strange turns sooner rather than later.

After feeling so apathetic towards its first episode for the most part, there are some interesting glimpses into the deeper story of Tsuritama this week from a character-centric point of view - Natsuki's family situation is obviously a cause of deep distress for him, while Yuki's grandmother seems to be keeping health issues from her grandson into the bargain.  These are but small fry in the lake of lunacy that this series is swimming in however, and I can't break away from the feeling that the series is trying to be zany and fill its character roster with oddballs simply because it can.  I can't say that this aspect of the series is particularly endearing to me at this stage - Yuki's neuroses are fine and work well enough, but Haru is intensely annoying and his sister feels like a somewhat pointless insert at this juncture.  If the show's weirder characters are fleshed out properly hopefully such issues may dissolve - on this occasion, I'm really hoping that my gut feeling about Tsuritama is proved wrong.

Kids on the Slope - Episode 2

After establishing something of a love-hate relationship between main characters Kaoru and Sentarou in its opening episode, it's not exactly a huge surprise to see that friendship growing closer as enter this second instalment of Kids on the Slope.

The main catalyst in growing this bond actually comes as a result of Nishima's misfortune, as he finds himself the object of interest to a gang of bullies with nothing better to do with their time - luckily for him, Ritsuko spots him being led away and collars Kawabuchi to do his thing and rescue Kaoru.  This he duly does, and Kaoru even does his bit to return the favour by helping out in the ensuing scrap when Sentarou looks to be in trouble.

If that isn't enough to cement their friendship, the return of a neighbour to the store run by Ritsuko's father prompts an unexpected jamming session in said music store's basement - a session which Sentarou coaxes Kaoru to join in on having realised his willingness to try his hand at a spot of jazz himself.  To his surprise, he even gets a bit of a feel for the vibe of the moment, which perhaps is what gives him the confidence to ask Ritsuko out on a date of sorts.  Of course, this doesn't go exactly to plan, with Sentarou tagging along for the ride, but an enjoyable summer's day ends in a realisation of love for both boys, albeit in wildly different ways.

From its solid opening, this second episode of Kids on the Slope succeeds in getting pretty much everything right - by the end of it all I find myself totally on-board with cheering on both of the main characters in their various endeavours having warmed to them both, while Nishima's burgeoning love for Ritsuko also feels entirely organic and well-imagined to add a satisfying romantic element to proceedings.  Throw in some suggestions that Sentarou has (if you'll excuse the pun) his own cross to bear relating to his family, and the only thing really missing here is a more central focus on the jazz side of things - something I can forgive entirely while I'm enjoying simply living life vicariously through the show's characters like this.

Medaka Box - Episode 3

You'd think that Hitoyoshi would have enough on his plate simply complying to the whims of Medaka every day, but somehow as this third episode of Medaka Box begins we discover that he's still finding the time to try his hand at various school sports clubs.

Thus, before he knows it Hitoyoshi has gained a reputation as a "club crasher" for his brief forays into various groups.  It's this label that sees him approached by Kanoya, one of Medaka's defeated rivals for the student council presidency and a rather nasty piece of work in his own right.  On the look-out for others with a grudge to bear against Medaka to join his insurrection, Kanoya offers an opportunity for Hitoyoshi to gain vengeance upon the girl who works him into the ground on a daily basis - a suggestion which is, of course, complete anathema to Hitoyoshi himself.

With our main man having literally beaten down that particular insurrection, it's back to answering calls for help within Medaka's suggestion box, which brings us to a request from judo club captain Nekomi Nabeshima to find a replacement as her time comes to step down.  Although this seems like a simple enough request, there's more to it than meets the eye, as Hitoyoshi has caught the eye of Nekomi while much-fawned over fellow member Kouki Akune has an eye of his own upon the opposite sex, and namely Medaka.  Thus, the two male components of this particular setup eventually find themselves goaded into a fight to see who can become Medaka's assistant within the student council - a match that we'll have to wait until next week to see.

Having at least kept me entertained and amused for its first two episodes this week's Medaka Box is, in a word, dull.  Both halves of the episode contain set-ups that are easy to read and second guess a mile off, while there's no real comedy, smart dialogue or clever concepts to help things along.  This leaves us with a predictable and boring chunk of clichéd material that hasn't exactly left me on the edge of my seat waiting to see what next week's episode will bring.  I'm not convinced that Medaka Box has run out of ideas just yet by a long shot, but it's certainly doing a good job of hiding anything it has up its sleeve will dull outings like this.

Lupin III: Mine Fujiko to Iu Onna - Episode 3

With a family struggle over the wealth and power of a king in full swing in a small European country best known for its casinos, it's almost inevitable that you'll find some undesirable sorts in the employ of those looking to accelerate their opportunity to snatch those riches for themselves.  So goes this third episode of Mine Fujiko to Iu Onna.

While our titular femme fatale is very much in the frame here, she isn't the only one with a part to play in this particular piece of family drama - while Fujiko's role on this occasion is that of the tutor of the children of the king of Astria, we're also introduced to a samurai and would-be assassin named Goemon Ishikawa who is tasked with offing the king during a train journey home after picking up untold amounts of expensive artwork in Paris.

Rather than posit this episode as an outright "race" between Fujiko and Ishikawa to complete their objectives before escaping into the night, instead we find a far more subtle treatment given to the entire affair - both individuals seem to take a shine to the king's children, which is largely responsible for this softening of their relative stances, but there's a hesitant nature to these two individuals who you'd otherwise expect to ruthlessly take what they want or do whatever necessary to complete their objective.  Ultimately, this hesitation sees both of their plans usurped by another party which pushes both of their plans off the rails (with every pun intended) - or does it?

After the mastery of last week's instalment, I suppose this week's Mine Fujiko to Iu Onna was also going to struggle a little and so it proved, with this episode only proving to be great instead of absolutely stained-glass fantastic.  Annoying kids aside (are there any other kind?), this was a smartly told story that allowed characterisation to take priority over action or the episode's central plot, and for the most part it worked well right the way through to Fujiko's twist at the end which brought the veil of mystery as to her emotional drive back over her again after an instalment which seemed to suggest she has a soft centre underneath her calculating exterior.  Admittedly, the show's animation style and quality isn't at its best when the episode did turn towards action, but this is small fry against the backdrop of another well delivered episode that suggests that this series still has plenty of legs in it - and no, I don't just mean Fujiko's.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Jormungand - Episode 2

Having introduced us to its main characters and the show's premise in its opening episode, this week's instalment of Jormungand wastes literally no time in dropping arms dealer Koko into the midst of a war zone.

With two factions scrapping it out in an isolated area within Eastern Europe over an oil pipeline in the vicinity, Koko's plan is simply to drop off the goods she's selling and get the Hell out of there as quickly as possible - a smart idea for a girl prone to some decidedly crazy outbursts.  Once she arrives at the makeshift base of her buyer, it soon becomes clear that this deal will be anything but simple - not only is a slimy English arms dealer also present (with some crazed employees-cum-bodyguards of his own), but the buyer in question is also absolutely insistent that he does further business with Koko despite her disinterest in any further deals.

Given that all communications in the area are out, Koko has no choice but to allow herself to be escorted to the pass by some of her customer's troops, as does her rival in arms dealing - as we soon find out however, the two parties and in particular their bodyguards have a decidedly different way of dealing with being kept under such a tight leash.  Ultimately though, Koko's judgement (or her streak of insanity, depending upon how you look at it) prove to be enough to get her and her comrades out of trouble - and in doing so, she might just have left a good impression upon young Jonah into the bargain....

If there's one great thing about this week's episode of Jormungand, it's Koko's character throughout - for all of her outbursts and bouts of madness, her sharp eye and good judgement in any given situation goes a long way towards making this instalment enjoyable when coupled with her astute analysis of the scenario in which she finds herself.  Although we don't see much of Jonah at all, Koko's attitude also puts an interesting twist in his own feelings moving forward that will doubtless be explored further as the series progresses.  That aside, what Jormungand offers here isn't an unqualified success - its pace and story-telling feels uneven, with some aspects that feel unnecessary, poorly relayed or both, but for the most part the show's scenario and the way it depicts its characters and ponders the nature of human conflict in an easy, accessible way make it pretty watchable for the most part.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Natsuiro Kiseki - Episode 2

You'd have thought that suddenly, unexpectedly being given the ability to fly, no matter how briefly, would be enough to heal any rifts in a group's friendship, wouldn't you?  Not so in the world of Natsuiro Kiseki, where Natsumi and Saki are still at each other's throats despite inwardly wanting to make up.

If this pair of girls are doing a good job of hiding their true desires, the same can't be said of Yuka and Rinko, who are both desperate to see their buddies rebuild any broken bridges - indeed, after finding Yuka trying her hand at some more wishes at the big rock that granted their last request, both Rinko and her friend ponder how great it would be for Natsumi and Saki to make up and stick together.

You can probably see where things head from here, with our two former friends literally stuck together by the power of magic until they make up - a rather awkward scenario at the best of times, before you consider that Natsumi isn't fully dressed at that point in time.  Once the two of them realise what's transpired, off they head to confront Yuka and Rinko, who are less than enamoured at the thought of being collared by this angry looking pair - cue a long run around town until everything finally rights itself, and we find ourselves with a group of four friends with no issues or arguments to get in the way once again.

After being hugely surprised to see what I assumed would be a bog-standard slice of life series throw a bunch of magic into the mix, so that trend continues in  Natsuiro Kiseki's second episode.  In a way, this is no bad thing, as there's obviously plenty of room for comedy within that premise if nothing else - if only it had decided to do something a little less dull with it this week.  Having Saki and Natsumi stuck together was amusing for all of two minutes before becoming old hat, and by the time they'd spent about ten minutes just running around town chasing their friends it had become utterly and horribly dull, a case of stretching an idea to breaking point and beyond that even Nichijou would blanche at.  It seems pretty clear by this point that Natsuiro Kiseki is going to be pretty dull and uninspired in everything attempts - but, because I'm a glutton for punishment, I'm going to watch it at least a little longer to confirm my suspicions.

Saki - Episode of Side-A - Episode 2

After a period of hiatus, Achiga Girls Academy has a mahjong club again!  Well, kind of, assuming said club can find the requisite five members to officially become one.

Thankfully, and compared to a lot of shows of this ilk, finding those five members turns out to be really rather simple.  With hizuno and Ako already on board and joined by Kuro, only two more members are required, and before we know it we find them both.  First up there's Yuu, Kuro's sister with a reasonable amount of mahjong talent despite a penchant for wearing warm clothes, scarves and so on even in the height of summer.  To round out the club, Kuro also recruits Arata Sagimori, a girl who idolised Harue Akado during her time of competitive success but fell out of love with the game once Harue gave up playing it competitively.

Ironically, it's Miss Akado who proves to be the other major driver for this episode - after being recruited to join a professional, corporate team, a high-profile defeat sees those corporate sponsors pull the plug on the side, leaving her without a mahjong outlet even if she gets to keep her job with the company.  It's this state of affairs perhaps that pull her back to look in on Achiga school, where she finds the new mahjong club in session - a discovery that makes her determined to go to the national tournament one more time, only this time around as the girl's teacher and advisor.  Can she really repeat the trick of many years previously and lead them on to beating their rivals at Bansei High School?

While not a lot happens in this episode if you're waiting for some hot mahjong action (aren't we all waiting for that?), and although as a result it feels a little like another lost episode in a series which is pretty short as it is, I do still have some kudos to spare for this week's Episode of Side-A for building its team up so quickly without any messing around and putting the show right where it needs to be at this juncture.  The big question is now is whether its characters and the events around them will prove to be entertaining enough to match the franchise's first season - at the moment all of the main characters are really rather dull, so it's going to be up to their mahjong prowess to build them up into something a little substantial, which I really hope and pray that they manage to pull off.  Until we get to the real meat of the series, the jury is out for the return of Saki for now.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Space Brothers - Episode 3

With the JAXA testing process well underway, Mutta can't afford to be left with his pants around his ankles at this all-important stage.  Wait, actually he can't, because it's time for a thorough (and decidedly embarrassing) medical!

Although his physical prowess isn't perhaps his defining feature, our protagonist does well enough for the most part against his younger, fitter rivals, even if he's rather negative towards the whole thing - an attitude not helped by the attitude of many there that he's somehow getting a leg-up on account of his brother's place as an astronaut.

Still, there's no denying that Mutta has some specialities which come out of the closet of his youth, even if they're rather short-circuited by his rather clumsy nature and constant fretting and putting himself down.  When it comes to the crunch though his heart is in the right place, and fellow examinee and doctor Serika Itou gets to see this at close-hand as she happens across Mutta trying something invariably daft that nonetheless rekindles memories of her own youth.  Indeed, it seems as if these two individuals might have more in common that their outward appearances suggest as we move to a crunch point in the testing protest.

I have to admit that after its fabulous opening episode these subsequent outings of Space Brothers have felt a little "stretched", slowing the pace overly with flashbacks and the like in a way which does break up the relentless testing montages to be fair, but it still feels like they're playing for time somewhat.  Luckily, the show remains plenty of fun despite that, feeling a little like "Bakuman for astronauts" as it gets into the nitty gritty of their selection process while Mutta drives the series by being "Kotetsu (from Tiger & Bunny) as a wannabe astronaut.  This increasingly feels like a series that would work better as a one-off movie (which certainly explains its live-action film adaptation coming this year), but Space Brothers still knows how to be entertaining thanks to a cool premise (c'mon guys, it's a show about space and astronauts and stuff!) and a hugely endearing lead character who you can't help but root for against all odds.

Future Diary - Mirai Nikki - Episode 26 (Completed)

After all his trials and tribulations, Yukiteru has finally found himself in the best of all possible worlds - sure, it may just be a construct designed to placate him, but does it really matter?

With Yukkii locked away, all that's really left on Yuno's "to do" list is to kill the version of herself in the third world to take her place and begin the survival game all over again - a plot delayed by a conversation between the two Yunos that makes the Yuno will all know and "love" (perhaps we should just call her yandere Yuno for now) waver in her task for a while.

Meanwhile, something odd is going on elsewhere in this world, as various "threads" pertaining to the other would-be diary holders seem to be resetting themselves.  What on Earth could be causing this to happen?  The answer is, of course, First, who finds the motivation to break out of his idyllic prison just in the nick of time.  With Yukiteru and Yuno back in the game again, one of the has to die, but which one is willing to make that sacrifice (or kill the other for that matter)?  Besides that, what exactly is the winner intending to do with their new powers as the god of space and time?

It's this ending to the series that is, sadly, a little weak - inconclusive at best, and a little dull at worst as it focuses largely on the third world which we didn't really spend enough time in to care about directly even if it does feature all of the same characters.  With a teaser that there's clearly more to come, and with Yukiteru and "his" world floating in limbo, it seems that we'll have to wait longer still to see what Mirai Nikki has up its sleeve next.  Despite falling a little flat at the final hurdle, that still isn't enough to deflect the fact that the series has been incredibly fun to watch - a never-ending cavalcade of insanity that always, somehow, manages to have enough thought behind it to explain the craziness.  It's a dark, dirty but ultimately intelligent tale in its own special way, and it's been a wonderful roller-coaster thrill ride that I've loved from beginning to end.  Hopefully, this "next project" will give it the fitting ending that it deserves.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Eureka Seven AO - Episode 1

It's 2025 and we see a city in ruins, while the few exploring within it seem to be waiting for an angel of some kind - a far cry from the relative paradise that is Iwato Island.

It's here that we meet our protagonist and this sequel's titular (sort of) character, Ao as he goes about his business, whether it's helping out someone else on the island or looking after his sickly friend Naru, who seems to have an impressive sideline in the ability to see the future to some extent despite her sickly body.  Not that Ao seems particularly worried about her foreboding premonitions that something bad is about to happen, mind you.

However, this particular premonition seems to be unerringly accurate, as Ao finds himself nearly literally running into a group of less than friendly types who are themselves carrying important cargo at the behest of the Japanese government.  With one of their vehicles crashing, subsequent events cause, quite simply, an utter disaster - the appearance of a "Scub burst", bringing with it the possibility of a much-feared "G-Monster" from appearing.  While this particular burst passes without major incident, the same can't be said about a second outbreak the following morning, which looks set to to leave the island wrecked - however, Ao might be about to have something more important laid upon his plate, as part of the cargo carried by those aforementioned hoodlums seems to tie into his childhood, and beyond that into some far more important events from the past...

It has to be said that, beyond throwing out a little too much in-world jargon for my liking (and it's been a long time since I watched the original Eureka Seven), this opening instalment did pretty much everything right - with a great soundtrack, good animation for the most part, plenty of strong characters and well-judged pacing, this was a rollercoaster that dragged us kicking and screaming into Ao's world without room for hesitation or pause.  As introductions go, you can't get much more compelling, but now the real work starts and it's perhaps the hardest task of all - trying to surpass the original Eureka Seven without falling into the pitfalls exhibited by its dull reboot movie.  Does AO have what it takes to do this?  It's a big ask, but this is certainly an excellent start.

Tsuritama - Episode 1

Tsuritama is the tale of two oddballs - albeit one decidedly more odd than the other.

On the one hand, we have Yuki Sanada, a relatively ordinary kid whose life is disrupted by his constantly travelling grandmother which in turn sees him transferring schools more often than most people have hot dinners.  This is particularly problematic given that Yuki tends to have rather unique panic attacks when he feels pressured or the centre of attention, leading to him pulling a seriously disturbing face while he imagines himself drowning.  On the flipside of this we have Haru, a seriously strange kid who carries a fish in a goldfish bowl around and declares himself an alien to anyone who will listen.

Somehow, these disparate characters come together as Yuki is forced to move again, this time to the quiet seaside town of Enoshima.  Of course, a new home means a new school, and poor Yuki has to go through the motions and stresses of introducing himself to new people - a stress which looks like it could be alleviated as attention is snatched away from him by the appearance of Haru as another transfer student, only to be piled back on to him as both Yuki and Haru are labelled as fish from the same shoal.  Still, it's good to have a friend even if he bonkers, right?  Right?!

It's difficult to know what to say about this opening episode of Tsuritama - it made me laugh a few times so it's certainly achieved that goal, but at this juncture there isn't actually a lot I can find to say in either criticism or praise of it.  My biggest concern is that the series is going try a little too hard to be wacky without any real purpose, which will only take you so far, but for now I'm going to reserve any judgement until I can get a bit more of a feeling for what Tsuritama's grand plan is.  Until then, it's a pleasant little distraction that hasn't set my world alight - let's just hope it doesn't extinguish the remaining flames of passion altogether.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Lupin III: Mine Fujiko to Iu Onna - Episode 2

Having introduced us to its titular pair of characters and set up the rivalry between Lupin and Fujiko quite nicely, the former goes missing entirely for this second instalment of Mine Fujiko to Iu Onna - not that this is necessarily a bad thing, as it turns out.

This week's episode beings in a particularly high stakes game of roulette, with a female casino owner betting her entire establishment in return for Fujiko quite literally betting her life away.  No matter whatt tricks you try to pull, you're never going to get one over on a casino owner, and so Mine finds herself under the ownership of Cicciolina - a ownership which soon turns into a job for our expert thief and seductress as she's tasked with stealing the gun of a particular bodyguard.

Although Daisuke Jigen, the man in question, doesn't exactly hold the weakness towards the fairer sex that Cicciolina suggests he does (far from it in fact), that doesn't stop Fujiko from trying to get one up on him to steal that all-important gun.  As she manages to push herself closer to her quarry, so we finally begin to learn the real story behind Jigen's actions both past and present, as well as the importance of the gun he carries everywhere with him.  In the twists and turns that follow, Fujiko completes her task, but the wreckage of human life left behind proves that her lot is not an easy one.

If the first episode of Mine Fujiko to Iu Onna entertained me, then this week's instalment of the series practically blew me away.  In isolation, no single thing that it does is incredibly noteworthy, whether it's in terms of plot, characters or the progression of the story, but add these various facets together and package them up in this show's ever-striking, eye-catching animation and somehow it becomes more than a sum of its parts.  Perhaps more precisely, the tone of this standalone episode is perfectly judged and applied from beginning to end, fitting perfectly with its aesthetic and story to create a small, simple but nonetheless noteworthy little masterpiece.  If the series can continue in this vein, then it could prove to be something very special indeed.

Kids on the Slope - Episode 1

With a world-weary, cynical eye for his new surroundings, Nishimi Kaoru is clearly not the world's most willing transfer student - despite a childhood of jumping from one place to the next, the upheaval of moving hasn't done him any favours, and being dumped in the relative backwaters of his newest location manages to mark itself out as a new low even by his standards.

In fact, things really couldn't be much worse, as our super-smart, glasses-wearing protagonist is introduced as a top of the class student from the city, instantly making him an object of loathing for his new classmates - when he finds out that he's sat directly in front of the class' resident delinquent, coupled with a less than successful tour of the it's the final straw that sends him into a kind of panic attack that sees him headed for his one potential place of tranquillity - the school roof.

Even this plan falls flat as Kaoru's roof space is the object of a fight between delinquents which he can never hope to win, although his desperation to claim the key to the roof sees him make a bit of an unlikely friend - aforementioned class miscreant Sentaro Kawabuchi.  Although neither of them would admit it, and despite their fates seemingly being tied by mutual friend and class representative Ritsuko, there's more in common between these two lads than first meets the eye - not least a love of music, but also a certain outspokenness when push comes to shove.  Of course, it's the music that's the real driver of this series, so it's up to the spirit of jazz to decide where this show goes next.

As opening episodes go, this first instalment of Kids on the Slope did absolutely everything it needed to - it introduced us to its two main characters, made sure that we liked them both warts and all, and then thrust them together over and over again until they started hesitantly to like one another.  This episode arguably tried a little too hard to dig into Kaoru's uncomfortable past as it pertains to his family, but otherwise it was a gloriously simple instalment that let the main characters and their personalities do the talking.  Kaoru in particular seems like a respectably strong main character - cynical and brow-beaten, but still with an argumentative streak and determination offset by an unmistakably teenage thought process at times.  It all adds up to a series with bags of potential (before we even mention the sparse but slick background music and one solitary but decidedly Cowboy Bebop-esque action scene), but it'll be how the story flows and progresses from here that will really make or break Kids on the Slope.

Medaka Box - Episode 2

Zenkichi Hitoyoshi has, inevitably, found himself dragged onto childhood friend Medaka's student council staff, which leaves him in charge of looking after Medaka's box (stop sniggering at the back) - provided he can stop worrying about how to make his school uniform look fashionable, that is.

This week's instalment sees Medaka Kurokami tasked with a couple of requests from her suggestion box - her first request is a rather desperate one from a girl named Ariake, who finds her big chance on the school track team put in jeopardy when her running shoes are maliciously destroyed.  But by who?  Such questions are trivial when you're a genius of Medaka's calibre, and she soon tracks down the culprit and resolves the issue with little more than her raw speed, a hug and a sense of trust in the kinder side of humanity.

With that dilemma resolved, Medaka's next case involves a missing puppy which needs to be found.  For once however, the student council president is happy to step aside and let her underling take on the task, something which Hitoyoshi does with gusto - until he actually sees what this "puppy" looks like, at least.  Nonetheless, with the "help" of Shiranui in capturing the beast he tries his best, only to find himself usurped by Medaka in the end if only because of a little jealousy of her part.  Still, it means that the episode ends with mission accomplished, even if things don't quite pan out as we might have originally expected.

I have to hand it to Medaka Box on one count if nothing else - it's really pretty fun when it comes down to it.  Its story may occasionally be dumb (and the second half of this episode in particular is terribly clichéd and predictable, but it just about gets away with it thanks to some smart dialogue and funny one-liners that help to grease the wheels and keep the episode flowing, further assisted by a decent roster of characters.  Whether this will be enough to carry the series all through to its climax in a suitably entertaining way remains to be seen (I suspect it will have to offer more than it does currently, certainly), but for now I'm at least enjoying the show enough to keep up with it for all of its fan service and occasional daftness.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Jormungand - Episode 1

Our child protagonist begins this opening instalment of Jormungand by airing his hatred for the arms trade and all those involved with it, from the creation of these weapons of destruction all the way through to their use.  It's a hard point to argue, especially coming from the mouth of a kid whose parents were killed by just such a weapon.

Why, in that case, is this very same kid teamed up with an arms dealer the next time we meet him?  While the obvious answer is a thirst for revenge, we get little time to ponder this as the arms dealer in question, the enigmatic and energetic young Koko Hekmatyar, races about her business with our protagonist, Jonah, in tow.  With important deals in the offing and some decidedly violent opposition to those very same deals, we soon see a flip side to Jonah as he proves himself to be an accomplished child soldier while acting as Koko's personal bodyguard.

In league with the rest of Koko's varied (and largely oddball) cronies, Jonah next finds himself involved in a mission to prevent a rival arms dealer from getting the upper hand in a deal - a situation which shows both the lengths Ms. Hekmatyar is willing to go to in terms of both using her personnel and when it comes to putting herself in danger.  Thus is born the rather odd but seemingly somewhat genuine relationship between arms dealer and the child soldier who hates everything that occupation stands for - an intriguing mix that will be doubtless explored further during the course of the series.

As it's the obvious comparison to make, let's get it out of the way early - "oh hey, this is a bit like Black Lagoon!"  Indeed, from its opening titles through to the way this episode handles itself for the most part, such comparisons are certainly fair as they go about setting up their strangely loyal and lovable underworld groups before setting a cat amongst the pigeons by throwing a fish out of water into their midst.  Beyond that, Jormunhand's opening gambit is decent if unspectacular - Koko is a fantastic character right from the off who carries this episode with her enthusiasm alone, and Jonah's world-weary, sullen personality works in tandem with that extremely well.  However, the series is going to have to do a whole lot more world building to really ratchet up our interest in its underworld arms trade - Black Lagoon (sorry, here I go again) succeeded in investing us in its band of pirates right from the off, whereas Jormungand's "bad guys" (or rather, Koko's opposition) are largely faceless and not particularly interesting.  Add to that some action scenes which feel a little low budget for a show of this nature, despite some great moments, and there's a whole lot of room for improvement here - thankfully, my interest in where the show and its story can head from here fills me with at least some faith that those improvements will come about, as Jormungand at least has a solid groundwork to build from thanks to the elements which this episode did get right.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Future Diary - Mirai Nikki - Episode 25

Things aren't looking too great for house prices in Sakurami City, as Mirai Nikki's insanity moves on to a third world which it then proceeds to destroy or damage large swathes of.

Of course, the property market isn't exactly high up Yuno's list of priorities as she steels herself to dispose of the second world's Yukiteru so that she can claim her place as that world's God again, in turn enabling her to seek out happiness in the third universe she's invaded, however futile that might be.  As for Yukkii himself however, he seems hell-bent on making everybody happy no matter what, and nothing that Ninth says can dissuade him otherwise as he sets off to save the third world's Yuno while trying to figure out a way to send the second Yuno back to her proper world and time.

Ultimately, all of this sets us up for a massive finale struggle, with Yukiteru and Uryuu on the one hand and Yuno and Murmur on the other, bringing us some surprisingly slick and visually impressive (well, sometimes anyway) action as these two "teams" battle it out using a mixture of their wits and physical violence.  After twists and turns aplenty however, it seems as if Yukiteru has finally met his match, as Yuno traps him in a sphere containing his own idealised world (albeit one where Yuno doesn't exist) and a fully unleashed Murmur gets the better of Ninth.  Is this time to say goodbye to any remote possibility of a happy ending?  All will be revealed next week, hopefully.

By this point, and having so cleverly crafted its world (or rather, worlds), I'm not sure that Mirai Nikki could do anything much to disappoint me, as it seems to have its streak of entertaining insanity thoroughly sewn up.  This week's instalment was no different, delivering perhaps the most intense action segments of the series to date while playing wonderfully with its premise a little further in ever-more mind-bending ways.  Utterly bonkers nonsense has never been so enjoyable, and I'll be a little sad when it all comes to an end next week.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Space Brothers - Episode 2

Mutta's dream of leading the way into space for his brother might not be completely dead just yet (thanks largely to a rather large suspension of disbelief and the help of his brother and mum), but is the elder Nanba brother even going to take up the opportunity offered up to him by JAXA?

Oddly, Mutta's initial response is to ignore his qualification as an applicant for their space programme, instead continuing (and succeeding in) his hunt for a regular job.  It isn't until he pays a visit to his favourite aunt, the owner of an impressive telescope and a major influence upon his life, that we understand his reticence to fight for his dream.

In short, Mutta is afraid of failure, and more importantly he's afraid of failure under the watchful eyes of his younger brother, meaning that he'd rather not attempt something than fail in doing so.  Understanding his dilemma, Aunt Sharon pushes her charge in the right direction, giving him the belief and drive he needs to follow his dream.  Of course, this is where things get really difficult, with a tough initial exam being followed up by a spell of testing and training within JAXA itself where only the best will do.  This leaves Mutta believing that his occasionally eccentric behaviour will be his downfall - but some of his eccentricities might just come out in his favour.

After pitching and delivering its first episode almost perfectly, this second instalment of Space Brothers was always going to be the "difficult second album" in terms of keeping that energy going, and as a result this week's instalment certainly isn't as strong as the series opener.  After wallowing perhaps a little too much in Mutta's past however, the episode eventually gets going as our protagonist begins to follow his dream once more, with the all-important set-up for events to come spruced up with some smart little moments that were inevitable but still well played, and some more great moments of slapstick comedy that were more Frank Spencer than Buzz Aldrin.  Come the end of the episode, I was well on-board the Space Brothers train (or rather, shuttle) again as its feel-good, enjoyable tale continues.

Saki - Episode of Side-A - Episode 1

After going into it with low expectations, I was amazed at how heavily I got into mahjong anime Saki by the time its original series came to a close, beginning a bit of a love affair with the game that has never fully dissipated since.  Although it isn't the second season of the series proper that we've been craving, this spring does at least fill that tile-sized hole in my heart courtesy of this Episode of Side-A side-story, written by the same author as the series proper.

Indeed, the link between this series and Saki itself takes no time to emerge, as we're introduced to a transfer student who goes by the rather familiar name of Nodoka Haramura.  Despite being a little aloof and with a rather unique dress sense, Nodoka soon strikes up a friendship with the energetic Shizuno and her buddy Ako.  The fun these girls have together is only amplified when Nodoka is introduced by the others to the mahjong club at Achiga Girls Academy - well, I say club, but "former club" would be the correct term, with its existence only continuing thanks to a legendary former player for the club Harue Akado, who keeps it running as "rehabilitation" for a particularly distressing defeat.

Of course, Harue isn't going to run the club forever, and her departure signals its ultimate demise, which in turn breaks up our group of friends with Ako choosing a different middle school to pursue her love of mahjong while Nodoka eventually finds herself transferring away on account of her mother's work.  The story seems to be over at this point, until a chance snippet of television viewing from Shizuno reveals Nodoka's new place as a middle school mahjong champion - a shock which fires up Shizuno to rekindle her love for the game and reform Achiga's mahjong club with the aim of meeting and playing against Nodoka once again.  But can she really build a club capable of qualifying for the national tournament when the area's neighbouring high school has such a fearsome reputation within the game?

If I were to have one criticism of this first episode of Episode of Side-A, it's that it covers too much too soon.  I realise that everything we see here is simply setting the stage for the important stuff to come, but it still feels rushed to the point where it's difficult to really enjoy or get to grips with the main characters or their emotional attachments to both one another and mahjong.  On the positive side however, I did feel that familiar Saki tingle when it came to the (admittedly brief) mahjong playing time itself, firing up my love of the game once again regardless of the daft and crazy but fun "superpowers" sported by the show's better players.  It's this that I'll be looking forward to more of from the rest of this series, and hopefully Episode of Side-A can deliver it in spades.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Natsuiro Kiseki - Episode 1

Four young girls with a shared dream believe they've found a rock at their local shrine that will allow them to achieve that shared ambition - if only life was that simple, eh?

Of course, in reality times change, people grow up and following your dreams can become tougher.  It's this kind of harsh reality that strikes two of the main characters as Natsuiro Kiseki (or "A Summer Coloured Miracle", if you prefer) begins.  While Natsumi Aizawa seems to have found her passion as a dedicated member of her middle school's tennis club, her partner in this sport and best friend Saki Mizukoshi seems to have lost her desire for the game and the drive to reach the national finals, seeking to avoid her friend and skip practice whenever possible.  Needless to say, the friction this generates soon reaches a head, with the two girls having a major falling out over the issue.

While their mutual friends Yuka and Rinko seem relatively unperturbed by this development - after all, friends fall out all the time when they're just kids - it soon becomes clear that there's more to Saki's behaviour than meets the eye, as the last day of school before the summer holidays brings with it the announcement that she's leaving the school as her family moves to Tokyo.  Although this might seem like a good time to put their current differences between them, the news serves only to further erect a barrier between them.  Ultimately, it's left to Yuka to do the best she can to reinvigorate the two girl's friendship, bringing the whole group back to the rock around which their previous promises were based.  Just as it seems as if the entire group's relationship are about to disintegrate entirely, a most unlikely wish is answered for the four girls...

Trying to ignore its utterly stupid "miracle" to finish this first episode (which takes our regular slice of life drama, glues it to our suspension of disbelief and then shatters it with a big hammer), this first episode of Natsuiro Kiseki was pretty much the epitome of "okay".  With four stereotypical characters, an equally predictable promise between them and an uninspired setting, this opener gives the impression of a by the numbers series designed to sell its voice actresses rather than do anything particularly interesting in terms of story or character development.  Perhaps the biggest issue with this first instalment is that it throws us straight into the show's drama without first building up the relationship between its four girls (and with the viewer for that matter) - say what you like about K-ON and its ilk, but at least it understands that we have to see the friendships between characters exhibited and developed before setting any cats amongst the proverbial pigeons.  Instead, Natsuiro Kiseki throws us straight into the drama, and as a result it doesn't really work because we haven't had any time to care about the characters or their relationships to one another, or indeed for their dreams and ambitions.  I get the feeling that the series doesn't care about such things however, provided we all pick our favourite character archetype and buy all the CDs and merchandise.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Lupin III: Mine Fujiko to Iu Onna - Episode 1

A couple of points to kick off my coverage of this particular series - firstly, I've never watched any of Lupin III's previous outings before, and secondly I wasn't planning on watching this one until more details began to emerge about the staff working upon it came to light, in turn sending the hype machine into overdrive.

Even for newcomers to the franchise, it takes very little time to become accustomed to the lay of the land here, as we're quickly introduced to our titular master thief Arsene Lupin III himself, as well as the subtitular femme fatale Fujiko Mine, as they come into contact with one another  in the midst of a religious community in a beautiful place out in the... ocean.  The object of both party's interest is a rather particular narcotic, in the possession of the "priest" of this cult and the source of his power over his subjects.

Of course, these two thieves have very different ways of going about their criminal business - Fujiko has a body to die for and knows it, and her powers of seduction know no bounds, whereas Lupin's own abilities are no less subtle but a little less direct in their approach.  Nonetheless, neither individual is to be reckoned with, and thus we spend this opening episode watching both Lupin and Fujiko try to outsmart their cultist hosts as well as one another to find and retrieve the valuable drug at the heart of their efforts.  Before we know it, we're watching lipstick bullets flying around while a rocket-powered Buddha offers up a perfect escape plan.  But can either party succeed in their gambit?  Either way, it seems that Lupin's next target is a decidedly more personal one that, it seems, is going to take quite some stealing.

Right from the off, Mine Fujiko to Iu Onna (I don't know why I'm sticking with the Japanese title, but hey) screams "watch me" with his highly stylised and often incredibly striking animation style which carries a retro vibe which fits perfectly with the character designs, music and general feel of this first episode - it's good old-fashioned fun as we watch our two main characters face off against one another in ever more inventive ways to make for a perfect pair of anti-heroes.  In fact, so compelling is the ride this opener invites us aboard that the only real criticism I'd have is that on occasion the art style tries too hard to make an impact - there's a point where "heavily stylised" turns into "a mess"; a couple of scenes look like they've been interfered with by a small child bearing a black crayon, which in turn jars to the point of breaking you out of the mood of the piece, if only briefly.  Putting that to one side however, this first episode of Mine Fujiko to Iu Onna is a real triumph - it's smart, sexy and satisfying to watch.  Now, our next question is whether it can keep this level of quality moving forward throughout the series - based on this outing however, my hopes are high that it can continue in a similar vein.