Wednesday, 14 February 2018

The Halfway House - Winter 2018 Edition

I hate to alarm you folks, but we're already half-way through the first anime season of 2018. Yes, it's mid-February already, and yet it seems like only yesterday that I was writing about my hottest shows of 2017.

Still, in keeping with that whole "writing about things" state of mind, this seems like a perfect time for me to dig out some of my highlights from the currently airing state of shows, to celebrate what's worth watching (and catching up on if you're not already watching) from the winter line-up.

A Place Further Than the Universe

We've all had those discussions with people who shrug off vast swathes of anime as "cute girls doing cute things", and to some extent you can see the core of the point being made in a lot of those cases - as much as I love, say, Hidamari Sketch, for all of its unceasing talk of friendship it only occasionally hits upon the true nature of spending time with the people you would call friends.

By contrast, A Place Further Than the Universe nails how friendships work utterly. Its tale of a disparate group of girls who invest themselves in what initially seems like an impossible prospect of journeying to the Antarctic is perhaps one of the most realistic depictions of friendship I've seen from this kind of anime - at times, these girls can barely stand one another, stomping all over one another's feelings due to their own foibles, deliberately pressing one another's buttons or (in one of its most powerful episodes) trying to sabotage a long-standing friend's plans through sheer jealousy. Yet, every relationship on show here remains intact, because all of this is part of the unspoken "contract" of friendship - you deal with the irritating habits and peccadillo of your buddies and forgive them their indiscretions, because you know that they'll do the same for you and none of these problems ever truly overshadows the shared goals or interests that brought you together in the first place.

In a weird kind of way it's actually quite inspirational to watch, and director Atsuko Ishizuka (No Game No Life and HaNaYaMaTa) is perfectly placed to not just bring about this story with style, panache and colour, but also with an emotional core that captures everything from humour to heartbreak with an easy hand that is hugely entertaining. Coupled with a unique hook which itself is being played out far from idealistically - this is no dream trip to the south pole, but a research venture being carried out with too few people and too little money -my only concern now is that the show won't have time to wrap things up in a satisfying fashion given that seven episodes in we're literally only just setting sail.

Mitsuboshi Colors

The biggest problem with Mitsuboshi Colors is that every description I want to write for it invokes Yotsuba, and as soon as you compare anything to Yotsuba it instantly loses because... well, what's going to beat Yotsuba?

Anyhow, this manga adaptation takes in a trio of young kids - girls, of course - who have set up an "organisation" to protect their home town... which, of course, is simply an excuse for them to have a secret base, make up adventures to go on and generally goof around.

The surprise here is just how funny every episode of the series has been thus far - I didn't expect to be laughing at poop jokes in 2018, yet the childish innocence of our trio and the willingness of the townsfolk to play along with their flights of fancy is charming and lets the humour flow. It doesn't always knock it out of the park, for sure, but there's a decent enough ratio of good gags and moments to make every episode feel worthwhile. Besides, where else this season are you going to see what Ghost in the Shell's Batou decided to do with his life after leaving Section 9?


In terms of my surprise of the season, this is top of the list - a show I started watching in the expectation of hating it and dropping it in short order, only to find it currently sitting at or close to the top of my favourite shows for the winter.

At its core, the show's conceit is pretty simple - when two members of a dysfunctional family are kidnapped in broad daylight, panic gives way to the grandfather of said family cooling mentioning that he has the ability to stop time for everyone except them. However, what should make the rescue of protagonist Juri's brother and nephew instead leads them into a terrifying dilemma and seemingly insurmountable danger.

While its "time freezing" idea is a simple but joyful one in itself that is wonderfully depicted within the series, where Kokkoku excels is in how it uses this premise. When you take away police and passers-by, turning them into virtual mannequins, and then pit our plucky family up against a gang of criminals, what should be a warm, welcoming town instead becomes the home of a claustrophobic pressure cook housing a high-stakes game of cat and mouse. It's an over-used phrase to suggest that anything "has you on the edge of your seat", but that's truly the case here - every scene is filled with tension and the sense that the cast are walking a tightrope of life or death, and the presentation of the series as a whole does a lot to accentuate that.

Yes, Kokkoku has its lazy moments - on several occasions it shoots for the bottom of the barrel when it needs to find a credible threat to Juri - but thankfully these missteps are offset against a show that is a show packed with drama and horror that it leverages to reach the pinnacle of dramatic tension every single week.

After the Rain

I don't know anyone who wasn't a little worried by the premise of this "teenage girl falls in love with middle-aged man" series - yet somehow, here we are almost halfway into the show, and a lot of expectations have been subverted by this charming little show.

Admittedly, After the Rain still has a lot of work to do to sell me on the romance at its core - a teenage girl falling for a kind man who helps her out when she hits a low point is utterly believable, but there's still not a whole lot for me to hang my hat on as to why the idea is even humoured by the other party in said relationship.

For now though, it's just about doing enough for that core relationship to function, and the rest of the series is sumptuous enough to do the rest of the heavy lifting. For starters, the show is beautiful to look at - not just colourful and eye-catching in its world and designs, but also sporting a splendid attention to detail around its characters, particularly our young protagonist Akira Tachibana, who makes up for her curt speech by speaking volumes in her movements and body language. The show also has a strong grasp of comedy alongside an innate understanding of Akira's troubles and desires, and the two become closely intertwined elements that power the series through as an enjoyable experiences that never gets too bogged down in its minutiae.

Violet Evergarden

(Full disclosure: The UK home video rights for this series have been acquired by my employer, Anime Limited)

Who knew that a Kyoto Animation series would look this gorgeous? Oh, right, everyone did, my bad.

Thankfully there's more to Violet Evergarden than just jaw-droppingly gorgeous character designs, animation and backgrounds - the show has a lot of heart too. In a sense, it's an unusual series - not particularly interested in the trappings of war, but far more interested in looking at the aftermath of a major conflict after weapons have been lowered and what effect that's had on the people captured within the story's focus.

At the centre of this, of course, is Violet - a girl brought up knowing nothing but war, and now having to come to terms with peacetime as someone who has thus far lived her life as an emotionless killing machine. Her blunt take on the people she meets and their situations has worked well thus far in putting over some interesting stories, and at the time of writing it seems that we're going to reach deeper into the psyche of Violet herself as she has to face up to her past more fully. I'm looking forward to seeing where that goes, and if it can blend that with the other elements that has made Violet Evergarden work well thus far then we could be set for a memorable series.

March Comes in Like a Lion - Season 2

(Full disclosure: The UK home video rights for this series have been acquired by my employer, Anime Limited)

Of the shows continuing from the autumn 2017 season, March Comes in Like a Lion is one that I took some time to get around to for no particular reason, but boy am I glad I did.

Anyone who has seen the first series of this show will know that it's a visual tour de force that does an incredibly good job of handling difficult subject matter, no least protagonist Rei's efforts living with depression, but incredibly this season season manages to top all of that substantially.

This is thanks to a long-running story beat surrounding Hina, who finds herself the subject of bullying at school. Now we all know how bulying narratives normally work in anime - character gets bullied, struggles, then somehow finds a way to turn the tables and get one over on the bullies, and they all live happily ever after.

Not here however. Hina ignores the bullies. They bully her more. She goes to a teach. They tell her not to cause a fuss. She goes to her sister. Her sister is powerless. And so the cycle goes on. It's stark, bleak and highly emotive, but it also perfectly captures the horrific nature of persistent bullying, where there are no simple answers and the structures that are supposed to be in place to prevent and/or correct bullying are wholly inadequate or ill-equipped to deal with the problem. What really makes this story work is that it doesn't simply chronicle this from afar - instead you see it up close and personal from the point of view of every character involved, whether it's Hina's brave attempts to struggle through in the knowledge that she's done nothing wrong through to her sister's increasingly desperate demeanor and her teacher's difficulty in coping with the burden placed upon her.

Honestly, in isolation its a story that should win awards and plaudits wherever it goes, and even more incredible is that it's woven into a story that takes in so much of the human condition, from physical and mental illness through to the simple joys and pleasures of life. While you need to watch the first season of March Comes in Like a Lion to enjoy this one, that's no excuse not to check it out - it's a must-watch show, pure and simple.

The Ancient Magus' Bride

I've left this continuing show from the autumn until last simply because I'm still not too sure what to say about it without my thoughts turning into a word salad - in short, I like it, but for reasons even I can't quite discern.

Above all else I suspect my enjoyment of the series comes less from its characters - although they're growing on me constantly - and more from the show's world. There's something delightful about the way its depicted - a world of magic and the supernatural where there's menace around every corner, but not in the sense of "bad guys" that want to ruin everything but rather natural dangers or those who are simply operating to different means and ends than you or I.

As mentioned though, I am warming to Chise and the rest of the cast - the series is slowly but surely laying out the personalities, flaws and troubles of the main players and then providing opportunities to understand, learn and grow as people that is proving most satisfying. However, it's the living breathing world of The Ancient Magus' Bride, warts and all, that keeps me coming back every week.

So, there you have it, my breakdown of "things that are good to watch and that" this winter. What are you folk currently watching and enjoying? I'm always all ears for more recommendations.