Monday, 31 January 2011

Level E - Episode 4

Having finished its first story arc in fantastic fashion last week, I have to confess I was a little worried about exactly where Level E would go next.  The answer is in a rather different direction... well, sort of anyway.

After observing that it's always the naughty kids that see and find stuff they aren't supposed to, we find ourselves joining an illicit card game in a barn being enjoyed by a bunch of students.  Enjoyed, that is, until a girl bursts into the barn, collapses, and then has her insides sucked out before being eaten wholesale by a fellow student.  The ending to this particular card game certainly isn't something you'll see in Rio - Rainbow Gate that's for sure...

Of course, this situation leaves our four delinquents with a quandary - as the girl they saw murdered and devoured is reported as missing, do they go to the police despite how nonsensical their story sounds?  Besides, what of her assailant, and what if he were to target them?  Despite whittling down the possible culprit to a handful of students, their sense of terror only increases when one of their number goes missing.  Finally, desperation and a recommendation from a friend leads them to a strange building containing an even stranger "doctor" of sorts, who claims to know what they're up against and offers to investigate the case... for a price.

This being Level E, nothing is quite as it seems however, and as per the end of the last episode this instalment once again pulls a complete one-eighty on us at its close to exhibit its continuing sense of irreverent fun.  That shouldn't really detract from the rest of this episode as a story in its own right however, which proved to be an entertaining one - strikingly animated in a way which added to the tone and "pulp fiction" feel of the whole endeavour with just the right balance of extraterrestrial craziness and oddball characters with a topping of social commentary; there were some pretty obvious religious and socio-political references to be found within its tale, that's for sure.

Overall though, Level E continues to delight simply on account of being so hard to pin down - it's clearly revelling in its misdirection and playful nature, and that in itself would be enough to keep it interesting even before the fact it can remain fascinating and very different from typical anime fare at the same time come into play.

Break Blade 3: Kyoujin no Ato

Despite a mediocre start in its first instalment, Break Blade started to show a bit of promise with its second outing, bringing with it some slicker action and pretty compelling drama to make for a far more enjoyable viewing experience.

After starting with a brief flashback to happier days for Ryugart, Hodr and Zess (to remind us who these three major players are I suspect; I'd certainly forgotten their names), we soon return to the present day, where Athens soldier Cleo is still trying to recover from the death of her friend Lee - something which she looks to do by throwing herself into the thick of the action to come.

A good job that is too, as the first half of Kyoujin no Ato is largely a riot of action, with another attacking raid by Zess and company thwarted by an ambush centred around Rygart and his Delphine Golem - a state of affairs which eventually sees Rygart and Zess face-off in battle for the first time as the former catches up to the his retreating former friend and his minions.  With Rygart still unsure of his determination to kill anyone this is put to the test soon enough, with the Delphine pilot stopping just short of putting an end to Zess' life; a decision which gives Cleo an opportunity to save her commander and run rampage amidst the Krisna reinforcements who appear on the scene.  Impress though this is, the sheer weight of numbers eventually sees Cleo captured as an injured Zess is rescued by the unfortunately named Erekt.

After all of that high-octane action, things take a turn for the quieter for the movie's second half, bringing in some foreshadowing of future events as other individuals and forces prepare to enter the escalating situation between countries, while even Krisna looks set to add at least one rather dubious individual to their arsenal.  Meanwhile, Cleo finds herself interrogated in a rather unexpected fashion by Sigyn, giving the opportunity to forge an escape plan (and treat us to some fan service) which doesn't exactly go to plan.

Come the end of it all, this really was a movie of two halves.  The first half of Kyoujin no Ato flew by in a blitz of fantastic action that really made the most of the weighty and realistic feeling mecha that the franchise has to offer, with a slightly clunky and cumbersome feel that somehow makes the action and the moments of acrobatic piloting seem all the more impressive.  This was also coupled with some great drama as these events played out; drama which was carried largely by Cleo which seeped into much of the second half, before being ruined a bit by bouncing needlessly into fan service for a moment and dulled a little by the political and military machinations that I can't be too harsh on because they're clearly utterly necessary for the next instalment... an instalment which I'm now very much looking forward to incidentally.  After showing its potential in part two, this outing of Break Blade delivered in spades - sure, it wasn't perfect, but if nothing else the first half of this movie proved that these guys know what to do in terms of action when it comes to the crunch if nothing else.. and let's be honest, that's pretty much the main reason we're watching this mecha series anyway.  Well, maybe that and trying to figure out how the hell Cleo is supposed to be twelve years old.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Bakuman - Episode 17

While Akito is spending some time on his own (well, not quite, but away from Moritaka anyhow) to try and develop his writing skills, it's time for Moritaka himself to learn what will hopefully be some important lessons of his own courtesy of a spell as Eiji Nizuma's assistant.

Needless to say, this soon proves to be a rather "unique" working environment, but as well as Nizuma himself it also introduces Moritaka to another pair of very different wannabe manga artists - the thirty-something, yet to be serialised Nakai and the young and driven Fukuda, very much two opposite ends of the manga artist spectrum.

Still, it's really Nizuma who Moritaka is here to see in the hope of picking up some useful tips, although it soon turns out that things are about to be turned on their head, with Moritaka and Fukuda teaming up to give Nizuma advice on his "Crow" manga as they realise that their early amazement at the series is turning to disappointment thanks to a story with no surprises or real progression to speak of.  So, with plenty of ideas between them, this pairing manages to persuade Eiji to take writing "names" and spending time working on the actual story of his manga more seriously - suggestions which seem to pay dividends and add yet more to Nizuma's already impressive arsenal.  But has Moritaka actually learned anything from his work as an assistant so far?  Perhaps more than he realises, I would wager.

Even without a huge amount of drama and tension, this still proved to be a fun and eminently watchable episode of Bakuman, as well as the all-important point where Eiji Nizuma stopped pissing me off constantly and actually turned into a more well-rounded, fascinating and almost likeable character - an important progression for the series in my book.  It also looks as though we'll be sticking with the Fukuda, Nakai and Moritaka trio working with Nizuma for the next episode, so although I'm not entirely sure what more there is to squeeze out of this particular scenario I'm still looking forward to giving it a shot and seeing what it can bring to the table.

Star Driver - Episode 17

It's time for the seventeenth instalment of Star Driver, which can mean only one thing... it's beach episode time!

Thus, the first eight minutes or so of the episode are filled up with the usual pointless staples of such an episode - sunbathing, having oil rubbed onto your back, and beach volleyball, which on this occasion takes place between Wako and Ruri on one team against a pair of new-comers on the other, with Takuto in place as the prize for the winner.  One thing there won't be prizes for however is figuring how those two new girls fit into the rest of this episode.

Just as night follows day, so these shenanigans are followed by a meeting of the Glittering Crux Brigade, and a very important one it is too after the events of the last episode, with Vanishing Age's leader announcing that he knows the identity and location of the East Maiden, but refuses to divulge this information due to the changes which come from their reaching the fourth phase.  Oh, and while he's at it Head also announces that only those with "marks" will be able to fight in Cybodies from now on since the move to the third phase, rendering much of Glittering Crux aside from a select few redundant.

Amongst those still capable of fighting are, of course, those two new girls, and it's one of these who takes to the stage that is Zero Time to fight Takuto and Tauburn this time around.  The individual in question is Madoka Kei, aka Window Cleaner... oops, sorry, Window Star, who brings us another battle free from the restraints of second phase combat, while also showing some of Takuto's motivations when fighting before he inevitably shows off an upgrade to his own Cybody to win the day.

Just as it seemed as it Star Driver had broken free of its repetitive episode conventions, it looks like the announcement of third phase combat last time around has seen a return to the tried and far from trusted episode layout of weeks gone by - high school hijinks, Glittering Crux meeting, big battle where Takuto wins via some previously unknown/unexpected deus ex machina.  Yawn...

In fairness, at least the mysterious movements of the Glittering Crux Brigade and its members make for some intrigue in this episode, but this isn't really enough to cover for the fact that the series as a whole has slipped back into "boring and predictable" mode, just as I thought it had broken its old habits.  I wonder how many weeks we'll have to wait for something out of the ordinary to happen this time?  And no, another change of background colour in Zero Time doesn't count.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

To Aru Majutsu no Index II - Episode 16

Things are heated up on the fleet of ice ships as we reach the climax of another story arc of Touma Punches Everything... oops, sorry, I mean To Aru Majutsu no Index II.

No sooner did Touma and his assorted company of allies board this ice fleet did things start to go a bit awry, but nonetheless thanks to some determination from the Amakusa and the Sisters fighting on his side, there's enough of an opportunity for Touma, Orsola and Index to slip away from the main battle that's raging to concentrate on their true task of rescuing Agnese before she can be used as the proverbial key in the ignition of the Roman Catholic church's spell, The Queen of the Adriatic Sea.

Before reaching Agnese though, there are a few obstacles in the way, with Touma having to punch doors and numerous suits of armour crafted from ice, only to find himself coming up against the man at the top of the scheme he's trying to prevent, Biagio Buzoni.  With a handy line in throwing giant crosses at people, Biagio proves to be a tricky customer to deal with, and it seems as if Touma has met his match as he's left for dead, with only Orsola standing in the way of what is soon revealed to be the imminent destruction of Academy City (where else?).  But of course, Touma is anything but dead (although it's never explained just how he escaped), and a lot of shouting and a few punches later, the Roman Catholic church's plan is in tatters, with even a desperate attempt to self-destruct The Queen of the Adriatic Sea thwarted, inevitably, by that right hand of Touma's.

Although I jets in my opening about mistaking the title of this series, I'm increasingly thinking that my version of its name is more appropriate - this far into its second season, To Aru Majutsu no Index is really beginning to suffer from the repetitive nature of its approach to solving every crisis, leaving us simply counting down and waiting for Touma to punch someone or something to save the day.  It's certainly a far cry from the more tense and unpredictable nature of To Aru Kagaku no Railgun, which probably means that it's so much the better that next week's episode will give us a little more Mikoto Misaka goodness to enjoy.  As story arcs go for this series this certainly wasn't a bad one, but its negatives are simply further evidence of a wider malaise for the show that I don't think there's really any good answer to.  Except a job-swap with Scar from Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood perhaps.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Fractale - Episode 3

Despite having a what seemed like a bit of a disconnect between its simpler and arguably more cerebral elements, Fractale's opening two episodes turned out to be a pretty interesting affair - as we hit episode three however, it's time for things to get serious.

With Clain and Nessa captured at the end of last week's outing, episode three begins as this duo are brought to the home of their captors - Granitz Village, a place well away from the technology and solitude of the Fractale system, to the point where its residents can't even see Nessa without using special visors due to the lack of nano-machines and other technology embedded within them; a revelation which incidentally tells us quite a lot that we wanted to know about Nessa herself.  With said Doppel in particular brought to the village as a hostage, we learn from here that Granitz is the home of the Lost Millennium, a group who are fighting against the Fractale system and everything it brings.

Thus, Clain gets to see a little of life away from the solitude of Fractale, and away from an existence where everything you need to live is catered for in favour of a world where you have to work for your own food and shelter.  This leads us on to Lost Millennium's latest plan, that being to hijack the Fractale system's so-called Star Festival - a plan which seems innocent enough, until merely observing the brain-washing dressed up as religion that this festival consists of turns into violent revolution and, quite simply, a blood bath.  A horrific, brutal and unexpected end to the episode, that's for sure.

Now that Fractale has built up its various elements, this is the episode where all of that build-up is really brought to fruition via an episode that poses more philosophical questions than could ever be tackled by this humble episodic 'blog.  On the surface you have the whole basic question of what is the "right" way to live - the Fractale system provides for all of your needs without having to lift a finger or speak to another living thing, but is that really what you can call living?  Yet on the other hand, those in Granitz village suffer with pain, illness and ailments that could easily be treated by Fractale's modern technology; are those burdens also part of being alive, or would humanity be better without them?  Of course, this then leads on to questions about the morals and, more importantly, the methods of both groups - on the one hand we have brainwashing and indoctrination, and on the other we have a bloody armed revolutionary factor who have no problem with gunning down anyone in their way, a situation which could well be a jab at organised religion as a whole, methinks.

Beyond that, I can't help but try to make connections between this series and Hiroki Azuma's work on Otaku: Japan's Database Animals - just as the series casts its eye over two very different ways of life, with some clear questions posed towards modern communications and technology and whether it somehow "dehumanises" us and makes us more susceptible to indoctrination, I wonder if it's also trying to make a point about anime.  Perhaps I'm just over-thinking it, but there seems like a clear juxta-position within Fractale between "old-school" anime (i.e. the Nausicaa and Laputa inspirations) and more modern fare (as I mentioned in my last entry on this series about Azuma "pillaging the otaku databse", and witness the semi-fan service scene in the toilet with Enri in this episode).  This even extends to its characters, where Clain is bored by modern technology but in love with old equipment, and how Nessa can't be touched by those with no interest in her.

Is Fractale the modern anime industry, indoctrinating people into the world of "moe" courtesy of easy to digest entertainment based around simple archetypes that requires no thought or effort before constantly reinforcing those "virtues" over and over and over again?  Is Lost Millenium the anime fan of old, who expects to be treated to more brain-taxing fare with a broader scope, and who fails to accept any of the benefits of its modern counterpart in favour of simply raging against everything they see as wrong with the new way of doing things?

Yeah, I'm pretty sure I am over-thinking this one, but oh well...

Gosick - Episode 4

It's time for Gosick to involve itself in a new story arc, and it certainly wastes no time in doing this as episode four begins, with Kujo finding himself arrested mere seconds into this instalment.

Of course, Mujo is no murderer, and after recounting his memory and thoughts at the time of the odd goings-on that caused this chain of events, Victorique is quick to de-construct them and reveal the truth of the crime at hand as she is want to do.  To be honest, it didn't really take a genius-level intellect to figure this one out, but regardless it racks up as another crime solved by Victorique as the perpetrator is seemingly caught quickly enough.

Away from all of this however, Kujo's reputation isn't exactly being bolstered by this constant involvement either with grisly murder cases or Victorique, with his status as the "Dark Reaper" seemingly now reinforced without any hope of it ever being diminished.  Still, it isn't all bad, as Kujo's class is soon introduced to another new transfer student - a blonde British girl named Avril, who seems nice enough yet she also seems to have an injured hand just like the murderer in the "headless rider" case Kujo was previously caught up with.  Certainly, there is something rather odd about Avril's behaviour from time to time, no more so than when a favour performed by Kujo to open up the academy's crypt (because all schools have their own crypt, right?) reveals a decomposed, mummified body dressed as a knight.  Again, this isn't exactly an everyday crime scene, yet Victorique sees the truth about the case through this chaos in no time at all; a truth which still leaves Avril's role (if any) and behaviour very much in question.

Even four episodes in, I still can't really get to grips with my feelings for Gosick thus far.  Its murder mystery elements still entertain me even if some of them are overly simple in the extreme, yet they're often over so quickly that there really isn't much time for me to enjoy the whole process before it's all over.  Indeed, this is probably an accusation I can label at the series so far as a whole - it seems to feel the need to rush through things at a break-neck speed, never taking any time to allow a moment of horror, importance or insight sink in before moving on to the next items on its agenda.  While this is fine for some series, it undermines Gosick's murder mystery roots, as there's no time to wallow in the enjoyment of attempting to figure out an impossible case for yourself and then marvel in the eventual answer when it's presented to you.  In a way, Gosick is increasingly feeling like you've just read the first chapter of a murder thriller, then skipped straight to the final chapter to find out who did it and how - without all of the exposition in the middle, it's little more than a clinical explanation of the intricacies of a given situation.  If it can just learn to slow down a little, I get the feeling there's a far more compelling series lurking underneath.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica - Episode 4

To say that the previous episode of Puella Magi Madoka Magica featured a twist in its tale would be an understatement, and given that shocking finale it's hardly surprising to find this fourth episode focusing heavily on the fallout of what has just happened.

Of course, Mami's death is reacted to differently by both Sayaka and Madoka, with the former doing her best to carry on regardless as though nothing has happened while the latter simply can't shake the feeling that she's to blame for her friend's demise and is thus reduced to a tearful wreck throughout the day.

While it seems as though Mami's fate has put paid to either girl's desire to make a contract with Kyubey, allowing him to walk away and say his goodbyes, the story is far from over here as we see both individuals continuing to show some kind of interest in the possibility of becoming a magical girl.  For Madoka herself, this is inadvertently brought out further to some extent by Homura as Madoka sings her praises for protecting the town, even if that isn't necessarily Homura's explicit goal.  For Sayaka however, her primary motivator is still the possibility of having any wish granted, and this is what looms large as her relationship with the debilitated Kyosuke comes to a desperate head... at the very same moment that Kyubey reappears on the scene, funnily enough.

Come the end of the episode we have ourselves one new magical girl, who has her first foray into the field courtesy of a witch-induced mass suicide attempt which eventually leaves Madoka drawn into another one of those surreal magical worlds which is becoming the show's tour de force.  Still, it looks as though things aren't going to get any easier, with the news of Mami's demise seemingly setting up a turf war between magical girls in the town she once patrolled.

Although nothing could really top the raw emotion of episode three's climax, this proved to be arguably an even more dark and intense instalment of Puella Magi Madoka Magica.  Emotionally, this entire affair was in a low, depressing place, which slowly morphed into something altogether more desperate, whether it was Madoka's desire to protect people or Sayaka's yearning to help her friend where medical science was unable to.  Of course, this all played into a fascinating series of events all in all, with Kyubey once again at the centre of all of the mystery, suspicion and pivotal moments, while the results of Sayaka's decision looms large over future episodes already with barely a word spoken about it.

With so much to chew on, speculate over and consider, I think it's fair to say that I'm going to be sat on the edge of my seat waiting for the next episode once again, from a series that is fast looking as though it might be this decade's defining magical girl series before that decade has barely begun.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Wandering Son - Episode 3

Come the end of Wandering Son's previous episode, it seemed as though everyone was friends and all was well in its world for the first time... of course, this was never likely to last given all of the trials and tribulations surrounding its cast of characters.

It's Chiba who causes some of this initial drama once again early in this episode courtesy of another of her outbursts, although it seems that by this point everyone else is so used to it that it isn't such a big deal now.  However, what is rather a big deal for Takatsuki is the arrival of puberty and her swelling chest, with friendly taunts about her needing a bra proving to be something that she really doesn't want to have to deal with given her longing to be a boy.

Of course, she isn't the only one wishing she could avoid adolescence here, but that aside the main focus of this episode is on the school's forthcoming culture festival, where Nitori et al's class have opted to create a play.  Not just any play though - thanks to a suggestion from Chiba, in this play all of the girls roles will be played by boys and vice versa.  Pretty much everybody in the class seems strangely excited by this idea (outside of the usual suspects who you'd expect to like it), and so the concept is passed by their teacher, with Nitori and (it later turns out) Chiba both working on a script idea for said play.  Throw in yet more embarrassment for Nitori's sister caused by his cross-dressing and an assortment of other little points of interest, and you have yourself another episode of Wandering Son.

Really, the "wandering" part of this shows title couldn't be much more apt - Wandering Son really does prove to have quite the roving eye, skipping between characters and scenarios with gay abandon and never spending too much time focusing on a single subject before moving elsewhere and then occasionally moving back to its more important story lines intermittently throughout.  Somehow, this series so far has managed to avoid most if not all of the pitfalls of this tactic - rather than being disjointed it remains fresh and entertaining from beginning to end with its subtle blend of drama, slice of life and humour sprinkling itself throughout to good effect.  Indeed, subtly is the name of the game here - Chiba aside, we're left to read the thoughts of most of the characters here through their actions and expressions rather than having major points of interest thrust at us via flashing neon lights.  This makes for a quiet and thoughtful take on growing up and adolescence, and helped along by those gorgeous visuals it continues to do pretty much everything right.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Kimi ni Todoke 2nd Season - Episode 3

First February, then April, and now May - its primary relationship may not be moving very fast, but Kimi ni Todoke 2nd Season is certainly cracking through the months if nothing else!

Even a month after the rather awkward conversation between Kazehaya and Sawako, both parties still seem to be suffering from the fallout caused by their own actions and their interpretation of the other's intentions - a tension certainly not helped from Kazehaya's viewpoint by the continuing and slightly flirtatious banter coming from Sawako's school desk neighbour Kento.  For anyone who has ever criticised Kazehaya for being too much of a "perfect" character, this episode is an ample reminder that this isn't actually the case as his jealousy, selfishness and unwillingness to accept help all come to the fore, although at least he does have enough guts to admit his feelings for Sawako to Ryuu.

Against this backdrop, Ken certainly seems determined to swing some kind of plot surrounding Sawako into action, although his exact intentions are anything but clear despite his constant assertions that he's a good guy in current proceedings.  Good guy or not, Kento sets up Sawako for an after-school crash guide to the forthcoming mid-term exams on the back of some comments going around class; before Sawako knows it she's the centre of attention, surroundied by fact-hungry classmates who marvel at her obvious teaching ability.  This takes us to another empty classroom meeting between our two lead characters, and yet another mass of misunderstandings and unspoken thoughts which makes for an emotional climax to the episode - although with Ken waiting behind to speak to Shouta things only look set to get more complicated still.

So, another episode brings little direct progress in its key relationship, but once again Kimi ni Todoke 2nd Season brings plenty of entertainment and small yet beautifully delivered drama to the table to more than make up for that.  The little flashes and moments of comedy are just enough to amuse without becoming boring, while the emotional crux of the show delivers itself effectively without slipping into outright melodrama.  Put simply, I still love this series - its pacing might not be for everyone, but I can't get enough of it, and it keeps reminding me that I really need to get back into reading the manga after lapsing a couple of (altogether excellent) volumes in.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Bakuman - Episode 16

Now that Azuki has landed her first role as a voice actress, albeit a minor one, Moritaka is more driven than ever to move his own dream forward at a faster pace to match hers. Or is he simply jealous?  It's actually kind of hard to tell early on in this episode of Bakuman.

Anyhow, as Moritaka and Akito work hard towards overcoming their respective issues when it comes to creating mainstream manga, another opportunity presents itself - a chance to enter the Gold Future Cup, another opportunity to be noticed as well as compete against other manga artists into the bargain.  As it just so happens the duo have an ideal mainstream manga concept floating about, so after polishing that off they hand it to Hattori, receiving a decent (yet not exactly mind-blowing) appraisal of the work into the bargain.

However, as per usual things aren't quite that simple, and the duo's work doesn't even manage to make the shortlist for the contest - not that it's all bad news, as those within the Jack offices who looked at the work had plenty of words of encouragement.  Much needed such words are too, with Akito struggling with something of a crisis of confidence as he hits a brick wall of inspiration.  It's this difficulty in writing satisfactory work that makes Akito choose to go it alone for a while over the summer break, looking for a change of pace to inspire him, although it could well be a change which breaks up this duo as Akito's relationship with Miyoshi deepens and Moritaka is presented with a unique opportunity to hone his own skills.

Altogether, this makes for another satisfying episode of Bakuman - much like the work of its stars at present, nothing particular really jumps out at me but its story is solid and progressing in an interesting direction once again, so to be honest I'm happy to simply sit back and see where it wants to go next.  It may not be ground-breaking at the moment, but this series is certainly remaining enjoyable to watch even at this stage in the game.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Dragon Crisis! - Episode 3 (Dropped)

An evil black dragon has kidnapped our cute and friendly red dragon Rose - this is like some kind of... Dragon Crisis!  Ahem.

Anyhow, with Onyx having captured Rose as he plans to make her his bride (for reasons we soon learn, that being that it will grant him more power), how will Ryuuji and Eriko react?  While the latter is all set to go off in hot pursuit and attempt to rescue Rose, Ryuuji is far less certain of this idea, still convinced that he is that Rose didn't really care about him all that much and that she was simply clinging to him because he was the first thing she saw when she hatched.  However, miraculously (read: conveniently for the plot) he suddenly remembers that Rose actually saved his life when they first met, giving him the resolve required to join the rescue effort.

Of course, Ryuuji on his own is useless (not to mention whiny and irritating), so Eriko provides him with an S-class Lost Precious procured from a room full of the stuff at their current location - a sword made from dragon's teeth and set aside for Ryuuji alone by his parents.  With this powerful weapon in hand, Ryuuji, Eriko and a bunch of armed troops take on Onyx and win, rescuing Rose from his evil clutches.  Hurrah!  Oh, there are some ever-more intense battles and stuff about Ryuuji and Rose being in love too, but to be honest it's all so dreadfully dull that I'm not sure anyone really cares at this juncture.

Really, were it not for some nice animation touches (offset by cheating in the form of using telepathy to save on animation frames) here and there, you could probably make up an episode of Dragon Crisis simply by copy and pasting bits from other anime series to create a single semi-coherent story - yes, it really is that dull.  The characters are boring, the way the story is presented is boring, and the entire endeavour is so incredibly tedious I can barely find the energy to write about it.  Oh, and there's a beach episode next week!  That, my friends, is the single for to jump from this moving train before it turns into a (even more predictable) train wreck.  It isn't that Dragon Crisis is bad - rather, if it were truly bad I could enjoy poking fun at it.  Instead, it's so mediocre that it threatens to leave me comatose.  You wouldn't want me to fall into a coma now, would you?

Level E - Episode 3

We all have bad days from time to time, but even our concept of a rough afternoon rarely involves a dead alien stuffed in a trash can in your living room.  Welcome to Yukitaka's world come the end of Level E's previous episode...

As if that doesn't sound bad enough, it soon becomes clear that this Disckonian being isn't actually dead at all, but rather playing dead, and once he lets that particular cat out of the bag it's no time at all before the entire Disckonian race are threatening all out war unless they are offered up the head of the person responsible on a proverbial platter.  Of course, our blonde-haired Prince's Dogurian babysitters (for want of a better word) aren't going to give away this important member of their planet's royal family just like that, particularly with such an important universal peace conference about to begin, and so they set about looking for an alternative plan.

Eventually though, time runs out and Yukitaka's apartment is soon over-run with disgruntled Disckonians - but have the Dogurian's had enough time to find out their new-found enemy's weakness?  Well, kind of, if by "weakness" you mean that the whole thing was a set up by the Prince from the very start in an effort to test his subject's loyalty... and of course have a good laugh along the way.  So, any prospects of intergalactic war is prevented, replaced instead by a rush to have Yukitaka sign his autograph for the baseball-mad Disckonians, and three months later peace has returned to his life.  Let's just hope he made the most of those three months, as it ain't gonna last...

Although the first half of this episode wasn't particularly sharp in terms of its humour, this was more than made up for by the second half, which turned the whole scenario of the series so far on his head in hilarious fashion - I can't help but appreciate the way this instalment just grins, shrugs its shoulders and then throws away three entire episodes of anime for the sake of one gag, and to be honest it was well worth it because it was a slither of utter genius.  Of course, this isn't a trick which Level E can really repeat again, but who cares?  Come the end of this first story arc I'm well and truly sold on this anime equivalent of Men in Black - I just hope the next story arc can keep things fresh and cobble together some more bizarre adventures to keep the show running on the high note it managed to hit at the tail end of this week's outing.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Star Driver - Episode 16

It's no coincidence that Star Driver breaking with its traditional episode layout also brought about one of its best instalments yet last week, allowing us to dip into episode sixteen of the series with renewed hop.

No matter how you slice it, episode fifteen was a rough one for Mizuno, and despite the help of Wako et al things really aren't getting much better for her, with her sister seemingly missing and the news that her estranged mother will be sticking around on the island for a few days.  It's no surprise then that she jumps on the offer of a way to allow her to escape the island - an offer which isn't technically incorrect, but one which also proves to be a trap as she falls right into the clutches of the Glittering Crux Brigade.

So, with another of the island's maiden's captured, the Glittering Crux have managed to reach the third phase - an event which also allows them to show off a Galactic Pretty Boy of their own, which seems likely to spell trouble for Takuto and Tauburn as this individual seems rather more proficient in his decidedly Tauburn-esque Cybody.  Just as defeat finally seems to be on the cards for our hero, cue a flashback to Takuto's past which reveals his motivations and the source of the mark which provides his power; a set of circumstances and memories which leads to the inevitable upgrade to Tauburn that gives Takuto the power required to easily defeat his latest foe and free Mizuno not just from her kidnappers, but some of the other baggage which troubles her.

This leaves me with an episode that I'm rather torn about - the revelations and story built around Mizuno turned out to be quite a nice twist in the tale (although they arguably weren't used to their fullest extent) and the Zero Time section this week was absolutely stunning even by this show's standards, while the Glittering Crux finally reaching their so-called Third Phase after blathering on about it for several months is as much of a relief as it is a sign of some tougher competition for Takuto.  Set against that, the whole flashback element into Takuto's past for this episode felt clumsy and bolted on, leading in to a sudden upgrade to Tauburn's powers that was boringly predictable but unavoidably so.

Thus, I don't know what to make of it all - certain elements of the series have moved in some decidedly interesting new directions while others look to be stuck in a rut.  Overall I suppose that's an improvement, but it still isn't enough to turn Star Driver into a good series at this juncture, let alone a great one.

Black Lagoon: Roberta's Blood Trail - Episode 3

After spending a couple of episodes carefully setting up its various factions in preparation for the chaos about to ensue, it's finally time for that patience to pay off as those factions (and of course Roberta herself) get sent off towards their ensuing bloodbath.

Before that though, we get to spend a little time watching Revy preparing for this all-out war just around the corner, purchasing both the required information on Roberta's whereabouts as well as hiring some old "friends" to give her group some additional and much-needed firepower.  While Rock takes a step back to see if his plan will come to fruition, we instead get to sit back and not worry about the plot too much as the show engages in some highly entertaining and bloodily violent "gun porn"... well, gun, knife and chainsaw porn I suppose to be precise, as the various factions in the hunt for Roberta either meet their target, meet one another or (more often than not) meet their maker.

All of this chaos allows us to enjoy a handful of fantastically animated and choreographed (if sometimes incredibly hard to believe) skirmishes between this story arc's various factions, before returning our focus towards Roberta herself as the episode ends, first leaving it looking as though she's finally met her match before, of course, she proves to have one last trick up her sleeve to win the day.  However, in her current mentally unhinged state it seems that nothing will be able to put a stop to her onslaught, not even the appearance of Garcia before her, which she dismisses as simply another hallucination or the like brought about to test her - a mistake with potentially devastating consequences.

Predictably, this was most certainly the best instalment of the Roberta's Blood Trail OVA so far, bringing with it all of the slick action we've come to expect from Black Lagoon complete with an even bloodier outlook than ever thanks to its uncensored Blu-Ray rather than television release.  For all of those stunning and slightly unsettling moments of action, gunplay and the like, this episode still doesn't forget that it has more in its arsenal than simply bombs and bullets, still finding time to pause for some well-scripted dialogues, between Rock and Mr. Chang perhaps most notably.  At last, here is an episode of Black Lagoon that feels like it can sit quite happily alongside the darker second TV season of the franchise in particular, bringing us a lot of what is so compelling about the show wrapped in a visceral yet brutal package.  I have little doubt it can continue down that road for its final two episodes.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

To Aru Majutsu no Index II - Episode 15

As if being scooped up by some giant ice ship as part of a fleet of the little buggers wasn't bad enough, To Aru Majutsu no Index II's previous episode ended with the reappearance of Agnese (from this series first story arc) - not the most welcome sight for Touma and Orsola, that's for sure.

However, it seems that this is a rather different Agnese from the one that (predictably) got punched in the face by Touma way back when - her defeat at the hands of the Amakusa and Touma last time around as left her branded a "heretic" and held captive as little more than a slave on this "Queen's fleet" of craft.  Well, although I say "little more" she is in fact a key to the Roman Catholic church's plans as they pertain to that fleet - knowledge that Agnese plans to use as a distraction to allow Touma and Orsola to rescue a pair of her former subordinates.  Thus, an uneasy truce is formed between these two former enemies in the name of rescuing these innocent parties.

While rescuing these two sisters proves to be simple enough courtesy of Touma's right hand and some top-notch bluffing by Orsola, things soon seem to take a turn for the worse as the ship they are on is sunk without trace by the rest of the fleet, who have clearly cottoned on to the plan.  Luckily for them the Amakusa turn up just at this moment to save the day and the lives of those involved (let's ignore the countless others who presumably died aboard the sunken ship, shall we?), but with Agnese still held by the fleet and the full truth about her role within this fleet and the spell it holds at its core, it's time to put a rescue plan into action.

As per last week's episode, the simple fact that this instalment is moving along at a reasonable pace is a breath of fresh air after the snail-like progress of the previous story arc - this current story is certainly flowing much better, although as per usual for this series it does require a certain suspension of common sense and resignation to the fact that everything will be resolved by Touma's hand more often than not before you can really enjoy it.  If you can do that however, this is looking to be a pretty passable effort so far - it's hardly blown me away, but the nautical change of scenery gives it a certain something and come the chaos at the end of this episode there seems to be enough in place to make for a pretty decent finale to the arc as long as they don't allow it to drag on for too long.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Fractale - Episode 2

Officially, the Fractale Production Committee explicitly doesn't want me to watch this anime as a non-Japanese, non-French citizen - something that leaves me tempted to simply never speak of it again and adhere to their wishes so that I can sleep soundly in the knowledge that their short-sighted lack of business sense has had its natural, debilitating effect on their product internationally.  On the other hand, that anime fan in me wants to continue to watch and discuss this series just like any other.  What's a guy to do?  I shall leave that decision in your hands via the comments on this entry.

For now though, onward to episode two, and despite the disappearance of Phryne (who seems to be missing outright, and she isn't the only thing of import to have vanished either it seems) Clain soon finds himself with a new handful to concern himself with - a decidedly energetic and equally crazy girl named Nessa.  Is she a Doppel?  This seems likely to be the case, apart from the face that Clain can physically touch her - a most un-Doppel like property.

Thus, much of the first half of this episode is spent with Nessa running amok and exploring her surroundings, causing chaos along the way until Clain has final had enough of her and leaves her with the town's security people to deal with... not a moment too soon either, as he finds himself quizzed by the shady trio (and the girl of that group's big brother) about his knowledge of Phryne.  Having free himself from their questioning, the episode takes a bit of a different tact, tapping in to Clain's loneliness and effectively casting aspersions upon a world where everyone is connected virtually while simultaneously living alone and selfishly, using Doppels as a slim veneer of human contact.  Hmm, it's almost like they're referring to the Internet and modern communications culture... anyhow, come the end of the episode Clain and Nessa are re-united, although this looks set to be just the start of their troubles and adventures.

As my synopsis probably suggests, this was very much an episode of two halves - the first was played almost purely for comedy thanks to its focus on Nessa (voiced by Kana Hanazawa being as adorable as ever), before suddenly placing its philosophical cap upon its head to ponder a world without direct, personal and physical communications.  To be honest these two halves to the episode sit together rather incongruously - I didn't dislike either portion, but they didn't "glue together" all that effectively, instead feeling more like Hiroki Azuma pillaging his conjectured otaku "database" for a while before penning a quick thesis on Internet culture as it pertains to modern youth.

Aside from that obvious disconnect, I still enjoyed the episode as a whole, and if it can succeed in blending these two currently disparate elements together then it might well be on to something - if nothing else, it still has enough class and intellect to be very much a noitaminA series, even if it's one that its production team really doesn't want me to watch.  People who make art forms then deliberately limit their viewing to a select few?  Now that would make an interesting question for Fractale to pose...

Gosick - Episode 3

After its promising premise and a reasonable opener, episode two of Gosick seemed to fritter away much of its potential by, quite frankly, making a bit of a mess of some of the core tenets that caught my eye within the series in the first place, made up for only somewhat by the fact that Victorique as a character is all kinds of awesome.

Still, with the remaining survivors aboard this remodelled version of the ship the Queen Berry starting to suspect one another and with one individual in particular pulling a gun on his shipmates things are certainly all set to get interesting - that they summarily do, with first one and then seemingly another death, before things begin to get decidedly dangerous for Kujo and Victorique in the face of an axe-wielding madman which results in a narrow escape for Kujo in particular before any danger is averted and help can be called before the ship sinks.

Once our surviving trio reaches the shore, it's time for the police to intervene, and whilst Grevil de Blois is in charge of the case it is of course Victorique that explains it all - the perpetrator, how they carried out their fiendish plot and why in a grand old story that manages to slot into World War I amongst other things.  So, our gothic lolita saves the day, but of course it's her brother who claims the plaudits - speaking of which, the episode (and this first story arc) closes with an explanation as to the particulars of Victorique's circumstances to leave us fully furnished with regard to information about her.

Compared to a very disappointing outing last week, this instalment of Gosick was certainly an improvement - it had mysteries that were actually mysterious in places, and although the eventual "villain" of the piece became apparent very early in the episode fleshing out the hows and whys was still entertaining enough, helped along once again by Victorique who remains as enjoyable a character as ever.  Renewed hope then for this series, although it certainly doesn't seem as though it's going to be as smart or cunning with its story-telling as I had hoped; perhaps it can manage to get by simply on the strength of its lead female character alone?  It's certainly a possibility judging by what we've seen so far.

Wandering Son - Episode 2

The opening episode of Wandering Son left us with quite a lot to take in, throwing us as it did right into the heart of the manga from which it was adapted much as the series itself threw all of its characters into a brand new school regardless of any baggage they were carrying along with them.

With that "in at the deep end" beginning working surprisingly effectively, episode two finds itself with the opportunity to be a little more focused, and this comes courtesy of the diminutive but straight-talking to the point of arrogance Saori Chiba.  Chiba is a former friend of both Nitori and Takatsuki, but something has clearly soured that relationship - a change which has left Saori looking increasingly isolated, which is quite the problem for a girl such as she who thinks nothing of offended people out of habit.

Between this and Chiba's staunch refusal to make up with her former friends, it seems as though there's no way forward as we glance back at what caused this entire scenario, which as expected is a love triangle involving herself and her two friends which Chiba foolishly blames on Takatsuki even though it isn't really her fault.  Eventually however, common sense wins the day, and come the end of the episode relative normality has been restored and friendships repaired - indeed, our initial group of friends seems to have grown somewhat with the addition of the out-going oddball Chi Sarashina and her rather clingy best friend.

Although I didn't really mention much in my last entry on this series, I do have to point out (especially now I've grown accustomed to its art style) just how beautiful Wandering Son is to look at, and someone this second episode looked even more fabulous than the first to make for one of the season's more visually striking shows.  Away from that, the series continues to do great work in its subtle yet still suitably dramatic take on a group of friends hitting adolescence - a time where everything anyone does is a threat to you in some way and most emotions tend to be downright confusing.  All of this is portrayed with a compelling honesty, helped along by paying attention to every character in every scene rather than leaving any of them hanging around like paintings on a wall, with this episode thinking nothing of cutting away from the mainstay of the story just to note another character's reaction and more importantly, how that is viewed by someone else.  It's these little touches and attention to detail which really brings Wandering Son into a league of its own, away from the world of overblown drama yet steered away from slice of life territory.  Never mind the visuals alone, thus far Wandering Son has simply been a beautiful piece of work outright.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica - Episode 3

From an episode of Sayaka and Madoka pondering over their potential choice of wish were they to make a contract with Kyubey and become magical girls, episode three seems to begin with obvious candidate for taking up Sayaka's choice, and perhaps the reason why she's seemed somewhat keen on the whole thing from the start.

Indeed, the question of what kind of wish to ask for weighs quite heavily over the first half of this episode, with Sayaka questioning the possibilities of whether she could wish on behalf of another while Madoka looks towards her mother as inspiration as she slowly moves towards her decision - the real item of interest here is Mami however, as Madoka's query as to what she wished for brings back a quite surprising answer; that Mami's wish was simply to stay alive after a car accident, meaning that her contract with Kyubey was effectively a last resort life or death decision.

Our two potential magical girls thoughts about what to do with their wish (and by this point it does seem a case of "when" rather than "if" they cash in on it) is interrupted as they come across a Grief Seed that's about to burst into life - a potentially dangerous occurrence that leaves Madoka to go and find Mami while Sayaka stays behind to keep an eye on it - a decision that soon sees her (alongside Kyubey) trapped within its psychedelic clutches.  Of course, Mami and Madoka turn up soon enough, as does Homura, who remains as determined as ever to stop Madoka in particular from signing a contract to become a magical girl.  With Mami finally tiring of this interference and literally leaving Homura tied up while she heads off to deal with the witch, it's her alone who take on this new thread - a decision which proves to have shocking consequences, and one which leaves us with an incredibly surprising ending.

If I still had reservations over Puella Magi Madoka Magica and where it was going with its story (and I did, to be honest), then this third episode has blown effectively all of those concerns out of the water.  The juxtaposition of characters and backdrops which initially felt jarring now seem perfectly coherent together, the action sequences in this episode were excellently realised and, at times, stunning, and the plot progression... oh, the plot progression.  Everything here has been fantastically handled as questions begin to spring up in our heads about exactly what was going on - Kyubey's initial friendliness is now seeming to appear decidedly pushy as he nudges Madoka and Sayaka towards making a contract with him, Mami's admission of her situation and her later behaviour could easily have a couple of thousand words dedicated to it alone, and Homura is as intriguing as she ever was in her own actions.  Hell, even those surreal maze-like backdrops suddenly seem like something that needs to be investigated and imbued with meaning. 

So where does that leave us?  With the most jaw-dropping episode of the winter season so far, and with Puella Magi Madoka Magica now looking like it could turn out to be one of the best anime we'll be treated to this year - and it's only January.  Let's just hope that thought doesn't come back and bite me, like some kind of surreal stretching face thing.

Hanners' Anime 'Blog is three years old today!

I can't quite believe it myself, and it certainly doesn't feel like that long, but today marks the third birthday of Hanners' Anime 'Blog!

There isn't really a lot to say beyond that, except that it's been a fun few years filled with great anime, not-so great anime and Endless Eight, which is perhaps still the defining experience of my anime 'blogging "career" thus far as simple episodic 'blogging somehow turned into a kind of group therapy for all those suffering at the time.

Anyhow, three years in I have no intention of going anywhere, and with 1,800 posts to this site's name at the time of writing I think it goes without saying that I don't intend on slowing up my posting habits at all either (even if winter 2011 is a bit of a slow season for me).

So, I hope all of you reading this will be sticking around for the next couple of thousand posts, and thanks to everyone who has ever read, commented or rolled their eyes in despair at the site - here's to an entertaining fourth year of anime 'blogging!

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Kimi ni Todoke 2nd Season - Episode 2

After all of its chocolate-based drama last episode, this week's instalment of Kimi ni Todoke 2nd Season moves us forward to April and Sawako and company's second year of high school - not that this means that the goings-on of Valentine's Day are forgotten, mind you.

First things first though, a new year means new class assignments, and of course it's a huge relief for Sawako when she finds that she remains in the same class as all of her friends... and Kazehaya, of course, albeit once again not seated as close to him as she might like.  As well as those regulars however, we also see some new faces in the class, most notably Sawako's new seating neighbour Kento Miura - the interesting, energetic and out-going individual we saw briefly last episode, and a guy who seems to have no qualms about chatting with and even toying with Sawako's hair on a whim, much to Kazehaya's astonishment.

It's arguably this interaction which fuels Kazehaya's decisions later in the episode, but before all of that we see Yano proving herself to be as perceptive as ever when it comes to other people's relationships as she notes the growing distance between Kuronuma and Kazehaya, although when it comes to the latter of those two characters she soon learns that trying to stick her nose into matters gets her nowhere (although she could arguably have done so a little more forcefully than the vague pondering we see from her here).  Still, it seems that Shouta has made a decision to rectify whatever has broken down between himself and Sawako, resulting in a meeting between the two in an otherwise empty classroom come the end of a school day.  Of course, this being Kimi ni Todoke even this interaction doesn't go smoothly, with Kazehaya's pseudo-confession of sorts leaving Sawako simply unable to respond as she over-thinks the situation as always, leaving our leading man leaving the room with arguably the wrong impression about what Sawako things of him - an encounter noted at least in part by Miura, as his influence on things doubtless looks set to increase.

As per last week's proper opener, this was another carefully considered, slowly paced outing that certainly shows no signs of wanting to rush its story, instead taking its time to pick through every emotion, every comment and every reaction to the point where it quite clearly luxuriates in them as it creates its little bed of romance and drama.  To be quite honest, that's fine by me - yes, it's frustrating watching two people who like one another not say a word about it week after week, but isn't that exactly the point, and more importantly doesn't that simply mirror a lot of disastrous teenage crushes of our own?  Somehow something rather enjoyable to watch is borne from that frustration, as you realise it only annoys you so much because you genuinely like the characters and want them to get together, and when that's smoothed out by some nicely realised slice of life tales of friendship and everyday school life, it seems like Kimi ni Todoke is going to be one of my highlights of the coming weeks.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Bakuman - Episode 15

Last week's episode of Bakuman finally saw our two major rivals come face to face thanks to an impromptu visit to the Jack offices from Eiji Nizuma, who sticks around to give some more rather "unique" advice to our pair of protagonists at the start of episode fifteen.

With Akito and Moritaka both determined to go down the path of creating mainstream manga to achieve their dream as artists quicker, Hattori finally relents on his position that this isn't the best way forward for them by at least outlining the basics of what they need to achieve and strive for in a battle manga.  It's at this point that Nizuma interjects with his own thoughts, namely that he basically makes up all of his series as he goes along without so much as a name to outline what he's doing - instead, he lets his characters "come alive" in his head and effectively leaves them to do their own thing.  These words seem to do a surprisingly good job of firing up Mashiro, as the various parties go their own separate ways.

This leaves much of the rest of this week's episode in the hands of Azuki, as she continues to struggle and find herself rejected at auditions for voice acting parts.  Still, despite this she keeps on trying, despite reservations about her talents that she relays to Miyoshi when the latter visits to stay over for a night.  Of course, hard work and determination is the order of the day here, as Azuki realises when she hears Miyoshi talking about Akito and Moritaka's struggles, and it's this hard work that finally lands her a small yet significant debut voice acting role.

The focus on Azuki certainly prevented this from being one of those episode of Bakuman that manages to grab your attention and put you through the rinser - to be honest, it's hard to imagine Miho becoming a voice actress at all given her character, while her own specific struggles aren't really fleshed out enough to make them as interesting or nerve-racking as those of our main protagonists.  Still, this was a decent enough episode that keeps things ticking over for another instalment and I found watching it pleasant enough, so I can't really slag it off for focusing too much on Azuki on this particular occasion.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Dragon Crisis! - Episode 2

With a helicopter hovering outside Ryuji's apartment and some kind of mad scientist appearing keen on snatching Rose, we were looking all set for a rip-roaring start to the second episode of Dragon Crisis...

...well, so much for that idea then, as by the time this instalment begins Ryuuji, Rose and Eriko are happily (well, semi-happily) sat on said helicopter on the way to have Rose poked and prodded at in the name of science, rare find that she is - a prospect that takes us to some kind of research establishment while also letting us know that Ryuuji is apparently a "level ten Breaker" - whatever the Hell that means.  It's good to know that he's useful for something though I suppose.

With all of this examination of Rose coupled with information about what is known regarding dragons to date, we finally come to a conclusion (albeit an entirely expected one) about just why Rose is so attached to Ryuuji, while the shadow of the latter's parents casts a shadow over our protagonists emotional state.  Still, all of this pales into insignificance as it comes to light that there are other, far more powerful parties with an interest in Rose - namely, one black dragon named Onyx who storms the heavily secured complex by force in order to claim his prize.  Is Ryuuji really going to let him get away with that?  Probably, judging by what we've seen of him so far.

There's no way I can really gloss over this, so I'm going to have to put it straight - this episode was dull.  It's almost a pain to try and recall what happened during the course of the episode, so uninteresting did it prove to be.  Yes, it looks pretty from time to time (with most of the animation budget seemingly blown on Rose alone) but that really isn't enough to help on an utterly generic story that holds nothing of interest that I can see whatsoever, leaving it almost bereft of any genuine emotion or drive.  I'll give it another episode to see if it turns things around, but I fear this one is headed for the scrapheap that is my "dropped" anime list.

Level E - Episode 2

With its extra-terrestrial credentials well and truly established, Level E's opener ended with a glimpse of the true form of the alien being around which it centres.  Or perhaps not, as the case may be.

In fact, this hideous alien is little more than the pet of our blonde-haired friend, who still frankly doesn't have a clue about who or what he is.  What we do know however is that it isn't just humans searching for him any more, with some of his own race reaching the planet's surface to join the hunt for what is increasingly looking like a rather important person... or non-person, I suppose I should say.

The next thing we know, the ever-astute next door neighbour Miho Edogawa joins Yukitaka in helping to shelter our crash-landed extra-terrestrial - not a bad individual to have "on your team" given her father's position and her reliable if rather oddball nature when it comes to all things alien.  Then again, even her knowledge proves to be little help when said alien decides to sneak out and go for a shopping spree in town on his own - a decision that does far more than simply rack up a big credit card bill.  By the time this prince's handlers (because yes, he is royalty after all) catch up on him it appears that we have a major galactic incident on our hands, and one which only looks likely to get worse by the time we reach next week's episode.

All I can really say about Level E at this point in time is that it's having a riot with its premise - as per the first episode, the dynamic between the major characters works wonderfully, even more so now that Miho is added to that roster, while the way this episode playfully and casually throws in a number of alien races disguised as humans asks an easy frisson to proceedings with nary an apologetic shrug of its shoulders that none of it really makes any sense.  Put simply, this is practically an anime equivalent of Men in Black - a comparison that really isn't a bad thing at all given the fun factor available to such a concept.  It's the word "fun" that really sums up this outing - it won't astound you or break new ground, yet its really quite enjoyable to just kick back and watch.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Star Driver - Episode 15

What's this?  An episode of Star Driver that doesn't follow the exact same pattern of nearly every other episode that came before it almost to the second?  Stop the presses!

Unsurprisingly after last week's episode and the way it moved things forward, this instalment of Star Driver focuses largely (although not entirely exclusively) upon Marino and Mizuno, with the latter having a rough time that tests even her exuberant nature to breaking point.  As if over-hearing a conversation between Takuto, Sugata and Wako where the two boys bet upon Wako's engagement to Sugata as part of their training (an exchange which breaks poor Mizuno's little heart), there's also the issue of the two sisters errant mother returning out of the blue - a rather unwelcome occurrence given how she abandoned them in the first place.

With these troubles (and a surprising outburst by Mizuno at Marino) piling up, our western maiden finally decides that she's had enough and packs up to leave the island... only to enter some kind of Endless Eight-esque state where every time she leaves she simply wakes up and has to start all over again - a situation which leaves her a nervous and bawling wreck in a ferry terminal car park after numerous iterations (again, much like most viewers of Endless Eight after a few episodes).  Up steps Wako to the rescue, as she guesses Mizuno's real identity and her big secret - the trouble is, she certainly isn't the only one either...

After moaning about it for so many weeks, simply breaking out of Star Driver's cycle of drama -> Zero Time -> Takuto wins feels like a breath of fresh air which left me watching the clock and thinking "however are they going to fit a pointless Cybody battle into this episode?".  Well, thankfully they didn't, instead giving the rest of the plot some much-needed room to breath - something it did reasonably proficiently with plenty of angst and drama to lean on whilst also shifting the positions of a few key pieces on the show's chess board, most notably Sugata and our "mysterious" (or not so mysterious) painter aside from Mizuno herself.  This alone wasn't enough to make Star Driver suddenly seem like a far more compelling series, but following on from last week's more focused offering the signs of improvement are certainly there to be seen.  It has a way to go, but at last there's light at the end of the tunnel of mediocrity from which this show desperately needs to escape over the coming weeks.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

To Aru Majutsu no Index II - Episode 14

After finally, finally putting its Croce Di Pietro arc to bed last week (and let's just pretend that whole firework thing never happened), Touma's luck when it comes to getting entangled in misfortune doesn't seem to show any signs of changing as he briefly recounts his latest unlucky entanglements.  Will this guy's luck ever change?  Yes, it will as it happens, as the very next minute he finds himself winning the first prize in a lottery - a week-long trip to Northern Italy, no less.  Probably not the best holiday destination for someone hated by the Roman Catholic church but hey, a holiday's a holiday, right?

So, off trots Touma (with Index in tow of course, this is a trip for two after all) to Choggia in Italy, and after the lure of food separates the pair of them who else should show up but Orsola?  It turns out that her transfer to the Anglican church hasn't gone as smoothly as anticipated, hence her still being in Italy but currently preparing to complete her move with the help of the Amakusa church.  This leaves us with time for a bit of mooching about, and of course a big fat dose of nudity/fan service as Touma's misfortune crops up again, before the episode finally steps things up a gear with the introduction of an assassination attempt on Orsola, before the appearance of first one massive, glass galleon and eventually a whole fleet of the things.  With more old foes popping up as we reach its climax, we're all set for a story arc that might actually not involve just running around for six episodes.  We live in hope...

Certainly, it's too late to get any real grasp on this particular story arc at this juncture - most of this episode was simply fluff as it worked to get Touma to Italy and all of its pieces into position to kick things off properly.  In light of its poor last major storyline I have to confess that my tolerance for such things has diminished quite considerably, but I suppose now is the time to take a deep breath, cross my fingers and pray that this time around To Aru Majutsu no Index II can actually deliver rather than bringing us to the brink of something exciting and then frittering it all away.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Fractale - Episode 1

Aside from Madoka Magica (arguably), Fractale is surely the winter season's most talked about series prior to its airing, with the usual excitement reserved for noitaminA scheduled shows topped with what sounded like an intriguing concept worked on by some top-notch (and in some cases decidedly unexpected) staff.

Fractale certainly wastes little time in introducing us to its 22nd century world, and a land where seeing and communicating with other real people is pretty much a thing of the past.  No, this isn't thanks to Twitter, but rather via the ability for people to use "Dopplers"; what effectively appear to be AI replicas of real people, given some kind of bizarre avatar and a capability to appear, disappear and interact with their surrounding environment at will.  This is all good and well, and has various uses from parenting through to trading illegal goods and so on, with the former proving the case when it comes to our protagonist Clain, a young boy who is bored yet somewhat satisfied with his lot in this world where everyone is provided with enough to get by, and a lad who has a fascination with old technology and the like.

This simple, effortless life looks set to be disrupted however, as Clain's peace is disturbed by the appearance of a girl flying some kind of weird contraption whilst being pursued by another trio of characters in an equally odd flying machine.  Eventually, the girl in question leaps from her craft to evade her pursuers, and it's at this point that Clain steps in to rescue her and help her to tend to her wounds.  From here, we learn that the girl's name is Phryne, although we really learn little else about this mysterious lass as she has to evade her would-be captors once again, before leaving Clain with an interesting gift which looks set to take up the focus within episode two most likely.

Let's get this initial comment on Fractale's opener out of the way immediately: "Oooh, it looks a bit Ghibli-esque, doesn't it?".  Although you've probably heard this a thousand times already, it does stand up as a valid comment - the shows setting has just the kind of feeling you might expect from a Miyazaki-directed piece, its general "vibe" certainly feels like something that could come from that studio, and let's face it Phryne's introduction could have been lifted straight out of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.  Now we've got that out of the open, perhaps we can discuss Fractale on its own terms, and judging by this first episode is certainly seems well and truly deserving of such a treatment.  Although some of its minor elements seem frivolous (why not make Dopplers look like they're real-life counterparts if you have so much technology at hand?), these never detract from the almost indescribable feeling that this is something special.  Despite its influences this feels fresh, by TV anime terms at least, while this episode and its characters never ceases to be entertaining even though we're far from clued in on what the show is building up to at this point in time.

It's never a good idea to judge an entire series on its first episode, so I'm not going to risk looking foolish by calling this out as the best show of the winter 2011 season by some distance, but it certainly has more than enough in its locker to force these words from my lips (or rather, from my keyboard) in a couple of months time.

Gosick - Episode 2

Thanks to Victorique's brilliant mind, Kujo's determination for justice and a few twists and turns, this second episode of Gosick sees our dynamic duo on-board a ship using an invitation meant for someone else entirely - an invitation that quickly looks like a ticket to despair.

After eating a meal in the dining room only to find that all of the food has been drugged, Kujo and Victorique awaken to find themselves locked in a room with the other diners... although, as Victorique quickly points out, the actual number of people shut in the room numbers all of the diners plus one other, who must surely be behind whatever is going on.  The next thing we know there are black outs leading to menacing notes written on a wall, booby traps at every turn, and what seem to be some sinister and ghostly goings-on as it becomes clear that our guests appear to have set sail on some kind of replica of a ship known as the Queen Berry - a ship whose previous "guests" almost all died in a horrific tale which ended up with the vessel sinking to the bottom of the ocean.

Of course, Victorique being who she is it doesn't take long for her to debunk most of the more ghostly happenings aboard the ship, but as the vessel begins to flood and sink and with booby traps all around, Kujo is also gainfully employed when it comes to protecting his new companion - something which becomes an increasingly tall order as one of their fellow guests looks set to mentally breakdown as the screw is turned upon those remaining on board.

If there's one thing to be said about this instalment of Gosick, it's that Victorique (perhaps inevitably) steals the show utterly - that mocking laugh alone is worth the price of entry, while her dynamic with Kujo is easily the highlight here as they verbally spar and bounce off one another throughout the episode.  Unfortunately, that's the only aspect of this particular episode and the story it sets out that really shines - I had high hopes for it as it began to set up its mysterious circumstances, before it contrived to create a set of "weird" happenings that could be explained instantly even by a simpleton like myself, leaving Victorique's revelations about them to be uninspiring at best.  In fairness, with the story not yet over I don't want to write it off entirely, as there could be some bigger twists and turns just around the corner next episode (before we even mention this week's cliffhanger), but at the same time I can't hide my disappointment in the fact that the mysteries we were served up with here were weak sauce; as watery as the lower levels of this episode's nice boat, to tell the truth.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica - Episode 2

After introducing us to its major players, themes and a dash of the surreal, Puella Magi Madoka Magica did everything required of itself to set the scene so that we can get down to business in this second episode.  Or can we?

After rescuing Kyubey and meeting magical girl (and senior in their school) Mami Tomoe, Madoka and Sayaka are given something of an initiation into what it is to be a magical girl in this second instalment.  For starters, this means explaining the contract that they will need to undertake with Kyubey if they wish to take on a magical girl role - put short, they have to be willing to risk their lives to track down and destroy so-called witches, but in return they can have any wish of their choice granted by Kyubey and his magic.

Obviously this isn't all that easy a decision to make given the risks involved, and this decision-making process also ties in to what I imagine may be one of the key points of the series - both Madoka and Sayaka are fortunate girls who don't really seem to want to anything, having normal and relatively well-off families with decent homes and backgrounds.  So, what would convince them to risk their lives?  Besides which, why does "rival" magical girl Homura want to stop them?  Simply to remove the competition as Mami suggests, or for more benevolent reasons?

Regardless, Mami does her bit to show her two juniors what the life of a magical girl is all about by inviting them along as she tracks down and takes care of a nearby witch - cue more surreal imagery as our trio enters the witches labyrinthine domain to track down and dispense with their target with an aplomb from Mami that clearly leaves an impression on the two wannabe magical girls.  Is it enough to convince them to join Mami's ranks though?  I think it's safe to say "yes", unless this is going to turn out to be a decidedly short series.

Although the fact that we know Madoka is going to become a magical girl eventually, this second episode thankfully doesn't feel irrelevant as it takes its time introducing us to everything that we need to know, but without ever allowing its pace to get too glacial by breaking it up with some important thoughts about Madoka and Sayaka's status, questions about Homuras intentions, or just some good old-fashioned slice of life school shenanigans.  This leaves the overall balance of the episode feeling just about right as we enter "the crazy bit" of the episode, which is pretty compelling but still leaves me with concerns that SHAFT just aren't that great at doing action sequences - in short, I wasn't as blown away by Mami's fight with the witch as I felt I perhaps should have been, and even those surreal visuals don't entirely convince me, unique though they are.

Still, overall Puella Magi Madoka Magica has kept up its solid start - it feels confident in its delivery and sure-footed in its pacing and story, and I hope that confidence it would be justified.  It would be terrible is this show turned into some kind of magical girl equivalent of Star Driver, with repetitive episode layouts building up to ultimately disappointing battles each week, but with so much still left unsaid and plenty seemingly bubbling under the surface, I'm very much hopeful that what we're looking at here is something far grander and more interesting.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Wandering Son - Episode 1

Starting a new school is a pretty big deal at the best of times... however, when you're starting a new school and you're the first episode of a noitaminA timeslot series, you're pretty much guaranteed a pretty hefty slice of thought-provoking drama to chew on.

Certainly, Wandering Son wastes no time in dumping us slap-bang into the middle of its ensemble of characters as they begin their middle school life with an initial focus upon Nitori, a boy who complains of the discomfort of his new uniform for reasons that soon become clear.  With a class introductory session that's missing said classes new teacher entirely (you can't get the staff these days), the normally formal process of introducing yourself to your new classmates soon becomes corrupted by rumours Nitori dating a girl named Yoshino Takatsuki, which of course causes quite a commotion.

Of course, it's Nitori and Takatsuki who are the two main players in this series as this opening episode sets up the relationship for the viewer as well as what makes this show unique - the fact that the former wants to dress as a girl while the latter would far rather look like a boy.  They aren't the only ones judging by this opening either, although with all of that established it's Nitori who we really follow as we see him supported by his friends, holding an odd sort of relationship with his sister, and of course mulling over his friendship with Takatsuki.

Truth be told, I'm struggling to know what to say about this first episode of Wandering Son simply because I feel like I haven't processed it in head yet.  Given the way the series jumps into its story and subject matter there's a lot to take in and plenty of complex inter-relationships to ponder, and given the subtle nature in which much of this is presented it requires some genuine thought as opposed to the series opting for flashing neon lights which tell you what you should be thinking or feeling.

The good news is that it's that under-stated, confident and subtle air to the series that makes it feel so compelling here - this is a series that doesn't feel the need to spell things out for us, and this bodes well for a story which I suspect will generate plenty of unique takes and opinions amongst those who watch it.  I'm going to refrain from any such opinions at this early stage about the content of the series for the reason I expressed at the start of the last paragraph, but there's certainly an equal and slightly odd beauty about the show's animation style - at times it looks gorgeous, while its aesthetic is a clear attempt to keep the feel of the manga intact with generally good results.. although yes, everyone does have very shiny hair.

Overall then, I'm excited for Wandering Son - not in a "wow, that cliffhanger means that next week can't come soon enough" kind of way, but in the sense that there's a huge amount of potential within this series in terms of drama and exploration of gender, relationships and so on,while the show also looks quite ready to mix itself in with the odd slither of humour to good effect too.  Oh, and I'm a sucker for Clair de Lune as well, which always helps I suppose.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Kimi ni Todoke 2nd Season - Episode 1

After what I suppose you could call a false start last week, Kimi ni Todokefinally kicks off its second season properly - and it's Valentine's Day too!  You can probably see where this one is headed without any further explanation...

...except of course I'm basically here to provide exactly that kind of unneeded explanation.  Before getting into the meat (or rather, the chocolate) of this big day, we get a brief review of what's changed since the last season of the series ended - namely a new term and school, and another set of seating plan changes that has seen Sawako make some more casual friends while also making things a little tougher when it comes to spending any time with Kazehaya as they find themselves separated.

Still, Valentine's Day is a great opportunity to close any rifts that have appeared, right?  If only these things were so easy - despite even subconsciously loading her hand-made chocolates for Kazehaya with more goodies than those for her friends and the like, or perhaps you could say because of this very fact, Sawako spends the entire episode struggling with her nerves and emotions in the hope of overcoming them and giving him the gift of sweet stuff that he surely deserves.  The longer the day stretches on, the tougher her task becomes, but as the school day ends and Kazehaya gets held up in other things, it seems that an empty corridor finally presents the perfect opportunity for a romantic chocolate-giving moment.  At least, it does until Kurumi shows up, beats Sawako to the punch, and then lands her with some verbal food for thought with a topping of bitchiness into the bargain.  So, Sawako's mission has failed, and my heart has been rent asunder only one episode into this series.  Damn you, Production I.G!

Seriously, here I was expecting a sweet and cheerful opener to the series to fulfil my "fluffy mental cushion of love" quota for the week, yet instead Sawako's long, protracted internal monologues only led me down a road of loneliness and despair.  In truth, I'm not really complaining here - yes, some will hate the glacial pacing of a series that has an entire episode devoted to handing over some diabetes-inducing confectionery (and imagine if Kazehaya suffers from a nut allergy? Ye gads), but I largely lapped up the drama, the emotion, and the slight tinge of nostalgia that comes from those memories of teenage moments where you can't quite pluck up the courage to talk to the girl you really, really like.  Of course, these elements were offset by some nice touches of humour which all worked well, while the actual production of the episode was gorgeous - again, some will hate the frequent shifts to super-deformed character representations, but some of the shots and the "cold" lighting in places fit perfectly not just with the winter aesthetic, but also as a barometer of Sawako's own feelings.  Yes, I'm glad Kimi ni Todoke is back, and very much so; now, if you'll excuse me I think there are some pieces of my poor, shattered heart around here some place...

Monday, 10 January 2011

Dragon Crisis! - Episode 1

It's looking just like another normal day for Ryuji as episode one of Dragon Crisis begins - aside from a slightly weird dream it's just a case of getting up to his empty house, going to school, and watching the seconds tick by at a glacial pace during the seemingly interminable wait to go home again.

Rather, that seems to be the plan until a woman named Eriko Nanao shows up and drags him off to help her with an errand.  It seems that Eriko and Ryuji already know one another, largely on account of the former's obsession with attempting to find so-called Lost Preciouses (there's no proper plural for the word "precious", cut me some slack here).  Indeed, it's just such a job that Eriko has nabbed Ryuji to help with on this occasion, as she effectively looks to steal what she refers to as an S-class (cue the Kuragehime jokes) Lost Precious.

While stealing this item seems surprisingly easy, getting away is a more difficult task once the victims of this theft come to their senses and start producing guns.  In the ensuing chaotic car chase, the package containing this Lost Precious is inadvertently opened, to reveal a beautiful, mystical girl with long, blonde hair named C.C.  Oops, wrong anime... in fact, this girl has no name, but she does serve as a pretty hand flame-thrower to assist in Eriko's escape.

Of course, this is no human flame-thrower, but rather the dragon of the show's title - a dragon girl who seems to recognise Ryuji and know his name to boot, meaning that she attaches herself almost immovably to him from the moment they first meet.  This is naturally going to be a pretty big problem for any school kid, but that's only the start of it as the "proper" owners of "Rose" (as she comes to be known) come to retrieve their precious cargo...

Although I did thoroughly enjoy this episode's car chase scene (which was nothing hugely original, but it was pretty nicely done and it seems like a while since I've seen a half-decent one in an anime series), Dragon Crisis' opener otherwise felt like a series that is ticking off the boxes required to appease the fans from the very off.  With some harem elements building up already, and the shy girl and monosyllabic girl already checked and confirmed on the list, I don't hold out much hope for this breaking the mould as it continues.  To be honest, I don't really care if it doesn't break the mould - this was my "guilty pleasure" pick for this season (well, more of a "what the Hell, there isn't really anything much else that tickles my fancy airing" pick), so as long as it entertains then I don't mind if it does so with a dose of fan service and a line in daft plots.  Thus far though, it's only barely entertained me, so it's going to need to up its game from even this point if it wants to hold my attention.