Round 2: Sekai Seifuku vs. Knights of Sidonia, Barakamon vs. The World is Still Beautiful

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Sekai Seifuku – Episode 3

A handful of blogs have been including this series in their Top 10 lists for 2014, and before watching this episode I was greatly confused as to why. But after witnessing Kate’s hatred of secondhand smoke manifest into the most violent anti-smoking campaign in history, I finally understand what people appreciate about Sekai Seifuku, at least in part. This is a show that is so committed to its ridiculous premise that it doesn’t even bother winking at the audience. Sabagebu has an ironic narrator, Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun is structured as a farce, and Hoozuki no Reitetsu employs traditional setup/punchline delivery, but Sekai Seifuku is a straightforward tale of a little girl who wants to conquer the world and reshape it in her image. And if you think that’s funny, you’d better not laugh, because if you do she’ll produce a giant magical hand from her pink stuffed animal and crush you with it.

Of course, a comedy can’t succeed without humor, and this was the first episode out of three that managed to locate my funny bone. The ease with which Kate was able to turn all of West Udogawa against its smoking population had me chuckling, but when it was revealed that she couldn’t control the smokers with her ultimate weapon because it only works on those who have human souls, I finally started to laugh in earnest. The entire plot had been in service of that one joke, and it stuck the landing magnificently. That our main character has finally become a full-fledged member of Zvezda (Kate’s evil organization bent on world domination) also works in the show’s favor, since his bland personality stuck out like a sore thumb during the first couple episodes. There were great jokes interspersed throughout the whole episode, like the crowd member who speculated that smokers must come from another planet, or the bucket of water that magically emptied itself on Yusa’s head whenever he lit a cigarette. I wouldn’t call myself a fan of Sekai Seifuku after one good episode, but I certainly feel justified in having decided to watch it in the first place.

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Knights of Sidonia – Episode 3

Once again, we have a pretty good episode of a show I wasn’t too fond of coming into the round. Knights of Sidonia’s preoccupation with girls in their underwear was abandoned this week in favor of some honest character work. There’s a gigantic tentacle monster called a Gauna on its way to Sidonia, so the show introduces a squad of four elite pilots tasked with intercepting and destroying the alien threat. In just fifteen minutes, these pilots go from same-faced nobodies with names I couldn’t remember to same-faced human beings whose deaths were, if not affecting, at least noteworthy. Akai is friendly, talented, and bears no prejudice against main character Nagate for his inability to photosynthesize. He’s a simple guy who claims to be more afraid of his girlfriend’s father than of a gigantic space monster aiming to destroy the last remnants of human civilization. Of course, all of his likable qualities make him the first to die in battle, which prompts his girlfriend, also a member of the subjugation squad, to go charging in and get killed herself. The other two are eventually overwhelmed as well, and the result of this total annihilation is our hatred of the Gauna, and thus our continued interest in the story. It was about time Knights of Sidonia whipped up a reason for us to care about any part of this weirdly animated, badly soundtracked space epic.

The Verdict: This is the end of the road for Knights of Sidonia, which has been merely competent in execution despite its highly detailed setting. The result would be different if I were judging these two series based on their overall potential, but Sekai Seifuku produced a much better episode this week.


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Barakamon – Episode 3

It’s still hard for me to believe how much better Barakamon’s first episode was than its second and now third. The premiere had it all: the physical comedy was sharper, Handa’s struggle felt more real, and the resolution seemed to be more effortlessly heartwarming. This week did come closer to achieving that delicate balance than the last, however, so that’s progress. In fact, Naru’s seinen manga face from the opening scene is arguably the funniest moment the show has produced so far. There were a couple language gags that I was able to follow thanks only to the translator’s notes included with my subtitles, but even if they hadn’t been there, the cute sound effects and facial expressions would have left me smiling – this is a show that’s been packed to the brim with charm. The biggest gripe I had with this episode was the fujoshi segment, which I assume was some sort of meta-commentary on the show’s audience. It didn’t gel with the rest of the story, and I wonder if that time could have been used to show us a little more of Handa’s artistic process. When the reveal came that he was super gloomy because he’d gotten second place at a calligraphy competition, that felt more like a narrative device than anything else, but if we’d been given a whiff of it beforehand it might have seemed more organic.

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The World Is Still Beautiful – Episode 3

This was probably the most boring episode of the tournament thus far, in large part because its structure was nearly identical to last week’s. I spent the first half of this grueling twenty minutes watching Nike and Livius argue and make anime faces at each other, same as last time. They reached a tentative understanding around the halfway point, same as last time. Livius then banished her from his kingly presence, same as last time (although it was for a different reason), but she returned to summon the rain by singing the same dreadful song as last time, after having sworn up and down that it was a sacred ritual and she wouldn’t do it, exactly like she did last time. My big hope for this episode was that some conflict or story would start to run alongside the romance, but that didn’t happen. Instead there was a party, the Sun King asked his mail order bride to entertain the people by making it rain, she refused, they fought, made up, and she made it rain. That kind of lame, ad nauseum plotting is pretty bad on its own, but when you factor in unremarkable art, dollar store animation, strawman villains of the week who exist just to get blown away by the main character’s beauty in the third act, ridiculous string flourishes indicating heroic behavior when Livius simply sticks up for his wife, and all the silly dialogue about “reaching out to his heart,” you end up with something truly horrendous.

The Verdict: The World Is Still Dropped.


NEXT UP: Tokyo ESP vs. Non Non Biyori, Hitsugi no Chaika vs. Ao Haru Ride

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Round 1: Barakamon vs. Hozuki no Reitetsu, Noragami vs. The World Is Still Beautiful

Blog updates on consecutive days? It’s an early Christmas miracle! My sudden burst of productivity comes from a slower real life work schedule and a desire to double eliminate the shows I’m not too fond of, so I can write strictly about the shows I like. In an effort to get through this tournament before the start of the Winter 2015 season, my reviews will be shorter in the future, though I might have a hard time resisting the urge to write essays about frontrunners Mushishi and Ping Pong. No projections about when I’ll be finished with this round or the next, as those have been wildly optimistic in the past, but I hope to cut things down to just 16 series soon enough.


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 Barakamon – Episode 2

Just one week has passed since calligraphy practitioner and main character Handa moved to his new island home, but this episode couldn’t have been more different from the last. The voicework that made Naru sparkle with personality in the premiere grated on my nerves this week, and the sense of humor that convinced me to rank the show so highly at first was a frantic, uncoordinated mess this time around. Barakamon’s first offering was a wonderful self-contained story, with Handa’s spontaneous, expressive piece providing a strong ending by contrasting with his usual textbook style. We knew, based on the focus given to the relationship between Handa and Naru, that he was able to make that breakthrough because of her influence.

Things were a little more scattered this time. Hiroshi, the village chief’s son, gets a small plot involving the classic anime theme “hard work vs. talent,” but it feels out of place next to Handa’s hospital trip and all the hijinks perpetrated by Naru and her high school friends. Naru is all over this episode, but only serves as a Tasmanian devil, whirling around the screen and making noise without rhyme or reason. There’s no moment of understanding or tenderness between herself and Handa this time, and while hitting that same emotional beat week after week might get boring, it would also be better than what we got with this episode. I was really hoping for more from this series.

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Hozuki no Reitetsu – Episode 2

“Wearing underwear is what morale is all about, right? That’s why I call underwear ‘morale.'” This quote, taken from the first half of this week’s Hozuki no Reitetsu, underlines one of my major problems with this series: the language barrier seems insurmountable. Even if the word choice were perfect on Crunchyroll’s part, something is clearly lost in translation there. I know we’re past the age of too many translator’s notes in fansubs, but this is one series that could benefit from that kind of treatment.

On the whole, though, the humor on display here was less impenetrable than last week. The second half of this episode even featured Satan himself, described as “The King of European Hell.” If that isn’t accessible for a western audience, what is? Satan has chosen to pay a visit to Japanese hell in order to perform a little reconnaissance, in the hopes of one day conquering and claiming another slice of the underworld for himself. He’s met with resistance by Hozuki, who Satan assumes is powerful because he’s slender and speaks formally, like the main characters in JRPGs. Hozuki’s deadpan personality and disrespect for his boss begin to frighten Satan as their tour progresses, until the devil’s curiosity compels him to sneak into Hozuki’s room, where he spots a recipe that calls for Satan to be broiled. Fearing for his life, the Lord of Darkness flees while screaming, “Oh my God!” in perfect English. This was easily the funniest moment of the series thus far, and sorely needed after a rough first outing.

The Verdict: It didn’t produce an all-time classic or anything, but my disappointment with its opponent was so great that Hozuki no Reitetsu gets the nod for finally making me laugh in earnest.


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Noragami – Episode 2

Focusing on supernatural newbie Hiyori was a smart move for this show, as her desire to learn more about her condition prompted the same curiosity in me. Taking a bath and staying awake in class can pose a challenge when your soul tends to leave your body at random, after all. The only person who can help her is Yato, the god of war, but despite paying his five yen fee and asking to be returned to normal, he’s a total flake. Our connection with Hiyori makes Yato a frustrating character at first, but his procrastination becomes more tolerable when we learn that he’s currently weaponless and therefore powerless. He needs to find a Regalia, a human spirit that can function as a weapon when summoned, and he does near the end of this episode.

Those last few minutes are the most interesting, as Yato performs a ritual that binds this tiny spirit as either his partner or his servant, depending on how you look at it. Yato declares that the spirit has nowhere else to go, and names him Yukine with no regard for what he might have been called before. But he also appears to experience all the memories and emotions of Yukine’s past life immediately after the ceremony’s completion, which could make their relationship a sympathetic one. How that dynamic plays out will probably make a big impact on my enjoyment of the show going forward.

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The World Is Still Beautiful – Episode 2

After the reveal that the Sun King was a young boy, I was afraid that he’d be bratty, selfish, and even abusive toward his new bride. And those fears turned out to be justified: he mocks her appearance, demands that she use her magic to make it rain because he’s grown bored of constant sunshine, and when she doesn’t cooperate, he throws her in prison and refuses to feed her until she agrees to become his plaything. But hey, he wears glasses to do his kingly business, which is soooo kawaii, so I guess all is forgiven?

Nike breaks out of her cell, and even ends up saving the king’s life by taking an arrow meant to assassinate him. She’s sent back her native Rain Country shortly afterward, which the king’s manservant Neil assures her is out of concern for her safety. But just as the castle is about to disappear over the horizon, they see smoke billowing from its third story and turn around. It’s another attempt on the king’s life, this time via arson, but Pokemon has taught us well that water beats fire, so Nike sings a terribly intrusive ballad and summons a stormcloud that somehow puts out the fire inside the castle. Day saved.

To be fair, shoujo fantasy isn’t my favorite genre. This one is competently written and directed, but competence isn’t the same as purpose. Nike and Livius (the Sun King) both have a fair amount of personality, but so far the show’s only plot points have been “princess and king have arranged marriage” and “princess saves king’s life.” There have been several shadowy scenes so far where nobles plot to send Nike home or strip Livius of his title, but that hardly qualifies as storytelling. The World Is Still Beautiful needs to decide what it’s about, and sooner rather than later.

The Verdict: After two episodes, Noragami is the show with the stronger direction. Barakamon will make another attempt on Soredemo’s life next week in the losers bracket.


NEXT UP: The Eccentric Family vs. Tokyo ESP, Non Non Biyori vs. Rozen Maiden

First Impressions: One Week Friends, Gatchaman Crowds, Barakamon, Rozen Maiden

The seeding process is underway! Over the next few days, I’ll be watching the first episode of all 32 shows and determining their starting bracket positions based on how much potential I see in each. Obviously, I won’t be able to properly rank the episodes until I’ve seen each one, but I’ll provide brief impressions of each premiere, plus an estimate for how high or low its seeding will be. I’ll be watching these episodes in random order to prevent seasonal bias or anything like that. Let’s get started with…

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 One Week Friends

I was pleasantly surprised by this episode. The narrator speaking about the events of the series from the future actually makes sense, given the show’s day-of-the-week format and Fujimiya’s condition. Once the nature of her memory loss became clear, Hase’s requests for friendship and Fujimiya’s constant rejections became charming, rather than annoying. Whether their relationship can possibly develop beyond that of two classmates will be the big hook going forward. The constant blushing, stray hairs, and same-y character designs were all minor blemishes on a watercolor art style that does this series a lot of favors.

Seeding estimate: Between 8 and 12

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Gatchaman Crowds

This is basically Men in Black: The Anime, but with transformation sequences. The books that cause amnesia in Gatchaman Crowds are just neuralyzers with extra functionality, the mission to protect humanity from alien threats is the same, both revolve around a secret organization with an underground base, etc. The biggest difference is that Men in Black doesn’t feature a grating lead character who seems to derive sexual pleasure from collecting notebooks, or a panda who coughs like Professor Umbridge from Harry Potter. The OP oozes style, but it hasn’t carried over into the show as of the first episode, with two uninspired action sequences so far. Still, the art is distinctive, and I love superhero stuff, so I’m looking forward to the next episode.

Seeding estimate: Bottom 25%

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Barakamon

Young punk from the city moves to the countryside, meets the locals, discovers the simple pleasures of small town life, and learns something about himself in the process. It doesn’t get much more trope-tastic than Barakamon, but as with One Week Friends, it’s elevated by its execution. The two things that struck me most about this show were its playful sense of humor and the fantastic performance by Naru’s voice actor. I don’t know if it’s standard practice in Japan to use age-appropriate seiyuu for child characters, but I greatly appreciated the decision all the same. Handa’s backstory was as mediocre as his calligraphy, but this series will be defined less by his character and more how he interacts with Naru and the rest of the island oddballs.

Seeding estimate: On par with One Week Friends

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Rozen Maiden (2013)

This episode is a bit of a special case, as it attempts to summarize the entire 2004 Rozen Maiden series, and I can’t say it was entirely successful. The time jumps, dream worlds, and rapid-fire introduction of all the characters left me without any room to breathe or make sense of what was happening on my screen. Visually, however, the series is beautiful and inventive, and the premise of the Alice Game – which is essentially a seven-way death match between dolls – still has my interest. Based on the cliffhanger at the end of the episode, Jun is traveling into either the future or an alternate dimension next week, which could provide this show with the clean slate it needs to go deep in this tournament.

Seeding estimate: Between 20 and 24


NEXT UP: Hozuki no Reitetsu, Watamote, Gingitsune, Noragami