Round 2: Kyousougiga vs. Gatchaman Crowds, Gingitsune vs. Yowamushi Pedal

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Kyousougiga – Episode 2

There was a long stretch of silence in this episode that seemed at first to be artistic, then started to try my patience, and finally revealed itself to pack quite an emotional punch. That’s a good description of the show as a whole, as well. Its schizophrenic presentation jumps from one visual style to another, but it’s consistently inventive and often beautiful. I’ve said enough in the past about how deliberately opaque the show with regards to its characters, but the advantage to telling stories about families, even when you’re not sure who’s who and how they’re related, is that our personal experiences with our own families make them universally powerful. When Koto realizes that Inari is her father, and it clicks in our heads that this moment was the source of her motivation to travel to Mirror Kyoto in search of her mother, all the confusion and ambiguity evaporates in a heartbeat.

What I’m most curious about at this point is the nature of Koto’s training. She belongs to an organization called Shrine, whose members carry swords, hold the title of “priest,” and can apparently visit other dimensions. There’s a big emphasis on combat: students are not discouraged from fighting amongst themselves, merely given instructions such as, “Keep your arms closer to your body!” when they throw punches. Exams consist of being suspended inside a giant floating cube while scientists measure your priestly potential, I guess? This scene reminded me heavily of another one from the first episode, where a bunch of folks in lab coats watched Koto and her spirit pals wreak havoc in an alternate dimension (which we now know to be Mirror Kyoto). Sometimes I wonder how much of this show’s repetition is intentional and how much results from the director’s obsession with certain themes, but either way, the end product is a fun puzzle that I intend to finish, no matter when the series takes its second loss.

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Gatchaman Crowds – Episode 3

If I had to pick one word to describe this episode, it would be “anticlimactic.” Gatchaman Crowds has introduced a superhero organization whose members carry notebooks that let them transform into robots, a smartphone app that miraculously compels people to work together for the good of humanity (run by a cross-dressing genius and his army of glowing eyeballs), and a villain who mimics people’s physical appearance by kissing them, and what kind of story does it choose to tell this week? A bad shipment of milk has gone out, so let’s use social media and stop people from drinking it. I do appreciate the show’s dual commentary on technology and empathy, but when you introduce an antagonist like the MESS and suddenly come to terms with them, you have to move onto the next conflict a little more quickly. The end of this episode gave us a standoff between Joe and our nameless, wild-haired villain, as well as the start of a rescue mission that may force our programming genius out from the shadows, but it’s too little, too late to save this show from the jaws of elimination.

The Verdict: I thought this decision would be a lot tougher, but after a rather silly third outing I’m ready to drop Gatchaman Crowds. From the tournament, anyway – I’ll probably watch the next episode to see how this cliffhanger resolves.


Gingitsune – Episode 3

Apart from a brief scene near the start, this episode of Gingitsune left its burdensome school setting behind and focused on the shrines and spirits I’d been wanting to see from the beginning. None of the humans here are strong characters, but they don’t need to be, so long as the show commits itself to telling individual stories about new heralds each week. This time we were introduced to a displaced turtle whose shrine was, of course, torn down as a result of urbanization. His slow speech, impotent fury at the construction crew that drove him from his home, and gratitude at having found a new shrine to occupy were all very charming. I’d be grateful to live there, too – just look at the screenshot above! The background (and foreground) art in Gingitsune really is a treat to behold, but this is the first time I can say I’ve truly enjoyed an episode. Judging by the preview for the next one, two major characters are about to make their entrance, and one of them is a human male around Makoto’s age. Let’s hope his introduction doesn’t take us back to high school.

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Yowamushi Pedal – Episode 3

I’m so relieved that Yowamushi Pedal was able to rediscover the charm of its premiere with this third episode. Onoda was back to his earnest, awkward self rather than the stunted outcast we saw last time, and that’s great news for Yowapeda’s future. There’s a whole laundry list of things that set this show apart from Ace of Diamond, the other traditional sports series of the tournament. Among them are the superior character designs and clearer motivations, but the biggest difference lies in their protagonists. Onoda is a novice in the cycling world, as opposed to Eijun, who was his middle school team’s only experienced player. Given the choice between the two of them, I’d say it’s much more rewarding to watch a rookie learn the ropes and slowly become a strong competitor. Onoda is also on the fence about joining the bicycle racing club to begin with, as his main passion lies elsewhere, so we’ll get to see him fall in love with the sport from the beginning. Plus, his desire to connect with other people is clearly present, despite his lack of close friends, so we can watch him develop socially. This is the kind of sports anime I could see myself following each week for a good long while.

The Verdict: Surprisingly, I’m a little reluctant to drop Gingitsune from the bracket this week. After getting such little enjoyment from its premiere, I figured it was destined for a quiet three episode death, but I’ll probably check out the next episode in my spare time.

NEXT UP: Sekai Seifuku vs. Knights of Sidonia, Barakamon vs. The World is Still Beautiful


Round 1: Ping Pong vs. Gingitsune, Witch Craft Works vs. Yowamushi Pedal

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Ping Pong the Animation – Episode 2

It feels strange to say it, given how superficially ugly the show can be, but everything about this episode of Ping Pong was beautiful. Its simultaneous exploration of Smile’s past and present selves turned him into the show’s most dynamic character in the span of twenty minutes. As if that miraculous transformation weren’t enough, Yuasa and company also found the time to check in with Wenge, foreshadow two major opponents in Dragon and Sakuma, humanize the eccentric Coach Koizumi, and tell the story of how Smile met Peco. And we’re just talking plot and character here; all of that is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what this episode accomplished. The script, the music, the humor, and even some great symbolism came together to produce a fantastic piece of animation.

When Smile first appears in this episode, it’s as a younger version of himself, trapped in a locker that’s been barred from the outside. It’s never explicitly stated, but we learn from this flashback that Smile was bullied as a child. He whispers to himself in the darkness, “It’s okay. I’m fine here. I want to stay here,” turning his prison into a shelter from the outside world. This is heartbreaking stuff, but a savior appears in the form of “the hero,” a winged silhouette that opens the locker door, defeats the monsters that lurk outside, takes Smile’s hand, and promises to come to his aid whenever he chants “The hero appears!” three times. The hero also made a brief (and perplexing) appearance during the premiere, but this time I had both the prior exposure and the context necessary to appreciate its significance. It makes sense that a quiet, nerdy kid like Smile would invent an imaginary friend to help keep his torturers at bay, so Ping Pong’s inclusion of the hero is a great method of exploring its main character’s psyche in a tangible way.

Back in the present day, there’s a new bully in Smile’s life, and his name is Mr. Koizumi. The high school ping pong coach is quick to recognize Smile’s enormous talent, but also laments his lack of competitive fire (as Wenge did last week), and so he sets out on a mission to harass, trash talk, irritate, and otherwise annoy his most promising player in the hopes that it will awaken something inside him. Koizumi is saved from outright villainy, however, by his quirky sense of humor and use of broken English. Fancying himself the husband to Smile’s wife, Koizumi calls him “Honey” and prepares healthy lunches to replace the burgers Smile is so fond of, an act of devotion which Peco can’t help but call “love.” We learn that Koizumi is also the high school English teacher in what might be the episode’s funniest scene, as he loudly pesters Smile to show up to morning practice while his class is taking a test. Romantic accordion music plays in the background all the while, making Koizumi’s “advances” less harsh and more humorous.

Things come to a head in a gloriously staged and scored match between student and master. Koizumi promises that if he loses, he’ll never bother Smile again, but demands that Smile be his dog (“Arf, arf, arf!”) if he wins. The match is fierce, and Koizumi plays with an aggressive style that borders on dirty, inspiring awe in those watching from the sidelines. The falling piano chords in this scene create an undeniable sense of tension, but also of foreboding, as Smile loses the first game 11-4, Koizumi mocking his softness and inexperience all the while. In desperation, Smile chants to himself three times: “The hero appears. The hero appears. The hero appears.”

But as we return to find Smile trapped in the locker once more, it’s not the hero who comes to his rescue, but a decidedly more ominous savior in a giant robot, the embodiment of the cruel, unfeeling play style that Smile keeps hid. “You feel nothing,” insists the robot. “No one can hurt you.” The glitchy electronic music that kicked in as Smile transformed from silent pushover to dispassionate brute sent chills down my spine. The tide quickly turns as Smile takes the second game, demanding that Koizumi stop hesitating between points, showing no mercy towards an older opponent. But Koizumi rejoices at his own success, even as he takes a devastating fall in the third game that leaves him unable to get up. Smile’s relentless drive to win finally showed itself, which is exactly what his coach had been aiming for.

And that’s actually where the story ends. Smile walks away from the game with his opponent still on the floor, ignoring his teammate’s shouts to come back and take Koizumi to the nurse’s office. There’s no easy resolution, and no lesson learned. Despite his status as the main character of the series, Smile is the villain of this episode. Rather than becoming the hero who he imagined might save him from darkness, he plunges himself further inside it. There’s so much more to analyze here: the show’s use of butterflies as a motif, whether the “hero” is actually meant to represent another character (I have a pet theory that it’s Peco), the duality of the hero and the robot – but I’ve written too much already. Just let it be said that I love this show, and that it took every ounce of willpower I possess not to marathon the rest of the series immediately after finishing this episode.

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Gingitsune – Episode 2

This was the show about which I wrote the fewest words during First Impressions week, and nothing I saw here could stop that from becoming a trend. This was essentially a second first episode, re-introducing the characters and setting, reminding us once again that Gintaro likes oranges, and recycling the “main character is late for school” gag for the thousandth time in anime history. Once she finally arrives at school, Makoto becomes embroiled in a nonsensical conflict between the class vice president and the resident queen bee. Their grudge evaporates after they pay a visit to the shrine where Makoto lives, though, and Gintaro looks into the future to see that all three girls will be friends for a very long time. The script features such gems as, “We’re in high school. We’re not allowed to do as we please.” The art is nice, but that’s the one and only thing Gingitsune has going for it. In a word, this show is boring.

The Verdict: Do I really need to say anything here?

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Witch Craft Works – Episode 2

My two big hopes for this episode were that the rabbit henchmen from last week’s episode would make another appearance, and that Kagari would become Takamiya’s mentor. Both of those things came to pass in this episode, and before the commercial break, to boot. My slight disappointment at the brevity of the rabbits’ cameo was easily overshadowed by Takamiya’s request that he become Kagari’s apprentice. Even though he’s your typical useless anime protagonist, he’s got enough common sense to realize his shortcomings, and he’s not too proud to ask for help. Kagari’s reluctance to teach him makes sense as well, stemming from her desire that he should live a normal life. The introduction of half a dozen new witches gave this episode a frantic quality that I’d like to see toned down, but I don’t imagine subtlety is in this show’s DNA. Still, there’s enough sincerity in the relationship between the two main characters that I’m able to overlook how goofy the show can be as a whole. And sometimes that goofiness is played to great effect, as in the ending theme, where miniature versions of the villainous tower witches sing a cute Japanese pop song while tied to various medieval torture devices.

(Apologies for switching to a different naming system this week. Since the characters refer to each other using last names and honorifics, I figured it was more appropriate.)

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Yowamushi Pedal – Episode 2

Despite its seeding at #21, I was half expecting Yowapeda to wipe the floor with its opponent this week, so strong was my impression of its first episode. Unfortunately, its second offering was not as winning. Too much internal dialogue, the addition of an undesirable trait to Onoda’s character, and some dreadful saxophone music made this a grating experience. To elaborate on that second point, this episode took Onoda’s shy, nerdy personality and added crippling social anxiety to the mix. The girls who came to watch his race with Imaizumi were suddenly capable of giving him a panic attack, complete with seizure eyes and echo-laden thoughts of self-doubt. This isn’t the same bumbling but friendly character I remember from the premiere, and giving him that kind of severe anxiety just to provide a little extra catharsis later on is lazy writing. It could be that my impression of Onoda’s character was off from the start, but even if that’s the case, I’m not interested in Watamote + Cycling. Let’s get past this first race and meet some of the other characters, so this can become a true ensemble cast.

The Verdict: Neither show had a stellar episode, but at least Witch Craft Works lived up to my expectations.

NEXT UP: Watamote vs. Sekai Seifuku, Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun vs. Knights of Sidonia

First Impressions: Hozuki no Reitetsu, Watamote, Gingitsune, Noragami

Seed week continues with two comedies set in very different kinds of hell, a slice of life series about a fox spirit that doesn’t destroy the Leaf Village, and a supernatural action show from the studio that brought you Fullmetal Alchemist. Let’s get to it.

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Hozuki no Reitetsu

On paper, this workplace comedy about a bureaucrat in hell looks like the perfect marriage of satire and absurdity, and perhaps if you’re fluent in Japanese it is – after all, this series sold like gangbusters across the Pacific. Unfortunately, I only cracked a smile once during this episode, when our horned hero Hozuki referred to a koala as “so huggable.” The first half provided a fine introduction to his stony character and his job as a highly sought-after government worker, but it completely missed my funny bone. The second half, an extended lunch break conversation about vacationing in Australia, was only a slight improvement, perhaps due to the presence of Hozuki’s comically large and light-hearted boss, Lord Enma. While I do admire the imagination that went into this show, I’m not particularly jazzed to watch another episode.

Seeding estimate: Bottom 25%

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There weren’t a lot of laughs to be found in Watamote, either, but that was to be expected. This is a show that traffics in such topics as delusion, social anxiety and self-loathing. Its humor is darker, and it comes at the expense of its female lead, Tomoko, for whom my heart broke several times during this episode. Her brother’s failure to defend her after the “ugly chick” insult was particularly affecting. Beyond its uncommon themes and its ability to evoke sympathy for its main character, though, this premiere ticked a lot of boxes for me. The theme song’s screamed lyrics and use of chains as a symbol of Tomoko’s slavery to her disorder put it up there with Gatchaman Crowds’ OP for my favorite of the tournament so far. I loved the homage to Death Note during the scene where Tomoko Googles methods of increasing her feminine appeal. The video game-inspired soundtrack paired perfectly with Tomoko’s 8-bit view of the world, and the marker art style used in the ending tag was a charming bit of comic relief. All in all, this show has emerged as the tournament’s first clear front-runner, but there are plenty more great series coming down the pipe, as well.

Seeding estimate: Top 5

gingitsune 1Gingitsune

I don’t have a lot to say about Gingitsune, to be honest. Aside from some lovely scenery, nothing about this episode stood out to me. The conflict between shrine maiden Makoto and fox spirit Gintaro could have been ripped from a Storytelling 101 textbook, and the resolution was equally by-the-numbers. Twice we’re informed that messengers like Gintaro usually work in pairs, but his partner has been M.I.A. for a century, so there is a hook there for anyone whose interest the show managed to capture. Sadly, I can’t claim to be a part of that group. Hopefully the two new characters promised by the OP will spice things up next week.

Seeding estimate: Bottom 25%

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This show feels a little like what would have happened if Bleach had been produced by BONES rather than Studio Pierrot. People’s souls leaving their bodies so they can fight evil spirits? Close relationships between weapons and their wielders? Even the OPs share quite a few similarities, although Bleach’s is about 10 times cooler. A lackluster opening is Noragami’s only stumbling block, though, as BONES’ pretty animation and knack for authentic character interaction made this a solid first episode. Yato’s dream of becoming a major deity and Hiyori’s lack of combat experience give some indication of where this series is headed, but with a supernatural action show like this one, there’s a lot of potential for creative storytelling.

Seeding estimate: Between 12 and 16

At four episodes per day, I’ve realized that I’ll finish the first 28 premieres long before the Fall 2014 shows I’m watching are released, so starting tomorrow I’ll move to just three episodes per day, with no posts October 3-5 as I’ll be out of town that weekend. This will put me on track to finish up with Parasyte, Psycho-Pass 2, and Shigatsu right when they air on the 9th and 10th.

NEXT UP: Non Non Biyori, Tokyo ESP, The Eccentric Family