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

Round 1: Watamote vs. Sekai Seifuku, Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun vs. Knights of Sidonia

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Watamote – Episode 2

Faced with the task of following its brilliant premiere, this episode of Watamote fell a bit short in my estimation, at least given the show’s status as the tournament’s #2 seed. The odd thing is that I laughed more this week than I did during that first episode. Tomoko’s verbal abuse tapes and perverted dubbing of innocent conversations were a perfect fit for her socially stunted character, and more than that, they were simply funny. There was an increased focus on Tomoko’s sexual curiosity this week, with several fantasy sequences so deluded that I couldn’t help but laugh. That curiosity was prompted by an impending lunch date with an old middle school friend, Yuu-chan, who Tomoko theorizes will ask about her high school life, including her love life.

It was the way that reunion ended that prevented this episode from living up to its predecessor, I think. Yuu-chan, once plain and bespectacled, has dyed her hair blonde, lost the glasses, and started dressing in skirts and fitted sweaters. This development was expected, and so was Tomoko’s discovery that although her friend looked much different, she was still the same girl with the same nerdy interests. Those are standard story beats, but Watamote had an opportunity for some real pathos this week. Perhaps sensing that something was troubling her friend, Tomoko confessed that her high school life has been lousy so far, but that she wouldn’t give up, and neither should Yuu-chan. The voice acting and animation in this scene let us know how tough it was for Tomoko to admit that her life isn’t perfect. If the episode had ended here I would have been a happy camper, but instead Yuu-chan confessed that she had been depressed about a fight with her boyfriend, and Tomoko reacted with horror at the news that her friend was dating someone, rather than happiness at having helped Yuu-chan out of her funk.

Tomoko’s status as the world’s punching bag is written into Watamote’s DNA. And I won’t deny that it can be funny to give an unlucky or unskilled character some glimmer of hope for the future, and then cruelly stamp it out. But undercutting Tomoko’s admission by cheapening the bond she’d made with her friend? That’s just another gag in an episode full of much better ones.

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Sekai Seifuku – Episode 2

This anime is just as incomprehensible as the new Gundam series, but in a different way. My general reaction to Gundam is, “What’s going on?” whereas with this show it’s, “Why should I care what’s going on?” White Light, Zvezda, giant squid monsters, secret bases, KuruKuru, bikini-clad scientists – none of this shit makes any sense. Once again, there was one decent joke to be found: the food prepared by Eyepatch Girl was apparently so vile that it had to be censored for the viewers at home. Apart from that clever concept, this was twenty-two minutes of nonsense that I can’t muster the will to analyze. The sooner this series is off my plate, the better.

The Verdict: Despite my criticisms, this week’s episode of Watamote was still a good one. It would have taken a nosedive of epic proportions for that show to lose a cupcake match like this.


nozaki 2Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun – Episode 2

What a charming show this is. The opening theme is an earworm of catch-yourself-humming-it-in-the-shower-the-next-morning proportions. Instead of backpedaling on its original premise and throwing in a love triangle for guaranteed viewership, it remains dedicated to gently spoofing the shoujo genre. And it introduces new characters with more grace than most TV series can muster, let alone half-hour animated comedies from Japan. Mikoshiba and Yuzuki’s appearances this week were just what the show needed to increase the range of stories it can tell in the future, and with more new characters to come next week, Nozaki-kun will probably be sticking around for a while longer in my blogging rotation.

I’ll confess to having been a little worried at first about Mikoshiba’s blushing around Chiyo, but once I realized that he was only too embarrassed to teach her without being asked for help, my fear of an unnecessary love triangle disappeared. And the talented voice artist who provided Chiyo’s bemused reactions to his tutelage should be inducted into the Sarcasm Hall of Fame for this episode. What’s great about Mikoshiba is that even though he’s handsome and he knows it, he’s also self-conscious about it. His attempts at delivering flirty, cocky dialogue all end in humiliation, both for himself and whoever he’s talking to. All he brings to the table artistically is the ability to draw flowers, but I have a feeling his contribution to the show as a whole will be far greater.

The other new character, Chiyo’s friend Yuzuki, didn’t leave as big an impression on me, but her self-absorption and insensitivity will certainly be big comedic weapons going forward. If I had to guess, I’d say that Yuzuki will end up serving as the model for a new male character within Nozaki’s manga, since the female lead is based on Mikoshiba. When they eventually discover which characters are based on their personalities, the meltdown that results should be something to see.

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Knights of Sidonia – Episode 2

Knights of Sidonia could probably cobble together an interesting science fiction plot from bits and pieces of its own world and mythology, were it given the chance. My guess is that the manga tells this story a lot better than the anime, which is too preoccupied with urethral inserts, vomit, and locker room changing scenes to do any story or character work that goes beyond the superficial. Ostensible protagonist Tanikaze Nagate is duller than a sack of potatoes; half of his lines are simply “Yeah” in response to a question from a character who can miraculously be in his presence for more than ten seconds without lapsing into a coma. The animation is stiff and lifeless, and the action scenes are filled with so many tentacles and so much debris that deciphering what’s happening on screen is like playing a much more difficult version of Where’s Waldo. And if not even the visuals, the usual saving grace of terribly-written anime, can hold my interest, then there’s really no hope for this series going forward.

The Verdict: I’m amazed that I seeded these two shows so close together based on their premieres. Sidonia is a train wreck after just two episodes, while Nozaki-kun looks to be an absolute gem.


NEXT UP: Barakamon vs. Hozuki no Reitetsu, Noragami vs. The World is Still Beautiful

First Impressions: Knights of Sidonia, Sabagebu!, Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun

And we’re back. Two weeks have gone by since my last post, but during that time I actually watched and ranked the first episodes of all 32 shows participating in this tournament. No more “seeding estimates” and no more essay-length first impressions like the one for Mushishi, just quick impressions on each of the remaining series, and then on with the tournament!

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Knights of Sidonia

Let’s talk about the dorm matron bear in the room here: Knights of Sidonia’s CG visuals. If you followed any of the chatter about this show as it was airing, you probably read that its backgrounds looked nice enough, but that it had a problem with facial features, rendering its characters inexpressive and fishlike. All of that is fair, and it’s true that the animation was distracting and even detrimental to this first episode. But as long as the plot and the characters can hold my attention, I don’t need this thing to look like a Pixar feature film. With all of that said, how does the story hold up?

Well, the human race is on the verge of extinction thanks to a predator that hasn’t shown its face for a century, but when that predator suddenly reappears, humanity is thrown back into chaos. Sound familiar? Sidonia’s main character Nagate is even more bland than Attack on Titan’s Eren, if that’s possible, and the panning shot of the girls’ locker room leaves me with little hope that the female cast will get any meaningful development. The “villain,” if he even qualifies as such, is a classmate of Nagate’s whose despicable attitude towards women makes him far too easy to hate. If I were to rate this show based on how much I enjoyed the premiere, it wouldn’t fair too well, but taking into account the potential held by its hard sci-fi premise, it’s worth another couple shots.

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Sabagebu!

Despite its title, this series was quick to establish itself as an absurdist comedy, rather than a show about cute girls playing cute survival games. We have a cheeky male narrator who briefly infuses our hero Momoka’s first day at her new school with the gravity of a historical drama, then later informs us that the blood and bullets in the episode-ending gun battle are merely the girls’ collective delusion. The quest for acceptance and popularity in a new school is played for laughs, but it’s a concern that remains very real for Momoka, so we’re able to root for her even while we laugh at her. The other girls are all types (the popular one, the busty one, the quiet one, the twintails), though in a nice twist the class idol’s popularity is completely inexplicable, given her dorky obsession with gunplay. This premiere was colorful, funny, and charming, but essentially substance-free. For that reason, Sabagebu probably won’t be going deep in this tournament, but I’ll enjoy whatever I get to see of it.

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Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun

Nozaki-kun has a lot going for it, with a strong “girl likes boy” throughline, an expressive but not overbearing lead in Chiyo, and a premise that lends itself to comedy. The main love interest is sensitive enough to write a romance manga, yet oblivious enough not to notice when someone has a massive crush on him – this defies all reason, but I love it anyway, if only for the frustrated and disbelieving reactions it elicits from Chiyo. The potential for the main love story to bleed into the manga will provide another perspective on the failed confessions and awkward silences that might otherwise become stale. Even the constantly nonplussed Nozaki brims with promise as a tall, dark, and boneheaded hunk whose aloofness doesn’t stop him from being a decent human being. I have high hopes for this one, especially judging by how well-received it was last season.


NEXT UP: Silver Spoon, Sekai Seifuku, Ace of Diamond