Round 2: Mushishi vs. Your Lie In April, Sabagebu! vs. Aldnoah.Zero

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Mushishi Zoku Shou – Episode 3

The last two entries I wrote about Mushishi were quite long, but this one will be brief. I’ve been wanting to start limiting my reviews to just a paragraph each, and this simpler tale provides the perfect opportunity for that kind of brevity. The story opens with a flashback to a sweet conversation between an older brother and his curious little sister, but by the time Ginko appears, we learn that the girl has fallen through the icy layer of a frozen lake and died. The brother is subsequently targeted by mushi that steal his body heat, tricking his senses so that the slightest warmth feels as though it might burn him, and making him impervious to the harshest cold. This is a clear metaphor for depression, and it works rather well as things play out, although the parallels aren’t woven as seamlessly into the fabric of the story as in the best episodes of Mushishi.

What I really want to talk about, though, is just how beautiful this show is capable of looking and sounding. Winter is my favorite season, and Mushishi captures so much of what makes it great with each exterior shot. Look at the texture of the snow in the foreground above. You can tell from the its unevenness and the way the sun catches each layer that your leg would sink straight through to the ground if you were to step into that picture. I love the snow on the evergreen trees, and on the branches of sleeping bushes. Those are winter staples, of course, but Mushishi pays attention to the small stuff, as well. Check out the little twigs all around the bigger plants, poking their heads out from beneath the snow. If you squint, you can even see a few leaves hanging on for dear life. And just look at this screenshot – I’m kicking myself even as I click the “Publish” button for not making that the episode picture instead.

But hey, Mushishi always looks great. Any missed opportunity to talk about its stunning background art can be made up with the next episode. Where this one in particular excelled, though, was sound design. The crackling of the fire as Ginko chatted with the innkeeper, the sound of snow crunching under the characters’ boots, the way Tae’s teeth chattered after she was pulled from the lake – this was a headphone-worthy experience for sure. Mushishi is a series that excels in every aspect of its production, from story and art to music and voice acting. I don’t know how many staff members from the original production returned after nine years off the air, but given how similar Zoku Shou feels to that classic first season, my guess is quite a few.

Oops, looks like I wrote way too much about Mushishi again.

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Your Lie In April – Episode 3

Looking over my last entry on Your Lie In April, it appears that I was quite hopeful for its future, but this episode put a bit of a damper on that excitement. I wrote then that the fragility shared by Kousei and Kaori could be the basis for their romance, but after the way Kaori downplayed and then dismissed her would-be accompanist’s traumatic history, I’m not so sure. I still maintain that Kaori has been hurt in some way: after spending the first eighteen minutes of the show nagging, punching, throwing things, and glaring at Kousei in an effort to get him to play the piano, she finally broke down and cried, but rather than resorting to emotional blackmail, she really did seem hurt in that moment. Still, that moment of honesty came rather late in the episode, and only after a string of ineffective, unfunny attempts at coercion.

My other quibble with this series has to do with the nature of Kousei’s selective hearing, which was given more detail than ever before. He was playing just fine in the coffee shop until he flashed back to the time he choked on stage as a grade schooler. Afterwards, he explains that although he can hear his fingers moving and the sound of the keys sinking, he can’t hear the tones that result from the hammers striking the piano’s strings. I’m no expert, and I haven’t done the slightest bit of research or even Googling, but this sounds totally preposterous to me. If the show weren’t so specific and so adamant about it, it would be easier to overlook as a metaphor for fear, but as it stands we’re expected not only to believe that Kousei has this condition, but to tolerate it when other people insist that all he needs to do is try harder, believe in himself, trust in the power of love, etc. You can’t have your made-up hearing disability and eat it, too.

The Verdict: Shigatsu might have the visuals necessary to compete with Mushishi, but not the storytelling chops or emotional depth.

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Sabagebu! – Episode 3

I was raised on the Nickelodeon cartoons of the late nineties and early aughts. We’re talking Spongebob, Fairly Oddparents, and Jimmy Neutron here – shows that followed the typical western model of splitting their runtime in half and telling two distinct stories. This likely became the standard after some genius “discovered” that kids are more likely to sit still for one longer commercial break than two shorter ones, although now that I’ve typed that sentence I’m doubting whether it’s true. In any case, it’s an effective way to package an animated comedy, and it’s also the form that Sabagebu! took this week.

An excellent first segment introduced the Survival Game Club’s hapless advisor and saw the girls dressed in cool exterminator gear, while the second introduced a rival for the club president Miou and featured Platy in a referee’s uniform. The narrator continues to be the show’s MVP, going off on tangents and contradicting the main characters in a style very similar to that of Ron Howard in Arrested Development, perhaps my favorite sitcom ever. A ton of cute animals joined in the violence this week, from the aggressive hornets at the beginning, to the battle-tested crow who didn’t flinch at gunfire, to the preposterous food chain reaction that led to Momoka’s victory in the second half. This is a very funny show that blends disparate elements with what seems to be very little effort, and I’m really glad to have started watching it.

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Aldnoah.Zero – Episode 3

It’s hard to believe that out of these four series, I have the least to say about a science fiction thriller featuring political intrigue and giant robots, but that seems to be the case. This show is competently scripted and directed, which is more than can be said about a great number of mecha anime. Inaho proved himself to be an excellent tactician, but more than that, the weaknesses of the Martian technology that he exploited actually made a lot of sense. He also got a bit of fleshing out via a standard ‘calm before the storm’ scene with a classmate, which revealed that he’s human just like everyone else.

Even though the methods they used to take out the Kataphrakt were highly inventive, the structure of this episode was not. Even the post-credits tag featuring Slaine was telegraphed like an Eli Manning pass. The questions now are whether any Martian eyes in the sky witnessed his betrayal, and when he’ll join up with Inaho, Asseylum and company.

The Verdict: Aldnoah embraces its genre and fulfills its tropes with style, but Sabagebu! throws anime convention out the window and is all the better for it.

NEXT UP: One Week Friends vs. Silver Spoon, Ping Pong vs. Witch Craft Works


Round 1: Mushishi vs. Gundam, Tokyo Ghoul vs. Your Lie in April

Time to kick off this tournament with its most lopsided matchup in Mushishi Zoku Shou (#1) vs. Gundam: Reconguista in G (#32). Spoiler alert: Mushishi wins.

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Mushishi Zoku Shou – Episode 2

While this episode didn’t match the sublime heights achieved by the premiere, it did feature the most beautifully animated scene of the tournament thus far. The birdlike creatures in the screenshot above are actually a type of mushi whose appearance on land signals impending disaster at sea. Listen too closely to the songs they sing from within their seashell homes, and you may lose your ability to speak. Mina, a young girl from the fishing village where this episode takes place, falls victim to that fate, but learns to speak again after her father allows her to converse with the other girls in the village (more on that in a bit). What makes this scene work so well is not just how gorgeous it is visually, but how the mushi’s flight represents Mina’s freedom – freedom from the life of isolation her father had required her to live, and freedom from the muteness brought on by the Yadokaridori’s song. Here’s a link to a (rather large) .gif of the scene in question. Even apart from the rest of the story, it’s marvelous to look at.

Ten years before the events of this episode, Mina’s mother was killed by a shark while diving on the village elder’s boat. The elder chose to pull his own wife from the sea first, leaving him with no time to rescue the other woman from her death. Mina’s father Sakichi, made bitter by his loss, isolated himself from the rest of the village and forbade his daughter from talking to any of the shore folk. We see both fathers deal with their daughters very differently here – the elder is gentle and reassuring, while Sakichi is stern and unforgiving. We even see the elder, still carrying the weight of his decision ten years later, plead with Sakichi to return to the village. Despite our understanding of his grief, we know that Mina’s father is in the wrong. But when the village’s fish farms are ruined by the red tide (which was foreshadowed by the presence of the Yadokaridori), Sakichi presents the elder with a valuable pearl he’d been hoarding, knowing that it’s the village’s only chance at survival. In exchange, he asks that he and his daughter be allowed to return to the village. The elder, overcome with emotion, accepts both the pearl and his old friend’s request through his tears.

Plot synopsis isn’t really my thing, so why do I find it so appropriate when it comes to writing about Mushishi? I think it’s to demonstrate how perfectly all the moving pieces come together to create each episode. The Yadokaridori are confined to their seashells at first, just as Mina is forbidden from talking to the villagers, but they both achieve freedom by the episode’s end. The red tide functions not only as a plot point that puts the village in peril, but also as a visual reminder of the death of Mina’s mother, and it forces Sakichi to confront and truly accept the fact of his wife’s passing. And Ginko’s advice that Mina hear more voices than just her father’s offers a compelling reason for them to return to the village, so we know that Sakichi’s decision came not only from his own personal growth, but also his love for his daughter. In fact, in writing this paragraph, I may have convinced myself that this episode is at least as strong as last week’s. That’s the remarkable thing about Mushishi – it maintains for entire seasons a level of quality that few other shows can reach even once.

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Gundam: Reconguista in G – Episode 2

Despite the harsh words I had for it last week, there are some things I like about this series. Its old school character models, animation, and music all have a certain charm to them. And although this is the first time I’ve watched a Gundam show from the beginning, I can understand the appeal of watching giant robots punch and shoot each other. But where this show fails again this week is in its nonsensical plotting and dialogue. I’ll provide one example of each, though really about 50% of the episode could serve as a “what not to do” guide for screenwriting.

Plot: The Capital Army has taken captive a space pirate named Aida, and hidden away her highly advanced mobile suit so that neither she nor her fellow pirates can reclaim it. Bellri Zenam is the only member of the Capital Army capable of piloting that mobile suit, referred to as the G-Self. Bellri is also smitten with Aida, and rescues her from prison with the help of his friends despite his country being at war with the pirates. None of his friends seem to have a problem with this, except for the pink-haired girl who’s obviously sweet on Bellri, and keeps barking instructions such as, “Don’t stick your butt out!” and “Don’t get distracted by some girl!” Bellri’s commanding officer then drops by and demands that he man the G-Self and fight against the attacking pirates, and of course he takes Aida with him, who as the G-Self’s former pilot has more reason than anyone to prevent him from carrying out his mission. But again, nobody has a problem with this, not even the officer who saw her clear as day as he was giving Bellri his orders. It’s not until Aida is physically attempting to enter the cockpit of the G-Self that this moron gives the order to “kick her off,” presumably to her death, as she was thirty feet off the ground at that point. None of this makes any sense.

Dialogue: As Bellri is rescuing Aida from captivity, he asks why someone like her is a space pirate. She responds, “We ought to be coating the Earth in solar panels, but the Capital prohibits it. That’s dictatorial!” Bellri begins to respond, “Because Earth-” and then the scene cuts to three seconds of the conflict going on outside, before returning in time to catch, “-is why!” Then Aida slaps him. This was truly the most baffling scene of the tournament thus far. Why was it necessary to cut to the exterior shot, preventing us from hearing Bellri’s retort? Without hearing what exactly he said to offend her, the slap that follows is laughable. Unless this is some kind of commentary on the futility of anti-solar-panel sentiment (and if it is, it’s likely the worst in recorded human history), this scene also makes no sense.

The Verdict: Mushishi threads its plot points together with the elegance of a master tailor, while Gundam is an incomprehensible mess of an anime. Mushishi wins and it isn’t even close.

Now let’s see who won this week’s feature match between Tokyo Ghoul (#16) and Your Lie in April (#17), or, if you prefer, Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso. Both of these series had solid premieres but didn’t manage to pull me in for the long haul. Whichever one does a better job of selling itself and its premise will be the victor here.

Tokyo Ghoul 2Tokyo Ghoul – Episode 2

The shows that are neither very good nor very bad are always the hardest to write about. Tokyo Ghoul’s second episode picked up just seconds after its first left off, and like that first episode, it was concerned mostly with table setting. It was expected that Kaneki wouldn’t accept his half-breed status or master his hunger until the end of this episode at the earliest, but those concepts weren’t explored in any meaningful way, just resolved after a lot of shouting, choking, punching and crying. The scenes featuring Rize, who serves as a manifestation of Kaneki’s ghoul self, were ripped straight from probably hundreds of supernatural series before this one. The big fight scene’s inverted color palette made the characters gray (less visually interesting) and the blood neon blue (less impactful than red), so unless this was done to satisfy the Japanese equivalent of the F.C.C., it was merely a poor creative choice.

I was already tired of Kaneki’s “I want flesh/I don’t want flesh” shtick by the second time it recurred, so if that pops up even once next week, my laptop will be at risk of being thrown across the room during episode 3. The closing dialogue between two mysterious ghoul hunters promises the same bigger mythology as the premiere, so hopefully this series will incorporate some of that into its weekly proceedings, and stat.

shigatsu 2-2Your Lie in April – Episode 2

Wow. How amazing was Kaori’s performance of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9? The scenes of the competitors before her all featured lovely music, but were accompanied by static images, so I was worried that A-1 Pictures had blown their blown on that beautiful first episode, but boy was I wrong. Kaori came to life in stunning animation as she played and brought the music with her, turning in a powerful version of Beethoven’s piece apparently of her own composition. This earned her the scorn of the head judge, the adoration of the attendees (enough to earn her the audience choice award and send her to the next round of the competition), and the love of Kousei, who decided immediately after her performance that she was beautiful.

Kousei has no game with the ladies, however, and Kaori is already set on Watari, the middle school Lothario who is nonetheless a good friend to Kousei and advises him to act on his attraction. But the bond between the two leads is already quite strong, even if they don’t know it yet; beyond a love for classical music, they share a fragility and a sensitivity to how their performances are perceived. Kousei had the classic taskmaster mom who drove it into his skull that if you didn’t place first, your efforts were in vain. We don’t know the reason for Kaori’s self-doubt just yet, but despite her claims not to care about the results of the competition, her hands were trembling when she asked Kousei what he thought of her performance. Despite the age of these two student musicians, there’s potential here for a romance based on something beyond fourteen year old hormones.

Shigatsu takes a step toward delivering on that promise before the episode even ends, when Kousei encounters Kaori on his way home from school. She’s waiting for Watari, who’s planning to skip soccer practice to hang out with her, but he’s running late. So when she asks Kousei if he knows what’s taking so long, he lies and says Watari got held up at practice. Kaori is disappointed, but invites Kousei to hang out with her instead. What Kousei did was sneaky for sure, but it establishes him as a character with some guts, who won’t just pout in the corner until his crush notices that he’s been here all this time. These are good signs from a series that I was on the fence about at first.

The Verdict: Tokyo Ghoul offered more of the same in its second episode, but Shigatsu distinguished itself with a great musical set piece and stronger lead characters. Your Lie in April wins the match, and the honor of going up against Mushishi in the next round.

NEXT UP: Stardust Crusaders vs. Sabagebu!, Aldnoah.Zero vs. Ace of Diamond

First Impressions: Witch Craft Works, Mushishi Zoku Shou, Hitsugi no Chaika

Seed week rolls on with three shows starring robotic rabbits, mysterious mushi, and saboteur siblings – but mostly that second thing.

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Witch Craft Works

This show is so, so dumb. Its cookie-cutter introduction starts with a loser main character who introduces himself as a “completely ordinary high school student” living out what he thinks is “another typical day.” What foreshadowing! Our super-popular female lead, whose breasts are roughly the size of her own head, develops a sudden attachment to this idiot, which confuses her adoring classmates, then causes them to beat him up. Worst of all, Witch Craft Works establishes mood by having characters think things like, “This is weird. I’m actually mad,” to themselves. On its face, this is not a very promising series, but there are two reasons why I’m actually looking forward to the next episode.

The first is the power dynamic between the two leads. Ayaka is a highly skilled witch who specializes in, and is apparently made of, fire. She defeats wave after wave of robot bunnies (pictured above, but more on them in a moment) in two beautifully animated action sequences, all without breaking a sweat. She also claims that it’s her mission to protect our loser lead Honoka, who she refers to as her “princess,” and who is so cowed by the threat of physical violence that he audibly whimpers not once, but twice during the premiere. Ayaka is a full head taller and many times stronger than her charge, which turns anime’s predilection for powerful male leads and helpless female love interests on its head. Honoka can be seen attempting to ride a broom in the OP, so my hope is that she will not only protect him, but also serve as his mentor in the magical arts, giving both of their characters a nice arc to follow.

The other reason(s) I’m itching to watch the next episode are the robot bunnies that I mentioned above. Simply put, they are the breakout characters of this first episode. Their CG animation blended very nicely with the show’s hand-drawn backgrounds and characters, especially during the fight scenes, which blew Gatchaman Crowds and Tokyo ESP out of the water. And although they exist to do the bidding of another witch, the rabbits have a ton of personality, much like the minions from Despicable Me. They communicate through a flurry of squeals and squeaks, get into fistfights with each other, and create their own fun by jumping and sliding from high places whenever a spare moment arises. Hopefully these bunnies will become a permanent fixture of the show, because they may be what Witch Craft Works needs to advance past the early rounds of this tournament.

Seeding estimate: Middle of the pack

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Mushishi Zoku Shou

Oh, how woefully unqualified I feel to write about a new season of Mushishi, or any episode of Mushishi for that matter. This is an anime so visually pleasing, so thematically sound, and so emotionally resonant that it nearly defies belief. This series, and this episode, reach levels of artistry which few other anime in history can claim to match. If you don’t love Mushishi, you probably won’t be happy with the results of this tournament, as it’s nearly guaranteed to place in the top 4 and could easily win the whole thing. This has been your Mushishi trigger warning for the day.

Of all the expectations I had for a second season of one of the all-time great anime, finding an intro song more appropriate than “The Sore Feet Song” by Ally Kerr was one of the steepest. That song’s gentle harmonies and chiming acoustic guitars were such a sublime match for Mushishi’s meditations on humanity, nature and family that I thought surely they would just recycle it, but I’ll be damned if “Shiver” by Lucy Rose isn’t an equally fitting companion. The soft piano chords and sparingly-plucked electric guitar, along with Lucy’s hushed vocal delivery, come together in an OP so fragile and so ethereal that I’m a little choked up just trying to describe it. And the visuals, with footage of slowly-moving rivers, light filtering through tree branches, and cherry blossoms carried by the wind all fading into each other, were a wonderful accompaniment.

Briefly, then, since I’ve spent so much time talking about the first two minutes, let me talk about what makes Mushishi such a treat on a narrative level. This episode, despite functioning as a fine introduction to the setting and the concept of mushi, was really the story of a father and son. The son, Rokusuke, works for a brewery, and has been desperately trying to produce the golden sake about which his father, himself a master brewer, used to rave. Eventually he succeeds, and after finishing his work for the day, the son begins to scale the mountain path to his home, gourd of sake in hand, eager for his father to taste it.

Already there are stakes. At the first sign of trouble on the mountain path, Mushishi has its hooks in us. But there are no hundred decibel orchestras or screaming teenagers here to jack up our level of investment by artificial means. We simply desire that Rokusuke receive from his father the same praise that each of us, as children, wanted from our parent or parents. When he stumbles upon the gathering of mushishi in the middle of the forest and his supply of sake slowly begins to dwindle, we pray that he doesn’t run out. When one particularly thrifty mushishi attempts to trade an ordinary cup for some of his golden sake, Rokusuke takes the deal, because even though he knows the cup is nearly worthless, it reminds him of a cup his father once had. When he learns that his sake causes people to see mushi and can never be sold to the public, we share in his feeling of defeat.

In the end, the father does not taste his son’s special brew, but he does receive the cup for which Rokusuke bartered, and it reminds him of the ceremony he once took part in – a memory he now shares with his son. The golden sake is set aside, and mushishi in need of its unique properties come to buy it from time to time, affirming the son’s skill as a brewer. Rokusuke redoubles his efforts to create the perfect sake, now motivated not just by a craving for his father’s approval, but to produce the best product he can for the job’s own sake. By their shared experience, he has already been brought closer to his father, which was the thing he wanted all along.

There are 18 shows left for me to sample before this first week comes to a close, but I can hardly imagine that any of them will come out of the gate stronger than this. It gives me great joy to be watching new episodes of Mushishi again.

Seeding estimate: #1

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Hitsugi no Chaika

After finding so much to say about Witch Craft Works and Mushishi, my first impressions of Chaika: The Coffin Princess will be short. I found a lot to love in the character of Chaika herself, a young girl who dresses like a maid, speaks exclusively in sentence fragments, and hides a magical sniper rifle in a coffin that she keeps with her at all times. The brother and sister mercenary duo who she hires are far less interesting, however, one being a lazy slacker with a complaining streak a mile wide, the other an abusive nag who harbors romantic feelings for her brother. Fifty bucks says one was adopted, or they’re not even siblings in the loosest sense of the word.

The character designs, Chaika aside, offer nothing to catch the eye (unless cleavage counts), and the art and animation are only passable, which is a major disappointment given that this is a BONES series. As for the plot, it’s a mishmash of fantasy, politics, and military history that doesn’t carry much weight, given how little reason there is to care about the characters feeding it to us. Honestly, if this episode had been a solid 22 minutes of Chaika standing in front of a chalkboard and laying out this series’ unnecessarily complicated backstory, I might have enjoyed it more than I did. Still, the opening scene suggests that Chaika was sent to this universe from a different time or dimension, which has me at least slightly interested in where the story is headed.

Seeding estimate: Bottom 25%

NEXT UP: Knights of Sidonia, Sabagebu!, Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun