Round 2: The Eccentric Family vs. Rozen Maiden, Parasyte vs. Psycho Pass 2

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The Eccentric Family – Episode 3

“It’s so dense, every single image has so many things going on.” This quote from Rick McCallum, infamous producer of the Star Wars prequels, popped into my head more than once while watching this episode. Just look at the screenshot above – that level of background detail easily matches that of Mushishi, which is no mean feat. Unlike the newer Star Wars films, however, Uchouten Kazoku has a story worth following, even if that can be a difficult task at times. This week especially I felt as though the unfamiliar names of tengu clans, past conflicts, and unseen characters were whizzing by all too quickly. That conversational style was no detriment to my enjoyment of the episode, however, as I followed the overarching plot of the episode from start to finish, and greatly enjoyed the art and atmosphere as usual.

The Gozan Fire Festival is quickly approaching for our eccentric family, and before that day comes they’ll need to borrow Professor Akadama’s “flying inner parlor” to participate in the aerial celebration. Yasaburo asks his former teacher to borrow it, but the old codger has given it to Benten, a revelation which prompts a fit of jealousy from Yasaburo. Even though there are plenty of romantic feelings between the three of them, it’s interesting to note that Yasaburo and Benten share a type of sibling relationship as well, with Akadama functioning as the father. This is a series that laces each piece of dialogue with as much meaning as it can muster, and that holds true for the ending scene between Yasaburo and Benten at the sunken clock tower. 99% of romance in anime is dull and formulaic, resulting in audience arguments about “best girls” and which cast member will “win” by hooking up with the main character. These are stupid, superficial lines of conversation, but what else is there to talk about when your characters are so paper-thin? Not so with The Eccentric Family, which nails the complicated, true-to-life feeling of crushing on someone who you know could really hurt you. Benten’s association with the Friday Fellows, who treat tanuki as a delicacy, makes her a dangerous acquaintance, and her abilities to fly and control the weather make her powerful and potentially threatening, but she’s also attractive, fun-loving and agreeable, and in the end she does lend the inner parlor to her friend.

There’s a lot more I want to write about that clock tower scene, but I really do need to start limiting these recaps to just a paragraph each, at least until the field is narrowed down to just 16 shows or so. This is a great series that I expect will make Top 8 at the very least, so hopefully I can do some more thorough analysis of its characters and themes in a couple weeks.

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Rozen Maiden (2013) – Episode 3

Even though Sabagebu! and Hoozuki no Reitetsu were seeded lower, this incarnation of Rozen Maiden is probably the most surprising success of the tournament. This is a sequel to a 2004 TV series I’ve never watched, which is based on a manga about dolls fighting that I’ve never read. All I knew going is was that time travel and/or alternate universes were involved somehow, but there’s no way I could have expected the series to be both this engaging and this low-key. Of all the introverted slacker protagonists I’ve seen in anime (and if you’ve seen my MAL you know that’s not many, so take this with a grain of salt), Jun is among the most relatable. His hatred of his job doesn’t lead him on winding internal monologues about how the whole world is rotten to the core. He doesn’t obsess over his female co-worker, nor does he ice her out. He has a hobby that he’s passionate about, which feels normal thanks to an unobtrusive series of flashbacks around the episode’s middle. From what I understand, the dolls were the main characters of the original series, but this time Jun is carrying most of the narrative weight, and doing a great job of it.

The Verdict: Rozen Maiden has been surprisingly good, but The Eccentric Family has been consistently great. I’m still very excited to see both series to completion, though.


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Parayste – Episode 3

This was easily the best cliffhanger of the tournament so far. Every scene in this show carries some ideological weight behind it, and the confrontation between “A” and the duo of Shinichi and Migi is no different. “A” claims that he “will eat when he is hungry, and eliminate any who stand in his way.” Shinichi, on the other hand, is capable of empathy and selflessness, which we see in his horrified reaction to Migi’s plan to use his classmates as a wall of meat. The thing that makes this show stand out, though, is that the characters aren’t just walking mouthpieces for their respective philosophies. If A’s sole concern were subsistence, he wouldn’t target Shinichi, whose parasitic right hand makes him much more difficult prey than the average human. Instead, he may be targeting him due to anger at their conflicting world views, or to assert dominance, or even because he views Shinichi as a threat to his sexual relationship with Tamura. Whatever the case may be, he has some motivation for his actions, which gives meaning to the upcoming battle and increases our anticipation for the event.

Just as interesting, though, were the revelations that there are other parasites who have managed to retain some element of their host’s humanity, or at least disguise themselves as humans quite effectively. One of these is Shinichi’s math teacher, who reveals over lunch that after having sex with A, she became pregnant with a perfectly ordinary baby. Her desire to fit into human society makes sense, then, although with Tamura it’s a little harder to tell whether she’s only interested in self-preservation, or if she has any maternal instinct towards her unborn human child. Judging by her neutral, almost bored expression as she delivered the news of her pregnancy, I’d lean towards the former, but as Parasyte goes on I have a feeling that the line between humans and parasites will become blurred to some extent. Very keen to see more of this show.

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Psycho Pass 2 – Episode 3

This was a step up from the last episode for sure, although a large part of this episode’s success must be attributed to its opening scene. Finally we got a lengthy look at Kamui, our villain, who has captured an Inspector, ripped out her right eye, and suspended it in some magical liquid so she can monitor her own crime coefficient. It’s a fascinating setup, and his goal – to make everyone’s hue clear and break Sibyl’s hold on society – is just as interesting, although Stockholm Syndrome has set in for his prisoner a little too quickly to be believed. All he did was speak in a soothing tone of voice and let her chew on his thumb for a bit. I’m guessing that whatever drug was in that IV drip is what’s actually responsible for lowering her crime coefficient, as well as calming her down despite her foreign surroundings. All in all, this was one of the better cold opens I’ve seen so far, but how did the rest of the episode fare?

Not as well, I’m afraid. Lots of conversations and no action were the orders of the day here, and I’m not necessarily against that (I liked the first Psycho Pass, after all), but like I said last time, this show is going to live or die as a thriller. I just wrote about characters serving as mouthpieces under the Parayste recap above, and that’s exactly the problem with this sequel: some of these characters are just names and colons on a script. Musings on identity and technology are always welcome, but when they dominate the proceedings to this degree, they need to be brilliant rather than just serviceable. And when you remove my investment in returning characters like Akane and Ginoza from the equation as well, it becomes a bit clearer that Psycho Pass 2 is merely getting by. The revelation that Togane’s crime coefficient was at one point the highest in recorded history was intriguing, though, so I’ll be watching to see how the writers handle that plot thread.

Disclaimer: Because the show has finished airing, I’ve had the chance to read a lot of criticism of Psycho Pass 2’s subpar plotting and resolution, which may have colored my views on this episode.

The Verdict: A great cliffhanger from Parasyte beats out a great cold open from its opponent. Plus, you know, better story and characters.


NEXT UP: Gundam vs. Tokyo Ghoul, Stardust Crusaders vs. Ace of Diamond

For the first time so far this tournament, the losing series in these matchups will be dropped from the bracket. I’m predicting victories for Tokyo Ghoul and Stardust Crusaders, but both of those series were upset by lower seeds in the first round, so it could happen again here!

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Round 1: The Eccentric Family vs. Tokyo ESP, Non Non Biyori vs. Rozen Maiden

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The Eccentric Family – Episode 2

This episode focused on Yasaburo’s immediate family, rather than his makeshift one, and while his relationships with Benten and Professor Akadama fascinated me last week, his mother and brothers may be even richer characters. Like Kyousougiga, The Eccentric Family is hard to write about because any explanation of its complicated family dynamics becomes so involved that it threatens to swallow whatever else you’ve written. The fact that all four Shimogamo siblings have names beginning with “Y” doesn’t help. Suffice it to say that I thoroughly enjoy the lived-in quality of this series – the dialogue establishes a world that’s already in progress, and the whole cast seems to have existed since long before their first on-screen appearance.

We see multiple sides to every character here. Yasaburo has settled comfortably into his reputation as a slacker and an idiot, but he cares deeply for his family. Over the course of this episode he accompanies his mother to her favorite pool hall, visits his older brother (who transformed into a frog one day and found himself unable to change back) stuck at the bottom of a well, and protects his younger brother from the Ebisugawas, a rival tanuki family. His mother is a brash pool player who pretends to forget her opponents’ names in order to insult them, but she’s deathly afraid of thunder and lightning, and must take refuge under a bridge when a storm arrives near the show’s end. Eldest brother Yaichirou carries the weight of the world on his shoulders trying to live up to his departed father’s legacy; he gets too nervous to properly coordinate a search for their mother, but he also transforms into a badass tiger to fight the Ebisugawas and save Yasaburo and Yoshiro. Even in death, the former head of the Shimogamo family is a nicely-rounded character. We learn that he had the respect of many tanuki in Kyoto and used that influence to unite tanuki society, but Yasaburo insists that his father wasn’t the type to fret about honor or personal standing.

The series is lovely to look at as usual. I love everything about the visual style, from the characters’ oddly-shaped ears to the detailed shrubbery to the always-drifting clouds. The music team really stepped up their game this week, with a swaggering synth-based track providing some good tension during the bridge fight scene, and soft piano tunes fitting nicely with the tender moments at the episode’s beginning and end. Plus I got really into the opening theme this week for some reason. For this show, however, art and sound are really just the icing on a delicious character-based cake. I just love spending time with these tanuki and watching how they get themselves in and out of trouble, how they fight and then reconcile, and how they influence each others’ lives. Yasaburo speaks the truth when he says in the opening moments of each episode, “More fun than anything is watching that wheel spin.”

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 Tokyo ESP – Episode 2

After an uninspired in medias res beginning, this episode flashed back to the origin of protagonist Urushiba Rinka’s powers. Schools of glowing orange fish that swim through the air are apparently the new cosmic radiation, as contact with the fish awakens esper abilities in Rinka (phasing), her father (magnetism), the teleporting male lead whose name I forget, and an invisible thief called Black Fist. Apparently the fish also gave the power of flight to this penguin, which was probably the most memorable thing about the episode. The music was bad, the characters were flat, and the fanservice was insulting. Both the classic Spiderman line “with great power comes great responsibility” and Wolverine’s signature hairdo were stolen from much better franchises. I’d pile on the show even further and criticize its subpar animation, but honestly that was the least of the show’s problems.

Instead of harping on Tokyo ESP’s weaknesses any more than necessary, though, let me predict how we’ll get from the introductory moments of episode 2 all the way to the climactic showdown featured in the premiere. I remember one of the villains from that first episode having the ability to teleport, but a completely different character with the same ability was introduced this week, so the bad guys will probably acquire some method of stealing other mutants’ powers. Superhero shows usually don’t double up on special abilities, after all. Taking someone’s power probably involves killing them, as the death of a close friend or lover (read: the teleporting guy) might give Rinka the motivation to become the fearsome fighter we saw in the first episode. Unless the flying penguin pictured above becomes the main character, though, I doubt that Tokyo ESP will get far enough in the tournament to prove this theory right or wrong.

The Verdict: Despite all their flashy powers, Tokyo ESP’s boring mutants are no match for the lively shapeshifting tanuki of The Eccentric Family.


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Non Non Biyori – Episode 2

Boy, was this episode ever lacking the charm of the first. Half of it revolved around a piece of candy belonging to Komari, coveted by Natsumi and Renge, and given to Hotaru. After this exchange, the two hungry girls scheme about how to win the candy for themselves, while Hotaru freaks out at the significance of the gift and starts blushing, quite literally, like a schoolgirl whenever she sees or thinks about Komari. This weird obsession extended into the second half, with Hotaru feeling the need to do her hair, put on makeup, and wear something “more grown up” before hanging out with her friend. This makeover results in possibly the most underwhelming case of mistaken identity I’ve ever seen, and I’ve watched my fair share of 80s sitcoms. The two take a trip to the local candy store (which somehow manages to stay in business despite the town’s child population of five), and this date leaves such an impression on Hotaru that, next we see her, she’s sewing a doll in Komari’s likeness. This show went from cute slice of life to The Middle School Stalker Hour really fast.

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Rozen Maiden (2013) – Episode 2

After the first episode’s confounding distillation of the previous Rozen Maiden series, this installment grounded the series comfortably in another universe where Jun opted not to wind the supernatural doll he’d been given as a boy. This version of Jun is older and arguably lonelier, despite leaving the house on a regular basis to work his part-time job and attend (or not attend) his college classes. His otherwise mundane life becomes a lot more watchable when he stumbles across a magazine entitled How to Build Girls at his bookstore job, takes it home, and begins his slow, well-paced decent into obsession with the doll-making process. The music and lighting did wonders to draw me in as more parts and more issues of the magazine brought Jun ever closer to his goal, until one day the shipments stopped and hope briefly seemed lost. Swearing, pacing, drumming his fingers, putting the kettle on and forgetting about it, the dim lighting in his apartment – all simple tricks to show frustration, but rarely utilized so effectively as they were here.

And then, suddenly, a text from his middle school self. When Zurückspulen shuts a door, it opens ten windows. Jun’s correspondence with another version of himself from another reality is thrilling, tying a hurricane of characters and plot points from the first episode into the main narrative, while giving life to a seemingly stalled quest in the present day. It doesn’t entirely justify the series’ initial whiplash effect, but it definitely has me excited to watch the next episode.

The Verdict: Non Non Biyori went from charming to perplexing, while Rozen Maiden went from perplexing to awesome.


NEXT UP: Parasyte vs. Hitsugi no Chaika, Psycho-Pass 2 vs. Ao Haru Ride

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