Summer 2019: Half Time Check-in

The season is well underway with a slew of some of the best shows of the year thus far. Let’s round up, from the ones worth skipping to the best, how each is doing, shall we?

13. Kanata no Astra

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I actually called this one of the highest potential shows of the season at the onset, didn’t I? Whoops. While the dramatic highs have some great audiovisual cues to sell their meaning, they fall flat consistently on the back of the dire characterisation. The show is about halfway through its potential runtime, yet not a single member of the cast has graduated past their gimmicks – the sporty one is sporty; the the cutesy one is cutesy; the quiet one is quiet; the smart ones are smart… it’s pitiful. Things look even more bleak when these characters worth little more than their face blandly attempt the ‘louder you shout it…’ comic routines, and you can’t ignore the visual component misguidedness; competent-ish, but constantly undermined by a decision to simply crop the widescreen to ultra-widescreen and suffocate the visual space. While the aloof one’s backstory has suggested there is a greater mystery underneath this show’s exterior, I ain’t getting to it, I’m afraid. This is a drop.

12. Katsute Kami Datta Kemono-tachi e

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The thing with monster stories like this one (henceforth, Abandoned Beasts) is that they don’t really have much potential to stick out from the rest of the group. They’re all telling the same story and asking the same question of ‘who are the real monsters?’ Abandoned Beasts has some cheaply manufactured, forcibly sympathetic backstories to try and spice up this question, but it’s ultimately a fairly mediocre rendition of a well-worn idea. This is a serviceable anime, but considering how many other very strong anime there are this season – I’m skipping it.

11. BEM

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I feel awkward covering this one, as its airing has been delayed due to the tragic attack on Kyoto Animation, and I’ve only had a chance to see 3 episodes. Still, let’s discuss what this one has been able to do so far: not a lot, and amateurishly. BEM has an urban noir-setting, where criminals battle in an underworld not too far from a much more developed city rife with political scheming, and focuses on the monsters at the heart of it. Like Abandoned Beasts, it has the same question, though asks it with a bit more nuance due to its more varied and developed setting. But, with all that table setting, comes the problem: the conflicts aren’t developed well enough. I’m hoping that, with the core cast given some breathing room, it will hopefully spread its wings a bit more, but even if it does there’s still a lot of amateurish moments (monster design being at an all-time low doesn’t help). While I’m continuing with this one, it’s the weakest of the bunch.

10. Machikado Mazoku

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Due to several things going on, I didn’t get a chance to cover this show’s premiere. This cute show involves a Demon Girl comically failing to kill a Magical Girl, and there’s not really much else to it. It’s a cute-girls show with a fun premise, but unfortunately it doesn’t really dig enough into its gimmick to offer enough charming scenarios to keep me interested, though some of its meta gags are quite good (my favourite being the timer during the transformation sequences). Despite the best efforts of the Demon Girl’s voice actress, Konomi Kohara, the characters just aren’t charming enough in their interactions for this to be a stand-out. Yes. standing out in the cute-girls genre is difficult, but this show is struggling to be more than occasionally amusing background noise rather than a memorable, fun time.

9. Sounan Desu Ka?

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Another I didn’t get a chance to write about. Well, it’s a short. Boo me. This one clocks in at 10 minutes and follows a group of girls stranded on a deserted island with the anime-girl rendition of Bear Grylls. There’s a lot of nature-survival jargon, some excuses for mildly-perverted humour and not a lot else. Mildly educational, mildly amusing, but ultimately too shallow in characterisation and gag-payoff to be a notable show. That is, until I’m caught on a desert island, in which case I’ll be racking my brains trying to remember its various, dubious tips.

8. Vinland Saga

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Ah, you didn’t expect to see this so down the list, did you? Well, it’s a tough crowd, and this one’s hyper-realism and dead-seriousness means that it draws attention to its own weaknesses – unintentionally forced melodrama and spending too long on the setup that it almost relinquishes the payoff. For 4 episodes, Vinland Saga wastes time following Thors, the father of the protagonist Thorfinn – so much of this time, while decently compelling, is essentially wasted and lacks the sensation of a good hook. When that good hook finally comes, whereby Thorfinn is forced to join the pirates that killed his father while simultaneously swearing vengeance, it feels like a breath of fresh air as it grows Thorfinn, meaningfully, from boy to man. However, the major scene to prove his newfound resignation as a heartless viking is just a little too scripted and corny. It feels like everything outside of Thorfinn’s story is a diversion moreso than worthwhile, and with how much the show tries to build a bigger picture, that can feel damning. Still, the dedication to a steadfast tone is commendable, and I hope that there’s some major payoff.

7. Kochouki: Wakaki Nobunaga

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Anime featuring Oda Nobunaga seem a dime-a-dozen, but one that tackles his actual history seems like a rarity. Sadly, I can’t necessarily say this is one for the history buffs as it takes some liberties, such as making his wife a damn ninja(!), but more subtly, major events are sugar coated for dramatic effect. Still, the show is far less interested in the major events and wars, and more on Oda Nobunaga’s journey from airhead to revered historical Japanese figure – and it is indeed a compelling journey. I’m consistently impressed with the sensation of key moments; from the edge of your seat to the teary-eyed catharsis, Kochouki is quite the success when it wants to be. Sadly, much of its world-building is rushed over as if it expects many of these key events to be things you know. If you’re not a history buff, you’ll just have to keep your eyes peeled and your ears sharp during the brief expo-dumps, meaning it can be a hard one to follow, but hiding behind that is a compelling character drama.

6. Cop Craft

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During its first two episodes, I would have probably handed the title of ‘best directed’ to Cop Craft. Not only was the pacing just right to get into the groove of its world while simultaneously developing the story, the way that the hardly impressive animation or frame-counts was used was extremely smart, becoming a really convincing visual style. However, the jump-up in pacing and action during its 3rd episode lost that, stripping away the well-tuned visuals and story and leaving us with what Cop Craft is fundamentally: a buddy cop show. Kei is an old-school cop through-and-through, and his gruff voice and cynical demeanour clashes excellently with the spunky other-world warrior, Tilarna. Their biting rapport is particularly excellent during the comic scenes, and the way the characters manipulate one another is amusing ways is really something. Despite the mini-stories fitting in some eloquent world-building, the crimes aren’t the most interesting. It would serve Cop Craft to be a little better at drawing the bigger picture, but it’s still a fun enough show.

5. Granbelm

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I can’t help but sigh when I realise many of my compatriots cannot discuss this show in the absence of Madoka Magica. There are parallels, sure, such as it being a semi-magical setting that is darker than you might expect of the cute designs, but the similarities are fairly shallow. Granbelm is more of a concoction of many popular fads, taking Battle Royales with underground urban fantasy mechanics, a sort-of other-world setting that characters travel between and the aforementioned dark-but-cute aesthetic. All these ideas are blended in well such that Granbelm really does have its own identity – but it has some serious macro-direction issues.

I mentioned this problem somewhat in its first episode, where simultaneous events were occurring in different areas but it stuck rigidly to just one – the battle that is hard for viewers to understand as context for the power system is completely absent at this point, and settles here for more than 5 minutes. That kind of thing continues, but most frustratingly, in the slice-of-life scenes where the various parties are attempting to be painted. It jumps in at the deep-end too many times, failing to explain who these people are and what their relevance is, and when it switches without an excuse, it’s jarring. The more you watch, the more this haphazardly laid-out jigsaw comes together, and particularly when following Mangetsu or the developed plight of Shingetsu and Anna, Granbelm can actually be quite compelling. The action scenes, while a little uneasy with all the simultaneous events going on, are typically really exciting and visually impressive. And it would do me no favours to not mention that, unlike some of its more dead-serious urban-fantasy cohorts, the scant (2-3 per episode) gag is hilarious. With a recent spanner-in-the-works from a post-credit scene, I will admit it – I’m excited to see this story continue to unfurl. Granbelm is clumsy, but if you give it time, it’s the right kind of addictive.

4. Tejina-senpai

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So, while this show’s attempts to titillate with panty shots and boob jokes are usually contrived, I still can’t help but laugh. Tejina-senpai is a terrific over-the-top comedy because of the titular character’s voice actress, Kaede Hondo, putting on such a strong and well rounded performance. It’s hard not to get wrapped up in the spirit, you know? It further helps that the straight-man, Assistant-kun, is far more sly and cunning than the usual protagonist – and the sarcastic retorts he’s given are fantastic. Tejina-senpai is a loud comedy, but it has some creative gags under the surface and ultimately overcomes its crudeness to simply be fun.

3. Araburu Kisetsu no Otome-domo yo.

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Sometimes the anime community surprises you. It’s not so much that this show is getting some high consensus ratings – that’s a given with a show of this quality with a notable writer behind it – but the big surprise is that the English title ‘O Maidens In Your Savage Season’ is catching on more than any portmanteau of its Japanese title. And so, ‘O Maidens’ is the term I will use (begrudgingly, because it sounds a bit silly, as literal English translations often do!).

There’s no shortage of ‘ecchi’ comedies, but the big draw of O Maidens is the mature perspective it gives to girls coming to realise sex exists. It’s a real coming-of-age drama, and the way the characters grow so quickly and organically makes it one of the most compelling dramas of the year. While not every character is a hit (Kazusa’s a bit soppy; Nina’s Electra-Complex-style feelings for a creepy older man are an eyeroll), the creative situations, feminist undertones and that knee-slapping comedy of the series keeps it a constant delight. Since much of the jokes are visual, it stands to reason that there’s some smart storyboarding, but as of episode 5, the quality of art has dropped significantly. But that doesn’t stop the extremely feel-good, well developed and relatable storylines from shining through. Yes, this show is a romcom, a bit unlike any you’ve seen before, but all the more potent for it.

2. Given

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Okay so here’s another show I didn’t get a chance to write about – and I’m kicking myself for it. My initial prediction wondered if its production can keep up with its picturesque romance and lively music, and while it takes some shortcuts, the fact is that it absolutely can. I’ve seen some less-knowing authors writing about Given and unsure that it will actually become a romance, but in its most recent episode, it really solidified that it’s just taking things slowly. Now, slow romances are hard to get right, but with this much cast development (including setting up a support network for our boys and going in-depth to background classmates), showing a willingness to discuss actual homosexuality and some really, really good rock-band writing (you get the sense the author might be in a band themselves!), Given is a show you can’t miss. It is still slow, and it’s running out of time, but if my prediction about its upcoming pacing is right, I think Given could become one of the most satisfying romantic dramas I’ve seen. 

1. Dumbell Nan Kilo Moteru?

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But at the end of the day, there’s this goofy fitness anime which I abbreviate to Dumbbells. Dumbbells is indeed absolutely goofy, with its ridiculous faces that jump into entirely different artstyles, and the personal trainer, (naturally named) Machio, ripping his clothes with the sheer size of his muscles. It’s non-stop delight of gags, but that’s just surface dressing over the educational part of this edutainment – fitness. I won’t lie, I am in the target demographic that this show aims for, a mixture of unfit-but-keen-to-get-fit and amateur fitizens, but even beyond the (dubious) knowledge bombs that it can drop for my fellows just getting started, Dumbbell is a treat for the more experienced as Doga Kobo flex their animatedness and pack in jokes that poke fun at gym culture. Even so, it gives me endless joy that this show might be influencing folks to get started on their own journey – because you just can’t not join in with those post-credit join-in workouts.


A Check-in With Sequels

Symphogear XV

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In its 5th and (supposedly) final season, it’s clear they’re trying to go out with a bang with Symphogear. A series with already impressive animation has found a way to go further still, with some jaw-dropping transformation sequences and many, many creative and thrilling action scenes. The extremely subtle or very relevant callbacks to prior seasons make this finale more of a pilgrimage through its own history, and though the story is getting a little convoluted, it is pacing itself well with some exciting cliffhangers. It’s bigger, it’s badder, and it’s even more Symphogear than Symphogear has Symphogear’d. XV is by no means a finale to pull back Symphogear’s critics, but it’s shaping up to be a resounding note to finish on. That is, if it truly finishes. (My money’s on a spinoff)

Lord El-Melloi II Sei no Jikenbo: Rail Zeppelin Grace Note

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So perhaps it’s a little unfair to discuss this one since the setup of the season – 6 episodes anime original; 7 episodes adapted from the light novel – means that it’s about to go through a potentially big shift in style (and potentially, tone). However, I’m enjoying it a great deal – despite it’s bizarre identity. It’s a bit of a counter-intuitive detective show in that the nonsensical magic system makes processing the ‘whodunnit’, along with the detective, is nigh impossible, but the show plays its cards right in not dwelling too hard on that, and instead on the ‘whydunnut’ and atmosphere. It’s one of the few Fate shows to have a good sense of humour (without resorting to meta jokes, anyway) – particularly notable in the classroom scenes where El-Melloi II loses his cool and the backgrounds detail such a… vibrant group. That ability to connect with its lighthearted segments means that the heavier or more philosophical sides have all the more weight. The titular Lord El-Melloi II is a character of tremendous depth, and has simultaneously remained the same Waver (from Fate/Zero) while demonstrating all those 10 years of growth. The sidecast are perhaps a little undeveloped, but even a recent episode without our useless-yet-brainy mage maintained all the great aspects this show has accumulated. If nothing else, I’m beginning to think that director Makoto Katou (of Yagate Kimi no Naru fame) is becoming a very prominent director, though the handful of action scenes of El-Melloi II have left something to be desired.

If you’ve seen Fate/Zero, you’re good to go with this one, though having seen some other entries (particularly Apocrypha or kaleid liner) will give you a good base for the extraneous characters (such as Sisigou or Luvia).


Wrap up

It’s only halfway through the season, but I’ll be honest – this season is hiding some of the best shows of the year. I fully expect the top 3 I just outlined to be discussed on my End of Year list. Even beyond those top shows, though, there’s a lot of very watchable shows that, even if they won’t reinvent the wheel, are still pleasures to tune-in to. Unlike last season which was full of disappointment, I feel very optimistic about most of these shows getting scores in excess of 5/10.

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