Spring 2021’s Epic First Half

At some point, I stopped doing Episode 1 Reviews. I’m not entirely sure when. It seems like it was… last Fall? Huh, I guess it was just some 7 or so months ago. Time flies – except it felt a lot more stagnant than that. While Akudama Drive was brilliant, I’ve began to lose faith in seasonal anime. Last season was pretty crap, and even Fall 2020 (which produced a couple of 9/10s, lest we forget), was still giving me wavering faith. What’s the point in reviewing a first episode if it’s just gonna wind up disappointing?

What’s the point in following seasonals if they’re all kinda… crappy?

Okay, so last season wasn’t a hit. Urasekai Picnic was fun enough and other than that… yikes. So, Spring 2021. I was expecting another shoddy showing from premieres, where any signs of potential were equal signs of squandering.

I’m anywhere from 6-8 weeks in and this is the best season of anime I’ve ever taken a part in. Let’s start from the top:

The Intellectual Side of Fall 2021

You know my odd relationship with Boogiepop – I love a good cerebral anime. From very different angles, Spring 2021 is serving a couple of the finest in that field. Let’s start with the real surprise hit, the original anime Odd Taxi.

Odd Taxi’s a hard sell, and not entirely because its cast are anthropomorphic animals. No, Odd Taxi’s a hard sell because its episodes can generally be described as ‘a character gets in Odakawa’s Taxi, they chat, they leave’. But that doesn’t fully grasp how enthralling it all is.

The recipe that makes Odd Taxi such a success is fantastic scriptwriting, maybe some of the best in anime. Maybe I’m jumping the gun a bit, but Odd Taxi’s blend of social commentary across a plethora of fields (from student debt to struggling comedians and somehow off to the desire to be ‘big’ on the internet) and deep character understanding creates dialogue that is truly bottomless in depth. Most everything is inferred, and I find myself constantly glued to the subtitles, piecing together the larger piece of the thrilling puzzle – where is the missing girl? What is the missing medicine? WHO is Satoshi Nagishima?!

Armed with this incredible script, dry wit and an excellently rendered real-life backdrop, Odd Taxi’s a runaway hit with a distinctive voice. Any fan of high-brow television should give it a shot.

And on that note – Mars Red. A very different kind of intellectual… this one’s for the theatre nerds.

No, really – Mars Red began as a stage play, then adapted into a manga and brought to life with impeccable cinematographic flair. Every single frame is beautiful, with its heavy-pencil-line art, ultra-widescreen letterboxing and sharp angles. It’s an anime that commands metaphoric visual language to great effect. You’ve got to pay an immense amount of attention to Mars Red, as its scant dialogue rarely ever tells the true picture – you’ve got to paint the picture yourself with audiovisual cues and the narrative’s coyness.

But Mars Red is also a vampire anime. Perhaps it’s the most pretentious vampire anime ever, but it’s got the chops to pull it off. Its gruff main character, Maeda, head of a covert ‘Vampire Unit’, is a tremendous lead, but his unit’s gimmicy designs makes the anime seem like it’s going to go into ‘Cool Boys Do Cool Stuff’ territory (not unlike Mayonaka no Occult Koumuin, which I found disappointing) and wind up a middle of the road modern female demographic anime. But don’t be fooled: the writing, with all its theatric references and tricks, is just as sharp as this anime’s flair, as it explores military men coping with Japan’s changing socioeconomic climate pushing them to the obsolete.

I still can’t believe we learned in Episode 1 that Maeda has a prosthetic arm. That was so subtle, and it wasn’t visually confirmed until Episode 6… the ‘show; don’t tell’ in this anime is unmatchable. Mars Red is demanding, no doubt about it, but if you’re up to the task, it pays dividends.

Sci-Fi Romps With That Special Something

86 is a light novel. That’s a warning sign 9/10 times. Light novels don’t often make good anime, and really require a directorial touch to smooth over the translation to screen of light novella’s signature dichotomy of 0 or overt descriptive prose. So I was trepidatious that the great concept behind 86 – a prosperous city who outsources their war’s fighting to a a different race of citizens – would be smothered in incomprehensible anime bullshit.

They’ve (generally) done a fantastic job!

One thing I’ve gotta hand to them is how the excessive expositioning was cut down. Don’t get me wrong, this anime’s still a glutton for self-explanatory-isms, but there’s a lot of neat shortcuts. For example, Lena mentions the ‘Para Raid’ function, and the camera happens to centre on it then; as Lena mentions District 1, she is looking out a window at a Palace. The links in dialogue are made subtly with the visual language, and it’s not genius visual direction – but it helps a lot.

The excellent concept of 86 is the shining gem of the anime. The way Lena interacts with the 86ers is the major part of contention of the anime’s first half, and how she deals with understanding her privilege, and overcoming her powerlessness in the fact of that, makes for a really intriguing piece of racial commentary and meta-fiction. Even when it’s blunt, it’s heart is in the right place.

It’s just sad I can’t quite call the anime ‘challenging’, because it has boxed up its racism narrative in a tidy fantasy box that doesn’t exist in our world. It’s, uh, hair racism, with the Alba people having shiny white locks as opposed to the 86ers more varied hair colours. And with that comes ‘plausible deniability’, which is not a strength of any anime with a message.

Likewise, the ‘anime’-centric writing comes across in its slice-of-life portions. When not in a war-room failing to command her squadron, Lena eats cake with Henrietta, the only other Alba she seems to be on friendly terms with and… her relationship there feels manufactured. On the other side, the hijinks the 86ers get up to in their downtime is a mixed bag – the ‘peeping on the girls bathing’ seguey was particularly weak (don’t worry, they weren’t actually bathing or even undressed – they rolled their jumpsuits’ trousers up), but it did create the scene where they thought there was an enemy sneak-attack, and any notion of fun was killed in the split-second all the girls pulled out their guns. That was slick.

The anime is slick in the way it cuts from these light moments to the darker, war moments. Single sounds will juxtapose one to the other – cake falling becomes a bombshell dropping; a laugh becomes a scream, in the blink of an eye. And beyond that shock value, this anime got heart, one that’s tackling the core of our beliefs and whether we’re truly kind or patting ourselves on the back for good intentions alone. That’s powerful.

On the other hand, we have Vivy – a romp that is getting a lot of comparisons to Terminator for its plot where an AI travels back from the future to prevent a war between AI and humans. The kicker is that the AI doing all the work to prevent the war is, essentially, attempting to sabotage every significant Pro AI Right movement from ever taking place, all the while the anime is building the case that there ain’t that much difference between AI and humans.

From Episode 2, it’s clear this is an anime with humongous feeling. Diva (or, as she prefers to be known, Vivy), the Songstress AI that does the lifting to prevent the upcoming war, just wants to sing. But her mission is to ‘make people smile with her song’, and she’s figured out that dead people can’t go smiling. But it goes more than that. She’s testing her internal circuits and finding the humanity beneath.

And the anime matches exquisite action sequences and a thrilling plots. Every two episodes (which comprise small arcs) there’s a 10+ year gap, and the anime has to fill in the details of that time, but the key ingredients remain the same. Something is going to cause people to think AI either deserve or do not deserve rights, and she is pained as she fights against her own kind. It’s tragic. She’s fighting against herself for the good of humanity, and her putting herself second is heart-breaking to see, and just so important for the gently built message that she is just as human as everybody else.

Admittedly, the limiter of two episode arcs can create scenarios where there isn’t quite enough depth. Episode 3 & 4, the ‘Sunrise Arc’, where any Gundam fan will be grinning through every reference as a Colony is dropped from Space (!!!!) and Vivy’s wearing a Char Jacket, but the underlying conflict feels a teeny bit rushed. 5 & 6 jump into a different kind of conflict, where the first AI marriage occurs, and the plot’s evolution is incredibly well handled, but much of the sci-fi theory is lipservice at best. Then again, its climax is mind-blowing adrenaline fuel, as Vivy drives a levitating bike into the heart of a machine, lasers are going haywire and Wit Studio’s animation is jaw-dropping.

It’s not a deep-dive into AI fiction, but a whistle-stop-tour, and with its incredible action chops, it’s a damn fun one. Maybe it could be deeper, but I’m not complaining!

And Super Cub

I check every seasonal anime’s synopsis. Cute girl do cute thing (CGDCT) shows are always clear from the tin – the conflict is minimal at best, usually resolved at episode 1 if there even is one, and the anime becomes set to feature a whole lotta nothing. I love these anime, because they’re never trying to be difficult or controversial, instead aiming at a comfortable appreciative value. In fact, I never find ‘masterpieces’ or even 10/10 anime in the genre, because the low amount of drive from screen to audience creates a perfunctory, ephemeral experience at best that was never supposed to be lodged in the heart. These types of anime… they’re less like art, more like a warm mug on a dreary afternoon, getting you through the day with a grin, but never deep enough to become ‘intimate’.

Super Cub is an anime about a girl who gets a bike (the famous Honda Cub), and makes friends, and explores her new hobby, dealing with the problems of being a new motorbike driver and having little experience. Textbook cute girl anime, using the ‘gimmick’ of the bike to differentiate itself from a marketing standpoint, but I’m usually down for that kind of thing – so good or bad, I’m in for the long haul.

But it’s a masterpiece. One that I tear up during every episode for. One that challenges my ideas of independence, dreams and personal contentedness. Super Cub is gentle, warm, soothing and so, so intimate. I think I love this anime more than any other anime i’ve seen before.

Its gorgeous audiovisual presentation is where it all goes so right. Most of the anime is Koguma, the main character, driving around on her new bike. The sound of the wind and her engine is rarely accompanied by music, and when it is, it’s typically a gentle piano score backed by the lightest brush of a jazz beat. The ASMR soundscape is given detailed background art, often faithful recreation of real life locations throughout Yamanashi’s boonies, but the cinematography and colour focuses on opening her world up, gradually freeing her from her claustrophobic greys and tight camera-spacing to beautiful scenic views. Just seeing her goofy smile lifts my heart.

Super Cub was instantly a step-above other cute-girl anime from its premiere, focusing intently on Koguma’s independence. But when it introduced a friend, a fellow Cub enthusiast called Reiko, I began to realise how perfect this anime was. Koguma and Reiko’s relationship travels from a mere shared interest to something much, much closer, and seeing them bond over dreams together – different dreams, dreams they will support each other on and even consider for themselves – is deeply moving. This largely culminates from Episode 5’s whacky plotline – Reiko tries to climb Mt. Fuji on her bike, and the depth of the anime to cover the modifcations is impressive, but the intimacy between audience and Reiko’s passion, to find what it means to persevere and to reevaluate just why, makes for some of the finest television I’ve taken part in.

In episode six, Reiko ends up riding on the back of Koguma’s Cub, and the camera focuses intently on, not just how tightly her arms circle around Koguma for support – the support they have given each other – but also, the big, goofy grins. These girls have found so much love in life. It’s inspiring seeing their worlds open up. Every episode, I find myself tearing up from sheer euphoria, because these girls are living their best life and Super Cub’s ability to translate that to the audience makes it a an undoubtable masterpiece.

The Rest of Spring 2021 is Pretty Good Too!

Remember Megalo Box? Well, I… heard somebody say its second season, Nomad, was pretty good, even from a first season hater. I decided I’d give its first episode a shot – damn son. Damn. While the arc onwards from Episode 4 is drifting away from Nomad’s core strength – the Latin American heritage – and ultimately regressing from new characters to returning ones, it’s still a more complex watch. Nomad has shown it can impressively depict personal confrontation, and Jo’s battle with drug dependency and suicidal tendencies was more powerful than I expected.

Continuing from Fall 2020, Yuukoku no Moriarty‘s second season is hamming up brilliantly. The conflict is much less about ‘sticking it to bad people’, and more about creating games for its excellent Sherlock Holmes to become trapped in. Its morality discussion is much more complex, even if its villains are no more well-rounded, and that makes it exciting – and with Irene Adler renaming herself ‘James Bond’, and ‘Jack the Ripper’ showing up to reclaim his name, I gotta say, the hamminess is a selling point at this point.

Also, Shakunetsu Kabaddi, a sports anime about a sport that has struggled to gain traction outside of the Indian Subcontinent, is surprisingly good! I mostly came in because the sport sounds like fire (no pun intended), and while the anime has… shall we say ‘economic’ animation, the way it can sell the hype of its sport is really great, in that classic shounen actiony vibe. I can’t undermine how funny it is either, with the gang pulling faces at the opposing team in the latest episode to be one of the dorkiest, funniest moments of the season. Also, it’s overflowing with testosterone. I physically need to shave after seeing this groundbreaking new hormone replacement drug. It’s so damn manly Jesus…

My Spring 2021

While Megalo Box Nomad has began lowering its quality, and Shakunetsu Kabaddi being only 1-cour could wind up with it finishing in a really unsatisfying place, I’m far enough through the season that I’m really confident all my other seasonal picks are going to be in the upper-third of the rating scale. Super Cub in particular is already making a bid for my favourite all time anime, and in a season where I feel I’m going to be giving out multiple 9/10s, I gotta say… this season of anime is crazy good.

How are you all finding Spring 2021? Are there any major anime I’m missing out on? Feel free to make my weekly watch even more bloated than it already is – I’m loving anime right now, so Bring. It. On.

7 thoughts on “Spring 2021’s Epic First Half

    1. Odd Taxi! Glad to see somebody else checking it out. By setup alone it’s pretty esoteric.

      As for Super Cub… it’s unlikely to fit as a binge show. It’s very, very, very slow. The best parts are the awkward moments between dialogues, and the background silence. It’s working so well for me as a weekly pick-me-up show. I could just see binging it could degrade that special charm, but then again, everybody’s different!

      Liked by 1 person

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