Monday, 15 April 2013

Streaming: Spring 2013 anime first impressions

Spring got off to a delayed start for me since I was away on holiday when it began. After catching up with the endings to the anime series I was streaming already, I dived in to see what was on offer for the season to come!

There are a lot of fresh starts with this new batch of anime because all of the longer shows I'd been following since the autumn came to an end at the same time. This means I have more freedom in my schedule to watch newer series. Unfortunately, several of the shows I wanted to watch (Karneval, Red Data Girl) have been locked away from the UK entirely, while others which might point to Kaze (Arata Kangatari, Hyakka Ryouran Samurai Bride) have yet to appear as Anime On Demand titles. Could this be a chance to catch up on my neglected Blu-ray backlog?

Crunchyroll's lineup is here as always. As far as I can tell, Anime On Demand haven't said a word since the beginning of January. The only other service with a potential UK presence this time is Daisuki.


AIURA
For a series with episodes running only a few minutes in length this has very attractive animation. There wasn't enough time between the opening sequence and the ending credits to get a feel for what AIURA is going to be about (if anything); I may have to give it a few more weeks before making a decision on this gentle-looking school comedy with strange, strange opening visuals.


Attack On Titan (Shingeki No Kyojin)
Attack On Titan was an immediate contender for the most well-received anime in Japan this season. It debuted late (there are some indications that there was a tug-of-war between Crunchyroll and FUNimation over licensing rights) so I was able to watch both of the first two episodes together. I have nothing bad to say about Attack On Titan; the production values, design work, dialogue and music were all wonderful, and the gory parts were appropriately chilling. The opening theme by Linked Horizon is on my shopping list too, in part thanks to the hundreds of parodies which have been springing up on Nico Nico. It's tempting to start reading the manga (conveniently already being published in English) in between episodes to make the wait shorter.


Devil Survivor 2
I'm passing on Devil Survivor 2 outright because even if it's good, I'm convinced that Atlus will backstab fans overseas in the long run by not including subtitles on the Japanese release, mandating that the US Blu-ray release is dub-only and then delaying the still-unreleased UK version of the world's only region locked PS3 game (Persona 4 Arena) by another six months for no rational reason. My life is less disappointing if I pretend Atlus products don't exist these days and spend my money (and time) on products made by companies who don't hate their own customers.

Flowers of Evil (Aku No Hana)
Aku no Hana cemented itself as the most controversial show of the season right from the first episode thanks to its unusual art style. Instead of adapting the manga artwork for animation in the usual way, the series has been filmed like a live action Japanese drama and then rotoscoped to make all of the actors look cel-shaded. The effect is odd, and it's horrified fans of the manga who were looking forward to a more traditional project. The gap between the original artwork and the anime wasn't a problem for me since I've never read the manga; however, the character voices had all been dubbed - something I strongly dislike in live action since the dialogue never quite matches the facial expressions. One advantage of the style is that the motion is very detailed since it's captured from live actors; sadly, this only extends to the leads, as background characters are frozen in place most of the time like props.

Ultimately it's clear that the creators were aiming for something unusual to match the content of the show and that's where my second gripe comes in: without the charm of appealing visuals it means that the story of Aku No Hana has to stand on its quality alone, and the pace of the first episode is extremely slow with numerous shots of eerie faceless schoolchildren muttering far away from the camera about inconsequential things. From the first episode, I'm not yet sure whether the story will prove strong enough to carry this weird-looking series on its own. Getting used to the visual style was easy compared to maintaining interest during the long pauses between scenes. In my defence, I've never felt any urge to read the manga either, so the visuals can't be blamed for my decision to place the series on hold so quickly.


Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet (Suisei No Gargantia)
An absolutely cracking first episode! The staff wasted no time in diving straight into the action here and it's paid off well by making me want to see more. The series starts right in the middle of a dazzling feast of colours and space combat and never lets the excitement die down even when the action shifts elsewhere. Vibrant character designs, interesting references and attention to small world-building details made Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet an immediate addition to my streaming schedule this season.


Hayate The Combat Butler! Cuties (Hayate No Gotoku! Cuties)
The missing second season of Hayate No Gotoku remains one of the most regrettable casualties of Bandai Entertainment's demise. I decided to give the first episode of this new series a quick look to make sure I wasn't missing while continuing to pray that someone will rescue the earlier material and give it a DVD release in the US. What I found with Hayate No Gotoku! Cuties was that everything was a softer, rounder, gentler version of the show I originally got into - and the plot has advanced quite a long way. It seems that reading the manga is necessary at this point to make sense of the jumbled anime timeline; Hayate recaps the plot briefly at the start, but only the parts I knew from the first season! Halfway through the first episode I realised what the biggest problem was with this harmless new Hayate No Gotoku: I wasn't laughing at the typical fluffy harem gags any more. Between the loss of the quick-fire referential humour from season one and the bewildering new scenario and characters, I think it's best to give this sequel a miss until I can fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge.


HENNEKO – The Hentai Prince And The Stony Cat (Hentai Ouji To Warawanai Neko)
The latest 'odd couple' anime adaptation based on a light novel series with a quirky name. The premise is unique (a perverted boy who wants to be more open with his feelings meets a cute girl who wants to be less open, and they both have their wishes granted). However, the execution of this story is the opposite, full of familiar usual romantic comedy material. I was already finding it irritating rather than entertaining after just one episode, so 'HenNeko' is definitely not something I'll be keeping up with as it streams.


Majestic Prince (Ginga Kikoutai Majestic Prince)
From the first episode Majestic Prince feels like the weakest of the space/mecha shows this season. The distinctive Hirai Hisashi designs also make it difficult to avoid comparing everything to the vaguely-similar Gundam SEED, which was so much stronger in plot and characterisation that it makes the flaws in Majestic Prince seem even worse than they really are. There's certainly some entertainment value to be had in the growth of the unmotivated 'Fail Five' losers as pilots; it's just a little too goofy for me and doesn't stand up well alongside its counterparts this season. Even a lovely Ishikawa Chiaki closing song after the first episode's climax couldn't restore my interest. Passing for now, with the possibility of coming back if I catch wind of some incredible twist to the plot to rescue it from mediocrity later on.


Muromi-san (Namiuchigiwa No Muromi-san)
A hyperactive gag series with twelve-minute episodes, based around a deadpan boy catching a strange mermaid when he's fishing and the clash of cultures which follows. It's certainly watchable (even if the mermaid herself looks scary). I'm not sure if it's something I'll come back to week after week.


Mushibugyo
Ooh, I like the season's colourful new shounen series a lot. It's unfair to say this as it's a comparison that Mushibugyo can't hope to compete with, but the stylised artwork and historical imagery remind me a little of Katanagatari (especially during the spirited opening). The story is nothing special, following a young samurai who travels to the capital in 18th century Japan to join up with a team of monster-fighting heroes. Along the way he has to prove himself to the locals, save a curvy damsel in distress and explain his entire backstory, all which he manages without losing an ounce of enthusiasm. The other characters in the team look interesting and I'm hopelessly biased towards anything set in the past, so I'll be sticking with Mushibugyo for the foreseeable future.


Nyarko-san: Another Crawling Chaos W (Haiyore! Nyaruko-san W)
I wasn't planning on watching Nyarko-san weekly as I have yet to see the earlier episodes. However, I couldn't resist starting the first episode playing to see if the new opening song was as infectious as the previous one, and before I knew it I was laughing at the gags. The humour and insipid romantic comedy tropes are balanced very well (i.e. the jokes are given the most screen time) so I didn't feel frustrated by the harem setup. It's unusual that neither Sentai Filmworks nor FUNimation seem to have picked up the earlier parts of this solid comedy series for a US home video release yet.


Oreimo season 2 (Ore No Imouto Ga Konna Ni Kawaii Wake Ga Nai.)
I watched the first season of Oreimo on Aniplex of America's previous DVD set with my partner so we'll be following the second season together too. In that respect it gets a free pass onto my streaming list. I have to note that the first episode was quite weak, reminding viewers of the current state of affairs after season one in a way which made Kirino seem even more selfish and aggravating than usual. I hope she acts like less of a brat next episode...


Sparrow's Hotel
Everyone is making noise about the visual style of Aku No Hana at the moment, but the promotional artwork for Sparrow's Hotel on Crunchyroll's site terrified me much more with its busty lead's creepily vapid smile. For some reason after getting it into my head that it was a full-length series I was surprised to see a run time of three minutes when I started watching the first episode. The time passed quickly, loaded with gags about a super-strong hotel worker. Fortunately, the exaggerated artwork becomes less intimidating very quickly so I'll continue watching the charming, slightly-odd Sparrow's Hotel for at least a few more episodes.


The Severing Crime Edge (Dansai Bunri No Crime Edge)
Last season we had Cuticle Detective Inaba, a series about a humanoid canine with a hair fetish, and this time we have a show about a freaky guy obsessed with cutting other people's hair who implausibly meets a girl whose hair cannot be cut. The hair cutting scenes are funny but I'm having trouble sympathising with the main character; he comes off as a creepy stalker who only cares about his own feelings rather than the destined saviour he's probably supposed to be. The excessive amount of drama attached to the 'first world problem' of not being able to have a haircut is also grating (she quit school as a young child because of bullies telling her that her hair was too long?!).


Uta No Prince-sama: Maji Love 2000%
Crazy from the first couple of minutes onwards, UtaPri's second season is a worthy successor to the original. This time, the main characters have to refine themselves as budding idols without strangling the annoying new characters who appear to guide them. In between, everyone seems to find plenty of time to blush and whisper seductive things in the heroine's ear whenever they're alone together. UtaPri isn't particular clever, but what it lacks in originality it compensates for with nonstop sparkles, laughs and pretty, pretty people. My only regret is that I never saw the ending to the first season when it was on FUNimation's now-defunct Nico Nico partner site, so I'm waiting for Crunchyroll to get around to making the earlier episodes available.


Valvrave The Liberator (Kakumeiki Valvrave)
Another show with space travel and giant robots, and another phenomenal opening episode! Right from the beginning Valvrave demonstrates how to do a typical schoolboy pilot series properly. The pacing, characters, animation and music all came together with a new twist on a familiar story about a foreign military attacking what appears to be a normal school. I loved the design of the titular mecha as well. After the climax, the much-anticipated duet from Mizuki Nana and T.M.Revolution rolled around at the end of the episode to close things with another dose of excitement. Next week's episode can't come soon enough.


YUYUSHIKI
Three dizzy schoolgirls start high school for the first time, eventually discovering that their aimless chats about daily life are a good fit for the school's abandoned Data Processing Club. Two of the girls are quite irritating, spending their time ganging up to tease the third in a way which is supposed to be cute. I have mixed feelings about YUYUSHIKI. On one hand, I don't tend to like school comedies about cute girls doing cute things. On the other, some of the facts that came up in their meandering conversations were actually quite interesting! I'm going to go with my gut feeling and drop this for now, before I get too bothered by the brainless pink-haired one (Yuzu?).


Zettai Boei Leviatan (Zettai Bouei Leviathan)
Based on a mobile phone game about collecting cards, Zettai Boei Leviatan had a strong start with a more exciting opening sequence than I'd given it credit for. I was expecting a generic fantasy adventure with a dash of cuteness. While that's exactly what it seems to be, it was also unexpectedly watchable with a sharp sense of humour. The designs for the girls are easy on the eyes as well, so I'll give it a few more episodes before deciding whether or not I'll be following it regularly.


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Of the series we won't get, I'm most disappointed by the absence of Karneval, a victim of FUNimation's unbelievable system where they apparently pick up the English language rights and then block the UK from every single digital streaming outlet they use. Hataraku Maou-sama (The Devil Is A Part Timer) is another show locked away from us, as are Date A Live, Toaru Kagaku No Railgun S and Red Data Girl. I wish that the Japanese companies would step in and refuse to deal with western licensors who treat other English-speakers this badly, frankly, and while I won't resort to piracy myself I can't bring myself to condemn those who do when we're locked out and FUNimation streams aren't picked up by their competitors for the UK. I'd been looking forward to Karneval. This disgusting situation is making me less willing to support FUNimation than I used to be.

However, the surprise revelation that the popular Attack On Titan anime was going to be streaming through Crunchyroll as well as FUNimation was a big step in the right direction. If the chains of exclusivity are removed from companies which only serve one region, the world of streaming might improve significantly in future. I'd be in favour of eventually seeing Crunchyroll streaming every new show worldwide (outside Japan) with an option for local companies to license content as well if they feel it would benefit their audiences.

Kaze's Anime On Demand hasn't yet announced any titles for streaming. Looking at what the US has got, I imagine that the reason that Hyakka Ryouran Samurai Bride has been region locked on Crunchyroll is that AoD will be streaming it; they have the license to the earlier Samurai Girls series, after all. The other region locked Crunchyroll titles are My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU (Yahari Ore No Seishun Love-Come Wa Machigatteiru), Photokano and Arata: The Legend (Arata Kangatari), so perhaps they might go to AoD as well? The first two have already been announced by Kaze's French side, so it seems likely. Even though it's disappointing when licenses are split to force customers to use more than one service, it's better than not getting them at all. Except when they're blocked from Crunchyroll only to be offered to us again late on a different streaming site.

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It seems that my Spring 2013 streaming schedule will start out looking like this:

Monday: Mushibugyo
Tuesday: Sparrow's Hotel
Wednesday: Uta No Prince-sama: Maji Love 2000%
Thursday:
Friday: Valvrave The Liberator
Saturday: Zettai Boei Leviatan, Oreimo season 2
Sunday: Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, Attack On Titan

The episodes are spread nicely throughout the week this time instead of concentrated on Thursday evenings. Although nothing looks as though it will suck me into buying much merchandise or (future) doujinshi so far, I've enjoyed the intial episodes of Valvrave The Liberator, Uta No Prince-sama: Maji Love 2000%, Attack On Titan and Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet the most.

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