Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Streaming: Autumn 2013 anime final impressions

What a roller-coaster of a season - and that's just the industry developments rather than the anime itself!

At the start of the autumn 2013 season the UK was down to just one active streaming service: Crunchyroll. Daisuki had gradually dropped support for the UK from a large portion of its library, Anime On Demand had silently stopped adding new content and things were looking very gloomy indeed.

It wasn't until after the first few episodes had aired that things suddenly started happening. Anime Limited revealed a partnership with French company Wakanim, bringing Samurai Flamenco and Kill la Kill to UK viewers where we'd lost all hope of a license. Then a few weeks later, Animax launched a service in the UK with some of the missing simulcasts and all of the 'lost' Anime On Demand titles! After having used them both, Wakanim's page seems much easier to use than Animax's - which doesn't list episode numbers and titles clearly in most views, making it frustrating to navigate. Anime Limited is upfront about the schedule for their streams, while Animax is disturbingly similar to Anime On Demand in its belief that the viewers will wait patiently with no information as episodes go up on weird days or experience silent delays (at the time I'm writing this, the last episode of Magi went up eight days ago in the US and it's still missing from Animax's site). Animax's video quality for its free simulcasts is also the least impressive of any site I've used, so with no PS3 or iOS app and the quality issues I'm not tempted to splash out on a subscription. It doesn't even let you view in higher quality or disable the advertisements if you pay. The nail in the coffin is that they don't seem all that interested in taking on constructive criticism; customers have to accept their unusual system or have the simulcasts they've licensed withheld entirely.

Furthermore, the streaming models used by these new sites are going to cause me logistical problems next season as I'm going on holiday and will miss the free streaming window for Magi, Kill la Kill and Samurai Flamenco. Although Wakanim will probably let me catch up without any problems, the only way to catch up with Magi will be to take out a subscription to Animax. As much as I love Magi I'm unwilling to risk paying for a subscription to watch one or two missed episodes with an unreliable player so I'll probably end up dropping the show until the Blu-ray release. I really wish that the UK companies would get these shows on Crunchyroll where I can take advantage of my annual subscription to get the most out of them.

Anyway, for the time being I've managed to cope with having my viewing split across two new fledgling streaming sites and Crunchyroll. Here's a ranking of the shows I've been watching; I expect I'll lose a lot of respect right from the start!

1. Diabolik Lovers
2. Kakumeiki Valvrave
3. Nagi No Asukara

I realise that this isn't the classiest selection I could have made, but those three shows were the most addictive and the ones I looked forward to most each week. Surprisingly Kuroko No Basuke didn't quite make it into third place; suffice it to say it was a close fourth.


Diabolik Lovers
Wonderful! I hadn't expected to love this spin-off as much as I did since recent otome game adaptations have rarely managed to keep my interest. While Diabolik Lovers did a fine job of completely offending most of the viewership in the western world within its first few episodes, the openly unhealthy relationships struck a chord with me and I looked forward to it every single week. This is the first time in my life that I've actually understood the appeal of vampires.

Bizarrely, it was the twisted Laito who became a firm favourite early on; again a minority view, it seems. I'm going to pick up the Playstation Vita version of the game soon so that I can see the screwed-up storylines in their full glory. As for the anime, my fingers are crossed that a US Blu-ray release will be forthcoming from Sentai or I might be tempted to pick up the Japanese discs. Even though they're expensive with just half an hour of anime on each one...

While Diabolik Lovers is very much a 'guilty pleasure' type of show, I'm at all not ashamed to say that I enjoyed it very much.

This blogger's taste in abusive vampires is questionable.
Gifuu Doudou!! Kanetsugu To Keiji
Gifuu Doudou!! was another show which seemed to lose its western audience very swiftly - though in this case the reason was probably its blend of mildly camp hyper-masculinity and the need for some familiarity with traditional Japanese culture. There's not a great deal to add to my previous remarks; you'll know if you like this kind of thing from the first episode, and what follows keeps exactly the same feel as it expands on the backstory by showing Kanetsugu and Keiji advancing through their various historical (and fictional) entanglements. There were a few moments of very clever, insightful writing buried amongst the delightfully hammy conversations about honour and dignity.

I doubt there's much chance that this will even appear on a US Blu-ray (or even DVD) release. It's unlikely that the various manga series it is based on will ever get a print release in English either. A shame.

Date Masamune, manlier than ever.
Kill la Kill
Kill la Kill is a robust, thoroughly enjoyable anime. There's really not much more that I can say; it delivers on fan service, action and comedy, and there's even a little mystery mixed in to keep viewers interested. My worries about whether the retro stylings would appeal to everyone appear to have been groundless; both older and younger fans seem to have taken to Kill la Kill without a second thought. The skimpy clothing and suggestive snapping noises may have helped in some cases.

It's still not entirely clear where the story will go as the show heads into its second half - no doubt the various new foes who have started to appear will bring their own wild powers and henchmen to keep the tension high. I sincerely hope that people will stop trying to tell me that the fan service is "aimed at women" when it's clearly the opposite, just because there are a few scenes where the sleazy male characters strip off now and then as a gag. This is a classic, saucy romp which would fit perfectly in the classic Manga UK lineup of the shows which originally lead me to becoming an anime fan a couple of decades ago. A pity for Manga UK, then, that the license was snapped up by their new rival Anime Limited instead!

I want to have hair that does this.
Kuroko's Basketball season 2 (Kuroko No Basuke season 2)
The second season took a few episodes to get going, finally hitting its stride in the rematch between Midorima's school and Seirin, a sumptuously-animated battle which literally had me on the edge of my seat right the way through. The next major storyline with Teppei playing a major part gave me goosebumps a few times too, and I finally understand the appeal of Aomine Daiki now that he's showing more depth than his cocky one-liners implied before.

The biggest strength of Kuroko No Basuke, though, continues to be Kuroko himself. He's nothing like most shounen anime heroes - fading into the background, speaking calmly at all times and getting along well with the attractive women in the series without a hint of drama. Yet underneath his polite, analytical personality, Kuroko is more passionate about the game of basketball than anyone else. I find it impossible to dislike him and whether he wins or loses I want to see him enjoy every single match. Continuing to watch this show is a no brainer; if it keeps improving at its current rate it could be my favourite series next season.

I apologise for the picture. It was impossible to resist.
Kyousougiga
A late entry to my list of simulcasts for this season, Kyousougiga is based on some ONA episodes I had never watched. It's a bewildering, colourful show full of references to Kyoto and traditional Japan. Often difficult to follow at the beginning, it was certainly never boring even when I had no idea what was going on. Before I knew it, I had started to care about the small cast of characters and desperately wanted them to succeed in the various goals they were all working towards.

The vocal cast of Kyousougiga also shone with some of my very favourite seiyuu making appearances: Ishida Akira, Nakahara Shigeru and Hisakawa Aya in particular. The slightly sinister Kurama (aptly played by Nakahara) immediately became my favourite.

I also quite enjoyed the mid-season documentary filmed with the seiyuu visiting the Kyoto sites used as reference material in the anime. These special episodes often disappear in the process of localising anime for a western audience, so it was wonderful to watch this one as part of Crunchyroll's regular streaming schedule.

Gorgeous designs made Kyousougiga a delight to watch.
Magi: The Kingdom Of Magic
Another latecomer to my streaming schedule, the second season of Magi finally appeared when Animax launched their service in the UK at the end of October. The impact of the show was ruined by getting each episode half a week (or more at times) behind the rest of the developed world, meaning that by the time the handful of people watching it legally in the UK got around to seeing each episode most of the discussions had moved on. The poor quality also made it harder to appreciate Sinbad's beautiful eyebrows - not that he actually appears all that often in these episodes!

The show itself actually feels tighter than the end to the previous season, which was afflicted by severe quality issues several times. Splitting the main characters up to develop them all as individuals was an interesting decision, introducing a lot of new friends and enemies and further expanding the background of the series without relying on flashbacks or other narrative devices.

I'm looking forward to the inevitable Aniplex USA Blu-ray box sets for this series so I can finally watch it in better quality. Until then, I'll keep persevering with the delayed 'simulcasts'.

Aladdin is so cute. It's no wonder everyone hugs him.
Monogatari Second Season
Like Bakemonogatari and Nisemonogatari before it, Monogatari is made up of arcs themed around individual characters in the overarching story. The first few episodes failed to get my attention as they continued from Nekomonogatari (Kuro) and covered Tsubasa, my least favourite of Koyomi's harem of female friends. I was even more disappointed to find that several episodes in this series' run would be recaps rather than new content, so it wasn't until Mayoi's excellent arc began after six weeks that I began to feel that Monogatari would live up to the high standard set by its predecessors. Nadeko's arc, which came next, was merely average, then Shinobu's came around and blew the rest of them away.

I'm genuinely amazed that I've become such a big fan of Shinobu after her humble beginnings as a decorative plot device in Bakemonogatari, and I'm still eagerly awaiting to learn more about her in the future film. The way that her storyline weaves through Koyomi's ongoing apparition-hunting adventures is magnificent; she even manages to upstage the self-assured Hitagi.

All in all, I felt that Monogatari was worthy of the watch. I've stopped importing the Japanese Blu-ray discs for this series - the music isn't quite such a compelling bonus item now that they've released a compilation album for Bakemonogatari, and Aniplex USA will probably produce a more economical solution for collecting the show itself if I'm patient. Let's hope that the upcoming Kizumonogatari gets some kind of UK screening when the time comes!

Probably my favourite episode of Monogatari.
Nagi No Asukara (Nagi-Asu: A Lull in the Sea)
I'm glad I didn't drop Nagi No Asukara after the first few minutes as originally planned. It's been the biggest surprise of the season! The leads are all young kids who grow a great deal over the course of their adventures, learning about other people and themselves through their difficult interactions with the 'surface dwellers'. As the story progresses it's gradually apparent that there's more going on than love polygons and broken hearts, and the children have a lot to learn about human nature. Yanagi Nagi's beautiful ending theme ensured that the bittersweet emotions stayed with me long after each episode was over.

It looks as though the second part of the series will be even more dramatic than the first once it resumes in the second week of January. After the beautiful visuals and music in the last episode gave me goosebumps, I can't wait to see what happens next.

More of Uroko-sama's backstory in the second half, please!
Samurai Flamenco
I had very positive things to say about Samurai Flamenco from the very first episode, and even when it took a very unexpected turn later on I stuck with it. But there's something that isn't quite right about the show, even when it seems like a foolproof formula: there are appealing designs, throwback musical cues, a crackpot tokusatsu-fuelled plot and lots of larger-than-life villains. There's even a large cast of adult characters at this point, ticking another checkbox on my list of elements which should appeal to me. But something about the show still doesn't sit right, and I still don't really care about a single one of the characters even after a dozen episodes. I'm watching it more out of habit each week than a genuine desire to find out what happens to these shallow characters. The vaguely similar Tiger & Bunny may have covered slightly different subject matter but the real difference between the two is the strength of characterisation; this show falls flat in comparison.

I'll keep watching Samurai Flamenco as long as I have space in my schedule, I guess. It doesn't help that there's no Crunchyroll stream in the UK thanks to corporate politics so I have to watch it hunched over my computer screen.

The best screenshots from later episodes are spoilers.
Sword Art Online EXTRA EDITION
Joining the list right at the last moment, this bonus episode of love-it-or-hate-it fantasy anime Sword Art Online received a worldwide broadcast on New Year's Eve. I rather enjoyed Sword Art Online for the mindless entertainment it provided; it wasn't the greatest show in the niche 'kid gets stuck inside an online game'* genre, but it was very pretty and I knew when I sat down to watch each week that the time would fly by.

The 'EXTRA EDITION' is actually an extremely long recap episode with additional scenes showing the characters in the 'present day' (it's set after the first two parts of Sword Art Online). The creators didn't put too much effort into the plot during these new scenes, so they simply show Kirito's harem of young girls teaching his irritating little sister how to swim, going through just about every possible cliche along the way. Boob jokes, sexy swimsuits, grabbing one another, blushing - it's all there. Towards the end of the episode the characters meet up in ALfheim Online (to show their in-game avatars in swimsuits too, of course) then go on a beach-themed group quest together.

In other words, Sword Art Online EXTRA EDITION is rather missable unless you're a fan of the girls in the series. If you are and you also happen to enjoy swimsuits, this is pretty much the perfect way to handle a recap episode.

(* The best show in this genre is obviously the criminally-overlooked Ixion Saga DT.)

This pretty much sums the episode up.
Valvrave The Liberator (Kakumeiki Valvrave) season 2
I love this series. The first half was a ridiculously entertaining mess of melodrama, and this second season finally added the full backstory to provide a fitting denouement. The characters were great - especially one-man army L-Elf - and I loved the mecha battles, political manoeuvring, music and designs. If there's one complaint I could make it would only be that the second half of the show could have used an extra episode or two towards the end to tie up loose ends and improve the pacing of a few developments (the reactions of the general members of the public were made to be ridiculously fickle in order to heighten the tension at key moments). Valvrave The Liberator will be a guaranteed Blu-ray purchase the moment it goes up for preorder in the US!

One of countless amazing moments.
Wanna Be The Strongest In The World (Sekai De Ichiban Tsuyoku Naritai!)
Had my schedule been more full this season Sekai De Ichiban Tsuyoku Naritai! would probably have been the first show I'd have dropped to make room for something else. A lowbrow tale about professional women's wrestling, this was never an intelligent show - but it wasn't pretending to be. What it did contain were plenty of shots of flushed women dripping with sweat as their bodies contorted, together with a flimsy plot about self-discovery and perseverance.

I didn't like the heroine, Sakura, very much at all, and this became more pronounced as the series progressed. Her girly personality is supposed to be cute but it frequently came off as gratingly stupid instead, whereas the aggressive attitudes displayed by her opponents were more appealing (the surly Rio was my favourite). It's quite amusing to observe that while a lot of viewers in the west were appalled the romanticised depictions of emotional abuse in Diabolik Lovers, many were upset by the scenes of women suffering in Sekai De Ichiban Tsuyoku Naritai! too. Unlike vampiric abduction, wrestling is a consensual activity (a sport, at that) so it didn't bother me in the slightest. Still, viewers who find it uncomfortable to see girls suffering should probably look elsewhere for their suggestive fan service.

Take that, Sakura!
White Album 2
There was a surprising amount of drama in this low key, musically-themed adaptation of the White Album 2 visual novel. The emotions built up gradually over the course of the self-contained story before exploding in a series of heartbreaking climaxes towards the end. I thought that it was very well done, though it's definitely begging for a sequel one day to adapt the rest of the White Album 2 story. I really ought to get around to watching the older White Album anime one day when I have some time.

I nearly cried too...
Dropped due to time restraints

Ace Of The Diamond (Daiya No A)
I just didn't have enough time to keep watching this spirited but formulaic sports show. I'd buy it if it had a US home video release.

Hajime No Ippo: The Fighting! -Rising-
There's no way I would have had enough time this season to catch up on the earlier Hajime No Ippo series to be able to watch this in the proper order.

Dropped or avoided due to disinterest

Arpeggio Of Blue Steel -Ars Nova- (Aoki Hagane No Arpeggio)
Bottom Biting Bug season 2

Coppelion
A trio of schoolgirls are sent into a ruined near-future Tokyo to scout as they're impervious to the nuclear radiation which has made the city uninhabitable. This bugged me more than it ought to have done; there's no way that school uniforms can be the most suitable attire for exploring a barren wasteland! For all its interesting elements, Coppelion seems to be little more than an excuse to have a trio of schoolgirls running around with short skirts and guns and that doesn't really interest me. The art style is unusual, with washed-out colours reminiscent of K and Mardock Scramble.

Why is it always schoolgirls?!
Galilei Donna - Storia di tre sorelle a caccia di un mistero
Golden Time
Gundam Build Fighters
I Couldn't Become A Hero, So I Reluctantly Decided To Get A Job. (Yuusha Ni Narenakatta Ore Ha Shibushibu Shuushoku Wo Ketsui Shimashita.)
Infinite Stratos 2

Kyoukai No Kanata (Beyond The Boundary)
This was the first new series I watched on Animax's new UK streaming site partway through the season, where the teething problems with annoying adverts and poor video quality made it harder than usual to concentrate on the episode. A cute bespectacled young girl ends up befriending a supernatural schoolboy descended from one of the youmu beasts she's supposed to be slaying. It's well made but watching it after Kill la Kill has already been providing a much more entertaining take on schoolgirl combat this season, it's hard to get excited about this alternative. In addition, the rest of the plot is rather similar to Strike The Blood - which I hated. It was an easy choice to skip Kyoukai No Kanata.

I think I've seen this show a few hundred times before.
Little Busters! Refrain
Log Horizon
Miss Monochrome
My Mental Choices Are Completely Interfering With My School Romantic Comedy (Ore No Nounai Sentakushi Ga, Gakuen Love-Come Wo Zenryoku De Jama Shiteiru)
Non Non Biyori
Strike The Blood
Teekyuu 2
Walkure Romanze

Didn't watch due to corporate politics

The anime industry didn't want me to see any of the following shows legally. I'd probably have lapped Meganebu!, Phi-Brain and Yowamushi Pedal up but I'm not sure about the others. Oh well - that means I can spend more money on other titles!

BlazBlue Alter Memory
Freezing the Vibration
Meganebu!
Outbreak Company
Phi-Brain season 3
Tokyo Ravens
Unbreakable Machine-Doll
Yowamushi Pedal


So, altogether the Autumn 2013 season was a very mixed experience, with legal access to several interesting shows denied to me. I'm going to continue to follow the ongoing titles into Winter 2014, with the caveat that I might be forced to drop Magi, Kill la Kill and Samurai Flamenco if they remain locked to their niche streaming websites and I get unlucky with my travel commitments.

Perhaps the good shows will be more evenly distributed throughout the week next season, too! Now that there are Sengoku Basara 4 livestreams on Thursdays too, I don't think I can handle another schedule where five different 'simulcasts' all appear together on the same day again.

Since it's New Year's Eve today, I'll end with a bonus.

A somewhat controversial list of the best anime of 2013

1. Courtesy of Zettai Karen Children: The Unlimited -Hyoubu Kyousuke-
2. Attack On Titan (Shingeki No Kyojin)
3. Ixon Saga DT
4. Valvrave The Liberator (Kakumeiki Valvrave)
5. Uchouten Kazoku
6. Shin Sekai Yori
7. Uta No Prince-sama Maji Love 2000%
8. Diabolik Lovers
9. Nagi No Asukara

I doubt that many people picked the same titles as me for this year. And I don't care - while I won't argue that Diabolik Lovers has little artistic merit in comparison to, say, Kill la Kill, these were the shows I personally looked forward to most each week so they're the ones which made the list. It's a top nine because there's a big gap between how much I enjoyed each of these shows and the series which would have ranked in tenth place.

A bonus mention goes to Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo although it didn't originally debut in 2013. I saw it back in March in a Tokyo cinema, and in spite of the mixed reviews it's received I loved every minute. A large part of this is that Kaworu has been my favourite character ever since I first encountered him on the French VHS release (I was an impatient fan even back in the mid-90s when the subtitled French tapes were being released more quickly than the UK!). It's been a wonderful treat to have been able to travel back in time to view one of the series which was so important to me as a teenager with a fresh spin.

And on that note, it's time for me to say goodbye to 2013 and to the shows I'll hopefully look back upon with nostalgia in the future. Let the year of Sengoku Basara 4 commence!

4 comments:

  1. Happy New Years!!! Only a little bit more 'til SB4 release! I've been hyping it up with everyone with the countdown on twitter!! ^^
    Funny, because I just finished the anime for Diabolik Lovers recently in one-go since it was really short. The games didn't exactly have a good story line but you can't really expect a lot from a OtoGe ^^;. Definitely pick up More Blood on the PSP if you like the vita version! When I felt that Laito was also my favorite, I started to question my own taste in men...I went through denial at first (lol). Did you listen to their drama CDs?

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    1. A very Happy New Year to you too!

      On Diabolik Lovers (yay, a fellow Laito fan!) I've bought some tracks from iTunes Japan but now I have a few of the drama CDs on my shopping list too along with the games. Kanato's Kirisaki Carnival is probably the best character song I've heard all year from any series...

      I'm going to go on a big Diabolik Lovers splurge this month before SB4 arrives and takes over my life! (*'-')

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    2. I can't wait for SB4. The hype has been driving me crazy since last year so I can't even imagine what will happen when it actually arrives (lol). I'll probably throw away hundreds of hours playing it again. At least it will be much easier to 100% the game since it has an easy level distribution system.

      I personally really liked the more blood series because of the 無神 brothers! I think it's because I'm not much of an M lol I like them much better (逆巻 brother fans please don't kill me lol). I hope more blood comes out for the vita soon so I can buy it on vita for a delicious HD (come on take all my money otomate!! well, I feel like the rerelease will happen most likely, but I want it now! lol).

      I noticed that you liked Gintama! Did you see the movie that came out several months(?) ago? When Sorachi-sensei said it was an original story line involving Gin's past, I was expecting a little bit more ;;

      (Man all these fandoms are making my wallet starve...)

      Anyways thank you for all the hard work you did for the Basara's western fandom this year!! You are definitely making the game more accessible for western fans!
      Now only the suffering to wait for the OP remains....

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    3. I know almost nothing about More Blood so I'll go into it completely fresh and let the new characters surprise me (lol). Waiting for the inevitable Vita upgrade is tempting. I enjoyed playing Amnesia on iOS but waiting between the handful of iOS ports is painful ;_;

      I've not seen the second Gintama movie yet. I'm still hoping that Sentai will give it a US BD release, even though it's looking less likely. I hope the TV show comes back again one day as well; I don't mind if they just make things up aimlessly when they run out of suitable manga content to cover. It bewilders me that it's always done so badly in the US with both the manga and anime adaptations aborted partway.

      There's no need to thank me at all since I just love talking about (and hearing about!) the Sengoku Basara series. Fingers crossed that the Capcom Channel gets an update or two this coming week...

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