Thursday, 6 February 2014

Streaming: Winter 2014 anime first impressions

Better late than never!

I was hoping to keep new shows to a minimum this season as I've been quite busy with a holiday, work and, of course, Sengoku Basara 4. Thankfully, the anime industry has shown its sympathy for my predicament by filling the Winter 2014 season with a bunch of new shows which don't appeal to me at all.

A few great titles continue from Autumn 2013, namely Kuroko's Basketball, Nagi No Asukara, Kill la Kill, Magi and Samurai Flamenco. Unfortunately the eccentric simulcasting rules used by Animax forced me to drop Magi after my vacation as I'd have had to pay to watch the episodes I missed. I wasn't willing to do that - especially as they locked the first one away while still displaying it as a free simulcast for an additional day. It seems that Animax can be uncharacteristically swift when it comes to removing content! In comparison, Wakanim.tv has much friendlier restrictions on its tiny catalogue and Daisuki has continued to falter outside the US with just one new anime license. The unsustainable situation where each service has a small number of exclusive licenses continues, inconveniently splitting the tiny number of UK fans across several different sites. Since the high quality service provided by Crunchyroll continues to provide the best value with its features and catalogue, they're the only service I consider worth subscribing to at this time.

The new titles which will be joining the continuing series in my weekly schedule are listed below.


Buddy Complex
I had expected to drop Buddy Complex very quickly from its wide-eyed character designs and introductory school setting, but Sunrise worked their mecha magic on me again and somehow made the first episode surprisingly exciting! I don't fully understand the plot yet; it seems that a pair of time-travellers from a future where huge mecha are being used in war somehow appear in the present, and they're both interested in one particular boring-looking schoolboy. Things escalate swiftly - as they so often do in mecha titles - and Aoba finds himself heading towards a very uncertain future to discover his destiny.

Did I mention that heroine Hina is super-cute?

Everything she does is cute, yet cool at the same time...
Hamatora
A group of super-powered problem solvers work together (sort of) to crack mysteries. Although it looks nice and there's a decent seiyuu cast, I couldn't get into the characters at all in the first episode and didn't feel like watching any further. It might be that Hamatora is the kind of show which takes a few episodes to get going; unfortunately I have better things to do with my time than wade through the chaos of Animax's website listings to continue watching a low quality stream on my computer, so it won't be until a future US Blu-ray release that I consider giving the show a second chance.

Even though I didn't like it, the designs are nice
Hoozuki No Reitetsu
An ill-tempered demon takes care of the various administrative problems which crop up in Hell using a combination of his sharp tongue and level-headed thinking. There are no schoolboys or magical girlfriends in sight in this stylised black comedy and it's extremely entertaining as a result. It also reminds me a little of my own day job... Anyway, I'm glad that the anime adaptation has finally given me an excuse to check out the popular world of Hoozuki No Reitetsu for myself. If anything is going to work against it in the west, it will be the referential humour which requires an interest in both Japanese legends and modern pop culture to be properly understood.

Hoozuki is really cool, but King Enma is cute too
Magical Warfare (Mahou Sensou)
There seems to be a secret checklist which a certain category of writers has been using to formulate all of the popular fantasy light novels from the last couple of years. A boring, slightly grumpy male lead, his gorgeous childhood friend, the cute tsundere who suddenly drops into his life, school hijinks, magic powers, pretty (yet generic) character designs and... I can't do it. I can't stick with this rehashed jumble of generic elements for a second episode. Even the promise of a decent voice cast can't make this dross watchable.

A magical purple eye was an original idea once, long ago
Nisekoi
This series seems to be an annoying, less funny version of Seto No Hanayome mixed with Love Hina, where a pair of teenagers are forced to pretend they are in love while the boy searches for the girl he promised his heart to as a child. The only saving grace are the gags about the two leads' funny family backgrounds, except that there are already dozens of titles which parody yakuza groups already and most of them are less irritating than Nisekoi. While I can definitely see the show's appeal for fans of shounen romantic comedies, for me it was far too light and grating to be worth the time.

I wish the guys in the background were the main characters
Nobunagun
Confusingly, this is the first of two series this season named after the infamous Oda Nobunaga. Military nut Ogura Shio becomes involved in a strange monster attack when she goes on a school trip, ultimately ending up channeling the power of the gun-loving warlord after picking up a magic ball. There are other 'e-gene holders' like Shio with links to historical figures such as Jack The Ripper and uh, Gandhi, and it seems that they work together in order to battle the monsters and save humanity. Or something like that. I'll give Nobunagun credit for being on the crazy side as shounen adventures go; however, it's not looking as though I'll get into it.

I personally feel that Nobunaga is wasted as a schoolgirl
Nobunaga The Fool
It's another bonkers supernatural show with a bunch of historical figures jumbled together! This time they're actually the main characters, which immediately makes the show more appealing than Nobunagun where the threat of schoolgirl angst detracted from the badass military commanders. The setting of Nobunaga The Fool is divided into East and West worlds, with the former apparently filled with heroes from Japanese history and the latter from Europe. There are mecha battles, prophecies, military tactics, pink-haired spaceship captains and a wide range of historical references - some more subtle than others. Nobunaga The Fool is utterly silly, yet highly entertaining. The spunky simian Hideyoshi is my favourite so far, and indeed all of the characters are drop-dead gorgeous thanks to Kazuki Yone's work on the original character designs. It's going to be fun to watch even if the plot falls apart later on.

Everyone in this show is cool, dashing or both
Onee-chan Ga Kita
Here we have a series of shorts about a pair of step-siblings who first meet when their parents move in together. Onee-chan Ga Kita tries to be a little different by swapping the roles around, so rather than the usual older brother/younger sister arrangement which has been so common in anime lately, this time there's an older sister instead - and she has a huge crush on her new little brother. The humour is in his discomfort at the way his sister enthusiastically throws herself at him at every opportunity. I don't find this kind of situation very funny and have become weary of the epidemic of sister/brother complex comedies lately, so I'll give Onee-chan Ga Kita a miss.

It's still not funny even when the gender roles are reversed
Recently, My Sister Is Unusual (Saikin, Imouto No Yousu Ga Chotto Okashiindaga.)
Oh good, another fluffy show about the main character's little sister - and she's not related by blood, of course. To be fair, the manga that this one is based upon originally came out several years ago so the trope may not have been quite as overplayed at the time. The nondescript main character suddenly gains a little sister when his dad remarries, leading to the usual hilarious scenes of him walking in on her changing and discussing little sisters with his friends at school. Anyway, the series has a plot too: a wandering spirit starts to possess the normally sweet, quiet young girl, abusing her body and forcing her to wear a permanent chastity belt at all times for reasons I don't yet understand (from what I've heard, that's probably for the best). There's way too much awkward, desperate fetishism going on for me to even consider watching beyond the first episode. No thanks.

I'm amazed I made it through an episode of this
Silver Spoon season 2 (Gin No Saji)
It's more Silver Spoon! There's not much to say about this sequel: it's still got the excellent blend of interesting agricultural trivia and human drama that made the first season so magical. Arakawa Hiromu is a rare talent to have been able to produce another hit so swiftly. I'll be watching this every week without fail.

I want to see a Holstein Club spin-off series one day
Soni-Ani: SUPER SONICO THE ANIMATION
I didn't have much hope for a series based around a ditzy mascot character whose main talents seem to be forgetting to wear enough clothes and landing in compromising positions. My instincts were correct; this is one of those unfortunate fan service anime which don't contain any actual content - and the fan service itself is the fluffy, cutesy kind which makes me uncomfortable. This show has been aimed squarely at those who can't get enough of cameras slowly panning around Sonico's bulging thighs and voluptuous chest. If blushing girls who act several years younger than they're supposed to be aren't your thing, stay away.

If only she had a brain...
Space Dandy
This is more like it! Part of me wants to criticise this weird show which fuses high adventure, an aesthetic straight from a 70s pop video and quick-fire gags - it oozes so much cool that its destiny as a hit seems to have been calculated from the start. But gosh, it's all so fun to watch. It's what Cowboy Bebop would be with the seriousness removed and replaced with psychedelia. Newbie company Anime Limited did a great job getting the license for Space Dandy and I hope we'll see some worldwide Blu-ray releases very soon; there's no reason for a delay in this case since it's even being dubbed into English as it airs. Incidentally, I'm sticking to the subtitled version.

I don't really like Dandy, but he's certainly interesting
Strange+
A nonsensical gag series with episodes just three and a half minutes long. It's utterly stupid and unashamed of using toilet humour, and I like it - just don't ask me what the plot is supposed to be about. The bizarre end card illustrations by famous artists make it even better.

Butts everywhere
The Pilots Love Song (Toaru Hikuushi He No Koiuta)
I can't describe what it is about Toaru Hikuushi He No Koiuta which bores me so much. It's slightly too sweet and good-natured, somehow, and unlike a lot of fans old-fashioned flying doesn't really do anything for me. No matter how much hero Kal-El tried to get my attention and how much the show hinted at future drama, it didn't click with me and I'd wandered off to shuffle some online preorders before the first episode was done. I'll give it another try after I finally get around to watching my copy of the related Toaru Hikuushi He No Tsuioku movie...

I wanted to like this so much...
Tonari No Seki-kun: The Master Of Killing Time
A series of shorts about a girl who can't stop staring at the weird things the boy who sits next to her at school is doing at his desk. If that scenario interests you then this show provides a quick-fire humour and doesn't outstay its welcome; in my case it didn't so I was happy to drop Tonari No Seki-kun after a couple of episodes.

What? Seki-kun is doing something strange again!
Wake Up, Girls!
It was noticeable on my recent trip to Japan that the new idol show Wake Up, Girls! was being promoted very heavily - it was even the centrepiece of an exhibition about titles which reference real-world locations in its home city of Sendai. In a nutshell, Wake Up, Girls! is a poor man's version of THE iDOLM@STER with a few gimmicks up its sleeve to expand its appeal: the girls are all plain and relatively realistic, and the show pays homage to its setting almost constantly. There are tributes to the sights, sounds and history of Sendai everywhere - even in the name of the girls' agency (an English translation of the name of the Aoba area). This guy is mentioned a bunch of times too.

Is it ok to admit that Date Masamune kept me watching?
I watched both the Wake Up, Girls! Seven Idols movie and the first episode of the television series before writing this summary, as the movie explains the backstory behind the group getting together and makes what happens next more meaningful. The weak points are the characters, particularly the girls' manager; a man so bland and uninspiring that even Producer from THE iDOLM@STER looks like a hero in comparison, and he was little more than a blank slate for the viewer to project onto.

Having said that, I don't dislike Wake Up, Girls! for all of its flaws. The Sendai imagery is charming and there is an actual story beneath the idol cash-in concept; if they choose to go that way, there's a lot of potential for emotional twists for a few of the girls already. It's not a must-watch for me, but if I have space in my schedule over the next few weeks I'll try to keep up with it.

None of the girls stand out all that much
Witch Craft Works
A boring, regular guy suddenly finds out that the most popular girl in school is a witch who considers him her precious 'princess' and lives to protect him. He then has to deal with both her jealous fans and the other witches who want to bring him harm. It's funnier than it ought to be thanks to the tongue-in-cheek writing and over-the-top voice acting.

Anime needs more male princesses
Wizard Barristers: Benmashi Cecil
The exceptionally well-animated opening scene of Wizard Barristers did a great job at distracting me from the mundane-sounding plot: in a world where wizards live among mankind, special barristers are needed to defend the wizards in court. Naturally, there's prejudice against unscrupulous magic-users from the regular human beings so being a magic-using barrister is pretty hard work - as young Cecil quickly discovers on her first day of work. The dazzling character designs help make the show memorable, even though I'm not the biggest fan of Umetsu Yasuomi's distinctive art style. I have mixed feelings about the rest of the series. On one hand, the mysteries behind the individual cases look as though they might be interesting and Wakamoto Norio voices a perverted talking frog. On the other, it looks as though the main focus of this show will be Cecil's cutesy attempts to defend her clients, and she's sort of annoying.

The best hair accessories of the season
Wonder Momo
Wonder Momo is a colourful show with a threadbare plot based on an old video game I've never played. The main character is a ditzy model who suddenly gains the ability to transform into a sexy superhero and beat evil villains to a pulp; at least, I assume they're evil, because nothing is actually explained in the lead-up to the first battle and all they actually did was knock over some sports equipment. It's interesting that it's airing in the same season as Soni-Ani because the weakness of the other show makes Wonder Momo look like genius in comparison. Both star idiotic girls who work hard towards their goals as idols - except that unlike Sonico, Momoko is actually cute, and because episodes are only seven minutes long watching doesn't become a painful ordeal. Having said that, I had to watch the first episode twice in order to confirm that absolutely nothing made any sense.

Probably the dumbest character of the season
Z/X Ignition
It's almost impressive when fantasy shows about youths trying to save the world with super-powered guardians which spring out of magical cards can actually be described as 'dull'. Yet somehow they almost always are, and this effort feels as soulless and designed by committee as the rest. I don't feel like continuing with Z/X Ignition to find out whether these bland characters will ever become likeable.

One word sums up Z/X Ignition: forgettable
We also had a one-shot OVA episode simulcast this season.

Mushi-shi OVA (Mushi-shi Tokubetsu-hen: Hihamukage)
It's odd that Crunchyroll streamed this as they don't have any of the earlier episodes in the UK. I'm not complaining. It's been a while since I watched the original television episodes and live action movie so I felt a little disorientated for the first part of this 45-minute special, yet the quality of the Mushi-shi world soon banished those feelings and swept me into the standalone adventure. The simple, attractive visuals and no-nonsense storytelling made the time fly by; I couldn't believe it was twice as long as a normal anime episode. The imminent return of the television series is something to look forward to!

More Ginko next season, please
A small number of brand new sequels to older shows which don't interest me are available too.

Chuunibyou Demo Koi Ga Shitai! Ren (Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions season 2)
Saki: The Nationals
Seitokai Yakuindomo* (Season 2)
Wooser’s Hand-to-Mouth Life: Awakening Arc

On the drama side, Crunchyroll acquired the catalogue title Mischievous Kiss - Love In Tokyo (Itazura Na Kiss: Love In Tokyo). I've been wanting to see this as I like the manga. We're spoiled for choice this season as UK fans can also watch Divorce Chaser (Isharyou Bengoshi ~Anata No Namida, Okane Ni Kaemashou~).

And that's not all for live action fans: Daisuki has arranged US/UK streams with English subtitles for the first two Hakuouki musicals. Musical Hakuouki: Saitou Hajime Arc and Musical Hakuouki: Okita Souji Arc can be watched for free on the official Daisuki YouTube channel with a full translation.

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So, what's missing?

D-Frag!, Noragami, Maken-Ki! Two and Inari, Konkon, Koi Iroha went to FUNimation in the US, so fans in the UK don't get to see those shows. I'd have quite liked to check out Inari, Konkon, Koi Iroha and Noragami so I hope enough people watch them over there to justify future Blu-ray releases.

New Crunchyroll titles without UK rights include Mikakunin de Shinkoukei (Engaged to the Unidentified), Pupa, Sakura Trick, NO-RIN!, Robot Girls Z and Sekai Seifuku: Bouryaku No Zvezda (World Conquest Zvezda Plot). I'd have liked to see Pupa but the rest of the omissions don't bother me too much.

Edit: Apparently Animax got Sekai Seifuku: Bouryaku No Zvezda (World Conquest Zvezda Plot) and locked it away on their exclusivity-riddled website. I didn't find out until it was too late to watch the first episode without paying, though I saw part of it when I was on holiday in Japan and didn't like it much. I'm not paying to watch with ads so there will be no summary for this show.

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Guessing my top three shows for the end of the season is rather tricky. At the moment it might be something like this...

1. Nagi No Asukara
2. Kuroko's Basketball season 2
3. Nobunaga The Fool

Here's how the weekly schedule is looking. Once again, everything seems to be happening on Thursdays:

Monday:
Tuesday: Buddy Complex
Wednesday:
Thursday: Kill la Kill, Nagi No Asukara, Hoozuki No Reitetsu, Silver Spoon, Strange+
Friday: Samurai Flamenco
Saturday: Kuroko's Basketball
Sunday: Space Dandy, Nobunaga The Fool

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