Monday, 29 September 2014

Streaming: Summer 2014 anime final impressions

What a chaotic season! Having more streaming services vying for my attention combined with their collective inability to release new episodes on a reliable schedule made it very stressful to try to keep up. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that I was watching more simulcasts this season than ever before due to the wealth of interesting titles on offer.

It was very disappointing that with so many streaming services available, not one of them licensed Sengoku Basara: Judge End or Barakamon for the UK. Crunchyroll picked up most of what I wanted and - with one exception - delivered everything when promised with the usual professional service. Wakanim was plagued by severe delays almost every single week, Daisuki was doing well until it introduced a perplexing change to its schedule partway through the season, Viewster made a decent debut with some frustrating drawbacks and Animax still doesn't appear to grasp the idea of simulcasts. Nico Nico's single stream went online like clockwork without any technical problems. It's difficult to take the European services seriously when they continue to be so amateurish season after season.

Setting aside Sengoku Basara: Judge End, the only anime I've ever bothered reviewing episode-by-episode right the way through on this blog, the star of this anime season was probably Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun. It feels weird picking a 4-koma comedy show as my favourite, but for some reason I was looking forward to Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun more than anything else each week. Although it's finished now, I've ordered the original manga to help ease the transition back to life without Nozaki and his friends.

Here's my final ranking now the season is winding up:

1. Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun
2. Nobunaga Concerto
3. Sengoku Basara: Judge End (Sengoku Basara -End of Judgement-)

Any of those three shows could easily have taken the first place spot in the list depending on my mood at the time. Both Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun and Nobunaga Concerto were more consistent and satisfying than Judge End, but the feelings of excitement I have for Sengoku Basara are no secret; I feel blessed that it was given another chance at an anime adaptation in spite of its flaws. Several titles which didn't quite make the top three were still very enjoyable and I'm certain to be picking up the Blu-ray sets for a number of shows in future.

Compiling a list of disappointments would have been much easier than ranking my favourites after this bumper season.

Animated Tsuruhime! I still can't believe it happened

New titles

First of all, here are the shows which joined the season too late for inclusion in my first impressions post.

Hanamonogatari
Hanamonogatari is also available on Crunchyroll but I chose to watch it on Daisuki.

I was expecting Hanamonogatari to be five episodes long so I was quite surprised when I could only find one episode on Daisuki. This turned out to be because all five episodes had been combined into one movie-length special. I have to admit that it was hard work watching them all in one go, especially since there's less wacky fan service than usual.

The story of Hanamonogatari focuses on Suruga and a few supporting characters rather than the familiar cast of freaks we usually see in a Monogatari title. There aren't many cameos from the regular characters, so it's fortunate that Suruga is a strong lead in her own right. She's not as powerful or knowledgeable about the supernatural as some of the others, and as a result she has to feel her way through the central mystery behind the Suruga Devil story relatively blind.

Without wanting to spoil the main plot, it felt as though this arc spent much of its run time dropping hints about Suruga's family and teasing a few background details which will be explained further in future adaptations. I hope that Kizumonogatari will be released soon to make keeping track of all of the series' mysteries a little less confusing.

The saucy parts always keep me watching

Himegoto
Himegoto is a cute (and slightly lewd) comedy with four-minute long episodes. The plot is simple by anime standards; a boy is forced to dress up as a girl and obey all kinds of weird demands issued by his school's student council. It's a flimsy excuse to keep repeating the same jokes about how gorgeous he looks in drag, and it's entertaining enough without ever standing out from the crowd. Since Himegoto joined Crunchyroll's schedule late I watched a number of episodes in a row before quietly dropping it to save myself some time.

Are people still surprised by these punchlines in 2014?

Mushi-shi Zokushou Special: Odoro No Michi (Path Of Thorns)
The two episodes of Mushi-shi which didn't quite make it into last season's schedule finally appeared on Crunchyroll in late August as a special feature. Those familiar with Mushi-shi should know what to expect by now and it doesn't disappoint, with a story which dabbles in human politics as much as it does its ethereal mushi this time around. I appreciated being able to spend an evening swept back into Ginko's world and look forward to the proper continuation of Mushi-shi Zokushou next season.

Every season should include a few episodes of Mushi-shi!
--

Series I watched all the way through

Aldnoah Zero
Aldnoah Zero is also available on Daisuki but I chose to watch it on Crunchyroll.

With this being a reasonably popular title, it's attracted an awful lot of criticism this season and I never really felt that it was entirely warranted (especially since most of it was about Inaho, who I liked for precisely the reasons other people used to declare him the worst character ever). I can forgive the continual need for the viewer to suspend their disbelief because Aldnoah Zero is fantastically entertaining. Its sobering tone has been perfect for settling me down after Sengoku Basara Judge End airs each week. It's not overly concerned with clinging tightly to realism or giving everyone a happy ending, and for better or worse, the end to the first season was a genuine shock. I'm definitely going to be continuing when the second season begins. No matter where the plot goes from here, the action-packed set pieces paired with Sawano's beautiful score are certain to make it an unmissable experience.

Slaine had a pretty rough summer season

Bakumatsu Rock
Bakumatsu Rock was the debut simulcast from the newcomers at Viewster, and while they never quite managed to get each new episode up on its actual air date (or even on a consistent day of the week) they did a decent job of releasing episodes semi-regularly after a while which makes them better than Wakanim. It helps that the plot of Bakumatsu Rock is so unashamedly flimsy that being behind doesn't really feel as though it matters; spoilers aren't much of a worry when you already know that each episode is going to end in exactly the same way as all the others. With the power of rock.

The fact that it's predictable doesn't hurt Bakumatsu Rock as the show doesn't give a fig about realism in the first place; it's a feel-good spectacle, and it's easily the corniest thing I watched all season. The guys' clothes fly off whenever there's the slightest excuse for fan service, and the creators are clearly having fun. If I could improve anything about the series it would be to give the creators a higher budget to make the concert scenes even more ridiculous.

It's tempting to pick up the games since they'll feature more music and also, presumably, more Souji. A tempting proposition. Whether I decide to try the games or not, I'm looking forward to being able to rewatch the show without the repetitive advertisements when Sentai Filmworks release the Blu-ray edition in the US.

In a way it's a good thing that Sengoku Basara Judge End was more serious than usual this season. I don't think the universe could have handled two over-the-top historically-themed shows airing at the same time.

The entire series in a nutshell

Black Butler: Book of Circus (Kuroshitsuji)
What a disastrous streaming pattern this poor show has had!

First I thought I'd have to watch it on Daisuki because FUNimation licensed it in the US, then Crunchyroll suddenly revealed they'd licensed it too. I switched to Crunchyroll only to discover that there was some kind of bizarre delay with the subtitles; the first few episodes weren't available with English subtitles for several weeks without any proper announcements about when the translation would appear. The Spanish and Portuguese subtitled versions on offer were better than no stream at all, but unnecessarily distracting.

The odd subtitle delays persisted, so I switched back to Daisuki - and then they announced that they'd be delaying their Black Butler stream by several days for the rest of the season for 'security reasons'. The FUNimation stream seemed problem-free, so as usual it was the foreign fans who were penalised without ever being told why.

Anyway, the show itself is superb! I'd already read the original manga which this adaptation (mostly) follows very closely. The medium of anime lends itself beautifully to the series' trademark flamboyance so I enjoyed watching the events playing out all over again. I don't see how any fan could be disappointed by this adaptation; it took everything I liked from the source material and combined it with beautiful designs and voice work. Special credit must be given to the beautiful opening and ending sequences, too.

This picture might not clearly convey the tone of the show

DRAMAtical Murder
My expectations weren't all that high from the show's budget and the obvious compromise of removing all of the adult content from the original story, but if I'm honest I was still a little disappointed by the DRAMAtical Murder anime. It seemed to be trying to cram elements from all of the game's routes into a single storyline, hurtling through each character's backstory week by week. To someone with only a passing familiarity with the original plot, the result was a mess; it simply wasn't able to hold my attention most weeks. To make it worse, very few of the characters came across as being nuanced enough to be likeable.

The games are probably much more interesting, of course, but with the story of the anime being so uneven it's unlikely that I'm going to rush out and buy them. Definitely one of the weakest shows I watched this season.

Best character? Best character.

Free! –Eternal Summer-
The first season of Free! aired during a blazing hot summer, and every Wednesday evening the sight of all of that blue water on the screen refreshed me like nothing else could. This season focuses less on the aquatic hijinks and more on the character drama, with each of the boys having to overcome new challenges before they can get back to business and concentrate on winning the obligatory swimming relay. The result is a well-produced show with less unique appeal than the previous season.

There was more focus on Rin's team this season, which was both bad and good; I liked the idea of it but Ai is annoying and the drama with newcomer Sousuke never really gripped me. Since Rin was the captain of a big team, it might have been better if the other members had showed up more often so it didn't feel as though he was playing favourites all the time. Another problem was that the inclusion of more scenes at Samezuka Gakuen meant that side characters like Gou had an even smaller role than before.

Free! -Eternal Summer- was good, but not great. If there are any future Free! anime projects, I'd support them giving up on the plot and creating a set of animated music videos in the style of the show's two fabulous ending sequences. I'd buy them.

His brother is cooler but Momo is a cutie too

Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun (Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun)
It was obvious from the first episode that this was going to be a great comedy show, but what wasn't quite so clear was how much I'd come to adore the ragtag bunch which make up the cast of characters. They're all great!

There's so much to love about Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun. It's refreshing to see down-to-earth depictions of student life - in spite of the setting the leads act more like they're at university, in contrast with shows like Genshiken Nidaime where a supposedly older cast behaves like a group of annoying little kids. All of the main couples (none of them actually couple up) have obvious chemistry together without it seeming forced. And finally, the jokes are actually funny! After having lambasted other comedies for recycling the same old breast size gags ad nauseam, it made a pleasant change to find myself laughing out loud at the awkward situations Chiyo and her friends get mixed up in as they try to help Nozaki-kun create his ongoing manga. Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun reminds me of Kanno Aya's manga Otomen in many respects, and that's very high praise indeed.

I have no idea why I love Hori-senpai so much...

Haikyuu!!
Haikyuu!! is as close to being flawless as a sports series can get. I knew nothing about volleyball when this series began and now I feel as though I could actually enjoy watching a real match. The players were so easy to relate to that I was desperately praying for their victory right alongside them, and by the time the final credits rolled there wasn't a single character in the series I disliked.

The animation is incredibly good, with the staff carefully reserving their budget for the handful of high-energy action scenes which pepper each volleyball match. The climax of the first season hit me like a punch to the gut.

The only complaint I can make about the show is that the subtitling on Crunchyroll is unusually poor. The occasional mistake or typo is forgivable, but the team working on Haikyuu!! badly needed a native English speaker proofreading their translations each week to catch major errors which affect the viewing experience such as mislabelled scoreboards. The last series I remember with such bad subtitles was Gifuu Doudou!! Kanetsugu To Keiji except nobody else watched that. Haikyuu!! has a big fan base so it's a shame it wasn't treated with the care it deserved.

Every single character is wonderful!

JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders
What is there to say about JoJo's Bizarre Adventure that hasn't already been said? It's another example of a show which is incredibly entertaining to watch, even though it doesn't care about boring things like realism or emotional drama. The characters have been growing into a fine team, and while the lead is still very much in the shadow of his charismatic grandfather, I've enjoyed all of their interactions. I'm thrilled that Crunchyroll have managed to get it online with a proper stream this time around, especially as the Japanese discs aren't coming with subtitles any more (boo!). The story will continue in January so I'll be looking forward to catching up with the oddball cast again in a few months from now!

It's going to be weird without my weekly dose of machismo

Love Stage!!
Love Stage!! played out as I expected, though I wasn't expecting it to end after just ten episodes! Since it aired on the same day of the week as Free! and Bakumatsu Rock it was a major contributor to the feeling that Wednesdays have become an oasis of female-orientated fan service.

The relationship between the two leads wasn't exactly the most wholesome, but I feel as though they grew a little over the course of the show and - for now at least - their future together is probably a happy one. It was a fun little show even if it was never going to be a genre-defining classic. The best part about adaptations like this is the increased interest in the original manga; it's been licensed for English-language publication, at last.

Ryouma isn't all bad, I guess

Nobunaga Concerto
I wasn't completely sold on Nobunaga Concerto from the first episode but once it had established itself I ended up becoming completely hooked on its clever take on a popular story. It sounds strange to say that I was on the edge of my seat each week trying to work out what twists and turns the story was going to take when the history of Oda Nobunaga is already well documented - but that's exactly how it felt! Some of the unique elements that the creator incorporated took my breath away and the characterisation was spot on; anyone too jaded to feel a rush of excitement seeing Saburou leading his army in the ending sequence has my pity.

The show's experimental animation style was a concern at the beginning but it ended up being easier to get used to the floaty movement in Nobunaga Concerto than the peculiar rotoscoping in Bakumatsu Rock's concert scenes. One thing I didn't appreciate early on was how well the CG bumpers and borders worked with the simple character artwork; the effect is unique and very stylish.

The biggest disappointment I have is nothing to do with the actual series at all; like Sengoku Basara in the past, it seems that Nobunaga Concerto has attracted a lot of poor reviews from English-speaking fans who find it difficult to understand what it's trying to do (and inexplicably keep watching anyway in order to complain about it). It's understandable that the animation style might alienate people, but seeing writers commenting on the story being poor makes me feel quite upset. Although I understand that some people find historical politics difficult to understand, amongst an ocean of Nobunaga-related anime adaptations in recent years Nobunaga Concerto stands out as being rather special.

On the bright side, the tepid reception that the series was given by typical anime fans meant I could watch each episode completely spoiler-free even though Crunchyroll's stream was one week behind the Japanese broadcasts. It would be wonderful if the original manga could earn itself a niche western release one day because it really, really deserves one.

Saburou has come a long way since the start

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon Crystal (Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon Crystal)
Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon Crystal is difficult to review. Its unusual broadcast pattern means I've only seen the first six episodes, which barely scratch the surface of the story. I'm watching each episode with my friend, which is amusing because he's never watched or read the earlier versions of the story before. Seeing him reacting to Usagi's adventures for the first time is hilarious.

With the enduring popularity of the original Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon, this remake was always going to be scrutinised in depth by dedicated fans, yet Toei Animation seem to have dropped the ball by skimping on the animation quality. I'm not a big fan of the CG transformation scenes and characters veer off model far too often. Yet some moments are really cool (for example, everything Makoto does) and the new art style definitely brings out the best in Queen Beryl's generals. I'm going to keep watching as long as they keep making more.

Sailor Jupiter, I love you!

Sengoku Basara: Judge End
I'm gutted that Sengoku Basara: Judge End was never streamed anywhere where UK fans could legally watch it, even though Viewster probably wanted to show it. This usually means that someone is in talks to license it for the UK (Manga UK, I'd wager) so I want to state that I'm not going to buy the UK edition now and will instead import from the US in protest. C'mon anime industry, it's 2014! Get it together!

Judge End seems to have divided fans down the middle, which is oddly appropriate given that it's about a battle which split Japan in two. Many are bitterly disappointed by its obvious flaws while others just sat back and enjoyed the ride, looking past the inconsistent tone, low budget and countless breaks with Sengoku Basara tradition. In that respect, I suppose it's very similar to Production I.G.'s adaptation, which thrilled many viewers at the same time as it trampled all over other fans' favourite characters. Production I.G.'s adaptation had the advantage that it was a spectacularly entertaining blockbuster in its own right, whereas Telecom have taken the risk of making a television series on a significantly lower budget. Did it pay off? Probably not, financially, but I certainly had fun looking forward to watching the show each week.

I think my feelings about the series have probably come across in the weekly review/discussion posts already, so I'll just end this by saying that Kingo was the cutest character in the whole summer anime season, bar none.

Perhaps I should use cooler pictures to promote the show

Shin Strange+
This series makes absolutely no sense. It felt as though the middle of this new series were weaker than its predecessor, then the last couple came together again and rescued it. It's not exactly good, but it's a funny way to kill a few minutes each week. And it's probably never going to be licensed for home video outside Japan so I'm glad I got to watch it.

I wasn't expecting a Moldiver parody!

Space Dandy season 2
Overall, Space Dandy was 'ok'. When it was good, it was excellent, yet there were far too many moments where its experimental approach actively impeded my enjoyment. With most experimental anime the unusual presentation is telling a unique story and the viewer accepts that the director has specifically tailored the artwork to match the atmosphere. Here, the creative techniques are used for a simple sitcom, and I can't help but feel that's it's all a little forced.

In less delicate terms, I think that letting a new staff member have full control over the series' stock set of characters each week showed how much more skilled some creators are than others when it comes to engaging an audience. Several episodes were classically entertaining, while others actually bored me. I've seen uneven television shows before but this is the first time I've experienced such extreme disparity between the highs and the lows. The result was that I ended up dreading each new episode preview in case it ended up being a 'bad' episode rather than an interesting one, making it harder to sit back and enjoy the show.

One interesting quirk of Space Dandy's simulcast is that it's a rare case of a series being dubbed into English at the same time as its Japanese release. Sadly, Wakanim stopped providing the dubbed version after season one with no explanation, meaning that fans in the UK never got a chance to benefit from this rare opportunity. Even though I don't watch dubs I can't help but feel sorry for those who do when they're left out like this. What on earth happened?

A Honey spin-off might be interesting (plot optional)

Tokyo Ghoul
While their French stream seemed fine (aside from being region locked), Wakanim really struggled to get the English version of Tokyo Ghoul online. It was supposed to appear on Thursdays, so I expected them to manage Fridays with their usual delays - then they failed to produce it several times until well into the next week. Very disappointing.

The show itself was all over the place. This might be due to compromises made in adapting the original manga; I understand that the story skipped past a lot of content in its rush to get to a good stopping point. It might also be due to the distracting censorship. This is a gore-filled show about monsters killing and eating people, so having most of the action hidden behind black shadows on the broadcast version makes it feel rather pointless. I loved the designs and characterisation, though, so there's a lot of promise in the scenario. An uncensored Blu-ray release and future sequel might let Tokyo Ghoul live up to its full potential one day.

It's mystifying that nobody has announced the manga for an English-language adaptation yet as I think it would go down exceptionally well.

The best characters don't get enough focus in the plot

Yamishibai second season
If there's one thing a horror series doesn't really benefit from it's familiarity; the audience begins to expect the frights and setting up a surprise ending becomes increasingly difficult over time. I felt that the second season of Yamishibai was less enjoyable than the first for this very reason. There weren't so many memorable stories, and as the story reached its climax you knew what to expect: some gruesome monster jumping out at the main character and an abrupt switch to the end credits.

Still, these short standalone episodes were sandwiched between DRAMAtical Murder and Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun every Sunday, so it wasn't a chore to keep watching them. I wouldn't go out of my way to watch this series if I wasn't already on the Crunchyroll website at the right time each week, but it wasn't a bad way to pass a few idle moments.

Creepy Mask Guy is scarier than the actual horror stories

Zankyou no Terror (Terror in Resonance/Terror in Tokyo)
Ending the list on a bad note is regrettable but I honestly feel that Zankyou no Terror was disappointing. The blame probably lies with my expectations rather than the show itself. After that stellar opening episode I really felt as though it was going to be a clever, unique look at psychology, morality and domestic terrorism which would keep me on the edge of my seat each week.

Instead, the series turned into a Hollywood-style drama about some extremely flawed kids and a corrupt police force halfway through. It strongly reminded me of the infamous second half of Death Note except worse, because I didn't like any of the characters very much. Things suddenly picked up again at the end though - the last two episodes were great!

Overall, Zankyou no Terror was still fun to watch. It's well made and the climaxes come with a satisfying punch. It's just a shame that I was hoping for so much more and it couldn't deliver until the very end.

I couldn't bring myself to use a picture of Twelve
--

It's unfortunate that I was proven right about the damage having so many competing streaming services does to the UK industry; keeping up with the jam-packed summer season felt like a chore at times rather than the fun hobby it ought to be. There were several titles I dropped early on which I would have continued to watch if they had been on a better service like on Crunchyroll, and I wasted a great deal of time over the course of the season visiting legal streaming sites only to find that the broadcast had been delayed without any warning. The streaming industry isn't going to survive outside the US and Japan if this is the experience that customers are expected to accept.

Please commission more Sengoku Basara anime, Capcom
Still, setting these problems aside the summer 2014 season has been absolutely phenomenal, with more quality anime on offer than I sometimes see over the course of a full year. The autumn season can't possibly hope to compare. I'm looking forward to having some free time to catch up on my DVD backlog again soon.

2 comments:

  1. As for Nobunaga Concerto, the thing that pains me most is not even the negativity in the English-speaking anime community (btw I was actually surprised at how much love it ended up getting on places like 2ch), it's that Fuji TV apparently doesn't even think that it's worth being released. :/ Perhaps they'll release it as an extra to the TV drama (that I'm not really interested in after what I've heard about it), but it's so frustrating. People are trying to give them money, and they're not letting us...

    As for streaming, to be honest for me it usually ends with region blocking. I know why it exists and why it's so problematic but still, it's annoying that as someone in an EU country I can't legally watch the same show that people one country away can watch with no problems. And one inevitably starts to wonder what's the point of paying for a streaming service if I can access only a small fraction of their library, and even that often days or weeks after the episode actually airs.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ehh? Nobunaga Concerto isn't getting a home video release at all? That's really annoying! I could see it being bundled with a future box set for the drama but I imagine both will attract different types of viewers, and the show deserves to be available for its fans since it's unlikely to get a release anywhere outside Japan either :/

      Having said that, if it does get a bundled box set release with the drama, I might be tempted... It really deserves a nice release with some drama CDs to take advantage of the excellent voice cast, though. Miyano's Saburou was just great. I'm sure they could come up with a viable release format if they tried.

      I mostly record my complaining about streaming services each season so I can look back in future and see how bad things were each season (the occasional website visits from companies like FUNimation spur me on in my efforts to shame all of the failures).

      It feels as though I'll be long dead before rights holders finally understand that licensing content to local distributors by region is only fine if they also have a backup plan to cater for the hundreds of thousands of potential viewers they're snubbing everywhere else. I used to be able to watch Japanese streams on Nico Nico Douga and AnimateTV without having to use some kind of region spoofing, but eventually everything ended up being locked - probably due to pressure from foreign distributors who felt it was a threat to their slower local editions even though there were no subtitles on the Japanese streams. Manga UK has apparently been asking for Japanese BDs to be region locked too, which is enormously embarrassing if it's true.

      I won't partake in piracy myself but it's easy to see that the industry's own failures to cater for a global audience properly are directly contributing to the problem. It's arrogant to complain when I have the advantage of living in a country where one of the most popular languages (in anime licensing terms) is spoken, guaranteeing that I'll be able to watch a decent selection of shows nowadays via streaming compared to most other regions which don't even have local anime industries to speak for them, but even then that comes with unique drawbacks, like when FUNimation takes worldwide English-speaking region rights and locks them to the US/Canada so nobody else can produce a UK stream. Argh! I would have liked to see the official English subtitles for Judge End for the sake of curiosity but not by having to pretend to be in the US.

      Ah well, I will be politely (but firmly) complaining on every volume of the questionnaires included in the Blu-ray release. Since it's sold so poorly I can take pleasure in knowing that they won't very receive many positive comments to drown out the criticism :D

      Delete

I'm really sorry that I had to switch on authentication for comments. The blog had started to receive dozens of spam comments each week. I hope that this new setting will help!