Fall 2013 Mid-Season Rundown

Admittedly, it’s a bit late to be calling this “mid-season”, but I thought “mid-season-with-some-change” was a little long-winded for a title. I’ll be giving the rundown on my five favorite shows this season, as well as giving some attention to a few other shows worth watching for one reason or another.

1. Kill la Kill

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I’ve already given a lot of attention to this series, but only through the lens of icky controversy, unfortunately. Setting that aside, Kill la Kill seems tailor-made to be an otaku conversation piece. Whereas Attack on Titan was great in the way that it had broad appeal that encompassed non-nerds (my mom loves The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, and Lost; she also loves Attack on Titan), Kill la Kill is great on a similar level, though with a much more insular appeal.

It’s hard to heap praise on this show without repeating the same buzzwords that have been thrown around in other reviews, as true as they may be. I’ll choose instead to focus on the strength of the ongoing arc of the show. Like it’s uncle show, Gurren Lagann, KlK seems to have a slow-burn of a plot that continues to mount in complexity with every episode (though it’s easy to miss the details if you’re just watching for the boobies). Episode 1 introduces us to a fairly run-of-the-mill premise when you boil it down – girl seeks revenge, girl challenges authority to get it, madness ensues. As the episodes progress however, we’re given a slow drip-feed of juicy details. For instance, every piece of information we are given about the Goku Uniforms only prompts more questions (this is known as the Lost school of screenwriting).

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So what’s in the damn hatch!?

The show also has a lot going on thematically; I won’t poke the feminism beehive again, but the show gives us plenty of other morsels to chew on, such as the nature of clothing and uniforms as they relate to Japanese society. I’d be remiss not to mention the overall design of the show, as well; without the stifling straight-jacket known as “subtlety,” the artists at Trigger have been allowed to go nuts, illustrating a clear, larger-than-life portrait of class disparity in Honnouji City. Oh, and did anybody else notice that the school is a giant sailor uniform collar? 

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Wacky stuff.

Regardless of your stance on it’s gender politics, Kill la Kill is a show that begs to be watched.

2. Outbreak Company

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Now this is a show that surprised me. Whereas with Kill la Kill I had already known to some degree that I would love it just based on it’s pedigree, Outbreak Company is something I had no prior knowledge about, and watched it originally simply based on it’s premise. What I got was a surprisingly funny show with a set of loveable characters that’s one of the main highlights of my anime week.

When a portal opens up to a parallel dimension in the middle of Japan, Shinichi Kanou is selected as a cultural ambassador to this new world based on his encyclopedic knowledge of otaku culture. The synopsis promises a parade of gags lampooning the various facets of otaku-dom, a promise that’s fulfilled in spades; what’s surprising though is that the gags aren’t funny simply based on one’s familiarity with the material alone. Director Kei Oikawa has a very sharp sense of comedic timing that elevates the material above surface level otaku pandering. He understands how to set up a joke, when to hold on a character’s reaction, and what specific facial expressions to use that will deliver the biggest comedic punch. All of these techniques are executed flawlessly in a recent episode, during a dream-sequence gag that elicited an honest laugh out of me. If you’re a fan of humor that’s on the drier side, you’ll definitely find something to laugh about in Outbreak Company.

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This expression: a punchline in itself

Even more surprising than the comedy though, is that the story has some weighty things to say about classism and racism. However, instead of the hot-headedness with which anime usually likes to comment on social issues, Outbreak Company takes a refreshingly level, cool-headed approach. For instance, the elves and dwarves that live in the fantasy kingdom of Eldant openly despise one-another, despite Shinichi’s attempts to bridge the gap between the races with otaku culture. Shinichi wants to smack some planet-Earth sense into them by telling them to knock off the racism, but he’s constantly advised that he’s no longer in Japan, and that he can’t simply force his values on an entirely different world with it’s own deeply-ingrained value system; his only option is to show them a fresh perspective and lead by example.

It’s these things that make me give the show a pass on other things like relatively stale visuals and some disappointingly underdeveloped characters (give that awesome lizard man some more scenes!). Outbreak Company is a funny show with a big heart, and I sincerely hope it keeps up this momentum through the rest of the season.

3. Nagi no Asukara

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This show trades Outbreak Company‘s sheer entertainment value for a very distinct aesthetic and writing with a bit more depth (no pun intended) to it.

When their local school is shut down, four childhood friends are forced to leave their underwater town and attend school on land. As whimsical as an undersea village may sound, the situation is played very straight – underwater humans don’t have gills or anything, underwater homes are in the typical Japanese style… in fact, when the sea-dwelling characters are indoors, you can hardly tell that they live underwater at all.

This all comments to one of the show’s many conflicts, which is the racial tension between the land dwellers and the sea dwellers. That’s not the only conflict by a long shot, though – see, main character Hikari has a cute middle-school crush on his childhood friend Manaka, but Manaka is giving off signs that she might like Tsumugu, the tall, dark and handsome land-dweller who catches her in his fishing net. But the drama doesn’t cease there; oh no, Chisaki, who is another of the main quartet, likes Hikari, but she’s painfully aware of Hikari’s feelings for Manaka… and then there’s Kaname, who I sometimes forget is even in this series, but of course he has a crush on Chisaki. I don’t even know what you’d call this… a love pentagon? Good Lord. It’s all so gooey and soap-y in the most delicious way.

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Also, angst. So very much angst.

The adolescent romance is likely to be the driving element of the series as it gets to it’s late-season episodes, but until this point, there’s been a refreshing amount of attention payed to subplots involving the adult characters and their struggles. For instance, a number of episodes are devoted to Hikari’s sister, and her relationship with a land-dwelling man who already has a daughter of his own. I don’t want to spoil too much if you haven’t seen it, but I’ll say that the fact that the underwater society disapproves of their relationship is the most predictable, and least interesting conflict presented by the situation.

So far, Nagi no Asukara is a very balanced series that’s demonstrated an adeptness at juggling several character arcs and keeping them relevant (except for Kaname. Get that guy outta there). Even during slower moments, the show is consistently gorgeous, and is one of the season’s most visually stimulating pieces. Some might find the melodrama a little cloying, but for a sap glutton like myself, Nagi no Asukara hits all the right buttons.

4. Arpeggio of Blue Steel

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Humanity sure has a rough time of it in anime, huh? Maybe I’m still just after glowing from my Attack on Titan high, but the setup of “humanity’s remnants are pushed to desperation by an overwhelmingly powerful force, and receive a method with which to fight back in their darkest hour” rings very familiar. In the case of Arpeggio, the superior force is the Fleet of Fog, a navy of AI-controlled battleships that have attacked and destroyed human society’s communication infrastructure under orders from an as-of-yet undiscovered mastermind.

Aiding humanity is Iona, an AI personification of the I-401 submarine. Iona appears to protagonist Chihaya Gunzou as a cute girl with big, green eyes and an inquisitive disposition. Naturally. Together, the two begin to fight back against not only the Fog, but against the remnants of the world’s governments, who see Iona as a threat.

This show is unique this season in that it’s animation style utilizes 3D character models. The effect is… not always successful. The uncanny valley can still exist with stylized characters – not in facial expressions, but in their awkward, unnatural body movements. Still, it’s visually distinct and you have to give the production team credit for trying something a bit different.

Story-wise, Arpeggio can be a bit schizophrenic. The first few episodes follow Iona, Gunzou, and the crew of the I-401 as they undergo a mission to deliver plans for a new anti-Fog weapon to America; however, around episode 4 or 5, the show takes a swift, bizarre detour that focuses on two previously Fog-alligned battleship girls as they struggle with their newly developed capacity to experience human emotion.

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And then one of them becomes a teddy bear. For some reason.

Oh yeah, did I mention that each of the Fog’s main battleships is personified by a cute girl? Yeah. The timing of this series seems awfully opportune in the wake of the enormous success of the browser-based card game Kantai Collection. Whether or not this show is an attempt to ride on KanColle‘s coattails though, it’s clear that Battleship Girls are totally “in” right now. And to be fair to Arpeggio, the design of the show’s girls is pleasant and doesn’t borrow from the retro aesthetic of KanColle.

What keeps me returning to this show most of all is the naval battles. I know pretty much nothing about naval combat, so the terminology that the characters use in the midst of battle sounds very exciting and technical. Since naval combat is a theater of warfare that is fairly under-represented in anime, I consistently find myself surprised by the tactics at play in the show. In a mecha, land, or space battle, I usually expect the solution to be “fire lasers at it,” but Arpeggio has shown me a battlefield in which lasers are not the sole solution; indeed, the characters consistently have to account for positioning, engine output, and other technical-sounding stuff like that. Throwing cute girlies at every battleship is just a pleasant bonus.

5. Kyoukai no Kanata

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Kyoukai no Kanata is the latest from Kyoto Animation, the hit-making studio behind Haruhi, Lucky Star, K-On!, and most recently Free!. The premise should be familiar to any fans of Bleach or the Monogatari series; supernatural creatures walk amongst us, and when they get ornery, it’s up to a group of monster-hunters to keep the peace. In Kyoukai‘s case, the monsters are called youmu, and the peace-keepers are the Spirit World Warriors.

The show is largely driven by it’s characters, both in terms of humor and drama. Within these first few episodes, we’re introduced to Mirai and Akihito, both characters that seem goofy on the surface, but who harbor troubled pasts. Much of the storytelling real estate is dedicated to the relationship dynamic between these two; the ways they get close, the ways they maintain distance, and the assumptions that they make about one another. “Assumption” is likely the main buzzword of the show, as almost every character’s struggles, both major and minor, stem from the fixed ideas that they have about themselves and about those around them.

As is par-for-the-course for a KyoAni show, the visual production value is top-notch. Each of the main characters has their own piece of visual flair, from Mirai’s ugly peach-colored sweater to Akihito’s funky sweatervest. The youmu, too, are very inventive; even throwaway youmu that only appear in short scenes or individual shots are appropriately weird and alien-looking. The only relatively disappointing design belongs to a character who undergoes a brief transformation about halfway through the series; it’s not ugly by any means, but it reminds me of something more out of Blue Exorcist than a series with an established track record of unique-looking monsters.

Screen Shot 2013-11-27 at 3.01.14 PMOverall, Kyoukai no Kanata is one of those comfort-food series that manages to be consistently satisfying week-to-week. It’s classy, it’s cute, it’s funny, and it can pack an emotional wallop when it wants to. I think that, going into the latter half of the season though, it needs to step up it’s game if it wants to leave a real impact.

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That’s… not the kind of impact I had in mind

The Rest

The following are a set of shows that I’m personally enjoying, but don’t inspire me to give them full write-ups. They may or may not be your specific cup of tea, so read on in case any of these tickle your fancy:

Log Horizon – “Trapped in a virtual reality” seems to be it’s own genre these days, doesn’t it? This is an example of a show that’s not particularly offensive in any way, but doesn’t quite excel in anything, either. Check this one out if you need something to tide you over until Sword Art Online gets another season (my bet is on sooner rather than later). To it’s credit, Log Horizon‘s opener is easily my favorite of the season.

My Mental Choices are Completely Interfering with my School Romantic Comedy – MMCaCIwmSRC is the latest in a proud tradition of bafflingly long-titled light novel adaptations. It’s usually referred to as NouCome for short, but I really wanted to be a smartass and type out that whole acronym. Anyway, with every season, I like to indulge in one or two really trashy shows. NouCome fills that niche quite nicely. Fan service aside, the premise is silly and provides the foundation for a few genuinely funny gags. If this show is the satisfying junk food to the healthy meat-and-potatoes of other shows, then check this one out if you’re the kind of person who likes to spoil their dinner by eating dessert first.

Samurai Flamenco – Admittedly, I’m not fully up to date on this show; I’m getting to it! Regardless, this series landed on my radar because it’s got the same director as one of my favorite shows, Durarara!! The premise can be easily summed up by replacing the main character of Kick Ass with a super-sentai otaku. The result is a comedy with a refreshing focus on adult males, though what I’ve seen so far has been a little dry in a stylistic sense. Check it out if you like the idea of getting a little Durarara!! in your Kick Ass. Or vice-versa. 

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