Winter 2014 Anime Rundown

Supposedly it’s Winter, but I wouldn’t be able to tell looking out my window. In Southern California, it’s been blue skies and 70+ degrees, and I’ve hardly seen even a raincloud for months. However, they tell me that it’s Winter, so that must mean there’s a bunch of new anime to watch!

Space Dandy

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I’m not going to lie, I’ve got a bit of a hipster streak. When the hype train comes rolling into the station, my default position is skepticism, with a side of unreasonably heightened standards. Space Dandy tripped all of those red flags as it’s release date approached – the hype around the show is largely based on it’s pedigree, which unites renowned animation studio BONES and director Shinichiro Watanabe of Samurai Champloo and Cowboy Bebop fame. A number of American fans hailed Dandy as spiritual successor to Bebop, which I believe to be a great series… but that’s all it is (shocking, I know). In short, I was ready to be unimpressed.

Space Dandy is the best kind of unexpected – so fucking delightful that not even my willful pessimism could hold up against it’s explosion of color, irreverence and style. The aesthetic of Space Dandy is drenched in Flash Gordon-style cheese, though the dreamy, wide-eyed sense of “what-if” that permeated such early Sci-Fi is replaced in Dandy by a fine layer of grimy, filthy scuzz. You’ll find no Mos Eisley cantina here; no, the scum of the universe instead gather at Boobies, and in case that wasn’t subtle enough for you, the restaurant exists in a space station shaped like a luscious pair of tits.

Should I have... put an NSFW label on this article?

Should I have… put an NSFW label on this article?

Even if that “joke” is a little juvenile for your taste, make no mistake that Space Dandy is freakin’ funny. Not the kind of “anime humor” that is only appreciated by otaku either; in the first two episodes, I’ve experienced more than one out-loud gut-laugh. Granted, I watched the episodes with friends, and that tends to make humor play a bit better. Regardless, despite it’s whackadoodle visual flair, the funniest bits of Dandy are of the dry, flat variety that I personally appreciate the most – gags like Dandy attempting to perform a suave gun twirl, only to send the gun flying off of his finger and into the background – and then ignoring it as if it had never happened.

Now that I think of it, that gun gag is quite prophetic of the end of the episode, but I won’t spoil it. Watch this one for yourself, and find a few friends to watch with, if you can. Converted skeptics often become the most passionate zealots, and I’m no exception. This is my early front-runner for Winter 2014.

World Conquest: The Zvezda Plot

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I think that, if I was a screenwriter, I’d be known as a total butcher. Whenever I have a problem with a show or movie, my proposed solution is almost always: less. Less exposition, less style over substance, less scenes, less, less, less.

World Conquest: The Zvezda Plot seems to understand the value of withholding information. What I appreciate about the first episode is that I basically know jack-shit about what’s going on. And that’s great. A lesser show would’ve spent at least two episodes holding my hand and explaining everything. Wanna know about the giant squid monster? Let’s explain it with a five minute scene! What’s with the strict curfew that’s being enforced across this show’s version of Japan? Hey pal, curiosity isn’t necessary, let’s tell you exactly what’s up!

Zvezda is taking a risk here; it’s banking on that fact that I’m going to care enough about the setup and the characters that I want to know the answers to all of these mysteries, and as of episode one, consider me interested, if only because I admire the guts.

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However, the true value being free of explanation and exposition is that there’s more room for what’s truly important, and that’s the characters – with just this opening episode, you’re given a basic sense for most of the main cast, without any of them being boiled down to a simple info-dump. I’m willing to give those that aren’t as clearly defined the benefit of the doubt too, because the character designs are pretty fabulous – every character is draped in dictatorship chic mixed with a classic superhero penchant for spandex and masks (also, skin. Lots of revealed skin).

Zvezda was a pleasant surprise, and I’m looking forward to the rest of it’s season; hopefully it can maintain some of the lean screenwriting sensibilities that it displayed in the first couple episodes.

Recently, My Little Sister is Unusual

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I won’t dance too much around this one: it’s basically hentai.

What baffles me however is… how much effort has apparently gone into this. It’s pretty dry on an aesthetic level, but there’s been a conscious effort on the writing side in establishing a set of believable characters with relate-able problems. A guy trying to connect with a new step-sister that he doesn’t really understand? That sounds like a decent foundation with some emotional reality to it. Even the bit characters get some dimensionality – naturally, the protagonist’s Dad needs to leave the picture so that the sexy-times can start happening, though before shooing him out of the plot, the series takes time to introduce Dad, explain that he builds bridges for poor people or something, and establish why he needs to leave. Wow, it almost sounds like a real show!

I... watch it for the plot

I… watch it for the plot

That is until the titular little sister gets possessed (and sexually assaulted?) by a horny ghost angel and affixed with an unremovable chastity belt for reasons that are yet to be explained. Wait, actually, she can take the belt off once an hour to pee. Did I mention the last 7 minutes of the show is an extended pee-holding scene? I think this might be a pee fetish show.

If kinky hentai is what you’re looking for, I can’t imagine you’ll do much better than this. And I sort of mean that in the best way possible?

Seitokai Yakuindomo

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Good God. Between this and My Little Sister is Unusual, this season is turning out to be absolutely filthy. To be fair though, the raunchiness in Seitokai Yakuindomo is mostly relegated to the dialogue… which even includes some Engrish, during a truly bizarre opening sequence in which a plane’s co-pilot compares a valley of clouds to the pilot’s wife’s cleavage, and a stewardess offers to cream a stupidly grinning passenger’s coffee with her breast milk. Yeah.

Apparently, this is a sequel to a series that originally came out in 2010. I was only privy to this information after the fact, so I found the prolonged character introduction sequence to be rather helpful; in fact, this ties in with the points I made about Zvezda, that withholding information and just cutting to the chase makes for stronger, more self-assured writing. This is something of an accidental case of lean writing that only works based on my own ignorance, but hey. I call ’em as I see ’em.

Yeah, probably should've used a NSFW label...

Yeah, probably should’ve used a NSFW label…

Regardless of the fact that this is a continuation, I didn’t feel lost and I felt the jokes landed consistently. There’s just something that’s inherently amusing about cutesy girls with potty mouths, though we’ll see just exactly how much mileage there is in that tank as the series goes on. I was also surprised that, for such a filthy series, there’s some real aesthetic flare at play. The color palette is really pleasing, and pristinely realistic backgrounds are juxtaposed behind more typically-designed characters using a keen sense for image composition. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this was another dime-a-dozen slice-of-life comedy by looking at the key art, just as I did.

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I really just want to take this series and wash it’s mouth out with soap. It’s pretty vile, but in a way that reminds me of our own animated comedies here in the States, stuff like South Park and it’s ilk. Hopefully the gags remain fresh, instead of relying too much on shock value, which tends to have a very low shelf-life.

Nobunaga the Fool

Ever since Assassin’s Creed 2, I’ve loved the idea of Leonardo DaVinci appearing in fiction. He is one of my favorite historical figures, right up there with Teddy Roosevelt and Nicholas Cage. As such, it was a pleasant surprise to see Leonardo show up in an anime, the space opera Nobunaga the Fool. Unfortunately, DaVinci’s presence is about the most exciting thing I can report about Nobunaga thus far.

I sincerely hope that he actually dressed like this

I sincerely hope that the real DaVinci was like this

To be fair, there’s some interesting aesthetic choices here, such as cool steampunk-y vehicle and mecha designs. It’s also a pleasure to hear Yuki Kaiji’s voice again – after Haruyuki from Accel World and Eren from Attack on Titan, I am officially a fan. The problem is that the show is really bogged down in it’s own mythology. There’s just so much information dumped on the audience in the first episode, that it’s hard to parse exactly what’s important, what’s fluff, etc.

Rule of thumb: if your opening sequence features scrolling medieval-motif imagery, you are WAY to far up the ass of your own mythology

Rule of thumb: if your opening sequence features scrolling medieval-motif imagery, you are WAY to far up the ass of your own mythology

I give every show at least 3 episodes to “wow” me, but Nobunaga has already expended a lot of valuable story-telling real estate, without a whole lot to show for it. Tuba-wielding Leonardo DaVinci can only do so much.

Nobunagan

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Nobunagan is the second of the Oda Nobunaga-centric shows this season, and follows a meek military otaku as she struggles to connect with her classmates… also, she’s the reincarnation of Oda Nobunaga and can channel his spirit into a machine gun which she uses to battle aliens. I love anime.

Nobunagan has some stylistic panache, though it can be a little cloying. For example, one scene depicts a gaggle of female students chit-chatting with one another, while the protagonist stands off on her own. The girls are overlayed with a pretty flower pattern, while our weapon-loving main character is followed by a shadow in a military camo pattern. WOW, SUBTLETY.

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I do love when a series has the guts to make their characters look ugly, however. Shio, the main character, isn’t ugly, but she is very plain; she’s also capable of making some pretty ugly expressions, which on the contrary, is a breath of fresh air when the anime landscape is dominated everywhere you look by prettyboys/girls.

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Super-Sonico the Animation

SoniAni is almost amazing in how boring it is. I feel like it must take have taken a conscious effort to so thoroughly eradicate any hint of plot from a show, but by jove they’ve done it! SoniAni is a show about nothing. And not in the amusing Seinfeld or Lucky Star way. It’s just plain boring. The most exciting thing that this show has managed to conjure up is some external controversy in Korea regarding a Japanese World War II memorial.

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Look, I don’t like to be overly negative about this stuff. I know that, for every single show that gets produced, an enormous amount of work has to be poured into it, and that nobody sets out to deliberately make a bad anime/movie/show/whatever. But regardless, SoniAni just feels like somebody on the staff wasn’t trying. There’s no story. It’s just scenes.

I guess High School is far enough behind me that I can get into animes about it... but college classes are literally the last thing I need to see a show about

Somebody exists that thought this was a necessary shot to put in an anime

On the plus side, it is kind of amusing that literally every character’s life seems to revolve around the fact that Sonico is simply alive at the same time as them. Everybody has an opinion about Sonico, and it seems like she’s the only thing anybody wants to discuss in this universe, whether she’s there or not.

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I’m glad that somebody is talking about her. Because I won’t be.

The Pilot’s Love Song

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This show is an unfortunate case of imaginative ideas being underutilized by limp direction. The cool fantasy vehicles and structures are undermined by an aesthetic sense with little impact in terms of mood. Most damningly, some key flashbacks in the early episodes are utterly hamstrung in their emotional potency by a sense of timing that seems to deliberately dull their impact – while this is an effective choice in plenty of works, I get the feeling that that’s not exactly what they were going for in The Pilot’s Love Song.

There are some pretty sweet aerial maneuver scenes, though; I’m a sucker for flight scenes (or partial flight; see AoT). An early dogfight in the first episode is strongly reminiscent of old World War II dogfight footage, down to a deliberate use of film-like grain. Director Toshimasa Suzuki may not be able to hit all of the emotional beats, but he knows how to compose and shoot an object in flight, a talent also utilized to wonderful effect in a previous work of his, Rinne no Lagrange, on which he was an episode director.

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Sakura Trick

As I was watching this show, I could’ve sworn I was looking at the character design of Ume Aoki (she of Madoka Magika fame). Alas, it was not so, even though I swear to God this girl stole Kyouko’s eyes:

And changed their color. Sinister!

And changed their color. Sinister!

Sakura Trick helps cement the fact that Winter 2014 is the season of raunchiness. If you don’t want to take me at my word, know that the inciting incident of the show is a pair of long time female friends making out. Just because why not. Following that, there’s at least one juicy smooch scene per seven minutes of runtime.

Jesus, does this school have hall monitors or what

Jesus, does this school have hall monitors or what

This doesn’t approach near the level of filth of anything else on the list, though; Sakura Trick is more about the cutesy side of lesbian affection (as in, the side that sells better the dudes). It can also be pleasing to look at, with it’s radiant color-palette and frequent visual non sequiturs. Trick also seems to have borrowed Nobunagan‘s flower overlay effect. Or is it the other way around? Sakura Trick is a light, airy show that’s easy to watch. However, I have trouble remembering what any given scene was about, even right after it occurred. Sakura Trick is so light that it’s prone to drifting right out of my consciousness.

Nisekoi

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Part of a proud tradition

Man, Akiyuki Shinbo has been a busy little beaver lately, hasn’t he? Between the new Madoka movie, the Monogatari series, and now Nisekoi, anime fandom has been under an unending barrage of his particular brand of insanity for some time now. Expect lots of close-ups, dramatic slow zoom-ins, and a flattened sense of composition that reminds me of one of my favorite American directors, Wes Anderson.

Nisekoi should have “garden-variety rom-com” written all over it, but Shinbo and his staff seem to be hell bent on breaking this show free from convention. The environment in Shinbo’s works is just as alive as the characters, conveying concepts that he can’t rely on the characters for; for example, in a scene from the second episode, this composition is used to suggest not only a passage of time, but also an emotional passage for our protagonist, Raku:

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It also helps that the source material brings a lot for Shinbo and his staff to work with. The character designs are extremely attractive, with Kirisaki being an early front-runner for my favorite girl of the season. The story also draws from the fertile well of Yakuza mythology, though the twist is that the Yakuza, in an effort to end their war with the (presumably) Italian mafia, have called a truce in light of the burgeoning relationship between their respective heirs – a fake relationship, maintained only for the sake of peace. I feel like the arc here is fairly predictable, but unpredictable because I’ve already fallen into the trap of thinking I’ve predicted it. Do you see what you’ve done to my mind, Akiyuki Shinbo?

Wake Up, Girls!

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The scuttlebutt on this one is that the production is in serious trouble. Director Yutaka Yamamoto is known as being notoriously difficult to work with, and he had to take to Twitter recently in a desperate attempt to recruit new staff to work on Wake Up, Girls!

It’s a shame for this show to run into too much more trouble, because I like the basic premise. Idol fandom is one of the few facets of otaku culture that I don’t know a whole lot about, so it was interesting to see that the show’s opener was hinting at the more serious, professional side of the idol world, one that I know to be rife with human drama.

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Alas, the cracks are already beginning to show. The aforementioned opener seems to be cut together solely out of footage that has or will appear at some point in the show. Animation for a number scenes is very sparse and stilted. The priority seems to have been placed on the dance sequences, which are nice and fluid – as expected for a show about idols, after all. Hopefully the staff is able to shake off their production woes however, because with a fairly stock story, a flaming train wreck of a production may end up being more sensational than the show itself.

This image isn't relevant to any of my points. Just... here you go.

This image isn’t relevant to any of my points. Just… here you go.

Aaaaaand that’s it! As with every season, some of these shows will disappear off my watch list, while others may be added. I’ll also be doing a separate post for shows that are continuing over from last season (because I wanna write about Kill la Kill some more). Happy viewing, everybody! Stay warm! Brrr, I think it’s getting to be 60 degrees outside… I might even have to consider wearing socks…

Space Dandy can be watched via Hulu and Funimation

Everything else can be watched via Crunchyroll

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One response to “Winter 2014 Anime Rundown

  1. With you on Space Dandy, and while I don’t necessarily agree with everything you wrote regarding Pilot’s Love Song, I can easily see that it’s far from a perfect show. The only other things on this list that I’ve seen any of are Wake Up, Girls! and Sakura trick, both of which I promptly dropped. I don’t think they’re terrible, but both are obviously not geared towards someone of my demographic, so it’s not particularly surprising that neither managed to appeal.

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