August 01, 2009

What's Wonderduck Watching? Summer 2009 Edition

It seems that every anime season in Japan brings with it moans of pain from the American fans.  "There's nothing good," goes the refrain.  "This is the worst season ever."  Inevitably, though, there's at least one or two shows that people discover to be pretty darn good, and many of the rest end up being at least watchable (even in the best of times there's unwatchable shows, too).  It's a twisted circle of life, but it's one that anime bloggers and readers seem comfortable with, on the whole.

But I noticed something odd heading into the Summer 2009: a surprising dearth of "the sky is falling" posts!  There seemed to be a little bit of something for everyone this time around, and a new season of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, to boot! 

We're about four weeks into the season, and the long-anticipated Haruhi 2 is widely considered a bust (though not by me, I'm diggin' it), but the rest of the shows are showing a remarkable level of quality.  Instead of "thin slicing" the season, though, I'm just going to cover the programs that have made the cut for me.

So, without further ado, let's answer the burning question "What's Wonderduck Watching?"


Princess Lover

I'm a sucker for a halfway decent harem anime, and Princess Lover has shown itself to be just that: halfway decent.  Our protagonist is a lad of modest means, with a loving family that doesn't make it past the OP: they're killed by some plot that is, apparently, trying to off all the rich families in Japan.  Turns out Mom was the heir to a huge conglomerate, and her father quickly adopts her only son.  Our protagonist turns out to have quite the hero streak to him, though.  On the way to his "coming out" party, he winds up rescuing an actual princess (with a killer butler named Alfred, and a honest-to-goodness horse-drawn carriage) from a gang intent on murdering her.  He later is introduced to an unpreposessing (but hot) maid, and his arranged fiance who has a penchant for western-style swordsmanship (above).

Not exactly a particularly original plot, but the first episode was fun to watch and hooked me well enough to keep me wanting more.  Animation quality isn't the greatest, and the female character designs are best described as "top-heavy."  Even our hero's late mom is racked.  Still, there's a lot of personality to the characters (particularly the princess, Charlotte Hazelrink, who gets accidentally groped by our hero during the rescue... and enjoys it), and the humor was good enough to keep me interested.  Probably the weakest of the shows on my list, and likely to be the first to drop off if I get too busy to keep 'em all, but for now at least, Princess Lover is a keeper.

Canaan

A few years back, the production studio called Bee Train rolled out a show titled Noir, one of the best shows to come out of the current decade.  It featured two young women as the main characters, both of them expert assassins.  One of them, Kirika, was quiet and introspective.  The other, Mirelle, was much more outgoing, quite the opposite of Kirika.  Bee Train followed Noir with the miserable Madlax, who had two main characters that were very nearly clones of Mirelle and Kirika.  The third of Bee Train's 'girls with guns' trilogy was El Cazador de la Bruja, which also featured a quiet one and a loud one, though neither were similar to Kirika and Mirelle.

The namesake character of Canaan, shown above, may as well be a gray-haired version of Kirika.  We know nothing of her background, though she has an incredible skill with guns, aided by a nigh-magical version of synesthesia.  An "evil corporation" apparently ran a series of tests on people, implanting this high-powered synesthesia into people, trying to create a supersoldier of sorts.  From what we've seen to date, Canaan is the only true success, and the corporation wants her back (maybe, it's not all that clear yet... it might just want her dead).  There's also a third faction involved, a bunch of might-be-terrorists called 'snakes'.  Their leader really wants Canaan dead, though their connection isn't yet known either.  There's also a pair of journalists, one of whom befriended Canaan in the past.

Visually, Canaan is gorgeous, with crisp character designs, outstanding animation, and great action sequences.  The main problem with the show is that it's hard NOT to compare it to the Bee Train trilogy, and so far it comes up lacking.  Doesn't mean it's bad, just not as good... I'm still watching, though.  So far.

Sora no Manimani

In the recent past, there's been some anime series that were designed to promote a certain topic with the Japanese public, to the extent that they were sponsored or heavily supported by organizations involved with the topic.  Hikaru no Go promoted the game go, Saki the game mahjongg, and Rocket Girls pushed manned spaceflight with the help of JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Sora no Manimani may as well be promoting the science of Astronomy.  The main characters are all members of their high school astronomy club, and there's plenty of stargazing (as seen above).  However, that's just the framework for what's working out to be a fun little harem series.  Our main character, a bookish lad, was terrorized as a youth by a hyperactive girl who loved stargazing.  He left the city when his family moved away, and has recently returned after seven years.  On his first day of high school, who does he run into but his childhood nemesis, who is trying to recruit members for the astronomy club.  Hijinks ensue as he tries to avoid her, but eventually he joins the club as all the past terror turns out to be a terrible misunderstanding.  He finds himself in the club with three cute girls (and a president who coughs up blood every other minute), all with wildly different personalities.

Manimani isn't a particularly original show, to be honest, but the "stargazing on the roof" conceit involved sure lends itself to a lot of introspective moments, the potential for some emotionally charged conversations, and romance. 

Character designs are cute, the art is good (if somewhat plain), and the animation is acceptable.  As befitting a show about astronomy, it really shines during the stargazing scenes.  Manimani could be a sleeper of a show, or it could be meh.  At the moment, it's looking more like a sleeper, and one that's more fun than anything else on this list.  It'll never be confused as a great show, but it's entertaining as all get-out.

Bakemonogatari (Ghostory)

There is no way to describe Bakemonogatari that does the convoluted plot any justice.  He's a vampire that's been cured, she's had her weight stolen by a Giant Crab that's actually a kami (and later gives her weight back to her).  She's also got an violent streak and an unhealthy fascination for school supplies (staplers, X-Acto knives, and scissors included).  There's also a little girl with a backpack that's bigger than she is, and nobody knows what the heck is going on yet.  Bakemongatari promises to be either outstanding or a complete trainwreck, with no in-between. 

Given the track record of the production company (SHAFT), there's an equal chance of either result, but it looks like it'll be a wild ride finding out.  It's the best looking show of the summer to boot.  It's a very talky show, though, so watching a good fansub is hugely important; from personal experience I'll suggest staying very far, far away from the version put out by "Superior Fansubs."  It'll just confuse the hell out of you even more than the show manages to do on its own.

Taishou Yakyuu Musume

The other contender for "best looking show of the season," Taishou Yakyuu Musume (or "Taisho Baseball Girls" in English) is about a bunch of Japanese girls forming a baseball team... in 1925, a time when Japanese girls weren't even supposed to run, as it was thought to be "too vulgar."

If you can ignore some of the anachronisms (such as the gloves having webbing, which only debuted in the Major Leagues in 1920 and wasn't common until some time after), and you're a baseball fan, the story so far is hugely entertaining.  It might even be a good way to introduce someone to the sport of baseball, through the trials and tribulations of a bunch of girls who have never even seen the game played before trying to figure out how to form a team and compete against the boys.  Expect a lot of wild throws and falling down (except for two of the girls, who played catch with the boys in elementary school, and one amateur swordswoman who has a natural batting eye), in other words, with a lot of ganbatte!s and a heartwarming conclusion of some sort... much like any other sports anime.

Where TYM really shines is the artwork.  Where Bakemonogatari is crisp, hip and stylish, TYM looks more like a watercolor painting for the most part, with fluid animation and realisticly drawn characters (though Koume's perpetually rosy cheeks are a little out of place).  It's really a nice, almost gentle, show, which is strange to say about a sports anime.  Baseball being what it is, however, it fits quite nicely.

And then there's the Greatest 1:24 In Anime History:


Really, how could you not like a show with that in it?

Every season, I wind up watching one or two older series that I missed the first time around, for one reason or another.  This time, the show is:

Higurashi (When They Cry)

Darkness, thy name is Higurashi.  The first four episodes of this horror series are flat-out, terrifyingly, wonderfully, creepy.  Based on a series of visual novels, the show seems to reset after each story arc.  That's a good thing, because after the first arc, two of the main characters lie dead, beaten to death with a baseball bat, and the protagonist is dead in a phone booth after clawing out his throat with his fingernails.

The only other horror anime that I've liked was Elfen Lied, but that was more along the lines of a slasher flick (though not really).  Higurashi so far is more of a psychological horror story.  Character designs and artwork is a little cartoony, which clashes with the violence in a good way. What little I've seen makes me want to get the thinpack, soon to be released by Funimation, who picked up the license after Geneon mostly folded up shop.

It's not a show suitable for, say, the Duck U Anime Club, but I'll bet dollars to rye bread that The Librarian'll go nuts over it, is what I'm saying.

I've also downloaded the first three episodes of Aoi Hana and Yoku Wakaru Gendai Mahou, but haven't yet had a chance to watch them, so there may have a couple more shows that I'm compelled to watch in my future, plus the continuing series Saki and Haruhi 2 to boot.

But for now, that's What's Wonderduck Watching!

Posted by: Wonderduck at 11:44 PM | Comments (7) | Add Comment
Post contains 1861 words, total size 14 kb.

1 That's a lot of stuff!

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at August 01, 2009 11:55 PM (+rSRq)

2 By the way, in that show about girls' baseball, which character is it in the video clip? I'm wondering who the seiyuu is who sang that clip.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at August 01, 2009 11:58 PM (+rSRq)

3 That's the rosy-cheeked Koume, as voiced by Kanae Ito.  She's also one of the voices in Sora no Manimani, which I didn't realize. 

Looks like Ms Ito is a new voice in anime; she doesn't have a big resume.  When Queen's Blade is your career highlight, you're either quite new, or quite bad.  I'll go with 'new'.

Posted by: Wonderduck at August 02, 2009 12:30 AM (VosBh)

4

I've watched the first few epsiodes of Aoi Hana but haven't found it that riveting so far. Same for Bakemonogatari, seem first 2 but not in any hurry to watch more.

Did really enjoy Higurashi, just finished season 2 recently and it does all make sense eventually. The live action movie is ok but not as OTT or as fun as the anime 

Posted by: Andy Janes at August 02, 2009 02:47 AM (lNf10)

5 I think that clip just sold me on Taishou Yakyuu Musume. If only it weren't being aired in 4:3 pan-and-scan. Damn you TBS!

I've never enjoyed a Shinbo/SHAFT show, and Bakemonogatari proved to be no exception. I've enjoyed shows directed by Shinbo (Nanoha) and shows produced by SHAFT (ef, REC), but somehow the combination is anathema to me.

Overall, though, this season has been great for me so far. I'm following eight shows right now, which is already a personal record, and I've still got a few more to check out.

Posted by: Andrew F. at August 02, 2009 09:03 AM (VbNCn)

6 Not really related to your post, I just thought you might enjoy this piece by artist Florentijn Hofman. Now that I think about it, you've probably already seen it, but just in case you haven't...

Posted by: Maria at August 02, 2009 12:56 PM (His++)

7 This season lacks mecha. Not that I am disappointed or anything, just making an observation.

Posted by: Pete Zaitcev at August 02, 2009 10:22 PM (/ppBw)

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