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Mage in a Barrel by Iblessall - 4M ago

There’s something to be said for putting down a more permanent record of your favorite anime of the year. I didn’t do it last year and I realized I regretted it—so this year, although I said I wouldn’t and the list will be shorter than normal—I won’t make the same mistake.

These are my picks for the top anime of 2018.

As I mentioned in my favorite anime moments of 2018 post (I apologize for any repetition in this one), I watched fewer anime in 2018 than I have in a year since I started watching anime, but I have to say that the rewards of that were worth it. Focusing in on a smaller handful of shows that I really cared about made them all the more worthwhile.

And so I got to enjoy things like Planet With, which for me had its emotional climax in Soya’s breakdown midseason and suffered from its speedy pacing to the extent that the finale missed just a little bit of the punch it should have had. Also as an honorable mention is SSSS.GRIDMAN, TRIGGER’s first entirely good anime, which hit for the stars and achieved a stunning amount of good things. Comic Girls was also good and painfully relatable, although it’s faded in my mindspace as time has gone on. And the final honorable mention shoutout goes to Hugtto Preure for being so good that I mostly stayed current with it!

And with that, let’s hit the top 5!

5. Free! Dive to the Future

Free! is the KyoAni franchise that seems like it’ll never die, and for that I am thankful. Although the shows have been inconsistent over their three-season, multi-movie run, there’s a sense of genuine fun that pervades them even in the midst of the deepest drama. Dive to the Future as a successor to the seasons prior is a very satisfying thing, as it does what few anime do and expands the story beyond high school into the characters’ university lives—but even so, the scars of time past go with them. It’s the way that Dive to the Future tackles these pains that make it so good, building moments of catharsis out of relationships and arcs that have changed over time. My favorite? Ikuya’s resolution with his brother.

But that’s just part of Free!‘s appeal to me. The other big part is the manservice. No, not all the muscular physiques, although those are nice. Rather, it’s the emotional service that Free! provides to its male characters in the way it allows them to be emotional, caring, doubtful, and nuanced that’s the real service the franchise provides. I wrote about this a bit with regards to High Speed!, and Dive to the Future builds on that foundation more gracefully than I could have expected, blending the more poignant emotional drama of the film into the lighter tone of the original TV series with reasonable success. Overall, though, it was simply a pleasure to see these characters back again. Here’s hoping for a glorious return in 2020!

4. Fate/Extra LAST ENCORE

The further I get from Fate/Extra LAST ENCORE, the fonder of it I seem to grow. I’ve already written in some depth on what I consider to be the core theme of the show, and while it was LAST ENCORE‘s treatment of the reality of despair and the difficulty—and glory!—of responding to it, there was so much else to this little entry into the Fate franchise that made it mean something to me. This is perhaps best exemplified by Nero’s triumphant speech in the finale, a rousing shout in which she describes her experience of Hakuno’s physical and spiritual ascendancy as witnessing “a star being born!” It is a grandiosity piled upon a bed of prior grandiosities, but Saber’s devotion, love, and loyalty are on full display.

LAST ENCORE is a show about belief that survives despair, and no character is so emblematic of this as the charismatic Red Saber. There is an honest simplicity to her exterior that makes her easy to love, yet she also possesses a complex interiority—born out of her multiples lifetimes—that grounds her as more than a fantasy girlfriend. As Nero and Hakuno travel together upwards, the natural comfort that grows between them likewise serves as the foundation for the grander gestures of LAST ENCORE‘s story. The almost uniformly tragic (or at least bittersweet) tales of those Saber and Hakuno encounter build to these beautifully, and even though this is a Fate hardcore fans say isn’t accessible to non-fans as promise and certainly not one I expected to love, like Saber with Hakuno, I find myself compelled to shout of its radiance.

3. Yama no Susume S3

Somewhere along the way, Yama no Susume has become a series I treasure. When I watched the first season a few years back, I was looking for something cute and light, and nothing more. And while Yamasusu is certainly both of those things, it is also more than that. The care and attention the second season offered to Aoi’s small but poignant struggles to climb Mount Fuji—and especially to her failure—marked it as a show whose modest ambitions belie its exellence. And so, having been drawn in slowly, Yamasusu‘s (unexpected?) return was a cause for celebration for these reasons as well as those of its wonderful production circumstances.

In football, players who are especially appreciated by their fellow players (as opposed to fans, managers, etc.) are sometimes referred to as “players’ players.” Yama no Susume as a creative work strikes me as something similar, a production that holds a great deal of appeal for those of us who are particularly insert in the craft of how anime, or perhaps even more specifically, animated television shorts, are made. Yamasusu is for me a delight of execution that elevates, infuses, and blends with content. I adore it as a small story of a group of friends having small conflicts and small joys, and I both appreciate and learn from it as a work of creativity. All this had its roots in the previous seasons, but much like Aoi, I’ve changed over the years. Being able to perceive those changes in myself—in what I value, in what interests me, in what I want to do—through the lens of Yamasusu‘s simple self is special, and I’m not show any other show recently has done that for me the way this third season of Yama no Susume did.

2. Hisone to Masotan

A friend of mine on Twitter is fond of referencing a spoken-word review of Grand Theft Auto V by Leigh Alexander in which she says that in the game “you can do a lot of things. Not too many things. Just enough things.” Although the context is different, this is kind of how I see Hisone to Masotan—a TV anime that does a hell of a lot of things, but just enough of them to be fun and weird and packed to the dragon innards without tripping over the invisible wire of Too Many Things and becoming incomprehensible. There’s the thing where the D-Pilots are literally swallowed by their dragon/planes, which is also a metaphor for how people’s work can seem to literally swallow them whole. There’s also the thing where Hisone licks Masotan. And the thing where the realization that she’s fallen in love with someone causes her scream her head off and runs into the night. Also the thing with workplace sexism. And the thing the legendary dragon and the historic sacrifice that serves as a macrocosm of the show’s thesis on the hundreds of impossible little decisions people have to make between love, life, career, family, fulfillment, and everything else.

I really do love this kind of jam-packed show, and there was no other anime this year that I enjoyed talking about with other people than Hisomaso. From its unique character designs and the vivid personalities that inhabited them to the adorable Masotan to its willingness to staightforwardly tackle difficult topics, the many things Hisomaso does make it constantly entertaining and persistently interesting. Few enough shows manage either of those, let alone both at once. And while I’ll admit the ending lacked a bit of punch for me due to how quickly it happens, such a fault is easily overlooked amidst the cascade of strengths Hisomaso contains. My favorite TV anime of 2018? This is it!

T1. Maquia

Talking about Maquia is difficult. Each time I’ve watched it, I’ve cried solidly through the last 20 or so minutes of the film’s three-pronged climax. When so much of a film’s appeal is located in such a visceral reaction, it’s hard to see through the literal and metaphorical tears to everything that lies beneath and facilitates those feelings. I called my mom after I saw Maquia the first time, and unintentionally freaked her out because I still hadn’t finished bawling my eyes out. That conversation wasn’t really like anything in Maquia. And that was okay. Because, ultimately, Maquia isn’t really so much an expression of a concrete reality as it is of those broader threads of experience that overcast our lives but rarely contact our daily existences. Our lives are not made up of a series of vignettes like this story is. We can’t breeze through mundanity in a cheery montage, and our conflicts don’t always wash away in the rain with a slap to our stomachs.

But the truth and familiarity in Maquia can speak so powerfully, I think, because it grasps those grander aspects of our lives that we mostly can’t see and makes them visible. Maquia mourns her son’s passing, and if nothing else is true about Maquia, certainly the fact that the ascending storm of flowers gives her grief—vast, real, and very beautiful—tangible visual expression is. These are the kinds of gestures Maquia makes toward the reality of love. Although the film is centered on a mother’s love for her son, there is universality in that unique particular. Because, really, this is what love looks like. That’s why Maquia is my favorite anime of the year.

T1. Liz and the Blue Bird

Talking about Liz and the Blue Bird is difficult. Each time I’ve watched it, I’ve found myself more and more captivated by the film, drawn into its singular world through the immersive soundscape and deft visual framing. In terms of craft, it is an absolute wonder to me, and it is on those terms that it speaks to me most. It’s not simply that Liz is pretty or that it unspools its emotional thread so delicately that I’m barely conscious of the web being sewn with it; it’s that the film’s acuity of vision and execution is so powerful that I can’t help but be aware of it in every frame even as I am carried along with the gentle currents of Nozomi and Mizore’s story. I like these kinds of things, these sorts of contradictions where the craft-puppets’ workings are so clear that they become a part of the appeal in their own rights. Perhaps that is one meaning of “art house.”

I do like the story of Liz and the Blue Bird. As I’ve written before, to me it is a story of love through letting go, a crisp fold on the edge between togetherness and loss. But my heart is, in the end, with the way the film is made. At times I even consider that I might like the individual components of the film—music, shot composition, sound direction, colors, voice acting, animation—more as discrete parts than as a whole. But I think if that were true, Liz would be a lesser film for the lack of a holistic final product. And Liz is not a lesser film. It’s transcendant as art in a shockingly specific way. I find new reasons to be amazed each time I watch it. That’s why Liz and the Blue Bird is my favorite anime of the year.

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2018 was yet another year of evolution in my journey as an anime fan. Throughout the year, I spent less time watching anime and less time engaging in anime-related activities like doing freelance writing, blogging, and livetweeting shows. So as I started to consider “my year in anime,” I wondered if I would have much to say.

I needn’t have worried. The year is 2018 and anime is still good, so in the spirit of the 12 days of anime project (that I didn’t do this year)—here are twelve anime things that brought me some joy this year.

I Rediscovered Anime Crushes

It had been a long time. A long time since I’d felt those little flutteries you get when an anime character is really cute, really good, and really nice. But even before I knew that Ginko was a space princess, I was enamored. Cute anime girls are a dime a dozen, but characters that exude genuine warmth and care in the way Ginko does—from her time as a princess all the way through her cathartic moment in Planet With‘s finale—are something special.

So I spent a nice time with Planet With, amidst all of the show’s other wonderful strengths, feeling a cozy bunch of crushy feelings about Ginko Kuroi. It’s silly, but it was nice to be reminded what it felt like to have an anime crush once again. And, seeing as Ginko is far and away the Best Girl of 2018, my heart couldn’t have made a better choice.

Space princess! Space princess! Space princess!

Finding My Fate Anime Niche

I’ve never really been much of a Fate fan. After an extremely poor experience with Fate/Zero, there’s never really been much to attract me to the sprawling franchise. But when you’re needing an that you can put on while washing the dishes and cooking and Netflix shoves Fate/Apocrypha into your face, what can you do? You can watch it, be surprised at how much you enjoy it (especially Astolfo), enjoy the fact that the two opposing Ruler characters are both Catholics, be wowed by the stunning animation of #22, and finish the show somewhat more positively disposed to Fate than you’ve been before.

This will lead you to give Fate/Extra LAST ENCORE a shot, and after the show gets over its early inclination to appeal to the audience’s presumed base desires for Nero, you’ll be stunned as the show pulls a truly evocative atmosphere out of the now-cliché SHAFT stylings you thought were too tired to be effective. You won’t understand quite everything that happens, but the tremendous thematic coherence and the way the character relationships evolve from dull to genuine will grip you. It’ll be one of your favorite anime of the year. And, in combination with Apocrypha, it’ll leave you feeling like maybe alternate universe Fate series are the ones for you—which is good to know.

3 Perfect Episodes

If you asked me to name my favorite episode of TV anime of the year, I’d probably give the honor to Hugtto Precure‘s #16. But, fortunately, I don’t have to make such a specific choice here, so I can also add Yama no Susume S3‘s #10 and SSSS.GRIDMAN‘s #9 to that list. If you watch these three episodes (honorable mention to Hugtto #4), you’ll likely see the stylistic similarities between them. Of course, there are also plenty of things to distinguish them from each other, but it’s those similarities—a strong affiliation with cinematographic language, a tight grip on the power of atmospheric storytelling, and a webgen animation-adjacent visual style favoring bold and flat colors—that stayed with me.

But more important even than those smaller details is a sort of ideological unity that these episodes share. Each is distinctly a cartoon, yet also displays an impressive level of cinematic sophistication. Although some might be tempted to place cartoon and cinema in opposition to each other, these three episodes are a brilliant refutation of such narrow thinking—they embrace, even dance, in the best qualities of both. They are proof that cartoon-making and film-making are not separate arts but, rather, one and the same.

Hisomaso Wins Everything

When it comes to TV anime this year, one show stands head and shoulders above the rest for me: Hisone to Maston. Yet another show confined to the Netflix dungeons, I wasn’t prepared to let the streaming giant deprive me of my chance to watch Mari Okada’s return to TV anime weekly, and Hisomaso, yes, was worth it. From story to scripts, background art to character design, OP to ED, Hisomaso had it all—including the X-factor of the adorable dragons.

In short, there was really nothing else that aired that was anything like Hisomaso. Cute and quirky throughout, thoughtful and incisive at times, funny and dramatic in turns, this anime had basically everything. In the final rundown of the year, I expect it’ll likely go criminally under-watched, underrated, and under-remembered, but such is the reality of the anime times in which we live. I, at least, will remember Nao head with immense fondness. We salute you, brave solider, and all you stand for.

An Ode to a Strawberry

What do I think of Darling in the FranXX? I think it’s bad. I didn’t finish it, but I watched enough to consider it a representative portion, so I’m comfortable making that kind of wholistic statement. Basically, I think the very early criticism I made of the show proved to be a crucial flaw in the whole dang thing. But Ichigo? Ichigo was very good. She might have done a few things wrong, but not many. I liked Ichigo. 苺 means strawberry, and Ichigo was a very good strawberry with a killer character design.

No anime watcher is unfamiliar with the phenomenon of a good character—or even just a character the really appealed to them personally—stuck in a bad show, but I’d be hard pressed to think of another character who surpasses Ichigo’s gap between her relative goodness and the quality of her show. Not only was she cute and a childhood friend, but it was fascinating watching her navigate her complex feelings for Hiro, try her best to be a good leader for her team, and struggle against her own flaws. Best girl? Heck yeah. Eat your heart out, Zero Two stans!

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Recently, Crunchyroll got in touch with me to ask if I could put together a review for Mari Okada’s directorial debut, Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms. Any long-time readers of the blog will know I’m a huge Okada fan, so of course I jumped on the opportunity to write about her magnificent film and how it deftly weaves narrative, theme, and aesthetic together to create a gorgeous emotional tapestry.

Here’s the link~

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I don’t have as much time these days to watch anime, but the start of a new season is always so fresh with hope and excitement just at seeing new things we haven’t seen before, that I couldn’t resist checking out a few more shows than I actually expect to follow. So here’s a breakdown of what I watched, and what I thought!


Between the Sea and Sky

I opened up the season with a show that I never really had high hopes for given, well, basically everything I knew about it, but I was surprised to find that Between the Sea and Sky (or, SoraUmi) actually had quite the finish opener! The premise of “girls go to space to catch fish” was one that caught my eye immediately when I was perusing the upcoming anime charts ahead of the season’s start, and it’s nice to see that – despite the heavy use of CGI for all the mechanical elements, which was an expected disappointment – there’s just a bit of zaniness in the show proper to match the concept.

And, I must say, it’s to SoraUmi‘s credit that it gets the one thing most important for an anime set in space right: it shows space in all its grandeur. The sense of bigness you get from space anime that take time to show space in all its glory is something that I deeply love out of many mecha anime, and although SoraUmi doesn’t spend an inordinate amount of time showing space, it does enough. That combined with an archetypal but energetic cast (perhaps I’ve been away long enough from mediocre anime to find casts like this charming again!) made for a premiere I thoroughly enjoyed. SPACE FISHING!

Sword Art Online: Alicization

Let me tell you a story. A long time ago, back when a young anime fan version of me first watched the first Sword Art Online, I went looking for more, captivated as I was by the show. And so, I found my way to a fan translation of the Alicization arc of the story, which impressed on me a striking sense of austerity in storytelling (which I later came to realize was a result of the understandable but not altogether professional-grade translation). Later, when Yen Press began to publish the Alicization novels in English, I picked them back up, and found myself swept into a fondness for SAO that I thought had evaporated in the waves of criticism it receives. Yes, joy can be sapped from even the most stubborn of hearts by constant negativity.

In any case, we now find ourselves with the inevitable anime adaptation of Alicization, and if one thing stands out to me with this premiere, it’s that it presents more or less exactly the same experience as the books – nothing more, and nothing less. That is to say, the core appeals of Alicization (the bonds between Kirio, Eugeo, and Alice; getting to see the old cast members) are conveyed well. In a word, it’s workmanlike. From a more critical perspective, one might even say it lacks vision. Critically, the visual aesthetic’s shift from the cartoony look of the first two seasons to the more “”””””refined”””””” (bleh) look from Ordinal Scale is a major downgrade, and the world feels much more sterile that the SAO we used to know as a result. But, you know, Kirito and Eugeo have a secret handshake in the OP – and isn’t that what Alicization is really all about? Fair play.

SSSS.Gridman

Studio Trigger has finally made a good anime. After all they’ve wrought, they’ve finally come up with some good. An anime with that puts to good use so many of the group’s best tendencies – characterful environs, their fondness for other works (in this case, toku/kaiju stuff), distinctive and cute character designs – and wrapped all up in a bundle of quirky character-building and a clearly genuine love for the franchise to which this anime is paying homage. I mean, an insert song plays when the robot powers up! In the first episode! Yes, director Akira Amemiya’s love letter to the show of his childhood is overflowing with love and care in this premiere, and the result is delightful.

All that said, I think the thing that stands out most for me in SSSS.Gridman is its delightful grasp of tone. Anime is no stranger to using amnesia as a storytelling device, but Yuta’s fumbling through what’s supposedly his life throughout the episode, as well as his weird visions no one else sees, feels genuinely unsettled – although, appropriately, it avoids feelings actively creepy or the like. The use of diegetic noise throughout the episode makes the entire runtime (especially in places like the school hallways or classroom) feel tangible and immersive. The main characters thus far, with their relationships outside of those with each other, further this feelings, which means by the time the show kicks into high gear with Gridman battling a kaiju, we’re already firmly settled into the world. Glorious. Give me more.

Anima Yell

It’d be interesting to know if there’s a Dogakobo school of character designing or a standard procedure for adapting Manga Time Kirara characters into anime form, because it seems like every time Dogakobo does an adaptation like this, there’s this platonic ideal of moe aesthetics they somehow achieve. The character designs here (adapted for..

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Despair is a reality with which we must contend.

Ordinarily, when you finish a show like Fate/Extra LAST ENCORE, you’re left thinking something like, “Ah, this was a show about hope!” The negative, pessimistic, defeatist attitudes of those who have given up have been conquered by the hero’s belief in the future – in its ascendency from the mire of the past – and hope reigns. Hurrah for that!

And to be sure,  LAST ENCORE is, in the end, a tale of hope. By the show’s finale, the Dead Face reincarnation of Hakuno Kishinami has not only overcome his miserable origins to become more than a mockery of humanity and reset the Moon Cell, revitalizing an Earth 1,000 years since debilitated by humanity’s sins. And although this Hakuno disappears along with the valiant Saber of Red, Nero Claudius, they leave behind for Rin Tousaka a future worth running toward.

But when I look back on the show as a whole, I cannot help feel that at the core of LAST ENCORE is, in fact…

despair.

The opening episode of LAST ENCORE is a brooding, even dreadful affair. It begins with the sense that something unknown is most profoundly wrong. Inexplicable things occur, one friend murders another in ghastly fashion, and a resurrected incarnation of hate itself meets his partner at the lowest of seven strata of a frightening digital world. Certainly, the reference to the Inferno is easily apprehended.

Welcome to hell, Hakuno Kishinami.

You have been born from the pit of humanity’s misery.

As Hakuno and Saber ascend toward the Moon Cell, they encounter person after person who has succumbed to the workings of despair. Some, like Shinji, have been effectively broken by it. Shinji designs and maintains a hollow perpetuation of a meaningless status quo for those Masters who have fled the Holy Grail War, a giving up is nestled inside the further meaningless of the Masters’ continued existence within a system that has shattered and left them with an ontological, although not physical, death. Admirably, Shinji does as best he can in the midst of his despair until he is freed by his defeat to Hakuno.

Although the expectation might be to see Shinji’s release and death as a triumph of hope over existential apathy, the nature of Hakuno himself contradicts such rosy notions. Although Hakuno’s true identity as a Dead Face has not been revealed at the time of his battle with Shinji and Francis Drake, what we do know is that he possesses an unspeakable hatred. Hatred triumphing over despair is no such grand thing as the crowning of hope as the victor.

And yet, at the same time, the catharsis in Shinji’s passing is palpable. It is not so much the excitement of hope arising as it is the relief of a despair that can finally be let go.

In like-yet-unlike pattern, Dan Blackmore’s despair is one he is hardly aware of himself – although Robin Hood, his servant, sees the futility of his struggle in stark clarity. Like Shinji, he lingers as he is only because the system has failed, has given him a false hope that only defeat can quench. And, once again, catharsis is the timbre of the lost Master’s end – the scene of Robin Hood gratefully evaporating next to the gravestone of his Master’s body, loyal to the end, a poignant expression of release.

Despair and catharsis.

This is the dynamic which generally defines LAST ENCORE until its final conflict. Yet, there’s one clear exception to the rule, one that reinforces over the series’ midway point the prevailing nature of despair in the failed world of SE.RA.PH. Of course, this is episodes 6 and 7, “The Queen’s Glass Game” and “Nursery Rhyme.” Here, Hakuno encounters a girl who, like Dan Blackmore, is already dead, but unlike the second stratum’s Floor Master, was dead from the start.

Alice is an interloper even in the disintegrating Moon Cell, a ghost who belongs nowhere yet is somewhere. And although Hakuno, Rin, and Saber defeat the Noble Phantasm that haunts the floor to ascend, Alice is not released. In a cruel twist, her childishness blinds her to everything besides her desire for companionship, although Hakuno is more than aware of the tragedy. There is no catharsis here, and it’s easy to see how the despair creeps into the supposedly immovable Dead Face’s heart, even as he lies to Alice to continue his journey.

LAST ENCORE is intelligent in that it delivers the most personal of its despair/catharsis arcs – the awful story of Rin and Rani VII, two characters both audience and Hakuno have become endeared to – before the final conflict begins. The cycle is of the recognizable type. SE.RA.PH, failed without regard for its inhabitants, has trapped them in an unending battle of futility. The despair of their situation is nearly overwhelming, not least because they have both assisted in Hakuno’s ascent (seemingly at their own expense). They are, in fact, the final expression in personal terms of the despair of the world before LAST ENCORE turns toward its final, grandly abstract destination.

“We have no choice but to give up on humanity.”

It is at this point that LAST ENCORE begins to ask us to truly consider the validity of despair. Certainly, Shinji, a Master who sacrificed his dignity and friendships for the sake of a war that ended prematurely, was within his rights to despair, though he made the best of it. Alice may have despaired as well, were she a little older. Rin and Rani hope against hope for, not a future, but release from their despair. And as Hakuno and Saber arrive on the doorstep of the failed savior of humanity, Leonardo B. Harwey, we come to understand that the broken state of SE.RA.PH. is itself an expression of despair.

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As you may or may not have heard, Crunchyroll brought the Bungo Stray Dogs: Dead Apple film over the states as part of their Movie Night series. I was lucky enough to check it out, and I wrote up a review of the film with my thoughts! It’s no Heartcatch Precure movie, but few franchise films are so I can’t knock it that bad for being visually stunning while kind of flat narratively.

Here’s the link~

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Putting words to that vague idea and (likely) wild claim that Hyouka might the best-directed TV anime of all time.

I was recently reviewing a handful of old posts on the blog, including a number of my episode blog posts on Hyouka, a project I’m still inclined to call my finest aniblogging work to date. As I did so, looking over the depth of meaning I was able to extract from the show’s visuals, a question occurred to me: “What makes Hyouka‘s cinematography so good?” Obviously, it’s possible to point out specific instances of well-executed shot framing, storyboarding, editing, and so forth, but my question was of a different, more comprehensive nature.

Yes, I was asking myself to put together an all-encompassing theory regarding the merits of Hyouka as a cinematographic work. What a fool I was. But having asked the question, an answer was required.

There are two parts to this answer, and the first leads into the second. This is that Hyouka, despite its dalliances with fantastical visuals, is fundamentally a show about the mundane. There are no giant robots backlit by planets; there are no stunning vistas. The materials of its execution are the stuff of non-legend. Classrooms, schools, restaurants, occasionally the countryside or a festival… Hyouka resides in the ofttimes bitterly plain world of Oreki’s gray-to-rose-colored life.

This is relevant insofar as it makes Hyouka‘s visual creativity and excellence especially impressive. The visual language of Hyouka is constructed of necessarily (by setting and, even, by theme) basic components. Its success, therefore, speaks volumes of its staff’s understanding of both the materials and, critically, the world they have been given to work with.

That final bit leads into the second part of the answer – the Hyouka as a show, visually conveys a deep familiarity with, understanding of, and immersion into its world. That is, Hyouka as a work of cinema achieves what is a virtually complete articulation of its thematic and emotional concerns by way of cinematographic manipulation of its world. A common phrase going around anime criticism these days is that the world of a show feels “lived-in,” which is typically used to describe background art or other mise-en-scène design elements. This is, of course, a fine thing to do, but I would argue that Hyouka takes the next step beyond this.

Hyouka‘s world is not one that feels “lived-in.” It is one that the audience truly lives in. The conceptualization of Hyouka‘s individual scenes not only as things in which the characters move, speak, and act, but also as entire worlds unto themselves sets the anime apart from others. You need only watch the way the camera flits about from angle to angle, the way the lighting shifts, the way shot composition is used, to understand that what director Yasuhiro Takemoto and the rest of his team at Kyoto Animation have done is create a physical, emotional, and thematic world through visual language.

It was Oreki’s two confrontations with Irisu in the tea room that really got me thinking about this, and I think it serves as a useful example of what this means in technical terms. Those scenes are particularly interesting in construction because they occur in a room that is very like a stage in physical construction. It is a natural frame within a frame, a screen within a screen. By the roving camera in both scenes, along with the ever-shifting lighting, conceives of the room not as a place in which two anime characters are having a conversation, but a three-dimensional space, a space that is “lived in” because it has depth and dimension and is tangibly, almost tactilely inhabited by characters who have bodies and exist within the space itself.

These scenes might serve as a microcosm of Hyouka as a whole, which very well might have been yet another anime in which anime characters do anime things. And nothing would have been wrong with that, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with other anime in which the characters play across the surfaces of their worlds. But anime is anime, and as anime, you can put the “camera” wherever you wish. There is a freedom in that, that might be either unreal or viscerally, oppressively real. Hyouka, because of its cinematographic virtuosity, I think is the latter.

You haven’t answered the question, though! What makes Hyouka’s cinematography so good?

I have, I see now, unintentionally saved my thesis for last: Hyouka‘s cinematography is so good because it is expressive, to the fullest extent, of the show’s world, characters, themes, and everything else. The visual language of Hyouka, and you will have to either trust me on this or read all 22 of my analyses on the individual episodes, speaks as clearly as the show’s script – and, at times, even more so. And it does this, remarkably, frighteningly, with utmost consistency through nearly 10 hours of runtime. That it does so with materials as mundane as its setting makes this more impressive, somehow, but in the end the ultimate point is how much meaning inhabits the cinematography of the show. It is fantastic. It is rich. It may very well be the best-directed TV anime of all time… but I haven’t seen enough anime yet to make that claim for real.

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Yoshiyuki Tomino’s idiosyncrasies have rarely been so approachable, delightful, and altogether entertaining.

I came to Overman King Gainer as a Yoshiyuki Tomino (Mobile Suit Gundam, for those whom the name on its own means nothing) show by way of Gundam Reconguista in G, a show which – as you may or may not recall – I rather liked. While my overall experience with Tomino is limited compared to the overall scope of his oeuvre, with G-Reco and Turn A Gundam (which made my top shows list at #8) under my belt I felt that I had found some kind of kinship, albeit exploratory, with the legendary creator’s idiosyncratic tendencies. And with King Gainer being catalogued along with G-Reco and Turn A among the “Happy Tomino” shows, it only seemed right that I also give it a try.

I’m happy to report that, on the whole, Overman King Gainer was exactly what I was looking for in that respect. It is decidedly a Tomino show, and no one really makes anime like Tomino. That’s probably for the best considering the nature of his quirks, but I’m glad his works have a space to exist. Tomino himself composed the lyrics to King Gainer‘s irrepressible opening theme, which perhaps tell you all you need to know about the show right off:

I need King Gainer!

King! King! King Gainer! Metal Overman King Gainer!

And, later, in the full version of the opening:

Metal fire! I love you! Metal full coat!

[In background as other lyrics happen]: King, King, King Gainer! King, King, King Gainer! King, King, King Gainer!

Yoshiki Fukuyama - King Gainer Over! - YouTube

Did you know you can do the monkey to the rhythm of that “King, King, King Gainer!” chant? Well, you can. Many of the characters do it in the opening, with the mecha joining in (thank you, Kenichi  Yoshida). Tomino himself was caught on video during the production of King Gainer doing what looks suspiciously like that dance, too. That is the kind of bubbling, enthusiastic energy that King Gainer is imbued with from start to finish. And, in gratefulness for having been able experience all of that for myself, I’d like to highlight just a few of Overman King Gainer‘s merits to hopefully induce a few others to give it a shot sometime.

Silliness Resides inside Seriousness

Tomino’s propensity for incorporating the, er, derpier side of martial conflicts into his works is an aspect of his anime that I’ve developed a particular fondness for. While I fond myself rather thrown by the frequent disfunction of the war in Turn A Gundam in my first encounter with Tomino, I came to appreciate it more and more as I completed the series, rewatched it, and then saw G-Reco and Mobile Suit Gundam. However, I think it’s fair to say that only G-Reco comes close to rivaling Overman King Gainer‘s silliness—and even then, it’s not quite there.

There is a pleasant matter-of-factness to the way Tomino anime deliver their absurdities, a kind of grinning deadpan that accompanies the obviously silly moments and more obtuse humorous bits alike. At one point, a stuffed elephant is used as a shield against a throwing knife and is subsequently apologized to upon request. Later on in the series, a confession of love is used to counteract an antagonist’s mind-reading weapon and winds up being broadcast around the globe. In between, a squirrel saves two humans from drowning. And, throughout, people just kinda… say a lot of stuff. Some of which makes sense. Some of which also makes sense, but also is funny. Some of which is just funny.

I did not say that Overman King Gainer was not a dumb anime. But it sure has a lot of fun with its ridiculous ideas, and the natural way it plays its silliest ones against its more serious ones makes for a unique charm that’s just not like anything else in anime.

The Cast Is, Really, Just Charming

It’s hard not to like many of the characters in Overman King Gainer. I mean, sure, evil railway boss Kids Munt has an incredibly punchable face (spoilers: this happens, satisfyingly) and Asuham Boone is an unreasonable human being (but he’s also so bad at doing anything that you can’t hate him). But beyond them and a handful of other antagonist-types, the cast of Overman King Gainer is just a pile of delightfully varied and unique personalities. I could list out pretty much all of them and have something good to say about each, but I won’t.

Instead, I’ll just note that my favorite in a close race was the precocious young Princess Ana and her trio of squirrel-like creatures, who enthusiastically becomes a hostage for the main group and provides occasional childish verbal beatdowns and plenty of danger-unaware cuteness. Shoutouts to candy-popping genius Overman pilot Cynthia Lane, the witty and good-looking Gain Bijou, the rock-solid Sara Kodama, and the aforementioned Asuham Boone. What speaks even more to King Gainer‘s virtues in this area, though, is the way people in King Gainer are always bouncing around outside their established social circles, talking to each other and generally being a lot of fun to watch. Pretty much the entire cast has chemistry with each other, which, along with the qualities of their unique characters, means conversations are fun no matter who’s participating.

On a related note, one aspect of Tomino’s creations that doesn’t get talked about enough is his ability to build a sense of genuine affection and camaraderie amongst the makeshift families that so often form the emotional core of his shows. Whether it’s the crew of the White Base in the original Mobile Suit Gundam or the Bellri-Aida-Raraiya-Noredo quartet in G-Reco, Tomino has a knack for investing you in the bonds between these characters as they meet, get to know each other, grow closer, and go through their stories together. The way Gainer and Sara become pseudo-parents to Cynthia Lane in the series’ final quarter or so  is a microcosm of this in action in Overman King Gainer, as the whole Yapan Exodus team moves from being a scattering of individuals and smaller groups into a united effort to bring the Ceilings safely to their home.

The Giant Roboting is Exceedingly Good

There is a lot that can be said in favor of the giant roboting in Overman King Gainer. The first is that frankly embarrassing number of fun mecha designs is off the charts – all the way from the likable design of the titular mech, to the rubbery morphing of Cynthia Lane’s Dominator, to weird frog-like Overman, to uncomfortably muscle-bound ones, to the many goofy Silhouette Machine designs, and so forth. The creativity of the powers the mechs possess—speed, invisibility, gravity control, summoning giant toads, Precure villain powers, causing eternal winter across the planet, etc.—match the designs stride-for-stride.

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Recently, Crunchyroll got in touch with me to ask if I could put together a review for Mari Okada’s directorial debut, Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms. Any long-time readers of the blog will know I’m a huge Okada fan, so of course I jumped on the opportunity to write about her magnificent film and how it deftly weaves narrative, theme, and aesthetic together to create a gorgeous emotional tapestry.

Here’s the link~

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I don’t have as much time these days to watch anime, but the start of a new season is always so fresh with hope and excitement just at seeing new things we haven’t seen before, that I couldn’t resist checking out a few more shows than I actually expect to follow. So here’s a breakdown of what I watched, and what I thought!


Between the Sea and Sky

I opened up the season with a show that I never really had high hopes for given, well, basically everything I knew about it, but I was surprised to find that Between the Sea and Sky (or, SoraUmi) actually had quite the finish opener! The premise of “girls go to space to catch fish” was one that caught my eye immediately when I was perusing the upcoming anime charts ahead of the season’s start, and it’s nice to see that – despite the heavy use of CGI for all the mechanical elements, which was an expected disappointment – there’s just a bit of zaniness in the show proper to match the concept.

And, I must say, it’s to SoraUmi‘s credit that it gets the one thing most important for an anime set in space right: it shows space in all its grandeur. The sense of bigness you get from space anime that take time to show space in all its glory is something that I deeply love out of many mecha anime, and although SoraUmi doesn’t spend an inordinate amount of time showing space, it does enough. That combined with an archetypal but energetic cast (perhaps I’ve been away long enough from mediocre anime to find casts like this charming again!) made for a premiere I thoroughly enjoyed. SPACE FISHING!

Sword Art Online: Alicization

Let me tell you a story. A long time ago, back when a young anime fan version of me first watched the first Sword Art Online, I went looking for more, captivated as I was by the show. And so, I found my way to a fan translation of the Alicization arc of the story, which impressed on me a striking sense of austerity in storytelling (which I later came to realize was a result of the understandable but not altogether professional-grade translation). Later, when Yen Press began to publish the Alicization novels in English, I picked them back up, and found myself swept into a fondness for SAO that I thought had evaporated in the waves of criticism it receives. Yes, joy can be sapped from even the most stubborn of hearts by constant negativity.

In any case, we now find ourselves with the inevitable anime adaptation of Alicization, and if one thing stands out to me with this premiere, it’s that it presents more or less exactly the same experience as the books – nothing more, and nothing less. That is to say, the core appeals of Alicization (the bonds between Kirio, Eugeo, and Alice; getting to see the old cast members) are conveyed well. In a word, it’s workmanlike. From a more critical perspective, one might even say it lacks vision. Critically, the visual aesthetic’s shift from the cartoony look of the first two seasons to the more “”””””refined”””””” (bleh) look from Ordinal Scale is a major downgrade, and the world feels much more sterile that the SAO we used to know as a result. But, you know, Kirito and Eugeo have a secret handshake in the OP – and isn’t that what Alicization is really all about? Fair play.

SSSS.Gridman

Studio Trigger has finally made a good anime. After all they’ve wrought, they’ve finally come up with some good. An anime with that puts to good use so many of the group’s best tendencies – characterful environs, their fondness for other works (in this case, toku/kaiju stuff), distinctive and cute character designs – and wrapped all up in a bundle of quirky character-building and a clearly genuine love for the franchise to which this anime is paying homage. I mean, an insert song plays when the robot powers up! In the first episode! Yes, director Akira Amemiya’s love letter to the show of his childhood is overflowing with love and care in this premiere, and the result is delightful.

All that said, I think the thing that stands out most for me in SSSS.Gridman is its delightful grasp of tone. Anime is no stranger to using amnesia as a storytelling device, but Yuta’s fumbling through what’s supposedly his life throughout the episode, as well as his weird visions no one else sees, feels genuinely unsettled – although, appropriately, it avoids feelings actively creepy or the like. The use of diegetic noise throughout the episode makes the entire runtime (especially in places like the school hallways or classroom) feel tangible and immersive. The main characters thus far, with their relationships outside of those with each other, further this feelings, which means by the time the show kicks into high gear with Gridman battling a kaiju, we’re already firmly settled into the world. Glorious. Give me more.

Anima Yell

It’d be interesting to know if there’s a Dogakobo school of character designing or a standard procedure for adapting Manga Time Kirara characters into anime form, because it seems like every time Dogakobo does an adaptation like this, there’s this platonic ideal of moe aesthetics they somehow achieve. The character..

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