Friday, 31 October 2014

ハイキュー!! / Haikyuu!!

If I said another sports anime was my favourite recently, then that didn’t stand for long. Because I fell in love with Haikyuu!! at episode one and basically watched the whole 25-episode season in three days.

I noticed Haikyuu!! figurines all over the place on my most recent trip to Japan, and liking the designs – the main characters represented being Hinata and Kenma – but decided against buying any (or taking chances on the UFO machines for them) because (a) I didn’t know the characters and might have ended up hating them, and (b) slightly embarrassingly, I thought they were actually characters from Kuroko no Basuke.

Haikyuu!! does something rather special, sitting in the middle of the cutesy passionate-boys-bonding thing Inazuma Eleven makes so enjoyable and the rough, relatively gritty, boys-with-issues-finding-purpose-through-sport thing that you find in the likes of Rookies and Slam Dunk. It also has the best rivals-who-become-allies story since Hikaru no Go, with which this series shares much. Since HikaGo remains my favourite manga of all time, that’s high praise.

Haikyuu!! has a classic rival-story opening episode: at a school tournament, there is a gruff and moody elite player, who goes up against a good-hearted, naive go-getter type. They clash but the go-getter is actually a genius and very much impresses the elite. The genius cannot carry the whole team, though, so they lose, but the episode has a deep effect.

A year later, the boys begin high school and discover they are now in the same club. They are chalk and cheese, so are soon at one another’s throats, but it soon becomes clear that the shortcomings of each are balanced by the skills of the other, so they begin to develop a real bond. However, will this allow them to compete with much more established players?

This central relationship is brilliantly-done. Our main character, Hinata, is short for a volleyball player, even mistaken for an elementary school boy at one point, but can jump extremely well and idolizes another short player recognized as brilliant. The secondary character is the tall, extremely intense setter, Kageyama, who has undeniable skills but is seen as very arrogant and hard to get along with. He’s the kind of gruff character I usually dislike, but as he reveals more of his goofy side and is coaxed out of his shell by Hinata – as well as shown that his way of playing is terrible for a team game – he really grew on me, until eventually I came to realise I actually identified with him more than I have with any character since Tomoya in Clannad. That was deeply unexpected, as was how much I enjoyed seeing the interaction between these two. They’re very like Akira and Hikaru in HikaGo, and that’s certainly no bad thing. They spark off each other, and it’s brilliant to watch, and by the time they start to rely on one another it’s like they’re in a comedy routine together. Very sweet.

Very much helping this is the fact that the minor characters are extremely strong. They come from stock, but they are extraordinarily well-developed. The volleyball team also contains a typical yankee, an extremely tall surly bully type, a dependable captain who has an extremely scary side, a wild child even smaller than Hinata, a gentle giant who has great spiking strength but the heart of a coward and an older setter who may not be a genius but has a lot of clever ideas and is very relatable as the underdog.

I very much enjoyed the art style, which was pitched very well. Production I.G. have done a lot of very flashy productions, but this one is more modest, yet moves slickly and captures the manga’s aesthetic well. It is not cutesy or pretty-pretty, and it is not ugly and scratchy, but can pull off elements of both styles without them seeming incongruous. Thus, Hinata and the diminutive libero Nishinoya are very cute, but the yankee types like Tanaka can pull faces right out of Cromartie High School without it seeming bizarre. This allows for both broad and subtle character-based comedy and the some very sweet good-hearted childlike characters, which I very much enjoy seeing together.

The series is of course based on an ongoing manga, and ends at rather a heartbreaking moment, though that makes sense for leaving the audience thirsty for more. This isn’t a feelgood anime where the characters power up to win every match like Inazuma Eleven, but a fairly realistic take on an interesting sport where there aren’t any superpowers – only particular strengths and weaknesses, none of which are infallible.

It’s perhaps telling that not only did Haikyuu!! make me want to try out volleyball, it made me want to go and compete in the sports I’m good at again. I don’t think that I’ll have a hot-blooded rivalry blossoming, but the series captured something of the adrenaline rush of a close competition, and I consider that praiseworthy. 

Monday, 27 October 2014

フリー!エターナルサマー / Free! Eternal Summer

As predicted, there was a second season of Free!. Very probably there will be more, too. And I must say, I didn’t mind. This second season did a lot of things wrong, but a lot of things right as well.

The problem with Kyoto Anime follow-ups is that they often stagnate. The characters are established and liked by the fandom, so we get the likes of K-On!! Where cute girls do cute things. And this continues until the fans get bored and reject the show, which sours any early success.

This series looks badly like it is going in that direction. For the first half, not a lot of swimming happens, and there’s a whole lot of regurgitation. There’s another struggle to find new members (none arrive, at least for the main bulk of this season), worries about what the boys are eating, and a cultural festival where they have to run a foot race in their swim clothes. There are rather dull episodes about each of the characters, usually revolving around a misinterpretation where the others think something serious is going on, which turns out to be nothing. The best of these is when Makoto seems to come to realise that he’s not going to be able to keep up with the prodigies around him but would be better off thinking of becoming a teacher – being naturally good with kids and caring enough to check on their well-being outside his classes.

But what the series does well is to break out of this closed circle and look elsewhere for more interesting stories. The most obvious place to do this is with Rin’s swimming club. Rin himself is developed a lot here, and becomes far more likeable as his story is fleshed out, he begins acting less selfishly and actually does some very kind things for others. We also get new characters, lone wolf Sousuke, brooding and stirring up competition yet having a tragic fate (of course), and chirpy, naive comedy loudmouth Momotarou. Aiichirou also gets a lot more development, falling behind badly but working extremely hard to catch up and being vindicated – as well as being the straight man in a fun manzai comedy-like relationship with Momotarou.

There are really two emotional threads running through the season, which work quite well. One, presumably relating to the title, is the grim inevitability of happy times ending. The older characters are going to graduate, new relay teams are going to have to be formed, and kohais are going to have to accept that their sempais are going to leave their lives, or at least their daily lives. The second, closely related to this, is the coming-of-age of the characters and the need for them to find their true paths. Haru in particular is just uninterested in his future, or taking any responsibility, feeling that career paths inhibit his ability to be free. The high point of the season, perhaps of both seasons thus far, is Rin spontaneously taking him to Australia to show him the competitive swimming scene there, opening his eyes to the wider world. It’s a very sweet gesture and works well. Even with some rather awkward attempts to make Rin sound fluent in English.

Of course, the series is still aimed squarely at the fangirls, and in all honesty, the homoeroticism gets strained here. As I suggested in my review of the third season of Inazuma Eleven, these aren’t a bunch of young kids who might all be very confused about their sexuality and ignore it. 

They’re young men, and there’s a certain point where the obviously unusual intimacy between these guys simply wouldn’t go unspoken – even in Japan. The way these boys act, people would be making a whole lot of comments. The closest the series gets to addressing the possibility of homosexuality is when Rin gets angry that the hotel he’s booked for himself and Haru has a double bed. As a result, I found it all very contrived and unconvincing, especially since I continue to not actually ship any of the muscly men together at all (though Nagisa and Ai finally got some scenes interacting with one another, hoorah! If they didn’t have such weird bodies, I’d totes ship it). And I ship characters very easily, from just about everyone who isn’t hideous in Inazuma Eleven to the vast majority of the pretty girls in Saki. I just don’t see the men in Free! as cute in any way. (Flashback versions are another story of course!)

I don’t know that there’s much more that can happen in Free!. It may be better to leave it open as to how well Haru does in the adult world, and who the new swim team recruits might be. But if there’s a movie, or another series, or even just some OVA, I’ll probably tune in. And I’m all for more series like this, treating boys just the same way that anime has long treated girls. But preferably slightly less...bara. Please. 

Sunday, 26 October 2014

イナズマイレブン/ Inazuma Eleven: season 3

Well, the short third season of Inazuma Eleven is more a transition than anything else, but it gives some fun surprises.

Firstly, and not exactly surprisingly given Level-5’s usual silly twists, the aliens from the last season are revealed to not have been aliens at all – only determined regular children who have been affected by strange materials from a meteor. Because in Japanese Manga-world, the ones who work hard always trump the ones who dope, and the meteor is effectively a kid-friendly metaphor for doping in sports. So of course, strong feelings eventually get through to the kids and they see the error of their ways, once they get past the manipulative adult controlling them, of course. And the true feelings of the nice adult who ought to be protecting them comes through.

Since this clears things up pretty neatly, and our heroes reach a truly absurd level of power, the question of what’s happened to all the old teammates left behind comes up. They haven’t shared in all the experiences that powered up this season’s main team – but they also haven’t been left alone. 

They’ve had another evil adult controlling them, and have gained enough power to challenge their former teammates and the new members. It’s a good way of having old issues come to the fore and the question of what will happen once the team is way bigger than eleven kids...or even fourteen with a few extras.

Of course, with Aliea dealt with, of course, some of the kids who were picked up on the tour around the whole country no longer really have a reason to be part of the team, their friends and families being far away – so there’re some fond farewells at the end.

This is of course another fun continuation of a fun, stupid season. I enjoy having Inazuma Eleven in my life. The cast is either adorable, absurd or both, the plotlines are downright stupid, and the special attacks are hilarious. The series gets homoerotic undertones just right – possibly because the boys are a bit young for romance, as opposed to the ones from, say, Free!, where the fact that it seems to go over all of their heads just isn’t believable.

In technical terms, I don’t think anything’s likely to change with the series from the beginning to the end. It’s a cheap kids’ production and it runs continuously, so there aren’t gonna be many differences between the series. OLM keep things nice and bright and smooth and simple, and that’s what woks best.

I have to say, though, the problem with having this kind of likeable but huge cast is that I know I’m likely not to see a fair few of them again. They can’t keep having half the team hospitalized, and I know they’re going to go on a tour of the world to fight kids from around the world (which I’m looking forward to!). This means that they’re gonna get rid of quite a few of the team...and I don’t want that!  

Thursday, 16 October 2014

夏目友人帳 参 / Natsume Yuujinchou San / Natsume’s Book of Friends season 3

I didn’t realise until I went to Japan a couple of months ago how popular Natsume Yuujinchou is over there. With Nyanko-sensei toys in every arcade, little models everywhere there were gachapon and the manga prominently displayed in bookshops, it was probably the most visible I’ve seen any non-Jump anime be there since I went over at the height of Fullmetal Alchemist’s popularity – and it doesn’t have the hot-new-property quality Danganronpa had when we visited last year. 

The fact is that the funny fat cat who acts like a petulant middle-aged man and the pretty-boy sidekick who is meant to be the show’s main character clearly resonated, and the show is more successful than I had realised.

And yes, I got a couple of little gachapon toys, featuring both Natsume and Nyanko-sensei.
Series 3 was effectively more of the same, but there were subtle changes, both in presentation and in story. The art seems to be simpler and effectively looks cheaper, yet somehow small changes have made Natsume himself look much cuter. 

The series isn’t scared of broaching homoerotic elements, while trying desperately to avoid being vulgar about them, for example by letting Natsume be possessed. We also see more of Natsume’s lonely, misunderstood past, and the overall message of the show – especially its final episode – that it’s good to have friends and comrades is sweet. Even if they’re a bunch of weirdoes. 

His human friends are also given greater insight into how he lives, now, especially those who also have some sense of the supernatural, and essentially this is a series about strengthening bonds.

Gotta say, though – sorry, humans, but when your bonds are with hilarious huge-faced spirits and giant awesome horse-spirits, that’s gotta stand for something.

There’s also an episode devoted to the ridiculous adorable little fox character, learning to stand up for himself and rely less on others – though he still has his enormous boy-crush on Natsume, bless ’im. I’d happily watch a whole anime about fox-shota adventures, but I’m afraid that’s not really what’s on offer, haha.

If there’s a problem with this series – and especially having already watched half of season 4 by accident I know this won’t be rectified – it’s that there’s no real progression. The show has always reminded me a lot of Kekkaishi, which similarly suffered from stagnation, but at least Kekkaishi felt like there were big loose ends dangling that needed to be tied up, and immediate tensions with Yoshimori’s family members. 

With Natsume Yuujinchou, there’s the huge question of what happens if Natsume returns all the names – not that I think it’s even vaguely likely that Nyanko-sensei will truly become a vengeful murderous beast, formidable though his true form may be. I like this set-up and I’m actually a little upset that it will come to an end because it’s so fun and comfortable to watch, but before too long I’ll think the show really needs a strong direction to head in, and the only way I can think of for that to happen is for the tensions between Natsume and the organised exorcist household to really come to a head.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

咲-Saki-全国編 / Saki - Zenkoku-hen/ Saki – Episode of the Nationals / Saki: The Nationals

It seems that every successive series of the Saki anime is going to be not what I expect. I thought this series would cover the Nationals tournament – as indicated by the title – incorporating Saki finally facing off against her scary sister and what happens to the cute alternate team from Nara we got to know in Episode of Side-A. Perhaps they’d be sacrificial lambs.

Well, all of that remains for some as-yet unmade series – there’s an OVA on the way next year, for starters. What this series did was some of the preliminary rounds of the Nationals competition. True, there were some fun new character introduced – I loved the extremely tall girl and the ridiculous shrine maidens who could summon the powers of gods – but ultimately there was little here that was particularly consequential. The fact is that the fun of super-powered Mahjong games eat up episodes, though, and this half-season flew by. What Saki really needs is to be very long and ongoing – too little happens for this sort of length of series to satisfy.

So while our heroic team manage to prevail thanks to each member’s skill and Saki’s ridiculous luck with her rinshan kaihou hands, all that has really happened is that the central conflicts of the larger series have been delayed for another future adaptation – if we even get there. It may be that to see the actually important parts of this story following its exposition, I may have to go to a manga.

But for all that annoys me, I can’t deny how enjoyable the ride is. The ridiculous characters and exaggerated drama of the hands played, the way formidable players can sense one another’s auras, the fanservice – it’s all very funny and entertaining, and makes for compulsive, brainless viewing. And I need a few series like that here and there.

So yes, I will go on watching whatever Saki I can get. But until I have to, I won’t feel any real need to read the manga.  

Monday, 13 October 2014

Avatar: Legend of Korra – book 3: Change

Avatar gets stronger and stronger...ironically as the focus shifts gradually away from its main characters. 

The second season was a huge improvement on the first, but the giant squiggly spirit antagonist was a bit unconvincing. This time, the threat is more earthly: when Korra opens the gates to the spirit realm, all of a sudden new Airbenders begin popping up around the world. At first, this is a time for celebration, but it also empowers a dangerous prisoner. Using his new abilities to escape, he also sets free his three old comrades, who of course are from each of the other elemental factions. This group, part of the evil hidden society the Red Lotus, set about trying to draw out the Avatar and kill her in the Avatar State – which will end the reincarnation cycle. While this is classic kill-the-innocent-main-character bad guy stuff, the fact is that they’re quite cleverly depicted as genuinely believing what they are doing is in the interest of the balance of the world, and are fleshed out quite a bit through both romantic and comedy scenes. They are fleshed out well, and if Bolin has rather descended to Sokka-level inappropriate goofiness by this season, one great thing about having him around is that he sometimes brings out a more interesting side of other characters, giving them another dimension.

What really made me happy, though, is a shift towards a younger generation, more like that of the old season. Much as I like the older teen main characters, I find them pretty dull and hard to like. On the other hand, giving Jinora more of a spotlight is very much a breath of fresh air in the show, and then there’s the introduction of Kai. Looking rather like Aang with darker skin and a Hitler Youth haircut, he has the classic introduction of annoying streetrat thieving brat who repents when he gets into hot water and falls under the positive influence of older brother figures – but beyond that he gets really likeable and is given a role that is clearly leading to a much-expanded one in Season 4. His puppy love with Jinora is also absolutely adorable. He brings the same sort of energy Aang brought to the original, and it’s extremely welcome.

Which isn’t to say I dislike the screentime given to the others. I like how Korra’s mind works in this season, suspicious of authority figures and determined to improve herself and make sure those she cares about are getting on – even prickly Lin, who gets lots more development as she is reunited with her estranged sister. Bolin and Mako also get some good development thanks to reunions – stumbling upon their extended family, including their grandmother.

Ultimately, of course, the whole thing boils down to a big scrap, and the many overpowering the few, thanks to Jinora’s quick work and leadership. It’s pretty satisfying and the stakes genuinely feel high without being on the huge scale of the season 2 finale. Perhaps it would have been good to get some indication of where the next season will lead, as things feel neatly wrapped up other than the political upheaval of the Earth Kingdom, and of course the fourth season began very quickly after the (online) airings of the last episodes of this season.

It remained a little unsettling to the end that the same animators were working on this and The Boondocks. Especially in the comedy scenes, there was often a lot of Grandpa Freeman in Korra’s expressions, and that is pretty weird and jarring. But arguably the influence is actually going in the other direction. It feels like there’s less ambition in the animation now, all looking just a little cheaper than it used to, but the art stays on-model remarkably well, and the lava effects are great.

Certainly I want more – especially more Kai and Jinora, which from watching the first episode of the next season I know I’ll be getting, with their designs really not changing much after a time skip. I’m slightly sad Jinora grows her hair back, though – she looked so cute as a bald girly-Aang!  

Thursday, 9 October 2014

咲 Saki 阿知賀編 episode of Side-A / Saki Achiga-hen episode of Side-A

Saki was the latest very silly, brainless anime I enjoyed. I always like to have at least one of these on the go (the other one I currently have being Inazuma 11), which I can put on in any mood, no matter how tired, and enjoy myself. And Saki episodes are compulsive fluff – they’re stupid, the way the game at the centre of the story is played is largely irrelevant, and the fanservice is often tedious, but the fact is that it’s extremely enjoyable nonetheless.

There are some odd choices with this second season. Firstly, it’s a complete side-story. The first season’s main characters are seen only in glimpses and flashbacks. Instead, we follow some of Nodoka’s childhood friends as they see her on TV, revive their Mahjong club and make their way to the national competition to be reunited with their old friend. Of course, this involves placing highly their regional tournament, which as ever means confronting girls with mahjong super-powers.

The powers here are even more extreme than the last season’s ability to disappear from view or mess people up with ultra-beginner’s-luck. Here, we have girls whose bonds are so deep that if one wins a hand in a round having placed imaginary bondage restraints on herself, her partner is guaranteed to win that hand on the next round – after having a rather erotic reaction. We have a girl who can see into the future after a near-death experience, who can grant that ability to her best friend by rubbing her head on her thighs. Yes. And one of our main characters spent a long time deep in the mountains, which has bestowed her with the gift of claiming any territory she can perceive as a deep mountain as her own – including going up against formidable opponents, who are like mountains, and being deep into the tiles lined up in front of her. What even more absurd abilities await in the next season I am eager to know, and the way the absurdity is racked up and up reminds me in a good way of Yakitate!! Japan.

However, one of the problems here is that there are so many interesting, colourful characters. There’s Saki’s strangely indifferent sister, who is an indomitable monster held off only by another player’s bizarre ability to never lose all of her points, even if she is not very strong. There’s the adorable tomboy who gets embarrassed when she has to wear a skirt – always my preferred character type. There’s the sharpshooter who makes people feel she’s an archer as she shoots them down with targeted mahjong hands, and the angler who can always pick out what she needs. Beside all these, the core group of five, who have character quirks like feeling cold all the time and having been keen on bowling, just don’t stand out very much. I ended up much more invested in the teams trying to get in their way than the main characters themselves, and that’s a bit of a problem. They were just relatively uninteresting.

And of course, the whole endeavour seems a little pointless. Presumably, these are going to be sacrificial lambs in the end, losing to Saki’s sister so that they can have a big showdown at the end. I may be wrong, and the final may be between two teams we’re supposed to root for, but that just doesn’t seem likely. That probability in the back of my mind just makes it harder to feel very engaged with these side-story characters.

Still, for all it seemed like a strange diversion, the actual journey was extremely enjoyable and I shall certainly progress to the next season. And as for the change of studio, as Gonzo staffers split to form Studio Gokumi? Well, honestly it made no difference at all.