Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Adventure Time: Season 6

The sixth season of Adventure Time brought a lot of the mysteries that had been building up from the start to the fore, and answered a few of the show’s big questions. Unfortunately, when actually brought into the foreground, some of the answers we were given ended up much less exciting than the open possibilities we had before. Not only that, but a slew of throwaway or dull episodes, a strange release schedule that meant this season aired over the course of more than a year, and severe disappointment over guest animators means that this was where Adventure Time lost me. I still watched the season, at a considerable delay, and I will still at some point watch the next. But I no longer feel particularly excited about new episodes or watch them quickly. I can catch up later. Having watched since Adventure Time was but a silly, random pilot episode where it felt like anything could happen, this is a little sad for me.

Season 6 had some great ideas. The Lich was transformed into a giant baby, and a highlight came when Lumpy Space Princess did a very bad job caring for him. Finn gets an arm cut off and goes through a series of replacement limbs, though nothing much came of them. The latter half of the season constantly foreshadowed significant events coming with the approach of a ‘Catalyst Comet’, with a good sense of continuity and build-up. There was a very interesting flashback episode to long before the start of the series, with Evergreen. And Finn finally met his father, Martin.

But none of these satisfied very much. The Lich turning into Sweet Pea and the backstory introduced in ‘Evergreen’ both held my attention well, but what they set up has yet to develop into anything important, which is also the case for the reappearance of Simon’s wife Betty. The idea of Finn’s dad not being a hero or positive role model but an opportunist with a tendency to abandon those who bond with him is refreshing and quite clever, but makes episodes centred on him a bore. The appearance of the comet was built up well, but especially compared with the Lich in the last season was dealt with far too quickly and the random ways Finn could deal with everything he faced were deeply artificial.

I enjoyed the increased development of minor characters like The Cosmic Owl, Peppermint Butler and Jake’s family (both his kids and his brother), but at this stage I’m a little bored of Lemongrab, the King of Ooo and Magic Man – even if the latter is in a more interesting position now. Susan Strong is a character who probably didn’t need to recur, and the classic characters like The Ice King and Lumpy Space Princess felt under-used towards the end of the season. I really, really hope we never see Chips and Ice Cream or the Ghost Fly again.

Then we come to the guest animation. I was very excited to hear that Yuasa Masaaki was going to do a guest episode. Kaiba remains one of my favourite anime series of all time, and he did such a superb guest episode for Wakfu. But even though it was critically lauded, I thought ‘Food chain’ was a mess. Yes, it was experimental, to a degree, but mostly it felt bereft of new ideas, any actual sense of the established feeling of Adventure Time or any of the emotional sincerity that distinguishes his other work. For me, this was a huge disappointment.

I had no expectations of David Ferguson, but ‘Water Park Prank’ was, for me, the worst episode of Adventure Time yet and I very much doubt it will be topped. The awful ugly art style I could deal with, but the horrible pacing and story of the episode, which again seemed like there was little or no familiarity with what has been established as the Adventure Time world made me feel a faint sense of second-hand embarrassment throughout.

Still, the season was by no means disastrous. I just feel increasingly less intrigued as the show’s mysteries are answered, and feel that there’s a pressing need for the show to establish a kind of end goal for Finn to strive towards, now. Because at this stage it feels like aimless drifting. And we know how stoners can get way too stuck doing that.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

The Simpsons: Season 6

While season 6 of The Simpsons is still in its golden period, long before just about any estimate of shark-jumping I’ve ever read, I consider it a bit of a dip in the show’s consistent quality. This seasons has some duds and feels short on ideas, especially since season 7 feels a fair bit stronger. Crossovers have never tended to elevate The Simpsons in any way, and this season’s jarring insertion of the main character from The Critic for one episode is perhaps the most egregious example.

On the other hand, there are some very strong, classic episodes here. Season opener ‘Bart of Darkness’ is a classic well-written episode with a silly final reveal. Sideshow Bob gets another memorable episode running for mayor in an ever-more-relevant episode about populism. Lisa proves to have hidden skills in ice hockey and Bart gets his heart broken again, apparently forgetting the last time.

This is also the period where I begin to clearly remember episodes from my childhood. ‘Homer Badman’ was certainly amongst the episodes I saw first (being in the UK, I can’t claim to have been an early fan), and I remember when the mystery of who shot Mr. Burns was a genuine unsolved cliffhanger. Patty and Selma continue to have surprising depth, but Mr. Burns becomes a bit more cardboard at this stage. Flanderisation is in progress, but he still has the capacity to surprise, and the last act of ‘Bart’s Comet’ is one of my favourite Simpsons moments.

Another Simpsons staple that I don’t really like begins here, with Bart going to Australia and wreaking havoc. Over the next several seasons the Simpson family will visit a variety of countries and the writers will fall back on lazy stereotypes. The only episode in this vein I actually like is the visit to Japan, and even that only for the final reveal of the parts that make up the Mr. Sparkle mascot – probably my favourite joke in the show’s history. But that aside, whenever the family heads to another country, the humour takes a hit, no matter how quotable lines about ‘Knifey-Spoony’ may be.

Even back then, people loved to question whether The Simpsons had outstayed its welcome, whether it was growing stale. It would have a very long way to go before it could be called past its sell-by date. But that day was coming and some early indications were even then becoming visible.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Haikyuu: Season 2

Haikyuu is a very popular anime in Japan, especially with the female crowd who love that passionate homoeroticism that’s a big part of sports manga. Maybe not up there with the sheer hysteria currently surrounding Osomatsu-san, but at this stage probably outshining all other sports titles, even Kuroke no Basuke and Yowamushi Pedal. A series of decent figurines have been released and usually take up at least a couple of the crane machines in every arcade, and the new theme song, ‘Fly High’ by Burnout Syndromes, gets a fair bit of airplay anywhere that plays anime songs.

It’s my current slightly guilty pleasure, though I have to say I avoid the ugly art of the original manga, running in Jump so I won’t win any ‘true fan’ contests. I’ve been a sucker for the figurines and conbini lotteries and find the eternally optimistic main character Hinata very sweet. The rest of the fandom largely fixates on the tall, handsome and confident minor characters, but the underdog type is much more appealing to me.

In the first season, we had the admirable theme of gimmicks in sports only getting you so far. Kageyama and Hinata developed a surprising and strange volleyball attack, but once they reached competitions with actually talented, solid teams, gimmicks stopped working. So instead of relying on their bizarre talents, they work on the basics until they can perform at a good all-round level – and more critically, they learn that volleyball is a team game and they have to fit in with the rest. Even if there are moments of glory or high individual skill, they have to be cogs in the machine to win matches, and this strikes me as an admirable direction for a show about sports to go. At some point, the players have to grind, cooperate and experience less enjoyable periods to progress.

To improve, the Karasuno team head to a training camp with a number of very high-level players. They begin as the worst team by far, but keep pushing to improve and hone individual specialities until they can compete.

The series moves on to the qualifying matches for the high school nationals. The keystone of many sports anime, going to the nationals is easy fodder for storytelling – passionate matches, emotional rollercoasters and the chance to introduce any number of quirky opponent characters. Between the training camp and the nationals, Haikyuu s2 introduces a whole slew of interesting new characters as friends and foes, my favourite being the somewhat strigine Bokuto.

The worst part of watching Haikyuu is knowing it’s not a long-runner, and as expected, it ended on a high note, but at a point where I was definitely wanting more, and soon. So I hope that’s exactly what I get.