Thursday, June 19, 2014

Spring 2014 Anime: Soul Eater Not!

I must confess, I've never thought much of Soul Eater, one way or the other.  I watched the anime from beginning to end and though it had a killer soundtrack (including some of my favorite openings and endings in the medium) and I remember it fondly for some of its better moments, it's not a show I would rate as "great."  Color me surprised then, when I found myself looking forward to each new episode of Soul Eater Not!

Soul Eater Not! is aptly named.  A prequel and a side-story, it takes place in the Soul Eater universe and features Soul Eater characters (you'll see all three of the main meister trio make appearances along with their weapons, and others such as Professor Stein and Sid), but it is most certainly not just "more Soul Eater."  Aside from being visually different (a point of controversy for some, given the franchises generally more unique style), Not! approaches the setting and concept backing the original anime from a different angle: that of the NOT class.  You see, the original cast of Soul Eater was situated primarily in the EAT class, which is actually the minority of students at Death Academy; the talented elite, who actually go out on field missions and such.  Most of the student body is in the NOT class, which--being designed to welcome absolute novices--is much more academic and focuses on the book knowledge and theories behind being a Meister and Weapon.  And it is in the NOT class that we find our main character, Tsugumi Harudori.  Tsugumi was just an average middle school girl until she accidentally transformed a portion of her body into a weapon one day, revealing her status as a Meister Weapon.  She then transfers into Death Academy, with no idea what to expect or what is expected of her.

The world that witches and meisters and weapons live in is completely new to Tsugumi.  She doesn't know anything about Soul Resonance, or witch hunting.  At the beginning of the show she can't even fully transform. As a result you learn more about the universe and setting of Soul Eater in the first few episodes of Not! then you do in pretty much the entirety of Soul Eater.  It's a setting that's a bit more interesting than the previous anime made it seem.

Just like its main character, the anime proceeds at a modest pace, sampling one genre or another as it decides what kind of show it wants to be.  This isn't a bad thing, and whatever Soul Eater Not! tries, it remains entertaining  Most of the time it is relaxed and lighthearted, with some action here and there.  But it also takes dark turns, as friends are hurt and decisions must be made.

The cast is good, perhaps not great (aside from Tsugumi, who I'll get to in a bit).  Early on Tsugumi meets and befriends two potential meister partners, Meme and Anya.  Meme is a big-boobed dope who is so forgetful she couldn't even remember her own name as she attempted to introduce herself to Tsugumi.  Anya is a high-class gal who seems to be at Death Academy largely to "learn about commoners" and thus becomes instantly fascinated by Tsugumi.  Both are interested in becoming Tsugumi's meister partner, and thus occasionally compete for her attention.  But most of the time, the three are happy just being good friends and roommates.

Tsugumi is a fun character to watch.  She is in every way an ordinary girl.  She has crushes, she makes mistakes and she has a little dog named Pochi back at home that she loves dearly.  Before entering Death Academy, Tsugumi was going to a regular middle school, living a life free from the quirks and hazards present in the original series.  When she transfers to Death Academy, you get the feeling that she does so more out of obligation than aspiration, and as a result she has a lot of difficulty adjusting to the sort of stuff we as an audience might already be very familiar with.  Humorously, she nearly fails to even make it through the front door, as her confidence is worn thin by the seemingly endless staircase leading up to the academy's entrance.

An ordinary character learning to live in a world filled with extraordinary things isn't perhaps unique, but Soul Eater Not! executes it very well here.  Tsugumi's an endearing and likable character, with her easygoing attitude and friendly disposition.  She may not know the first thing about witches, souls or demon weapon combat, but whatever she attempts, she gives it her best shot, and I felt like rooting for her every time.

Soul Eater Not! does a lot of good for the Soul Eater universe, despite being largely unrelated to the main story.  Somehow, watching Not! has actually raised my opinion of the original series in retrospect.  Paced well, and featuring a competent cast and a great main character, Not! has continually been one of the most enjoyable shows of the season for me.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Spring 2014 Anime: Akuma no Riddle

So, Akuma no Riddle.  Where to begin?  To be honest, this is probably the weakest show of the lot for me.  And yet I keep watching it.  

At its core, Akuma no Riddle is a somewhat derivative mixup of stories like Battle Royale and Hitman: Absolution.  It revolves around the "Black Class," a special class at a special school consisting entirely of girls.  One of these girls is Haru Ichinose, a cutie who's optimistic to a fault and determined to graduate.  Unfortunately, what Haru doesn't realize is that every other girl in her class has enrolled for the express purpose of murdering her.  They're all assassins you see, all contracted to kill Haru.  But this contract is special; almost like a game.  There are three rules: 

1) Do not involve anyone outside the Black Class (including their homeroom teacher, who at least appears to be a dope)
2) Give Haru written notice of your intent to kill her before attempting to do so
3) Kill her within 48 hours of her receiving your notice, or you must immediately drop out and leave.

The prize awaiting the girl who manages to kill Haru is--as you might expect with tournament-style shows like these--anything you can imagine.  However, one girl has for whatever reason decided to go against the flow, and protect Haru instead of kill her.  The show follows Haru and her newfound protector Tokaku Azuma as they fend off the other assassins and somehow manage to have a somewhat normal high school life.

Akuma no Riddle is a strange show, to be honest.  It makes no real effort to expand on its setting or overarching plot, which leaves you with just the moment to moment action to go by.  The cast is also largely nothing special, with most of the characters fulfilling basic conventional character archetypes (and some not fulfilling these archetypes particularly well) and barely functioning beyond their tendency to attack Haru one at a time, once per week in a typical 'monster of the week' format.  Haru herself is strangely endearing with her tireless optimism and friendly disposition, even towards her classmates who she is very aware are all going to try to kill her in cold blood at some point or another.  But the only mildly interesting character in the show other than Haru so far is Nio, a mysterious and somewhat amusing girl who watches over the proceedings as a sort of referee rather than actively participating herself.

But what's most strange is the tone of the show.  I can put aside the fact that it has basically organized a contract assassination into a cruel game, but the show's overall tone is inexplicable.  Before long everyone except the teacher is aware of what's going on, and they're all generally amicable to each other and act like they don't all have a lot to lose by failing.  Haru obviously has her life on the line, but every girl is fighting for a chance at something better, whether it's just basic survival or ultimate happiness.  Though most of the characters try to seclude Haru before attempting to slay her, some don't mind going for the kill right in front of the other classmates.  Even stranger is that the classmates generally just watch in mild amusement as this occurs.

Even more strange is Haru herself, who seems to be totally at peace with the fact that she is very clearly on the chopping block.  Perhaps in spite of this, she continually places more trust in her classmates than any sane person in her situation ought to.  When invited to meet one of the girls in a secluded location late at night, she happily agrees.  Despite how foolish she acts and how sunny her disposition generally is, Haru doesn't give the impression of being a total dope.  This isn't her first rodeo, and underneath that bubbly personality we see a girl who's fought all her life just to stay alive, and is at this point inexplicably confident in her ability to get through this ordeal just as she has before.

If not for Haru, I likely would have dropped Akuma no Riddle.  But as cliched as this may sound, I want to see how her struggle plays out.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Spring 2014 Anime: Black Bullet

Black Bullet is a strangely inconsistent show.  Sometimes it feels surprisingly competent and heartfelt, but most of the time it suffers from technical issues and a reliance on cliches.  In the world of Black Bullet, humanity has been ravaged by a race of monsters spawned from the disease known as Gastrea.  The Gastrea disease is extremely contagious; monsters can easily infect humans with it, and any human infected soon turns into a monster.  Humanity only has two real defenses against the Gastrea: a mysterious black metal known as Varanium, and little girls known as Cursed Children.

Varanium has the effect of repelling monsters (they seem disgusted by it), so humans have taken refuge in large cities protected by a ring of gigantic varanium monoliths.  Weapons and ammo made out of varanium are also the only things capable of reliably killing Gastrea monsters; they quickly regenerate from wounds sustained from conventional weaponry.

Meanwhile, to combat the Gastrea more directly, humanity has reverse-engineered the virus, allowing them to administer it in small doses to infant girls.  This has the effect of granting these 'Cursed Children' many of the same abilities as Gastrea; namely, extremely potent regenerative abilities, and superhuman strength and agility, along with a special ability unique to them.  Both to provide guardianship for these children and to keep them under control, each Cursed Child is paired up with a Civil Officer--a trained police officer of sorts who specializes in Anti-Gastrea combat.  Black Bullet primarily follows Civil Officer Rentarou Satomi and his Cursed Child partner Enju as they do their part to end the Gastrea threat.

Black Bullet's premise isn't particularly unique or compelling; this certainly isn't the first show where adorable little girls are arbitrarily forced to fight evil, nor is it the first featuring humanity under siege by horrific monsters.  And so far Black Bullet has never really managed to rise above the cliches and typical anime tropes that it surrounds itself with.  Seemingly every female character--Cursed Child or not--in the show seems to have a thing for Rentarou, and two of them in particular are of course direct rivals for his affection.  Most notably, Black Bullet suffers from strange pacing issues.  Just a couple of episodes in, we get a high-stakes, large scale battle that most shows would save for the finale.  You would think that simply means that this show is willing to ramp things up at a faster pace than others (a la Kill la Kill), but then the next episode it's business as usual; barely anything has changed.  Even shounen shows don't have this kind of fluctuation.

However, little moments and aspects here and there save the show from total mediocrity.  Though perhaps not the most experienced at his job, Rentarou's not a dope; if there's something that he thinks needs to be done, he'll rise to the task.  All of the Cursed Children are as adorable as you'd think, even with glowing red eyes and their propensity for killing.There's a certain charm to watching Rentarou hand-feed one of them midway through the show while classy jazz music plays in the background, especially when you consider how generally bleak the world of Black Bullet is supposed to be.

And bleak it can certainly be.  More than once now, Rentarou's had to personally execute Cursed Children who did nothing wrong; the circumstances simply didn't favor them.  Buried under the show's lighthearted moments and conventional premise we see a protagonist who's life is actually kind of shitty, and a story that has a lot of heart at times.  Rentarou's relationship with Enju is sincere, and the threat of them being torn apart actually got to me.
Further, there's an something interesting to be said about the discriminatory undercurrent present in Black Bullet.  Despite being the first and only active line of defense against the Gastrea, Cursed Children are ostracized by society because of their connection to the virus (think Claymore, but with little girls instead of grown women).  This sounds nonsensical, but it's not an unreasonable stance to have when you consider that many of these people have lost everything to the virus and the monsters that have originated from it.  Now there are little girls walking around on the street that are technically infected with it; if a Cursed Child is unable to suppress the virus, they turn into a monster (just like any other infected human), which can quickly cause an epidemic if it isn't contained.  Not to mention that until they receive training and are paired with an officer, most Cursed Children tend to be emotionless and lacking in any real personality.  Black Bullet presents a society that hates Cursed Children for reasons that are not their fault, but is forced to rely on them anyway.

Ultimately, I think a solid recommendation for Black Bullet is a hard sell.  It's not a particularly remarkable show on its own unless you're looking for a decent loli showcase, and based on its pacing it doesn't seem to be a great adaptation either.  But little things here and there keep it enjoyable for me, and I look forward to watching it each week.

Spring 2014 Anime: Nanana's Buried Treasure

Nanana's Buried Treasure follows a young man named Yama Juugo.  Having decided to leave home and be independent, Juugo enrolls in a school located on an island.  He's pleasantly surprised to find an apartment on-campus that's fairly comfortable and charging a rent that's within his means, until he discovers too late that there's already someone living in it: Nanana, a ghost bound to that apartment.  Unable to pass on, she spends her time playing videogames and feasting on pudding.  Her presence is--to say the least--perplexing at best and quite an inconvenience at worst for Juugo, but as the two get to know each other, Nanana talks to Juugo about her past life.  Before she was murdered, Nanana was an adventurer; over the course of her life she raided tombs, explored ruins, and built up quite a hoard of treasure.  This collection, known as the "Nanana Collection", is now hidden and scattered all over the island, protected by traps and puzzles of Nanana's own design.

Now at this point, you'd assume that Nanana's Buried Treasure is basically Indiana Jones: The Anime, following Juugo and a motley crew of fellow adventurers as they hunt down Nanana's Collection.  Well, it is.  But only sometimes.  Let me get this out of the way: Nanana's Buried Treasure is a great show.  It has a very strong cast; Juugo, though inconsistently characterized at times, is a solid and capable MC.  Nanana's a fun and quirky character who always turns around before consuming an entire cup of pudding in a single gulp, with a sound effect that could have been ripped right out of an early 90s videogame.  Daruku is completely useless but might be the most flawless trap I've ever seen.  The best of the bunch however, is self-proclaimed Master Detective Ikkyu Tensai, who usually steals every scene with a wild combination of character traits, from brilliant intellect to her penchant for roleplaying.  Putting aside everything else good or bad, this show is worth watching just for Tensai.

The show also has an interesting backdrop and plenty of compelling plot hooks going for it.  In fact, I would say that it has too many plot hooks going on.  If there's one problem I have with Nanana's Buried Treasure, it's that it bites off far more than it can chew.  What could have easily been an enjoyable, well-paced and fleshed out story about a group of fun characters hunting down the Nanana Collection has inflated into a show with more going on than it has time to address in the 11 episodes ostensibly allotted to it.  We don't know who murdered Nanana.  Juugo has a past he's running from.  There are characters who are connected to him in ways the show has yet to properly explain.  And in the shadows of the plot sits a possible antagonist who has yet to show himself.  And that's putting aside any character development that has yet to be carried out.  We're more than halfway through the season and this show is still introducing new plot strings.

To reiterate, Nanana's Buried Treasure is a great show so far.  It's paced well, it has a great cast and truth be told, it's not like all these plot strings aren't interesting.  It's just that without a continuation, we're headed towards a non-ending filled with loose ends and undeveloped characters.  I'm not criticizing the show; I'm worried about it.

Spring 2014 Anime: Captain Earth

I don't usually watch ongoings.  In fact, before this year the last time I kept up with an ongoing anime was probably Gundam 00 back in 2007.  A few months ago however, a series of events led me to end up giving Buddy Complex a shot.  I was glad I did, so starting with Spring 2014 I decided to look into some other weekly anime.  Most are now about 6-7 episodes in, which is the halfway mark for a single-season show.  Here's what I checked out.

Captain Earth
Earth is being threatened by a race of aliens who are stranded near Saturn and want to drain humanity of all its libido so they can fuel their spaceship.  Standing in their way is main character Daichi, who unwittingly finds himself in the pilot seat of the Earth Engine Impactor, a humongous space robot built to fend off alien attackers.  He's joined by his longtime friend Teppei, a cute girl named Hana with a mysterious past, and the Logical Magical Girl Akari.

Captain Earth comes from the same dudes that made Star Driver, and it shows. The above description may have sounded like some kind of silly mecha comedy in the vein of Nadeisco or Vandread, but the writers play it completely straight.  Just like Star Driver--which you'll recall was a show that managed to have its MC go by the title "Galactic Pretty Boy" and avoid ever acknowledging how absurd that is--Captain Earth is actually fairly grounded despite how frivolous it seems on the surface.  Even though they have their fun times, these kids realize the gravity of the situation, and as of this writing Daichi has come quite close to being killed every time he's deployed in the Earth Engine.

Again, just like Star Driver, Captain Earth is in a strange juxtapositon where on a moment to moment basis it's enjoyable and easy to follow, but on the whole it uses such an incredible amount of jargon (even for a mecha show) that its overall plot can feel impenetrable at times.  Get this: the aliens are known as Planetary Gears, and infiltrate Earth using genetically engineered bodies called Designer Children.  As Designer Children, the Planetary Gears take on their true form (known as Kiltgangs) using a cockpit machine called a Machine Goodfellows.  Both the Earth Engine Impactor (which Daichi commands using his Livlaster) and these Kiltgang are powered by Orgone Energy, which is connected to libido.  As long as the Planetary Gear's Ego Blocks aren't destroyed, they can essentially live forever.

Did you get all that?

Technically, this is a problem; Captain Earth is stuck way too far up its own butt.  But to be honest, I don't really mind.  Because at the end of the day, Captain Earth is still an enjoyable and entertaining show if you just roll with it.  The cast shows a lot of potential; Hana is one of the more endearing characters of the season, Akari's constant attempts to steal the show are fun to watch, and Daichi can be surprisingly unpredictable at times, in a good way.  The assembly sequence for the Earth Engine is super exciting, and the animators seem to know it, as it is present in in the opening and is always shown without fail when Daichi deploys.  If you've seen Star Driver, this is nothing new; Tauburn's dazzling entrance should be etched into your mind.

Overall, this is a recommendable show.  Its pacing is a bit slow at times--which hurts this series in particular because there are so many unknown terms and concepts thrown at you from the outset--but that allows for strong character moments.  And with 26 episodes planned, they've got time to spare.