Two weeks back, a colleague wore a shirt with a text that also included ‘NEO-TOKYO’. I asked him if this was a reference to Akira, and it turns out that he hadn’t seen that movie. In fact, he didn’t know what I was talking about! So I told him Akira is an iconic anime movie, set in ‘Neo Tokyo’. I offered to loan the DVD it to him, and he was curious enough to take me up on the offer.
So when he returned the disc, I asked if he liked it. He had been very interested, and had watched the whole movie through in one sitting… I offered to loan him that other cyberpunk masterpiece, Ghost in the Shell, which he also had never heard about… And now he has the second GitS movie on loan too, and he told me that he wouldn’t mind having a movie night every Sunday evening…

So now I’m planning out the whole list of movies I’m going to loan him, and a logical sequence between the movies… It’s great when you can share your interests in such a way.

Yesterday I finished up the (free, online) course “An Introduction To Japanese Subcultures“. The course offers a perspective from a cultural criticism viewpoint, formulated by four instructors from a Japanese university who themselves partake in certain subcultures. (For instance, in the third week, the instructor is dressed in a uniform from the original Gundam series and stands in front of the life-size Gundam statue in front of Diver City in Odaiba, Tokyo.)

As you know, we consume industrial amounts of anime, and of course we know quite a bit about ‘adjacent’ fields like manga and idols. So doing this course was really interesting, for two reasons. The first reason is that I never learned the vocabulary and structures of cultural criticism, and seeing it applied to something I know was an eye-opener. The way the instructors introduced and reasoned about the subjects was a totally new experience for me. I could separate the method and vocabulary a bit from the subject matter (because I know a bit about that), which told me some things about how these kinds of criticisms are structured and conducted.
The second is that it is extremely interesting to see how the themes we encounter often are actually inter-related and what they say about Japan as a culture and the subculture that birthed those themes. For instance, reading a Freudian perspective on giant robot anime (a genre that is near and dear to my heart) was really fun and gave me a better appreciation of the depth of the themes and genres.

In other words, a lot of fun. I didn’t engage with the other participants through the discussion boards as much as I did with the previous course I did on there, but I’m quite fine with that. I didn’t feel like being a sweaty try-hard for this course — perhaps because I am wary of engaging with other weebs.

We’ve finished watching both seasons of Knights of Sidonia — five years after the first season started. Yes, it has been kicking in our to-view pile for years now, but the CGI animation and the lethality of the setting for the characters put us off — but now that we have seen it, I’m glad we did. It is really under-appreciated.

It is like a very dark version of various Macross series: the setting is a massive ‘seed ship’ built into an asteroid (presumably Sidonia), with a large city inside, as well as manufacturing and military facilities. It was launched to set up colonies throughout the galaxy (a direct parallel with Macross 7 and Frontier), and it is beset by an enemy that can’t be communicated with (also a direct parallel with Macross 7). There is focus on the personal lives (including romance!) of the pilots, and on non-combat inhabitants (though to a lesser degree). And there is even romance with a (variant of) an alien — which we also have in the original Macross and Macross 7.

But it’s more gritty (everything is scratched and dirty), the lethality of the setting is much, much higher than in Macross (pilots fall left and right, especially the newbies) and as the series progress, Sidonia falls into some kind of militaristic fascist dictatorship. The biggest difference however is in the animation. Sidonia is all CGI, with the associated jarring character animation. And with the muted colour palette the show uses, it looks really drab. This is also the main reason cited for why it doesn’t get the popularity it deserves. It’s also why it has been hanging in our backlog for so long.

I was glad we watched it, and if there’s a third season (long rumoured, but the lukewarm reception must have made the business case for that kind of iffy), I’ll be sure to watch it. If it was an RPG, I’d be sure to play it.

In 2018, we watched 54 series and ‘specials’ — mostly series though. Looking through the list, I see three series that we awarded a score of 9 out of 10. Two of those were actually aired in 2017, and they are continuation of previous series, so maybe they are disqualified? On the other hand, we only watch series when they are completed, so that means that no series from the Fall season could ever qualify.

There is Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu: Sukeroku Futatabi-hen, a continuation of a previous series, and aired in the Winter season of 2017. It is a delightful conclusion to a very interesting series about how Rakugo, the traditional story-telling, fared into the modern Japan. You do need to have seen all the previous seasons. While I recommend the whole trio of series, it’s not quite the AotY.

There is 3-gatsu no Lion 2nd Season, another continuation. Again, a superb conclusion, but again not sufficiently stand-alone.

My anime of the year 2018 is Hataraku Saibou (“Cells at Work”) which is hilarious: it shows cells having every-day ‘jobs’: the red blood cells are dressed like delivery people, carrying boxes of oxygen to other cells. A sneeze is a rocket launch, etcetera. And it’s also quite educational: I learned some things about the human immune system too! Every episode is fun and had us laughing out loud.

Some honourable mentions:

  • Darling in the FranXX: Basically, the second coming of Evangelion. Recommended for mecha-heads who can appreciate a bit of distopian setting;
  • Violet Evergarden: Post-war (equivalent of WW1) drama with a girl who has only known war coming to grips with civilian life.
  • Hakumei to Mikochi: Heart-warming series about a paid of mini-people making their life in a mini-world.
  • Shoujo Shuumatsu Ryokou: A pair of girls travel through the war-torn ruins of civilisation, probably the last two people to be alive… It’s very slow-moving and philosophical at times.
  • Houseki no Kuni: A world where people made out of gemstones live. They are regularly attacked by ethereal beings that look like Buddhist iconography. Super interesting setting.

What’s the best anime you have seen in 2018?

Anime reviews

A new quarter, so a new TV season starts in Japan. And with that come new anime series! As usual, we will be watching the first episodes of (almost) everything, and decide which ones are interesting enough to watch to completion. But I am not going to write reviews of those first episodes anymore.

In July, we were so busy with the house and all that, that I did not have time (nor even the infrastructure!) to write the reviews. It’s always a lot of work, but nobody missed them. And it’s a lot of work, something that sticks to the to-do list for a long time (even months, in some cases). The most I get out of it is that people comment along the lines of “whoa, you watch a lot of anime!” Yes, we know, thanks.

So I’m going to spare myself the trouble of collecting all the information and writing the reviews. If you want to know what we thought of a certain series, feel free to ask! And you can always check out my anime list, where you can also see which mark (1-10) we gave the series we watched to completion.

Instead of making multiple posts with a few reviews here and there, I’ve decided to collect all my first-episode reviews in a single entry, to make it easier for you to skip if you’re not interested. But it’s also easier to find my review for that one series!

Reviews of 39 first episodes

I wonder how many anime series (and especially sports anime) have a plot that could be short-circuited by a protagonist saying: “No, I am under no obligation to accept your challenge. And I will not agree to your ridiculous stakes.”

Why I like anime

A comment on my last post with anime reviews asked: “So… why do you like anime?” The more I thought about it, the more I thought the answer warranted its own entry.

Let’s say this upfront: Anime is a medium, not a genre. There are many different anime with many different subject matters and visual styles. And certainly not all anime is good: there’s a lot of mediocre and some abject bad stuff out there. But there are some real pearls to be found.
I do think that my tastes are outside of the norm for anime enthusiasts: there’s a lot of long-running series based on “battle manga”, with large fights and ever-escalating power levels. Series such as any of the Dragonball series, or Naruto or Bleach or Fairy Tail or One Piece are huge hits — and I have zero interest in them. So in this entry I’ll describe my personal preferences, which might lie outside of the norms.

I think that I like anime because of the stories that can be (and are) told in the medium. Some stories could easily be done as live-action series, but end up as an anime instead. Anime seems to be more open to experimentation, and there is an ‘accepted’ route for a manga or light novel to be made into an anime, whereas the step from those to a live-action is much larger and convoluted — there are cases where it happens, but often there is an anime in between!
Just today, we finished watching ACCA, a political intrigue about an inspector for the government in a federal kingdom of 13 territories. It’s not flashy at all, there’s very little action, no improbable machines, but the story is very gripping.
Or take Fune wo Amu, about the multi-year project to create a new dictionary. Writing a dictionary, how boring can you get? And still, it’s interesting to see how the editors go about their business, the challenges they face and the (office) tactics they use to overcome them. Again, no action.

Other stories are too fantastic to turn into a live-action series, because it features things like mecha and space battles. For those kinds of stories, anime is an ideal medium. There is of course the Macross series, which would require a mind-numbing CGI budget if it were to be combined with live-action actors, but in an anime the bar is lower: you don’t need photo-realistic renderings to integrate with cell-animated characters.
The effects and the set decorations for something like Mushishi would make it prohibitively expensive to produce in a live-action series format (though there was a live-action movie made), and it started out as a manga, thus it ends up being an anime.
Or take something like Uchouten Kazoku, about shape-shifting tanuki raccoons in Kyoto. Either you’d have to shut down the city centre to take your shots and add lots of digital effects, or you just draw everything from the comfort of your studio!

And yes, anime has a certain visual style and a certain way to tell stories, which is different from live-action series. It’s different, and for some people that causes them to not enjoy watching anime — even though they would probably enjoy the stories being told themselves. I also happen to like the visual and storytelling style, which makes it easier for me to enjoy the stories being told too.

So this is the last of the new anime (that we watched the first episode of) for the Winter 2018 season!

Miira no Kaikata: Sora runs the household in the absence of his adventurer father. One day, his father sends him a coffin in the post, and in it is… a mummy. A really small, cute mummy. Of course, Sora is weirded out, but he warms up to the little fellow, who seems to have imprinted itself on him as its ‘owner’.
I’m not sure what the point of this setup is, but it’s not interesting in the least.

Hakumei to Mikochi: Hakumei and Mikochi are small humans, living in a house built against a tree in a forest. They have all kinds of adventures, like riding stag beetles to the top of a mountain to meet a bird that’s new in the area, or going on a shopping trip to the coast.
It is exceedingly cute and relaxing, but the change in scale and the existence of antropomorphic animals (of course the cloth merchant is a hedgehog, because she has needles to spare) adds an interesting twist. It also reminded me of the RPG Ryuutama in that the trip is more important than the destination. And it’s all rendered in loving detail too.

Hakyuu Houshin Engi: Engi is a ‘celestial’ and he is sent to Earth to battle other celestials who have manipulated themselves at the top of an empire that they have absolute control over. Engi gets a weird flying animal as companion and sets off, but his first plan misfires and countless people are thrown into a pit filled with alligators and venomous snakes…
Uninspired battle anime, and the plot is paper-thin. I guess if you really liked Dragonball Z but wished it incorporated more ancient Chinese mythology, then this would be right up your alley. For us it’s a total snoozefest.

Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens: The idea is that in Fukuoka, 3% of the people is actually a hired killer. A large supply generates demand, so there’s all kinds of dirty deeds that need doing — and get done. Not in the least by the current mayor. But of course there is a private detective who gets asked to look into things, and he’s the good guy. And there are some other plotlines with other people (most of them hitmen) who haven’t met up yet, but who undoubtedly will.
Fukuoka is a pretty city, we liked it very much. Some of the locations were familiar to us. But that’s about the only good thing that can be said about this series. The villains are really one-dimensional, and the plot is heavy-handed and convoluted. Meh.

Beatless: Humanoid robots exist, but they are regarded as mere tools by the humans. But Arato treats them with respect regardless. Then he meets Lacia, a masterless robot, who needs him to take legal responsibility for her actions, so she can save him from an attack by another masterless robot. She ends up staying with Arato and his sister.
Not too interesting on its own, but the philosophical ramifications are interesting to see. It’s quite pretty too.

Killing Bites: Japan is controlled from the shadows by four zaibatsu. They wage proxy warfare against each other by ‘killing bites’, fighting contests against people who have been gene-therapied to have animal characteristics. Yuya accidentally gets involved in this “sport” as a sponsor, and he gets saddled with one of the fighters as his bodyguard.
A totally absurd premise for bloody fights with plenty of ‘surprises’ when the fighters use a signature move from the animal they have DNA of. Fighting series are just not our thing.

Darling in the Franxx: Children are trained to synchronise with each other inside mecha called Franxx, to fight against the monsters that populate the deserts outside of the arcologies where humans in live. The adults are quite content to let the kids do all the dangerous work. Hiro failed the synchronization test, which automatically also disqualified his partner, and they are about to get sent back to the orphanage. But then Hiro meets ‘Zero Two’, a girl with two horns, and during a monster attack, the two of them sync up and kick monster butt.
This season’s mecha series, with some real echoes of Evangelion. It looks gorgeous, and there is a lot going on that will need some story development to explain all. I want to see more of that.

Dagashi Kashi 2: Second season of this series that showcases a different kind of traditional candy. It is framed against the fact that Kokonotsu has to look after his father’s traditional candy shop, while Hotaru is there to convince him to work for the candy company her family owns.
Somehow, this second season has only half-length episodes, but they’re pretty fun and interesting, if you have an interest in candy and snacks!

This is the second-to-last post with reviews of the new anime this season!

Ryuuou no Oshigoto!: Yaichi became the top shogi player while he still is in highschool. So now he is a professional, and he lives on his own, making his living by playing shogi and training in between. And then one day, a young girl turns up on his doorstep. She reminds him of his promise to be her shogi master — and she definitely has talent. But Yaichi is not equipped to deal with having a student like this.
It’s everything that Sangatsu no Lion isn’t: it’s whimsical and shallow, and it has a worrying amount of lolicon front and center. Best left untouched.

Karakai Jouzu no Tagaki-san: Tagaki sits next to Nishikata, who is always thinking of ways to get her into trouble with the teacher. But Tagaki, who obviously has a thing for Nishikata, is much too clever to fall into his traps — rather, she consistently turns the tables on him, much to his annoyance!
It’s kind of cute on one hand, but on the other hand, it’s a long sequence of two kids playing tricks on each other, and that gets kinda old fast.

Basilisk: Ouka Ninpouchou: Second series of a much older series. We’re introduced to many super-powered ninja, with the idea that we should know these people from before, so the introductions are very sparse indeed. A noble sets out to Edo, to see his dying mother one last time, and he is waylaid by a group of ninja. Luckily for him, our “hero” ninja are there to save his bacon!
At the end of the episode, I was left wondering who all these people were, and why we should care about them. The character designs are kinda weird too. And it has all that “fight in the rain because that makes us look edgy”-thing going on that I’ve grown tired of a long time ago.

Dame x Prince Anime Caravan: Ani, the princess of the small kingdom of Inaco, gets sent to the neighbouring country of Selenfalen, in order to sign the peace treaty with the kingdom of Milidonia. She meets the princes of these kingdoms and their knights, and they’re all super dreamy and… odd. She’s happy to be back home after all that, but then she gets sent out again…
Reverse harem anime with lots of pretty boys that all seem to have a few screws loose. The character designs are quite nice and I really liked how Ani is weirded out by the people she meets — she seems to be the only character in the whole series who has any kind of common sense. Other than that, it’s just like many other reverse harem series, only this time there’s a thin layer of fantasy setting.

Violet Evergarden: Violet was raised as a soldier, and the only person she looks up to is a major. But then she loses her arms during a battle, and the war is over while she is in the hospital getting cyborg arms. The major’s fate is not known (but it didn’t look to good), and one of his associates comes to get her. They quickly find out that Violet is not suited to play the part of a young well-to-do girl that is being adopted by the Evergarden family, and she ends up working as a mail sorter in the associate’s private mail company. In that role, she connects with people in a way that she never did.
Very high budget: everything is so detailed! And the setting is very interesting too, in a 1920’s kind of way. We don’t see much of Violet’s military life, but I am interested to see more of how she discovers to live like a civilian.

Märchen Mädchen: Hazuki is a total bookworm, retreating into stories to escape her not-so-great life. Then she gets a magic book that allows her to enter through a bookcase in the school library, and she ends up at a magic school in the magical land inside!
There’s not much substance, apart from some gratuitous nudity… It’ll probably turn into some kind of magic academy series, but this bland first episode already lost us.

Death March Kara Hajimaru Isekai Kyousoukyoku: Ichirou is a programmer for a studio that cranks out those trashy, short-lived MMORPGs. He’s constantly overworked, needing to offer quick fixes to all kinds of issues etcetera. When he sleeps at the office, he finds himself in one of ‘his’ games — including the game menu. He uses the extra items that they put in that day to make the game easier for starting players, and the three super-powerful spells kill a large mob of monsters, increasing his level immensely. So now he’s quite powerful, and he starts off in the direction of the nearest town to see what’s going on.
So this is very much like “Isekai wa Smartphone to Tomo ni”, which was, frankly speaking, bad. I don’t quite understand why we’re giving this one a chance since it’s so similar, but I guess we’re optimists.

Koi wa Ameagari no You ni: High-school student Akira works at a family restaurant after having to drop out of the track & field team when she hurt her ankle. The restaurant manager, an awkward middle-aged man, showed her compassion when she was at her lowest point, and she has fallen in love with him — even though he is a bit of a slob, and only Akira sees his good points.
This could turn weird and awkward and creepy, but so far the manager is oblivious, and the two main characters are portrayed with a lot of empathy and compassion. It’s funny at times too. The character designs have a bit of a retro feel to them too, which I find very attractive. It only takes half an episode to feel like you want the best for Akira, and I want to see how it develops.