Panning the Stream: Summer 2014 Midseason Review

If I had to pick a single word to describe this season, it would have to be “eclectic.”

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While this past Spring was dominated by very good sports series, and this past Winter was dominated by, uh… kami, I guess? (it was a pretty weak season), this Summer seems to have taken a cookie out of every genre jar. Action flicks, thrillers, rom-coms, satires, school dramas, period pieces, mysteries, Gothic horrors… you want it, this season has got it. And while none of them have been quite as jaw-droppingly perfect as Spring’s Ping Pong or Mushishi, on the whole I’d say there are a lot of solid, B-range shows on the schedule. It’s made it very hard to trim titles off my watchlist, that’s for sure.

And now that we’re six (or five, in Nobunaga Concerto’s case) episodes into the season, I figured I’d pop back in with some quickie reviews to talk about what’s still working, what reeeally isn’t, and everything in between.

Gold, Silver, and Bronze

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Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun (“Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun”)
Grade: A

Always funny and frequently brilliant, MGN-kun is a show filled with quirky, loveable characters doing quirky, loveable things, and it’s a joy to watch each week. More than that, though, it’s a sneakily clever commentary on gender roles in both reality and fiction, and how the two influence (and perpetuate) one another. Rarely have I seen a series provide such smart satire without coming across as pretentious or mean, and it’s a testament to the series’ genius that it can make me think and laugh not just in equal turns, but often simultaneously.

Kuroshitsuji (“Black Butler”): Book of Circus
Grade: A-

Who saw this coming? Certainly not me, but there you have it: Smartly plotted, populated with fascinating antiheroes and sympathetic villains, and set in a pretty much perfect locale, BoC is on track to be one of the best shows of the season. Whether it’s a goofy circus act, a tense investigation, or a creepy, sad, titillating sex scene (yeah, you heard me), the series conducts itself with absolute confidence and pulls off everything it sets out to do. Each week I find myself drawn deeper and deeper into the dark world of the Noah’s Ark Circus. This is Black Butler at its best, and its best is top shelf stuff.

Zankyou no Terror (“Terror in Resonance”)
Grade: A-

I had this on track for a straight “A” until I watched Episode 6, which forced me to drop it a half-letter. While it’s still a very good series, we’re at the halfway point and a lot of the Big Questions and Overarching Themes still remain largely unaddressed, and I’m starting to get worried. Withholding backstory is a great way to create tension, but it’s also a good way to keep the audience at arm’s length, since they never quite know WHY the characters are doing the things they’re doing.

Now that Nine and Twelve have shifted more concretely into protagonist roles, it’s important that we give a damn, and the only way to give a damn is to fully understand their motivations. The longer ZanTero keeps that information from its audience, the harder it’s going to be to invest us in the final Act of the series. I’m still interested and I still have confidence, but the series needs to start proving that there’s more to it than cerebral riddles and conspiracies. It needs to prove that what it’s doing matters, to both its characters and its audience.

Happy Surprise of the Season

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Nobunaga Concerto
Grade: B+

My Rule of Three Review continues to hold true for this series. The animation is not good and every episode is jam-packed with plot, but sympathetic characters, fabulous voice acting, and an increasingly layered story elevate it above much of the season’s better-animated competition. While other shows struggle with tone or get mired in repetitive plot points, NobuCon marches forward with a well-balanced blend of humor, pathos, and intrigue. Each week it jumps a little higher up my watchlist.

Sports Stalwarts

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Haikyuu!!
Grade: B+

Baby Steps
Grade: B

I’m not going to talk much about these two since they’re both in the second-cour, except to say that they’re good and getting better each week. Both ended their first cours on what I thought was fairly weak material, but the last 4-5 episodes have been great stuff, some of their best episodes to date, filled with all the fist-pumping excitement you could want in a sports series. Stay patient and give these both a try – it takes a while to get invested, but I’d say it’s worth it.

Consistently Good

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Aldnoah.Zero
Grade: B+

Dropped out of the “A” range but has the potential to get back up there. I’m having the same problem with this MC as I have with ZanTero’s boys, in that I feel like we’re one flashback away from really understanding Inaho, but it just hasn’t happened yet. As a result, the battle scenes where he takes center stage are starting to feel dull and redundant. Outside of the mechas, though, the show remains damn good, with a great supporting cast whose past history and current secrets do the double-duty of making the characters sympathetic and the story tense. A/Z may end up being the anime equivalent of a popcorn flick, but what’s wrong with that? Some of my favorite flicks are of the popcorn variety.

Space Dandy 2
Grade: B

It’s hard to talk about SD in overarching terms because each episode is so different from the last. There have been highs and lows, moments that struck brilliance and moments that fell flat and moments that simply left me giggling uncontrollably. There are also hints that we’re moving towards some kind of overarching plot, as side characters get fleshed out and Dr. Gel comes ever closer to capturing Dandy. I don’t particularly care if that happens or not, to be honest, as long as the show’s many writers and directors continue to let their imaginations run wild. Anime is simply a better medium with shows like SD on the schedule, and even when its craziness doesn’t work for me, I’m glad it’s around to try anyway.

Ao Haru Ride (“Blue Spring Ride”)
Grade: B

A very good high school shoujo focused on gradual character growth and building relationships. Perhaps the best thing about AoHaru is its allergy to melodrama – even with a love triangle introduced, the series has (so far) avoided any screaming and crying, which is a huge bonus in my book. Instead, the tone is fairly low-key and the drama primarily internal – as it often is in high school, where our external and internal lives can seem very out of sync with one another. Not the most original or riveting series on the schedule, but a worthwhile watch nonetheless.

Barakamon
Grade: B-

The humor mostly works and the characters are all pretty likeable, and Seishuu’s pendulum swings between towering ego and crippling insecurity will elicit empathy from anyone who’s ever attempted to produce some form of art. That said, Barakamon tries just a little too hard to give its audience warm fuzzies, and halfway through the series I’m noticing a repetitive pattern to the episode arcs, as they seem to always culminate in Seishuu learning some affirming life lesson that feels just a little simple to ring true. It’s a pleasant enough 25 minutes a week, but it could be more than that, and it’s a shame the anime won’t challenge itself more.

Hit ‘n’ Miss

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Love Stage!
Grade: B- (Ranges from a B+ to a C- at any given moment)

This one was on my bubble after that awful assault scene in Episode 3, but the series handled the aftermath about as well as I’ve seen an anime handle such a topic (and yes, the bar is pretty low since anime usually handles these things atrociously, but still). It wasn’t romanticized or brushed aside, and Ryouma responded to his own actions with horror, guilt, and profuse apologies.

And, barring a couple minor moments of discomfort (ugh, those stolen kisses), everything since then has been pretty great, with humor that alternates between the cute and the acidic and characters who just keep growing on me, despite my early reservations. The series navigates a minefield each week but has so far avoided blowing itself up, and is slowly winning me back bit by bit. Here’s hoping that keeps happening.

Magimoji Rurumo
Grade: C+ (Ranges from a A- to a D- at any given moment)

Like Love Stage, MagiRu alternately annoys me and charms me. Episode 4 was downright teeth-grinding at times, but Episode 5 was a fun magical sitcom, and Episode 6 was just about perfect, an irresistible blend of cuteness and sweetness and surprising sadness. You almost get the feeling that the annoying fanservice elements were just injected in order to hook an audience, and that what Watanabe REALLY wanted to do was make a magical girl rom-com. This is a genuinely heartwarming comedy when it wants to be, and as long as it can keep from backsliding into sexist cliche, I could see that grade gradually rising as the season continues.

Guilty Pleasure

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Tokyo ESP
Grade: Objectively, I know it’s a C, but my brain wants to give it a B, so…?

I can’t defend this show other than to say that it’s just a whole lot of fun. There are glowing fish that give people superpowers and a shark-possessed penguin that runs around eating them. The main characters are Shadowcat and Nightcrawler, and they have an easy, natural chemistry that makes it easy to root for them. There are epic, heavy-handed discussions about justice and privilege, and people have these discussions on top of flying ships, because OF COURSE they do. Tokyo ESP is ridiculous, and it knows it, and it loves itself for being that way. I don’t know what to tell you. Sometimes you just like a thing, objectivity be damned. This is one of those things.

Perfectly Pleasant

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HaNaYaMaTa
Grade: C+

Unpretentious and warm, Hanayamata is the story of a group of junior high girls dealing with junior high problems (moving out from under your parents’ shadows, becoming aware of your limitations, and figuring out who “you” want to be) while also working together to create art. Unlike so many “cute girl” shows that feel like they really just exist to sell figurines (and as such exude a creepy “ick” vibe), I’d be happy to give Hanayamata to a middle school girl, as I think it has a lot of positive messages about working hard, working together, and believing in yourself. I never look forward to it but I always enjoy it when it’s happening, and it’s a nice little series to watch during the middle of the week.

Still Watching, with Increasing Disappointment

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Tokyo Ghoul
Grade: C

TG wants to have its cake and eat it too, functioning as both an over-the-top grotesquerie of (censored) violence and cartoonish villains as well as a character-driven study about the fine line between “human” and “monster.” When TG focuses on the latter, it’s quite good, but the past few episodes have been heavy on the spectacle, and instead of creating tension it mostly just makes me roll my eyes. I suspect I’ll finish this season, but if the series gets a second one I doubt I’ll be around for it.

Addendum: I watched Episode 7 shortly after writing this and I’m pleased to announce that it was MUCH better than what had come before it, easily the strongest episode since the very good Episode 3. Here’s hoping it’s a sign of better days to come.

Glasslip
Grade: C-

A romantic SoL that feels like it’s always JUST about to get to the point, and then never actually does. Every episode has one scene that really rings true for me, but overall there’s a sort of laziness to the writing, as if the creators expects us to care without ever giving us much reason to do so. Also, we’re halfway through and I still don’t know what the point of the whole future-sight element is, other than as a device hook up our two MCs. There’s a chance it could come together, but at this point I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

Not Graded

Sailor Moon Crystal

SMC is a biweekly(ish) show, so it didn’t seem fair to give it a “midseason” grade. You can read my lukewarm Rule of Three Review for my opinions on the first trio of episodes. I’ll check in with this one at a later date, hopefully with better things to say.

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