Panning the Stream: Winter 2015 Midseason Review

And here I thought winter was supposed to be the quiet anime season.

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A solid mix of carryovers, sequels, and newcomers has (so far) made this the best winter anime season in recent memory, filled to the brim with engaging shows of varying styles and genres. The fall trend of arealism continues as almost every series on this list has at least some fantastical element to it, but perhaps most happily, there’s a sense of people taking risks – or, at the very least, having fun – this season, both in the art/animation and in the storytelling.

There are a surprising number of original series on the list (a relative rarity these days), and while it’s often messy and unpolished, it’s not the same ol’ blend of tropes and story lines churned out without imagination or even enjoyment. Energy and enthusiasm can make up for a lot of imperfections, and this season has me thoroughly engaged because of the amount of sheer excitement splashed across these frames. Here’s hoping that continues through the second half of winter, too.

Staying the Course

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Yona of the Dawn (Akatsuki no Yona)

Grade: A

This is one of the few series I tend to livetweet, but the truth is I could just copy/paste the same message every week – #Yona was great today – and it would be accurate every single time. Both the series and the titular character have been slowly expanding their world over the course of the last half-season, and it’s only served to make this show even better than it already was. Character-driven and emotionally honest, with a growing cast of layered, sympathetic and distinct individuals,Yona takes its time, tells its story with confidence, and never seems to skip a beat. It’s not just a good shoujo or a good historical fantasy (although it’s definitely both of those things), but a darn good series, period. In short: Go watch this anime.

Yowapeda (Yowamushi Pedal: Grand Roade)

Grade: B+

Everybody’s dying! Okay, not really, but Yowapeda has been tackling the last stretch of the Interhigh as if we were watching a GrimDark battle anime instead of a sports show, and it’s somehow both ridiculous and intense all at once. Which has kinda been Yowapeda’s schtick from day one, now that I think about it. There’s so little to say about this show after all these episodes except the same thing I’ve been saying since my first recommendation post: It’s fun, it’s silly, it’s tense, it’s emotional, it’s full of goofball characters who love each other and will make you love them, too. It’s still Yowapeda, basically, and that means it’s still one of my favorite shows of the season.

SHIROBAKO

Grade: B+

This one’s leveled up in a big way this season, although I’m not sure if the show itself has gotten better or if I’ve just settled in with the tone and the characters. Maybe a combination of both. This cour sees MC Miyamori taking on new responsibilities, putting out new fires, and interacting with old and new coworkers alike as the team at Musashino Animation tries to get the Third Aerial Girls’ Squad anime ready for the airwaves. The humor still hits regularly but the tension has been upped, largely because we’ve had time to get to know everyone and care more about their success than we did last season. SHIROBAKO is proving itself to be a clever and surprisingly gripping workplace sitcom, and while it may not be the most thought-provoking or thematically ambitious series of the year, it’s behind only Yona in terms of the shows I most look forward to watching each week.

Kamisama Kiss (Kamisama Hajimemashita ◎)

Grade: B

Another solid shoujo series that understands how to write dynamic, flawed, but ultimately sympathetic characters and allow the story to be told through their interactions. I enjoyed the first season well enough, but this one has really upped the ante in terms of giving the series more of a plot, progressing its main characters’ relationship, and – perhaps most importantly – allowing Nanami to slowly come into her own as a kami to be reckoned with. Happily, it’s added all this without losing an ounce of its earlier charms, using Shinto mythology to tell a story equal parts hopeful and melancholy. I didn’t particularly miss KamiKiss while it was gone, but I sure am happy to have it back.

Newbie Standouts

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Death Parade

Grade: A-

I spent most of my Rule of Three Review airing my concerns for a series that I badly needed to be good and was worried that it wouldn’t be – mostly I just wasn’t sure it could hold up over an entire cour – so I’d like to start this post by saying that I’m not worried anymore. I mean, sure, DP could still end up disappointing me (shows with this much potential always run that risk), but it’s proven itself more than capable of telling multiple stories of varying styles and tones. Episode 4 was almost physically painful to watch, while 5 was a mix of meditation and character/world building, and then 6 came along to give us a sudden and (mostly) effective comedy.

DP has shown a willingness to explore the full spectrum of humanity, and that’s allowed it to evoke both a broad range of emotions and intellectual discussions out of its audience. Perhaps most importantly, it’s taken breaks from its “short stories” to develop its recurring cast and mythology, giving us plenty to chew on in these early episodes and dropping hints of additional character and story arcs to come. There’s a lot going on in this eerie, morally ambiguous world, and I’m excited to see where the creative team takes us next.

Yurikuma Arashi

Grade: B+

Because I’m insane and decided to do episode-by-episode recaps/analyses of this series, I’m so thoroughly immersed in Yurikuma that it’s just about impossible to give it anything even remotely resembling an objective review. But if I were to step back from all the theories and allusions, I think I’d peg this one as “pretty good” right now, with the potential to be messy but great. The first three episodes are a bit of a narrative and thematic clusterfuck, and it took probably longer than it should have for the characters to really come into focus (and while the protagonists have become distinct and layered as of late, the villains are still played a bit too mustache-twirly for my tastes).

Episodes 4-6 have been a huge step up both in terms of coherency and emotional resonance, and even in the early going there was a lot of genuine creativity and originality present, and the sense that a lot of people poured a lot of themselves into creating this series. The art is stylized and distinct and often downright beautiful, and the story (a cocktail of horror, romance, and fairy tale) uses metaphor and imagery to explore themes of sexuality, social exclusion, and what it means to really love someone. The pieces aren’t all visible yet, but if they can come together, Yurikuma has the chance to be something truly special, not just a good tale but a progressive, subversive, and possibly important one, too. Fingers crossed, anyway.

Cute High Earth Defense Club LOVE! (Binan Koukou Chikyuu Bouei-bu Love)

Grade: B

Despite some deliciously morbid Zombie Teacher humor, I confess that I haven’t loved Boueibu quite as much since that glorious Episode Three. We were promised some character growth/depth that hasn’t happened yet (particularly with our antagonists), and the show hasn’t been as consistently clever in its parodies as I’d initially hoped. Also, there’s been a severe lack of Lord Zundar The Evil Green Hedgehog as of late, which really should be fixed as soon as possible.

Even so, the series still gets at least one solid round of giggles out of me (the pointless firewood chopping conversation damn near killed me this past episode), and the show’s sense of sly self-awareness regarding its “fujoshi-bait” reputation coupled with its obvious affection for the magical girl genre keeps it from growing too stale or too cornball. Boueibu is kind of dumb, and it knows it, and it revels in it, and while it hasn’t quite hit the highs I thought it might (although both eps 3 and 5 had their moments of brilliance), I’m still having a heck of a fun time watching it.

The Horror!… Series

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Parasyte -the maxim- (Kiseijuu: Sei no Kakuritsu)

Grade: B

It’s about time I come to terms with the fact that I’m never going to love Parasyte, because it’s just never been able to hook me emotionally. It has its moments, to be sure, and certainly seemed to be flirting with greatness towards the end of its first arc, but the series has stagnated recently, shifting into a battle shounen-style string of action sequences which are never as tense as they want to be. Two large issues are also becoming apparent: One, that the vast majority of the parasites are pretty one-dimensional monsters, so that the story loses that earlier sense of ambiguity and becomes more black-and-white; and two, that the series is really just not good at writing women, as they all seem to come across pretty one-note and flat, defined almost exclusively by either romantic or maternal relationships.

The most recent episode did a lot to bring the story back to its central focus (Shinichi, Migi, and the similarities/differences between parasites and humans), so I still have hope that we could get back to that story I was lauding in the fall. But for now I’m a little disappointed with where the second cour has gone, and my praises for the series have become significantly more muted.

Tokyo Ghoul √A

Grade: B

Even though TG’s second season is doing all the stuff that should doom a show to failure – introducing a ton of new characters halfway through a series, all but ignoring the first arc’s central figures, and keeping the audience almost entirely in the dark about the MC’s motivations and goals – for whatever reason, I’m actually liking this season of TG more than the first one. Maybe it’s because the tone has evened out: There’s less over-the-top villainous vamping and censored violence, and even though I can’t remember everyone’s names, I know their stories and am largely invested in them. And, if I’m being honest, that sense of “WTF is going on” has actually served to keep me interested, eager to see what nugget of plot or character information will get dropped in the coming weeks. TG is definitely playing with narrative fire, but so far it’s working. Here’s hoping they can find a way to bring it all together in the coming weeks.

The New Girls in Town

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Yatterman Night (Yoru no Yatterman)

Grade: B

Confession: I’m a little in love with this series. It’s basically a very well-produced fanfic, one-part silly AU sequel, one-part melancholy “reboot,” and it’s infused top-to-bottom with energy, sincerity, and love for the original franchise and all sympathetic cartoon villains of childhood. As I said in my Rule of Three Review, I’ve never actually seen the original Yatterman, but it doesn’t matter. This is a story for anyone who’s ever rooted for the “bad guys” or side-eyed the supposed hero’s methods in vanquishing those bumbling, lovable losers.

No, YN isn’t great every single week (while it handles humor within serious episodes quite well, it’s straight “silly” episodes tend to leave me cold), and I do wish the lead didn’t have such an ear-piercing voice. But it hits its emotional beats more often than not, continues to build on its premise, and is utterly unique in its central relationship, focusing on a young girl and the two adoptive uncles who love her. But it’s none of that creepy anime loli nonsense: This is a familial relationship through-and-through, and it’s a joy to watch it play out each week. As of right now, YN is the happiest surprise of the season and the best anime you’re not watching. So. You know. Go watch it.

Maria the Virgin Witch (Junketsu no Maria)

Grade: B-

Maria has enough going for it in terms of nuanced characters, political dynamics, and a lack of easy answers to the central questions about war and divine intervention that I’m still engaged, but I’m getting a little worried in terms of where we go from here. My issue right now is that there are a lot of pieces and story threads that haven’t quite come together yet, so it’s difficult to get a handle on the central plot or what direction all these competing forces are heading towards. Maria has built a strong enough foundation that it still has the potential to be a pretty great historical fantasy epic, but it needs to solidify its main story and give its titular character more to do each week than just randomly interrupt battles, otherwise it’s going to have a tough time holding my interest in the long-term.

The Rolling ☆ Girls

Grade: C+

Rolling Girls is a little like Yatterman Night in that it has its own unique tone and sense of style, and your enjoyment is going to strongly depend on how well all that clicks for you. Personally, I think YN is the better-executed of the two because of how it’s able to handle character arcs and relationships (I also think YN hits its humor beats better than RG does), but there are plenty who’d disagree with me.

And hey, don’t get me wrong – while my interest tends to fluctuate dramatically (not just by episode, but by scene), I’m actually pretty fond of RG. The animation is bright and colorful and distinct, and there’s a gleeful energy to the direction that makes it easy to enjoy, even if the dialog can be clunky and on-the-nose, the emotional beats not quite earned, and the central characters a bit flat. There’s a kind of unpolished exuberance to RG that’s reminiscent of a lot of the anime titles that got me to love anime in the first place (the bike race at the end of Episode 6 is a perfect example of this), and as up-and-down as it is quality-wise, I appreciate it for so clearly enjoying itself.

Space Cases

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Aldnoah.Zero Season 2

Grade: B-

A/Z is officially my guilty pleasure. The plot twists are insane and perfect, simultaneously predictable and surprising; the action sequences are well-choreographed and engaging (even if their conclusions are pretty easy to guess); and the characters and subplots fluctuate from being complex and legitimately intriguing (pretty much everything on Vers) to flat, tropey, and at times just plain dumb (yes, Doctor, give the recovering PTSD-riddled alcoholic a drink to celebrate his recovery). With a few exceptions (again, most of it Vers-based), the writing for the female characters has become so amazingly sexist that it’s entered the realm of parody, to the point where I’m more amused than annoyed. In short: A/Z is a hot, glorious mess of soap opera drama and political backstabbing, and I’m so happy I get to watch it each week.

Sailor Moon Crystal

Grade: C-

I finally graded it! And maybe it should be lower, but I’m still watching, so the darn thing must be doing something right. As hilariously bad as the last stretch of “Dark Kingdom Arc” episodes were, I was pleasantly surprised with the most recent one. While the animators are still incapable of drawing symmetrical faces (to say nothing of natural movements), the scouts had distinct personalities, the series allowed itself to be a little silly and give the girls more than just vapid doll expressions, and there was some genuine tension at the end of the episode. So basically, there was some actual competence to the writing and direction for the first time since Minako’s appearance, which was a breath of fresh air and hopefully speaks to a stronger second half. We can hope, anyway.

On Stand By

    • April is Your Lie (Shigatsu ha Kimi no Uso) – I think KimiUso’s heart is in the right place in terms of what it’s trying to do with its themes of trauma, grief, and art/music, but its execution is so clumsy and tonally inconsistent that the message gets muddled and mishandled along the way. Watching this show has been a lesson in How To Handle Difficult Topics Poorly, and while I give the writer credit for even trying, I’m getting tired of rewriting it in my head so it conveys the story/message I think the author actually intended. I haven’t officially dropped it, but no guarantees I’m going to finish it.
    • Assassination Classroom (Ansatsu Kyoushitsu) – This was one of those shows that was just quirky and enjoyable enough that I probably would’ve stuck with it as long as it didn’t do anything I actively disliked… and then I freaking hated the fourth episode, and just haven’t worked up the energy to watch any more of it. I may still come back to it, but it’s a surprisingly strong winter season, so I wouldn’t place any bets on it.
    • Durarara!! x2 – I got through a few episodes of Durarara and then remembered something important: This series works way better as a binge-watch. So I’m going to wait until most of the season is out and then watch it all in a few days. Expect to see it in the Winter Season Retrospective in a few weeks.
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