Panning the Stream: Spring 2015 Midseason Review

Time to peek in on the Spring line-up and see how our new team’s holding up.

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The word for this season so far is “light,” and I don’t necessarily mean that in terms of the number of shows I’m watching (although there is that, too). Unlike this past winter, which was jam-packed with ambitious stories, social commentaries, and questions with no easy answers, Spring is more about kicking back and having fun, whether you’re engaging in rom-com shenanigans, trying to make it big in an anthropomorphic CG band, or swearing vengeance against those damn dirty vampires. And while I’ve grumbled about the weakness of this season, there’s something to be said for good old-fashioned escapism sometimes, too.

Lightness notwithstanding, there’s still one major standout, a couple solid sequels, and a few new series which are growing well and showing signs of real potential—including some that should have never worked for me and yet draw me in a little deeper each week. This is either proof that execution trumps premise, or that my taste is getting worse by the minute and it’s all cat girls and panty jokes from here on out. Remember me as I was, not as I am. Then hit the jump to get a rundown of our current roster.

Most Valuable Player

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Blood Blockade Battlefront (Kekkai Sensen)

Grade: A

Yup, BBB gets its own category, because it is just that good. It uses its weird, wild world to tackle subjects as abstract as the sublime and as close-to-home as systemic inequality and racism, without once losing its sense of humor and stylistic flair. Better still, in the midst of all the artistic eye candy and thematic madness, it’s managed to draw connections between its characters, using Leo as a kind of emotional fulcrum around which all these larger-than-life individuals and stories can rotate. I wasn’t sure if BBB would ever engage my heart as well as it did my head and eyes, but Episodes 5-6 assuaged my fears (and assaulted my feels) and catapulted this series to a whole ‘nother level.

Really, there’s so much going on that trying to explain it all in a paragraph or two is a hopeless endeavor. Suffice to say I’m invested in these people and their frenetic, gorgeous, terrifying world, and can’t wait to see how Matsumoto ties all these big, chaotic elements together as we go. I look forward to discussing it in detail at the end of the season.

Returning Starters

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My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU TOO! (Yahari Ore no Seishun Love Comedy wa Machigatteiru)

Grade: A-

Probably the only show that can even stand in BBB’s shadow this season, and no one is more surprised by that than I am. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a series improve as dramatically between seasons as SNAFU. It went from being a show that was perpetually on my bubble to a series that is easily cracking my top 5 every single week and has real potential to make a yearly Top 10 list. I don’t know if this is due to better adaptation choices in terms of cutting out the LN fluff to focus on the character arcs, an improvement in the source material itself, or both, but if it can keep it up, it’s on track to be one of the most insightful, sympathetic, and oh-so-painfully real YA school anime in recent memory.

Baby Steps

Grade: B+

As consistently good a series as you’re going to find, Baby Steps continues to expand its cast and develop its characters’ personal growth, relationships, and tennis skills naturally. Pierrot is clearly not devoting a ton of time to the animation itself, but it’s both written and directed with a steady, competent hand, which for me is far more important and makes it easier to overlook the frequent off-model character designs and heavy use of still frames. It took a while, but I’ve come to really like the cast, and that’s made their trials on the tennis courts all the more compelling. Very glad to have it back and very happy to keep watching.

Fate/stay night [Unlimited Blade Works]

Grade: B-

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, F/sn still struggles to get me invested in its main characters, but shiny action sequences, lofty self-serious speeches about ideals, and plenty of twists, turns, betrayals, and backstories keep the story intriguing, if not emotionally enthralling. The Servants are basically carrying the series at this point, so it’s a good thing most of them are voiced by industry stalwarts who know how to sell a convoluted monologue. And, um… am I supposed to be rooting for Gilgamesh? Probably not, huh…?

Rookies of the Month

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My Love Story!! (Ore Monogatari)

Grade: B+

I’ve been doing episodic posts on this one and have maybe been too hard on it, but that’s only because it’s so close to being everything I want in a YA romantic comedy—charming and funny, with a couple you can root for and a willingness to explore (and subvert) genre and gender norms along the way—so I’m holding it to higher standards than I normally might. OreMono does have its issues, particularly on a macro level, in how it presents the wider world around our main characters and deals with its ongoing “appearances vs. reality” themes, and it’s possible those issues will kill the cuteness and fun for you. They don’t bother me overmuch, though, because even when the story stumbles the main trio is there to prop it up again.

Our three MCs are incredibly likable, genuinely nice kids, quietly challenging the expected gender and genre roles assigned to them and constantly putting a unique, adorable spin on standard rom-com scenarios. Add to that the bright, expressive production created by the Madhouse staff (neck-and-neck with BONES in the race for Studio Having The Most Fun Drawing Faces this season), and it equals a very enjoyable anime experience. I’ll keep challenging OreMono to elevate itself to greatness as it’s done on occasion, but if it’s destined to be “just” a sweet, silly romantic comedy, then it’s certainly doing a fine job of that, too.

Sound! Euphonium (Hibike! Euphonium)

Grade: B

I’m still enjoying this one for its likably relatable protagonist, terrifyingly polite teacher, and general band-geekery, but I can’t help but feel like I’d be enjoying it a lot more if a different studio had adapted it. There’s a calculating sense to a lot of KyoAni productions these days, as if someone is standing over every show ticking boxes to ensure it meets their Cute Girl Quota (one sun-dappled close-up, one humorously crying face, three angles focusing on swishing skirts and legs—check, check, and check!). It makes me want to read the novel to see how much of this is in the source material and how much of this is KyoAni just being KyoAni.

The content is still thoughtful and detailed, even if I wish the execution were a little less by-the-book, and if the story actually does something with all the heavy Kumiko/Kousaka romantic undertones I’ll be pleasantly surprised. But as the weeks pass I confess that I’m finding the early glow of Euphonium gradually wearing off. Here’s hoping they can recapture the magic down the stretch.

Coming Off the Bench

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Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches (Yamada-kun to Nananin no Majo)

Grade: B

Yamada-kun continues to build its cast and supernatural world/rules at a steady pace, showcasing key character beats and growth along the way. (But with Michiko Yokote in charge of the adaptation, should I really be surprised?) It dances through landmines with its character’s powers (body-swapping and “love charms” are recipes for disaster) but manages to handle them with a blend of humor and tact that keeps the story both charming and a little bit thought-provoking. Plus Yamada and Shiraishi are a great central pair, enjoyable together and affecting one another in quiet but profound ways. If the series can keep developing like this, it has real potential to be the sleeper of the season. We’ll see how it goes.

Show By Rock!!

Grade: B

Yeah, I still love this show. It’s filled with vibrant facial expressions and silly sight gags and one-liners, the music is catchy, and the story (while not particularly deep) is coherent and building gradually upon itself. I’m pretty much in love with SHINGANCRIMSONZ, and while I still occasionally struggle to connect with our main quartet (their cuteness is just a little too calculated to ring true), I confess that Episode 6’s combination of wistful music, lovely art, and careful direction did manage to hit me briefly in the feels, so that may be changing. Also, Moa. Because really, who can say no to an alien sheep girl?

PUNCH LINE

Grade: B

How the heck d’you explain PUNCH LINE in a couple paragraphs? As expected, it’s much more than it initially appeared, the art is distinct and stylish, the sophomoric fanservicey humor either works for you or it doesn’t, and if you can stick around it proves itself capable of developing likable individuals and weaving a complicated, bizarre web full of plot twists and troll-ish swerves. After a major reveal in the sixth episode, I’m both eager to recommend it and terrified to do so, because there’s a very good chance PUNCH
LINE
has built a very cool house out of straw and it’s going to come tumbling down in the next stiff breeze.

Much like Yurikuma, this is gonna be one of those series where the last episode will either make it or break it. Put a pin in this one, team, and check back with me during finale week. I’m not sure if I’ll end up pleading PUNCH LINE’s case or throwing it on a pyre, but either way, I’m with this crazy show to the end.

Walk-Ons

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The Heroic Legend of Arslan (Arslan Senki)

Grade: B-

It’s not the lowest graded item here, but if pressed to rank these shows on a “favorites” list, Arslan would probably be the last in line, although I really wish that weren’t the case. I’ve talked about my issues with the production values during the big battles before (summary: they’re going for a cinematic quality but don’t have the resources to pull it off, so we end up with awkwardly moving CG clone soldiers), but beyond that, I think the major issue is that we bounce between characters so often (only to have many of them immediately die) that only a few are particularly well-defined. As a result, I’m having a hard time caring about what happens to Pars on a weekly basis.

When the series zooms in and follows its protagonist and the events/people directly around him (Episodes 1 and 4, essentially) it improves exponentially, and my hope is that now that we’ve established the main cast/premise we’ll be able to devote more of the series to that intimate focus. I’m more on the fence than I thought I’d be, but I’ll give Arslan
a few more episodes to see how it chooses to tell its story from here.

Seraph of the End (Owari no Seraph)

Grade: C+

Don’t let the grade fool you—I can’t justify giving Seraph anything higher than that, but I’m still enjoying the hell out of it. Unlike Show by Rock, which is silly on purpose, Seraph’s humor is largely accidental, brought on by the sheer stupidity of the premise, clumsy character beats, and amazingly clunky exposition.

Nevertheless, Wit Studio makes it stand out with the second-most memorable art design of the season (BBB wins that category like it does everything else), and the voice actors give their fairly one-note characters enough range to make them entertaining, if not always likable (although Yoichi is genuinely sympathetic, and Shinoa’s sarcastic deadpan is probably my favorite thing about the show). Plus there are glimmers of a less than black-and-white conflict here, as there may be as much danger from the humans as the vamps. At its core, this is dumb vampire fiction, but dammit, I like dumb vampire fiction. If it can keep being entertaining and building on its story and world, I’m happy to keep watching it.

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