Glancing Upstream: Spring 2015 Retrospective and Review

Well, that was certainly a season of anime.

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Okay, maybe I’m being too hard here. Winter 2015 was a nigh impossible act to follow in terms of sheer depth and breadth, and it’s not like Spring didn’t have its fair share of light, fun series. Plus there were a few clear standouts along the way as well, particularly if you enjoy more realistic YA-style fiction. Still, I’m finding that, while last season I was recommending just about everything to just about everyone, this season is a lot more about “Well, if you like {Genre}, you’ll probably enjoy {Title}.”

Weaker seasons tend to tell you more about your own tastes than the stronger ones, and now that I’ve officially blogged a full year’s worth of anime seasons, I think it’s safe to say that I have a wide range of genre and story interests and will watch just about anything so long as I can get halfway invested in the characters, whether that’s through humor or emotional drama. There are some definite clumsy and/or questionable shows on this list, but I stuck around largely because I liked hanging out with at least a portion of the cast and wanted to see what became of them. So, really, this season’s list is as much about who I liked as it is about what I liked.

Hit the jump for the best characters of the season (and their corresponding series).

The Rankings

1. My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU TOO! (Yahari Ore no Seishun Love Comedy wa Machigatteiru 2)

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Available on: Crunchyroll
Season Episode Count: 13 (Sequel to “My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU”)
Total Episode Count: 26
In a Sentence: Cynical loner Hikigaya Hachiman gets roped into joining the Service Club, where he and two classmates try to help and advise any students who arrive at their door.

Content Warning: Mild fanservice and casual sexism (though usually the show then goes on to prove the protagonist’s misconceptions wrong)

Never have I seen a series improve as dramatically as this one did between its first and second seasons. No longer needing to rely on tropes to draw in an audience, SNAFU shed the stereotypes and fanservicey shenanigans that weighed down its first half and was able to tell a piercing, insightful adolescent story that challenged its protagonist’s cynical worldview and prejudices, showed the many ways people respond to the societal pressures around them, and stripped the masks off even the most seemingly collected of the characters to reveal the uncertain teenagers underneath.

It rang so true it was almost painful to watch at times, but SNAFU prods at its characters in order to build them back up into more empathetic and self-aware individuals, as adolescence so often does, and provides some fascinating character studies along the way. We’re left with something of a non-ending since the original novel series is still in progress, but the show is popular enough that a third season is all but guaranteed somewhere down the line. This time, there’s no question I’ll be back for more.

Season Grade: A

2. Sound! Euphonium (Hibike! Euphonium)

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Available on: Crunchyroll (worldwide except Asia)
Episode Count: 13
In a Sentence: Euphonium player Oumae Kumiko and her new classmates join their high school’s (not very good) concert band club, where the arrival of new instructor Taki might just give them all a renewed sense of direction.

Lushly animated, with a careful attention to detail and a keen understanding of body language, Sound! Euphonium is by far the most beautiful show of the season, drawing you into its world of golden sunsets and shining instruments. The animation works to enhance the story itself, helping to convey tension and unspoken emotions in a way few anime can manage, so that characters are much more than just the sum of their dialogue.

As for the story itself, while Euphonium has a very slice-of-life quality to it in the early going and can sometimes feel as directionless as its protagonist (although band geeks and music lovers will likely still enjoy it for how well it captures the aesthetic and atmosphere), it rewards patient viewers by developing its characters and conflicts in a way that leads to a compelling third act and a satisfying final episode. Add to this the strong central relationship between Kumiko and Reina, two girls with a unique and increasingly intimate relationship, and Euphonium proves itself to be much more than just pretty pictures on a screen. Although, I mean. It’s definitely that, too.

You can read my full review here.

Grade: A-

3. My Love Story!! (Ore Monogatari)

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Available on: Crunchyroll (here’s the link to the full list of regions)
Episode Count: 13 (ongoing)
In a Sentence: Hulking but kindhearted Gouda Takeo falls head-over-heels for Yamato Rinko (and she for him), but, convinced she only has eyes for his handsome best friend, vows to help her find happiness with the guy she “really” likes.

Content Warning: Some of the stories deal with victim-blaming and body-shaming, but it’s a light touch, and handled with restraint and sympathy

I’m guest-blogging this one over at Anime Evo, so I’ve written loads of words about it already, and the vast majority are packed with compliments. Consistently funny and charming, with a main cast of flawed but genuinely nice, well-meaning kids and a central romance that’s one of the healthiest (and cutest) in shoujo, this is a cozy teen sitcom both for people who love romantic comedies and people who’re kinda sick of the genre.

It took some missteps after the first three episodes, struggling to figure out what kind of a story it wanted to be, but settled into a rhythm around the seventh episode that it’s maintained since. OreMono is not a complicated story but it is a deceptively smart one, with a keen understanding of genre conventions and audience expectations, a gleeful willingness to subvert (and mock) both, and a light touch at telling stories about real adolescent emotions and concerns with sweetness, sincerity, and a healthy dose of the absurd. I’m glad we’ve gotten to spend three months with it, and I’m very much looking forward to another three as well.

Midseries Grade: B+

4. Blood Blockade Battlefront (Kekkai Sensen)

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Available on: Funimation (U.S./Canada)
Episode Count: 12 (only 11 have aired so far) + a clip show (“Episode 10.5”)
In a Sentence: After a strange being grants him the power of the “all-seeing God Eyes,” Leonardo Watch takes up residence in the NYC borough of “Hellsalem’s Lot,” where an alternate world has come to overlap with our own and creatures and powers of all shapes and sizes mingle with the mundane.

Content Warning: Violence both cartoonish and graphic; mild nudity

So there’s been a whole mess of time slot scheduling issues with BBB and the finale hasn’t actually aired yet. As I’m writing this, they haven’t even told us when the finale will be airing. But summer premieres are happening and I couldn’t wait indefinitely, so I asked myself “Even if the finale is as bad as realistically possible, where would this series fall?” And the answer was: “Nowhere lower than fourth place.” So here we are.

Sleek and stylized, with action sequences that burst off the screen and a cast of memorable and likable rogues, BBB uses its Lovecraft-inspired world of other-dimensional beings and chaos deities to capture the energy and disorientation of one’s first days in a big city. The story balances intimate family tales with wild weird fiction, as director Matsumoto Rie takes manga author Nightow’s alt-reality New York and infuses it with color, movement, and a fair amount of heart. Not every story lands, and there is a slight dissonance between the adapted and anime-original material, but overall this is an exciting ride that would also make for a fabulous binge watch.

When the finale finally airs, I’ll be back to give this one the proper review it deserves. For now, the fact that it’s unfinished and still near the top of this list should give you reason enough to check it out yourself.

Lowest Possible Grade: B+ (and will almost certainly be higher than that)

5. Baby Steps

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Available on: Crunchyroll (click here for the list of regions)
Episode Count: 38 (ongoing)
In a Sentence: After a chance meeting with classmate Takasaki “Natchan” Natsu, top student and skilled note-taker Maruo “Ei-chan” Eichirou finds himself drawn into the world of competitive tennis.

After 38 episodes, there’s not much I can say about Baby Steps that I haven’t said already. The writing is down-to-earth, methodical, and realistic (much like its protagonist), narrating Ei-chan’s journey from tennis newbie to determined competitor one measured step at a time. I still have trouble getting into the matches themselves (partly because the animation relies largely on still frames and repetition, but also because I’ll just never be much of a tennis fan), but dammit if I don’t care a whole lot about Ei-chan and Natchan and find myself cheering for their successes. I wouldn’t recommend Baby Steps to everyone, but if you like realistic sports stories and slow-and-steady character growth, it doesn’t get much more consistently good than this one.

Midseason Grade: B+

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

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Available on: Crunchyroll (click here for the list of regions)
Episode Count: 12
In a Sentence: After delinquent Yamada Ryu and model student Shiraishi Urara find out they have the power to swap bodies, the two soon find themselves (along with their new clubmates) investigating the supernatural legends and events surrounding their school.

Content Warning: Fanservice; suggestive implications with some of the witch powers (such as the “charm” ability one of the girls uses)

There were so many ways this series could have crashed and burned, from its sketchy premise (body-swapping, magic activated via kissing) to the sheer amount of material it attempted to adapt into a single cour (the anime crams something like 11 volumes of manga into 12 episodes), but writing team Michiko Yokote proved why they’re one of the best in the business, focusing on the core character relationships, hitting the major exposition through key bits of dialogue, and trusting their audience to connect plot dots along the way.

In addition to some of the best acting of the season (the body-swapping allows everyone to stretch their acting muscles), Yamada-kun tackles its tricky subject matter with equal parts humor and sympathy, and is much more about forming communities and developing empathy for others than it is about bawdy hijinks. It knows how to use its supernatural elements to illustrate some of the awkwardness and difficulties of high school (from anxieties about the future, to feelings of isolation or loneliness, to burgeoning sexuality and attraction), while also never losing sight of its two protagonists and their own growth both as individuals and a couple. It charmed me in spite of my skepticism, so regardless of some occasional thematic hiccups and disjointedness, it’s still my pick for happiest surprise of the season.

Series Grade: B

7. Show by Rock!!

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Available on: Funimation (U.S./Canada)
Episode Count: 12
In a Sentence: Shy Cyan gets yanked into an alternate rock-n-world where she becomes the bearer of the legendary (talking) guitar Strawberry Heart, joins an all-girls rock band, and fights monsters sometimes, too.

Content Warning: Light, cartoonish violence; very mild fanservice; slight creeping

I enjoyed this one way more than I probably should have. Bouncy and silly and optimistic and peppered with catchy pop tunes, clever visual gags, and fabulous facial expressions, Show by Rock benefited hugely from a BONES animation team who knew what they were doing and had a lot of fun doing it. The main girls were flat but likable, and the other bands (particularly hilarious Visual Kei group SHINGANCRIMSONZ) kept the story moving in new directions with their own quirks and music styles. There’s not much of a plot, but it progresses logically and to a satisfying climax (involving a GIANT ROBOT CAT DARUMA, be still my geeky heart), and the monster-fighting action sequences were genuinely thrilling, marking the first time I’ve been excited for CG scenes in my anime.

Show by Rock was never more than a fun, silly romp, but it never wanted to be more than that, either. I was happy watching it, giggled frequently, and found myself rooting for the characters as the story went on. And sometimes that’s all a series needs to do to be successful.

Series Grade: B-

8. PUNCH LINE

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Available on: Crunchyroll (click here for the list of available regions)
Episode Count: 12
In a Sentence: Iridatsu Yuta and his flatmates are about to get pulled into a conspiracy of apocalyptic proportions, but first he must accomplish two things: (1) get back his body from the wandering spirit that possessed it, and (2) avoid seeing ladies’ undergarments, lest he become so aroused that he destroy the world (yes, really).
Content Warning: An absurd amount of panty shots; violence and science experiments (against kids/teens)

I’ve done my best to defend my fascination (and skepticism) with this series, and I was really hoping I’d be able to come here and tell you my hunch was right, that PUNCHLINE was much more than just the wacky bawdy harem(ish) series it initially appeared to be. And I wasn’t wrong, exactly. As far as wacky bawdy harem(ish) series go, PL is a clear cut above the pack, featuring a likable protagonist, a wild, twisty plot full of time travel and conspiracy theories, female characters with their own interests and agency separate from the MC, and a beating heart beneath the sophomoric humor that got me to cheer for and care about this group of oddballs a whole heckuva lot. The art design is distinctive and vibrant, and while the writing is intentionally trollish, I can’t deny it kept me invested throughout.

Even so, the series can never quite overcome its own genre, hamstrung by its central fanservice-y premise (which goes from being mildly annoying to flat-out tonally dissonant the deeper you get into the actual story) and an upcoming video game tie-in. The antagonist doesn’t get the development needed to make the conclusion wholly satisfying, and despite some quiet commentary on gender identity (there’s a body-swapping element that’s handled quite tastefully), the series never followed through on some of its early themes, particularly the adolescent anxieties inherent in the whole panty business.

PL worked a lot better than it should have and functions as a great example of how to do a bawdy harem(ish) story without turning your characters into walking sex toys along the way. But it could’ve been so much more than that, and it’s a shame it didn’t live up to its potential.

Series Grade: B-

9. Seraph of the End (Owari no Seraph)

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Available on: Funimation (U.S./Canada)
Episode Count: 12 (Season 2 begins in the fall)
In a Sentence: After a virus wipes out most of the human population and unleashes monsters on the world, vampires come out of hiding to capture children as their own personal blood farm.
Content Warning: Violence (against kids/teens); mild nudity/fanservice; it’s about vampires, so there’s plenty of the standard “blood-sucking as sexual metaphor” implications

Featuring clumsy exposition, half-baked worldbuilding, and the most unsubtle homoerotic subtext in the history of freaking ever, Seraph is obvious and cliched and clunky and dumb, and I loved just about every second of it. The series makes up for some rough animation with gorgeous art design and solid facial expressions, and is fully dedicated to its stupidity, hitting exactly the right plot twists with bombast, sincerity, and pretty much zero subtext.

What really makes Seraph work as pure popcorn fun are its characters, or at least a few of them, who seem 100% aware they’re in bad vampire fiction and are determined to have fun with it. LTC Guren gives zero shits about his cadets’ angsty teen problems, Vampire Ferid wears shipping goggles and straight-up reads you the premise of the genre, and Sergeant Shinoa Hiragi is pure gold start-to-finish, full of snarky comebacks and DNGAF smugness and smirks. Oh, and then there are some angsty teens trying too hard to be lone wolves while barely concealing their crushes on each other (also Yoichi, who’s a sweetie). Which has its moments too, I s’pose – and hey, they’re still better love stories than Twilight.

Season Grade: A+ Trashy Vampire Fiction (but… probably a C+ in general)

10. Mikagura School Suite (Mikagura Gakuen Kumikyoku)

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Available on: Funimation (U.S./Canada)
Episode Count: 12
In a Sentence: Chipper, girl-crazy Ichinomiya Eruna enrolls at the prestigious Mikagura Academy, where her status is determined by her club, and her club’s status is determined by school-sanctioned battles.
Content Warning: Violence; some suggestive humor that borders on the uncomfortable

Mikagura is, like its protagonist, an overzealous, hyperactive friend who can’t stop moving, tries too hard to be funny, and occasionally lacks the self-awareness to realize what they’re saying or doing is annoying or uncomfortable… and yet they’re so friendly and well-intentioned (and sometimes weirdly funny, too) that you have a hard time holding it against them. The series struggles with its jokes and dialogue particularly in the early going, but settles into a cheerful groove as it goes, balancing a large cast with surprising skill and genuine emotional beats. It never loses sight of its ongoing themes about friendly competition and accepting others (with all their quirks), and takes both its cast and message to a simple but satisfying conclusion.

It’s also a good example of how something can be both unoriginal and unique, as protagonist Eruna is basically the PG-13, lesbian version of Brock from Pokemon, cheerfully hitting on every cute girl who crosses her path. Sometimes this veers into uncomfortable fantasies or dialogue, but by and large both the series and characters accept and like Eruna for who she is, wild fantasies and all. And there’s something kinda refreshing about having a series on my watch list that features a queer protagonist but isn’t actually about queer issues. Mikagura is a clumsy series with a good heart, so if you’re looking for a light, supernatural school series, you could do far worse than this one.

Series Grade: C+

11. Fate/stay night [Unlimited Blade Works]

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Available on: Crunchyroll (North America, Central America, South America, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Ireland)
Episode Count: 25
In a Sentence: When a stranger attacks his home, high school student and amateur mage Emiya Shirou accidentally summons a Heroic Spirit to defend him and gets dragged into the ongoing Holy Grail War.
Content Warning: Violence (all ages, some graphic); implied sexual assault

Studio ufotable took on a thankless task here, taking the middle part of a three-part visual novel and attempting to adapt it into a show that would simultaneously work as a fulfilling follow-up to Fate/Zero, a faithful adaptation that would please long-time fans, and a satisfying stand-alone story for Fate newbies.

While the first 17-odd episodes did a solid (if not exposition-heavy) job of juggling those goals and introducing us to a solid cast and some intriguing conflicts, the third act spiraled into a mess of pointless reveals, sudden deaths, unsatisfying character arcs, poorly explained plot twists, and a slew of pacing issues, as two people spend a solid two episodes shouting repetitive abstractions at each other only to have the whole argument basically amount to “Fine, but I’m still right.” Add to that some massive damselfication and sidelining for both Saber and Rin, two cool ladies who deserve much better, and it’s little wonder I was cheering for the antagonist to burn this mother to the ground by the end of it.

I can’t speak for long-time fans, but as a relative newcomer to the Fate universe who really liked Fate/Zero, this series not only left me cold, but outright annoyed at the franchise. If you’ve played the original visual novel and can piece together all the loose ends and unexplained world rules, then you’ll probably enjoy this one a lot more than I did. But if you’re a Fate newbie looking for a battle royale-style series about legendary figures pitting their blades and ideals against one another in a dark, epic fantasy, then just watch Fate/Zero. It’s a much more coherent and cohesive story than this one.

Series Grade: C-

Unranked

The Heroic Legend of Arslan (Arslan Senki)

I talked about this one in my midseason review so I figured I should come back to let you know I dropped it. Despite the historical fantasy world and fairly likable (if not archetypal) characters that should have been right up my alley, Liden Films’ increasingly clunky animation and uninspired direction eventually reached the point where it was taking me out of the story. I like this one just fine on paper (literally), so I’m going to keep reading Arakawa’s manga adaptation over on Crunchyroll. But the production values here just don’t make it worth 25 minutes a week. Color me disappointed.

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