Panning the Stream: Summer 2015 Midseason Review

Things’re really heating up, and I ain’t just talking about these August temperatures.

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The summer season is halfway(-ish) over but it feels like many of its shows are just getting started. Some shaky premieres nevertheless rife with potential have taken off in recent weeks, building momentum through character and plot development alike. My watch list isn’t quite as deep as it was in, say, the winter season, nor are the shows quite as across-the-board ambitious, but there’s a lot of variety, and the pure entertainment level is maybe higher than it’s been all year. I’m genuinely excited for the next episode of just about everything, and that’s a very good sign.

As for what I’m most excited about, you’ll just have to hit the jump to find out.

Keep on Keepin’ On

Gatchaman Crowds insight

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Grade: A

For a while there, Gatchaman Crowds was so good it made everything else on the schedule look awful in comparison. Fortunately the rest of the shows have stepped up their game as of late, but Crowds is still by far the most consistently great and staggeringly ambitious work of the season. It’s smart without being convoluted, brilliantly topical and on-point, tackling everything from modern political discourse, to the pros and cons of collectivism, to the roles and responsibilities of people in power and how they strike a balance between trusting the populace and moderating/protecting those who need it.

Crowds is blazing through its story with confidence and intelligence, and is hands-down the best thing happening in anime right now. If you haven’t seen the first season yet, I highly recommend getting started on that. It’s a bit of a rough ride but its second season makes it more than worth the viewing.

My Love Story!! (Ore Monogatari)

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Grade: B+

Every time I think this series has run out of ways to pleasantly surprise me and/or melt me into a puddle of cute, it busts out a new episode and proves me (happily) wrong. From its wonderful cast to its subtle little commentaries on relationship expectations and gender norms, OreMono is a lovingly crafted, frequently hilarious, and genuinely sweet little (love) story that aims to adorabludgeon you while actively avoiding annoying genre stereotypes. At this point, I may never be able to watch a “normal” rom-com again.

As you probably know by now, I’m guest-blogging this one over at Anime Evo, so you can read lots more words about it there if you’re so inclined.

Baby Steps – Season 2

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Grade: B+

Baby Steps is never not good, but the recent string of episodes has been particularly strong off the tennis court, delving into Ei-chan’s personal life and letting us spend more time with recurring characters. The on-court story has been a fascinating one too, as Ei-chan’s latest match is straight outta an inspirational sports movie  – and he’s the “bad guy” who’s supposed to lose. The series keeps finding new stories to tell, which keeps it fresh and interesting even after all these episodes.

Wagnaria!! – Season 3 (Working!!!

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Grade: B+

I was worried at first that the magic might be gone with this one. A lot of the early humor (especially that rough second episode) was pretty weak, relying on tired comedic stereotypes, punching-down humor, and an overuse of Kozue (whose mean-spiritedness is the show’s weakest link). Fortunately the focus then shifted back to our central cast and their developing relationships, and it’s been smooth, silly, adorable sailing from there. Keep that up and we’ll reach the finish line with a great little sitcom on our hands.

Fantastic Worlds and Where To Find Them

Snow White with the Red Hair (Akagami no Shirayuki-hime)

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Grade: A-

Probably the best overall production of the season, Snow White benefits from a solid original story, a fantastic central relationship about two people who inspire and trust one another in equal turns, and a BONES team willing to elevate that material into something truly special. Director Ando (Blast of Tempest, Hanasaku Iroha) is proving himself to be one of the best directors in the business when it comes to creating a top-to-bottom tone and mood, as every element of this production feeds into the next, from the fairy tale-like backgrounds to the level-headed characters to the dreamlike orchestral score.

It’s a remarkably complete package, transporting the audience to its quiet fantasy world each week. What Snow White does won’t work for everyone, but there’s no denying that it’s doing it intentionally, and mighty elegantly too. Given that I’m covering it each week, I think it’s safe to say it’s working very well for me indeed.

Rokka: Braves of the Six Flowers (Rokka no Yuusha)

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Grade: B+

This one was always so confidently directed and narrated that I had faith it was going to go somewhere worthwhile, despite its exposition-heavy opening episodes and some messy production issues (wonky-looking CG monsters are the bane of this summer season, methinks). That patience paid off roundabout the fourth episode, when the story kicked into gear, filled out its cast, and revealed The Twist that transformed Rokka from a standard heroes-fight-the-demon-king story into a conspiracy tale and mystery that calls everything we’ve seen so far into question, including the reliability of our protagonist.

It’s a talky series interspersed with bursts of action, but the dialogue has a snappy rhythm and always serves a purpose, revealing information both plot- and character-relevant, and the camera is active enough (sometimes a little too much) to keep things from stymieing. The last two episodes felt about five minutes long each, so I suspect this would make a great marathon series. I was lukewarm about this one a couple weeks ago. Now, though? I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Chaos Dragon

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Grade: Hilaribad

Chaos Dragon continues to be pretty terrible and my friend and I continue to enjoy our watch parties of it. At this point we’re halfway inventing our own story line over the top of the original one, since it’s such a convoluted mess of characters, plot twists, off-model designs, and glorious CGI monstrosities. Even the translators aren’t taking this one seriously. I still maintain that if you go into CD knowing it was a tabletop campaign and viewing it as such, it’s actually a ton of fun, but I can’t really recommend it to anyone unless they like bad fantasy.

Men of Action

GANGSTA.

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Grade: A

Another series with a less-than-gripping start that propelled itself into the top ranks of the summer shows thanks to an increased focus on its cast and especially their shared histories. GANGSTA is effortlessly narrated, sliding between time lines and casually dropping plot breadcrumbs as it goes, slowly expanding the sociopolitical details of Ergastulum and readjusting our understanding of its characters and their place within it.

There have been a few production hiccups along the way (a certain flatness to some of the movement, although that’s smoothed out a lot recently, and the music is unremarkable at best and noticeably redundant at worse), but really, that’s all quibbles when compared to the complexity of its characters, world, and sophisticated exploration of how bigotry and oppression affects those at all levels of a power structure. This is the third and final show I’m blogging this season, and each week I’m a little more grateful I chose it.

Ushio & Tora

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Grade: B

I said I was willing to give this one some slack about all the girls getting rescued because it’s based on a manga from the early ’90s, but geeeeez, U&T, you’re really testing my patience, ain’t’cha? Overused story points aside, this one continues to be pretty darn entertaining each week, barreling through its supernatural monster-of-the-week tales with style and energy. The end of Episode 6 suggests we’ll be moving into an actual, extended story arc soon, too, which will give the show some much-needed direction and purpose going forward.

If you’re into classic supernatural action/adventure anime, you’re not going to find many out there doing it as well as this one is. And even if you aren’t into it, MAPPA president Maruyama said in an Otakon interview that if U&T does well he’d consider adapting other older titles like Rurouni freaking Kenshin, so we all need to keep watching U&T even if every single damn episode is just girls getting rescued from monsters. Do it for the greater good, you guys!

Home-Cooked Genre Stew

SCHOOL-LIVE! (Gakkou Gurashi)

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Grade: B+

Easily the happiest surprise of the season, SCHOOL-LIVE pulled off its big story twist at the end of the first episode and never looked back, fleshing out its characters through a blend of flashbacks and present drama to show exactly how they got here and what’s keeping them moving forward. Mixing cute-girl with survival with suspense with horror, SL is the mash-up that should have never worked for me and yet somehow draws me in each week.

The director has a good feel for shot selection, shifting us between Yuki and the other girls’ perspectives in a way that keeps us perpetually off-balance, uncertain what’s true and what isn’t until, slowly but surely, realization sets in even if we aren’t explicitly told it. SL also understands that sometimes the most frightening things are what we don’t see rather than what we do, and uses that to great effect to pull us into its eerie story, so that it often feels like we’re standing right there with the other girls. Like many of the shows on this summer list, it may not be to your taste, but it’s very much doing its own thing, and doing it quite well.

Charlotte

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Grade: B? I guess?

If I step back and look at Charlotte honestly, it’s a bit of a mess. Our protagonist quickly went from being an interesting asshole to your Haruhi-esque reluctant-but-empathetic helper getting dragged around by the main girl, and up until Episode 6 the story was mostly just likable but semi-flat characters getting into shenanigans. Recent events promise some major story (and possibly tone) changes in the coming weeks, but the events leading up to it were pretty darn ridiculous (even if it did, I think, hit its emotional notes well).

And yet, for all that, I really like Charlotte, and it’s not just because I’m a P.A. Works fangirl (although there is that). I enjoy watching the characters interact, the animation is frequently a delight, the series has bursts of thoughtfulness or genuine depth, and despite some overused material the comedy just plain works for me. There are bizarre, absurd little touches to this series that makes the whole thing feel like it’s taking place not so much in reality but in a character’s skewed perception of it, like diary entries or a self-insert fanfic, and that tone pulls me in despite its structural weaknesses. I’m invested, warts and all, and with it till the end.

Classroom ☆ Crisis

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Grade: B-

When Crisis is being a smart, silly commentary on corporate politics, focusing on its students’ fight to keep their program alive, it’s an off-the-beaten-path SF tale that has something to say and says it with a good deal of humor and heart. With one glaring exception the cast is fun to watch interact, and their individual stories weave together nicely with the central conflict of how to be a creative in a profit-focused environment. It can be a little hamfisted, but its intentions are good, and it balances optimism with tongue-in-cheek cynicism quite deftly at times.

So why, why, did they feel like they had to water it down with stereotypes and cliche school stories? The Beach Episode was the series’ low point, going through the fanservice-y slapstick motions with little enthusiasm and zero originality, but beyond that, pretty much any time Angelina comes on-screen the show suffers for it. She’s played as your standard overly defensive “cold businesswoman who just needs a man to help her loosen up” type, and the constant spinster jokes smack of lazy writing. The inconsistency keeps Crisis from the season’s top-tier, but its high points keep me coming back for more. With any luck there will be more of them (and less of Angelina) as we go.

On Hold(?)

  • Durarara!! x2 – Just a reminder that I bingewatch this one. Look for it in the season retrospective in another six weeks.
  • Prison School – I thought I’d dropped PS after its second episode, but it keeps getting buzz on my damn Twitter feed so there’s a decent chance I’ll come back to it. Don’t judge me too harshly for that one; I have a weird fascination with darker-than-black comedies.
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One thought on “Panning the Stream: Summer 2015 Midseason Review

  1. I’m especially disappointed in Chaos Dragon, as it’s got such a neat premise, and a lot of creative talent behind it. Somehow, they managed to make a mess of what should have been something epic.

    Like

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