Glancing Upstream: Summer 2015 Retrospective and Review

Having some good old-fashioned fun in the sun.

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Summer might not have had the most groundbreaking or ambitious of series, but what it lacked in artistry it made up for in pure enjoyment. This season was just plain entertaining, chock full a variety of genres from high fantasy to crime drama to horror to comedy. Well-executed (or awesomely bad) pop fiction was the name of the game, and I was genuinely excited for the next episode of even the lowest-rated series on this list.

That isn’t to say there weren’t some excellent ideas and characters to be found among the batch, mind you. While “entertainment” was the primary focus, many of the top series featured strong character writing, showrunners who knew how to develop unique atmospheres through art and music, and an understated but insightful exploration of social issues such as power imbalances and bigotry.

School-Live and Gangsta dealt with trauma in nuanced ways, and Snow White and My Love Story depicted some of the healthiest relationships in shoujo memory, promoting communication and quietly but consistently challenging traditional gender roles and genre stereotypes. Part of the reason I had so much fun this season was because I wasn’t having to constantly roll my eyes at some trite or harmful characterization, but could just get swept along in a bunch of great (or hilaribad) stories. And that makes this a pretty strong season in my book.

The Rankings

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

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Available on: Funimation (U.S./Canada)
Episode Count: 12 (Part 2 airs in January 2016)
In a Sentence: After pharmacist Shirayuki flees her homeland when her rare red hair catches the eye of the kingdom’s prince, a chance encounter with a young man named Zen promises to change both their fates.
Content Warning: Violence (very mild)

A cool-headed but driven female protagonist, a capable and considerate love interest, and a relationship founded on honesty and mutual respect form the heart of this beautiful story which is as much a tribute to classic fairy tales as it is a rejection of them. The art is gorgeous and the music stunning, helping to create a single graceful, dreamlike mood that carries through every element of this masterful production.

Snow White deals explicitly and implicitly (via some lovely visual motifs) with issues of social inequality, public expectations, and the struggle to find a balance between wants and responsibilities, but it never loses sight of its main characters’ professional and personal journeys. The relaxed pace and aversion to Big Drama may not work for everyone, but if you can let yourself be drawn into this gorgeous world, you’re in for an absolute treat.

I’ve been covering this one in episode posts and wrote a nice long review in the last one, so I’ll direct you to those for all the glowing details.

Season Grade: A

2. My Love Story!! (Ore Monogatari)

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Available on: Crunchyroll (here’s the link to the full list of regions)
Episode Count: 24
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, he 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

Frequently funny and consistently adorable, OreMono ended on a strong run of episodes, proving itself to be not “just” a cute, silly rom-com—although it was that, too, and splendidly so—but a sequence of perceptive character studies and coming-of-age stories. It explored the difficulties of adolescence and romance without spiraling into tired cliches or destructive melodrama, and in the end it always pointed its characters (and audience) towards an outcome that promoted kindness and candor in equal turns. Between this and Snow White with the Red Hair, the bar for healthy anime romance has been raised to an impressive height, that’s for darn sure.

I guest-blogged this one at Anime Evo and wrote up a series review on my own blog, so check those out for more!

Season Grade: A-

3. SCHOOL-LIVE! (Gakkou Gurashi)

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Available On: Crunchyroll (click here for the list of regions)
Episode Count: 12
In a Sentence: Carefree student Yuki loves hanging out with her friends at school and especially in the School Living Club, but does something seems a little… post-apocalyptic, here…?
Content Warning: Violence; mild fanservice (female)

It’s tough to talk about SCHOOL-LIVE without giving away the twist at the end of the first episode. Suffice to say that what looks like an insufferably boring and cliche “cute girls being cute” series proves to be anything but, morphing instead into a survival story that excels at creating tension and tackles loss and trauma without devolving into tragedy porn. It also does a smart job balancing the benefits and dangers of escapism, arguing for its validity as a temporary coping mechanism without idealizing it as a permanent solution.

There’s some mild but irritating fanservice here and there, and it can get a little dull or saccharine at points, but overall this is a well-paced suspense/horror series and an emotionally honest character study, easily the happiest surprise of the season. And if you want to know more than that, you’ll have to have the first episode spoiled so I can talk in-depth about it in my series review.

Season Grade: B+

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

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Available On: Crunchyroll (worldwide except Asia)
Episode Count: 12
In a Sentence: In this Mesoamerican-inspired fantasy world, six “Braves” chosen by Fate head out to battle an awakening Demon God—until a saboteur turns this heroes’ journey into a closed-room caper.
Content Warning: Violence; mild fanservice (all genders)

Rokka wasn’t the best show of the season, but it might have been the most entertaining. A twist at the end of the fourth episode transforms this pleasant-but-standard fantasy adventure into a mystery series fueled by paranoia, shifting truths, and uneasy alliances. From there, the episodes zip by in what feel like five minutes, utilizing distinct character voices and an active camera to make this talky series pop with motion.

While there are some definite production issues (ugly CG monsters in particular), it’s dynamically directed, with snappy movement, lush backgrounds, and memorable character designs. The cast is a bit archetypal and their development limited by the need to maintain mystery, but I enjoyed hanging out with them and would have liked to do it more. It’s tough to recommend this one since it’s based on an ongoing novel series and doesn’t have a proper conclusion, but it’s still a ton of fun, so check it out if you don’t mind non-endings. Then join me in pestering Yen Press to license the source material so we can find out what happens next.

Series Grade: B

5. GANGSTA.

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Available On: Funimation (U.S./Canada)
Episode Count: 12
In a Sentence: In the prison-turned-city Ergastulum, “Handymen” Worick and Nicolas work as freelance agents for the police and mob alike, helping to maintain a shaky peace between the town’s “Normals” and the marginalized group of superhumans known as Twilights.
Content Warning: Violence; child abuse (some graphic); physical/sexual abuse (mostly implied/discussed and not graphic); hate crimes; mild fanservice (all genders)

I’m ranking this fifth even though it has a lower overall grade than some of the shows below it, because at its best Gangsta was fantastic, as good and occasionally better than Snow White. Content-wise there’s so much to like here: A diverse cast with tons of representation handled with nuance, sympathy, and respect (excluding about 15 awkward minutes); a psychologically complex trio of abuse survivors who form the emotional core of the series; a narrative style that teases out new information as it goes, asking the audience to reassess their own assumptions along the way; and an ongoing exploration of how bigotry and hyper-aggressive societies affect the individuals living within them.

And yet… the action sequences are often blandly directed, the animation suffers from some serious quality issues in the second half, the third act is rife with tonal inconsistencies and a lack of focus, and the series ends on a cliffhanger, effectively functioning as a 12-episode-long advertisement for the manga. I will be buying that manga, mind you, so I still feel pretty positive about Gangsta. But I’m a little bummed it didn’t quite live up to its potential.

I covered this one in episode posts and wrote up a series review, so you can read those for more.

Series Grade: B- (and raise that to a B+ if we ever get a season two announcement)

6. Baby Steps

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Available on: Crunchyroll (click here for the list of regions)
Episode Count: 50
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.

I’ve checked in with this one often enough that I’m mostly repeating myself at this point, but Baby Steps is a very good, “pure sports” series, focusing on the gradual, realistic progress of Ei-chan on his journey to becoming a pro tennis player. It’s more like a documentary than a fiction, so it can struggle at times to keep the viewer focused because there’s no real finish line we’re moving towards (the still frame-heavy animation doesn’t help, either). Still, its well-developed characters help maintain interest, so if you enjoy a good sports story and especially tennis, then I heartily recommend it.

Baby Steps is remarkably consistent in terms of tone and quality, so if you’re looking for more details, my Season One review covers the spoiler-free basics.

Series Grade: B

7. Wagnaria!! – Season 3 (Working’!!!)

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Streaming On: Crunchyroll (click here for the list of regions)
Season Episode Count: 13
Series Episode Count: 39 + an upcoming one-hour series finale
In a Sentence: A sitcom following the eccentric staff who work at the Denny’s-like family restaurant, Wagnaria.
Content Warning: Sometimes the jokes veer into sexism, homophobia, and other “punching down” territory, but it’s relatively rare

What began as a rough season with a few too many lowest-common-denominator jokes settled back into its usual routine of amusing character interactions and was consistently enjoyable pretty much from Episode 3 to the end. The Wagnaria staff is a charming bunch of oddballs, and much of the humor (and heart) of the series is about how they play off of (and come to care about) each other. There are sharper and more thoughtful comedies out there, to be sure, but Working is a fine, silly little sitcom, and I’m glad we’ll be able to see all its running gags and story lines through to their conclusion when that hour-long finale airs later this year.

Season Grade: B

8. Durarara!! x2 – Part 2

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Streaming On: Crunchyroll (North America, Central America, South America, Ireland, and the United Kingdom)
Season Episode Count: 12
Series Episode Count: 48 (ongoing—the last season airs this winter)
In a Sentence: A diverse cast populates this fantastical reimagining of Ikebukuro, where headless riders roam the streets, “color gangs” vie for power, and no one is who they say they are.
Content Warning: Violence (adults/teens); fanservice; mild nudity/sexuality

I’m so glad I bingewatch this series. It’s a slow build with a ton of story lines coming together gradually over time, and I imagine that starts to feel mighty directionless on a weekly basis. This season felt very much like a bridge, as lines were drawn but never quite connected, and as such it had a tendency to drag, particularly in the early going. I also worry that Durarara is beginning to sag under the weight of too many characters. Still, the series carries itself with such confidence (and an effortless sense of cool) that I trust it to tie its loose ends together and take me safely to the finish line. I’m looking forward to the final arc in January.

Season Grade: B-

9. Gatchaman Crowds insight

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Streaming On: Crunchyroll (click here for the full list of regions)
Season Episode Count: 12 (sequel to “Gatchaman Crowds”)
Series Episode Count: 24
In a Sentence: An alien visitor and a newly chosen member of the “Gatchaman” superhero squad threaten to disrupt the status quo as they attempt to promote social harmony.

I’m still working through my feelings about insight. It’s an ambitious series that wants to tackle a lot of topical social issues, from the dangers of groupthink and pile-on culture, to the role of superheroes in the modern world, to the way free speech and the Internet can be (ab)used in a democratic society. It’s fast-paced and plot-focused and gives the viewer a lot to chew on. I’ve read other bloggers’ positive analyses on it, and I understand where they’re coming from and agree on many points.

And yet, while I think the series succeeds on a “let’s start a conversation” thought experiment level, I find it fails as an actual story. Barring a couple exceptions (Rui, Tsubasa to an extent), its characters function almost entirely as mouthpieces for ideas, behaving in set patterns rather than the messy, often contradictory ways real people do. This kills a lot of tension in the second half, as we’ve been trained to know the protagonist Hajime is always right, so whatever decision she reaches is guaranteed to be the eventual resolution.

For a story so interested in human nature, it’s frustrating that it seems so uninterested in depicting actual individual human beings, a narrative decision that lowers the emotional stakes and makes the growing social conflict feel increasingly far-fetched (despite being well within the bounds of human capability). And while insight pays a lot of lip service to independent thought and the sharing of different ideas, Hajime’s infallibility undercuts that by implying that there is, in fact, one right answer that will always be reached by the same (unflappable, prudent, beloved by all) person. Which is not only unhelpful and inapplicable to real life, but also a little unsettling.

At the end of the day, I think insight made some valid points and provoked some worthwhile discussions. But at the end of that same day, I think it’s the only show on this list that I genuinely disliked, too.

Season Grade: B-

10. Classroom Crisis

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Streaming On: Crunchyroll (North America, Central America, South America, United Kingdom, and Ireland)
Episode Count: 13
In a Sentence: A class of gifted students who learn and work for a company that specializes in space travel must fight to save their R&D program when budget cuts threaten to dissolve it.
Content Warning: Violence; child abuse; mild fanservice (mostly female) 

Blending science fiction with high school drama with political comedy, Classroom Crisis never seemed to know who its audience was or what kind of show it wanted to be. When it focused on the students’ R&D work in between bouts of tongue-in-cheek political commentary, it was fresh and clever with a bright sense of humor. When it tried to be a wacky school comedy, it fell into dull cliches and forced fanservice. And when it went for character drama and romance it was… a mixed bag, I s’pose, a bit overblown but with enough sincerity to make it mostly work.

And in the end that’s what CC did: It mostly worked. The earnest but cheeky tone and bursts of snarky political commentary give it a unique, occasionally insightful vibe; it juggles multiple plot lines in a way both coherent and attention-keeping; and does a solid job endearing the audience to the characters and developing their relationships with one another. The story builds to a wild final arc and conclusion that’s satisfying both logically and emotionally, and left me with a big grin on my face. An enjoyable ride as long as you don’t mind some bumps in the road.

Series Grade: B-

11. Ushio & Tora
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Streaming On: Crunchyroll (click here for the full list of regions)
Episode Count: 13 (ongoing; scheduled to run for three cours)
In a Sentence: Junior high student Ushio forms an uneasy partnership with an ancient demon in order to protect his home from supernatural threats.
Content Warning: Violence; casual sexism (usually in the form of damselfication); mild fanservice

An old-school supernatural action/adventure based on a manga that ran from 1990-1996, this series would’ve felt right at home on the early 2000s Toonami block. Ushio is brash but courageous, Tora fluctuates between intimidating and downright cute, and the two play off each other with a mixture of humor, tension, and building camaraderie. It meanders through monster-of-the-week story lines too much and there are an absurd number of damsels in distress, but given the manga’s publication dates I’m more forgiving of that than I would be otherwise.

MAPPA’s done a solid job with the production on this one, filling it with creepy monster designs and using dynamic animation sparingly but effectively. The central story seems to be picking up speed, too, leaving me more excited for the next cour than I was a couple weeks ago. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but if you’re looking for an energetic throwback straight outta Saturday morning, this one makes a fun addition to the watch list.

First-Cour Grade: C+

12. Charlotte

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Streaming On: Crunchyroll
Episode Count: 13
In a Sentence: Otosaka Yuu uses his (extremely) limited psychic abilities to coast his way to the top of his high school class, but his plans quickly fall apart when he’s discovered and recruited by another school’s student council with powers similar to his own.
Content Warning: Violence; mild fanservice

Charlotte is a mess. It begins as a supernatural school series that walks a fine line between absurd, cynical, and sentimental, following Yu as he grows closer to his classmates and learns about these (flawed) superpowers and why they need to be kept secret. This goes on for 5.5 episodes of slow-paced but enjoyable (thanks in large part to P.A. Works’ expressive character animation) Student Council Adventures… and then the series explodes, blazing us through tragedies, conspiracies, plot twists, deus ex machinas, and time paradoxes before spitting us out the other side, dazed, windswept… and maybe a little moved, too.

The pacing gallops when it should walk and crawls when it should jog, and viewed from a distance the series only barely comes together to form a cohesive narrative (and even that’s riddled with holes). And yet many of the individual episodes are tightly written, often powerful stories, and there’s something strangely gripping and endearing about the whole experience. Given what a structural wreck it is I can’t justify grading it any better than this, but dammit if I didn’t kind of love it by the time it was all over.

Series Grade: C+

13. Chaos Dragon

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Available On: Funimation (U.S./Canada)
Episode Count: 12
In a Sentence: A refugee prince strikes a reluctant Faustian bargain with a rampaging dragon in order to keep himself and his adventurin’ party alive long enough to put a stop to said dragon’s rampaging.
Content Warning: Violence; 5-10 minutes of awkward bath time fanservice (female)

Think of an awful piece of high fantasy. Imagine the convoluted and frequently contradictory world-building; the revolving door of characters who all get long names and complicated back stories even when they’re only around for two episodes; the hilariously overwrought melodrama; the convenient magical items; that one weird, gratuitous scene with all the naked ladies; and, of course, the dragons. Then add hilaribad CG, animation increasingly lacking in key frames to the point where characters are basically sliding across the screen like they’re in a Williams Street show, and oh, what the hell, throw in a couple more dragons, too.

There you go. That’s Chaos Dragon. It’s a trainwreck. It’s GREAT. I so rarely get to enjoy the bad anime because they’re bad in all the ways that drive me away: The characters are insufferable or the fanservice is too crass or the story is just plain boring. Chaos Dragon is none of those things. Chaos Dragon tries so hard and it fails so spectacularly, and my watch-buddy and I had a blast with it. If you enjoy reasonably inoffensive fantasy nonsense, crack open a beer and invite some friends over for an AnimeT3K night. You might have as much fun as we did.

Series Grade: N/A. It defies—nay, transcends!—a mere grading system.

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3 thoughts on “Glancing Upstream: Summer 2015 Retrospective and Review

  1. Re: Gatchaman Crowds Insight Wow…I remember that being one of the shows consistently at the top of your weekly ratings summary. Another reviewer mentioned a theme that I’ve been interested in recently, one that was meant to be a major take-home point about another series (Ranpo Kitan: Game of Laplace — according to the creative staff…but no one in the Anglosphere seems to have picked it out). I was wondering if Insight might be worth watching just to see how they did it, but you’ve highlighted the very thing about the first series that I didn’t like, so I guess I’ll pass on that.

    Other than that one, I’ve only seen four of the series on this list… ^^;; I might follow your recommendation and wait to marathon the final cour of Durarara!! come winter…though admittedly, the way this cour ended will make that pretty difficult!

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    • Yeah, I was really high on Insight around the midway mark. Then they shifted and narrowed the focus from a couple of different conflicts and characters to one major one, and my excitement steadily waned from there to the end. I could talk about how a particular metaphor or argument didn’t quite work, but ultimately it just wasn’t able to get me to buy in to the individual characters, so the global issues didn’t carry any real weight, I s’pose.

      Still, for all that it didn’t work for me, it was at the top of a lot of “best of” lists for this season, so if the ideas interest you then I’d say give it a try, see if you come to a different conclusion than I did. It’s an interesting series, just not something I personally enjoyed.

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