Glancing Upstream: Fall 2015 Retrospective and Review

The autumn colors were certainly on display, I’ll give Fall that, at least.

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This was a slim season for me in terms of overall series completed, and would have been a pretty disappointing one if not for a couple happy surprises and a pair of standout shows from the ever-reliable Studio BONES. Still, there’s good variety here, with a strong focus on action/adventure titles, so there’s a pretty good chance something out there will speak to everyone’s tastes.

One thing Fall did have in droves was plenty of style. From the jaw-droppingly dynamic animation of One Punch Man, to the ’60s comic book-inspired design of Concrete Revolutio, to the painted landscapes of Seraph, the glowing monsters of Noragami, and even the washed-out color scheme and bursts of acid-trip weirdness in Perfect Insider, a lot of creative teams threw themselves into making the shows this season visually striking, and they by-and-large succeeded.

While ultimately I’m the kind of viewer who needs a developed set of characters and a meaningful (or at least entertaining) narrative to keep me invested in a story, that should by no means take away from the sheer amount of hard work and talent on display this Fall. Animation is art, and (narrative content notwithstanding), these creators have made that abundantly clear.

The Rankings

1. Noragami – Season 2 (Noragami Aragoto)

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Streaming On: Funimation (U.S./Canada)
Season Episode Count: 13
Series Episode Count: 26
In a Sentence: A near-death accident renders ninth-grader Iki Hiyori capable of seeing and interacting with kami and spirits—including the down-on-his-luck “delivery god,” Yato.
Content Warning: Violence (adults/kids); emotional abuse (sympathetically handled); mild nudity

I’ve written a whole lotta words about Noragami‘s second season at this point, but here’s a few more: It’s a great, character-driven action series that handles its large-scale supernatural conflicts as well as it does its small-scale individual ones, delivering excitement and emotional resonance in equal turns. The battles are sleekly animated and memorably staged, the mixed-gender cast are all handled with respect and nuance, and the story slides deftly between humor, tension, and drama to keep the plot moving and the characters growing.

In addition to its likable cast and slick action, the story also tackles its overarching ideas from the cosmic (the relationship between gods and humans) to the personal (escaping an abusive home) with a combination of subtlety and depth that leads to some simple yet profoundly moving moments between individuals and even a little philosophical musing for the audience to chew on. It’s a bleeding cool, quite funny, and surprisingly beautiful series, and I’m already biting at the bit for a Season Three.

You can read my Season Review for even more words if you’re so inclined.

Grade: A-

2. Concrete Revolutio

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Streaming On: Funimation (U.S./Canada), Daisuki (“worldwide”)
Episode Count: 13 so far (Part 2 scheduled to air in the spring)
In a Sentence: In a world packed with magical girls, aliens, giant monsters, and other superpowered forces, one organization works to watch over the watchmen.
Content Warning: Violence (against adults/kids); mild nudity/fanservice

I gave Noragami the edge over ConRevo for purely personal reasons (read: Noragami made me cry and ConRevo did not), but while these two shows are doing very different things, they’re both doing them exceptionally well. Mixing Silver Age comic book aesthetic with the turbulent 1960s, ConRevo creates a fantastical alternate history that allows it to explore civil rights, the complicated relationship between past and present, what it means to “serve and protect,” and to draw some sharp parallels between the unrest of the ’60s and the modern-day.

It’s a smart, ambitious project full of bright art design and dynamic animation, a chaotic swirl of chronologies and ideologies and superhumans in constant motion as they struggle to keep the peace and respond to events even more powerful than they are. While it sometimes moves too quickly and can be intentionally confusing at the start, it’s clear the creative team knows what they’re doing, so I urge you to stick with it, because it really is building into a fascinating project. I can’t wait for Part 2.

You can read my Season Review for more.

Season Grade: A-

3. Haikyuu!! – Season 2

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Streaming On: Crunchyroll
Season Episode Count: 12 so far (ongoing)
Series Episode Count: 37 so far
In a Sentence
: Undersized spiker Hinata Shoyo joins the Karasuno High School volleyball team, where he and a group of lovable dorks must learn to work together in order to return their school’s team to its former glory.

The gang has gone through some growing pains this half-season as Haikyuu took a break from high-octane matches to focus on the grind of practice games and the necessity of doing something wrong repeatedly until you can finally do it right. The series captures that feeling (both the frustration and triumph) nicely, although it sacrifices some of its usual energy to do it, but when all is said and done I think this slow-ish mini-arc will have been as vital for the audience as it was for the characters. The fruit of the team’s labors will be on display next half, and, as always, I’ll be cheering for these lovable dorks every step of the way.

If you’re curious to know more, you can check out my spoiler-free Season One review.

Midseason Grade: B+

4. Dance with Devils

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Streaming On: Funimation (U.S./Canada)
Episode Count: 12
In a Sentence: In this Gothic paranormal shoujo harem romance MUSICAL!, self-proclaimed “ordinary girl” Ritsuka gets embroiled in the StuCo’s devilish after-school activities when cloaked figures target her family in their quest to find a fabled Grimoire.
Content Warning: Violence (teens); lots of predatory “love” interests and sexual assault metaphors

If the words “Gothic paranormal shoujo harem romance MUSICAL!” don’t elicit at least a smile (if not outright glee), then sorry, there’s probably nothing here for you. I enjoyed this one from the start, but the bland, passive protagonist and slew of predatory guys made it hard to tell if it was tongue-in-cheek or troublingly sincere. Somewhere around the Pomeranian Hellhound Chorus (yes, really) I figured out that the answer was both: DwD is fully committed to its campy premise and very much in on the joke. This is hands-down the funniest show of the season, and maybe of the entire year.

The weird brilliance of the damn thing is that it’s actually one of the better hetero female erotic power fantasy-type shows out there. The series has a smart handle on the difference between fantasy and reality, it never plays its more predatory characters as romantic (Ritsuka violently rejects them, in fact), and its bland, passive protagonist gets as sick of being objectified as I did, leading to a finale that’s far more satisfying than expected. I came for the dumb musical numbers, stayed for the self-aware “drama,” and somehow left this one admiring the writer/director duo (both women, for what that’s worth) far more than I thought I would.

Series Grade: B+

5. One Punch Man

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Streaming On: Hulu (U.S.), Daisuki (click here for a list of regions)
Episode Count: 12
In a Sentence: The strongest hero in the world can defeat any opponent with a single punch, and boy, has it made his life boring.
Content Warning: Violence (some graphic); one of the supporting cast members is an uncomfortable gay stereotype

Based on an ongoing manga series, One Punch Man is a pretty good show that has the potential to be very good, but isn’t there just yet. The plot meanders, the second half gets bogged down in a deluge of new characters rather than developing existing ones, and, as you might expect from a series about the strongest man in the world, it suffers from a serious lack of tension, as the outcome is never in doubt once Saitama shows up to the fight.

That said, I really did like OPM. The deadpan Saitama coupled with the fond superhero parodies provoked good laughs, the co-leads played off each other well, and its middle arc included some strong emotional beats and genuinely tense action (since a certain protagonist hadn’t arrived on the scene yet). And, of course, the animation was phenomenal, a triumph of passion and talent and hard work that often provoked the same kind of giddy awe I feel when watching a stunning theatrical or athletic performance.

The good news is the manga’s still ongoing and we’re all but guaranteed to get another anime season at some point, so OPM has plenty of room to grow. More Hero Association infighting and fewer two-dimensional villains, a tighter focus on developing the central cast, and a continued exploration of the difference between physical strength and mental fortitude or kindness (as demonstrated by both Saitama and others), and OPM could be a lot more than just a fun, gorgeous-looking romp. But hey, even so, it was definitely that.

“Series” Grade: B

6. Mr. Osomatsu (Osomatsu-san)

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Streaming On: Crunchyroll (worldwide except Asia)
Episode Count: 12 so far (ongoing)
In a Sentence: The sextuplets of the 1960s comedy Osomatsu-kun are all grown up, but modern adult living isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Content Warning: Comic violence; comic sexuality/nudity (mostly male); Episode 10 is awash in transphobic and sexist stereotypes

A sketch-style comedy series following the lives of a group of NEET sextuplets and their oddball acquaintances, Mr. Osomatsu is usually funny, frequently bizarre, occasionally insightful, and, every so often, genuine and sweet. The comedy spans social satire, absurdist vignettes, and straight-up toilet humor, usually hinging on its deeply flawed characters making selfish, greedy, or short-sighted decisions and then asking the audience to laugh as they get their comeuppance for it. (Although, again, there are some wonderful exceptions to this.)

While the series does have something of a through-line with its recurring characters and topics (family, adulthood, effort and success), there’s no plot to speak of, so Osomatsu will only work for you if it makes you laugh. Barring that tasteless Episode 10 (see “content warning”), I’ve giggled pretty reliably through each episode, and the characters have a way of endearing themselves by finding moments of kindness or generosity at unexpected times. I’m having fun with it, and looking forward to more.

Midseason Grade: B

7. Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans (Kidou Senshi Gundam: Tekketsu no Orphans)

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Streaming On: Hulu (U.S. only), Daisuki (click here for the list of regions), Funimation, Crunchyroll
Episode Count: 12 so far (ongoing)
In a Sentence: A group of orphaned soldiers working for a private security company get embroiled in an interstellar conflict after a young activist hires them as her personal escort.
Content Warning: Violence (adults/kids); child abuse; the characters can be irritatingly sexist at times, but I’m not yet sure if the series itself is

Iron-Blooded Orphans is a perfectly competent mecha series with decent character writing, a running exploration of what it means to be a family, and a story that is taking its sweet time to develop. But it’s awfully safe, even tame, unwilling to take any big leaps or risks with its direction, animation, or writing decisions. Even it’s more unconventional elements, like the healthy polyamorous relationship between some of its side characters, is still the safest possible depiction: one guy and a bunch of women who happily share the man and (despite some subtext) see each other as sisters.

There’s so much potential here, from the child soldiers to the class disparities to the contrasts between the boys’ understanding of women to the actual women around them, but so far IBO is unwilling to dig into any of it. Well, there are still 12 episodes left. Hopefully the series can start challenging both itself and its characters and make this a memorable journey rather than merely a competent one.

Midseason Grade: B-

8. Seraph of the End – Part 2 (Owari no Seraph: Nagoya Kessen-hen)

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Streaming On: Funimation (U.S./Canada)
Season Episode Count: 12
Series Episode Count: 24
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 (adults/teens); mild fanservice; super unsubtle sexual overtones (because vampires)

As with Part 1, Seraph threatened to lose me during its middle stretch, but a final round of episodes characterized by bonkers plot twists and what I can only assume is a budding romance between the two male leads hooked me right back into the show’s trashy vampire madness. Seraph is packed with clumsy exposition (characters like to monologue major reveals at each other) and equally clumsy thematic exploration (take a shot every time they say “family” and die within two episodes!), and as much as I love Shinoa, I don’t particularly like the way it handles its female characters as a whole, as they tend to disappear or become incompetent during major battles.

Even so, Seraph comes at everything with such an earnest blend of sincerity for its characters and irreverence for its apocalyptic story that it charms me in spite of myself. The animation fluctuates between quite good and really rough, but the overall design is stylized and distinct, and the backgrounds remain as gorgeous as ever. If you like vampire stuff, this is an uneven but fun title to add to your watch list.

Series Grade: A+ trashy vampire fiction and C+ otherwise (same as Part 1)

9. The Perfect Insider (Subete ga F ni Naru: The Perfect Insider)

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Streaming On: Crunchyroll (click here for the full list of regions)
Episode Count: 11
In a Sentence: College student Moe and her crush, Professor Saitama, take a trip to a remote island where the brilliant but reclusive scientist Magata Shinki resides, but their plans swiftly derail when the stumble upon the scene of a grisly murder.
Content Warning: Violence (some graphic); statutory rape; nudity

I’m glad shows like Perfect Insider exist. I’m glad a bizarre late-’90s computer-science murder mystery novel was adapted into a bizarre mid-’10s anime. I’m glad the director played around visually and stylistically, and I give the series full credit for building a hypnotically off-kilter atmosphere, combining realistic character designs with washed-out colors and detached individuals to craft a kind of sociopathic alt-reality, familiar and strange and unsettling in its contrasts. Studios should be able to take risks like this, to gamble creatively, even if it doesn’t work.

In PI’s case, I don’t think it did. All that strangeness never really went anywhere meaningful because the series was too committed to its alt-reality to make any clear statements about actual reality. Characters who seemed like curious enigmas were in fact exactly what they appeared to be; the series glossed over deeply troubling material with the same emotional indifference possessed by most of its cast; and while it certainly had its memorable scenes, unforeseen twists, and philosophical musings, it never pushed on any of it long enough, so that it felt more like philosophy for the sake of sounding smart rather than someone wanting to say anything of value.

I was never bored while watching it, I appreciated its blend of the real and the surreal, and it did leave me with a few kernels of thought to chew on, even if I disagreed (vehemently) with a lot of them. Taken as a complete work, though, I’d be hard-pressed to recommend it.

Series Grade: C-

Unranked

Attack on Titan: Junior High (Shingeki! Kyojin Chuugakkou)

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I’ve never ranked a non-full-length series and didn’t see any reason to do so now, but I did want to pop in and let everyone know that if you’re thinking about checking this one out, then you should, because it’s silly and charming. The series plays with AoT plot points as well as school slice-of-life anime conventions, and does both with a light, breezy touch that evoked plenty of giggles and endeared me to the cast. (Heck, if I’m being totally honest, I think I even liked this one better than the original.) Nothing to write home about, but a fun way to spend 17 minutes a week.

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

  1. I hope Gundam does get meatier soon. I am quite enjoying it, and it is actually far less a sausage fest than i expected. I like most of the women so far, and i liked the touch of poly and the consideration of that, and apparent embracing if such, by one of the main triangle. Seeing Atra’s sudden thinking of that path and immediate moves to make it happy made me happy as i like her a lot, but think if the anime chooses it would be Kudalia. I’ll forgive a lot if they embrace it, and moreso if they themselves are more than sisters/rivals!

    Like

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