Glancing Upstream: Fall 2016 Retrospective and Review

It’s the most overworked time of the year~

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In the next couple weeks I’ll be hitting you with final Flip Flappers commentary, my Top 10 Anime of 2016, maybe a short essay or two, and then we turn around and start all over again with the winter premieres, including the much-anticipated return of Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju (and my lengthy commentary about it)! A blogger’s work is never done.

So you’d think that would mean I’d have kept my Fall retrospective thoughts short and sweet, right? Wrong! This season was a cornucopia of strong comedy, positive queer representation, diverse female leads, and geeky premises. And you know I can’t shut up about stuff like that. Hit the jump for too many words about too many shows.

Oh, and as a reminder, I don’t do rankings anymore. The shows are just loosely divided into “tiers” and then organized alphabetically from there. We’ll all have plenty of time to debate Totally Arbitrary Rankings when my Top 10 list goes live in the next week!

The Favorites Next Door

ClassicaLoid

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Episode Count: 12 (ongoing)
Studio: Sunrise

In a Sentence: Classical composers are reborn in the modern era, where they goof around, wax poetic about gyoza, and use the supernatural power of “Muzik” to help out their high school landlady, Kanae.

In terms of sheer, wacky good-natured fun, you’d be hard-pressed to find a series that bests ClassicaLoid. Filled with eccentric characters, snappy dialogue, old-school slapstick, bits of music trivia, and just the right amount of poignancy (touching on the more melancholy aspects of our composers’ past lives), it’s the kind of unhurried, optimistic series that encourages you to hang out with and fall in love with the cast. And boy, has it succeeded. I’m so glad this is two-cour and I get to keep watching it through the Winter season.

I also wrote about ClassicaLoid‘s silly and inclusive “Girls’ Day Out” episode for Anime Feminist, so check that out if you’re interested!

Midseason Grade: B+

Flip Flappers

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Episode Count: 13
Studio: Studio 3Hz

In a Sentence: This magical coming-of-age tale follows uncertain Cocona and impulsive Papika as they explore the surreal world(s) of “Pure Illusion,” uncovering its mysteries and their own along the way.
Content Warning: Magical violence; teen sexuality; some leering and invasive camera angles (they’re pretty rare, but really jarring when they happen)

I’ve been covering Flip Flappers weekly for Anime Evo and the last episode just aired today, so I’m still in the midst of organizing my thoughts. (Update: I’ve posted a full-length review on Evo if you want lots of words on this show.) For now, let me say that Flip Flappers was a staggeringly ambitious artistic endeavor, an earnest exploration of female adolescence and awakening queer sexuality, a compelling fairy tale, and a heartwarming little love story.

It juggled a lot of big ideas about perspective and personality, often entirely through metaphor and allusion, and pulled it all together into a coherent (if not chaotic) narrative. It wasn’t perfect–in its attempt to depict sexuality, it sometimes fell into sexualization, and there were a couple characters who, while not exactly pointless, could have been removed from the story and likely improved it with their absence. Overall, though, I’d say Flip Flappers lived up to its high aspirations, delivering a story that was both intellectually fascinating and emotionally satisfying. I liked this one a whole heckuva lot.

Grade: A-

Girlish Number

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Episode Count: 12
Studio: Diomedéa

In a Sentence: Newbie voice actress Chitose just wants to take it easy and become popular, but the anime business is a lot tougher than she expected.
Content Warning: Very mild fanservice (female and male); deals with workplace sexism

Sharp and cynical (but not too sharp and cynical), Girlish Number proves that light novelist Wataru Watari (of My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU fame) is more than a one-hit wonder, with a good ear for dialogue and an overall tone that can be sardonic and irreverent but never crosses over into outright pessimism. This could have easily devolved into a pretentious satire of the anime industry, but instead it grounds itself in the convoluted emotional realities of its characters, dealing with their hopes and uncertainties as they struggle to find success and fulfillment in their work. 

While it has the appearance of a standard “cute girl” series (and some A+ character animation and expressions to match), Girlish Number earns a lot of bonus points for not only writing female characters with rather un-cute characteristics (protagonist Chitose is jaded, lazy, and an all-too-real blend of egotistical and insecure), but also refusing to give its audience the fluffy feel-good fanservice they may have expected.

To wit: There’s a hot springs scene that trolls viewers brilliantly; the female characters express open disgust for their skeevy producer’s ideas about how they should dress; the so-called “swimsuit episode” is about how these are gimmicky stunts meant to sell discs (and many of the women involved see it as an annoying part of their job); and Chitose faces criticism from her fans when she’s not the perfect image of bubbly sweetness they expect from their young voice actress idols.

Admittedly, Girlish Number doesn’t deep-dive into these issues, and it doesn’t have much of a response beyond “all jobs suck sometimes,” which is emphatically Not Helpful. Still, its willingness to address these frustrations from the woman’s perspective is not only refreshing, but helps the cast feel like real humans instead of idealized icons. This may be a story targeted at a male demographic, but it treats its flawed, complicated characters with sympathy and doesn’t alienate a potential female audience along the way. I appreciated that as much as I did its cheeky comedy.

Grade: B

Yuri!!! on ICE

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Episode Count: 12
Studio: MAPPA

In a Sentence: Struggling figure skater Yuri returns to his hometown in Japan to regroup– until a viral video brings the world of pro skating right back to his doorstep.
Content Warning: Fanservice (male); sexual innuendo

The bigger a hit an anime is, the harder it is to write about it. And make no mistake, Yuri on Ice was a major hit, one of those rare titles that spills out of the anime fandom and into other groups, from the ice skating community to viewers interested in positive queer representation to people just looking for good animated storytelling. Analyses and hot takes are everywhere. I’ve even written about it myself. What can I add to that in a few short, spoiler-free paragraphs?

Well, if you’re one of the three people who hasn’t watched it already and is looking for a recommendation, then here it is: Yuri on Ice is a very good show. It’s narratively ambitious, piecing together fragments of a dozen characters’ stories (much like the Instagram feed that runs during its end credits), and there’s a major reveal near the end that’s a smart way to shift audience understanding and provoke a rewatch. It’s arguably groundbreaking in the way it normalizes queerness, framing the central romance as a part of the story and the characters’ identities instead of the entirety of it. And it is at times stunningly beautiful, a true labor of love that blends animation with music with writing to lead to some powerful emotional climaxes and character beats.

It is also, I think, an incomplete show, one that tried to juggle too many stories (and too many animated skate sequences) in too short a time and ended up rushing through some arcs and shortchanging others in the process. Despite a few exquisite moments, the finale left me not-quite-satisfied, stuck with an “Okay, but where’s the rest of it?” for just about every character. We’d have benefited from a tighter, more conclusive central story, so that we’d have had something to anchor us in this sea of fragmented, ongoing narratives.

Don’t get me wrong, I still really liked it. And there’s a high probability of a Season 2, which would likely resolve this sense of incompletion. But until we get confirmation on that, for me, Yuri on Ice will stay that one fumbled landing away from a perfect score.

Grade: For now I’m sticking it with a B+, but I’d bump it into A-range if a second season was announced

For Your Consideration

Magic-Kyun Renaissance

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Episode Count: 13
Studio: Sunrise

In a Sentence: Second-year student Kohana transfers to her mother’s magical alma mater where she works to develops her skills as an artist, befriends a bunch of a cute boys, and helps make the school arts festival a success.
Content Warning: Mild fanservice (male)

The happy surprise of the season, Magic-Kyun Renaissance is everything I want from a harem anime: Quirky but nice characters, a silly sense of humor, a few dramatic beats and sweet declarations of affection, and a cast who inspire each other to work towards both group and individual goals. Add in some standout storyboards to give life to the production (which is pretty sparse on actual animation but knows how to work around it), and you’ve got a recipe for a cute little tale about creativity and community.

Some of the cast is a bit on the bland side (though some of them are pretty darn great), and protagonist Kohana’s general kindness towards everyone and focus on pursuing her own art make this more about a group of good friends than a romance. If you’re looking for a complex character study or pulse-pounding love story, you should look elsewhere. But if you’re in the mood for something light and pleasant, with a keen eye for understanding young artists and the creative process, then Magic-Kyun may be right up your alley.

Grade: B

Poco’s Udon World (Udon no Kuni no Kiniro Kemari)

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Episode Count: 12
Studio: Liden Films

In a Sentence: After his father passes away, 30-year-old Tawara Souta returns to his hometown and stumbles across a young, udon-loving tanuki.

I’m struggling to write something of substance about this one, because even though I enjoyed it while it was airing, I tended to forget about as soon as it was over. Poco the Tanuki is very cute, but there’s not much more to him than that (as compared to, say, Sweetness and Lightning‘s Tsumugi, who was a layered character in her own right), and Souta’s quarter-life crisis and complicated relationship with his hometown lacks emotional impact because we’re always kept at arms-length by the unremarkable direction and too-calm tone.

It’s cute, and nice, and there’s nothing particularly bad about it, but I could never really connect with it, either. Even so, give it a try if you want something soothing. It may work better for you than it did for me.

Grade: B-

Sequel Parade

Bungo Stray Dogs – Part 2

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Season Episode Count: 12
Series Episode Count:
24
Studio
: BONES

In a Sentence: An organization of people with supernatural powers (all named after Japanese literary figures) investigates and keeps the paranormal peace.
Content Warning: Violence (against adults/kids); mild fanservice; implied incest; gallows humor (e.g., a running joke about one of the characters wanting to commit suicide)

I said at the midway point last spring that Bungo Stray Dogs was what I think of when I think of “anime,” and that mostly still holds. It’s messy and bombastic, full of larger-than-life characters with larger-than-life supernatural abilities fighting on airships and shouting about their ideals and emotions while they do it. Stories like that tend to build on themselves, as do most Igarashi-directed anime, so it’s no surprise that Bungo did the same. This second half developed its characters and themes of self-worth and empathy through conflicts large and small alike, leading to some insightful and emotional beats in between all the battles and explosions (and looked quite good while doing it, too).

Ultimately, though, I think Bungo‘s effectiveness comes down to how much of a raging literary nerd you are. Does the thought of Akutagawa and Nathaniel Hawthorne duking it out fill you with childlike glee? Would you like to see H.P. Lovecraft depicted as a dopey tentacled elder god? How much caps lock does Herman Melville’s flying whale submarine evoke? If you answered ALL OF THE CAPS LOCK, then Bungo Stray Dogs may be right for you! As you probably guessed, it was very right for me.

Grade: B

Haikyu!! Karasuno vs. Shiratorizawa (Season 3)

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Season Episode Count: 10
Series Episode Count:
60
Studio
: Production I.G.

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.

We’re 60 episodes in, gang. If you’re not watching Haikyu at this point, then a Season 3 review would be a weird place to try to convince you to start. (Here, read my Season 1 review instead!) And if you’re already watching Haikyu, then you already know why it’s good: the fluid animation, the characters you can’t help but root for, the balanced focus between individuality and group cooperation, the way the direction pulls you straight into the volleyball matches, simultaneously capturing the feeling of watching your favorite team and being a member of that team. Every season Haikyu gets a little higher up my list of favorite sports series. I think it’s only behind Chihayafuru at this point. That’s a mighty fine place to be.

Grade: B+

Show by Rock!! #

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Season Episode Count: 12
Series Episode Count:
24 (plus a 12-episode series of shorts)
Studio: BONES

In a Sentence: Cyan gets yanked into an alternate rock-n-world where she joins an all-girls rock band, makes friends with other musicians, and fights evil sometimes, too.
Content Warning: Cartoonish violence; very mild fanservice

Show by Rock has never been a series you watched for the riveting plot, but its first season still contained a solid through-line that pulled all the episodic adventures together and built to an exciting finale. This season was much more muddled, setting up an epic, world-threatening force and new characters and then kind of…forgetting about them for most of the series, content to focus on self-contained adventures that swung between ridiculous (effective) and sentimental (less so).

The finale was disappointingly tame, especially compared to the energetic CG battles from the first season, and marked one of the few times a BONES production has looked stilted and rushed. I still mostly enjoyed it, and Episode 3 remains one of my favorites of any show this season. But taken as a complete work, this was a lot of pieces that never came together to form a proper whole.

Grade: C

Dropped

Yeah, I dropped Keijo. Turned out following people’s tweets about it was more fun than following the show itself, so I did that instead. All the goofy butt jokes, none of the non-consensual groping! Thanks, Twitter!

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4 thoughts on “Glancing Upstream: Fall 2016 Retrospective and Review

  1. inrosegalaxy says:

    I had a similar feeling towards Yuri on Ice. The end felt less like a climax (haha make your jokes internet) and more like the midway point in a season. I agree that a second season might clear that issue, but it certainly doesn’t help things for the moment.
    I also completely get you on Flip Flappers. I actually need to watch the final episode. Regardless, I was SHOCKED by this show. The first few episodes felt so chaotic. Like you said, they were going for some pretty ambitious stuff. Perhaps too much so. But around episode 4 or 5 it seems the directors and staff figured out how they really wanted to present the show and it evened out. I nearly dropped this one before that happened, and I’m glad I didn’t! It’s been a strange ride, but overall pretty darn good. It’s definitely been the most surprising show for me this past season.
    Thanks for the heads up on Girls Number though. I had heard about it in passing here and there, but I hadn’t got around to it. I’ll make an attempt to check it out now. Thanks!

    Like

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