Glancing Upstream: Winter 2017 Retrospective and Review

March comes in like a dragon and out like a maid (that’s totally how that saying goes, right?).

Just a couple short weeks ago I was ready to come into this post a little tired and bummed about the season, but some strong final arcs have lifted my opinion (or maybe I’m just riding high from yesterday’s heartwarming Dragon Maid finale). We’ve had deeper and stronger seasons, but this one had its share of charm and individuality–and hey, as I said last winter, no season with a standout masterpiece like Rakugo Shinju can ever be truly disappointing.

Sure, we’re almost a week into the spring season, but it’d be bad form to say “hi” to the new gang without first bidding a “see ya later” to the old. Hit the jump for some final thoughts on an up-and-down winter.

The Favorites Next Door

ClassicaLoid

Episode Count: 25 (Season 2 confirmed; airing in October)
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 “Musik” to help out their high school landlady, Kanae.
Content Warning: Comedic violence

I had the privilege of taking on two Very Important Anime Jobs this season: Writing about Rakugo Shinju for Anime Evo, and squeeing about ClassicaLoid on Twitter to anyone who would listen. This show is an utter delight and I only fell deeper in love as the season progressed, the staff gaining confidence and fully embracing the show’s weirdness, going all-in on premises as ridiculously varied as “Beethoven seeks the perfect cup of coffee” to “Schubert turns into a fish.” Oh, and have I mentioned it’s quietly, gleefully progressive, too?

The shenanigans are exquisite (perhaps unsurprisingly, given the series director worked on Mr. Osomatsu and parts of Gintama), the dynamics between cast members fresh, and the dialogue snappy (with lots of credit going to a very talented Crunchyroll translator). But what really makes this series special is the way it endears the audience to its cast thorough steady character development and bursts of understated sincerity. Most comedies (anime or otherwise) occasionally attempt to balance wacky hijinks with sincere emotional resonance. Many fail. ClassicaLoid succeeds almost every darn week. It was a joy to have this Saturday Morning Cartoon on my schedule, and I’m so glad I’ll get to hang out with the gang again in October for the Season 2 encore.

Season Grade: A-

Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju

Season Episode Count: 12
Series Episode Count: 25
Studio: DEEN

In a Sentence: This historical fiction (and modern masterpiece) follows the complicated career and personal life of Yakumo, a rakugo master, as well as the lives of his found families both past and present.
Content Warning: The story deals with sexism, emotional abuse, sexual situations, and violence/suicide, but most of it is told or implied rather than graphically depicted.

I’ve written a small novel about this series over its two seasons (and you’re welcome to read all those words), so forgive me if I copy/paste a little spoiler-free chatter from my series finale post: I don’t think there’s any way for me to neatly summarize my feelings for this show except to say that it’s a modern masterpiece, a nigh-perfectly crafted series featuring some of the most impressive direction, writing, acting, and cinematography that visual storytelling has to offer.

It was a love letter to the performance arts, a thoughtful exploration of storytelling, a powerful meditation on the inevitability of change, a quiet challenge of gender norms, a beautiful tale of found families and forgiveness, and a nuanced character study featuring an array of complex, contradictory figures and a fascinatingly layered protagonist. It was an analytical feast and an emotional haymaker, warming and breaking my heart in equal measures. Director Hatakeyama has proven himself one of the standout talents in the industry and Akira Ishida gave the finest performance of his already splendid career.

Simply put, Rakugo Shinju is a phenomenal piece of fiction and easily one of the top five anime I’ve ever seen. More to the point, it made me care deeply for its cast and I loved the hell out of it. I’m thrilled that I was able to watch this as it was airing, honored that I had the chance to talk about it for 25 episodes, and beyond grateful that Kumota Haruko and Studio DEEN gave us this incredible series in the first place. This one is going to stay with me for a long, long while.

Series Grade: A+

Your Mileage May Vary

ACCA

Episode Count: 12
Studio: Madhouse

In a Sentence: ACCA inspector Jean Otus finds himself (unwittingly?) at the center of a national conspiracy in this slow-burn tale of political intrigue.
Content Warning: Mild, occasional violence

The key words in that summary are “slow-burn,” as ACCA is something of a paradox: a leisurely thriller, full of increasing stakes and paradigm-shifting reveals, but with a cast of adults who are (almost) always coolly chowing down on baked goods, even in the face of uncertain loyalties and whispered coups. It builds its story with an even hand, unleashing organic but surprising twists along the way, and finishes with a finale that’s both unexpected and understandable; thoroughly satisfying. I certainly can’t fault it for being too predictable or run-of-the-mill.

ACCA also often feels like it’s holding you just at arm’s length, not only with the story’s secrets but with its cast’s thoughts and feelings, too. The characters aren’t boring but, save for a few exceptions (including a very good flashback episode), they never quite feel like friends, either, which gives the entire series a distant, vaguely clinical feel. It’s interesting but not especially compelling, I suppose. The fluctuating storyboards and animation add to this, as while there are some moments of striking cinematography or stylish animation, they end up making the relative flatness of the rest of the production stand out all the more.

It’s not that I disliked ACCA or that I wouldn’t recommend it, mind you; it’s just that it’s hard for me to get excited about it. Still, it’s a fascinating study in slow-burn storytelling, punctuated with a few moments of genuine emotion and featuring some pretty cool characters, even if I never felt like I got to know them all that well. As the subheading above says, your mileage may vary, but I’d say it’s definitely worth trying for a few episodes to see if it catches your interest.

Series Grade: B

Akiba’s Trip

Episode Count: 12
Studio: Gonzo

In a Sentence: An invading force called The Bugged Ones threaten the district of Akihabara, and it’s up to super-powered team “Electric Mayonnaise” to defeat them by stripping them and HEY WAIT WHERE ARE YOU GOING
Content Warning: Lots of fanservice (mostly female), violence

After all these years of anime-watchin’, I think I’m finally getting a grasp on the sort of fanservice that genuinely bothers me and the sort that just makes me roll my eyes a little. Akiba’s Trip falls into that second category, because while its obligatory panty-and-bra shots undeniably objectify its (almost exclusively female) characters, outside of those bursts of fanservice the series depicts them as individuals with strengths, quirks, and goals outside of just being eye candy for the male viewers. I genuinely liked the cast (and straight-up adored Arisa), even the male protagonist, who may indulge in occasional ogling but actually treats his female team members like human beings and friends instead of sex dolls.

It’s just such a friendly little series, brightly balancing irreverence with sincerity as it invites its audience to enjoy its world of hobbies while also constantly reminding us not to take any of it too seriously (I’ve talked about its welcoming approach to fandom already, and that held true for the entire series). It also featured an absolutely perfect Yu-Gi-Oh parody, which along with the nerd gatekeeper villain alone would have made this worth my time. Hang a massive multi-colored sign above this one that says “Problematic Fav,” because h’oh boy, is it ever. But periodic eyerolls aside, I enjoyed this one a whole lot.

Series Grade: C+

Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid

Episode Count: 13
Studio: Kyoto Animation (KyoAni)

In a Sentence: Kobayashi drunkenly invites a dragon to come live with her and be her maid, the dragon takes her up on it, and many gay shenanigans ensue.
Content Warning: Bawdy humor, mild fanservice (female), an uncomfortable side story with sexual harassment undertones

Not too long ago I was going to come in here to tell you how badly I wanted to love Dragon Maid and just couldn’t quite seem to do it. The character arcs were be spinning their wheels and the increased presence of Lucoa (a character I’ve already talked about in detail) dragged down not just scenes but sometimes entire episodes. And while I frequently found Maid Dragon charming, I rarely found it all that funny, which is a pretty big red mark for a comedy series.

But hey, a lot can change in a couple weeks. Ups and downs of its middle act aside, the final two episodes were just about perfect, fleshing out backstories and personalities as well as showing that our cast and their relationships have seen some genuine, heartfelt progress since the premiere. Maid Dragon is at its best when its focusing on our characters’ quiet loneliness, the budding romance between Kobayashi and Tohru, and the growing bonds between dragons and humans. It has its flaws and frustrations, but it has a strong foundation and a sincere heart, and that goes an awful long way.

Series Grade: B

Well, I Finished ‘Em

Saga of Tanya the Evil (Youjo Senki)

Episode Count: 12
Studio: NuT

In a Sentence: A pint-sized child soldier serves the Empire with seemingly fanatical devotion, but there’s more to this kid’s story than meets the eye.
Content Warning: Violence

Tanya is a difficult story to review because it’s an unfinished narrative that exists in such an odd gray area that, 12 episodes later, I’m still at something of a loss as to what exactly it’s trying to say. What began as a kind of absurdist tale of man versus the heavens has morphed into a war story that fluctuates between grim realism and dark comedy, a contrast that makes it hard to tell whether the story is rooting for or against its protagonist.

Maybe it’s doing neither, which is why it’s so hard to get a grip on it. Tanya is a clever survivalist but a pretty awful person, and yet they’re small peanuts compared to the machinations of the short-sighted folks in power. Watching Tanya get dunked on was kind of fun in the early going but less so now, as the people they’re butting heads with tend to be even worse.

It’s hard to know where to direct your sympathies, and maybe that’s the point, but it also has the effect of pushing me away instead of drawing me in, leading to a story that (similar to ACCA) can be intellectually interesting but emotionally quite cold. I am also, admittedly, utterly bored by military strategizing (I like war stories, but for the human element, not the grand tactics), and Tanya has spent a lot of time focusing on those. There’s something of value in here and I could absolutely see other people enjoying it more than I did, but my interest has dried up. There’s rumors of a Season 2, but I doubt I’d be back.

Series Grade: B-

Gabriel DropOut

Episode Count: 12
Studio: Doga Kobo

In a Sentence: The angel Gabriel was at the top of her class in heaven, but when she begins her studies on earth she soon gets addicted to video games and embraces her inner trash girl.
Content Warning: Very mild fanservice (female), comedic violence

I liked this one better than Tanya (and sometimes better than Akiba’s Trip and Dragon Maid), but I’m not under any illusions about what it was: A light, middle-of-the-road comedy about cute girls getting into scrapes.

There’s very little to actively dislike here (except for the ending credits, the girls aren’t sexualized, and the handful of bawdy jokes are actually pretty clever), but there’s also very little to outright love. With the exception of some excellent Satania gags and good deadpan Gabriel, the episodes kind of run together in a blur of mild amusement and solid facial expressions. I enjoyed it, I will quickly forget about it, and I’m totally fine with that.

Series Grade: C

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6 thoughts on “Glancing Upstream: Winter 2017 Retrospective and Review

  1. your views mesh close to mine for the most part. I loved Tanya, way too much, and need to know where the story goes. with no legal digital source for the ln’s yet, S2 is my best bet. Her assistant Serebrikov (sp?) made many scenes for me.

    Acca I also love, but not seen last two eps thanks to sick. Same with Dragon Maid which I am saving for a special treat :).

    Like

  2. inrosegalaxy says:

    I haven’t quite finished up all these myself yet, but thus far my thoughts on many of these titles are in line with yours, especially on Dragon Maid, ACCA, Tenya, and Gabriel.

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  3. smashman42 says:

    I got all the way through Dragon Maid (a), Demi-chan (b), Gabriel Dropout (c), and Konosuba S2 (d).
    (a) Lucoa’s treatment of Shouta put me off too, basically I’d agree with pretty much everything you said in this article and in that mid-season one. One other thing that slightly bugged me was Saikawa’s reaction to Kanna. It got old very fast and even with them becoming better friends it never went away or even seemed to tone down, shouldn’t she have built up an immunity or something? It’s nothing compared to Lucoa’s problems of course, but I would have liked to have seen some sort of change there over time.
    (b) You’ve probably heard about the problems with the demi-enthusiast teacher in this one. I still liked all the girls and how the show displayed their differences and how they coped with them. I think in the first ep reviews on Anifem they mentioned the parallel to disabilities and that really worked for me. I’ve got what is considered an ‘invisible’ disability which is often the most ignored out of an already ignored group, yet this show had two characters that I could identify with because they superficially seemed normal but aren’t, just like me! (Hikari the Vampire & Yuki the Snow Woman)
    Both of those shows were my equal favourites this season, couldn’t put one above the other.
    (c) & (d) were both pretty much for the switch off my brain and just laugh factor. In both cases I wasn’t waiting for the eps to be released like I was with (a) & (b), I’d watch them when I’d get around to it, but never considered dropping them.
    Masamune-kun’s Revenge and Hand Shakers however got dropped, though I admit I only watched the latter to see if it really was as terrible as people were saying. Quite an achievement to be both visually awful and completely boring story wise at the same time.

    Like

  4. Hmm … always enjoy your “end of the season” summaries, as much to see which series you kept (and why) as much as which series you dropped (and why).

    Thanks again for the write up. ^^

    Liked by 1 person

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