Panning the Stream: Summer 2017 Midseason Review

Beating the heat with some cool summer series.

I’m writing this fresh off an Otakon Anime Convention whirlwind of a weekend, and dear readers, I am T-I-R-E-D. The thought of catching up with and writing 2-3 paragraphs on 11 series sounded so exhausting that I wound up dropping two of the shows I was still kinda on the fence about just so I could make the post shorter (I still talk about them a little, though). As I said after my June beach vacation, there’s truly nothing like a week away from your regular schedule to help you trim the ol’ watchlist.

Even with those dropped shows, my queue is still pretty packed thanks to sequels and surprise successes. Lots of variety too! Hit the jump to find the nice comedy, smart spy drama, or sprawling fantasy that sounds good to you.

The New Kids on the Block

Clean Freak! Aoyama-kun

Grade: B

(Note: Episode 7 is out but I haven’t seen it yet. The following is for 1-6 only.)

How is this show so damned good?! How is a comedy about a germaphobe soccer player and his school full of oddballs so fun, silly, insightful, and heartwarming in equal turns? It’s not uncommon for me to be surprised and delighted by an Under-the-Radar Nice Anime Comedy (look no further than last season’s The Royal Tutor or last year’s Tanaka-kun is Always Listless), so maybe I shouldn’t be so startled, but I still can’t quite believe The Soccer Comedy is not only on my watchlist, but one of the shows I most look forward to each week.

It seems like every episode Aoyama-kun does something I adore, whether that’s a sympathetic depiction of compulsion and germaphobia, a deep-dive look into how even the team class clown can have anxious layers, or a humorous exploration of the divide between author intent and reader reaction. Hopefully it can keep that momentum going into its second half, delivering more episodic stories about this soccer star and the many personalities around him.

Elegant Yokai Apartment Life

Grade: C+

(Note: Episode 7 is out but I haven’t seen it yet. The following is for 1-6 only.)

I feel a little bad giving Elegant Yokai such a low grade, because I’ve found myself strangely charmed by this little supernatural school story and would happily recommend it to folks who enjoy the genre. It’s nothing exceptional–certainly no Natsume’s Book of Friends (but then what is?)–but it’s also not run-of-the-mill, either. Elegant Yokai has its own style, combining laid-back household hangouts with bursts of tragedy and (mostly off-screen or implied) violence as it explores the impact of loss, the weight of grief, and how people find ways to keep going (whether in this life or the next one).

It’s clumsy with both its tonal shifts and narrative pacing, but it means well, features a pleasant cast, and hits its major emotional beats more often than not. A perfectly enjoyable way to spend 30 minutes each week, more or less.

Made in Abyss

Grade: B+

Given its beautiful backgrounds and music, well-rounded main characters, and consistent thematic focus on identity and adolescence, you could make a strong argument for MiA deserving an A-range grade. I just couldn’t quite give it, though, because as well-directed and -structured as the series is, I find my enjoyment consistently interrupted by some bit of vaguely creepy framing or narrative choice.

It seems like every episode the story finds an excuse to get at least one of its characters (usually Riko) naked. While the camera doesn’t leer, and while I can perhaps make an argument for the nudity feeding into the series’s overall interest in nature/mortality, and while, yes, I can even see how it makes sense for the characters, particularly the way Riko sees Reg more as a pet than a person (she never considers that nudity might bother him)… despite all that, there’s still this lingering sense of “Okay, but did you have to show it at all?” that leaves a mildly sour taste in my mouth each week.

Geez, I feel like I’m gonna scare everyone off of this show, when in truth I still like it an awful lot. It’s gorgeously drawn, thoughtfully directed, and I love the way it builds its characters through their actions, gradually nudging Reg towards understanding himself and Riko towards acknowledging the (often harsh) reality of the world around her. It’s just that I want to love it unconditionally, and I’m so close to doing so, which makes those blips of faint creepiness all the more noticeable and frustrating.

Princess Principal

Grade: A-

Most of my favorite shows this season have been pleasant surprises, but PrinPal is by far the biggest one. It’s just a really well-written, well-paced spy action series, with a cast of capable, complex female characters who all get a moment in the limelight. The series’ alt-history steampunk London breathes with a rich texture and unique atmosphere, and each episode’s “mission” is not only an entertaining (and sometimes emotional) story in its own right, but also works to develop the world’s politics, characters, or both.

The series doesn’t shy away from darker elements (at least two of the leads had abusive parents), but it doesn’t sensationalize or oversimplify, either, handling its stories with restraint and nuance. What little “fanservice” there is involves a 20-year-old, and even then it’s on her terms (insomuch as a fictional character can have agency, of course) as she uses her assets to distract or wheedle information out of her targets. I dunno what else to say, team. PrinPal is good stuff. If you can track it down, I highly recommend it.

Vatican Bros (a.k.a. “Vatican Miracle Examiner”)

Grade: LOL

Like I said at the three-episode mark, Vatican Bros isn’t good. In fact I’d call it gleefully bad, spinning the dumbest of stories and the wildest of plot points–whether that involves Nazis or wish-granting demos or vaguely racist tribal cults–with reckless abandon. That’s what makes it so damn fun, and still one of the shows I most look forward to each week.

I can’t even get annoyed at it for its dismissive treatment of its very few female characters, the blatant and shameless shipteasing between the two priests, or what is almost certain to be its poor handling of characters of color.  When a show is this full-blown stupid, it’s hard to hold it to any standards except sheer campy entertainment, and (for me anyway) Vatican Bros still has that in spades.  I can’t wait to see how our newest narrative falls off the deep end in the coming weeks.

The Returning Players

My Hero Academia

Grade: B+

MHA is still doing its thing, and its thing is still pretty great. Our young characters have been tested and challenged, forced to deal with the sometimes-permanent consequences of their actions, learned from their mistakes, and worked to improve both as heroes and people. Deku remains an admirable protagonist, and that still doesn’t stop me from wanting to spend time with every other character (except Mineta) in this very strong cast as well.  It continues to expand upon and explore the idea of what it means to be a “hero,” and even seems willing to critique its own system of professional, paid “heroes,” and wonder if they can be called heroes at all.

So, yeah. 30-odd episodes in, MHA is still a great shounen series. News at 11.

Rage of Bahamut: Virgin Soul

Grade: B+

I’m all caught up with this one! The first season of Bahamut had a fantastic core cast but struggled with an over-stuffed plot, particularly during its middle arc. This season gets two cours to tell its story, and that extra time has helped them develop a wildly entertaining high fantasy series featuring a chipper, perpetually horny female protagonist and a sweeping story about discrimination, rebellion, and the tension between emotion and reason.

I‘m concerned about how they’re going to handle the central romance and one of the characters (I’m all for redemption arcs but some actions just can’t be forgiven, and I’m worried Bahamut is gonna try anyway), but overall I’m having a great time with this one. Hopefully it’ll handle its story lines well, and I’ll be able to come back at the end of the series to give it a big ol’ thumbs-up.

Sakura Quest

Grade: B

My muted enjoyment of Sakura Quest is slowly morphing into genuine enthusiasm, thanks in large part to a second act that contains a single, unified goal that the entire town is working towards. The strategy of the first cour was to include a bunch of “mini-arcs” to help introduce and develop the central characters as well as Manoyama itself. While I think those stories were essential towards developing audience attachment to the town and its people, ultimately it made the series feel directionless and the mini-arcs a bit too insular.

This second cour is more focused, allowing its characters to grow  through the central narrative as they all work to revive an old local festival, which makes everything and everyone feel more connected. Sakura Quest still doesn’t shy away from depicting setbacks, disappoints, or everyday tragedies, but it’s also infused with a hope that’s becoming infectious. It’s been a slow burn, but my lackluster endorsement of this show may just turn into a resounding one after all.

Saiyuki Reload Blast

Four young men in a blend of traditional and modern Chinese clothing face the sunrise

Grade: C+

Don’t let that grade fool you–I’m still mighty happy to have Saiyuki back in my life, but I’m also under no illusions about the overall quality on display here. For a series that’s very difficult to adapt thanks to Minekura’s unique art style, tonal jumps, and narrative pacing, the scripts and general directorial choices have been pretty solid. But Saiyuki is a series that’s as much about badass action as it is goofball comedy and melodrama, and new studio Platinum Vision just isn’t equipped to make the fight scenes pop with the kind of fluid, dynamic animation they need.

The production limitations have become more noticeable now that the story has shifted to a backstory “past incarnation” arc, which not only features a fair number of throwdowns but also focuses on a lot of new(ish) characters. I’m no longer blinded by my overwhelming love of the cast; hence some mild dissatisfaction as of late. Hopefully we’ll knock out all this flashback stuff and return to the main story soon, so I’ll be too busy fangirling to notice all the still frames and animation shortcuts.

Probable Drops and Gradual Backlogs

Just a quick update on a few series I mentioned in my Rule of Three post:

There’s a good chance 18if has seen its last mention on these reviews. After its visually striking and emotionally resonant third episode, the series produced a trio of well-meaning but ultimately lackluster stories, featuring female protagonists with real, serious issues (from eating disorders to constant bullying) whose stories were over-simplified and whose agency was undercut by having the male protagonist solve all their problems for them. I could maybe get past the “March of the Damsels” angle if the stories were stronger, but I usually end the episodes feeling frustrated at the wasted potential. It’s still interesting, but not especially enjoyable, so I may opt to duck out.

I’ve also put GAMERS! on hold after its fourth episode made it clear the female characters were going to be solely defined by their relationships to the boys, and that the series was more interested in being a mediocre rom-com than a charmingly silly story about awkward kids sharing a hobby. There are things I still kinda like about it, so if I hear good buzz I might come back. And, finally, I dropped Welcome to the Ballroom. Is anyone really surprised?

On a more positive note, I binged Kabukibu! within 24 hours and LOVED IT, so now I need to pester Yen Press to license the light novels so I can hang out out with my adorable theatre children some more. I’m also still chipping away at The Great Passage, which I like a little more each episode. This tweet covers my general feelings about it, I’d say.

In short: Backlog Good, Drops Bad. Sounds about right, yeah?


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8 thoughts on “Panning the Stream: Summer 2017 Midseason Review

  1. I keep thinking Clean Freak Aoyama Kun has no business being as entertaining as it is when I get to the end of the episode and realise how it really should not be good and yet week after week I find it quite enjoyable. Definitely a surprise and quite charming.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the season. I’m probably going to stick out Vatican Miracle Examiner but it is definitely not great at this particular point in time. It’s probably the show I’m closest to dropping on my line up at the moment.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sakura Quest is much better in it’s second cour than the first, but I still don’t feel it’s as good as it could be…

    PriPri has definitely emerged from the pack as something way better than we were lead to believe by the promos. It’s much more than just a stock moe girls/spy story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • dsprizer says:

      I completely agree about Sakura Quest.

      It’s not a bad show by any means, and the second half has generally been better than the first, but it just seems so determinedly predictable and melodramatic. After having watched it from the outset, was anyone really surprised that the old professor dropped dead after having achieved his goal? Enough people seem to be praising the show that I guess there were folks who were struck by that development, but personally, it was a moment that just crystallized everything about Sakura Quest that I find so unsatisfying. Never miss an opportunity to wring unearned emotion from the viewers!

      Finally (and I realize this is just a curmudgeonly pet peeve), what about this show needed to be animated? I don’t mean to suggest that people shouldn’t turn whatever they bloody well please into cartoons, but I can’t think of a single way in which Sakura Quest has taken advantage of the fact that it’s animated, rather than live action.

      The whole thing just seems to be an exercise in cashing in on a formula – cute girls go through some trials and tribulations before emerging stronger – than anything that was actually crying out to be made. Sure, it’s not bad. But it just seems kind of lazy and pointless, and ultimately forgettable.

      Like

      • > But it just seems kind of lazy and pointless, and ultimately forgettable.

        Which is the most annoying part… It was marketed (by the studio) as the successor to Hanasaku Iroha and Shirobako, but has completely failed to live up to that.

        Like

  3. You know, for all that people are worrying about the possible redemption of Charioce in Rage of Bahamut (I don’t think the show is trying to do that, though? at least I thought that episode 17 made it perfectly clear that nobody is trying to make excuses for Charioce, least of all Charioce himself), I keep wondering about why everyone is still OK with Azazel. Let’s face it, Azazel is technically one of the major reasons why people so gleefully turned against the demons. His sadistic little games aside, there was that incident with him storming Anatae for no reason whatsoever, resulting in great destruction and death (which I’m sure has contributed to people’s hatred for demons in general), he also left Pazuzu to die, etc… He never once showed remorse for any of that, and even as a sort of demon vigilante he displayed the same traits that he had before, the overbearing arrogance, the aggression, etc. I can’t help interpreting all that he went through in Virgin Soul – the failed attack, the torture, the arena – was basically him getting his just deserts and finally undergoing some character development into a decent person.

    So yeah, I really wonder why people are so hung up on Charioce but are so quick to forgive Azazel. I guess Genesis was a long time ago (that, or many people who are watching Virgin Soul have never seen Genesis, which does result in a crucial lack of context).

    Like

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