Glancing Upstream: Summer 2017 Retrospective and Review

Replaying the slam dunks, swishes, and bricks of summer.

Sure, we’re neck-deep in Fall premieres, but that doesn’t mean we can’t pause to say goodbye to the summer shows! If you’re wondering why this took so long to go live, blame The Reflection: I got sucked into it and decided to wait to post the retrospective until the final episode had aired.

While this was an inconsistent, up-and-down kind of season, very sparse on shows I always liked, I somehow wound up finishing a whole bunch of them. I even picked up some previous “drops” along the way, with… mixed results, we’ll say. Not a ton of wholehearted recommendations, I’m sad to say, but if you’re interested in my summer season thoughts, you can either listen to the Chatty AF summer wrap-up podcast, or hit the jump for some written mini-reviews.

The Favorites Next Door

18if – Episodes 3, 7, 8, and 10

Episode Count: 13, technically
Studio: Gonzo
Season director: Nishimori Akira 

In a sentence: A boy, a cat professor, and a mysterious girl team up to help wake “witches”: women with Sleeping Beauty Syndrome able to create their own unique dream worlds
Content warning: Violence (mild)

That’s right, this review is ONLY for Episodes 3, 7, 8, and 10! (I’ll cover the rest later.) I’ve never split a show up like this before, but the majority of 18if is self-contained, one-shot stories, which means I have the opportunity to point you to its best episodes—some of the best episodes of the season, if not the year—while steering you away from the rest of the show, which was “okay” at best and downright awful at worst.

But man, when 18if was good, it was fantastic, both in terms of narrative heft and artistic ambition. From the wistful high school romance of Episode 3 (masterfully directed), to the dark fairy tale of Episode 7 (my personal favorite), to the balanced communication narrative of Episode 8 (starring a disabled singer), to the focus on agency and adventure in Episode 10 (with some psychedelic visuals to boot), this series shone bright at times. It’s a shame the entire thing couldn’t be as high as these highs, but that won’t stop me from recommending this quartet of episodes to anyone who’ll listen. They’re very much worth your time.

Grade (these episodes only): A

Made in Abyss

Episode Count: 13
Studio: Kinema Citrus
Series director: Kojima Masayuki

In a sentence: In a town that overlooks a massive abyss, a young Raider-in-training goes searching for “Relics” and finds a robot boy instead.
Content warning: Violence (some graphic, involving kids); nudity

I was half-tempted to just direct you to the AniFem podcast again, because I’m a bit fatigued on The Abysscourse at this point. The series has some real problems, particularly an over-reliance on nudity and bodily functions to help convey its themes of “de-romanticizing adventure narratives,” “descending into the natural world,” and “coming to terms with your own mortality” (these are all Good Themes, by the way; the series just over-uses certain devices to the point where it feels fetishistic or skeevy). I’ll also understand if there are viewers disappointed that Riko’s role in the story is more Commander than Warrior, especially given the focus in the latter half on her undergoing extreme physical hardships.

The thing is? I really, really like this show. I think it’s a beautifully complete production in terms of art design, animation, and music. I appreciate that it toys with gender norms, including two female mentor-figures and a couple of gender-ambiguous characters. I think the cast is packed with well-realized individuals with unique strengths and goals with whom I deeply sympathize if not outright love. I’m invested in their relationships and their stories. I think Riko’s cleverness and willpower are an inspiration, and I kinda hate the idea that people can’t be both admirable figures and non-combatants. Also, the finale turned me into a puddle of tears.

What can I say? My fav is problematic. If its issues are too much for you, that’s fine. I don’t blame you. I won’t try to talk you out of that. As for me, I’ll be waiting eagerly for more of this ongoing story, because I’m fully invested and very much want to know what harrowing, heartbreaking, or quietly inspiring adventures these kids go on next.

Grade: A-

Princess Principal

Episode Count: 12
Studio: 3HZ
Season director: Tachibana Masaki

In a sentence: In this alternate history version of London, a group of female spies teams up with a young princess to thwart her enemies and someday help her gain the throne.
Content warning: Violence; mild fanservice

When PrinPal is an episodic spy narrative focusing on the personalities and relationships of its five central young women, it’s just about perfect: entertaining, endearing, sometimes insightful, sometimes melancholy, and with enough variety to keep it fresh and fun each week. Despite the cute-girl sameface designs, each member of the cast is distinct and enjoyable in their own way, and the series does a good job of making them (especially Charlotte) people you want to follow and root for.

Where it stumbles is in developing an overarching, central narrative. They quickly establish the premise—helping Charlotte come to power—and then slowly expand everyone’s backstories to help us understand why this is their goal and why we want them to succeed at it, but the series is less certain of a proper conclusion. The result is a story with a strong emotional core but a plot that feels about half-finished.

If PrinPal gets a Season 2, consider that grade bumped into the A-range, because I really did like it an lot. Until then, it’ll always seem just a little too incomplete to be truly in that top tier.

Grade: B+

Sakura Quest

Episode Count: 25
Studio: P.A. Works
Season director: Masui Soichi 

In a sentence: Struggling to find work after college, Koharu Yoshino agrees to take a job working for a rural town’s tourist bureau–too bad she didn’t read the fine print that said the job would last an entire year.

Talk about a slow burn that rewards its audience for their patience. Sakura Quest went from “pretty okay” to “I wish I liked it more than I do” to “it’s winning me over” to “I’m so invested in these characters that I teared up during the finale.” Easily the most consistent show of the season, Sakura Quest quietly builds its characters, their arcs, and their relationships with one another organically over the course of 24 episodes, slowly endearing its audience not just to the journeys of the five main women, but to the various shopkeepers, bus drivers, and artists that call Manoyama home.

The central narrative in the second half is also quite strong, exploring multiple thematic throughlines—the tension between change, tradition, and stagnation; the importance of cultural understanding and cultural exchange; and the conflict between childhood dreams and adult realities—through its characters’ personal struggles and triumphs. No, it doesn’t have the flare and energy of SHIROBAKO, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a smart, worthwhile story, and one I’d happily recommend to others.

Grade: B+

Saiyuki Reload Blast

Season Episode Count: 12
Series Episode Count: Oh, who even knows anymore
Studio: Platinum Vision
Season director: Nakano Hideaki

In a sentence: When a mysterious negative aura makes the youkai of Shangri-La go berserk, the gods enlist an ill-tempered Buddhist priest and his three youkai(ish) companions to journey west and put a stop to the chaos.
Content warning: Violence (some graphic); shirtless dudes

Remember at the midway point when I said I was feeling pretty “meh” about this new anime? Yeah, scratch that. The second half of the series (season?) introduces a tense overarching narrative, a badass lady priest, and SO. EFFING. MANY. EMOTIONS. While the animation always struggled in the fight scenes, the creative team managed to keep things exciting thanks to some solid storyboarding and pacing, so I was never bored even if I wasn’t exactly “wowed” either.

No, Saiyuki Reload Blast isn’t gonna win any awards, and I wouldn’t recommend it to any newcomers to the franchise. It assumes you already know and love these characters. But if you do already know and love these characters, there’s a whole lot to like about the back half of this show. Please stay healthy, Kazuya Minekura! I can finally see the story’s finish line! I so very badly want us to reach it.

Grade: A+ in my heart (C+ everywhere else)

For Your Consideration

Clean Freak! Aoyama-kun

Episode Count: 12
Studio: TMS Entertainment
Season director: Ichikawa Kazuya

In a sentence: This high school comedy follows Aoyama, a star soccer player with germaphobia, and the oddball teenagers around him as they get to know each other both on the soccer field and off of it.
Content warning: Mild fanservice; a couple characters who have some stalker-ish tendencies; deals (respectfully) with germaphobia and compulsion

Aoyama-kun was the season’s Nice Comedy, but–like a lot of things about this season–I never quite warmed up to it the way I have to other seasonal Nice Comedies like, say, The Royal Tutor or Tanaka-kun. That having been said, I still think the series is worth your time, as it really is very sweet and understanding to its characters, never mocking Aoyama for his compulsion, and even featuring another character with the same mental illness and a very different way of handling it.

The general structure of the show is to focus on a different character each episode (with a few people, like Aoyama, teammate Zaizen, or manager Moka cycling back through every so often). The last third of the series drags a bit, largely because it continues to expand its cast instead of focusing on what is a very enjoyable core group of kids. How much you like each episode will come down to how much you like the character at the center of it. Overall it wasn’t particularly memorable, but still a pleasant way to spend 30 minutes each week.

Grade: B-

My Hero Academia – Season 2

Season Episode Count: 26
Series Episode Count: 38 (Season 3 confirmed; release date TBD)
Studio: BONES
Series Director: Nagasaki Kenji

In a sentence: Deku is a regular human in a world where almost everyone has developed some kind of supernatural power (called “quirks”), but he’s still determined to become a Hero–and with a little help and support from an unlikely source, he just might manage it.
Content Warning: Violence (against adults/teens); mild fanservice; sexism;  child abuse

Some of the shine came off My Hero Academia these past 12 episodes due to a lot of little annoyances piling up: adult female heroes primarily existing either for fanservice or so they can  snipe cattily at each other; the increasing sense that the girls are going to serve as perpetual back-up to the boys; and half an episode dedicated to reminding me that Mineta sucks. As good as MHA can be, and as strong as its central ideas about “pay-it-forward” heroism is, it’s still a Weekly Shonen JUMP title, I s’pose, with all the baked-in annoyances that entails.

Okay, sorry. That’s a harsh way to start a review about a show I still mostly like. The early arc with the Hero Killer was both harrowing and poignant (Iida is a good boy) (so is Todoroki) (you know what, they’re all good boys except Mineta and sometimes Bakugo), Momo had an extremely relatable crisis of confidence, and most of the pair-ups in the Exam Arc were an absolute delight. Minor frustrations aside, I still care a lot about these kids, and that’s more than enough to make me happy to come back for that Season 3 whenever BONES decides to air it.

Grade: B

The Reflection

Episode Count: 12
Studio: DEEN
Season director: Nagahama Hiroshi

In a sentence: After a worldwide event gives a small portion of the population special powers and a group of these “Reflected” start wreaking havoc, college student Eleanor teams up with superhero X-On to help the people this terrorist group is after and find out what they really want.
Content warning: Violence; deals with discrimination (usually handled respectfully)

I just finished watching the finale for this one and am still trying to wrap my head around the series as a whole. I think I liked it, but I’m hesitant to recommend it. Certainly it’s a very confident show, and perhaps a bold one, too. It attempts an “animated old-school comic book” art style, deals with themes of discrimination, and features a large cast—including multiple women, POCs, and disabled folks—who don’t feel like “stars” versus “supporting players” but more “a bunch of protagonists whose stories come together to form a fragmented mural.”

“Fragmented” might be the best word for The Reflection, in fact. Its art style has moments where the sharp color schemes and minimalist designs are striking… and moments where it looks flat and boring. The discrimination metaphor is reasonably well-done… but seems to get dropped halfway in favor of a broader story about the hope and despair that coexist within everyone. There’s the sense that all of the characters have fully-fleshed-out histories and lives… but because there are so many of them and so few episodes, we only see it in glimpses, and it makes some of the later plot twists more contrived than resonant.

Like Princess Principal, it ended up feeling half-finished, with a cliffhanger ending that implies a (thus far) nonexistent Season 2. I’m glad a weird project like this happened and I hope more weird projects like it continue to happen. I’d also absolutely come back for more, to watch the cast grow and see how the story’s latent themes develop. But it’s tough to give it any gold stars beyond that.

Grade: B-

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

Two men in Catholic priests robes stand back to back. The one on the left has black hair and holds a rosary; the one on the right has short brown hair and has a book open in his hands.

Episode Count: 12
Studio: J.C. Staff
Season director: Yonetani Yoshitomo 

In a sentence: Two Catholic priests travel the world, investigating the validity of alleged miracles and getting tangled up in a bunch of ridiculous crimes along the way.
Content warning: Violence (some graphic; against adults/teens); sexual assault; child abuse

Vatican Bros could never quite hit those peak levels of absurdity that it managed in its first four-episode arc, and its characters were too busy solving stupid crimes to properly develop personalities. That said, I still had a damn good time with this series. It’s packed with dumb lines, absurd plot twists, self-aware direction, and some extremely unsubtle gay subtext, and it filled me with giggling glee every time I turned it on.

Its diminishing returns caused it to just barely miss the “favorites” cut, but it was probably the most fun I had with any show this season, and even managed to hit me with an emotional finale (while also being thoroughly stupid) as a surprise bonus. Don’t go into this expecting complex characters or intricate mysteries, but if you want to sit down with a friend and laugh at a hilaribad series, Vatican Bros is ya boy.

Grade: R for Ridiculous

Well, I Finished ‘Em 

18if – The Other Episodes

Episode Count: 13, technically
Studio: Gonzo
Season director: Nishimori Akira 

In a sentence: A boy, a cat professor, and a mysterious girl team up to help wake “witches,” young women with Sleeping Beauty Syndrome able to create their own unique dream worlds
Content warning: Violence; fanservice; assault “jokes”; depictions of bullying and eating disorders (often poorly handled)

As good as Episodes 3, 7, 8, and 10 were, the rest of the show was messy at best and a trainwreck at worst. At its lowest, the series completely flubbed a story about eating disorders (Episode 4) and turned a potentially sharp critique of the idol industry into a travesty of crass fanservice, transphobia, and assault jokes (Episode 9). 18if  couldn’t even pull its central story together, as the finale was a baffling rollercoaster of progressive or insightful lines followed immediately by some tone-deaf remark or sexist joke.

I want to give it a few points for at least attempting to tackle feminist-relevant concerns, but its tendency to find reductive solutions that often boiled down to “a boy likes me so I’m fine now!” causes it to lose those points pretty quickly. I will forever be grateful to 18if for those four excellent episodes, and forever bummed that the rest of the show couldn’t live up to those high points.

Grade: D

Rage of Bahamut: Virgin Soul

Episode Count: 24
Studio: MAPPA
Season director: Satou Keiichi

In a sentence: Boy it sure is a shame Rage of Bahamut only ever had that one season, huh?
Content warning: Violence; nudity/fanservice (male and female); sympathy for a genocidal fascist

What the fuck happened to Virgin Soul?

No, seriously. I’m asking. What the fuck happened to it? After the first three-quarters I was ready to come in here singing its praises—to talk about its gender-balanced cast of super-likable characters, its overarching themes of suppression, freedom, and rebellion, and its well-paced, entertaining fantasy adventure story. And then that last quarter of the story just…fell off a cliff. Completely forgot its early ideas and plot points in favor of forced drama, a shoehorned romance, and hand-waving—not even redeeming, but just straight-up ignoring—the genocidal fascist.

I can’t quite bring myself to give it an “F” because I really do love so many of these characters, and the first three-quarters of the show was a legitimately fun time, but… damn. Just damn.

What the fuck happened to you, Virgin Soul?

Grade: D

Dropped

Elegant Yokai Apartment Life

A boy in a white long-sleeve shirt holds a book with a pentagram on the front and looks annoyed. Next to him is a glowing blue cockatiel, looking depressed.

It’s weird to say I “dropped” Elegant Yokai when I made it 12 episodes, but it turns out the series is running through Fall and there are other shows I’d rather watch this coming season. My feelings about it haven’t changed since my midseason review–it’s clumsy, but I think its heart is in the right place, and every once in a while it hits on a genuinely resonant emotional beat or burst of social commentary. I wouldn’t warn anyone away from it and I wish it nothing but the best. It just couldn’t hold my attention for longer than a cour, turns out.


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4 thoughts on “Glancing Upstream: Summer 2017 Retrospective and Review

  1. Princes Principal one the season, and maybe even the year.

    Number two was In Another World with my Smartphone. I wasn’t expecting to get so into a run of the mill Harem Isekai either, but I love how this unapologetic Wish Fulfillment with no pretense of being anything deeper. And I love that they’ve already presented that the we could get a true Non Monogamus ending.

    I know you professionals have to pretend you aren’t watching the Netflix shows yet, so I won’t get into Fate/Apocrypha.

    Like

    • I’ve been watching Smartphone dubbed, so episode 10 I saw after the above comment. Episode 10 had upped the Fanservice a bit more then i like. I’m used to shows doing most of their fan-service up front.

      Like

    • You are with the majority of fans who felt disappointed in this show. Everywhere I’ve seen online fans are saying WTF? It feels like it was written by two different people. One wrote the first half and second person shat all over it.

      Like

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