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Divine Intervention - Echoes' Winter 2014/2015 Impressions


2014 was a bit of a slow anime year for me. Work, as well as that ever-persistent nuisance called real life took precedence and left me drained and often in a bad mood. This is the season I wanted my renew my vigor, and I find it difficult to believe that I could have possibly been given a more wonderful season to accomplish just this goal.


Death Parade

 
 

Out of every entry in the anime Mirai Project, 2013's Death Billiards seemed like the one most ripe for elaboration and expansion. This latent potential was seized upon by Studio Madhouse, and the result was Death Parade, a series which managed to live up these high hopes and expectations in just about every regard.

Madhouse delivers a visual treat, beginning with the exciting and tonally disconnected opening (which is a small wonder in its own right), and continuing into the dark and fascinating study of emotion and morality which comprises the actual show. The show consists of small, unrelated personal stories (largely exploring the events leading up to the demise of the people who end up in the Quindecim bar), as well as an overarching plot concerned with the Arbiters, whose role is to determine these individuals' true nature and ultimately judge them; sealing their fate. The show has a dark, clean look, and is similarly dark in tone. It does not shy away from focusing on the most appalling aspects of human nature, and things are seldom as simple as they appear. There is usually a silver lining to the story; a redemptive finale, someone finally coming to peace with their own passing, but at least one story ends in an unapologetically bleak and depressing manner. The show certainly presents itself as a grim exhibition of humanity's flaws. In the end, however, I think the show has a positive message about human emotions being a vital, beautiful, and even necessary part of our existence. They may drive us to commit horrible, unforgivable acts, but without them, we are but hollow shells. Decim's awakening to emotion is part of the show's finale, and while the ending is perfectly acceptable as it stands, it would be very interesting to see a continuation. If for no other reason than to see how Decim's process of judgment has changed now that he has a little bit more in common with these weird things called humans which are continually foisted upon him.


THE iDOLM@STER: Cinderella Girls

 
 

As I sat there watching this show, witnessing the cavalcade of unmemorable characters rush into an open room, the only thing I could think of was how I knew less than half of these characters' names, and worse yet, that I did not care to learn them.

Cinderella Girls has some big shoes to fill. Its predecessor was a smashing success, with poignant drama and a cast of largely lovable characters. Cinderella Girls, however, is unfortunately plagued with issues. Turning the formula square on its head, in this show, finding a character who isn't a shallowly assembled lump of stereotypes and gimmicks is the exception, rather than the rule. Which characters you like will depend mostly on your personal preference (I enjoy Rin, Ranko and Miku myself), and not on how well they are written. Most characters aren't bad per se, they merely blend into the background, failing to capture your attention in any way. Kirari, who has what is perhaps the most annoying manner of speaking I have ever come across in anime, is a big exception. Her mouth should always be closed.

One thing the show does well is set itself apart from its predecessor, and from other idol shows I have seen. It doesn't idealize and glamorize the path to idol-hood as much, instead showing the characters getting small gigs at local events, malls and such. This is a refreshing look, and I do believe that a great story could be told in this setting, but Cinderella Girls has so far failed to deliver on much of this promise. There is a second season announced, meaning there is still plenty of time to rectify the missteps taken up to this point and make it all come together. With this cast of characters, that is a tall order; but I do believe it is possible. As for now, Cinderella Girls remains the lone, black sheep of the season.


Junketsu no Maria

 
 

I would not want to talk down to anyone reading this by offering trite truisms such as: "Don't judge a book by its cover." But when you have a series with the English title 'Maria the Virgin Witch', perhaps a few short words of assurance are in order. This series may start off with a slightly silly tone (although it still does an incredible job of establishing its setting and introducing its characters in this more light-hearted opening act), but once you get into the meat of this show, you will find a uniquely mature show which uses its medieval European setting more effectively than I think I have ever seen from any other show. Junketsu no Maria uses its titular little witch to explore, and explore well, issues such as the oppression of women, the tremendous abuse of power perpetrated by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, and yes, even sexuality. These themes are, of course, all closely related. The show does not merely have pretenses of greatness, it actually presents a compelling and heartwarming/wrenching story with these themes, and so many more, interwoven. There are also medieval battles, succubi, sexy witches and (in the most appropriate casting choice ever) an angel voiced by Hanazawa Kana.

As this is an overview, and not a full article, I'll save my thoughts on how this is accomplished (suffice it to say for now that it is done with great finesse) for a later date; it deserves more attention than I can spare it here. As a final note, the character designs are incredible. Characters in general, and Maria in particular, are beautifully rendered and given very expressive faces. Beautiful backgrounds with a painted look evoke the perfect medieval atmosphere, and people come in all shapes, sizes and degrees of attractiveness. If this is the last you hear of the series: Please give it a look. It gets my strongest possible recommendation.


Kamisama Hajimemashita - 2nd Season

 
 

Also known as 'Kamisama Kiss'. Possibly because the last word is hard to say.

The second season of the light-hearted drama and comedy which encompasses the life of Nanami, a girl who has been blessed (cursed?) with the gift of divinity. The thing that I particularly like about this show is how much determination Nanami has, and how much hard work she puts in. She is super sweet, yes, but what makes her a compelling character to me is the fact that the entire show doesn't revolve around her crush on her familiar, Tomoe. That is a large part of it, but it doesn't rear its ugly head at inappropriate times and consume what would otherwise be a perfectly nice story. Nanami is fleshed out well, and she is virtually impossible to hate.

While I don't have any harsh words for the show, I did feel my interest starting to wane after I got through the first half of the show. I don't believe there is a massive downgrade in quality from the first season. It is still a sugary, entertaining show, but without being able to put my finger on it, it somehow feels lesser than its predecessor. Perhaps it was just a victim of unfortunate timing, and seems lesser in comparison to the other shows in this supremely excellent season.


Kantai Collection

 
 

Kantai Collection is set in a peculiar world where girls who possess the spirits of Japanese warships (whatever that means) must battle against a mysterious force (also girls who "are" ships, but meaner-looking!) which has forced humanity to withdraw from the seas. While this might sound strange, it really doesn't take much time to adjust to while watching the series. There are girls with cannons, and girls who fire arrows who turn into airplanes which shoot stuff down, and they can traverse the ocean's surface. Because they have boat spirits in them, you see. The plot has yet to give me any reason to rejoice, but it is at the very least decent. It's interesting enough to keep you watching, but I never truly found myself invested in any of the dramatic events or plot turns. There is a sequel in the works however, so there is still plenty of time for them to advance the story.

For now, however, the girls themselves remain the main attraction of the show. They have elaborate outfits, fun personalities, and quirky...quirks. The show's style is very appealing, and it's easy to see why so many of these characters have huge fan followings. There's also a fun "spot the voice-actress" game you can play, since most of the actresses voice at least a handful of characters in the show. I failed spectacularly at this game, by the way.

The highlight of the show for me is Kongo. Born in England, raised in Japan, and most importantly, voiced by Toyama Nao. This English-words-out-of-context spewing ball of pure energy is a joy to behold, and every scene she's in is instantly made better for it. Other characters range from awesome to average, but there's actually not a single character I found insufferable, which is fantastic. If there is one complaint I have about the characters, it would be the lead, Fubuki. I grew to like her a little more as the show progressed, but it is still a little unfortunate that with the tremendous cast of characters in this show, someone this unremarkable had to be the protagonist. On the flip side, with a cast this big, this fact is far less important than it would be in most other series because of the shared screentime. This show is unlikely to blow anyone away, but it is good entertainment. It does cute girls well, and I'll probably be gray and old before I tire of Yudachi saying "poi."


THE ROLLING GIRLS

 
 

From the pure blue sky came a blistering bolt of energy. It was a world filled with adorable girls, kinetic action, motorcycles, punk-rock inspired attitudes and attires, Japanese customs and traditions, insanity, and a soundtrack so incredible words utterly fail me. This bolt collided with me head-on, and I don't think the scar from the impact will ever heal. Nor do I want it to.

The unbridled madness of the plot and setting is tempered with the presence of a group of four girls traveling the world to do the work of an out of commission superhero. They're not quite friends yet, but they'll ride together, perhaps united under the common banner of eccentricity. Nozomi, who is usually meek and mild, will display an indomitable will when push comes to shove. Chiaya is the mysterious wild-card, keen on collecting magical stones thought to power the best of the best in this world. Yukina lives in her own world, getting lost in record time and possessing a remarkable aptitude for drawing poorly despite obviously being talented. She is also the closest thing the show has to a straight man, though her efforts are undermined by her goofiness. Ai is the free-spirited badass of the group, out to get stronger, out for adventure, out to eat.

The series assaults your senses with a barrage of colors and unique designs, but foremost in its presentation to me is the incredible covers of classics from the Japanese punk-rock band 'The Blue Hearts'. Ai looks like she'd fit right in with them with her attire. All the vocalized tracks you hear throughout the series, including the opening and ending theme, are covers sung by the voice actresses of the main four girls. They are nothing short of glorious. For bringing these songs into existence alone, the show would have gotten a pass. Luckily, it offers so much more.

The ending is surprisingly bittersweet, but wholly satisfying. They smuggle the emotional connection in there, and before you know it, you've realized that the true hero of the show is not the wild action scenes or the imaginative locations, it is the bonds the girls developed and shared throughout their long journey. A remarkable gem of a show which gets far too little love.


Saenai Heroine no Sodatekata

 
 

Saenai Heroine no Sodatekata, or Saekano for short, is a harem-romance show with a few new tricks up its sleeve. As has become increasingly common, Saekano is a little self-aware, a little meta-textual. For one, it is about a bunch of weirdos aiming to make a visual novel. While they are in the process of writing the plot to said novel, they frequently bring up cliches and tropes, which then, of course with a bit of a twist, either apply to their current situation, or occur later in the show. The "lucky pervert" trope is completely turned on its head, for instance.

I am not proposing that this is some brilliant, wholly original deconstruction of the harem genre; it is not. However, it is a very clever and immensely enjoyable series filled with nice little touches. The beauty of the show is in the subtle changes, it's in the details. Eriri is essentially a childhood friend tsundere character. Utaha is the demeaning, sophisticated senpai, and Michiru is the sporty/talented girl who's out of your league. Yet this does not diminish any of them as characters. The show knows when to poke fun at a trope, and when to polish one to perfection.

It is also nice that each of the girls have got something to contribute artistically to the project. Eriri draws and designs the characters, Utaha writes the scenario, Michiru sings and plays the accompanying music, and Megumi is the "heroine in training." Ironic, given that I find Megumi to be perfect just the way she is. She is another character who is enhanced by simple, minor changes. Often, she would be relegated to being just the shy girl in the corner, rarely uttering any opinions of her own. But Megumi can be fierce. She might sound meek, but she let's people have it. She does it in the most casual, non-caring way too. It's hilarious, and endearing.

Naturally, the female characters will be what most people flock to the show for, and they are nothing short of fabulous. The character designs are absolutely beautiful, rendering all of the girls virtually irresistible. It bears mentioning that the first episode, episode "00", contains a prodigious amount of fanservice, but this is nothing more than a clever ruse. The rest of the show is far less blatant about female nudity and instead opts for a lot of panning shots of fully clad women. Although Michiru does her best to flush all of these subtlety point down the drain when she's introduced towards the end. I don't think anyone was complaining about that, though.


With that, the wonderful Winter 2015 season comes to an end. It has without a doubt been one of the most joyous seasons I can remember experiencing. And I haven't even watched Yuri Kuma Arashi yet, nor did I cover the continuing shows Parasyte and Shirobako. Absolutely breathtaking. Could the starting spring season end up being as good?

The answer is no. But I'm sure we will talk about it anyway. Until then, have a great day.

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