Summer 2009 Roundup 1: Bakemonogatari, Umineko no Naku Koro Ni, CANAAN, Sora no Manimani

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Oh my. How long has it been since I actually blogged about anime? Well, here’s a look at the four most promising shows I’ve seen so far this season: SHAFT’s Bakemonogatari, the successor to HiguarshiUmineko no Naku Koro Ni, Nasu’s new turn CANAAN, and the blogger fangirl favorite so far, Sora no Manimani.

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Bakemonogatari

I’ve come to the conclusion that SHAFT/Shinbo’s bag of Anno-like tricks is a mixed bag at best. Because SHAFT/Shinbo is way more prolific than Gainax ever was during its Anno-led heyday, we see an awful lot more of this style per season: whether it be put to use in surreal comedies like Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei (now in its third season this time), or more serious shows like the ef dramas, we get SHAFTed a lot more than other studios. (You may all groan now.) It was, for me, starting to get ho hum, especially when Maria+Holic failed to grab me in the way I thought it might and ef-a tale of melodies didn’t satisfy the way the first series did.

What a pleasure to find a show where the stylistic quirks actually work.

The dramatic shot choices, the red and orange color palette, and the extreme angles: they all accentuate a show that is both strange and original. This is not the usual kind of story, in that we are talking about an ex-vampire and a nearly weightless girl seeking salvation through some kind of supernatural means–it’s certainly much more specific than the rather generic title (“Monstory” might be a rough translation?) suggests. The first episode features a lot of fear, suspicion, and surprise, and this is the sort of thing where the stylistic quirks can work in the service of storytelling rather than being an arty indulgence imposed on the show.

The first episode is a bit hard to follow at first–it’s definitely another in media res kind of deal. However, I was able to get the gist of it by the end, and I’m told episode 2 is even clearer.

This is definitely one of the highlights that I’ll be keeping a close eye on.


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Umineko no Naku Koro Ni (When the Seagulls Cry)

It’s too early to tell whether this will be a worthy successor to the horrifying, intelligent, and utterly compelling piece that was Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni. Several signs are very promising, however.

First, they establish the show’s tone right away: there’s a large cast of characters, there’s a supposed witch, and it’s going to be as much a interfamily drama and mystery as it is horror. This is a murder house waiting to happen, and when the patented insane eyes start breaking out in episode 1, you know that things are going to get ugly even faster than they did in the first arc of Higurashi. This time they rely on the old horror trope of the little child knowing and seeing things more than the others, but the way she says it at the end of the first episode is actually pretty chilling: the eerieness happens right away. That’s the spirit.

It’s not known yet whether the show will take the same approach and do multiple arcs with different “endings”–anyone know? To tell you the truth, I’m not sure such a strategy can quite work the same way again. It was novel when Higurashi did it, because for the first time the structure of the original game was actually turned into artistic advantage, and even given a not-terrible explanation in the second season. (Though I did feel that a few too many things were explained, draining it of its dark power and mystery. But I digress.) It’s like if they tried doing a gimmick like episode shuffling, or maybe repeating the same thing continuously with small variations, for the second season of Haruhi Suzumiya; it’d just seem tired and ho–wait a minute…. :)

But Higurashi did not succeed because of the gimmick. It succeeded because it expertly built up tension and terror over each arc, and developed characters in meaningful ways while exploring the nature of evil. Who knows how much Beatrice, the supernatural agent of this series, is actually going to figure into the story–the little kid seems to think she’s there at any rate, and we get tantalizing hints.

Another one to watch closely.


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CANAAN

Nasu + Black Lagoon + Bee Train. Animated by PA Works, of True Tears fame, and just as we would expect, the animation is fluid and beautiful. There’s way more action than a Bee Train show actually delivers, and as befitting something by Nasu, we have yet another girl with strange eye powers. I have to say, though, it does not have the feel of a Kara no Kyoukai or Tsukihime yet. While the story seems rather complex, with a large cast of characters that I haven’t yet begun to identify easily, it feels much more like an action-oriented piece rather than the darkly contemplative work I’ve come to associate with Kyoukai. That may not be a problem; I gave Black Lagoon high marks way back when. But in my original tweet I mentioned it doesn’t quite feel very Nasu yet, aside from the eye powers.

I find it hard to talk much about this show just yet; it feels like a complex story that is just beginning to take off. More details to come with the next episode, I hope.


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Sora no Manimani

I was confused at first–it was billed I think in some season previews as a shoujo romance, though it is not really drawn nor does it quite feel like one. It feels more seinen to me, and the viewpoint character is still the male. Then again, that was true of Honey and Clover, where I completely forgot about whatever arbitrary gender classification it falls under and focused instead on how great the writing and the characters were.

I suggest the same might apply to this comedic gem of an anime. The characters are very likable, intensely so, especially the main girl Mihoshi. Mihoshi is best described as the love child of Haruhi Suzumiya and Nodame from Nodame Cantabile: a bundle of energy who uses outrageous physical techniques to subdue/chase after her main man, “Saku-chan” and run a club by forcing people to join. The ostensible subject the show revolves around, stargazing, is probably going to be an excuse for warm and fuzzy starlit romantic scenes more than anything else (though they can surprise me if they get the amateur astronomy stuff right! Perhaps Moyashimon for stars?). I laughed out loud several times, even while knowing a lot of the situations were a bit hackneyed and overplayed: childhood friends meeting up, love triangle established, etc. They’re just so likable and easy to watch. I do like how Saku’s not ashamed of being a bookworm, too. I wasn’t so different in high school, or so I’d like to think. I just didn’t have a Mihoshi following me around!

I think this will be the “easy to watch” show of the season for me, something to relieve stress and feel better about. All those other shows are either dark, weird, or both.

13 thoughts on “Summer 2009 Roundup 1: Bakemonogatari, Umineko no Naku Koro Ni, CANAAN, Sora no Manimani”

  1. Black Lagoon was awesome in the moment, but I did feel they took the easy way out with regard to certain plot points.  It also has the dubious distinction of being the only anime I’ve ever recommended to squick out one of my close friends.  I wonder if CANAAN will likewise head down that path.

  2. Regarding the question about Umineko: The concept about the arcs representing each indiviual game will be similar to Higurashi. They even named the episodes 1-1, 1-2 etc. to reflect this.
    The idea of the resetting story will also return, but because everyone was expecting it anyway there is no great mystery about it’s nature. That element will get introduced and explained quite early in the story, but will also become one of the central aspects of the story structure.

    But this doesn’t make Umineko a bad copy of the Higurashi story. There is  a focus on other plot elements compared to Higurashi. There is not so much of the gripping psycho horror and more of mysterys you could expect in a traditional detective novel. The author occasional even trys to distance his style from those ideas about detective fiction in the game as well.  :) What does NOT mean that there won’t be chilling and gruesome scenes, especially when that little girl ist involved. :)

    But there is also a diffrent mindset to the whole constructed mystery. You could call it even more experimental then before.  In Higurashi one of the biggest  question was, what was fundamentally going on in the village and to make sense out of it, but Umineko give these family problems, the  “murder house” ideas and the witch as important person right away and continues to present many “facts” (some are even treated as absolute truth) and ask you: “It this the really the answer? It it even possible?”. When playing the games you might even question the authors sanity because he’s crossing over to totally unexpected genres…. starting with that so often repeating closed circle novel scenario and ending at some strange place ;-)

    With that detective play and the puzzle about the hidden gold there is also much more emphasis on logical arguments and combining the puzzle pieces. (That’s at least my impression. Never played the Higurashi game. Only know the anime seasons + some background infos from the TIPS). Especially that makes the game such a mind game to spawn thousands of forum fan posts about conclusion and possible story explanations.

    Important questions in this series will revolve around stuff like:
    Can you really deny the existance of magic / witches / supernatural?
    When are people ready to believe in things they can no prove?
    …. and of cause comparing to Higurashi: It the presentation / perception of the story once again totally warped? ^^

    The anime adaption seems quite promising, but the big question will be, if DEEN manages to keep all the important little details in the anime considering the huge amount of content the game contain.
    Using and rearranging some of the tracks from the great game OST (and some other gimmiks in the first episodes) at least shows, that they are aware of the large fanbase of the orginal games.

    Sorry if this seems to spoilerish. It’s so difficult to explain why so many people love it without touching the story details :)

  3. Seinime: it definitely sticks out among all the other shows this season. Of course, my sample is pretty biased given that I tend to like these kinds of things in general–though watch for another roundup of some other shows too. I really want to see Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 as well.

    moritheil: I remember that review! I don’t think CANAAN will be similar though, at least not if Nasu really gets his way. THat kind of slam bang action isn’t his style in the end.

    Digdri: thanks for all the info. Actually if that’s true, then it should be even more interesting than Higurashi, in that they are going to be playing up the unreliable narrator aspect of it much more. It’s like the Rashomon of anime. That would be supremely cool, and that makes me even more excited about watching it.

    Jesus159159159: I hear a rumor that if you like the show too, they’ll love you as well.

  4. not guilty, she’s already taken! :D but i suppose it does come off that way. a wee bit.

    (oh cool you can edit your own comments within an allotted time! yeah i know i’m such a Luddite)

  5. Don’t know Rashomon so I can’t compared the approach but unreliable narration is really a big point in this story…. much more then in Higurashi in my opinion.  And thoses small bits of absolute informations I mentioned make it even worst. Doesn’t that make the credibility of everything else very questionable? :P
    That’s one of the reason why fan argument about the story usually are totally paronoid. Most doesn’t even except the simplest details as facts without questioning them twice because the author tricked so many reader / viewer before so successful with his web of red herrings, warped presentations and misapplied conclusions. ^^
    What I really liked about it in Umineko games is, how you can find logical answers in almost every instance of those strange and usually high fantastical scenes, if you try to read between the lines of what is written.  It gives analysing the plot an interesting duality. The games even draws a connection to Schroedinges cat in this context once.

    One thing I forgot earlier: You mentioned the good character development in Higurashi. Umineko luckily goes the same route. The diffrent arcs also strongly rely on the backstory of diffrent family members and their relations … and with this big cast there are more then enough characters who are still quite mysterious after the 4th game. The obvious(?) structure of the plot also automatically put specific people in the spotlight each arc. (If you have already seen 2nd & 3rd episode you sure understand what I mean :)

    There is not so much “descent into darkness” like in Higurashi, but the story has a recurring theme of sin / punishment / atonement to it, which I found presented quite interessing. Even the OP lyrics of the anime give first hints about it.

  6. flory: I confess I’m not sure what you are talking about there.

    Digdri: Rashomon is the classic film by Akira Kurosawa where the story of a crime is told from four different perspectives–each contradicting the others. In the end, you’re not sure who’s telling the truth.

    It seems like the success of the show is going to hinge on whether they are going to get the subtle details right. I’m about to watch the 2nd and 3rd eps right now, so I guess I’ll be finding out whether all these things might come to fruition.

    And I’m totally all for stories about sin and atonement, if it’s done right.

  7. Ok sounds like something I should watch when I find some time :)

    The big problem about the details is: With all the things like butterfly effect and extreme attention to details in the mysterys in these reoccuring events in both game series combined with the fact that the first 4 Umineko game are once again only the “question arcs”, only the author might know what can be cut out.
    Fans often complained that Higurashi was adapted really badly because many importants hints were cut so from the anime perspective the mystery could not be solved. But perhaps DEEN simply couldn’t know better, because the last game(s) simple were not released yet.
    But some people claim this time the author has a much bigger advisory influence on the anime, so one can hope this time they get it right.

    What I all comes down to is the old “book vs. film adaption” problem.

    In my opinion they did a good job til episode 3. Much of the things they left out  to this point only made the game world a little “richer”. More introduction of the large cast so get a better idea about their personality and where they belong in the family-tree, casual information and anecdotes Battler knows about them, that Kyrie is not Battlers real mother and he don’t get along with this dad so good, the conservative family image, more about grandpas past, the kids actually talking about how the epitaph could be solved, some silly jokes etc. Some scenes scenes are simply longer in the game. Marias ruckus about the rose drew on much much longer in the game so her mothers reaction seems much more understandable but cutting I wasn’t the dumbest idea IMO… It was annoying enough in words instead of text :P
    All in all nothing they couldn’t insert later on when its importent.
    To give you an idea: the 20 mins of the first episode may take 2 to 2 1/2 h reading in the game.

    I thought I mention the stuff about sins because I also got the feeling that may interest you after reading you blog-entries for a longer time.
    If it plays out well… no idea. To many explanations are still missing where the game end right now ^^
    But I think if you liked Higurashi for its intelligent nature you will like Umineko too.
    The stories give you so much to ponder on besides the crimes, puzzles and PoV problems. There is a huge motif of chessplaying to the  aspects of the meta-story, some deeper thoughts about what truth really is and you could say some world building aspect to his descripting of the magic realms even if they might not even exist and much more. ^^

    The author even provided some “letters” between some ingame characters complimenting the later game-stories by giving even more thought provoking depictions (game extras which some fans translated). In some of those he tries to tackle this major themes in more abstract or philosophical ways.
    You really get the idea that this guy wants to deliver some interessing messages with this game series. I find this quite intriguing.

  8. I really like in Umineko how they have recently shown Frederika Berkanstel(sp?)…she was not formally introduced in higurashi.

  9. Well to be exact she is only called the Witch Bernkastel (from the origin of Rikas favorite brand of wine). Considering the blurry explanations who Frederika Bernkastel really was and was not you don’t even know if she really is connected to anything in Higurashi and just a kind of exported character design. But even if she is, this is a new story and she is only a side-character on the meta-story. On the other side she as more relevance to the overall concept then Frederika in Higurashi. Cutting she out again would have really ruin later arcs.

    Nevertheless she is an interesting character talking in riddles and metaphors most of the time. Just don’t confuse her with familiar characters (that sure was the authors intention to designing her that way ^^)

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