It’s that time of the year again–time for Mike to bring out some quick first impressions about the new season. What in the world is he thinking?
Arakawa Under the Bridge
Fractured: if there was one word that describes most of the oeuvre of Akiyuki Shinbo and his proteges and SHAFT, that would be it. Shinbo is consistently drawn to the surreal and the jagged in his humor, narrative flow, and editing–not to mention the quirky characters that inhabit his stories. Arakawa Under the Bridge, an endearingly off-beat comedy in the vein of Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei in its short chapters and its histrionic main character, suits his style well. In fact, he is relatively restrained in the use of monochromatic shots, background text, and other “Shinboisms,” because the source material is strange enough to carry itself just fine.
It helps that the characters are all likable, funny, or both; Ko/Recruit’s over-the-top imagination and exaggerated sense of indebtedness serves not only as a good counterpoint to the laid back denizens under the bridge, but also as a sly comment on the class differences between himself and everyone else. All of the characters are, in one sense, wearing costumes: Nino in her school jacket and shorts, the Mayor in his Kappa suit, “Sister” in the habit…and Ko in his shirt and tie, which society considers “normal” but is as much a mask as anything else. Ko’s constant struggle is to accept these weirdos for who they are, and to not be defined by what he has so much as who he is (as one character puts it). This gives some weight to what is otherwise a laugh out loud bizarro fest, which never fails to surprise in its twists and turns, and allows some small moments of tenderness here and there between Ko and Nino. Wisely, Shinbo dials back the sentimentality at just the right times so the audience can go on laughing.
This is perhaps the most original show of the season thus far.
I never finished season 1. There, I said it. You may all shoot me now…nevertheless I did watch the bridging OVA and K-ON! was not the sort of show where crucial knowledge was revealed in earlier episodes to make season 2 confusing in the least. In its second season K-ON!! gets a new OP and ED and, to my eyes, improved animation quality (though perhaps that is just episode 1 budget busting)–though I don’t like the new OP nearly as much as the original and the new ED, while good, has not grown as me nearly as quickly as the instant classic “Don’t Say Lazy.” Musically speaking, my favorite part is the solo guitar version of “My Love is a Stapler” at the beginning of episode 1…especially when Yui goes Pete Townsend on that extremely expensive Les Paul of hers. I think I like it better than the full version of the song, in fact.
Otherwise, it’s pretty much the same show as before: a bunch of innocent, moe girls playing in a band and getting into very mild hijinks. It never inspired great love or hatred in me, the way it seemed to have done in other fans; what it does well is keeping things simple and fun and musical, especially now that instrument manufacturers know how potent a product placement in this show can be for their sales…a bunch of Korg Tritons were probably just sold through the OP alone. In short, it’s a pleasant watch, a light and fluffy time for all, the anime equivalent of a sugar cookie. And that is not at all a disparaging comparison: I like my sugar cookies just fine, especially after shows that might be draining after a while. (I’m looking at you, heavy dramas…)
Angel Beats seems to have been created in part to prove that Jun Maeda and Key Visual Arts’ creative talent could do more than just tell stories about sad girls in [insert season here]. On that level it succeeds: the main trace of the Key style is in the video-game inspired slapstick humor (last seen in Clannad) and in the character designs. The action-oriented story and setting, which has no harem elements and so far little or not hints of romance, is perhaps the most ambitious of the season, with a developed theory of the afterlife and taking on nothing less than an Angel and the God who presumably stands behind her.
Or so Yuri, the Haruhi-esque leader of the SSS–it cannot be a coincidence that their logo resembles that of the real-life SS–claims. One of the most fascinating aspects of Angel Beats is what exactly is at stake for the characters who are now stuck in this intermediate state between life and the next life. Angel wants, presumably, the kind of high school conformity expected of Japanese students: join a club, attend class, study, which ultimately leads to one truly “disappearing.” One wonders whether this is all an elaborate allegory of sorts. (Shades of the first season of Buffy, anyone?) In this intermediate state, that is the only way to truly “die”; contra the Internet meme, you can be “killed” in this world but not really die, not with any finality, which simultaneously takes a lot of the suspense away from various action scenes and opens opportunities for humor. The show rightly focuses instead on memory and identity as being precious, and ultimately the theodicy question at the heart Yuri’s battle lends some heft and drama.
The directing in this show–such as the juxtaposition of the battle and the concert in the first episode, and the traps in the second–is solid. PA Works, who are rapidly becoming the TV animation studio to watch for fluid, detailed animation, seems like it wants to pick up the mantle from KyoAni (we have elements of Haruhi and the various Key works in one show here!). We shall see whether the promising story and execution will amount to anything, as shows like Sora no Woto have sadly demonstrated that such things can be squandered; still, this is the season’s other major standout for me.
Kaichou wa Maid-sama
Stories that features maids in maid cafes are usually squarely aimed at male otaku, but not this one apparently: Kaichou wa Maid-sama is about as shoujo as it gets, sparkles and suddenly considerate handsome men and all. The setup seems to borrow equally from Special A and Kare Kano, with the maid cafe aspect being the original component. It is so far a better show than the simultaneously outlandish and bland Special A, but is lacking the spark that Kare Kano had even in its first moments. True, Misaki is about as extreme in her mood swings as Yukino seemed at first, and is playing upon the same contrast between her private and public self and those two worlds colliding because of a boy. Perhaps it is because I am a male, but while the differences are sometimes amusing (especially with Usui’s sarcastic comments, like when he says “neko mimi moe”), I don’t find either persona to be as interesting as Yukino’s studious/lazy double act. Her class president act seems to be particularly unpleasant, as the caricature of the prude who more than anything finds boys icky and in need of taming.
What might be interesting to watch is to see how male otaku tropes, as contained in the maid cafe idea, and shoujo tropes mix in this show. Ouran High School Host Club was aimed straight at fujoshi and shoujo archetypes. Nogizaka Haruka no Himitsu is an otaku romance, but it’s told from the male perspective, and the girl in that one is a real otaku and of the kind with mostly male tastes, like Konata in Lucky Star. Perhaps the borders between what is portrayed in shoujo and in male otaku-oriented material are beginning to become porous. Or, at the end of the day, the maid cafe will merely be used as a plot device to bring the main couple together, which seems more likely.