Summer 2016, part I

There’s no time for calculated choices, it’s premiere season! I’m hitting that “simulcast” tab and picking whatever’s just getting started. No research, no expectations—just a summary and an episode. Let’s go!


Berserk (2016)

Spurred by the flame raging in his heart, the Black Swordsman Guts continues his seemingly endless quest for revenge. Standing in his path are heinous outlaws, delusional evil spirits, and a devout child of god. Even as it chips away at his life, Guts continues to fight his enemies, who wield repulsive and inhumane power, with nary but his body and sword—his strength as a human. What lies at the end of his travels? The answer is shrouded in the “night.” Strain your eyes and stare into the dark!

Honestly I didn’t even read this description before diving in. I was looking forward to this premiere because I’ve been meaning to read it for years. Seemed like gory dumb action, which are three of my favorite things on the planet.

Okay. Within the first five seconds I’m laughing. Not only does it open with voiceover, which the Flop House points to as a sure-fire indicator of a bad movie, but it’s voiceover by Ōtsuka Akio. So even though the visuals are just swirly purple-pink evil, I already know precisely what I’m getting: epic stupidity. And you know I’m about that.

Cut to a gross tavern where we meet Guts, a young man who thinks Guts is awesome, and a fairy who is seemingly intersexed. Guts saves the fairy (Puck) from gross tavern guys, and as it is fucking annoying it has to hang around the whole rest of the episode. Also I want to clarify I’m not using ‘it’ because I’m not sure about gender or sex, but because it’s a tiny fairy creature that is terrible. I don’t know who that character is for in the context of this genre but it’s grating.

Later an old monk and his beautiful (?) young daughter stop to pick up Guts in their wagon for some reason (ignoring his very blatant warning that he attracts danger) and then he explains that a demon bit his arm off, hence the mechanical arm. Apparently the brand on the back of his neck attracts demons and just bleeds sometimes. Also his right eye is always closed—is this to keep the evil in? Or is the eye just gone? Did he also play Scarlet Fate? We’ll never know.

Anyway he falls asleep in the back and has some memory nightmares, including a bunch of his homeys getting murdered and something that only happens for a flash but seems to be tentacle rape, and I guess I have to post the screencap here because, hot SEO tip, that peanut butter squid image from Shokugeki no Souma is the number one reason my site gets hits.

Sigh. Enjoy, pervazoids. It all goes into my data when you click on it.

Sigh. Enjoy, pervazoids. It all goes into my data when you click on it.

Guts wakes up stabbing a demon, just before the wagon is surrounded by horde mode. And despite the series title, I can’t help but notice that he is mostly pretty serene. The only time he really loses it is after the fight, when the voices in his head get too loud and he shoots his hand cannon into the sky. (This is a literal hand cannon. His robot arm has a gun inside.) We don’t even see him go ‘berserk’ in battle, he’s just reasonably badass.

Maybe he just can't control his spiritual pressure?

Maybe he just can’t control his spiritual pressure?

His philosophy is the most unhinged thing about him. When the old monk and his daughter end up dead thanks to the ambush, Guts tells Puck “I wouldn’t be able to take a single step if I let myself worry about stepping on ants.” He doesn’t seek to destroy innocents, and he did warn the dumbasses. He took precautions, but ultimately it was their fault. Broken eggs, spilled milk, etc. Whatever gets you through the day, man.

The other negative (besides the fairy) is that this thing is fraught with Conspicuous CG. It moves like a PS2 game that blew all its budget on textures rather than polygons. Sometimes it even looks like the first JoJo opening sequence—awkward and uncanny. I think it’s going for a mixed-media approach but it can’t reconcile any of them: cel animation, pencil art, and digital shading all mashed together do not look good. If that stuff were a little more on point I’d bump up the rating, but as it is, not even the gore is gory enough to have me clamoring to come back. [3]


Sweetness & Lightning

Kohei is a single father and high school teacher who lives with his only daughter. A chance encounter brings him together with Kotori, one of his students. The three of them start to meet together to make meals. None of them know how to cook, but they all love delicious food! ”sweetness & lightning” is a heartwarming and fun experience that you’re sure to love!

I looked at this guy as the episode opened and said, “I’m gonna be disappointed if that’s not Sakurai.”

Close, but Nakamura. Luckily it’s one of the few kinds of roles he’s actually suited for, and father-daughter stuff always owns my ass so I expected to be crying through a good percentage of this.

The lady of the house passed away only half a year ago. Dad is bad at cooking but wears an apron to put things in the microwave for his daughter’s bento (same as yesterday, he laments). On two separate occasions we see a wide shot of the little girl (Tsumugi) eating in front of the TV while Kōhei catches up on housework. So we get the idea that it’s such a struggle for him to keep up with school and chores that despite being the only ones in the apartment, they don’t actually spend much time together. His colleagues worry over him too, complaining that he’s too thin to show subtle concern for his emotional health.

But Kōhei is doing his best. When Tsumugi shows an interest in the season, he takes her to the park for cherry blossom viewing. Here they meet Kotori, who is alone; her mother was supposed to come but canceled at the last minute. To deflect attention from her weepy face-stuffing Kotori gives them the card for her mother’s restaurant.

Some days later, when Kōhei returns home a bit late with yet another night of store bought bento, he finds Tsumugi clutching the TV and drooling over a cooking show. Worst of all, it becomes clear she doesn’t quite understand what happened to her mother.

Dad is crushed. It’s time for emergency dinner. He sets the girl on his shoulders and books it through the streets, but when they arrive at the restaurant Kotori’s mother, the chef, isn’t there. Instead the unskilled Kotori struggles her way through cooking a pot of plain rice to feed them; it’s obvious even to her that this little family kind of needs something nice. She also finds out Kōhei hadn’t recognized her—he’s actually (currently?) one of her teachers—but considering how his life has changed in the past six months, that’s understandable.

Tsumugi is so enraptured by home-cooked rice that Kōhei is brought to tears, and vows to make an effort going forward to make decent meals and eat with her. This is where the lonely Kotori proposes that she join them in their quest, though it’s unclear as of yet whether her intentions are pure or if she’s got a crush on teacher. One will lead to just ridiculous sweetness, the other melodrama. I know the conflict has to come from somewhere, but based on the tone I’m guessing (*hoping*) no crush is involved.

That tone is beyond charming. Having an actual child actress play Tsumugi lends extra credibility and genuine spark to the dialogue, and the visuals have Miyazaki-type touches of humanity: Tsumugi pushing a half-empty bento into her dad’s cheek, or wiggling with a patient smile as she waits for rice, or Kōhei tugging one of the snoozing Tsumugi’s bent legs straight before tucking her in. It’s nice to see a single dad series where the man is comfortable with his child, rather than emotionally distant or uncertain of his competence. He is competent, and he wants to raise her; he’s just exhausted and still working out the kinks. But he goes for it, and as a result the interactions between him and his daughter are full of trust and a mutual desire to be together. And yes I did cry for like half the episode, thank you very much. [5]


91 Days

During Prohibition, the law held no power and the mafia ruled the town. The story takes place in Lawless, a town thriving on black market sales of illicitly brewed liquor. One day, Avilio receives a letter from a mysterious sender, prompting him to return to Lawless for revenge. He then infiltrates the Vanetti family, the ones responsible for his family’s murder, and sets about befriending the don’s son, Nero, to set his vengeance in motion. Killing brings more killing, and revenge spawns more revenge. How will the 91-day story of these men guided by a tragic fate end?

I’ve been way into historical series lately. Joker Game has been going alright for me (fulfills my vest quotient quite handily), and I binged Shōwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjū in basically one evening. For all its weirdness you could even count Bungō Stray Dogs (or, Gintama for Japanese authors instead of the bakumatsu), which narratively, eh, but damn that thing goes all out on the presentation, both visual and vocal. (Miyano—muah. Perfetto.)

So while I’m not particularly interested in Prohibition, I felt good about trying this series. Also it was at this point in the day that the sake came out, just by chance. Full disclosure.

Avilio’s neighbors find him creepy, stoic, “can’t tell if he’s alive or dead”—but a photo in his mail elicits quite the maniacal reaction. Apparently the time for revenge has come? Flashback to the night his family was murdered, which at only a few minutes long was pretty short as far as flashbacks go (as opposed to 11.5/13 episodes as with Rakugo). Their house was straight out of a fairy tale, a cozy mansion in the middle of the woods. There we meet the once-pleasant young Avilio, as well as Corteo, his childhood friend and ally in the present action, who grew up with an ill mother in a poor household. (Avilio’s mother slips Corteo money before he departs the house that night.)

There’s not much unexpected in the slaughter scene—dad was doing shady business, and shady Vanetti guys followed him home—but Avilio managed to stay hidden long enough to sneak past the dead bodies of his parents and brother, to escape the house, and to get shot at from afar while running through an April snowstorm. He took refuge with Corteo, who pledged that Avilio would be his brother from that day forward. But Avilio seemed to recognize the danger that would put him in, so he slipped away before Corteo woke.

Back to present, seven years later; Corteo now brews real good moonshine, but unfortunately wants nothing to do with gangs. One makes an offer to buy his stuff, which he refuses even as he’s being beaten, and Avilio pops up just in time to stop gang dudes from completely wrecking his shit.

He does so with a massive wrench.

Avilio convinces Corteo to let him use some of his stock to get in with a gang, making appeals to their brotherhood and such. And after their successful meeting with Vanetti reps is interrupted by a psycho cowboy who shoots up the joint, Avilio finds himself already having made positive contact with Vanetti’s son. Revenge is under way? Credits.

It’s really pretty light on story. I’m terrible at predicting plots but there were a couple things I saw coming because that’s just how dramas work. And yet this is more interesting than its collection of tropes would suggest, mostly thanks to execution. The animation is fuzzy, like it’s not buffered all the way (it was, I could tell by the sharp subtitles), but that works for it. It’s like not quite focusing the film strip before printing, if you’ve ever developed photos. Old-timey.

There’s also no music until about eight minutes in, with very little after that, raising the extant feeling of unease. And it’s got my favorite kind of pacing: natural. We watch Avilio sit down on his bed, examine an envelope, flick open his pocket knife, slice open one side. There’s literally nothing happening but it’s still compelling: the grim rain, the run-down room, the neighbors outside suspicious of him, the absence of music with the character’s complete silence . . . tension is high.

Disco called. . . .

Disco called. . . .

Not to mention some solid voice acting, including TsudaKen as unbridled crazy (that dude really is going to be the next Koyasu, isn’t he?) and other guys I recognized but weren’t listed in the credits. So I look forward to hearing them as villains of future episodes. [4]


The Morose Mononokean

“Exorcism” is the art of sending yokai who have somehow wandered into the living world back into the underworld, where they belong. One day Hanae Ashiya, a high school student who’s been haunted by a yokai, happens to find the contact information of an exorcist called the “Mononokean” and pays him a visit. The exorcist he meets is a morose-looking young man, Haruitsuki Abeno, and for various reasons Ashiya ends up working for the Mononokean… And so the story of the exorcist duo Ashiya and Abeno, and the yokai they meet in their adventures, begins.

So after a break to catch up on Ace Attorney (SHUT UP IT’S REALLY QUITE GOOD) I concluded the day with what turned out to be another Kaji Yūki joint.

Too bad this thing opens SO boring that I could barely sit still through the first third. Then this happened in the opening credits and I wanted to shut it the fuck off.

I hadn’t hit the booze hard enough to put up with that.

So let’s map this plot. Ashiya is walking home one evening when he steps on a fuzzy..thing on the sidewalk. Assuming it’s a lost stuffie, he puts it in a plastic bag and hangs it from a fence to make it easier for the owner to find. But it’s actually a youkai and jumps from the bag and clings to his back. It’s a pretty straightforward scene but could not have been written any more ploddingly. Many scenes are like that, with Ashiya stating the obvious or saying the same thing two or three different ways. While it’s 100% silent the youkai itself has way more character than the protagonist, prodding an ice pack on Ashiya’s head like an evil cat and constantly fucking peering at him. But it’s got tiny nubbin legs. And three poufy fox tails. And it just looks so judgey.

WHAT.

And even after lots of shouting and wrestling and kicking it will not go away. Ashiya’s first day of high school is the next morning, and the youkai is apparently draining the life from him as he looks a mess and feels ill and can barely stagger down the street. Of course no one else can see it, so when he collapses just outside the gate, he is taken to the nurse’s office where he spends all of the first day of school. Actually, pretty much the first week. He gets a little farther each day—collapsing just inside the gate, just outside the doors, just inside the foyer—and with each passing day the youkai gets bigger and bigger. (His mother is an idiot and blames anemia.)

So on a day he actually makes it to a hallway, he happens to see a flyer requesting assistance in exorcising critters like this. Ashiya places a desperate phone call, which advises him to simply step back outside the nurse’s office.

The answerer is Abeno, who is clearly supposed to be Abe no Seimei, a Heian-period onmyouji (sort of like a classical Japanese diviner or medium). The magical tearoom that appears outside the nurse’s office makes the growing youkai suddenly shrink, so this is a good sign. When Abeno finds out Ashiya wasn’t really an applicant and just wanted an exorcism himself, he coldly puts him at the end of his ten-day waitlist—until Ashiya tells him his name. (Ashiya Douman was Abe no Seimei’s storied rival.) Abeno immediately changes his mind and leads Ashiya out another magical door, taking them to the roof of the school where the youkai inflates larger than ever before. Abeno then blows up a beach ball, which infuriates Ashiya, thinking the guy is just fucking around. But it turns out this is part of the process. The youkai is too big to exorcise, so they first have to give it what it wants: to play.

The reasoning is that it was probably someone’s pet that died, and in its ghostiness became attached to Ashiya after he was kind to it. And being a loyal little pet, even after all the abuse Ashiya leveled on it, it stuck around because it just wanted company and abuse was better than being alone. 

This makes Ashiya feel understandably/rightfully guilty. So they play until it’s tiny again, and the little fuzzy guy is so pleased that he’s still gently headbutting the beach ball even as Abeno opens a portal to the other world in the background. And he happily chooses to walk through when the time comes.

That door kinda looks big enough to me. . . .

In addition to the debt accrued by being successfully exorcised, Ashiya is inspired to help more youkai move on and agrees to work with Abeno henceforth. So in summation: think Natsume Yūjinchō but with weaker characters, less heart-stringy, more gimmicky, and not as good. Not to mention it lifted Aunt Touko from Natsume and made her Ashiya’s mom, a florist who had the balls to give her male child a clearly female name. (When he finally gets to go to class, the boys in his homeroom are nothing less than enraged that this classmate they’ve been looking forward to is a dude.) And it’s more like Rin-ne in tone and theme, especially given that at the end of the episode, spoiler alert, Abeno is chilling in the classroom like he’s been a student all along.

Despite all that, by the end I’m totally into it. The supposed protagonist is no draw as he’s a checklist, with his naivete, bland cuteness, and slightly spastic temper. But on the other hand Abeno is beautiful and the youkai are adorable as fuck. I’ll give this one a couple more goes and hope for some development, and when that fails there’s always the Seimei/Douman arc in Gintama[4]

Pandemonium ho!


I’m sorry these premieres are getting longer and longer, but I just can’t shut up. There’s usually more to say when I like something or there’s good design, and surprisingly these all turned up with pretty favorable ratings. I’m eyeing to review at least four more new series this season, maybe more if I can keep my momentum going. Once again, it’s good to be back!

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