Friday, July 5, 2013

Crunching the Numbers: End of Spring 2013

Hey, I didn't forget about finishing this series. Sorry about taking awhile to update Crunching the Numbers, but I underestimated how much time it takes to follow 13 shows, or rather 8 shows as you'll see I dropped quite a few shows since the last time. I'll briefly talk about the shows I dropped and why I dropped them, but first I want to discuss the future of Crunching the Numbers.

There won't be any Crunching the Numbers after this. Don't worry, I'm not stopping the season reviews just yet. Quite simply, Crunching the Numbers will be receiving a new name with some new rules that are designed to make it so that following every show will be easier on me. I won't be revealing the name change and new rules just yet, but you'll know about them eventually.

However, you're going to have to wait until the fall. I may or may not do some summer previews (though at the time of this writing Free! is the only new anime I'd say is worth anything), but I won't be doing any extensive coverage of the season. Instead, I'll be focusing on a new weekly anime project which I will be announcing next week. Look forward to it.

So with that out of the way, let's crunch the numbers one more time!

Spoiler Warning!

1) Flowers of Evil

Flowers of Evil embodies both the best and worst traits of this season. The good definitely outweighs the bad in this case, but let me talk to you about the biggest problem of this season: pacing. You might not think that's such a big deal, but bad pacing actually killed what were once good shows for me as we'll see later. Pacing is what dictates the flow of a story and consequently the mood, the character motivations, and most importantly the audience's reaction. Flowers of Evil is a slow burn of a show, which sometimes really makes the creepy mood of the show even better (the tension of Kasuga entering Nakamura's room for the first time for example), or sometimes the mood will become blissful and ethereal (the amazing classroom sequence in episode 7).

Oh yeah, episode 7. You might have heard people lavish praise for this episode in particular. It's not even the best episode (episode 10 takes that spot for me), but episode 7 completely justifies the use of rotoscoping, not just for the show but as a tool that can be used in any animated work. The show has been building up the rocky relationship between Kasuga and Nakamura up to this point. Nakamura's goal has been to expose Kasuga as a terrible deviant, possibly because she needs someone to justify her misanthropic look on life. It results in a beautiful little piece of destruction and awe-inspiring visual direction. It's up there with the Green Bird sequence from Cowboy Bebop as one of those moments that makes anime totally worth watching.

Let's get back to the pacing problems I mentioned earlier. As amazing as moments like episode 7 are, the earlier episodes have the problem of not much actually happening in them. The slow pacing is intentionally done, but it does test your patience. The worst offender of bad pacing has to be the first 8 minutes of episode 8. Yes, right after that amazing segment of animation I was telling you about, the show decides to show you 8 minutes of Kasuga and Nakamura walking home. In theory this would work as a nice cool-down moment after the insanity of the previous episode, but 8 minutes of just walking is overindulgent. Luckily the pacing picks up again afterwards, but the show never shakes off that feeling of being a little too slow.

Episode 10 feels like the real climax of the show to me, with the last three episodes wrapping up some of the fallout nicely, but episode 10 feels like where the show finally makes its point about the characters of the show. Is Kasuga this smart person who understands a book as difficult as Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil? No, he's just some lonely kid who is empty inside, and doesn't understand Flowers of Evil any more than Saeki understands it. Kasuga is truly pathetic and no one cares. It's a harsh message, but extremely refreshing for an anime to say. Too many times have we been treated to stories about kid protagonists who are special, who might be misunderstood but are good down deep, or completely awful characters who are justified by having a tragic backstory. No, Kasuga is awful because he hasn't grown up yet. He holds onto these childish and creepy fantasies of Saeki being a pure angel. It's an extremely unhealthy way of thinking, and yet it's biting because there are people like Kasuga out there. Hell, the idea of sexual purity is one that is disturbingly common among Japanese otaku. You needn't look any further than any idol fan to find these ideas. That Flowers of Evil has the balls to make statements like this makes it truly special and worth watching.

One last thing I have to talk about, and no it's not the rotoscoping because that's been talked about before, though I will point out that as the show goes on, the direction and rotoscoping drastically improves, though are a few hilarious moments where a character played by Oshimi Shuuzou (yes THAT Oshimi Shuuzou), is obviously wearing a fake mustache. What I really want to talk about is the ending and how it makes Flowers of Evil less of a standalone story than it should be. I was expecting that I'd want to read the manga afterwards because I knew that the anime wouldn't cover the whole story, but with the direction it was heading in I thought it'd pick a good point to stop and make the whole thing work as its own smaller version of the manga. Sadly, the ending teases future events that happen in the manga and ends with the words "Part 1: END". It's a horrible tease that really doesn't need to be there when the rest of the ending works fine and there's no guarantee that this show will get a second season. If it does, I'll definitely watch it, but given the backlash this show received it has a snowball's chance in hell of getting that second season.

Fortunately, that tease is not enough to diminish the quality of this show. We need more anime like Flowers of Evil. We need more anime that are bold enough to make something different and refuse to pander to audiences while sacrificing artistic intent (though given the anime I'll be watching this summer this is really ironic). Flowers of Evil is one of those anime that proves why anime can be special, and that's why it's a must-see.

2) Chihayafuru 2 (second half)


Okay, I'm getting ahead of myself, but I really hope we get at least one more season of Chihayafuru because it's so good. Like many other shows this season, Chihayafuru 2 had pacing problems; it covers less ground than the first series by having most of the season focus on one tournament, and some of the karuta matches go on for one episode too many. However, Chihayafuru still shows what it needs to show, that being the emotionally satisfying triumphs and losses that our characters go through. Arata finally feels like a proper part of the show now, and the issues of the love triangle Chihaya has been involved in from the start have been mostly resolved in one scene where Chihaya basically admits who she loves to the audience (though not her love in person). Season 2 ends on a good note; like season 1, it leaves room for more, but it's a nice reflection on all that has happened before and shows just how far our characters have come since first forming the karuta club.

Maybe one day I'll do a full review of Chihayafuru in general, but for now I feel as though I've already said as much about the show as I can. I've seen 50 episodes of characters playing a card game I've never heard of before, and I loved nearly every bit of it.

3) The Devil is a Part-Timer

If Flowers of Evil didn't exist, this would be the most surprising anime of the season for me. An anime about Satan working at McDonald's (named MgRonald's in this show)? That sounds really dumb, it can't be that be good. Cut to me laughing for 13 episodes. Maybe this says more about my taste in comedy than about anime comedy in general, but there hasn't been an anime that has made me laugh this much in a long time.

What makes The Devil is a Part-Timer stick out from other anime comedy is that it doesn't fall prey to most of the same mistakes those shows make. Too often will anime comedy rely on overreactions, prat-falls, and yelling as jokes, when those aren't jokes at all. Devil's comedy comes from its natural character reaction and dialogue. You've got this great ensemble cast of demons, heroes, angels, and humans that all have really funny interactions with each other, whether it be just how well Satan adapts to working at MgRonald's or how budget-conscious Ashiya is or how Lucifer becomes this NEET, they all work. I ended up liking nearly all the characters due to their well-written personalities and quirks.

I mentioned earlier that most of the shows had pacing problems this season. Even my two favorite shows of the season couldn't avoid this, but Devil is a Part-Timer? Never feels too fast or too slow and the progression always feels natural. The action is actually somewhat good, though obviously not as good or important as the comedy and characters. There are a few moments in the show where Satan gets to let loose his powers, and those fight scenes are a ton of fun to watch. They border on being too serious for the show, but again, the characters are so likable by that point that the audience will be willing to let them be serious for a moment. Also, because I think it's fun to point this out, Satan saves more lives than Superman does in Man of Steel. Don't go see Man of Steel, watch The Devil is a Part-Timer instead.

However, like Chihayafuru and Flowers of Evil, the show does end on an open note. Will our heroes get back to their homeworld or be stuck in our world forever? The show doesn't say, opting to just end after an episode about Lucifer getting swindled by a door-to-door salesman. There's no real ending for the show, and I'm not sure it needs one, but some resolution for the characters would be nice. I've heard there was more material in the light novels that the show could adapt, so there's hope for a second season, but the amount of The Devil is a Part-Timer we got is still really good. It's that rare anime comedy that's actually funny.

4) Attack on Titan (first 13 episodes)

What do I need to say about Attack on Titan? What can I say about Attack on Titan that hasn't been said before? You've probably already seen the show at this point, indulged in the countless Attack on Titan opening parody videos or possibly made your own, or at least heard people talking about how awesome this show is. With all the hype behind it, Attack on Titan can't possibly live up to those expectations, right?

No, this show is really good. Oh, it's far from perfect. As cool as the idea of humans zipping around like Spider-Man and killing titans is, it drags its feet in the later episodes. I cannot tell you how sick I was of seeing "Battle of Trost" in the title card for nine episodes straight. It takes 3 episodes just for Eren (who now has the power to summon a titan body for him to control) to move a rock to stop the titans from getting into the town. It's a problem that persists in many shonen fighting anime adaptations, and there is a reason for it (writers don't want to overtake the manga storyline), but the chapter-per-episode pacing near the end of the first half does grate a bit.

Despite the pacing problems, the show's still a ton of fun. Earlier on it was a little hard to connect to the characters, but by episode 13 I found myself liking them much more. Mikasa is the stoic badass who pretty much needs no help when it comes to killing titans, and while this is a personality type I'm not often fond of, it's refreshing to see a female character like this in a show where the majority of human characters will die. Jean started out as something of an asshole rival to Eren, but through the Battle of Trost he's become a likable guy who feels guilty over losing his friends in battle. Surprisingly Armin has become my favorite character. Yeah, the wimpy blonde kid who you'd think would be among the first to die, but he's become an invaluable part of the Survey Corps thanks to his tactical intellect, and after he stood up for Eren and Mikasa  in episode 10 he really won me over. I don't see much love for Eren, and it's easy to see why. He's a little archetypal "main character" for my tastes, the kind of guy who succeeds through sheer determination and heart. He's not a bad character by any means, and his titan abilities are responsible for some of the best action scenes in the series, but eh, he's not a great character.

The real reason this doesn't place as high as you'd think it would is not just the pacing problems, but the animation problems. Attack on Titan has some of the coolest looking fights, but more often than not the animation looks unfinished and the show resorts to still-shots, flashbacks, and camera pans and shakes to hide that fact, but it's still really obvious. Still, that shouldn't deter anyone from enjoying this show. It's incredibly entertaining, and I'm glad that it'll still be on this summer.

5) Valvrave the Liberator

The more I watched of Valvrave, the more I loved it. It's not good in the traditional manner; the story is honestly quite stupid and Haruto isn't the most likable or relatable protagonist in the world, but each episode makes you think "oh there's no way this show can get crazier", and then it proves you dead wrong. It's entertaining trash at its finest.

And then Haruto rapes Saki.

There's no getting around this. Valvrave has stirred up an enormous amount of controversy by having its hero rape another main character. Yes, I know Haruto was under the influence of his vampire powers at the time, but that doesn't take away the fact that the writers thought this series needs a rape scene, and a really tasteless one at that. How the show handles the rape afterwards is even worse, uncomfortably tiptoeing around the issue for an entire episode which culminates in Haruto PROPOSING TO MARRY SAKI. She doesn't accept the issue because Saki knows better, but what the hell Haruto? The rape scene leaves an uncomfortable aura over the entire series. As fun as the rest of it is, it'll be impossible to forget just how badly the show handled it.

Valvrave will be coming back for a second season in the fall, and after much debate with myself over the issue... I'm still going to watch it. Say what you like about how tasteless or bad the show is, it's great at getting you to come back for more because of how unpredictable it is, and that last episode was kind of fun, although the final Valvrave is a brat who will have to work hard to earn any sympathy. I halfheartedly recommend Valvrave the Liberator. I wouldn't call it good, but there's a fanbase for fun trash like this, and I'm among them.

6) Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet

I bet you're really tired of hearing me mention the word "pacing", but my god does the pacing murder this show. What was once a show I had high expectations for became one of the more trying experiences I had this spring.

I'll get the good out of the way first: the first four episodes are a great fish-out-of-water tale with a sci-fi bent. The color design is phenomenal. There are some really good ideas behind the Galactic Alliance and Gargantia's differing philosophies on life. That's pretty much what I liked about Gargantia.

And then episodes 5 and 6 exist solely as fluffy fanservice. In a longer series, this might have been more acceptable, but they're still pointless and deter from the story. Even when the story comes back in episodes 7 and 8, the damage is still done; the plotting still feels too slow for a 13 episode series, and we spend way too much time on the funeral of a supporting character. But I still held out hope. Episode 9 takes the story away from the Gargantia and brings Ledo face-to-face with the true history of the Earth and the Galactic Alliance, and admittedly the story works at making the Hideauze important again. But then the series decides "oh, you thought we were being slow? Well now we're going to be as fast as possible! Screw your pacing!" The final 4 episodes show Pinion becoming the dictator of his own fleet, Ledo questioning Chamber's and the Galactic Alliance's motives, a cult that worships another robot like Chamber, and Amy and the rest of Gargantia no longer matters until the very end.

All this stuff comes out of nowhere and ends just as quickly, and thinking about it, I could see the show going in this direction had it been a 24-26 episode series. The fact that all this happens in the last 4 episodes makes the character motivations seem way off and the whole thing rushed, to the point that the emotional beats just feel hollow. All the plot threads are quickly resolved in the space of two minutes. I don't know what went wrong here. What was once the story of a soldier trying to find a new life in a strange land became a jumbled mess that doesn't know what it wants to be.

7) Devil Survivor 2 the Animation

So did Devil Survivor 2 break the video game adaptation and manage to be an engaging standalone story? Uh, no. Actually, from what I've heard even fans of the game don't seem to happy, so even as a way to pander to the fans it fails. So what went wrong?

Devil Survivor 2 has a huge cast of characters. Only two characters are truly important, those characters being our hero Hibiki and the villain Yamato, who have one of the most homoerotic rivalries I've seen in animation, and I've seen He-Man. Every other character exists to die. Anytime they have a moment that looks like character development is almost always immediately followed up with them biting the dust, so you never get to know them and their deaths don't register as being dramatic or shocking, just pointless. The show is trying to make a point about it being the end of the world, so some death would be expected, but the way in which the show kills off its characters is a boring pattern. Somehow Devil Survivor 2 made death and the apocalypse boring.

The show deals with big themes such as rebirth, the fate of humanity, and chaos vs order, all themes that have been explored in previous Shin Megami Tensei games, and they feel stagnant here. I think I know what the problem is, and this is a problem that seems to be persistent in anime adaptations of this franchise. The SMT games have always been built around choices; Devil Survivor 2 the game features multiple routes to choose, and your characters can die or you can save them. The power of choice is what gives the story and characters more power, and when stripped of that choice you're left with a soulless husk like Devil Survivor 2 the Animation. Though I am looking forward to seeing the Hibiki/Yamato doujinshi. Get to work on that, yaoi fans.

8) Muromi-san

There's really not much to say about Muromi-san. It's a gag comedy about a mermaid and her mythological friends who are introduced every week. There's no real story to speak of, so the show lives and dies by its gags, and honestly the show is too hit-and-miss to recommend. However, as with all comedy, taste is super subjective. I did laugh at a few jokes here and there (Muromi's relationship with penguins), but then there are episodes like episode 12 where the joke is "hey, how much can we gross the audience out by abusing this big-breasted mermaid?". Had the episodes not been 12 minutes long as opposed to 24, I probably would have dropped Muromi-san long ago. It exists, and it might make you laugh, but it'll quickly be forgotten as is the fate for most dumb gag comedies. Stick to Devil is a Part-Timer if you want some good yuks.

Dishonorable Mentions:

Mushibugyo (dropped at episode 8):

Great color design and humorous character designs can only get a bland tired story so far. I enjoyed the first few episodes of Mushibugyo, but I quickly realized it was going nowhere and the tiresome repetitive shonen fighting cliches got to me.

The Severing Crime Edge (dropped at episode 8):

I thought the relationship between the two leads was kind of cute, but the series quickly fell into tiresome battle of the week cliches and none of the other characters were particularly interesting.

Henneko (dropped at episode 7):

It was cute for one episode, and then AAAAAAAAAAAAAH IMOUTO SHIT WHHHHYYY? Incest jokes aren't funny, and neither are the other countless otaku-bait tropes in this show.

Arata the Legend (dropped at episode 7):

The terrible fire effects were amusing, but other than that? Meh, bland fantasy story.

Karneval (dropped episode 3):

It's pretty, but what's the story? Nothing made any sense and I had no reason to watch any more.

Okay, that does it for the spring! The summer sun is here and there are swimming anime to be watched. Next week I'll be starting my new anime project for the season. I think all of you space lovers will enjoy it. Stay tuned!

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