Summer 2010 Season in Review – Dealing with the Dregs
For those of you who didn’t come to this as your first post, you probably know that neither of us (particularly bear) were all that pleased with the crop of shows that ran over the last season. That’s not to say that there weren’t good ones airing here and there, but the best (Katanagatari and Shiki, to name just two) are still airing, and thus aren’t up for this run of awards. Which leaves us with … not all that much.
In some ways it’s not quite fair to make these sorts of comparisons, as last season saw the end of some of the best shows, not of the year, but of the decade. Even on its own terms, however, this season failed to offer a particularly strong field. The shows covered here may be good. But none of them are great. Keep that in mind.
3HM’s pick: School President is a Maid
I tend to trust J.C. Staff with romantic comedies, and for the most part that trust was rewarded with School President is a Maid. The basic concept was as unique as an anime romance ever gets, the female lead admirable, the comedy surprisingly effective, and the ending reasonably satisfying. It’s a solid show and worthy of a watch to fans of the genre.
Two things create a level of ambivalence about my pick here. The first is fact that show has not off episodes, but off months, with the middle section of the series replete with filler and omake episodes that should have been kept to DVD specials. The second is that the story does not really end; as nice as the ending is, it is clearly several more steps for the lead couple to become, well, a couple in word as well as deed. The lack of that degree of closure is a serious flaw.
Both of these stem primarily from the original source material, but just because it isn’t technically the fault of the animators doesn’t mean the end product doesn’t suffer as a result. With a consistently good run, School President is a Maid could have risen to the level of a genuinely great show. Instead, it’s a collection of great episodes and one solid arc, in the midst of a longer story. Its ratio of good to bad might be inversely proportional most of what ran this year. But I don’t think we’ll be talking about this show in five years time.
bear’s pick: Ookami-san
To say this season’s choices have been slim would be a massive understatement. In any other season, Ookami-san wouldn’t even be on here, much less the best show.
Don’t get me wrong, Ookami-san is a good show. It has competent animation, a solid cast, some funny moments and tweaks genre conventions enough to stay interesting. I’d certainly rather watch it than most of the other vapid garbage broadcast to televisions around the globe.
What it lacks is something special. None of the shows in this season’s crop (which, again, is limited to the ones which finished their run this season) were different, or well-made, or provocative enough to rise above the rest of the derivative mush that anime studios put out every year. But of the derivative mush I watched this season, Ookami-san was the sharpest, the best-written, and the cleverest.
Ookami-san’s success rests almost entirely on its writing. It plays with convention cleverly in its characters, especially Ryoushi’s transformation from standard Anime anime protagonist with a twist to standard action anime protagonist with a twist. The fairy tale motif mostly just weirded me out, but it had its moments (namely, the three pigs).
Managing the shifting house of cards that is a tsundere romance plot is quite the task, and Ookami-san does that with aplomb. Ryoushi’s sweet devotion and Ookami’s awkward guardedness could easily have become the treacly mess that they are in the hands of the typical anime hack, but here they’re handled with enough subtlety to shine through. Ultimately, it doesn’t stray far from convention, but does what it does with a rare grace. –bear
Runner Up: School President is a Maid
School President is a Maid is not entirely consistent in its writing quality, but at its best manages to capture the inherent vulnerability of people in love. Many shows have the protagonists fail to come together through cluelessness or unhappy coincidence; this show does it because both protagonists are written to be in conflict with each other, and the writing respects the integrity of those characters enough to know that there isn’t and easy out to make them admit their feelings for each other.
The show is at its weakest when it takes its focus away from Misaki and Usui and places it on the secondary characters (or on nothing at all). Even there, with the character studies of Sakura or Aoi, the strength of their personalities also shines, and not always in obvious ways. There is some deep psychological insight tucked away within the show, and that it has to fit its way into standard romance conventions alters but does not diminish that. –3HM
Winner: Occult Academy
The folks at A-1 Pictures are plenty talented, and Occult Academy’s visuals a clear proof of that. The art direction is novel, an excellent blend of 90s supernatural weirdness with the ornate gothic flair of early 1900s mysticism.
The fanatical attention to detail is amazing. Little things like reflections, how water affects the environment, and the obsessiveness with which Mikaze’s car is rendered, when put together, make for a lush and detailed show. The quality of the drawing alone could win this award, especially in such a slow season.
But the real star has to be the expressions and figure drawing. Looking back through my pictures made me want to finish watching the show. Every scene is full of motion, with exaggerated poses and faces that are perfect for the show’s offbeat tone. More importantly, it conveys an excellent sense of character, from the grumpy violence of Maya throwing yet another object at Fumiaki to the confident pride of Ami showing off her ridiculous Mothman costume.
The animation is fluid and the direction is sharp, which are both key elements in a comedy. All in all, the show has the same sense of perfect comedic timing that only A-1 and Kyoto seem capable of pulling off in anime. If it actually had funny jokes, this show could be hilarious.
I could get into the opening video, but I do that further down. Occult may have its failings, but quality visuals isn’t one of them. –bear
K-On!!, as will be discussed below, is ultimately meant to milk a cash cow, so much of the season is nothing more than a set of highly talented animators punching their timeclocks and raking in the dough. That being said, a studio as talented as Kyoto Animation can’t just produce dreck, regardless of how boring or mundane the source material is.
The joy is in the little things. The way hair moves in motion. How minor changes in hairstyle can bring out different features in a face. The wild gesticulations of the characters. Kyoto has long been known to do little touches and detailing in the midst even of their most basic animations, and that doesn’t get unlearned simply because the show is dull moe bait. Nothing about the character designs or the setting would inspire this degree of craftsmanship, but somehow it happens anyway.
And the music scenes—oh, the music scenes! I think Kyoto might have deliberately cut down on them this season because they were expensive and time consuming, but whenever we see the girls play that same attention to detail shines out in every frame. There is a quality here that few other studios can produce, especially with consistency. Kyoto Animation has it. Now, that they would work on something worthy of their skill. –3HM
Best Character Relationship
Winner: Ryouko Ookami and Ryoushi Morino (Ookami-San)
Any relationship in Anime where one person makes his romantic feelings known prior to the final episode is noteworthy. Any relationship where one party makes those feelings known and then the couple spend every episode making visible progress towards becoming a couple is laudable. If they’d actually gotten together, well, I’d be watching Kare Kano or Paradise Kiss.
This couple doesn’t live up to the main pairings of either of those shows, but it’s still notable. Ookami may be a hardcore tsundere, but her vulnerability is more evident and her hard edge more understandable given her past. Ryoushi is a nice twist on the standard unremarkable protagonist: he’s someone for whom unremarkableness is a superpower, and standing out in a crowd is a frightening experience. I wish the show had provided more places for him to use his ability to blend in—rather than just having him freak out every time someone looked at him—but his drive to become stronger to watch Ookami’s back is novel for the genre, if not anime as a whole.
Put them together and you have a cute couple that plays off each other well enough to carry the show. I don’t know that I could have gotten through Ookami without that. –bear
Runner-up: Misaki Ayuzawa and Takumi Usui [and Hinata Shintani] (School President is a Maid)
Obviously, Misaki and Usui make a solid couple. As mentioned above, the show’s writing is at its best when it shows their own unique failings and foibles that conspire to keep them apart, even as the logic of the show and the desires of audience are for them to come together. It’s a delicate tension that progresses on in two-steps-forward-one-step-back sort of way, but only rarely seems forced.
It ranks under Ryouko and Ryoushi for the simple reason that it is not self-sufficient or self-driving. By themselves, they would continue their dance forever, until one or both of them got tired of it and moved on. Both are two prideful to surrender to the other: Usui is unwilling to court Misaki normally, and Misaki is unwilling to accept Usui’s underlying motives—or her own feelings.
The show resolves this by bringing in Hinata, whose presence as a viable rival forces Usui to change his ways, and Misaki to open herself to realizing that guys might actually like her. Without his presence, I doubt their would have been a plausible way for their romance to progress absent a deus ex machina. Which, in a way, this was already. –3HM
Best Opening or Ending Theme:
Winner: Occult Academy
I think I posted a different screenshot for every episode I covered in my (admittedly short-lived) coverage of Occult Academy, and they were all beautiful and weird.
I’m not a huge fan of the song, but all it needs to do is provide the atmosphere for the visuals on screen, which are a dizzying array of riffs on supernatural or bizarrely surreal art, intermingled with mystic symbols and shots of the characters doing bizarre and abstract things. Here’s the full thing on YouTube, with the image reversed for good measure. –bear
Best Show We Didn’t Write About:
Winner: Sengoku Basara 2
Yes, yes, I did say that the second season of Basara started off with more quality that I would have expected given the first season, but I didn’t expect it to last. But it did, with something resembling actual human drama, character development, and serious discussion about the justification of force going on amidst the beautifully illustrated and completely over-the-top carnage. The military tactics are even sensible.
The most odious and/or annoying parts of the first season (most notably the misogyny) were downplayed or ignored entirely, making the second season an improvement in every way. Ok, so it’s still bombastic, hammy, ahistorical, and too trite for its ostensible subject matter. This is still a stupid show, by most reasonable definitions of the term. But it’s not just a stupid but fun show anymore. It’s a stupid but good one. And I would not have predicted that. –3HM
Runner-up: Giant Killing/Rainbow
Technically speaking, I shouldn’t include either of these shows here, because neither I nor bear watched them beyond the first episode. But both offered decent starts to series which concluded their run with this season, and both are were eventually picked up by streaming sites and are available for free viewing. I can’t guarantee their quality, but they have to be better than most of what we did watch this season. So maybe they are worth checking out. –3HM
Biggest Waste of Talent
Winner: Asobi ni Iku Yo!
Spin-off studio AIC+ are so obviously talented it’s disappointing they had to end up with a property like Asobi ni Iku Yo! The direction and animation are top-notch, but the thing is so mired in cliche, gratuitous fan service, glaring plot holes and bizarre references to pop culture that it ends up a shambling mess. It took a decent premise, crammed it into two good episodes, then took an okay premise and made a complete hash of it for the other ten.
The plot showed promise, too, but it quickly squandered that and wandered off into the usual fan service comedy territory. A few good episodes aren’t enough to salvage the terrible mess the rest became. –bear
The K-On! franchise is popular. Absurdly popular. Far more popular than a show about a bunch of high school girls who sit around drinking tea when they should be practicing ever should be. So what does Kyoto Animation do? They make a second season to cover half the chronological time the first season does, and double the episode count. Suddenly the original season seems focused and fast paced by comparison.
All that being said, K-On!! could have been a decent (although probably not a good) show. But making the show consistently funny, or focused, or at least with more music scenes, would require transcending the original material; and that wasn’t something the staff needed to do to sell buttloads of DVDs, hit singles, and other paraphernalia for the franchise. K-On!! is one of the closest things to a money tree for anime studios, and easy money makes people lazy. Even people who can do much, much better. –3HM
Best DVD Ad
Winner: Asobi ni Iku Yo!
Modern fan service shows have to walk a fine line. You have to have enough PG-13 titillation that can go out on television airways unmolested to keep fans from revolting, but you also need enough extra material for the DVDs. Asobi ni Iku Yo! fails miserably at this, with some of the ugliest, most obtrusive censoring I’ve seen in a show. It’s not even clever, like Mayoi’s was. –bear
Runner-up: Strike Witches 2
I couldn’t stomach more than a few episodes of the show, but I can safely say that has scantily-clad teenage girls doing boring things and then flying, and that the DVD releases will be substantially less blurry and steam-filled than the television broadcast. –bear
Most Offensive Show:
When I last spoke of Mitsudomoe, I mentioned that the one thing that made it potentially tolerable (although not to me) was that none of the girls seemed to have any attraction to their teacher. That didn’t keep said girls from continually getting into sexually suggestive situations with him, or with each other, or with a slew of other cast members, as near as I can tell by checking some other reviews. Claiming that it all is being done for laughs doesn’t make it any more excusable, particularly given the acceptability of loli porn in otaku circles.
I could go on, but for me the ultimate sign of the ickiness of this show is that Crunchyroll (who picked up the series) age locked it. Crunchyroll barely age locks anything: not Ichiban Ushiro no Daimaou, not Strike Witches 2, not Shin Koihime Musou, not even the final episode of School Days. But they age locked this. What level of depravity does that take? Don’t trouble yourself to find out. –3HM
Runner-up: Strike Witches 2 (bear)
Remember when I said the first series of Strike Witches was relatively innocent about its sexuality, despite starring a cast of underage girls not wearing any pants? Strike Witches 2 isn’t. It’s not as bad as Kiss x Sis (nothing is), but it’s still creepy anime girl exploitation of the ugliest kind. I stopped watching before it got really bad, but I still sat through some predictably-suggestive scenes with a broom and way more little girl cameltoe than anyone should ever see. A quick scan of the Internet shows that it gets worse from there. –bear
Runner-up: Highschool of the Dead
Horror flicks often tread over the line into exploitative sexual pandering, and zombie flicks are no exception to the rule. The original Highschool of the Dead manga upped the ante by basing the female character designs (and, for the most part, the female personalities) on 2D porn works. It would seem hard to go lower than that, but Highschool of the Dead the anime does. With an explosion of panty shots and a reworking of multiple action scenes to best incorporate jiggle physics, the zombie gore almost seemed like a distraction. –3HM