Summer 2016 Season Wrap-Up!

Now that the summer anime season is pretty much over and a new season is getting ready to start, it’s time for the wrap-ups and previews to commence once again in that glorious flurry of happy endings and new beginnings that we’ve all come to know and love! And to be quite honest, there were quite a number of happy endings this summer season, as I ended up enjoying most of the shows I watched quite a bit more than I expected I would. For someone who started the season bemoaning the lack of shows that fit my usual genre preferences, I came out of it with a new appreciation for the potential strengths of moe and a renewed perspective on just how powerful artistic vision and intentional, well-crafted animation can be in the conveyance of atmosphere and emotion in an animated work. Suffice it to say, that’s a great deal more than I normally get out of watching anime. Part of it might be that this season is the first during which I really tried to watch with a critical eye towards understanding how the various pieces of each show fit together to make it work (or not work) and what was effective (or not effective) about each of those elements. But regardless, I feel that I’ve grown leaps and bounds in my appreciation of this medium that I love, and if that’s not a reason to celebrate, well, then I don’t know what is.

Before we talk about which shows were hot, not so hot, and somewhere in between, I should make a quick note about reviews. If you read my last post, I talked about some of the difficulties I’ve had in keeping up with writing new content for this blog. I mentioned that my intent was to start doing reviews and episodic posts for some of the shows I’m watching, and only writing about the others if they happen to warrant a post about a specific aspect of their story or presentation that I really want to write about. Well, even though I regrettably did not end up writing much of anything about the shows I watched this season, I don’t think I’m going to force myself to write full reviews for all of them at this point. If there is a specific show from this past season, or in the future, that any of you would like me to review, or (if you mention it early enough) write episodic posts about, please let me know in the comments below and I’ll do my best to oblige.

OK, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the Spring 2016 anime season!

Hot

91 Days – A Case for “Narrative Trumps Animation”

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My ideas on the whole “narrative vs. animation” debate are still evolving, but if I had to choose between the two, my preference would probably be narrative. The story and characters are what I interact with on the most visceral emotional level, regardless of how nice a show’s artwork and animation might be. It is also true that as I dig deeper and learn more about animation techniques and shot composition and all that, I have begun to understand that the best anime are those in which the animation is inseparable in purpose and substance from the narrative. But in any medium there are stories that manage to overcome uninspired implementation on a technical level, solely on the strength of their narratives and characters. I doubt you could find a better recent example of this in anime than 91 Days. Its presentation is marred by inconsistent artwork and animation that frequently appears to be missing a frame or three, but the strength of the show’s writing and scene composition more than makes up for it.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the opening scene of the show, in which Angelo witnesses the triple murder of his father, mother, and younger brother by mafia thugs, setting the tone for everything that follows. I won’t go into too much detail here because you need to experience it for yourself if you want to watch the show, but I will say that it is gut-wrenching and legitimately difficult to watch. The senselessness of the violence displayed in this scene echoes throughout the rest of the show. Violence breeds more violence, voices of reason are silenced, and innocent lives are lost, all of it rationalized in one way or another by the cast of the show. The masterful juxtaposition between the characters’ sympathetic presentations and the emptiness of their motivations and violent deeds elevates 91 Days from a mere morality tale to a story that challenges its viewers to realize how dangerously easy and ultimately destructive it is to rationalize evil on the basis of past wrongs.

Sakuga fiends might not find much to like in 91 Days, but the show’s story is one of the most moving and thought-provoking I’ve seen in anime over the past couple years. I highly recommend it.

Amanchu! – Anime of the Season…Almost

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Amanchu! is wonderful. I mean that in the fullest sense of the word, too. Everything about it evokes a sense of wonder, of opportunity, of playfulness and reveling in the beauty and mystery of the world around us. Besides being adorable together, Futaba and Hikari are both delightful characters in eminently relatable situations. Watching Hikari reach out to Futaba in her own silly way, and Futaba’s gradual opening up to Hikari and the other members of the diving club, brought me to (happy) tears multiple times. But beyond that, the reason I love Amanchu! so very much is because at heart, it is a story about overcoming. Overcoming difficulty to learn a new skill. Overcoming insecurity to ask for help. Overcoming the regrets of the past to live in the present. And the sheer joy and triumph of making new friends through it all.

On top of that, Amanchu! is one of those shows whose visuals are part and parcel with its narrative. The reason the show is able to so effectively sell the point made by Hikari’s grandmother in the first episode, that the ocean is “an endless world of fun starin’ ya right in the face”, is because the show’s breathtaking visuals show it to the point that it didn’t really need to be said. The delicate linework, vibrant colors, and gorgeously detailed backgrounds succeed in bringing this “world of fun” to life around the show’s engaging cast and heartwarming story.

Amanchu! was easily my second favorite anime of the summer season, and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys heartwarming slice of life and iyashikei anime.

Mob Psycho 100 – Anime of the Season

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Is it really any surprise that I’d name Mob Psycho 100 my Anime of the Season? Its bold, bombastic visuals combine heta-uma artwork and generally unappealing character designs with ridiculously smooth animation and jaw-dropping camera work into one of the most unique and immediately recognizable styles in recent mainstream anime. The show also features ONE’s trademark brand of satirical action-comedy, which I came to know and love in One Punch Man, but this time with a bit less satire and a bit more heart. And thanks to Yuzuru Tachikawa’s talented direction, Mob Psycho 100‘s explosively over-the-top fight scenes are gloriously animated with some of the most impressive sakuga I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch. No, I’m not exaggerating on that point.

But the other thing that Mob Psycho 100 does really well, arguably the more important thing to me, is offering a compelling story about the messy life of a middle-school youth trying to figure out where he fits in. Although Mob is a bit of a milquetoast at the start of the show, and Reigen comes off like a total jerk for the first few episodes, as the story moves along it becomes clear that there is more than meets the eye to each of them. One of Mob Psycho 100‘s particular strengths, even when compared to One Punch Man, is the way the characters change throughout the story. Much like real people, they struggle, make mistakes, learn from each other, and depending on their decisions come out better or worse for it all. This emphasis on the characters’ development as people is what makes them relatable in spite of their powers, allowing the emotional punch created by the show’s stunning animation to impact the viewer that much more powerfully.

Mob Psycho 100 is quite an experience. If you even remotely enjoy action or comedy anime, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Not So Hot

As it turns out, I did not end up finishing any shows this season that were truly “bad”. There were a few that turned out a little disappointing, but overall it was a really solid season. Though to be fair, if I’d managed to finish the last three episodes of Taboo Tattoo it would have made the cut easily. But then again, I probably would have had to invent a “Too Stupid for Words” category just for it, because that show…man, it’s in a league of its own.

Somewhere In Between

Momokuri – Trope Reversal At Its Finest

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On the face of it, Momokuri appears to be little more than a fun romantic comedy with one major twist on the usual formula-the girl is the creepy stalker-type, and the guy is her cute, innocent target. But traditional role-reversal aside, Momokuri sets itself apart from other shows in its genre with intelligent plot development and an unusually strong supporting cast. Rather than going for the obvious (but infuriating) will they-won’t they plotline, Momokuri skips the drama and gets Momo and Yuki together in the first episode. Thus, much of the humor from then onwards is focused around the odd dynamics of their relationship and their friends’ reactions to it, rather than on the two main characters being dense about noticing the other’s feelings. If this sounds refreshing compared to the majority of anime rom-coms, that’s because it really is.

All of this is complemented by the show’s adorably simple, pastel-filled aesthetic. Everything about this show is cute, from the chibi reaction faces to the simple yet distinct character designs. It seems fairly clear that the show’s producers did not have a huge budget at their disposal, but to their credit, the show’s pleasant but simple visuals never noticeably suffer for it.

If you usually avoid anime rom-coms for the tired tropes that keep cropping up in series after series, I recommend checking out Momokuri. It’s a genuinely simple and legitimately funny show that I think deserves more attention than it got this past season.

New Game! – Moe Gets a Job

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For the most part, in the past I’ve found myself to be fairly indifferent to moe anime. It never really elicited in me the strong protective feelings I’ve observed in others, and for the most part its presence in an anime was never really a pro or con to me. It was just kind of there, and didn’t really have any effect on my decision to watch an anime or my enjoyment of it. That said, I haven’t been terribly interested in most of the moe shows that have aired since I got into anime, largely because moe seemed to be limited to shows about cute girls doing cute things in a variety of high-school clubs, a theme which never really interested me for most of the time I’ve been into anime. In recent years, I have warmed to the idea of CGDCT anime, but even as I dabbled in the genre, I always thought it would be refreshing to see a moe anime step outside the ubiquitous high school club setting into something more relatable to people in my stage of life. Then New Game! came along, bringing moe to the working masses, and things have never been the same since.

It should come as no surprise when I say that New Game! is adorable. Suzukaze Aoba is a thoroughly lovable and relatable lead who is simply overflowing with infectious enthusiasm for her new job. The rest of the cast are similarly engaging and full of quirky, memorable (and yes, moe) personalities that collide in entertaining and often hilarious ways. The fusion of moe and office humor in the first few episodes works surprisingly well, offering some refreshingly funny perspectives on things like inter-office politics and professionalism in the workplace while maintaining the kind of optimistic, uplifting perspective one would expect from a moe anime. However, as the show progressed, it devoted more and more time to the girls’ non-work-related interactions rather than playing to the strengths of the show’s unorthodox setting. While these interactions were still entertaining, and the characters remained as lovable as ever, I couldn’t help but feel that the latter half of the show never quite lived up to its first few episodes, with the notable exception of the last two episodes. The emotional buildup of seeing the girls working late into the night and sacrificing weekends to make the game as good as they possibly could makes the payoff of the game’s successful release in the last episode tremendously satisfying, to the point that I teared up unexpectedly multiple times during the final few minutes of the show.

Overall, New Game! was consistently one of the most enjoyable shows of the season. It might have fallen a little short of its potential towards the middle of its run, but its lovable characters and energetic, gung-ho optimism make it hard to hold those flaws against it. If you’re in the market for moe, you could do a lot worse than New Game!.

Orange – Powerful Themes, Flawed Execution

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Early on, Orange looked like it was going to be one of the better anime of the season. As an adaptation of its source material, the first few episodes hit it out of the park. The show’s artwork, voice acting, and musical score noticeably improved upon the manga, making the anime definitively the better way to experience the story…for the first half of the show. But somewhere around the halfway point of the season, the artwork and animation suffered a nosedive in quality, with characters in the background frequently off-model and even some simple animations looking stilted and wonky. But although this did have some impact on the emotional punch of the story, since it’s hard to take a scene seriously when the onlookers are going Derpy McDerpface in the background, none of it was so severe that it couldn’t have been solved by cleaning it up for the home video release. Unfortunately, what can’t be cleaned up is the story’s time travel mechanism…

*Spoilers ahead-if you haven’t watched the show yet, skip the next paragraph.*

…or rather, its lack of one. One of the central questions of Orange‘s story is how the letters were sent into the past. But the only answer we get for how that worked is a random, almost nonsensical conversation among the friends ten years later about an old high school lecture on time travel and black holes, followed out of absolutely effing nowhere by the unanimous declaration that they were going to save Kakeru by sending letters to their past selves through the Bermuda Triangle. The whole sequence feels incredibly forced and totally out of character, to the point that I would have preferred no explanation at all to what we got in the anime.

Does all of this ruin Orange‘s otherwise moving story? Not entirely. But speaking as a fan of time-travel stories like Steins;Gate and the Nintendo DS game Radiant Historia, I have come to expect a certain level of mechanical justification for the existence of time travel in narratives that rely on it to make sense. Orange avoided offering that in a particularly egregious fashion, which ultimately distracted me at the point in the show where I most needed to be invested in order for the emotional punch of its conclusion to hit home. It might sound like I’m being really hard on Orange, but overall I would say it’s a decent anime, and definitely worth a watch. But if you’re a sci-fi nerd like me keying in on the time-travel element, make sure your expectations are low before you jump in.

Persona 5 the Animation: The Day Breakers – I Want to Play Persona 5 Now

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Note: I have not played any games or seen any prior anime from the Persona franchise.

It’s pretty much in the title. Persona 5 the Animation: The Day Breakers is basically a story preview/commercial for the game (out now in Japan, releasing in February in North America). Likely because it is deliberately non-essential to understanding the game’s story, this short OVA doesn’t go much further than introducing what I’m assuming is the main party in the game, showcasing their respective Personas with some really nice animation and a groovy soundtrack typical of the franchise (does anyone use the word “groovy” any more?). Ultimately, it’s a fun bit of fluff, but the dark undertones and the sequence in the last thirty seconds of the OVA offered just enough of a hint of things to come that it convinced me to pick up the game when it releases. If you’re a fan of the franchise or you want to be convinced to buy Persona 5 as I was, then you’ll want to watch it. If not…why are you even reading this?

Sweetness & Lightning – The Recipe is Missing Something…

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Sweetness & Lightning feels like one of those shows that you watch for a few scenes per episode, specifically the ones where Tsumugi says or does something that anyone who has ever been around children will instantly recognize as the kind of adorable thing only a child would think of doing or saying. Unfortunately, the rest of the show, while generally pleasant and heartwarming, feels a little…samey, since almost every episode follows the same general “recipe” with a few minor changes. A decent recipe, to be sure, but one that desperately needs more variety to spice it up.

In some ways, the greatest weakness of Sweetness & Lightning is also its greatest strength: its characters. Tsumugi is easily the best portrayal of a child I have ever seen in an anime, bar none. Her mannerisms, her perplexing leaps of logic, the way she occasionally says something unintentionally profound and hilarious…all of these are the hallmarks of the way a child thinks and acts, and Tsumugi displays them the way a real child would. But the only other characters we really get to know, Kouhei and Kotori, are almost entirely one-note. That’s not to say they are not relatable, but we really don’t know much about them beyond the ways they interact with Tsumugi’s life. As a result, the concepts and themes explored by the show are necessarily simple, but the show’s writing and the way the episodes are structured just doesn’t have the elegance to handle the simple concepts of familial love and enjoying good food together in a way that even remotely draws out the joy and beauty inherent in them. As a result, when I saw the trio exclaim with delight over their meal for the fifth time in as many episodes, it started to feel pretty hollow as I tried to fight off the feeling that I’d seen this before, and would see it again at least seven more times before the show was through.

I don’t mean to be harsh, since I really wanted to like Sweetness & Lightning. But if I’m honest, I have to admit that I struggled to keep up with the show over the latter half of its run. If you have a child yourself or you love being around children, I’d recommend Sweetness & Lightning without hesitation; but if you’re just looking for a heartwarming slice of life show, I can think of several better options that I’d recommend before this one.

This Art Club Has a Problem! – A Very Pleasant Surprise

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This Art Club Has a Problem! (abbreviated as Konobi from here on out) was easily the nicest surprise of the season for me. I wasn’t expecting it to be much more than your run of the mill high school club comedy, but the sharp dialogue and genuinely well-written characters caught my attention. Much of the situational comedy in Konobi is what you would expect from an anime set in a high school art club, but the humor is elevated by some really convincing voice acting and a sprinkling of exceptionally well-directed scenes that offer us a pleasantly ordinary glimpse into the personalities of the main characters. These scenes serve to give the already well fleshed out characters some extra depth outside of the show’s usual comedic situations, making them that much more engaging in the silliness that always follows. I can’t often say this about comedy anime, but I came away from Konobi legitimately caring about these characters that I had come to know and love through the course of the show. That should say something about the sincerity and heart on display here.

It also didn’t hurt that the show is really pretty to look at. The character designs are all distinctive and appropriate to their respective personalities, with expressive faces and unique, well-animated mannerisms. Since most of the show is set in a high school club room, the backgrounds can be somewhat samey, but with an attention to detail that frequently offers amusing reminders of previous silly events (Colette’s ridiculous painted bust comes to mind). Also, when the characters do venture outside the club room, especially during the more introspective scenes mentioned above, the outdoors environments are lush and beautiful. Overall, the artistic attention to detail in Konobi rivals (and often exceeds) that of many higher-profile series, resulting in a show that feels distinctly like a labor of love by its creators.

Konobi isn’t the funniest high school club comedy I’ve seen, not by a long shot. But for fans of the genre, it’s an easy recommendation that offers the kind of depth and sincerity that’s often missing from similar series.

Dropped

Qualidea Code – Candidate for a Later Marathon

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I only ended up watching the first episode of Qualidea Code, and while I semi-enjoyed what I saw of it, it definitely wasn’t up to the standard set by most of the other anime I checked out at the start of the season. Visually, everything except the character designs lacked detail, with much of the episode taking place in generic environments with almost no spatial identity or sense of place. There was precious little to indicate where in the world the various scenes were taking place, making the plot feel jumbled and incoherent and emphasizing the confusion caused by the flurry of world-specific terminology and jargon introduced throughout the episode. As I stated in my preview for the show, it does hint at some potentially intriguing subversions of the usual chuuni wish-fulfillment light novel tropes, and the banter among the cast is entertaining and legitimately funny at times. And the music is pretty great, too. But the sheer amount of exposition masquerading as plot and the apparent reliance of the plot on teenage fantasy tropes was enough to kill my immediate interest in watching it week to week. That said, I’ve heard a few positive things from the people that stuck with it to the end, so Qualidea Code remains a contender for a later binge-watch when I decide I’m in the mood for some anime junk food.

Plus, I just really want to like it. After watching Oregairu, the fanboy in me doesn’t want to admit that something touched by Wataru Watari is not excellent solely by virtue of his involvement. I should probably work on that.

Regalia: The Three Sacred Stars – Season Postponed

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I don’t really have that much to say about Regalia: The Three Sacred Stars. I only watched the first episode of it, and while I did enjoy the hand-animated giant robots and cute character designs, I wasn’t impressed with the plot setup and initial characterizations. It all felt a bit too scattered and messy for my taste, with the result that I came out of the first episode uncertain about everything except the fact that it appeared to be about preteen girls piloting mecha. That premise alone wasn’t enough to interest me at the time, but after hearing some good things over the course of the first few episodes, I warmed to the idea just in time for the season to be delayed for unspecified reasons. From what I’ve seen since the show’s re-airing started, it looks like the visuals got a little extra TLC, so provided there aren’t any more unexpected delays I’ll probably catch up and give the show a shot as it continues to air next season.

The Disastrous Life of Saiki K. – Stupidly Funny or Just Stupid?

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I know I gave this show glowing praise the last time I talked about it, and truth be told I still think it was generally funnier than most people seemed to give it credit for. Saiki’s deadpan cynicism and the over-the-top absurdity of the other characters was legitimately funny…the first few times through. But as the show wore on and its characters remained one-note caricatures and the same gags were reused who knows how many times, I stopped enjoying it. Perhaps it was partially my fault for watching the episode versions in spurts, rather than watching the shorts as they came out (almost) daily. Either way, if you show me one of the shorts I haven’t seen a few weeks down the road, I’ll almost certainly laugh at it. I just have no interest in pushing myself to marathon multiple shorts at one time when there is so little variation in the jokes or their delivery, funny though they may be.

Taboo Tattoo – Too Stupid For Words

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I made it through nine episodes of Taboo Tattoo. In those nine episodes, I witnessed some of the most egregious examples of half-assed writing, wooden characterization, ugly CGI, choppy animation, and questionable shot composition that I have ever seen in an anime. Perhaps I have simply not seen very much bad anime, but I promise you I am not exaggerating. Taboo Tattoo is hilariously bad, and I said several times while I was watching the show that if it ever ceased to be so, I would drop it immediately. Well, it ceased to be so in episode 9, when the show killed off its only sympathetic character simply to provide a reason for the main character (I forget his name already) to seek revenge alongside his idiotically-named counterpart against the inexplicably always-horny princess of the evil kingdom of evil. Given how little I actually cared about any of the characters, I really can’t offer an explanation for why this made me so furious. The only idea I can come up with is that I was subconsciously looking for a reason to drop the show, and if that was the case, well…so be it.

The Morose Mononokean – Not For Me

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The Morose Mononokean, more than anything else, was a victim of the season in which it aired. Its first episode had a decent amount going for it. The bright, colorful artwork and easy-going tone set the stage for a fun, relaxing show…in a season chock full of fun, relaxing shows, all of which overshadowed it in one way or another. I certainly wouldn’t say The Morose Mononokean was necessarily bad; in fact, I might have enjoyed it. But nothing about it really stuck with me after watching the first episode, and given that the majority of the shows I was watching this season were on the lighter, fluffier side, I didn’t see much reason to watch yet another one that didn’t stand out in some way. To be honest, I probably won’t go back and watch The Morose Mononokean barring a recommendation from someone whose taste I trust, but don’t let my dropping it dissuade you from checking it out if it looks like something you’d enjoy.

In Conclusion…

That about does it for the Summer 2016 anime season! And what a strong season it was! Out of all the shows I finished, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy a single one of them. Even a number of the shows I didn’t end up finishing were either a matter of bad timing or other extenuating circumstances. For a season where I expected to like exactly three shows, that’s a really solid finish!

It might be a little while before my Fall season preview is out, simply because I have a somewhat lengthy list of premieres that I want to check out (17 to be exact). I’m also racing to finish catching up on several past seasons of shows that are getting sequels this Fall (namely, Haikyuu!!WIXOSS, and BBK/BRNK), but we’ll see how that goes. If anything, the Fall season looks to have a bit more variety than this past season, though there seems to be a notable bias towards magical girls and shows with yuri overtones. I’ll try to have my finalized Fall anime schedule up as soon as I possibly can, but much of it depends on how many of the shows I want to watch end up getting licensed for streaming. I’ll try to post updates on Twitter and Facebook when I get my season preview and schedule up, and also when I decide which show(s) I’ll be writing about episodically. I’m looking forward to it.

All right, that’s about all I’ve got! If you read this far, you have my sincerest thanks (and condolences for all that lost time!). If you feel that I missed out on any really great shows last season, or you have any questions, thoughts, or snide remarks about my ranking of the above shows, please let me know in the comments below. I’ll see you all in the Fall season!

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