Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Looking Back At Summer 2011

Here in New England, autumn is already here.  The air is crisp during the day, there’s a touch of frost at night to the west and north, the Red Sox are collapsing, and the Patriots are running amok (in a good way).  Soon the leaves will turn red and gold, for the all-too-brief climax of the area’s famous “four seasons” climate (Cold, Mud, Bugs, and Fall).

Accordingly, it’s time to look back on the summer 2011 anime season and reflect.  Summer is supposed to be the weakest season of the year for anime, but I found a surprising number of watchable shows.  Herein I’ll offer my capsule summaries and thoughts on the best of the lot.

First, my top three.  They are ordered alphabetically, because giving them absolute rankings would be too difficult.  They were all excellent:

Ikoku Meiro no Croisée – This lovely slice-of-life show offered engaging characters and impeccable animation.  While the 10-year-old Japanese heroine, Yune, was impossibly cute, the story was driven less by moe, or even plot, than by character development and happenstance.  The initial emphasis was on cultural discovery (Yune about France, and Claude about Japan).  Over time, the focus shifted to character discovery.  The revelations were not melodramatic or forced.  Claude had a troubled, unresolved relationship with his father.  Yune felt residual guilt about leaving her older sister.  The characters learned to trust and confide in each other, and that was about the entire extent of the story.  If the subordinate characters seemed less interesting – Alice functioned almost entirely as comic relief, and Oscar seemed like a deus ex machina too often – that did not detract from the tone, for at least not for long.

Natsume Yuujinchou San – “Sequel-itis” is the bane of anime and movies, but this is that rare case where a sequel (actually, a second sequel) was as good as or better than the original.  This set of episodes moved the spotlight much more squarely to Natsume, and to his integration with the human community in spite of his uniqueness (the ability to see youkai).  Natsume gradually came to trust and interact with his foster parents and his friends at school, even reaching the point of confiding his secret to some of the latter.  The episodes retained both the gentleness and touch of melancholy of the first two seasons, while focusing more on Natsume’s growth as a human being than on the plot device of the “Book of Friends.”  Although Nyanko-sensei played a diminished role this time, he remained an important touchstone: the first real friend Natsume made, whose quirky constancy allows Natsume to take greater risks with humans.  A fourth season has been green-lit for January, and I’m already looking forward to it.

Usagi Drop – A noitaminA show that justified the segment’s reputation for quality.  I must confess a strong partiality for Usagi Drop simply because it was about a grown-up, which I am, and parenting, which I’ve done (and still do).  True, the six-year-old Rin was way too mature and cute; real six-year-olds are considerably more challenging in their behavior, and how cute they are depends on both the eye of the beholder and how they’re behaving.  Nonetheless, the show’s focus on Daikichi and the adjustments he has to make to be a parent, as well as his interactions with Kouki and Kouki’s mother, Yukari,  was spot on.  Parenting is difficult.  It changes everything.  The sense of responsibility it imposes, the time it requires, the rewards and the frustrations, were all portrayed simply and, by and large, accurately.  The show resisted melodrama to tell stories of small challenges and small rewards, with consistent tone and simple artwork.  Further, it stopped at just the right point – before the manga’s time skip that shifts the story to Rin as a teen-ager.  Raising a teen-ager is a whole different kettle of fish, and if they ever animate that part of the manga, they’ll need a different approach to the material.

If you’re seeing a pattern in these choices, you’re not mistaken.  They’re all slice-of-life, they’re all gentle and consistent in tone, and they’re all focused on character development and growth.  I’m not a total sucker for the slice-of-life genre – Yuru Yuri left me absolutely cold – but these three were the shows I awaited with the greatest eagerness.  If you haven’t watched them, you should.

As for the others, again in alphabetic order:

Ao no Exorcist – An utterly predictable shounen show, but at least it had the good sense not to overstay its welcome.  I’m finding the anime original ending to be interesting, if rushed – much more so than the tedious extended combat plot in the manga.

Hanasaku Iroha – This series has a lot of detractors, who seem to believe it  betrayed some sort of serious premise in the course of its meandering development.  Personally, I saw the show not as a slice-of-life comedy but as a multi-generational family saga, like the novels of Trollope or Dickens (at a lower quality level).  Viewed in those terms, its meandering exposition, artificial crises, and arbitrary confrontations make sense, and that context makes it easier to enjoy what the show has to offer: superb animation, interesting characters, and the occasional insight into human nature.  The ending was spot-on.

Kamisama Dolls – As I admitted in a previous column, this show has grown on me, simply because of its unpredictability.  Despite the shounen trappings – Teenagers with magical power? Check. Big-breasted heroine? Check. Conspiracy to destroy the world? Check – it has a degree of humor and waywardness that makes Ao no Exorcist (not to mention Bleach or Beelzebub) look like a mechanical contrivance.  The flashbacks have been effective and powerful, providing a depth that wasn’t apparent at first.  Nor did the apparent premise of the series (madman Aki versus gentle Kyohei) prove to be the real one.  The characters are interesting, and with one episode left, I have no clue about the outcome.

Kamisama no Memochou – I like mystery stories, and this one was no exception.  Other reviewers have railed against the nebishy, ineffective hero, the poorly fleshed-out side characters, and the general lack of mysteriousness to the mysteries, but I found Kamimemo interesting enough for a weekly diversion.  Narumi definitely changes and grows throughout the series, Alice and The Fourth are sharply delineated (if highly improbable), and the final “we-must-be-serious-because-the-show-is-ending” arc is a logical development on the show’s atmosphere, rather than an arbitrary twist thrown in to provide some sort of climax.

Mawaru Penguindrum – I’m watching this series, but I’m pretty sure I don’t like it.  The deliberate obfuscation and artiness seems more a form of one-upsmanship by the series creator than a legitimate consequence of the material, content, or style.  Still, the penguins are pretty funny.

Mayo Chiki – My guilty pleasure of the summer.  This harem show has no redeeming characteristics.  It doesn’t even have a cat.  The characters are clichés, the plot situations are trite, the gags are old-hat, and the outcome (which will be unresolved, with a slight Jirou x Subaru bias) is completely predictable.  Nonetheless, I watched it, enjoyed it as I watched, and forgot about it immediately thereafter.  Subaru was too hard to resist.

Nichijou – The second half was a considerable improvement on the first.  Once Nano was formally inducted into the trio of high school friends, the randomness of the skits diminished, and the show became more focused.  The skits with the Professor and her talking cat, the science teacher fatally obsessed with Nano, the tongue-tied school teachers unable to express their feelings, and so on, all seemed to weave a coherent, light-hearted fabric.  There was still no real “point” to the series, but the increased focus made it funnier.

No. 6 – If Usagi Drop was one of my favorite shows of the summer, its noitaminA companion was one of the greatest disappointments.  Grandiose, awkward, rushed, and incoherent, often all at the same time, it wasted the elaborate world of the No. 6 light novels in a slapdash mess that couldn’t be understood even once the series was over.  (If you read the Internet summaries of the light novels, everything will be a lot clearer.)  Apologists have pointed to the difficulty of compressing nine volumes into eleven episodes, but I don’t accept that.  There’s a simple way to do this right, namely, leave stuff out.  The eleven episodes contained a lot of material that neither advanced the story nor explained the plot.  If the adaptation had focused on getting the key points across, and spent less time on (for example) washing Dogloan’s mutts or watching Eve perform or other irrelevancies, the show would have been better.

Tiger and Bunny – I have mixed feelings about T&B.  The original satirical take on the whole superhero business – that superheroes are now sponsored characters in an ongoing reality TV show – was wonderful, but eventually, the mechanical requirements of the plot swallowed the satire and humor.  Still, it was a bit unusual for a shounen show – its main character was a grown-up, with grown-up problems, such as raising a teenager.  Had there been more emphasis on the satire and the characters, and less on the Grand Overarching Conspiracy (still unresolved), it would have been a better show.

So that’s the end up of my Deep Thoughts on the summer 2011 season.  I’m looking forward to the fall shows, to Dark Sage’s cutthroat reviews of the editing follies in various subs, to Guardian Enzo’s thoughtful insights into the shows he likes, and to rants and raves from my colleagues in the anime community.  Who knows?  I may even get to work on a show this season.

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