Darker than Black Gaiden – 01 OVA

Being hunted by Syndicate contractors, Hei and Yin escape Tokyo for Okinawa, masquerading as newlyweds. Hei is looking to book passage to Taiwan, but Yin insists they’re safe, and they stay longer. Hei panics when he sees a hotel guest who looks exactly like Amber, but she turns out to be an impostor created by a contractor with power over illusion. Yin is kidnapped, but Hei is able to defeat the Syndicate team sent to kill him and recover Yin, who continues to evolve.

This four-part OVA that aired from January to July 2010 bridges the time between the first Darker than Black series (The Black Contractor) and the sequel (Gemini of the Meteor). We took an instant liking to the first series’ (obviously) very dark, rich atmosphere, kick-ass action, and stirring music by Yoko Kanno. The second series widened the DtB universe and appealed to younger audience by introducing Suou (voiced by Kana Hanazawa). Both series explored the power and motivations of the subset of society simultaneously gifted and cursed with superpowers that required renumeration.

In this first bridge OVA, Hei is on the run with Yin, a beautiful, formerly emotionless doll, who is suddenly evolving into more of a human, with emotions and a will of her own. This first episode wastes no time throwing us right in the middle of the aciton as Hei takes on a trio of deadly contractors while still in Tokyo. The tropical setting that follows subverts the dark atmosphere, and Hei and Yin have some nice quiet scenes together. But there’s still plenty of uneasiness, and inevitably, the Syndicate arrives, trying to use Hei’s past with Amber to throw him off balance. He cuts himself to break the illusion and thwart the Sydicate…for now.

Rating: 3.5

Kyousogiga ONA

Armed with a magical giant hammer, a girl named Koto and her two brothers roam ‘Mirror Kyoto’ wreaking havoc. They’re searching for a ‘rabbit’ that will get them home. Their temporary guardian Myoe confers with Yase and Kurama, who together form the Assembly of 3. They believe Koto and their ‘mother’ Lady Koto are one and the same.

“I don’t really get it”...so says one of Koto’s brothers at the end of this frenetic visual feast. Neither do we, but we were surely entertained. With the Fall 2011 season fizzling out, here’s the first taste of something totally new. Sure there’s plenty of works one can list as inspiration, from FLCL to the upcoming Black Rock Shooter. But as a single, original, 26-minute one-shot, Kyousogiga has a style and energy all its own, combining the retro and the psycho.

The ambiguous ending leaves open the possibility of an anime down the road, but for now we’ll stick to what we saw, and also not worry too much about understanding all of it. Suffice it to say lil’ Koto is a bit of a hellraiser with her ludicrously oversized hammer; her brothers are equally bombastic, and Mirror Kyoto is full of psychadelic…stuff that never stops shimmering. Indeed, the ONA hardly ever stops moving, making the few moments that it does all the more powerful. It was a fun, if brief, ride.

Rating: 3.5

Toradora! – Bento no Gokui OVA

With his parents out of town, Kitamura’s lunches are being made by his grandmother Mio. His first bento is an elaborate mulit-level box full of finely-made food. Ryuugi sees this as a threat to his housewifing abilities. He answers the challenge with elaborate lunches of his own, but each time his lunches are countered with superior ones by Mio-chan, but he doesn’t give up the fight, even resorting to cooking meals in the classroom. Ultimately, he gives up the fight when Taiga offers him onigiri she herself made, realizing the war was all in his head.

First of all, yowza, has it been a long time since we’ve seen Toradora! It first aired all the way back in October of 2008, after all. Put this into perspective: that was before the Phillies broke the Curse of Billy Penn and before President Obama was even elected. We regarded it at the time as one of our favorite romantic comedies, and still do. Though it falls short of Kare Kano territory, the writing and acting were always top notch, and we quickly grew to love all five of the major characters as they wove in and out of love polygons.

This extra episode is neither a prequel or an epilogue to the series we love, but an incidental outing focusing on Ryuugi’s self-worth. He’s always prided himself on being as close to a perfect housewife as possible, and it shows in how clean an apartment he keeps, and the fact he keeps one-and-a-half women and a parakeet well-fed. He’ll answer any challenge to his culinary primacy, real or percieved. In this case, it’s the latter.

And while this episode doesn’t contain any insight or uncharted territory (everyone is pretty much in default mode here, before things get all dramatic and serious), it does reinforce certain things we know about Ryuugi and Taiga in particular. What made them such a great couple to watch is that they’re always picking one another up, sometimes without even being aware of it. Taiga helps Ryuugi see the forest for the trees. It’s not about what’s in a bento, it’s about who you make it for. Anything will taste good if it has love in it, rather than selfish obsession…and is cooked properly in accordance to food safety standards.

Rating: 3.5

RABUJOI’s Top 15 Anime of 2011

Because RABUJOI started up at the start of the Fall 2010 season, we only compiled complete reviews and ratings for 15 2010 shows (two more were dropped). We watched series throughout 2010, but did not yet have RABUJOI up and running in earnest until Fall, so we had to approximate ratings for our Top 15. However, RABUJOI has been in operation for the entirety of 2011. We watched and assigned reviews to a total of 31 series, and dropped ten more. So without further stat-ado, here are our Top 15 of 2011, by their average episode rating:

15. Dantalian no Shoka (3.542) – Gorgeous Victorian aesthetic, with magical mysteries and plenty of Gainax weirdness.

14. Kamisama Dolls
 (3.615) – For most of its run, the hero sits back and lets his little sister be the hero…and that’s okay!

13. Kamisama no Memo-cho (3.625)
– J.C. Staff serves up a deeper, slightly darker alternative to Railgun and Index.

12. Usagi Drop (3.636) – Extremely realistic depiction of the trials of taking care of a little kid, without coming off as annoying.

11. Blood-C (3.667) – Like Shiki, it’s gorey, chilling, addictive, and not what you initially thought.

10. Hanasaku Iroha (3.692) – Excellent slice of life, fantastic ensemble cast, charming setting, and a healthy dollop of romance.

9. Deadman Wonderland
 (3.708) – A hellish scenario in which pretty much everything bad that can happen to a kid…does.

8. Last Exile: Ginyoku no Fam (3.727) – GONZO returns with a gorgeous sequel that does the original – one of our favorites – justice.

7. Puella Magi Madoka Magica (3.750) – Don’t let the cutesy-looking characters fool you – Shinbo crafts a dark, broody, time-bending Magical Girl tale we can get behind.

6. Ben-To (3.833) – A supermarket fight club where the prize is half-priced food? Yes, please. Especially when the battles are as lyrical as they are zany.

5. Guilty Crown (3.864) – Copious eye candy and tremendous action setpieces more than make up for ho-hum characters and scenarios.

4. Chihayafuru (3.875) – Who thought an obscure game could engender such strong appeal. Some of the best characterization of the year certainly helped.

3. (Tie) [C] (3.909) – When your future is your currency, caution is warranted. Consistently impressive and imaginative.

3. (Tie) Un-Go (3.909) – A classic mystery literature-sourced success story.

2. AnoHana (3.955) – Genuinely moving teen drama about old friends reconnecting, with some help from a ghost.

1. Mawaru Penguindrum (4.000) – The only series to earn a perfect rating for its entire run – all the more impressive as it ran for 24 episodes. So far, it’s the anime of the decade.

Bakuman 2 – 13

Ashirogi decides to do a new gag one-shot in NEXT, something suitible for all ages unlike Ten. A discussion of animal characters leads Takagi to the zoo, where he bumps into Aoki. She agrees to help him understand girls if he helps her understant boys. They proceed to have two long phone conversations two straight nights, leading Miyoshi to become suspicious. When Aoki asks Takagi to meet her at the zoo again, he’s surprised to find Aiko there as well, who wants to confront him. They argue about the merits of manga verses novels, and in the end, Aiko decides she’ll do a manga that will surpass his own. While cleaning the studio, Miyoshi finds a note from Aiko hidden in the novel she gave him, and she runs out in tears.

Ohoho, Takagi, you dawwg. He’s never been that respectful of his tomboyish girlfriend, but this week he digs a hole he may not be able to climb out of. Nightlong flirty phone conversations with cute girls who aren’t your girlfriend must unfortunately be discouraged, as are secret meetings with said girl. Though not everything that unfolds is his fault. It’s Aoki’s newfound aggressiveness that leads to them exchanging advice in the first place, and there’s nothing wrong with doing so, but Aoki is operating under the impression he’s single. Similarly, the Aiko meet was a total ambush (what’s wrong with you, Aoki?)  and probably isn’t aware of the note Aiko left him in the book, but the damage has been done. Miyoshi can and will weave any number of narratives of his perceived unfaithfulness.

Meanwhile, we must flick our foreheads in apology for forgetting that Aiko Iwase was a classmate of Takagi’s, whom he rejected. She remains extremely bitter and confrontational, though that could just be her outward persona. Her true feelings may indeed be in that note. As Aoki and Takagi discussed, love can come in many forms, one of them being outward disdain and rivalry. Ideals and reality are rarely in synch. None of Aiko’s enmity would exist if only he’d agreed to date her back then. But even if she was – and is – the ideal gorgeous intelligent girl for him, he chose Miyoshi. Just like he abandoned higher pursuits and chose to be a mangaka. Were these choices mistakes?

Rating: 4

Mirai Nikki – 12

Uryuu’s threats fail to spook Kurusu, who has his men storm the hospital. Yuki is cornered by his men, and he goes in the hospital to take over. Yuno stops him, and there is a standoff, until a flash grenade and one of Uryuu’s bombs go off, turning their floor into rubble. Kurusu has Yuno by the throat with a scalpel, but Yuki manages to shoot him. Nakajima arrives to arrest his chief, after hearing voice recordings on Uryuu’s phone. No longer a detective, Kurusu snaps his phone, killing him. After everything blows over, Yuki and Yuno take a trip to his dad’s house, and Yuno deletes a warning from Akisu from Yuki’s phone.

Whenever four diary holders converge, you know there’s going to be potential for lots of explosions and blood. This week doesn’t disappoint, with a Godhood-hungry Kurusu hunting Yuki and Yuno and Uryuu working diligently to stay on everybody’s and nobody’s side. His motivation is clear: save his kid’s life once he’s God. Once that’s no longer possible, it falls to another diary holder to save his son. A a cold, crazed lunatic the past two weeks finally softens and accepts his dead end. We’re now running out of diary holders.

Now everything’s tied up with a neat little pink bow, right? Not so fast; while Yuki has arguably never felt closer to Yuno – even confessing his love and using that love to aim his gun true to save her – the fact remains she’s still nuts. The series goes out of its way to make their lovers’ getaway as forboding as possible, what with the skulls and syringes in her duffel. We’d gone off about how Yuki should just stop worrying and go with the flow vis-a-vis Yuno, even if it kills him. But lord knows what she has planned.

Rating: 3.5

Last Exile: Ginyoku no Fam – 10

Vincent Alzey arrives to forge an alliance between Anatoray and Turan, bringing Alvis Hamilton along with him. The post-alliance festivities are crashed by a Federation fleet under Luscinia’s command. He has Lilliana with him, and she declares that Turan has made peace with Ades. She takes Millia’s fleet from her, and when Millia and the Sylvius refuse to surrender, she attack them with it. Meanwhile, Kartoffel is attacked by another fleet. Guild members board the ship and disable the engines. Dio holds one at bay while Fam and Gisey escape with Millia, and they head to the Glacies border, pursued by federation vanships.

This week things turn sour right quick, and Millia shows what’s she’s truly made of by refusing to submit to her sister. This is the first we’ve seen of Lilliana since an Exile fell on Turan’s capital. Fam believes Lilly could be being controlled by Luscinia somehow, but Millia doesn’t think that’s the case: Lilly is acting of her own accord, doing what she feels is best for Turan and the world. But Millia won’t kowtow to the Federation. She’d rather fight, and we can’t blame her; Ades proved in the first episode that they can’t be trusted.

This won’t be easy. The Sylvius is crippled from within and dead in the water, the Urbanus has fled, and the sky pirates have been ambushed. Worst of all, the fleet Fam and Gisey worked so hard to capture for Millia is now under Lilly’s command. Seeing the Turanian soldiers shift their allegience to Lilly so easily and witnessing that fleet turn on Millia is heartbreaking to watch. It looks like Fam, Gisey, and Millia have little choice but to go over to Glacies and hope they’re not in a shooty mood.

Rating: 4

Sket Dance – 38

Bossun, Himeko and Switch are conscripted by Remi for performance in a live children’s show, and they have to wear odd, bulky, unmaneuverable suits. After rehersal they accidentally lock themselves in an old storeroom adjacent to the storeroom they were meant to rest in. Unable to removed their costumes or handle small objects due to their long, useless arms, Bossun, Himeko, and a silent Switch have to work together and get resourceful to get out before the show starts.

At the end of this episode we are thanked for watching “the last Sket Dance of the year”, which suggests to us there will be more than that perceived final 39th episode next year. In fact, it would seem Sket Dance will be continuing indefinitely, much like Gintama and Fairy Tail. We’ll keep watching for now, as we are well invested in the now very-large cast and know what’s going on, but the structure of the show allows for plenty of variety, so hopefully they don’t run out of ideas.

Getting locked in a storeroom for the duration of an episode is an overused plot device. That said, Bossun’s complicated plan involving matches and magnets was pretty funny, as were the numerous realizations that it wouldn’t all go according to said plan. Momoka and her gang’s improvisational stalling was a nice fit, while the trio emerging with hideously deformed and melted suits was a real side-splitter, however unrealistic it was that they survived such a blast wearing such flammable garments.

Rating: 3

Ben-To – 12 (Fin)

With Yarizui still sick in bed, Satou sets her alarm to the wrong time and takes it upon himself to get her the grilled eel bento she craves. On the way, he is stopped by the Club of Heracles, the wolf who brought Orthos to their “downfall” three years ago. He did so by convincing everyone else not to fight them, and let them take the bento without a fight. He’s back to do the same thing, but rather than go along with the plan, Satou wears himself out until he’s starving, awakening the guts of all the wolves around him. He defies Heracles and fights the Sawagi twins, wins the eel, and enjoys it with Yarizui.

And so ends the series with one of the more novel and interesting premises of all the fall shows, the idea that modern society has fight clubs within supermarkets in which the prizes are half-priced bento. It sounds far-fetched, but they really made it work, helped in no small part by the best hand-to-hand combat of the season, and the best soundtrack to boot. Heracles turned out to be nothing more than a convincing organizer; he was just tough enough to bully most of the wolves into inaction, but not The Freak. Satou wanted his eel, and he knew he wouldn’t get it until he worked up the savage hunger of a starved wolf.

We’re glad Heracles wasn’t simply a boss who was initially invincible; once we saw the Sawagi twins’ flashback and his plan repeated, we knew his power was more the stuff of legend than fact. The fact is, the Sawagis are so powerful, he took it upon himself to try to take them out of the game, and in doing so turn his back on the ideals of wolves. Yet even after Heracles was foiled, the twins still lost to Satou when it came to the Golden Wreath…and while we didn’t see exactly how that happened, we’re fine leaving it to our imaginations. Here’s something that isn’t imaginary: Ben-To was a damn good show.

Rating: 4

Working’!! – 13 (Fin)

Popura is able to reach the broken dish report sheet for the first time, troubling both Takenashi and Sato. Yamada also mishears that Taneshima is planning to quit working at Wagnaria, and word travels fast. Maya Matsumoto is introduced as a normal, no-nonsense young woman, caught in the middle of Wagnaria’s insanity. Popura clarifies that she isn’t going anywhere, and life at the restaurant returns to normal.

Ah, at last, we learn the mystery girl’s name. We don’t learn much else though, other than the fact her hair spiral is extremely elastic, and she wants nothing to do with all her nutso co-workers. She really just came to the surface in this episode to provide a fresh foil for Takenashi (calls her a hag), Sato (sticks a cucumber in her hair) and Yamada’s bro (calls her normally-cute).

Other than Maya’s introduction and brief appearence, this is an episode in which all the drama revolves around a misunderstanding that Popura is quitting, which will obviously be a huge blow to the rest of the staff. She was the reason Takenashi started working at Wagnaria to begin with, but he promises Inami he won’t quit too. But of course, since it isn’t really true she’s quitting – and we knew this all along – there really isn’t that much drama at all; just irritation with the trickster Yamada.

Rating: 3

Persona 4: The Animation – 12

The gang enters the TV world after Mitsuo, which takes on the look of a video game. But shortly after confronting him and his shadow, time jumps forward to a time after he is defeated. The gang promises to hang out more, but as months pass, they all drift further apart until Yu is alone. After nearly four months, he is attacked by the shadow, and pulled back into the battle with him by Yosuke. Yu fires off a string of Personas until the shadow is bested, and Mitsuo is arrested. The group celebrates, and vows to stick together moving forward.

Meh. Perhaps it’s because we just finished up one of the best anime series – mystery or otherwise – we’ve ever seen in Penguindrum, but we can’t help but be a little disappointed in how this series turned out. The mystery was comparatively quite lame, and its resolution anticlimatic. The cast got far too big for a half-length series, and as a result, no one really got enough development. Subpar characters like Kuma got too much screen time, particularly this week, while Yu, who we’ve seen since the beginning, still possesses barely more personality than wallpaper paste.

This week, Yu descends into some kind of persistant illusion that makes him think all his friends are flaking out and abandoning him after the killer is found. What’s with his sudden insecurity? While a taciturn dude, his behavior thus far never struck us as socially awkward or anxious. It was nice to futz with time and reality, but the sudden transition was jarring to the point we thought it might be a mistake. As a regular episode, this is probably a 3, but the finish to a series-long mystery coulda, shoulda been better.

Rating: 2.5

Mawaru Penguindrum – 24 (Fin)

Shoma confronts his brother, who has Himari’s dead body and is working with Sanetoshi, but Himari convinces him to stop the madness and let go; Kanba disappears. Ringo is confident she knows the words that will transfer fate even without the diary. Doing so means she’ll be swallowed up by flames, but Shoma sacrifices himself in her stead. Life returns to normal, but Himari and Mario are both healthy, Himari is friends with Ringo, and Shoma and Kanba are little kids walking by from the first episode, talking about the penguin drum.

Reset! Well, in this series, a reset made sense; the entirety of what we saw until now had taken place in a world where everyone was cursed from the stalemate between Sanetoshi and Momoka. Despite how fun and filled with love the Takahara siblings’ lives were, such a life was unsustainable. Kanba had to pay a considerable moral cost, and all the care he acquired for Himari would eventually be rendered ineffective, resulting in her death. With the curse lifted, Himari and Mario are no longer constantly near death, and Ringo can be herself. The cost was that family structure, and the new world we see lacks a painted house and a whimsical bedroom. Only the teddy remains, with a note from her no-longer-brothers stashed inside, somehow immune to the fate transfer.

For an episode in which Shoma and Kanba had a lot to say as youngsters, it’s a little disappointing that the producers didn’t secure good, authentic child voices. This has actually been a problem throughout the series, and it was hard to ignore during crucial scenes. But that’s pretty much our only gripe with what is the first series of any length we’ve rated 4 out of 4 for its whole run. No series throughout that run has come close to its attention to detail and unique mix of mystery, romance, sci-fi, metaphysics, and slapstick comedy. It fleshed everyone out and had terrific buildup to a fantastic finale. We’ll miss it.

Rating: 4

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