Gunslinger Stratos – 01 (First Impressions)

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Aw man, this made two straight Spring premieres that take place in a strange future with bland male-protagonist. Seriously, this guy wants to be a sheep.

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Oh no…an inappropriately-dressed sexy teacher with a map of a fractured Japan run by mega-corporations? That’s two ani-cliches in one shot. Not a good start, GS.

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Okay, this is a little more like it. This school has combat training for P.E., which allows the two pairs of guys and girls have at each other with both paintball and lightsaber. The dynamics are straightforward and believable: Kyouka likes Tooru; Kyouka’s bro Kyouma doesn’t like Tooru; and Kyouma’s pint-sized acolyte resents Kyouka.

The character design is almost too simple, but at least the combat animation is smooth, crisp, and fun to watch.

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Things went a bit nuts from there, which reminded me of Patema Inverted, right down to the rickety bridge over a huge vertical shaft. While chasing what seems to be a hologram of a girl from Tooru’s surreal recurring dream in which she’s writing a large and complex mathematical proof on the sidewalk, Tooru and Kyouka fall down that shaft and end up in a totally different world, one that looks more like present day Japan than their futuristic, overly stuffy Utopia.

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While exploring, they find a recently-murdered guy and end up in a firefight. Again, they put their school training to good use. I’m not sure how you can dodge a steady stream of bullets with acrobatics, but nor do I care, because as I said, it’s fun to watch them twist and bound through the air.

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That brings us to the “DundunDUNNNN” moment at the end, where the gunman pursuing them shows his face and reveal that that he’s Tooru…too. There’s Two Toorus. To quote Neo: “Whoa.”

Unlike Plastic Memories, events unfolded in a way I was able to engage in, and without a wildly fluctuating tone. The characters here are pretty bland too,  but I prefer a couple who are on good terms in stories like this to, say, a dense dunce and a tsundere (or doll-like whitehair).

Tooru and Kyouka both like each other, and Tooru’s robot doesn’t too closely resemble a human. There are also a lot of weird sci-fi mysteries I’m eager to see explained, as long as it isn’t through infodumps. Gunslinger Stratos is nothing special, but it’s tolerable, has quantifiable strengths it largely sticks to, and most importantly, never rubbed me the wrong way.

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Junketsu no Maria – 12 (Fin)

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Junketsu no Maria closes with a story book ending. Maria and Joseph literally ‘live happily ever after,’ according to the narrator, all of the villains are punished and everyone who was nice along the way escapes without a scratch.

Maybe it was a little long winded and maybe it was a bit silly on the philosophy front but, over all, I found it satisfying and a thorough farewell to the cast.

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To sum up: Michael and Maria have their final show down but the action doesn’t last long. Even with the witches, the old gods, and Joseph all supporting her, Michael  is untouchable.

However, instead of killing team Maria, Michael psychically interviews all of the show’s side characters and ascertains that Maria is ultimately a good neighbor. Her opposition to conflict is so basic that he could even say she is part of the natural order now, which makes her out of his realm of responsibility.

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However, he can’t let Ezekiel’s regular opposition go unpunished and so he banishes her from heaven… to be reborn as Maria’s child. Similarly, Le Comte eventually accepts Joseph’s love for Maria, and accepts Maria herself I guess because he’s not a totally bad bad.

Meanwhile, Bernard loses his mind and tries to start a new religion … but explodes into a pile of sand when he freaks out at Michael during their psychic interview. Gilbert is emotionally scared by all of this but, as he’s not really been a figure for evil during the story, his punishment is limited to witnessing the explosion and having to burn Bernard’s documents after the fact.

Oh and Garfa gets nothing for his greed, other than some coins and to live.

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What didn’t work? Well… most of the dialog is gibberish. Not that a show of this complexity should be expected to weave a coherent philosophical explanation for itself but Maria dug its mumbo-jumbo hole pretty deep.

That said, presenting Maria’s narrative out as God accepting her as a ‘good neighbor’ was perfectly fine. It also gave a continued connection between Maria and Ann’s grandmother, and the village by extension.

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Maria was a very fun show to follow. Strangely, none of the grounded, historical tech and technique made it into the final episode but that’s besides the point. The finale was all about the characters and for us to see them off — and see them off happy.

And for all the darkness those characters endured along the way, thats the best, most cathartic way to leave them.

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Plastic Memories – 01 (First Impressions)

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My first impressions of the futuristic sci-fi anime Plastic Memories weren’t all that great. The show just felt a bit off to me from beginning to end, starting with the protagonist Mizugaki Tsukasa stating in his thoughts that he may have fallen in love with the android Isla the moment he laid eyes on her, before he has any idea who or what she is.

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From there, we go on to Newbie’s First Day, with his new co-workers feeling him out while telegraphing their personalities in the most unsubtle way possible. I just felt like I’ve met all these people before, especially Isla and Tsukasa, only with different names and eye colors. Everyone comes off as a bland cypher.

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The uninspired characters aren’t the only problem, though they’re a big one (the impish Zack and tsundere Michiru are particularly grating). While this is the future and we see some futuristic cityscapes, the show doesn’t feel all that futuristic or special; there’s no awe or grandeur.

More importantly, I have a problem with their whole business of selling androids that are treated like family for nine years, then ceremoniously “terminated” by the team Tsukasa joins. Like…what the hell?

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I don’t doubt there’s money in such an enterprise, and maybe this is my early 21st century liddite-ism talking, but it just feels like the company is exploiting the grief or loneliness of their customers. The crassness is amplified by the generally cavalier attitudes and zany antics of the team members, the fact Tsukasa is sent into the field with zero training, and the fact that Isla fails about 90% of the time.

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The tonal dissonance of the show reaches its apex when Isla finally speaks form her own experience as an aging giftia to persuade the “grandmother” of Nina to sign the release form so they can “retrieve” her. I don’t say this often, but as well-performed and well-animated as it was, this tearful scene felt manipulative, after all the slapstick that preceded it. I was more weirded out by the macabre-ness of it all than moved.

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The seriousness of that scene is also undone when, in Tsukasa’s final scene with Isla in the car is a joke about her having to go potty. Har har. What with Tsukasa being just barely there as a character, and his so far arbitrary and unearned feelings for Isla, and the general discomfort I have with the whole 9-year android business, I believe it best to pass on this show. But I’ll watch another week or two to see if any of the issues I mentioned are remedied.

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Fate / stay night: Unlimited Blade Works – 13

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When UBW’s first season wrapped three months ago, things were in a very bad way, and they only get worse this week, although from one perspective, perhaps it’s best that what happened happened for the sake of moving forward.

That may not quite explain why Saber is in such a suggestive position with the back of her gown hiked up, but that’s a small detail; suffice it to say she’s trying to fight Caster. She’s not yet a full thrall, but she has to fight her own body to resist.

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With Shirou no longer Saber’s Master, and still recovering from his severe wounds, this first episode back is full of doubt and dread, with the feeling that everything is high up in the air…and extremely breakable, so when it all comes down it will shatter. But that hopelessness only goes so far. We know Shirou will make a comeback in some form or another, it’s only a question of where and when.

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That where and when is decidedly not here and now, but Shirou still can’t keep his nose out of Holy Grail business. Which is just as well, as we find out later.

The moment Rin mentioned part of why she was going after Caster now was so that she could restore Saber to Shirou and thus restore their alliance, I knew Archer would have some misgivings about such a plan. What I didn’t expect is that those misgivings would be strong enough for him to straight-up betray Rin and join Caster.

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To be fair, Archer is a super-pragmatic guy who follows strength and goes with the odds, not ideals or hope or emotion. Rin’s motivations stunk of all three. He also warned her several times whether she really wanted to visit Caster, perhaps knowing what he’d do when they did. The fact he’s pieced together the fact she’s the famed, peerless Princess Medea made that choice all the easier.

Still, Archer’s still a billowing billowing dickweed for turning his cloak on Rin, especially in the middle of their battle. Yet, rather than allow Caster to finish Rin and Shirou (who leapt out from the shadows to save her), he makes their survival a condition of him joining her.

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Why the sentimentality all of a sudden? Aren’t the weak useless? Perhaps part of him hopes Rin will come back stronger than ever to wrest him from Caster’s grip…even if he knows she’ll never forgive him for this. Rin, for her part, promises she’ll do just that.

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Now that Rin and Shirou are in the same boat. It looks as if the two could be walking home as if they’d simply stayed at school late doing club activities, rather than walking away from their captive servants; one taken against her will, one who went over willingly. They lost the big game, having come up a bit short, but they’re still alive, and not out of it yet. Shirou insists the best thing to do is to go home, rest, and formulate their next move.

When Rin asks Shirou why he went into that church with that injury, he tells her how her raw emotional wounds must hurt far more than his shoulder, and promises she can whine and gripe about it all she wants when they get home, and he’ll listen gladly; a gesture that moves her to tears.

 

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Later, atop a starlit hill, Shirou confesses why he really saved her life: because he has feelings for her; feelings he’s no longer afraid to report. Having just witnessed such unbridled honesty, Rin dispenses some of her own, thanking him for coming to her rescue, admitting how happy it made her that he saved her.

I for one was delighted that this season wasted no time addressing this couple. Saying such things took a lot of guts for both of them, but considering how much those guts have been punched of late, the time was nigh for the walls to come down and for the truth to come out in the open. It was also a welcome glimmer of hope in a dark sea of doom and gloom.

If they had the strength to be honest about their feelings, it bodes well for them working together to come up with some way to get their servants back.

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Owari no Seraph – 01 (First Impressions)

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Owari no Seraph’s opening episode was a swift, merciless Saturday afternoon gut punch. It was all about getting things done. I mean, the entire population of earth over thirteen years old simply keels over in the first minute. No messing around!

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As for the little ones who are left, well…my heart’s not made of stone; it’s hard not to sympathize with their plight as they cower in their home and are taken captive by scary red-eyed vampires in robes. The power differential is simply staggering.

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The episode jumps forward four years to when Yuuichirou and his “family” of fellow orphans, including Mikaela and Akane who are his age, live a dreadful underground existence as living blood bags to be periodically squeezed for the vamps’ use. But everyone adapted and made the best of a shitty situation. Yuuichirou is always talking of fighting back one day, and while it’s all talk, the smaller kids believe him, and that hope sustains them.

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It turns out to be Mikaela who actually does something, acquiring a pistol and a map from a vampire noble and suggesting they book it out of there. Nobody here on RABUJOI cared enough for Rolling Girls to watch it all the way through, but that certainly wasn’t because of Wit Studio’s animation, which was very crisp and zany and pretty.

Wit shows RG was no fluke with another gorgeous presentation, only this time the big backgrounds are filled out with lush detail of the subterranean city. Sawano Hiroyuki (Kill la Kill, Aldnoah.Zero, etc.) contributes another soaring score that lends gravitas to the proceedings.

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Unsurprisingly, the kids end up caught by the very noble who liked the taste of Mikaela’s blood so much he kept him around. So far at least, this is not one of those shows with grey areas in the affiliations, as Ferid is pretty much pure evil and likes the look of despair and hopelessness in the kids’ eyes. As they try to run for it, he kills them one by one with lightning speed.

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All of them except Yuuichirou. Mikaela is able to distract Ferid long enough for his brother to get a clean headshot off, but as Ferid had just put his hand through Mikaela, all Yuuichirou can do now is RUN, alone, out into the unknown world. Ideally, twelve-year-olds shouldn’t have to deal with this kind of trauma, but kids are all that’s left of humanity, and those kids have been dealt a tough hand.

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Upon emerging from the caverns, Yuuichirou finds three adult humans in uniform who have been waiting for him, following some kind of “prophesy.” How long have they been out their waiting? Did they take shifts? No matter, they were here when they were supposed to be, and the kid emerged on schedule.

Now they intend to use him to defeat vampires, something Yuuichirou, who may be in shock but is still lucid enough to express his interest in helping them. After all, he pretty much has every reason in the world to want to dedicate the rest of his life to exacting revenge.

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We jump forward another four years, and we see Yuuichirou more grown up and in a very slick-looking suit, patrolling what looks like the ruins of Tokyo. It’s a wordless, music-less scene made all the more powerful by its use of silence and the white noise of the wind, a silence that continues into the credits.

Presumably we’ll watch Yuuichiro’s life as a budding professional punisher of vampires in the episodes to come, but it was a good idea to begin with a prologue that shows us just how much torment he, and probably everyone else who managed to escape the vamps, went through. After all that darkness, I won’t begrudge them their righteous vengeance. Even so, less one-dimensional vamps would make for more compelling foes.

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Shokugeki no Souma – 01 (First Impressions)

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Whoa, what the hell did I just watch? I’ll tell you: something novel, bizarre and ludicrously entertaining from start to finish. Food Wars wastes no time showing us the kind of depraved wackiness it can stir up by giving us this indelible image of Souma’s classmate being ensnared by a giant squid in a sea of peanut butter.

It is a visualization of the grossness and wrongness of the flavor of those two foods when combined; an assault on poor Megumi’s palate in all its metaphoric glory.

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For all the ecchi mischief this episode gets up to, it uses every minute of its running time giving the main hero Souma a complete arc that propels him from his father’s quiet little eatery to the steps of the most elite culinary academy in Japan, blending shonen themes like tradition, moderation, and the comfort of nostalgia butting heads against modernity, excess, progress, and individual growth.

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Early in the episode, Souma’s goals are clear as he nears middle school graduation: continue training in his dad’s restaurant until he’s good enough to inherit it…The End. It’s a simple dream, and not a bad one, either; but it lacks ambition, and it’s indicated that dream doesn’t utilize his full potential.

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That dream also can’t stand up against duel threats coming from both within and without. Let’s get to without first, with the haughty urban life planner, who looks down on Souma, throws her weight around, threatens him, brazenly sabotages his pantry, and laughs maniacally—everything a shonen villain should do.

The traversal of these well-worn storytelling roads is refreshed by the setting of a restaurant and the weapon of food.

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Contrary to the easy, safe dream the developer seeks to stamp out, the challenge she poses brings out the qualities of a shonen hero who might always talk about simple dreams for his future, but will always ultimately be swept up by grander destinies.

Those qualities include pluck, daring, confidence, and resourcefulness, best demonstrated when he fulfills the developers wish for juicy meat by making a “fake pork roast” with bacon wrapped potatoes.

Both the rendering of the food and the animation of its preparation is suitably over-the-top, as if a great battle were being fought, because in Souma’s head, it is.

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Like Koufuku Graffiti, people eating delicious food react in a very overtly, er, amorous way. But like a foe defeated by the hero’s superior skill (or clever trick), the developer’s practical land shark mind can’t compete with her palate, which been set ablaze by the peerless umami-ness.

If she wants to eat more than her first glorious bite, she must give in to his demand she stop going after the restaurant.

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She does, and then both she and her three goons tuck in, resulting in a meat juice-saturated mental orgy of epicurean ecstacy. If I didn’t know any better, I’d have suspected Souma slipped some powerful hallucinogenic drugs in the roast, but no…it’s just really really good.

Again it’s somewhat like Koufuku, bumped up to 11 and rated R. Souma’s food doesn’t just knock socks off, it tears everyone’s clothes away and rummages around in their naughty-bits.

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But Souma can’t enjoy his victory long, as just when he’s cleaning off the defaced sign of the restaurant, his dad announces he’s moving away to work with an old friend, and will be selling the restaurant in two to three years.

Souma, like me, is initially quite wounded by this news, but it didn’t take long for both of us to get it: this isn’t where Souma should settle. He’s bound for bigger, better things.

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He’ll succeed and fail and cause more flavor orgies at the prodigious Engetsu Teahouse Culinary Academy, which has a grad rate of under 10%, he’ll have his work cut out for him, just as a shonen hero should. He’ll also meet friends and enemies and frenemies and enemends whose naked bodies I’m sure we’ll see in due course.

I look forward to watching more of this hilarious, creative…whatever it is, and also to more outstanding metaphors like standing under a waterfall meditating until being hit in the head by a jukebox. It’s pretty Brilliant. Amaburi Brilliant…only raunchier! Moreover, it doesn’t compromise. It gets a weird idea and it commits; no half-measures.

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Oregairu 2 – 01 (First Impressions)

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Here’s what I said about Oregairu back in June 2013: “After this season brought the three misfits together and threw challenges at them to strengthen their bonds, we’d like to see a second season in which they, now firmly established as their own little posse, face more challenges, such as the romantic tension between Hikigaya and the girls, while continuing their service work, perhaps with a fourth freshman member? But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.”

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Not the best constructed sentence, but I feel it got the point across in terms of what I was looking for if and when a second season came around. Well, here it is! And what do you know, right off the bat we those challenges start to take shape, some nicely presented romantic tension between Hikky and his two comely club-mates, and a fresh mission involving what else, bringing two people together. The only thing missing is a fourth freshman member, but hey, it’s early!

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I won’t deny I’ve been both spoiled by the crackling good dialogue of Saekano and periodically put off by the overly advanced and pretentious dialogue of Violin Girl. But I never thought I’d be so happy to hear Hikky’s snarky inner monologue again. Hikky’s less wide-eyed than Tomoya and less feckless than Kousei, yet remains unjaded enough to allow himself to be surprised now and again, particularly by the two very different girls in his life right now.

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Oregairu is also playful and efficient when it comes to weaving two service missions into one, with the backdrop of a fun school trip to Kyoto. Tobe likes Hina and wants to get closer to her, which requires them being alone. But Hina wants to strengthen the bonds between her circle of friends, which requires her to not be alone with Tobe.

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Then there’s the fact that Hina is a fujoshi who likes to imagine her male classmates in exciting, complicated relationships, which compliments Hikky’s long-standing, not  necessarily one-sided crush on the very feminine Saika, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say Hikky’s bi; it’s more of an “if only he was a girl” situation.

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As for girls, Hikky’s relationships with both Yui and Yukina remain healthy and stong, if a smidge hamstrung by said romantic tension. Hikky’s discomfort with Yui being so close and friendly and touchy with him underlines the fact he sees her as more than just a friend, and there’s still unresolved things between these two that should provide nice fodder for the season as they work together to tackle missions.

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On the other end of the spectrum, Hikky also can’t deny the appeal of Yukino, nor Yukino Hikky. When talk in the girls’ hotel room turns to her, she escapes and finds refuge in his company. Fortune also favor them this week as their teacher brings them along for some not altogether kosher reason and bribes them with dinner, leaving them to walk home together.

Considering what drew her to Hikky tonight, Yukino is weary of being seen to close with him lest more rumors spiral, but it’s clear at the same time she doesn’t particularly mind Hikky’s company one bit.

My first impression of Oregairu 2 is that I’m glad I asked for and got a second season, and I’m looking forward to watching this intriguing triangle’s dynamics develop further, especially if and when the club is graced with a new member, representing yet another personality type.

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DanMachi – 01 (First Impressions)

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My Spring 2015 opens with the charming Dungeon ni Deai wo Motomeru no wa Machigatteiru Darou ka, which almost immediately reminded me of Hitsugi no Chaika in a good way. The cold open is quick and efficient, setting up the god-and-mortal cooperation setup along with a battle in which the serious Saber-like girl (Ais) saves the somewhat Vaan-like mortal guy (Bell), who falls for her on the spot.

Besides this simple but effective reversal of the classic rescuing knight trope, one little detail I liked was how a outdoor merchant reacted to Bell running past, spattering minotaur blood on his stall. He doesn’t yell like I expected; instead, he holds back an amused teehee. This isn’t that a harsh world, and Bell is a bit of a lovable buffoon who bit off more than he could chew.

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Bell lives with his appropriately-named goddess Hestia (virgin goddess of the hearth and home), who is perhaps not so appropriately dressed, but I’ll give her medieval clubbing outfit a pass since she’s a goddess. Hestia is all Bell has, and he’s all she has, but he wants more, and while he’s growing bigger and stronger, she is unchanging in her goddessness.

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I’d say Hestia had a brother complex were it not for the fact Bell isn’t her real brother, but their relationship is very much familial rather than romantic, and while he happens to notice her not unsubstantial bust when he wakes up to her spooning him, it’s clear she’s the underdog against Ais, his new object of affection.

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Bell and Ais only meet face to face in that cold open, but she shows up again in a tavern where Bell is weaseled into buying a ridiculously expensive meal by Syr, one of its servers. There, he and everyone else watches in awe as the Loki familia to which Ais belongs swagger in to celebrate. One of its members has a big mouth and wants to put “tomato boy” Bell (whom he doesn’t know is sitting in there listening) in his place.

In his drunken mocking rant, this guy Bete rather conveniently lays bare all of Bell’s insecurities, namely the patriarchal drive to gain a lady’s favor and become worthy of her by protecting her. He’s also driven by the words of his late grandpa: a dungeon is the best place to meet and prove oneself to the fairer sex, which is an only slightly modernized take on a tale as old as time.

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Bell is clearly not strong enough yet to protect Ais, but simply crossing paths with her seemed to start him on a new and accelerated path of improvement. But when he runs out, unable to hear anymore harsh lip from Bete, I got the feeling that perhaps Bell won’t have to surpass Ais so much as catch up to her, that they might fight side-by-side, rather than one or the other being the hapless benefactor of the others’ strength. Bell certainly hasn’t captured her heart, but he has her attention.

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Bell’s sudden spurt in strength and ability is also something that worries Hestia, because it could mean he’ll drift further and further from her as he draws closer to Ais. But we see just how far Bell has to go when the overzealous brother figure returns home half-unconscious in the morning, utterly dependent on her care.

DanMachi has a hearty helping of J.C. Staff fanservice, and Bell seems to have “lucky dull guy syndrome”, but the first episode does a decent job easing us into its world of gods, magic, and Western names. The show is easy on the eyes and neither hits us with a barrage of terminology nor skimps on the fantasy charm. Overall, a promising start. I’m interested in how Bell gets closer to Ais, and how that’ll effect the nice thing he already has with Hestia.

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