Utawarerumono: Itsuwari no Kamen – 01 (First Impressions)

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From White Fox and the director of Jormungand and Katanagatari comes Utawareumono, a show that ably demonstrates less is more by starting off simply and not trying to do too much in its first episode, yet still utterly drawing me into its fantasy world. We’re dropped right into the same plight as the protagonist: we know not his name nor from whence he came, but neither does he. He just suddenly wakes up in the middle of an achingly gorgeous wintry landscape, barefoot and wearing simple green robes, and he has to run, first from a giant centipede, then a frightening goo monster with a face.

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Unsure of who he is, where he is, and what to do, a hand suddenly grabs him, and when its owner turns around to face him, he learns it’s a beautiful young woman. She introduces herself as Kuon once they’re safe, and appoints herself his guardian, as she considers herself responsible for his life now that she’s gone and saved it. She lends him warmer clothes and the two trudge through the winterscape towards a village.

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Along the way the as-of-yet no-named man learns Kuon has ears and a tail (the latter she’s very cross at him for touching), and Kuon learns the man doesn’t have much energy or stamina to go along with his amnesia. But I enjoyed the fast rapport they develop; Kuon is unflappably kind and patient, and their environs are, as I said, arrestingly pretty. The show has a stirring score, but when it eschews music for the silence of the place, I could really feel the cold, just I could feel the warmth of the campfire.

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When they arrive at the village, it’s an opportunity for Kuon to show Haku, as she officially names her (by the power vested in her as his guardian), other aspects of herself. She eats a huge amount of food in the form of the delicious-looking, fajita-esque spread she orders at the inn. She also has a bit of a mischievous streak in peeking in on Haku in the bath, which she soon regrets when he starts doing nude calisthenics, a scene for which you can tell the show didn’t skimp on the Foley artist.  In addition to bumping up her cuteness, her tail is also a good indicator of her mood. She even mixes up a salve for his blistered feet before he hits the hay. It’s all very pleasant domestic stuff.

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The next morning, Haku learns he’s not getting a free ride; if he wants to keep eating and staying at the inn, he needs to do his part. It’s here where Kuon learns Haku is, essentially, allergic to manual labor, and quite bad at it when forced to do it. However, he does show he can use his head and has a mind for machines when he fixes the waterwheel at the village mill. That achievement may have helped him find his niche, even if he only fixed the thing so he could sleep.

In all, this was a well-made and well-executed episode; a pleasure to watch. It reminded me a bit of Spice & Wolf in its immersive power; feeling like a nice, cozy blanket I can wrap myself up in. It’s actually a welcome change of pace from the more hectic Summer stuff I just got done watching. That being said, the cold close in which three men are attacked in the night by some kind of beast promises more action in the near future.

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Rakudai Kishi no Cavalry – 01 (First Impressions)

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Fall 2015 is the season of battling magical school anime, and after previously sampling the very similar Gakusen Toshi Asterisk, I’m going to come right out and declare Rakudai Kishi no Cavalry the week one winner, and it wasn’t really close. Rakudai had the smarter, fleeter, more engaging intro, and featured far stronger characters and an actual arc. It even handled fanservice better, as Ikki manages not to use any boobs as handrests.

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Stella Vermillion, like Asterisk’s Julis, is also a pink-haired princess with high-ranked magical skills and initially reacts in a similar fashion when Ikki, a much lower-ranked student accidentally peeps on her. But her later reactions are a lot more nuanced, as she’s actually impressed by Ikki’s “manliness”, and is disarmed by his appeal to her rare beauty.

The show is also pretty cheeky in witholding the reason Stella (finely voiced by Ishigami Shizuka) was even in Ikki’s room changing. The director of the school, in an effort to shake things up, brings together the strongest and weakest Magic Knights at her school by making them roommates. When the two quibble over house rules, she also suggests they settle matters with a mock battle.

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The method in her madness becomes clear when the two knights clash in the arena. Ikki may have the least natural talent, but he works uncommonly hard to overcome his weaknesses.

Stella, who came to Japan to escape the box labeled “Genius” her people put her in, wants to prove she works hard too, and isn’t just gliding on her natural talent.

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To Stella’s surprise, not only is Ikki not a pushover, but he notices how hard she works in the way she’s fighting. He also steals her sword skills in order to keep up, and uses a once-per-day trump card to nullify her coup-de-grace and nab the victory.

In the hospital, Stella realizes she wasn’t any better than her legions of worshipers, putting Ikki in a box labeled “The Worst One.” But as the director asserts, and what is proven in their battle, is that there’s no reliable way to evaluate Ikki’s true strength. And there’s value in sticking around someone like him if she wants to grow as a knight.

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In a nice inversion of the scene where he walked in on her dressing, Stella almost grows up too much when she comes home to find Ikki asleep, and can’t help but touch him, curious as to how a man really feels. He’s a twist-and-turner in bed, so she gets snagged by one of his arms, and seems on the verge of having a crisis when he wakes up asking what she’s doing on top of him.

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And that gets to the strength of Rakudai so far: its central couple, Stella and Ikki. When they meet they misunderstand one another, but they never outright hate each other, and by the end, they fully embrace sharing a living space and learning more from one another.

This is partly because Stella lost the duel and is merely honoring their arrangement, but also because she gained a lot of respect for Ikki, now that she knows more about him. And while Ikki does slip up early, he is, well, very chivalrous. This isn’t rocket science: decent characters can go a long way towards making a decent show.

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Owarimonogatari – 01 (First Impressions)

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Owari means “end”, so it looks like this latest story marks the beginning of the end of the Monogatari series, which is celebrated as an epic masterpiece by some (ahem) but derided as a tedious, talky, overwrought glorified harem piece by others (…jerks!), with any number of less extreme opinions in between.

The cold open and tremendous OP indicate the primary subject of this series will be the enigmatic, doll-like, too-long-sleeved niece of Oshino Meme, Oshino Ougi, with a theme of mathematics, or numbers. But in a change from other recent series, Ougi isn’t the one with the problem, i.e. the oddity/apparition.

Rather, the person with the problem is Araragi Koyomi himself. The setting of the episode is deceptively sparse—a locked classroom they can’t exit—but that classroom becomes the perfect stage for a dialogue that expands the setting across space and time, where Ougi establishes from Araragi’s testimony that the classroom itself is an apparition, likely one of Araragi’s own making.

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Combined with a less-rushed (for a weekly show) 48-minute runtime and a couple new takes sparkling visuals This latest narrative twist in the Monogatari formula keeps things fresh and exciting. The series has aired largely out of order, but there’s something both orderly and poetic about saving the end for last, only to go back two years to an experience that changed his outlook on life significantly and causing him to “put a lid on his heart”; at least until he meets Hanekawa Tsubasa.

There’s a new face in this past story, too: the silver-twin-tailed Oikura Sodachi (very appropriately voiced by Kitsu Chiri herself, Inoue Marina). Two years ago, when she and Araragi were first-years, she assembled the class to ascertain the culprit in wrongdoing that led to an unnatural deviation in the math test scores of the class.

Oikura can also be distinguished by her intense dislike, even hatred of Araragi Koyomi, because he always scored higher than her favorite subject, math. To add insult to injury, Araragi didn’t even participate in the suspect study group. But the assembly goes nowhere for two hours, with the students fiercely debating but not coming any closer to discovering the culprit.

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Oikura made Araragi preside over the assembly, but when he loses control, he goes back her her pleading for an end to this unfruitful madness. She relents, calling for a vote…and SHE is the one the class chooses as the culprit. Stunned, and essentially ruined as a student, she never returns to school after the incident, which makes sense as we’ve never seen her before in later series.

Araragi’s regret from the day of that accursed assembly was that he stood by and allowed the majority to make a determination in total absence of empirical evidence. Oikura was only chosen because most of the class chose her. It’s an artificial justice and righteousness that never sat well with justice-obsessed Araragi, who adpoted the motto “If I make friends, my strength as a human decreases,” which he obviously would later drop once started helping out various oddity-afflicted girls.

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Oikura wouldn’t let anyone leave the classroom until the culprit was found, and they “found” her. Likewise, Araragi can’t leave the phantom classroom his regret created until the true culprit is revealed. Ougi wastes no time deciding it was the math teacher, Komichi Tetsujo, who was responsible for the odd test scores, by changing the exam to match the questions the study group used.

In the end, Oikura organized the venue of her own demise, the assembly, as she was sacrificed by a teacher looking to improve her own stature, and the flawed justice of majority rule. And perhaps she miscalculated because she had so much emotional investment in the investigation, due to her resentment of fellow math whiz Araragi.

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Now that Araragi knows the culprit for sure, the classroom returns to normal coloring, and Ougi opens the door and lets him out. The next day, when he checks the part of the school where the classroom was, there was nothing there; the apparition dissipated. Then he stops by his current homeroom, but in a clever inversion of the episode thus far, rather than being unable to exit, he can’t enter.

That’s because Tsubasa is blocking the door, with news that someone has returned to school after two years: Oukura Sodachi, who arrives just as the teacher who destroyed her departs for maternity leave, as if the two were switching places. This should be interesting.

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Gakusen Toshi Asterisk – 01 (First Impressions)

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I claimed this show because its genres included comedy, but what ended up being most comical was how slavishly shows like this hew to an exacting formula of predetermined variables. Dark prologue that sets the stakes, check. Narration full of proprietary jargon like “Invertia” and “Genestella”, check. Drab transfer student who immediately gets into trouble with a stuck-up girl, check. Inadvertent peeping, overkill response, good deeds, boob grabs, checkity check check check.

But hey, this stuff obviously sells, it would be going away anytime soon, and I knew pretty much instantly what I was getting into and still watched through to the end, so let’s table the bigger questions like “should shows like this exist” and dive right in.

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Well, that was an unexpected disrobing! Protag Amagiri Ayato’s introduction to Julis-Alexia von Riessfelt (She’s a real princess, not just a pretend one! Monarchies make a comeback in the future!) is a bit rough, but there are clear transactions that are made.

First, he retrieves her beloved handkerchief in good faith, and when she punishes him for peeping and he proves he can hold his own against the fifth-strongest student at Seidoukan Academy. Then he commits another good deed by saving her from a third-party projectile. It’s understandable Julis would go tsundere on him. He’s helped her out at least twice, but the collateral peeping and touching spoil the goodwill.

Class Prez/Rep Claudia Enfield plays a different game with Ayato than the very direct Julis. She’s more about facades and jokes and lies hiding dark thoughts and schemes, and is very upfront about that. She gets Ayato to reveal he may be here to find out what happened to his big sister Haruka (the bleeding girl in the prologue), but he later sidesteps larger motivations and simply says he’s here to find out what he should do with himself.

He’s clearly a capable fighter judging from his duel with Julis, which makes him a potentially valuable resource for Claudia, whose academy hasn’t been doing well in the interschool competitions of late.

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Finally, Ayato takes his seat beside Julis, in class, and seated just behind him is his roommate and designated friend, Yabuki, whose membership in the newspaper club gives him more leeway in explaining to Ayato what’s going on with Julis, who apparently bears a burden and remains aloof in order to insulate others from that burden.

That doesn’t stop objectively weaker (if physically more imposing) challengers from demanding duels with her, as three-shirt-sizes-too-small Lester MacPhail does. Les is also at Seidoukan for some important reason (I’m guessing family pride or security) but wrongly thinks Julis is just doing this for fun.

So there are a growing number of different dynamics set up here, punctuated with well-tread ecchi elements and told in the almost tiresomely familiar language of Magic Schoolese. It’s serviceably watchable, but offers absolutely nothing new, which means if something more inspiring or creative comes along, then Goodbye Asterisk City.

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