Norn9: Norn + Nonet – 01 (First Impressions)

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I’ll say one thing about No9No+No: it’s a very pretty show; far better-looking than I expected going in. Its first episode is adept at utilizing light and color to portray temperature and mood, which is with a few notable exceptions, very pleasant and upbeat, even…fluffy.

And that’s no moon, nor is it a space station: it’s the titular Norn, a giant spherical ship (kind of a “Life Star”) with a crew of ten humans, A sakura-haired maiden becomes the eleventh, delivering her from snow and solitude to a new life of adventure, mystery, and beautiful people.

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The show definitely has the “retro-futuristic fantasy” aesthetic going on, blending Last Exile-style steampunk elements with Castle in the Sky-like architecture. There’s a decent sense of awe, and also a distinct “I want to be there” welcoming quality.

This is really an episode of introductions, with Pinky, who later remembers her name is probably Koharu, standing in as the audience surrogate, all wide-eyed and ready to soak it all in. We also get some cursory introductions to the other eight crew members besides her and her guide, first friend, and perhaps down the road, more, Yuiga Kakeru, who get the lion’s share of screen time.

Koharu becomes the third female member of the crew (there’s also the stoic Shiranui Nanami and more fervent, less patient Kuga Mikoto. There’s also Ichinose Senri, who initially refuses to come outside to meet Koharu, not wanting to get close to anyone since he fears they could all “become enemies” someday soon.

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All eleven crew members have special abilities and were chosen specifically to crew the Norn, on a mission of peace sanctioned by a powerful, advanced organization called The World. We can glean that Koharu’s abilities may have been responsible for some kind of disaster in her past that separated her from her family (or killed them) and left her alone to the point she forgot her name.

But now she’s no longer alone; the other crew members ask her to rely on them, just as they’ll come to rely on her once she has her bearings (there’s a rather staged-for-romantic-benefit sequence where she falls out of a tree and nearly to her death before being saved by Kakeru).

Finally, the episode ends with a literal bang, an explosion that instantly made me recall the flames in Koharu’s memories. Perhaps her ability relates to fire in some way, and she’ll be of some use in whatever incident is afoot. I won’t mind tuning in next week to see what transpires.

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Shoujo-tachi wa Kouya wo Mezasu – 01 (First Impressions)

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Haruchika and Prince of Stride had pleasant enough first episodes, but weren’t particularly dazzling or earth-shattering. To be honest neither is Shoujo-tachi wa Kouya wo Mezasu, but it did do something more often than those other two shows: it made me laugh, and it impressed me with its characterization and snappy-ish dialogue. So far, SKM reminds me of a quieter, less punchy, less fanservice-y Saekano.

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Continuing the theme of honesty into this second paragraph, none of the characters in SKM are staggeringly unique, but they’re well-executed and I quickly came to root for not only the hard-working, gregarious Houjou Buntarou, but also his little circle of friends, the “inconveniently popular” Kai Atomu and in particular his good female buddy/possible childhood friend Kobayakawa Yuuka, a talented girl who wants “to do everything she wants to do” whom Hanazawa Kana breathes life into.

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While the raven-haired loner maiden Kuroda Sayki gazes mysteriously from afar, “Bunta”, as everyone calls him, is always in the thick of it, whether it’s seeing to everyone’s needs at the restaruant where he works, to shooting the breeze with his neighbors, to settling classroom disputes amicably. He’s a nice guy; the only problem is, unlike Yuuka, he has no idea what he truly wants to do.

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Enter Kuroda. In a uncomfortably funny (but not vulgar) scene in the men’s room, she has a very interesting (and also funny) conversation with Buntarou, likely the longest one he’s ever had with her by far. It’s full of compliments: he’s observant, in tune with the needs of those around him, and knowledgeable about the “leisure areas” of town. Their talk ends with Kuroda asking him to arrange a date for them on Saturday, so she can tell him something she can’t say at school.

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From the get-go, I had the feeling this wasn’t anything as simple as a date with a girl who likes him, but rather some kind of evaluation by a girl who might find him useful. Nevertheless, Bunta proceeds as if it were a conventional date, complete with accepting Yuuka’s offer to put him in touch with an underclassman known as the “Bitch Queen” who offers him sage advice on tomorrow. Her line about “cladding herself in innocence for the sake of her bitchiness” was pretty amusing, and I hope we get to put a face to the voice.

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The day of the “date” arrives, and Kuroda encourages Bunta to take the lead, showing her a good time at the amusement park while responding to most of his personal queries with “it’s a secret.” By sundown, he realizes what we viewers realized, but like me, he knows there’s nothing sinister about her motives.

Rather, she takes him to a game store in Akiba, shows him the value of the successful games versus the failures, and lays out what she wants: to make a bishoujo game with him. She believes he has the writing chops and the personality to help make her dreams come true.

As for the details of those dreams, all she’ll tell him is that “the world is a wasteland” where “the innocent are only devoured”, and wants to strike out and stake her claim in that wasteland with Bunta by her side. Bunta, unsure of what to do up until now, has been given an intriguing opportunity; he’d best not waste it!

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Boku dake ga Inai Machi – 01 (First Impressions)

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Yikes, Hannah did not like Active Raid one bit; no she did not! I, on the other hand, seem to have stumbled on what could be one of the season’s top shows. It’s certainly the best so far after one episode. And it did it with a highly realistic and immersive setting; a gloomy atmosphere full of regret over things not done or unsaid; and a young man unable to progress in life, still haunted by hazy memories and mysteries of the past. Moreover, it didn’t pull its punches.

Oh yeah, and said young man, 29-year-old struggling mangaka/pizza delivery boy Fujinuma Satoru, has a power. No, he can’t defeat villains with one punch, but he does periodically, involuntarily go back a couple of minutes in time when something bad happens around him, enabling him to take action to prevent disaster.

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The reveal of that ability is the first of many jolts this episode gave me, and it’s an ability expertly demonstrated when he stops a truck from hitting a little boy in the crosswalk. Saving the boy gets him injured, and while he’s out, he remembers one of those hazy memories: a haunting image of a little girl in a red coat standing alone in the snowy night. This realm – near the “heart of his mind”, is a place he has always feared, and both his creative calling and social life are suffering as a result.

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That doesn’t mean good things don’t happen to Satoru. His selfless, heroic actions were witnessed by a cute high school girl (and his pizza joint co-worker) Katagiri Airi, who stays by his bedside, now seeing him in a new light. But Satoru doesn’t see anything more coming of such an auspicious encounter; after all, they’re not the same generation, and a lot of her “Gen-Y” sayings and doings are strange and frightening to him.

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Speaking of generations, his mother Sachiko, 52 but looking 32 (he calls her an ageless “yokai” more than once) crashes at his house for a while when he’s discharged from the hospital. This puts Satoru in yet another light, not as the intriguing senpai with the secret heroic life, but the darling son whose mother is worried about him.

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Both his mom’s presence and news of abductions on the television bring more memories to the surface, to when Satoru was a little kid and used to play with a local guy he nicknamed “Yuuki.” Something seems a little off about how Yuuki looks and talks, and sure enough, after two kids from Satoru’s class are abducted, Yuuki is arrested as the culprit and sent to prison for kidnapping and murder.

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When Sachiko and Airi cross paths, the former invites the latter to Satoru’s for dinner, and Satoru starts to suspect his mom is looking for a wife for him, taking Airi’s words about him being “a friend she respects” as a mere polite formality, and that she has no further interest in him. But I imagined, like Sachiko did, that Airi was more interested in Satoru than he thought, considering she bothered to spend so much time with him as late.

Later, as Satoru looks further into the crimes Yuuki was accused of, Sachiko gets suspicious of a person she sees out in the city, knowing the serial abduction and murder case isn’t actually closed yet. She’s always regretted withholding info from Satoru, and making him forget as much as he could about the dark events that transpired in the fifth grade.

Because Satoru knows Yuuki didn’t abduct or kill anyone. It was someone else. Further, that scene of the girl in red – Hinazuki Kayo – was the last time Satoru saw her before she disappeared. He’s blamed himself for not asking her if he could walk her home ever since.

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In any case, Sachiko never gets the chance to come clean with her son, as a mysterious assailant in a black suit enters the apartment and suddenly stabs her in the back, killing her. Now this was a huge jolt. Holy shit. Here, I had settled into this nice, warm, pleasant atmosphere with Satoru and his lovely mother and Airi and it’s all taken away with one plunge of a knife. Damn…

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The killer passes Satoru in the hall as he returns home from the bookstore, and only moments after discovering his mother inside his apartment, the neighbor sees him with blood on his hands and calls the cops. Things threaten to spiral out of control fast as Satoru—like Yuuki, AKA Shiratori Jun—looks poised to be framed. And my heart is pumping.

Just then, another blue butterfly appears – a sign another “revival” or time jump is about to occur, and all of a sudden Satoru isn’t dealing with cops in the city anymore. He’s back in Hokkaido, in the snow, and he’s gone back a little more than a couple minutes, because it’s 1988.

No doubt, Kayo is still alive, and he has a chance to do things differently. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is one hell of an enticing way to end your first episode!

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Active Raid – 01 (First/Last Impressions)

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We may have orders from RABUJOI Corporate to be tougher on shows and I may have had a long cold week, but neither of those things factored into my impression that Active Raid isn’t good. It is, in fact, quite bad. So bad, it was at times painful to watch. I’ll elaborate.

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The setting and premise are a strange melange of Psycho-Pass, Gatchaman, and Rail Wars!, without any of the strengths or charms of those shows. It also has a touch of Taimadou with its by now done-to-death “team of misfits”, but both the newbie Haruka (a smug, hollow Tsunemori knockoff) and the pithy, one-note misfits come off as dull and unlikable.

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Let’s set aside the fact that a guy randomly grabs Haruka’s ankle for no reason, Haruka often speaks English for no reason, and the titular unit with the too-long-winded name travels along on a slow train that shares rails with commuter trains as the perps (apparently “minors” who look like they’re thirty) fly around in Gatchaman like mecha.

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But the most damning aspect of this show is that it’s so interminably boring. Endless time is spent on displays and endless dialogue is devoted to getting confirmations and permissions and authorizations from the extremely inefficient bureaucracy. One could infer that that’s the point; that this unit could perform better if they were less hog-tied by red tape; but that’s just a theory.

In the meantime, the first episode’s obsession with following rules and the resulting, thoroughly listless sequence of action that got two random teenage perps got barely caught at great cost and trouble precludes any desire on my part to watch another episode in order to see if that theory proves true. This is another “anime-loaf” made up of several pieces of better shows, not baked with love, and I shall be avoiding it.

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Prince of Stride: Alternative – 01 (First Impressions)

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I made a short film in high school titled Somnio Venatio—Latin for “Dream Hunting” (not pretentious at all!). It was about a guy who was stuck in a world where he was always either chasing someone or being chased by someone. It involved a lot of running (and some swift jogging), with no stated reason for any of it. The running just was.

I’m not very good at it (no stamina) but I’ve always liked running. It’s the most basic and accessible way for a person to transcend the normal pace of life and see the world in a different way. At the height of its action, Prince of Stride: Alternative captures that frenetic energy very well, as well as the passion for speed its characters possess.

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Brass tacks: The Stride Club both Sakura Nana and Fujiwara Takeru enrolled at Honan Academy is just three members strong when they arrive, and they’re all playing shogi, because they’re also the Shogi Club. Struggling underdog club: check. But here’s the thing: both Sakurai and Fujiwara are on a mission, and they will not be denied. At no point throughout the episode to they despair at the prospect of failure.

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Needing at least one new member plus a “relationer” for a team that can officially compete, Sakurai and Fujiwara take different paths to recruit fellow first-year and athletic phenom Yagami Riku. I say different because while Sakurai would rather ask her new acquaintance nicely if he’d join them, Fujiwara spends much of the episode glaring at him from behind his glasses and bangs, as if stalking prey. Regardless, they get Yagami, and a little in-school race is organized pitting the first-years against the senpais.

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As for Sakurai, she came wanting to be a manager, but Fujiwara deems her capable of being the team’s “relationer”, who keeps in communication with the runners and, I presume, keeps track of their positions in relation to each other. It’s not the spotlight, to be sure, but it does seem to be a crucial role.

That wonderful energy of which I spoke above only comes in short bursts for most of the episode, then finally surges in the final act when the race is held in front of the entire school, whose interest was somehow revitalized despite the bottom-feeder status of the club prior to the first years’ enrollment.

The race is a great technical set piece; Madhouse’s animation is smooth and crisp even at speed, the size and geography of the school is very nicely laid out, and the four runners each had their own style of movement. Of course, the school race was but a brief tease. Bigger, more ambitious races around town are sure to come, so I’ll keep watching for now. But the lack of depth in the characters is already apparent, which could be problematic in the long run.

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