Angel Beats! Special Episode – Stairway to Heaven

The Afterlife Battlefront is at it again one more time in this unexpected OVA, which takes place at a point in the story where the bulk of the characters are still around. Angel Beats! was one of my favorite anime of 2010, so it was great to see it back and firing on all thrusters. Yurippe devises a scheme she hopes will lead Angel to lure them to God. She orders everyone to create “maximum tension” and have an unreasonable amount of enthusiasm from every single moment (or at least pretend to). In theory, the appearance of such life-fulfilling experiences would lead them to pass on to the beyond, but they won’t, because they’re just acting. It’s hoped this will flummox Angel and send her running to God.

With a fluctuating “tension meter” ever present, the sustained instances of high-tension got predictably chaotic and, well, tense. The entire gang gets to participate, each contributing their unique characteristics to the cause (Yui’s rocking out is fitting, while Shiina’s manic sewing is particularly cute). Also predictably, Otonashi only ever reduces the tension, all but refusing to get into the spirit of things. No matter, it seems like Yurippe is on to something, as Angel eventually leads them on what turns out to be a wild goose chase based upon a hilariously convoluted misunderstanding. While hardly masterful, this was a solid, fun addition to the Angel Beats! archive. Rating: 3.5

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Kaichou wa Maid-Sama! – Wrap-up

And so ends another high school rom-com in which the focus is on the two most perfect students in the school. Usui is perfect at everything but quickly cracking the tsundere nut that is Misaki, while Misaki is perfect at everything but realizing that someone is in love with her, and she’s falling in love in return. Because why would a perfect guy or girl persue an inferior mate? That would be boring for them and us.

Usui relishes the chase and the constant reproaches. Misaki remains in an agonizing mix of confusion and denial for most of the series, which comes off as denseness to more and more of the side characters (this is appreciated.) The catalyst for her realization finally comes in the final episode, and after twenty-five episodes of turning away, lying, and storming off, she finally leans into a smooch of her own accord. Despite their ridiculous perfection in everything from sports and academics to looks and style, Usui and Misaki stay interesting, and both grow quite a bit, the latter growing more. The series takes its time developing them, with decent results.

Usui essentially knows what he wants from the get-go, and spends the series dispatching rivals and refining and adjusting his charms to suit Misaki’s personality, while knowing when to be firmer and more forward. But Misaki’s transformation isn’t just from an overbearing tomboy to more feminine and mature young woman; due to her role as the perfect backbone of her family, she has never known love period, so it makes sense that it would take a while for her to notice it staring her right in the face.

I had a feeling this series wouldn’t end ambiguously, and in the end, like Usui was with Misaki, I’m glad I was patient with Maid-Sama. The Maid angle is essentially garnish, and always was. The meat of this series is the two main characters, and the steady, measured evolution of their relationship from mutual antagonists to lovers. Rating: 3 (Ending: 3.5)

Senkou no Night Raid – Wrap-up

Senkou no Night Raid concludes on a bittersweet, even heartwrenching note. After all, the great world war predicted by prophets had not yet arrived, but by the end, it was certainly just over the horizon. The final episodes were a masterpiece of twists, revelations, character-driven actions, deft writing, and short but well-orchestrated action.

A lot of the final dialogues made a lot of excellent, if already well-established points about war. “People cannot understand a tragedy unless it happens to someone close…that’s why tragedies continue to occur”, said the protagonist, who turned out not to be so opaquely evil at all; only a little too naive. He believed attacking Shanghai – a world city – is the only thing that will cause the whole world to feel the tragedy and avoid acts that would perpetuate them. He’s right in a way; America only entered the war when they themselves were attacked.

He also made an excellent point regarding the powers he and the others possessed: seeing through walls, reading minds and sharing thoughts, teleporting, telekinesis, and creating illusions – all are powers that afford otherwise normal humans with “far too much control over their own fate”, and that the [nuclear] bomb gives that same power to anyone who possessed it. That is also true. His intention was to drop the bomb and scare the world out of ever making another. It would be the “first and last,” and therein lies his naivete…or not. Only two nuclear bombs have ever been dropped on cities…ever. He was only off one bomb.

This fear of utter destruction created a dangerous peace, but a peace nonetheless. The mere possession of a bomb wasn’t enough; its power had to be demonstrated in order for it to work as a deterrent. It’s also telling that the physicist has no idea whether the bomb will actually work until its tested…just as Americans weren’t quite sure exactly what would happen when that bomb detonated. The two bombs used on Japan were, after all, glorified prototypes. If neither worked, or the Japanese hadn’t surrendered after two bombings, we were fresh out of atom bombs for months at the least.

So Night Raid ends with some deep stuff that hits home hard not just in Japan and America, but all over the world. All kinds of what ifs permeate: what if the Japanese were the first to get the bomb, and dropped it on Shanghai? Would all the Imperial nations acquiese, and pull out of their colonies? Would it start the war or prevent one? Big what-ifs aside, I don’t want to forget about the characters and quite a lot of powerhouse acting. The way the good guys use their powers in concert to get rid of the bomb was as clever as it was kick-ass.There were some good deaths, expected and unexpected, and a lot of emotions flying around, but it was all handled with aplomb, and never felt overwrought or silly.

This was a gutsy series – daring to delve into a time and place anime rarely confronts, with an element of the supernatural mixed in for good measure. And I think the final scene and foreboding ending moments were just about pitch-perfect. Rating: 3.5 (Ending: 4)

Senkou no Night Raid – Thru 10

Senkou no Night Raid is long gone from the airwaves, but I haven’t quite finished it. One episode even aired online, since it’s historical content, an alternate version of the Mukden Incident (specifically the bombing of the Manchurian railway, used to justify Japanese invasion) was deemed to controversial for television. Controversy aside, Night Raid has a stirring story of pre-WWII espionage to tell, and its three core characters – who possess telepathy, teleportation, and telekinesis, are richly rendered and fun to watch.

As the series has progressed and the prospect of full-scale war starts to become something more inevitable, the three spies must wrestle with inner conflicts, as the main antagonist is the telepathic girl’s big brother, the baddies’ theory about war came from a mentor of the teleporter, and the telekinetic guy still holds a candle for his believed-dead wife. All three will not and cannot fully trust their superiors, either.

Looming over everyone is something hardly any anime ever references directly – the atomic bomb. They don’t call it that in Night Raid either, but in this universe, it’s there, and it’s the Japanese who have made progress developing it, thanks to the efforts of a brilliant Japanese physicist given considerable resources. So far, it’s been an entertaining and well-made anime. It doesn’t hurt that telepathic girl’s voice and character design are adorable. I have three episodes left to watch and am looking forward to how things play out. Rating: 3.5

Working!! – Wrap-up

Inami from Working!! assaults any man within striking distance without hesitation. In real life, somebody as dangerous as Inami would likely be in an institution, to say nothing of working a normal waitress job. Yet there she is, somehow working a normal waitress job and actually being gradually trained in restraint by her male co-worker, with varying success. It’s not every season you see a slice-of-life romantic comedy featuring a heroine who has been unconsciously molded by her father into a powerful fighting machine against men.

That training stands in the way of her happiness, as she genuinely likes Takanashi (the male co-worker) but struggles mightily not to put him in the hospital. It’s this fun and quirky dilemma that forms the core of Working’s fun and quirky slice-of-life story about unusual people with unusual traits working in a normal family restaurant. I enjoyed it from start to finish, and wouldn’t mind a second season. Rating: 3.5

B Gata H Kei – Wrap-up

This is a hard show to approach initially, as on its surface it appears to be one of a billion dime-a-dozen 12-episode high school romance fanservice clichefests. But what impressed me from episode 1 on is how the series dependably turns around all those the cliches and makes them work for the comedy. Most importantly, it’s hardly ever annoying. The first few and last few episodes work better than the middle, forming robust bookends of hilariously embarrasing situations carried out by the characters in the name of sex.

There’s even genuine character development: as the normal boring guy grows some cajones and the hottie realizes she wants a monogamous relationship with this one guy and not 100 disposible fuck buddies. I appreciate the rare series that start and finish strong. Rating: 3.5

Uragiri wa Boku no Namae o Shitteiru – First Impressions

Rundown: Mysterious teenager has a fantastic dream, wakes up in normal Japan. He was found in bushes and grew up in an orphanage. When he touches others, he can feel their emotions, leading to reactions that can confuse or anger those people. He receives death threats, but is saved from an attempt on his life by someone in weird clothes claiming to be his brother.

Like Ookamikakushi last season, this show doesn’t reveal much in its first episode; a lot is still wrapped in mystery. I even felt a tinge of Escaflowne-ness in the cross between the kid’s cheesy Final Fantasy dream and reality, though elements from the former show up in the latter before long. The kid himself is not that interesting yet, girls love him, kids love him, rival guys loathe him; nothing out-of-this-world. But I’m intrigued enough with the buildup thus far to keep watching for now. Rating: 2.5

Yojou-han Shinwa Taikei [The Tatami Galaxy] – First Impressions

Rundown: A college student in Kyoto is vexed by his inability to enter meaningful romantic relationships with the fairer sex at university. Egged on by his antisocial and mischievous friend, he has spent much of his college life as a “black cupid,” intervening and spoiling other students’ pairings. Despite this, he develops a liking to a quirky yet cute freshman girl. One night at a roving ramen stand, he meets a so-called “god of matchmaking” who says the girl will be bound to either him or his odd friend. He must get serious, shed the black cupid act, and act on his feelings for the girl, or risk losing her.

Ye gads, I thought Sayonara Zetsubou-Sensei was hard to keep up with. This show combines an almost constantly-changing animation style and color palette with rapid-fire narration and dialogue that goes by so fast, even the subtitles lag a bit. Like Mr. Despair, watching this show is a workout, but once you find your comfort zone, its a gorgeously presented and highly entertaining account of a student’s college dreams deferred. Living in Kyoto, he was bound to run into a god of some kind, and he does – one who’s offering him a chance at a wife. The girl’s reaction to a moth landing on her face was priceless. You may want to brush up on your speed-reading beforehand, but I reccomend you watch it!

Working!! – First Impressions

Rundown: A 16 year old high school student is recruited to work at a family restaurant by a female classmate one year his senior, whom he nevertheless mistakes for middle schooler. The restaurant staff  is full of odd personalities, but he decides to stick with the job that fell in his lap.

I’m always weary of slice-of-life, since the genre itself just sounds like a snoozefest. Thankfully this has enough liveliness and comedy and production values to warrant a fair viewing. Everyone has a quirk, from the protagonists’ somewhat disturbing love of “small things”, a watress so terrified of men she attacks them viciously, a laid-back manager who calls delinquents to rob customers who run out on the bill, and a cheerful hostess who always carries a wakizashi around and never opens her eyes. Again, nothing groundbreaking, but for me, it’s nice, calm, amusing slice of life with odd but ultimately likable characters.

Hakuouki – First Impressions

Rundown: Girl travels to Kyoto looking for her father, and witnesses a battle she isn’t supposed to see. The warriors who won the battle take her back to their HQ and keep her detained while they debate what to do with her. They eventually learn that the doctor they’re looking for his the girl’s father.

This is a nice change of pace from a set of mostly modern/futuristic settings of the anime I’m watching this season. That said, while I sympathize with Chizuru (the female lead), I’m not that interested in all the warriors quite yet. The show throws a lot of characters at her and you at once, and keeping their names and opinions straight was tough. At first I thought, well, they’re all assholes for teasing and threatening to kill her, but eventually they let up, and even gave her her katana back, so they can’t be all bad.

House of Five Leaves – First Impressions

Rundown: Technically sound but weak-willed ronin hired by a gangster who turns out to be a member of a band of thieves who have kidnapped a boy. He initially questions whose side he’s on, but once he finds out the thieves have a code and their victims are hardly sympathetic, he decides not to back out and joins the group.

The Samurai Champloo similarities are here: both center around ronin in the Edo period; both are done by Manglobe…but I loved the character design in Champloo and I don’t care for it at all in Five Leaves. This show had a beautifully-done opening sequence, a decent intro story, and gorgeous landscapes throughout, but the character design ruins it for me. The last straw was when the main guy laid eyes on whom he believed “the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen.” IMO she looked like a man in drag. Everybody looks tired, worn-out, and ugly, like they’re strung out on drugs or starving. Maybe that’s the point, but usually, to enjoy an anime I have to like how the characters are drawn, which simply isn’t the case here. The only character design I liked was the cat, which is why it’s pictured so prominently.

Rainbow – First Impressions

In depressed post-WWII Japan, seven teenage delinquents are incarcerated in an infamous jail and have to deal with the humiliation and abuse of prison life, and also share their cell with a more seasoned inmate.

Lovejoy: Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies is a highly-acclaimed and celebrated film but frankly I couldn’t stand it…it was too damned depressing. So far I’m getting that same vibe with Rainbow; I appreciate an anime digging deep into one of Japan’s darkest times and their effect on youths, it’s not necessarily the genre I’m looking for, and nothing in the first episode stood out as being particularly groundbreaking for a prison drama.

B Gata H Kei – First Impressions

Rundown: Girl vows to have 100 sex partners, but just ends up pursuing her first male target.

Lovejoy: The opening credits were a bit too syrupy, and it’s a cringeworthy premise, but all that aside, this first episode turned out to be a surprisingly decent and amusing romantic comedy. The show does a good job capturing the hormone-soaked fiasco high school courtship can be, and isn’t lazy with the dialogue. While Yamada, the female lead, is incredibly naive and overzealous, the show itself isn’t and seems to have a good bead on what it wants to do. Yamada’s meta sidekick, kind of a mini love-god version of herself with a mustache, is a nice touch.