Utawarerumono: Itsuwari no Kamen – 04

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In the big capital, Haku, Kuon, and Rurutie meet Ukon’s little sister, Nekone, who has her doubts about Haku for most of the episode until she realizes he’s actually a pretty nice and interesting fellow, and learns from observing him not to worry so much or overthink things.

As far as baths are concerned, overthinking is definitely not a problem for Kuon: Clothes come off, Kuon gets in the water. Kuon also makes sure Rurutie and Nekone are as God made them that they might fully enjoy the experience of bathing. When talk that Ukon is with Haku on the men’s side, Rurutie’s inner fujoshi comes out. We even see Maroro without his white base mask.

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The next morning, Haku is very refreshed, and Nekone invites him, Kuon and Rurutie to join her on a tour of the capital, during which she’ll determine whether Haku is worthy of being a friend to her brother. On the tour, they catch sight of the hugely-popular general Oshutaru, and Nekone clashes with Haku on what she perceives as his arrogance, ignorance, and general dimwittedness.

The girls find him a job waiting tables, and to Nekone’s surprise, after a rough start, Haku starts to fit right in. No one has a problem with him the way she does, so she starts to wonder if her perception of him is the true problem. Stepping back from her preconceptions of him, she starts to see the odd but comforting charisma he exerts, and which Kuon, Rurutie, and even her brother Ukon have come to like.

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After a hard day’s work and with the cost of his mistakes subtracted, Haku has made barely enough money to buy a meal, let alone a room at an inn. Nekone is still dubious, but delivers an invitation from Ukon to Haku and the others. When they arrive to find Oshutaru, he reveals “Ukon” is merely a false identity he uses on occasion. With Ukon and Oshutaru being one and the same means he and Haku are already good friends.

Seeing how much her brother truly trusts and cares for Haku, Nekone takes a page out of Haku’s book. She, Kuon and Rurutie have already hit it off, so she decides, without overthinking, to simply regard them as friends, as they clearly already consider her one.

Meanwhile, two cloaked messengers report Haku’s presence in the capital; news that is very well-received by a venerable elder-type whose face is concealed. We saw Haku as a simple waiter this week, but it’s clear there are many people whose existence he’s not even aware of who have far grander plans for him.

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Utawarerumono: Itsuwari no Kamen – 03

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Unwatched nine-year-old prequel aside, Utawarerumono continues to churn out entertaining little yarns chronicling the adventures of the hapless Haku and capable Kuon. This week they join Ukon in escorting a kind and adorable young princess, Rurutie, to the capital.

Along the way, the girls enjoy a hot bath, but Kuon hears someone lurking in the woods and runs out to confront them, but in her absent-mindedness ends up presenting her naked self to Haku.

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The convoy is eventually attacked by bandits led by a feisty young woman (Nosuri) and a rapey old man who steal all their wagons containing tribute for the emperor, but Ukon lets them ride off without a fight, causing Haku to suspect the super-strong badass has a plan in mind for foiling the thieves.

Nosuri, by the way, quickly ends her alliance with the rapey dude when she learns he’s built a large hideout in the canyons where he intends to bring more women and children to victimize. She don’t want no part of that.

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Even when things don’t go exactly according to Ukon’s plan, and the rapey leader ends up right back where Haku and the girls are, the fact that Haku made Rurutie’s plump, affectionate riding bird fall for him back in the beginning of the episode pays off, when the bird dispatches the bad guys in a protective rage.

The bandits are arrested by imperial guards, and the way is clear for the rest of Rurutie’s journey to the capital, where Kuon is certain Haku can find a good job, even if he claims not to be ready for one yet, because he’s perhaps the laziest protagonist of the Fall, yet still somehow likable simply because I’m not sure I wouldn’t act the same way as he if thrust into such an unfamiliar world.

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Utawarerumono: Itsuwari no Kamen – 02

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That lovely, cozy, immersive quality I spoke of last week? It was largely supplanted this week by an ably executed but mostly pedestrian adventure-of-the-week.

When Kuon is hired by Ukon to hunt some giriri (giant centipedes) lurking on the outskirts of the village, and Kuon insists Haku comes along, it means a fast pace and more action than last week, with so much going on relative to last week it was hard to settle in. All the extra action also exposed the show’s sometimes iffy production values.

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Ukon is a pretty bland strongman with a penchant for being surprised whenever Haku makes himself useful, while Mororo is the archetypal prancing anime dandy. Neither are repellant, but they’re not as interesting as Kuon and Haku on their own.

The episode is effective in one regard: it shows there are all kinds of ways to contribute, not just to the village, but in a more high-stakes situation involving giant centipedes. Haku also demonstrates he’s a natural math whiz, which will serve him well in the capital.

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My problem with Utawarerumono: I find myself preferring a slighter cast and well-placed bursts of action punctuating more world-building slice-of-life; in other words, a series of episodes like its first. But that’s probably not what this show is going to be, judging from its 25-episode length and an OP positively bursting with dozens of different characters that made my eyes glaze over.

A trip to the capital means more introductions…a lot more, as well as a departure from the snowy environs that drew me into the show in the first place. I’m not saying I feel misled, nor expected the show to languish in that village for 25 episodes. I’m just saying the things I like about the show and the things the show intends to focus on may not be the same going forward.

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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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Ai Tenchi Muyo! – 28

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There’s a basic sincerity to ATM!. For all the panty shots, unintended compromising positions Tenchi ends up in, and occasionally clunky delivery of plot or exchanges of dialogue, it’s heart is almost always in the right place. It’s not just here to titillate us or make us laugh; it wants us to care about its characters too, because they care about each other. Specifically, Tenchi cares about his students, and won’t sit by while one sits on the roof suffering.

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Kinojou Beni’s story isn’t complicated: she came to this planet charged with protecting Momo and hence possessing immense strength, but she lost her memories and fell in with the sworn enemy of Momo’s Student Council. She knows she’s not a normal human, and she fears truly hurting someone someday with her power. Someone…not Tenchi.

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When Tenchi arrived, it set something into motion for Beni: suddenly, there was someone else with freakish strength, who stands (or tries to stand) alone, above all the warring clubs and school rivalries. Only unlike her, he almost never uses them, except to prevent harm or protect others. She resents his passivity, and wont say anything to him unless he demonstrates his strength, which means swinging her spiked club at him.

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Tenchi won’t rise to her violence, however, and the precise thing she fears occurs when Momo suddenly pops on the roof to see what the ruckus is about. Tenchi manages to block the terrifying blow, and he and the two girls end up on the ground, and appear to be sharing a loving embrace, but we know Tenchi is only holding them to protect them. Such subtleties do not move Kurihara-sensei, who drags Tenchi away.

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That leaves Beni with Momo, who takes her hand, concerned about her cuts. In that moment, Beni gets a flash from the past of a baby clutching her finger in apparent friendship. But Momo backs away from Momo, either unready to remember or unwilling to risk hurting her again. What she hasn’t grasped yet is that maybe it’s okay to be friends with Momo.

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Ai Tenchi Muyo! – 27

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The higher-pitched flute during the title card announced that this would be the first “period” episode of ATM! since the 13th, but it decided to go back even farther than that to show us the connection between Momo and Beni. Beni, AKA Kurenai, was appointed the guardian of a baby Momo and the Jurai Royal Family gave her a spaceship, which she proceeded to crash land on Earth.

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Tenchi, it would seem, hasn’t been as clueless as we thought, and once his mission of finding both Momo and Beni is complete, he hits the Reset Button on his smartphone (God, I love it when literal reset buttons pop up in shows!). An error occurs (he probably forgot to update the OS), everything goes dark, and a tear in the sky appears, sucking Tenchi and Momo in.

You gettin’ all this? Good. I guess the show will pick this back up in episode 41.

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Log Horizon – 02

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With little else for players to do to stay occupied, PKs (player killings) are on the upswing, and security situation in cities is tenuous. Shiroe, Akatsuki and Naotsugu engage a party of PKs, exploiting the holes in their teamwork to emerge victorious. Shiroe gets a call from the Crescent Moon Alliance, asking if he’d look after the guild hall while they’re away rescuing their comrade, Celara. With Akatsuki and Naotsugu’s support, Shiroe makes a counter-proposal: the three of them will head north to Susukino to rescue her instead.

We’ve decided not to drop Strike the Blood or Log Horizon for now, but we’ll only be reviewing episodes as gaps in our schedule allow, so we probably won’t be johnny-on-the-spot with either.

In Sword Art Online, if you were KO’ed in the game, you died in the real world, but here in Elder Tale, you merely re-spawn at the cathedral of the nearest town, which is a lot less …final. But while the threat of oblivion is off the table, this presents a different quandary: endowed with virtual immortality and all the weak enemies needed to harvest enough gold to live off of, what exactly are 30,000 immortal players going to do with themselves? The answer becomes clear this week: prey on each other for kicks.

Shiroe’s trio proves more than up to the task of dispatching upstart PKers. Their battle was relatively interesting, but the foes were a bit too stupid, the animation was underwhelming, and most importantly, Shiroe’s constant explanation of everything going on kinda kills the urgency. The trio finds something to do, and the Shiroe/Akatsuki romance is at a nice, gentle simmer. But so far show is relying too much on telling, not showing, which needs to change.


Rating: 6 (Good)

 

Log Horizon – 01

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The strategist gamer Shiroe suddenly finds himself trapped in the MMORPG “Elder Tale”, which has become his new world and reality along with 30,000 other Japanese players. He finds his former partners – Naotsugu, a guardian who had logged on for the first time in two years, and Akatsuki, who was a quiet male assassin in the game but turns out to be a girl. She uses one of Shiroe’s potions to take female form. The three form a party and set out in search of enemies on which to test their skills.

Sword Art Online must’ve been a hit in Japan; otherwise, why would a series like this exist a year later? We’re not saying the two shows are identical, but the similarities are striking: a male lead who isn’t as tall and handsome as his game avatar; his trusty, bawdy male sidekick; the loyal badass female lead; and oh yeah, they’re stuck in an MMORPG. Mind you, this first episode was quite lighthearted and lightweight; there was no foreboding announcement by the programmer, and it doesn’t sound like a KO in the game kills you in real life. We didn’t really mind the lighter, jauntier tone, but we’re not sure it can be sustained for 25 episodes.

SAO started out fairly jokey too, but by the end Kirito’s sister was falling in love with him and the villain was planning to coma-rape Asuna…so yeah. We know we could do with a bit less J-bro humor from Naotsugu, Shiroe’s pretty bland, the visuals and costumes didn’t really impress, and the soundtrack was thoroughly forgettable. Akatsuki gave a nice first impression, and we dug the trio’s positive attitude in the face of the sudden extreme change in their lives. Still, we’re not sure we can commit to two cours of what was awfully similar to SAO, only with a weaker first episode and so far, much lower stakes.


Rating: 6 (Good)

Zetsuen no Tempest – 04

Mahiro and Yoshino take a bus to the countryside where a Fruit emerges from a mountaintop. Yoshino tries to save an elderly couple and a pair of boys, but they succomb to Black Iron Syndrome along with every living thing in the area. Mahiro breaks into a house and takes a bath. Yoshino cooks dinner while talking to Hakaze about how he met Mahiro – and how he was essentially forced into being his friend, and eventually went along with it. Hakaze also asks Mahiro, who concludes he probably wouldn’t still be around if he’d never met Yoshino.

After lots of action, this episode slows things down and offers up some character building, and it was still great. Yoshino and Mahiro are safe for the moment, but are still living day to day, so there’s not much to do except maintain. Meanwhile, Hakaze, ten time zones away, has little to do on her deserted island. She has time for those stories people deem too long to tell, and Yoshino is happy to let loose. Mahiro was a spoiled, privileged little brat, you see, who one day got hit by a motorcycle while walking home. He just happened to survive, and Mahiro just happened to be chosen to visit him in the hospital, against his will. He’s ultimately dubbed “Mahiro’s Guardian” (complete with name tag), and he runs with it.

But just like the grown-up version, this young Yoshino did his duty without complaint (well, with few complaints), even investigating the accident when Mahiro asks him to (not confident adults would listen) and concluding a disgruntled former employee of his father’s ordered the hit and tried to make it look like an accident. Then as now, Mahiro did what he wanted, because he could, while Yoshino did what he was told, but did it his way. We like how Hakaze gets both sides of the story, but Mahiro’s is so much more succinct – after all, he’s more interested in a future in which he gets revenge than he is in the past that got him to this point. Mahiro, on the other hand, still sees Aika when he closes his eyes.


Rating: 8 (Great)

Accel World – 10

When Chiyu catches Haru and Kuroyukihime leaving his apartment block in the morning, she gets upset, but Taku talks her down, but she wants to become part of the game. Hime tells Haru and Taku about the bond between a guardian and his/her protege. Now at Level 4, Haru is able to access the “real” Accel World, a permanent city that mirrors Tokyo, and where there is no time limit or limit to what can be done there. He, Hime, Taku and Niko go there to confront Chrome Disaster, but instead end up ambushed in a ravine, surrounded by other linkers led by the Yellow King, Radio.

This series has well-defined strengths and weaknesses, and the “Haru Harem” element definitely falls within the latter category, often unnecessarily rearing its tiresome head at random times, indeed to fill time. This week’s cold open, in which Niko and Hime fight over Haru, is the kind of thing we could do with less of. We can tolerate the harem as long as it’s not constantly played for lame comedy, occupying time better spent developing the plot and characters. Something we can get behind: the guardian-protege dynamic, something both Hime and Niko, as powerful players in Accel World, both have experience, not all of it pleasent.

When Haru presses her, Hime doesn’t disclose who her guardian was, only that he was someone she cared for deeply – past tense – and now someone she considers her worst enemy. Haru tells her it won’t turn out like that with them; he’ll uninstall the game before he’ll harm her. Meanwhile, Niko, small and young as she is, not only admires and respects Hime (though she’d never tell her to her face), but also feels a sizable degree of guilt for setting her underling on the path that led to him becoming Chrome Disaster. It’s her mess, and as his guardian, she has to clean it up. The consequences for those who rise and prosper in the Accel World (which is really awesome-looking, btw) is far more compelling than the girls fighting over Haru.


Rating: 6 (Good)

Car Cameo: There are a lot of made-up futuristic cars in this series, but sometimes a real one drives by, like this Toyota Prius.

Usagi Drop 1 – First Impressions

Daikichi’s 79-year-old grandfather has died, leaving behind Rin, his six-year-old illegitimate daughter. One life ends, another hangs in the balance. While gramps was survived by many, they all come up with excuses. They question paternity, they proclaim they’ve already made enough sacrifices, they don’t like how stoic she is (They say all this while she’s in earshot). But despite only exchanging a few looks with her, Daikichi feels compelled to step up. No one else does.

He’s the only one in his family to do the right and decent thing. Why should she be stuffed in some ‘facility’? Why do they think she ‘misbehaves’ when Dai’s niece is a bratty little terror? I dunno; because they’re self-involved assholes, maybe. But there’s no question in Dai’s mind whose daughter Rin is. Throughout the episode, Rin occupies just a tiny portion of the screen. She’s an annoying eyesore to everyone. But Daikichi sees a child in need of love, not ‘dealing with’.

Does this make him a saint overnight? No, but it doesn’t hurt. He didn’t expect to leave his grandfather’s funeral as guardian of his aunt. He has a lot to learn about taking care of a kid. Hell, Rin may have a lot to learn about being a kid. But he had a dream in which he essentially saw his gramps with Rin; this could simply be fate. In any case, I look forward to seeing how their relationship progresses, and whether and how he’ll pursue Rin’s mother, Masako Yoshii.

Any series that isn’t a high school magic triangle comedy is a nice change of pace, and this is already the fourth summer series to fit that bill. It’s also among the most gorgeous, with its airy, watercolored look and breezy score. Both Daikichi and Rin’s performances were subtle and calm. As for the childlike opening and ending, I imagine that’s what’s going on inside Rin’s head. Rating: 3.5