Fate/Extra Last Encore – 01 (First Impressions)

After an appropriately intense prologue in which a red Saber is magnificently defeated by what looks like some kind of golden deity. She starts falling and her eyes meet those of a dying girl—perhaps the female version of our protagonist (in a different life). Like Bakemonogatari or Madoka Magica, Shinjo starts things out loud and brash.

Things tone down a bit (or possibly reset), as we settle into a more-or-less ordinary high school class. There, familiar faces abound as our protagonist, Kishinami Hakuno, has interactions with Matou Shinji, Toosaka Rin, Matou Sakura in short order.

These faces are familiar, but the setting is strange, and there are constant flashes to a darker, more sinister reality lurking beneath the bright top layer. Kishinami can sense the death, and he questions what anyone is doing in this place, or why it even exists.

When he goes against a teacher’s warnings and approaches “Limbo”, the incinerator in the bowels of the school, he gets a fresh lecture from a bespectacled teacher. This is indeed an artificial paradise; a “digital hell” made in the image of heaven. He calls it a “Moon Cage”, where those with Master compatibility are sent.

Once the number of potentials reaches 100, there is a purge, and only the strongest selectees survive. An already disoriented Kishinami is quickly stabbed in the back by Matou Shinji (I guess he’s a jackass in any reality!) and as he starts to bleed out, an army of terminators starts mopping up the losers.

But Kishinami refuses to die, not without “vengeance” or “bliss, ” and presumably, not without more answers. As he’s chased by some kind of stone golem, he makes it to Limbo and falls in.

When he’s at the bottom, he finds a red sword waiting to be plucked…some version of Excalibur? His would-be destroyer is breathing down is neck, but Kishinami reaches and grasps the sword in time, summoning the servant Saber, who cleaves the foe in two in a sumptuous display.

By choosing to fight rather than simply run or survive, Kishinami seems to have earned the favor of the most powerful of Heroic Spirits, and a chance at an “encore” to attain vengeance for his plight and the bliss of victory—and Kotomine Kirei seems to be rooting for the kid, in his way.

Hmm…I found this a fresh an interesting twist on the Fate formula, going virtual and combining advanced Matrix-esque technology with the more low-tech history of the various servants. The Holy Grail would seem to be, at least in part, release from all of the layers of virtual prisons; a “true freedom”.

Akiyuki Shinbo directs this much like Bakemonogatari and Madoka, juxtaposing epic spectacles with mundane daily life and not afraid to let things get a bit trippy. While I would like to see a little more humor infused in the proceedings, I understand the need to establish this world with a straight face. Let’s see where this leads.

Musaigen no Phantom World – 01 (First Impressions)

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The Winter 2015 season gets off to a whimsical, colorful start with Musaigen no Phantom World, the first episode of which called to mind everything from Haruhi Suzumiya and Charlotte to Chu2Koi and Amaburi. So immediately, then, we have a bit of an issue: this show reminds me of a lot of good shit.

The challenge then, will be to differentiate itself and make its case as a show worth watching for more than the trademarked lovely KyoAni eye candy (though I’ll admit, on Hump Day that might be sufficient anyway). And amidst its familiar setting, themes, character types, animation and dialolgue styles, MPW’s first episode still managed to distinguish itself.

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First, it makes a point to play off our expectations vis-a-vis fanservice. Atletic, busty female lead Kawakami Mai is more concerned with getting the job done than showing a little skin here and there. Shy, impressionable first-year Izumi Reina‘s boob looks ripe for grabbing, but male lead Ichijo Haruhiko manages to course-correct just in time, but thanks to “aid” from his pixie sidekick Ruru, still ends up in a bad position. Finally, Mai has a practical reason for bouncing her boobs up and down: it’s the only way to succeed in a limbo contest.

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Second, all three characters have their positive qualities. Ruru is adorable, obv., but she’s also quite savvy, serving as both a foil and an ally in Haruhiko’s exploits. Mai’s can-do attitude and fighting spirit is tempered by the need to occasionally sigh over dire financial straits (while scolding Haruhiko for sighing along with her). Reina, also frikkin’ cute as all get-out, also sucks stuff up like Kirby, which was very unexpected.

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The phantom-hunting team also gels quickly but believably. All three are competent in very specialized areas, but if one of the three wasn’t present for the utility pole phantom limbo-off, they would not have been able to achieve victory. Haruhiko’s freakish book smarts let the group know what they’re dealing with, Mai’s freakish athleticism appeases the phantoms, and then Reina eats ’em up. Even Reina is sold enough on how good a team the trio makes that she casts aside her initial uncertainty about joining.

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With such good chemistry coming off this trio, one wonders what MPW has in store for the fourth, a rose-haired, perpetually headphones-donning girl who looks like a lone wolf uninterested in teamwork.

So yes, I’m sufficiently charmed by MPW to keep going with it. There was a bit of an infodump rather inelegantly thrown in, and it looks no better or worse than the shows I listed up top, but there’s plenty to like and plenty to tune in to learn.

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Space Dandy 2 – 08

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Every once in a while a rare and truly special episode comes along that wraps you up in it like a warm, thick blanket on a cold winter’s night. It’s not the kind of episode an anime, even Space Dandy, can or should do every week, as it would then cease to be rare and special. But when it does come around, it’s a wonderful thing.

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This episode is oozing with highly refined whimsical trippy goodness right from the start, as the camera pulls back from the Aloha Oe’s pinup to show her crashed on a planet with plants growing out of her, followed by a kind of Norse funeral, with a long-haired Dandy as the honored dead. The show often makes fun of blowing up its world and characters only to hit the reset button, but there’s a much more serious tone here.

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Then Dandy wakes up in his viking boat, which crumbles away to dust, and starts wandering a utterly alien and yet immediately comforting world of lush, gorgeous imagery and a similarly lush, immersive soundtrack to match. There are enough visual and musical cues to make this identifiable as a Dandy episode, and Dandy remains the same old Dandy, but there’s a heightened dreaminess to everything around him. Compared with his usual alien milieu, it all feels a lot more human here.

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Everything has this lovely, fantastical, trippy “off” quality to it (reminding me of everything from Ghibli and Bosch and Pink Floyd to Schim Schimmel and Alice in Wonderland), but as I said, not in a threatening way. As it turns out, this is Planet Limbo, a world without sadness, which also means a world without joy, as you can’t have one without having experienced the other. Any world that lacks one or the other is not a world Dandy, or any human can live in happily.

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None of the colorful characters Dandy meets cast reflections in the water, meaning they’re ghosts who are caught between the worlds of the living and dead, and are neither as long as they’re there. Dandy’s not done living yet, so he elects to board one of the awesome trams strung along the sky piloted by a strange white girl, a girl who has a brief monologue in the beginning of the episode but otherwise wordlessly watches Dandy from afar.

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This girl is Limbo, the avatar of the planet itself, the only living thing left on a world whose civilization destroyed itself long ago. Now that another living thing, Dandy, is there, she has fallen in love. But loving him, she is willing to let him return to the living world he treasures, even sacrificing the planet’s remaining energy to send him back. As it turns out, Dandy hit his head on a lever in the Oe during a choppy ride through a dark nebula.

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When QT and Meow see him passed out over the lever, they assume he’s sleeping and leave him be, and he returns to Limbo on the same Tram he left on. It’s a very sudden and bizarre but strangely sweet twist, because it means Limbo will be reunited with her love, suggesting that maybe, with at least some life among all the dead, there can be joy in limbo after all.

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It seems unfair to call this just another anime episode. This was a 24-minute psychedelic cinematic masterpiece: an offbeat exploration of life, death, and in-between; soaring vistas; a wealth of memorable images; a simple little love story for good measure; and an absorbing, truly inspired and score that complements the visuals and themes perfectly (if you enjoy DSotM, you’ll dig this music too). The only downside to this episode I can see is that its greatness will cast a long shadow over the show’s five remaining outings.

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Amnesia – 12 (Fin)

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Ukyou chases the heroine around the burning church with a knife, but keeps changing back to his gentle, caring self, who tells her her death in this church started everything. He wished she could live, and Orion’s creator, Neil, granted his wish by sending him to worlds where she was still alive, but only one of them could live in whatever world they ended up in. He stabs himself to stop the evil him from killing her. She ends up in limbo, where Orion explains what happened. Neil thanks her for restoring his powers. Neil in turn will restore her memories and let her return to her original world.

We’ll be honest, we were dreading both the possibility that this would go on for another slow, deliberate season, or worse, the ending wouldn’t be told until who-knows-when in some future film of OVA. Fortunately, neither happened, and we got a definite end that competently explained the mystery of the heroine’s predicament, Ukyou’s full role, and the real reason Orion was by her side for most of her journey. Most of these answers are delivered rather matter-of-factly through exposition, much of it either happening while Nice Ukyou peeks his persona in or by Orion in the checkered limbo when the cycle finally breaks. We’re somewhat conflicted with regards to whether all the explanation at the end works (the pop-up monitor Orion uses to show recaps flashbacks is pretty silly).

On the one hand, we liked the idea of a wish gone wrong, Ukyou causing far more trouble for himself and his lover just because he wanted to see her again, and worlds that don’t like people who aren’t supposed to be there. On the other hand, neither Orion or Ukyou really earned the emotional resonance this episode was trying to peddle, the four other dudes are completely abandoned  and while we really wanted to see just a smidgen of the heroine’s world, the end did not provide. Finally, the big NEIL reveal…just didn’t do anything for us. When weighing the pros and cons, this is a fittingly good but not great finale to a good but not great series.


Rating: 6 (Good)

Stray Observations:

  • For the record, when he’s in control, Evil Ukyou is not that good at carrying out what he says needs to be done in a prompt and efficient manner. It’s not as if the heroine is particularly fast.
  • That is one massive, slow-burning church, and the flames are remarkably smoke free. No asphyxiation for our heroine! 
  • The end credits didn’t feature a heartwarming shot of the heroine locked in Toma’s Cage of Happiness.