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First impressions of five random shows

A quick rundown on a selection of first episodes I checked out recently:

Welcome to the NHK:  This series sounded interesting to me, and while I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect it certainly wasn’t what I got.  Sorta like halfway between Genshiken and Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei, it appears to be about a college-age hikikomori guy (recluse who never leaves his apartment) who has gone at least mildly insane due in part to the anime music his neighbor plays loudly and is drawn out of seclusion by the daughter of an evangelical Christian. I have no idea whatsoever where it’s going, but the mix of surrealist cracked fantasy in the guy’s head (his appliances start talking to him and he has… interesting ideas about what the girl must do in her free time) and low-key slice-of-lifeishness (of weird people) is intriguing.

Godannar: Like the sequel to a classic giant robot anime that never was, it is about the heroic pilot of a giant mecha and the young girl he’s marrying. The big war has been over for a while, but there’s still mopping up of giant monsters to do, and in a presumably-comic take on Myra and Max from Robotech the possibly-not-so-happy couple end up piloting mecha together fighting evil. The first episode features a variety of old-school, appropriately cheesy, over-the-top classic mecha action and large amounts of wedding-day innuendo/symbolism involving merging mecha (flashbacks of Vandread). The main question appears to be how seriously it’s going to take itself; so far pretty over the top, but if it starts being more mecha series and less comedy it won’t bode well.

When Seagulls Cry:  Intriguing, confusing. Watched this with someone who’d read the visual novel, but I’m not sure how much I’d be following without someone there to fill in the gaps glossed over in the animated version. Focused on a very rich, rather dysfunctional family at their annual get-together where they verbally joust and try to wring an inheritance out of the ailing (maybe) patriarch, the first episode introduces a cast of at least a dozen when you count the help. I assume there won’t be many more added, but the character overload was tough to keep up with and the involved infighting hits the ground running. On the stronger side, the three kids in the group aren’t part of the posturing and seem to provide a little levity—particularly the late-teen male lead (at least, I’m guessing he is), who does a few rather goofy grope attempts (which I’m told are more of a coping mechanism than straight comedy). Another strong point is a preteen girl with an annoying way of talking—it was getting on my nerves a little until her mother flew into a screaming rage about it, quickly shifting the tone from “annoying anime thing” to “it’s apparently a symptom of psychological issues, and people around her are very much not ignoring it.”  Relatively powerful drama for so early on, as well, and there are creepy hints galore about “the witch” who presumably is doing unpleasant things to/with the patriarch. Bonus points for several brief flashes of “cute little girl suddenly going way creepy.”

Maria+Holic:  A hard-edged parody of Maria Watches Over Us (et al) with shades of Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei (I said this based off style and noticing Maria’s voice actor, but now that I look it up it’s no coincidence—both the director and series director worked on Zetsubo Sensei and sequel, as did the majority of the main cast). The plot isn’t wildly original; apparently normal girl transfers into an elite all-girls Christian boarding school, meets elegant, beautiful, powerful, rich girl as soon as she sets foot on campus, ambiguous relationships ensue. The standard comedy twist is that the girl she meets is actually a guy in disguise, the lead breaks out in hives when she touches men, and of course they hate each other and end up in the same dorm room. The interesting twist comes from the extreme characters; the lead is a drooling, nosebleed-prone lesbian—no yuri or euphemisms here—the guy is vicious and hammer-blunt when he’s not being a perfect, refined lady, and his deadpan maid is impressively foul-mouthed. The humor appears to be as much from the lead’s completely loony internal monologue and fantasy images (part of what brought Zetsubo Sensei to mind). How far it goes with that, and whether it ends up annoying or hilarious, the jury is out on, but so far I very much like what I see.  Might even be lesbians without the tragic, though I’m expecting a predicable turn straight when she eventually goes for the guy. On the other hand, it looks cracked enough that maybe it won’t take the obvious path.

UFO Ultramaiden Valkyrie:  Ouch.  The first episode takes place somewhere well into the series, apparently to hook you by showing you where the stupidity is eventually heading before going back to the beginning. All this did for me was show that it’s not going anywhere interesting, at all. Painfully lame drama, generic characters, lots and lots of fanservice—in a near-trifecta there is a literal platoon of catgirl maids (with a bonus dash of assault squad). About the only plus is that the thing that had me cringing before even starting—the aggregation on the RightStuf product page of the words “bathhouse” “8-year old body” and “Rating: 17+”—didn’t turn out quite as horrifying as I feared.  The roughly-adult main love interest transforms into a little kid after crashing on earth and nearly killing the generic niceguy protagonist then pulling a Birdy (or somesuch) to keep him alive. Instead of horrifying “she only looks eight” fanservice, the tack appears to be that she mentally reverts, too, so really she’s just an annoying kid and the main character is wondering where the hot, mature love-interest went and how long he’s going to have to play babysitter until she comes back. Doesn’t matter, though—it’s still wildly unoriginal, hugely predictable, seems to have an overload of cringeworthy drama, and just plain not funny or fun.  Also, the modern-day-like future in which aliens are everywhere has some potential, but the show just doesn’t seem to do anything with it.  Usually I’ll reserve judgement, but this one only took a couple episodes (one, really) to put it in the masochistic, “only if I’m heckling” bin.

Final thoughts: Kyouran Kazoku Nikki, Zoku Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei

Just wrapped up a couple of series I’ve been watching my way through slowly.

Kyouran Kazoku Nikki managed to hold it together right through the final episode. Yes, it gets a bit more dramatic toward the end, but then it got way the heck more dramatic in episode 2, so it was hardly out of character for the series. No downer end, still plenty of conceptual funny in the climax. I mean, you’ve basically got a weenie Galactus asking Cthulu’s human “parents” if he can marry their daughter. Tell me that’s not a sort of beauty.

It did, however, pull one total cheap shot of a cliff-hanger—one of those “Oh no!” followed in the next episode by “Actually, it didn’t happen that way at all.” Hardly an issue in the big picture, but really, that’s not necessary. In the end, the only issue I had with the entire thing was that I would’ve liked the world to be a little more concrete and internally consistent. That’s a personal pet peeve of mine, and it didn’t end up being bad enough to matter in the end, but the general idea of a semi-normal alternate present with monsters and demons walking around openly in small numbers could’ve been more than just a backdrop.

There were also a number of plot threads left conspicuously unaddressed—like what’s up with central character Ouka’s past—but it’s wide open for a sequel, and it was easily satisfying enough that I didn’t feel cheated.

On the flip side, that may have been the funniest Christmas episode in anything, ever. And I’m comparing to The Tick here, so that’s not just saying something, that’s about the biggest compliment I can give when it comes to funny. To explain it would be to spoil it, but really, even if you only watched the first episode (to get a handle on the setup) and the Christmas episode, you’ve got to see it if you like wacky comedy.

Speaking of worlds with monsters and demons walking around, I’m pretty sure one of the last things I expected to see a reference to in Zoku Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei was Hellboy. Much less an entire end theme done in full-on Mike Mignola style. Hell of a way (hah!) to close out the series, to be sure.

In general the second of Zetsubou Sensei season held it together better than the first, and the longer, marginally more coherent (if even more complete non sequitur) plots were an improvement over the more random first season. There was a completely straight (ok, as straight as it gets) old-school murder mystery parody that ran an entire episode, low-key opening credits included. Relatively funny parody, and a welcome break from “hammer the joke ’till it’s dead.” Contrast that with a “say what?!” weird Ultraman/Godzilla-ish survival of the fittest picture-book… thing that kept coming back through an entire episode. It was probably a reference I didn’t really get, but still, head-scratching.

The best of it, though, was the “don’t hate on noobs” episode; it started sticking huge blocks of explanatory material in the margins through a scene. Most was just funny—character explanations—but when it deconstructed the abstract patterns the visuals use heavily and explained the use, that, that was something else. Of course, it also explained the stick-dog. Ugh. I could have done without that making multiple appearances in every episode. Come to think of it, that series had the only time I can think of that I’d really have liked a much larger censor spot when the inevitable way-too-graphic BL doujinshi joke came around.

Sadly, the season also seemed to run out of steam toward the end; a couple of the later episodes just didn’t have me laughing much. Not as bad, though, and on the whole I’d say definitely a step up from the first season.

Final thought: The giant lists the series throws onscreen to cover the examples of today’s rant that didn’t fit are occasionally funny. However, the classic gamer geek in me was laughing hysterically at two in the list for “things some people got into from the wrong direction”: Castlevania — S&M, and Ghouls and Ghosts — Pants.

Initial Thoughts on Zoku Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei

After finishing Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei, the two friends I have a regular anime-watching night with were divided; one likes the comic and wanted to give the sequel, Zoku, a shot, the other was disappointed enough by the end of the series to be losing interest in more of the same.

Four episodes in so far, and pretty good. It definitely picks up the humor a notch or two relative to the later episodes in season 1, visually it’s the same (possibly slightly higher budget, and no bits of live action, though the creator’s face is still there), and it mixes things up some, all definite positives.

On the dirty front the opening isn’t quite as bad, and they haven’t hit the Hikikomori/teacher thing yet (though in ep 4 it looks like maybe it was the kid, not the teacher, bringing the pervy stuff after all), but there was some REALLY dirty stuff involving poor Gaijin-girl. Dang near “they did not just do that!” territory (particularly for a TV show).

The first episode opens with a complete non-sequitor alternate-reality tale of Zetsubo Sensei’s background, then finishes with a brilliant way to re-introduce everybody without rehashing—it covers the normal girl’s intro (which was skipped in the first season), and how she completely fails to get attention when compared to all the other psychos in the class. Good stuff for initiates and will get you up to speed if you’re not.

After that… well, we’ll see. Doing half an episode in Pororoca-ese (that is, gibberish from that planet Kafka came up with in the first episode) with near-random subtitles, however, more or less wasted what would have been a decent extended Admiral Perry joke. It didn’t help that the fansub we were watching put accurate subtitles at the top of the screen (presumably from the comic?) and literal translation of the Japanese subtitles, which are mostly garbage, at the bottom; I suppose this made it make more sense than it would have if you’d just been watching it in Japanese, but we spent half that segment trying to figure out what was wrong with the file we were watching. As it turns out, just the creative team being batty.

I did like the idea of having an entire half an episode with “today’s random rant about society’s ills” as a
radio drama in the background while the foreground scene is the manga-girl at home deciding whether to draw H yaoi pictures of an obscure character pairing or something equally dirty but more marketable. If anything, the whole series might work better like that, to keep the beat-the-topic-to-death rants from getting too boring.  Episode 4 goes all alien-invasion with an entirely different sort of split-screen action, which also worked for me.

Whether it keeps mixing it up in creative ways or runs out of steam like the first season remains to be seen. That, and I’m still not sure whether I even like it, though when it’s on it’s gotten me laughing pretty hard.

Oh, and I almost forgot, the opening animation is now just faintly disturbing (another catchy song by the same artist + cast), but the end is horrifying. See, it features each of the main cast members done in extreme shoujo style with a wafish, goth-y lean. Most just look very emo, but the invisible balding kid… ouch. Hello, random religious symbolism and dramatic hair-loss-in-wind!