Thursday, June 29, 2006

Whither Region 1 Anime Distributors?

Does that sound like a headline from The Economist or what? Well, it's a slow day at work, and between that and the recent clarion call for cold, hard numbers and graphs, I've decided that my trusty assistant, Microsoft Excel-kun, and I, are going to bust out some hard-hitting analysis of the region 1 anime industry. This means a US-Canada centered post, so those of you lucky to live in countries where you get more vacation time than I do (which means just about anywhere else on Earth) might want to skip this or risk falling asleep. In fact, this will be one of my least coherent posts ever, which means it should probably never be read by anyone.

A lot of people have opined (there's a word that doesn't get enough use) about the state of the anime industry in R1 (I'm saying "R1" because it's shorter to type over and over than "the US and Canada"). Is the anime "fad" dying out? Is the golden age of hundreds of DVDs coming out in R1 each year over for good, killed by the twin demons of fickle youth and swashbuckling pirates? Or are all US anime companies run by retarded baboons who are running their companies into the ground licensing (warning: sarcasm) pure anime gold like Divergence Eve?

It seems like there are a few main lines of thought on R1 anime DVD distributors. There are some who would say something along the lines of "who cares, R1 distributors don't CREATE anime anyway--they're just whores who sell it to make a buck. Let them and their shareholders go f**k themselves." There are those who say "who cares, i download animes anyway, since my allowance is th3 sux0r." And there are inevitably those who say "fansubbers are at fault, since they're evil, loli-rubbing bastards who are a nasty, suspicious-looking stain on the glorious face of corporate America". There are some who would say the R1 anime distributors just got greedy, and when the boom in anime flatlined, got caught with their pants down. So who's right?

To start with, we need some pretty-looking charts. Yes, ADV had layoffs, yes, Japanese companies have invested in ADV and Geneon, but what do the numbers say? Let's ask Excel-kun to crunch the number of volumes of anime released in R1 each year, since the dawn of the DVD format. Source for the list of releases is Anime on DVD, chart by Excel-kun.

That doesn't look so bad. I know, this includes releases of collections, but it doesn't look like I'm going to have to start importing region 2 discs and taking a crash course in Japanese anytime soon. No, I have no idea what the odds are 2003 and 2004 would see the exact same number of DVDs released (752), but that has to mean something. Tabun. How does 2006 look? Well, through the end of June, 366 DVDs have been released, and for the same period in 2005 it was 384. That's a 4.7% drop for this year, which--well, it's not exactly the end of the world. Still, you can see from graph #2 below that the rate of growth in DVD releases year-on-year has...well, not fared so well.

In any case, it's clear the "boom" days are over. In baseball terms, we're not "on a pace" to see 5,000 anime DVDs per week by the end of 2010 or anything like that--it's leveling off, although 800 DVDs a year is nothing to shake a stick at.

But, you say, the number of DVD releases is a lagging indicator (yes, I can talk like Alan Greenspan if I have to--that's probably the first and last reference to the Federal Reserve in an anime blog too), so what does the future have in store? For that, let's ask Excel-kun to put Menchi down and look at the AnimeSuki license database, and tell us exactly how many titles have been licensed the last couple years:
That doesn't look good. If you just look at this, you might either be breathing a sign of relief that your wallet won't be violated as hard in the next year or two, or sweating bullets that your favorite series will never see the light of an R1 DVD. 2005 had not just fewer licenses than the year before it, but even fewer than in 2003.

But looking at 2006 so far, things don't look all that bad. So far in 2006, 29 series have been licensed, and in 2005 the total through June 30th was 33. We'll get a better feel after Anime Expo, but the decline seems to be leveling off. I don't read too much into the big investment a Japanese company made in ADV recently, because they might have just thought their shares looked cheap and oversold, but at a minimum it's a sign they're not seen as a sinking ship. And quantity isn't equal to quality anyway, some series that were licensed in 2004 make me wonder if the licensors were licensing under the influence.

Why did the anime boom in R1 level off? I don't think fansubs are to blame--yes, people *could* just keep their fansubs of Haruhi instead of buying the DVDs. But everyone in Japan can just tape Haruhi when it airs on TV, and the DVDs still seem to sell just fine there. Closer to home, you don't see NBC going after people setting their VCRs to tape E.R. because it might hurt DVD sales when people can watch it for free. I think (and I know this is just a guess, Excel-kun's charts notwithstanding) that the real cause of the end of the boom is that any product has a lifecycle, and the DVD format in general has just reached the "mature" stage where it's not going to go up 30-40% in sales a year. It's not just anime distributors having financial difficulty, Hollywood's DVD sales are hitting a wall too. While some will always blame piracy, I think there's a less sinister explanation, which is true for me anyway--most studios have their back catalogs out so they can't milk that for sales anymore, and a lot of people have hundreds of DVDs already and are more selective now about what they add to that. On a personal note, my DVD buying has peaked too, this year so far I've only bought seven.

(Yes, this makes four graphs in one post. Suck on that, Wall Street Journal.)

So far this year I've only bought seven new DVDs, and for the year I'll probably end up around 20-30, so there's a downward trend. With my shelves half-full of anime I feel like I need to be more selective and only buy DVDs that really have rewatch value. A DVD I'm only going to watch once or twice just doesn't make the cut. Plus I've bought a lot of anime from the 80s and 90s--a big chunk of my DVD catalog is made up of all the Urusei Yatsura DVDs, and they aren't making any more UY for me to buy.

So what's in store for R1 anime distributors? While the boom may have subsided, the fact licensing is still going on at about the same pace as last year tells me the worst is over. It's human nature when things are going well to get caught up in the excitement, and it wouldn't surprise me if companies like ADV expanded aggressively during the boom (much like dot-coms did in 1998-99) only to find when things leveled off that they'd paid too much for too many licenses that won't sell all that well. While ADV's star has fallen a little, Funi's seems to have risen, and with more money ADV might be back in there trying to be "the Microsoft of anime" (not surprising they changed their slogan...).

Time for me to go home so that's it for today's ramble. And don't worry, I don't think I'll ever post another graph in this blog again...

Asagiri no Miko

I've noticed a pattern in my anime-watching each season--at the beginning of the season I'm watching nothing but fansubs, as I try to digest as many new shows as possible to see what I like and what I don't like. But later in the season, I've dropped several series, and I find myself going to my DVD collection and re-watching older stuff. That's why I just finished rewatching Asagiri no Miko, which was released in region 1 on DVD as "Shrine of the Morning Mist." While the animation quality isn't exactly stellar, it has a good cast of characters, an interesting story, good atmosphere, and while it doesn't seem to be all that popular, I enjoyed watching it.

The heroine of the story is Yuzu, who works as a miko with her older and younger sisters at a temple in a rural area of Hiroshima prefecture (maybe not quite as rural as Tana in Zettai Shonen, but close). Yuzu is starting high school soon, and she's excited because her childhood friend and cousin, Hiro, is returning to the town and is going to be living with her family, after a several year absence. Yuzu has had a crush on Hiro the whole time he's been gone, but she hasn't seen him since he left. Yuzu and her sisters go to the station to pick Hiro up--and he's attacked by a mysterious person wearing a tengu mask named Ayatachi, who knows that one of Hiro's eyes can see the spiritual world and wants to use that power to help the evil god Yagarena descend to Earth. Yuzu beats Ayatachi back by accidentally crashing into him with her bicycle like the doji-ko she is, and while Yuzu's embarrassed by her entrance, Hiro's saved for now. But he's definitely not out of danger, so a Miko Club is formed at school to fight back Ayatachi and his minions and protect Hiro. At first recruiting is difficult, but Yuzu and four other girls form the Miko Shoutai (they don't call it that, I've just been watching a lot of Keroro lately) and they gradually improve their skills and bond as a team fighting Ayatachi and his Twilight Miko.

The characters make or break whether I like a series or not, and I liked the cast of Asagiri no Miko. You get a good feeling for how much Yuzu really cares about Hiro--to the point that in one episode when she's attacked by Ayatachi's minions, her first thought is to be relieved that this time they're not targeting Hiro instead. She's a bit of a doji-ko, and has the funniest SD facial expressions of anyone in the cast. The other mikos are Reiko, who's athletic, generally outgoing, and has been turned down by every guy she confesses to (although she has a lot of girls who are fans); Chika, who's short, looks like an elementary schooler, but has a lot of attitude; Shizuka, who's inconceivably rich and is mild-mannered; and Izumi, who's a UFO nut (her and Fuyuki from Keroro Gunso would get along well). All of them have very distinct personalities, and since the series is 26 12-minute episodes, while there isn't a whole lot of character development, there's at least enough time to put each of them in the spotlight so they're not just one-dimensional. Even the bad guys get their screentime, they aren't just faceless enemies, and they aren't completely evil either, with their own motivations for what they are doing.

The story has an interesting twist in that it's the reverse of the gender roles you'd "normally" expect--Yuzu's the one who's fighting to defend Hiro and not the other way around. Although it's not that Hiro's just the "guy in distress", he has determination and courage when he really needs to. The story starts with Yuzu recruiting the other miko, a few episodes where they train/bond together, and the "bad guys" even get a couple episodes about them and their relationship with Yuzu's group. But the end of the story is where Asagiri no Miko really shines, putting together a solid, dramatic ending.

For me, the high points for Asagiri no Miko were:

- The flashbacks with Koma and Tadaaki, Hiro's grandfather. For a side character like Koma to get a touching story like this really impressed me.
- The last few episodes and the ending. It may be predictable to a point, but I thought it was well-written and did a good job showing the relationships between the characters.
- The episode where Reiko thinks her bad luck streak in love is over and she's getting confessed to. You can see where it's going from a mile away, but it's still funny.
- Giving the "bad guys" some depth. It's easy to write evil characters, it's not so easy to write characters who do bad things but you can't say are truly "evil".
- Comedy--it isn't ALL funny, but Kurako-sensei vs Chika, Yuzu vs Ayatachi, Izumi vs Chika, Reiko and Chika misunderstanding Kusugi and Hiro's relationship...a lot of the character interactions are laugh out loud funny at times. Although I may just be easily amused.

And the low points:

- The animation is pretty poor at times. It's not "if a five year old drew this, instead of putting it on the fridge his mom would rip it up in front of him and flush it down the toilet" bad, but don't watch it immediately after Haruhi or the contrast in animation quality may kill you.
- Episode length. While it gets a full 26 episodes to work with, each episode is only 12 minutes long, and the story kind of suffers as a result at times. A few episodes are really multi-parters, but I think it would have been a better series if they pulled it out to 26 normal-length episodes.
- Generic fight scenes. Yes, each miko has a signature move. And that's the only combat move they have. I keep thinking of Cardcaptor Sakura, where Sakura has what, 50 different cards to choose from? It would have been nice if they each had a couple different attacks, and there's some thought required in which one to use for which adversary, but...not so much.
- Ayatachi's background. It would have been nice to get some background on his curse and why he is the way he is, but it's not really developed at all.

Overall, Asagiri no Miko has a good cast and has a solid story, which makes it exactly the kind of anime I like. If you can look past the animation quality, I'd definitely recommend it.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Petopeto-san

I just watched the last episode of Petopeto-san, and while it wasn't exactly the ending I expected, it was definitely a fun series to watch overall. Looking back on it, this series was a lot like Snow Fairy Sugar--at first glance, you might dismiss it as just cute, but it also dealt with more serious topics underneath.

The main characters in Petopeto-san are Shingo, who's your average human guy with a gift for making really good ramen, and Petoko, who's a youkai (monster), or as the politically correct term goes, a "specified race". The underlying plot to the series is how the youkai and normal humans get along, with some in their school disliking the youkai and being racist towards them at first, but eventually coming around to see deep down they're the same as everyone else. Since the governor of Tokyo routinely makes racist statements and seems to get re-elected anyway, I was pleasantly surprised to see an anime series promoting tolerance and understanding the way Petopeto-san does (although I know Ishihara doesn't speak for everyone in Japan's view of foreigners, so I shouldn't have been surprised).

Shingo first meets Petoko when she falls into the pool one day at school, he reaches out and grabs her hand, and she promptly gets stuck to him. Petoko is part of a race of youkai that has the ability to stick to people, supposedly so they could seduce them. She's stuck to Shingo until they both fall asleep, which is going to take a while since this happened in mid-afternoon. Talking back at his house, Petoko explains she was unable to go to school until now because she stuck to people, even though she always wanted to go. She's afraid her brief school life is over, but Shingo convinces her it's OK and helps cheer her up. From there, Petoko becomes popular in school, her sincerity and earnestness winning people over. No school life series is complete without a love triangle, and Kuguru, who's a kappa youkai and a little rough around the edges, fills that role, since she has a crush on Shingo, and Shingo likes Petoko.

I thought the Shingo-Petoko-Kuguru triangle was handled really well--Shingo doesn't vacillate back and forth on who he likes, Petoko's feelings are developed slowly and realistically, and the way Kuguru shows she likes Shingo (which could easily be mistaken for picking on him) is believable too. The last episode is well done, resolving who likes who (not that it was in much doubt), and taking a more serious turn but avoiding getting melodramatic. I would've liked to see a little more closure at the end (first Lamune, now Petopeto-san--it's like no couples kiss at the end of anime series anymore...), but everyone involved is young enough that there's plenty of time for that later.

The animation and voice acting was pretty good throughout--Petoko's Osaka-ben accent felt a little out of place somehow at first, but I got used to it quickly. The stretch towards the end of the series with the "little sisters festival" was a little odd and seemed to sidetrack the story somewhat, but the ending pulled the story back to its original track. Petopeto-san was a short, but sweet series--I can definitely see it having re-watch potential.

Dirty Pair

There are some events in the world of anime fandom that seem so improbably awesome that you have to pinch yourself to see if you're dreaming. Kyoani remaking Kanon and giving it 24 episodes. Doremi-Keroro cranking out new fansubs of Keroro Gunso faster than cheetahs on acid. Kodocha actually getting a region 1 license. Seeing the Dirty Pair TV series fansubbed is one of those kind of things, something I knew was theoretically possible in much the same way that I COULD come home and find my wife has entered, and won, the lottery and I'll never have to work again.

If you have an aversion to old school, you should probably stop reading now. Dirty Pair is an old-school classic--when the manga-ka of You're Under Arrest was still too young for solid food, there was Dirty Pair, the ultimate policewoman duo of Kei and Yuri, going after the bad guys, getting yelled at by their boss, and taking collateral damage to a level that occasionally wiped out entire planets.

To give a quick summary, Kei and Yuri are agents of the W3A, an elite organization set in a sci-fi universe that handles any problem they get tasked with, usually involving criminal activity. Kei's the red-haired, hotheaded Natsumi-type (in YUA-speak), while Yuri would be more like Miyuki, more calm and smarter. They're assisted by a robot and by their...er...dog of sorts, Mughi (an alien who looks like a large dog but is far smarter than, say, Scooby-Doo). Kei and Yuri's "battle bikinis" and the sheer number of explosions and casualties that their missions involve make some look at this as an example of what's "wrong" with anime, since it fits the stereotype commonly held by non-anime fans that anime is just "big boobs and guns". It may fit the stereotype, but it's still entertaining to watch--Kei and Yuri's bickering and the action scenes are all well done, and while it's pure episodic action, there are much worse ways to spend 24 minutes than enjoying the ride as the Dirty Pair take on their mission of the week. The characters really make series like this succeed or fail, and like YUA, Dirty Pair has a strong cast (although it's not as big as YUA's, and lacks YUA's romance subplots). The duo of Kei and Yuri has awesome chemistry--you really get the feeling watching them in action they've worked together for ages, and their bantering back and forth is always good for a few laughs.

The first three episodes of Dirty Pair TV are fansubbed, and if you're looking for an action/crimefighting/sci-fi series, I'd recommend giving Dirty Pair a try. In region 1 you can get the Dirty Pair OVAs (10 episodes, aired after the TV series, for $20), and three Dirty Pair movies from ADV (also $20 for the set). ADV never licensed the TV series, and based on their downsizing and comments that "old school doesn't sell" it seems like a license is unlikely. There's also a series called Dirty Pair Flash that aired in the 90s, which is a remake with different character designs and changes to Kei and Yuri's personalities--while purists will say it's just not the same, I thought it wasn't too bad either.

Just remember...Kei and Yuri's official W3A codename is the "Lovely Angels" so don't call them the Dirty Pair to their face or you'll end up in traction.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Shakugan no Shana

Shakugan no Shana isn't one of my top 10 anime of all time, but it's a solid series that provides a mix of action, drama, and romance with interesting characters set in a complex world. Based on a series of novels and animated by J.C. Staff (Mahoraba, Karin, and many others), Shana is coming to Region 1 DVD in September, and that DVD is sitting in a slot on my Amazon wish list.

The main characters in Shakugan are Shana herself, who's kind of like Rebecca from Paniponi or Hazuki from Tsukuyomi--she's under 5 feet tall, confident in her abilities, and not likely to win any awards for being Miss Congeniality. To give a brief summary of the plot, the world we live in isn't as it appears--people are being killed by monsters for their power of existence, and to keep the rest of us unaware and avoid too much disruption, those who are killed are replaced by "torches", which slowly fade away over time. Flame Hazes like Shana fight these monsters to preserve the balance of the world. Yuuji, the other main character aside from Shana, finds out that he himself is a torch--but he has a special power that makes his torch regenerate nightly so he won't disappear. The catch is that power makes him a target, because a lot of other people want it--so Shana reluctantly ends up staying by his side.

What makes Shakugan no Shana fun to watch, for me anyway, is the interaction between Shana and Yuuji and getting to see both of them grow as characters, especially Shana. Shana starts the series with no proper name, just a title as a Flame Haze, and she dismisses Yuuji as "just a torch" and someone who's not really alive at all. But Yuuji gives her the name Shana and that starts her on the road to becoming more human. Shana's a lone wolf at the beginning, but by the end she's found more to care about than her mission as a Flame Haze, and she's become a much more balanced character. She doesn't turn into a Belldandy clone (thank God/Haruhi for that), but her character gets some real development and change during the course of the series. Her and Yuuji get a few memorable scenes, and Shana's trademark "urusai, urusai, urusai" gets a little old by the end, but is good for a few laughs.

A lot of people criticized Yuuji for his reaction to the events in the first episode, but I think he actually handled it pretty well--not many people would jump between a total stranger and someone swinging a sword, most people would have just run like hell. He starts out pretty much useless in combat, but as things go on, he learns more and works hard to be useful to Shana, not just wanting to be a bystander. In the middle of the series, his lack of decisiveness over the whole Yuuji-Shana-Kazumi triangle can be annoying to watch, but given everything else he's been through, I guess I should cut him some slack.


Over the 24 episodes of the show, there are a few story arcs involving different bad guys--the final arc doesn't really get tied up neatly by the ending, although there's a movie in the works so maybe that will close out the arc. The bad guys are an odd bunch--there's the guy who has a doll fetish, the siblings who french kiss to exchange power, and so on. They're pretty much one-dimensional and just generally evil, with no real backstory on any of them. But some of the side characters stand out--Iwata Mitsuo is awesome as usual as Marco, the sidekick of one of the other Flame Hazes, and with 24 episodes to work with, the side characters get their chance to shine in the limelight. Kazumi, Shana's rival for Yuuji, has her fans, but she comes across to me as a drama queen, getting way more worked up about Yuuji than anyone in their right mind would. She also seems to have the "my only purpose in life is to make bento and someday become the male lead's girlfriend" syndrome you often find in anime girls, which just makes me want to roll my eyes--but fortunately she's not in the spotlight nearly as much as Yuuji and Shana.

The pacing of Shakugan no Shana isn't for everyone--people looking for Inuyasha-like action will probably fall asleep at several episodes of Shana that are 90% plot exposition and dialogue. There are long periods where nothing is going on but the characters talking, and for some people that's a big turnoff. That wasn't a problem for me personally--the world in Shakugan no Shana is complex and they throw around a lot of terminology specific to it, but the mostly-dialogue episodes still held my interest and were a good break from the action. There's also some Shana and Kazumi service thrown in throughout the series, but it's not like Girls Bravo or anything where it gets distracting.

Overall, I think Shakugan no Shana's a fun series to watch. It's hard not to like the melon-pan eating heroine, and the short special episodes (3-minute extra shorts that came with the R2 DVDs) are especially hilarious. I'm looking forward to the movie and hoping to see Kazumi get smacked down so Yuuji can end up with Shana ;)

Friday, June 16, 2006

Inukami: Urusei Yatsura Lives

I'll admit when I saw the screencaps of the first couple episodes and saw men in briefs with hairy chests, even the knowledge that Horie Yui was in this wasn't enough to convince me to watch it. And with plenty of other series to watch this season, I didn't really have the time to pick up another. But every season around this time, I've dropped a few series and am looking for what in US TV network terms would be a "mid-season replacement"--and this season, that's Inukami. Based on what I saw in episodes 3 and 4, Inukami's an entertaining show--it's not going to get an award for best of the season or anything, but it's definitely funny enough for me to keep watching it.

The basic premise of Inukami reminds me a lot of Urusei Yatsura--you have a guy who's living with a cute girl who likes him, but he prefers to ignore her advances and chase after other girls instead. Said bishoujo living with him has kick-ass powers, and frequently uses them on him when he goes after other girls. It's a simple formula, but it works if you have the right characters, and Inukami does. Keita, the male lead, runs a kind of fix-it agency that deals with supernatural problems, and he entered into a contract with Youko, the bishoujo inukami, because she has mad skillz and can take on just about anything. Inukami generally serve their masters and even do things like cooking and cleaning, but while Youko's a badass in combat she's a little weak on the domestic front, which means her version of "cooking" is store-bought bento and their apartment looks like a category 5 hurricane just ripped through it.
Yui Horie does an awesome job as Youko--picture Eri from School Rumble, but with magic powers, even more attitude, and a tail and that's Youko. She does Mahoro one better and doesn't just confiscate Keita's ecchi magazines--she incinerates them in front of him for maximum psychological effect. If he's hitting on other girls too much, she'll teleport him outside into the alley minus all his clothes so he can be molested by stray dogs. And when Youko faces off against nine other inukami, she's so arrogant that before the fight even starts, you just know that in spite of the advantage in numbers, the nine she's fighting are going down hard. In battle, Youko shows her darker side, and for a moment I thought she was going to go all Higurashi--but Keita's influence has evidently calmed her down a little.

A lot of the humor comes from quarrels between Keita and Youko--again like Urusei Yatsura they manage to subtly show that although on the surface Keita doesn't seem to care about Youko, deep down he really does. The scene in ep 4 where he keeps reading the same newspaper headline over and over while she's off fighting is a good example--it reminded me of all the times in UY Ataru tries to act like he doesn't care what Lum's doing, but there are little signs it's still getting to him.

It's probably blasphemous to even compare Inukami to a classic like UY--Inukami's not on the same level, but it's a fun series to watch so far, and I'm looking forward to more of Youko and Keita. Since I'm a sucker for tsundere characters, it's easy for me to keep watching this. And if you fear the retina-searing images of hairy half-naked men, just start with episode 3 like I did.

Friday, June 09, 2006

The Week in Review...

It's not you, it's Junichi.

Catching up on a few of the series I'm watching now:

Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu

There's been a lot of discussion lately about Haruhi, and its popularity seems to have generated a backlash--but even if the rest of the world turned on it, this is still my favorite show this season. I won't say Haruhi is God, but the animation quality continues to impress me, the storyline is compelling, and I really like the cast of characters.

Haruhi herself is one of my favorite tsundere characters ever--she has a seemingly boundless disdain for everyone and everything, but every once in a while she shows a brief glimmer of dere-dere, like right after she fell off the cliff with Kyon. The Yuki-Ryoko fight scene was just awesome, even though they missed an obvious opportunity for Yuki fanservice. Mikuru is probably my least favorite character since she comes across as kind of a doormat, but even I have to admit grown-up Mikuru is moe. Kyon's sarcasm hasn't gotten old for me yet, and even though he's an alarmingly close talker at times, Koizumi is entertaining to watch. It's refreshing to watch a series that's original enough that I can't draw parallels to from anything else I've seen.

On the downside, I think this would be even better if they aired the episodes in the right order--since I spoiled myself by reading the fan translation of the first novel, the anime jumping around didn't affect my understanding of what was happening, but if I hadn't done that I'm sure I'd be wondering what the hell was going on. I was relieved to read in Matthew's Anime Blog that on the R2 DVDs at least (and hopefully the R1s assuming it gets licensed) the episodes appear in their proper order (Haruhi's order) instead of the order they aired them. Which raises the question of why they would show it out of order on air to begin with, and that I'm not sure of. I can see the end of volume one of the novels as a good "ending" point, but the original story for episode Kyon 9 / Haruhi 14 wasn't a bad note to end on either. Maybe it's a plot to get otaku to go buy the novel to find out what's going on, and it that's the case it seems to have worked like a charm. I'll genuinely be sad when this is over, I can only hope for a second season and/or the novels coming out in English.

Sukuran Second Term

School Rumble is one of those series, like Pani Poni Dash and Shinobuden, that can get me to laugh out loud no matter how many times I see it. If I have any complaint with the second season it's this: did Sukuran really need even more characters? After the first season, I thought there was no way more factions could spring up, but now the relationship chart's getting even more complicated. They're going to have to start pulling new characters in from neighboring high schools soon. I don't hate the new characters, but they feel kind of like unwanted guests at times--I have to admit I don't really care what happens to Takayama, I'd rather see the stars from the first season hog the spotlight. But that's a minor complaint and the second season has still been a lot of fun to watch--the school play was classic Sukuran, and the basketball episodes weren't bad either. I still have zero clue who will end up with Harima.

Soul Link

When did they start hiring eleven-year olds to draw anime? Seriously, for a show featuring bishoujo, nothing ruins it like fugly animation. I'm pretty sure *I* could have done better on some of those shots in episodes 7 and 8, which is pretty bad since I can't draw a straight line. Having said that, the animation seems to be recovering from that low point, and while Soul Link's not something that makes me check AnimeSuki 50x a day to see if the next ep is out, it does have at least one thing that makes it unique.

What surprised me the most about Soul Link so far is that although it's a harem series, almost all the girls have crushes on different guys. Nao likes Shuuhei (worships is probably more accurate), Sayaka likes Ryouta, Yuu likes Shin, Aya seems to like the head terrorist guy, and Aki likes...probably her brother. Normally a harem series relationship chart is a bunch of arrows pointed at the male lead, but Soul Link's wouldn't look like that at all. The downside to there being so many relationships in such a short series is there's almost no time to develop them. I don't have a good feel for WHY there's anything between Ryouta and Sayaka, and even Nao and Shuuhei's relationship feels underdeveloped. It's too bad, because I think it's not a bad idea, and it comes across as more realistic than a world like Hatsunejima in Da Capo, where every last girl on the island wants to be impregnated by Junichi. Failed magician, my ass.

The story so far leaves a lot to explain, and I'm skeptical they'll come up with something that makes sense in the last three episodes. I am curious how messed up the Earth is for BUGS to be dying out of all things. The day cockroaches become an endangered species it's time to emigrate to another planet, or call Haruhi to do some serious planet-wide renewal. The characters in Soul Link are OK, but definitely not Haruhi or Kotori-class memorable. Although Cellaria is so over-the-top evil she's inadvertently funny. I keep expecting her to get a coughing fit from too much diabolical laughter.

If this was longer I probably would've dropped it by now, but since it's a short series I'll keep watching just to see how it ends. I keep thinking about Bungie's game Oni, where humanity can only survive on a seriously polluted Earth by sort-of transforming into a new, carcinogen-resistant species.

Utawarerumono

Somehow I thought the war to overthrow the emperor would take until...oh, episode 26, but nope, it's all over by the end of episode seven. I feel bad for Eruruu, getting the "she's like a sister to me" line from Hakuoro. I really thought she was the front-runner for the win, but Hakuoro doesn't show any interest in his harem at all so far. Maybe he's too busy being emperor to stop and smell the roses, but it's a crime that Eruruu isn't getting more attention. Sadly, with another war going on I don't see her getting any quality time soon.

Kamisama Kazoku

This is really good so far, through ep 2--the premise, a god who has to live like ordinary people in order to be a better god himself someday, is interesting, and it's hard not to root for Tenko since I'm almost as big a sucker for osanajimi characters as for tsundere ones. It helps that Samatarou, the male lead, is voiced by the same seiyuu who did Chitose in Happy Lesson--his situation, where his family sort of views him as their toy, reminds me of Chitose a lot, and he does his role very, very well. Tenko's seiyuu voices Tenma in School Rumble, and I think she nails the role pretty well too. The character designs are a little different than I'm used to, their noses seem to not exist at all at times, but as I get used to them I like them. I pity Samatarou just based on the apron scene--I can't even imagine the therapy one would need coming home from school and finding BOTH parents with the hadaka apron action going. I'm hoping they actually resolve the love triangle at the end and don't just leave the series open-ended, but if the manga or novels it's based on is still running that's probably too much to hope for. Based on the ED, there should be some "bad guys" showing up eventually, hopefully they can pull off some drama well.

Comic Party Revolution

Hard to believe ADV picked this up, I guess they have some money left for licenses after all. I'll probably buy the DVDs since it was fun to watch--watching the first four OVA episodes of Revolution convinced me to buy the original Comic Party DVDs after all. If you didn't like the original Comic Party, you might still like Revolution--Revolution really gives the whole cast their time to shine, instead of just focusing on Kazuki-Mitsuki-Yuu-Taishi, and personally I liked the character designs in Revolution much better than the original.

Mostly Off-Topic

I started writing an anime-themed novel of sorts--I'm aware my writing skills aren't all that great, but I really enjoy writing anyway, much like you can enjoy playing basketball even if you're not exactly NBA material. It'll probably be quite a while before it's finished though, since I'm trying to make it somewhat original and at least close to novel-length. I couldn't resist making the main character somewhat like Kotori--I blame that on re-watching D.C.S.S. Seeing Kotori's screentime drop off during that series makes me want to send the Higurashi girls to pay the screenwriters a visit, but I guess some Kotori is still better than nothing.

If you want to see an example of just how bad my writing skillz are, I did put a different story up at fanfiction.net a few months back--if you're particularly bored here's the link. You'll see it's safe to say I have to keep my day job.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Cardcaptor Sakura

Cardcaptor Sakura is one of those series it seems like everyone has watched, or at least heard of, and for good reason--it's simply the best mahou shoujo series I've ever seen. I remember when I ordered the first DVD I was hesitant, because it was...well, about a fourth grade girl who has a talking plush toy as a sidekick, fights a different monster of sorts every week, has a crush on a high school student, and there were supposedly some yaoi overtones. How good could it really be? But I was pleasantly surprised to find Cardcaptor Sakura was...well, just awesome. I'm not saying it's perfect, and I'm not normally a big mahou shoujo fan, except for parodys of the genre like Komugi-chan or Pretty Sammy, but Cardcaptor Sakura easily would make my top 10 anime list. It's one of those series you watch that makes you thank God, Kami-sama, Haruhi, or the deity of your choice that you became an anime fan.

To give it a (very) short summary: Sakura's your typical genki fourth grader, until one day she finds a mysterious book in the basement, opens it, and accidentally releases the Clow Cards, which promptly scatter in all directions. The Beast of the Seal, Kereberos (better known as Kero-chan) tells her since she let them all out, she has to become a Cardcaptor to go bring them all the hell back before a disaster befalls the world. The cards were created by a powerful magician, Clow Reed, years ago, and they each have a particular magic property and can act independently. The more cards she gets, the more powers Sakura can draw from her arsenal to catch the remaining cards--but it's not always easy picking the right card, since for example, the Wood card can create branches of wood that would work for ensnaring a slow-moving card, but it won't be able to catch Water, which would flow right through. The Clow Cards aren't evil, but they love causing trouble and don't love being captured--they're kind of like a bunch of escaped animals from the zoo. The first two seasons are Sakura struggling to gather all the cards, and then the third and final season she faces a different challenge and again has to use the cards to help her.

If you haven't seen it, you're probably thinking this sounds like Pokemon or something with the card-catching angle, but what makes Cardcaptor Sakura great isn't the storyline as much as it's the cast. Sakura, the heroine, is determined, energetic, but has her struggles with being a cardcaptor too, having the very normal reaction of feeling overwhelmed and not wanting to do it at all at first. Over the course of the series you see her gain a lot more confidence as her character develops--it's just really hard not to like her and root for her to succeed. Her best friend, Tomoyo, is more than a little obsessed with Sakura, but she's helpful in her own way and although she's obscenely rich she doesn't fall into the usual anime ojou-sama stereotype of looking down on everyone else. Sakura's older brother Toya is pretty funny, there's a very realistic brother-sister vibe between them with lots of little fights, etc., and he has to have the world record for working the most different part-time jobs ever. Sakura's crush is Toya's best friend, Yukito, who is generally your nice guy character, with an inhuman appetite. And Sakura's mascot, Kero-chan, is hilarious--instead of your standard cute mahou shoujo mascot, Kero-chan speaks in Osaka-ben, is a snack food/cake addict, and loves to pose for the camera while commenting on how cool he looks. Not long after the series starts Shaoran appears, and he becomes Sakura's rival for getting the Clow Cards for his own purposes, and with him comes his childhood friend Meilin, who also generally gets in Sakura's way although she can't use magic herself.

The interactions between the cast are definitely what I like the most about CCS--from Kero-chan's selfish snack-hogging, to Sakura and Yukito's arguments, to Sharoan's relationship with Sakura, to Meilin's slow conversion from antagonist to good friend, it all just really comes across as well-done and realistic. There are too many memorable scenes to list, and with 78 episodes and two movies to work with, there's a lot of time to develop even the more minor characters and really let you see the cast grow over the course of a year and a half of their adventures.

The animation is cel-based since it aired in '98 (my wife bought me the cel above for my birthday one year) and it's really, really good--the animation quality holds up well throughout the whole 78-episode run and doesn't degrade at any point that I can tell. I liked the character designs too, although newer anime fans may think they're a little old school.

The relationship chart for this series would probably give the Taliban or Moral Majority conniptions--first there's Sakura herself, who has a crush on Yukito, who's almost double her age. Then there's Shaoran having a crush on Yukito, although they're both guys--and Yukito and Toya almost acting like a couple at times. Not to mention Tomoyo's obsession with Sakura can seem to border on yuri. Even among Sakura's classmates, while Chiharu and Yamazaki act like a future couple and are in the same class and of different genders, there's also Sakura's classmate Rika, who has a crush on their teacher. The third season changes things around by focusing more on Sakura and Shaoran's relationship, and they make that into a solid, more conventional romantic story. But given the yaoi/yuri undertones, it's no wonder that land of the free or no, this just got butchered when it was put on US TV--they edited Cardcaptor Sakura into a show called "Cardcaptors" and tried to turn it into a shonen series. In the end, I don't think unless you're really close-minded any of this detracts from the show--and it's not like you even see Yukito and Toya kiss or anything like that, it's more implied they're really close.

For a mahou shoujo series in particular, the action is a strongpoint--compared to Pretty Cure, where "Precure Marble Screw" is the solution to every problem, every week, Sakura actually has to think to defeat the various cards she encounters, and she doesn't always pick the best card, or combination of cards, to fight with on the first try. It's not like Detective Conan or anything, but for a fourth-grader, Sakura has to be pretty resourceful to win, even with some pointers from Kero-chan in the end it's a battle of wits between her and the cards. Some of them are harder to catch than others, but it helps keep the series from getting repetitive. Another departure from the usual mahou shojou is while she has a costume, it changes every week thanks to Tomoyo--and to the disappointment of lolicons everywhere, there's no Nanoha-style henshin sequences or panchira.

There's nothing about the series that really bothers me, but the biggest flaw I can come up with is how some of the crushes seem over the top--in the third season in particular Tomoyo comes across as so Sakura-obsessed it's kind of ridiculous. It reminds me of Shuffle, and the whole doormat-like "Rin-kun's happiness is my happiness" thing. Although I hesitate to say it's a crush because it's not like Tomoyo asks Sakura out--on the contrary she plays an active role trying to get her set up with someone else. The explanation that resolves Shaoran's feelings for Yukito also seems a little tacked on, like the writers didn't want to get into yaoi and were grasping for straws to kill off that possibility. Don't get me wrong though, I'm glad they went the way they did in the third season, it just seems like it could have been written better. In the third season, they also put a "song playing over panning still shots" interlude into each episode, which might save frames and sell CDs but just felt like an intrusion into the story to me. On the other hand, I'm a sucker for more romance-themed series so the third season in particular stands out as a good one in spite of that.

It's a pity Tsubasa didn't make Sakura as interesting a character as she was in CCS, or that we don't get to see a "ten years later" CCS with the cast in high school (like the last couple minutes of Nanoha As), but CCS has a good, solid ending to it at the end of the second movie (which came out after the TV series finished) so I really can't complain. This turned into more of a ramble than a review, but if you haven't seen Cardcaptor Sakura, even if you're not a mahou shoujo fan, I'd highly recommend renting it to see for yourself. It's a good mix of comedy, action, drama, and even a little romance, and it's a series well worth rewatching. And if you're looking to get your girlfriend/fiancee/wife a little into anime, this is an excellent choice too.