Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Manabi Straight

Manabi Straight is the series I was looking forward to the most last winter, and pre-season favorites have a way of either living up to the hype you burden them with, or being very disappointing and making you slam your own head in a door in frustration (Exhibit A: Yoakena's Cabbage of Doom). Fortunately, Manabi Straight not only lived up to my hopes for it, it even managed to surpass them, with a great cast of characters and a solid story about friendship, teamwork, and overcoming adversity. It seems like Hidamari Sketch gets more love and attention, but for me Manabi Straight was far and away my favorite anime series of the (admittedly bare) winter season. I'd say even for my top ten anime series of all time, Manabi would still make the cut.

The main reason I was looking forward to Manabi Straight before the season was the studio behind it, Ufotable--I haven't liked everything they've put out, but I laughed my ass off watching Dokkoida and 2x2 Shinobuden, and while Futakoi Alternative kind of went off the rails in the middle, it had its moments too, especially an amazing episode 1. I didn't watch Coyote Ragtime Show since it's not really my kind of series, but with Manabi Straight I was looking forward to seeing Ufotable's take on school life. I expected it to be more comedy than anything else, but was pleasantly surprised to find while Manabi had its laugh out loud moments, there was a lot more than that to it.

Famous last words...

The plot starts with the catalyst for the series, Manabi, appearing in front of Inamori Mikan, the secretary on the otherwise deserted Student Council at a school whose enrollment has been declining for years along with Japan's population. It's 2035, not that it matters--other than laptops on everyone's desks it could just as easily be next Thursday. Given the name of the series I'd assumed Manabi was the main character, but Mikan provides both the narration and the point of view for most of the story, as well as being the character you could argue develops and changes the most over the series. They could easily have called this Mikan Straight, although that sounds like something I'd find in the drink section at a Japanese grocery store. While Mikan gets more screentime, Manabi does change the lives of people around her as her enthusiasm rubs off on even the more cynical and distant members of the cast. Watching the effect Manabi has on those around her is a lot like the scene at the end of the first episode where the school stage gets transformed into a park of swirling sakura petals--a dreary, apathetic, and not so heartful school life gets turned into a whirlwind of enthusiasm and activity. Under her leadership, the Student Council revives, gathers new members, and they grow closer together, then face a struggle between realizing the dream they're working towards and reality, a struggle adults are all too familiar with.

All talk...
I suck at episode summaries so I won't go into the plot much more--but in addition to a compelling story, the cast of characters really makes this series shine. Manabi's enthusiasm, Mikan's sincerity but her initial lack of confidence, Mei's tsundere-ness, Mutsuki's concern for her friends, Momo's biohazard suit...all of them are just a lot of fun to watch and easy to identify with. The character development during the series is really well handled too, as each of them has things they have to confront and overcome to move forward. The voice acting is solid, with Horie Yui as Manabi and Hirano Aya as Mei being probably the most well-known.

The first thing a lot of people noticed about Manabi Straight, before it even aired, was the character designs--and yes, this is the youngest-looking high school cast I think I've ever seen. Kinomoto Sakura looks like she could be Manabi or Mikan's older sister, and Sakura's in 5th grade while Manabi-tachi are supposed to be high school first-years. If there was a Dark Manabi she could save some serious cash buying child tickets for the movies and so on. This led some to dismiss Manabi Straight as a 'rori' series right off the bat or call it 'Manabi Chubby' but once I was used to them, the character designs really weren't bad. The gradient hair was actually pretty cool-looking once I got used to it, and the characters' expressions were done particularly well, which makes a huge difference both in the funny and dramatic parts. If you don't believe me, watch episode 3 of the TV broadcast of Yoakena--when the character's expressions are drawn so badly you can't tell if someone's embarrassed, angry, surprised, or constipated it really takes a lot of enjoyment out of watching the show. Animation quality really matters when it comes to being able to properly convey what the characters are feeling, especially since They say since half of all communication is nonverbal (which I think is a big part of Internet dorama, when you don't have a way to tell from people's voices or facial expression if what they just typed was serious, sarcastic, a joke, or what). Ufotable did a solid job on the animation throughout, and was perfectly consistent (unlike 2x2 Shinobuden where in a couple episodes the characters looked very different than in the rest of the series).

Complaints? Yeah, while I like the character designs, I admit it'd be better if they looked their age. But my biggest complaint is--it's 4:3. Seriously, what other anime is in a 4:3 aspect ratio and not 16:9 widescreen these days? Did Ufotable take a time warp back to two thousand and freaking four here? For a series set in the future, the aspect ratio's especially ironic. Then again, they had CRTs in the Student Council room too if I want to nitpick--and I can't imagine even the most dead-broke school using a CRT by 2035. It reminds me a little of how Moldiver envisioned a bold future where even pay phones had built-in video screens and people live in gargantuan thousand-level sky towers, but no one on Earth owns a cell phone. I should talk though, I remember when CD-ROMs came out thinking they were the dumbest thing I'd ever heard of since who had a whole 650MB worth of crap, not to mention initially you couldn't read/write CDs like good old 1.44MB floppies.

Overall, it's hard for me to really describe Manabi Straight well, but to sum it up, it's a story of a group of girls who become best friends, work together for a common goal, and get a first taste of the politics and challenges of adulthood. It's the anime series you'd have students at Otaku business schools watch to learn about leadership. It's got a winning combination of heart, comedy, and drama. I'm sure there are some that will find Manabi a little overly dramatic, like the scene where Manabi signs the school song surrounded by imaginary sakura, or Mei floats into the student council room in spirit as the team works on the presentation. Maybe it is over-the-top, but for me somehow it really just works. While it's a good story about growing up and school life, the things like pulling all-nighters on a presentation remind me more of the "grown-up" world. That's what I think really pushes Manabi Straight into great territory--it has a point, a message that I think everyone can stand to hear every once in a while to keep them on the path of MASSUGU, GO!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Clannad Canned Bread

This has to be one of the strangest marketing tie-ins I've ever seen--vending machines that sell canned bread with Clannad characters on them (pictures here). The thought of canned bread is a little scary, but they really do sell anything and everything from vending machines over there...

Also, Zyl weighs in on YUA: Full Throttle and found it more entertaining than I did--I should really give ep 2 a chance with lowered expectations, just because I really want to like this series, even if I was unable to like ep 1. I suspect I've been Cursed by High Expectations on this one.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

More First Impressions: Kimikiss, Night Wizard, YUA, and Shana II

Kimikiss

Wow...I thought Clannad had a big cast, but I can't remember two-thirds of the characters in Kimikiss's names. If I had to guess from the first episode, I'm guessing by the end we'll have at least two couples: Mao x Quiet, Delinquent-Looking Dude Sitting Next to Her, and Guy Who Showed Up First And Is Presumably the Male Lead x Shy Girl in His Class that He Blushes Looking At. But there are so many characters we could have five or six couples by the time it's over. I'm not sure if this is a good thing or not--a big cast in a one cours series has to make focus difficult, but on the other hand it's kind of refreshing to see a bishoujo series with more guys than the standard two: the Male Lead and the Best Friend Who Never Gets a Girl to Even Look at Him. I haven't counted, but in Kimikiss the guy:girl ratio may be close to even. In any case, the character designs are good, the animation's decent if not stellar, and the characters themselves are interesting enough to keep me watching. After a spring season without a whole lot of bishoujo series, this fall has really turned into a bishoujo explosion.

Night Wizard

I know, it's based on a video game and probably aimed at people born when I was in college, but hell, I'm a sucker for moe character designs, and Hiiragi's "I just want to go to school!" and Anzelotto's "answer 'hai' or 'yes'" are entertaining enough to keep me watching. Plus the high school the cast goes to is in Akihabara, how cool is that. You could buy anime goods on your lunch break...talk about an express shinkansen to bankruptcy. The plot's based on a battle between skeletal 'Emulators' and the Forces of Good, Hiiragi misses class to swing a sword around, Anzelotto lives in the big castle at Disneyworld, and Elis and Kareha look like they'll be doing some fighting with Hiiragi (male lead) as well. I'm not expecting anything Earth-shattering here given the source material, but the first episode was fun to watch anyway. I'm somewhat easily entertained though, so your mileage may vary.

You're Under Arrest: Full Throttle

The You're Under Arrest OVA series is one of the first anime tapes I ever bought...I bought it from Animeigo on VHS a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, and bought it again on DVD. I'm sure I've watched the four OVA episodes at least a dozen times, and I've seen the first and second TV series, the movie, and the mini-specials--none were as good as the OVAs in my book, but they were at least entertaining. When I heard there was a third You're Under Arrest series airing, I thought it was a hoax--the last series was, what, five years ago? The manga stopped running in the late Paleozoic era, so where were they getting the material? I went into the first episode of YUA: Full Throttle with high expectations--which were promptly crushed. Honestly, the first episode almost put me to sleep. I kept looking at the timer at the bottom of the screen, wondering if that guy in Catch-22 would approve of this as a way to live longer. And Miyuki and Natsumi...they look like they're obaasans now. I think it's the extra lines around the eyes, but I hate the new character designs with a passion. The boy we're supposed to care about in this arc, who Miyuki saves from a kidnapping, just didn't pull me in either. I was honestly more entertained by Night Wizard, which makes me question my own sanity. As a fan of the OVAs, I expected this to be a sure hit, but it really let me down--maybe in the end, the OVAs just set too high a bar to clear.

Shana II

Having just re-watched the first season, I didn't really need the recap of sorts that took up much of the episode, but it was a clever way to provide a refresher for people and to help get new viewers up to speed. The sakura in fall made me think I was watching Da Capo for a minute there. I'm glad to see it looks like Ball Masque will play a role again, so they won't just be forgotten after getting away at the end of the first season. And the Horned Girl...I don't think anyone on Earth would take a bet that this episode is the last we'll see of her. There wasn't much new in the episode, but it was good to see the cast again, even if I did watch the first season two weeks ago. Shana looks moe as ever, especially now that she's not as tsun-tsun as she was in the beginning of the first season, and I'm hoping Ike and Yuuji will both have some balls so we won't just see The Triangle from last season drawn out until the end of time. Although I have to wonder, what happened to Operation Get Yuuji out of Misaki City to Avoid Endangering Everyone from last season though? Guess they just decided, ah, to heck with it, half the people in the city are torches by now anyway?

Sunday, October 07, 2007

First Impressions: Clannad, D.C. II, Blue Drop, and Myself; Yourself

Fall is my favorite time of year--the momiji burst into brilliant color, the air starts to get that crisp, refreshing feeling...and, of course, there's a new season of anime. Actually, where we live we don't get the first two things at all, instead we get people's houses falling into the Abyss like it's Judgment Day or something...but at least so far the fall anime season is looking really good. Spoilers for first episodes and incoherent ramblings straight ahead:

Clannad

I just finished re-watching Kanon, which is one of my favorite anime series--but I have to admit I went into Clannad with relatively low expectations. I read in a couple places on the internet that Clannad was "more like Air than Kanon", and unlike most Kanon fans, I'm not a huge fan of Air. Don't get me wrong, Air did have its good moments, but there were some things I disliked about it: I didn't like the cast as much as Kanon's (except Kannabi no Mikoto), the side characters' stories in Air weren't that interesting to me (I still can't remember their names...), and honestly I was disappointed with the ending. Maybe I was helped by having lower expectations for it than most, but after watching the first episode I really like Clannad so far.

The animation quality in the first episode was just awesome, and seemed at least up to Kanon's level. The only complaint I have was it aired 4:3, but the 16:9 broadcast will air three weeks from now. The character designs felt slightly closer to Haruhi than Air/Kanon, which is good in my book. And while it's weird hearing someone other than Kyon in a leading role in a Kyoani series, I like Tomoya's seiyuu, and he seems to fit the character well.

There's a pretty good sized cast to Clannad but unlike Kanon, which staggered everyone's introductions, it seems like Clannad throws them all at you at once, like it's daring you to remember all their names. A lot of them get pretty minimal screentime, of course, but they all seem interesting from what I've seen so far. I think Nagisa's dad is my favorite just based on his overall attitude--trying to get Tomoya to add 'ginga' to his name was classic. Anime set in high school often treats family like they don't exist--did you ever see anyone's parents for more than an instant in School Rumble? In Da Capo? In anything? I understand family's a big theme in Clannad, so it can't go that route, and it makes for a refreshing difference.

Before I watched the first episode, I was a little worried that the main heroine, Nagisa, would fit the all-too-common stereotype of "weak girl who just follows guy she has a crush on around and can't do anything by herself," which always annoys the hell out of me. Is there something wrong with giving girls a strong personality? I'm not saying they should all be tsunderes, but for example, the "I live to serve Ren-kun" mentality half the cast of Shuffle had made me ill--for The Love of God, have some purpose in your life other than becoming an okusan. Fortunately, Nagisa doesn't seem to fit that stereotype--she missed most of a year due to illness, but she doesn't have a puppy-dog crush on the male lead (or at least doesn't seem to), and she seems competent, going to the Theater Club by herself without needing anyone holding her hand to make her go. Nagisa also doesn't say 'gao', 'auu', 'uguu', 'ahaha', or anything like that, which makes me wonder if Key really produced this. Who knows, maybe in ep 2 she'll start adding '-de arimasu' to every sentence, but I think other than a habit of talking to herself, Nagisa's speech patterns are shockingly normal.

Other characters that stood out? The obligatory male lead sidekick looks like he'll be as entertaining as Kitagawa was in Kanon, now we just need a Kaori-like character to walk all over him. And Tomoyo is going to be a strong candidate for winning the Oscar for Most Badass Female Character in a Bishoujo Series, taking delinquents down like nobody's business and doing it with style.

On the downside, the OP and ED were OK, but I don't think I'll be ripping them into iTunes anytime soon. The ED was something Wanya from Daa! Daa! Daa! would love, but I'd take taiyaki over dangos any day. I think the ending of Clannad will make or break it for me, but now I'm looking forward to the ride more than I was before. I think I'm going follow Jeff Lawson's lead and wait for the 16:9 version from now on though--it just feels weird watching this in 4:3, they should have just aired it in black and white while they were at it.

Da Capo II

As a fan of the original series, I've been looking forward to Da Capo II for a looooong time, and the first episode was great--I love FEEL's D.C.S.S./Otoboku-like character designs, and everything just seemed to fit Da Capo perfectly. The animation's not going to top Clannad, but it's on a par with D.C.S.S. and Otoboku, so FEEL is giving this more love than Airantou got. Yui Horie as Yume sounds almost exactly like her Suzu in Airantou, but I think I'll get used to her pretty quickly.

The biggest surprise from the first episode is Koko and Yoshiyuki starting to go out--but I'll give that three, maybe four episodes before they break up and he ends up with Yume or Otome. The fact Yoshiyuki was wondering if the fact she was important to him was love or not is not a good sign for Koko--if you have to ask yourself if it's love, it's not. Plus he didn't accept until she was about to cry, and I feel bad for Koko if he's just going out with her out of pity. Hopefully, if he does end up falling for Otome, Nanaka, or Yume later (my money's on Yume) then he'll let Koko down gently.

I read spoilers for the game a while back, and while ep 1 clearly breaks ranks with the game, I'm sure the main story from the game is going to factor into this, and that's what I'm really looking forward to. There's definitely some great potential for drama there, and if D.C. II is anything like the original, it'll deliver.

The original Da Capo seemed to turn some people off by the middle episodes, but it had a really strong ending--with just one cours to run with, I'm guessing D.C. II will eschew filler and keep things moving at a good pace towards the climax. Definitely can't wait for ep 2 now...it's too bad I don't have the willpower to wait and marathon this all at once after it's over, just to avoid the wait between episodes...

Blue Drop


Blue Drop is a series I didn't know a whole lot about going into this season, other than that it has aliens and possibly some yuri. That's really all it takes to get me to watch a first episode, so watch away I did, and I ended up really liking it so far. The animation is decent, the character designs take a little getting used to but aren't bad, and the whole mood and tone of the series was just set really well.

A lot of people were probably turned off by Mari generally being selfish and spoiled all episode, but given her situation and the loss of her parents, I'm willing to cut her some slack. Hagino, of course, being the alien is a more interesting character--why is she infiltrating a oujo-sama school? Why did she try to strangle Mari, only to back off? What kind of aliens keep such a low profile and don't just start blowing up cities and stuff?

The first episode ends on a cliffhanger, so they've guaranteed I'll be back for episode two. The CG was really the only part of the first episode that bugged me--I know, call me old-fashioned, but I *hate* CG in anime, and yes, the flock of swallows or whatever was pretty good, but I could still tell it was a computer doing the work. The alien ship/submarine of sorts just looked out of place--not as bad as the space station in Soul Link, but not great. Still, I'm definitely looking forward to seeing more of this, especially where they go with Mari and Hagino's relationship and how their characters develop.

Myself; Yourself

A tsundere miko is fine too...

A lot of people will write this off from the get-go because it's based on a visual novel (which interestingly enough, isn't actually out yet, so it's impossible to guess where the story will go based on that), but the first episode definitely pulled me in. The character designs are good, the animation is solid, and the story has enough mystery to it to keep me interested. The OP is probably my favorite opening of any anime this season so far, so it pulled me in right from the start. I don't know if it's the Live Alive influence or what, but I'm all in favor of bishoujo bands in anime.

The basic setup of the story is the male lead, Sana, returning to his former hometown alone after being gone for five years, and being reunited with his childhood friends from back then. Yeah, it's not exactly original, but the cast is interesting and there are a lot of questions raised in the first episode:
  • What was Shuu trying to yell to Sana when he left? Probably not "I'm hard gay for you!" although it'd be funny if he was...
  • Why did Nanaka smack him silly when they met in class? Sure, she's pissed because he didn't recognize her after five years, but she seemed to be acting funny even when she saw him at the shrine earlier, so I'm thinking there has to be more behind it. Or she's just an omega tsundere.
  • Why exactly did Sana come back to the town, alone? His phone call with his mother seemed a little awkward, and when his friends asked about it, he didn't want to say...
In any case, I'm a sucker for a series with any romance in it, so I'll definitely keep following this. Aoi's voice is going to take some serious getting used to though, I just can't picture that voice as belonging to anyone but Chiyo-chan.

Up Next

I haven't watched the first episode of Shana II yet, although I'm hoping it'll be a good series and not another ZnT II. I'm also looking forward to Minami-ke and ef--I remember reading the Minami-ke manga a while back and finding it pretty funny, and there's a serious need for comedies in my anime this season. My favorite series of spring was Seto no Hanayome, and while I don't expect there'll be anything as Laugh Out Loud Until the People in White Coats Take You Away funny this season, I'm hoping something will come along and surprise me.

Like every season, I'm sure something will disappoint me down the stretch, and something else will come out of nowhere to be just awesome--but one thing I know for sure is this fall is looking like a great time to be an anime fan.