So instead of constantly switching titles around, I figured that I would find one and stick with it, at least for a season. I feel like I've seen a lot this week, but not very much at all, which I blame squarely on the feet of the first episode of Fate/Zero overloading my poor brain. That said, let's get started with a new "Super Six" that took form when the last of this fall's series came across my viewing zone.
Super Six as of October 21st, 2011
How on earth did I forget that the sequel to Last Exile was starting this season? I really liked the first series, although I'll be damned if I remember much about it, and I'll probably feel the same way about LE: Fam when it's over. What will stick with me is that the music is fantastic, the visuals are beautiful, and the air combat is exhilarating. This is popcorn anime that invites you to explore it's story as much as it invites you to get a bag of popcorn, sit back, and enjoy the show making it a nearly perfect watch whenever it's available.
As far as the story in the first episode, Fam is a sky pirate who revels in being the first into battle and firing the "First Harpoon". When the Ades Federation decides to use a meeting to set up a peace treaty as an opportunity to declare war on the Kingdom of Turan, Fam's among the many sky pirates who are looking to collect wreckage. Fam doesn't want any old wreckage though, and engages in a ploy to take over the Kingdom of Turan's flagship in exchange for letting their princesses Milia and Liliana escape the attack. It's terrific eye candy, and in a flash will bring back all the things that you liked about Last Exile and make you happy for more.
For me, Bakuman is just such a comfortable ride, and the beginning episodes seem to be focusing on balancing advancement of the story with reminding viewers of topics from the first season. It's doing this in such an effortless way that it's enjoyable to watch. This episode brings back the relationship between Aoki (writer of last season's "hideout door") and Nakai who was her assistant on that effort. Nakai had a thing for Aoki, who now has teamed up with KOOGY to start a new series for Jack SQ. Nakai, in his own mind, bet everything he had on the success of "hideout door" and goes on a crusade to prove to Aoki that his art can bring her work to life, including spending his off hours drawing outside her apartment in the park to hone his skills.
Meanwhile, the story still advances with the first issue of Detective Trap getting third in the Shonen Jack poll. Mashiro and Takagi are concerned with the low placement and realize they just lost their best chance to get first in the poll and solidify their serialization. Miura seems happy with third place, and tells them that being in the top ten is an accomplishment.
It seems like Miura is going to be good for Ashirogi Muto in helping them learn how to run their finances with assistants, but there's a level of observance that Hattori had that Miura doesn't when it comes to the finer details of the work at hand. A snowstorm also forces the situation between Aoki and Nakai to come to a head, as the deadline for the fifth installment of Detective TRAP and the second early poll results come in. There's a lot going on, and the balance between the personal and professional is well done in the episode.
The fan in me wants to put this so much higher. The show is finding it's stride and like Bakuman, has achieved a balance of advancing the story while reaching back to scratch every nostalgic itch it can find. The pacing is still a bit fast for my liking and I'm still hoping that eventually it will slow down and take some time to just let the characters interact with each other so that people not familiar with the game before it can find out why it's fans love these characters so much.
As I said in my last blog, this episode was going to center around Chie getting her Persona, and that's what the episode accomplished. There's an established formula of where this is going in the early episodes, loading up the Investigation Team with characters and giving Yu more options from a combat standpoint. I liked the way that they revealed his ability to switch his Persona mid-combat and showed a hint of Yosuke's envy of that fact. Taking the time out to have Yosuke and Yu get arrested for Yosuke brandishing some weaponry at the Junes was another nice nostalgic moment, but don't let that blind you to the fact that Yu was making paper cranes while he was waiting (which in the game is a "job" which can be taken to raise your attributes at night). It's when the show does so much with a little that keeps is solidly in the Super Six, as much as my concerns want to drop it lower, and my (admitted) position as a Persona fanboy wants me to shoot it higher.
Much like another show on this list, Mirai Nikki just gets more strange and demented every moment that passes. The game is completely afoot right now, and the limits the competitors are willing to go to for their goals are on full display in the second episode. Amano is reminding me a lot of Ganta from Deadman Wonderland, possessing great power but too timid to really use it. Yuno is also quite like Shiro from that series, having great power, and being unafraid to use it causing the male protagonists of both series to rely, to their own detriment, on her. In this episode, Amano should be a "deadman" as his ineptitude should leave him easy pickings for a terrorist named Uryuu Minene ("Ninth") who has him pretty much dead to rights. It's Yuno's "Future Diary of Love" which allows her to turn the tide and begin moving Amano out of the situation. Her diary also tells that the actions they're taking would keep Amano alive, or her diary would tell her of Amano's death, so as long as her diary keeps filling, he's still alive. Amano's capture by his teachers and classmates leads both to a confrontation between Uryuu and Chief Kurusu ("Fourth"), and Yuno going berserk over her classmates and teacher's betrayal of Amano for their own safety.
Mirai Nikki at times is confusing with all of the hidden information coming into and out of view, changing as the characters act differently then the diaries say they will, and making the whole exercise look like a fight against the fate Deus Ex Machina has laid out for them. I think this is what happens when you take Steins;Gate and Deadman Wonderland, throw them in a blender, and pour out the results. It's kinetic and fascinating and never lets you gain your footing for more than a moment before it shifts, twists around itself, and moves in directions you're not expecting. It's also one of the biggest surprises of the season, although not the biggest, since that's going to be saved for last.
One of the things about Penguindrum that I've loved, is the fact that it doesn't generally leave you on a cliffhanger, but opts more often to make you watch the next episode to try to figure out what you just watched. Maybe somewhere it will be explained, or the series will take on a more familiar or straightforward narrative device. I also said that it's ability to change up it's pacing is the ultimate in control, and something that no other show displays as adeptly.
The end of this episode takes a character, dangles them over the edge of the abyss, grins maniacally at you, and ends. Unlike a similar end scene near the end of Kamisama Dolls, there's actually tension at the end scene of this episode, because unlike Kamisama Dolls, Mawaru Penguindrum has built up enough credibility that it's just messed up that it might do what it's threatening. That's the control, the credibility, the brilliance that it's wielding right now that no other series running has. Unlike Kamisama Dolls, Penguindrum doesn't wave this as an idle threat, and even took the time to use this episode to strip any potential savior out of the picture. It controls, then isolates, and then threatens with true malice.
In a few weeks, someone needs to sneak this under Tom's nose with a post-it note that says, "Watch and Learn". Except it's the entire anime industry who should be watching and learning from Penguindrum, because this series is taking just about everything else currently running to school for a lesson on how twisted psychological horror should be done.
So after lavishing so much praise on Mawaru Penguindrum, how does it not take the top spot in my Super Six?
It's because the one thing that Penguindrum doesn't do well, character development, Chihayafuru does better than all other series running right now. It's triangle of Chihaya, Arata, and Taichi are so lovingly detailed, and intricately motivated, that they don't seem like creations or characters anymore. They have clear and understandable motivation, and are set on a path, and allowed to react as if they were real people.
The show made a brilliant decision to show the characters in "present day" then move them back and allow you to watch their foundations with each other form and eventually break. The third episode revolves around the three going to a karuta club and being enthusiastically embraced as younger members of the club. They engage in a team battle against another group of younger players, and Arata's ability alone is enough to seal the match for the newly formed team, but Arata wants to play with others, be involved with others, he's just having a hard time adjusting to not doing everything himself. They enter a tournament together, but before that event Taichi is enrolled to start in a Kaimeisei Middle School, probably an equivolent of the mystical Tokyo University (that every harem anime male lead seems to fail to get into, multiple times). At the same time, Arata's father suffers a cerebral hemorrhage, which will need him to go back to Fukui. The tournament is the last time that they'll play together which causes Chihaya to feel abandoned and not want to go through with it. Eventually the Doctor in charge of the karuta club gets through to Chihaya the amount of work Taichi had to put in to play karuta and still get into the prestigious school, and that Arata's grandfather is a karuta master who obviously taught his grandson the game. The arrival of the team's shirt to Chihaya (Team Chihaya Furu) is the last nudge to send Chihaya to the center to play her last games of karuta with her friends. A tournament which ends early due to Arata's illness and an imposing opponent who finished second to him in the previous year's national championships.
The motivations are all there, the characters are bound by this game, and will continue playing it because it's the bond they share with each other. As the story looks to leave this formative arc, it serves as the motivation for the continuation of these characters playing. It's the tie that binds and looks to bring them together again, for the rest of the story that's about to be told. It's a small show, focusing on detailed small things, and does so with such incredible deftness that it should be watched by all who like sports, slice-of-life, or romantic anime.
Next week, the shows I'm watching that, to this point, aren't quite at the level of these shows, including one that made a miraculous save from the "drop pile" with some good ol' ultraviolence.