Tuesday, April 29, 2008

My Favorites of the New Season -- Twenty-Faces, Kurenai, Macross and More

Okay, we're three episodes into the spring anime season and I have to declare myself. At least I have to stop watching some shows so anime doesn't take all my time.

My favorites? Nijuumensou no Musume, Kurenai, and Macross Frontier. None of these are reaching the level of True Tears, Ef, or Blue Drop for me, but they have a chance.

I find myself especially eager to see each episode of Nijuumensou no Musume, and not just for Hirano Aya at her best. The pacing is perfect so far, never so fast that it loses emotional sense, nor so slow that I start looking at the slider. All the characters seem to have something inside them: they are people, not just images of people.

I like the way secrets are revealed gradually, but without making a fetish of them. There is always something more to be revealed. And quick moments tell a lot, such as the <2 seconds in episode 4 when you saw the two bad guys glance at each other and Nijuumensou and Chiko both realize something was amiss. And Nijuumensou himself -- "Twenty-Faces" -- is as beautifully voiced by Uchida Yuya as his "daughter" Chiko is by Hirano Aya.

The animation here is actually stellar, although at first it looks quite plain. Chiko's movements in episode 4 when she is cleaning the floor and a window are really something, as is the way her body sways as she gets up onto the seawall carrying a heavy basket. A poster on 2channel said that it looks like a rerun of an old show, and it does. But someone else pointed out that it uses modern techniques to give it this retro feel. Retro plus.

The two groups subbing this in English give it two different names: Live-Evil calls it The Daughter of Twenty-Faces, which is a translation of the Japanese title. Sudo calls it Chiko, Heiress of the Phantom Thief, as Anime News Network does.

Kurenai captivated me from the start. A seven-year-old girl who has been a virtual prisoner in her aristocratic family's home is rescued by her minder and hidden in the apartment of a young bodyguard called Kurenai, who has a killing blade implanted in his arm. The bold tsundere character of the little girl and the walk-on-eggs caution of her new roommate continue to make for a fascinating relationship.

Once again, the direction and the portrayal of character and relationship are what make this show tick. And the voice-acting is continually excellent, especially that of Sawashiro Miyuki as the 16-year-old bodyguard and that of former child actress Yuuki Aoi -- who is actually 16 -- as the little girl.

The show is directed by the director of Red Garden, and appears to use the same unusual technique of recording the voices before finalizing the animation. This allows for some very natural conversations, with voices running parallel or interrupting each other. Great effect.

I had never seen any Macross show, and I went into Macross Frontier thinking it would be mainly mecha. Instead of that, I get some interesting characters and even romantic relationships, as well as space battles and friendly and unfriendly aliens.

I am a total sucker for the shoujo staple of the apparently incompetent girl who will show her strengths as we go on. And newcomer Nakajima Megumi as Ranka's VA intensifies the effect. Endou Aya (Miyuki in Lucky Star, Angie in Neo-Angelique) is suddenly blossoming this year and makes the big singing star Sheryl into another fascinating character.

You can add Nakamura Yuuichi's Alto to the list of good performances in this show. Alto was trained to play women's roles in kabuki, and is still called "Princess" by his friends. But his ambition is to be a fighter pilot, defending the Macross space colony. So we get complexities of romance, relationship, and gender. And a huge colony-city in space, making its way from Earth toward the centre of the galaxy.

I am also enjoying Vampire Knight, which is a top-notch vampire show, in the league of Tsukihime and Tsukuyomi, and maybe even approaching Hitsuji no Uta, but with a shoujo tinge. It's wonderful to hear Horie Yui playing the young girl protagonist. But equally good to hear Miyano Mamoru as her (unrelated) elder brother and Kishio Daisuke as the aristocratic vampire who once saved her from another vampire.

The animation here is not as detailed as in the first three shows, but it is very stylish. And I find the angst of the story quite persuasive. Hocchan's Yuki is strong, good, daring, and an attractive personality all round. Mamo-chan's Zero is a young vampire hunter with a secret.

Kyouran Kazoku Nikki is my surprise hit. Its combination of madcap humor and sweet relationships is entrancing. And there is some great character-creating voice-acting by Fujimura Ayumi and Hirohashi Ryou, among others.

My guilty pleasure is Kanokon, which may be the most outrageously sexual fanservice show I have ever seen. Even people who like fanservice are saying it goes too far. And Kawasumi Ayako shows yet another side of her multifaceted talent. The other main fanservice show of the seaon, ToLoveRu, doesn't interest me as much, but the wonderful Yahagi Sayuri is at her best as the hero's real love-interest, Haruna.

I expected Neo-Angelique Abyss to be another guilty pleasure, but it is in fact more than that. The new staff (largely from Corda D'Oro) that is producing this iteration of Angelique is giving it better animation, better dialogue, and a plot that is working so far, despite the monsters. Endou Aya is making this her big season, with another sharp performance as the sweet girl who is the strongest mage around, and ends every battle emitting powerful light that flushes away the monsters. And the character design is terrific, including Angie's outfits and zettai ryouiki, and her bevy of real bishounen. Like Vampire Knight, this show gets its bishounen fanservice right, perhaps because the main staff people in both cases are women.

Many people would consider any Da Capo show to be a guilty pleasure, but I don't. This second season of Da Capo 2 is starting off much better than season one, with romantic complexity and glimpses into the feelings of the participants. And Yoshiyuki's denseness has not yet gotten out of hand. Add Takagaki Ayahi (Noe in True Tears) as Otome, and you really have something.

Real Drive is yet another Production IG/Shirow Masamune tale that I can't help enjoying even when I don't understand what is going on. Production IG's surrender to the commercial usefulness of fanservice has produced some interesting panty shots of the unusually plump heroine. Great animation and character design, as usual.

Naisho no Tsubomi has captured my attention, too. It is based on a health education manga for girls, but has been made into an enjoyable slice-of-life anime. The first episode showed the travails of our young heroine as she had her first period, completely unaware of what was going on. The relationships with friends and family are beautiful, and so is the voice-acting, especially by Nazuka Kaori and Koshimizu Ami as the two main girls. Even if this show weren't such good slice-of-life, I might be watching it just for the beauty of those two voices.

Allison and Lillia started well, but has become less interesting for me as it goes on. It is seeming too far-fetched and rushes through things that should take longer. We'll see how ep5 shapes up. The character and relationship of the protagonists are what count.

Library Wars seemed to have some of the relationship goodness of Planetes at first, and may still, but ep3 was a bit meh for me -- except for the cliffhanger ending.

My enjoyment of Itazura na Kiss waxes and wanes. Not a great show, but a great story -- which is the reason why it has come to anime after having already been a manga and two dramas. Maybe the fact that I saw one of the dramas makes this less interesting to me.

Net Ghost PiPoPa is another surprise hit for me. It and the new season of Blue Dragon appear to be the most-watched new shows on Japanese TV. The clean look and good adventure story for young kids both remind me of Otogijushi Akazukin. Not something I'll watch every week, but enjoyable for what it is.

There are lots of other good shows this spring. Almost everything is watchable. Soul Eater is visually wonderful, but the surface brilliance and humor aren't enough for me -- especially since monsters generally turn me off. I've never been a fan of Code Geass, despite its great cast. And Zettai Karen Children is just finding its feet. More of the emotion behind the characters and less of the stereotypical battles might please me.

Wagaya no Oinari-sama has two good things going for it: the characters played by Yukana and Hayami Saori (Momoka in Touka Gettan). Yukana is the female aspect of the fox god who is brought in to protect the household. Hayamin is the clumsy but powerful young priestess who is there to help her and keep her under control. Hayamin, at 16, is growing fast as a seiyuu. Her singing of the ED is already top professional quality. But the story and writing are limping.

Golgo 13 has real masculinity: a square-built sniper hero who shows zero emotion as he takes out the bad guys in a show whose dark colors and deliberate direction make it feel classic. Mnemosyne continues to combine atrocious violence with yuri in an over-rich but tasty soup. And Noto Mamiko and Kugimiya Rie sound great.

Crystal Blaze, Himitsu: Top Secret, Monochrome, and Tower of Druaga all have strengths, too. Despite the fact I haven't had time to watch more than one episode, I suspect that Amatsuki could develop into something, as well. And Junjo Romantika is true yaoi, with strong fanservice and relationships. Kyou Kara Maou and Nabari no Ou just didn't do it for me after one episode, so I haven't had a chance to watch more.

This season may not have the overwhelming excellence at the top that some other seasons had, but it is deeper in good shows than any season I can recall.


uragayduck said...

it's too bad that you didn't follow the original macross series because they've been throwing in homages to it in macross f left and right. for instance, the reason why the announcer states that ranka is going to sing the "legendary song" is because it was minmei's song from the original which she sang in the first ever miss macross contest. ranka's version was remixed though which gave it a new feel to it but left the good oldness to it. i bet you all the macross fans hit the floor when they heard ranka's song....i know i did to the point of watching the episode again ( ^ __ ^ )

Kaioshin Sama said...

Man I guess I'm getting really good at this tailored recommendations.

hashihime said...

@uragayduck -- Now I've watched four eps of the original Macross. And loved them. Thanks for the recommendation.

@Kaioshin_sama -- Your recommendation of Macross is working for me. Thanks again.

Martin said...

The bit of trivia regarding Kurenai's VAs recording before the animation is interesting - it explains that 'special something' about the show's dialogue that I can't put my finger on...it's so natural, organic and lifelike. IIRC Otomo took the same route with Akira; it's something I wish happened more often, especially in the more character-driven shows.

I'm loving Macross Frontier too, although I'm a huge fan of Macross Plus and the Do You Remember Love? feature film, which clouds my judgement a bit. Having Ranka singing that tune was a nice touch.

uragayduck said...

glad you liked it, but it just keeps getting better as you get more into the series. i think a lot of people who haven't seen nor heard of the macross series label it right away as mecha, but in actuality it comes in third right behind love triangle (what a fitting title for macross f's opening) and music. oh and yeah you should watch macross: do you remember love? (ai, oboeteimasuka?) after watching the t.v. series because it is one of the BEST interpretations of a full seasoned show if not better than the t.v. series itself. plus, you'll get to hear the original ai, oboeteimasuka? song performed by minmei herself which is what brought a tear to my eye when i heard ranka's version of it when they aired episode 1 of macross f in december of last year.