After three episodes of most new shows, the time has come to say something about them.
For me, Dance in the Vampire Bund is clearly the best new show. I know no-one else agrees, but that's okay. So far (up to episode 3) I think it is real visual, filmic, and dramatic art. More later in this post.
And although it didn't look like this was going to be much of a season, there are actually several more good and/or watchable shows. (click images to enlarge)
Baka to Test to Shoukanjuu was my pre-season pick. It has taken three episodes for me to really get it, but it is now clicking for me in a big way. Director Oonuma Shin was my reason for picking this show, and we can clearly see his touch in its look.
But one of the best things he did was pick crazy auteur Nabeshin (Watanabe Shinichi, director of Excel Saga and PuniPuni Poemi) to storyboard and direct episode three -- which was totally crazy and utterly hilarious.
On the Japanese discussion board 2channel, the most popular new show is Sora no Oto, the moe slice-of-life anime featuring a platoon of five girls who are the guard in a postwar guardpost in an alternative-universe Euro/Japanese town. Their main function seems to be to play reveille every morning on a bugle from the ramparts.
The animation, voice-acting, and especially the backgrounds are excellent. As are the gentle and humane atmosphere and characters.
The next most popular new show on 2channel is Durarara!, which also features an ensemble cast, good animation, and a vivid setting. This time, the setting is the Ikebukuro district of Tokyo. Life swirls around and through the many characters in a wonderful way.
The characters seem fairly thin to me so far, and I'm not a huge fan of shounen fighting. But the characters bear watching, there is some mystery lurking, and the fights are certainly entertaining: one guy throws a trashcan a block through the air, and in another scene someone loses all his clothing as he is propelled up and across an intersection.
The big surprise for me is the comedy Hanamaru Kindergarten. So far, the show is highly enjoyable, which seemed unlikely in a show featuring kindergarteners and their insecure new male teacher. Another surprise is that the show is directed by the director of Gundam00 and FMA1, Mizushima Seiji.
This is not Kodomo no Jikan, which I think of as a show based on loli appeal that had a serious side, too. This is an innocent show, with delightful characters and its own kind of depth. However, it does star Shindou Kei, who was Kuro in KnJ.
The most striking character is the childish genius played by Takagaki Ayahi, who continues to cement her position in the upper ranks of seiyuus. Last year, she performed in the ninth-highest number of episodes of any seiyuu.
Nodame Cantabile Finale is having trouble getting going, through two episodes. Nodame's craziness seems less endearing; there is too little behind Chiaki's actions; and as in the second series, the music is not getting its due.
But I continue to have high hopes, and am following the story closely.
TV ratings started at 2.5%, a far cry from those of the first series, which doubled that; but episode two jumped to a highly respectable 3.7%
Katanagatari just aired its first episode and was both good to look at and quite enjoyable to watch -- although it doesn't seem to me to be anywhere near the show Bakemonogatari was, which was also based on a novel by NisiOisiN. The character design and backgrounds are excellent, and the animation good.
But somehow, director Motonaga Keitarou (Amaenaideyo, School Days) just doesn't seem to me to make the most of the material. There isn't much rhythm in the directing, and he doesn't get the best from a decent main cast: Tamura Yukari, Nakahara Mai, and Hosoya Yoshimasa (Juuzawa Juu in Denpateki na Kanojo).
It's hard to know how popular the new Hidamari Sketch is, since there is no separate thread for it on 2channel, and TV ratings are not available. But this seems a worthy continuation of the series. It's beautiful and well-acted, but unfortunately it bores me. This season, we get a new character, called Nori, played by Harada Hitomi, an interesting new voice who played Tomoe in Sasameki Koto and is Himeji in Baka to Test.
Actually, maybe Ladies versus Butlers is the most surprising show. It makes no pretense of being anything but a bishoujo fanservice comedy, and is by the staff that made Kanokon. But it is actually funny. The look and colors are delightful, the animation good, and the character design -- if you don't mind the absence of noses -- is excellent.
And I find myself laughing out loud during every episode. They take common memes and do them well, pushing the humor just one stage further. Like the innocent clumsy maid (voiced by Koshimizu Ami) who comes into the shower to apologize for something by scrubbing the protagonist's back, and shows not the slightest embarrassment at all, advancing step by step as he contorts his body to hide. And we have a bit of mystery and some interesting human relations.
Seikon no Qwaser fascinated me at the start, with its pseudo-Christian mythology and good voice-acting (Sanpei Yuuko, Fujimura Ayumi, Toyosaki Aki, Chihara Minori, Hirano Aya, Hikasa Youko, Kawasumi Ayako, Ookawa Tooru). But the censored version is so censored as to be incoherent, and the way they combine sex and violence in the uncensored version I find hard to take.
The story involves a magical boy who gains power to fight by sucking "soma" from a virgin's breasts. But that's not the problem, really. It's a strong concept, if you just accept it as myth and don't hate it for being fanservice.
Chuu-bra is the most unlikely show of all: about a girl who wants to help other girls wear the bras and panties that are right for their bodies, and starts an underwear club in her school. It's clear what the appeal is meant to be, lol. But in fact, the girl herself, and the situation, are interesting and quite well portrayed. I'm not a big fan of Chihara Minori's seiyuu work, but I think she does a good job here as the main girl. She makes her innocent and almost real. The show reminds me of Naishou no Tsubomi, overlaying its fanservice with some actual life-education.
Ookamikakushi is the latest offering based on a story by Ryuukishi07, the creator of Higurashi. Strange town in the countryside -- check. Mysterious secret activities -- check. Dangerous-seeming loli -- check. Creepy male character caressing the young male protagonist's leg -- hey, wait, that's something new. It does seem like other Ryuukishi07 tales, but as with them, the story might actually have some interest. And there is something to the characters. Too bad the drawing, animation, and story-telling are so lame.
Omamori Himari at first sight seems to have nothing at all going for it, and yet even it is amusing, if you like fanservice and moe. Shindou Kei reappears as the magic loli. Koshimizu Ami is a warrior cat-spirit speaking old Japanese. And Nomizu Iori (Nymph in Sora no Otoshimono) does a nice job as the childhood friend. But Hirakawa Daisuke is unbearable as the wimpy, excitable lead. The humor feels stale to me. And the drawing and animation are second-rate.
Now for a few more words about Dance in the Vampire Bund. I can understand why some manga-readers wish it had followed the manga more closely. I can understand why some people object to a show its loli appeal. And I can understand why some people find Shinbou Akiyuki's direction too busy.
But if you can speed yourself up to the Shaft/Shinbou visual pace, this show is just outstandingly well put together. The first episode was pretty outlandish, and I wasn't totally convinced myself. But the idea was to create a light environment as a background for the serious events that will come. And the tone of voice Yuuki Aoi used in her first appearance in the show was just riveting: slow, childish, uncertain, arch. Then she came forth as the powerful vampire queen. These contrasts were the point of the episode.
Episode two, as I've written before, was amazing. The opening sequence was a classic, with its colorful vague images, the butterfly and flowers, the crying eye, rushing up the red carpet, the music, the voices. The way the boy's voice was timed to the butterfly landing on the flower, and the way Nakamura Yuuichi repeated exactly the same tone the second time he spoke. It was symphonic. All the timing was sharp and strong, penetrating the heart like music. And we ended with a clear feeling of the memories of the queen, her sadness and love for the kind little boy, and her present confidence, pre-eminence and strength.
Throughout the episode, we had timing and images that worked like these, if less powerfully. The very next sequence, in the classroom, is another example, working rhythms with the music, images, and voices. And creating a wistful feeling with Saitou Chiwa's voiceover, Yuki's gaze, and the "high and distant" Ennico Morricone-like music in the background.
An important part of the aesthetic here is irony. Using contrasts of seriousness and humor to keep us just a little distant from the action. So that we learn to accept dramatic scenes like the finale of episode two, with its emotional crescendos, and not feel that they are overdone. For some people, this apparently doesn't work. It's a fine line, I admit. But the show walks it well for me.
And I like the strength of the mythic situations. The mythic contradictions of the powerful child-queen who is not a child. Her knight-errant fated from birth to serve her. His forgetting his own nature -- and then remembering it in response to her cry of despair. The queen who is a part of nature (her face in the shrubbery), but who is vulnerable to the sun (the protective gel). Mina Tepes the direct descendant of the original Dracula, Vlad Tepes. And by episode three, we have the terrifying mythic situation of monsters among us.
There are many mesmerizing images, works of art in themselves. These tableaux can emphasize something about a situation or a character and give us a chance to feel them, or get a sense of immediacy by focusing on a small detail. Here are some examples:
I'm a fan of Shinbou Akiyuki's work, although I haven't been able to finish many of his series. I loved Bakemonogatari, but Natsu no Arashi left me pretty cold. The gentle moe of Hidamari Sketch didn't sustain my interest long, and the humor of Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei isn't mine.
What's the difference? The original material makes a big difference, and I did like this manga, at least into volume four. But I think the main difference may be the staff Shinbou has to help him here: he has a new assistant director (Sonoda Masahiro), a new animation director (Konno Naoyuki), a new writer (Yoshino Hiroyuki, who wrote Macross Frontier, Mai-HiME and My-Otome, and was assistant chief writer on Code Geass), and a new music director (Dobashi Akio). As far as I can tell, none of those have worked with him before, except for Sonoda, who worked on a couple of episodes of ef melodies, which Shinbou just supervised and didn't direct.
I've gone on too long. In part, I'm trying to justify the show and my opinion of it to the many people who doubt its excellence. In part, I'm trying to understand why I like it, and convince myself. In that at least, I have succeeded.