Sankarea: Undying Love (Series + Ep. 13)

Poor

To quote another anime, “What, exactly, is the dark emotion swirling inside me?”  This anime was wholly disappointing, especially in light of the first two episodes.  If nothing else, the writing is notable for knowing exactly how to kill a mood.  Being charitable, out of 13 episodes, about 3 of them were solid.  The reason it’s in Poor rather than Bad is because it seemed redeemable – it had some glimmer, some spark of humanity left within it.  That said, to keep with the zombie theme, my advice is as follows: Aim for the head, that thing is no longer human.

Purpose: Bad.  To be more accurate, the purpose was haphazard at best.  It was clear that the author had several different things he wanted to do with the subject matter, so he tried to throw them all together at different points.  What happened was that different plotlines, character, and world development were taken up and then abandoned when it was convenient, only to reappear later. If they arranged the material differently, perhaps along plot themes, it would have been a competent anime.  As it was, they froze plotlines already in progress to create or attend to other plotlines with a wholly different character and feel.  The final impression was that the anime itself was a zombie – lively at first, but losing pieces as it shambled forward.

Characters:  Poor.  The characters weren’t Bad because they had a small spark – something there that represented potential.  The main problem was the serious lack of consistency within each character.  Many anime mistake mental problems for character depth.  This anime mistook lack of consistency for depth.  The lack of consistency stemmed from the use of plot as a substitute for character development.  In other words, the characters were altered to more closely conform to expected plot trajectories, often ignoring previous development.  This is different from solid development because a good character will be impacted by plot, yet retain consistency even as they change.  For the good character, plot then becomes a part of the character, helping to move that character forward.  For Sankarea, the characters were, instead, wholly part of the plot. The result was that the characters were cannibalized when it was convenient to move to a different plot line.

World: Weak.  The first two, maybe three episodes, had a strong feel for the world.  They even managed to set up the basic zombie part in a way that made it feel believable.  As the anime went on, the world kept becoming more transparent, then inconsistent.  Like the characters, the world became the victim of plot, acting as a substitute for proper development.  Inconsistencies simply appeared and then disappeared when convenient to do so.  Perhaps a good example of this is how the “care of zombies” issue floats around at random.

Plot: Bad. The main culprit behind several of the anime’s weaknesses.  Really, the plot was like a vampire, sucking the life out of everything else to keep on going (pardon the mixed horror genre metaphors).  It’s hard to exactly pin down what the plot was, because there were several different things flying about. You had a really dark, disturbing plotine, a “care and feeding of zombie” slice of life, a high school love triangle,  and a “his family’s secrets” plotline going about. While some combination of any two of these could make a good anime, having all of them in there undermined each other. Strong anime that contain several themes have one main plot theme, and other supporting plot points.  This is an approach that treats the sub-plots as facets of the main plot – you learn more about the main plot even through the other points.  However, it requires recognition of what the main plot is.  In Sankarea, rather than supporting a main theme, each point was treated like a main plot in itself – effectively 4 main plots.  As a consequence they couldn’t spend enough time on each of those lines to make them properly interesting.  Rather, they undermined each other.  Clear evidence of this is how they abandon plot points mid stream to do other things and even leave at least one plot completely unresolved.

Storytelling: Bad.  As I mentioned earlier, the writers really know how to kill a mood.  Every time, after episode 3, they managed to build good moments, they promptly killed it with the interjection of something completely irrelevant.  It was very obvious that they didn’t understand the basics of timing – they couldn’t read the mood.  One of the clearest examples is the use of fanservice.  Both nonsensical and haphazard in execution, it really served little place in the anime.  This goes doubly in light of how disturbing the first two episodes were because it placed the viewer in the awkward place of being almost the same as “Mr creepy.”

On a broader note, the style of storytelling changed wildly, often to the detriment of the anime.  Episodes 1, 2, 9, and 13 (OVA) used character-based perspective storytelling.  Everything else was more about following the characters around, only occasionally hearing their thoughts.  What this did was de-emphasize the characters for much of the anime, instead focusing on their actions.  Episode 10 was almost of a hybrid in this respect – somewhat character-based perspective and somewhat following around.  Thus, episode 10 was only partially competent because, while interesting, it was more of an information/ backstory dump than what should have been character and world development.

Pace: Weak.  Again, the first two, maybe 3 episodes had a really good pace.  Everything else was pretty bad.  Since the plot was in pieces, the pace had to wildly change to try to keep everything together.

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Genshiken (Season 1, OVAs, Season 2)

Very Good

Normally, I’m pretty hesitant about anime involving Otaku because they tend to over-utilize the “shock value” with baser humor and subject matter.  However, Genshiken is a pretty entertaining comedy about Otakudom.  Perhaps it resonated with me because I have realized only recently that I am a pretty big generalist Otaku (into video gaming, anime, painting miniatures, building Gundams, and cosplay).  Only recently realized this?  Yes.  To paraphrase the anime, becoming an Otaku isn’t something you set out to do, you just find yourself there.

EDIT: Here’s where it gets confusing.  The second season of Genshiken is called Genshiken 2. It comes right after the 3 OVA episodes.  Crunchyroll has Genshiken Nidaime listed as “Genshiken Second Season,” but that’s actually season 3 – it comes Immediately after Genshiken 2.   One other thing to mention – Genshiken 2 goes a lot more into and includes much more ecchi content.  In addition to standard ecchi, it also goes into BL (boys love), without being too graphic.  That said, you’ll need a solid tolerance of ecchi for Genshiken 2.  Those are also parts of Otakudom, so it makes sense that they’d cover that material, which was only touched on in Genshiken (season 1.)  The review was written after watching Genshiken 1 and the OVAs, but I don’t really have too much to add after watching Genshiken 2.

Purpose: Very Good.  All in good fun, it’s a slice of life comedy about Otaku.  What’s notable about this anime is its treatment of both “old,” firmly entrenched Otaku and people new to the… lifestyle.  They also included the perspective of the outsider, thrown into the melee.  This anime also breaks a bit from the slice of life genre.  Normally, slice of life is about crazy characters reacting to new situations.  Normally, time doesn’t really progress in a meaningful manner and the characters don’t usually develop.  Genshiken is different.  It managed to keep its entertaining value throughout and also make structural changes throughout.

Characters: Very Good.  The characters were all distinctive, both in aspects of their hobby and their personalities.  The characters had a surprising amount of depth, given the genre.  One aspect of the characters that really stood out was the attention to body language.  Often, the body language did a great job of showing the viewer what was going on and added a great deal of emphasis to what was going on.  Character interactions were both varied and unique.  They tended to react to situations in a really human manner, based on their personalities.  Several scenes come to mind where there was a great deal of believable awkwardness as well as touching moments, which punctuated the comedy.  As a final note, they did a really interesting job developing two couples – the Otaku couple and the Otaku/normal person couple.  There were great lessons to learn from those relationships.

World: Good.  Pretty normal.  The world was interesting because it was at first limited to the clubroom, but slowly expanded.  It broadened for both settings and subject matter.  For settings, it occasionally varied between “normal” and “Otaku,” which provided interesting situations for our characters to react to.  For subject matter, many of the major Otaku areas were given some light – manga, anime, cosplay, figure-building, etc.  Part of the world included the characters dealing with the world – an interesting situation in itself.

Plot: Good.  It’s a slice of life/comedy anime about Otaku.  It’s not as if the entire world is at stake here.  As before, it was both surprising and interesting that there was progression in an anime of this type.  In addition to actually creating a character development trajectory, the plot was varied enough to have interesting situations arise.

Storytelling:  Very Good. Storytelling is always harder to spot in slice of life and comedy anime.  In this case, it’s how they set up the comedy and other situations.  What is most interesting about the storytelling wasn’t necessarily what information they provided, so much as what they didn’t.  There was just enough Otaku in there to be familiar to veterans, but not so much as to be seriously off-putting to someone not as familiar.  In addition, they usually managed to keep a nice balance of handling certain Otaku subjects without getting vulgar.  The best phrase that comes to mind is that they toed the line, although they weren’t trying to see what they could get away with.  This anime seemed to want to talk about these subjects, rather than trying to shock the viewer.

The main point of the storytelling here was the comedy.  This anime was consistently funny.  The kind of humor, based on the situations, was varied as well.  It wasn’t like a lot of anime in this genre, where characters have a “reaction catchphrase” – something happens and they react in one particular way.  Part of what was so funny was that the characters were reacting in a realistic, believable manner.  Though the anime was mainly comedy, I was really surprised that they managed to have several scenes with a strong impact to them.

Pace: Very Good.  The strongest point of the pace is, again, what it doesn’t do.  They had an excellent sense of when to develop an issue and when to leave it be.  This could very easily have gotten bogged down with too much of an exploration into Otaku minutiae.  Added to this was the fact that many other anime in this genre struggle with the pacing of pure comedy.  They managed to keep everything together very well.

Unbreakable Machine Doll

Good

The impression left by this anime is greater than the sum of its parts.  It really was quite a fun anime to watch.  If I were to rate it based on impression alone, it would be in Very Good.  However, it’s really hard to pinpoint specially memorable moments or even any strong points of the anime.  It’s only the anime taken as a whole that gives a strong impression.  Perhaps it was the things going on in the background that was responsible for this.  The action was pretty solid, the art style was very pretty and interesting and the music was really great.  Definitely worth seeing.

Purpose: Not Really Good.  There were some odd things done here.  The overall sense of the anime was that it was an action/world-drama genre anime with some comedy as supporting elements.  However, they got a little distracted in a couple of ways.  First, there were too many out-of-place relationship-type drama points that flew around.  It was tiptoeing around going into harem territory, especially since the only real one complaining was Yaya.  Second, the actual strong points of the characters were the comedy sequences.  This was a problem of purpose because it was at cross-purposes with the main theme of the anime – the bigger, more serious story going on.  This meant that characters became merely plot delivery points for the main points of the anime.  It created an odd disconnect with the characters’ identities and place in the world.

Characters: Decent.  Overall, they were pretty bland.  They only really shine during some of the comedy elements.  The best examples were Raishin’s banter with Loki and another character’s klutzy assassination attempts.  That said, the klutz assassin comedy was a bit out of place, given the setting.   Aside from those two, the other comedy elements kind of fell into a rut – it was the same kind of gag replayed over and over.  Yaya was the biggest problem in that respect.

Comedy aside, the characters only had a single “issue” each.  Relevant backstory established some of why the characters were here, but did little to flesh out the characters.  For the most part, the characters were “disposable” in the sense that they had one issue going on, then they reverted to background material when the issue was resolved. There was little character progression – they were mostly the same from beginning to end.

World: Very Good.  Quite fascinating what they did with the world. Both the setting itself and the character costuming was really interesting and helped set it as a “foreign” (to Japan) feel.  We did get to learn enough about the world to make it interesting – how some dolls work, some of the bigger things going on, and a little bit of how “magic” works in this world.  The impression was that we only got to see a small part of a really interesting world.  Slightly disappointing, but still really good.

Plot: Decent.  There were hints of a larger plot going on in the background, but the anime didn’t really deal with it directly.  Instead, we got 4 plot arcs.  The Cannibal Candy arc – the first one –  was the strongest by far.  It was a little bit like a mystery in a magical world – quite interesting.  Past that, it got less clever and more into the standard tournament-style anime, with some side-plots going on.  The end of the anime wasn’t a resolution per-se – it resolved the plot arc, but did little for the main character’s plotline.  On that note, the character plotlines were fairly straightforward.  Solve the problem, move on.

Storytelling: Decent.  Some parts were done really well, other parts were not.  While they managed to connect the plot points together fairly well, often it was just that – point A to point B, missing out on other explanatory elements.  The biggest weakness in the storytelling was that it often didn’t convey enough information to “keep in the loop” fully.  This meant that the viewer wasn’t really kept up to speed with things that were going on.  Sometimes it was clever – the main character knowing something we didn’t.  Other times it wasn’t – “wait, why did that happen?”  In this case, the viewer’s point of view was so narrowly focused, we didn’t always get the entire picture.

Pace:  Very Good.  They kept everything pretty tightly together.  I didn’t really feel any problems with the pace, with the exception of Yaya.  Sometimes she bought things to a grinding halt because they lingered a little too long on her whining.

Katanagatari

Excellent

This is a strange, fascinating, and unique story.  Overall, it seems like an exploration into taking very standard ideas and tropes and putting a highly unique spin on them.  A lot of the anime feels like an experiment into character and relationship development, although not in a bad way. Because of this, we get to see some things that are extremely rare in anime.  To put this in perspective, Katanagatari is a work by NisiOisin, the creator of Bakemonogatari (my #3 favorite series).  Please note that Katanagatari is not related to Bakemonogatari and its progeny.

Purpose:  Excellent.  On a broader note, the purpose is about an individual finding a purpose and the effects of following others’ purposes.  Most of where it’s going isn’t exactly clear until you look back from the top – Episode 12 puts everything in perspective and hammers the point home.  Really, watching this anime is like the passage of time – while you’re watching it doesn’t seem like it’s going too far or too fast, but by turning around and looking back, you see how far you came.  This anime ended in an extremely interesting place.

One other part of the purpose was the experimental quality – doing really interesting things in a short period of time or playing with expectations and doing something differently.  All in all, really interesting to watch.

Characters: Excellent.  To start with, the character design was fairly simple, yet fascinating.  The costuming in particular was highly varied and unique.  The art was done in a relatively clean way that only emphasized key points of characters.

As for the characters themselves, they were interestingly done.  Most of the characters that appeared were developed over the course of a 1-hour episode.  The role most of the characters played was to draw something out or highlight key points in the growth and development of our main characters.  One particularly interesting aspect of the characters was the treatment of the “bad guys,” who shifted and changed role with respect to the main characters.

One of NisiOsin’s strong points is relationships.  In this case, there were several different relationships – the main characters’ relationship with each other and their relationship as a pair in relation to other actors in the world.  All of these interactions were both fluid and unique because they changed based on plot events.  One of the highly unique points of this anime is the way the main characters’ relationship was depicted – I have never seen, in anime, a relationship that conveyed the same level of comfort as our main characters.  The level of comfort subtly developed over the course of the anime and changed how the characters interacted with each other.  It helped guide both sweet and funny moments, giving those moments a very real feel to them.  ll in all, this anime was about the characters and characters’ relationships more than anything else.

As a side note, the first half of Episode 2 was fascinating because it was, essentially, a monologue by NisiOisin about character development – rather it was a depiction of the author’s internal struggle and thought process in making a character.

World: Very Good. Much of the world was about the 12 swords the characters were to find.  That was the broader context driving the anime.  On a more practical level, the swords themselves had an interesting “character” and affected characters in interesting ways, driving parts of the story.  This acted in combination with the setting to really help shape the nature of character interactions.  One interesting thing about how the world developed was a sense of “big players.”  The world didn’t really have a place for “small fry,” which really kept the viewer’s focus solely on the events happening.  Heck, there really weren’t too many lines by “small” characters.  The result was that it helped create an odd sense of importance of the quest and give an almost unforgiving feel to the world.

Plot: Very Good.  At first, it seems as though the plot is very simple and straightforward – find sword, fight bad guy, collect sword.  However, this turns out to be a gross understatement.  Really, those are smaller plot points in the grand plot turning behind the scenes.  It takes quite a while before we actually see what’s going on in the background, because the plot points themselves are acting almost like snapshots of the bigger plot.  That said, the smaller plot points are all about changing the characters’ relationships and standing.  As a result, these points end up really changing the course of how the characters develop and change.  What is fascinating is how the plot ultimately ends up – characters who have changed, yet are the same, things that have changed, yet are the same.  Once again, only at the end looking back do we see what was actually going on behind us.

Storytelling: Excellent.  The storytelling was highly varied, which kept the events interesting.  Although there was a lot of talking, it was always relevant to what’s going on and helped either develop characters, characters’ relationships, or the characters’ relation to the viewer.  The talking points often served as the bridge, helping tie events together into the greater narrative.  One other interesting point was how the storytelling often played on expectations in conveying information.  Really, it was guiding and shaping the viewer in relation to the characters.  For example, they would tell the story in a way that made certain “bad” characters seem good, and certain “good” characters seem bad to the viewer.  Often it served to highlight character motives and reasons for doing things.  On the note of shaping the viewer, the stories were often told in a non-linear fashion to guide the viewer’s attention.  An example of this is where the viewer knows “of course they’re gonna collect the sword,” but they tell the viewer that from the outset, so the viewer then focuses on the how, rather than the result.

Pace: Very Good.  In all, this is a pretty talkative anime, so that tends to slow things down a little bit.  One of the more interesting pacing choices was to make 12 50-minute episodes.  This allowed the anime to “get out of the station” without dragging too much.  It takes about episode 3 until it really starts taking off.  Honestly, the pacing is a bit like a freight train – really slow to get started, but once it does, there’s no stopping the momentum.

Nisekoi

Good

Overall, this anime is pretty entertaining.  While not the strongest anime technically, it really was fun to watch.  It does do some uncommon and interesting things that you don’t often see in these types of anime.

This anime was produced by Shaft, which is my favorite animation studio.  They have a very distinctive style and really nice background art.  Two of my favorite things about this studio are the attention they pay to small details and their ability to use animation cheats in an artistic way, so it adds to the mood rather than looking cheap.

Purpose: Decent.  It does some interesting things, but doesn’t end up too far from where it started.  Really, it’s all about the changes in character relations, so it’s more about the circuitous journey rather than the end point.  The tone of the anime is interesting, because it falls somewhat in-between genres of anime – High school drama and light-harem type, with comedy prevailing throughout.  It’s primarily high school drama because the anime isn’t about the girls fighting, so much as events shaping the nature of the various relationships.

Characters: Very Good.  The characters aren’t terribly deep, but are consistent.  For the most part, they are a strong use of tropes.  This anime is an example of well used tropes, because the personalities are strong enough to make it entertaining, and memorable enough to mean something.  While the characters don’t really change themselves, character development in this anime is more about shaping the way they see the other characters and how they react to them.  To that end, they did really well marking very distinctive styles of relationships between the major players.  The result was that the moments between characters ended up being really strong – two characters were always sweet, yet awkward, while two others were explosive and constantly creating friction.  The supporting cast also performed their roles well, creating opportunities for character interaction, instead of providing a distraction.

World: Good.  The world in this case acted more like the backdrop in a stage play – there to give context to what’s going on and set some of the mood.  The setting itself wasn’t terribly deep, but did do its job competently.  The world managed to create solid situations for the characters to interact and also shaped the tone of some of the character interactions.  It also provided a constant under-current and pressure on the events happening in the anime.  For once, it was a fairly believable explanation of why characters that ordinarily wouldn’t give each other the time of day were forced into close company.  For the first 7 episodes, it really was the world acting as a catalyst to start the characters interacting.  After the first 7, it took a back seat to the characters.

Plot: Good.  Again, the overall plot didn’t really go too far, but there were a lot of plot points involved in getting there.  Really, the plot in this anime was all about the characters interacting with each other.  The plot was solid because each point represented a change in how the characters interacted with each other.  That said, the plot was somewhat weaker than it could have been because the same kinds of points kept reappearing.  It didn’t detract too much from the general tone of the anime because the “path” it took ended up being slightly different because character relationships were different at that point.

Storytelling: Very Good.  What was done really well here was the quasi-omnipotent storytelling – we were shown the important parts of characters’ thoughts in addition to what they said.  The result was that the audience knew more than the cast, so that we knew the causes of certain issues that arose.  By that same token, they were able to keep some information from the viewer so that some things could come as a surprise. Interestingly, this helped shape the anime as more of a comedy, because it de-emphasized the stress of the situation for the viewer.  That’s not to say it was purely comedy throughout.  They were able to shape the plot points in a way that created powerful moments – both sweet and awkward and even painful. One final note, the attention to small details in the storytelling really added to everything they were doing – everything from the choice of animation style, to the placement of characters in scenes, to small facial and body expressions.

Pace: Not Really Good.  Overall, it starts off really slow and takes time to build.  It takes about 7 episodes for the train to leave the station, as it were.  Actually, likening the pace to a train is pretty accurate, since it built speed then had to stop off at several stations before building speed again.  The really strong moments were few and far in between early, but became steadily more frequent as the anime progressed.  Honestly, the pace felt like it was more dictated by the source material rather than being the fault of the studio.  The reason I say this is because every time the anime just starts to stagnate, they introduced a new character to breathe life into it again. The end result was that the pace was slightly annoying, but not wholly crippling.

No-rin

Poor

I would be hard pressed to call this a cohesive or even a coherent anime.  For much of the anime, it contains “baser” content that could be charitably described as “in poor taste.”  It is rare that an anime gives me almost a negative physical reaction, but this managed to do it for about 5 or 6 episodes.  My reaction could best be summed up by this – a mixture of horror, disgust, and betrayal.

Purpose: Bad.  I believe this describes the purpose more concisely than I could.  Really, the whole feel of the anime was that there was no real purpose to it and that the anime was sort of a slap-dash compilation of half-finished ideas and plotlines.  There were elements of a farming-drama anime, a high school drama, a parody-type anime, a slice of life anime, an over-the-top high school drama, and a character self-discovery/healing journey, to name a few.  Most of the anime felt like it was written by a young teenager, both in the flow of ideas and the subject matter of the “humor.”  Heck, even the fan-service was terribly done.  If I had to describe much of the anime in one word, it would be “vulgar.”  “Crude” is a solid alternative.  In the latter half of the anime, the vulgarity slowed down and some parts became almost passable, although by that point, it was too little, too late.

Characters: Weak.  Well, you have a fairly plain cast of characters that are based on stock character archetypes.  The problem is that they aren’t even competently done-archetypes.  If you’re keep your characters tropes, you really can’t afford to weaken them or water them down, as happened here.  One marginal deviation was the teacher having some role to play here and there.  The teacher was one of the “problem children” of the anime, both in the level of crudity she brought to the anime along with the in-your-face nature of it.  The weakness and relative blandness of the characters already made them feel out of place for the setting.  There were some points here and there that showed glimmers of what the anime could have been – using farming as a means of character “healing” or introspection.  So, aside from a couple relatively minor forays into character development, the characters were pretty much worse than flat.

World: Weak.  Well, we’re dealing with several different worlds, pretty much based on whatever was convenient at the moment. The anime rarely seemed to keep consistency of world between two different episodes.  In this anime, the world was used as an excuse for proper element development – when in doubt, throw something else in.   Personal showdown with a corporation?  Sure.  Lessons in superficial marketing?  Why not?  Crazy school “Elite Four?”  Yes, please.  Shotgun wedding? When can we start?  These are examples of world acting as a substitute for proper plot. In some cases, the crazy can be understandable if the world itself is crazy.  However, there was no indication that the world itself was the kind of surreal atmosphere that would give rise to random situations.  Again, the world even lacked consistency in its randomness, which is weird to say the least.

Plot: Bad.  As above, it seemed like this anime was a haphazardly thrown-together jumble of random plot points.  Really, it’s the plot equivalent of a 5-year old banging on a keyboard.  Without any cohesion, the plot is… well, nonexistent.  There were some minor plot threads that felt more like 4-panel manga or some randomly done short-stories.  Not all were bad, just most.

Storytelling. Poor.  Perhaps a function of the bad plots.  The story isn’t as bad because they did manage to do a competent job with the better plot points.  Random plot points weren’t being really closed off.  Even slice of life anime manage to close off their short plot points.  Honestly, the blame seems to be on the original material, rather than the anime studio here.  It has to be awfully hard dealing with inherently weak subject matter.

Pace: Poor.  Again, all over the map.  Mostly, it was too slow for its own good.  Even the humor they were attempting was ruined by over-using or dwelling on the punch line too long.  It’s like that kid that tells a joke and then keeps saying “get it?  get it?.”  They dwell too long where they shouldn’t have and went too quickly over where they should have stayed longer.

Saekano: How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend

Masterpiece

At face value, Saekano is still one of the strongest harem/high school drama anime out there.  There’s much more to it though.  While it  certainly could be entertaining for someone relatively new to the harem genre, the more harem-type anime you’ve seen, the more you can appreciate what is done really well here.

Purpose: Masterpiece.  Simply brilliant.  There are three different things going on here – three levels of depth.  The first is its face value – a harem/ high school drama anime.  In this respect it’s extremely strong.  The whole point of the harem genre is to watch crazy personalities bounce off each other, and Saekano doesn’t disappoint.  The second level of depth is its self-aware nature – it points out, calls out, and makes fun of tropes in the genre, even as it unabashedly uses them.  The third layer of depth can be found in the Japanese name 「冴えない彼女の育てかた」, which can be translated as, “how to develop (cultivate, raise) a boring heroine.”  (NOTE: heroine appears in furigana as an alternate reading of 彼女.)  This takes the self-awareness to the next level.  The anime is an example of how to create a fascinating main heroine from a blank slate. There are many points of the anime where they are commenting on the development of the main character, but in a subtle way.  One part of the anime catches the purpose particularly well, (subtitles) “If you make the character as flat as possible, the player gets caught up when the big changes come.  All of a sudden, they’re cute.”  The scene then goes on to describe what happens after, where the “cute” fades and the player is left wondering whether it was there all along or whether he or she was just imagining it.  That is Saekano in a nutshell.  Now, this would be really great on its own, but that purpose actually applies to all the characters.

Characters: Masterpiece.  At face value, you’ve got a really strong standard harem setup.  You’ve got the standard otaku nerd/niceguy, a tsundere, the “together” girl, the unashamed flirt, and a really flat foil character.  They really play well off each other in a highly amusing fashion.  The twist on the standard genre is the introduction of the foil – she serves to ground everyone’s crazy personalities.  One other strong point at this level of depth is that the fighting creates and then adjusts the harem “pecking order” based on the events.  In other words, the girls’ perceived standing in relation to each other shifted in a convincing and logical manner.

Where this element really shines is noticing where Saekano’s purpose starts affecting the characters.  Foil aside, the other characters are relatively flat, yet faithful, use of tropes.  The general development paths of the characters are initially fairly standard, but there are events that actually change their development trajectories.  Basically, the events change the nature of the character to add a good deal of depth which, in turn, affects how they interact with the other characters.  Ultimately, they give you reasons to care about each character, so you have the ability to create “Team ____,” the character you ultimately root for.

Of course, the anime clearly wants us to focus on the foil, who they have to constantly remind us is the “main heroine.” The development of this character is absolutely stellar.  She starts out as completely flat and easily forgettable, and becomes someone with a tremendous amount of subtlety, depth, and power within the story. On a personal note, she is shown to be someone who is very genuine, supportive, and confident of her place in the story.  Of all the characters, her handling of the protagonist is the best.

World: Excellent.   The world is always hard to spot in harem anime.  In this context, it’s the settings where the events happen.  However, these settings are important because they can control the mood, the temperament of the characters, and guide the characters’ interactions.  For examples, compare how the characters act in the protagonist’s bedroom, to comiket, to the mall scene.   What happens is that the context tends to have an effect on the characters that can, in turn, affect how the events unfold.  Here, the settings performed that role really well.

Plot: Excellent.  Generally, harem anime plots are the funny situations involving the in-fighting.  However, in Saekano, the various situations had lasting impact on the characters.  The characters changed and developed depending on those events, which altered their interactions with each other.  The result was that the events were ever-changing – even similar plot points had different reactions depending on what had changed between the characters previously.  Thus, each character had an individualized plotline.  The character plots actually served to complement each other really well, because they would highlight something new and different about the protagonist too.  All of the characters had a good bit of growth and development in response to the events that happened.

Storytelling: Masterpiece.  This really served several purposes here – it not only tied the plot points together, it also served as solid guidance throughout the story.  They were truly masterful in handling of scene composition and focus.  For example, for the first half of the anime, (and even later) they purposefully used scene composition to de-emphasize and distract you from the main heroine.  The best example of this, and one of my favorite scenes, is in the first event at the family restaurant between the protagonist and the main heroine.  If you watch closely, you will notice how not only is she out of the frame for the most part, but there are plenty of things thrown in there to distract you from what she’s saying.  The effect was that it enforced upon the viewer the idea that the main heroine was both invisible and easily forgettable.

Another example of the stellar storytelling is how much they emphasized subtle movements – tiny details like body language and small facial expressions that conveyed a tremendous amount of information.  In order to emphasize these movements, they often would not show the character’s face so that the viewer would have no choice but to notice them.

Throughout the anime, they managed to keep a tremendous amount of playfulness and sillyness, yet at the same time leaving room for some solid drama.  A great example of the drama, and one of my other favorite scenes, was the fight in front of the old school.  That was a truly powerful scene, both in the subject matter and the raw emotion it conveyed.  We learned a tremendous amount about the characters involved in that event.  What’s more it had a very real feel to it, including its resolution – the characters didn’t really forgive each other, but came to understand more about each other.

One final note on storytelling was the excellent use of fan service as a means of character development.  The clearest example is with the cousin – you learn so much about her personality based on how she’s depicted through the fan service.  The result is that you know she’s a pretty serious, shameless flirt, but also pretty careless, and sloppy in how she goes about things.  With her, it’s a good example of the use of fan service as a storytelling device.  The other example is Episode 0.

Pace: Excellent. They managed to keep quite a strong pace up throughout.  This meant that it never seemed slow as we were always moving forward.  One of the most interesting choices that affected pace was the placement of Episode 0.  Onsen (Hot Spring) episodes are a staple of  harem anime, but usually serve as a throwaway episode and break in the action – it’s really just the characters playing around.  However, in Saekano, it was re-purposed as the pre-first episode, introducing the tone and nature of the anime.  This prevented it from breaking the pace halfway through.  Moreover, it sort of accelerated the pace by giving the viewers a roadmap of where the anime was going.  Re-watch Episode 0 after you finish the anime and it really puts both the pace and the purpose into sharp focus.

Mushi-shi

Masterpiece

An anime that is quiet by nature.  The backgrounds are absolutely beautiful – like watching a painting.  For maximum effect, Zenko, my other half, recommends you watch it on snowy or rainy days.

Purpose: Masterpiece.  This is about existence.  Broadly, it’s about people’s lives and dealing with nature and everyday mysteries.  It’s generally told in an episodic format – different stories per episode.  Each story “zooms in” on a particular situation and how it’s addressed.  Sometimes, it about human relations, sometimes it’s about personality, sometimes it’s about interacting with the world.  The order the stories are told aren’t exactly chronological, but chosen in a way that best grows and then builds upon your knowledge of the world.  This element really stands out because they always kept an eye on believable realism – everything that happened is the product of forces that we slowly come to understand though the anime.

Characters: Masterpiece.  All the characters that appear feel like real people with genuine problems, concerns, and reactions to the unusual events happening around and to them.  Most of the characters only have 1 episode that they appear in.  In those episodes, they are developed in ways that are relevant to what is going on.  Characters make real choices based on their values or beliefs and those choices have consequences.  Other characters then may have to deal with the consequences of the decisions.  Really, even on a character level, there’s a strong sense of cause and effect – of realism.

Now for the main character.   He is an exceptionally strong character, both uniquely human and a unique human.  The way that he was built was simply exemplary.  We are basically told nothing of him and have to learn about him from how he interacts with the characters and the world.  Through his interactions, he indicates a clear personality, a way of approaching and dealing with situations.  He has definite beliefs and priorities, but it wasn’t conveyed in a way that could be described as “preachy” or “pushy”.  Rather, they took on the nature of being personal beliefs based on experience.  Even within the story, he allows others to make their own decisions, regardless of his recommendations – not forcing his views on others.  That said, he is far from infallible – he makes mistakes and sometimes has poor bedside manner.  He has to make judgment calls about what to do in novel situations based on his experiences.  Really, he was built as a believable doctor in that world.  On that same theme, it’s not like he’s going from town to town and makes tons of friends on the way.  He’s almost always treated as the doctor – here to help right then, and then gone tomorrow.

World: Masterpiece.  This world is gigantic.  Everything that happens develops our knowledge of what’s going on, which in turn builds the vast world.  Certainly, the basic premise is supernatural.  However, it’s treated in such a matter of fact way that it conveys a strong sense of realism.  It’s not just random mumbo-jumbo, it’s something that we don’t yet understand that’s at work.  It has the sense that, with proper training and study, we too could understand how that world works (much like our own).  This realism really sells the world because the people living in it have to react to the goings-on.  Part of the strong world is the sense of time – no matter what happens, the world will keep on turning.  Really, what’s interesting is that everything has to make its place in the world – it’s not exactly treated as a matter of course that you will have a place.  This actually creates two different kinds of worlds.   The small “world” that people are living in – their communities, villages, and groups, and the big world that includes the knowledge of these things unseen. The interplay between the two worlds is how this anime accomplishes its purpose.

Plot: Excellent.  The plots are relatively self-contained, but generally similar.  In this anime, it isn’t a bad thing because the contours of the plot change based on the circumstances.  Different people react differently or different world forces change the path the plot takes.  These differences make the resolutions are highly individualized because the plot marks lasting changes in interaction – how people interact with each other and/or the world.

Storytelling: Masterpiece.  This anime is pretty much all well-told stories.  The overall feel is as though it were animated folk tales or ghost stories, without actually being either one.  The stories were told in such a way that emphasized the everyday quality of the events going on while still maintaining a strong sense of mystery and discovery.  Really, through the storytelling, we slowly get to see more about both people and the world.  The stories aren’t all told in the same way – sometimes they’ll change a bit of perspective or tell the story in a non-linear fashion. Even the contents within each story are highly varied.  Sometimes it’s a sweet story, sometimes bittersweet, sometimes sad, sometimes happy.  Even so, there were very few stories explicitly about the main character himself, even though he is in every episode.   The stories are all quieter – there’s the sense that even though some people’s troubles mean everything to them, there are other forces at work. The storytelling reinforces the relationships between people and the world in almost a co-dependent way.  It’s highly memorable.

Though I talked about the stories being told, the viewer is actually told almost nothing – the viewer learns through what’s going on.  Really, this is what is particularly unique about the storytelling in this anime. They develop everything through character and world interaction – what we learn isn’t exactly characters talking for our benefit.

Pace: Masterpiece.  Pace is a funny thing.  It depends entirely upon the anime.  In this case the pace was fairly slow, but not in a bad way.  It almost took on a life of its own, controlling the feel of the world and the events that happened. It reinforced the sense of quiet existence, the march of time.  In some ways, it was more of a “rural” pace, but such that the events happening were almost a matter of course and that, whatever happened, the world would continue on.  Some events happened at a quicker pace, which strongly conveyed a sense of seriousness or urgency, which increased the impact.  Really, this is a stellar example of how powerful pace can be in anime.

Inari, Konkon, Koi Iroha.

Very Good

I did enjoy this anime a lot more than I thought I would.  To be honest, it was a fairly random pick to kill time, but ended up being quite good.

Purpose: Very Good.  In all, a “quiet” anime without flashiness or heavy drama.  It was a story about consequences within a middle school drama framework.  Thus, the lessons were more foundational – going from being just a child to being an adolescent.  At first blush, it appeared to be a simple love story, however the romance was actually a smaller part of the overall purpose.  In all, this was the story of two characters learning and growing up.

Characters: Very Good.  The characters had a very practical, more real feel.  They weren’t over the top and weren’t caricatures of personality traits you often see.  However, they were unique and distinctive enough that they complemented each other.  Through their concerns and fears, we saw a good deal of growth to the characters – learning practical lessons.  As these characters interacted, we saw a great deal of human genuineness that present throughout.

World: Very Good.  The world provided an interesting backdrop to the story.  It added extra supernatural elements that were a vehicle for character growth.  It was an important part of the plot itself and helped weave the storylines together.  It’s always interesting to see different interpretations and takes on Japanese folklore – sometimes they would give a different take from what was expected and other times they would keep it a little more traditional.  In both cases, it seemed consistent with what the world became.

As an aside, the foxes that were present in the anime were Zenko (善狐), servants of the goddess Inari.  The Zenko are generally guardians and serve to ward off evil.  Though not present in this anime, the Zenko are contrasted with Yako (野狐), foxes that aren’t servants of Inari.  In folklore, the Yako tend to be more mischievous and can even be malicious.

Plot: Very Good.  What is really interesting here was that the divine powers weren’t used as a “get out of jail free” card.  Rather, it was the source of more trouble, misunderstandings, and insight.  The insight was both into the characters and into the world.  The powers were a good plot device for the characters to learn the lessons they needed for growth and were an important driving force towards the ultimate resolution.  These were good examples of solid plot points because they marked noticeable differences in the characters’ overall trajectory – they served to provide good situations to learn from.

Storytelling: Excellent.  They handled the two separate stories quite well, using them to work off each other.  There were a handful of really memorable scenes.  The storytelling used the quieter aspect of the anime to convey very sweet, very genuine moments.  Of particular note is the presentation and maintenance of emotion in the stronger scenes.  As a counterpoint, humor was used to both highlight the drama and give some more awkward, human moments.  This resulted in storytelling that was never done in such a way as to be too serious, but presented so that it didn’t detract from what was going on.  Often, the humor would be a bit of a “rest-break” between some dramatic parts, serving, in some cases, as a dose of reality.

Pace:  Good.  The pace was a bit mixed.  In the beginning, they didn’t dwell too long on plot points that other anime usually get bogged down in.  This provided a good, solid pace for what was happening early.  The middle of the anime slowed a bit, but was still relatively solid in how everything was presented.  The last two episodes were a little bit of a pace “hiccup” – it felt that there wasn’t quite enough content for two episodes, so it was stretched out.  Consequently, a bit of the drama lost its impact at the end.

A Good Librarian Like a Good Shepherd

Decent

Overall, bland and forgettable.  There wasn’t really anything done particularly well with this anime, but at the same time, nothing done particularly poorly.  The source of the problem was the fact that it tried to do too many things.  If nothing else, this is a really good example of what happens when you try to make characters that are common to several different types of anime.

Purpose: Not Really Good.  This anime is an example of too many purposes flying about. They tried to combine several different kinds of anime, yet give them equal importance within the story. There were three different kinds of anime that were combined here – a harem-lite anime, a high school drama, and a world-focused story going on in the background.   However, they seemed to spend most of the time on the harem-lite aspect of the anime, using the high school drama and world-focused story as sub-plots. Sort of. Of course, those three types of anime have very different needs to make them really good.   In order to combine them, the anime appeared to take a “lowest common denominator” approach to the elements – keeping the development to the features that all three types of stories shared.  While the concepts themselves didn’t exactly conflict, they detracted from each other by watering down the path the story took.  This prevented proper development of the elements necessary for each of the anime types.

Characters: Decent.  The common denominator approach is very clear with the characters.  They were overall quite bland and “colorless.”  They had a little bit of somewhat serious back story thrown in there to try to give a little bit of depth – the one-shot problem back story.  In all this was a problem for all three stories they were trying to tell because the characters were basic and plain enough to be common to all three.  To illustrate, the strong point of harem-style anime is the (usually crazy) characters’ antics and in-fighting – it’s a personality clash.  The fact that it’s over a boy is really little more than a shortcut or “cheat” to get those personalities into conflict.  High school drama is similar in that the quirky personalities are reacting to everyday situations thrown their way.  The world-focused drama shares some traits with the two, with the main difference being that the characters react to (usually) much bigger problems thrown at them by the world, but they are generally more serious.  This anime showed that it was doable to make characters common to all three, but the result was characters that didn’t stand out at all.

World: Decent. One general weakness of the harem-style and high school drama-type anime is that their worlds tend to be fairly ordinary.  While not necessarily bad, the world usually borrows common and familiar themes so that it doesn’t usually require much development.  The result is  a fairly unnoticeable world that’s more like a backdrop.  Many high school dramas try to compensate for this by throwing in some magical components to spice things up.  Here was no exception.  The backdrop was similar in theme to the Adjustment Bureau.  While it had the potential to be really interesting, they didn’t spend really any time developing it.  Instead, the world in this case was used as a bit of a cheat to bring characters into conflict.

Plot: Decent.  For each of the three plots going on, there wasn’t really that far for them to go.  The plots themselves were fairly simple, as is common to the harem-lite and high school drama anime.  The plot made a little difference in the overall trajectory of the story.  Predictably, there were some plot holes, but it’s not like they exactly mattered.  The way it turned out was that each of the plots were solidly “meh” and when combined, didn’t really add or detract from each other.  Again, I think it was because the plots were “harmonized” by only incorporating elements common to all three.

Storytelling: Not Really Good.  The storytelling didn’t exactly work out too well.  While it is true that combining all three plots is difficult, the stories weren’t exactly well told.  In this case, it was almost more of a juggling act to try to keep one plot in the air while working with the other two. That said, they didn’t exactly make the most of what they had – they were somewhat inconsistent.  Some scenes were well done, but other scenes were not.  The scenes that were well done had a bit of good drama going on.  However, I’d liken these scenes to chewing gum – only about 5 minutes of flavor, then it goes bland.

Pace: Decent.  It was a little on the slow side.  This mostly stems from the story’s juggling act.  Since one story like was always in the air, there was always the slight nagging feeling that it was dragging on.  It wasn’t exactly significant, but it was worth a sigh or two.