Fall ’21 Weekend 9: Recaps and an Overlooked Gem

The 9th weekend of the season features an unusual coincidence: both of the series I was episode-reviewing are resorting to recap episodes, and in both cases production issues can be presumed to be the cause. (However, this was not a sudden change in either cases, as the “Special Edition” nature of this week’s episode was announced last week in both cases.) For 86, this is counting as episode 18.5 and focuses exclusively on recapping the second cour episodes, with the only new content being some narration by Frederica. For The Faraway Paladin, this is counting as episode 7.5 and covers the entire series to this point, though with only light treatment of the first three episodes. In this case, some narration by Will is the only new content. Of the two, 86‘s recap is by far the smoother one, with the one for The Faraway Paladin feeling like it was thrown together at the last minute; that the one for 86 was a planned recap that just got moved forward a couple of weeks may have something to do with that.

In short, neither adds anything of consequence to their respective series, so they are both eminently skippable. If you’re going to watch one of them, though, watch the one for 86.

Now for this week’s special highlight. Next week will probably be the Cowboy Bebop live-action series, as I feel a need to make a partial rebuttal to Steve Jones’ drubbing of it on ANN, but I don’t intend to make comment until I have finished it. (I am halfway through it as I write this.)

Overlooked Gem: Taisho Otome Fairy Tale episodes 1-8

With no significant pedigree, art and animation quality which do it no favors, no thrilling hook, little lead-in advertisement, and only tepid first-episode reviews, this adaptation of a shonen manga faced an uphill battle to get much attention. Indeed, it did not qualify for episode reviews on Anime News Network despite a respectable community score. (Series rated lower than Taisho Otome‘s 3.6 score get picked up every season.) However, certain qualities in its first episode caught my attention, and by the end of episode 2 I was committed to watching it out. This is a far better and more emotionally involved series than I was expecting, which makes it easily my biggest surprise title of the season and maybe second only to Idoly Pride as my most pleasant surprise of the year.

In the series, which is set in early 1920s Japan (aka the Taisho Era), protagonist Tamahiko is a scion of the prestigious Shima family, one noteworthy to many both for producing unusually tall family members and for behaviors that common folk find vile. However, an auto accident which killed his mother and rendered his right hand useless has left him on the outs with his father, who sends him to seclusion in a countryside home and has him treated as if dead. Tamahiko was already a bit of an outsider because of his family and introverted personality, and his injury and lack of compassion from his father left him so depressed and without purpose that he wanted to just wither away and die. But one great obstruction to that intent enters his life: Yuzuki, a short, initially 14-year-old girl whom his father “purchased” (in the sense of buying out her family’s debt) to be Tamahiko’s current caretaker and future bride. (15 is marriage age for girls at this point in time.) Yuzuki is firmly committed to making the best of a potentially very bad situation, but in Tamahiko she finds a young man far kinder than his family’s reputation suggested and far more in need of the kind of nurturing care that is in her nature than she could have anticipated.

In other words, this is a story about a young man’s struggle with clinical depression and the girl who gradually helps pull him out of it. One of the best aspects of the storytelling is that Tamahiko does not experience a sudden turn-around due to Yuzuki’s attention; his steps to climbing out of the pit of despair that he has sunken into are small ones, and he suffers frequent relapses of doubt, moments where he wonders if someone as pathetic as him can be worthy of a fine girl like Yuzuki. He sees everything he does as worthless, and has difficulty appreciating that some of the small things he does do genuinely make Yuzuki happy. Through interacting with Yuzuki (and to an extent others), he starts to understand that the way he is now is unacceptable; he has to be better, for Yuzuki’s sake if not for his own. By the end of this run of episodes, that has led to him letting himself get roped into tutoring local kids (which he turns out to be quite good at – one crippled hand does not affect one’s ability to teach, after all) and even seeking to return to school.

The weak point of the character development is that nearly all of the story is from Tamahiko’s perspective, so Yuzuki’s potential depths as a character are not explored anywhere near as much. Outside of the early parts of the story, where flashbacks showed that she was always the nurturing type and was apprehensive about this arrangement even as she tries to remain positive, we barely see her inner thoughts at all. Early on she makes a worrisome comment about finding a way to fall in love with Tamahiko, but her actions suggest that she has found true happiness in being needed by Tamahiko (whether he admits it or not). Does that make the two codependent? Maybe, though this doesn’t feel like the intent. It’s also possible that the original writer did not think her character through that much and she is merely meant to be a standard yamato nadeshiko type, an impression reinforced by the episode prologue used at the front of several episodes. However, given the emotional resonance of the series, that seems too shallow an interpretation to purely be the case.

Any weakness in Yuzuki’s development is made up by other characters entering into the story. The first is Tamahiko’s younger sister Tamako, a ferociously intelligent and devious young woman, who initially looks a like a standard troublemaker character but shows that she had her own problems fitting in. She, too, finds herself on a satisfyingly stronger trajectory as her experiences with Tamahiko and Yuzuki give her new purpose. Next up is the thief Ryo, who presents herself as a classic extroverted troublemaker character but is also shown having much more on her plate than she lets on; the story doesn’t dwell on her troubles but clearly shows that her situation is not as smooth as she lets on, either. At the end of this run of episodes, the last of the characters featured in the opener – the singer Kotori and her twin brother Hakaru – get introduced. Hakaru befriending Tamahiko as a fellow new transfer student makes it clear how he fits in, but what role Kotori will play is less clear.

While the series has plenty of comedic elements to it, the extent of its weightier side casts the series more as a true dramedy. Common people are all too willing to see the Shima family as villains, and that is something which Tamahiko and Tamako must both bear; the most complicated part of this is that the scorn is justified in general even as it is not entirely deserved in this specific case. Tamahiko’s condition and the growing love between Tamahiko and Yuzuki are also not jokes, even if the tentativeness of the two in addressing their feelings is typical anime-cutesy. Most importantly, the series can regularly hit substantial emotional beats, thanks in part to delicate use of a musical score grounded in traditional Japanese instrumentation. The series also extensively uses the song known in Japan as “Merciful” or (in its Japanese lyrics version, which seems to be used here) “World of Stars” and in Christian countries as “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

The other weak point of the series is, sadly, its visuals. The artistic effort is not entirely without merit; it excels in its fabulous yukata and kimono designs, does fine with period detail, and shows capable use of color and lighting in shifting the tone of various scenes. (Tamahiko’s greatest inner turmoil tends to happen in darker spaces, for instance.) However, the lackluster artistic and animation quality overall could be a major barrier to enjoying the series. Even the character designs leave something to be desired in places, especially the way Tamahiko’s eyes are drawn, and quality control slips frequently.

Despite that, the series does enough else right that it can be plenty engaging enough if given a chance. It gets a solid recommendation from me.

Thoughts on Other Series That I Am Following:

Banished From the Hero’s Party episode 8 – Still liking this series a lot, but the last couple of episodes have been rough around the edges. The plot twist at the end of the episode is a potentially loaded one.

Selection Project episodes 8-9 – Yep, as expected, they carried through on the gimmick borrowed from Idoly Pride earlier this year, and wth characters in the same hair color, relationship, and personality configurations, too. (And no, I don’t mean the one about the ghost.) How the emotions involved in it play out is handled pretty well, and in a way markedly different from how Idoly Pride used it, to the point that it would be fine drama if it was fresh. However, it cannot fully escape the eye-rolling “been there, done that” feel of this being the second time this year that this particular major gimmick has been a major story point in an idol show.

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