Winter 2023 Wrap-Up

I had hoped to get a couple more full-series reviews in before the Spring ’23 season hits in earnest, but it looks like I’m going to run short on time for that. Thus, I will instead provide thoughts and ratings on a number of series that I either have or am following through to conclusion.

NOTE: Series which cut off mid-season due to delays are not covered here, and series which have been reviewed in previous posts are only mentioned here if the remaining episodes added something noteworthy.

Featured Title: The Magical Revolution of the Reincarnated Princess and the Genius Lady

Of all the isekai titles this season, this one involved its actual isekai element the least. Instead, it is more purely a fantasy story about two young ladies who save each other and make each other stronger, and in so doing start their country on a path to a bright future. In stepping far away from the norm for reincarnation titles and power fantasies in general, and keeping its focus more purely on the characters than on their abilities, the series forges one of the season’s brightest stars. Of all the new titles which debuted this season, this is the one which most defines the season and is most likely to be remembered in the long haul. And no, the fact that I’m a yuri fan in general has little to nothing to do with this. No, really.

And that’s an important point to understand, because while this series has a distinct yuri vibe throughout, it doesn’t remain just a tease on that front. Titular characters Anisphilia (the blonde above, who’s the reincarnated princess) and Euphyllia (the pale-haired girl above) do wind up as a convincing and legitimate yuri couple, and the final episode strongly confirms that. Watching that gradually develop over the course of 12 episodes – including an eventual switch in who takes the lead in the relationship – is a delight, especially in the understated but still clear way it happens up until the last episode.

The series has far more going for it than that, however. Anisphilia, as a rambunctious, sharp-witted inventor who declines her place in succession so she can focus on developing the revolutionary study of “magicology,” is an immediately-likable personality, and Euphyllia can gradually grow on viewers as a young woman cast adrift when everything she prepared for in her life to that point got suddenly upended. The way Anis, in recruiting her as her assistant, opens a new path for Euphie, is just the first part in a strong character development track which shows that Anis, despite all her cheery bluster, is far more nuanced in her motivations than is readily apparent and that Euphie, once she gets her bearings on her new path, is a force to be reckoned with herself. A strong an effectively-used supporting cast also helps, especially including a prince with far more complex motivations and a love-hate relationship with his sister than what might normally be expected from a villain. Add in some sharp action sequences and magical displays, generally high technical merits, and some of the season’s prettiest character designs and artistry and you have a series that is a winner on both storytelling and technical fronts.

Overall Rating: A

Other Titles

The Tale of Outcasts

This one still has its finale to go as I write this, but this story of an orphan girl who gives up her sight to form a contract with a leonoid demon bored with his immortality has proven to be every bit as endearing a tale as it looked to be from the first episode. What makes this work is that the benefits clearly go both ways: orphan Wisteria gains a caretaker and companion, while the demon Marbus finds a surprising (to him) degree of fulfillment in making a close connection to a human. Wisteria doesn’t turn out to be a doll who just needs to be protected, either; she shows a strong will, one which can contractually enable Marbus to manifest his greater powers when the need arises. Throughout the series, the two encounter both demon hunters and other demons who have made similar, mutually-beneficial pacts with humans, and some of the most interesting aspects of the series are how those relationships compare and contrast to that of Wisteria and Marbus. Technical merits and action choreography aren’t great, but solid character designs and interesting personal stories carry this one.

Final Rating: B- (assuming the last episode doesn’t bomb)

Handyman Saitou in Another World

A handyman who feels unneeded in modern Japan finds that he can be quite useful in a fantasy world which uses RPG-style classes and levels but doesn’t otherwise seem to use numerical game mechanics. This forms the basis for one of the best of this season’s big crop of isekai titles. The tone for this one can be all over the place: it starts out with a few episodes of light-hearted vignettes before suddenly turning very serious in the middle episodes as a plot involving a ninja assassin and a witch lover come to fruition, then spends the rest of the season alternating between light-hearted and more serious content after that. Still, I cannot criticize the series too much for this, as it works overall. Great character designs accompany higher-end technical merits, but what really makes the series work is how Saitou gradually develops his place in the new world and becomes an indispensable member of a party consisting of a female heavy warrior, a doddering but powerful magician, and a fairy cleric. His budding relationship with warrior Realza is also quite sweet. Despite the more serious elements, this is a fun view all around.

Final Rating: B+

In/Spectre 2

Neither the first season nor, initially, this one was ever a priority view for me, but over the course of this season the series gradually grew on me until I was actually starting to anticipate the next episode near the end. With no overall plot, this season is just a collection of short stories involving Kotoko and Kuro getting involved in one yokai-related case or another. Though the series looks pretty good and features a varied array of interestingly different mystery cases, the real key to the series’ success is Kotoko herself. Though flippant enough to throw out random sexual references that make everyone uncomfortable and frequently encouraging reluctant boyfriend Kuro to be more “hands-on,” she takes both her role as the Goddess of Wisdom for the yokai and her responsibility to maintain order between humans and yokai very seriously, to the point of being utterly ruthless in how she uses a mix of truth, lies, and information control to manipulate humans and yokai alike in pursuit of her ends, and she’ll do it all with a cute smile on her face. She’s a delight to watch in action, and it’s no wonder that Kuro seems to have resigned himself to being her boyfriend. Overall, a more solid season than the first.

Final Rating: B

The Eminence in Shadow

This may have finished a few weeks early, but it’s still a strong continuation of a series that I, in retrospect, may have underrated in my earlier review of its first cour. The way Cid’s goals interact with, and fundamentally differ from, those of both his Shadow Garden and other key characters provides a consistently entertaining contrast, including how everyone completely misunderstands his goals and put their own interpretations on them – and even if they did understand Cid’s goals accurately, they probably would not understand why those are Cid’s goals. In essence, the whole story is what happens when a farce gets taken seriously, and the production team does a great job of nailing the cheesy theatrics which complement it. (And let’s not forget the series’ quirky sense of humor, too.) This one has so much latent potential in both its main and backstory that I would eagerly welcome several more seasons and spinoffs exploring major Shadow Garden characters more.

Overall Rating: A-

Bofuri 2

Still two more (delayed) episodes to go as I write this, but this season can essentially be summed up in four words: more of the same. More fun delighting at Maple finding bonkers ways to unwittingly break the game, more fun with the expanded cast, and the end-of-episode social media stream is back, too. Nothing terribly exciting going on here, but it’s still clean, light-hearted fun which looks good and promotes the best spirit of online gaming in the process.

Rating: B

Kaina of the Great Snow Sea

This one has a movie coming later this year to cover the final stage of the story, but at least it got to an acceptable (if somewhat rushed-feeling) break point in ending the season on episode 11. The star here continues to be the sense of world-building for this all-CG production, as most characters are likable but not especially memorable. While it does have some good action, none of that stands out much, either. It does just well enough through to its end that those who stuck it out should be plenty invested in seeing the rest, but on the whole it is not a very memorable series (and not because of the CG).

Rating to Date: C+

The Iceblood Sorcerer Shall Rule The World

Despite feeling heavily like an isekai power fantasy and greatly resembling concurrent school-based fantasy series like Reborn to Master the Blade and The Reincarnation of the Strongest Exorcist in Another World, Iceblood actually isn’t isekai; it’s a straight fantasy in the “powerful but young individual tries to get an incognito school life” vein. It does have a few somewhat neat ideas – like the running joke about muscles, the coding-style magic structure, and that protagonist Ray can actually sweet-talk female characters – but it winds up paralleling Strongest Exorcist in particular too much and ultimately does nowhere near enough to distinguish itself in a crowded field. Some of the season’s weakest technical merits don’t help. Not unwatchable, but definitely not memorable, either.

Rating: C

Farming Life in Another World

I covered the first 10 episodes of this series here, but the final two episodes deserve some follow-up. While they maintain the overall series’ trick of successfully melding fantasy elements with bucolic content, they also feature a rare development for a harem series: a child is born! (Actually, in an even rarer feat, this was the second series this season where the male lead sired a child within the series.) In an added neat touch, the series even works in some relevant bits of world-building lore into the fact that the pregnancy is even happening, too. The last two episodes make for a strong finish to a surprisingly worthy series.

Overall Rating: B+

The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel: Northern Wars

Initially, this looked like it might be a standalone series, but as it progressed into its middle and later episodes, it became clearer and clearer that it is meant entirely for established fans of the video game franchise. It just has too many franchise cameos to ignore, and too many places where scenes won’t make full sense without some context about the characters involved from the games. Friends of mine who are deeply-invested in the game side of the franchise were left a bit disappointed that the series did not ultimately provide much additional insight to the game storylines despite all the cameos, and the technical merits may have even beat Iceblood Sorcerer out for being the season’s weakest. There’s nowhere near enough story, design, or character merit here to recommend this series to anyone not steeped in the games, and even then it’s not a must-watch.

Rating: C-

Giant Beasts of Ars

This series about an artificially-created young Cleric who teams up with a cynical paladin to fight giant beasts running even more amuck than normal got off to a good start with strong visual design elements (especially the design of lead girl Kumi), good animation, some interesting world-building elements, and very likable co-protagonists, but despite a firm foundation, the series never achieved anything special. Storylines and character developments are just too routine and the writing does an underwhelming job in getting the audience to care about many of the sides characters. It’s still not a bad series, and has enough world-building threads and unanswered questions that I will almost certainly watch another season if it’s made (and that ending. . . yeesh), but this is the season’s biggest under-performer.

Overall Rating: B-

Chillin’ in My 30s After Getting Fired From The Demon King’s Army

Dariel, a logistic expert for the Demon King Army, is released from service during a changing of leadership because, unlike all other demons, he cannot use magic. He eventually discovers that’s because he’s actually a human, not a demon (inherent magic use, rather than physical appearance, is a major distinguishing trait between humans and demons in this world) and winds up living in a human village, discovering his true power through his human heritage, and marrying the mayor’s daughter. He has a kid, takes on major authority, and winds up mediating between humans and demons in this somewhat unusually-constructed fantasy series. The series gets points for not piddling around on him getting to family-building and does make at least some effort to aim for bigger character development strokes, but the resolution of too many incidents happens too easily and conveniently to be full credible. Not a bad series, but with such a crowded field this season, it’s not good enough or distinctive enough to stand out much.

Rating: C+

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