Oshi no Ko episode 7

Rating: A

After producing one hell of a hard-hitting ending last time around, the series faced a difficult assignment: find a way to follow through and resolve the problem without cheapening the circumstance which got the show there. Instead of just contenting itself with that, the writing went for the extra credit as well: take a predictable plot development (i.e., Akana falling for – or at least playing up to – the guy who saved and helped redeem her) and give it a somewhat unsettling, thoroughly jaw-dropping twist, and in the process redefine both one of the the established cast members and one of the underlying truths of the series.

The fallout from Akane’s suicide attempt last episode sets the stage for that. A conversation among Kana, Ruby, and Miyako lays out the background for this by discussing how coping with social media negativity can vary from person to person, but even the most well-adjusted aren’t immune to it; I especially liked how dark Kana’s eyes were as she strongly implied that she’s had her own difficult moments with it. (The only minor complaint here was the the comments about attempting suicide seemed a little too on-the-nose when they could not have known at that point that Akane had attempted it.) Seeing the rest of the cast of “Love Now” rally around Akane was gratifying; “Love Now” is not an inherently competitive format (a la The Bachelor) as dating shows go, so a cast of teenagers who are all performers getting chummy with each other off-camera, too, is hardly a stretch.

Just as importantly, all of the cast are savvy in one aspect of media or another, so they make the perfect team to attempt to redeem Akane’s reputation. One knows the music, one (rather literally!) knows the angles, one knows the timing and promotion, and one knows the editing and how to manipulate adults to get what they need. Everyone except the dancer is allowed to not only contribute but show how smart they are about it as well. I have no doubt that their campaign is probably an oversimplification, but the tactics nonetheless feel real.

As satisfying as that is, though, the most interesting part is actually the last quarter of the episode, after all that is done. The story has pitched all along about how lies are a shield to protect the performer, so Akane is pushed to create a role herself to potentially deflect future problems. Surprisingly for this kind of situation, she’s not the one who actually comes up with the idea of tailoring her performance to be Aqua’s ideal, but given how much Aqua has done for her, wanting to please Aqua is hardly strange. But that is also the exact point where the demon gets unleashed.

Viewers have been told that Akane was an actress, but not what type. The revelation that she’s a theatrical actress – and a renowned one at that – explains both how Kana knew her and why she had such trouble adapting to the format. Stage acting is very formalized and structured, so a free-form approach like a dating show, where nothing is set, is in utter contrast to her norm. Of course it threw her for a loop, and her diligent note-taking was all about trying to translate that environment into the structure she’s more familiar with. Given a character to play, she shines – and she’s chosen Ai as her model. The scene where she reveals not only her Ai-based personality but also Ai’s starry eyes is both electric and unnerving, especially given the preceding scenes showing how thoroughly and obsessively she studies Ai and how scarily close to the mark and revealing her analysis of, and insight into, Ai is. I am certain that I am far from alone in having woefully underestimated her over the last two episodes; in her own way, she’s every bit as clever as the other smart characters in the show. Ironically for Kana, she may be even more of a threat to Kana than the latter realized.

Akane’s analysis and copying of Ai also raises one other interesting point: that Ai’s trademark eyes are reflective of her self-confidence, rather than some trait of hers, and thus can be duplicated. That has interesting implications for the way Aqua’s star goes bright (as when he rescued Akane) or turns black. And what, if anything, does it mean that Akane’s stars are yellow rather than Ai’s white?

Sadly, looks like we’ll have to wait two weeks to see how Aqua (and eventually Ruby, too) both react to Akane’s performance, as HIDIVE has episode 8 scheduled for June 7th instead. Assuming that happens, that review may be delayed for a few days, as I will be on a trip where my access to HIDIVE will be uncertain.

Oshi no Ko episode 6

Rating: A-

“Egosurfing” (the apt title for this episode) is the act of looking one’s self up on social media to see what others are saying about you. While it can be a very gratifying experience when people are saying complimentary things about you, it can be crushing when they aren’t and positively toxic when people use the anonymity of the Internet to be cruel. Entertainers – whose very livelihoods can depend on tuning themselves to public whims – are probably among the most vulnerable classes of individuals for the more negative side, which requires any wannabe-star to either develop a thick skin or ignore it altogether. The first episode showed Ai getting caught up in that to some degree, while episode 4 showed Kana also having to deal with it. But both of them have/had their heads on straighter than Akane – the actress among the six dating show participants – or at least didn’t have the perceived external pressures that she did. Predictably, that leads to an epic meltdown, which is the focus of this episode.

After building the series around Ai, Ruby, Aqua and (later) Kana, shifting much of the episode’s focus to a character who had only barely been introduced before is a gutsy move, especially for this early in the series. However, the episode’s concept couldn’t have been done with any of the grounded, established characters. Akane is apparently a well-enough-known teen actress that Kana recognized her, but despite that, she’s decidedly lacking in charisma and presence compared to the others in the dating show. What’s shown here gives the impression that she has succeeded so far more by being hard-working and studious rather than a natural talent, which is fine when she’s part of a cast but not good enough when she’s in direct competition for viewer attention, as she is here. She’s completely out of her element and being overwhelmed by the circumstances, in addition to feeling pressure from her agency (even if it isn’t specifically directed at her), and that kind of thing can lead to mistakes. And the public can be very, very unforgiving of mistakes.

A telling scene here is that the much more savvy Yuki, who is the injured party in the accident, immediately picks up on what’s happening. She is very supportive and forgiving, and that doesn’t seem like an act; she may even realize that Akane is going in a desperate and dangerous direction and be trying to head it off. If so, she’s hamstrung by the restrictions on talking about behind-the-scenes publicly and cut off by the director deciding to use the scene anyway. (And why wouldn’t he?) Akane doesn’t handle it right to pitch it as a villain turn, and everything falls apart from there.

I had a sense of the ultimate direction this episode was going from early on, and that only became more certain as the episode progressed. Indeed, the heavy music in particular makes the intended destination obvious, despite the show’s typical levity about the topic earlier on. Thankfully, the writing does not go gimmicky with this; it makes a concerted effort to corner Akane emotionally, which allows the climactic scene to have real impact. I also especially liked the jarring shift between Akane’s serene face and the despairing one shown above, and how the episode showed that she hadn’t headed out with that goal; the attempt was a spontaneous moment of resignation, which is an all-too-common occurrence in suicide scenarios. This sequence was also beautifully-animated.

While the attempt was predictable, I actually wasn’t certain until the last moment if the show was going to allow her to go through with it or not. Aqua intervening makes sense in more than just dramatic flair, though. He’s both a former doctor (who doubtless saw a few suicide-related cases himself) and a more worldly individual than any of the others, and his experiences with social media concerning Ai could very reasonably have pushed him into action when Akane clearly seemed depressed and defeated. The bold actions on both their parts leaves me very eager to see how this plays out next episode.

Further Random Thoughts:

  • Kudos to HIDIVE for the Suicide Prevention notice as the end card for the episode.
  • Tucked in amongst the lighter content mid-episode are Kana’s insightful comments about how the changing nature of entertainment has made online marketing – and thus social media – impossible to ignore anymore if you want to get ahead in the industry.
  • Aqua also has some telling comments about how reality shows may not be as fake as he thought, which, ironically, makes a star who shields him/herself with lying unusually vulnerable. Given the way the episode climaxes, that seems prescient.
  • The opener make a point of featuring Akane in the rain, which now also looks more prescient than just a mood-setting device.

Oshi no Ko episode 5

Rating: 4 (of 5)

In a recently posted interview on ANN, the writer for the source manga, Aka Akasaka, explains how he came up with the idea for this series and the process he went through to gather sufficient insider details to make the effort feel realistic. I recommend it as a complementary read for anyone who’s become a big fan of the show.

That research definitely shows in this episode. It effectively splits into two parts, one which focuses on Aqua’s foray into a dating show and the second which focuses on Ruby and Kana and their steps towards forming a new idol group, a balance I’d love to see maintained going forward. The more serious part is Aqua’s participation as the actor member of a teen dating reality show featuring established media personalities; the others include a dancer, a band member, a YouTuber, a fashion model, and an actress. It works in various details about how reality shows work, such as them not being scripted but still subject to direction – a situation which should suit Aqua’s talents well once he gets used to it. Among the others on the show, the two who initially seem to be the ones to watch are the fashion model (who clearly has a better sense for how to manipulate situations than she lets on) and the YouTuber MEM-cho, who is very prominently-featured in the opener and looks to be the eventual third member of Ruby’s new idol trio. However, actress Akane is also featured significantly in the opener (while the fashion model isn’t), so she may become important later on.

On the other front, the early part of the episode devotes itself to reeling Kana into the idol group. Intellectually, Kana knows that taking the idol route is a risky play, and her thoughts on the matter are doubtless reflective of the actual experience of real-life predecessors, but ultimately she succumbs logically to the need for greater exposure and emotionally to her own evident attraction to Aqua. This part is decidedly more light-hearted while still having its serious aspects; Kana is savvy enough to recognize Ruby’s charisma and potential, for instance. The interesting aspect here is the point made about how the traditional way to gather attention to newbie idols – which is still shown in most idol-focused shows – may now be an outdated approach. The new wave is all about getting your names and faces out on the Internet, and as small an agency as Strawberry Productions is, that’s its strong point.

Which bring Pieyon, the masked strength-training YouTuber into the picture. The character is clearly partly a joke (and possibly a reference to two different long-established top YouTubers) but also partly a commentary on the gimmickry which can feed into being a popular and successful YouTuber. Pieyon’s claim to pull in the equivalent of a million U.S. dollars in one year is hardly unrealistic; he might not have even cracked the top 100 in 2022 with that number, and the cream of the crop are another decimal point up from that. As silly as both the character and his exercise dance are, he also shows a lot of savvy, and this is certainly a novel way (for anime) for idols to get started down their path. The bombshell at the end is, of course, the name which Ruby settles on for the idol group. Given who she is and what her goals are, it’s the only name which makes any sense, and it damn sure will catch attention. Wouldn’t be surprised if Aqua approves. The broader point, though, is that the series is mixing its humor with its show business insight in a way which doesn’t interfere with either.

As a closing thought this time around, I watched closer “Mephisto” with the English translation for the first time, and yeah, it certainly keenly hits the nose on the series’ content, too:

Come now, O children of the star, sleep well

The radiance will not dull, if it is you guys

And yes, this is Queen Bee, the performer who did the wonderful opener “MYSTERIOUS” for Raven of the Inner Palace last year. He’s a name and voice to watch for.

Spring ’23 Isekai Round-Up

Posted: Tuesday May 9, 2023

With some series hitting their sixth episodes this week, we’re now approaching the midway point of the Spring 2023 season. That means it’s time to take a look at this season’s crop of isekai series, most of which I am following this season to some degree. Which ones are more deserving of attention than they’re getting so far, and which ones can be relegated to the trash heap?

(NOTE: I never finished the first season of In Another World With My Smartphone, so I will not be including that one. Also, all episode counts are as of 5/8/23.)

The Aristocrat’s Otherworldly Adventure: Serving Gods Who Go Too Far

Episodes So Far: 6

Premise: A young man dies protecting two girls from a knife-wielding assailant. As he’s reincarnated into a fantasy world, he’s prodigiously blessed by that world’s seven gods. He find himself reincarnated as the young son of a Margrave and soon discovers that his abilities in all respects are on a scale vastly beyond anyone else in that world. But the gods also eventually expect big things of him.

Evaluation: For better or worse, Aristocrat seems determined to stake out ground as the ultimate example of isekai power fantasies. To the series’ credit, it does seem cognizant of how ridiculous it’s being and plays much of its antics in a light-hearted fashion, which softens the absurdity level a little. Even so, by the age of ten young Cain has already found himself betrothed to two princess and a Duke’s daughter (including one who’s considerably older), earned a noble title on his own, introduced a new game popular among high nobles and even the gods, slain multiple dragons, and generally proven to be, by far, the strongest person anywhere. The one minor saving grace in all this eye-rolling excess is that not all of the characters are entirely numbskulls. They do notice that Cain’s not normal, and that leads to a scene in episode 6 where they confront him about it. Without that scene, this series would be utterly forgettable so far. Even so, the only other real merit is the bright, invitingly cutesy art style. Not devoid of entertainment value, but not a series I can recommend, either.

Rating So Far: C

I Got a Cheat Skill in Another World and Became Unrivaled in The Real World, Too

Episodes So Far: 6

Premise: Yuya Tenjo is an overweight, friendless loser who’s been subjected to severe bullying, in part from younger siblings upset that their grandfather (Yuya’s only positive link) left his house to Yuya on his death. One day, after getting his ass kicked for intervening when some thugs were intimidating a young woman, Yuya discovers the secret room in his worldly grandfather’s house, which has a door to a fantasy world. There he finds a trove of obscenely powerful items which help him become amazingly strong – and that strength even carries over to the real world, as high new stats reform his body into an ultimate hunk. But a radical outward change doesn’t necessarily mean a radical inward change, too.

Evaluation: With how fast Yuya gets incredibly strong and physically perfect, and how quickly he gathers a gaggle of knock-out girls around him, this isekai power fantasy should be every bit as eye-rolling as Aristocrat is. Surprisingly, though, it’s vastly more appreciable, even if its animation is frustratingly limited at times. The key to that is Yuya himself. He may be an ultra-talented Adonis now, one who turns heads everywhere and is mistaken for an actor or model in the real world, but thanks to his past experiences, he struggles to even accept that people would willingly be nice to him, much regard him as supremely cool. That very relatable vulnerability keeps him grounded even when he’s doing incredible feats of athleticism. Another huge plus is that Kaori, the real-world girl he protected at great cost to himself, regarded him as worthy before he transformed into a stud. Episode 6 also brings up The Sage, Yuya’s otherworld predecessor and the supplier of his broken-grade equipment, and his story about how his extreme power isolated him and how he doesn’t want that for his successor.

In other words, despite its occasional eye-rolling antics, this series takes its premise much more seriously and operates with a lot more heart than most series of this type do. It doesn’t hurt that its character designs – especially for Yuya’s potential love interests – are all gorgeous, either. In all, this is the isekai series this season that I feel is most being overlooked and has one of the better chances to achieve at least some degree of lasting popularity.

Rating So Far: B

Dead Mount Death Play

Episodes So Far: 5

Premise: A necromancer who became known as the Corpse God in his fantasy world, and who was defeated by a Hero, is reincarnated in modern Japan in the body of a recently-murdered teenager. Awed by his new world, he seeks to find the peaceful life here that he couldn’t in his previous world, but quickly getting caught up in the seedy underworld of Tokyo threatens to get in the way of that goal, as do members of a police task force.

Evaluation: This rare reverse-isekai variation certainly has its own quirky style that mostly works for it. Turns out that Corpse God wasn’t really a villain (even though his death theme certainly suggests otherwise!), and he’ll even use his necromantic powers to create skeletons that rescue orphans from a fire – as well as, of course, skewering the teenage girl out to kill him and turning her into a zombie. Despite sometimes-very-dark overtones and deadly action, the series leans at least as much in the humorous direction and has a somewhat playful side. Keeping those element in balance, so viewers don’t get tonal whiplash, has been tricky so far, but the series has managed it more often than not. Combine that with plenty of CG skeletons and some longer-term intrigue and you have an entertaining series.

Rating So Far: B+

Summoned to Another World for a Second Time

Episodes So Far: 5

Premise: Setsu and his whole class has been summoned to another world to be a band of heroes in an expected conflict against demons, but for Setsu, it’s his second trip to this particular fantasy world to be a hero! Last time he was an heroic figure who made peace between humans and demons and befriended many powerful individuals on both sides, and the passage of five years in that world hasn’t lessened their memories of him (even if he looks different now). But intrigue is afoot, as the threat to the human kingdom isn’t coming from the demons, who are being subjected to other schemes as well.

Evaluation: Although this one is also a power fantasy, and has Setsu owning everybody, it plays more as him hanging with the powerful, with somewhat of a side arc about his female childhood best friend also trying to get strong so she can stand alongside Setsu. This approach only works sporadically so far, though, with the biggest problem being that Setsu doesn’t have much of a personality. (One of the most pathetic Demon Queens to come along in fantasy anime in quite some time is another major problem spot, though a more limited one since she only prominently appears in one episode.) In fact, the best episode may be the one which focuses entirely on the childhood friend, and that episode is still remarkably stereotypical for its type. Unless it comes up with something better, this series is destined for the “Quickly Forgotten” stack where series like Isekai Cheat Magician reside.

Rating: C

Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear Punch!

Episodes So Far: 6

Premise: Yuna is still traipsing around the “game world come alive” setting she’s been trapped in and is still sporting the bear suits and hand puppets. People continue to not take her seriously until they see what she can do, and everything is still bear themed.

Evaluation: Unlike its first season (in Fall 2020), this one did not get picked up for episode reviews on Anime News Network, and that’s telling. It continues to be the cutest and mildest of all of the isekai power fantasies out there, but that’s all that the second season has going for it so far. The visual quality is still there, but the first four episodes were such a yawner that I have had trouble getting motivate to keep up with this one. The spark which made the first season work has faded.

Rating: C+

Why Raeliana Ended Up at the Duke’s Mansion

Episodes So Far: 5

Premise: Failed university student Rinko was pushed off a roof by someone, but instead of dying wakes up as Raeliana, a character in one of her favorite novels whose early death becomes a motivating factor for the novel’s heroine. She isn’t about to let that happen, so she uses her knowledge of the book to cut a blackmail-tinged deal with dashing, crafty Duke Noah Voltaire Wynknight to get out of her current engagement and become his pretend-fiancee. That starts a battle of wits between the two that the Duke seems to find charming (while Rinko find it aggravating), but there are other challenges and dnagers which must be navigated as the story gradually starts to go off the rails.

Evaluation: Semantic about whether this “trapped in an otome game/romance novel” genre truly counts as isekai aside (I argue that it does), this one has proved to be surprisingly involving. A mediocre animation effort definitely hampers it, but Rinko/Raeliana has proved to be a delight in the way she privately shows off her frustration to viewers while using every trick she can think of to keep herself safe. She’s a strong, wily heroine with just the right touch of vulnerability, but Duke Noah is also a delight as the proper, smarmy noble who matches wits with Raeliana and may be falling for her more than he cares to admit. A superior-grade English dub (which is being simulcast) also is a plus here, especially Ian Sinclair performance as Noah – a role he was born to play. I haven’t watched enough of the rest of the genre to know how this one compares, but it’s a show I can get enthusiastic about each week.

Rating: B+

Oshi no Ko episode 4

Rating: B+

The writer for the source manga, Aka Akasaka, is probably even better-known as the creator of the acclaimed Kaguya-sama: Love is War source manga. That manga series got a live-action adaptation in 2019, prior to its highly-regarded anime form, and that first adaptation is widely-regarded as a bust, with an IMDb rating of only 5.6. Given that Akasaka started work on Oshi no Ko just a few months later, it’s impossible to watch the depiction of the live-action adaptation of “I’ll Go With Sweet Today” without positing that a large chunk of both last episode and this one is based on the creator’s bitter personal experience. That leaves me curious about whether Aqua’s effort to give the series-in-a-series here a strong finish is also based on personal experience or just the creator’s wishful thinking.

Regardless, the much stronger first half of episode 4 details Aqua’s efforts to elevate the source material’s famous climax, with a little but welcome segue into Kana’s viewpoint to show how frustrated she personally is about the production coming out crappy. This makes for an interesting contrast: she has the acting chops to pull off something better but not the angle, ability, or insight to force the production to get better through a bit of ad-libbing. Aqua, meanwhile, may not have the acting chops (or at least he doesn’t think that he does), but he does understand how to take advantage of circumstances and directorial intent. Because of that, he’s able to manipulate the tone and presentation, thereby getting the best out of the weakly-skilled male co-protagonist and giving Kana the opportunity that she’s been desperately seeking to really show what she can do. But I think it’s also pretty clear that Aqua is under-rating his own ability.

As interesting as seeing that sequence is, it is mere set-up for the more impactful scenes during the after-party. One is the manga-ka for “Sweet” being satisfied with the final episode and the other is Aqua’s conversation with the producer, whom he has now officially checked off his “father or not” list. A revelation this big – that the producer not only knew about Ai seeing a guy on the sly, but actively facilitated it – is a bit surprising to see come up this early, but it does show that the series is not going to drag its heels on Aqua’s Father Quest and establishes a hook for having Aqua move forward with his own media presence; the episode conspicuously cuts off that scene before Aqua replies to the producer’s proposal, but how could he turn something like that down? And given that the producer does know that Ai was secretly seeing a guy, and that Aqua has features which greatly resemble Ai’s, is he already putting two and two together on who Aqua might really be? (That he specifically brings up how much Aqua looks like Ai twice seems suspicious, especially in a series as astutely-written as this one.)

The rest of the episode is far more ordinary, even if it does catch the series up to the final scene of episode 1 and move past it. It also represents a decidedly more light-hearted shift as new recurring characters get introduced and the foundation gets laid for Ruby’s eventual turn as an idol herself, as well as a shift to focusing on Ruby after focusing on Aqua for the last episode and a half. Not sure why Kana being the redhead in the idol trio in the OP did not click before, but that does look like her (see the screenshot below) and she would be a natural fit for a number of reasons; even if singing isn’t her specialty, she’d certainly be able to act the part, and that would fit with the series’ ongoing theme about lies being at the core of the idol industry. Given that she’s showing inclinations of a romantic interest in Aqua, I cannot imagine her turning down the offer even if it wasn’t for the OP spoiler.

A few other random thoughts about the episode:

  • The use of music during the filming of the climax scene is especially sharp in driving the intensity and drama.
  • How much of Kana’s tears was pure acting and how much was relief that she was given a chance to do the scene justice?
  • The subtitles list Minami (the busty pink-haired girl) as a “pin-up girl,” which I suppose is a fair translation for “gravure” (what Ruby actually says), a class of female idols who model for pictures that are often provocative and suggestive, albeit in a more playful rather than aggressively sexual manner. Yeah, having a high school girl do this is a bit skeevy, but this can be seen even with preteens in Japan. Have to wonder how much Ruby’s fixation on Minami’s chest is meant for comedy vs. making a subtle poke at that side of the industry.
  • And is it just me, or does anyone else see Demon Slayer‘s Mitsuri when looking at Minami?
  • The OP and ED are now subtitled! Hurray! The OP carries so much more meaning when you have the lyrics.

Overall, the latter part of the episode drags the grade down a bit, but this is still solid entertainment fare.

Oshi no Ko episode 3

Rating: B+

Since episode 2 aired, news has broken that the first episode of Oshi no Ko was HIDIVE’s biggest debut ever, and also that opening theme “Idol” is topping multiple Japanese music charts. (It’s also currently the top-rated show for the Spring 2023 season on MAL, even over the new season of Demon Slayer.) That puts is on a hype track at least on par with a Spy x Family, which raises the very real concerns about whether or not the series can live up to the hype. Despite episode 3 being a less impactful episode than the previous two, it’s still does a solid job of carrying the weight of that hype.

Episode 3 picks up where episode 2 left off, carrying forward the reunion of Aqua with former child actor Kana Arima. Roles petering out for her as she got older (an all-too-common problem for real-life child actors) forced her to learn to hard lessons and revamp her thinking about acting if she wanted to resuscitate her career. Essentially, she had to learn the hard way what Aqua got taught at a young age: be more accommodating, make an effort to make connections, and play to what’s needed rather than always trying to be the best actor. That’s allowed her to resuscitate her career as an actor – specifically, in a live-action shojo manga adaptation – and she badly wants Aqua to join her by filling a recently-vacated villain role. Aqua’s not interested until he learns that the director is one of the people he’s seeking out as a possible candidate for being his and Ruby’s father, and he cannot pass up this chance to get a DNA sample.

While the plot keeps the story moving here, the details and characterizations are the much more interesting parts. Kana seemed almost like a joke character in her initial appearance, but the portrayal here is far more nuanced than expected. While her understanding of the business is not yet perfect (as Aqua discovers from overhearing the director talk about her), she has learned and grown as a person, to the point that she can offer some interesting insight about these kind of live-action productions. Specifically, the point here isn’t to make something that’s good, but rather to make something which showcases a lot of hot boys, and acting skills be damned. Her laments about having to act down to the level of her cast mates so the differences in skill aren’t too blatant is the most cynical take possible on Aqua’s “doing what’s needed, rather than what’s the best” lesson and raises the interesting question on how often something like this actually happens. (Fortunately, anime production largely dodge this in Japanese casting, though it isn’t unheard-of for idols to have roles in anime series as a gimmick.) Sadly, the way the original creator seemed disappointed with this subpar rendition of her work is probably a more common occurrence, one that has been alluded to in other anime (such as A Sister is All You Need), but all of this makes it perfectly plain why Kana is so keen on Aqua filling the vacated role: she at least knows that he’ll be competent, and she’s desperate to work with someone who is.

The big irony here is that Aqua winds up playing a hooded stalker, a character uncomfortably similar to the one who killed him in his previous life and Ai in this one. That irony is, of course, not lost on him, and so with his main task accomplished, the expectation that he is going to add some special flair to his performance makes for a nice episode-ending cliffhanger. You can tell that something special is coming up because this is one of the three times this episode that the star in his right eye goes black, and its always happens when his darkest ambitions come up; the other times were when he, a few years earlier, finally figured out the password to Ai’s old phone and gets a look at her contact list, on which he’s basing his hunt for his biological father, and later when he’s thinking about how he doesn’t have any ambitions beyond revenge.

There are other neat details to watch for here, too. I quite liked how Aqua and Ruby are shown in one scene wearing shirts emblazoned with “TWINS” in English, and the way Ai kept her life carefully segmented through the use of multiple phones was also a neat bit of posthumous character development; she may have been less flighty than she looked and acted. The details about how the shoot is normally handled on a TV show are also convincing. And will we now have a debate on whether password 45510 has some special significance? (It is the number shown in the opener, after all.)

If there’s a negative in the handling of this episode, it’s that it offers no opportunity for Ruby’s viewpoint, but since the content is more about what Aqua is doing, she will presumably get her turn. For now, the series is humming along quite nicely.

Oshi no Ko episode 2

Oshi no Ko delivered one of the best and most impactful opening episodes in years (though admittedly its extra-long length gave it an unfair advantage!), but because of the way it ended, episode 2 was the one which would really set the pace for its long-term direction. Seeing the latter convinced me that this series, more so even than personal favorite The Ancient Magus’ Bride, is deserving of weekly commentary, so expect me to be back every week for episode reviews.

One of the main reasons that the series continues to make a strong impression following a 10-year time skip is because it sticks true to one of its advertising points: that it will focus on the darker side of the idol industry. Indeed, maybe not since Key the Metal Idol in the mid-’90s has a series painted such a bleak picture of that scene. Ai literally lost her life to the darkest side of the industry (i.e., obsessive fans) while on the brink of conquering it; she was going to be the rare star to stand at the top while still (secretly) being a mother, after all. Even 10 years later, Aqua has not forgotten that one bit, which is why he’s determined to protect Ruby – who has a very real potential to break out as an idol herself – from the industry’s more exploitive side, even if that means crushing Ruby’s dreams. The end of the episode sees a compromise struck on this point, but as he and Ruby head for a performing arts-focused middle school, he seems certain to always be keeping watch over her.

The darker aspect shows up in other ways as well. Aqua’s investigation of an “underground” idol group that’s trying to scout Ruby digs up some ugly dirt, and Aqua and his adoptive mother (the wife of Ai’s manager, who now runs the business) aren’t exactly clean themselves for the underhanded way they get the current member of that group to talk and then judge her quickly over the fact that she talked. While there might be some vaguely villainous types in some idol series, this is not the kind of thing you would normally find in any normal idol show. (Of course, whether this could even properly be called an idol show is itself a matter for debate.) And of course, the passage of time has not swayed Goro/Aqua one bit from his quest to discover who his father was and kill him for (presumably) siccing that fan on his mother.

Significantly, the episode also gives some time to Ruby’s point of view. She knows that her brother has some plan that he won’t discuss with her, and seems to intuitively understand that her brother is, to some degree, looking out for her, but the passage of time has left her more inclined to try to reach out for her mother by following in her footsteps rather than drowning in a revenge scheme. The writing here expertly shows how her previous life as Sarina is influencing her in a couple of ways: becoming an idol is the ultimate expression of her ability to act in ways that she wasn’t able to do in her previous life, and a way to draw closer to a star who was both everything to her in the fading days of her previous life and her mother in the new one. She’s almost compelled to seek out becoming an idol despite the efforts of those around her to dissuade her. Hopefully, the series will continue to give at least some time to her viewpoints, because the stark contrast between how she see things and how Aqua sees things provides a richer narrative thread for the story.

There are a couple of other factors to consider here, too. On the plus side, Kana Arima – the child actor Aqua played beside in the movie in episode 1 – is back in middle school form. On the more mixed side, the lighter content sometimes seen in the first episode is also still around and sometimes effective, though the bits about the director’s mother interrupting at inconvenient times quickly outwore their welcome.

The music also deserves some mention here. Opening theme “Idol” by superduo YOASOBI, with an initial rap beat that flows into an up-tempo, electronica-fueled dance number, is a major winner on both musical and visual production fronts, but it packs much more impact if you actually understand the lyrics. (See here for an English translation.) Closer “Mephisto” comes from Japanese rock band Queen Bee, and its lyrics (see here for an English translation) also have some interesting parallels to the series’ themes and content.

As a final thought, Ai’s full name in Japanese order – Hoshino Ai – translates as “Star Love. Rather doubt that’s a coincidence, given her eyes.

Really looking forward to seeing how the rest of the series plays out, given how strong a start it’s off to.

Rating: A-

Review: Suzume

Suzume is the latest movie from acclaimed director Makoto Shinkai, and it would be unmistakable as one of his projects even if you didn’t know the director going into the movie. It has all of the hallmarks of a Shinkai project: stunning sunsets, fantastically detailed backgrounds, themes about making connections despite separations by time, space, and/or dimensions (and finding ways to cross those boundaries), melancholy longing which drives characters to action, and a special kind of easily-relatable, not-overly-schmaltzy sentiment that few other anime director have ever been able to deliver even half as effectively as Shinkai does. A complaint could be easily made that it feels too similar to his other recent works, but honestly, I don’t see that as a problem. Shinkai may not vary his formula much, but he has certainly mastered his particular style, and that shows beautifully in this film.

In this particular iteration, Suzume is a 16-year-old girl in Kyushu who gets caught up in a grand problem with interdimensional doors thanks to a chance encounter with a young man who’s preparing to become a teacher. . . while also, of course, fulfilling a long-standing family obligation to keep these mystical doors locked and sealed. Suzume’s unwitting encounter with one of those doors sets in motion a chain of events which could lead to earthquakes and widespread destruction if she and Souta (who soon gets turned into a three-legged kid’s chair!) cannot do something about it. But Suzume’s ability to interact with the doors and witness their effects (when most can’t) may have everything to do with an encounter with such a door during a great calamity she suffered through as a child, a calamity which, in many ways, defined both her life and her relationship with her aunt/adoptive mother. And certainly, going on a cross-country jaunt to deal with the doors (and a mysterious talking cat associated with them) without explaining anything puts a strain on that relationship, too, even as she’s clearly falling for Souta.

One of the more interesting and distinctive features of this particular project is the emphasis placed on abandoned places. This is a device that Shinkai has used before, but not to this degree, as the doors most commonly appear in places that have been abandoned. Whether this has particular meaning is unclear, though it does make a certain amount of supernatural sense that portals to a world for those who have passed on would be found in such places. It’s also entirely possible that Shinkai may have just gotten fascinated by the real-life abandoned facilities scattered across Japan and decided to highlight a few of them as a gimmick. The detail on these settings is just too phenomenal for them to not be based on real-life places. Coupled with this is the imagery of the remnants of catastrophe, both in real-life and in the otherworldly space. The effect of the Great Kanto Earthquake (whose 100th anniversary comes up later this year) is one, and the other, even though it is never specifically mentioned, is clearly the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011; sharp-eyed viewers might also catch a reference to the Fukushima Daichi nuclear disaster associated with that event.

Another point of emphasis is the encounters that Suzume has along her journey, a device which which was also used heavily in immediately-previous project Weathering With You. By any reasonable analysis, the sojourn Suzume goes on is a dangerous one for a 16-year-old girl even without the supernatural element figured in, but as in Weathering, she meets and befriends a number of mostly good-natured people who help her along the way even if they don’t at all understand what she is actually doing and why. These are not complete charity cases, as Suzume does odd jobs and babysitting in some cases and is helped by someone who has his own reason for seeking out a missing Souta in another case. The strain Suzume puts on her aunt (whom she conspicuously refers to by name, rather than ever calling her mother) with these antics and her evasiveness about what she’s doing also gets dealt with. Suzume, by comparison, is a fairly standard Earnest Girl who unquestioningly follows her heart and instincts; as most girls her age are, she’s quite mature in some respects but spectacularly immature in others. However, even without there being much novel about her, she still makes for a fine heroine.

As we’ve come to expect from Shinkai films, the visuals are a thorough treat; this may even be his best-looking film to date. I have already elaborated on the sterling background detail work, but the animation effort is also quite sharp, character and critter designs are inviting without entirely being anime-typical, and special effects impress. A wonderful musical score also delivers throughout, helping to highlight a key late emotional point.

The movie is currently circulating in American theaters in both subbed and English dubbed forms; this review is based on the latter. This is the first significant anime dub for Nichole Sakura, who gives Suzume a somewhat deeper voice but still handles Suzume’s emotional aspects well. Josh Keaton (He is Thomas from Tiger & Bunny 2) also has limited anime credits but is a perfect fit as Souta, whether in human or chair form. Lesser roles are a mix of a few familiar anime voices with relative or complete newcomers, but nothing felt off the mark. In particular, voices that were supposed to be young kids sounded like genuine young kids.

After a slight downturn with Weathering With You, Shinkai is back to Your Name-level form with this one. Despite the familiarity of the story pattern and sentiment, this is still going to be one of the year’s top anime releases.

Overall Rating: A

Special Preview: Oshio no Ko

Streams: HIDIVE on Wednesdays

Debut Rating: 5 (of 5)

EDIT: Also see here for an official music video linked to the debut, though it should be watched after watching the debut since it is spoilery.

Wow. I read the first volume of the source manga a week before, so I knew all of the twists and turns that were coming in this movie-length debut and knew that the whole thing would adapt well to anime form. Even so, I wasn’t prepared for how much of a punch the content would have, or how effective and involved its themes would come across in this format. It gets my highest recommendation, though that comes with a caveat: if you decide to check it out, you must commit to watching the whole 82 minutes, and preferably in one sitting. Drop out early on this one based on any assumptions you might make and you are likely to completely misjudge what it actually is.

That’s because the first volume of the source manga (which this debut adapts in its entirety) is, in some senses, one of the biggest bait-and-switches TV series anime has ever seen, and it takes nearly all of that 82 minutes to accomplish that. All of the advertising for the series has promoted it as the story of up-and-coming idol Ai Hoshino (center above), and the first episode certainly is that. It shows how she rises from small-time to getting acting gigs to becoming a star big enough to earn her group a dome performance. . . all while secretly raising twins she gave birth to at age 16, while she was on medical leave. (She gets away with this by them being passed off as the children of her manager and his wife.) Meanwhile, a rural doctor who’s a fan of hers becomes her attending physician and vows to make sure she safely gives birth when she declares that she plans to keep the kids in the hope of experiencing the family she never had. But he gets stabbed to death by an obsessive fan of Ai’s as she goes into labor and then reincarnates as one of her twins. And he’s not the only one, either.

That’s the first massive twist, and it isn’t the last. I’m revealing it here because it’s crucial to understanding anything else going on here and because the first few minutes of the movie does everything it can to hint that the story is going in that direction. From that point on, Ai’s kids – Aquamarine and Ruby – mostly take center stage, though Ai still has her feature moments, too. This is also the point where the story irrevocably establishes that it isn’t actually an idol series even if it is about an idol. While there are some light-hearted moments, the underlying structure is a more serious, analytical look at the cold practicalities behind the entertainment industry. I don’t mean that in the seedy sense, either, although something seedy clearly happened at some point; Ai’s pregnancy was not a virgin conception, after all. It considers realities like how little most performers earn, how hard it can be for group idols to break out solo, what kinds of actors productions have and what purposes they play, the generally cynical attitudes at the foundation of it all, and so forth, all while offering salient points like how delivering what the director really wants ultimately trumps actually acting well.

But for all of the events that transpire in this content, and the emotion gut-punch that hits at one certain point, the thematic elements here strike just as strongly. The biting recurring theme of the show is that, at its core, the idol industry (and, by extrapolation, entertainment in general) is all about lies. The images that idols portray, and the pandering to fans, is all a lie, but most fans instinctively (if not necessarily consciously) accept that and play along with it. So an idol who does not know love is not a problem as long as she can project that she does and get the fans to buy into it. Smartly, the writing also acknowledges that this isn’t foolproof; fans will pick up on it when the image an idol projects, or her smile, does not feel genuine enough. And Ai is the biggest liar of them all, since she’s also lying to cover up the existence of her kids. She’s so wrapped up in lies that, as cheery as she is, she’s afraid to say “I love you” to her kids for fear that she will acknowledge that as being every bit as much of a lie as when she sings lyrics laced with that phrase. And then of course there are the obsessive fans, who become aberrations by being unable to accept the contract of lies on which all of the industry is predicated, and thus cannot be part of the true spirit of the fan/idol interaction.

And that’s why this debut is supremely ironic. The series is about lies, but the direction it initially seems to be going is a lie, too, and that reset hits more than once. Very little pitched about the series in advertisements is any more truthful than the images projected by the idols in it, and while hints about the big late plot twist are dropped much earlier, the real path will not show itself until only a couple of minutes before the credits roll. (But do stick around for a rather emotional epilogue!) Even after the big twist lands, there’s another awaiting about the motivational direction of one of the characters who will be the series’ co-protagonist going forward, and that puts a very, very different spin on a story which may still continue to be about breaking into the entertainment industry. I can safely guarantee that this protagonist’s motivation is quite different than that of any more stereotypical would-be performer.

Aside from its main themes and twists, this debut also did a lot of other thing well. As much as Ai comes across as a genki girl-type, she has distinct desires and motivations as a girl looking to find love in lies, and the nature of the second twin, while very gimmicky, also has its own deeper angles. The production also works the emotional elements well and packs in some sharp, symbolism-rich imagery, such as a recurring theme of a shining star in the sky being equated to Ai. The stars literally in Ai’s eyes may seem cheesy at first, but they also pack meaning as the story progresses and her backstory is explored a bit more. After using a silent soundtrack for much of the movie’s running time, the somber piano numbers deliver hard towards the end.

If there are any slight complaints here, it’s that one key scene runs on a little too long and some of the foundational logic is a bit shaky. But I will forgive that in light of how well the rest of this is done. The rest of the series may or may not hold up, but for my money, this is a superior adaptation of its equivalent source material and on of the strongest debuts in years.

Spring 2023 Preview Guide

Last Update: 11:15 p.m. Wednesday 4/19

Welcome to my seasonal Guide! (For the debut schedule, see here.) I expect to cover every full-episode series that will be debuting this season and several of the sequels, including Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear Punch!, Konosuba: An Explosion on This Wonderful World!, The Ancient Magus’ Bride, TONIKAWA, Demon Slayer, and the continuation of Mobile Suit Gundam: Witch From Mercury. I will not be covering Dr. Stone, Tokyo Mew Mew New, MIX, Sorcerous Stabber Orphen, Ranking of Kings, or Eden’s Zero sequels for certain, and probably not the sequels for In Another World With My Smartphone or Birdie Wing.

These previews will be listed in newest to oldest order, and this post will be updated multiple times per day on busier days. The latest-debuting title currently scheduled is Sacrificial Princess and the King of Beasts on 4/19, so I am expecting to end this season’s Preview Guide with that title.

Without further ado. . .

NOTE: Oshi no Ko is being covered in a separate full-length write-up, which can be found here.

Sacrificial Princess and the King of Beasts

Streams: Crunchyroll on Wednesdays

Rating: 3.5 of 5

Sariphi is a girl adopted and raised by a couple to be a substitute for their own daughter if/when the time for their village to contribute an annual sacrifice to the Beast King (as part of a peace treaty dating back a century) comes; her name even means “sacrifice.” She’s long known this and finds nothing scarier than the discovery of her adoptive parents’ intent, so being before the Beast King, and potentially getting eaten by him, doesn’t faze her at all. He is further dismayed by her cheery attitude and the way she seems able to see right through him. When she learns his biggest secret and regards it as a strength rather than a weakness, he decided to take her as his bride instead of his victim.

This fairy tale-styled manga adaptation may seem like a straight-up Beauty and the Beast iteration, but its defining twist and Sariphi’s backstory give it a little more meat than that. Even so, I don’t think this first episode would have worked so well without Sariphi’s unflappably chipper characterization. She seems to have decided to make the best of her situation; she didn’t have much of a life before, so why fear losing it? That makes her endearing on a level beyond just her carefully-calculated cuteness, and just as importantly, she’s the one person that the Beast King can’t cow with fear. She can be a support tohim in the way his other advisors and underling can’t. In all, the first episode lays a good foundation for their relationship going forward. It may move along too quickly to establish full emotional resonance, and certainly doesn’t offer much for wholly new ideas, but it looks to be a pleasant, entertaining addition to the season.

The Marginal Service

Streams: Crunchyroll on Tuesdays

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Cross Men in Black with an old-school sentai science team series and you more or less have what this one is. “Marginal Service” is the name for a newly-organized special unit tasked with dealing with cases involving “Borderlanders” (i.e., mythical and/or supernatural creatures), which have integrated into Japanese society and are, of course, more common than the public knows. A hotshot, riding-the-edge cop finds himself recruited after getting fired from the regular police force and has a somewhat rough introduction to the idea of dealing with Borderlanders. . . and then everyone on the team shows up in their color-coded outfits, which the protagonist will eventually have, too.

I’m not using character names here because I don’t think it matters. The only thing which distinguishes this one in any way from the horde of other “police the strangeness” series out there are those garish, almost anachronistic, and probably-intentionally-silly combat outfits, and that’s not enough. Run-of-the-mill technical merits, common archetypes for team members, and a fairly standard bad boy for a lead don’t add up to anything memorable. It’s not bad on execution, as the set-up does establish the MC and the situation pretty well, but little here encourages further vieweing.

Insomniacs After School

Streams: HIDIVE on Mondays

Rating: 4 ( of 5)

Ganta’s sleep cycle is so messed up that he cannot sleep at night but is perpetually sleepy and irritable during the day. Only a close friend knows about the issue, until he discovers a classmate – one Isaki – sleeping in the school’s supposedly-haunted observatory, and she has exactly the same problem that he does. As they nap together in the observatory and start going out on excursions overnight, a friendship gradually starts to form.

This is one of those simple, slice-of-life stories about two people with common problems connecting over those problems, and it couldn’t be much more endearing if it tried. Though the first episode is told entirely from Ganta’s viewpoint, both are effectively co-leads, and the interactions between them already feel more causal and natural than most anime pairings. This is supported by a light, gentle musical score and technical and artistic merits that are well above average, with even simple movements being well above average. There’s a minor red flag here about a possible future plot development, but overall this is a pleasant debut that I could easily see being one of the season’s understated gems.

Why Raeliana Ended Up at the Duke’s Mansion

Streams: Crunchyroll on Mondays

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

NOTE: This episode is being true-simuldubbed in English, and this write-up is based on the dubbed version.

MCs winding up as characters in otome games has been a popular trend of late, and this one is only a minor variation on that: the female protagonist gets pushed off a building, presumably falling to her death, but instead awakes as Raeliana, the daughter of a nouveau riche Baron in a romance novel. But she’s only a minor character who’s fated to be poisoned to death by her fiance as a plot driver for the main story. Desperate to change her fate, she tries various methods to convince her fiance to break off the engagement (which he cannot afford to do because of his ulterior motives) before taking a longshot by offering to make a deal with the Duke (who will become the story’s male co-protagonist) based on her knowledge of what happens later in the story. And the Duke, for reasons of his own, seems inclined to play along.

As rote as all of this sounds for the genre, the execution here is decidedly above-average, and the English dub fully hits the mark. Raeliana’s determination is palpable and convincing, while the Duke is also immediately appreciable as a man who would be someone to be reckoned with even if he did not have position and minions at his disposable. While the artistry only impresses in some pretty background shots and the animation is among the weaker entries so far this season, the technical merits compensate for the limitations in subtle ways, like the Duke’s prying gaze. I don’t normally follow fare like this, but I will have to at least consider this one.

Dead Mount Death Play

Streams: Crunchyroll on Mondays

Rating: 4.5 (of 5)

Some of the best first episodes are one which achieve impact, which make you think, “damn, this is some cool shit and I want to see more.” That’s basically the case for this manga adaptation, which spins the tale of a necromancer called the Corpse God who’s dueling an heroic figure over the fate of a fantasy world. At the moment of his defeat, the Corpse God spins a reincarnation spell, which takes him out of his world and places him in the body of a 16-year-old boy in modern Tokyo named Shinomiya Polka, who has just had is throat slashed. While he’s still trying to get his bearings, the young woman who killed his new body shows up and tries to repeat the job. But chasing someone into a building used by the yakuza to dispose of bodies is probably not the best idea when the individual you’re chasing has the soul of an otherworldly Corpse God. . .

The success of this episode is all about the atmosphere it generates. The battle between the hero and the Corpse God – both of whom have Evil Eyes that allow them to see souls of the dead – is no light-vs.-darker struggle but one between different degrees of darkness, and it maintains that all throughout the dazzling battle using not-too-bad CG. When the Corpse God ends up in the new world, the brightness of the peaceful city streets contrasts sharply with the ugliness going on in the shadowy alleys and abandoned buildings, and the tension is ever-present as Polka tries to get away from the psychotic female assassin. The dark ambiance also collects convincingly as Polka takes his own turn at being a menace. The people behind the assassin look to have a real problem on their hands. The opener (played as a closer) also maintains the same tone, and an effective musical score contributes, too.

The possible twist here is that the Corpse God may not want to destroy humanity; he sees the peace of the modern world as desirable, and seems ready to fight for it. But will the hero figure out that he’s pulled a reverse-isekai and follow? The only thing that doesn’t fit well is the post-credits dose of humor, but it was actually somewhat funny. This one has plenty enough positives on the technical side, a good enough concept, and plenty enough good potential hooks to be a keeper.

Demon Slayer: Swordsmith Village arc

Streams: Sundays on Crunchyroll

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Two months pass after the climactic battle of the Entertainment District arc, and Tanjiro has finally awoken from his coma. As he rehabilitates, he learns that a new sword has not come in for him, so he is allowed to go to the highly-secretive Swordsmith Village, where all of the corps’ swords are made. There he encounters the Love Hashira, Mitsuri Kanroji, and Genya, a fellow Demon Slayer inductee, as well as seeing the Mist Hashira, and learns that the village has a secret weapon that might be worth hunting down while waiting for his swordsmith, who’s gone absent, to be found. Meanwhile, Muzan’s top five minions gather to experience his displeasure.

Demon Slayer is back, and this 49 minute episode (the same one released in theaters earlier this year) showcases all of the stle points and quirks the series has to offer, for better or worse. (Characters who were annoying before are still annoying, and the humor is still the same.) The first half focuses on introducing the remainder of the Top 5 demons serving Muzan who have not previously appeared and provides some new hints about what Muzan’s ultimate goals are. The second half shifts the focus to Tanjiro and moving him to the Swordsmith Village, which looks to be the focus of this arc. This time, two different Hashira look to be getting involved, and there’s a new mystery surrounding a vision Tanjiro had while comatose. Technical merits are still among the best for series action anime, so this is a promising start to the new season even if it doesn’t have any action to showcase.

Stella of the Theater: World Dai Star

Streams: Crunchyroll on Sundays

Rating: 3 of 5

This one is the anime branch of a multimedia project which has a mobile game coming out later this year, but its first episode feels every inch like the series is just going to be one long promo for the game, down even to building in a mechanic (called Sense) to rate the special acting ability of a character numerically. That’s not necessarily a problem, unless you’re expecting this one to amount to anything more than a very rote acting-focused variation on the traditional idol show format. The first episode shows almost no sign of amounting to anything more than that.

Everything from the basic premise to the characters feels so stereotypical. We have a lead girl who has talent but lacks confidence and just hasn’t found the right way to present herself in previous failed auditions. We have the out-of-town prodigy, too, as well as several girls with very standard quirks who are already part of the acting troupe that the MC wants to join. And we have the fateful audition where the MC winds up dazzling despite previous confidence issues, all because she decided to tackle the role handed to her like she imagined her best friend doing. (Why the best friend isn’t also auditioning is dodged around, since she’s clearly capable, but she is featured in the opener so presumably she will eventually. . . EDIT: or she might be a ghost, given that protagonist Kokona is shown talking to no one from another character’s POV in the last scene. If true, that adds a more interesting wrinkle to the series.) The artistic quality and technical merits are a little higher than normal here, but even so, this is unlikely to have much appeal to any not normally into idol-type shows.

Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch From Mercury ep 13

Streams: Crunchyroll on Sundays

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Episode 12 left off with pretty damn dramatic moment, and after a few months off, episode 13 continues by. . . just ignoring it. Or at least mostly so, anyway, as Suletta seems utterly unfazed by Miorine’s reaction to her. Indeed, it’s practically business as normal for her, as she has to win through a series of catch-up duels once Aeriel is rebuilt and does so in indomitable fashion. The stressors are entirely on other characters, especially Nika, who is increasingly troubled by the position she’s caught in. That only gets exacerbated when the two Gundam pilots who attacked the base last season show up at the school as part of an open house for incoming students, and they’re not above causing trouble while there. Meanwhile, Miorine is away, partly due to her father’s critical condition and partly due to questioning over the incident. In that capacity, she begins to learn about her father’s secret project: QuietZero.

This biggest issue that I had with the episode is how the two Earthian Gundam Pilots managed to get into a presumably-secured area like they did, but I’ll let that ride. G-Witch is back to deliver its regular doses of mecha action and intrigue, and this episode touches on all kinds of different angles from different parties. As the opener for the second half of the series, it serves it purpose well while also maintaining a consistent technical quality. Returning fans shouldn’t be too disappointed.

A Galaxy Next Door

Streams: Crunchyroll on Saturdays

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Budding manga artist Ichiro scrapes by in the absence of his dead parents by penning a manga and being a landloard in order to support his much-younger siblings. He’s in desperate need of an assistant to help keep on schedule, and that’s where the beautiful, elegant Shiori Goshiki comes into a picture. She’s a self-taught whiz at assistant work and stubborn enough in her own way not to allow Ichiro to do too much himself. But she also may not be as human as she looks.

The last part is the critical conceit of what is otherwise a fairly bland tale about manga creation. She’s referred to as a princes by people she’s shown leaving behind at the beginning, claims to be something called Star People, and something weird definitely happened to Ichiro when he touched an almost tail-like protrusion on her backside. How coy the series is going to be about explaining the details of that could be a big factor in how watchable the series is, as much of the rest of the first episode is absolutely predictable – i.e., the two are already on a trajectory for romance. There is some charm here, good artwork, and some developing chemistry, so I can just enough potential here to give it a minor recommendation.

Summoned to Another World for a Second Time

Streams: Crunchyroll on Saturdays

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

In a slight twist on the standard isekai format, this one features a protagonist who has been called to a particular fantasy world before and returned, only to find himself summoned to that same world again – but this time he’s in a different body than before and with his classmates, including his sexy childhood friend. Five years have passed, and things which should have been settled during his first visit are percolating again, so he leaves his classmates behind (at least for now?) to try to confront the person he believes is behind the new war troubles.

Despite the twist, this one does not do much to stake out fresh genre ground. That the king wasn’t satisfied with the long-term results of what the hero did before is a little interesting, as is no one knowing who’s responsible for summoning the protagonist’s whole class this time, and at least the childhood friend is already showing that she’s going to quickly become competent. That there’s already people here who recognize the protagonist and are eager to work with him again is also a plus. However, the look of the series is rather drab, and not enough is going on here to make this series compelling. Might give it another episode or two to prove itself, but it’s looking forgettable at this point.

TONIKAWA: Over the Moon For You s2

Streams: Crunchyroll on Fridays

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

I episode-reviewed the first season of TONIKAWA back when I was still writing for Anime News Network. See here if you’re interested in those, but the short version is that it was a pleasant, low-key romantic comedy which had its charms but was something I couldn’t much get excited about. Still, TONIKAWA‘s return is a welcome one, as despite being plot-lite, it did still carry some important, unresolved mysteries that this new season will hopefully deal with.

Since the first season’s Fall 2020 airing, a couple of OVAs have come out, one classified by Crunchyroll as episode 13 of the first season and the other classified as episode 0 of the second season. Both of those are par for the course for the first season; entertaining in the way that this series is, but nothing crucial. Rather than delve into the ongoing mysteries, the first episode of the new season goes in a different direction: bring up that, despite openers and advertising art, Nasa and Tsukasa have yet to have an actual wedding. Atypically, it’s something Nasa is more interested in (because he wants to see Tsukasa in an elaborate wedding dress) than the easily-embarrassed Tsukasa, who prefers simpler pleasures. Almost the entirety of the episode is about the central couple and those around them discussing their interest in a wedding and the practicalities and expenses of planning one. The episode ends with the idea being put on hold for now, since a lot of money would have to be built up first to make it happen, but I could see that becoming a recurring theme for the season.

After sagging a bit in one of the OVAs, the technical merits are back to normal, with the simpler but still attractive character designs being enhanced by some nice background shots. The new opener also, interesting, retains the style and beat of the original even though it’s a different song. Overall, this gets a solid recommendation for continuing fans, while newcomers are advised to go back and watch the first season first.

The Cafe Terrace and its Goddesses

Streams: Crunchyroll on Fridays

Rating: 3 (of 5)

When Hayato’s grandmother (his only family) dies, he returns to the beachside cafe she ran for the first time since a falling-out three years earlier, with the intent to tear it down and replace it with a more profitable parking lot. However, he discovers five sexy young women whom his grandmother considered family living there, and they do everything they can to convince him not to tear down the home that some of them cannot afford to leave.

We haven’t had a proper, dedicated fan service title yet this season, but based on the first episode of this manga adaptation, this one should fit that bill. It certainly does not disappoint on the character designs for the five young ladies (who all look to be college-age or slightly older), gives all of them some chance to show off their figures, and uses a camera with a distinct male eye, though the camera does not go out of its way to insert fan service. The personality range – the Meek One (who becomes the Uninhibited One when drunk), the Conniver, the Tsundere, the Cool Musician, and the Dumb Jock – is also pretty typical for a harem series, and the protagonist being a testy, money-minded guy gives this somewhat the feel of a dating sim, too. There’s nothing special about the set-up, but the combination of good visuals and just a little touch of convincing sentiment is just enough that you might not need to be a harem fan to appreciate this one. But we’ll see.

Mashle: Magic and Muscle

Streams: Crunchyroll on Fridays

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

In a world where everyone has magic, Mash Burnedead has none. (In fact, that’s probably why he was abandoned by his parents as a babe.) He’s compensated it by developing an incredible physique, one strong enough that he can even use it to bat aside magical attacks. Upon seeing that, a flummoxed security officer offers Mash a deal: prove that he can get by at a magic school with those muscles and he and his adoptive father will be allowed to live in peace.

In other words, this manga adaptation is basically a cross between Black Clover and One Punch Man, with a set-up more similar to the former and a style and flavor more similar to the latter. So far, the combination works. The major concern here is that Mash does not have much of a personality, so he is going to have to play off others, but if he gets surrounded by a sufficient supporting cast then this could be a fun action romp.

Rokudo’s Bad Girls

Streams: Crunchyroll on Fridays

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Tosuke Rokudo and his two close friends are at the bottom of the food chain at his rough-and-tumble high school. That starts to change when he received a magic scroll from his deceased grandfather, which imprints a symbol on his forehead. From that point on, he starts attracting the affection of any “bad girl” who sees it. That becomes particularly important when the baddest and strongest of the bad girls, Ranna Himawari, shows up and is instantly taken with him.

If it wasn’t for the modern artistic sheen, this manga adaptation might have felt right at home 20 or even 25 years ago. So far, it’s a straightforward story which lays out its premise well and sets the stage for Tosuke to try to “man up,” though he hardly needs to with a force like R

Magical Destroyers

Streams: Crunchyroll on Fridays

Rating: WTF did I just watch

Jack-booted, smiley-faced masked thugs have come for otaku and all of their paraphernalia under the guise of “protection” and it’s up to Otaku Hero to rally otaku from across the spectrum – as well as three twisted, actual magical girls – to fight back against the oppression, even if that means big chunks of the city get turned into a wasteland in the process.

Or at least I think that’s what is going on here, as the debut episode barely puts any effort at all into explaining itself. It’s a full-blown exercise in absurdity, with a visual and storytelling style which borrows heavily from earlier fare like Kill la Kill and maybe Dead Leaves. I can say with certainty that Magical Girl Anarchy will catch on if anything from the series does, and the episode does not hesitate to throw in truly ridiculous examples of how otaku both prepare for a fight and actually fight. Maybe this chaos will amount to a fun series, but I will reserve judgment until I have seen another episode or two.

Too Cute Crisis

Streams: HIDIVE on Fridays

Rating: 2 (of 5)

An alien researcher is sent to Earth to evaluate if it should be cleansed or not. She makes the mistake of entering a cat cafe and winds up getting utterly overwhelmed by their cuteness. Then she discovers dogs, too, and things only get worse for her.

So far, that’s about all there is to this show, other than the suggestion that her revealing how cute these animals are to her compatriots could upset things on a cosmic scale. It’s a cute idea, and the series earns bonus points for scattering its closer with pictures of adorable cats, but so far the series really only has one operating joke – protagonist Liza flipping out over cute stuff – and that’s already getting old by the end of the episode. The cats (and dogs) look plenty cute, but otherwise the animation is mediocre at best, leaving little for the series to stand on beyond its not-insubstantial cute factor.

Otaku Elf

Streams: HIDIVE on Fridays

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

In this manga adaptation, the recently-turned-16 Koito is now old enough to serve as miko at her family’s shrine, which has a 400-year-old history. That also means that she attends to the shrine’s resident deity, who’s actually an immortal elf named Elda who’s been around since the shrine’s founding. Much to Koito’s consternation, Elda is a recluse who, in recent years, has become enamored with stereotypical otaku interests, and she fails to understand why Elda is still so beloved by the community around her.

This is unquestionably a comedy series which every bit backs up its unsubtle title, and its light humor in a 4-koma-like style has its charms. However, underlying all of the antics is a spirit of sincerity and sentimentality, that that was key to the first episode winning me over. Koito simply isn’t old enough to appreciate the value of having a stable and eternal presence in one’s life that is actually real (rather than just spiritual), one that was there to appreciate your birth and will still be there to appreciate your passing decades later. Why wouldn’t someone want to keep such an existence content? Solid character designs – including a unique one for Elda as fantasy elves go (she’s very tall but not portrayed as willowy-thin) – and technical merits also help. This one looks like it could be a sweet little distraction and stands a real chance of making my view list for the season.

My One-Hit Kill Sister

Streams: Crunchyroll on Fridays

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

High schooler Asahi is following a seemingly-typical isekai route: he gets hit by a truck, winds up in a fantasy world, and becomes an adventurer. (The slight twist here is that he’s actually comatose, not dead, so this is a John Carter-type situation.) The probably is that he has no special abilities. But he does have a doting big sister, and when she also appears in the fantasy world, she’s insanely powerful. But everyone thinks that he, and not his sister, is the one that’s powerful, and he lamely tries to cover that up rather than ‘fess up about it. Future problems await, especially since his sister’s Little Brother Complex is kicking into overdrive.

This isn’t actually the first isekai-type series to use an “MC is ordinary but accompanying relative is super-powerful” gimmick; see also 2019’s Do You Love Your Mom and Her Two-Hit Multi-Target Attacks? What it does have going for it is that the first episode is actually pretty funny. Sure, the smothering, lovey-dovey older sister is hardly an original – in fact, her single-minded attitude could get tiresome pretty quickly – but the first episode, at least, has just the right amount of frenetic energy and silly antics to work, and some of the heavy-lined animation flourishes are more than ordinary, too. Fridays are looking packed this season, but at least initially, this one looks watchable.


Streams: Crunchyroll on Thursdays

Rating: 2 (of 5)

In this anime-original series, a new, virtual art form called Perception Art has arisen in recent years, to the point of a school being established to foster it. Two sons of the couple which was instrumental in establishing the art form have both made their way to the school, one as a Grader (who essentially produces the Perception Art) and the other as an Artist (who actually creates the art). Despite the elder brother not wanting anything to do with the younger, the two are teamed up for a major art competition against five other pairs.

This is not actually a male idol series, but it nonetheless gives off a very similar vibe and uses various male idol group musical pieces. The concept isn’t bad at all, but the time frame has advance incredulously fast; no way a school of such sophistication could have been established and developed that quickly. Nothing is yet explained about why the school is all-male, either; surely girls would get into this kind of art form, too. There are some potential hooks here, such as the implication that the elder brother won’t associated with the younger because the younger one reminds him of their parents’ demise, and the usual-looking suspects among the potential rivals. It also has some pretty, well-drawn character designs, too. However, the premise stands on shaky foundations, the content relies way too much on info-dumping, and in general, nothing here is compelling enough to draw much interest. The horde of bishonen guys is ultimate the main thing this debut has going for it, and that’s not enough.

Yuri is My Job!

Streams: Crunchyroll on Wednesdays

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Hime is cute, knows it, and milks it for all it’s worth, using her “perfect princess” act towards her ultimate goal of marrying into wealth. The problem comes when she meets her match at being manipulative and winds up being maneuvered into becoming a waitress at Cafe Liebe, a theme cafe where staff members act as characters from an elite girls school straight out of a shoujo manga. Though Hime can hold her own with her expertise at putting up a facade, she also throws things off-kilter by ad-libbing too much, leading an older girl whom Hime has become fascinated with to despise her behind the scenes.

This sounds like a thoroughly fun premise for a whimsical series, and the first episode absolutely captures that effect. It’s unclear at this point how much of what Cafe Liebe does is actually scripted, but the initial impression is that the waitresses just go with the flow (and what customers talk about online!) rather than plan something out. That leaves plenty of room for Hime, who eventually resolves herself to making the best of the situation she’s stuck in, to create havoc under the guise of playing the character of an ambitious newcomer. I can see all kinds of potential here, with the only significant detracting factor being its limited technical merits; the artistry has the soft, inviting feel one would expect from shoujo manga, but don’t expect much refinement. I’ll be sticking this one out for at least a couple more episodes.

The Legendary Hero is Dead?!

Streams: Crunchyroll on Thursdays

Rating: 2 (of 5)

Touka is an average, rather pathetic villager with a strange stocking fetish and no other redeeming values. . . except that he manages to accidentally kill legendary hero Sion with a pit trap set for a demon. Though he and his fellow villagers initially try to hide the incident by anonymously burying Sion’s body, Touka finds himself instead soul-swapped into the hero’s body, and so must take on the hero’s duties. The problem is that he doesn’t have enough mana to even maintain his rotting body, much less fight properly with the Sacred Sword.

I thought this was a pretty cool-sounding idea, so I was actually somewhat anticipating this one. Unfortunately, the first episode is the biggest disappointment so far this season. It uses a slapstick approach which delivers too many jokes that land flat and Touka is not even sympathetic as the MC, much less likable. None of the supporting cast are interesting, either, and technical merits are so-so at best. I might give the second episode another try if it’s a slow night, but I am not seeing much promise here.

The Ancient Magus’s Bride 2

Streams: Crunchyroll on Thursdays

Rating: 4 (of 5)

After a five-year gap, one of the most distinctive of all series about magic use has returned, and a welcome return it is! This new season will be adapting the Academy arc from the source material, which covers as much source material as the first season did but in one continuous arc rather than shorter stories linked together. Hence anime-only fans can expect the characters introduced here to be around on a regular basis for both cours (rather than popping in and out as they did during the first season).

The first episode is skipping some preliminary stories to get the action straight to the school, and that’s a correct choice; nearly everything that was skipped was additional world-building flavor rather than anything crucial. The first episode’s adaptation reminds us of all of the dangers and reassurances that Chise has been through while also bringing the new emphasis keenly into focus: now that Chise is getting more comfortable with herself, she needs to learn to deal with other people and learn things that Elias either can’t teach her or has neglected to do so. And a school full of alchemists, where nearly everyone has issues as big and deep-seeded as Chise’s own. That’s going to make this much more than just another stereotypical Magic School story, and a taste of that can be seen already in Chise’s initial encounters with Lucy Webster and Philomena (the girl who collapses in her arms at the end).

Perhaps most importantly, most of what made the first season great is back. Chise is still a developing character, Elias is still working to understand and adjust to humanity, all manner of neat and interesting creatures abound, and the style, tone, and artistic quality all return. This is a good start to the series I’m most likely to do weekly reviews for this season.

KamiKatsu: Working for God in a Godless World

Streams: Crunchyroll on Wednesdays

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Yukito is the heir to a questionable cult, but during a trial where his life is at risk, he finds himself transported to another world. But he doesn’t find the stereotypical isekai treatment. This world doesn’t have adventurers and he seemingly gets no special abilities, so he’s stuck working on a farm in a village. But there are other strange things about this setting, like no gods or sense of spirituality and some very dsytopian notions about governance and information control. When running afoul of that gets him and his new friends killed, the goddess that his father’s cult had prayed to finally appears to save the day.

I’m giving this one a bit higher rating than it deserves in a strictly qualitative sense because there are some very intriguing world-building ideas here amidst some silliness and monster CG that almost looks deliberately awful; people are expected to accept their deaths at appointed times, for instance, and anyone who fears that is branded an outsider and tucked away in an outlying village, for instance. That’s a pretty damn heavy concept to throw into a setting, and not the only out-there idea this setting has, either. Upsetting the normal isekai formula of the transferee going on quests and such also earns the debut points. But then Mitama, the goddess, shows up. If future episodes can survive her instantly-obnoxious behavior then this one has some potential on fronts other than technical merits. Will most likely be following this one.

KONOSUBA – An Explosion on This Wonderful World!

Streams: Crunchyroll on Wednesdays

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Anyone familiar with the KONOSUBA franchise doesn’t need to guess at the subject matter of this prequel: it explores the origins story of fan-favorite girl Megumin, the petite Crimson Demon mage who is the master of the awesomely-powerful Explosion spell but is rather useless otherwise. However, viewers do not necessarily have to be familiar with the franchise to be able to follow this first episode. Sure, having seen the main series and movie would make you familiar with the established Crimson Demon aesthetic, the poverty of Megumin’s family, and her future “rival” Yunyun, but none of that’s really necessary knowledge for appreciating a story about a smart girl who discovers her magical goal from a woman she apparently released on accident from some kind of seal. You just have to be able to appreciate that Crimson Demons in general have a screw or two loose.

As a piece of the established franchise, this episode lays a good groundwork for the story by establishing well how Megumin got enthralled with explosion magic and how her and Yunyun’s connection started developing into what it is in the main storyline. It even lays down a good mystery in the identity of the buxom mage who appears to be linked to some kind of dragon-like creature; no doubt that will be a recurring story element throughout the series. The technical merits are also solid. On the downside, this episode does not capture the invasive, biting humor of the original despite generally being on the lighter-hearted side. This could be a deliberate tonal choice, as this story seems to be taking itself more seriously, but we’ll see on that. Still, it’s inviting enough to be recommendable for any established franchise fan.

Skip and Loafer

Streams: Crunchyroll on Tuesdays

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Mitsumi is a transfer student from the boonies who’s quite confident in her studies and planning but a ball of anxiety prone to screw-ups otherwise. Sosuke is a handsome but lackadaisical guy short on motivation. A chance encounter on the way to school winds up working to both their benefits, laying the groundwork for friendship and possibly even eventual romance.

That’s the gist of this highly-anticipated manga adaptation, and I can somewhat see what all the fuss was about. The first episode pulls off a good mix of homey sentiment, humor, and significant character development in laying some of the groundwork for long-term developments, with Mitsumi gaining friendly stability from Sosuke and Sosuke being inspired by Mitsumi’s energy and intense focus. Not a big fan of the art style, but it is at least clean and consistent and gives Mitsumi some great expressions (as seen above). The opener, with its protagonist dancing with each other, is also neat. The problem – and it’s probably a personal one to me – is that nothing about the first episode really grabbed me; it just felt too ordinary. I can see this being on the watch lists for many, but it is unlikely to make mine.

I Got a Cheat Skill in Another World and Became Unrivaled in the Real World, Too

Streams: Crunchyroll on Tuesdays

Rating: 3 (of 5)

The set-up here is all too familiar: Yuuya is a self-admitted loser at life. He’s fat, bullied, and kicked out by parents who preferred his more ideal younger siblings. His only saving grace was a kindly grandfather who encouraged him to face adversity and still be kind and left Yuuya his house when he died. That proves more significant that Yuuya realizes when he discovers a secret room with a door to another world apparently ruled by game stats – a door which leads him into possession of a house filled with utterly broken items. But experimenting with those, and the experience and skills he gains as a result, lead to him being transformed into an Adonis in real life, too – a reality that he’s having every bit as hard a time of adjusting to as his classmates and younger siblings are.

Yeah, it’s a power fantasy to an almost absurd degree, with the minor twist that the protagonist can freely travel between worlds and convert items gained in the fantasy world into real-world money. What makes the difference here is that Yuuya’s physical transformation is away ahead of his mental one. He may be physically a stud now, but on the inside he’s still the same kid who’s long been bullied and a social outsider. If the series continues to run with this (somewhat like Mushoku Tensei did) then that might give this one at least a chance of standing out for some reason other than its ridiculous name. I’m only giving this one a middle grade for now – as the opener suggests all kinds of stereotypical elements on the horizon – but there is at least some potential her.

Kizuna no Allele

Streams: Crunchyroll on Mondays

Rating: 1.5 (of 5)

Man, it’s been a while since I have encountered a first episode that was as much of a chore to sit through as this one was. Essentially, this is a next-gen version of an idol show, one that focuses on up-and-coming virtual idols at a near-future school intended to foster such talent. Miracle is one such prospect, seeking to follow in the footsteps of Kizuna Ai, a virtual idol in the “real” world widely-regarded as being the first of her kind. In this setting, she’s gone missing after being the reigning champion of the realm for five straight years;(in the real world she’s on indefinite hiatus, so this may be intended as a clever parallel. That and the interesting name choice – an allele is an alternate form of a gene that arises by mutation, implying that someone’s going to be the next version of Kizuna Ai – are the only mildly intriguing bits about a debut that’s otherwise mostly by-the-numbers: chipper protagonist Miracle has a strange encounter, gets to perform (in CG) and gets to watch her idol perform a couple of times.

Of course, I’ll entirely admit that I am absolutely not the target audience for this. Maybe those more into idol shows will get more out of it.

Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear Punch!

Streams: Crunchyroll on Mondays

Rating: 3 (of 5)

The first season, back in 2020, is arguably the cutsiest of all of the “trapped in a game world” power fantasies as well as being one of the very few of that type to feature a female protagonist. Neither changes one bit in the first episode of its second season, both for better and worse.

I do recommend reviewing the first season before starting this one, as full familiarity with the established cast is assumed. There’s a brief fight with orcs connected to a quest involving a honey shortage, but otherwise the episode is all about Yuna going around visiting and getting a job to protect some noble children on an experiential trip. And really, that’s about it. It loads up with both bear-specific and general cutsiness, so if you’re not watching the series for that, you won’t find much that’s compelling here. Overall, a decent but unspectacular start to a second season.

alice gear aegis Expansion

Streams: HIDIVE on Mondays

Rating: 2 (of 5)

Alice Gear Aegis started in 2018 as a mobile game, with a console version being released in Japan in 2022 and just recently made available worldwide. (That too-coincidental timing raises the strong suspicion that this anime is intended as a cross-promotion for the game.) The game seems to be based on girls, called Actresses, who special equipment to fight off an alien menace called Vice, but the first episode is nowhere near as serious as that premise sounds. It is, instead, all about a girl (who seems to be an original character for the anime) named Nodoka who becomes enamored with prominent Actress Yotsuyu (who is one of the game characters) and seeks to become one herself. She goes through ups, downs, and major nosebleeds in a comical fashion until she passes the qualifying sync test – which is important, since before her being able to train up to that level was only theoretical. The problem is, her office is suspended indefinitely as soon as she’s certified.

“Show, not tell” is widely-regarded as desirable in anime, but this is one debut which could have stood to do a lot more telling, since the foundational premise is only vaguely referred to; the episode instead focuses almost entirely on cute girls being cute. Nodoka constantly getting nosbleeds over Yotsuyu gets tiresome pretty quick, which offsets which little this generic cast has going for it in personality. Given the style of presentation here, I suspect that the anime won’t ever bother to explain itself much and will just assume viewers are familiar with the game. That’s the main reason why I cannot recommend this series. Oh, and the “episode 0” listed on HIDIVE is actually an OVA from 2021. It won’t make any sense at this point, so wait until you’ve watched at least a few episodes before checking it out.

Heavenly Delusion

Streams: Hulu (U.S.)/Disney+ (most other countries)

Rating: 4.5 (of 5)

This manga adaptation wasn’t on my radar, either, but damned if it didn’t immediately earn a place on my viewing list for this coming season, despite requiring a Hulu subscription to watch legally. It’s just that well-made.

This is one of those series which doesn’t bother explaining itself at all; it expects viewers to intuit everything based on bits and pieces. At some point a decade or more in the past, an apocalyptic event called the Collapse occurred which wrecked much of the world and left many of those who survived to starve. The story splits between two very different settings: in the ruined lands, a young woman escorts a teen boy on a quest to find a place called Heaven, with old bandits and a man-eating, bird-like monster as potential threats, though they do also find some seemingly-genuine hospitality to. In the place that is presumably Heaven, children live, attend school, and play in a futuristic facility totally closed off from the outside world by walls and a ceiling; they’re not even sure an outside world exists. But one student gets curious about it after receiving a strange message about going there during a test.

All sorts of potentially interesting little details abound. The female “bodyguard” has a high-tech energy pistol, but she also has dreadful scars under her clothing. Their host also seems to have a history with a “Man-Eater,” but why did she spike their food? (Or did she?) How and why does the Heaven facility exist? The first episode throws out lots of threads like that to reel viewers in, and then stacks sterling visuals and top-rate animation (the fight scene with the bandits is eye-popping in its sustained fluidity) on top of that. If later episodes can maintain this level of quality then this one has the very real potential to be one of the season’s top titles.

My Home Hero

Streams: Crunchyroll on Sundays

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

This one is a bit unusual: an adaptation of a seinen crime thriller that is clearly aimed at mature audiences. The first episode lays out the story of Tetsuo Tosu, a middle-aged man who kills his young-adult daughter’s abusive boyfriend after overhearing that he’s either seriously injured or killed two young women before. The even bigger problem is that the boyfriend is yakuza, and they were aware that he was trying to follow the boyfriend earlier to learn more about it.. Thus begins the desperate story about how a man who’s not at all strong – not even slightly above ordinary – is going to survive this ugly situation and keep his wife (who’s all for covering up the crime to protect her daughter!) and daughter safe.

As crime thrillers go, it’s hard to imagine a much more compelling initial plot hook than this, and it’s easy to sympathize with Testsuo’s situation despite the fact that he does, indeed, deliberately kill someone. The moral vs. legal quandaries this situation raises will hopefully be dealt with as well. Technical merits aren’t bad and do work effectively to heighten tension without being too graphic. Crime thrillers are not my thing, and so I don’t expect to watch this, but for who do like such fare, this looks like a promising start.

My Clueless First Friend

Streams: Crunchyroll on Sundays

Rating: 4.5 (of 5)

Boy, did this one come out of left field! I was expecting a simple, cute comedy about a clueless transfer student befriending the class oddball, and it definitely is that. What I was not expecting was for it to also be one of the most emotionally affecting first episodes I’ve seen in quite some time.

That’s because a remarkably serious and frank look at elementary-aged bullying is mixed in with the more humorous moments – or to be more precise, it’s interwoven with it in a shockingly non-disruptive way. Gloomy Akane Nishimura is referred to as the “Grim Reaper” and is constantly teased about it and ostracized over it. She’s grown to accept that fate until newcomer Taiyo Takada arrives on the scene and utterly smashes all school norms by simply finding it really cool that she’s a Grim Reaper and that her “curse” could rub off on him if he befriends her. Nothing that Akane (who doesn’t want him to get treated the same way) or others say can dissuade him, and an attempt to tease him about it gets regarded as a positive by Taiyo. He’s treated as happy-go-lucky clueless about all of this, so he’s not even consciously trying to break a cycle of bullying, but that’s exactly what he’s doing, and his genuine good will about it is making Akane realize that she can openly have friends and doesn’t have to lie to her father about it anymore.

That’s a lot to pack in to a first episode of what’s ostensibly a comedy, and I can easily see the sensitivity with which it’s handled bringing some to tears. Cute designs and remarkably solid production values for what you’d expect to be a lower-budget production also help. This one is worth a look by all audiences.

The Aristocrat’s Otherworldly Adventure: Serving Gods Who Go Too Far

Streams: Crunchyroll on Sundays

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Shiina dies protecting to girls from a knife-wielding attacked in modern-day Japan. He wakes up to find himself in the body of Cain, the young third son of a major noble, in another world. At his baptism, the seven gods of the land visit him and give him protections so far beyond the norm that he doesn’t dare tell anyone about them. It appears the gods will need him that strong for some greater purpose in years to come. . .

If that sounds utterly generic, it absolutely is in execution, too. There are some minor details which distinguish this one a little: the frenetic pacing of the first episode and an art style and bright color scheme suggestive of the series being targeted towards younger audiences (though it is based on a light novel). The content is mostly light-hearted and the first episode does have both a strong cute factor and a certain energy to it which makes it watchable, but it’s going to have to do more than the first episode shows to stick out much in a crowded field.

The Dangers in My Heart

Streams: HIDIVE on Saturdays

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Middle schooler Kyotaro has an emo bent and sees himself as a creep, but he also finds himself more fascinated than he cares to admit with Anna, a tall, pretty classmate who’s even a legitimate magazine model. As he watches her, he notices some of Anna’s less-than-perfect quirks, but that only interests him more and spurs him to act in a somewhat protective fashion towards her.

The first episode left me on the fence about this manga adaptation. On the good side, it is genuinely funny at several points and is refreshingly frank and honest, including one part where one of Kyotaro’s classmates seeks to date a heavier-set girl and another part where it’s heavily implied that Kyotaro masturbated to Anna’s magazine photos. Anna’s quirks feel more natural than the manufactured-to-still-be-endearing ones anime normally uses, too. On the downside, a student who’s actively thinking about murdering classmates may be going a bit too far (especially for American fans), and the writing does not effectively play that off as just a joke. Also, as a teacher, the notion that students could just carry around box cutters in school like that really threw me; they would be confiscated on site in most American schools. But those are, admittedly, points that not everyone will be sensitive to. This has the makings of a better-than-average romantic comedy in the “boy fascinated by odd girl” trope, so I may give another episode or two a try.

My Love Story with Yamada-kun at Lv999

Streams: Crunchyroll on Saturdays

Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Akane is a college girl who got into an online game because of her boyfriend, only to have that boyfriend meet someone new in the game and thus dump Akane for the newcomer. To get revenge, Akane passes a famous pro player (whom she happens to bump into at an in-person event for the game) off as her new boyfriend, but is unsatisfied with the result. Then she wakes up with a hangover in that pro player’s apartment. . .

This adaptation of an award-winning manga falls on the romance-emphasizing side of the romantic comedy category, and is based partly on a premise that’s become increasingly common in the last couple of decades: dumping a boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse for someone met online. In that sense, Akane is a relatable character, and her actions certainly aren’t out of line for a jilted lover. However, that and focusing this on older characters is about all that I will give this series for credit. Yamada is entirely not credible; no one could succeed as a pro gamer while being that laconic or uncharismatic in nature, and the long-necked, shojo-styled character design he has is a type I despise. To like this show, you’re going to have to be able to at least tolerate him, and I don’t. This one is a no-go for me.

Hell’s Paradise

Streams: Crunchyroll on Saturdays

Rating: 4 (of 5)

This samurai-era manga adaptation was not on my radar at all coming into this season, but after a strong debut, it sure is now. It tells the tale of Gabimaru the Hollow, a ninja assassin who’s being executed for trying to leave his village. . . except he doesn’t die to conventional execution methods and he doesn’t even realize himself that he’s resisting it until a female executioner points it out to him. She also helps him realize what that reason is and gives him an opportunity to earn a pardon to achieve it: recover an Elixir of Life from an island where nobody has returned alive from before. And he’ll have to beat out other condemned criminals to do it.

Pretty basic set-up for crafting a story where a bunch of killers are competing for a prize, but what won me over here was the quality execution. The technical merits are strong, the visuals are properly pretty or ugly, the OP is special, and the careful use of visuals, coloring, and symbolism is somewhat reminiscent of 86. Gabimaru’s motivation is also suitably compelling, though he earns negative points for not figuring out something so important without help. The only reason I’m not grading this first episode a notch higher is because Gabimaru looks way too much like Bell Cranel (from the DanMachi franchise), and that was really throwing me off. It’s worth a look, even if you weren’t planning to check it out.