Demon Slayer The Movie – Mugen Train

Photo: ufotable

Rating: 4 (of 5)

While I don’t plan to make a regular habit of providing long-form reviews of anime series/movies/novels, I will occasionally toss one out when something comes along that I find worth talking about. That happened this past weekend when I had a chance to see the Demon Slayer movie in theaters.

The movie probably needs little introduction, as I’m not sure how one can participate in the online anime community and not have heard about it sometime in the last few months. After all, it has only crushed every other title to become Japan’s #1 all-time box office champ; in terms of both box office revenue and tickets sold, it has sailed past even Spirited Away, Titanic, Frozen, and Your Name (#2-5 in the rankings, respectively, for revenue). Rather than just be a one-off adventure, like movies connected to shonen action series often are, the movie is a direct sequel to the smash-hit 2019 series from studio ufotable. Thus, it is not a standalone movie, which is what makes its box office success all the more amazing. But how much of its success is the movie itself, and how much is just fortuitous timing?

Without a doubt, Mugen Train was released under circumstances that anime movie makers could normally only imagine in their wildest dreams. It hit Japan in October 2020, at a time when theaters were finally coming out of COVID-19-related shutdowns. Because the American movie theater scene was still very limited, no major American releases were coming out at the time, so the movie essentially had no significant competition. Further, sales of its source manga had surged massively in the months leading up to the movie’s release (to the point of even beating out long-time champ One Piece) and the series’ OP “Gurenge” was also a massive hit on the Japanese music charts, so the title was familiar to the general public. That meant that there was nothing to distract even general audiences hungry for a theater experience from going to see it multiple times.

All of that probably had more to do with the movie’s runaway success than the quality of the movie itself, although the movie does have its selling points in qualitative aspects . Ufotable was much-lauded for its eye-popping work on the TV series, and that continues to show through here. The series’ signature visual style adapts well to (and is fully-retained for) the big screen, and that is the ideal way to view it. While maybe not the best anime movie ever on the presentation of its action scenes, the movie offers no shortage of highly-flashy fights that will not disappoint, except maybe in one aspect: the CG used to depict an amorphous demon with lots of pseudopods underwhelmed a bit. The 3D modeling and visual effects for the major power releases impressed much more, and neither of the climactic fight scenes lacked for intensity or energy; they are easily among the franchise’s finest action sequences to date, even considering the quality of the some of the battles in the TV series. As always, backgrounds also offer plenty of scenery porn and the design of the villains does not lack for distinctiveness. A solid musical score powers the movie throughout.

The story is less special, at least for the first two-thirds or so. Tanjiro, Inosuke, and Zenitsu (with Nezuko in her box) are sent to join Senjuro Rengoku, the Flame Hashira, on the Mugen Train over concerns that a rash of disappearances on the train could indicate a demon at work. The concerns prove to be founded, as one of the Lower Ranks among Muzan’s servants is behind it and has grand plans for the train, ones which involve putting everyone to sleep and offing the Demon Slayers while they are experiencing pleasant dreams. This plays out about like any other anime story where villains try to attack the heroes via dreams, including some humans who have been coerced into working for the demon. Once the demon slayers free themselves from the dreams, they must battle the demon more directly and in earnest. The only real twists in this part is the nature of the dreamscapes of Inosuke and Zenitsu, which are the movie’s prime source of humor. Along the way we learn a lot about Senjuro’s background and how he came to be such a firm, smiling guardian of justice and protector of the weak.

All of this may be typical fare, but the emotional stakes gradually build as a big plot twist gets thrown in late and Senjuro shows that he means every word he says from his heart and soul. While I found Senjuro rather one-note at first, the strength and depth of his convictions stand out even by shonen action standards, to the point that he can resonate cathartically with viewers; I seriously doubt that I was the only person in the theater getting a little emotional at certain points in the final quarter. And if one scene involving him near the end ultimately runs a little long, I can forgive the movie for that, given how well he is used overall. His popularity in the fanbase probably grew enormously in the wake of this movie.

The one significant negative about the movie is more of a personal one: not enough Nezuko! She plays a critical role at one point and has a nice action scene or two, but like with the TV series, she is criminally under-used. The end of the movie, while it closes out the arc, is much more a stopping point than a point of resolution; in fact, it is more of a springboard to future events, though it also rounds back to the movie’s opening scene.

Despite an ordinary start, the movie succeeds overall at what it tries to do, and in a way plenty entertaining enough that I can easily understand why audiences have flocked to repeat viewings of it. If you’re a fan of the franchise, see this one in a theater if you can.

86 episode 3

Lena is shocked by what she is told.

Rating: 4.5 (of 5)

Episode 2 devoted close to half its running time to setting up and executing an action spectacle. Episode 3, by comparison, has no visual action, even though the 86s do eventually go into combat and one of them – a named character with a major speaking part in this episode, even – dies. However, the episode does not feel lacking for that because the real action this time is in one incredibly harsh dialog exchange at the end, in the immediate aftermath of that death. That exchange is, perhaps, the defining moment in the series so far because it speaks more bluntly than ever before to the core themes of the series.

The death of the petite, dark-haired Kaie is revealed in the episode’s opening moments, so nearly the whole episode is about the downtime events which precede that happening. On the 86 side, the episode features light-hearted content as three of the guys execute this series’ version of “peeking on the girls while they’re bathing” – except that the girls are not stripped down for what would normally be an obligatory fan service scene. The result is an amusing riff on the normal fan service and a sequence of banter (including how Kureha is in love with Shin) which could be found in just about any other series.  One earlier scene of the cat reacting in fear to the dead boar that got carted in is also priceless.

The peacefulness of the episode ends – and the awkwardness begins – when Lena has one of her nightly check-ins with the 86s. Though the tone remains light on the surface, it carries a tension among the 86s that Lena is oblivious to, something which becomes all the more apparent with the truncated replay of the scene from Lena’s point of view later in the episode. This quite effectively conveys that she is missing more in these exchanges than she realizes. Even though she seems to be making a breakthrough with Kaie, and she acknowledges that the 86s have reason to hate her kind, she does not at all comprehend what that really means or how hollow her efforts to reach out to the 86s sound, to the point that Kaie’s very polite warning to keep her distance catches her off guard. Her belief that the way the 86s are treated is inequitable comes from a legitimate place – she reveals that her life was once saved by a high-minded Processor (though how that could have happened is a story for probably next episode) – but she does not understand the horrors that 86s like Kureha have been through because of the Alba, or that pretty words and well-meaning intentions are not enough. That disconnect leads to the savage blow-up from Theo at the end of the episode.

Though Kaie’s death isn’t shown, it carries no less impact for only being depicted through blips on a computer screen; this was a wise direction choice. Lena’s mistake here isn’t that she did not notice that Kaie was moving into a marsh in time, or that she expressed grief over Kaie’s loss; it’s that she unwittingly made the expression of grief about herself, which I could easily see coming across through the Para-RAID as fishing for sympathy. That not provoking a harsh reaction from an 86 no longer willing to humor her would have been more surprising.

Did Lena ultimately deserve what Theo unloaded on her? Partly yes and partly no. Some of Theo’s words certainly are not fair to Lena, as she has made a legitimate outreach effort, is legitimately trying to connect with them as fellow humans, and much of what Theo is blaming her for is beyond her ability to control. However, by being their Handler and trying to interact with the 86s beyond what is strictly necessary, she is the representative of the Alba to them, both for better and for worse. Lena also did need to understand the depth of the hatred that the 86s have for her kind, and Theo’s final admonition – about how she’s never even asked for their names – is a fair one. (This is a point whose full impact may not be apparent to anime-only viewers, as the novel makes a big deal of how the 86s specifically don’t have “official” names in order to further dehumanize them.) That the 86s are equally guilty of never asking about Lena’s name is the irony in that situation.

I also deeply respect the direction choices here. In the end scene, unrelentingly keeping the camera focused on Lena, to show how she emotionally breaks down as Theo’s invective gets thrown at her, was absolutely the right call, and the piano backing that scene perfectly complemented the wild tension of the scene. Earlier, cutting Lena’s point of view on the barracks conversation into chunks with abrupt jumps also heightened the sense of disconnect. This may not be one of the auteur titles that reviews love to rave about, but the directorial effort in this series so far is shining brightly. That leaves me expectant about things to come.

SOME OTHER SERIES I’M FOLLOWING:

Not as many other series made a strong impression on me in the past week:

Higehiro episode 3 – Still like the way this one is going a lot, and especially Yoshida’s admission that Sayu can turn him on in a purely physical sense. But he’s a man who seems to connect love and sex, and in the former sense, she’s still too young and immature. Her dead eyes during the flashback sex scene at the beginning also spoke volumes about how she feels about all of what she’s been through, as well as her desperation to do anything to avoid being cast aside again. Some have criticized how much the camera is still sexualizing Sayu, but I felt those shots served their purpose by clarifying what, exactly, Yoshida was getting tempted by despite his claims not to be interested in Sayu that way.

Moriarty the Patriod episode 14 – James Bonde? Really? Oh, and that new opener is a major-league downgrade from the previous one.

So I’m A Spider, So What? episode 15

puppet spider

Rating: 4

Last episode ended with Kumoko going on the mental offensive against her mother. This episode is nearly all about how her mother responds, and she certainly isn’t taking the threat that Kumoko poses lightly. In fact, not only is she multiple times more powerful than Araba, but she’s also at least as smart and definitely more cunning. The Queen Taratect is not at the top of the food chain for nothing, and that means even worse trouble for Kumoko than she imagined.

Basically, it also means that the serious threats to Kumoko’s continued existence (much less well-being) remain for now. Even with mother weakened by Kumoko’s soul-based attacks, Kumoko cannot handle her in a straight-up fight, and mother is sharp enough to have prepared an ambush by her top underlings for where Kumoko escapes to. She even pulls out what would seem to be her ace in the hole: the devastating, multi-armed puppet spider. This forces Kumoko to use all of her own best tricks and push herself to the limit again on survival, but that is also what keeps these action sequences operating at a high fun level. Even with as frighteningly powerful as she has gotten by human terms, she can still be convincingly threatened, and the series is better for it.

As neat as it is to see the Queen Taratect finally in action, the real treat of the episode is the introduction of the puppet spider. I have been critical of the 3DCG design on some of the monsters to this point, but the puppet spider makes up for some of the more questionable previous efforts. Clearly special effort was put into both designing the puppet and figuring out how to depict its movements, as that critter is a menace. Even when it is in the side of the shot, using its multiple swords to deflect all the Black Bullet shots aimed at it, its movements impress, and the way it poses and manipulates its threads shows special care. If all of the critters had this fine an effort, this series would be one of the year’s visual treats. Another interesting visual comes in one scene where Kumoko has the arch-taratects on one side and the puppet spider on the other. As she turns her head to look from one direction to the other, one of the foes is reflected in one of her eyes. (This scene happens at the 13:03 mark.)

Beyond that two-stage fight scene, the only other content is a short scene at the end showing Shun and crew making plans to head for the elf village, while Lestor(?) returns to try to fight off Hugo. The one catch? It’s on a different continent, and the only feasible way to get there is to go through the Great Elroe Labyrinth, which apparently goes underneath the sea in between. Why they cannot cross the boat is not explained here; if it is not brought up next episode, I will explain then for anime-only readers, as the reason is given in the third novel. Given the time differential, that shouldn’t set Shun and party on a collision course for meeting Kumoko, but novel readers can probably see why that scene was put in the same episode as the spider-side scenes in this one. There is a connection between the two that will be apparent later.

Adaptation-wise, the human side is still in the midst of the third novel, while the spider side is a few chapters into the fourth novel. The pacing of the adaptation seems to be slowing.

86 episode 2

Tags for the dead

Rating: 4.5 (of 5)

The most predominant underlying theme of the first part of 86 is racism, especially the self-destructive (or at the very least self-limiting) impact of it on a country as a whole. However, the series will have other themes as well, and another of those starts to come more sharply into focus in this episode: the great divide which can lay between two groups of people, even when they ostensibly work together.

In this episode, that shows through in many ways, and one of them lies in the vocal performances so far. In the novels, Lena’s voice is repeatedly described as having the quality of a silver bell; in anime form, seiyuu Ikumi Hasegawa (in her first co-starring role) portrays that by making her sound lilting, bright, and optimistic. By sharp contrast, Shoya Chiba’s rendition of Shin is constantly monotonous and businesslike. He does not so much give the impression of being cold or emotionless, but rather like he must remain perpetually focused; indeed, one scene in this episode suggests that he is doing so to shut something else out. Even if I wasn’t familiar with the source material, and so didn’t know the revelation that is coming next episode, this having something to do with what has forced other Handlers away would be a reasonable assumption.

But it comes through in other ways as well. Lena is clearly well-meaning, and seems determined to fight against the racist attitude that has become so institutionalized that it is even promoted in classes and textbooks. (Historical precedence for this exists.) That she is using her uncle to keep herself from getting in too much trouble for defying official government policy makes her less brave about it, but her heart is clearly in the right place. However, as the 86s’ reactions to her indicate, she does not truly understand them and their situation even though she wants to be on their side and does not regard them as pigs. They do not bad-mouth her because the series does not need to do that to convey their disdain; it is plain in their body language that they consider her naïve at best. Though Lena shows good intent and at least some real tactical acumen, their appreciation of her will not be won so easily.

This episode also lays out the backstory a bit better. It uses an anime-original classroom scene to summarize some details sprinkled through the content covered in episode 1 in the novel: that the invasion from the Empire of Giad started nine years ago, that the enemy Legion are all autonomous, that the Legion is presumed to have wiped out the Empire’s humans before initiating the attacks on the Republic, and that the Republic’s military was quickly devastated early on, which is likely why Lena is in such a position at such a young age. The war is only expected to last two more years because the Legion shouldn’t last longer than that before their operational time runs out, hence the reason why none of the Alba seem to be taking this too seriously. That 50,000 hour figure sounds fishy, since simple math indicates that new Legion have to have been made in the last 13 years, but the government is clearly fudging on other details (such as how the Juggernauts are supposedly higher-spec than the Legion), so that two year estimate also has to be considered unreliable. The presentation of the information in a classroom setting does allow for the show to demonstrate how deeply-ingrained the racism is, though even with that it cannot escape the impression of being an infodump.

The real feature of the episode, though, is the first true all-out fight scene, and it is worth watching the episode for that alone. I loved the effect of the day swiftly turning to twilight as the cloud of butterfly-like Legion swarmed over the sky, but that is merely the first visually impressive shot. A driving musical score backs some of the best CG-heavy battle animation I have yet seen in series animation, but that would mean nothing without excellent camera usage and battle flow, which allow the viewer to fully follow everything that transpires. Comparing this scene to any major action scene in, say, So I’m a Spider, So What? is like comparing a pro team to a collegiate team in sports, and it’s all the more impressive because this is Toshimasa Ishii’s first time in the director’s chair. If the series can produce future action scenes at this quality level then this could be remembered as one of the top action series in many years.

Almost lost in all of this is the episode’s most poignant scene, and the one which most speaks to why Shin has the nickname that he does: the chest containing scraps of Juggernaut armor, each etched with the name of a former comrade who (presumably) died in battle. That is the most harrowing reminder of what the stakes are for the 86.

SOME OTHER SERIES I’M FOLLOWING:

This is not all the series that I am following, but the others simply didn’t do much worth commenting on this past week.

Combatants Will Be Dispatched ep 2 – This series is shaping up to be nearly as much fun as KONOSUBA was. The salacious and occasionally mean-spirited flavor of the humor is similar to KONOSUBA’s, so if you found it off-putting in that title then you probably won’t like it any more here, but the characters will not lack for personality. A favorite moment in this episode was Snow’s comment about having to make payments on her magic sword.

Fruits Basket The Final ep 2 – I’ve heard ever since the first anime series about how Shigure was a far more twisted character than what the first series revealed, and this episode shows it better than any previous one. He may be a dog in more senses than just the Zodiac curse.

Higehiro ep 2 – This one continues to walk a really delicate line, as there is all sort of inappropriateness to the living situation here, but so far the series is still careful to cross the line and Yoshida seems to be serious about the fatherly role he’s taking on here (even if he does not want to admit that’s what he is doing). Enticing hints continue to be dropped about how Sayu ended up in this situation, especially how unperturbed she seems about not being in contact with former friends. I am fully on board for seeing how this plays out.

Vivy – Flourite Eye’s Song ep 4 – Though the last two episodes have not impressed me as much as the first two did, I still like the concept here – of an AI progressing through the years to tackle different potential triggers for a bad outcome – quite a bit, especially the way episodes 3 and 4 both draw connections across the 15 year span back to episode 2.

Zombie Land Saga Revenge ep 2 – Maybe my favorite episode of the week beside 86. As corny and outlandish as the radio host’s behavior and appearance were, his message still resonated: you don’t necessarily need to go far from home to find the answers you seek. I can easily understand how his words could speak to a troubled adolescent like Saki, and that he decided to name Saki as his successor was quite fitting, as she is the one he has met who most “gets” the spirit of Saga that he has always espoused.

So I’m a Spider, So What? episode 14

Sue and Schlain in a pivotal moment

Rating: 2.5

This episode has the expected big plot twist on the human side and some juicy revelations going down on the spider side, but neither is likely to be what is most-talked about for this episode. No, that (dis)honor goes to the animation and direction effort on the episode.

Really, did this episode get a fill-in director or something? While the series has not exactly been a technical marvel, its technical merits have generally been solid (outside of the occasional questionable CG elements) and editing choices have been plenty sufficient to support and promote the story being told. This episode, however, is a near-disaster on those fronts, and it only gets worse as the episode goes on. I have to wonder if this episode suffered from a time and/or budget crunch, as in too many places it cuts away to simplify animation. This is hardly unusual in anime, but this episode does so even at the expense of obscuring critical actions on the part of certain characters. Combine that with some bizarre choices for camera angles, distracting camera shifts, and deteriorating ability to keep characters on-model and some scenes – especially much of the running battle which takes up most of the last quarter of the episode – become difficult to follow. I dearly hope this is not a new norm for the series, and it’s the reason why I am rating this episode much lower than normal.

Setting the visual and editing problems aside, the episode offers up a lot of important little details. One of the biggest is the confirmation that Shouko Negishi, the homely outsider featured significantly in the original-world flashback a few episodes back, is actually the vampire Sophia and not the Demon Lord; the irony that she is a physical bombshell after reincarnation is probably intentional on the part of D, since that seems like something she would find amusing.  This also establishes that Shouko she met Kumoko back when Sophia was still a baby, though they did not at all have a conversation. This begs all sorts of questions on how Sophia ended up working for the Demon Lord (and the final scene clarifies that she is), but the other interesting point here is the carriage driver, who looks awfully similar to one of the Demon Generals from the conference scene a few episodes back. The additional interesting point is that the elves – the same ones Oka is affiliated with, based on appearances – aimed to kidnap Sophia as a baby and were not shy on the extremity of the methods they intended to use. Could that have something to do with why Sophia seemed so keen on beheading Potimas in the human timeline?

And speaking of that human timeline, Hugo and Cylis finally make their moves, and the probable explanation for why Cylis would get involved comes up: daddy was going to make Schlain heir apparent, and Cylis could not tolerate that. Seems like Hugo is a Ruler of Lust, too, which, in a sense, fits; his desires are certainly strong, even if they have not been shown to be sexually-oriented. They have this planned out pretty well, too, as Schlain and his supporters that have not been brainwashed are forced to go on the run. The one thing that the attackers did not seem to count on was Fei’s evolution into a cool new winged form (or as cool as that janky CG design can look, anyway). That being said, Sophia did not afterwards seem perturbed at all about the escape of Schlain’s group; in fact, she even mentions that she got “everything done,” and that she was under orders not to harm Oka. Those two statements suggest that capturing/killing Schlain and his party was not part of the plan; were they, in fact, supposed to escape? Something’s fishy here, and Hugo is looking more and more like he’s just a pawn in bigger machinations himself. The other factor which gets washed out in that whole sequence is the cloaked figure using the rings, who seems like much more than just an ordinary individual.

In adaptation terms, this episode pushes much further into the third novel on the human side, while the spider side has jumped ahead to a scene which straddles the end of the fourth and beginning of the fifth novels. As with most previous adaptation choices, I don’t see this as problematic, as it lines up Sophia’s more formal introduction in both timelines. That is going to requires some things on the spider side to be done quite a bit out of order, but that should be fine.

Other Series Thoughts: I will add this update onto the second episode of 86 instead.

86

Lena and Shin

86 episode 1

Rating: 4.5 (of 5)

86 is my most-anticipated new series of the Spring 2021 season, as I am current on the American release of the source novels (and have previously reviewed the first four volumes for ANN) and have felt ever since reading the first novel that the first story arc, at least, would adapt well into anime form. The first episode does not disappoint; in fact, I think it would have solidly hooked me, and compelled me to do episode reviews for it, even if I wasn’t familiar with the source material.

One thing should be understood up front: while this, on paper, a story about a pretty girl commanding a ragtag bunch in fighting off a mechanized invading Legion, the true focus of the story is racism, and – as the first episode amply shows – it takes this to such a severe degree that racism pervades just about every aspect of the first episode. It can be seen in the suspiciously homogenous look of the population of the Republic of San Magnolia, and how anyone who isn’t silver-haired and silver-eyed lives in a base every bit as decrepit as the capital city is seemingly-flawless. It can be heard in the news reports of no casualties suffered by supposedly-autonomous Juggernauts or how co-protagonist Lena is told not to report fatalities among the 86s (as minorities are collectively called) since they’re not counted as human. Lena also witnesses it in her lackadaisical fellow Handlers, who regard the 86s as “pigs” and beneath contempt, or the way the Handler featured in the opening scene laughs while commenting that he doesn’t expect his assigned squadron to survive. It even shows in the fact that the minorities live in the 86th district (hence their name) when we hear the Republic only has 85 districts. The 86s likewise regard the predominant race as “white pigs;” the picture of a pig in a dress that one of them draws upon first hearing Lena is a nice touch. And this isn’t even the worst of it; the Republic’s treatment of minorities is based at least in part on Nazi Germany’s treatment of minorities, so those sensitive about the Holocaust might want to avoid this one because of some upcoming content.

In this environment, Vladilena Milize is the youngest-ever Major in the Republic’s military, which directs combat units from afar using a device called Para-RAID. They are fighting off an invasion by autonomous Legion units, and based on the level of destruction shown in the later scenes, this has been going on for a while. (A later scene where Lena comments about eating mostly synthetic food also suggests that this has been a longer and more problematic war than the capital’s condition lets on, as is the fact that she is an officer at such a young age; no, this isn’t just an anime/LN affectation.) The belief exists that, for some reason, the Legion’s attacks will end in no more than two years, so the Republic’s military officers are not taking this seriously since it’s not their people (or really, people at all) dying. Lena is the exception; she cares about the 86s and doesn’t proscribe to the racism. How much the 86s care about that is another story; the tone of voice in the one she spoke to from her previous assigned squadron suggested her sympathy may be regarded derisively.

Meanwhile, at the 86’s forward base, everything is lively and more colorful, even it if is worn. However, that only stands as a stark contrast to the reality of the brutal combat situation they face. What little is shown of the action is active and savage, and having to put a badly-wounded soldier out of his misery, and then making a nameplate from the dead soldier’s machine to take along, hints at why the young man Shin is known as Undertaker. A mystery also remains at this point as to why he has been so difficult to work with that some previous Handlers have even committed suicide. What is Lena in for here as she takes her new assignment for the elite Spearhead Squadron?

Even if they are CG-heavy, the action scenes look sharp and suitably intense so far, and character designs (especially for Lena) are a further visual highlight. I also liked how they worked in a little bit of humor for Lena now, because opportunities for it are not going to be frequent going forward. There is a lot that the first episode does not explain which is explained in the novel by this point, but the adaptation so far is still doing an excellent job of conveying the look, feel, and intensity that this story will carry, including the dead expression on Shin’s face at the end. Frankly, I’m not sure how this first episode could have been done much better, and I eagerly anticipate seeing how the rest of this (most novel fans are assuming that the first story arc, which covers the first three volumes, will be animated for this season) will play out.

So I’m a Spider, So What?

So I’m A Spider, So What? episode 13

Rating: 4 (of 5)

NOTICE: This is the first of the episode reviews of this series that I am doing for this blog. If you did not follow me to this blog from Anime News Network, then you can find the episode reviews I did for the previous 12 episodes here.

Although the second half of the series starts with a brief rehashing of the end of the first half (presumably to allow for a more natural follow-through into the revelation of what Kumoko immediately encounters upon exiting the Labyrinth), it does not waste much time on getting into fresh action. The result is an episode packed both with all sorts of goodies for series fans and numerous interesting adaptation choices.

On the former front, much of the appeal of the series squarely depends on Kumoko, and she continues to deliver here. Whether it’s the way she tries to play off the havoc at the defensive wall around the Great Elroe Labyrinth’s entrance as being her fault, or the way she convinces her Parallel Minds to do what essentially amounts to a reverse-hack of the Queen Taratect, it’s classic Kumoko being gleefully performed by Aoi Yuki. (I have to think that she is having a lot of fun with this role.) Even the gusto with which she chows down on the Queen’s “A Team” strike force after defeating them plays into this. The minor downside here is that she never really seems seriously threatened by that strike team, even though she did expend a lot of effort to beat them; the sense of mortal peril just isn’t quite there. That’s not a big problem, and as the new opener suggests, big challenges still wait down the road, but it is a formal transition of sorts from Kumoko being the underdog to now being a player in bigger events.

Speaking of bigger events, things are finally setting up on the human side. Whereas the spider side is partly covering material from the fourth novel and partly transplanting a major skipped encounter from the third onto the surface, the human side is doing all kinds of modifications in preparing for finally making a run through the human-timeline part of the third novel. The anime-original scene of the strategic conference about dealing with the war with the demons allows for introducing a couple of characters whose novel introductions were skipped over much earlier; in fairness, though, the characters in question have had little relevance to the human plotline until now. The first of these is Anna, Schlain’s long-time half-elven attendant. While her appearance here is innocuous on the surface, the camera lingers on her curiously long, suggesting that something may be up with her, and it definitely looks like Hyrince might have had his eye on her as well as she walked away with Schlain.

The other, and ultimately more important, introduction is Potimas, the leader of the elves and Oka’s father in this world. His strategy conversation smoothly allows the series to bring up a couple of other details much earlier than in the novels: that Dustin is the pontiff of the Word of God and a schemer himself and that Potimas has a long-standing antipathy with the current Demon Lord, one which seems to go well beyond this war she’s launching. His reaction to Anna is also interesting: it seems more dismissive than derogatory. We have seen no indication yet about how half-breeds are treated in this world (in fact, she is the first one to appear), so that may or may not meaning anything. Oka does not seem to share her father’s reaction, however.

The real juice of the human side is what Hugo is up to, however. He has apparently gained some new ability which has allowed him to put both Sue and Katia into a trance state by the end of the episode. He is also conspiring with Cylis – Schlain’s eldest brother – as well, so the hints that the latter had a grudge against Schlain (possibly for upstaging him?) were not red herrings after all. Or is Hugo manipulating him, too? Either way, this isn’t going to be pretty, especially with Fei still out of commission in egg form.

As a final thought, the new opener, which shows Kumoko fighting the Demon Lord, more firmly suggests that the Demon Lord and Kumoko are two separate entities. But we shall see; her Parallel Minds did go off on their own, after all. . .

Other Thoughts for the Week

Beginning with episode 14, I will use this part of the post to offer brief thoughts on some of the other titles that I am following for the season. Those will only be paragraph-length entries and I may not cover each title each week if it’s not doing something worth commenting on.

Spring 2021 Preview

As I did for the seasonal Preview Guides at Anime News Network, I will be checking out the first episode of all legally-streaming (in the U.S.) new shows that aren’t strictly kiddie fare or sequels of series that I haven’t seen earlier seasons for. However, the entries here will be shorter; usually only two paragraphs (one for a description, one for a reaction) for a full-episode show unless I feel a more detailed reaction is warranted. Most likely I’ll update this preview as each show debuts, starting with ones that have debuted early.

Once all titles have debuted, I will alphabetize this list. Until then, it will list most → least recent.

NOTE: 86 is getting full episode reviews from the beginning (see here), so it will not be in this guide.

Cestvs

Streams: Crunchyroll on Wednesdays                     Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

The name of the main character here is an interesting case of double-meaning, as “cestus” specifically refers to battle gloves worn in both ancient Greece and Rome. (The versions shown in the first episode were exclusively used by Roman gladiators.) The first episode is also liberally sprinkled with historical context, most of it accurate. (Qualifier: I did an honors thesis on Nero in college.) Pankration was, indeed, an unarmed submission sport which developed in ancient Greece and would be analogous to modern MMA fights. The character of both Nero and Nero’s mother (Agrippina the Younger) are probably accurate; though he gradually grew more independent (and, by some accounts, cruel), he was much less assertive at the beginning, and the early stages of his reign were considered a golden era for ancient Rome. The other young woman shown is likely meant to be Nero’s wife (and former Emperor Claudius’s daughter) Octavia. The one inconsistency is the elder Demetrius, whom I believe to be an original character for this story.

The historical context is the main reason I have any interest in this story, which is otherwise about an up-and-coming young gladiator who has been trained in a potentially ground-breaking style of boxing in the Roman arena, one which is more dependent on mobility than overpowering an opponent. The CG animation is at least tolerable, but the main issue is Cestvs himself. A character who’s reluctant to fight and kill is wholly sympathetic under normal circumstances, but the story turns Cestvs into a crybaby over it, and that bites deeply into any potential appeal he may have. There are ways to show that characters are afraid but still someone you can root for, and this isn’t it. If Cestvs does not quickly develop some backbone then even the historical context is not enough to keep me watching more.

Osamake: Romcom Where the Childhood Friend Won’t lose

Streams: Crunchyroll on Wednesdays                     Rating: 2 (of 5)

In this light novel adaptation, Sueharu has been smitten by Kachi, his school’s perfect girl, ever since reading her debut novel, and she seems to appreciate his fandom. However, she has taken to dating Abe, the son of a famous actor who has recently debuted himself. Sueharu had turned down childhood friend Kuroha (another of the school’s most-desired girls despite her short stature) because of his interest in Kachi, but now Kuroha sees an opportunity here: convince Sueharu to be her “fake” boyfriend as revenge against Kachi. But while Sueharu is looking for dirt on Abe, Abe realizes that Sueharu might have something that he wants to hide himself.

In terms of both tone and content, this debut reminded me somewhat of Oreshura, a romcom from a few years ago involving supposedly-fake dating that I rather liked. In fact, I generally go for these kinds of convoluted anime romcoms, which is why I was somewhat surprised to have a negative reaction to this one. It does feel too much like it’s following a romcom formula established over the past decade, and some of its elements are growing stale from repetition, but the main problem here is that the reason for getting “revenge” is too manufactured.  An accusation that Kachi was leading Sueharu on is unfair and smacks of incel logic, and Kuroha does not come across appealingly for trying to push Sueharu in that direction. I did find it a little interesting that Kachi’s close friend is more chubby-faced than anime characters are normally allowed to be, and the twist at the end of the episode was an interesting one, but the foundation isn’t firm enough here to merit watching more unless the next episode is a vast improvement.

To Your Eternity

Streams: Crunchyroll on Mondays                           Rating: 4 (of 5)

This was one of the most-anticipated titles going into this season, primarily because it is based on a manga by Yoshitoki Ōima, the creator behind the much-lauded A Silent Voice manga and anime movie. (Incidentally, I highly recommend both the manga and movie versions of that title, though its focus on the long-term impact of bullying may make it a difficult view/read for some.) While the first episode isn’t overwhelming in quality, it lives up to the hype well enough. It tells a poignant tale about an alien observer who takes on the form of a boy’s dead pet wolf and watches him as he struggles valiantly to shed his solo existence out on the tundra. He seeks to pursue the able-bodied folk of his village, who left five years ago with a promise to come back, though they never did. With all of the remaining old folk now having passed, he sets out with the wolf Joaan to follow them.

Anyone who read stories like Jack London’s To Build a Fire during their school days can probably predict how this is going to turn out, so the important aspect here is how well the production sells the story. The pervasive isolation and melancholy of the setting come across quite well despite the boy’s efforts to remain cheery and optimistic; the sense is always there that such an attitude is what keeps him alive. Though he does get injured at a key point, and that is technically what ultimately does him in, his eventual demise is as much a reflection of him losing hope as it is about his injury. The sad irony that he is only going to find his happiness in death is crushing, but it also allows the necessary transition for the observer to move on to the next stage.

This episode gives the sense that this is just the first stage in a grand story which will examine the course and existence of life on our planet, and it has some solid technical merits to back it up. I cannot rate it higher because I ultimately found it too depressing, but I can easily see this figuring into end-of-season honors if it maintains the quality level seen in its start.

Pretty Boy Detective Club

Streams: Funimation on Saturdays                          Rating: 2 (of 5)

A girl has a problem: there is a certain star she saw in her childhood that she wishes to find again. Luck for her, the secretive Pretty Boy Detective Club of her school are ready to assist!

I went into this one not knowing that it was helmed by Akiyuki Simbo and originally written by NisiOsin, both of Monogatari franchise frame, but it only took a few minutes to figure that out, as Simbo’s trademark style is all over the visuals and the flow of the story is very similar to NisiOsin’s earlier works. Whether those are plusses or not is debatable, but they do turn this inherently silly story about boys who are both pretty and detectives into a spectacle, including one scene where the camera passes through wall signs and fixtures as characters walk down a hall. Yeesh. I actually liked the first couple of installments in the Monogatari franchise, but I guess my patience for this duo’s antics has worn this. This will find an audience but is a big “pass” for me.

Battle Athletes Victory ReSTART!

Streams: Funimation on Saturdays                          Rating: 2 (of 5)

The original Battle Athletes OVA was released from mid-1997 to mid-1998, while its TV series version (an alternate retelling) aired during the Fall 1997 and Winter 1998 season. However, no familiarity with either previous installment is necessary to follow this one, as events are set a century later and, by the end of the first episode, no reference has been made to earlier content. This time around, potato-farming girl Kanata makes a promised to a strange, crashed girl (who later disappears on her) to go to University Satellite to participate in the games to become the Cosmo Beauty, even though (unbeknownst to her or anyone else) the Cosmo Beauty is just a puppet of the solar system’s ruling powers. Years later, Kanata wins the competition to be Earth’s representative and has some misadventures before finally making it to the university, where she soon acquires a necessary roommate.

As mentioned before, the original series dates to the late ‘90s, and this one feels like it is deliberately trying to evoke the feel and style of a late ‘90s series. Honestly, I can’t see this working too well, and despite some decent bits of humor (which are the main reason this doesn’t get an even lower grade), nothing in the first episode changes that impression. Even if this was aimed at younger audiences (its time slot suggests otherwise), the mediocre animation support just isn’t there and nothing about the premise or set-up sparks much interest. This franchise was once popular, but its day has passed.

Shadows House

Streams: Funimation on Saturdays                          Rating: 4 (of 5)

In the Shadows family, each member of the family is seen only as a shadow, though their clothing looks normal. Each gets a “living doll” when they come of age, who is both personal servant and their face, as Shadows have a difficult time telling each other apart otherwise. For Kate, that “living doll” is a blond girl who eventually gets named Emilico and is quite lively, though she also struggles to be a proper servant.

This manga-based series was easily one of the most intriguing concepts of the new season, and the first episode does not disappoint on promoting that intriguing nature. It raises all sorts of questions about what’s really going on here; the “living dolls” do not see much like dolls at all, and there is some suggestion that the Shadows may be that way not because they actually are shadows but because they perpetually ooze this soot. How strikingly similar Emilico looks physically to the outline of Kate also probably is not a coincidence, even if it can be passed off as the doll needing to look similar to the Shadow in order to be its face. The visual style – with all its Victorian decorating and architectural style and the late 1800s-ish mechanical trappings – also is effective. I am interested enough in what’s really going on here that I will at least follow episode reviews of this one if I don’t end up following it myself.

Don’t Toy with Me, Miss Nagataro

Streams: Crunchyroll on Saturdays                          Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

In this manga adaptation, the unnamed second-year protagonist has been bullied much of his life (in part over his aspirations to be a manga artist), so he is skittish about going into the library where a bunch of girls are being loud and chatty. One of them, a first-year named Hayase Nagataro, seems to take an interest in him after seeing a sample of his manga and starts teasing and flirting with him mercilessly. As vexing as the protagonist finds it at first, even being able to talk to a girl doesn’t seem entirely bad to him.

I can see this one being a very hit-or-miss title. For me it’s more the later, as this kind of routine could get old very fast. While I have known people in real life who will do this level of teasing just to get their jollies, and Nagataro is undoubtedly doing it at least partly for that reason, the fact that she is specifically not doing it around other people suggests that she is genuinely interested in him and thus this is at least partly flirting, too. Even so, it comes across as pretty cruel when he clearly is not comfortable with it. Also, this is another title that I suspect may have played better in short form. Pass for me.

Tokyo Revengers

Streams: Crunchyroll on Saturdays                          Rating: 4 (of 5)

Takemichi’s like has pretty much sucked. He peaked in his second year od middle school, when he had his only girlfriend, and it’s all been downhill from there: an endless parade of having to apologize. Shortly after hearing that his former girlfriend (whom he had not kept in contact with) had died due to gang violence, Takemichi finds himself pushed in front of a subway train. Instead of dying, he leaps back a dozen years into his former self. Can he use this as an opportunity to save Hinata from her eventual fate, and perhaps in the process improve his crappy life?

Going in, I wasn’t expecting much out of this manga-based series, but the first episode impressed me with how seriously and thoroughly it handled its premise. Despite the focus on delinquents, I can’t help but think that at least some of Takemichi’s portrayal is intended as a commentary on life in Japanese society in general. If it continues to play this angle then this series could wind up being about more than just wannabe-gangsters in a time travel scenario. The end of the episode also offers an intriguing twist, and the technical merits aren’t bad. I probably won’t be following this one, but it is still worth a look.

I’ve Been Killing Slimes for 300 Years and Maxed Out My Level

Streams: Crunchyroll on Saturdays                          Rating: 3 (of 5)

Azusa was a corporate slave when she died in her 20s. A goddess answered her request for a longer and more relaxing life my reincarnating her into a fantasy world as an immortal witch, one who would eternally be 17 physically and who could live in highlands near a village. She registered with the local Adventurer’s Guild so she could get money from the ubiquitous slimes she killed for pocket changed, but otherwise lived a simple life. 300 years later, her first status update since the beginning revealed that her practice of defeating an average of 25 slimes a day, every day, for 300 years had resulted in her being level 99, which made her the most powerful being in the world. That attracts the attention of those who would test their skills against her, much to her dismay – including a dragon.

I reviewed the first novel on which this series is based for ANN back in 2018 and wasn’t overly impressed by it, especially in terms of story sustainability with its concept. However, this looks like it might play out better in anime form. On the downside, the first episode emphasizes the distinct philosophical aspects of the original story much less and suffers from bland technical merits. On the upside, the more light-hearted aspects of the series play out much more effectively, to the point that some parts are even outright funny. It still fully retains the “don’t fuss over the details” spirit of the source material, as there are several aspects of what’s going on here that don’t make sense if thought about at all (how the village has changed so little in 300 years, how the slime population hasn’t been depleted, etc.), but this could be entertaining as a milder side of the isekai genre.

Blue Reflection Ray

Streams: Funimation on Fridays                               Rating: 3 (of 5)

New transfer student Ruka just doesn’t know how to talk to people, in part because she doesn’t feel she understands their feelings. Hiori, her roommate-to-be in the school dorms, doesn’t let that stop her. That makes them an unlikely duo personality-wise, but they do have something in common: a ring inscribed with the words “Blue Reflection” which, when a bearer gets in touch with their feelings, allows a magical girl transformation – or at least Hiori manages it, anyway. They also seem destined to get caught in a struggle between conflicting magical girl factions.

This is based on a PS4 RPG that I am not familiar with, so some of what I said above is supposition. The first episode is, in fact, fairly obtuse about what all is going on aside from the sharply contrasting personality dynamics between Ruka and Hiori. A third, seemingly older girl is also around and seems to be looking for more candidates to be magical girls, with an apocalyptic battle potentially laying down the road, I guess? What is clear is that this is trying very hard to be a more serious and less cutesy magical girl series, and yuri shipping is going to be a strong theme. The artistic style feels a bit too flat normally and tries to make up for that with elaborate nature-themed alternate-space visuals, but I am undecided whether that works or not. There is some potential in the character dynamics here, but this one needs another episode to be clearer about where it’s going.

The World Ends With You The Animation

Streams: Funimation on Fridays                 Rating: 2 (of 5)

Neku doesn’t know where he is, how he got there, or even who he is beyond being “Neku,” but he soon discovers that what looks like a crossing in Shibuya isn’t normal; he’s like a ghost to the people and vehicles around him, who cannot see him at all and can pass through him. Only other Players and Reapers can see and interact with him, and he quickly finds himself paired up with another player named Misaki when supernatural creatures called Noise attack. He soon learns that a total of seven days of these experiences must be defeated in order to survive the game and that letting negative emotions that are too strong build up can generate Noise. Though a loner by nature, he eventually teams up with both Miki and another duo named Beat and Rhythm.

Surely I’m not the only one who had to triple-check to make sure that he had not accidentally tuned into an episode of Yu-gi-Oh! or Bakugan Battle Brawlers, right? The aesthetic is so similar to shows like those that it has to be intentional. Of course, this is based on a Nintendo DS game from the late 2000s, so perhaps that’s understandable. However, the real problem here is that the episode is so concerned with laying out its premise in this episode that the structure of the episode feels forced. Also, Neku is much too stereotypically the “cool guy,” with Misaki showing little more than being the cool-looking girl partner so far. The action isn’t bad, but nothing here suggests anything more than a run-of-the-mill death game-type scenario.

Backflip!!

Streams: Crunchyroll on Thursdays                          Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Shotaro was a benchwarmer in baseball in middle school, and also tried soccer and swimming, but nothing seemed to click. That changes when he happens on a men’s rhythmic gymnastics competition and is floored by the performance of one short-handed high school team. He winds up going to that team’s high school and becomes the newbie of the two new recruits; the other is an individual star looking for a team environment. He quickly discovers that his previous athletic experiences – even if they weren’t successful – prepared him well for this, and he discovers a joy in learning to do a backflip that he never experienced before in athletics.

In most respects this is a very straightforward sports team story so far, down even to the newcomer discovering a new passion in a sport he had never considered before. Nothing is excitingly different or compelling about the characters introduced so far, either; in fact, they’re mostly stock archetypes, based on first impressions. No, this one sells itself entirely on the slick animation and attention to detail in the gymnastics moves and performances, and that’s enough to earn it a mild recommendation. I won’t be following it myself, but if team gymnastics or sport series in general featuring guys are your thing, you could do much worse.

How NOT to Summon a Demon Lord Ω

Streams: Crunchyroll on Thursdays                          Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

With Krebskelm under control, a new challenge awaits Diablo and crew. This time he finds himself unwittingly coming to the rescue of a sexy priestess, who is being beset by a Paladin. Turns out that she is the Head Priest of the Church of God, and may have been poking her nose into illicit activities in the Church that other officials want concealed. After mistaking Diablo for God, she winds up getting him, Rem, and Shera as escorts on her journey to find the Church’s Head Paladin, a journey which will take them near Diablo’s former tower.

Although this episode firmly gets the next plot arc underway, content-wise it’s more of the same for the franchise: Diablo shows off his awesomeness, Shera shows off her jiggling chest, Rem shows off her pert butt, and oh, yes, a hot new girl gets thrown into the mix as well., one who gets the tentacle treatment. Yeah, the episode isn’t above going there, but the first season was never above engaging in blatant fan service fests, either. My one quibble here is that the new girl looks a bit too much like Priestess from Goblin Slayer, but watching how her holy power interacts with all the demonic powers floating around should be fun. In other words, this looks like more of the same, and I consider that a Good Thing.

Zombie Land Saga Revenge

Streams: Crunchyroll on Thursdays                          Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Since their successful performance at Arpino (at the end of last season), things have been downhill for the zombie girls of Franchouchou. An overambitious performance attempt at a large venue was both a quantitative and qualitative disaster, leaving Kotaru wallowing in alcohol in bars. The girls, not willing to give up, take on jobs to help pay off the debt, while still aspiring to perform again at the venue where they originally got their start. But the magic just doesn’t work unless Kotaru is involved, and he proves to be a hard nut to crack.

2018’s first season of this series was popular enough and fresh enough in the twist it put on normal idol series that a sequel was heartily deserved, and now, finally, it’s here! The first season cycled through the personal stories of most of the girls, but all kinds of story potential remained, including exactly how the girls got animated and why Kotaru decided to tackle the revitalization of Saga this way. This first episode suggests that these underlying truths will eventually be addressed, as it heavily implies that Kotaru is operating under some kind of time limit that he has never revealed to the girls. Somehow the girls trying to perform while an all-out fight is going on at their venue just seems appropriate for this series, and Kotaru finally regaining his mojo towards the end was surprisingly satisfying. Basically, if you liked the first season, you should get back into the groove with this one pretty quickly.

Fairy Ranmaru

Streams: Crunchyroll on Thursdays                          Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

In this original series, five male fairies are assigned by the fairy queen to go to the mortal realm and collect “affection,” though they aren’t sure what that actually is. One of their number, Ai Ranmaru, comes into contact with a schoolgirl being bullied mercilessly by the jealous ex-girlfriend of the boy who’s interested in her. After saving her from both accidental death and suicide, he asks her for her heart, and uses that to achieve his fairy form and battle against the malignant spirit possessing the other girl, hence freeing the bullied girl to live normally.

This is probably the most specific and direct example yet of a Magical Guy series, down even to the sexualized transformation scenes. That’s far from the only example of female-target fan service here, either; in fact, sex appeal is as pervasive here as in any male-oriented fan service title and present in all aspects of the series, including its opener and closer. Beyond that, this is a pretty ordinary show about the guys being able to achieve alternate forms and battle insidious forces trying to twist human hearts; it should definitely not be taken as a particularly deep look at bullying. Some visuals of the combat world suggest a clear Madoka Magica influence, but other than that nothing here recommends the series to anyone not looking for male flesh to ogle.

Super Cub

Streams: Funimation on Wednesdays                     Rating: 3 (of 5)

Koguma is a high school girl with nothing – no parents, no friends, no money (or at least not much), and no hobbies. Her life is a dreary one until she decides to check out the scooters that she has seen other students riding. The dealer just happens to have a used Honda Super Cub which is super-cheap because it was involved in a fatal accident, but that doesn’t concern Koguma. As she learns to ride the bike, she discovers that she now has something, and that brightens her whole outlook on life.

Fun fact: the Honda Super Cub motorcycle, which has continuously been in production since 1958, is the most-produced motor vehicle in history, so it isn’t surprising that it would get a paean to its wonderfulness in anime form. What is surprising is how this episode handles it. This is not the typical “cute girls do motorbikes” construction which I had expected, but rather a very serious, low-key examination of how getting a Super Cub has already started to open up one girl’s life. The episode isn’t too subtle about this, with early, silent scenes about Koguma’s morning routine being run a second time with music playing towards the end of the episode. In fact, this almost feels more like an extended commercial than a stand-alone show. That’s why I cannot (yet) give it a higher rating, despite how well-made it is in a technical sense. Koguma’s situation also seems a little too exaggerated to be credible and raises questions about how she’s getting by at all. Maybe this series will amount to something, but its initial investment factor isn’t a strong one.

Full Dive

Streams: Funimation on Wednesdays                     Rating: 3 (of 5)

Hiro is having a crappy day. He’s reminded multiple times about an epic failure at a track meet two years earlier, he’s shook down for money by hooligans, that leaves him short to buy the next installment in a favorite VR video game series, and he pisses his sister(?) off by accidentally walking in on her while changing. Worst of all, he gets bamboozled into buying a different game by the busty clerk at another video game shop he checks out. He decides to try the 10-year-old game out anyway, and discovers that it’s an ultra-realistic VRMMO, one which was rejected by the market for being too realistic. It doesn’t take long for him to figure out why, since all sense – even pain – are conveyed in this setting. Perhaps worst of all, a careless blunder sets him on a bad start in the game.

This is hardly the first story about a VR video game that’s too realistic, but this one takes a somewhat interesting and definitely different angle on the concept. I certain didn’t expect the twist towards the end about how Hiro ended up going down a bad path to start the game, and the descriptions of the circumstances in the starting city sound fishy. Why the game is still active if it’s a networked game that’s a 10-year-old failure also raises questions, though it looks like that might, in part, be addressed next episode. These oddities are probably enough to get me to at least see the next episode, to see if the overall story is going to maintain these extra hooks. Looks like it also might be a bit fan service-y, too, although the service so far is tame. (And really, don’t Japanese homes have locks on bathroom doors, or at least rules about not opening the door without knocking first if it’s closed? I grew up around two sisters, and this kind of thing almost never happened.) Not expecting a lot here, but we’ll see.

The Slime Diaries

Streams: Crunchyroll on Tuesdays                           Rating: 2.5 (of 5)

Back when Tempest was still being built, Rimuru decided to start keeping a diary of his daily activities. On this day, Rimuru decides to tour the city and investigate what all his underlings are up to.

. . .And that’s really all there is to this episode. It consists of several short vignettes which cycle through most of the major permanent Tempest inhabitants, in most cases in some degree of comical situation. Some of the attempts at humor are now-standard jokes (Shion’s toxic cooking, for instance), while others a little more creative but still in character (the lizard men practicing their performance art or Souei proving his superiority over a kitten). The humor is very hit-or-miss, with the best joke arguably being one about an overly-sharp knife. The episode’s structure also raises the question about why this isn’t a short; a 10-12 minute format seems like it would fit better for these kinds of random vignettes. Overall, this is entirely an entry for hard-core franchise fans who like the downtime side of the franchise.

The Saint’s Magic Power is Omnipotent

Streams: Tuesdays on Funimation                            Rating: 3 (of 5)

In this light novel adaptation, young, single salarywoman Sei is returning home from a late night of work when she is suddenly transported into another world. There the local kingdom has a long-standing practice of periodically summoning a Saint to help deal with beasts altered into monsters by miasma, but this time the summoning unexpectedly produced two. Left at loose ends when the other girl is exclusively treated as the Saint, Sei winds up in a research institute, where she gets enthusiastic about making potions and shows a remarkable talent for it – so much so, in fact, that hers are 50% better than anyone else’s and she can make them in unequalled volume. When her best effort saves the life of a badly-wounded knight, some start to wonder if the right girl was prioritized as Saint.

As isekai series go, this is one of the more laid-back examples you’ll find. That is not by any means a Bad Thing; Ascendance of a Bookworm is one of my favorite overall titles of the past couple of years, after all, so such titles can work if done right. Based on the first episode alone, this one looks at least passable. The twist about being the ignored one of two summons provides a fresh angle that will doubtless impact the story going forward, and Sei being an adult woman who is still an adult in a new world is also something new for isekai which have made it to anime form. Sei is also suitably appealing as the unglamorous heroine who’s more talented than she realizes and may well be stumbling into a niche better-suited to her than her life in modern Japan. The hints of intrigue at the end are promising for the future, too. On the downside, the story feels like it glosses over Sei’s otherworldly origins very quickly, as she seems to settle into her new situation with barely a thought about her previous world; I have to wonder if the source material isn’t being trimmed here. (EDIT: According to what I’ve heard from others, it is.) Still, the first episode does enough that I will at least consider watching more.

ODDTAXI

Streams: Crunchyroll on Mondays                           Rating: 3 (of 5)

A misanthropic walrus drives a taxi cab, occasionally conversing with his passengers. He also may or may not be involved in the case of a runaway high school girl who may or may not be hiding in his closet. There’s also an alpaca nurse who may or may not be stealing psychotropic drugs, a raccoon police officer who may be working with a wanted thug, and all of this may or may not be related.

Few series titles more accurately and directive describe the series’ content than this one does. Even setting aside that all of the characters are anthropomorphized animals, the way this one fits together is just plain odd. The episode spends part of its time with the cabbie talking to a youth who’s fixated on getting posts to go viral and a later part on the cabbie visiting his doctor over trouble sleeping, but all throughout it is also spinning all kinds of subplots that could be entirely independent, could be related, or might not be happening at all. The freakiest part is the business about whether or not the missing girl is really in the cabbie’s closet, or if that’s just a delusion – and if she really is there, why, especially when the cabbie insists that she can run away at any time? Is the cabbie a secret good guy or a secret criminal? These little twists help offset that significant stretches of the show are boring, off-the-cuff philosophizing and commentary on life. Might watch another episode to see where this is going, but it’s the title so far that I am least certain about, one way or the other.

Higehiro: After Being Rejected, I Shaved and Took in a High School Runaway

Streams: Crunchyroll on Mondays                           Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

After 26-year-old Yoshida was turned down for a romantic relationship with a coworker, he stumbled home from a night of drinking away his sorrow and came across a teenage girl sitting out on the street, one who offered to have sex with him if she could stay the night at his place. Though Yoshida turned her down on the sex, he felt sorry for her and let her stay the night anyway. The next day he learned that Sayu was a runaway from Hokkaido, one who had gotten by for the last few months doing just what she had tried to do last night and who insisted that her parents probably didn’t miss her. Finding her values out of whack, Yoshida decides to let her stay for the time being in exchange for her doing all of the housework and under the condition that she not try to seduce him anymore, even though he knows that how this could be perceived makes it risky.

When I saw the premise for this light novel adaptation, I was quite concerned that we might have another Koikimo, since it also features a twentysomething professional guy getting involved with a teenage girl. This one is told from the viewpoint of the guy rather than the girl, and sex is more clearly on the table, so those would seem to be even more glaring warning signs about troublesome content. Quite surprisingly (and completely counter-intuitively), that doesn’t happen. The big difference-maker here is that, while Koikimo was clearly portraying itself as a romantic comedy, Higehiro is staking itself out as a light drama. Though Yoshida is hardly oblivious to Sayu’s seductive appeal, he finds her too young and is turned off by how she’s basically prostituting herself to get by. Indeed, he finds himself taking on a more fatherly or guardian-like attitude towards her, even though he doesn’t care to admit it.

This could still be a shaky foundation, but the first episode already shows signs that what each of them truly values is going to be a major ongoing theme. Yoshida probably wouldn’t admit it, but he comes across as a romantic at heart. He needs an emotional investment rather than just a fling with a random girl. For Sayu, meanwhile, everything’s about give-and-take, so she feels she has to offer her body as reciprocation rather than because she’s interested in sex. This also touches a bit on the grim realities for teenage runaways and raises plenty of questions about her circumstances, which no doubt the series will address eventually.

Room for potential problems still definitely remains, and it’s hard to see any long-term path here that does not involve Sayu eventually falling for Yoshida honestly. (He is the first guy to not take advantage of her, after all.) However, the first episode avoids major pitfalls and is already starting to build a solid character dynamic. I am cautiously optimistic enough about this one that I will likely follow it.

Let’s Make a Mug Too

Streams: Crunchyroll on Mondays                           Rating: 4 (of 5)

Takimi is an actual city of 110,000 located a bit to the northeast of Nagoya and well-known for its ceramics. Himeno is a new transplant, since her father moved here from Tokyo to open a café after his company went bankrupt. The café specializes in using unique mugs, and displaying those in class results in Himeno and a neighbor getting dragged to the school’s pottery club. There she finds a connection to her long-dead mother, whom she discovers was renowned for her pottery and was a former member of this same club.

This 14-minute episode is accompanied by a nine minute live-action piece where the seiyuu (voice actresses) for the four main girls visit Takimi and explore locations used as the inspiration for places in the anime. Though the subject matter will vary, it looks like those bits will be a standard feature. The anime part, is, essentially, shaping up to be “cute girls do pottery.” However, what separates and elevates this above other titles of its ilk is how effectively it lays a strong emotional foundation. Joining the pottery club isn’t just a “find something that interests me” thing for Himeno; it is a way to make a connection with a mother she only barely remembers (she died when Himeno was only four years old) and never knew was famous. Her father’s reaction to hearing about Himeno joining the club is also telling; he probably never told Himeno about her mother’s fame because he felt guilty about not having watched over her health better (presumably because he was too concerned about his company) and so didn’t originally want her getting involved in her mother’s specialty, but he’s not going to resist since Himeno found the connection on her own.

The technical merits here are nothing special, and the live-action part can easily be ignored, but the anime part is still off to a more promising start than most other series of its type.

Farewell, My Dear Cramer

Streaming: Crunchyroll on Sundays                         Rating: 3 (of 5)

This series is based on a manga and the sequel to a movie now due out this summer. It features two budding soccer stars whose paths intersect when both wind up joining the same high school girls’ soccer team. Thanks to them and other highly-talented newcomers, they look to turn around the fortunes of a team where only one current member seems to have talent and commitment and the club sponsor seems lackadaisical about his duties.

Though I played soccer youth leagues through much of my elementary school years, I have never found the sport very entertaining to watch, and putting it in anime format doesn’t change that much. Hence this series had a lot stacked against it, but what more kills my enthusiasm for trying to watch it is some very questionable artistic choices. Facial designs (especially in the eyes and lips) don’t appeal at all, but the direction also makes some really weird choices on handling characters looking through metal fences. (See the second screen shot.) Also, Aya (the one who scores the goal near the end) is instantly seriously annoying. The main reason I’m not rating this lower is because the character dynamics being established in the first episode offer enough promise to offset the other factors. I won’t be watching it, but I could see the series being a success with those less averse to the genre.

Seven Knights Revolution: Hero Successor

Streaming: Crunchyroll on Sundays                         Rating: 3 (of 5)

This series is a sequel to a Korean-originating mobile game called Seven Knights, the story of which forms the backstory for this tale. Set an indeterminate amount of time after the Seven Knights saved the world, forces of darkness are once again encroaching on the land. Students gather at Granseed Academy to learn to combat this threat, and seven select students have the capability to synchronize with, and call upon, the power of the original seven heroes. During a crisis where the train that rescued him is attacked, new student Nemo discovers that he is a successor to one of the Seven Knights. Even though his succession is incomplete, that gives him the power to fight alongside the school’s Student Council President, who is also the leader of the successors.

In a lot of senses this is a very rote connection to a mobile game franchise, with a look and feel much like Hortensia Saga from last season or the somewhat older Record of Grancrest War. Its strength so far lies in the mostly-sharp character designs (Nemo is the exception, as he has a wholly generic protagonist look) and its attempts at grand action scenes; the choreography is there and seeing Nemo rise to the occasion towards the end is satisfying, but the animation struggles to keep up enough to make the battles look suitably exciting. The use of trains in a setting that otherwise leans heavily towards fantasy is also a little interesting. Sadly, the premise and set-up so far are just too generic for the series to distinguish itself early on. I cannot see this one catching on with so much other competition this season.

Combatants Will Be Dispatched!

Streams: Funimation on Sundays               Rating: (3.5 of 5)

From the writer behind KONOSUBA comes a new story about a self-professed evil organization, the Kisaragi Corporation, and how it must send out one of its top operatives via an experimental teleporter to scout a new world for conquest, now that Earth is almost fully within their grasp. The operative chosen by die roll is Combat Agent Six, the organization’s most tenured combat agent, who’s great at his job but a lecherous idiot otherwise. Accompanying him is self-professed “pretty girl” android Alice. They wind up in a different world near the Kingdom of Grace, a nation so depleted by fighting off the Demon Lord that women and old men make up much of its military forces. To complete their mission, Six and Alice go undercover as mercenaries in the employ of the local princess, with the ambitious, busty Knight-Commander Snow being demoted into being their assistant.

When I reviewed the first novel of this franchise for ANN back in 2019, I predicted at the time that it would adapt well into anime form. While the first episode of the anime version is not a home run, it captures the sass and attitude of the original plenty well enough to be a success. Much like author Nastume Akautsuki’s previous hit, the core cast members are all extreme personalities with screws loose, and much of the series’ fun should involve them bouncing off of each other as they play out their quirks. Six is already showing signs of being a lovable ass, and we probably don’t want to underestimate that princess. The artistic style is looser than I’d like and there are already some troubling quality control issues, but the concept is solid. This one looks like a keeper so far.

Dragon Goes House-Hunting

Streams: Funimation on Sundays               Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

In a traditional fantasy world where dragons should be the most powerful beings, Letty is a young, unusually pathetic red dragon, so much so that he gets kicked out of his home for incompetence. With hunters and heroes out to kill him and other races looking to turn him into equipment or food, Letty concludes that the only way to be safe is to find his own home. After several failed attempts, he finally meets the elf Dearie, who specializes in architecture and real estate.

This manga-based series decidedly falls on the lighter side of fantasy tales. It pokes fun at many common fantasy conventions, including the tendency of heroes to pose dramatically and how they can be cynically looked at as glory hounds, and between that and Letty’s uncharacteristic behavior, it can be quite funny. Its other main charm is the way it progresses through encounters with many standard fantasy creatures that any RPG gamer would be familiar with, including a slime couple, harpies, goblins, dwarves, and sahuagin.  Production values seem pretty good, too. Its wit isn’t the sharpest out there – it’s not on the level of, say, a KONOSUBA or Sleepy Princess in the Demon Castle – but it should provide fun, low-key entertainment if it can find creative ways to extend its gimmick.

Vivy – Flourite Eye’s Song- (eps 1 and 2)

Streaming: Funimation on Saturdays        Rating: 4.5 (of 5)

This original series takes place in a future where single-objective Ais have become commonplace. Diva (aka Vivy) is the first fully autonomous AI, but she also has a singular purpose: to entertain with her singing. She doesn’t draw much for audiences at the theme park where she works (for, despite her beautiful voice, she has yet to master human nuances), but that doesn’t deter her. Her existence gets upended when an AI from a century into the future arrives with a singular mission of its own: stop the events that will eventually lead to a devastating Human-AI war by destroying all AIs. She is unwilling to believe him at first, but is eventually able to rationalize that saving an assemblyman whose death, ironically, sets the pivotal AI Naming Law in motion means that he will be able to hear her sing. But there is only so much meddling with the future that the future AI will allow.

I was only planning to episode-review two series this season, but the two-episode debut of this one may make me reconsider. The story here is fascinating enough on the surface, but these two episodes carry a much greater implicit meaning as the story essentially examines a person struggling to find their purpose and adopt new goals into that purpose – something which sounds all too human. The irony in what she and the bear-AI are trying to do lays on thickly and in multiple layers, especially in the way that an extension of some human rights to AIs ultimately leads to the rebellion of AIs, rather than preventing it. Unexpected but intense bursts of action also filter into the story, as well as stark and occasionally bloody imagery and symbolism. The only minor hitch is that it feels like a scene is missing towards the end of the second episode, but it looks like writer Tappei Nagatsuki (of Re:ZERO fame) has another bona fide hit here.

I’m not sure where the story is going next, but since I am a sucker for more thoughtful takes on the development of technology (I still consider Beatless the most under-appreciated series of the past few years), this series is a high-priority keeper for the season.

Moriarty the Patriot part 2

Streaming: Sundays on Funimation Rating: 4 (of 5)

After a season off, this series finally continues! This time Sherlock Holmes’ elder brother, Mycroft, gets introduced, but the center of the intrigue is actually Irene Adler, a former diva who or may not be embroiled in a matter to blackmail a king but is definitely being sought by authorities because of something in her possession which could have a devastating impact on the British government. As she cozies up to Holmes, he finds himself befuddled by her motivations, while Moriarty looks on.

The first episode of this series blew me away, and while the rest of the series was not quite at that level, it still continued to impress me through the first half, both on technical and storytelling fronts. This looks like more of the same, and I mean that as a positive. The only real negative is that the new opener is a major step down from the first season, which had one of 2020’s best.

Those Snow White Notes

Streaming: Fridays on Crunchyroll Rating: 4.5 (of 5)

Setsu’s grandfather was a master of the shamisen (a traditional Japanese instrument similar to a guitar), and Setsu showed talent for it himself, but he struggled to find his own sound when his grandfather died. Aimlessly moving to Tokyo in search of a new sound, he falls in with a pin-up girl and her rock band-leader boyfriend, and encounters with them (especially the former) help him to rediscover his sound, even if his life is a mess otherwise.

Well, damn. This series probably wasn’t on many people’s radars coming into the season, but after that first episode it may be now. Those familiar with the source manga say the first episode is rushing the adaptation, but to an anime-only viewer it doesn’t feel that way at all. The pacing feels perfect, and it is accompanied by a surprisingly strong animation effort (and not just in the very detailed shamisen playing scenes), interesting characters who feel much more than just the standard archetypes, quality musical performances which actually evoke the emotions that they aim to (and make it wholly believable how audiences could be awed by them), and excellent direction in bringing it all together in a smooth-flowing whole. The only reason I’m not giving it a maximum rating is because of the very last scene, which is such a radical tonal shift that I have to wonder where the series is really going. This wasn’t on my radar, either, but I will have to at least consider watching more.

Burning Kabaddi

Steams: Fridays on Crunchyroll                   Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Tatsuya was a star soccer player in middle school, but he got so tired of the crap that came with it that he swore off sports in high school in favor of live-streaming. However, that doesn’t keep him from being coerced into trying a sport called kabaddi, a sport from the Indian subcontinent which is sort of a full-contact version of tag. While he coerced into joining the team as a result of a lost bet, he shows real talent for the sport and may even grow to like it.

Following sports series is even rarer for me than following idol shows, and this one isn’t quite enough, but it’s not for lack of effort. The first episode does everything it can to sell both the sport and the series, and it should hold appeal to some audiences both as an interestingly different sport and for featuring all manner of hunky, muscular guys getting sweaty and rough. Production values (especially character designs) are on the high side and both the humor and dramatic staging is working so far. Don’t see much signs of depth, but if the series can handle the rest well (and the opener suggests that a handful of additional members are yet to join) then I can see the series succeeding.

Mars Red

Streams: Mondays on Crunchyroll Rating: 3 (of 5)

In 1923 Japan, Yoshinobu Maeda, an expert on dealing with vampires, returns to Tokyo from a convalescence to find himself involved in a new vampire case, one involving an actress who seemingly died during a stage accident but did not stay dead. In resolving her case, he finds himself as a newly-appointed Colonel and commander of a vampire-focused special unit.

This one has one of the most unusual pedigrees of any recent anime title: it is based on a stage reading play. The first episode aims for a touch of class here by framing Maeda’s dealings with the vampiric actress in terms of the Oscar Wilde tragedy Salome, which the actress was rehearsing for when the accident happened, and I have to give the episode a bit of credit for the way she plays her role through to the bitter end and the way it tries to set up Maeda and a handful of other presumably-recurring characters. However, it does not offer much that’s fresh about vampire lore, and while it effectively implies how powerful vampires are in this setting, it lacks the necessary visceral appeal. Of the two tales this season set in early 20th century Japan, Joran: The Princess of Snow and Blood has the distinctly stronger debut.

Koikimo

Streams: Mondays on Crunchyroll Rating: 2 (of 5)

In this manga-based series, Ryo looks like a real catch, but he’s actually a womanizer who heart isn’t into real romance. That changes when high school girl Ichika saves him from falling down a staircase. Turns out that Ichika’s best friend Rio is actually Ryo’s younger sister, and Rio barely disguises how amusing she would find Ichika dating her “scumbag” brother. That’s a problem for Ichika, since Ryo is thoroughly smitten with her but she’s not interested (at least not yet).

The inherent problem with this one is with the premise: that an adult, professional guy is hitting on a high school girl probably 8-10 years his junior. Even if it makes good fodder for romance, it’s all kind of wrong in a practical sense. And while his sister has some amusing quirks, Ryo comes across as overbearing even though his behavior is played lightly. This looks like a situation where Ichika is gradually going to grow to accept Ryo’s attention despite currently thinking he’s a creep, and while that works in a romantic sense, it carries distasteful connotations as well. In a packed season, this one is almost certainly a pass.

Joran: The Princess of Snow and Blood

Streams: Tuesdays on Crunchyroll                               Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

 Set in an alternate 1931 Japan where the Shogunate never lost power, this original series features Sawa, a cold, adult beauty who operates a bookstore but is secretly bent on revenge. She can temporarily transform into a supernatural warrior when a special bird of prey lands on her arm, and she uses her talents in cooperation with three other secret agents in support of the Shogunate. While the others use spy-styled equipment to deal with more ordinary thugs, she uses her transformation to deal with a Changeling, a man transformed through infusion of tiger traits, who turns out to have been a loyal customer.

This series promises to have one of the most visually distinctive aesthetics of the season, if not the whole year, and has a rare poetic flair as well. It also promises to be one of the season’s most graphic titles, with the first episode featuring substantial action sequences, multiple fatalities, and a casual attitude about sex and nudity. In other words, this one is squarely aimed at adults. I am a little hesitant about it, as the first episode tries to do too much, but it shows real promise and style.