Spring ’22 Episode Reviews

As previously stated, episode reviews will continue with Ascendance of a Bookworm s3. After watching second episodes of a number of other titles, I have decided to go with Spy x Family as my second regular week-to-week title for the season. This looks like it could be a fun title to talk about, and it will almost certainly be the season’s biggest smash hit. I am not completely ruling out doing a third title, either; could be Summer Time Rendering if Disney+ starts making it available or I can find a reliable “alternate” option for watching it.

Other titles that I currently expect to follow this season, and thus may occasionally comment on, include the following:

  • Maybe Date a Live IV (this one is borderline for week-to-week)
  • Dawn of the Witch (though I’m leery about this one after the rather bad episode 2)
  • Healer Girl
  • I’m Quitting Heroing
  • Love After World Domination
  • Shikimori’s Not Just a Cutie
  • Skeleton Knight in Another World
  • The Demon Girl Next Door s2
  • The Executioner and Her Way of Life
  • The Rising of the Shield Hero s2

. . .And maybe one or two others that I’m still contemplating.

Spy x Family Episode 2

Rating: 5 (of 5)

Normally I wouldn’t opt for the season’s top series (in terms of popularity) for something like this, but after seeing episode 2, I could not resist choosing this one. This could well be one of the rare cases where quality and popularity dovetail perfectly, and how can I pass up on an opportunity to talk about that?

The first episode introduced and firmly-established the male spy Twilight (aka Loid Forger) and the telepathic little girl Anya, whom he is taking on as cover for an infiltration mission, while she accepts him as her father because she’s excited by knowing he’s a spy. (He doesn’t know that she knows, or is even telepathic.) But he still needs a wife/mother to complete his cover and infiltration, so episode 2 introduces Yor, a 27-year-old woman who masquerades as an airhead while secretly being an assassin code-named Thorn Princess. She also has her own complications not necessarily related to her real work, such as needing a boyfriend she doesn’t have for an upcoming party. Hence the two coinciding needs, combined with an encounter of coincidence and a little push from Anya (who finds the prospect of a mother who is also an assassin even more exciting!), result in them winding up as a makeshift married couple, complete with a grenade pin used as a proposal ring. And only Anya knows the full truth of who everyone really is.

This is an outstanding set-up for a series. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Anya is already firmly-establishing herself as the season’s biggest charmer, while Loid and Yor both also show their own appeals in this odd-couple arrangement; any minor concerns I had about how Yor might fit in have been blown out the window, as she seems like such a natural fit for this situation. The writing does not skimp on elaborating on her feelings and concerns, either, and the way that she has not totally subsumed her normal identity to her professional one should make for an interesting contrast to Loid going forward.

But the appeal of the second episode goes way beyond that. It finds a superior balance between serious and more light-hearted moments while also working in some more fantastic action sequences – some of it not even in the foreground. The art style fully captures the flavor and feel of a ’60s or ’70s spy series, while the setting borrows liberally from East Germany without being a slave to that comparison. The musical score is also in high swing. Most importantly, the great late sequence where the two agree to pose as a married couple while in the midst of a running fight gleefully captures the spirit of cheesy spectacle that so many anime series aim for but few achieve.

This one is special, guys n’ gals. You owe it to yourself to check it out if you aren’t already.

Ascendance of a Bookworm s3 episode 1 (episode 27)

Turi, Main, and their father Gunther

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

Ascendance of a Bookworm ranks up with 86 as one of my most favorite series of the past three years, so it may go without saying that its return to anime form was my most-anticipated title of the year, much less the Spring ’22 season. Since I previously did the episode reviews for the first two seasons for Anime New Network, I intend to continue them here. Since Crunchyroll is numbering the episodes by total instead of by season, I will use their episode numbering going forward.

Note #1: While I used the spelling Myne throughout the earlier episode reviews, I will begin using the spelling Main here since that is clearly what is being used in-character.

Note #2: For those who may need a refresher, I recommend checking out Episodes 26.5 p1 and p2, each of which succinctly recaps major developments from each season; the former is narrated by Lutz, while the latter is narrated by Gil, and both are available on Crunchyroll as well.

It doesn’t take long for the series to get back to what it does best: advance both the world-building and Main’s ambitions while also furthering the timeline. In this case, that means preparations for winter, including new clothing, and funding that means putting additional copies of Main’s first book on sale for the first time. That also means advancing the tech level further. With the request of Johann (a character who had blink-and-you’ll-miss-them brief appearances in earlier seasons) for Main to be his patron for his upcoming graduation project (my term, but that’s essentially what it is), the steps are set in motion for the development of a movable type printing press. Though this invention originated in China in some form as early as the late 9th century A.D., it first appeared in Europe in the 1450s and eventually revolutionized Europe, proving critical to many social and religious breakthroughs later on. The impact in this setting is also likely to be immeasurable.

But that’s a development that I suspect may be in the works for most of the season, as Johann has about a year to get things done. The more immediate concern is that the Ink Guild is not taking kindly to Main’s development of her own ink for printing books, and that is already starting to cause enough trouble that Main’s security has to be taken into account. This is something that was bound to happen eventually in the story, as Main is just too valuable an individual for too many reasons, and the passive way that the commoners of Ehrenfest who know her are covering for her can only go so far. What’s more, the final scene of the episode suggests that a noble may be pulling the strings behind the Ink Guild to get them to go after Main, though to what end is unclear.

That is a particularly important development, as it represents a key shift in the storytelling. Up until this point, the challenges and threats facing Main were very straightforward ones: how to make her book a reality, how to survive her Devouring condition, how to deal with people at the cathedral, and so forth. For the first time, Main is facing more covert dangers, which was inevitable now that nobles are more aware of her. Seeing how the circle around her tightens to protect her provides great story fodder for this season, as does seeing how Main adjusts to living away from home for the first time. The scene where she’s crying herself to sleep shows again how completely attached Main has become to her new family.

In short, it’s all good. Between all that and a few guest appearances of familiar faces, this a solid continuation that should please any fan of the earlier seasons.

How a Realist Hero Rebuilt the Kingdom episode 26

Rating: 4

The series has long vaguely intimated that something more – some bigger picture – was afoot in this story than has been revealed to this point. Too many things happened a little too conveniently, even if normal meta logic is applied; Kazuya noticed this himself, and those are the subject of the questions he directs to Albert and Elisha when he is finally able to have a sit-down with them on New Year’s Eve. He certainly gets answers, and wow, they certainly were not the answers that I might have expected.

Essentially, the whole story is a do-over driven by the former queen’s heretofore-unrevealed power: the ability to transfer memories into the past. Further, this isn’t even the first do-over. Albert has always seemed likely an oddly weak choice for such a capable-seeming woman as Elisha, but in truth, he became her husband because every other pairing she tried wound up in disaster for Elfrieden. He was also ultimately too weak to hold the kingdom together on his own, but Elisha got far closer to success with him than ever before, and he was also the first to father a daughter with her. So they decided to try one more time, with the crucial difference being that, when Kazuya was summoned this time, he was made king rather than prime minister. That set in motion the two critical differences: Liscia was drawn back to the castle and met Kazuya right away, and so was supporting him from the beginning, and no one could overrule him on using the Gemstone Broadcast this time. The latter then allowed Kazuya to gather his crucial personnel, and everything fell into motion from there.

The almost inscrutable behavior of Duke Carmine also becomes part of the scenario. He trusted Kazuya enough to go through with the plan to root out the corruption in the aristocracy because Albert filled him in about how effective Kazuya was as prime minister and how the aristocracy was the reason that situation fell apart. That’s still one hell of a lot of faith that Duke Carmine would have had to have in Albert, but doubtless he had his own misgivings about the aristocracy anyway. The ruthlessness of eliminating the other corrupt nobles and their families also makes more sense in this context, since Georg knew from Albert that the kingdom’s future stability hinged on it. A combination of that and the key personnel Kazuya gathered this time allowed the kingdom to avert disaster in its pivotal trials involving the rebellion and Amidonia and thus head down a more stable and prosperous course.

Wow. As final-episode reveals of the truth go, this one ranks pretty high on the Redefine the Series scale. It doesn’t excuse some of the other flaws the series has had, but it does put a whole new perspective on the way certain things happened. The episode then wraps up with Kazuya finally properly proposing to Liscia and a far more bland scene about reaffirming everyone’s loyalty to Kazuya. Meanwhile, Albert and Elisha plan to retire into obscurity to prevent them from being used as disruptions.

On the whole, this makes for a strong and more satisfying finish than I was expecting based on the way the previous few episodes went. While there is still more story tell and some big long-term plot threads to deal with, this seems like a worthy stopping point. I will not remember the series as one of my favorites, and overall would probably classify this as a mid-tier isekai title, but I don’t regret the time spent with it.

Spring ’22 Preview Guide

Last Update: 4:17 p.m. 4/10/22

Welcome to my version of the Spring 2022 Preview Guide! I expect to cover every full-episode series that will be debuting this season and some but not all of the sequels. (I will cover the continuations of The Rising of the Shield Hero, Ascendance of a Bookworm, Date a Live, The Demon Girl Next Door, and Tiger & Bunny.) These will be listed in newest to oldest order, and this post will be updated multiple times per day on busier days.

In addition, ESTAB LIFE: Great Escape has already been separately previewed here.

NOTE: Tiger & Bunny 2 is apparently going to drop as a 13-episode block, so I will not cover it here. It will instead get a full review a couple of weeks down the road.

Note #2: Since we’re mostly through the premiere season, I am entertaining recommendations on what to episode review for the Spring ’22 season. I will definitely continue with Ascendance of a Bookworm s3 (in fact, I will probably take that one directly to episode reviews rather than put it here) and am planning to do 1-2 others.

Note #3: With the posting of A Couple of Cuckoos, the Spring ’22 Preview Guide is now complete. It will be taken off sticky status by 4/26.

A Couple of Cuckoos

Streams: Crunchyroll on Saturdays

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Even in the world of anime, few titles come with a more contrived set-up than this adaptation of a shonen manga. The two leads were switched at birth, and now, 16 years later, the error has somehow been identified and the two families are meeting. To make things simpler (since exchanging the two to their biological parents is fraught with all sorts of complications), the parents have decided to have the two marry each other, so that way both sets can call both of them their children. The children in question are, of course, unaware of the full scheme (one doesn’t even know he’s going to an arranged marriage meeting), and just happen to bump into each other beforehand and end up in a “fake boyfriend” situation that might have some genuine emotional underpinnings. Oh, and the boy might not have minded had he not already resolved to confess to his academic rival once her manages to top her. (She’s #2 and he’s #1.)

So yeah, this isn’t anywhere near as messy as, say, Domestic Girlfriend, but the complicated contrivances still run deep. The technical merits are pretty strong and the characters designs are attractive and quite distinct, and the whole thing has a bit more mature air than normal. However, the camera also tends to linger on female co-protagonist Erika’s curves in a fan servicey way, and there are already hints of a harem-like set-up which may include male co-protagonist Nagi’s not-actually-related-by-blood sister. (She’s also got quite the figure for being a middle school student, so comparisons to SAO’s Suguha will be inevitable.) The first episode also shows a goofier side that may be immediately apparent. (Oh, and the title refers to the fact that some species of cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, with the intent of the other birds raising them, which lines up here. Cuckoos also symbolize unrequited love in Japan, so that may eventually be a double-meaning, too.)

I’m on the fence about this one. The first episode is well-made technically, but not far from being quite trashy in structure. Probably won’t follow it week-to-week but I can see maybe marathoning it around the end of the season.

Don’t Hurt Me, My Healer!

Streams: Crunchyroll on Sundays

Rating: 1.5 (of 5)

I can absolutely see what this series is supposed to be: a fun little romp on RPG adventuring, where the healer is so full of herself, and has such a difficult person, that it results in some humorous twists on standard RPG party dynamics. Carla is even a standard anime personality type: the (usually petite) girl who dryly makes everything more difficult than it has to be.

Unfortunately, almost none of this actually ends up being funny. Pinpointing what, exactly, goes wrong is difficult; jokes running on too long, and being too dialogue-focused when they could be visual, are certainly parts of the problem, as is Carla be more a complete ass than cute. Essentially, nothing ever gels here, to the point that I’m not sure if I even chuckled once during the episode. Director Nobuaki Nakanashi has done some wonderful work with comedy series before (see Kasimasi – Girl Meets Girl), so how completely this one fails is rather amazing.

Aoashi

Streams: Crunchyroll on Saturdays

Rating: 3 (of 5)

So it’s yet another series about soccer. Yawn.

To be fair, I actually found this one a little above average as soccer series go. Aoi may be a ball hog, but he’s also keenly aware of everything on the field and where everyone is, and takes advantage of that well enough to impress even a high-level coach. He also understands that he cannot get away with his style of play without his teammates setting him up for it. That puts him a step beyond the typical self-centered jock we normally see in sports series. He also has a bit more of a backstory than most, with circumstances constrained by his family’s poverty and a respect for his mother great enough that it gets him into trouble. I also appreciated the scene where the rival player who provoked him into throwing a disqualifying head butt felt the need to apologize for it.

But yeah, it’s still a soccer series, and it doesn’t have enough of a special feel to it to overcome that. No-go here.

In the Heart of Kunoichi Tsubaki

Streams: Crunchyroll on Saturadays

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Tsubaki is a promising young Kunoichi in a remote training facility which seems to be totally isolated from men; none of the girls have seen one, anyway, leaving the whole matter of what men are like up to rumor and speculation. Lately, though, she’s found herself obsessing over men, so much so that her desire to see one is becoming a distraction her squad mates have noticed, and she doesn’t understand why. (Apparently the instructors have not taught the girls about puberty.) But there are men on the other side of the mountain. . .

I found this one entertaining enough that I would at least consider watching more. It lands a few really sharp jokes (the incompetent girl who accidentally turns herself into something other than what she intended with Tranformation Jutsu, for instance) and seeing little Tsubaki trying to work out that she’s going man-crazy is amusing on its own. There’s just enough extra going on here for it to not be a one-joke premise, and the designs and animation look pretty good, too. Cannot see this one being a stand-out, but it should be a fun diversion.

Shikimori’s Not Just a Cutie

Streams: Crunchyroll on Saturdays

Rating: 3 (of 5)

A boy gallantly protecting a girl he loves has been a common story element over the years, so it’s only natural that a series would come along predicated on a complete role-reversal of that situation. In this case, male lead Izumi is the one who needs the protection, as horrible luck seems to plague him. Fortunately his girlfriend Shikimori is quite physically capable of looking out for him and preventing random calamities from happening, whether it be an eraser which slips from someone’s hands and bounces off someone’s foot towards Izumi or a sign that falls off the size of a building towards him. While Izumi is a bit bothered by having to rely on her like this, she sees it as no trouble at all.

I like the concept here, as well as some vague implications that Shikimori may be at least a little more than an ordinary human despite having perfectly ordinary friends. I also like that Izumi finds Shikimori’s cool side just as captivating as her cute side, and the two make a cute and fitting couple together. However, the first episode also feels a little too mellow, despite Shikimori’s bowling prowess and the incident with the falling sign. This one doesn’t have quite the spark to it that, say, Love After World Domination does (and certainly not the same level of technical merits), and in a season loaded with romantic comedies, that could hurt this series’ chances to stick out. Still, I’m at least mildly positive overall here.

Spy x Family

Streams: Crunchyroll on Fridays

Rating: 4.5 (of 5)

This was the most highly-anticipated new series of the Spring season by many, and the first episode easily lives up to that anticipation. The only reason I’m not giving it a maximum rating is because the crucial third component to the scenario – the mother character – isn’t introduced in this episode. If this was just going to be another father-daughter pairing, though, I would have pulled the trigger.

That’s because the episode hits on everything it aims to do. Establishing Twilight as a spy of exceptional skill and cunning is a standard move for spy-themed shows, but even on that front the show clicks by providing suitable thrill factors and action scenes. This could have been a solid premiere just focusing on him. Even so, Anya very nearly completely steals the show from the moment she first appears. It’s not just the cute factor or her adorable precociousness, either (although those are big factors); the child-logic, matter-of-fact way she interacts with others and uses her telepathy in pursuit of the family situation she desperately wants are also a delight, especially in the testing scene where she realizes that the kids around her don’t even know as much as she does, so cheating is pointless.

Above all else, the first episode nails its aesthetics and emotional balance. It has its fun moments, its cute moments, and its somber ones, and none of them get in the way of each other. This is a fine directorial effort by Kazuhiro Furuhashi (Ruroni Kenshin, Le Chevalier D’Eon, Dororo) and a strong technical effort by CloverWorks and Wit Studio. I’m probably going to have to follow it and won’t be surprised if it ends up being one of the season’s top shows.

Dancer Dance Danseur

Streams: Crunchyroll on Fridays

Rating: 4 (of 5)

There are certain anime series that I can appreciate without actually liking, and this is definitely one of them. As the title suggests, it is a series about ballet, with the first episode focusing on a boy who got passionately interested in ballet after seeing a male dancer as a kid but has gotten hung up on how un-manly ballet is. Hence by his middle school years he’s caught in a struggle between an activity which gives him a kind of thrill he cannot get anywhere else and maintaining a “cool” image. The problem for him is that those who actually know ballet – such as a relatively new girl at school and her mother, who operates a ballet studio – can see past that cool image and recognize the talent and enthusiasm in his moves, even when he’s trying to pass them off as Jeet Kun Do. Hence it’s a classic story about being torn between heart’s desire and outward appearance, with a pretty girl thrown into the mix for good measure.

The set-up for the story is solid, the animation of the ballet moves is sweet, and individual shots of characters in ballet poses capture the grace one would expect from ballet. There’s even the promise of a love triangle-type situation involving another boy. However, I’ll never be able to continue with this one because the character design style. As pretty as the designs are, characters uniformly have giraffe necks and a long-limbed style that’s always been a turn-off in more pure shoujo romance titles. Can’t get past that arcing white line in the characters’ eyes, either. I don’t have enough interest in ballet to overcome that, so this series will be a pass for me.

Date a Live IV

Streams: Crunchyroll on Fridays

Rating: 3 (of 5)

The fourth season of this remarkably durable franchise begins in the wake of the ending of season 3, so only those fully caught up on the franchise should even attempt to watch this episode. The series certainly doesn’t waste any time getting back to business as usual, as by the end of the episode a new Spirit has been introduced and Shido has already started the dating protocols. But naturally, there’s a couple of big twists this time: the Spirit initiated contact with Shido and proposed the dating scenario, rather than the other way around, and she may be a tough play for Shido because she admits to only being interested in “2D.” Further quirks include her Spirit Dress looking like a stylized nun’s habit and her being both a former popular manga-ka and a former captive of DEM (rescued, for as-yet-unexplained reasons, by Kurumi). Her Angel is also less combat-oriented and more information gathering-oriented.

In other words, the episode is doing its best to shake up what has become a staid format. I don’t feel it succeeded at that, though Nia Honjo does seem to provide a new personality alternative. Still, it should satisfy established franchise fans. (And as an interesting side note, this episode shows that the unfamiliar characters in a currently-running cross-over with the DanMachi franchise in the latter’s Memoria Freeze game apparently are 4th season characters, as Nia is one of them.)

Love After World Domination

Streams: Crunchyroll on Fridays

Rating: 4 (of 5)

No matter how serious they try to be, sentai series inherently have a certain level of goofiness about them. Hence it shouldn’t be surprising that one makes an ideal vehicle for a goofy take on the classic Romeo and Juliet love story. That’s the premise behind this new manga adaptation, and it clicks even better than its premise suggests that it might.

A big part of this is because central characters Red Gelato (the hero, from a whole team of Gelato-themed heroes and heroines) and Reaper Princess (the evil Secret Society member) may be elites when it comes to hero-villain battles, but they are super-lovable dorks when it comes to love. On one side you have a complete musclehead who approaches everything – including declaring his love for the one who has smitten him – with complete earnestness, while on the other side you have a woman utterly inexperienced with love who’s also very conscious of the exaggerated reputation she has among her cohorts. Watching them fumble through the early steps of a relationship while still pretending to be at each other’s throats whenever anyone else is around is more of a delight than I expected, blushing and all.

Unexpectedly sharp technical merits is also a plus, as is a casually fan servicey flavor to the visuals. (The attention to lace undergarments is particularly fine if you watch closely.) That content it unobtrusive enough, though, that it shouldn’t be a deal-killer for anyone. I can easily give this one a broad, general recommendation.

Miss Shachiku and the Little Baby Ghost

Streams: Crunchyroll on Thursdays

Rating: 2 (of 5)

Don’t let the cloying sweetness of this debut fool you; ghost babies are damn scary. (Look up the Norwegian utburd sometime.) But that’s beside the point here, as this series is all about an overworked female office drone who makes a connection with the ghost of an adorable toddler-sized child who tries to convince her to go home one night. Instead of scaring her off, though, the haunting energizes the office drone, hence establishing the beginnings of a beautiful relationship.

There are, of course, all sorts of obvious questions which can be asked here, such as how such a young ghost is haunting a middle floor of a multi-story office building or how she’s so fully tangible. But it’s okay because it’s cute, right? And the opener suggests that other adorable little spirits are going to show up eventually as well.

Yeah, no. 23 minutes of this is way too much at one time.

Heroines Run the Show

Streams: Crunchyroll on Thursdays

Rating: 2 (of 5)

This one gets such a low rating for exactly one reason: the voice of protagonist Hiyori utterly and completely grates on my nerves, to the point of making every other consideration about the opening episode trivial.

This isn’t the fault of the seiyuu not knowing what she’s doing. Inori Minase has a prodigious voice acting career over the past decade, and I have appreciated her work in many other roles, including Rem in Re:Zero, Hestia in the DanMachi franchise, Meteora in Re:CREATORS, and Reines in Lord El-Melloi II’s Case Files. But man, what were she and the director thinking in this case? Based on how her dialogue is subtitled, my guess is that they were going for the Japanese equivalent of a hick accent, but surely there was some other way to portray this? Hiyori being a high-energy character and a country bumpkin in the Big City means she’s spouting off and going “eeeeeeeehhhh?” all over the place, which just exacerbates the problem.

Complaints about the voice aside, the premise seems to be that she’s getting hired to be the manager-in-training for an up-and-coming male idol duo whom she literally sits in between in class, and that is further complicated by her already being aware of the tension behind the scenes between them. Not quite sure where this is going, but frankly, it does not seem like an interesting angle to take. A few potential side-character friends who might be worthwhile do pop up, but they are not enough to prevent this from being a big pass for me.

Skeleton Knight in Another World

Streams: Crunchyroll on Thursdays

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

On the surface, this looks every bit the standard “player trapped in a game world as his OP character” scenario, and indeed, that’s exactly the way this episode plays out. As usual, there’s no explanation for how he got in that situation or why, but ultimately that doesn’t matter. He gets to be the powerful knight character he was in the game – with a few bonus powers to boot! – and by golly, he’s going to have a blast playing that role out. The catch is that he chose a skeleton avatar, with the backstory explanation that he’s a wandering knight on a question to remove a vile curse, so he can’t show his face in town. But as Overlord proved, that’s never stopped a skeletal warrior before.

What makes this one work is the spirit of fun that pervades most of the episode. The player behind Arc is really getting into this and letting his enthusiasm show, and the peppy musical score, theme songs, and generally light-hearted tone all play into that well. The one utterly incongruous element is that the episode opens with (and then later returns to) an attempted rape scene which Arc breaks up by slaughtering the bandit perpetrators. That scene is rough and feels out of line with everything else; simple menacing probably would have sufficed there. The episode is also casually very graphic, though it does not dwell on this content, either. I can see the tonal whipsaw eventually being a problem, but for the moment it’s at least manageable. And I’d like to see some explanation for how he can eat normally (or even, for that matter, have hunger pangs) as a skeleton.

Ugh. I am actually looking for disposable titles at this point, as there are already a lot of good viewing prospects for the season (and more to come!), but this one has done plenty enough to merit watching more.

The Dawn of the Witch

Streams: Crunchyroll on Thursdays

Rating: 3 (of 5)

While this series is not technically a sequel to 2017’s Grimoire of Zero, is set in the same world five years after the events described in that series, and it does reference the concluding events of that series. (The school of magic present here is the one described at the end of Grimoire, for instance.) So far no familiarity with Grimoire seems to be necessary, though characters who look nearly identical to Zero and Mercenary from Grimoire are featured prominently in advertising copy for the series and so will presumably pop up eventually. Even so, the series looks like it could function as a stand-alone, but this is probably one I’ll be keeping an eye on as the season progresses.

The series itself is a mostly-typical fantasy tale, one where the unexpressive male lead suffers from amnesia but was nonetheless still recruited for the new school of magic. He and a busty top student will accompany a 300-year-old loli witch on a transfer to a newly-arranged village of witches, where hopefully the young man Saybil can better develop the magic he cannot control. Witch hunters are afoot, however, so danger will ensue.

Hard to say at this point exactly where this is going, and I can easily see some viewers getting enough of the witch Loux rather quickly. One thing that is clear is that it is going to be at least a bit more fan service-y than its predecessor, but that’s not necessarily a negative for me. I am giving it a mildly positive rating mostly because the world design seems solid and realized and a sufficient amount about magic gets explained without much info-dumping. Will need another episode or two to see how much staying power this has.

The Demon Girl Next Door 2

Streams: HIDIVE on Thursdays

Rating: 4 (of 5)

The first season of this series was one of the most pleasant surprises of 2019, to the point that it just missed making my Top 5 list for that year. (Only Isekai Quartet topped it among comedies that year.) Hence it was one of my two most highly-anticipated returning titles for this season. Despite a slow start, the episode doesn’t disappoint, with the energy level seeming to ratchet up as the episode progressed.

Thanks to events from last season, Yuko and family are no longer mired under the poverty curse, but they’re still living in a dilapidated apartment building – one which, as it turns out, is specially-designed with Light and Dark Clan members in mind. Its cheapness encourages Mikan to move there so she can have her own space, and Momo decides that she must do the same for the summer so she isn’t left out. (Thus the “next door” part of the title is now literal!) This opens up all sorts of future humor potential, though the episode initially starts with the recycled joke about Momo misunderstanding Yuko’s duel challenge as a date. That’s definitely the slowest and least effective part, but things speed up as delivering “new neighbor” gifts to Yuko’s mother leads to an impromptu welcome party. Scenes and jokes rattle by fast and furious at that point, easily capturing the fun spirit of the original at its most frenetic. Grounding that are the more serious discussions about trying to find Sakura (Momo’s predecessor), but as with most of the first season, the writing strikes an effective balance.

Technical and artistic merits still do not impress much, but this is still a welcome continuation, one whose opener promises many new and potentially interesting characters to come.

Deaimon: Recipe for Happiness

Streams: Crunchyroll on Wednesdays

Rating: 3 (of 5)

A 30ish man returns home to his family business after 10 years trying (and apparently failing) to make it as a musician and discovers that his parents have taken on an abandoned 10-year-old girl to be the business’s new successor. She feels driven to prove herself useful, while he’s encouraged to look out for her. Hence we have another “dad” series in the making.

I did enjoy the animated version of Bunny Drop (and yes, I ignore what happened after the animated part), and this one is at least trying to capture some of that “substitute parent” magic and sentiment. However, while the first episode does lay the girl Itsuka’s situation on thickly, the situation here does not click as hard and immediately as Bunny Drop‘s did. Maybe it’s that the sense of urgency here is not so strong, or it could be that I’m just not a fan of the water color-styled background art. Perhaps the emotions that need to be in play here will take a bit longer to gel. Fortunately, the series has one other big draw to fall back on: the family business in question is a traditional Japanese confectioner, and the treats featured in this episode are as much works of art as food. Come to ogle the sweets and maybe the story will eventually become compelling as well.

RPG Real Estate

Streams: Crunchyroll on Wednesdays

Rating: 3 (of 5)

So is it just a fluke that we have now had two series about fantasy real estate in the past year (see last spring’s Dragon Goes House-Hunting) or is this an emerging new subgenre? Either way, this series somewhat takes the reverse angle of its predecessor, instead focusing on the people trying to find properties for clients rather than the entities looking for properties. Add in a whopping big dose of CGDCT and you have the recipe for the first episode.

In fact, the real estate agency aspect is more just the setting and framing device, whereas the fantasy-themed CGDCT content is the series’ true nature. The artistry is soft and loaded with pastels, the personality mix of the core team of girls is very typical for CGDCT series, everything is soft, pleasant, and peaceful (the setting is, in fact, celebrating 15 years of World Peace), and the lessons are simple, straightforward ones. It does show some cleverness in mixing in the fantasy aspects – the RPG in the title and business’s name is short for Rent Plan Guide rather than “role play games,” for instance and mixes light, mostly unobtrusive doses of fan service, and that cleverness and an overall good balance of elements in the first episode are why I’m giving it a positive rating. Doubt I’ll follow it, but it should be a pleasant, fantasy-themed diversion if you’re looking for light viewing this season.

The Greatest Demon Lord is Reborn as a Typical Nobody

Streams: Crunchyroll on Wednesdays

Rating: 2 (of 5)

The great Demon Lord conquers everyone who opposes him, but the one thing he cannot defeat is the gap which distances him from others, and so he cannot fully enjoy his success. Hence his goal when he reincarnates (with his awesome powers intact, naturally) is to make friends, but he doesn’t know how. Luckily, the daughter of the local elvish mayor is just as isolated and quite overpowered herself.

The idea of an uber-powerful individual reincarnating to start over again once his status becomes a drag has become a familiar one of late in anime, and this is hardly the first time in recent years that this specific concept has been attempted. That’s the biggest problem with this new light novel adaptation: the concept has already been done to a standard-setting degree by The Misfit of Demon King Academy, and this version just doesn’t stack up. There’s something a little cute about Ard’s laughably failed efforts to make friends, I did get a chuckle out of the scenes where he casually offs hordes of monsters who suddenly assail him while he’s thinking, and the way he finally wins over the elf (half-elf?) girl is rather sweet; that’s easily the episode’s high point. In general, though, not enough sticks out to distinguish this title in a packed field of competition. Can’t see watching anymore of this one.

The Rising of the Shield Hero s2

Streams: Crunchyroll on Wednesdays

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

After nearly three years off, Shield Hero is finally back to continue the story. It left off with major conflicts within Melomarc mostly resolved, so this episode begins a new arc, one which looks like it will at least temporarily set aside the recurring Waves the Cardinal Heroes were originally summoned for. And this is because of the appearance of an apocalyptic-level critter called the Spirit Tortoise, which sounds something like a tarrasque from Dungeons and Dragons. It’s menacing eastern countries now but could head towards Melomarc next, so Naofumi and crew have to deal with it. Only this time they have Rishia in tow.

Whether this a plus or not is another story. Rishia has major confidence issues and is under-statted for her level, and even a possible talent for martial arts is not offsetting that in her mind. She’s clearly in love with Itsuki, but the traits shown so far make her look pathetic rather than dynamic. That she opts (at Raphthalia’s suggestion) to get a slave crest with Naofumi also certainly isn’t going to set well with those who had a problem with this in the first season. We’ll see how she plays out in the long run, but the whininess has to go.

Otherwise this is a run-of-the-mill episode. The other Cardinal Heroes are being as uncooperative as normal, there’s status updates on the village Naofumi is now (literally) lording over, and monsters to fight, and the obligatory mysterious woman at the end who wants the Shield Hero to kill her. The penguin suit is rather odd, but roll with it, right? Overall, fans of the first series should find little to complain about here.

Birdie Wing: Golf Girls’ Story

Streams: Crunchyroll on Tuesdays (normally)

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Although golf is not one of the more common sports to be featured in anime, it’s hardly unheard-of; Ashita Tenki ni Nare and Pro Golfer Saru racked up 47 and 147 episodes (with a couple of movies), respectively, back in the ’80s, Dan Doh!! was a 26-episode shonen take on the sport back in 2004, and there have been a handful of one-shots over the years, including last year’s Sorairo Utility. This one is, in some respects, different from its predecessors, while at the same time paying homage to hoary anime sports traditions like named trick shots that are probably physically impossible.

One difference is a non-Japanese setting; most of the first episode seems to take place in an as-yet-unspecified country in Europe. A second is an art and character design style with few nods to normal anime convention; this could almost be a western production, though it is animated by Bandai Namco Pictures and directed by Takayuki Inagaki, whose directing credits range from racy fare like Desert Punk and Rosario + Vampire to the cutesy Chio’s School Road. Central character/golf hustler Eve also seems to be an adult, though new potential rival Aoi is a teenage phenom. Both are very challenge-driven, so them bouncing off each other should be a regular feature of the series.

The character designs for the series are gorgeous, but the CG used for the golf balls in flight and drone-like camera zooms around golf holes impresses much less. The first episode establishes main cast members well enough and offers no shortage of golf (even if some of it is a bit fantastical), so I have to call the episode a success overall. Will be surprised if this one catches on, but so far it’s a clean-cut look at young women playing the sport.

Tomodachi Game

Streams: Crunchyroll on Tuesdays

Rating: 1 (of 5)

Wow. I’ve seen some trashy “forced to play a game” scenarios in my day as an anime reviewer, but this may be the single worst first episode ever for this genre.

Put simply, this is a failure on just about every level. The mascot here is one of the least menacing of its type, and the breakdown of the friend group is thoroughly stereotypical and lackluster, to the point that it’s hard to care enough about any of them. The stakes – which basically come down to debt manipulation – aren’t high enough to be compelling and attempts to make this psychologically thrilling by leaving who has the massive debt (and for what) up in the air don’t work. Clearly this is all a scenario to breed tension by making everyone question everyone else’s motives and honesty, but the writing is trying to force that issue rather than let it develop naturally. Revealing the people behind the curtain (so to speak) at this stage is also a mistake, as it cuts into the sense of mystery. Let’s also forget a directorial effort which is trying to overcome limited animation by using all kinds of jerk-around camera shots, which distracts from the intended effect rather than enhancing it.

So yeah, a hard pass here. Let this one sink to the bottom of the seasonal pool, like it should.

I’m Quitting Heroing

Streams: HIDIVE on Tuesdays

Rating: 3 (of 5)

What if the hero successfully defeated the Demon Queen and her generals and armies, but became so disaffected with the way he was treated afterwards (i.e., feared for his power and exiled) that he decided he’d be better off hiring on to reconstitute the Demon Queen’s army instead? That’s the premise of this newish twist on the standard heroic fantasy tale, and it provides some interesting possibilities. It could, for instance, look more seriously at the long-standing issue of how returning combatants often don’t fit in back in when they return from the battlefield, and indeed, this first episode has a bit of that. It also takes a thorough like at the damage left behind by the hero’s battles and what has to be done to just patch holes, much less rebuild. There’s a lot of potential here if the story focuses on that going forward.

However, the overall tone is lighter than that. The hero defeated (but didn’t kill) the Demon Queen’s Four Generals stupidly easily, and in a couple of cases in comical fashion, and his hiring presentation to the Demon Queen (who wants nothing to do with him) comes off more like a modern-day sales pitch. Also, he’s a bit of a jerk (even though he did legitimately get a raw deal from the people back home), and clearly wasn’t a team player. In other words, for all his ability and strength, he’s pretty flawed himself. Will be interesting to see how the series balances these lighter elements and potentially more serious ones going forward, such as the former hero’s interest in finding out why the Demon Queen didn’t allow indiscriminate killing. I am cautiously optimistic here, though I can also easily see this one flopping, so a middle-of-the-road grade for now.

Ya Boy Kongming!

Streams: HIDIVE on Thursdays

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Somehow I missed doing this one when it debuted last week, so I’m taking advantage of the slowest day of the week for debuts to rectify that oversight. And it’s definitely an oversight, as the first episode of this is nearly as much of an unexpected joy as Healer Girl is.

The premise is essentially a reverse isekai: a prominent strategist from the Three Kingdoms era of Chinese history passes on due to disease and, perhaps because of a dying wish to be reborn in a more peaceful time, winds up in modern-day Japan. There he meets and is entranced by the talent of Eiko, an amateur singer struggling to get a start in the music business. He is so taken with the music of the new era (and especially hers!) that he vows to learn about it and find a way to help Eiko pursue her dreams.

This premise works way better in execution than it probably should, thanks to a lot of excellent production and storytelling decisions. Kongming may be a fish out of water, but he’s also smart, and uses that to quickly start to get a handle on the modern era; I’ve always liked characters who can jump into new situations and find ways to apply the skills they know, and he’s certainly that. Eiko’s struggles are compelling, too. She’s got talent and a strong backstory, but she needs someone smart at her back to help her find her way. Light bits of humor mixed throughout with surprisingly keen insight on the music business (such as how clubs adjust the speed of their beats according to crowd size and circumstance), some good music, historical allusions, and pretty animation and character designs to create a remarkably entertaining experience. I don’t know if I’ll keep following this one – there are a lot of other options out there this season – but it’s definitely worth a look.

Healer Girl

Streams: Crunchyroll on Mondays

Rating: 4 (of 5)

This season has at least a couple of idol shows on its schedule, but based on this first episode, they’re going to have a run for their money on having the best music for the season. That’s because Healer Girl absolutely nails the delivery of its basic premise: the (literal) healing power of song.

Intrinsically linking healing and singing is hardly a far-fetched concept; it’s a staple of FRPG bards and has been used in fantasy anime series before, and even aside from magic, the mood-adjusting nature of music is self-evident. Convincingly portraying that music can actually heal is much, much harder, but that is where the triumph of this episode lies: the songs that Kana and the professional healer who serves as the central girls’ trainer sing are beautifully uplifting pieces which make you want to believe that such healing is possible. Both the opener and the closer are also delights, and even the impromptu songs the girls sing while playing around have a graceful flow to them. Episode 1 is not far removed from being a musical, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The music is the biggest plus here but not the only one. While the trio of girls may be fairly stock personalities, they interact with each other so smoothly that they clearly get along well, giving the first episode a pronounced CGDCT feel. Even the adults fit into this, and the idea of a singing healer being paired with an apparent traditional physician makes sense. Production values, while hardly stellar, aren’t bad, either. I wasn’t expecting much here, but this was a pleasant surprise.

Trapped in a Dating Sim: The World of Otome Games is tough for Mobs

Streams: Crunchyroll on Sundays

Rating: 3 (of 5)

If nothing else, this debut is providing what’s going to be one of my favorite screen shots of the new season: the protagonist gloating over getting one over on his domineering stepmother.

As the title implies, the premise of this series is an alternate take on the recent trend of isekai titles about characters trapped in dating sims: instead of being an antagonist female character, the protagonist becomes one of the background male characters, with the added twist that the protagonist hates the game in question rather than considering it a favorite. (He was extorted into playing it by a younger sister who had dirt on him; wouldn’t be surprised if she turns out to be another character in the game at some point.) Because he’s from a family which does not appear in the game, he is not constrained to a particular fate that he has to avoid, which gives him more freedom to act but also less direction.

What concerns me about this one is that it seems a little too much like a direct response to the rising popularity of the “trapped in an otome game” subgenre in disaffected rather than subversive way, and that gives the first episode a somewhat nasty vibe. I will reserve further judgment on that for now, as none of the main female cast members get introduced this episode, but I am curious to see other reactions to this episode, as I may be reading too much in here. The most interesting part is the partial exploration of the setting’s backstory; the protagonist complains about the nonsensical world design, but the whole “new human vs. old human” business suggests that it may not be quite as nonsensical as it appears. Sadly, I’m not expecting the series to explore that much, but it leaves me with at least some hope for greater world-building depth.

Fanfare of Adolescence

Streams: Crunchyroll on Saturdays

Rating: 3 (of 5)

Has a sports anime ever had a more pretentious-sounding name?

That was the overriding though I had while considering a first episode which sounded, from the title, like it was going to be something special but shows every sign of being a bland, generic series about going to a specialized school for a highly specialized sport – namely, horse racing.

For the record, a three-year school to train jockeys is a real thing in Japan: The JRA Horseracing School, on which this series is presumably at least partly based. And that is the main source of any novelty the series offers. What looks to be the core cast is a standard mix of personality types and backgrounds for a sports series, with the exception that it isn’t all guys; one girl, a rare female jockey prospect, is in the mix, though you’ll be forgiven if you cannot pick her out in promo material. (She wears pants just like the other boys, and has both a slim figure and boyishly short haircut. Only the voice gives her away as a girl.) The other twist is that the lead character is a retiring member of a top boy band who has become entranced with horses. There are some minor indications of possible supernatural elements as well, and the animation on, and look of, the first episode are both pretty good. However, none of that offers much promise that this series is going to stand out, and I cannot see anything in it compelling enough to recommend it to someone not normally interested in horse racing.

Love All Play

Streams: Crunchyroll on Saturdays

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

While I have watched out several real-sports series for full-series reviews over the years, I cannot recall watching a real-sports series week-to-week since 2009-10’s Cross Game. This series, about badminton, isn’t going to change that. Despite that, I can still acknowledge the opening episode of this series as being done well enough to earn some attention.

Rather than delving heavily into the game play, the first episode focuses instead on a pressing decision that a middle school badminton enthusiast (the one on the right in the screen shot) must make on the opportunity of a lifetime: an offer of a sports recommendation to a high school with a highly-competitive program and his badminton idol on the team. The problems are that it will separate him from close friends who got him into the sport in the first place (and who thus define his badminton experience) and his parents are initially opposed to it. With encouragement from both his friends and elder sister, he opts to prove his commitment by getting into that school on his academic merits instead.

This set-up makes for a bit more compelling story, and I especially liked how the protagonist chose to prove his commitment via an alternate, harder path; he’s probably right that he will be better off in the long run for having earned it this way. The series looks pretty good, too, although it is definitely aimed at a female audience. My one major complaint is one common for this genre: the character designs seem to have unrealistic ideas about age-appropriate male body forms. How sharp the badminton play aspect will be remains to be seen, as the first episode only offers a few brief (but well-animated) snippets, but if you’re into guy-focused sports series, this one may be worth checking out.

Aharen-san wa Hakarenai

Streams: Crunchyroll on Fridays

Rating: 2.5 ( of 5)

If there’s a theme to the Spring 2022 season, it’s odd-couple romantic comedies, and this is the first entry in that genre. What this one is going for is pretty clear: the tall guy is the straight man wondering at – and trying to adapt to – the odd behavior of the petite girl whose communications skills could be better (to put it mildly). He spends the entirety of the first episode trying to figure out effective ways to communicate with someone who speaks so softly she’s difficult to hear and who has no proper sense of personal space, yet desperately wants to break out of her shell. All of this seems like a perfect set-up for a series that mixes sweetness and sputter-worthy humor.

The main problem with it – and the reason I cannot rate it any higher – is that this content only works in short bursts. It would probably be much more effective broken up into shorts, as a full 23 minutes of this tried my patience. Neither character is inherently interesting enough to make up for that, and the slightly more serious parts never rise above surface-level endearment. It definitely does have a few strong jokes (which is why I can’t rate it any lower), but an episode I have to take a couple of breaks during just to get through it just doesn’t work.

The Executioner and Her Way of Life

Streams: HIDIVE on Fridays

Rating: 4.5 (of 5)

I have read the first novel for this series, and thought it had the potential to translate well into anime form, but the execution (hah!) of this episode was beyond my expectations. With one small exception (which the production team could not really do anything about, since it is straight from the source material), this is a fabulous execution of one of the most distinctive takes on isekai stories to date. If you normally don’t care for isekai stories, this one is still worth checking out, since it is in many senses the antithesis of a typical isekai tale.

The episode starts with a bait-and-switch maneuver, where a newly-summoned teen boy is the focus character. He’s been chucked out by his summoners for not being what they were looking for and is facing difficulties when Menou – a priestess from a church dedicated to helping Lost Ones like him – steps in. The twist, though, is that almost everything about Menou is fake. She is a priestess, but her real job is to determine if the summoned boy has a dangerous ability and then eliminate him mercilessly when he shows that he does. She’s not without some sympathy, as she fully acknowledges that none of this is his fault, but as a flashback to her own past shows, Lost Ones come with potent abilities called Pure Concepts which can be unintentionally catastrophic. And there’s another Lost One, a girl, who was summoned the same time as the boy. . .

The first episode scores high on a lot of fronts. The setting is unusually well-conceived and developed for a first episode, including a social structure resembling Enlightenment-era France and showing extensive influences from past Lost Ones from Japan; between that and the catastrophe potential, it’s easy to see why summoning Lost Ones is banned. Menou is also a well-developed lead with a clear personality, and I particularly liked how the production works in signs that she might have ulterior motives from the first moment of her first appearance. The magic system on display also shows promise, and action scenes so far have been sharp and satisfyingly bloody. The only real negative so far is Menou’s clingy assistant Momo, whom I suspect will not go over well with a lot of people, but the portrayal here is actually still a little softer than in the novel. But she’s worth putting up with to appreciate the rest of the content.

The first episode of this one impressed me enough that I might consider episode-reviewing it even though I already have a number of returning series to consider for the 2-3 I will do this season.

Winter 2022 in Review Part 2

Most of the Winter 2022 times have now concluded, so it’s time for the second part of the season-ending wrap-up. The first part featured a review of In the Land of Leadale, so here I will look at some of the other prominent titles of the season and how they turned out.

Featured Title: World’s End Harem

Rating: 3 (on fan service merits alone), 2 (overall) of 5

I read and reviewed the first volume of this series’ source manga, so I had a pretty good idea up front about exactly how trashy this was going to end up being. After seeing all 11 episodes, the series certainly lived up (or down, if you will) to my expectations for it.

The series takes a somewhat interesting concept – what would happen if a disease spread worldwide and wiped out all men not in cold sleep, while leaving women unharmed – and played the “harem” part of the title to the hilt. I do have to give the series at least some small credit for striving for more; it uses three very different survivors to show how different guys react to the reality of having to bed countless women in order to re-propagate the species. One remains pure and true to his love, one descends into corruption, and one was already corrupted but eventually becomes disenchanted with his situation as he starts to find all of the sleeping around to be empty. Meanwhile, one of the men finds mounting evidence that the virus may be man-made and part of a grand conspiracy to release the culprit virus intentionally.

Yeah, it’s pretty standard conspiracy theory stuff, but hey, whatever. No one’s watching for deep, complex story developments. They want to see trash, like the high school boy who uses his status and the push of his handler to sleep around to start taking revenge on those who bullied him years earlier. That the series certainly delivers on. They want to see plentiful T&A and females desperately sucking up to the males (sometimes literally!). The series also delivers on that plentifully in uncensored versions. So the series does fulfill its raison d’etre.

Expect anything more out of the series, though, and you’ll be disappointed. Whether it’s ridiculously-busty women, cheesy outfits, unexplained character motivations, or the cult that may be legitimate resistance but comes off as terrorists, or weak animation anytime fan service isn’t the focus, just about every other aspect of the series falls apart, and it only gets worse. The series also just ends at episode 11, leaving all sorts of plot twists up in the air.

This is not by any means the worst series of its type out there, but as heavy fan service titles go, you can do a lot better.

Other Titles That I Followed

Arifureta 2 (3 of 5) – The season’s final episode still has to air as I write this, but I can’t see that changing the overall evaluation much. This season is still mostly about Hajime being awesome and an edgelord bad-ass, but it does have a few moments (Hajime’s reaction to Kaori calling him out about him becoming his otaku ideal is easily one of the whole season’s funniest scenes) and certainly looks vastly better than the first season. (Not that I’m saying much there. . .) Overall, it never excited me much but I did not regret watching it.

Attack on Titan the Final Season (4.5 of 5) – Wow, this series is pulling no punches and features an early contender for the year’s best opener. Annie’s back, the original protagonist is now the antagonist, and everyone’s having to do ugly but necessary things to avert catastrophe. Can’t wait to see how it closes out.

Dress-Up Darling (4.5 of 5) – Even though this was a widely-anticipated title, it ended up being the surprise of the season for me. I did not expect to end up following it despite a strong opening episode, but the series sucked me in and continued to charm me week after week. Marin has a lot to do with that; she may be a fairly stock character type by role, but something about the specifics of the way she was written makes her stand out from other characters of her type. The same for Gojo, who unexpectedly proves to be much more than the typical bland lead. Surprisingly involving details about cosplaying, an involving development of the central relationship, generally positive underlying messages, and some sharp designs and animation all contributed to a thoroughly enjoyable viewing experience. (The fan service didn’t hurt, either.) Stuff like this is why I continue to try to preview everything every season even though it’s not my job to do so anymore.

Life with an Ordinary Guy Who Reincarnated into a Total Fantasy Knockout (3.5 of 5) – This one also turned out to be more pure fun than I was expecting. Its antics were a delight to watch week-to-week and I like how the central duo resolved at least some of their issues in the final episode. Will absolutely watch more if it gets a sequel.

Miss Koroitsu From the Monster Development Department (3.5 of 5) – While never a priority view for me, this whimsical look behind the curtain of an evil organization still proved to be enough fun to warrant watching it. Its call-outs to “real-life” heroes every episode was a treat, and it keenly played with the absurdity of the premise, turning it into a series primarily about workplace humor. Worth a look if you skipped it earlier.

Orbital Children – I’m counting this six-episode Netflix series as belonging to this season. I still have one episode to go, so I may write this one up as a separate review if I have a slow day at some point during the review season.

Princess Connect! Re: Dive (3.5 of 5) – While big swaths of this series were utterly, innocuously cute and low-key, the series showed in its later stages that it could really crank up its game when it needed to. A strong final few episodes elevates the score here, although – as an anime-only viewer – I increasingly felt that I was missing a lot by not knowing who a lot of these characters are.

Sabuki Bisco – Was far less impressed with this one than a lot of other people, apparently. Got tired of its antics and style over time, so I did not finish it.

The Genius Prince’s Guide to Raising the Nation Out of Debt (3.5 of 5) – This series finished the season as a solid (if unexceptional) complement to How a Realist Hero Rebuilt the Kingdom. While the series mostly succeeded at what it is doing, it feels like it still has a lot more potential. Oh, and I’d watch another season of it just for Ninym.

Yashahime (3.5 of 5) – While not a spectacular series, this one takes more knocks than it deserves, and that shows in the final few episodes. Seeing all of the parents finally back in action – including especially Moroha fighting alongside Inuyasha – in the late episodes is a real treat, and the series mostly satisfying wraps up its major plot lines. If no more is made then this is a fine stopping point for the franchise, but I would certainly watch more if it continues on.

Sabuki Bisco – Was far less impressed with this one than a lot of other people, apparently. Got tired of its antics and style over time, so I did not finish it.

How a Realist Hero Rebuilt the Kingdom episode 25

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Duchess Excel Walter always came across as the sharpest and most potentially devious of Elfrieden’s Dukes, and she was the only one to fully scout out Kazuya when he first arrived. After seeing this episode, though, we may have been underestimating her. Saying that she was the single most important person in the kingdom for Kazuya to have on his side (even over Hakuya) would probably not be an exaggeration; I shudder to think what kind of machinations she could have gotten up to had she regarded Kazuya as unsuitable to rule.

And yes, having numerous lovers over 500 years, having children by many of them, and loyally staying with all of them until they died does legitimately make her an authority on love and so the perfect person to tutor Kazuya’s prospective brides. (It also raises some interesting questions, such as how long the fertility cycle is for her race, but that’s academic here.) This training has a lot of practical value and justification: it will keep the royal household peaceful, limit the potential for conniving individuals to make inroads, and help head off potential succession issues, like what tore the kingdom apart in the previous generation – no doubt something that Excel is keenly concerned about not seeing repeat. Having codified how Kazuya genuinely feels about each of the brides is also nice, though also a little unfair since Kazuya is not getting the same consideration from them. (And how that information was gathered was very underhanded.) However, there’s no avoiding how much of a harem dream scenario this long scene comes off as being. Other harem leads can only lament that their harems aren’t so harmonious.

Of course, all of that is kept light-hearted, as is most of the rest of the episode. Poncho reappears again just long enough to show that he has successfully produced a Japanese-style sauce. (I want to say that’s tonkatsu sauce, but I may be mistaken.) This is going to lead to further introduction of Japanese dishes, which seems to be a staple of isekai series these days; honestly, I’d love to see one of these where the protagonist learns to adapt to the food of his new world rather than try to recreate food from his old one. How that discovery seems to solve a problem is, once again, all too convenient. Maria’s conversation with Jeanne is also pleasant, though important for one thing: it shows that Maria, while she admires Kazuya, seems to have no marital intent towards him.

The one thing which doesn’t set well with me about this episode – aside from the erratic artistic quality control, of course – is the revelation that only eight months have passed since Kazuya took the throne. That everything Kazuya has done could be accomplished in a mere eight months (even if they may be a bit longer than eight months in our world – an interesting little detail) is absurd on a credibility-shattering level. Unless magic on the level of Cayna in In the Land of Leadale was somehow involved, there’s just no way all of this construction, planning, and social reorganizing could be done that quickly.

The saving grace here is the summons by Albert at the end. The series has always dangled some suggestion that much more may be going on with Albert and his queen than what has been shown so far, and revealing what that is seems like a fitting season-ender for a series which has not had substantial plot movement in a while.

ESTAB LIFE: Great Escape Preview

Streams: Crunchyroll on (normal day uncertain)

Rating: 2 (of 5)

Technically this is a Spring 2022 season title, but its first two episodes debuted more than a week early, so let’s take a first look.

Though he has directed a number of other notable anime titles (Infinite Ryvius, s-CRY-ed, Planetes, Maria the Virgin Witch), Goro Taniguchi may be best-known as the creator of the Code Geass franchise and last year’s Back Arrow. This new creative effort, which is being directed instead by Hiroyuki Hashimoto (Is the order a rabbit?, Magical Girl Raising Project, Classroom of the Elite), takes things in a different direction than his previous two efforts and represents his first partnership with Polygon Pictures, the studio behind Knights of Sidonia, Ajin: Demi-Human, and Drifting Dragons. So yeah, that means that this is an all-3DCG title. While the animation effort here is smoother than most, anyone who normally has a low tolerance for 3DCG in anime probably will not find the look of this one to be any more palatable.

That’s not the only barrier this title faces, either. Make sure you look up the premise on this one in advance, because nothing in the first two episodes explains why wards of Tokyo seem to be separated into walled compounds, why transit between them seems to be so forbidden that being an Extractor (i.e., someone who shuttles people between compounds on the sly) is a thing, or why things like a dog-human hybrid, a slime girl, or a magic-using former yakuza girl exist. Why a bunch of high school girls – accompanied by an AI robot and said dog-human hybrid, who seems intelligent but only speaks in “woofs” – are said Extractors or wear such cutesy outfits while doing their extracting can be chalked up to just “anime logic,” so let’s not dwell on that. Way too little of what transpires in these first two episodes makes sense as it is.

In fact, the whole production seems to be relying entirely on “Rule of Cute/Cool” to get by. Its bloodless action scenes do have some zing but are nothing special overall, the interactions between the girls is about as anime-generic as they come, and some of what transpires is just outright silly, and not in a good way. The story also conveniently overlooks how the Extractors get out of the messes they get themselves into; sure, they get their clients out through some ludicrous methods (a zipline from one of those grappler guns which seems to extend for a mile or more?), but how do they get themselves off the top of a high-rise that they have climbed up to through hostile security measures? For that matter, how do they so freely move from compound to compound when travel seems to be restricted? Yes, some things can be overlooked in the spirit of cool, but this series gets away with way too much.

Overall, this isn’t one that I can recommend on any basis.

Winter ’22 in Review part 1: In the Land of Leadale

The past three seasons I have done season-ending summaries for titles that I watched out. This season I am doing that in two (possibly three) parts between now and the start of the Spring ’22 Preview Guide on 4/1, as there are a few titles I want to talk about in at least a little more depth than a single paragraph reaction. This is the first installment, for one of the titles that have already concluded.

From the beginning, In the Land of Leadale was primarily – if not exclusively – distinguished by being a power fantasy isekai which featured a rare female protagonist. That never really changed, as even up until the last episode (#12), Cayna is still performing feats of magic that are jaw-dropping by any sense of scale in her new world. In fact, the power shenanigans going on here are so ordinary that this would fall in nondescript fashion into the ranks of the most generic power fantasies if Cayna was male. Nothing (beyond alcohol!) is even a slight threat to her, and nearly everyone she meets that is not a blatant bad guy quickly gets won over by her; despite her immensely out-of-scale power, no one seems even mildly threatened by her presence (excepting her “kids” when they have done something to piss her off, of course).

The one thing that saves the series from complete mediocrity is that it usually does not take itself seriously. I only read one novel of the source material, but the anime version of those parts of the story is distinctly more comical, and it gets just enough mileage out of the generally-light-hearted interpretations of Cayna’s antics to keep the series afloat. Much like the other major isekai power fantasy with a female protagonist – I’ve Been Killing Slimes for 300 Years and Maxed Out My Level – the series also usually has a laid-back feel to it, with an emphasis more on fun and familial relations than conflict. The only parts that ever truly gets heavy are the ones about the former player leading bandits and the zombified village, and while the latter incident does have long-term consequences, the writing barely dwells on the darker elements.

That aspect of the series is both good and bad, however, for it results in the series seeming directionless for most of its run. The only thing in the story even approaching an overarching plot is the mystery about how Leadale came be to be a “real-world” setting instead of just a game, but Cayna hardly dwells on that beyond trying to find and reactivate the towers of the other Skill Masters, which were abandoned when the game shut down. Even meeting other former players, and discovering that they ended up here at different times without dying, does not spark her curiosity to further investigate what happened, and deciding to adopt an orphan girl late in the season seems to put a limit on how much further she might bother to pursue the matter.

That sense of aimlessness continues until the very final scene of episode 12, where Cayna makes some comments which initially sound like standard fare for wrapping up a series. However, upon further reflection, those comments speak to the true purpose of the series. This story is not about Cayna going on grand adventures or trying to solve some big mystery; it is, instead, just about her getting to live a new life, one which she can actually enjoy. Getting a chance for a better life in a new setting is a common theme of isekai titles even beyond the anime/LN/manga sphere, but the real-world situation of Cayna’s never-named player is the grimmest of any isekai character you’ll find anywhere. Her life literally was the game, so getting to experience the game setting for real was the best possible outcome for her. As long as she’s doing what she wants and experiencing what this world has to offer, that’s all that matters to her, and that’s what the story is about.

Understanding that does not detract from the flaws the series has. The series will never be remembered for its artistic merits, Cayna is effectively a bully when it comes to her adult “kids,” Skargo is stupidly over-the-top, and the catty behavior of the werecat butler and maid towards each other gets annoying quick. However, the series does ultimately achieve its goal, so I can give it slightly positive marks overall.

Overall Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

How a Realist Hero Rebuilt the Kingdom episode 24

Rating: 3 (of 5)

So the Native Americans long shown in the opener have finally appeared. Only it turns out that they are not associated with the dragons after all, but rather are refugees.

In many respects, patterning refugees after a generic Native American motif is loaded with an irony that may or may not be intended. Assuming that the adaptation is sticking reasonably close to the novels, original writer Dojyomaru has shown before at least some familiarity with American history, so it is entirely possible that Dojyomaru knew just enough to recognize that Native Americans would be a fitting representation of displaced people. (The writer certainly didn’t put any effort into giving them Native American-sounding names, though!) The additional irony, if that is true, is that it makes Kazuya’s proposal to Jirukoma and Komain come across all the more harshly, and that, I suspect, was not intended. Granted, the circumstances here are fundamentally different; they were forced out of their homeland by the Demon Army, not the country Kazuya represents. Even so, I cannot imagine an American writer having the gall to present a scenario like this.

The proposal Kazuya puts forward to them is loaded with all sorts of implications independent of the cultural identity being borrowed here. (And to be clear, the borrowing only extends to general appearance and them praying to nature spirits. No other negative stereotypes of Native Americans are portrayed.) Refugees have been a problem throughout history and remain a thorny issue even to this day, as the opening narration dutifully points out; in fact, the timing of this is quite ironic as well, given the current mass surge of Ukrainian refugees resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Perhaps because he is basing his decision on real-world refugee cases from the past several decades in his home world, his solution to the problem is direct and blunt: the refugees must either formally join the country or leave. Allowing them to exist within Fredonia’s borders while they still maintain intent to eventually return just leads to problems which can last for decades, problems only exacerbated when new generations appear with no direct ties to their parents’ homelands. Essentially, he’s telling the refugees that that there’s no place for them if they will not integrate.

Of all of the decisions that Kazuya has made so far, this is the one that I can most see having long-term negative consequences. Jirukoma leading those unlikely to integrate off to fight against the Demon Army seems like an unrealistically convenient simplification of the situation, one seemingly-designed to eliminate problem cases before they happen, but that feels like too simple a solution. And the series is not subtle about driving home its point with the difficult birth of a refugee child, an incident which itself might intended as symbolic.

About that problem birthing, the stats used here are essentially correct. Some form of caesarean section has existed for millennia, but prior to the late 1800s the mortality rate for the mother was so high (as much as 85% by some estimates) that it was typically only done in desperate circumstances, such as when the mother was dead or would likely die in childbirth. Some of the steps described here are considered key ones in reducing the mortality rate, and real-world attempts certainly don’t have the benefit of light magic as an assist. (I do have to wonder, though, how familiar the people of this would be with blood transfusions, as this has not been brought up before.) In addition to (somewhat awkwardly) hammering home Kazuya’s point about refugees, the birthing also provides a convenient opening for Liscia to get on Kazuya’s case about working towards a baby of their own. Really, why is he so reluctant about this, other than the meta logic of being the “good guy”?

Overall, like the last episode, this one plays out much too unrealistically conveniently to be fully appreciable, and the artistic effort only seems to be getting more unstable. At least there are still two episodes remaining (this one is set to run through April 3rd), so hopefully the series can manage a stronger seasonal finish.

86 episode 23 (finale)

Rating: 5

With episode 21 having provided the action climax and episode 22 providing the dramatic climax, all that’s left for episode 23 to do is provide the epilogue. But as with any grand story, a proper epilogue is an absolutely essential element. It may not have the drama or intensity of earlier content, but it must bring together and finalize the story threads to that point. Episode 23 isn’t completely perfect on that front, but it comes so tantalizingly close, and has so many wonderful little touches, that it makes for quite the satisfying finish nonetheless. I am left with no regrets about naming this my #1 series of 2021.

None of that quality comes from any big surprises for the viewer, because there aren’t any. Even if a meta take on the series did not dictate it, that Lena would comes to the Giad Federacy and be reunited with Spearhead Squadron was all but outright said from the early stages of the episode. However, the way that gets handled matters, which is why “Handler One” is the perfect title for the episode. (In fact, it is the only reasonable choice for the title.) On the surface, that title refers to Lena actively returning to the picture, but it means so much more in execution. Despite Shin’s talents, the surviving Spearhead Squadron members would not have gotten out of the Republic alive without her as their Handler, and the fact that they do not hesitate to agree to work under her again is a tacit acknowledgement of their respect for both what she did then and how she survived since then. Her title as Handler One also becomes irrefutable proof of their identities when they finally meet face-to-face.

If the structure of the episode seems a little odd – with essentially two separate end credits scenes – that’s because the production team opted to adapt both the novel 1 and novel 3 epilogues mostly independently rather than fully merging them. The first part is a fleshed-out adaptation of the novel 3 epilogue, which was originally done from the viewpoint of the 86s. The Christmas scene, those of the other 86s doing various normal things, and the scene about Shin retaining his mark are anime-original, but the scene in Ernst’s office and the graveyard scene are straight from the novel; it carries decidedly more weight in this version, though.

As well-handled as the 86 side was, the part I was more waiting for was Lena’s side of the same time frame, which adapts the novel 1 epilogue. In showing the state of the Republic in the wake of the Federacy’s rescue operation, it carries a lot more impact. It reveals that the Republic got crushed in just a week’s time, and only barely hung on thanks to the efforts of Lena rallying the 86s and like-minded Alba officers. The strong implication pitched by the visuals is that it took devastation on a massive scale to break the genocidal ways of San Magnolia, but as the soup kitchen scene shows, even that is not going to bury deeply-ingrained racist tendencies; one needs look no farther than the U.S.’s messy (and some would argue ongoing) history with racism to see how painfully realistic that is. The imagery used to show this – from the ruined monuments to the altered slogans and graffiti to very-ironic wreckage of Juggernauts on the damaged war memorial way, to even the open presence of 86s everywhere in District 1 – is beautifully-chosen, though the wreckage of Lena’s bedroom had the most impact for me. It symbolizes what she is leaving behind, with her carrying forward the one thing which is truly important to her. The pictures of her superior posing with uncomfortable-looking 86s, and the way they are blatantly placed to convince any visitors that he’s changed his thinking, also was a biting touch; even the cat seemed to recognize how disingenuous he was.

What struck me most while watching the scenes leading up to the climactic reunion was the sense of parallelism the story displays. Each side has a scene of characters coming home, having lighter and more casual moments with friends, and a more serious office scene about what’s to come in the future concerning the planned independent mobile force. Each has the featured co-protagonist visiting a grave in a graveyard, then later visiting the memorial for Spearhead Squadron’s Juggernauts, and in the latter case, each scene showed the featured character stepping away – and thus stepping forward – from the same floor-level angle. Each also very deliberately shows how the protagonists have changed. Despite her soft look, Lena has a hardened and more determined core, while Shin can actually smile and enjoy things for a change; that he can now cook was a neat symbol of that, even if it was played more for humor.

All of that beautifully sets up the epilogue of the epilogue, where the 86s and Lena finally meet face-to-face. That they are able to meet like this is the full culmination of the story to this point, and it was every bit as satisfying in execution as I had hoped. My one slight complaint might be that they gave the scene a little too much play, but again, the details more than make up for that: the signs on both Lena and Kurena’s faces that they had been crying, for instance, or the way that Fido’s recording called back to a similar sequence back in episode 10. The way the video did the montage of Shin running forward at three distinct ages, or how the very brief upside-down shot of Lena walking towards Shin’s damaged Reginleif in episode 22 is transposed with her walking to meet them in the final scene. The way the other 86s giggle when Lena clearly doesn’t recognize them, and the way the expressions of both Lena and Shin change.

The details and symbolism shown in other ways as well. Railways have been used throughout the series as symbolism for what direction the characters are going, and now the railway leads directly to the six standing together. Even the shots of the birds flying away carry extra meaning; the end of episode 11 showed five flying together, but now there are six. Lighting tricks are also use quite effectively throughout, and Willem beeping back at Fido while the other two Federacy officers give him funny looks makes for a neat humor touch. The only other complaint about this episode is that the artistry is a little shaky in certain scenes (especially early on), but again, the does so well on so many other fronts that that can be overlooked.

This episode concludes the adaptation of what I consider the strongest part of the franchise, so where will the story go next? Various scenes here give at least some indication on that. Lena, now reunited with Spearhead Squadron, is going to work with them as a special unit to deal with special threats posed by the Legion, who have taken substantial losses but are hardly defeated. Currently six more novels are available in English, with two more available in Japanese. At the slow adaptation paces used so far, that means several more seasons could be done. No break point as significant as the end of novel 3 exists past this, though (at least not through novel 8 – I’m reading 9 now), so any future seasonal conclusion won’t be as satisfying. Still, this series already stands as a model for how a light novel adaptation can do its series justice, so I will eagerly welcome any future continuation.