Shows I thought were cool in 2015
It’s been too long, but I don’t really have much to say, so let’s
have another list like I did two
years ago. Maybe this time with some more words.
In approximate order from best to even better.
Your Lie in April (Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso).
The premise invites comparisons to Nodame Cantabile, which I
think do this show a disservice — it never professes to be as mature or
as musically rigorous, and holding it to that standard is rather unfair.
While the dramatic turns do sometimes get predictable and circuitous,
the show’s most beautiful moments make up for that. Yes, the intense
swells of the score help.
Prison School. On the flip side, this is a series that
no one in their right mind would take seriously at first glance. If you
can get over its unabashed attachment to the lowbrow, though, you’ll be
floored by how tightly the narrative is constructed, how the characters
play off each other, and how the lewd, lurid, and juvenile actually fit
into a plot where everyone seems to be a chessmaster. Prison
School is the sort of work that lulls you into low expectations
before proceeding to ambush you with competence. Or, as I put it on
Twitter, if some anime are junk food, this is Alton Brown teaching
you how to deep-fry Snickers.
Noragami Aragoto. Where the first series is overly
focused on the whiny teenage rebellion of Yukine, played a bit too
pitch-perfectly by Yuuki Kaji, the sequel gives us the shounen
battles of wills that we waited a whole season to see. The evolving
rivalry between Yato and Bishamon serves as the foundation for the rest
of the show’s events, and it gives us a great sense of scale as other
conflicts around them get broader and nastier. My only disappointment is
with the ending theme, which isn’t quite as good as the last one. Alas,
you can’t win ’em all.
My Love Story!! (Ore Monogatari!!). It’s what
love would be like if love were about being as masculine as possible
while simultaneously being as shoujo as possible. This sounds
clearly self-contradictory, but much like with Monthly Girls’
Nozaki’s anarchic approach to shoujo clichés, it’s why the
show works. The more ridiculous moments, like the protagonist saving his
girlfriend from a literal falling I-beam by just holding it up, give the
romance room to breathe without suffocating on an excess of
self-seriousness. At the same time, My Love Story!! never
stoops to mocking its characters — it really is just love, with a good
old infusion of very hot blood.
Shirobako. It’s an anime about anime, which could have
been a horrible exercise in navel-gazing, but ends up being the closest
thing to genuinely fun edutainment that the medium has given us since
Moyashimon. (If only the word “edutainment” didn’t sound so
stupid.) We get an only-moderately-exaggerated sense of how the sausage
is made, while P.A. Works gets in a sly wink and a nod about the foibles
of themselves and their competitors. Seriously, did anyone not
immediately think of Akiyuki Shinbou and Madoka?
Working!!! Just as fun as the first two seasons, except
things actually happen. I’d ordinarily shy away from spoilers, but come
on, we all know who’s finally shacking up. The important part is that
the warm, fuzzy moments come without betraying the adorably neurotic
personalities of the characters we’ve come to love. Or at least laugh
at in twenty-four-minute increments.
Owarimonogatari. I’ve mentioned before that my ability
to objectively evaluate the quality of any Monogatari Series
installment has probably long been compromised, but this installment
really does strike me as another high note, after the mildly muddled
mess that is the Tsukimonogatari miniseries. Marina Inoue,
mostly known for playing boisterous characters like Minami-ke’s
Kana, balances out her performance as Sodachi Oikura with a remarkable
vulnerability and nuance. The show’s second arc doesn’t shine quite as
brightly, but still brings enough twists and turns to keep us wanting
more — and, of course, that typographically-endowed flair isn’t going
See you in 2017! You should watch Erased, because unless it
totally squibs its ending, it’s going to be on this list then.
Also, I guess I lied about not having much to say.
We learned yesterday that voice actress Miyu Matsuki passed away from pneumonia last week at the age of 38. It’s a bit irresponsible to reduce someone with a résumé like hers down to a single role, but for me she left her greatest mark as the youthful, often-indiscreet homeroom teacher Yoshinoya in Hidamari Sketch. I can’t imagine anyone else bringing the character to life with quite the same irrepressible energy that made such an impression over four seasons and a handful of OVAs.
There’s this weird, conflicted feeling I get whenever I hear that a performer whose work I enjoy has suddenly died. Along with the wish that they hadn’t gone so soon is a little voice in the back of my head that tells me how callous it is to want someone to stay alive solely so they can continue to toil for my entertainment. It goes without saying, but that’s the only way I really knew Matsuki, as a disembodied voice on the other side of a television or computer screen. There’s a world of difference between that and the shock and grief of the people who have actually worked with her.
At the same time, I think Matsuki’s work was, like any other form of artistic performance, in part an expression of who she herself was, and it seems fair to wish that she had more time to do that through her voice acting. One should always be wary of reading too far into any similarities between actors and their characters, but I will note that, like Yoshinoya, Matsuki never wed and had more than enough vitality for someone half her age.
Matsuki’s final post to her blog reads, in part, “When I get over this illness, I’ll get married this time for real!” One of the last roles I heard Matsuki in before she died was Chimo, the cheerful proprietor of a local favorite okonomiyaki restaurant in Tamayura. In the most recent of the current ongoing series of OVAs, Chimo announces that she’s getting engaged. Matsuki is no longer with us to see her wedding.
Rest in peace, Ms. Matsuki. You will be missed.
Whoever wins, we lose
Good mystery is all about the why. Through the eyes of our detective, we probe the culprit’s motivations and the environment that shaped them. As the audience, we’re made to understand the compelling logic of the crime, even though we find it reprehensible. It may be a distorted reflection, but we recognize what we see in the mirror the story holds up to our faces.
Ranpo Kitan is all about the why, too, but in a different way, namely, “Why didn’t anyone realize this show was a bad idea?”
The show purports to be a loose adaptation of several works of Edogawa Ranpo, an early twentieth-century Japanese mystery novelist, in a more contemporary setting. This is already treading on thin ice, but it’s not a guaranteed recipe for failure. UN-GO, after all, threw an author from the same time period into an unrecognizable world, but its mildly dystopic war-torn future was constructed well enough to stand up on its own next to Ango Sakaguchi’s inspiration. Unfortunately, Ranpo Kitan brings no such thoughtfulness to the table, electing to instead pile on layer after layer of cartoonish caricature.
Let’s start with the ostensible protagonist, Kobayashi. Now, the first character we meet doesn’t always have to be likable, but they should at least be someone whose perspective we can assume to ease ourselves into the proceedings. Ranpo Kitan, on the other hand, strains to make its version of Kobayashi as obviously unhinged as possible. His enthusiasm for the morbid murder cases he’s presented with ends up being less disturbing than pathetic, as if being deliberately contrary to expectations is the only interesting thing about him. On top of this, the adaptation exaggerates the feminine features of Edogawa’s original character, which mostly came in useful for disguises, into, well, a stereotypical trap that has all the clichéd characteristics you’d expect to appeal to people who use words like “trap.” Kobayashi’s girlish looks serve no narrative purpose in Ranpo Kitan; they’re just there for occasional awkward moments between him and his male best friend Hashiba, which we’re presumably supposed to find funny.
Akechi, Kobayashi’s reluctant mentor and boy-genius investigator, is a more promising candidate for an audience proxy, and the show does start to make overtures in that direction about halfway through. His introversion is more suited to the pace of a script heavy on interior thoughts, and his weary cynicism is at least more believable than Kobayashi’s irrational exuberance. Ranpo Kitan manages to sink his chances at relatability too, though, first by giving him virtually no development throughout most of the series, and then saddling him with a ridiculous heroic backstory in the closing episodes.
All of this is dropped into a stew of metaphysical mish-mash that counts for the show’s philosophical underpinnings. Ranpo Kitan starts out by thinking up the most generic of justifications for its criminals’ actions, and then gives up on even that in its latter half by focusing on a series of copycat crimes. The dramatic presentation seems to suggest that we’re exploring the depths of human depravity, but the villains offer nothing to shake us to the bone. Most of it is just a rehash of the old refrain on the place of vigilantism in the face of injustice. What’s left are tedious attempts to shock us with out-of-place bit characters like one imprisoned acquaintance of Akechi’s, a literal masochist who contributes very little to the story except for gratuitous bondage imagery.
In spite of how self-evidently crazy this all is, Ranpo Kitan spends a lot of time trying to take itself very seriously indeed. Director Seiji Kishi’s flair for the absurd and darkly comic, put to such good use in Humanity Has Declined, only compounds the problem here. Each murder victim’s autopsy, for instance, is presented by a gag character who looks like she’s taken a wrong turn on the way to her audition for a Japanese variety show and otherwise plays no role in the story – until, of course, in a “shocking” twist, she does. Was anyone asking for this?
The show’s sole saving grace is its fantastic opening and ending themes, which thankfully have little to do with the rest of this mess.
Don’t watch Ranpo Kitan. Seriously. Life is too short.