A review of Super Cub

High school student Koguma lives alone in a small, nearly empty apartment. She wakes up early in the morning, makes breakfast, and goes to school on her bicycle. After school she returns to her apartment and isn’t greeted by anyone — she doesn’t have parents or any family at all. She doesn’t even seem to have any friends to spend time with.

On her way to school one morning, while pushing herself on her bike from her faraway apartment, Koguma notices someone riding a small motorcycle. Tired of having to pedal everywhere, Koguma goes after school to a local bike shop to see whether she can afford a motorbike herself. She’s discouraged after looking at some of the price tags, but the shopkeeper brings out a model just for her, and right in her low price range: a used Honda Super Cub.

After getting a helmet, riding gloves, and a basic lesson in motorcycle maintenance, Koguma is off on her Super Cub. Daily life is now a little easier and more convenient for her, but her life is about to change in ways she couldn’t have imagined thanks to her motorbike.

Trying out the new bike at the shop. In every other shot Koguma is wearing her gear, and aside from one massive and very weird exception near the end that I will get into, Super Cub emphasizes this sort of practical safety advice.

Super Cub aired just last year, but it totally passed me by until about a month ago when I saw it recommended because I’d watched Yuru Camp. I’d seen it recommended a lot for that reason, actually, but I didn’t know what a super cub was and kept putting off finding out for a while until finally giving in. If it were airing this year I’d probably have watched it as it aired, but I wasn’t yet on the extremely slow-paced slice of life anime train last year, not before I watched and loved Yuru Camp.

These two series do have some elements in common, so I get why I was recommended this. They are both relaxed slice-of-life series about high school girls (of course, it’s anime and that’s 90% of the slice-of-life genre at least) setting out on the road and learning about themselves. They even both take place in Yamanashi Prefecture, one of Japan’s few landlocked states and the home of Mount Fuji. Between these two series, Yamanashi looks like a great place to visit — both depict a lot of beautiful countryside and wilderness, even though the prefecture isn’t too far from Tokyo. Maybe this is one of the places Tokyoites go to get out of town when they’re able.

It really does look nice in spring. We get these cherry blossoms blooming in certain parts here, too. If you’re in the eastern US, go to DC to see it one April if you ever get the chance.

That slow pace is also important to note. If anything, Super Cub feels even slower-paced than Yuru Camp, with plenty of shots of Koguma and other characters riding around town, making lunch, and carrying out other daily tasks. The pace feels very deliberate — I don’t know if this is reading too much into it, but I get the feeling it’s meant to really pull you into this setting and especially into the slow pace of life in the Yamanashi countryside and how it all plays out for Koguma in particular. If that wasn’t the intention, it’s all right, because it still had that effect on me. I think watching Yuru Camp and Akebi’s Sailor Uniform softened me up a lot towards these slow slice-of-life series.

Super Cub makes plenty of room for these lengthy scenes since the plot itself is pretty thin: Koguma buys her Super Cub and learns to ride it, making two close friends along the way and becoming not quite as depressed as she used to be. I’d say those are spoilers, but they’re really not since you can gather all of it from the OP. (There will be spoilers following, but this is another not very plot-heavy series, so I wouldn’t worry about it too much.)

Koguma is an interesting protagonist. She might not seem that way at first, though. As she narrates herself, she has no friends, no family, no hobbies, no money, nothing at all. That’s not quite true — Koguma has an apartment and enough money at least to pay for her room and board and to eat. She refers to scholarship money she receives every so often, but it’s clearly not all that much considering she can’t afford more than a roughly hundred dollar used motorcycle and rice with some kind of flavor sauce packet for lunch every day. So it’s an extremely spare life for Koguma at first.

Depression life

However, once she gets her Super Cub, she starts to take a real interest in it, learning how to ride and maintain it properly. Even just cruising around the local roads without having to constantly pedal her bike is a nice enough feeling to bring her a little happiness. And her motorcycle soon gets her her first friend, her classmate and fellow Super Cub owner Reiko, who overhears her answering someone else’s question about her bike followed by their dismissal that it’s not a real motorcycle but more of a moped.

Reiko doesn’t feel that way. She’s so damn proud of her own modified Super Cub that she won’t shut up about it, and since she knows Koguma is part of the club now she has someone else at their school to talk to about it.

Man, I have no idea what you’re talking about but that sounds cool

Though she still doesn’t talk much and is extremely soft-spoken when she does, Koguma gets along with the far chattier Reiko, and the two build a solid friendship with their shared love for motorcycles, eating lunch down by their bikes every day and eventually visiting each other after school hours. And soon enough the third character in their group makes her entrance when Koguma and Reiko volunteer their bikes to carry an espresso-maker from a nearby high school to their own for an Italian café at their cultural festival. Shii, another of their classmates with a love of everything Italian, appreciates their help and invites them over to her family’s weirdly clashing western-themed restaurant, her father being obsessed with Germany and her mother with the US.

***

Now I’m going to break a rule of good blog-writing (at least I guess it is.) I wrote all of the above months ago. I should probably rewrite it and start over clean at this point, but I feel like I summed up the show’s characters and events pretty well, or at least that I wouldn’t be able to do better at this point. But Super Cub was a rare one for me. Usually when I watch an anime, play a game, listen to an album or whatever else, I have at least some idea of what I want to say about it, even if it might take a minute to get those thoughts together.

It took months for me to keep writing about Super Cub past the basic “here’s what happened” stuff you read above. Maybe because it’s an unusual series, a show about motorbikes full of product placement, which you’d probably expect to be full of excitement and speed Fast and Furious-style, but no — it’s very deliberately slow, so slow and dreamlike that it’s impossible to believe it was made to capture mass appeal. Super Cub is based on a light novel series that I haven’t read and that likely hasn’t been translated anyway, so I can’t say how this anime compares to the original work, but it certainly seems like there wasn’t a lot of concern about getting the blood flowing in the way you might expect from a motorbike-based series.

That aspect of Super Cub really worked for me when I watched it, and upon a very partial rewatch it still does. Some viewers might feel watching Koguma make her depression meals in her empty apartment or riding through the same sleepy countryside intersection for the fifth time is a waste or filler, but I’d disagree. Part of the appeal of Super Cub seems to be this replaying of her routine, and watching how it gradually changes for the better and somewhat less depressing as Koguma expands her personal horizons. As someone who used to live in a deep rut, I like how Koguma’s rise out into a brighter world plays out. And the show has a more literal way of depcting this “brightening” of her life, with an occasional shift away from its usually muted colors to a brighter look (like when she drinks the coffee, seen above — good coffee really can almost have that effect.)

An example of the goodness of coffee — the brighter colors in this screenshot are no accident.

Super Cub also features a lot of the usual “power of friendship” stuff you’ll also find in your Yuru Camp, K-On!, etc. sorts of slice-of-life shows, with the protagonist and her newfound companions helping each other out and supporting each other when necessary. The friendship theme is nothing new, it’s just the subject matter it’s attached to. I know nothing about motorcycles, motorbikes, or mopeds, and I certainly don’t know anything about Super Cubs, but I thought the show, for the most part, did a good job weaving Koguma’s growing bonds with Reiko and Shii into their shared love for Honda motorbikes and coffee.

While I enjoyed a lot of the slow-paced and relaxed feel of Super Cub and the growing friendship between the central trio, the series did hit a few bumps for me (sorry.) One of these was just how weirdly poetic Koguma sometimes gets about her Super Cub, especially in the inner monologues we sometimes get from her at the beginnings or ends of episodes. Clearly learning how to ride and maintain her bike has had a great and positive impact on her life, and the show depicts that well enough, but on occasion it gets a little over the top for me. I can take a lot of this in the right context, but in connection with the constant Honda product placement, it does feel strange.

To be clear, I’m not accusing Honda of having anything to do with this anime or with the original light novel series — as far as I know, it had nothing at all to do with either. But imagine a series about how soda truly brings characters together with its great, refreshing taste, and that soda just happens to be Coke or Pepsi. No matter how genuine the characters, their relationships and struggles, come off otherwise, we’re all so bombarded with product placement and advertisements in every other part of our lives that it would be impossible not to notice.

I promise this has nothing to do with the fact that the god damn AC condenser in my Civic broke completely out of nowhere last summer and that I had to pay well over one thousand dollars to get it fixed. And yeah, there is a settlement available… for the AC compressor, not the condenser. Assholes, they just fucked the whole AC unit design up apparently. I’m not still angry, no.

My other issue with Super Cub had to do with the turn it took near the very end, and specifically in its second-to-last episode (and here are the actual spoilers, though they’re not really much.) Shii joins the informal motorbike club near the end of the series, which is to be expected, but I guess the writer or writers felt she needed a dramatic moment to connect more closely with Koguma, or simply because they thought the second-to-last episode of a series needs a lot of drama to be a real climax. Because something really dramatic does happen: while riding her bicycle at night along a dangerous path in the woods, Shii falls into a ditch and can’t get out. She calls Koguma, telling her in a weak voice that she’s freezing and stuck and needs help, so off Koguma races on her Super Cub to save her friend.

That’s all fine, but what follows isn’t. Koguma gets to the scene, immediately starts moving Shii around (which I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to do in case something is actually broken.) Then, instead of calling emergency services or a doctor or anyone like that, Koguma places Shii in the basket in front of her motorbike’s windshield and drives her to her apartment to warm up and recover. That’s keeping in mind that Shii is freezing and exposed to the cold wind, now hitting her even harder since they’re driving.

No, I’m not a medical professional or a biker, but I’m pretty sure none of this is right.

I normally wouldn’t nitpick the events of one episode like this, especially since I’m an expert in exactly none of the topics Super Cub is about. However, I’d like to think I have at least a small amount of common sense — common sense that Koguma for whatever reason doesn’t exercise in this one episode. The place they live out in Yamanashi is remote and it’s late, sure, but it hasn’t been established that Koguma doesn’t have a hospital to call to get Shii and handle her properly in case she’s really messed up. Thankfully she isn’t, but this episode builds up the tension as though she might be.

And if you want to argue that this is still too much of a nitpick, here’s my answer: Super Cub otherwise seems to take a practical approach, almost teaching the viewer along with Koguma how to maintain a motorbike, with lessons built into the story about changing your own oil, modifying your bike to handle winter weather, and buying essential gear and accessories. A series like this can’t just take a vacation from reality for one episode, leaving behind this practical approach to give what seems like really terrible advice. And maybe all for the purpose of letting Koguma say to Shii near the end of the episode: Don’t thank me for saving you, thank my Super Cub. Yeah, thanks, Super Cub.

Maybe all of the above makes more sense in the novel series, or maybe it was an anime-only addition. And maybe I really am picking too much at this episode, but on top of the poetics about how wonderful the Super Cub is, this felt like way too much for me to take. If you happen to know the area this place is based on (if it is a real part of the prefecture) let me know if I’m really off here. I just don’t think Super Cub needed the drama this episode was trying to inject — it was at its best when it was doing its slice-of-life thing, which is thankfully almost the rest of the series.

Maybe if it were a talking motorbike like the car from Knight Rider (voice provided by the guy who played John Adams in 1776 and Mr. Feeny in Boy Meets World, fun fact) then I might feel this “thank my Super Cub” line was less cheesy and stupid.

All that considered, episode 11 feels so strangely out of place that it doesn’t actually ruin my enjoyment of the rest of the series. I didn’t want to go without addressing it, because it is there and it does stick out horribly, but in the end, I still have positive feelings about Super Cub. Even if I don’t have such positive feelings about Honda right now, feelings that won’t improve until they pay me back for that fucking broken AC condenser, the assholes.

But that’s not the fault of Koguma, Reiko, or Shii, and it’s not the fault of whoever was responsible for designing the various Super Cub models. I can’t say watching Super Cub motivated me to buy one — I’m old now and need a proper car, and there are hardly any motorbikes or mopeds around in the near-urban/dense suburban area of car-addicted America I live in. But I can see why it might have that effect, especially on a viewer in Koguma’s place in life. If you’re looking for another series in the vein of Yuru Camp, or probably of Yama no Susume (which I haven’t seen, but it’s also on the list) I’d recommend it.

In the end, Super Cub did win me over, all while getting away with some bullshit that wouldn’t have flown for me in lesser series. Nice job to author Tone Kouken and Studio Kai.

To my American friends and readers, happy bird-eating day and happy insane shopping day (both of which I sat out. I had dinner at Waffle House last night. I know, but I don’t care either.) I have no idea what’s coming next, but see you next time.

Currently watching: Do It Yourself!!

I’m doing my best to keep up with several anime series this season. The second cour of Spy x Family goes without saying, and so does Chainsaw Man, which I’ve just now started. But though I’m watching them, I don’t feel like writing about these two right now — yeah they’re great, certainly, but they’re also getting such massive buzz that it feels unnecessary for me to add my dumb opinions to the mountain of talk.

Yua Seruru from from Do It Yourself!!

Do It Yua Serufu

Instead, I’ll write about an anime that seems to be flying under the radar a bit this season. Do It Yourself!!, as of this writing four episodes into a 12-episode cour, is an original anime produced by the studio Pine Jam. I’d never heard of these guys before, but I have a positive impression of them so far, because Do It Yourself!! is at this point yet another nice, relaxing antidepressant slice-of-life anime about a school club involving the learning of practical skills. (It’s an entire genre in itself at this point, isn’t it?)

The story so far: main character Yua Serufu (a nice pun there) is just starting as a student at Gatagata Girls’ High School, which is weirdly entirely surrounded by the more elite Yuyu Girls’ Vocational High School, where Serufu’s next-door neighbor and childhood friend Suride Miku is an incoming student. Miku and Serufu could not be more different: Miku is diligent, neat, and serious, while Serufu is extremely easygoing, reflected partly by their admissions results.

Suride Miku aka Purin from Do It Yourself!!

Serufu’s friend and neighbor Miku aka Purin. Why Serufu calls her Purin (pudding) has yet to be explained.

Purin is annoyed at Serufu not being able to attend Yuyu as well, though she naturally shows it a little aggressively because she’s ultra-tsundere about her friend. Serufu amusingly seems to be able to see through all of that and finds her tsundere-ness funny, however. Nothing seems to get to Serufu really, being a very go with the flow type.

Serufu heads off to Gatagata for her first day on her bike, but since she’s constantly accident-prone she crashes along the way, getting a hand with repairs from a fellow student who races off before she can be properly thanked. However, Serufu finds her new acquaintance later that day in the school’s DIY clubhouse, an old workshop out in the school’s yard. Rei (or Kurei — almost everyone gets a nickname in this show) is the club president and sole member, and if she doesn’t get at least a few more members, the DIY club will be forced to dissolve.

Kurei and Serufu in the DIY clubhouse.

Just how many anime series have I watched with either a “save our school club from disbanding” or a “increase our school club’s profile” premise? This, K-On!Yuru Camp, arguably Asobi Asobase, and I’m sure others are slipping my mind right now.

Even though she’s so accident-prone, Serufu decides to join the club that involves handling sharp objects and power tools and starts to help her new president hunt for members. The next few episodes predictably build up the club’s membership and central cast of friends, who we know will all join because they’re all featured in the appropriately cute and chirpy opening:

I guess I’ve already given it away, but my first impressions of the show a third of the way through are very positive. I’ve really taken to this slice-of-life style — even if it doesn’t always quite hit the mark for me, it hits more often than not, and up until now Do It Yourself!! is working for me with its charming characters and fun premise. Though it might seem unbelievable based on what else I’ve written here, I’m not bad with tools myself. Or at least I wasn’t back in high school when I helped build sets for our plays, so I can’t say whether I’m any good at this stuff anymore, but there is at least a little nostalgic connection with this show and the camaraderie that comes from building something with your classmates.

I also like the show’s bizarre double school setup, with Yuyu both figuratively and literally towering over the less prestigious Gatagata. Strange and not very realistic, maybe, but it also works in helping advance what looks like the most central friendship in the story between Serufu and Purin. One of my favorite moments so far comes when Serufu tells Purin during their first week that she’s learning about Marcus Aurelius — Purin scoffs at that ancient history, saying both that and her DIY interests are useless and antiquated (and hurting my soul because I always loved history the most of all my classes.) Meanwhile, Purin is learning about cutting-edge technology and design.

Despite all that, it’s clear that Purin isn’t actually arrogant or condescending towards her friend — they just have some fundamental disagreements. I expect Serufu and her new friends will convince Purin of the value of building stuff with your hands and tools soon. I hope she learns the value of history too, but that probably won’t happen in this series. Where’s the anime about a school history club? I’d watch the fuck out of that.

I like Purin’s (bio?)luminescent robot jellyfish though. Maybe my favorite character so far, even if he does seem way too eager to prepare hot baths for his owner. Maybe the OS update will make him a little less of a weirdo.

That’s a recommendation so far, then. I know how extremely promising this season is already, but if you’re looking for a lighter sort of show to balance out your Mob Psycho 100 and your Chainsaw Man, don’t pass Do It Yourself!! by.

I’m just hoping for Serufu’s sake she starts paying slightly more attention to her surroundings, but I guess that’s part of the joke.

A review of Nichijou

Early one morning, three high school girls sit in the back of their class waiting for homeroom to start. Mai is mostly silent, sitting in the corner against the wall. Mio reads a newspaper. In the very back, Yuko complains that she’s forgotten to do her homework again, asking to copy off of her friends. Meanwhile, in a house nearby, a girl looking about the same age hangs laundry out to dry while a younger kid, seemingly her sister, messes around in their living room.

Nichijou, subtitled My Ordinary Life, is yet another slice-of-life comedy. But not just any — despite its title (Nichijou also meaning “everyday” or “routine”) this series is anything but ordinary. This is made clear almost immediately after the first scene: laundry-hanging girl is a robot named Nano, a very obvious one with a giant windup key sticking out of her back, created by the genius but still extremely immature young girl who lives with her, Hakase Shinonome.1

Even the classroom scene is unusual: the silent Mai makes a habit of carving Buddha and similar statues out of wood at her desk, often while her friends Mio and Yuko carry on energetic and sometimes violent arguments. And the rest of the class and even the town as a whole is just as lively.

Even if you’ve never seen Nichijou, you’ve probably seen one of the many clips of the series on YouTube recommended to you, and very likely this one titled “Mio Loses It” — it’s one I’ve seen for years myself before I finally got around to checking it out. I won’t say it sums up the series, because I don’t think it’s possible to do that with one clip, but it does provide a nice idea of what to expect, with an everyday problem (Mio trying to deliver pages of a yaoi manga she’s drawn to the post office, but that she’s also trying to hide from Yuko and various strangers out of embarrassment) blown up to epic proportions.

Or other everyday problems like going to a new coffee shop and not knowing how the hell to order because of the customized drink names and titles, and ending up with a single unsatisfying cup of unsweetened espresso, then leaving in defeat. Or pressing down on a mechanical pencil when the tip is against your thumb. Something similar happened to me once, and this is truly what it feels like:

I’m using a different format for this post than usual: no screenshots, only video links. There are a few reasons for my decision. First and most critically, my PC is currently refusing to stream anything at the moment, but Crunchyroll also refuses to allow me to take screenshots on mobile, which it can extremely go fuck itself for. Most of these videos have also been up forever in YouTube terms (about since the anime itself aired in some cases 11 years ago) so I don’t have any real fear about any of these being taken down and screwing up the post. Although what a great way to tempt fate, writing that last line.

But I also feel it helps to see Nichijou in motion instead of simply through my usual screenshots to get just how blown out of proportion these little moments are in the series and how well these segments work. I’ll occasionally throw a video link into these posts for that reason, I’m just doing that exclusively this one time.

Nichijou is divided into 26 full-length episodes, but it feels to me almost more like an even more broken down series of shorts: each episode consists of segments ranging from several minutes to just several seconds long. Most of these bits feature one of the two sets of main characters going through their daily lives just as the title suggests, though daily lives that are pretty damn unusual as you can see.

But then as if to add to that absurdity, seemingly unrelated and disconnected sequences are thrown into this mix. Like “Word Time”, featuring a saying that may or may not have anything to do with anything:

Or “Helvetica Standard”2, an in-universe manga, or a manga within the manga, which also has short anime adaptations that feature in the Nichijou anime.

Some of these very short segments also feature our main characters and/or their friends, classmates, and their families, but these are also typically not connected to any main narrative going on, except when they are — but you sometimes won’t discover those connections until well after you’ve seen them.

When I started Nichijou, the first aspect of it that really jumped out at me was its impressive and almost stupidly high production values. I already had a vague idea about that from what I’d heard, but actually seeing the show in action is another matter.

Maybe this shouldn’t have been a huge surprise — Nichijou was created by the highly esteemed studio KyoAni as an adaptation of Keiichi Arawi’s original slice-of-life comedy manga. But as highly esteemed as KyoAni is, I don’t think they’re generally known for creating scenes like this, especially not for adaptations of slice-of-life comedies:

This very early sequence isn’t an exception, either. The whole series looks great, with beautifully expressive characters and scenes that kept surprising me like the above. Add to these excellent voice acting (like with Asobi Asobase, though with slightly less wild screaming, though even then I’m not positive about that) and a memorable orchestral soundtrack. And then pile on the fact that the second half of this 26-episode run looks even better than the first, and you might wonder how they spent so much on a comedy like this of all things.

Not that the extra expense wasn’t justified, because Nichijou is one of those cases where its style adds a lot to its substance. Take the above clip, in which Mio (again) accidentally exposes her yaoi manga-drawing hobby by giving Yuko a workbook at school that morning that she then remembers she’d drawn an embarrassing sketch in. Mio is so mortified over being found out that she chases Yuko down, yet Yuko refuses to give up Mio’s homework she’s borrowed to copy yet again. And even though they normally inhabit a totally normal setting, suddenly just for this chase the halls of the school are empty and stretch on for miles so Mio and Yuko can have their supersonic-speed chase scene.

Exaggeration like this isn’t anything new, but Nichijou does a great job with it, and all the more so because its characters are so fun to watch. That applies most to our main characters, with my favorite among the high school cast being the normally silent Mai, who loves to fuck with her friends’ minds, and always with a purely deadpan expression. It’s also impossible not to like Nano, who just wants to be seen as a normal girl despite being a robot with several bizarrely useless functions that trigger seemingly randomly — the product of Hakase’s genius but still immature mind.

While I’ve known about Nichijou since it aired, until just a while ago I put off watching it. I had some vague idea that it was basically a less old Azumanga Daioh, and I’d already seen Azumanga after all. Not that that was any excuse not to check Nichijou out, but when I finally did, I quickly realized that I’d been wrong about it. While the two series do have a lot in common on the surface — absurd comedy based largely on the antics of high school students — they’re structured in totally different ways.

While Azumanga follows the central cast through all three years of high school, Nichijou doesn’t seem to bother with tracking time in the same way. The seasons do change (you can always tell in these shows when it’s spring/summer or fall/winter by the students’ either short- or long-sleeved uniforms — another aspect of school life I missed out on in the States3) but our first-years aren’t stressing out about moving up to the next grade or thinking about university, or at least not yet. That’s to say there isn’t much of the “coming of age” stuff you’ll find in some similar slice-of-life school-based series, unless you count Mio giving up on hiding her yaoi obsession from her friends halfway through the show (and hey, here’s part of the continuation of that thumb injury clip with a great example of Mai trolling.)

Even though it’s so episodic and flips through so many seemingly disconnected segments, Nichijou works so well for me largely for the reason Azumanga did: the characters are endearing. Well, mostly — Mio’s older sister is genuinely an asshole sometimes. But even she’s not really that bad once you get past her actually horrible pranks. I even got attached to a lot of the more secondary characters, like the impossibly unlucky Nakanojou (mohawk guy), the nice but extremely skittish homeroom teacher Sakurai, and her colleague Takasaki, who has a desperate crush on her but is too awkward and nervous to bring himself to make any progress.

This is the answer I’d give to anyone who might dismiss Nichijou as simply being full of that old “lol random” sort of humor. It’s definitely not going to be to everyone’s tastes, but as someone who doesn’t care for that sort of “random humor” even if I did grow up around the time it was popular, that’s really not what Nichijou is at all, I think mostly on the strength of its characters.

The only times I didn’t get much from the series’ humor was when it was clearly referencing something based in Japanese culture that I just didn’t grow up with. While such jokes did come up on occasion, they weren’t all that common, and even then I can hardly criticize a Japanese series made for a Japanese audience for doing that. And anyway, one of the nice things about the show’s fast pace is that if one joke doesn’t land for you, another one will be coming up soon.

Normally I’d keep going on, but I’ll keep this review on the “shorter” side, at least compared to my more recent rambling overlong style of writing. So did I like Nichijou? No, I loved it. I wouldn’t have burned through 26 episodes in one week otherwise, not with my fucking horrible work schedule.

While I also loved Azumanga, I’d compare Nichijou more to Asobi Asobase, only less crass and therefore easier to recommend to people who aren’t already brain-damaged like I very likely am. Those “Mio likes yaoi” jokes are really as spicy as it gets. And this is a great time to pick up the series if you haven’t, since the manga very recently resumed its run after Arawi’s work on his new manga City concluded. Weirder things have happened than an anime getting a second season after 11 or 12 years, though as usual there are no guarantees and I wouldn’t hold my breath for it either. Either way, Nichijou receives my highest recommendation.

In the meantime, I still have a lot of anime to dig through, even after all the work I’ve done on my backlog. I might even start reading City, since I’ve heard good things about that series too. Next time I might also actually take a look at a game, just like my site was originally intended for (the key word being might, but I’ll do my best. And I should really change the site’s tagline, shouldn’t I?) Until then.

 

1 Another language note I didn’t pick up on from the subtitles: the girl is only ever referred to as Hakase, which is also how the subs refer to her, but “Hakase” means “Doctor/Professor”, so she’s Dr. or Prof. Shinonome. That explains why she doesn’t have to attend school despite being eight years old — she’s a genius, but as we see throughout she still has a lot of growing up to do.

2 Extremely fun and interesting typeface fact: the title of “Helvetica Standard” isn’t written in Helvetica, but the title of Nichijou as written in English is. At least I think it is. It looks like some type of Helvetica to me, but if you’re a design expert you can go ahead and correct me if I’m wrong.

3 This definitely isn’t the place, but it’s been in the back of my mind for a long time. As a kid I attended both public and private schools in the US and overseas, but none of them mandated the wearing of uniforms. My feeling about that approach, big surprise, was negative — I thought it gave some kids the chance to mock others for not wearing the right style, which I guess I never really was because I was a weirdo who largely lived in my own head (and still do to some extent at least.)

But as a weirdo, my perspective probably doesn’t count for much when it comes to the broader effects of such policies. I’m not a student and don’t work in a school anyway and never would, so at least my opinion on the subject doesn’t actually matter anymore.

A review of Mieruko-chan

Mieruko-chan posterMiko Yotsuya is by outward appearances a pretty normal high school girl, the type who diligently attends class, does her schoolwork, and hangs out with her friend after hours. She seems to have some interest in occult subjects, buying magical charms to ward off spirits, but that’s not too unusual either.

But Miko has a gift — or a curse — she conceals from the rest of the world: she can see spirits and ghosts. These terrifying beings haunt the world in large numbers, and she can see all of them. Despite this ability, Miko does her best to studiously ignore the spirits, even when they stand in her way, swarm around her, and ask her directly if she can see them. Apparently acknowledging a spirit is a real problem and will cause it to haunt you, and Miko isn’t having that.

Miko Yotsuya, from Mieruko-chan

Miko after a long night of pretending not to see spirits. She’s not quite in the protagonist seat, but close enough.

Unfortunately for her, her peppy and eternally hungry best friend Hana Yurikawa seems to be a magnet for ghosts thanks to her unusually strong magical aura. Hana doesn’t have the sight and has no idea of this fact since Miko refuses to scare her by letting her in on any of this. So it’s up to Miko to protect herself, Hana, and later another new friend from haunting and other ghost antics, all while maintaining an outwardly normal school life. That’s easier said than done — can she pull it off?

I promise the fact that this is the second spooky-themed anime in a row I’m reviewing has nothing to do with it being October. It’s pure coincidence, though I guess it also works out well if you care about seasonal theming more than I do. The subject of this post is a lot closer to the fall spirit than Call of the Night, too, even if vampires are part of the accepted Halloween thing. Nazuna wasn’t exactly Nosferatu, was she?

For those looking for real scares, however, see Mieruko-chan, a 12-episode anime adaptation of a horror/slice-of-life comedy/drama manga that aired last year. There’s another interesting combination of genres — like my previous anime review subject, Mieruko-chan contains an unusual mix. But does the mix work as well as it did last time?

Miko and Hana at the convenience store, from Mieruko-chan

Miko and Hana, living a typical high school life. Only for Miko it’s punctuated by a lot of avoiding creepy ghosts and monsters that almost nobody else can see, Miko is not in an enviable position

Mieruko-chan centers on the (sort of) title character* and protagonist Miko, her family, and her very small circle of friends (basically just Hana and another classmate who shows up halfway through.) Miko is the only one who can see spirits and ghosts, at least as far as she knows, and so she keeps her special ability to herself, hiding it both from family, friends, and classmates and from the spirits themselves.

There is more to the plot of this 12-episode run, but that’s the gist of it: Miko has to figure out how to cope with increasingly scary, disruptive, and sometimes dangerous supernatural beings and to protect Hana and a newly made friend halfway through the season from their negative influence all the while not visibly acknowledging their existences. It doesn’t help that there’s massive variation among them: some are just the ghosts of deceased humans hanging around to resolve unfinished business, or maybe because they just don’t feel like going anywhere else, while others are clearly beasts or legendary beings, maybe something like youkai only on the more ethereal level.

Miko ignoring a monstrous ghost, from Mieruko-chan

This one looks frightening but actually seems pretty harmless, just riding the bus and getting off at its usual stop

There is a little more of a solid plot starting around the halfway mark when Miko brings Hana to a local abandoned Shinto shrine to try to get a blessing/exorcism, leading to an unexpected run-in with the shrine’s guardians, a massive animalistic spirit and its two undead fox shrine maidens. This set seem to be on Miko’s side, giving her a sort of limited-use protection deal in which the maidens show up to save her from spirits that try to attack her. However, by the end of the season, this already mysterious power starts to actually menace Miko as well, though for what purposes we don’t yet know.

Twin fox shrine maidens from Mieruko-chan

They are pretty scary looking, a bit like those “biblically accurate angel” depictions that have regained popularity online over the usual “blonde girl with wings” one. Though I do still like Kaneko’s Angel design from SMT.

There were aspects of Mieruko-chan I didn’t understand very well and that the show didn’t seem to explain, most importantly the actual harm that might be caused by a malicious spirit. Some spirits Miko sees just seem to be hanging around and look pretty harmless, even if they understandably scare her with their horrific rotting appearances.

Certain other spirits are absolutely malicious-looking — my question then is whether or how much they can actually interact with Miko if she acknowledges them beyond just being creepy and following her around. The intervention of the shrine guardians on her behalf makes me think they can actually harm her, and certain spirits also sap Hana’s energy to the point that she’s even more constantly hungry near the end of the season, but there don’t seem to be any consistent rules about how these things works. There’s even one spirit who tricks Miko by looking like a completely normal human then attacking her when she waves at it, which really feels a lot like cheating.

This guy does not look like he has good intentions

These seeming inconsistencies were a bit of an issue for me, but I also feel there may be something lost in translation here culturally. Of course there are plenty of ghost stories and legends about monsters and hauntings etc. here in the States, many of them regionally or even just locally famous, but these are mainly confined to either 1) souls of dead people trapped on Earth for whatever reason, usually to fulfill some purpose or because they’re pissed off about how they died, or 2) demons who possess people, usually families who have just moved into old houses in sleepy New England towns, and who require an exorcism from an ordained priest. Since these sorts of stories differ so much from country to country and region to region, I think I just lack the cultural background to get some of what’s going on in Mieruko-chan.

I also don’t particularly believe in any of this ghost or spirit stuff, at least not until I see one for myself. But I can at least appreciate a good story about a girl who can see creepy ghosts and wishes she couldn’t.

A lot of Mieruko-chan involves Miko being extremely nervous around spirits and doing her best to avoid them and to get Hana to avoid them without telling her she’s about to walk into a ghost. That aspect of the show did get pretty damn repetitive, even if there was some comedy occasionally added to mix things up (or maybe I’m just weird, but I thought it was funny how events often played out in perfectly unlikely and horrific ways for Miko to put her face-to-face with some sort of demon, like Final Destination without the death.)

Thankfully, there’s also some heart to the show, with a few emotional moments that are pretty well earned. The close relationship between Miko and Hana is central to the story and drives a lot of Miko’s efforts to better understand her special sight, and the addition of their sort of loner spiritualist classmate Yuria as a new friend makes for a nice trio. I like this central cast enough that I can almost forgive how often Mieruko-chan uses the extremely irritating miscommunication trope to move the plot along, with Miko refusing to let Yuria in on her sight, all while Yuria knows she has it but thinks Miko is just intimidating or testing her for some reason. That does get fucking annoying and it continues through almost the entirety of the show’s second half.

But again, the emotional moments really are worth it, and moreover they aren’t sappy at all. Cat-loving Yakuza guy is one of my favorite characters.

Aside from that mild to moderate annoyance, my other complaint with Mieruko-chan has to do with one aspect of its direction. The show looks nice enough, with great character designs (especially Miko’s expressiveness, which I loved) and a wide variety of interesting ghosts and spirits. I’m not generally a huge fan of dripping rotting corpse monsters, but they and the rest of these supernatural beings worked in the context of the story, with their horror and otherworldly feel making Miko’s terror feel all the more real (and adding to the effect when a few of the spirits turn out to be  benevolent against her expectations.) Serious credit to the studio Passione, who I haven’t seen in action before watching this series.

But this also makes it all the weirder that Mieruko-chan features plenty of fanservice. I usually bring this subject up when it figures into talk about an anime, and very often my feelings about such shots and scenes are a lot more forgiving than some, usually if I think they’re justifiable in the context of the story or the characters’ relationships and perspectives. I wrote a whole rambling post about it last year, in which I described a narrow band of examples where I’d find fanservice inappropriate and/or annoying. And look, I’ve finally found a concrete example:

Mieruko-chan butt shot. ???

Really, why

Several examples if you count each scene, because they are prominent especially early on in Mieruko-chan, with plenty of shots from below, behind, and above that feel weird and almost voyeuristic without any justification that I can find. Time and time again I’ve disagreed with those pissed mobs on Twitter when the subject comes up in connection with games and anime, but finally I can agree with them for once, because the only purpose here seems to be to feed that prurient interest to quote Miller v. California. Not that Mieruko-chan doesn’t pass the Miller test — it’s absolutely not obscenity or anything close to it. But these shots aren’t doing it any favors anyway.

Yuria from Mieruko-chan

How am I supposed to understand these characters’ motivations and anxieties if I don’t see them in the shower? Tell me that.

That said, even fanservice this brazenly pointless isn’t enough to knock Mieruko-chan down too much for me. The show does tone it down after the first few episodes (and I’m not even counting the bath scenes in the fourth episode, because they do have an actual point to them.) This also suggests to me that the makers were cranking up the fanservice the first few episodes possibly to draw more viewers in.

If that’s the case, I get the desire to make a few more dollars on Blu-rays or whatever their plans are. This tactic still feels trashy if that’s what it is, though. I’ve also heard this element wasn’t all that present in Tomoki Izumi’s original Mieruko-chan manga, so you can check that out if these shots bother you more than they did me. In any case, the anime’s positive qualities are strong enough to overcome these seedier aspects for me.

As long as you’re not a cheating dick who gets haunted by an ex-girlfriend spirit who stalks other women who look at you, you’re probably doing fine anyway.

All that said, then, my overall impression of Mieruko-chan is a positive one. If you’re looking for a creepy ghost anime to watch this October and you don’t mind a lot of irritating almost forced-feeling miscommunication/misunderstanding and a few stupidly gratuitous ass shots, I’d recommend it. A more qualified recommendation than usual, but still a recommendation anyway.

As for the spooky stuff, I’m done with it for now. Have fun with Halloween soon, because the anime and potentially the game(s) I’m writing about in the coming weeks have nothing to do with vampires or ghosts. Until then, do your best not to get possessed by a malicious spirit.

 

* Yet another language note, but a more necessary one this time: Mieruko is a play on Miko’s name and the word “to look”, mieru, relating to Miko’s special sight.

A review of Call of the Night

Call of the Night coverHere’s an anime I might have missed out on if it hadn’t been for that dumb anime first episode wheel post series I have going. Or maybe not, because I was already a little interested in it. Call of the Night / Yofukashi no Uta is a recently finished 13-episode anime, another manga adaptation. It’s an unusual one this time — if I had to categorize it, maybe “supernatural urban fantasy romance”? And definitely a vampire romance, and not even exactly the first one I’ve covered here if Kizumonogatari counts. (edit: also, general plot/ending spoilers below, etc.)

Kou Yamori is a middle school student. Sort of a student, since he’s recently quit attending school out of frustration over its social norms. Kou specifically doesn’t seem to get the idea of romantic love — not a huge surprise considering his age, but when he turns down a classmate who confesses to him for just that reason her friends dump on him. This seems to be more the last straw than the factor that really drove him to quit, but in any case he’s not going to school anymore, and somehow the Japanese equivalent of Child Protective Services isn’t getting involved either.

Kou Yamori in a park, from Call of the Night

God damn is that relatable or what

Instead of going to school, Kou goes out late at night, leaving his family’s apartment in the city to wander the streets and hang around in a park near his home. Kou is alone, but he seems happier walking the city streets when they’re nearly empty than he would be attending school.

His solitude doesn’t last, however. Just as he’s about to give in to the temptation of a vending machine stocked with alcohol, he’s stopped by a mysterious blonde girl who asks him what a kid is doing buying booze.

Nazuna Nanakusa from Call of the Night

Thankfully, she’s not a police officer, but just some girl taking an unusual interest in this kid. She tells Kou that he needs to let go and enjoy himself and that the night is the perfect time to do it. After showing him a few of the wonders of the nighttime city like a few drunk office workers throwing up on the sidewalk, she suggests they return to her place so she can “help him sleep.”

This should be throwing up all kinds of red flags, but Kou goes along with this girl anyway. When she leads him to her apartment and invites him to lie down next to her, that red flag is triggered, though it turns out to be the wrong one. She soon reveals her true intention: this girl, Nazuna Nanakusa, is a vampire who wants to suck his blood.

Nazuna about to drink Kou's blood

A shocking twist

Surprisingly, Kou is strangely okay about her drinking from his neck, even as he thinks it might turn him into a vampire himself. When Kou remains very much a human after getting bitten, he’s surprised, but Nazuna tells him that to actually be turned, he has to first fall in love with her before she bites him.

To her shock and considerable embarrassment, Kou then declares that he will fall in love with Nazuna so she can make him into a vampire. Nazuna gets red in the face — a running theme for her when talk about romance comes up — but she tells Kou he can do whatever he wants. And the following night, Kou is back out, and he meets Nazuna again, starting a strange human/vampire sort of friendship. Not quite a relationship in the way we usually talk about it, but an unusually intimate friendship, because most friends don’t sleep on the same bed and get their blood sucked by the other. Unless I’ve really been missing out.

Kou demanding that Nazuna turn him into a vampire

Usually the human is begging not to be turned into a vampire, but not this time

As the series proceeds, the cast grows quickly, and Kou is soon surrounded by a set of mostly women, some of whom are also vampires who also want to suck his blood even if just to see how it tastes since Nazuna insists on how excellent it is. But Kou also has a couple of classmates and childhood friends, still human like him, who show up in his life and act as a tether to the normal human world.

Still, Kou continues not to attend school, somehow seemingly living this delinquent nocturnal life without any issues despite still being a kid. As he spends more time with Nazuna almost every night, he begins falling into the world of vampires, one that’s seductive but also potentially extremely dangerous. Despite all that, Nazuna still can’t turn Kou into her follower: those romantic feelings have yet to emerge, so no matter how many times she bites him, he remains a human.

Does Kou really understand what he’s getting himself into? Does Nazuna? And are they prepared for the consequences both might face from this underground vampire society if Kou can’t — or won’t — be turned?

Seri thigh shot from Call of the Night

And are you prepared for all these thigh-level camera angles?

Call of the Night is an interesting series. It’s not much like any other anime I’ve watched before. Technically it’s sort of a coming-of-age show, and there’s some slice-of-life in there, but it’s nothing at all like the other series I’ve covered in those categories. It’s also nothing much like the few other vampire-related fiction works I’ve taken in like Kizumonogatari. The closest I’ve come to this before was probably the Tsukihime visual novel, which also partly features a story about an older hot blonde vampire lady getting involved with a well-meaning but sort of delinquent schoolboy, but it’s not much like Tsukihime either. It’s a unique sort of work, and in the good sense (given that, say, Pupa was also pretty “unique.”)

Outdoors at night from Call of the Night

As usual, when I love a show’s style, I’ll talk about that before getting into the substance of the plot and characters and the rest. Studio Liden Films did a great job animating Call of the Night, with a special emphasis on night scenes like the above. I’ve never seen the night lit up like this, all in blue and purple, with the stars shining improbably brightly in an urban environment — but that’s all right, because it looks excellent and fits the fantastic feel of the series despite its realistic modern-day city setting.

That praise extends to the characters and to mangaka Kotoyama. This guy has a distinctive style that I recognized right away: he was also responsible for Dagashi Kashi. I haven’t watched that series and was never very interested in what I knew of it aside from the hot main girl character whose name I don’t know, but maybe I should check it out.

Nazuna misses a delivery

I’m a fan of the unusual character designs, at least the way Kotoyama does them, and they work well in the anime.

And of course, that praise also extends to the opening and ending sequences, featuring tracks by the group Creepy Nuts, including the “title track” to the entire series Call of the Night. I already went on about these themes so I won’t again, but I will say this is one of the very few anime series I bother to always keep both the OP and ED on for, no skips.

So the style is excellent, but how’s the substance? A story about a vampire girl letting a middle school boy do his best to fall in love with her and actually sucking his blood all the while — there are all sorts of potential pitfalls here. While the relationship between Kou and Nazuna isn’t the only element in this story, it is the central one, running through and relating to all Kou’s other relationships. It’s also quite a strange relationship, no doubt about that, aside from the whole vampire thing.

Nazuna, Kou, and Akira from Call of the Night

Yeah, sucking blood is the equivalent of sex in this story more or less. Sex still does happen in general, of course, just not in this story.

I think some viewers had an issue with the perceived age gap in Call of the Night. Though Nazuna is still more or less supposed to be pretty close to Kou’s age since aging seems to stop or slow massively once you become a vampire, she’s also been around for at least a few decades, living a carefree existence of wandering around, boozing, and playing video games in her empty apartment.

This is another case where that old “would this feel weirder with the genders flipped” question comes up for me. My feeling is that it shouldn’t matter that much. Kou might be unusually forward and mature for his age, but he’s still barely experienced life at this point. Then again, neither has Nazuna if we consider what kind of life she leads. So you might argue she’s practically not very far from Kou in mental and personality terms, but this still isn’t exactly the kind of relationship I can “root for” like I can with the usual romantic comedy anime. Isn’t Akira a far better fit for this kid? She seems interested in him, and she has the childhood friend buff too.

Nazuna and Kou from Call of the Night

Maybe this only sort of worked for me because I 100% would have gone for this when I was 14, so I could relate to Kou here, but still, eh

I’ll admit this is still a bit of a sticking point for me with Call of the Night, especially considering the ending of this season with Kou basically confirming something like love for Nazuna and Nazuna returning his feelings. But even considering that particular weirdness, on balance I really enjoyed the series. Am I just trying to bullshit my way out of a difficult spot?

I don’t think so. Because aside from the obvious strangeness of this relationship, Call of the Night connected with me in a way that was hard for me to pin down at first. Back when I really started on this romantic comedy anime/manga trip two years ago, I wondered about the importance of having a relatable protagonist to latch onto. I don’t think it’s necessary to be able to relate to the lead in that way, but it can help, especially in this sort of fish-out-of-water situation where your protagonist has no clear idea about what he’s getting himself into.

And as I wrote above, Kou’s feelings are extremely relatable to me, with his desire to escape from everyday life and from the social norms that tie us down. To him, this new world of vampires is a world of freedom, where he can break free from those expectations and norms he doesn’t understand or like.

An attempt at seduction

And a world where a bunch of attractive women quite literally want a taste of him — except he’s not exactly interested.

This might come off like a strange comparison, but it’s something like piracy. Back in the 17th and 18th centuries, during the two great ages of Caribbean piracy, some sailors living under hard conditions of discipline and poverty in their legitimate and legal employment became pirates to escape that sort of life. Pirates lived free lives, even electing and deposing their captains by vote.

Pirates also sometimes carried out some horrific acts and lived under the constant threat of a hanging. They defied both the law and most every social norm of the time at a price. And though the vampires in Call of the Night try to blend into human society as much as possible, they also live outside the law and take serious risks, having to deceive or seduce humans into getting blood out of them and producing followers.

Seri gives Kou a better look

Very briefly touching on that old subject of fanservice, this is mostly why I don’t have much of a problem with it when it shows up in Call of the Night. Seduction is just part of life as a vampire, considering how many of the stories feature it.

Kou is initially enthusiastic about joining up with the vampires and does his best to fall in love with Nazuna so that can happen. Near the end of this episode run, however, he starts to see some of these realities that Nazuna has been concealing from him, perhaps partly out of fear that he’ll lose interest but also because she’s naïve about their arrangement herself. Halfway through the season, Kou is temporarily kidnapped by a few of her vampire colleagues, who do their best to steal Nazuna’s “prey.” When that fails, they make it clear when Nazuna fights her way to him that if he doesn’t become a vampire within one year, they’ll kill him since he knows too much about their society at this point to continue living as a human without putting them in danger of discovery.

Okay, if I were Kou this one would have worked on me.

Series like this, where one guy is surrounded by a lot of beautiful women, are often accused of being wish fulfillment stories. Maybe there’s some of that in Call of the Night as well — 14 year-old me would have loved to have been in Kou’s position, at least at first. Running around with my cute vampire girlfriend at night, somehow getting away with skipping school while still maintaining my grades (which is never explained and I don’t get at all, but lucky for him I guess) — what more could I have wanted?

In a way, this series is all the more relatable to me today, which might be sad. I don’t much enjoy my life or the responsibilities I bear that I took on because I felt they were my duty to carry. Trying to live within the bounds of respectable society can be hard, at least for a misfit like me.

But then that’s exactly why I don’t get that “mindless wish fulfillment” feeling at all from this series (or from a few other romantic anime I’ve watched that receive similar criticism.) Kou’s actions are not free of consequences, and the choice he has to make, whether to remain human or to become a vampire if he can, weighs on him. A pure escapist fantasy would gloss over all that.

And even vampires have their own worries.

So while the ending of the season with a confirmation of Kou and Nazuna’s feelings for each other wasn’t all that satisfying to me from that perspective, it’s all right — the story obviously isn’t anywhere near over, so that ending doesn’t mean Kou’s chosen a definite path for himself anyway. As the detective Anko suggests, he might not even have the capacity for romantic attraction: a minority of people in the real world don’t, and that’s possible in this case, though again, it’s perhaps more likely that a kid his age just doesn’t understand his own feelings yet. It’s all still kept ambiguous, but in a way that works well enough when you consider that the manga is still running.

It’s admittedly easier to make this choice when vampires are all hot as hell, but then that’s a common feature of these vampires stories too. Also, I can see those fangs — they’re not trying all that hard to hide among humans, are they?

There’s my recommendation, then. I liked Call of the Night, and so did a lot of other people apparently considering its high ratings. It seems likely to get a second season based on that popularity, though who knows with anime. This one might still put some viewers off, but then that’s the case for a lot of anime and other works I write about here, so it’s nothing new.

For now, it’s back to work and my dreary bullshit “respectable” life, what fun. Until next time.

A review of K-On! (Season 1)

I finally got around to watching another anime standard. K-On! is one of the first names in relaxed slice-of-life comedy anime, a manga adaptation by the first-rate studio Kyoto Animation, better known as KyoAni.

I say it’s a standard, but K-On! isn’t universally beloved. As one of the best-known and most-cited examples of a “cute girls doing cute things” series (see also the much older Azumanga Daioh, much newer Yuru Camp, and contemporary Lucky Star) it gets a lot of disdain from some anime watchers depending on their tastes. Back in 2009 when this first season aired, I remember that “cute girls” anime trend was in full swing in the same way the isekai trend seems to be now, and along with all its popularity it also received plenty of backlash.

But was that backlash deserved? I used to ignore this genre myself, aside from Azumanga which somehow felt like an exception, being an older series and heavy on both comedy and surreal weirdness alongside all the high school slice-of-life material. Watching Yuru Camp early this year convinced me that I was wrong to ignore it, and I even found a lot to like in a pure slice-of-life series a bit later on with Akebi’s Sailor Uniform. So finally I decided it was time to watch the first season of what many consider the best CGDCT/slice-of-life series ever. Would I fall in love with K-On! like I did with Yuru Camp? (Yeah, I’m leaving you in suspense for a while this time, sorry. Unless you just want to cheat and scroll to the middle/end.)

As much as that “anime girl running to school with toast in her mouth” thing is a standard opening (so much that the Niigata prefectural government early this year complained that it was depressing rice consumption in introducing their new “anime girl running with onigiri in her mouth” campaign) this is the first time I’ve seen it in a while.

K-On! opens with Yui Hirasawa rushing off to her first day at Sakuragaoka High School. As a new first-year student, Yui is immediately set upon by representatives of every club at the school because if anime has taught us anything, it’s that there’s nothing on Earth more serious than Japanese high school club membership. Yui has a problem, though: she has no idea what club she wants to join. When her far more responsible childhood friend and classmate Nodoka Manabe asks her two weeks later what club she’s going to join, Yui is still drawing a blank — she doesn’t seem to have any real interests aside from eating and sleeping.

Nodoka, a new student council representative, won’t let Yui just join the Go Home Club and tells her she’ll end up a NEET if she doesn’t take some initiative, so Yui goes for the easiest and most fun-looking group she can find: the Light Music Club.* Thinking “light music” means she’ll get to play the castanets or some other easy-looking percussion instrument (which yeah, I know they’re not easy to play well and the show does acknowledge that later, so the percussionists reading this can put down their beating sticks) Yui walks into the club with full confidence and absolutely no musical training.

Club president Ritsu camping out in the music room. I don’t think they ever use the staves on the board back there to write any music, or not that I saw at least.

Meanwhile, Yui’s fellow freshmen and Light Music Club members are waiting to get a fourth member so they can be recognized as a proper club by the student council and school administration. Drummer Ritsu Tainaka, bassist Mio Akiyama, and keyboardist Tsumugi Kotobuki are specifically looking for a guitarist so they can form a four-piece band. When Yui shows up at the music room to visit, they’re all excited and assume she’s a guitarist, piling up tea and cakes in front of her to convince her to join.

Yui is surprised to learn that this club has such specific standards and finally admits with some embarrassment that she can’t play the guitar at all (and shit, maybe they should have written we need a guitarist on the flyer?) But it all sort of works out for everyone: since the student council is about to axe the club, they take Yui despite her lack of experience and promise that they’ll teach her how to play.

And since their keyboardist is the heiress to a company that owns a musical instrument dealer, they manage to get her a fucking Les Paul for her very first guitar, amazing luck for Yui. And have fun getting those calluses.

The rest of the season follows Yui, Ritsu, Mio, and Tsumugi (aka Mugi as the girls call her) as they work on their music, write a few original songs, and get ready to perform in front of their classmates at their school festivals. An entire year breezes by halfway through this season, and with the new class of first-years comes an already skilled guitarist in Azusa Nakano, who makes the Light Music Club into a five-piece band. The club hits a few rough patches but gets through them, managing to write a few songs that become hits with their classmates and getting a taste for putting on live shows. And of course, they eat cake, drink tea, and screw around a whole lot while also doing their best to stay on top of their studies, but the last only really being an issue for Yui, who has the ability to actually study but not much in the way of discipline.

This is supposed to be a makeup midterm study session for Yui specifically, who screwed around so much she failed her first time around. But I like tea and cake too, I admit it, so I can’t judge them for this. (Also that lump on Ritsu’s head is from Mio’s much-deserved corrective slaps.)

K-On! is an interesting series to me largely for its impact on anime and the community (here in the West anyway, since I don’t know about the situation in Japan, but I assume it was probably a big deal there as well if not even bigger.) Like Azumanga, it was a huge hit online. It doesn’t seem to have had quite as wide of an appeal, but K-On! still received a lot of love, and I can see why, because there’s a lot going for it. KyoAni is highly regarded for good reason: the animation throughout this first season of K-On! is excellent. While I’m not a particular fan of their “squishy” character designs, Yui and her friends also have a unique look to them, and the style is recognizable and consistent.

I also like some of the music featured in K-On! It would be hard to forgive the show for failing to deliver at least a few good songs given its musical theme, and it does: Don’t Say Lazy, the ending theme, is a real earworm and a nice one even if the lyrics are a bit embarrassing (but that’s in character for the band’s lyricist Mio, so it’s all right) and Fuwa Fuwa Time is just god damn good. If my school had a band that could have written originals like these and performed them as well as the girls in K-On! do, that would have been impressive as hell. The show doesn’t skimp on the visuals and animation in these sections either: the playing actually looks realistic, at least to me. The instruments themselves are very real-looking as well, modeled as they are after real-life instruments (and hey, I’ve played a Korg synth a few times — not sure what model Mugi is using though.)

A rare scene of the girls actually practicing

Being a sort-of very amateur musician myself, I thought this series would be a perfect fit for me, especially since I’ve been on this cute slice-of-life binge. But it wasn’t, not quite. At least I can say this first season of K-On! hasn’t seized me in the way Yuru Camp did from its very first episode, and that series is about girls camping, a hobby I have absolutely no interest in. It’s weird how that works, isn’t it?

Before the legion of K-On! fans breaks down my door and demands an explanation, I should clarify that I didn’t hate or even dislike this run of episodes, not even close to it. If I had, I would have dropped it halfway through, because I don’t have the willpower to keep watching something I don’t enjoy on some level. I was hoping for more, though, based both on my own expectations and on the series’ great reputation.

My problem certainly wasn’t with the very light plot, which can be summed up as “high school girls play music and eat cake and drink tea.” By this point, I’ve watched enough anime more or less like that, only replacing “play music” with “go camping” or “just mess around all day” to know that this relative lack of plot absolutely isn’t a dealbreaker for me. But I think I’ve nailed down what I do need to really enjoy such a series, some mix of the following: 1) a compelling/entertaining cast of characters; 2) comedy that hits for me; 3) atmosphere so well done that the series sucks me into its world (and yeah, this last one sounds pretty flaky and hard-to-define to me writing it out, but I’m not sure how else to describe it.) I loved Azumanga and Yuru Camp for their characters and their comedy, and Akebi got me largely with its atmosphere.

This proves I really can’t live on cuteness alone

K-On!, or again at least its first season, was somewhat lacking in those areas for me. The characters in particular just didn’t grab me, aside from one, and having an interest in one character alone isn’t enough with an ensemble cast like this to keep my interest.

The “one” above isn’t the most central character Yui. With all her clumsy cuteness, you’d think I’d have liked her as much as I do Nadeshiko or Osaka, but no. I think my issue with Yui is that everything just comes too god damn easy to her, to the point that I’m not sure what exactly I should think of her — I guess she’s a lazy layabout who secretly has genius-level natural abilities judging by what she pulls off, but that’s not all that interesting to watch taking place. She has barely any motivation to study and fails her midterm, but it just takes one night of Mio drilling math into her head to get her a 100%; she seems to have not all that much work ethic or discipline but gets to be pretty damn good at the guitar in just a year to the point that she can do great in front of an audience (though the show acknowledges she’s not nearly as good as Azusa, sure.)

The same goes for the rest of the band, more or less. Aside from Azusa and Mio, the group has barely any motivation to practice, with the goof off Ritsu and flaky Yui being the main culprits and Mugi following along and providing a constant supply of tea and cake to go along with their leisure time. They do eventually get around to practicing, yeah, but they apparently also have a chronic case of laziness to the extent that Mio and later Azusa are pretty consistently annoyed by it. But despite all that, the girls put on great shows at their school festivals. (And maybe that’s why the ending is “Don’t Say Lazy”? Are they preempting this criticism?)

Practice?! Fuck that, let’s go to the beach

This might be an entirely stupid complaint. I didn’t watch K-On! expecting to watch the characters just practicing for 20 minutes per episode. But it does annoy me a little that there don’t seem to be much in the way of consequences for their general discord and fucking around. The real problem here might be with me and my own hangups: I never played in a band, but I did play solo piano from my childhood on, enough that even though I haven’t consistently kept it up for a while now, all that practice and muscle memory is burned into my brain and I can still do decently and polish my extremely rusty playing if I put the effort in.

The point is that I know playing well takes serious practice and discipline because I had to put that work in, and the same is true of even a natural genius which I’m damn well not. We do see Yui practicing her guitar a few times along with comments from her also far more responsible younger sister Ui that she’s gotten more focused, so that’s something, but a band is going to sound like a fucking mess if they spend most of their days in their club room eating cake and bullshitting.

That brings me to the one character in K-On! I really like so far: Mio. She has drive, discipline, and a backbone, and on top of all that she’s the only one in this first season with much of a real character arc, being forced to get over her shyness a bit so she can take the role of lead singer when Yui slips up and forgets her lines in their first performance. I don’t dislike Mugi, Ritsu, or even Yui although I complained about her a bit — they’re all fine. Same with Azusa, who also has plenty of motivation but unfortunately gets manipulated with cake bribes (which again I admit I completely understand.) But Mio is by far my favorite character at this point. Without her there grounding the rest at least somewhat, K-On! might have been a hard watch for me.

Then there’s the comedy, which doesn’t always hit for me. I think it’s pretty hard to write about why I find some jokes funny and not others — shit, I found Osaka’s sata andagi scene in Azumanga hilarious and I absolutely can’t explain why except that I really probably do have brain damage. K-On! does have some good bits, my favorite probably late in the season when the imposter Yui shows up (I won’t spoil it, but see if you can detect her) but too many of the jokes get repeated or fall flat for my taste.

The absolute worst offender for me in this regard is the club’s teacher advisor, Sawako Yamanaka, a former metalhead and Light Music Club member herself. I was on board with her “nice teacher turns out to be a weirdo/irresponsible shit” role for a while, sort of a Yukari going back to Azumanga (or for a better analogy, Chug-sensei from Yuru Camp — Yukari never made a pretense of being nice) until she started turning into a bit of a Kimura. I guess she’s meant as comic relief, but even so, I ended the series nearly hating Sawako for just this reason.

Oh God please shut the fuck up

I have no idea why Sawako’s character had to go in this direction. Even her enthusiasm in dressing the girls up in sometimes embarrassing costumes might have just been linked back to her theatrical rock past, her pining for her student life and the potential boyfriend who got away and all that tied up with it. But then she occasionally turns into a pervert and gets near-gropy with her students and god damn is that a dealbreaker for me.

If you’re new to this site or just haven’t read it for very long, you might think I’m being squeamish or prudish or something, but I can assure you I’m not. I love a good h-game, I’ll freely admit that. Stick around for a while and you’ll probably see me posting about one soon enough. But there’s a particular character type that shows up in anime every so often, the aggressive sort of pervert who’s more or less tolerated by the surrounding characters for some inexplicable reason, that gets under my skin to such an extent that I can’t stand it. At least Sawako doesn’t actually do anything beyond being a fucking creep sometimes (again, a bit like Kimura) but still, holy hell. (And now you might say “Okay, you loved Azumanga, but what about Kimura in that case?” But being a creep was his entire thing, and almost every other character recognized him as one and acted accordingly, which is largely not the case here aside from some sideways looks and comments and the occasional exceedingly deserved slap.)

And yeah, I know it’s all just meant to be more comedy, but I still can’t help feeling this way.

There’s also Mugi’s very occasionally expressed thing for yuri that I have no problem with (I mean I have a bit of a thing for yuri too, honestly) but it also comes out of and goes nowhere.

K-On! has clearly captivated a lot of fans since it started its run 13 years ago, to the point that people still watch it and talk about it on a regular basis. And again, I can see the appeal. All the complaining above might make it sound like I hated this series, and I don’t want to give that impression because it would be the wrong one. I enjoyed some of the cake-eating and tea-drinking fun times the girls shared, and I really liked the attention to detail surrounding the music and performances when the show focused on those elements. Details like Mio being left-handed and the difficulties that presents with finding a suitable bass, or some of the references that obviously weren’t just shoehorned in with Mio going on about how great a guitarist Jeff Beck was when asking Yui about her influences in the first episode, or about how Ritsu is basically a schoolgirl non-alcoholic/not constantly stoned version of Keith Moon (and I understand he’s her favorite drummer, which completely makes sense given her temperament and playing style — in fact she and Mio feel like they have a Keith Moon/John Entwistle sort of dynamic going on. Now I really want to hear the girls’ take on “Heaven and Hell.”) I get the impression the original manga author Kakifly has a real love for this music too.

The Who comparison only goes so far, I guess. Yui certainly isn’t a Pete Townshend and there’s no Roger Daltrey around either. But be sure to listen to Live at Leeds anyway, one of the best live albums ever recorded.

So if I absolutely had to say whether I liked K-On! or not with no other qualifiers, I’d say I liked it. Drowning myself in this fluffy slice-of-life feels almost therapeutic now, and KyoAni did a great job with the production. Aside from the bits that include Sawako prominently, I didn’t really dislike any part of this first season. I’ve also heard that the second season of K-On! is stronger than the first, and I think I enjoyed the first just enough to want to continue watching based on that recommendation. Ritsu claims they’re going all the way to the Budokan, and if they do, I’d like to see how they make it there.

And hey, the final performance was mostly nice and heartwarming too, and again “Fuwa Fuwa Time” is a good enough song that it probably salvaged all the not-so-great parts for me.

But maybe I’m just a jerk who still doesn’t truly get it. I’ve heard K-On! called the peak of this CGDCT/slice-of-life anime genre, but I think if I’d started with this instead of Yuru Camp, I might not have tried getting any further into this genre considering my biases not too long ago. But maybe I will get this series when I start watching the second season. Feel free to tell me exactly what I missed in the comments: that’s what they’re there for. If you’re really skilled you might even get me over my near-compulsive dislike of Sawako, though good luck with that if it’s your plan.

Either way, I’ll be continuing the series after starting/getting through a few more in the backlog, so look forward to more on K-On! at some point. Until next time!

 

* Language note that most of you probably know about already: the title K-On! comes from keion, short for keiongaku or “light music.” Just like Yui, I’d never heard the term “light music” before hearing about this series years ago, but apparently it’s another term for pop. Not exactly easy to play either.

A review of Azumanga Daioh

Azumanga Daioh coverLast month, early in my August daily writing binge, I put up a short post about the Azumanga Daioh opening theme Soramimi Cake and the memories it brought back. Memories of resting the morning after puking my insides out from college antics, so not exactly the best kind (or not the most wholesome anyway.)

Watching the then still pretty recent slice-of-life comedy Azumanga (this was back around 2006 from what I remember, and no I wasn’t 21 yet: I remember that much) helped ease my mind a few of those mornings. It was an unusual choice for me — back then, I didn’t have much of an interest in anime like this and was far more into the adult-oriented action, that dark and gritty stuff for manly men like me. I’m pretty sure I picked up Azumanga for the sole reason that images and animated gifs of it were all over the internet back then, or at least around the anime-enjoying parts of it, and those gifs especially were entrancing enough to make me take an interest.

Azumanga Daioh knucklehead dance

I just had to know, you can’t blame me

After writing that post, I decided to check back on the first couple of episodes of Azumanga. This 26-episode series aired over the spring and summer of 2002, based on an original manga by Kiyohiko Azuma published from 1999 to 2002 in Dengeki Daioh (which I went over in that post, but I can’t go without repeating the origin of the series’ name in this one.) Twenty years now makes this officially “old anime”, or maybe classic or vintage if you want to be fancy about it, and watching it again after 16 or 17 years felt like seeing it again for the first time, only with some hazy memories that made it all feel familiar: the very best kind of rewatching experience.

That was the feeling I had watching the first two episodes again, like a warm blanket on a cold morning, and about as close as I can get anymore to the warmth of a glass of whiskey along with it (though not in the morning, not even back then.) This feeling was so nice that I watched a few more episodes, and a few more the next day, and at some point I was halfway through and well on my way to a full rewatch because Azumanga Daioh ended up holding up even better than I thought it would. Strangely enough, even though it’s set in high school and mostly follows a central cast of six friends living their high school lives, I think I got more from the series as an embittered working adult than I did as a drunken idiot college student far closer in time to those days.

Yukari and Nyamo drinking

Part of it had to do with these two, but not entirely. Also yeah check out that 4×3 aspect ratio, such memories. That’s how you know Azumanga is vintage anime.

I plan to explore that feeling and others further along this post. But I don’t plan on writing this review in the typical way. The plot to Azumanga is extremely simple: a bunch of friends go through high school from start to finish. That’s really it. Azumanga isn’t the first anime series I’ve written about with no real plot to speak of beyond “cast of characters live their lives”, with just a couple of character-specific side-plots that show up now and then. But it is maybe the least plot-heavy (plot-lightest?) one I’ve taken on in comparison to its extremely strong emphasis on its characters. Since this is one of the most character-driven shows I’ve watched, I feel like outlining the central and supporting cast before getting in depth with my thoughts on the series as a whole. Starting with:

Sakaki

Sakaki from Azumanga Daioh

Just Sakaki — her given name is a mystery. She starts as a bit of an outsider thanks to her quiet and mild demeanor and her imposing aura — she’s tall and striking, excelling at both studies and sports and inspiring sort of girl-crushes in her class (and an actual romantic crush from another character I’ll get to later.) Despite her reputation, Sakaki loves cute things, especially cats (who don’t reciprocate her love and usually bite her when she tries to pet them) and wishes to be cute herself. She also has a tendency to daydream, making up elaborate fantasies that she occasionally mistakes for reality, though thankfully in a pretty harmless way. Though she’s not all that talkative, Sakaki slowly becomes a solid part of the central cast’s friend group.

Kagura

Kagura from Azumanga Daioh

The other girl in the central group with just one name we know. Kagura starts out in a different class from the rest of the group and sees Sakaki as a rival at athletics when they’re in different classes their first years (though not in academics, which she’s terrible at.) After being in the background for a while, she transfers to the main group’s class in their second year and befriends Sakaki and the rest. As the resident tomboy, Kagura is a tough girl, but she also has a softer side (so a pretty typical anime tomboy type? Still like her though.)

Koyomi Mizuhara

Koyomi Mizuhara from Azumanga Daioh

Better known as Yomi. Studious and serious, Yomi is often the voice of reason in the group, except when she loses her temper. She often fights with the next girl on this list, her childhood friend and classmate Tomo Takino, for reasons that are entirely understandable. Sometimes has a bit of a sarcastic and occasionally even a mean streak and is more than capable of scheming, but her heart’s usually in the right place. Yomi is also constantly watching her weight (and getting teased by Tomo about it.)

Tomo Takino

Tomo Takino from Azumanga Daioh

Yomi’s childhood friend and long-time classmate, and the self-appointed class clown and Kagura-appointed “idiot wildcat”, or I think that’s how it was translated. Tomo has an endless supply of energy, yet somehow she consistently shrugs off her studies, gets bad grades, and even fails at athletics. She’s also generally a reckless nuisance who inserts herself into any and every conversation and situation she feels like, often speaking and acting before thinking, and usually aggravating Yomi and starting fights between them. Despite Tomo’s obnoxious nature, she’s also a source of positive energy (sometimes positive anyway) and is still counted as a close friend of the group, bringing them together in sometimes unexpected ways. Even if it’s only to get yelled at by everyone else.

Chiyo Mihama

Chiyo Mihama from Azumanga Daioh

In some ways the most remarkable member of the central group, Chiyo is a newly minted high school student at only ten years old, a child prodigy who jumped several grades out of elementary school. You might expect a precocious brat out of a character like Chiyo, and though she is both from a wealthy family and extremely intelligent (not just for her age, but even compared to her much older classmates) she doesn’t have a superior attitude and tries hard to just be another high school student. Her total lack of physical coordination also helps balance her out a bit character-wise.

For their part, her friends at school treat her largely in just the way she wants, as just a friend and fellow classmate, though she does become something of a class mascot during their sports and cultural festivals. Chiyo also gets a bit bullied for her small stature sometimes, particularly by Tomo and their homeroom teacher (and man, more about her soon too.)

Ayumu Kasuga

Ayumu Kasuga (or Osaka) from Azumanga Daioh

And then there’s the most truly remarkable character in this central cast. You might not know the name Ayumu Kasuga, but find any list of popular anime characters over the last twenty years and you’ll find Osaka somewhere in there — this is the legend herself. Ayumu joins the class at the beginning of Azumanga as a transfer student from Osaka to Tokyo, yet despite Osakans’ reputation for being rowdy and loud (something like New Yorkers’ or Bostonians’ reputation here in the States maybe?) she’s just the opposite, both slow- and soft-spoken. Even though she defies Tomo’s expectations about how Osakans are supposed to act, Ayumu still gets pinned by her with the nickname “Osaka”. This new name instantly sticks to the point that it’s easy to forget that’s not her actual name, and also to the point that I’ll just be calling her Osaka too from now on.

There isn’t any other character quite like Osaka. She’s sometimes considered dumb, with her constant trailing off and her difficulties with her studies, but she’s anything but — her mind just operates on a completely different wavelength than everyone else’s. Osaka often isn’t paying much attention to what’s happening around her, but that’s because she’s wondering about the origins of common expressions or words or simply about why life is the way it is. Like Sakaki, Osaka has bizarre dreams that she confuses with reality, but unlike Sakaki, she also seems to forever live in a semi-dreamlike state. She’s my favorite character in Azumanga without question, and that’s a high bar to clear.

In addition to this main cast, Azumanga features several important supporting characters, some of the more prominent including:

Yukari Tanizaki

Yukari Tanizaki from Azumanga Daioh

An English teacher and also homeroom teacher to the central group. Yukari is casual and offhanded despite her role as a teacher, even letting her students refer to her by her given name and even as Yukari-chan. Yukari still seems to want to be a student, an irresponsible adult if there ever was one — she’s inconsiderate and cheap as hell, a real contrast to her friend, former classmate, and current colleague Minamo Kurosawa. It’s not a big stretch to say Yukari is probably how Tomo will turn out if she stays on her current course.

All that said, Yukari still has a real impact on her class and on the central characters, most of whom are with her all three years of high school. I’d say her heart is also in the right place but I’m not so sure with Yukari. But then she sure doesn’t give any fucks, and I guess I can respect that to some extent.

Minamo Kurosawa

Minamo Kurosawa from Azumanga Daioh

A P.E./gym teacher and homeroom teacher in the class next to Yukari’s. In contrast with Yukari, Minamo is actually respected by her students throughout the series for her maturity and kindness, often inspiring jealousy in Yukari that she doesn’t bother to resolve by being a better teacher herself. Minamo and Yukari are still close friends despite Yukari being Yukari — they attended the very same high school they work at in the same class years earlier, and Minamo soon becomes known as Yukari’s nickname for her, “Nyamo”, by the central characters. In some ways, Nyamo is the most relatable character to me, which I suppose is probably a good sign for my mental maturity.

Kaorin

Poor Kaorin

Another student in the same grade as the central cast. Kaorin is friendly with everyone, and while she isn’t quite a solid part of that central cast, she does get invited along to hang out with them sometimes. Kaorin’s main thing, however, is her massive, no-question actual romantic crush on Sakaki — she’s constantly trying to find a way to get closer to her beloved, though sadly for Kaorin that love is never reciprocated. Though to be fair Kaorin never really expresses it either, and Sakaki does live in her own world most of the time and isn’t the most observant except when it comes to animals. Poor Kaorin.

Kimura

Kimura is a creep, Azumanga Daioh

Poor Kaorin, because the only person who expresses that kind of feeling about her is this guy. Kimura is the school’s Japanese literature teacher, an exceedingly strange and creepy man with a passion for high school girls. Yeah, specifically the girls. He’s shockingly open about his feelings and his thankfully futile attempts to get the girls to wear their swimsuits to class and so on. There are plenty of absurd aspects of Azumanga, but maybe the most absurd is the fact that Kimura still has a job by the end of the story. (But then again, maybe that’s not so unusual.)

There does seem to be a little more to Kimura than that, and he never goes beyond some creepy and bizarre behavior particularly towards Kaorin, who’s tragically placed in his class in her third year. But still, man. This fucking guy.

Chiyo’s father

HELLO EVERYNYAN

He’s a cat. Don’t tell him he isn’t a cat. Also speaks English, can fly, and has other useful powers.

These and a few other characters (a couple of other students, a few cats, a dog, and a mysterious woman you’ll get to discover for yourself) spend 26 episodes just living their lives. Again, there really isn’t any plot to speak of in Azumanga. That’s by design, because the show clearly doesn’t mean to have a plot, unless “high schoolers coming of age” counts. There’s no romance (aside from the running “Kaorin loves Sakaki” joke, and something that one-sided hardly qualfies) and no drama, only a bunch of comedy bits strung together across three years of high school and its full run of classes, exams, cultural festivals, sports days, and summer vacation trips.

That might not sound terribly impressive or interesting to you, and reading the premise on paper it doesn’t to me either. At least I would have said that before starting to get into the slice-of-life genre early this year. Azumanga feels very much like a precursor to that strangely anime/manga-only “slice-of-life/cute girls doing cute things” sort of hybrid genre, containing a wide variety of series with Lucky Star, Nichijou, Yuru Camp, and K-On! among the best-known. This series introduces a lot of the comedy and surreal humor this genre would become known for, and though these following series would have their own unique blends of those elements, some leaving out the surreal parts and others jacking up them even more (Nichijou, from what I’ve seen — it’s also on my list to watch) I think they all owe a lot to the work of Mr. Azuma and the team at the studio J.C.Staff that produced this adaptation.

Chiyo and her dog Mr. Tadakichi talk to Sakaki

Mr. Tadakichi is the dog

A lot of the character in Azumanga comes out of the VA performances. I’ve only watched the show subbed (I know, I’m that snooty sub elitist) and the voice actors all do excellent jobs, with Osaka’s languid trailing off lines being a special highlight for me. I still don’t have that much of an ear for it, but her VA Yuki Matsuoka is an Osaka native as well, and I know at least enough Japanese to hear some of that dialect in her speech — a nice touch there, like getting a Bostonian character an actor actually from Boston who doesn’t have to try to put on that accent.*

But setting my subtitle elitism aside, I’ve also heard the dub is pretty damn good and even iconic. Rare enough for an anime from 20 years ago to get that kind of attention to detail and quality in localization, though it still seems like a point of controversy that they decided to make Osaka into a country girl in her speech patterns both in the translated manga and the anime dub (look at Google Earth and go to Osaka; it’s anything but country.) But I’ve seen a few dub clips and it all works in the strange sort of way that somehow fits with the general strangeness of Azumanga. The only potential issue with watching the dub is that a few jokes based on language puns might not translate so well, but that’s not a new problem for translators and localizers working from Japanese to English. Maybe they found some creative ways around those issues.

Osaka from Azumanga Daioh wondering about the difference between escalators and elevators

This one doesn’t need explanation since they’re using English loanwords. When you think about it, “escalate” and “elevate” describe the same act, don’t they?

These characters don’t have a whole lot of development outside of Sakaki, who has her own separate story running through the series that resolves in a really nice and heartwarming way (and I don’t even mean “heartwarming” in the sappy sarcastic sense — it really works perfectly.) But I don’t think that matters since Azumanga stands well enough on its sometimes absurd comedy and on the occasional warm feelings it creates. I don’t think this series had a single episode I disliked or was at all bored by. That’s even considering the fact that some of its gags are drawn out with pauses and a lot of repetition, but they work perfectly well in this context.

Osaka floats off into the sea, Azumanga Daioh

Again, a lot of these scenes involve Osaka, seen here floating off totally oblivious into the sea. I think whether you like Osaka is a good test for whether you’ll like the series as a whole.

Maybe it’s strange that I like Azumanga so much. I’ve heard other fans say that the sense of nostalgia it creates is a big part of its appeal, and I can see that myself. It’s one of those series that transported me back to a time when I didn’t have bills to pay, and when life still held at least a little hope — when I still had some sense that there might be something out there in the world for me that I just hadn’t found yet. It’s a little melancholic going back to Azumanga so long after all that hope’s been fully crushed and disposed of, but my feelings when rewatching it were far more positive than that on the whole.

No, the strange part in my case is that my high school life was a fucking misery too, just in a different way. Being a painfully awkward and socially inept kid through most of middle school and the first few years of high school, I holed up with books and games. Not so much with anime, not back then, but I had plenty to keep me occupied in my own bubble, and by the time I’d started finally getting fed up and breaking out of my shell a bit, it was far too late to overcome first impressions, so I waited until college to bother with that.

So why the fuck should I enjoy a show about high school? Or any of these shows set in high school for that matter? I don’t have any warm fuzzy feelings about that godforsaken place, not even today, looking back near two decades after leaving.

Yukari and Nyamo at their desks at work, Azumanga Daioh

Depends on who you were and what you mean by easygoing, Yukari. But Yukari is easygoing even as an adult.

Maybe Azumanga works for me despite that because it’s still pretty far removed from my own American high school experience. On top of all the show’s surreal weirdness, that may create enough of a distance that I’m not exactly reminded of my own school life while still getting the benefit of nostalgic feelings from earlier childhood before that bullshit began. I can certainly relate to the girls’ struggles through their entrance exams, but I’m mostly digging the nicer memories of being a kid up from those earlier years.

At the same time, my current self can strongly relate with Minamo’s thoughts about adulthood in particular (since Yukari doesn’t seem to have those thoughts too much herself.) The idea of having to “get serious”, thinking about starting a family (and getting pressure from family yourself) is almost painfully relatable. Maybe a bit less for a man than a woman, but at least in the culture I was partly raised in, we get it as well.

If anything at all pained me about watching Azumanga, it was these occasional looks into my present and future as an adult with responsibilities. The show doesn’t dwell too much on these adult moments, but they’re nice breaks from all the high school-related insanity going on for the vast majority of its running time, and I especially like how the students are depicted as looking up to Minamo and not quite as much up to Yukari (and as for Kimura, again, the less said, the better.)

Yukari and Nyamo at nighttime, Azumanga Daioh

I’m looking for a Nyamo in my life, but I’ll probably end up with a Yukari, God help me. I also wonder what Yukari said to make their surprise blind dates bail on them — it’s left a mystery.

Once again I’ve written probably far too much about a simple comedy. But you know, sometimes what seems simple really isn’t, and seeing Azumanga again stirred up a lot of feelings in me, so I had to express them fully. Looking back now, the soundtrack did a lot to stir up those feelings too: I already wrote about the appropriately bizarre/lighthearted opener “Soramimi Cake”, but the show is full of memorable background music, many tracks that instantly came back into my mind the moment they began playing. I would post examples here, but there are so many that I’ll just put up this playlist I found on YouTube of both OSTs.

Sakaki and Kagura walking home from Azumanga Daioh

Oh such memories, such a simpler time, having to deal with evil stray cats on the way home

My final word on Azumanga Daioh is that it’s a great series that truly deserves to be called a classic. Maybe the production value isn’t quite up to today’s standards — certainly Azumanga isn’t nearly as detailed or nice-looking as some modern series — but the style works perfectly in its context, and every other element of the series works so well that I didn’t even notice the aged look of the show (though again this is coming from someone who loved almost all of Legend of the Galactic Heroes as well, and the original version too.) Azumanga may not be for you, for example if you absolutely need some serious action in your anime or you’re so deathly allergic to school-setting series that you can’t stand the sight of a sailor suit in any context at all. But even if these describe you, I’d encourage you to at least watch the first episode, because you might find something new to love like I did.

 

* Watch Scorsese’s The Departed. Good movie if you’re up for a lot of gang violence, but apparently it features some of the worst Boston accents in any movie. If you’re a Bostonian maybe check it out and see what you think of it.

Upcoming anime watchlist

I usually don’t write posts like these, but 1) I need one more post to fill up this daily August challenge before the big finale tomorrow and 2) next season has a lot of interesting anime to look forward to, more than usual in my case. The following info is taken from Livechart, which has been produced charts of airing anime for a long time now. Starting with:

Chainsaw Man

At the top of the list because it’s something new to me and looks amazing. I picked up and read the first volume of the manga, the story of Denji, a poor bounty hunter who kills demons to pay off his dead father’s yakuza debts. After being nearly killed himself, Denji makes a contract with his pet, a dog with a chainsaw for a face. After this contract is made, Denji and said dog are able to merge and create Chainsaw Man, basically Denji with a chainsaw for a face, who can regenerate his wounds (lucky thing since it also means he recovered all the bits he cut out and sold of himself to partially pay off that debt, ouch.)

I don’t have much idea what to expect given that I haven’t gotten too far into the series yet, but Denji is an interesting guy so far, and his relationship with the mysterious Makima looks like it’s going to be a central element.

Spy x Family (second cour)

Of course, yeah. If you need an explanation (i.e. you’re one of the few anime watchers who didn’t get roped into the series last season, or you don’t watch much anime and missed out) check out my review of the first cour. The second cour of 12 episodes starts airing this fall, and my expectations are high just like most everyone else’s.

Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro: 2nd Attack (season 2)

After a year and change, we’re finally getting an anime followup to the first season of Nagatoro. I’ve been reading the manga, one of only a couple I actively follow, so once again the story probably won’t be a surprise at all for me, but I’m still excited to see Nagatoro and her put-upon senpai return to the screen. This one is coming up this winter, starting in January 2023, but since I know I’ll be watching it anyway I figured I’d throw it onto the list too.

Uzaki-chan Wants to Hang Out! ω (season 2)

I’m not quite as excited about Uzaki-chan coming back, since I wasn’t crazy about the first season back in 2020. Then again, I didn’t exactly dislike it either, and I feel just invested enough in this slow-burn romance (on top of Nagatoro, Takagi-san, and whatever the hell is going on between Loid and Yor in Spy x Family, not to mention between Damian and Anya) that I’ll check out the second season this fall. Clever use of a Greek letter too, though I don’t think the ω here is meant to mean omega but rather one of those anime cat smiles.

Teasing Master Takagi-san: The Movie

Speaking of Takagi-san, the movie I brought up in my review of the show’s third season a few days ago is listed as releasing on November 15. It’s already played in theaters, so this refers to its Blu-ray and DVD debut. Not sure if it’s getting a release on stream as well, but I’ll get my hands on it as soon as possible either way.

Urusei Yatsura (2022)

And finally for something very different: a remake of Urusei Yatsura, from what I understand a series about a hot alien demon girl who comes to Earth with her friends to take it over, only she falls in love with a human guy. I guess Urusei Yatsura is a sci-fi romantic comedy from that description, which sounds like a good enough time to me to check out. The anime first aired in the 80s, based on a manga that started in the 70s — a real classic. Even though I won’t have the perspective of an old fan watching a remake that may or may not screw up the original material, it will be interesting to see how the new series is handled and to hear from people who are familiar with the original.

In addition to my still agonizingly long backlog, that’s what I’ve got to look forward to right now. There are also plenty of other interesting-looking sequels coming out as well for series I just haven’t gotten to on my list (Mob Psycho, Vinland Saga.) Damn, there’s really too much to watch. I hope I can catch up on all this stuff after I’m dead, because it doesn’t look like I’ll be able to make it before my final day whenever that is.

I’m on a slice-of-life binge right now, but I’m sure I’ll get back to the more intense anime later on. Maybe after I finish K-On!, which really feels like required watching for me at this point.

See you tomorrow for the final post of the month!

A review of Teasing Master Takagi-san (S3)

I had to clean my brain out after watching Pupa, and maybe you have to clean your brain out after reading what I wrote about it yesterday. So what better way to do that than finishing the third season of Teasing Master Takagi-san? The most wholesome romantic comedy anime on Earth continued its run in early 2022. And it’s wholesome and cute and all that, sure, but also so cleverly written to not be overflowing with cheese and sap. None at all, in fact, because the sweet parts are more than earned after the many (still pretty innocent) cat-and-mouse mind games between the two leads.

This post may be on the shorter side since I’ve already covered the essentials of the series and my thoughts on it in my review of the first two seasons (here, back when either a third season wasn’t yet announced or I just didn’t know about it.) The brief rundown if you haven’t watched those seasons or read that post is that Teasing Master Takagi-san / Karakai Jouzu no Takagi-san is about the friendship and budding romance between middle school students Nishikata, the boy on the right on the poster, and Takagi, the girl on the left. What makes Takagi-san unique is the dynamic between these two: they’re friends, but Nishikata also has a massive crush on Takagi but doesn’t quite realize it. Takagi seems to feel the same way about him and hints as much, but always in subtle ways. (Also general spoilers ahead for the season’s ending, so if you care about that, I’ll just recommend the series right now.)

“Subtle” is relative in this case, though Nishikata isn’t any denser than your typical male protagonist in these stories and gets a pass for still being a kid anyway.

Takagi also loves teasing Nishikata. Her teasing is usually pretty light and good-natured, but Nishikata is still desperate to get back at Takagi by defeating her in contests of all sorts that they think up for each other. These usually involve some kind of trick or shortcut that Takagi understands before Nishikata picks up on it, or that alternatively Nishikata thinks he understands until he realizes he’s blundered his way into Takagi’s trap. In short, Takagi can usually read Nishikata’s mind and predict his next move.

But on occasion Nishikata surprises her, and that’s when we get the real payoff, especially when it comes to their slowly advancing relationship. Middle school is a chaotic time in most kids’ lives, and part of that has to do with the discovery of romantic love, even if it’s just understood in a basic sort of way. Some of Takagi and Nishikata’s classmates show up and play supporting roles in the show, and while they have their own side stories that we drop in on occasionally (especially the parallel slow-burn romance between the tsundere Hojo and slightly less tsundere Hamaguchi) they also sometimes notice and comment on the relationship between the leads. By this point they pretty much consider the pair a couple, reasonable to assume even if it’s not “official” since they spend so much time together.

Say ahhh: Nishikata receiving a lotus root from Takagi’s lunch. I’ve never had lotus root, and this makes me curious about how it tastes.

This third season of the anime follows a similar pattern to the last two, most of taken up by the contests these two invent to test each other and with a couple of those big payoff moments in the middle and at the very end of the season that I won’t spoil here, except to say they’re done well and again are totally earned. The remainder of the season is filled out by that more typical slice-of-life comedy stuff we also got in the first two seasons, mostly featuring the antics of those three friends Mina, Yukari, and Sanae that I may have been too harsh on in that first review. I still don’t find those sequences all that funny, but it’s not bad to get a few minutes’ break from all the cat-and-mouse mind games, teasing, and intense blushing.

It might seem a bit weird that Takagi-san is set in middle school where most of these sorts of school-based slow-burn romantic comedies are set in high school, but I think this setting works perfectly for what manga author Soichiro Yamamoto is going for. I’ve seen a few complaints about how much of a shit Nishikata can be sometimes, and while I get that annoyance, a lot of that can be attributed to him being a middle school boy who still has some maturing to do in comparison with Takagi. It makes a lot of sense for him to be a little dense and embarrassed about romantic affairs at his age — really Takagi seems like the outlier here, being unusually perceptive and mature and seeming to create a path for Nishikata that she already knows he’ll follow, at the same time being patient about it. And Nishikata is following that path slowly: it’s clear that he really does care for Takagi’s feelings and drops his somewhat childish “I have to defeat her!” attitude when matters get serious.

Takagi’s plan never includes dressing up like a cow, this is just part of a Nishikata dream sequence. I just liked this screenshot and wanted to use it.

The only other aspect of this third season that stands out to me is its serious advancement of this central relationship. Takagi-san isn’t finished, so that big “confession scene” that everyone’s expecting doesn’t occur, but we get something pretty close to it in the final episode, with Nishikata finally realizing that he might have been in love this whole time and that Takagi’s been dropping hints that weren’t just for the purpose of teasing him and watching him turn red (though they were for that reason too, since Takagi clearly enjoys seeing him embarrassed when they’re alone together.) As usual, the show pulls this off in a clever way, connecting back to events earlier in the season and even in past seasons.

No, it looks like that big ending might be coming in the movie, which just opened a couple of months ago in Japan and even got an extremely limited-time release in the US which I naturally missed. Not that I’d really want to see Takagi-san in the theater anyway, since I don’t know anyone in real life who would also want to watch a romantic comedy anime, and this is absolutely not the sort of movie I’d want to see in the theater alone. And I’m the type who usually has no problem seeing movies in the theater alone because really who gives a shit, but you know, Takagi-san is different — it really feels like one for couples to bond over, just like the in-show romantic comedy anime movie Takagi and Nishikata themselves attend while Nishikata pretends they’re still not really a couple. Now I’m wondering whether all this was planned out.

For bonus points, see the movie with your friend while you’re both on the edge of admitting you’re really in love with each other and see what happens afterwards. Just don’t blame me for the consequences if it doesn’t work out.

Of course I still have to see the movie, but it’s not out on any of the streaming services quite yet. Judging by the reviews, fans loved it, so that’s great news, but I wouldn’t expect Mr. Yamamoto or the studio Shin-Ei to screw up at this point anyway. The manga is still releasing, so maybe the movie won’t even be an ending but just a lead-in to a fourth season, but I’m up for that too. Though hell, even the slow burn has to have an ending at some point.

Now for the only real problem with watching Takagi-san in the States (legally): those very same streaming services and whatever assholes are in charge of licensing the anime in North America. Because look: the first season of Takagi-san is hosted on Crunchyroll, the second season on Netflix, and the third season on HI-DIVE. Three services that you’ll have to pay for if you want to watch all of this series so far, and God knows if the movie will even get licensed. At this rate, flying the black flag doesn’t seem like such a bad idea (hypothetically, I’m not advocating for any particular action, etc. etc. Just saying I don’t understand why they’re doing this to fans here. And Takagi-san isn’t the only subject of this sort of chopping up, though it is the worst case I’ve seen so far. Maybe these guys were executioners in medieval Europe in their past lives for all the chopping up they seem to enjoy doing.)

No matter how you decide to watch Takagi-san, I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did if you pick it up. Though instead of a fourth season of this series, I think I’d rather see a first season adaptation of Yamamoto’s sequel manga Karakai Jouzu no (Moto) Takagi-san, in which Takagi and Nishikata are married and have a daughter who joins in with her mom on playing light pranks on the poor guy. Because of course they’re going to get married, and of course Takagi won’t stop teasing Nishikata just because they’re married. But that’s probably just the way he’d want it anyway.

Anime short review: Pupa

Today it’s the final anime short review for the month. But I wanted to do something different this time: instead of finding a series I thought I might like, I started from the bottom ratings on fan rating and review anime catalogs Anilist and MAL. I’ve always had a fascination with horrible media (blame MST3K for that, maybe) and I’ve never really looked into the world of truly awful anime before now.

After filtering out the obviously tossed-off garbage and one short made almost entirely of still images, I found Pupa, a 2014 short horror series of 12 three-minute episodes. I’ve enjoyed and praised some anime scored just decently or even near middling on these sites, so I’m not the type to disregard a show because it isn’t a 10/10. Pupa is a far harder sell, however, with a score of 27% on Anilist and 3.30 on MAL — truly abysmal ratings and among the lowest on either site.

Pupa was produced by Studio DEEN, an actually sort of reputable anime studio. At least they’re reputable with someone, not with me, because I’ll never forgive them for what they did to Umineko. And now I have another reason to hate DEEN, because this anime really does live up to its terrible reviews. Pupa is absolute trash, though my reasons for hating it might be a little different from some other viewers’. (Also massive warning here because Pupa really is fucked. If you just ate or have a general aversion to reading about cannibalism and similar horrors, you may want to skip this post. And spoilers, but I doubt anyone cares this time.)

How cute, I’m sure nothing horrible will happen to these people

High school students and siblings Utsutsu and Yume Hasegawa have a hard life together, children of a broken family, but they love and care for each other. One day, Yume wanders alone onto a dark park on the way back from school and encounters a strange woman dressed all in black who tells her to beware of the red butterflies. Red butterflies immediately show up, and Yume is attacked by an exploding dog (I think? Hard to tell.) When Utsutsu shows up shortly after looking for Yume, he meets the same woman in black, Maria, who tells him his sister has changed and that she might not recognize him.

Let’s go home Yume, I’m sure you’ll still fit through the front door like this

Looking into the woods nearby, Utsutsu finds his sister transformed into a giant man-eating monster. He can tell it’s still Yume somehow, and he comforts her, but even though her consciousness is still inside the monster she can’t stop herself from eating her brother.

Fortunately (?) both Utsutsu and Yume have some kind of virus that allows them to endlessly regenerate wounds, so Utsutsu isn’t actually dead. He and Yume are both taken away by the lady in black who works at/for a shady organization that performs horrific genetic experiments. Yume has mysteriously changed back into her human form at this point (no, this is never explained) and while Maria tells Utsutsu she’ll let them go, she warns him that he’ll have to act as “live bait” for his sister since she still craves human flesh even in her normal-looking human form. Utsutsu loves Yume so much that he happily volunteers to be her dinner every day from now on, a lucky thing since he can also regenerate any flesh she eats.

Teddy bears are used in some scenes to simulate these terrible acts, but we’re also subjected to realistic depictions of them so I’m not sure I see the point

The story goes on from there with Utsutsu and Yume being hunted down by a rival shady organization that performs tests on Utsutsu for vague scientific reasons, and then Yume has to rescue him so they can continue living their happy, quiet life of consensual cannibalism. Maria has also harvested his semen and her eggs without their knowledge and has used them to birth a horrific incest monster, but we never learn why she does this, and it doesn’t matter anyway because said monster never even makes an appearance.

That’s Pupa, and I agree with the general consensus: it was shit. Not necessarily because it was about cannibalism, though. Part of why I was willing to give this any kind of chance is that Saya no Uta is one of my favorite visual novels, and that has plenty of instances of murder and human-eating (though not quite cannibalism in that story — it’s complicated) along with other horrific acts. The difference with Saya is that all its horror was included for a purpose and was perpetrated by characters I cared about against characters I mostly also cared about. The story also made sense and had an actual thought-out structure to it.

None of that is true of Pupa. By the end, I didn’t give a damn about any of these characters. Utsutsu and Yume’s backstory is so tragic as to be ridiculous, and every other character save their mother is a massive piece of shit, and even the mother just disappears without much of an explanation so she doesn’t matter either.

Sorry Mom, you deserved better than this

Yume is at the center of Pupa, but her virus and the powers she gains from it aren’t clearly defined either. First she transforms into a giant monster, but then never mind, now she’s a human who has to eat other humans to survive. But now she has to save her brother, so she has the power to grow tentacle-wings out of her back and attack people with them. And she went through these transformations in the first episode after being infected by a virus or looking at red butterflies or something, but no, she was actually born a monster who feeds on flesh, which her mother realized before she even gave birth.

Pupa makes no fucking sense and doesn’t seem to care. This complete mess of a story means that every horrific act in the show (i.e. about 90% of the show’s running time) is completely pointless and gratuitous, the worst offender being episode six, which is simply an extended scene of Yume eating Utsutsu’s flesh. Add on top of that the generally incestuous feel of the story, which is made absolutely clear in the second-to-last episode. And then just as an added fuck you, the show has the nerve to give us this screen:

Translation: “Which is a dream? Which is reality?” Fuck you, Pupa. You don’t get to give me a load of bullshit and then wave it away like this (and yeah I know dream is yume and maybe it’s a reference to her name, but that doesn’t make this any better.) And while I’m at it fuck Studio DEEN again for the Umineko adaptation.

I could mention the low production quality too, but that’s the least of this show’s concerns. It might even be for the best that it looks pretty cheap. Somehow Pupa aired on television, which might explain some of the extremely strange instances of censoring with rays of light and patches of darkness. Not much point covering up Yume’s teeth tearing at her brother when we can hear her chewing and swallowing him. I thought I had a strong stomach, but it was really tested by Pupa, and for absolutely no payoff.

So would I recommend Pupa? Holy God no I wouldn’t. It’s garbage, and I don’t even recommend watching it out of morbid curiosity, because in the end it’s pointless and kind of boring given that the plot goes nowhere. To be totally fair to its original author, Pupa is an adaptation of a manga that I’ve heard might actually have some merit to it — I’m guessing this three-minute episode format mangled what may have originally been a coherent narrative. I can see how the elements of Pupa might make for an interesting story if told properly, and assuming you do have the nerves for it.

I don’t think I have any nerves remaining, so I won’t be reading the manga myself, but if you’re a fan of horrific cannibal stories with creepy sexual/incestuous undertones then you might want to check it out. Might be less stomach-turning than The 120 Days of Sodom at least. And if you’re somehow required by contract or a dare to watch one of these episodes, pick the last one, because it’s actually nice and cute and has nothing to do with the rest of the story. I might have even liked it a bit if not for everything that came before it.