A review of A Place Further Than the Universe

Man, now this was a series that took a while to get through. Not because it’s long, however. Not because it’s bad, either — just the opposite, in fact, but this is another one of those “it’s complicated” situations.

A Place Further Than the Universe is a 13-episode original anime series that aired in 2018. It feels like it’s been around longer, however. I’ve heard it brought up so often in must-watch anime lists that it seems to have reached classic status more or less instantly. Part of its high profile might have to do with its makers: Madhouse is another excellent anime studio, responsible for some of my absolute favorites like Kaiji. Between being a Madhouse production and its general reputation as a great story, I had very high expectations going into A Place Further Than the Universe.

And while those expectations were absolutely met and even exceeded, again, this is a complicated series for me to sort out and write about. A lot of that probably has more to do with me and my own feelings about life than about the series itself, so warning: I might get a bit personal this time. But if you’ve read this site for a while, you know what to expect from me. And if you’re new — welcome, thanks for reading, and I hope you’re okay with some personal griping. It’s part of what I do.

Enough of that shit for now — on to the show itself. Serious massive ending spoilers warning this time; A Place Further Than the Universe isn’t the most plot-heavy show ever, but the plot it has is pretty damn heavy and it’s hard to say anything meaningful about the show without addressing that aspect of it. If you prefer to go in raw, go ahead and watch the show because I recommend it without qualification, but more on that below.

Our story opens with Mari Tamaki a.k.a. Kimari, a high school student who’s desperate to do something interesting with her life before she graduates and enters the dreaded real world. The trouble is Kimari doesn’t have any particular interests and seems too timid to take any kind of risk. She can’t even bring herself to cut class to take the train to Tokyo one day, simply taking the train going in the opposite direction right back to school, where she meets her classmate and childhood friend Megu with a defeated feeling.

That changes when Kimari has a chance encounter with Shirase Kobuchizawa, another one of her classmates. Despite them being in the same grade at the same school, Kimari doesn’t know Shirase very well. Nobody does, in fact, because Shirase is shrouded in mystery. After she accidentally drops an envelope full of money on the train platform (a million yen, less than it might sound to some — about $9,000 as of this writing, but still a massive amount for a high schooler to be carrying around) Kimari recovers it and returns it to Shirase.

Get used to more emotional outbursts as the series continues

Partly out of gratitude and partly because Kimari is now privy to her situation anyway, Shirase tells her that she’s saving money to go to Antarctica to find her mother Takako, a researcher who was lost there a few years before and hasn’t been heard from since. And to Shirase’s surprise, Kimari asks if she can go along — this is just the adventure she was looking for. A little more of a commitment than taking the train from Gunma to Tokyo, as Shirase warns her, but Kimari is determined, and the pair start working on their plans. Along the way, Kimari and Shirase find still another girl to join them, more or less by chance. Hinata, Kimari’s co-worker at a convenience store, overhears her conversations with Shirase about their plans and expresses interest in going as well, saying she doesn’t have much else to do anyway.

The final addition to their team is the least likely, but also the most helpful in some sense. After being refused a spot on the next civilian expedition to Antarctica staffed by Shirase’s mother’s researcher colleagues, the now-trio of girls stumbles upon Yuzuki, another high school student who also works as a pop idol. Yuzuki actually has a spot on the same expedition that Shirase and friends were trying to land, part of a marketing scheme arranged by her agency, but she doesn’t want to go. After becoming fast friends with the group, however, she’s moved to tears by their kindness and decides to go — but only on the condition that Shirase, Kimari, and Hinata can join her. Following some arm-twisting she gets her way, and the four friends are now on the long and hard path to Antarctica.

Yuzuki and Hinata. I skipped over a lot of details, but it’s pretty much the power of friendship again. But not quite as usual.

A Place Further Than the Universe feels like a prime candidate for one of those “what I watched/what I expected/what I got” templates. What I expected was a cute, nice slice-of-life kind of series about four girls going to Antarctica. Normally I don’t go in for slice-of-life by itself, but this series is highly regarded enough that I wanted to give it a shot. Aside from that, I also have an interest in Antarctica, though I’ll probably never get to go myself. There’s something about how isolated and far from civilization it is that appeals to me, though it’s apparently not exactly “unspoiled” the way it’s sometimes talked about (see Werner Herzog’s excellent documentary Encounters at the End of the World for more on that — it makes a nice companion piece to this show.)

I did get all that from watching this, but while the show is about four girls going to Antarctica on the surface, that’s not quite what it’s about at its core. I didn’t pick the above screenshot randomly: Universe really is about friendship. And of course, that might elicit some groans — another anime that talks about the power of friendship, how original.

Sightseeing in Singapore on the way down, but it’s not all good times

To its credit though, Universe gets a bit deeper into the subject than you might expect, exploring not just the nature of solid friendships but also that of fragile ones. Just before Kimari leaves for Antarctica, her friend Megu confesses that she’s been spreading ugly rumors about her and Shirase, about how they were able to get the resources and money to go on their trip. But it’s not quite out of jealousy that she can’t do the same — Megu is really upset because she now feels useless to Kimari, who used to rely on her heavily but is now standing on her own. After confessing to her vile acts, Megu declares that they can’t be friends anymore and turns away from Kimari.

And then the show subverted my expectations, but in a good way. Instead of returning Megu’s bitter feelings and letting her walk away, Kimari hugs her from behind, rejects her “break-up”, and runs off, with the implication that they might be able to rebuild what they had after she returns. Megu is left in tears, obviously feeling like a massive piece of shit, likely all the more so because instead of the mutual rejection she was probably expecting she was shown love instead.

Kimari really doesn’t let much get to her.

That kind of subversion might not always work, but it worked for me because it’s consistent with Kimari’s character. Throughout the series, the bonds between the four main girls are also tested in various ways, and while there are a few arguments and plenty of tears (a whole lot of tears, in fact) they come through it all the stronger and more closely bound.

These emotional moments aren’t the cheap eye-rolling kind, precisely for the reason that they’re pretty well earned. Universe does a great job at building well-developed characters quickly — a must considering how much it tries to do in its short 13-episode run — and as a result, all the ups and downs they go through are backed up by the proper context. I never once wondered while watching this series why the hell Kimari, Shirase, Hinata, or Yuzuki were doing, saying, or thinking something, or at least not once their reasons were revealed. I read a review shortly after finishing the show that accused it of cheap emotional pandering, but this is my response — everything that happens in Universe has the necessary context, and I didn’t even find the many crying/outburst scenes all that excessive.

There really are a lot of them, I can keep posting these screenshots all day

It’s also important to note where Universe didn’t subvert my expectations, but again to good effect. From almost the beginning of the series, Shirase expresses her desire to go to Antarctica to find her mother, carrying the book she wrote about her travels with her (titled A Place Further Than the Universe, a nice title drop there.) For a while, nobody brings up Takako’s almost certain fate — not even her friends and colleagues in charge of the expedition who end up supervising and mentoring the girls — but eventually reality has to be faced.

This is where Universe really proved its worth to me. When I saw the title to the second-to-last episode — the same title as Takako’s book and the series itself — I knew what I was in for, but the way the show executed the revelation of her fate and Shirase’s response to it was just about perfect. I don’t even want to spoil it here, even though I gave that urgent spoiler warning above. All I’ll give you here is an admission that it moved me to tears.

That’s not a light statement coming from me — I’m normally like one of those Easter Island stone faces; I hardly ever cry at anything. I don’t say that to imply that I’m a real tough guy, but rather that I’m kind of unromantic and emotionally cold or at least extremely guarded. Yet this show managed to break through that armor and get to me.

So unless my bullshit and sappy nonsense detection meter is completely out of wack now, I don’t think there’s anything cheap about Universe or the feelings its characters express and share. It’s a well-done coming-of-age story about four girls finding themselves and learning what it means to truly be friends and to cope with loss.

Again, that really is the core of the series. Most of it doesn’t even take place in Antarctica — it takes our protagonists about a third of the show to even leave Japan and another third to actually make it down to the continent, and there are plenty of slice-of-life-style bits throughout, all the way up to the last episode when the girls return home.

Shirase even takes some time during a party with her adult colleagues to beat their asses at mahjong. This looks just like a still from Akagi, in fact — maybe because Madhouse also produced that show! Is this a subtle reference?

The only issue I think some viewers might take with Universe is just how quickly it can turn from cute girls doing cute things slice of life messing around to intense drama and emotion and back again. Several of its episodes have this kind of roller coaster quality to them, with some serious lows and highs. A couple of those “high” scenes early on got to me in a bad way, as full as they were of youthful optimism for the future — exactly the kind I’ve more or less lost as a bitter, depressive adult (coming off of my stint as a bitter, depressive teenager, but at least I did have more wonder about the world then than I do now, or more than zero anyway.) But I won’t hold that against the series; it’s entirely on me.

And I can really relate to Hinata’s feelings here.

I’ve seen people suggest Universe as a good “relaxation” sort of series, but while it is beautiful-looking and has some light elements to its story, I don’t know if I’d recommend it as a light watch myself for the above reasons. Most of these episodes had a lot to take emotionally speaking, which is part of why it took me a while to get through the whole thing despite only being one cour long.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth watching. I highly recommend A Place Further Than the Universe to just about anyone. It’s well-written, has compelling characters going on an intense and difficult journey, both physically and emotionally, and it looks amazing on top of all that with just the kind of quality work you’d expect from Madhouse. Do yourself a favor and watch it.

It also has penguins, because what kind of series about Antarctica would miss out on penguins? Apparently they stink, though.

Anime short double feature: Skull-face Bookseller Honda-san / Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family

I’m back sooner than expected, and with more anime shorts! This time, I’m taking up another set of half-length-episode one-cour series — 12 to 13 minutes times 12 to 13 episodes, again not a massive time commitment for the busy viewer. This post isn’t boob-themed like the previous one, so apologies to the near-ecchi fanservice fans who read this site, but I’ll cover something else soon enough that should make you happy.

As for the series I’m covering today, one is as chaotic as the other is relaxing (and that one is also chaotic in parts) but they’re both worth a look.

Skull-face Bookseller Honda-san

Definitely a strange series, but one that feels like it’s steeped in real-life experiences. Honda-san is an employee in a Japanese bookstore who for some reason is a skeleton, but one who can talk, eat noodles, and drink beer, and his colleagues all wear various sorts of masks. This bunch of overworked employees, along with their section chiefs and managers, have to deal with all the ins and outs of selling manga, western comics, artbooks, novels, and other hard copy media.

I used to frequent bookstores a whole lot (not so much these days, obviously, but it might be nice to go back at some point if any are still left alive after Amazon and COVID.) I always had a sort of idyllic and very probably inaccurate concept of what working at a bookstore would be like — I even tried applying for a couple of jobs at bookstores back in the Great Recession days, though without any luck. Maybe American bookstores aren’t quite so hectic, but I suspect they face at least some of the same challenges we see in Honda-san — customers asking for recommendations or making requests for obscure books that aren’t in stock, or that show up in stock but turn out to be in a box of shipments that haven’t been unpacked yet. Or suppliers sending in stocks of books too late or too early. Or shelves being piled up with books until there’s no room left, forcing hard decisions about which volumes to keep on display and which to send back to the publisher.

Or being asked about BL. I know a bit about GL, but I’m lost regarding BL, and so is skeleton man here

Honda-san himself does his best to take all this in stride, but there are situations he dreads, like being approached by foreign customers who he has to try out his somewhat poor English with, or people looking for hentai manga or doujinshi (the latter of which he makes a point of saying that normal bookstores don’t sell — you have to go to special shops for that stuff apparently. Makes sense.)

But Honda’s not carrying the burden on his skeletal frame alone. His colleagues are all in the same boat, and a lot of the comedy in the series comes from their interactions, juggling urgent problems and complaining about demands from customers and the higher-ups in the company and time pressure caused by supply chain issues.

Shooting the shit in the stock/break room with colleagues

That might not sound like the most exciting stuff, but I really liked the inside look at this bookselling world Honda-san gave me. It’s a kind of surreal comedy, but the real-world grounding it has makes it more interesting. I’ve always heard retail is a rough job no matter what industry you’re in — I had my own sort of semi-retail experience once, so I can relate at least a bit to the pressures we see here. None of that feels sugarcoated here.

But Honda-san isn’t really cynical either; it puts all this hectic energy into a positive context. Honda and his colleagues and superiors work hard, but they seem to mostly enjoy their work, taking the stressful parts as they come.

It’s nice to see happy customers, just don’t tell them Naruto is sold back home too

So that’s still another recommendation, and this time to more or less anyone reading. I’ve liked every work-based anime I’ve watched so far, in fact, including Shirobako and Blend S. Maybe I should pick up more of these.

Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family

It’s hard to imagine a series in the world of games and anime both that has spread as far as Fate has. Starting with the original Fate/stay night visual novel* (which is good, but also 50+ hours with three routes and a ton of branching decision paths, so you’d better have some time if you want to try it) the series has extended out to animated prequels, sequels, and spinoffs, one of which is Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family.

This show is exactly what it looks like from the poster and the title: a cooking-based series. That might seem like a strange choice considering that F/SN and most of the successive works in the series are about massive wars between mages and the heroic spirits they summon to fight over the Holy Grail. But this really is a natural choice considering how much the original VN obsesses over food. Much of the time we spend with protagonist Shirou Emiya in F/SN is in the kitchen and the living room where he and his friends and relations eat.

I can’t say how much exactly, but it could actually be five percent or even more. Original Fate writer Nasu doesn’t edit himself very well, but you could say that’s part of the charm of the original visual novel. I’ll still back it up as worth playing, but just as long as you get the Realta Nua patch first.

And here we learn how a relatively dense guy like Shirou can manage to surround himself with women constantly: by being an amazing cook. Despite still just being in high school, this guy astounds everyone with his cooking skills, from regular human friends to the magical spirits of dead heroes. Everyone, whether friend or foe, is moved by the power of Shirou’s recipes.

Yes, even his enemies: Today’s Menu takes place in a nice alternate-universe Fate setting where the Holy Grail War isn’t happening and all the Servants are just hanging out with their Masters. If this were Unlimited Blade Works, a lot of these characters would be killing the shit out of each other, but this spinoff is all about relaxing, cooking, and eating good food.

I was always more of a Rin guy, but this show makes Saber so god damn cute that I’m examining my feelings now.

Each episode of Today’s Menu involves a particular dish, usually prepared by Shirou. These dishes are varied in style and taste — they’re variously Japanese, Chinese, and western in origin, and some suited for cold or warm weather. The recipe is also detailed in each episode for those who want to try it, with ingredient lists and instructions. The best I can do is making grilled cheese without burning it, so I’m not really in that demographic, but if you like cooking, this show might be specially made for you.

But speaking as a non-cook, I’d say Today’s Menu is also made for me. Or for anyone who likes food, which is just about everyone. This show manages to present food in a way that makes me wish I were eating it. Which is good because it says a lot for the quality of the animation and the care put into the show, but also bad because I don’t need to get a craving for baked salmon when I clearly don’t have the motivation to make it myself. Then again, maybe this anime can work as a tool to get people to learn to cook?

Yeah, no way can I make this myself. But now I want to visit the ramen bar nearby and see if this is on their menu (though again, when it’s safe. Nuts.)

The only possible issue with watching Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family is that you’ll have no idea who any of these characters are if you haven’t at least seen one of the Fate series or played the VN. Ufotable’s Unlimited Blade Works is probably your best bet, at least from what I hear — I haven’t seen it, but I understand it’s a much more thorough and adequate adaptation of the original UBW route than Studio Deen’s.

So it might be worth checking out first and saving Today’s Menu for dessert. Part of the appeal of this show to me is seeing all these characters I enjoyed when they were brutally killing each other in magical combat just take it easy and eat and drink together. That’s obviously not a benefit you’ll get if you haven’t seen or played any of the core F/SN works. Finally, you’ll also miss out on the basics of character relationships and some references that don’t come through unless you already know this story and setting.

This year I might try to start that Illya magical girl spinoff too. May as well since I’ve already done my homework.

But then it’s not like you’ll get arrested for starting your Fate journey with this show if you really feel like it. There isn’t an anime police, not last I’ve heard, anyway. And if there is, I’m probably going to be in trouble for some dumb thing I’ve written about anime here. I’ve never seen or read One Piece — there, that should be enough to get me banned from ever mentioning anime again.

Unless or until that ban goes into effect, I’ll be back with more anime soon, both shorts and full-length. Until then!

 

* I know Tsukihime came before F/SN and that it’s connected to Fate in some kind of weird meta-universe way — at least both sets of characters are present in Carnival Phantasm, though that’s a completely wacky comedy spinoff series to be fair. In any case, none of those older characters show up here, so no need to go back that far.

It seems like Type-Moon has forgotten about Tsukihime anyway. Where’s that fucking remake that keeps getting promised? At least make a proper anime adaptation. Life is hard for us Akiha fans, I tell you.

Currently watching (The Aquatope on White Sand / The Great Jahy Will Not Be Defeated!)

Last post, I went over a few of the very long, involved games I’m currently playing. But when I’m way too tired to play a game (because I am so old, after all, and I work long hours sometimes, so this happens all too often now) what can I do to entertain myself? I’m still watching a ton of anime, including two currently airing series that are longer than the standard one-cour 11-14 episode setup. These two are very different in tone, which is nice because it means I can watch whatever better suits my mood at the time.

The Aquatope on White Sand

Starting with the more dramatic, serious stuff, because from its first six episodes, I can tell that The Aquatope on White Sand is going to deal with some heavy subjects.

This series starts out with two lead characters, opening with Fuuka Miyazawa, an aspiring pop idol  forced out of her position by her agency. With her dreams destroyed, Fuuka is set to return home from Tokyo to her family, but she can’t bear the thought of going back a failure. While on her way back, she sees an Okinawa advertisement, and in a spur of the moment decision she instead boards a plane down there without telling her family what she’s up to.

After arriving in Okinawa, Fuuka aimlessly wanders the streets with her luggage in tow, since it turns out she doesn’t know anyone on the island and has nowhere to go or to stay. After falling asleep on a beach and nearly getting dehydrated, she’s helped by a friendly tourism department official who takes her along to her destination, a local aquarium.

This is where we meet the other lead: the director of Gama Gama Aquarium, Kukuru Misakino. Despite still only being a high school student, Kukuru has taken on the position of acting director in place of her grandfather. She has both the knowledge and the drive to keep the aquarium going, but unfortunately she’s struggling to make it turn a profit, and rumors are flying that Gama Gama will be forced to close soon.

While exploring the aquarium and staring into one of the tanks, Fuuka is taken by a strange vision in which she’s in the ocean, surrounded by the fish. Kukuru notices her dreamlike state and snaps her out of it, telling her that the aquarium can have that effect. After introducing herself, being shown around, and hearing that the aquarium is desperately looking for help, Fuuka suddenly decides that she wants to work here and asks Kukuru to take her in. Kukuru is naturally taken aback, but she sees the conviction in Fuuka and accepts her offer.

Working with penguins. Did they paint that tuxedo pattern on this one? Because there’s no way in hell that’s natural.

Aquatope is produced by P.A. Works, the same studio that made Shirobako, so I had extremely high expectations going in. And so far, those expectations are being met. I was first struck by how damn good everything looks — I’ve never been to Okinawa, but I want to go even more after seeing it depicted here. The same goes for the characters and all the animals they take care of in the aquarium; everything is high-quality.

But then even the most beautiful anime can be trash if its characters and story suck. Fortunately, Aquatope is also doing well in those areas. The central “save the aquarium” plot is pretty mundane, but I actually like that — it’s obvious that this place is extremely important to Kukuru, her family and friends, and to a lot of their town’s residents. Fuuka’s involvement as an outsider also mixes things up in an interesting way as she deals with the fact that she’s running from her old life to pursue a new one.

There’s also an element of magical realism in Aquatope, with a few characters now having had visions in which they’re in the ocean along with some kind of spirit/local god hanging around who seems to be involved in these experiences. It’s still too early to tell where that’s going, though.

The only aspect of this show I can see being a sticking point for some viewers so far is the nature of the Fuuka/Kukuru relationship. Most of the discussions I’ve seen online include some kind of “will this be yuri?” debate. From what I can tell Aquatope is an original anime, so there’s no source material to reference, but a lot of this talk honestly seems like people are reading too much into things. I may be a totally inept idiot, but I don’t see two girls holding hands and immediately jump to conclusions like that.

That’s not to say Fuuka and Kukuru’s relationship couldn’t take a romantic turn — if it does, the show is admittedly building a pretty solid base for that so far. But I don’t see any real evidence that it will go in that direction yet. If that’s a hangup for you, either because you’re not into yuri or because you are into yuri and might get frustrated at what you see as “yuri-bating”, then you might have some issues later on with this show depending on where it takes their relationship.

Udon-chan being the audience stand-in here.

Personally, I don’t care if it’s yuri or not as long as Aquatope maintains its current high quality. It’s a relaxing show, and its slow pace works well for that reason. I get the impression that life in Okinawa moves at a pretty slow and relaxed tempo anyway, or certainly compared to life in the massive metropolis of Tokyo, so the pace fits in that sense too.

Though it does deal with those emotionally heavy subjects I mentioned, I’m finding Aquatope to also be a nice escape from the current chaos and bullshit and everything in life, and I’d recommend it to just about anyone based on the quarter of the show that’s aired so far. It’s scheduled to run for 24 episodes from what I’ve read, so plenty of time to relax as well.

The Great Jahy Will Not Be Defeated!

And now on to the somewhat less serious.

Our protagonist and titular character, the great Jahy-sama, is an extremely powerful demon lord from an alternate dimension that was destroyed when a magical girl shattered the mana crystal maintaining its stability. As a result of this, Jahy got reverse-isekai’d, being thrown into our world and losing almost all her power save for whatever magic she can squeeze out of a small crystal shard she managed to keep.

Now living in a shitty slum apartment and working a job as a waitress, Jahy has vowed to find the remainder of the crystal and restore the Dark Realm — that is assuming she can keep making enough money to eat and not get thrown out into the street.

Going off of my still extremely janky kanji knowledge, Jahy’s shirt says something like “Demon World Revival”, so she’s not really making any secret of her goal.

If you want an explanation for why Jahy usually looks like a kid, there it is: she doesn’t have enough magical power to maintain any other form for very long. It’s somewhat annoying to me that she’s in this form most of the time (so far at least) because she does use her magic to turn back into her adult-looking form while working as a waitress at her landlord’s sister’s restaurant. And her adult form is pretty damn hot, but we don’t get to see it that often. On the other hand, Jahy’s diminished form emphasizes just how much power she’s lost and how difficult it will be for her to achieve her goal, so I guess it works on that level.

It’s really not that kind of show anyway, but still, come on!

Aside from that, I’m liking the character interactions so far. Jahy is still extremely haughty — she is a demon lord, after all — but she’s forced to deal with humans on an equal level, which she finds she doesn’t necessarily completely hate. Though she does still try to avoid paying rent, much to the irritation of her landlord. Some of the best moments so far have been in her relationship with her boss, an extremely kind woman who accepts Jahy’s explanations about the Dark Realm and her quest to collect the mana crystal shards but also asks her to use her crystal’s power to clean the drains in the kitchen.

Jahy used to live in a palace in the underworld and drink wine out of a giant pool, but now she’s reduced to choosing between salt and mayonnaise as dressing on noodles. A long way to fall.

Jahy is currently only three episodes in. It had an unusual kind of staggered start a few weeks into the summer season and will run for 20 episodes. More than I expected for a light comedy/slice-of-life series like this, but I won’t complain if it maintains the stupid fun and the general quality I’ve seen out of these initial episodes. No wonder I like the show; I get a real Disgaea vibe from it — Jahy herself feels like she’d fit right in with the cast of one of those games, and the story is in a similar vein with all its slapstick and immature jokes.

But it’s the kind of self-aware immaturity that works for me, just the kind you’ll find in a Disgaea game. There’s also all the underworld demon lord stuff that obviously fits as well. Maybe Jahy will show up as a DLC character in Disgaea 6? That kind of crossover would make a lot of sense.

Anyway, I’m going to keep watching Jahy as well, because it’s also a nice break from all the usual bullshit that life serves up. Maybe watching Jahy getting kicked around by life after having it easy so long is cathartic in a way, but I’m also rooting for her. Even if she was kind of a jerk as a demon lord, vaporizing her minions and all that. Hopefully the lessons she learns in the human world will stick with her if or when she ever gets to restore that Dark Realm.

That’s all I’m watching this season, at least for the moment. I’d planned to also watch Remake Our Life!, but it seems like keeping up with three currently airing series is just too much work for me. Usually I barely have the drive to watch even one. But if it’s really amazing, I’m open to being convinced to pick that up as well. Either way, next time I write about anime, it will be in the form of a proper review, so until then!

Deep reads #6: Artificial life in a natural world

It’s been a while since the last one of these, hasn’t it? It takes a long time to put these deep read posts together, but I always feel good by the end. This time, I dive into artificial intelligence, a field I have a lot of interest in but absolutely no technical knowledge about beyond the most basic level. For that reason, I’ve tried to avoid getting into those technical areas I don’t understand well, sticking to the more philosophical aspects that I can actually sort of write about. If you know more about the subject and can bring your own perspective to the comments section, I’d welcome that.

Also, some story spoilers for Time of Eve, and very very general ending spoilers for the film Ex Machina just in case you plan to watch these and want to go in blind, which is always best in my opinion. Just being safe as usual. And now on to the business.

Sometime in the future, society has started to integrate realistic human-looking androids into everyday life. Rikuo, a high school student, relies on his family’s household android to make his coffee and breakfast in place of his seemingly always absent parents.

One day, Rikuo checks on the movements of this android and discovers that she’s been visiting a mysterious location on a regular basis, a place that he never told her to visit. After letting his friend and classmate Masaki know about it, he decides to investigate by going there himself. And so he finds Time of Eve, a café with a special rule: no discrimination between humans and androids allowed.

Time of Eve is a six-episode original anime series aired online in 2008, sometimes listed under its Japanese name Eve no Jikan. It was on my list to watch for a long time until I finally got to it last year. And while I enjoyed it, the series also raised some questions, or maybe reminded me of questions I’d already been asking myself — questions way too big for my own puny mind about the future of humanity.

Most of the action in Time of Eve takes place in the café it’s named after. Rikuo and Masaki don’t fit in very well at first, though. The lone proprietor Nagi is welcoming and friendly, but she also demands that they stick to the house rule: no discrimination between human and android patrons. This even includes asking whether a patron is human or not, leading Rikuo and Masaki to look around and speculate about all the café’s customers.

But why would this even be an issue? As Masaki explains to Rikuo, Time of Eve operates within a gray area of the law. In response to the creation of humanoid robots so realistic that they’re passing the Turing test left and right, legislators have passed laws that require they use holographic halo-like rings to differentiate them from humans. At the café, nobody has a ring, but Rikuo knows his family’s household android has been here, and considering the house rule, it’s safe to assume that at least some of the patrons are androids with their rings turned off in violation of this law.

Further complicating matters is the fact that all the café’s customers seem human enough from the way they act. When Rikuo and Masaki meet Akiko, a chatty, excitable girl, they assume she’s a human like them.

The next day, while Masaki is teasing Rikuo about his wanting to see her at the café again, Akiko shows up at their school — not as a student, but as an android to deliver something to her owner there, now with the holographic ring over her head. The pair are shocked, and the effect is made all the stranger when she doesn’t acknowledge them there but is just as friendly as before when they return to the café later.

This strangeness ends up hitting Rikuo at home when he realizes that his family’s android — after a couple of episodes finally referred to by a name, Sammy — went to Time of Eve because she wanted to make a better cup of coffee for him and his family. Rikuo first loses it, demanding to know why she was taking her own initiative without any orders. Soon enough, however, Rikuo starts to accept the situation, and we can see him thinking of Sammy as more human-like. This invites mockery from both his older sister and his friend Masaki, who say he’s starting to sound like an “android-holic”, or someone who relies too much on androids in place of fellow humans.

This fear of androids isn’t totally unjustified. Time of Eve presents a world in which these humanoid beings, far more skilled than humans in technical ability, are taking jobs, not just as household servants and couriers but also as teachers and musicians. Rikuo has already been feeling the effects of this change — it’s revealed that he gave up playing the piano because android players were starting to overtake human ones. This is a change that hits Rikuo all the harder because being a pianist was a dream of his before, one that he clearly felt was taken away from him.

Another social change, one potentially disastrous for birth rates, is the new phenomenon of human-android sexual relations. Android-holics are even referred to as living with androids in romantic relationships. These people are somewhat ostracized and are heard being criticized and mocked. However, it’s still enough of a problem that an “Ethics Committee” headed by Masaki’s father works to keep human-android relationships in line, even running ads discouraging people from seeking out partnerships with androids, as human as they might seem on the surface.

All this boils down to a question that works in the sci-fi genre have been asking for a long time now: if an android is created that acts like a human and seems to have thoughts and feelings like we do, is it any different from a human in a meaningful way? Every year, with the development of more advanced robotics, augmented and virtual reality, and AI technologies, this question comes closer to leaving the realm of fiction and entering that of reality. How will people and their governments around the world react if or when AI starts to be integrated into society itself, even into the roles traditionally played by one’s relatives and partners?

I already wrote a bit about this theme in my extended look at Planetarian, a visual novel that’s largely about the relationship between a human and an android. But that story took place in the post-apocalypse. There’s no real concern about society in that world, where civilization has already been destroyed. Looking back, the contrast with Ex Machina might have been slightly off for that reason, though I still basically stand by everything I wrote then. However, I do think Time of Eve makes for a more effective contrast because it deals with some of the same questions Ex Machina did about the social implications of the human-android relationship, but again in a very different way.

I already wrote about all the faults I found with the treatment of this relationship in Ex Machina; you can find all that in the link above. But to put it briefly, director/writer Alex Garland seems to have assumed that humans and androids can never understand or empathize with each other. At least that’s the idea I felt Garland was communicating through the ending of Ex Machina.

Time of Eve, like Planetarian, doesn’t make that assumption. In fact, I’d say the central relationship between Rikuo and Sammy changes throughout the series because Rikuo realizes from his time at the café that they can understand and empathize with each other. The fact that Sammy is an android doesn’t seem to matter by the end; Rikuo accepts that she, Akiko, and the other androids around them may as well basically be treated as fellow humans instead of mere pieces of machinery.

These deeper issues surrounding human-AI relations are still some years off, since we’re still not close to creating a convincingly human android or AI for that matter — certainly not if Sophia is the best we can do at the moment. For that reason, Time of Eve still comes off very much as science fiction to me. Unless some of the wilder conspiracy theories I’ve heard are true, we don’t have realistic-looking human-styled androids walking among us.

However, the AI musician aspect of Time of Eve isn’t quite as far-fetched now as it might have seemed 13 years ago when it was aired, because AI has actually begun moving into — or intruding upon, depending on your perspective — artistic areas that were previously thought to be purely “natural”, purely human. In the last few years, AI tools to generate images, text, and sound files have become available to the general public. I am absolutely not an expert when it comes to the technology behind these tools, but my understanding is that consumer-level AI tools can roughly imitate human-created media by using pattern recognition.

Some of these tools are pretty damn impressive. Some time ago I came across a site featuring AI-generated paintings for sale, each piece created through a process described here. Again, I don’t quite understand the specifics behind how this works, but it seems like these pieces are generated when the AI analyzes human-created art and produces something original based on a particular style.

The AI comes up with some interesting-looking stuff as well. Here’s one example I like. Quite an abstract piece as you might expect, but the AI can also produce human figures and other subjects in more classical or traditional styles.

Visual art isn’t the only place AI has dabbled either. AI-produced music has made impressive strides, putting together songs that sound like something that might have come from a human composer if you didn’t know the difference. The above piece is a pretty basic sort of instrumental rock song, something that you might expect out of a studio that produces background or soundtrack music, but the AI does follow that formula well enough to create something coherent.

The same is even true of writing. This obviously hits home closest for me, since I’m a writer. An amateurish writer to be sure, but I still take pride in my thoroughly unprofessional work full of f-words and mediocre grammar. However, I can’t ignore the fact that AI is edging in on my territory. Predictive writing AI programs like AI Dungeon and NovelAI1 are designed to build stories based on the user’s prompts. Older programs produced pretty obvious nonsense, sometimes ending with an entertainingly bad result — see the AI-written Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash for an example of such material. But the newest technology is again pretty impressive, producing text that’s at least coherent most of the time.

The use of emerging technology for the purposes of art and entertainment is nothing new. You could argue that this process extends back thousands of years, through the creation of new musical instruments and drawing/painting tools. In that sense, even a modern innovation like Vocaloid is just one part of that long trend. For all the concern over synthesized singers replacing human ones, Hatsune Miku and her friends are essentially just new types of instruments, only with avatars and some fan-created backstory and personality attached. The songs are still composed by humans; they’re only artificial in the sense that they use synthetic as opposed to acoustic instruments.

Miku is basically a cute anime girl vocal synthesizer you can dress up. The best musical instrument since the piano, and maybe even better, because you damn well can’t put a piano in a cheerleader outfit or a swimsuit.

In the same sense, the trend towards VTubers in place of “real-life” streamers shouldn’t be a concern for people worried about the replacement of humans with AI. Funny enough, the original VTuber Kizuna Ai played on this theme, her character being an advanced AI learning about the human world. However, the only difference between a “real” human streamer and a VTuber is the use of an avatar. The fascination with VTubers might be more a part of an escapist trend, adding an element of fantasy to streaming with its cute angels, demons, and fox/dog/shark girls.2

Even so, between the increased use of synthetic instruments and tools and emerging AI art generation technologies, it’s not hard to imagine a future in which AI can put out work that resembles human-created art closely enough that it turns from a novelty to a viable, cost-effective alternative. This may be especially true of formulaic art created for mass consumption, the sort you hear and see and don’t think too much about. And I’d say it’s already somewhat true of the more abstract-looking pieces you can find on various AI-generated illustration sites — the sort that I could imagine hanging in an office hallway or hotel lobby somewhere, a piece that might just be vaguely noticed and passed by.

There’s an obvious objection to all this: that the works generated by AI lack meaning. There’s no intent behind them. It’s true that the general form of an AI-generated work might be determined by humans, who set the parameters for the program: what style to follow, what colors or tones to use, and essentially what sorts of human art it should imitate when generating something original. But the end result is something that can’t connect with an audience on an emotional level, or at least not intentionally. We humans are great at finding patterns when we want to find them, seeing shapes in clouds, hearing hidden messages in music played backwards. On that level, it might be possible to read some kind of meaning into a piece of AI-generated art, but that reading says nothing about the art itself and everything about its audience.

Shocking news: people who think rock is inspired by Satan hear Satanist messages in rock albums played backwards! I don’t need more proof than that.

To me, this lack of intent behind these artificial pieces of art makes them feel empty. Not that I hate or even dislike them — I find some of them really interesting, but only on a technical level. And some of that interest comes from seeing how these AI-generated works differ from human ones.

I think the lack of human-like thinking and intent is most obvious when an AI tries its hand at realistic-looking human figures; the ones I’ve seen have come out close but somewhat off and wrong, especially in their faces. Not in the way a human unskilled at drawing would mess them up, either — there’s a kind of technical “skill” in the AI work if you want to call it that, but details in the figure make it clear that the AI isn’t “thinking” about what it’s drawing in the same way a human would. See Edmond de Belamy,3 an AI-generated portrait of a fictional French nobleman, and how the face is smudged. Similar paintings that try for more detail seem to do a little worse, misplacing eyes and noses in curious ways and, for me, planting themselves firmly in that infamous Uncanny Valley.

Of course, there’s a lot of argument to be had over how much the intent of the artist should be taken into account when examining art. I take what I feel to be a pretty balanced view: that both how an artistic work is meant to be perceived and how it’s actually perceived are important to understanding it. When art is put out to public view, the public takes their own kind of ownership of it in the sense that they get to interpret it for themselves. But the artist’s intent still matters. Some people may feel differently, but if there is no intent behind the art, I can’t connect with it in the same way I could with a human-created piece.

But what if the art in question is so convincing and feels so meaningful that you can’t tell the difference? At that point, does the divide between the artificial and the organic even matter? This comes back to one of the central questions asked in Time of Eve. By the end of the series, Rikuo answers this question for himself by returning to the piano and playing for the café’s audience. By returning to the music he’d previously rejected because he felt it had been invaded by androids, he accepts them.

It’s clear enough that the androids in Time of Eve are essentially human in this sense. They’re completely differently when we see them in the outside world — Sammy and Akiko both act in a sort of robotic “just carrying out commands” way while in sight of humans, as if they’d get in trouble if they acted otherwise. When they’re in the café, by contrast, they act much more naturally, as if they’re letting out their breath after holding it in for a long time. It seems that all they want is to be spoken to as equals, as though they’re humans as well; the fact that they’re synthetic and we’re organic doesn’t make a difference.4

That’s the key to that central question in Time of Eve. Its androids are self-aware and have that intent and even emotion behind their actions. I think if a real-world AI can express that intent through the creation of original art not just based on analyzing scraps of existing human-created work, that would be a sign of AI so self-aware that it might essentially be considered human in the same way.5

Of course, as far as we know, we’re nowhere near that point yet. Any AI out there that the general public knows about (leaving a gap there for any possible ultra-secret experiments in progress) still thinks like AI. When I’m out driving and I have Google Maps guiding me, it still tells me to take a left turn by swinging through five lanes of busy traffic over a few hundred feet. That direction might make sense to an AI, but any human who’s ever been in a car will understand why it’s actually a terrible direction to give.

Maybe that’s the real test: when the AI understands what I’m going through when I’m driving my car in rush hour traffic and empathizes with my experience. At least enough to not suggest such a suicidal route.

Hey Google, I get that this is technically the fastest path to my destination by one and a half minutes but maybe consider my fucking blood pressure too. (Source: B137 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.)

As for Time of Eve, there is one criticism I can make: that it might be a little too optimistic, especially for the reason that it doesn’t really address the whole “humans losing their jobs to more skilled androids” problem beyond just acknowledging it. It is absolutely a problem, in some sense one we’ve been facing for centuries now with automation of work starting in agriculture and leading up to the development of advanced AI today. It’s not a problem we can’t solve, but it is one that will probably cause a lot of social strife before that point.

Then again, this series provides a nice counterpoint to all the overly pessimistic science fiction we have today, the sort that’s practically anti-scientific development. Again, I’m definitely biased on this subject, but the Luddite approach to this problem is absolutely the wrong one. We shouldn’t try to limit our development out of fear of what might happen as a result.

Time of Eve doesn’t imply that everything will be sunshine and rainbows in the future. But it does deliver a more hopeful message than we usually see out of Hollywood these days. As much of a pessimist as I am generally, I can really appreciate that, and I’d say it’s absolutely worth watching even if you end up coming to a different conclusion. I, for one, welcome our new android friends, and I sincerely hope they don’t become our android overlords instead. 𒀭

 

1 AI Dungeon and the AI writing programs that gained popularity afterward make for another potential deep read rabbit hole subject. AI Dungeon was previously the premier AI story creation tool, but developer Latitude placed sexual and other mature content control filters on the program leading to suspensions, bans, and an exodus of users to alternative services.

I’ve messed around with both AI Dungeon and the much newer NovelAI, and while they’re interesting (well, AI Dungeon was interesting before it was utterly fucked by its own developer — the filter was supposedly meant to prevent certain types of extreme/gray-area material from being written, but it didn’t work properly and was extremely overbroad) the few times I tried writing a story with them, I ended up taking the prompt away from the AI and continuing it on my own. And now I have the rough rough draft of a very short fantasy action-adventure-romance novel that will never be published. Not unless there’s a market for shitty novellas that indulge in escapist fantasies that are somewhat different from the Fabio-on-the-cover supermarket romance trash variety.

Not that my story isn’t also trash, because it is, but I still like it. Maybe I should rework it into a visual novel script?

2 The parasocial relationship aspect of VTubing is still another deep dive that I’m sure a few people have taken already. I don’t know if I’m qualified to address it myself, but it is an interesting subject. Maybe it’s one I should address — not like I’m qualified at all to be writing about AI, yet here I am completely bullshitting about it.

Actually, I do know more about this other subject, since I’ve spent enough time in VTuber chats on YouTube to know that at least a few people are quite serious when they send love confessions and marriage proposals to their beloveds. Then again, that’s always been a thing idols have had to deal with, so maybe nothing’s really changed.

3 You can say this image lacks intent and meaning, but it sure as hell doesn’t lack value: it sold for almost half a million dollars when it was put up for auction a few years ago, probably for its novelty value since it was touted as the first piece of AI-generated art to ever come to auction. I wouldn’t buy it for more than $20 myself, but since I’m not a member of the idle rich set, my opinion doesn’t matter when it comes to these big-ticket auctions.

4 Of course, there’s also a religious aspect to this question, since many people believe that a God-given or otherwise divinely created soul is the most essential part of what makes us human. That’s a debate I don’t feel qualified to get into — I leave it to the scientists, theologians, and philosophers to argue over all that.

5 To complicate matters further: you could argue that this is exactly what we humans do when we create art, since everything we make takes at least some inspiration from past works of art. But there’s usually more to the creation of art than just copying our influences — we filter those older works through our personal experiences and feelings and create something that’s our own, even if it’s somewhat derivative. The same can’t be said for these AI artists, at least not yet.

A review of Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions

On a moonlit night, just before returning to school, newly minted high school student Yuta Togashi steps out onto the balcony of his family’s apartment to put out boxes of trash, a bunch of “magical” trinkets he collected as a kid that he’s grown out of. While he’s outside, a rope suddenly drops from the balcony above, and a girl Yuta doesn’t recognize climbs down it — a girl wearing a frilly dress and a patch over one eye.

The next morning, Yuta goes to school, putting this strange occurrence behind him, only to run into the same girl in his homeroom class. The girl, Rikka Takanashi, is now wearing the standard school uniform but still has that eyepatch on. She addresses Yuta dramatically, proclaiming that her covered eye is pounding and falling to the floor. In shock, Yuta realizes that this girl is suffering from the condition known as chunibyo.

If you’ve played Fire Emblem: Awakening, Rikka is basically doing Owain’s “my cursed sword hand” routine here

So begins Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions, the first season of a comedy/drama/slice-of-life/romance anime produced by Kyoto Animation. KyoAni as it’s commonly known is very well-regarded, famous for its high-quality work. And Chunibyo is one of its more popular properties — the series has had at least two cours aired on TV along with several OVAs and a film. This series has almost as confusing a watch order as fucking Monogatari from what I’ve seen, but this post only covers the 12 episodes of the first season from 2012, so hopefully that will keep things simple.

But just what is a chunibyo? This is something I wondered for a while after seeing the title of the anime come up again and again in discussions online. Chunibyo (or more properly chuunibyou, with those long vowels written out, but for consistency I’ll stick to the series’ English transliteration) translates as “second year of middle school disease.” In a broad sense, it refers to the “cringy” behavior of eighth-grade-aged students who are just gaining a sense of self as adults and are desperate to distinguish themselves — for example, by insisting on drinking “adult” beverages like black coffee or writing fancy-sounding poetry.

Cool jacket!

Chunibyo focuses on a more dramatic version of this “disease”, in which the student believes they are different from others and have special powers. Yuta immediately recognizes Rikka’s advanced case of chunibyo because he had it bad for a while himself, dressing up in a black jacket with a high collar, wielding a wooden sword, and calling himself Dark Flame Master.

Of course, Yuta is past all that now. After being a prime chunibyo kid at his old middle school and then snapping out of his delusions, he purposely chose to attend a high school across town to ensure none of his classmates would know him. But this fresh start that Yuta wanted is pretty much ruined when Rikka (who witnessed Yuta performing his dramatic chunibyo routine in a self-mocking way when he thought he was alone) identifies him as Dark Flame Master and tells him that he has to join forces with her, the avatar of the “Wicked Lord Shingan.”

Yuta tells Rikka to cut that shit out — he’s done with all that delusional behavior, and he advises her to drop the act as well. But Rikka firmly insists that she has real powers, revealing her covered magical right eye to Yuta (the magical look provided by a gold-colored contact lens.) She also insists on having Yuta’s help in “finding the invisible boundary lines”, whatever those are, and to that end she starts a school club called the Far Eastern Magic Society.

It changes its name after absorbing the one-member Napping Club. I don’t know why this club only has one member, because it sounds pretty good to me.

Despite his annoyance, Yuta is dragged along by events in just the way you’d expect from a high school comedy/drama/SOL/romance anime protagonist. So he joins Rikka’s club along with their senior Kumin and the extra-chunibyo middle schooler Sanae Dekomori, who joins her “master” Rikka and wields her long twintail hairstyle like whips to beat her enemies with.

Initially, Yuta is pretty down about all this, but he gets more enthusiastic when his crush, the popular sporty cheerleader Shinka Nibutani, asks if she can join as well. Shinka is just about the last person Yuta would have expected to have any interest in a club like this, but Yuta certainly has an interest in Shinka, so he brings her along to the club in the hopes that she’s joining because he’s a member.

Will Yuta be able to finally get away from all this chunibyo business, despite seemingly not doing very much to get away from it by joining Rikka’s club? And will he find love with his crush Shinka? Spoilers regarding that and related plot matters follow, because it’s not possible to talk about Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions without getting into the love part of the story further down — it’s just as much a part as the chunibyo and the other delusions are.

Pictured: Shinka, confessing her love to Yuta… in his dreams.

But first, some points about the presentation, because that was the first aspect of Chunibyo that really struck me. As expected of KyoAni, this show looks beautiful, with nice, smooth animation and a lot of detail. I would never claim to be an expert in animation, but I know what looks good to me, and Chunibyo does. The same goes for the characters themselves — they’re all distinctive-looking without standing out too much, except in the ways they should when they’re acting out their fantasy magic-using selves.

Speaking of that, I also liked how Chunibyo uses its action sequences. When Rikka and Dekomori (the two serious-business chunibyo types throughout most of the series) get into their fantasy fights and start casting spells, this actually plays out on the screen in magical battle sequences complete with giant weapons and explosions.

Rikka doing battle with her older sister Toka, who also wants her to cut this chunibyo shit out.

Of course, none of this is actually happening, and the show uses this fact for comedic effect when it switches away from the magic battle between Rikka and her older sister to show them sparring with a metal spoon and a wooden stick.

This approach fits well with the general feel of the series. Chunibyo is not magical realism or anything like it — there’s never any doubt that these magical powers are completely made up, just imagined by the students pretending to use them. But the difference between fantasy and reality is still a major theme of the series.

At first, this difference is played for comedy, with Yuta having to deal with Rikka’s dramatics and Dekomori’s even more dramatic dramatics. Plenty of typical anime high school hijinks occur, including the usual beach trip and school festival, and there’s some slice-of-life messing around with Dekomori and Shinka constantly locking horns and Yuta’s goofy best friend Makoto trying and failing to confess his love to their equally goofy senior Kumin. Nothing too unusual in that sense.

Are girls you don’t know crawling through your bedroom window and waking you up in the morning? That’s how you know you’re a high school anime protagonist.

However, the core of Chunibyo is that love story and the emotional attachments that form between our two leads. And it’s pretty damn obvious that Shinka isn’t the female lead opposite Yuta in this tale. Yuta’s interest in her fizzles out pretty quickly when he realizes that she has no interest in him and that her outwardly sweet personality is something of a put-on — though she does turn out to be a solid friend to both him and his true love interest later on.

And of course, Yuta’s true love interest is Rikka, the embarrassingly dramatic girl who dragged him out of his short “normal” high school life and back into chunibyo land. At first, one might wonder why the hell Yuta goes along with any of Rikka’s nonsense, but the show does a good job at creating a convincing emotional bond between these two, and one that leads to a believable romance between them.

What Rikka calls exchanging contact info

Considering all this, I think there are two ways Chunibyo could have easily gone astray and ruined itself, at least for me. One would have been building a story where Rikka’s chunibyo delusions are depicted completely as a positive, especially with regard to their effect on Yuta. I can easily see a path where Yuta’s rejection of his old childlike wonder about the world is shown as a more or less bad thing, and where he’s saved by Rikka and her magical eye and invisible boundary line hunt and all that.

Thankfully, Chunibyo avoids this kind of simplistic approach. It also avoids the opposite approach where Yuta has to save Rikka and make her into a “normal” person, though near the end the story it looks like they’re headed that way. But in getting close to Rikka, Yuta realizes that her delusions are not just a game to her but rather her way of coping with a massive loss she suffered early in her life. In dealing with the situation, Yuta has to consider both her feelings and what he knows to be true, and the ending plays this out in a pretty mature and realistic way.

The other wrong turn that Chunibyo might have taken was to get really melodramatic with a long stretch of misunderstandings between Yuta and Rikka. I feel it’s too easy for series like this one to indulge in a lot of drama that ends up feeling manufactured just to stretch the story out, with characters failing to communicate well beyond the point of reason or acting in uncharacteristically stupid ways. Like someone pretending not to see something right in front of them, this is never very convincing.

But Chunibyo again avoids this pitfall. There are some misunderstandings near the end between the leads, but thankfully they’re resolved in a pretty natural-feeling way once Yuta realizes how to properly express himself to and connect with Rikka. It also helps that this first season is 12 episodes long — just long enough to fit all those slice-of-life and comedy shenanigans in along with the more serious dramatic material, and without any need for filler. With the arguable exception of one episode in the middle that focuses on Makoto and doesn’t really connect to the main storyline, but at least it doesn’t involve any especially stupid plot turns. And one such episode out of 12 isn’t bad.

The slice-of-life stuff is a nice break from the dramatic parts anyway.

On the whole, I liked Chunibyo. I wasn’t quite sure what I’d get going in, especially with the hyper, headache-inducing OP. But KyoAni has a strong reputation for a reason. They clearly don’t just take any old crap to adapt into an anime and put serious effort into their work, and that’s all reflected in this first season of Chunibyo. Its mix of light comedy and serious romance/drama works well and its characters are pretty fun and charming. Though the hyperactive Dekomori came close to getting on my nerves at times, but that also felt intentional, and in the end I liked her as well.

Once again, my past self is amazed that I’m recommending my third school-setting anime in a row, since I used to be part of that crowd that groaned about how common this setting is in anime (or at least was — now I guess the trend is isekai fantasy.) But hell, if the story is good, what does the setting matter? High school is the most fitting setting for a coming-of-age story like this anyway. A time in your life when you can still afford to indulge in some fantasies, but when you’re also learning about who you are and what’s important to you.

I haven’t watched any of the rest of Chunibyo, so I can’t say how well it carries on, but this first season does have an actual ending and stands on its own well for that reason. The next season, subtitled Heart Throb, seems to pick up with and continue the story of Yuta and Rikka’s relationship. I have a lot of other series I have to get through, but maybe I’ll return for more Chunibyo some day I feel like feeling that nice secondhand embarrassment remembering my own cringy middle/high school self.

What I can say is that this first season of Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions is worth checking out as long as a romantic comedy/drama with a dash of slice-of-life sounds like your thing. Not a dish I thought I’d like, but apparently I’m into it, or at least when it’s done right.

 

* And thankfully it seems to be coming back strong from the murderous attack on its headquarters two years ago, with a new run of Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid airing this summer — all the more significant because the original director of that series, Yasuhiro Takemoto, was one of the victims of the attack. Maybe I’ll try to pick that one up again.

Anime short double feature: Are You Lost? / Magical Sempai

It’s more anime, though not what I actually had on my list next to watch. A couple of series I’ve been watching have been emotionally taxing (but good so far, but still — even I’m not completely cold and dead inside) and I felt I could use a break. So I decided to pull out two other series I’d heard a bit about from a year or two ago, before the year+ of quarantine started. Both consist of 12 half-length episodes each, about 12½ minutes per episode, though really more like 10 to 11 if you cut out the openings and endings.

Neither of these were acclaimed as great masterpieces or anything, but being shorts, they also wouldn’t be much of a time commitment if they turned out to be disappointing. But were they disappointing or not?

I’ll do my best to maintain the suspense here and not give the answer away early. On to the first entry:

Are You Lost?

Okay, so the first thing that caught my eye about this series was the poster. I admit it. It’s eye-catching, isn’t it? I guess that’s the point of a promotional poster.

But it does express the basic idea behind the show. Are You Lost?* is about four girls who are somehow thrown from their plane (or boat/other method of transportation; I don’t know if that’s specified) during a school trip and wash up on a desert island. Luckily for the lot, one of them, Homare, is an experienced survivalist, having traveled the world with her grizzled explorer father as a child.

Thanks to Homare’s training, the four are able to not just survive on this island while awaiting rescue but to do pretty well for themselves, building an effective shelter, rigging up ways to collect potable water, and gathering edible plants and catching animals for food. The show also goes into some depth about survival methods, using Homare’s knowledge taken from her father to teach both the other girls and the viewer about making it out in the wilderness.

This fire-making method seems pretty basic, I think I could pull this off at least

I don’t know the first thing about surviving in the wild. If I were left to my own wits, I’d definitely die within a few days, probably as a result of eating something poisonous. So I can’t say the tips in Are You Lost? aren’t legitimate (though I still doubt that fresh urine is sterile enough to drink safely — and I hope in all my life I never have to find out the answer.)

However, for me the appeal of Are You Lost? is more in the interaction between these four very different characters, and especially between the three much more “normal” girls (smart nerdy girl Mutsu, sporty but lazy Asuka, and sheltered princess Shion) and Homare, who straightforwardly tells the others what they need to do to survive, even if it means doing normally disgusting things like eating insects or embarrassing things like stripping to their underwear.

Yeah there are good reasons for the characters being half-naked half the time, but I still see what they’re doing here

And speaking of underwear, Are You Lost? is big on the fanservice — in fact, that seems to be just as much the point of the show as the survivalist stuff. It’s easy enough to judge from the poster, but for a story about four girls stuck on a desert island, a lot of what happens in the show doesn’t feel like too much of a stretch. Well, maybe aside from what happens in the final episode. I won’t spoil it, but it felt like an avoidable problem solved in a bit of a weird way. Then again, as I said I’m no survivalist, not even a camper, so who am I to judge?

But if you know my taste, you know I have a very high fanservice tolerance, especially when the anime or whatever it is I’m taking in doesn’t make any bones about it (so to speak I guess.) And this one doesn’t. I liked Are You Lost? — it made comedy work in the context of a harsh situation, and it had a cast completely composed of girls who were often just in their underwear, and really what more can I ask for than that.

Magical Sempai

Now to a more typical high school setting, but with just as much if not more comedy/fanservice. Magical Sempai (yeah, the “sempai” spelling does poke at my obsessive-compulsive side, but that’s how they officially transliterate it so whatever, I’ll go with it) is about a do-nothing new guy at school who’s required to join a school club. He’s not excited about the prospect and just wants a quiet place to play his 3DS lookalike.

Unfortunately for him, he drops in on the Magic Club, headed up by its sole member, known only throughout the show as Sempai. Dude finds Sempai to be cute but extremely irritating, especially since she 1) is awful at doing magic tricks and gets terrible stage fright and 2) insists he join the club, going so far as to immediately call him “Assistant”. She’s also constantly turned up to 11 in terms of both volume and personality, fitting nicely with Assistant’s usually deadpan demeanor.

Assistant has no respect for his annoying senior but still sticks around to help her with her failed attempts at magic.

A few other colorful characters show up, but these two are the core of the show. Each episode of Magical Sempai consists of a series of two to three-minute comedy skits, many of which I think are supposed follow that old Japanese comedy tradition with one boke or idiot character and one tsukkomi or straight man. I say I think because I’m no expert, but there is definitely an idiot/straight man dynamic between these two, though it’s nicely mixed up with those new additions (chemistry girl is best girl by the way, no argument.)

Magical Sempai also mixes things up by throwing in a big dash of… what else but fanservice! Sempai is extremely confident without any reason whatsoever in her magic skills, and she somehow ends up screwing up her tricks in ways that put her in compromising positions.

Like this failed rope escape trick. I left out the pantyshot in this screenshot, but it is there.

As with Are You Lost?, Magical Sempai makes no secret of what it’s aiming for. But also like Are You Lost?, it isn’t content with just giving you some anime girl boobs and underwear and calling it a day: the comedy in this show is snappy and fast-paced and most of it lands well enough. I don’t actually have much else to say about Magical Sempai, except that if you want a laugh and are not averse to some anime tiddies you should check it out. And I look forward to seeing what kind of traffic the SEO in this paragraph brings me.

I might also take this new post format up as an occasional feature to break up the longer reviews. There are some other short-format anime series I’d like to have a look at. And just as with games, I need a break from the massive epics sometimes (not that a one-cour anime series is actually much to get through, but hell, I am lazy after all. How the fuck did I manage to watch all of Legend of the Galactic Heroes anyway?)

 

* You might have noticed the title on the poster is Sounan desu ka?, which doesn’t mean “Are you lost?” but rather “Is that so?” Though it may seem like a strange title, it fits pretty well — it’s what the girls say to each other, normally when Homare is telling them that squeezing fish blood into their mouths using their shirts can help preserve their energy — with an added flavor of “seriously, you want us to do that?” But I can see why they changed the English title instead of just translating it directly, because I don’t know whether the English phrase “is that so?” carries the same connotation.

A review of Asobi Asobase

I’m back! More or less, anyway. The hiatus I planned was much shorter than expected for various reasons. These mainly have to do with changes to my life that I can’t really ignore anymore, though thankfully they won’t prevent me from writing here or anything like that. Just the opposite, in fact, but it’s a bit complicated. I might get into it later. And I will be posting an extra-long month-end post for July to make up for skipping the last month’s, I promise.

For now, though, I have anime to write about. Because I spent the time in between work and dealing with other unpleasant business this last week and weekend binging the fuck out of anime series, one of which was Asobi Asobase.

Back in the mid-2000s, there was a spate of anime series released that fell into a newly created genre titled “Cute Girls Doing Cute Things.” Sometimes just shortened to CGDCT, this is a widely recognized genre among anime fans, and one that I don’t think really exists outside of anime and manga. And it’s just what it sounds like: a CGDCT series involves a cast of cute girls, and they’re doing cute things. Like playing games, for one example.

From looking at its poster and synopsis, I thought Asobi Asobase fell into this category, so I passed it by. Cute is fine and all, but these shows tend to be a bit boring to me. But something about this show in particular drew me back. Not sure what exactly did it; maybe I was curious about it because it came out in 2018, long after that CGDCT craze died down, or maybe it was a few of the strange-looking thumbnails in the episode list. In any case, I decided to watch the first episode.

And then I realized I’d been tricked. At first, I wasn’t sure whether what I got was better or worse than what I’d expected, but then I ended up watching the rest of the 12-episode series over the course of two days, so there’s the answer to that question I suppose.

Wait, this wasn’t what I expected at all! Help!

The creators did a great job of hiding the show’s true nature, at least until a few minutes into episode 1. The OP is charming and cute with a slight yuri vibe, giving the impression of just the kind of CGDCT show I was expecting. Right away, however, we’re introduced to our main cast, and it’s obvious that something is off here. We open on Kasumi Nomura (right w/ glasses), a student at an all-girls middle school, explaining why she hates playing games with a flashback involving her shitty older sister forcing her to buy ice cream when she loses at a board game.

Much to her irritation, this flashback is interrupted by two of her classmates, Hanako Honda and the blonde transfer student Olivia. The pair are playing a game that involves slapping your opponent (at least according to Olivia it does) if they look in the direction you’re pointing.

Kasumi is dragged into their game by Hanako out of a desire to avoid further beatings, and Olivia gives Kasumi a good slap when she loses (or doesn’t lose? Because I think Olivia is slapping all her opponents no matter what they do.) However, Olivia screws her aim up, slapping Kasumi slightly lower than intended in a more sensitive area, and pissing her off to the maximum. So when Kasumi wins the next round, she decides to teach this new girl how to play this game properly.

Not the smoothest introduction. However, Kasumi approaches Olivia soon after to try to get her help with English, which she’s terrible at. Olivia’s parents are from overseas, and her Japanese so far has been pretty slow and broken, so everyone assumes at this point that she’s fluent in English.

This puts Olivia in a tight spot, because the opposite is true: she’s actually fluent in Japanese, having been born and raised in Japan, and she can barely speak English. She’s just been fucking with Hanako and the rest of the class because she thought it was funny. Now that she’s actually being asked to help with English, she’s afraid to drop the act she started, so she agrees to help Kasumi — as long as Kasumi teaches her about more games and pastimes. Olivia’s picked up on the fact that Kasumi hates games, so she thinks her demand will be refused, but to her shock, Kasumi accepts the deal. And before the end of the episode, the three decide to start a school club dedicated to playing games (and/or studying English?) called the Pastimers’ Club.

A few minutes past the OP of the first episode, then, it’s already obvious that Asobi Asobase isn’t quite what it claims to be at first. On the cover, it pretends to be one of those old CGDCT shows, but it’s actually a surreal comedy with a dirty streak. What follows is a 12-episode run full of mind games, revenge, blackmail, power struggles with the student council and rival clubs, competitions ending in humiliation and severe injury, and a man who shoots laser beams out of his ass. The series adds an entire cast of bizarre supporting characters to help play these bits out (including ass laser man; you’ll see how he fits into the equation if you watch.) But the focus is always on the main three Kasumi, Hanako, and Olivia and their games, which too often turn into larger, usually idiotic, schemes.

School clubs are serious business

This kind of bizarre stuff doesn’t always work for me, but as I’ve already more or less given away, Asobi Asobase did very much work for me, and I think a lot of that had to do with this central cast. Kasumi, Hanako, and Olivia quickly become friends, but they also have to deal with each other’s strange quirks. That’s where most of the comedy here comes from for me. Kasumi is studious, neurotic, and usually shy and quiet except when she gets pissed off (see above), and Olivia is carefree and generally out of it except when her public image might be at risk, in which case she panics.

But the most out-there character is Hanako. So out there that she might be the one who either pulls you into or shuts you out of Asobi Asobase. At first, I found her to be a bit much, but she quickly grew on me even if I’m still not sure why. Hanako is subdued (relatively at least) in the very beginning of the show, but we soon see how much of a weirdo she is — so much so that despite making high grades and being from a rich family with such a privileged upbringing that she has a butler, she’s shunned by the popular girls.

Stuff like this is probably part of the reason for her outcast status

This is a serious problem for Hanako, who desperately wants a boyfriend and both envies and hates the popular girls at her school for getting to go to mixers while she’s shut out of the fun. She’s also a bit of a complete and utter nutbar, though judging from my own middle school experience and my blessedly brief time as a sort-of-teacher she’s not actually that unusual for a kid her age.

Unfortunately for Hanako, both she and her clubmates are sort of weirdo misfits — the difference between them and Hanako is that Kasumi doesn’t really care and Olivia is seemingly too oblivious to even notice. So Hanako lets herself go around them, resulting in some of the strangest (and loudest) sequences in the show. I’ll admit she screams a little bit too much for me, but I enjoyed some of her freakouts, and especially her friends’ reactions to them.

The other two also have plenty of moments.

There isn’t much of a plot to Asobi Asobase. There are a few running storylines that come up now and then, but each episode is broken into four segments that are usually not connected to each other, which I think fits the type of fast-paced weirdo surreal comedy it’s going for well. The show as a whole is crazy, but there’s enough sense left in it to prevent things from going off the rails completely, which is where it would probably lose me, and I think this quick four-part format has something to do with that. These segments often end with a punchline and occasionally with a character breaking the fourth wall, but thankfully the fourth-wall-breaking doesn’t happen so often that it gets irritating.

The show is just as weird as it needs to be while remaining funny

There isn’t a type of humor that works for everyone, and that’s just as true of comedy anime series as it is of western TV comedies. Asobi Asobase is sometimes loud and often insane, but it fits really well with some of the sort of comedy I like. It feels stupid but at the same time clever and thoughtfully put together if that makes any sense. Something like Beavis and Butthead or South Park. The presentation is similar in the sense that it can be a bit shocking at times (and serious credit to the voice actors as well, because they contribute a lot to that) and the tone is pretty similar.

Or maybe I’m going way too far out on a limb with these comparisons, but this is just the vibe I got watching this. I think if you’re into the above shows, you’ll probably enjoy this series as well. And if you can’t stand Cute Girls Doing Cute Things, don’t worry, because that’s not really what Asobi Asobase is — at most it’s a surrealist take on that genre. So maybe people who are into CGDCT can appreciate Asobi Asobase even more than I can in that sense.

And as a look into the pure chaos and terror that is middle school, Asobi Asobase might be the most realistic anime ever created.

So I guess that’s a recommendation too. This currently one-season show didn’t have a proper finale really, simply ending on yet another weird joke, but the manga it’s based on is still running, and there’s talk about a second season possibly, maybe, who knows. I’m hoping for a second season myself, because I can use more of this strange brew, but anime watchers know how these things can go. I’m not holding my breath, but I’ll keep an eye out.

A review of Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro

No, I haven’t gotten so lazy now that I’m just reposting old posts — this is different from my other Nagatoro review, which was of the first four officially released English volumes of the manga (as of this writing now up to seven and soon to be eight, so I may have to revisit that at some point.) For now, though, we’re having a look at the recently completed anime adaptation, more or less covering the first six manga volumes.

Since I’ve already written about most of the source material this season of Nagatoro was based on, I might not have as much to say about it as I would otherwise. A lot of what I wrote about before pretty much applies to the anime, since it’s extremely faithful to the manga, only making a few changes to the pacing and the order of a few key events. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to say about the adaptation, though — in fact, watching the anime brought up a few connections I hadn’t quite made before in my mind, but here they are now, and even if they’re the product of a poorly socially adjusted mind like mine I’ll still go over them, because that’s part of why I write here (and then, maybe a poorly socially adjusted mind is the best kind to address these matters.)

If you don’t feel like going back to that older post, a short synopsis of the series: protagonist, known only as Senpai, is a second-year high school student, a nerdy and painfully reserved guy who only really likes art. He has a run-in with popular sporty girl Nagatoro, a first-year who loves teasing and tormenting him. But hey, of course it’s a romantic comedy and they’re really into each other but they can’t bring themselves to admit it (yet) and Nagatoro’s teasing works to help Senpai find some self-confidence and to socialize somewhat.

Speaking generally, this is a premise that’s been used before — the misfit pair who fall in love is a very old love story setup. But it’s effective when done right, and Nagatoro is doing it right (and for details on how it’s doing it right, you can check out the manga review, because all of what I wrote about it there also applies to the anime — the story wasn’t fundamentally changed in the adaptation.)

This was my first time watching an anime adaptation of a manga I was already reading, as strange as it might sound. I’m really not much of a manga reader. So all this is probably very old well-worn ground to many manga readers/anime watchers. But I was impressed by how well writer/artist Nanashi’s work translated into animation. Nagatoro especially is known for her extreme expressions that often turn cartoonish (for lack of a better term?) These work in the anime just as well as in the manga as far as I can tell, in some cases even adding to the Senpai/Nagatoro dynamic, since those expressions are always directed at or related to Senpai and his own awkward reactions.

The voice acting is great as well — the VAs they got for Nagatoro and Senpai fit their characters exactly, to the point that reading the manga again, I can “hear” the dialogue in those voices now. Sort of, anyway, since the voice acting is naturally all in Japanese. For those who prefer dubs over subtitles, since the series has just finished airing, the dub option isn’t available yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if an English dub is released soon on Crunchyroll. Not a personal concern since I’m firmly on the subs side of that dubs/subs divide with a few big exceptions, but it’s nice to see strong effort being put into English dubbing of anime, and there’s undoubtedly a lot of talent that goes into that as well.

There is an interesting aspect of Nagatoro that I haven’t addressed yet, and that’s the fantastic element to it. As I wrote a while back, one of the reasons I felt I took to Nagatoro so much was because of how relatable I felt the Senpai character was. Like him, I was a loner in high school who stuck to and got very deep into my own interests, shutting everything and everyone else out. When other students were a bit sad at my high school graduation, I found it to be the best day of my life — a sort of “fuck this place that I’ve had to put up with all this time” mentality (I know, for a JRPG/anime fan to have this kind of background is shocking. College was better, at least.)

The point here is that I never had my own Nagatoro to force me out of my shell. It wouldn’t have been reasonable for me to expect one, either. Nagatoro herself is a sort of godsend in disguise for Senpai, but that’s one of the things about godsends — they don’t show up all that often. I can’t say that it’s impossible that such a thing could happen in real life, or even that it’s all that unrealistic, but it seems rare enough that it might not be a stretch to file it under “wish fulfillment” (hell, just go into any thread or comment section about this series and see how many times you read something like “I wish a Nagatoro would bully me/had bullied me when I was in school.”)1

However, I still don’t think this particular kind of wish fulfillment, if that’s what Nagatoro is, is a problem. Firstly, because Nagatoro herself gets something out of her relationship with Senpai and has her own growth. I got into this a bit in my manga review, but that personal growth progresses in the fifth and sixth volumes that make up the later part of the anime run. Though we never get into her mind like we do Senpai’s, it’s implied that dealing with her senpai is making her more empathetic towards him, unlocking some new feelings within her.

A lot of that ties in with the budding romance going on, and yes, there is a ton of sexual tension between them that both the manga and anime largely play up for comedy, especially given that Nagatoro tries to tease him in that sense but can’t really do it that well since she’s just as inexperienced as he is. But there’s also a strong element of friendship there. It’s worth noting that Senpai even breaks through to Nagatoro’s tight group of friends, which consists of a few especially rowdy girls he’d never have thought of associating with before. And he eventually succeeds, because while they’re initially pretty cruel to him, they end up backing him up when they see how well he and Nagatoro connect.

Nagatoro both insulting and motivating Senpai to make him finish a 5k run.

And secondly, this isn’t any fairytale rainbows and unicorns bullshit.2 Senpai has to make serious efforts that are difficult for him to even meet Nagatoro halfway. As a result, it feels rewarding to see him gradually break out of that shell with her help. As much as I’ve come to hate the expression, he really is constantly stepping outside of his comfort zone — if that expression was made for any situation at all, it was made for this kind. And if “wish fulfillment” like this is created even in part to encourage such healthy behavior, then I have no problem with it.

All that said, none of the sex jokes have been toned down from the manga, so that aspect of the series can still be freely enjoyed or complained about depending upon your preference. I still think it’s strange that Uzaki-chan was the series that received all the fire from the usual sources, while Nagatoro from what I could tell mostly escaped it, considering that the latter is a fair bit more provocative. Maybe those usual sources simply wrote Nagatoro off immediately without any further scrutiny. Anyway, I can’t pretend to get why the hell people get pissed off about fictional works on social media to the extent that they start holy wars over them. If you’re a sociology or psychology major, there’s a good subject for you to think about.

Nagatoro’s thesis statement

But if you don’t care about any of that nonsense, my final take on the Nagatoro anime is that it lives up to the source material. Ten years ago, if you’d told me I’d be actually enjoying romantic comedies and/or school-setting anime series, I’d have laughed at you — but look at me now. I guess I’ve changed too. I’m even hoping for a second season, but whether we get it or not, I’ll continue following the manga.

 

1 To be fair, I don’t know how many of these comments are just from masochists, or more likely from people who think they’re masochists. If so, approaching Nagatoro from that perspective feels like it’s missing the point, especially since Senpai clearly isn’t a masochist — what’s going on between him and Nagatoro is more interesting than that.

2 Not that fairytales were even like this either. Go read an original from the 1,001 Nights or the Brothers Grimm and see how pleasant it is. A happy ending more often than not costs some blood to get there, which at least isn’t something you can say about Nagatoro. No blood, but there are plenty of sweat and tears to be found here.

A review of Blend S

Have you ever felt misinterpreted by others around you? We’re all taken in ways we don’t intend sometimes, but does it happen to you constantly?

If so, you might relate to this girl. This is Maika Sakuranomiya, the central character in the 2017 comedy anime series Blend S. In the first episode of the show, Maika is desperately hunting for a job. Even though she has the full support of her family, she wants to earn money for herself so she can fund a study-abroad trip and explore other lands.

Unfortunately, Maika has a serious problem: she has an inadvertently frightening expression at times, especially when she’s startled, stressed, or nervous. She’s actually very polite and genuinely nice, but despite all her intentions, she comes off as ice cold and scares the shit out of the new people she meets, including all her interviewers. And the only kind of job she can get as a student is service-related and customer-facing, which makes her prospects even worse.

This is a good out-of-context screenshot to use in any situation

On her way home from another failed interview, Maika is passing by a café when she wonders whether she can work on her expression, so she uses their window as a mirror to test that out. The staff inside just see a girl making weird faces at them, but when the manager sees her he’s instantly struck by her and asks her to come inside. In a very lucky break, it turns out this place, Café Stile, is a coffee shop with a twist: every waitress plays a different character type. So far they have a tsundere and a little sister, but the manager Dino is looking for a totally new and daring sort of character to add to the team: a sadist. And with her stony expression, Maika is perfect for this new position.

Maika isn’t sure she can pull this “sadist waitress” role off, but since she’s at the end of her rope she gratefully accepts the job offer and gets to work.

It turns out that she’s a natural at it. A true natural, because she acts this way without even trying — in fact, while she’s actually trying to be nice and polite to the café patrons. When Maika realizes she’s accidentally said something offensive to her guests or has given them her usual cold glare, she’s mortified, but the manager tells her not to worry: this is exactly what they’re looking for. And the manager is right, because to her surprise, Maika quickly gets a sort of fanbase of masochistic customers who love being verbally abused by girls (not my thing, but sure, I get it.)

This wouldn’t be much of a premise for a 12-episode series, but Blend S does extend beyond this one idea, getting into situations involving all the characters, including two more new employees with their own roles (a constant innuendo-making “big sister/onee-san” type and a self-absorbed aspiring pop idol) in episodes 4 and 8. It’s the kind of show that wouldn’t be too unfamiliar to American TV audiences, at least once you get past all the anime trappings: a comedy about a bunch of misfits working together and getting into and dealing with awkward social situations.

Plenty of sweatdrops in this one, and for good reason

But then, there are all those anime trappings. Or it would be more accurate maybe to say “otaku trappings”, since this is a series that knows it has a pretty niche audience and aims directly at it. Blend S is an adaptation of a long-running four-panel comic series of the same name, and like a lot of anime adaptations of four-panel comics, it contains a lot of quick jokes and short segments worked into the context of longer episodes. I can imagine how that kind of setup could feel clunky, but each episode of Blend S flows along pretty nicely, mostly taking place at Café Stile but also giving us short looks into some of the characters’ personal and home lives.

The possible trouble some people might face with this show is that it really is deep in that otaku territory. A lot of the jokes in Blend S are either directly about or play off of common manga/anime/Japanese game themes and character types. It’s not exactly referential humor, but it does rely on the viewer generally knowing about and probably being into these hobbies.

Like this old visual novel-looking screen between scenes. I like the 90s look Maika has here.

There are a lot of examples of these kinds of jokes, but one of the most obvious turns up in the third episode, when Maika finds one of Stile’s patrons accidentally left a bag behind at their table. When she looks inside the bag, she’s shocked to find a pornographic doujin book (a type of self-published work that’s often, but not always, rated 18+.) And when the patron returns to get the book back, it’s revealed that she’s not just the owner but the author of the work. A beautiful woman no less, who in the next episode joins the café as that ara ara-type big sister character who dotes on her customers and uses the situations she sees between them and her fellow staff to collect “material” for her constantly published new doujinshi. It’s the kind of joke any watcher might sort of get, but might be puzzled by if they don’t know just how popular some of these independent artists are and the crazy schedules they can hold themselves to. And just how weird some of these 18+ doujin works can get.

Doujinshi are really serious business, not even kidding now

Some of the jokes in Blend S rely on a pretty universal “character mismatch” concept, like the polite Maika acting as an accidental sadist or the young-looking “little sister” character Mafuyu actually being a college student and the most mature and grounded in the group. However, many of the show’s bits lean fairly heavily on otaku subculture stuff, to the extent that I’d put Blend S squarely in that niche category.

And since I’m in the anime/game nerd weirdo class that Blend S is targeting, it’s probably not a big surprise that I liked it. There’s always a risk with series like this that it will all come off as cheap pandering, but I think Blend S manages to avoid that, since the main focus is always on these strange misfit characters with all the otaku reference stuff as secondary. All the dirty jokes are so over the top that they also work pretty well, fitting in with the absurd feel. If I’d ever felt pandered to, I would have quit watching, and the fact that I didn’t speaks in the show’s favor. (Though admittedly I did find the whole Dino being in love with Maika thing a bit weird. Seems kind of inappropriate under the circumstances to say the least. As far as the romantic comedy aspect of the show went, I liked the tsundere sort-of-romance between Akizuki and Kaho better anyway.)

Then there’s Hideri, who provides some of the strangest jokes in the show. That idol scene really is something. More good out-of-context screenshots too.

Even so, if you’re not part of that same audience this series is targeting, a lot of these bits will probably pass you by, and they might not do anything for you at all. All this is a really roundabout way of saying that I liked Blend S but that, unlike the last few anime series I’ve written about, I can’t recommend it unconditionally.

But that’s also not really a judgment against the show, even if it might sound like one. It’s just not for everyone. But then, not everything has to be. Wouldn’t it be boring if that were the case? On the whole, I found Blend S a nice light comedy to pick me up when I was feeling shitty, and that’s always appreciated. Even if it had one of those irritating non-endings, but since the comic is still being published, that’s to be expected.

The Episode 1 anime dice roll (rolls 8 – 10)

Another post so soon?! Impossible, I know. But this helps me out, since it gives me some motivation to actually start these anime series if I know I’m planning to write about them. So really, this post is as much about me pushing myself as it is about giving you the reader my first impressions.

Setting my selfish reasoning aside, let’s get on with it, starting with:

Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Gou

That title can be translated 15 different ways, so I’m sticking to the Japanese one here by default, but it’s basically Higurashi New from what I can tell. The original visual novel series it’s based on takes place in the village of Hinamizawa, where the transfer student Keiichi Maebara has just moved. At first glance, this kid seems to have it pretty good — outgoing and surrounded by his new friends, all living a quiet life in the countryside. However, the village contains some dark secrets that Keiichi has just stumbled upon, and one of those new friends of his is acting pretty damn weird, and hey, is that a machete (edit: billhook, sorry, it’s a billhook) in her hand, and is she right behind him?

This is pretty much the first episode of Higurashi Gou. I watched the original 2006 anime adaptation shortly after it finished airing and I remember liking it a lot, but I’ve also forgotten enough about the story in the last 12/13 years that this feels like a new experience again. And Higurashi Gou apparently takes the story in a different direction from the original works, so it’s not just a straightforward remake, which I’m happy about as well.

This first episode was really well done, with some good misdirection (almost all of it is cute slice of life-style messing around with Keiichi and the girls, just as in the 2006 anime adaptation) and nice-looking character models by Akio Watanabe, the character designer for the Monogatari anime, still another draw for me. I figured I’d like this anyway — writer Ryukishi07 tells a good story, and I’ve heard Higurashi Gou more than lives up to the original Higurashi series, so I’ll certainly keep watching.

Blue Reflection Ray

I’ve written about both the game Blue Reflection and its soundtrack, so probably no surprise that I’m writing about this as well. The currently airing Blue Reflection Ray is a new story that takes place in the same world as the game, but at a different school with new magical girls. Ruki Hanari, a transfer student (yeah, again) has extreme social anxiety that makes it hard for her to connect with her classmates. Fortunately for her, she makes at least one new friend at Tsukinomiya High School: the outgoing Hiori Hirahara. But of course, Hiori is a Reflector (i.e. a magical girl) and Ruki comes across a ring by chance that connects with Hiori’s, and we know where that’s going.

That said, this first episode is a bit confusing, because it throws a lot at the viewer without explaining very much of it. I had some idea of what was going on because of the concepts it shares with the game, but even then I was kind of lost. I’m thinking episode 2 will contain a lot of these explanations, made to Ruki before she decides to become a Reflector herself. The show also has a weirdly 90s look, at least to me. Maybe that’s just a nice way of saying it looks kind of rough, but then some of the scenes look nice, so I don’t know. It might just be me, but I don’t mind too much.

The story and characters are a lot more important than the look, anyway, and I’ll be sticking with Blue Reflection Ray to see where it goes for now — 24 episodes are planned, so it has plenty of room to develop in interesting ways. There’s also a strong yuri vibe between Ruki and Hiori, so if you’re a yuri fan, this might be worth checking out.

Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro

Of course I wasn’t going to miss out on the Nagatoro anime considering how much I’ve enjoyed the manga up until now. I was a bit worried about whether it would measure up, since this is the first time I’ve watched an anime adaptation of a manga I’m currently reading as it airs (I’m not much of a manga reader, anyway.)

But after watching the first episode of the anime, all those worries were swept away, because they really nailed it. I wrote a general plot/character summary in my post about the manga linked above, but basically Nagatoro is a sporty, popular girl who bullies the hell out of her nerdy artist senior at school (merely called Senpai; he never gets a real name) but of course she actually likes him, and again we have a good idea of where this is going. The anime is extremely faithful to the manga so far and really translates Nagatoro and Senpai’s interactions well. Great opening theme and animation, too, though the flashing colors might give you a headache if you watch it a few times over.

Not much more to say about Nagatoro, except that it’s very promising and I’ll be watching it every week. Even if I already know what’s going to happen, since it doesn’t seem like it will stray too far from the original story.

That’s all for this round. I promise I’m going to make an effort to actually continue a few of the other series I’ve written about in these posts — in fact, I’ve watched all of Blend S, and a full review will be coming soon. Probably early next month, though, because first there’s more Atelier to get to. That series has taken over my life recently and it’s not letting me go just yet. I’ve started a draft about Escha & Logy and it just keeps growing, so if you like my rambling-style posts, you can look forward to that one.