A review of K-On! (Season 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A rare scene of the girls actually practicing

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

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

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

This proves I really can’t live on cuteness alone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh God please shut the fuck up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

A review of Azumanga Daioh

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

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

Azumanga Daioh knucklehead dance

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

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

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

Yukari and Nyamo drinking

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

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

Sakaki

Sakaki from Azumanga Daioh

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

Kagura

Kagura from Azumanga Daioh

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

Koyomi Mizuhara

Koyomi Mizuhara from Azumanga Daioh

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

Tomo Takino

Tomo Takino from Azumanga Daioh

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

Chiyo Mihama

Chiyo Mihama from Azumanga Daioh

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

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

Ayumu Kasuga

Ayumu Kasuga (or Osaka) from Azumanga Daioh

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

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

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

Yukari Tanizaki

Yukari Tanizaki from Azumanga Daioh

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

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

Minamo Kurosawa

Minamo Kurosawa from Azumanga Daioh

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

Kaorin

Poor Kaorin

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

Kimura

Kimura is a creep, Azumanga Daioh

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

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

Chiyo’s father

HELLO EVERYNYAN

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

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

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

Chiyo and her dog Mr. Tadakichi talk to Sakaki

Mr. Tadakichi is the dog

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

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

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

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

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

Osaka floats off into the sea, Azumanga Daioh

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

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

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

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

Yukari and Nyamo at their desks at work, Azumanga Daioh

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

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

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

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

Yukari and Nyamo at nighttime, Azumanga Daioh

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

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

Sakaki and Kagura walking home from Azumanga Daioh

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

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

 

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

Upcoming anime watchlist

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

Chainsaw Man

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

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

Spy x Family (second cour)

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

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

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

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

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

Teasing Master Takagi-san: The Movie

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

Urusei Yatsura (2022)

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

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

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

See you tomorrow for the final post of the month!

A review of Teasing Master Takagi-san (S3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The future is in our hands: “Mirai wa Bokura no Te no Naka” and “C Kara Hajimaru ABC” from Kaiji

Following up on a post from a few days ago, today it’s a look at the opening of the first season and ending of the second of Kaiji, the anime adaptation of one of Mr. Fukumoto’s most famous gambling manga. I’ve written a lot about Kaiji already — it’s one of my favorite anime series, the story of eternal debtor and failed gambler Kaiji Itou:

I wrote a while back that I’m not big on punk, but I do like some of the classic late 70s/early 80s punk: the Clash, the Ramones, the really well known stuff, since I haven’t delved too much into the genre beyond that. This song came out a bit later than that — this version of “Mirai wa Bokura no Te no Naka” is a cover of the original from the Blue Hearts’ 1987 debut that I’ve heard was a big landmark album in Japanese punk. I’m far more used to the Kaiji OP cover, but the original sounds great too, and the cover itself isn’t too different from the original anyway.

On top of just being a fine song, “Mirai wa Bokura no Te no Naka” is a great fit for Kaiji and for the opening sequence, which really sums up the frantic feel of a lot of the series. If you haven’t watched Kaiji but have watched last year’s Squid Game, it’s pretty much Squid Game before Squid Game, only better (I did like Squid Game, but I thought it had a few serious trip-ups. I might still check out the second season.)

Kaiji is also the rare case of a series in which I love the first season’s opening and pretty near hate the second season’s. “Chase the Light” is just not my style at all. But be sure to check out the second season’s ending theme C Kara Hajimaru ABC, or “ABC Starting at C”, by Wasureranneyo, also a very classic punk-sounding song though a much newer one.

Who’s that girl hanging out with Kaiji? You’ll have to watch the series to find out.* It’s only 52 episodes long! Yeah, I get if you don’t feel like trying it out for that reason, but I promise it’s worth a try.

 

* Spoiler: she never actually shows up in the anime, though she’s referred to. She would show up in a hypothetical third season based on her appearance in the manga, but since we’ll never get a third season, this is the only time we’ll see her animated.

Anime short review: Plastic Nee-san

Plastic Nee-san posterSome anime you can’t find on streaming services, and today’s subject is one of those series. Plastic Nee-san (also listed as Plastic Elder SisterPlustic Nee-san, and +tic Nee-san/Elder Sister — the title I’m using seems like the most commonly used anyway) is a very short series of 12 two-minute episodes that aired in 2011, an adaptation of a gag manga taking off on sports, action, and romance series.

Not that you’d tell from the synopsis. Plastic Nee-san on the surface is about the antics of three friends in a high school model-building club, the three on the poster there: Nee-san, Okappa, and Maki-Maki. Not their real names, which they do have, but they’re hardly ever used so I’ll stick to their nicknames. These three love building scale models of tanks and warships at least going by the first and second episodes and by the models constantly stuck to the tops of their heads for some reason. Aside from the first few minutes of the series, however, model-building never comes up, because that’s not what Plastic Nee-san is really about.

But then what is Plastic Nee-san about? Nothing.

Nee-san threatens her friends with... something. From Plastic Nee-san

I’m not even going to make my tired stupid old “no context provided” comments because there is really no context this time.

Things do happen in Plastic Nee-san, mostly involving the blonde title character Nee-san acting like a perverted idiot and annoying her friends who sometimes respond by getting into fights with her. In addition to the main three girls there’s a wider cast of mostly even more bizarre characters just doing their own thing. When Nee-san, Okappa, and Maki-Maki interact with these classmates, they usually run into some sort of parody like a takeoff on dramatic sports manga (tennis in this case) or possibly just something so absurd it can’t be defined.

Sano and Uno beat up a giant, Plastic Nee-san

I think this bit with these twins pounding mochi to feed a belligerent giant schoolgirl is also a takeoff on something, but I couldn’t tell you what.

I’ve complained about the frantic pace of some of these extremely short series (see Miss Bernard says.Piacevole, and to a lesser extent maybe Inugami-san to Nekoyama-san, though it did better.) Plastic Nee-san is fast-paced too, but the pace actually works this time, I think for the reason that this material is just so absurd. Nee-san takes that question of “how do you tell any kind of a story in a single cour of two to three-minute episodes” and answers it with “you don’t.” Aside from just one exception I’ve found so far (Ganbare Douki-chan, which I still say worked and you should watch, at least if you’re into office ladies in tights) these series have frustrated me to different degrees by trying to jam a plot or at least some kind of character-building into this short short format, usually by playing it at 3x speed. Or maybe that really is the problem — some of the above series feel like they’ve just been literally sped up on a video player while Nee-san doesn’t.

Either way, what you end up with in a lot of cases is an extremely rushed-feeling sort of half-length short series that can’t hope to be as good as such a series if it were played normally. Maybe the makers just have to cope with only having a five-minute TV slot, but it still affects the outcome no matter who’s to blame.

This guy is in the series for maybe a minute and definitely has his own story that goes untold here.

Plastic Nee-san has no such hopes. It’s a completely stupid show that I completely approve of. The closest anime I can think of to this one is the full-length series Asobi Asobase, another surreal comedy about three misfit girls who make up a school club just so they can screw around, and I felt more or less the same about that show. I’d still rate Asobi Asobase quite a bit higher than Plastic Nee-san, but that’s not to put Nee-san down — just to say that all other things being equal, I prefer a comedy that’s able to consistently entertain me for longer than just a little over the equivalent of a regular anime episode. There’s also a lot more room for establishing characters and their relationships in that format.

All that said, it’s impressive just how much Nee-san manages to pull off with its just under 30-minute full runtime. By the end I was wondering what the fuck I’d just watched, but I had that feeling in a positive way and not a negative one — it’s more like fascination with who could possibly come up with this stuff and what they were thinking or doing at the time to cause that mindset.

This looks like a daily occurrence for Nee-san

Then is that a recommendation? I guess, but if you’re not a fan of this sort of crass absurd humor, the further loss of your brain cells from watching Plastic Nee-san won’t be worth it. As for where to watch it if you’re curious: the whole thing is available on YouTube. It apparently hasn’t been licensed for streaming anywhere, so this seems to be your best option unless you really want to sail the high seas. Don’t blame you if you take that path though.

Another classic anime theme: “Nantokanare” from Akagi

Today and tomorrow’s posts deal with two more anime opening themes from series that are connected in my mind forever, even if they don’t have much in common other than the same creator and genre. I’m pretty sure I’ve written about both these openings before, but they can always use a second look, especially since both are from relatively old anime at this point (and the songs themselves are far older, especially the first.)

First up is Mahjong Legend Akagi. Sure, on the surface it’s a series about people playing mahjong, but it’s really far more than that. Original manga author Nobuyuki Fukumoto is known for his gambling stories full of psychological games and power struggles, and Akagi is packed full of them. Several years ago I wrote a complete synopsis of the first episode of the anime here, one of the few posts from back then that I’m not completely ashamed of now. (Partly kidding, it’s not all that bad, but still, eight years ago — I can’t believe it’s been that long.)

Back to the subject: you wouldn’t be able to tell from this OP that Akagi is about a insane teenage gambling genius who uses his skill to take on the yakuza in incredibly high-stakes mahjong matches. The OP animation does fit the feel, though: just the protagonist Shigeru Akagi walking around 50s Tokyo, and with the still under construction Tokyo Tower in the final shot before the 1 pin tile gets slammed down, a nice touch.

The song is also fitting, a real classic this time. Akagi aired back in 2005, but the OP theme “Nantokanare” comes from the 1972 album Furuido no Sekai by Japanese folk-rock group Furuido.* It has a wistful feel that fits well with the series — though it does get very intense, Akagi himself is an extremely cool and collected guy with an attitude that suits the feel of the opening. The full song is worth hearing, along with some of Furuido’s other work. Maybe I’ll feature them separately later on.

But tomorrow I’ll be back with that related anime OP. Some of you might already have guessed exactly what song that’s going to be. For the rest, I won’t spoil it. Until then!

 

* Another language note: I’m not sure whether these guys are supposed to be pronounced “Furuido” or “Fluid”. Google lists the band’s name as “FluiD”, but in Japanese their name is written 古井戸, meaning “old water well.” Since that’s pronounced furuido, I’m inclined to just keeping calling them Furuido despite Google disagreeing with me. I know Google knows everything and all that but I feel pretty confident, though it’s possible that the Furuido guys themselves intended for there to be a double meaning in their name.

A look forward to next season: “Comedy” from Spy x Family

I didn’t make any secret of liking Spy x Family a lot last season. Just like almost everyone else who watched it judging by the other reviews and the extremely high ratings, so my own late opinion was nothing special. So of course I’m looking forward to the second cour of Spy x Family coming this fall.

Everything about Spy x Family was quality including the music, and especially the ending sequence paired with the song “Kiseki” or “Comedy” by singer/composer Gen Hoshino:

Typically if I prefer one theme over the other, it’s going to be the opening over the ending. For some reason that’s the case nine times out of ten (or in a few rare cases like Call of the Night I’ll like both of them equally.) The OP “Mixed Nuts” is a good time, but “Comedy” is more memorable to me. Or maybe I just like its smooth classy sound. I don’t know much of what else Gen Hoshino has done aside from the pretty all right catchy love song “Koi”, but if at least some of his other music lives up to “Comedy” I’ll have to check it out.

More action, more comedy, more Anya expressions

Take this as still another recommendation to catch up on Spy x Family if you haven’t already, but just as long as you like fun characters and an exciting story full of mind games (and quite literally mind-reading in Anya’s case.)

A short one today, but I’ll be back with more tomorrow. This month has been interesting, forcing me to think of something to write about every day. I hope I can keep it going until the end of August so I can satisfy my obsessive side.

Currently watching: The Maid I Hired Recently Is Mysterious

How’s this for some tonal whiplash from yesterday? But this post was coming either way. I’m only watching two currently aired anime series right now, and since I’ve already written about and recommended Call of the Night, I may as well write about the other one.

The Maid I Hired Recently Is Mysterious (or Is Suspicious depending on the title translation you read) is an adaptation of a manga by Wakame Konbu. She’s also the writer and illustrator behind The Great Jahy Will Not Be Defeated! and I liked Jahy-sama a lot, pockmarks and all — it wasn’t perfect, but I enjoyed the characters and the comedy even if it got a bit repetitive with its jokes. But two episodes into Mysterious Maid (as Dopey-kun is calling it, and I’ll follow that standard too) I can say that so far it’s even more repetitive than Jahy-sama. This series so far has used the same joke setup maybe a dozen times in the space of just about 40 minutes. It’s a fine joke, but it might start wearing thin soon if the story doesn’t mix it up.

The setup is pretty simple: Yuuri is the newly orphaned master of his parents’ estate after their tragic deaths in an accident. Despite his youth, Yuuri decides to reject a guardianship and takes control of everything himself. However, the estate is short on money, and without a source of income he can’t retain his family’s small household staff, so he regretfully lets them go and tries to do all the cooking, maintenance, and cleaning on his own.

This doesn’t work out for Yuuri since he has no experience in household upkeep. As he wonders how to handle his situation, a mysterious young woman in a maid outfit enters his mansion and offers her services, saying she’ll work for him just for room and board. Yuuri is naturally wary of this stranger, but without much of an alternative he accepts her offer.

This new maid, Lilith, is an expert at cooking and cleaning and is supremely courteous — the perfect maid. She’s so perfect that, together with her mysterious origins that she refuses to let on about, Yuuri becomes extremely suspicious of her and her intentions, and he confronts her directly time and time again asking her what she’s planning.

Here’s the routine: Lilith decides to tease Yuuri by jokingly admitting he’s caught her, that she’s a witch or whatever it is he’s accusing her of being and that he’s fallen into her spell. Then Yuuri, completely believing her and not picking up on the joke, announces that this proves why he thinks she’s so perfect, why his heart races when he sees her, and why he can’t even sleep at night because he’s thinking about her.

And the tables are turned!

Then Lilith, realizing Yuuri is confessing his feelings for her without him really understanding the gravity of what he’s saying, gets flustered and embarrassed and runs away, leaving the poor kid convinced that she really is some kind of sorcerer.

That’s the basic joke. Again, it’s fine, a nice cute exchange between these two characters, but that’s really all that’s happened so far. The second episode does open things up between them a bit, with Lilith helping Yuuri get over his fear of cats (which I’ve never heard of, but sure, cats can be tricky to deal with) but so far the series feels pretty one-note. Then again, it is only two episodes in — Mysterious Maid got an unusually late start this season, and it’s skipping a week already, so we’ll have to wait another week or so as of this writing for the third. That old “three-episode rule” might be a good one to follow in this case if you’re not sure about whether to keep up with it, since it also seems from the title that the third episode will introduce a new character to the mix.

I plan to keep watching Mysterious Maid myself, at least for a while. I like the two leads and especially Yuuri’s reckless boldness (not that he seems to even realize it himself.) And Lilith, well — there’s plenty of reason to like her, though her origins are still mysterious or even possibly suspicious.

Lilith alone in her room in the post-end credits of the second episode. Yeah, it just went right there

Yes, Lilith herself is clearly a huge part of the show’s intended appeal. I’m not that surprised considering it’s a series all about a cute maid and all that but we didn’t really get this kind of material in Jahy-sama. Even if Lilith does look a lot like adult Jahy, the feel to her and to this series is very different.

There’s also the question some people have raised about an age gap between her and Yuuri, just like with Call of the Night, and with both being romance-themed stories too. However, we don’t really know the size of the gap — maybe Yuuri just hasn’t hit his growth spurt yet. And anyway, it’s not like a boy crushing on a young woman like Lilith is unusual if nothing actually romantic comes of it. That sort of thing happened to me once, though I never had the guts (or obliviousness) to come right out and tell her I wanted to marry her. But who knows where Mysterious Maid is going? Aside from Wakame Konbu, and maybe even she doesn’t know herself considering how long some of these series tend to run.

Yuuri confronting Lilith for the nth time, but it looks like there’s a little more trust between them now.

There’s my take so far on The Maid I Hired Recently Is Mysterious. It’s about as substantial as cotton candy so far, but as long as it mixes its routines up, I may just stick with it as one of my escapist stress-relief series this season.

Anime short review: Azur Lane: Slow Ahead!

After several months, I’m back with the anime shorts. I haven’t had a great track record with the series on the shorter side, but I always try to keep an open mind about anything new. Luckily I didn’t have to open it too much this time — I was already all too familiar with the source material this series is based on.

I might have stopped playing Azur Lane a while ago, but I still like its bizarre shipgirl concept and have some favorite characters from the game that I was happy to see in this short series. Slow Ahead is formatted into 12 roughly 8-minute episodes, so about a third of the usual episode length — not an episode length I’ve ever seen before. I’m not even too sure about how an eight-minute time slot would fit into scheduling on Japanese TV, since I’ve never had a chance to watch it anyway — all my watching has always been done online.

The four starter destroyers and a few of their destroyer friends in an entirely unproductive class

Slow Ahead! follows four characters based on the real-world WWII-era destroyers KMS Z34 (aka Niimi as she’s usually called by everyone else), HMS Javelin, USS Laffey, and IJN Ayanami. In the game and this anime, they’re not actual ships but rather girls who strap on rigging with guns, torpedoes, and other weapons and defenses when they go out to battle. But there’s no battle in Slow Ahead! — it’s just a cute slice-of-life show about these girls attending a military academy with their colleagues.

Some of their colleagues are maids, but the maids are also ships like the British cruiser Belfast and her clone here. Man I don’t know, you just have to accept this stuff if you’re going to watch it

That’s the whole story in Slow Ahead! There’s no real plot, just those slice-of-life antics with a few comedy bits and some fanservice. The fanservice makes sense this time too, since the game itself is shoved full of it — a few of those costumes you can buy with real money (God help you if you fall into that hole) make an appearance in the show.

Like this one, thanks to the USS North Carolina’s strange obsession with bunnygirl outfits. But she’s not wrong — putting a hot lady in a bunnygirl outfit outside your stall is a great way to attract customers. Or a guy too, why not (but there are no guys in Azur Lane aside from probably the Commander/player character, which is extremely purposeful.)

Speaking of the Commander, he (or she if you like) is designed purely to be the self-inserted player character. That’s the whole point of the Commander — in the game itself, these ladies will all talk to you directly, addressing you as Shikikan or Shikikan-sama, or maybe something casual or actually insulting or disrespectful depending on their personalities. It’s a gacha game driven by in-game purchases, so naturally the makers are going to pile on these immersive aspects (as much as a mobile game about anime waifus can be immersive at least.)

I like how the Commander is handled in Slow Ahead! — mentioned a lot, since some of these girls are seriously going after his heart/crushing on him as you’d expect — but never showing up. It’s the perfect solution, since it gets about as close to that self-insertion the game provides as the anime can probably get. You might think that’s weird or a bit sad, but hey, if that’s what you’re going for may as well do it right. There’s another short series I’ve watched that attempts a POV sort of self-insert silent main character and it’s amazingly awkward. Maybe I’ll write about that one sometime soon.

We heard you like boats so we put a boat in your boat

Azur Lane: Slow Ahead! is a nice series to check out if you need a break, especially if you’ve played the game. You will probably get a lot more out of it if you’re already familiar with these characters (personal opinion: Laffey is best girl aside from Yamashiro of course — okay, best destroyer) but they’re all fun to watch, so I wouldn’t say it’s necessary to play the game to enjoy Slow Ahead! I can’t in good conscience recommend that anyone play a gacha game anyway.

And if you’re going to watch one Azur Lane-related anime, it seems like it should be this one, since this short series is rated far more highly across every platform than the main full-length anime adaptation, which I’ve heard was a mess. I can’t speak to that myself, though. Maybe I’ll watch the first episode if I have it available just to see for myself.