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.

The anime roulette: part 3

Yes, the roulette is back! After watching all of three of the seven series I rolled in the first two posts from back in March, I felt like it was time for a new round. The idea is the same: spin a wheel full of anime three times Wheel of the Worst-style except with hopefully good stuff on it, then watch at least the first episode of whatever I land on. I’ve shaken up the choices a lot since last time I did this four months back, partly because I’ve since watched a few of the first episodes and more of a few of the shows left on the wheel and partly because I don’t have VRV anymore. Ever since the Crunchyroll/Funimation merger, VRV became more or less redundant for me since I was only using it for anime. But since I lost access to the HIDIVE-exclusive shows on VRV, I decided to pick up HIDIVE after quitting VRV.

So now I’ve got two anime streaming service subscriptions, CR and HIDIVE, which are damn well more than enough for me. And conveniently enough I now have access to various shows I didn’t and don’t have access to a few I did. What happened to Detroit Metal City? I have no idea. I thought it was on HIDIVE but apparently it’s not (anymore?) Fucking licensing issues. At this point I’m wondering whether VRV doesn’t still have some exclusive anime I’m currently missing out on, but I’m sure as hell not registering for three subscription services to find out.

I slipped a potential landmine in too; can you find it?

Anyway, here’s the new list. As before, I reserve the right to watch any of these later on if I don’t land on them for this post (and if I don’t land on one but you want to stump for it in the comments, feel free! This doubles as a recommendations post.)

A Sister’s All You Need.
Call of the Night
Chio’s School Road
Deaimon: Recipe for Happiness
DENKI-GAI
Made in Abyss
O Maidens in Your Savage Season
Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai
Vinland Saga
Ya Boy Kongming!

Nine series that caught my eye for whatever reason or that I was already sort of planning to watch but felt I needed a nudge to actually do so. And that sister show just because of the title, which I’ve always been morbidly intrigued by. A sister’s all you need for what? Do I want to ask that question? Will I find out? Let’s see. Here’s the next spin:

And a welcome result. This is one that I’ve always had in the back of my mind to watch just because of how much good stuff I hear about it, and now I finally have an excuse to make myself start it. On to it:

Spin 9: Made in Abyss

I guess this series needs no introduction to a lot of you, but for anyone who like me has missed out until now, Made in Abyss is about a bunch of orphans tasked with exploring a massive pit (aka the Abyss of the title) in the middle of the city they live in. These were the children of adult explorers who died/disappeared while in the Abyss, which is full of dangerous monsters and environmental hazards as we see while following Riko (above) and Nat on an exploration. The pair are separated and nearly killed by a giant flying fish dragon monster thing until it’s driven off by a sudden powerful laser beam shot.

Riko finds the source of the laser, a powered-down robot boy she and Nat carry back to their orphanage. They manage to shock him back to life, but this mysterious robot seems to have lost all his memories. Riko decides to take him on, naming him Reg (after a dog she used to have, which he’s understandably not very happy about) and keeping him around as a secret between her and her few close friends at the orphanage since apparently they’re not supposed to be taking old “relics” like him for themselves.

Riko and Reg, looking out across the city and landscape at the end of the first episode. I’m a fan of Reg’s hi-tech metal Viking helmet.

So I finally got around to Made in Abyss after five years. The first season aired back in 2017, and while I remember hearing a lot about it at the time, I was barely watching any anime at all back then and it passed me by. But judging by the first episode at least, I can see why it was so popular — the characters and their fantastic world are interesting so far. This episode also sets up plenty of potentially fascinating mysteries to be explored, like what Reg is exactly (he clearly has a human-like personality and has robotic limbs, so is he a full robot or a cyborg? And where did he come from, etc.) and the nature of the Abyss itself. It sounds like the bottom hasn’t been reached, hence all the experienced adult explorers disappearing and leaving behind orphans like Riko.

Riko boasting to her instructor about saving Nat from a dragon creature, though to her credit she’s telling the truth here.

Speaking of Riko, I like her so far as a protagonist (or dual protagonist with Reg maybe?) It helps that she has drive and ambition to match her slight arrogance and also a couple of friends like Nat who are all too willing to keep her in check, and also that she has a real bond with those friends as we see when she nearly sacrifices herself to save Nat from being killed. This sort of character might easily become annoying otherwise — hopefully not, since Riko seems to be one of the central characters in this series. I guess you need a protagonist like her anyway in a world like hers, the kind that needs a lot more exploring.

I only hope for Riko’s sake that all the talk of getting strung up for committing infractions are major exaggerations, because what the fuck is that. And what kind of society sends orphans to their potential deaths exploring mysterious pits full of monsters anyway? Some real RPG logic there, isn’t it? I guess Riko is eager to take part in that, but what about the rest of them?

Though I do love fantastic cityscapes like these. The look and feel of this world reminds me of one of those old Ghibli movies.

I’ll absolutely be watching Made in Abyss — it hits all the right notes for me so far. And conveniently enough it’s just returned to the air, with its second season starting last week. I look forward to seeing where Riko, Reg, and the rest end up, and maybe I’ll even be able to catch up and get current soon.

So that was a successful spin. Now for my next roll:

ಠ_ಠ

Well, shit. I put it there, so I can’t complain. But it’s an excuse to use that old Kannada emote, isn’t it. Guess I’m about to have my morbid curiosity fulfilled, though I don’t know whether I’ll regret it.

Spin 10: A Sister’s All You Need.

what

Okay, it’s not as bad as it looks from the title and the above screenshot. The protagonist doesn’t even have a sister. But damn does he love the idea of having one, specifically a little sister. Itsuki Hashima is a young, up-and-coming author who writes what sound like light novels with a fantasy slant, but also a “protagonist has a little sister who’s way too close with him” slant. Like waking him up naked while on top of him close, and also preparing and sitting down to breakfast with him naked.

Itsuki’s editor is correct. See also Itsuki’s can of UCC Coffee there, a real brand that’s pretty decent. If only canned coffee weren’t obscenely expensive here in the States.

Thankfully his editor is there to slap some sense into him by telling him to cut out all the sister obsession shit in the new chapter of his fantasy novel. After leaving, Itsuki’s little brother shows up at his apartment (thankfully he doesn’t have a weird as hell brother kink, so it’s fine) to make dinner for him and his arriving writer friends and colleagues, who are a mix of normal and also kind of degenerate like him (see the girl at the top.)

Talking shop with other writers is a good time. Too bad I don’t know any others in real life, just other lawyers I can complain along with.

But turns out there’s a little more to this series than a bunch of writers drinking beer and being degenerates together, as we see in the last scene where Itsuki and his maybe or maybe not one-sided love interest Nayuta think about each other and how they met.

Not much else to say about A Sister’s All You Need. The pacing is quick, maybe a bit too quick — that imouto “stamp” that gets slammed over the action every two minutes after a punchline does get irritating. But the humor was good enough for me to possibly want to continue this series. Not right away, but maybe at some point.

It also features plugs for real beer brands apparently, though only ones you can get in Japan, so even if I still drank it wouldn’t help me. This stout does look good though.

So if you like little sisters, probably good beer, and/or degenerate humor in general, maybe this is a good show to check out. But I’ll withhold judgment unless or until I get around to watching the rest.

Now for the last spin this round. Let’s try for 3 for 3:

Now here’s an interesting result. All I know about Call of the Night is that it’s a currently airing series about a guy who meets a cute vampire girl and wants to get bit by her or something. “Cute vampire girl” is always a plus for me (I am a Touhou fan after all, and EoSD has one of my favorite casts) so I’m looking forward to this one.

Spin 11: Call of the Night

Sometimes I find a series that might not actually be very good or make all that much sense but that still resonates with me because it found me at the right time. Maybe this is too embarrassing to admit, but I’m beyond all that now: this first episode of the manga adaptation Call of the Night worked for me on that level at least.

Holy shit is this relatable

Kou is a kid still in his second year at middle school. 14 is a rough age, and Kou is going through it — he doesn’t seem to be fitting in all that well at school, and after pretty bluntly rejecting a girl’s love confession he ends up chewed out by her friends and wondering how exactly he’s supposed to feel about any of that.

Unsatisfied with his daily life, Kou decides one night to sneak out of his family’s apartment and wander the streets of his city, alone with his thoughts. Alone until he meets a mysterious, strangely dressed blonde girl with extremely sharp and pointy canines. This lady takes an immediate interest in Kou, asking why he’s wandering around in the dead of night and about to buy a beer from a vending machine when he’s clearly not of age (I totally forgot Japan sells booze in vending machines; it would be unthinkable to see here in the States. Would have made drinking in high school, and I guess even in middle school, a hell of a lot easier!)

Despite the fact that this girl, Nazuna, is about the most obvious vampire ever to appear in a fictional work the very moment he meets her, Kou agrees to go along with her to her apartment after she promises she’ll “help him sleep.”

Okay, I mean I get it, but still.

Kou is nervous that Nazuna will try something funny with him (though in the more normal sense, since he hasn’t realized the obvious yet) but she assures him she won’t. She instead has him lie down on her futon and, once she thinks he’s asleep, goes straight for his neck. It turns out Kou was faking sleep to see what she’d pull, but she still gets some blood out of him before he gets up.

After he finally realizes what Nazuna is, she reassures him that she hasn’t turned him into a vampire — according to her, a human can only be turned if they fall in love with a vampire, so he’s safe. The pair then leave her apartment, but then Kou decides he actually wants to be a vampire and declares that he will fall in love with Nazuna. She tells him he can do what he likes, but seems embarrassed herself, then decides to sort of take him under her wing since Kou seems like he needs to learn how to enjoy his life or something.

Nice visuals, too

So Call of the Night is a strange one so far. It’s a bit hard to track the logic here — I get that Kou is confused and searching for himself in just the way a kid his age would be, but his decision to become a vampire feels pretty hasty and reckless even for a 14 year-old considering just what being a vampire involves. Nazuna’s special interest in Kou is a bit weird as well, and it might even be called creepy or criminal depending on how far she takes it and how vampire vs. human ages work in this world (remembering that vampires in a lot of fiction tend to be far older than they look.) All that’s assuming this is supposed to be a romance, which it very much looks like right now.

On the other hand, when I was that age, the prospect of getting to run around the streets with a hot blonde vampire girl at midnight would have been extremely exciting to me. So Call of the Night is probably perfect wish fulfillment for boys that age. That would also explain the fanservice material, getting an eyeful of Nazuna in this episode and presumably in most of the others to come.

Horny as hell as you’d expect from most any vampire-related story, but it’s worth asking if this story would be less acceptable to many readers/viewers if the genders were swapped. I’d say yes, but isn’t that pretty much what Twilight was? And that was a huge hit, so maybe people don’t actually care.

Despite all its strangeness and potential issues, I might keep watching Call of the Night. Or maybe in part because of those. There’s still a part of me that’s that 14 year-old boy who wants to drop everything, all the bullshit in my life, and just run out into the night. Of course I can’t and won’t do these sorts of things now in my 30s. But again, and maybe it’s even embarrassing to admit these feelings, that’s part of what I use anime and games and other entertainment for: these are safe ways to live out a few harmless fantasies in addition to their inherent value as art. But I’ve gotten into all that before, so I won’t again here.

And that’s it for this third round of the anime roulette. Possibly a 3 for 3 result this round depending on how Call of the Night turns out and whether I feel the same about it next week as I did today, since I admit I’m at a fairly low point at the moment. I might do one more of these posts soon if I’m feeling up to it, but the next one will likely be a game review for a change of pace, so you can look forward to that. Until then.

Edit (7/24/2022): Usually I don’t bother with adding notes to old posts, but after watching the second and third episodes of Call of the Night I’d like to drop the “might not actually be very good” part up there because I’m liking it a lot more right now. Still too early to judge the series as a whole obviously, so look out for that end-of-season review whenever that’s happening. I’ve also already finished Made in Abyss — you’ll find that review soon on the index page up top.

A review of Akebi’s Sailor Uniform

Every so often I dig around the real anime blogs on this site. I don’t think mine counts as an “anime blog” since it’s not dedicated entirely to anime — my scope here is too broad, and I’ve still seen barely a fraction of the stuff out there worth watching (and forget about keeping current with airing series aside from maybe one each season, two on the outside.) Though I write anime reviews like this one sometimes, I’m absolutely not an expert in the medium or its trends, and I don’t think I’ve ever pretended to be one.

So when I watched the first episode of CloverWork’s winter 2022 production Akebi’s Sailor Uniform aka Akebi-chan no Serafuku a few months ago and had mixed feelings about it, I was ready to pretty much write it off, but when I later read the high praise it was given on the dedicated anime sites around I decided to give it a second chance. And good thing I did, because it was worth that second chance. I still wouldn’t call myself a fan of slice-of-life anime in general, but Akebi is such a fine piece of work that I think it managed to break through my bias against that genre.

Akebi’s Sailor Uniform features the title character Komichi Akebi, a girl from the Japanese countryside somewhere (not sure where exactly — if her school or home region is based on real-life locations I missed those references.) She lives so deep in the country that until now she’s attended school in a class of one, without any classmates.

Guessing this room used to hold a lot more students

Komichi’s isolation is about to end, however. She applies to the prestigious girls’ middle school Roubai Academy, which is also deep in the countryside, but not quite as deep as her old nearly dead elementary school. Komichi has an unusual reason for wanting to attend Roubai: she wants the chance to finally wear that traditional sailor school uniform she likes so much and that one of her favorite singers wears in performance. Her mother, an expert tailor who also attended Roubai decades ago, supports her efforts and takes her to the interview in a custom-made uniform, but when Komichi sees other girls attending their interviews in more modern blazer uniforms she panics.

Thankfully for her, the school’s headmaster is almost unrealistically cool about the whole thing. It probably helps that she’s on good terms with Komichi’s mother, but the headmaster also seems to see the girl’s passion during the interview and decides to make an exception: Komichi can wear her mother’s custom sailor uniform to school.

I never attended a school that had uniforms, but I wish I had. Imagine going to school in a tie and blazer or that gakuran with the high collar. Far better than that “let the kids express themselves” bullshit I got to deal with, being mocked for wearing the “wrong thing” and all that.

By the end of the first episode, Komichi has met her first friend, Erika Kizaki, alone in their homeroom early in the morning. It’s a potentially awkward first meeting in which Komichi accidentally catches Erika doing something strange and maybe a little embarrassing: clipping her toenails and smelling the clippers. Komichi is so naturally friendly and unassuming, however, that she puts Erika at ease without even realizing there was much of anything to be embarrassed about in the first place.

This was the scene that weirded me the fuck out about Akebi when I first watched the first episode months ago. I still think it’s a weird scene, but it does make more sense when you put it into the context of Komichi’s carefree attitude and how it helps her create her place at school.

The following eleven episodes shift away from that sailor uniform in the title and focus on Komichi’s life at her new school as she meets her classmates and befriends pretty much every one of them. There’s not much else to say about the plot — Akebi’s Sailor Uniform is a pure slice-of-life anime, and aside from a school sports/arts festival in the final episode, there aren’t any big events to focus on or much of a plot beyond “girl lives her everyday life with her friends.”

Typically this kind of show bores the hell out of me. The only exception to my coldness towards slice-of-life anime so far has been Yuru Camp, which has more to recommend it than just this daily life stuff anyway. It’s not a “pure” slice-of-life in that sense, whereas Akebi is. So why did Akebi work for me where others in this pure slice-of-life genre haven’t?

I’ll start with its most obvious strength: how good it looks. Akebi is a beautiful series with an almost unbelievable level of detail for a TV production. Parts of it look like they belong in a film. And this high standard is maintained throughout all twelve episodes. I said I’m no expert, but I’m guessing just based on what I’ve seen and heard that this is a seriously impressive feat (and add to that the fact that CloverWorks was producing Sono Bisque Doll at the same time, which looked pretty nice itself, even if a lot of that budget went into Marin specifically.) The soundtrack adds to the effect, complementing the visuals with some nice piano and strings and a couple of pop themes that fit well even if they’re not quite my style.

The only issue I had with the aesthetic aspects of Akebi was its character designs, which took some getting used to. It’s not that Komichi and her family and friends look bad, but there’s something about their faces and eyes specifically that are unusual. I imagine these were probably carried over from the original manga, which I haven’t read. Not a huge deal anyway, and hell, if I could get used to Nobuyuki Fukumoto’s pointy noses and all the other crazy shit he does with his characters’ faces in Akagi and Kaiji, I can get used to Hiro’s style too.

Komichi looks fine here, but occasionally there’s a weird uncanny effect going on with these characters. Maybe this is just how people unused to typical anime aesthetics see a lot of anime characters with their huge eyes? I’m so used to it that I can’t say but might be an interesting thought for artists out there.

Of course, a show can look beautiful and suck on every other level. If some nice visuals were all Akebi had to offer, I would have actually fallen asleep to it, but that’s fortunately not the case. Even though it doesn’t have much of a plot, Akebi still kept my interest, and most of that had to do with its characters and specifically with the title character herself.

Komichi might be a girl just starting her middle school life, but she contains so damn much positive energy and optimism that she’s practically a force of nature. Her unique sailor uniform sets her apart from the rest of her classmates at first, a move that takes some guts especially considering how shitty and clique-y students can be when they’re developing their personalities around that age.

Or maybe Komichi gets to wear a different uniform because she’s the main character, JRPG logic style.

But she manages to turn that to her advantage too by being so carefree that she draws everyone else towards her like a magnet. I saw jokes in comments that Akebi is about Komichi building a harem out of her whole school, and while there’s no romance element to Akebi that I can see,* the joke still works just because of how completely she charms all her classmates starting with Erika. Each of Komichi’s homeroom colleagues has some kind of quirk to them along with their own special talent, all of which she makes a point of learning about and taking an active interest in.

If Komichi were even 1% a jerk, she could use her charisma all to her own advantage or just to feed her ego, but part of her charm seems to come from just how guileless she is. All that optimism and positivity I mentioned is completely natural and pure, and it all radiates out from her as if she were the Sun. Aside from a couple of points in the season where she gets discouraged but is picked up again by her family and friends, Komichi is creating that energy seemingly without exhausting her own supply of it.

Even the fish are attracted by her sheer magnetism. Or maybe just the bait she’s using.

This optimism is another aspect of Akebi I wasn’t sure I’d be able to take after watching the first episode. In case you’re not a regular reader or you’re very new to the site, I’m just about the opposite of positive and optimistic. If there’s any single anime character I relate to completely in terms of outlook on life it’s Nozomu Itoshiki, Zetsubou-sensei himself, which I really hate to say, but it’s the truth. There’s a reason I use those SZS screenshots so often in my miscellaneous posts and not just because I like how they look (though that is another reason.)

So normally all Komichi’s youthful optimism would drive me insane, but it didn’t. In fact, it had just the opposite effect. Akebi’s Sailor Uniform is another anime like Yuru Camp with the tag iyashikei, something like “healing” from what I can tell, and it was pretty effective at healing my soul in a time when I needed it more than usual. A lot of shit has been going on in the world and in my country in particular that directly relates to what I do for a living, and while my living itself isn’t threatened at all, the shaking up we’re going through still isn’t pleasant. I won’t get into specifics, but my already dark outlook on life and our future has gotten even darker in recent years and months and even weeks. These days I think back to the oath I swore and wonder whether it wasn’t all a joke I wasn’t let in on.

Not to be too dramatic, but those thoughts do occur to me along with feelings of powerlessness and pointlessness — pretty damn far from anything resembling youthful optimism. And all that’s aside from my natural pessimism and the general feeling of powerlessness I already have over my own life, forget the direction of the world itself.

This isn’t the song she’s playing here, but thinking of George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” isn’t a bad way of dealing with this bullshit for a few minutes either. That song and most of that album still hold up.

By contrast, Komichi lives in an idyllic setting and lives a pretty idyllic life, at least for now. In ten years she might have to start worrying about paying bills and working at a job she hates, but for now she has a good time at school with her friends and lives in the countryside with her mom and little sister and her dad when he’s home from work, in a cottage that looks like it’s straight out of one of those cheesy Thomas Kinkade paintings.

A series like Akebi’s Sailor Uniform could easily fall into that very same trap of being too cheesy and embarrassing to stomach, and maybe some viewers felt that way about it, but I think it manages to almost completely avoid that pitfall thanks to its honesty for lack of a better term. The world Komichi lives in isn’t familiar to me at all, since the one I live in seems to be going to complete shit and wasn’t all that great to begin with, but the characters feel real enough.

Speaking of realism, these dorm rooms for god damn middle school students are a million times nicer than the shitty cinder block lined ones I lived in as a college student. How is that?

That might be the most important reason Akebi’s Sailor Uniform worked for me now, where I think it might not have several years back. I’m tired, but despite that I have to work constantly at a job I can tolerate but certainly don’t love. On top of that, I’m working towards goals I don’t exactly care about achieving for my own sake. And on top of all that, all of humanity looks like it’s headed down a steep cliff without brakes, so it’s even a question whether we collectively have a future to work towards at all.

Watching Komichi and co. living their lives in their own peaceful moment was a nice break from that reality. Maybe this is what people love about these slice-of-life shows. Am I finally getting it now?

Akebi still reminds me of how comparatively not enjoyable my middle school years were and of how any youthful enthusiasm for life and wonder and all that stuff I might have had was soon ground into a fine powder and scattered into the wind. But oh well, I’m pretty resigned to all that now.

And that’s my recommendation: watch Akebi’s Sailor Uniform if you want a break from the stress and anxiety of everyday life in the real world. That seems to be largely what these healing series are made for, and so far at least two of them have worked. I’d still place Yuru Camp higher than this or probably any other pure slice-of-life series, since it has such excellent characters and, more to my taste, is a lot heavier on the comedy and a little lighter on the sentiment. By contrast, Akebi did come close to laying it on too thick for me a couple of times.

But this is still a recommendation. I liked Akebi, and I’d watch a second season if we ever get one, because God knows how much shittier things might be then and how much more I might need that escape. At least until someone finally develops that full-dive ultra-realistic VR world we’ve been waiting for (i.e. not that Meta piece of shit, and probably not anything Elon will do either, though I guess you should never really count him out, as clownish as he can be.) In the meantime, I’ll look forward to the next CloverWorks anime, because between this, Bisque Doll, and their co-production of Spy x Family, they’ve been doing amazing work lately. And hey, Bunny Girl Senpai is near the top of my backlog too, so maybe that should be up next.

Anyway, next post will be the end-of-month one, put off to the middle of the month yet again. Sorry about that. I said this wasn’t a dedicated anime blog, but this is my third straightforward anime review in a row, a first in the site’s history, and there’s still more to come, so you can look forward to that as well. See you next week hopefully.

 

* I should say in the anime. I’ve heard the source manga may include a yuri theme — speaking of tags, the manga has the yuri tag on Anilist while the anime doesn’t if that’s any indication. I haven’t read the manga, but the anime features a lot of what I’d call friendly intimacy between Komichi and her classmates, the kind that some people seem to mistake for the romantic kind. Those sentiments would have to be pretty tame Takagi-san style anyway considering if they were there, which again I’d say they aren’t.

I brought this distinction up in my review of The Aquatope on White Sand and my feelings about it now are the same. I think part of this mistake, at least among American fans, might be due to the weirdly repressive and neurotic attitudes about attraction and physical contact we Americans tend to have — two friends embracing has to mean there’s something more there, when in reality it doesn’t necessarily mean that. The same might be true for the fetishistic aspects many viewers have commented on, which I think have been very overplayed (including by me in that first episode look I wrote a few months ago — now I think those shots were used to show the characters’ expressiveness instead of for any weird purposes, though again I’ve heard the manga might have a different feel.)

In any case, let me know if you have a different opinion about any of the above. I just don’t want to go hunting for themes or issues where they might not exist, and I won’t make assumptions based on what I’ve heard about the manga either, since 1) I haven’t read it and 2) the source material and its adaptation are two distinct works that I believe should be taken separately anyway. If you’re not convinced of that point, just look at the HBO Game of Thrones production that ended up driven into a brick wall and the original Song of Ice and Fire novels, which still have a future if old GRRM ever gets off his ass and writes an ending (current odds of that happening: at least five thousand to one.) Or for a reverse example where the source material has been reviled by many fans where the anime adaptation hasn’t, see Usagi Drop. I won’t get into it now, but I might soon.

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: 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 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.

A review of Teasing Master Takagi-san

Since I’ve had a look at the anime adaptation of Uzaki-chan Wants to Hang Out! and the original Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro manga, it’s only right that I should give some attention to the last member of the triumvirate of (mostly) good-natured bullying/teasing. Like those, Teasing Master Takagi-san (original title Karakai Jouzu no Takagi-san) is a still-running manga series; the anime adaptation currently has two seasons released in 2016 and 2019. This series features yet another boy and girl pair with a somewhat similar relationship to those in Uzaki and Nagatoro — the girl makes fun of the boy, the boy gets flustered in response and tries to get back at her, and that’s the source of the comedy.

However, Takagi-san is pretty different from those series aside from that common theme, which I think has to do with the somewhat different dynamic between the two leads and the setting they’re in. And of course, I’ll get into all that right now.

Takagi and Nishikata, the leads of the series

The first segment of the show’s first episode, “Eraser”, lays out everything we need to know about these two middle school students and their combative, complicated relationship. Nishikata, the boy, is our protagonist — we know this because we can hear his inner monologue, and also because he sits in the protagonist seat, all the way in the back of the class by the window. Sitting next to him is the girl, Takagi. Nishikata is busy not studying but rather trying to rig up a springy snake toy made of paper in a box meant specifically to scare Takagi. But before he can pull his plan off, Takagi asks for his help opening her pencil case, which she claims is jammed shut. When he takes the case and easily opens it, Takagi’s own springy paper toy jumps out and scares Nishikata, and Takagi breaks down laughing at his extreme reaction.

How most of Nishikata’s attempts at getting revenge on Takagi end up

After Nishikata collapses in defeat, Takagi changes the subject, asking to use his eraser. When he hands it over, Takagi mentions a rumor she heard that if you write your crush’s name on your eraser hidden under the paper holder part of it and said crush uses the eraser up, they’ll fall in love with you. Nishikata dismisses it as a silly superstition, but when Takagi takes his eraser and slides it up to see under that part and pretends to read a name, he starts sweating, wondering whether he wrote a name and forgot about it — even worse, could it have been her name?

Of course, Takagi is bluffing; there’s nothing written there, but she got another reaction out of Nishikata, which was enough for her to get another win over him. She then leaves class to go to the bathroom, and Nishikata takes the chance to take Takagi’s eraser and steal a look at what she might have written under it. When he pushes her eraser up and sees the kana ろ (ro), not the first letter in his name, he feels disappointed, though he’s not sure exactly why. Working up his nerve, he then reads the rest, which translates to “look into the hallway”. And looking to his right, he sees Takagi, peeking around the corner and laughing her ass off at him once again before composing herself and coming back in to get her eraser back and declare still another victory over him.

If only he’d read the other side.

Right away, we get the gist of their relationship. Takagi teases Nishikata endlessly, and while Nishikata tries to get back at her, his attempts fall short because Takagi has already thought a few steps ahead of him. He never gives up, however — his determination to get even with Takagi is a constant throughout the series.

There are two other important points to this first segment, one obvious and the other only hinted at. The obvious one is that Nishikata has a massive crush on Takagi but that he doesn’t realize it yet. As the show continues, Nishikata inches closer to realizing his feelings for her, but it is a slow process. The less obvious point here is that Takagi might have the same feelings for Nishikata — in the early stages this is still only hinted at with bits like the end of the “Eraser” segment, but more of these suggestions show up later on.

Takagi has the upper hand here too, though, because assuming from the beginning that they’re genuine, she understands her feelings for Nishikata better than he does his feelings for her. Moreover, she seems to know that Nishikata is crushing on her, since she uses this fact throughout the series both to tease him and to get closer to him. Every time one of them comes up with a game, it’s probably no coincidence that when Nishikata inevitably loses, the penalty Takagi chooses involves him spending more time with her. Naturally, Nishikata brushes this off as just more of her teasing when he finally notices what’s going on, but we get more hints down the line that Takagi might be serious about what she’s doing behind all the pranks.

There’s lots of looking away and blushing, but it’s almost always Nishikata doing it.

While this developing potential romance (as much as you can call it that in middle school at least) is a big part of the story of Takagi-san, the battle of wits between Nishikata and Takagi is pretty entertaining in itself even apart from that. Takagi clearly has an advantage over Nishikata in the wits department, but instead of using those assets to go after him aggressively, she usually allows him to work himself up into a frenzy, letting him second-guess himself and fall into the traps she’s set for him. Her goal also pretty clearly isn’t to humiliate or demoralize him, even if she does like to see him get embarrassed — she never teases Nishikata in front of other people, but only when they’re either alone or out of earshot of everyone else, and on the few occasions he ends up getting himself hurt she shows genuine concern for his health (though she still somehow finds ways to tease him while caring for him.)

I think Takagi’s relative kindness towards Nishikata contributes to how wholesome this anime is in general. Maybe it’s only natural, since all the characters in the show are still just in middle school, but if you’re the type who doesn’t go for some of the dirty jokes featured in high school or university-based comedies (Nagatoro and Uzaki-chan respectively for example) you might prefer Takagi-san. Nishikata, Takagi, and their friends are all just figuring things out, after all, and all the talk about love and relationships in the show reflects that while still feeling natural (in other words, while the show is “clean” in that sense, it also doesn’t feel like it’s avoiding or papering over anything out of embarrassment.) It’s all very sweet, and though I admittedly like that dirty stuff I mentioned, Takagi-san was a nice change of pace for me.

Holding Takagi’s hand is one of the big hurdles Nishikata has to overcome if that gives you an idea

The only semi-annoyances I kept running into in Takagi-san were the segments featuring three other girls at their school named Yukari, Mina, and Sanae. I think these three show up in every episode and almost always get at least one short segment to themselves, and it’s typically a comedy bit that’s just kind of okay at best. Some of their bits feel like ones that might have been scrapped from Azumanga Daioh or another school slice-of-life like that. They’re not awful and are short enough to tolerate, and I guess these segments are meant to break up all the Takagi/Nishikata stuff. Then again, the reason I watched this show was to see all that Takagi/Nishikata stuff, so I never felt like it needed breaking up anyway.

To be fair, though, this trio and a few of Nishikata’s male friends do comment on their relationship sometimes, usually speculating that they’re dating much to Nishikata’s embarrassment when he finds out (and therefore to Takagi’s amusement) so they’re not totally disconnected from the main story. And that plays into another aspect of their relationship that I really liked: the fact that they’re happy to move at their own pace without feeling pressured by anyone else. Takagi is the one usually setting that pace for both of them, but Nishikata does grow and mature a bit to match her, and he may even end up surprising her a couple of times.

Find those parts for yourself, though; I won’t spoil them here.

I’ll just say right out, since I’ve heard a lot of disagreements on this point and the comparisons are only natural: I liked this series a lot more than I did Uzaki-chan, and I’d put it about on the same level as Nagatoro in terms of the enjoyment I’ve gotten from it. All three series are pretty different, each with their own quirks and particular character relationships, so I’m not accusing one of ripping off the others or anything like that. In fact, I’d say they’re all worth checking out if you’re into this sort of comedy at all. And I didn’t even dislike Uzaki-chan; I just much prefer Takagi-san because I like the characters more and find their back-and-forths a lot more entertaining.

But as usual, your mileage may vary. Maybe you think that even under all the teasing and power struggles between Takagi and Nishikata, this stuff sounds too sweet for you, and I can understand that — but then, you might also take into consideration that I’m unromantic/unsentimental as hell and even I really liked it. So I’d still suggest giving at least the first episode a chance even if you think you might not be into it. Teasing Master Takagi-san is another big recommendation from me, again without any reservations.

Even if it is admittedly annoying to watch since the first season is only aired on Crunchyroll and the second only on Netflix. I don’t know who the fuck is responsible for these kinds of stupid licensing decisions, but I really hate them.