Sophomore Slump? Not for Umaru or Hoozuki!

Welcome, all, again, and happy Thanksgiving to those who so celebrate.  Today I’d like to discuss two series which are currently airing second seasons, Himouto! Umaru-chan and Hozuki’s Coolheadedness (Hoozuki no Reitetsu).  I was a fan of the first seasons of both shows (and own both in my personal anime library), and have found myself pleasantly surprised at the sustained quality and  ambitious direction of their new seasons.  And I quite purposefully say direction, as both shows seem to share a pronounced emphasis this season on character development, particularly that of their respective protagonists.

Ladies first, so we’ll begin with Himouto! Umaru-chan R.  Like so many of us, Umaru displays a distinct change in behavior and mindset between her public self and her private self.  She works hard to present a public image of being self-contained, effortlessly beautiful, polite, and humble.  Once shut away from the world, however, she morphs into a spoiled, whiny, self-absorbed junk food and gaming addict.  And when I say “It ain’t pretty,” you can take that any number of ways and probably still be dead-on right.  She is her older brother’s pride and poison as he takes care of her in the apartment they share.  Season 1 established her split personality and let us watch as she conveniently compartmentalized the people and other things in her life.  Things became so complicated, in fact, that at least two of Umaru’s classmates believe that they each know two separate and distinct people who are both actually Umaru.

Season 2 begins to humanize our heroine somewhat as she begins to both recognize and regret the difficulties she causes her brother, and to also loosen up around her friends.  Of course, this increased openness with her friends allows us to discover more about them as well, particularly her best friend Ebina.  This creeping maturity in a character who for so long so easily mimicked responsible behavior is a well-played plot progression that has, in my opinion, revitalized the show.

Meanwhile, Hozuki’s Coolheadedness is traveling a similar path, in this case humanizing its lead by exposing elements of his past even as he plays at becoming something of a family man.  That’s right, we finally get an origin story for Hozuki, Great King Enma’s stern Chief-of-Staff, and it was nothing like what I expected.  But nor did I expect its roundabout catalyst, Hozuki’s seeming to dote upon two new visitors to Yomi (the Japanese underworld), twin zashiki warashi.  While nonchalantly explaining away their presence by asserting that many supernatural beings visit Yomi, Hozuki seems quietly fond and blatantly protective of these two, even giving them names.  (It should be noted that they specifically saved that request for Hozuki.)  In turn, Ichiko and Niko respond to Hozuki quite singularly, even seeming to become a bit clingy at times.  Mind you, this is no Usagi Drop, but you can’t help but feel happy for all three–they almost seem to have needed each other.  And Hozuki’s character has certainly gained a pronounced depth through this exposition and development, especially his interactions with the girls.  Now, I just wonder if the sudden presence of children around Hozuki will lure Peach Maki back into his orbit?

And speaking of Peach Maki, she has also returned in this second season, and is now part of an idol duo, Maki-Miki.  Moreover, the show’s closing sequence is given to her (sans Miki) in a music video format.  Which of course leads me to comment upon the artwork–exquisite, just as we’ve come to expect from this series.  Recent viewing seasons have seen an uptick in the artistic quality of various anime offerings, but this remains one of the most beautifully drawn and colored series that I’ve ever seen.  It is, in fact, uniquely visually beautiful while remaining cuttingly funny.  I’m hooked.

And there you go, two very different shows walking down the same path as their second seasons progress.  I approve and applaud.

 

Genius Takes Flight: Shoujo Shuumatsu Ryokou, Episode 6

Welcome, all, again.  Today I digress from all past practice in order to focus upon one particular episode of a series, returning us to Shoujo Shuumatsu Ryokou (hereafter referred to as SSR).  Some while back, I wrote a post about how certain specific episodes of anime can buoy the spirit, fitting corresponding moods.  The best of these individual episodes can actually create from scratch the moods that they then inhabit.  Take episode 1 of Usagi Drop, for instance.  The unwary or uninformed viewer finds him/herself caught-up and tossed by the emotional maelstrom coiled within these quiet characters and their impending, imploding familial situation.  And while March Comes in Like a Lion begins its story more subtly,  viewers soon stand as bereft as Rei in the face of the gaping, hungering emotional chasm that is his life.  Episode 6 of SSR packs a similar emotional punch, taking viewers on a veritable roller coaster ride of the heart.  Thing is, this episode builds up so very subtly that its ultimate impact might come as a surprise.

So, just what is it that makes episode 6 such a big deal?  Its quietude, dear reader, its quietude.  After all, still waters are said to run deep.  Episode 6 sees our girls find another human, their first such encounter since they crossed paths with the mapmaker Kanazawa in episode 3.  Ishii is a female living alone in the ruins of what appears to be an aircraft hangar.  She presents the demeanor and focus of a scientist, even while designing like an engineer and building like a mechanic.  But in a post-apocalyptic world, those distinctions are basically meaningless.  Ishii has a dream, and it’s a big one–she wants to construct a working airplane and use it to fly to another city.  Still, she is able to couch her dream within the sensible, saying that to remain in one place until all resources are used or devoured is to invite not just death, but first, privation.  I’m sure that Yuu felt that listening to Ishii was a lot like listening to an older version of Chii; I certainly felt that way.

And here’s where the story starts worming its way into your psyche before you ever realize it. . .the girls and Ishii bond in a way never possible with the male Kanazawa, of whom the girls remained at least vaguely wary.  Chii (and therefore Yuu) needs help repairing the damaged Kettenkrad, while Ishii’s dream will manifest much more quickly with extra hands available to perform extra work.  There is mutual need and mutual respect, not to mention shared admiration for and curiosity about the decision to either travel or homestead.  Bonds are established through the sharing of food and living space.  For a brief moment, these three enjoy the creation of what is almost an ad hoc  family.  As we watch, these characters quietly establish emotional investment in each other, in themselves as a group, and even in each other’s pursuits and decisions.  So do we.

Potato!

As usual, I am ignorant of this anime’s source material.  I’ve never read the manga (although I’ve heard that this anime is being relatively faithful to said material).  But I had somehow heard about this Ishii/airplane business, and had been eagerly anticipating it.  And I was consequently amazed that the whole thing was covered, beginning to end, in just one episode.  Amazed, but not disappointed, because this was some tight and careful writing! Conversations remain leisurely to the ear, but you soon realize that not a word nor even a pause was wasted, and that you have been walked to the edge of a precipice.  As Chii records the momentous flight in her journal, she tells Ishii that she might well be the last pilot in human history.  Hauntingly, she gives no voice to the recognized continuation of that thought: that Ishii is probably the last person with the skill and understanding to even construct an aircraft.  In the aftermath of catastrophe, mankind fell from the skies; in the aftermath of Ishii, he might never return.  The heart rises to the throat at this realization, then falls to the stomach as the plane approaches take-off. . .this is an episode to which you will repeatedly return, so rejoice!  This is why we’re fans.

 

Feeling Blue? Anime Pick-Me-Ups

Welcome, all, again.  After a disheartening week at work, I found myself once again seeking the solace of favorite anime episodes.  Knowing that I can’t be the only one who does this, I decided to dedicate this installment to a brief list of suggestions for those who need a quick pick-me-up after some unpleasant IRL time.  And so, corresponding to the level of comfort sought, I offer the following:

Spike

4) Final [2] episode[s] of Cowboy Bebop: for when you don’t even want to feel better, you just want some affirmation for your state of mind.  Spike is a man with a past, but don’t dare think that he’s running from it–he just needs some time to wrap his head around everything that happened before he can really move forward.  And when he finally does, well, watch a man newly determined to plot his own course and alter fate.  Don’t look here for happily-ever-after, but the conclusion does offer a sweeping sense of completion and fulfillment.

Makie and Haruna, with a bearly there Kirishima

3) Episode 6 of Arpeggio of Blue Steel: for when you need that sudden infusion of hope (against all odds).  Episode 4 sees a desperate battle between Iona and the combined might of Fog battleships Haruna (HaruHaru) and Kirishima, and ends with Haruna’s mental model ashore where she is found by the child Makie.  Episode 5 follows the delicate inroads towards friendship made by Makie and Haruna, neither of whom has ever before had the opportunity to find or be a friend.  But it is in episode 6, when Makie’s life is threatened, that we viewers witness just how important this new concept of friendship has become.  Self-sacrifice is the order of the day all around, so that even if your tears fall, your heart will leap and soar!  (Episode 10 covers similar themes of devotion and self-sacrifice, but based upon love rather than friendship.)

Ren-chon and Kaede, ep10 of NNBR

2) Episode 10 of Non Non Biyori: for when you really need the comfort of complete acceptance and unconditional love.  As a slice-of-life show concentrating upon family and community, you expect feel-good storylines from Non Non Biyori.  And you get them, but episode 10 is still something special.  Throughout the preceding nine episodes, we viewers noticed the especially close relationship between Ren-chon, the youngest character, and Kaede (called “Candy Store”).  Episode 10 finally reveals the connection, referencing the past while remaining firmly rooted in the present as the three Miyauchi sisters join Kaede for a New Year’s sunrise viewing.  The end result is an episode brimming with warmth and heart!  Even moreso than my upcoming #1 pick (which just takes too much out of me, sometimes), this particular episode is my go-to happy place when I really need one.  (Episode 10 of Non Non Biyori Repeat–the anime’s second season–likewise focuses upon the relationship between the two, as Renge tries to learn to ride a bicycle.)

Making it up as they go along, Rin and Daikichi
  1. Episode 1 of Usagi Drop (also called Bunny Drop): for when you need it all–love, trust, the recognition and validation of despair, as well as the tensile strength of hope.  Lifelong bachelor Daikichi attends his maternal grandfather’s funeral only to learn that the old man left behind an illegitimate 6-year-old daughter.  Scorned as the very manifestation of their family’s shame, Rin is alternately ignored, bullied, and ultimately rejected by all relatives. . .all except Daikichi, who is confused and repulsed by the insensitive treatment heaped upon an innocent child.  But what can he do to help?  Nothing but risk everything.  This is probably the single most emotionally uplifting episode of anime that I’ve ever watched (and repeatedly re-watched!).  Just be warned that it will savage your heart before it salves it, so first make sure that you’re really up for the emotional investment!

And there you have them, my recommendations for one-shot curative treatments against the blues, the blahs, and all the general nastiness that the world likes to throw at us.  So go take a 24-minute soak and get revitalized!

On the Horns of a Dilemma: Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid

Welcome, all, again.  I’ve been catching up on episodes and even whole series which I missed because of my trip back in January.  And while one or two proved to be false starts (down paths which I simply did not want to travel), I have been mainly pleased.  One show in particular has won my heart despite what I considered a rather anemic beginning: Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid.  The advertising blurbs did not impress me, nor did peeks at the artwork.  Indeed, when I watched the first episode, I was wavering at midpoint as to whether or not to continue.  It so happens, however, that as a rule I generally tend to watch a series’ first two episodes.  And that rule has stood me in good stead, allowing me to discover greatness where I at first saw, well, squat; The Asterisk War [http://918thefan.com/2015/the-wandering-witch-goes-to-war/ ] springs immediately to mind.  Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid has proven to be another series that rewards viewers for the time they invest.

We first meet Kobayashi: she has a job that pays the bills but doesn’t seem to impress or excite her; she has her one-bedroom apartment; and she has a distinct like of alcohol.  (In truth, she sounds like the majority of young singles whom I know.)  If there is anything that sticks out about her, it is her tendency to wear slacks, shirt, and tie to work, dressing more like a salaryman than office lady.  But for all we know, her work group might have a specific dress code–I’m not reading anything into her clothing choices.  (After all, at neither of my jobs do I even get a choice.)  She’s just your average workaday stiff. . .who one evening, too plastered to be cautious, helps save the life of a wounded dragon she encounters.  But it was all in the drink, right?

Wrong.  Tohru is quite real, a dragon who was grievously wounded in her own world during a battle with humans, but somehow managed to escape to ours.  Too weak to resist Kobayashi and probably expecting her death blow, Tohru is instead smitten by the kindness shown her.  She falls in love with her rescuer and vows to stay with her, to that end offering herself as Kobayashi’s maid.  Tohru’s sudden appearance, however, is a surprise to Kobayashi, whose memories of the night before are at best hazy.  Having a dragon at her door seems something of a terrifying inconvenience, and having that dragon transform into a busty blonde girl with horns and tail doesn’t do much to alleviate things.  Kobayashi immediately declines Tohru’s offer, and it is from this point that the show begins to quietly reveal its greatness.

Because this is more than a show about dragons, or even about dragons interacting with humans.  Like both Usagi Drop and Sweetness and Lightning before it, this is a show exploring and celebrating the malleable nature of family.  And while it takes a more comedic approach to the subject than did its predecessors, the emotional resonance is real.  In a searing moment crystallized by the tears forming in Tohru’s eyes, Kobayashi feels her loneliness, her despair, and now a sudden sense of abandonment and rejection.  And Kobayashi realizes that she has a choice: protect herself or protect this stranger who has nothing but her.  More importantly, Kobayashi acts.  Tohru, it seems, has a new home.

 

But not just Tohru–birds of a feather, after all.  Exiled from their world for what is described as a prank, Kanna is a very young dragon (in human form, she is of grade-school age) who seeks the familiar comfort of Tohru’s company.  She strongly disapproves of Tohru living with a human and initially attacks Kobayashi, but has lost all her power in traveling between worlds.  And it is only after attacking her hostess that Kanna realizes she has nowhere to stay.  Seeing Tohru’s agony–and completely unwilling to abandon a child–Kobayashi invites Kanna to move in, prompting their move to a larger apartment.  Because, honestly, Kobayashi is liking the changes in her life.  Tohru’s love is making her a happier person, and Kanna’s presence (and changed attitude) only increases the love all around.  In fact, Kobayashi plainly sees them as a family, finding humor in her own role as “father,” although Kanna seems to view her more as a mother figure while seeing Tohru as an older sister.  But no matter; roles don’t make a family, love does.

Honestly, with this series offering such an underwhelming start, I came in cold and expecting very little.  I was wrong.  Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid has proven an emotionally uplifting show that I now eagerly anticipate each week!  It is, like the family it follows, so much more than the sum of its parts.  We’ve been given here a thing of rare beauty, and I encourage you to watch.

[Parental Note: Here be fan service!  But it’s done tongue-in-cheek, and even the characters recognize and occasionally skewer it.]

 

 

Revisiting Usagi Drop

     Welcome, all.  I want you to know that it is my intention to review both current and past anime offerings in this blog.  And while I will inevitably focus more upon current shows, I’ll begin by reviewing a series which I’ve previously reviewed on both other sites for which I write.  Why?  Because Usagi Drop remains my favorite series, set within my favorite genre (slice-of-life) of my favorite medium.  And that’s a lot of favorites!  There is a timeless beauty to its themes of love, loss, and nurture.  Meanwhile, the story-telling itself is quietly passionate but very expressive, exploring a year in two separate but joined lives.

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Daikichi is a 30-year-old bachelor called to his maternal grandfather’s home for the old man’s funeral.  But among the relatives whom he was expecting, he discovers a young girl unknown to him.  Imagine his surprise to learn that she is his grandfather’s illegitimate daughter!  Abandoned long ago by a mother she never knew, 6-year-old Rin was kept secret from the family by her elderly father, who rightly anticipated her rejection and his censure.  But she pays the price after his death, a child coldly ignored by these angry strangers who have come to bury her father.  These invaders look through her but not at her; they speak of her but not to her.  Her father is dead, but it is Rin who is turned into a ghost haunting her own house.

But if Rin is hurt and confused, then so is Daikichi.  These people are his family, whom he knows as loving and compassionate.  Where did all that go?  Embarrassed and scandalized as they are, how can they blame a child for the situation of her birth?  Rin is discussed; Rin is ignored; Rin is bullied and bereft.  And Daikichi is exasperated.  Only he asks her if she’s OK.  Only he shows her sympathy and offers comfort, even allowing her to sleep against him as he sits watching the incense and altar at night.  And so it’s no surprise that when grief finally breaks her down to tears, it is to Daikichi that she goes.

But where will she go permanently?  As the family prepare to return to their own homes and lives after the funeral, the question of Rin’s future becomes unavoidable.  How can the family quietly rid itself of the shame she represents?  But when the idea of an orphanage is proposed, Daikichi can no longer stomach the hypocritical machinations of his elders.  Tenuous as their gestures towards each other have been, a connection has been made, and Daikichi is unwilling to watch Rin suffer further.  Angered beyond the reach of his family’s anger, indignant at cruelty so casually heaped upon an innocent child, Daikichi calls to her and offers himself as her new guardian; and upon this pivot, whole worlds turn.

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True, Daikichi is the only one present who has shown her any kindness or concern.  But Rin has only just met him days before, and knows virtually nothing about him.  For his part, Daikichi is a dedicated bachelor with absolutely no clue how to rear a child.  So each has every reason to be terrified of the offer made.  Now watch the subtle nuances of expression on Rin’s face as the idea sinks in, the mix of desperate hope against abject fear.  And then feel that sudden crunch in your gut as you realize that, yes, this really is the first time that one of the adults has called to her by name.

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Viewers are ultimately rewarded with watching a family construct itself basically from scratch, a process of slow and delicate growth in which love is given but trust must be earned.  Luckily for its audience, Usagi Drop remains grounded enough in quirky realism to provide both insight and humor.  What do young children eat?  How do you register a child for school?  For that matter, how do you size children for clothes?  Daikichi and Rin have a lot to learn and a lot of adjustments to make.  The fun is in learning with them.

Some final observations:  Enjoy this series as its own artistic achievement.  The manga upon which it is based covers a far greater span of time and proceeds in some unsettling and–in my own opinion–thoroughly distasteful directions.  This is one time when ignorance of the source material is a real blessing!  Secondly, do not, as I initially was, be put-off by the unfinished look of the artwork.  I came to interpret that look as a subtle commentary upon how a life being lived is always somewhat unfinished.  (Rather clever of them to sneak that in.)  Finally, I encourage you to relax and allow yourself to be swept up in this story.  Its quietude and simplicity mask a depth of emotion, into which you might dive only to emerge refreshed.  Come witness this rare beauty common to both pain and joy.  Come see just how great an anime series can be!