Funomenal First Impressions: Anime Season Summer 2016

Trying out a new jam for this season: instead of having a two-parter half-season overview, I will write up a first impression post one week into the season and pick out a few shows worth talking about for a condensed half-season overview. As for the end-of-season write-ups…I’m not sure about them yet, since I tend not to complete shows on time before another season starts up.

I will be adopting the overview’s rating system, but for the first impression, only shows that I have made clear conclusions for will be given a rating.

Now, with the introduction out of the way, these are the shows I’ve taste-tested thus far.

Sweetness & Lightning | Amaama to Inazuma

Director: Tarou Iwasaki

Series Composition: Mitsutaka Hirota

Animation Production: TMS Entertainment

Genres: Slice of Life, Parenting, Cooking

Episodes watched/aired: 1/2

Here’s the thing: great stories have the ability to impact you within minutes. And defining storytelling is much more complex than just the choice of words on a page or a script, it’s the whole package that includes the atmosphere the storytelling takes place, and of course, the storyteller (i.e. medium) himself. And when all these elements resonate in one common wavelength, the most simplest of stories can have emotionally significant weight. I’ve heard few more boring premises than an anime series about a single dad, who wants to cook good food for his young daughter, and yet, it is currently still the only first episode this season that had the ability to force my cheeks into a smile, and have the emotional bite to make me tear up at the end.

Sweetness & Lightning’s dramatic elements revolves around the familiar premise of a dead relative, whose passing has left a hole in the remaining parent, who has to deal with both the pain of loss, and a daughter who is still partially oblivious to the whole thing.

The emotional climax of the first episode however, came from the most unexpected of places.

It is obvious that Kohei is a good father. The show’s confident enough with its subject matter to not hamfist its themes with cheesy dialogue from onlookers or cartoonishly obvious framing devices, Kohei’s attentive care for Tsumugi was instead shown through stills of him working at his desk late at night, having already tucked her snugly in bed (and waking up at his desk after burning the midnight oil), or showing that he knows the lyrics to the theme song of his daughter’s favourite TV show, which hints at his awareness of what his daughter is up to. However, it is also competently shown, that having to win the bread for the household and attend to the duties of parenting alone has left Kohei overwhelmed, which means that he can longer provide homecooked meals for her daughter, due to lack of funds and time.

With the inclusion of Kotori, whose presence provided another source of subtle endearment (Kotori heavily hints at being a girl suffering from loneliness, having to deal with a shy personality who fears letting down people, and a mother who’s rarely home), the emotional climax literally amounts to a meal of just freshly cooked bowls of rice, Tsumugi happily proclaiming it as delicious, ending with a close-up of Kohei’s face, who’s trying (and failing) to hold back tears.

Commenting on the technical details of the episode, it would be important to note the character animation for both Kohei and (especially) Tsumugi. Kohei’s postures and expressive palette are varied and were perfectly capable of depicting a loving father being pushed to his limit. Tsumugi’s model animation, however, is a joy to behold: bouncy, energetic and full of childish flare, she is practically benchmark-setting in terms of characterisation through animation. 11 year old voice actress Rina Endo also provided her with an organically childish vocal personality, which complements the curious and energetic nature of children. The background styling for Sweetness & Lightning is mostly standard fare, with slightly above-average visual flare during the cherry blossom sequences. The background music follows suit, with a series of simple tracks that complement the mundane subject matter with chamber ensembles of strings and light woodwind solos. The show is often musically silent however.

Episode rating: *****

Final say: FOLLOW WEEKLY

If this was just one OVA episode, I would’ve been satisfied with this touching short story, provided that the episode was cut at the moment Kohei received a hug from Tsumugi, and adding in a few seconds of him promising her that he will learn how to cook. But alas, the show continues, and boy am I ready for my spirits to be lifted once again by this absolutely killer of a family story. Sweetness & Lightning earns my biggest recommendation thus far for the Summer season.

Amanchu!

Chief Director: Junichi Sato

Director: Kenichi Kasai

Series Composition: Deko Akao

Animation Production: J.C. Staff

Genres: Slice of Life, Nature, Iyashikei

Episodes watched/aired: 1/1

I finished watching Aria the Animation a few weeks ago, during my trip to China. Part of my reason to finish watching at least the first season during that time, was actually in anticipation for Amanchu. But for the most part, the Aria franchise’s reputation amongst all sections of the fandom as the greatest slice of life series is certainly not a small name to live up to, and thus, I thought that I’ve delayed watching the series for long enough.

One of the observations I made whilst watching Aria, revolved around my fascination with how the series was constructed: every aspect of its design is centred around a reoccurring motif of storytelling: Akari’s unquenchable curiosity, her emails to and from Ai and of course, the character of the city itself. Amanchu tries to retain this idea of whimsical storytelling, with mixed success.

For the most part, the admittedly corny lines sprouted from all the whimsical characters in Aria are plenty to prepare me for Amanchu: this series seemed dead set on celebrating this frustrating concept we call ‘life’, all the way from the nonstop visual celebration of the ocean, the weird personality of Hikari and the mundane yet adorable ‘treasure map’ that leads to the home room, where a teacher tried too hard to be cool (but did kinda succeed.)

Yep, they kept the faces.

Amanchu’s setting is advertised as a celebration of the world under the sea, but unfortunately most of the series kept its scenes above sea level. Its handling of the main leads’ introductions however, were enough to help guide the audience into this careless and perfect world.

So yes, Amanchu’s similarities to Aria are apparent, both in terms of its characters’ similar relational dynamics and personalities, and also its relentless messages of inspiration. It’s certainly pretty enough. Despite not having many scenes to showcase any underwater glory, what little of it we got were promising. The OP showcased some vibrant underwater character animation and background art, which can potentially be a hint to what comes up later.

If anything disappointed me the most, it was actually the music. Odd, because most, if not all anime series helmed by Junichi Sato in various leading staff positions, such as Aria, Tamayura and Croisee in a Foreign Labyrinth, all featured well produced, emotionally resonate and lyrically gorgeous background music and insert songs. It has been only one episode, but Amanchu’s soundtrack currently scraps by with simple guitar and simplistic piano-led tracks, with no recognisable musical motifs or themes: the tracks were decent to the ear, but they do not enhance the picture. Right now, Amanchu’s soundtrack is merely paying lip service to the above-mentioned titles in terms of presence and personality.

Episode rating: ***1/2

Final say: FOLLOW WEEKLY

Amanchu at this stage is in a safe position: not horribly bland, but definitely not evocative of the Iyashikei genre’s best. However, its potential is certainly set high by its subject matter.

DAYS

Director & Series Composition: Konosuke Uda

Animation Production: MAPPA

Genres: Sports, School

Episodes watched/aired: 1/2

Little can be said about this episode thus far: the most it achieved is establishing the status quo for Tsukushi as a beginner with determination as unstoppable as a charging bull.

As an animation production, ‘unremarkable’ comes to mind. The background styling is kept to a bare-bones functionality, with little attempts made with more ambitious lighting effects, though the action animation for the character models during moments of game play can be commended for being constantly in motion and with clear attention given to the players’ positioning on the field.

As of right now, no final verdicts will be assigned, on the basis that the premise for DAYS is established with little development at this point.

Episode rating: **1/2

Handa-kun

Director: Yoshitaka Koyama

Series Composition: Michiko Yokote

Animation Production: Diomedea

Genres: Comedy, Slice of Life

Episodes watched/aired: 1/1

Barakamon was an advocate for the slice of life genre, and I honestly hoped for little more than perhaps another season of it. But instead, we got Handa-kun, a PREQUEL manga spin-off series, and a resulting anime adaptation. I can certainly say that I never asked for a prequel, since the most interesting thing about Barakamon was Handa’s progression of becoming a better adult, through interactions with the villagers.

Well then, what do we have? Half of the episode is a completely anime-original sequence, purely meant for tongue-in-cheek meta commentary on the franchise and the production studio itself. If anything, what amused me the most about this entire eight minute scene is my own fabricated association of it with the fact that it was quite literally making fun of Handa-kun’s premise being COMPLETELY different than Barakamon. Oh, and apparently Handa is a high school celebrity. Hard to imagine, considering how awkward he is with social interactions and his pretentious levels of self-glorification, as evidenced by the original series. But I digress.

Once the adaptation starts following the source material, the show starts to form an almost oxymoronic relationship between Handa and his high school peers: his artistic prowess in calligraphy and smashing good looks has garnered him significant popularity from the other students, but they are too scared to approach him, since he has apparently sealed himself off from any external interactions. A typical ‘too cool for you’ projection, if you will. In contrast, Handa’s twistedly awkward self instead perceives his environment as being completely toxic: he believes that his classmates despise him, and so, he closes himself off from others. Drama ensues, as Handa mistakenly throws away a unsigned love letter in direct view of the letter’s sender, thinking that it was a challenge to a battle.

Talk about being blatant: a cute girly girl and an awkward brute.

Misunderstanding is the prime comedic weapon for Handa-kun, it seems. However, my enjoyment of it is rather bruised by my expectations and my taste in comedy: most of the show’s gags thus far has failed to affect me, and NONE of Barakamon’s charms seemed to have rubbed off on its prequel. Also, I still don’t understand this habit of anime series with inserting a single character, whose design is WILDLY different from the overall aesthetic of the show, in order to emphasis the character’s differences in look and personality. It’s just lazy characterisation, other obvious examples being Accel World, where the design of the main character’s obesity and stature was needlessly exaggerated, making him a literal eyesore when viewed with the overall aesthetic of the entire show: he was literally the ONLY ‘fat kid’ that was designed that way.

But nothing pisses me off more than Kanda-kun’s ED sequence (once again…blame my poorly placed expectations). Barakamon featured perhaps one of the most awe-inspiring ED sequences for slice of life anime this side of the millennium: alongside sublime watercolour style visuals and blindingly optimistic imagery of birds flying over beaches and Haru running with her hands full of candy, NoisyCell’s song ‘Innocence’ (what a PERFECT title!) inspires with passionate vocals, simple yet evocative lyrics and almost overwhelmingly dense instrumentation. This was tailor-made for Barakamon.

Handa-kun decided that its main character strolling in front of a slowly panning back camera and coloured vector triangles is enough. Lazy, even without bringing in comparisons from the title it was supposed to be a prequel of.

Episode rating: **

The ‘fair go’ guy in me is willing to give this series a few more episodes. Hopefully, some more prominent side characters can add some interactional colour to the series with Handa.

This Art Club Has a Problem! | Kono Bijutsu-bu niwa Mondai ga Aru!

Director: Kei Oikawa

Series Composition: Naruhisa Arakawa

Animation Production: Feel

Genres: Art, Slice of Life, Comedy

Episodes watched/aired: 1/1

The obligatory seasonal light comedy series that I find enjoyment sitting through weekly, just so I can satisfy the simple boy that still lives in me. With some light fan service, a token tsundere female lead and a resident male otaku (oh and a club president, but that guy’s practically BEGGING to be forgotten), this show starts out small with a tiny cast, but promises more interactional comedy for later episodes.

As perhaps one of this season’s better produced titles for such a demographic, I will take this harmless piece of entertainment. Stay away if you dislike any level of fan service, however.

Episode rating: **1/2

Final say: INDECISIVE

FOLLOW WEEKLY, if you seek some vanilla comedy, with perhaps a hint of romance.

SKIPPABLE, if you dislike any level of fan service, or are not enamoured by plot-less, gag-driven shows.

Mob Psycho 100

Director: Yuzuru Tachikawa

Series Composition: Hiroshi Seko

Music: Kenji Kawai

Animation Production: Bones

Genres: Supernatural, Comedy, Action, Slice of Life

Episodes watched/aired: 1/1

Way to make an impression: stylistically, Mob Psycho 100 perhaps the most daring, as the limits of the aspect ratio canvas is repeatedly experimented on, with oil paint, crayon and rough pencil art styles, effortlessly by some creative sequences and emotive character animation, followed up by an inherently bizarre OP sequence. And if a series’ genre tags and preview text are in any way reliable in predicting what a show will entail, this show’s combination is certainly a unique one.

Despite featuring some very bizarre supernatural elements and balls-to-the-walls electric action, the show is rather relaxed in terms of plot construction: the reoccurring motif of countdowns during the OP and the percentage of Shigeo’s anger level during the episode breaks are certainly interesting ways of maintaining suspense (the premise being that he will explode, causing mass destruction, should he ever reach the anger level of 100%), since the episode mainly features character interaction and establishment, with much comedy centring around his relationship with his boss Arataka, a lovable con-man who’s constantly on edge, pretending to be an esper but was instead relying on Shigeo’s awesome powers.

Mob Psycho 100 is not a show that only dwells on laugh out loud comedic timing, but also slightly subdued moments of double-meaning character interactions that are a combination of self-referential exposition and extreme anime faces.

Celebrity composer Kenji Kawai’s score for the anime series thus far evokes a sense of muted inspiration: Kawai’s creative voice is unfortunately drowned out beneath the series, as it failed to leave a lasting impression, or establish any interesting musical themes. Although some interesting instrument choices should be noted: banjo-like string textures, pan flutes and specifically chosen tones with electronics that mostly avoid bombast, despite the supplemented usage of electric guitar licks during one of its later action scenes.

Episode rating: ****

Final say: FOLLOW WEEKLY

With a rather interesting premise plus some enthusiastic creativity in its visual department, Mob Psycho 100 is ambitious and certainly a joy to watch.

New Game

Director: Yoshiyuki Fujiwara

Series Composition: Fumihiko Shimo

Animation Production: Dogakobo

Genres: Comedy, Slice of Life

Episodes watched/aired: 2/2

I thoroughly enjoyed Sansha Sanyou from last season: it was a well produced character-driven comedy, with superb designs and character animation. And since New Game! is a show from the same tree, plus a promised look into game production, it feels like my perfect moe trip for the season, since I found the character designs adorable as hell, as well as having some unique flavours of having a post-high school setting.

Thus far, little intricacies of game production were actually showcased, instead, the show maintains the cutesy and relaxed disposition, with a few moments of realistic depictions of workplace relationships and the environment, allowing it to retain a sense of grounded realism. The presented comedy are similar to shows such as GochiUsa, in that they are based on character dynamics instead of constant gag build-ups.

Episode 1 rating: ***

Episode 2 rating: ***

Final say: FOLLOW WEEKLY

As a cute girls series, New Game is respectable enough without leaving its demographic safe zones completely: there are only tiny flickers of fan service. Despite that, the show is relatively inoffensive to be watched by most demographics. Just don’t go expecting Shirobako (still need to watch that myself).

Orange

Director: Hiroshi Hamasaki

Series Composition: Yuuko Kakihara

Music: Hiroaki Tsutsumi

Animation Production: Telecom Animation Film, TMS Entertainment

Genres: Drama, Romance

Episodes watched/aired: 2/2

You know…the first episode of Orange was rather quick in reminding me of Honey and Clover. I proclaimed the latter series as having one of the best depicted friendships I’ve ever witnessed in anime, as it was genuine in its exploration of their relational dynamics, personal secrets and of course the lengths in which they go to in order to support each other in times of crisis. But as I thought deeper, themes of regret, nostalgia and the courage to look and dash forward were also common threads between these two titles. One is already considered a masterpiece in my book, so how did Orange fare?

Quite honestly? I see Orange as a very strong example of storytelling while taking full advantage of its medium: everywhere I see flourishes of visual creativity, dynamic shot compositions, moody background design and lighting, strong showcase of impactful sound design and use of background music.

The focal point introduced in episode one; being a letter to a teenage Naho from herself ten years into the future, has garnered the show with significant potential in creating effective drama: the idea of wanting to reverse regrettable decisions and building empathy in human relationships are certainly relevant issues in contemporary society. In fact, Orange is certainly willing to explore this premise with more weighted intensity: Naho’s reserved character is given even more organic development, when she commented on her own inability to reveal that she has made lunch for Kakeru (the letter does mention that the future Naho regretted her decision of not making lunch for him), saying that ‘a letter can’t change a person’s personality easily.’ Kakeru’s interactions with Naho were given its own subtle unspoken language: his empathy is silent and its showcased through simple moments, such as Kakeru knowing that Naho wanted the curry bread, even without her saying so.

When exploring the depicted friendship as a whole: the meaningless banter about nicknames, baseball and bread, quick-cut dialogue, subtle depictions of character dynamics between shuffled pairings and emotive character models were paramount in presenting an amazingly organic-feeling friendship.

Like I said before, visually the show is spectacular and bristling with energy. Throughout the episodes, the overall canvas of the background layers are bathed in a subtle, practically unnoticeable layer of softened glow, with more pronounced soft lighting applied to more bright areas of the scene. The lighting effect are also added to the areas of the character models where light will most likely hit (i.e. facing the sun, or towards the window), allowing the show to shine with an enhanced sense of solid presence. Orange is at it’s most stunning during late sunsets, where the colour palette is changed into a washed out shade of gold and light green, with even more pronounced lighting that does not wash out the textures, but instead invoke a sense of reflective warmth.

Character and object animation also has its own highlights, with the second episode’s soccer match a great showcase moment. If I have one small gripe, it would be the animation for Azusa, though this is me being extremely nitpicky. With the knowledge, that Azusa’s voice actress and animation perfectly complemented her highly energetic personality, there are brief moments where I felt that her model was being overly animated, the example being the few frames where she was holding the two bags of bread.

The soundtrack for Orange is in part pretty standard fare for its genre: chamber ensembles of strings, guitar and woodwind solos. However, moments in its two episodes featured some tracks that helped set apart the series’ musical soundscape: extroverted passages of jamming guitars, drum kit and background piano that seemed to be taking inspiration from country westerns, which helped in boosting the energy of the accompanying scenes. However, some excellent moments in the series were helped by the effective use of musical silence: the lack of music did help elevate a few dialogue scenes shared by Naho and Kateru, while examples of great sound design were showcased in sudden moments of complete silence, when the entire screen is dominated by a single sentence from the letter.

Episode 1 rating: ****1/2

Episode 2 rating: ****

Final say: HOLD FOR MARATHON

Orange has the potential to be a really memorable ride, and I really believe a few hours of complete immersion will provide viewers with an experience that will stay with them.

Rewrite

WHEN WILL THIS SHOW GET GOOD, PUNK?

Director & Series Composition: Tensho (Motoki Tanaka)

Animation Production: 8-Bit

Genres: Drama, Fantasy, Romance, Fantasy

Episode watched/aired: 2/2

Two episodes and almost seventy minutes in, and I still have trouble remembering or even taking notice of the characters’ presence: to me, they are nameless, faceless and…well, completely bland.

So far, Rewrite feels half-finished: the script still needs a least a few dozen rewrites (heh), the characters were given barely enough screen time to just recognise them on sight (their respective introduction felt like lazy text inserts), the premise is still unclear and everything that was presented, felt utterly uninteresting. And you may accuse me of exaggerating here, but the aesthetics of the show feels completely wrong, especially the character designs. Two episodes in and I am still confident in saying that these are some of the worst visual novel character design adaptations I’ve ever seen.

What’s the main character’s thing? How would I describe him in terms of personality? Questions that I would REALLY love answers to right now.

Episode 1 rating: **

Episode 2 rating: *1/2

Taboo Tattoo

Director: Takashi Watanabe

Series Composition: Masamitsu Otake, Mayori Sekijima

Animation Production: J.C. Staff

Genres: Action, Fantasy

Episodes watched/aired: 2/2

You know…I’m not sure what I was originally hoping I would get out of this title. Every season has a few of these ‘checkbox’ anime series, and I think Taboo Tattoo received full marks in that regard. Let’s see: MC-kun gets superpowers by accident. MC-kun gets unwillingly wrapped into supernatural world-ending shit. MC-kun has a big-boobed childhood friend, who’s overprotective of (and lusts for) him. Setting is urban fantasy.

You know what…going through the motions, this show’s VERY few moments of inspiration in some brief and moderately impressive action sakuga and awkward comedic timing gives me little reason to continue watching. But admittedly, there is that slight itch of wanting to know what happens next, since some princess did just announce her plans for world domination. Predictable, but hey, it’s just 20 minutes a week.

Episode 1 rating: **

Episode 2 rating: **

Final say: SKIPPABLE

With some moderately heavy fan service involving big-boob girl and a premise that sounds just like hundreds of other Shounen manga and light novels, there really isn’t much to see nor get truly offended over.

Tales of Zestiria the X

Edna’s pretty much the only reason I have left for still following this adaptation.

Director: Haruo Sotozaki

Animation Production: Ufotable

Genres: Adventure, Fantasy, Drama

Episodes watched/aired: 2/2

In one of those few instances where I actually knew most of the source material before watching the anime production, I can say that I am pretty much indifferent at this stage, unless some major additional side story episodes were added to flesh out the political intricacies of Zestiria’s world, since the stuff I got from the game felt half-finished.

A few weeks ago, I finished watching a forty minute OVA that aired in 2014, before the release of the game. Honestly, I hated it: horrible dialogue, decent set designs made uninteresting by boring direction, shot compositions and robotic character animation. Needless to say, my expectations were set moderately low after that. The first two episodes of X didn’t help either.

While the show does try to allow for better character establishment for Alisha, whose introduction in the game was limited to ‘she was found unconscious in some ruins’, the first episode felt like some lazily strung together set pieces to showcase the world in animation. The overhead shots of a city, the action scene on the forest road, the fiery climax on a wasteland: meaningless on their own, confusing when glued together to make a first episode.

The second episode did little better, with competent but still hopelessly uninspired introductions to the main character Sorey and his Seraphim friend Mikleo. But for me, those scenes were useless, as they were simply cut down copies from the 2014 OVA.

In typical Ufotable tradition, the production values of Tales of Zestiria was enough to widen some eyes: detailed background art with above average incorporation of CGI elements for architecture and animated water. The action scenes were also dynamically choreographed and animated, plus sweeping aerial shots of grand landscapes, adding to the perceived size and scale of this fantasy world. However, the production stumbles in its more mundane character animation: when they are not fighting, the characters are wooden and robotic in motion, barely emoting, actively moving or staying animated when standing and talking or horse riding.

Disappointedly, the soundtrack for the adaptation wasn’t given a symphonic upgrade, such as orchestral re-recordings and rearrangements. The OST is directly recycled from the game, which means a poorly produced synth soundscape with fake-sounding strings sections, dry brass and cheap keyboard quality woodwinds. God knows what this soundtrack would’ve sounded like if a high class orchestra played it instead…Unlimited Budget Works my ass.

Episode 0 rating: **

Episode 1 rating: **1/2

As a game, Tales of Zestiria was highly entertaining to play, and its relatively large cast is capable of some pretty amusing interactions. The plot construction itself might not hold up to much scrutiny with an anime adaptation (unless some inspired original content or extensions are added for extra development), but the characters have potential to somewhat prevent a shipwreck. Fingers crossed for Edna’s eventual entry into the fray.


And those are the shows I plan to at least TRY to follow this season. If you have opinions of your own (who doesn’t?), feel free to voice them below, with obvious attention given to the rules of comment section etiquette (be respectable, back up your opinions with smart reasoning, don’t be an ass, etc.)

It’s past midnight, I REALLY need to hit the sack if I want to avoid waking up past noon again.

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2 thoughts on “Funomenal First Impressions: Anime Season Summer 2016

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