Read on to find out what each of the Con Artists are watching in the Fall 2015 anime season, as well as some short thoughts on each show, as of the middle of August.
I’m watching three shows this season, and I’ll take them in ascending order of my enjoyment.
Yet another in the long line of shows in which people are trapped inside an MMORPG, Overlord attempts to break out of that mold in a number of ways. The main character, as of this writing, appears to be the only person from the game to be trapped in it; rather than other players, his entire guild hall and its NPC guardians (now living breathing characters that still act out their programming) seem to have been plunked down into a fantasy world. This world follows some of the same rules as the game (items, spells), but is otherwise completely different – it is not the same map layout as the game, and new countries, with their own populations, feuds, and histories, control the land.
The single biggest thing to set this anime apart is that the protagonist isn’t one player amongst thousands of others of similar level, all trying to figure out the rules of their new world. Instead, he is nearly omnipotent compared to anyone he has met, a level 100 spellcaster with top-tier magical items in personal control of a mighty fortress guarded by an army of high-level NPC subordinates. With hints that he may try to conquer the lands to spread the name of his guild (ostensibly in order to find other players that may have been trapped who might recognize the guild name), and with him being a shrewd, cautious protagonist that may be slowly morphing into the mindset of his undead skeleton avatar, there’s a lot of interesting ideas that could really make this show something special.
It’s the lowest on my list because of its potential pitfalls. His subordinates all have very trope-y personalities, and their interactions tire rapidly. His most powerful subordinate, a demoness named Albedo, is madly, almost creepily in love with him, and their interactions often threaten to derail the plot. Thanks to him being the only “player”, and with large countries of non-players all over, there is a danger of the show turning into more of a standard fantasy anime, which would cause the lengthy, elaborate setup of the first few episodes to be a total waste. Still, the show has a lot of potential.
Rokka – Braves of the Six Flowers
In this show, a standard story of a party of destined adventurers facing down The Big Bad is turned on its head. For one thing, the Mesoamerican aesthetic of the show’s setting is something rare in anime, and looks cool. The larger world-building is also really well done – the Big Bad is a problem that comes along every so often, and the people living there know it. Temples are established across the land to seek the favor of the 80+ gods, receive their blessing of control of some element (time, sun, gunpowder), and train to be chosen as one of the six Braves that will face the Big Bad if the day comes. It’s a very interesting setup, and one that is fleshed out well as the show goes on. The most important difference, and where the show is going to be made or broken, is with its characters and their interactions. This time around, instead of 6 Braves, there are apparently 7, meaning one of them is trying to sabotage the effort on behalf of the Big Bad. Fortunately, the characters are distinct enough from each other and have enough personality that it is genuinely hard to tell who the fake is.
On the downside, I don’t really like any of the characters. It’s hard to put my finger on why, though the closest I can come is that I don’t understand their motivations. Now, it’s still early in the show, as we’ve only recently been introduced to the whole cast, but an unlikable/unbelievable cast has the potential to sink a show this focused on its characters. Maybe they’re all unlikable so that we’ll be rooting for one of them to be exposed? Overall, I’m still enjoying the show quite a bit, as the setting, plot, and world building are more than balancing out the characters.
Here’s a show that came out of nowhere to be my personal favorite of the season. GATE opens with the titular portal opening up in Tokyo and a medieval fantasy army (horsemen, dragon riders, ogres) pouring out of it. Modern firepower and well-trained JSDF soldiers quickly repulse the attack, and then establish a force to enter the gate and explore the world on the other side. What they find is a fantasy world that both plays to some anime tropes (the main character’s squad soon befriends an elf girl, a sorceress, and, inexplicably, a religious warrior whose garb is gothic lolita) and has remarkably complex internal politics of its own. Where the show separates itself from the herd is that it is, first and foremost, a military show with some fantasy elements. It is firmly about Recon Group 3, its commander, and the JSDF soldiers under his command exploring this new land, befriending its locals, and fighting when necessary. Sure, there’s a harem’s worth of girls, and they get screen time and befriend the JSDF squad, but most of the time is spent on the soldiers’ experiences and their effects on the local power structure.
What really makes the show for me is how realistically it’s all presented (an odd description for a show set in a swords and sorcery fantasy world, I know). The effects of modern weaponry on medieval armies is pretty much exactly what you’d expect, with crushingly one-sided battles, and the show does not shy away from showing combat casualties. All of the soldiers are adults, they all dress in nearly identical uniforms, they drive around in armored columns. It’s like they’re actually in an army. Even more to their credit, they act professionally even when confronted with elf girls and gothic lolita religious figures, instead of the whole thing devolving into harem shenanigans. In short, it’s refreshingly different from everything you would expect from a show with this premise, and I’m excited to see where it’s going.
I was originally following four shows this season, though that is now down to three, for reasons I will explain below.
This show may be my new go-to example for “great idea, poor execution”. High school anime have never really been my favorite genre, so Charlotte already had a strike against it when I started. However, its basic premise and mechanics were interesting enough for me to keep going, at least for awhile.
In Charlotte, a small percentage of young people have begun to manifest superpowers around puberty. In order to protect them and keep their existence secret from the general population and those who would exploit them, they are brought to a special academy. There, the strongest of them act as a special team to find other powered teens and either prevent them from abusing their powers or bring them to the school. It’s basically the X-Men filtered through the lens of high school anime.
What I like about the superpowers in the show is that they are largely defined by their limitations. The main character can possess others, but only for about five seconds, and doing so causes his own body to collapse wherever he left it. Another guy can all but teleport across space, but causes a massive shockwave when he does so, and one of the girls can make herself invisible to a single person at a time. It makes the sequences where the characters use their abilities interesting, and sets up a lot of cool encounters with other powered individuals.
The problem is that this is the extent of Charlotte’s good ideas. The characters themselves are almost universally mean-spirited, dim or obnoxious, with the main character nearly killing multiple people for petty, selfish reasons in episode one. It is, however, a strong consolation when the girl he has his eye on gives him one of the harshest yet most polite verbal smack-downs I’ve heard in recent anime. Sadly, the rest of the cast has nothing to recommend them and regularly abuses the powers they themselves have said need to be controlled.
In the end though, the straw that broke the camel’s back was the protagonist’s little sister. This girl is almost every trope I loathe about younger siblings in anime rolled into one. She dotes on her big brother, uses the ‘de arimasu’ sentence-ender constantly with no context, and is so forcibly cute that I want to stuff her in a box and ship her off to Abu Dhabi. She isn’t a character; she’s a ball of hackneyed traits designed to emit moe radiation.
Her worst trait is her cooking. Not that she’s bad at cooking – no, that would be too pedestrian. She pours sweet pizza sauce over everything she makes, including omelets and French toast, much to her brother’s disgust. This flat, unfunny gag is repeated at least once per episode, and when episode 4 jumped straight into it from the start, I had to stop. I am not willing to put up with your grating audience-appeal bulls**t, show. And so, Charlotte has earned the dubious honor of being one of the handful of shows I’ve ever purposefully dropped.
Rokka: Braves of the Six Flowers (Rokka no Yuusha)
Rokka was the first new series of the current anime season that caught my eye, mostly for its setting and interesting take on the ‘fated heroes’ concept. The Mesoamerican environments and expansive mythology are a nice change of pace from the more common pseudo-Asian or time-locked medieval European settings you see in most anime. It’s also fun to see a series where interpersonal conflict between the protagonists is a core part of the dynamic, at least for the time being. I like Adlet Mayer’s use of gadgetry and underhanded tactics, and all of the protagonists seem to have fairly unique skill sets and synergize well in combat (at least those who’s powers we have seen in action).
I do have some issues with Rokka, however. In spite of the setting being clearly inspired by Aztec, Mayan and Incan history, all of the protagonists are named and dressed like they stepped out of a stereotypical JRPG. We see several characters in episode one dressed in fantasy interpretations of Aztec war garb, so it’s clear the designers knew such things existed, yet we end up stuck with Final Fantasy knockoffs that generally look awkward and out of place (I’m looking especially hard at you, rabbit-eared princess). After setting up such an interesting world, it feels like a disservice to not carry through with your costume and character design.
My other major concern is one of characters. While I like how Adlet and Princess Nachetanya are introduced, the sudden introduction of over half our protagonists in one episode made me reel a little, and I fear that we won’t have the time to get to know them before we’re off to fight the final climactic battle with the demonic lord. Even worse, the characters so far already lack substance and don’t really grab me in any meaningful way. It’s possible we will get to know them better as the show continues, so I’m holding out hope that Rokka will get its cast straightened out and make the most of its setting.
Following the adventures of a Japanese Self Defense Force unit sent into a fantasy world, GATE is a lot of fun to watch. The soldiers are competent, the action is flashy and energetic, and the impact of the invasion of an alternate dimension is never far from anyone’s mind. 1st Lt. Itami is quirky without being too over the top, and his supporting squad has a bit of character that I hope is expanded on as the show progresses. The overall tone of the show tends to swing from laid-back to strangely grim, considering the bright contemporary visuals. This can get a bit jarring now and then, but I may just be particularly sensitive to that kind of shift.
While I’m really enjoying GATE so far, I have a sneaking suspicion that it could all fall apart at any moment. This is mainly due to the fantasy world side of the cast, which primarily consists of nubile young women and girls, and threatens to break out into a harem with every passing moment. The gothic Lolita priestess in particular feels shoehorned in, though the others at least seem to have more going on and are proving to be compelling characters in their own right.
So far, the writers have shown remarkable restraint and kept most of the women from fawning over Itami. Yet in every episode so far, I’ve felt a sense of dread, thinking, “Oh, please don’t let it happen now.” I’m keeping my fingers crossed that my fears are just a product of my own cynicism and that the show’s creators have the good sense not to let a show about culture clash and military conflict devolve into harem shenanigans. Developments in recent episodes have me… concerned.
Gangsta follows Worick and Nic; two “Handymen” that work as muscle for hire in the crime-infested city of Ergastulum. Along with Alex, a former prostitute, they do odd jobs for the local criminal bosses, using Worick’s cunning and Nic’s superhuman strength and speed to survive. As she follows them, Alex begins to discover more and more about the pair’s past, and the dangerous individuals known as “Tags”.
After the disappointment that was Jormungand, I’ve been hoping to find a good guns and grit anime. So far, it looks like Gangsta is fitting the bill nicely. The city is claustrophobic and gritty as sandpaper, resembling a cross between mob-ruled Sicily and Kosovo, and the music matches the black, cynical tone well. Both Worick and Nic are fun to watch, but it’s always clear that they are not good people, and the only reason we’re rooting for them is because they may be less awful than the rest of the city. One of the more interesting elements is that Nic, though inhumanly tough and deadly, is almost completely deaf. Since he can’t hear his own voice well, his speech is muddled, and it’s an interesting trait that helps set him apart even further from the rest of the cast.
I’m also happy to see the writers taking a slow-burning approach to the characters’ history. We learn a bit more about them each episode, without it ever feeling like an exposition dump. There’s a good deal of visual storytelling, and thanks to Alex only recently joining the Handymen, we have someone who can ask questions on the audience’s behalf. I appreciate an action show willing to temper itself with character exploration rather than having to find a new excuse for a fight scene every ten minutes.
If you’re looking for a darker series with decent action, then I’m glad to say Gangsta looks to be up your alley for now. It’s lacking a bit of polish in the fight choreography, but I think it could really shine as the show progresses. So long as it keeps its dark sense of humor and interesting characters front and center, it should be one of the better action shows coming out this season.
Rokka no Yuusha: Braves of the Six Flowers
I was really excited for this show and I have not felt disappointed yet. It’s rare that I watch a show in a cour where I am genuinely excited for the next episode. Rokka has a fascinating world where I am always excited for more world-building. It subtly weaves in elements that I wish would go deeper, but the little snippets that we get make this show worth watching. Usually I get irritated when male and female characters are separated in skill by a trope (women must be healers! men must be warriors!), but Rokka makes sure that this all plays into its mythology. The Goddess, and original warrior who defeated the Demon God, chooses six warriors (“Braves”) to defeat the Demon God upon its resurrection. The “Saints” of various elements (Salt, Mountain, etc) are vast and are only women. The men who are chosen are done so out of skill that doesn’t in any way relate to magic. This makes for a very interesting world that so far always obeys the rules it sets down.
I appreciate having a main character who lives up to his boasting. Adlet Mayer’s (that red haired guy smirking in the middle) constant jabbering about being “The Strongest Man in the World” is definitely irritating but his fighting skills totally back it up. He is definitely a character worth rooting for. The other characters I shift in and out with. The plot sets it up such that when the six Braves try and go to the Demon world to defeat the Demon God, they all get trapped in the Mountain Temple after a barrier activates. Since only a Brave could activate the barrier, everyone begins to suspect a traitor in the midst. To truly set the mystery off, there are seven Braves that gather at the temple instead of six (which according to the mythology of this world is completely impossible).
Some of these characters drive me crazy and because we don’t know enough about them everyone is suspicious. I am impressed that even when we get a little tidbit of information on a character the show never allows us enough to vindicate said person. There’s always a quirk, a subtle comment, or a random act that keep them in the running for being the traitor amongst the group. It takes great skill for a show to pull that off. Who’s the traitor amongst the group?! My money is on Nachetanya. Why?! She’s the bunny girl and I don’t trust her! Her innocent act also belies a girl who is clearly gifted at concealing her emotions. My second bet is on Maura, the Saint of Mountains. She’s from a very ancient line and she claims she knows nothing about the barrier that has all the characters trapped. She’s also one of the well known Saints (people speak of her in legend) so it seems VERY suspicious that she is so clueless.
To close, this is a fun show and I really enjoy watching it every week. I wish it had more world building but with only 13 episodes I understand that it has to focus on its mystery.
Ah Symphogear…We meet again…again….
Symphogear‘s first episode is a handbasket of B.S. and I am BEYOND excited that this show is continuing its intense stream of nonsense. In a lot of ways, Symphogear is poised to just keep going. We’ve gathered a team of six ladies who’s song powered armor is meant to save the world from… whatever the hell the writers decide is a threat. This time around it’s alchemy. The main antagonist, Carolyn, has some sort of vendetta against the people who burned her father at the stake and has come to Earth to destroy everyone. She creates homunculi by stealing memories from people (mostly men) and using these memories to animate her alchemical “dolls”. The show ups the ante (as to be expected) by making alchemy vastly superior to Symphogear at this point. I’m sure the power of song, justice, and plot pulled completely out of the writers’ “you know where” will bring our heroines back to the top.
Symphogear GX is already veering down the road of Nanoha StrikerS in that is has waaaay too many characters coming onto the scene. Carolyn possesses six of her own homunculi dolls, each with a distinct personality. There’s also a homunculus that appears to a clone of Carolyn and is the carrier of some sort of German (?) book that holds the secrets to alchemy. Glorious….
Did I mention that the lesbian angle has been expanded from acute to obtuse in this season? The characters are blushing at each other all the time, making suggestive comments both in and out of battle, and it’s very off-putting. I have no problem with there being lesbians in a show, nor in this show for that matter (Shirabe and Kirika were practically an item in the last season), but Symphogear is suddenly trying to generate a fanfiction.net explosion by enabling non-existant pairings (since when did Maria and Tsubasa blush at each other?!). It’s weird and out of character and I’m not sure what the creators are trying to accomplish here.
To end on a good note, I appreciate that Symphogear sticks to some of its plot points in Season 2. Maria is unable to transform yet because she was in possession of an artificially created “Gungnir”. Her Symphogear was destroyed and she gave up Gungnir to Hibiki when she deemed her its rightful owner. Shirabe and Kirika were experimented on in an American laboratory to become hosts for Fine’s soul and Symphogear users. Their ability to sync with the Symphogear was due to a drug that the main antagonist, Dr. Vers developed called “Linker”. In this season they are unable to stay in Symphogear for longer than a few minutes due to their reliance on Linker.
Here’s to hoping Symphogear continues to be absurd all the way through. I will full admit that this is one of those B-rated shows that I’d watch with good friends and good wine any day of the week, but that doesn’t stop me from telling people at Genericon just how dumb it is. I am looking forward to the rest of this show and its nonsense.