Summer 2015 – The Season in Review

The close of the 2015 summer anime season has come and gone, so let’s hear what the Con Artists thought of it.  Read our impressions from earlier in the season here.

SCOTT

As before, I’ll describe my shows in ascending order of enjoyment.

GATE

GATE

Ah, GATE.  Early in the season, as readers may recall, this was my top pick, and now here it is at the bottom.  There’s really two factors at play here.  On the plus side, the other two shows I was following really got on their game and delivered strong stories, which is great.  On the minus side, GATE‘s fanservice aspects gradually started to overpower the interesting culture clash / military side of things.  By the end of the show, the female cast had ballooned, with ever more on the horizon waiting to join Itami’s harem.  The rest of Itami’s unit never really got any characterization (despite their somewhat prominent billing in the opening credits), which was disappointing.

The show had other problems, as well.  Every girl the squad meets in the fantasy world (with the exception of Rory) seems helpless without Itami, with Princess Co Lada being the prime example.  She’s a driven woman that leads her own order of knights, yet spends most of the show in awe of Japan’s culture and industry, and who never really seemed able to push her own agenda.  Speaking of Japan, the show also goes to rather obvious lengths to promote the amazing perfection of Japan’s culture and military.  Self-promotion of the country one’s media is produced in is kind of a given, whether subconscious or not, but GATE seemed particularly blatant about it.  People marvel over food, with (paraphrased) lines like “How can Japan turn even the most ordinary of food into a treasure!”, and their military are, to a man, selfless, brave, but humble warriors who are so much better than the soldiers of any other country that the one time they engage, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

All of this isn’t to say that the show is bad.  It ends with an obvious hook for a second season, and I’ll gladly watch it.  There’s still plenty going on besides the harem, and even those that constitute the harem are better characterized than you’d expect.  It’s just that the show didn’t stay as strong as it started, with a side trip with the girls to Japan that seemed to drag forever without accomplishing anything.  All this aside, GATE is still worth watching.

Overlord

overlord

Overlord moved up in the rankings by consistently keeping things interesting, and methodically avoiding the pitfalls I was concerned about (well, mostly).  It’s definitely got a unique place for itself among the “People get stuck in a MMORPG” genre.  The main character continues to identify more and more with his undead avatar, his schemes are starting to get more interesting and much wider in scope, and the show has slowly accumulated a cast of characters outside of the NPC minions.  The world-building, while not the show’s strongest feature, is present, and it feels like the world will open up quite a bit if Overlord gets the second season it has very clearly set up.  Basically, Overlord has made slow but steady improvements to its formula – it feels like the show is exploring new ideas, but doing so cautiously; still, it’s more than I can say for a lot of anime.

So what’s keeping it from being the best this season?  Two things, really.  One is that the tone of the show jumps around quite a bit.  One episode we might be out adventuring and talking to locals, the next is about a necromantic apocalypse, and then the third will be humorous interactions between the NPCs.  It kind of make sense, as the main character’s time is split between managing his fortress and trying to make a name for himself as an adventurer-for-hire so he can explore the world in disguise, but it still feels a little disjointed.  The other is that, as of yet, there still isn’t anything that can seriously challenge him.  He and his NPCs continue to be far and away more powerful than anything they’ve yet encountered.  There are rumblings, but none of them seem like a credible threat yet, so the show will have figure out another way to introduce tension.  Another show that’s worth watching, though it’s a little more niche than the other shows I’m reviewing.

Rokka: Braves of the Six Flowers

rokka-no-yuusha1

Rokka gets the award for most impressive improvements.  Now, at the end of the show (first season?), I feel like I really understand most of the characters.  Even if I don’t like some of them, that’s OK – their interactions are the driving force behind the show, and the writing for them is solid.  The plot is also very well put together, constantly keeping you guessing as to who is telling the truth and what perspective each character is coming from.  The world-building also slowly continues, tantalizing me with glimpses of how things function in their world.

The mystery aspect of the show is probably its strongest point.  Right up until the reveal, I still had a few characters on my roster of “whodunnit” candidates, to the show’s great credit.  No one among the seven Braves is an idiot, no one had any “tells” that they were the traitor.  While there are a few trope-like aspects to some of the characters, these are easily outweighed by the solid dialogue and complexity on display.  In my opinion, the season’s must-watch anime.

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DAN

Rokka: Braves of the Six Flowers (Rokka no Yuusha)

Rokka: Braves of the Six Flowers

For me, Rokka was definitely the strongest show this season. It had a tightly-focused story, an unusual setting and gradual but tense plot development. The show kept me guessing and excited to learn more with every episode. While I’m not sure how I feel about the way in which the current arc was concluded, it does a fine job of setting up a potential follow-up season.

While I was initially unexcited by most of the cast, almost all of them grew on me as they were forced to interact under stress. Adlet, Flamie and (much to my surprise) Hans were particularly engaging, and we even got to see a bit more behind Goldof’s normally emotionless façade. With the notable exception of Chamot, I liked watching the majority of the Braves try to outwit, outrun and outfight each other, which added a lot of variety to the relatively static setting.

With the characters and story steadily improving throughout the show, my initial worries were mostly addressed. I remain mildly annoyed by the costume design, which still doesn’t make the most of the Mesoamerican setting, but beyond that the visuals are fine. I’m pleased that we were able to work through the current arc, though complications in the final episode make it clear that the Braves’ mission is far from being resolved. Hopefully, the creators get a second season to bring the story to a close. I’m certainly looking forward to a more final conclusion.

GATE

GATE_Cast

After a strong opening, I had hoped against hope that GATE wouldn’t devolve into harem shenanigans and drag down an otherwise enjoyable story about military conflict and culture clash. While the show never fully fell into the harem trap, it was certainly doing a Mexican hat dance around it from the mid-point of the show onward. The trip to the hot springs was the biggest hop in that direction, and even the confused firefight between three different elite military squads did nothing to draw me back in. By the time the show stumbled to the end of the cour, almost nothing had been resolved, and beyond a clumsy setup for our next arc, there was very little to keep me invested beyond admittedly good artwork.

One thing that stuck out to me was how nearly every single one of the women from the Special Region floated the idea of selling her body to the JSDF soldiers. It’s mentioned with unsettling regularity, every time contact with the soldiers is made, and it serves no clear purpose. The Special Region isn’t Westeros, where every human being is measurably worse than the last person you met. It seems relatively egalitarian, and women like Lelei and Rory seem to be well-respected, so there’s little evidence that this is culturally accepted. It seems to exist only to tease sexual content that never actually appears, or perhaps it’s supposed to be a joke, though if that’s the case, it’s in bad taste at least.

Disregarding any fanservice, the ever-growing female side of the cast had very little to do, and mostly sat around doing one thing per character. Lelei translated, Rory fought or fawned over Itami, and Tuka just sort of existed, none of them contributing significantly to the story. Itami’s squad also failed to get any significant screen time after the fighting died down, robbing half the ensemble of any chance at characterization. Without any significant growth or interaction between characters, all we were left with was a bunch of people doing stuff, and not even particularly interesting stuff once there was no one to shoot at.

With the first cour petering out its non-ending, it’s obvious that the creators are banking on a second season to move the story along. I won’t be holding my breath. GATE might still have potential if it can refocus on the exchange of ideas between our world and the fantasy realm. Its dalliances with fanservice and silliness have undermined the sometimes serious tone it tried to set early on, and without a more consistent idea of what it wants to be, I’m afraid it will just end up being a neat idea that got lost by appealing to an otaku fanbase. If it carries on, I’ll probably watch it if only for the sake of completion.

Gangsta

Nic from Gangsta

I was initially pretty psyched about Gangsta. It didn’t have the same worrying undertones of fan-pandering that GATE did, and I’ve been itching for another gritty action series lately. While Gangsta definitely gets the gritty part right, it didn’t sell me on the action, and the story wasn’t strong enough to make up for it. It’s not awful by any means, but it tried to do too much and fell apart towards the end.

When it was focused on the main characters of Worick, Nic and Alex, the show was pretty strong. We got to see their backgrounds fleshed out over time, and there were promises of a greater conflict that would pull them in. The problems started for me when the cast exploded with three major crime families, all of their retainers and a bunch of side organizations. By the end of the show, I had forgotten the names of half the cast, and couldn’t be bothered to care who was fighting who or how it mattered. Had the protagonists been more directly involved in the plot or had they pushed the story along in any meaningful way, it may have held things together, but that never happened.

Another way Gangsta could have set itself apart was with more energetic or imaginative fight scenes. Unfortunately, the battles lacked tension and creativity, and the animation was mediocre throughout. All of the villains being either emotionless killers or smug, violent psychopaths certainly didn’t help, either. Almost all of them were introduced by having them cut down a ton of helpless mooks, and after that, none of them were memorable enough for me to enjoy watching them. For a series heavily selling itself on action, dull fight scenes and uninteresting villains are a huge problem.

Like both of my previous entries, Gangsta is gunning for a second cour to finish explaining itself and resolve the mess of plot threads it created in season 1. Unfortunately, its unpolished action and bloated cast tempered any enthusiasm I had for it going in. It’s mediocrity at its worst – not bad enough to make fun of, but not good enough to really enjoy. It’s not a terrible show, but it doesn’t bring anything to the table that hasn’t been done better elsewhere.

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SU

Rokka: Braves of the Six Flowers

RokkaS1_end

I loved Rokka in the end and I loved it all the way through it’s intelligently written plotline. There were no episodes that I felt the show could have done without and every moment felt like it had purpose. Each character kept the viewer guessing until the very end and even then, all the cards are not revealed. I read on a forum board that Rokka did a very good job of adapting the first Light Novel that it’s based off of. In a span of twelve episodes the show crammed a lot of world building in and all of it was things you needed to be paying attention to. Rokka never hands you all its secrets, so the fun comes from trying to figure out what is going on and how the plot was going to unfold.

I am still not super attached to anyone in the show. They all have quirky enough personalities that I really enjoy the verbal banter that goes on, but if a character were to die, I think I’d miss their interactions rather than him/her as a character. If I had to complain about anything it would be the romance angle. One of the characters admits his love for another and it comes completely out of nowhere. I think if you’ve read the Light Novel this scene might have meant more but it turns up and just made me say, “Really guys?! Really?!”. The other downside is that Rokka ends on a massive cliffhanger (it does wrap up its main mystery (sort of)) and there is much more to tell. I really hope this show gets a second season!

Symphogear GX

SymphogearGX_end

Oh, Symphogear… just… oh…

How do you continue to get MORE CRAZY with every iteration you conceive?! Truly…that is an impressive feat. Symphogear is a wild and crazy ride. Every girl gets her moment to shine and in a way I was intrigued that they balanced their time among each of the six lead characters. The villain and her alchemical chronies are absolutely nuts and add almost nothing to the plot. I suppose if I have to be fair, the villain of this season has the most convincing reason for wanting to destroy the Earth so far, but that really isn’t saying much.

As always the music and action scenes in this show are fantastic and while I didn’t like the alchemaic chronies much, I admired Symphogear‘s constant innovation in terms of creating baddies with WTF powers. The stakes get incredibly high in this season and the show touches on some family issues with two of the characters (one of which is just…awful). The show also has a moment where Kirika revealed her to love to Shirabe and to the show’s credit, this was handled with a lot of care and was well done. I would totally buy Symphogear on DVD as it’s a show that deserves to be laughed at with your friends. There’s a small hook at the end of the show that would allow for a fourth season. I am on the fence as to whether or not I want that to happen. Let’s see what the future brings. Till then, lets be united by song…and complete WTFISGOINGONINTHISSHOW plot.

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