Winter 2016 – The Season in Review

The Con Artists have wrapped up the Winter 2016 anime season and had time to consider their opinions of the shows they followed. There may be minor spoilers in these reviews, so please proceed with caution. Read on to see our conclusions and recommendations, or go here to check out our initial impressions from the start of the season.

SCOTT

This has been quite the busy season, with one of the widest spreads of quality I’ve seen yet.  I’ll give my final impressions on the seven shows I followed, in ascending order of enjoyment.

Utawarerumono – The False Faces

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No amount of transforming lizard-dragons is going to make me care, show

Utawarerumono – The False Faces recovered from the season midpoint… somewhat.  By the end of the show, I still didn’t care about any of the characters (and actively wanted some to die).  I still didn’t have a compelling reason to follow the plot.  The giant critter punch-up in the top image was… kinda boring, honestly.  The production values stayed high, though, and at least there was a plot, as opposed to episode after episode in which the main character barely appeared at all, which was the story of the first half of the show.  The biggest problem is that what little plot there is is told in a disjointed fashion, and it often seems like entire plot threads just… end, suddenly, as soon as the next shiny thing comes along.  The “end” of the show is basically a huge pitch for a second season, so there isn’t even a feeling of closure.  What a disappointment.

Watch Utawarerumeno – The False Faces on Crunchyroll

Heavy Object

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Ah, Heavy Object, the show I hate to love.  As in my previous reviews, the show has stayed the course, putting out a fairly well-produced mixture of80% over-the-top action featuring the world’s dumbest mechs, 10% battlefield comedy, and 10% fanservice.  In the end, it’s not a good show, but it is a show you can enjoyably watch with your brain turned off, like you’re going to a Michael Bay movie. The plots are, at least, always different and sometimes clever, and I did actually find myself rooting for the heroes during the last few episodes.  So good work, Heavy Object, you consistently exceeded my expectations.

There is one detail I feel I have to take some time to talk about, and that is the character names in this show.  The setting is some alternate future where four mega-nations control all of earth, so current-day nationalities don’t really matter any more.  The show’s creators were then tasked to name these homeland-less characters, and the results… are nothing short of incredible.  Long has Jacuzzi Splot of Baccano fame sat upon the throne of “dumbest anime character name”, but no longer.  Let me take you through my personal list of the dumbest names in Heavy Object.

  • Froylatia Capistrano (admittedly, that sounds kinda cool)
  • Milinda Brantini
  • Qwenthur Barbotage
  • Halreed Copacabana (no, seriously)
  • Prizewell City Slicker  (not making that up, I promise)

And now, ladies and gentlemen, here it is, the new reigning champion…

Sladder Honeysuckle

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Sladder Honeysuckle

There’s no way to top that, so on we go… though please, dear readers, let us know your favorite contender for worst anime name.

Watch Heavy Object on Hulu

GATE

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Worst… battle-cry… ever.

GATE actually managed to pull off a decent recovery from where it was at the start of the season.  The Itami-and-his-harem plot and the Japan-fights-fantasy-empire plot are still tonally at odds with each other, but they were somewhat better integrated by the end.  It helped that the show decided to largely focus on one or the other for whole episodes at a time.  Combine that with some legitimately cool-looking battle scenes and quite a bit of political maneuvering that finally seemed to be getting somewhere, and GATE has clawed its way back up to being worth a watch, if just barely.  Its ending leaves open the possibility of another season, and I’d probably, grudgingly, pick it up.

Watch GATE on Crunchyroll

Norn9

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Norn9, despite the predictability of its main romance plot, ended strong and kept me interested throughout its run.  While I never felt like I really got to know all of the show’s many characters, I still leave the show with a pleasant enough impression of them.  The show, surprisingly, kept its science fiction / supernatural aspects front and center right up through the end, instead of having them fade away in favor of the various romance stories.  It made me care about the characters in the context of the larger problems their world faces, to the show’s credit.  Even the villain ended up being more than just common cliches and motivations.   Norn9, in a word, was surprising – not in any huge, genre-changing way, but in many small ways.  It’s the first show on the list I would recommend.

Watch Norn9 on Hulu

Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash

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Grimgar ended up being a remarkably strong show with a lot of heart and a unique style.  With its watercolor backgrounds and its slice-of-life approach to fantasy adventuring, it has a soft feel much of the time – but battles against monsters are intense, life-and-death affairs every time.  The show does a great job of giving you time with its characters so you can get to know them, and then throwing them into difficult and dangerous situations that make you care about them all the more.

Readers may recall that I had some initial reservations concerning tone and fanservice.  Fortunately, these reservations have been put to rest.  The tone of the show is very consistent, and the overt fanservice seemed to float away over time.  There are even a few scenes where the female characters confront their perviest member and discuss their feelings, and why what he’s doing makes them unhappy.  What a refreshing breath of air.  Grimgar improved steadily throughout its run, and if they made more, I would happily watch it.

Watch Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash on Hulu or Funimation

Mobile Suit GUNDAM – Iron-Blooded Orphans

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What is there to say in praise of Gundam – Iron-Blooded Orphans that I haven’t said before?  It’s fantastically written, perfectly paced, and looks great.  The tension as the end approached was just right, and the show as a whole hit that end point so smoothly that you’d swear they’d planned out the entire plot down to the minute from episode 1.  No plot points were left hanging, and character development arcs ended satisfyingly.  If you’re a fan of Gundam, or mecha shows in general, check this one out – especially to get ready for what looks like a second season.

Watch Mobile Suit GUNDAM – Iron Blooded Orphans on Crunchyroll

Erased / Boku Dake Ga Inai Machi

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What an incredible ride this show has been!  Erased so thoroughly and consistently exceeded expectations that it’s hard to find the right superlatives to describe it.  Every episode is incredibly paced and put together, every character is someone I’ve come to know and root strongly for or against.  The cliffhangers, suspense, and plot twists will have you constantly either on the edge of your seat or biting your nails.  Not to mention how emotional the show can get, and how incredibly relieved you feel when the slightest thing finally goes right.  This is a show that anyone can enjoy, and that everyone should watch.

Watch Erased on Crunchyroll


DAN

With the disappointment that was Active Raid, I was happy to have two strong showings from the other series I followed this season. Both Grimgar and Showa have something to offer, depending on what you’re looking for. Without further ado, here are the details.

Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash

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I was on the fence about Grimgar at first, with its “youths trapped in an MMO” trappings and regular swings into fanservice territory sending up warning flags. While neither of these elements completely go away, they don’t drag the show down, and I found a lot to enjoy as the series went on.

What becomes apparent as the first arc of the show concludes is that Grimgar is a story about loss. First, a loss of innocence when the protagonists have to kill their first opponent in order to survive, and later, the loss of a team member. The emotional toll of killing is brought across surprisingly well, but gets left by the wayside a little too soon, in my opinion. However, the loss of their friend and its impact on the team is at the heart of the show, and it served as a strong core for the rest of the story to build around.

Along with a solid central story, the show always some nice background art that captures the vaguely unreal feeling of the world the characters live in. Most of the locations, from the protagonists’ run-down lodging to the winding streets of the town and the underground caverns where the series comes to a head are beautifully rendered. If there is one issue here, it’s that the somewhat bland and flat character designs don’t quite fit with the more painterly backdrops, which makes them feel out of place.

Speaking of characters, I found them to be the show’s greatest strength and weakness at the same time. There’s some great setup for interpersonal drama, and moments where characters open up to each other and get to really speak their minds. Even that annoying punk Ranta manages to come across as insightful on ocassion. Unfortunately, the latter half of the show focuses almost entirely on the development of a new character from outside the original group, and our ensemble doesn’t give the rest of the cast a lot of room to grow. The cast is pretty ho-hum overall, both in personality and in visual design, so the lack of personal evolution leaves the show wanting

My biggest complaint about the show is the lead protagonist, Haru. He’s not a bad character himself, but his constant voice-over monologue is delivered with absolutely no energy or nuance, and he often just narrates events as they unfold. The show’s storytelling and expressions are strong enough to convey everything he says on their own, so it feels redundant and makes certain scenes drag where they should be fast-paced and energetic. When combined with the show’s bizarre choice in music, where pastoral melodies give way to angsty J-rock, it absolutely kills the impact of several key scenes.

In spite of its flaws, Grimgar has a lot going for it, and stands out nicely against the slew of other high-profile light novel adaptations whose formulas it adapts. I can forgive the moments of fanservice and droning monologues for a glimpse into how this team of otherwise normal people handle being stuck in life-threatening situations and cope with the consequences of their hazardous work. Definitely give it a shot if you’re looking for fantasy adventure with a more emotional bent.

Final Verdict – RECOMMENDED

Watch Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash on Hulu or Funimation

Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju

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Even with its slow pace and focus on Japanese cultural minutia, Showa Genroku kept me coming back every week excited for more. It’s an outstanding drama that frames itself excellently and sets up characters and situations that are engrossing and moving.

The bulk of the show follows two rakugo storytellers as the try to practice their art during the social changes of World War II and beyond. Kikuhiko and Hatsutaro (their names change throughout the years as they climb the ranks and are granted new titles) are very different men, but they form one of the best rivalries/friendships I’ve seen in a long time. They are all but brothers, and their relationship is strained by lifestyle, social structure and love. It’s a very personal drama that shows the good and bad in both men, and comes back in on itself beautifully at the end. To top it off, it has some of the most expressive semi-realistic character designs I’ve seen in a long time.

The greatest hurdle in watching Showa is rakugo itself. Rakugo is a style of theater that was struggling at the time the show takes place, and its long history has left it with countless stories, traditions and hierarchical rankings that can be tricky to follow, especially early on. If you don’t speak Japanese, there’s sure to be elements of the stories that fall flat due to the language gap. Fortunately, the show repeats a number of important stories just often enough that their meanings become clear if you watch to the end.

 Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju is a fascinating show, and absolutely worth it if you’re looking for something outside of more well-trod anime stories. With a little patience, you’ll find rich and fascinating characters and a moving story to keep you invested from beginning to end. A second season is also on its way, so there will be more to see before too long. Enjoy!

Final Verdict – HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Watch Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju on Crunchyroll


SUSHMA

I lucked out by having fairly good shows this time around. I also dropped the cancer that was Utawarerumeno – False Faces at its midway point. This all made Active Raid feel like less of a burden. Oh, who am I kidding, that show was so bad… here’s how the rest of my shows went.

Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju

Showa_Winter2016_End

When I think “Period Piece” in anime, I think Victorian Romance Emma. I don’t think I’ve seen a show with such class (#seewhatIdidthere) after Emma (and man… that was made in 2005…) and honestly wasn’t expecting to see one again. In a time when anime is mostly made for merchandising, I imagine a period piece is a huge gamble. Thankfully the art is not dead and Showa came along

Showa is a very slow burn. It took its time introducing us to its characters and explaining what Rakugo is and how it functions. The show teaches us about how Japan was unable to accept change in a traditional art like Rakugo, how this separates our main characters Kikuhiko and Sukeroku, and how art can be a high risk-high reward life. The entire journey about how two young men bonded and broke while carving a path through the world of Japanese theater was worth every second. I had NO CLUE what Rakugo was coming into this show and I feel like I got a history lesson and a wonderful story all in one.

Showa’s a bit hard to appreciate in full because I don’t speak Japanese, and I firmly believe you need a grasp of the language to get all this show has to offer. This should not stop you from pursuing it though. Artistically it has a controlled beauty. Unlike the blaring neon colors that pervade anime today, Showa drags everything back to a more realistic pallet. The setting has a sense of detail and refinement befitting its genre. Musically it’s nothing special but everything in the show fits and feels authentic. The show is structured in a way so that a lot of Rakugo stories get repeated. Even though you can’t really tell that our protagonists are improving (besides believing other characters who praise them), you feel like you “know” certain stories and this wraps you into the plot.

To my surprise (and extreme excitement) this season turned out to be “Act 1” and a second season is on its way that looks to continue the present day timeline introduced in Episodes 1 and 2. If you had even a passing interest in Showa, give it a watch. You will not be disappointed.

Watch Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju on Crunchyroll

Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash

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I never knew what to expect from Grimgar. The more I watched it the more I liked it but I also had to come to terms with my own cynicism and preconceived notions about fantasy anime. When a concept takes off in any medium, there are a multitude of cheap copycats that come out of the woodwork to try and catch the wave of fame before it breaks. This wave’s name is Sword Art Online and Grimgar presented a setup where I was READY to pick it apart for its blatant mimicry. Thankfully I was totally wrong and Grimgar forced me out of my jaded space.

This show at the beginning is the most “JRPG turned show” sort of thing you could ever get. The characters join guilds, form a party, have Final Fantasy style roles (cleric, thief, warrior, hunter, mage, knight, etc), and even shout attack names. That’s pretty much where all the “oh I saw this coming” content ends. Grimgar offers up solid emotions about death and understanding your fellow person.

The characters experience the loss that comes with death and the pain each person carries with them is a major part of what makes this show so extraordinary. We lose a main character early on and that sadness never leaves. His name still evokes tears, the characters visit his grave in following episodes, and Haruto in particular struggles afterwards to live up to what he hopes are this person’s ideals. In addition to the loss, the characters are shaken up and realize that they should all talk to each other more, but this is easier said then done. One of the major struggles everyone faces is how to interact with one another and what it means to be a “party”. Overall this show is fantasy in a more “slice of life” reality sort of way.

I don’t want to spoil anymore as I think everyone should experience this show (and I want to write a formal review at some point). You’re never sure what will happen next and I think that makes Grimgar incredibly special.

Watch Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash on Hulu or Funimation

Erased / Boku Dake Ga Inai Machi

Erased_Winter2016_End

I am not sure what shows you decided to watch for Winter 2016, but if one of them wasn’t Erased, drop what you are doing and watch it now. I have no insight into what is coming out in 2016 but I feel I can declare Erased the best show of the year and probably be correct.

Erased is amazing. At the Winter 2016 Season So Far post, Satoru Fujinuma’s time reversal power had taken him back to when he was 10 years old. From this point the show forced him into a cat and mouse game with a serial killer who targets young girls. Each episode has purpose and weight. Satoru tries to connect with the different girls who he knows are targets and keep the killer from completing his goals. This is not however the only thing churning in the background.

Erased is as much about catching a killer as it is about Satoru’s personal growth. Satoru is an apathetic adolescent who cares very little about anything in his life. His quest to stop the killer teaches him the value of everyone he interacts with, how to reach deep into his own emotions and helps him make a group of fiercely loyal friends. It’s a show where you will cry, cheer, feel anger and most of all, be on the edge of your seat until the very end. Everything wraps up beautifully, making this a satisfying watch.

I was really hoping that Erased would continue its blazing trail of flawless narrative, art, and mystery. I am happy to say that all of this holds true.

Watch Erased on Crunchyroll

Myriad Colors Phantom World

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You know what Phantom World… you weren’t good, but you weren’t the worst thing I’ve ever seen.  I guess that’s what I can say about you.  The whole premise about kids with powers and some super virus that effects people’s brains (in a benign way, of course) was just a setup so that the show could do whatever the heck it wanted.  There was no mystery guys… I was DECEIVED!!!

Each episode was a simple vignette about nonsensical things like putting on a play with a phantom that loves drama club, getting trapped in a benevolent phantom cat mansion, defeating a giant phantom monkey that makes a sauna in the middle of the school, and no… no I am not slugging vodka while writing this.  Weirdly enough some of these episodes were fun.  Everyone’s powers are established early on and once the dream team is assembled the show just gets creative with whatever “Phantom of the Week” it wants to establish.

Some of the episodes are heartfelt and actually discuss issues the members of the Phantom Squad are having, but the heart of this thing is marshmallow fluff so don’t come into Phantom World expecting anything substantial.  It doesn’t explain anything about Phantoms or the crazy virus that “infected” all of mankind at all. I’m going to warn you up front that any solution to this conundrum never gets to see the light of day.  Despite all this I can’t hate Phantom World.   It wants you to smile a bit, laugh a bit, and feel charmed by its bright colors and wacky ideas.  The show’s pretty low on fanservice and looks good throughout (KyoAni never disappoints in that arena).  In the end I would give this show a pass if you are looking to pick up something from Winter 2016, but if you do watch it make sure you’re just there to munch snacks and shut your brain (and your expectations) off.

Watch Myriad Colors Phantom World on Crunchyroll

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