Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Winter and Spring 2021 in Anime: Making It Out of Junior Year in One Piece

Winter and Spring 2021 in Anime: Making It Out of Junior Year in One Piece

Warning: The following post may/will contain spoilers of various anime series and a movie. If you don't want to know what happens in any of the properties I'm talking about here, it's best if you join me once you've watched the first few episodes of each or the entire thing. But then again, if you want to take that warning with a grain of salt, feel free to stay put.

With that said:

Second semester this year was another that challenged me. It could be because I'm going to be a senior next year (which I can't believe) and my English classes are getting harder, but I found earlier times to studying given my schedule difficult. With grocery store runs, work in the afternoon, and homework I didn't want to save for after 8:00 p.m. unless absolutely necessary (papers), I had to juggle. Luckily, I was able to figure it out thanks to a new day-by-day schedule recommended by my academic advisor (which is awesome), dry goods pickup, and re-watching Haikyuu: To The Top's first cour as school started up. I may not be at Cour 2 yet, but crossing my fingers this summer's the time I dive into it. TBH, I wouldn't mind looking at the first cour for a third time. It stuck out that much in my mind.

Although I didn't watch a lot of anime again this semester, I was able to have an eventful winter break and finally watch (and finish) a couple of things I was meaning to get to. In today's post, I'll be covering five shows I've seen since late December of last year to early May of this year. I'll also be recapping one movie I watched I'm going to appreciate for the rest of my life. It was definitely a highlight out of everything I've seen in the last four months, but that's for another day.

Without further ado, let's get started:

Hypnosis Mic

Samatoki? My favorite character? Wow, I'm so surprised. JK. If you've been following my blog for a while now, you should know I'm a sucker for moody characters who remind me of Ryoko Hakubi from Tenchi Muyo. It has to link together somehow.

I first heard about Hypnosis Mic from a user in the animated Top Model community I'm a part of. One of the contestants in his Anime's Next Top Model Idol Syndrome season is Rio Mason Busujima, a member of Mad Trigger Crew. The franchise had been running for a year at that point, so I didn't know how big it was until I noticed a fanartist who drew Uta Pri and Final Fantasy XV doujins make the shift to MTC doujinshi with power bottom Jyuto Iruma. I got a full introduction to the characters through their Mob Division doujin where an older man and his clones banged every single character.

Fast forward about a year later when Hypnosis Mic added not just one but two new groups to the mix that immediately appealed to me; Dotsuitare Hompo and Bad Ass Temple. Dog_yasiki got to drawing and writing, and their pixiv and poipiku updates made me very excited. I didn't know a power bottom Kuko Harai would be so visually appealing.

Jumping past the R18 art, it's a no brainer why I would watch this series. Music franchises have always appealed to me as an anime fan, even if most of them have been idol-based. I hadn't listened to J-rap prior to watching Hypnosis Mic, but I was excited to see what this franchise did with it. When the first PV dropped prior to its COVID-19 production delay, I was impressed from a production standpoint. A-1 Pictures looked like it was going to funnel plenty of money into this, and Minako Shiba (RIP)'s character designs were vibrant and suited the groups perfectly. It only made sense to start off the year with this.

What Hypnosis Mic's anime adaptation does best is not give any fucks. You can tell the adaptation team genuinely had a lot of fun coming up with scenarios the four groups would wind up in, especially given how they're organized. The Buster Bros are three brothers, Mad Trigger Crew contains men associated with crime or the military, those in the art and the entertainment industry are in Fling Posse, whereas medical and office workers make up Materno. Hypnosis Mic does a great job fleshing out its characters that viewers who aren't familiar with the franchise understand who they are. Although they prance around in their archetypes, it's rare for a show like this to give their characters more to do than just look pretty.

While I like all the four core groups for what they bring to the franchise, I wasn't as drawn to Materno's music until the stadium rap battle took place. It's likely because Ryuichi Kijima's delivery as Hifumi wasn't for me, but I also resonated more with the other material. That includes anime exclusive group Secret Aliens, which the writers built up throughout the show, prepped a backstory for, and gave a mic to a woman not in the government. I lived for that.

The animation and score also excel. There aren't as many off-model shots I'm used to seeing in modern A-1 productions, and the insert song sequences are colorful and fun. Under better direction and if prepped ahead of time to the point where still frames don't pop up, their shows can look close to the budget of Sword Art Online's recent seasons. Producer R.O.N. incorporates multiple music styles in a way that works for the score, making it compelling and the perfect backdrop for a show like this. I also enjoyed the voice acting and continuing to hear seiyuu I'm unfamiliar with and new sides of seiyuu I'm familiar with.

The sexist premise aside (although I do love the idea of ruling women deciding men are garbage and having them duke it out in rap battles), the first half does get repetitive despite the fun. The show jumps back and forth between each group as they navigate through a mystery or sticky situation. With the promise of more to come, it can get stale, especially if you want the stadium rap battle that's been teased to start after a lot of build-up. I also think the show could have resolved more of its subplots, especially revolving J-rap supergroup Dirty Dawg's breakup. This group had the four leaders of the four groups, two pairs having grudges toward the other person. These weren't solved, which was frustrating. I also wanted to know how Samatoki's younger sister ended up working for the government, but that might be something I look at the mobile game for.

Hypnosis Mic was a fun show. Even with its shortfalls, it was still enjoyable as hell, and I'm happy to have gotten a peak into what makes this franchise special for so many fans. I don't know if another season will get greenlit, seeing as there's the potential for plenty of ground to cover with the two new groups, but you never know. B-Project's getting a Season 3, after all. If not, at least we got a Rei Amayado cameo and homoerotic imagery!


Tokyo Mew Mew

The irony is not lost on me that a Trump supporter who thinks Tokyo Mew Mew has the greatest love story of all time posted this series in its entirety on YouTube. While the main romance here is decent (if you purge the cat bell necklace out of your mind), there are stronger examples elsewhere. In my case, Snow White with the Red Hair > Tokyo Mew Mew.

Another magical girl staple from my childhood, I was drawn to Tokyo Mew Mew when I first saw the manga at my local library. I read a bit of the sequel, Tokyo Mew Mew à La Mode, but don't really remember it outside of the new Mew Mew warrior, Mew Berry. This series gained traction in the US thanks to licensing company 4Kids, who not only put the show through Americanization but changed the title to Mew Mew Power. They only aired the first 23 episodes in the States (despite dubbing the first 26), losing the license after this, leaving the show in limbo. That's where it still is today.

Nostalgia is always at the back of my mind when it comes to picking out shows to watch. So when I was watching Sailor Moon, I thought it'd be nice to crack into this, like with the former, for the first time. I wanted to know more beyond the transformations, the iconic opening (which I didn't know was iconic until I sang a fully memorized TV cut about three weeks after finishing it), and brief snippets of the characters. When I got halfway through the show, I took a break to watch Hypnosis Mic, then the three Ruby Herring movies, before going back to this. I finished the second half in eight days.

It did take me a bit to get into Tokyo Mew Mew. At first, I was annoyed at Ichigo getting shat on by the people around her, but once the rest of the Mew Mews were introduced and the overarching story got underway, the anime got better. I liked how the plot skirted away from the traditional monster of the week I'm used to elsewhere. This gave us more time to develop the characters, even if the core group wasn't as compelling as the supporting cast. They did get their time to shine in individual episodes, though. I enjoyed glimpses into their backstories the 4Kids localization didn't get to or changed altogether (Lettuce sticks out like a sore thumb). My favorite has and always will be Zakuro. She fits a different character archetype than Minako but is just as much of a badass.

Getting more in depth with the aliens was something I wasn't expecting. Shows targeted to kids usually paint their villains as one-dimensional with little substance, but Tokyo Mew Mew gives its villains motivation and vulnerability. It doesn't excuse Quiche's sexual harassment towards Ichigo throughout the show, but I understood why the trio (led by Deep Blue) fought against the Mew Mews. Why should humans protect the environment when they've done nothing but disrespect it? It builds up to a sweet part of the ending that shows how the villains have changed. Rather than remain static, they become fleshed-out characters fans were (and still are) drawn to. 4Kids didn't make them as nuanced.

You can also tell how this work would go on to influence Bleach. Directed by Nobuyuki Abe with Masashi Sogo leading the writing team, not to mention being animated by the same studio, Pierrot, there's plenty of fun action sequences with magical girl cues I've picked up over the years. The crossover doesn't stop with some of the staff; the lead five seiyuu are all in Bleach. It was fun to see how Abe has grown as a director from this show, especially with better production budgets and a darker style. Tokyo Mew Mew does suffer from off animation at various points, becoming distracting during bigger battles. However, the character designs looked good, and the Mew Mew's color palette became vibrant when they transformed.

Takayuki Negishi's score matches the show's energy, with plenty of cheerful and high energy pieces, emotional ones saved for the right moments. The voice acting is also great for this show. It was fun to see where some seiyuu would go after this point, and I gained appreciation for Saki Nakajima as Ichigo. Since I only heard her voice in Bleach before this, I enjoyed getting to see her play a bumbling teen who experiences her first love, heartbreak, and responsibilities in protecting the Earth.

Despite some of its problems, Tokyo Mew Mew still made an impact on me, not only in how it influenced the magical girl genre, but how it built over time to help me understand the villains and become a stronger thematic story. I didn't know if I would finish it following Episode 4. However, I did, and I'm happy for that. I'm curious to see what the reboot has in store, especially if, like Sailor Moon Crystal, it follows the manga's storyline more closely. Both have a lot to offer, which I'll not only cover later when I talk about the end of Sailor Moon's first season, but in a future post I brought up at the end of last year.


The Given Movie

I was waiting for this movie to be released stateside. Delayed thanks to the pandemic, the Given movie didn't show in Japanese theaters until August 2020, with Crunchyroll dropping it on their site six months later. Akihiko and Haruki's romantic development got teased in the show. The fanbase on tumblr were becoming weeping messes over Chapter 20. While I did like Mafuyu and Ritsuka as a couple, my curiosity was shifting like the narrative towards the couple that could form. There were promised complications, angst, and light that Given has always managed to peak through its darker undertones.

The challenge was to find the perfect time to watch it after finding out it was up for users who didn't have to pay. Fitting an hour long movie with ads between homework assignments on a weekend didn't pan out. Mondays were out automatically because my schedule was packed. Fast forward to a radio show shift on a Thursday night where I was drained after focusing on the Joss Whedon adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing for half the day. I had a test the upcoming Monday, and noticing I only had time to study after 7:00 p.m., I decided to look over the discussion sheets in the booth, walk back to my dorm, shower, grab the gluten-free blueberry muffin I had nabbed from the cafeteria earlier in the week, and watch this movie.

It's a decision I don't regret. If my love for this franchise wasn't evident when I talked about the show, it's coming out in droves here. By turning the focus onto Akihito and Haruki, we're able to understand more of who they are as people (I'm sensing a pattern here). Haruki's self-esteem and what he felt his worth was to the band crushed me. As someone who's dealt with (and to be honest, still does) doubting their place in something important to them, I got behind it immediately. Akihito and Ugetsu's abusive relationship continued to be examined, and we got to know more about their history. Although I still haven't read the manga, I appreciate how Natsuki Kizu and Yuniko Ayana didn't paint either one as the ultimate villain. Both had their own fault in not wanting the relationship to end, even if it went past the point of love to emotional and physical abuse. Seeing both of them move on in their own ways (at first, not in healthy ones whatsoever) was the best thing for them. They needed to get out before they suffered even more.

An argument between Akihito and Ugetsu happens to be the precursor to the climatic moment between the former and Haruki. It's one of the most emotionally wrought moments of the show, not only because it's where their feelings for each other come clawing out, but Akihito takes advantage of Haruki's. I blacked out what I read on tumblr a year before I saw the movie, so I was sitting in front of my TV, freaking out about whether The Scene I'd watched or read countless times in yaoi would happen again.

Thankfully, it doesn't. Akihito stops before it goes too far, but it temporarily damages their friendship. It's an ugly and uncomfortable scene to sit through, especially to sexual assault and rape victims. But what's important is that the adaptation doesn't frame it as romantic. It's such a stark contrast and handled so beautifully. I think it's going to spoil future BL that has early rape to serve as a grandiose climax but brushes it aside as the two leads fall in love. It's not a plot device in Given. It's not ignored later in Given. Rather, it makes Akihito disgusted at letting his resentment towards Ugetsu out and hurts Haruki to the point where he has a friend cut his hair short. Eventually, when the two live together, these feelings are worked through, leading to a sweet pay-off and romantic confession that made me (and my brother, who was watching this passively) squeal.

Yuniko Ayana frames this movie around Akihto and Haruki exclusively. Although there are some scenes with Mafuyu and Ritsuka, looking online made me aware of cut content some manga readers were upset was missing. I didn't mind it. Getting to read the manga will probably make me appreciate the arc more, but from an adaptation standpoint, zeroing in paid off.

Lerche's animation continues to look incredible in one of their best works to date (I'll reference another one later). The movie's colorful, rich, and continues to use its settings to their upmost potential (the cherry blossom petals!!). Michiru's score taps into uglier emotion this time around and is once again to be a treat. The voice acting also continues to be strong. Not to mention, the insert song composed for this film? Beautiful. There's so much to love here, and I can't wait to explore it more in the manga at some point this summer. Given continues to be a force in the BL market, and considering its shadier competition, I couldn't be happier. It deserves it.


Fantastic Detective Labyrinth

I was first introduced to this show at Anime Iowa in 2014. With my brother, I attended the Right Stuf panel, where they showed off openings for a list of their recently licensed/released titles. One of the spokespeople stated, "If you like Black Butler, you'll like this show." Being up Black Butler's ass at that point, I took her word for it and then promptly forgot this existed until I found it on Crunchyroll this past year. Fantastic Detective Labyrinth looked like a fun niche show with a little action, a little drama, and a little mystery. The first episode looked promising when I watched it in Anime Club, so after the first half of last semester wrapped up, I decided to give this a shot. Welcome to the Ballroom looked like it needed more of my energy, anyways.

Although Fantastic Detective Labyrinth looked promising, it didn't turn out that way. The start was fairly cute, as we were introduced to Mayuki's world and the people in it. I liked the episodic mysteries that reminded me of Crown Media's and Scooby-Doo. With some obvious clues and fun detectives, they were enjoyable to crack, especially if Mayuki's new friends were involved. There was great build-up to a couple reveals down the line. I wanted to keep going to get more information. Who was this mysterious man in a dark room? How serious was this power Mayuki held?

The music by Kei Haneoka perfectly fit the show's aesthetic, tapping into the comedic and dramatic moments better than the show's writing did. I always felt uneasy when this one piece played with snapping snares, spelling doom whenever something bad was happening. The voice cast was also filled with seiyuu I've known from years of watching anime. Everyone fit their roles, even the one who I didn't know as well, Nana Inoue. Kota and Rakuta had my favorite voices because whoever cast Marina Inoue and Romi Park as twins deserves a raise. This show was at the start or in the middle of their peaks, so again, I got to see where they were at this time (2007-2008) and how they've grown since.

This is were my praise for this show ends. After a few episodes, I was immediately confused over who this show's demographic was. It seemed lighthearted enough for younger audiences, but combined with the sex comedy (which was inappropriate and never funny, especially if it extended to Hatsumi and Sanae's sexual obsession with Mayuki), it could skew older. The men looked nice for 2007, so there's a demographic for that, but the show also wanted to emphasize Sanae's boobs a couple times, and there's also a demographic for that. Imagine my surprise when I found out the manga was published in a shonen magazine that primarily printed romantic comedies. Romantic. Comedies. Fantastic Detective Labyrinth is not a romantic comedy.

The character writing was also poor. Supporting characters went in and out of the show for episodes at a time and were put back in like nothing happened. Characters I thought were important were gone, even though their appearances in an arc or two should have been vital. Traits were brought in then dropped (including the random moment where Maya stated she was going to marry Mayuki, which got a "What the fuck?" out of me). Sanae did nothing at the Hyuga mansion except be one of Seiran's Aya, which I thought was strange. Shien's role in the show was badly constructed and needed to be re-worked. And even though we got background on the Shimono family, I still didn't care for Seiran because his only defining character trait was wanting to protect Mayuki.

You know it's never a good sign when you want to root for the villains instead of the heroes, especially when they seem more compelling and have more depth to them. Although I do wish I got more with this villain:

Byakko deserved better. The anime did hint at her backstory and why she worked under Seiju, but it never tells us what her name before Byakko was, and she decides to die with Seiju because undying loyalty to the end. It made some of her inner conflict not worth the effort.

The first half was serviceable in its cases despite the problems, but the second half is where Fantastic Detective Labyrinth fell apart. I finally got information about the world and plot points dropped early on in the series, but much of it was through info-dumps or in ways that didn't benefit how the show started or the darker direction it seemed to be going. After Shien is introduced, the show takes a abrupt comedic pivot that was out of place and unnecessary. I've talked about tone shifts within episodes a couple of times in the past, but Fantastic Detective Labyrinth went on a tone shift for three episodes. The pivot back isn't even smooth since the show still makes weird comedic jokes that failed to make this 21 year-old viewer crack a smile.

It's a shame, too, because outside of her magical girl and shonen work, I haven't found a show I've liked with Natsuko Takahashi at the helm. She's not a bad writer, but there's something about the properties she works on or the source material itself that doesn't benefit her in the final product. The last 12 episodes were very frustrating to sit through, and though I saw one of the familial twists coming (and got annoyed that I forgot about it, resulting in me throwing a plastic cup), I couldn't bring myself to care. A death is presented as being tragic, and I actually didn't mind that this character died. I even told Shien to fuck off at one point. I feel like the series abandoned what made it fun in the first place, deciding to explore its background and lore in a way that wasn't fulfilling.

Like with Zombie-Loan, the show also didn't have the best budget by 2007 standards. The fight chorography is static, and characters frequently go off-model. While there were some moments that had nice lighting or were framed well, it wasn't enough to elevate some of the weaker parts here. I feel like from what I've heard, this is something Studio Deen often struggles with, but I have hope their other productions look a little better.

I can't say I'd recommend this. Fantastic Detective Labyrinth may have had overarching issues that weren't going to get me to revisit it in the future, but the second half destroys any momentum it had going for it. Even though I love exploring shows that aren't talked about a lot now or highlights from a specific genre, I'm hoping there's still better out there. I'll be on the hunt.


Woodpecker Detective's Office

When I added this to my anime streaming Google Doc, I had no clue when I was going to watch it. The only information I knew going into Woodpecker Detective's Office was that it was based off a novel, Linden Films was producing it, and Taku Kishimoto, my favorite anime screenwriter solely because of his work for Haikyuu, was leading scriptwriting. The anime was also set during the Meiji area, and its characters were fictional depictions of authors who lived during that time period. With some names I recognized from Bungo Stray Dogs, I was curious to see how their portrayals compared and to learn more about Japanese poetry and historical mysteries in the process. Though I had longer shows lined up (like Welcome to the Ballroom), I wanted something shorter after getting invested in Fantastic Detective Labyrinth for a month and a half. So, with List Randomizer on hand, I put this and three other shows through it, and lo and behold, Woodpecker Detective's Office was #1.

This was a lot of fun. Although Ken Ii's original novel only covered one case (which I believe if the cover is any indication was in Episode 4), the anime expands on Ishikawa and Kindaichi's work as their friendship is tested and mysteries lead closer to one culprit who ties several together. Woodpecker Detective's Office succeeds where Fantastic Detective Labyrinth didn't by having the mysteries be a consistent part of the show. Each case was engrossing (although I didn't expect the show to get as violent at points) and weren't as cut-and-dry as I initially thought. Some were important to characters' story arcs, others tied themes together beautifully, and one twist threw me for a loop and reminded me of patterns I've seen elsewhere (thank you Rebecca Silverman for the term "outsize presence"). They were all well-executed and investing, which any great mystery should be.

Woodpecker Detective's Office also teeters the line between comedic and dramatic more effectively. There were moments I chuckled at and seriously paid attention to. We get to see Ishikawa's health decline as the show continues, make decisions that Kindaichi refuses to get behind, and how one case causes his outlook (and character design) to shift. Today, their friendship wouldn't be a thing. There are times where Ishikawa uses Kindaichi's weaknesses to his advantage, even letting him go to prison for a murder that wasn't actually a murder. However, they keep coming back to each other, which made me understand more why people still continue to remain partners, either platonically or romantically. One person doesn't want to betray the other's loyalty or trust, and as such, they'd rather it go on.

The anime's supporting cast is also strong, although they aren't used as frequently as I would have liked. Granted, an ensemble piece this show is not, but I did like Sakutaro Hagiwara being soft-spoken, Isamu Yoshii being a smartass (and got a significant role in the Episode 6 case), and Taro Hirai (the real name of author Ranpo Edogawa) being way too clever for his own good. I found it weird that even though the side characters pop up a lot, they weren't utilized in the way I expected. 

While I could go on and on about Given's art style, Linden Films also paid a plentiful penny here. The production is incredibly artistic, with fantastic lighting, breathtaking weather, and neat frames all around that hearken to the show's time period. I was surprised to find out the lead director worked on Hanebado prior to Woodpecker Detective's Office. Although I've only seen four episodes of that show for my school's Anime Club (and don't plan on watching the rest because the coach gave me a bad first impression), it has a different artistic style and tone. The characters also look great and are well-adapted from Kaoru Saki's original designs (which a viewer will find in the end cards). It's just a beautiful production across the board and doesn't rely on it.

The score and voice acting are also excellent here. Kuniyuki Takahashi and Ryuuichi Takada from MONACA compose pieces that perfectly fit the show's atmosphere and amplify the action. For voice acting, seeing Takahiro Sakurai not cast as the suave man was surprising to me. Rather, his role as the often meek Kyosuke harkens back to roles he played in the previous decade. The rest of the cast plays their roles well, even going out of their depth to play types they don't usually get to. Shintaro Asanuma and Makoto Furukawa are two that immediately come to mind, but I also heard a new voice: Yukiya Hayashi. For his first role, he did a good job embracing Ryunosuke Akutagawa's cryptic poetry and mysterious appearances. 

At the end of the day, this anime surprised me. It was the perfect accompaniment after a semester of Hallmark mystery movie premieres and working through my anxiety towards Lifetime thrillers. It had me on the edge of my seat, wanting to digest every single moment. Despite some minor problems, Woodpecker Detective's Office had an intriguing story with awesome production values and lead character arcs to boot. If you're into Japanese history, mystery, or a show you can bring out the popcorn for, this anime's for you.

P.S. I unrealistically hope Crown Media and A&E/companies that filter through them use the cases in here to inspire their writers. There's a lot of material that could be modernized effectively.


Sailor Moon: Season 1

When I published my Fall 2020 update post, Luke and I had 13 episodes to watch. Although we wanted to finish the show before we went back to school for second semester, we ended up having 7, which by the end of the semester, led to 3. Luckily, we finished it recently, and I'm proud of that. It may have taken roughly eight and a half months, but Sailor Moon ended up being well worth the wait.

To circle back to my last update post again, I referenced how Sailor Moon has plenty of charm in it despite the elements that didn't age well from a critical standpoint. Part of it's because it was my gateway anime, but it feels rewarding to see Usagi mature throughout the season. It paid off in the season's ending where she has to face Queen Beryl on her own. Seeing the other Sailor Senshi's deaths for the first time beyond clips or the DiC cuts proved how devoted they were to protecting their leader, even if it cost them their lives at the DD Girls' hands. We see Usagi/Sailor Moon at her lowest point before she gets up, stronger than before. It's only going to go up from here after their memories are restored.

I still enjoyed the expanded world and characters of this adaptation considering the start of Crystal. I still enjoyed the bright animation and OST courtesy of Takanori Arisawa. And the Viz Media dub showcased its best performances in the final episodes and had a fantastic adaptive script to boot. I can't wait to dig into the rest of the show for the first time at some point. Although I would love to jump right into R, our brains need the break. Watching a show for close to a year is tough work, you know.


That's going to do it for me! I hope you all have a great start to your summers, enjoy the weather solo or with friends and family, continue to respect COVID guidelines even as vaccines become widely available and rules are revised, and take time to learn something new about the world. Stay tuned for more this summer.

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