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2019 Winter in Review – Final Thoughts
2019 Spring in Review – Final Thoughts

[ Standard disclaimer: Spoilers! Lots of spoilers! ]

These posts are cumulative, so you can view any of the previous seasonal comments below as well. They’re just collapsed by default for space reasons.

Completed or Airing
01. Machikado Mazoku [ 9.25 / 10 ] (Summer)
02. Hitoribocchi no Marumaru Seikatsu [ 8.75 / 10 ]
02. Senki Zesshou Symphogear XV [ 8.75 / 10 ] (Summer)
04. Watashi ni Tenshi ga Maiorita! [ 8.25 / 10 ]
05. Endro! [ 8.0 / 10 ]
06. Hachigatsu no Cinderella Nine [ 7.0 / 10 ]
06. Granbelm [ 7.0 / 10 ] (Summer)
08. Manaria Friends [ 6.75 / 10 ]
09. Shingeki no Kyojin Season 3 Part 2 [ 5.0 / 10 ]

Shorts
n/a

Previous Year Pick-ups
n/a

Dropped
Joshikausei – 3 eps

 

The Top ‘x’ lists were getting unwieldy so I decided to limit characters and pairings to 5, and songs to a max of 10, with OP/ED/IN combined in one list.

Top Characters (no sequels; new shows or new characters only)
Chiyoda Momo – Machikado Mazoku
Himesaka Noa – Watashi ni Tenshi ga Maiorita!
Mao – Endro!
Sunao Nako – Hitoribocchi no Marumaru Seikatsu
Yoshida Yuuko – Machikado Mazoku

Top Pairings (no sequels; new shows or new pairings only)
Yoshida Yuuko / Chiyoda Momo – Machikado Mazoku
Anne / Grea – Manaria Friends
Himesaka Noa / Hoshino Hinata – Watashi ni Tenshi ga Maiorita!
Yulia Chardiet / Rona Pricipa O’Lapanesta – Endro!
Hitori Bocchi / Sunao Nako – Hitoribocchi no Marumaru Seikatsu

Top Songs (opening, ending, and insert songs)
Metanoia – Senki Zesshou Symphogear XV OP
Happy Happy Friends – Watashi ni Tenshi ga Maiorita! ED
Kimamana Tenshitachi – Watashi ni Tenshi ga Maiorita! OP
Endroll! – Endro! OP
Ne, Issho ni Kaero. – Hitoribocchi no Marumaru Seikatsu ED


Machikado Mazoku
(click to hide)

Machikado Mazoku adapts a manga from Houbunsha’s Kirara line, the best-known source of all-girls slice of life in the anime industry. Other than the premise being more fantastical than usual, the DNA is all there: cute girls going about their daily lives in modern day Japan, no or few male characters, and a heavy emphasis on comedy with a sprinkling of heartfelt moments.

The magical girl vs demon premise does set Machikado apart from its comrades. Other than Yumekui Merry (a very early Kirara adaptation that only nominally falls under what we now think of as the Kirara “brand”), only Urara Meirochou and Gakkou Gurashi fall farther outside of the norm. But the sheer mundanity with which the existence of demons and magic are treated is mostly a running gags (which only much later is revealed to be plot significant), so the fantastical elements are largely tongue-in-cheek. Instead, I’d argue that the defining characteristic is how narrowly focused the cast is. In most similar series Shamiko and Momo would be just one pair of two or three. At a quick count just now, the average “core cast” number from Kirara adaptations is around four and a half. Before Machikado we had just three series that went the threesome route: Yuyushiki, Koufuku Graffiti, and Sansha Sanyou. I’m pretty sure the only series that’s taken the pair route is, uh, Kill Me Baby? And that was a pure gag anime.

Even Lilith, the next most important player after Shamiko and Momo, has a materially different relationship with them than, say, Koufuku’s Shiina did with Ryou and Kirin. Lilith is more like Okaa-san in Yuyushiki, or an actively involved family member like Koufuku’s Akira. Mikan is a classmate who became increasingly important by the end of the series, but at least in the volumes that got adapted it’d be a major stretch to put her on par with our co-leads. She’s probably closer to KMB’s Agiri, I guess? Then there’s Anri and Shion, who barely appear at all and play significantly less of a role than Chiho and her friends in Yuyushiki. Machikado Mazoku is just unusually zeroed in on Shamiko and Momo.

I’m belaboring this point because for as much as Machikado feels like (and is) a CGDCT-style show, the tight focus opens up the possibility of it exploring their relationship to a greater extent than is usually possible with half a dozen characters. Put another way, it teases the prospect of playing the story out like a romance. And wouldn’t you know, Machikado kinda did exactly that?

There is one aspect of the show I thought worth briefly covering before getting into the ShamiMomo lovefest, because it teaches us a lot about the first half of that equation: Machikado’s commentary on filial piety, ancestor worship, and eschewing tribalism.

At the risk of stereotyping or discussing things I’m admittedly not an expert in, I don’t think it’s controversial to say that many East Asian cultures have a long tradition of filial piety and ancestor worship, and that Japan has historically been influenced by and shared in those values. I think it’s also fair to point out that like every ancient philosophy or religion, whatever positive effects it may have in the lives of individuals who take solace in it, filial piety also served to rationalize and prop up the patriarchal power structures and in-group/out-group mindsets of the time. While I’m about to go on for a few paragraphs about how Machikado embraces a modernized, progressive take on filial piety, I know it’s a bit beyond my abilities and knowledge level to fully sell it – but I really think there’s something to it. A show can be both a goofy comedy and quietly make some salient points about society after all. I’m not proposing that this was forefront on the mangaka’s mind or anything, but they aren’t themes that just casually slip into slice of life shows all the time either!

Most immediately striking to me was how unusual Shamiko’s relationship to Lilith is. In any equally comedy-heavy show, I’d expect Shamiko’s tolerance for Lilith to be far more limited, with Lilith being played purely for laughs as the obnoxious mascot character who goads Shamiko into all sorts of unwanted nonsense. And while Lilith is mined for laughs, the misfortunes inflicted upon her do not come from Shamiko’s being irritated with her. Whenever some ill fate befalls Lilith, Shamiko is always immediately and genuinely distraught. I’d go so far as to say that this is Shamiko’s most unique character trait, and I find it endlessly charming. Lilith, in turn, comes to genuinely care for Shamiko as more than a tool to execute the will of their clan. Even when Lilith talks up her former glory as a drinking buddy to the gods of the ancient near east, there’s no sense that she and Shamiko have a genuinely imbalanced power relationship. The very fact that Lilith is alive (or whatever you’d call it in her case) and can communicate with Shamiko changes Shamiko’s “ancestor worship” from a one-way conversation with a silent part into a mutually beneficial two-way dialogue. And hell, much a she’d never admit it out loud, deep down you know Lilith approves of Shamiko and Momo’s relationship.

There’s also the ways in which Shamiko co-opts the mission she’s been given, subconsciously at first and with far more intent by the end. Her priorities rapidly shift away from reviving the dark clan and towards protecting both the family she loves so much and the classmate she comes to love along the way.

Yes, Shamiko takes her destiny very seriously – that’s the whole basis of her superficial insistence that Momo is her rival, looong after she’s already fallen for her. And her sense of duty manifests in how much value she places on being a proper daughter, sister, and descendant. It’s not just Shamiko who feels this way either, because you can see this play out with Ryouko as well. She directs all her energies and plans her whole future around being the ideal younger sister who supports her older sister’s mission, and by extension their whole clan. Shamiko, in turn, desperately wants to live up to Ryou’s expectations and be a model older sister. There are a few other Kirara series that emphasize the role of family (Koufuku Graffiti most of all) but Machikado puts a “honor thy parents and respect thy lineage” spin on it.

But Machikado’s message is not one of tribalism. When it has Shamiko team up with Momo in protecting the city together, it implicitly rejects the us-versus-them aspect of the cult of ancestor worship that fuels the demon clan’s magic. Shamiko’s fervent devotion to her ancestor and her family becomes the strength by which she’s able to reach out to someone outside of her in-group. The climactic reveal that Shamiko’s good health (perhaps even her survival out of childhood) was the result of cooperation between a demon and a magical girl makes these themes all the more explicit. Shamiko and Momo’s rivals-to-lovers relationship would stand on its own just fine, but situating it within the above context adds that extra bit of emotional heft.

That relationship is everything to Machikado. What other main cast Kirara pairings have enjoyed as much mutually expressed, textually supported emphasis on their relationships as ShamiMomo? You’ve got the few explicit canonical couples in Sakura Trick and Kanamemo obviously, but those aside, Shami/Momo could arguably be placed with Kou/Rin in New Game or Hiro/Sae in Hidasketch (or Chiya/Kon in Urara if we’re counting the manga). At the very least it’s up there with Yurucamp’s Nadeshiko/Rin, Hanayamata’s Machi/Tami, or the Yuyushiki threesome. I don’t think this would have been the case if Machikado were working with a cast of five or six girls, but it very purposefully set out to tell a “(magical) girl meets (demon) girl” story, not a “group of friends chill out and chat all day” story.

I already talked a bit about what makes Shamiko tick, but it’s Momo who ended up being my favorite character of the show (and likely of the year). Momo is a stellar execution of a character archetype I wouldn’t normally be drawn to. When it comes to the “cool and aloof” types, I tend to prefer the ones who try hard but spectacularly fail at pulling it off. Think of Hibiki from Anne Happy, Ayaya from Kinmosa, Yaya from Hanayamata, Shizuku from Sakura Trick, and so on. With characters whose levelheaded coolness is entirely genuine, there’s sometimes an emotional distance between them and other characters that prevents me from becoming as fully invested in them.

It doesn’t take a lot of tweaking to transform such characters into something special, though. Nako in Hitoribocchi and Rin from Yurucamp are among my favorite characters in he last two years, and they both fall in the same category as Momo. Her calm and collected personality isn’t a facade, but it isn’t the totality of her personality either. Momo is also kind, protective, mischievous, hard-working, and jealous. The more time she spends around Shamiko, the more textured our understanding of her becomes. Momo can’t help but reveal more and more of who she is inside as Shamiko awakens all sorts of buried feelings within her. Her smiles paint those feelings all over her face.

But the smiles don’t come all that easily to Momo. For every smile we see, a dozen more drowned in the quagmire of her heart before they reached her lips. We only come to realize it in bits and pieces over the course of the story, but the Momo we meet in episode one is a dark place. She’s living alone, subsisting on junk food, depressed about her inability to properly protect the town, dwindling in power, and feeling helpless in her search for the vanished Sakura. Machikado Mazoku is just as much the story of Momo learning to embrace her vulnerability and trust others as it is a story about Shamiko and her awakened demon powers.

Momo’s obsession with training (and dragging Shamiko along with her) is one of the show’s running gags, but it’s also an expression of Momo’s inferiority complex. She believes strengthening both herself and her new ally is necessary to protect the town she loves – the same town Sakura loved. Momo doesn’t just feel left behind by her mentor, she also feels like she’s unworthy of filling her shoes. The fact that we in the audience see nothing but a perfectly peaceful city in no particular need of being saved doesn’t really matter. Momo knows what her ideal magical girl looks like, and she knows that she’s not there yet.

Shamiko’s entry into Momo’s life is game-changing, and not just because Shamiko is a potential lead in the search for Sakura. Shamiko teaches Momo to value herself. She shows Momo that emotional strength isn’t measured in power levels. Shamiko is a bumbling mess of a demon girl, but she’s got a spark that Momo lost long ago. Shamiko’s never going to beat Momo, but she pursues her mission with an endearing, sincere heart. Having Shamiko by her side invigorates Momo. That’s why learning the truth about Sakura and Joshua is so crushing for Momo. The mentor she admired so much was responsible (no matter her intentions) for a decade of hardship being inflicted on the family of the very girl through whom Momo has gained her new lease on life.

In most other shows, Shamiko would wallow in self pity after learning that Momo only approached her as a lead for finding Sakura, and that, in theory, any other demon girl would have worked just as well. But the tenaciousness that keeps Shamiko pursuing her duty as a demon girl despite constant defeat is the same strength of character that enables her to direct her focus outward, seeking always after Momo. This is where all that build-up of Shamiko’s unique strengths discussed earlier pays off.

Shamiko confronts Momo one more time, but this time she comes armed with a deal. If Momo will fall into darkness and become her vassal, Shamiko will pledge to protect her forever, and lend her demonic power in the search for Sakura. (She’ll also throw in home-cooked meals and do the chores.) After confirming that these words are truly Shamiko’s real feelings and not Lilith’s manipulation, Momo responds that she doesn’t need perks. She just needs Shamiko.

That this scene is framed exactly like a romantic confession (complete with the Lone Tree n a Hill Straight Out of a Visual Novel) is anything but a coincidence. Shamiko just offered Momo a life-long, until death do us part, eternal bond. This isn’t a temporary alliance of convenience. This is a marriage proposal. And Momo absolutely could not be happier.

This is, however, still a slice of life show, and only a partial adaptation of the source material, so some hijinks ensue, unanticipated problems with the proposal are revealed, and Momo doesn’t form a vassal contact with Shamiko – at least not quite yet. As over the moon as I’d have been if the show concluded on a signed contract and the revelation of Demon Girl Momo, and as momentarily crushed as I was for the characters to choose the status quo in the end, this scene still fundamentally works in a way not every superficially similar scene does.

Momo’s reasons for backing out of the deal are one part practical and one part emotional. The practical reason is that Shamiko’s weak magical power would necessarily mean that as her vassal, Momo would be considerably weaker as well. And besides, Shamiko can help her out even without them forming a contract. Fair enough, but the emotional reason is far more interesting, and does so much to sell this scene as more than just another slice of life cop-out.

See, it’s not the practical reason for rejecting the deal that hits Momo first. Before it clicks with her that Lilith could find a way to exploit this arrangement, she first says “Nothing this happy could ever possibly befall me.” Momo’s ability to trust others has improved over the course of the story, but her journey is far from over. When Shamiko makes her pitch, Momo focuses not on all the perks being offered, but on reassurance that Shamiko won’t leave her. That Shamiko won’t disappear… like Sakura did. Eearlier in the conversation, Momo turns to Lilith and demands to know that Shamiko’s words are truly her own, that she’s making this offer straight from the heart. This serves not only to confirm to the audience that Shamiko absolutely does believe what she’s saying, but also to emphasize Momo’s inability to trust others.

Even though Momo hasn’t yet become Shamiko’s vassal, they have openly declared their desire to be by each other’s side forever. Only the most transparent veneer of practicality and strategizing attempts and fails to mask the emotional foundation of their words. They’ll continue to strive towards their ideal selves, and they’ll do everything in their power to help each other attain the same.

The magical girl and the demon girl have committed themselves to one another, now and forever after.

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Hitoribocchi no Marumaru Seikatsu
(Spring show, click to read)

In Hitori Bocchi’s middle school life, adversity exists only within her own mind. Her classmates are preternaturally accommodating of all her neuroses, because they’re kind, caring people who will bend over backwards for her. She excels in her schoolwork without any sign of struggle. Bullying doesn’t exist in her world. This is an idealized expression of middle school that bears no resemblance to the reality any of us lived through.

But social anxiety is less about the world around you than what your brain perceives. I wouldn’t say I experience it to a clinically diagnosable degree or anything, but I certainly understand the reluctance to engage with other people in public spaces. The worst thing that can happen in any retail environment is an employee offering help. I schedule all maintenance on days when I won’t be home, because I don’t want to be here the same time. My top priority when out and about is never making eye contact. Haircuts are unpleasant. Few things are worse than being noticed. It doesn’t matter that the retail employees and maintenance technicians and other people are rarely paying attention, and the hair stylist doesn’t actually care where I work or what my plans for the weekend are. Just the possibility of getting into an interaction I don’t feel like dealing with is enough to make every social space something of an obstacle course to navigate and escape. When I’ve been in a position long enough (like a job) this feeling fades but that’s more about having increased control and comfort rather than coming to enjoy the interactions. Even with people I know well, the total lack of overlap between me and the interests of “normal” people makes all small talk an exhausting chore. So yes, there are definitely times where I understand what Bocchi is feeling, even if she’s highly exaggerated for comedic effect.

One of the benefits of adulthood is being freed from the obligation to make or maintain (offline) friends. Sure some adults still do it, but I think a lot of us just don’t have the time or energy for it. But these relationships are much more vital in your school years, where even a small friend group can help to insulate you from a lot of abuse. While Bocchi doesn’t have to worry about bullying (just some good-natured teasing from Nako), she still has a very strong incentive to make friends. She’s been assigned a special mission by her best friend from elementary school, Kai: befriend everyone in class, or she and Kai can’t be friends anymore. It’s a ludicrous gimmick, and as a premise it doesn’t really merit deep analysis. But as a promise made between two deeply awkward best friends who don’t know how to deal with heading off to different middle schools, it works. I never had a problem accepting the silliness of the premise because a premise is much less important than what a show does with it.

Hitoribocchi does what its brand of slice of life stories do best: it depicts human relationships in ways that you know aren’t true to life, but nonetheless find emotionally fulfilling. Stark realism is one way to connect with an audience, but I believe there’s also emotional truth in seeing things the way they should be, even if it’s not the way they are. At least within the idealized realm of these stories, whether it’s Hidamari Sketch or Yuyushiki or Hitoribocchi, the characters speak a language that treats these moments as genuine. And when you’ve learned to hear what they’re saying, you start to feel it too.

In our world, Bocchi would be bullied for vomiting under stress and stuttering her way through every social interaction. Sotoka would be kept at arms length as a weird foreigner with a superficial understanding of Japanese culture. Aru’s model student facade would crack and she’d be ridiculed for the braindead mistakes she makes. Kako would be resented as the teacher’s pet. Nako would probably fare best, but might have trouble making friends because she seems too unapproachable. None of that matters in the world of the show, where all of these foibles are endearingly comedic character traits, and ill intentions don’t exist.

It’s not that slice of life shows can’t ever put their characters through real hardships – just see for example Yama no Susume or Hanayamata for example. Even Hitoribocchi scores its most affecting scene from Bocchi’s lowest point. After some karaoke with friends, she runs into Kai and tries to show her how far she’s come. When Kai reluctantly ignores her (a well-meaning but awkward attempt at tough love) Bocchi is inconsolable. This actively subverts our expectation that her tears will always dry up the moment she hears some encouraging words from her friends. When their usual pep talks are ineffective, the shock they feel directly mirrors the audience’s.

If anything, it’s always these rawer (not necessarily sad, just emotionally poignant, honest) moments that distinguish great slice of life shows from the merely decent ones. (If you’ve seen me say that before, that’s because it’s one of the guiding principles to how I evaluate a lot of the series I watch or read.) I know that some slice of life fans immediately decry any deviation from happy-go-lucky comedy as the dreaded D-word (Drama!), but this strikes me as an awful way to limit a story. If I’ve truly bought into a character, that feeling doesn’t vanish the moment the jokes slow down.

Bocchi’s quest to befriend the class occurs in three stages: she meets the main cast (Nako/Aru/Sotoka), hits her first major obstacles (Kako, advancing her relationship with Sotoka), and then starts befriending the secondary cast (Peko/Ito/Mayo). From what I understand, the anime rearranges the manga somewhat, and given how well the anime still flows it sounds like the adaptation was a smart one.

Because her friendship with Kako is still in the early stages as of the end of the show, and the reunion with Kai is still far off, the most interesting arc actually lands in Sotoka’s lap. While Aru and Nako just become normal friends with Bocchi right off the bat, a strange master/disciple relationship develops with Sotoka, a result of misunderstandings and mutual awkwardness. As the “ditzy blonde gaijin obsessed with ninjas” archetype, Sotoka initially mistakes Bocchi as a master of ninjitsu and desires to train under her. Being an excessively earnest person who wants to make friends no matter what it takes, Bocchi goes along with it.

After Bocchi’s upsetting encounter with Kai, Sotoka finally admits to Aru and Nako that she wants to be true friends with Bocchi, not just a disciple. Before she can tell Bocchi, Bocchi’s friend group starts expanding, and Sotoka feels left behind. But after some encouragement from Aru and Nako, Sotoka finally tells Bocchi how she feels.

It’s readily apparent to the audience that these two have been great friends all along. But in the same way that Kai and Bocchi take their promise so seriously it becomes absurd, Sotoka treats her tutelage under Bocchi just as seriously. And just as the absurdity of the premise serves as the basis for what turned out to be a lovely show, the absurdity of Sotoka’s ninja training eventually gives us the most heartfelt moment of the show. Never before has the phrase “I like you more than I like ninja” made me cry before, I can say that much. This is what I mean by finding something emotionally genuine in the unreality of idealized spaces. It doesn’t matter how silly their relationship is when the moment feels so real. And it doesn’t in any way detract from the show’s gentle and lighthearted tone for Sotoka and Bocchi to struggle a bit on their way to this joyous moment.

I’ve extolled the virtues of accepting slice of life’s idealized conception of emotional truth, and I stand by that. Even so, I have to admit that my favorite character is also the most down to earth of the bunch. The naming convention for Bocchi characters succinctly describes their gimmick or archetype (Hitori Bocchi = all alone; Sotoka Rakita = came from outside, Honshou Aru = hidden nature), and Sunao Nako’s is “honest/direct kid”. Given how exaggerated everyone else is, you’d probably anticipate Nako being the sort of character who speaks her mind with comical levels of bluntness. You know the type: they’ve got a total lack of brain-mouth filter and a personality that’s outgoing to a fault. (TOSHINOU KYOUKO!!)

And yet, that’s not Nako. She’s blunt at times, but it’s typically deserved. Even though she’s usually up front about her emotions, she can still bottle feelings up when she’s upset. She’s not anti-social, but she is pretty reserved by nature. On the surface, Nako just seems way too normal and in control of herself to be in this show. But that’s precisely what makes her the ideal Friend #1 in Bocchi’s quest. Nako will always be waiting with a welcoming smile whenever Bocchi gets overwhelmed by her classmates’ eccentricities (or when Bocchi just overwhelms herself), and Bocchi knows it.

Anime of all kinds could use more characters like Nako. There aren’t a ton of characters who 1) project a bit of an introvert aura but 2) are unexpectedly honest with their emotions and 3) are just really sweet and level-headed people. It’s a well blended mixture, ensuring she’s never reduced to a single trait. Nako doesn’t have a character arc per se, but she doesn’t need one. She’s just a funny, kind, clever character from start to finish. She has hangups and complexes like any teenager, which are exacerbated by her homeroom teacher’s excessive and unwarranted fear of her. But she’s seriously got her shit under control. It’s not flashy, it’s not heroic, it’s nothing I can sit here and write a thousand words about. It’s just warm and wonderful, I adore Nako for it, and I wanted to ensure she got the recognition she deserves.

I feel a little bit bad not devoting a section to Aru (how zannen for her), because in her own unassuming way she’s crucial for holding the gang together. Her not-so-hidden nature as a forgetful and unfortunate doofus steals much of the comedic spotlight, but her public persona as the perfect class vice rep isn’t wholly false either. She’s patient when dealing with her friends (except Nako), good at working through their problems, and is doing her best to make everyone in the class feel welcome. She has plenty of good advice for Bocchi or Sotoka or whoever needs it, and the show knows when to dial back the gags and let her say something helpful.

She’s ridiculous, but she has a heart of gold – just like this show. No wonder she fits in so well.

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Senki Zesshou Symphogear XV
(click to hide)

I watched both AXZ and XV this season, but since XV is 1) better than AXZ (and all prior seasons) in about every respect and 2) is the conclusion of the franchise and the realization of (most of) its ambitions, this will be more of a franchise retrospective through the lens of what XV did so well.

I’ve had a rather uneven relationship with Symphogear. The first season was a fun enough action show, but the most lasting impression it left on me was disappointment that the Hibiki/Miku relationship was so undercooked, particularly since I don’t think we knew sequels were coming at the time. Afterwards I fell away from the franchise when season two didn’t get licensed for streaming. Then CR picked up G and GX, which I watched together. I can’t claim to remember those all that well either, but since G introduced Kirika and Shirabe I’d have to give it the edge over GX, which was dragged down by a less than compelling subplot between Hibiki and her dad. And then AXZ didn’t get picked up either so I fell away once again, until this season where it and XV went up in parallel. This whole time, it’s been by far one of the most beloved series in my social circles, while my enjoyment of it was rather more subdued.

At times I’ve wondered if I rate XV more highly in the same way that the Oscars dumped a bunch of awards on the third Lord of the Rings movie to acknowledge the series’ aggregate legacy, not because the film itself was actually much better than the other two. But I don’t think that’s the case with me and Symphogear. There really was something materially different about XV, even context did play a role alongside content.

At the same time, it’d be a stretch to say that XV changed up the Symphogear formula. Instead, it was a pure, purposeful distillation of that formula. It possessed a clarity of intent that perhaps only comes when you know that the foundations and structure are complete and all you need to do is lower the capstone into place.

So what’s the Symphogear Formula? Bombastic action with spontaneous power-ups and a love for flashy attack names, copious unwieldy technobabble driving a plot that probably has a consistent underlying lore yet often feels like gibberish on a moment-to-moment basis, deeply awkward yet undeniably sincere dialogue, sympathetic antagonists being manipulated by largely or wholly unsympathetic masterminds, a whole lot of singing, and a pure, guileless love for its characters. XV is all of these things, but with the positives dialed up and the negatives, if not removed, at the very least much better polished than before.

Symphogear is in many ways defined by its villains, both for better and for worse. Villains are some of its worst characters (Adam, Tiki, Ver), and also its absolute best (Kirika, Shirabe, Maria). Already by GX, four of the six core Gears are former villains, and one of the most important support team members shares a body with another. If Symphogear weren’t so much more willing to kill characters than Nanoha, SONG probably would have kept pace with the TSAB’s recruitment patterns.

Villains are one way in which XV clearly outdoes at least its two most immediate predecessors. It’s not like Kazanari Fudou is a drastically better character than Ver or Adam (they’re all somewhat obnoxious), but he was at least integrated into the good guys’ stories (Tsubasa’s and Genjuurou’s specifically) in a more meaningful way. He was more like G’s Mom than Ver or Adam. Making a far-right ultra-nationalist xenophobe the enemy also carries some timely and appreciated real-world political resonance. Every other villain (Ver, Fine, Mom, Adam) was a variant on the “Power Hungry Mad Scientist” archetype.

Because the masterminds preferred manipulating events from the shadows, the Gear wielders primarily interacted with their front-line agents: Chris, Maria/Kirika/Shirabe, the Autoscorers, the Alchemists, and Noble Red. If we set aside the four that become allies, Noble Red are the clear winners from the rest. Only two of the four Autoscorers were particularly memorable, only one had a real personality, and both of the good ones were offed far too early into the season. The Alchemists did eventually grow on me, but it took quite a while before they clicked. I was drawn to Saint-Germain first, and more out of sympathy that she was surrounded by idiots than anything else. It’s primarily through them proving an unwavering devotion to Saint-Germain that I eventually came around to appreciating Cagliostro and Prelati.

Noble Red though? I was absolutely in love with them from the start. It’s not that XV handled them perfectly by any stretch. I’ll overlook a lot of evil shit when it’s perpetrated by a found family comprised of three very well-designed girls with an intense devotion for each other, because I’m easy to manipulate like that. But XV definitely asked a lot of its audience by having Noble Red commit the brutal mass murder of 70,000 innocents in almost the same breath as going “uwu aren’t they so pitiable and adorable (˘ω˘) look at them hug each other”. They attacked the concert because that was convenient for Tsubasa’s character arc and because the writers know we’re gonna eat up Symphogear’s bullshit, not because it was actually the most elegant way to write Noble Red as characters.

But I did forgive them, because a vital piece of the season wouldn’t have worked otherwise, and because GOD DAMN IT THEY’RE ADORABLE AND I LOVE THEM. They were the Alchemists without the sarcasm and internal squabbling. There was no emotional distance between them, there were no conflicting ambitions, there were no secret plots. They were abused and abandoned by the world, bereft of anywhere to call home or anyone to call a friend, save each other. They’re a fantastic example of the ways in which Symphogear relies (more or less successfully) on the intense love it has for its own characters to make up for often clumsy or unsubtle writing.

One of XV’s most unexpected strengths appeared on the boundary between antagonists and protagonists: Carol and Elfnein. I recall Carol being alright in GX, but she spent most of her time either suffering Ver’s inane cackling or being overshadowed by the more charismatic Garie and Micha. She then disappears in AXZ, although that season works hard to build up Elfnein as one of the goodest girls you’ll ever meet. All that sets us up for the phenomenal XV episode seven.

In Elfnein’s most dire moment Carol manifests, triumphant, godlike, and burning with a flame of righteous fury kindled by the final sacrifice of her loyal Autoscorers. When I say that XV was the realization of Symphogear’s ambitions, there are few better examples than this. With the audience endeared to Elfnein over the course of AXZ and the first half of XV, we’re perfectly primed to be blown away by Carol’s return. It’s not just that it’s visually compelling, or a cool action scene – it’s because Elfnein is now a character we care about so strongly.

Episode seven is arguably the best of the franchise in a lot of ways, even if it doesn’t have the climactic finality of XV’s endgame. If it had been Carol’s only appearance in XV that would have been devastatingly effective enough.

But they weren’t done there. It’s Carol and Elfnein who later confront Shem-Ha when no one else can. It’s they who buy enough time for the Gears to plummet back to earth like the meteors of the first season’s subtitle, confront Shem-Ha, and finally finish the thought the franchise began seven years ago:

Meteoroid-falling, burning, and disappear
Nagareboshi ochite, moete, tsukite

THEN…
SOSHITE…

Tachibana Hibiki isn’t the sort of character I find myself inherently drawn to – she’s probably fifth of the six gears in my personal ranking by the end of the show. But it’s Hibiki’s voice, by way of Yuuki Aoi’s outstanding performance, that echoes Symphogear’s ideals out into the world. It’s Hibiki finishing Shem-Ha’s incomplete paraphrase of the season one subtitle. It’s any of the many “DATOSHITEMO”s. It’s the anguished howl of “balwisyall nescell Gungnir tron”, an elegant chant twisted into rage and despair incarnate as Hibiki is forced to kill Vanessa in an attempt to stop Shem-Ha’s revival.

There’s still a lot I find awkward about Hibiki. Her somewhat one-dimensional selflessness didn’t always make for the most compelling character arcs. And while every Symphogear character has a ton of ham-fisted dialogue they’re expected to deliver with a completely straight face, Hibiki had to chew through the clunkiest of it (though Tsubasa is a very close second). It’s not a question of translation; the very ideas she needed to express were a little too cheesy even for me. It’s certainly not a question of delivery either; Ao-chan poured her heart into every line.

So I can’t say that Hibiki works outstandingly well for me as a character in the traditional sense. But as a conduit for Symphogear’s inner voice, I respect her ability to punctuate its most rousing moments. And while I didn’t find her selflessness particularly interesting, that gets rather brilliantly turned on its head in the finale when, prompted by Carol, she finally turns her most deeply held desire into words: “I want to take Miku for myself! Not to help other people, but because I want it!” It’s in that moment, where she finally casts aside her self-sacrificing good-girl heroism, that she becomes more human and believable than ever before. Five seasons is a little long to wait for that kind of payoff, but credit where credit is due, this was stellar. It’s simply not a sentiment all that many characters get to voice with such clarity and purpose.

Hibiki might be the voice of Symphogear, but when it comes to the very practical question of “what the heck would keep me watching five seasons of a series I’d only ever been 7-out-of-10 moderately entertained by”, for that I can thank my two favorite characters in the franchise by a mile: Kirika and Shirabe. Any time I found my interest in Symphogear flagging, all I needed was to see their dumb-ass faces again and I’d instantly remember why I was still watching.

While I spent season after season frustratedly waiting for Hibiki and Miku to frickin’ say the obvious, Kirika and Shirabe were ✰ Just ✰ Absolutely ✰ Killing ✰ It ✰ being the most shamelessly, uncompromisingly, flamboyantly in love lesbians you’ve ever seen. Did the have to turn their combo attacks into a romantic figure shaking routine? No, BUT THEY WANTED TO. Did they have to get shot out of a ship via missile, plummet through the sky, hold hands, intertwine legs, gaze into each other’s eyes, and intimately inject Linker into their partner’s neck before letting out a quiet gasp? No, BUT THEY WANTED TO. And fuck you if that’s not reason enough!

No other characters in Symphogear love being alive even half as much as Kirika and Shirabe. No two characters revel in each other’s mere existence the way they do. They are inseparable. They are one soul in two bodies. They are so wildly in love. They may be the least plot-relevant of the Gears, but as a side effect, they’re freed up to simply be the most fun. In a series that never really got by on the strength of its plot anyway, it’s Kirika and Shirabe who shine with the most charming and exciting and gleefully stupid fighting styles. It’s Kirika and Shirabe who get the goofiest comedy scenes. It’s Kirika and Shirabe who get the best henshins. It’s Kirika and Shirabe who get the most ridiculous Gears, with Kirika’s chuunibyou striped-thighhigh jester-shinigami and Shirabe’s strange stick-legged buzzsaw-twintail dorky-ass-yo-yo-slinging getup.

Chris and Maria spend a lot of time looking back at their pasts. Tsubasa is distracted by her family’s sworn responsibility. Hibiki always seems to be wondering what the future will bring, and worrying about whether she’s ready for it. In stark contrast, Kirika and Shirabe live unashamedly present-tense lives. Because after all, it’s only in the here-and-now that they can see and touch and embrace the person they love more than anyone or anything in the world.

In some ways, given my overwhelming preference for these two over every other character in the franchise, it might be weird that XV is my favorite season when they don’t get much direct focus after episode three. It’s true that their place in the story didn’t give them a ton to do in XV compared to Hibiki, Tsubasa, or even Maria. But I only stuck around to see XV pull everything together into its rousing, explosive final season because Kirika and Shirabe carried my interest all the way to the finish line.

With respect to Tsubasa, Chris, and especially Maria (by the end of XV my third favorite character), I don’t have the time to do a full section on every character. Even though, while I’m honestly a little meh with respect to Tsubasa, I quite like Chris and Maria. I just don’t know what to say about them specifically. As I’ve made clear, I never felt like sophisticated character arcs were Symphogear’s bread and butter, so what I enjoy about Chris and Maria is just their personalities and their moment-to-moment interactions with the other members of the cast.

But I was really pleased to see Maria evolve over the seasons. She’s not the kind of character I’d normally expect to like so much, but her settling into the role of Mama Gear was just too perfect. Maria’s cool, elegant, caring personality filled a niche none of the other Gears were suited for. Tsubasa was too obsessed with her duty to effectively play anyone’s senpai, while Chris (bless her heart) exudes far too much imouto energy to be taken seriously as anyone’s elder, not even Kirika and Shirabe. Maria, though? She’s got that shit on lock down.

Maria even got Tsubasa to unclench every now and again. I don’t think anyone else could have pulled off that impossible task.

And so we get to Miku, and more broadly the final arc of the show and the resolution of its central relationship. Hibiki and Miku’s relationship, as I’ve said so many times in the past, was always the great source of disappointment for me with Symphogear. Not because it was bad or unwelcome but precisely the opposite: because it was so incredibly promising, yet perpetually under-developed and unfulfilled. XV finally decided to thrust this relationship front and center in its second half. Five seasons of occasional flirting and longing glances were now going to come to a head, we hoped.

Symphogear almost nailed it. Hibiki declaring during the final battle that it’s Miku she wants, more than anything else in the world? That’s a moment Hibiki sorely needed and certainly deserved. Hibiki using the power of hugs to turn a curse into a miracle as Metanoia climaxes and Shem-Ha’s is destroyed? That’s just one of the best damn moments of anime this year. Miku getting to actively control Shenshoujìng for the first time as she joins in on the final world-saving mission?

That’s… well that was cool, and necessary, but I can’t praise it without also criticizing how passive she was before hat. At the very least you expect the damsel in distress to, like, struggle back against her possessor’s control and distract them during a critical moment, right? But Miku had literally no agency between being captured by Millaarc in episode six and being freed by Hibiki in the finale. She was frankly a more active participant in G, when she chucked a spear into space or whatever. Nonetheless, she *did* get to play a role in the very end, so I suspect the writers were at least trying, however clumsily, and I’ll take whatever Miku I can get.

Then the dust settles, the credits roll, and Hibiki and Miku take a walk together in the snow…

It’s been a few days and I’m still thinking about it and sighing, but not in the good way. My issue with the show deciding to play coy and cut away before they openly voice their feelings isn’t just an issue with Symphogear. In the context of any single show this trope (that expressions of love between girls always have to come with some caveat, some pulled punch, some cutesy wink-wink nudge-nudge in place of Just Telling Each Other) is not necessarily fatal. But it’s extremely widespread (more the rule than the exception) and reminds us every time that anime just isn’t yet where it needs to be. Writers aren’t accidentally tripping into this. They’re actively choosing it as the best way to write characters, and it’s maddening.

Really digging into my feelings about the trope itself would mean going well beyond Symphogear, and beyond the scope of these comments. And it’s an exhausting discussion besides, given all the misconceptions there are about why exactly I (or whoever else) thinks it’s a problem. I just really, really wish Symphogear specifically hadn’t invoked it. Symphogear has never been a subtle show in any respect, and this was definitely not the place to start experimenting. This was the long-planned finale of an original series, with no ongoing source material to the risk getting ahead of. The relationship was built up in fits and starts for seven years. And it’s the exact concern that’s had me holding my breath ever since the finale of season one.

I know it’s unfair to say Symphogear had a responsibility to fire a shot across the bow of this particular trope, but it did have a virtually unprecedented opportunity to do so, and it opted out. That last cut to black knocked the wind out of me, pulling me down from the pretty ecstatic high I was on after watching the last three episodes back to back. Even four days later, I found myself sitting at work, thinking about this, and just feeling kind of miserable for a solid hour. Yes, of course I know what they were going to say. I know they’re in love, and I love that they’re in love. That’s not the issue. A media trope that necessitates only one-sided or roundabout expressions of love appear on screen is the issue. Every tweet thread that crosses my twitter tl about how “if you analyze these lyrics, or that body language, or these jokey comments from the seiyuu, or some fanart from one of the animaors, it totally proves x, y, and z” makes me want to tear my hair out because that is just not the point.

Certainly there is no one way to convey two characters’ feelings for each other. But that’s precisely why indirect winks at the audience shouldn’t be the only way either. Every time it happens, it becomes more normalized, and more likely to keep happening, and more likely to be the only way love gets to be expressed, and I hate it. The end result is that when I see anything HibiMiku, the emotion I feel isn’t happiness. I want it to be, but then I remember this scene, and… I can’t. Good intent was there, but intent is only half the battle.

::extremely long sigh:: Here I am closing out these comments with the same unwanted feelings that this scene elicited from me. I didn’t want to feel this way then, and I don’t want to wrap up my writeup this way either. So let’s end on something more positive.

Symphogear XV is still by and large a terrific show. My positive feelings for it are leaps and bounds beyond anything I felt for 1st through AXZ. I don’t recall shedding a tear during any previous season, but XV got me probably half a dozen times. It’s frankly cool as hell that a staff who clearly adores the ever loving shit out of the world they’ve created was successful enough that they got to to see that world through to its conclusion. And I’m grateful that, even if it took five seasons, Symphogear gave me something that evoked excitement at a level even half as fervent its many fans have felt for years.

Nothing is perfect, and sometimes even imperfections that seem small to others can leave behind a painful sting. But when I started XV, I never had any expectation that I’d wind up caring about it nearly as much as I ultimately did. That definitely counts for something.

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Watashi ni Tenshi ga Maiorita!
(Winter show, click to read)

Where to even start! I have so many stored up thoughts about this show on account of choosing not to livetweet it (to avoid Drama™) that I almost don’t know what to focus on. It’s not that it’s a complicated show, but it’s so good in so many ways that there’s an endless amount of stuff I could gush over. Such as, say, the finale’s outstanding 15 minute long performance of the class musical that I just watched before starting to write this. Goodness gracious where did that even come from? So sublime.

But. Unfortunately, there’s a “but”. The premise is clearly a problem when it comes to getting initial buy-in from a lot of potential viewers. I wasn’t overly bothered myself, especially given the relatively modest focus it gets throughout the series (not to say there aren’t plenty of alternatives I’d have preferred). But it’s frustrating because without the controversial premise it’d just be known as an exceptionally well-executed slice of life show that most of my friends would have fallen in love with. Wouldn’t even require excessive changes to the show to pull that off either! But as it is, it’s going to turn a lot of people off, for reasons both good and bad. I have my own thoughts about that we can get into later, but there’s so many other things I want to talk about too.

Reclusive costuming enthusiast and first-year university student Hoshino Miyako is of course the character who made Wataten controversial, but it ought to be noted that whatever nascent feelings she’s developing for Hana exist alongside her thoroughly charming interactions with everyone else in the cast. In particular she and her little sister, Hinata, are such a delight and among my favorite siblings in recent years.

When you think of hyper-affectionate little sisters in anime, it’s probably siscon light novels in the style of Oreimo or KissxSis that come to mind these days. That isn’t what’s happening here though. They’re just two sisters with seemingly incompatible personalities who care a lot about each other and get along wonderfully. Where Miyako is an introverted, socially-anxious disaster, Hinata is the physical incarnation of extroverted joy. While Hinata’s friends tend to display a dry wit that (while hilarious) seems beyond their years, Hinata knows nothing of sarcasm or irony. She’s a cheerful little kid, and that’s exactly what Wataten allows her to be.

Hinata’s affection for her “Mya-nee” is unquestioning, even though she’s aware of Miyako’s shortcomings. She wants to be pampered by Miyako but also constantly talks about how she wants to protect her. She thinks Miyako is the coolest big sister in the universe, but also knows that Miyako has no friends and is bad at dealing with strangers.

Because she’s a kid she doesn’t have an adult-level appreciation for what that’s truly like for Miyako. Hinata tends to blurt out “Mya-nee has no friends!” or “Mya-nee is bad around people!” and embarrass Miyako in front of strangers. Given how much she adores Miyako, she clearly wouldn’t do that if she completely understood Miyako’s anxieties. When she talks about protecting Mya-nee, it’s not as if she has a clear concept of what she’s protecting her from. She just wants to show how much her big sister means to her. And yet, on an unconscious emotional level, she can intuit that Miyako just isn’t good at some things, and that’s where her protective impulse originates. It’s a very believably childlike way of viewing the world.

I’m beyond charmed by Hinata. Most anime kids (including a lot of those in this show!) are more like vertically-challenged teenagers than actual children. As charming as a snarky little girl may be, there also needs to be room left for characters like Hinata: kids who can just revel in the exhilaration of being kids. Hinata is reminiscent of Yotsuba (-to), Tsumugi (Amaama), or Renge (NonNon) more than anyone else. Truth be told she probably deserves to be my favorite character of the season, but due to my own character biases, that’s actually someone we’ll meet a little later.

Miyako gets overwhelmed by the intensity of Hinata’s admiration at times, but she really does want to be a good big sister worthy of Hinata’s praise – even if she’s still got a long way to go. And Hinata only works as well as she does because of the believable ways Miyako reacts to her. One of my favorites scenes occurs after Miyako belatedly realizes that she’s been neglecting Hinata due to being too wrapped up in making costumes for Hana and Noa. Despite the whole situation being due to Miyako’s negligence, she’s able to flip on her onee-san switch when Hinata needs it, manages to patch things up, and reminisces about how close she and Hinata have been ever since Hinata was born.

It’s a beautiful scene that leaves me keenly aware of how infrequently we get to see sisterhood properly explored in anime, especially from the older sister’s perspective. Even with female protagonists, we tend to see things from the younger sister’s point of view. The older sister appears infrequently, typically detached from the main cast because of school, work, or marriage, and/or having already moved out. It’s hard to make sisterly bonds a major story focus in those scenarios.

So Mya-nee’s other issues aside, the fact that the older sister is the protagonist and there’s so much focus on her relationship with her little sister is really refreshing. I can’t think of another show in recent years that’s done it quite the same way. Even the best pairs of sisters in the past ~3 years (Makoto/Akane in Flying Witch, Sana/Sanae in Alizou, Yuu/Rei in Yagakimi, Emily/Clare in Harukana) don’t hit both criteria. I’d be overjoyed to see more anime take this approach. Ideally less potentially problematic series that I’d be able to convince other people to watch, if I can be greedy for a moment. (The manga Ato de Shimai Masu would have been pretty much perfect for this, but unfortunately it got canceled a few volumes in.)

For all that I said about Hinata, I still can’t help but end up favoring Noa the most. Yes, I just discussed the merits of Hinata being a kid who gets to act like a kid, but Noa’s wise-beyond-her-years snarkiness and (endearingly benign) narcissistic streak are simply too powerful. She’s introduced when she catches Miyako cosplaying at the end of the first episode, and she promptly leverages this knowledge to blackmail Miyako into making her cute outfits in episode two. Sweet and honest like Hinata ain’t Noa’s style. Noa is the self-proclaimed #1 cutest girl in the world, and she intends to prove it. She’s not intimated by Miyako being her elder, and she befriends Hana and Hinata right away despite having just moved in. She exudes an excessive amount of self-confidence.

This is ridiculously funny in its own right, especially given Wataten’s razor sharp comedic delivery. But Noa is only my favorite because there’s more to her than all that. Her confidence isn’t fake per se, but when anyone goes around calling themselves the best all the time, they’re either hiding a serious weakness or are likely to have their worldview shattered the first time they’re challenged. And indeed Noa’s first taste of defeat is when she finds herself playing second fiddle to Hana in Miyako’s cuteness rankings. It’s not like Noa has feelings for Miyako, she just really can’t abide by anyone being considered cuter than her. This becomes something of a running gag for a while, until Noa eventually just accepts that Miyako is the way she is.

Noa recovers from this initial shock thanks to the support of someone who does think she’s the cutest in the world: Hinata! It’s precisely because Noa is so mature for her age that she realizes the guileless honesty in Hinata’s words and finds them trustworthy.

From then on, Noa still boldly declares her own cuteness, but when it comes down to it she’s really looking for Hinata’s approval. That means more to her than all the accolades in the world. The huge crush she has on Hinata is adorable in ways I honestly can’t do justice. Her feelings for Hinata are a whole lot more concrete and better fleshed out than whatever Miyako is feeling about Hana, that’s for sure. When Noa is with Hinata, little hints of vulnerability leak out: spending extra time choosing an outfit, waking up early to prepare sandwiches for a date, catching herself wanting not just anyone’s attention, but Hinata’s attention specifically.

In a particularly fun episode, Hinata is going through serious Mya-nee withdraw when she’s told that she’s being too clingy and needs to separate for a while. In a bid to keep Hinata from dying of Mya-nee deficiency, Noa is dressed up like Miyako and handed over to Hinata. The affection she receives from Hinata is intoxicating, but tinged with the lonely understanding that she had to pretend to be someone else to get it. While feeling like she’s been abandoned after the Mya-nee embargo is finally lifted, Noa finally gets her payoff. Hinata tells Noa that she was a suitable substitute only “because I like you just as much“.

If there’s been one point emphasized more than any other throughout Wataten, it’s that Hinata really, really, really, really frickin’ loves Miyako, so that’s the strongest response she could have given. I was so darn happy for Noa in that moment.

There’s so much I love about this show (Koyori! Kanon!), and I haven’t come close to covering it all. But eventually there’s a fundamental question to ask: how do you feel about Miyako’s reactions to Hana, and if you’re not actively in favor of that (as I assume most people aren’t), are you still able to enjoy the other 95% of the show?

I’m not interested in answering that question for anyone else, of course. While I roll my eyes at the trend of applying vapid wokeness scores to media, I feel just as strongly that nobody ever needs to justify their decision not to engage with media. I write off nearly every show airing each season based on little more than a key visual and a synopsis, and I think that’s perfectly fine and normal. So I can only say that, for me, the good far outweighed the problematic and I’m so glad I overcame my reservations and watched Wataten.

To begin with, I’m not instantly turned off by age gap stories. A lot of people have tropes they’ll consume in fiction but find abhorrent in reality, after all. Student-teacher yuri pairings are something I’m a fan of more often than not, to give one example. And since Simoun was popping up on my timeline recently, I’ve gotta say Limone/Dominura was always my favorite couple there. And yet, Miyako/Hana isn’t something I could ever see myself shipping. It isn’t even so much the number of years, which isn’t specifically stated but is between 6 and 8 considering their current years of schooling. It’s just that Hana is too young and the situation is, while exaggerated for comedy, still a little too realistic. I could probably handle a flash forward to them being an item 8 years in the future, but I’m simply not interested in viewing them that way now.

And just to be clear, the show doesn’t exactly go there either. While Miyako and Hana grow closer over the course of the season, for Hana it’s entirely about learning to look past Miyako’s extreme social awkwardness and unconsciously creepy behavior and seeing in her the older sister she’s always lacked as an only child. On Miyako’s side, it’s indeed moving in a problematic romantic direction, but even by the end of the show she’s yet to really understand or accept what she’s feeling.

This is where I think it would actually be very simple to “fix” Wataten. What Hana (and Noa and the other girls) represent for Miyako is a way to shake off her extreme introversion and get used to interacting with other people. Sure it’s embarrassing for an ~17/18 year old to not have any friends older than ~10/11, but Miyako needs all the help she can get. Eventually she’ll befriend people her own age, participate more at university, and get a job costuming, something she’s both passionate about and very good at. It’s a wholesome story that practically writes itself.

Hell, Wataten is very nearly set up to be this show already. There’s no fanservice to speak of, Miyako is a genuinely multi-dimensional character, her interactions with everyone but Hana are nothing but age-appropriate and sweet and totally charming, Matsumoto plays the role of the interested same-age friend she could form a relationship with, and while it’s for the most part a comedy, the arc of Miyako slowly coming out of her shell is actually well done.

But (there’s the “but”!) it doesn’t really work to speak of “fixing” Wataten when it’s doing what it sets out to do. The layer of oneloli, however thin, is a feature, not a bug we can just patch out because it’d make recommending the show more convenient. Take Matsumoto for example. She seems like a character that could “fix” so much but I don’t think the story sees that as her purpose. Her whole deal is that she’s so in love with Miyako that she’s been quietly stalking her for years. More than once Miyako looks at Matsumoto and thinks “Oh my god, when I gush over how cute Hana is, am I making Hana feel the way Matsumoto makes me feel?”. That’s almost the eureka moment, and this whole subplot does, in general, move in a good direction… but only so far. Matsumoto’s aggressive love does encourages Miyako to think more seriously about how she engages with Hana. But Matsumoto isn’t our “fix”. Her purpose in the story is not to become Miyako’s girlfriend and avert the oneloli armageddon.

And besides, for anyone who is unconditionally opposed to the premise of the show, the generally wholesome vibe and portrayal of Miyako as a layered and somewhat sympathetic character could even be seen as actively worse because they’ll be interpreted as distractions from and/or apologia for, the problematic premise. The very fact that I’ve had anything positive to say about Miyako at all no doubt invalidates my entire opinion for a lot of people. I don’t personally subscribe to this view, which I suppose is clear by this point. But if you do, then of course nothing else the show does will be convincing, and Miyako herself will always be irredeemable.

And to be clear, if this is your take, I won’t tell you not to feel that way. But I can tell you that I’m not interested in debating you about it either. Just save us both time by not leaving a comment about how much you dislike the show. Thanks in advance!

I don’t really know how to sum this all up. As much as I genuinely enjoyed the heck out of Wataten, it’s one of the rare cases where I’m not dying for a sequel. While I’d love to spend more time with these characters, in particular Noa and Hinata, it’s probably for the best that future animation resources are devoted to adapting something in a less divisive yuri sub-genre. I can always read the manga, after all.

But whatever you think of think of Wataten, Hinata and Noa are perfect and wonderful and did absolutely nothing wrong. That is a hill I will absolutely die on.

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Endro!
(Winter show, click to read)

Shows I enjoy usually wind up being good at the things I expect them to be good at, and less so at the things I don’t. Endro was a curious example of the opposite. Almost all of its highlights came in its genuinely serious moments, while the slice of life hijinks ranged from mediocre to “pretty good”. For some reason I can’t put my finger on (but I suppose I’ll try in these comments), the interactions among the four very charming leads were lacking something. But whenever Princess Rona or in particular Demon Lord Mao were involved, our heroes, every side character, and the show as a whole were all elevated tremendously.

Endro’s conceit is simple but pretty cool – the Hero’s party finds and defeats the Demon Lord in episode one, resulting in a credits roll and “The End” . But it turns out that Yusha screwed up a sealing spell during the fight, and what happened instead is that everyone was thrown back in time to when Yusha’s party is just learning the ropes of adventuring. Nobody remembers what happened except for the Demon Lord, who is now a teacher at their adventurers’ school going by “Mao”, appropriately enough.

The larger theme at work is overcoming the role that’s been prescribed for you by destiny. It’s only when Yusha throws aside the Hero role she’s admired all her life (with the help of a hilariously blatant plot contrivance) that she’s able to save Mao from her fated destruction and ensure the Happily Ever After ending. But it’s through Mao that Endro really explores this concept. As the one character whose memories are intact, she spends a lot of time thinking about what it means to act out, or rebel against, the role you’ve been assigned. That this is all done in a colorful and often lighthearted way doesn’t mean the themes aren’t still there.

Before getting into how great Mao is, it’s worth looking at what worked a little less well. There are two types of scenes in Endro: the four adventures doing adventurer things, and their interactions with Rona and Mao in service to the larger story. The former were fine, but didn’t come close to the latter. It’s hard to explain, but it felt more like the generic fantasy situations they were put in were almost never as interesting as the girls themselves were, I suppose? I’d actually rather have seen them just goofing off like a typical high school slice of life anime because then we’d learn more about them and see how they interact with each other, as opposed to reacting to the situations they were put in. This seemed to be the general consensus among everyone I know who watched the show. They’re good characters, but something didn’t quite click when they were on their own.

But I will say that I skimmed all my livetweets right before I started writing this, and a lot of my reservations came quite late in the season. By far the two weakest episodes of Endro were 9 and 10, and I didn’t appear to have very many complaints before that. Episode 7 (where Rona spends time separately with each of Yusha’s friends) did also drag in the first half, but recovered with an excellent Rona/Fai sequence in the latter half. Other than that, there were just a smattering of scenes where I found myself thinking “I wish Mao were here…”.

So my memory is perhaps being skewed by a relatively small portion of episodes that just happened to come back-to-back near the end and are thus fresher in my mind. But those two episodes didn’t create the issue, they just highlighted what was already a slight problem, in a less concentrated form, earlier on.

Again though, this is less good than the outstanding Mao storyline, not necessarily “bad”. Because taken individually, I find Yusha, Fai, Sei, and Mei incredibly charming. Fai, I was surprised to find out, ended up being my favorite of the four thanks to her endless cheerfulness and fantastic character design. Sei was extremely close behind as the beleaguered mom of the group. Yusha was a perfectly likable pink protagonist. If anyone was the weak link, it was Mei. I don’t dislike her by any stretch, but I was done with the rants about Cartado by like the second one – and they end up being the one and only gimmick she had as a character. That doesn’t work as well as Yusha’s endearing dumbness, Sei’s exasperation, or Fai’s genki gluttony.

Interestingly, while I like Rona a lot, the one flaw in her character was very similar to Mei’s. The gag that consistently fell flat with Rona was her exuberant recitation of the deeds of previous generations of heroes. That’s what dragged down the first half of episode seven, not anything that Mei or Sei actually did. It’s only when she was thrust outside of her comfort zone with Fai that things really picked up. I don’t think Rona is actually a better character than Fai, Sei, or Yusha (maybe Mei tho). I think that she benefited from always being present in the second of the two types of scenes I mentioned, the ones that stuck closer to Endro’s central theme.

Rona’s obsession with the old stories did have a strong thematic payoff however! While overdone, it clearly illustrated the idea that she was a slave to destiny and tradition. She’s the Princess. Yusha is the Hero. Mao is the Demon Lord. They’re more archetypes than people in her eyes, herself included. This is why she so readily threw herself at Yusha when they first met, even after she found out Yusha was a girl. Whether or not Rona was attracted to girls didn’t matter. She assumed she was obligated by her role to love the Hero, no matter what form they took. We can cheer her on when she talks about rewriting the kingdom’s laws to legalize same-sex marriage, but at this point in the show she’s not acting as some icon of lesbian representation. She’s only doing what is necessary to fulfill her destiny. She’s have done the same if Yusha had turned out to be a sentient moose.

I hadn’t really solidified my feelings around that until literally right now as I’m typing this. So in retrospect, it would have been deeply disappointing if that’s all Endro had in store for Rona. But her entire character arc revolves around overcoming these expectations and seeing that Yusha is more than The Hero – and still loving her anyway. The moment this thought first occurs to her is when Yusha springs into action to do something heroic and tells Rona that it’s not because she’s the Hero, but because that’s just who she is.

Rona can’t process this immediately of course, and when her worldview is challenged, she seeks the comfort of her stories. She seeks to learn more about Yusha’s companions a few episodes later, and spends the whole time comparing them to companions of the past. She even goes so far as to stage her own kidnapping to put her Hero through a gauntlet befitting the legends. But at the climax of the battle, she finally realizes that while Yusha has been “Hero” to her, she’s always been “Rona” to Yusha. When the farce kidnapping is called off, she finally apologizes to Yusha, to Yulia, using her real name. If you want a medieval fantasy version of two high school students dropping honorifics or switching to given names, there you go! But here it’s also in direct service to the story’s central thematic message.

This is why I enjoy writing up my thoughts each season, as tiring as it can be to write and re-write for hours and hours on end. I now feel like I understand why the parts of Endro that didn’t work as well, didn’t, and those that did work, did. Rona’s and Mao’s arcs revolved very tightly around Endro’s central theme, while Sei, Mei, and Fai hardly engaged with it at all, and Yusha only really did so through Rona and Mao. Rona and Mao completed a personal journey that was far more vital to the show’s success than any of Yusha’s party’s adventures, and so episodes spent on the latter felt like time diverted away from what really mattered. It’s as if those episodes were, in a small way, a victim of Endro’s unexpected successes.

Nowhere were those successes more apparent than with Mao, the cutest, loneliest, littlest Demon Lord there’s ever been. Discovering that she retained memories of the time loop was the initial plot hook that made me want to keep watching (okay, that and Namori’s character designs), and her struggle to embrace this calm new life while being inexorably called back to her destiny as a Demon Lord was the emotional meat of the story. Yusha may be the Hero, but Mao is effectively the protagonist. That’s why when she wasn’t around, it felt like we were missing out.

Mao has no memory of the previous 998 demon lords, and beyond this making it simpler for Endro to write a story that’s uniquely her own, it also makes her a lot easier to sympathize with. For all intents and purposes, she is a separate entity with none of the blood of nearly a thousand demonic burnings and pillagings of Naral island on her hands. And when we learn that her destiny is simply to be defeated over and over until her power is exhausted, she’s downright pitiable.

That’s one of the more interesting little twists Endro brings to the table. While Yusha and her party do exhibit some prowess in combat, and Mao wields impressive magics, we find out that we’re seeing both Hero and Demon Lord as pale shadows of their former glory. Yusha is a clumsy doofus with bad grades, while Mao puts the “emo” in Demon Lord as she writes sad poetry and bemoans her lack of meaningful relationships. This is not one of Rona’s epic tales of heroes and military campaigns. This is the last gasp of an ancient history that’s hastily scribbling down its final few pages.

Meigo is the first character who, after being devoured by Chibi, detours from her prescribed destiny. Returned to the world of the living and stripped of the constraints of being a golem, the first time she exercises her newfound freedom is something very small, but genuinely meaningful for Mao. It’s when she accepts Mao’s offer to share a meal with her. As a golem, she could not do this even at Mao’s request. As a, well, whatever she is now, she has that ability.

Mao’s backstory in episode six, where that first request to dine together occurred, set the tone for her whole arc. The first time she truly smiles in the entire scene is when she hears that the Heroes are on their way to vanquish her. She wants meaningful contact so badly that even the threat of dying excites her. As her golem (unnamed at this point) moves out to intercept the intruders, Mao almost stops her, upset by the realization that she’s likely to die without ever learning her name. I was taken aback at what a sincerely sad tone this scene struck, and how it was allowed to linger just long enough to not be undone by the return to comedy moments later. Sincerity is the key to good comedy and slice of life. Endro was careful to never undercut its emotionally poignant moments.

I suppose if you want to fault Endro’s central theme at all, you could point to Chibi, the dragon pet who shows up out of nowhere and contains literally god-level powers to delete concepts from existence. Having Yusha, Mao, Rona, and Meigo overcome their respective destinies because a deus ex draco happened to be nearby arguably cheapens the accomplishment.

But I don’t agree at all. Chibi was merely a mechanism to actualize the feelings each character already held within their hearts, as evidenced by the choices they’d made. Rona had chosen to recognize Yusha as a person, not the Hero. Yusha had chosen to throw away the Hero’s sword and the title she’d admired for so long. Meigo had chosen to reveal the truth of the Demon Lords to everyone in order to nudge them towards defying fate. And although Mao seemed ready to accept death, she did so not as a villain being vanquished, but as a teacher and a friend making a selfless sacrifice.

Endro’s irreverent disregard for the “mechanics” of its world runs counter to the obsessive world-building that defines so much modern anime fantasy. It simply doesn’t matter how their feelings are actualized, which is probably an artifact of Endro being a slice of life fantasy. So when our heroes are asked to explain how they came upon Chibi, they realize they don’t have an answer, and respond in the most apporpriate way possible: “Whatever!

Rona spent her entire life immersed in volumes and volumes of heroic stories she’s memorized from cover to cover. She marveled at the idea of being immortalized in the next volume of that series. But when it comes to tell the story of the 999th generation, the book she presents to Yusha, Sei, Fai, and Mei is completely empty. Their destiny is entirely theirs to write, together, and it’ll be a hell of a lot more fun than any dusty old tome.

Endro may not have been as consistent as I’d have liked, and even two clunker episodes is a significant portion to lose from a 12 episode show, which is a bummer. But with almost every passing paragraph I’ve typed, I’ve come to appreciate more and more the simple yet rock solid thematic core it was built around. Endro is really good anime.

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Hachigatsu no Cinderella Nine
(Spring show, click to read)

I’ve traditionally been reluctant to watch sports anime, in part because I just don’t like sports but also because the genre is completely dominated by stories about boys. And my reluctance is especially strong with the most mainstream sports in my country (baseball, basketball, American football). But the last few years have seen a mini-resurgence in girls’ sports anime. Just since 2016 I’ve seen Uma Musume, Harukana, Anima Yell, Hanebado, Keijo, Takkyuu Musume, and Minakama. Hachinai is the latest entry in the group, and the first show I’ve ever watched about baseball (the most boring of all sports). If this came out back in 2015 or 2016 I probably would have passed on it, but I guess the above-mentioned anime (and Jon Bois) have softened my stance enough to give it a try. Thankfully it turns out that a team of plucky, good-natured girls makes all things better, even baseball.

It’s not just my disinterest in the sport that Hachinai had to overcome, unfortunately. The production quality was, most of the time, dire. Just as a matter of aesthetics I’ll be including the better looking screencaps in this post, but suffice to say that most characters were melting most of the time. Character models were merely a suggestion, and animation was apparently optional. Gems like this can be found even in the better looking episodes, and the none of the games had much in the way of flow.

Strangely enough, the overall production quality actually improved in the second half. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show with as messy a production as this one get markedly better as time went on, but Hachinai did. By no stretch would I say it got good, but the improvement was undeniable, and the last game managed a number of perfectly decent-looking moments even if the scene to scene flow was always jerky. If there was one episode I could call strong(-ish) from a visual direction standpoint, it’d be episode 7, Maiko’s episode. The one thing this show managed to make look consistently nice are the deep reds and oranges of evening, and those featured prominently in this episode about Maiko’s troubled home life and her decision to finally stand up for herself and embrace the sport that gave her purpose and camaraderie.

So if we’re not getting intense, visually engaging action, what do we get out of this show? How about a bunch of girls overcoming a variety of internal foibles and external setbacks to band together and play some darn sports ball together? Hachinai impressed me on this front from the first episode.

Tsubasa is introduced as the plucky, persistent protagonist who creates a new club and sets out to recruit members. We’ve all heard that story a hundred times, but Hachinai cleverly allows the first two recruits (Yuuki and Akane) to drive the episode. Tsubasa doesn’t make a nuisance of herself by hounding everyone else to join, either. She’s enthusiastic without being needlessly aggressive, a sign of the trust she places in her friends and teammates. When she spies an opportunity to merge their first practice session with a casual game between some local kids, she gets Yuuki and Akane acquainted with the game in a low-risk, low-intensity environment. Tsubasa’s approach is to identify latest interest in the sort and nurture it gently, not pull everyone along kicking and screaming (except maybe Ryou, for whom that’s honestly just the right approach!).

We also find out in the first episode that despite being adapted from a mobage, the anime dispenses with any player-insert coach character. Instead one of the female teachers becomes their advisor, and while she works hard on their behalf, for the most part the girls handle their own affairs. That’s almost always the superior approach, and with so many characters introduced in a one cour anime, the more time they have to interact with each other, the better.

Nice heartfelt moments populate the entire show, especially with Akane, Yuuki, and Maiko, but there isn’t all that much thematic meat for me to dig into. And since the focus is spread around the team pretty evenly, there isn’t one particular character I feel compelled to analyze in depth. It’s just a bunch of girls coming together, learning to care about each other, working hard, and seeing that effort rewarded. I may not have a ton to say, but I appreciate you, Hachinai. Thanks for finishing before everyone at the studio dropped dead.

And I especially appreciate Akane and her custom cat-eared headgear. You’re the goddamn best, Akane.

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Granbelm
(click to hide)

Oh Granbelm, what am I to do with you? The topline summary here has to be “ambitious show starts delivering on that ambition, then settles for a somewhat pedestrian ending”. There’s much in Granbelm that I enjoy, not least being its dedication to drawing 2D mecha in the year 2019. It’s almost surprising anyone still in the industry even remembers how. It’s also important when a show allows female characters to take the lead in a genre where they are routinely downplayed, even outright shunned. Also impressive was the way that Granbelm manged to consistently flip some of my early misgivings around and turn them into very cool reveals. There really was a lot going for this show.

The ability to make take lemons and make lemonade was, at least until the end, perfectly exemplified by Mangetsu. She’s introduced to us as the classic “blank slate” protagonist – the character whose greatest flaw is that she’s so thoroughly ordinary. The kind of character who talks about how they “have nothing, and are nothing”. This is not an archetype I find terribly compelling on its own, and so my reaction to Mangetsu (and by association, Shingetsu) was fairly muted early on. And that was alright, because the supporting cast was entirely capable of pulling their weight. Nene, Anna, and Kibou were more than adequate to keep me invested, Kuon won me over a little later, and as Suishou started to reveal who she was she became increasingly charismatic and theatrical in interesting ways. The show’s visual excution consistently elevated its scenes as well, so it could get away with a somewhat bland lead.

The reveal that Mangetsu was just a doll was everything you could ever ask for in a twist. It may not have been the only possible explanation for how she felt, but it was a perfectly logical one within the framework of the story, and thematically fit with the marionette control scheme of the Armanoxes. It justified Mangetsu’s character archetype, it recontextualized everything we knew about her, it made us rethink her relationship with Shingetsu, and it allowed the shift in narrative focus over to Shingetsu to proceed gracefully and naturally. It wasn’t just shock value for the sake of shock value, it was a well-considered, smart narrative development.

Granbelm also made other smart choices, such as realizing that you can tell a battle royale story without writing all of the losers out of the story. Nene may be the only defeated participant who got to stick around, but she was the perfect one for the task. Her information gathering abilities are a natural fit to a support role. She’s the strategist the loose canon Mangetsu and mopey Shingetsu really needed. And even more importantly, she’s just the best character in the show, hands down, and losing her early would have destroyed my enthusiasm for the series.

Anna was my other favorite, but for entirely different reasons. Anna was rage incarnate, and far better suited to being the source of Shingetsu’s trauma than anyone’s ally. Her journey into darkness was revealed to be a one-way ticket when the episode six ED was suddenly interrupted with a cut to black and the sound of dripping blood – easily one of the sharpest moments of anime all year. Anna’s tragic, explosive, violent death was the only way her story could have ended, and I love her for it.

For all the excellent tension that a battle royale inherently creates, it comes with built-in dangers. As the cast dwindles, so do the show’s options for where it’s going to take the narrative. Depending on who you’ve got left at the end, that can be fatal.

Early on when I wasn’t yet sold on Mangetsu, I kept remarking that I wanted her to turn out to be the villain. This was only slightly facetious – I really did see it as a more interesting outcome than the increasinly obvious fact that Suishou was going to be the Last Boss after all. The reveal of Mangetsu being a doll and other well-executed episodes did manage to push that concern into the back of my mind for a while. But the moment Suishou turned the tables on Kuon and killed her, we were clearly locked into a Getsus vs Suishou finale.

What followed was a visually well-executed climactic battle, but the fact that a straight-forward battle was our climax at all was disappointing. That’s just not enough for a show that had been as smart as Granbelm was up until around episode 11. Even this would have been fine if Shingetsu made a decision as the Princeps that shook things up. Even with five minutes left it felt like there was plenty of time for Granbelm to surprise us once again. Not, as I said, with an ass-pull twist purely for shock value, but with another smartly executed scene that made me re-evaluate where I thought it was going with its characters.

But Shingetsu does… exactly what she said she was going to do all along. You certainly can’t call that an ass-pull, but with a wish like “deleting all magic”, it almost felt inevitable that the story would subvert that somehow. Except, it didn’t.

It’s not that I thought an ending where Shingetsu and Mangetsu aren’t together couldn’t work. It’s precisely because the show was so explicit that Mangetsu is a part of Shingetsu that any ending where at last one of them were whole and happy would at least partly work, even if it’s not what I preferred.

What we got, though, was both really pedestrian and also kind of messy. It’s pedestrian in the “I pushed the big button labeled MAGIC and the bad things went away” way. And it’s messy in the way that it just sort of… didn’t make a lot of sense? Mangetsu sacrifices herself, so Shingetsu can… sacrifice herself? So that Mangetsu can come back as a Real Girl (implied, not shown)? Sure I smiled at Tall Nene (who is still wrapped around Kibou’s finger, excellent) and OL Shisui. And it’s worth something that the characters who died (Anna, Kuon, Suishou) stayed dead, so this wasn’t a reset without consequences.

But what kind of ending is this for Shingetsu? I’m not going to criticize the concept of the ending; after all, Madoka is my second favorite show ever and Shingetsu totally pulled a modified “Grant it, Incubator!”. But jeeze, you need to execute this kind of thing with a whole lot more finesse than we got. We’re told that Shingetsu understands the implications of what she’s chosen to do, but it’s a little hard to believe when the effects of that choice are so inconsistent and arbitrary. It simply doesn’t follow that undoing magic means Shingetsu has to live in ghostly purgatory forever. She is “loved by Magioconatus” but she is not herself a being created wholly of magic. Mangetsu is, so I understand her disappearing. But if Mangetsu is reborn in the end – which seems clearly implied by the framing – how? What?

I don’t hate this ending, and I most certainly don’t hate this show. It’s just a clunky execution of a mundane narrative device, and Grandbelm deserved something shaper, more clever, more memorable. The characters deserved better too. This ending doesn’t do right by Shingetsu and Mangetsu. I was open to a somewhat sad separation ending, but it didn’t make a successful case for why things had to turn out this way. And the lack of clear logic regarding the mechanics of Shingetsu’s wish means I can’t even say “I don’t like it, but I understand where you’re coming from” because I really don’t understand it, and I don’t think that’s just me being obtuse. If this is the alternative, then I’d have much preferred an unambiguously happy ending where Shingetsu and Mangetsu are together, regardless of any deus ex machinas it would have required. In a post-Revue Starlight world, with its incisive dismantling of “tragic gay separation” tropes, any ending that wants to invoke said tropes needs to work a whole lot harder to justify itself. Granblem didn’t get there.

Granbelm is a show that I’m happy exists, and I’m happy I watched, despite this. It’s just a shame it didn’t tie everything together nicely in its last moments.

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Manaria Friends
(Winter show, click to read)

If you’re going to greenlight a project purely as a delivery vehicle for Granblue Fantasy mobage codes, you’d be hard pressed to choose a better premise than “the daily life of a dragonfucker and her girlfriend”. Of all the things they could choose for a GBF/Bahamut spinoff anime, it’s remarkable this is the one that happened. As someone with zero emotional investment in Granblue, I trust it comes as no surprise that I’m very happy with this decision.

Slice of life encompasses a broad range of shows from stories relying on dramatic momentum and plot continuity like Hanayamata or New Game to largely disconnected comedic skits with few lasting consequences or narrative goals like Yuyushiki or Slow Start. I’d say they’re all traditionally considered slice of life (maybe New Game is borderline) but the approach and mood varies significantly.

Then there’s Manaria, which I’d place well beyond even Yuyushiki on that end of the spectrum. It’s borderline iyashikei at points, and is certainly more Aria than Azumanga. But I’d hesitate to outright classify it as such given that iyashikei tends to rely on a continuity of mood that Manaria wasn’t going for. Instead, it’s a hyper-disconnected series of vignettes with almost no narrative flow. What makes the scattershot narrative stand out is that Manaria isn’t a comedy (where you expect this sort of thing), so the way it’s structured feels even stranger.

And that’s not necessarily a complaint! With such a short runtime (10x15min), attempting a complex narrative just invites trouble. Every moment spent on lore and world-building would be a moment stolen from Anne and Grea’s relationship.

If there’s a downside to this approach, it’s that there’s no sense of dramatic tension from one episode to the next (yes, even slice of life shows can have tension!), nor any narrative momentum. Instead it feels like a random selection of event scenes from the game, aimed exclusively at existing players of the game. It’s not actually that, because from what I understand the material is all anime original. But it still gives off that kind of “This is just for existing fans” vibe. (For a clumsier example of this, consider the 2017 Kino no Tabi anime.)

There’s no backstory here. Princesses Anne and Grea are students attending Manaria Academy, a school that teaches magic. …That’s about it. Even as the final credits rolled I didn’t know anything about their respective kingdoms, or about the conflict within the world of Granblahamut, or about how their magic works, or anything meaningful about any other characters. Not that I particularly cared! Episode one begins with Anne and Grea close enough to start calling each other by their given names, and we close out the show in nearly the same place. They don’t change because they’re utterly smitten with each other from the very start and all that happens is that they decide to move into the same dorm room in the end. There’s small conflicts here and there, but the story structure ensures that they never have lasting repercussions, for better and for worse.

Along the way we’re treated to a series of short romantic moments between two princesses who just can’t get enough of each other. There are occasional dramatic moments, such as Anne’s search for a cure for Grea’s condition in episode 2 (which ended up being unnecessary), or the evacuation in episode 5 (which was just a drill). Elsewhere we get a romantic moment on a rowboat at sunset. Hide and seek in a quiet library. Stealing off to a secluded cove for swimming lessons. Playing the piano together. Calming frayed nerves backstage before a play – and so on.

This is a relationship with neither an introduction nor a conclusion. Anne and Grea treasure every moment they spend together, and the audience is asked to approach them in the same way. Short-format shows can sometimes trip over themselves trying to wring as much out of their limited minutes as possible, but Manaria luxuriates in silence. Many scenes are punctuated by little more than Anne and Grea calling out each other’s names as they stare deep into their partner’s eyes. It’s so simple and effective at conveying their intimacy that there’s little for me to say other than to emphasize how lovely it all is. No number of intimate moments like this is ever going to be too much in my opinion, and Manaria ought to be treated as a textbook for how to pull such scenes off in other shows.

Ironically, it’s the stability of their relationship that tripped up the finale. Anne justifies moving into a room with Grea by pointing out that they should spend what time they can together because after they graduate they’ll have to go their separate ways to serve as princesses in their respective kingdoms. That line was like a drop of poison contaminating the well. Until then, the unchanging nature of their feelings was a sign of its resiliency and endurance. But once you bring up the expectation that they’ll part ways, everything that suggested strength in their relationship is re-contextualized. Suddenly, “They’re basically already married, huh?” starts becoming “Oh, their love is being treated as a delicate flower locked away in the Class S greenhouse, incubating in a controlled environment before it’s sold off.” It carries the implication that because their relationship has not yet moved onto the next phase, it’s simply never going to.

And as lovely as their interactions are throughout the series, we’re watching a couple that’s always about 80% of the way there, always holding back from taking the next step. I know that these days it’s not in vogue in the fandoms I frequent to place any importance in unambiguous canonicity, but I’m not asking for it because “it’s not real unless the text explicitly says so”. Rather it’s important because their feelings are real, and therefore the characters have more than earned that last step. And it’s tiring to see that withheld from couples over and over. No matter how adorable two blushing love-struck schoolgirls are, that remains a narrow and limiting expression of intimacy. It can only accomplish so much, and restricts how a relationship can be depicted and developed.

In fairness to Manaria Friends, I do feel like this reflects clumsiness in execution at least as much as, if not more than, legitimate intent to deny their future together. That’s why I still enjoy the show and all of their interactions. The final scene has Anne sneaking out of the palace to get back to school as the new semester begins, reinforcing her independent streak and implying that she’ll continue to do what she can to be with Grea. And the decision to move into the same room is the first time they evidenced meaningful progression. It could and should have been the capstone moment their relationship needed. But it came hand-in-hand with looming uncertainty over their future prospects. There’s no way for me to not factor that into my feelings about the show. If Anne and Grea of all couples can’t get an ending that cuts out all of the BS, then who can? Nearly every moment of this show was defined by overwhelming sexual tension. Just own it without any reservations, damnit.

Complaints aside, Anne and Grea are still an utter delight, and I hope that much has been clear. They’re obviously the best couple of the season, and it’s going to be hard for any other 2019 show to claim that spot. Manaria isn’t guilty of an unprecedented sin here, and it suffers more from being another data point in a far bigger trend than from being uniquely offensive in any way. But I want these two to get the recognition they damn well deserve. Recognition not just from the audience – we’re already enthusiastically on their side – but from the story world they inhabit as well. I’ll always vehemently reject the notion that this is too much to ask.

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Shingeki no Kyojin Season 3 Part 2
(Spring show, click to read)

I decided that this would be the last season of Shingeki I watched, because the things that made it endearingly bombastic back in the first season had long since worn off for me. The passage of time and fundamental not-really-my-thing-ness of the franchise meant that it was never going to keep my interest forever. Inertia can only take me so far with a series that isn’t inherently the kind of story I enjoy, and for it to go on for years leaves me with a whole lot of time to get tired of it. Heck, according to reports even WIT is moving on after this season, so it’ll have to change teams for the final season. Anyway, I don’t really blame Shingeki for not being, and never having attempted to be, my kind of show. That’s just a difference in tastes. But it’s time for me to move on.

I did want to get through this season in order to finally discover what’s in the basement. For all the hype the basement has received, both in the show and in fandom, I expected something more immediate and concrete. Some MacGuffin, like a magical drug to reverse titan-ification, or the original human/titan ancestor chained to a pole or whatever. I’m not saying that would have been better, it’s just the sort of thing the reactions had me primed to expect. I suppose the fact that it wasn’t a discrete “thing” is the only reason I never ended up getting spoiled. What is there isn’t super easy to reveal in a single tweet.

Instead, what’s in the basement is a history, revealed over a two episode flashback. One thing I did know about Shingeki is that the revelations in the basement were politically controversial to some degree. My gut reaction is to take such things with a grain of salt, particularly when we’re talking about the politically delicate situation in East Asia. We’ve seen flame wars erupt over the slightest of perceived slights, with toxic internet nationalism ready to link any contemporary event to (legitimate) past grievances. And so I watched the revelations roll in with at least mild interest, in part to see if there was really something to all that, and in part because we’ve been wondering what’s in that damn basement since 2013 and, damnit, just get on with it.

Other things did happen this season, I suppose. The confrontation in Trost over control of Wall Maria occupies the bulk of the season, but at this point we all more or less know the components of a Shingeki battle, and I don’t feel motivated to discuss at length what happens there. You have the long talky segments with hyper-detailed eyes staring menacingly out of contorted faces, you have the comical titans (and colossally bad CG), you have the pure disregard for physics, you have a whole lot of yelling, you have short bursts of impressive animation. And you have a high body count that somehow always steers clear of the core cast. The last part diminishes the moment to moment tension the battle is supposed to create because nobody who matters seems to die anymore. While Berthold was finally taken out, it came after repeated near misses with Reiner and the Beast Titan. The only meaningful casualty on the human side was Erwin, and he’s always been more of a mentor/political leader than a character I cared about for his own sake. I also find the Beast Titan fairly insufferable to listen to, so that didn’t help matters much.

So, back to the big revelations, and what they say about Shingeki’s themes. Long story short: the whole setting we’ve known to this point is a single walled city on an island, locked away from a world that’s progressed along normal lines for centuries. The truth is unknown to all but a select few, one of whom was Eren’s father.

This backstory mixes three rather dicey themes: First, we’ve got a special people living on an isolated island to the east of a larger continent, which could obviously be thought of as Japan. Then there’s the parallels with Jewish oppression. Eren’s dad living in the equivalent of a Jewish ghetto and being forced to wear an identifying armband when he goes outside isn’t particularly subtle. The Eldians’ island can be seen as a de facto extermination camp as well, a place undesirables are sent to die (or titan-ify). And most inflammatory may be the parallels drawn between the Founding Titan’s “Coordinate” power and Article 9 of the post-WWII Japanese constitution (i.e. renunciation of war). Both are imposed from on high by political leaders in response to a devastating defeat by a foreign power, and both are designed to keep the military might of their respective peoples locked away.

So we have the Eldian (Japanese) people portrayed as victims, seemingly equated with the suffering of the oppressed people like the Jews, and a narrative proxy for real-world debates over the re-militarization of Japan. It’s not surprising that nations Japan has historically invaded and oppressed might object to this framing.

There’s only so much I can say about that, though. I’ve not looked into what happens later in the manga, in part so I don’t put any spoilers here and in part because I want to evaluate only what I’ve seen.

And thus far, I really don’t know what Isayama Hajime’s message is, other than that it’s convoluted. You’d think the Jewish parallels were to garner sympathy for the Eldians (i.e., the Japanese, presumably). But they’re also presented as a race of people harboring literal monsters within their blood, and who have caused immeasurable death and destruction throughout history. Are we supposed to hear far-right anti-Zionist dog-whistling? Or is it a roundabout acknowledgement of Japan’s imperialist war crimes? Or are we simply expected to sympathize with them? But if so, then we’re being asked to view the Japanese as the victims. It could be a combination of the three, although the first and third are mutually exclusive.

The Founding Titan/Article 9 parallels are very explicit, but less clear is what we’re supposed to take away from that. Eren’s reluctance to reveal what he knows and put Historia at risk initially points to him rejecting the idea of freeing the Eldians from the Founding Titan’s control. The fact that their walled city is now a military dictatorship with a figurehead queen is a good reason for Eren to be cautious. And yet, in the final scene, an increasingly unhinged Eren seems to be transferring his hatred of the titans into a hatred of everyone beyond the sea. The visual framing around Eren in this scene hardly portrays genocide as a course of action that will make him happy, but it’s unclear how much of the old Eren is left anymore. As a protagonist who has genuinely tried to do the right thing thus far, he feels like the conscience of the story. So it’s reasonable to believe that his actions, and the story’s validation or refutation of them, may reveal Isayama’s intentions.

The Owl, the Eldian spy in Marley and previous owner of the Attack Titan, explicitly raises doubts about whether we can identify objective truth in our history. Nobody remembers what happened hundreds or thousands of years ago, and even more recent histories are written by whoever has power. Well, Shingeki no Kyojin is fiction, and the one with power is its author. While I’m somewhat interested in knowing how it ends, that interest only extends to reading a wiki – not watching another cour or two of the anime. Even if it ultimately preaches a non-problematic message, I’m just not invested enough anymore to stick around. And if it indeed preaches something worse, well, I’ll be glad to have not watched it all the way through, I suppose!

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4 Responses to “2019 Summer in Review – Final Thoughts”

  1. Avatar Hoshi says:

    I love that every time Shamiko accomplishes one of her goals, her relationship with Momo completely evolves, after getting Momo’s blood the 2 of them practically switched roles and Shamiko started taking care of her instead. Now Shamiko’s new goal is making Momo her vassal, the best part is that Shamiko knows perfectly what that means considering the info she got from her Mom and Lilith, she isn’t the “girl who was cooking delicious meals every day without knowing why” anymore.

    But I really wonder how Shamiko will solve the “Momo getting weaker” problem, Momo herself said she has high expectations and wants to be taken by her, Shamiko just needs to figure out how. Maybe they’ll use what you said, Shamiko giving her emotional strength instead of physical strength and somehow like that keep Momo strong, but who knows, we’ll have to wait for a second season to know.

  2. Avatar IceKirby says:

    Can’t agree more about that Symphogear’s ending. It really reminded me of that disappointing ending scene from Märchen Mädchen.
    Heck, even in many straight romances the authors decide to just “leave it in the air”.

    • something something says:

      Marchen Madchen’s issue was a bit different – they did face each other and actually say it, buuuuut then they tacked on the wildly unnecessary “friends” bit. But yeah I get where you’re coming from. There are just so, so, so many examples of this kind of thing and it makes me very, very tired.

  3. Avatar dragonslayer says:

    I’m glad someone shares my feelings on Symphogear’s ending. I keep seeing people gush about the scene or make entire threads about how perfect it was, and while I certainly can’t say those people are wrong I just can’t get there myself. Yes, “nothing needed to be said”, but I think we’ve been in that same position since season one and it just makes me sigh to see the show fall back on the old subtext trope after seven years of this frustratingly stop-start relationship.

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