Previous: 2018 Summer in Review – Final Thoughts
2017 Anime: 2017 Anime Year in Review
2018 Manga: 2018 Manga Year in Review

[ Standard disclaimer: Spoilers! Lots of spoilers! ]

Completed or Airing
01. Yama no Susume: Third Season [ 11.0 / 10 ]
02. Sora Yori mo Tooi Basho [ 10.0 / 10 ]
03. Yagate Kimi ni Naru [ 9.25 / 10 ] (Fall)
04. Yurucamp [ 9.0 / 10 ]
05. Hinamatsuri [ 9.0 / 10 ]
06. Slow Start [ 8.75 / 10 ]
07. Uma Musume [ 8.5 / 10 ]
08. Harukana Receive [ 8.5 / 10 ]
09. Citrus [ 8.25 / 10 ]
10. Anima Yell! [ 8.0 / 10 ] (Fall)
11. Comic Girls [ 7.5 / 10 ]
12. Shoujo Kageki Revue Starlight [ 7.5 / 10 ]
13. Tonari no Kyuuketsuki-san [ 7.0 / 10 ] (Fall)
14. Shingeki no Kyojin Season 3 [ 6.0 / 10 ]
15. Marchen Madchen [ 6.0 / 10 ]
16. Hanebado! [ 4.0 / 10 ]
17. Chio-chan no Tsuugakuro [ 3.0 / 10 ]


Previous Year Pick-ups

Winter: Ramen Daisuki Koizumi-san, Pop Team Epic, Toji no Miko
Spring: Amanchu Advance, Fumikiri Jikan, Tachibanakan Triangle
Summer: Asobi Asobase
Sora to Umi no Aida [1 ep] – This was one of the most genuinely unwatchable first episodes I’ve ever tried to sit through. It was excruciating. You know it’s a bad sign when my reaction to a cute female protagonist character can be summed up like this.
JoJo no Kimyou na Bouken: Ougon no Kaze [1 ep] – I’d been keeping up with Jojo more or less on autopilot all this time, neither greatly enjoying it nor disliking it. After watching an episode of the latest season, I decided it was time to stop. Not for any particular reason… at least, it didn’t do anything questionable that every season before it hadn’t already done. But the idea of spending another year or so killing half an hour each week on a series I’m mostly just ambivalent towards wasn’t really doing it for me.
Zombieland Saga [2 eps] – Fuckin’ CG, yet again. Partially my fault for trying an idol anime when I should know better about what that entails. But in my defense the first two episodes were a death metal concert and a rap battle so I fooled myself into thinking it would be an exception.


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

Top Characters (no sequels; new shows or new characters only)
Kobuchizawa Shirase – Sora Yori mo Tooi Basho
Aihara Yuzu – Citrus
Tokura Eiko – Slow Start
Anzu – Hinamatsuri
Saeki Sayaka – Yagate Kimi ni Naru

Top Pairings (no sequels; new shows or new pairings only)
Koito Yuu / Nanami Touko – Yagate Kimi ni Naru
Aihara Yuzu / Aihara Mei – Citrus
Kagamihara Nadeshiko / Shima Rin – Yuurcamp
Tendou Maya / Saijou Claudine – Shoujo Kageki Revue Starlight
Special Week / Silence Suzuka – Uma Musume

Top Songs (opening, ending, and insert songs)
Irochigai no Tsubasa – Yama no Susume Third Season ED
Suki, Igai no Kotoba de – Yagate Kimi ni Naru IN
Rise – Harukana Recieve IN
One Step – Sora Yori mo Tooi Basho IN
Umapyoi Densetsu – Uma Musume IN
Haruka Tooku – Sora Yori mo Tooi Basho IN
Hectopascal – Yagate Kimi ni Naru ED
Ne! Ne! Ne! – Slow Start OP
Fuyu Biyori – Yurucamp ED
Kimi ni Furete – Yagate Kimi ni Naru OP

Yama no Susume: Third Season Imported
(click to see comments from Summer post)

Yama no Susume has come a long way, propelled onward to an improbable third season by the immense love, talent, and attention to detail put forth by the staff. It’s passion that’s pervaded every frame of this series since its humble beginnings in three minute shorts.

The fact that we’ve now been blessed with three seasons of this outwardly unassuming story is a slice of life miracle only maybe surpassed by the four seasons and multiple OVAs of Hidamari Sketch. And even that is arguably a lot less surprising, given that Hidamari was a modest phenomenon with a popular artist and strong anime sales. Yama no Susume, meanwhile, seems to go largely unnoticed even while it’s airing. The only groups that seem to pay it outsized attention are the animators, directors, and other creatives who flock to the franchise and pack it with the obscenely talented staff lists we see it boast over and over. But however it happened, Yama no Susume somehow got a chance to follow up its masterpiece predecessor. The only thing more astonishing is that, somehow, it outdid itself.

It’s always been impressive just how well Yama no Susume uses its limited runtime, but this season was particularly well paced. It wasn’t necessarily obvious at first, but in retrospect there’s a very clear approach to how this season was structured: we spend six episodes primarily on Aoi, six episodes with Hinata, and then the finale.

It flows together flawlessly, but it is worth noting that this season’s focus comes with a few casualties. Kaede is the most obvious cutback, and the difference feels particularly stark for me as someone who has been rewatching season two and recalling why she was my favorite character in the first two seasons. In season three she’s shackled to her upcoming exams under the watchful eye of Yuuka. She’s still great when she shows up of course. Her handling of Hinata in episodes 11-12 is reminiscent of the reliable and sensitive mentor she so often played in season two. But her scenes are nonetheless very few.

Kokona fares a bit better, but hers is clearly a support role. Circumstances often separate Aoi and Hinata in season three, and it’s Kokona who ends up keeping them company. We see her during Aoi’s solo hike in episode three, she winds up Hinata’s partner for the awkward split outing in episodes 8-9, and she accompanies Aoi on a sleepover before the group climb in episode 11. In each of these cases, her being there is a stark reminder that half of our leading pair isn’t.

I’d guess that Honoka actually gets more screentime this season than last, and the introduction of her absolutely hilarious and endearingly dorky older brother actually gives her scenes more impact than before. Between the group outing in episode 5 and her joining Aoi in episodes 8-9, I do feel like we know Honoka better now. Still, she too is largely in the background.

I never considered any of this a flaw, not even as I was acutely missing Kaede. Not every character needs to be equally prominent every season, particularly when you’ve only got the runtime equivalent of half a cour. Yama no Susume may use its runtime more efficiently than perhaps any show that’s ever existed, but it can’t possibly fit five equally satisfying character arcs in during that time – hell, neither could a full length show. And supporting roles are worth celebrating too! Hinata and Aoi have always been the core of this show, and I fully embrace season three’s decision to focus almost entirely on them.

The other reason I’m not torn up about this is that some of the time those three paid out was reinvested back into Hinata and Aoi’s classmates: Mio, Kasumi, and Yuri.

They’re far more central to both major character arcs than they realize. To be honest, I don’t have much to say about them purely on their own terms. They’re cute, friendly classmates who Hinata has been friends with for a while now, and while we’ve seen them in the background they’ve not been particularly relevant before. But I do quite enjoy recalling how Mio is the very first character to speak to Aoi in the first episode of season one, after which the poor girl had to wait two sequels, five years, and forty-three episodes before Aoi was finally able to hold a conversation with her. (The girl next to her is probably supposed to be Yuri, but she’s much too tall – interesting to see how she went through a design revision before becoming a significant character.)

The reason these three matter is that that they played an unintentionally vital role in this season’s primary conflict: Aoi’s growing confidence and Hinata’s severe anxiety over feeling left behind. Rather surprisingly, this season isn’t about Aoi conquering Mt. Fuji. It’s a necessary step in that direction, but the sudden pivot to Hinata in the second half of the cour serves as a reminder that this isn’t just Aoi’s story. Hinata is her own person, not just a source of motivation for Aoi. Not only does Hinata have worries all her own, they’re arguably even harder ones to deal with. She’s so used to being the helping hand that she has no idea how to begin asking for one.

                                                                 ← Yukimura Aoi, S3e12 / Kuraue Hinata, Omoide Present →

This isn’t the first time we’ve been given a glimpse of what Hinata’s insecurities look like. In the Omoide Present OVA that came out before season three, we’re shown Aoi and Hinata’s reunion from Hinata’s point of view. The two versions of the scene couldn’t be any more different – the original is a quick gag in a three minute episode. The latter is an emotionally raw look into just how much Aoi means to Hinata. This isn’t the Hinata that slammed her hands down on Aoi’s desk with nary a care in the world. It’s a Hinata who dreamed of this moment repeatedly, it’s a Hinata who rehearsed how she’d make her introduction, it’s a Hinata who probably knew she’d need to do most of the heavy lifting, but bared her heart to her precious childhood friend anyway. It’s a Hinata who has to stop and calm herself before setting in motion the events that birthed this masterpiece.

The theme of Omoide Present is “memories are a treasure”, and having that message delivered from Hinata’s point of view for the first time was in retrospect a sign of what was to come.this season. But before we get into Hinata’s arc, it’s worth looking at Aoi because it’s with her that we spend the first half of the season, and it’s her arc that directly precipitates Hinata’s.

Because Hinata cherishes the warmth of happy memories, she’s always sought to encourage Aoi to open up, try new things, and meet new friends. And while Aoi had started climbing mountains and made friends with Kokona and Kaede, she still hadn’t quite managed to do any of that independent of Hinata. So when Aoi finally manages to hold a conversation with Mio all on her own, Hinata looks on momentarily surprised but also proud of Aoi’s progress.

Every episode of this season pushes Aoi a little further towards independence. She proactively sets up the late night mountain climb with Hinata in the first episode, shells out for serious hiking boots in the second, goes on a solo hike in the third, finally breaks the ice with the Mio Trio at karaoke in the fourth, and exerts her competitive side against Hinata in a mountain coffee drinking challenge in episode six. (The fifth is pretty standalone but is also the cutest thing in the universe so that’s cool.) It’s in episode seven that the transition from Aoi to Hinata begins, as we see how much Aoi has grown into her role at Susuki while Hinata wanders the city solo.

Aoi’s ultimate goal is to conquer Fuji, and everything she does this season is, in big and small ways, directed towards that end. She’s making friends, gearing up, training her body, and stockpiling the reserves of self-confidence that will send her to the summit. And so I don’t think anyone expected this season to end with anything other than her achieving that. But as Aoi singlemindedly worked on improving herself, she had no idea how that was making Hinata feel. And to its credit, Yama no Susume was not going to prioritize a mountain climb over its characters’ hearts.

In fairness to Aoi, for the longest time Hinata didn’t know how this was making Hinata feel either. She didn’t give off clear signs of anxiety at first, because she didn’t even understand it yet. So even if Aoi weren’t so preoccupied, she probably wouldn’t have noticed the signs right away.

We spend the second half of the show following Hinata through a heartbreaking emotional gauntlet. At first she’s excitedly happy for Aoi’s progress. Then she papers over the occasional pang of loneliness by telling herself what a good thing it is for Aoi to have other friends. She makes light of the embarrassing moments in which she catches herself calling out Aoi’s name when she’s all by herself. When that doesn’t make the hurt go away, her emotions get the better of her and she gets passive-aggressively petty, going out of her way to make plans that don’t include Aoi. She finds herself excitedly expecting Aoi to come crying back to her for guidance, and of course this just makes Hinata even more miserable as she chides herself for being selfish. Finally, the dam of feelings bursts, and she lashes out at Aoi with a ferocity that catches Aoi totally off-guard. Aoi and Hinata are used to sparring and getting moody at each other, but this is different.

It’s not an easy thing to watch. It’s in turns frustrating and lonely and painful, but every moment of it is genuine. Every moment of it builds directly on what we learned about Hinata in Omoide Present. Indeed, every moment of it builds on this moment way back in the second episode of season one, where Hinata opens her lonely heart to Aoi for the briefest of seconds before putting those emotions back on the shelf and becoming the cheerful friend determined to make happy memories with Aoi.

While everything climaxes in episode 12, the most heartwrenching part of Hinata’s story is episode 10. This episode is an stunning artistic achievement on every level. It is the crown jewel in a series already defined by its outrageous collection of talent. In a series that gave us the legendary S2E13. It is in many ways not only the pinnacle of the art form in 2018, but one of the greatest single episodes of all time.

Episode 10 is melancholy incarnate. Endlessly expressive character acting in even the smallest of moments brings life to every scene, whether awkard or lighthearted or painful or contemplative.

After a day spent mostly alone, with her belief that Aoi will come running back to her shattered at every turn, Hinata runs into Aoi and their classmates. She tries to call out to her, but to her surprise, can’t. She doesn’t know why her voice won’t come out, because she doesn’t understand what she’s feeling.

Some shows look gorgeous but don’t have anything meaningful to say. Some shows are well-written but struggle through mediocre production. Yama no Susume, particularly here, is a virtually unparalleled example of technical excellence and outstanding characterization reinforcing each other. I tend not to focus on production quality in these posts in part because there are people infinitely more knowledgeable than I about such things, and partly because it tends not to fit into the flow of what I’m saying about a show. But for Yama no Susume it demands a mention. There is genuinely nothing else quite like it.

It’s official.

“I think mountains have a way of making people honest.”

As thoughtful and kind and powerful as Hinata is, she was never going to overcome this without opening up to Aoi. And this is where Aoi’s growth throughout the season finally pays dividends to Hinata. While Hinata injures herself during the outing to Mizugaki and Kinpu, a direct result of the recklessness born of her frustration, a stubbornly upbeat Aoi refuses to abandon her. The self-confidence and stamina that Aoi has built up gets the injured Hinata off the mountain, and convinces her to come clean about what she’s feeling. Finally, Hinata voices her fears – she fell apart when she thought that maybe Aoi was going away again. And that’s where it all comes full circle. Their parting as children, their reunion in high school, and everything we’ve learned about how important this relationship is to Hinata.

The emotional foundation to this scene is extensive, but the delivery is so simple, almost plain. And yet, it’s so perfectly in-character. They air grievances, offer reassurances, and just like that it’s time to get back to normal. There’s something delightfully real about all this. And that’s how they’ve always been. I’ve thought it often in the past, but I know it now: there is no character dynamic in anime I love quite as much as this one.

We do get a more explicitly emotional send-off in the final episode, and it’s one that feels truer to the characters than if, say, Hinata had sobbingly embraced Aoi and spilled her heart on Mt. Kinpu. It’s touching, but playful. Utterly sincere, but still cheeky enough to leave the audience out of the secrets Hinata and Aoi trade back and forth.

Thus we end, with Aoi and Hinata stronger and closer than ever. And off in the distance, waiting with the infinite patience that comes with living on geologic time, stands Mt. Fuji.

One hopes that we will be granted a modicum of that patience (and longevity), so that we too will last until Aoi triumphantly reaches the summit. Until then, trust in the words of the wisest of philosophers:

Mata ashita, yahoo!

[Back to Top]

Sora Yori mo Tooi Basho Imported
(click to see comments from Winter post)

I’ve never felt what you might call “the exuberance of youth”. I’ve got things I like and care about of course, but I’ve never really put my heart into creating something special or experiencing something big and new and surprising. When I do get emotional, it’s not for myself but vicariously though the stories I’m watching or reading. My primary hobby outside of the media I read/watch is keeping a giant spreadsheet with anime sales data on it. I am the opposite of an adventurer, and I do not chase dreams. I’m not lamenting this really, it’s just who I am. “Passion” just seems troublesome to me.

In spite of or because of that (I’ve never been sure which) I’m strongly drawn to anime that taps into the feeling of seishun. It’s that youthful yearning to chase a big dream, to experience something unforgettable, to make lasting memories that will be looked back upon fondly for the rest of your life. Sora Yori mo Tooi Basho, more than perhaps any other show, thrives on this wistful, powerful feeling. It’s an unashamedly emotional coming of age adventure. It’s tragic and beautiful and it’s one of my favorite shows of all time.

We meet Tamaki Mari just as she’s gathering up her courage to “make the most out of youth”, which she apparently defines as playing hooky for a day. But without a clear goal in mind, she hesitates, chickens out, and ends up in class anyway. That’s something she hates about herself and has always wanted to change, but has never actually thought through – hence the rather amorphous goal she’s set for herself. It also doesn’t help that her best friend, as we find out later, is subtly keeping her tied down as a way of dealing with her own insecurities. If you’ve seen Hanayamata, also directed by Ishizuka Atsuko, there’s a strong Yaya vibe coming from Megumi in this respect (though Yaya never did anything nearly so mean!).

So Mari has no clear goal, a naturally cautious personality, and isn’t surrounded with the kind of people who encourage her in the way she needs. Then, by chance, she meets Kobuchizawa Shirase.

Headstrong and ambitious, beautiful and intense, Shirase is everything Mari wants to be. Mari is content at first to be Shirase’s cheerleader, to live out an adventure vicariously through her. But Shirase calls her bluff. Where Megumi coddles her and councils inaction, Shirase issues a challenge. “Go with me then.”

Mari knows it’s crazy, but it’s finally a dream. A wild and improbable and even dangerous dream, but one she won’t be pursuing alone. This time, she doesn’t turn back at the station. She doesn’t retreat from the crowd. She approaches an uncertain future knowing that it’ll be scary, knowing that failure is possible, knowing it might all wind up being pointless. But… Shirase’s gorgeous smile shines with an intensity that scours the doubt and worry and self-loathing from Mari’s heart.

In retrospect, that single episode concludes Mari’s character arc. Hardships aplenty await, and sure her dream isn’t fully realized until they set foot on, and return safely from, Antarctica. But Mari never really falters from this point onward. While our perspective is heavily influenced by Mari for a few more episodes yet, Shirase is our protagonist now. This is her story.

It’s Shirase who most succinctly summarizes our unlikely group of adventurers:

  They’re all a little weird, a little frustrating, a little broken…
  But I have friends who were willing to travel to Antarctica with me.
  We fought, we cried, we had problems…
  But they were willing to travel this far with me, to this place where you were…
  I was able to come this far because of them.

She’s not excluding herself from this – she knows as well as anyone that she’s the weirdest, most frustrating, most broken of all of them. But Yorimoi is not her quest to rid herself of these traits. It’s precisely these qualities that allowed her to get this far, and it’s these traits that her friends find so attractive. Yorimoi is a story about the boundless enthusiasm of youth, but it’s also one that recognizes how messy and complicated youth can be.

We’re introduced to Shirase as an outcast with no friends and a bad reputation. But far from being turned off by this, Mari is intensely attracted to and thrilled by Shirase’s dangerous smile and stubborn beliefs. And it’s not just Mari. Hinata feels comfortable with Shirase because of her “flaws”, while Yuzuki is delighted to have someone who won’t deceive or manipulate her. Shirase can seem dangerously fragile at times. She wavers, she cries, she gets hurt, and she sulks, but she always manages to draw from a deep well of determination in the end. And this determination carries the other girls fourteen thousand kilometers to Antarctica.

When Mari asks Gin if Shirase is like her mother, Gin replies “In her stubbornness and conviction, she’s her spitting image. She’s trouble.” Mari’s response? “Isn’t trouble just the best?” A “nice” girl probably wouldn’t have inspired Mari. Wouldn’t have gotten her onto a plane, a boat, and the frozen wastelands of Antarctica. Wouldn’t have drawn out of her all of the courage she never knew she had. Wouldn’t have allowed her to get the most out of her youth.

Time and again, Shirase acts in ways that most shows would criticize, or would portray as character flaws to be overcome. But in Yorimoi they’re her strength. Not because it’s suggesting stubbornness and spite are universally positive traits, but but because it understands what a weird and awkward phase of life these girls are going through. Because it understands that sometimes the world is going to disrespect you and trip you up and not take you seriously because you’re too young, or because you’re a girl, or because your passion is weird. And it understands that the weird, frustrating, and broken people are valuable too.

Of all the show’s character relationships, it’s the dynamic between Shirase and Hinata that surprised and delighted me most. Yorimoi isn’t a romantic show (the only characters who talk openly about love are both minor punchlines) with the most strongly implied romance being between Gin and the late Takako (Shirase is referred to as “Takako and Gin’s daughter”!). But if you asked me what relationship I’d be most interested to see develop further, it would be Shirase and Hinata.

Shirase and Mari may be the far more traditional paring for sure, but there’s just something special between Shirase and Hinata, something central to who they are as people. As early as episode three they have a great conversation that captures the essence of why they get along. But everything really comes together in episode six, when Shirase’s bullheaded stubbornness crashes like a battering ram into the emotional walls Hinata had erected to stop people from worrying over her. Due to some bad experiences in the past, Hinata has come to associate concern with pity, and pity with scorn. She’s taught herself not to trust others, and what trust she does have for Shirase, Mari, and Yuzuki comes from the feeling that they won’t pry too deeply or breach her defenses. Shirase spectacularly demolishes this assumption, and reduces those defenses to ash. In their place, she wraps Hinata in the warm embrace of friendship.

In episode three, Hinata finds comfort in Shirase’s honest personality. In episode six, that honesty is unleashed against Hinata and she’s forced to recognize that it’s okay to let other people care about you. And then… there’s episode 11. After learning why Hinata dropped out of school, Shirase verbally eviscerates the former classmates who come looking to ease their consciences by “making up” with Hinata. Shirase is uncompromising and vicious. She’s overcome in that moment with a deep, deep love for her friends, and enough righteous indignation to burn the world down if that’s what it takes to protect them.

It’s a breath-taking moment no matter how many times I watch it. This is not how these things are supposed go. This is not how most anime handle such a neatly packaged opportunity to tidy up a character’s loose ends. Shirase rips that page right out of the script, shreds it, and chucks it into an incinerator. I believe this scene, more than any other, articulates the show’s thesis: It’s okay to be broken. We’re all a little broken, and the contours of your cracks are what define you. Own it, embrace it, turn it to your advantage. You’ll never fit in with everyone, so find others whose own jagged edges complement yours. Find others who understand you. Find others who will stick up for you. Find others who see the beauty in your incompleteness.

Shirase’s outburst (and the timely assists from Mari and Yuzuki) ties a delightfully sloppy bow on everything Yorimoi has been building towards between Hinata and Shirase, and between all four of the girls as a group. And yet, it’s not the end.

Antarctica represents different things to each of the girls.
For Yuzuki it’s an unwanted obligation that takes on new meaning through the people she meets along the way.
For Mari it’s adventure, it’s a challenge, it’s finally her chance to accomplish something she’s proud of.
For Hinata it’s an escape, a place free and far away from the hurt she’s been living with back at home.
For Shirase…

To an extent no one else but Gin could truly understand, Shirase thought that arriving in Antarctica would give her closure. She thought she’d step onto the ice, cry, take in the sights, and finally understand why her mother loved this barren place 14,000km away so much that she risked – and lost – her very life in the pursuit of it. But while her friends found emotional closure one by one, Shirase remained unfulfilled and confused. And as the expedition to the interior loomed, Shirase finally voiced her fears: what if she gets there and nothing changes?

Shirase’s first words upon setting foot on Antarctica weren’t particularly poetic or sentimental, they were the triumphant battle cry of a conqueror who has vanquished her foes against all odds. Three years of part-time jobs and open ridicule from peers, three years sacrificed from the prime of her young life in pursuit of an impossible goal, all vindicated. And in the moments before they set off on their last expedition, she counts out the money that represents each of her jobs, visualizing the physical manifestations of her courage and determination. This may not be quite everything she’d hoped for, but it’s how she’s always gotten by. Deciding it would have to do, she joins the expedition.

Just as she decides she’s gone far enough and makes peace with more limited goals, her friends step in. Shirase has spent the whole series giving so much of herself to them. To Yuzuki, friendship. To Mari, adventure. To Hinata, trust. Seeing that she’s come so far and stopped so close to her goal, they are absolutely desperate to give something back to her. As for what they find…

When Shirase opens Takako’s laptop and stares into the screen, she doesn’t see Takako. She only sees herself staring right back. Hundreds, thousands of echoes of grief and triumph, fear and hope howled into the void and gathered right there on the screen: “Dear Mom”, scrolling endlessly. Takako was gone, and Shirase finally understood that now. Having her feelings condensed into an “unread” count was cruel in a way, but it was unmistakably closure. And she would no longer have to face what came afterward alone.

That’s why she left the million yen. And the laptop. And most of her hair. Everyone came to Antarctica to find something, but Shirase also came here to leave things behind. She’d already been leaving pieces of herself in Antarctica long before she ever set foot on the continent.

But nothing she left behind should be thought of as a loss. Every bit of it has contributed to the incredible young woman she’s become. And Takako wasn’t completely gone. She would live on in Kobuchizawa Observatory, and in the memories and hearts of everyone who knew or was affected by her.

And in a single unsent message, sitting in the outbox for three years until catching Gin’s eye.

Attached to a picture of the Antarctic aurora: “The real thing is ten thousand times more beautiful!”.
Shirase, sitting under an aurora of her own, smiling and surrounded by her irreplaceable friends: “I know.

Reducing a complex and thoughtful show to a single score may feel like reducing Shirase’s grief to an unread email count, but just as that number represented something much greater, it means something genuinely important to me to be able to say this show is worthy of the highest possible esteem. Yorimoi is a legitimate masterpiece, and I know my thoughts will be wandering back to these four weird, frustrating, broken, funny, passionate, courageous girls for a long, long, long time.

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Yagate Kimi ni Naru Imported
(click to hide)

Yagakimi is an incomplete story. True, so are nearly all anime adaptations. But in this case there’s an unusually strong feeling that we’ve only been granted a brief glimpse into where these characters are going. This isn’t really a criticism of the anime, which made almost no missteps aside from, well, having to end. But it leaves me almost wanting to opt out of commenting now in order to save up for a 2019 Manga Year in Review post, by which time I ought to be current on the manga.

But that’s just the gut reaction I had to the ending. Once I started thinking about how to talk about the anime, it became obvious how far these characters have come since episode one, regardless of how far they have yet to go. Perhaps Yagakimi’s defining trait is how deep of a hole these characters start out in. By the time the final credits roll they’ve only just struggled up near the top of a gaping abyss, eyes momentarily blinded by the warm glow of a sun they haven’t seen in ages, realizing that there’s just one final push left to go before they reach the surface… and then, it ends.

I do realize that endings are disproportionately important, vastly so, to how I feel about a show. Had Yagakimi been virtually unchanged until the last 15 minutes, had the final words been a mutual “I love you” rather than Yuu’s “We have to change trains soon”, I’d most likely be nodding my head saying “Ah yes, a complete and satisfying show, perfectly paced and all that, yes indeed.” Simply by eschewing a traditionally satisfying ending, Yagakimi left a completely different impression than another ending would have, even if it came at the end of the same material.

But it’s hard to argue that the ending it got isn’t the most appropriate one. While turning the trajectory of their relationship sharply upward at the end would have felt cathartic, Yagakimi instead opted to hold course and not make any sudden moves in its last moments. It didn’t even try to perform the school play, ending instead on that anime original informal rehearsal.

Yagakimi, at least in the material covered by its anime incarnation, is less about how they fall in love than about how they learn how to fall in love by accepting themselves. While that exercise is far from over, it’s where most of the show’s work on character development went. The final scene is rather explicit about this: they have to change trains precisely because they’ve not yet reached their destination. But they have come to the next leg of the journey.

And maybe that’s the angle to approach Yagakimi from. Especially given it’s something I might gloss over if I don’t come back to this until the end of the year, by which point we’ll be on volume 7 or 8 of the manga and relationships may have significantly progressed (or so I’d hope). So yes, I’d say what interests me most are the three very different starting points Sayaka, Touko, and Yuu set off from to arrive where we are now.

The hole Touko must escape is the impact crater carved out by her sister’s death. Touko’s reaction to this traumatic event was as self-destructive as her later behavior is manipulative, and there is a darkness in Touko that shouldn’t be overlooked.

It’s fitting to compare Touko to another problematic long-black-haired high school student council president seeking to subvert her own identity to replace another family member she’s lost or been abandoned by: Citrus’ Aihara Mei. True, Mei was manipulative and abusive to keep Yuzu away, while Touko is manipulative and abusive to keep Yuu close. But Touko only wants to keep Yuu as close as is emotionally convenient for her. She wants all of the comfort of Yuu’s presence, without any regard for Yuu’s desires. Perversely, Mei’s violence was far more straightforward, even if no more justifiable. The real difference between the two comes from their respective shows’ dramatically different styles: Citrus is a trembling earthquake triggering cataclysmic tsunamis, while Yagakimi is a lake that looks serene only so long as you don’t stir up its depths and release a fatal plume of noxious gasses.

These ominous emotional outgassings transform Touko from the dorky senpai into an emotional terrorist with a speed that’s always unsettling. Touko subtly manipulating Yuu into physical intimacy bears scrutiny in its own way, but what’s really frightening is how Touko responds to attempts at emotional intimacy. “I would rather die“. “‘Love’ is a violent word“. “What exactly do you mean by ‘happy’?”. “I hate myself. I can’t be in love with someone who says they love something I hate, right?”. These are the reactions awaiting Yuu any time she tries to get the same benefits out of their relationship that Touko enjoys.

That the last of those exchanges comes at the end of the penultimate episode proves how far she still has to go, and also why it’s so tricky to get a read on her even as the final credits roll. No adorably cute Touko moment is all that far removed from a chilling one. It’s undeniable that she makes great progress, but none of it comes easy. The Yagakimi anime ends, like Citrus’ did, with self-destructive tendencies just starting to give way to a realization that the girl she’s in love with might truly see something worthwhile in her. And perhaps if she’d just trust in that girl’s instincts a little more, she might see it too.

How Touko responds to this challenge will be central to everything that follows. And I’m excited to eventually read it and find out, because it’s precisely all of Touko’s flaws that make her story so interesting.

In order to keep the story moving at all it was perhaps inevitable that Yuu would be much less damaged than Touko or Sayaka, but a lack of trauma doesn’t save her from an overwhelming feeling of emptiness. When she finally experiences her long-awaited shoujo manga love confession from a male friend, it comes and goes without stirring up a single emotion. She suddenly realizes that love is not what she thought it would be, and everything she’s admired and aspired towards doesn’t seem to apply to her. Jaded, she’s come to reject romance.

Our meta-knowledge of Yagakimi being a “yuri romance manga” squashes interpretations of Yuu as aromantic before the show even starts. But it’s still tempting (as someone who is aromantic, at least) to think that Yuu might briefly have thought about herself as such in the months between her friend’s confession and her infatuation with Touko. Of course it’s quickly apparent that her rejection of romance isn’t so much an aspect of her identity as a storytelling device giving her a conflict to resolve. I’m fine with that of course, but it still gets you thinking about how things might have turned out differently.

And I believe Nakatani was thinking about that too, because she took the rather unusual step of writing a genuinely aromantic character (Maki) into the story for Yuu to interact with. While he comes off as a clumsily-handled caricature in his introductory episode, there’s a scene later on in which he’s used brilliantly. As Yuu’s protestations that she’s not in love ring increasingly hollow, all it takes is this one scene contrasting her with Maki to take what was already obvious and make it utterly undeniable. Yuu is, of course, in love.

By introducing Yuu as not only jaded about love, but actively seeking the camaraderie of those who share her cynicism, we’re treated to a very different kind of romance protagonist, particularly in the early episodes. And so in order to fall in love with Touko she first needs to reconcile with herself. And that would be difficult enough even if she weren’t being crushed under the weight of Touko’s emotional baggage. But the feelings Touko stirs within her are all the convincing Yuu needs to tolerate Touko’s flaws and stick with her through it all.

I want to say Sayaka traveled the most torturous road to get where we are now, but I feel that would downplay the emotional self-harm Touko has been committing. Nonetheless, as typical romantic baggage goes, Sayaka definitely carries the heaviest load. I can’t imagine anyone finishing Yagakimi and not being deeply sympathetic toward Sayaka. Every condescending smile, every disgusted glare, every pained expression is perfection. And they all reflect a girl who has been hurt before, but can’t stop herself from getting hurt again.

Sayaka’s middle school relationship with an older girl comes to a crashing halt when her partner blindsides her with the old “Time for me to leave the walled lily garden and become a real girl now. The lovey dovey game ends here.” Her middle school girlfriend went through a “phase” and pulled Sayaka along with her. But this was no phase for Sayaka, it was her reality – with all the joy and apprehension and pain that realization would bring her. Unfortunately, it’s the pain that was most lasting. The pain of feeling like your love must never be spoken and always remain hidden. The pain of thinking you never outgrew feelings that don’t belong in the adult world. And the pain of falling in love all over again anyway. Touko’s presence gave her no choice. Love would bloom, like a flower poking through a crack in asphalt, and she would suffer forever with these invalid emotions.

The only hope lies in her faith that Touko won’t leave her, because Touko won’t fall in love with anyone. And as long as Sayaka keeps her feelings hidden, this fragile bond will remain undisturbed. But Yuu changes Touko in ways Sayaka finds increasingly hard to explain away, and some part of Sayaka seems to say “You can’t hold back forever”. And that curiosity is what prompts her to take a risk, and open up to Miyako.

There’s an interaction, wordless yet saying so much, after Sayaka broaches the question. Miyako stares, almost uncomprehending, and then surprise washes over her. Sayaka looks momentarily overcome with fear, then glances away in… shame, regret? But in that moment, Miyako understands. She acknowledges Sayaka’s honesty, admires her bravery, and above all understands exactly what Sayaka needs to hear right now.

There’s affirmation, and with it comes validation. Miyako’s openness about being an adult woman in a lesbian relationship changes Sayaka’s world. It’s not even that Sayaka is surprised to have guessed correctly, she’s just shocked that Miyako admitted it. And Miyako admitted it to her. This isn’t a small risk that Miyako is taking. The possibility that Riko could be outed would cost her more than embarrassment, it could mean losing her job. But after that brief exchange of glances, Miyako resolves to make herself vulnerable to this kind, scared girl who so desperately needs someone to tell her that who she is is not wrong. In this moment, there was no greater gift Sayaka could have received than simply having someone to talk to.

I’ve said it countless times, but I’ll say it again. This scene illustrates exactly what the vast majority of yuri and yuri-leaning stories lack: adult role models. Miyako is what makes this episode perhaps the most open repudiation of the Class S archetype this side of Flip Flappers 05. Class S (which did have its value at the time) is all about yuri as the transient – and when it dares to be more, inevitably tragic – folly of youth. Even as we’ve left traditional Class S stories behind, their effects reverberate in many of the “CGDCT” slice of life stories of today. With their subtext-laden interactions occurring strictly between teenage girls and stories grinding to a halt at high school graduation, they retain a nugget of Class S even as they re-imagine many of its aesthetics and replace its tragedy with comedy.

That’s why Miyako, Riko, and this conversation matter. Not just to Sayaka, but as a symbol of what so many characters in similar situations deserved to see, and deserved to be. Sayaka does not have an easy road ahead of her, and it’s crushingly difficult to imagine a completely happy ending at the destination. But in a way, this moment with Miyako may be more important than even a relationship with Touko would be. Whatever Sayaka faces now, no matter how hard it will be, she knows that she is valid. That knowledge won’t leave her, even if one day Touko does.

As they work towards their ideal selves from very different starting points, there are similarities in the ways their inadequacies manifest. They each seek out the comfort of friends who won’t peek behind the masks they wear. There is a perverse symbiosis to how these character interact. Honestly, the phrase that keeps popping into my head is “mutual parasitism”; even through it’s an oxymoron, it just fits.

Yuu is initially drawn to Touko because she believes that Touko is like her, a rebel against love. Touko is drawn to Yuu for the same reason, but Touko has no intention of returning the favor. When it becomes clear that Touko isn’t what Yuu expected, Yuu instead starts to see in Touko someone who will stay by her side long enough for her to learn how to love – whether she directs that love at Touko or, eventually, someone else.

Sayaka is drawn to Touko because Touko’s perceived inability to fall in love allows Sayaka to stand next to and admire an ideal that she doesn’t have to fear being taken away by someone else. Touko is drawn to Sayaka because Sayaka’s expectations line up perfectly with Touko’s own desire to never be challenged as she pursues her self-destructive dream to become her sister.

But this fragile arrangement cannot last. Sayaka’s position at Touko’s side is usurped by Yuu. Yuu falls in love with Touko. Touko’s fantasy about her sister is challenged from all directions.

And so the final episode draws to a close with relationships in flux. They’re all desperately trying to navigate without a map. All trying to find footing in a treacherous emotional landscape.

All trying to express profound affection with words other than love.

One day the dam will burst, and those words will flow. The flood will wash away everything they’ve built their identities around, and that’s scary. But revival follows destruction, and eventually love – both of others and of self – will surely bloom.

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Yurucamp Imported
(click to see comments from Winter post)

Maybe the most remarkable thing about Yurucamp is that it reminds us just how rare the iyashikei sub-genre of slice of life really is. In a class of shows defined by the boisterous chatter of schoolgirls, Yurucamp is almost zen meditation by comparison. If anything, its weakest moments came about when it tried to play by “chattering schoolgirls” rules. Episode 8 was the closest the show came to an outright dud, and some of the Nadeshiko/Chiaki/Aoi scenes at school were fairly thin as well. It’s completely outclassed by the majority of slice of life shows in this respect, particularly something as strong as Slow Start from this very same season.

This was most evident in the show’s struggle to integrate Chiaki and Aoi. They feel like they were written for a show about the Outclub, not the show that Yurucamp actually is. They needed other characters around to bounce off of, and that just wasn’t Yurucamp’s priority. Despite getting significantly more screen time, I’d argue the were less successful as characters than someone like Ena, who played a very limited role but played it impeccably. Still, they started to shine near the end of the series as they got to interact with Rin more. From Chiaki teasing Rin over texts in episode 9 to the wonderful group camp in episodes 11-12, they did have their moments.

…And that’s it, the above paragraphs contain every less-than-glowing thing I could possibly say about this show. It was, in all other respects, an essentially perfect execution of what it set out to be.

I don’t read a lot of anime blogs/criticism, in part because I don’t want to end up feeling like I’m repeating what others have said (even if I am, I’d rather do it unknowingly). But it’s unavoidable in Yurucamp’s case – literally everyone who writes anything about this show has at some point touched on how Yurucamp is unexpectedly respectful of Rin’s solo camping hobby. It’s so fundamental to Yurucamp’s appeal that you really have to.

And it’s true, in this broad category of shows that could arguably be summed up as “protagonist meets a group of friends and finds herself through camaraderie”, Yurucamp stands out by presenting a protagonist who has, by and large, already found herself. Rin doesn’t solo camp because she has no friends, she does it because she values solitary moments in beautiful natural settings, with just a book and a warm meal to call company. To its credit, Yurucamp doesn’t present this as a deficiency to be overcome, but as a perfectly valid hobby that is doing Rin no emotional or social harm.

At the same time, I don’t think this is Yurucamp’s central message. It’s wonderful that it respects Rin’s choices, and it’s rightfully praised for doing so. But even more than that, it’s showing Rin that she can get even more out of camping by supplementing solo camping with group camping. You could say she’s finding a balance, but I’d say it more like she’s discovering that pursuing both results in something greater than the sum of its parts. She could have gone on being perfectly content solo camping, but this is a story about Rin broadening her horizons. Not because she has to, but because she eventually wants to.

After all, Rin definitely follows the traditional trajectory of building an increasingly large friend group and finding emotional fulfillment in doing so. By the end Rin admits to herself that group camping is fun too. A joint trip with Nadeshiko, Aoi, Chiaki, Ena, and their new club advisor is the show’s climax, and Rin integrates into the group quite smoothly once she gets to know them better. Rin also expresses regret early on at giving the other girls the cold shoulder when they invite her along, and even apologizes to Nadeshiko for this.

Yurucamp respects Rin not by making a judgement about solo or group camping being better, but by trusting that she’s able to find something of value in both. And it eases her into group camping very gently, which is where her friend Ena shines. As a neutral third party who knows Rin really well, she picks up on every flash of self-doubt or unconscious grin that crosses Rin’s face, and deftly channels them into suggestions that she knows will make Rin happy. Ena is a bit part, but without her it would have taken Rin a much longer time to take those extra steps.

But while Ena sets up the assist, it’s Nadeshiko who ultimately scores. There’s something about Nadeshiko that makes for a perfect balance of forceful and deferential, of cheerful and chill. She’s deceptively shrewd at reading Rin’s emotions, and understands just how far she can nudge Rin along without upsetting her. Nadeshiko’s initial master stroke came in episode 2-3, where (with a tip-off from Ena) she shows up unannounced at Rin’s campsite and starts cooking her dinner. After Rin’s above-mentioned apology, Nadeshiko has a ready-made proposal: Rin doesn’t need to feel rushed into camping with a group. They can just go pair camping at first. Notably, the bit about pair camping isn’t so much a request as a statement of fact. That could come off as a little presumptuous on Nadeshiko’s part, but it’s as obvious to Nadeshiko as it is to the audience that Rin values their time together and wants the same thing. Nadeshiko knows what she’s doing.

As Nadeshiko comes to occupy more and more of Rin’s thoughts, Rin gets much more comfortable being with her. Rin, quite clearly, falls in love with her. As for when this happens, I’d say somewhere between the first morning they wake up together in episode 3 and Rin finally calls her by name (“Wake up… Nadeshiko.”) and the stunning nighttime text exchange in episode 5. There was no going back at that point. Rin was thoroughly smitten.

Golden sunrises and lush forests have nothing on the loving, longing smiles Rin sends Nadeshiko’s way. Whether she’s staring at photos of Nadeshiko on her phone or setting up camp with her, Rin was never truer to her feelings than in those moments in which her affection for Nadeshiko shows on her face. Yurucamp’s understands that grand romantic gestures wouldn’t suit Rin, so it conveys her feelings through the slightest giggles or briefest grin.

See, I feel like the reason Rin took to pair camping so much sooner than group camping is that, before long, Rin ceased thinking of Nadeshiko as an outsider. As they spent more time together, hearts and minds entwined. Time spent truly alone still had value, but was no longer quite so different from time spent with Nadeshiko.

And that’s the message of Yurucamp’s brilliant final scene. As Nadeshiko retraces Rin’s footsteps from the very first episode in a perfect bit of bookending, they trade status updates about arriving at their respetive campsites. And then the twist: they both went solo camping, and yet ended up in the same exact place.

Because of course they did. Two have already become one; pair camping has become solo camping again.

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Hinamatsuri Imported
(click to see comments from Spring post)

Ah yes, the traditional pillars of comedy: organized crime, child soldiers, homeless minors, underage labor, and criminally negligent parental figures. Hinamatsuri’s genius is presenting bad situations exacerbated by worse choices and – after mining each scenario for every drop of humor – unearthing the most wholesome outcome (well, sort of).

Late-night anime comedy (rather than just “anime with comedy in it”) isn’t a genre I run into much. Not that they don’t exist, but they don’t cross my radar because they lack the hooks that get me interest in a show. The last show I found to be consistently laugh-out-loud hilarious was Flying Witch and I wouldn’t quite call that a comedy. I only picked up Hinamatsuri at all due to a recommendation, two weeks into the season. So if I say this is one of the funniest comedies I’ve seen in an extremely long time there’s admittedly very little competition, but that doesn’t make it any less hilarious.

Hinamatsuri’s comedy revels in subverting our expectations of a creepy or uncomfortable outcome, particularly vis a vis the dubious mixture of young girls and adult men. Hina falls from the ceiling, naked, in a wealthy womanizing young yakuza’s condo. Hitomi inexplicably finds herself tending a bar all by herself as a drunk guy wanders in. Anzu winds up living in a forest camp with old homeless men, vulnerable and alone. It’s hard not to look at these situations and expect the worst, or at best an uncomfortably perverted gag or two. But Hinamatsuri stares into those gaping pitfalls, fills them back up with clever good-natured comedy, and dances happily on top of it. That yakuza ends up reluctantly fussing over Hina as his adopted daughter. That drunk teaches Hitomi how to mix drinks and praises her knack for it. Those homeless men treat Anzu with compassion and teach her how to survive on the fringes of society. On paper this show shouldn’t be funny, but it makes it work, over and over again.

True, not every interaction in Hinamatsuri goes perfectly for everyone. It still puts its characters through a gauntlet of absurd situations, and it’s rare anyone gets out of an episode entirely scot-free. But there’s a delicately tuned balance at work. I can’t recall a single point where a gag feels outright meanspirited, or when an emotional moment feels unearned. Everything Hinamatsuri does feels carefully considered. Not in the sense of being “safe” or “sterile”; rather, it has a firm grasp of how far it can push each gag, always finding the underlying humor without sacrificing its humanity.

To an extent it manages this balance by compartmentalizing itself into three parallel stories: Hina, Hitomi, and Anzu. They do interact (resulting in some of the show’s best scenes) but each one is tonally distinct from the others.

It’d be too much to say Hina is a bad kid, but it’d be entirely fair to say she’s the problem child of the trio. The comedy in her segments has a sharper, more sarcastic edge. While there are a few sweet moments between Hina and Nitta, for the most part they conclude with a cynical or confrontational punchline by the end of the episode. I don’t think it totally undermines their relationship, but it definitely gives it a more traditionally comedic vibe of two flawed people somehow tolerating each other, but rarely getting sentimental about it.

If this had been Hinamatsuri’s only brand of comedy, I wouldn’t have enjoyed the show nearly as much. Don’t get me wrong, Hina’s scenes were damned funny. But as I’ve often said, the most advanced comedic technique of all is knowing when to pull your punchlines. When every interaction ends with a dash of cynicism it’s hard to see your characters as people worth caring about; they feel more like ingredients in a joke recipe. And I’ve heard a few times that the adaptation cut out a good deal of the sweeter Hina/Nitta material from early on, so it’s worth considering why the adaptation did that and if it was a mistake.

It’s probably a valid criticism, but I’m of two minds here. On the one hand, I’m always up for more sweetness. If one or two Hina segments had ended with a heartfelt moment I wouldn’t have objected at all. On the other hand, Anzu already filled that role far better than Hina ever could, and I feel like the adaptation struck a deliberate tone with Hina in order to more fully distinguish her story from Hitomi’s and Anzu’s. So for me it’s pertinent that the sarcasm of the Hina storyline isn’t Hinamatsuri’s only brand of comedy, which is why I’m not too bent out of shape over losing some of those more sentimental scenes. (And hey, I’ve started the manga anyway so I guess I have some new material to look forward to in the early volumes.)

Regardless of what it could have been, Hina’s scenes put on a clinic in deadpan comedy. Even when she was interacting with the other characters (particularly when tagging along with Sayo’s group in ep 10) she took on the role of the disinterested observer. This had the effect of cleverly transforming her into the most level-headed person in the room, which is hardly what you’d expect from her interactions with Nitta. But her aloof personality effectively rendered her immune to the hysteria that powered a lot of the comedy, particularly in Hitomi segments.

And oh those Hitomi segments. If Hina’s story made good use of exasperated sarcasm, Hitomi’s story thrived on consistently escalating absurdity. From mixing drinks at a bar to breaking into the corporate world to being courted by Japan’s commercial and political elites as a rising star, Hitomi simply could not stop herself from succeeding her way into increasingly bizarre circumstances.

As with Hina, most of Hitomi’s segments end in punchlines too, meaning there isn’t a whole lot of breathing room for emotionally poignant moments. But the tone of Hitomi’s story is still markedly different from Hina’s. Instead of Hina’s deadpan, we’re treated to Hitomi’s incredulous reactions to her completely unasked-for rise into fame and fortune.

Hitomi’s story is about a life spiraling completely out of control, except that the people jerking her around are as well-meaning (…except for Utako) as they are disastrously incompetent. Hitomi has trouble saying no to good people, no matter how absurd their requests. And she has an even harder time not being incredibly good at everything she does, which as anyone who has even been “promoted” at work knows just means taking on more responsibility and more stress. So it’s almost tragic that the one time Hitomi puts her foot down and stands up for herself, it’s against Utako, the one person ruthless enough to force her hand anyway. (Oddly enough, Utako is something of a model citizen in all other regards. It’s just Hitomi’s luck that Utako decided Hitomi’s talents were indispensable.)

And so the hands-down most competent character in the entire show is the character most at the mercy of its fickle whims. Ganbare, Hitomi. Before long you’ll probably be Prime Minister… though I’m not sure that’d make you feel any better.

I realized while discussing Hina and Hitomi I probably wasn’t making a very good case as to why Hinamatsuri feels so wholesome to me, but that’s where Anzu comes in. Anzu, the goodest girl of all. Anzu, our blessed angel. Anzu, too good for this cruel world. Anzu, a being of pure light.

Initially Anzu drops in to pursue Hina, but after failing in that mission ends up on a roller coaster of a storyline that takes her from collecting garbage and living under a bridge, to befriending a group of homeless men, to finding a new home and a loving family. In the process she’s transformed from a violent agent of some shadowy esper organization into the kindest, most admirable character in the entire show. The fact that we know nothing about the organization from which Hina, Anzu, and Mao came is never more obvious than it is here. We have no idea what kind of things Anzu had to do before she arrived on the scene, but her ignorance of how society works means that her tutelage under Yassan and the gang instills in her a strong sense of responsibility, frugality, and kindness.

Most of the outright comedic scenes involving Anzu come when she’s hanging out with Hina or Hitomi, and the Hitomi/Anzu scenes are particularly good. While the characters usually stay in their story silos, when these two meet there’s a perfect comedic synergy between Anzu’s wide-eyed enthusiasm for every minor victory and Hitomi’s increasingly world-weary, jaded outlook. If there’s one person who Hitomi might have an even harder time dealing with than Utako, it’s the completely guileless and earnest Anzu. The guilt trips Hitomi goes through are equal parts brutal and hilarious.

Outside of those moments, Anzu is Hinamatsuri’s conscience and its heart. It lets her story’s emotional peaks stand on their own without trying to embellish or undermine them with cynical gags, and in doing so illustrates that it truly understands that good comedy doesn’t have to come at the expense of emotional sincerity. No matter how hard I laughed at Hinamatsuri’s gags, my fondest memory will always be crying over the heartfelt relationships Anzu formed, and how they taught her what love and family are.

Don’t cry because we’ll never get a season two, Anzu. Smile because season one was beautiful, and there’s plenty of manga to read. ♥

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Slow Start Imported
(click to see comments from Winter post)

Sometimes it’s really hard to get at the core of what makes a show work for me, and then sometimes you’ve got Slow Start. Its appeal is, with two remarkable caveats we’ll cover in detail, totally straightforward. While Yurucamp hangs out over in the iyashikei corner of the slice of life genre, Slow Start is a truly excellent example of the “schoolgirl daily life” style (think Yuyushiki or Kinmosa).

I’d be remiss not to acknowledge the outstanding animation in the first half of the show. There are tons of examples but this two minute segment is a great summary. Subtle acting, broad expressive gestures, dynamic motion, even some nice effects. It really had everything. Those moments did drop off in the second half of the cour, but it never became a broken production by any stretch. It just had far less stand-out highlights. These highlights were a huge boon to the show early on though, because in a show exclusively focused on character interaction, anything that brings those interactions to life is critical.

There’s so much to love in Slow Start, but I’m going to skip past all the gushing about how well it nails the friendly slice of life banter. That’s all fantastic, but doesn’t give me a lot to say. So I’d rather focus on two points: how the show handles Kirara Subtext, and the highly usual character of Tokura Eiko.

A minor touch that I appreciated a ton is found in the screenshot above. A bit older than your usual slice of life ship, no? They’re Tama’s grandmothers. She lives with two women who are pretty clearly in a relationship, although it’s never openly remarked upon. It’s such a small thing, but if you stop and think about it, it’s such a rare thing. Seeing two adult women living together almost never happens in these shows, even when they throw half a dozen schoolgirl ships at you. This matters because even the best slice of life shows usually restrict their adults to straight couples (parents generally) or single women who spend most of their time lamenting that they don’t have a man yet (particularly “christmas cake” teachers). The lack of adult role models for the gay girls of the main cast to look up and see representing them carries a silent implication that their current feelings won’t last and eventually they’ll become “normal”. Tama’s grandmothers challenge that definition of normalcy, and because of them Tama’s acceptance of gay couples comes off as being a direct result of her upbringing, not just as a comedic bit. That’s pretty damn cool, honestly.

While Shion and Hiroe aren’t in a relationship at the start of the show, they’re steadily moving in that direction by the end. As adult women (Shion is 23, Hiroe’s gotta be at least 19) they’re another refutation of the Class S-ish vibe so many of these shows give off, whether they mean to or not. It’s a shame we don’t get more of them, because I’m very curious to see where that relationship goes later. It’s also heavily implied that Shion has feelings for Hana’s mother, so that’s something I want the manga to explore as well.

Bringing it back to our high school girls, there’s a surprising amount of chemistry between Hana and Tama. Their personalities couldn’t be more different, but Tama has this ability to modulate her output when she knows Hana needs her to be tone it down – see episode 6 in particular. Their closeness is reinforced a few times (like Tama’s grandmoms spilling the beans about how passionately Tama talks about Hana at home), but it’s still fair to say this is the most ambiguous relationship in the show.

That’s where the deft handling of the other relationships pays off. Your average cute girls slice of life has plenty of pairings very much like Hana and Tama, but the atmosphere here is different. It feels like the author (Tokumi Yuiko aka Hakka-ya) was consciously seeking to validate these feelings, not just to mine them for shipping fuel. Given that her background is primarily in yuri doujinshi, it’s surely intentional. Slow Start feels like an author pushing the boundaries of this subgenre in every way she can, and as a result the frustrations I often have with relationships in these stories are almost non-existent.

And then there’s Eiko, who may honestly be the most fascinating character in a Kirara manga. It’s hard to even know where to begin. She exudes an adult charm that nearly every girl around her finds irresistible, but that’s not what makes her so unique – it’s the way she owns it.

The scene that blew my mind first was a short exchange in episode three with a character I’m not sure we ever see again. She’s hanging out (or let’s be real, on a date) with a friend but the vibe is unlike anything we see in these shows. Eiko is openly flirting, and her friend is openly voicing confusion about Eiko’s motives. But it’s done in a way that makes it clear she had expectations.

It’s hard to stress enough just what an unusual interaction this is. I’m not sure how else to describe Eiko than that she’s… a player? Maybe that’s not quite right. She’s not trying to deceive anyone, and people who get involved with her know what they’re in for. I don’t see any evidence that Eiko wants to hurt anyone, but she’s also hyper-conscious of the effect she has on women. She’s not the self-absorbed ojou followed by a train of lackeys, or the accidental harem lead, or the sleazy pimp. But she does seem to feed on the attention she gets. I’m really not sure how to write a description that does her justice. Like, the gag in the finale where Hana dreams that Eiko is actually 20 years old and just got held back is, uh, way more plausible-sounding than it should be?

The casual flirting is good but to start to understand Eiko we need to look at two people who couldn’t be any more dissimilar and who fulfill completely different emotional needs: Her clingy childish friend Kamuri, and the aloof, mature teacher Enami-sensei.

The interactions between Enami and Eiko are fascinating from start to finish, but episode 7 was particularly jaw-dropping. Enami wakes up on her couch, with a stylishly dressed Eiko asleep on her floor, bound at the wrists. After vowing to give up drinking, Enami’s morning only gets worse after Eiko wakes up and proceeds to do everything she can to keep Enami squirming. The whole exchange is outrageous and provocative, and reveals so much about Eiko. But Enami eventually finds out what happened, cools her head, and manages to get the upper hand, much to Eiko’s flustered frustration.

Eiko sees Enami, in part, as a challenge. She clearly has sexual and romantic feelings for her too, but Enami represents the rare girl or woman who seems to be immune to Eiko’s charms, and that just makes Eiko want her more. I don’t think it’d be fair to paint Eiko as a manipulative womanizer who takes advantage of people, but, you do have to be emotionally prepared when dealing with her. When she wants something, she can get too intense to handle. In so many ways, Eiko is an even more intense Takei Hisa, drawing again on Tokumi’s background in Saki BuCap doujins.

Even Eiko can’t fire on all cylinders all the time though. And when she’s seeking a time out from the game, she falls back to her security blanket, Kamuri.

Kamuri is special to Eiko. Put less charitably, but in my opinion justifiably, Eiko values Kamuri because Kamuri is safe. She doesn’t object when Eiko talks about other girls in front of her. She accepts all of Eiko’s quirks. She snuggles and hugs and gets pets from Eiko without the sexual tension that overwhelms most other girls who gets near Eiko (even Hana and Tama sometimes!). She’s more like an adoring little sister and sometimes that’s just what Eiko needs.

But you can’t help but stop and wonder how Kamuri feels about this. There are enough hints that she’s suppressing her jealousy, possibly out of fear that if she throws her hat into the ring Eiko might abandon her. It’s hard to know, because she remains silent on the matter. But sometimes actions speak, and the birthday ring hints very loudly that one day Kamuri may make a move.

I’d love to see how that plays out. Will Eiko pursue Enami after high school? Will she choose Kamuri? Will she gamble and lose both? How will Kamuri cope if Enami accepts Eiko one day? Eiko is an enchantingly unique character, and I’m dying to see what Tokumi Yuiko could do with the freedom to explore Eiko, or a character like her, without any restrictions at all.

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Uma Musume Imported
(click to see comments from Spring post)

In what may be the dumbest premise to result in a great show since Youjo Senki, we have an anime about racehorses from our world being reborn as horse-eared girls through spontaneous immaculate conception. They are born with an insatiable desire to run, and specialized schools and racing associations have been set up to facilitate this. And when they win a race, they perform an idol concert, because… reasons? Into this strange story steps our protagonist, Special Week.

The idea is undeniably silly, and no doubt many wrote the show off as being something it actually wasn’t. That’s a shame, because what we actually get is a smartly paced and totally earnest sports anime. And it’s about female athletes too, which is rare enough that we really ought to treasure the few we get, especially when they’re this good.

Horse racing is an interesting sport to focus on because while the competitors are gathered into teams (Spica, Rigil, etc) and actively encourage each other, they’re ultimately competing as individuals. There are no relay races in this sport, only competitions with a single winner and a dozen losers. Uma Musume admittedly softens this a little bit by not having teammates appear in the same race all that often, but they’re still racing for themselves at the end of the day. And while the anime doesn’t cover it, once they graduate I have to imagine they’ll be going entirely solo like Broye.

Running in a circle isn’t the most inherently engaging sport, but Uma Musume figured out pretty early on how to make it work. We start with tension in the stands and at the starting gate, move into an opening phase where the girls jockey for position and plan their attacks, and then wrap up with a big break-out on the final stretch. It’s a formula that worked every time, and only got more intense later in the series as we came to know the characters better and be more invested in their success or failure.

There were some technical choices I wasn’t a fan of, such as the intentionally imbalanced audio mix between dialogue and sound effects during races, or the constant blue tinge at the top of the screen in exterior shots, or the (mercifully infrequent) use of CG for long-distance group shots. But by and large, the races conveyed a real sense of speed and physical exertion, while the overbearing sfx did add a feeling of weight and inertia. And even though some shots were CG, I’m honestly surprised that it was so sparingly used and nearly the entirety of every race was properly animated.

But this isn’t just horse racing, it’s explicitly based on real horses and their real races. While some liberties are taken in order to have horses from disparate eras active at the same time, many of the races stay true to their real-world counterparts. This means Uma Musume has a rather interesting relationship with “spoilers”. With most races following their historical results, it would be simple to know a good deal of what was going to happen ahead of time.

Early on I thought this wouldn’t be a problem, so I (and most people) knew what happened to real-life Suzuka from the start. But as the show went on, I took the position that I didn’t want to know anything else ahead of time, but liked finding out after the fact how a given episode compared to reality. After all, while Uma Musume references real world events, the outcome of sometimes decades old horse races is a whole lot more obscure than, say, the fates of famous Shinsengumi leaders. And so it was fun to hear about all the parallels, like Seiun Sky being reluctant to enter the starting gate, or Special Week’s loss due to excess weight gain, or Urara gaining a following for losing all of her races – but I didn’t need to know all of that going in.

Suzuka’s injury was the most striking parallel to explore. “There’s something wrong with Silence Suzuka!” was chilling to hear even knowing ahead of time that this was going to be the race that took her down. Everything from the way she stumbled down the track, to the looks of horror on everyone’s faces, to the announcer’s confused reaction hit pretty hard. Thankfully our Suzuka recovers from her injury, smiling and surrounded by her friends, but watching the real race afterward was unexpectedly difficult. I have no interest in horses or horse racing, but just having that association with the Silence Suzuka I’ve come to know and love from the anime makes seeing what actually happened quite sad. So when it came time for Suzuka’s comeback race in the anime, I had all the more reason to be swept up in the emotion of her triumphant return. It’s a very curious relationship that Uma Musume has to real events, for sure.

Uma Musume’s huge cast is intimidating at first, and the show knows it. Most characters are introduced with on-screen signage multiple times before it’s at all confident we’ll remember them. Truth be told, even as someone who has been pretty swept up into the franchise, owns all the character song CDs and manga, and is eagerly awaiting the mobage finally being released, I still have trouble remembering a few of the less prominent girls from the anime.

But even though there’s no need to fully flesh out every character, Uma Musume still does a great job uniquely distinguishing most of them (with the outstanding character designs doing a lot of the heavy lifting). In addition to all seven girls from Spica being memorable, I’m a big fan of a few of the Team Rigil members (especially El Condor Pasa, Grass Wonder) and a few of the girls who aren’t on either team (Haru Urara, King Halo, Seiun Sky).

And while I hadn’t thought about it while watching the show, I find it particularly impressive that they all stood out without relying on the superhuman techniques that sports anime often rely on. Not that such a thing is bad, but Uma Musume didn’t have that crutch to lean on and still succeeded wonderfully.

I can’t talk about the cast without mentioning the Trainer. If I have one regret about Uma Musume, it’s that it came so close to ruining a really good male mentor character through the totally unforced error of one dubious recurring gag. If you’ve seen people complain about Trainer, it’s probably because they didn’t get past the first few episodes. He’s introduced in the worst possible way, making a terrible (and highly misleading) first impression. It’s a perfect storm of bad decisions. Even the fact that he’s not actually being intentionally perverted only helps so much when the joke is framed as a perverted act. This reached its apex of stupidity in episode 4, when this happens and all I could do was shake my head and wonder why it was thought that this was funny, or flattering to the girls, or fair to the Trainer.

But thankfully, these moments are tiny blips in the grand scheme of the show. Stick around and you get to see what kind of guy he really is. And that turns out to be a goofy and somewhat scatterbrained but well-meaning and passionate coach who cares a ton about the girls under his care. Uma Musume gets so much right about this character that my go-to comparison has been the Idolmaster/Deremas Producers, and that’s some considerably high praise as far as I’m concerned. This just makes the decision to mislead the audience early on all the more regrettable.

Trainer works so well because he’s 1) an adult, 2) genuinely cares about the girls achieving their dreams, and 3) isn’t a love interest! I’ve said this a million times, but that last one is vital. Even setting aside how inappropriate it would be for him to pursue one of his athletes, the fact that we didn’t go there is such a relief. Basing his relationship with the girls on a their shared dream was 100% the right call. We’re repeatedly reminded that Suzuka and Spe want to be the kind of horse girls that fulfill their fans’ dreams, while Trainer’s dream is to see the girls fulfill their dreams, so these complementary desires create a positive feedback loop. This way of framing the dynamic allowed for genuinely sweet scenes, particularly between Trainer and Suzuka. When Trainer cried in happiness at Suzuka’s comeback race, I absolutely bought into it. I was crying too.

So Uma Musume provides a great example of how to successfully write a male character into this kind of show – and also a warning about how easy it is to nearly ruin everything. (I hope Hanebado took notes!)

Make no mistake of course, the real reason to watch Uma Musume is for the, well, uma musume.. They’re such a delight and I could go on and on about any number of them: hard-working Special Week, excitable Tokai Teio, elegant Meijro McQueen, inscrutable Gold Ship, or tsundere rivals Vodka and Daiwa Scarlet. But Silence Suzuka is really what makes Uma Musume so great.

If there’s one thing I went on about incessantly in the early episodes, it was how delighted I was at Suzuka’s characterization. The moment I saw her I was sure she would be the talented diva giving the newcomer Spe the cold shoulder, until our spunky protagonist won her over through hard work and guts. Instead, Suzuka was actually just an incredibly sweet girl who was interested in Spe and wanted to succeed together with her. I loved that so much. In fact the overwhelming niceness of everyone in this show made the whole experience more pleasant, without stripping away the drama inherent in their races and rivalries.

Suzuka embodied a mixture of ambition and kindness in a way that Spe admired and sought to emulate. Spe’s lowest point came when she lost sight of that balance, becoming entirely focused on Suzuka’s kindness and forgetting that their promise wasn’t only to be together, it was to race together. It took a string of failures, a harsh loss to Grass Wonder, and the timely intervention of their Trainer to get Spe back on her feet.

While the final episode served as a fitting celebratory epilogue, the climax came in the two episodes prior: Suzuka’s spectacular comeback race, and Spe’s victory over the intimidating Broye in the Japan Cup.

Suzuka’s long-awaited return to racing did not disappoint. She spends most of the race dead last, being doubted by the audience and her fellow racers. Then, she takes a deep breath… and makes her move. With explosive acceleration she passes one opponent after another. The crowd gasps, then roars in support. Everyone in the stands, all of her teammates, the Trainer, her rivals, the announcers (and of course me) are all tearfully united in that moment in overjoyed awe at Suzuka’s miraculous and dominating return. The result isn’t even remotely close. Silence Suzuka first and the rest nowhere.

But there’s one important person who wasn’t at the track that day: Special Week. Not that Suzuka expected her to be, because she understood that Spe’s dream wasn’t going to come true simply by cheering her on from the audience. Spe and Suzuka want to be by each other’s side, but they needed to do it on the race track. Only there could their ambitions be satisfied, only there could they fully understand each other. And to earn herself a spot alongside Suzuka, Spe had her own hurdle to overcome – the Japan Cup, and Broye.

But Spe’s promise with Suzuka wasn’t the only thing motivating her to become the best horse girl in Japan. She also had a promise with her mothers: the one who died soon after giving birth to her, and the one that raised her ever since. This is also based in reality: the actual Special Week’s mother died shortly after giving birth, and Special Week was trained by a foreign woman from New Zealand. Some of the most powerful moments of the show came when we got to see how much Spe’s races mattered to her mom, not only because she was seeing her daughter achieve her dream, but because in that moment trainer mom knew she had finally kept the promise she made all those years ago to biological mom.

Ultimately that’s what Uma Musume is about: promises kept and dreams realized. Maybe it’s a cliche, but it’s a masterfully executed one, and that’s what really matters. It’s a silly idea treated with respect, earnestness, a sense of humor, and bright-eyed wonder. It became the show I anticipated the most each week, and one that I’ve been missing ever since it ended.

(P.S. Release the darn mobage, Cygames. I need my fix.)

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Harukana Receive Imported
(click to see comments from Summer post)

Rise up on your feet when you’re falling
Over and over
We rise up for the things we believe in
Over and over again

If you want a sports anime that deftly balances intense rivalry and healthy relationships all while treating its characters’ shortcomings and fears with respect, Harukana Receive would be an excellent choice. When “Rise”, the song that bookends the series, talks about getting up “over and over again” it’s not referring to the unhealthy obsession with winning at all costs that defines some sports stories. It’s exhorting you to never give up on yourself, to believe that you can come back from past failures. Beach volleyball can be a source of temporary pain and sorrow for these girls, but such is the nature of any endeavor that you pour your heart into and yet sometimes fail at. And that pain in and of itself is never portrayed as a virtue.

Harukana is both joyfully fun and completely serious about the girls’ athletic passions, because there’s no reason why those two things should be in opposition. I’d have found this to be a thoroughly pleasant show in any season, but considering the other women’s sports anime airing in summer, a show like Harukana became positively essential.

I was particularly surprised to hear that Harukana Receive was getting an anime, partly because I’m still not used to manga I’ve read getting adapted but mostly because Houbunsha has never adapted a sports anime from its Kirara lineup before. I think it shows, because Harukana is considerably less slice-of-lifey than other Kirara adaptations. The focus on the sport itself is ever-present, and a huge amount of time is spent on the court. They’re either in a match or practicing far more often than not.

It’s not that we don’t get time off the court, it’s just that that time is used pretty economically to either learn about beach volleyball, discuss the characters’ past history with beach volleyball, or in lighter moments decide what kind of swimsuits they’re going to wear while playing beach volleyball. This isn’t the kind of club anime where the actual club is an afterthought – it’s central to nearly every moment.

School also plays only the tiniest role on this show. Technically the beach volleyball club is an offshoot of the indoor volleyball club. But other characters are always surprised to hear the club exists, and the fact that most of the girls’ practice happens on the beach in front of Kanata’s house sets them even further removed from the school. There’s no arc about having to pass supplementary exams to avoid getting kicked off the team. There’s no new student recruitment arc, and there’s no quest to find an advisor. There’s no team manager until a ways into the series, and there’s no coach. Haruka’s training happens at the direction of Kanata, then the Thomas sisters, and then their mother Marissa.

Both on and off the court, Harukana Receive excelled at compelling character arcs and emotionally rich relationships. And while Haruka is more or less the protagonist (a transfer student who comes in and learns about beach volleyball along with the audience), most of the character relationships run through Kanata. It’s Kanata who Haruka moves in with, and it’s Kanata who has the history with Narumi and the Thomas sisters. Haruka’s role is herefore to act as a shake-up that reinvigorates a web of relationships that had grown cold and brittle as rivalry and regrets pulled everyone apart.

At the time, I was pretty disappointed with the first episode. It looked good and I was already a big fan of the characters from the manga, but the tone felt way off, with too little music, long pauses between lines of dialogue, and a general awkward slowness that left me pretty worried about the adaptation. In retrospect I feel like it was stretching a tiny amount of material into a whole episode for lack of a good stopping point, but the spectacular second episode put any fears I had about the anime to rest. Still, it’s a shame that episode one felt so off because parts of it are actually excellent – particularly the quietly awkward interplay between Narumi and Kanata. Without it spelling out their past relationship, it’s clear that 1) the split created a lot of regrets and 2) they’ve never once stopped thinking about each other since.

Unlike a certain other sports anime, an unhappy parting isn’t the defining antagonistic force behind the story. It is the starting point, and Harukana Receive wastes no time in enabling Kanata to make positive improvements towards renewing her love for volleyball and regaining her self-confidence. The tension with Narumi remains very important, but consistent progress is how it’s handled, not ever-looming dread to be exploited for melodrama.

The entire arc of Kanata and Narumi’s relationship is handled wonderfully, and this despite the fact that they never share more than a few words with one another across the entirety of the series. Flashbacks contextualize their current situation, and their lack of interaction in the present day still works because we wind up seeing their relationship through the eyes of their new friends and partners.

While “pair” and “partner” are just terms of the sport, the double meaning of romantic subtext is not accidental. Haruka repeatedly and explicitly frames Narumi as Kanata’s relationship as ex-girlfriends, we’re always reminded of how much the girls love each other, and the sexual tension between the various pairs (minus the sisters anyway) is palpable. This isn’t a romance anime by any stretch, but its character dynamics are romantic.

Given this subtext, Kanata and Narumi’s relationship is something quite rare: two exes who not only recover from a breakup with the help of their new partners, but who rekindle a friendship as well. Haruka and Ayasa may get very slightly anxious at times, but ultimately they understand that Kanata and Narumi’s reunion isn’t a threat. In finding peace with each other, they only strengthen their relationship with their current partners. Kanata becomes more self-confident and better at letting others into her heart. Narumi learns to grow past her guilt and stop living in the past. And they both know that the only reason they’re in a position to face each other in the Nationals is because their precious partners are with them every step of the way.

But there are two other vital elements: long-time rivals Claire and Emily, and newcomer Akari.

While Harukana avoids unnecessarily dragging out the tension between Kanata and Narumi, their ultimate reconciliation can only come on the court. With Narumi living off in Kyoto and Kanata in Okinawa, that’s not happening until the Nationals. And there’s no way Kanata gets there if she doesn’t both get back in shape and ensure Haruka can play on her level.

Enter Claire. For every bit that she’s a lovable goof off the court, she’s a fierce competitor on it. With Narumi living far away and Kanata having quit, Claire has been left with a wound that won’t heal over until she’s taken on her old rivals again. No matter how many other trophies and accolades she wins in the meantime, this is the one thing she’s wanted more than all the rest. And so she takes it upon herself to train them up, taking a particular interest in, and forming a tight bond with, Haruka.

While she and Haruka have compatible personalities and both play the attacker role on the court, Claire also sees in Haruka a chance to revive the old Kanata she’s longed to face off against. Claire rigorously trains Haruka, as much for herself as anyone else. She does this knowing full well that she’s going to have to beat her own disciple to proceed on to facing Narumi. But she’s not just prepared for it, she relishes the idea. When Harukana and Eclaire meet at the finals of the Okinawan qualifiers, Claire spares a moment to reflect on the time they’ve all spent together. Because she knows that now, finally, the old Kanata is really back, and her dream is within reach.

Ultimately however, Claire is overcome by the reinvigorated Kanata and by Haruka, a monster of her own creation. Claire is more responsible for Haruka’s progress than anyone, Kanata included. And as frustrating as it is on some surface level, an even bigger part of Claire is proud, even thankful. When Claire confesses to Haruka that she never thought she’d lose, Haruka cheekily points out that she wasn’t too worried, because after all it’s Claire who taught her how to block. And in that moment, the overriding emotion Claire feels is… gratitude. Gratitude for the degree of faith that Haruka had in her, a faith she’s now determined to reciprocate.

While Emily is invested in the rivalry as well, she’s also focused on proving to herself that she’s a worthy partner to the big sister she idolizes. Her personality shift during matches is much more subtle than Claire’s, but it still noticeable. Off the court she’s the put-upon younger sister always scolding her flighty onee-chan, similar to the support role she plays on the court. The difference is primarily in her demeanor. She becomes a paragon of poise and composure, a rock that Emily can tether to when the emotions of a match get overwhelming.

There’s a moment during the match that Emily and Claire lost to Kanata and Narumi that really stuck with Emily. As Claire boasts once again at being the ace, Kanata offhandedly dismisses the bluster, noting that beach volleyball is a team of two and there’s no place for an “ace”. We see Narumi lecture Haruka with these very same words when they first meet, but the sentiment had a powerful effect on Emily too. As she watched in shock at her once seemingly-invincible older sister sobbing, she vowed that she would become strong enough to stand next to Claire. And so the shy and timid Emily became the powerful, unflappable partner – not just admirer – of her beloved sister.

There is an unsung hero in all this, and her name is Akari. (Bias alert! Akari is my favorite character in the manga, and second behind only Kanata in the anime) We only get to spend about half the show with her and she doesn’t play volleyball competitively, but given the team has no permanent coach it falls to Akari to be the one to watch over everyone.

This is not even remotely what she had in mind as she called out to Kanata to introduce herself. We meet Akari as a somewhat vain ex-child celebrity who sees volleyball as little more than a ticket back to stardom. The top class women in volleyball (Marissa, Eclaire, Narumi/Ayasa) are glamorous in her eyes, with their tall stature and attractive bodies and adoring fans, and that’s exactly the kind of girl she thinks she needs to be. So when Emily shoots down her proposal Akari sulks away, apparently alone once again.

As a minor celebrity, Akari hasn’t really had friends and doesn’t understand how to make them in an organic way. Her “beach idol project” is reminiscent of Yuzuki’s “friendship contract” in Yorimoi. They both only know how to interact with people through the language of showbiz, growing up surrounded by relationships of convenience rather than deep interpersonal connection. Thankfully, just like Yuzuki, Akari has the good fortune of running into a great bunch of girls who are intrigued enough by the awkward first meeting to chase after and befriend her.

Eventually the kindness wears down Akari’s prickly exterior and reveals a girl who really just needs some genuine friends. From then on she throws herself wholeheartedly into supporting them. When everyone realizes that a change to the rules means that only one of the pairs can get through the Okinawan regional tournament, Akari takes it upon herself to stop things from getting too awkward. She’s finally found a place where she belongs, and she’s deeply grateful – and she’s going to do everything she can to protect it.

Deciding how to do that isn’t easy, particularly for someone with little experience in friendship like Akari. But with a hint from Ayasa and inspiration from the local flora, Akari settles on distilling her emotions into something physical: flower-themed scrunchies.

Born of Akari’s feelings of gratitude and affection, these small bits of elastic and cloth bind friendship together against the strain of rivalry. They’re the most honest sign of Akari’s feelings. They’re visual focal points that keep us fixated on what matters most. They’re the the vessel through which Claire sends her and her sister’s feelings along with Haruka to the Nationals.

As the show comes to a close, “Rise” plays once again, and Haruka delivers the exact same monologue that she opened the show with. Only this time, the song, the words, and yes even the fact that she’s wearing multiple scunchies all mean so much more. It’s perfect bookending.

We rise up for the things we believe in
Over and over again
Over and over again
Over and over again

(P.S., the OST is phenomenal)

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Citrus Imported
(click to see comments from Winter post)

I spent months after the announcement telling myself this adaptation would go poorly. I’d dropped the manga years back after the slow release schedule sapped my interest. The sting of Kase-san’s recent “oops it’s just a music video” still lingered. This was announced alongside Netsuzou Trap of all things. The small burst of yuri adaptations felt like the monkey’s paw had curled all of its fingers into a fist and sucker-punched us. I wanted to believe that a weekly anime adaptation from a competent, serious staff could produce something decent, but didn’t actually expect that to materialize.

Then a curious thing happened… the Citrus anime was good. Really good. Initially it was the fairly strong technical quality of the show that stood out, which allayed my fears of a cheap rush job. Then the expressive acting, comedic timing, and ability to balance its serious and ridiculous content started to sell me on the strength of its overall direction. I spent the first few weeks being downright amazed that Citrus of all things was getting an adaptation that showed genuine interest in not just understanding but also elevating the material.

Citrus has garnered (more than) its share of controversy, but I’m not interested in discussing that per se. Nobody is obligated to watch any show they aren’t comfortable with or just plain don’t enjoy. Goodness knows I outright skip far more than I watch, and I reject the idea that anyone needs to justify viewing decisions. But I find myself skeptical of and exhausted with the way this series is discussed, which is why I am so thoroughly uninterested in engaging with that conversation. So if your knee-jerk reaction to any positive commentary about Citrus is to start furiously typing away, save yourself the effort. Nor do I plan to cover legitimate concerns about what recent yuri adaptations as a whole might be doing to skew or narrow the perception of yuri among the broader anime fandom. I’ve talked about that at length on twitter and curiouscat before. No, here I’m just talking about Citrus, on its own terms.

It’s not that I don’t have issues with the show, but my complaints aren’t entirely black-and-white. I both find some of Mei’s early behavior excessive and potentially distracting from the show’s point and believe her character arc is the most emotionally resonant aspect of the story. I both find the way external conflict is handled to be potentially frustrating (new girl shows up and tries to forcefully separate Mei and Yuzu) and appreciate the ways each arc ends up meaningfully progressing the Yuzu/Mei relationship.

Speaking of Mei, I genuinely think she’s a great character. She’s an uncomfortable, challenging, cold, self-destructive, abusive, broken character as well, but a great character can be all of these things. I’m not interested in absolving Mei of her sins, but neither is Citrus. No, her emotional development doesn’t involve the sort of tearful, public mea culpa we treat as the bare minimum in an age of social media outrage and call-out blogs. But she’s not a movie executive or a politician, she’s a damaged high school girl who has been manipulated and emotionally abused by opportunistic and uncaring adults.

She’s emotionally stunted and full of repressed anger, and it’s Yuzu who stumbles into her life and bears the brunt of that. Mei has been abandoned by her father and engaged to a scumbag while being idolized by peers who have placed her on a pedestal that prevents anyone from reaching out to her. And then in comes Yuzu, this carefree gyaru who Mei is supposed to respect as an older sister. And this happy-go-lucky girl claims to understand and want to save Mei. How infuriating must that be if you’re Mei? But Mei also recognizes that Yuzu uncontrollably lusts after her, and that gives Mei a degree of power over Yuzu. Power Mei’s never had and does not know how to wield. Power that mixes around with repressed sexual desire and a tragic lack of self-respect for her own body.

Mei’s actions may be explainable, but not justifiable. And no, nobody should feel obligated to put up with that. It’s not anyone’s job to fix anyone else.

But Yuzu does, with the patience of a hundred saints. There’s a fine line between admiring Yuzu’s gracious, forgiving nature on the one hand and glorifying tolerance towards an abuser on the other. However, by letting Yuzu and Mei evolve their relationship in ways that stay true to their personalities (and by acknowledging that sexual desire complicates everything), I feel that Citrus on the whole stays on the right side of that line. It dresses everything up in exaggerated melodrama and it absolutely does trade in titillation on the side, but not to an extent that invalidates the rest for me.

It’s particularly important that Citrus get this right because Yuzu is absolutely the kind of character you instinctively want to cheer on and can’t help but fall in love with – so you want to be sure you’re rooting for her for the right reasons. Where Mei is manipulative, Yuzu is earnest to a fault. Where Mei tries to repress her emotions, Yuzu openly broadcasts hers all over her face. Where Mei is succumbing to self-pity, Yuzu is constantly thinking of ways to make everything better for those around her, particularly Mei. It’s not really a fair comparison – Mei is broken and antagonistic and is clearly presented as such, while Yuzu exists to be adored.

But it works, and I really do adore Yuzu. My overriding concern from start to finish was “I want Yuzu to be happy!” My eventual acceptance of Mei is in no small part a result of caring about her because Yuzu cares about her, and that’s reason enough for me. Every smile from Yuzu was heavenly blessing, every tear was heartbreaking. I get emotionally invested in many characters’ happiness, but Yuzu climbed into the top tier of that list pretty quickly.

If I’ve gotten this far without even mentioning that they’re step sisters, it’s because so much of the above could have played out the same even if that weren’t the case. But their familial status becomes uniquely relevant in what I found to be the most convincing of all of Yuzu’s conflicts: Yuzu knows that Mei needs both family and love, but isn’t sure which of those needs priority. What can she be to Mei? Can she be both, or or must she choose?

Viewing her hesitation towards Mei in this light eliminates much of what might feel like treading water in other romances. This isn’t a case of keeping a relationship in stasis with “who should I choose?” or “ill-timed phone call whenever the mood gets good” tropes. Yuzu’s struggle is more fundamental and more sympathetic than that. She needs to decide whether loving Mei is even going to make Mei happy.

This leads to the beautiful scene in the graveyard in front of Yuzu’s father’s tombstone. Mei gives Yuzu a dazzling and genuine smile for the first time, and in that moment their hearts are finally united. But that euphoria is stained with grief for Yuzu, who concludes that the answer she was seeking was “family” after all. And Yuzu being Yuzu, she resolves to suppress her feelings for Mei’s good.

It takes her some time to realize that Mei is ready for love as well, though you can’t blame her. Mei is, if nothing else, terrible at expressing emotions honestly. This is never more clear than at the end of episode 9 where she finally invites Yuzu into her heart before immediately ruining the moment at the start of episode 10, which picks up the conversation with Mei awkwardly couching her sexual desire as a “reward” for Yuzu.

Mei is so used to both speaking and hearing manipulative language that she’s unconsciously internalized that mode of interacting with others, even as she takes the biggest emotional risk of her life by opening herself to Yuzu. And if there’s one thing Yuzu could never accept, it’s the feeling that she’s doing anything to manipulate or hurt Mei. It’s a painfully tragic misunderstanding but it’s a believable misunderstanding that stays true to everything we know about the characters and their flaws – not a frustratingly contrived romcom-style missed connection.

Of course, this isn’t where it ends. Eventually Yuzu does convince herself to tell Mei how she feels, Mei accepts, and by the end Yuzu and Mei are closer than ever. The hold hands and walk into the final scene, by no means free from all concerns (we covered less than half of the manga, after all!) but better prepared to face it together.

There’s a whole lot more I want to talk about with Citrus, but the relationship between Mei and Yuzu always ends up taking center stage for me, so it’s dominated these already long comments. But that’s not all Citrus has to offer. Harumin in particular deserves epic poems to be performed in her honor for being the emotional rock to which Yuzu stayed anchored during her lowest moments. There’s a reason plenty of people wish Yuzu would just date Harumin instead. I understand that, but I wouldn’t quite go that far. It’d make for a wonderful show, but it wouldn’t be Citrus.

I also didn’t get into the “villains”, and how Citrus handles them. As with a lot of things in Citrus, they’re both a weakness and a strength. I honestly thought the Matsuri arc was a bit of a momentum killer, in that it leaned into the ridiculous melodrama Citrus is so famous for but in the process let the emotion poignancy it doesn’t get enough credit for take a backseat. Matsuri being comically evil while EDM thumps through her bunny headphones is the over the top drama people associate with Citrus, but I’ll maintain to my last breath that while that has some appeal, it’s not what makes Citrus actually work.

I do love that those villains (Himeko, Matsuri, Nina to a lesser extent) eventually get roped into Yuzu’s circle of friends. They’re fun to have around once they’ve mellowed out, and I’m particularly looking forward to Matsuri’s role later in the manga once I get there. But I still worry that the “evil new girl” formula will get stale. While the Nina/Sara arc had some problems (most egregiously, it had no idea what to do with Mei), I did appreciate that it bucked this trend a little by having their motives be far less selfish than Himeko’s or Matsuri’s. I hope that future arcs strike a balance closer to that. It’s also worth bringing in Mei’s dad here. As much of an irresponsible flake as he is, he brought a very different kind of conflict than the girls did. The conclusion of his arc was a lot more emotionally ambiguous than I’d expected, and I actually think there’s good material the manga could (or maybe already has) mine there later on.

However things shake out later, this is Yuzu and Mei’s story. Based on the strength of the anime I’ve picked the manga back up, and I’m back to being excited about it. I’m extremely relieved that Citrus turned out so well. It’s not perfect, but it’s so much more than I had ever hoped for.

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Anima Yell! Imported
(click to hide)

Cheerleading is something you (or at least I) probably don’t think about often or deeply. In the real world we encounter it as “that thing sports broadcasts cut to for 3 seconds before going to commercial”. Or worse, it’s something we read about in news stories on sexism and inequality in professional sports. In fiction it’s primarily exploited for aesthetic purposes when a work wants to represent a sexualized female ditziness. It’s the drunk blonde at the frat party who gets murdered fifteen minutes into a slasher film. There’s a real dearth of realistic and respectful explorations of cheerleading, at least in my experience and in what I’ve gleaned from pop culture via osmosis.

Enter Anima Yell!, the latest Manga Time Kirara adaptation. It’s a slice of life show, but I’d also classify it as a sports anime – or at least a hybrid between a sports anime and, say, Hanayamata. Practicing for a sport and practicing for an athletic performance art aren’t all that different, except that the latter tends not to have realtime head-to-head competition as the end goal. But if gymnastics and figure skating are sports, so is cheerleading. Anima Yell treats it as such.

The girls practice no less than if they were playing baseball or tennis, and it wears them out. But they do it because they love it, and because it helps them overcome undesirable parts of themselves:
For Hizume, the new cheer club is a second chance after her unpleasant parting from her previous team.
For Kotetsu, cheer is a route to discovering a self confidence she’s always lacked as she learns to love herself and her body.
For Kohane, it’s initially just something she’s admired from afar and taken an interest in, but it also pushes her to shake her fear of heights.
For Uki and Kana, joining is less about dealing with inner demons than being close to and supporting the girls they love, but that’s certainly a challenge all its own.

This is expressed in its most traditional form with Hizume, the cool and collected (if prone to bouts of catastrophizing) counter to Kohane’s bubbly hyperactivity. The first episode follows the standard formula: old veteran swears off their former passion after bad experiences, only to be pulled back in by a naive but enthusiastic newbie who rekindles their interest. After that, we learn that Hizume left her previous team because they couldn’t keep up with how seriously she took cheer, which is another very standard trope in club and sports anime. This second chance with Kohane is an opportunity to do things right.

But while Hizume is great, I think the most elegant example of how Anima Yell uses cheer involves Kohane.

Her fear of heights isn’t crippling and doesn’t often affect her daily life. But it’s the way her phobia is addressed that I found so clever. When she finally tells the other girls where the fear comes from, we learn that it’s not the physical pain she started to avoid, it was the fear of making the people she loved worried or sad.

That’s such a perfect encapsulation of why Kohane is like she is, and why she’s such a great character. Her kindness is an admirable trait that she takes almost to the point of being a character flaw. In the pursuit of others’ happiness she often neglects her own well-being. Making other people happy is an addiction for Kohane because it makes her feel good too. That leaves poor Uki on constant overdose watch, hovering like a mama bird to ensure Kohane doesn’t run herself into the ground.

The rigor and structure of a cheer routine force Kohane to channel her excitement in a sustainable way. So what cheer represents – for all these girls, really – is a healthy way to achieve a balance between satisfying yourself and making others happy.

But Anima Yell also champions the idea that cheer doesn’t necessarily require pom-poms and choreography. While they’re still learning the basics of cheer, the girls take on a variety of miscellaneous tasks: assisting the manga club before a deadline, taste-testing for the home ec club, even offering relationship advice. It’s in Kohane’s nature to immediately accept all of these requests because what appeals to her about cheer isn’t just the sport itself, but the basic idea of cheering others on so that they can do their best.

One of these requests results in not only the best scene of this show, but one of the best of any show this year. Before Kotetsu even joins the club, she meets them while providing moral support to her friend Kon, who is asking the club for relationship advice. The girls come up with all the dubious advice you’d expect from highschoolers who’ve never dated, but Kon seems to recognize them as earnest and fundamentally nice.

And she starts to realize that, perhaps, these girls won’t reject her for being who she is.

What follows is done wish so much grace and empathy that I kept thinking about it for days. Kon’s body language tenses up as she takes the plunge. As she opens her mouth, Kotetsu’s immediately realizes what she’s saying and is hit with a mix of apprehension and surprise. She cares about Kon and has no idea if she’s is going to face acceptance or disgust. Kon finishes speaking, and there’s a moment of silence. We as the audience know that Kohane and her friends (especially Uki!) would never make fun of Kon for this. But the moment on screen is executed so perfectly that you almost forget about that – just for a second – when seeing Kon’s vulnerability.

But Kohane knocks it out of the park. “I think the fact that you can fall in love with anyone is great! I don’t understand love and relationships, but I know that much.” ♥

Anime doesn’t have all that many “coming out” scenes, especially ones that come as a genuine surprise. Anima Yell has not just one but two instances of a lesbian in love with a romantically oblivious girl (Uki→Kohane, Kana→Hizume), so you’d be forgiven for expecting it to only play coy with the yuri. And while this isn’t as powerful a scene as Sayaka talking to Miyako in Yagakimi (we never see Kon’s girlfriend, and Kon is a very minor character to start with), it’s nonetheless a wonderfully effective tone-setting scene.

It introduces Kotetsu to us in a way that establishes her shortcomings, and explains why she’d be so enamored of the cheer club that she’d step far out of her comfort zone to join up. It shows us what genuinely kind people Kohane and her friends are. It makes clear the fact that Anima Yell can handle thoughtful scenes as well as it handles the bubbly slice of life interactions. And it’s just the perfect thesis statement for explaining what this show is about and what its values are. The fact that it didn’t directly involve cheerleading doesn’t seem like any detriment to me – it just means that the club’s values are a function of who they are on a fundamental level.

There are a lot of other things I could gush about (like everything Kana-related), but I think I’ve covered the essence of what makes Anima Yell such a pleasant experience for me. The only real gripe I have with the show is a lack of stand-out animation, with the exception of Kana’s excellent debut performance. The finale had a few nice cuts as well, but the overall routine dind’t flow that well. A shame it didn’t get Douga Koubou’s best team.

But other than that, it was genuinely fantastic. It’s such a sweet, heartwarming, kind, and respectful show. That’s all I can ask for, really.

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Comic Girls Imported
(click to see comments from Spring post)

I went into Comic Girls with middling expectations, figuring we we were due for a step down after Winter knocked it out of the park with Yurucamp and Slow Start. And while it wasn’t on the level of either of those, it did end up impressing me with its superb production quality, unexpectedly solid handling of Koyume’s romantic feelings (clearing an admittedly low bar, granted), and the tricky balancing act it pulled off in exploring Kaos’ deep self-esteem issues.

At the same time, I couldn’t shake the feeling in the last few weeks that there was something missing. Those romantic threads don’t tighten up enough, Tsubasa’s return home threw off the momentum a bit, and characters like Ruki and Tsubasa reach the end feeling slightly undercooked. It’s an ongoing manga so I expect this to some extent, but the middle of the show was so strong that it left me ready for a stronger endgame. It’s not that the last third was bad by any conceivable stretch – even “disappointing” would be too harsh – but it feels like it left some potential on the table. (All that said, the finale was spectacular.)

The vast majority of what I’ll say is still very positive. I think this is just the “I loved it but wish it had been able to do more” conclusion that I come away with from all but the absolute best slice of life shows. It goes back to my often stated maxim that few genres benefit more from a long run than slice of life shows, but few genres are less likely to actually get sequels. What a cruel world.

On to the good stuff now, though! The production values are what leap out at you first. Unsurprisingly the superb character art grabbed my attention first, as that’s typically the most important aspect of any show’s visual style for me. Comic Girls’ “soft and round yet very crisp” designs really hit my sweet spot. The bright eyes, slightly accented lips, and lavish attention given to hair combine into possibly the most attractive character art of the year so far.

Crisp, on-model designs don’t at all preclude comic exaggeration however, and there’s no shortage of amazing expressions taking varying degrees of liberty with the designs. Kaos in particular established herself as one of the all-time greats in the history of goofy anime faces, with a constant stream of outlandish expressions flashing across a face that’s utterly incapable of holding back the emotions swirling within.

Good character art isn’t just visually pleasing, it also passively fleshes out personalities. The loose hairs of Kaos’ fraying braid contrast her unkempt appearance with the effortlessly fashionable aura Koyume exudes, even as she’s wiping doughnut cream off her face. She’s just as slovenly as Kaos most of the time, but you’d be forgiven for forgetting that when this is her “lazing around” look.

Where Kaos and Koyume contrast one another, characters like Suzu are constantly contrasted against themselves. Her carefully cultivated creepy atmosphere changes in an instant when her gorgeous eyes peek out from behind her long bangs, perfectly capturing the gentle heart behind the horror-obsessed exterior. It’s not like one or the other is her “true” personality though. They’re both a core part of who she is, and Kaos’ decision to accept that made for one of the sweetest scenes of the show.

An air of maturity surrounds the motherly Ruki. This doesn’t just emphasize her character archetype as the most caring member of the group, it also highlights her struggle to live up to the ideal she’s set for her (adult female) readers. The buxom persona her editors have crafted for her leaves her feeling less than fully confident about her real body, leaving her unable to recognize the mature appeal she unconsciously exudes – not that this goes unnoticed by those around her, though. Finally there’s Tsubasa, whose contrasts aren’t particularly subtle but obviously the boyish battle shounen mangaka (I seem to have a dearth of Tsubasa screenshots) is a rebellion against the prim and proper ojou she’s forced to play at home for her overbearing parents.

It’s not only the characters that stand out. The dormitory in which Comic Girls takes place is a beautiful piece of architecture expressed through striking layouts employing a wonderful sense of depth and lighting. There is a verticality to the floor plan that allows for surprising and delightful interactions between characters made possible by the interconnected nature of the space.

At the same time, the architecture isn’t nearly as abstracted as a Monogatari building, so the space maintains enough realism to feel lived-in and intimate. The hallways, bedrooms, and bath are striking but the kitchen and dining room is easily the most consistently interesting space.

It’s not all perfect, and some of the outside shots don’t quite work. The backgrounds here look like they’re on a different plane of existence from Kaos, and a couple other shots feel the same way. But the overwhelming majority is just a delight. I could go on about this stuff forever, but whether it’s lighting conveying isolation and depression, interesting angles instilling a bit of dread, or most of all the clever manga panel-style shots there’s so much to love about Comic Girls’ visual identity.

One of the primary points of contention between me and most slice of life shows is how they handle characters’ romantic aspirations. Many of those feelings don’t get beyond joke fodder. When they are acknowledged with some seriousness, they almost inevitably remain one-sided. And even characters with mutual feelings have to struggle mightily (and usually fail) to be openly recognized by their stories as more than “just good friends”.

Comic Girls doesn’t entirely escape this: Kaos’ extreme gay thirst is only really used for humor, characters voice some heteronormative expectations (Kaos assuming Ruki wants a boyfriend as does Tsubasa to Koyume, and their manga depict male/female pairings), Ruki/Kaos sees a few fits and starts before ultimately stalling out, and Koyume’s feelings for Tsubasa are still mostly one-sided.

And yet, it nonetheless gives a good accounting of itself. Kaos’ thirst may be harnessed comedically, but her sexual attraction to women is no joke. The heteronormativity is generally subverted into things like Koyume writing Tsubasa in as the “male” love interest in her manga. Ruki/Kaos does indeed fall well short of my hopes, but there’s still a seed of something there (more than I expected at the outset at least). And then there’s Koyume and Tsubasa…

Even when a canon couple isn’t established, I try to judge a show on how respectfully it owns up to the romantic feelings it’s depicting. Comic Girls fares pretty well here – Koyume is never mocked for her feelings for Tsubasa (this isn’t, say, Ikamusume), and there’s no ambiguity left as to whether she’s genuinely in love. There’s a bit of “I’ve never been in love before! Is this love?” waffling, but not in a way that downplays her feelings. Koyume is sometimes silly or flighty, but her longing for Tsubasa is a character trait that’s taken seriously.

My favorite scene in all of this may be one that didn’t even involve Tsubasa: the talk between Koyume and Ruki, where Koyume first voices the confusion she’s feeling, to which Ruki, ever supportive and nurturing, encourages her. Koyume understands that she’s attracted to Tsubasa, but has no idea what to do or who to turn to. Ruki’s acceptance and advice is the little push Koyume needs to take the next step.

To her credit, Tsubasa does the best she can to respect those feelings. Tsubasa acknowledges that she has problems engaging tactfully with others, and she seems determined to not dismiss or hurt Koyume’s feelings. Unlike some other slice of life love interests, Tsubasa isn’t oblivious to those feelings either. She’s just not sure how to handle this particular kind of adoration, which is so different from the praise she gets from fans of her hot-blooded shounen manga. So it’s in character for her to handle a tearfully nervous Koyume by reframing their relationship conversation in terms of their manga careers.

Unfortunately while this works well enough for how early it happens (episode 5), such a strong emotional beat badly needed more follow-up. We do get to see Koyume growing more confident and comfortable around Tsubasa (during clothes shopping in episode 9) but otherwise follow-through is on the thin side. So I respect what Comic Girls did, but wish it would have done more.

And then there’s Kaos, our beautiful horny lesbian dumpster daughter. She’s terrible at her chosen profession, completely useless when left alone, and suffers from disastrously crippling self-esteem issues. She makes Yuno from Hidasketch look like a hugely charismatic celebrity in comparison. So it’s definitely to Comic Girls’ credit that I never felt like it was being malicious towards her.

Comic Girls understands that to get away with dunking on a character like Kaos it also has to provide her with a support network and happy ending. No matter how funny all of her failures were in the moment, the tone would end up feeling mean-spirited if she didn’t ultimately grow from the experience.

So naturally I was delighted to see the final episode nail that exact feeling. All of Kaos’ rejected storyboards and social awkwardness and terrible survey results and the impending closure of the dorm she’d come to call home were blown away when she found her first small success as a mangaka. With the saintly patience and encouragement of her editor and the support of her fantastic friends, Kaos was finally able to see something she worked incredibly hard for actually pay off. It was a deeply cathartic moment, just the kind of payoff that characters like Kaos need.

I haven’t even gotten into a bunch of other incredible moments, like Ruki’s preparation for her first signing (one of the most stunning scenes from any show this year), or Kaos summoning the courage to become friends with Suzu, or the relationship between Kaos and her editor, Amisawa.

To whatever extent Comic Girls fell short of being a top tier slice of life show, it wasn’t for a lack of great scenes. I guess I just feel like it could have done more to tie those scenes together. But in the end my final impression of it is still really positive. I wish you a long and successful career, あばばばばばばばば-chan. I, at least, would buy all of your manga.

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Shoujo Kageki Revue Starlight Imported
(click to see comments from Summer post)

This is one of the more difficult shows I’ve tried to write about of late. While this is largely because my reservations about it are hard to articulate clearly, it’s also partly because the juiciest thematic meat comes from evaluating its critique of takarazuka culture. And while I can get into some of that, I’m not knowledgeable (or interested, necessarily) enough to dive as deep as it deserves. I’d rather leave that up to people who are both more familiar with that culture and also more enthusiastic about the show overall than I was (see Atelier Emily for that).

It’s not that I was unenthusiastic, and I liked quite a lot about this show. Starlight is thematically powerful and technically excellent, but for me it’s somewhat less than the sum of its excellent parts. It’s a show for which my intellectual respect outweighs my emotional attachment. There’s a lot I understood more than felt. And if you know anything about how I watch anime, I value the latter far more highly, which is why my feelings about this show are so tricky to pick through.

So I’m left with a collection of very contradictory feelings. The visual symbolism defined a stunning and bold aesthetic, but sometimes left me feeling emotionally detached (maybe not shocking given the director is an compatriot of Ikuhara). The cast was so large as to leave some characters poorly explored, but a smaller cast might have failed to convey the spectacle of the Revue. Some of the character dynamics were significantly undersold (most egregiously, Nana and Junna), but the satisfaction I’m getting out of fan work related to those same characters clearly came from a foundation within the show. And I found Karen to be one of the weakest links, but also acknowledge that she was front and center in nearly all of the series’ most emotionally poignant moments. Very little regarding how I feel about this show makes sense. But the difference between a good show and a great show is always personal and arbitrary, not objective or logical.

It is worth noting that I came into this pretty late – I watched episodes 1-5 one day and 6-8 the next. Binging is almost never an ideal way for me to experience a show. But while this did not work in Starlight’s favor, I also don’t think it was a deciding factor, particularly as I was able to catch up entirely spoiler-free.

So if the show worked better thematically than emotionally, what were those themes? Even if you remove the specific takarazuka context, there’s a lot that works on a universal level. To oversimplify, Revue Starlight is a rejection of dominance-based relationships and the social pressures that enable such injustices. The specific dynamic it’s critiquing is the politics of takarazuka celebrity, but the theme works all on its own.

This underpins all of the relationships to varying extents. With Junna’s help, Nana realizes that her obsession with being Top Star in order to protect her friends only ended up imprisoning them for her own satisfaction. Kaoruko learns to reimagine Position Zero not as a throne from which to look down on her inferiors, but as motivation to improve herself enough to be worthy of Futaba, her first and biggest fan. Mahiru overcomes an unhealthy desire to possess Karen, and only in ceding her privileged position by Karen’s side does she finally discover herself. Maya and Claudine’s relationship is the most explicit critique of takarazuka power dynamics, and these combative rivals find true satisfaction only through recognizing other as equals. And of course Hikari and Karen’s desire to become Top Stars, plural, brazenly challenges the entire premise of the Auditions.

Not all of these dynamics worked quite as well in action as they do on paper. Junna and Nana only superficially interact before the end of Nana’s arc, with a rushed resolution that leaves no time for Junna to convincingly process the enormity of what she learns. Nana’s revue against Karen also feels largely superfluous and anticlimactic, existing primarily to justify Karen’s rise into the top four to set up and final arc.

Mahiru’s episode is thematically solid, but the execution left me conflicted. Her pining for Karen was established from the start, but the speed at which she devolves into a jealous, possessive, stalker-ish mess over the episode felt awkward. I also have a personal beef with characters in Mahiru’s position being portrayed this way because it opens otherwise sympathetic characters up to a lot of criticism I don’t think they ultimately deserve. It’s only through some very cute fanart that I’ve really come to embrace the “Mahiru, doting mother to two silly gay girls” dynamic. Ultimately Mahiru’s story is less about her romantic feelings than about how living vicariously through Karen was just a way of coping with low self-esteem. That’s great, but the way the episode was framed overshadowed that message for me.

Kaoruko and Futaba’s episode was solid, but they suffer from being easily the most disposable of the pairings story-wise – as much as it hurts me to say that, considering I’m quite fond of Kaoruko.

I was thoroughly satisfied by Maya and Claudine, however. Perhaps it’s because they’re the clearest articulation of the show’s takarazuka critique, which is really its bread and butter. Perhaps it’s just because Claudine is the goddamned best and I absolutely adore her. But her arc from here to here cuts right to the heart of what Revue Starlight is about. Claudine works because she’s a case where the show’s themes and its characterization succeeded with equal intensity.

It was also brilliant to reveal that Maya wasn’t actually unbeatable in the auditions even before Hikari’s arrival. The fact that she’s dominated by Banana, a Stage Girl who doesn’t want the prestige that comes with Position Zero (in fact, she prefers being behind the scenes) irreverently undermines the sanctity of the Top Star. When Maya and Claudine lose the doubles match against Karen and Hikari, Maya’s fall from on high is complete. But it’s only once she’s fallen that she’s able to appreciate that which is most important: Claudine’s love.

Which brings us, finally, to Karen and Hikari. Nothing in Revue Starlight illustrates my conflicted feelings better than these two. They are at once the most emotionally intense aspect of the show, and also the most obfuscated by symbolism. They are the strongest embodiment of Starlight’s themes and ambitions, and also the ones that I found myself actively rooting against in some of the revues. Again, the feeling is impossible to explain coherently.

To be fair, I should say that most of this isn’t Hikari’s fault. She did much of the emotional heavy lifting while Karen coasted through nearly the entire show without anything resembling a character arc. It’s not until the penultimate episode where she evidences any significant sign of struggle. The last deeply human moment I can recall from Karen before this point is the absolutely gorgeous episode 4, when she finally breaks through Hikari’s defenses and they join hands and hearts together once more. Most of the time in between those two episodes, I felt at best apathetic about her. As with everything regarding this show, it’s hard to say why. I’m usually pretty fond of the genki female protagonist archetype, all other things being equal. But I just wasn’t feeling it with Karen.

And despite all that, the origin, renewal, and conclusion to Hikari and Karen’s relationship in episodes 8, 4, and 12 respectively were deeply emotionally satisfying. The cell phone chase Hikari leads Karen on in episode four was one of the most masterfully written scenes of the entire year. And the finale, particularly in the second half, was a rousing and satisfying emotional climax. Like the conclusion to Maya and Claudine’s relationship, the finale backs up thematic brilliance with emotional weight.

This is not least because Revue Starlight is a joyous rejection of tragedy. It is particularly and openly disdainful of the trope wherein tragedy befalls two women in love. All throughout the series I cringed at what an lame “bury your gays” tale the in-universe Starlight was, with the inevitability of Claire and Flora being punished for seeking happiness together. And to its extreme credit, Revue Starlight unapologetically obliterates every last trace of this trope. There is no cruel sacrifice, there is only mutual love. And so as the girls wrap up their new take Starlight, we see Claire and Flora reach once again for the star, as we have countless times throughout the series. Every previous time has ended in sorrow and eternal separation.

But this time they aren’t reaching for a mirage. The star they desired is standing right by their side. In each other, they’ve finally found that happiness, and no capricious whims of fate will ever break them apart.

So yes, Revue Starlight was a curious experience. Often I found its ambition greater than its ability to execute, and I’m not the kind of person who gives a lot of points to ambition for its own sake; a simple story honed to perfection will always be my preference. But ambition is worth something, and I feel like Revue Starlight’s themes are of particular importance. I’m glad this is a story that’s been told, regardless of its shortcomings.

(P.S. I couldn’t find any way to work it into my comments, so I’m going to awkwardly tack it on here: the fourth wall break in the finale was spectacular. The giraffe, the auditions, everything was ultimately a red herring. It’s you, the audience, who has historically perpetuated the systems these girls have to struggle against. And it’s you, the audience, who have been given the option to celebrate and support their liberation from those systems. Yes, in the end even liberated Stage Girls still need an audience – you are the only reason Shoujo Kageki Revue Starlight exists after all – but you can choose to be a kinder, more understanding audience. Revue Starlight is imploring you to consider that.)

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Tonari no Kyuuketsuki-san Imported
(click to hide)

Sometimes I think I don’t have much to say about a slice of life show, and then I write two thousand words. And sometimes it’s Kyuuketsuki-san, and I truly don’t think I have a lot to say. Overall I enjoyed it for sure, but I don’t know that it offers much in terms of interesting themes or character arcs. And to be clear, that’s fine, slice of life can function perfectly well without having those things. But the best slice of life shows do, and that’s what handicaps this show in comparison.

I’m always tempted to call shows like this “unambitious”, but that requires specifying what I mean by ambition. I don’t mean grand narratives or dramatic twists, I simply mean a show that goes the extra mile beyond the obvious punchlines inherent in the premise, a show that pushes for something more. Being slice of life doesn’t mean being unambitious, it just means that ambition means something different.

Kyuuketsuki-san is more about potential than delivery. There’s hints at it exploring the more serious implications of becoming a vampire, or vampires forming bonds with mortals, but it never goes through with it. There’s the constant tease of developing Sophie/Akari and Ellie/Hinata into something more serious, but that doesn’t happen either. There’s plenty of solid gag setups, but they’re usually played out in the most expected way. Occasionally very funny, but more often just good enough to evoke a smile.

There’s totally room for comfy fluff. I live for comfy fluff. But Yurucamp is bursting at the seams with comfy fluff too, and yet it’s operating on a much higher level than Kyuuketsuki-san is. Why? I look at it this way: could I imagine Kyuuketsuki-san having pulled off a scene equivalent Nadeshiko and Rin’s night-textning in episode 5? Or the scene between Eiko and Enami in Enami’s apartment in Slow Start? I won’t even compare it to Hinata’s arc on Yamasusu s3, that’d just be cruel. Regardless, no, I don’t think this show would be able to do any of that.

And yet, I enjoyed it. I know I’m getting stuck in that awkward position where I actually quite like a show, but because it doesn’t particularly excel at anything, the only specific points I can find to talk about are the shortcomings that prevented it from standing out.

So enough of that, let’s talk about Ellie. I can probably blab on about Ellie for a bit.

…Not that there’s anything deep to discuss here, I just totally adore her. She immediately shot up among my favorite character designs of the year, and her personality is such a delightful contrast to the rest of the cast. While Sophie’s decades spent in modern Japan have resulted in her vampiric bloodlust all but vanishing (with the aid of mail-order blood and express shipping), Ellie has just awoken from a hundred year nap with a thirst for cute girls that knows no bounds. She is the passionate, seductive hunter to Sophie’s calm, introverted NEET.

She steals every scene she’s in by being so at odds with the show’s overall tone. Whether she’s inviting herself into Sophie’s house wearing some wild outfit or helping herself to an open neck, she’s always give a kick in the ass to a pleasant but admittedly rather static show. I couldn’t help but think “now the episode truly begins!” every time she barged in.

And if Kyuuketsuki-san was going to really take a risk on anything, it was going to be with Ellie and Hinata. Hinata is a great girl, but is afflicted with the unfortunate trope of being the lesbian in love with the oblivious protagonist (Akari). A protagonist who is currently enamored of a new girl she’s just met (Sophie), at that.

To its credit, Kyuuketsuki-san devotes multiple scenes to laying the foundation for something to develop between Ellie and Hinata. (And it’s worth mentioning it has a basically canon minor couple, so it’s not scared of yuri per se.) From the moment Ellie swoops in to save Hinata from falling down some stairs I knew they were the ship to die for. And from Ellie’s side, at least, there’s a number of signs that she’s developing feelings for Hinata: from her reaction to getting Hinata’s gift in the Secret Santa to her concern for Hinata walking home alone after the Halloween party, to her tsundere act when Hinata chooses an outfit for her, and even the tiny moments where Ellie greets Hinata with a smile, like she’s known her forever.

But “one cour, and sequel never” is the curse that nearly all slice of life shows suffer, so if anything happens between them, we certainly don’t see it here. Hinata ends the show slightly more conscious of Ellie, but still overwhelmingly focused on Akari. And that’s just something that doesn’t do any of the characters involved any justice.

It’s a shame. But I can only hope that one day Ellie will find a girl who appreciates her. And I think Hinata could be happy being that girl, should she ever stop to consider the option…

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Shingeki no Kyojin Season 3
(click to hide)

Oh right, I didn’t talk about this last season because I thought it was going to be two cour, but in reality it just ended a few weeks later than other Summer shows, and the continuation is set for next year. …Well, I’ll need to keep these comments short because I find it difficult to talk in detail about shows if it’s been a while since I finished them, and I don’t have a ton to say about Shingeki even when it’s fresh in my mind. I continue to be on board with it though, which is somewhat amazing. A show like this should have lost my interest three episodes into season one, yet here I am, three seasons in and planning to watch the fourth.

Granted, putting Historia in the spotlight helped a ton. The first half of the season was fairly dull, because political intrigue isn’t this series’ strong suit. And it’s honestly just not Shingeki without huge naked baby people running around trying to eat everyone alive. But this season really came into its own when the focus shifted over to Historia’s convoluted route to the throne. In the span of not all that many episodes she learned about, faced down, took hold of, and fulfilled the heavy burden of her destiny, with as much agency as the situation allowed. She’s still laboring under the cruel reality they all suffer, but insofar as is possible, she’s going to do it her way.

Ultimately my continued interest in this season was built around three fantastic Historia scenes:
• Her rebellion against her father and freeing Eren with that glorious “FUCK HUMANITY” speech.
• Staring down Erwin and declaring that if the crown is going to be thrust upon her, she’s going to take it on her terms.
• And of course the incredibly cool action sequence in the final battle (featuring the most horrific-looking titan thus far) where she shows her growth as a soldier.

There were good scenes this season that didn’t involve Historia, and I’m pretty surprised that the backstory episodes all worked as well as they did, considering they largely featured characters I wasn’t particularly interested in. I also admire this show’s continued willingness to focus on characters and story beats outside of its adorably hapless male protagonist. But Historia dominated, and I love her for it. I just hope her entry into the highest level of politics doesn’t remove her from the story too much. At a minimum I want meaningful closure between her and Ymir.

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Marchen Madchen Imported
2018 is coming to an end and we still don’t have those last two episodes. Oops. Poor Marchen Madchen.

(click to see comments from Winter post)

If the real life circumstances of this show were a fairy tale, they’d crawl out of the bitter darkness of the original Grimm Brothers works. Sakuga Blog published an account, straight from inside sources connected to the production, of just how badly this whole thing fell apart. The season is over, and yet only 10 episodes have aired. The last two are, at the time of writing, left to an unknown fate. While I’m sure we’ll get them eventually, nobody knows when that will be or in what form. So while this isn’t yet a complete show, I’m certainly not dropping it, which means I ought at at least briefly discuss it.

I genuinely enjoy Marchen Madchen. It’s charming and earnest, mixing the occasional sharp emotional beat with a pretty firm grasp of what makes comedy work. I’m also just amused by the idea of an isekai protagonist who commutes to her magical school in the other world from her home in our world. Despite the production problems, there have even been brief moments of genuinely excellent action animation – though in a way this makes it even sadder, because there’s apparently strong talent going untapped due to a hellish schedule and executive mismanagement.

The focus on an international magical tournament does necessitate introducing far more characters than the show can really do anything with, and it’s not as deft at fleshing out opposing teams as, say, Saki (or even Garupan). They’re well designed (when they’re on model) and a few strong personalities emerge, but by and large it’s fair to say that they’re not a core selling point. Except, that is, for the Russian team. The two episodes focused on them contained some of the funniest moments of the whole Winter season. The Russian girls epitomized the “lovable dumbass” archetype and that certainly suits this show.

Above all it’s Hazuki herself who makes Marchen Madchen work. Everything else (excepting the animation) lands somewhere between “functional” and “pretty good”; but Hazuki’s presence goes a long way towards elevating everything else. By now I’ve amply documented my soft spot for shy characters who, through friendship and/or love, come out on the other side of their character arc more confident and surrounded by people they care about. Hazuki is in that strike zone, but there’s something else to her too.

It’s hard to describe well, but the disconnect between rapid-fire inner monologue and tongue-tied outward bumbling went a long way towards selling Hazuki as a girl who has spent her life being just one gentle, caring nudge away from becoming someone pretty awesome. In a scene I enjoyed a ton and wish the show had more time to dig deeper into, it’s her (awesome) step-sister and step-mother who give her that push. Hazuki’s fairy tale power may be based on Cinderella, but in the first sign of what’s about to come, her family isn’t a bunch of jerks trying to keep her down.

And in my favorite scene of the show up to this point, Hazuki, propelled by that loving push, totally up-ends the tournament, casts aside the Cinderella story, and writes her own ending. Writes her own destiny. Her Cinderella doesn’t need a prince. Her Cinderella doesn’t look back.

Who needs a prince when you’ve got a princess anyway?

I don’t know how – or when – Marchen Madchen will end. But in its own small way, it’s made me happy. I wish the best for everyone involved in its hellish production. I’m sorry it undoubtedly didn’t turn out the way they wanted, but I hope they know some of us appreciate it nonetheless.

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(click to see comments from Summer post)

Nagisa and Riko, pictured above, suddenly realizing this smouldering hellscape of a show cares not for their dreams and hard work.

Hanebado is a bewilderingly bad show. For a time it was bad in an engaging way. A wacky sort of bad, with comic villains like Kaoruko and Connie and hilarious stylistic choices like Ayano’s demonic expressions, plus a genuinely strong production from an animation and art perspective at least. It was “so bad it’s good” in that fun trainwreck way. And it even sprinkled the occasional moment of genuine human feeling here and there, like a flame desperately trying to stay lit in a hurricane.

But the last few episodes (primarily 10, 11, 13) really doused that flame, offering a limp, soggy ending to a show I at one point actually anticipated each week. Hanebado stands as a cautionary tale regarding what happens when a show that’s “so bad it’s good” lacks the self-awareness to know it’s bad, and attempts to wrap itself up as if it were good. That’s exactly what happened here. I could see it coming a mile away, but held out some hope it’d throw another curve ball when it needed it most. Alas, no such luck.

There’s a lot that was wrong about Hanebado before the final arc. The most fundamental problem was that while this is a sports anime, I wanted nothing more than for Ayano to quit badminton. It became a source of emotional torture at the hands of well-meaning but disastrously incompetent friends like Elena, indefensibly oblivious teammates like everyone on the team (except maybe Nagisa), and the over-the-top villainy of Kaoruko and Connie.

And this could have worked if Ayano did, ultimately, step away from badminton. If she found some other passion and abandoned a deeply toxic situation that turned all her friends into blithering morons and her mother into a run-away deadbeat (oh we’ll get to her later). It could have been a subversion of the “victory at all emotional and physical costs” mantra that underpins most sports anime to some degree. Certainly, the story went out of its way over and over to show what a damaging experience every single episode was for Ayano, so it could have been that kind of show.

…Hanebado is not that kind of show, it turns out. It’s something so, so, so much incomprehensibly dumber.

Ayano spends the majority of what is ostensibly her show under the sway of what may as well be demonic possession. She becomes unadulterated hatred and spite incarnate, shitting on her teammates at every turn and obliterating all previously recognizable personality traits in favor of being a tremendous asshole to everyone who comes within line of sight. For the better part of about eight episodes of a one cour series, she ceases to engage in anything resembling sane human interaction.

Again, this could have worked if Hanebado had any coherent message at all to impart to its audience. But this is one of the least coherent works of fiction I’ve ever seen through to completion. Almost no major character has a consistent personality, seemingly relevant plot threads ultimately vanish into thin air, our alleged co-protagonist Nagisa spends most of the show trying to be the lead in a story that Hanebado has not the slightest interest in telling, and the tonal whiplash is so intense that it could perform beheadings.

So we end up with a show that performs violent character assassination on its primary protagonist, sets her up for something wildly different from a traditional sports anime, and then utterly bails out on saying anything meaningful in the end. It sputters and putters its way through a pedestrian “discovering friendship and teamwork and happiness” ending, in the single most ludicrous “crowd spontaneously shouting encouragement at a character” scene ever conceived.

But like I mentioned, for a time I was pretty excited by this show, even though I knew it was disastrously written. How is that possible based on what I’ve been saying? Eh, I just started rolling with the fact that it would never be the serious drama it fancied itself to be, and went all in on the goofy dumb shit. And nothing was goofier or dumber than Connie and Kaoruko, the inexplicably cruel villains who make Ayano’s life hell.

Kaoruko is the less important of the two, but the inanity of her backstory with Ayano – as a child she literally tied Ayano up and coughed in her face so they could both be ill for their match – exemplifies what cruelly petty little shits many of the characters in this show are. That match ended up being the origin of Ayano’s eventual death spiral, given that her mother abandoned her after the loss. And when Kaoruko returns in the present day, she’s just pleased as punch to exploit what she’s done to Ayano. Anything to score a psychological edge in their next match, I suppose.

In any other show it would have been a no-brainer to root for Ayano over Kaoruko. But Hanebado was well and truly off the rails and actively plowing unholy carnage through a crowd of orphans by this point, so I actually went into the match wanting Kaoruko to win. Somewhat ironically, sure, but I was completely done with this show’s mind-numbingly stupid handling of Ayano.

And so when Kaoruko does lose, in the most humiliating manner possible, I felt bad for her. Not, mind you, in a way the show had by any stretch of the imagination earned, I just felt bad for her in the way I felt bad for any mere mortal, deserved or not, who got on the bad side of Elder God of Unfathomable Cosmic Rage, Hanesaki Ayano. Kaoruko having a very cute sidekick who tearfully encouraged her during the match and gently embraced her after her loss only further reinforced how ass backwards this show’s priorities are.

Then there’s Connie. My precious angel who did nothing wrong (except for all the things she did wrong). In a preposterous stroke of unintentional brilliance, Connie somehow winds up with the most satisfying character arc in the show (yes, it’s a low bar to clear). We’re introduced to her as a player for a rival school who seems determined to cause Ayano the worst possible emotional trauma. After playing 1-on-2 and still crushing Ayano, she reveals the big twist: she’s Ayano’s little sister. She’s the girl Uchika has been raising instead, halfway around the world, after abandoning Ayano years ago.

Admittedly, Hanebado puts a lot more work into Connie than it does with Kaoruko. But that only makes her thoroughly evil introduction all the more bewildering. After two separate occasions on which Connie tries to mindbreak Ayano, she shows up to invite Ayano out to a theme park where she can confess her desire to live together as one happy family. She’s sweet and bashful and incredibly sincere about this. And Ayano leads her on all day while acting the playful older sister… all so she can turn around and stomp the love out of Connie’s heart in the cruelest way possible.

This moment is phenomenal for all the wrong ways. It had me cackling because the sheer lack of thought that went into the entire sequence of events was wild. Connie’s apologetic olive branch to Ayano comes out of nowhere, skipping what by all rights should have been half a cour of intense character work to reconcile the two. Meanwhile, Ayano’s reaction is on brand for the hateful gremlin they’ve decided to make her, but she’s been such an evil shit about literally everything for so long by this point that there isn’t anything new or interesting going on here.

So it they really wanted Connie to feel this way about Ayano, and if they really wanted Ayano’s rejection of those feelings to be a shocking sign of how far Ayano had fallen, then they would never should have had Connie come on so villainously in their first meeting. It’s completely fucking incomprehensible how this ever got beyond a first draft.

As with Kaoruko though, the totally accidental silver lining is that this run-in with Infinite Void of Murderous Sadism, Hanesaki Ayano does more to make Connie sympathetic than anything the writers could have intentionally dreamed up. As with Kaoruko’s sweet little sidekick, Connie also has someone who cares deeply about her – Yuika, Connie’s team captain and 110% gay lover. In the end, we’re treated to the most emotionally competent scene in the entire show as Connie returns from her disastrous meeting with Ayano and is greeted by her teammates, who welcome her back despite the jerk she’d been lately.

There’s an argument to be made that Hanebado was contrasting Kaoruko and Connie’s support networks to Ayano’s lack of one, but that would give Hanebado far too much credit. It’s not that Ayano lacked a theoretical support network, it’s that they were all god-fucking-damned-useless morons. I lost count of the number of times a teammate would watch Ayano do something monstrous and go “golly gee, Ayano is kinda weird lately, huh?”.

Nagisa, while not helpful per se, did at least take an understandable and consistent approach. Ever the the protagonist of a show that doesn’t exist, she had a very idealistic “we’ll settle this on the court, my fellow athlete!” view of Ayano. It’s hilariously at odds with the tone of the show, but I can at least respect it. After all it’s not her responsibility to be Ayano’s therapist. Yeah Nagisa was a little bit of a jerk to Ayano at first, but she did earnestly apologize. She’s had her own struggles to deal with. For example: fighting for relevance in a show that cared little for her existence until it needed a final opponent to last-second redeem Ayano.

The character who challenges Ayano most often on her behavior is her childhood friend, Elena. But her own guilt over getting Ayano into this situation prevents her from accomplishing literally anything at all. Elena’s challenges consist of her going “Hey, Ayano, that was kinda mean!” and Ayano countering “You made me this waaaaaay~”, after which Elena shrinks away until they repeat the same flaccid exchange an episode or two later.

But then near the end, Elena finally gets a chance to shine. An opportunity lands right in her lap! Surely this is what all of her abortive attempts thus far have been leading up to: Uchika returns, and Elena decides to confront her about abandoning Ayano. If Elena can stand up for Ayano here, she’ll go from zero to hero.

Instead, Hanebado takes this opportunity to complete its grotesque metamorphosis into the dumbest turd of a story you’ve ever seen.

See, Elena can’t meaningfully challenge Uchika… because Hanebado doesn’t think Uchika was wrong!

Uchika enthusiastically fostered Ayano’s adoration for badminton from a very young age. But after a particularly rough loss for Ayano, she abandons her sick and distraught daughter without a word, turning an ice cold shoulder on tearful pleas not to leave. At this point, Ayano is a literal child who can’t possibly interpret this as anything other than “I lost, mom doesn’t need me anymore, this is my fault, I am bad and deserve this”. Uchika moves to the other side of the world, enjoys fame and success, and adopts a new badminton daughter. There’s no indication she once makes an effort to return to Ayano. Uchika is a worthless, abusive mother.

So you have to imagine she’s got an extremely good reason for doing what she did that we just weren’t privy to.
> she does not
Well, she finally realizes what grievous harm she caused and strives to make amends?
> she does not
Okay fine, but she at least gets massively chewed out for this by people who care about Ayano.
> she does not
Alright, fuck, I’ll settle for her getting any real pushback at all.
> she does not

What. The. Fuck. Ultimately, Hanebado’s message is: Uchika was right. She abandoned her daughter, left her with deep emotional trauma, made no attempt to apologize, doesn’t really think she didn’t anything wrong (“I guess I’m a bad mom, hyuk hyuk, but its for the best” does not count!), and worst of all the show validates her approach by immediately transitioning from Uchika’s outrageously defiant conversation with Elena into Ayano falling in love with badminton again. We get this unbelievable exchange with Elena where Uchika spouts some shounen sports tripe about “honing your body” and “seeing how far you can take your skills” and whatnot. And SHE LITERALLY SAYS SHE HAS NO REGRETS.

The only thing I can possibly see the writers citing as pushback against Uchika is Ayano rejecting the offer to move to Denmark with her. But if that’s their idea of critique against Uchika, they are out of their goddamned minds. It’s not exactly a shock for Ayano to choose not to turn her life upside down and move halfway around the world even if her mom wasn’t complete filth. Ayano doesn’t reject it harshly either, she really cushions the blow and makes sure to call Uchika “mom”. And can I remind everyone that at no point does Uchika ever consider moving back to Japan to be with Ayano?

Uchika is one of the worst-written characters in all of anime, and Hanebado trips over her and breaks its neck by refusing to criticize her actions. We can’t even write this off as “but, ongoing manga!” because regardless of what the manga does, the anime doesn’t leave us with any sign of unfinished business here. It’s to be taken at face value.

What could it possibly have done to salvage this? Well, probably nothing that late in the game, but if it wanted to bridge the gap between Uchika and Ayano, there was one character who could maybe have served that purpose (with a much more competent writing staff, at least).


A character who could have understood Ayano’s reverence for Uchika, because she’s felt it herself. A character who could have spoken to Ayano as another girl of the same age with the same athletic passion. A character who could have had some leverage to get Uchika’s attention and tell her what an awful thing she’d done to Ayano. A character who had actually had something resembling a satisfying character arc and really deserved a chance to cap it off in a meaningful way.

A character who, unbelievably, never returns after her soul-crushing encounter with Ayano in episode 9.

Instead, it’s the emotionally sterile cheers of people who have literally no knowledge of why Ayano is so fucked up in the first place that somehow rouses Ayano to regain her humanity and love for badminton and ugh I’m going to gag.

I don’t know why Hanebado exists. I don’t know who it’s for. I don’t know how any show goes this deeply wrong.

And yet, I somehow don’t truly hate it in the way I hate a genuinely offensive show. It’s bad, it’s so so very bad, but that badness managed to be just endearing enough for just long enough that I don’t actually regret watching it or even writing 2.5k words about it. Why? I don’t know. Life is weird.

And hey, if nothing else, it gave us Connie.

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Chio-chan no Tsuugakuro
(click to see comments from Summer post)

What started with an unexpectedly solid first half really shit the bed in the second half. It’s not even that the show changed radically, because the formula was fairly consistent. But in a lot of small (and some big) ways, it thoroughly wore out its welcome. By the end it’s only Manana that kept me coming back, and I really don’t think sticking with it was time well spent.

As a comedy, this show generally fails what I think of as the “Gabriel Dropout test”. In my eyes, a good comedy takes the viewer on a journey from laughing at, to laughing with, to genuinely caring about its characters. The biggest payoff comes in the moments where it doesn’t even need to tell a joke, because the characters have become more than ingredients in a punchline. I’m not saying every comedy needs to do this, but the ones that want me to stay engaged probably do. I’m fine with comedy that’s fundamentally about flawed people being kinda shitty to each other (like Hinamatsuri or GabDro), but if you can’t also convince me that they ultimately like each other (like in Hinamatsuri or GabDro!) then I’m going to emotionally disengage. Chio-chan had a brief, sweet segment in episode 8 involving Momo, an unusually honest bit of dialogue from Manana strongly implying feelings for Chio in episode 9, and… not much else.

In fairness, the relationship between Chio and Manana had the potential to be exceptional, and sometimes even managed it. In a twisted sort of way there’s a lot that feels entirely legitimate about their constant attempts to one-up the other. They beat each other up, humiliate each other in front of friends, and prod mercilessly at any sign of vulnerability. But it’s so mutual that it doesn’t feel mean-spirited… uh, doesn’t feel overly mean-spirited. The fact that neither ever gets mad at the other for any length of time does a decent job of selling the idea that this is just how they are, and it’s even fun for them in its own perverse way. The occasional hints that they have feelings for each other (even if it’s primarily on Manana’s end) also blunts the sharp edges a little.

Ultimately however, this didn’t save the show. It was sunk by a litany of iffy decisions that, while perhaps surmountable as one-offs or in isolation, combined to make the whole experience a lot more frustrating than it had to be.

After some genuinely great “Bloody Butterfly” skits, the biker Andou ends up badly overstaying his welcome. His whole gimmick is the fact that he’s got a huge crush on Chio. It’s never made clear how old he is, but he looks like he’s at least in his late 20s, which means we’ve got this adult man trying to get with a first year high school girl. And really, that’s it. That’s most of his appearances – finding awkward ways to try to impress Chio, who non-committally blushes while Manana looks on in disgust. It does none of the characters any favors. It also doesn’t help that some regrettable “gay panic” humor is exploited a few times between Andou and one of his male friends. Ugh.

Then there’s Kushitori, an awful “lesbian predator” stereotype, complete with bestial lustful panting, unwanted groping, and overly forceful personality. She’s a total mess of a character, and I dreaded every time she showed up. Just to make things worse, she ends up living in the woods training in the ways of groping under a creepy homeless man who lost his job after molesting girls on a train. And this fucker shows up multiple times. Gag.

My issue isn’t at all that I think that fanservice itself is bad, because I don’t. But Chio-chan’s approach too often felt like a sweaty, balding middle-aged salaryman masturbating in a dirty convenience store restroom with a pair of vending machine panties. It wasn’t like that all the time, or even most of the time, but the stink that started out on the fringes eventually built up to the point where I wanted vacate the room by the end.

I had intended to include a section where I gush over how much I adore Manana (and I DO), but ultimately I just can’t be bothered. Yes she’s great, but I just don’t have it in me to type more about this series.

Look, I’ve definitely seen much worse shows. Hell, Hanebado is arguably much worse from this very season. It fails so profoundly at what it’s trying to do, whereas Chio-chan is pretty true to itself (even if that self is sometimes slimy). But I was able to get something out of Hanebado’s badness, even if it wasn’t what was intended, whereas Chio-chan ultimately leaves me feeling empty. And that feeling only gets stronger the more I sit here and type, hence the unusually low score. This show simply wasn’t worth my time.

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One Response to “2018 Anime Year in Review”

  1. Usagi says:

    Even you are comparing Uki to a mom here, she can’t catch a break, huh?

    And I feel that Ellie as a character, and Ellie x Hinata is enough to give the show an score higher than Starlight and Comic Girls, Ellie alone is the definition of a character that you don’t know what to expect from her (and that’s with only the first half of the manga adapted, I assume she goes lewder as the manga progresses) and I never got into MayaKuro and KaosRuki never got an episode for them, there is more of them in mobages than in animated form, so I think EllieHinata is superior with what the anime gave us.

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