Previous: 2018 Winter in Review – First Impressions

Queen Ishizuka bestows upon us her most beautiful work to date, Kirara delivers two excellent adaptations in two distinct slice of life subgenres, and a show I had very low expectations for turned into a wonderfully pleasant surprise. Easily the best season of anime since Fall 2016. If only the charming final show on my list weren’t in hellish production limbo!

[ Standard disclaimer: Spoilers! Lots of spoilers! ]

All of the following are loosely grouped in tiers: Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 3, Tier 4. Click on a title to jump to the comments.

Completed or Airing
01. Sora Yori mo Tooi Basho [ 10.0 / 10 ]
02. Yurucamp [ 9.5 / 10 ]
03. Slow Start [ 9.0 / 10 ]
04. Citrus [ 8.75 / 10 ]
05. Marchen Madchen [ 7.0 / 10 ]


Previous Year Pick-ups

Ramen Daisuki Koizumi-san [10 ep] – From the start, I had concerns that the show was going to present an entirely static Yuu/Koizumi dynamic. Then episode three came around! It was so promising that a friend wrote an article about how the show was overcoming “comedy lesbian” stereotypes with Yuu. …But then, nothing. The events of that episode had no effect on any that followed. Yuu never stopped being a stalker. Koizumi never showed the slightest interest in anyone around her. Misa continued being great, but may as well have been in a different show for all the relevance she had. I can’t even remember the last girl’s name. There were decent moments here and there (Koizumi and the little gaijin girl at the ramen festival was precious) but by and large it simply walked back that episode three progress and never learned to tell a second joke. The final straw was in episode 10, which starts out playing faux-horror music while Yuu obsessed over photographs of Koizumi like a stereotypical stalker. How utterly tone deaf can a show be? That was enough for me. I dunno how, but they screwed up a show about a gay girl eating ramen with her friends. How do you do that?
Mahoutsukai no Yome [12 ep]
Pop Team Epic [1 ep]
Toji no Miko [0.08 ep]

Top Characters (new shows or new characters only)
Kobuchizawa Shirase – Sora Yori mo Tooi Basho
Aihara Yuzu – Citrus
Tokura Eiko – Slow Start
Shima Rin – Yurucamp
Miyake Hinata – Sora Yori mo Tooi Basho
Kagamihara Nadeshiko – Yurucamp
Momochi Tamate – Slow Start
Kagimura Hazuki – Marchen Madchen
Aihara Mei – Citrus

Top Pairings (new shows or new pairings only)
Aihara Yuzu / Aihara Mei – Citrus
Kagamihara Nadeshiko / Shima Rin – Yuurcamp
Tokura Eiko / Enami Kiyose – Slow Start

Top OPs
Ne! Ne! Ne! – Slow Start
The Girls Are Alright! – Sora Yori mo Tooi Basho
Azalea – Citrus
The Girls Are Alright! – Yurucamp

Top EDs
Fuyu Biyori – Yurucamp
Koko Kara, Koko Kara – Sora Yori mo Tooi Basho

Sora Yori mo Tooi Basho Imported
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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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Yurucamp Imported
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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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Slow Start Imported
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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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Citrus Imported
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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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Marchen Madchen Imported
(click to hide)

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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14 Responses to “2018 Winter in Review – Final Thoughts”

  1. Hyoton1 says:

    Absolutely loved the evolution of hinata and shirase’s relationship. In hindsight it makes more sense why hinata latches onto shirase early when shirase admitted her own self loathing.

    I had an alternate interpretation of yorimoi ep 12- not sure if it’s better supported than other interpretations but just throwing it out here. Throughout most of the series shirase doesn’t talk about how she felt about her mother’s decision to go to antarctica and her death- she talks about finding her mother and about her mother but not how she felt about takako. Ep 9 hints at it when shirase says she doesn’t hate gin, but then admits she doesn’t know how she feels, and eventually we learn in ep 12 that shirase felt like she was in a dream when she got the news about her mother. And in the money counting scene shirase shows she can recall what happened in the last 3 years with a physical trigger (at least, she knows what jobs she did).

    So I think shirase goes into the end of 12 knowing takako isn’t coming back, but not understanding how she felt about takako dying (and up to this point shirase’s default response seems to be “aggression”). Seeing all the emails either triggers shirase’s feelings or triggers her realization about her feelings, that she actually did love and miss her mother, because she finally faces how many times she tried to contact takako knowing it would never draw any response.

    • something says:

      I mean, I agree with that. One of the things Shirase found in Antarctica was, finally, an understanding of her mother and affirmation that she loved her. But I do think that even moreso, Shirase found herself. After arriving at her goal and opening the treasure chest that was waiting for her, she found the equivalent of a note saying “you’ve been here all along”. By staring at all of those unread messages, she was finally faced with, and accepted back into her heart, all the feelings she’d launched into the void over the past three years. In her quest to prove the skeptics wrong, Shirase had become a being a pure, single-minded determination, with all of her other emotions being sent off to lie dormant in Antarctica. Now, reunited, she can be complete again. And of course in finding herself she also reached an understanding with Takako, because they are ultimately very similar people.

  2. KZO says:

    I’m so glad Slow Start gets a higher score than Citrus, though I’m not sure of putting it below Yuru Camp.

    I wouldn’t describe Kamuri as childish, I think she only pretends to be childish so Eiko hugs her more because she knows she is cute and small, so she can get away with it, at the start it was said she couldn’t interact well with anyone without Eiko around but she wouldn’t have survived middle school if that was true, and she shows that she has the fully developed mind of a high schooler a few times with various short lewd remarks she makes, and the way she plans and executes her advances like changing swimsuits with Eiko, trying to ask Eiko for her panties when she “forgot” them, groping Eiko from behind when she came back from the tuna fest, and of course that ring on Eiko’s birthday which wasn’t only made to fit on Eiko’s ring finger but also was different to all the other gifts.

    Then again, Enami’s heart paperclip was also different to all the other gifts and Eiko is always carrying it with her.

    And that’s the thing, I’m not sure if all this effort Kamu puts into being patient and only acting once in a while in crucial moments will eventually pay off, but so far the odds are against her because Eiko only has eyes for Enami, not only because of she being a challenge but also because of some romantic details like she buying that necklace Eiko made without knowing she made it. Even Hakka-ya completely loves the pairing, constantly tweeting about it, even hyping up the BD 4 because it will contain a drama CD that has more “spice” than what the show did with the two of them. Also, I know you plan on reading the manga someday, but before that try reading the Anthology, normally anthologies are pointless because they aren’t made by the author, but Hakka-ya commented on every chapter and her comment on chapter 7 of the anthology is pretty interesting: try reading that chapter before you read the comment. The full anthology is translated on Dynasty Scans I myself typesetted all of it.

    My point is, at some point Kamuri will have to politely give up, or Hakka-ya will just stop focusing on her romantic interest for Eiko and just stay as her safety blanket that cuddles Eiko once in a while, because she clearly likes Eiko and Enami more.

    • something says:

      Slow Start, Citrus, and Yurucamp are all really different shows, so they don’t really need to be compared directly.

      As for Kamuri, I think it’s fair to say she acts childish, since that doesn’t preclude her being self-aware about it. I agree that she knows what Eiko likes about her, and she definitely knowingly plays the part to suit Eiko’s needs. But regardless of how things end up, I still really want to know how Kamuri feels about everything. She reveals far less of herself than any of the other characters do, making her quite mysterious.

  3. youlikerice says:

    If you don’t mind me asking what are you excited/watching for this Spring season?

    • something says:

      Oh right, I usually include a section on that at the end of the post.

      1. Amanchu Advance – The first season was one of the top shows of its year.
      2. Comic Girls – I didn’t have time to watch the first episode last night but Kirara adaptations are a must.
      3. Uma Musume – Thankfully CR picked this one up, and it even aired two episodes to start off, so I gave it a try and… damn it’s a ton of fun. I’ve already got pretty decent hopes for this one.
      4. Hisone to Masotan – I’ll try it if CR gets it.
      5. Tachibanakan To Lie Angle – It’s, uh… sure a 3 minute show. It’a utterly devoid of any meaningful content but I guess I can spare 3 minutes of my life each week to support a yuri show.

  4. Antika says:

    Nice comment for Slow Start, loved it as much as Urara which was my AOTY for last year.
    Surprised you didn’t watch Hakumei to Mikochi, it was a nice iyashikei about a (basically) married couple of tiny girls, I still preferred Yuru Camp over it but it’s easily in my top 8 of this season.
    Also I would like to know why you dropped Toji no Miko so quickly, the ugly CGI beginning can be a bit repulsive (I wanted to drop it at this moment too) but it’s not much different than YuYuYu, the show really picks up in the later episodes but I guess you just didn’t have any interest.

    • something says:

      Hakumei to Mikochi went to Sentai iirc, and I don’t support them.
      I despise 3dcg animation in general and Toji no Miko’s was particularly egregious. There was no way I ever could have enjoyed a show that looked like that – every shot of a CG character would have completely taken me out of whatever scene was playing out on screen.

  5. Flushme says:

    I’m having a hard time deciding whether Yuru Camp or SoraYori was better. Both were great in their own terms.

    Also a very early guess: the best selling show of Spring 2018 will probably be Uma Musume.

    • something says:

      I’ll be pretty shocked if Uma Musume sells. It’s also a good bit more expensive than usual. And it’s already aired two episodes, yet only peaked at #669. Considering I expect it to be a pretty straight-forward sports story it’s probably not going to have the kind of twists that’ll drive people to change their minds later.

      Besides, we’ve got more Persona, more SAO (albeit withot Kirito, so maybe fans won’t show up), and I guess more Steins;Gate (tho whether it’s still a disc seller 7 years later remains to be seen). I can say there’s a guaranteed top seller a la Idolish 7, and this *could* end up a weak sales season. But there are at least some high profile sequels to keep an eye on.

      • MK says:

        Outside this website I don’t follow sales much, but from what I hear the new LotGH is doing pretty well too (I wonder if it will get an event ticket…)

        Steins;Gate 0, along with FMP 4, will be an interesting experiment if an older series can survive the current trend of sequel massacres. Having read the 0 VN and with it having a new director, I’m not that confident in the 0 anime, though of course I’ll welcome any more success for the franchise.

        • something says:

          “but from what I hear the new LotGH is doing pretty well too”
          Yes, it’s starting out extremely well. v1 got into the top 10, though it’s down to 23 now. It’s going to have an older-than-usual fanbase (i.e. more expendable income) and a ton of nostalgia behind it, so along with a good reaction to ep 1 (I assume anyway, I haven’t followed it) that’s going to drive a lot of early sales. And since it’s a higher MSRP item that bumps its ranking on Amazon even more.

          Whether it maintains this is another question. Only time will tell there.

  6. Anontastic says:

    You and I are kindred spirits yet again~!

    Yorimoi is indeed a masterpiece, down to every moment and detail. It’s shows like this that come around every once in a while to remind folks just how high the bar can be. One thing in particular I appreciated was how perfect the ending was. Ep 13 is a non-stop barrage of perfect closure scenes and punchlines to every character, arc, and development set up in the show, and it had me in tears. AGAIN.

    In my opinion, Yuru Camp had what most (even great) iyashikei shows lack: knockout humor and brilliant character chemistry. A lot of folks find the genre boring, and I think that’s because a lot of the media within it feels very one-note in its tone. Yuru Camp, on the other hand, flows back and forth between a relaxed atmosphere and energetic gags/hijinks at a pace that continuously keeps your attention. Given how surprisingly popular it was, I’d say it paid off!

    I also enjoyed Slow Start a lot, but I will admit that certain aspects of it started to grate on me a little by the final episode. Tama (loudly) repeats a few of her gags one too many times, and for me, Eiko’s yuri escapades with sensei felt tonally dissonant from the rest of the show. Also, I didn’t read any ambiguity in Hana and Tama’s friendship; they just gel the best BECAUSE they’re opposites in many ways, and Hana’s chemistry with Eiko and Kamu is… ~weak~ by comparison. Also, maybe I just interpreted the symbols differently, but I didn’t detect Shion x Hiroe at all. I just thought they were freinds, and worked as a character duo because (like Hana and Tama) their personalities are largely opposite.

    I didn’t watch it myself, but I was actually surprised how warmly Citrus was recieved, at least compared to what I was expecting. Frankly, as a former-reader of the manga, I have too many bitter feelings toward this series to even entertain the prospect of jumping back in. Waiting months and months for chapters, only to see the developments go absolutely nowhere… I’m getting mad just remembering it.

    • something says:

      The slow as dirt manga release schedule really didn’t do Citrus any favors. I dropped it before the end of the Matsuri arc as well because of that. But when you watch it as a weekly TV show (or go though multiple volumes in a fairly short time as I’ve been doing recently) it actually flows pretty well. If it were, say, a chapter every two weeks that’d make a huge difference. But every two months… not so much, even if they’re long-ish chapters.

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