Final Thoughts for Winter 2015

Finally, the Winter season is over! And thank god for that. While the various continuations were great this go, the premiers were mostly a slog to get through, made worse by just how little there was in that department. Still, some jaw dropping works came out of this mess, and despite how incredibly bad things got, there were a few bright spots to get us through.

While we prepare for the Spring reviews, here's our final look back at the Winter season of 2015. Hopefully it will be more even next year.

Dropped Shows

Jonathan Kaharl

This was very nearly one of the worst anime I've ever seen. I could probably just stop writing there, because not much else can even be said about this sorry, lifeless dreck. Military! is a comedy that forgets how to properly structure any jokes it throws out, resulting in a lot of absurdity that lands with a dull thud. It doesn't help that the show has a dirty mind and lacks the chops to make that work. The main character walking in on a little girl in the middle of peeing is not funny, it's creepy. It's worse when he decides to act completely illogically and silences her and puts her in a compromising position instead of just telling her "hey, there's an assassin outside trying to kill me." Because implied sexual assault is funny, I guess. The series only made me laugh once, and I think that may have been some sort of fluke. When its not boring or gross, it's just obnoxiously loud. It's pure annoyance distilled down to the purest form. Doesn't help that it was made by some gun otaku out there who has no idea how to make their chosen obsession funny. I don't even think military freaks would get a chuckle out of this. Seven episodes: 2/10

Samurai Warriors
David O'Neil

I only had one drop this season, so in the back of my head I thought that I should use it sparingly. I ended up using it after a single episode of Samurai Warriors. And it's not like I didn't have other shows I wanted to drop too, Kancolle was monotonous, and some episodes Saekano made me wanna yell at the characters. So I want to be clear that the first episode of Samurai Warriors really was that bad. I've seen a decent amount of bad shows, but the first episode of Samurai Warriors was almost impressive in just the sheer amount of nothing it had going for it. The characters all lacked anything resembling personalities, the animation was some of the laziest I'd seen this season, the action was slow and uninteresting, and most of the episode was spent talking about battle strategy in the most listless way possible. Despite only watching one episode, that one episode dragged on and on and when it finally ended I could not justify spending another 20+ minutes watching this absolute void of nothingness. Maybe fans of the game could get some level of entertainment out of it, but for me, it was a slow, hugely uninteresting pain to watch that manage to make me want to get as far away from it as possible after only a single episode. One Episode: 1/10

World Break: Aria of Curse for a Holy Swordsman
Stephanie Getchell

Sure, I wanted to find something slightly trashy and terrible for a change. I've been way overdue for that. Going into World Break, I knew it wasn't going to be outstanding and that I may get my wish for something trashy. To be completely honest, there are parts of it's story that surprised me, however they also ignored their initial story elements in favor of those fan service moments along with cheap writing. For example, for the millionth time, why write yourself a loop hole to avoid possible incest if all it's going to end up being is incestuous behavior in the end? It boggles my mind how something like this is possible. And, you know what else? It actually got boring for me. Yeah, a fantasy type series that has fan service galore got boring. There were so few good things that made the show moderately okay, like parts of Moroha's personality and Shizuno's story, while what I saw of the Broadcast Dub several weeks ago makes me think it will be an entertaining watch later on. I dropped this series, mostly as a time saver for myself due to research paper writing hell, but it did have my interest only ever so slightly. I'll revisit it later when I'm in the mood for something slightly boring yet weirdly entertaining. Six episodes: 4/10

Final Thoughts

Absolute Duo
Walter Holleger

I'd be lying if I said that I had high hopes for Absolute Duo, the anime adaptation of a action/school life harem light novel series, but I tried to go into this with an open mind, hoping this would be maybe a hidden gem for the season. Maybe not something great, but at least something good. I lost all hope for this series by the end of the third episode.

Absolute Duo can basically be split into two parts, the school life comedy portion of the show and the battle portion. The school life part is exceptionally boring, with a majority of the comedy coming from the main character, Tor, finding himself getting caught in lewd situations with his duo partner, Julie, or someone clumsily falling into someone else. Normally, this level of Tu-Love-Ru style comedy would be frowned upon, but not impossible to understand. Just not in this context. These are all people training to be warriors, so these jokes fall even flatter than normal. Other than that, most of this time is spent building up the relationship between Tor and Julie as a duo. Tor spends time switching between bumbling harem protagonist and "avenger", never really finding either a middle ground for these two parts of himself or anything more to add to these one-dimensional traits. Julie is almost identical, replacing bumbling harem protagonist with naive love interest,

In the beginning of this seasonal, I did stick up for the battle scenes, and I still stand by that. The blaze idea from this opened up to a plethora of different kinds of fights, even if our main protagonists have some rather plain weapons themselves. Sadly, this was all thrown out closer to the end of the show when the bad guys were revealed to be CGI storm troopers wielding machine guns. Even at the middle, however, the quality of the fights were starting to fade, The cinematography was less interesting, the fights lose most of their tension as the story refused to develop around the characters.

The story, as well, was poorly written, revealing very little in the ways of motivations and purpose for the majority of the big players in the show, leaving major gaps and questions that just leave you exhausted if you try to keep up with it. And even after all of this, I can't call the show absolutely terrible, just really boring.

Final Score: 3/10

Assassination Classroom
David O'Neil

Shonen can be a bit of a mixed genre, at times you'll get an avalanche of same-y shows about teenage boys with superpowers fighting off some generic evil force, but at others you'll get something incredibly unique and inventive like Assassination Classroom, a series about a class of misfits tasked with assassinating their own teacher. A teacher who happens to be an inhuman, smiley faced, tentacle monster that can move at speeds faster than the human eye can follow threatening to destroy the earth in a years time. Gotta give credit for a creative idea at the least. And as it turns out, Assassination Classroom delivers on its weird premise with a show that expertly balances fun and sincerity.

The true star of the series is the seemingly un-killable teacher who the students dub "Korosensei" (which roughly translates to "Un-killable Teacher"). In lesser hands he could have ended up a flat, uninspired evil mascot villain character, before the show began I was expecting something along the lines of Monokuma from the Danganronpa series. But this is not the case, and Korosensei turned out to be character who's as interesting as he is hilarious. He's funny to be sure, the humor surrounding his incredible speed and unparalleled skill at avoiding assassinations always creates fun scenarios, but what makes Korosensei really unique is that despite being a seemingly evil monster bent on destroying humanity....he's actually a great teacher. He helps his students study, teaches them important life lessons, and around every corner will actually assist them in their assassination attempts. As apposed to a character you love to hate, Korosensei ended up being a character I just plain loved. He's a flawed, sympathetic, and (weirdly enough) very human character which the show only scratches the surface of. After all, much about his past and motivations are still unknown. But still, even that scratch on the surface made Korosensei one of the most interesting and memorable characters of the season. At this point, I'm not sure if I should praise the show for creating such a multi-faceted, likable character, or complain because now I don't even want to see him assassinated at all.

The show's biggest flaw probably comes the students. While a few of them stand out and get their proper screen time, it's a disappointment that with such a large cast of student characters so few of them actually have distinct personalities, and that many of the ones that do are very one dimensional ones. All the teachers besides Korosensei are just as fun and well developed, so I really wish the student characters other than the about five the show usually focuses on could be expanded on more. In terms of production, Assassination Classroom is an adaptation that gets the job done, if not much more. The animation and narrative are both consistent, but neither really go above and beyond just adapting the source material for what it is. For many that's probably just fine, but those hoping it'd go that extra step making it look and feel like more than just a straight adaptation may end up disappointed. With that said, the source material is good enough to make up for that. Assassination Classroom balances its tone between wacky, over the top humor and more heartfelt, down to earth scenes near perfectly. It has an effective formula it sticks to throughout, and so far it has stayed both entertaining, clever, and sweet in nearly every episode.

First-Cour Score: 7/10

Cute High Earth Defense Club LOVE!
Thom "Tama" Langley

As Cute High Earth Defense Club LOVE! wanders into its home leg, with its eight episode, we're introduced to our patsy of the week, a hikkomori, and his war on friendship, along with his almost throwaway needling. Speaking of friends...two of our quintet (Kinugawa and Yufuin) are walking to school as usual...only for Yufuin to be mind-controlled by the said hikikomori, and promptly makes an ass of himself, attempting to break up his friendship with Kinugawa. Yufuin promptly becomes an apathetic (well, more apathetic) shut-in. Who rolls on the floor, and hides from Kinugawa, before suddenly changing his mind and bursting back in, jealous of Yumoto and Kinugawa's friendship. The heavy rock soundtrack here really serves to increase the tense and claustrophobic argument, and it's a great usage of music to add tone. Meanwhile, the rest of the club go back to...being themselves, whilst Kamiya chews on scenery. Eventually, our trio decide to help them make up...or at least Yumoto does, promptly taking on the hikikomori monster single-handed. Once again. it's an interesting design, and our team of four (minus Yufuin) aren't doing well against it, until he turns up to save the day! Teamed up once more, Yufuin and Kinugawa take it down.

Episode nine, meanwhile, takes us back to our villains. At least they're meant to be villains; this episode shows a different, slightly dorkier side to all three of them, which Zundar is quick to put a stop to. We're then introduced to self-narrating patsy of the week, who seems to have self-conscious issues. Or lack thereof. Another day, another random conversation at the Earth Defence club...with Yumoto entering via the window. Oh, and Wombat has run away. Anyway, our patsy of the week is a melon headed samurai, and he...actually wants to talk. Unusual. He...talks...about melons, in a riddle-ish sort of way and then makes them meet him on a nearby mountain on Sunday. Yumoto is promptly impressed by the (easily googled) answers to the questions, and the true plan (an ambush by Zundar and co) is revealed! Oh. Except our heroes have worked that part of the plan out already. Meanwhile, someone from the paper promptly solves the issue of them getting to their allotted fight...with a get rich scheme....being that the Battle Lovers are now net idols. More coverage is thus required! Gravure...coverage. Uh...FANSERVICE. Up on Binan Mountain, our heroes transform for added stamina, and narrowly avoid traps, whilst traversing up the mountain. Melon Monster seems surprised to see them. Melon promptly overthinks things, becomes overly self conscious, and is promptly peptalked by Yumoto and co. Meanwhile, there may be more to the photography society than meets the eye...

Episode ten, and we begin with our heroes stuffing their faces. As usual. Well, except Yumoto. Very unusual-it's soon revealed that Yumoto has a fever, and we're introduced to one of his classmates, who's also a glasses wearer, and...undoubtedly our patsy of the week. The plot thickens as it's revealled Yumoto has never caught a cold before, and his brother begins to panic. Oddly, Yumoto returns to school the next day, acting even odder than usual, and wearing glasses. Proceeding to clean the club room, Mr
Tawarayama is promptly buried by books, and a doorway is revealed...meanwhile, the School Council find their own doorway, and Yumoto's cheery personality has attracted...quite a few fans. All of which makes our patsy of the week (Megawa) rather jealous. Just as planned for the School Council. Having turned into a baseball bat, the Battle Lovers transform...sans Yumoto, whose cute has...suddenly made him unable to do so. Hilariously subtexty flashbacks ensue, whilst Wombat attempts to convince Yumoto to return for unlimited cuddles. Even this doesn't work! Megawa!Bat attempts to hypnotize them into adoring him, but this backfires when Yumoto loses his glasses and finally transforms into Scarlet, promptly defeating the monster! One peptalk later, and Megawa is back where he belongs. Meanwhile, the photography club are up to something involving a talking fish...and the School Council may have their first clue to the identity of the Battle Lovers!

The final two episodes, meanwhile, bring us to that staple of the Japanese High School life, the cultural festival; and of course, the Battle Lovers are after that cash prize. Or at least some of them are interested in it. Yufuin...not so much. Yumoto thus suggests a restaurant, with the rest of the group suggesting a cosplay (well, transforming heroes) cafe. not so keen. Anyway, with sushi off the menu, it's curry that our quintet will serve! Speaking of's smell is starting to annoy 
Kusatsu, whilst Zundar and Hireashi (the goldfish) are plotting, and being confused by love. Curry time! And...boy, they're really filling time with this transformation, aren't they? It's not like they've been pulling a Sailor Moon, and using it every episode, which makes this, even more incongruous; it's honestly an odd choice here. Meanwhile, Kusatsu monologues, opens the door, and...promptly runs into his old friend. There's promptly a curry-based fight between them, (mistaken for a light show by everyone else), and the Battle Lovers and the School Council finally bump into each other. There's then a flashback of how Kusatsu saw his friendship undermined by Yufuin and CURRY, and how they eventually drifted apart, despite their childhood wish to stay together as friends...and a cliffhanger with both groups staring each other down. Episode twelve picks straight back up, with Gora arriving with Hireashi in tow; it turns out...this entire struggle between good and a reality show.


A reality show broadcast across the universe.


Oh, and the Photography Club are in on it, attempting to interview to a shell-shocked Kusatsu, who, it turns out, has fans across the universe. Having been Zundar'd, Gora promptly turns into...Wood-Chopper Monster. Complete with cool outfit, and huge axe. Hireashi promptly gives us a flashback, of his production of the show Can I Destroy The Earth?...where it turns out Gora has been fighting monsters for...quite a while, and was part of a previous season of the show. Sadly, ratings dropped, and the show was cancelled. Something Wombat was aware of the whole time.

Cue mascot arguing, and more backstory for Hireashi, who got demoted. Wood Chopper Monster does some chopping, Hireashi gloats over his ratings, and  Yumoto whacks his brother round the face, which has absolutely NO effect at all.  Oh, and the School Council are not terribly happy at being played for fools, and exact their vengance on the Photography Club. Kutatsu is promptly rescued by Atsushi, and begins to wonder if they can be friends again. One Love Attack later, doesn't work. Not dissuaded, Yumoto tries talking him down, promptly grows wings (hello, Eternal Sailor Moon homage), and Gora is rescued. But it's not over yet, as Zundar and Hireashi promptly produce...a spiny fish robot, which promptly transforms into a mecha.


The Student Council come to the rescue, Atsushi and Kutatsu have a very...shippy heart-to-heart, and EVERYONE HAS WINGS NOW, FOR THE ANIME WILLS IT. Oh, by the way, Hireashi, Can I Destroy The Earth? is cancelled (again), and your mech is out of ammo! One final peptalk from Yumoto, and our villains are defeated, leaving the festival to conclude happily. With our heroes in the bath, they turn back to talking about food, Yumoto goes back to cuddling Wombat, and it's a happy ending for all!

Two seasons on the run now, I've found myself falling in love with a show that surprised me in its ambition. Cute High Earth Defense Club LOVE! could simply be a cheap Sailor Moon ripoff with everyone genderbent, but Diomedéa pushed themselves hard to produce a show that's not only a brilliant take on the magical girl genre, but has a whole lot more to offer, whether it's the satirical look on what vexes the average Japanese teenager, the (not so subtle) shonen-ai subtext, or whether you just like a slice of life series with a twist. Not once has CHEDCL ever felt like it's taken the easy road, and its almost Gainax-esque twist-heavy final two episodes are not only hilarious, they're the glittering crown to top off the series. The art is great, the characters are superb, and the comedy and tone in general nigh pitch perfect. In short, not only is this a series that adds its own ideas to the Magical Girl pot, its a series that whips up a familiar recipe with a few unexpected ingredients and a whole lot of heart. A great new addition to the genre.

Final Score: 9/10

Death Parade
Joe Straatmann

Anime fans are always looking for something to put on American TV and elevate the art form's recognition, and this one would be a decent candidate. Madhouse's entry into the Winter season has an easily-explained concept of a bar in the spiritual underworld where two patrons must play one final pub game run by an arbiter who determines whether they rise back to the land of the living in reincarnation or get tossed into the void. The stylings of the show are very Western from the decor of the main bar to the games themselves, which include darts, bowling, and, that one game they can't mention outright for copyright purposes. There is a larger story which questions the less-than-complex method method of judging complex lives, but it also has stand-alone episodes which a viewer can watch any night and instantly get drawn into.

I'd hesitate to say the stand-alone episodes work well by themselves, but most of them tell a good enough tale to work without knowing the extra context of the overall plot. The conclusion of a two-parter about murder is absolutely spellbinding. But as is the nature of such things, it can be a bit uneven as well, with an episode pitting self-abuse against the abuse of others not delivering as well as it could've.  The main plot gets a little clumsily introduced in the second episode as it reveals the tricks behind the curtain from the first guests and comes off like a partial recap episode, but it drives home the important point of taking a second look at the judgment and see that everything is not as cut-and-dry as it seems.

The entire venture generally has slick stylings and smooth animation. The bar Quindecim is a mostly low key affair with cool colors and quiet ambiance despite the creepy dummies who surround the joint. The games themselves have high quality textures and quite a bit of character with pulsing body parts, skull, and other morbid detailing. Wandering out of Quindecim, other arbiters get bars that equally reflect their characters as Quindecim reflects Decim, the calm, stoic barkeep who acts as one of the series main characters. When the underworld is explored, it has the expected surreal and solemn atmosphere, but it also adds the feel of people working with responsibilities that seem way over their heads. Decim's supervisors playing pool with the Solar System seems an apt metaphor.

With all of this, it's the main characters who hold it together. Decim and his unnamed assistant who was a human he couldn't judge have great bit of chemistry combining droll and matter-of-fact with playful and thoughtful. The show's supporting cast are a fun group as well, but the story is really Decim's journey to understanding of humanity and his assistant coming to understand what she had done with her life. There are larger questions about where God went to and if the entire underworld is a giant facility that is doing its work incorrectly, but like Haibane Renmei, the series instead chooses to anchor the climax on concluding the assistant's personal business in the afterlife. When her life among the living is revealed, it's not one meant to drag out every emotion possible, yet it is one of the most human stories the show has to tell and it feels right in the way it tells it. It may not wrap the show up as a complete package some would want it to be, but its impact is undeniable and leaves it on a much better note than some unfitting action climax determining the fate of the the entire afterlife. The tears do come as the series concludes, and it completely earns them.

Final Score: 8/10

Fafner -EXODUS-
Joe Straatmann

I get it, boss, I shouldn't have reviewed a sequel/follow-up for the seasonal guide! It'll never happen again! (The Disappearance of Yuki-chan is assigned to him for the Spring season) ...I'm getting mixed signals.

Editor's Note: THINK OF THE VIEWS, JOE!!!

So, Fafner Exodus. It's the best thing named after the Norse legend this season and the distance between the two series is the length of Pennsylvania. Instead of the story of a dwarf who turned into a dragon translating into, "Dragons be takin' our women!" like in Unlimited Fafnir, this one actually ponders the nature of people becoming inhuman to protect what they treasure. If you want to see an animation studio at the top of its game, making a full effort to create the best show that it can, here it is. It's Xebec's anti-Argevollen, the studio's painful release from last Summer. It is the most visually stunning show of a season where there is no lack of good looking series. The amount of startling vistas, rich colors, and dense visuals is nothing less than impressive. The animation follows suit with massive battles that flow well and occasionally add a dash of fun into a normally melancholy franchise. It's maybe it's a little too big for its britches, but I can appreciate its attempt to create breathtaking scope on the small screen.

Comparing the first series to the second, I find the first Fafner preferred to take the stance that losing your humanity = sadness and just keep hammering on that until the situation became at least slightly less dire. With Exodus, the idea of extending human evolution in order to survive is given real thought and depth. The main heroes from the first series and their proteges meet up with an armed group from the Asian mainland who have genetically altered themselves to survive longer as pilots. They have a base of operations where certain children can speak and understand the alien Festum, and their ultimate goal is to communicate and be friends with with a force that is making its way to Earth and save the planet from war. In the battles with the existing Festum on the planet, the Fafner pilots have unlocked new abilities that make them incredibly more powerful than they were before, but with side effects where they might become something they no longer recognize. The Festum have shown subtle changes as well, openly expressing anger and hatred, and one scene shows a normally stoic member of the alien collective writhing in horror as at it's tortured before it's killed. It reminds me of what I love about the SNES game Illusion of Gaia. One of its underlying points is every step of human evolution means leaving something else behind, and both works bring out the bittersweetness behind those sentiments.

The weakness of the first series was the characters were defined by their suffering more than they were themselves. While the characters are hardly a dominating force in the sequel, there is a huge cast with a wide swath of emotional pulses. The main characters from the original, Kazuki and Soushi, have mellowed and learned that to be in a position to preserve life, they have to know what living a good life is. The new generation of pilots are trained on propaganda manga and at first have a blast showing off their own style of fighting, but soon learn the cost of what they do. Then there's Canon who has to settle into a support role rather than on the front lines, Maya who struggles to figure out what she can do make a difference, the children who can talk to the Festum who have to process emotions and powers that are out of their league, the army of genetically altered humans who are trying to forge a way to peace, the humans who believe pure humanity must cut anyone who compromises their genetics completely out to survive, and so on. Even with so many threads, the story is reasonably easy to follow, but it does mean nobody leaves a heavy impression since there's not a whole lot of time for any individual piece.

I don't think it reaches masterpiece status despite the extensive effort going into creating it since even with everything it has going for it, it still lacks much to hold an attachment to beyond its broad ideas, but it's certainly a better anniversary project than, say, Last Exile: Fam, The Silver Wing. Even if the first series went out of the anime fandom's conscious soon after it arrived, the creators loved what they did, came back to do some more, and are putting all they have into making a more ambitious, gorgeous, and memorable follow-up, and their effort is not lost on me in the least bit.

First-Cour Score: 8/10

Gourmet Girl Graffiti
Megan R

The last time I talked about this show, I was demanding that it make up its mind about whether it wanted to be salacious or simple, and to the show’s credit it did finally find its direction. Better still, that direction was the one that led it away from the weirdly sexual eating montages and more towards building up the characters’ relationships with one another and giving the few half-developed themes some sense of closure.  It became more of a traditional slice-of-life show, and for this show, that is an improvement.

That’s not to say that it was a smooth ride to the end. Part of me still wonders if the writers meant to wrap things up with episode nine, as Ryou and Kirin reflect on their year of friendship over New Year’s Eve. Thus it was jarring to go from that to episode ten, where the two meet yet another girl and bond over pizza. Yuuki never really had a chance to gel with the rest of the cast, considering how late she is introduced and how ridiculous her whole shy sad-sack act truly is. Worse still, Shiina and her deliciously dry delivery get pushed more and more to the side as the show doubles down on the importance of Ryou and Kirin’s friendship. I wouldn’t have so much of a problem with that were it not for the fact that I wanted to punt Kirin into the sun every time she was on-screen. Nonetheless, the show finally gets itself together just in time for the girls to graduate junior high.

The finale was surprisingly good, easily the best episode of the show’s run. It wasn’t because of the specific actions or words of the characters, but how it used something as simple as an old apron to tie things together. Ryou receives her late grandmother’s apron as a graduation gift, and this simple gift allows Ryou to not only resolve the loneliness of her past and her grandmother’s absence,  but to let it be part of her future as part of the many future meals she will be making for her family and friends. It’s not a profound metaphor by any means, but it’s the closest this show has gotten to subtlety and it helps bring things full circle for both Ryou and the viewers at home.

I won’t pretend that I enjoyed watching this show in its entirety. It was tedious, awkward, and I spent much of the show’s run wishing that Ryou would grow a brain and that Kirin would simply get lost. Still, it managed to find its way in the end and embrace the simple charms of good food, the changing seasons, and friendship. Gourmet Girl Graffiti isn’t the sort of show that will linger with the viewer for seasons to come, but it managed to turn itself into something satisfactory in the end.

Final Score:  4/10

THE IDOLM@STER: Cinderella Girls
Jonathan Kaharl

This is the only truly good show I had on my assignment list. I have a reason for not liking this Winter, as you can see. I mean, I watched ISUCA. I was the only person alive who actually finished ISUCA. I have seen the truth the world chooses to ignore. But we'll get to that in just a moment. So, back to talking about an actually good show! I liked my time with Cinderella Girls. But in a season with the return of Ikihara, Kishi deciding to actually put forth effort once more, and GONZO somehow making anime original content that improved on the source material (a rare miracle that occurs even less often than people being struck by lightning three times), this was never going to be big. But damn, did they ever try.

Noriko Takao was basically trying to make lightning strike twice. He was an episode director on the original Idolmaster, which was directed by longtime Gainax and Trigger alumina Atsushi Nishigori. It was Nishigori's first and only directorial work, and it got a ton of attention on release. It was seriously better than it had any right to be, and Takao seemed to be aiming to make his own version of that success. This could have easily gone wrong with a rehash of the first series, but Takao went in a much smarter direction. Where the original series was basically wacky anime comedy with an undercut of ridiculously well written character drama that could have easily self imploded in the hands of a lesser staff, Cinderella Girls went in a slightly more realistic direction, with light bits of comedy from the collective personalities of all the idols.

The series establishes this early, with lots of slow, atmospheric scenes where we see little bits of the life of the characters, along with heavy shadows and powerful artificial light. It creates a style that's really involving and thick, and it does the series well. The characters are also mostly toned down in their personal mannerisms. Sure, there is a girl who walks around acting like a cat, and another that speaks only in Gothic poetry, but those traits don't define their personalities like they did with the cast from the first series. Cat-girl Miku is somehow one of the most relatable characters in the series, while Ranko's odd mannerisms are simply how she expresses surprisingly human emotion. Characters have more understandable worries and subtle complexities that wouldn't been seen anywhere in the last series, and it results in a show with a different energy that really fits it and makes something enjoyable.

Still, there are problems that keep this from being something great. The show can be incredibly beautiful at moments, making the times that animation is cut down or characters off model stick out more than they would have otherwise. It's the opposite problem of the old series. The character designs and art style are top notch, but the animation lacks a certain power when it needs it most, despite showing it can do amazing things when it does get it right. The drama also tries being more realistic, but it keeps that sappy soap opera style from the first series, which does not fit in the slightest. I like how complex the conflicts can be, but I don't like how utterly grim these moments are. Having your expectations crushed or feeling betrayed are things to react strongly to, yes, but the series never feels like it earned those moments in the build up, especially for how melodramatic the fall out is.

Still, this is only the halfway mark. The original series didn't really click until that halfway point as well, so we still have time to see where Cinderella Girls is headed and if it can surpass its predecessor. An evil producer seems to be in the works as of the finale, and I can only imagine good things coming from that and how this series deals with more realistic depictions of its wacky characters. There may be problems here, but this was a constant bright spot in this miserable, cold winter, and I'm giving it a solid thumbs up.

Also, Anya is a treasure.

First-Cour Score: 7/10

Jonathan Kaharl

Now, if you've been reading for a little bit, you may have picked up on the fact that I am somehow instinctively attracted to what is essentially garbage. I've watched one season of Ikki Tousen, all of Shuffle!, willing checked out and finished Wanna be the Strongest in the World, am currently trying to finish WHO IS IMOUTO!? (that's literally its name) and School Days, and I recently posted reviews for not one but two seasons of Queen's Blade. The type of bad I like is interesting in some way, and whether these shows bored me or gave me new feelings of rage I've never felt before (I am still very emotional about Shuffle), they have all managed to be interesting in their badness in some way. I dropped Military! because it was just too basic in how inept it was. It was not the worst show of my considerations. No, that would be ISUCA, a title from the good old folks at Studio ARMS, a studio known mainly for gore and titties and general lack of quality control.

They're a truly fascinating studio, made by Pierrot to churn out OVA exploitation during the mature anime boom in the 80s and 90s. They have some good stuff on their resume, especially anything directed by Yasuomi Umetsu of Kite fame, but something always seems to go wrong in everything they produce (and a lot of it is general crap). However, I think ISUCA may be a new low from them. A new low from the studio that brought you Elfen Lied, Brynhildr in the Darkness, and even a few shows I listed in the introduction. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

I've made it clear in the past few weeks that I find ISUCA a baffling type of bad, and that stands. I don't think anything came together at any point of production. The series is an adaptation of a manga about a generic nice guy high school student (Shinichiro) being thrown into the world of exorcism by Sakuya, a generic tsundere who's fighting to be the next head of her family. Along for the ride are a cat demon Shinichiro saves named Tamako, Sakuya's emotionless and stacked sister Suseri, and a bunch of other characters who don't matter at all, including an obnoxious comedic relief pervert character who may be the worst I've seen of his archetype. That is an impressive accomplishment.

ISUCA started in a simply unbelievable way. The first episode starts with our hero nearly being devoured by a nude exhibitionist bug demon with a vagina mouth in its chest, and is then instant followed up with an opening that includes an upbeat, go get 'em theme song that uses a goddamn dollar store Casio. It's the perfect synopsis of the entire show. The tone clash, the pointless grotesqueness, the unfitting nudity, the implied sexual violence, and the general cheapness of the entire production. It's all there within the first two minutes. Rape is done via this creepy concept that all demons and spirits put their targets through incredible pain and suck their soul in exchange for incredible pleasure (DID THAT LIGHTNING DEMON JUST ELECTROSHOCK SAKUYA'S CROTCH!?!?), characters are constantly and hilariously off model, clothing damage is carefully portrayed along side blood geysers and ripped off limbs, and the score almost never matches whenever the show is in a normal school life sequence. It's a gross, vile mess.

This should be the sort of thing I despise ...but I didn't. I can't hate ISUCA. It's just too terrible to hate. But it tries. It throws some of the worst characters I have ever seen at my face. Sakuya is an obnoxious, easily angered spoiled brat who physically abuses everyone around her, while Suseri treats nobody with respect and even tries to kidnap the main character in her introduction to have access to his special powers. Everyone else is either so terribly trite that they endlessly grate or aren't even characters, or they're part of that horrid Shimazu family and are essentially using the main cast for their barely explained needs ...until they aren't and suddenly care. Character arcs are handled with the grace of a 2.0 level drunk trying to walk a straight line, nameless low-level members of the Shimazu are killed off by the dozens (it's amazing that family has managed to survive at all with how easily they're killed off by the most basic demons), and the animation constantly drops to the point where the show feels like some relic from the early 2000s.

But I can't hate it.

ISUCA is so hopelessly inept in every possible category that I can't feel anything other than relief that I'm done. Whatever pain it caused me was quiet and drawn out, like an endless hum of low bass from an unknown source. There has to be promise somewhere for me to get invested enough to work up hate. The only two things that work in the show are Tamako and the western mage villain (shown above). They're the only two characters filled with life, making them stick out in a completely lifeless show. Sure, Tamako strips all the time and has the basic intelligence of a housecat (which is fitting, since she was a housecat), but she has a zest for life and always says what's on her mind. And that mage? Everything she says drips ham grease, and she constantly laughs while having monsters rip people apart or talking about how much her old wound is aching for her to get overly complicated revenge that makes her target feel a crushing despair before suffering a slow death. Their existence was the only thing that kept me sane in the end. They're the only reason I gave this series a score. Without them, there simply isn't anything here besides the complete absence of good. You don't need a score to tell you that something this terrible is not worth your time.

Final Score: 1/10

David O'Neil

In an attempt to kill two birds with one stone, as of late some anime have tried appealing to two overlapping markets simultaneously: Anime otaku, and military otaku. Kantai Collection, commonly shortened as Kancolle, is the most prominent recent example of this practice. Originally a free to play browser game, Kancolle is centered around World War II warships anthropomorphized as cute girls fighting against a force of evil monsters referred to as the "Abyssmals". Due to the popularity of the game, it has now also been turned into an anime series following many of the ship girls featured in the game as they continue the ongoing war with their mysterious enemy. The premise of the show may be pandering and just a bit ridiculous, but that didn't mean it was doomed to be bad. After all, Girls und Panzer was blatantly created for the sake of appealing to military and moe otaku as well, but I still found it to be a charming, entertaining show. Unfortunately, Kancolle didn't manage to pull off the same feat.

It's always tricky transitioning the story and characters from a video game into something more narrative driven such as anime, and Kancolle is a prime example of this transition being done with sloppy execution. The story itself is embarrassingly thin, often having less going on in terms of interesting conflict, world building, or character development than your average slice of life series. It doesn't even attempt to explain anything about its world, or building any type of lore for the series. It simply throws a bunch of anthropomorphized warships in a base, explains the basic premise the game provided, and never at all goes beyond that. That'd be fine, if the characters weren't so uninteresting as well. Most of the characters in Kancolle are boring, obnoxious, or both. The ones who are lucky enough to have any sort of personality are usually one-note at best. And the show just isn't very fun either. Most episodes are incredibly drab and uneventful, most of the humor falls flat, and the interaction between characters feels stilted. That's the worst thing about the show, it can't even be called mindless entertainment, as I rarely ever found the show to be entertaining. The show also has some real issues with tone, especially a problem early on in the show, when darker, more serious scenes were frequently put in short succession with wacky, comedic scenes. I've seen shows pull something like this off, but Kancolle isn't one of them. It doesn't create a proper balance between these two aspects, and often the transition is too quick and lacks proper pacing to put a break between these largely different tones, essentially destroying the effectiveness of both the comedy and drama because they're so at odds with each other.

If all that wasn't enough, Kancolle doesn't hold up well in terms of presentation either. The visual style is generic and uninspired, lacking any visual flair or distinction to make it stand out. The animation is lackluster, without much movement or effort put in beyond the absolute bare minimum amount of movement for characters. Worst of all, the action is done almost entirely with CG animation. While CG animation can work at times, the CG of Kancolle is flat out terrible. Characters constantly look awkward, animations are frequently reused, the movement of characters is stiff and often robotic, and overall its not used in any inventive ways to excuse its use, instead feeling like a shortcut done to save effort. Plus the show constantly mixes in cuts of 2D animation with the CG, which only makes it all the more jarring. Kancolle is a total mess, the tone poorly handled, the plot is uninspired, the characters are bland, and it overall just lacks a sense of energy and fun. It looks and feels like a cheap cash in, and there's not much there for those who aren't fans of the games.

Final Score: 2/10

Maria the Virgin Witch
Joe Straatmann

This probably had the highest difficulty curve of the shows I was assigned. It's one thing to make a drama about witchery in the Hundred Years' War as anime. It's another thing to give it a surprisingly bright palette (Though like Production I.G.'s similar work, Le Chavalier D'Eon, it's not too much even with the character designs of Maria being far more cartoonish), and have half of it be a sex comedy. Amazingly enough, with one or two quibbles, this comes together as an amazingly cohesive and clear work that, while it will hit the tastes of some the wrong way as well as ruffle some feathers, turned out to be my surprise favorite of the season.

Maria lives near a quiet town in the backwoods of France. She hates war, and now that it's on her doorstep with the neighbors she's treated for illness being drafted to defend the country, her response is to use her succubus Artemis to, um, spend the soldiers' built-up energy as it were. When that fails, she interrupts the battles themselves with her seemingly bottomless cauldron of mythical creatures and makes everyone flee for their lives. Since this is a world where most religions and mythologies exist in a physical form and since the Catholic church is one that has the hearts of the people, Maria has to answer to God's messenger, the Archangel Michael. As punishment for her meddling, Michael attaches Maria's magical powers to her virginity and sends a dove that can turn into human form, Ezekiel, to watch over her. Neither is much of a problem as she's still a fairly awkward teenager with a straight arrow beau in Joseph, and Ezekiel is easily thwarted by basic, puerile ruses. Her interruptions do begin to fray her relationship with the town and its inhabitants. The mercenaries who rely on the money, like Joseph's friend Galfa, are starving. The church, led by politically manipulative Bernard, want her branded as a heretic and removed. The count, who has Joseph as a servant, heavily presses on his vassal to end his relationship with the witch for the sake of his future. A breaking point is near, and Maria and her fellow witches may be the ones who suffer the most.

It's easy to compliment the aesthetic qualities and discussions Maria brings to the table. Despite a few dips in consistency on mid-season episodes, it's a pleasant looking show with animation that puts a few extra details in for the discerning eye (Whenever Maria pulls a massive beast out of her cauldron, how it shows every little snag is admirable). It deals with hypocrisy of religion and the persecution of ideas in a serious fashion, yet doesn't feel bogged down by self-seriousness. But the real source of Maria's greatness in its character interactions. It's a wonderful feeling when a cast plays off each other well, and these characters feel like perfect foils for each other, comedic and dramatic. Maria is a wonderful protagonist who is a teenager that feels like a teenager. She's brash and wants to confront the world's problems head-on with no regards for how it will play out for others. Her vulnerabilities are only known to her closest confidants, like her succubus Artemis knowing her lack of sexual experience, or Joseph's formality completely disarming her. Their chemistry makes the humor lovable, even when its skates the edge of "too far."

After Michael creates an indirect causation between her sex life and her powers, the focus shortly shifts to Maria's sexuality, or lack thereof. At one point, she has to make an incubus, and she creates a teenage boy named Priapos who doesn't have a reproductive organ because Maria hasn't seen one. This leads to one scene for his training where the punchline is essentially a near-rape joke and I would not push back against anyone who thought it didn't work at all, but I found the whole thing worked on the level of Artemis trying to get a co-worker to do his job and Maria trying to push her sexual frustrations on someone else. They work so well together that the crew pull it off without looking like terrible people. On the dramatic end, Maria is a good diametric opposite to Michael, who acts as the parent who has to put their foot down hard, or Bernard, an intelligent priest who may not be as sure of himself as he seems but will assert his version of justice and order regardless. The series also goes down some dark paths late in the episode count, turning Galfa's embarrassment and humiliation into something more horrible, not to mention the people who Maria trusts the most are the ones that can potentially turn against her. The attachment to the lighter side of these people makes it much more enthralling when the show plays its hand in the more dramatic latter half.

If there's one little thing that bothers me about Maria, it really seems like a show that could have a wider mythology to explore and it instead keeps maybe too tight of a focus. I know I came on the opposite opinion on Death Parade, but this is a world where valkyrie hang out on the battlefield while God is in Heaven and the Catholic church reigns on Earth. How does that work?  Do they get the people that were bad apples, but good enough soldiers? And how do their superiors take to being scooted out by the capital G? The issues created by making every mythological and spiritual object real gets skirted by the series, and I wouldn't have minded if they hadn't brought it up in the first place. This is not so much something bad as a missed opportunity, and one that's easily ignored.

There's been a horde of interpretations on what Maria's story is really about on varying levels. I take at a fairly simple level. Aside from the obvious overtures that the Catholic church doesn't exactly practice what it preaches and was a roadblock to progress during the time period, the series seems to be generally about acceptance. The final episode makes it clear that, while nobody is going to be completely happy with each other, there has to be some way they can co-exist. How one interprets what exactly this stands for is in the eye of the beholder. What I can say is the journey of Maria on the level of straight entertainment is a roller coaster of laughter and sadness, delight and disgust that I've rarely experienced from a series. It handles so many different emotions-occasionally at the same time-that it's hard not to be amazed by the work as a whole, even as it's easy to nitpick the individual parts.

Final Score: 9/10

Rolling Girls
Stephanie Getchell

Often times, I can judge how a series will turn out before I even start watching it. I knew I was going to love Death Parade and I also had the suspicion that World Break was going to be trashy. However, once in a while, there are shows where I do get my early suspicions wrong, which, in the end, is the case for Rolling Girls. In the beginning, I was excited to see something fun and full of energy. Based on the first couple of episodes, I got that along with the Kill La Kill vibes thanks to similarities in animation. But as the weeks went on, and I saw more and more of the show, I slowly began to feel much differently. I'll admit, I actively followed everything each week except the two I'm actually supposed to cover but I did that for two completely different reasons. In the case of Rolling Girls, the hype just eventually died down.

The main cause for my slow decline with this series is the writing. Much of the series was semi episodic with mainly a two part approach for each storyline. Within this time, they managed to keep stories simplistic and yet interesting, tying up the loose ends by the end of those episodes. While this is rather formulaic, it managed to keep my interest early on.... and then that interest was just lost as it went on and on. What made this even more difficult to get through was the lack of background for our four major characters. While we did get some for Chiaya throughout, we only got some for Nozomi in the beginning of the series and then almost nothing for Yukine and Ai. It left room for the episodic characters to get some attention, but we're supposed to be following these four girls. We should probably learn more about them, shouldn't we? But the biggest problem I had with the show was the final few episodes where we suddenly get some rather unexpected pieces that just happen. There's not much information before this revelation, and it really bothers me. This makes me feel as though the production team wanted to give a really good twist in the story, only for it to be too unexpected to the point where it doesn't make much sense. It just comes way out of left field that I kinda just gave up and made me wonder if I actually should have dropped Rolling Girls and kept World Break. At least with that one, I knew I was going to have a fun time because of how bad it was.

Rolling Girls, in the end, had some fun ideas and some nice visuals. Sadly, it managed to trip itself up in the process and tumble to the bottom of the hill. It had a strong start, but as the series progressed, the down grade in writing and the lack of character development for the main characters turned this into a rather underwhelming series. What could have been an interesting and fun experience turned into a fairly boring and odd one in the end, making it one of the weaker shows I've seen during the winter season. It's probably my punishment after getting some rather good or high profile series these past couple of seasons like Parasyte and Tokyo Ghoul, which is to be expected. You can't get the good ones all the time. I'm just, more or less, disappointed how this one turned out. I was hoping for a good one here, but you can't win them all. At least, next season, I have some fun ones to play with and I'm rather excited about them! That is, as long as nothing bad happens and I have to switch them out with someone else.

Final Score: 5/10

Saekano: How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend
David O'Neil

My feelings towards Saekano: How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend can best be described as "complicated". Sometimes I enjoy the show, but at others it drives me crazy (in a bad way). It's certainly hit and miss, so the question is just how much does it hit and how much does it miss? I knew nearly nothing about Saekano going in, I went out on a limb because it was from animation studio A-1 Pictures, considering they fairly positive track record minus some exceptions. So I was taken somewhat aback by just how horrendous the first episode was. Episode 0 of Saekano put on full display many of the show's worst aspects that would later drive me up a wall and make me want to hate the show. The set up itself is otaku pandering 101, following a typical nerdy teenage otaku boy who dreams of making a great visual novel. And so to do so he enlists the help of a harem of beautiful girls, most of which just so happen to be in love with him, to help create his masterpiece. If that sounds like a terrible set up, that makes sense, because it is. But the show isn't terrible all the time.

Saekano's biggest weakness is that on their own, most of the cast is incredibly unlikable. They're all manipulative, selfish, aggressive, and more often than not find enjoyment in each other's pain. In some moments there are gleams of warmth in their hearts and relationships, but usually they all just come off as far too mean spirited. Episode 9 for example, begins with one character throwing a fit for petty reasons, so the other characters trying to win her over by manipulating her emotions. It all wraps up with the main guy and the girl blaming each other, insulting each other, and then acting like something had been resolved when really nothing had been at all. I couldn't find myself really caring for any of the characters when they all seem so crappy to each other most of the time. Except Kato. She's okay. Despite the un-likability of the characters preventing me from sympathizing with them, they were fairly effective when it came to selling the show's comedy, which was at its strongest when focusing on the interplay between characters. Its when the characters of Saekano banter back and forth the show's comedy works, even if they aren't great characters they can be fun and set up some solid jokes and visual comedy. Where the humor suffers is the show's frequent attempts at breaking the third wall. While some shows like the recent Monthly Girls' Nozaki kun have done a great job poking fun at or putting twists on manga/anime tropes, Saekano seems to think just pointing out all the tropes and cliches the show uses is humor in itself. It's awkward, unfunny, and just doesn't have any point other than calling attention to just how hackneyed the show's story is, which I'm guessing wasn't their intention.

Probably the show's greatest strength is the visuals, in that regard A-1 Pictures did a bang up job with Saekano. I wouldn't go so far as to call it the best looking show of the season, but a very well animated, visually pleasing one nonetheless. Lively character movement is evenly spread throughout episodes, the visual comedy is helped greatly by the character's over the top reactions, and overall the show just has a nice visual style to it. It does make some iffy choices, like using actual images of anime figures in the protagonist's room that stick out like a sore thumb, and I could have done without the attention to detail in terms of the fanservice-y aspects (I really don't think animating the breast bounce on a middle school girl is necessary....or okay) but for the most part its a very pretty show to look at. It's just too bad that the rest of the show is so muddled. Saekano has its moments, there are bits where a sweeter, more clever show shines through, but its often white noise behind unlikable characters, a large helping of fanservice, and a pandering, cliched plot.

Final Score: 4/10

The Testament of Sister New Devil
Jonathan Kaharl

Fun fact: I openly picked this show out of the entire Winter line-up because I had been waiting for it for months. I saw the incredibly lewd cover of one of the light novels this anime was based on, and I knew this was something I was going to watch. That said, I was expecting anything good out of it. I was expecting a terrible ecchi show, but one that would push the boundaries for the genre as it exists today and create something memorably terrible. That's not what happened. Instead, Sister New Devil somehow managed to be ...enjoyable. Like, legitimately enjoyable. Though it didn't start that way.

A lot of the series is held back by the usual problems found in light novel adaptations. There's more telling than showing the majority of the time, and the main two characters, Basara and Mio, were generic good guy hero and tsundere damsel. The first major arc doesn't really know what to do with them, and the action scenes were weak. Even the smut bits didn't work, they were all just far too dull in context to really care. The one thing that kept this start interesting was Maria, a succubus that constantly harasses the main cast. She's amazing. However, even she couldn't save the generic demon world politics plot. It was a doze.

But then something happened. The second third double downed on world building, and it paid off. Basara and Mio grew a surprisingly interesting BDSM relationship through the master/servant pact Maria tricked them into, the Hero clan appear and proved to be more complicated than I expected, and one of the demon characters proved to be surprisingly likable and interesting. Lars is a two-faced vassal playing along with the larger story to accomplish his own ends, whatever they may be, and his oddly friendly but equally threatening conversations with Basara actually resonated with me. Characters started to develop in interesting ways, even the dull Basara as his tragic back story was shared through the lens of the Hero clan, and the stakes grew. Characters had more complex motivations, and the final arc was surprisingly strong.

The show isn't anywhere near perfect, of course. The smutty scenes were horribly censored by at first amusing and then annoying chibi character cutouts, the animation constantly fluctuated in quality, and the show had a habit of mixing up any themes dealing with sex in strange, creepy ways. That last thing is usually expected, but it really undercuts the show's BDSM theme. Still, I liked most of what I watched, and I plan to see the second season. Good ecchi series are either completely ridiculous and go all the way, or they offer more besides tits and ass. Sister New Devil lands strictly in the latter category, which still confuses me. It's not quite what I'd call good, but it's way closer than it should have any right to be.

Final Score: 6/10

Unlimited Fafnir
Joe Straatmann

In kindergarten, I once did an intentionally lazy job coloring a picture and turned in the result to my teacher just to see what she'd say. Unlimited Fafnir feels like someone's doing the same to the anime viewing public. This likely won't make my year-end worst list because it's simply not good enough. The only thing I want to do because of this series is to force anime production company Diomedéa to have the accent over their second e revoked because they've lost the right to be that fancy. This doesn't do enough work to deserve spite and hatred. It deserves to be completely ignored and forgotten, and I'm tempted to respond in kind to the makers' half-hearted effort by just saying DON'T WATCH IT and leaving it at that. Alas, I have an obligation to do a full review.

This ecchi light novel adaption features dragons which threaten to ravage the not-too-distant-future Earth and only females who have inherited the ability of the dragons called D powers (And I have the perfect screenshot to convey how woefully misguided that naming is) can stop it. The catch is if the dragons get too close to female D users they choose as mates, the women become dragons and must be destroyed as well. These D powers involve summoning orb clumps of dark matter that resemble dirty snow globes and turning them into weapons such as the Necronomicon, which as we all know, fires heavily-compressed air at things. Yuu Mononobe is the only man in the world who can use D powers and he's transferred to an all-female school on Midgar Island where it becomes an action harem that makes waiting at the dentist's office riveting entertainment in comparison.

Let's start with our hero. If you make a chart of harem protagonists, the two values that would normally get measured are niceness and pervertedness. Yuu falls almost totally on the nice side, which sometimes makes him actually a bit worse of a human being than some of the ones who are totally pervs. Aside from being a dull bore who gets his talents played up but aren't as special as advertised (His D powers are actually given to him by something else), he responds to all the women in the same super pleasant fashion one does when playing a dating sim for the first time and getting the crappy ending. What this leads to is one scene where Yuu and Iris (We'll call her the default girl in the harem) have a discussion about exploring their feelings and learning about each other, and then Yuu goes to assure Tear (The lolita of the bunch), who is on a hospital bed fighting for her life by the way, that everything will be okay as she calls Yuu her "husband" (They're not really married, but she really REALLY wants them to be in the future). This is kind of cruel if you think about it.

The women are the usual cast of harem girls with only one or two traits to call their own. The sister who had to kill one of her classmates, the headstrong one, the smart one, the shy one with glasses, and so on. We only get one passable character in Charlotte B. Lord, the principal of the school who is either bi-sexual or lesbian and loves her life running an institution full of beautiful girls. She is the only one with a touch of inspiration and sadly has a small role. Not helping the women is a style that has no idea what it's doing. The large heads on small bodies gives them a childish look, as does their uniforms which resemble a gothic lolita costume where half the items haven't shipped. Yet except a couple character arcs, they're supposed to be more mature, assured women. Even as high school kids, they're assigned with saving the world, and the "hero" Yuu's abilities are best utilized in supporting what the girls already do. When the character designs aren't clashing with the characters, they have absolutely no aesthetic effect period. The fan art shown at the end of every episode is generally done with better style than the actual show is.

We're only getting started with the hoarder basement of issues with Unlimited Fafnir and I'm almost out of time. The animation sometimes displays the ocean as a three-frame seizure. The dragons are occasionally not dragons (The elder dragon Yggdrasil, for example, is a tree) and the ones that are look like they waltzed out of a PlayStation One cutscene. That is WHEN they do something. One dragon suddenly appears over the school and then... stands there for an episode or so. Cliche anime episodes are wedged into spots they don't fit. When one character's tragic past is revealed, it's time to go to the beach! When an attack that could possibly end all of humanity's efforts to defeat the dragons forces some students away from the island, it's time to visit the hot springs! The music is either a non-entity or trying to smash in demo tracks from every genre it can think of. They do manage to blow almost the entire music budget on the final episode that fittingly switches between exciting and tender. Still, no amount of pretty tunes can fix the line where his sister reveals she made a promise that she will love her brother more than anyone else (And don't try to skirt around that with, "Oh, they didn't mean it THAT way!" You know exactly how they meant it). Just respect the time and effort I've put into wasting my life on this thing and please don't waste your own.

Final Score: 2/10

Yatterman Night
Stephanie Getchell

If I had a hard time keeping up with Rolling Girls due to it's slow decline, then how come I had a hard time keeping up with Yatterman Night? It's been one of the ones I've been enjoying so much from the three I've been tasked to report on, so why not follow it faithfully? Honestly, it's because I have a harder time trying to get my thoughts on something if I just go from week to week when watching the shows I have to make a detailed report on. Even if Yatterman wasn't one of my favorites from the season, I do know that this is a good series for many reasons that I have, more or less, talked about throughout the winter season. Of course, the main theme of corruption is there as well as a form of dystopian society, however this theme doesn't even apply any more thanks to some last minute twists in the story! For those who are unfamiliar with the Yatterman franchise, this may seem like a bit of a coup out. However, to me, even if I don't know the franchise rather well, I think this all works. Throughout the show's run, I have been keeping tabs on some of the details and doing some research here and there in order to understand the overall franchise. And a lot of things line up rather well with Yatterman Night's predecessors, so I honestly cannot complain about it.

I will say, that these last five episodes do give some glaring hints as to how the series will end, but it's not extremely obvious. In fact, this final moment in the series has actually been hinted at since the near the beginning of the series thanks to a certain timid character that, over time, becomes much stronger and confident in both himself and the world that Doronbo hopes to shed light on. If you have not seen the show or have yet to complete it, I will not tell you which character this is. But if you did some searching about Yatterman or have seen the original series... then it's kinda obvious who I'm referring to. While Leopard and her sidekicks are the leads and their goals are rather lofty, given the circumstance, I actually think the story of Yatterman Night, in a way, belongs to this other character. Sure, the series is told from Leopard, however it's this person who gains the most development out of anyone in the entire show thanks to Doronbo's influence! It's rather commendable how the writers manage to use a simple, and over used, story element in order to really bring the story full circle and do so in a rather clever way. Because of all the other stories and moments we get in the series, there is plenty of build up in order for the series to get this logical conclusion.

As for characters, I've already mentioned the one I think the story truly belongs to, so I'll back track to Leopard and the others. Leopard would have to be the second most important character to gain development throughout the series. This is a little girl who originally set out on a mission to give Yatterman a piece of her mind after her mother's death, and she is dealing with a crazy and corrupt world. It's a lot for a young girl to take in, and while some of the reactions she has I wouldn't picture a normal little girl having, her view point on the world is fascinating. I've said this quite a few times in seasonal reports so pardon me if I'm repeating myself. Sometimes what a child sees in the world can be even more insightful than what an adult sees in the world because of their innocent and simple viewpoint. Don't believe me? Go watch Kids React on YouTube and then you tell me. Leopard's ideals are simple and innocent that you cannot help but root for her to succeed, with the people she meets along the way helping to further support this. Meanwhile, Voltkatze and Elephantus don't have much to them outside their basic personality traits. Their main purpose is to be that guiding hand to Leopard as they help her achieve her goal as well as keep her from harm's way. This is a little girl being thrown into a bunch of dangerous situations, after all. I also feel like these two are mostly there to help supply the humor in order to balance out the darker moments the series has. Which is rather nice, but I feel like I could make some better observations if I had seen the original Yatterman series prior to or while I was watching this one. Ah well...

Yatterman Night has taken a well known superhero franchise and kind of pulled a bit of a Marvel's Avengers by making the story darker and yet keeping the light hearted humor and moments intact. It has strong story elements and characters that are more than capable of carrying the show. I'm pretty sure the only major flaw is the animation quality as it has gone up and down quite a lot throughout the series, but I can look past that. Out of the three I've been covering this season, Rolling Girls, World Break, and Yatterman Night, this series is the best of the three. It doesn't take itself too seriously and manages to create a good story with a satisfying ending. Personally, I'm glad I asked to cover this one. It certainly was a big surprise for me this season.

Final Score: 8/10

Yurikuma Arashi
Thomas Zoth

What a turnaround Yurikuma has experienced over the course of a season. Ikuhara's latest project seemed stillborn: The first episode was a turgid mess of all of his most abstract and indulgent tendencies, supported only by cardboard characterization. Where was all of the whimsy and fun we also expect from Ikuhara? While some of it was likely edited out in order to tell a coherent story in only twelve episodes, iconoclast Ikuhara goes against the prevailing tendency for shows to start strong and collapse midway, merely limping across the finish line. From a troubled start, Yurikuma has improved episode by episode, eventually arriving at a finish that can only be described as perfect. The emotional payoff is delivered, allowing us to appreciate many of the stilted moments of earlier episodes in a new light.

Even as a fan, Yurikuma is clearly Ikuhara's most abstract work to date, somehow combining the psychosexual dream imagery of David Lynch with the precious theatricality of Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel. Ikuhara has always loved symbols and performance, having had his start in avant garde student theater and being inspired to direct animation by the artsy Tragedy of Belladonna, but Yurikuma is his most obtuse puzzle box yet. But what a delight it is to see his usual obsessions (see the Ikuhara bingo chart that is passed around the internet) slowly transform over the course of the series, as they are recontextualized by the series many (some might say endless) flashback sequences. What once seemed a selfless sacrifice was actually a betrayal. Lines about "never giving up on love" or "is your love the real thing?" go from ridiculous verbal tics to heartfelt pleas as the series approaches its climax.

It's almost impossible to discuss the final episode without spoiling the entire show. It's the bedrock that supports all of the other episodes, revealing the final meanings for all of the show's themes and gimmicks going back to the first episode. No scene was wasted, and every character meant something, as tragically shortened as their backstories may have been, Watching the series again from the beginning will likely be an entirely different experience from the first viewing, and even then, the specific themes you focus on might change the viewing experience further still. Is Yurikuma a fairy tale, a play, a slasher movie, a shoujo melodrama, a retelling of The Little Mermaid, or simply Ikuhara gone mad with power? All of the above.

It's impossible not to compare Ikuhara's works, few as they are, with each other. Utena still remains Ikuhara's most important and most accessible work. Penguindrum remains the most personally affecting and tragic for me. Circumstances of production, or perhaps just of Ikuhara surrounding himself with supportive staff that won't reign in his most indulgent tendencies, still leaves Yurikuma as Ikuhara's worst masterpiece. I can't give it perfect marks: The introduction, in my memory, still seems far too weak, and the artificiality of the dialogue and some situations got a bit ridiculous. Still, if you're interested in anime as art, Yurikuma is not to be missed and will certainly be one of the most important titles of the year.

Final Score: 9/10

Second Opinions

Assassination Classroom

Jonathan: I was really surprised by this one. Assassination Classroom is one of those rare adaptations that surpasses the source material, and it's mainly through the direction. Seiji Kishi just decided to be talented since last year, apparently. The heavy shadows, varied soundtrack,  and ecliptic mix of expressions fits the show's clashing concept perfectly, creating this perfect atmosphere if hilarity and dread. It blends two styles that shouldn't work at all and constantly managed to find new ways to surprise me. I really enjoy the manga, but this adaptation just takes everything that worked and improves on it in every way imaginable. First-Cour Score: 9/10

Stephanie: What Assassination Classroom has given us up until this point is a comedy series that teaches people not to be bogged down by the people around you. With Koro-sensei as the character who's front and center in all this, he's the perfect person to be teaching E-Class this lesson even if he, himself, hasn't been around all too long. Not only does he have to keep from getting killed by students and assassins alike, but even the school so his class doesn't have to be persecuted like they currently are. It doesn't have this strong message and plot thread, but the humor to help carry it through. It's similar to a regular high school comedy series, but it just so happens that the class we follow is trying to kill their teacher on purpose. Then there's the voice acting in both languages, because I am currently following the Broadcast Dub as well as the Simulcast. Both Jun Fukuyama and Sonny Strait manage to bring Koro-sensei's personality and charm to life with ease, with Strait's version rather faithful to Fukuyama's in terms of playing the situation completely straight. Mai Fuchigami and Lindsey Seidel's take on Nagisa works rather well, as does Nobuhiko Okamoto and Austin Tindle's Karma, though Tindle was the bigger surprise since the only thing prior to starting the Broadcast Dub was Guilty Crown and it is one I didn't enjoy all that well. All in all, the first half of Assassination Classroom is flowing rather well both in story and characters and I can't wait to see what the second half has in store! First-Cour Score: 7/10

Walt: Assassination Classroom has been a favorite to me for the two and a half years it has been running, so I was really looking forward to this anime in particular, and I'm happy to say it delivered. The series has good animation and a wonderful use of sound effects and music ranging from light-hearted to intense action pieces for the assassinations, but I think the stronger elements of the show lie in the cinematography and lighting. Most of the show shares a similar look with that of many slice of life school anime shown over the last couple years, but it's when we turn back to the assassination part of the show that we see a great use of lighting and angles to highlight characters, build and release tension, and create some striking and memorable moments. This with an already strong story, and some good characters makes it a great pick up from this season. First-Cour Score: 8/10

Cute High Earth Defense Club LOVE!

Jonathan: If I had more time this season I would have probably followed this one. As it is, I only got one episode, and I wasn't as blown away as several others were. The wacky comedy angle was too on the noise and lacked the proper pacing of jokes and good punchlines to make it really pop. It's just a tad flaccid as a comedy, even though it has a lot of great ideas you can see from just a single episode. Eh, maybe I'll revisit it later. One episode: 5/10

Stephanie: This is one of those series that has been rather consistent over it's run. By that I mean, a great time where poking some fun at the magical girl genre makes it even better! It's not a complex piece of work, but it can be rather clever in terms of writing and characterization. Granted that last episode sent my brain into confused overdrive, but it ended how it should have and with all the loose ends tied up. And I mean all of them, because I almost thought they weren't, but they did (if you watched through to the end credits, you know what I mean). This series, somehow, manages to be rather bold in what it pokes fun at with Sailor Moon and Revolutionary Girl Utena as a couple stand outs in my mind. While some parts of it did make my mind go "what the f**k?" there were others that made me smile and simply enjoy. It may not be one of the best from this season, but it was one of the most fun as well as clever. It makes me very excited, and hopeful, for a dub from FUNimation. Because who KNOWS what kind of madness could happen from a dub for this series?! Final Score: 7/10

Death Parade

Danni: If nothing else, Death Parade was an emotional journey, one that struck close to home for me. I first watched the original Death Billiards Anime Mirai short back in 2013 and was a huge fan of it, so I had high expectations for this much-deserved full series. Needless to say, it did not disappoint. Having already introduced us to the enigmatic Decim in the original short, Death Parade brought in a large cast of characters to fill its surprisingly large world. Despite all these characters, we really only end up getting deep looks into Decim and his human assistant. Their stories unfold in tidbits as the show progresses, and the space in-between these revelations is reserved for short stories about the souls send to Quindecim for judgment. Though the show's content is heavy, it manages to lighten the mood at all the necessary points. The judgment episodes are varied, not only in game but also in tone. Some are tense and depressing, while others are romantic and cathartic. Emotions are key in Death Parade, and it definitely forced me to use all of mine. Final Score: 8/10

Jonathan: I guess I'm just going to be the odd man out here. I liked what I saw, but Death Parade didn't really do much else different from most other horror anthologies. It didn't click with me and I dropped it due to issues with my schedule. But I'll revisit it someday, because this looks like it was something special in the end. Just saying I shouldn't be the final authority on this one. Two episodes: 7/10

Stephanie: Madhouse has been rather hit or miss, to me, these past few seasons. With Ace of the Diamond being one I am seriously behind on and Parasyte another one I have yet to finish (though I've heard very mixed feelings on it now), it's hard to really invest myself into a Madhouse show, especially when they are one of my favorite animation studios thanks to other work like Trigun, Paranoia Agent, and Monster. Going into Death Parade, I was a bit mixed. Not only did the rather meh shows from previous seasons come to my mind, but this series is an original work. Something I haven't seen happen for a good long while. What Death Parade brings in is that fine line between good and bad and how it should be judged. But it doesn't stop there, as Death Parade shows us the inner workings of this world and how it's actually much more flawed than what we first believe it to be. Tack on some additional themes involving human emotion and you have Death Parade in a nut shell. While playing with the episodic format, there is a constant plot line weaved in and making it all the more fitting and intriguing. As you can tell, by now, I really loved Death Parade. The story was wonderful while the characters and their stories were each heart felt and were able to bring me to tears very often while other times I would be aggravated and want to punch things (thanks for that, Ginty). I love this series, and it is my favorite new anime from the winter season. One that will certainly have a reserved spot on my shelf for when it is released on DVD at some point. Just absolutely wonderful and I am so happy to see the Madhouse studio that I know and love return to true form with this show. Final Score: 9/10

Tom: Another series I expected would be good, but was actually better than I had prepared for. I enjoyed the Death Billiards short, back when Little Witch Academia was getting all of the attention, and was kind of sad to see Billiards apparently disappear without a trace. Not so! Writer/director/creator Yuzuru Tachikawa gets a whole season to explore the ideas he laid out in his short, and what was seemingly going to be an anthology of contentious games among unlucky dead people goes unexpected places: Romance, comedy, horror, and near-transcendent bliss. The show is too episodic, with some episodes clearly weaker than others, to get a perfect score, but the last few episodes are so well-done, it's hard to remember the show's earlier flaws at the end. An absolute triumph, and a potential crossover hit with mainstream American audiences. I hope Tachikawa has another project of this scope in him! Final Score: 9/10

Walt: I never did watch Death Billiards, the original short that this anime was based off, so I went into this one more blind than others. With that said, I will have to catch it soon if it's half as good as Death Parade was. Each episode featured a new set of characters having to play a "life or death" game as they are judged by Decim, an arbiter of the afterlife that decides where to send people after they die. Each set of players were fascinating to watch as slowly their stories are revealed to the audience, slowly realizing how they became who they are. and what has happened to them. This is all tied together with a continuing story line between Decim and his new assistant, Onna, as they bear witness to the games and question more and more of their purpose. It's a tale of people, how they behave, and who they really are on the inside, and it works well, showing many different sides through the multiple people depicted in the games, and through Decim and Onna themselves. This might be the show that sparks the most discussion on whether it works or not, but I personally think it does, and with good animation and a great soundtrack, it makes for a good show. Final Score: 8/10

THE IDOLM@STER: Cinderella Girls

David: I watched the first cour of the original Idolm@ster anime and enjoyed it. It's hardly a great show, but what I saw was really fun and often even really clever, so when Cinderella Girls came around I decided I might as well try it too. The show goes in a new direction visually from the first show. While the character designs and animation remain similar, there's a lot more visual polish to be seen here. Much more attention is put towards lighting, perspective, and detailed backgrounds then there ever was in the original series. The show's tone also takes a more grounded, personal route then the first series (at least the first half, I've heard the second half of the original series tackles some heavier stuff) with most episodes focusing less on wacky hijinks, and often more on the characters and conflicts surrounding them becoming idols. While at times it can get a bit too angst-y for its own good, and I miss the straight up crazy moments the original series provided, when it works the new direction for Cinderella Girls is really effective and allows for exploring the idols as characters more than one might expect. In addition, A-1 Pictures continues to do a great job in terms of animation, providing both extravagant performance sequences with smooth dancing animation, and even plenty of character movement animation during down-time as well. Cinderella Girls probably won't change any minds about the idol genre, but for those who enjoy it already it's a fun entry that introduces a diverse new cast of characters, it's a lot of fun, and at times even truly interesting to watch. Ten Episodes: 7/10

Maria the Virgin Witch

Danni: This show was an interesting ride that managed not to disappoint me, despite its high potential to do so. What looked and sounded a lot like a gross fanservice anime about the fact that witch Maria is a virgin instead turned out to be a consistent and thoughtful anime ...about the fact that witch Maria is a virgin. This fact is utilized well in the characterization of Maria as a method of humanizing her rather than ridiculing her. It's political themes were handled quite well, too. What could have come across as cheesy and overdone instead turned out consistent and thoughtful. I usually don't go for fiction set in medieval settings, but I quite enjoyed my time with Maria. Final Score: 7/10

Jonathan: To my surprise, this wasn't just a sex comedy, but a strong feminist work about the nature of conflict, human morality, religion in our daily lives, and the true power that comes from forming relationships with others. Yes, it's all that with that title. What's even more amazing is that this adaptation isn't an adaptation at all. Two of the most important characters, both introduced very early on (even in the first episode), are anime exclusive. It's something entirely new from GONZO, and it's amazing, despite GONZO's usual production cutting. You owe it to yourself to seek this one out. Final Score: 9/10

Stephanie: The story of Maria is one I have yet to come across in anime. Though it's fairly similar in tone and location to Le Chevalier D'Eon, this time it's a heavier focus on witches and religion. These are themes that have come up before, yes, but not in this kind of manner. One where both are hand in hand in an overtly religious sense and where morals and philosophy can possibly be questioned by the end of the series (thanks Bernard, you crazy bastard). As one that can be seen as relatively historically accurate, in terms of religion and witch hunts, it's rather nice to finally see this type of story occur. What makes it all the more interesting is that the main character in question is a virgin, making for some rather humorous moments for her as well as her familiars. Although there are some times where I did feel like the show does cop out, the final episode being the biggest part of that statement, I'll blame that on the manga being an ongoing one where the production company may have needed to come up with their own ending that suited the story. I'm not entirely upset, because there are shows that manage to use this tactic well and others that just fall flat on their face. *cough* Hellsing *cough cough*. As for the Broadcast Dub from FUNimation, after watching two episodes, it's been rather solid so far though, I believe, Sonny Strait's Bernard and Leah Clark's Ezekiel are the only ones I have yet to really hear. Speaking of Strait, I'm in for a treat since this is the first series I'm seeing that he's directing while Patrick Seitz is taking on the script. I'm pretty sure this is a perfect match for Maria, as I couldn't help but be excited for the English accents and the use of french words in conversation. Despite a few minor problems I have, Maria is one of my favorites from the winter season, and I will surely be following the Broadcast Dub even now that I've completed the show. It's totally worth it! Final Score: 8/10

Tom: Having previously known about Masayuki Ishikawa's manga, Junketsu no Maria, I knew this wasn't going to be some horrible, forgettable harem. Not from the mangaka of Moyashimon it wasn't! What I didn't expect is that it would be perhaps the most solid show of the entire season, without a single weak episode. Code Geass director Goro Taniguchi and Samurai Flamenco writer Hideyuki Kurata also added new characters and plot developments that weren't found in the manga, and unlike the unfortunate case of Parasyte, these adaptations may have actually improved upon the source material. A wonderful historical comedy/drama about the role of women in the early Catholic church, it has the feel of a Studio Ghibli movie, if Studio Ghibli movies had oral sex jokes. A certain lock on my top anime list for the year. Final Score: 10/10

Walt: I'm here to tell all of you, our loyal readers, that you have nothing to fear. The sexual comedy of Maria the Virgin Witch is excellent, with spectacular timing and execution, and well woven into the main story. It also makes up only a small part of the beginning of the show. Maria The Virgin Witch is a show about Maria trying to stop an ongoing war between Britain and France taking place in her homeland, despite the prejudice of the people and ruling church of the land and the interference of the church of heaven. It's a tale about Maria coming to terms with who she is and why she wants to stop all this fighting. It works great, as all the characters are written well, making for great character relations and interactions though out the show. Combine that with good animation and a decent soundtrack, and you have one of the better shows of this season. Final Score: 9/10

Rolling Girls

David: Out of the gate Rolling Girls was my favorite show of the season. The first episode impressed the hell out of me, with its unique world, crazy action, quirky characters, and brightly colored art style. I had high hopes for the show, and felt that if it played its cards right it could end up being something great. Unfortunately, as the show went on that didn't quite happen. I'd never go so far as to say the show got bad, even as my enthusiasm towards it grew lower and lower I did continue to enjoy the show for the most part. At the same time though, the more the show went on the more its flaws started to show through, and the more the novelty of it all began to wear off. And the problem was, without the novelty, Rolling Girls didn't have all that much going for it. The plot is often poorly paced, switching off and on between periods of moving much too fast and much too slow. The characters are bland, as despite their colorful personalities very few of them actually have much depth beneath the surface, and the main cast was severely lacking in chemistry and expansion of their relationships. And overall it just got more and more messy as the show went on, with the plot jumping from place to place without logic or reason, and not even in a fun way. It was eight episodes in my interest had been lowered to the point I couldn't watch it on a weekly basis anymore. Someday I may finish it, but it's too bad a show with such promise turned out to be a disappointment. Eight episodes: 5/10

Joe: I dropped this one after six episodes, and from what I hear, even the people who were still, um, rolling with it after that were disappointed by the thing. It's not that there wasn't energy, inventiveness, spots of character, and effort, but it felt like they were all going in different directions. The manic first two episodes inspired by Kill la Kill get bait-and-switched much more serene and languid journeys to solving people's problems. These stops have their moments, but seem stuck in the mud half the time. The main characters lack flavor and the sparks of inspiration are used for throwaway moments. You have a device that can visualize people's memories and you only use it to make one sight gag about flashbacks? It's clear they wanted this to be something special, but they got lost on the way to making it happen. Six episodes: 5/10

Jonathan: Well, this was a disappointment. I really want to like Rolling Girls, because it's just beautiful to look at and it has a strong early punch with the first two episodes, but that early promise dissipates far too fast. The series doesn't have a clear idea of what it wants to be at its core, and that indecision leads to a lot of messy plot developments and pointless swerves. I could live with the episodic format is the main four girls actually developed as character. I seriously cannot nail down a single character trait for any of them besides the spacey one. This show either needed more time or it needed to cement its premise very early on so it could focus on actually developing the main characters. Six episodes: 5/10

Yatterman Night

David: Yatterman Night had a strong start to be sure. The show surprised me by not only being a fun time, but also by doing an excellent job at balancing tone. The first few episodes are a prime example of the blending of comedic and dramatic tone done right, as it transitions between incredibly wacky, over the top scenes that are more reminiscent of the classic cartoons the show is clearly paying homage to, over to more heartfelt, and at times even disturbing scenes, in such a way they almost made it look easy. The first batch of episodes were some of the strongest to come out in the season, but somewhere along the way my interest started to waver. The show continued its high level of quality, but at the same time it also started to meander somewhat around those middle episodes. While I'm fine with standalone episodes to break up those that were more focused on the plot, some of those episodes leaned just a bit too heavy on the comedy and not enough on the dramatic heft that had made the show stand out above the rest in those early episodes. I'm sure I'll finish it eventually, but at the time the episode structure that could only be described as "filler-y" turned me off to an extent I've temporarily put watching the show on-hold. But despite this, I'd still recommend it from what I saw. It was fun, crazy, while at the same time it could really handle itself around heavier stuff when it needed to. Eight episodes: 8/10

Jonathan: Yup, it's another strong entry in Tatsunoko's library of classical re-imaginings. Night doesn't top Gatchaman Crowds, but I'd say it's better than Casshern Sins, which dragged on much longer than necessary. It deeply respects its source material more than its other counterparts and works in that childish humor with its grim and depressing world, somehow creating some of the most beautiful, tear wrenching moments of the season. The finale suffers due to recycled animation, but damn, that's how you end a show. It could have been so much more if it got two cours, but what we got here is amazing despite. Some of the humor might be too juvenile for some (there's a lot of bathroom humor, and I mean A LOT), but it doesn't distract as much as you'd expect. Third best of the season, no contest. If only it git that other cour, though. That would have been so wonderful... Final Score: 9/10

Yurikuma Arashi

Danni: Yurikuma Arashi is the latest animated alleghory from legendary director Kunihiko Ikuhara, and it just so happens to be my favorite anime of the season. Each episode was filled with beautiful architectural shots and stylish imagery, many of which paid homage to classic films such as Frankenstein and The Shining. It's hard to avoid comparing them to Utena, as many of the designs and locations look as though they'd fit right in at Ohtori Academy. Add to that the well-designed and animated characters, and what you get is an undeniably pleasant anime to look at. Don't let the pristine visuals fool you, though, this anime dips to some disturbing and emotional points. You probably wouldn't expect an anime whose name literally translates to "Lesbian Bear Storm" to feature young girls being eaten alive, (I sure didn't) but rest assured Ikuhara delivers on that front. Though the story was beautiful and incredibly well-done, it managed to suffer some issues in its pacing. Yurikuma's incredibly fast-paced plot betrays the fact that it's a two-course anime condensed down to twelve episodes. Though Ikuhara managed to pull off an amazing anime with the twelve episodes he was given, I'm still left wondering what Yurikuma could have been had he been given more. Final Score: 9/10

Joe: This would make a good entry point into the work of Kunihiko Ikuhara. That used to be the original Sailor Moon anime, but keep in mind that's over two decades old (You just felt yourself age, didn't you?). All of his motifs, his ambiguous female-driven narratives, his sexualized metaphors, and so on are all here and it's at a length where you can get the gist of everything in a short amount of time to see if you want more. Looking at the piece itself, it's a lovely little fairy tale that I appreciate as a piece of art, but some of Ikuhara's stylings annoy me a bit. He is obnoxiously repetitious (If I never have to hear, "I won't back down on love" ever again, it'll be too soon), and some of his narrative complexities that hide major points until the most deliciously melodramatic do a bit of a disservice to their characters. They come off as jagged and fractured when their motivations are simple and clear as a bell once they get around to putting them on the table. Don't let my grumblings stop you, though. It's a unique work that's well worth seeing how much you like it for yourself. Final Score: 8/10

Stephanie: Ikuhara is, probably, one of the most difficult directors to figure out. Much of the time, the viewer won't understand a thing that's going on with his work outside the basic premise. Yurikuma is a little different because this isn't just about segregation between humans and bears, there's a very blatant sexuality theme the series has and it actually is rather fitting considering what has been going on in society today with the LGBT community not only in America, but around the entire world. It's another one of those rare series, similar to Maria the Virgin Witch, where they take the overarching theme and use it rather well and in a way for people to understand. It's good to know that someone is tackling this theme in a serious manner, even though Ikuhara's methods and style does not mesh well at times. And we will be expecting a rather decent dub for a Ikuhara series for a change with Alexis Tipton, Monica Rial, and Jamie Marchi taking on the three leading roles, though Rial and Marchi are kinda meh to me after seeing two episodes. However, the boys of the dub: J. Michael Tatum, Christopher Bevins, and Josh Grelle make it all the more better with their takes on Life Sexy, Cool, and Beauty. It's been an interesting experience watching Yurikuma, and it's one that I won't forget so easily. But, unlike Maria, I'm not going to follow the Broadcast Dub and rewatch the show. I think I need a break and some time to digest this one. Final Score: 7/10

Staff Picks

Death Parade
David O'Neil

When I saw the short Death Billiards a while back, I wasn't really expecting to see anything beyond that, so imagine my surprise when studio Madhouse announced that they'd be expanding on the short's premise in a full series. Death Parade follows in the same path as the short that preceded it, perfectly encapsulating the tense atmosphere and moral ambiguity that the original short did so well. In addition though, Death Parade also goes a step further, taking the story and premise in new and unexpected directions, mostly in terms of its themes. The result is a show that hits its mark in almost every regard, from impending dread, to extreme tension, to playful comedy, to heartfelt tenderness.

The show takes place in a bar known as the Quindecim, one of many bars headed by "Arbiters" for the purpose of judging the souls of the dead and performing judgements on them. In order to perform these judgements, the deceased are pitted against each other in games they believe their lives depend on, and are pushed to the brink in order to expose the darkest parts of their souls. The show switches between more plot heavy episodes, where background on the afterlife is presented and seeds of later plot points are planted, and more standalone episodes focusing on a single judgement. The show is at its best during these judgements, as this is where the show's superb atmosphere, strong pacing, and subtle visual storytelling are in full form. The way the player's lives and deaths often play off each other, and how their true characters are slowly revealed is often fascinating, and almost always play into the show's overarching themes on the nature of judgement and what it means to truly understand a person. It's an incredibly versatile show, some episodes made me laugh, some made my cry, it's a show capable of expertly crafting moments both devastating and heartwarming. While the plot-focused episodes of the show aren't bad, most of them are a step down from the judgement episodes. I see why they had to be there, but at the same time I could have done with perhaps one less episode focused on exposition.

But still, those early plot episodes were sowing the seeds of a pay off, and boy did it pay off. The final two episodes made for an absolutely fantastic final stretch that was perfect in nearly every respect. It wasn't a grand, thrilling climax, but instead one that explored everything it set up so far to the degree it deserved and came to a conclusion that was both fitting and emotionally powerful. A few scenes in particular were absolutely breathtaking in the way the direction, music, animation, and themes came together masterfully. The show overall is excellent from a production standpoint throughout as well. The show has animation that's fittingly vigorous and impactful during high stakes moments, along with animation that's detailed and emotive during the dramatic scenes. With that and the show's great music, beautiful visual style, and dynamic cinematography, the show is all around very well put together. While some episodes were somewhat weaker than others, Death Parade is an absolute must watch. It balances its different ideas, tones, and themes expertly and brings it all together into a conclusion that wrapped up everything in a satisfying fashion, while simultaneously leaving me wanting more. It's an experience that's brief, yet memorable. A brilliantly realized story that took an interesting premise and went above and beyond in fulfilling its potential.

Final Score: 9/10

Kamisama Kiss S2
Stephanie Getchell

A couple years ago, during my blog's own Impressions series, I came across a series that gave me strong vibes of Fruits Basket. It was an odd little show, but I only managed to complete one episode and dropped it right after. A year, or so, after that, I picked it up again for review purposes since the english dub was released shortly before then and I have a love for J. Michael Tatum roles. After watching it, I questioned myself as to why I even bothered dropping the show in the first place! It was humorous and charming with some amazing dub performances that I never thought were possible! The idea of a second season also didn't seem possible, at the time, but when it was announced that a second season was happening for winter 2015, I hands down knew, then and there, that Kamisama Kiss season two was on my watch list, and after just a few episodes, I decided to make it my staff pick this season. In case you can't tell by now, I reserve my Staff Pick for shows that haven't been discussed during the seasonal reports and ones that I feel certainly deserve a bit more attention. Kamisama Kiss is one of those shows.

The second season picks up right where the first left off, giving us a few new arcs of the story as Nanami continues her new life as the Land God of the Mikage shrine with her familiars Tomoe and Mizuki as well as the shrine attendants Kotetsu and Onikiri. This time, Nanami attends her first Devine Assembly, helps a group of Tengu, and shows Tomoe and Mizuki a thing or two about her past. To some, this may not seem all that new or amazing. To me, I think it's the right move, giving us a natural progression in the story line. However, there is one side story that is unresolved by the end of this second season, that being the Kirihito/Akura-Oh story line. We could be left to assume what happened based on what we got, however, since the manga is ongoing, we know there's more to that story than what we've seen. That's really my only problem with the show, this season. The need for another season in order to tie up even more loose ends is moderately strong, but, then again, I felt that it would have been fine with just the one season. Clearly, I have underestimated the power of the Kamisama fandom.

Kamisama Kiss is also among the massive Broadcast Dub series for FUNimation and is the only sequel to get this treatment (Yona doesn't count, guys). This means Tia Ballard and the previously mentioned J. Michael Tatum return as Nanami and Tomoe. Along with Micah Solusod, Josh Grelle, Jad Saxton, Ian Sinclair, and Joel McDonald as Mizuki, Kotetsu, Onikiri, Otohiko, and Mikage respectively. But we do get some new faces, as of episode six of the Broadcast Dub as well as a bigger role for Brandon Potter who voices Kirihito/Akura-Oh (Akura-Oh did appear in the first season, however Kirihito did not), which, by the way, was a tiny bit weird but I think I'm perfectly fine with it since the Japanese did the same thing. Since I am half way through the Broadcast Dub, I do intend on finishing it so I have something to look forward to there. However, this was my first time going through the series in the Japanese minus the first episode of season one during my Impressions series, making my listen of the Japanese all the more interesting and comparing it to the english. I say it's rather solid in either language track!

Kamisama Kiss is a fun and rather charming series that gets me to giggle as well as cry throughout. The second season not only expands on current stories and relationships even more, but we also get a story going in a natural progression rather than taking more liberties with the material in the hopes of gaining the popularity they need in order to make even more episodes. It will be interesting to see if a third season will be green lit in the coming months, or even years since it's been three since the first season aired. It makes me happy to know that a second season even happened, and it makes me excited at the possibility of a third, but we'll see how it goes. For now, I will appreciate this second season and what it has done.

Final Score: 8/10

Shirobako Cour Two
Joe Straatmann

Time to see how many people I can make hate me in one paragraph. I was late to the Shirobako party because I had no time during my seasonal reviews to pick it up and only barely got to it for the 2014 year-end awards. I wasn't quick to follow it this season because, well, I LIKED season one, but it didn't truly impress me. The main cast are five typical anime women with dreams. It feels like the one who lived outside anime at the start was the one who got the most development and the rest were merely portals to exploring the business. Plus, it's one thing to be an romanticized vision of an industry where employees are regularly paid the equivalent of around $13,000 a year and mostly live in absolute squalor, but it's another thing to have the half he conflicts be so artificially forced and resolutions so starry eyed that I can't believe them. The Deus ex machina of the entire first season is a pleasant late night chat with Hideaki Anno, one of the most volatile people in anime. The man focused 30-45 minutes on one of his films going through a mental breakdown and doing a cinematic equivalent of screaming about how much he HATES ALL OF YOU WHO MADE HIM DO THIS. With this in mind, you can kind of see how this series can come off as a smidge too idealistic, right? So, show of hands, how many of you want to kill me right now?

BUT-and this is very important before you order the hit-the second half is pretty great. For one, the conflicts feel like they're actual dramatized crisis of working in the business. There's the odd running gag about an episode director who constantly tries to escape, but all-in-all, I can see these kinds of things happening every day. Having a manga-ka be the very vague voice of God with the power to potentially destroy an adaptation because of his vague commands his editor won't properly translate because he only cares if what he works on prints money. The new production assistants have much more tangible problems than, "That's our Tarou!" and cueing the laugh track. How do you make an ending for something that doesn't have an ending? How do you balance the reality of objects like jet fighters with making an entertaining show? Shirobako's second cour covers all of these things and more in thoughtful fashion with the fun parts not intruding on the illusion of the whole venture.

What really revs up in the second cour is the delightful supporting cast who infuse so much joy into the project. Kunogi, the extensively shy key animator, steals absolutely every scene she's in. The side trip taken to explore the "mystique" of the character designer is absolutely worth second devoted to it. If you've seen this series, how many moments do the words, "Funny story..." conjure up? Giving more characters with life allows the main characters to open up in ways they couldn't before. Also of importance is one of the main cast not making deep inroads and not becoming one of the youngest this or being tested by possibly having so much forced upon them too soon. They got their foot in the door, but now their foot is stuck there. Even as a piece meant to reinforce love for anime and inspire the makers of the future, it's still important to keep in mind that sometimes, no matter how large your devotion can be and how good your work is, you don't get the opportunities you need to move forward. This is necessary so the people inspired by this don't give up and fight through their difficulties and not have thoughts like, "They make it seem so easy! Maybe I'm not good enough."

The second half of Shirobako feels like the series they set out to make when they first started. It's a near perfect balance of celebrating the history of anime and all the work that took to build into what it is now, an entertaining dramatization of the hell it takes to get through even one thirteen-episode series that-like glimpses into Hollywood-make one wonder how great work ever manages to escape this system, and an entertaining collage of artists, creators, management, and all the helpers tat make the seemingly impossible happen. It just took a little bit of toe dipping and fine tuning before P.A. Works chose to fully dive in. Why not a perfect score? Like most everything involving this show, blame Tarou.

Final Score: 9/10

Yurikuma Arashi
Jonathan Kaharl

This is the first time I've watched an Ikuhara work in full. I've seen chunks of Utena, but never the entire series, and I missed Penguindrum the first time around. Yurikuma is the first time I've finished a work from the acclaimed director (minus a few seasons of Sailor Moon), but I could tell that it was distinctly his work from the first few minutes. The use of line repetition, symbolic imagery thrown in with no logical explanation, themes based heavily around the complexities of human sexuality, ridiculous comedic relief given unexpected depth or menace, magical girl transformation sequences, and of course, a whole lot of lesbians. Yurikuma is the type of strange, pretentious series that always seems to draw my attention the more I see of it, with a weird, almost abstract premise and execution matched with odd yet relatable characters. Just on its own strange merits of the style of direction, I would have loved it, but it went the extra mile.

I've already put Yurikuma Arashi in my personal top ten, tying it with the previously reviewed Melody of Oblivion. By the time I finished it, I knew it was one of the best shows I have ever seen. I understood the appeal of Ikuhara before this series, but now I get why so many people sing his praises. The Melody of Oblivion copied the man's style and made a bizarre, brilliant work. However, it couldn't capture the sheer emotional power Ikuhara can tap into. The ending of Yurikuma has me nearly cry. I felt my heart ache, yet I was smiling for the final few minutes. Not a single piece of media has ever gotten that type of reaction from me. Sure, Pixar's Up got me to cry and nearly cry once more before the climax, but it never got me to stream tears of joy.

Yurikuma's method is masterful. It starts off with a bunch of pieces that don't seem to fit together. Characters have strange tics and catchphrases, everyone has almost illogical traditions and practices they follow, and people repeat exposition for no apparent reason. However, as the show goes on, the world becomes more and more understandable, the use of repetition comes off as a sort of religious chant to reenforce one's faith, tics start to reveal elements of a character's personality and past, and those strange activities are revealed to be just a ridiculous version of real world processes. The show becomes darker and darker as you learn more, because what you learn makes the characters reflect real prejudices and destructive views. The tragedy of being a bear or one of the heard is palpable, and it perfectly reflects the shared hypocrisy between the two major factions of the LGBT community. As a bisexual, the distinctly lesbian focused narrative still hit me hard, tapping into fears and worries I've had for a long time.

But the ending is what elevates the series. It's not super happy nor horribly tragic, but something that feels real. It gives a sense of hope for the future, showing that the world can't simply be changed from just one action, but it can start a domino effect. I don't think there's ever been such a perfect examination of the LGBT world as this show, revealing all the toxic culture that surrounds and even exists inside for those in it, yet suggesting that it all can't last forever, or at least have the power it does now. The world can change as the people do, and it's going to change, even if we have to suffer along the way. It's a beautiful, accurate thought, and the ending for our series main three characters couldn't possibly be more perfect.

Yurikuma Arashi didn't answer every question. It doesn't go deep into the established lore. But it's a series not interested with any of that. It's not a world of strict rules and problem solving, as so many nerd fantasies are, but a world like ours. It's confusing and obtuse, yet has moments of joy and warmth, with people of all sorts scattered throughout. I knew I would love this series, but I wasn't expecting one of the most inherently human stories I've ever experienced would involve cartoon bears eating lesbian school girls. Yet here we are. Yurikuma Arashi is one of the most entertaining and beautiful shows it has ever been my pleasure to witness.

Final Score: 10/10


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