Shows I liked and disliked in 2013

I am mostly out of touch with the primordial cycle of the seasons, but anime shows come out in 4 separate seasons of 13 episodes each, so now that the Autumn 2013 season has ended, it is time to criticize anime writing.

Yozakura Quartet: Hana No Uta

The original Yozakura Quartet anime was much more subdued; this made it more plausible, but less exciting. Hana no Uta is over-the-top, and for the most part that works out well, although it sometimes gets so whimsical that it snaps me out of my suspension-of-disbelief.

I was very impressed with this reboot. I enjoy each episode; I hope that the writer will manage to deliver a satisfactory plot that will prove to be worthy of all the individual episodes.

Beyond the Boundary/Kyoukai no Kanata

This story takes place in a modern world, much like our own, except for the presence of “youmu,” monsters/spirits which mostly embody the unconscious emotions of humans. Like the monsters of fairy tales (or Jungian psychology) some are humanoid and others and entirely non-human; all have supernatural abilities. Some youmu are pleasant and sweet, but many youmu cause problems because they embody negative emotions such as resentment, fear, rage, etc.

The main character is a boy who is “half-youmu” – his mother is a youmu, and he himself has some odd supernatural powers. He has a lot of negative emotions. Then he falls in love, grows up a little, and becomes a healthier, more complete person. It’s not a bad story, but the “supernatural” element just does whatever the writing committee needs at the moment, so it fails as speculative fiction.

Speculative fiction proceeds from axioms – which are logical, even though they don’t match the audience’s real-world experience. In a speculative fiction story, the writers might introduce a faster-than-light-travel device, and a teleportation device, and the axioms will specify how these devices work differently. The plot will have some conflict that hinges on understanding the rules, and smart audience members will get a little extra intellectual excitement by doing logical reasoning about what could happen, according to the story’s axioms. Death Note is one excellent example of this kind of fiction; another is Hunter X Hunter (2011), detailed below.

Kill La Kill! succeeds as speculative fiction, since most super-powers in the story hinge on a special kind of threads – life fibers – that can be used to make super-empowering clothing. Most of the story revolves around shonen-style duels between super-powered opponents.

Kill La Kill!‘s superpowers are not especially interesting or plausible; they exist to entertain viewers who are already intimately familiar with the stereotypes of manga, anime, and certain characteristically Japanese adventure fiction (such as Fukasaku Kinji’s films). The thrill here is somewhat like Mystery Science Theater 3000; the viewer is encouraged to be enjoy being a film geek. The show is made by the same team that did Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt, and it has a somewhat similar feel, but it’s much less of a parody. I plan to watch it to the bitter end.

Samurai Flamenco also encourages the viewer to be a film geek and to judge its world according to TV stereotypes, but it is a much more highbrow exercise. Samurai Flamenco presents very grown-up and serious treatments of intellectual, social, and emotional issues; and it does so with beautiful visual designs. I have nothing to hate about this show, so I will tell you to watch it and then move on. No doubt I will be posting many reviews of its later episodes.

Unbreakable Machine Doll has a lot of pretty visuals, some of which are noticeably computer-generated. However, some of its computer-generated visuals actually look pretty bad.

The hero is a scion of a notable samurai family. But someone killed his family, so he’s out for revenge, but along the way he will save a lot of pretty girls from various dangers. He mostly fights with the assistance of a magic-powered gynoid girl who is in love – or lust – with him, but he refuses to give her any sexual attention and keeps their relationship strictly focused on fighting bad guys. The setting is a very posh British coed wizard school with 19th-century decor, so Harry Potter fans will want to buy the merchandise. There are shonen-style duels, but they’re pretty boring.

I can’t criticize the bad parts of the writing because there’s almost no writing in this show. The stereotypes just write themselves. This show is principally watchable due to its catchy ending theme.

I’m not planning on watching any future episodes.

Hunter X Hunter (2011) is an updated version of the anime that aired for 62 episodes starting in 1999. It’s a remarkably solid story with an ensemble cast, subtle characterization, and internally consistent super-powers. The super-powers are very loosely based on qigong meditation, so most characters have a good characters have a good reason to meditate and pursue excellence with the single-minded purposefulness of a monk.

As any good Hong Kong kung-fu movie screenwriter could have told you, super-powered monks are excellent characters for young men’s fiction. The kung-fu chop-socky keeps young viewers interested, and the monasticism gives the characters a plausible reason to be celibate adventurers rather than sleazily promiscuous James Bond knock-offs. However, Hunter X Hunter (2011) takes this celibate-pursuit-of-excellence theme and takes it in two interesting directions: (a) a species of non-sexual humanoid insects doesn’t have sex in human terms, and (b) a world-class competitive athlete with a severe disability awakens her pseudo-qigong powers very plausibly under stress. (There are also a few understated hints that some characters do have sex lives – but that topic deserves its own post.)

Stress-activated super-power awakening is a celebrated stereotype of 20th-century fiction. The excellent textbook Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga names this trope “No, Boom,” because a potential super-heroine is put under stress, to which she screams, “NO!” and then her telekinetic super-powers awaken and destroy the bad guys with a huge “BOOM!”

Amazingly, Hunter X Hunter takes this shop-worn stereotype and makes it work. I presume Stephen King will recognize this amazing achievement by sending the writer an autographed copy of Carrie.

Hunter X Hunter can be cheesy at times, but it’s a cut above the typical TV show, and remarkably better-written than most super-hero comic books. This is a show that can pull off a “No, BOOM!” moment so smoothly that I don’t recognize it as a “No, BOOM!” moment until days later. Any show that can do that deserves your attention.

Tokyo Ravens has ordinary visuals, an ordinary story, some ordinary wish-fulfillment, some ordinary fight scenes. Manospherians will note that the hero is a stand-in placeholder for a below-average “beta,” “gamma,” or “omega” viewer with an inferiority complex. The hero is a normal guy, but he goes to a wizard school even though he has seriously subnormal magical talent, and nonetheless multiple girls are in love with him.

12 episodes was more than enough for me. Each one was well done, but I got the sense that this was a mass-produced entertainment product, skillfully ringing fresh changes on old stereotypes, with no soul, no artistic vision, no inspiration.

Non Non Biyori delivers greater-than-average levels of self-conciously “innocent” cuteness. The writing is not great, because there are too many female characters and the relationships are not terribly convincing. In particular, a pubescent city girl moves to the country and develops a weird crush on a very feminine country girl. However, this does not feel like a realistic depiction of adolescent emotion; it feels very fake, as if the writers said, “We can’t do a lesbian relationship in this time slot, but we have to use up the actresses with whom we have contracts. So we’ll make it a totally non-sexual crush.”

There are such things as non-sexual crushes, and teenagers sometimes develop such relationships, but this is not a convincing portrayal. Its artistic vision seems to have been hammered out by a committee of television producers.

I would watch more of this, but I’m pretty sure it’s not going to continue.

Noukome was a very short series, perhaps because the writers knew that they had no coherent plot and they didn’t want to screw up their chances of a sequel. The show had some moments of brilliance, and a few episodes in, I was rooting for it. Before long, it pulled out some remarkably lazy tropes, such as memory erasure. At all times, however, it was a typical anime harem show, and its indulgence of harem stereotypes was flagrant.

I suppose I might watch a second series if they make one, but I am not particularly eager about it. I would just as soon see the same team apply their talents to a different franchise.

Magi (Season 2) is a mostly kid-friendly show with a prepubescent male protagonist who sometimes gets to rub his face on the breasts of adult women. So it’s wish-fulfillment for oversexed ten-year-old boys, I guess, but that hasn’t changed since the first season.

I only started watching Magi because the first season had a remarkably realistic portrayal of the abuse of financial and political power. Unfortunately the second season shows no such intelligently-written conflict. It does have plenty of excessively prettified violence and excessively innocent, high-minded heroes. It could be used as a textbook of why idealistic heroes almost always constitute bad writing.

On the other hand, the writers have introduced a set of mildly interesting pseudo-scientific rules to govern the various forms of fictional magic in the series. That’s nice, but it doesn’t justify sinking half an hour of each week into this show. I have dropped this show, even though it will continue to propel its massive, international merchandising and marketing apparatus forward to profit.

The problem with watching TV is that by the time you have decided that you really don’t like a show (such as Tokyo Ravens or Magi) you might be determined to watch it to the end of the current story arc, just for a sense of completion. The only solution to this is to stop frittering your life away on television – easier said than done! If I am posting similar criticisms of Spring 2014 anime three months from now, you can be sure that I am still frittering like a “freeter.”

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