Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Animated Thoughts: What I've been watching this season

As time marches on, I've been watching more and more Anime television series. On the upside: I find many of the stories are more engaging for people in my demographic than a lot of what we see here in the States. Sadly animation here still suffers under the mistaken view of 'cartoons are for kids', so a lot of what we have here is geared towards the younger crowd's tastes as opposed to the older viewer. Now, there are a good number of shows out there for kids with a lot of depth and heart--like Bluey and Avatar. And I do still love watching the sand animations of Eli Noyes on the Sesame Street YouTube channel. But fortunately, we're seeing an uptick in animated shows geared for the more mature viewer, mainly through streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime (see: Invincible, Critical Role, and Love, Death & Robots). Though I do still see us walking a long road before we see Brad Bird’s view of animation fully realized in the American consciousness as he so eloquently said back in 2015: “Animation is an art form and it can do any genre” (including stories for the middle-aged crowd).

Hence, my watching a lot of Anime. Course, the downside of Anime is that you often have to deal with a lot of overused tropes like the harem/reverse harem. Or a glut of shows chasing the same trend, like "the overpowered protagonist who wakes up in an alternate world" that is currently all the rage. Now don't get me wrong, some of the shows with those tropes can work and can work pretty well--see: Is it Wrong to try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? (both the Familia Myth and Sword Oratoria storylines), the Sword Art Online/Gun Gale Online series and movies, or the "Certain" series: A Certain Magical Index, A Certain Scientific Railgun, and A Certain Scientific Accelerator. But from time to time you still get the feeling of 'been there done that'.

More often than not, before every season starts I'll make a list of six or seven shows that I want to take a look at and see if they're worth following through to completion. My plan allows for viewing the first two (maybe three) episodes to see if they're worth my time and the list gets culled as the season progresses.

I have to say: this past season had some pretty solid entries into the market. I ended up paring my list down from around ten to five--though of those ten, there's two that I do plan on going back and finishing later this year.

The series on my 'must see' list ended up being: Train to the End of the World, HIGHSPEED Etoile, Kaiju No. 8, and BARTENDER Glass of God (all streamed on Crunchyroll) and Delicious in Dungeon (streamed on NetFlix). The two "honorable mentions" that I plan on finishing were A Sign of Affection and Obsolete--though both of those shows were from prior seasons, streamed on Crunchyroll and YouTube respectively.

Train to the End of the World. Now, you might think from the trailer that this is one of those stereotypical 'cute girls doing cute things' Anime. Well, you'd be wrong! From the opening sequences, this Anime takes a hard left turn into the surreal. The whole story follows four girls (and their dog) as they take a train from their home town all the way to Ikebukuro in order to find one of their missing friends. The catch here is that the entire world has gone crazy due to the implementation of "7G" wireless connectivity. But the girls are determined and hijinks ensue at every stop on the way. Now while the banter is entertaining, as is the trouble the girls find themselves in, it's the attention to facial expressions and body language, the "acting", that really makes the series work for me. No matter what challenges they face, they never cease to behave like teenage girls who are at that midpoint between childhood and maturity. And when faced with a bizarre landscape (which they'd been dealing with for two years by the time they decide to make their trek) that is filled with equally bizarre perils, over and over it's their friendship that carries them through to the end. It reminded me of the "Certain" series in that regard: kids that are thrust into an adult world, who have to solve more-or-less adult problems. But they solve those problems as you expect a child (or teenager) would, not in the manner that an adult would--even though they're trying their hardest to act mature at the time. All-in-all, I found it to be a fun, thoroughly quirky show. From the start, you never really doubted what would happen by the end of the last episode, but it was an enjoyable journey to take. Do be warned though, it does get a little silly and a little cheeky in some spots so I wouldn't let little kids watch it.

I don't like watching sports. Never have. Don't like playing them either, though I guess I can see the appeal of playing sports... kind of. But it holds no interest for me for various reasons not really relevant to this post. Now sports movies? Well those I find rather engaging. I thoroughly enjoyed the live-action car racing movie Gran Turismo (based upon the true story of a videogame/simulator and aspiring race car driver Jann Mardenborough)--enjoyed it so much I watched it twice. HIGHSPEED Etoile was another one of those entries. The initial premise was recycled: a ballerina who was sidelined by an injury gets involved in racing instead--same premise as in the Anime Rideback from back in 2009. The main characters from both series even have the same name. But this time it is racing in a future where a new power source allows race cars to propel themselves at a level of speed and skill never seen before. Other sci-fi tropes integrated into the show have a number of the race cars enhanced by AI as well as hologram announcers at the racetracks, a-la Vocaloids. This appears to be a 3d CGI animated show with 2d cel-shaded rendering. The character animation is pretty stiff but the racing sequences are very realistic--I mean, as realistic as they were in the live-action movie Speed Racer. Perhaps "well done" would be a better choice of words. What attracted me to this show is that Rin is not automatically good at the task she's presented with, unlike so many modern (boring) stories nowadays. No, Rin's performance behind the wheel evolves over time as it builds upon her athleticism and coordination from years of studying ballet. And while she does come off as a bit ditzy and clueless, as the show progresses, she grows as a character and loses her naivete. Some folks might not say that this is a "must watch" show, but it "is" another fun ride. If you liked the Emile Hirsch version of Speed Racer, you'll probably enjoy this series.

Kaiju No. 8 wasn't what I expected given that it was produced by Production IG, the powerhouse that brought us Ghost in the Shell. There ended up being a bit of zaniness in Kaiju No. 8 that I found a bit offputting. I went in expecting a serious look at a world beset by giant monsters hellbent on destruction and the people who stood in their way--including the para-military force that destroys them and most importantly, the crews of workers that have to clean up the aftermath (and carcasses) of the Kaiju. This show struck me as something that Studio Trigger would release as visually and performance-wise it had more in common with Kill la Kill or Gurren Lagaan than Ghost in the Shell. I almost stopped watching three episodes in, but stuck it out and Kaiju No.8 ended up being worth the time spent. This is a show with some great action sequences and the story ends up being one with a lot of heart as it follows a middle-aged Kaiju disposal worker in his attempts to live out his dream of becoming a member of the Anti-Kaiju Security Force. In the end, despite the show's occasional overexaggeration of Kafka Hibino's performance I found myself rooting for Kafka and looking forward to the second season.

Bartender Glass of God is one of those shows that is a slow burn. The pacing is relaxed yet there is an underlying tension to the story. The characters and their motivations are revealed across the series--much like watching a slow-motion video of a flower blooming. It's honestly a very meditative show to watch. The story follows Ryū Sasakura, a bartender who is on a quest to mix the "Glass of God"--meaning: that perfect drink for each of his customers. The conflict comes from a hotel owner who wants him to work at his high-end hotel instead of at the bar that where Ryū currently resides. And there are minor conflicts among the side characters that only serve to reveal more and more about Ryū's character and history. This show is a reboot from 2006's Bartender. I'm not sure if I like this series as much as the first one from 2006, but I would definitely say I like them both, just for different reasons.

Now Delicious in Dungeon is the show I've been waiting for. I've been following the manga ever since I discovered it during a break from watching (and reading) Isekai Shokudō--or in English: Restaurant to Another World. Setting aside the fact that Isekai Shokudō is on my "must see" list of Anime, I learned about Delicious in Dungeon (Japanese title: Dungeon Meishi) when I saw it on the bookshelf while looking for the latest manga and light novel translations of Restaurant to Another World. I tried it on for size, as it looked interesting, and I was not disappointed. The story follows a number of adventurers who are trying to rescue (resurrect) one of their friends who got eaten by a red dragon at the lower levels of this magical dungeon. But with little money to work with, they are faced with the prospect of never seeing their friend again or being forced to eat the monsters they kill in order to survive the expedition. Like what the trailer suggests, this show is nice and kooky. If you're into cooking shows and Dungeons & Dragons (as I am), you'll find this a fun romp--especially when you find yourself searching out a number of YouTubers who have made recipes similar to the ones in the show. A word of warning though: while this show is very fun and looks lighthearted, as the story progresses it does get pretty deep and mysterious. There's a lot of meat there, so if you're expecting something light and fluffy from beginning to end, you might want to look elsewhere. It's a 24 episode run on Netflix and, in my opinion, is well worth the time spent. I've watched both the English sub and English dub episodes several times. I can recommend both. And if you have a minute or two to spare, I highly recommend the original animated music video made by Bump of Chicken for the song Sleep Walking Orchestra, which was used for the show's opening title sequence.

Well, the season draws to a close and there's only one episode of Bartender Glass of God left for me to watch. Then once again I'll be pawing through lists of seasonal shows on Crunchyroll, Amazon Prime, Netflix, HBO Max, and Hulu as I look for those shows that not only pique my interest but hopefully become one of the rare gems that adorn my DVD collection.

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