Thursday, April 30, 2009

:anime: Spring Anime Preview '09 - First Episode Review Pt. 1:: FMA:B, Saki, Shangri-La

With all of the anime that gets covered in the seasonal anime previews here on HardDoor, I figured it would be remiss not to provide a follow-up on their coverage. Normally, this would be difficult to do on a timely basis, but it has now been made easier due to the sheer number of companies and studios seeking out online ventures to showcase their newest works (which shows just how far digital distribution and advertisement have come). These reviews are not synopsizes or long dissertations of the episode, but my general thoughts on them (ok, well, some of them are long). This installment covers the first episodes of the series below, and I aim to have another follow-up every fifth episode. I should note that not every show covered is available through "official" means, per se, and coverage may change based on show and time availability. I intend to cover other new shows later, so be sure to keep an eye out! --HD

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

--As someone who didn't like the first adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist, I thought that the premiere of its second adaptation was pretty good. Being a more direct retelling of the manga, it starts off at a different area with a wholly different set of circumstances. I liked how the episode played out compared to the more cursory, slower-paced one from the 2003 version. The characters were never high in my book then, yet I found myself liking them this time around. The animation was very good, though perhaps a little lower than before, and Akira Senju's score mixed well within the scenes. On the negative side, there was a similar over-reliance on super-deformed comic relief (good to use, but can be overdone quickly and also can be ill-fitting in an otherwise serious show). Overall, it was very enjoyable and had a few intriguing moments in it. While there is always the chance that it may descend into what made FMA such a chore to watch, FMA:B is off to a good start.

Natsu no Arashi!

--This was my first foray into a SHAFT/Shinbo production, and for the most part, it turned out to be not that bad. The visuals are quite different from both the promo picture and Jin Kobayashi's designs, but they remained in the spirit of them and had a nice, unconventional look about them. The OP and ED echoed that same sentiment, and similarly, they were enjoyable. However, the "in media res" start was very disjarring, especially for one featuring such a large cast of characters with a number of interconnecting relationships. Since there is no real introduction to any of this, you really have a hard time keeping up with who is who, why or how someone is with another, or what sort of relation anyone has to one another. It opens as if it were any other episode and while that approach can work sometimes, it wasn't quite successful here. However, while the plot played out oddly at first, the payoff at the end was pretty good. Despite my reservations of how they started the series, it was still an enjoyable episode with very good, almost cinematic-looking, visuals and a well-suiting score. It'll be very interesting to see how the rest of it holds up.

Queen's Blade -Rurou no Senshi-

--Ah, Queen's Blade... I nearly forgot what date it was airing until I came across a few reviews of its first episode by chance. I knew it was going to be one of "those" shows going in, but the screenshots defied all forms of comprehension. As such, I decided to break away from policy and watch a raw of it. In the preview, I wrote that its plot was "perfect" for what its source material was and that notion seemed to ring true in its premiere episode, as well as the fact that it would be an exhibition in "ecchi".

Female warriors in barely-there clothes, the main character being topless for practically half of the episode, an oddball, pink-haired girl squirts acid from places one would not think it would squirt from (just guess what role her hand-like hair/bra does), "bounciness", urination...that this was on cable and uncut was laughable and I only hung my head at the sight of brazenness of it all, with the last fight ending in one of the more ridiculous (but sort of funny) ways imaginable.

Over-the-top ecchi material nearly flirting with hentai territory aside, one of the more nagging problems of the episode was the explanatory dialogue, which dragged episode down at times and, as often the case, felt like a crutch in explaining parts of the story or a situation rather than just letting it play out or dispensed over time. The "action" scenes also suffered, as most of them (outside of the salacious first one) were too short, lacked actual action, and consisted mostly of speed lines and stills.

While the episode was more nudity- and shock-fest than anything fantasy or action-driven (more so than expected), there were a few positives to be found. As noticed from the trailer and animation character designs, the production quality was pretty high--especially for an ecchi show--and looked very good (of course, spending extra attention on certain details...). The highlight for me was the score, perhaps the best I've heard thus far this season. It was well-composed and had a memorable theme to it, with the most catchy piece being an instrumental version of the OP (not featured in this episode) used for the next episode preview. Good voicework from the cast of established VAs also helped make the episode watchable (during non-echii moments) and mildly enjoyable on some level.

Though it tried to serve two masters in being a serious fantasy tale and nudity/fetish exhibition, it was somewhat "refreshing" to see something of its ilk try to be something more and tell a straight-out story (when nothing lewd was going on)--even if it wasn't pulled off very smoothly. In short, I didn't hate it as many others did, but I can't say it was a very promising start, either. Without its production values and score, it would have essentially been mediocre.

Ristorante Paradiso

--Moving onto something far more pleasant, it was both a surprise and a fortunate opportunity for Ristorante Paradiso to receive an online broadcast. Its artistic style is prevalent throughout, be it the design work, the atmospheric score, or the color palette. The opening episode set the story nicely without feeling routine or too much like a "roll call" of characters. The most interesting, and for some, its most divisive, aspect is that the waiters and staff of the host club-ish establishment are all older men, one of whom catches the eye of the 21-year-old lead. It's a really dicey play, considering that most harem types are usually younger men or women, and the idea of a young woman falling for a much older man may turn people off instantly, but in reality, that sort of thing does happen and the way it was handled here was believable and went fairly smoothly. In a genre so loaded with cliches and stereotypes, it was refreshing to see a story go outside the box. The episode as a whole worked very well and was complemented nicely by very good voicework and its OP and ED. It certainly had me looking forward to the next episode, which based on the preview looked...quite intriguing... ;P


--I know very little about the inner workings of mahjong, outside of seeing it played in a few anime, but that did little to stomp on my enthusiasm over Saki and its first episode. Admittedly, it was a little difficult following all of the terminology and lingo being used, but it wasn't a great detraction to the show, as the game played out in a humorous, over-the-top way in the spirit of sports anime. Its premiere episode was perhaps my favorite among the bunch, which made rewatching it easy, with the characters as fun, amusing, and very likable as they were.

This being the first GONZO show post-restructure, it looked surprisingly crisp and well-drawn, with minor discrepancies noticeable only upon the second viewing. Its most curious aspect was its use of CGI models in close-ups of the characters moving tiles and even in cases of whole characters themselves. It's a money-saving, innovative, and interesting method of presentation that reminded me a bit of AIC's Magical Play style of blending 2D and 3D graphics. While the contrast is apparent most of the time, the style of the 2D's animation and character designs lend to the blending looking more natural and seamless, giving the animation as a whole an identity and distinction. I found myself enjoying the show initially and much more so the second time around (partially due to understanding the game more). The translation notes were a big help and well-appreciated, and I hope that they appear again in latter episodes (including some of the ones that were shown here, or that a page is posted on Crunchyroll explaining the lingo). Overall, a great start to a potential of favorite of the season.


--Speaking of favorites, Shangri-La was the show I was looking to most this spring (with Saki following close by), and for the most part, it got off to a decently good start. I don't go all the way for it because its plot and world were a little difficult to follow (some aspects, such as the carbon market, made a little more sense on the second viewing) and there were pacing problems at various parts. My reservations on the Range Murata-to-Kumi Ishii character designs were partially resolved, as they looked, at different times, elegant--almost dead-on with the former's and reminiscent of the latter's own pleasant designs.

However, while they looked good overall in animation, there were more than a few times that they had an awkward appearance to them, almost as if the staff couldn't quite decide on the appropriate look they should have--either Murata's, Ishii's, or a blending of both. This was noticeably apparent in the lead, Kuniko, who waffled more between a blending and something totally different, leading to some discrepancies in her depiction. On the subject of her, while I found Kuniko to be an affable character, it was hard imagining her as being the 18 years-of-age that she's supposed to be, judging by her young teen looks and temperament. Kenichi Yoshida's design for the original novel was more convincing, and the anime's version (par for the course for GONZO's type of fan-bait female designs) make it difficult to accept her age, especially when all of the characters treat her like the opposite.

Another detraction came with the sinewy discussion of said carbon market, which aside from being hard to follow, also dragged the episode to a crawl with its slow pace and length. As another of GONZO's post-restructure projects, it looks very good, but perhaps a step below Saki (to be honest, that one has a different, brighter art style and relies on CGI for mundane elements such as close-up movements and some entire shots). All of this may make Shangri-La's first episode sound like a miss, but it was still good in spite of its misgivings. Most of the characters were interesting, the OP was very good and the ED was superb, and the story and setting hold a sizable amount of intrigue, enough so to make you anticipate what will happen next and these people from quite different sides will interact with one another. A somewhat shaky start, but there is still plenty to look forward to in the show.

Shin Mazinger Shougeki! Z-hen

Umm...what just happened?

--Those were my thoughts throughout and following my viewing of Shin Mazinger's first episode...or whatever episode(s) it was. I was a big fan of Go Nagai mecha shows and had expected some bizarre shenanigans to occur (a la Getter Robo Armageddon, which director Imagawa was once connected to), but this episode really pushed it.

So let's go over what happened: Kouji introduces himself to the audience, the climax of the final fight of the series is shown, then the story is slung back before then with an all-out attack on Photon Labs (done in both the vein of classic Nagai mecha and Imagawa superhero action) by the presumable forces of Dr. Hell, Kouji and Mazinger Z fight on valiantly, then something else happened, something, something, mob lady intently watches, something(s)/someone(s) gets destroyed, people fight, something something, backstory revealed, something else happens, Zeus appears...oh wait, that happened before that other thing did..., more people and stuff die, followed by more introductions, umm...other things happened, so-and-so is on some person's side now, and it all "concludes" with Kouji facing off against Dr. Hell's forces that had gotten wiped out already...or something like that. Cue pop ED.

As someone who possesses a great adoration for chaotic, outlandish, and over-the-top stories, even this one was a stretch. The episode was clearly meant to be a preview or appetizer of sorts, but the way it was accomplished was a complete miss. Things happened, names and faces were being flung about, apparently-important people got killed off, literally pointless fighting all about--there was no form of structure or coherence; stuff just happened and it was too much of a blur for any of it stick in any interesting manner. If one is going to go down the "what's going on?" route, there still has to be some noticeable train-of-thought so as not to make it seem aimless (a "method to the madness", if you will...). It's one thing to start your series off on that note, but it's another to compile so much of it so carelessly. I likened it to being akin to one of those episodes of that anime shown in Kannagi, which were so random and made absolutely little to no sense, only those were intentionally funny and this was not.

On another front, Imagawa was clearly trying to invoke some of Giant Robo's sensibilities, as well as Mazinkaiser's and Getter Robo Armageddon's, but the end result was anemic and didn't have the kind of impact one would think such a combination would have. The animation production wasn't up to par with the other Nagai and Imagawa works mentioned, either. While it is to be expected that a 26-episode series wouldn't have the high level of work of those shorter ones, it was still unremarkable and disappointing, and capable of better. I could rail on about the episode's shortcomings but in short, it was an total mess.

On the bright side, it had one good, albeit unintentionally funny, scene, and that was Zeus' appearance (including his non-appearance when Kouji--the person he personally told he was going to protect--and Mazinger were getting strangled by a monster towards the end).


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