Tuesday, June 30, 2015

:anime: Free/Low-Cost Anime Pick of the Month:: Manager's Special Mk. II!!: Anime Only This Manager Seems to Love…

Saying a little prayer that other people may like these anime. Amen.
(Disclosure: Posted July 14th, intended for June 30. Aside from that date turning extra busy, I wound up writing beyond what I intended to, which turned out for the best in the end…)

Thousands of anime titles have been made over the course of many decades. Naturally, some titles become wildly popular, some not quite as much, and others simply fade away into obscurity, with nary an impression. This is all said on the "collective" level, as in reality, what might tickle one or many a persons may not another, regardless of a work's popularity. Yes, even one's lack thereof hasn't dampen a few people's liking of it, nor should it ever. In short, one should like what they like, and I certain have a track record of liking more than a few shows that others have really not.

For HardDoor's anniversary each year, I like to do a special Free/Low-Cost Anime Pick. This time, we have a sequel to June 2011's "Manager's Special", which was done in commemoration of HD's fifth anniversary. In it, I spotlighted two of my top most favorite shows, Gundam Wing and RahXephon. This time, for its ninth anniversary, I will be showcasing nine particular anime, some under-loved, some not-so-well-loved—all of them not quite that popular in their own ways. However, I liked them quite a bit, and on a personal level, that really is all that matters in the end (and in case you are wary, don't worry, these are all free to watch!).

Lagrange - The Flower of Rin-ne (Rinne no Lagrange)
[ANN Entry - S1, S2] [MAL Entry - S1, S2]
[Neon Alley] [Hulu]

About: A spirited, selfless high-school girl who, after rescuing a peculiar young lady one day on her way to school, is asked by her to pilot a giant robot…

While Lagrange has a fair-to-decent-sized fanbase, it's not a huge title nor a major player on the mecha scene by any means, either. That is a real shame, as it is one of the most refreshing and enjoyable titles in the genre, as well as one of my favorite shows. That it is something of an unorthodox series, mecha or otherwise, likely has a hand in why it is not more loved than it is, but there in lies part of its charm. It has its own spirit, operates by its own rules, and has its own distinct style all over. Even its particular denouement feels very "Lagrange" and true to the series, which making it more enjoyable and acceptable that it might have been on another show. Its vibrant production values and excellent score further help cement its sense of identity and independence, but what really helps makes the series great are its characters, its slice-of-life touches (itself atypical for a mecha series), and the camaraderie between, and the trials of, its affable three main girls.

Dragonaut - The Resonance
[ANN Entry] [MAL Entry]
[FUNimation.com] [Hulu] [YouTube]

About: A boy who closed his heart following a tragic air accident that claimed the lives of his whole family, only to have it opened up again by a mysterious girl, one who may have had a connection to it…

Oh yes, Dragonaut, the most infamous and possibly the most derided title to ever come out of GONZO (Romeo x Juliet, Afro Samurai). And yet, it is also a favorite of mine! Much like the animation house that pumped it out, Dragonaut has received an unnecessary amount of hate towards its way, much of it directed at its busty character designs and its story concerning space dragons and love. The former is rather humorous given the much more brazen content in the beloved Burst Angel from the same studio (which, to go against the grain again, was a horrendous show…but this one gets all the flak…but I digress…) and that character designer Makoto Uno supplied work of a similar level in GONZO's earlier adaptation. The "fanservice" it's chided for is also much lighter than people make it out to be.

Concerning the romance between human and dragon, it works surprisingly well, as does the story as a whole. One interesting aspect about it is that the series plays out in a particular "continual" fashion. Essentially, it's more like one big story, just separated for airtime's sake and the end of each episode simply serving as a "bookmark". Additionally, the way it incorporates plot-related flashbacks, providing further background and context, at the beginning of nearly each episode is quite good. If you like marathon-easy titles, Dragonaut may certainly be up your alley.

The likable characters, their still-great designs, and there relationships amongst one another also play significant parts as to why Dragonaut is as enjoyable as it is, to say nothing of Kousuke Yamashita's grand and well-composed score. I believe much of the show's view came from people that gave up on it very early on and relied only on words of people that where jeering it the rest of the way through, given its content and the in-thing of exaggerated GONZO-fueled schadenfreude. It's a unfortunate, too, because Dragonaut did a very fine job telling the story it wanted to tell, one that had me hooked from the first episode, on.

But as I say, "as long as you like it…"

M3 the dark metal (M3 Sono Kuro Hagane)
[ANN Entry] [MAL Entry]
[DAISUKI] [YouTube]

About: A troubled teen who is conscripted, along with seven others, into a mecha-piloting program aimed at investigating "The Lightless Realm", a dark void of horrors formed a decade prior, and to battle the sublime creatures that originate from it…

From one black sheep, to another, M3 was being propped as something big, having included the likes of talents (and creators) Junichi Sato (director) (ARIA series, Kaliedo Star) and Mari Okada (screenwriter) (anohana, Black Rock Shooter (TV)), and animation studio Satelight (Macross Frontier, Shugo Chara). The result…was an immediate fiasco and embarrassment of an underachiever, as ratings and sales forecasts were so low, its singles release was scrubbed before the first volume ever hit and was re-slated for a box set release, instead (which did not turn out very well, either). Early on, it really is not hard to see why: the main character is virtually unlikable, if not detestable (and he's not the only one…), the "big" production looks cheap, it's overtly dark and heavy, it feels "familiar", there are more questions than answers or explanations, etc. I was even beginning to question why I should keep watching, only a quarter into it…

However, M3 proved itself to be an immensely rewarding and well-made series. While the other characters have their own compelling threads, the series plays more as a study and dissection of its lead. His off-putting personality and a number of details shown earlier pay off big as the show progresses, and we get to observe his gradual change as he comes to grips with a lot about himself. His journey is steady and has its bumps (in the natural, story-sense), but it is incredibly satisfying seeing someone that was so easy to despise, to then see why they were the way they were, and watch them transform into a better, more mature person. The sort of introspection and "healing" that he and the other characters undergo is an absolute trademark of Sato, a common trait found in many of his works. This is by far the darkest and most brutal anime he has done, but through it all, it is still very much a Junichi Sato show, only done very differently from his past series.…

Over time, even the production proves itself to actually be pretty steady and the character designs I derided really grew on me (oddly enough, they are actually in-line with their character designer's style). As more is revealed, nearly everything about the show begans to click and get much more interesting and deeper. Everything felt like it had a purpose and deliberately done a certain way (including the said first quarter). There, indeed, was method to the madness and Sato, Okada, and Satelight did an excellent job making M3. It is a challenging series with a more advanced level of thought to it, both in style and theme, but it is very worthy one, as well.

All that said, I also unequivocally believe that M3 is a remake/retelling of Neon Genesis Evangelion (with a dash of RahXephon), only less sexual, more harsh, and with a mean, abrasive version of Shinji (though I argue he gets pulled through the wringer worse…). Honestly, the only thing that is missing is an official statement stating it as such. The parallels are far too strong across the board, and even the score has one lawsuit-enducing piece that all but is a famous piece taken Eva's score (you'll know it when you hear it). Of course, the producers would never come out and say that, but for a not-remake, it still feels like a work of its own and does enough to distinguish itself from the legendary TV series.

(For the record, I have never been terribly fond of NGE, though I do like the rest of the franchise, so I am not saying this as a rabid fan…)

Blast of Tempest (Zetsuen no Tempest)
[ANN Entry] [MAL Entry]
[Aniplex Channel] [Crunchyroll] [Hulu]

About: A level-headed teenager helping his caustic best friend find the person of murdered his sister—who he was secretly dating behind his back. To find that answer, the latter made a pack with a young and powerful sorceress, who was left stranded on a remote island…

Speaking of Mari Okada, one would have thought that a series with her behind the pen and supervising scripts, Masahiro Ando (Sword of the Stranger, Snow White with the Red Hair) at the helm, a high-quality BONES (Eureka Seven, Space Dandy) production replete with attractive character designs and gorgeously-animated fight sequences, and a story with great twists and turns (on top of twists and turns), excellent and clever writing and dialogue, a sumptuous score, and entertaining characters—with some good Shakespeare influences and a sense of humor, to boot—would be an instant, bona fide major hit.

Well…Blast of Tempest wasn't. Despite doing so much so well and oh-so-good, Japanese audiences never took to it and it bombed in Japan by a decent margin, nor has it seemed to have truly caught on beyond it. I'm sure it being very dialogue-heavy at times, and as well as being a bit more clever and sophisticated than your normal action show, played a major role in that, but the writing and  episode-long battles of mental "chicken" which rivaled even its awesome action pieces were, themselves, among the best things about Blast of Tempest. It is an underappreciated gem in BONES' portfolio—one better than some of the 'hits" they produced…

Hanasakeru Seishounen
[ANN Entry] [MAL Entry]

About: A teenaged girl who agrees to play her tycoon father's "game", where she must choose a future husband from three men he has personally selected…

If Dragonaut was the epitome of me adoring a hated show, then perhaps Hanasakeru Seishounen is the epitome of me adoring a little-loved or obscure show. The series never garnered a substantial viewership, but the fans that are out there tend to have lot of love for it (as tends to be the case for shoujo titles). I count myself as one of them, for a show that may not have had the biggest budget attached to it, but was always filled with much intrigue, machinations, and fine interrelationship play between lead Kaijika and her suitors.

Her quirkiness, charm, and energy are a big bright spot, as are the other slightly-atypical characters, and the show concerns itself more with the international scheming and political stratagem-making than reveling in harem schtick. Hanasakeru Seishounen has very distinct feel and flavor to it that sets it apart from other shows, and while it is still a product of the genre, it makes the formula work for the story, not the other way around. It is a very enjoyable, and at times gripping, watch that's easy to get hooked on once you're reeled in…

Gunslinger Girl: Il Teatrino
[ANN Entry] [MAL Entry]
[FUNimation.com] [Hulu] [YouTube] [Viewster]

About: A group of young girls, abandoned under various circumstances, who have been reconditioned with cybernetic enhancements and trained as assassins for the Italian government . In this sequel, one of the girls meets their match in a boy assassin…

Gunslinger Girl was one of the most praised titles of the 2000s. Its sequel, Gunslinger Girl: Il Teatrino, was one of the most panned of the 2000s. Going from a high-quality Madhouse (Black Lagoon, Death Parade) production to a more simplistic, softer-looking production by Artland (Mushishi, Legend of the Galactic Heroes). The opting of "cuter" designs for the girls. The greater involvement of creator Yu Aida, who co-penned the anime. All of these have been cited as reasons as to why it paled in comparison to its 2003 predecessor. For me, they happened to compose the reasons why I thought it was so much better.

This is to take nothing away from Gunslinger Girl, which was an excellent show. However, it also had a cold and detached feeling to it that was hard to shake. This was owed, in part, to the children's designs, which looked unrealistic (particularly in contrast to the other designs) and too (deliberately?) stiff, to the point of distraction. Il Teatrino's designs made it easier to buy them as children, which in turn made their stark real nature all the more impactful and effective. Perhaps due to Aida, the sequel also had a more personal and atmospheric feel to it, which made me care about the characters much more than I did in the first series. The softer look and color palette went a ways to adding to that sentiment, as did its more centralized plot. In the end, Il Teatrino stuck with me like the first series stuck with others—and likely vise versa.

One could look at this series without having watched the other, but I do recommend watching Gunslinger Girl first, both for some greater context and, in spite of my criticisms, it remains a really good show to watch, thanks to the caliber of its stories and characterizations.

Nyan Koi!
[ANN Entry] [MAL Entry]
[The Anime Network] [Hulu]

About: A boy who doesn't like cats and is allergic to them who now finds himself on a mission to do 100 favors for them, as recompense for accidentally damaging the statue of a cat deity. Fail, and he'll turn into a cat, himself!

Though Nyan Koi didn't do too poorly, for a show as hilarious, enjoyable, at times bold, and all-around very solid as it was, that it would have garnered a greater following and recognition than it has. Doesn't look like you will be getting that second season, Junpei…

[ANN Entry] [MAL Entry]
[Neon Alley] [Hulu]

About: Two friends, one born into poverty, but with extraordinary powers, the other born into great wealth, but possessing no power of his own. The latter yearns to become a champion of justice, but the other holds no such desire, only to live a normal, stable life. In their later years, both find themselves on the path to becoming heroes, but in very different ways…

For all of the bad wrap Zetman received out of the gate, it is actually a pretty good, solid show, with a striking visual style that enhances its dark story. The plot may be muddled at times, but is not too hard to keep up with if you are paying attention and the accusations of sexism are largely overstated, given that it is nothing different than what you have likely seen at some point in other titles (I would say series like Queen's Blade and PSYCHO-PASS have it beat handily, to say nothing of a number of ecchi, harem, and shounen shows. Now, the source manga, on the other hand…).

Where Zetman is at its best is in the way it chronicles the dueling "heroic" paths of its two male leads and their respective family lives. It is possibly its most unsung attribute, and it provides a fascinating—and, in a number of ways, painful—insight into their family dynamics, what makes them them, and what happens once all of that and their ideals get disturbed. Overall, it may not be perfect, but Zetman is much better than what its given credit for…

The Galaxy Railways
[ANN Entry] [MAL Entry]
[FUNimation.com] [Hulu]

About: A young man who, following the untimely death of his beloved older brother, enlists in the Space Defense Force, which is tasked with the protecting the space-spanning railway system.

Lastly, we top everything off with a title that is near-and-dear to my heart, but just never got the kind of love it deserved. Well, maybe it's not too hard to see why: its character designs, storytelling, and sensibilities are all old-school, it's romantic and very lyrical, maybe trains in traveling through space is a bridge-too-far, and it just lacks that wide mainstream appeal. As you might surmise, those are basically all of the reasons why I was so enthralled with it. I'm a big fan of Leiji Matsumoto and his style (visually and narratively) so I immediately I took to the series.

But amid the sharp production values and stirring music, it is also a very heartfelt and effectual series. Each episode or arc has something of depth it is trying to convey to the viewer, and the pacing and deliberate touch of Galaxy Railways exudes a certain aura and feel you don't often get with other series. On that, I unfortunately have to give a pass on the English dub, because as superbly cast as it is, the script waters down and destroys much of the rich meaning to be found in the series, as well as outright changing it and the dialogue, at times, even adding superfluous bits that were never in the original. Thankfully, the Japanese side of it is great…

So, there we have it, nine shows of varying distinction, some dubious, others neglected. Nine shows that I also happened to like much better than most, and hopefully, maybe even you might find something to like here. Too often do I find people passing up on a show simply because a review was negative or other people were. If you find something interesting in a panned or unpopular show, or  already had planned on watching it before bad word spread about it, go watch it anyway, with as clear a mind as possible. Always remember: just because everyone else doesn't like something, doesn't mean you automatically have to hate it, too, or shouldn't watch it, yourself. That may seem like a no-brainer, but reality says otherwise. You never know what you might be missing—maybe even your next favorite show…

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