Thursday, April 07, 2016

:anime: HardDoor's Seasonal Anime Preview 2016 Special:: noitaminA (Spring, Summer)


After so long, finally Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress (Koutetsujou no Kabaneri) sees the light of day on noitaminA!! First announced late 2014, the series appeared poised to air with the other titles it was announced with, only to have next to nothing said for months on end. Instead, ERASED/BokuMachi was announced out of the blue and slated for the winter.  It was only until December that anything was revealed about Kabaneri, and what the news yielded since then were beautiful visuals, character designs by a returning legend, a potentially faint-inducing ED duet from Aimer and EGOIST's chelly, and yes, more comparisons to Tetsuro Araki and WIT STUDIO's much-much-lesser-known work, Attack on Titan

But before we continue, we must address the giant Tita—err…elephant that has waddled into the room recently. Amazon, much like Netflix, has expressed their desire in the past to get involved on the anime scene. Anime disc sales may not reach heights of others, but have been steadier than other sectors. Crunchyroll is ranked comfortably among subscriber-based streaming services, bested only by the top, broader-based dogs in the business. Manga can, at times, occupy a quarter to half of the spots on the bestselling graphic novel lists in the U.S. And, Hollywood has stepped up its drive at acquiring movie rights to properties (most notably, All You Need is Kill/Edge of Tomorrow, and the upcoming Ghost in the Shell and DEATH NOTE). While anime (and manga, to a lesser degree) is not mainstream-level industry, it has been solid and consistent-enough a player across a number of platforms, shown discernible growth, and holds a fanbase of sufficient size, reliability, and passion that other, big-named entities have shown a keen interest in capitalizing on it.

While these entities may not be at the point were they feel confident about putting out physical discs, many online video types have vied to least gain a property's streaming rights. Within the last two years, that effort has extended to pinning exclusive rights, if not outright helping produce the show—a major deal, with the entertainment market teetering more towards a digital distribution-centric model. As a result, Netflix has nailed down Knights of SidoniaThe Seven Deadly Sins, and the upcoming Kuromukoro, Crunchyroll possesses Garakowa, the heavily-hyped Mari Okada-written, TRIGGER-animated show KIZNAIVER, and has helped fund Ojisan and Marshmallow, whereas FUNimation has helped produce Dimension W, which is currently airing on Toonami.

Beyond a simple money grab, there appears to be a genuine level of appreciation for and interest in anime coming from the overtures of Netflix and Amazon's personnel. The market has been on the latter's wide-reaching, domination-minded radar, and they made their first move by delivering the shocking announcement of gaining worldwide streaming rights to Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress. While they have streamed anime from the likes of Viz Media and FUNimation for years, Amazon had never obtained rights for themselves. That it was not only be a very high-profile series, but also a noitaminA one—which had long been a Crunchyroll/FUNimation domain—was very surprising. However, an even greater bombshell was dropped three days later, when during their big annual scheduling conference, Fuji TV announced that Amazon Prime would become the exclusive streaming home for all future noitaminA shows worldwide, Japan included!

There is quite a lot to unpack here. First, it should be noted that noitaminA has dealt with cash issues in the past. For a block that has prided itself on going beyond the norm of usual anime fare and its otaku demo and delivering more mature-minded and "adventurous" titles, generating revenue from merchandising and discs is less of an assurance. Failure can sting more in this instance, and the block was nearly done in by the 2011 flops of Hourou Musoko/Wandering Son (highly-praised, but Japan's squeamish attitude on transgender topics doomed it from the start) and the well-hyped Fractale (poster child of Murphy's Law with its production…).  The block recovered in subsequent years with the success stories of anohana, PSYCHO-PASS, Your lie in April, and Saekano, but their 10th anniversary film project, consisting of the Project Itoh trilogy, PSYCHO-PASS movie, and The Anthem of the Heart, would occupy a sizable amount of noitaminA's budget. The move was enough for Fuji TV to scale back their TV output from two series per cour to just one last April, but the collapse of troubled studio manglobe—who was in the midst of animating Project Itoh's Genocidal Organ—and the delay of the film that followed likely put a further squeeze on the block's wallet.

With the desire to produce the kind of quality, non-conforming work that they wanted to, mixed with the specter of money woes and the weight of risk/reward with a particular title's appeal, it is difficult to be surprised by Fuji TV signing such a deal with Amazon—as much as it feels like a surprise on the surface. That they were offered an incredible (if not record) amount, as rumored, should not come as a great surprise to anyone with an ear close to the business world, either. Amazon is as famous for its online marketplace and massive revenue as it is notorious for its massive losses and questionable level of spending and expansion projects (the running joke being that Amazon, for everything, never makes a profit). They are a maverick outlet, to say the least, and are not afraid to take chances—not when it means they can be the ruler and one-stop of whatever field they deserve.

As a leading e-retailer with tentacles in many areas, it also means that Amazon has access to massive amounts of valuable data, and that includes anime video sales, merchandise, and streaming numbers. As Hulu, Netflix, and others have found, anime can be a consistent and strong-enough market worth partaking, and perhaps even investing, in on some level. It seems apparent that someone within Amazon's content acquisition team or elsewhere knew their Japanese animation, as well, as "noitaiminA" is not something on the lips of the mainstream or casual fan (that is, if Amazon initiated the offer, not Fuji TV offering Kabaneri and/or the block first). Be it that, someone doing their research, or hitting the nail just right, Amazon acquiring exclusive rights for something of noitaminA's stature and track record as their way of kicking off their foray into anime (either streaming-deep or going as far as physical discs) was a very major and wise choice on their front. The amount of money they paid might look like a lot from the usually-spendthrift anime production side, but for Amazon, and compared to some of their other, more harried ventures, ponying up for an small block of anime (or at least for the five announced shows pegged though next year) was likely a drop in the bucket for them.

The keywords, however, are "on their front", as the benefits could be trickier for Fuji TV. On one hand, they have the dream stack of cash they can really drive their work with (Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, depending on where they are in its production, doesn't look cheap, so having dependable cash backing should be reassuring). Also—if it is in the cards—they also have a definitive avenue, albeit online, to showcase their works unencumbered by broadcast censorship standards and without being "watered-down" (which may explain the violence and some of the bare breasts on the zombie-like "Kabane" in Kabaneri's PVs and the risque Scum's wish (Kuzu no Honkai) being adapted in Jan. 2017).

On the other hand, what else will they gain? One of chief drawbacks of the deal is Amazon Prime Video itself, which is currently only available in Japan, U.S., U.K., Germany, and Austria, leaving large swaths of markets in the dark for the streams (compared CR and Netflix, whose reach goes farther). Options for partaking of the service are even more limited, as it is only available to Amazon Prime subscribers and the only current payment plan available is for $99 /year**. In a market concerning anime fans, where you are likely to find ones paying for any combination (often 2-3) of CR, Netflix, Hulu, or FUNimation, adding a $99, all-or-nothing bill on top of that is not the "simplest" of options— and a detraction that has been commonly made. While Prime comes with some nifty perks, such as free two-day shipping, is it so attractive that one would be willing to furlough one of their existing subscriptions, particularly when Prime's anime library is lacking the depth of a CR or FUNimation, or when many of those very titles can be found there and elsewhere? Of potential greater concern is whether the exclusive deal may alienate fans in the long term, now that online access has been greatly narrowed. Fuji TV may get the money, but the impact it may have on the block's popularity, their/its perception, as well as the number of people who may seek "other avenues" to watch their programming, remains to be seen.

It is as easy to find fault with the noitaminA-Amazon deal, but, in all fairness, it is difficult to blame Fuji TV for going along with, as well. They get the aforementioned funds they often yearn for, brand cache with a global force like Amazon, and perhaps, a raise in profile from it. This is also quite the substantial news for the anime industry at large, worldwide. As far as ambitions go, the implications stretch to an unknown depth. Will Amazon seek to grab a larger slice of the streaming market, outright buy major players, and/or rights to large swaths of shows? Is the physical disc market in their crosshairs? Will the amount of money being thrown towards Fuji TV's way cause other broadcasters and producers to perhaps court or consider Amazon first? These are questions more for keeping in mind than predictors of the future, but with the ever-advancing and -shifting world that is the digital distribution industry and the aspirations of a hungry company like Amazon, nothing is ever a clear given or certainty.


Alright, we've talked plenty about the state of noitaminA, so let's get down to the real meat of the block—the shows!!

Autumn's Fune wo Amu/The Great Passage, winter's Scum's wish, and next spring's Saekano sequel have already been scheduled, but we will be covering the respective spring and summer works of Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress and BATTERY the animation (which feels slightly odd to type after ERASED/BokuMachi…) in this edition. As per "tradition", there tends to be an unintended commonality or theme among the works. This time, it is the second go-around for returning directors, with GUILTY CROWN's Tetsuro Araki & Kabaneri and House of Five Leaves/Sarai-ya Goyou's Tomomi Mochizuki & BATTERY. Additionally, it is also that of surprise or unexpected contributions, with legendary character designer Haruhiko Mikimoto coming out of nowhere to supply the character design for the former and the masterful Akira Senju making his noitaminA debut with a score for the latter! While I can't really find myself spotlighting any of these as "Free/Low-Cost Anime Picks" because of Prime's cost** (barring the deal not being as "exclusive" worldwide, as some have questioned), I will continue do previews for noitaminA (which I was already doing before its titles were regularly being streamed, so hey…). Besides, this is HD's fifth anniversary of doing them!

And so, for the eleventh time, let's preview the upcoming offerings of noitaminA!!

**[Update (04/18/16)]: As of April 17th, Amazon began offering a video-only, monthly Prime membership ($8.99 /month), and a monthly version of its full Prime one ($10.99 /month). The $99 /year option for the latter, which is cheaper in the long run at a rate of $8.25 /month, is still available.

©Kabaneri Committee

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress
Alt Title: Koutetsujou no Kabaneri

Debut: April 7, 2016
Director: Tetsuro Araki
Links: Official Site, ANN Entry, MAL Entry
Video (Pay* {Streaming, Download-to-Own}: Amazon Prime Video (*subscribers-only)
Picture Source: Slightly edited (pillarboxes removed) from Official Site (main image)

Synopsis: The populace on an island country are confined to fortified cities, as their nation is infested by horrific undead beings known as "Kabane", whose bite can turn others into one of them and whose steel hearts make them difficult to kill. In order to make the treacherous journey between the walled "stations", the citizenry make use of heavily-reinforced steam locomotives. A mechanic on the "Hayajiro", however, has devised a special weapon with his friend that they believe will help them turn the tide against the monsters…

Personal Take: Well…let's address the immediately-obvious: Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress is eerily similar to the work that instantly put WIT STUDIO on the map and pushed Tetsuro Araki even further onto it: Attack on Titan. (Hmm…didn't I say something like this before…?) There's the walled confines humanity has found themselves in. The man-like, man-eating (or, at least, -biting) beings. There's the fancy, hoppity action with characters taking down said beings with finesse. There's the bold visual style. That telltale Hiroyuki Sawano score. And that intense lead prone to yelling…

It is quite easy to draw parallels between WIT STUDIO's first and latest, but I will instead say that Kabaneri looks like the "Greatest Hits" or "Best of" of Araki's directorial career. Aside from the aforementioned, you have Highschool of the Dead's zombie terror, an OP from GUILTY CROWN's EGOIST (which was an in-story group who eventually became a real-life project), an atypical spin on feudal-era Japan a la KUROZUKA, something fantastical happening to the protagonist's right appendage as in GC, and Mamoru Miyano, who rose to fame playing Light in DEATH NOTE, having a role of unspecified import (at the time of this writing). Of course, it also wouldn't be an Araki production without the high production values, attention to aesthetic fidelity, great music, (very) bloody violence, some boundary/envelope-pushing, and, depending on what happens, some bold displays of sexuality…

For Araki, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress also represents his chance at redemption over GUILTY CROWN, which came five years prior. That series was not only his first foray onto noitaminA, but it was also his first original anime. It was bursting at the seams with talent and inherent potential, featuring songs produced by supercell's ryo, original character designs by redjuice, and a story penned by Code Geass duo Hiroyuki Yoshino and Ichiro Okouchi (in an associate role), and animation by Production I.G. However, GC turned into a derided affair, facing particular criticism over its writing throughout, among other issues. Even Araki admitted that it did not live up to exceptions, which leads to Kabaneri serving as a "redux" of sorts—only tapping the other Geass writer this time around.

Concurrently—and perhaps, a little more importantly—Kabaneri also represents WIT STUDIO coming full-circle. GUILTY CROWN was born in I.G's "Division 6" sub-studio, where the producers of the anime would take what they sought with the title and what they learned from it, and spun the studio off into WS. GC, ostensibly, was part-testbed, part-breeding ground, and part-rough draft for their ideals and their philosophy in what they wanted to accomplish in the medium of anime. Attack on Titan was their first true application of their mindset, aiming to deliver a bold, high-quality production with passion and freedom—with Madhouse defector Tetsuro Araki embodying that spirit. They brought what they learned from GUILTY CROWN into WIT STUDIO, and now, after achieving such a height of success, they are now bringing what they learned from AoT into Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress.

And what they have brought, at least visually, looks very accomplished. Its quality is what one has come to expect from Araki and now WS, not to mention such a concerted effort on a major title (and possibly one touched by funds from Amazon). Personally, Kabaneri's highlight lies in the unexpected involvement of Haruhiko Mikimoto (Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, Gunbuster. Gundam 0080), whose character designs look lovingly-rendered. The bulk of his work hails from the '80s and '90s and the last major work to feature his designs, Tytania, was almost a decade ago, so seeing them here has been a very pleasant surprise. It has been interesting seeing the reaction of younger fans remarking about the "retro" look and how different it is from the usual fare. Mikimoto's style was distinct even in his heyday, and in today's world, it gives Kabaneri an extra layer of character.

Aurally, the show also marks a full-circle return for Hiroyuki Sawano. Ryo may have gotten the marquee credit for "music" in GUILTY CROWN's promotional material (which is not inaccurate, as the Japanese count the songs as part of the show's "music" and not strictly its score), but it was then-unknown Sawano who would come out of it as the star. Alongside his work on Mobile Suit Gundam UC (Unicorn) in the same period, he would become the kind of name that one, too, could market a show behind. Sweetening the pot, in an ironic way, is Sawano fave Aimer and EGOIST's chelly singing the ED theme together…

Will Kabaneri be any more "original" than GC? Who is to say. It at least feels fresher and less cliche-riddled, though I can't say I am completely pumped for it, either. The familiarity works against it as much as its cool factor works for it, but in the end, it will come down to two things: execution and—especially for Araki shows—the script work. If both are there, then Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress should make for a great unofficial fifth anniversary for WIT STUDIO…

©2016 Atsuko Asano, Kadokawa Bunko/"Battery" Animation Production Committee

BATTERY the animation
Alt Title: BATTERY

Debut: July 14, 2016
Director: Tomomi Mochizuki
Studio: ZERO-G
Links: Official Site, ANN Entry, MAL Entry
Video (Pay {Streaming}: Amazon Prime Video
Picture Source: As is from Official Site (main image)

Synopsis: A middle-schooler who loses himself as a pitcher after having to relocate to a mountain town is approached by one of his new classmates about forming a pitcher-catcher combination, or "battery"…

Personal Take: Given how popular sports anime is in Japan and how natural a strong narrative can be carved from such subject matter, it is surprising that this is only the second sports-based show to appear on noitaminA (after 2014's PingPong The Animation), and the first to revolve around Japan's favorite pastime, baseball.

As stated earlier in the Preview, BATTERY marks the return of veteran director Tomomi Mochizuki to the block. He is no stranger to the topic of baseball, having directed 1998's Princess Nine, and he will also be penning the series, as well (as he did with House of Five Leaves). However, this also marks the return of Atsuko Asano's work, whose NO.6 novel series was adapted in 2011 and also focused on the relationship between two boys. It was much better received than I had anticipated, so I expect that BATTERY, combined with its baseball theme and the summer season, will generate some decent buzz in Japan. Materials adapted for noitaminA tend to also by award-winners, and BATTERY had won the 1997 Noma Prize for Juvenile Literature and the 2005 Shogakukan Children's Publication Culture Award. Handling the character designs will be another returnee in Hourou Musoko/Wandering Son creator Takako Shimura, whose design work maybe more widely-recognized from the hit mecha show, ALDNOAH.ZERO (directed by HM/WS' Ei Aoki).

One interesting aspect about the production, however, is the one behind it. ZERO-G is something of a "relaunch" of studio "Zero-G Room", which predominately did sub-contract work going back to the '90s and whose animation productions consisted of the Shadow Skill OVAs, Hyper Speed GranDoll…and the M.D. Geist series. Hiroshi Negishi, who co-created Saber Marionette J and directed both Shadow Skill series, took the "ZERO-G" name and its wealth of experience, and essentially restarted the studio from scratch in 2011 (he also apparently founded a new AIC sub-/studio called "AIC Project" in 2014—with nearly the same core leadership—where he aims to produce one "Saber Marionette J - The Last Story" OVA). It continued its predecessor's penchant for sub-contracts until BATTERY, which looks to be ZERO-G's coming-out party judging by its presence on their website and it being their "first" full production. With both approaching their (sorta) fifth anniversaries, and given how both were founded, who would have thought there would have been so many parallels between Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress' popular WIT STUDIO and BATTERY's lesser-known ZERO-G?

While BATTERY may not grab me automatically, it also feels like the kind of show that I could also easily get into, as I like slice-of-life types a great deal. The series also looks very nice and has the added bonus of Akira Senju (Victory Gundam, Valvrave the Liberator, Red Garden) making his noitaminA debut with the score. He is not the first name that would come to mind for something like this, but his work often adds a layer of depth and gravitas to a project—and he is one of my top favorites, so I'm not complaining. There are many interesting pieces coming together to form a battery for the series, and I hope it turns out as well as it potentially could.

-Extras Gallery-

©Kabaneri Committee
[Second, and current, Kabaneri main promo picture; Slightly edited (pillarboxes removed) from Official Site (main image) (shares same file link as the series' profile picture above, which it replaced)]

[Update 04/08/16]: Revised portions of preview, added additional links, an "Extras Gallery", & copyright info for the pictures.

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