The second week of the winter 2010 anime season has concluded, and Weekly Anime Review has been resurrected! We’re still hashing out which shows we’ll be watching, but for the time being the strongest contenders are Level E, Madoka Magica, Fractale and Star Driver. Both Dream Eater Merry and Gosick are on thin ice… if they don’t show substantial improvement by episode three, they’ll be dropped. For our more in-depth coverage of each anime’s premiere episode, please check out the First Impressions posts under the Weekly Anime Review tag.
Legend has it that spoilers lurk beyond the break, so tread lightly. If ye be brave enough, leave us a comment with your own thoughts on these anime. We really do enjoy your feedback!
Madoka Magica #2 and 3
This show is thus far following a very traditional plot called the monomyth, better known as The Hero’s Journey. This basic narrative structure is present in many ancient mythologies, as well as more contemporary works like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. In fact, Madoka Magica has many parallels to the original Star Wars trilogy. In the first episode, ordinary schoolgirl Madoka (Luke Skywalker) was introduced to a larger world of mysterious forces, before being saved from death by a wise mentor named Mami (Obi-Wan Kenobi). The second episode is lagerly an exposition dump, wherein Mami explains the nature of magic (the Force) and offers the girls an opportunity to gain this power as well, to join her in battle against an evil foe who subsists on negative emotions, known as Witches (the Sith). The girls are reluctant to join, until a tragedy (the death of Luke’s parents) forces them to reconsider.
A lot of people were completely stunned by the death of Mami in episode three, but I can’t say I was that surprised. Monomyth structure usually has the hero motivated by some sort of deeply personal tragedy, and the wise old mentor character ALWAYS bites the dust in the first act. What really foreshadowed Mami’s death though was the scene preceding it, where the poor girl gives a long speech about how happy she is to have a new friend. It felt like that famous scene from Hot Shots, where prior to a dangerous mission the aptly-named pilot Dead Meat cheerfully kisses his beautiful wife, finds the cure for global warming, discovers evidence for the JFK assassination, and tries to sign his life insurance policy but fails because his pen has run out of ink. We get it! He’s going to die! Stop beating us over the head with it!
Obvious foreshadowing aside, these two episodes were great. The monomyth is a tried-and-true plot structure, and Madoka is doing an excellent job of implementing it. The exposition dump didn’t feel as clumsy or poorly plotted as what you usually see in anime, and the death of Mami carried enough weight to accurately convey the sense of visceral danger surrounding the witches. Shinbo’s visuals also continue to impress, maintaining the unsettling atmosphere that makes this show so unique. However, the best parts were the metatextual Faustian references and magical glyphs, which help to establish a mythology and mystery not dissimilar live-actions shows like Lost or X-Files. Analytical types like Dustin are going to enjoy dissecting this show piece by piece, looking for that one tiny clue that will reveal the shape of things to come.
Next episode is going to be a pivotal one, the true test of writer and director alike. How our protagonists deal with Mami’s death will define their characters and motivations for the rest of the series, and this definitely has the potential to derail the show if handled badly. I also hope that Madoka goes through some meaningful development as a result of this tragedy, since anything less would leave her character a bit generic. We can’t stay naive forever, after all. For now, however, this show is flawlessly presenting a fresh and fascinating take on a classic mythic structure. I have no qualms about awarding it a perfect score.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Level E #2
The jokes in the second episode are a little less rapid-fire, but that’s more than made up for by the great characterization and further development of what seems to be the main plot. Miho really comes into her own in this episode, showing off the skills she picked up as the daughter of a military man and proving herself to be far more capable than Yukitaka. In fact, she figures out he used to be punk, a theory that’s more than backed up by his short temper and violent behavior. Prince Baka, of course, isn’t left out of this character development. Although he has good intentions, he is more than willing to bend (or break) the truth in order to make his screw-ups seem perfectly okay. I’m quite happy that all three of the characters are becoming nuanced like this. It means there’s plenty of room for them to grow and, and it lets their personalities interact in multiple ways. I’m very interested to see where their relationships go next.
The narrative is compelling, too. At first I thought this might be a monster-of-the-week or survival-plot type show, but there’s a much grander story at work here. Besides the mysterious background information (two alien races who hate each other somehow living peacefully on Earth), Prince Baka is an integral part of the upcoming galactic summit. In true action-movie fashion, if he doesn’t get there the universe will descend into all-out war. And also in true action-movie fashion, there’s a group of malevolent aliens trying to stop him. So now the crucial pieces are in place: we have the protagonists, the stakes and genuinely menacing villains. All that’s left is to see how it plays out.
I, for one, can’t wait.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Star Driver #15
Emboldened by their streak of great episodes, the Star Driver writers attempt to do a melodramatic story again and manage to make it work quite a bit better than what happened with Sugata’s short-lived coma plotline. It’s still not perfect, though. The destruction of the drawing of Mizuno and Takuto would work much better (and be far less silly) if Mizuno physically tore it apart instead of having it suddenly explode in the black abyss of metaphor. And the flashback to Mizuno rejecting her sister’s hand was so unnecessary and over-the-top that it made me audibly groan.
That said, there’s plenty of good to say about this episode. Aside from the usual things I praise Star Driver for (art, dialogue and characterization), the endless recursion of time Mizuno ends up in repeats just about the right amount of times and has enough variations that it’s interesting to see her resolve slowly crumble. And while Mizuno is clearly the focus of the episode, Sugata’s little storyline with the Glittering Crux head reaches a cool turning point when he gets offered the position as leader of the organization. Considering how Star Driver loves to revisit all these threads it starts, I doubt Sugata’s initial refusal spells the end of this arc for his character. Where Star Driver’s plot actually goes next, though, is anyone’s guess.
And you know what? I really like that.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Wolverine #2 (DROPPED)
I’m going to make this quick, because I really don’t want to spend another 1000 words on this show. Short version: episode two is terrible. Just really, really bad and nonsensical. Wolverine is unconscious for half the story, a completely new character does most of the work for him (after telling him her life story, of course), and the villains’ plans to defeat Wolverine are so hilariously inept and roundabout that it feels like I’m watching an old episode of G.I. Joe. It certainly doesn’t help that the half-assed animation makes the action scenes sterile and boring. I would honestly prefer the CGI Iron Man to this crap.
Needless to say, I won’t bother watching any more of it. As disappointing as Iron Man was, at least the first few episodes were good. Wolverine is a train wreck from the start.
Rating: 1 out of 5
Dream Eater Merry #2
It’s rare for me to complain about a show being obtuse. I was always the annoying guy figuring out the final thirty minutes of a movie after the first fifteen and ruining it for whomever was sitting next to me. I appreciate when a story can keep me in suspense and surprise me, because it’s not often that it happens. However, if I don’t know what’s going to happen next simply because I don’t know what’s happening RIGHT NOW. That’s just bad writing, and it’s exactly what Dream Eater Merry is doing.
I’m beginning to think this show is afraid to tell us what it’s really about. Instead of employing misdirection or vagueness to keep the viewer in the dark while advancing the story, it just doesn’t tell the story. What we’re left with are some pointless slice-of-life scenes and the beginning of a plot thread unrelated to our main characters. I might add that we still have no better idea of what is happening with our protagonists than we did after the first half of the episode one. Starting a subplot and introducing more characters at this point is just distracting and unnecessary. The only thing positive I really have to say about this episode is that the animation, music and atmosphere are still engrossing, even if there’s nothing to really link scenes together.
The most infuriating part is that I’m actually interested in the plot. The inhabitants of the dream world taking over people, the reasons behind Merry’s manifestation in reality, what Tachibana’s father knows and who Chaser Jon Doe (who doesn’t even appear in this episode) is are all interesting to me. It’s just a shame that this show refuses to be bothered answering the questions it raises. I’m giving this one more episode to at least set up a basic plot before I’m done.
Rating: 2 out of 5
What happens when a mystery ceases to be mysterious? It’s solved, right? If that seems like the logical conclusion, it’s because you’re not watching GOSICK.
As Sherlock Holmes famously said: “when all other possibilities have been eliminated, what remains, however unlikely, must be the truth.” GOSICK‘s problem is that it eliminates all other possibilities far too quickly by literally having 70% of our suspects jump overboard before the halfway point. It then slashes the number of suspects down to two just as quickly when one of them goes insane. One of these two has barely had any lines or done anything the whole time, while the other is behaving extremely suspiciously by noticing things no one else does and pretending doors are locked. It also omits information for the sake of masking clues. Take the wallpaper, for instance. If you’ve never applied or removed wallpaper you may not realize this, but if you have the inaccuracies practically leap out and punch you in the face. Wallpaper is very thick, and makes a pretty noticeable sound when it’s ripped. If wallpaper is loose enough on a wall to simply be pulled off without tearing, then it’s sagging, dog-eared, has bubbles and looks completely atrocious. Then again, the characters don’t notice the suffocating stench of wet paint until it’s pointed out to them, so I guess they’re just not very observant.
Even with all these problems in the mystery, I could still enjoy the interaction between Kujo and Victorique. Her deadpan laughter is hilarious, her pipe is cute, and Kujo’s misguided attempts at being useful to her create some fun dialogue. However, I couldn’t help but feel like Victorique was a bit out of character toward the end. Kujo’s hamfisted, chauvinistic ‘but she’s still a girl’ bit was a significant backslide for the only thing left keeping me interested in this show.
GOSICK is trying to be intelligent, but it’s slitting its own throat with little mistakes. I realize I’m being picky, but mystery is ostensibly more dependent on detail than any other genre. These types of stories are unforgiving of poor writing, continuity errors and fridge logic. Even though this show is doing a few things correctly, it makes enough errors to that the mysteries are laughably simple even for people who don’t usually watch this sort of show. If it doesn’t either improve the quality of the mysteries or shift the focus to the protagonists, this is probably going to be dropped once ranting about it gets boring.
Rating: 2 out of 5