Anime roundup 7/13/2017: Mystery Box

Saiyuki Reload Blast premiere – Journey to the West is a Chinese classic about a priest traveling to India to retrieve some sacred Buddhist texts with the help of the Monkey King, two fallen heavenly generals, and a spirit who takes the form of a horse to speed his journey. The long-running manga Saiyuki and its sequels are about a priest who similarly travels across a fantastic equivalent of Central Asia, only he carries a gun, his steed takes the form of a Jeep, and two of his companions are part demon.

The party is trying to stop the resurrection of a demon lord. To do so, they have spent two years traveling across the land of Shangri-La (despite all the magic and mad science sloshing around, apparently there is no air travel), and are finally nearing their destination. Now they enter a land terrorized by gangs of demons who need to be shot, punched, and otherwise brutally fought at every opportunity.

Saiyuki has the sense of something that’s been adding material for so long, it’s starting to collapse in on itself. The heroes comment more than once that they seem to keep finding themselves in the same situations over and over again. Intraparty sniping sounds like catchphrases that have been repeated many times. The whole thing just feels tired.

If there’s one way it stands out, it’s that the unnecessary bath scenes involve men. That brings some balance to the season, I guess. Not much to recommend here, I’m afraid.

International stream: Crunchyroll (worldwide except Asia)

18if premiere – Somewhere there is a dreamland whose realms are ruled by “witches”, who are girls that have retreated from the real world by falling into eternal sleep. Haruto Tsukishiro finds himself trapped there by one of the witches, but has a chance to defeat her with the help of a researcher who takes the form of an anthropmorphic cat, and a mysterious girl who has been connected to the dream world since time immemorial.

The dreamland itself is the real star of this show, keeping everyone off-balance with its ever-shifting appearance and challenges. Some of the more describable things that happen are: Haruto is trampled by a stampede of rams wearing top hats, chased by giant teddy bears, and almost falls into an infinite starry void; the scientist gets turned into a piece of cake and eaten, but he’s fine; and Lily the mysterious girl is able to give Haruto a vision of the crushing burdens that drove the witch into dream world.

Haruto is never shown outside the dream world, which leads to obvious questions I’m not sure 18if will explore: since everyone else’s appearance there differs from their real-life selves, who is he really? If the witches are there because they’re running away from reality, what put him there?

18if is a game adaptation, and it has succeeded where few others do by not immediately being terrible. There’s very little that feels game-like about it, other than solving the challenge of the witch (and being rewarded by a vision of her nude, which I really hope is not going to become customary).

International streams: Crunchyroll (US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Scandinavia, Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa); bilibili (Asia); FUNimation dub starting later this season (US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand)

Made in Abyss premiere – On a remote island there is a hole a kilometer across and deeper than the bottom of the ocean. Riko and her fellow orphans are sent into its upper reaches to loot saleable artifacts left by some inscrutable vanished civilization. One day, an encounter with a creature from its lower depths leads her to a robot in the form of the boy — who seems to be rather surprised that he is a robot…

Made in Abyss is an immediate immersion in a world that comes with a ton of questions. What is the Abyss? Who built it? What are those artifacts the kids are gathering, and what purpose is this really serving? Why do so many people vanish there? Everyone at the orphanage is a child of explorers who never came back out of the hole. And, of course, who the heck is manufacturing robots?

With a likeable cast — “plucky” is overused, but, well, darnit, the heroine is endearingly plucky — a fascinating world, and art with character, this is easily the best new show of the season so far.

International streams: Anime Strike/Amazon Video (US, Canada?); HIDIVE (Latin America, UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa); Wakanim (Canada, France, Belgium, Monaco, Switzerland, Algeria, Côte d’Ivoire, Morocco, Nigeria, Sénégal, Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique)

Altair: A Record of Battles premiere – Mahmut has only just become the youngest ever member of the ruling council of Türkiye when war threatens. A minister of the neighboring Balt-Rhein Empire has been found dead at the border, shot full of arrows that seem to be those used by Türkiye, and the emperor wants either an apology or a fight right quick. Mahmut almost immediately finds a clue that suggests foul play, goes to the emperor, survives an attack by inept henchmen who helpfully let the name of the perpetrator slip, and lays out the entire plot. Because this is a fantasy world only loosely based on the Ottoman-Habsburg wars, the emperor is forced to accept Mahmut’s evidence and stomp off to sulk, rather than having the entire party from Türkiye killed to save face like a proper Renaissance-era ruler.

The underlying method to Amazon’s anime acquisitions seems to be to fork over the cash if a sufficiently large percentage of it is going to be spent on art and sound. This means that most everything it streams has solid production values, but the quality of the writing is a crapshoot, and Altair comes out badly there.

And the art is underwhelming in this case. There are some pretty things going on in the backgrounds, but we were promised this:

And there is some of that going on in the opening and closing credit sequences, but it only serves to emphasize that the art style in the body of the anime has been horribly genericized. If you’re looking for eye candy, check out 18if instead.

International streams: Anime Strike/Amazon Video (worldwide); bilibili (Asia)

A Centaur’s Life premiere – Himeno Kimihara is a centaur. One of her best friends has pointy ears and devil wings, and another is a semi-anthropomorphic ram. Low-key things happen. Yes, it’s another urban fantasy slice-of-life à la Interviews With Monster Girls and Actually, I Am.., except for being (a) the dullest show of the bunch (b) until the halfway point, when, like a racecar with a catastrophic suspension failure, it suddenly snaps to the right and careens straight into the cement wall of nationalist politics.

A biology lecture morphs into a talk about how racism is totally scientific, but everyone must be crushed into politically correct equality for the good of society. Shadowy uniformed figures lurk outside the classroom door to make sure the teacher gets that last part right. A couple minutes later, Himeno’s smarter friend is explaining how political correctness is forced on Japan by foreign powers to make up for the foreigners’ own cultural guilt about slavery. Because this is apparently a fantasy in which Japan which has never, ever, ever had inborn social prejudice, forced people into slavery, or treated other people like lesser beings in any way, heavens no.

Production values are serviceable, but they seem beside the point.

International streams: Crunchyroll (worldwide except Asia); bilibili (Asia); FUNimation dub starting later this season (US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand)

Chronos Ruler premiere – Legend has it that if you make a wish at midnight at a certain clock tower in Prague, you can go back in time to fix the things you most regret. This turns out to be mostly true, except what you actually summon is a demon that devours your personal timeline, aging you backward and stealing your memories. Enter brothers Kiri and Victo Putin, who fight to keep these demons from claiming any more victims.

So this is an action show about fighting Alzheimer’s disease. The brothers have the traditional overly-complicated demon-killing powers and antagonistic relationship — Kiri is the serious one, Victo the playboy slacker who is annoyingly right just often enough to justify his place on the team. The animation is uneven, sometimes spectacularly good in the actiony bits, sometimes just getting the job done.

There is some earnest but clunky melodrama around the Putins’ past and the girl who summons a demon because she desperately wants to bring back her dead brother. It’s not terrible, but I was ready to skip any further episodes until the very last moment. This episode closes with one last revelation, where the melodrama truly works all of a sudden, and puts everything about Kiri and Victo in a new light while pointing the show in a potentially unusual direction. It’s worth checking out episode 2 to see where it’s going.

International stream: Crunchyroll (worldwide except Japan, China, and Korea)

Princess Principal premiere – Have you ever wanted to see the discovery of cavorite in The First Men In the Moon extrapolated into a steampunk setting? Here you go! In this case, Britain’s monopoly on the new antigravity technology has made its empire more powerful than ever, but a revolution at home has left London divided into two zones controlled by competing powers. Thus spies flourish, even in the most innocent settings, such as the elite girls’ school used as a base by our teenage heroines.

The first disappointment of Princess Principal is that cavorite is the only thing it borrows from Wells. There is not even a passing mention of attempts to re-establish contact with the Selenites for trade, diplomacy, or colonial exploitation (I mean, we are talking about the Victorians here). There is a girl who claims to be from the Black Lizard Planet, but then she says it’s a lie, then talks about it like it’s real, then claims to be joking, then aaaaargh whatever.

Which brings us to a bigger problem: this show is so determined to establish a gritty tone that it manages to make every single character unsympathetic. Visually, it backs this up with the Everything Must Be Brown version of the steampunk aesthetic, making it uncomfortable for the eyes as well as the mind after a while. There’s a sense that a lot of time and talent is going into this and being wasted.

International streams: Anime Strike/Amazon Video (US, Canada); HIDIVE (Latin America, UK, Ireland, Turkey, North Africa, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa); AnimeLab (Australia, New Zealand); Anime on Demand (German-speaking Europe); Yamato Animation (Italy)

In Another World With My Smartphone premiere – Tōya Mochizuki has died at the age of 15, but his life only gets better from here. God turns out to be a cool old dude who arranges for Tōya to be bodily transported into a world of magic, with supercharged abilities and a working smartphone that lets him surf the Web even across the multiverse. Everything goes right for him from the moment he pops into the new world, and soon he’s hooking up with the first two of what the opening credits promise with be a whole bevy of beautiful girls.

I’d call this an unusually blatant wish-fulfillment fantasy, except we did just get Knight’s & Magic last week. This goes one better on K&M by making its fantasy world a lazily slapped-together pile of JRPG clichés. On the other hand, at least this one hasn’t decided to send everyone to high school.

This is a terrible, unimaginative show whose only positive contribution to the season is that it makes the next show on this list look that much better.

International stream: Crunchyroll (worldwide except Asia)

Magical Circle Guru-Guru premiere – Nike is a seemingly ordinary kid who’d just like to live a quiet life, but the hero’s journey is calling. Well, not so much calling as forcibly removing him from his village and shoving him right into the path of danger. Nike is unfortunately the main character in a JRPG world, which means that before he knows it, he’s got a mage sidekick and a totally inadequate sword and the backing of the king and is deep in a spooky forest confronting a monologuing monster.

Magical Circle Guru-Guru is a lovingly cheesy send-up of computer RPGs, based on a manga from the 1990s. In deference to its time, the look pops back and forth between simple cartooniness and scenes that look like they were animated on a Game Boy. Nike and the mage Kukuri are endearing fools, ready to walk right into whatever setup is necessary for the next gag.

It isn’t roll-on-the-floor-laughing levels of funny yet, but has the potential to work its way up there. Helping it out with the English-speaking crowd is the most inspired translation work I’ve seen this season. If you need to watch a simulcast show full of fantasy tropes for the next three months, this is the one to pick.

International stream: Crunchyroll (worldwide except Asia)

Well, that group certainly had range. Made in Abyss is a keeper, and I’ll give 18if, Chronos Ruler, and Magical Circle Guru-Guru another look next time. Katsugeki Touken Ranbu, Love and Lies, and Restaurant to Another World will also be back for a second look, we’ll catch up with Rage of Bahamut: Virgin Soul, and try to set a season lineup as a few more premieres trickle in.

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