Anime roundup 1/14/2021: Something Appealing, Something Appalling

In this week’s viewing: Some premieres to start 2021 off on the right foot, and a less right foot as well.

Otherside Picnic premiere – Kamikoshi Sorao thinks she is trapped and doomed in a bizarre alternate reality known as the Otherside when fellow explorer Nishina Toriko rescues her. While Sorao might have chosen on her own never to visit that place again, Toriko has the gumption and the motivation to keep exploring— and a certain something that pulls Sorao into working with her…

Yes, that title is obviously a homage to Roadside Picnic, and the similarities don’t end there. Sorao picks up a peculiar artifact in the Otherside, and soon Toriko is all gung-ho to get back in there and find more of them to sell. The Otherside is also a place subject to a creepy illogic, where deadly monsters roam but the most dangerous thing to watch out for is everything turning blue. Toriko doesn’t know what it means, just that everyone agrees it signifies something terrible.

This has been advertised as a romance, and we see the first stirrings of that here. Refreshingly, instead of contriving a way to force the heroines back together, Otherside Picnic lets Sorao’s attraction and Toriko’s curiosity do the work. We also see how they can work well as a team; even with imminent death bearing down on them, they’re able to pull themselves together and work out a way to defeat it.

This is a great start to 2021, and deserves a second look at the very least.

International streams: Funimation (US, Canada, UK, Ireland); AnimeLab (Australia, New Zealand); Wakanim (Francosphere, Scandinavia, Russia); Aniverse (Germany); Bahamut Anime Crazy (Taiwan)

Suppose a Kid From the Last Dungeon Boonies Moved to a Starter Town? premiere – Lloyd is the weakest person in his village. Tired of being useless, he resolves to travel to the capital and become a soldier. As he just tries to fit in, its starts to become clear that his idea of “weak” is a bit out of whack with everyone else’s.

The handy thing about putting the entire premise in the title is that you never have to stop and explain anything, which this show does not. For non-gamers, what’s going on is that Lloyd hails from a high-difficulty, super-dangerous area from late in a game where only the very strong and clever survive, and the capital is a relatively safe, low-difficulty area. So while Lloyd is weak in his hometown, he’s massively overpowered outside of it.

It’s a novel spin on the cliche of the way too strong light novel hero, but still a cliche. Another one the show wastes little time tackling is finding a way to surround Lloyd with attractive young women of standard genre archetypes. First we meet the clumsy one, and then the one who becomes eternally devoted to Lloyd after they meet briefly and who for some reason has to monologue about this later while wearing only her remarkably modern frilly underthings. Also, common to light novels, there is way, way, way, way too much talking.

Lloyd himself is pleasant enough, and this isn’t outright terrible in any way, but it’s yet another RPG-inspired fantasy, in generic fantasyland, stocked with furniture so used it’s falling apart.

International streams: Funimation (US, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, UK, Ireland); AnimeLab (Australia, New Zealand); Wakanim (Francosphere, Scandinavia, Russia, German-speaking Europe); Muse Asia (South Asia); Bahamut Anime Crazy (Taiwan)

Gekidol premiere – Morino Seria is inspired to become an actress after her first time seeing a performance via the amazing new projection technology, the Super Material Theater system. Not long after that, she lucks into a chance to try out for a local theater group using similar tech. But is she really prepared to put in the hard work it will take to become an actress? Also, what is the deal with big chunks of cities having vanished five years previously, and why is another member of the group a cyborg or android?

From one angle, Gekidol is an absolutely standard idol show. There’s the girl aiming for stardom who has to start from the ground up. There’s a community of women and girls in her friends, costars, and probable future rivals. The only male presence is the men who hold arbitrary power over Seria– her teacher, the mysterious inventor of SMT, and the creepazoid who runs a local adult business but also sponsors the theater group.

And yet, there’s the whole business about the past disaster. It’s implied that Seria lost family members in it, but more work is put into establishing its ongoing impact on society in general than would be necessary for just a tragic background. There is an obvious connection to be made between the mysterious disaster and the mysterious new device, but if Gekidol is going to lean into that, it will have to grow beyond being a simple idol show. I’m not convinced yet that it could, but it’s worth keeping an eye on.

International streams: Funimation (US, Canada, UK, Ireland); AnimeLab (Australia, New Zealand); Wakanim (Francosphere, Scandinavia, Russia, German-speaking Europe); bilibili (China)

Heaven’s Design Team premiere – In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Then God got bored and outsourced the job of populating it with animals to a team of angels. Now, a group of designers have to take their creative skills to the max to satisfy the most consequential client of all.

As long as you’re not immediately put off by the liberties it takes with Christian dogma, Heaven’s Design Team is a charming workplace comedy drawing on both the real-life process of design and facts of zoology. The designers bat ideas around, get engineering reviews (an early sequence explains why pegasi are unworkable), test prototypes, and finally, submit them for the client’s approval.

Segments alternate between the designers working out a new animal concept or two and educational bits sharing obscure facts about real animals. The designers all have their artistic quirks (for instance, one guy is always concerned about making new animals edible) in an entertaining rather than off-putting way. This isn’t going to be highly bloggable, but I do recommend it to anyone with an interest in zoology.

International streams: Crunchyroll (worldwide except Asia); Muse Asia (South Asia); Bahamut Anime Crazy (Taiwan); bilibili (China)

Hortensia Saga premiere – Four years ago, a surprise revolt killed most of the royal family and took Alfred’s father away, leaving him as the lord of his domain. Now, with his squire Marius, who is very obviously the kingdom’s missing princess in disguise, Alfred fights a new invasion.

In a display of deeply unfortunate timing, Hortensia Saga opens with a bunch of guys in red livery storming the heart of a country’s capital. One of the provinces has revolted, and it may get around to explaining why at some point, but today is not that day. The important part is that the princess is sad and needs to Do Something, although what that is is also not explained. Not claim her throne, because there’s spare heir available for that (or maybe women can’t inherit the throne in this kingdom).

This is one of the starker examples I have ever seen of a show that throws together a bunch of medieval elements with no apparent understanding of how it all works. The same can be said about its whole narrative approach, really. We get plot beats which are supposed to make the core characters sympathetic and engaging, but none of them really connect. Alfred and Marius seem like nice enough people, but there’s no compelling need to stick around and find out what’s going on.

International streams: Funimation (US, Canada, UK, Ireland); AnimeLab (Australia, New Zealand); Wakanim (Francosphere, Scandinavia, Russia, German-speaking Europe); Bahamut Anime Crazy (Taiwan); bilibili (China)

Cells at Work! Code Black premiere – A new red blood cell is excited to start his first day on the job, but it’s rough. The cheery training videos haven’t prepared him for a life of working until he drops. In a toxic environment. With alien invaders.

The original Cells at Work! also featured a brand-new red blood cell just learning the ropes, and the white blood cell who saves her from a roaming bacterium. But that show is set in a healthy body where nothing goes wrong for long. In this one, it’s a different story: the body is in poor health, its owner has just taken up smoking again, and the entire community of cells is hostile to each other from all the stress of keeping things going.

The overall form of the setting is a toxic corporate work environment. The subtitle in Japanese is simply Black, and its now clear why. It’s a reference to the Japanese term black kigyō, meaning “black company”, referring to businesses with horrible environments and a loose approach to labor laws. (The anime industry, unfortunately, has more than its fair share of such companies.)

A grimdark spin on the Cells at Work! premise is an interesting idea, and it’s bound to be just as educational as the original, plus probably motivational about ending unhealthy habits. On the other hand, if you have enough darkness in your life right now, there’s a second season of the original happening right now as well.

International streams: Funimation (US, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, UK, Ireland); AnimeLab (Australia, New Zealand); Wakanim (Francosphere, Scandinavia, Russia, German-speaking Europe); iQIYI (SE Asia); Bahamut Anime Crazy (Taiwan); bilibili (China)

So I’m a Spider, So What? premiere – One minute she was in class, the next she was hatching as a spider. Our nameless heroine quickly works out that she has been reincarnated in a fantasy world, and leverages her knowledge of light novels (such as the one that this was adapted from) to start levelling up.

Sometimes, with the right delivery and timing, it can be funny when a show reminds you that certain tropes exist right before embracing them. More often, it simply serves as an extra reminder that tropes are lazy and the show is lazy for relying on them. So we are back in Generic RPG Fantasyland, and there’s a voice alerting the spider every time she acquires or levels up a skill, and that happens a lot because, as a light novel protagonist, she has to be pretty awesome at the game. Nor are we spared the traditional constant talking that light novel adaptations are known for, even though most of the episode is the protagonist on her own. Constant monologuing fills the gap.

The bar has been set very low by some other shows in this genre, so I can at least say that the protagonist isn’t horrible and the story isn’t trying to justify or even celebrate any kind of atrocity. But we have many better viewing options this season.

International streams: Crunchyroll (worldwide except Asia); Ani-One (SE Asia); Bahamut Anime Crazy (Taiwan); bilibili (China)

Scar on the Praeter premiere – Kai Yamato is just trying to take care of his adopted younger brother and survive in the Akatsuki District of Tokyo, which has been abandoned by the government. But then he meets one of the great defenders of the district, and sooner than he realizes, will have to take up the hero’s mantle himself.

This is an amalgam of two different shows. One is a gritty urban action series where defenders with magical tattoos hold off anonymous troops and random thugs to protect their community. The other is about young men, all honed to a very specific aesthetic, inhabiting beautiful settings. This show’s main problem is that the first does not really support the second. If Akatsuki is so cut off, how come everyone has reliable electricity, access to fresh fruit and gourmet coffee, and all the hair gel they could possibly need?

The first show is pretty good. The choice to use CGI for the scenery gives it an almost photorealistic feel and enables a lot of dynamic fighting shots. The second, well, I guess it depends on your feelings about bishonen. As a whole it’s not quite recommendable.

International streams: Funimation (US, Canada, UK, Ireland); AnimeLab (Australia, New Zealand); Wakanim (Francosphere, Scandinavia, Russia, German-speaking Europe); iQIYI (SE Asia); Muse Asia (South Asia); Bahamut Anime Crazy (Taiwan); bilibili (China)

Back Arrow premiere – In the land inside the Wall, the benificence of the heavens takes the form of a pod that descends from the sky once a month containing high-tech goodies. But one month, a second pod appears, and it contains a man. Improbably, he claims to come from beyond the Wall. And his pod landed in disputed territory, so absolutely everyone is on their way to grab him.

Seasoned sf fans will be able to figure out almost immediately what’s probably going on here. Unfortunately, the underlying premise is about all Back Arrow has going for it. The characters are all desperately bland, and, as if to try to make up for that, are all trapped in ridiculously overdesigned outfits. Good guys are themed to the Wild West and the people apparently being set up to be major antagonists are themed to Imperial China. Also this is apparently just an excuse for a mecha show, though more at the “magic fighting suit” end of things than “actual robots”.

If you’re wondering about the title, it’s the name of the man from the sky. He doesn’t remember his real one, so he adopts a garbled form of the Japanese insult baka yarō. And that is the most original touch in the entire premiere.

International streams: Funimation (US, Canada, UK, Ireland); AnimeLab (Australia, New Zealand); Wakanim (Francosphere, Scandinavia, Russia, German-speaking Europe); Bahamut Anime Crazy (Taiwan); bilibili (China)

Mushoku Tensei: Jobless Reincarnation premiere – Rudeus is born with all the memories of his previous life, when he was a shut-in in his thirties living in Japan. Now he’s a child in a world where magic is real, determined to live a better life this time around. This means shaping up, learning magic as fast as he can, and getting a look at all the boobs and underpants he can manage.

Mushoku Tensei is based on a light novel series that started nearly a decade ago, and is said to be the inspiration for many of the reincarnated-in-a-fantasy-world light novel adaptations that have graced our monitors since then. Is there some unique spark that sets it above all its imitators? No. No, there is not. It is just one among countless interchangeable stories about overpowered, unlikeable protagonists living a privileged life in an RPG-like barely medieval fantasyland. Avoid this, unless you need a sample of it for some dark ritual to banish it and all its kin to another world.

International streams: Funimation (US, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, UK, Ireland); AnimeLab (Australia, New Zealand); Wakanim (Francosphere, Scandinavia, Russia, German-speaking Europe); Muse Asia (South Asia); Bahamut Anime Crazy (Taiwan)

Dr. Ramune: Mysterious Disease Specialist premiere – When a girl finds herself crying tears of mayonnaise, the local clinic won’t believe her. But a passerby offers her another way to look for help. All she has to do is trust an eccentric self-proclaimed doctor who lives at a shrine and treats diseases that don’t officially exist.

Dr. Ramune explains it this way: Just as physical stress allows a body to become infected more readily, mental stress allows something to take psychic hold and produce these bizarre symptoms. The cure is not to just treat the ailment, but to resolve the situation causing the psychological pressure. In the case of the current patient, that means forcing a reckoning with her demanding mother.

This sounds like heavy stuff, but Dr. Ramune mostly operates as broad comedy. (With the potential to become quite crude— the preview for next week features a man who discovers that a chikuwa has replaced, umm, something of a similar size and shape.) Underneath, though, it has a heart, full of kindness toward the suffering. It’s not brilliant, but not half bad either.

International streams: Crunchyroll (worldwide except Asia); Bahamut Anime Crazy (Taiwan); bilibili (Chna)

EX-ARM premiere – In the year 2020, Natsume Akira witnesses a shocking and unprecedented turn of events. No, not that, the power of a superweapon unleashed. When he wakes up again in 2030, he has to start reckoning with being a brain in a jar, with unknown abilities, with two new allies who he needs to figure out how to work with very quickly before the international mafia kills them all.

Never mind the story, what about the animation, which is what all the pre-show buzz was about? It is every bit as terrible as advertised, except where it’s worse. Characters move around with no sense of weight or substance. People’s hands stay weirdly static, like LEGO minifig claws. The worst moment is a shot where it appears that a character was pasted in at the last minute with crude 2D animation, and maybe that’s what actually happened, or maybe there was an innovative experiment with cel-shaded rendering that went horribly wrong, I have no way of knowing.

But hardly anything else about EX-ARM is good either. (I did like the incidental music.) Our major characters so far include a personality-free protagonist, a sexy android, a cheerful young woman of the sort frequently encountered in anime, and a random superpowered thug. The story establishes one vague motivation for the hero and then falls back on getting him to do things by repeatedly putting beautiful women in danger. There’s nothing unique or interesting about the setting beyond the one brain in a jar.

Recommended for fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and no one else.

International streams: Crunchyroll (worldwide except Asia); Muse Asia (South Asia); Bahamut Anime Crazy (Taiwan)


And we still have a few premieres to go. For now, I’m going to say that Otherside Picnic and Gekidol advance to the next stage of consideration. So next week, we’ll look at their second episodes, plus those last premieres, plus let’s catch up on the continuing shows from last season and some newly returned friends.

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