Before the recent kinjapocalypse, when all AniTAY’s authors were forced to abandon ship, we frequently published “collabs” (collaborative articles), comprising short reviews of prominent anime from from multiple authors. These will all eventually be transferred to Medium thanks to the herculean backup efforts of our very own member Nan, but in the meantime I’ve aggregated a few of my contributions to some of the most recent of these articles. It’s a heady selection, so enjoy!
What do you get if you mix the kinetic aerial combat of Attack on Titan and The Saga of Tanya the Evil with the bonkers creativity of Mob Psycho 100 and a weird amalgam of the design sensibilities of Studio Ghibli’s movies and Bandai’s Heybot? Surely an ungodly mess, right? And with a groan-inducingly terrible title like Deca-Dence, it has to be awful. Thankfully not — this deeply strange hot-pot of disparate influences is distilled into a perfectly-constructed 12-episode moonshine shot of pure fun. The last anime that was as economical and propulsive with its convulsing plot was 2018’s Planet With, and Deca-Dence surpasses even that.
It’s really hard to explain what makes Deca-Dence so good without spoiling the show’s basic premise. That first episode arranges all the pieces for what looks like a great sci-fi/fantasy anime about a mobile post-apocalyptic city and its embattled denizens who fight massive monsters. That alone is a promising start for a short anime series. But Deca-Dence has so much more up its sleeve with a massive, early, head-spinning twist that upends every viewer’s expectation. Although it does remain the show it initially purports to be, it adds several extra dimensions — truly becoming Peak Anime: Hypercube Edition. This plot unspools into hyperdimensional space, baby. (Imagine that line read by Space Dandy for maximum impact.)
Protagonist Natsume is a typical anime lead — plucky, full of energy and ambition, and willing to stand against opposition and indifference to pursue her goals of using weird anti-gravity tech to smash squishy enemies and drain them of their lifeblood using massive hypodermic syringe weapons. She’s a great focal point for audience sympathy as she’s curious about her world and motivated to progress within it.
Natsume’s natural counterpoint is mentor figure Kaburagi — a man of multiple faces, all of them tired. His world-weariness (to the point of terminal resignation) is challenged by his chipper apprentice, and their relationship is the plot’s strong central pivot — always helping to drive the action, even when they spend entire episodes — and seemingly worlds — apart. Natsume overcomes horrors like the loss of her father and the mutilation of her arm with a sunny smile and solemn determination. Kaburagi is inspired to finally transcend his self-imposed restrictions to help them both break free from the metaphorical and physical chains that bind both them and their comrades to a meaningless, demeaning and degrading system that literally churns up the bodies of those who refuse to conform to the authorities and their soulless society.
TL;DR: Deca-Dence is a timely and creative reminder that in these days of late-stage capitalism, digital demagoguery and fake-news-filled media, “sticking it to the man” is as important an ambition as ever.
Ascendance of a Bookworm
I’ve mentioned numerous times before on AniTAY how sick I am of isekai. So many shows fall into the cookie-cutter mould of “modern day Japanese gamer/otaku/businessman/whatever dies/is reincarnated/magically transported and finds himself in a stereotypical Medieval/JRPG world.” Unlike older stories like Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia, or Fushigi Yuugi, these contemporary characters often have no desire, or no reasonable ability, to return to the world of their origin. Does that speak to the modern Japanese mindset that being reincarnated in a stereotypical videogame fantasy world complete with stats, leveling, and magical skill acquisition is preferable to modern life with its extreme pressure to conform to strict societal roles and expectations? Better to be dead than a soulless salaryman, right? Better to be an overpowered isekai protagonist who bulldozes through his enemies via the strength of Plot Armour and Otherworldly Knowledge, right?
On the surface, Ascendance of a Bookworm isn’t that different. It ticks many of the right boxes — protagonist Myne was previously a trainee librarian in modern Japan before she was crushed by an avalanche of books. Now reincarnated into the body of a child in a fantasy world, she retains the memories and skills from her previous life and sets out to dominate her enemies and slay the Demon Lord. Except that’s not quite what happens. Myne is handicapped by her frail body that falls frequently ill. With no strength or stamina, she relies on the understanding and love of her family and friends to achieve her goals. And those goals… are somewhat atypical for an isekai protagonist. Instead of running straight to the Adventurers’ Guild to register herself as a bloodthirsty mercenary, she painstakingly builds her way towards making her own books and establishing a library in a world where illiteracy is the norm.
Languidly paced but never boring, Bookworm focuses on Myne overcoming obstacles through compromise, sharp wits, and reliable friends. Even then, she makes frequent mistakes due to her ignorance of her new world. Far from being overpowered, her special knowledge makes her vulnerable to predation from unscrupulous businessmen, haughty nobles, and officious clergymen alike. By season’s end, we find her in more traditional fantasy territory: battling evil tree monsters and interacting with magical knights. However, the show doesn’t forget its humble roots, and Myne’s focus remains on her family, her friends, and her books.
The final episode returns to the opening of the first, with Head Priest Ferdinand discovering Myne’s secret and musing whether she is a boon to his country or an unprecedented threat. The only sour point of this show was the methods with which he retrieved this information — by essentially “slipping her a roofie” and invading her mind via magical diadem while she slept, revealing a bizarre psychedelic world reminiscent not only of Neon Genesis Evangelion’s controversial final two episodes but also the scene where an angel mind-rapes Asuka. It’s not consensual if she only says “yes” once you’re already inside, Ferdinand. Even if Myne experienced a net benefit from this experience by gaining closure regarding her past life, it was… uncomfortable to say the least.
There seems to be much more of this story to be told. I’m not entirely sure that the emotionally clueless Ferdinand has Myne’s best interests to hear — he seems entirely too utilitarian for that. Let’s hope a further season of this unusual, interesting show is forthcoming.
TL;DR: Gentle fantasy show starring a loveable little geek girl who wants to teach the world to read (or at least obtain her own library).
Mob Psycho 100 II
If the overpowered psychic main character of Mob Psycho 100 has one defining characteristic (other than his bowlcut), it’s his precocious emotional intelligence. Mob, the diminutive high-schooler with the telekinetic skills of a god, overflows with benevolence and the belief that no matter how apparently unpleasant an individual, everyone has the capacity to change for the better. That’s what makes him such a sympathetic protagonist. Through his many trials and tribulations, you’d have to harbour a heart of stone not to cheer him on.
MP100 is the “other” creation of ONE, writer (and original web-manga artist) of One Punch Man. Both series concern themselves with subverting expectations — OPM plays with superhero genre tropes, while MP100 deconstructs and inverts typical shonen action staples like power creep and challenges emotionally constipated toxic masculinity. Mob is a hero for our complex, confused and polarised world.
Much like a typical shonen protagonist, Mob defeats his enemies and wins them over — but not with his (formidably apocalyptic) strength. Mob sees the world through simple, idealistic eyes. Other characters at first underestimate him, or try to take advantage — even his “sensei”, the (ultimately gold-hearted) con-man Reigen is guilty. Mob’s vision cuts through the layers of artifice people build around themselves and identifies their core problems — they’re unhappy, or selfish, or creatively frustrated, or ashamed of some aspect of themselves. With his compassion and firm moral compass, he finds ways to bring out the best in people. One of my favourite scenes is when he repairs a girl’s creative writing book after her “friends” tear it up — despite the fact that she had just recently asked him out for a joke.
Series 2 of MP100 ups the ante in terms of sheer spectacle, in an interesting counterpoint to the emotional tenderness of the storytelling. Almost nothing else this year can hold a candle to the hyper-detailed, fluid and trippy animation MP100-II employs during its frequent and very impressive action sequences. It isn’t often that an anime can balance intelligent writing along with breathtaking visuals — normally one would outrank the other. Not so with MP100-II. Don’t be put off by the deliberately simplistic character designs — look closer like Mob does — underneath beats a smart, moving and meaningful heart that is well worth your time to meet.
TL;DR: Mob Psycho 100 II is a flashy but deep emotionally affecting spectacle that anyone with a human heart should enjoy.
O Maidens in Your Savage Season
We’ve all passed through that most awkward and painful part of life — adolescence — with its heightened emotions, confusing mental and physical changes, battling through school, and navigating complex peer relationships while our own sense of selfhood undergoes erratic involutions. Many anime series are set during their characters’ adolescence, but most pay only the most superficial lip service to the hormonal storms raging within their subjects’ minds and bodies. At worst, they are vapid comedies, anaemic dramas, or fan-service-laden dreck that waste the storytelling potential of their setting. Not so with Mari Okada’s messy, heartfelt, tender, and humorous O Maidens, perhaps the most accurate depiction of teenage life I’ve yet seen in anime.
2017’s Scum’s Wish is like O Maiden’s evil twin. Where the former dripped with cynicism and selfishness, the latter portrays a far more positive outlook. I felt like I needed to bathe in bleach after watching Scum’s Wish, but O Maidens triggered no such desires. I watched this with my 14-year-old daughter to gauge the accuracy of its portrayal of confused girls roughly the same age as her. The hilarious squeals of horror and mortification erupting from her multiple times per episode were testament to the raw nerves exposed by the show (then it rubs salt into those open wounds, before cooing and soothing them better afterwards). Ms Okada clearly writes what she knows, and she knows how to twist a narrative knife.
My favourite character — Hitoha Hongo — is a most unusual co-lead. Short of stature, but big in personality, she’s not a stereotypical “cute” anime girl. With her low-cut fringe and heavy-set eyelashes, she appears to sport a perpetual frown. She has the best facial expressions that ooze with sarcasm, irritation and disapproval. I relate to her the most because she is a frustrated writer — she wants experience in order to write more convincingly, but takes everything too far. She ensnares her hapless teacher in her quest for sexual awakening, and this leads to a multitude of uproarious, uncomfortable scenes that made my daughter scream at the screen. The relationship between Hongo and her teacher was fascinating — both dancing around the other, manipulating and counter-manipulating, both completely out of their depths in their own ways. Any other anime would have mined this setting for pure melodrama, but O Maidens rises above this temptation. That’s not to say that there isn’t melodrama — there’s plenty of it, especially during the somewhat chaotic conclusion. There’s so much else I could write about this show regarding the other richly drawn characters each with their own (mostly) satisfying stories, but don’t take my word for it — go and watch it.
TL;DR: Raw but tender, heartfelt but funny, this authentically female-POV coming-of-age teenage drama is worth the cringe.
The Rising of the Shield Hero
Could Shield Hero be the most controversial anime of 2019 so far? Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room. The double-length first episode establishes the rules of the world into which protagonist Naofumi is summoned. Within minutes he is falsely accused of rape, the most terrible crime in this apparently matriarchal society.
Some viewers recoil in horror at the premise — we are in the midst of the “Me Too” movement that aims to (rightfully) stick up for victims of sexual abuse and ensure victims’ voices are heard. The uncomfortable truth is that not all those who claim to be victims truly are. False rape claims ruin men’s lives, even after proven innocence. The stench of falsely alleged wrongdoing pollutes their lives with mental illness, lost job opportunities, relationship breakdowns, or suicide. We do true victims no favours by denying the existence of liars and emotional predators.
Isekai anime is a clumsy tool for excavating this emotional and legal minefield. The simple dualistic morality in Shield Hero is not nuanced enough to serve the topic justice. Naofumi becomes a grumpy bastard because everyone else is a dick. If his accuser hadn’t been such a pantomime villain, this show could have been more than a simplistic revenge fantasy where eventually the wronged saviour figure proved he was right all along.
Frustratingly, the other heroes don’t seem to learn from their experiences. By the series’ end they were all so stupid that I could not take their characters seriously. Naofumi’s story is spoiled by poor antagonists.
The other controversy is Shield Hero’s clumsy use of slavery as a plot device. I doubt the author seriously advocates the use of slaves, but muddled writing obscures their intentions. Both of Naofumi’s main party members — Raphtalia and Filo — are bought from a slave dealer. The story indicates that Naofumi has no other option. When given the chance for freedom, Raphtalia chooses to have her slave crest reapplied — she still wishes to be Naofumi’s property. Plot contrivances be damned, this concept is pure shit. As far as I’m aware, both she and Filo are still slaves at the end of the series. Naofumi overall treats them well, but I am deeply troubled by the way this world’s aspect is handled. The slave merchant commending Naofumi on being his “best customer” is creepy as hell.
Other than these two (huge) narrative misfires, the show is pretty fun. The plot moves quickly, even when driven by video-game-esque contrivances. The character designs are attractive and the action scenes are exciting. Witnessing the comeuppance of Naofumi’s foes evokes a satisfying schadenfreude. Unfortunately, I can see this degenerating into generic isekai power fantasy now that the false accusation storyline has ended. I hope they avoid this pitfall in the surely inevitable season 2.
TL;DR: Fun and exciting isekai show with a deeply problematic, poorly-executed plot and awkward writing.
Thanks for reading this disparate selection of random reviews. There’s plenty more where this came from, so check back again soon!
You’re reading AniTAY, the anime-focused portion of community-run blog Talk Amongst Yourselves. AniTAY is a non-professional blog whose writers love everything anime related. To join in on the fun, check out our website, visit our official subreddit, follow us on Twitter, or give us a like on our Facebook page.