Doctorkev’s Summer 2021 Anime Postmortem Part 2 — New Shows

DoctorKev
DoctorKev
Oct 10 · 20 min read
If you watch as much anime as I’ve done lately, your eyes will also sparkle like this. It hurts. The sparkling hurts and it never stops. Please help me.

Last time, I covered nine of the summer season’s continuing or sequel shows, now it’s time to appraise nine of the shiniest of shiny new things!

How did I end up watching 18 shows in this supposedly “quieter” season? That’s not including the execrable Girlfriend Girlfriend that I dropped halfway through, plus I haven’t even started My Hero Academia season 5. I want to catch up with it before the third movie comes to cinemas on October 29th in both NA and the UK.

Peach Boy Riverside: CRUNCHYROLL (12 episodes)

So… turns out Frau isn’t really a bunny girl. She looks kinda demonic now. She’s still the best character.

So did director Shigeru Ueda’s anachronic experiment succeed in the end? Was it worth it to broadcast this entire (otherwise straightforward) fantasy show out-of order, confusing the plot progression and frustrating the character development? No. No it wasn’t. I can understand the intention of somehow manufacturing a climax using earlier chronological episodes at the end of the run (a la Haruhi season 1) but this did not work at all. Characters popping up before they’ve been introduced, without context, is bad enough, but randomly inserting unconnected episodes in between cliffhangers isn’t clever, it’s obnoxious.

I totally understand their reasoning for delaying the first chronological episode because it’s quite frankly as dull as dishwater, though does provide some important context. What watching this show feels ultimately like is observing a bunch of characters with shared history interacting, but without any of the important narrative connective tissue with which the viewer can parse their relationships or importance to the story. Sometimes authors structure their plots like this deliberately, but we know that for Peach Boy this isn’t the case. The original manga is chronological, and the director overrides the author’s narrative structure for no good reason.

What could have been a fairly entertaining, unchallenging fantasy romp becomes a needlessly frustrating experience. Some stories are worthwhile to construct like arcane mystery boxes, Peach Boy very clearly isn’t. There’s no mystery in Peach Boy other than why the director was permitted to mess it up so spectacularly.

The Aquatope on White Sand: CRUNCHYROLL (episodes 1–14 of 24)

It’s lovely, bobbing along,
Bobbing along on the bottom of the beautiful briny sea

SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

Definitely one of the standout shows of the season, Aquatope isn’t an all-action, balls-to-the-wall violent spectacle of animated insanity, so isn’t suited for adrenaline junkies with short attention spans. What it is is an achingly beautiful, melancholic evocation of painful adolescent dreams and longing, frustrated by the inevitability of change. Our two main characters are emotionally stuck — Kukkuru the intense, obsessed blue-haired aquarium attendant desperate to preserve her family’s small, decaying aquarium, and Fuuka the quiet, passive idol singer running away from her former ambitions. Together they develop a close friendship of mutual support when Fuuka ends up as a summer temp worker at the aquarium, staying as a guest at Kukkuru’s home.

Over the course of the first 12 episodes, the main thrust of the plot is Kukkuru’s determination to prevent the inevitable closure of her beloved acquarium. She stubbornly persists despite warnings from every peripheral character that her efforts will be fruitless. Will she overturn the naysayers’ dire predictions? SPOILERS — no, of course not. Despite the ephemeral fantasy trappings of otherwordly visions and diminutive prankster gods, Aquatope is about moving on and adapting when your childhood dreams are crushed by cold reality, growing into adulthood and pursuing new dreams.

Less of an open book than Kukkuru, the quiet Fuuka is more of a mystery. She doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve, prioritises the feelings of others to her own detriment, exhibits emotional avoidance (especially when dealing with family and career problems) and would seem to play a more passive role. However, her staid, dependable character provides Kukkuru with a place to retreat to when her emotions become overwhelmed, while Kukkuru provides her with energy, inspiration and purpose. She leaves after summer with a clearer picture of her identity and goals.

The upcoming second half skips ahead a year, and life has moved on for both our main duo who have modified their ambitions, yet continue on with life to meet new challenges. With subtly drawn, flawed yet empathetic characters, I can’t wait to see where this stunningly depicted show will take them by the end. Whether this is a cynically produced animated holiday brochure for Okinawa or not, it successfuly makes me pine for the warm white sands, clear seas and bright sun of summer.

Remake Our Life!: CRUNCHYROLL (12 episodes)

So, whose dream will Kyouya destroy next?

SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS FOLLOW

Remake started off really well — the first 5 episodes tell a very engaging story about Kyouya Hashiba, a frustrated creative given a second chance at life, as he is sent 10 years into his own past to make different choices and attend art college with the people who will eventually become his heroes. Then… it all goes a bit wrong. First it indulges in so much stereotypical anime romantic comedy/harem tropery that I groaned every five minues. Then, it yanks the plot-driven rug out from beneath the viewer with another 10-year time-skip to an alternate future where Kyouya is (apparently) happily married to one of the main female characters, with a beautiful daughter and a successful career as a steady, responsible manager at a videogame company. Unfortunately, his success comes at the cost of destroying his former heroes’ creativity.

In some ways this is an excellent plot twist. For much of the earlier runtime, Kyouya is constantly praised for his wisdom and ideas, and it becomes tiresome. The consequences for being a control freak who “fixes” everything himself while squashing his friends’ creativity… is this “perfect” life for him… but not his friends, whom he has driven to creative despair and obscurity. As a short aside to the main plot, perhaps this would be fine, but it grinds the pace to a halt, introducing a whole new selection of characters and situations. It just isn’t as interesting. The fact that Kyouya is such a calm, emotionless automaton really doesn’t help sell any of his supposed existential horror at screwing up so royally. He continues being quietly, boringly competent until a plot device shows up to let him re-do everything again.

What really bothers me about this was how the show takes (badly-spent) time to build up the existence of his wife and daughter, and then it takes Kyouya all of a few seconds to decide to dispose of them both, with barely a hint of emotion. Perhaps this show is ultimately about the birth of an unfeeling, time-travelling sociopath, but I truly doubt that is the author’s intention. Kyouya essentially commits post-birth time-travel abortion on his daughter, and it barely seems to bother him. Well, it bothers the hell out of me. I’d happily watch a second season but Kyouya either better develop a soul and some convincing emotional interiority pretty soon, or else go full psychopath and start murdering people across the timelines. The other option, of continued mindless mediocrity and squandering of an interesting premise would be too much to bear.

Fena: Pirate Princess: CRUNCHYROLL ( episodes 1–9 of 12)

Fena tries to work out what the purpose of her show actually is. After hours of quiet contemplation, all she’s got is “don’t it look pretty, though?”

How incredible, after the recent So I’m a Spider, So What? and last year’s TONIKAWA, could this be another Crunchyroll Original that doesn’t suck? It’ll take a hell of a lot to negate the evil effects of such egregiously offensive dreck as Gibiate and EX-ARM

Fena certainly looks gorgeous though, I’ll give it that. Production I.G. must have their A-team on this one, a strange mashup of Mysterious Cities of Gold, Pirates of the Caribbean and Ninja Scroll. Set sometime in what’s probably meant to be 18th Century Europe (the show plays fast and loose with historical (in)accuracy), we follow white-haired wide-eyed anime teenager Fena through her improbable adventures with pirates, ninjas, insane military officers and mystical prophecies. Yes, Fena is another “chosen one” with some kind of unspecified ability to lead whoever posesses her to the promised land of “Eden”, presumably a place overflowing with milk, honey and obscene amounts of treasure.

There’s a lot going on with this show. I imagine the writers’ room wall was probably covered in multicoloured post-it notes listing multitudinous fantasy and historical tropes and instead of choosing a few to focus on coherently, the director closed his eyes and threw several hundred darts at the wall. How else can you explain the totally schizophrenic mess of the plot? It’s almost always engaging, but it is constructed with all the maniacal energy of a caffeine-hyped kid with ADHD.

I’ve no idea quite what this show is trying to say, it mostly seems to involve getting Fena or the other characters from one random place to another for SPECTACLE to ensue, consistency or characterisation be damned. Fena’s ninja/pirate friends are all quite fun, but are easily reduced to tropes rather than characters. None leave much of an impression. That one big kick-ass nuclear cannon explosion in that one episode was cool though. Never realised they had those 300 years ago. I’ll keep watching because it is so pretty, but I don’t give a crap about any of the characters,

The Duke of Death and His Maid: FUNIMATION (12 episodes)

Best Anime Couple of 2021, hands down.

The biggest surprise of the season for me, I originally had no intention of watching what looked like another overly-sexualised “teasing” anime. I admit I did greatly enjoy last season’s Nagatoro-san but I don’t intend becoming an obsessed fan of the genre. The first episode was not encouraging, with altogether too much apparently aggressive sexual teasing from the titular maid towards her hapless master, involving hitched-up skirts and heaving bosoms. However the tone gradually changes into an extremely wholesome, heartwarming romantic comedy with a deliciously dark seam of melancholic, black humour infused through the middle.

The unnamed Duke of the title has been cursed by a witch to be unable to touch any living organism without causing it to die (think Ned from the criminally cancelled Pushing Daisies). Exiled by his noble family to a peripheral estate, he’s accompanied only by his elderly butler and his stunningly beautiful (former childhood friend) maid Alice. The Duke is deeply infatuated with Alice, and she with him. In order to lift his dark, melancholic moods, Alice continually messes with him. It’s clear that the Duke deeply values her love and attention, and the fact they can never touch is profoundly traumatic to them both.

Their mutual love, which can never be consummated, results in several heartbreakingly beautiful scenes, most markedly in the ballroom where they carefully pivot around each other, practically almost touching as they waltz… Even when parted, they pine for one another — Alice keeps by her bedside a dead rose in a jar that the Duke gifted her.

Like any good romantic comedy it later introduces some side characters for the main duo to bounce off of. The Duke’s sister Viola is particularly funny, with her somewhat peculiar older man obsession and odd outfits. Witch couple Cuff and Zain help to drive the wider plot, and there are mysteries here that are barely touched on in these meagre twelve episodes.

With multiple manga volumes in print, there’s probably enough material left unadapted for at least another two seasons, so I am absolutely delighted that a second season has been greenlit already. If you enjoyed this studio’s other romantic comedy Hi Score Girl, Duke of Death contains some similarly emotional material, plus it shares its rather odd, slightly stiff, plasticky CGI anime aesthetic. I did not find this detracted at all from my enjoyment of this utterly delightful show.

The Great Jahy Will Not Be Defeated!: CRUNCHYROLL (episodes 1–10 of 20)

A rare moment of calorific reward for the hapless Jahy

Another comedy that I was initially iffy about, this is a lot more fun (and a lot less fanservice-y) than I expected it to be. Jahy is a tall, voluptuous, purple-haired denizen of The Dark Realm, all demonic and terrifying as befits her position as second-in-command. She relishes the worship and obedience of her underlings and clearly enjoys drinking her own Kool-Aid. Unfortunately for Jahy, a particularly aggressive magical girl destroys the enormous mana crystal that powers the demon realm, ejecting its inhabitants, powerless, into the human realm. Now Jahy must survive the modern world without her mystical powers. Will her oversized ego cope?

Ha ha no. Without power from the enormous crystal, Jahy’s form degenerates into an adorable child-form, where she wears only a grotty white T-shirt with the words “Restore the Dark Realm!” on it, plus a pair of green crocs on her feet. Each episode details the many humiliations she suffers, often as a consequence of her oversized, very bruised ego. This isn’t as mean-spirited as it sounds.

Despite spending a great deal of time crying bitter, frustrated tears, Jahy has people who look out for, and help her. She finds a job in a restaurant as a waitress, employed by a saintly manager who frequently soothes Jahy’s tantrums, christening her with the pet name “Hy-chan”. Her manager’s sister is her landlord — Jahy lives in a tiny apartment and can barely afford to furnish it, let alone feed herself. A running joke is her refusal to pay rent to her much-less-than-saintly landlord. Despite their physical scuffles, it’s clear her gruff landlord also cares for Jahy’s wellbeing. Between these two sisters, they are responsible for a great deal of the intermittently heartwarming aspects of the show.

Other colourful characters add to the fun — eternally incompetent Saurva who declares herself Jahy’s rival but is mistaken for a cosplayer (she does wear a ridiculous uniform), Jahy’s submissive subordinate Druj who has adapted to the human world much more successfully but has a disturbing line in extreme masochism, and the aforementioned Magical Girl who becomes terrifyingly unlucky (to the extent of grievous bodily harm) due to the malign effect of mana crystals on human beings in close proximity to them.

Yeah, it’s essentially another comedy that’s reliant on one basic joke — previously powerful, proud Jahy gets continually humiliated — but it uses this to evoke some real emotions and address the trials of young people trapped in shitty houses, working shitty jobs, eating shitty food. If you’ve ever been one of those people, and I know I certainly have, then you’ll find a lot to empathise with, even if you’re unable to spontaneously metamorphose into an amazonian, busty demoness during work hours.

The Case Study of Vanitas: FUNIMATION (episodes 1–6 of 12)

This will be one of those shows that really pushes the tension between the leads to breaking point without actually committing. This isn’t BL, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was.

Of the three shows I left until late in the season to binge, Vanitas was the one that just didn’t click with me. Set in some kind of alternate 19th century, it’s a tonally inconsistent vampire/action/comedy hydbrid that takes a long time to become engaging. I watched two episodes and felt completely unmoved, and in fact irritated by Vanitas, who embodies most of the brash, loudmouth, smug anime boy traits that I despise in main characters. Deuteragonist Noe was a bit more interesting, but I found my attention wandering despite the colourful violence. The humour was grating to me, like fingers down chalkboard.

I stepped back and ruminated on whether I wanted to bother watching any more, and I was swayed by some of my AniTAY colleagues in our discord chat who seemed to enjoy it a great deal. Episode 3 was little better, but episode 4 started to get interesting, and now that I’m halfway through the show at episode 6, I think I might just as well finish it. (Though there is a second cour of the show due in January 2022.) I wonder if it was the horrific violence in the latest episode that clinched it? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a content warning on Funimation before, like this episode had. Anyway, I have mixed feelings about this one.

Sonny Boy: FUNIMATION (12 episodes)

Yes, ultimately some of the main characters are animals. No, please don’t ask me to explain any of this.

Well. What in hell’s name did I just watch? I binged all 12 episodes of this in very quick succession, and now my brain feels like it’s been through a blender and poured back into my skull with a funnel through my ears. Essentially, this is “discombobulation — the anime”.

I’m not even sure I can describe the plot coherently. A class of teenage kids find themselves in a strange dimension with bizarre laws of nature that shift and change as they move from one weird reality to the next. Hijinks ensue. Despite the neon-coloured insanity around them, there’s a certain groundedness, a naturalism to the characterisation and designs of the kids — not dissimilar to the works of Science Saru, Masaaki Yuasa’s experimental studio. They don’t act like stereotypical anime characters — their concerns are down-to-earth, they’re worried about their place in their emerging social structure, about rules and rule-breaking, about friendships and getting home.

Taking its main inspirations from classic horror manga The Drifting Classroom by Kazuo Umezu and mainstay of high school literature essays The Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Sonny Boy doesn’t shy away from how shitty teenagers can be to one another. The kids separate into factions, gossip about one another, spread malicious rumours and get into fights over authority.

Each episode tends to introduce a new theme or location, as each of the castaway kids start to develop strange new reality — warping powers that drive the plot in totally unpredictable ways. This is not a normal narrative, and it defies the viewer to imagine what will happen next. Full of ludicrous, psychedelic imagery it commands your attention, even as it deliberately confounds expectations and convention. It’s as obtuse as it sounds, but also a lot of fun due to the freewheeling creativity on show. I’m definitely glad I watched it, but I don’t think I’ll be returning for the multitudes of rewatches that are probably required to fully decode its meaning.

Kageki Shojo: FUNIMATION (13 episodes)

Sarasa Watanabe is pure, concentrated sunbeam energy

Now this was a fantastic surprise. I can’t believe I almost didn’t bother watching what may now be my number one show of the season. Kageki Shojo follows the trials and tribulations of a group of girls entering a music and theatre academy attached to the legendary “Kouka” theatre troup, which is heavily based on the real-life Takarazuka Revue, an all-female theatre company. Entry to the school is extremely competitive, with an acceptance rate lower than even Tokyo University. To beat the odds, successful applicants must be exceptionally talented, but talent alone isn’t enough to guarantee success.

Main characters Sarasa and Ai are polar opposites — whereas prodigiously tall, blonde, sunny Sarasa is a bundle of gregarious, perpertually-smiling energy, ex-idol Ai is quiet and standoffish to the point of rudeness. Of course they become room-mates, and Ai fruitlessly attempts to fend off Sarasa’s enthusiastic overtures of friendship.

Many of the episodes are acutely-observed character studies, examining what makes each of the central cast-members tick, and Kageki Shojo is not afraid to mine some really dark seams of emotional trauma. Even in the first few episodes we cover child exual abuse and eating disorders. It’s never sensationalised, and although it can sometimes make for difficult watching, it helps to humanise these exceptional students. These girls have good reasons for the way they act, believable motivations for their drives and impulses.

Like all the best drama school narratives, Kageki Shojo is full of… well, drama. Some girls are connivingly bitchy while others supportive and friendly. No-one is reduced to tropes or ciphers. We feel their anxiety before auditons and tests, we cheer at their triumphs and empathise with their pain. One aspect of the academy that the show excels at depicting is the effect that the strict hierachy has on every aspect of the students’ lives — something already prominent in Japanese culture, magnified here. Their futures are mapped out before them, there are rigidly established ways that they must progress, and only through direct competition and following strict codes of conduct can they hope to succeed. In such a high stress environment, no wonder many of them seem broken.

Overall it’s an optimistic show, despite the emotional suffering. It’s warm, and human and even the most despicably-acting girls aren’t entirely bad. This adaptation has only scratched the surface of the source manga, so I desperately hope that a second season will be forthcoming.

BONUS FEATURE: Star Wars Visions: Disney+ (9 episodes)

I was originally going to write a separate article about this in order to exploit that sweet sweet Star Wars CEO, but to be honest I find Star Wars so uninteresting in general that I couldn’t bring myself to write thousands of words about it. (Proceeds to write several hundred instead.)

Look, Star Wars is fine, ok? Aggressively fine in the way that a McDonalds’ burger is fine at midnight when you’re hungry and no other food places are open. It fills a hole, but isn’t remotely satisfying. It’s full of calories but little substance. I loved Star Wars as a kid, but drifted away as a teenager, in the direction of more serious, “hard” SF. I’ve watched the original trilogy several times over, I’m very forgiving of the prequels’ clunky nature because I watched the “anti-cheese” edits that removes Jar-Jar bloody Binks and makes them infinitely better as a result. I enjoy the greek tragedy-esque story of Anakin’s fall and the rise of the Empire.

Since Disney bought Star Wars they have McDonaldised/commodified the entire franchise. The sequel trilogy is an utter mess of confused storytelling, where they have admitted to making it up completely as they went along. Cool setpieces does not a good story make. The Force Awakens is a fun bit of modernised nostalgia. The Last Jedi was fantastic when I first saw it, but on repeated watches I have become increasingly more irritated with its almost terrorist-like violent iconoclasm that leads into a horrible conclusion in Rise of Skywalker. I don’t know what Disney were thinking going into this without any kind of overarching plan. The sequels are ultimately pretty but meaningless fanwank.

Disney’s other Star Wars films are a mixed bag — the Harrison Ford-less Solo prequel is fun but throwaway (with some nice Clone Wars continuity nods) and Rogue One is a grim, dark war movie that left my little nephews and nieces in stunned silence by the time the credits rolled that time we saw it at the cinema. (SpoilerRogue One is Everyone Dies At The End — The Movie.)

When it comes to Star Wars’ TV spinoffs, I now have to throw up my hands in defeat. I’ve watched 100 or so episodes of Clone Wars, and in parts it is great, in others so desperately juvenile. I can’t face pushing myself to finish it. I refuse to watch Rebels or The Bad Batch or The Mandalorian (or any of the numerous upcoming spinoffs) until I eventually overcome my Star Wars ennui and finish Clone Wars. Why should I watch hundreds of episodes of something I only vaguely like when there are so many anime shows that I love? But wait — what if Star Wars was anime? Hmmm. I can understand why that might make many fan unfeasibly excited. I am… vaguely interested.

We’ve been here before, with Hollywood properties spun off into anime anthology films. The Animatrix was about 60% good/40% dull. Batman Gotham Knights was about 20% good/80% why am I watching this? I never even bothered with the similar videogame spinoff anime anthologies Halo Legends or Dante’s Inferno. What makes Disney think that a Star Wars/anime cross-pollination will work better than any of these preceding efforts?

To give them credit, they have assembled an incredible selection of talent, including staff from some of Japan’s very best anime studios — Trigger, Kinema Citrus, Colorido etc. This leads to an incredibly eclectic, very variable selection of episodes.

I intended to watch the whole thing in one go, but instead of a bunch of very short episodes like I was expecting, these vary in length from about 15–22 minutes a piece, some approaching standard anime show length. Therefore I spaced them out. This was a good plan, because despite their disparate tones and content, there’s a lot of repetition here. For example — did every short have to include lightsabers and Jedi/Sith battles? Because almost every single one does. If spinoffs like Clone Wars have taught us anything, there’s a lot more to Star Wars’ universe than lightsaber battles, no matter how cool they are. Also I think Visions mentions the words “Kyber Crystals” more than any other form of Star Wars, ever.

None of the shorts are bad, all of them have positive aspects to them, but as befits an anthology, their quality varies. My personal favourite is Production I.G.s The Ninth Jedi. It utilises its time very well to tell a coherent, contained and fascinating story that could easily be continued later, should it need to. Great twist towards the end, too. Studio Trigger’s The Twins has veteran director Hiroyuki Imaishi doing his thing, so basically it’s Star Wars crossed with Promare. It’s as good as you would expect, all neon colours and bonkers action. Just wonderful nonsense. T0-B1 is Science Saru does Astro Boy, but Star Wars. Delightfully simple and fun.

Visions even provides for the furries amongst us (oh, not me, no, uh… Pretends he’s never watched Beaststars, or Oddtaxi, or Monogatari…) with Lop and Ocho, a gorgeous-looking short from Geno Studio about the conflict between a very anime bunny girl and her adopted sister. I loved the character designs in this, and the action was incredible. Akakiri is another from Science Saru, with a fairly thin plot but an interestingly downbeat ending. Unusual character designs help it to stand out.

Studio Trigger’s other contribution The Elder isn’t so interesting, it follows a Jedi who looks a lot like Qui Gong Jinn and a random padawan to a planet on the rim to fight some random old dude. It doesn’t amount to anything too much. Kinema Citrus’ The Village Bride looks absolutely gorgeous, like something Studio Ghibli would do with Star Wars, but I found it really boring.

Studio Colorido’s Tatooine Rhapsody should be applauded for doing something a bit different — a story about a rock band of eclectic characters — but the music itself is really cheesy and that took me out of it. Also I’m pretty sure there isn’t meant to be rainstorms on the desert planet of Tatooine, just sayin’. Finally Kamikaze Douga’s The Duel has a really interesting monochrome CG/hand-drawn filter aesthetic but an uninspiring story about a lone Ronin/Jedi defending a village from bad guys. As a homage to the old-style live-action Japanese Samurai filmaking that originally inspired Lucas to make his original Star Wars movie it is commendable, but did not inspire me.

That’s enough from me for a while. The upcoming Autumn season also looks similarly packed, so I doubt I’ll be getting a break from anime overdosing any time soon. Picking my top 10 (or even top 20) shows for 2021 will be extremely difficult…

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