2021’s onslaught of incredible anime continues into the year’s final season. No breaks allowed for poor anime-obsessives like me! Could Autumn be this year’s best season for anime? Read on for my impressions on the first 9 of 18 different shows I’m watching on four separate streaming platforms — Crunchyroll, Funimation, Netflix and HIDIVE. I’m going to try really hard not to think about how much money I spend annually on streaming services.
Banished from the Hero’s Party: episodes 1–6 of 13 (FUNIMATION, Wednesdays)
With a premise that sounds like another bottom-scraping identikit JRPG-derivative anime, this (relatively) chill slice-of life fantasy is a whole lot more interesting than first glances would suggest. For one, main character Red hasn’t even been run over by a truck or reincarnated or anything. That’s immediately a plus. He was born into this fantasy world, and just like everyone else must contend with an individual “blessing”, a concept that seems anything but.
In Red’s world, everyone is born with a strong affiliation for a particular RPG-like class. For example you could be a naturally adept “Healer” and therefore your personality will become more caring and supportive. A “Brawler” is more likely to become a hot-tempered thug, while another with the weapon mastery blessing can choose a weapon to become spectacularly skilled at. It’s this fairly basic-sounding RPG class concept, common to so many games, that overshadows the lives and personalities of every person Red interacts with. In some unsettling situations, one’s blessing even seems to override one’s free will. Are Red and his friends nothing but NPCs within a capricious god’s game world? Thankfully Banished isn’t anywhere near as nihilistic as OTT rape-and-murder-fest Goblin Slayer, despite the similar underlying mechanics.
Previously, Red had been a supporting member of his younger sister Ruti’s adventuring party — not a main combatant, but clearly he acted as the glue that held the other members together, making correct decisions. Now that he’s left for a quieter life as a remote village’s apothecary, Ruti’s party is falling apart. The younger, very stoic Ruti’s blessing is “The Hero”, which means she has no choice but to become the all-powerful champion of her people. Her own desires are completely overrulled by her role, and although she desperately wants to reunite with Red, she is compelled to head into terrible danger without his wise help.
In his backwater village, Red enjoys a quiet life with his young lady-friend Rit, a fellow former adventurer who is clearly besotted with him. In typical anime fashion, Red is both embarrassed by and (at least partly) oblivious to her exceedingly overt flirtations. Whereas Red’s “Guide” blessing gives him relative freedom to do whatever he wants, Rit must fight against her “spirit scout” blessing that calls to her to go adventuring again instead of settling down with her loved one.
It’s this tension between obligation/nature and desires/wants that elevates this otherwise fairly pedestrian show above other similar slice-of-life fantasies. It looks pretty enough, there’s a fair amount of fan-service from Rit’s heaving bosoms, and the animation is nothing spectacular. By no means the best of the season, it remains a surprisingly interesting diversion with a pleasingly dark undercurrent beneath the surface pastoral charm.
The Aquatope on White Sand: episodes 14-19 of 24 (CRUNCHYROLL, Thursdays)
Aquatope remains a very solid, soothing and emotionally deep show that now follows main leads Kukkuru and Fuuka into early adulthood through their careers at a much larger aquarium than before. Having been forced to give up on her dream of running her family’s small aquarium, the emotionally immature Kukkuru transfers to the much more corporate “Tingaarla” aquarium and moves away from home. She’s faced with various roadblocks, not least in her new role at work — not as an animal attendant but as part of the publicity team — and she is believably aggrieved, frustrated and lost. Her boundless energy and enthusiasm can’t be contained for long however, and she soon grows into her role, as she negotiates the increasingly complex interpersonal relationships that develop around her.
As a sensitive, emotional show about growing up, embracing change, accepting one’s faults and moving on, Aquatope is without any obvious peer. It continues to look gorgeous, with truly wonderful aquatic animal animation, vivid blue skies and evocative summer seascapes. I’m not entirely sure where the plot is ultimately going (lately the magical realism stuff seems to have fallen by the wayside), and I’m uncertain what the plan is for deuteragonist Fuuka. She seems to have given up on life as an idol and is settling into her role as a penguin attendant. I feel I have a better handle on Kukkuru’s feelings than Fuuka, who seems more of a closed black box to me. Perhaps that’s deliberate, as she is a subtle, guarded character who plays well off the more effusive Kukkuru. I can’t believe there’s only five episodes with my favourite aquarium girls left to go. It wouldn’t be too greedy to hope for a second season, would it?
Sakugan: episodes 1-6 of 12 (CRUNCHYROLL, Thursdays)
It would be fair to say that so far this show hasn’t exactly gone where I expected it to. Defying expectations can be a good thing, but in this case I think the show I imagined unfortunately greatly outstrips the real one so far. Episode one was a masterful exercise in worldbuilding, introducing bickering father-daughter duo Gagumber and Memempu, their mysterious underground world, and teasing yet more mysteries to be uncovered. A brutal plot twist at the end of the first episode cemented this as The Show To Watch This Season, a la last year’s incredible Deca-Dence. My first impressions were of a cross between Made in Abyss and Gurren Lagann with a similar father-daughter character dynamic to Deca-Dence.
Unfortunately the show has yet to fully match the excitement and promise shown by that first episode. The segments where Gagumber and Memempu explore their dangerous underground world in their homemade bipedal mecha are by far the best parts. Episodes set in whatever “town of the week” they find are dull and seem totally disconnected from the exploratory premise of the show. It’s a bit like Kino’s Journey but a lot less profound. Neither father nor daughter appear to have developed as characters at all, and the throwaway supporting characters have left me cold. There’s definitely an interesting story hidden here, somewhere behind all the distractions. I wish they’d hurry up and get to it.
Platinum End: episodes 1-6 of 24 (CRUNCHYROLL/FUNIMATION, Thursdays)
I wish I’d never started watching this. It’s like watching a sixteen-car pile-up falling off a bridge, down a cliff, into a river of lava. Screamingly unsubtle, bone-headed, misanthropic and so laughably edgy, I am so close to dropping this miserable excuse for a death game anime. Seriously, two minutes into episode six, watching a psychotic murder-lesbian sexually assaulting a mind-controlled girl, I actually paused this and asked myself “why am I still watching this shit?” I don’t know. Perhaps I won’t bother with episode 7. If you want to read more details about why this is a terrible anime, read my recent excoriation of the first four episodes here.
Platinum End: So Much Edge, So Little Fun
I’m not embarrassed to count 2006’s grim edge-a-thon Death Note among my favourite anime…
Ranking of Kings: episodes 1-5 of 23 (FUNIMATION, Thursdays)
Now this is something bloody special. Coming from the fantastic Wit Studio who previously brought us Attack on Titan, Vinland Saga, After the Rain, Great Pretender and The Ancient Magus Bride, my expectations for their new show were already sky-high. Based on the first 5 episodes, Ranking of Kings has exceeded them.
Based on the 11-volume manga by Sōsuke Tōka, it looks like a traditional children’s fairy tale, but from before the time that Disney sanitised them. Yes, this is filled with horrifying (yet still cartoony) violence, backstabbing, intrigue, political machinations and complex, flawed characters. The art style looks more European than Japanese and reminds me of the 2001 anime film Princess Arete (reviewed here), while the story is like Game of Thrones mixed in a blender with the Brothers Grimm. Hell, there’s even a blonde prince you’ll hate as much as Joffrey.
Diminutive Prince Bojji is deaf and mute and therefore misunderstood by those around him. Though Bojji is next in line for the throne, when his father King Bosse dies, his stepmother and court advisers instead appoint his hateful little scrote of a half-brother, Daida, to the throne instead. So Bojji sets out on a dangerous journey, with treachery and betrayal stalking him at every turn.
I’m aware that sounds grim, but it’s also incredibly heartwarming. Prince Bojji is A Good Boy and is the most precious little person ever animated. He’s clever, resourceful, loving and loyal, making friends with a (previously) three-headed snake (now double-decapitated) and Kage, a weird little shadow assassin monster. Kage’s backstory is heartbreaking, and the viewer actively wills Bojji and Kage to stay together as best buddies until the bitter end.
With at least one incredible WTF??? moment per episode, Ranking of Kings doesn’t just homage common fairy-tale tropes like magic mirrors and evil stepmothers, it stamps on them, rips them apart and assembles them into something new and unpredictable. You cannot take a single character at face value — they are so much more complex and interesting, and weird. I cannot recommend Ranking of Kings high enough. It’s heartbreakingly sad, incredibly uplifting and breathtakingly exciting. Without a doubt this is the best show this season (and it is up against some stiff competition).
Random Blu-ray Review: Princess Arete
Another lucky haul from my local secondhand store’s anime shelf, Princess Arete is a relatively obscure anime movie I…
Komi Can’t Communicate: episodes 1-4 of ?? (NETFLIX, Thursdays)
If only this had been picked up by a streaming service with an actually functional subtitling solution. Instead we’re stuck with this disappointing half-assed job by Netflix. I get that it’s a limitation of their subtitles that they can’t simultaneously translate onscreen text and dialogue, but that limitation actively harms this delightful, funny show. I’m not pro-pirate by any means, but when fansubs are the only way to watch the complete product, Netflix has a problem…
So the above (fansub) example from Youtube should go to explain just how desperately insufficient Netflix’s barebones subs are for this show. This is about a girl who just cannot speak to other people due to severe social anxiety. Her only reliable method of communication is via the written word. Netflix can barely keep up with the onscreen text and at least 50% of the time doesn’t bother to translate it. This means the viewer is left confused and disoriented, unsure if the untranslated moon runes are somehow important to the plot.
Netflix failures aside, this is a very warm, funny, entertaining show filled with all manner of weirdos. I did not expect this to be quite as bonkers as it very clearly is. Everyone in the selectively mute Komi’s class is some kind of oddity, and I expect much of the charm in future episodes will be derived from increasingly unhinged cast members bouncing off Komi and her first friend (and main viewpoint character, apparently completely average schoolboy) Tadano. With Komi’s desire to make one hundred friends, the only limitation is the author’s ability to keep introducing new nutjobs.
Also Komi’s Googly Eyes are almost as cute as Prince Bojji’s.
Yuki Yuna is a Hero S3: Great Mankai Chapter : episodes 1-7 of 12 (HIDIVE, Fridays)
I probably should have re-watched the preceding two seasons (now both finally available to watch on HIDIVE after a prolonged period of legal unavailability) of this wonderfully grimdark Magical Girl show before embarking on this now hilariously non-chronological third season. What is even going on with this? Who are all of these characters, again?
Oh, we’re going to spend downtime with the main cast for one episode before introducing another entire huge cast ? Ok… I can maybe manage that. Oh, what’s this? It’s set before season 2? Specifically the second half of season 2, that’s a sequel to season 1, not the first half of season 2, which is a prequel? Right, right. I can get that.
Oh, what’s this? We’re now sort of contemporaneous with season 2, but we’re now leaving that other cast of characters behind and we’re doing a flashback arc. Right. Right. Ok, deep breath. More characters. Some of them look like the other characters. Is that deliberate? It might be? Right. Um… but multiple of them are dead now? They’re going crazy and murdering each other? Why is this happening? Who are these people again?
Normally I remember magical girls by their hair colour rather than name, but there are something like six blonde girls, several brown haired girls, and at least two pink-haired girls might be the same person, but separated by hundred of years? I don’t understand what the hell is going on.
So that’s pretty much my experience of Yuki Yuna season 3, which appears to be a random hodge-podge of side-story light novel adaptations clumsily rammed into a container that doesn’t quite fit them. It still looks great, the music (by Nier Automata’s Keiichi Okabe) is God-tier stuff, it remains really really proficient at torturing teenage girls and making them bleed. But is it any good? I have no bloody idea, because I can’t remember who any of these people are and I’m not actually sure if I’m meant to. Perhaps I’ll get back to you on this at the end of the season.
The Faraway Paladin: episodes 1-6 of 12 (CRUNCHYROLL, Saturdays)
Actually good Isekai shock! Think Mushoku Tensei but without the perversion. Based on a slightly older property (a 2015 web novel), it predates the recent Isekai glut that has so poisoned fantasy anime’s well of late. This is a masterful example of good worldbuilding. Whereas some shows dump a mountain of expository crap, whether it’s directly or emotionally relevant to the characters or not, Paladin introduces us to this world’s concepts slowly, via the experiences of our young protagonist William.
William is a boy from our world reincarnated as a baby in a fantasy world, raised by a “family” of undead monsters in a temple outside an empty city. Skeleton-dad Blood, actual-mummy mother Mary and ghost-grandad Gus teach him everything they know about magic, fighting, and the world’s deep lore. Gods and demons are real, and their existence is tied very directly to William’s life and destiny. To detail much more would risk entering spoiler territory, but the first few episodes really do a great job of raising questions, answering them and exploring the consequences of said answers.
Although the first few episodes are set in and around William’s home, this looks to be one of those grand adventure stories where the main character leaves childhood and his home behind in search of his destiny, making colourful friends and enemies along the way. A very standard bildungsroman/hero’s journey, then, but there’s a reason that kind of story structure is baked into literature at the deepest levels — it’s a great framework to tell a story, and so far I feel very much invested in William’s.
86: EIGHTY-SIX Part 2: episodes 12-17 of 24 (CRUNCHYROLL, Saturdays)
Episode 16 of 86 may be the single most incredible episode of anime this whole year. It’s an intense nuclear detonation of an episode, unrelenting from beginning to end and concluding with an after-credits stinger of such shattering dissonance that I’m sure it gave me nightmares afterwards.
I already liked the first 11 episodes, broadcast back in Spring 2021, but it did take a while to really “click” for me. Not so with this second half, which has been excellent from the off. Part of this may be that the timeline isn’t jumping back and forth, as I always found that poorly executed and disorienting before. This half is so much more focused, perhaps a little to the detriment of poor Lena, left behind with her asshole military colleagues in San Magnolia while her former Spearhead Squadron charges navigate a new, less overtly racist society.
86 continues to examine the psychological toll of war on these damaged child soldiers who are unable to settle into carefree civilian life and re-enlist into the army of their new home state. Of course it is the former Spearhead members who prove instrumental in the defence against the biggest Legion offensive yet. The concept behind The Legion remains deeply unsettling, and I hope the show continues to mine the abyssal seam of existential dread it has already done so successfully, exploiting our modern, yet somehow primal fear of electronic doppelgangers.
Join me later in the week when I’ll cover the remaining 9 shows I’m currently watching. There’s yet more incredible anime this season!
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