Final Thoughts With Arcane — Gymnastics Samurai, Sleepy Princess in the Demon Castle, Fruits Basket 2nd Season
I’m not gonna lie — I liked Gymnastics Samurai, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t disappointing.
Being disappointed implies that I had expectations going into this, and, yes, I absolutely did. The show was an original work by the creator of Zombieland Saga and MAPPA, a studio that has, to put it mildly, been on a fucking roll lately, and it all looked somewhat in the vein of Yuri On Ice!!, which was made by the same studio.
But unfortunately, it seems like this is more or less where MAPPA’s insane schedule ran thin this year, as it was airing during what I’m sure was a heavy prep period for Attack on Titan Final Season and the concurrent airing of Jujutsu Kaisen, two of the most anticipated shows of the entire year. 95% of the show looks totally passable, but where Yuri On Ice featured jaw-dropping, hand-rotoscoped sequences of its featured sport (even if they were a bit repetitive towards the end), almost every single shot of gymnastics, in a show called Gymnastics Samurai, from one of the world’s premiere anime studios of the modern era, is low-resolution, wide-shot CG. It’s not a dealbreaker, but at least giving me something to gawk at would have probably elevated this by an entire point.
The other issue, however, is the plot. It’s good*, and the asterisk there is the kind of thing that will really bother someone experienced with story analysis. There are people that will watch this show and have no problem whatsoever with its narrative and conclusion, but I am not that kind of person. The parallels with Yuri on Ice!! made it a frustrating watch, as the buildup failed to raise the stakes quite high enough, the characters didn’t get to go deep enough, and the entire thing wrapped up a bit too neatly. Most of the cast is developed perfectly well enough for me to feel satisfied, but the big casualty is this series’ version of Yurio, Tetsuo Minamoto, who almost feels plagiarised at first but ultimately gets so little focus that the eventual subversion of his character arc and the reveal of his motivation fall entirely flat. It’s a shame, because all of the other character dynamics, centered as they may be around Aragaki (with the exception of Leo and Tomoyo), are pretty clearly defined and the main cast are different enough from their equivalents in the show I keep comparing this to to keep them engaging. All this, however, doesn’t make it any easier to experience a show about a guy sticking his landing basically falling on its ass in the last two episodes.
Sleepy Princess in the Demon Castle
A comedic tour de force that challenges the notion that you need more than one joke.
Sleepy Princess had the unique distinction this season of being the one I was kind of familiar with, having read the first two volumes of its source material, and so I wasn’t particularly worried going in when other people were heaping cautious praise on it. Not that I blame them — if you strip away the nuance at play, there really is just one joke. The princess wants to sleep, and will do whatever it takes to achieve that goal, regardless of what form of sociopathy she’ll have to engage in that day. The show takes this concept in so many different, well-wrought directions that this was probably the most concentrated joke-per-minute comedy of the entire year (barring maybe Osomatsu season 3, but that’s not counting towards this year anyway) that also brought with it a cast of characters whose simplicity belied the nuanced relationships they have with each other and with the princess herself.
Syalis, the show’s core, is undoubtedly one of its best components all by herself — taking the deadpan loli to its absolute extreme comedic potential, episode after episode, while slowly and steadily growing into a more likable and understandable character. She never outgrows her extreme focus on her goal, but she manages to express it in different ways and learn more about the world around herself in the process of her little adventures, becoming the primary way the audience experiences Sleepy Princess’s subtle but effective worldbuilding.
It’s basically the MST3K Mantra applied to a fantasy setting — everything that exists in this world is there to make the show funnier. Does this magical kingdom have anime? Of course it does, and also the Home Shopping Network, video game terminology, and Christmas, because there are jokes to be had here. You learn to stop questioning it because Sleepy Princess is only here to entertain you. There’s a story, sure, but it’s really only kind of there at the end; though small, it does deliver a genuinely heartwarming conclusion.
I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t include my other favorite aspect of the show: the Demon Lord himself. While initially he seems to have kidnapped the princess simply for reasons of evilness, over time their rapport develops into something resembling a brother and sister who get along despite neither really acting the way the other wants them to. The show builds itself around this relationship, as the people supposedly holding Syalis captive (emphasis on supposedly) end up with a strange affection for her despite her constant torment, creating a unique, platonic reverse-Stockholm in which both sides mutually agree that their situation is probably for the best.
The visual presentation by Doga Kobo, which manages to be on par with what they did with Sing Yesterday For Me, only closer to their usual art style, just sends the show up to the stars for me. My only real complaints are that I wish I could have seen a bit more of the hero’s side of things, because he seems like an incredibly amusing character in his own right and wanting just a little more plot if they were going to have one at all. Otherwise, though, Sleepy Princess is the best comedy since Welcome to Demon School, and the two of them stand high at the top of the genre heap this year. (And hey, Demon School is getting a second season…maybe we’ll get one for this too, a couple years down the line?)
Fruits Basket 2nd Season
Talking about Fruits Basket remains difficult.
I would be lying if I said that this show kept me actively engaged the entire time, but when it hits, it certainly does so hard. Fruits Basket is not a show you watch for a decently-paced plot, because it tends to give you some kind of story beat that hits an emotional but not necessarily a narrative stake, and then have several episodes of characters talking about it or adding tragic backstories to its plethora of comedic side characters.
And honestly, it still works pretty well.
The thing about having such a huge cast is that you’ll find that you’ll connect and empathize with several of them, and your emotional connection with those characters branches out to the rest, but if you’re looking for anything more than a very straightforward drama, you probably ought to look elsewhere. Fruits Basket has twists in it, sure, but by this point in time they’re either a) things people already knew about the story, or b) pretty old-hat after such a long lead time between the end of the manga and this remake. If you can’t get yourself invested in the characters, even after watching the dub (which is great), this probably isn’t a train you’re going to want to stay on, because Fruits Basket is a quiet, contemplative, and incredibly character-driven series. It’s also got some problematic elements that were more “iffy” in 2000 but are downright uncomfortable now, most notably multiple instances of teen-adult romances played straight. This show should probably have content warnings since it frequently deals with incredibly specific traumas, but if you can’t handle watching people be deliberately emotionally manipulated by family members (and I get it, believe me) this is also a flat skip.
I have nice things to say! A lot of the lighthearted comedic moments work very well. Episode twenty-three revolves around Tohru’s class performing Cinderella at the school cultural festival, without any adherence to the source material, to hilarious results, and the student council characters tend to make for excellent comic relief when it’s not their turn to sit in the Tragic Backstory Hotseat. The visual presentation isn’t wow-ing me quite as much as it did in the first season but is still above-average, the dub is still great (particularly for one recorded in isolation — the dichotomy of this and her work in The Last of Us Part II has cemented why Laura Bailey is winning all the voice acting awards this year), and the relationship dynamic of the core trio remains as strongly-written as ever. This season, we got into the meat of the plot that people who only watched the 2001 anime were unfamiliar with, and while (again) it doesn’t move quickly, once it got a hook in me again I ended up binging almost the entire show in one sitting. and the second set of theme songs kills; they’re simply two of the best of the entire year.
Overall, I’m pretty comfortable awarding Fruits Basket 2nd Season the same 8/10 as its predecessor, but given that the third season is not going to be the same length and the story is…not necessarily in a place that would indicate that it’s almost over, I’m pretty curious to see how this is going to shake out.