Mid-Spring 2014 Anime Ranking

01. KNIGHTS OF SIDONIA (Sidonia no Kishi) (ep. 1-8) – Really loving this show! Far and away my favourite of the season so far. This frequently brutal and thrilling space opera, about humanity’s struggle for survival thousands of years after aliens, called Gauna, destroyed the Earth, had me hooked by the 3rd episode.

One of the biggest initial challenges was that everyone kind of looks the same. I’m sure it’s completely intentional given the amount of genetic engineering that has occurred, but man, did it ever make it hard to keep track of who’s who, especially in the beginning. The monochromatic colour palette was no help either.

I’m normally not a fan of computer animation, but I have to say it actually works pretty well here. The movements do look a bit stiff occasionally, but really, the narrative is so immersive that none of that bothers me; there’s just no opportunity to dwell on it. I’m really glad I didn’t dismiss this one just because of the CGI.

Anime storylines featuring a boy who shows up and mysteriously has the ability to operate a special mecha are a dime a dozen (eg. Captain Earth, DAIMIDALER, and Dai-Shogun from just this season alone). This show had maybe the most plausible explanation I’ve ever seen – Nagate was raised apart from the population but he practised extensively on a VR simulator all his life. It’s looking like there might be more to it than that, too.

At the close of ep. 8, a Gauna sample has been brought onto Sidonia. I would have done the same thing. Not just because of its familiar appearance, but also because it’s important to study the enemy if you ever hope to understand or defeat them. On the other hand, after all their efforts to keep the Gauna from making physical contact with Sidonia ever again, they now have one on board…

Incidentally, SIDONIA also gets my vote for best OP/ED of the season with its closer “掌 -show-” by Kitamura Eri.
Edit: (streaming on Netflix starting in July)

02. YowaPeda (Yowamushi Pedal) (ep. 26-33) – Onoda has spent the series training and learning about cycling from his peers and his sempai. It’s finally come full circle in ep. 33, as Onoda gets a chance to help Tadokoro by showing him his own special riding technique – and we finally get to hear the Hime Hime song in its entirety!
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

03. Ace of Diamond (ep. 26-34) – In the current arc, Seido is facing off against Yakushi, a formidable opponent, and it’s coming down to a battle of wits between Miyuki and Yakushi’s coach. Furuya, too, is called upon to rise to the challenge. Episode 34 had no shortage of awesome plays. We actually went back and watched several of the scenes over again so we could appreciate them fully!
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

04. Blade & Soul (ep. 1-9) – This show seems to be under the radar for most viewers. Is anyone else watching this?

All the powerful characters in this action-fantasy, be they gang leaders, village chiefs, bosses, good guys or bad, are all female. And why not? Sure, they are all busty and barely dressed, but that doesn’t matter to me, because they are shown to be genuinely strong.

I have nothing against shows with predominantly male characters – check out all the sausagefests in the rest of the top 6 right here – that’s just the way fiction comes. But there’s no denying how refreshing it is to see something with this many strong females in it. Ironically, this program was not made by women, for women. If anything, I think it might be the opposite. Regardless, the creators’ respect for women is very evident in the production.

Maybe that’s part of the reason why this show struggles to find an audience, though. Female viewers see the revealing outfits and assume it’s a show for guys. Meanwhile, many guys have little interest in a show full of warrior women with not even one male for them to fawn over.

Blade & Soul is perhaps also not well-suited for viewers who expect major characters to be overtly expressive. Alka, the lead, is like a killing machine and shows no emotion. As someone who has previously sympathized with strong, silent types in anime, I can personally tolerate Alka just fine; and I’m enjoying the series so far.

Actually, if there’s one thing I could really do without, that would be Karen’s dancing, in the show and in the appalling ED sequence. Now that is some really horrid-looking CGI.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

05. Haikyuu!! (ep. 1-9) – I seem to be enjoying quite a few sports anime recently. This one’s about volleyball. It took a while for me to warm up to the 2 main guys. Good thing their sempai were so likeable from the start. Especially Tanaka; he’s the best.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

06. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders (ep. 1-9) – Between the elder and the younger JoJo, it’s hard to tell who is the bigger asshole. One is kind of a racist, the other is quite the misogynist, and yet, incredibly, they both manage to come across as funny and endearing!

I never had much interest in the fight sequences (that’s just the way I’m hardwired), so the best part for me is how these creatively over-the–top characters interact with each other. And that’s enough to keep me looking forward to JoJo’s week after week.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

07. Chaika – The Coffin Princess (Hitsugi no Chaika) (ep. 1-8) – I was really impressed with the first 2 episodes. It seemed like a lot of thought went into the action and the fights. Plus, there was that exploding unicorn, which is definitely not something you see every day, even in anime!

After that, the show has settled into more of a routine action fantasy thing. The execution is still above average, but I find the characters, especially Toru, to be a bit wanting in the personality department.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

08. The World is Still Beautiful (Soredemo Sekai wa Utsukushii) (ep. 1-8) – Princess Nike of the Principality of Rain moves to the Sun Kingdom for an arranged marriage to young King Livius. Naturally the two butt heads in the beginning, but soon find a common understanding.

I thought the recent episodes involving romantic rivals were a bit tiresome; fortunately they moved on from that fairly quickly.

The series has been a generally pleasant experience, with a couple of notable exceptions. I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks Nike’s rain-summoning song is horrendously cringe-worthy. And I don’t even remember what the ED sounds like because we skip the sequence every time. It’s too awkward to ogle images of the boy king sleeping in the buff. That just feels wrong.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

09. Baby Steps (ep 1-9) – The tennis anime. Eiichirou is new to the sport and he approaches it in a highly technical and mathematical manner. It’s rewarding to see his gradual progress.

The drawback: the character designs are ugly. The way Ei-chan’s hair sticks out like a mohawk in the middle of his bangs is really weird. And “pretty girl” Natsu’s super wide eyes sometimes look empty and crazed. It’s kind of scary.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

10. NO GAME NO LIFE (ep. 1-8) – Legendary brother and sister gamers Sora and Shiro try to take over an alternate world in order to save humanity. This wildly colourful show has its share of pandering and overpowered protagonists, but it frequently succeeds at being imaginative and fun.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

11. Captain Earth (ep. 1-9) – Insofar as being another anime about a young man and giant mecha, this one is fairly competently made, though far from engaging.

I’d say it’s not in the same league as Star Driver or Eureka Seven, although it is definitely a cut above last season’s Buddy Complex.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

12. The irregular at magic high school (Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei) (ep. 1-9) – I enjoy reading other people’s (disparaging) post-episode commentaries of this terrible anime so much that there’s no way I’m going to drop it.

It was recently put to me that I followed GUILTY CROWN to the end for the same reason; and that’s a pretty apt comparison, actually. In both cases, the art, character designs, and other superficial aspects are attractive. However, both have unappealing protagonists who expound questionable, rather off-putting social messages. And both series can be entertaining if you’re watching for the unintentional laughs, but otherwise, are quite painful if taken seriously.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

13. riddle story of devil (Akuma no Riddle) (ep. 1-8) – Unlike last season, in which many series took a while to hit their stride, several shows this time around hit the ground running. Riddle story is one example of a show that started out much better than expected.

However, it has since devolved into a fight of the week scenario. The ending is always the same, too, with the loser just conveniently disappearing. And unfortunately, that seems to be the trend this season, where series might start out strong but then utterly fail to keep up the momentum.

I suppose there will be some big reveal at the end after all the fights are over, but getting there could be a bit tedious. At least the main character is likeable; she’s also of the strong, silent variety, which I apparently admire.
(streaming at FUNimation)

14. ONE WEEK FRIENDS (Isshuukan Friends.) (ep. 1-9) – Hase is determined to be friends with his classmate Fujimiya even though she suffers from a memory disorder. It’s sweet and touching and the kids are cute. I think this anime deserves the praise that it frequently gets; it’s just that I personally find it to be a tiny bit dull. It’s the kind of show that I might forget to watch if I didn’t have it written down on my list.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

15. NOBUNAGA THE FOOL (ep. 13-21) – Well, if you enjoyed the first half, this cour continues to deliver more of the same. Da Vinci is still playing with his Tarot cards, Mitsuhide still gets an opportunity to flick his hair in practically every episode, and Jeanne continues to be useless and needlessly sexualized.

The OP and ED themes are decidedly not as good this time around, though.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

16. La corda d’oro -Blue Sky- (Kiniro no Corda: Blue Sky) (ep. 1-9) – Not sure why I’m watching this show. I didn’t even watch the first series. All I can say is it’s harmless and inoffensive. I find it somewhat amusing that they are music students taking part in a musical competition, but they use terminology usually heard in sports anime or war stories. Oh yeah: the best part is the Yokohama scenery.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

17. BLACK BULLET (ep. 1-9) – This has been pretty consistently mediocre. The visuals are nice, but the pointless monologues and out-of-place boob jokes betray the show’s lack of substance.

The showdown between Rentaro and Tina in ep. 7 was actually thrilling and well-animated. Too bad the resolution was so hokey. Well, it was obvious that Tina would eventually switch allegiances, but still. At one point Rentaro even thanked her for “saving” Enju’s life. Um, she shot her full of bullets and stopped just short of killing her; “spared” her life, I could see, but “saved” is preposterously generous. So in the end, Rentaro, Kisara and Enju, all of them targets of Tina’s prior assassination attempts, welcomed her with open arms. Meanwhile, Tina acted like she was completely guiltless; not even a, “I’m sorry I tried to kill you. It seemed like a good idea at the time.” I guess this is what you can get away with if you’re cute enough. Oh, anime.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

18. BRYNHILDR IN THE DARKNESS (Gokukoku no Brynhildr) (ep. 1-9) – The initial premise sounded interesting, but when I realized that all the secondary characters were girls, I thought it might be bad. So going in, I expected this show to be haremy and fanservicey. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw that the first 2 episodes were fairly restrained and respectably plot-driven.

However, it’s just gone down from there, to the point where it seemed like 50% of ep 5 was juvenile, unfunny sexual pandering. And that, regrettably, seems to be the pattern that the show has settled into since then.

On the plus side, the other 50% is still decent, which is why I haven’t dropped it yet. And the anime boasts a surprisingly classy intrumental OP. I can’t recommend this show to anyone, though. Some of those icky parts actually make me cringe.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

19. The Kawai Complex Guide to Manors and Hostel Behavior (Bokura wa Minna Kawaisou) (ep. 1-9) – I came close to dropping this head-scratchingly-titled anime several times. Pretty much nothing happens in it. There are a few funny moments here and there, but I could easily stop watching and not miss it at all, I think.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

Notable Drop:

MEKAKUCITY ACTORS (ep. 1-4) – Clearly I am not the target audience for this series. I have virtually no prior familiarity with the Kagerou Project’s Niconico music videos. On top of that, I frequently have a very negative visceral reaction to SHAFT aesthetics and animation style.

If I wasn’t watching with my sister, who has a passing interest in Kagerou Project, I would never have made it through 4 whole episodes! I just couldn’t take it anymore after that.
(streaming at Crunchyroll)

A Separation

A Separation.jpg

3.25 stars (out of 4)

Released 2011

The interesting thing about this Oscar winner (for Best Foreign Language Film) is that it  draws the viewer into the lives of several interlinked people who end up at odds with each other, but manages to keep of all of the characters relatable and fundamentally decent.

The acting is so natural that it feels like a documentary.  I don’t usually like a lot of handheld camera, but in this case it helps with the realism and also, as the camera navigates the tight corridors of the apartment where most of the action takes place, gives a sense of the claustrophobia of these people trying to get along together in tight quarters and difficult circumstances.

There is also an interesting depiction of how family/civil court operates in Iran.  I’m not sure how realistic it is, but it inadvertently shows why, in the west, we have chosen a much stricter standard for admissible evidence even though it comes at considerably higher court costs.

The only thing keeping this film from a 3.5 star rating is that the early sections establishing the household’s routines go on too long.

First Position

3.25 stars (out of 4)

Released 2011

This documentary chronicles the lives of several adolescents (aged 10-17) as they prepare for the World Grand Prix, a prestigious ballet competition with awards that include scholarships to international schools and job offers.

I would have no interest in actually watching a full ballet production, but I have to admit, it was riveting to watch these talented young people.  I actually had to rewatch some of their performances, they were so good.  Maybe the short snippets are more compelling than a full production – it’s more like watching ice skating, which I do like.  Also, seeing the effort that goes into the art and seeing how young some of them are adds to the sense of wonder.

Somewhere Between

3.25 stars (out of 4)

Released 2011

This documentary profiles the lives of 4 American teenagers, all of whom are girls who were adopted from China.  The filmmaker was inspired to make this film after adopting her own daughter from China, and wondering how her daughter will fare in her new life.

The girls discuss some profound issues, like identity and their sense of abandonment, with moving candour.  All 4 girls are quite articulate and thoughtful and come from diverse adoptive families.  The filmmaker also follows two of the girls as they go back to China to search for their birth parents.

Highly recommended – and get your tissues ready.

Fish Tank

2 stars (out of 4)

Released 2009

This independent film, set in a housing project on the outskirts of London, is a portrait of a troubled 15-year old named Mia and shows how she is affected by the arrival of her mother’s new boyfriend, Connor (played by Michael Fassbender).

Because of the film’s slow and deliberate pace, we watch Mia’s ill-advised actions (picking fights, trying to steal a horse, breaking and entering) with the expectation that she has some grander plan that we don’t yet know.

Unfortunately, it seems the movie’s only purpose is a character study of a not-too-bright teen and the disadvantaged circumstances that she is all-too-predictably unable to rise above.

Young Victoria

3 stars (out of 4)

Released 2009

After being impressed with Emily Blunt’s performance in The Jane Austen Book Club, I followed Netflix’s suggestion that I try this movie.

This film focuses on the few years around Queen Victoria’s coronation, including how she chooses her husband and how she learns to hold on to power.  The story is at times told from the perspective of her suitor, Prince Albert, who faces pressure from his uncle, the king of Belgium, to win Victoria over.

Although it’s a fairly straightforward story, I was impressed by the ability of the two lead actors to convince us of their genuine attraction, despite the unromantic fact that their match was strategically convenient.  (And after some Wikipedia surfing, it seems the story is fairly historically accurate.)

The Jane Austen Club

2.5 stars (out of 4)

Released 2007

The concept of this film is that a group of women, plus one lone guy, form a book club dedicated to reading Austen’s novels, and the conceit is that each member’s life mirrors one of the characters in her books.  It’s a cute idea, but because there are so many separate stories to tell, there’s not enough time to properly develop most of them.

Frankly, it’s been a while since I’ve read most of Austen’s novels and I couldn’t remember some of the plotlines well enough to see the parallels with the present-day characters (not that familiarity with the books is needed to follow the movie).  Of the three novels I know well, the parallels were superficial enough that I did not feel that they added any depth to our understanding of the movie characters.

I would have rated this film 2 stars, were it not for Emily Blunt’s performance.  Her character starts out annoying, in a cartoonish sense almost out of sync with the rest of the film, but gradually becomes more and more relatable and sympathetic.


2.5 stars (out of 4)

Released 2012

Three teenagers stumble upon an underground cave and encounter something which mysteriously gives them the power of telekinesis.  These are regular boys, not superheroes, and they do not have any exceptional maturity or mental stability to help them handle their newfound “great power”.  We follow them as they experiment with and learn to use their abilities and eventually see the effect they have on the outside world.

There’s the added gimmick of the movie being seen through the lens of a home-video camera and it’s mostly effective and creatively-used, and doesn’t detract from the story.

Coincidentally, CHRONICLE can function as an origin story for the ongoing anime series Shin Sekai Yori (From the New World), which imagines what the world will be like hundreds of years after some of the population acquire telekinesis and become a threat to humanity.  More on that later, maybe…


The Descendants

3 stars (maybe 3.25 stars?)

(released 2011)

George Clooney stars as a man dealing with the imminent death of his wife, trying to reconnect with his two young daughters and make peace with the the shortcomings of his marriage.

Featuring a thoughtful script which slowly reveals the true (and somewhat surprising) natures of each of the main characters, the film starts off with a refreshingly unsentimental depiction of a family dealing with loss, but by the end, earns its emotional final scene.

I think this film deserves to be called “inspired” (which would earn it 3.5 stars) but on the other hand, I don’t think it’s amazing or inventive enough that I would want to re-watch it (which means it only rates 3 stars).  Maybe I will have to start using an intermediate 3.25 star rating after all.