As the we move into the summer, it’s finally time to look back at the most recent crop of Japanese cartoons. This spring’s season of shows didn’t have a great deal of breadth, but featured a few great action and comedy series backed by some complete surprises (the biggest surprise was that I somehow liked a season of SAO). While I fell off on Watakoi: Love is Hard for An Otaku, Darling In the Franxx turned out to be a huge letdown, and FLCL: Progressive couldn’t even begin to fill the enormous shoes of its predecessor, there were still some new hits, and a continuation of a classic in the making. Let’s run it down.
4. Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online
I won’t mince words, the original run of Sword Art Online is easily my least favorite show I’ve watched to completion, sporting a boring Mary Sue main character, thin writing, nonexistent themes, generic production, and ultimately undermined its one interesting conceit of being a survival story by showing a complete unwillingness to kill of central characters. In short, I think it’s quite bad. Imagine my surprise when a spin-off series managed to not only grab, but hold my attention throughout the entire season. However perhaps this isn’t so surprising considering its pedigree. The original Visual Novel was penned by Keiichi Sigsawa of Kino’s Journey fame, an author who has a knack for gun-focused mayhem and a propensity towards fully illustrating his characters.The studio handling the adaptation 3Hz, also has some chops, creating Flip Flappers as well as Princess Principal.
Gun Gale Online is very different than its parent series, reveling in the absurd while maintaining a sense of self awareness. It stars Karen, a college student self-conscious of her tall stature, who finds a pleasant form of escape in the online VR shooter GGO where she controls a small cute pink-clad avatar LLENN. LLENN befriends another female player, Pitohui, who seems to have a sadomasochistic streak, and Pito convinces her to enter a large PVP tournament known as Squad Jam. While it starts out as just a rewarding game where Karen can gain confidence, eventually life or death stakes enter the picture for Pito, and LLENN must intervene to save her friend.
Despite the more grave turn of plot events in its final half, the fun of GGO lies in its combination of outrageous writing and the tactical nature of the combat. The Squad Jam tournament basically plays like Battle Royale games such as PUBG and Fortnite, and the rife potential for tactics and gun murder devoid of the larger implications is fully taken advantage of here. LLENN is paired up with M for the first Squad Jam, an extremely knowledgeable player whose advice makes the ensuing battle a consistent barrage of interesting strategic decisions and cool gimmicks. The self-seriousness that LLENN and other players exhibit within the game makes for some of the funniest lines this year. A small moe anime girl uttering lines like “I’ll do my best to kill”, LLENN’s P-90 that she nicknamed P-chan sacrificing itself for her master, and the outrageous ending all point to a series that is completely self-aware of how silly it is, and is much better for it.
Warning: Minor Spoilers Ahead
It does suffer from some adaptation woes, namely some awkward pacing in how its two discreet halves play out. The introductory initial few episodes portray the first Squad Jam, laying out all of the tactical nuance that goes into this game, while the second half is entirely focused on the LLENN’s conflict with her friend Pito. While in the end it concludes on the most hilariously ridiculous note possible, some of the melodrama surrounding LLENN’s sociopathic rival paints mental illness in a cartoonish light that can be uncomfortable to watch. In the end it is largely justified when proceedings are placed in a more comedic light, but it still warrants mentioning. In the end GGO exceeded my expectations, making for a solid combination of fun e-sports action, and absurdism.
MAL Rating: 7/10
3. Megalo Box
Megalo Box may never break free of archetypes, but it’s exudes a Watanabi-esque sense of cool that it retains throughout, elevating the trappings of a standard underdog story through the layered build up of hype. We follow Junk Dog, or Joe as he comes to be called, as he goes from throwing fights in an underground boxing ring, to battling in the biggest Megalo Boxing tournament in the world, Megalonia. Megalo Boxing is a vicious evolution of combat sports in which combatants are armed with mechanical enhancements that increase the power of their punches.
Megalo Box gets by on the strength of its dramatic posturing, with writing and shot compositions that build an overwhelming deluge of intensity and momentum. The art style uses rough line work to evoke shows of old, helping convey the sense of grit and brutality that comes with a life in the ring. This aesthetic choice may have been taken a step too far with apparent down-sampling that gives the show a blurry pre-HD look, a factor that becomes particularly glaring during wide shots, but overall the look of the production is still one of its biggest strengths.
The story is built around a classic underdog structure, with Joe aiming to rise above his meager beginnings to take on the reigning champion, Yuri. The relationship between Joe and Yuri is well-portrayed, a rivalry that fuels the momentum of the plot. While Megalo Box could have easily fallen into a rhythm of each episode just portraying a new fight, there is enough drama surrounding the matches, and ample curve balls in how the matches proceed to keep things interesting.
Admittedly the fight choreography isn’t the best, with a limited range of animation that somewhat undermines the concussive force of blows, but the pacing and shot selection leads to most of the bouts maintaining the hype that the plot beats set up. Moments like when Joe turns around his first fight, his foot screeching against the mat as he gains momentum for a decisive blow, or when Yuri deconstructs The Spider with chilling suddenness, mostly make up for the somewhat stilted motion beforehand. Admittedly I don’t see Megalo Box staying with me in the same way as many stories that do a better job at developing characters and themes, but it was an excellent throwback to a bygone era of animation that made kept me excited to come back each week.
MAL Rating: 7/10
One of my favorite aspects of watching seasonal anime is the element of surprise, a director or studio hitting it out of the park with a new property or an adapted work I’ve never heard of. Although I was familiar with Studio feel from the low-key romance Tsuki ga Kirie and Oregairu, I never expected that their next adaptation would be such a cohesive mix of comedy and drama. While Hinamatsuri is notable from the start for its impeccable comedic timing and great visual humor, it eventually settles into an endearing found-family story.
The plot begins with Hina, an immensely powerful teenager with telekinetic powers, dropping into contemporary Japan via some sort of teleportation device. She soon befriends a local Yakuza, Nita, and before long they become a reluctant father-daughter pairing. Hina is largely defined by her deadpan reactions, consistent laziness, and obsession with food, while Nita swings between responsible father and complete negligence. It’s this push and pull between warmth and backstabbing that defines their tumultuous relationship, but despite their bickering the wholesome bond between the two is always clear.
In response to Hina’s escape from her own world, two of her “friends” are sent to retrieve her. Anzu and Mia also teleport to Earth, but are met with far more hardship than their compatriot. This is where Hinamatsuri finds is dramatic footing, following Anzu as she is taken in by a friendly group of homeless men who show her the ropes of survival. In the process she is transformed from a sociopathic thief, into someone who intimately understands these homeless men’s struggles. The balance between suffering and outrageous comedy is delicately maintained even during these sequences, although the consistency of the jokes decreases somewhat over time.
The wonderful thing about this series is that the stakes can be as low as whether or not Hina will get a bowl of ikura, or as high as life or death, with both situations largely working because of excellent tone management. The production quality is also incredibly consistent, helping articulate some of the gags such as Hina and Anzu’s psychic battle, or the decision to go to a “Girlie Club”. Mia’s closing fight is similarly eye-popping, demonstrating her desperation to return to her friends through a well-choreographed kung-fu sequence. Hinamatsuri is like a slightly more cynical version of Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, sharing that show’s knack for anchoring us to its sense humor with solid interpersonal relationships. It may have been somewhat of a thin season overall, but Hinamatsuri was a delightful emotional roller-coaster that consistently manage to make me smile, laugh, and feel completely invested in its characters
MAL Rating: 8/10
1.My Hero Academia: Season 3 (First half)
Considering we live in a era where superhero fiction is at the forefront of popular culture, it’s nothing short of incredible that Horikoshi and Studio Bones have been able to craft a series that not only stands out in this congested market, but actively blows most of the rest of these stories away. Continuing the tale of Midoriya, the once quirk-less but now increasingly powerful pupil to the #1 hero All Might, Season 3 has further escalated the stakes of this world.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
While there were a few dud episodes here and there, including the initial recap episode, the highs of the first half of this season have been in the stratosphere. Episodes 11 and 12 work as a great microcosm for the show in general. Episode 11 marked the climatic showdown between All Might and All For One, a battle for the heart of this superhero society. On one side, the epitome of heroism, and on the other the physical embodiment of selfishness. These symbols are as old as storytelling itself, but it’s the specificity, the illustration of emotional stakes, and stellar production that make it work so perfectly. This confrontation has tension and an element of unpredictability because we know the truth about All Might, that his power is in decline. We also just came off of the previous episode in which we witnessed All For One effortlessly unleash an apocalyptic wave of destruction, crushing top pro-heroes in the blink of an eye.
When All Might and All for One finally clash to prove their ideologies, we get frequent cut-aways to the millions of people watching the helicopter footage of the battle, their desperate cheers for All Might’s victory conveying his importance to this world. And despite the simple blocking and choreography that makes up the actual exchange, the brilliant cinematography and story-boarding convey the destruction of each blow. The clever utilization of powers and multilayered strategy that makes the fights gripping on a tactical level works perfectly in tandem with the emotional stakes. When All Might finally lands the finishing blow, it comes at the cost of his powers, one final selfless act from the symbol of justice.
While most superhero stories would stop here, reveling in the pure thrill of its protagonist’s victory, My Hero Academia doesn’t. Instead the follow up episode has a moment of similar emotional intensity, but one that comes from two adults just talking. Midoriya’s mom gives a desperate plea to All Might for her son to leave the prestigious high school UA, All Might’s messiah complex rubbing off on Midoriya. She has a good point, Midoriya has done irreparable damage to his own body to save others, a tactic he has learned from his mentor. But All Might eventually sways her, conveying depth of his commitment to cultivating his heir, and vows to set her son on the right path. The fact that this dramatic beat got as much attention as the bombastic fight from the previous episode proves that MHA has its head in the right place, these confrontations only meaning anything if we care about the characters and what they represent.
In its third season, the MHA continues to demonstrate that its the premiere battle Shōnen in town. It’s may not be rewriting the book, but it continues to prove that stellar execution goes a long way. The fights all feel tethered around its central quandary of what defines heroism. Its thematic focus allows time to be spent cultivating a colorful surplus of heroes and villains without feeling trite. This through-line has also allowed Horikoshi and Bones to avoid the self-indulgence that has destroyed so many other long-running series whose ideas and character motivations were replaced by meaningless repetition and fan-service over time.
Still, there were certainly some speed bumps thus far; Mineta is as grating as ever, and some of the spinster humor around the Pussycats was painful to sit through. But despite some uncomfortable minutes, this first half of the season marked the moment when Midoriya truly became a hero when he willingly sacrificed himself for Kota, a kid who showed him nothing but resentment. This scene played out as a great parallel to what came later with the All Might battle, and was similarly delivered in a moment of emotional sakuga splendor. Considering the endless stream of massive blockbuster film franchises that try to deliver on superheroes, its good to know that at least one story has its priorities straight, demonstrating the beauty of heroism with aplomb. If My Hero Academia can keep up this pace then it will certainty be an all-timer.
MAL Rating: 9/10