At first blush, it seems as though we have a decent crop this season, with a sprinkling of comedies, hot-blooded action, and some juicy character dramas. Using my highly scientific process of sifting through the Anime News Network’s Season Preview Guide, I’ve selected seven shows for culling. I don’t entirely believe in the “three episode” rule, the idea that you can only judge a series after watching the first three episodes, and as a result this list is based entirely on premieres. While many series don’t show their true colors until they’ve gotten into their flow, it is rare that the style of direction, quality of writing, and general feel of a production change entirely after the initial episode. With that said, these recommendations are still quite imperfect, and there have been plenty of cases where shows that I was slow to warm up to (Land of the Lustrous, Flip Flappers, Violet Evergarden) became some of my all time favorites. Without further ado, here are my thoughts on the premieres I’ve watched thus far, ranked in order of my enjoyment.
Angolmois: Record of Mongol Invasion
As I stated a few days ago in my post about my Spring Recommendations, one of the best elements of watching anime seasonally is the element of surprise. Angolmois, which is headed by a director and studio that I’ve never heard of, falls squarely into this category. The story follows Kuchii Jinzaburou, a dishonored general of the Kamakura family who finds himself part of a rag-tag group of exiles that must help defend against the incoming Mongol invasion of Tsushima.
Angolmois’ two most striking qualities are the strength of its aesthetic and the kinetic fight scenes, boons that are immediately demonstrated in the opening scene. Jinzaburou’s aggressive style of swordsmanship, Gikie, makes for eye-catching displays of fluid animation that convey his elegant destructive power as he literally slices through his opponents. The coloring choices and line art aim to emulate traditional ink brush paintings, tying into the historical back drop nicely. Similarly, the character designs are striking, instantly evoking strong archetypes without feeling overly contrived. Unfortunately, the emulation of the uneven coloring of old painting mediums is very gaudy, particularly during pans where we are assaulted with the distracting nature of these patterns.
While it definitely seems like Angolmois will prioritize style and the broad overtones of its historical drama over symbolism and character internals, the character building has been quite efficient thus far. Princess Teruhi has made a strong impression, with her initial dastardly posturing giving way to copious self-doubt due to her immense responsibility. The protagonist is part honor-bound samurai and part vegabond, with an implied regret over his reliance on the sword creeping in between the bravado.
These two got their best moment in the aftermath of the spectacular final battle. Teruhi’s mournful soliloquy about the cost of war was well-earned, and makes me hopeful that the proceedings won’t devolve into meaningless blood baths. The way Jinzaburou frames his advice for the princess as an insult points to his extensive experience in using reverse-psychology to motivate leadership figures, a nice subtle touch that shows he is people skills are almost as good as his ability with a sword. Teruhi’s pointed response to her subordinate makes me think that the dynamic between the two should remain entertaining, these two strong willed figures bouncing off one another. Angolmois debut was extremely impressive, with a striking art style, fun side characters, well-choreographed fight scenes, and a strong rapport between its leads.
Episode Rating: A-
Will Continue Watching? – Hell yeah
As someone who has taken many forms of competition far too seriously, I can unfortunately relate to the plight of Hanebado!’s self-destructive protagonist Nagisa Aragaki. The story begins in media res, as she takes on a seemingly unstoppable opponent on the badminton court. This match is stunning to behold, muscles ripple as vicious shots fly, the birdie darting from racket to racket as a desperate exchange plays out. Her foe is framed like an unstoppable monster, the early shots decidedly avoiding revealing the competitor’s face, while the use of slow-mo and monologue underpins our protagonist’s shattering will. By the time the exchange finally plays out, and the crushing score is revealed in tandem with Aragaki’s collapse, it was clear that we are in the hands of creator’s who seem just as interested in displaying kinetic matches, as they are in delving into the inner psyches of these characters.
So far Hanebado! is approaching sports anime from a similar angle to the great Ping Pong the Animation, more concerned with depicting young people in a state of inner turmoil than with presenting another cookie cutter underdog story. Much like Yuasa’s masterpiece, it seems squarely concerned with notions of natural talent, with Aragaki seemingly obsessed with self-improvement at the cost of alienating and ruining the sport for her teammates. Her rival, Ayano Hanesaki, is the complete opposite, overflowing with ability, but seems to be shying away from her talent for whatever reason. The rest of the cast hasn’t been particularly well-defined yet, but we are certainly off to a promising start with our leads. While some of the character art occasionally looked a little off-model, the “pervert coach” bit didn’t work for me, and there was some unfortunate fan-service, Hanebado! is off to a strong start.
Episode Rating: B+
Will Continue Watching? – Definitely!
In contrast to Angolmois, Banana Fish is a production that has a lot of know pedigree. The manga is well-regarded, the director is an ex-KyotoAni staffer, and its being brought to life by MAPPA who has produced a decent number of hits as of late, including Yuri On Ice. What we have so far is a well-constructed mystery/crime story centered around discovering the meaning of its titular phrase. One of Banana Fish’s leading strengths so far is its ability to remain exceedingly coherent despite its blazing pacing, a feat accomplished due to its penchant for continuity editing.
We’ve already jumped between time periods; darting from the depiction of a soldier named Griffon’s psychotic break in the Iraq war, to the antics of his younger brother Ash and his street gang in New York City, all the while avoiding tedious exposition dumps. The pulpy origins of the source material are certainly maintained, with heavy implications of BL, frequent murder, and a grimy street setting. This seems like a production that will get by thanks to its central intrigue; the mystery of the term Banana Fish and the apparent drug associated with this phrase.
The aesthetic is very MAPPA, calling to mind the vibrant coloring choices of the studio’s previous ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Dept, but without being quite as striking. That said, the chaotic brawl that closed out the episode hinted at some skilled animators and ample cash being thrown at the project, which is certainly a good sign for things to come. While Banana Fish didn’t have quite the same overwhelming sense of style and confidence of Angolmois, or the well directed depiction of overcoming inner-demons of Hanebado!, it’s a confident enough production with an interesting setup and some pedigree behind it, so I’m along for the ride for now.
Will Continue Watching? – Yup
Chio’s School Road
We’re quickly moving out of “passionate” territory, and into “mildly interested”. Chio’s Road to School follows the misadventures of an awkward video game nerd as she haphazardly makes her way to class each morning. While that premise sounds filmsy at best, Studio Diomeda has gotten a surprising amount of mileage out of Tadataka Kawasaki’s manga thus far. While a stereotypical main character in theory, Chio’s specific host of gaming references, combined with her charmingly awkward demeanor make her the anchor that holds this thing together. Watching as she creates absurdly elaborate plans to avoid social interaction, or the depiction of her intense internal desire to avoid standing out hits a little too close to home. And this is all quite important, because with a virtually nonexistent premise, the strength of this story completely relies on this type of comedy. Admittedly I may find it difficult to stay invested due to how limiting its core conceit is, but I may well stick around to witness the brilliant awkwardness of Chie.
Will Continue Watching? – Maybe…
Hey, you know what’s cool? Mecha anime. You know what’s decidedly less cool? Visually unappealing CGI mechs centered around a thoroughly lame animal motif. Bad robot suit designs aside, Planet With has some promise. Following a high school kid Ginko Kuroi who has lost his memory, the proceedings aren’t afraid to delve into some deadpan absurdity. Things begin with a dream sequence, as Ginko witnesses a giant Dragon monster appear in the sky, all the while humans in animal mech-suits warn him to flee the scene. Shortly after he awakes to find himself in the care of a weird giant cat man, and a oddball maid, the two of which may or may not be aliens or something, and that he has lost all of his memory in an apparent accident. Soon after bits of Ginko’s dream begin to come true, an apparent UFO invasion leads to a group of superhero mech-pilots combating the alien forces.
While this all sounds like an exercise in complete zaniness, these events are tethered to reality by some solid vignettes from the supporting cast. Amidst the battle, we witness a flashback from one of the mech-pilots. In this sequence his tragic backstory it revealed, depicting how he lost his mother in a house fire, and subsequently became a firefighter. This scene comes alive wonderfully, the regret and lingering scars of this traumatic experience being made real by the great VA performance and fiery dream-scape. Still despite his heroism, he finds himself questioning how much longer he can keep battling enemies in his very ugly CGI cat-mech, pointing to additional layers of depth beyond being a vaguely defined hero-guy. While the fights are nothing to write home about, the strength of the flashback scene and general weirdness seem very intriguing. The biggest red flag is that thus far Ginko is a fairly vacant protagonist, but hopefully this is an intentional choice meant to mirror his initial amnesia. It may have not been a knockout debut, but I will likely tune in next week to find out at least a little bit more about what is going on.
Will Continue Watching? – For one more week at least
Cells At Work
I’m fairly conflicted on this one. First off, it should be stated that Cells at Work is quite creative, depicting the inner workings of the human body as a complex society in which white blood cells, red blood cells, platelets, and more carry out their various vital functions. While the production and art design certainly pops, realizing this complex metropolis through intricate background art and appealing character designs, I find it hard to be invested. While our Red Blood Cell protagonist was charming in her constant daze at her new job, and the relationship that formed with a stoic White Blood Cell felt emotionally true, it’s hard to for me to care about the events of this very literal metaphor. As a result, Cells At Work comes off as an amusing action comedy that doesn’t offer much to sink your teeth into.
Will Continue Watching? – I don’t think so
Asobi Asobase is a show about a few mean-spirited girls, and the various ways in which they manipulate or insult one another. It uses a combination of outrageous reaction shots that seem lifted from the dank depths of the the meme-rich internet, and a staccato of insults spewed from its leads to paint a nightmarishly toxic relationship between a triumvirate of high schoolers. While the various ways in which they debase each-other can be very funny, and the jokes are pretty well executed, this type of aggressive, brash humor doesn’t really inherently interest me. However, if you’re a fan of shows like Konosuba, or Always Sunny, this one is certainly worth looking into.
Will Continue Watching? – Nah
And there you have it. While there are still a few interesting series around the corner, Netflix has scooped up Sirius the Jaeger, dooming us to cramming its viewing to the end of this season, and my inevitable frenemy relationship with Attack on Titan Season 3 won’t begin until the 22nd. While I really enjoy a few of these shows, I still feel myself somewhat wary of completely getting my hopes up, as the absence of big guaranteed names always means that things could go belly up at any moment. Still there is certainty a lot to be excited about if Angolmois is able to continue its bombast, Hanebado! keeps cashing in on its portrayal of anxieties, and Banana Fish remains an engaging crime tale.