Anime Summer Season 2018 Wrap Up: My Recommendations

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As we head into the cold times, another season of anime comes to a close. While this crop of shows had quite a few disappointments, its stars shined very brightly. Although the second half of My Hero Academia Season 3 was a let down in comparison to its excellent first half, Attack On Titan Season 3 has been impressive enough to somewhat change my opinion on the show as a whole, Revue Starlight is something of a aesthetic marvel with excellent symbolism, and despite its obvious visual flaws, Planet With is one of the most optimistic, well-executed stories I’ve seen in a some time. Its truly a salve for this awful political landscape. Before we get to good stuff, I’ll mention the ones that didn’t make it.

In Memoriam: For the Shows That Got Cut or I Should Have Cut

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After its great premiere, Angolmois (3 episodes watched) veered off a cliff into the land of barely animated fights, cliched writing, and boring characterization. The first episode was a sleek introduction to its setting, that did a great job of surfaces the personalities of its band of misfits. However, the next two episodes dropped the great fight sequences of the first episode, and replaced it with stiff and fairly uninteresting conflicts. Banana Fish (7 episodes watched) is a perfectly fine and generally well-executed thing, that I just personally can’t muster much interest in. One of the reasons I watch anime is to escape the endless cavalcade of crime shows that flood the American TV market. It’s not that I hate the genre, several of my favorite movies are crime stories, its just that I can only handle so much nihilistic mayhem. While I really like its aesthetic, specifically its color compositions, there’s nothing particularly interesting about its protagonist or his struggle to me, and I found the exploitative nature of his backstory pretty off-putting. Lastly, while I haven’t watched the last episode of Hanebado yet, it wins the award for causing me the greatest amount of anguish. The first three episodes were fantastic, tackling well-worn sports tropes with great direction, and articulation of its character’s pain. While the fluid animation remained consistent throughout, in the end it was defined by its baffling character turns, and devolution into melodrama. Anyways, with my grievances fully aired, lets move onto that good, good stuff.

4. My Hero Academia S3 (Second Half)

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After the incredible highs of the first half of Season 3, My Hero Academia crashed back down to earth with the Provisional Licensing Exam arc. The issues with the latest arc are defined by what came before. We essentially went from seeing our heroes face life or death stakes in a fight over the soul of this entire society, only so see them go back to trials of the classroom. It’s not that this new material couldn’t have upped the emotional stakes in lieu of the life or death stakes of the previous arc, but unfortunately it mostly fails at doing that. As a matter of fact, sections of it only work at all due to all of the previous time we’ve spent with these characters, leading us to be invested in their failures and successes.

The setup for the second part of the season is that the members of class 1A must take an exam so that they can get a partial hero’s license, allowing them to help apprehend bad guys if they’re at the scene of a crime, and granting them the ability to take part in work study programs. The exam is two parts, one consisting of a brawl in which students must place sticky orbs on their opponents to eliminate them and gain points for themselves. This first portion of the test is fairly entertaining, serving as a showcase for the abilities of members of the other schools, as well as granting the tactically-minded creative battles that the series is known for. The way our protagonists band together to essentially puzzle solve their way through the barrage of opponents, offers satisfy moments of triumph and heroism for many of the secondary characters.

However, after this first exam, there is an another challenge in which the students must rescue victims of a disaster, a sequence that essentially grinds the pacing to a halt. This few episodes, delayed further by a filler episode in the middle, called to mind the sometimes painfully slow stretches of the first season. Its entire emotional arc hinges on a rivalry between Todoroki and a new character Inasa. While I enjoy how this conflict feels like it naturally arises from the person Todoroki used to be, illustrating just how far he’s come already, this arc ultimately can’t bear the weight of these slow few episodes. Luckily, once the exams finally ended, we were treated to one of the best fight sequences in recent memory, with the fluid and complex fight choreography of Yutaka Nakamura going hand in hand with the contentious relationship between Bakugo and Midoriya. This fight further humanized Bakugo, showing that even the characters who are consigned to being mean-spirited bullies, get to have well-illustrated motivations in this world. The last episode is also a blast, reiterating My Hero‘s core principle that hard work is more important than natural talent, while introducing us to enticing new characters with The Big Three. It may have been a relatively weak batch of episodes, especially compared to Fall’s showing, but even at its worst My Hero Academia offers a great blend of Bones animation highlights, and a heartfelt exploration of the power of heroism.

MAL Rating: (Second Half) 7, (Overall S3) 8

3. Attack on Titan S3 (First Half)

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I’ll admit that I’m something of an Attack on Titan detractor, and the massive popularity of the show has always made it feel like I’m missing something. While the premise is exceedingly strong, and it has successful big moments that contradict the cadence of a lot of more tradition stories in interesting ways, it’s core cast is weak, the mysteries don’t provide enough context for me to be invested in their resolution, and it’s drama tends to bludgeon with endless impossibly high stakes. All that said, I’ve always found it just entertaining enough to continue watching, largely due to how well those big moments come across, and also because of Season 2‘s ability to successfully dive into the secondary characters backstories.

While the first half of Season 3 hasn’t completely changed my opinion of the show as a whole, I’ve found it far more enjoyable than what came before. While at first the coup that we find the Scout’s Regiment in the middle of felt like a weirdly hasty descent into complete mutiny and murder, once the truth of the situation began to leak out, it became clear that their actions were mostly justified. We finally have begun to get answers into the frustratingly vague mystery beats of the past, partially explaining the wall cultists, the shadowy ruling class, the motivations of Eren’s father, and perhaps offering context as to why the enemies of mankind are choosing to betray the denizens of the walls. If a work doesn’t reveal the truth of its world, it’s impossible to say what it’s actually about, which is good for shows that don’t have much to say, but will eventually catch up with them.

Much like Season 2, we were also treated to some great flashbacks that grant us a glimpse into the side-character’s lives. Kenny, one of the main villains of this season, gets an excellent standalone episode that shows us the true cost of this world gone mad. We see a man whose been dealt a terrible hand, and whose entire life has been defined by violence, confront the possibility that this isn’t the only way to live when he meets someone he admires. His motivation for seizing power isn’t simply for the sake of power itself, he just wants to be able to see the world through the eyes of his more humanistic friend. The strength of its character writing even partially bled into the main cast, with Eren temporarily casting aside his bottomless anger to think about the greater good. He was finally treated to satisfying moments of self-reflection, culminating in an excellent climax where he finally connects his own personal pain to the greater pain of the people he’s trying to protect. Sure, all things considered, my problems haven’t completely gone away. It still lacks anything in the way of subtly, and the other two core members of the cast are fairly one note. But for a behemoth of a series like AoT to make meaningful storytelling changes this deep into its run-time suggests that it’s trending in the right direction.

MAL Rating: 7

2. Revue Starlight

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You would think that an idol show dedicated to depicting the training for the Takarazuka Revue, a military-themed, all woman, Japanese theater troupe, may not have a great deal appeal to a western audience. However, when that series is delivered with such directorial precision, bringing to life a series of magical realist duels between these girls aiming for the top, then the specificity of the subject matter doesn’t matter much. Starlight is really composed of two parts. On the one hand we have a series of ongoing duels in which these theater students must fight one another over Position Zero, the center of the stage which symbolizes the position of the top star. On the other hand is a series of relatively comfy slice of life segments, which explain the backstories and motivations of each of these girls, showing us why they’re each striving for the top in the first palce. In particular we follow Karen, a stage girl who had dedicated herself to the dream of performing the play Starlight with her best friend Hikari. However, the rules of the revue duels dictate that there can only one top star, a system that Karen aims to circumvent.

The entire presentation of this struggle is deeply couched in the particulars of this one theater group, a rigorous and painful organization which requires girls to learn singing and dancing, all the while forgoing romantic relationships entirely. Since there are no male performers, the girls are cast as either otokoyaku or musumeyaku, which represent the male and female roles respectively. The female role is required to play second fiddle to their male counterpart, obscuring their flaws while the top position remains forever out of their grasp despite its proximity. This is represented by Claudine and Maya, the top two girls at the academy, who have a competitive, but ultimately warm relationship.

One of the show’s greatest strengths is its fantastical fight sequences, taking place in some alternate pocket of reality where the very stage shifts to reflect the internal state of the combatants. On top of being well-staged and well-animated battles, the creativity of these sequences pairs well with the one off episodes that focus on each of these nine girls. The direction illuminates the interiority of each of them, capturing feelings of malaise, isolation, and obsession. While at first the more episodic nature of the story undermines the plot’s overall cohesion, back to back revelations re-contextualize the entire conflict, tying perfectly into the themes of the cruelty of this system while also just working as a satisfying narrative pay off. It all serves as both a criticism and celebration of this process, the years of back-breaking labor and dedication culminating in transient, but illuminating performances. Both the audience, the performers, and the framers of the system are held accountable, but ultimately, Revue Starlight is dedicated to depicting the beauty of the singular drive exhibited by these girls.

Authors note: While many of the references to the Tarazuka Revue are obscure and will likely be missed by western audiences, the blog For Me In Full Bloom does an excellent job of summarizing the troupe’s importance and intersection with this show. There’s some great reads over there, so I would highly recommend it.

MAL Rating: 8

1. Planet With

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In my write-up on my first impressions of this season, I was somewhat dismissive of JC Staff’s mecha/coming of age series. There was a decent amount of hype around the circles I follow for mangaka Satoshi Mizukami’s anime screenwriting debut, but I was largely put off by the fairly terrible CGI mech designs, as well as the lack of plot details in the pilot. However, over the following eleven episodes, the plot stakes were clearly outlined, the main cast expanded upon, and the struggles of the various factions fighting for Earth’s future were writ large. In my opinion, Planet With‘s two most defining characteristics are its exuberant optimism towards the strength of the human spirit, and its elaboration on the contrasting but valid belief systems of its competing organizations. The story follows Soya, a boy with amnesia who finds himself in the custody of a giant cat man, and a green-haired girl dressed in gothic loli fashion. From there we are introduced to a conflict between humans in giant robot suits, and an invading alien force, known as the Sealing Faction. Once Soya regains his memory at the end of the first episode, he in incensed by his memory and urged on by his captors, the members of the Pacifist Faction, into attacking one of the victorious humans to destroy his mech.

If there’s a common theme among all of my picks this season (and in general probably), its that we get great glimpses into the ambitions and beliefs of almost every member of the cast. Stories that are about the grand competing motivations of humankind can often feel preachy, but that is completely subverted here through naturally extending from the backstories of the protagonists. When fighting the alien forces, the humans must confront a great temptation to destroy the Sealing Factions devices, which is a seamless way to introduce us to what drives them. For Miu it’s to be as strong as her best friend, and fellow mech-pilot Harumi. For Hideo, its to atone for his inability to save his mother so many years ago. For Tazeko, its for his son’s sake. These backstories all naturally tie into the central conflicts regarding the core question of what matters more, humanity’s’ freedom and ability to choose its own fate, or the danger of its destructive impulses. While the majority of the aliens seek to put out our flame, the ambition that drives us to accomplish seemingly impossible feats, they do so that the tragic genocides that the alien government has witnessed won’t be perpetuated.

It feels like Mizumaki nailed the writing here on every level, from its grandiose struggles, to its character arcs, to its relationships, to its pacing. The redemptive arcs present are an articulation of the cleansing power of forgiveness, and making for a wonderfully humanistic portrait of what we should all strive to be. After Ginko and Soya’s backstories come to light, the brother sister relationship they form is made all the more touching, and ties into the previously mentioned theme perfectly. I can’t think of a more convincing refutation of hate, the powers of ignorance, and prejudice in recent memory. The weakness of its fight scenes are really the only thing holding it back from being an absolute masterpiece, but the strengths of Planet With are enough to make it more than in the running for my Anime of the Year. (Violet Evergarden probably wins out by a little bit at the moment, but still) In a season dominated by the heavy hitters like My Hero, Attack on Titan, Grand Blue, and others, Planet With is criminally under-watched.

MAL Rating: 9

And there it is, another season of anime has been documented for posterity. Between Revue and Planet With, this season offered up quite a bit of food for thought, while the heavy hitters were entertaining in their own right. Speaking of heavy hitters, with more Jojo, Thunderbolt Fantasy, another season of Monogatari, the second half of this season of Attack on Titan, a new Kyoto Ani show all on the way, this Fall looks absolutely STACKED. I couldn’t be more excited, and it seems like there’s quite a bit more good anime on the way very soon.

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