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The Three Episode Rule

We’re already a month into the winter anime season, and it seems as if it’s going the way I expected it to go. Nothing spectacular, albeit there are a few neat surprises here and there. I’ve been following about five or so TV anime, but I’m close to dropping one. It’s embarrassing to say that the said series was one thing I expected to be a personal surprise hit. Oh well, it can’t be helped. Anyway, most other anime bloggers have written about almost every airing series out there from episode 1, but as a staunch follower of the “three-episode rule”, I refused to do the same. Normally a TV anime series has its quality or enjoyability factor decided by episode 3, so I’m going to start judgment from there.

This is also why I’m not going to write about the current noitaminA series until their respective third episodes have aired (or if they strike me enough to write about them).

 

Puella Magi Madoka Magica #3

This show still isn’t the dark and brooding subversion of the mahou shoujo formula which some people have been hyping it up as, but it has shown signs. The show does have potential, and it is expressed here in the latest episode. Not only because it has an instance of character death done in a semi-grisly manner, but also because I feel that it finally began to settle into its own element here. It’s hard to tell if the show will build on that and become a more-than-average show or fall flat on its face later on, but the third episode is a good enough start. I’m eager to watch more.

 

Building on the plot line established in the preceding two episodes, Madoka #3 then shows the dire consequences of becoming a Magical Girl and being granted a wish. I liked this episode if only because of that. Most magical girl shows oftentimes portray the heroes as happy-go-lucky elementary to high school-aged girls without any care in the world. The fact alone that the job of being a magical girl entails traumatic and possibly even fatal consequences is almost always not shown, and episode 3 of Madoka provides a nice change of pace. It also served as a nice ending to the character arc of Mami. She was the token mentor character in this show, and we all know what happens to mentor characters, now don’t we?

Gen Urobuchi of Nitroplus is reputed as a craftsman of gruesome and dark stories in the company’s visual novels, and I guess he works his trademark magic in this series. The show does a good job at suppressing the sugary soft and fluffy atmospheres common in mahou shoujo anime. It feels more grounded and real, thanks to the subdued directing and storyboarding by Yoshiharu Ashino (who also was chief director of Studio 4C’s own refreshing take on the genre Tweeny Witches). I found the two elements–writing and directing–to mesh and complement each other well. Though things are different between the storyboards and the actual translation to motion.

The animation team Gekidan Inu Curry has been tapped again by studio SHAFT to do the highly stylized pieces of art/animation which they were known to establish since Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei (also by SHAFT/Shinbo). Don’t get me wrong, I like what they’re trying to do stylistically in the action cuts, but something feels missing when looked at in the overall level. In the normal high-school settings, the background is more subdued, low-key–almost minimalistic–and when it comes time for the traditional action scenes it becomes random, more strikingly magical, weird and bordering on the abstract. The two clashing approaches could be a spectacle if held together well, but Inu Curry‘s parts feel too strong. It overpowers the rest of the setting, and thus the show doesn’t find a proper stylistic balance. There was hardly any glue to bind these two opposing styles tightly. But I think I’m getting used to this imbalance as each episode goes by. At least Madoka delivers on the animation department. The action animation has been strong so far. This episode alone has a well-choreographed action sequence (perhaps done by Gen’ichirou Abe).

I don’t want the show to fall into the trap of predictability based on the names of the staff. We know Gen is supposedly great at writing grim stories, but this show won’t be able to leave sufficient room for surprise if he does go through his usual motions. I appreciate the nifty ideas they’re inserting into the series, but I don’t want to leave it feeling jilted, either. Surely he can muster enough surprises inside him without resorting to his usual gymnastics. Character death is a nice start, and I hope they build on this. But just the same, I’m not looking forward to a masterpiece once the whole thing is done.

As a side note, Yuki Kajiura’s music has been really solid thus far, but I get the feeling that some pieces sound alike. The ED song, Magia, sounds really cool, but I also feel that I wouldn’t be replaying that song for hours on end. It’s too early to say, though, so here’s to waiting for the full single.

 

Yumekui Merry #3

This is shaping up to be one of the big surprises in the winter season. With an established direction and art sensibility straight from the first episode, I’m actually looking forward to what’s in store for this series. JC Staff strikes me as a studio who just goes through the manual when it comes to their usual mass-produced releases, but actually does good work when they feel like it, and I guess this show is proof of what the studio can do if “they feel like it.” The whole thing doesn’t feel rote or mechanical at all. In contrast, it is injected with doses of freshness and newness partly because of tight direction and spirited background work (sadly the animation can be quite off).

When it comes to the directing side of things, we have to thank Shigeyasu Yamauchi (Casshern Sins) for the good job he has done so far. He’s directed/storyboarded all three episodes so far, and as a result, all three episodes enjoy unique compositions and consistent directing work. The guy seems to have that much of an investment in this show, which should only be a good thing for it in the long run. The show itself is nothing to write home to Mom about aside from that, so I appreciate his efforts into preventing the show from sliding into yet another normal-boy-goes-on-wacky-misadventures anime #253425265. I have heard that the original material (manga) this show is based on does have quirky ideas in it, but I’m not really that hopeful.

The backgrounds are beautiful. It is the first TV anime I’ve seen in a long time with such spirited and lively background work (this, and Hourou Musuko). It also establishes the stylistic sensibilities that the director seems to like pulling off. They blend together really well, and they give the show enough distinction to separate itself from other anime of its kind. Yamauchi brought along his old comrades from 2008’s Casshern to come play with him in Yumekui Merry, and it shows. Kenji Matsumoto and Yuki Yukie are the background artists for this anime, and they’re the ones we have to thank for the color and life the show exudes. I have to tip my hat off to Matsumoto in particular for his solo background episode in Yumekui #2, which is a repeat performance of his solo background episodes in Casshern (of which I can only remember episode 9). I presume he’s going to have more solo performances down the line.

For all the good things I’ve said about the current state of the show, I’m afraid that episode 3 falls really flat on its face in terms of the presentation. I don’t feel there’s anything particularly wrong with the overall directing itself, but it seems as if the storyboard during the action sequence was a rush job. Not to mention that the actual transition into animation was really poorly done. As a result, the whole second half of the episode looked like a patchwork stitched together hurriedly by the episode staff. The action was all over the place, without any consistent focus underneath the whole sequence. It took away from my sense of immersion in the episode, and as such I didn’t pay any attention to it at all. TV anime is quite susceptible to problems in scheduling, so I assume that this episode’s woes were brought about by such problems. It really was a waste, considering the effort put into the directing, and Yuki Yukie‘s (along with a guy called SHINZO) effort on the episode’s backgrounds.

I really shouldn’t be so harsh about this as the preceding episodes were impressive enough to carry it; I just hope that the subsequent episodes don’t fall into the pit episode 3 has dug. The show still has potential to go places, and I trust Yamauchi, Matsumoto and the rest of the staff to drive it there.

 

 

Other notable impressions:

Dragon Crisis – Bland, uninspired take on the usual fantasy formula. Even Rie talking like a baby, and two of the three members of the ROD team (Masashi Ishihama, Hideyuki Kurata) couldn’t save it for me. DEEN better pick up by episode 3.

If only they had Ishihama direct the OP, then I would have had more incentive to keep going.

Level E – The other big surprise of the season so far, personally. Nothing much in the way of directing and animation, but the characters and the humor definitely carry the show on its back. It’s one of the few genuinely funny comedic series I’ve seen in a long while, and I hope this keeps up on the well-timed humor and wacky characters–and judging by the preview for episode 3, I think it’s safe to say that it does. Funny how a 15 year-old manga still works to this day.

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