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Trying to blog about anime again after a couple of months of not actually watching anything (aside from the occasional rewatch or two) is hard work. It’s tough to get the old gears running in proper working order again, trying to get myself back in the groove, something to that effect–it makes for a difficult time when you think you’ve kind of forgotten how you used to blog about anime to begin with. But anyway, enough about that, I’m back and ready to restart. And what a better time to restart, too. Spring 2012 has been a season I’ve been looking forward to since I first glimpsed the lineup a few months back. So much so, in fact, that I’ve dropped everything I’ve been watching then and hunkered down in preparation for this season, which has been pretty damn promising.

There were a lot of new entries to be sampled, but no time to actually talk about them all, so let me just pick out a couple of ’em. First up, that new Lupin III TV anime (TMS Entertainment) produced in celebration of the franchise’s 40th anniversary. A cursory glance at the trailers seemed to imply that this latest incarnation of the series was a departure from the past series, something people haven’t seen from the anime, perhaps ever, it could have even triggered some flak for the new direction it’s taken. The series has even brought aboard some new blood into the franchise: most notably Sayo Yamamoto (Michiko e Hatchin) as director and Takeshi Koike (Redline) as character designer. And, well, judging from the first episode, I’d say it’s all that and then some. Episode 1’s got to be the most brash, most garish, most over-the-top episode of anything I’ve seen this year. Here, style is the name of the game, even more so than past outings (which have been admittedly more sterile). The art is finely textured, the mood is gritty, the rhythm is brisk and no-nonsense. Perhaps the episode functioned more as a canvas for the director to manipulate things at will, impart her unmistakable mark, and basically run wild with the thing, which on further inspection, could have almost gone overboard.

This series is different from most, if not all of the previous Lupin outings ever released. Here the tone is less comedic, less wacky, and it’s not as easygoing as the rest, instead it’s a lot more gritty, a bit darker, and a lot more sexual. Granted the main character this time is Fujiko, but the sheer sexuality in episode 1 alone is a lot more potent and intense than all of the ecchi anime produced this year combined. Unmistakably, they were going for a more adult and a far more raunchier, more risque approach to the series this time around. I would think that this issue was going to be a major point of contention that influences fans whether to embrace this new series or slam it outright. No mistake, I liked the episode, flesh and nudity every other frame aside, but I imagine it’s not going to be easy for people to get into it, especially when they’ve gotten used to the lighter antics from the past products. Still, I think the unabashed sense of style and highly expressive sensibility infused with a ton of pure artistic personality would be enough to glaze over the fact that it’s almost a shameless display of excess, kind of like a test of how far they could possibly go within the context of a modern TV anime. (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pair of nipples in a TV anime in recent times.) As for me, I liked it, and will watch more of it. A bit of a shame that it’s only 13 episodes long.

 

an anime about fishing?

Tsuritama #1 (Kenji Nakamura, A -1 Pictures)

Kenji Nakamura has just broken his pattern of putting out an anime once every two years. For only a year after his recent effort, C, he’s come out with a brand new show, which showcases just about everything you’d expect from the man: imaginative visuals, an intriguing story, and a refreshing overall style. It’s been his calling card since he directed that story arc from Toei’s Ayakashi series until now–although one might say that was a kind of aberration, an opinion with which I actually find no problem. As always, his new series airs on the Noitamina block, which sort of stumbled a bit with its winter lineup. Okay, so on to episode 1.

Well, first things first, this anime looks like it’s the type of show that could be thoroughly enjoyed purely on the visual level. Lush, bright, vibrant colors define the episode, and it provides the thing with an added dose of energy and forward drive–you never get bored watching the colorful backgrounds and how they interact with the characters, even though they’re not the most sharply designed group in the bunch. This is one of Nakamura’s strong points, his use and infusion of an extensive color palette into the plainest, but acutely imagined backgrounds, and it’s become sort of a trademark for him. It’s been in Mononoke, and has been there ever since, with probably mixed results. This time, though, the visuals are more subdued than the director’s earlier work, but markedly less sterilized than his most recent production. Every other frame there’s a splash of color that keeps viewers glued to the screen, and together with the fun and punchy directing, the episode results in an entertaining romp that promises good things in the future.

I liked how the characters were managed here. At first glance the series does look like your typical garden variety high school anime (just added the bonus Kenji Nakamura flavor), but the episode makes it work in such a way that’s legitimately fun without resorting to the same old tricks and tired cliches riddling such shows. I liked the way the water effects were used to highlight the main character’s social awkwardness, especially the first time, where the scene ends in him “swimming” his way out of the school building. It was a deft touch, but one which serves the dual purpose of playful directing and character introduction. Then there’s the weird kid with the fishbowl, who in other anime would have come off as insufferably obnoxious and annoyingly loud and would have destroyed the show’s natural charisma and torpedoed its fun character dynamic–but here he really was fun to watch and was in fact one of the reasons the first episode was as enjoyable as it is.

So far the show is looking like it’s going to be more easygoing and lighthearted, and I appreciate that. Nakamura may bring in some twists or other during the course of the show, but for now I think I prefer this genuinely delightful audiovisual escapade. It’s a refreshing switch, a middle ground, so to speak on the spectrum of high school comedy anime. This year’s Noitamina is shaping up to be one of the more impressive blocks yet, and Tsuritama is only one of those reasons, as I was soon to find out.

 

it's about time Mills Davis got his airtime

Kids on the Slope (Shinichiro Watanabe, MAPPA/Tezuka Productions) #1

So finally, after eight years, Shinichiro Watanabe is back to directing a TV anime. In the past few years, he’s been busy doing work on tangentially related work: music producing, directing OPs, and the occasional short or two. But, as a self-professed fan of the man, hearing about his return to TV was great news. In this already delectably stacked season, I got to say I was looking forward to watching this show the most. Not only because of his return to the director’s chair, but even more because he’s brought back Yoko Kanno to work with him again, and then because the series itself revolves around jazz music. It’s been about fifteen years since Cowboy Bebop, after all.

After watching Watanabe’s prior work, you’d be hard-pressed to imagine that the guy was going to be directing a low-key and sensitive dramatic story years down that line. And I won’t blame you, he’s pretty much made his name directing cool action series, with its commensurate amount of swagger and groovy sexiness. So learning that he was going to be in charge of a series firmly placed at the exact opposite end of the anime spectrum admittedly gave me some reservations. How was he going to play his cards in a game he hasn’t played before? That was one of my doubts going into this series, but after watching episode 1, I’d say he’s dealing his cards pretty damn well.

Oh, well, actually, Watanabe’s directed an anime of this ilk before: Baby Blue, from Studio 4C’s Genius Party. But that was somewhat tame and sterile, even uninspired. It gave me the notion that Watanabe was really only at his best when he can operate and flex his directorial muscles under the “rule of cool”–his style, plainly, was not going to work on an anime that really wasn’t going to be cool and jazzy to begin with. Slow-paced, low-key stuff throws off his rhythm, which is usually fluid and on point. And thus the whole thing ends up as a hollow shell, failing to make an impact on the viewer on many levels.

But Apollon episode 1 did a good job of making up for that blunder, if even for a little. Watanabe’s recent effort looks much more polished and sincere now, without the silly and quite unnecessary affectations that were present in his earlier work of the same vein. The introduction and steady exploration into the characters is pulled off in a way that’s less sentimental than sensitive, and more honest than it is sappy. Although it all happened quite a bit too fast for me, the episode left me pretty much satisfied. You also come to expect some degree of silliness or cliched hi-jinks in a story such as this one, but they played it fairly straight and went about it seriously, while still, impressively enough, keeping entertainment value fairly high and steady. Consistency is the keyword here.

This being a show set in the 60s, it had this kind of sheen permeating the visuals of the episode, sort of like those old photographs with the sepia tone, except this time it’s more restrained. This effect gave the episode some needed edge, a nostalgic punch that’s not too overt and entreating. I liked how this look stayed steady throughout the episode and underscored the events taking place within it. Little things like that sometimes can mean a whole lot.

Musically, I wasn’t let down by Kanno’s effort here. In recent years, I haven’t been won over by her recent effort, but when it came to this episode, I was delighted to hear her work her usual magic into it. She’s produced a lot of great soundtracks over the years, but I think she’s at his best when working with jazz music. The music is going to play a big part in this series, considering what it’s about, so it only stands to reason that the overall musical work was going to be good, or if not that, then at least listenable. I also wish for there to be a balance between the music and the character interplay–since the jazz music is one of the main reasons I jumped aboard this ship. And oh yeah, I expect there to be lots of namedropping in the show’s near future, and I expect to enjoy them.

You expect there to be some cheating involved when it comes to animating somebody playing a musical instrument, and sure enough, it’s present here in Apollon. But it’s not so jarring as in other times, so it’s not that hard to let it slide. The fight in the rooftop was a bit unnatural-looking, given the rest of the episode, but on its own terms it was fairly nice to watch. The swaying camera, the swinging bodies, it was greatly reminiscent of those fight scenes in past Watanabe series. Which is no wonder, for he drew storyboards for this episode.

Apollon is the debut TV series for Masao Maruyama’s new studio, MAPPA. Formed initially for the purposes of finishing Satoshi Kon’s last film, it has since become a full-fledged production studio of its own, at the cost of losing one of Madhouse’s founders and its main guiding spirit. Maruyama’s produced a ton of memorable anime over at the studio for decades, and now with him gone, it’s going to be interesting to see the new direction Madhouse is going to take now, moving forward. The studio has been creating daring anime over the years. It’s going to be tough to see them wilt away for good.

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