Winter 2016 First Look: Part 2

Sekko Boys

Miki Ishimoto hated art school. She hated sketching geometric shapes and sculptures and she hated her teachers for criticizing her for deviating from the models. She’s excited to leave that whole world behind when she gets a job managing the hot new idol group, Sekko Boys. Much to her dismay, she discovers the members of Sekko Boys – St. George, Mars, Hermes, and Medici – are all marble busts. Available streaming on Crunchyroll.

Well, that was silly! The premise of Sekko Boys is utterly surreal, and well-aware of it. The episode opens with the boys performing to a stadium full of glowstick-wielding screaming fangirls. They shout their catchphrases, setting up their personalities: Mars is a warrior but also a passionate lover, Hermes is beautiful and multitalented, St. George is a protector of the weak, and Medici is charming and innocent. Yes, this is a world where marble busts are alive sentient, retain the personalities of the the ones they represent, but also are still heavy statues that must be carried and carted from place to place, injuring their handlers’ backs in the process. Working in a profession where back pain and other stress injuries are a major occupational hazard, I felt for Yanagisawa, their chief manager.

Artists, on the other hand, will doubtless feel for Miki’s backstory. Her frustration at endlessly copying the masters in the name of developing fundamentals, without her teachers ever allowing her to put her spin on things, is a common complaint, as is her resulting burnout. Much of the episode’s humor, other than the sheer absurdity of the premise, stems from her shock and horror at being confronted with the exact subject of her anger at a completely separate job.

The verdict: Sekko Boys’ premise is unlike any other, to be sure. I look forward to seeing how the silliness develops.

Likelihood of weekly coverage: Low. It’s too light to really warrant any heavy discussion.

Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu

Aging rakugo performer Yakumo Yuurakutei has never taken an apprentice in his life. When a young man approaches him and tells him he was inspired by seeing Yakumo perform in prison, the older man agrees to take him on and nicknames him Yotaro. With nowhere else to go, Yotaro moves in with his mentor. There he meets Yakumo’s ward Konatsu, a young woman whose father was a popular rakugo performer in his own right. Available on Crunchyroll.

Shouwa Genroku Era Rakugo Shinjuu is, far and away, one of the least accessible premieres of the new season. It is also one of the best. Rakugo is a traditional Japanese performance art in which a single performer kneels on stage with only a fan and small cloth as props to tell a comedic story with multiple characters. It’s generally considered a fussy old person hobby these days even among native Japanese, and the cultural subjectivity of humor adds an additional barrier for non-Japanese viewers. However, with strong character animation and a beautifully-written script, veteran voice actors Akira Ishida and Tomokazu Seki rise to the challenge with aplomb. Seki especially brings life to Yotaro as an eager young man with enthusiasm to match his inexperience and manages to carry a ten-minute unedited rakugo routine.

Amazing performances aside, Konatsu was the standout character to me. I know, I’m predictable – the female character’s story is the one that draws me in the most. Surrounded as she is by rakugo performers, Konatsu is a woman existing in a man’s world, both immersed in it and forced to look within from the outside. See, rakugo is a traditionally male art – even now, female performers are rare. She seethes with anger and resentment, all the while studying her father’s performances in secret. When Yotaro comes along, she tutors him not just out of the goodness of her heart, but a number of complex motivations: to bring life to her father’s style of rakugo again, which suits the young man better; to give an outlet to her own desire to perform; and as a subtle rebellion against her foster father, who she resents and blames for her father’s death. Konatsu is a wonderful character and I hope the show gives her attention she deserves.

The verdict: Just barely beats out ERASED as the best new show of the season.

Likelihood of weekly coverage: Almost definite, if Konatsu gets the focus she deserves.

 

Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash

A group of young men and women wake up alone in a dark place. They have no memories – not of who they are or the world they inhabit. As soon as they learn what they must do to survive in their new lives, they divide into the weak and the strong. While the strong prosper, the weak struggle to eke out even a meager living. Available on Funimation.

“Trapped in an MMORPG” these days seems to be an entire genre unto itself – even this season has two, Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash and Konosuba. Since Sword Art Online exploded three and a half years ago, there’s been over a half dozen variations on a highly specific theme. Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash manages to set itself apart from the pack in a few ways. The amnesiac angle is interesting – it’s not hard for us, the viewers, to figure out what’s going on, considering they woke up wearing modern clothing, but the characters have no idea what’s going on. Occasionally a modern term slips out of their mouths, but they immediately become confused about what they just said. Also, while most MMORPG-based shows focus on the top tier, even exceptional players, the main characters of Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash are the lowest of the low. They haven’t beaten even a single goblin, the weakest enemies in their world. Between fights, the show has a quiet, low-key vibe to it as the main group quietly coexists that I generally enjoyed. The art of the show is absolutely gorgeous, all watercolor-styled forests and medieval villages. The character animation is great as well, with distinct mannerisms and body language for every character.

Unfortunately, the show’s greatest weakness is how it treats its female characters. This is a world where, while men get to be fully covered in sensible clothing, women (and the requisite effeminate gay man) are condemned to minidresses and hotpants. The show is based on a series of light novels aimed at teenage boys, and it shows in the writing. In one particularly uncomfortable scene, the character Ranta angrily accuses Shihoru, the party’s bashful caster, of being the kind of girl other girls hate because she insists she’s fat when she really isn’t until she’s at the point of tears. The party’s other girl, Yume, then starts talking about Shihoru’s breasts in an exchange goes for way too long as the boys in the party stare and Ranta mutters that he doesn’t mind what they’re doing. While I like the character animation, I was distracted by how Shihoru’s breasts jiggle slightly every time she moves, or the way the camera ogled Yume’s ass at every opportunity.

The verdict: I loved the art and the quiet, low-key pacing, but the show’s attitude toward women leaves a lot to be desired

Chances of weekly coverage: Low. Focusing on how the show treats women would just make me mad and keep me from enjoying the good parts.

 

Snow White with the Red Hair Season 2

Several months ago, Shirayuki left her home in Tanbarun after its prince commanded her to become his concubine. Now, she works as a court herbalist in the neighboring kingdom of Clarines and counts the second prince Zen as one of her closest friends. Her life has changed in so many ways, it’s dizzying… and with the kiss she and Zen shared, it looks like it will keep on changing! Available on Funimation.

I didn’t like the first season of Snow White with the Red Hair very much. While a lot of people enjoyed its slow, low-stakes approach, I found it quite bland and a waste of a good premise. Since I’ve already written extensively on it, I’ll spare you the rant this time around.

One of the things that bothered me about the first season was the characters had found a comfy status quo, and no one – writers or characters alike – seemed interested in doing anything to upset it. In the penultimate episode, something did happen: Zen kissed Shirayuki. While the two dorks had been sort of vaguely stumbling around these feelings for most of the season, it was good to see something finally happen about it. In the next episode, the event was largely ignored, but in the first new episode of the second season, there is a subtle shift. In between Shirayuki and the other characters generally faffing about, she and Zen share a small moment in the infirmary when he, mostly asleep, takes her hand and brushes his lips against her fingers. It’s small, but it’s a sweet gesture that reflects the change in their relationship.

Moreover, the latter half of the episode seems to be table-setting for a much more eventful second season. It seems Raj, unseen by us, has gone through a lot of personal growth since a chance encounter with Shirayuki. Prince Izana wants to send her to Tanbarun in a diplomatic capacity and commands her to start training in etiquette and diplomacy. Izana is well-established as shrewd and calculating (unlike his doppelganger Howl) and surely has something up his sleeve. I’m looking forward to seeing what.

The verdict: The first season was slow to the point of frustration, but this season sows the seeds of tension. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens.

Chances of weekly coverage: High. Shirayuki is a smart, competent protagonist, and I hope to document and discuss her actually doing things.

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