Category: Reviews

Review: Tamako Market

Kyoto Animation is known for creating the most popular anime among the serious, hard core Otaku in Japan. It’s hard to believe that they haven’t attempted to create an original work before Tamako Market. They’re success has come from taking already popular work among those handful of hardcore fans and applying their animation ability to it. Tamako Market represents their attempt to apply what they learned from their adaptive works and try to create something without the need of outside licenses.

Tamako Market is about Tamako Kitashirakawa the daughter of a Mochi seller at a shopping district. The show mainly follows Tamako and her family as they go about their lives in the shipping district. The one odd thing the show tosses in is the introduction of Dera, a talking bird who is on a quest to find a bride for the prince of an island nation.

Dera acts as the viewpoint character, and is constantly making comments about the situations he finds himself in. His role goes from being the central focus of the narrative to a sideline character to the normal routines of the Shopping district. The show is structured with a breakneck pace with an entire year taking place during the twelve episode series. The show covers favorite Moe anime tropes, including a valentines and beach episodes but moves far too quick for any structured narrative to develop. Instead the show focus’ in on it’s characters. Tamako herself represents the idealized Moe heroine, always cheerful and always optimistic. The side characters are far more interesting from her eccentric carpenter friend, the rivalry between the two Mochi shops in the district, or the beatnik café owner, their brief moments on the screen spoke miles as to their personalities and their roles in the tight nit community of the shopping district.

So while Tamako and friends play through their typical Moe storylines a richer experience is developing just under the surface, the background characters that are encountered briefly in each episode start to snowball so that the entire make up of this shopping distract begins to come to life. This group of individual stories about cute girls shopping or building a haunted house is united by a rich theme of community and what it means to live and grow around a group of people. There is a speech Tamako gives towards the end that makes it clear that the show is not about Tamako herself, but about the market. The year the audience gets to live through is only a tiny bit of its history, Tamako has lived and grown with these people in this place her entire life and the rich assortment of personalities and professions leads to a greater whole than a family living a secluded suburban life style.

There is also a second thread that runs through the show and that is the theme of change. My main complaint with the show is nothing really seems to happen, it ends one year after starting and it might as well have been the same day. Tamako has learned very little and no major event changed anything about the Shopping District. Then the question of Dera, the talking bird, left a bad taste in my mouth. Why a talking bird?

Dera I believe represents a major change that happened to the market. A normal family gets visited by a talking bird and while at first it’s focused on, soon after it becomes folded into routine. The characters go about their daily lives as if the bird was always there, they learned to adapt to the weirdness of the situation. The opposite side of this coin is when a major even threatens Tamako’s life in the Shopping district it turns out to be a false alarm. The show’s message here is that sweeping, drastic change doesn’t really happen. Even when major change happens, like a talking bird flying into their lives, they simply adopt their lives around it and continue on.

This simple message addresses one of the biggest holes in Tamako’s life, her mother. She died a few years before the show begins and throughout the series it becomes clear that while the absence is left, one particularly touching scene with Tamako’s father drives that point home, that the characters do not dwell on the absence. The change is eventually accepted and folded into the new reality of their lives, just like a talking bird quickly stops being novel and folds into reality.

The more I think about Tamako Market the more I start to see the subtle brilliance of the show. However, I would have liked Tamako to be a bit more of a character and many of the side characters who are interesting don’t get nearly as much time as I would have liked. A lot of the threads and build up established early on don’t go anywhere. Tamako’s love interest, established in the first episode, barely plays into the narrative and it’s barely referenced even in the final episode. Even though I managed to find a deep theme running through the show that doesn’t excuse some of the boring and poorly executed ideas and characters. But it’s cute, and it has a lot to say about community and how strength can be found as a group of people live and grow around each other. Moe fans will find a lot to like in this show but it won’t be converting anyone not already invested in the genre.

Review: Tsuritama

Japan being an island nation with a long and rich fishing tradition I’m surprised that fishing hasn’t snuck into more Japanese animation. At least, few anime that have made it over to the United States. Looking at the synopsis, a show focused around fishing didn’t sounds appealing but what I got was less a show about someone fishing but a science fiction adventure with a sweet message of friendship.

The colors in Tsuritama are incredibly vibrant, a fantastic looking show which captures the whimsical nature of Haru, an alien who arrives on Enoshima and befriends the island’s new transplant Yuki. Yuki has moved around with his grandmother and has never had the chance to make friends. Haru immediately latches on, to Yuki’s dismay, to the loaner and recruits him for a task that requires fishing. 

Tsuritama is really two shows in one. The first is an enjoyable show about friendship, family, and how spending time and bonding between people brings out the best. The bonding is seated in Natsuki Usami, a prodigy fisherman whose life is in turmoil following the death of his mother and his father’s second marriage. Through fishing, the three characters learn what it is to be friends, and learn to express themselves in healthy and natural ways. It is part coming of age story and in part a story of broken people becoming whole again. The relationship between Yuki and Natsuki is the highlight of the series. Their uneasy beginning evolving into a strong, bonded friendship is a joy to watch.

Most of this friendship is built as Natsuki teaches Yuki and Haru how to fish. This part of the show is executed about as well as could be; remaining technically accurate while building in small bits of accomplishment to keep the audience interested and to illustrate the progress the protagonist is making. There are a lot of details and time spent on the fishing aspect of the show but the true purpose of those scenes are to build the relationship between our four main characters, which it accomplishes well.

The detractor is Haru, the alien who needs a skilled fisherman for some mysterious reason. He is playing the same role that any alien or mysterious stranger would play. He is an awkward ball of energy that is played mostly for comic relief. In the moe era I’m surprised it wasn’t a female character, but that would hurt the core themes of the narrative. It isn’t until the series is halfway over that Haru calms down and stops being bouncy and weird and actually has a few touching scenes as his actual purpose becomes known. Unfortunately, if there is anything that made me want to stop watching during the first half of the series it was Haru acting like a generic anime weird-alien. I’ve seen it played out a million times in anime and it severely clashes with the otherwise honest and memorable character moments between Yuki and Natsuki.

The second half of the show involves Haru’s real purpose for coming to earth. There is a mysterious sea monster that is, apparently, from his planet and he is tasked with attempting to fish it out of the ocean and return home with it. So Haru brings Yuki and Natsuki into his plan because of their fishing skills. At the same moment Duck, a secret organization that fights aliens, has been mobilized to try and take Haru down and use force to stop the monster in the ocean. This half of the show builds on and uses the bonds forged in the first half of the series.. There are some genuinely suspenseful moments during the climax of the series. The real fun of the second half is watching the ridiculously dressed “DUCK” operatives move in and take over Enoshima, evacuate the island, and then pursue Haru and the monster in the ocean. While the tone remains deathly serious the previously noted color scheme, turned a bit grayer due to an oncoming storm, and the duck shaped water right suits keep the whimsical tone of the show high even during some truly dark moments. 

Tsuritama is an enjoyable, beautiful anime about the affect of friendship and how it can help through personal issues and life threatening events. Most of the characters are interesting enough to carry the series alone but the second half morphs into an above average epic science fiction monster anime. The character work built during the fishing scenes certainly aided in making the monster-movie pieces far more memorable and enjoyable because of how much genuine time the audience had spent with the characters. However, Haru remains a blot on an almost perfect ensemble of characters as he represents the generic, annoying fish out of water anime character. While the show represents some best-in-class character work, specifically because of the relationships built during the show and a monster-movie second half that balances both being hilarious and gripping, finding those elements behind the intolerable Haru is going to be tough even for the most seasoned of anime fans.

Review: Moretsu Pirates

When I first saw the previews for Moretsu Pirates I was instantly excited. Space! We get so little anime about space these days that I will take anything I can get. Of course, being deep in the moe era of anime we can’t have an anime about space that isn’t also about cute high school girls doing cute high school girl things, but it’s also about space so it’s going to be different, right? Space is awesome. Statement of fact. 

Well, yes and no. Moretsu Pirates suffers from the industry’s attempts to chase after a duality, create the perfect anime that will appeal to not only moe fans but also a larger audience. The goal is to break the anime industry out of their small group of a few thousand dedicated fans but at the same time not alienating that audience. Because of this goal, the show suffers from balancing its two opposing sides. Time spent with Marika Kato in school and at her job at a maid café is standard high school anime fare, enjoyable because the character is a ball of energy but avoids any interesting narrative steps. The show will go from those school scenes and jump right into semi-serious space pirating, where Marika has to deal with intergalactic conspiracies, lead massive fleets, and make split second combat decisions. The two sides of the show collide when it is “necessary” for Marika school girl yacht club to take control of the pirate ship. The merging of the two sides becomes the most enjoyable arc of the show. The original crew, unable to join with the ship, panicky had to prepare documentation for the inexperienced crew to man the highly customized pirate ship. The use of the girls was fine, again far too silly for the overall tone of the space parts of the show. Watching the mostly serious crew freaking out over the new crew of teenage girls attempting to figure out how their precious space ship worked and becomes a good analogy for the show. The serious side of the show bends to serve the moe aspects of the show, to facilitate its existence.

The costume design also harms the shows chance of being taken seriously. Marika has one awesome outfit which radiates her authority as a Pirate Captain and that appears in the series finale. The outfit she uses the most is a stylized 17-18th century era pirate outfit with her school uniform miniskirt prominently displayed. Again, this serves to highlight exactly how the show is designed: Moe with a space pirate skin overlaid on top.

The “piracy” that Marika and her crew are involved in walks in line with the light tone of the show. This isn’t a group that goes out and maliciously attacks innocent ships. They have a letter of marque and with that are technically a part of Sea of the Morningstar’s military, but they are allowed to pillage ships at will if they wish. With no war currently being fought pirates may lose their letters of marque if they do not engage in piracy. The answer comes in entertaining cruise liners. They ally with insurance companies and set up mock pirate attacks in order to entertain the upper class who can afford cruises through space. This justifies their letters of marque without having to do actual piracy, allows the audience’s perception of the characters not to be muddled by brutal and illegal action but justifies them being in space when they are called into actual jobs that involve real combat. Again, the tone remains light while they are going through the actions of space pirates.

I’ve hammered the moe criticism home, and due to the moe Moretsu Pirates will never be taken seriously, but that isn’t what the show wants. The show is out to please its duel audience and I think it fails to even start appealing to that broader audience. Unlike some shows that attempt to walk into the duality model non-moe fans will find little to love about Moretsu Pirates. The first four episodes of the show feels like school girls playing space captain. Afterwards, the show becomes much better, but someone looking for space drama and not moe is going to find it difficult getting past those episodes. After the first serious arc, the show bouncing back and forth between its two modes is jarring at best even for moe fans.

While I enjoyed Moretsu Pirates I wanted there to be more of the serious arcs. Using so much moe to appeal to the hardcore anime fans dragged the show down and obscures some of the interesting ideas that it set up for Space Pirates in an otherwise peaceful world. I hate to conclude a review this way but Moretsu Pirates is simply fun. In most places the show is horribly hyperbolic and silly, but it justifies itself so well and takes itself seriously while becoming completely self-indulgent. It wins on pure entertainment value, even if it’s empty on an intellectual level.

Review: Chihayafuru

There are so many barriers to entry in Chihayafuru that if it wasn’t freely available streaming I doubt that I, and many others who have been singing its praises, would have even attempted to touch it. It’s a sports anime that is about a card game rooted in ancient Japanese poetry, and that doesn’t sound like it would have much appeal outside a small number of specialized hobbyists. However, Chihayafuru is an anime that transcends it’s subject matter, and even it’s genre, to become something truly spectacular.

The way Chihayafuru is constructed feels like the perfect combination of all popular anime genres. Chihayafuru is based around a card game, which is treated like any other sport. So, it is essentially a Sports anime where character interaction is based around and connected too the single sport. It’s also a romance, with a flavor of the “separated childhood friend” trope that pops up so commonly in Shojo romances. The tournament sections of the show remind me of Shonen tournament stuff especially when the “Master” and “Queen” characters, the best Kurata players in the world, are fleshed out. Their super human ability and the constant stress at how large the skill gap between them and the heroes barrows heavily from Shonen tournament and fighting shows. Finally, Chihayafuru features a group of friends focused around a school club which has become a popular trope in Moe anime after the rabid popularity of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. 

Do all these elements coming together in a single title imply that Yuki Suetsugu sat down and crafted Chihayafuru to be the ultimate manga? No, I think she simply told the story she wanted to tell and the combination of all the elements listed above are each individually solid tropes that capture an audience and keep them coming back for more. Which is why each of them have traditionally been enough to serve as the basis of a show. Chihayafuru does each of them with such skill and precision that the result is a show that doesn’t allow you to become bored for a second, even if it is about a card game that no one outside Japan can even play. Karuta is based on 100 chosen poems that were written throughout Japanese history. A reader reads the first verse of the poem and the players must take the card on the field that has the second verse written upon it. The first player to capture the majority of the fifty cards in play is the winner.

Part of the fun of Chihayafuru is how unfamiliar I was with the game and the culture surrounding it. The audience watches Chihaya as she makes her way through the world of Kurata; making her way up the ladder to class A, playing in tournaments trying to each national levels, and finally attempting to challenge the Queen and become the best player in all of Japan. Even though the story follows Chihaya quickly working her way up the Kurata ranks her advancement never seems rushed or unrealistic. Chihaya is a skilled player, but she doesn’t win all of her matches, in fact many of the matches towards the end of the season she ends up losing handedly. It’s in these moments that the strategy and complexity of the game comes out. The different ways to position your hards, the way the players sit, and even the point the player begins to move towards a given card are all calculated and must be perfected in order to play with top level players. Chihaya spends a large portion of the second half of the season learning about her shortcomings as a Kurata player the hard way, by suffering a series of crushing defeats. However, each one she walks away with a taste of how difficult becoming the best Kurata player in the world actually is, and each time she walks away with a small tip that she is determined to work into her game and slowly overcome her shortfalls. 

The romance in Chihayafuru starts off as standard Shojo fair with Chihaya being torn between two boys, both of which were her childhood friends. While she has known Taichi for longer and they have been closer, she shares a connection with Arata because he is the one who inspired her to pursue Karuta. The dynamic becomes more interesting considering that Arata and Taichi know they are rivals yet are still friendly with each other, yet Chihaya doesn’t seem to have any interest in romance. The love triangle formed plays off of mutual respect and is hindered by the complete obliviousness of Chihaya. The audience is toyed with as it seems like Chihaya is slowly getting closer to Taichi, that the two of them might start to develop a serious relationship, and then the mention of Arata puts a glow in Chihaya’s eye that totally crushes any confidence that Taichi had gained. It is a difficult and exciting romance to watch, yet it doesn’t hit the audience over the head with what it’s trying to do. It remains subtle and in doing so has a larger affect than any pure romance anime has had on me. The most impressive part is I don’t know which guy will end up with Chihaya in the end, and I don’t have a preference. Both of them are good for her, for different reasons. I can’t imagine having to choose.

The secondary characters are all strong and serve to aid Chihaya’s story while being fully developed characters in their own right. Each one of them approaches Karuta in a different way and in doing so helps Chihaya see the flaw in her game. Kanade loves ancient poetry and teaches Chihaya the meaning of the poems, which is the first time she thought of them as anything but a matching game. Tsutomu shows Chihaya that the game can be analyzed and that keeping a record of your matches can help pinpoint strengths and weaknesses. Yusei brings a sense of physical competition to the group, showing that by building up ones body in other areas that physical endurance will help Karuta players hold up during the long tournaments. While they bring these aspects to Chihaya so she can evolve her own game they each have their own character arches and goals within the Karuta world that drives them forward. They serve to support Chihaya through their diverse skills but also to highlight the difficulty that Chihaya has to go through, how much better Chihaya is than the average player, and also to show exactly how far Chihaya has to go in order to capture the title of the best player in all of Japan. 

Chihayafuru is a difficult show to approach but I can’t see anyone who enjoys Japanese Animation not enjoying this show once they get a few episodes in. Yes, the subject matter is difficult to digest at first, and yes the poetry is completely unfamiliar to a western audience but the narrative does go through a lot of trouble to catch people up on the game and the poetry, and from that a western audience learns section of Japanese literature that they never would have encountered before. Above even that the show contains elements of a solid character drama, a compelling romance, and a gripping Shonen tournament show. There is something for every type of fan to latch onto in this dense, amazingly constructed masterpiece. Chihayafuru is a must watch for everyone.

Review: Char’s Counterattack

 After the horrors of Double Zeta Gundam I was excited to watch the final chapter of Tomino’s Universal Century Gundam franchise. Char’s Counterattack takes place three years after Double Zeta and about thirteen years after the original series. Char returns from hiding with a newly created Neo Zeon force carrying an asteroid with them. With the goal of rendering the Earth uninhabitable, Char sets to drop it on the planet but Amuro Ray, Captain Bright, and the elite Federation Forces team Londo-Bell are dead set against stopping them.

The movie doesn’t waste any time getting into the action. The first scene shows the unveiling of Nu Gundam, whose construction had to be accelerated because of the appearance of Char and his Neo Zeon army. Following that, Amuro Ray battles against Char’s forces while attempting to stop the astroid from falling on Earth. While the conflict rages just above the planet, the Federation Forces admit to being powerless against the oncoming asteroid. 

The set up of this movie contains most of its problems. That opening scene doesn’t quite make any sense. For starters, this is the first we’ve heard that Char is alive! He was assumed dead at the end of Zeta Gundam, killed in the final battle against the Titans. Second, Amuro Ray was retired from military service, which was covered in an arc of Zeta Gundam. If Amuro wanted to fight again why didn’t he just return to the Argama when Kamile was put out of commission, or even before, and pilot the Gundam? It feels like the movie begins twenty minutes after it should have because the audience is missing some important pieces of information.

The film disguises plot devices with some serious commentary on politics. The Earth Federation doesn’t want to get into another war after what Earth has been through during the Zeon conflict from the original series and the Neo Zeon conflict in Double Zeta Gundam. This blinds them and they completely believe and give in to Char’s demands after he drops the initial asteroid on Earth. However, the deal feels more like satire than desperation because in exchange for Char agreeing to disarm, Earth gives him the massive asteroid base Axis. They give a man who just dropped a giant rock on Earth an even bigger rock which he can drop onto the Earth! That’s exactly what he does, too. He barely hesitates! He sends a a handful of dummy ships to where the Federation was waiting to disarm Neo Zeon and then tosses Axis right into planet Earth. So while yes, Tomino is commenting on politics and how desperate the Federation was to stay out of the war it also works as a plot device to give Char the weapon he needs to destroy Earth. I’m not quite sure which way the scene favors.

The film goes on to introduce three new characters Chan Agi, a female pilot under Amuro who becomes the main love interesting in the film, Quees Panya, the daughter of a high ranking Federations Forces officer, and Hathaway Noa the son of Captain Bright Noa. Chan is a capable pilot who grounds Amuro emotionally and she is quite enjoyable to watch. However, the other two are plain annoying. Especially Quees, who quickly sympathies with Char’s goals and betrays the Federation Forces to join him. She is a Newtype prodigy, and Neo Zeon takes advantage of her to pilot a new Mobile Armor.

I don’t have much to say abut Quees except that she doesn’t serve much in the film except to fulfill a theme of corruption. She sympathizes with Char using fuzzy logic. This line appears in the Bandai subtitled version:“I’m with him! People on Earth are so stubborn and conservative but don’t have a problem changing wives or husbands! And that’s why I think Char is trying to do what he can to bring out the potential of humanity.” Which shows that the character really doesn’t know what she is getting into or why exactly she was getting into it. Once that is established, the audience is treated to Char just taking advantage of this naive girl. Beyond that, it’s annoying that she enjoys being used by Char and gets away with whatever she wants. At one point in the film she steals a Mobile Suit and finds Char out in space, then opens the cockpit and rolls through open space while holding her nose with no space suit. At that point, I just declared Tomino was using this character to annoy the audience. In reality, she is supposed to be another Lalah Sune, a young girl corrupted by Char, but this time Char has no emotional attachment to the poor girl. 

Hathaway Noa had become attached to Quees during the fifteen minutes they spent together and makes it his goal to make her see reason. During the final battle above earth, he ends up getting in the way and causing far more damage than doing help. His actions end up killing allied pilots who would have survived otherwise and doesn’t help in saving Quees, who pays the ultimate price for her betrayal and naiveté. Hathaway Noa becomes the standard Gundam character. This film is filled with veteran pilots and soldiers where the themes of Gundam traditionally come from inexperienced soldiers going into battle. Hathaway goes into this war as a child and comes out having seen one of the most horrible battles in human history, seeing someone he cared about killed, and being responsible for the death of a comrade. He becomes the audience stand in and, even though he lacks much characterization, is relatable because of that.

The question why we needed to have the novice soldier in this film is what bugs me. This should be a film filled with people who have survived through the previous two wars and are ready to put everything to rest, or not in the case of Char. Instead Tomino uses Hathaway Noa as a tool to continue telling the one story he seems to recycle over and over again, that of a young man walking into the horrors of war. It isn’t needed in this film, and it distracts from the main point of the film, the final battle between Amuro and Char.

Char’s motivation is never really made solid to me. Most of the options given as to why he is attack Earth are speculation, and in terms of narrative consistency there are no details on how he produced an army of mobile suits or gained control over Neo Zeon after they were all but destroyed at the end of Double Zeta. He always had the “Space should rule over Earth” aspect of his character but I would have liked to see how exactly he became such a radical. A slight hint that Lalah’s death was eating away at him and driving him crazy isn’t enough. Amuro suffers from the same problems. He is simply Amuro. He pilots the Nu Gundam, which he also designed, he is legendary and awesome. I never got a sense of the man he became after all these years. Zeta Gundam did a good job of moving the character forward and now we see him again and it feels like even the development exposed in Zeta Gundam is ignored.The film presents Char’s motivationit matter-of-factly, I never really buy it considering the history with the characters. Char wants Amuro dead because of the death of Lalah Sune. Even after all these years he still loves her, and still resents her picking Amuro over him at the end. He also goes on about how human being’s souls are tied down by gravity and how Earth will always ignore the needs of people in space, and all of this justifies mass genocide, apparently, because once the Earth Government is moved to Space they won’t be bitter that their home and families were annihilated by a radical splinter group.

The best part of the film are the animation and action scenes. This movie was made in 1988 and the animation and mech battles rival anything made since. The mech designs are fantastic, the fights are breathtaking, and the one on one duel between Amuro and Char is worthy of going down in animation history. That final duel is almost perfect, except for one scene where they both get out of their mechs for no reason. The battle uses everything we love about Gundam and pushes it to an extreme without using any of the silliness that tainted some of the final battles from previous UC Gundam series. This is what the movie was made to showcase, it’s what Gundam fans have wanted since the original series. The rematch finally comes and it’s glorious in every respect. 

Then comes the end. Axis is blown apart but half of it is still falling towards Earth. Amuro moves to attempt to stop it’s descent using the Nu Gundam and its Psyco-Frame. Suddenly Federation reinforcement arrive and all help, then Zeon mobile suits join in to help. But that isn’t enough and all of them are forced to retreat. It’s then that Char realizes the warmth of the human heart, even in someone willing to destroy the Earth. That realization causes him to renew his faith in humanity and that combined with the Psyco-frame’s resonance, pushes Axis away from the Earth. Yet, Amuro and Char never reappear.

So after all that, Char simply changes his mind and that’s enough to reverse everything that he put into motion. Sure, he had the aid of a magical Mobile Suit system but …it’s still a little disappointing. Maybe if I had more of a sense of Char’s character before this realization made the difference in the fate of planet Earth it would have been more believable. It’s presented as epic and rational, but it feels cheap because of my lack of truly understanding these characters.

I wanted to love this movie. But the annoying side characters and subplots just dragged it down, as well as a lack of a cohesive narrative and characters who had proper motivation. However this film is a must see for fans of mecha combat and anyone who has ever enjoyed a Gundam series. In the end, it’s visuals and action are stunning to behold and it’s the that final battle between the original protagonist and antagonist of the Gundam franchise that has made this film a classic. For all its flaws it wasn’t a bad watch and I kind of look forward to seeing the film again not only for the action sequences but to further deconstruct how the themes reflect post-war Japan and Tomino’s ultimate message about war. Through my watching of UC Gundam there has been a duality to the various parts of the franchise. The first is great action and a compelling world on the brink of destruction. The second is incomprehensible character decisions, poor plotting, and Newtype “magic” as a solution to problems. Yes, the second one seems to out weight the first overall, but that is just one of the elements you’re signing up for when approaching Gundam.

The failure of Double Zeta Gundam

I was warned. Cautioned. Told, specifically, that Double Zeta Gundam was not something that I wanted to experience. But I made a pact with myself. A sworn vow. I was going to watch all the Universal Century Gundam! As an anime fan, as someone who has used the screenname “Gundampilotspaz” for the last ten years, I need to at least have seen all of the shows in the original Gundam universe, right? Well, even Bandai must have had better sense than I did going into this series. Double Zeta Gundam is the only chapter of the original UC Gundam that has not been released in the United States. Maybe I should have taken the hint?

After the success of the reedited Gundam trilogy movies the new 50 episode Zeta Gundam series was massively successful. Ending on a cliffhanger, the show needed a sequel in order to conclude narrative threads started at the end of the series. So enter Double Zeta Gundam! However, from the first episode the series takes on an obvious tonal shift. By the end of Zeta Gundam, the show had become exceptionally bleak. In fact, the show ended with Kamile, the main protagonist and Gundam pilot, mentally damaged after his final battle with Haman Karn. While the Titans are defeated in the final battle the return of Zeon promises that the work of the Argama crew is no where near complete. 

Double Zeta begins by quickly having Kamile rolled off to a hospital, leaving the Argama without a main pilot. The damage to the ship and crew looks bleak but we are introduced to an entire new group of young men who have mobile suit experience! Unfortunately for the Argama crew, they are more interested in stealing the Gundams and scraping them for profit than fighting the forces of Zeon. The first six episodes or so follow this pattern: Judau and his friends manage to steal Zeta Gundam and scrap it, Zeon appears and attacks, Judau defeats the enemy, the Argama somehow gets the Gundam back. That is the pattern for the first six episodes! The most puzzling aspect is in most of the battles they keep coming up with reasons to leave the cockpit doors open. Sometimes it’s because Judau isn’t sure how to close to hatch, other times the Zeon officers take mobile suits that don’t have doors installed. For some reason, Tomino decided that for the first few Gundam battles the hatches had to be open. Humor? It might be humor?

Those first few episodes are also filled with the poorest slapstick humor I’ve ever seen. The Zeon commander’s incompetence is supposed to be funny, the fact that Judau is constantly able to steal the Gundam is supposed to be funny, and there are scenes where the Gundam’s themselves are the subject of slapstick humor including one horrible scene where Zeta Gundam gets it’s head stuck in the ceiling of the hanger deck while the audience is treated to a shot of it’s flailing legs. Even after the first ten or so episodes the comedy stays around and seems to be the driving force behind the narrative.

When the more serious piece of Double Zeta begins we’re introduced to a character named Chara Soon who is a high ranking officer in Haman’s new Zeon army. She seems to be a rational, obedient officer… until she gets in the cockpit of a mobile suit. Once piloting a mobile suit she looses her mind with battle lust, caring only about fighting and winning. This, to say the least, destroys any credibility the character had. I’m convinced that it was some kind of meta joke Tomino snuck into the series. Outside a Mobile Suit, Chara Soon hates violence and wishes the war is over quickly. Once inside all she cares about is personal victory. Is Tomino providing commentary on on his own characterization? It’s possible, but the audience has to dig deep in order to come to that conclusion.

Once the series crosses episode fifteen it improves by a good measure by actually returning to the main antagonist of the show, Haman Karn, and working on a huge subplot where Judau’s only goal becomes the return of her kidnapped sister from Zeon Officer Glemy who is using her for …something? Honestly, I never quite understood why he kidnapped her. He seemed to be preparing her for live in the Zeon court but why he would pick a random orphan girl from a backwater colony to be a member of the Zeon court is beyond me. It seemed like Glemy’s obsession with the girl was an excuse to give Judau a reason to continue fighting with the Argama, and nothing more.

Hands down the most frustrating part of the show is that no one learns from their mistakes. Early, the Argama allow a group of kids to steal their highly advanced combat ready Mobile Suits effortlessly …several times! Once Judau joins the Argama crew this doesn’t stop. People seem to just take off in a Mobile Suit whenever they feel like, disobeying orders in the process. Captain Bright’s answer to this is to shrug and have a “boys will be boys” attitude. Does anyone remember what Captain Bright did to Amuro Ray when he took the Gundam without orders? He tossed him in the brig! Yet he allows any member of the Argama Crew to just launch in any Mobile Suit they want while he sits in his Captain’s chair mumbling, “No, stop. Please don’t do that. Hey, be a friend.”

There is so much not to like about this series, but those come from the characters and the narrative. I found the majority of the battle scenes in Zeta Gundam to be paint by numbers and repetitive while in Double Zeta they were more consistently exciting. The animation is also a step up with the Mobile Suit designs taking another wide step forward. Granted, I would have preferred the Double Zeta Gundam not separating into it’s three components quite so often because, at times, it just didn’t make tactical sense and harmed Judau’s chances of winning the battles when it was employed. 

The last twenty episodes have a lot to like in them. The small side stories on the earth are well written and entertaining. They also give the audience a good slice of how much the on going war has affected the Earth as well as what the remains of the original Zeon occupation have been doing since Amuro Ray’s oringal victory. The episodes that are great step away from the crew and do character studies on people who have been affected by some aspect of the war. One such stories follows a woman who lost her boyfriend in the last war and has been outcast from her community for being associated with the Zeon.

The second half of the series comes to a glorious climax at episode 35 when it’s learned the Haman Karn will drop a colony on the Federation base in Dublin. It’s a two part episode which covers characters preparing for the event, trying to evacuate Dublin while an unhelpful Federation celebrates the population decrease the attack will cause and Zeon forces try to prevent refugee ships from escaping. After the colony drop the desolate waste of Dublin becomes the battle ground for an epic fight between Double Zeta and a Zaku 3, then the Double Zeta and an allied Qubeley fight the tremendously powerful Physco Gundam around the crumbling remains of the fallen colony. The battle was exceptionally choreographed, the animation was stunning, and it held some of the few genuine emotional moments of the series. They are perhaps two of the best episodes in all of UC Gundam.

The series then destroys that momentum by inserting some filler where Haman Karn sneaks aboard the Argama for no reason, as well as the return of the Moon-Moon priestesses which appeared in an awful two part episode during the first half of the series. By the time the last shoe was dropped, Glemy attacks Haman Karn and begins a Zeon civil war, the event falls flat. What should be an epic moment and an epic battle is weighted down by bad pacing, poor character construction, and a lack of stake for the outcome of the battle. While the action was fun and exciting, it felt like Mobile Suit battles for the sake of Mobile Suit battles at that point in the series.

So, is Double Zeta an attempt by Tomino to sabotage the Gundam franchise as some fans suspect? Well, I don’t think that’s true. It certainly is an attempt to create a different type of story in the Gundam Universe, to insert some comedy instead of being consistently dark and foreboding. But it just didn’t work because the audience is expecting the series to pick up right where Zeta Gundam ends and conclude that narrative. Much of the series, especially the early part, is filler that was created to fulfill Tomino’s contract so he can move on to what he really wanted to create: Char’s Counterattack. Char is obviously Tomino’s favorite character and without him in this series, it felt like he just doesn’t care. The main story is still as good as Gundam will ever be but it’s hidden behind bad characters and poor pacing.

Should it be watched? Probably not. Maybe the final fifteen or so episodes are worth watching or if one wished to be a Gundam completest for the sake of being a Gundam completest. There is just too much wrong with the series to make the few moments they get right be worth the time investment.

Review: Ah! My Goddess! Season 1

 I was excited to revisit Ah! My Goddess!. It was one of the first shows I watched after jumping back into anime after a burnout period and because of that it had always held a special place in my heart. Even before watching the TV series, I was a big fan of the original OVA and the film, so at the time I was guaranteed to love the series. However, the last time I watched this show was six years ago and it is rare that something matches up with fond memories. Keiichi Morisato is a student at Nekomi Institute of Technology who has always had bad luck. After selflessly helping a little girl find her wallet, he accidentally dials the Goddess Relief Office and is granted a wish. Without thinking he wishes that the Goddess stays by his side forever.

I want to approach this as fair as I possibly could, because I’ve seen this show before in several varieties and knew what to expect from the jump and yet this time watching it, I couldn’t help but feel creeped out by those first few episodes. In essence, Keiichi wishes that Belldandy stays with him against her will. That is the core concept of the show. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t take advantage of her, it doesn’t matter that she learns to genuinely like him. This time it just stuck with me as odd. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen this formula so many times in the last five years that the vail has been lifted. I wrote in my preview of Ano Natsu de Matteru that a show around a girl coming from supernatural place and living with a guy has been done so many times that its lost all meaning. 

Ah! My Goddess! takes that up a level as having the supernatural girl being tied to the main character by an unbreakable magical force. In the first few seconds after the wish is granted she rushes over, calls her boss to ask if the wish had been granted in a panicked voice. Only after that brief moment does she then switch over to being cheerfully sweet at the whole situation. That brief moment of panic is enough to ruin the whimsical nature of the scene and give it a creepy vibe.

The relationship of the characters does grow over the next few episodes. Belldandy honestly likes Keiichi and actively wants to get to know him. Keiichi, on the other hand, just seems happy to be with a girl. Of course, Belldandy is a beautiful and kind goddess. What guy wouldn’t instantly fall in love with her? It is the idea that Keiichi just wants a girlfriend and doesn’t care who it is part that I don’t like, and while I could see Belldandy make an effort to get to know Keiichi and slowly learn to love him over the course of the series, I never got that feeling from Keiichi. The show assumes the audience will just accept the fact that he falls in love with Belldandy because… Belldandy is a beautiful girl who appeared in front of him magically!

The initial conflicts of the series surround two rich, popular kids at Nekomi Tech. Sayoko Mishima is so popular that she believes herself to be the Queen of the school and Toshiyuki Aoshima is a playboy who becomes frustrated when Belldandy shows no interest in him. The plots that involve them feel petty, as the theme of those stories is that being rich and popular doesn’t always get you everything you want. But that plot is recycled in various ways in all the episodes that those character appear as the main antagonists. Once the more intense, magic driven narratives begin those early episodes feel like they don’t even matter. They exist to set a tone, and the two characters become annoying quickly. They might be there to make people who identify with Keiichi feel superior to their “social betters” but watching this now that I’m out of school and far away from the social politics of school life those characters and their episodes are just boring.

That becomes the ultimate problem with the entire series. I never feel like there is anything on the line. I know that Belldandy and Keiichi aren’t going to be broken up by some rich, preppy kid in the eighth episode of the series, so why should I care about this story? Unfortunately, that is what happens throughout the whole show even with the more mythical or magic based plots. All of them can be boiled down to a threat against Keiichi and Belldandy being together and each time the audience knows that it won’t end with the two of them torn apart. When the show moves away from those kind of stories it does get better. The episodes where Belldandy becomes sick and Keiichi is forced to take care of her is sweet, and when Keiichi and Belldandy help build the confidence of one of the members of the motor club for an upcoming race the character becomes surprisingly endearing. Unfortunately, those moments are sprinkled in between stories where Keiichi and Belldandy might be torn apart! Oh no! 

When the climax began, this cycle had just worn on me. Even with a powerful evil being released and Urd turning on the main cast, I just didn’t feel like anything bad was going to happen to these characters and thus I didn’t really care about the story. The climax of the show features three separate epic battles, each time having the fate of the Earth on the line, and I felt bored by the entire exchange.

The best part about the series comes from the interactions of the three Goddesses. Belldandy, Urd, and Skuld are fun characters and their vastly different personalities allow for many interesting clashes. When the show focuses on the Goddesses and not on the Belldandy-Keiichi relationship or any kind of conflict it is far more enjoyable. In that way It works as a relaxing slice of life show. Unfortunately, most of the interactions of the Goddesses come around the Belldandy-Keiichi relationship, which harms it a little, but those bouts of dialogue are a welcome break from the insufferable love story.

I’m a little sad to say how much Ah! My Goddess! bored me. Again, I go back to my preview of Ano Natsu de Matteru and I must say this kind of wish fulfillment romantic comedy just doesn’t appeal to me anymore. What bothered me most is how that even during some pretty serious, epic moments the characters never really feel like they are in danger. Without real consequences, conflict doesn’t really have any meaning. I did like the characters and how they interacted, but it was always framed by the go-no-where romance between Belldandy and Keiichi. As for the creepy factor… it was there through a lot of the show but it ended on a high note, with Haven in chaos Keiichi’s wish had been lost. So Keiichi and Belldandy are free to begin a relationship without any magical interference. The characters had grown together to a point where I accepted that they could mutually agree to start a relationship. Now maybe they’ll actually kiss at some point.