Spring gave anime fans a bounty of titles to look forward to, featuring series with longer pasts than a huge chunk of the viewerbase. Powerhouses like Ghost in the Shell, the Fate series, and a Haruhi spin-off landed along many lesser-known (but now just as loved) stories. Yet no matter how great they used to be, some veteran series found themselves being overshadowed by the rookies. This left fanboys to weave desperate tales as they attempted to defend things that were little more than guilty pleasures.
THE LET-DOWNS – YOUR TERRIBLE FRIENDS KEPT TELLING YOU THESE WERE GOOD
The disappointments of the season are easy enough to nail down despite their loyal fanbases. One needs only ask a few unbiased questions: Would Nagato Yuki-chan have been passable if we hadn’t ever heard of Haruhi? Is Ghost in the Shell: Arise still innovating and posing new, hard questions? How the hell did Wish Upon the Pleiades actually get funded in the first place?
Nagato turned out to be a series which didn’t feature its title character. Instead, Haruhi fans were given an alternate dimension doppelganger who behaved nothing like her namesake. The show reeked of being some slice of life standalone the studio realized would never sell on its own merits. Even if someone unfamiliar to the franchise stumbled into this series and loved it, they’re in for a horrible awakening when they seek out the rest of the franchise since Nagato has absolutely nothing to do with anything else.
Arise hit a lot closer to home since it sported characters which were both familiar to veterans and true to their sources. It became quickly apparent that Arise suffered from not knowing when to stop. While the franchise is ancient and revolutionary, Arise is in the same boat as the third Matrix movie – the premise has been played out, it has no new ideas to offer, and it will never live up to its fathers. It’s passable in the same fashion as a Star Wars prequel: watch it first or not at all.
Many would argue that Gunslinger was the biggest let-down. The series came out of the gates with an interesting pilot, but couldn’t follow through at all. By the third episode the pace had drastically slowed. By the end of the first half, the only people watching were the sorts who said, “Well, I’ve already watched half so I guess I should just finish it.” Gunslinger was a series people forced themselves to watch in an act of pure sadism.
THE HYPE TRAIN – NEXT STOP MEDIOCRITY JUNCTION
Without a doubt, Dungeon became one of the most well-received shows of the season starting practically at its first episode. Our staff has had more confused talks about this series than any other. Objectively, it’s not a great show. The RPG video game world has been done to death, the Mary Sue main character is a tired trope, and the animation is at a “just good” tier. But gods, everyone (including us) loved it. The inability to pin down exactly why is shared amongst Hestia’s many fans. Likely, it’s the relatability of the situations.
Dungeon goes (slightly) beyond the blatantly sexist cliches of gaming anime swill like Sword Art Online. While not totally devoid of helpless girls and white knight heroes, Dungeon gives a generation of gamers things that hit closer to home: grinding ridiculous monsters for experience, getting excited about crappy low-level gear, having monsters “trained” onto the hero, treating the supporter like garbage… It’s clearly a show about games written by gamers and this resonates with the target demographic enough to make up for the meandering plot and undeveloped nemesis. It’s not the diamond everyone said it was, but Dungeon was still fun.
Fate UBW is born of near-unlimited funding and it shows at every turn. The animation is gorgeous and the story is rich. The series set out to erase and replace the original Fate/Stay Night from 2006 — a series which enraged fans with its nigh-worthless main character and horrible forced-romance ending. Fate/Zero, its after-the-fact prequel, proved to be as amazing as the original Fate was awful. It’s such a phenomenon to see a studio acknowledge that a series they made was so unsatisfyingly bad that they completely wipe it from canon themselves. The resulting UBW series was something worthy of Fate/Zero. However, with such a tough act to follow, UBW’s faults were more apparent. The show does have a slower first half as it builds to perpetual climax, as well as a propensity for “losing” characters once the action is underway. Overall, this UBW retcon makes the original Fate feel like a terrible fanfic. Even without the stellar Fate/Zero, UBW is an exciting story in its own right, but it takes a fairly unforgivable number of sleepy episodes to get there.
Arslan was a surprise for most of the anime community. Very few people harbored memories of the archaic Arslan OVAs, which fostered a different plot anyway. Arslan is another series that feels much better to watch than it should. All of the characters are static to a fault, the fights are unconvincing, and tactician Narsus is a walking deus ex. The series isn’t exactly edge-of-your-seat, but it does enough correctly to maintain intrigue. Since you follow a character with limited intel, there’s plenty to discover in each episode. This is combined with the posing of real questions and themes: how slavery affects a society, what makes a good monarch, and how religious zealotry impacts a civilization. They’re perhaps questions more suited to the 1700s, but where Arslan shines is that it has the courage to offer commentary on these themes instead of just lobbing questions like most series do in the vain attempt to look deeper than they are. While it’s a decent watch, its age shows — Arslan feels less like an anime than it feels like something you’d read in a literature class.
THE LOST TREASURES – WHAT YOU SHOULD HAVE WATCHED BUT (probably) DIDN’T
It’s inevitable that completely new series will go unnoticed, especially since they seldom have advertising that reaches the West. If you couple this with unappealing animation, it’s almost impossible to get any fanfare. Such was the sad fate of My Love Story. Most of us stole one look at the crude animation and took a pass. While slice of life series aren’t for everyone, it’s rare that they so truthfully capture legitimate experiences. It’s understandable if a person can’t relate to slice series like Barakamon or Nichijou because those series are a bit…insane. On the other hand, Love Story captures the oblivious bliss of the first relationship in an almost sordid way. The downfall of the series is likely that teen viewers don’t have enough life experience to get that wistful, “To be young again!” feeling. On the other hand, older viewers treasure each episode with more and more trepidation as they wait for what they feel must be an inevitable tragedy. Either way, Love Story is hard to watch as an adult and not just feel good about everything for half an hour.
If you didn’t catch Euphonium, it might even be our fault since we initially snubbed it. We’re happy to say we were wrong. Euphonium feels like an autobiographical series. While it’s about a girl’s struggle to avoid (and her slow acceptance of) her status as a band geek tryhard, it sings to the social experience most people have not just in high school, but into college and the work force. While music and instrumentals are the featured vessel of Euphonium, at its core it’s a story of reluctant passion and the continuing development of personal identity. It will resonate especially well with veteran band geeks, but the experiences and emotions will be familiar to anyone. Add to this the fact that the animation has absolutely ludicrous attention to detail and you get something both visually and emotionally satisfying. As an anime about a concert band, you can expect a lot of custom musical pieces, too.
We mentioned that Arslan was an exception to anime standards because it had the courage to answer the questions it poses. We also snubbed Ghost in the Shell: Arise for failing to innovate on its genre. The perfect answer to both of these lofty standards was Plastic Memories. Memories caused so many grown men to cry so fast that its exceptional spread by word of mouth should probably prevent it from landing on a list of hidden treasures. Still, as a one-season wonder it would be easy to overlook.
At the outset, Memories masquerades as a bit of a comedy with a little side of adventure. As a result, a huge chunk of people tuned out after the first couple episodes not realizing that it was all a sadistic trick. The series very swiftly delves into complex issues concerning what it means to be alive, what constitutes love, and what it takes to stare death in the face as a short-lived and self-aware creature. Contrary to expectation, Memories doesn’t cheap out with a horrible deus ex machina. Neither does it offer cutesy, watered-down answers to the existential dilemmas it presents. Rather, the writers confer their life experience in a suitably complex way over time. After all, there are no easy or wholly satisfactory answers when it comes to death. Anyone who has lost a loved one will be made an emotional train wreck by Memories, but it manages to grant as much serenity as possible all the while. This series becomes so heavy on the heart that it’s almost difficult to watch toward the end. That is a damn good compliment. Grab some tissues and try to hold it all in past the Pavlovian state of sorrow induced simply by hearing the theme song.
THE SWEETEST JAMS – THE BEST SONGS OF THE SEASON
We’ll keep this short and sweet so we don’t start foaming at the mouth. There are intros and credit rolls that are decent for various reasons. Sometimes the music is great but the animation is awful. Sometimes the animation and music are both on point but the song itself just doesn’t fit with the series. These are all things we look at critically when we’re reviewing a series, like sweaty comic shop owners inspecting the quality of the staples holding together your copy of ROM Spaceknight issue #1.
When the video goes off, if you just close your eyes and listen to the music it becomes a different story. Sound Euphonium‘s intro “Dream Solister” by True has everything both musically and as a fit for its series. Dream Solister features a full orchestra with flute trills, trumpets, kit percussion, and a walking bass. A choir fills in backup vocals while the lead singer absolutely belts out in fantastic pitch with controlled vibrato trailing perfectly into the instrumentation. At some point an electric guitar creeps in and you become one with the universe. There are a lot of “good” singers who like to whisper-sing. Not the case here – crank it up and get blown away.
The best end roll goes to Arslan, which features Eir Aoi’s “Lapis Lazuli” (or “Lapis Lazuri” as it sometimes gets Engrished – even by its own VEVO channel). The song makes stellar use of cadence and minor notes to give the impression that it could be from the Persian-esque world of Arslan. The song features both acoustic and electric guitars, sweeping violin passages, and even flutterings of piano and harp. The end result is an intense, driving song befitting a princely epic. There are already some excellent remixes of Lapis floating around, but it’s hard to improve upon something so perfectly penned in the first place.
An honorable mention should go to Fate/Stay‘s “Brave Shine” by Aimer. Indeed, the entire Fate soundtrack is an unstoppable force.
EVERYTHING ELSE – WHERE YOU YELL AT US FOR NOT MENTIONING YOUR FAVORITES
Got a friend going bonkers over Blood Blockade Battlefront? His standards are probably a bit lax. Buddy won’t stop chattering on about Seraph of the End? It’s often easy to mistake average for good when the market is saturated with below-average. Your pal is super into Battle Spirits? He’s probably ten and you might be having a questionably legal friendship.
There are always plenty of guilty pleasures to be had. Whether you watch Triage X for the…great action scenes…or Maria the Virgin Witch for the, ah, mythology. There’s often a fine and incredibly subjective line between “so bad it’s good” and “so bad you have to be legally declared intellectually disabled.” One of our writers and our chief editor are still debating High School DxD‘s status beyond “so bad.”One of the inevitable facets of being a critic of something people are very passionate about is that they’ll often forget you’re just another passionate fan, too. In the likely event that you disagree with any of our reviews, we’d love for you to leave a comment telling us what you treasured most about your favorite series. In the end, this is all about helping people find things which bring them joy. This already hefty article would be far too bloated if we took time to discuss everything from the season ourselves. There are certainly some more great series right around the corner and we can’t wait to check out the summer shows with you.