Kill la Kill, 24 episodes
Director: Imaishi Hiroyuki (Dead Leaves, Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann)
Studio: Trigger (Inferno Cop, Little Witch Academia)
It would be remiss of me to discuss Kill la Kill without first addressing the backlash against the show, of which I was a part of. First of all, I can tell you that the fanservice alone was not the reason for it--there were, in fact, several factors involved. For one, it was following on the heels of Trigger's outstanding Little Witch Academia, a short consisting of an all-female cast with absolutely no fanservice in sight, lending the impression that, perhaps, Trigger could produce more of these female-centric stories without pandering to its male fanbase. The advertising of Kill la Kill certainly furthered that assumption--the focus was squarely on Ryuuko's quest for vengeance and the blood-feuded rivalry between her and Satsuki, with Ryuuko's battle outfit making only sporadic appearances. There was a lot of promise to be found in this and, thus, a lot of hype.
Then, the first two episodes aired, and things were looking pretty grim. It began with Ryuuko's meeting with the sentient sailor fuku Senketsu; Ryuuko refuses to wear him, and so he resorts to doing it "by force," complete with Ryuuko openly protesting against him--a scene deliberately made to resemble rape for laughs. It's pretty awful, but there's hope that it'll maybe be the only "joke" in the entire series. Come episode two, and the episode opens with Ryuuko, passed out in her battle outfit, surrounded by guys drooling over the "nearly-naked chick" and approaching her body with groping hands. The scene transitions to Ryuuko waking up to an unknown man sweating and panting on top of her. She punches him, and then apologizes for it shortly after she learns the man is her friend, Mako's, father and a doctor. There's a chance he was simply performing surgery on her, but it doesn't take away the intended effect of the scene, and later scenes where the character is peeking on Ryuuko changing didn't help the case any.
Needless to say, the series was leaving a sour taste in my mouth, along with a profound sense of disappointment. It didn't help that the protagonist doesn't wear her outfit by choice, and the big revelation she has in episode three, where she must learn to embrace her body and ignore the shame she has in it being displayed openly to others, falls flat when the implications that Ryuuko needs to accept the harassment and ogling of others over her crop up, and that her discomfort is something "shallow."
Also not helping it was the definite line of difference between the sexualization of its female characters versus its male characters. It's passivity versus activity. The men willingly and happily strip and show off their body with confidence; when the camera pans over them, they’re clearly in control. The women are not afforded with this same kind of agency; Ryuuko constantly falls into unwilling suggestive positions, the camera pans over her passive body, and she clearly isn’t relishing in the positive, horny attention she’s given by the audiences. The second OP even ends with Ryuuko and Satsuki seen naked and bound with string, with pained expressions on their faces. I can think of exactly one instance in which something similar occurred to a male character (being subjected to helpless sexualization, that is), and no one ever brings it up, because it was that unmemorable of a scene.
Basically, the backlash against Kill la Kill can't be boiled down to something as simple as "it has a lot of fanservice."
However, it would also be remiss of me to discuss the show's treatment of its female characters from a critical angle while not discussing what it gets right. And, for all of the Kate Beaton "Strong Female Character" parodies of it floating about the internet, it honestly does get a lot right.
The beginning of the show is rather misleading in its focus of Ryuuko on her quest to avenge her father, leaving one with the impression that Ryuuko's character will be defined by her relationship with her father. This may start out to be the case, but by the second act of the series, the death of her father feels more like a plot device than something of real significance to her overall character. Without explicitly spoiling it, Ryuuko's ultimate lesson in the end is to be free to be her own individual, symbolized by the loss of another character. One of her strongest ties is, indeed, with a male character, but the majority of her significant friendships and relationships are with girls. She has rivalries with them that can range from standard to serious to downright blood-thirsty, never once inching into the "cat fight" territory. She has friendships with them that aren't ever limited to "girls talking about cute things to pander to the otaku fanbase" (even as this show shamelessly panders to its otaku fanbase) but having conversations about their lives and the world around them, getting caught up in comedic situations with them, getting caught up in dramatic situations with them, and demonstrating a great level of love for each other through their risk-taking actions and words. And, most significantly, Ryuuko gets a female love interest; a love that's gradually built up and--surprisingly, given the nature of the show--never sexualized.
The rest of the girl characters all have diverse, colorful personalities, some with interesting pasts and motivations, some just entertaining and endearing. By the end of the show, the focus and very conclusion of the show is on the relationships and bonds between the main female characters, both good and bad, and it's pretty remarkable. Does it absolve it of its aforementioned faults? Of course not. But it did change my previously soured stance on the show.
As for the show itself, it was a long test of patience on my part. The aforementioned redeeming qualities would not yet fully surface for another dozen or so episodes. The King of the Hill battle becomes a dragging point of the show, and the Osaka Battlefield Trip (barring the ever-entertaining Takarada) is even worse in terms of pacing and conflict. There was little holding my interest, but I'd gotten this far into the show and wasn't ready to drop it just yet.
Then, episode 17 happened. And the show suddenly, finally got interesting. The revelations weren't unpredictable (one in particular could be called as early as episode 1), but they gave the show the much-needed sense of conflict and stakes it was lacking up until that point. It still wasn't without its flaws (there's a parental incest subplot that basically amounts to nothing other than to induce shock and further confirm what we already knew about the characters involved), but pacing-wise, it was all smooth sailing from there.
The ending's gotten some mixed reception, as is typically the case for series as consistently hyped as this one, but I was pretty pleased with it. It was a bit too bombastic and anticlimactic in parts for my liking, but it had the necessary emotional core and payoff.
If Imaishi's resume as head director is anything to go by, it's that he's far better working with stories confined to shorter 1-13 episode or film formats, than the usual 20+ episode TV length. Gurren Lagann and especially Kill la Kill both suffered from sagging, forgettable middle portions before their explosive final acts, and it's all a matter of Imaishi learning to either step it up in those or trim it down in those regards from here on out.
Did I like Kill la Kill? Even now, after all I've written, that's hard for me to answer. It definitely doesn't rank amongst one of my favorites, or even "casual favorites," yet it's clearly given me so much to discuss and think about, despite being a fun series that prides itself in style over substance. There's too much I disliked about it to give a definite "like," and yet too much I liked about it towards the end to give it a definite "dislike." It's impossible for me to define what my relationship to this series is.
I'll give it a "maybe."
Samurai Flamenco, 22 episodes
Director: Omori Takahiro (Baccano!, Durarara!!, Kuragehime, Natsume Yuujinchou)
Studio: Manglobe (Ergo Proxy, Michiko to Hatchin, Samurai Champloo--buuut don't let those get your hopes up, as this is one of their sloppiest-looking shows yet.)
Samurai Flamenco is a difficult series for me to evaluate. I was a big fan of its first ten episodes, which I unexpectedly marathoned in a single setting. It was fresh and fun in a lot of ways--a non-Batman superhero fanboy being pals with a cop, stopping the seemingly smallest of "crimes" like littering, and using office supplies as his weapons of choice. I had no problems when it went from a slice-of-life, "realistic" setting to letting genuine supernatural elements become a part of it. As long as it didn't lose its focus--the ordinary lives of Masayoshi, Goto, and Mari, alongside their extraordinary lives, I was really fine with it, and welcomed its villain with open arms.
And then the Flamengers came.
The timing of their appearances couldn't be worse, taking place after a dramatic episode that leaves the audience hanging on what the fate of a certain character after being tortured was going to be, as well as the backstabbing character responsible for it. The former would not be answered for another too many episodes, and the latter is ultimately never addressed, just appearing as a regular character from there on out.
Even at the introduction of the Flamengers, however, I was still determined to remain optimistic that the show wouldn't lose what initially endeared so many to it. That optimism dwindled quickly as Goto and Mari lost screentime in favor of this sudden pack of new characters. I'd possibly be more forgiving if the show went the same route with the Flamengers that it did Masayoshi, Goto, and Mari, in balancing out their superhero lives with their ordinary ones, as well as forming significant relationships with Masayoshi, but, alas, the Flamengers remain dreadfully static characters from their introduction up until their appearances at the end of the series.
Thankfully, it doesn't last, and the series' focus eventually shifts back to Goto and Mari and her crew, with occasional episodes returning to its quieter roots. Unfortunately, this also comes at the price of the plot taking absurd twists and turns that really amount to nothing in the end. There's an episode that's entirely composed of meta about Masayoshi's life as a superhero that eventually more or less serves in the final arc of the show, but it's so out of place it might as well have been a dream.
What saves the show from the Flamengers and aliens that consumed its middle half? The ending. It doesn't change what happened, but it's incredible just how much of a high note a series can leave you on when it delivers a good ending. It's nothing enormous or fate-of-the-world-high-stakes, but that's exactly why it's so great. The opening of the episode is a flashback to a character's life and it's solemn and it's exquisitely told, and the flash to the present continues in returning to the series' roots as more grounded and quiet series, while still having an intense conflict in the center of it all.
It, like Kill la Kill, also has its protagonist get a same-gender love interest with a gradual buildup, which is great.
I guess I'd evaluate Samurai Flamenco like I'd evaluate a salad bar. The parts of it I like, I really, really like and would go for seconds, and the parts of it I don't like I just ignore in favor of the good parts, which are so good they almost make me forget about the lesser parts. So I'd recommend it.
Space Dandy season 1, 13 episodes
Director: Watanabe Shinichiro (Cowboy Bebop, Macross Plus, Sakamichi no Apollon, Samurai Champloo)
Studio: Bones (Eureka Seven, Fullmetal Alchemist, Ouran Koukou Host Club, Wolf's Rain)
By far, my favorite show of the season. It fills me with the happiness and glee of watching a Saturday morning cartoon as a kid, except this time it takes place at midnight and it's decidedly not something that would be shown on Fox Kids. I initially wasn't hyped for this like everyone else was, as it didn't look like it'd be offering anything new, but it ended up winning me over hard and fast and before I knew it I was telling everyone I knew to get on board with it.
I think the best way of summing up the greatness of Space Dandy would be in its fourth and fifth episodes (episode five of which, incidentally, is a great stopping point in figuring out if the series is for you). The fourth episode demonstrates how experimental and creative it's willing to go, and does a fantastic spin on an all-too-familiar premise. The fifth episode, on the other hand, shows how it can take an all-too-familiar premise, play it completely as one would predict it, and still somehow feel fresh and capable of genuinely churning out the intended reaction. I think the fact that even the episodes I come out of not caring much for I still end up appreciating is really a testament of Space Dandy's talent for storytelling.
Oh, and Dandy himself is a great way of summing up the greatness of Space Dandy too. He's been rightfully compared to Johnny Bravo, and I'd also compare him to Onizuka from GTO and Kintaro from Golden Boy in terms of being unexpectedly endearing. He's a skirt-chaser and a bit of an ass towards his crew members, but he'll also willingly spend an entire night looking for an alien's father and ensuring that she reunites with him, as well as play with an abandoned dog until the time of her death and gives her a respectful send-off. He can make you laugh and he can warm your heart.
The rest of the cast is great too, of course, but I need to make special mention of Dr. Gel and Bea. I initially didn't think much of them at first, but they've been growing increasingly endearing as the series goes on. I cannot wait for the places this show will go. This is the space adventure I've always wanted.
Witch Craft Works, 12 episodes
Director: Mizushima Tsutomu (Bokusatsu Tenshi Dokuro-chan, Jungle wa Itsumo Hare nochi Guu, Ookiku Furikabutte, Shinryaku! Ika Musume)
Studio: J.C.Staff (Azumanga Daioh, Honey and Clover, Revolutionary Girl Utena, Slayers)
This series was tailored especially for me. It has a protagonist who loves penguins constantly endangered by witches who are after him, and a tall, powerful witch who must protect and take care him on a regular basis. This show caters to my needs and it caters to them well. I could end the review right here, but I suppose I could say more.
There's not much to be said about the plot--it has one, it's just not terribly remarkable. There's not much to be said about the characters, either--it has ones outside of Takamiya and Kagari, they're just not terribly remarkable, either. Which is fine, really, as the main selling point is Takamiya and Kagari and the relationship between them. Takamiya is a humble, timid guy and Kagari is a stoic girl with an underlying sadistic sense of humor--in a way, you could take them as alternate universe versions of Joel Glicker and Wednesday Addams.
The relationship between the two is refreshing not simply for pulling a "girl rescues guy," but also "guy admires girl's prowess and wishes to become strong like her to help her out." Their relationship isn't limited to a knight/prince (or "princess," in Kagari's words, of which Takamiya has no objection to) but also encompasses one of a mentor and a student, with Kagari dishing out some truly entertaining lessons. Takamiya's attraction to Kagari is also surprisingly secondary; he notes her physical beauty in only one or two instances, most of his focus being in awe of her talent and power. Kagari never has to be "taken down a peg" for Takamiya to demonstrate his own abilities, nor does he ever outshine her in terms of talent. He doesn't ever resent her for her ability or needing to be protected, and only steps in when Kagari's protection of him goes in to outright babying territory. It's something rare to see in any form of media, and I like it a lot.
I'll be buying the manga when Vertical releases it, won't you?