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Book Reviews: Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis

Why does even the best laid plans seem to get thrown out the window so quickly? Right now I had hoped to be working on my year end anime posts (after finishing the seasonal one I have partly up) but I made the mistake of picking up one of the books I got for Christmas. This lead me to a second book and then to rereading Blackout by Connie Willis before reading All Clear, also by her.

I couldn’t put Blackout/All Clear down (each book was really half of a single novel, like LOTR); so, because I haven’t written about SF in a long while and because I think this novel has a much greater chance for non-SF readers to enjoy it then normal, I’m going to write my review up – hoping to convince someone from my huge readership (all couple dozen of you) to give this excellent novel a chance. :)

Final Score: 12/12 – Perfect
Ending: 5/5 – Epic
Rereadablity: 4/5 – Medium High

Pros: engages the reader’s attention on multiple levels from page one and sustains it all the way through to the end – 1100+ pages later, great cast of characters where even the characters with small parts to play are given the depth and personality to feel like real people, easy to read and hard to put down, the use of Great Britian’s homefront during WWII as the main backdrop for this novel is a refreshingly different take on WWII and the author has done absurdly exhaustive research to make the time period feel authentic

Cons: Some readers (including newer readers) might find the scenes taking place in the future (England 2060 AD) unrealistic and off-putting because of the lack of cellphones and widespread internet usage

Story

The year is 2060 AD and time travel is settled science with Oxford University in England sending historians back in time for decades. Early on it was discovered that some process associated with time itself ensures that historians could not affect history. A would-be assassin of Hitler might pick a specific location and time (say the opening ceremony of the 1936 Olympics) but when he/she travels back that person will, inevitably, end up in the wrong year, 335 BC for example, or the wrong location, say in the middle of the Amazon rain forest, or both. This slippage (both in time and location) has proven fatal in the past for historians; so, with a healthy respect of the rules of time travel and every conceivable precaution in place, the historians travel back in time and normally nothing goes wrong. And sometimes things go horribly wrong.

In Blackout/All Clear we follow 3 historians sent back to observe different facets of WWII. One goes to witness the heroic actions of normal people who sailed their civilian boats across the English Channel to rescue Allied soldiers from mainland Europe as France was falling. Another goes to observe the people of London as they live through the Blitz and the third historian poses as a maid so she can observe the life of children sent from the cities to the country to get them away from the German bombing campaign. In each case, the historian discovers that their drop-site back to the future no longer works and no one from the future appears to be coming back to save them. Every possible explanation for this is really bad and if that wasn’t enough for our main characters, they have to contend with staying alive as England gets shelled, bombed, and rocketed by the Germans.

-

Thoughts and impressions

It’s hardly a stretch to say that Connie Willis has been responsible for a significant percentage of the truly great SF that’s been written over the last 30 years. One could look at how many Hugo and Nebula awards she’s won and realize no other author has come close or one could just read one of her stories and realize the talent she has for proof. I’d suggest the second method, what do authors, critics and fans know about great works of literature? As for me, Connie Willis has been a constant favorite of mine since I was a grade school kid using every ounce of cunning and subterfuge I had in order to check books out from the adult section of the library when the librarians thought I should be reading books meant for my age group.

So, I expect a certain level of quality and to see the use of certain themes in a new novel by Connie Willis and I wasn’t let down by Blackout/All Clear. This novel is Connie Willis doing what Connie Willis does best at the level that has won Connie Willis all the awards she’s won. If you’re already a fan of hers then you won’t be disappointed with this book and if you don’t like her work then this novel isn’t going to convert you. With that being the case, I’m going to focus on the group of people that are the potential fans/anti-fans of Connie Willis who still have not formed an opinion on Blackout/All Clear and her work in general.

Probably the greatest surprise to a new reader of Connie Willis is the future in Blackout/All Clear seems a little antiquated even by the standards of 2011 and even more so when one assumes the next ~50 years will see moderate technological advancement. The reason for this is because this novel is set in a loosely tied universe that Connie Willis has been writing in since 1982. Back then no one could foresee a future that would involve the ubiquitous presence of cellphones, smartphones, internet connectivity, Wikipedia, GPS for the masses and social network websites that has so transformed society over the past decade. There’s no elegant and satisfying solution and I think Connie Willis did the right thing by not even trying because in reality it doesn’t matter if the tech of the future is a bit retro; she has bigger fish to fry. (It also helps that she sends very little of the book actually in the future.)

One of those fish is for Blackout/All Clear to be, in part, a meditation on true heroism. Not the shallow heroism that is so often trumpeted by the media and society but the type of heroism that is never easy and oftentimes involves risking one’s life. (One side effect from 9/11 that I liked was that I stopped hearing, at least for awhile, about how “heroic” athletes were as they earned millions of dollars.) For this she uses the home front of Great Britain during WWII and it was the perfect choice because it really was Britain’s finest hour, as one character says in the book. We meet weekend sailors that sailed their small civilian boats across the English Channel through German subs, dive bombers, and gunfire to rescue the entire British army before it was totally overwhelmed as France fell. We meet women who volunteered to drive ambulances even as German bombs and rockets continued to rain down around them. We meet those that volunteered to patrol the roof of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London to extinguish the incendiary bombs that the German’s would drop on it. We meet the people who endured night after night of German bombing in shelters that only promised slightly more safety then their homes provided, knowing that they couldn’t give into despair because if they did, the war was lost for sure. This study of heroism extends to the main characters as well, even if they were not looking to be heroes, because it’s impossible to be the disinterested, aloof observer when the world is going FUBAR around you. (I’ll have to pass on saying anything more about the main characters because that would provide too much in the spoiler department.)

Which I have to be careful about because another dimension to this book is that it is structured like a mystery and I don’t want to spill what Connie Willis very carefully hid (sometimes in plain sight) before she means for the reader to figure it out. Or it might be better to say that it’s a mystery on the meta-level with our primary task being to figure out how the handful of chapters which seem to stick out in the first book fit into the overall story. I’m not normally a mystery fan, picture the math teacher from Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru, but I found it hard to put this novel down when the next chapter might have the answer or, at least, give another clue. It seems fitting, then, that at least one of the time traveling historians bumps into Agatha Christie during the course of the novel.

Another reason I found it hard to put this novel down was how much you get to care about the main characters and those around them; I’d tell myself, “Just one more chapter,” and like playing Civilization, one more just wasn’t enough. They felt like real people and that dastardly Connie Willis would always switch the point-the-view right when the air raid sirens would go off or some other calamity was about to happen. One of my favorite side characters was an older Shakespearean actor, Sir Godfrey Kingsman, out of work because the theaters had closed during the Blitz. He used the same bomb shelter as one of the main characters and he would ooze charm, sophistication, and gravitas from the moment he’d enter a scene. A measure of his awesomeness was how after listening to (reading) his recitation of Shakespeare, he got me thinking maybe, just maybe, this Shakespeare guy is actually as good as people say.

Shocking, I know. I had English teachers lecture year after year about the importance of Shakespeare and it’s a SF writer writing a time-traveling story set during WWII that puts forth a more convincing argument about the importance of Shakespeare. It helps when she’s a pretty good writer herself and can make me feel like I’m in that bomb shelter, hearing the muffled explosions of Hitler trying to flatten London, not knowing if I’ll live through the night and desperate for something to get my mind off it all.

Before I finish this review, I wanted to answer the question I know people unfamiliar with the other works of Connie Willis but are interested in reading this will have. I mentioned earlier how this is set in a universe that Connie Willis previously has written in; so, the obvious question would be if one needed to read her earlier works before reading this. The answer is no. A couple of characters that appear in Blackout/All Clear have appeared in earlier works but Connie Willis mentions the pertinent parts here; each book and story has been pretty much completely self-contained. That’s not to say I would suggest skipping these books altogether because they’ve all been great reads. Firewatch, also set in WWII, was the first story written in this universe by Connie Willis and though it’s just a short story, it does a good job introducing what to expect with Blackout/All Clear. The next thing she wrote in this universe was a novel, Doomsday Book and it takes place in a particularly dark period of the Middle Ages. Lastly, was the much more light-hearted novel by the name of To Say Nothing of the Dog which took place during Victorian times.

I’d recommend for those unsure about committing the time to read a 1100+ page novel that starting with Firewatch might be the best course of action. For those that prefer to read things in order then definitely start from the beginning. For those that might read the other books then I’d recommend starting from the beginning because I’m not sure how enjoyable the earlier novels will be when they can’t match the size and scope of Blackout/All Clear.

In closing, I hope I adequately conveyed my love of this book and that I convinced at least one person to give this novel a shot. I wish I could promise more anime posts from this point onwards but I still have a stack of new books to read from Christmas (which includes Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker and Charle Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe). Though, if everything works out, I might just have a big surprise to unveil shortly that would ease the lack of posts on The Null Set.


Filed under: anime, Books, science fiction

Magical Girl Madoka Magica 1 – An Eyeful of Potential

So Shaft and Shinbo’s hightly anticipated original magical girl show has started, which means we finally get to see what all the hype was about. At the same time, this was still just the first episode, so the “wait and see” approach would be the right one to follow at this point. Still, what was shown was unique and displayed a lot of potential, leaving me excited for more.

Story-wise, nothing presented here should make anyone even raise an eyebrow. It strictly followed well established cliches and tropes of schoolgirl anime, although it did it to such a fault that I can’t help but think that it was on purpose. I was inclined to facepalm when Madoka Kaname (Aoi Yuuki) ran out of her home with the toast hanging out of her mouth but was delighted to see her quickly munch it down just seconds after exiting the premises. Was that a casual wink and nod about that particular trope and how the show was using it but also destroying it?

Then, of course, there was the attractive transfer student, Homura Akemi (Chiwa Saito, channeling Hitagi Senjougahara with a heavier, more masculine voice than her usual cutesy one) around whom everyone clusters instantly. And like any attractive transfer student, there’s something mysterious about her (see: Itsuki Koizumi), such as the fact that she appeared in Madoka’s dream during the cold open, and that she already knows who Madoka and her friend Sayaka Miki (Eri Kitamura) are, as well as the general layout of the school. Oh yeah, and it turns out she’s the bad guy, some magical girl trying to kill the ferret Kyubey (Emiri Kato) who also appeared in Madoka’s dream.

Yup, it's Aoki Ume's work, alright. Wish it was a bit wider, though...

But enough about the plot. Again, nothing special here. What really struck me about this episode was the art. First of all, the character designs obviously reek of Aoki Ume, she of Hidamari Sketch fame. Though the faces aren’t quite as wide as in that show (for shame), the soft, rounded faces and simple and solid colored hair styles reminded a lot of the characters from Hidamari Sketch. The key was in the large, widened eyes, though, with the subtle pencil strokes for shading visible during the close ups.

But, as was the case before with Shaft’s Bakemonogatari, the backdrops were what really stole the show. Shaft was clearly going for the super-clean near-future aesthetic with the designs of various locales from the episode. It started with the Kaname house (speaking of near-future, we’ve got a working mother and a stay-at-home husband in this one, a very modern nuclear family) with its hard rectangular lines, wide open spaces with huge windows. The bathroom scene with Madoka and her mother could’ve been terribly boring without all that architectural eye candy (and, of course, Shinbo’s favorite visual trick, reflections). There were some subtle touches here and there as well, such as the presence of the staircase in Madoka’s parents’ bedroom, or the changing digital picture frame behind Madoka’s mother just as she leaves for work.

Watching the banal household morning scene unfold, all I could think was, "I WANT TO LIVE IN THERE!"

The same aesthetic was pushed hard at the school as well, with all of the walls surrounding the classrooms being made of glass, and the use of digital whiteboards instead of the traditional chalkboards. Same goes for the CD shop at the mall, with its glass shelves and walls filled with square shaped windows. All in all, the super-clean near-futuristic look made for a very appealing world, one very pleasing to the eyes.

And all that served as a strong contrast to what would happen when the magical girls actually entered the picture. As the battle started in an unfinished portion of the mall, the style took a distinct shift in a more dirty, lived-and-worked-in direction. Even with the daylight peeking through the large windows, the place was oppressively dark and dirty. What really pushed that was Mami Tomoe’s (Kaori Mizuhashi – played Miyako in Hidamari Sketch) entrance, when the scenery became full-on psychedelic collage, the same type seen in some episodes of the later seasons of Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei as well as parts of Bakemonogatari (it is displayed well here in the OP to the 3rd Goku Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei OVA).

We’re talking some really disturbing stuff, the stuff nightmares are made out of. Creepy chanting butterflies with clouds with handlebar mustaches. I’ve never seen a magical girl show, but I’m guessing that the art style during their transformations and fighting are a lot cleaner than what was shown here. At the same time, the contrast levels took a huge jump, painting the characters with far more stark and harsh colors, away from the soft, more pastel tones from during the everyday scenes.

You can clearly see the more saturated, stark colors filling in not just the background but also the characters.

So even though Magical Girl Madoka Magica isn’t exactly taking things to The Tatami Galaxy or Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt levels, it’s doing some very fun things with its art style. And so far, the eye candy alone intrigues me enough to be excited about seeing more. Again, the story is strictly run-of-the-mill, and the music isn’t much to write home about. The tune during Mami’s transformation scene (one that was wonderfully short and to the point, I might add) was quite nice, but the rest of it was forgettable. Yuki Kajiura‘s music has never done anything for me in the past, other than fitting in wonderfully with the dark horror theme of the Kara no Kyoukai movies. And the opening theme, usually a strong point of Shaft’s shows, might have been good if it didn’t sound exactly like Irony, the opening theme to last season’s horrendous My Little Sister Can’t be This Cute.

This was a strong first episode overall, certainly stronger than the first episodes of any of Shaft’s (new) efforts last year (Dance in the Vampire Bund, Arakawa Under the Bridge, and Yet the Town Keeps Going). Even though we’ve yet to see any of the story unfold, the distinctive and pleasing art style makes me see a lot of potential for the rest of the show.

As a bonus, even the art piece at the end was absolutely beautiful.


Yet the Town Keeps Going 11 – Summer Storm!

This was definitely a much funnier episode than the last few. In showing the events of a couple of summer days in Hotori’s life, the show returned to one of its key strengths, which was showing Hotori being Hotori in her everyday interactions with others. Her dog/raccoon Josephine got much of the spotlight, and while not all that funny, she was adorable as hell, and the brief return of Moriaki-sensei was much appreciated. I applaud his resilience and creativity in trying to get math through Hotori’s thick skull, even if he is destined to (hilariously) fail.

First of all, that cold open was hilarious. The faux-subtle fanservice shots reeked of Shaft, and the continual sequence of unfortunate events that happened to Hotori was just a joy to watch. Perhaps it’s a bit cruel, but, as they say, it is a fine line that separates tragedy from comedy. The gratuitous humiliation of losing her new bikini top without even getting to go in the water, followed by the shop having no food that day was just too much. Too much for Hotori, too, who has proven time and again to be quite the crybaby. Who, as in earlier episodes, broke out into tears all too quickly for comedic effect.

Besides Hotori, Josephine, the Arasihiyama famiy’s dog/raccoon, was the star of this episode. Although she got displaced by the uninspired “poorman/richman” comics in the transitions, she got a ton of screen time in the actual half episodes. There doesn’t seem to be much to her other than that it’s left open as to whether she’s a dog (as everyone in the Arashiyama family refers her) or a raccoon (as she appears and says in Hotori’s dream). Her perception of the pecking order at the family was curious, not just in that the only human below her was Hotori’s father, but also in that Hotori’s little sister was placed above her little brother, despite the fact that she’s younger. I guess it shows that women really do have the power in the family.

"Josephiiiine!"

Josephine seems to be very important to Hotori, a fact that made for one of the funniest scenes from the show in recent memory, when Hotori, having dreamed that Josephine decided to leave her to go to the mountains, ran out into the rain and despaired when she didn’t find her in her doghouse. Of course, she didn’t realize that Josephine was warm and dry in the house with the rest of the family, watching her overdramatic reaction with confusion.

She appeared again in Hotori’s dream in the second half of the episode, while Hotori was sleeping in Futaba’s bed after doing a bunch of inconsiderate things at her apartment that ended up pissing her off. This was presumably right before they headed to the beach together for the cold open. Left behind at the cafe were Toshiko and Hiroyuki, sharing an awkward moment as they both cursed their own inability to take action toward the objects of their affections. Toshiko’s lightning paced internal monologues continue to be entertaining and cute. I do wonder why they weren’t invited to the beach as well. The whole set up to the half-episode was left in the dark – why was Hotori at Futaba’s apartment in the first place? Could it have to do with the secret they share regarding aliens from the previous episode?

Just kiss her already, you fool! She's hot, she's got a great pair... of glasses, and she's totally cool with your porn collection!

The preview for next episode titles it, curiously enough, “SoreMachi,” the common shorthand version of the title of this show. Makes sense, I guess, as it’s the final episode. Given the complete lack of an overarching narrative to this show, I can’t predict what’s going to go down in the series finale. I just hope that it will be a continuation of everything that this show got right – the character and situational comedy – and that it won’t waste its precious time with the gimmicks and gags the show had done so poorly on. Even in this relatively strong episode, the gags of the “poorman/richman” transitions fell flat. The show has yet to climb back to the highs of episode 7 after the big drop off in episode 8, but this episode has given it a chance to finish strong.

The ending art for this episode was wonderful, parodying the promotional art for The Tatami Galaxy while also being true to Yet the Town Keeps Going


Yet the Town Keeps Going 10 – Going In Some Crazy Directions

Well, what do you know, looks like this show is going full on scifi fantasy. Last week, it was time travelers, this week, it’s aliens and ghosts. That’s not to say that this episode was driven by the scifi/fantasy elements. Rather, they were used mainly as convenient devices to facilitate the storytelling, much like in the previous episode.

That first half really didn’t have any business being as enjoyable as it was, but it was. I found it so funny because of my own incredulity at the situation being shown on screen. Hotori accidentally battling it out with aliens? Then Futaba bringing out a story of her own, with that fixing device? Was this show really going down this path? The things that happened weren’t actually all that funny, but they didn’t need to be. Just having Hotori really run into aliens was enough.

I’m reminded of the aliens in Pani Poni Dash! They were used as comic relief, shown to us only when convenient but rarely actually affecting anything in the main story. Similarly, if the aliens do show up again, I expect it to be in a similar context as in this episode, where they’re used for a gag instead of being drivers for the plot. Of course, there’s the issue that Futaba still has that alien fixing tool, which I hope will make some sort of appearance in the remaining episodes.

In most anime, this type of encounter, especially on a school rooftop, means only one thing. But this show isn't like most anime.

I’ve been noticing similarities between this show and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya due to the non-chronologically told high school romance, the culture festival concert, and the scifi/fantasy elements of the past 2 episodes, and Futaba was definitely giving Haruhi vibes with her desire for an extraordinary life. It was ironic that Hotori, who is always the one to go on about her fantastical desires, whether it be to date her math teacher or to become a high school detective, was so down that she actually ran into aliens. Not sure what the deal is with that – though it was funny to see Futaba jump immediately to her period as the cause – I suppose this is meant to show us that despite all her quirks, Hotori is someone who does have a firm grasp of reality.

As for the 2nd segment focusing on the ghost of the head maid’s late husband, I didn’t think much of it. It was boring, likely because this was an all new character whose life and times we’ve never been privy to before. I suppose it was meant to be sweet that the head maid still prays/talks to her husband and leaves an offering each night, which gives us a bit more insight into her character, but she’s still not that interesting. One thing I did like about the 2nd segment was that it allowed the gag involving Sanada’s prayer, letting us see it for a 2nd time (shot-for-shot, I believe, though I didn’t bother to check), but realizing that the ghost of that old man was there the whole time. I was hoping that he would make a more meaningful comment about the follies and joys of youth instead of basically repeating the narrator’s line that gods must have it tough to grant such wishes.

Shaft uses one of their favorite cinematographic techniques - reflection - to good effect here, showing us the cat seeing both Sanada and the ghost.

With this episode, I’m reminded of Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, a show that was pretty explicit about its lack of continuity, often ending its half- or third-episodes with irreversible events such as killing key or all main characters or destroying the world. Yet the Town Keeps Going does have continuity, but it has shown us that it’s comfortable with throwing in anything it wants at any time it feels like it, and it will find a way to make sure that it doesn’t affect the continuity.

The show is really living up to its name – yet the town keeps going. It hasn’t spent enough time developing any of the main characters, instead jumping back and forth between the various goings on of the town, giving side characters or meaningless events a too much screen time. The show has been brilliant when developing the relationships between the main characters, but it has fallen into a rut the past few episodes of just going through the motions. There are only a couple of episodes left in this series, and if it returns to the character development, it still could finish strong. Next episode’s title, Kon’s Summer of Tears, makes me hopeful that it will.

I really liked the final drawing for this episode. If the show stayed with the theme of this picture, it could have been much better.


Yet the Town Keeps Going 9 – Time travelers? In MY cafe-themed Shaft anime? Wait, they already did that one before

I wish I could say that the show bounced back strong after last week’s disappointing affair, but this episode was pretty limp as well. It was certainly more entertaining than last week’s, but not by much. To the show’s credit though, the ending twist to the second half was so unexpected and funny that it might have made up for the entire episode.

It feels as though the show has been packing more mini clips around the now standard half-episode segments, and the cold open to this episode was probably the most significant one yet. And it was actually really funny. I liked how it started off with Shizuka just finishing reading The Gift of the Magi, a classic and touching short story about a very poor husband and wife having to come up with Christmas gifts for each other (if you haven’t read it yet, you should do it. It’s only like 5 pages). The couple that comes into Shizuka’s shop in the cold open clearly don’t have such a loving relationship, though they do seem to have a lot of money. Watching Shizuka calmly and blatantly exploit them for financial gain was a riot.

Then came the first half episode, which was all too uneventful. It drove home one of my main problems with the so-called “slice of life” genre, which is that “slice of life” shows, in order to be successful, rarely show us just another slice of the characters’ lives; they have to show us something special, unusual, or interesting in some way. I guess Toshiko’s table tennis game against Harue sort of counts. At least the reference to Harue’s special training (via drums) from the previous episode was a nice touch.

Somehow, the shaggy black hair makes Futaba look even cooler, if that is possible. Too bad she didn't actually appear this episode.

The most enjoyable part was seeing the middle school versions/caricatures of Toshiko, Harue, and (especially) Futaba. It seems that the people at their middle school really took table tennis seriously. Hotori’s insertion into – and disbelief at – the scared townspeople flashback was quite funny. I did find it odd that Toshiko was shown to be a lefty in table tennis, even though she’s a righty when playing the violin. Since dexterity and precision are required for both activities, it would be highly unusual for someone to use opposite hands for them. I wonder if it was purposeful.

And then for the second half, featuring Shizuka doing some detective work of her own, all in order to track down a cookie with no source. Really, what made this segment was that completely unexpected ending. Yet the Town Keeps Going has been wacky, off the wall, and crazy at times, but it has never broken continuity or its own internal logic as far as I can recall, so I have no choice but to take this at face value and accept that, yes, there really are time travelers in this show which has suddenly gone down the route of science fiction.

I liked this depiction of a dream hallway. Very accurate, I thought.

Of course, chances are good that this is just a one time thing in order to facilitate this one gag, but already in this one episode, there’s more to this little side story. Specifically, the fact that the couple from the cold open were both from the future – the green haired wife being one of the people at the conference and the husband being the time traveler. Does this mean anything, or were the guys at Shaft just having fun using the same characters? What about the allusions to ancient artifacts and the effects of time on precious objects during the opening narration of the previous two episodes? And was Hotori right when she thought that a warp zone had been responsible for her falling off to the side in the first half of this episode? Is there some sort of time travel twist yet to be revealed in this show? Could this show be far more similar to Shaft’s other “seaside” cafe show, Natsu no Arashi! than anyone had previously thought!?

Probably not. It’s more likely to be a running joke, similar to the aliens in Pani Poni Dash! instead of being an actual plot point. Or maybe it won’t be a running joke at all, but just something to spice up this one episode that badly needed it. At least this show is keeping me guessing. But I’m hoping that the show quickly returns to the situational comedy that it had so excelled at instead of continuing with the gags and gimmicks that made these past 2 episodes so dull in comparison.

I mention Haruhi Suzumiya, and the show follows up with a culture festival concert, then time traveling. What's next, an island murder mystery? That would be right up Hotori's alley.


Yet the Town Keeps Going 8 – Live Alive This Isn’t

Well, this one was a bit of a misstep. It wasn’t bad, it was amusing enough, but the style of humor was very different from the norm, resulting in something decidedly more run of the mill and boring than usual.

The first half turned out to be more about wacky vending machine food than anything else. Which was certainly quirky, but not all that funny. It was just cute girls doing cute things, without any hook, and that has already been done to death in the anime world. It’s not fun anymore. The faraway and silhouette shots, which Shaft usually uses to good effect, were actually kind of ugly and only served to remind us of how much money they must be saving. And I don’t know what to make of Harue’s surprise appearance at the end of the segment, other than that maybe they wanted to get their money’s worth from Ryoko Shiraishi, as she had to be in the 2nd half of the episode.

Seriously, this was this show's Chocolate Cornet Moment. I was impressed that Hotori knew what Esperanto was, though.

And no sooner than I start drawing comparisons to The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya does Yet the Town Keeps Going bring out a concert-at-the-culture-festival episode. I appreciate that it didn’t go the Haruhi/K-On/Angel Beats route of having (what’s supposed to be) a normal, poppy rock song, but rather stuck with the old timey whimsical tune similar to the ED. The peculiar collection of instruments certainly fit well with the whole off-mainstream feel of the song.

But they could have milked this culture festival concert story a lot more. I don’t even mean stretching it out over more episodes or even to a full episode, though either would certainly work given that over a month passes through the course of the half episode. I mean using the story to show us more interesting interactions between the protagonists. They are what have made this show entertaining, after all. Instead, the sequence of events was surprisingly straightforward. Futaba wants to perform at the culture festival. She gets a time slot at the stage. She recruits Harue on drums (with some manipulation using table tennis), learns that Toshiko and Hotori play instruments, recruits them, then they perform. Not much else.

The pan-up of Futaba before this scene was great. If Shaft still did the still-pan-ups that they used to do so much of in the Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei shows, I would've had a great stitched shot of her.

There were many chances for humor that were simply missed or glossed over. How about that whole month when the 4 had to learn the song and practice? When did they choose to go with the maids theme, and why? Who made Futaba’s stunning outfit? Then what about the days of the actual festival? How did they spend their time? What sorts of fun misadventures did our unique heroines run into? They’re not for us to find out.

I did like how the ED sequence ended up being genuine; just as Futaba had been revealed to play the bass a couple episodes back, Hotori does play the accordion – an instrument that fits her eccentric nature, taught to her by the head maid – Toshiko does play the violin, Harue does play the drums, and they all do perform together in maid outfits. But then again, this sort of gag had been done before, in Lucky Star, with the OP sequence. Except that Kyoto Animation is much better at animation than Shaft is. As cute as the concert was, the fact that the instruments didn’t exactly match up to the music was a huge distraction. That’s just one of those things that I’ve come to expect in this post-Haruhi anime world.

This should look familiar to anyone who's seen the ending to Lucky Star. I am unfortunately one of them.

So this week’s episode was lackluster, especially after the both hilarious and powerful episode it was following. In fact, it was the worst since the bland first episode. The show bounced back strong after that initial misstep and kept going to this point, so I’m hopeful that it will start hitting its marks again next week and continue on to the end.


Yet the Town Keeps Going 7 – Arashiyama Hotori no Yuutsu

One thing Hotori certainly doesn’t lack for are males in her life. We had both parts of an entire episode focusing on her relationship with her math/homeroom teacher, and now we get to see her interacting with her classmate-cum-secret-admirer Hiroyuki Sanada, then with her little brother Takeru. We’ve passed the halfway point now, and the show has hit its stride, as this was the best episode yet, giving us plenty of its distinct brand of humor while also hitting us with heartfelt and emotional content.


One thing I haven’t touched upon or really paid much attention to is the non-chronological order of this show. Part a of this episode was based off of the 5th chapter of the manga, and thus it took place before most of the events we’ve already seen. At first, I thought it as being inconsequential, much like in Hidamari Sketch, a function of its “slice of life” and “gag comedy” nature, but part a has me questioning my initial reaction. That is, Yet the Town Keeps Going just might have some grand narrative underneath all the gags, specifically relating to the specifically relating to the love triangle that had been referred to in the very first episode.

Of course, it’s not like this segment with Sanada shot the romance story forward by any stretch of the imagination. After all, we know he and Hotori have yet to get together. But if you weren’t hit with warm and fuzzy feelings from watching this segment, you truly have no heart. Watching Sanada struggle and fumble and endure through all the embarrassment and awkwardness to get what he really wants was both hilarious and heartwarming. The calculated call back to the morning horoscopes that got Hotori into so much trouble a few episodes ago and drove the plot in this segment was much appreciated. Both for the touch of humor it added and its effect of showing us something that these two have in common. Maybe all this will lead nowhere, but the insertion of this playing-hooky day into the time line of the story makes me hope that this is just a step in a longer journey with a set destination.

Shaft has a knack for selectively using exaggerated faces for comedic effect and to properly portray emotion.

And that’s where the consideration of the narrative comes in. I see potential for this show to tell a high school romance, paced in a way that makes sense for a show such as this, mixing in different bits from different times yet maintaining a continuity that not only works in this non chronological format, but exploits it to make the story even more compelling than a standard one. There’s one show that the previous sentence should remind you of, and that show is The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Comparisons to that show may seem rash at this point in time. To be sure, it would be unfair to expect any show to live up to the quality of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. And Yet the Town Keeps Going has not even proven itself to have a central narrative, much less one as excellently conceived and told as the one in Melancholy. But at the surface, the formats of the 2 shows are similar, and I can definitely see a path that this show can follow to become a show like Melancholy.

That I’m even entertaining this thought should tell you volumes about how well executed the first segment of this episode was. Again, it’s not that Sanada hit a home run. The satisfaction of the nothing that was accomplished that day was part of the charm and, more than anything, it was wonderfully sweet.

What a great moment of role reversal here, as Takeru almost ends up teaching Hotori something about love.

But as sweet as the first segment was, the second might have been even sweeter, just because there is something more innocent about sibling love compared to romantic love. Of course, given shows like My Sister Can’t Be This Cute or Yosuga no Sora this season, you would be excused if you thought the two were one and the same in the world of anime. But no, Yet the Town Keeps Going keeps things classy, and even as we watch Hotori and Takeru in the bath together, the only thing we find disturbing is the idea that we might have seen this as anything other than wholesome.

I can think of no better word to describe this segment than that. It was good, wholesome fun, giving us another slice of the lives of a couple of the Arashiyama siblings. The way Hotori and Takeru acted toward one another was natural, in a way that only siblings can be to each other. Hotori’s previous interactions with her younger siblings did not paint her in a good light, and this segment showed us the other side of the coin, that she is actually a very considerate and caring older sister who can go out of her way to help her little brother. She was clearly proud to play the role of the older sibling, showing him around the after-dark hangouts and fascinating him with something as simple as a convenience store or the moment when tomorrow becomes today. The aforementioned bath was a great way to cap off the night and to emphasize the skinship they share as siblings.

Nowadays, it seems like the exception for a bath scene in anime not to be completely tasteless. This is one of them. From Shaft, no less.

All in all, this was the best episode of this show yet. It was undoubtedly the sweetest and most emotionally affecting. Part a has me speaking of it in the same breath as The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and part b provided great moments of sibling love made all the cuter by how matter of fact and innocent they were. I’m nothing if not skeptical, but I’m hoping that the best is still yet to come and that this episode was just a glimpse into the deeper narrative that drives this show. As I wrote at the very beginning, this show has hit its stride. Even if the story doesn’t end up playing out the way I’m hoping, if Yet the Town Keeps Going can keep up the light but meaningful humor of these past 2 episodes, it will be remembered as a great show.


Yet the Town Keeps Going 6 – And Going and Going and Going…

I probably should’ve seen this coming given the title of the show, but with this episode, Yet the Town Keeps Going pretty much defined “slice of life.” I’m not a fan of that label or “genre” (not the contents – I enjoy shows such as Hidamari Sketch that fall into the category, but I find the name of the category not to be descriptive and rather a convenient label that you can slap onto anything), but really, I can’t think of a better way to describe this show. Of course, it did provide some new material, but mainly, this was Another Couple of Days in the Life of Hotori Arashiyama. Fortunately for us, Hotori leads a pretty hilarious life.

The most notable thing in the first segment was the nonchalant introduction of Shizuka, a woman who gets a quick flash in the OP and who appears to be very aware of and exploitative of Hotori’s idiocy. As has been the tradition for this show, she didn’t get too much screen time or development in her first appearance – this has been the case with every major side character so far, including Sanada, Tatsuno, Kon, and Moriaki-sensei. And they’ve all returned to humorous effect the second time around, so we’ll have to wait and see what Shizuka will do in coming episodes. That she’s a named character and is played by an established voice actor in Satsuki Yukino – known for playing Mutsumi in Love Hina, Milly in Trigun and more recently the Sonozaki twins in the Higurashi series – means she’s likely to have plenty more appearances before all is said and done.

This was sort of a coming out episode for Kon Futaba, playing major roles in both segments and showing herself to be fully integrated with our main cast of characters. The bit about her birthday in the first segment went well with the theme of that segment. That is, the knowledge of her birthday was an obvious metaphor for Pandora’s Box, and Hotori ended up making everyone suffer the consequences when she opened it. I loved the image of Hotori dazedly trying to put the confetti back in the popper and to celebrate Kon’s birthday – another obvious nod to the segment’s title.

More reflections, in typical Shaft fashion. And while they look nice, I've noticed the art - particularly of the faces - suffering in some shots. SHAFT!

Kon is shaping up to be quite the cool character. Living alone, with a wall full of CDs, supposedly plays the bass, and knowledgeable about how to pick locks. Combine that with the way she handled Hotori in her introductory segment in episode 3, and we have someone who’s just plain… chill. To be honest, though that makes her very likable, it also makes her a bit too perfect, which can make for a boring character. And a little out of place in our regular cast of misfits. Though her fever-induced antics in the second segment showed her fallibility as well.

That second segment also played with the show’s romance angle, which is always welcome in my book. There was the artist in the red bandanna whom Hotori bribed with photos of Tatsuno, extending the 4-person long love chain by one link. Though that he wasn’t even given a name bodes ill for his return in future episodes. Then there was Hotori’s and Tatsuno’s impromptu visit to Sanada, which, despite playing out terribly predictably, managed to be funny thanks to both the dialogue and the physical comedy. If only Sanada had known about TrueCrypt, he would not have had to go through such pain! I liked both Hotori’s overreaction and that she was still walking home with him from school the next day. After all, no matter what wacky antics get between our characters, Yet the Town Keeps Going.

If nothing else, Yet the Town Keeps Going will be remembered fondly for the million faces of Hotori.

And that’s really the takeaway from this episode. This is a show that’s true to its title. I don’t expect it to reveal some grand narrative at this point, or even a minor one. We’re halfway in now, and I get the feeling the show is getting into its groove, showing us more and more of Hotori and the town that surrounds her as the characters keep going about their daily life. I’m still looking forward to learning more about the buck-toothed Harue, who should play a major role, given that she’s in the ED (even if only as the drummer) and has an established rivalry with Kon.


Yet the Town Keeps Going 5 – Love is in the Air

The follies and awkwardness of young love. That was the theme of this episode and, in retrospect, the last episode as well. Instead of Hotori, this time it was about Toshiko in the 1st half and the unexpected star Takeru, Hotori’s little brother, in the 2nd. This wasn’t as laugh out loud hilarious as the last few episodes, but it remained a fun watch, and the 2 stories couldn’t help but put a smile on my face.

As hinted at by the preview last episode, the first half was about Toshiko. More specifically, it was her crush on Hiroyuki Sanada, and the trouble she faces getting up the courage to ask him out to a movie. The way the story played out, with Toshiko setting up the deadline, then constantly butchering her chances to ask out Sanada, had a distinctly high school awkwardness. Since she had disappeared into the background after the first episode, it was satisfying to see more of Toshiko and to get a better feel for what kind of person she is. That is, she is that neurotic overthinking girl we saw in the 1st episode. And her envious thoughts about Hotori – sometimes wondering, “What would Hotori do?” in tough situations – showed that she’s someone acutely aware of who she is.

There weren’t a whole lot of gags in that first half. I did enjoy the first bit at art class, showing Hotori once again interacting with a teacher in a way only she can. Also, the bit with Kaneda-sensei was quite humorous, even if the shouts of random historical figures/terms didn’t make a whole lot of sense. It was satisfying to see Toshiko manage to pull her way out of the situation, ironically using a technique that Hotori had failed at with Moriaki-sensei last episode. Even if she ended up failing at her ultimate goal, which was to catch up to Sanada to ask him out.

Hotori has some stressed relationships with her teachers, to say the least.

Not having the same problem was Eri Isezaki (Emiri Kato), a female classmate of Hotori’s 4th grade brother Takeru (played by Mutsumi Tamura), who forcibly invited herself to his place and got him to unwittingly take her out on a date. This was a distinctly grade school story, the girl obviously more mature at this age than the oblivious boy, complete with gifts of trading cards, hiding from friends, and hitting as a means of showing affection.

Again, there weren’t a whole lot of gags. Instead, the humor came largely from the irony of Takeru having no clue that he was taking Eri out on a date, even as every single person he ran into – Hotori, Futaba, and the toy shop keeper – realizing the situation immediately and even taking steps to help him out in the case of his sister and the shop keeper. Eri’s character was a bit plain, fitting her role as the pushy but dishonest girl with a crush – a real tsundere – but not doing much more. I had to feel for Takeru – he’s already the middle child with only sisters, and now another girl comes into his life, confusing the hell out of his poor pre-adolescent mind. He’s going to be completely whipped when he grows up, if he sticks with Eri.

Ah, the uniquely Japanese school problem of knowing someone's last name but not her first. Poor Eri is in shock.

What I expected to be a gag comedy suddenly looks a lot more like a romantic sitcom. There were still one off bits here and there – Hotori’s detective training of her sister Yukiko being a good one – but in the past few episodes, romance has been the most central topic, and the humor has come not from gags, but from the characters pushing forward in their unique ways in their quest for love (or work, in Moriaki’s case). Certainly, gag comedies are right in Shaft’s in wheelhouse (e.g. Pani Poni Dash!, Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei), but they’ve had a lot of success mixing in romcom elements of late (e.g. Natsu no Arashi! and Arakawa Under the Bridge), so I’m looking forward to how they’ll tell the various story threads as they develop.

As with Moriaki, having the focus on Takeru was a surprise. I hope the show builds on this story, because I feel like there's a lot more comedic potential in their relationship.

On a side note, the more I watch the ED to this show, the more I like it. It was upgraded at episode 3 with a close up shot of Futaba and more fancy dancing by her, but I haven’t been able to find that version online, so enjoy the one from the 1st episode:


Yet the Town Keeps Going 4 – The Forbidden Fruit

Ah, poor Moriaki-sensei! It’s not easy being popular. I didn’t expect him to play such a large role in the show, but with this episode, he’s now gotten more screen time than even Toshiko, and that’s turned out to be a good thing.

Both segments of this week’s episode featured Moriaki and Hotori spending some quality after school time together, specifically special lessons/detention because of, well, Hotori being Hotori. Hotori once again provided tons of laughs with her irreverent, take-things-in-my-own-pace attitude that makes her so lovable. And when her indignant self righteousness comes up in regards to getting a perfect zero on a math test and being late to school a whopping 1/3 of the time, it makes for some wonderful moments shared between student and teacher.

Moriaki did a fine job holding up his end of the comedy, especially during the bits when the point of view shifted to his internal monologue. Despite his imposing figure and image as teacher, he is just as flawed a human as Hotori is, letting his strict mathematical mind get the better of him too easily. And he even shows a side of him that is childishly sadistic during the 2nd segment with the 3 chair roulette. The analysis that he went through of how to best handle Hotori in that situation was gold.

Ah, poor Hotori! A victim of her own idiocy.

The two really have a good dynamic going. I love that Hotori continues to hold out hope that her crush on Moriaki will turn into something despite his rather definitive “meh” reaction last week, even as she continues to torment him with her antics. The gall on the girl, to make a fool of him during extra math lessons by giving him a lateral thinking problem! Or the matter of fact way in which she states her foolish reasons for being late! Hotori has a lot to learn about winning a man’s heart.

Speaking of which, a challenger appears! It didn’t move the romance aspect of the plot forward, but it did add a new kink to it that one of the teachers is actually Moriaki’s former student, back to try to claim him as an adult. Talk about… creepy. Downright stalkerish, really. I loved how this bit was revealed to the viewer, starting with Toshiko’s comment at the beginning of the 1st segment that there could be rivals for Moriaki’s affection, moving on to her story at the end of that segment about how he rejected a student once before, the introduction of the female teacher at the beginning of the 2nd segment, and then Futaba’s rumor that that student had returned as a teacher some years later. The show didn’t beat you over the head with this, opting instead to have some trust in the viewer to put 2 and 2 together by himself. That needs to happen more often in anime.

I didn't even catch her name. But the way the show introduced her was excellent.

Now, I don’t think this plot point will be anything more than a running joke given the show’s lighthearted and whimsical nature, but the show has managed to keep me on my toes so far. After the lackluster first episode, this has been the 3rd straight hit. Next episode looks to be about Toshiko, who has merged into the backdrop since the first episode, so I’m looking forward to seeing more of her. This show is proving to be a lot of fun.


Fall 2010 Anime Impressions – Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru

After taking the Summer season off, Shaft returns with two shows for the Fall season; the first is a sequel to my top show from Spring, Arakawa Under the Bridge, and the other one is Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru. Going into the season, I felt a little bad for this show because it was getting dealt a tough hand. If Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru was another character-driven series with a mix of comedy and seriousness that seems to be Shaft/Shinbou’s trademark then it would have to directly compete against Nino and the crew of Under the Bridge for it’s placement amongst the successful anime of the season. Very stiff competition indeed. If it wasn’t and was instead a more plot driven show, the possibility of Shaft being Shaft™ sinking Soredemo was high.

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Rating for episode 13/12 D
Rating for episode 2
8/12 B+
Rating for episode 3
10/12 A
Anticipation Level:
2.5/5 Average

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The Story

Hotori is your typical slightly spacey high school girl with an overactive imagination and a love of detective novels. She recently started working at a maid café run by an elderly woman who decided to convert her normal café into a maid one. The switch in format hasn’t helped business at the café much but that hasn’t slowed Hotori’s unerring quest to cause mayhem (intentionally and unintentionally). And it follows that hilarity ensues.

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Fine Print

I didn’t like the first episode of Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru. It wasn’t very funny and I thought the main characters were not the type of characters that one builds a good show around and it felt like Shaft/Shinbou was trying way to much. I knew this was a possible result, every now-and-again Shaft/Shinbou serves up a miss in-between their hits; the last time was Dance in the Vampire Bund and before that it was probably Maria+holic. I hoped this wasn’t the case because when Shaft/Shinbou gets it right, their shows are so uniquely satisfying and we always need another one. Instead, I hoped Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru was an example of a Shaft/Shinbou series that as a whole turn out very good but the first episode wasn’t so hot; Natsu no Arashi was a great example of this.

So I watched the second episode (hoping for the best) and it was like a switch was flipped; it still wasn’t perfect but it suddenly was a much more enjoyable show. The pacing picked up and felt more right. The first episode spent entirely too much time on “Hotori doesn’t know how to be a maid” and then “Tatsuno is a little too obsessed with maids.” Contrast that to the second episode where we learn of Hotori’s home life (and why she’s willing to spend so much time at the maid café), why she took a job working in a maid café when she doesn’t particularly like playing the maid stereotype, her irrational crush on her homeroom/math teacher, and several scenes of Hatori acting like herself – bothering the police officer that patrols the shopping district first for not having a license to ride a scooter and then by putting up unauthorized advertising for the maid café being two such scenes.

The voice actor behind Hotori is Chiaki Omigawa (Maka from Soul Eater, Jun from Natsu no Arashi, and P-Ko from Arakawa Under the Bridge). There are some out there that don’t much like her voice work, which I can understand since her voice is so distinctive. It doesn’t allow much of a middle ground. I, however, have liked her vocal work so far but, after episode 1, I wasn’t sure she was right for the part. Or should I say that she was too perfect for the role. Every time she whined her “Waaahh!” at another injustice that her character had to endure, I could feel my jaw clench. She was perfect and I didn’t think I could take it (blame many years of being an older brother and having to listen to my many younger sisters reacting and sounding like Hotori before they matured). I wondered why they couldn’t have gotten someone a little less perfect, a little easier on the ears.

Turns out I just needed to be patient and let the show hit it’s stride and allow Hotori her full range of emotions and characteristics for the decision to have Chiaki Omigawa voice Hotori to look like a good idea. Which it did (hitting it’s stride) starting in the second episode when it began to move past it’s introductions and into the meat of the series i.e. a slice-of-comedy-life type series about a girl who likes to solve mysteries and the third episode continued this trend by introducing the final main character (if the OP/ED is to be believed) and Hotori solving her first mystery.

Speaking of mystery solving, watching Hotori solve the mystery of the strange paintings in episode 3 was quite the experience. I wouldn’t go so far to say she’s an idiot savant but the difference between how well she solved the mystery and her normal grip on reality was very pronounced. I hope every episode features at least one mystery that Hotori solves and if the Harlem Globetrotters show up it would just be icing on the cake. :)

Since this is a Shaft series, it’s important to mention at what level of Shaft being Shaft™ does Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru have since different people have different levels of tolerance to SbS™. Fortunately (or unfortunately) there’s been a relatively low level of SbS™ so far. There’s been a few background scenes that are reminiscent of Bakemonogatari and a few other touches like Hotori kicking the “camera” while sitting at her desk in episode 2 and we got the required “I’m in despair!” scene in episode 3 but overall the effect of SbS™ has been rather tame. Instead, the animators at Shaft seem to spending more time and effort on increasing the raw animation quality of the show. I’ve seen it theorized that the great DVD/Blu-Ray numbers to Bakemonogatari has given Shaft a welcome infusion of money and I definitely think that’s evident in both this anime and Under the Bridge. For example, the last time I saw falling snow done as well as I saw in episode 3 was back when KyoAni did Kanon several years ago.

In conclusion, at first glance Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru looked liked it was flop but that possibility seems to have been averted if episodes 2 and 3 are indicative of the rest of the series. Instead, it seems set to take it’s place amongst Shaft/Shinbou’s trademark character-driven, slice-of-life/comedy/insightful shows that are such a treat to watch. If it emphasizes the mystery part of the premise then it will even be able to separate itself from Under the Bridge (which has been way better then I thought possible) and carve it’s own niche out.

I’ve been enjoying  Hotori’s facial expressions and eyes so far.

Some of the other cast members.

Various observations about the animation.

The falling rain was done very nicely here

 

and here.

 

Shaft shows that it can do epic leg crossing as well.

 

A picture doesn't do this snow justice.

 

Loved the look of Hotori's little sister here.

 


Filed under: anime, first impressions

Yet the Town Keeps Going 3 – More Hotori Being Hotori

This week’s episode was a lot like last week’s, in that it was again a lot of fun, made possible by Hotori acting like her usual self. A new character, Futaba Kon, the lead singer and bass player in the ED sequence and also a member of the table tennis club just like Harue from the first episode, was introduced as well, though little of her personality shone through.

There was an odd bit of synergy in this half, as this was a story all about eyes. And if you’ve seen Shaft anime of late – Bakemonogatari, Dance in the Vampire Bund, Arakawa Under the Bridge (the latter two of which I’ve blogged) - you know that they have a sort of fetish for eyes. I’m sure the narrator’s monologue on eyes and how it is the window into the soul and can express just as much as the mouth is something director Shinbo agrees with vehemently. So this segment of the episode really had some nice shots of eyes, mainly Hotori’s.

I wonder if the whole reason Shaft decided to adapt this manga was because of this one chapter...

And Hotori once again stole the show, and it was delightful. She was her usual quirky, hyper self as she listened to and solved the puzzle of Moriaki-sensei’s grandfather’s paintings. She was cute fantasizing that Moriaki was hitting on her, and her superior attitude at the others’ solutions as well as her own correct solution was somehow endearing. And her solution was actually pretty clever. She’s a fool, but I guess she’s no idiot.

The show continued the pattern of having two story segments per episode. The second half of this one was what the “Cat Boy” episode title was about. It saw the introduction of the reverse trap Futaba Kon (played by rookie Rieka Yazawa), into whom Hotori runs during shopping for the cafe. She’s the blonde lead singer in the ED sequence, so clearly she will play a bigger role in the show going forward. There’s not much to say about her character so far, other than that she seems very much the typical unflappable tomboy. I’m reminded of Kino from Kino’s Journey. There wasn’t anything particular about the way Yazawa played Futaba, but, for what it’s worth, her voice seemed fitting for that reverse trap role.

Her intro scene as the “Cat Boy” wasn’t as funny as the first half, but the dramatic and situational irony of Hotori not knowing Futaba’s gender gave the scene an amusing twist. I enjoyed the physical comedy of Hotori suddenly choking Futaba in order to get the cat to come out to protect its master. That sequence was very well animated.

Hotori being Hotori can be pretty deadly, too. The policeman from last episode can attest to that.

In fact, the production values of the entire episode were top notch. Hotori’s faces and facial animations were sharp and very expressive, and when a scene required for action, there were clearly no cut corners with the animation. Yet the Town Keeps Going is proving to be the better looking and better produced Shaft show of the season. And while it might not have the emotional draw of Arakawa Under the Bridge x Bridge, if things keep going like this, it could very well be the better, or at least funnier, show too.


Yet the Town Keeps Going 2 – Bouncing Back

The great thing about gag based comedies like Yet the Town Keeps Going is that they can always quickly bounce back from a single bad episode. The shows are effectively stateless, and what happened prior doesn’t have to negative affect what happens next. This was the case with the first 2 episodes of this show, as the 2nd episode came out strong with some good, genuinely funny comedy that made the lackluster first episode but a bad memory.

This one was all about Hotori, Hotori, and more Hotori. Instead of being subject to the same old droll jokes about maids, we were instead treated to Hotori being Hotori. And Hotori is turning out to be one of the cutest, most likeable characters I’ve seen since maybe Nono from Diebuster.

To be sure, she’d be terrible to know in real life. I feel for her two younger siblings, especially her brother, who had his game rudely shut off before he could save (and her sister reminded a bit too much of the little sister Kyoko of Dennou Coil with her goggles). I also liked that Hotori’s mother was rightfully intolerant of her poor behavior. A parent that’s not only present but also kind of does her job? In anime? That’s a rare occurrence.

For best reaction faces, last season had Maya in Occult Academy. This season has Hotori.

But it was hard not to fall in love with such a naively energetic character as Hotori. The way she reacted to the policeman pulling her over took some major balls – the kind she hit head on with her scooter – as were her overreaction to comments about her “growing bigger.” There may be an innocent charm to her, but she is unexpectedly lucid and cynical as well.

The ninja/shinobi gag involving the arrows, as well as her finger gesture with “Maid!” that she stubbornly tried to make the cafe’s gimmick had me in stitches. And, of course, her first impulse at seeing a dentist’s sign better than Sea Side’s was to grab a hacksaw to try to cut it down. Never mind that that sign has been there for a much longer time, and that a dentist’s office doesn’t directly compete with a maid cafe…

Seriously, it would be insufferable to hang out with her. But look at that, you can't not find her pouting endearing.

She’s the type to give her all in anything she does, no matter how stupid everyone says it is. You can’t help but love a character like that.

There was even some story development. Hotori was adorable as she realized but didn’t realize that she had a crush on Moriaki-sensei, the math teacher from the previous episode. So this looks to be more a love chain, going Toshiko -> Sanada -> Hotori -> Moriaki. I wonder if it’ll get longer and and longer as the show progresses. The episode also showed how Hotori got to working at the cafe in the first place, in the process also showing how manipulative the head maid Uki was and how much of a crybaby Hotori always has been.

Hotori's feet hitting the glass of the "camera" is definitely Shaft being Shaft, and I loved it.

So a great second episode that succeeded where the first failed and also gave us a view into who our heroine is and what to expect from her in the future. The music remained strong, and I noticed the return of the Calypso-style music with the steel pan drums, fitting for the “Sea-Side” cafe, I guess, even if the sea is nowhere to be seen. The cinematography was again thick with Shaft-isms, and I particularly liked the close ups to Hotori’s tearful eye when she was scolded by her mother at the beginning and end of the episode.

As I wrote last week, all the elements for a strong Shaft comedy are here, and if the material continues to be the whimsical humor of this episode instead of the cliche also-ran humor of the first, Yet the Town Keeps Going will be a fun ride.


Yet the Town Keeps Going 1 – Going Through the Motions

Also known as the transliteration from Japanese, Soredemo Machi wa Mawatteiru – or SoreMachi for short - Yet the Town Keeps Going is a new comedy series, based on a manga by the same name, from studio Shaft and its main director Akiyuki Shinbo. I’ve made it clear that I’m a big fan of both the studio and the director, so I was quite excited about this show, especially with the season premiere of Arakawa Under the Bridge x Bridge – by the same studio and director – from last week exceeding my expectations. Unfortunately, this first episode was kind of a middling affair, not ever finding a good comedic rhythm and feeling all too plain.

As expected, the music was quite good. The OP song, DOWN TOWN sung by Maaya Sakamoto, was lively and bouncy, as was the OP animation. The OP sequence felt pretty normal, not particularly Shaft-like. There was plenty of dancing by the protagonist Hotori, who was spinning around a broom like a baton or moving a metal tray around her body like a pair of nunchucks. It had a very lively-city-at-night feel to it, sometimes reminiscent of Cowboy Bebop’s OP with the spotlights and contrast between light and dark. Fitting for a song called DOWN TOWN.

The ED song, Maze Sanjou! by Maze, was very good as well. The animation sequence featured 4 of the characters playing in a band and singing with various backgrounds from the show flashing behind them. I’m not sure, but it sounded like the song was sung by the voice actors as well – I thought I heard Omigawa’s voice when Hotori was singing. Notably, the song does include both an accordion and a violin, along with the standard electric bass and drums. Like the OP, the ED didn’t feel distinctly Shaft-like, but doesn’t mean it wasn’t great anyway. Hotori’s dancing and wacky antics towards the end were very cute.

The background music was pretty subtle and pretty varied in style, all very light. There were parts that I recognized as being very Round Table (most well known among anime fans for featuring Nino and doing the OPs to Chobits, Welcome to the NHK!, and, of course, Diebuster).

Yes, this is a girl, and yes, she's voiced by Ryouko Shiraishi.

As for the contents of the episode, it was pretty plain, surprisingly devoid of humor. It dove right into the story of our main character, Hotori Arashiyama (Chiaki Omigawa), a high school student working as a waitress at Sea Side Cafe, a maid cafe run by a rather homely old lady, Uki Isohata (played well by a very male Takahiro Sakurai). The first half was about her introducing her workplace to her friends the buck-toothed Harue (Ryouko Shiraishi) and the neurotic Toshiko (Aoi Yuuki). Toshiko starts lecturing Hotori on the proper behavior of maids at a maid cafe, leading to some predictable gags (“welcome back, master,” or “maids must be clumsy”), before she realizes that fellow student Hiroyuki Sanada (Miyu Irino) is a regular there and decides that she wants to work there as well.

The second half involved Hotori and Toshiko dealing with their math teacher Natsuhiko Moriaki – played ably by Tomokazu Sugita – who is quite strict about the school’s rule prohibiting part time work for students unless allowed by a teacher. At first, they run away when discovered on their way to work, but have to face him head-on when he follows them all the way to the cafe and enters as a customer.

Ah yes, reflections. This is a Shaft show, after all.

At the beginning, the angles of the shots and the constantly moving camera made me think of Shaft’s and Shinbo’s previous Bakemonogatari or Dance in the Vampire Bund (of which Aoi Yuuki was the star), though as the episode went on, I was more reminded of their other sea side cafe series, Natsu no Arashi! (in which Ryouko Shiraishi was the eponymous star and Chiaki Omigawa also played a main role). Indeed, that’s the show this one is most comparable to, both in the setting and the lighthearted character comedy.

And about that comedy bit… comedies are supposed to be funny, and this episode just wasn’t. All the elements were there: the peculiar setting, the quirky and quirkier-looking characters, the slapstick action. But the show just seemed to be going through the motions. None of the jokes caught me as witty or clever. They just felt stale and, as mentioned above, predictable.

It certainly wasn't for lack of trying that the show wasn't funny. The gags just fell flat.

The ostensible heroine of the show, Hotori, was pretty boring, a bit too much of a straight man. I will say that she was very cute, with her sideways ponytail, malleable and a bit chubby and rounded face, and, of course, that maid outfit. It was all amplified by Chiaki Omigawa’s distinct voice. Far more charismatic was Toshiko, who was the excited and energetic catalyst in both halves of the show. Aoi Yuuki’s ability to transition quickly from a soft feminine voice to a more masculine in-control one worked well for her.

Story-wise, there’s a typical love-triangle being set up here, with Toshiko clearly being obsessed with Hiroyuki who just as clearly has a crush on Hotori. I wonder if it’ll lead anywhere, but my guess is that it will be more of a running joke, similar to the love triangle between Hajime, Arashi, and Takeshi in Natsu no Arashi! This was the only real story thread introduced in the first episode, but there are plenty of characters to be introduced, so we shall see how it goes. If Shaft likes anything, it’s to take their sweet time in introducing the characters of the cast.

With the tilt and the smile and the small sideways ponytail, she looks so cute here that it's criminal. Wait, I've heard that metaphor somewhere before...

Thus this was not an inspiring first episode to this new series. Then again, I was not so hot on the first episode of Arakawa Under the Bridge earlier this year, and that one ended up quite fine. That said, I would hope for at least some good gags or foreshadowing of plot to come in a first episode, and I found neither in this one. Just good music and fun OP and ED sequences featuring Hotori being a lot more entertaining than in the actual episode. Still, being a fan of many of the people involved in this, I’ll be watching this with a skeptical optimism.

Notes

  • Maaya Sakamoto, the singer of the OP song DOWN TOWN, stars as the main heroine Nino in this season’s other Shaft show, Arakawa Under the Bridge x Bridge. The background music to this show was done by Round Table, a band better known as Round Table featuring Nino, which, fittingly enough, features a singer named Nino.
  • Arakawa Under the Bridge x Bridge also has Chiaki Omigawa and Tomokazu Sugita playing in main roles.




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