More shows from Spring 2014! Lots of SFF this season.

You can tell it's the future because they all have such slick white uniforms.

You can tell it’s the future because they all have such slick white uniforms.

In the future, magic is real and magic-users are important for various military applications. Naturally, they’re trained in a high school that looks pretty much like modern-day Japanese high school. People able to use magic are very rare, and on arrival at the school are sorted into “Blooms” and “Weeds”, advanced and normal classes, based on aptitude. Our protagonists are siblings, an older brother who gets stuck as a Weed in spite of being awesome, and a younger sister who gets into the Blooms.

This show is a writhing mess of overused tropes. We have the standard high school setting, complete with the all-powerful student council. The little sister character is in love with her older brother in the vaguely creepy way that has inexplicably become standard in moe shows. The older brother, in spite of his poor test scores, turns out to be unbeatable in actual magical combat, so he gets drafted by the school as a “discipline officer”.

Honestly, though, I could handle most of that if the world design made any sense. The limitations and rules of magic are extremely poorly defined, and the whole concept of a high school that deliberately creates a despised underclass of people with awesome powers seems poorly thought out at best. (Especially when the adults, as normal, leave all school functions including discipline to student committees.) Characters are also pretty broadly drawn; one guys swaggers in with a sign saying “I’m the bad guy” on his head while shooting a unicorn and stomping on a puppy, more or less.

I’m done with this one after a few episodes, especially since Twitter tells me that future plot developments are nonsensical. Not recommended.

This is a sequel to the original Mushishi, but since the show is highly episodic you can more or less start here.

It takes place in a world that is roughly similar to ancient Japan, which is inhabited by strange creatures called “mushi”. (Literally, “bugs”.) Mushi are invisible to normal humans and take a variety of strange forms, often a bit like bacteria, amoebas, or other microscopic creatures. They operate under their own rules, with weird folklore-esque needs and requirements, and humans who get involved with them often end up in trouble. (Not out of malice, though — the mushi aren’t intelligent, they’re more like wild creatures.) Ginko is a “mushishi”, someone whose job is to travel the country gently disentangling humans from mushi problems while generally keeping the mushi appeased.

Ginko thinks he's blind in one eye, when really his hair has just been in the way for thirty years.

Ginko thinks he’s blind in one eye, when really his hair has just been in the way for thirty years.

It’s a bit hard to explain, actually, because it’s so far out of the ordinary for anime. Ginko is the only continuing character, and there’s no action to speak of and no overall plot. In a typical episode, he arrives in a village where someone has a strange problem, and he has to figure out what kind of mushi is causing it and how to solve it. The focus is often on the episodic characters, and the show is excellent at drawing sketches of people’s lives in very limited time. It’s almost like a medical drama, except with strange spirits instead of diseases and a traveling doctor.

The second season is pretty similar to the first, and that’s great, because I loved the first season. This is a show I don’t recommend to everyone — it’s slow, and often very talky, so if you’re looking for action and adventure there isn’t any here. But if you like thoughtful vignettes and fascinating world design, take a look. You could either start with the second season or go back and watch the first, it doesn’t matter much.

Sora and Shiro are a brother-sister team (for once refreshingly free of incestuous vibes!) who live alone as hikkikomori. Online, they operate as the unbeatable gaming team “Blank”. One day a mysterious e-mail challenges them to a chess match, which turns out to be against a god from another dimension; when they beat him, he transports them to his world, which is completely ruled by games. All other forms of conflict are outlawed by divine edict, and the wagers and rules of games are magically enforced. Sora and Shiro find this new world much more to their taste than the real one, and immediately set out to take it over using their unsurpassed gaming skill.

Why do we all have playing cards in our teeth?  And why does it look like a pack of pastel Crayolas exploded all over everybody?

Why do we all have playing cards in our teeth? And why does it look like a pack of pastel Crayolas exploded all over everybody?

The premise of this was, at best, a little off-putting, but the authors have put at least some thought into it. It’s still not 100% logical if you think about it too hard, but it’s enough to support the show, which is surprisingly good — often hilarious, with fun characters and a strange but intriguing world design. The art takes a little bit of getting used to, with a strange soft palette heavy on the pastels, but I love the way the backgrounds look in particular.

All in all, it’s a solid geek wish-fulfillment fantasy. (Geek with particular skill not valued in the real world transported to fantasy realm where that skill is all-important!) There’s a few quibbles — one of the secondary characters, Steph, is made fun of and generally abused in a slightly squicky way — but on the whole I’m on board. Seeing how the protagonists resolve their problems manages to genuinely surprise me, which is not common! Take a look if your suspension of disbelief is strong enough to deal with a ridiculous premise.

Sometimes it's hilarious ecchi comedy!

Sometimes it’s hilarious ecchi comedy!

Very roughly, “Nanana’s Buried Treasure”.

In the future, there’s an entire artificial island dedicated entirely to high school students (because OF COURSE THERE IS) created by a genius named Nanana. Our protagonist, Jugo, moves to the island and into an apartment on which he’s getting a fantastic deal; this turns out to be because the apartment is haunted by the ghost of Nanana, who was murdered shortly after the island’s completion.

Nanana’s ghost is a pretty congenial companion, since she just plays games on the internet all day and eats nothing but pudding. As the latest resident of the haunted room, Jugo gets involved in the search for the Nanana Collection — a set of mysterious artifacts with magical powers that Nanana hid on the island, inside “ruins” which are basically hidden rooms with elaborate technological deathtraps.

This one is really strange. The tone whipsaws back and forth, from a slapstick comedy to a dark action show and back again in the course of a single episode. Nanana’s ghost is cheerful and humorous, but then when they arrive at her carefully-concealed traps (which are supposedly there so people can have fun figuring them out!) they’re clearly lethal and life-or-death peril is implied. Jugo goes from grimly determined action hero to goofball pervert and back. The secondary characters are more interesting — there’s a self-declared “master detective” and a few other oddballs.

Sometimes, grimdark shounen action.

Sometimes, grimdark shounen action.

I’m really not sure what to make of this show, because it really depends on what direction they decide to take the tone. The first episode was appealing strange, but things have gotten less interesting since then. At the moment, I’m still on the fence, but since this is another show based on a novel series, I doubt there’ll be any kind of plot resolution before the end of the season. (Jugo is theoretically searching for Nanana’s murderer.) Take a look if the premise interests you, but keep in mind the first episode or two is not necessarily representative.

Sometimes it's like the movie "Gravity" with giant robots!  Everything is better with giant robots.

Sometimes it’s like the movie “Gravity” with giant robots! Everything is better with giant robots.

In English, “Knights of Sidonia”. In the distant future, Earth has been destroyed by mysterious alien life-forms called Gauna. Humanity escaped on seed-ships, which dispersed into the void on centuries-long voyages, with the aliens in pursuit. On one of them, Sidonia, weapons have been discovered that can defeat the Gauna (in the hands of humanoid robots, naturally) and a new class of trainees has to take up the fight when the aliens find the ship again after a hundred years of peace.

It’s nice to see an anime with even a touch of hard SF about it. There’s still a lot of fluff here, but they at least acknowledge that things like acceleration and momentum exist. (The mecha even have an acceleration/turnover/deceleration burn!) Maneuvering the seedship (city-sized) unexpectedly causes catastrophe to the buildings and people inside as “gravity” shifts around them. There’s also more interesting SF stuff than is usual for anime; instead of the usual “modern day culture in space”, they’ve got some interesting evolutions of society. (A third gender, photosynthetic humans, cloning, some kind of cyborg bear.)

Clones.  And you thought YOUR high school was clique-y.

Clones. And you thought YOUR high school was clique-y.

The plot itself is largely standard-issue at this point, with the actually well-trained pilots failing so the task of defending the ship falls to the teenaged trainees. I really like the world design, though, so I’m following along, although the art presents additional challenges. Like last season’s Arpeggio of Blue Steel, this is an all-CG show — while the characters are much better, with clean-looking movements and nicely expressive faces, it still presents some problems. The biggest for me is that telling the semi-realistic character designs apart is a challenge, so even by episode four or five I’m often not sure who is who. (There’s a reason most anime has those ridiculous hairstyles!) As you might expect, though, the CG makes the starship and mecha action look great.

So far, I’m on board. We’ll see where they go with the ultimate plot, but there are various bits of world design and side characters I’m interested to find out more about, which is encouraging.

Next time: Good Season, Bad Season

New from Django:
My latest, the middle-grade fantasy The Forbidden Library!

My latest, the middle-grade fantasy The Forbidden Library!

Django Wexler is the author of fantasies The Thousand Names and The Forbidden Library. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not watching anime, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts.

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