Clannad After Story–Anime Review

3.5 Stars
The sequel continues the story begun by the first season of Clannad, adding a lot of depth to what started out as a fairly lightweight story. That does not mean that everyone who liked the first season will like the second. Some fans of the first season will really love it, and some may not.

As the characters leave high school behind and encounter the joys and sorrows of adult life, the tone of the story changes. The emotional highs of the second season are very high, and the emotional lows are very low. There is ultimately a happy ending but it is one that not everyone finds satisfactory, for reasons that I discuss in my spoiler notes.
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2009: The Anime Year in Review

The usual caveats apply: I haven’t sampled everything and my tastes are not yours. Series that are continuing into the Spring are not generally eligible, though I am making an exception for one that has no overall story.

The anime industry is clearly suffering from the bad economy. Fewer series were produced. Fan service shows (a mainstay of the second-tier studios) have gotten raunchier. Even if you think that’s a good thing, it has to be a sign of desperation.

Still, the year has to be judged by the best that is produces (remember Sturgeon’s Law.) By that measure 2009 actually wasn’t all that bad.

Outstanding Anime Series of 2009

Amazingly there were 3 series this year that really stood out, each with its own unique visual style.

Bakemonogatari (Ghoststory) Finally a series from Shaft that I can wholeheartedly endorse. Macabre, funny, twisted and solidly entertaining.

Higashi no Eden (Eden of the East) OK, the ending feels a little abrupt, but the show as a whole is brilliant, like nothing I’ve ever seen. A dark story, but funny and clever, consistently surprising and fascinating.

Kemono no Souja Erin (Erin the Beast Player) A great fantasy story, quite long but carefully written with no waste or filler. Warning: the drawings may remind you of a children’s book, but this is not for little kids.

Special Honorable Mention

Ponyo was actually released in Japan in 2008, but Americans had to wait until 2009 to see it. The bottom line: Hayao Miyazaki is back and near the top of his form, at least if you like things like Totoro.

Noteworthy Anime Series of 2009

Aoi Bungaku (Fresh Literature). This selection of stories by noted twentieth century Japanese writers is not for everyone, but I rather liked it. The stories are fairly dark; in an earlier post I half-jokingly said that contemporary serious Japanese literature is mostly about suicide in one way or another. This series did nothing to refute my thesis.

Clannad After Story People who had played the game seemed to like the ending more than those who hadn’t. Still, if you like this sort of thing, this is another solid adaptation of a Key visual novel by Kyoto Animation. Get out your handkerchiefs.

Kimi ni Todake is indeed an angsty shoujo romance, but this one is special. The heroine, who has more than a trace of ASD wonders wonders why she has no friends and tries to reason out logically what she needs to do to get some. The results are a bit strange, but surprisingly successful.

Mainichi Kaasan (Everyday Mom/Mom’s Life) Sure the character designs are horrifying, but this adaptation of the gag manga about a manga artist and her family is the most consistently funny show of the year. However you may need to have kids of your own to appreciate the humor.

Summer Wars. It’s cyberpunk vs. Japanese tradition in this movie. As science fiction it has a few refrigerator moments, but the depiction of the quarrelsome but supportive traditional extended family is priceless.

Toradora Finally–a harem comedy with a decent ending!

Interesting, but Not to My Taste

There were several shows that were worthy efforts, but which for various reasons I found unwatchable.

Genji Monogatari Sennenki OK, let’s get real. The Tale of Genji, written by Murasaki Shikibu in the early 11th century, is not the world’s first novel. Perhaps it’s the first novel written by a woman, or the first example of chick lit. In any case The Golden Ass, written by Lucius Apuleius sometime in the 2nd century, reads much more like a modern novel.

This anime adaptation of Gengi is beautifully drawn, and the convoluted writing has been cleaned up to make it comprehensible to a modern audience. Unfortunately I can’t make myself care about the endless love affairs of a beautiful but narcissistic prince.

Kuuchuu Buranko (Trapeze) A daring, innovative visual style. I couldn’t make it through even one episode.

To Aru Kagaku no Railgun (A Certain Scientific Railgun) There are many people who really like this, and it clearly has a lot going for it, including fine animation and interesting characters. Unfortunately I find the character of Kuroko so revolting that I just can’t watch the show.

Kyoto Animation Jumps the Shark

Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (Second Season). There was plenty of reason to fear that the sequel would be a disappointment, given that the writers had cherry-picked the best of the source material for the first season, but nobody expected something as bad as this. Stretching what was at most 5 episodes worth of material to 14 episodes had the fans dumbfounded and furious.

Haruhi illustrates the sort of mistake that talented people can make when they get too arrogant, but Sora o Miageru Shoujo no Hitomi ni Utsuru Sekai (Munto) is a work of total mediocrity: an uninspired story, flat uninteresting characters and bad animation with obtrusive CGI.

You may not feel that K-ON belongs in this category. It was a tremendous hit, pretty to look at, funny and fun to watch. However compared to Lucky Star, the same studio’s earlier adaptation of another gag manga about high school girls, K-ON falls short. Lucky Star is just as plotless, but it is funnier with much better developed characters. The main innovation in K-ON consists of cranking the moe factor up to 11. This is no substitute for good writing.

Still Watching

Cross Game. There’s nothing obviously special about this sports/romance anime, except the fact that it is well-drawn, well-written and has lovable characters. It is a long, slow-moving series, but consistently enjoyable.

Kobato. I’m still not sure whether this is going to turn out to be brilliant or a disappointment, but it is rather cute and charming. Charm can only take you so far though. They need to prove that there is a real story here.

Inuyasha Final Chapter. It’s very simple. If you were a fan of the original series, you will want to see the ending. If you didn’t see the original series, the sequel has nothing to offer you.

Clannad Season 1–Anime Review

3.5 Stars
Clannad is the third in a series of shows from Kyoto Animation adapted from visual novels from Key/Visual Art’s. (The other two were Air and Kanon (2006).)

Kanon is my favorite of the three. It has the most likable hero and the bravest heroine. I admire Air but it’s a bit too grim for my taste.

Clannad is a bit different. It is split into two seasons, the first of which can stand by itself as a gentle, upbeat and very funny harem comedy, though with a rather sad backstory. I’m going to focus on the first season in this review since it can be enjoyed by itself.

UPDATE: my review of the second season is here.

As with most KyoAni shows, the character designs are cute and the animation quality is outstanding.
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Clannad After Story–Episode 22

Fail.

I guess this just illustrates the difficulty of converting a visual novel into the linear format of an anime. Kyoto Animation did a fine job of this with Kanon 2006, but here it just didn’t work.

I can see why this may have been a great ending in the original game, and why viewers who are familiar with the game may love it. But speaking as someone unfamiliar with the game, trying to evaluate the anime on its own, the ending is pure deus ex machina and feels unsatisfactory.

Which is too bad because the series is beautifully drawn and has some wonderful moments.

2008: The Anime Year in Review

Once again it’s time to look back on the past year and pontificate on what was noteworthy in the world of anime. This is not intended as any sort of definitive list. I’ve only sampled a small part of what was available, and of course my interests are idiosyncratic and may not match yours. Also I am excluding any series that began in the Fall of 2008 and is continuing in 2009. These will be eligible for consideration next year.

Outstanding Anime Series of 2008

No Winner. I’m sorry. I just didn’t see anything this year that I would award 5 stars to.

Noteworthy Anime Series of 2008

On the other hand, there were a number of solid, entertaining series that I considered time well spent.

Bamboo Blade. This tale of the misadventures of a high school kendo club was consistently funny and charming.

Clannad. Surprisingly the latest collaboration from the people who brought us Kanon (2006) and Air (TV) turned out to be a funny and upbeat comedy, though with a rather sad backstory. (This statement applies only to the original series. Watch the sequel at your own risk.)

Hakaba Kitarou. A stylish adaptation of the classic horror comic from the 1960s. Not to be confused with Ge Ge Ge no Kitarou, a long-running series that featured more child-friendly versions of the same characters.

Hatenkou Yuugi. Spooky variant on the magical girl genre, with a delightful heroine.

Itazura na Kiss. I could almost imagine this romantic comedy playing on American television–in the 1950s, perhaps starring a younger version of Lucille Ball. The hapless heroine suffers every imaginable humiliation, but always manages to bounce back by the end of the episode.

Kure-nai. Dark, noirish thrillier, lit up by the wonderful character of Murasaki.

Shakugan no Shana Second. This sequel is strictly for fans of the original series, and perhaps not for all of them. It gets off to a very weak start, especially compared to the powerful opening of the first series. Things don’t really start to turn around until about half way through, after which it builds to a suitably resounding climax.

Shugo Chara! A classic magical girl series that is extremely cute and very funny. It’s also very long and noticeably padded in places. It would probably be better if edited down a bit.

Telepathy Girl Ran. I would classify this not so much a magical girl story as a child detective story. “And I would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for those darned kids!” (The comparison is unfair since the writing is about 10 times better, but I couldn’t resist.)

xxxHOLIC Kei. A rare bird–a sequel that’s every bit as good as the original.

Disappointing Anime Series of 2008

I’m going to skip this category. I had a whole bunch of snarky comments saved up, but they mostly boil down to two principles:

  1. Most sequels aren’t as good as the originals.
  2. Anything adapted from a series of light novels will have a strong start to introduce the characters and premise, but then will probably wander around without ever going anywhere.

Interesting, But Not To My Taste

ef–a tale of melodies. This is not just a sequel to ef–a tale of memories; the two form an integrated whole and should probably be viewed together. Once again the artwork is stunning and the stories are compelling, and it addresses some of my objections to the original series. Unfortunately the explanations are often implausible and some of the answers to the questions raised by the first series are answers that you might be happier not knowing. Frankly, watching this is like being kicked repeatedly in the gut.

Ga-Rei Zero. “I’ve got a great idea! Let’s introduce the heroes, then kill them off at the end of the first episode! It’ll be like a Gainax ending, only at the beginning!”

Kaiba. An innovative anime with a strong European flavor. I really wanted to like this one. Innovation is always praiseworthy and I want to see it succeed. Unfortunately I found that I just did not care what happened to any of these characters.

Kannagi. This series has nice animation and some nice moments, and raises interesting questions about the implications of Shinto religious teachings. However ultimately it’s mostly just routine, uninspired harem comedy shtick.

Kuroshitsuji. “I’ve got a great idea! To show our mastery of dark humor, let’s start the series with an episode featuring cannibalism! The good guys will EAT the bad guy! That’ll get their attention!”

Shigofumi. Dark, beautifully drawn, a searing indictment of Japanese society. This has justly been compared to Kino’s Journey, but you have to imagine what that show would be like with a Kino who acted cold and heartless, and a Hermes who was really irritating.