Monday, March 31, 2014

Anime Review: Sakura Trick

When I wrote my first impressions of the Sakura Trick anime, my verdict was, "Cute story, horrible execution" because of its heavy service. Having finished it, I think this series is even more of a mixed bag, but only because its later episodes were better than I expected.

Sakura Trick is about Haruka (right in the pic above) and Yuu (left). After they start high school, Haruka starts worrying that she and Yuu are drifting apart, so she and Yuu kiss to have something only between them. They really like that kiss, so their relationship is romantic from that point forward. Haruka is a sweetie who is upfront about how she feels, while Yuu doesn't like talking about her feelings. This leads to six or so episodes of them not discussing the changed status of their relationship until episode 8. Episode 8 changes that and it is great, but I'll get to that in a bit.

Sakura Trick's other characters include Haruka and Yuu's friends Shizuku and Kotone, who are basically the beta couple and don't influence the story as much as I expected. Shizuku is quiet and tsundere and Kotone is outgoing, informal, and, surprisingly, the rich one. Yuzu and Kaede are the tsukkomi and boke, respectively, of Haruka and Yuu's friend group, and their relationship is completely platonic. I actually quite liked them.

Surprisingly, the most important person in this series after Haruka and Yuu is Yuu's older sister Mitsuki, who I referred to as "Oneechan" and "Closet Case Oneechan" when I commented on this series while watching it with my girlfriend. ("Is it bad that I like Oneechan more than her sister?") Oneechan falls in love with Haruka, who is of course oblivious, over the course of the series, and the series resolves the Oneechan-Haruka-Yuu love triangle surprisingly directly. I expected it to be an endless gag, kind of like the Archie-Betty-Veronica love triangle, except with two of the parties involved clearly in love with each other.

Anyway, the first seven episodes are a lot of not much happening, with a lot of creepy service shots. (Granted, I liked the scarf-shopping episode because it was pretty low on service and it reminded me of how much I like clothes-shopping with my sweetie.) When Sakura Trick's anime adaptation was announced, I was glad, but I also thought pointlessly of how nice it would be to see something I love, like Girl Friends, adapted. The Sakura Trick adaptation made me glad that it was ST instead of a yuri manga I love, though, because I would probably cry on the inside if Mari and Akko, or any yuri couple I'm really attached to, got the same treatment as Haruka and Yuu. I still hope that if this series has any impact, it ultimately paves the way for more good than creepy for yuri in anime, though.

As I said before, episode 8 ("A Cherry Blossom-Colored Wedding/A Cherry Blossom-Colored Christmas") is great. It has basically no service and its story is leaps and bounds better than what came before. In it, Haruka receives an invitation to attend her cousin's wedding and decides to bring Yuu. Yuu mishears Haruka when Haruka invites her and thinks Haruka is saying she wants them to get married. They eventually clear up the misunderstanding but confirm that they do want to marry each other someday. This explicit talk of seriously wanting to marry each other was very "WHOAH" for me, as you can imagine. In the episode's second half, Mitsuki notices that Haruka and Yuu are having a fight and helps them make up. The ultimate point of this half episode is that they didn't discuss their relationship prior to episode 8 because Yuu isn't good at discussing her feelings. Lack of service aside, it was also one of the most visually pleasing episodes because it made great use of the light show Haruka and Yuu went to with their friends and Mitsuki.

Episodes 9 and 10 continue to feel like the series is finally dealing with what it's like to be in a relationship. Haruka and Yuu's New Year's Eve phone conversation (which takes up the first half of episode 9) is adorable, they get an inside joke that feels like like an inside joke actual couples would use, and one of their friends flat out says "Haruka and Yuu are going out, right?" to Mitsuki.

Episode 11 introduces Sumi, a character whose only point is to introduce a shitty boob-groping gag. The second half of episode 11 deals with Mitsuki... well, I thought episode 10 made her realize that Haruka and Yuu are together, but I guess it took her seeing them kiss to make it fully sink in. She forbids them from kissing, but it doesn't stop them, and she ultimately realizes she's in love with Haruka.

In episode 12, the seniors graduate and the Mitsuki-Haruka-Yuu love triangle resolves, albeit not as satisfactorily as I would have liked. Mitsuki gets good closure, and is confirmed my favorite character for being the most self-aware. I can understand Haruka and Yuu not being completely sure what their feelings mean for them, especially since they're two years younger than Mitsuki, who is graduating. It would be easier to be like, "Yup, I'm lesbian for you," to the girl you like who attends the same high school shortly before being like, "Peace out, high school." (I honestly wouldn't oppose seeing a spin-off focusing on Mitsuki's college adventures, especially since her friend Rina, who is clearly in love with her, got into the same college.)

Haruka and Yuu's ambivalence in episode 12 about what their feelings and relationship mean for them could be indicative of some denial also, which is understandable. It still feels weird after episodes 8 though 10, though, especially 8. (And even before episode 8, Haruka fantasized about living with Yuu as an adult and raising a child with her.) The series itself seems to think that they are really in love and on the cusp of fully realizing what it means for them and the manga is ongoing, so I expect Haruka and Yuu to the get to the point I would like to see them at ("We are in a relationship and this could lead somewhere long-term") eventually in some format- but that ambiguity in episode 12 still doesn't fully make sense after what came before.

After episode 8, there is still some icky service, but it isn't as bad overall as the first seven episodes. Like I said, this series is very much a mixed bag, but I would at least try episodes 8 through 10- or 8, if you only watch one episode.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Retro Review: Oniisama E ( Dear Brother ) episode 2- also, Yuri Panel coming up!

This episode has nothing meaty in the way of yuri- just the student body continuing to fangirl over Rei and Kaoru
and Nanako angsting when Rei doesn't seem to recognize her
but it's a meaty episode in terms of plot progression. This episode clarifies exactly what Nanako's relationship to Takehiko is from her perspective- his perspective hasn't fully unfurled for us yet- and shows us the Sorority's selection of its candidates and the beginning of the fallout from it.

I kind of pointlessly wonder if Nanako would still be writing Takehiko about her daily life in the form of letters- or even email- if this series were rebooted today. Her desire to write about her mundane life in a way that guarantees that someone will read it- without even needing a response, just knowing that it's being read by someone who understands without necessarily being involved in her life- is pretty much pre-internet blogging. I was like, "Man, Nanako, he doesn't care what outfits you wore each day this past week," but then I remembered that I've written posts in the personal blog this blog grew out of being like, "After I bought a sombrero, I got a blueberry muffin!" Basically, if Oniisama E were rebooted, I think Nanako would be like, "Please be my brother! I want you to read my Tumblr. You don't ever need to comment or reblog it, just please read it," to Takehiko.

Being an only child, I can understand Nanako being idealistic at points about what it's like to have a sibling. I like the contrast between her perspective of sibling relationships and that of Tomoko, who has an actual sibling.

We see that Rei and Kaoru are close enough to rib each other in a way they can't do with any of the other students, who either idealize them or (in Rei's case with Fukiko) intimidate them.

I don't ship them like their classmates, but I quite like their relationship.

As expected, the Sorority candidate selection is a disaster. The Sorority limits itself to choosing ten new members. Kaoru refuses Fukiko's invitation. Nanako and Mariko are two of the candidates also, causing Aya, a character who bragged so much about how she was going to be chosen
that you knew she wouldn't be chosen, to attack Mariko for her family background and Nanako for not being exceptional enough.
Mariko retaliates by slapping her. Fukiko is the closest thing this series has to an antagonist after Aya, but she has a sense of honor and is kind of a badass when she tells Aya off for being a sore loser, making it clear that doing so cost her the chance to take Kaoru's place.

Clingy and manipulative though Mariko can be at this point in the series- like making the girl sitting next to Nanako move and trying to replace Tomoko's friendship with Nanako- I feel bad for her being trash talked because of her dad. I also admittedly loled at how brazenly she tried to replace Tomoko in this episode.
Speaking seriously, Mariko seems like a good portrayal of someone who's had a weird home life for so long that she isn't completely sure what's normal- normal in a good way- and has to figure it out to be able to have functional relationships with other people. I also sympathize with Mariko as someone whose parents went through a messy divorce, albeit for different reasons than hers.

Anyway, Nanako is shellshocked by the assholery caused by her selection, but is buoyed by Tomoko's cheering. 
As we see when she writes again to Takehiko, Nanako isn't blindly optimistic about being a Sorority candidate. She doesn't expect the clusterfuckery coming in the next episode, but who would?

Anyway, shameless plug time!

Seattle's Sakura-con approved the yuri panel I applied for! Its title is "Lesbian-themed Anime, Manga, and Visual Novels." I roped my girlfriend Amy, who is also a yuri nerd, into co-hosting it, and it will be on Saturday April 19 from 9:00 to 10:15 PM. Its room is Panels 7 (3AB). If you're in the area during Sakura-Con, I hope you can make it!

Other highlights of Sakura-con for me that I know of are: Kinoshita Tetsuya, Attack on Titan's star producer, Ishikawa Yui, the seiyuu who voices AoT's Mikasa, Asano Kyoji, a key animator who worked on Attack on Titan and Psycho-Pass, and Nakatake Tetsuya, AoT's animation producer, hosting a panel; a panel featuring Sato Shigehiko, who since joining Fuji Creative Corp in 1999 has "been involved in licensing and launching many anime series in the US and other territories outside of Japan. For example, he led the US launch of the classic fan favorite 'Yu Yu Hakusho' and also worked as the co-producer for 'Fushigi Yugi Eikoden' and 'Galaxy Railways.' Recently, he's been focusing on further branding Fuji-TV's noitaminA in the USA"; a panel by maki, one of Angelic Pretty's designers, and RinRin Doll, Angelic Pretty's official model; and a panel by MINT, a fashion designer who has done some work for the brand h.NAOTO and now has his own line called MINTNeKO.

The appeal of the Attack on Titan panel is obvious for anyone who knows I'm a big fan of AoT, Sato's panel sounds like an interesting look at a portion of the anime industry, and the two fashion panels sound like they'd provide some insight into subculture fashion in Japan. The full panel schedule isn't on the website yet, so I don't know which non-special guest panels I want to try to make.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Retro Review: Oniisama E ( a.k.a. Dear Brother ) episode 1

Since I first watched this show four years ago, something I never expected happened- Viki licensed it for streaming- and then something I never expected even more happened- Anime Sols licensed it for streaming and a DVD release. Here is Viki's page for it, and here is Anime Sols' page. If you want the third/last box set for this series- or all three box sets- you should pledge your support for it now, since Anime Sols is funding this series' DVD release in a Kickstarter-like way.

Oniisama E is the first yuri-heavy TV series. It premiered in 1991, based on a manga by Rose of Versailles creator Ikeda Riyoko that ran in Margaret magazine in 1975. Now that it's been four years, I feel like taking the odyssey through the soapiness and knife-throwing and sparkliness that this series is known for again. I'm not sure how much I have to say about it, but I want to write my impressions while re-watching it. Not every re-review will be as long and detailed as this one, but here's what I have for this episode.

Being the first series starring an everygirl attending a fancy-dance girls' school brimming with lily-scented drama, this episode opens... not with its protagonist Nanako's perspective, but an introduction by someone else. This introduction sets up a mystery that will run parallel to the weird stuff that happens in Nanako's school life until we find out how much the two areas of her life are intertwoven.

One thing I really like about Oniisama E is how consistently well-rendered its characters are. I appreciate it more now that I can watch this series without the graininess of the VHS-ripped fansubs. The fact that this series was animated in the days of pre-digital animation and the amount of realism and detail the character designs have make the consistently on-model visuals of this show extra-impressive.

As I've noted with the Ace wo Nerae! (Aim for the Ace!) movie, Dezuka Osamu, this series' director seems to like using a similar soundtrack across his shoujo projects- Oniisama E and Ace wo Nerae! both sound a lot like Rose of Versailles. Even though one is a historical drama, one is a school drama, and one is a sports drama, the Dezuka shoujo signature soundtrack fits all of them well, I guess because of their other stylistic similarities, like the pretty watercolor stills. 

After the flashback introduction, we meet Nanako, poor innocent lamb, getting ready for her first day at Seiran Girls' School. 
Since I'm a former private school kid who thought school uniforms were boring instead of cute to wear back in the day, my inner 15 year-old was like, "Man, she lucked out," when Nanako was like, "Mom, Seiran doesn't make its students wear uniforms."
It's a nice detail in this show since it allows us to see the characters in a wider rotation of outfits, even though it makes them harder to cosplay. (Rei and Fukiko are the easiest to cosplay and be immediately recognizable as, I think.) Anyway, yeah, it's kind of refreshing that this series seems to think uniforms are boring too.

After we meet Nanako's parents who are full of secrets, Nanako runs off to school, meets with her best friend Tomoko, and we get a flashback about her family.
A lot happened when Nanako was five.

Nanako runs into a tall, dapper-looking girl named Rei, who saves Nanako from...uh...not getting off a bus quickly, in a kind of hilarious and wonderfully directed sequence.
In case you couldn't tell from my prolific recapping of this moment, I ship Nanako and Rei. Just don't forget that one of them dies and she isn't the protagonist.

Once we're at school, we meet Mariko, who isn't sketchy at all.
And shoujo Jesus Kaoru.
(Speaking sincerely, Kaoru is pretty great.)

And Fukiko, who wants to make everyone her bitch.
Like every other character above freshman age, she looks like she's in her twenties. She is the head of the Sorority, which is like an evil Yamayurikai. Kaoru openly hates the Sorority, but it's okay because so many girls lust after her that she's the only student Fukiko can't mess with. Rei has as many admirers as Kaoru,
but she is easier for Fukiko to manipulate for reasons I shouldn't spoil.
I like that Rei makes these girls swoon by being a flamboyant weirdo in a sharp suit. Rei's weirdness is what I like most about her, even though it's because she has issues.

And Kaoru is just super-cool. (She's playing basketball in the screenshot above.)

Later, Nanako sees Rei walking in the rain and has a babyqueer moment in her head.

Then some ominous interaction between these two.

Then a conversation between Takehiko, the guy who narrated the opening scene, and his friend whose name I forget, which will make more sense later.

Then we see Nanako readying for bed while narrating the letter she plans to write to Takehiko about her first day of school. Cue the ending theme, whose imagery, like the opening theme's, reinforces the point of this series being Nanako's coming of age.

And there you have the first episode of the first yuri anime series. If you have enjoyed anything set at a girls' school, any Girl Prince/Girly Girl couples, or just want to check out some darker shoujo, you should watch this. Just keep some tissues handy for the seventies-ness ahead.