What are we watching in Feb 2016? Part 1

We know that you don’t know a lot about us, and it would probably help to understand where we’re coming from in our podcasts. Well, how better to get to know us than for us to talk about what we’re currently watching on TV? It works for dinner parties so we’ll try that here too.

Since everyone on the podcast is a pop culture nerd we’re limiting ourselves to a handful shows each from the anime and non-anime categories. Otherwise this would turn into a 50 page blogpost about every single TV show each of us is currently watching.

Jesse (a.k.a. Sarapen)

Non-anime: Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Thanks to The Force Awakens and the damn Galaxy of Heroes mobile game that I got hooked into, I’ve grown interested in the only bit of modern Star Wars that I haven’t watched. These are actually two different series – one is a 2003 show animated in a more traditional style while the other is a 2008 CGI spectacle. The 2003 version was helmed by Genndy Tartakovsky, he of Samurai Jack fame, and it’s just as excellent as his previous work. It’s a largely wordless action show which reduces a massive interstellar civil war into a series of intense duels across different planets. In style it’s basically a samurai epic in space, which should be unsurprising considering what Samurai Jack was like. I’ve mentioned this to William before but both Samurai Jack and the anime Katanagatari felt very similar to me, probably because they both take a lot of their cues from the chanbara genre (i.e., samurai movies). So I must recommend the Tartakovsky Clone Wars as an action and a samurai fan. Plus it changes General Grievous from the ridiculous robot with emphysema that he was in Revenge of the Sith and turns him into a genuinely terrifying enemy.

The 2008 Clone Wars changes things up quite a bit. It explores a lot more of the titular conflict, but in style it’s much more of a kids’ show. General Grievous has become a cartoonish bad guy who keeps getting beaten by the heroes every week like the villain from an 80’s Saturday morning show. At points I half expected him to shout “I’ll get you next time, Gadget!” like Dr. Claw at the end of every episode of Inspector Gadget. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation, as I realize that this iteration has a different target audience than the previous one (being on Cartoon Network I assume the Tartakovsky show was aimed at hipster animation aficionados).

Anakin Skywalker’s apprentice Ahsoka is the spunky Young Adult heroine one would expect from this sort of bildungsroman, and while I’ve only just finished the first season I expect the rest of the show to build up to her becoming a full-fledged Jedi. But even as a kids’ show this series can get pretty dark and shows actual characters dying, which I appreciate in that it doesn’t try to keep kids in a metaphorical hamster ball separated from the real world consequences of violence and conflict. Though there’s really quite a lot of that. I mean, do people in Star Wars ever just watch Netflix and chill? I know what regular people on Star Trek do to relax, but I have very little idea what it’s like to not be a general or a mystic space knight on Star Wars.

Still, an interesting thing to ponder is that for most 21st century kids, this is their Star Wars. It’s not the original trilogy, it’s not even the prequels, it’s this CGI show that’ll be the first thing that comes to mind when the words “Star Wars” come up. It’s at least a lot better than the prequels, and it’s a pleasantly entertaining show to relax with, so I’m going to stick with my Star Wars viewing project. Possibly I’ll move on to Rebels once I finish.

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Anime: Schwarzesmarken

If you see a tweet about Schwarzesmarken it’s either me or Tom cracking wise about it. This is just an enjoyably dumb show to bitch about if you’re into giant robots and military porn. I obviously am, plus I have a fascination with both alternate history and the Warsaw Pact countries during the Cold War. The show is stupid but in a creatively-nourishing way – whenever I’m watching I’m either imagining German pop music playing in the background or mentally composing a rant about how remarkably off-base its understanding of history and international politics is. That’s when I’m not criticizing it for its right-wing politics and historical revisionism. God, this anime is shit. But I can’t stop watching it.

Tom

Most Unacceptable Robot Bullying: Dimension W

Dimension W garnered a moderate amount of buzz heading into the current season owing to its (at least surface level) stylistic and tonal similarity to the kind of action anime that were most common in the late 1990s and early-mid 2000s. Adapted from a relatively obscure manga, the question of course was always if there would be actual substance beneath the style or if the studio (and Funimation) were simply riding on superficial nostalgia.

With the show now about halfway through its run, the answer seems to lay somewhere in between. There’s much to like, and recommend, about Dimension W but an equal number of flawed elements that keep it from living up to its true potential. The show features an aesthetically pleasing, lived-in sci-fi setting and solid world-building, well animated action sequences, some standout side characters and a few knotty plot questions to keep things interesting. The show’s overall direction has moved in a manner that likely lay outside the expectations of many viewers however, leaning less on Cowboy Bebop-esque action and turning itself into a bit of a metaphysical mystery-investigation story, including occasional sojourns into the realm of vaguely Cronenbergy body horror.

This shift in direction isn’t entirely unwelcome by any means, but there’s a certain listlessness to the show’s plot development and perhaps the biggest problem remains the hole in its center. The show’s protagonist, Kyoma, possesses all the design characteristics and ostensible attitude requisite of a Samurai Champloo style badass, but little of the charm or personality that makes these kind of rogues work. That isn’t to say a great character needs to be flawless, or particularly sympathetic at all, but Kyoma is lacking in charisma and his obligatory tragic backstory doesn’t make it anymore palatable that he constantly kicks, pushes and otherwise acts like an asshole towards the show’s best character, the robot girl Mira.

Dimension W certainly isn’t a bad show, indeed sometimes it can even be quite a good one, but the wider atmosphere in which it has been received does demonstrate the danger of relying too heavily on signals of nostalgia and aesthetic style when judging the worth of an anime.

It’s the kind of show that reminds you why anime fans sometimes get peevish when other, arguably better (and sometimes better developed thematically) recent anime  get dismissed out of hand for their visual approach or character designs (I’ll put in a plug for the visually moe and thoroughly lovely and thoughtful Soranowoto here) while something that superficially seems to harken back to the ‘deep/mature/manly/badass’ anime of yesteryear is hyped up by default.

One of the best OPs of the season, though. Fine dancing!

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Robot Bullying Prohibited

Unguiltiest Pleasure: Schwarzesmarken

Schwarzesmarken is a show that is abundant in flaws. Its deluge of grimdark war clichés both in regard to its aesthetic and storyline sometimes borders on tiresome, the adaptation has stripped what little nuance the source material provided for its onerous Stasi villains and has made them so deeply, and at times incomprehensibly, evil as to become laughable, certain plot elements feel rushed owing to episode constraints and the primary protagonists initially make little impression upon the viewer.

Yet, Schwarzesmarken has managed largely to transcend these myriad problems and has valiantly clawed its way into being one of my favorite shows of the season, even if I would very readily concede that it isn’t one of its best. Around the time of its third episode Schwarzesmarken begins to iron out its most distracting flaws and carry forward on more confident footing. Thanks to the efforts of the irrepressible Katia, Schwarzesmarken’s improbably loveable moeblob, the show’s primary protagonist Theoder Eherbach mercifully drops his sulky, paranoid demeanor (if that guy made a “tch!” sound one more time…) and becomes something altogether more watchable (and interesting) and both primary and side characters, like the steely Irisdina and thoroughly entertaining Commissar, Gretel, gain some much needed time in the limelight.

The show capitalizes on these storytelling gains with an amphibious invasion arc that is handled with considerable aplomb on the action side of things, and the show has largely maintained a steady pace in the subsequent episodes. Much of what makes the show work it of course owes to the wider Muv-Luv universe with which it is associated.

The franchise’s Cold War on steroids setting is simply too perfect of a sandbox in which to deploy all manner of military hardware in improbably massive scenarios, that nary a milotaku will prove capable of resisting. It’s not every day one gets to watch Tu-95s and Warsaw Pact MBTs (particularly anything regarding the DDR) lay waste to alien hordes, and I for one, cannot say no to such spectacle.

The show still has an abundance of issues unquestionably in terms of both plotting and characterization (Beatrix isn’t growing more fascinating by the episode) but damn if the thing doesn’t fill a very particular niche altogether rather well. I didn’t make my first AMV in over a decade about this show for nothing!

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Behold, The Face of Modern War!

Solid Execution of Faintly Absurd Premise: Okkupert

Okkupert, also known as Occupied over here stateside, is a show that probably should not work. The program tells a (RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES) story in which, after the presiding Green Party leadership in Norway decides to cease oil production, the country is forced to submit to a partial Russian military occupation organized in collusion with the EU in order to get Norwegian oil pumping to the continent again.

The show’s initial (I’m a scant four episodes in) success lay in large part with the intriguing and atypical characterization of the Green Party Prime Minister, Jesper Berg. To wade into mild spoilers, Berg is a largely sympathetic character, a choice that’s most interesting because it’s exceptionally easy to see how a different, perhaps lazier, show could use the character’s exact same actions in order to portray a venal, spineless cad of a politician/villain.

Berg’s primary goal throughout the show so far is protecting the Norwegian people from the worst case scenario that lay beyond the relatively hands off Russian/EU occupation and to restrain potential sources of unrest within his own society. In order to do so he sometimes evades the questions of a well-meaning, sympathetically portrayed and dedicated press corps, compromises his own values and beliefs and submits to some, though not all, of the demands placed upon him by the occupiers. Not every decision Berg makes is wise or fully justified, but he is nevertheless a character who is shown as trying to sincerely navigate as best he can his country’s unenviable position and avoid an escalation of the crisis. Wisely, the show also avoids making cartoonish villains out of its primary Russian players, or again, at least so far.

Okkupert is a particularly tense viewing experience, but I say that in large part because it feels like just the kind of show that could easily careen off the edges of a Fjord and into a deep and inescapable chasm of stupidity and schlock at any moment, and yet so far it has avoided that fate. The show of course, aired altogether some time ago now so a quick googling could yield my answers, but I guess I’ll stick around for the ride and see how this all pans out.

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Tom’s Overall Best Seasonal Anime.
1. Rakugo Shinjuu
2. Erased (Boku Dake)
3. Sekkou Boys (I’m as surprised as anyone!)

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