Spring 2015 in anime-land hasn’t quite been the blockbuster season we got over the winter, a season characterized by fun adventure fare like Maria the Virgin Witch, wrap-ups to favorites like Aldnoah.Zero and Shirobako, and the occasional awesome surprise package, like Death Parade. Fare on the same level as these shows wasn’t immediately obvious at first, but you know what? The great thing about anime is that there’s just so much of it; no matter what, the hits keep on coming. Also anime loves you, and anime won’t judge you. With that in mind, I’m going to go ahead and judge anime, and point to some of the best new and continuing shows we’ve got for spring 2015. This season’s not a grand slam, which is why I can’t really recommend a nice, round ten, but I made it to nine without any trouble. Let’s have a look!
9) Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?
It started innocently enough, with a few scattered screenshots of a pretty run-of-the-mill anime cutie pie in an eye-catching dress and some sort of weird blue ribbon that seemed to somehow support her bustline leaking onto social media. Now, a mere few weeks later, literally every person, place, and thing in the world has been photoshopped or otherwise depicted wearing a boob ribbon, a testament to the memetic power of the improbably-titled Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? and its comely heroine, Hestia. At its root, this is a dumb harem show based on a dumb harem light novel, with the stalwart, earnest, and largely forgettable Bell Cranel taking to the life of an adventurer because, as his mysteriously vanished grandpa once told him, teaming up with a pretty young lady adventurer was the best way to find romance.
For the most part, this series, whose lengthy title is often mercifully shortened to the portmanteau “DanMachi,” sticks to the formula – Bell is surrounded by a variety of cutie girl stereotypes, including warrior maiden, elf girl shopkeeper, bartender, diminutive assistant… and of course, they’re all kinda sweet on our Bell. But to keep his adventuring going, Bell is obliged to join the household of a god, who’ll help keep him equipped and healthy, and provide stats upgrades. (Yes, this show is that slavish about the whole D&D business.) Bell’s patron goddess, Hestia, also has kind of a crush on him – but when his desire to impress Aizu, the aforementioned warrior maiden, drives him to hit the dungeons dangerously hard, she inadvertently gives him an unusually potent special power. DanMachi isn’t an instant classic, but it’s a fun dungeon-crawl with a pair of lead characters who have palpable chemistry – it’s not appointment TV, but drop it into your schedule and it’ll make for some good periodic binge-watching between Game of Thrones episodes. It’s currently streaming on Crunchyroll and the Anime Network.
It was originally supposed to be about a tennis club, but Teekyu has never really been about tennis. Instead, it’s a turbo-charged espresso shot of bizarre, dialogue-driven comedy, as its quartet of girls seem to engage in literally everything except play tennis, be it road trips, pitched battles, or kidnapping schemes. Our four heroines include Yuri (fairly normal, the only one who plays tennis), Kanae (periodically tries to eat the sports equipment), Nasuno (rich girl), and Marimo (chaotic evil). Barely animated at best, Teekyu is still weirdly and compulsively watchable – not only is season 4 underway (with season 5 already greenlit), spinoff Nasuno Takamiya Desu! is in the mix, providing fans with another two minutes and thirty seconds of Teekyu-flavored goodness every week.
See, that’s what keeps Teekyu bearable – at two and a half minutes per episode, each adventure is over before you know it. That’s actually a plus, because it’d be impossible to keep up with the brain-bleedingly rapid-fire dialogue if it was sustained for longer than that. Best of all, if you’re just picking the series up, you can zoom through seasons 1-3 in about an hour and a half on Crunchyroll. Just try not to do it in one sitting unless you’re wearing a neck brace.
7) Fate/Stay Night
Fate/Stay Night started life as a visual novel, one of those sprawling, beautifully illustrated, choose-yer-own-adventure video games that are easily found in Japan. The game was compelling enough to lead to a TV anime adaptation from Studio Deen, which was alright but not great. But the franchise kept getting bigger, and a few years on writer Gen Urobuchi was commissioned to write a prequel story, Fate/Zero. Fate/Zero was awesome, and a huge hit, so a new version of Fate/Stay Night was stewed up by ufotable, one that hews closer to the tone and aesthetic set by Fate/Zero.
The idea is simple – actually, it’s not. It’s pretty complicated, but I’ll try to sum it up. In a backwater city in Japan, a hidden war for the future of mankind, the very Holy Grail itself, rages – a war fought between powerful mages and their familiars, who just happen to be amazing and powerful fighters from throughout history and legend. Bizarre and exciting incarnations of Gilgamesh, Hercules, and Medea appear as combatants, and the central fighter, Saber, wields a certain famed English sword, one usually held by the king, rightwise, of England. She’s backed up by Shirou, an inept mage with a strong sense of justice, and his pal Rin, who’s a bit more skilled and calculating. Fate/Stay Night has surged past its halfway point, with the second half of the series debuting this spring, so you’ve got some catching up to do. But this is a series that marathons well. The central concept is a bit preposterous, but the script is weird and fun, and it’s hard to argue with the magnetism of the characters or the allure of the action scenes. Crunchyroll and Hulu have it.
6) The Heroic Legend of Arslan
Long ago, an animation studio called Madhouse created a sumptuous, beautiful adaptation of a well-loved, low fantasy series from Yoshiki Tanaka, the creator of Legend of the Galactic Heroes. Split across several OVAs, The Heroic Legend of Arslan gave us a weird, fanciful version of Persia, with a number of other nations vying for supremacy. At the center of the conflict is the kingdom of Pars, and its young prince Arslan. The original animated version was beautiful, but kind of sputtered to a stop. This new TV series doesn’t have the original’s visual lustern- it’s based on a new manga adaptation by Hiromu “Fullmetal Alchemist” Arakawa, whose designs are pleasant but very plain – but what it has instead is a little breathing room, some time to let the characters and conflicts really simmer and sink in.
Here, we meet Arslan as a boy, scion to a powerful empire, but neglected by his disaffected mother and warlike father. A chance encounter with an escaped slave blows the roof of of Arslan’s naive view of his kingdom as a benevolent power, putting him on the first step of a path towards kinder rulership. As Pars’ wars with its neighbors heat up, Arslan seems timid at first, but he understands large-scale combat and negotiation in ways that his angry dad can’t. The Heroic Legend of Arslan is a different kind of fantasy series – it’s got the swords and armor and horses and big shields, but it’s not big on magic and elves and fairies. So far, it’s captivating stuff, with Arakawa’s familiar designs making Tanaka’s obscure-in-the-west classic more accessible. You can watch it on Funimation and Hulu.
5) My Love Story!!
What if the stereotypical “nice guy” really were a nice guy? Before you take umbrage at my tarring of nice guys everywhere with the same brush, let me be clear: I’m talking about that specific type of nice guy who’s perpetually adrift in the dating scene because he seems to treat all social interaction as transactional, and obstinately insists on figuring out the correct formula or game theory for successfully courting a lady. On the surface, Takeo resembles that kind of guy a little bit: he’s huge and halting and goofy-looking, but tough, blunt, and honorable. Consequently, while his male classmates are in his corner, girls just seem terrified of the dude. But it’s not so bad: Takeo doesn’t gripe and obsess about the lack of romance in his life. He accepts, with a sort of resigned good humor, that any girl in his orbit really just has designs on his best buddy, the handsome Makoto Sunakawa.
A chance encounter on the subway brings one such girl, Rinko Yamato, into Takeo’s orbit. And then something awesome happens: it soon becomes apparent to pretty much everyone in the story except Takeo that Yamato, while not exactly falling into his arms, is keenly interested in getting to know him better. Yes, him, and not just his pal Sunakawa. While Sunakawa stands on the sidelines and grapples with his own conflicted feelings, we get to watch Yamato court Takeo. My Love Story!! is a great feel-good teen comedy – the girl is cute as a button, the laconic best buddy is cute as a button, and yes, even the big awkward goon of a main character is cute as a button. You can see it on Crunchyroll.
4) Ninja Slayer: From Animation
Here’s an epic ninja tale in the tradition of Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, Ninja III: The Domination, and the whole rest of the parade of bizarre, amusingly orientalist ninja movies and TV shows from 1980s America. The setup is simple: possibly fictional authors Bradley Bond and Philip Ninj@ Morzez started writing Ninja Slayer, the tale of a ninja who slays other ninja (after all, only a ninja can defeat a ninja. The trailer for Revenge of the Ninja told me so!), as a series of funny tweets “translated” back into Japanese. But the humor and aesthetic caught on, and funny tweets led to novels, manga, and now a new animated series from Studio Trigger, the Kill la Kill people.
Don’t expect a high-octane action cartoon in the vein of Kill la Kill, though. Trigger also created the hilarious, barely-animated Youtube hit Inferno Cop, and Ninja Slayer sits somewhere between the two in terms of animation quality and presentation; the show cannons unpredictably between eye-popping, exciting action animation and what amounts to stick figures whacking away at each other. It’s still brisk, exciting, and funny as hell, though – remember, as the series hero proclaims, all ninja shall perish! You can watch this on Funimation.
3) Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders – Egypt Arc
The secret is out on Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. Hugely popular in Japan, the long-running shonen action series had long been relegated to cult status in the English-speaking world… until 2013, when a studio called David Production whipped up an intense, colorful, and thoroughly entertaining adaptation of the manga, starting right from the beginning, with English nobleman Jonathan Joestar forced to use mystical martial arts in his fight against his power-hungry vampiric rival, Dio Brando. The show’s profile got even bigger with last year’s sequel Stardust Crusaders, which picks up the tale of Jonathan’s great-great grandson, Jotaro Kujo. Jotaro’s the world’s coolest teen, a sneering, sardonic, utterly unflappable delinquent with a penchant for fistfights and a psychic powered “stand” familiar that moves faster than the speed of sound. His adversary? Dio Brando, the world’s coolest bad guy/immortal vampire. Turns out that for the Joestar clan, fighting Dio is a family affair.
Stardust Crusaders spun through its globe-trotting first segment in a pretty entertaining manner, but the show’s second half, baldly subtitled “Egypt Arc,” has really upped the ante, adding a foul-tempered psychic Boston Terrier to the heroes’ party (which, along with Jotaro, also includes his cantankerous and Engrish-spewing grandpa Joseph, charming school chum Kakyoin, Egyptian fortune teller Avdol, and bumbling Frenchman Polnareff) and introducing a parade of ever-increasingly absurd bad guys, from a shy kid whose comic book will predict your death to a gambler who wagers human souls. The show’s gearing up for the big final battle with Dio, so settle in and get ready for a slam-bang exciting finish – and keep your fingers crossed that David Production will commit to animating Diamond is Unbreakable, the next Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure saga. Until then, you can watch Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure – not just the Egypt Arc, but the whole story so far – on Crunchyroll.
2) Sound! Euphonium
Were you a band geek in high school? I was. I played the trombone in a small ensemble, and fondly remember afternoons spent dealing with good times and drama in sectionals rehearsal, before trying to awkwardly glue the entire composition together in rehearsal and then performance. Sound! Euphonium is about those afternoons – on the surface, it seems to resemble studio Kyoto Animation’s smash hit K-On! (hey, it’s girls! And they’re in a band!), but it’s actually a much more quiet, restrained study of school life than K-On!‘s sitcom antics. Kumiko ended her junior high band experience in a way that she thought was fine at first – while not qualifying for nationals competition, her ensemble picked up a “dud gold” medal. But a few careless words to a bandmate leave the latter girl in tears, and Kumiko wondering if it was all worth it after all.
Next year high school starts, and straight away Kumiko bumps into Reina, the girl she’d inadvertently upset. The school’s band is terrible, though; should she join, and risk more drama and disappointment? Sound! Euphonium‘s opening episodes cover Kumiko meeting new friends, trying to reconnect with Reina, wondering if it isn’t time to switch instruments (hint: the title isn’t Sound! Trombone), and keeping her chin up as the new teacher/conductor rakes the lazy, sloppy ensemble over the coals. Kyoto Animation have spent the last several years refining their approach to TV animation, and it really shows: Sound! Euphonium might not be your cup of tea, but it’s absolutely the best-looking anime on TV this season, brimming with intense visual splendor. If you were a band geek like me, this stuff will make you miss the hell out of the experience. “Be careful,” an older friend warns with a knowing smile in episode two, “the next few years are gonna pass by in a flash!” Sound! Euphonium shows up every Tuesday on Crunchyroll.
1) Blood Blockade Battlefront
Remember how one of the central conceits of Ghosbusters was the idea of the barrier between the spirit world and good ol’ chaotic NYC coming tumbling down? Blood Blockade Battlefront takes that idea and runs with it, following the main character into the Big Apple some time after the collision of the city and the realm of demons has given birth to a new city – Hellsalem’s Lot, where humankind and demonkind coexist peacefully! Well, sort of. Anyway, thanks to an amusing case of mistaken identity, a newcomer to the city named Leonardo Watch is roped into Libra, the organization dedicated to keeping a lid on the supernatural goings -on in Hellsalem’s Lot.
See, monsters and magic inside the city is fine and good, but they can’t be allowed to spread beyond, to the rest of the mundane world. That’s where Libra comes in – led by the stern, intelligent, and werewolf-lookin’ Klaus von Reinherz (special power: can make huge, cross-shaped magical battle…things…?), Libra acts as sort of a supernatural police force. Along with Klaus and Leonard, who has the all-seeing eyes of God (no really, that’s his special power!), the team is filled out with a riot of fun characters with improbable names, like Zapp Renfro, Chain Sumeragi, and Stephen A. Starphase. Blood Blockade Battlefront dishes up high-tempo, first-rate action from the mind of the Trigun guy, Yasuhiro Nightow. The comic is pretty good, but it’s given a mighty boost thanks to the prowess of rising star director Rie Matsumoto. You can (and definitely should) catch the action on Hulu or Funimation.
That’s what I’ve got for you, as spring turns to summer. So anime fans, which will prevail: red-hot supernatural battle action, or high school concert bands?! I leave you to decide.
Previously by Mike Toole:
TR’s 10 Best Manga of 2014
The 10 Best Things About the Dope New Batman ’66 Blu-ray Collection (Besides Its Mere Existence)
9 Interesting Ways Edge of Tomorrow/Live. Die. Repeat. Differs from its Source Material