Of all the sleepers on my Fall list, this might have been the deepest. At least, it’s the show that seemed to dovetail least with my tastes in anime. It was strictly a matter of a gut feeling with this one, nothing more.
I guess my response after watching the premiere is that I was probably half-right. I do think Non Non Biyori is better than it looks on paper, and it runs a little deeper than it first appears. But I also didn’t get a sense that it’s going to be anything extraordinary – just a breezy, amusing pure slice-of-life with very pretty scenery and the occasional sharp gag.
This show seems like an odd choice for Silver Link, who’re definitely showing a different face here than we’ve seen before. Imagine Higurashi if nothing bad ever happened – or at least nothing worse than missing the bus – and you get a little sense of the setting. The town is tiny, somewhere in the Japanese countryside, and there are only five students – four girls and one boy (who seems never to speak and whom the others seem to pretend doesn’t exist, despite the fact that two of them are his sisters – rather fitting, that). All of them share one classroom despite the wide difference in ages, something that happens very commonly in such tiny rural hamlets. This scene is less far-fetched than you might think in Japan, where young people have been fleeing the countryside for Tokyo for decades which, combined with the low birth rate, has made rural areas increasingly the realm of the elderly.
Most of the humor in the premiere is derived from the culture clash when a new student moves in from Tokyo, along with general observations on the idyllic nature of country life. None of it is exceptionally funny, but there are nice moments – like the bafflement the locals express when the new girl produces a house key, most of them never having seen a lock (one suggests she use it to fillet mackerel). I also liked the device of showing the preview on a TV inside one of the houses. There’s some cleverness and wit here and thankfully, the show isn’t sweet enough to rot your teeth. I’ll watch a couple more episodes, but absent a spark of brilliance I didn’t see in the premiere I think Non Non Biyori will function mostly as a change-of-pace.
Aoki Hagane no Arpeggio: Ars Nova – 01
The old school theme of this season continues apace with Ars Nova, a series that in premise seems mostly cut from the cloth of 90’s sci-fi anime. Mankind has been forced into decline by a mysterious enemy, and only a small force of teen soldiers can save it. Led by the son of a captain who disappeared – supposedly defecting to the enemy side – and a mysterious and alien little girl, they fight mankind’s last desperate battle for survival.
There are a couple of modernizing twists here, though, neither or which adds a whole lot of value for me. First we have the enemy – “The Fog” (with apologies to John Carpenter) – taking the form of cute teenage girls as battleships, which seems like a pretty transparent attempt to ride the flavor of the week (though to be fair the manga debuted in 2009), and one of the dumbest trends in anime. The other is an almost total reliance on CGI, even for the character scenes, which undercuts much of the sense of classic sci-fi a show with this premise might otherwise have had. Plainly put, this technology still needs a lot of work and every anime that rides it too hard pays a serious price in terms of visuals.
Kishi Seiji and Uezu Makoto are capable of some terrific work, but Blue Arpeggio plays as pretty lifeless for me. There just isn’t a whole lot of energy to the premiere – it feels very rote and by-the-books. Rather than classic the premise just seems recycled, and none of the characters makes a particularly strong impression. With it’s nods to fad and utililization of classic tropes, this gives the premiere an odd (and not especially winning) feeling of both trying too hard and not trying very hard at all. I had modestly high hopes for this one, but the first episode doesn’t give much reason to think Ars Nova is going to have much to offer.
Gundam Build Fighters – 01
For a 25-minute commercial, that wasn’t half-bad. If we’re to be honest pretty much every Gundam series is a commercial when push comes to shove, so I won’t hold it against Build Fighters for being so honest about it.
I’m decidedly less than expert when it comes to the Gundam franchise, but I do have enough experience with it to know that GBF is a pretty lightweight effort. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, as it leaves the show free to be a straightforward kids’ adventure story, which is executes with a good deal of energy and humor. As these sorts of series go Gundam Build Fighters is pretty good. It takes us to the world of Gunpla battles, and specifically that of Iori Sei (Komatsu Mikaku, in full Joey Jones mode). He’s an earnest youngster who works the hobby shop his Dad, a legendary Gunpla fighter, built, and while Sei is great at building models he sucks at using them in the VR-styled Gunpla battle simulator, as his irritating friend/rival Sazaki (Hirohashi Ryou) reminds him in a string of humiliating defeats.
The fantasy element in the plot comes in the form of Reiji (Kokuryu Sachi), a mysterious boy who’s alien enough not to know the bread on display in front of the bakery isn’t being given away. He has a habit of appearing and disappearing at will, and after Sei does him a solid by helping beat a shoplifting rap he gives Sei a stone which allows him to summon Reiji whenever he has a wish. We also get a visit from “Mr. Ral” (Hirose Masashi) a tribute to a character from the original Mobile Suit Gundam, Ramba Ral – even bringing back Masahi-san as the seiyuu.
That surprising twist is a testament to the fact that GBF is just a little bit smarter, funnier and more clever than you feared it might be. Take it for what it is – a kids’ series designed to entertain youngsters and serious Gundam otaku and sell a few models – and it would be hard to be disappointed. It certainly isn’t essential viewing for anyone who doesn’t fall into one of those two groups, but it’s still quite fun – I’ve already seen several premieres this Fall that I’d be less eager to watch a second episode of, that’s for sure.