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Love All Play Episodes 1-13

If there's one thing Love All Play unquestionably has going for it, it's the facial expressions. That perhaps sounds like an odd thing to praise in a sports show, but it truly is one of the standout features of both art and animation; each fleeting emotion that the characters feel can be seen on their faces, from mild reactions to more extreme feelings, and not only is it fun to watch, it also helps to make each of them feel like distinct individuals. That even goes for identical twins Taichi and Youji; while they still function as a set in the best anime fashion, their facial expressions vary from each other based on what's going on around them, and even if you still can't quite grasp which is which, it's readily apparent that they're two separate people with their own thoughts and feelings. (In an equally nice touch, when we see them in their street clothes, they don't dress identically.) There's just more nuance to everyone's reactions than you might expect, and that really helps to keep emotional story beats moving. That's important, because the plot itself is fairly cookie-cutter. The story follows Ryo Mizushima, a rising first-year, and the other five incoming students on the badminton team at Yokohama-Minato High School as they begin moving ahead in their sport. Five of the six were specifically scouted by Coach Ebihara, with the standout being Koki Matsuda, an expressionless powerhouse of a player. First-year number six is Akira, who switched to badminton from ping pong upon entering high school, and the other four players run a gamut of skill levels between the two. All of them have to learn to adjust to a higher level of play as well as each other, with the major interpersonal relationship work taking place between Sakaki and Ryo, both former singles players who have to learn to function as a two-person unit. As these episodes, which cover most of their first year of high school, go on, we see everyone learn to improve and to bond with each other in typical team sports fashion. Or is it so typical? There's a real sense of friendship building between the boys as they try to figure each other out, with Koki being the most pleasant surprise. He at first seems like the usual snooty prince-of-the-court figure who doesn't give a damn about anyone else, but that is slowly peeled back to reveal that he's just a truly awkward, lonely individual; when we watch him interacting with his teammates or observing their games, we can see that he really does consider them friends, even if he can't quite admit it. He's clearly frustrated by Ryo a lot as they compete for the top spot in newbie tournaments, but if he wasn't it frankly wouldn't feel natural. And besides, we do have the selfish jerk character to contrast him with in the form of second-year Yusa. While both Yusa and Koki demonstrate a lot of similar attitudes, Koki is better able to get over his issues, and when he stumbles into Sakaki's family's restaurant, we get a better sense of why he's so awkward. Yusa, meanwhile, gives the impression of having heard that he's the best for a bit too long, although we do learn that he's also trying desperately to impress the girl of his dreams, which may also play into his attitude. One of the best scenes in these episodes is when Yusa discovers that his dream girl is, in fact, Ryo's older sister; not only is it entertaining, but it also shows us a crack in Yusa's façade that helps to make him a bit more rounded as a character. If it seems like I'm mostly talking about the cast rather than the action, that's because the latter is somewhat underwhelming comparatively. While we do see a decent amount of game play once the plot is established, the timeline of the story feels very rushed and choppy, with tournaments apparently just piling up one after the other at a rate that leaves you to wonder when they have time to practice. There are a couple of episodes devoted to regular life – the boys trying to talk Koki through a date he doesn't realize he's on is an interesting one – and we get a good sense of Ryo's family dynamic, but mostly this feels more like a show you watch for how the characters interact with each other than for the exciting sports action. I will say that it features a much more attentive coach than we sometimes see; Ebihara tailors his instructions to each individual player and appears to be training Akira to be a coach himself, both of which are nice to see. While he does sometimes tell players to think about their actions and see if they can figure out what they need to change, it's never without guidance or accompanied by any threats, making him a solid adult figure in an unobtrusive way. Love All Play is the sort of show that's good enough to keep watching even as it doesn't blow you out of the water. The character interactions are the heart of the show, but the badminton is not completely sidelined either; it's just not as well-paced as the rest of the story. While it may not be the hot-blooded sports action some viewers are looking for, it is a perfectly decent series, and certainly one that's good enough to hang on to for a second cour.

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She Professed Herself Pupil of the Wise Man

She Professed Herself Pupil of the Wise Man is a forgettable show, so much so that I found myself struggling to recall what happened in the earlier episodes by the time I reached the end. But to its credit, it's rarely actually irritating in its badness, nor does it treat its genderbending main character with flagrant disrespect (mostly). It is honestly a perfectly reasonable show to watch if you're in the mood for a light-hearted fantasy that doesn't demand too much of your attention. The story... Well, you've seen it before. An overpowered VRMMORPG player finds himself sucked into the game world for real and continues to curbstomp in this new setting. The twist, if it can be described as one, is that instead of playing a wise old man character, he is now in the body of a young girl. One would think that with a premise like that, a hefty narrative focus would be on genderbending shenanigans. But that aspect is honestly pretty subdued. There are a couple of obligatory jokes about people not taking a little girl seriously, and Mira expresses bemusement from time to time about dressing up in cute clothes, but gender identity is never touched upon at all in the dialogue. Perhaps it's because both "Danblf" (the wise old man) and "Mira" (the so-called pupil of the wise man) are fundamentally just roleplay characters as far as the gamer protagonist is concerned. Within this context, Mira is comfortable being referred to as a girl by the other characters, so in this review I will be using female pronouns for Mira and male pronouns for Danblf. The series establishes very quickly that despite the surface change in appearance, Mira has all the same powers and capabilities as her Danblf persona. Thirty years have passed in the game world when she wakes up in it as her new reality, but this has a negligible impact on the powerscaling. As a result, there is absolutely no tension in this story, whether it's internal in the form of Mira's sense of identity, or external in the form of physical threats to the realm. Solomon, a fellow top player who serves as the king of Arkite, talks of the need to reassemble all the other elite "wise men" characters from the game, but Mira embarks on this quest in an unhurried way. Even by the end, she's only made contact with a handful of old friends, so there's a sense that the story barely progresses at all. So if this anime is lacking in conflict or shenanigans, what does it even have to offer at all? Now that I'm posing the question to myself this bluntly, I'm struggling to answer it, which is probably the most damning response. I like the anime's sense of color and aesthetic, but the animation is middling, and the CG creatures are aggressively ugly to look at. Still, even when they stick to a formula, the individual episodes aren't so bad. The appeal is watching Mira team up with various guest party members and go on low-stakes adventures. Even though the game trappings are all too obvious, there's still a sense of whimsy about the world that makes the little discoveries fun. As for content warnings, the show is occasionally a little bit fetishistic. This isn't in the form of nudity, surprisingly. Although there is an episode called "I am naked" that does feature an extended sequence of what it says on the tin, the camera is neutral in its framing of Mira's body, and the other characters in the scene don't draw attention to it either. No, the weird thing about the show is its occasional fixation on peeing jokes. It was admittedly somewhat amusing the first time to watch this wise sage character deal with the very prosaic urge to pee, but when this joke kept coming back exclusively at Mira's expense, it was not only unfunny, but also started to come across as vaguely suspect. Mercifully, the other jokes in this anime are innocuous. Before I finish this review, I want to give a shoutout to the English dub, and especially to Felecia Angelle for her performance of Mira. Where Nichika Omori expresses Mira as more of a stereotypical "lolibaba" character in the cadence of her voice and the use of standard verbal quirks, Angelle used a deeper voice to channel the loftiness and dignity of Danblf's character. Both performances are valid, but I did find myself leaning a little more towards the English dub because it made Mira's character easier to accept as an extension of Danblf. Ultimately, this isn't a show I would recommend generally, but it does have little things to appreciate here and there.

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Puella Magi Madoka Magica: the Movie Trilogy 10th Anniversary Blu-ray Box Set

Given that this is the tenth anniversary release of these films, I'm going to assume some familiarity with them in this review. When Puella Magi Madoka Magica initially came out as a TV series (which the first two films are a retelling of), it started a conversation about the darkness inherent in the magical girl story. While some people credited the series with “making” the genre dark, the truth of the matter is that magical girl tales have always been dark – from the earliest progenitor of the magical girl I've been able to find, Zenmyo in the thirteenth century Tales of Gisho and Gangyo, who ultimately sacrifices herself for the people she loves, to Nurse Angel Ririka doing the same in the 1990s, to Sailor Moon sacrificing herself at least once a story arc. All of this informs Madoka and Homura's cycle of mutual self-sacrifice, and had magical girls not always had this dark undercurrent, a series with more of a focus on that aspect would not have been possible in the first place. That's something that's readily apparent in the imagery of all three of these films. While the first two don't necessarily do anything new with the plot from the original TV series, all three up the series' game to the point where the background visuals more or less qualify the collection as “art history on a plate.” From Russian Constructivism to a reproduction of one of Alphonse Mucha's Art Nouveau works, the designs of the witches and their labyrinths are a smorgasbord of art references. But that's not all: for every surrealist image or hint of Dadaism, there's also at least one visual reference to earlier magical girl stories. The most striking, and obvious, is of course the use of shadows, which feels very much like a tribute to Revolutionary Girl Utena's infamous Shadow Play Girls; by the third film we're even getting a play on the whole “smash the world's shell” bit, although in all fairness that owes a great deal to Hermann Hesse's 1919 novel Demian. The third movie also seems to owe a little something to the Sailor Moon Super S film, with its persistent imagery of toys and childhood, as well as a similar idea that while childhood (representative of innocence) is wonderful, to be stuck in it eternally is decidedly less so. This works well with the recurrent fairy tale imagery that we see as well – Sayaka's initial transformation puts her in the position of Little Red Riding Hood (although in the third film it's Madoka with the basket of goodies, which is symbolically very interesting if we consider Red as also representing “innocence”) with Kyubey as the Big Bad Wolf; later Sayaka is framed as the prince or knight figure, albeit one who cannot get through the thorns to reach Sleeping Beauty's castle. Going back to the notion of innocence, this means that Sayaka is able to preserve her own as Little Red Riding Hood by outwitting her pursuer, but she is unable to truly awaken to something beyond innocence – Sleeping Beauty can be framed as a story about awakening to adulthood, something no magical girl in the story's world ever gets to attain. Perhaps this is why we also see Mami and Madoka as Hansel and Gretel, a pair of red shoes (which in the Andersen tale must be cut off along with the dancing girl's feet), swans who are often trapped maidens, and of course Kyoko's ever-present apples: the instrument of Snow White's death, the fruit the boy in The Juniper Tree is reaching for when his stepmother kills him, and the accepted marker of Eve's forbidden knowledge. The pomegranates that appear briefly in the third movie are positively subtle by comparison, as are visual references to Cleopatra, Himiko, and Joan of Arc as past magical girls who had to die in order for the world to change. Although the first two films don't offer much that's new when compared to their source material, they are a very competent retelling of it that can still hit hard. The third film, Rebellion, is the wildcard of the collection, at least in terms of story. Some elements of it are very well done – it takes as its central question whether you'd want to wake up if you learned that your happy world was only a dream. As with the magical girl genre, this is a concept that can be traced back to early Japanese literature, with one tanka by Heian courtier Ono no Komachi specifically musing on it. Her answer is “If I'd known I was dreaming/I'd never have wakened,” but it's a much more difficult question in a two-hour film than a five-line poem. There are, of course, signs before the truth is revealed that attempt to lead us to the answer, with the two most striking being signs written in English – the first at the start says, “Welcome to the Cinema,” while midway through a second reads, “Do You Enjoy the Movie?” It's a bit too metafictional for its own good, but it still works with the idea of a dream you don't want to realize you're having. Regretfully this question and its answer feel far too cruel for the franchise as a whole, making the ending of the film feel like someone's edgy fanfiction scenario rather than an organic evolution of, specifically, Homura as a character. On the other hand, Sayaka's treatment feels much better than what she gets in the TV series, which is at least a bit of a balm to those who feel injured by the rest of it. Although the extras are slim – commercials and trailers are the only on-disc extras, while the cardstock box and a paper insert in the BD case are it for physical – this is still a good collection to pick up if you don't already own the movies or just want them all in one convenient place. The picture quality is beautiful and both English and Japanese language tracks are very well performed. The music works incredibly well with the mood of the story, and if the animation and art can be far too busy, well, that's just a good excuse to rewatch them. Puella Magi Madoka Magica may not have reinvented the magical girl story, but it is an important step in the genre's evolution. These films are both a pretty good place to start if you haven't experienced the franchise yet and a visual treat if you're already a fan.

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Yuri Espoir GN 1

Kokoro's death is impending. That's how she puts it to her friend Amami, anyway – her father is forcing her into an arranged marriage as soon as she finishes high school. The man she's meant to wed is a youngish (probably in his thirties) business associate who helped out her father's company, but to her, that's not the only distasteful aspect. Kokoro is a lesbian, and though she's still in the closet, that doesn't change the horror she feels. To Kokoro, this feels like a death sentence in more ways than one – not only does she make the aforementioned statement about her coming death, but she also describes penetrative sex as being slain with a bladed weapon, implying that once she is breached by a penis, her lesbian life will be destroyed. While this is phrased somewhat histrionically, the feelings are still valid, and that alone gives this a darker edge underneath some of the fluffier aspects of the story. That fluff begins to emerge almost immediately: to make herself feel better about never even having had a girlfriend, she enlists Amami to accompany her as she draws yuri couples in a notebook and tells herself stories about the girls and women she sees. After a bit of humorous misunderstanding wherein Amami doesn't realize what “yuri” means (perhaps making that case for the term GL), she agrees, at least in part because she very much has a horse in this race, even if Kokoro doesn't realize it. Well-intentioned fluff or not, this could have been a bad plot move – the idea of using real people for your fantasies isn't one that sits well with me, and neither is the fetishization of LGBTQIA+ couples. But Kokoro has no illusions about what she's doing; she's well aware that she's making things up and creating fantasies out of whole cloth to suit her own needs. She even makes up some rules she has to follow, one of which is that if she or Amami ever see the people they draw again, they can't say anything, keeping the women's real lives separate from whatever bedtime stories Kokoro needs to tell herself. It's the only way she's able to cope with the heteronormative life she's being forced into, and creator Mai Naoi makes that clear in the art very effectively: whenever someone talks about how great her marriage is going to be, all the light goes out of Kokoro's eyes and her expression freezes. It's like watching her just die while talking, whereas when Kokoro spots two women or girls together, she gets angel wings and sparkles in her eyes. All in all, this is kind of grim for a book with "hope" right in the title. (That's the meaning of the French “espoir.”) But it's not entirely without it – Amami has a four-bubble rant that strikes at the core of the entire story after Kokoro encounters an aunt who spouts a lot of garbage about marriage to a man being a woman's ultimate purpose in life: “Why do we have to get hurt because of people who can't differentiate between their happiness and someone else's? Why do we have to pay the price because those dinosaurs think that young people having the freedom to make their own choices negates the ones they made?” That's the heart of the book right there. Kokoro's fantasies aren't negating any choices or imposing her thoughts on anyone else; they exist only to soothe her. So why is her family and the world forcing their choices and dreams onto her? We can see this as well in the people she spins her dreams about, because each couple (or “couple”) she spots has two chapters devoted to them: one that's Kokoro's fantasy and one that tells us the truth about them. Some of them really are on the verge of becoming a couple, like Amai and Tsu – Tsu is cross-dressing as her twin brother who's dating multiple women, and when Amai finds out, she makes a choice that Kokoro could get behind. Others, like Seika and Eve, are trapped in a true love triangle that Kokoro never anticipated, while Sumika and Hitomi are worlds away from anything Kokoro could have come up with. It's a good way to tell Amami and Kokoro's story, because we can see many different relationships unfolding in each chapter, no matter whether they're real or imagined, and that gives us different lenses through which to view Kokoro's life – even when it turns out that her art teacher is an acquaintance of her fiancé and what that brings to the table. Yuri Espoir is an odd combination of froth and sadness. The way that the world seems hellbent on crushing Kokoro under the burden of false heteronormativity is undeniably tragic, but there is still hope in the form of Amami and her fantasies. That Kokoro gives all of the girls she's daydreaming about names that involve the word “yuri” is a fun touch, and if the art isn't spectacularly attractive, it still works quite well. It's a series worth checking out, even if parts of it can be a lot to take.

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Dropkick on My Devil!! Dash

So here we are with the second season of Dropkick on My Devil! and immediately it feels like I'm in an even trickier critical position than I was with the first season. At least I could approach the original season from the hypothetical angle of getting into the series from the beginning as we approach the crowd-funded third season's premiere. Dropkick on My Devil!! Dash is ostensibly just more of the original, so if you heeded my advice and confirmed if that freshman outing was for you or not, then the same should hold true for this follow-up. Never mind that I found the original Dropkick to be mostly serviceable while not necessarily to my tastes, meaning my consumption of this continuation marks it as more obligatory, and I basically binged the two seasons back to back and can already feel them blending together into one ultraviolent lowbrow-comedy cocktail within my brain to the point that I can't get the opening themes and background music out of my head and oh no will I ever be free— Dropkick on My Devil!! Dash starts with what could be considered some key additions and improvements to the original's structure, at least based on the issues I took with it at first. We actually start with a properly fleshed-out showing of Yurine's impulsive summoning of Jashin, the inciting incident of this whole venture, which definitely feels like a response to any communicated confusion the first season's premiere might have prompted. It lends just a little more sense of structure to the proceedings of Dash, followed up by a full-blown multi-episode story arc centered around, what else, Pekola's suffering. And perhaps it's the more dialed-up metahumor, or maybe it's the Stockholm-esque relationship I cultivated in consuming so much Dropkick in only a couple of weeks, but this opening stretch of the new season was the most fun I had with the series in a bit, prompting several actual laugh-out-loud reactions to its intense, concentrated humor. Things taper off just as well in the wake of that, of course. If I had to define the difference between the original Dropkick and Dash, it would be that the latter has much higher highs, but decidedly lower lows than the original. Expected, perhaps, from a series whose humor prided itself on extremes of content and character treatment, but it means that for every element of an episode that made me out-and-out guffaw – sequences like Jashin's contribution to the series' very title being questioned, or her taking out her aggressions on a deserving target like Twitter trolls for once – I was otherwise near dozing off from the show's long stretches of dedicated setup. I'll give the series credit for commitment to its bits; Dash particularly has no qualms about taking all the time it needs to concoct just the most infuriatingly amusing long-form punchlines at the end of a sketch. One early demonstration of this, for instance, would be the point at the beginning of the third episode, wherein they make clear that the title of the show is going to be jokingly replaced with 'Smart-Aleck Devil' for this one iteration of the opening, except that said title only appears at the end of the sequence, turning the whole thing into an oddly-paced waiting-game for viewers who might otherwise watch through Dropkick's absurd intro songs on the merits of their own entertainment value. It completely jibes with the knowing shitpost energy of the show, but also highlights how hit-or-miss the deployment of that specific kind of humor is going to be. But as I outlined at the beginning, that's the hitch with a show like Dropkick, isn't it? You know if it works for you or not already, so the role of critical evaluation like this, I suppose, ought to be one of comparison. I just outlined the functionality of those lower stretches of the show I felt were present, but what about those supposed improvements I alluded to? It's not just that the humor is either significantly funnier or I'm just used to it by now. The additional characters introduced in this iteration each bring something new to the cast, as to be expected in an eclectic ensemble excursion such as this. Persephone II's inclusion in the cast's circle turns out to be a sharper addition than I might have expected. Far from a cloying 'little sister' type for Jashin, she proves to be the one most capable of calling the dropkicking devil out on her bullshit, setting the stage for much of the show's antics to effectively punch down at the cartoon's villainous focal character in an even more entertaining way than last season. Meanwhile, Kyon-Kyon the Jiangshi and her panda-fied sister make the most of their surprisingly limited appearances in the show after their initial introduction. And additional angel Pino is a real standout as the suddenly-appearing villain of that opening story arc in the first couple episodes, but her presence somewhat levels off after she's pacified into custodial work for the rest of the series. On another developmental track, the hints from the first season that Jashin might actually be more tsundere towards her circle of 'friends' than she lets on continues here, allowing some (keyword: some) of her interactions with them to be softened to a more tolerable slapstick treatment overall. In particular, some flashbacks to how she became childhood friends with the likes of Medusa and Minos sheds some light on the more heartening aspects that established their relationship in general, while still maintaining that trademark Dropkick turnabout viciousness as a punchline. Even with that, the sincerity of connections between characters actually gets to linger as genuine in a few segments here, which is more than I could say for all the subversion-setups that the original's attempts at emotion always turned out to be. It's particularly notable as we come to the tenth episode's faux-finale fake-out, which of course throws us for a loop and continues on with more stupid-ass sketch comedy afterwards, but it's the thought that counts, and Dropkick seems to have just a few more thoughts bouncing around in its head this go-around. Does all that make this season 'better' when the slightly softened antics otherwise mean we're spending whole stretches watching characters eat pie and try on cosplay? This is the place where knowing whether Dropkick is your particular cup of tea will really be a make-or-break proposition: you either care for these characters long enough to watch them faff about in an extended run-up to some new form of hyper-bloody punch-line, or you just mentally check out thanks to sheer ambivalence. Things look a little nicer this go-around, at least, with a bit more fluid animation contributing to the antics as well as the action in places where real combat factors into the narrative. It probably helps that there was a little less show to go around in this season – it's technically only ten episodes long, with one bonus clip-show episode, and a later OVA release with still more lavish antics. It makes for a rewarding glow-up compared to the clunkiness I felt from the first season, while still maintaining the purposeful rougher charms that define Dropkick. More of the same, just with some of the dials cranked up even further than you thought they could go. I guess that's the ultimate verdict I can deliver on Dropkick on My Devil!! Dash: If you weren't a fan of the original, and were wondering if the second season would demonstrate enough updates or improvements to change that opinion...probably not. But if you were buying the original's specific brand of outlandishness, you can rest easy going into this one knowing it probably won't let you down. It's another step in the story that makes sense, of course; If Dash had been a let-down, there probably wouldn't have been that clamoring crowdfunded creation of the third season, so once again we end at the question of what you even needed me for here. Maybe it wasn't the same level of satisfactorily silly schadenfreude as watching Jashin be messily murdered on an episodic basis, but I can hope you gleaned at least some entertainment value from me grasping at what I thought worked and didn't with this unquestionably unique show. I'll see all of you back for the third season.

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