I haven't slacked off on my manga, though, so let's start with that:
Hoshin Engi (23 Volumes)
I love this series.
I actually remember that this was the first series I ever read scanlated waaaaay back in 2001 or 2002. I had stumbled upon it in the midst of my Anipike wanderings (who remembers Anipike?!) and was totally in love with a hero who used his brains instead of his brawn. Later, when I watched the Soul Hunter anime several years later, I realized that it was based on that manga I read back in high school. Since then, I decided to use a bit of brains myself and got my local library to pick up the whole series.
And what a great series it is. Taikobo is a sen'nin, a kind of supernatural being, who is given the Hoshin Project to help protect the world from a Demon who has taken control of the Empire. Based on a classic Chinese novel that takes place at the end of the Yin Dynasty (roughly 11th Century BC), Ryu Fujisaki takes several liberties, slowly adding more and more science fiction elements that turn it into quite the epic.
The thing that sets Taikobo apart from his fellow Shonen Jump peers is his way of solving problems. Instead of resorting to brawn and tapping on reserved powers, Taikobo uses his brain, creating cunning plans to outwit his enemies. While this is still a fighting anime series (Taikobo does raise an army and gathers a handful of companions), his methods tend to be so unorthodox that it instantly makes him memorable. More than once he twists the situation to the point that he's the villain just so that the problem can be solved without any casualties. His kind of cunning and meta-problem-solving makes him very reminiscent of other famous Trickster Heroes like Br'er Rabbit and Till Eulenspiegel (or Bugs Bunny, if your not some snobby folklore literatus).
Another element that makes this series stand out is that it never compromises its goofiness. Even to its epic finale, it never takes itself too seriously and is a total blast to read from beginning to end. This series is highly recommended for everyone. Go read it!
Dragon Ball Kai (97 Episodes)
I know I reviewed Dragon Ball Z already on this blog, but I figured it'd be worth at least talking about the Kai version for a bit.
Dragon Ball Kai covers the first two major story arcs of Dragon Ball Z and while it's cool that they got all the voice actors to redo the dialogue and gave it a new soundtrack, it does feel a bit like a cash cow, given that they're simply reusing old animation and given it an HD face lift.
Unfortunately, I don't know if their "face lift" really helped much. There were times when I watched it that I felt the animation was worse than the original. Never during my run of DBZ did I think some of the frames had been colored win MS Paint by a middle schooler. I understand that they were trying to smooth out some of the faults of the old films but some of those shots just looked terrible. They didn't happen often, but I think I saw almost one scene per episode that was like that.
The pacing certainly was interesting, though, as they decided completely new points on which to end episodes. However, having most of the filler cut down still didn't make the series feel any shorter, and when filler was left in, I was a bit annoyed, but I understood that some of the later scenes wouldn't make sense if side characters suddenly appeared out of nowhere.
I admit that I think the music was an improvement over the original Japanese soundtrack. While all the orchestral scores were still very Toei, it felt fresh whereas the old one was a bit dated.
As for the series ending where it did, I'm okay with that. I never really got into the Majin Buu/Fusion stuff, and having the story end there does give it a better sense of closure without resorting to the ridiculous. I know that FUNimation completely redubbed the series (I remember joking that they could edit up the old dialogue in the same spirit as Toei, so redubbing it is pretty cool), but I haven't watched any of it. Should I ever get the feeling of watching more Dragon Ball, I'll have that to look forward to. To be honest, it's been a bizarre, if minor, trend lately to release/rehash a popular series. We've just had Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Rebuild of Evangelion, and now Hunter x Hunter is being given a second shot with rumors of Rurouni Kenshin making a comeback. At least they're all being reanimated, something that I think could have improved Kai greatly. Oh well.
Fractale (11 Episodes)
This wants to be a Studio Ghibli film so bad it hurts. I imagine going up to anime producers and saying "Castle in the Sky in eleven episodes" may be a great way to get attention from the get-go, I think it's worth remember that a movie is only two hours and a season's worth of anime is around ten.
I'm going to borrow Wikipedia's plot summary. It's not exactly something I want to do, but they're pretty concise this time and I'm feeling a bit lazy. "The story takes place on an island resembling a futuristic Ireland, in a world ruled by the 'Fractale System' that ensures mankind's stability and prosperity. One day, Clain meets a fleeing girl called Phryne, who disappears during the night leaving a pendant. When he is able to activate the pendant (which turns into a 'doppel,' a kind of robotic hologram, named Nessa), Clain sets out for a journey with the girl-shaped avatar Nessa to look for Phryne and discovers the secret behind the Fractale System." From there Clain runs into Lost Millennium, a rebel group dedicated to destroying the Fractale System because it encourages people to lose touch with reality and face-to-face conversation. However, people are so adjusted to the Fractale System that taking it away all at once could cause all sorts of problems. To Clain's credit, he takes neither side and only wants to help his friends Phryne and Nessa, both of which turn out to be fundamental to the Fractale System.
While it certainly does try to raise some interesting questions (pros and cons of virtual reality, etc.), and gives us some nice, sweeping landscapes and epic airship battles, it really can't shake the notion that it's simply padding in filler until the climax. I think that 11 episodes really was too long for the story it was trying to tell; perhaps if they reanimated it as a compilation movie, it'd work better.
Still, it was a pleasant change from the normal anime fare we get these days. Nice pastoral scenes and music, especially the end theme, create a very casual, relaxing feel even as things get turned upside-down and serious. Given the modern trends of hardcore grit or over-the-top moe, Fractale offers and nice third direction that aspires for Miyazaki greatness. It's just a shame that it falls so short.
Hopefully, I'll get back on top of this blog and post more regularly. I can't promise anything too regular, just striving to write more than I have been. I still have my Fall 2010 selections to finish (I'm almost done), and Infinite Stratos and Level E from Winter 2011. I watch all of Zeta Gundam but decided that I really didn't have much to say about it. It was very angsty to a fault. I mean, something must be wrong when I get excited about a character's death simply because it means that I don't have to hear them anymore. I've put ZZ Gundam on hiatus but I plan to get back to it shortly.
Speaking of Gundam, I'm very excited about this upcoming Fall season of anime. Gundam AGE looks to be like no other Gundam before it. While some are concerned about the Mega Man/Digimon-style character designs, I have no problem with them as long as the story can hold up. The second season of Shinryaku! Ika Musume (Squid Girl) is a part of that season as well, and the aforementioned Hunter x Hunter remake by Madhouse (MADHOUSE!) starts in October. I've actually started watching the first anime series to prepare for it as I'm caught up on the manga. However, after watching three episodes dubbed, I've switched to subs, something I've only done once before and that's with Naruto. It's probably just as well, given that all the OVA's won't have dubs.
In any case, look forward to more reviews as I'm trying to get back into an anime watching rhythm!