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First episodes round up: K-On!, Saki, Ristorante Paradiso, Valkyria Chronicles

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The Spring 2009 anime season marches on, and as always time is my enemy. Trying to keep up with the shows I am interested in is hard enough, let alone taking time out to sample the season’s other offerings. But sample I have, and here I present my findings on the first episodes of four shows that, while I may not follow them, you may want to check out.

K-On! (2009)

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There’s no denying that Kyoto Animation’s K-On! is the fan favourite this season, with the internet buzzing with enthusiasm and otaku bed-wetting glee. And it’s easy to see why – the story of four girls who join their high school’s music club to stop it from being shut down is a beautifully animated, professionally polished, and occasionally genuinely funny production. Sadly (for me at least) the things that make it appeal so much to foreign otaku – the moe fetishism, the over-kawaii character design, and the use of unsurprising, very established archetypes for all the main protagonists – are exactly the same things that bore me about current, mainstream anime. While I can see the attraction, but I can’t ever shake the feeling that I could just be watching yet another US high-school drama – the sort of thing that as a fully grown man just doesn’t appeal. The fact that it’s set in Japan and (admittedly very well) animated just isn’t enough for me sadly – but I’m sure I’m very much in the minority amongst the hardcore anime fans, so check it out yourself and make your own mind up.

Saki (2009)

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Another teen drama about girls in a high-school club, Gonzo’s Saki seems at first sight to be very similar to K-ON! in it’s premise and characters – and in many ways it is. However this isn’t the music club – it’s Mahjong club, something that makes the show seem – to non-Japanese viewers at least – seem gleefully insane at times. The way the Mahjong games are portrayed in the show has to be seen to be believed – tiles are thrown like they were Pokemon balls, J-Pop-techno pumps away in the background, and the ‘action’ is frequently interrupted by cut-scenes explaining the rules of the game or particular special moves. It’s so exhilarating and colourful – like the traditional game has been transformed into a battle sequence from a Japanese RPG – that it feels like the whole thing is a marketing exercise by some Mahjong Society of Japan to lure new recruits. Apparently it’s not, but it is baffling, kinetic and surreal enough to almost demand my attention for the rest of the series.

Unfortunately, Saki does one thing – and does it a lot – that will probably stop this from happening: fan service. Regular readers will know this is one of my bugbears, and again maybe this makes me an outsider from the otaku-hardcore, but watching barely teenage schoolgirls wearing skimpy clothes being soaked in the rain does nothing for me. In fact, it makes me feel pretty damn uncomfortable and party to exploitation. But that’s just me, and if that’s your cup of green-tea then you’ll love this, and I’m pretty sure I’ll probably check out some more episodes, if I can manage to avoid cringing and flinching between the Mahjong action sequences.

Ristorante Paradiso (2009)

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I was drawn to Ristorante Paradiso primarily because of it’s subject matter – an anime show about a small restaurant in Rome is unusual enough, but even more so when it’s staffed by mature gentlemen rather than scantily dressed young waitresses. In fact, that’s spectacle wearing mature gentlemen to be precise – the secret of the establishment’s success. It seems the clientele – also slightly mature, well-to-do Roman women – like that sort of thing. Yeah, Ristorante Paradiso is an unusual one.

Intriguing as the plot is again I can’t help thinking that as I’m not a Japanese housewife, perhaps I’m not exactly the target demographic here. Mildly erotic soap opera has never really been my bag, to be honest. That’s not that I’ve ruled the show out completely – I’ll probably be back again to check in on the elegant artwork, European art-house vibe and gentle pacing, plus as it’s the first solo outing by outsourcing studio David Productions I feel like I owe them a chance to show what they can do.

Valkyria Chronicles (2009)

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Based on the popular Sega tactical RPG of the same name, Valkyria Chronicles is set in a alternate, fictional 1930s Europe. and is centered around the story of militia group defending their quiet Germanic town from an approaching army of invading enemies. The first thing that strikes you about the how is it’s visuals – not only do they stick very closely to the graphics of the game, but they also ape it’s water colour art style, right down to being able to see the texture of the canvas below. It’s a similar technique as used in 2007’s Mononoke – although to create a far softer, less radical look – but it is no less aesthetically pleasing.

After watching and enjoying the first couple of episodes, I’m still not sure how closely I’ll follow the rest of the series – while the plot and artwork are interesting, so far the characters seem quite flat and basic, and the setting and historical background feel like they need more fleshing out. Hopefully the latter will come with time as the story unfolds. Oh, and it also features tanks. Big, bold, cool-looking, almost steampunk, stylised WW2 era tanks. Which, I have to admit, usually equals quick-win for me.

7 thoughts on “First episodes round up: K-On!, Saki, Ristorante Paradiso, Valkyria Chronicles

  1. Valkyria Chronicles, the anime, sounds alot like the game; interesting concept that grabs the attention but doesn’t do a huge amount to keep hold of it.

    Obviously the two come from different parts of the entertainment “spectrum” but I guess an average idea is an average idea no matter how it’s presented. Though from your review, the anime has more going for it than the game.

  2. That’s a shame, as I was actually thinking about picking up the game after watching the show…

  3. I’m usually not into that kind of anime, but K-ON! (and Kyoto animation shows in general) have some kind of special appeal. They are one of the few studios who really know how to do great character animation, and their animation quality is really outstanding for TV series. They are doing nearly everything in-house (even backgrounds) so it’s easier to maintain quality, a rare sight nowadays. Their share of female staff is also incredibly high, K-ON!, for example, has nearly an all-female staff so you can see the female sensibility everywhere (especially in the visceral character animation of the girls).

    Valkyria Chronicles and Saki are are rather disappointing (and don’t worry, there are many other anime fans who like the medium for its artistic merits and not for soaked girls in the rain ;).
    Ristorante Paradiso stands out through its unconventional concept, and I really enjoyed it so far.

    Maybe you can have a look at Eden of the East sometime, probably the best current series.

  4. @Ryan – yeah RP is interesting…plus my g/f recently asked ‘can we watch more of that show about the old-fellas’, so it looks like I might actually be in for the duration 🙂

    @raito-kun – there’s no denying the quality of K-ON!’s production, and as such I’ll probably be checking back in on it at some point this season. Stay tuned for a proper, in depth looks at both Eden of the East and Shangri-La over the next couple of weeks; both shows I’ve not completely made my mind up about yet…

    Thanks all for your comments, as always!

  5. Well, I have to agree on K-On: it’s all the classic, often-annoying elements in one. It’s also oddly addictive, because sometimes, they’re actually kinda clever… sometimes… And the ending song is so damn catchy! I think it’s fun that there’s a total lack of boys (the vague male teacher sighting notwithstanding).

    And all the girls crushing on each other and the teacher… It brings back so many memories! *hugs imaginary Tomotake-sensei* ^///^

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