So it’s the usual U.S. robot cartoons — a good episode of Transformers and a really irritating episode of Voltron that made me think twice about watching the next one — plus I started plowing through the Tiger & Bunny episodes I haven’t seen yet, ending with a big turning point that’s got me charged up to start through the next few. But the big one this week is the dramatic return of Utena director Kunihiko Ikuhara, the premiere of Mawaru Penguindrum. Thoughts on all of the above below.
Transformers Prime episode 18: Metal Attraction
While this episode features a lost Cybertronian device of the week for the various factions to battle over, much in the mold of the original 80’s television series, this week’s episode is really all about relationships. Jack’s mom is uncomfortable with her son racing off with Arcee, Arcee’s bummed about that given how successfully she’s protected her human partner — and consequently she’s worried that she’s acting the same way when she tells Miko to scram once a battle breaks out. (I love how she and Bulkhead basically tell the brat that getting her adrenaline high in the middle of a battlefield isn’t worth her life.) Miko’s worrying that with Jack out of play Bulkhead and Arcee are getting closer, and is also whining about how their “secret clubhouse” has been violated by an adult. (As always, she’s completely self-centered and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks or how they feel.) Breakdown’s trying to improve his standing with Megatron after having to be rescued from mere puny flesh creatures. (His new eyepatch? Very cool. Here’s hoping that’s what the figure looks like.) Airachnid wants the magnetic weapon to keep the war from reaching her doorstep; I guess she just wants to perform her grotesque experiments in peace. And while those two fight over the device, who happens to show up but both of, as Miko puts it, their arch-enemies. Airachnid versus Breakdown, acting as an agent of Megatron and the “proper” Decepticons, becomes Airachnid and Breakdown versus Arcee and Bulkhead, with Miko watching from atop a cliff.
It’s nice that by the episode’s end Jack’s mom sees that the Autobots are responsible enough that they know what’s reasonably safe and routine and what’s not — or at least, Arcee is. Bulkhead’s turning into kind of a pushover. (Also: hey, he dropped an Animated-style “My bad!”) As always, what would be an ongoing and frustrating element of any other show gets brought up and resolved within the half hour; this show’s got other business it wants to attend to, and having Jack’s mom as a wedge between Jack and Arcee on an ongoing basis would just be a distraction. I’m also interested in seeing how Airachnid plays against the other Decepticons, especially fellow miscreants Knockout and Starscream. Lots of good fighting this week, solid animation — really, this show’s going from strength to strength. Fantastic stuff.
V0ltron Force episode 5: Joyride to Doom
There’s a very fine line between “spirited and overeager” and “utterly obnoxious.” In the opening minutes of this episode, Daniel winds up so far on the “obnoxious” side that you can’t even see him from the line anymore. He’s a speck in the distance, smaller than a bug. Which is entirely appropriate, as I’d love to see him squashed like one at this point. In the opening scene, Pidge explains that he’d like to have some of the mysterious Drule power source that was weakening the Lions in the opening three-parter. Daniel decides that instead of studying he wants to get into the cockpit of the Black Lion again and, say, go find that power source on Planet Doom. Because Vince is always game to do whatever Daniel suggests and Larmina is just as obnoxiously impulsive, the three steal three of the Lions — and because Vince never gets what he wants, being black and all, he doesn’t get the Lion he wanted — and head straight for Doom.
Things do pick up a bit on Planet Doom. I love how totally right the place looks and how we even get music reminiscent of the original show’s Planet Doom riff. I love that when Lotor winds up powered up by the Hagarrium he immediately crushes a statue of his father. I also love that the villains aren’t anywhere near as stupid as Daniel, Vince, and Larmina expect, at least at the outset; they’re spotted within minutes, and with the three Lions they stole captured, the Drule Empire takes swift action against Arus. It’s smart scripting, but all it does is make me hate Daniel so very much. In the end, the day is only saved by another Vince Ex Machina moment. The cadets escape and return to Arus with the Lions, where Voltron is formed. As Lotor cuts Voltron apart, Vince, in the Red Lion, starts to glow and zone out again, and suddenly Voltron is restored, disassembles, and Red Lion “forms the head” and gets a pair of Blazing Shotguns. Which is cool, and I’ll totally buy that toy once Mattel puts it on store shelves.
My biggest problem with this episode, besides Daniel being an impulsive idiot demanding unearned respect, is that the upper hand is held by either party only due to poorly explained magic power sources — Haggarium on the Drules’ side, and poor Vince on Voltron’s side.
I’ve got another episode in the queue here, and right now I’m tempted to just stop here. I almost stopped watching this one during the pre-credits sequence. The character animation is still ugly and bad, and the heroes’ very toyetic weapons mean that short of the enemy’s Haggarium they can just beat off the Drules all Dynasty Warriors-style. It’s not any fun to watch the hand-to-hand stuff because it’s so ridiculously unequal. When I’m starting to root for Lotor as he cuts Voltron’s head down the middle with a buzzsaw, you’re doing something wrong.
Mawaru Penguindrum episode 1: The Bell of Fate Tolls
I don’t know if this show is going to be great like Kunihiko Ikuhara’s previous directorial effort, 1998’s Revolutionary Girl Utena (one of my all-time favorite television series ever), but it’s off to an intriguing start and it certainly has a similar visual flash and style to it. The story so far is relatively simple: two young men live in a run-down home with their dying sister. They take her out to the aquarium, a place where they have warm childhood memories, as a treat and at the end of the trip she collapses, and shortly dies at the hospital. As one boy wallows in grief and the other tries to work out what to do next, she snaps upright on her deathbed, revived by an outside force, but at a price — as they discover, they must locate something called the Penguindrum, and to assist them they’ve been given three cute penguins that only they can see to assist them. Thus far the characters aren’t exactly deep; sister Himari is the almost too-sweet object of her brothers’ affection, taller red-haired brother Shoma is a bit of a ladies’ man and the stronger, more masculine of the two, while blue-haired Kanba is more emotional. I’m not sure if he’s supposed to be more emotional in a stereotypically feminine way — the haircut doesn’t do him any favors in that department — or just more emotional in a childish way. It’s a pair of bishonen brothers; it could go either way, or both. But the character designs are fantastic and stylish, the animation is really good, the 3D CG shortcuts are cute — for instance, paper doll cut-outs drift through scenes to suggest crowds — and I’m always game for a story about the rejection of fate, especially when — as the show’s opening monologue, delivered by Shoma, suggests — this family has already been through so much pain and suffering. I think the best thing about this first episode is that it gives very little hint as to where the show is going to go from here. Who is the mysterious figure speaking through Himari? Are Kanba’s classmates going to figure in heavily or are they going to be mere windowdressing? What is the Penguindrum, and how are the boys going to find it? What’s with the weird CG FX stock animation sequence that happened when the mysterious controlling force shouted “SURVIVAL STRATEGY!” So many questions left tantalizingly open! I can’t wait to see how they’re answered.
Tiger & Bunny episode 8: There Is Always a Next Time
It’s interesting watching this episode in the wake of the “let’s kill them all” “heroism” of Transformers: Dark of the Moon‘s Optimus Prime; rogue NEXT Lunatic engages in that kind of behavior towards the criminal element, and an easily swayed public starts to rally around this scary, mysterious figure. I find it interesting that the meeting of the heroes’ sponsors has a very sinister, SEELE vibe to it; these guys aren’t exactly bright and shiny either, interested in the public’s faith in the heroes only because it’s bad for business if people stop rallying around them. The result of this meeting is a bunch of P.R. stunts like heroes visiting hospitals and cleaning up litter and such. This leads to an appearance by the two leads at the Hero Academy, where the bulk of the story takes place, a “crisis of faith” story featuring one of the heroes we haven’t spent much time with, Origami Cyclone, and an incident from his past that he’s allowed to define his life as a hero. There’s some great drama in here, although it does feel a bit rushed. My worry about an appearance from Lunatic was only sort of warranted; it dovetails nicely into the episode’s plot. This episode didn’t feel quite as simple or pat as earlier episodes, and best of all, Wild Tiger didn’t come off as such a big joke. It left me feeling pretty good about the series as a whole. It does leave me wondering what Lunatic’s real goals are given his true identity.
Tiger & Bunny episode 9: Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child
It’s the “heroes take care of a baby, hilarity ensues” episode, which also serves as a one-off to explore another of the show’s satellite heroes, totally un-girly teenage hero Dragon Kid. A cute episode with some fun character stuff, especially the sequence where everyone takes a shot at trying to appease the baby — Blue Rose’s freak-out was a standout — but no real great shakes, and the baby-kidnapping villains are pretty annoying. The one thing I did appreciate was how in the wake of Wild Tiger’s fight with Lunatic last episode Barnaby is starting to warm to his partner and even trust him with bits of his tragic past; when the research he’s done on Ouroboros accidentally pops up I expected it to go unremarked for the rest of the episode, but when the two of them are later relaxing with some drinks Barnaby opens up about it when asked and even brings the image up on his big screen. It was a nice moment that shows how far he and Wild Tiger have come.
Tiger & Bunny episode 10: The Calm Before the Storm
In which Wild Tiger is forced to take a vacation and Barnaby discovers who killed his parents. Then all hell breaks loose and … well, it’s quite a turning point for the series and Barnaby in particular. A bit tidy and coincidental, but there are some great heroic struggles and rewarding revelations. I enjoyed it, though the climax didn’t really grip me emotionally. You know what actually grabbed me? The opening minutes, where Wild Tiger is on the phone with his daughter, and he’s realizing that she’s growing up without him. THAT really grabbed me. THAT really pulled at my heartstrings. The dramatic battles with the army of robots, Wild Tiger’s effort to save one woman in the face of rapid gunfire, that was pretty engaging stuff, but it didn’t hit me anywhere near as hard as Wild Tiger’s realization that while he fights for the people of Stern Bild at the behest of a rich old man with an awful combover alongside a partner who’s only just now starting to open up to him, his daughter is turning into a young woman, one who thinks her dad is a total flake who can’t be bothered to come see her. It’s an interesting twist on the superhero secret identity thing, too, because you don’t see a lot of older superheroes hiding the hero thing from their kids. Seeing how he got badly wounded a couple of episodes ago, I keep wondering, if this thing ends with Wild Tiger dying — unlikely given the way it keeps returning to a cheery tone — how does that play with his mother and daughter? Something to think about.