Did you know there were other good anime airing this season besides Keep Your Hands of Eizouken? No, really, it’s true! From ghosts to golems and MMOs to magical girls, Winter 2020’s got a little something for everyone.
The team split up the three-episode reviews between staff volunteers, with one person putting together a short(ish) review on each series. Like we do with our check-in podcasts, we started from the bottom of our Premiere Digest list and worked our way up.
If we didn’t watch a show for at least three episodes, we skipped it, and we’ve used nice bold headers to help you quickly jump to the shows you’re interested in. Unless specifically noted, we’re only discussing the first three episodes, even if a show has released more than that.
We don’t have the time to keep up with everything, so please let us know about any gems we might be missing in the comments!
Chiaki: For all the red flags I gave in the premiere (while also admitting my excitement for this trashy show), Nekopara turned out surprisingly tame compared to its inaugural episode. If anything, it’s far too busy reminding everyone that the gang’s all here to do much else. It gives me whiplash as Nekopara continues to switch between the patisserie and the Minazuki home. I get it, there are seven cats. Please. I’m a catgirl, not a baby; I still have object permanence.
Owing to its erotic visual novel roots, Nekopara also leans in on fanservice, but it is caught in a liminal space where it wishes to sell itself more on “cute catgirls” instead of its hornier origins. Its lackluster drive to either go Full Horny like Interspecies Reviewers or Full Cute like in Uchitama leaves the show in an unsettling, lukewarm state. Who or what is this show trying to appeal to? What am I supposed to be focusing on? Is Coconut adorable or a sex kitten? Will bathrooms continue to be a thematic constant in this show?
Thus, it crushes me to say: this show isn’t that good. Not just “it has a bad premise,” but is actually not great. It’s just bland.
Seton Academy: Join the Pack!
Spoilers: This review covers up to the fourth episode.
Chiaki: Seton Academy has settled into a quirky if somewhat frustrating show about animal trivia with a generally unlikable protagonist. I was ready to let the show slide (even with the coprophagic koala), but the fourth episode compelled me to attach a bigger warning for transphobia with the introduction of Yena, the hyena.
Yena kicks his way onto the screen in the fourth episode embodying everything “manly.” He dresses in masculine clothes, talks like a tough dude, and all the other packmates bow down in respect for the pugilistic hyena. Yet protagonist Jin, in his infinite wisdom and knowledge of animal physiology, points out Yena is, in fact, a girl, given his anthropomorphic form in a world where male and female animals are split based on sexually dimorphic appearances.
Despite all claims by Yena to the contrary, Jin does not respect his gender presentation and Seton ends the episode with Yena realizing “maybe he was wrong all along” and going home to contemplate detransitioning. Seton, for all the cheerful ways it frames the quirks of animals around the world, tramples trans identities with biological essentialism in service to a joke about hyena-genitals, earning a swift drop from my watchlist.
Vrai: Is anyone besides me watching Pet? I suspect the answer is “no,” which strikes me as entirely appropriate. While the show might win the award for “most improved,” my core problem remains: this is the type of edgy grimdark series that acknowledges marginalized people exist primarily as a bid to shock its presumed audience.
We learn, for example, that the nonverbal autistic-coded child from the premiere has grown up into a member of the gang, now succeeding in passing for “normal.” Episode 3 features a trans character with an abusive mother, but he ends up dead by episode’s end. They all do, because everything is in service of exploring the very debatably heroic two young psychics from the premiere.
Their bond is easily the most fascinating thing the show has going for it, more nuanced than any of the hack episodic psychoanalysis. It’s deeply homoerotic, but not in a way I trust; and to complicate things, episode three reveals that it’s plainly not a relationship between equals. Still, between that and the emergence of some beautifully surreal art direction, it’s got me on the hook for at least a little longer. I am, however, quite convinced nobody else should subject themselves to the season’s most irritating opening theme.
Caitlin: For me, the question with sports anime is just as much, “What sets this apart?” as “Is this good?” And what sets number24 apart so far is Natsusa and the team recovering from his injury.
Natsusa is an interestingly layered character. He’s recovering from a life-changing injury, trying to build his dream team, and has a manipulative streak a mile wide. If Natsusa can’t play rugby himself, he’s going to build his proxy dream team however he can. That said, he does care deeply about his friends and looks out for them as much as he can. (My current theory is that his single-mindedness is part of his grieving process, as he tries to cope with a body that can no longer handle the stress of his beloved sport.)
There’s such a great sense of history with this team. There’s a lot of emotional baggage around Natsusa’s accident, not just for Natsusa himself but everyone who was affected by it. It’s a delicate situation, and fascinating to watch play out. Oh, and the third episode finally has some rugby! If you like sports anime even a little, number24 has potential to stand out from the pack.
Vrai: Does, “Well, it’s doing more than I expected of it,” count as a recommendation? This is actually my first time watching Aoki Ei’s action-oriented work, but I’m told it ticks all the usual boxes: the dialogue scenes continue to be interminably stilted and the action sequences imaginatively staged.
The show has even managed to sidestep some of the worst impulses that tend to plague high-concept thrillers: the female rookie detective has a fair amount of cunning and agency and isn’t the subject of sexualized suffering; and the monster of the week who gives a speech about how his victims were already metaphorically dead gets a thorough dressing-down about how his #deep views are just a reflection of his own pathetic shallowness. So, it gets more points than Joker, anyway.
That said, the majority of the third episode centered around the Id well repeatedly looping a mass shooting, and it got to be a grueling watch. That says something for the efficacy of the direction, but it also ran into the problem that I personally face with a lot of shows these days: I could just look outside if I want to be horrified. There’s enough here to recommend to fans of the genre or the director, but I suspect I’ll end up letting it fall by the wayside.
Chiaki: In a show that could have gone either way, Hatena Illusion decided to go with boring. It took three episodes to properly introduce and explain what “artifacts” are and how people use them, fumbling us to the point where Kana and Makoto finally team up as partners in crime.
Plot beats include: Kana wants to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Kana’s best friend knows she’s a magical thief. Makoto wishes to become the thief who steals sadness. It’s corny, somewhat contrived, and this is before we even get to Kana’s extended family of evil magicians.
Add to that, fanservice and girl-hits-boy slapstick appear to be a consistent theme for this series, as Kana is regularly smacking Makoto for no reason and Makoto once again walks in on Kana about to take a bath. The show even goes as far to joke that Makoto’s penchant for seeing the girls naked is a “special power” reserved for a protagonist. But hey: at least the maid who’s obsessed with their relationship is actually a fellow middle schooler?
The combination of dull execution and tired anime rom-com cliches make Hatena Illusion a tough series to recommend to anyone. I’m pretty sure I’m done with it as well.
Uchitama?! Have you seen my Tama?
Dee: Chiaki and I are the only people on staff watching Uchitama. Thus far, our primary question to each other has been: “What even is this show?” And our answer is slowly becoming: “The stealth best comedy of the season.”
If you thought the premiere was boring, give it another try, because Episodes 2-3 drop the iyashikei vibe in favor of a sketch comedy show that runs the gamut from silly to cute to just plain weird. It’s still a basically nice show about basically nice animals, but now they’re singing musical numbers, discussing how many nipples dogs and cats have, opening portals to alternate dimensions, competing in sumo matches, and spending a lot of time on Instagram.
There’s some very mild fanservice (arguably both male and female, given how often Bull poses sexily for the camera) and lightly bawdy humor (of the “teehee, boobs” variety), but otherwise this is a goofy good time for the whole family. When I’m not shouting at the humans about how irresponsible it is to let their pets wander the neighborhood, I’m having a lot of fun with this one.
Caitlin: Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun, one of my top premieres of the season, is still looking strong. In fact, I’m having a hard time thinking of anything new to say, other than, “It’s still really good.”
The biggest change is the introduction of the boisterous Minamoto Kou, the latest in a long line of exorcists whose grandmother once battled our ghostly co-protagonist. Hanako himself has revealed more of his impish side, cheerfully messing with Minamoto and Nene, albeit to a lesser extent. He’s nicely multifaceted, still sweet but with a bit of an edge and more than a little melancholy.
Meanwhile, Nene’s adorable boy-craziness (along with her relatable loneliness and insecurity about her appearance) continue. The third episode does have a tinge of her, as The Girl, having to keep Hanako and Minamoto on task—but then she embarks on her own silliness, stuffing her shirt with an ultra-padded bra. They are all equally capable of teenage dumbassery.
One of the best premieres has given way to, thus far, one of the best shows of the season. Hanako-kun has me nothing short of spellbound.
Somali and the Forest Spirit
Dee: Somali has established itself as a charming, semi-episodic road trip story where the golem and Somali explore new areas and meet new people each week. (Think Kino’s Journey or Girls’ Last Tour, but gentler and less bleak.) In addition to keeping things fresh, the structure also allows the series to rather gracefully expand the world and develop its characters.
While the stories have primarily been relaxing ones about our protagonists making new friends and learning new skills, there’s both melancholy and danger lurking just beneath the surface of this beautiful world. The golem and Somali’s growing bond forms the emotional core of the series, so the fact that they’ll eventually have to separate provides a bittersweet undercurrent that keeps things from becoming too sugary-cute.
Somali hasn’t done much yet to explore the racism (specieism?) baked into its world, so there’s not much to discuss from a feminist standpoint—but that doesn’t mean this lovely, sweet, confidently paced tale of an adoptive father and daughter isn’t well worth your time. This one’s a lock for my watchlist; I’d encourage you to add it to yours as well.
Oda Cinnamon Nobunaga
Chiaki: For a show that is about Oda Nobunaga, Oda Cinnamon Nobunaga really wants to make sure you know Nobunaga was probably a huge dick in life. At the same time, Cinnamon Nobunaga makes sure the once-proud Nobunaga faces his embarrassing second life as a cute dog by constantly reminding viewers he must daily fight urges to give in to canine instincts and evade his overly devout and affectionate retainers.
There are a few more deeper cuts on feudal-age trivia than I had imagined, and even a few non-Japanese characters such as Marie Antoinette, who defends her honor as a philanthropist and that the history books defile her memory by immortalizing her with a quote she didn’t even say in life. It’s pretty fun!
Cinnamon, however, continues to hold fast to his past as a human, and at times inserts uncomfortable mental images to assert the absurdity that a once-proud warlord now is strutting down the street naked with a teenage girl holding his leash. Toss in some low-key predatory gay “jokes” and Cinnamon Nobunaga is closer to “yellow flags” than “harmless fun” at this point, making it an even tougher sell than it already was.
Chiaki: Once the series premiere established that NPCs in Infinite Dendrogram have permadeath, the show really picks up to focus on Ray actually getting into the game while bigger forces are shown at play among the highest-ranking players in the game.
As a protagonist, Ray is blessed beyond what normal beginner players may have through powerful connections and an above-average grade of equipment and skills, but Infinite Dendrogram does not laud him with invincible power and makes it clear he and his embryo (a weapon and travel companion), Nemesis, have room to grow.
Meanwhile, the show introduced newbie player Rook and his embryo, Babylon. Babylon, a succubus, adds a healthy dose of fanservice to the series, which has otherwise kept sexualized depictions of women to a minimum. In a “comedic” twist, Rook also takes on the job class “Pimp,” which he believes to be a sort of beast-tamer specializing in female monsters. The duo feel wildly out of place compared to everything else in the show thus far. However, I suppose a giant bear with a gatling gun is also out of place too, so maybe this just highlights a weakness for the series in general.
BOFURI: I Don’t Want to Get Hurt, So I’ll Max Out My Defense
Dee: This show is so dang nice, y’all. The characters are nice. The animation is nice. The story is nice. While I don’t play MMOs myself, I do play a lot of tabletop RPGs, and the feel-good BOFURI very closely captures the sense of playing a game with your friends for fun. Sure, you might want to learn a new skill or defeat the latest antagonist, but the main draw is that it’s a good excuse to hang out together.
I’m also charmed by how accepting BOFURI is of different styles of play. In many ways, Maple is playing the game “wrong” by not wanting to kill the cute monsters, going AFK in the middle of the forest, and chewing on dragons instead of hitting them with her sword—but it’s how she wants to play, and the series rewards her for it. Meanwhile, her friend Sally has a more traditional style of dungeon-crawling—and the series rewards her for it, too.
It doesn’t matter how they play; what matters is they’re both having fun. Given that I consider this my greatest accomplishment in Pokemon: Sword & Shield, maybe you can understand why BOFURI’s decision to eschew the typical focus on winning and becoming The Strongest in favor of “just go out there and have a good time” is so appealing to me.
While its low-stakes adventures aren’t going to be for everyone, it’s by far my happiest surprise of the season. Maple, you are the Shield Hero we deserve.
Asteroid in Love
Vrai: Hobby anime have come a long way since the derivative term “cute girls doing cute things” was coined to describe any anime about four-or-so high school girls hanging out. But boy, does Asteroid in Love take me right back to the kind of show that phrase described.
It’s not that there’s anything egregiously wrong with it. Mira’s friend Suzu skirts the line into yandere possessiveness here and there, but mostly she reads as just girl-obsessed generally. The main couple is still sweet, and the moments that focus on their relationship are easily when the series is at its most interesting. My biggest gripe is that certain jokes lean hard into infantilizing the girls, such as Ao being so dazzled by a star she saw the night before a test that she writes its name down instead of her own.
But Asteroid could not be less interested in being a hobby anime. Even when the club members get out a telescope, the visual direction can’t think of anything more interesting to do than play dialogue over a static shot of two glowing dots in a small circle. Realistic, yes, but not exactly thrilling to watch secondhand.
Every now and then we’ll be reminded that the girls are trying to discover an asteroid, but it’s hard to imagine this show getting up the energy to do anything as ambitious as achieving a character motivation. This series will likely appeal to some as a harmless and soothing watch, but this is where I bow out.
Vrai: Apparently “take the format of an idol show and disguise it with a gimmick” is the new hot trend, a la Action Heroine Cheer Fruits or the more memorable Zombie Land Saga. But unlike Cheer Fruits or Saga, which both settled into being charmingly weird if formulaic, 22/7 set itself up for a higher fall. The premiere’s heavy emphasis on Miu’s passionate disillusionment with the idol industry has basically set her up as a glowing testimonial of how great it is to be an idol.
While everything about The Wall continues to be straight out of a horror movie, it has become a quirky, beneficent mascot of sorts. The Wall has provided a path to solve Miu’s every problem in life, from her financial worries to her depression to her abandoned dreams of being a pianist. The ends, apparently, justify the means. It’s unsettling in a way I don’t think the series intends.
If this season’s Idol Budokan has nurtured grudging respect in me with its lightly critical but ultimately passionate love of idols, 22/7’s calculated strawman does nothing but make me wonder why they’re trying so hard to sell me on this Flavor-Aid. I’m sticking around a little longer, because I do find the leads fairly endearing and I want to see if the show intends to make anything of its very Class-S interactions between Miu and Sakura. But my hopes of seeing it make any substantive statement? Not even .001/7.
Magia Record: Puella Magi Madoka Magica Side Story
Vrai: Magia Record is a certain Type of series: a much-later follow-up to a beloved genre-shifting work that draws from the same well but reframes a largely contained, claustrophobic story to have a more action-based feel and a larger cast.
Keeping this distinction in mind feels increasingly important to enjoying Magia Record, a show that has introduced no less than nine important characters in its first three episodes and only teased what seems to be a first-arc boss at the end of the third. There’s been some back-and-forth as to whether the series will be one cour or two, and at this point I’m prepared to say the latter is the only way it stands a chance of juggling everything in a satisfying manner.
That’s not to say the setup hasn’t been entertaining: the new characters are archetypal but promising and the aesthetics are as lovely as ever. But episode 3 also struggles to hide the story’s origins as a mobile game, which leaves me worrying about the bigger picture. Prospective newbies should also be aware Magia Record has also officially re-introduced a member of the original Madoka cast in a way that screams “fanservice.” Its high points make it too good to give up, so all I can do is hope it can sidestep the usual pitfalls that game adaptations face.
Caitlin: There’s a two-year time-skip in the third episode of In/Spectre, and I was so relieved I stood up and did a little dance. Kotoko is 19 now! She’s over the age of consent, only a year under the age of majority, and within the “half your age plus seven” rule for Kuro! WE DON’T HAVE TO DISCOURSE ABOUT AGE-GAPS, Y’ALL! WE CAN TALK ABOUT OTHER THINGS!
Seriously, I was dreading the age-gap talk, because, y’know what? Kotoko and Kuro are cute. Sorry, but it’s true. Kotoko’s weird crush is extremely endearing and the punchy script makes their back-and-forth really fun. I have little doubt that their relationship is going to be a major part of what keeps this show entertaining, awkwardness and all.
I’m not so sure about the mysteries, though. Most of episodes 2-3 are extraordinarily talky, as Kotoko and a snake god argue and hypothesize about secondhand events. The latter part of the third episode holds a bit more promise: Idol ghost with huge bazongas aside, Kuro’s ex-girlfriend Saki is back, now a police officer, and still has lingering trauma over what she witnessed by his side.
It’s still too early to call how In/Spectre will handle disability. The third episode had Kotoko’s leg pop off in battle, and it kind of feels like it’s trying to have its cake and eat it too. Either make her disability moot because her prostheses magically work like functional body parts, or make her deal with the limitations of it, instead of these convenient half-measures. That said, none of these problems are deal-breakers for me (though they may be for you, dear reader), and thus I’ll continue on.
If My Favorite Pop Idol Made It to the Budokan, I Would Die
Vrai: Well, folks. This is a rollercoaster to hell, and I’m strapped in for the ride. Idol Budokan has become something of a queer will-they-won’t-they rom-com, but it still has the baggage of being about obsessive fandom. When Eripiyo’s male friends (specifically Motoi, who I’m prepared to declare The Worst) get too objectifying in their dialogue, it can get uncomfortable quick. The show also leans on fat jokes here and there, though with more restraint than I’d expected.
The real killer, though, is the miscommunication-driven plot. At three episodes in it is an absolutely agonizing (and repetitive) pace, and I can’t imagine the prospect of it continuing like this until the end of the series (or worse, having no ending at all, as the manga is apparently ongoing).
At the same time, I’m downright shocked at how much Eripiyo’s arc is actually about learning to separate her feelings for Maina The Person from Maina The Idol and putting it together that “oh hey, idols are people too.” The show even throws some minor barbs at the industry with comments about how the girls of Cham Jam (which has to be a Perfect Blue reference) have been mismarketed.
And damn it all if I’m not starting to find the main couple genuinely sweet, as Eripiyo has been dutifully drinking her Respect Idol juice and even outright leaves when she happens to catch sight of Maina in her private life. When the writing is on, its human moments can be downright arresting. This show still feels like a bomb that could go off in my face at any moment, but I look forward to screaming about it each week.
Smile Down the Runway
Caitlin: I wasn’t so sure about this one at first… and frankly, I’m still not. Smile Down the Runway has a lot of issues, but still has enough charm to keep me watching.
In episodes 2-3, Tsumura begins working for another designer named Yanagida, who’s not just unpleasant but outright abusive. He yells at Tsumura and his other employees for napping after an all-nighter. The narrative seems to argue that they endure these conditions because they’re passionate about their work, but honestly, screw that. Crunch is bad, yelling bosses are bad, and people in fashion have just as much right to healthy working conditions as anyone else.
But then again, these kids are just so darn likable. Chiyuki is much less abrasive in these episodes, especially as she stands backstage at the runway show. I especially liked how when she stripped down, she made it absolutely clear that there was nothing sexual about the context. Tsumura may be blushing at seeing his first pair of boobs, but in the moment, Chiyuki’s body is a part of her job.
But then again… man, they just can’t get over the idea that Chiyuki is somehow breaking barriers by being a thin, conventionally attractive, able-bodied, slightly short model, can they? The third episode had an extended scene about how it’s so hard to dress cute when you’re short—which, having lived in Japan and shopped for clothes there, is bull. It’s hard shopping with broad shoulders or wide hips or big feet, but based on my experience, I cannot fathom it being so terribly hard if you’re slightly shorter than average. If you’re going for the representation angle, height just isn’t good enough when there’s real discrimination against so many other types of people. Chiyuki’s struggle just isn’t interesting.
So, let’s be honest, the real draw is Tsumura, all sweetness and effort despite his socioeconomic disadvantages. And that’s the real reason I’ll keep watching for now.
Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!
Chiaki: Eizouken‘s premiere was a love letter to animation, and the next two episodes continue to build on that core concept as they introduce the passions and quirks of our three heroines. Asakusa and Mizusaki’s shared enthusiasm for animation is infectious, while Kanamori adds deadpan jabs that carefully toe the line of “cutting” without becoming abusive.
The trio of girls exudes charm in their drive to make animation, and the creative team wisely doesn’t try to shoehorn in any gimmick or fanservice in an attempt to keep viewers engaged. Everything feels genuine and grounded, despite the sci-fi setting and frequent flights of fancy into the girls’ imaginations.
As much as the animators breathe life into the cast’s ambitious dreams, they also explore a world that’s drastically changed over 30 years. From multilingual signs in schools to the claustrophobic mishmash of repurposed buildings that make up the trio’s high school, Eizouken’s world is more than just a set piece for the girls: it’s a universe populated by a stressed Japanese society that has had to rapidly change and adapt.
This is all effortlessly conveyed, encouraging me to come back each week. It’s been a while since I’ve watched something and could say, without reservation: “Go watch it.”
The Case Files of Jeweler Richard
Chiaki: Jeweler Richard led with a strong premiere discussing two disadvantaged women in post-war Japan. It continued into the second episode featuring a queer woman torn between maintaining appearances of “normalcy” and living as she wishes. The sensitivity and progressive bent to the writing for the first two cases impressed me and made me hope Jeweler would stay the course.
Episode three, however, missed the mark by introducing Hajime, a literal child, as its client-of-the-week. It became blatantly obvious that Seigi and Richard do not share a remarkable chemistry with each that can support the series. Without compelling supporting characters, Jeweler Richard falls flat quickly.
There is a wealth of trivia to be garnered from the show, but three episodes in, it feels like we’re only just starting to learn about Richard himself. The jeweler does very little on screen and so we glean very little about him. His supposed wit is also greatly supplanted by serendipitous luck. Two of his cases have been solved not by clever sleuthing, but by sheer luck that he simply knew about the specific gemstone at the center of that week’s case.
Episode three was a slight letdown, but I’ll keep at it for a fourth episode. It’s overall an okay show that seems to have its heart in the right place. I want it to be good, so I’m willing to give it more time to get there.
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