This is a Fall of firsts–including the tentative death of Netflix jail (kinda). Join us as we check in on some hotly anticipated adaptations.
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!
Content warnings: Queerphobia/transphobia
Vrai: Man, I was having an okay time with this one. Yes, it fell squarely under the brand of “shouting as comedy,” but I dug the aesthetic a lot and it clipped along at a quick enough pace that bad jokes didn’t really have time to stink up the place. The addition of a stoic, Fafnir-esque editor who locks Ronaldo in an iron maiden to make him meet his deadlines was so good that I was willing to let the episode’s quick transphobic sight gag slide by. But then episode three followed that up with an entire segment about a Scary Queer at Ronaldo’s local exorcist guild who wants to kidnap Dralc and “train him” into an ideal boyfriend. Then it proceeded to be soul-crushingly unfunny in the process of beating that rotting horse, so I’m gonna go ahead and bow out.
Content warnings: Adult in an immortal child body; subtextual twincest.
Dee: Visual Prison found its plot after the first episode, a “getting the extra band together” narrative featuring musical numbers and lots of pretty vamps gazing at and drinking sensually from each other. You’ll notice the gender-neutral “vamps” because some of the cast have feminine names and the subs use they/them pronouns, which is a nice nod to visual kei’s long history of androgyny even if it’s unlikely to lead to any serious exploration of genderqueer identities.
In the proud(?) tradition of Gothic melodrama targeted at a female demographic, it’s also a problematic mess of homoeroticism and “forbidden love,” including an adult vampire with the immortal body of a pubescent boy who definitely has a bloodgasm with his boyfriend and then later suggestively straddles his twin brother. But if I don’t sound appropriately horrified, it’s because the series is so dramatically removed from reality that it’s impossible to take seriously. Visual Prison is ridiculous trash and knows it. That doesn’t mean it’s immune to criticism, but it does make it easier for me to shrug off the cringey bits. While it ain’t gonna win any Feminism Awards, as a fan of supernatural camp, it’s become a bit of a guilty pleasure.
Spoilers: Detailed discussion of episode 4.
Content warnings: Sexism; queerphobia; threats of sexual assault.
Dee: I came into this review prepared to admit that I wasn’t in love with Sakugan but it was a fine little father-daughter adventure story with no major caveats. Then episode 4 slammed into me like a freight train full of centipedes.
Gagumber’s sexist bullshit (lying to women he’s trying to sleep with, claiming that “God created men and women so men could risk their lives for women”) is mostly refuted by the narrative itself, as he’s rejected, mocked, and ultimately rescued by female characters. But he also doesn’t seem to learn or change from it, which doesn’t make me keen to spend more time with him.
The real goodwill killer, though, is the episode’s Evil Bisexual Villain whose entire character is built around sexual menace, including a running “joke” about him assaulting his minions with sex toys. It straight-up sucks, y’all, and gives me zero confidence in the show’s storytelling abilities. Combine that with my new distaste for Gagumber and general ambivalence to the plot, and I’m struggling to find reasons to give Sakugan my time. Best of luck to those who stick with it, but life is short and anime is plenty. I’m out.
Dee: This under-the-radar gem has boogied its way straight into the ClassicaLoid-shaped hole in my heart. Muteking is bright, silly, and family-friendly, with a diverse supporting cast featuring positive depictions of genderqueer, fat, and Black/brown characters (although I am docking points for using non-human skin tones on most of them). The protagonist has a bit of a Nice Guy vibe at times, but overall he’s an earnest goober the other characters can easily bounce off of.
The episodes are formulaic but fun, as an evil tech billionaire utilizes new, punny trends to turn people into goo for Reasons. There’s also something hilariously, unsettlingly on-point about its depiction of “Neo San Francisco,” where gentrification runs rampant and residents quickly fall prey to the latest fusion foods, wellness crazes, and smart devices. Is Muteking secretly clever satire? Okay, that might be a stretch, but it’s definitely one of my Fall favorites right now.
Caitlin: When it premiered, I thought Irina the Vampire Cosmonaut had potential to be one of those hidden gems that about five people watched as it went under the radar for the vast majority of fans. Four episodes in and I’ve changed my evaluation: despite the original premise and Hayashibara Megumi’s excellent performance as Irina, it’ll probably be more like a series that you enjoy while it runs, and then forget about almost immediately.
There’s honestly a lot to like about it: Hayashibara’s aforementioned performance, Lev’s sweetness, the crisp and clear animation, and the way this world that’s slightly different from ours works. I’d say the cruel way the researchers treat Irina is over the top, but, well, history says otherwise. Even as she must cope with the discrimination she faces, Irina must grapple with her own mortality as well. It’s very charming.
But every so often, about once or twice per episode, they trot out some cliche anime humor that just throws me out. Anya coos over taking Irina’s measurements, or Irina starts acting tsundere (which is annoying, even as nostalgic as hearing Hayashibara yell “BAKA” may be), or there’s an awkward camera angle that highlights a girl’s butt or boobs. Oh, and the weirdly sexual animation of Irina eating caviar in that first episode? Not a fluke. It continues to happen consistently throughout each episode. I’m not quitting Irina the Vampire Cosmonaut, but it’s pretty low on my priority list these days.
Dee: Despite Taisho’s consistently solid depictions of depression (Tamahiko has not been magically cured by Love and frequently relapses into can’t-get-out-of-bed mode), I think it’s safe to say this is not going to be an especially progressive rom-com. I’ll give it slight credit for balancing its normative romantic fantasies: Tamahiko gets an ever-cheerful caretaker and Yuzuki gets a considerate rich boy, so they both go home happy, at least. (And yes, you could write a whole article analyzing those fantasies from a historical/social perspective, but there’s no way we have space for that here.)
While the series has its share of flaws, including a tendency to infantilize its female characters, its most consistent issue is that it won’t let Yuzuki have a wider range of emotions. Everyone else (including other girls) gets to be angry, petty, sad, or selfish, but Yuzuki always has to be sweet and thoughtful, happy to devote herself to Tamahiko despite leaving behind her family and friends for this marriage.
Mind you, I’m still watching and mostly enjoying Taisho. It’s a charmingly directed series about lonely kids trying to build a new family, and I’m extremely weak to that narrative structure. But without more development for its female lead, I’d be hard-pressed to recommend it to the AniFem audience at large.
Caitlin: Despite it having been listed as an original series, it was revealed not long after it premiered that takt op.Destiny is, in fact, a dreaded multimedia project. And while not all such anime are terrible, the track record certainly isn’t great, and takt op.Destiny looks to be another in a long line of disappointments.
After the explosive first episode, which dropped the audience into a music-free world ravaged by terrible monsters, the second episode takes it way back, to when Cosette was just a typical girl-next-door to Takt’s brooding musician, until a terrible tragedy turned her into a Musicart. The first problem is that while we’re supposed to see Takt and Cosette as a burgeoning couple, their time together tragically cut short, they have negative chemistry. Their “flirtation” sucked the oxygen out of the room every time they spoke, and I simply did not care by the end of the episode.
By the end of the fourth episode, it became abundantly clear that this is really just another rote mobile game where cute girls fight monsters, with some classical music set dressing, rather than an actual music series. Composers, who presumably represent the player character, wield the girls like weapons, supposedly giving instructions but mostly standing there waving their batons. And while the designs are razor-sharp in sensibility, the character writing is lifeless and full of stock archetypes. My time is too valuable to waste on a glorified game commercial.
Vrai: Tricornered Window has not gotten particularly better as an anime. It still feels disjointed, stiff, and like it wouldn’t know eroticism if a feather boa slapped it across the face. What’s different is that yours truly has read a bit of the manga since reviewing the premiere, and the difference in quality is steep. I’d initially thought the anime was playing itself toward deliberate horror between the leads’ unequal dynamic…only to discover it’s more that the anime skips over some pretty damn important things, including but not limited to: bickering back and forth that adds lightheartedness to Hiyakawa and Mikado’s relationship, Mikado confirming that he wouldn’t come along on jobs if he didn’t want to (an impression that decidedly doesn’t come across in the anime); and, crucially, an early case where Mikado draws some important boundaries about consent and access to his body.
In short, it’s not just a clumsy adaptation but one that actively sucks the romantic appeal out of its main romance with its writing choices and snips crucial bits of context. While I highly recommend giving the manga a look, the anime is a downright detriment to the title’s reputation.
Content warnings: transphobia/queerphobia
Mercedez: At base, Komi Can’t Communicate is one of the standout sweet shows of Fall 2021. That said… for as many high highs as the series’ first few episodes bring, there’s some low lows, by which I mean everyone’s least favorite trope, transphobia. And yeah, I’m talking about episode 2, which introduces genderfluid class clown Najimi–a character who’s popular and liked but also subject to a lot of tired “hey what’s your gender” jokes. Now, I’m not trans, but what I am is non-binary and dating someone who is trans, and… honestly, while episode 2 wasn’t like, in your face,TERF-tastically transphobic, it’s still just this uncomfortable reminder that certain bodies and genders will always be a joke.
Plus, it’s just kind of shitty comedy, and you know I must be serious because I swore. It’s a shame because Komi Can’t Communicate is very capable of making good jokes: in fact, it makes some gender jokes that I, as someone who moves between genders like I’m on a slip n’ slide covered in olive oil, found quite funny. Hopefully, more of these jokes will make it into the show, and not be on the cutting room floor.
There’s also the matter of Yamai, who we first meet in episode 2. In case you missed her, she’s the incredibly intense student who calls Tadano trash quite a few times. And, in keeping with the little sample you get of her, she’s… A Lot™ , and provides what I consider a low low for the series, which is saying a lot for a series that has an otherwise fantastic cast. Her appearances involve kidnapping, predatory lesbian tropes, stalking, and yandere stuff, which might read as funny to some, but probably won’t to others. I’m definitely in the camp of “Yamai Bad”, so heads up ahead of next week.
Ultimately, Komi Can’t Communicate is far from bad: it heartily embraces tropes and characterization in a really playful way and has a lot of actually good comedy, all of which forms the basis for the most relatable gang of kiddos who really are trying to make Komi happy. For me, Komi and Crew are easily on my watchlist this season, and honestly, it really should be on yours as well, especially if you need some levity given the–motions to Planet Earth–everything happening around us. And while I lament this series being an entire fortnight behind Japan, I’m still enjoying getting a drip-feed of Komi’s trials and tribulations every Thursday. Viva la Komi, y’all!
Content warnings: transphobia
Vrai: An amazing anime is trying to claw its way out of Blue Period’s bones; a small handful of its painting sequences and its marvelous opening theme even get there, conveying movement and expression alongside experimental styles. Mostly, though, it’s a functional but slightly stiff-looking affair, the visual epitome of “good but not great.” Fortunately it comes from an exceptionally strong source material, and flawed-but-sincere kids learning to open their worldview as they learn more about art is pretty endearing. Well, it’s endearing from the characters; less so from the script.
Which brings me to Yuka, a transfemme non-binary character and protagonist Yaguchi’s childhood friend. The show’s heart is very much in the right place about wanting to teach Yaguchi to be more accepting of his friend. But damn, is it full of little things that rub me the wrong way. In some ways it’s realistic, like Yuka using her deadname on school paperwork because it would be about impossible to get it formally changed, but everyone in the art club refers to Yuka by her real name and pronouns—even Yaguchi, who consistently deadnames her (a character trait that bothers the hell out of me for the exact reason that it’s very realistic), uses her pronouns—although Netflix’s subtitles can’t decide whether to stick to “she” or “they”.
But boy did it suck for Yaguchi and Yuka’s big heart-to-heart to come on the heels of the assumption that a) Yuka has to disclose her “real” gender to the boy she asked out, and b) uses the term “crossdresser” despite that matching up 0% with Yuka’s characterization to that point. It’s some clumsy, cringy shit that reminds me how much lower the bar is for shounen and seinen manga, because Paradise Kiss was doing better than this 20 years ago.
But that’s maybe 10% of (granted, considerable) annoyance at a series I otherwise quite enjoy, and recommend checking out to anybody looking for a new hobby anime.
Content warnings: Depictions of child abuse, ableism, genocide
Caitlin: So as a disclaimer: I’m not deaf, and while I have friends who are hard of hearing, I don’t know anyone who speaks any kind of sign language or considers themselves part of Deaf culture. Thus, my perspective on how well Ranking of Kings handles Bojji’s deafness is fairly limited. It does seem to be getting positive attention overall, at least one of the animators on staff is HOH, and the sign language is being supervised by the Tokyo Federation of the Deaf, but I can’t speak for it myself.
So all that said, Ranking of Kings is excellent in every way I can vouch for. Its animation continues to be stunning, and every one of the first three episodes has been a tearjerker. Bojji is a wonderfully sweet child whose talents and abilities are underappreciated even by those who love him, and the shadow Kage has his own powerful and heart-wrenching backstory. Every character, even the ones we don’t know much about yet, show signs of being complex, fully realized humans.
It is worth noting that every female character so far has been defined mostly by motherhood, except for a young girl with no lines in the second episode. I’m guessing she’ll be back, but until then, the only woman moving the plot is Queen Hiling. The third episode offers her much more complexity than just the “evil stepmother” she seemed to be in her first appearance and shows that her relationship with Bojji has much more depth to it than suggested. Even if the female cast is still limited, Ranking of Kings is one of the best shows of the season.
Vrai: Don’t let the phrase “based on classic literature” scare you away from this one. It’s true that The Heike Story can be more than a bit intimidating on the surface: it’s adapting a historical epic that clocks in at more than 500 pages in only 12 episodes, done by a director who specializes in nonverbal storytelling and symbolism (especially flower language). But even if you, like me, immediately get lost when introduced to a cast list larger than a dozen, Heike Story is expert at conveying who its important players are through visual tells and characterization.
You might not remember the names of every character, but their personalities and importance are easy to track—partly because the big battles and political infighting are sort of beside the point here. This is explicitly a story about the women whose voices were considered marginal or altogether unimportant for capital-letters Important Historical Documents. Biwa’s gender hasn’t really come up textually since the premiere, but thematically she’s someone allowed to operate outside the rigid binaries around her–an observer welcomed in men and women’s spaces.
Much of the drama centers around the concept of political marriages and the fragility of these women’s place in the world should they fail to fulfill their designated role—while also celebrating the life-sustaining friendships between them (and occasionally more than friendships; I see you, nuns of episode 2). It’s historical epic made character drama, and while I’m probably not qualified to say whether it’s Yamada Naoko’s best work it’s far and away my favorite. While it’s likely to fall into the hole of “critically acclaimed and virtually unwatched,” that’s not going to stop me from watching it.