The dog days of summer have arrived. Good thing we’ve got a parade of anime to keep us entertained indoors.
The team split up the reviews between staff volunteers, with one person putting together a short review on each series. Like we do in 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!
How Heavy Are the Dumbbells You Lift?
Peter: I absolutely love slice-of-life anime and consider myself a pretty serious weightlifter, which is why this anime has grown more disappointing with every episode.
Dumbbell is openly and proudly a fanservice anime, which isn’t great but is still immensely preferable to me over anime that try to submarine that sort of content into their series. What’s bizarre, however, is that its gaze falls on the female cast and fetishizes muscular bodies, but refuses to allow any overlap between the two. Outside of a single short scene, you basically don’t see any muscular women in the anime. At least one of the girls has the stated goal of getting “macho,” but there have been multiple time-skips and their bodies haven’t changed at all.
What’s worse, the series has leaned into being “instructional,” but I have serious doubts about the author’s level of knowledge. We’ve seen the girls learn bench presses and squats but, in both activities, they only perform half-reps. In both cases, half-reps have hyper-specific uses either for advanced lifters or individuals with specific mobility issues. There may be an argument for easing a beginner into a full squat, but we see both Hibiki and Akemi doing the same movement when Akemi is supposedly more advanced.
What I’m saying is, don’t use this anime to inform your workout routine.
And that’s what’s been so confusing to me about Dumbbell: I just don’t understand why it’s about lifting. If the author’s out to teach, they don’t seem to have educated themselves very much. There doesn’t even seem to be any horny motivation for placing women in the gym. The only sexualized musculature in the series are sported by huge men wearing gimp masks.
There’s a strange division between the main cast and the activity in which they’re participating. What they’re doing can’t really be described as lifting, most of them don’t even seem interested in strength or physique, and they’re all magically immune to building muscle mass. Instead, it seems as if they are fellow observers looking in on the weightlifting world without any way of directly interacting with it.
This separation bothers me a lot since I’ve encountered a great deal of reticence from women looking into weightlifting. There’s a sense that the environment doesn’t welcome them and a stigma around developing their muscles. Even as a fanservice show, Dumbbell could have been an opportunity to normalize women lifting heavy and building a physique, but instead it created a distinct separation. What’s left is an anime about obsessive calorie-counting and half-hearted humor; disappointing all around.
To the Abandoned Sacred Beasts
Chiaki: While the first episode gave viewers whiplash in order to establish this world generally shaped by 19th-century Americana, the story sets itself up well and slows down considerably as Hank begins his journey to hunt down his former comrades-in-arms.
The second episode features a drastic change of pace, introducing Schaal, a young girl whose father joined the military in exchange for government aid to their orphanage and village. Schaal proves to be a pretty decent character, driven by a desire to understand why Hank killed her father even when her dad had started to trouble their village by growing feral.
Fanservice-wise, Schaal has been treated relatively well. Her outfit has been conservative and no leery cameras are to be found. However, Liza, Hank’s government handler, is constantly spilling out of her shirt and asserts her cleavage at every chance she gets. Hank also continues to go shirtless frequently to show off how shredded he is.
But that’s a minor issue; my chief concerns with the series have to do with its plot. Though the end of the first episode suggested Hank was killing former members of his battalion who’d become outright evil or twisted by their magical enhancements, it turns out the hunt is more complicated than that. Many of the characters driven mad by their magical powers are in fact tragic figures motivated by a basic wish to do good, but prevented from making sound decisions because of wartime trauma that literally turned them into monsters.
And, though Schaal constantly asks whether it’s necessary to kill them, the series has thus far shown that the former super soldiers do not have a place in a peaceful nation and Hank must put an end to their suffering through death. Unless there’s a profound turning point that convinces Hank his comrades can heal, or the series makes it clearer that this is some kind of elaborate critique on how post-war governments treat veterans, Sacred Beasts risks a gross misunderstanding of how combat veterans face and must cope with PTSD.
If It’s for My Daughter, I’d Even Defeat a Demon Lord
SPOILERS: This review covers events in Episode 4.
Peter: Easily one of the most worrisome anime coming into the summer season due to issues with the source material (covered in our first episode review), it seemed this anime would, at best, put out a single cour of saccharine hi-jinks between an impossibly cute daughter and her doting adoptive father. The first three episodes were just that: an inoffensive blend of cute and comedy.
Episode 4 took a hard right off this gentle coastal drive directly into a sea of content warnings. If you have any problems with content involving children in distressing situations, turn back now. What happens next requires a pretty thorough retelling of the episode’s events.
Latina’s first week of school turns disastrous when her teacher spots Latina’s horn. Realizing Latina is a devil, the enraged teacher lifts Latina by the hair and violently shakes her while screaming that Devils are evil and attempting to destroy their society from within. This ends when the other faculty drags the teacher away while the students throw binders at her.
Between both her teachers’ assault and her realization that Devils live twice as long as humans, meaning she will one day be without Dale again, Latina is traumatized. She returns home and attempts to break off the remaining horn marking her as a devil, causing a life-threatening injury to herself in the process.
Ultimately, Daughter resolves this by Dale having a heart-to-heart with Latina and a meeting with the principal, which results in the expulsion and excommunication (it’s a religious school) of the racist teacher. While the content matter was certainly distressing and completely unexpected after the precedent set by the first three episodes, I do think the event was well-handled.
Dale calls out the teacher’s racism (using the phrase “human supremacy”), and the scenario seems purposefully critical of religious institutions’ willingness to cover up such events by moving the offending member of the church around rather than addressing criminal behavior. His talk with Latina even directly discusses the inevitability of death and, from his perspective, how his death occurring before that of his own daughter would be a best-case scenario. It wrapped up a bit too neatly and quickly, but as a subplot, I can’t find much to fault with it.
This certainly adjusts our prospective content warnings for the series and, more personally, will have me entering each new episode expecting another surprise.
Caitlin: When studio BONES adapted mangaka Atsushi Okubo’s Soul Eater, they bolstered its narrative strengths while toning down the constant fan service and sexualized female characters that made the original version unreadable for me. I’d hoped David Pro would give Fire Force a similar treatment, but unfortunately it looks like they’re going for a much straighter adaptation. Yet despite its major issues, I can’t seem to stop loving Fire Force.
When Fire Force is good, it’s really, really good. Its aesthetic remains strong, with gorgeous animation, distinctive design, and creative fights. The third episode features Shinra fire-breakdancing! How can you not love that?
It has also decided to avoid the slow burn (heh) that similar series usually go for. Through the thoroughly likable Obi, it states its overarching plot and philosophy up-front: there’s something desperately wrong in this world, and the Special Fire Force system has become broken and driven by secrecy and capitalism. The world-building presents an intriguing universe where fire has become a malicious force threatening to consume the world.
The potential issues I spotted in the first episode remain present. I really want to love Maki—her bubbleheadedness is actually pretty endearing, especially juxtaposed with her competency and physical strength—but instead of reveling in her strength, the series mocks her for it. When Maki handily defeats the wannabe “Knight King” Arthur in a fight, he shames her, calling her an “ogre” and then, later, “musclebound,” which causes Maki to fly into a rage. The message is clear: a woman being physically stronger than a man is a disgusting aberration, an offense to nature.
And then… there’s Tamaki. She’s just been introduced and had little time to shine in her first episode, but all I can say is yikes. Within her first minute on screen, Shinra ends up with his hands on her breast and on her butt. She calls it the result of a “lucky lecher” curse, but I just call it egregious. It’s too bad, too, because other than that, her aesthetic is fantastic; she basically becomes a fire catgirl, running on all fours with ears and a tail made of flame. To top it all off, she’s voiced by the peerless Aoi Yuuki.
Tamaki is the perfect representative of Fire Force’s world. Everything could be great, but for a heaping helping of yikes on top. It makes it hard to recommend to others, even though I somehow end up looking forward to it every week. I won’t tell you not to watch it; just be careful, because you might get burned.
Caitlin: If you could rebuild civilization anew, would you make an exact copy of the world we have today? Or would you use the fresh start to try something different?
I wasn’t expecting Dr. Stone to start asking that question so early. I was expecting a show primarily about the joy and power of science and experimentation, so the idea of it turning political so quickly never occurred to me. But lo and behold, the second episode introduces Tsukasa Shishio, a hyper-intelligent, nigh-indestructible communist.
After he’s revived, Tsukasa quickly starts talking with Senku about goals and politics on the beach. He recounts a time he was beaten as a child for wandering onto a wealthy man’s private beach, an experience that convinced him that wealth and private property only corrupt. Senku, on the other hand, is an ardent defender of the status quo. He counters that he plans on rebuilding society exactly how it was, because he thinks technology is really cool.
It’s a stunningly privileged position, born of someone who grew up in a family that had the resources available to nurture and provide for his love of scientific experimentation. Next to Tsukasa, who has been trying to survive poverty since he was very small, it’s hard to totally agree with him, even though we’re supposed to.
So, how do you villainize a sympathetic character who isn’t wrong? Make him a mass murderer!
Tsukasa breaks the statue of the man who beat him, effectively killing him with no hope of revival. Extreme, yes, but understandable. But then he starts wantonly beheading random statues, casually slaughtering dozens of people and leaving their shattered remains in his wake. It’s like the writers realized that his dream of building a society without class or privilege was too correct, so they had to find a way to make him outright evil.
And yet again, I find myself writing a long treatise on something a series does poorly, then following it up with, “But it’s fun and I like it.” It’s true! Dr. Stone is really fun watch. Senku and Taiju are likable, and Yuzuriha, while she hasn’t had much to do so far, seems quite sweet. But its politics suck in the most frustrating way.
Do You Love Your Mom and Her Two-Hit Multi-Target Attacks?
Chiaki: Finishing the first episode, you’d think Your Mom was gonna be a good time, but turns out it’s uncomfortably close to incest without going Full Oedipal.
Look, I don’t care if your Joe-Schmoe protagonist maintains he’s not sexually interested in his mom. The sheer volume of sexually charged situations this show puts its cast through makes watching it a highly uncomfortable experience, especially when you realize Masato is constantly with his mother when she’s being sexually objectified in skimpy outfits or lewd situations.
But that’s not the biggest issue with the show. As Masato and his mom gear up for their first quest with their new allies, the sorcerer Wise reveals that the evil “Empress of the Night” is her estranged mother. Wise laments how her mother had been a neglectful woman in the real world, so much so that her family cut her off. Wise’s mother then reappeared and dragged her daughter into the game in order to make amends and repair their relationship—only to promptly get drunk on power and run off again to enslave a bunch of boys as her “sons.”
Wise’s story arc could have focused on the importance of found families and the need to dump toxic relationships, but instead the show doubles down on the idea that familial bonds spark some kind of innate love and connection. While real-life children have suffered abuse by neglectful or hateful parents, Mamako preaches for children who have tried to escape that situation to try again.
For anyone reading who needs to hear this: sometimes it’s okay to cut off toxic people from your life.
I was hoping Your Mom would be more appealing, but overall I don’t know if I can stand much more of this.
Astra Lost in Space
Dee: It’s always nice to see a gender-balanced Shonen JUMP adaptation that gives every member of its cast some time to shine. While the camera in Astra very occasionally veers into fanservice-land, the writing is thoughtful throughout, treating each member of our space crew like a fully realized individual.
Everyone has contributed to the missions in some way and revealed hidden depths, strengths, or quirks that challenge their initial archetypes (particularly Aries, who’s far sharper than she first seemed). I’m only three episodes in, but I already care about and am rooting for all these kids.
If I was feeling nitpicky, I suppose I could point out that the anime tends to use music and framing to paint Kanata’s scenes as the “big heroic climaxes” even when it was someone else’s skills that really saved the day. Or I could mention that the girls, for all their solid development, still slot into fairly feminine-coded roles (i.e., they work as healers, they’re intuitive, and they provide emotional support; they don’t throw spears, shoot guns, or fix spaceships).
But honestly? It doesn’t bother me. Sometimes it’s enough to just treat all your characters like people, with their own stories, conflicts, and motivations. Astra is succeeding wildly in that regard, making it an easy and exciting show to watch each week. Barring any surprise disasters, I’m here till the end.
O Maidens in Your Savage Season
SPOILERS: This review covers events in Episode 4.
Vrai: Yup, this sure is a Mari Okada anime. While quite open about the fact that anime is a collaborative process, with many directors speaking highly of her skills as a team member, there’s no denying that An Okada Script has a distinctive feel to it. The fact that O Maidens is also based on an Okada-penned manga has doubled those tics.
On the positive end of things, that means the show has already hit a chorus of raw nerves about sexuality and adolescent anxieties with pointed accuracy. Its tone both knows how comically overblown the things we worry about as teens can be, but also respects how devastating and terrifying it feels in the moment. The developing theme about how books can be a way to reflect and understand new, confusing emotions is particularly potent.
It’s also heartening to see the series acknowledge queerness with Momoko, who goes on at length about how she just really admires her kind, pretty friend Niina. This is notably distinct from her truly platonic protectiveness over Kazusa, which is a welcome change from the pattern of young queer anime characters who only manage one close same-gender relationship with the person they’re secretly crushing on.
The downside is that, when Okada loses touch with that rawness, it can spiral into some of the most eyebrow-raising Anime Melodrama Bullshit I’ve ever seen. Such is the case with Hitoha, whose subplot began relatably with her seeking out cybering as a supposedly safe way to learn more about sex, and has since turned into an incredibly uncomfortable blackmail plot. It turns out the person Hitoha’s been chatting with is a teacher at their school. While he remains uncomfortable and loudly disinterested in teenage girls (good!), Hitoha keeps throwing herself at him in hopes of getting experience for her writing (bad!).
These kinds of thought experiments—”what if the teenager was the predator and the adult the victim, though?”—feel woefully out of touch with the overwhelmingly unaddressed problems of teens being preyed on by adults, often with little to no punishment for the latter. At worst, it creates a convenient counter-narrative for abusers. And while there is a place in fiction for safe wish-fulfillment stories made for teens, that completely conflicts with the tone O Maidens has set. Instead, it feels jarring and contrived, a sour note against the refreshing honesty the rest of the show has to offer.
Vrai: MAGICAL GIRLS IN GIANT ROBOTS continues to be a solid premise, with the show’s second episode taking some much-needed time to breathe. While the battles are still somewhat slow, ponderous light-shows, the script seems to be having a fascinating conversation with magical girl trends in general and Madoka Magica in particular.
It’s hard to ignore the pointed similarity of Mangetsu and Shingetsu’s designs to Madoka and Homura, respectively. And while Madoka famously constructed its narrative around keeping its titular character passive (which worked for that very specific narrative and much less so for subsequent copycat stories), GRANBELM’s second episode revolves around Mangetsu making an impassioned decision to join the battle royale. Not because there are world-ending consequences, but because she believes it will give her self-worth.
This focus on character agency is one of several things that makes GRANBELM feel like it’s actually aiming for an audience of teen girls rather than adult otaku. While there are minor scenes of nudity, the main characters’ outfits are notably non-fanservicey; the chibified mecha are more cute than cool; and the story centers on how the girls’ roles as mage descendants affect their self-perception and relationships with others, rather than on simple grimdark death and misery.
There’s a somewhat bizarre tension in episode 3 between golden child Shingetsu and another girl who resents her for usurping her place within her family (including a juxtaposed classroom lecture about Japan’s imperialism in China that becomes more uncomfortable as it becomes clearer that Shingetsu is meant to be the sympathetic party); and at a quarter of the way in, the series keeps introducing conflicts rather than proceeding into the meat of them. That said, I’m still hooked.
Caitlin: Three episodes, and I’ve already fallen in love with Vinland Saga. It’s always so wonderful to recommend a series without any hemming and hawing about the pros and cons or discussing any underlying mean-spiritedness or misogyny. It’s just… well, I wouldn’t exactly call it “good clean fun,” but it’s a gorgeous production and a well-written script wrapped around a beautifully humanistic core. Plus, there’s a dad. How could I not love it?
So far, my first-episode predictions about Vinland Saga’s pacifistic heart and meditations on toxic masculinity have held strong. When war finally catches up with Thors in his peaceful village, the series goes out of its way to show what a culture that emphasizes violence can do to its people, especially the children. The village boys are thrilled at the prospect of going off to battle, not for any cause but for its own sake. Thors can only watch as the changes come over his home, horrified at how the life he thought he’d left behind has infected everyone around him.
A flashback shows how his relationship with unhealthy masculinity began to change when his daughter was born. Rather than a rote, “Once I looked at her, my whole world change,” it allows him more complex feelings. At first, he dismissed his wife Helga and their infant. The true transformative moment came when Helga, in a fury, told him to come back and name his daughter, helping him realize how badly he’d undervalued the most important people in his life.
Thorfinn, too, is feeling those changes. Vinland Saga is unusually insightful when it comes to a six-year-old’s emotional processes. He lashes out, ignoring the rules of the children’s war games and breaking his friend’s arm, and throws his toys on the floor in a tiny rage. Like real-life children his age, he doesn’t have the ability yet to truly process his anger and why he’s feeling that way.
So far, Vinland Saga is an easy recommendation as long as you can stomach the violence. It’s shaping up to be one of the best anime of the season by a long shot.
Dee: The first three episodes of given were pretty much made for me: a slow-burn love story that hinges on gradually developing emotional connection and intimacy, punctuated by adorable and awkward (and adorably awkward) character and comedy beats. If anyone wants to liquefy that formula and inject it straight into my veins, that’d be grand.
given is also an explicitly queer love story, although not the kind that seems interested in addressing real-world social or cultural norms the way that, say, Bloom Into You did. Ritsuka and Mafuyu are both boys, but it’s thus far totally incidental to the plot (that’s not a critique, just a statement of fact). Instead, given is about two kids trying to understand and support each other, and how that bond helps them both grow.
Ritsuka is self-centered but ultimately good-hearted, with a bad habit of charging ahead without considering others’ feelings. Mafuyu is quiet and distracted—seemingly recovering from the loss of a loved one—and struggles to express himself to others. Their weaknesses meet and create quiet, grounded conflict, but their love of music helps them build a bridge across the gap that divides them, steadily connecting them to one another.
(Also they are good boys and I want to protect them very much.)
All in all, given is my favorite summer anime that doesn’t star Waver Velvet. I’m hesitant to get too excited yet (I’ve been burned by BL adaptations before), but if it can stay the course, we could have a genuine gem on our hands.
Strap on your boxing gloves—our last show was divisive enough to warrant two writeups!
Vrai: There is a particular subset of anime that I hold dear to my heart and have a very hard time recommending to others. The Samurai Flamencos of the world. “Earnest messes,” I call them. I suspect Ensemble Stars is trucking headlong into this category, where it intends to get good and comfortable.
On the one hand, the series has continued to fall into the same trap the first episode did, aping mediocre also-rans in the genre to an extent that its good ideas risk getting lost. Nominal POV character Anzu continues to be prominent despite being a non-character, which feels like a hangover from the premiere’s bait-and-switch.
She’s primarily a sounding board for the male characters and occasionally a vehicle for slapstick, but she has all the depth of a sheet of paper and feels at worst like a no-homo blocker for all the Passionate Feelings amongst the male students. The character designs are also painfully generic, which doesn’t do much for the alarmingly large cast (say, did you know this is an adaptation of a gacha game?).
But it keeps drawing me back, whether through a charming visual gag or solid dumb joke (after hearing that the Hitachiin-esque duo’s group name was 2wink I think I laughed for a solid minute). When episode two divided its animation into traditional 2D for the plucky underdog idol groups and the more popular 3D models for the draconian student council mega-group, I was hit by one of several “hang on, maybe this really does have something to say” moments. Ultimately, the show’s struggle will be to see whether its intelligence can escape its genre conventions, or if it will pull its punches to the end.
Dee: At the risk of yucking Vrai’s yum, I can’t decide if I’m disappointed by Ensemble Stars or just really, really bored.
It teased me with an idol revolution and then spent the next two episodes playing the same old gacha anime song-and-dance: chucking a bunch of characters at my head while their cookie-cutter backstories whizzed past my ears. I haven’t spent enough time with any of the boy parade to care about them, and I have even fewer reasons to care about the slightly baffled sack of rocks they’ve propped against a wall and pretended is a female protagonist.
There are some delicious bits of weirdness here (literal guitar battles, a goth dude who sleeps in a coffin), but the show refuses to commit to its own silliness. Despite its occasional flirtations with subversion or absurdism, it’s forever getting scared of its own shadow and retreating to the safety of bland cliches. This makes its bursts of individuality feel even less genuine, as if they’re not clever quirks but just calculated gimmicks tagged on in an attempt to stand out from the gacha idol crowd.
Oh, and the music is supremely generic except for this one reasonably cool classical fusion song that the Fascist StuCo sings. Wait—does that mean I’m rooting for the Fascist StuCo? Ah, beans.
I hope I’m wrong and Vrai is right, and Ensemble Stars lives up to its brief glimmers of sincerity and ambition. But I ain’t slogging through nine more episodes to find out.
Editor’s Note: This post was updated after publication to include reviews for Dr. Stone, Fire Force, and Vinland Saga.