Summer 2023 is all but over, except for ongoing series – and those, like Zom 100: Bucket List of the Dead that have been beset with production delays and now seems to be on hiatus. Maybe it’s not so surprising, given the increasing number of titles being pushed out there each season – and, given the high production values of Zom 100, it’s possibly a case of ‘You want it good or you want it Tuesday?’. With (yet again) one of the season’s most popular series My Happy Marriage screening on Netflix (and Bleach on Disney+) how have Crunchyroll and HIDIVE been faring in the popularity stakes? Are there some less visible series that we’ve discovered that are worth your time? What have you enjoyed the most this season? Let us know…
I touched on this briefly in my Volume 4 manga review a few weeks back, but now that I’ve finished the full first season of My Happy Marriage I can confirm that not only is the anime adaptation very good, but its own thing separate from the manga. When I watched Yuri Is My Job! earlier this year, I commented that it was very faithful to the manga, and I really appreciated it. My Happy Marriage however is not always faithful, which at times, especially when it comes to the central relationship, is a shame. But overall, I think the anime offers a more complete package than the manga does (so far). I cannot say for the light novel, but the manga’s weakness has always been that the supernatural side of the series feels more like an afterthought, something added in to give the author a way to continue the story long term once the ‘Cinderella’ side of the story had played out. But the anime version, from the very first episode, has done a really good job in making the supernatural world feel more important and organic, to show the audience that there is a lived-in world where families of psychics pass on their skills through their bloodline/children. The supernatural side doesn’t take away from Miyo’s situation, a girl growing up with a family who tortured her every waking moment; it adds to the dynamic of her feeling worthless because she was born with no gift.
Once the anime gets past the ‘Cinderella’ side of the story, and we open to both Kiyo’s job getting harder and Miyo learning to deal with her trauma, the rollercoaster of emotions doesn’t feel like padding past a story’s natural end point, but a natural continuation. A ‘happy every after’ and making a marriage work take…well ‘work’ to do and both members of the engagement have a lot of healing and development to make their relationship last. Miyo needed to learn how to accept her past trusting that she can lean on Kudo when she’s suffering. As for Kudo, he’s had to learn to be able to trust others, that not everyone is after his wealth or power, whilst also learning how to be patient and open with someone with Miyo’s background as well. I also really loved how the first season ended, with Kudo saying “we choose each other”; Kudo was forced to find a bride and Miyo was forced to leave her home. So, the fact that they found each other despite it all is a beautiful way to end. I’m really happy that Season 2 has been confirmed to be going ahead, as there’s several plot threads left to wrap up, and will be wonderful to see these two grow together as a couple.
I started the Summer Season eager to see a lot of returning series, but when it came to new anime, there was nothing I was looking forward to more than A Happy Marriage. Of course, that excitement was mixed with anxiety that studio Kinema Citrus wouldn’t be able to do the source material justice. The trailers had looked promising and the cast and crew are stellar, but still, I’ve seen too many of my favourites lose their way partway through an adaptation. And how many books would it adapt, would it find a natural ending point or would it feel incomplete? Although this is a worry I needn’t have had, since a second season was announced immediately after the final episode broadcast!
Now that the anime is over I’m happy to report that the studio actually did an excellent job with this one. In the end, the team chose to only adapt two volumes of the source material, which both gave them the perfect place to stop and plenty of time to flesh out what makes this such a compelling story. Yes, we lost quite a few of Miyo’s internal monologues due to switching mediums, but we still saw enough of her fears and anxiety to empathise with her. Personally, I think it’s a delicate balance to strike to make Miyo a character with so much depression and anxiety but not come off as gloomy or whiny to the viewer and that’s something the team accomplished. Sometimes rather than say it outright, it was left to the animation or the music (composed by Evan Call) to cue the viewer into the emotions the cast was feeling in a particular scene. It was delicate and beautiful, reminiscent of series like Violet Evergarden which deal with matters of the heart in a similar way.
The only criticism I have is that the anime early on struggled to make the supernatural side of the series relevant. This is something the first light novel struggled with as well where it name-dropped the Grotesqueries but never did anything with it. Still, I think we understood more about how they and the Gifted fit into this world better than we did in the anime as it cut out a lot of the earlier mentions of both these things. And this works against it once we get to the halfway point where they adapt Volume 2 and both of these things become a main focus without proper build-up. However, on the whole, this is a relatively minor criticism and I don’t think it should put anyone off watching a show that is likely to be my favourite of the year.
When we wrote the Summer Preview, I chose Horimiya: The Missing Pieces as my returning champion. That’s a choice I still stand by since I adored that show, but for this article, I’m changing track as I want to talk about Bungo Stray Dogs Season 5. The series picks up right where Season 4 ended earlier in the year, with the Armed Detective Agency being framed for horrible deeds that they did not commit. While the previous season saw them being hunted down by the Hunting Dogs, now our heroes have a plan to turn it around and put a stop to Fyodor’s (or his boss’s) plan once and for all.
In many ways, this storyline is the one we’ve been following since early on in the series timeline, particularly when it comes to Fyodor who made his first appearance at the very end of the second season (and then later in the Dead Apple film). It has taken until Season 3 to bring Fyodor into the spotlight, but there’s no denying he’s been involving himself with many earlier cases. And that’s why as we sit here at the end of Season 5, I suspect this arc will be the very end of Bungo Stray Dogs.
Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t want this series to reach a conclusion. I enjoy it way too much to bid it goodbye, but the stakes have risen so high that there’s no building up to something like this again when all’s said and done. Ultimately I don’t think you should try and top this; some of these twists have already been silly in a way that’s stereotypical of the power creep in the shonen genre. If I hadn’t already read the manga, I think there are certain points here in Season 5 where it feels like the series has gone off the rails (were any of us truly prepared for the introduction of vampires?!), but luckily it’s reined back in later.
However, while there are things I could criticise the series for, there’s also no denying that Bungo Stray Dogs is still the supernatural battle series we all know and love. Brought to life by studio BONES, who always bring their best to the project and prove once again that even when a series adapts beyond the source material, it’s in safe hands. Yes, you read that right, Bungo Stray Dogs Season 5 officially got beyond the manga for its final two to three episodes which was very exciting for viewers like me who are up-to-date with the source material even in Japanese and had no idea what was going to happen next. Given the manga only runs monthly, it will be a long time until we get to enjoy Season 6, but I was pleased to see this season end with confirmation that the anime isn’t over yet, so no matter how long it takes, we’re safe in the knowledge that it will be back eventually. And in the meantime, I am sure we’re all dying to know how that cliffhanger ending came to be, so for now we’ll eagerly await further chapters of the manga…
Of course, I can’t end my section of this article without mentioning an isekai of some description, so for my hidden gem I’ve picked Am I Actually the Strongest? Adapted from a light novel by studio Staple Entertainment, this one easily flies under the radar with its stereotypical set-up. Our protagonist is Haruto who is reincarnated into another world and born as the prince of a kingdom. While the goddess who reincarnated him promised an easy life and untold power, Haruto’s mana level is so high that the technology in this world can’t even read it properly! So he’s deemed worthless and a stain on the royal family, leading him to be abandoned in the middle of the woods and left for dead.
Luckily our protagonist is saved by Flay, a demon who wants to eat him and then agrees to serve him after being bested by his barrier magic. And then there’s Gold, a nobleman who knows about Haruto being left for dead and chooses to adopt the boy into his family, while the royals are none the wiser. Haruto’s life is comfortable with no particular problems, he can take things one step at a time as he studies his magic. That is, until his family finds themselves in danger and he creates an alter ego dressed in a super sentai costume to fight crime. And then his little sister Charlotte finds out and becomes obsessed with making sure Haruto is out there fighting crime!
It’s a generic premise with a generic overpowered protagonist, but the strength of the series comes from Charlotte’s antics. She was one of my favourite characters when I read Volume 1 of the source material, so I was pleased to see her becoming the main focus of the anime as soon as her introduction happened. She completely misunderstands Haruto’s actions, thinking he’s a crime-fighting superhero, when in truth he just wants to laze about in bed, not fight bandits day-in and day-out, but there’s a strong bond between these adoptive siblings and he’s unable to correct her. And ultimately, Haruto is made a much better person because of Charlotte.
There’s not a great deal of substance here, particularly as you’ll have seen most of this all before in a thousand other isekai, but if you are a fan of the genre, there’s fun to be had. And for this being my first experience with Staple Entertainment, I have to say they’ve done a good job. It’s not the best-looking anime you’ll ever see, but with its colourful palate and cute character designs, it knows how to capitalise on what makes the series fun to watch. The action scenes often aren’t bad either, even if they do have a tendency to cut away from the fights and show us explosions or fancy magic instead of weapon-to-weapon combat.
My Happy Marriage is available on Netflix while Bungo Stray Dogs and Am I Actually the Strongest? are both on Crunchyroll.
Malevolent Spirits: Monogatari’s second season wrapped up on a relatively anticlimactic final battle, with aspects feeling a tad dragged out. With that said, though, this sequel did overall hold my interest, and I think there’s potential for a third season that will hopefully allow the likes of Botan and Hyouma to grow further as characters, whilst continuing to world-build on the supernatural elements holding the narrative intrigue together for me, and hopefully more so than the battle-focused final episodes on offer this time around.
I’ll give an honourable mention to Spy Classroom‘s second season, which proved to be better the first thanks to its arcs, and also to MIX: Meisei Story Season 2, a two-cour continuation of the 2019 anime, as it ended up being a low-key and laid-back, yet also enjoyable experience.
At the start of the season I wasn’t sure how the story would develop, following the initial episodes of the supernatural horror Dark Gathering, but having now watched the first cour in full, I can confirm that this was definitely worth the invested time, offering one of the stronger horror anime titles in recent years for me.
The premise so far has seen Keitarou Gentouga, a college freshman who hates ghosts, getting roped into supernatural experiences and situations of the spookier kind, which he deals with through the support of childhood friend and moral support Eiko Houzuki’s cousin Yayoi Houzuki, a prodigy of sorts with similar spiritual connections as Keitarou. One element of the series I was concerned about was how Yayoi would fare as a character, as she is rather deadpan and stoic, but thankfully she has proved to be an entertaining co-lead, and Eiko has also been fairly likeable. The scenarios so far have been engaging also, and I’m glad that the anime has a second cour, as it’ll make for some fitting October watching!
Malevolent Spirits: Monogatari is available to watch on Crunchyroll, whilst Dark Gathering is available to watch on HIDIVE.
I was really hoping that Undead Murder Farce would turn out to be my pick of the season. But sadly, that was not the case. And the main problem? Too many characters, not enough time to develop them or make them appealing. This kind of pick n’ mix show that throws a whole bundle of well-known fictional characters (and the occasional real person such as Aleister Crowley or Jack the Ripper) into the mix is that it relies too hard on our/the audience’s familiarity with them. Yes, it’s amusing to have Sherlock Holmes pitted against Arsène Lupin teaming up with the Phantom of the Opera, not to mention Phileas Fogg etc.. But there’s no time to make the story anything other than mildly diverting. Once they’re introduced, that’s it, that’s the shtick. The hard work of creation has already been done by Arthur Conan-Doyle, Jules Verne, etc. So it’s fun (ish) but a little lazy. And there’s no deep engagement. Even in Moriarty the Patriot (which plays out a similar game but over many more episodes/volumes and without any supernatural elements) we get the chance to know the characters in their ‘new’ versions and to begin to empathize with them. But this time around, there’s not enough time, it’s all smoke and mirrors.
It’s stylishly designed and animated but in the space of thirteen episodes, it deals with three (mostly yet not entirely) unrelated stories: vampires in France; Holmes v. Lupin; werewolves. The immortal detective Aya Rindo, whose head is carried around in a gilded birdcage by the (probably also immortal) Tsuruga, known as the Cage User and her fiercely protective maid, Shizuku, wants her body back. It was stolen by Professor Moriarty and he and his gang keep appearing but not always in a very meaningful way to impede their progress.
Undead Murder Farce really wants to have its cake and eat it. Is it a detective story in which the great detective (Aya Rindou) explains a seemingly insoluble murder mystery to everyone as they all stand around being explained to? Is it ‘foil Moriarty’s dastardly plans and get Aya’s missing body back’? Or is it ‘pit various 19th and 20th century characters from popular fiction against each other and see who wins’? I hadn’t realized until the anime series was over that the first three volumes (so far) of the manga (based on the original novels by Yugo Aosaki) are available to read in digital from Kodansha (Haruka Tomoyama). Perhaps the story works better in 2D… Or perhaps I’m just not the ideal viewer as I wanted much greater engagement with the characters; Holmes, the Phantom and Lupin are wasted in the London episodes. But what do I know? Nearly all the ANN team voted it their best anime of the Summer Season so maybe I’m missing something. The third (and longest) tale which dealt with the hidden village of the werewolves showed some signs of creating more audience engagement but still insisted on bringing in new characters from nowhere for more fights! Because it’s all about the fights!
(Also – how come the Japanese characters can converse so easily with the people in France, London and then (one assumes?) Prussia/Germany? Unless there’s a Babelfish or two around, this is just not in any way believable. But then, I suppose, neither is a disembodied head that can converse and reason, so…)
Meanwhile, Sacrificial Princess & the King of Beasts has gone from strength to strength. As it comes to an end, I can wholeheartedly recommend it to fantasy fans (especially those tiring of isekai). In a year strong in highly recommendable shojo titles (Sugar Apple Fairy Tale, My Happy Marriage) it built the suspense up with skill, involving us with the cast, both humans and beasts, and delivering a heroine in Sariphi who thinks for herself and whose positive outlook on life makes her friends and allies in unexpected places. Having won the heart of the King of Beasts (and given him the name Leonhart) she has also discovered his secret: the ruler of Ozmargo, the kingdom of the beasts, is half-human and has to hide himself away every month when his human form appears. Unfortunately, another high-ranking official at court has also discovered Leonhart’s secret and reveals it to his beast subjects at the worst possible moment. It’s up to Sariphi (and her small but faithful retinue) to try to find a way to save her beloved Leonhart before he is deposed and executed. I’ve yet to read the manga (by Yuu Tomofuji) on which this is based but, coming to the TV series without any preconceptions, this became one of my favourite series this year (24 episodes). The animation has been reliable, if not stellar – and because the story is well-constructed and engaging, introduces characters that are not cardboard cut-outs (it’s impossible not to like Princess Amit, Sariphi’s companion or Cy and Clops) it’s very recommendable as a ‘different’ fantasy series.
I came late to The Masterful Cat is Depressed Again Today with a certain wariness because I knew it was animated by GoHands. However, apart from a few queasy moments in the OP, I think they got this one about right! Based on the manga by Hitsuji Yamada (Yen Press) it follows the everyday life of salarywoman Saku Fukuzawa and Yukichi, the black cat she rescued as an abandoned kitten and has grown – and grown… Yukichi is now parent/carer/housekeeper to Saku; he does all the cooking and shopping, keeps the house clean and tries to make sure that Saku lives a healthy life (which seems difficult, given the drinking culture of the office she works for). We hear Yukichi’s thoughts (he doesn’t speak, although he purrs and grunts) and he’s perfectly capable of communicating outside the home with other humans; sometimes people think he’s a guy in a cat suit but no one seems too bothered (modern city life?). Even though Yukichi sometimes chides Saku, implying that she’ll never find a human partner, we get the feeling that they’re already a couple. She rescued him and in return, he looks after her. They understand each other. (Is this a cat owner’s fantasy of a perfect life? Or a cat’s? It just is what it is…) It all works well as a slice-of-life with a difference and Yukichi’s VA, Hiroki Yasumoto (‘Chad’ in Bleach) is purrfect casting!
Demelza’s already praised the impressive work done by Evan Call in his soundtrack for My Happy Marriage (listen out for his score in Frieren!) and I want to also put in a word for Taku Iwasaki’s consistently excellent score for Bungo Stray Dogs. Taku Iwasaki has been there (for me anyway) since some of my first favourite anime series (Witch Hunter Robin, GetBackers, Black Cat, Gurren Lagann) and his distinctive use of strings in his writing for anime adds layers of complexity and tension like no other composer working in the business. Also, a word in favour of Omoinotake’s underrated (I haven’t seen anyone else mention it thus far) OP ‘Happiness’ for Horimiya – the missing pieces. It’s a song of deceptive simplicity; not only is it extremely subtly put-together but it’s just as memorable as ‘EVERBLUE’ (Blue Period).
Undead Murder Farce, The Sacrificial Princess & the King of Beasts and The Masterful Cat is Depressed Again Today are currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
Bleach’s high budget return continued on with the second season of the “Thousand Year Blood War arc”, the final arc in the manga and one that, as it went on, I sadly disliked more and more as it was clear author Tite Kubo was rushing through things. I was full of praise for the first cour of this show last year due to its visuals, voice casts, OST and story, and I’m happy to say that the first three of those were still very much intact but it’s this part of the story where things start to unravel, plot points to make certain high level Shinigami characters more vulnerable are dropped with little fanfare and what few rival Quincies have had any screen time are swiftly dealt with, with a few obvious exceptions. This isn’t all bad though as with some of those enemy defeats come some great fight scenes and due to the other three things mentioned, the show did hit some very high notes. Series classic Rukia got to face off with Sternritter F “The Fear” As Nodt (best not to ask about all the terminology if you’re not invested in the show…) and wow what a visual and audio treat this was, particularly with Nodt and his fear-based powers. His voice actor, Yoshitsugu Matsuoka, absolutely nailed it, giving an unnervingly calm voice for most of the story, giving way to absolute mania when things start to go south; it sent shivers down my spine when he sudden shouted in outrage and transformed into quite the visually unpleasant form. It all leads to a big moment for Rukia that has a very pleasing dialogue exchange between her and her brother for long-time fans.
We also got some fun moments for Kenpachi as he finally revealed his Shikai, something teased way back to his original fight with Ichigo in the second story arc of the series, though his fight that lasted nearly two months in the manga lasted barely an episode here, but that’s what happens when it’s mostly fighting, I guess, as there were hardly any manga panels cut from the chapters in question. Still, somehow made it feel rushed. Sadly there were still parts of the story that didn’t work in both mediums, like Sternritter Z “The Zombie” Giselle Gewelle and her undead army fighting Soul Society’s favourite mad scientist Mayuri and HIS army of undead Arrancar from many moons ago, the payoff of the “what did Mayuri find hanging in the lab?” tease also way back during the long Arrancar arc. It’s just not very well done and before it really gets going, Mayuri techno-babbles his way out of the situation with little effort. I also have to mention that the majority of the show takes place in a transformed Soul Society with a plain red sky that gives everything a red hue and while that was interesting at the start, five or six episodes in and it got quite visually boring, eventually giving way to being plain annoying.
What I did like though is in the last three episodes Tite Kubo once again chimed in with some new lore and a heavy rewrite. It’s here where the Sternritter leader Yhwach (again, that’s “Yu-Ha Ba-Ha”) and his top generals invade the Royal Realm and fight Squad Zero, a team that was built up over the series as something special but in the original manga were dealt with surprisingly easily, apart from their leader anyway. Here Kubo not only rewrote them to be more of a threat but revealed a brand new Bankai that blew me away visually and certainly made it clear that Squad Zero do indeed live up to the hype. I mean, in Cour 3 they still have to lose for the plot to continue, but at least they won’t have been so pathetic this time. Overall this is still a great adaptation, with extremely strong animation, voice work and soundtrack, it’s just the material they’re adapting is weaker than in Cour 1, though thankfully a little stronger thanks to a little extra help from the original author. I’m still looking forward to the next chunk of episodes next year, keeping my fingers crossed that more of rushed wrongs from the source material are righted and that the high production values continue.
Bleach: The Thousand Year Blood War is currently streaming on Disney Plus.