HD entered this season doubting that the animation industry had the depth and breadth of talent necessary to pull off sixty new shows at one blow with anything other than low grade drivel as the result. With a whole lot of help from their South Korean counterparts, they’ve somehow pulled it off. HD presents the best of the rest: thirteen shows, 214 screencaps, and more quality anime than should rightfully be on the airwaves at any one time.

Majipoka

A vampire, a werewolf, a robot and a witch team up in this moe-infused, vignette-based ensemble comedy. Solid production values and a history of similar titles (Hand Maid May, Cosplay Complex, G-on Riders) will be the draw (or the red flag) here. The first episode is broken into two twelve-minute self contained segments, with no sign of a plot growing from either; those looking for a bit of perky feel-good moetic diversion will find this a welcome addition to the season’s lineup, those seeking more hard-boiled or thought provoking fare would do well to move on.

Initial Verdict: B+.

Princess Princess

This season’s flagship title in the gender-bending division, Princess Princess is the story of an all-boys’ private high school and the bishounen pressed into service as “princesses”, crossdressing to serve as school idols in lieu of a comparable female presence. I’m guessing the show is aimed at the “if its cute and it moves it’s fair game” school of moe just as much as a female viewership; those who get a kick out of the ridiculous scenario, those who enjoy gender comedy and those turned on by pretty boys in pretty dresses will probably enjoy what Princess Princess has to offer.

Initial Verdict: B, but could quickly plummet as the initial premise is worn in.

Black Lagoon

Black Lagoon is a by-the-book Hollywood action movie masquerading as an anime series (and a manga, originally). Having read the first three volumes I can state with confidence that if the show keeps up the exemplary production values seen here (with the exception of a few cheesy pans during the bar fight), what you see above is what you’ll get – quality action anime with plenty of blood, guns, profanity, high-speed chases, and gangsters. If you like American movies you’ll probably like this; no blushing moe maidens in sight and no gratuitous fanservice (at least not of the panty-flashing kind) to interfere with the speeding bullets and McGuffins.

Initial Verdict: A. A solid rendition of a solid (if unoriginal) manga, Black Lagoon is shaping up to be the best show of the season for kicking ass and taking names. A word of warning: this first episode is a cliffhanger.

Inukami

Boy summons dog girl to fight bizarro undead, dog girl falls for boy, boy rejects dog girl in favor of “real human girls”, dog girl henpecks him with superior magic powers, boy gets naked. A lot. This is a really, really stupid show, with designs and production values that hardly exceed the average; if you haven’t had enough henpecked male protagonists or cookie-cutter tsundere heroines for a lifetime Inukami will certainly fulfil your quota; otherwise I’d recommend giving this one a miss (unless you’re collecting Colonel Sanders screenshots).

Initial Verdict: D. The more I think about this show the more I detest it; I’d better move along before that D becomes an F.

Nishi no Yoki Majo

Based on a series of fantasy novels penned by Ogiwara Noriko, the influence of European fairy tales shows clearly in the lush background animation of Nishi no Yoki Majo. With a confident, no-nonsense heroine, handsome princes, debutante balls, mysterious amulets, reclusive wizards and sinister plots, the series should have more than enough to go on for its 13-episode run; I only worry that there won’t be time enough to fit in all of the adventure that’s sure to ensue. If you don’t mind the shoujo designs and occasionally dodgy character animation this is looking to be a trip worth taking for fans of fantasy, young and old.

Initial Verdict: A-/B+. Slight pacing issues and cuts in the character animation budget pull this down from what would otherwise be a solid A; here’s hoping to see improvements on both fronts as the series progresses.

Witchblade

The animated incarnation of Witchblade sports a plot that has served well enough in theatrical films (usually ones in which Harrison Ford delivers the line “give me my x back you son of a bitch”, where x = an arbitrarily determined family member / pet / piece of pocket lint), but will probably tire over the course of several episodes; there are only so many times I can hear Mamiko scream “Rikooooooooooo” before the pathos runs out. Hearing Mamiko scream, growl, or purr anything in this passive-agressive and undeniably sexy role is remarkable in itself, though, and goes a long way towards forgiving many of the ills the show is plagued with (Gonzo has never been known for its character animation, and Witchblade isn’t a break from their usual form).

Initial Verdict: C. Can Mamiko and Uno Makoto designs win out over a weak initial premise and fair-to-middling animation? Only time will tell.

Nana

One of the most popular Japanese media properties of the past few years makes its animated debut. Nana is the story of a good girl and a bad girl who meet on a snowbound train en route to Tokyo, then again during their separate house-hunting search, and wind up becoming roommates and best friends forever (we assume). A modern day fairy tale of relationships and heartache, Nana’s appeal to the Japanese tween girl set is obvious; less obvious is how it will play to an international audience, but I suspect it will find adherents in the art house set along with the standard bevy of shoujo hangers-on. Not being familiar with the original manga or its film counterpart I can’t say just how melodramatic or soap-operatic things will get, but the dual nature of the title characters ensures a balance of perspectives that could be refreshing enough to take the series a long way.

Initial Verdict: A-. Docked down half a grade arbitrarily because it’s Not Exactly My Thing.

Ohran High School Host Club

Boys who dig boys, who are girls, who dig boys, who dig girls after all, Ohran High School Host Club wraps up the season’s foray into light sexual deviance and girls named Haruhi. Whether anything else in the series will top this first episode is unclear, but such a delightful romp through shoujo contrivance would be a shame to let slip by unnoticed. More spinning roses and falling petals than you can shake a stick at, a deliberately stereotypical bishounen cast, a jealous princess (real, not Princess Princess-brand), and Hescafe all serve to frame the show’s charming protagonist; we don’t know much about Haruhi yet, but I, for one, want to know more. Do we have a spiritual successor to Fruits Basket on our hands? I doubt it, but something close sure would be appreciated.

Initial Verdict: A. There’s something about tomboys named Haruhi this season…

xxxHolic

Running concurrently with Tsubasa Chronicle, xxxHolic has seen manga and cinematic incarnations before finally landing here in serial anime form. I’m hardly an expert on recent Clamp, but this episode met with a conservatively warm reception here at HD, perhaps for no other reason than that it was viewed among other good episodes at the start of the season; the storyline seemed rather disjointed, though that may have just been the surreal feeling of the show itself. Ambivalence threatens to overtake the mild interest happening here, and I’m sure there are others better qualified to comment on the property; I’ll leave more thorough commentary in their capable hands.

Initial Verdict: B-. I don’t suppose you’ve got a sequel to Angelic Layer just sitting around somewhere, eh Clamp?

Zegapain

Sunrise + CG robots + vaguely Gasarakian character designs + low character animation budget + awkward male bloomer shot (look for it…) + Speedo + unrealistic protagonist with motivations that don’t add up + mysterious otherplanar girl + typical childhood friend romance + glowing green windows + two-timing student council + unexplained holographic dudes on display = Zegapain. Think you’ve seen it before? You probably have.

Initial Verdict: C-. Come on Sunrise, we both know you can do better than this.

Himawari

Close your eyes and it sounds like you’re watching Lemon Angel Project; open them and it looks like you’re watching Tactical Roar. Tell me Himawari’s protagonist isn’t the same guy… What similiarities they lack in hair color they more than make up for in personality and general function within the plot. Neither of these comparisons bodes well for this, the second Okama-designed show of the season; is his recent spate of popularity resulting in being paired with inappropriate titles? Quite possibly. Regardless, Himawari is a poorly-premised, irritatingly voiced and mediocrely (no, “mediocrely” is not a word) animated show populated by rejects from Yumeria and Naruto and really should not have been made. Alas.

Initial Verdict: C-. Some people will like this. I don’t.

Yumetsukai

Those who have read the manga know what to expect going into this episode; I hadn’t, and I was socked in the gut as a result. In the gut, with coolness. I’ve read some of the author’s other manga shorts when they show up in Afternoon and Yumetsukai seems tame by comparison thus far, but I’m confident it will get wierder; when you’re playing with dreams things are bound to get a bit out of control, after all. For every dozen stock, cookie-cutter shows that come out there’s bound to be one that shows up the rest in an “aren’t you ashamed of yourselves? Look what happens when I put an ounce of real imagination into this” sort of way, and as anyone who has been watching anime for awhile knows, the Japanese imagination can be fucked up. With that said, this first episode has emotional appeal beyond the measured bizarro factor it exhibits, and if this emotion is sustained throughout what is looking to be an episodic series I’m thinking we’re in for a minor classic here.

Initial Verdict: A. Who knows why things happen as they do, in dreams…

Ray The Animation

A ninja nurse with meat-bun hairpods, a pirate doctor with a whirling peg leg attack, and a sexy surgeon with X-ray vision: who could ask for more in an “action medical drama”? Ray delivers on all counts, from her redemption in the beginning by a certain caped crusader to her meeting with him at the end, when she reveals that her eyes can see everything but the human (emotional) heart. If ER were like this I’d have been watching from the beginning, not to mention the original Black Jack; as it is I’ll be keeping tabs on it unless and until the male love interest (due to show up next episode) starts weakening Ray’s ice queen exterior. Misato (miss meat-bun nurse) is superior, regardless. :3

Initial Verdict: A-. Some slight deficiencies in the animation and a profusion of medical and pseudoscientific jargon take Ray down from the straight A it would otherwise deserve.

2nd Episode Revisions

Kiba: C-.

Any hint of coherent character motivation or plot (other than gotta-catch-em-all with the spirit shards) disappeared in the second episode. For shame, Kiba – your world designs were so nice, too… welcome to the world of illiterate netizens and Linkin Park music videos.

Yoshinaga-san Uchi no Gargoyle: B.

The second episode was sillier than the first, and the trend looks as if it may continue in this direction as the series progresses. This will only brighten its prospects, maybe enough to make up entirely for the bizarrely melodramatic start of the show; I’ll give it another episode or two, at least.

Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuu-utsu: A+++.

Bravo! The feel of the first episode is maintained into the second as we’re introduced to Haruhi in real life through the eyes of our disaffected hero and sometime narrator. The direction on this series is really a cut above the rest, and makes a comedy of something that could easily be done wrong; this show is angling agressively for best of season and if nothing from the batch reviewed here steps up the pace I’d say victory may just be assured (brief cameos from Comptiq and Comp Ace don’t hurt its chances, either).

This wraps up HD’s coverage of the beginning of the spring 2006 anime season; periodic updates may follow as a few latecoming shows are launched and we check in with current series’ progress down the line. Hopefully these impressions will give a feel for some of the new stuff that’s out there, and/or spark a bit of discussion regarding the season’s relative merits. Questions? Comments? Vulgar invective? Onegaishimasu.