Part 1 of my countdown of the Winter 2016 season.
8. Durarara S2
Considering how I ended up coming back to Durarara despite rage-quitting during the first arc of X2, it feels odd that I’ve somehow made my peace with the show despite all my previous issues remaining. At some point I just stopped paying attention to minor details like characterisation, plot and forward momentum, and instead focused on just watching the fireworks explode devoid of any greater context. I guess it’s a pretty damning statement to admit that it was only after the show broke my ability to give a shit about anything but the most superficial, in-the-moment occurrences that I began to have fun, but there you go. On one hand I genuinely looked forward to tuning in each week, finding the majority of the cast and their antics entertaining, yet only in the sense of watching a series of disconnected events occur. I’d long stopped caring about the motivations and greater story beats, whether it was Mikado’s rise and fall as leader of The Dollars, Anri and Kida’s attempt to bring him back, Shizuo and Izaya’s rivalry, or whatever was going on with the mess of colour gangs, mafia groups and demon sword owners. I have no idea why anyone joined up with Izaya’s faction or what issue the pervert teacher had towards the sushi shop at the end. It all completely washed over me.
I get that the main focus of Durarara has always been about the various ways people collide against one another in a chaotic, yet interconnected web, however, there comes a point when even the vaguest notion of structure falls apart. Season two somehow gave us an absurd number of new characters, yet neither they nor the original cast were ever given any form of conclusive arc by the end. You may say this is a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth, and it’s definitely true that most of the supposed main players effectively had cameo appearances, often vanishing for huge chunks of story, yet at the same time the lack of forward momentum in the show has been apparent from the start. People were complaining about this at the midway point of season one, and if you look back to that point, you realise how few of the cast have evolved since then. That’s roughly fifty episodes of watching things circle and loop back round, with virtually no progression taking place. For a story that attempts to use plot points to build up a sense of dread and tension it’s simply way too much if nothing ultimately changes. Baccano may have followed a similar approach but there was a sense of payoff at the end, even if all the loose ends.
It’s hard not to feel incredibly inflicted by the end result. I can’t deny having fun, yet I don’t think I’ve ever been happier for a series I like to end.
7. Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans
Having managed to avoid anything to do with Gundam during my years as a fan (partly due to its intimidating scale and partly by allowing the fanbase to reflect upon the works), during the last year I’ve watched a dash of Wing, half of MS Gundam ‘79, two-thirds of G: Reco and all of Iron Blood Orphans. As such I’ve come to the rather sad conclusion that outside of Build Fighters I just don’t care that much for the franchise. Get your pitchforks out.
There are definitely execution issues in each show that I can point to, but the underlying themes and aesthetics just don’t appear to interest me in any of the examples I’ve tried. I guess not being impressed by the mecha designs or finding war is hell (in space) narratives generally tiresome outside of Legend of the Galactic Heroes probably puts me at a severe disadvantage from the get go, but natural curiosity towards this cultural behemoth and the initial promise that each iteration brings means I’ll probably keep attempting to find the one show that hooks me.
With that in mind, IBO is easily the best example of the series I’ve encountered so far (although next to the indecipherable mess of G: Reco that doesn’t say an awful lot), with the use of unhinged but impressively capable child soldiers to tell the story adding a refreshingly no nonsense attitude to battles. Rather than shouting a bunch of idealist and whiny speeches about the nature of conflict you get Mika looking bored and impatient as the adults around him do the sermonising. He gives zero shits about individual circumstances, codes of honour or the concept of right vs wrong: every enemy in front of him is just a target waiting to be disposed of in the most chillingly clinical way possible. The rest of Tekkadan exhibit varying degrees of this mind-set, seeing things more in terms of results rather than casualties or consequences. A scene later in the show where many of the kids display a dull sense of aggression in reaction to a fellow member’s death felt eerily familiar to real-life reports on child soldiers.
Mari Okada could have potentially been an awkward choice for this type of story and cast, but I honestly felt her writing was quite restrained in the show. Sure, there was the odd moment when the dialogue veered towards histrionics but for the most part it came across as slightly bombastic rather than aimless screaming. I’m still not exactly convinced she was the best choice considering the subject matter but it was hardly the car crash I had feared.
Unfortunately, I can’t say I found anyone other than Biscuit particularly interesting as an individual character, as opposed to a concept or cog in a machine, which dampened my enjoyment somewhat. Most of the kids played the roles of helpful worker ants while the women were mostly relegated to moral and domestic support. I’d always heard that Gundam has never exactly had the most progressive of views towards the female sex, but it was only after seeing Kudelia go from determined political revolutionary to a self-doubting servant who generally only seemed happy when she was washing/cooking for the boys or blushing over Mika that it really dawned on me. And this before the arrival of the haremette mecha pilots, the Gjallarhorn commander who goes full tsun-tsun over her unrequited crush, a child bride and an overseer for Tekkadan whose chief role seems to be screaming variants of “Won’t someone think of the children!”
The last issue in particular would be fine as a proper discussion, yet I have real doubts whether IBO will ever address it effectively, if at all. For all of Merribit’s pleading about how fucked up it is in sending these kids off to exact revenge for a fallen comrade, she’s straight up ignored and eventually comes to accept their reasoning, while the rather unhealthy give/take relationship between Orga and Mika isn’t really commented upon either way.
All these specific issues just get compounded on top of my larger annoyances with Gundam in general, i.e. it’s slow as balls (26 episodes to get to earth!), the plot twists can be seen from space and the episodic battle of week formula quickly starts to drag. It’s the same reason I struggle with sentai or magical girl shows, as the repetition becomes mind-numbing if all that’s being added are new enemies (or mecha) to beat. Not all of IBO consists of this, but as a 26 episode series its central story beats always felt stretched too thin for my tastes.
We’ll see about season two I guess.