What the heck, where did this season come from. I still feel I had pretty much every reason to expect this to be a mediocre season, but the straight-out outrageous quality of shows like A Place Further Than the Universe and After the Rain have kept my schedule totally packed. There are enough good shows that I wasn’t even able to watch them all this week – I still need to catch up on Mitsuboshi Colors, and only just now rushed through the latest Universe. On the whole, it appears this season’s relative wildcards are carrying the day, while the more sure things like Evergarden and Franxx are turning out to be a great deal more suspect. But either way, this season is full of absolutely beautiful shows, and some of them are even good in other ways. Let’s run this week down!

After the Rain may be the most perfectly executed show of the season so far, illustrating Akira’s alternately somber and fanciful headspace with incredible grace from start to finish. I’m frankly glad we’re a bit into the season now, so everyone’s had a chance to see how honestly and compassionately this story is dedicated to Akira’s melancholy little story; I knew the manga was great, but also that the premise would be a massive deal breaker unless the show matched the source material’s sensitivity. This adaptation has matched that and then some, using its various stylistic embellishments to expertly evoke the feeling of being a young and directionless teenager. This episode’s highlight was likely the “I know Akira can run fast” sequence, where Akira’s flight briefly lifted the cloud of restlessness that always seems to follow her. After the Rain never overtells anything, but its overall effect grants us an incredibly clear and gripping portrait of Akira’s quiet unhappiness, and her feeling of watching youth pass her by. The show just keeps impressing me.

On the other hand, Violet Evergarden could sadly stand to learn from how well After the Rain adds texture to its somber character story. Violet Evergarden is beautiful, but its story so far has been painted in all the broadest possible strokes, making it much harder to invest in its narrative. Violet herself is perhaps the biggest problem; her character so far is the most common robot archetype that exists, and the show hasn’t done nearly enough to raise her out of “robot who wants to learn what love is.” Outside of her, choices like having Gilbert’s death be made obvious from the start, but drawn out as a reveal over two episodes and countless little allusions, also contribute to the sense that this story is too underwritten to really warrant investment.

The good news is, this episode’s story of Violet integrating into the dolls organization was already a pretty marked improvement over the first in terms of character texture; we’re getting at least a couple shades of complexity in the interrelations of Violet’s new office, and the show’s absurdly well-observed character acting is much more effectively applied to these smaller personal dramas. I’ve still got a nagging suspicion that Violet Evergarden is just too broad of a narrative to make best use of Kyoto Animation’s character-focused strengths, but I’m on board to see where this goes.

Back to the positive stuff, Laid-Back Camp is currently proving too damn good to drop. I was totally planning on dropping this one – its premiere was excellent, but I only tend to stick with the occasional strict slice of life, and I’ve already got plenty else I’m watching. But the show’s second and third episodes have only reinforced its status as a top-class show, from its masterful control of atmosphere to its unexpectedly terrific comedy. Laid-Back Camp’s mixture of excellent music, great visual design, and emphasis on the familiar routines of camping bring the brisk and austere yet somehow comforting camping experience to life, successfully transporting me to its unique world every single episode. If Laid-Back Camp stays this good, I’ll have a hard time putting it down.

March comes in like a lion was in full transition mode this week, as the last embers of the Hina bullying arc faded and Meijin Souya blew in on a cold new wind. The episode lacked the visual invention or plain dramatic appeal of the show’s best episodes, but with an adaptation of an ongoing, arc-based manga like March, you sort of have to expect that some episodes are going to mostly just be role-fillers. And as far as role-fillers go, this episode offered some very funny moments for both Rei and Shimada, and also further bolstered Souya’s presence as a nearly inhuman avatar of shogi might. The show’s been building towards Rei and Souya’s confrontation for dozens of episodes now, and I’m very excited to see how this alters the course of Rei’s journey.

I also checked in on the new Darling in the Franxx, which was a truly unique brand of glorious mess. The show’s fanservice and other assorted attempts at sexiness are so clumsy that I almost wonder if that’s the intent; after all, this is a show about horny teens in a world where sex education doesn’t seem to exist, so maybe the awkwardness is intentional? But many of those scenes are so clearly viewer-focused that it seems too charitable to see them as intentionally bad, and so much of the rest of this show is pulled piecemeal from other works that I have a hard time granting its writing staff all that much trust.

The writing in general was also a mess this episode; we were given little reason to care about anyone, conflicts built themselves up out of nothing, and the larger story beats left far too little time to actually build relationships between anybody. That said, the show was also full of cute visual tricks, compelling compositions, and evocative scenes like the final battle between Hiro, Ichigo, and their teammates. The earnest disappointment and shame of their moment of failure felt far more compelling than the rest of the episode put together, and I really hope it’s a sign of better things to come. Like with Evergarden, there’s a lot of beauty being applied to this story, but I’m not yet sure the story can bear the weight.

Finally, A Place Further Than the Universe’s fourth episode wasn’t as much of a standout as the previous three, but it still consistently demonstrated this show’s remarkably strong direction and nearly as excellent character writing. The early horror-themed sequence where Kimari is trying to tell her mom about the trip almost felt like showing off; it was basically just an extended gag, but it possessed a greater understanding of effective horror framing than most actual horror shows. And at this point, watching the main four screw around had become its own reward, their unique personalities bouncing endearingly off each other. Universe is an incredibly confident show, and given how well it’s illustrated all its diverse tones so far, I’m very excited to see if the trip to Antarctica will prompt another big tonal shift. This show is equally comfortable being cozy and funny, thoughtfully introspective, and earnestly melodramatic, and I’m ready to see wherever it takes us next.

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