Alright guys, I’m starting to run out of enthusiasm here. After seemingly gathering itself into a genuinely respectable show, Darling in the Franxx shit the bed for the second time straight this week, meaning the season’s wild card is rapidly losing all hope resolving into a genuinely good show. On top of that, my interest in A Place Further Than the Universe has only lapsed further, as the show continues to indulge in just-kinda-par slice of life episodes. And with even After the Rain turning in a relatively so-so episode this week, it feels totally unfair to hang all my hopes for excellence on Laid Back Camp, a show that is just trying to have a good time and is feeling so attacked right now. None of this is unusual, of course – a great first episode is a lot easier to achieve than a great show, and every season’s back half ends up littered with the regrets of shows that could have been. But still, I can’t help but feel just a bit demoralized as we embark on this Week in Review. Let’s pick up our spirits the best we can and run this week down!
After a relatively subpar episode, Laid Back Camp rallied back with an episode that wasn’t necessarily the most aesthetically splendiferous, but still embodied the show’s greatest strengths well enough to be a real highlight. Of course, I was almost predetermined to like this episode, given it focused on my favorite of Laid Back Camp’s modes: Rin going on a meditative solo trip. This particular trip actually felt even more inviting than Rin’s usual fair, given its “idle road trip through autumnal mountains” theme was something this life-long New Englander could immediately relate to. And the base appeal of Laid Back Camp’s usual strengths (terrific atmosphere, graceful humor, very naturalistic character banter, etc) was here complemented by a new and very effective approach to balancing the overall cast dynamic.
Having Rin go on a solo trip while her friends back home durdled around and offered navigation meant this episode was able to embrace the best of both its worlds, taking advantage of both the bracing freedom of Rin’s material and the comfy comedy of Nadeshiko’s. Their communal conversations also helped integrate Rin into the larger group at a pace she was comfortable with, giving her just as much Aki as she could handle. Laid Back Camp’s understanding of the idle conversations friends share extends to an understanding of how fundamentally different people will all have different comfort levels and sub-friendships within a larger social group, giving Rin’s slow journey towards these others a realistic and very sympathetic framing. I’m very much enjoying Laid Back Camp’s unusual acute respect for someone who just isn’t that comfortable with other people.
After the Rain had a relatively reserved and perhaps slightly below par episode this week, as the show once again ran through a grab bag of relatively disparate tiny incidents. The fact that so much of this episode’s drama was constrained to the diner’s back office meant it had to struggle for visual intrigue at times, but I thoroughly enjoyed the climactic conversation between Akira and Kondo, where the ambiguity of Rashomon’s conclusion served as a surprisingly robust starting point for reflecting on their divergent self-images. This episode wasn’t really a stunner in terms of animation either, but the layouts for scenes like that one and Akira’s track friend chatting with the old soccer captain still gave them a reasonable degree of dynamism. There was some evocative Yamada-style emphasis on legs and feet as the doorways to emotional honesty, and also standout, quintessentially After the Rain moments like Akira reflecting on summer’s end while staring out into the great orange distance. After the Rain tends to work best when its episodes are able to center themselves on one central event with its own tonal subtleties and aesthetic vocabulary, but as far as vignette collections go, this was still a fine episode.
March comes in like a lion eased us back into its punishing character drama with a lighthearted story about an elderly competitor who’s seen all his friends abandon their shogi dreams, and now carries those dreams with him like shackles as he burns his own flame to a cinder. It was an evocative and often stifling episode that made sharp use of March’s consistently strong visual storytelling, and given this show is almost certainly just giving Yanagihara this one episode, I thought it did the best job it could of illustrating his struggle in a sympathetic light. The episode wasn’t as much of an aesthetic standout as some of March’s highlights, and we simply don’t know Yanagihara well enough for this to match the show’s big emotional payoffs, but it was a very respectable episode that represented plenty of March’s key strengths. I’m happy to have our sad shogi heroes back.
Over in Darling in the Franxx territory, this was a decisive episode, but sadly not in a good way. After last week’s largely wasted beach episode, Franxx decided to follow up with an equally canned, equally derivative, equally skippable “battle of the sexes” episode this week, featuring the classic “you can’t touch anything on my side of the apartment” setup. In a much better show, this would have been a fine venue for exploring the mixed-up relationships of these various characters, and perhaps challenging their preconceptions about the dividing lines between them. In a somewhat better show, this would have simply been a waste of an episode. Unfortunately, this is Darling in the Franxx, so the episode ultimately concluded on a series of heartfelt speeches about how boys and girls are fundamentally different and won’t ever understand each other, but still need each other anyway.
Franxx’s simplistic articulations of gender conflict have bubbled up in the past, but I’ve generally assumed the show’s deeply conservative and just-plain-ignorant framing of boys and girls was reflective of both the leads’ own ignorance and the stifling world they inhabit, not the minds of the show’s actual creators. After this episode, with its banal 1950s-era gender essentialism being treated as a warm revelation, it’s hard to still believe Franxx’s own writers really know anything about gender at all. And yeah, there’s room for conservative or biologically ignorant media to exist, but when a show pins its thematic priorities and centers its dramatic climaxes on such naive beliefs, it’s hard for me to really care about anything that happens. It’d be like a show whose thematic centerpoint is that humanity is worth saving because the earth is obviously the center point of the universe – alright, sure, your show can believe that, but that doesn’t help me invest in your ignorance. I’m not sure if I’ve actually dropped Franxx at this point, but this episode makes me feel it’s going to be a very hard show to care about.
And finally, A Place Further Than the Universe continued its slow descent from excellence to above-averageness this week, centering its latest episode on that staple slice of life question, “what is the meaning of friendship?” Yuzuki’s friendship-focused drama this episode just felt too trite and one-note to really inspire much interest from me; the girl is sympathetic, but her conflicts are so childish and so plainly articulated that it’s hard to feel deeply invested in her story. I liked this episode’s finale sequence, but that’s because this show is good at selling its conflicts – the insert song was nicely chosen, the direction did a great job of creating a sense of warm intimacy in their tiny bunks, and the scene moved naturally through believable exchanges of dialogue. Universe is a consistently well-executed show, but that’s not my issue with it; my issue is that often, and particularly in its second half, the material it chooses to execute is either genre-standard or just kinda dull. It is very strange to me that Universe began as this seemingly ambitious coming-of-age story and has evolved into this far more conventional slice of life adventure, but I guess I can still appreciate those lovely shots of Antarctica’s beautiful desolation.