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A commenter last week asked me what I liked about Code Geass, and while I did my best to answer then, I've been thinking about it since; more to the point, I've been thinking about anime in general, what I hope to get out of the various series recapped and reviewed here. What, exactly, is my context? What is the ideal?

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I'm not sure I'd feel comfortable answering that–to me, being a critic is less about defining what's good and bad, and more about recognizing quality (or lack thereof) when you see it and being able to describe your reaction after the fact. It's like that Calvin and Hobbes strip where Calvin talks about justifying one's choices only after they're made; you can have a criteria for what, say, makes a kickin' episode of Shin Chan, but that criteria is only useful in as much as it looks to explain a previously existing phenomenon. Once you start applying a set of rules to entertainment, you're on dangerous ground–common sense is always required, no question ("Steven Seagal hasn't made a passable movie in over a decade. Ergo, his face on a DTV box does not bode well for my evening."), but you have to be willing to adapt as appreciation dictates.

All of which is a high-falutin' way of saying that I don't have expectations when I watch Geass and the rest, or at least not specific ones. One of the best parts of this job is getting a chance to discover things I might never have bothered to look at on my own. I've seen some anime–loved Neon Genesis Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop, revolutionary opinions to be sure–so I'm aware of the general conventions, but my only standard to go by in all these reviews is watching what works and what doesn't, and then trying to figure out why. My job is descriptive, not prescriptive; which may mean some initial fumbles (I cry your pardons!), but, in the end, makes for more valuable commentary.

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A lot of "Episode 68" of Bleach works; in fact, right up until the end of the ep I was thinking that maybe I'd been too hard on previous weeks. At the very least, we got some action for all our waiting. As Ichigo and his crew try and plan their next move, Yoruichi and Soi Fon, last seen saving Ichigo's bacon back at school, investigate an anomaly in the real world while officials back in Soul Society study their findings. Yoruichi stops a strange woman from killing a man at the train yard–a strange woman she recognizes, and who, according to the computers back home, doesn't have a recognizable reishi.

But the real story of the episode is the reveal of the mastermind behind all those nutty "games." After sucking Our Heroes through the Spooky Door that they'd been using to swipe people, the Creepy Giggling Girl (aka, Lirin) and her pals give Ichigo an ultimatum; he must find a way to defeat Kuroda and Noba (the afore mentioned pals) or Chad will drown in sand in a giant hourglass prop left over from the old Batman TV show. Ichigo and Renji swing into battle, but prove almost entirely ineffectual; Ichigo can't even summon up his bankai. Thankfully, Chad's over-sized prison shatters, freeing him instantly, and the gang learns that Urahara, he of the kickin' green and white hat, has been behind the whole thing. Apparently, it was all a training exercise to teach the group to work together, and, well, waste about four episodes.

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I was all set to give "68" high marks–the scenes with Yoruichi were sufficiently interesting, and the supposed final battle was a kick. But the "Ahhh, I appeared to put you and everyone you care about in danger so you could learn!" twist is fairly insulting, only a few steps above a dream-ending; the show was still not terrible, and maybe the appearance of a new threat will pan out, but if they pull this crap again I'm gonna have to talk to somebody's supervisor.

Fortunately, both Death Note and Code Geass were firing on all cylinders. In "Vigilance," Near continues his hunt; after one of his agents catches Mikami apparently using the Death Note on a subway creep, Near has the agent break into Mikami's locker at a local gym and study the notebook in Mikami's suitcase. This puts the agent in direct danger from any potential shinigami attached to the note, but Near ignores the Agent's fears. Across town, Light has to deal with a jealous Takada, and Aizawa's suspicions of his boss are finally confirmed when he realizes that the new L has been passing notes to his paramour in their bugged hotel room.

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When Aizawa visits Near with his suspicions, Near basically tells him that his involvement in the investigation isn't necessary, but that he should keep an eye on things and "be witness to the end of Kira." With only a few episodes of the series left to air, that end looks nigh inevitable; but we still don't know what happened with the "fake" notebook that Mikami was supposedly carrying around, and given Light's knack for wiggling out of tight situations, nothing seems completely certain–just that it'll all be over soon.

In "The Black Knight," it seems that the Code Geass universe operates under Lois Lane Logic, as three of Lelouch's high school friends go on a trip to Lake Kawaguchi, only to have the lake's hotel immediately taken over by Japanese terrorists. Lelouch, in his Zero garb, is in the process of showing his task force their new digs–a kickin' RV–and handing out new uniforms, when news of the hotel attack is broadcast on television. Zero's crew leaps into action, as does Princess Cornelia; when the terrorists readily defeat Cornelia's attempt to attack the hotel from below, she calls in Suzaku and his robot battle suit, Lancelot. Suzaku's strike hits at the same time as Zero makes his move, confronting the Japanese forces directly, with predictable results.

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Now that's what I'm talking about. "Knight" is the best Geass so far, gripping, well-paced, and surprisingly suspenseful. Lelouch uses his geass power to blunt and brutal effect, which raises an interesting point; the Japanese who attacked the hotel were, in a way, working towards the same goal as Zero and his team, but Zero won't tolerate them because of their methods. The climax of the ep promises big changes to come, when Zero reveals himself and the crew to the world as a team of vigilantes working to fight injustice and cruelty of all kinds, Britannian or otherwise. Once again, we've got a young man obsessed with enforcing his idea of "justice"; this (slightly) new direction is a more ephemeral goal than the destruction of Britannia, and its open-ended nature shows both Lelouch's ambition and his potentially dangerous idealism.

I've been fairly hard on Shin Chan lately, but I can still give it props when it works; and the last night's episode did, mostly. With Lucky Bastard gone for now (but, please god, not for good), we get three segments. The first, "Crash, Test Dummy," has the Naharas in their old "Butthole Apartment," and introduces Yonro, their pathetic neighbor's who's managed to fail his college entrance exams four times running, and is getting ready for a fifth crash-and-burn. Yonro's a geek, so the entire short is laden with pop-culture riffs; the plot never really gets into gear, but the randomness of the riffs makes up for it. (I particularly liked Yonro's "long, Barry Lyndon-like tale of my failures.") The middle segment, "Makeup, Little Penny," is the worst of the bunch, basically repeating the same structure as the "Hos" segment last week, with considerably less pleasant results; the foray into wife-beating jokes was never funny enough to justify its meanness.

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But the final segment, "Fairly Bad Things," was just right, and showed off how the FUNimation dub can actually improve upon its source. Going by the animation alone, the original short was about the Nahara's getting plagued by various friends and relations over an increasingly busy Sunday; in the dubbed version, they're still plagued, but one of the reasons Mom and Dad are so frantic to get everyone out of the house is that they've buried a clown's corpse in the desert and need time to finish cleaning up. As various people comment on the smell, we learn more about the unfortunate Mr. Peebles, his drug habits, and his very large shoes–and trucks pass on the road outside, broadcasting futile calls to the missing harlequin. For once, the added story element pays off; it's frenetic, dark, and frequently hilarious. It's nice to know that Shin actually has heights it can aspire to.

Grades:

Bleach, "Episode 68": B-

Death Note, "Vigilance": A-

Code Geass, "The Black Knights": A

Shin Chan, "Crash, Test Dummy/Makeup, Little Penny/Fairly Bad Things": A-

Stray Observations:

Shin Chan quotes:

"Now I'm a sexual Starscream. In college, I'll be a sexual Unicron."

"For some reason, I picture Yonro as the son of a Muppet and a fat stripper."

—And speaking of "Fairly Bad Things," I'd rather watch the worst Shin ep ever made than have to see that damn Peter Berg movie again.

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—I'm digging Geass, but sometimes the dubbed dialogue is a bit thick. In particular, Suzaku's, "I prefer the logic of systems to individualist emotions." made me laugh. I mean, sure, who doesn't?

—Those little figures Near keeps playing with are so cool.

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