I don't like it. I don't think it works. I seemed to remember quite liking Season 1, but looking back I see I didn't find myself particularly grabbed by its cast. With this season, though, I'd go further. Not only did I not particularly care about anyone, but they didn't even seem relevant to the storyline. This show is examining dirty politics, cynicism, ugly manipulative populism, horrible decisions being taken in high places and how all this intersects with the increasingly doomed idealism of superheroes. That's quite cool, theoretically.
What's basically being ignored is the show's regular cast. It's all Jiro. The others don't matter. This is my main problem with it. The themes are great. What the show's saying is great. It's a dense, dark, fairly angry text (albeit through the lens of superheroes). Super-beings are real and often wacky, but the world's governments are either using them as weapons against each other, whipping up propaganda or simply trying to exterminate them. Our heroes are like super-cops. They work for the government's Superhero Bureau. The villains' plan for curing the world's energy crisis might well be a nuclear metaphor, which as it happens is a hot topic in Japan right now with the debate about whether to restart all those nuclear reactors that got turned off post-Fukushima.
It just fails as drama, as far as I'm concerned. Oh, and the show also keeps jumping around its own timeline with no warning, across decades of an alternate world history (1940s-1970s). This is apparently easier to follow if you're Japanese, although there are still plenty of internationally famous historical events being riffed off too.
Here's a run-down of the cast. I'm going to need wikipedia's help here.
1. JIRO - the only regular character who actually matters, although even he tends to be used more as static angst, secrets and backstory. The non-linear storytelling can make it feel as if one's being shown Jiro's decisions after the event, rather than actually seeing the drama itself as it happens.
2. EMI - a yokai who usually takes the appearance of a beautiful pink-haired woman. She loves Jiro, but doesn't do much about this and mostly just does her job. She's still quite fun, though, especially when she turns into a demon.
3. KIKKO - a magical girl who also loves Jiro (if you've remembered Season 1) and does even less than Emi. Does she do anything dramatically meaningful until the last episode? Nothing springs to mind.
4. FUUROUTA - a shapeshifting ghost who usually looks like a flying child. He's reasonably memorable, but he's not the focus of any drama either.
5. MAGOTAKE - there was someone called Magotake? He's a professor? I think there was a professor-like bloke hanging around in a few scenes...
6. MR JAGUAR - time-traveller, is given nothing of importance to do.
7. DAISHI AKITA - now I really have gone blank. The who? The what? Let me google some more... oh, right. The Fumer alien. I'd honestly forgotten that he existed.
8. RAITO SHIBA - a robot detective. He doesn't get much to do, but he gets a couple of key episodes that make me think he was meant to leave a stronger impression than he actually did. Doesn't have much personality beyond "gruff" and "hard-nosed cop".
Effectively it's an anthology show. The regulars get very little dramatic focus and what they do get doesn't work. Instead we tend to get one-off stories where our heroes investigate some incident or other. These can be quite good and will often showcase some new way in which superheroes are being exploited, prejudiced against or whatever. Olympic athletes have been pressured to undergo surgery to become superheroes and anyone who refuses gets dropped from the team. Governements are all disgusting, or worse. "Superheroes are tools for war and we must manage them." There's Vietnam and Hiroshima. There's idealism from those who dreamed of changing the world. "Stronger security measures will be called for."
The season's middle run of episodes is quite good, I think. Everything from ep.16 to ep.20 is worth watching, with Olympic bullying, politicians who want to do a supernatural land grab, "thank you, Human-Man!", a 16th-century girl frozen in ice and "we built our country by eliminating the natives' culture". Unfortunately one of the strongest episodes (ep.20) also has shoddy art. (The show's aesthetics are generally strong, though, with a pop art sensibility and a joy in embracing silly cultural icons even as the story takes them into dark places.)
After that, ep.21 has horrifying revelations that stand out even by the nasty standards of this series. I've just described a good run of episodes followed by a particular highpoint. We then have a classical season finale, with world-changing events and the key regulars getting meaningful stuff to do. This sounds like a recipe for success. It should be good. Why don't I like it?
They'd lost me. They hadn't built a story around their regulars. They'd been more interested in slowly building up the big picture as they explored their world and its ramifications. We'd been seeing increasingly sinister glimpses of what was going on, albeit in a jumbled order. Characters? What characters? They show their faces from time to time, especially Jiro, but we're almost never watching their story. We'll be following the problems of this week's guest stars. This might be a father whose young daughter adores superheroes, a Vietnam veteran who's being hunted by his own government simply for being a military secret or a topless giant yokai who lives deep underground and likes swimming in lava.
Thus when ep.24 suddenly tries to dump a load of dramatic weight on the regulars, to me it didn't feel earned. Theoretically it's a good episode. It's doing everything I've just been bashing the season as a whole for not doing. However it had needed support from the preceding episodes to make it meaningful.
I respect this series. I like its characterisation of the dangerous, selfish and sometimes deranged misunderstandings on all sides. That includes the superheroes, who are capable of both a "might makes right" Nietzscheanism and blind righteousness. "Losing would mean I'm not justice." However anyone in a position of power is loathsome and ordinary people are capable of being frighteningly self-deluding and easily led.
I also like its distinctively Japanese superheroes. You've got piloted giant robots, super sentai teams, magical girls, yokai and more.
However I don't actually like the show itself. I think it's forgotten about its characters. Exploring your themes is a good thing, but not when it comes at the expense of having a story. I wouldn't even call it plot-driven, since its mosaic-like approach to plotting isn't really going for anything so dynamic as "driving". It's keeping itself at arm's length, using its non-linear storyline and other tricks to make its alternate history feel inevitable rather than surprising.
I liked the girls, although if I'd really cared I'd have been unhappy about Kikko being reduced to a bystander. (She was more important in Season 1.) I liked Fuurouta. I can acknowledge that things of some interest were being done with Jiro's backstory. That's the limit of my engagement with this show's regular cast.