Back when I did my Fall Preview last year, I made note of the fact that Guilty Crown was easily the most hyped series of the season. I also mentioned that my gut was telling me that UN-GO was going to be the better NoitaminA series that season. Well, the first was obvious to anyone who spent any time in the English-language fan community, but I wonder just what it was that, even then had me feeling that GC might be more flash than substance. No doubt I had some creative issues with Code Geass (so much so that I never finished it) and director Araki-sensei has a somewhat mixed track record. But I think it may have been the alarming lack of specifics when it came to the show itself. It was really just a lot of really gorgeous promo art, but nothing that said what the series was actually about. I’d thought maybe they just wanted to create a mystique around the show – now I wonder if Yoshino and Araki were already making it up as they went along, and didn’t know themselves.
It’s fair to ask – would Guilty Crown have been as reviled as it’s been if hadn’t been a NoitaminA series? I don’t think it’s necessary to rehash again all of the reasons why GC shouldn’t have been a NoitaminA series, but it does bear repeating that it’s without question the most ill-suited series that’s ever appeared in the block. But in reality that isn’t the show’s fault – it’s NoitaminA’s fault for programming it. Clearly they wanted to try and broaden their appeal and go for a blatantly commercial property, something that could break the mold for them and generate income with Blu-rays and merchandise. Well, it’s done pretty well there so if that was the plan, well done – but the irony is, by far the most successful NoitaminA series of the last two years has been one that fit the template quite well, AnoHana. In any case, I can’t blame Production I.G. or Guilty Crown for that, and I do think that the criticism of the series has been amplified at least a little because of that association.
Of course, independent of that it must be said, Guilty Crown is a series that suffered terrible creative problems almost from the beginning that stand apart from any scheduling considerations. Those problems are too many to list, but if I had to single out two it would be the lack of cohesive plotting – there was an improvised quality and terrible pacing that never stopped plaguing the show – and the lack of any coherent and cohesive character arcs. The characters in Guilty Crown were props – they were simply pointed in whatever direction needed them to go in order to get the plot where he needed it, and that’s completely backwards. A good series allows the characters to organically drive the plot forward. A bad series manipulates them and forces them to behave inconsistently and in worst-case scenarios (like this show) nonsensically. As problems go, those are whoppers.
I think partly as a direct result of Yoshino’s limitations as a writer, we ended up with a series that was shot through with cliché right from the very beginning. It was a pastiche of ideas lifted from archetypal animes like Evangelion and Eureka Seven, presented in less interesting form. Of all the characters whose behavior made the least sense, a few spring to mind as prime examples – Gai, Daryl and Arisa. Well, and Yahiro too. Well, pretty much all of them… But you get my point. These characters whip-sawed from extreme to extreme, turned into mere plot devices. Gai was a disaster from the beginning, unlikeable as a hero, uninteresting as a villain, and unsympathetic as a victim. Ironically, for all the criticism he took, Shu ended up as one of the least disastrous characters in the show. Most of the time his behavior at least made a sort of sense, and he did grow over the course of the series.
There were other characters who ended up faring halfway-decently – Hare, Ayase, Haruka – and Segai was at least a fun and entertaining villain, though he had one of the weirdest and most pointless deaths of any major character I can remember. Mostly, though, the pleasures of Guilty Crown were sensory. The visual brilliance at play here was obvious from the start – this was a studio capable of performing at the highest level, putting their best foot forward. GC excelled in both art and animation and did so with unusual consistency for a two-cour series. The music was a selling point as well, and some of the character designs were terrific – Inori, especially, is one of the most beautiful characters I can recall in any anime. As a character she made very little impact (or sense) but she was truly breathtaking to look at.
There were a couple of times when I thought Guilty Crown might have really turned a corner and found its voice, and might provide us with a story to match its visual brilliance. These were just teases though, as a couple of strong eps were always followed up with major letdowns. The funny thing is that as exasperating as it was, I never grew to hate the show – there was an earnestness to it that made me want to like it, though usually unsuccessfully. Creatively this felt more like a BONES series to me than anything else, overcomplicated and emotionally transparent, but it never achieved the pure innocent enjoyment that the better-known BONES sci-fi epics did. In the end it can only be called a major disappointment, because of the studio and the timeslot and the wasted opportunity to have a truly interesting and creative series with a huge budget. I have no doubt that you could have made five Hourou Musuko seasons for the cost of two of Guilty Crown (not that anyone would) and it saddens me to see so much money spent in the pursuit of something so ultimately hollow.