It’s the first series review post of the season, and this is always a taxing week. I don’t especially like series review posts, not just because they take a lot of work but because it’s never much fun saying goodbye to series and characters you really like. And that certainly applies to Robotics;Notes in both cases, because this is a show where the characters basically are the series. That in itself doesn’t make a series great, and R;N doesn’t quite rise to the standard of greatness. But if you’re going to do one thing really well, characters are probably the best choice.
The jackals who have been baying about the weaknesses of this show since the first episode certainly aren’t going to be silenced by this finale. In a generation of anime dominated by series that focus on short-attention spans and turgidly self-aware romantic comedy, this was never a series that was destined to win much popularity despite its connection to the very popular Steins;Gate. R;N doesn’t push the hot buttons the way S;G did, and generally doesn’t go out of its way to cater to the larger audience – as I said last week it’s a sort of Adachi Mitsuru take on the mecha genre, with a lot of earnestness and a very slow-build approach when it comes to plot. The rewards of Robotics;Notes definitely become much more obvious with a little patience, but that’s never been a recipe for commercial success.
As so many series – especially two-cour series – do, R;N peaked one episode before the show concluded. Last week’s episode was a tour de force, a combination of thrills and surprising developments and honest emotional payoff. This one was much more routine, with nothing too surprising and very few chances taken. If R;N didn’t telegraph the style of ending it would pursue by the way it conducted itself over the first 21 eps (I’d argue it actually did, and quite well) it certainly laid out the boundaries of what the ending would look like with last week’s episode. That was the one where all the really important construction was done – this was really just the final coat of paint.
If I’m surprised at anything in this finale, I’d say it’s the fact that Misaki survived. I know Kaitou set up a veritable United Nations of death flags last week, but I had the feeling after Aki made light of it that the series would probably choose to be content with tweaking that trope (though that didn’t stop me from sweating it out with Kai right to the end, when he lay down in that flatbed to stare up at the stars). Misaki, on the other, seemed like a character who was a sort of “dead woman walking” for most of the series. I think it would have been a more conventional route to have her pay a price for the sins she’d committed because normally in these sorts of stories, someone from the home team has to. I was expecting a sort of Anikan Skywalker death/redemption scene, but it seems as if Misa-nee walks away physically if not mentally unscathed by everything that’s happened.
Love it or hate it, Robotics;Notes definitely delivered up an unabashed happy ending. We did get the tragic death of Mizuka (for which I’d have expected Misaki to suffer a karmic price if nothing else), which in hindsight was certainly the series’ darkest and most emotionally powerful moment. But after that, everything came up roses (unless you’re a hard-core Kona shipper) – Kimijima is erased, Airi is revived and freed from his control, the townsfolk put the torches and pitchforks away and celebrate the robotics club, and even “Gunvarrel” is rehabilitated in the public eye. Maybe it’s because we see such a uniformly upbeat conclusion so rarely that it feels a bit funny to see this one play out, but in retrospect it seems very consistent with the overall tone of innocence and hope that defines the show.
While the ending is very much in character, the fact that it isn’t an especially challenging one can’t be denied. And that’s most obvious when you look at the number of questions the finale didn’t really answer. At the head of the list for me is why Kai seemed to suffer no ill effects from his Elephant and Mouse episodes, despite the stern warning that “he might die” which we heard last week. I’m still completely in the dark about just where the hell those monopoles that rained from the sky came from, and why – maybe that’s a mystery 5pb wants to keep in-house and use later, I don’t know. What about Airi – has a cure for her disease been found while she slept, or did she wake up only to face the same fate she did when Kimijima was with her? I also can’t help but wonder whether Frau Bow’s mother is alive or not (her too, I imagine).
The image we’re left with is of three astronauts taking off from JAXA’s Kagoshima launch site, one of them (only one, in fact) wearing a “Gunvarrel” patch on their arm. It’s pleasantly ambiguous – was that Aki? Perhaps it was Aki, Kaitou and Misa-nee for all I know. What we know for sure is that Kaitou deleted “Kill Ballad” from his PokeCon as soon as the final battle ended, symbolically leaving behind both his childhood and his obsession with Misa-nee and the incident which changed him forever. On the personal side I’d say things are pretty unambiguous after the events of last week, and while I’ll still content the romantic spark was a lot stronger with Kona-kun, in the context of the story this was probably the only way things could really have ended up.
If in the final context Robotics;Notes is measured solely in terms of a comparison with S;G, it’s going to suffer an ignominious fate. On the commercial side the difference is obvious. On the artistic side it’s not as obvious as it seems, and while I’m not going to claim that R;N is the equal of S;G I will say it’s both closer in terms of quality and in matters of substance than you’d believe if you only listened to the naysayers. I won’t belabor the point further because in doing so I’d be furthering the disservice to this series, which is really only connected to the world of S;G by a few relatively tenuous threads. It deserves to be judged on its own merits because in no way is it a direct sequel to Steins;Gate, and the overlap in mythology is such that one could easily be excused for forgetting it existed for ling stretches of the series. For some viewers that’s no doubt a criticism – for me it’s neither a positive or a negative in itself, merely a cautionary note about how we choose both to judge and to watch R;N.
As I’ve said many, many times over the course of 22 episodes the strength of Robotics;Notes is in the characters and the way they interact with each other. Very few anime will take the time to develop characters as patiently and exhaustingly as this series does – maybe sometimes at the expense of developing the plot, but that mistake is better than the converse. As was the case with S;G, the strength of the show is in the moments when the characters simply converse – rather than the snappy “old Hollywood” rhythms of Okarin and Makise, R;N offered a kind of naturalistic life-study. It was refreshing to see an anime where every line of dialogue didn’t have to express a plot point or make a joke – sometimes characters said things just because that’s what that character would say in that situation. As a result, the relationships felt very real and grounded, which is a good thing as there were definitely times where watching them play out was the primary action taking place.
At the head of the list of characters comes Kaitou, who will certainly be on the short list for best male leads of 2013. He’s the first character since Cross Game’s Kitamura Kou (how can it be only now that I see the ironic similarity in that name to Kimijima Kou?) that actually reminded me of Kou. I haven’t seen a non-Adachi teen male lead express such decency and unpretentious GAR in a very long time, and it was an incredibly refreshing change from a long list of faceless leads who fail to make much of an impression (clearly, this is one area where 5pb excels). The supporting cast was excellent as well, with Kona making the strongest impression on me – she consistently delivered the funniest moments in the show thanks in large part to Nazuka Kaori’s weird, fearless comic performance. As a female lead Aki was less of a standout that Kaitou, as she was asked to fill more of a conventional role in the story – yet she did fill that role quite well, thankless as it sometimes was. And her payoff with Kaitou (in the penultimate episode) felt like a well-earned reward for the buildup in their relationship.
We’ve pretty much come to expect a high technical standard from Production I.G. (Psycho-Pass #18 notwithstanding) and they certainly delivered here. As with the series itself the visuals aren’t flashy most of the time, but they’re rock solid and there are some really lovely visual moments over the course of the series. Robotics;Notes was a marvel of consistency, with none of the usual peaks and valleys in animation and detail we’ve come to expect even in an I.G. series. In the final analysis I think this was the better of the two shows they delivered for NoitaminA over these last two seasons (I haven’t yet watched the P-P finale but it won’t change my view on the two series as a whole) because it got the emotional side right, which is both the most difficult and most important task in any series. Robotics;Notes has its flaws and I’m disappointed – though not surprised – it didn’t fare better commercially, but for my money it’s one of the most emotionally complex and humanistic sci-fi anime in years. Ultimately, for all its dark moments, this was a series that expressed a core of innocence and idealism, and those were very much the dominant themes in the finale. They used to be a lot more common in anime as a rule, but the fact that they’re somewhat rare birds now just makes me appreciate the amount of heart Robotics;Notes displayed all that much more.