I see a lot to like in this series – in fact I enjoyed the second episode more than the first – but I’m not sure that’s going to hold. There’s a tenuous divide between satirizing the more preposterous elements of the anime market and trying to cash in on them, and between being thoughtful and calculating. So far Outbreak Company is having it both ways, because it shows enough wit and charisma to be likeable in spite of that. But sooner or later I think it’s going to have to state its purposes with more clarity than it has so far.
There’s an eerie and unsettling similarity between the premise here and that of Zero no Tsukaima, which grew increasingly unwatchable after a tolerable start. We even have the sympathetic maid and the arrogant and selfish noble vying for the affections of the hero – the role of the noble here played by the loli queen Petrarca. This similarity is of course not coincidental, as OC is passing itself off as a satire of that kind of series, but nowhere are the risks in that strategy more evident than in that character. She fills a good number of trope roles in the story and quite unabashedly – she certainly annoys the hell out of me – and at what point does this stop becoming parody and officially become pandering for Blu-ray sales?
What salvages the show so far is the way it manages to avoid being tone-deaf to the cliches it’s trying to deflate. Certainly things got a bit heavy-handed when Petrarca unleashed her racist tirade against Myuseru and Shinichi lectures her about how Japan lives under “equality, freedom and justice” seemingly without a trace of irony. But he also said that he himself had been a victim of bigotry (for being an otaku, of course) and there seems to be a genuine desire to condemn the patriarchal system of our world where so many are denied the fundamental rights of access to information and simple enjoyment of life for economic reasons.
It the nature to which Outbreak Company exploits superficial moe for its own entertainment value that makes me question both its ultimate sincerity and its staying power, but for now it remains an interesting study in contradictions. It also manages to be a source of some half-decent meta-culture, like Shinichi reading Shingeki no Kyoujin to Petrarca, Minori turning out to be a fujoshi (favorite anime: “Inazuma Twelve”) and the Hataraku Maou-sama poster he has imported through the dimensional portal for his otaku playroom. With commercialism, class injustice and otaku pandering in its gunsights there’s plenty of fertile ground to be ploughed for satire here – it’s just a question of the series proving that’s what it wants to do.
White Album 2 – 02
I didn’t find the second episode of White Album 2 quite as engaging as the first, but it still seems to be a cut above the standard high-school romance material we normally get. I find it rather refreshing that the story doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to score points with silly or outrageous situations (with one exception), and the behavior of the central cast is still pretty dignified and low-key. There’s a bit of a Mashiro-iro Symphony vibe so far, and if WA2 turns out to be that good I’ll be more than satisfied.
It took a long time for the series to finally tease out the worst-kept secret of the season, that Touma Kazusa was the mysterious piano player in Music Room 2. It seems that we’ve been left out of a fair bit of backstory there, as Touma appears to have quite a bit of karmic baggage. But that will come; the focus so far has been on Setsuna and her developing friendship (that’s what it feels like at this point) with Haruki. They have a nice chemistry in the sense that their conversations are agreeably open and lacking in the usual artifice, but I’m not picking up a whole lot of romantic spark at this point.
I will say, though, that I find Setsuna even more attractive in her frumpy work clothes and obaa-san glasses, and I found her explanation of why she works a pretty good example of the way this series bypasses theatrics for logic. Even as Haruki prompts her for a dramatic story about her tragic family life, she breezes past that invitation and straight to the truth – her parents are fine, she just doesn’t want to burden them with the cost of helping their daughter keep up with the social rat race when they’re already sacrificing to send her to an expensive private school.
There were a couple elements of this ep that bothered me, first the fanservice. I like fanservice, but it’s really all about context. In a series that carries itself in as dignified a way as this one does, the random undressing, oppai close-ups and panty shots seem a little crass and discordant. They look great, don’t get me wrong – I love the character designs and art style here, some of the best Satelight has done since Ikoku Meiro – and I’m not saying that fanservice wouldn’t make sense as the series (presumably) take a more overtly romantic turn. But what we saw this week just seemed tacked-on and a little exploitive. Then there was Haruki’s trip out the window to spy on the piano player – that was an incredibly stupid thing to do, and seemed a bit out-of-character. Plot-wise it’s really the only development in the first two eps that’s seemed forced and artificial, a matter of plot convenience rather than internal logic.
Log Horizon – 02
Log Horizon continues to look a bit like a geekier, less ponderous version of SAO – which sounds like a pretty good thing. In practice, I’m frankly finding it a bit of a bore. It’s fascinating watching this in sequence with White Album 2, because it’s a pretty dramatic display of the best and worst of Satelight visuals. This sort of series really suffers from the subpar art and animation, because world-building is such a huge part of the equation.
A bigger problem for me is that I’m experiencing some of the same issues I had with light-novelist Touno Mamare’s Maoyuu Maou Yuusha, and they make me wonder whether it’s an issue with his writing itself, or with its suitability for adaptation to anime. As with Maoyuu it seems Touno is trying to do something intellectual and socially relevant here, but can’t resist using extremely tired anime cliche to try and do it. The phrase I used for the Maoyuu adaptation was “dry as dust” and while it’s too early to say conclusively if that fits Log Horizon, that’s the impression it’s leaving me with – that same combination of too talky and professorial tone and lowbrow reliance on moe and indifferent humor.
It’s too bad, because whatever problems I have with Touno’s adapted work I find myself wanting to like it – I just never quite get there. I like the idea of a spellcaster/strategist as the hero and I like the concept here, sort of a photo-negative of SAO – the biggest enemy is boredom. The food is symbolic for the whole experience – bland. Death is met with resurrection, and there seems to be no larger purpose driving anyone forward – which leads (as happened in SAO for somewhat different reasons) to certain players becoming player-killers, in this instance out of pure boredom. It’s an interesting premise but the devil, as always, is in the details. I don’t find myself caring much for any of the characters and there just isn’t much excitement here, with the reliance on expository dialogue, relaxed atmosphere and ¥100 production values. To an extent it’s the opposite set of problems SAO had, fitting as the scenarios are likewise flipped, but problems nonetheless.