This is the premiere that seems to have generated the most buzz this week, and in a sense I can understand why – it’s executed with a lot of panache and flair. But not for the first time I’m left to wonder what all the fuss is about, because as well-executed as the first episode of No Game No Life is, it seems like a well-executed trifle to me.
When push comes to shove, what do we really have here? An elaborately constructed fantasy world that seems to exist for no other reason than to have a hook to tell a story. A lot of moe pandering, complete with underage fanservice and suggestive behavior between an older brother and a preteen sister. A lot of dialogue that tries (and occasionally manages) to sound smart and cynical. In short, a classic light-novel scenario that happens to be better-constructed than most. And it’s brought off with great style by Madhouse. But if there’s anything more than that here, it’s not immediately obvious to me.
In many ways I think the story behind NGNL is more interesting that the series itself – the author, Kamiya, Yuu, is a transplant from Brazil whose real name is Thiago Lucas. He’s attached to a series I absolutely detest, Itsuka Tenma no Kuro Usagi, but that isn’t his fault – he just did the art, and NGNL is all Kamiya. And this is certainly a visually distinctive series, with Madhouse’s prototypical saturated color schemes and some very interesting shot composition and backgrounds. It’s the story of siblings Sora (Matsuoka Yoshitsugu) and Shrio (Kayano Ai) who dominate the world of online gaming under the non-name of “Blank”. He’s 18 and a NEET – she’s 11 and flashes her panties (shima) a lot. Both are gaming geniuses, to be sure, but the interesting thing about them is that they also cheat.
The hook here is that the two are whisked off to an alternate world where everything is decided by gaming, and governed by the “10 Pledges” set up by “God”. The world itself is interesting to look at, but there just doesn’t seem to be much to this story besides the gimmick – the premiere gives me no reason to think it’s more than another LN where elaborate play worlds with an endless set of rules are devised to offset the need for actual character development or a real story. It may well be more, but my point is that there’s nothing in this episode to give one reason to think so – it’s just a lot of Shiro vamping, Sora sounding detached and cool, and some very clever direction from Ishizuka Atsuko overlaid on some lovely backgrounds by Iwase Eiji.
I’ll say this much – if the two new shows generating the most hype this season are Mahouka and NGNL (and wow, what a coup for Madhouse if that’s the case) this is certainly the more distinctive of the two so far. Even if it’s doing no more than playing to its audience, it’s doing so very effectively. I still can’t get excited about a story that seems like formula even if it’s good formula, but the eye candy is grabby enough to give it some time to prove to me that it really is something to get worked up over.
Fuuun Ishin Dai Shogun – 01
Well, that certainly wasn’t at all what I was expecting…
Fuuun Ishin Dai Shogun may just be the biggest disappointment of the season so far, which can happen when you’re dealing with original series. With talented industry titan Satou Dai writing, a legitimate director and a synopsis that seemed to pack the potential for a historical mecha series with some political overtones, I had this pegged as a potential sleeper. In point of fact, it was borderline awful.
The description for Dai Shogun sounded promising – a story set in 1875 in a Japan where the Meiji Restoration never happened because an ancient giant robot chased off the black ships. With Satou’s willingness to dabble in social commentary and politics (and not from a nationalist perspective) this sounded intriguing – but what we get is a poorly-executed sex comedy with a lot of censored T & A and lame gay jokes, with about 2 seconds of the robot. Frankly it’s hard to believe Satou Dai wrote this at all, but his name is clearly on the credits. Oh, and it’s cheaply made, too.
Frankly, I don’t want to waste any more time even talking about this one. If you’re curious, check it out and maybe you won’t dislike it as much as I did. But I wouldn’t make any bets on that.
Kanojo ga Flag o Oraretara – 01
Now that was genuinely interesting.
Kanojo ga Flag o Oraretara more or less slipped by me this season. It wasn’t until today that I realized that pretty much the entire Nazo no Kanojo X team was reassembled for this series – studio, director, animation director/character designer – and if I’d known that, I’d likely have been paying much closer attention, as that was one of my favorite shows of an extremely strong 2012. And while this show clearly isn’t on that level, it definitely reveals its good genes in a thoroughly entertaining premiere.
Kanojo ga Flag is instantly recognizable as an heir to MGX in terms of visuals. It has the same resolutely 80’s look, from the character designs to the backgrounds to the color palette (the design of the abandoned hotel in which Souta lives is gloriously old-fashioned and theatrical, as is the BGM). And it has Watanabe Ayumu in very much the same directorial mode, not being too pushy but managing to present weird things in a very straightforward fashion that makes the pacing as smooth as silk. If you like that sort of vibe I think there’s something in this show for you, because it’s not something you see a whole lot of in anime.
People will no doubt compare this series to Noucome (which was perfectly decent), and while the similarities are much more superficial than those to Nazo no Kanojo X they certainly exist. The main character here is
Hotate Hatate Souta (Ohsaka Ryouta), and instead of “Absolute Choice” his personal quirk is that he sees flags above people’s heads – death flags, romance flags, friendship flags. And while the mechanics of how all this works aren’t clear yet, it seems he also has the power to break them. On the way to his new school he witnesses an accident about to happen and breaks the death flag of a bystander, which is in turn witnessed by future classmate Nanami Knight Bladefield (16 year-old Kido Ibuki). And Nanami’s personal quirk (aside from the fact that she seems to be the one person above whose head Souta sees no flags) is that she can’t bear an unsolved mystery.
The third spoke in the wheel at the heart of the series is Mahougasawa Akane, the heiress to a corporate fortune. She dresses baby-doll style and speaks in a helium-induced tone, and I was puzzled by why this wasn’t annoying me until I realized she was played by Ai Kayano. In fact I liked all three main characters here, each of them oddballs who are lonely for their own reasons (it turns out that Nanami is a Princess – one of 24 Princes and Princesses – of a tiny European monarchy called Bladefield). There’s certainly cliche here, like Nanami’s tsundere and violent personality, but the chemistry is winning. I like the little touches like the way all three of them end up calling each other by their first names with no honorific – highly unusual for Japanese, especially those who’ve barely met. There’s some smart comedy too, like Souta busting the friendship flags of the baseball boys with the worst thing a baseball player can hear – “I like soccer”. In fact the comic timing is generally excellent, as you’d expect from Watanabe.
I’m not going out on a limb and calling this a keeper yet, because there’s obviously the caveat that no matter how many MGX talents are involved here, this is not the same caliber of source material. Superficially, this could easily be yet another silly LN premise (albeit a clever conceit) that’s executed well, and could wear thin pretty quickly. But I’m getting a good feel off Kanojo ga Flag o Oraretara – as if it could be the next in that R-15, MGX line of succession, ridiculous-premised shows with a lot of heart and surprising depth that are dismissed because viewers can’t see past their superficial impressions.