Imagine Gokukoku no Brynhildr if the male lead were 55 years older and it wasn’t totally tripping balls.
The season’s first flyer hits the airwaves with a double-episode as Alice to Zouroku enters the fray. And you know, it’s not a bad effort by any means. Production issues aside I’d go so far as to say I rather liked it, in fact, though there are a number of potential trip-wires I see looming in the road ahead. Given my expectations going in, I’d say Alice & Zouroku modestly exceeded them – and that constitutes a positive start.
Premise-wise, I’d say you had me at “GAR florist”. And indeed, Ootsuka Akio’s gruff but principled Kashimura Zouroku is the best – and least formulaic – element of the premiere. Part of that is down to Ootsuka being a splendid seiyuu, but it’s an interesting and atypical (and that’s an understatement) anime character too. It’s certainly a nice change from the innocent party being dragged into a life of chaos by magical girls being a hapless adolescent boy. That Zouroku is not a mass-produced model is evident in the way the series chooses to introduce him – making a delivery (we’re not told of what, though we later see that it was a floral arrangement) to a Yakuza boss and sternly refusing to accept a Yen more than his usual fee. This is not a man who wishes to be indebted to anyone, much less a trumped-up thug.
It remains to be seen whether the rest of the story – and the production itself – can do enough to make the series work. Adorable little esper girls (though I think there is a token boy too, though it’s hard to tell as he never says anything) being exploited at a secret facility has certainly been done to death, and the Japanese fascination with Lewis Carrol seems to know no limits. The main girl is Sana (Ohwada Hitomi) – the “Red Queen” as the evil drug company head calls her – and she’s about as cliched a magic loli as you’re going to find in series like this. That her interactions with Zouroku sort of work is down to him, pretty much – having him repeatedly shoot her behavior (and that of her pursuers Asahi and Yonaga) down with bolts of hard-headed common sense is refreshing as all get out. And a clue, perhaps, that the series understands just how steeped in tropes much of this is.
The other issue I have with Alice to Zouroku is the obvious budgetary issues. I like director Sakurabi Katsushi a lot – he’s done very stylish and evocative work in the likes of Flying Witch and Asatte no Houkou. And the music by TO-MAS could hardly suit the mood better. But the look of the series itself is, frankly, terribly cheap. The CGI is awful, the background detail is almost non-existent, and for a premiere to have this many instances of off-model characters is a very worrisome sign. Sakurabi is someone I’d have some faith in to be successful relying on craft rather than cash but it’s clear J.C. Staff is producing this show on a shoestring. Enough so that it’s a clear distraction from the story, and that’s a shame.
Still, I have some hope. Kashimura-san is a keeper, and there might be some potential for his relationship with Sana (and presumably the rest of the esper kids eventually) to rise above cliche. There’s ample evidence of some wit and intelligence in the writing, and the fact that this is a seinen gives me hope that it may be at least in part a deconstruction of formula rather than just another iteration of it. I’m nowhere near feeling ready to commit to Alice to Zouroku, but I do find myself fervently hoping it will convince me to – and that’s a solid first step.