Sunday, July 9, 2017

[Anime] Alice to Zouroku

Alice to Zouroku – 6.5/10

“Alice” is a disguised slice-of-life series that follows Sana, the physical embodiment of an expanding self-aware realm that has been evocatively titled “Wonderland.”  Her fantastical abilities allow the alteration of the world as she sees fit, the supreme expression of a set of powers that have begun to appear sporadically across humanity.  After her escape from the research facility where she was “born,” she encounters Zouroku, a gruff but kindly old florist who finds his fate tied up with hers.

Alice is simultaneously the worst offender of the current methodology for producing anime and a fairly coherent execution of that same approach.  Modern anime is often designed with many target audiences in mind, virtually guaranteeing that they will find some fans.  This frequently makes series safe from a studio’s point of view, but artistically tepid.  While Alice is undoubtedly a slice-of-life at heart, it has the associated tags of mystery, supernatural, adventure, and seinen.

So how does Alice manage its unruly herd of genres?  I would argue that despite its broad pallet the anime is quite focused.  The secondary themes are either left consciously undeveloped or serve to feed into its main narrative.  However, this order is temporarily obscured by early developments.  As a result, it confused most people’s expectations, with its short run time preventing it from correct the situation.

Reality and Expectation:
Alice is, at its core, a story about Sana and her development.  Her growth as a person from an all-powerful, but ignorant, whelp to functional human and true member of the Kashimura household is the uniting purpose behind all the events.  What pleasantly surprised me is that the supernatural touches, rather than feeling artificially grafted in, fed her story.  Sana’s origins support both her overwhelming curiosity and complete lack of knowledge of the world.  And despite having phenomenal cosmic power, Sana must still live with herself.  Learning to not abuse her powers is the same as learning self-control, a basic struggle that all children must face to mature.  Zouroku sees this; he doesn’t discourage the use of her powers because they are “unnatural,” (although he has a healthy fear of them) but because he wants her to build character.

The backseat nature of the Dreams of Alice is also seen in how they emphatically do not drive the plot.  They are ancillary.  In Sana’s case, her powers serve her whimsical and underdeveloped nature.  She is a consummate child character.  I cannot emphasize this enough, but the show isn’t about what she can do, it’s about what she wants to do.  When she is held immobile, scared and hurt, threatened by Minnie C, she doesn’t logically teleport herself away but piteously brings Zouroku to protect her from this madwoman.  Later on, faced with growing feelings of anger (“frazzled”) at Hatori and Ayumi she doesn’t try to think of ways in which her power could combat them.  She draws up elaborate schemes to punish them, because that’s what appeals to her.  Because she was so puerile, I found Sana to be one of the most compelling child main characters I have watched.  Normally I rapidly tire of their antics and forced cuteness, but she held up well and I came to appreciate her precisely because she was a well-measured mixture of endearing innocence and peevish brat.

"If somebody's always smiling, doesn't that mean they're never smiling?"
Minnie C was appropriately creepy.

Where this neat story appears to break down is the narrative structure.  In an attempt to grab viewers, the series starts off on a “strong” note: wild displays of ethereal abilities, 3DCG car chases (ung), and evil secret institutions.  Anybody watching can clearly intuit where this is going: the organization will stop at nothing to get Sana back, and there is an impending final clash wherein Sana will inevitably bring justice down on the wardens of her former prison.  It has put on airs of being a suspense-based drama/adventure.  And then…the government steps in, arrests the amoral scientists, and shuts it all down by episode 5.  The conflict is resolved in a lawfully mundane fashion, putting full breaks on the hope that it will ever culminate in a supernatural showdown.  It is a bewildering betrayal of narrative expectations.

The remainder of the series is devoted to further slice-of-life development of Sana, unfettered from any pretension of action or violence.  Even when Hatori shows up later, it is obvious from the tone that this situation will not be solved through force.  This second half is also the stronger part, for it now more freely pursues Sana’s growing humanity, illuminated by her extraordinary circumstances.

In the short time we knew her, I actually also came to appreciate Hatori.  Not an Oscar-winning character by any means, but yet another emphasis on how despite their amazing powers, what drove the characters forward was how they felt about things.  The resolution, especially when her mother hugged her when she returned home, was genuinely sweet.

This is where I believe the series’ length, or lack thereof, is unusually damaging to Alice.  The first arc is nothing more than a prologue.  It is setting the stage for Sana and her world, where she first transitions between laboratory rat and human child.  The darker, more action-driven beginning is part of establishing where she’s come from and underscores the real value of the peace she enjoys now.

But Alice as a series is incomplete.  What should be a story in which there is a prologue (episodes 1-5), her first awakenings (6-12), attending school and meeting society on a wider basis (13-18), coming to grips with how she will be treated as an Alice user by her peers (19-24), growing up (25-30), and finally maturing and having to lay Zouroku to rest (31-36) is stunted.  The scenes in which she has a conversation with her future self, as well as the closing shot of her presumably at Zouroku’s grave, give us hints that this is where the plot is going: a Sana who is a gentle, mature woman.  But instead all we get are the first two pieces of her story.  Without multiple arcs to contrast with, the first half appears misplaced and bipolar rather than merely setting the stage.

I do not offer this theory to justify the series.  I am a stickler for judging anime as it is, not what it could become.  I instead suggest this scenario to offer coherence to what otherwise appears to be an inexplicable oversight in the construction of the story.

As I come to the end of this review, I find myself having played the role of apologist more than that of critic.  Alice is not a great series.  It is certainly entertaining, and more than a little cute, but it is not worth going out of one’s way to view.  It will likely be swiftly forgotten in the annals of anime.  However, I do feel that it has been given short shrift by many reviewers, overlooking its fundamental focus on Sana in favor of misguidedly criticizing elements that were consciously left undeveloped.

"I don't think there's anybody who should or shouldn't exist."

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

[Anime] KADO: The Right Answer

Seikaisuru Kado (KADO: The Right Answer) – 5/10

”The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” – J.B.S. Haldane.

KADO is a series that begins impressively: a vast, otherworldly cube appears in Japan.  Its size and perfect regularity defy physics, and the shifting fractal patterns on the surface hint at dimensions curled up in ways we cannot visualize.  It is more akin to a Platonic mathematical ideal than material object.  Out of it comes a being: zaShunina.  Our first contact.  An extradimensional entity represented by a physical construct that is only the barest tip of its true nature.  And so, the world is set to change forever.

However, once the glow of this introduction wears off the reality of the series begins to settle in: how does one effectively portray an entity which does not even share the same concepts of space and time that we do?  By definition, we cannot comprehend the mind of such a being.  Such is a classic problem of science fiction, and how it is handled separates the wheat from the chaff.

What underlies great science fiction of this type is not the wildest imagination, but the intellectual depth to appreciate that as extravagantly as we can dream, the universe is grander still.  The goal of such works is not to encompass all of the heavens, but just to steal a single tongue of its fire and return to Earth with it.  It gives us a glimpse into that vast unknown, both exciting and humbling us.

Unfortunately, KADO does not demonstrate this insight.  Unable to live up to its lofty setting, it takes the meanest path of least imagination.  I found this bitterly disappointing.  To even have a remote acknowledgement of the incomprehensible grandeur of the universe is rare in fiction, let alone anime.  The promise of such is what initially caught my interest, and held it even as it became readily apparent that KADO would not live up to my hopes.

A bonus of being extra-dimensional: you can juggle your own hands.
The Good:
While the core of the series was regrettably brittle and crumbled, some of the pieces that broke off still retained their value.  My favorite shard was the wam.  The innovative idea is not the promise of unlimited energy, or even their method of drawing energy from the anisotropic.  It was the clever explanation that it was not the substance that mattered in their construction, but the form.  Paper, metal, glass…it didn’t matter; all that mattered was the shape, the proper reflection of a higher-dimensional structure in this three-dimensional plane.  This is thoroughly insightful, and representative of some of the deepest trends in modern physics.  This sort of touch was precisely what was needed to substantiate the original premise, with zaShunina looking down on us “flatlanders,” amused at our misunderstandings of the simplest of higher-dimensional truths.

The heavy use of 3DCG was also with some merit.  While it still retains the under-detailed-yet-overly-fluid appearance of its predecessors, it has made significant strides since Sidonia and other 3DCG works.  The facial expressions were more varied and detailed, able to express a greater range of feelings.  Aside from the curious red eye-lining shared by all the characters, they also felt far more individualized, avoiding the Sidonia same-face syndrome.  There were some scenes where I couldn’t even tell the characters were done in 3DCG.  The unfortunate decision to splice in traditional 2D animation only hurt the series, both due to the heavy contrast and its low quality.

My reaction to the 2D scenes, accurately rendered in 3DCG.
Where the 3DCG was really able to strut its stuff was in the non-human elements.  The Kado cube was a natural fit, where the intricacy of its thoroughly unnatural patterns were given full show.  The digitized views of the world and the shots of galaxies and stardust were actually quite beautiful in a way that didn’t feel like a poor second to traditional animation.  My personal favorite were the jellies, which were rendered so accurately in their motion that you could have convinced me it was footage. (Note: The dates in that segment are so laughably off it hurts.)

The OP also deserves praise as my favorite of the season, with a special emphasis on the first version without the vocals.  While the premise may have caused me to initially consider KADO, it was the OP that got me hooked.  The wordless melody spoke of the grandeur that the series aspired to.  It begins with rarefied geometry, its beautiful arcs and shapes presented to us as existing eminently before all else, before spiraling into creation.  They invade the later scenes of fluid flow and neuronal firing, an eloquent expression of mathematical unity between such disparate phenomena.  Human history now begins to grow, with math still dancing behind such iconic images as the Vitruvian Man.

Interspersed with these scenes are the characters, but they are treated differently than a normal opening.  The images are blurry, indistinct.  They are found in random locales, coming and going.  It is a subtle hint that they should not be the focus of this drama, but merely temporary players compared to the grander narrative that they are imbedded in.  Again, I cannot help but express my disappointment at how insufficient the series itself was compared to its evocative introduction.

Finally, if for nothing else, I enjoyed watching Tsukai.  I found her design attractive, which has caused me to come to the conclusion that I must be a sucker for anime girls in suits.  Go figure.

"Hmm...according to these calculations, I really am just that obnoxious."

The Bad:
The characters are abysmal.  Shindo receives no significant development as the main character during the entire course of the series.  His expressed philosophy in episode 0, that negotiation is about making sure both sides get what they want, is never expanded on or deepened.  Is this purely a utilitarian view, one that he has arrived at from years of work?  Or does it have moral undertones, where he feels it is fundamentally important that all people are treated equally and with respect?  How about what happens when certain demands are irreconcilable, or even incomprehensible in the case of zaShunina?  What will he do then?  We’ll never know; he’s just along for the ride in the plot as a “nice guy” who eventually gets the girl...and then dies.

Tsukai fares a bit better, as she does have some exposition of her beliefs (although more on those below).  Unfortunately, she heads straight for Mahou Shoujo-ville in episode 9, which completely negates any development she had.  Hard to take her human-centric views seriously when she was actually God all along.  Secondary characters were just bad.  Hanamori is pathetic and grating, a half-hearted attempt at comic relief that has no place in this type of story.  And Shinawa…no, just no.

And I'm sure these people were important too...right...?

However, the wreck of the characters is mild compared to the multi-lane pileup that is the plot.  It begins on a spectacular level, challenging us to dream big of the possibilities.  Some of the early points, such as zaShunina making up his own words to describe ideas were clever, and the moving of the cube was a well-orchestrated idea, constrained by certain factors that zaShunina was unable to describe.  But around the middle it begins to slip, and the end veritably implodes on itself.  Instead of a thoughtful conclusion, with humanity attempting to reach upward and understand realities beyond itself, it devolves into a hackneyed series of anime tropes.

While the obvious moment when everything went south was Tsuskai’s transformation into our universe’s spandex-clad God, I would argue it began earlier with her impassioned defense of human “pride.”  Her idea, that zaShunina should be returned to the anisotropic realm because he was ruining the inherent beauty and order of this world, is utterly incoherent.  It isn’t even worth taking apart as an idea, because it only exists to give us later rationalization of the plot.  In the face of a being that is essentially a god itself, the best the writers can do is fall back on human elevationism: that there is something special (and superior!) about us that he cannot understand.  Yes, of course.  Our characters aren’t limited in their perspective and understanding compared to a being that is literally responsible for the creation of our universe, no!  He is the unfeeling Architect, the omniscient being that is fatally flawed as a moral agent.  Thus dethroned, he is portrayed as unstable, inexplicably experiencing and failing to cope with human emotions.  It is the very worst that could have been done to him as a character.  But at least there’s nothing left to ruin, right?

…and then comes their child, Ms. Deus ex Machina in a schoolgirl outfit.  Leaving aside the laundry list of minor plot holes she represents, she is the magical solution to everything.  She beats zaShunina up because her dimensional (power) level is higher, erases all traces of the anisotropic from humanity in line with her mother’s delusions, can talk with the dead, and even makes julienne fries.  This conclusion was so lackluster that I have no more words for it.  Save yourself the time and watch Arrival instead.