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."

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