It’s difficult to just talk about a Gundam series absent any deeper context. As one of the two most venerable mecha franchises in anime history (the other being Macross), there were Gundam episodes coming out before I was even alive. And although Sunrise has been willing to effectively reboot the series on more than one occasion, there are certain tropes that always seem to apply to any show with “Gundam” in the title somewhere.
Gundam AGE is another reboot, with no acknowledged ties between it and any of the predecessor series beyond the bare minimum: the name Gundam for the hero’s “mobile suit,” the usual mecha designs, and the annoying spherical robot named Haru (see above). In fact, there are enough differences, at least in the opening episodes, that I feel an initial review is warranted, even though my pledge to cover every new show this season didn’t extend to kids’ series.
Two seasons ago, Deadman Wonderland gave an example of a traditional shounen action show being taken in an extremely dark direction, while still maintaining the core concepts of its inspiration. Last season, Kamisama Dolls took that same type of story and modified it for the seinen demographic: not just aging up the cast, but also subtly subverting and challenging the basic themes of an overused plotline.
Future Diary predates both of those works, but almost feels like a combination of the two. Like Deadman Wonderland, it’s far darker and more lurid than your standard shounen fare. Like Kamisama Dolls, it takes a story type traditionally used for one demographic and targets it at a a different one. But Future Diary ages down rather than up, taking traditionally seinen plot tropes from series like Battle Royale and Death Note while changing the age of the lead to something shockingly low.
The end result is a series that is high on concept and perhaps a little low in its execution. Taken purely as a shounen show, however, it’s looking to be far more interesting than Deadman Wonderland was.
I’ve talked some about Sunrise before, as the primary purveyor of original (not based on a manga or light novel series) anime. Other studios take existing works and adapt them to the screen; Sunrise starts with the animation and then, if the show takes off, makes manga series after the fact. It means they make some really daring, innovative, intriguing stuff. It also means that if they make a flop, you won’t be able to know for sure without watching it.
Phi Brain is one of three new Sunrise shows debuting this season, which I think is a record for them. It’s the most genre bending of the three: it’s not really classifiable as a comedy, or a drama, or an action show. It’s not even an anime anime. Wikipedia calls it an “adventure” show, which is probably as close a descriptor as we are going to get. But I think there is one immediate way to place this series on the map in terms of a recognizable genre. Phi Brain, stripped down to its core, is Yu-Gi-Oh, only with puzzles instead of card games.
Anime genres are fairly well established by now; so are the medium’s target demographic audiences. The interesting part is when and how genres one would expect to appeal only to one type of demographic are directed at, and succeed at drawing in, an entirely different clientele. The shift in magical girl shows from being targeted at pre-teen girls to college age men is one of the most obvious shifts of this type.
Mostly, these shifts come from adapting a type of genre meant for a young audience to an older one, trying to match the change in tastes and emotional development one would expect (or hope) a grown-up audience would have. The recently finished Kamisama Dolls gave an example of a shounen genre being adapted for a seinen audience, not just aging up the characters, but also the content.
These are the sort of shifts that make sense. The shift represented in You and Me (Kimi to Boku) does not make sense to me: The show takes a concept that looks, acts, and feels like it was meant for a classic shoujo, or even josei, audience, and pitches it at the shounen crowd. I’ve doublechecked, and the original manga was and is still running in a shounen magazine alongside several action series, and is obviously popular enough to get an anime adaption. I have no idea how this happened. Maybe it has something to do with the fact the series is just plain good.
There’s always a question when starting a series up again after a break: How much do the writers assume the audience knows, and how much do they feel a need to explain? With several sequels and spin-off properties this season, we’re going to get several different answers to that question. With Bakuman, which I covered last fall and winter, that answer is simple: Make no concessions to the uninitiated viewer. Instead, with one exception, the show picks up as if it never stopped.
It’s a surprisingly refreshing move, and one which preserves the pacing of the original manga in a way that a hastily thrown together refresher episode wouldn’t. It also means new watchers are going to be completely at a loss to understand the characters, their relationships, and their backstory. For veteran watchers like me, though, it means we immediately get the same story we got last time. For anyone (like me) who was hoping for more of the same, congratulations, you got it.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should start of this review saying that I was predisposed to dislike Sacred Seven. Shounen action series have an uphill battle with me, particularly if it involves a) a technobabble heavy b) try to save the world from monsters plot c) through use of superpowers and/or mecha d) utilized/piloted exclusively by high school students who otherwise must live normal lives as high school students. Frankly, it’s a genre that is second only to harem series in the potential for genuine drama to be derailed by wish fulfillment and the power fantasies of the writers.
But, I had to give Sacred Seven a look, for the simple reason that it was being produced by Sunrise, one of the few studios willing to produce original works on a consistent basis. From the seminal Cowboy Bepop to the venerable Gundam franchise (which Sunrise is always willing to reinvent) to unique genre offerings like Mai-HiME, Sunrise takes risks with new things rather than animate whatever manga or light novel series is selling at any given moment. That by itself deserves some praise.
Most recently, the studio surprised me with Tiger & Bunny, another series I went into with low expectations that managed to wow me all the same. I thus went into Sacred Seven hoping for a similar surprise. I am sorry to say that it was not forthcoming.
If Deadman Wonderland can do one thing right, it’s stick to its narrative themes. (Actually, it does several things right, but I’ll get to that.) The finale of the series starts off with Tamaki, the instigator behind so much of the death and violence we’ve seen throughout the show, blithely dismissing any responsibility for it. The outside world, he says, is just as brutal, cutthroat, and hopeless as Deadman Wonderland and the Corpse Carnival; what Tamaki does is do away with the pretense.
This episode, like many episodes before it, does its best to prove him right, but it also refuses to give him the last word. In the end, the show suggests, there can be genuine goodness even in the midst of a crapsack reality, so long as you are willing to fight for it. That is, Deadman Wonderland preserves the classic themes of its shounen predecessors, even as it puts them to the test in its horrific setting. Now and before, the juxtaposition works in the show’s favor.