The Fall 2017 Anime Preview Guide Dies Irae
How would you rate episode 0 of
Dies irae ?
What is this?
How was the first episode?
There's a scene about halfway through Dies irae's first episode where three cute girls share a friendly and very stereotypical moment. The spunky girl lightly chides her straight-laced friend for getting so flustered about a meeting with a superior, which her friend responds to by smacking her and saying “wh-what's with that grin on your face!?” In response to this, the ojou-sama of the group offers a bemused “my, my.” It's a canned scene that you'd see in any number of low-caliber anime—the only difference is that these three girls are Nazi officers, and the superior they just met was Reinhard Heydrich, one of the chief architects of the holocaust.
In an era where fascist ideologies are actually enjoying a global resurgence, “Nazis reframed as stereotypically goofy anime characters” leaves more than a bad taste in my mouth. This episode's cavalier treatment of some of history's greatest monsters ranges from “aren't Nazis cool” to “aw, those charming Nazi girls”—even though this is a prologue episode that's presumably introducing us to the show's villains, charged symbols like these demand far greater contextual and narrative care. The world really doesn't need more reasons to find Nazis sexy or rakishly charming at the moment.
Frustrating use of Nazi props aside, this episode is also just really bad for a variety of conventional reasons. The fact that this is “episode zero” is harshly reflected in this episode's total lack of narrative momentum. We jump from character to character without getting enough time to actually understand any of what's going on, and there's no real coherent conflict at all. This episode's narrative shapelessness seems to pinpoint it as a clear love letter to existing fans, like “hey this character is animated at last!” for those who already know what's about to happen.
Aesthetics-wise, this episode is also pretty bottom-of-the-barrel. The character art is middling and the animation worse, and the opening scene's reveal of a giant floating golden Nazi skull city felt more visually awkward than breathtaking. The show's narrative and visual issues are best summed up in an early scene where two grey-haired characters meet in the street, exchange barbed words, jump at each other in classic speed-line fashion, and that's it. We just cut to another scene. This fight isn't visually compelling enough to be its own reward, and we don't know who either of these characters are, so there's no dramatic payoff. On the whole, Dies irae doesn't even need its Nazi queasiness to be an easy skip. This is just a very bad episode.
Let's get this out in the open: I am Jewish. My family suffered greatly in the Holocaust. Simply put, this show is therefore very, very uncomfortable for me. Although it isn't overtly about the real-world Nazis, if only because there are no swastikas, there's still plenty about the “master race,” the focus character is a blue-eyed blonde, plus it's 1939 in Germany. It's not hard to do that math.
But that's not even the whole reason why I gave this such a low score, even if I think using Nazis as anything but complete villains is not a great plan. There's also the fact that this episode makes very little sense – the only thing that's kind of clear is that it's 1939 in Germany. But then there's the guy who keeps making veiled comments about magic, the trio of somewhat badass ladies, the two chained violent lunatics (who act more animal than human), and the odd duo of the buxom lady and the priest. Somehow they all fight each other and end up on a flying golden castle city-ship, and then it's contemporary Japan.
I can't quite figure out how all of this fits together, and I'm very leery that it will turn out to be Nazi fetishism. Is that my heritage talking? Possibly. But with the combination of a nonsensical plot, ugly character designs, and my pet peeve of anime thinking that “old-fashioned clothing = long ruffled dresses,” there is nothing that makes me want to watch more. At least the castle-ship is kind of pretty.
This episode is listed as episode 0, so what's presented here seems to be laying a foundation for the main story more than actually beginning it. At least I hope that's the case, because otherwise very little in this episode makes sense.
Before I get any farther into that though, let's deal with the big issue. Although this episode conspicuously goes out of its way to avoid using the word Nazi (or National Socialist), it still concerns historical Nazis and aggrandizes one of them. I'm pretty sure the character in question will wind up being the lead villain of the main storyline, but even so, it's hard to deny ulterior motives here when one of the chief architects of the Holocaust is being portrayed as a beautiful god.
Yeah, the episode goes there. Heydrich isn't the only historical figure to pop up, either; Karl Krafft, the astrologer who falls in with Heydrich, was an actual person who wound up jailed after correctly predicting an assassination attempt on Hitler in 1939. (In actual history, he wound up attached to Goebbels, but latching on to Heydrich instead isn't a stretch.) Also, the organization Ahnenerbe, which gets mentioned in this episode, was the group created by Himmler to establish a historical foundation for Aryan supremacy before it strayed into occult pseudoscience. Its inclusion is just a convenient excuse for including fantastical elements in the story.
Sidestep all the Nazi allusions and this episode is still a mess. The main story of the source game takes place in modern-day Japan, so this is all apparently meant to explain the mystical occurrence in 1939 that will trigger what happens in the main story. Alternate worlds also seem to be involved, as one scene shows entirely different images of various characters who are introduced in the episode. Beyond that, I'm unclear on whether those characters will be Heydrich's minions in the modern world or whether characters from that setting will be incarnations of them. There's just not enough here to say where this is all going, and a healthy chunk of the episode being devoted to semi-philosophical dialogue doesn't help. The name of the series refers to a centuries-old Latin hymn which describes the Christian Last Judgment, which definitely tries to give all this some weighty overtones, as does a beefy musical score ranging from organ-based dramatics to heavy metal with operatic vocals.
The imagery also follows suit. Nothing about this series is subtle, whether it's the brief flashes of torture that may be trying to evoke apocalyptic images of suffering in Hell or the CG-animated golden floating structure with a skeletal motif or the brief but disturbing image depicting someone made of flesh from the shoulders up but skeletal below that. It's all definitely aiming more for shock value than anything too meaningful so far. Character designs are attractive without being overblown, but they are weighed down by the disappointing animation quality, especially in a couple of action scenes. Despite some striking imagery, this will not be remembered as one of the season's visual masterpieces.
Overall, I want to see episode 1 before concluding whether or not the series is actually a disaster, but right now there are a lot of good reasons to keep away.
First things first, this is actually "Episode 0" of Dies irae. Not that it matters. This adaptation of a notoriously convoluted visual novel is no less convoluted for its decision to start with a 1939 prologue. (The rest of the story is supposed to take place in modern-day Japan, naturally.) For those unaware, Dies irae was produced unconventionally, the result of a successful crowdfunding campaign, likely because of its thorny subject matter (but I'll get to that in a minute). It raised about ¥96,560,858 (about $860,000 USD), so there was clearly interest in this property, but I find it hard to believe that this was what fans wanted for their yen.
While not (quite) the ugliest anime in the world, the art design of Dies irae is incredibly flat and generic, and the animation fares much worse, with embarrassingly herky-jerky fight scenes and rough off-model faces in fully half the shots, to say nothing of extremely confusing storyboarding that cuts between locations with little to no establishing information about where we are or why. At its best, the show looks merely "okay," but there's not so much as one impressive visual in the whole premiere, and set pieces like the giant floating fortress made of golden skeletons are just plain laughable. The story is nigh incomprehensible, just scene after scene of dozens of characters we know nothing about tossing off explosions to slaughter citizens and suck their souls into the golden skeleton blimp for the glory of the Reich or something. This all concludes with the company's smirking wizard opening a portal to—a superweapon? The future? A new world? Who knows. So without even getting to the elephant in the room, this is a really bad opening episode that doesn't bode well for the rest of the series unless it changes gears hard and fast when jumping to the present day.
Okay. Sigh. Now let's discuss that elephant. Since this is just a prequel to the main story, it's still not yet clear if all these Literal Nazis—yes, the swastikas on their red armbands have been replaced with a fantasy logo, and their iron crosses are shaped a little different, but these are definitely Nazis right down to shouting "zieg heil!" in German and waxing rhapsodic about the master race—anyway, it's not clear if these Nazis are meant to be the heroes, villains, or something in-between during the modern-day main story. What is clear is that Dies irae fully glamorizes Nazi iconography and the effigies of actual Nazi officers. (Heads up, that's the wikipedia entry for a chief orchestrator of the Holocaust so don't read too deep if you want to avoid some real Bad Feelings.) Even if these guys turn out to be cartoonish baddies in the end, this episode goes far beyond anime like Hellsing that attempt to cathartically defang the Nazis by placing them in a ghoulish fantastical context as irredeemable cannon fodder. By calling back to specific real-world events and propagators of genocide while playing on the "awe-inspiring" power of a morally conflicted fantasy-version of Heydrich and company, Dies irae is trying to have its cake and eat it too. If you're not okay with that, make a wide berth around this show and don't look back. It may not be full-blown Nazi apologia, but it's definitely Nazi fetishism.
Of course, you could also not watch it because it seems crappy and confusing. It's hard to see how the show could get better from here, but it's extremely easy to imagine how it could get worse.
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