The Summer 2017 Anime Preview Guide 18if
How would you rate episode 1 of
What is this?
How was the first episode?
This is a case where I'm giving a first episode a middle-of-the-road grade simply because I have no idea what to make of it.
To say that this is the most bizarre new entry of the season to date might be an understatement. It's supposedly connected to a puzzle-related smartphone game, one where you complete puzzles to uncover the truths of the dream world and save a sleeping princess. In many respects that's exactly how the first episode plays out, though there's not really a clear equivalent to the puzzle mechanic in the anime version. Instead it has the protagonist interacting with another individual who is apparently a professor in realm life but appears in this realm as a cat-person. By also interacting with the mysterious girl Lily the protagonist gets insight into the situation of the witch, who's actually the manifestation of a girl who has gone comatose and withdrawn into the dream world after being on the butt end of a rather cruel joke. I guess that means that Lily represents the insight that a game player gets from completing the puzzles? Whatever is the case on that, the protagonist can then use that insight to corner the witch over her feelings and work out a resolution.
The Next Episode preview suggests that this will be a series where the protagonist has to go through the dreams of various different people, attempting to solve their problems as he goes along. It also suggests that each dream world the protagonist enters will have a vastly different look. That's pretty ambitious, as the world shown here is plenty weird enough as it is, with lots of imaginative imagery. Even the bedroom that the protagonist keeps coming back to is quite unique, too. All of this comes courtesy of studio Gonzo, which shows quite a bit of ambition by tackling the project. The result is an effort which doesn't quite look like a pure CG production (even though it probably is) and definitely doesn't look like regular anime except for the one scene where we see the circumstances that led the “witch” into this situation. It's not the most refined artistic effort but it's probably not supposed to be; this is a dream realm, after all.
So if you're looking for something quite a bit different this season then give this one a try. It may or may not end up being good but it definitely won't be ordinary.
I'll say this about 18if: It's one of the more visually ambitious shows we've gotten this season. One of animation's greatest strengths is the fact that it is untethered from the constraints of the physical world, and I always love when a series is willing to dive full on in to the visually trippy and chaotic realm of dream logic. However, 18if is no Paprika, and while I'm glad Studio GONZO is trying to do something a little different with this show, I fear that this is a case of a team's reach exceeding its grasp.
18if makes to fatal mistakes from the start, and it doesn't really recover after that, at least not in this first episode. The first sin this series commits is not being able to match the quality of its animation to the potential of its art direction. Psychedelic dreamscapes only really work if the shape and form of the imagery fits perfectly with the tone of the story, and while the visual design is definitely aiming for impressive heights, the execution falls flat. Movement is stiff and awkward, and characters look consistently off-model in a way that can't be excused by the unreality of the environment. At one point our hero Haruto gets his arm chopped off, and the effect is so garish looking that it fails to work as either shocking gore or black comedy. All of this amounts to the show being actively off-putting to look at, and when you're working in a visual medium that's a death sentence.
The other mistake 18f makes is in falling in to the trap of trying to make too much sense of what should be a world lacking in arbitrary rules of logic or law. There is a precious balancing act these Alice-in-Wonderland stories have to perform when trying to tell a coherent story while also indulging in the chaos of an imaginary world; Flip Flappers is an excellent example of one of those narratives done right. Unfortunately, 18f tries way too hard to establish the rules and backstory of this dream land, and not enough time taking advantage of the freedom it provides. The premise of using dreams to free girls from their inner demons has potential, but the emotional core of it gets drowned out by all of the visual and narrative noise surrounding it. It doesn't help that all of the characters we meet this week have little to nothing to actually do, with our main character being a generic cipher, and his companions being an exposition vomiting cat and a mysterious girl who also deals exclusively in exposition and vague story teases.
Funimation's dub for 18if admittedly makes things a little better, though not much. The torrents of exposition and needles obfuscation still exist, but the English script makes things a bit easier to follow along and stay engaged with, at least for this native English speaker. J. Michael Tatum has essentially founded his career on being able to make meaningless technobabble sound interesting, so he does well here as the feline sidekick. Alexis Tipton and Austin Tindle don't really get enough to do here to come across as anything more than passable, but that's more the scripts fault than theirs. 18if was a disappointment to be sure, but there is some potential here, buried deep beneath the drab visuals and scatterbrained script. Time will tell if anything comes of it.
Well, I have to give 18if credit for its ambition. Taking place entirely in a dream world, this first episode works to convey the concept of dream landscapes and dream logic in every way it possibly can. The wild experiments start with the background, which are all colorful, random, and often geometrically impossible abstractions, or floors that seem to wind up the sky. Characters close their eyes and emerge in new settings, or walk through a door in the floor and step through onto a new ceiling. The screen is partitioned into smaller panels seemingly at random, and characters often switch size or bodies entirely. Many shots spin around their focus characters simply to create a sense of disorientation, emphasizing the fact that perspective is utterly mutable here.
Unfortunately, 18if's actual story is a lot less inventive than its visual style. This first episode introduces us to main character Haruto, dream-scholar Katsumi, mysterious white-haired girl Lily, and the Witch of Thunder, our first antagonist. Haruto is initially bewildered by his surroundings, but the episode quickly sorts itself into a predictable shape, with Lily offering just enough guidance for Haruto to break the Witch of Thunder's spell. The storytelling is a disappointing mix of stilted and predictable, and though I really like the idea of dream worlds reflecting each witch's own psychological pain, the actual story of the Witch of Thunder is a bit too simplistic to inspire much interest.
On top of that, while 18if certainly looks unique, it doesn't necessarily look good. A lack of shading, somewhat garish coloring, and fairly simplistic character designs limit the appeal of its wild worlds. Shows like Flip Flappers or Madoka Magica present alternate realities that are so visually appealing you actually do want to explore them - 18if strives for that, but its sense of visual design and execution are just not strong enough to get there.
Still, “creative and compelling idea with significantly flawed execution” by itself puts 18if in the upper range of this so-far disappointing season. I won't be continuing this one, but if you find its art design more appealing or are intrigued by the dream/identity premise, I'd give it a shot.
I like the basic premise of 18if, but I'm not quite as impressed by its execution in this first episode. The idea of having a character wander through other people's dreams opens up all sorts of creative avenues, in terms of both writing and visual presentation. If it's put to good use, it can allow a series to examine different characters' thoughts and emotions in unexpected ways while adjusting the art to fit each individual's personality. While this episode gets half of that equation right, it comes up short in the other.
Most of the good stuff is concentrated in the visuals. 18if checks a lot of the right boxes when it comes to presenting trippy dreamscapes and having unexpected things happen. Characters change size and appearance freely, and they can be turned into slices of cake or get chased by stampeding teddy bears without interrupting the plot. The Witch of Thunder and her followers hold to a consistent aesthetic that matches up with her desire to abandon responsibility, while cat-man scientist Katsumi looks very much like the kind of avatar a nerdy professor would come up with. The only major weak point here is Haruto, whose bland appearance seems even more generic when placed in such a strange and colorful environment.
That makes for a good lead-in to the show's writing woes, as they start with Haruto. As his appearance suggests, he's the epitome of a blank-slate protagonist. We learn virtually nothing about him in this episode, and the closest thing he has to a motivation is the common-sense desire to escape the dream world. Unless he's hiding some big secrets, I doubt he'll make for a very compelling main character. The storyline in this episode is also fairly underwhelming, and Haruto's method of helping the Witch of Thunder wake up leaves a lot to be desired. If all this girl needed was to be told to relax a little more, then I doubt she'd have ended up retreating into her own dream in the first place.
I'm hoping that the weak narrative is just a temporary consequence of needing to introduce the rules of this show's world. Now that we have a basic sense of what's going on (red door bad, blue door good), 18if should be free to dig deeper into the personalities of its main characters and experiment more with the next dream. If you're planning on giving it a chance, Funimation's simuldub may be the way to go; judging by this first episode, it seems to have a slight edge over the Japanese audio track when it comes to adding color and personality to the dialogue. Regardless of how you decide to watch it, I'm chalking this one up as a solid “maybe.”
For the first half of this episode, I had exactly zero idea what was going on. Deliberately confusing, twisted and looking more like M.C. Escher's nightmare than a dreamscape, 18if appears to be about an ordinary-seeming boy named Haruto waking a girl with so-called “Sleeping Beauty Syndrome,” a voluntary coma. This presents a bit of a sticky situation – the girl, Yuko, now calling herself the Witch of Thunder, was humiliated by a classmate at her high school, and responded by willing herself into sleep, where she could rule the dream world. So having another teenage boy save her emotionally from the first one feels a little problematic, especially since the initial humiliation came from Yuko believing a boy who asked her out and Haruto solved it by offering to take her somewhere fun and calling her interesting whereas the first guy said she was boring. Given that he wakes up in the same round bed in the dreamscape after saving Yuko, I'm concerned that this series will be about him emotionally saving a succession of girls, which doesn't sit well with me.
That, of course, is just speculation at this point. The bigger issue here is that the first half of the episode seems more interested in weirding the audience out than in telling a coherent story, being odd for oddness' sake. This makes it very disconcerting to watch, and easy to miss little details, like that the cat man says that his form is his dream avatar and that Haruto should come to his lab when he wakes up, implying that Haruto himself is in some sort of vegetative state when he ends up in the same bedroom in the dream world at the end. The witch herself is also incredibly annoying – her evil sense of fun does come through clearly, but something about the way she talks is very grating. It seems possible that this is to emphasize that she's putting on an act to combat her trauma, but it's still hard to listen to.
Visually there's a lot going on. Haruto is almost the only constant, although he takes a brief turn as a small teddy bear; otherwise the landscape is shifting and twisting, blurring shapes and colors in a world where giant teddy bears suddenly melt into goo and a man wears a talking codpiece. Sometimes this works really well, such as the witch ballooning out from Haruto's cellphone; other times it just feels overwhelming, like too much effort was put into making the episode weird. Of course, since part of this series' gimmick is that each episode will have a different director (which is a neat concept for a dream-based show), this first one might not actually give us any indication of where the series is going. Part twisted Wonderland, part Tom Petty's music video for “You Don't Come Around Here No More,” 18if feels like someone else's dream they're desperately trying to make you understand – and it makes about as much sense.
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