The Summer 2017 Anime Preview Guide Fox Spirit Matchmaker
How would you rate episode 1 of
Fox Spirit Matchmaker (ONA) ?
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How was the first episode?
At this point, the occasional Chinese production has become something of a reliable subgenre within the season previews. These shows aren't necessarily united in narrative focus, but they do seem to have one strange thing in common - they're almost all really, really bad.
Fox Spirit Matchmaker is unfortunately not likely to break this trend. This first episode offers a story that's somehow simultaneously convoluted and incredibly simplistic, introducing jerk monk Haku Gessho, incompetent fox spirit Suusu, and far too many other, largely irrelevant characters. These characters bounce off each other in a series of grating pratfalls and non-animated fight scenes, offering no real incentive to continue.
Fox Spirit Matchmaker's first problem is that it looks terrible. The character designs are rough, unattractive, not particularly expressive, and very inconsistent. The background art is equally ugly, and the composite of characters and backgrounds rarely creates the sense of a cohesive whole. The show also has basically no animation at all, with fight scenes generally being portrayed as the camera swooping or zooming on a still frame.
The show is further burdened with storytelling that veers between incompetent and actively off-putting. Haku is a deeply unlikable character, but the show seems to assume the audience will take his side when he's skeeving on women or ignoring the plights of basically everyone around him. The show's comedy is a mix of “you pervert!” slapstick, yelling, and jokes like a man eating too much food and then not being able to fit through a door. The storytelling is largely incoherent, constantly introducing new characters but never really arriving at any kind of hook. There is nothing about this show's writing that I would consider a positive.
In the end, the only thing Fox Spirit Matchmaker has going for it is that it wasn't painful to watch - the show's mostly just incompetent, not actively aggravating. It's a low bar, but I'd like my straight one out of fives to really mean something.
The first thing you should know going into Fox Spirit Matchmaker is that it is another Chinese/Japanese co-production based on a popular manhua, similar last year's Bloodivores. If that gives you pause, I totally understand, because Bloodivores absolutely sucked (my apologies for the terrible pun). The good news is that this first episode is much better than Bloodivores' premiere was! The bad news, unfortunately, is that Fox Spirit Matchmaker it still isn't very good.
This premiere suffers from two chief setbacks. The first is that the animation and art direction just isn't up to snuff. The colors are just a shade too washed out, the animation is just a bit too stiff, the character designs are just generic enough to be forgettable. With a more experienced production team at the helm, I could see this as a show that is genuinely fun to watch. As it is, the show falls short, especially when the action scenes pop up in the episode's second half. Everything up to that point is passable, at the very least, but the minute characters are expected to move with any kind of grace or kinetic energy, things fall apart pretty quickly.
There is another major issue here, too, and the show suffers more for it than anything to do with its animation style. After all, an ugly show can still be an effective one (I enjoyed the heck out of When They Cry, for instance, and that series was ugly as sin). No, Fox Spirit Matchmaker's most glaring flaw, at least in this first episode, is it's overstuffed and sloppy storytelling. We start the episode getting introduced to a chief Fox Spirit, Yaya Tosan, who seems to be a master trickster. Before we learn anything more about her, though, the focus shift to her inept little sister, Suusu, and then the show switches gears again to introduce Haku, the self-centered and gluttonous monk. Since the series is billed as a supernatural romance of sorts, you think getting two main protagonists settled in would be the focus of this single episode, but then the show tosses in several families of monks and other youkai who all seem to run the country like yakuza, and each of these groups has a couple of characters who need to be crammed into the plot to represent them. Fights break out for poorly explained reasons, and by the end of the episode Suusu and Haku are working for characters we barely know for reasons that have hardly been explained, and through all of this we barely get the chance to connect to any single character.
It's exhausting, and the choppy, frenetic direction of the dialogue doesn't make things easier to process. In all honesty, Fox Spirit Matchmaker seems like little more than a cliché supernatural romance series, with shades of so many other stories we've seen done many times before. That I'm okay with; a generic premise can still be a lot of fun when executed properly. Sadly, it's the execution where this series seems to suffer the most, which has me recommend that you give Fox Spirit Matchmaker a hard pass.
This anime-styled Chinese production comes from the same studio that brought us Bloodivores, which already makes it suspect even though it's apparently been hugely popular in China. The difference here is that somewhere in the construction of this title is actually a pretty interesting concept: that long-lived fox spirits have a service which allows them to track down and reconnect with the reincarnation of past lovers by awakening the memories of past lives within said reincarnations. Stories of mutually-reincarnated lovers persist across the world, and anime has definitely dealt with stories about an individual becoming romantically involved with the reincarnation of a past lover – see InuYasha for the most prominent example. To my knowledge, though, the concept hasn't been handled like this before.
Very little of that underlying concept comes through in this mess of a first episode, however. This is a classic case of a director and writer trying to throw out so many potential hooks in the first episode that they lose track of whether or not any of it is actually coherent to anyone who isn't familiar with the Web comic on which the series is based. The hooks are definitely there, too: Suusu is an absolutely adorable young fox spirit who isn't strong at all but is determined to prove herself in the world. She's instantly likable and compelling despite the production's determined effort to screw everything else up. Sadly, she's saddled with an apparently-destined human mate who's a real piece of work: he's secretly uber-strong, sure, but down on his luck to the point that he's both a food-hoarder and a money-grubber. (He also seems to think that wrapping your long ponytail around your neck is a fashion statement for a guy. Sorry, no.) Other problems arise in the cringe-worthy way that the writing infodumps about the Unification League, how the animation is so limited in fight scenes that you only see the after-effect of actions instead of how they actually happen, and how the episode almost entirely ignores the fact that one of the big fights is taking place in front of an auditorium full of people and yet they're all silent. The episode also tries to liberally mix in humor, turning this into a more light-hearted fare, but not much of it is actually funny.
I actually want to like this series because of the concept, but unless there are major improvements in the second episode the series is looking like a lost cause.
Fox Spirit Matchmaker seems uncertain of what exactly it wants to be. Judging by its premise of spirits in the modern world and characters with centuries-old destinies, you'd think it was aiming to be a supernatural action series along the lines of Noragami. Even the main character's habit of taking on dangerous tasks for chump change feels reminiscent of that show. On the other hand, it also takes deliberate steps towards becoming a zany relationship comedy, perhaps something like last season's Love Tyrant. Those two setups could certainly play well with one another, but this show will need to strike a steadier balance between its different elements if it's going to succeed.
The problem in this opening episode is that the uncertain tone makes it hard to tell how much of the story the audience should be taking seriously. When protagonist Haku Gessho (or Narikin Susumu, as he introduces himself on a dating show) reveals some of his backstory by griping about it in comedic fashion, it sends mixed signals about whether we're is supposed to laugh or pay careful attention. His nemesis Fuuki is also presented somewhat ambiguously, occupying an awkward middle ground between being a genuine antagonist and a Team Rocket-esque source of comedy relief. The same issue applies to most of the other characters we meet, resulting an episode that seems confused about its own intentions.
The humor itself is bland but mostly harmless. Most of the jokes lean on the idea of characters being laughably bad at whatever it is they're trying to do, whether they're trying to complete an important mission or just looking to get hitched. The comedic delivery wasn't strong enough to make me laugh out loud, but it's all vaguely amusing in a willfully silly way. The show's action half appears to be standing on shakier ground; the animation tends to shy away from doing anything too elaborate during the fight scenes, and there's never any sense of dramatic tension as the characters clash with one another. If any of this was supposed to be thrilling, then it definitely missed the mark.
Fox Spirit Matchmaker has some mild potential as a goofy take on the spiritual action formula. In order to capitalize on that, it will need to sort out its priorities as quickly as possible. The genuinely important storylines need to be given more breathing room away from the comedic antics, and the jokes need to be delivered with sharper timing. If this series can find a stable balance between drama and humor, it could be passably entertaining. If not, then it will have a hard time distinguishing itself from the crowd.
Having really enjoyed The King's Avatar last season, I was looking forward to Fox Spirit Matchmaker, another Chinese series from Tencent Studios. Sadly this first episode didn't quite grab me, mostly because it tried to cram too much in in an effort to make the story's world interesting. This is definitely a case where less would have been more, because the events all sort of blurred together, making it more confusing than intriguing.
The mythology behind the series may be vaguely familiar to viewers from Comics One's partial translation of the manhua Divine Melody, which also dealt in Chinese fox spirits (huli jing). There's also a reference to the folktale “Butterfly Spring” in the opening scene's use of a butterfly as the voiceover discusses true love, which I very much appreciated. Foxes are not typically matchmakers in Chinese mythology, but that's the route this show takes, and heroine Suusu's attempt to make her first successful match is the basic plot of the episode. But it quickly gets eaten up by the discovery that she is the fox chosen to make a match with a human male, in keeping with an ancient agreement between humans and yokai (the Japanese term is used in the episode). Neither Suusu nor the chosen man are particularly thrilled about this, but in the way of all rom-coms, they end up working together without knowing that they're engaged. Somehow the woman that Suusu was supposed to matchmake is on a dating show and the guy she's supposed to be with is a fox spirit prince from a rival clan who has lost his powers and there's this monk guy who's really powerful and another one who eats too much and people wonder if he's a pregnant woman and…much like this paragraph, the episode begins making sense and winds up a terrible mess of confusing yet related events.
That's not to say that this doesn't have potential. Suusu is endearing without being irritatingly cute, and there's clearly a lot of fox spirit politics going on behind the scenes that may prove very interesting. The how and why of the agreement between human and fox is also intriguing, as is the potential match between the woman (apparently a reincarnated fox princess now in human form) and the powerless prince looks like it has a good backstory. The main problem here really is that they tried to throw too much at the viewer at once, so you have to really pick apart the episode afterwards to figure out what's going on. The humor isn't quite working yet either, although that may be because it's being overwhelmed by the excessive plot. I do very much like the fox spirit designs (especially that green-haired one), and while I would have liked to hear it in the original Mandarin, the Japanese dub works. Long story short, The Fox Spirit Matchmaker deserves another episode or two to see if it can slow itself down, because it has enough interesting bits thrown into the chaotic mix of this episode that it might turn out to be worthwhile.
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