Reviewby Carlo Santos, Dec 27th 2011
DVD - Complete Set (Blu-Ray + DVD) (Limited Edition)
High school student Takumi Nishijo is a full-fledged otaku: he lives alone, plays video games all day, and fantasizes about his anime heroine, Seira. But one night, Takumi gets a harsh dose of reality when he witnesses a gruesome stabbing in an alley. Somehow, all the evidence points to Takumi as the criminal, even though he saw a pink-haired schoolgirl at the scene! The girl is Rimi, a classmate and friend of Takumi's, yet he has no memory of how they met. As more murders pile up—all of them connected to people in Takumi's life—he finds himself questioning his own perception of the truth. Eventually Takumi learns that there are those who can turn delusions into reality, and that those powers could be his as well. Can Takumi use that ability to solve the deadly mysteries surrounding him, or is he a pawn in someone else's plan?
Chaos;HEAd is a classic example of reaching beyond one's ambitions. This 12-episode visual novel adaptation, an unusual blend of sci-fi and suspense, has many things to say—and doesn't always say it well. The visuals range from striking to generic to downright sloppy, and the story elements are anything from brilliant jaw-droppers to rough, unfinished crumbs of plot. But it is that roughness that makes Chaos;HEAd so strangely memorable—a work that gazes into the lowest of pop culture fads while also looking up at high-concept, cutting-edge ideas.
Like all the great mindbenders, this one starts off in misleading fashion, purporting to be about an otaku loser who meets hot girls and inexplicably wins their affections. While Takumi's character clearly pokes fun at geeky stereotypes, his romantic encounters are so cookie-cutter that they don't make a strong enough distinction between sly parody and mindless imitation. The central heroine, the little sister, the soft-spoken upperclassman, and others all show up on cue, just like any other dating-sim adaptation—and because it's too subtle to tell whether this is supposed to be satire, it must not be very good satire in the first place.
Fortunately, that aspect of the series quickly moves away as the suspense kicks in. The serial killings are a key element right from Episode 1, and for every question that Takumi gets answered, three new ones pop up—a classic down-the-rabbit-hole thriller. Logical contradictions, loose ends, and Takumi's frequent delusions (some of them, like the ones about his anime girlfriend, are dead obvious, but others remain well-hidden) also keep the viewer off-balance. Even as the focus shifts away from the murders and toward the "Gigalomaniacs" who can transform imagination into reality, the mysteries keep piling up: Which of Takumi's girlfriends be trusted? Is any of what's happening real? How do the facts connect to each other, and to Takumi?
Two-thirds of the way through, the series drops a perfectly timed bombshell: the truth about Takumi is revealed, in a classic "should've seen it coming but you didn't" moment. However, other story threads are treated less elegantly: minor-character subplots often get a weak conclusion (like a sibling rivalry resolved by magical hand-waving), or even worse, are left incomplete (some apocalyptic fantasy jargon like "Gladiale" and "the Great Will" gets bandied about, but nothing comes of it). The pseudoscience behind the whole series is shaky as well: some concepts are grounded enough to be reasonable—if our brains perceive the outside world as electrical nerve impulses, couldn't you do the reverse and influence the outside world with your thoughts?—but then comes the supernatural mumbo-jumbo, like a girl who communicates telepathically and swords transforming from glowing illusions into solid objects.
But still, those magical swords are kind of necessary; after all, who wants to see heroes and villains thinking at each other in battle? The "Di-Sword"—a physical manifestation of one's cranial power—makes for a handy visual shorthand that brings hack-and-slash excitement to the last few episodes. There's no denying the coolness factor of schoolkids wielding impossibly ornate blades and striking dramatic poses. However, static poses (and appealing weapon designs) seem to be the show's limits in animation quality; elsewhere, the visuals come up short. Character designs are pulled from the dregs of the mid-00's dating-sim boom, with a bland male protagonist and wide-eyed heroines crafted from every stereotype imaginable. Animation is even worse—everyone looks cute up close, but from a distance, characters soon drift off-model. Backgrounds are also handled lazily, with dull cityscapes approximating the Shibuya district, and filler crowds often creepily frozen in place.
At least the background music shows greater creativity—the soundtrack is at its best when unpredictable dissonances and long silences reflect the chaos and unease in Takumi's mind. On the other end of the scale, poignant piano melodies create moments of calm when Takumi actually builds an emotional connection with someone; it is in these wide contrasts that the soundtrack becomes complete. The theme song selection is far more ordinary by comparison: a hard-rock opener foreshadows the action that is to come, but the ending theme—a cheeseball love song thrown on top of a house beat—fails to express anything about the series' concept.
Like the entire show itself, the English dub often feels rough around the edges, settling for "good enough" rather than being truly convincing. The ever-present Todd Haberkorn nails his role as warbly, weak-willed Takumi, but the rest of the dub is downhill from there: most of the female roles are handled more like plastic dating-sim stereotypes than actual characters (the worst offender being Takumi's trendy little sister). Even the villains sound like a pale imitation compared to the ominous boom of their Japanese-voiced counterparts. The trickiest part of the translation is converting Takumi's geeky slang into a reasonable English equivalent, but the script manages to get the sense of it without making any grievous errors.
Perhaps anime history will remember Chaos;HEAd not for what it accomplished, but for what it tried to accomplish. Despite some well-executed twists, and an intriguing concept grounded in neuroscience and philosophy, twelve episodes simply isn't enough to say what it wanted to say—and the animation staff didn't have the best tools with which to say it. But it did plant the seeds of what was to come: the series' creators would eventually follow up with the equally ambitious but more polished Steins;Gate, and recent anime trends have seen the moe aesthetic grafting itself onto other story-driven works instead of being cute for cute's sake. Not all of those attempts have been succesful, but as the wild twists and daring ideas of Chaos;HEAd show, you can't accomplish anything unless you try.
Overall (dub) : C-
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : B-
Animation : D
Art : C
Music : B-
+ An unusual concept and nonstop twists make this an addictive thrill ride where sci-fi, suspense, the dating-sim format meet.
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