Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Nov 16th 2011
Episodes 1-5 Streaming
In the not-so-distant future, a devastating virus has stricken Japan. A multinational coalition dubbed the GHQ rides to the rescue, taking the opportunity to turn the country into a glorified colony. Shu Ouma doesn't care about any of that. He's just trying to get through high school without hating himself. In furtherance of that goal he tries to help out beautiful internet idol Inori when she's beset by GHQ thugs. At her behest he couriers a package to Gai, the leader of an anti-GHQ terrorist organization called Funeral Parlor. Naturally everything blows up in his face and he ends up in possession of a mysterious power that allows him to extract weapons called Voids from people of a certain age. Gai wants to turn him into a terrorist, the GHQ is on his case, and he's feeling these odd feelings about Inori: as if being young and alienated wasn't enough.
Guilty Crown is the product of a peculiar artistic collaboration. Its director is Tetsuro Araki, best known for opulent spectacles that veer far off the beaten track. Its lead writer is Hiroyuki Yoshino, whose best works are clever takes on well-used (extremely well-used) material. You wouldn't think a bold experimenter and a genre artist would make a good match, but they turn out to be unexpectedly complementary. Araki supplies the razor-sharp execution that Yoshino's genre constructs require, while Yoshino's love of convention keeps Araki's worst instincts in check. In the name of edginess Araki's series often end up soured by pop nihilism and a kind of hard heartlessness. Yoshino, on the other hand, is perfectly content to follow the traditional path of audience identification: sympathetic characters, familiar emotions, a romantic hook. And Araki is content to follow Yoshino, at least for now. So, while far from soft, the series has a heart—and a pretty decent one at that.
The heart is largely in Shu's relationship with Inori. It's not exactly a healthy relationship: Inori is an automaton while Shu has spent his entire life shutting down all but his most essential emotions. It's strangely sweet though; there's something very endearing about watching two emotionally stunted kids fumbling with their expanding emotional lives. And they're not alone. Though less central, Shu's classmates and unwilling Funeral Parlor compatriots all have emotional lives of their own, particularly as they relate to charismatic, manipulative Gai. None of them are on par (yet) with the fantastic supporting cast of Yoshino's genre masterpiece My-HiME but they're night and day compared to the secondary players of, say, Death Note. Good thing, too. Shu is a callow, indecisive, weak-willed annoyance most of the time, so he needs all of the support he can get—at least until the secrets that are obviously lurking in his past have a chance to get out and rectify some of his shortcomings.
The disadvantage of having a conventionalist like Yoshino on board is, quite naturally, his conventionality. He does a lot of recycling. Shu is one result, a direct descendant of generations of wishy-washy romantic comedy leads. Inori is as well, her personality (or lack thereof) and hints of back-story strongly recalling Evangelion's Rei Ayanami. The post-apocalyptic future, viral outbreak, and government oppression in the name of safety have all been floating around for years, as have little touches like the girl with mechanical cat ears. And when Yoshino isn't availing himself of the anime collective consciousness, he's recycling... himself. My-HiME contributed the materializing weapons derived from loved ones, and the colonization of Japan and oppressive regime armed with mecha are straight from Code Geass (to which Yoshino contributed). Even Gai, probably the most compelling of Guilty Crown's players, borrows his mission and methods from Lelouch Lamperouge—though minus the megalomania and cartoonish flourishes. I once said that if My-Otome was a drink it would be My-HiME Lite. If Guilty Crown was a drink, it'd be a cliché-smoothie.
For a clue as to how this particular cliché-smoothie ends up so tasty, go to its oldest and moldiest ingredient. Episode two is where the show plays the transfer-student gambit (using Inori), and by episode three it has become the cohabiting-transfer-student gambit. This is the point where less tolerant viewers are likely to jump ship, but it isn't the death-knell that it sounds like. There's actual logic—cold, military logic—behind Inori's move, and it has real emotional repercussions, some of them good and some of them not so good. It's a surprisingly complicated situation emotionally, especially in retrospect—which is mostly where it's viewed from since the series puts an end to it with quick and merciless finality. The show does that with some regularity: presenting a standard anime trope, say an opening episode of introspective high school anomie or Shu recruiting a potential ally, with surprising depth and then blowing it out of the water with a sudden sideways shift of the plot.
That puts some real life into a lot of dead clichés, and makes for a fast-moving, ever-evolving show to boot. Araki is good at moving fast. He keeps the show's pace swift, without getting hectic or confusing or depriving developments of their proper impact—all crimes he has been guilty of in the past. He builds tension efficiently and effectively, something that will surprise no who has seen Death Note, and even if he isn't the most sensitive of animators, the emotional jabs still make it through more or less intact. Araki's great contribution, however, is making Guilty Crown kick serious butt. It's a truly beautiful series all around. Araki's eye for color, composition and motion is excellent and he has all of Production I.G's muscle behind him. Even something as simple as Shu heading to his first meeting with Gai is kinetic and exciting in his hands.
But it's when one of Gai's plans hits the fan and Shu starts pulling fantastical weapons from the souls of compatriots (and enemies) that jaws really start dropping. Robots are diced, crushed, levitated, and thrown through buildings as Shu leaps, flies, and runs across anti-grav globules of water. Energies swirl and streamers of silvery... somethingness explode from the souls he taps. Missiles, robot armies, laser defenses and a giant prism field are all featured at different times, as are good ol' standbys like guns and knives and fancy martial arts. The character art and animation is uniformly sharp and the cast's attire ridiculously stylish (particularly stylish and particularly ridiculous in Inori's case), none of which hurts, especially when bodies start hurtling around. All the while Araki spins his imaginary camera and grooves spontaneously in and out of slo-mo, ramping up the destruction with every battle. It's chaotic yet controlled, cogently assembled and choreographed, yet so over-the-top that you just have to sit back and watch in wonder.
Unfortunately, the score isn't on quite the same plane. It's over-the-top, yes, but not always in a good way. Composer Ryo likes his insert songs and rawk guitars—not surprising given his involvement with the pop group supercell, who not coincidentally provide many of the insert songs—and Araki likes to use them as blunt tools. Sometimes that's fine, even good, but just as often it's plain embarrassing. The songs themselves can be quite pretty, especially when Inori is doing the singing, but you can't help wishing they were used with a little more finesse.
The question leaving these episodes is whether Guilty Crown can keep it up. It's hard to imagine the series dancing and dodging this way for its entire 22-episode run. Eventually it has to slow down, spin its wheels, or take the wrong step and hit a nasty cliché head-on. Right? Maybe, but it should be a heck of a ride until it does.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : C+
+ Great visuals; show-stopping action set-pieces; unusually thoughtful use of common anime tropes.
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