Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, May 12th 2012
Episodes 13-22 Streaming
Shu and his merry band have prevented an all-out apocalypse, but the Apocalypse virus is still around, as is the oppressive government. The kids find themselves and their entire school in the middle of a quarantine zone, surrounded by a heavily-armed perimeter that shrinks with every passing day. As the pressure mounts, the student body turns to Shu for leadership. Leadership he is ill-equipped to provide. Things go very badly very quickly. But before they can go all the way, a face from Funeral Parlor's past returns—with a deadly new goal. The apocalypse looms again, but more importantly for Shu, so does the danger to Inori. The forces of evil should know better: never stand between a teen and his girl.
Whatever else you can say about it, Guilty Crown has guts. The series does things in its second half that more timid series wouldn't dare dream of doing. Reinventing itself repeatedly, killing off characters with cold efficiency, turning characters' roles inside out. The most unexpected people end up becoming stone-cold villains as the plot repeatedly veers off in new directions with a bare minimum of warning. You can blame Guilty Crown of many things—a jumbled plot, lots of bad clichés, weak characters—but a lack of audacity is not one of them.
That audacity is on display from the very beginning of the new season. After the events of episodes eleven and twelve Shu's semi-normal life has been totally shredded and Tokyo left a toxic wasteland. The series has jumped from shonen action to full-on post-apocalyptic nightmare. You can't help but admire it for it. It's exciting to watch a show that's willing to move with that kind of speed and confidence. It's a setup full of interesting possibilities. As Shu's school grows isolated and pressure from the government quarantine builds the series takes the Lord of the Flies route (or more accurately the Infinite Ryvius route), which is interesting in its own right. The school's world constricts down to the students and becomes a microcosm of society as political struggles take shape and familiar characters take on interesting new roles in the fledgling state.
At which point the series makes one of its bold leaps. It begins with a shock, a major death, and in the gap between the death and the next episode everything changes. It's the kind of development that would normally be exhilarating: a total revolution of the established order that sees Shu becoming the feared leader of an oppressive police state. Unfortunately it also sees Tetsuro Araki returning to some very bad habits. Thus far Guilty Crown has found Araki in a slightly less hateful mode than usual, but like an unslayable beast the misanthropy that marred series like Death Note and Highschool of the Dead rears its ugly head again. It's like watching an addict relapse. You know that maybe it was inevitable but that doesn't make it any less tragic.
And we should have seen it coming. There were signs after all. The plan for a grossly unfair class system that one character proposes to Shu; a school election that unpleasantly implies that the student body is a mindless mob: weak, selfish, helpless without a superior specimen to lead them. But so far Araki has curbed his worst instincts, so hope springs eternal. Until the bold leap crushes it. What happens thereafter isn't that different from what happens in Infinite Ryvius, from which the arc takes not only narrative cues but even some of its imagery (the lone leader, reviled by the masses, taking refuge in the embrace of his lady love). But it has a different tone: more vehement; cynical, ugly. Ryvius had sympathy for its characters and faith in their humanity. Guilty Crown has neither. As the election implied, they're sheep—led like sheep, slaughtered like sheep. But nastier than sheep. Sheep don't turn on fellow sheep.
That's hardly the extent of the arc's alarming insinuations either. Social stratification is necessary; prejudice is inevitable; great stress brings out only the worst in people: arguably the arc implies it all. Thank god for that streak of audacity. Guilty Crown being Guilty Crown, it isn't long before it whips off in a completely different direction. The shift is perhaps even more shocking than the first, but it leads in a more conventional direction. An ally turns enemy, the good guys rally together, and everyone heads to the center of evil to rescue the girl. There's no room in that for misanthropic musings thank goodness, so the rest of the series passes without inducing further nausea.
But it also passes without ever fully engaging again. You can chalk that partly up to the more conventional plot, partly to a climax that interrupts itself with a long flashback (an interesting one to be sure, but still intrusive), but mostly to Shu and Inori. The second half of the season places their romance at its heart, but they're too underwritten to provide the necessary emotional weight. Shu is a lightweight do-gooder—“dark” Shu and the series' push to make him a Jesus-like savior notwithstanding. Inori is an automaton just now gaining alluring hints of humanity. It's hard to care enough about them to make the series' final episodes hit with the force that they're obviously intended to hit with.
They do hit though; not with the intended force, but with enough to make the finale a pleasantly tense, pleasantly emotional experience. What force events have, however, has very little to do with the characters or even the plot—which while full of interesting turns is too much of a whipsawing hodgepodge to really get up a head of steam. Most of what works in Guilty Crown works purely because of its execution. Araki is a master of execution. His skills are easiest to spot in the action sequences. He has a thing for streamers—steamers of metallic substance as Voids emerge, streamers of ominous pink energy that ensnare the Earth itself—as well as the kind of self-conscious, leather-clad posturing that makes Japanese actors look like poseurs but works surprisingly well in animated format. He loves to swoop his “camera” and loves pure motion. Characters leap and clash and slash with fantastic fluidity.
He also loves to push things way over the top. Think organic missiles downing stealth fighters and gorgeous swirling orbs of energy fired like point-blank artillery. And it all works beautifully. His action scenes are feasts of visual excess as exciting as they are eye-popping …and ear-pleasing—they're often set to very pretty and increasingly well-utilized insert songs. (The new OP and ED, by the way, are far less accomplished than their predecessors were—both visually and musically.)
But they aren't the only places where the show's execution triumphs over its content. Araki's grasp of the mechanics of suspense is second to none and he consistently organizes sequences whose nail-biting effects belie their short build-up and disposable and/or two-dimensional characters. He and his comrades at Production I.G also have a great grasp of the dark side of human expression, plastering unpleasantly mobile masks of terror and rage and despair on the characters. It's part of the reason the police state episodes are so unpleasant.
They aren't so skilled at the softer emotions though. The series' sweeter scenes are more embarrassing than touching. But even some of them work, especially the devastating death scene that kicks off the police state episodes. Heck, even Inori and Sho, through some alchemy of character design (luscious in both cases) and music and voice acting, manage to pull off some surprisingly bittersweet scenes in the season's second half. The result is a show that's curiously engrossing and certainly highly entertaining but that doesn't command much respect. Engrossing and entertaining, that is, when it isn't wallowing in Araki's apparent hatred of the human race.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C+
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : B
+ Whiplash plot turns, effective tragedies and fantastic action; emotional climax works despite the prominent use of the weak leads.
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