Shelf Life
Chaos Dragon

by Paul Jensen, Gabriella Ekens,

I spent some time playing the new Battlefield game over the holidays, and it reminded me that I have a consistent pattern when it comes to playing multiplayer shooters. I start off slightly bemused by how pretty the game is and how awful I am, then become needlessly serious as I start to figure the game out. At the apex of my frustration with my obviously useless teammates, I realize that I'm still not very good myself and go back to running around like an idiot and bashing people over the head with health crates. Sometimes games are more fun when you stop trying to play them correctly. Welcome to Shelf Life.

Jump to this week's review:
Chaos Dragon

On Shelves This Week

Fairy Tail - Collection 6 BD+DVD
Funimation - 600 min - Hyb - MSRP $54.98
Currently cheapest at: $35.69 Amazon

Synopsis: After disappearing for seven years, the members of Fairy Tail return to restore their guild to its former glory.

Extra: We have reviews of older sets covering this same span of episodes here and here. You can stream the series on Crunchyroll, Funimation, and Hulu.




Naruto Shippuden - Set 29 DVD
Viz - 325 min - Hyb - MSRP $39.99
Currently cheapest at: $26.99 Amazon

Synopsis: The release of Ten Tails forces Naruto and the Allied Shinobi Forces to take action, and a former adversary arrives to support them.

Extra: Fun fact: the last episode in this set lines up with the beginning of our hundred-plus episode reviews. You'll find this series streaming on Crunchyroll, Hulu, and Viz.com.




Shelf Life Reviews

Shelf Worthy
Nothing this week.
Rental
Nothing this week.
Perishable
Chaos Dragon

Gabriella reviewed an interesting series this week. You'll notice I said "interesting" and not "good," because in this case there's a big difference.

You've heard of “so bad it's good” movies, right? Well, how about “so bad it's good" anime? Moreso than in film, this is actually a limited group. The usual stable consists of bizarre '80s OVAs (Garzey's Wing, Mad Bull 34, etc.) and a few recent-ish shows with moments of salacious ultraviolence (School Days, Blood-C). I mention this because, in all my years of watching anime, I've never seen a show seemingly inducted into this category as quickly as Chaos Dragon. It's not so much that people hated Chaos Dragon when it first came out - it's that they were baffled by its sheer incompetence. The production was going for way more than it could reasonably accomplish. The story opened on a fantasy war infodump and a “crawling in my skin”-style girlfriend fridging. At one point, it tried to cram two paragraphs of expository text into a three-second bumper. We talk about shows derailing, but Chaos Dragon started out by careening off of the rails in a violent – and above all, memorable – fashion that kept it alive in fan conversation for longer than your average junky LN anime. There's something special here, although it may only be visible to people willing to plumb the depths of its production history.

Right from the get-go, Chaos Dragon attracted more attention than your run-of-the-mill light novel anime due to the big names attached. The original light novel is based on a tabletop campaign played between such anime luminaries as Gen Urobuchi (the writer of Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Psycho-Pass), Kinoku Nasu (of Fate/stay night fame), and Ryohgo Narita (the man behind Baccano! and Durarara!!). Alongside two others players, they invented their own characters for the campaign. The setting was provided by the Dungeon Master, Makoto Sanda. Sanda aside, these three participants were some of the most popular and influential writers in the business, so people were excited to see what could result from their “collaboration.” It seemed like an opportunity to see their distinct worldviews bounce off each other and to get a glimpse of how these creators may perceive themselves as individuals. But as talented as they may be, this setup wasn't actually primed for a great outcome. Sanda – a largely unproven writer – later adapted the game's events into a light novel, meaning that this story is more of his attempt to wrangle an improvisational experience into a cohesive narrative. Roleplaying games already tend to not result in compelling standalone narratives for anyone who didn't participate, creating a very "you had to be there" situation. On top of that, Urobuchi, Nasu, and Narita didn't play the campaign's primary characters, but rather the supporting cast. This granted them significant opportunities for independent action – which they seem to have taken frequently. The ultimate result is a cliché-ridden, poorly-structured lore-fest where Not-Nasu, Boochi-with-Boobs, and Narita's-Actually-Kinda-Cool-Character mess around in the background.

So what's the actual story? Basically, a fantasy war between the nations of D'Natia and Kouran has spread to the island country of Nil Kamui. The island has been conquered, and the two superpowers have reached a truce by splitting their claims to it down the middle. While this is getting sorted out, the Red Dragon – Nil Kamui's patron deity – goes crazy and starts wrecking stuff. Ibuki, the sole remaining member of Nil Kamui's recently-deposed royal family, is the only one who can deal with this problem, for bloodline reasons. Finding mutual advantage in getting the god-beast to cool it, D'Natia and Kouran agree to a cooperative mission to get Ibuki to the Red Dragon and restore its sanity. The mission consists of Ibuki, his personal retinue, representatives from the two nations, and a few other scattered weirdos. Of course, everyone has their own secret agenda and is ready to betray the party. Let the bloodbath begin!

On paper, this is decent enough fantasy lore. In other hands and other different circumstances, I'm sure that this could have made for a solid enough adventure story. Unfortunately, this is Chaos Dragon we're talking about. The storytelling is broken from the beginning – it starts out a mass of exposition that we're given little to no reason to care about. In spite of this, the show manages to leave information unclear until it's too late, meaning that you're often left scratching your head over why exactly something is happening. The pacing is jarring, and it feels like crucial points of story development are skipped. On top of that, the characters are inconsistent, often feeling like they do things simply because the plot demands it. Ibuki and Eykha, the leads, suffer the worst from this, probably because they're the blandest. All characters have these moments, however, which is one of the big tells that this was adapted from a tabletop campaign, where the players need to be constantly herded back toward the plot.

The characters themselves aren't much better. The obvious emotional point of entry – affection for the show's hero, Ibuki – falls on its face immediately, since he has the personality of oatmeal. His superpower/curse is the ability to obtain power from the Red Dragon at the cost of killing one of his loved ones. This results in a hilarious parade of manufactured angst as Ibuki works through his retinue of barely developed NPC friends and family. His love interest, Eykha, is Ibuki's match in blandness, passivity, and artificial tragedy. Their relationship is the closest thing to the story's core, but its ruined by the two being nincompoops. It also ends in a thoroughly baffling manner that somehow manages to top the show's other well-established forms of badness.

The other characters are the ones “penned” by Urobuchi, Nasu, and Narita. For metatextual reasons, they're more interesting, but hardly any better than the main pair (with one notable exception.) Urobuchi's character, Lou Zhen Hua, is an assassin so flagrantly evil that it breaks suspension of disbelief that the rest of the party lets her hang around. This suggests that the Booch spent the entire game trying to see what he could get away with. She's the Kouran representative and owns an evil sword. Then there's Nasu's character, the D'Natia representative. His name is Sweallow Cratsvalley, and he's a weird remix of all of Nasu's fixations. He's a dorky-but-badass antiheroic outcast with the power to (de)materialize swords. While he's not actively trying to break the story (like Lou), his demeanor and actions over the course of the story make him pretty insufferable. The one bright spot is Narita's avatar, Ka Grava. He's an immortal golem merchant who runs a city-state that serves as a safe haven for the world's oppressed. Narita has a talent for coming up with charming, quirky characters, and Ka Grava is no exception. I'd watch a show about this guy. Unfortunately, he exists as a side character in Chaos Dragon instead. He doesn't even try to betray Ibuki! Oh well.

Sadly, the “read into these creators' personalities via their D&D characters” game is crucially flawed in that this show has gone through multiple layers of adaptation. There's no way to know for sure which events happened in the game and which added in after the fact. For example, Urobuchi's character, originally male, was genderswapped in the light novel – presumably for wont of titties. So character analysis is an inherently imprecise activity under these circumstances, but it's the most fun that I had with Chaos Dragon, and the main thing that people remember about it. While their participation didn't make the final product any better, the influence of these creators does show, and it's fun to see how their artistic philosophies might inform them in an unscripted, albeit obscured, encounter.

On the production side, things are still uniformly bad. I've watched a lot of ugly anime, but I'm not sure that I've ever seen this wide a gulf between what a show wanted to accomplish and what it could actually manage. This is a small studio going for ufotable levels of fantastic, cinematic bombast. The result is some terrible CG and horrendous problems staying on-model. I'd feel more sympathy for this production if the art design and direction were any good, but they're not. Every character is overdesigned and features some consistent anatomy problem. All in all, it's just one bad aesthetic idea on top of another from start to finish.

This is a pretty bare-bones release from Funimation. There's the usual slate of clean OP/EDs for extras, as well as a dub. It isn't good – but in that case, I'd say that the problem is less that you're watching Chaos Dragon dubbed than that you're watching Chaos Dragon at all.

Going back to the introductory conceit, there's one small mercy to watching Chaos Dragon: it's not as boring as it could have been. There's always something happening, even if that thing just leaves you slapping your head in disbelief. As a reviewer, even that's better than the worst-case scenario: a bad show with absolutely nothing to distinguish it. In terms of its value as a “so bad it's good” show, I still wouldn't recommend Chaos Dragon for that, although it has its moments. Even at 12 episodes, full series are a bit too long to maintain that appeal. Still, I'm counting even that possibility for entertainment, no matter how negative, as a sliver of value. If I were forced to choose between Chaos Dragon and something from the “boring” category, I'd choose Chaos Dragon, but either way, I'd have a fairly unpleasant evening of entertainment. In its total failure, Chaos Dragon knows one thing of value – if you're going to be a big heaping pile of garbage for nobody, then at least be loud about it.
-Gabriella[TOP]

That wraps up the review section for this week. Thanks for reading!

This week's shelves are from Andrew:

"I have been collecting movies/TV/anime since I was in high school (now 30). The biggest change from then until now is how I display my collection. I stick to displaying my favorite titles and keep the rest stored alphabetically in the silver case pictured. I got this idea after reading how Justin Sevakis' stores his collection. 

I am making my pilgrimage to Japan in March and hope to add some unique pieces to the collection.

Although my collection (480+ titles) is more than just anime I thought it would be fun to share and hope you enjoy."

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I like the big silver case method. It gives you more room to show off the really important stuff, and you get to do the big reveal of a giant case full of anime. I think I may end up doing something similar in the near future. Thanks for sharing!

If you have a collection of anime and manga goodness that you'd like to show off, send me your photos at [email protected]!


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