Premiere Report - Yoshitoshi ABe's RErideDby Jacob Chapman,
RErideD: Derrida, who leaps through time is liable to turn heads this fall for several reasons. It's not just an original work from the mind of veteran director Takuya Satō, (who directed the Steins;Gate anime and opted not to direct its prequel, Steins;Gate 0, because he was busy developing RErideD), it also marks the return of acclaimed artist and writer Yoshitoshi ABe to the anime scene for the first time in 15 years. This time-traveling thriller marks the pair's first collaboration since the lighthearted space alien drama NieA_7, so fans nostalgic for the experimental stylings of this duo's early 2000's work are bound to have questions
Before the screening of the series' first two episodes, both Yoshitoshi ABe and Kadokawa series producer Rie Ogura answered some of these questions in a press roundtable, explaining where ABe has been for the past decade and why they're so excited about RErideD.
How did this new project get started and how did you get involved?
ABe: When director Takuya Satō started this project, he asked me to do the character designs. Even the previous year, he'd told me that he was working on something and would ask me to be involved. Originally I was just called in to do character designs, but eventually they asked me to help with the story itself, so I wound up writing part of the screenplay for the series as well.
Since this is the first original project for Geek Toys, what about this story made it a good choice for the studio?
Ogura: Originally Geek Toys was a studio that worked on live-action projects in Japan – commercials and things like that. They decided they wanted to get into the anime business, so we challenged ourselves to make an anime. Why this one in particular? Fate, I guess! For Kadokawa as well, we wanted to pick something to really challenge ourselves.
There are so many time-traveling sci-fi anime, so what makes this one stand out?
ABe: Originally this project was supposed to be based on Heinlein's novel "The Door into Summer", just a straight adaptation. We wound up making an original project instead, as I got more involved and contributed ideas. So if you're asking why it's a time travel story, the answer is that originally it was an adaptation of this Heinlein novel.
ABe later added after the screening that his most prominent creative contributions were the increased presence of the heroines and greater personal suffering for the hero throughout the story.
Naming the series after “Derrida” is a strong statement, since Derrida is known for his theories of narrative deconstruction. Would you say there is something “deconstructive” about this story?
ABe: The director picked that name – maybe he just liked the way it sounded!
So since Mr. ABe worked on this original script, was there a story you wanted to tell with this work?
ABe: When I'm writing, more than picking a particular theme and saying “this is the story”, I tend to just follow my ideas. In my opinion, this hero is very interesting – he ends up in a bad future where things took a wrong turn and he deeply regrets his own actions. This was all drawn from my own feelings.
Your art has a particular soft and textured style that seems difficult to recreate in animation. Do you take a different approach to anime design than you do with illustration?
ABe: When I'm illustrating, it's true that I wind up drawing many, many lines instead of just one main outline. I end up piling lines on top of each other, creating something that has a hazy, less defined, softer effect to the viewer. In anime, you can't really do that. So for the character design phase, another character designer took my illustrations and made them more animate-able, collapsed them down into one line and made them easier to animate.
Did you have meetings with the character designer to iterate on those designs or did you just hand them off?
ABe: This time I basically just turned over my drawings. Eventually he came back with some drafts and we had a discussion, but my style is really hard to animate. Because of that, if I were to take it back and make changes again, it would just get harder again, undoing everything that he did, so I didn't provide much feedback. I've tried doing it myself, drawing anime character designs – I can't get it right. The angles are not right on the model sheet, the ear's not in the right place, etcetera, so I just leave it to the professional animators.
It's been over a decade since ABe was involved in an animated production. What about this project seemed like it was the right time for you, and what had you been working on in the meantime?
ABe: It was more like 15 years actually – for six of those years I was working on manga. I also did some anime planning, trying to create a new show that took about a year and a half, but it wound up getting thrown out in the end. I helped plan a game too, but we ran out of money at the end, so that didn't go through, and that's what I've been doing.
The tone of the manga Ryushika Ryushika is very different from your other works – it's less moody and more uplifting. What caused that kind of thematic change?
ABe: I've made a lot of different kinds of things – I've worked on some darker stories, and I've also worked on lighter things like NieA_7. So I've done a whole range of projects. For Ryushika Ryushika, what I wanted to do was to capture a child's viewpoint. I felt as an adult that I wasn't able to see things from that child's viewpoint anymore. When I was a kid, the surrounding world was kind of scary, and at that age, you put your imagination to work making it a brighter place. You take your scary surroundings and use your imagination to survive them and make them into something more palatable. So more than just being a cheerful work, I consider it more a personal work about that aspect of life.
Recently, Chiaki J. Konaka announced that Despera wasn't canceled, it was just in development hell due to the current state of the anime industry and the difficulty in producing independent works. Can you elaborate on the status of Despera and your opinion on the difficulty of making independent works?
ABe: We did put out a book for Despera, but we weren't able to get it completed as an anime. Nobody ever asks us about this in Japan, but in America someone always asks about it. It isn't a big topic of conversation in Japan, but whenever someone asks me about it, it does make me happy. So we've had trouble bringing a real shape to the anime, but we might discuss making it as an anime again next year. (to Ogura) Is it OK to say that?
Ogura: Probably, since it's basically determined at this point. As for original productions, I don't think it matters if you have a big studio or a small studio producing it, what really matters is your passion.
Has Crunchyroll's assistance in that regard made it easier to greenlight an original project as a small studio?
Ogura: Yes, they've been very helpful! ABe-san has fans all over the world, and Crunchyroll is helping us provide this show to those global fans.
With all these interesting details fresh in my mind, I was hyped to see what Sato and ABe's team at the fledgling Geek Toys had come up with. As the lights went down and the episode began with an abstract montage featuring ambient sound design and a cherubic young girl in a red coat, I felt that wave of ABe nostalgia sweep over me and prepared for an engrossing time travel experience.
But tragically, the forty minutes to follow were nowhere near as immersive as I had hoped.
Spoiler Warning for the first two episodes of RErideD: Derrida, who leaps through time.
I'm afraid I have to be blunt: RErideD's production values are embarrassing. Rather than being reminded of Steins;Gate or NieA_7, the anime these visuals reminded me of most was Sato's utterly forgettable Girls Beyond the Wasteland, which was mocked at the time for having character designs that might best be described as "How to Draw Anime Volume One (copyright 2009)". ABe's design sensibilities have been completely sponged from these designs, leaving only the most generic and workmanlike shapes behind that you could easily mistake for any given season's bottom-shelf isekai fantasy du jour. Backgrounds and copious CG models fare no better; it's an ugly show 80% of the time and merely mediocre for the other 20%. Insult only compounds onto injury when we see ABe's beautiful original artwork of landscapes and a portrait of the protagonist's dead mother hanging on the walls of the show's stiff and lifeless house setting. It's like someone photoshopped Starry Night into a frame hanging in a living room that was drawn in two days for someone's doujin game. The only remotely impressive cuts of animation are reserved for the glimpses we see of the show's hand-drawn death-robots, and they might only look better by contrast.
The series' PV is rather creatively edited to look as decent as it does, because long minutes of animation go by in these episodes where every element in the frame is off-model, with every character's face reduced to Charlie-Brown-esque minimalist scribbles. Distance shots are particularly egregious, which makes it all the more baffling that these cruddiest frames are held on for long stretches, as the characters engage in dry sci fi exposition with only two jagged mouth-flaps with which to express themselves. This lack of decent animation is so troublesome that it can even make the show confusing to follow. Derrida stumbles into a cryo-sleep chamber in the climax of episode one, but the character motion is so rough that the shot yielded several quiet (and not-so-quiet) "Wait what?"s from the audience, unsure of if this had happened to him accidentally or on purpose. At one point, we see a CG car vault over a ramp to land into frame, but to save on rendering time/cost, the CG model has been reduced to a still and dragged down onto the background, where it is abruptly replaced with a dust cloud to account for the impossible angle of the vehicle touching the ground. At its worst, the show even breaks the 180 degree rule when zooming to a close-up of a character who was already in frame. It's just a mess.
Setting the production aside leaves us with the story, which is certainly more interesting, but not much of a step up in quality. The good news is that there's a lot of ambitious ideas in play; it would take four or five paragraphs to cover the plot of these two episodes, but none of it is needlessly confusing or pretentious. The short version is that Derrida, as the heir to a powerful robotics company, has noticed a bug in the AI system that could lead to unauthorized weaponization of his father's empire, but subterfuge at the corporation forces him to use his sister-figure Mage as a mule to get the patch to his dad, leading to a catastrophe that lands Derrida ten years into a post-apocalyptic future where visions of a time-displaced Mage guide him down the path to setting things right. At its worst, the script does devolve into long dialogues about character backstories or the exact specs of some story-relevant technology, but the dense nature of the plot doesn't leave much room to bore the audience before it's already time to pay off the technobabble they spent that time setting up. Despite his bland expression, Derrida is a highly motivated character faced with an intriguing tangle of circumstances, and it's immediately obvious that this plot is going to run him through the wringer, which should be compelling to watch whether you're following the story sincerely or ironically.
Unfortunately, an irony-watch is more likely given the show's haphazard mishandling of tone. It would be hard enough to deliver the gravitas of a flawless script with a production this troubled, but RErideD trips the line between mysterious and goofy too often to ignore. The villain is literally a thinly-veiled caricature of Donald J. Trump voiced by Norio Wakamoto, who's played up as a sincere threat in episode one but devolves into a whimpering buffoon after the time-jump in episode two, with both characterizations yielding eye-rolling irritation (and several whispers of "It's Trump?!" from the crowd). Whether because of the poor animation, the hamhanded messaging (episode two introduces a street urchin who's wise beyond her years), or the obvious foreshadowing (the assassin Trump sends to kill Derrida looks exactly like an adult version of Mage), there were unintentional giggle fits throughout the audience rather than gasps of suspense. This tension reached a breaking point when a hallucinating Derrida visited his home in the future and mistook an assailant behind him for his old friend holding her gun-shaped camera. Cut to black on a very real gunshot. Cue raucous laughter on what was meant to be a shocking cliffhanger.
I can enjoy laughing at anime fiascoes as much as the next smartass, but watching RErideD self-destruct before my eyes brought me no joy, because I know that ABe's vivid imagination deserves so much better. I'm tempted to say the man himself feels the same way, since the screening was followed by a 30-minute long concept art exposition where ABe concluded his vivid description of almost every beautiful illustration with "Anyway, this concept was rejected". It's truly disappointing that none of the illustrations he shared bear much resemblance to the final product. He did seem proud of his contributions to the story, however, and he even found humor in the disjunct between his art and the anime, saying of one unused wardrobe change for Derrida: "Please vividly imagine that this scene happened in episode one, because we were not able to show it."
At the end of the truthfully awkward screening, Ogura and ABe's final statements made the strongest impression on me. Even if this series is a total misfire, it came from a place of love and passion, and with any luck some of its good ideas will still shine through the hot mess of the final product. Ogura said, "Most anime these days are produced so that viewers can jump in at various points in the story and enjoy it going forward, but RErideD requires the viewer's full attention from beginning to end. That is the strength of an original anime project. The story may not fully make sense until the very end, and you may find that Derrida is not the best kind of guy, but we hope that you will root for him until the end."
ABe's final statement was far more potent: "This is my first work in over ten years. I thought everyone would have forgotten me by now. Thank you for keeping my memory alive. Thank you very much." While I may have snickered and groaned through most of RErideD, the one moment I enjoyed most was extremely ABe: the soothing eyecatch with foggy filters and a robotic girl's voice mumbling "clockwise", reminiscent of Serial Experiments Lain among other sci fi classics he helped bring to life. Now that my expectations have been ground into dust, I'm honestly still looking forward to the rest of RErideD this fall, if only to pore through the fallout and try to imagine what could have been.
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