The Spring 2014 Anime Preview Guide
Review: Akiyuki Simbo is a busy boy. He's in the middle of directing Nisekoi, has just kicked off this series, and will be doing Hanamonogatari in May. Once Hanamonogatari begins, he'll be helming three series simultaneously. Maybe that's why Mekaku feels kind of… rote. Not in the sense that it's less than dazzling to behold or in that it loses his distinctive stamp, but in the sense that, visually, it feels like Simbo riffing on Simbo. All the usual Simbo signatures are in place, but they're familiar and recycled: a tilt of the head from Bakemonogatari, a shadow-and-light composition from Madoka Magica, a dolly-in from Arakawa. They come across more as imposed than as integral, like they were used because they were Simbo-ish and not because they made creative sense.
Of course, if you love all things Simbo-ish—and I do—you'll eat the show up anyway. It punches in you in the eye the way a Simbo production should, and all the editing trickery and stylistic obfuscation fragments what is essentially a standard teens-with-powers tale and reassembles it into something intriguingly disorienting and alien. The story, if it really matters, has to do with a shut-in named Shintaro who has adopted a malware AI named Ene as a kind of bad friend. While out shopping with her, he meets strange red-eyed teenagers and is subsequently captured by clown-masked terrorists. The terrorist assault is fantastic—sudden and frightening and surreal—but much of the rest of the episode feels distant and formulaic (though in an idiosyncratic Simbo kind of way). The episode sags worst in Shintaro and Ene's conversations, which recall the dressed-up walk-and-talks of Monogatari, only without the wit and charm. They do establish the pair's personalities however, which pays off when the terrorist attack puts some intriguing kinks in what we think we know about them. Flawed, but interesting enough to stick with.
Review: Exactly two seconds into the first episode of Mekaku City Actors, I found myself thinking "Shhhhaaaaaft?" At 15 seconds in, I was dead sure: "SHAFT. Shaft Shaft-ity Shaft-Shaft." Unfortunately, this turned what was meant to be a strange, mildly funny mystery adventure into a checklist for me, one that I couldn't put out of my head no matter how hard I tried. There's fisheye shots, tons of pastel screentones, cute girls looking down on you from uncomfortably high angles, and so much more. It's all here, all at the same intentionally off-putting editing pace with a wealth of otaku references in the background of every high-ceilinged room. Director Akiyuki Shinbo's bag of tricks is so overused at this point that we're getting one or more shows a season that look and feel exactly like Bakemonogatari, and that trademark tone has become so samey that it is neither eerie nor awe-inspiring anymore, it's just a checklist. Indeed, after seeing his style applied to a paint-by-numbers love triangle comedy last season in Nisekoi, it might just plain not mean anything anymore. How can we know for sure that Mekaku City Actors is meant to be a mystery adventure? Maybe like Nisekoi it was supposed to be a wacky dramedy, and that subtext got rained out in a deluge of Shinbo-ism. Now that it's happened at least once, we should expect it to happen again until Shaft finally decides to try something different, if they ever do.
That said, it doesn't appear to be a poor marriage this time. If Shinbo's style is a wet blanket over the experience of watching Mekaku City Actors, (and for some it may not be, not everyone's tired of it, and not everyone's seen it before yet,) the writing underneath is a saving grace. Despite clearly being a vocaloid tie-in story of sorts, there's not really any stink of salesmanship on MCACTORS' plot, which is straightforward, decently written, and intriguing. Shintaro, a hikkikomori, is both blessed and cursed with a mischievous, self-aware AI program living in his computer. Her name is Ene, and she looks like a vocaloid, but acts sort of like an unbottled genie, eager to shunt her master out of the house and stir up some trouble. Trouble's exactly what they find when they end up in the mall during what can only be described a cyber-terrorism stunt. There's almost certainly more to Ene than meets the eye, and Shintaro is about to be dragged into a world of adventure and mystery that will probably force him to interact with other people once again.
It's not one of the biggest draws this season, but there's enough to like in Mekaku City Actors to provoke some curiosity, and Shinbo's direction clearly fits the material here better than it did in Nisekoi or a few other recent projects like the nigh-unwatchable [email protected]. If you're up for more maison SHAFT, this one looks mildly promising.
MEKAKUCITY ACTORS is available streaming at Crunchyroll.com.
Rating: 3.5 (of 5)
Review: Akiyuki Shinbo, director of the Monogatari franchise, has one of the most unusual and distinctive visual and storytelling styles of any current anime director. Hence Mekaku City Actors is almost immediately recognizable as his work, as the only stylistic aspect that does not carry over from the Monogatari titles is his penchant for flash screens with dialogue, and seeming main protagonist Shintaro is even practically a dead ringer for Koyomi Araragi. And like some of his other works, it does not initially make much sense at all.
The series is supposedly based on a series of Vocaloid songs called the Kagerou Project, which feature individuals with odd eye-based powers. Shintaro, a hikkikimori who has not left his home in two years, meets some of them when he must sojourn out to get a replacement keyboard for the computer that is his lifeline and winds up being taken hostage by a band of masked robbers. (Yeah, that's going to encourage him to break his hikkikimori ways. . .) They seemingly work with him to help him defeat the robbers, who have taken over the mall's security system. His secret weapon? A virtual girl named Ene, who has been inhabiting his computer for the past two years and definitely has a mind of her own even though she refers to him as “Master.” All sorts of other strange stuff is going on, too, such as a girl wearing a school uniform and a scarf who claims that he will remember her eventually and lots of clock-related imagery.
What direction this is going in is impossible to tell just from this episode, though presumably these individuals with the strange eyes and Ene are both going to figure prominently into the picture. Thus appreciating the first episode is entirely dependent on appreciating Shinbo's eccentric style. (If you don't then lower the given rating by two full points, as he does nothing too different from his norm here.) One thing is certain, though: the messiness aside, most otaku would kill for a room like Shintaro's. The chances of this being the season's biggest seller are also quite high if recent trends hold.
Mekaku City Actors is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
Rating: 2 (out of 5)
I...I'm not entirely certain what I just watched. Mekaku City Actors' first episode is a visual feast, with interesting use of color and character design, but it's the kind of feast that overwhelms you and you decide that maybe you just want a bowl of cereal after all. There's so much going on that it is difficult to get a bead on what's important or, for that matter, what's really happening. Perhaps the most useful part of the episode is when Shintaro, our main character, points to a small sign labeled “flashback.” At least at that point we know where we stand.
The basics of the plot are clear enough, but somehow they fail to form a cohesive narrative. Shintaro is a shut-in who hasn't left his house in two years. He's utterly dependent upon his computer, which, thanks to something he opened some time ago, is now home to weird cyber girl, the foot-less Ene. Ene chatters nonstop in an increasingly annoying voice and can make the computer behave as she desires, taking herself off of mute and conducting web searches. When her constant prattle results in Shintaro spilling a soda on his keyboard and breaking it during a holiday week, he (and she, in his phone) are forced out of the house to buy a new one in person. While they're at the store, a group of terrorists take over and demand an absurd ransom. Shintaro meets a couple of odd guys and somehow they all get free and...do stuff...? It sort of retreats into obscure territory by the end, which gives us fourteen minutes of not much happening, followed by six minutes of action, and then the rest of the episode is confusing. This is not a particularly great mix.
As I said before, the visuals are pretty neat, making interesting use of predominantly gray imagery with flashes of red. The opening scenes and the final ones, involving the requisite mysterious girl, are particularly striking, filled with large clockworks and time moving backwards. Unfortunately they do get to be a bit much in the middle, with too much happening and the dialogue not really helping anything. Shintaro's panic at the thought of people looking at him is well done, as are the images of cyclopes and eyes darting his way that accompany them, but the rest of it feels almost like it is trying to be too artistic – like it's saying that it's edgy and deep because it's not easy to understand. Basically this is an intriguing first episode, but still not one that makes me want to watch more.
Mekaku City Actors is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
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