The Spring 2014 Anime Preview Guide
The World Is Still Beautiful
Review: What is the most pivotal element in storytelling that, if done well, can support a story's weaknesses in all other areas? People have all kinds of different answers to this question and ideally, it's a hypothetical with few real examples. Rare is the case where one saving grace has to support a host of weaknesses and can still excel past them to form a work of renown, but there are glancing examples of this, and through all the movies and anime I've seen, I've determined that nothing is more important to good storytelling than character. Great characters can elevate poor production values, meandering non-plots, and even questionable thematic underpinnings to a level of resonance that makes stories timeless to audiences of all stripes and backgrounds. Exhibit A: The World is Still Beautiful, a heartwarming and exciting surprise this season from Studio Pierrot, not often a herald of quality, but hey, then it wouldn't be a surprise.
The animation is limited, the art somewhat generic, and the basic premise a tale as old as dirt: princess of poor kingdom is betrothed to selfish prince of rich kingdom and changes things for the better through her perseverance, wisdom, and heart. Oddly though, I can't say that I've seen this kind of story told in anime very often. It certainly feels fresh in this show, thanks entirely to its eminently lovable heroine. The princess Nike is neither a prim Mary Sue nor a brash, butt-kicking stonewall, the two stereotypes heroines most often get cast into in fantasy. She's smart, resourceful, and cares for her people, but can be impulsive, self-righteous, and stubborn as well, determined to do what's right but unwilling to hide her enthusiasm to do what she wants. She's funny, sweet, and entertaining to watch and listen to through all the hardships this episode throws at her, thanks to her indomitable can-do attitude. (Or would that be a Just Do It attitude? ...I'm sorry.) Not much happens in the episode: Nike arrives in her betrothed's kingdom, hobnobs with the locals, almost gets kidnapped, and eventually ends up at the prince's doorstep, meeting him in literally the last two seconds of the episode, but it's the laughs and tenderness along the way that make this something special.
The next episode preview seems to imply that Nike's new prince is not as benevolent and selfless as his subjects claim he is, so observing the chemistry between them should be a lot of fun and give us a better idea of where the story is going. Regardless, this little pearl is exceedingly charming so far, and should definitely be checked out not just by shojo fans, but anime fans in general, who might be looking for a new heroine to love.
The World is Still Beautiful is available streaming at Crunchyroll.com.
Review: Some animators get left behind by technology. Hajime Kamegaki is one of them. Somewhere between seasons one and two of Project Arms he, like most of his anime peers, switched from cel to digital animation, and he never again made a visually accomplished series. Still Beautiful is no exception. It is as far from Kamegaki's visual peak (the stylishly edited Ceres) as anything he's made. Still, even without the artistic tools that suit him best, Kamegaki is one of the premier directors of shojo adventure (remember, he also did Fushigi Yugi) and he falls back into the old groove so quickly and completely that this opening episode is an effortless joy from start to finish.
It's a popular tale these days: self-reliant princess Nike, of the impoverished Rain Kingdom, is sent to be married to the reputedly brutal king of the Sun Kingdom. She arrives early and incognito, staying with a family of kind commoners when her luggage is lifted by a pair of bungling thieves. As evil schemers weave their evil schemes, she makes her way to the King's court, only to find on arrival that her terrifying fiancée is little more than a talented child.
Nike is fantastic: good-humored, kind, and determined; fierce when crossed, silly when off guard; winningly unflappable in most situations, and quick to fight in all others. Her story is pretty clichéd—aside from the child groom part of it—but she is not. Hers is good company to be in. And Kamegaki instinctively knows to let her run away with the show, balancing its silly humor, sweet bonding, and even its satisfying action on her able shoulders. He doesn't weave any really memorable imagery, but he has the timing and framing of everything shojo—from affect to gags—down pat, and with Nike to anchor it all, he's got a winner on his hands.
The World Is Still Beautiful is available streaming at Crunchyroll.
Rating: 4 (of 5)
Review: Nike is the fourth princess of the Rain Kingdom, a small, poor nation known for its constant rains. Thanks to losing a rock-paper-scissors contest with her three older sisters, she is the one who must go to the Sun Kingdom to marry the Sun King, for her nation's continuing autonomous status depends on one of the princesses doing so with the ruler who conquered most of the world in just three years. Rather than making the official rendezvous at sea, she instead decides to forge ahead on her own so that she can explore the common areas of the Sun Kingdom on her way to the capital. She quickly finds herself being treated as a country bumpkin in the bustling port town, though, and even loses her luggage to shysters. She winds up rooming with a common innkeeper's family, who don't believe at first that she really is a princess (since she certainly doesn't act like one). However, Nike has power, which proves useful in rescuing the innkeeper's daughter from kidnapers, and her plan may have been fortuitous after all, since some forces within the kingdom aren't happy that a princess from a podunk little nation is marrying their king. Further misadventures await before she does, indeed, meet the Sun King, and Nike is shocked at what she find him to be.
So begins this manga-based series, which may prove to be one of the new season's most fun new offerings if the rest of it plays out similarly to the first episode. Nike is one of those instantly-likable spirited girls who's brimming with confidence (if not necessarily competence) and an adventuresome spirit but cannot entirely set aside that, by the standard the Sun Kingdom, she is something of a country bumpkin. But while the storyline is played completely straight, her individual scenes are not. Her reaction upon discovering that the sailors transporting her are crying because they are missing out on partying in town, rather than missing her, is a hoot, and that is far from the last time that she gets in a situation played for comedy, such as her sisters’ fanciful descriptions of the Sun King in a flashback. Indeed, the thugs who steal her luggage and later try to kidnap someone they think is her even crack lines about “leveling up as villains” and “satisfying the male fans” when they threaten to molest their wrongly-kidnaped victim. And no, that isn't quite as edgy in execution as it sounds.
Director Hajime Kamegaki, who is probably best-known for helming Fushigi Yugi and KenIchi the Mightiest Disciple, is dead-on with his timing and clever mix of comedic and more serious content. Technical merits aren't spectacular but do give Nike an appealing, lively look without feeling exploitive and certainly give her some great comic expressions. The ostentatious name suggests that things may eventually take a more serious turn, but even if it does, this one still looks like a winner.
The World is Still Beautiful is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)
Nike Lemercier is the fourth princess of the fantasy Principality of Rain. Her land is poor, and in order to avoid annexation (or flat out conquering) by the wealthy Sun Kingdom, her parent has agreed that one of the four princesses will marry the Sun king. None of the girls are enthused, so they play rock-paper-scissors. Nike loses, and thus is shipped off to the Sun Kingdom, where she promptly ditches her entourage, gets robbed, and finagles her way to the capital to meet her future spouse. She also, as it turns out, can use some sort of elemental magic, the like of which it is clear does not exist in her new kingdom. Nike can control the wind and, apparently, the rain, which is presumably why Livius, the Sun king, wanted to form an alliance in the first place.
Nike is a great heroine. She doesn't take anything from anybody, but she's not explosive or rude about it when she doesn't get her way. In fact, she's quite nice unless someone is deliberately trying to wrong her, which is a type of heroine we don't see all that often in anime. She isn't stuck up about being a princess, and she's very warm with most of the people she meets, even when they laugh at her declaration of royalty. It looks like Livius will give her a run for her money, but that's what all good romantic subplots need – a bit of conflict and tension.
The pseudo-medieval air of the towns is really the only major fantasy trapping of the episode, with Nike's magic being pretty underplayed. This makes this an easy watch even for people who aren't in to fantasy, and a few metafictional moments of humor also help to keep this from getting too caught up in itself. (Sorry, guys, the fanservice scene a couple of characters make a plug for doesn't happen.) Some of the humor is strictly of the fourth-wall breaking variety, while another joke takes a page from Is This a Zombie's playbook and gives us fantasy (of a different sort) images of girls to look at while they're talking. Surprisingly this doesn't really jar you out of the episode, because The World is Still Beautiful doesn't really take itself all that seriously on the whole.
With its vaguely Spice and Wolf setting, great heroine, and good storytelling, The World is Still Beautiful is easily my favorite of the season so far. If you've been underwhelmed by other offerings or are just looking for some good characters, check this one out.
The World is Still Beautiful is available streaming on Crunchyroll.
Princess Nike of the Rain Kingdom is headed for the Sun Kingdom, where her future husband, the king, awaits! Of course, she has no idea what to expect - she's been betrothed to him since childhood, where the Rain Kingdom was allowed to stay autonomous in exchange for one of the Rain King's daughters' hands in marriage. Nike wins the Jan Ken Pon match with her sisters, so wedding bells are a-ringin'!
Nike shows up on the shores of the Sun Kingdom looking to see the lay of the land before arriving at the palace (or even letting them know she's here), and finds the place a little rough - everything's overpriced and some hoods steal her luggage before she passes out, rescued by a kind family who she bonds with instantly. It's not long before more trouble finds her, though - there's a military conspiracy going on to undermine the Sun King, who by the villagers' accounts is a wise, kind and pragmatic leader, and they send the luggage thieves after her in a kidnapping plot. Turns out Nike has magical control over the rain and wind, though, so she makes short work of them before heading off to meet her future husband.
So this is a nice surprise. While the production values aren't really anything to write home about, the quality here is all in the characters and story, which are both just charming and pleasant as all get-out. Nike is a smart, capable and interesting character you want to follow immediately, and the low fantasy world (blissfully without a giant pile of unnecessary worldbuilding) reminded me of the believable but still escapist medieval setting of Spice and Wolf. It's a simple story, told very competently and at a nice steady pace that draws you right in and keeps you watching. It's not all great - there's an unfortunate bit of fourth wall breaking with a tasteless joke that didn't fit with the tone of the show at all up to that point, but it's one dark spot in an otherwise excellent opening episode. I really had no idea what to expect from this show going in, but it's such a charming surprise that it's quickly risen to the position of 'most promising new show this season'. At the very least it'll be fun to see how they develop Nike and if they can keep this level of character writing up for a while.
The World is Still Beautiful is available streaming at Crunchyroll.
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