The Spring 2015 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Gunslinger Stratos: The Animation ?
I feel like I say this every preview guide, but shows based on games don't have to be bad, regardless of what genre of game their source material is. Gunslinger Stratos, however, is not good. Based on a third person arcade game (which I have not played), it seems to deal in parallel worlds, where the same people exist but have drastically different personalities. The story opens with Tohru, your average everyday high school student who sees mysterious little girls writing out complex equations on the ground. (So much for hopscotch.) Tohru has the inexplicable feeling that she's his little sister before shrugging it off and going home to eat his lonely breakfast with the news. He hears a convenient report about people vanishing into thin air and wanders off to school, telling us that he enjoys blending in. This should be a sign to us that he is Not Like the Others, as should the fact that pink-haired cutie Kyoka has a thing for him, much to her brother's chagrin.
Up to this point, the story still makes sense, even if it isn't all that exciting. About halfway through, however, Tohru sees the little girl again and chases her into an abandoned part of town, because apparently entire blocks of Tokyo have just been forgotten. This results in him falling through a portal of some kind and ending up...in 2015 Tokyo? In a different version of the future? I got confused here, even moreso when Kyoka inexplicably also shows up, since the last time we saw her she was not following him as he chased his phantom little sister. In any event, battles ensue, and Tohru ends up finding himself pointing a gun at a meaner, shaggier version of himself – the Tohru of this other world.
If I had to make a guess, I'd say that this is about parallel dimensions and figuring out who the “real” version is. Perhaps the Tohrus were switched at some point; that would explain First Tohru's feeling that he has a little sister. Regardless of what is actually happening, however, this first episode hops between “confusing” and “boring,” making it rather a mess. First Tohru is so bland that it is difficult to care that he's an orphan who has been classified as level D by the government, Second Tohru just appears to be a bloodthirsty loony. The backgrounds are almost textbook anime sci-fi, with screens that appear in midair via wearable tech, a classroom set up I've seen in almost every other high school-set science fiction show, and utterly bland character designs with eyes like marbles. The animation is, shall we say, less than stellar, which certainly doesn't help the fight scenes at all, a major problem when the show is based on a shooter.
With an uninteresting story and lacking visuals, Gunslinger Stratos' first episode is a confusing mess. As far as I'm concerned, these gunslingers can mosey on back to the arcade they came from.
Rating: 2 (of 5)
Review: For an anime that is based on a series of third-person shooter video games which originally appeared in arcades, Gunslinger Stratos has a surprisingly involved premise – so much so, in fact, that it is unable to spell it all out in the first episode. Those who are not familiar with the games and don't do at least a bit of research will likely be left scratching their heads at the end of episode 1.
What is revealed in the anime is that, by the year 2115, Japan has dissolved into several individual districts which are implied to be dominated by megacorporations. Something called a KK Matrix uses a “sixth index” to determine a person's genetic potential and assign them to career paths according, though in protagonist Tohru's cynical view, wealth and status are also a big factor. He doesn't mind being a sheep rather than a hunter, though, which makes his references to wannabe-girlfried Kyoka as a predator all the more amusing. That Kyoka is interested in him doesn't sit well with her brother Kyohma, an apparent retro street punk wannabe despite their family apparently being rich. People who openly state that they want to be sheep in anime almost always end up getting thrown into messes, though, and Tohru is not without talent in his gym class's paintball-styled mock battles. He and Kyoka both get much deeper into a mess when they see and pursue a girl from a disturbing dream Tohru had, one who writes “help me” on the pavement in chalk but is also all fuzzy, as if walking between dimensions. Tohru and Kyoka soon do some time and dimension-hopping itself, right back 100 years into the midst of a firefight between opposing forces. And one of the combatants is Tohru's veritable double, just like he saw in his dreams.
What the first episode doesn't say - and this is spoiler information about this show from the videogame it's based on - is that this is apparently a concept somewhat akin to Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere, where parallel universes are collapsing together, and a battle is being fought to determine which one will survive. Hence Tohru's double is the alternate-universe version of himself. It is an interesting idea, one borne from the creative mind of Gen Urobuchi, but in execution it feels more like just setting up an excuse for world-hopping battles.
Though the concept is played almost entirely seriously, mothing about the action scenes generates much enthusiasm. The artistry, courtesy of the normally-reliable A-1 Pictures, is a major letdown, especially in the closer, and nothing about Tohru so far inspires viewers to care all that much. (And did anyone else immediately think of Effie from the Hunger Games movies upon first seeing that teacher?) A lot of the problem could be that the series has a first-time director, but whatever the case, it is going to have to do far better than this to keep its audience beyond episode 2. While not a disastrously bad opening episode, too many other shows already this season have gotten off to better starts than this one does.
Anime's Third Law of Quality: for every Urobuchi series, there is an equal and opposite Fauxrobuchi series. For every Psycho-Pass, there must be a Psycho-Pass 2. For every Fate/Zero, there must be an Aldnoah.Zero. For every Madoka Magica, there must be a Gunslinger Stratos. That's where we find ourselves today. For myself and other fans who strongly resonate with his writing, Urobuchi's personally penned work is good as gold, but we should all definitely accept that his name is as good as mud. If he's scripting a story start to finish, grab a seat. If he's contributing a premise so the production team can slap his name on their product and other far less talented writers can try to wring a story out of it, head for the hills. Booch seems to care a lot about his own image and public perspective in interviews, so perhaps one day he'll get tired of diluting his brand across all this schlock that he's barely involved in, but if he never does, at least the contrast is hilarious. I get it, money is a nice thing to have, and you can only work on so many projects hands-on at once. It will probably stop happening when his name on a poster no longer increases sales (and Gunslinger Stratos might be the first example of this considering the terrible quality of its best foot forward.) At least we know the warning signs by now, and Gunslinger Stratos has "Fauxrobuchi Beware" stamped on its forehead right from episode one.
That aside, for those who don't care about Urobuchi's involvement one way or the other, this is still a giant dud. First off, in a season that has been pockmarked with disappointing animation quality across several premiere shows thus far, Gunslinger Stratos takes home the booby prize. A-1 Pictures usually has much better quality control than this, but considering this season's Uta no Prince-sama iteration has also taken a nosedive in animation quality, perhaps they've bitten off more than they can chew. Every member of the principal cast (to say nothing of the extras) goes off-model in most shots they appear in, every animation shot from minor hand movements to wild action scenes is violently stilted, and the endless gunmetal gray future buildings are nothing to write home about either. So it looks like a butt, but does it sound like a butt? Why yes it does!
After several long minutes of future dystopia exposition about class systems, mysterious disappearances, and ridiculous sci fi terminology bent on putting the poor audience into a coma, our protagonist begins his inner monologue about being a have-not of future society. The metaphor he chooses to describe his place in the world is one of the most bafflingly goofy things meant to be taken seriously that I've heard in a while. "I don't mind not standing out. Back when our kind was all sheep, it wasn't good to stand out." He does realize that humans did not literally evolve from sheep, right? Wait, did humans evolve from sheep in this gunslinging stratos world? He doesn't mean "sheep" as in "sheeple" either, because he refers to other people as being descendant of tigers and wolves, which means he's either implying a cannibalistic pre-evolved humanity, or the screenwriter here is terrible at metaphor. "I may be a sheep, but I hope at least I am a fluffy sheep," our hero concludes. Okay, now the metaphor is incomprehensible because what does fluff have to do with anything?
After this, he and his girlfriend get spirited away to 2015 Japan except everyone is trying to kill each other with future guns or something, I don't know. This show is incredibly lame. It has lame visuals, it has lame writing, and it's based on a light gun game, which is also fundamentally lame. Watch it for a laugh until it becomes too boring, and never trust the Boochi name on the box.
Tohru Kazasumi lives in The Future. This isn't one of the worst futures, but it is a mildly dystopian one - this future includes ranking systems that dictate your life path, which are supposed to be based on aptitude but are instead based on wealth and family name. Since Tohru doesn't have a family, he's stuck with a D rank, but he's resigned to this fate, and has accepted being a sheep. In this first episode, we learn that in spite of his unremarkableness, he's actually a very competent paintball-warrior, and that he's been having strange dreams about a mysterious little girl. When that mysterious girl shows up in his real world, he ends up being dragged along with his friend Katagiri into a strange world of explosions and neon, where he will undoubtedly find out he's got some kind of heroic destiny to fulfill.
Gunslinger Stratos premier felt a whole lot longer than its actual twenty minutes. It's one of those shows that seems composed entirely of spare parts from other shows, tied together with the barest hint of its own personality. Tohru feels like Every Anime Protagonist, his world feels like every scifi world, and his narrative feels like every action-fantasy premise. There's only so many “I'm okay with being normal… but apparently I have a scifi destiny” premises one person can take, and when a show does nothing to rise above the most base execution of its genre, it's almost worse than a show that tries more and fails harder. There were hints of Gen Urobuchi's presence floated for this series, but it seems like his involvement here was even more minimal than with Aldnoah.Zero - i.e., he was involved just so much that it wouldn't be completely inappropriate to stick his name on the marketing materials. And the actual source material for this is a light gun game, which aren't exactly known for their fertile narrative creativity.
The aesthetics don't do much to lift the material, unfortunately. In fact, this show's animation is bad enough to be distracting - characters are off-model more often than not, the actual character designs are bland and unappealing, and few scenes have more than the minimum of animation. The background designs also don't have much personality, and it sometimes felt like the show was deliberately cutting away from scenes that'd be difficult to portray simply to avoid straining the production. There was nothing actively offensive about this first episode, but from its writing to its execution, every element of it felt phoned in. A very easy skip.
Magic hour. The wind rustles through the trees in the serene courtyard of a shrine.
He looks ahead – a little girl, smiling, using chalk on the stone floor. She turns to notice him. The crows arrive.
He steps ahead, his footfalls echoing, and she runs, greeting him with a smile on his face. What was the little girl writing on the ground? A complex equation.
Frightened by math, their natural enemy, the crows depart in a flurry. The little girl fades into memory, then suddenly, a shadow arrives. The shadow has a gun. The shadow pulls the trigger.
Awake. A new day. The news is blaring, a special report about people mysteriously disappearing. They vanish, never to be seen again. Sometimes they crumble into sand. Where are these people vanishing to? Is it the dump? Or space?
It's a normal day at anime high school for Tohru, in a far-flung future where megacorporations have taken over Japan. Society is ruled by a genetic ranking system that determines your potential at the DNA level and assigns you a role. The rank is determined largely by how wealthy and important your parents were, and since this is an anime, Tohru has no parents and thus can't rise beyond rank D. He's incredible anyway – his best pal Kyoka lets him know that she just loves how modest he is, but if he really gave it his all, he could be president of the world someday!
But all is not as it seems – on their way home from school, Tohru and Kyoka see that little girl from Tohru's dream again, scribbling math on the sidewalk, tormented by crows. Tohru follows her to an enormous dilapidated section of old Tokyo he didn't even know was there (even though it's right off the main road and protected only by some police tape). He follows her to an industrial vat, where he falls into a white void that transports him to…
Shibuya! Yes, Tohru falls through the void to some kind of alternate reality Shibuya, where crazy characters in wacky videogame outfits are having gun fights right on the street! He's followed shortly by Kyoka, and then they're trapped in a burning skyscraper, damaged in one of those random videogame battles happening out on the street. He takes a weapon left behind by a fallen gunslinger, and is quickly pursued by a mysterious combatant who turns out to be… TOHRU HIMSELF?!
Gunslinger Stratos has two things working against it right out of the gate: one, it's a “scenario by Gen Urobuchi” show, which means ol’ Booch laid out the groundrules for the series and then handed it off to the screenwriters, which usually doesn't end well. The Booch usually knocks it out of the park when he's actually writing the scripts, but if it's just a show full of ideas that he himself isn't articulating week to week, it doesn't typically work out. Two, it's an adaptation of a Square-Enix game – an arcade game, specifically a light gun game, meaning this is equivalent to someone trying to produce a narratively-driven TV series out of something like Virtua Cop. But that's not all – apparently they had an hour or two to animate this, because it's some of the worst television animation I've seen since last year's Dramatical Murder; they can't keep faces looking the same from frame to frame, resulting in wild lazy eyes, misshapen heads and awkward, stiff character movement. Typically you see bad animation like this late in a show's run, but this is the premiere episode. If they're starting out this bad, I would imagine by the end of this show it'll have devolved into barely-moving squiggles and half-shapes.
They aren't trying very hard with the story, either – plucky young lad who society expects to fail but is capable of much more literally falls into videogame world with girlfriend in tow – so I'm placing this one delicately in the recycle bin. Better luck next time.
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