The Fall 2016 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
What is this?
Jyugo, Uno, Rock, and Nico are renowned across the world for their ability to break out of any prison. Unfortunately, their current home, Nanba prison, is renowned for its history of zero breakouts. But that doesn't faze Jyugo and his friends - whether they're dodging traps in another wild escape attempt or simply lounging around and enjoying life with their fellow inmates, they know how to make the most of a life of imprisonment. Even if Jyugo may have other plans for his stay in Nanba, he's taking the highs and lows of prison life one day at a time. Nanbaka is based on a web manga and can be found streaming on Crunchyroll, Tuesdays at 3:30 PM EST.
How was the first episode?
If there's one thing I liked most about Nanbaka, it's that the characters really seem to like each other. I didn't realize how rare this was in these kinds of shows until I saw how much it improved the experience of watching Nanbaka. It's almost a foregone conclusion that anime gag comedies, especially wacky grossout slapstick comedies aimed at fujoshi, feature a lot of insane screaming characters who seem to detest each others' presence, but just plucking that last part out and leaving everything else the same gave Nanbaka a surprising sense of uniqueness. The four misfit criminals at Nanba Prison (and their three hapless guards and warden) are definitely insane and do a lot of screaming, but even when they're on each others' nerves, there's an immediately warm and fuzzy chemistry between them that makes Nanbaka feel ten times less crass and mean than you might assume on the surface. Uno offers to help pre-order Nico's favorite anime on DVD for him, Rock compliments his friends' bizarre talents during an escape, and Jyugo pesters the guard to entertain him in a way that suggests they have a nice little odd couple thing going on. Even when it switched to leapfrogging from one quick gag to another like a 4-koma anime, Nanbaka's confidence in itself to sometimes let the characters make remarks that weren't manzai-style set-ups or punchlines or insults, just to see them enjoying each others' company as frenemies, left it feeling more confident and comfortable in its tone than many comedies in its genre that start spewing flop sweat the second a joke fails to land.
Of course, that's the other thing: plenty of Nanbaka's jokes fail to land. There are a few laugh-out-loud moments and plenty of mild chuckles, but it has some cliché duds and groaners that go on too long like any other anime comedy, and the last few minutes suggest that it might be playing for drama later on as well, which could go any number of ways. (Thanks to the show's unusually solid character chemistry, it might work out well, but trying to change up its nature as a crass gag show could just be a disaster too.) Nanbaka also has a nice sense of color design going for it too. I thought I might hate it at first blush (especially Niko's awful green hair), but the show makes it work with plenty of nice rounded lines, some unexpected depth-of-frame, and a smart smattering of screentones. It's almost too neon but comes out just right. The boys themselves are easy on the eyes too if you're looking for some more fabulous manservice ala Black Butler or Karneval, with better anatomy than those examples as an added bonus.
Nanbaka is largely WYSIWYG, and you'll probably go into it already knowing if this is your thing or not, but I definitely was not expecting to find this as charming as I did. It could get tired within a couple episodes if it can't maintain a crop of unexpected jokes and land its attempts at drama, but Nanbaka has a ton of distinct personality for a fujoshi comedy, so I'm eager to see how it develops.
This should probably be self-evident from the fact that “baka” is in the title, but Nanabaka is almost 100% an exercise in frenetic, stupid fun. If that's not the kind of fare that you're at least tolerant of then stay well away.
That being said, it is better stupid fun than most anime comedies ever manage. Key to the concept is a core cast of prisoners whom I would call a bunch of lovable idiots if it wasn't for the fact that their status as masters of escaping prison is more than just chance. One is unrivaled when it comes to opening locks, another is unrivaled in his intuition, a third seems to be a supreme physical specimen, and the fourth (and weirdest one) innately turns any drug he ingests or is injected with into something with curious side effects, such as being able to pouf out an animal or person's hair just by touching them after being injected with a tranquilizer. (This is funnier in execution than what it may sound like.) He also seems to be able to totally ignore the ball and chain on his ankle. These goofballs have an unreasonable amount of fun while doing something as deadly-serious as trying to escape from a seemingly-unescapable prison, and anti-escape defenses which look like an RPG dungeon trapfest only add to their antics. Opposing them is a block commander who could almost be the twin of Ikkaku from Bleach and who looks like he's effectively going to serve as the series' straight man. There's also a cross-dressing brother and a sexy female warden in the picture so far, and doubtless other lively characters still waiting in the wings.
Another major contributor to the fun is the art style. It is vivid and colorful, almost to the point of garishness, and constantly gives viewers interesting things to look at. The weird blendings of architecture, such as the external design of the prison, also contribute to the effect. The animation may not be great but is plenty good enough to support the comedy routines and the voice acting is just as full of energy.
Surprisingly for such a high spirited series, it actually takes a somewhat serious turn at its very end as one of the prisoners describes his quest to find the mysterious prison guard who place unremovable restraints around his wrists and neck and then just disappeared. The four guys also contemplate at one point that they're really probably better off in prison since none of them have homes or prospects for jobs if they ever get out. Though this is also played off casually, it's also a serious issue for many who are incarcerated. Other than that, though, this is an entertaining romp, one that can leave a grin on your face throughout its run.
Nearly all of the humor in Nanbaka stems from one single idea: all of the characters, be they colorful prison inmates or perpetually stressed-out guards, are idiots. For all their special talents and superhuman abilities, they're all constantly undone by their own incredible stupidity. It's a style of comedy that's essentially been around forever, and how much fun you have with this series will depend on how well this approach works for you. Personally, it left me with an impression best conveyed with a benign shrug and a noncommittal, “Eh, it's all right.”
On the positive side of things, Nanbaka is pretty good at what it does. While many of the comedic surprises during the initial prison break are predictable, they benefit from good timing and on-point delivery. The slower-paced, more gag-based humor in the episode's latter half is also pretty decent, and the clubroom comedy vibe benefits from a good balance of personalities within the core cast. The guard duo of Hajime and Seitarou complement one another well by reacting to the escape attempts with frustration and panic, respectively. The four prisoners also have good chemistry with one another, and it doesn't take long for each character to settle into a clear comedic role.
The trouble here, as is often the case with dedicated comedies, is that there's very little for Nanbaka to fall back on if its jokes don't succeed. Viewers who prefer a more subtle kind of humor won't find much to latch onto in this episode. If the colorful character designs and broad style of comedy don't have you laughing on a regular basis, you'll probably be bored to death. The end of the episode makes a cursory attempt to provide some narrative substance by giving Jyugo a dramatic backstory, but the more serious tone doesn't really work when it's preceded by twenty minutes of zany hijinks.
Unless Nanbaka pulls some additional tricks out of its hat within the next few weeks, your best bet will likely be to follow your instincts on this one. If you're having fun, then keep on watching. If not, then it should be safe to drop this series in the early going. It's pretty good at what does, but it doesn't do much else.
Nanbaka seems to be one of those comedies that tries to do too much all at once. It's a prison caper, it's a group gag comedy, it's absurdist, and it feels like a four-panel manga that throws about twenty one-page comics into a single episode. It isn't bad at of these things, but it is somewhat overwhelming. It also prompts me to wonder what on earth is going on with all of the sparkles this season – this is definitely the second ultra-shimmery episode I can recall thus far, three if we count season four of UtaPri. If we're looking at a new aesthetic trend, it's an odd one, particularly since this entire episode takes place inside a prison.
The basic story, such as it is, follows four cellmates who specialize in breaking out of prisons. They don't seem to be actual criminals besides that, although each does have particular skill sets that help them in their escapades, such as Jyugo's amazing lock-picking skills or Uno's ability to discern laser traps from a mere glance. But thus far we don't know that they've actually used these talents for evil – it seems like they just get put into impossible prisons in order to escape from them. Now they've landed in Nanbaka, the ultimate secure prison for some reason painted to look like a LiSA Frank version of a feudal Japanese castle. The four members of cell 13 have managed to escape from their cell numerous times but not yet to actually flee the prison.
There's a clear divide between the halves of this episode, with the first being decidedly more enjoyable than the second. That's the actual escapade portion of the show, with the one competent guard, Hajime, freaking out as his less stellar subordinates Yamato and Tanabata fail to prevent the Cell 13 Four from making it to the door out of the prison. Luckily the prison is heavily larded with traps, culled from all manner of Hollywood films involving dangerous escapes – the inevitable Indiana Jones boulder, the laser web, the slowly closing walls designed to crush the unwary…it's like a manual of escape artist scenes. It also works in terms of goofy entertainment, with each way that they evade the traps being, if not exactly clever, at least a lot of fun, particularly when Jyugo neglects to mention that he's found the control panel for the lasers and lets the other three engage in the weirdest game of Twister ever to try and get through it. The second half, sadly, relies on gags and vignettes that are only moderately funny, such as the Cell 13 Four worrying that a terrible murderer will be sent to their prison or finding out that Hajime's brother looks like a sister, which hasn't been all that amusing in a long time. Then it tries to get oddly serious, with an actual backstory for Jyogo involving someone who wronged him and his father's legacy, as well as the busty warden in her spikey uniform. Is this going to turn into something with more substance? I hope so, but I'd rather it happened on the comedy front. As it stands, this first episode is frenetic, desperately trying to make its mark and succeeding more in being overwhelming. It may clean up down the line, but right now it's so desperate that it's a little depressing; it'd do better to try a little less hard and pick a focus.
The first half of Nanbaka's premiere is a rollercoaster ride through a menagerie of silly traps, as the show's four stars race to escape the vaunted Nanba prison. It's fast-paced and energetic and actually pretty compelling, a sequence of sight gags that go by quick enough to never wear out their welcome. There's a genre-savvy goofiness to the traps and the inmates’ reactions to them that feels far more compelling than most of anime's recent bout of self-aware commentary. Sequences like ringleader Jyugo disarming a massive, booby-trapped door aren't exactly fresh comedy, but they're conveyed with enough speed and enthusiasm to keep things relatively entertaining.
Then the protagonists are captured and put back in their cell, and the question becomes: what is this show actually about?
“Goofy inmates continuously attempt to escape prison” probably isn't a concept that could sustain a full series, and so as Nanbaka's first episode continues, it becomes clear that this is more of a gag comedy. Jyugo and his long-time companions lounge around and trade jabs as if they were in an afterschool club instead of a prison, and the fact that they aren't in an afterschool club adds a nice jolt of absurdism to the proceedings. They're all idiots, their prison guards are mostly idiots, and the episode proceeds as a farcical exploration of their daily lives.
Your enjoyment of Nanbaka will likely come down to your appreciation for either the show's impressively overdesigned lead characters or its predictable loud anime comedy. Very few of this episode's jokes were legitimately clever - they were mostly Looney Tunes-style pratfalls, mixed with a few jokes that played on the various lead characters’ single attributes (the hungry one wants food, the otaku one wants otaku stuff, etc). There was also an extended sequence that leaned on the theoretical comedy of a boy dressing like a girl, if you want a more specific example of the level of humor on display here. The show's character designs are attractive, but its animation isn't particularly impressive, meaning the simple jokes can't ride on strong execution to elevate them. What you see is what you get.
The last couple minutes of this episode pointed towards Jyugo having an actual dramatic conflict in the future, but given the farcical tone of everything else, it was hard to care about Jyugo's trials. Nanbaka is a default anime comedy starring a bunch of cute boys. If that's your scene, give it a try.
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