The Winter 2016 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Active Raid ?
What is this?
It's Asami Kazari's first day at her brand new dump of a job, and she couldn't be more excited about it. Fresh off her brief stint as an intern at the Ministry of Defense, Asami's been assigned to "clean up" the Special Public Security Division 5, Third Mobile Assault Unit 8. (Better known as "The Eighth" if you're hip to the way things work in future-Tokyo.) As a specialized police force, they're equipped with superpowered exoskeleton suits known as Willwear to stomp out crime in the dilapidated regions of Ikebukuro and neighboring areas, but their unit is in danger of being dissolved due to incompetence, now that average joes on the street are fighting with Willwear as well. From the reckless scar-faced Takeru Kuroki to the creepy and quiet Sena Souichirou to their diminutive laissez-faire superintendent Rin Yamabuki, this crew of problem officers is going to be a handful. Can Asami reform this squad of garbagemen, or will she just have to take out the trash with the worst of them? Active Raid is an original anime work and can be found streaming on Crunchyroll, Thursdays at 10:30 AM EST.
How was the first episode?
Review: Active Raid is one of those kinds of series where I can sit through the whole episode with a silly grin on my face. Its first episode is just that much fun to watch.
The basic concept is a well-worn one in anime, though one that has also not been used much in recent years: make an “elite” police force unit out of a bunch of individuals who seem like idiosyncratic screw-ups and oddballs, and yet somehow through hook or crook they can get the job done. And if a bit of collateral damage happens to go on in the process, so what? This is the spirit of New Dominion Tank Police reborn for the mid-2010s, with some Tiger & Bunny flavor added in for good measure.
For what the episode is trying to do, the pace is flawless. It carries the viewer along with viewpoint character Asami Kazari, who was essentially assigned to spy on the unit but quickly finds herself overwhelmed by the slick methods they use and the pace they operate at. She is not given the time to gather herself and get on top of things, and when she does try, she gets chastised for overthinking things. That comment could just as well have been directed at the viewer, too: don't try to think things through here, just grab hold and hang on for the ride. Not for a moment does it let her or the viewers catch their breath, and yet it also smoothly manages to work in plenty of characterization. By the end of the episode most of the cast has given a good sense for who and what they are and, in at least some cases, how they relate to each other. It also finds time for humor, too, though it never dwells on the jokes; some are even of the blink-and-you'll-miss-it variety.
Visually, the episode does not look all that impressive at first, as character designs tend to have an angular look that I don't find all that appealing. However, it steps up its game dramatically for the CG parts, which are well-animated and evoke a similar feel to Tiger & Bunny. It even offers a bit of fan service for the ladies, with the Next Episode preview suggesting that the guys will eventually get some, too.
Whether or not this series can keep up its interest factor once it settles down (if it ever does) is another story, but as far as an attention-grabber of a first episode, it couldn't have done much better.
Active Raid is the second show to debut this season which features someone grabbing another person's legs as some sort of test. Is this a new fetish I was unaware of? Will leg-grabbing become the Next Big Fetish, like girls in eye-patches or cat people? If it does, I hope the credit goes to Prince of Stride Alternative instead of this show, because Active Raid's first episode is a mess. The pacing varies between too much explanation and a maverick team of cops happily confusing/ignoring their new “special” member, the story's point-of-view character who is fresh out of training and ready to make her mark on the squad. Kanzari is so gung-ho that she hasn't quite realized that the real world and textbooks don't quite match up, which is an admirable start at developing her role in the show but is squandered by her total obnoxiousness. She's that person on public transportation conducting a business call at normal volume when everyone else is whispering or the one in the office who keeps insisting that all the T's be crossed and the I's dotted.
Actually, the best part of the episode is when one of the other characters calls her on the train-talking, partially because it's wish fulfillment for at least me (and I suspect a few others in the viewing audience), but also because it's a nice real-world detail in a show where “WillWear” wearable mecha are apparently sprayed onto people's mostly naked bodies. (A low point would be Kanzari screaming when her co-workers' suits dissolve. Does she not know how the technology works?) I also enjoyed the fact that the group functions less politely than we usually see in Japanese office stories – people talk over each other, interrupt, and then get annoyed at the interrupter, which once again adds a nice bit of realism. They're like small cornerstones of sanity in an episode that otherwise throws terms, mediocre action, and way too many characters who all introduce themselves and their adorable quirks far too quickly.
The background music is another sticking point, with its distinct sound of old TV shows from the 1970s as is it trills and doodles its way along behind the clunky action, slightly-off CG, and discussions between characters who all look just a little off in terms of how they're put together and move. How the story progresses may improve things – it could just be that we're being thrown into the world to try to pique our interest with more measured pacing to come. But I checked the timer roughly every three minutes as I was watching, so unless I hear otherwise, it's safe to say that Active Raid has lost me before it got a chance to really begin.
Rating: 2Goro Taniguchi is a good director with a great understanding of action choreography, pacing, and dramatic effect, but he has yet to prove that he knows the difference between good writing and bad. It's understandable. Writing and directing are very different disciplines, but it's in both professions' best interests to understand what makes the other work. I don't know much about screenwriter Naruhisa Arakawa outside of his adaptive work (some good, some abysmal, but all of it technically another author's fault), but this original work called Active Raid was so not ready for primetime. (Okay, 10 PM in Japan.) This first episode was horribly obnoxious nonsense that needed at least five more drafts before going to animation, and I'm honestly kind of stunned that Taniguchi didn't have the presence of mind to back this dump truck up a little.
The whole mess kicks off with "as you know" dialogue exchanged not between two characters, which would be groan-worthy enough, but said out loud by the protagonist while she stands in a crowded train. (Don't worry, the "as you know" dialogue between two characters happens later.) Asami's deliberately saying things she already knows out loud to herself (some of which is arguably sensitive information), and half of these things are marred by technobabble that is ultimately irrelevant to the story at large. That's another problem: this story isn't complicated enough to merit its bizarrely confusing and erratic execution. The Eighth squad is sent in to quell disturbances that were never set up for the audience, and they accomplish this with payoffs that were never foreshadowed either. What do these teenage miscreants in mech-suits want? Are they terrorists? Petty criminals? What damage are they doing? Why should we be worried? What roles do these members of The Eighth squad fulfill for their group, and how do other group members feel about them? Information and motivations are shared with the audience after the conflicts they might have had an impact on are already resolved, and those resolutions usually come at the heels of stream-of-consciousness technobabble that means nothing to anybody. It's the simplest procedural plot in the world, but the process of watching it feels like trying to solve a Rubik's cube where all the stickers overlap on different squares for no good reason.
Long story short: imagine Patlabor executed with the competence and excitement of Rail Wars!, and you've got a pretty good idea of how poorly written Active Raid is. It's not a bad-looking show, at the very least. The character designs are all distinct and expressive, and the mech suits are kinda nifty despite being rendered in that low-frame CG that never looks good in anything. But the annoying forced excitement that accompanies every hectic new cast introduction, bad joke, and convoluted (and ultimately irrelevant) plot point is somehow equal parts excruciating and boring to sit through. This is supposed to be an action dramedy with a motley crew of lovable scamps, but it just feels like a pile of derivative sci-fi ideas that got drooled out all over the floor and spread around with a dried-out mop by someone who has no idea how to tell a story. You can follow it if you tilt your head sideways and try really hard, but it's so hard to care enough about the show's painfully tryhard cast to put in the effort. What a waste.
This show is a mess, both visually and thematically. It's a mash-up of both “rookie cop” and “misfit department” meets sci-fi mecha crime-fighting. Most of the episode though is about grinding down the overly confident, teenage Asami Kazari so she understands that all her ideas are bad. I don't really blame the members of her new unit since she waltzes in like she runs the place and seems like she'd be horrible to work with anyway. Actually, that's a statement that could be applicable to most the characters since they're all kind of jerks in their own right.
Takeru is the smarmy “ace” who pickpockets Asami's notebook early on to remind her that she's incompetent. Sōichirō is Takeru's rival who is neurotic about trash-sorting. The operator Haruka shoots down all of Asami's suggestions or orders with a phony smile on her face. Even the weird ankle-touching maintenance guy seems to have enough clout to tell her that she's wrong.
There's some attempts to insert politicking into the choices the unit has to make while on a job but it's pretty halfhearted. There's dialogue about protecting an anime studio so they can make a deadline because they previously created a commercial for a senator's campaign. At one point the chief is able to get approval to attack the perpetrators in the area because he threatens to shut down some politician's club. You can tell this was an attempt to add a sense of realism to show, and it very well could have worked. There are plenty of ways to have political interests affect other government agencies and hinder their jobs that are less ridiculous.
The shows last possible selling point would be its tokusatsu-style mobile suit fights. This didn't grab me either. There's a sharp focus on wackiness over well-choreographed fight sequences and with the constant cutaways to the characters arguing about what to do in their police train-car, I was quickly bored. Instead of exciting action sequences, the two criminals' ugly orange Willware mechs hop on a biplane (how much do these armors weigh, anyway?) only to be taken down when Takeru throws Sōichirō at them.
The physical humor isn't very funny and neither is the awkwardly placed manservice. I'm holding out hope that this season's other sci-fi and fantasy choices will might scratch the action itch that Active Raid failed to hit.
So here we've got a pretty classic “heroes defend justice in supersuits” show, with a couple of nice variables setting it apart. First, the director for this one is Goro Taniguchi - he's best-known for directing Code Geass and Planetes, but this time last year he was starting the excellent Maria the Virgin Witch. Between that and the series composer behind Spice and Wolf (and Spice and Wolf's lesser but still noteworthy cousin Maoyuu Maou Yuusha), there's clearly a decent team behind this one. On top of that, the premise of this one is a bit different than usual. Instead of the main characters being vigilante heroes, or gritty cops in some future cyber-dystopia, they're basically just workaday police officers. This first episode came off like just another mundane day at work for these characters, and that actually made it feel more interesting than if it had turned the energy up to eleven immediately.
The actual plot of this episode was a fairly basic “a rookie from HQ is assigned to assess the special team, and a routine assignment is used to introduce her to the premise” template, but there were lots of nice details that made it engaging throughout. A lot of the best elements of this episode were the small hints at the world surrounding Unit 8. It's clear Willwears (the powered suits) and their police parallels are fairly new to this society, so the camera often jumped to spectators clapping at the spectacle of Willwears in combat, or marveling at the police train disengaging from a civilian one. Details like that don't seem like they'd do all that much, but it's often more effective to convey your worldbuilding through incidental moments, thus making the world feel more like a place people actually inhabit than an amusement park ride you're being taken on a tour through.
The nicely understated storytelling also extended to the main characters, and the way they went about capturing this episode's two teen criminals. The characters aren't yet coming across as truly rich people, but there was an easy rapport across the team, and it's clear that proud but inexperienced rookie Kazari Asami has a long character arc ahead of her. I liked how most of the conflict in this episode didn't come from the base difficulty of capturing criminals, but from the many regulations and other factors binding their policework. Regulations about use of force had to be respected, civilians had to be avoided, and even politicians with various property-damage stakes had to be mollified. And these issues weren't framed as reflecting some dark, cynical failure of the system - they're just part of the job, an aspect of policing that's as inevitable as it is inconvenient.
Active Raid's visuals are very solid from top to bottom, with a lack of traditional animation being made up for by the show's surprisingly engaging CG work. The character designs are distinctive, and the show's power-up sequences seem to imply it'll be committed to offering light equal-opportunity fanservice throughout. This first episode didn't truly wow me, but it was a polished production that I enjoyed it from start to finish. There's both talent and potential here, which is a very good place to start.
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