The Winter 2016 Anime Preview Guide
AOKANA: Four Rhythm Across the Blue
How would you rate episode 1 of
AOKANA: Four Rhythm Across the Blue ?
What is this?
In the far-flung future, in the middle of a four-island archipelago somewhere south of Japan, the fantasy of flight has become an everyday occurrence. Asuka Kurashina may be a clumsy ditz, but she's always dreamed of flying through the skies, so she can't wait to move to Kuna Island and start using her new Grav-Shoes, even if her inexperience sends her crash-landing down on her bottom over and over again. It isn't long before her hyperactive antics land her in trouble with one of the island's biggest bullies, and she gets challenged to a duel of aerial acrobatics in the archipelago's hottest sport, Flying Circus. She's got a lot of work to do, but with the help of her new friends, Asuka might just be able to find her wings and learn to soar like a flying fish! AOKANA: Four Rhythm Across the Blue is based on a visual novel and can be found streaming on Crunchyroll, Mondays at 3:35 PM EST.
How was the first episode?
Wow, Gonzo has really fallen from grace over the years, huh? Just look at those ugly CG seagulls, all that choppy animation, the cheap soundtrack, not to mention this dated cutesy premise and characters. I mean, who likes the baby-talking bubblebrain type anymore, right? When was this written, the '90s? I guess the "girl with meowing speech affectation" thing never really went away, but boy does it not help this bland pile of sugar get any more watchable, am I right?
Okay, I can't hide it. I liked this show. I thought it was cute. Its simple take on the story of nice kids learning a sport that revolves around flying sneakers on a tropical island just made me happy. AOKANA belongs to a class of anime I don't see pop up much anymore, which is "cuteness and optimism for its own sake" that doesn't revolve around the plotless shenanigans of marketable girls. Of course, AOKANA is aiming to promote the visual novel it's based on. Still, the tone is different from most modern moe-iyashikei type shows. The characters all have distinct ambitions and personalities from one another, the story revolves around a plot-based goal Asuka has set her heart on, and weirdly enough, I thought she was pretty cute for a dated stereotype. The show also has that obvious "one guy and a harem" dynamic going on, but the guy is given equal screen presence to all the girls, making it feel less like a pandering commercial, though no less lightweight. I don't know, I just found it all very charming! The sheer number of more blatantly cruddy shows this season may have fried my brain.
I'd recommend trying out AOKANA for your "cute sexy fluff" needs this season, provided you're down with a sort of lame production running on low ambitions from a studio that's now just a ghost of its former self. Still, it doesn't follow the noxious formula of its myriad card-game, light-novel, or video-game driven brethren this season, and while it might be a completely hype-free watch, it's also a surprisingly shame-free watch as well. It's the kind of weirdly sincere escapism I can get behind, so I'll turn in my critic's badge on this one and admit that this little pointless excursion into Gonzo's bargain bin gave me warm fuzzy feelings. Maybe it'll do the same for you.
I have to say, I really like the idea behind this show. Normally, a power as “ordinary” as flight is basically just the first assumption of a show where all sorts of magical innovations exist, and not something that by itself is particularly noteworthy. But Aokana seems to be a bit more conservative in its storytelling, and so the whole show is constructed around conveying the inherent miraculousness of being able to fly. From the opening scenes of (mediocre CG) seagulls in flight to the slow build towards the protagonist actually expressing some competency in her flying shoes, this episode treats what would often be an overlooked piece of magic with a nice, specific focus.
Unfortunately, the show doesn't really have the aesthetic chops to back that up. A show about the wonder of flight needs to be able to make flying appear wonderful, and outside of the fact that this episode prioritizes that in a narrative sense, the visuals and music aren't really strong enough to sell that sense of freedom. Scenes of flight are generally just conveyed through still characters floating in open space, and the flying competition introduced at the end isn't particularly interesting.
The backgrounds are relatively nice, though, and the show smartly downplays the CG it's forced to employ for action sequences by confining its use to either quick cuts or distance shots. The characters largely fit into pretty obvious archetypes so far, but protagonist Asuka actually has some nice visual personality, expressed not through careful character animation, but mostly through a bunch of silly faces. Probably the most enjoyable scenes of this episode were the ones where Asuka just kept failing at flying in a variety of ways, flailing her arms and attempting to brace her legs on air and basically dog-paddling across the sky. Her boundless enthusiasm can get a little grating (basically every character in this episode felt like they were trying too hard to establish their type, from the catgirl fellow student to the cackling ojousama girl from a rival school), but the contrast between her energy and her total inability to do anything but spin in circles waving her arms in air is pretty endearing.
Overall, this first episode presented a reasonably unique base premise, but didn't really offer enough hooks to compel further viewing. The characters feel a little too ready-made to inspire interest on their own, and though the idea of flight as the end goal is fairly interesting, this episode didn't really do much with that, either. An interesting premise by itself puts Aokana above a fair number of shows, but without strong visual execution or other ideas, it's still not a great premiere.
It is rarely a good sign when your mind begins to wander partway through a show. I'm not sure at what point I realized that I was trying to remember the name of a TV show I watched as a small child that also involved the term “flying circus,” but even before that point I found myself distinctly unimpressed. Aokana wears its tropes on its sleeve, not reveling in them enough to make it self-aware, but rather soaking the story in them, making it feel largely unimaginative. From the “adorably” clumsy and naïve heroine to the clingy pseudo-lesbian to the meowing girl to the token guy, none of the main characters stand out, and even the base concept – a sport based on the fact that a specific anti-gravity technology is in use on a small chain of islands – doesn't quite sell itself.
Granted, this last is the part that is most likely to take off as the story goes on. In fact, it almost feels as if the better plan here would have been to flash back to how the characters, more specifically Kurashina, became interested in Flying Circus after establishing that this is a fictional sport we want to watch a show about. Right now it's more interesting (and mystifying) that a school would authorize flying shoes as a method of transportation while still requiring girls to wear short skirts. (You'll notice that the ojou-sama character, who plays Flying Circus competitively, wears leggings.) The fact that the technology would be confined to this island also stretches the boundaries of belief, although given Kurashina's behavior thus far, it seems plausible that she might have somehow missed it wherever she used to live.
The art and animation are basically salt in the wound. Designs are uninspired (although the girls' uniforms have some nice details) and very generic and the animation largely feels lacking. There are a few good moments in the competition, but otherwise even the flying scenes are lacking in excitement, which feels like it could become a major problem. For those looking for fanservice (which, given the whole skirt and flying issue, could be reasonably expected) there really isn't any, apart from a totally gratuitous scene of Hinata walking into his room to find that his new female neighbor has inexplicably decided that changing clothes in front of a window without curtains is the way to go. To be honest, the lack of fanservice feels a bit awkward, as it requires us to believe that the skirts are made of lead or something similar.
Aokana may very well turn into a very interesting sports show about what looks kind of like flying tag. Right now it's a highly generic piece that fails to impress. Unless episode two is a whole lot better, this looks like something that can be written off with very few qualms.
Review: Even if I didn't know up front that Aokana was based on an adult visual novel, I would have figured that out within the first 3-4 minutes. The style of most of the first episode's content is just that obvious: the silly, carefully delineated characterizations, the witless banter, the carefully calculated character designs – it's everything that all those ero game adaptations so prevalent during the mid-to-late 2000s were characterized by. If you never liked those then this series looks like it has only one thing to offer so far which might entice you to check out this one: the flight component. Because any series is better when it depicts characters experiencing the joy of flight, and I actually don't mean that sarcastically.
That being said, the logic behind the flight component is rather goofy. Grav Shoes which operate on a “mystery molecule,” have safety features built in that keep you from crashing, and only work in certain areas like the (apparently fictional) island chain where the story takes place? Uh huh; just give up, call it magic, and be done with it. The idea of having certain take-off and landing points in areas with buildings is a great one, as is any newcomer to the technology having to be trained by a certified instructor, but no reason is present about why only students seem to be using this. Further, it strikes me that this kind of flying is not something that girls should be doing while wearing skirts. One very brief scene does allude to this, but otherwise the episode treats this as a non-issue, and given that this is an ero game adaptation, the utter lack of a fan service angle on this is surprising.
Beyond that, the content is not so much bad as simply uninteresting. It probably goes without saying that Masaya is the game's viewpoint character, and pink-haired Asuka, dark-haired Misaki, and pale-haired Mashiro are three of the four main potential love interests. (The other one, Rika, does not seem to have been introduced yet.) The path chosen seems to be Asuka's, but so far there's little indication that she is going to have a compelling enough story to drive the series. The writing also tries too hard to make its characters quirky, resulting in them as often as not being annoying instead, and the technical merits are wholly unexceptional. Still, it does manage at least a little bit of successful mild humor and is basically harmless, and the creators definitely know what kind of audience they are creating this for. It is just unlikely to have appeal outside of that target audience.
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