The Winter 2016 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
What is this?
Ever since Kazuki Azuma and his twin sister fell to earth, their lives have been nothing but trouble. As children, they led a peaceful life in a cloudtop forest with their parents, who told them to beware of the slumbering Buranki, giant golems of immeasurable power who have a bad habit of sleepwalking. One day, Kazuki's sister took things too far by trying to awaken Oubu, an incredibly powerful Buranki their mother once controlled, in a desperate attempt to save her from a debilitating illness. Ten years later, the siblings have been forced to the post-apocalyptic surface ruled by the enterprising and devilish Reoko Banryuu, who has declared their mother a witch after her Buranki was responsible for untold casualties. Still, a group of ragtag rebels fights back against her cruel reign (and stylish henchmen) with small pieces of Buranki, known as Bubuki, that can take the form of various wacky weapons. All Kazuki wants is to find Oubu and use its powers to reunite with his mother, but the warring factions around him have other wicked schemes in mind. BBK/BRNK is an original anime work and can be found streaming on Crunchyroll, Saturdays at 10:30 AM EST.
How was the first episode?
Sanzigen's anniversary series project is another entry in the populated world of magically powered teens. These kids occupy a possibly dystopian world of organic mecha and semi-sentient weapons that the studio behind Knights of Sidonia has brought to life in underdeveloped CG. The biggest hurdle to enjoying what is otherwise a serviceable opening episode is looking past the stilted movement, mismatched lip flaps, and scenes where the characters are downright ugly. The technology simply hasn't reached the level necessary to let characters' faces emote well or allow their bodies to interact with one another in a way that has a semblance of weight. The smooth, noodle-like limbs of Azuna's mom wrap limply around her children. His father's gait after returning from a fishing trip bends so slowly that it's unnatural. Towards the end of the episode, we're introduced to some sort of Bubuki special council that doesn't do much more than stand in a straight line, but they still manage to look disfigured.
When I say the technology hasn't reached the level necessary for this, I want to add an addendum that this seems limited to what's coming out of anime studios right now. Obviously there's serviceable, and in some cases downright amazing, CG animated sequences in Japanese video games, Hollywood films, and even some American cartoons. I cannot explain why cel-shaded anime CG is so bad given that other industries aren't having the same problem. Whether the cause is simply the talent pool or the software used, you'd think that until Sanzigen could create something that meets the standards set by its peers, it would stick to using CG as animation shortcuts, not as the highlight that carries an entire story.
There are times during BBK/BRNK's overstuffed premiere where the animation is better and the talented staff shine, so long as you know where to look for it. During action scenes, it's almost like a whole other crew stepped in and sped things up, threw in some technical flair, and remembered that this action show is supposed to be fun. The animators charged with monster design managed to put together some unique-looking Bubuki, including the pastel-coated Asabuki's giant hand. First and foremost though, the series' 2D background art is gorgeous. The episode goes from idyllic forests to gritty Shinjuku with plenty of fine detail hidden back behind the unfortunate-looking characters.
BBK/BRNK is bursting at the seams with plot, given the amount of exposition it stuffs into its opener. We've got witches, floating islands, earthy robots, the weapons, some kind of mysterious council that hates the protagonist, a 10 year time skip, and enough time to let Asabuki yell at a guy in a trilby that he killed her dad. This would be too much even if the show's characters were gloriously rendered. The audience's best hope is that this episode can be seen as an opportunity to get the heavy-lifting out of the way and hone the technicalities of the animation. Otherwise, it'll take some resolve to look past both the writing and the CG to enjoy the story lying underneath.
The raw mechanics of producing anime can be a pretty frustrating thing sometimes. Back in the early 00s, technology shifts prompted the move to digipaint from traditional cells, and early adopters of the new system suffered heavily for it. Shows like Haibane Renmei had fundamentally gorgeous art design, but looked smudged and indistinct due to the new technology. Right now, anime is going through a bit of a similar shift, as CG character work becomes more prevalent in TV anime. Normally, CG effects are limited to robots or other mechanical devices, things that don't necessarily need to possess personality - but some brave studios are transitioning to wholly CG characters, and the fact of the matter is, the tech isn't there yet.
CG characters look worse than traditional ones, and the jury's still out on whether they'll ever be able to offer a reasonable compliment to the personality and beauty of 2D animation. This results in some unfortunate aesthetic casualties, like Arpeggio of Blue Steel and Knights of Sidonia. BBK/BRNK offers an inspired new stab at the problem, but the problem still exists, and actually makes this show a somewhat frustrating watch.
The problem with BBK/BRNK is, it's actually a really solid show. Its first episode establishes a world with some legitimately compelling fantasy variables, like Shadow of the Colossus-esque sleeping golems and a floating island trapped in the sky. It moves quickly through setup, and establishes a reasonably clear conflict with a few mysteries even while dedicating the whole first half of the episode to a tonally unique prologue sequence. Its battles seem based in conflicts that will actually progress, and not just monster-of-the-week nonsense. It has well-constructed action sequences, strong hooks, and robust underlying questions. It does basically everything you want a fantasy-action premiere to do.
On top of that, outside of the ugly CG characters, BBK/BRNK's aesthetics are actually fantastic. The show has gorgeous painted 2D backgrounds, which unfortunately often clash with the CG characters to the point where it looks like videogame characters are walking across a flat background. The art design is strong (outside of a few particularly ridiculous costumes), and the shot composition is excellent. The lovely backgrounds are put to great work in shots that consistently create either a sense of space or tension, conveying information visually or just provoking a strong sense of “cool.” In every way outside of those CG characters, BBK/BRNK looks to be a very compelling show.
But jeez, those characters. We're not there yet, and it hurts - the character models are off-putting and gamey, and their motions feel like simulations of personality and emotion more than the genuine article. I'll probably keep watching this show, because everything outside of those character models is strong, but they are a heavy cross to bear. And I'm giving this one a split score as well, because I feel your enjoyment will definitely be impacted by how badly those models affect your experience. Whether we like it or not, the future is coming - but the future is clearly not quite here yet.
Rating: 3 (if you can tolerate how icky it looks)
Gee thanks, SANZIGEN Animation Studio. We could have had something here. This had the potential to be the most exciting fantasy anime of the season (and trust me, you didn't have much competition). But then somewhere, sometime, without any warning, somebody around the table said "Why don't we do it in CG?" and we got this hideous bag of shiny plastic doll parts chugging around onscreen instead.
BBK/BRNK ("Bubuki Buranki" when said aloud) is a little too convoluted and outlandish to really turn heads as a general audience adventure, but it has a lot of good ideas under all that unfocused energy. Our heroes have distinct personalities and motivations, their world is unique and well-realized (the backgrounds in this episode are gorgeous), and as a general rule it's better to have more ambition than less in a high-concept romp like this one. The episode begins with strong yet simple emotions and ends on a haunting image with more than enough plot threads to mull over until the next episode. If this was traditionally animated, I'd give it at least a 4/5, possibly more depending on the production work.
But it's not traditionally animated. This is yet another horrible abortive mess of 2-D painted backgrounds with cel-shaded, dead-eyed, play-doh-haired rubber dolls that overact through choppy animation, scene after punishing scene. And once the superpowered weapons start activating, we also get eye-bleeding flashy effects that don't always line up with the other two layers of visuals. Even when the story is promising, the direction is dynamic, the pacing is solid, and the characters are sympathetic, I can't take any of it seriously because the uncanny valley has already swallowed the entire production.
Japan. I'm begging you. Stop making shows that look like this. I'm open to the idea of fully CG-animated anime if it looks good, but this current technique is not compatible with a global audience. Heck, Show By Rock!! was a terrific example of how CG character designs can be animated in that familiar "anime" style without cutting so many frames or using character models that turn every action and emotion into an uncomfortable distraction. Bad cel-shaded CG is really the worst trend afflicting modern anime, putting BBK/BRNK right alongside Knights of Sidonia for me in a box of tragic unwatchability.
There's a stark difference between the two halves of BBK/BRNK's first episode: it begins in a beautiful world where strange mecha-like monsters known as “buranki” roam. The only apparent residents of this sci fi fairy tale appear to be twins Kaoruko and Azuma and their parents, with their mother feeling somehow obliged to take care of the buranki, which she says are “sleeping.” It feels almost Ghibli-like in its strangely beautiful setting and with its charming, independent children. The second half takes place in a rusty Tokyo ten years later. Only Azuma, the male twin, appears to be left and his mother (and whole family by extension, though it isn't clear if Kaoruko and Dad are still alive) are blamed for some unspecified disaster. The scenery is just as well portrayed although distinctly less exquisite – there really couldn't be a bigger difference between Planet Beautiful and Rustokyo. Even if he weren't trying to clear his family's name and find his mother, you really can't blame Azuma for trying to leave.
While I definitely preferred the first half of the episode with its mysterious setting (we do see a tattered space ship as the mother sends her family to Earth, so it seems safe to say it was an artificial environment) and rambunctious child protagonists, there's also something appealing about Azuma's later hassle in Tokyo. It's hard to think that his mother, who clearly cared deeply not just for her family but also about her work, would do something that could cause the implied mass casualties, so even without the conspiracy theory put forth by Azuma's friends it feels like there's something off about the world. I do worry that the plot will devolve into Azuma trying to find the pieces of his mother's buranki, Oubo, which has been skeletonized and hidden away, but there are enough little questions that could be worked with at the same time to make it all right, such as the pressing question of where on earth Kaoruko is. As the stronger and more headstrong of the twins, it doesn't feel right that she would have voluntarily stayed behind while Azuma went to Tokyo, so the remaining options of her being dead or a government captive are looking plausible, if not reassuring. She was shown to be a force of nature at age six, and while it's possible that was beaten out of her by life, I find it more likely that she's being held somewhere. (Or at least that's what I'm hoping...)
The character animation for BBK/BRNK is in celshaded 3D with frames cut to make it resemble the movement of traditional animation, and that really feels like a distraction from the detailed scenery. It looks like every other anime out there with 3D characters – not that great – and even less great in some situations, like when Azuma is being dragged, and his legs look way too weightless. You might be able to get used to this look, but everyone's mileage may vary. This makes it a good call that everyone's hair was made particularly stylized with a lot of sharp peaks and cowlicks, which works much better than long flowing locks would have.
What is this power that Azuma, Kaoruko, and their mother share that allows them to control and manage buranki? Why does it cause fear in other people? How does all of this tie in to Kaoruko being absent ten years later? These are the questions that drive the second half of the episode and make up for the misleading first half, and, more importantly, make me want to watch more to see if and how they'll be answered.
Review: BBK/BRNK is a production of SANZIGEN Animation Studio (in fact, this is their 10th anniversary project), a company which normally specializes in 3DCGI work for a variety of popular anime but has also taken the lead on a handful of projections, most prominently Arpeggio of Blue Steel, and Miss Monochrome. This blows away any of their previous efforts, however, and is in fact one of the best-looking new series of the season – and that despite this season hardly lacking visual quality so far. Especially sharp is the content in the first half, from back when Azuma was still living with his family on the floating island (?) where all of the mecha were. The current-time part on the surface is less dazzling but can still impress mightily, especially in some of the power releases involved; the way this series does explosions is just so much sharper than almost anything else out there. This is the lead directorial debut for Daizen Komatsuda, and visually at least, he couldn't ask for a better audition for future jobs.
Stylistically, the production is a mix of elements borrowed from earlier works and newer innovations, with the former dominating the latter in the second half. I was heavily reminded of Xam'd: Lost Memories in the parts involving the Bubuki and Buranki, and certain elements from the Evangelion franchise also pop up. (The latter should not be surprising, though, since Komatsuda worked on all three.) Various characters in the second half also feel like we have seen them elsewhere; the pink-hair girl especially reminded me of Quon from RahXephon for some reason. The Bubuki and Buranki still have their own distinctive visual flair, though, such as the way their “eyes” can seemingly emerge from just about anything. Good use of the musical score and sound effects also delivers an impressive amount of tension, especially the highlight scene where Azuma descends to the surface with his sister and father.
What holds the first episode back is that the base story so far is largely inscrutable, as a whole bunch of stuff is thrown out there but none of it is actually explained. What was the deal with the floating island, why were the Buranki (i.e., mecha) up there, and why was Azuma's mother so important to keeping them dormant? What happened to Azuma's twin sister, who is inseparable from him in the first part and did descend to the surface with him but does not appear at all in the “ten years later” part? Who is the imperious redhead and why was she being referred to as a “monster”? What kind of feud/rebellion is happening on the ground between the kids and the redhead's forces? At least another episode or two is going to be needed before this starts making sense. A collection of kids wielding special items which allow them to fight the establishment is definitely not a fresh concept, and you also have the classic “youth linked to a special mecha” heritage, too, but that lengthy prologue at least suggests that this story could be a bit more involved.
So while the story may not be all that clear yet (beyond the fact that this will be an actioner), the visuals are still worth a look regardless of your normal anime tastes. That is primarily why I am giving it a mildly positive grade at this point.
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