The Winter 2016 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
What is this?
A girl with no name or past has been given the new name Koharu by a kindhearted boy. Soon, her entire world will also be reborn. Long ago, revolution and cataclysm shook the earth, eventually spreading humanity's remains across many villages over the seas and mountains. Soon it will be time for everything to change all over again, and preparations must be made. Twelve young souls, nine men and three women, have been chosen a mysterious force known only as The World to wield supernatural powers and board the sky-ship Norn on a voyage to an unknown destination. Life aboard the ship is peaceful and overflowing with beauty, but even as these young chosen ones learn more about their powers and one another during the voyage, Norn's true secret may force them to become enemies by the time their journey ends. Norn9 is based on an otome game and can be found streaming on The Anime Network and Hulu, Thursdays at 8:30 AM EST.
How was the first episode?
Norn9 is about otome game adaptation as they come, featuring a fairly bland female protagonist, a whole lineup of color-coded boys, and an amusingly arbitrary premise. That premise is probably the most unique thing about the show, partially because it's just such a random thing. An initially nameless heroine spends years wandering through a forest, only to be swooped down upon and picked up by a floating ship full of cute boys. That fairly abrupt setup doesn't do all that much to explain itself within this first episode, and the heroine remains bland to the end, but there are still some nice details here and there.
Probably the strongest single element of the show, and easily its best “character” so far, is the flying ship Norn. Shaped like some giant glass sphere, it's full of hanging gardens and tranquil lakes and quaint rows of houses. Norn9's art isn't universally strong (there isn't much animation, and the character designs are pretty bland), but when it comes to the backgrounds and color work, it excels. The early scenes of the nameless protagonist wandering through the forest already possess an evocative beauty, and when the show switches to the Norn, virtually every scene is elevated through lovely pastel backgrounds detailing an engaging mix of vegetation, clockwork, and glass. Understated but generally pleasant music form a fitting backdrop for a show with an overall strong sense of place.
The storytelling is unfortunately not nearly as strong. The nameless protagonist feels pretty much exactly what a nameless protagonist of an otome game often feels like - much like how the standard male light novel protagonist leans towards nerdy hobbies and snarky over-description of their whole world, the default for otome games often seems to be a girl just bland enough to be the classic everygirl. She expresses virtually no initiative beyond her initial quest to get on the ship, and her interactions with other characters stick pretty strictly to empty pleasantries. By the end of this first episode, all we really know about her as a person is her name.
The only other character we see much of in this first episode is Kakeru, a guy who comes off as so aggressive and patronizing in his treatment of the protagonist that he falls more into creepy than romantic. At one point, he describes the heroine as “like a plant. So pure… unlike me” in a way that's presumably supposed to be flattering or romantic, but only really highlights the flatness of both characters and the uneven nature of their relationship. A last-minute attack on the ship promises hints of actual future conflict, but so far everything here seems more like a classic template for eventually bouncing through all the available male characters. Overall, Norn9 comes off as an inoffensive but not particularly engaging reverse harem; it's got a nice peaceful tone and the backgrounds are pretty, but there's not much beyond that to hold onto here.
I don't know how this series managed to pull off looking incredibly cheap and incredibly pretty at the same time, but I can't deny that I'm impressed by Kinema Citrus' endeavor to squeeze lemons into lemonade with naught but their bare hands. Norn9 does a lot with a little when it comes to aesthetic. The studio clearly doesn't have the resources to animate these overdressed character models very well, and said designs aren't much to write home about, resting somewhere between shojo manga and Final Fantasy, but outside of its production conservatism, this is a weirdly beautiful little show.
Honestly, it's downright gorgeous at points, provided you're watching it more with your mind's eye than your actual eyes. Maybe that doesn't make sense. I'll try to explain it. The design of the world-sized skyship Norn is pretty inspired, from its summery bayside bottom layer to the forever-spring garden on the layer closest to the sun. Only one episode into the show, it's created a more complete and mythic little world than most anime series are able to build in their entire runs. Kakeru's plant-themed superpowers aren't elaborately animated by any stretch of the imagination, but the color design is excellent, with soft greens and blues that really make his stereotypical ability seem unique and magical. On that note, the show's cast (while perhaps erring on the side of "too boring and nice") is genial and relaxing to watch too, which I wasn't expecting given the usual moody excesses of reverse harem boy-packs. It's also nice to have a few other girls in the mix, even if they're considerably less friendly than the guys. (Maybe they can sense that they've got fresh romantic competition on board.)
Norn9's whole first episode was just plain pleasant in a manner uncharacteristic for otome game adaptations. which are usually marked by tacky thrills, boisterous or boring love interests with garish emotional problems, and paint-by-numbers settings and events. I feel like I could spend many hours just peacefully looking at the environments and occasional character interactions of Norn9, and it's not even a spectacle-based show! It just has a really peaceful sense of tone and immersion that I wasn't expecting, and if you like iyashikei experiences and don't mind one aimed squarely at a female audience, you might really like the atmosphere this show is shooting for. The unusually outstanding mood music doesn't hurt either. Seriously, the music is way better than a show like this calls for.
Of course, the story is totally rote eye-rolling otome game nonsense that rests somewhere between dull and pandering, which is why I can't really recommend the experience for anyone not already on board with reverse harem romance mush. Norn9 could definitely benefit from the sleaze of some of its more diabolical contemporaries, but maybe its story is more of a slow burn, given the dark little winks of foreshadowing that pop up in this otherwise lullaby-like premiere. This is a pretty humdrum little slice of sugar, but we don't get a lot of those in reverse harem fare, so it could still definitely be worth a peek if you're already within its target audience. More than anything, it just made me want to try out the game instead. Good thing it's available in English right now!
I haven't played a huge amount of otome games or other dating sims, but I have played enough to recognize the bit where the game prompts you to enter a name for your character. That part is just one one of the painfully obvious moments in Norn9's adaptation that speaks to its origins, and its far too blank heroine is probably the single biggest issue in the episode. Even Amnesia did the personality-less heroine better. Of course, that show had the excuse of her actually being an amnesiac (and the game revealed her real personality at the end) where this one quickly tells us that no, Heroine doesn't have amnesia, she's just somehow managed to forget her name over her seventeen years. Even though she lived in a town full of people who somehow ensured that she reached age seventeen, presumably by interacting with her and calling her something.
This is not Norn9's only issue. There are decent components, of course, such as the relatively interesting premise that a space ship is flying around above early to mid 19th century Earth with some nebulous goal in view, collecting talented teenagers. But then the show manages to make them less fascinating by having everyone be issued a school uniform as their only outfit and making them divide into “teams” to do chores, which once again sounds suspiciously school-like. The fact that the mechanics of the game are evident in every character interaction is a definite minus as well, with current male focus Kakeru showing up to usher our heroine around the ship and introduce her to everyone, along with a very staged round-table scene where everyone says their name and some small comment to let us know that this is The Grumpy One and this is The Lady Killer One. Add in some lackluster character designs and scenes that look like slightly animated screencaps from the game and this is kind of underwhelming.
It does work as an introduction, however, albeit not a great one. We don't know everyone's powers yet, there's been an ominous pronouncement, and it isn't clear whether or not the place the heroine came from is really Earth or not. There's also that title, which implies a link with Norse mythology (you may know the Norns as Urd, Belldandy and Skuld), so that bears watching. In short, there's enough to merit a second episode if only to see if it's going to start feeling more like a show and less like watching someone else play a game...but I must admit that right now, I'm not holding my breath.
Review: People often complain about insert characters in visual novel/game adaptations aimed at male otaku, but I don't think you can get more “viewer insert” than a girl who not only has big gaps in her past but also cannot even remember her own name at first. “It's been so long since anyone used it that I forgot it” is a painfully thin excuse for someone who is only supposed to be 17 years old.
That alone would make it clear that this is an otome game adaptation even if you did not know that up front. And like most of her counterparts in other game-adapted series, the pink-haired girl who will eventually remember the name Koharu is mildly pretty but generally nondescript in appearance, with short hair and a polite but unassuming personality. (Really, are there any such heroines who have long hair?) At least in this case she is not the only prominent girl in the cast; two others are already aboard the ship which is the story's setting. Neither of them seems too inclined to tolerate the array of pretty boys already there, though, which should leave few obstructions to the guys all swooning over Koharu.
The structure of the first episode exudes game mechanics so strongly that I could practically visualize the decision points and places where you have to click to advance the text. That kind of mechanical feel is a shame because the ship that all of the youths have been gathered on is really, really cool. A lot of effort went into designing and depicting it, and it shows in the finely-detailed background renditions, which mix classic architectural styles with clockwork gears and a high-tech outer shell. Really, if even you cannot tolerate the first episode otherwise, it is worth watching just to get an eyeful of this. The animation also seems remarkably good for a series of this type, especially in one late scene where Koharu (predictably!) falls and has to be saved by one of the boys. The first episode also earns at least some credit for throwing out numerous potential plot hooks keyed to a collection of greater mysteries: why do these youths have powers? (And what are the powers of everyone else besides Plant Guy?) Who/what is The World and what are its ultimate goals? How are these individuals chosen, and how could they eventually end up becoming enemies? And what's responsible for the (apparently-not-for-the-first-time) explosion at the end?
Honestly, though, by the end of the first episode it was hard to care. Despite the design beauty of the setting, the main character is just too bland, and the relationships which already seem to be budding are just too generic, for this to hold much appeal.
It wouldn't be a stretch to say a reverse harem show's ability to sink or swim is heavily reliant on the appeal of its self-insert female protagonist, followed closely behind by whether her love interests will get maiden viewers' hearts aflutter. Shows of this stripe fall into one or the other with very little middle ground. For every bland star in Amnesia, Brothers Conflict, and Diabolik Lovers there are a few standouts with Dance with Devils, Ouran High School Host Club, and Kamisama no Asobi. Norn9 is splitting its odds by introducing three female protagonists, an approach I've only seen managed with any success in two other shows: Kimikiss: Pure Rouge and Hatsukoi Limited. It has the potential to showcase three different relationships against its sci-fi subplot or suffer from too little screen time for anything to develop naturally.
The show puts its first foot forward with a nameless pink-haired girl who has an unrevealed superpower and previously lived alone before her agreeable “abduction.” She's a rehash of the bland stars mentioned above, but of course draws the immediate attention of her attractive, super-powered spaceship operators. Kakeru immediately takes her under his wing and introduces her to his job on their peace envoy: farming. They exchange some exploratory dialogue about their hidden secrets: pink-haired girl has a tragic past and Kakeru hurt people important to him once upon a time. Much of the character interactions in the show are incredibly unnatural or lack any kind of nuance. Words are said either to reinforce the one-note personalities prescribed to each character (I'm a NEET, I'm an abrasive loner, I'm a stuck-up proper lady, I'm the one with dry humor) or to info dump about the spaceship.
The technicalities of the sci-fi setting are initially distracting, but again it's just basic otome set-up. The self-sustaining bio-ship just harkens back to the show's game roots. The Angelique series had as similar setting with each of the love interests controlling aspects of a civilization that Angelique was trying to foster as a goddess. It's merely a way to create an isolated environment full of hot guys for the protagonist.
I do wish the cast of 10 male characters were a little hotter though. The character designs here are a little bland. That isn't to say they aren't attractively drawn, most of the show is easy on the eyes, but the designs themselves aren't very distinctive. All the characters are a combo of short haircut + different color. They could have ditched the school uniform approach, too.
It sounds like I've torn apart this show, but I feel the need to point out that the worst thing I can attribute to Norn9 is that it's functionally mediocre. This is inoffensive entertainment for fans of the genre first and foremost. It lacks anything that would make me side-eye recommending it like Amnesia. The 10 male cast members might become more compelling after they get their respective focus episodes and hopefully the other two female protagonists, as predictable as their personalities are, will get more screen time over Ms. Milquetoast. The sci-fi plot might even go somewhere if we're lucky.
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