The Winter 2016 Anime Preview Guide
Prince of Stride: Alternative
How would you rate episode 1 of
Prince of Stride: Alternative ?
What is this?
It's Nana Sakurai's first day at Honan Academy, which brings her one step closer to her dream of managing the school's famous Stride team. What's Stride? It's an exciting new sport combining the teamwork of a relay with the intensity of parkour, as five running boys tear down an all-terrain course at top speed, passing the race baton to other team members without slowing down, through perfectly timed bluetooth communications from the team's "Relationer." Nana hopes to fill that role for Honan's vaunted Stride team, but it seems to have deteriorated in recent years. The forsaken club has only three members now, but with the addition of the thigh-muscle-obsessed nerd Takeru and the reluctant but insanely talented Riku, maybe the team can regain its former glory at last! Prince of Stride: Alternative is based on an otome game and can be found streaming on Funimation, Tuesdays at 11:00 AM EST.
How was the first episode?
Review: Left to their own devices, little kids will often make their own silly little games, ones which have “rules” whose logic only really makes sense to others of about their own age. That was the inescapable impression I was left with as I watched the episode's feature action piece: the Stride “duel” at the end of the episode. And I do not mean that to be a favorable comparison, either.
By all appearances, Stride seems to be merely the latest in a long line of attempts by Japanese media to invent new sports so that a fresher version of a sports game/manga/anime can be written around it. The result is essentially extreme running. That is far less outlandish than some other bizarre endeavors we've seen over the years because at least it does not use magic or tech beyond the modern day (Basquash!, anyone?), but the first episode of Prince of Stride stumbles badly by not explaining how it actually works. Even a clumsy info dump about the sport would have been preferable to not even laying out the basics of a sport prominent enough in this world that it has a governing body, and the alleged cool factor of the race is not enough to compensate. What is the actual job of a “Relationer,” for instance, and why is it so unusual for a girl to be one? Female lead Sakurai did not seem to actually do anything once she got that role even though it was pitched as being an important one.
Up until that point the episode was pretty much a succession of character introductions and gags, with most of the latter centered on Riku going around and trying out different sports, in the process impressing everyone with his speed if not necessarily his skill. These scenes can be mildly funny, as can Takeru's stalkerish obsession with evaluating people's legs for their running merits. Sakurai is also just chipper enough to be likable without being over-the-top. Otherwise, though, the series utterly fails to impress. The artistry at least does not wallow in common shojo, but the odd coloring scheme creates effects which can wash out some scenes and oversaturate others. It is not an appealing look.
The series is directed by Atsuko Ishizuka, who did such a wonderful job with 2014's Hanayamata, but that isn't enough in this case. Part of the problem could be that I am well outside of the target audience – this is, after all, based on an otome game – but just about everything the series does discourages me from watching more rather than encouraging me.
As soon as I saw Prince of Stride, I started comparing it to Free! You'll have to forgive me for going off on a little tangent here, but this bothered me at first, and I feel obligated to explain why.
We're definitely living in a post-Free! anime world. In the past, there were any number of reverse harem, shojo manga, or otome game properties fans might pluck out of a hat to compare the newest manservice offering to from Saiyuki to Ouran High School Host Club, but now every anime with a sexy all-male cast (save one self-insert girl or two) gets inevitably compared to Free!
To some extent, this is fair. Free! continues to make more money than God for a studio already well-accustomed to pulling profit (Kyoto Animation), so it's more fair to assume that anime produced in its wake were created with its success in mind than, say, a less successful show that happens to be similar in premise or style. This principle also explains why people are more likely to compare dark magical girl shows to Madoka above all else, even if Madoka wasn't the first, and even if it cribbed ideas from Precure or Bokurano by either accident or design. To the fan or critic making the observation, that trivia doesn't matter. The point is that Madoka had by far the most success with the concept, so shows that follow in the same style almost certainly have its impact in mind.
On the other hand, comparing everything to Free! can also just be a telltale trick of elitist discourse meant to diminish media made for a female audience. If all anime for women is "just like Free!", then it's also meant to be seen as all the same derivative garbage to be easily dismissed if you're not part of its "fringe" audience. (Yes, 50% or more is apparently a fringe.) Haikyu! isn't Free!, Kuroko's Basketball isn't Free!, and Dance with Devils is not Free!, but I inevitably see someone making those comparisons every season, because if it's all "girl stuff," it can all be dismissed if you aren't a girl. (Girls do not have this attitude toward "boy stuff" because they get told that "boy stuff" is the default, but that's a separate topic.) Most of the time, each show deserves to be analyzed on its own merits, so tossing everything with a snort into the "manservice" bin is a crappy trend that thankfully seems to disappear more and more every year. Just not fast enough for my liking.
So it might not be fair most of the time. But this time? I have to make an exception.
Prince of Stride: Alternative is really the poor man's Free!, from the tone to the cast to the pacing to the just dang everything, this is the Big Lots bargain bin version of KyoAni's infamous swimming anime. Art style is always a matter of taste, but I hated the way this show looked right off the bat. This director previously worked on No Game No Life, and I thought that show was ugly too, but Prince of Stride falls more on the "too flat and washed out" side than "too gaudy and saturated" like much of her previous work. On a less subjective level, the animation is definitely embarrassing by Madhouse's current standards. The race itself looks alright, but keep in mind that this is the first episode, when the show's supposed to look its best. If this is Prince of Stride at its best, the flat jerky motion and off-model closeups here remind me more of the fourth episode of a Studio Pierrot series. The paint-by-numbers story and tepid humor don't elevate the presentation either; it all just seems like a palette swap of something that should be more fun.
If you're hunkering for a version of Free! that trades the swimming in for parkour, but has all the flavor and excitement of Meganebu! instead, this will be right up your alley. I just found it incredibly lame. Women are getting much better anime made just for them these days, so this weak sauce just left me shrugging.
Atsuko Ishizuka is one of those directors that I'm well aware of, but who has yet to really hit their mark for me. What seems to define her shows more than anything is their use of color; The Pet Girl of Sakurasou was full of rich colors, and more recently, both No Game No Life and Hanayamata have been so rainbow-colored that it often becomes off-putting. No Game No Life in particular was basically a candy-colored nightmare, and when you combine that with the fact that the base material she's working with basically never appeals to me, it's understandable that I haven't given her much of a chance.
Prince of Stride seems to pull back from the visual excesses of No Game No Life, though it's still a very brightly colored production. The story here seems like a pretty classic “cute boys do sports things” template, similar to something like Free!, where the sport in question is parkour. This first episode introduces the team and faffs around with some hit-or-miss comedy, and most of the episode is pretty boilerplate genre setup. There's a genki boy who doesn't recognize his own talents, a glasses-pushing one who seems almost frighteningly dedicated to restoring the team, and the classic female viewpoint character assigned to the classic team manager role. It's only in the episode's last few minutes that it comes alive, when the Stride club's potential new members face off against its regulars in a race through the school. Prince of Stride lacks the animation or overall visual design to make this sequence truly spectacular, but it's still engaging - both the direction and sound design make the race seem nicely impactful, and the contest is paced very well.
There's really nothing about Prince of Stride's writing that yet distinguishes it from anything else in its genre, but as far as cute competitive boy repositories go, this first episode moves fairly well and demonstrates some actual commitment to making its competitions viscerally exciting. The writing is definitely the weak link so far - not only is the show pretty much dead on target as far as jumping genre hoops goes, but there are also plenty of individually awkward lines about destiny and the beauty of parkour and all that jazz. But the aesthetics are on the whole reasonably fine - the music is a diverse mix of techno tracks, Ishizuka's animated direction and oddly saturation-heavy color preferences help it stand out visually (even though the character designs aren't particularly great), and the overall lack of animation is somewhat compensated the collective effect of the other aesthetic variables. It's not for me, but it's a perfectly competent genre piece.
Prince of Stride Alternative was one of my few hotly anticipated shows this season. Madhouse is usually a safe bet for animation quality and I was looking forward to adding extreme footrace boys to my sports anime queue, right under volleyball boys and swimming boys. By all accounts, that's the slot Prince of Stride was aiming to fill. Whereas Production I.G's Haikyu! perfects that blend of slapstick comedy and intense action sequences and Free! masters seamless animation and attractive character designs, Prince of Stride Alternative is an over-processed imitation.
The first half the episode suffers from a split narrative where, after initially assuming the story would be seen through the eyes of our Plain Jane protagonist Nana, it diverges to swapping back and forth between her and failed comedic bits starring the exuberant Riku as he tries out different sports clubs. The flat jokes are the first part of what really hurt this show's appeal. There's an attempt to set up a rivalry of sorts between Riku and the weird Haruka knock-off, Takeru, but it's apparently based on the latter staring a lot.
This kind of weak writing rears its head repeatedly. Since the Stride part of the club is technically inactive, the writers decide that the members are still totally good at it because the club president Heath has continued training them. Even though he thinks there's no point in practicing since they can't compete? This is the writers' shortcut of forgoing any kind of “training” episodes even though it makes little to no sense. Throw in more “this is funny because everyone's overreacting” slapstick in the clubroom before we finally get to what the show is supposed to be about: parkour-esque footraces.
The two-on-two race is pushed into the tail-end of the episode and was really its last chance to shine. The the show needed to pull out some impressive animation feats here to create some tension. The characters might be part of painfully bad comedy routines, but if we can get them flipping over fences and running up walls, there would be something to stick around for.
This episode doesn't do that. It almost does. I felt my heart beating a little bit faster, but the race sequence quickly utilizes a lot of fast scene cuts to avoid any extended shots of actual action. There's some fast moving arms, a couple of flips, and that's about it. Takeru mostly does a flat run the whole time while is opponent Hozumi is supposed to be the “tricky” one. He gets a few extra flips in. The second half of the race with Riku and Heath is cut entirely, which only makes me think the staff should have pushed the race into the second episode and really delivered something.
The episode's color palette, like its soundtrack, manages to be both over-processed and bland. Everything is very washed out and the overall effect is unattractive for a show whose predominately male cast is supposed to pull in viewers. There's also a few, albeit brief, CG-animated scenes during the end-episode race that will immediately stick out for how ugly they are.
Prince of Stride Alternative was obviously hoping to cash-in on sports fujoshi. While I can't help but appreciate the attempt to create something for female viewers, a production committee's cashgrab attempts have to look and have writing a lot better than this to earn those fujoshi dollars.
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