The Fall 2017 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Black Clover ?
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How was the first episode?
"If you've seen one Shonen Jump anime, you've seen 'em all" isn't a fair statement, but it just might be fair for Black Clover. Its opening minutes introduce orphan babies Asta and Yuno being abandoned at a church together, and the resident priest immediately comments on their diametrically opposed personalities along with the mysterious pendant that came bundled in their bassinets. Flashing forward a few years later, super-genki but totally talentless Asta and super-broody but unnaturally gifted Yuno are rivals in their dream to become the Wizard King, but first they'll have to pass their WIZARD EXAMS and go through a TOURNAMENT ARC while Asta discovers his DARK DESTINY or something like that. None of this content is badly written or poorly executed by any means (unless you're like me and find Jump anime pacing interminable on principle), but it's almost impossible to imagine a more generic Shonen Jump manga premiere than this. It feels like the result of an especially uncreative round of Shonen Jump Mad Libs. I get that this stuff sells because it's working off a time-honored template that just works for a lotta teens, and new hits in this mold don't come along often by their nature as long-running serials, so if you're fresh outta Fairy Tail, aren't really warming to Boruto, and need some more of the same kinda thing to fill your time, Black Clover's got you covered this season. But to me, this felt like the Shonen Jump equivalent of the cereal that comes in a bag rather than a box.
SimulDub Update: The only thing I was hoping for from Funimation's dub was a more listenable protagonist. Asta's Japanese performance is already infamous, so unexpectedly noxious that he's become a real barrier to entry for many viewers. So if Dallas Reid could just be less annoying than that, I'd call that a win. Well, not only is Reid great in the role, a rare hands-down improvement over the Japanese performance not just in timbre but also emotional range (there's honest-to-god subtlety in his two little sad scenes of the episode), but the rest of Black Clover's dub is equally impressive, easily the sturdiest and most confident simuldub premiere I've heard this season. I'm (obviously) not a big fan of this show, but this dub already exudes a level of finesse and breeziness that you might hear from a series on episode 20 rather than 1, with all the well-cast actors turning out surprisingly funny and charming reads that make them seem extremely comfortable in their roles. Most dub performances start out either a little too cartoony or a little too flat before finding the right middle ground to match the tone of their material (if they ever do), but Cris George has directed a premiere that not only hits the perfect blend of theatrics and naturalism for its material, it might even be improving on the experience. I don't know what it is, but all the actors sound incredibly relaxed, like they're having fun with every line from campy bad jokes to rote emotional climaxes. I'm used to early dub efforts—even ones that will eventually become very good—having that tangible tension of "trying too hard" in their delivery, especially when the material is goofy, but Black Clover already sounds effortless. In Japanese, I cringed at the Tower Master's speech and Revchi's villainous ranting (along with everything that came out of Asta's mouth). But in English, all those same scenes seemed breezy and endearing, even if the improved line reads didn't technically make the writing any better. Since they've hyped it up more than their other SimulDubs this season, Funimation seems to be well aware of this hit manga's built-in audience and taken extra-special care with this dub's execution. I'm happy to say it's a stellar job all around, and I'm glad that fans of this series are getting an English version that both respects and even elevates its material.
If director Tatsuya Yoshihara (Monster Musume), his studio Pierrot crew, and seiyuu Gakuto Kajiwara (in his first named role) were attempting to depict one of the most obnoxious shonen action heroes ever, they succeeded. Of course, the original manga-ka Yuki Tabata shares some of the blame too, but someone in the adaptive process should have realized that you don't need to have a character literally shout most of his lines to convince us that he's got spunk and no tact. Yes, we can understand perfectly from the characterization that he's got boundless energy and an unrelenting will, so all of the shouting is just beating the viewer over the head with a sledgehammer to emphasize the point. Even a novice anime viewer would quickly pick up on what kind of character Asta is without all the yelling.
Despite that, I can't totally hate Asta or the scenario that's being set up here. Shonen action stories are replete with leads who are outsiders or downtrodden to one degree or another, and until the end of the episode, Asta is one of the most extreme cases of this. Like Rygart Arrow from Broken Blade, he is the ultimate outsider in a world where magic is everywhere: a person who can't seem to use magic, though he doesn't let his shortcomings stop him from pursuing his probably-impossible dream. That makes him sympathetic despite all the shouting, to the point that you actually have to feel for the guy when the baddie is lambasting him over his hopelessness. I was actually heartened when his standoffish "brother" still declared him to be his rival at the end, triggering his dramatic turnaround and the revelation of his actual power.
So yeah, I bought into the whole generic “discover my true extraordinary power” bit – at least enough to come away thinking this series might have some potential. Asta's still going to be irritating if he doesn't get toned down at least a little, and there are other aspects of this episode that I'm not too keen on (the villain is ridiculously overdone), but this premiere fulfills the necessary requirements for getting a rousing shonen action story going and shows at least some heart in the process. Besides, I've always been partial to shonen series that have a complementary duo at the center rather than a main character and companions, and it looks like this series is in that vein. The technical merits, while not stellar, aren't bad either, so this one is worth a look.
Black Clover feels like a cheap Naruto parody that forgot to include any actual jokes. I'd seen the quips floating around the internet calling it “Wizard Naruto”, but I wasn't expecting that to yield such a lazy production. Black Clover's first episode isn't just shameless in the amount it cribs from Every Successful Shonen Jump Series Ever, but it's also aggressively un-entertaining. Beyond just desperately cribbing from every cliché under the sun, this show manages to be worse than every show it's copying.
Take our protagonist Asta, for example. He's the orphaned black sheep of a small village, in a world where “magic is everything”. On the day of the ceremony where everyone is assigned their magic-enhancing Grimoire, poor Asta is ashamed to find that his lack of magical ability has left him without a tome to call his own. That is, of course, until his demonic inner power manifests into a Five Leaf Clovered Grimoire, which seems to boast a dangerous amount of power. Presumably, Asta will manage his devilish abilities to become the Wizard King. Also, he is filled with determination, and he sports a trendy headband. The problem with this isn't just that it's unabashedly unoriginal; Asta is perhaps the most grating shonen protagonist I've ever encountered. Nearly every single line he gets is delivered in an unbearable yawp, and this is the only character trait he displays over the course of the entire episode. I was ready to drop Black Clover about two minutes in, solely because of its insufferable lead. By the end of the episode, I was almost inconsolable.
Add in such standout characters as “the brooding rival figure”, “the kooky village elder”, and “the maniacal, disfigured villain”, and not a single member of this cast has anything interesting to contribute to Black Clover's cookie-cutter setup. The production values don't do the show any favors either, with the relatively fluid animation being hindered by a drab, muddy color palette and bland character designs. While I've heard that the show's characters and plot do find a voice of their own after the first couple arcs, that doesn't make this first episode any less awful. If you're a diehard shonen fan, you might be able to grin and bear it until the show (possibly) picks up. Otherwise, Black Clover is one to avoid.
Allow me to say right off the bat that I know that both Asta as a character and the story as a whole get much better. As of volume eight, I'm enjoying Black Clover's source manga. However, none of that changes the fact that Asta is intensely annoying in this first episode, while the story doesn't do much to distinguish itself, relying on a lot of shounen staples that we've seen done before and better.
Along with the interesting and relatively unique use of grimoires (and don't I want to get my hands on that library!), the most intriguing piece of the story we're given thus far is the relationship between Asta and Yuno. Both fit comfortably within the parameters of basic character types – Asta is loud, enthusiastic, dumb enough to propose to a nun, and has what appears to be zero chance of success in life. Yuno is cool, collected, and quiet, treating his ostensible friend as if he were something unpleasant he stepped in. We're told that they were close previously, but basically nothing supports this now. Is Asta's total lack of magic somehow related to the night the priest who runs their orphanage alludes to? Did the incredibly powerful Yuno somehow take Asta's missing magic? How is that related to the clearly demonic grimoire Asta gains at the end of the episode?
Those are the answers that seem worth pursuing at this point. Unfortunately, the journey there requires us to listen to Asta SPEAK EVERY LINE IN A YELL and watch Yuno be an asshole to someone who clearly thinks of him as his best friend. While the Yuno/Asta relationship dynamic is familiar, it's not pleasant, and Asta's gurgling yell every single time he opens his mouth is a major deterrent. The major saving grace is that this does look very nice – smooth, sharp, and even the background characters all have distinct looks. Each grimoire is also separately designed, giving the impression that this show got a lot of careful attention. This may be enough, particularly for those who know what's coming, to make it worth muting the show every time Asta opens his mouth until the plot picks up. For my part, however, I feel like this is a series better read than watched. I'll be sticking to the manga.
As so often happens during preview week, I had the Smiths' “Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before” running through my head all during Black Clover's first episode. From its underdog orphan lead to its power-centric universe and quest to become the “Wizard King,” basically every beat of this first episode is a textbook shounen prologue. Many of the beats here seem pulled directly from Naruto, with a sprinkling of My Hero Academia (“I'm the only one with no power… oh wait, now I have the best power”) and various other recent hits. If you are tired of the Shonen Jump formula, you won't find much to enjoy in this first episode.
That said, as far as predictable genre exercises go, Black Clover certainly puts on a fine show. This episode's art design, animation, and direction were all bulletproof, making it very easy to enjoy Asta's world. The giant skull monument in the background of Asta's village was a particular highlight, as were the lively bits of character animation used for both playful arguments and actual battles. There's dynamic camera work and strong effects animation, and when it's finally revealed that Asta has the only five leaf clover grimoire in a land where four leaf clover grimoires are already a huge deal (don't expect much from the writing), the show sells that revelation with all the visual bombast it can muster. Black Clover is exceedingly easy on the eyes.
Still, it'll take more than that to hold my interest forever. Unlike My Hero Academia, Black Clover lacks a unique hook or strong characters that might set it apart in a crowded genre. Asta himself is pretty abrasive, and his constant shouting felt draining even just a few minutes in. His orphan rival Yuno is basically just Sasuke, and no other members of the cast have risen above simple archetypes. Perhaps more importantly, Asta's world doesn't feel real—it feels like a shallowly imagined template for “shounen battle story where magic is the weapon everybody uses.” I liked the final segment's implication that everyone has their own magical specialty, and the premiere's aesthetic strengths are a tremendous mark in its favor, but this story will have to shape up if it wants to keep me watching.
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