The Fall 2017 Anime Preview Guide EVIL OR LIVE
How would you rate episode 1 of
Evil or Live ?
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How was the first episode?
Did you ever wonder what would happen if someone decided to combine the light novel series Psychome with the manga series BTOOOM and threw in some crappy educational theory for fun? Me neither, but I imagine that the result would look an awful lot like Evil or Live, which gives us the worst of both worlds. This is a first episode that screams “Look at me! I'm confusing exploitation with edginess!” in a voice that would do Asta from Black Clover proud, which is just as annoying as you're imagining.
Academically speaking, theories of internet or video game addition have been floated since at least 1998, however the 2013 DSM-5 only includes internet addiction in its research appendix due to a lack of solid diagnostic criteria. Not only is this reeducation camp based on the idea that addiction can be beaten out of you (and it can't), it's also basically pulling its reason for existence out of its ass, which feels like some sort of cheap scare tactic. That's actually a good way to look at most of this episode – from the too-serious voice-over that starts it off to the cuts of hanged puppets and an inexplicable fashion doll lying on the ground when Hibiki is contemplating suicide, this episode's attempts at being scary are either confusing or laughable.
On the subject of “laughable,” the episode promptly follows up the suicide contemplation scene with some terrible homophobic “humor” and a random lightening of the tone, which just feels out of place, especially since it's followed by creepy purple dude Shin basically offering Hibiki the girl of his choice in the most nefarious way possible, and I'm very concerned that the girls are going to be treated as prizes or sexual objects going forward. The fact that the headmistress is an overly sexy teacher stereotype doesn't help alleviate those worries.
Simply put, this is not a promising premiere. From its premise to its cheesy scare tactics to its lackluster visuals, this is a mess. There are definitely better ways to spend your time this season.
It was bound to happen sooner or later. In a season filled with an uncommonly large amount of funny, entertaining, action-packed, or otherwise well-produced new series, there was bound to be at least one title that had to be awful. The moment I saw the Haoliners logo turn up on screen, I braced myself for the worst, since that company has become notorious for producing some of the worst series in any given season (remember Bloodivores?). It's unfortunate that these Chinese co-productions have such a tendency toward mediocrity, but if you were hoping for EVIL OR LIVE to break the curse and deliver entertainment of middling value, then prepare to be disappointed.
The setup itself is actually promising, in a hokey, too-edgy sort of way. Its take on using educational facilities fashioned after labor camps to combat the ever-growing crisis of internet addiction is the kind of heightened premise that could actually work if handled with the appropriate amount of self-awareness. Plus, the setup feels like it rings true to a uniquely Chinese cultural perspective, while still having a universal appeal; imagine Prison School by way of Takashi Miike.
It's too bad EVIL OR LIVE bungles the execution of that promising setup at nearly every turn. Stylistically, it tries to ape more avant-garde productions like The End of Evangelion and Bakemonogatari, but it lacks the sense of style, direction, or quality control of those properties. I could get behind the use of live-action footage and subliminal text to enhance your mood, but it's so arbitrary and meaningless in the context of this episode that it's more distracting than anything. Instead of working within their limitations to create a style that works for the tone of the story, EVIL OR LIVE opts to slap a hideous series of color filters on top of an omnipresent, amateurish film grain effect, then proceeds to smush it all into an extra-wide aspect ratio to give it a more “cinematic” effect. While I understand the show's desire to spice up its visuals, the end result is positively wretched to look at, and I say this having just watched a show where a man eats his sister's dirty underwear for breakfast.
The plot is also inane, taking itself so seriously that it sucks any potential excitement out of its setup. Hibiki is a hideous little scab of a teenager, and while his fear and terror in the face of the Elite Reeducation Academy's systematic abuse is understandable, it doesn't make him worth rooting for or even finding interesting as an antihero. He's simply a twerp, and watching him frantically panic about his situation and get beaten up for fifteen minutes makes for an excruciatingly boring introduction to a story that should be anything but. Things pick up a bit when we meet Shin, the Machiavellian stick in the cogs of the school's machine, but the stupid jokes and tonal whiplash that come from his meeting with Hibiki simply don't work. I could see the story picking up a little steam once his scheming actually gets going, but this first episode gives its audience absolutely nothing to work with.
Simply put, EVIL OR LIVE is the ugliest show I've seen since Hand Shakers, and not just visually. It's a tired story told without any originality, filled with despicable characters and presented with all the aesthetic appeal of the moldy food you find at the bottom of a garbage can. Avoid this show at all costs.
Looks like it's time for another one of these! Last season gave us our first remotely promising and (kind of) watchable Chinese coproduction with A Centaur's Life, but I wasn't willing to call its extremely humble success a win for these previously terrible enterprises just yet. While I enjoyed A Centaur's Life for its often head-scratching attempts at social commentary and imaginative worldbuilding, the fact of the matter is that it was based on Japanese source material rather than Chinese, which changes the balance of the coproduction relationship significantly, and it got by entirely on that material despite a constantly poor adaptation with bad production values. So one step forward, two steps back, but I still keep hoping we'll see something uniquely Chinese and good come out of these efforts soon.
Enter EVIL OR LIVE, which despite its hilariously awful title, succeeds at being the most promising and watchable manhua adaptation of these yet. We're still not to "actually good" or anything, but we keep on making baby steps upward! It helps that, unlike Bloodivores and hitorinoshita, EVIL OR LIVE keeps its attempt at a horror thriller narrative very simple. It occupies a weird space somewhere between Flowers of Evil and Holes, as a reprehensible little teen shitlord gets shipped off to a reprehensible little teen reeducation camp. But unlike Stanley in Holes, Hibiki isn't likely to find himself through a bond of friendship with his peers that helps him overthrow his authoritarian overlords. Instead, Hibiki slips from misguided deviant to a more damned path by striking a deal with the school's resident androgynous devil Shin, whose almost supernatural power over the school promises Hibiki safety, respect, and even the girl of his dreams in exchange for an unknown price. It's a little too goofy and amateur in execution to actually be scary or thrilling, but its unique hook is just strong enough to leave you wondering who Shin is and how their bargain is going to work. Like King's Game or Juni Taisen, this might be a candidate for a good trash-watch this season.
As an added bonus, since EVIL OR LIVE lacks all that terrible worldbuilding to explain like its predecessors, the episode has room to indulge in lots of unusually ambitious artistic flourishes to support its typically limited animation and drab art design. Instead of cringingly awful car chases or superpowered battles, EVIL OR LIVE just has to animate terse scenes of abuse and addiction, which it does decently enough, interspersed with disturbing live-action images like closeups of eyes, hands, and doll faces. It's still got plenty of problems, but if only thanks to its solid hook, this is the first manhua anime that I'm curious to see more of in a slightly positive way. Shame about that stupid title though.
Well, our streak of terrible Chinese coproductions is certainly coming to a middle. Produced by the now-infamous Haoliners, EVIL OR LIVE's premiere lacks any of the energy of its absurd all-caps title. It's not even really bad in an entertaining way. It's just really, really bad.
Perhaps the biggest problem with this first episode is how profoundly boring it is. We're introduced to the concept of “Internet Addiction,” told the Elite Reeducation Academy has been created in order to put its sufferers back on the right path, and then very slowly walk through the first day of protagonist Hibiki's internment there. Scenes proceed at a glacial pace, heavily weighed down by lengthy sequences of Hibiki bemoaning his fate, unnecessary exposition, and sneering proclamations by Hibiki's oppressors. By the end of the episode, all we've really gained is the knowledge that Hibiki's patron Shin has some sort of power over the faculty here, and that's about it.
It also doesn't help that pretty much nothing about this episode inspires an urge to keep watching. The whole premise of “internet addiction as a social ill that's fought by the government” feels two decades out of date. The internet is ubiquitous at this point, we all spend our lives attached to it, and “we're all slaves to online” makes for lousy political cartoons, much less full-length animated series. On top of that, Hibiki himself is a complete wet blanket of a character, and his “friend” Shin is basically just a cackling plot device. The only real fragment of personality we get out of Hibiki is the fact that he's sexist and homophobic, given this episode's only joke hinges on the old “whoa whoa, I'm not into dudes!” standby, as well as the fact that he's perfectly happy to accept Shin's offer of any girl he wants. And the overarching prison school setup is something that's been done with far greater flair by far greater shows, such as, well, Prison School.
Aesthetics-wise, EVIL OR LIVE maintains Haoliners' clean streak of terribly ugly productions. This whole episode plays out in letterbox format, saturated in a green semi-sepia hue that reduces the show's visual range to a thin line of indistinct brown and grey. The characters designs are unattractive, the backgrounds are generic, and there isn't really much animation at all. The show's one bit of visual flair is its occasional cuts to either live action footage or printed text, a choice that seems to ape SHAFT's style without understanding how that style can facilitate any dramatic goals.
Overall, there's pretty much nothing I can recommend about EVIL OR LIVE. The show is badly written, poorly paced, unattractive, and just kinda mean-spirited. This one gets an easy pass.
The Chinese co-productions that have popped up over the last few seasons have garnered a bad but deserved reputation for poor production values, weak storytelling, and ill-executed knock-offs of standard anime tropes. While some of those flaws still pop up in this newest offering, this episode overall suggests that these might finally be starting to improve. I'm not convinced that this will be the breakout co-production, but it's at least watchable, which is more than can be said for previous efforts.
It's also a little more ambitious. While certainly not quantified as a disease, internet addiction is a real thing in our world today, so the underlying premise of the series presents a draconian solution to an actual problem. Given that this is based on a Chinese manga, the Elite Reeducation Academy's overtones of forced cultural indoctrination and state propaganda may also have specific thematic undertones, making this potentially a cautionary tale as much as sensationalism. If that is the intent, then the caution would seem to go both ways, as Hibiki is hardly an innocent in this scenario. Flashbacks of his terrible behavior show that few would blame his mother for committing him if she had limited information about the school's abusive underbelly, and another new arrival gets harshly beaten down after he boasts about his online accomplishments. The way Hibiki wimps out when faced with real-life adversity will not endear his character to anyone, and building sympathy for him will be hard going forward – if that's even intended at all, of course.
That's where Shin comes into the picture. Though the particulars are unclear at this point, he has some kind of special status at the Academy that allows him to dismiss even the otherwise-uncompromising Head Instructor as Shin takes Hibiki under his wing. Everything about his behavior suggests unsavory ulterior motives, and his claim that Hibiki can have any girl he wants – even his middle school idol – is deeply suspicious. (Of course, given how rotten everyone else in this school has been so far, I'll be surprised if Shiori turns out to be the wholesome angel that Hibiki remembers.) Is Shin actually a supernatural force or merely one of those “master manipulator” types? I suspect the latter at this point.
The technical merits of this episode are actually remarkably solid for one of these co-productions, with more realistic character designs and decent animation, along with experimental stylistic choices involving flashing online text, a wobbly camera, dark hazy filters for select shots, and distorted live-action footage reminiscent of psychological thrillers. The musical score also pushes the sense of unease hard. For some reason, the show is also presented in a letterboxed aspect ratio.
The episode's one major misstep is an attempt at humor when Hibiki incomprehensibly mistakes Shin for a girl because of his long hair and a mistaken idiom of "I'll make you a man", which makes Shin quite angry. It's a clear copy of scenes from many other anime, but it's both utterly incongruous with the episode's tone and handled horribly in context. As long as the series doesn't keep doing that, it actually shows some promise in the “oppressive school” category of psychological thrillers.
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