The Spring 2017 Anime Preview Guide Alice & Zoroku
How would you rate episode 1 of
Alice & Zoroku ?
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How was the first episode?
Now this was a strange one. Alice & Zoroku was on my own anticipation shortlist for this season, largely because of my fondness for its presumed genre space. I'm a big fan of the parent-child slice of life/dramas we've been getting recently, and fantastical frills aside, Alice & Zouroku looked like it'd offer a reasonable articulation of the genre. This double-length premiere did offer some of that, but also… well, also a bunch of thrills from an entirely unrelated show.
Alice & Zoroku's premiere is one part low-key found family drama and one part Bourne Identity-style scifi thriller. The conceit is fairly similar to something like Elfen Lied - a young girl with dangerous powers escapes from her research facility and wanders into a slice of life show. It'd be easy for such a mix of variables to come off as disjointed, and portions of this first episode were definitely sketchy… but on the whole, I actually really enjoyed this premiere.
The linchpin of the whole operation is Zoroku, the old man who our experimental subject Sana turns to for help. Normally, shows like this star a male everyman lead that the presumed audience can more directly relate to. This tends to naturally center the dramatic intrigue of such shows on their scifi intrusions, but Zoroku is having none of that - he's self-assured and set in his ways, and his presence both literally and figuratively pulls the show's scifi tone down to earth. When caught in the middle of a fight between three girls with terrifying powers, he swats each of them over the head and delivers a lecture about social responsibility. His presence pulls even the most absurd of scifi theatrics into a warm and lived-in space, such that after an episode that starred giant disembodied hands and secret military organizations, this premiere's true climax came when Sana got a chance to marvel at his flower arrangements.
While this episode's Zoroku-focused material was excellent, Sana's side was a bit sketchier. I appreciated the creativity of the powers employed by Sana and her associates, but her narrative still felt pretty generic all around, and many of the theoretical action highlights here were dragged down by terrible CG. Additionally, Sana herself just doesn't have a particularly compelling personality yet - like her backstory and her outfit, her persona is all popular but broad strokes. The show will have to make her into more of a person if it really wants to sell her bond with Zoroku.
Overall, while there were elements of this premiere that didn't work, the elements that did succeed were both excellent for their own sake and also indicative of a show with real potential. Science fiction narratives that embrace the assumptions of slice of life storytelling actually have a very high ceiling, since they tend to care a lot more about making you believe in their world and characters than fully dedicated scifi spectacles. If Alice & Zoroku can use its strong slice of life fundamentals to imbue its conceit with dramatic weight, we could really have something here.
If there's any show that I want to like, it's Alice and Zoroku, and I fully admit that that's because I love Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It's a story about Sana, a little girl with the code name Red Queen who exists in a secret government facility for children with special psychic powers known as “Dreams of Alice.” With her blonde hair and elaborate dress (as well as the propensity for mistaking Goth Loli for Victorian), Sana's appearance conjures up the heroine of Carroll's tale, opening the door for an interesting comparison of Alice to her Through the Looking Glass nemesis, with the added bonus of not trying to conflate the Red Queen with the Queen of Hearts, my personal pet Alice peeve. And yet, despite my desperation to like this and to connect it with the novel(s), I found myself wondering when the double-length episode would end, or at least start to get more interesting.
For a story with the base plot of children being used in a secret government research facility and being brainwashed into believing that they are being well-cared for, this first episode feels remarkably dull. It has a lot of good elements, from Sana's initial escape to her fight against the twins (Tweedles Dee and Dum? I'm really trying), even to her slow-building alliance with Zoroku, a grandfather who stumbles across her and unwillingly ends up taking her in. Part of the issue is the lag between these events – while there is a lot to be said for careful world-building, this feels unnecessary for a first episode intended to hook us on a show. The clues feel too far between for that, although they are good ones and generally well-done: a quick glimpse of a Diet pin on a jacket, the dust covering everything in Zoroku's granddaughter's room, indicating that she may not just be on a school trip like he says she is; both are subtle and give indication that feelings and ties run deep in this story. Likewise dropped lines, such as the fact that Sana's caloric intake is limited to keep her from being too powerful, give us insight into the kind of “care” she's been receiving at the facility. Put into a tighter frame with more interesting visuals, this could have been very exciting, even at the risk of losing some of its subtlety.
I recognize that a piece of me is simply disappointed that we're not getting a more directly Alice-y story, with Sana as Alice and Zoroku as the White Knight. But the too-slow episode and visuals that just don't do enough to build the same intrigue and excitement as the plot are the bigger issue. As the series goes on, expanding the world and who the mysterious girl who helped Sana escape and get to the city is, there's potential for this to take off – this extra-long episode simply didn't do enough to sell me on that promise.
Alice & Zoroku is a meeting of heartfelt single parent dramas that have become so popular recently with otaku sensibilities. A crusty, old codger full of old-school values like “all in a good day's work” and “for god's sake, sit down in the restaurant” takes in a naïve, teleporting psychic girl in this double length episode. At its core, the show has good bones but unfortunately everything built on top of it is wildly inconsistent.
First and foremost, the range in art quality shown in this opener is pretty jarring both tonally and in quality. This doesn't speak well going forward and was disappointing for me; this show was initially off my radar until I watched one of the promotional videos a month or so back. A promotional video is rarely the best measure to judge the quality of a show's production, but I was taken in by the quiet mood and gorgeous flowers. Those flowers do make an appearance in this episode towards the very end. The rest of the runtime is marred by what looks like the animators struggling to maintain the line detail in what is already simplistic character designs and a lot of hokey computer animation. Anime has moved past the days of boxy Initial D cars, and if the CG was utilized on a smaller scale, say just for large city shots, I'd be able to write it off, but the episode goes for a rather elaborate car chase where Zoroku's Mini Cooper is CG and the psychic's chain attacks are too. I started having Handshakers flashbacks.
The inconsistent animation quality is especially unfortunate because the car chase could have been received much better. Again, the bones here are good and the sequence had surprisingly novel cinematography for anime. The staff shied away from spending most of the chase inside the car with the characters, a shortcut often implemented in action heavy scenes. The cuts were impressively dynamic and TO-MAS, coming off their work on Flip Flappers, offers up a great soundtrack. Music, other than the opening and ending themes, rarely catches my attention when watching anime. TO-MAS does a great job here creating both high-tension and quietly emotive tracks.
Narratively, Alice & Zoroku are hitting a lot of familiar beats. An evil organization running tests on psychic kids and an escapee finding solace in a tough-love surrogate parent has certainly been done before. The trick will be whether the show can manage to balance its family drama sensibilities with what is otherwise “cute girls battling each other.” I'm not convinced the two can mesh thematically without becoming outright silly. It would probably do the show well to abandon that aspect and stick to Zoroku teaching a previously isolated psychic girl about the beauty in the world. And also work out those pesky art problems.
Visuals aren't everything when it comes to making an anime compelling. Since the dawn of the medium, the limited animation of many TV productions has always been buoyed by smart storyboarding choices and viewer imaginations. Many of the most impactful anime series of all time, like Evangelion, had to turn single crude frames of animation into downright religious experiences for their fans. But in every production, I think there is a line, which is different for everyone, where shoddy visuals become too heavy for a story that isn't strong enough to hold up the ball this production is dropping.
Alice & Zoroku did not make it across that line for me. The story isn't bad, but it's basically combining two things I've seen a dozen times before (cute superpowered girl escapes from sinister lab, spoiled kid learns about life from wizened old man) without bringing anything new out of the combination. (Throw in a tired-as-dirt choice of "Alice in Wonderland" as the fantasy framework they chose, and I was firmly in snoozeville.) I feel like I could tell you exactly where this story is going by pouring the two jigsaw puzzles of these two genres out on a table and putting together a picture that's pretty close to where we'll be in Alice & Zoroku by the end. Grumpy old man knows basically everything about life, mentors precocious magical child, she soothes the pain of his past in some way, maybe he sacrifices his life to protect her from the evil lab guys by the end, maybe other girls join the group before the end, but nothing about these characters gave me any reason to think that there'd be much nuance in their futures.
There's certainly nothing wrong with having such a boilerplate story, and I'm pretty sure this show is aiming to be more family-friendly than its premise alone would suggest, but literally the only thing that got a reaction out of me in this episode was the fact that the show took place in the same parts of Shinjuku that I was staying in a week ago on a business trip. (I passed by the Hanazono shrine basically every day and walked through Kabuki-cho a couple times too. Wacky!)
The only way to turn a story this uninspired into something worth watching is through exciting production design or beautiful animation, but J.C. Staff's endeavor can't even cut the mustard through to mediocre visuals. It's not a laughably poor-looking show, (because laughs would've elicited some emotion from my cold, blackened heart), but its bland designs, struggling animation, and a surprising overreliance on woefully out-of-date CG made this episode a chore to sit through for me. (Its one major action scene was pretty embarrassing, relying entirely on a stiff CG model of a wrecking ball chasing a stiff CG model of a sedan.) Blend all these shrugs together into a double-length premiere that easily could have been twenty minutes without losing much, and I don't think I can recommend this unless you're starved for a supernatural-styled makeshift-family anime this season and don't want to wait around for something better.
Alice & Zoroku is an odd little show. It takes the weary, overused premise of a girl with super powers escaping from a research lab and blends it with an unconventional family setup that would more suited to a calmer slice of life series. The usual teenage male protagonist is gone, replaced by a grumpy old dude who has zero patience for any of this supernatural tomfoolery. It sounds like a hodgepodge of clichés and gimmicks on paper, but this first episode finds a way to combine its many parts into a reasonably coherent whole.
The action half of the equation is easily the weaker of the two at the moment. This episode features two big fight scenes, and neither is all that impressive to look at. The first is set at night in the rain, which is one of the oldest tricks in the book when it comes to hiding mediocre production values. The second involves a car chase, with the car in question rendered in dated, unimpressive CG. Some of the characters' powers are clever on a conceptual level, but those nifty ideas can only do so much when they're presented with such a minimal amount of visual fanfare. On top of that, the big picture of supernatural powers and government conspiracies isn't very compelling. This type of premise premise has been used so many times that it needs something really special to stand out, and I'm not seeing anything unique so far.
The good news is that character-focused side of the series appears to be in much better shape. Zoroku is a really appealing protagonist; I immediately want to know more about his backstory, and it's a lot of fun to watch him drop the “respect your elders” hammer in situations where a hapless teen hero would simply freak out and run away. Starting with a double-length first episode also works in the show's favor, as it gives Sana a chance to develop a personality of her own. She hasn't broken out of the innocent heroine mold quite yet, but her interactions with Zoroku are entertaining and occasionally quite charming.
Alice & Zoroku has one of its two genres figured out at the moment, and the slice of life-ish content is strong enough to balance out the flaws of the action scenes. Above all else, I'm excited about the idea of a protagonist who is too damn old to put up with any of the usual anime nonsense from the rest of the cast. In the long run, the appeal of this series may depend on where it decides to go with the story. If it can dial back the supernatural stuff and crank up the cranky grandpa charm, I can see it carving out a comfortable little niche for itself.
The scenario of an empowered girl escaping from a research facility and winding up sheltering with the kind-hearted male protagonist, who soon gets drawn into all kinds of weirdness and danger because of it, has been an anime staple for many years now, including titles like Elfen Lied and Brynhildr in the Darkness. This is a potentially dramatically different twist on the concept, however, as instead of the male protagonist being a young man (and thus a potential romantic interest) he is instead a more grandfatherly figure. In other words, this is “escape from research facility” action series meets “old guy looking after little girl” slice-of-life series. And based on the double-length first episode, I am now very curious to see how this one plays out.
One thing that is immediately clear is that anything Sana gets from Zoroku will be hard-earned. While he may be kind-hearted under that grumpy exterior, he's not one to be taken in merely by a cute face. He doesn't take any attitude from Sana, doesn't hesitate to punish and berate the girls who were pursuing him (who clearly have supernatural powers), and doesn't put up with anything even from a yakuza boss who hired him; he won't accept more than the agreed-upon fee, for instance. (And the revelation later on about exactly why the yakuza boss was willing to pay him extra is the episode's one funny point.) In other words, he's exactly the type of father figure that someone like Sana, who has little familiarity with the outside world and could wreak utter havoc if she really let loose with her powers, needs. He can set limits and guidelines for her in a way that she will accept, hence cutting off the potential for bigger problems, and shelter her without any concerns for romantic entanglements. Already a pleasing chemistry is starting to develop between the two, and kudos to the direction for taking that seriously. On this front, at least, there's a lot of promise.
Which is good, because the artistic effort isn't anything special. Zoroku looks exactly right for the part, but many of the other characters look like they have almost no chins and character design aesthetics in general aren't the most appealing. J.C. Staff's animation leans very heavily on CG work for its action scenes (especially the car chase sequence in the middle of the episode), and that doesn't look the greatest, either. Still, the character interaction potential here is more than enough to offset that. This may be an atypical blending of genres and themes, but it looks like it can work and work well.
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