The Spring 2018 Anime Preview Guide Butlers x Battlers
How would you rate episode 1 of
Butlers x Battlers ?
What is this?
How was the first episode?
I feel like Butlers x Battlers is a show that forgot the mic was on. It doesn't seem like this episode actually starts until around eighteen minutes in. Up until then, it's just a scattered collection of random moments in the life of Koma Jinguji, also known as “J.” A title like “Butlers x Battlers” leaves me the impression we're in for some silly butler-themed combat duels, and the show does seem to be wandering towards that, but it sure takes a slow and ponderous route there.
The first three quarters of this episode introduce us to J, who has become the new student council president of Koyomi Academy. As the minutes pile up, we're introduced to his archetypal student council teammates and the central mystery of his life, some dramatic event in the past involving his sister Tenna. These breadcrumbs of useful information are scattered through scenes with far less purpose; J spooking a bitter rival for the presidency, J talking idly with the school president, J and his council fellows cleaning an old house, etc. All the while, the show consistently introduces more new characters we have no context for, leading up to a student council event where J wanders from failed love confession to cryptic warning from a spooky guy in a cape to idle banter with his classmates with no rhyme or reason.
I've often lamented shows that establish a great atmosphere only to ruin it with a mediocre narrative, but Butlers x Battlers seems to have the exact opposite problem. In the absence of a propulsive narrative, the variables of this world are totally unengaging - the characters are cliches, the jokes are simplistic, the aesthetics are all just barely par. The show also just doesn't know how to establish a sense of reality; J never feels like he's living an actual life, it feels like he's being dragged from plot event to plot event, except all those plot events are conversations with very little purpose. This episode seemed to want to establish the pace of J's life before disrupting it with the more battle-focused hook, but the pace of J's life is so slow and unrewarding that I can't consider that a good choice. Some shows have the writing and aesthetic chops to earn some preamble; other shows should just get on with the fireworks.
The title of this series gives the impression that we're going to see some kind of wacky series about warrior-butlers, but the first episode actually plays out as an awkward hodgepodge of ideas crammed together. It has the bevy of bishonen guys that one would expect of a reverse-harem series, and there are some lighthearted interactions befitting of a romantic comedy tone, but there's no girl at the center of the action. There's a more serious dramatic tone behind J being separated from his sister, and then a big reveal at the end that this is actually some kind of time-traveling caper involving J and another hot guy who either can't remember the particulars or is playing dumb for some reason. Having such a twist revealed in the epilogue of the first episode isn't unusual on its own, but the way the script goes about getting there is too meandering.
In other words, the first episode has all of the feel of a series that was initially intended to be something else but underwent substantial rewrites over time. If the time travel aspect was added in later, that may have been for the best, as the parts divorced from the main story are bland and generic bishonen fare, even down to the formulaic construction of the Student Council. The time/dimension travel aspect has a bit more promise, with a mystery surrounding J's sister and her relationship to the boys. I'm going to guess that his sister may have been thrown through time and space, so he's trying to find her, which is a decent basis for a story. But why weigh it down with all this set dressing, then?
Then of course, there's also the question about what butlers have to do with any of this. The male school uniform has a vaguely butler-like style to it, but if J and the other guy were supposed to be “butlers” for his sister, then they're stretching the definition of the term. The names for anime series sometimes don't make full sense until near the end of their run, so I won't sweat the odd choice for now, though I hope it doesn't turn out that the butler reference is solely connected to the school uniform's style.
Unremarkable technical merits don't help this debut's cause either, although the first episode does showcase possibly the best closer song so far this season. Overall this debut is by no means a disaster, but there's nothing impressive and little compelling about it at this point.
The first episode of Butlers x Battlers feels like two different premieres crammed into the same half hour, each with different priorities. On one hand, we have a relatively lighthearted comedy about a student council full of hot guys and their encounters with fawning fangirls and other hot guys. That's broken up at several points by a much more serious story involving a time-traveling butler and his missing sister. It's certainly possible for a series to juggle such vastly different storylines, but at the moment Butlers x Battlers lacks the strong execution necessary to combine its pieces into a unified whole.
From where I'm standing, the student council stuff looks to be the weaker of the two halves. Its core problem is one of too many characters and not enough time. We're introduced to the four new council members, a throwaway rival, the handsome headmaster, a spoiled rich kid who's been skipping classes, the staff of a local café, two reporters from the school newspaper, and a variety of girls who all seem to be crushing on J. That'd be a lot of people to cram into any premiere, much less one that's also trying to establish a second timeline. The inevitably short introductions reduce most of the cast to one or two personality traits at best, and that makes it difficult to form an emotional attachment to any of them. It's just a crowd of faces in search of a plot.
J's search for Tenna is potentially more compelling, but its presentation is too scattershot to make much of an impression. The constant jumps between serious flashbacks and the more frivolous present day create some wild swings in tone, and we typically cut away from J's backstory just as a scene is starting to get interesting. This episode does its best work during the confrontation between J and Hayakawa before the end credits, partly because this is the only scene that succeeds in bringing the conflict from the past forward into the present. There could certainly be something worthwhile in this storyline, but the show's writing and direction will need to improve their balancing act before they can hope to hook an audience.
If Butlers x Battlers can settle down and explain itself over the next week or two, I can see it developing into a decent time-traveling mystery. Based on this premiere, however, I'm worried that it will end up withholding too much information from the audience in an attempt to generate some artificial sense of intrigue. If that ends up being the case, then count me out; there's not enough compelling stuff here to justify sitting through a season full of narrative hand-waving.
I'm not entirely sure why anime and manga have such a difficult time with the concept of what a “butler” is (male head servant in charge of all the other male servants; housekeeper is the female equivalent), but Butlers x Battlers gets credit for the most interesting new (mis)interpretation. Although it hasn't been fully explained yet, it appears that in the world of this original anime production, “butler” is synonymous with “bodyguard,” with a squadron of butlers protecting one very special young lady. Possibly both this and the localized title come from the fact that the words “butler” and “battler” can sound vaguely similar; whatever the reason, it's definitely not what butlers actually do.
That, however, is a minor nitpick when you consider that this is a bit of an overambitious episode. What it's mostly got going for it right now is the interesting time travel and supernatural mystery angle. How and why Tenna vanished, sending Hayakawa and J at least one hundred years into the future, forms the crux of the episode. It raises a lot of intriguing questions about where (if anywhere) Tenna is now, as well as how Hayakawa and J got separated during their trip. (I strongly suspect that Hayakawa's amnesia is faked.) Was their disappearance the reason why the rest of the estate was abandoned and torn down? What is a Blood Spirit, anyway, and what does it have to do with magical jewelry, tattoos, and time travel? This is where the appeal of the story lies, and when the focus is on that, this is pretty good.
Unfortunately the episode doesn't maintain that focus particularly well. The main problem is trying to make J seem as cool and mysterious as possible, which both distracts from the more important plot points and also gives the whole thing the air of a not great otome game adaptation. This is further exacerbated by the strange insistence on introducing every single male character by name – in a game adaptation, this would indicate a pursuable character, but here it just throws too much at you for something under half an hour. It also makes it look as if everyone is an important character; if that's true, then this is a seriously overstuffed cast. Equally at issue is the fact that the episode really doesn't need it: just the basic premise, J, Hayakawa, and maybe the rest of the student council are strictly necessary to get things rolling, and even then really only computer guy Haruto deserves to be there.
This is going to come down to whether or not the wheat can be separated from the chaff. Given that this was supposed to have aired in January plus my recent experience with Märchen Mädchen's delays, I'm not feeling terribly hopeful that Butlers x Battlers can pull it off. I do think it's going to be worth at least a few more episodes, however, because the actual plot looks good. I just really hope that it can be pulled off.
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