The Spring 2018 Anime Preview Guide

How would you rate episode 1 of
Caligula ?

What is this?

A popular software virtual idol named μ has achieved sentience. Looking upon our world, she sees people filled with despair. She offers them a way out of their everyday suffering. By listening to her song, she can take them to the virtual world of Mobius, where they are free to enjoy their youthful high school years repeatedly, blissfully unaware of their previous pain—that is, until a few of the participants wake up and realize what's going on. Can they escape as their virtual heaven morphs into a virtual hell? Caligula is based on a video game and streams on Crunchyroll, Sundays at 11:30 AM EST.

How was the first episode?

Paul Jensen

Rating: 3

The first episode of Caligula dabbles in one of my favorite horror scenarios. I like the idea of characters slowly realizing that their “normal” world isn't normal at all, and then discovering that peeking behind the curtain has only gotten them into even deeper trouble. The slow-burning sensation of not knowing who to trust can be very compelling, and Caligula uses that scenario to good effect here. It then proceeds to end the episode on a much more generic action note, which makes me wonder if the whole psychological horror angle was just some kind of bait-and-switch. Color me baffled.

As much as I like the situation he's in, Ritsu himself doesn't do much for me as a protagonist. His interest in psychology comes across as pretentious and annoying instead of clever or unique, and he reminds me of the ubiquitous, stereotypical college freshman who starts trying to analyze his friends after spending two weeks in an intro to psych class. His saving grace is that this might not actually be his personality; with so much of his world operating under the control of “Totally Not Hatsune Miku,” it's possible that his real self is just buried inside this caricatured shell. That's what I'm hoping for, at least. I don't think I can stand a full season of monologues about Freud.

The last-minute fight scene is what leaves me scratching my head. After lots of slow but artfully-presented buildup, we suddenly jump to people turning into monsters and other people blasting them with magic arm-bazookas. It suggests that Caligula may ultimately be more of a super-powered action series, with the allure of its horrifying premise playing second fiddle to flashy battles between angst-filled teenagers. That would be a shame, as the setup definitely outshines the payoff in this episode.

Frankly, making a final watch-or-skip call on Caligula is going to be difficult until we hit the next episode. Right now, there are things I like about it, things I could take or leave, and things I'd gladly consign to a garbage can. Consider my rating the numerical equivalent of a helpless shrug. The story could go just about anywhere from here, and my interest in following it will be closely tied to the direction it ultimately takes.

James Beckett

Rating: 2.5

I'm not familiar with The Caligula effect, the PlayStation Game upon which this show is based, but perhaps if I had played it before I would have had a more positive reaction to this adaptation's first episode. Visually speaking, there isn't much to complain about; this is an atmospheric and aesthetically pleasing production, and there's a truly eerie sense of disorientation communicated by the glitchy style of the visuals. The story, however, leaves a lot to be desired, as the overwrought dialogue and obtuse narrative marred Caligula's otherwise effective presentation.

The show's problems start with its protagonist Ritsu, a philosophy-obsessed didact whose entire character consists of regurgitating ideas ripped from Jung, Freud, and Aristotle, along with any other pop-philosophy that may or may not be relevant to what is happening at any given time. Entire scenes are devoted to Ritsu explaining the Johari window and lecturing his friends about the dangers of existential myopia. While it seems like the intended effect would be to present Ritsu as a thoughtful teenager who is slowly waking up to the brokenness of his perceived reality, all of this trite philosophizing makes him come across as a dull know-it-all, less a character in his own right and more an authorial mouthpiece. I don't necessarily take issue with a series trying to use philosophical concepts to flesh out its world and story (I'm a huge fan of the Nonary Games series), but Caligula's ham-fisted approach makes Ritsu a worse protagonist.

Even outside of Ritsu's irritating characterization, the storytelling in this episode is a total mess. Characters are introduced and bizarre scenarios are brought about with almost no context or payoff – one character's mother seemingly transforms into a different person overnight, and dozens of schoolboys are apparently moved to mass violence when they hear the idol μ's new single. Until the final moments of the episode, all this weirdness just sits there, unremarked-on outside of some opaque narration. I understand the intent is to visually clue the audience into the mysteries of this show's world while sowing seeds of unease that will pay off in the episode's wild climax, but it's the execution of these ideas I take umbrage with. Director Junichi Wada and his team's use of jumbled editing and frustratingly oblique directing succeed at disorientation but fail to provide the emotional stakes needed for any of it to matter. It's less a case of style-over-substance and more that the style actively gets in the way of any substance reaching the audience.

That doesn't even cover the final minutes of the episode, where μ materializes out of thin air and transforms most of Ritsu's classmates into weird purple monsters, before other characters show up to fight these beasts with comically oversized weapons. It's ridiculous in an awkward way, but at least “high schoolers fighting monsters with magical weapons” is a premise I can get behind. With all of its misguided attempts at setting tone and mood out of the way, maybe now Caligula can settle in and start to tell a decent story. I'm still wary about checking this one out, but it may prove to be more entertaining in the future.

Theron Martin

Rating: 3

I didn't read much about the RPG this one is based on before watching the first episode, so my first thought upon coming to the end of the episode was “what the hell did I just watch?” There's a lot of babble about psychology and philosophy, a whole bunch of characters appear without really being introduced, a few weird things going on, and a ton of scenes tossed out that don't seem to coherently link together. After reading up a little on the source game, I think this is less a case where you're expected to be familiar with the game and more a case where confusion is the goal at first. Things are not right in this setting and some characters are gradually becoming aware of that fact.

As near as I can figure, these characters are trapped in some kind of alternate or virtual reality where they are supposed to be experiencing a perfect school life. As long as no one rocks the boat, events progress smoothly and harmlessly, possibly in a repeating cycle. Any attempts to act out disrupt the system and create bizarre reactions from other students in addition to visual glitches reminiscent of video feed errors. Where the main protagonist is concerned, “acting out” means delving deeply enough into psychological ruminations to become aware that there may be hidden aspects to the world, things that people want to hide even from themselves – such as accepting a virtual reality for an actual one. The more he ruminates on this, the more the flaws show until they finally reach a breaking point at the graduation ceremony. Apparently some other students have already realized this, while others want to maintain the status quo. In other words, this is a scenario reminiscent of The Matrix, with the virtual idol µ apparently representing the power behind everything.

Or I could be totally wrong, as the first episode is unclear about the truth of the matter. The idea of acting out causing disruptions is connected to the title of the series though, as the Caligula Effect is an obscure psychological principle involving the desire to see or do prohibited things. Given how intolerant Japanese society can be about deviations from the norm, I'm sure some kind of social commentary is also intended. Regardless, I'm giving this one a middle grade for now because it really requires another episode or two to determine whether it's going to be worth watching or not. If the second episode makes the situation clearer, then this has the potential to be an intriguing concept.

Heidi Kemps

Rating: 2.5

If I had to sum up my feelings after the Caligula screening in three words, it would be “well, that happened.” This is one of those first episodes that's all buildup until practically the very end, leaving you with a cliffhanger in lieu of actual payoff. We start with our hero, Ritsu, as he's riding on the subway to school. His classmate asks what he's reading, and he takes the opportunity to spout off a lot of factoids about psychology – specifically, the Johari window – for her (and, presumably, the audience's) benefit.

This is something Ritsu does a lot, even when the situation doesn't seem to warrant it. Friends talking about going out for ramen? Hmmm yes, prime time to spout some facts about an old experiment involving a pike. Is he watching a guy fist-fighting a bunch of dudes in a school courtyard with his buddies? The first thing he says isn't “holy crap there's a fight going on,” but instead he muses about gain-loss theory. I understand that the main character of the game Caligula was based on is a blank slate so the writers had to make something, but it might help if he behaved in a way that was somewhat believable. When Ritsu's not discussing some psychology concept apropos of nothing, he's hanging out with friends, going to school, and listening to songs by μ, a popular Hatsune Miku-esque virtual idol. That is, until one day where he hears a weird message sandwiched between the lyrics of the song to stop μ's plans. Then things start to get a bit weird.

When I say this episode is almost all setup, I mean it – the overwhelming majority is just scenes of Ritsu hanging out with friends and a few of the female characters in home interactions that seem rather banal but also just a little creepy. (One has a parent who tells her daughter how she never seems to put on weight no matter what she eats.) There are plenty of foreshadowing shots of rain, billowing sakura blossoms, people hunched in front of PC monitors, and grayed-out train station crowds, practically screaming “This tranquility is fake! FAAAAAAAAAKE!” before the big reveal we know is coming.

Said reveal doesn't happen until the very end of the episode, where a high school graduation ceremony turns into a bizarre μ concert and most of the students have their bodies torn apart to reveal hideous monsters that attack the remaining humans. Ritsu flees out of the hall where the ceremony has taken place, only to find the guy he saw in the school brawl earlier—except now his hand is a giant cannon firing off. Well, that happened!

For as much buildup as this episode has, there's not much in the way of payoff—I think you'd have to see how episode two pans out before you could decide if this is a series you really want to follow. The game Caligula is based on was a mishmash of interesting story concepts with poorly conceived gameplay, so this is one game-based show where excising the game part might work to its benefit, but this episode doesn't give me much to go on. Ritsu's bizarre psychology obsession and the willingness to drag things out isn't encouraging, but if the staff can pick up the pace in episode two and get deeper into the interesting thematic material the game tried (and failed) to deliver, then we might have a solid show. Here's hoping.

Rebecca Silverman

Rating: 3

If ever there was a show with an ominous title, Caligula would be it. Most people associate the name with the Roman emperor (it's actually his nickname meaning “little boots), who was reputed to be a good ruler for about six months before descending into depravity. That's not an unwarranted association as far as this episode goes: everything starts out perfect normal in protagonist Ritsu Shikishima's world only to take an abrupt left turn when he hears something odd in the latest song by virtual idol μ. Suddenly time doesn't flow properly, people are acting out of character, and finally turning into robotic monsters and trying to kill each other. That last actually fits with one of the rumored actions of the Roman emperor, who is said to have ordered audience members into the colliseum's arena to fight when there weren't enough prisoners to do it, more concerned with his own amusement than others' well-being.

Interesting links to Roman history aside, Caligula's first episode does feel like it's trying a little too hard. While there certainly are high schoolers who enjoy regaling their friends with psychoanalytic information and reading Aristotle in their spare time, Ritsu's introductory moments feel overdone and deliberately like an attempt to be smart and edgy. Things work much better when we're allowed to simply see with the characters that things are off, such as when Mifue's mother is obviously anorexic one day and the next is a completely different woman with no such disorder. Likewise the scenes at the end when Hibiki Kensuke first graduates and then introduces himself as the representative of the incoming class is nicely disorienting, whereas Ritsu musing about the Johari Window technique instead feels pretentious.

Visually there's a mix of well-used timing and bodies that look malformed. Background characters often appear misshapen (particularly their legs) and there's a sameness to most of the female characters that makes them hard to tell apart. (Granted, this could turn out to be very much on purpose.) On the other hand, slow motion is used effectively to show Ritsu's feelings of disorientation and there's a good variety of male body types among the character designs. In some ways the art is as confusing as the storyline, but it somehow works better; hopefully the two will begin to work together better as the story progresses.

Right now this feels more confusing than not. That may be a deliberate choice, and having not played The Caligula Effect, I can't speak to whether that's part of the experience. But it's worth remembering that one of the pieces of Emperor Caligula's legacy is how he increased his own power at the expense of others. That may be part of what's really going on in this strange yet intriguing story.

Nick Creamer

Rating: 3.5

Some shows are just so good at the setup that you almost regret it when their actual narrative starts. So it goes for Caligula, which spends its first fifteen minutes establishing such a compelling sense of disorientation that I was actually disappointed when it resolved into a more traditional action climax. But either way, this episode deserves notice, and I'm going to be keeping my eye on its director, Junichi Wada.

This first episode introduces us to Ritsu Shikishima, a bookish but otherwise ordinary high school student. Ritsu's vague musings on psychology and the nature of consciousness form a quasi-hook through this episode's early minutes, but I was more impressed by how convincing the dialogue was between him and his friends. Many shows are content to have their characters talk in friendly cliches, but Ritsu and his friends actually have genuine back-and-forth, bouncing ideas off each other and running with them. Caligula's script is strong enough to support genuine, character-building banter, something that only tends to be true of a handful of shows each season.

On top of that, Caligula is further bolstered by its strong direction and outstanding sound design. As Ritsu continues to trudge through days, a powerful sense of alienation and not-quite-rightness is built up through the show's desaturated colors, jump cuts, and well-employed background noises. Sequences like Ritsu noticing something is wrong during a rainstorm are elevated from standard genre beats to iconic sequences through tricks like a sequence of jump cuts revealing synchronized movements in the environment, as well as the overbearing sound of the rain itself. From the almost grayscale color palette and dynamic sound design to the overarching intended effect of a world gone wrong, Caligula's first episode actually reminded me of the original Steins;Gate in a variety of ways.

Unfortunately, Caligula's final few minutes work hard to undercut my hopes for this production, concluding all that gripping buildup with the reveal of generic monsters that humans fight with impossibly ridiculous weapons. Still, Caligula's underlying formal qualities are strong enough that I'm still intrigued by this one, even if it doesn't seem to be moving in a particularly satisfying direction. If Caligula's terrific control of tone and flavorful dialogue can be maintained, there's definitely potential here, particularly if the show leans into its fascination with how we're all pacified by modern society. If it instead resolves into a bunch of overdressed dudes fighting faceless monsters with swords that are also guns, I'll be a little disappointed.

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