The Spring 2018 Anime Preview Guide
Dances with the Dragons
How would you rate episode 1 of
Dances with the Dragons ?
What is this?
How was the first episode?
It's almost shocking to me how much better this premiere would come off if its first minute was simply removed entirely. That minute is wholly dedicated to detailing meaningless technobabble that ultimately just amounts to “in the future, magic and dragons are real.” It's okay to just say magic and dragons are real, Dances with the Dragons. Trying to dazzle me with a nonsense explanation for that just makes me feel like you don't have any confidence in your own story, or worse, that you're aiming for the “I'll ramble about fake science for a while and then my enemies will explode” non-drama of a show like The Irregular at Magical High School.
Fortunately, once you escape that technobabble, the rest of this episode is actually a pretty straightforward and relatively engaging action drama. “Magic and dragons are real” is basically all you need to know - this world calls its magical force “Jushiki,” and its magic-using soldiers “Jushikiists,” but it amounts to the same thing. This premiere follows the snarky, pragmatic Gayus and grim, single-minded Gigina, two dragon-slaying partners who establish a very sturdy rapport over the course of this episode's satisfying dragon fight and equally accomplished setup, where the tangibility of this world is naturally conveyed through rich background designs, offhand details of dialogue, and occasional cuts to the key figures in some brewing political intrigue. The storytelling isn't terribly novel, but it's very competently executed, establishing a fine platform for a drama that will presumably spiral into war and chaos from here.
Execution-wise, Dances with Dragons matches its storytelling pretty evenly, offering a roughly average production in most regards. As I mentioned, the backgrounds are a particular standout, though they were often unfortunately counterbalanced by the show's ugly CG crowd characters. The animation was fairly limited, but the show did a solid job of relying on dynamic key poses and exciting layouts to mitigate that lack. I also liked the show's occasional use of western-style guitar twangs, a choice that really helped pull its overall “two bounty hunters against the world” tone together. Overall, Dances with the Dragons didn't wow me, but it also didn't disappoint me. This is a perfectly functional action vehicle, and if dudes with swords facing down dragons sounds like a good time, I'd give it a look.
Dances with the Dragons feels like it might be a little too ambitious, at least in its introductory episode. There's a lot going on here, from world building to establishing what appears to be a large cast of characters, and I can't help but wonder if the episode wouldn't have done better to tackle those two things separately or perhaps more slowly. As it stands, it's a lot of information coming at us, and it never really gave me the chance to get my feet under me in terms of figuring out what's going on.
As far as I can tell, Gayus and Gigina are both impoverished noblemen of different cultures, and possibly races. Gigina, it seems, might be less impoverished if his monetary and aesthetic senses lined up better with where ever they currently are, because judging from Gayus' attitude, he's spending money like water in a desert. Both of them use jushiki, a magic power previously only attainable by dragons, and now apparently used against dragons, who do not appear to be a particularly intelligent set of beings, more akin to monsters than people. Or are they? There's a mysterious woman going around killing jushikiists who may have just been implied to be a dragon in human form, as she was seen asking why everyone wanted to hurt her. Meanwhile, there are definitely elves, because Gayus' girlfriend Ziveena is one (or rather, an Alurian). There are also queens and cardinals and guys named Horton who sell fried fish balls instead of doughnuts and coffee and cameras and cars, but the guys fight with swords...
Simply put, this episode seems to be trying a little too hard. I'm not sure how fast it plans to cover plot as the series unfolds, but surely some of this could have been saved for episode two. At the moment Gayus and Gigina's fight against the black dragon in the beginning seems to be the most salient point: it's gotten them noticed by both Cardinal Mouldeen and the mysterious killer, both of whom stand to have a major impact on their lives. Gayus' friends don't add much to the conversation, nor does Ziveena, who I can't help feeling was introduced in order to assure viewers that Gayus and Gigina aren't shippable, because she feels kind of random.
As far as visuals go, there is an interesting diversity of character design, with everyone looking unique and the CG crowds having a more natural feel than they might have. The dragons all appear to have their own designs as well instead of simply recoloring a single dragon, and backgrounds are a nice mix of contemporary cityscape and fantasy world. That's almost appealing enough to make this worth a second episode, but the series will have to even itself out and make better choices about how much and what to include in a given half-hour to be worth pursuing beyond that.
Chief Director Hiroshi Nishikiori is no stranger to handling supernatural-themed adventure series set in a modern era, as evidenced by previous work directing A Certain Magical Index and Trinity Seven. This is more of the same, although in this case the goal seems to be to blend traditional high-action elements with a darker, more mature, and more involved storyline than his previous efforts. After the first episode, my jury is still out on whether or not it actually works.
Certainly the storytelling succeeds at making this a more mature and involved story. The first episode suggests political movements well above the heads of our heroic duo while they scrape by on jobs that would make them adventurers were the setting a fantasy RPG, although one of the last scenes in the episode indicates that they're about to get drawn into that fray. Meanwhile, a serial killer is hunting down their kind with some ill-defined revenge motive. On top of that, the more responsible of the two protagonists is trying to keep the duo afloat financially (in no small part due to his partner's fiscal irresponsibility) and his girlfriend happy. Add a vaguely Western twang to the musical score, too, just to remind viewers that this isn't a series about high school-aged brats and you have a title which desperately wants to seem cool to older audiences.
To an extent the episode succeeds at that, but the problem is the uncomfortable balance it has to strike in the process. The opening scene throws out a lot of technical jargon about how magic was realized in the world through the development of advanced technology, but it doesn't explain where the dragons and an elf-like race come from. Or were they always there and this is entirely a parallel universe? The first episode is frustratingly vague on this despite the opening narration. As much as info-dumping is regarded as a negative in an anime series, this one could have used a lot more.
The first episode might have still done okay if the visuals were sharper. There's nothing actually wrong with them, and the initial dragon fight is a decently exciting affair, but nothing stands out about them, either. The musical score is much more distinctive and gives a stronger effort at setting the mood, but there's only so much it can accomplish.
In other words, the draw of it featuring a cast of adult characters isn't enough. With all of the bigger and flashier action titles coming out this season, this one seems likely to be forgotten about.
Within watching the first minute of Dances with Dragons' premiere, I knew this series was going to be trouble. The opening narration of the episode is comprised mostly of incomprehensible techno-babble, the kind that is filled with nonsense, pseudo-science terminology that attempts to explain how quantum physics and time bubbles have given humans the ability to practice magic and hunt monsters. Despite all of the effort put in to coming up with fancy names and flashy combat techniques, the script does a very poor job of actually telling a story worth caring about.
It's a terrible foot to start off on, and unfortunately things remain pretty bad for the remainder of the episode. We're introduced to our protagonists, Gayus and Gigina, with very little context given to who they are or what exactly they are doing out fighting a dragon. This kind of en medias res introduction to a story can be done very well, but Dances with Dragons tosses out exposition and clunky dialogue with almost no grace whatsoever, expecting its audience to be satisfied simply watching two random dudes with fancy weapons fight a big ol' dragon for almost ten minutes. It isn't until much later that we learn that Offensive Jushikiists, as they are called, function almost as this alternate Earth's magical police force/animal control, and that Gayus and Gigina make-up what could easily be framed as a traditional buddy cop duo.
This is a neat idea on paper, but as Netflix's Bright demonstrated not too long ago, even the most interesting premises can be brought down by shoddy execution, and Dances with Dragons' premiere is shoddy more often than not. The animation itself is fine, if a bit underwhelming, but the single major action scene we get at the top of the episode is poorly directed and dimly lit, robbing it of much of its potential flair. The expositional scenes that take place after aren't any better either; parts of the story that are supposed to flesh out Gayus and Gigina's relationship are randomly intercut with scenes featuring politicians and other bigwigs that completely interrupt the flow of the script, and the serial killer plotline that they introduce only adds to the episode's sense of being overstuffed and undercooked. In just one episode we get a buddy-cop fantasy action story that is about hunting dragons, high-fantasy political intrigue, and a Jushikiist serial killer that is stalking the streets, and none of those disparate parts are developed enough to gel together cohesively.
If there's any bright spot to this slog of a premiere, it's that I can see a version of Dances with Dragons that builds up a genuinely compelling cast to follow. Gayus and Ginina are not terribly well developed, but there is a spark of chemistry between them, and I appreciate the little bit of their relationship that we do get to see, where their mutual respect for one another goes up against their egos, and the realities of their adult lives. If the show ever reigns in its worst impulses and drops all of the unnecessary exposition and hammy dialogue, it might have a duo of leads that can carry a fun adventure story. For now though, Dances with Dragons will probably please only the most hardcore of fantasy enthusiast. Feel free to skip this one.
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