The Summer 2018 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
What is this?
How was the first episode?
The opening episode of Island reminds me of a few other game-based anime with intentionally mysterious storylines. Setsuna's status as a self-declared time traveler brings to mind the timeline-jumping shenanigans of Steins;Gate, and the isolated nature of Urashima suggests a “normal guy moves into the wrong small town” story along the lines of Higurashi. Those are some pretty good titles to be compared to, but unfortunately the similarities are limited to basic narrative structure. As much as it tries to be mysterious and engaging, Island lacks the immediate hooks of those shows. Instead of leaving me desperate to find out what's going on, it just made me wonder how much time was left before the end of the episode.
I do like the premise here, if only because of the wide variety of possibilities it opens up. All we really know about Urashima at the moment is that it's isolated from the mainland in some capacity, and that any outsiders who wash ashore are supposed to be sent back as quickly as possible. Is it just a case of geographic isolation, or does Setsuna's time-traveling backstory imply that Urashima is locked into some kind of time loop? Having those different narrative options open is neat from a creative standpoint, but sadly it hasn't translated into a compelling viewing experience. We hear a lot of ominous, “this will be important later” lines as Setsuna meets the other main characters, but for now there's no real substance to all that cryptic dialogue. The slow pacing means there's no dramatic urgency to his one-man investigation, and nobody seems competent or sinister enough to pose an immediate threat. Keeping the audience in the dark only works if you can convince them that the answers will be worth the wait, and I'm not getting that impression here.
The emotional hooks are as weak as the narrative ones. Setsuna is very much a blank slate protagonist, the kind of viewer-insert character that never really works once you take away the interactive choices of a visual novel. Since this bland dude isn't “me,” I don't really care what happens to him. The show tries its best to sell us on the three girls he meets, but their interactions pull too much out of the standard genre playbook. Tsundere girl Karen is inevitably the one who has an unintentionally sexual run-in with Setsuna, mysterious girl Rinne walks around singing at night and claims she'll die if she's exposed to sunlight, and adorable girl Sara tries to kill Setsuna in predictably incompetent fashion. It all just feels so tired and overplayed, and the episode ends before it can do anything to get me emotionally invested in the cast.
Island is at least a good-looking show, and it has the basic ingredients of an interesting story, but this episode doesn't do enough to put those pieces together. If it can crank up the pace and give the audience more to latch onto in the next week or two, there might still be hope for it. If not, I think Karen has the right idea: sail right on out of this series and never look back.
Within the first ten seconds of ISLAND's premiere, we're greeted with the sight of a very young girl engaging in what seems to be a very uncomfortable sexual encounter; just minutes later, we see an entirely different girl faceplant right onto an unconscious naked man's dick. As far as first impressions go, ISLAND gets off to a strange and off-putting start to say the least. What makes ISLAND even weirder is how, outside of the weird exploitative stuff in the opening scenes, the rest of this premiere is a bland porridge of lame tropes and awkward writing. Our hero turns out to be the nude man who has washed up on the titular island, an amnesiac who believes he's traveled back in time to save a girl and also possibly the world. The local authorities do their best to ship him back to the mainland, but the amnesiac, who eventually calls himself Setsuna Sanzenkai, sneaks off and runs into the girl who got a faceful of his junk earlier. Her name is Karen, and she's found hiding on a boat, apparently trying to escape the island for good. Once her father comes and brings her home, however, she doesn't factor into the story again.
Instead, Setsuna meets another girl named Rinne, who takes him in to live with her family as a maid. Later on, Setsuna has a run-in with a third girl, a shrine maiden named Sara who knows about his time-travel and thinks it's linked to the time when Rinne went missing five years earlier. That's more or less the entire setup of ISLAND so far, and it does very little to inspire sticking with the series any further. The show lamely tries to amp up its atmosphere by just having characters vaguely describe how mysterious the island is, and the rest of the episode is just Setsuna wandering around and meeting people. Of course, both Rinne and Sara immediately develop an attraction for Setsuna, which is not only bad writing but also kind of weird given that he looks to be twice their age. It's telling that this is an adaptation of a visual novel, given how slow and meandering this premiere manages to be while still going overboard on exposition and foreshadowing.
I'm a fan of VNs myself, so I'm not saying that ISLAND's faults are simply due to its origins. Rather, all of the faults in this premiere feel rooted in the worst habits of the most mediocre visual novels, where overwrought mysteries and wish-fulfillment romances take priority over actually telling a good story. Rinne's mother is a mysterious shut-in, while Rinne herself is deathly allergic to sunlight. These are all empty hooks that would only work if ISLAND established a core narrative and cast worth caring about, and it fails to do that starting out. There's a possibility that ISLAND will end up weaving a truly compelling yarn in the end, but this first episode makes me think I'll be better off investing my time elsewhere this summer.
It's strange to think that if I describe Island as an “entirely predictable visual novel adaptation,” a fair amount of readers might no longer understand what I mean by that. Adaptations like this were incredibly common around a decade back, enjoying a similar prominence to modern isekai shows, but their star essentially faded not long after Kyoto Animation stopped doing their dedicated Key adaptations. Shows like Island are a lot more rare now, but don't let that fool you: nothing this episode does is in any way novel, it's just a little old-fashioned.
Island's first episode actually feels like it's striving specifically for predictability, at least in certain respects. Our hero is an amnesiac (of course) who only remembers he is destined to “save a girl,” which we'd know by genre reputation even if he didn't say it himself. The show's first minute has a very young girl making an “I might break” double entendre sex joke, and then the second minute has a different girl faceplant into our hero's naked crotch. From there, the rest of this episode goes through the shapeless motions that many visual novel adaptations begin with, introducing us to our three route heroines while vaguely gesturing towards a variety of fantastical mysteries in lieu of offering any meaningful hook.
There's not much to say about a show like Island. Divorced from its specific cultural moment, the various assumptions of this show's subgenre reveal themselves to mostly just be different kinds of bad writing. Assumptions like “sexy pratfalls are the height of comedy,” “characters crying means the audience should automatically care,” and “there's always room for more textbook tsunderes” were bad when they were popular, and haven't really gained much nostalgia value since their moment in the sun. There are bright spots here and there, like the show's altogether strong lighting and background art, as well as third heroine Sara's incredibly fluffy hair, but the base narrative material is a clumsy version of a lousy story I've seen a thousand times before. Island's only real “innovation” is that all the main heroines look, act, and genuinely seem to be around half a decade younger than our protagonist, meaning Island's actual hook in terms of its genre is likely that specific age gap. If that's what you're into, maybe give it a glance, but otherwise this is an easy skip.
Island is based on a visual novel that debuted in April 2016, but it feels like something that would have been at home a dozen years ago, during the heyday of the moe-centric visual novel adaptations. It's got that that same kind of starting structure. A man with a mysterious/forgotten past shows up at a new locale, where he encounters a diverse variety of cute girls which conform to common moe archetypes: the smart but clumsy girl, the tsundere, and the beauty with some kind of weird health problem. He interacts with all of them enough to get at least a basic sense of their identities and then starts to get drawn into the mysteries surrounding them, while another random guy hovers around for him to occasionally interact with (in this case the young police officer). So if you were ever a fan of titles like Air and Kanon, then this could be right up your alley.
This episode accomplishes the two things that it absolutely must for the series to have a chance of succeeding: it makes the main trio of girls endearing enough and layers on some intriguing mysteries. Pale-haired Rinne probably isn't a vampire, but she has some kind of condition that forces her to keep out of direct sunlight and professes to be both a fellow amnesiac and fellow time traveler to the male lead. The poofy-haired shrine maiden Sara seems to have advanced science knowledge but also feels a need to (ineptly) try to kill the male lead, and twin-tailed Karen is the tsundere with the misfortune to trip and crotch-plant on the male lead when he's lying naked and unconscious on the beach. She also wants to get off the island badly enough to hide in a boat's cabinetry. Setsuna, for his part, keeps having disturbing flashes that suggest encounters with alternate versions of some of the girls. It's an intriguing enough web of interconnections to stoke some interest, and it also has the light touches of humor that have long been a hallmark of this type of story. (That's good, because the character interactions so far have been pretty banal.)
Production comes courtesy of studio Feel and director Keiichiro Kawaguchi, who previously teamed up for comedies like Mayo Chiki! And Please Tell Me! Galko-chan. This is a very different kind of series than either of those, but the visuals so far are run-of-the-mill for the genre except for the exquisite setting design; I am curious about what real-world island the setting is modeled after, as Urashima is probably a reference to an old Japanese fable about a fisherman of that name who rescues a turtle. That story kinda-sorta has time travel elements to it, so I strongly suspect the naming choice is meaningful. Nice insert song too, with lyrics that also seem to be suspiciously relevant. On the downside, the episode opening with a brief scene suggesting an underaged girl having sex with someone may throw some viewers off.
Overall, this isn't a knock-your-socks-off opener, but there's enough here to get me to watch more.
The name of the island that Setsuna (possibly not his real name) washes up on in this episode is probably worth paying attention to. It shares a name with one of Japan's best-known folklore heroes, Urashima Taro, the man who visited the Dragon King's palace beneath the sea, married his daughter Otohime, and was returned to Japan one hundred years later (although it felt like two days to him) with a box he's told not to open. When he inevitably does open it, all 100 of those lost years catch up with him, aging him instantly. (Or, in the version from the Muromachi period, it's been seven hundred years and he turns into a crane.) Given that time travel appears to be a major conceit of this show, the fact that the island and the folktale character share a name can't be coincidental.
As far as opening episodes go, this one does a pretty good job being just intriguing enough to make me want to watch another one. While it's very clear that the visual novel it is based on has three routes based on three different lovely ladies (Sara, Rinne, and Karen), the episode doesn't spend too much time setting that up. We meet all of them, yes, with Sara appearing to be the most interested in Setsuna and Karen finding him by faceplanting on his crotch, but they don't give off too much of an air of being “the loli one” or “the tsundere one” – they feel like they have the potential to become interesting characters in and of themselves. Rinne gets the most screen time as the one who actively takes Setsuna in, and given the opening scene she seems the most likely main heroine, which may work again with the Urashima Taro legend – like Setsuna, she washed up on Urashima with no memories, albeit five years ago. Is she also a time traveler? If so, could she and Setsuna be each other's “boxes,” the keys to their true memories and purposes? Or will recovering those memories spell their transformation and/or destruction?
Obviously this episode appeals to on a folkloric basis alone, surprising no one, but it also has some other interesting details that merit keeping an eye on. The island appears to be sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s judging by the technology – rotary phones, deep TVs – and while that may be intended to be an indicator of how remote it is, I suspect not. There are also all sorts of odd pseudo-Moai statues littering the landscape, and vague mention is made of another island appearing, so there may be a Brigadoon element to whatever's going on. On a purely aesthetic note, I do love that the girls' school uniforms have shorts instead of a skirt, and there's a real feeling of space and remoteness to the scenery, as if the town is huddled on a point and the island just stretches out around it.
There are plenty of places where Island could go wrong, from Setsuna being a total jerk (which does feel like a risk) to trying to cram too many routes from the VN into the series. Right now, however, it's more interesting than not, and it'll be worth sticking with to at least see how the story is going to be told and maybe figure out the big questions of the island's name and whether or not the episode opened with a sex scene.
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