The Winter 2018 Anime Preview Guide The Ryuo's Work is Never Done!
How would you rate episode 1 of
Ryuo's Work is Never Done! ?
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How was the first episode?
The Ryuo's Work is Never Done! is a perfect storm of bad decisions in a product that seems like it was specifically designed to be everything I personally avoid when looking for an anime. There are three main deadly factors here: its premise's utter lack of originality, its lame protagonist, and everything having to do with the little nine-year-old shogi enthusiast named Ai.
Even ignoring all the other problematic elements that pop up in this opening episode, The Ryuo's Work is Never Done! comes across as little more than a copy-and-paste mishmash of the worst habits of light novels. The events surrounding Yaichi's adoption of his newest apprentice feel contrived and only barely detailed, the characters surrounding him are uninteresting and rooted in tired clichés, and the comedy that fills in the gaps between exposition and inner monologue is mostly groan-worthy. Not only does this episode deliver the old “trip over a naked girl just as another girl walks in and assumes the worst” gag, it spends nearly five minutes dragging it out. If this was a harem show from 1995, I might be more forgiving, but I expect a little more creativity from anime these days, even from lowbrow light novel comedies.
Yaichi himself is possibly the weakest element of the story. He's the quintessential light novel protagonist, a ridiculously talented teenage boy surrounded by weirdos who want to challenge his sports title and girls who will fight each other for hours over a scrap of his affection. A lot of series can get away with this kind of lazy character writing when the cast is written with enough charm and enthusiasm, but there's no such respite to be found here. Yaichi becomes a shogi master in the first two minutes of the episode, so his personal journey is even less interesting than a more typical “rise to the top arc” might have been; he's just a bored guy looking for a reason to become un-bored, and he isn't funny or charismatic enough to make that skeleton of motivation interesting enough to carry a series.
This makes it all the worse when the antidote to Yaichi's ennui arrives in the form of arrives a spritely young shogi genius, who also happens to be a precocious nine-year-old that insists on calling him “Master”, cooks him delicious breakfasts, and becomes insanely jealous at the thought of any other woman demanding her Master's attention. The extended nudity-gag I mentioned earlier isn't even the worst aspect of Ai's role in this episode; the scene is admittedly tame by anime standards and dumb to get wildly offended over (though that doesn't make the way the camera leers at Ai all the time any less creepy). No, what makes Ai so insufferable is the transparent gimmick behind her entire existence. She's a grab-bag full of every wish-fulfillment nerd fantasy you could think of, but in an inappropriately young package; nothing about the way she's written even remotely resembles how a girl her age would think or act. The fact that Yaichi's “sister” Ginko seems to take Ai as a legitimate rival for Yaichi's affection only further indicates that the young genius is mostly a plot device with pig-tails that lives to solve our hero's problems, a magical girlfriend who's also a child protégé.
The Ryuo's Work is Never Done! is categorically Not My Thing™, and falls easily to the bottom of the barrel for me this season. I gave it an extra half point for the extended bit where Ginko beats Yaichi with her fan, which brought some schadenfreude relief to an otherwise interminable viewing experience. If you have more of a stomach for light novel clichés or a passionate love for shogi, this first episode might work better for you than it did for me. Otherwise, I'd recommend you steer very clear of this one.
So let's get the most troublesome aspect of this episode out of the way first.
Going into this, I'd already heard the hubbub over young Ai being naked in a shower scene and an ensuing scene in a hallway. After seeing those scenes myself, I must agree that they are quite tame by anime standards, but I also think that not interpreting them as fanservice would be to ignore some obvious intent; they're practically hard-wired into viewer expectations for naughtier romantic comedies. Ai coming across as a jealously possessive lover, even if only as a joke, only furthers the impression that this is a play for lolicon appeal. Yes, there are other anime out there that come across much stronger and more pervasively on that front, but it's still there.
Frankly, the series doesn't need that kind of gimmick – or any other fanservice angle for that matter, as the notion of a young champion player fostering the prodigious talent of an even younger player has appeal on its own. I may not be all that familiar with shogi, but I don't think that's a barrier to appreciating this series, as the first episode is much more about the characters than the game. Besides, this episode's shogi scene provides at least some sense of the game's structure, and presumably sufficient details about the game will be filtered in as the series progresses. This is a remarkably accessible approach to a world that seems somewhat like the professional poker scene in the West, despite a game whose rules may be arcane to many Western viewers.
Whether or not this has the makings of a good series is another story. The technical merits are pretty solid and the direction provides an effective sense of drama without going overboard. However, I also find Ai to be too perfect. I could actually buy her being a genius at shogi, but a master cook too, at that age? This smacks too much of a “perfect wife” situation for comfort. She also seems too unbelievably young to be having that kind of an argument with Yaichi's “sister,” though I'm sure that was intended to be cute. Ai is also hurt by the fact that this is already a very strong season for “cute girls” series, and while she has her appeal, she doesn't measure up against competitors like the girls in Mitsuboshi Colors.
So overall, the first episode isn't a disaster, as I think it sets an interesting enough stage. However, striving for some kind of harem angle where the #1 girl is a child is not for my tastes.
Personal experiences can absolutely affect how a person engages with media. So on the one hand, being a parent can sometimes help give me insight when watching a show like School Babysitters. It also makes sitting through a 25-minute episode about a 16-year-old guy and his child wife hard to swallow. My own kid is eight, a gifted eight-year old not unlike Ai, although he's never played shogi. But he's still eight. He thinks dabbing is hilarious and his favorite song is “It's Raining Tacos.”
I'm not sure why this is a statement I have to make in 2018, but I just cannot get behind the sexy anime kid aesthetic. I don't find it funny, tantalizing, or clever. The last attempt I made to watch something with this premise was Tsugumomo and it didn't end well. Ryuo's first episode isn't as overt; I mean, no one is licking Ai so I guess that counts for something, but Yaichi is still falling all over her nude body, she's an accomplished cook, and she's already jealous to boot. The whole dynamic is cringe-worthy and embarrassing given the status this series supposedly carries as the cream of the light novel crop.
Series like these that star kids as coy tiny women will likely never work for me. Chalk it up to lifetime experiences getting in the way of the fantasy if you want, although I think at some base level I'd never enjoy this premise even if I didn't have kids. I can only conceptualize the theoretical appeal because it's not like this setup is rare in anime by any means, but it remains tired and lazy to write some kind of romance around a starry-eyed, inexperienced child's admiration for a more experienced teenager. I'm hard passing right the hell away from this one.
So here's a little trivia for you: The Ryuo's Work is Never Done! was voted the #1 best new light novel series for 2017 by fans and critics in Japan's premier light novel guide, Kono Light Novel ga Sugoi!. For all of you who just watched the first episode of this thing without knowing that: Yes, Really.
Is it any wonder anime critics bag on light novel anime so hard? Even if it somehow becomes amazing later on, you're telling me that the cream of the crop for this market is a basic-ass "talented bland guy with a cliche-ridden harem" story whose central hook is that the main girl is a goddamn nine-year-old. And not just any nine-year-old; she's a genius at shogi, an excellent cook, and already jealously obsessed with the lead because he just looked so "cool" playing shogi. I mean come on. What's under the bottom of the barrel, then?
Sorry sorry, I'll try to compose myself. It's not like I'm scandalized by any of this, I'm just annoyed, bored, and disappointed. The experience of watching this episode isn't actively bad per se; the production values are nice enough albeit generic, and it certainly moves along at a rapid enough clip compared to many of its peers, which would have stretched this setup out to two episodes by injecting more brief character introductions and dead-end ecchi comedy segments. The only times this episode became truly unpleasant were the admittedly numerous scenes where the third-grader is shown doing something that a post-pubescent character would do for charm points in a less gross harem, i.e. rocking back and forth while breathing heavy, blushing about the lead guy enjoying her cooking, walking around naked without a care in the world, or turning into the green monster when another girl shows up. It's eye-rolling content at the best of times, but it's inexcusable when applied to a character who can count all her birthdays on two hands.
But mostly this episode and its premise are just incredibly lame paint-by-numbers light novel pabulum. When the cosplaying chuunibyou with heterochromia showed up (another serious shogi competitor no doubt), my brain fully gave the back of my forehead the finger and just shut off entirely. No potential increase in story quality down the line is worth otaku fodder this flavorless.
There are times when a close and faithful adaptation of the source material is not in a show's best interests. Fortunately, that's something The Ryuo's Work is Never Done! recognizes – this first episode cherry-picks scenes from the initial novel of the series and ultimately creates an episode that's a much smoother introduction to both the story and the characters than the muddled opening chapters. Basically what was left out was a not-so-funny scene involving Yaichi's master and a much more abrasive introduction to Ginko as a character, giving us a chance to get right to the main plot of the series: Ai's apprenticeship to Yaichi.
As you may have heard, that's not going to be presented as entirely innocent, and that will be a problem for some viewers. It's less problematic than it could have been – there's only one scene that is overtly sexual, and the trouble is more that Ginko sees it that way than any intention on Yaichi's part. It's a shame that the explanation of Ai's comfort with nakedness stemming from being raised in a hot springs resort was left out. Simply put, this episode makes no bones about the fact that there will be romantic/sexual overtones to this relationship, even if it's never acted upon, but the episode also doesn't focus unduly on this.
That's a good thing, because when the story is focused on shogi, it's pretty interesting. This episode doesn't inundate us with jargon, but it does manage to show how preternaturally talented Ai is without resorting to infodumps. The tense game between Ai and Yaichi is also well-done, not spending too much time showing us every move and reaction, but giving enough shots of the board so that a viewer with some knowledge of the game could see for themselves how things are going. What's really nice is the amount of attention paid to finger tips and nails – not only is it important that we see how differently Yaichi handles his playing pieces compared to Ai (setting them down with an audible clack whereas she simply pushes them into place), but we see the care the players take with their appearances, reminding us that these really are professionals. Likewise, the detail of Yaichi suddenly putting on his glasses when he realizes Ai is worth his time is good, and Ai's “here then here then here” chant while she's playing translates much better than I had anticipated, showing the depth of her concentration as she rocks back and forth in a very childlike gesture of anticipation.
While The Ryuo's Work is Never Done! will probably go deeper into its more uncomfortable elements later on – we get a glimpse of Yaichi's future students, obviously set apart from the rest of the little kids – there's also a good story about competitive shogi in here. It won't work for everyone because of its little girl stuff, but if you don't mind it or can see past it, there's more to this story as well.
My experience with March comes in like a lion made Ryuo's premiere an even weirder experience than I expected. I'm accustomed to seeing my shogi accompanied by grueling personal drama and thoughtful characterization, with March protagonist Rei's struggle to the top of the shogi world being presented as a challenge beyond imagination. Having the mechanics of shogi instead be applied to a show that mostly just wants to create a loli-centric harem thus felt like a weird kind of culture shock, like accidentally catching your grandpa buying girly magazines. After March, the combination of shogi and bargain-bin light novels just feels kinda wrong.
Unfortunately, that weird sense of March-driven disconnect was basically the only emotion this episode provoked in me. Natural salaciousness of a show predicated on giving a third-grader a reason to get naked and call a high school boy “master” aside, this episode didn't really do anything to stand out within the light novel fanservice space. It takes more than simply offering cute girls to a befuddled lead to catch my eye in that genre, and Ryuo lacked the characterization, narrative propulsion, comedy, or aesthetic chops to hold my attention. Sequences like protagonist Yaichi attempting to stop his not-quite-a-sister Ginko from seeing the naked third-grader feel rote and tired, like genre motions imbued with no unique spirit. Even if you're actively looking for a lolicon-focused harem, Ryuo's first episode does extremely little to distinguish itself.
If there's any hope for Ryuo, it's in the show's legitimate interest in shogi as a dramatic platform. As March clearly demonstrates, shogi is a compelling platform for an anime sports drama, and watching the prodigy Ai grow under Yaichi's tutelage could theoretically offer some compelling character drama. But the show's consistently predatory framing makes it significantly harder to take Ai seriously as a character, and even outside of the camera's choices, Ai is characterized more as a fantasy harem object than an actual third-grader, inexplicably vying for Yaichi's affections relative to characters like Ginko. If the show were going to make us care about Ai as a shogi player, it'd have to roll back basically every choice of character framing this episode made.
Potentially worthwhile future material aside, this first episode was basically just a progression of incredibly tired harem gags and largely unengaging narrative setup, lacking the comedy, characters, or even sheer audacity that helps other fanservice-focused shows stand out. If you're looking for an actual shogi-related drama, absolutely check out March comes in like a lion. If you're looking for a conventional fanservice show, maybe check this out, but I have to imagine the season will eventually offer better pickings there too.
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