The Spring 2019 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Namu Amida Butsu! -Rendai Utena- ?
What is this?
How was the first episode?
Anime adaptations of mobile games tend to fall in the less impressive end of the seasonal harvest for understandable reasons. Whether they're based around ships as girls, swords as boys, or whatever other conceit, the appeal of the source material tends to lean heavily on “there are a million characters and you get to pick your own favorites.” In light of that appeal, adaptations of these games often concern themselves less with crafting a satisfying narrative and more with making sure all of the original game's fan favorites are represented. It's a natural recipe for disappointment to those not familiar with the source material, but fortunately, Namuamibutsu does a commendable job of enhancing its source for TV. This show may be kinda aimless and clearly filled with far too many characters, but it has one major thing going for it: it's pretty darn funny.
Instead of anthropomorphic swords or guns, Namuamibutsu's gimmick is that all of its characters are actually Buddhist deities, who dispel earthly vices in order to preserve the mortal world. Or at least, that's their job description—in practice, they mostly lounge around a random mortal temple. This episode focuses on the arrival of Taishakuten and Bonten, two committed vice-hunters who find themselves having difficulty adjusting to this lackadaisical life.
The two main jokes of this episode are “stalwart Buddhist warriors versus the modern world” and “stalwart Buddhist warriors versus the slice-of-life genre,” and the show iterates on both those gags to terrific effect. Early scenes are stuffed with simple but effective concepts like “our leads discover modern washing machines” and “our leads discover the microwave,” with our heroes' bafflement and frustration coming across like a gently meta protest at being stuck in a slice-of-life show. Some jokes lean on simple but effective culture shock beats, like being dazzled by a grocery store's selection of milk, and gags that other shows would likely turn into too-loud slapstick are rushed through with confidence, letting the deadpan tone enhance the comedy. If this episode actually has a plot, it's “Lord Shaka Norai sucks at cooking because he's so holy that everything tastes great to him, please make him stop.”
Namuamibutsu also looks pretty good, boasting generally above-average production values, some evocative lighting effects, and a wide array of distinctive character designs. It seems like the show will go in a more focused and dramatically urgent direction from here, but personally, I wouldn't mind if it keeps messing around with slice-of-life shenanigans. A strong sense of comedic timing and structure is a priceless asset, and regardless of its other qualities, Namuamibutsu gets that just right.
I reviewed Touken Ranbu: Hanamaru a while back, which is the cute-boys-that-are-also-tools-to-fight-monsters anime that isn't made by ufotable, and Namuamidabutsu bears such an uncanny resemblance to that series that I had to do some further research to convince myself that it wasn't some kind of spinoff. Instead of the main characters being anthropomorphic representations of weapons like in Touken Ranbu, Namuamidabutsu features a cast of immortal deities who fight manifestations of human wickedness known as “vices”. Other than that, it's essentially the same show; we've got a large cast of attractive young men who are all easily defined by their differing fashion senses and their single identifying personality quirk, who are set loose to hang out in the modern era, get into sitcom shenanigans, and otherwise kill time with banter. There's some prerequisite drama that bookends the episode concerning those pesky vices, but this show knows that it's really about the silly stuff. Just a few minutes after the perpetually bickering Taishakuten and Bonten arrive at the Bonnoji Temple, it doesn't take the other deities long to convince them to put on some comfy sweats and relax already.
To be honest, I'm not particularly invested in this genre; even ufotable's action-heavy Touken Ranbu anime had to work extra hard to catch my attention. The casts are too large for my liking, and the writing is too predictable and low-key. As Namuamidabutsu dutifully introduced each of its heavenly players, I could feel my focus waning with each passing scene. Taishakuten and Bonten's rivalry is enough to drive a scene or two, but if their dynamic is so compelling that Namuamidabutsu chose to feature them in the premiere, I can't imagine that the other twenty characters will have much more to offer. The direction of the episode also doesn't do the script any favors. Everything from the show's reserved timing to its stiff visuals fits the definition of mediocre – Namuamidabutsu is efficient enough to get from Point A to Point B without any speedbumps, but it doesn't have any surprises or creative tricks up its sleeves either.
The one element of this episode that showed some promise for me was the focus on how Taishakuten and Bonten are men out of time. I was amused by their inability to process modern conveniences and their knack for over-complicating even the simplest of tasks thanks to their ability to disguise their appearance in the human world. Fish-out-of-water comedy is an easy draw for me; show me a man who is comically overwhelmed by the complex nuances of a modern dairy aisle, and I'm a satisfied customer. I don't know how much more the show will exploit the comic possibilities of these deities interacting with the human world, but if it leans into that element more, I could see Namuamidabutsu carving out a decent niche amongst the rest of the season's offerings.
I am not Buddhist, nor have I ever studied Buddhism much in-depth, so I am certain that there are a number of jokes and references in this show that are flying over my head. Despite that, even a total Buddhism novice will be able to glean at least some mild humor from this first episode. In fact, I have to wonder if this series might actually work better if you don't know Buddhism well and thus don't have to worry about details being misrepresented.
While the first episode starts off giving the impression that this is going to be an action series about divine beings who work to rid the world of dangerous supernatural entities, the rest of the episode doesn't play out that way. The warriors in question have only just arrived in the human realm, and are thus unaccustomed to both the more relaxed pace of the modern world and humanity's connections to vices. In the episode's most serious sequence, the newcomers are shown that all living beings have some degree of vice that they can (and must?) contend with naturally, so the divine beings only need to step in when things get out of hand.
The rest of the episode, which is part “fish out of water” story and part playful bishonen comedy, has a very different tone. Our two newcomers aren't up to speed at all on modern conveniences or even how to use proper disguises in the human city, resulting in one case where one of them draws way more attention than intended because he copied the visage of a famous wrestler. The disguise thing actually becomes a significant element of the story, as merely being at the Buddhist temple results in them being perceived as monks, leading to a rather amusing scene in a restaurant where the staff sees an improbably eclectic mix of individuals eating together because of their incongruous disguises. There's also a fair amount of content that's basically just "cute boys doing cute things."
The technical merits of the series shine most in the more lavish character designs of the cast's divine forms, but otherwise they aren't anything special. The last scenes involving Ashura's appearance also suggest that a heavier conflict is pending, but I think this one might work better if it keeps things more light and playful. Overall, NAMUAMIDABUTSU! gets off to a mildly entertaining start.
I can't help but feel like Namu Amida Butsu! -Rendai Utena- wants to be the bishounen game adaptation answer to Saint Young Men. It definitely wears its religious origins on its sleeve – all of the characters are Buddhist deities with their own storied mythologies and they're specifically on earth to cleanse humans of Earthly Vices. Shaka Nyorai, the Buddha in charge, is known for teaching the Middle Way, a path between full-on sensuality and total abstention, and that comes through in what he says to protagonists Bonten and Taishakuten, who are having trouble adjusting to life on earth.
This aspect coexists somewhat uneasily with the goofier pieces of the episode, however. Most of it is concerned with showing us just how bad at being human(ish) the two newly arrived residents of Bonnoji Temple are. They haven't been to the Earthly Realm for centuries, so things like frozen food and washing machines throw them for a major loop. They've never had cake, been to a grocery store, or even really bothered to think about what passes for “normal” in society these days. All of that leads to things like Taishakuten's initial human disguise being a famous body-builder (Bonten opts for a cute high school girl look) while he runs around looking for a cow to milk or Bonten being overwhelmed with the options in a modern supermarket. (Why yes, buying milk is a major plot point!) These scenes are more cutely amusing than outright funny, but they do work better than the more heavy-handed elements of the show. On the plus side, the character designs are very pretty even if the animation is lacking, so if you just need to look at some very lovely young men, this fits the bill.
Where this goes from here may determine whether this is worthwhile or not. Keeping up this uneasy balance of Buddhist philosophy in scenes like the Nyorai taking Bonten and Taishakuten out to see that vice is a part of all beings in small amounts and the sillier aspects such as Bonten trying to do laundry with a washboard doesn't quite work now, so that's not really a good sign. Ashura, our presumable bad guy, shows up in the final moments, which may indicate that things are going to get more serious in general. On the whole, however, this episode doesn't leave me feeling all that hopeful - Namu Amida Bu! -Rendai Utena- feels a little too entranced with its own schtick over telling a story.
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