The Summer 2019 Anime Preview Guide
Arifureta: From Commonplace to World's Strongest
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Arifureta - From Commonplace to World's Strongest ?
Community score: 3.0
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How was the first episode?
Everyone has their own pet peeves when it comes to fiction, and Arifureta puts two of mine front and center: video game logic in place of original worldbuilding and writing that tries desperately hard to tell the audience how dark and gritty it is. Considering this series is apparently built out of my own personal kryptonite, I have to give its first episode some credit. It sticks to its guns, and it does a decent job of introducing the plot and setting. It didn't make me want to watch more, but I also didn't hate it, and in this case that's actually an encouraging sign.
The best move Arifureta makes is to skip over the parts of its premise that would feel overly familiar to genre fans. There's no lengthy sequence of Hajime and his classmates getting yanked out of their world and into a fantasy universe, and we're given the bare minimum of information necessary to figure out that they all ended up with special abilities and his are the weakest of the bunch. With the basic exposition confined to a few brief flashback scenes, this episode is able to put most of its energy into the more compelling story of Hajime getting separated from his group in a dungeon full of high-level monsters. The survival sequences are pretty intense, to the point where it seems vaguely reasonable for Hajime's train of thought to devolve into a primal “kill or be killed” mentality. This is the kind of experience that's typically reserved for a villain's backstory, so it's kind of intriguing to see it applied to the protagonist.
On the other hand, this show has some issues that will weaken the experience regardless of whether or not you're on board with its angsty tone. The vast majority of this episode takes place in a dimly-lit cave, and I have a sneaking suspicion all those muddy shadows are hiding some mediocre production values. The writing also feels way too much like an angry teenager's first attempt at writing fiction. It overplays its hand with the “me against the world” attitude, to the point where everyone except Hajime is depicted as being naive, incompetent, obnoxious, or just plain nasty. Perhaps inevitably, this leads into cheap power fantasy territory once Hajime starts leveling up by eating monsters. For crying out loud, the dude ends up white hair, red eyes, one arm, and a magic handgun by the end of the episode. If that's not enough to turn him into a walking cliché, I don't know what is.
If you enjoy darker isekai stories and can watch a character check his magical RPG status menu without rolling your eyes, Arifureta has some potential. Its decision to jump right into the meat of the story (both literally and figuratively) suggests that it won't waste too much time spelling out genre-standard plot points, and it might be interesting to watch what happens when Hajime's classmates see his new look. On the other hand, neither the writing nor the visuals are particularly good, and this season has a wealth of better options if you're in the mood for a good fantasy fight scene.
Arifureta is another one of these isekai titles which is frustratingly vague at its beginning about its basic set-up; its opener reveals much more about how Hajime and his classmates got to the fantasy world than the episode content does, and nothing in this episode explains anything about why they are there. It is, however, the first of two upcoming series (So I'm a Spider, So What? being the other one) which involve an entire class being transported rather than just a single individual. I've heard from descriptions of the first novel that this results in the class dynamics carrying over as well, and paired with what we see in this first episode, that suggests that Hajime is going to have to shake up those dynamics to get ahead in this new world. The first episode definitely shows the start of that happening.
This all results in a first episode which is far heavier, grimmer, and bloodier than isekai series normally get coming out of the gate. Hajime starts in a bad place, loses an arm almost right away, and then has to watch a monster eat it. (Guess he should have listened to the priestess in the flashback?) To survive, he happens across what I'm going to assume is some forbidden knowledge: that eating monsters can quickly make you stronger and allow you to take on their abilities, but if you don't have Holy Water to offset the side effects, you're probably not going to survive the experience. The episode pulls few punches in how nasty this process is, with arguably the highlight scene coming when Hajime blows off the arm of the monster which ate his and then savagely takes a bite out of it in a rather extreme form of payback. The way he uses both his basic and new abilities to fashion a magical gun is also rather neat.
In other words, this series is already showing some “bite” to it that many others don't have. How his classmates react to his radical change in personality and abilities once he finally gets back to the surface should be interesting to see, but first there's the deal with the blond girl shown at the end who's apparently strung up naked crucifixion-style in a shot very reminiscent of a recurring visual from Dies irae. Someone he's going to find down here in the dungeon whose name is clearly stolen from Dungeons & Dragons, perhaps? Opener visuals suggest that she's going to be a regular cast member, so I guess we'll see next episode. Other visuals are depending a little too heavily on mediocre CG for special effects, but otherwise the content looks pretty good and has a strong, if very eclectic, sound.
While I do have some concerns so far, this one throws out enough interesting hooks that I'm willing to watch more.
It's never a good sign when the experience of watching a premiere can be recreated by reading the show's title. Hajime is one of a whole class of kids who've been sucked into an alternate world that (say it with me now) operates just like a video-game RPG, with stats and everything. Hajime, as you might guess, starts off in the “commonplace” bracket of the group. That might actually be putting it a little too nicely – he's complete dork, and his ability to transmute matter around him is borderline useless in battle, which hasn't made him very popular with most of his comrades. When a battle goes wrong, presumably because of a betrayal within the group, Hajime is left to die in an underground pit. However, It only takes a couple of days of ingesting some magical goo and raw monster meat to literally level up and completely change his personality from “passive nobody” to “hypermasculine edgelord murder god hellbent on revenge”. Hence the title.
My problem with these kind of brazen, power-fantasy indulging fantasy/isekai stories is that at this point they feel factory made to appeal only to the folks that are already all in on the genre. If you've seen Goblin Slayer, or Shield Hero, or Overlord, or any of the other dozens of similar properties to come out in the last few years, then you likely won't find anything new in Arifureta. It's grim and dark, both in the literal and figurative sense, and it maybe wallows in its grimy, gory sensibilities a bit more than other shows of its ilk, but I don't think those factors make it any different from its progenitors. It's just more. If you love this kind of stuff, then more is probably better, but if you don't then Arifureta isn't even talking to you. So much does it assume that you already know the basics of its premise that barely bothers to setup the fundamentals of its premise – the other characters and even the “other world” aspect of the plot are tossed aside for almost all of the episode so we can just focus on watching Hajime literally fail his way into becoming a badass for half an hour.
I already struggle to understand the appeal of stories that just hand their heroes godlike abilities on a silver-platter, and then expect their casual exploration of their growing skill-trees and EXP pools to carry a whole season's worth of anime. Now we have this recent trend of making said heroes bitter, unlikable jerks who decide to use their power to take revenge on all of the mean classmates and women who made them feel bad back when they were small. It's an adolescent perspective that doesn't hold up to scrutiny, in my experience, especially when it's used to make the exact same story over and over again. Arifureta's ugly visuals and choppy pacing definitely don't do enough to raise it up out of the doldrums, and I can't see anyone but the most hardcore of the genre faithful sticking around to see if things improve.
Modern isekai seem almost critic-proof at this point. They are so honed in on their function as a specific kind of power fantasy, and so insular in their adherence to the conventions of their genre, that talking about “worldbuilding” or “character writing” or “themes” as you might for a traditional narrative is often pointless. They seem to exist only to perpetuate a fantasy of escape, personal excellence, and rightful rewards in a world that often provides none of these things, and while I understand their appeal, their insular retreat from both emotional self-reflection and any kind of convincing, insightful storytelling means critiquing them is often an exercise in frustration and repetition.
So it goes with Arifureta, which opens with images of a naked girl chained inside a giant crystal, and an ostensibly cool-looking player character with white hair, an eye patch, and a gun. The white-haired guy is the protagonist, the girl is the prize, the narrative will be a process of our hero being first spurned by the mean people surrounding him, and then ultimately demonstrating his worthiness through mastery of overtly videogame-style systems, and being rewarded with fawning admirers.
This first episode does nothing to subvert the genre's rigid formula; our hero Nagumo is indeed unjustly disliked by his peers, and after getting his arm slashed off by a monster, he goes on to overtly monologue about arbitrary systems of magical worldbuilding, even as he's bleeding to death. As has become convention, Nagumo's failures aren't framed in any sort of emotional or physical sense - that might require nuanced character writing or naturalistic storytelling. Instead, Nagumo literally has weak stats according to this world's literally RPG-based progression system, because this isn't a genre about self-growth, this is a genre about proving the world has been unfair to you. Later on, Nagumo overtly tells the audience that “I must've gained these skills by eating that monster meat,” because the point here is not to tell a convincing narrative, but to demonstrate understanding and mastery of RPG systems.
Arifureta is also one of the worst-looking premieres of this season, with almost this whole first episode set in a dark cave that made actually discerning the action nearly impossible. That might have been an intentional choice; for the one fight we do actually see, the enemies are low-tier CG models that move as if they're angry parade balloons. The character designs are also generic and not particularly attractive, and even the fanservice is mostly just “hey, boobs,” as opposed to anything theoretically erotic.
There's really nothing to recommend about Arifureta, and it embodies all the worst instincts of the most creatively barren genre in modern anime. The easiest of skips.
Arifureta is one of those adaptations that decides to skip over the set-up chapters of the source novel in favor of getting right to the good stuff. While it's undeniable that Hajime's travails in the depths of the labyrinth after friendly fire sent him there are much more exciting than the mechanics of how he and his class ended up in this fantasy world to begin with, it still ends up feeling a bit rushed and like the show has shoved character development aside in favor of showing Hajime ripping raw monster flesh from bone with his teeth. In other words, we have very little reason to care about his transformation from nice (but weak) guy to rampaging monster slayer, nor to fully understand his anger at his situation. Yes, we know that someone sent him to his presumed death, but not the full sequence of events that brought him to that point, and that's important to really getting what's going on with him.
There also seems to be a rush to introduce the first non-classmate girl of his harem. Again, that does make a certain amount of sense – she's pretty important – but flying through what brings him to her and who he's become by the time he gets there isn't doing the series any favors. (Though I am curious as to how they'll handle one specific scene having to do with them.) Basically I think that this episode is trying so very hard to distinguish itself from the other isekai works out there that it may be shooting itself in the foot as it burns through its source material.
It does, however, do a decent job of letting us know that this is not just another story about a hapless loser or a super nice guy transported to another world. Arifureta is isekai with fangs, and as Hajime learns to cope with eating poisonous monster meat, utilize his new powers to create weaponry, and just generally slaughters his way through the labyrinth, there's no shortage of implied brutality. It isn't quite as visceral as some of the scenes in Re:Zero when we see Subaru's injuries (as an example), but it's clear that this isn't a brightly colored magical fantasy delight. That may be enough to work as a hook here, and if the pacing slows down once Hajime hooks up with the blonde girl, this could be a decent dark answer to some of the perkier isekai. As of this episode, however, my first inclination is to recommend reading the books instead.
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