The Summer 2019 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
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How was the first episode?
If there's anything that doesn't quite work for me in Granbelm's premiere, it's the emphasis on spectacle and setting up its (admittedly cool) premise, instead of taking just a little more time to get us invested in the characters we'll presumably be following all season. Mangetsu is about as stock a heroine as they come, at least at first: Ditzy, eager, and fundamentally well-meaning, her pink color coding makes it difficult for me to not look at her as a well-executed but still obvious Madoka-type. When Mangetsu is abruptly transported to an alternate dimension of broken down castles and magical floating island-orbs, she encounters the girls that pilot the stocky ARMANOX mechs, nearly all of whom are borderline psychotic warmongers bent on defeating each other, save for the stoic one that comes to Mangetsu's aid: Shingetsu Ernesta Fukami. The girls are apparently all fighting in this battle royale to become the Princeps, which is a Supreme Mage, though I wouldn't be shocked at all to find out this entailed getting your greatest wish granted by a deceptively cute little mascot character.
Point being, the script of the episode didn't impress me – it relies too much on familiar tropes and hooks, and not with the same confident style that I got from, say, Fire Force's first episode. Whatever confidence the script might have been lacking, though, Granbelm is able to make up for it with absolutely stellar execution, and any misgivings I might have about the show's story have at least temporarily been quelled by its absolutely killer direction and production. The stout, almost chibi looking ARMANOX might not make everyone's list of favorite mecha designs – I'm still unsure as to whether or not I like them, myself – but Granbelm makes its action sequences sing by paying extra attention to all of the scenes that take place inside the cockpit. All of the girls that Mangetsu encounters are ferocious and very clearly not here to mess around, and each menacing twitch of the eye and gravely roar from the pilots sells the danger of the situation even better than the muted color palettes ever could.
Even better, when Mangetsu gets ahold of her own ARMANOX to join Shingetsu in battle, our heroine manages to set herself apart from any Madoka comparisons by getting just as fierce as her opponents. Actress Miyrui Shimabukuro is young star who is still pretty new to the business, but she made quite the impression on me in her performance as Mangetsu, and I could see her skills going a long way in selling Granbelm's story. The jury is still out on whether rock-solid aesthetics will be enough to carry this premise across the finish line, but anyone with even a passing curiosity in mecha anime or Madoka-inspired battle shows ought to give Granbelm a shot.
This season is shaping up to be a dramatic exposition for talented young anime directors, from Fire Force's Yuki Yase to Astra's Masaomi Andou. The anime-original Granbelm comes to us courtesy of another rising star, Masaharu Watanabe, who made a serious mark directing 2016's colorful, atmospheric Re:Zero. Granbelm sees Watanabe reunited with Re:Zero character designer Shinichiro Otsuka, for a simultaneously fresh and familiar story of girls, robots, and the dramatic adventures they share.
This premiere quickly introduces us to Kohanata Mangetsu, an ordinary high schooler who finds herself transported into a plane of magic and mecha. Teleporting into the midst of a violent robot battle, she's saved only when one of the robots' pilots, Fukami Shingetsu, decides to protect her. Fukami quickly runs through a convoluted story regarding the historical nature of magic, before breaking down the truly important things: magical girls, super robots, battle royale, fight. Then Kohanata discovers her own robot avatar, and much mechanical mayhem ensues.
Granbelm isn't particularly shy about its key influences; significant portions of this episode's narrative and visual iconography seem to echo Madoka Magica, while the show's overarching conceit resembles Fate/stay and its drama plays out a bit like Wixoss. But narrative novelty is far less important than accomplished execution, and Granbelm offers an energetic, visually alluring, and surprisingly charming premiere.
The fondness for deep blues and violets that Watanabe demonstrated on Re:Zero seems to likewise inform Granbelm's color palette, resulting in a beautiful world that naturally facilitates the dreamlike nature of its premise. The show's animation is also quite fluid, with its major fight scenes featuring some excellent effects animation, as well as some great combat choreography for its traditionally animated robots. Granbelm's sound design is also worth noting, though it might be a more polarizing feature; I felt the grind and whine of these robots in motion did a great job of conveying the scale of their movements, but the effect could also be considered a touch overbearing. The robot designs are also quite unique and attractive, though I'm not sure I agree with the choice to give them all squat little bodies with essentially no torsos to speak of.
On the less positive side, this episode was somewhat weighed down by its convoluted exposition, and nothing about its narrative so far has demonstrated much distinctive character. Kohanata and Fukami are familiar character archetypes, but not yet people - if Granbelm wants to maintain my attention, it'll have to find some nuance in its portrayal of its cast, and unique narrative hooks of its own. But on the whole, this was a visually impressive, energetic, and altogether entertaining episode, and if its genre mix sounds appealing, I'd recommend giving it a shot.
Mecha and magical girl genres have flirted with each other on several occasions over the years, but cross-overs which fully embrace both genres have been rare; the only dedicated one that I can think of is Magic Knight Rayearth, and even in that one the mecha aspect didn't pop up immediately. This series, however, looks dedicated to integrating the two right from the start, with its magical girls fighting each other by manifesting mecha from their wills. That is the one major twist on what it is otherwise a very ordinary-looking concept: magical girls fighting each other for some kind of prize.
Of course, that's a pretty big twist. Rather than hurtling magical blasts at each other or using weapons directly, each girl stands in the cockpit of her ARMANOX and manipulates it by strings of magical energy connected to her fingertips. That the mecha have somewhat chibified, almost cutesy looks to them is also oddly different, and some of the capabilities of the mecha are more magical than technological, though communication between ARMANOXes (how do you write the plural for that properly?) is exactly like what's seen in any of a number of hard-core mecha series. The action intensity also certainly is not lacking; the battles featured in this first episode are active and fierce ones by any mecha standards, and they are animated remarkably well. This is the most ambitious title that studio Nexus has headlined the production effort for, but they will not be found wanting.
Beyond the mecha aspect, both the artistry and the storytelling are much more ordinary. Nothing really sticks out about heroine Mangetsu yet; she's just the typical clueless newbie so far. Shingetsu holds a bit more promise as the veteran who befriends her in this setting and, according to the Next Episode preview, will soon be joining her in the regular world as well, though both Shingetsu's personality and the way her relationship with Mangetsu is trending is also very typical for these “battle magical girl” series. Nothing yet stands out much about the antagonists or the premise for the battles, either, though why anyone would be keen on being a Princeps was not provided in Shingetsu's explanation to Mangetsu.
As unordinary as the premise may seem, the series does have one major factor in its favor: it is directed by Masaharu Watanabe, whose previous lead effort was the home run known as Re:ZERO. It could be interesting to see what he can accomplish without strong source material as a base.
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