The Summer 2019 Anime Preview Guide
The Ones Within
How would you rate episode 1 of
The Ones Within ?
What is this?
How was the first episode?
The fact is, if you give me an anime where a bunch of very specifically talented teenagers with ridiculous wardrobes are kidnapped by a deceptively cute anthropomorphic mascot character and forced to compete in a convoluted-yet-high-stakes battle of wits for their lives, I'm only going to be thinking one thing: “Man, I wish I was playing Danganronpa right now.” It's one thing to take place within the same genre as shout-outs as a super-famous multi-media franchise, and it's even perfectly fine to sake some pointed notes of inspiration from it, too. The Ones Within, however, suffers from the fatal flaw so many other low-rent copycat properties do: It gets the vague idea of what other, better series have done right, but it lacks all of their charm, inventiveness, and fun.
All that The Ones Within really has, as it turns out, is its gimmick: The hyper-talented teens at the focus of the lackadaisical Mr. Paca the Alpaca's competition are all video-game streamers. Atsuki Iride plays escape games, Karin plays horror games, Kaikoku plays games about the Sengoku-era, etc. Each of them have personalities that can be boiled down into single clause descriptions, too – Atsuki is super friendly (and allergic to everything, for some reason), Karin is the brash one who is always insulting Atsuki, and so on and so forth. It all feels so rote, and so dutiful, and the funniest thing is that their all being streamers hardly seems to matter to the overall feel of the show. Sure, each of the kids' goal is to be the first to 100 million viewers, but so what? You could have called this show “The Hunger Games, But Anime” and had it star regular joes who just happen to love games, and it wouldn't be all the different. The show doesn't work as a thriller, and it doesn't a comedy either - Mr. Paca just feels like a dull rip-off of Danganronpa's Monokuma, or Koro-sensei from Assassination Classroom, but we still spend way too much of the premiere's second act with his “wacky” jokes serving as the crux of the material.
I'm not so far removed from the current generation that I don't get the appeal of streaming culture, but it surely cannot have gotten to the point that the whole concept of The Ones Within was considered a slam-dunk simply because it uses the words “Let's Play” a lot, right? Maybe I sound cynical, but there's so little substance to this premiere that I can't help but feel like I'm the only one who isn't in on the joke. The art is purely functional, as is the animation, and the writing is as by-the-numbers as it gets. A part of me is worried that next we're going to get an “ASMR Heroes” show where all of the characters have to kill the bad guy by whispering real soft in his ears and tapping a bunch of empty water bottles and soda cans (I don't really know what ASMR is). Then again, that at least sounds more interesting than The Ones Within, which is one of the easiest skips of the season for me so far.
Did you read the manga Real Account and think to yourself, “Gee, I wish this had much lower stakes and less interesting characters?” Then do I have a show for you! Or at least a first episode; The Ones Within's opening salvo takes the same premise that makes Real Account an interesting commentary on social media and the tyranny of likes and views and waters it down to its most innocuous form with seven popular game streamers taken by a man in an alpaca mask to compete in a real-life video game for views. It's not a bad conceit, and the fact that each of the seven specializes in a different type or genre of game certainly gives it potential, but this episode doesn't really play to the strengths of its premise.
In a nutshell, it feels very rushed. Immediately after we see the players receiving their invitations they can't refuse, our primary protagonist, Akatsuki, is waking up in the woods next to buxom pink-haired girl Sarayashiki, whose first action is to punch him. (In her defense, she woke up with him leaning over her and she has no way of knowing he's checking her pulse.) Akatsuki quickly shows himself to be the quirky guy by choosing to befriend the enormous panda that's chasing them, and then once again the scene changes to the classroom from Assassination Classroom, where Mr. Paca, who acts very much like Marble from Real Account, fills in a few more details. Long story short, before this episode, which is not double-length, has the characters clearing two stages in the game completely. The point of both of them is exactly the same: that because Akatsuki doesn't specialize in either of the types of game he's in, he's able to use his cheery goodwill to think outside the box and win the day.
Again, it's not a bad message or theme, and as someone who's played her share of horror games, I loved him cheerfully waving the death flag by offering to be the (evil) spirit's friend because that just seemed like the easiest thing to do. There's a lot of potential for humor in that aspect of the series; the problem is that I'm not sure it actually wants to be a comedy. Mr. Paca and the entire set up seem to suggest that this is meant to be horror/suspense, and that is in no way coming across in this episode.
Could it improve down the line? Of course – it has a plot that's worked before, and just because it's a rehash (at least in terms of reaching English-language audiences) doesn't mean it can't be good on its own merits. But I'm seeing a decided lack of those merits in this episode, which also feels like it's skimping on artistic details and exciting animation. If you're invested in the genre, it might be worth giving a second episode, but otherwise it seems like this show may not be worth giving your views.
Though I can see the appeal of live-streaming gamin for its tutorial value, I don't get it at all for entertainment value. (Of course, I don't appreciate reality shows, either.) Hence this series had a big mark against it for me based just on its premise. Sadly, the first episode does absolutely nothing to overcome that. Or it could just be that the first episode is bad even without factoring that in.
I can absolutely see what this manga adaptation was aiming for: a Danganropa-type appeal where the irritating teddy bear is replaced by an equally irritating (though in a different way) guy wearing an Alpacca head – just because, you know, that's supposed to be unsettlingly weird, right? Except that it isn't; it's just dumb. He's not mean enough, or intimidating enough, to have much impact, and attempts to make him humorous fall woefully flat. The same can be said for the overall set-up. The premise depends on the live-streamers winning by getting 100,000,000 views, but the only motivation that they are given for going through with this is that if they get rebellious then they get put in isolation, with the implication being that they could stay there until they rot - literally. Nothing is made explicit about how this is a life-or-death situation, and nothing is even implied about what the big prize is for reaching the stated goal. Do they just get to survive? That might be compelling on its own if this was a Highlander-style situation, but no indication of that is provided.
Another big problem is the tone. This is presumably at least partly supposed to be a horror scenario, but absolutely nothing about the first episode – not even the ghost who appears – has much of a real horror vibe to it. It wants to mix in some humor with that, but nothing about the whole “super-giant panda with allergies” gimmick is actually funny. Each of the live-streamers has been given their own distinct niche and personality quirks, and things I've read about this series suggest that each character also has a deep, dark secret, but none of the latter is even suggested by the first episode and none of the personalities displayed so far are all that interesting. The character design style also does the series no favors, though it does seem to be accurate to the source manga, and absolutely nothing is special about the visual or audio presentations.
When I looked at who directed this one, I was shocked to discover that it was Shin Oonuma. He's done stellar work in other anime titles (Baka and Test, Dusk maiden of Amnesia, WATAMOTE, the Fate/kalied liner Prisma Illya titles), so what happened here?
There are few phrases that inspire a greater sense of dread and personal obsolescence in me than “Let's Player Battle Royale.” I know anime is for the most part aimed at the generation after mine, but that reality can slip into the background when it comes to narratives divorced from any specific generational interest. In contrast, watching a show overtly about teenagers who stream videogames is a terrific way to make me feel intensely, bone-quakingly old.
My own creaking, decaying body aside, The Ones Within is unfortunately just not a very good show. This episode spends a great deal of time setting up its arbitrary and not terribly engaging premise, along with offering overlong introductions of its entire main cast. While I could definitely see the appeal of a drama that forces game masters to parlay their specialties into real-world challenges, none of The Ones Within's characters actually do that; protagonist Akatsuki solves both of the “puzzles” presented by this episode simply by being nice, not by actually overcoming any specific challenge. The characters are also very archetypal, and the show's sense of humor is simplistic and obnoxious - we hit an “are you a pervert” misunderstanding gag within the first two minutes, and later scenes attempt to mine comedy out of the host aggressively hitting on all the female streamers.
The Ones Within's one saving grace is its direction, courtesy of the talented yet uneven Shin Oonuma. After starting his career as one of the early pillars of studio SHAFT, Oonuma has gone on to lend his unique eye for engaging visual drama to a wide variety of narratively dubious productions, from C3 to Chivalry of a Failed Knight. There's rarely a sense of cohesive visual identity to Oonuma's works; the guy often seems to simply like visual experimentation for its own sake, and this episode is full of color-shifted reaction shots, interesting framing choices, and evocative style shifts. But while Oonuma's extravagant style at least adds some visual diversity to this production, it can't make up for either the bland character designs or lacking animation, and it can't salvage this fundamentally lousy story. The Ones Within is an easy skip.
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