The Summer 2019 Anime Preview Guide
to the abandoned Sacred Beasts
How would you rate episode 1 of
to the abandoned Sacred Beasts ?
What is this?
How was the first episode?
To the Abandoned Sacred Beasts has the kind of hook that I was all in for within the first five minutes of the premiere, one that manages to rise above the show's somewhat stale visuals and messy scripting. In an fantasy nation of Patra that is wracked by civil war, the military of North Patria has developed a secret weapon to combat the superior forces of the South: A company of men and women that have been given the ability to transform into powerful monsters, who the people have come to call Incarnates, because they revere the creatures almost as gods. That's just such a damn cool idea for a show that I would be giving this show a few episodes to prove itself, even if it's first episode was bunk.
Thankfully, To the Abandoned Sacred Beasts doesn't whiff its introduction, though things get a little sweaty to be sure. The core issue I have with this first episode is how much backstory and setup it tries to cram in a single twenty-minutes, which often makes it feel like you're watching a recap episode for a full first season that doesn't exist. We meet childhood friends Hank, Cain, and Elaine, the former two being the lead soldiers of the Incarnate, and the latter being the woman who developed the formulas to transform people into Incarnates in the first place. We see the halcyon days of the Incarnates when their terrifying powers could be used for good, and the soldiers were able to function as a makeshift family. We learn that Hank has been in love with Elaine for years, which doesn't spell good things for the couple, since no anime romance gets a spotlight in the first episode of a dark fantasy series unless things are meant to go terribly wrong. Soon, Incarnate start losing their minds, Elaine resolves to kill all of her creations before they can do harm (starting with Hank), and then Cain betrays Elaine and reveals that he's the cackling villain of the whole series, presumably because his name is Cain. Hank swears revenge as he goes on a mission to slay all of the remaining Incarnates himself, and things are so stuffed to the gills that the first proper fight between Hank and an Incarnate is breezed through in the ending credits.
So there's a lot going on, and a part of me wishes all of this had gotten at least another episode or two to fully breathe, because I could see a version of the story where I got to fully care about all of these characters before they start going insane and become generic anime villains. The writing is solid enough to get its audience on board with its premise, but it's clear that the real meat of the story is still to come. The show also suffers from a visual style that, to me, doesn't make as much of an impact as it could. The monster designs are all super cool, and there are some slick cuts of animation that show some promise for the future, but since so much of the premiere is about setting the table for the story to come, there aren't many opportunities to for the direction to make a lot of impact – it's all very workmanlike.
MAPPA usually turns out reliable work, though, and I'm fairly confident that the show will turn out to be reliably entertaining, even if it doesn't necessarily excel. Truthfully, I am more than willing to give this show a shot because I simply love the idea of a turn-of-the-century Werewolf Man going on a revenge spree and fighting a bunch of other monster people. The post-credit tag introduces a young-woman with a gun who promises to add an interesting dynamic to the story when she inevitably teams up with Hank. Anyone looking for a fun and gritty monster battle show would do well to check this one out, if only to see if it lives up to its potential in the coming weeks.
There's a part of me that really wants to jump on board with To the Abandoned Sacred Beasts, largely because the series is working with some intriguing themes and storylines. While the visuals in this episode bring to mind the American Civil War, the basic premise could be just as easily transplanted into any other instance of a nation divided into warring factions. It's looking like the meat of the story will take place after the war's conclusion, creating an obvious but potentially compelling parallel between the reunified country's struggle to define its social and cultural identity and the soldiers' struggle to reintegrate into society. If approached with the appropriate level of insight and nuance, that's a recipe for compelling and poignant storytelling.
What leaves me a little underwhelmed about this premiere is that while it lays down a perfectly serviceable narrative foundation, it doesn't really check the “nuance” box. Whether it's Hank and Cain detailing their shared backstory for the audience's benefit or the inevitable revelation that the Incarnates are irreversibly losing their humanity, the writing consistently feels too straightforward for this material. Because everything is presented in such a basic, by-the-numbers fashion, scenes that should carry plenty of emotional weight feel too hollow and predictable. There's also a big question mark hanging over one of the presumptive main characters, who has yet to speak and only appears for a few seconds at the very end of the episode. It's hard to make a judgment call on a series when one of the key players hasn't been properly introduced yet.
To the show's credit, it does an encouraging number of things well. I like the way the opening battle introduces us to the Incarnates through the eyes of an ordinary (and understandably terrified) human soldier, since this helps emphasize their impact on the outcome of the war. This episode also makes efficient use of its merely average production values, with the most striking element being the visible changes the Incarnates go through as their conditions deteriorate over time. I also like the fact that we don't really see Hank's beast form until the last battle scene, as this helps to drive home just how incredibly pissed off he is about how things have turned out.
As it stands, I don't foresee To the Abandoned Sacred Beasts developing into the sharply written character drama I'd like it to be, but I'm willing to give it another week to lay all its cards on the table. What we've seen so far feels more like a prologue than a proper first chapter, and much of the show's long-term appeal will depend on characters we either haven't gotten to know very well or haven't met at all. For now, the series has managed to take a small first step without falling on its face, and that's reason enough for cautious optimism.
This is one of the rare cases where I have actually read the first couple of volumes of the source manga prior to the anime version debuting. Because of that, this was one of my most-anticipated titles for the new season. The manga presented a mostly-grim story about soldiers who sacrificed deeply to help win a war only to have no place in a post-war era, effectively making literal the way that war can figuratively turn some soldiers into beasts incapable of functioning in normal society. The anime version seems to be following that theme as well, but the adaptation has already made some interesting choices in how it presents the premise, and they are choices that I think will benefit the series in the long run.
The manga opens with only a thin three pages of explanation before introducing Schaal, who will be the female co-star. In the anime version, however, Schaal is only briefly mentioned in the episode content and only finally appears in the episode's very last scene. To fill in the intervening time, the anime version plays out how things got to the point where the manga starts, in part by incorporating in one pivotal flashback scene which appears in the manga's second volume. As a result, this episode effectively serves as the main story's prequel, to the point that I am a little surprised that this wasn't listed as an episode 0. The big benefits here are that we are introduced to the Incarnates before they become the subjects of Hank's hunts and shown how they get to the state of being problems, as well as being shown up front the defining betrayal on which the whole story pivots. We also get a much clearer idea up front of where Hank is coming from, though I am curious to see how that will impact Schaal's discovery process about Hank in future episodes. Still, in general the material added here satisfyingly fleshes out the story, so the adaptation choices by director Jun Shishido (who has had previous successes with The Story of Saiunkoku and The Princess and the Pilot) so far are smart ones.
Evaluated on its own, the anime version presents a very graphically violent tale, one where a couple of scenes which are almost too light-hearted get ruthlessly drowned out by the bloodbath of the war. Emphasis is placed equally on how crucial the Incarnates are to the war effort and also on their mortality; they can die in battle, and even more terrifying things can happen when Incarnates fully lose their humanity. This is hardly new territory for anime, but this take on the basic “hunt down those who have gone dangerously rogue” premise has extra bite to it (if you'll pardon the pun) that a lot of this title's predecessors lack. Naturally it shows signs of a significant action component, but the first episode also holds the promise of the heavy theme suggested by the title and a sympathetic base is laid up front for the tragic nature of the monsters. On the downside, the episode also promises the incongruously light-hearted moments and the needlessly-sexy way that one recurring female character dresses which were both features of the manga, but those are minor distractions.
On the whole, a solid production effort by MAPPA and capable writing and directing choices make this a promising start to the Summer 2019 season.
If there's one thing I admire about To the Abandoned Sacred Beasts, it's its willingness to just throw subtlety out the window with an anchor around its neck by naming its villain “Cain Madhouse.” Talk about a loaded name – if you weren't expecting Cain to betray someone the minute you heard his name (and saw that he was basically the third wheel in the Hank/Elaine relationship), you are far less cynical than me. Then we find out his last name is “Madhouse;” in the parlance of the time period the show is not-so-gently hinting at, the 1860s, that is one name for a facility for the less than sane, and at the time they were truly horrific institutions. So his name is basically “Betrayer Insane Man With Bad Reputation.” Oh, he's going to be a great guy, I can tell.
Sarcasm aside, To the Abandoned Sacred Beasts is a good first episode that I didn't like. What that means is that it is quite well done, from the interesting use of the American Civil War with war scenes that look very much like photos of the era to the way that veterans can feel displaced or abandoned by society when the war is done. In the case of this story, that's because Hank and his men were members of a special troop of “Incarnates,” human/animal/monster hybrids developed by Elaine. The Incarnates were the extra push the North needed to win the war, but the drawbacks were more than anyone wanted to deal with, namely that the Incarnates gradually became more and more like their fused beasts than their original selves. If it's a metaphor for PTSD, it's an interesting one, and if the series treads carefully, it could also be somewhat effective.
I say “somewhat” because this is where the story falters for me. Apart from the fact that most of the Incarnates started waving death flags the minute we meet them (“This is my wonderful daughter!” “I love your daughter!” “I'm going ask Elaine to marry me!”), Elaine's decision to kill all of the soldiers before they fully merge with their monsters sits somewhat uneasily. When Hank, who has miraculously survived her bullet, then takes up that mantle in the end of the episode, the Incarnate's language about how he was a hero but now people fear him speaks to a humanity that may still exist within him. The plan to just wipe out the remaining Incarnates, to not try to find another solution or to help them in any way, feels too pat, and like the story is looking for a reason to continue to be violent now that the war scenes are over. This absolutely may change going forward, as the title would seem to imply, but this really isn't a premise that makes me want to see more. War stories, no matter what war, need to be handled carefully. I'm not convinced that this will do that.
It's always a bit tricky to rate the first show of a new season, given the inherently fluid, debatable nature of a reductive rating, as well as the fact that each new season will have a distinct overall distribution of quality. If you overrate that first show, you stand the risk of being unable to properly express how exceptional future shows are - if you underrate it, you might end up coming off as a cynic if few future premieres actually surpass it. In light of all that, I appreciate To the Abandoned Sacred Beasts for offering pretty much the platonic ideal of “it was okay” with its first episode. That crucial three star bar has been officially set.
To the Abandoned Sacred Beasts stands as this season's requisite “self-serious dark fantasy/action” contender, replacing the exiting Attack on Titan. In fact, Sacred Beasts actually seems to share some Titan DNA, from its focus on a quasi-industrial age faux-European empire to its titular transforming monsters. In this first episode, we meet Captain Hank and his team of shapeshifting Incarnates. In a war between the Northern City of Industry and the Southern City of Mining (worldbuilding is clearly not this author's strong suit), those Incarnates end up turning the tide for the north, only to succumb to their bestial instincts. And so, some number of betrayals later, we arrive at an era of peace where Hank's former squadmates are now wreaking havoc, and both his former partner and would-be lover have disappeared.
The best element of this episode was likely its sympathetic portrayal of Hank's relationship with his squad, as well as their steady deterioration over the course of the war. The show's art design is only so-so and animation fairly limited, but I appreciated how clearly we could see the physical progression of the Incarnate virus over the course of the war. A few well-chosen incidental moments at camp went a long way towards humanizing this team, and the sequence of an Incarnate first losing control was a genuinely horrifying and very effective moment.
That said, it felt like this episode mostly just avoided doing anything profoundly wrong, as opposed to doing anything compellingly right. Sacred Beasts' narrative is both extremely familiar and executed without significant energy; both the direction and the dialogue are too mundane to bring much life to familiar beats like supersoldiers being hated or childhood friends being torn apart. There were also no particularly impressive cuts of action animation, and the show in general stuck to a muted earth-tones aesthetic that was likely intended to convey dramatic seriousness, but mostly just resulted in a visually bland production. If you're a big fan of these sorts of grim fantasy action shows, Sacred Beasts seems like a passable but altogether unexceptional example of the form. If you're not, you can probably skip this one.
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