The Winter 2019 Anime Preview Guide
The Magnificent Kotobuki
How would you rate episode 1 of
Magnificent KOTOBUKI ?
What is this?
How was the first episode?
The Magnificent KOTOBUKI has the same basic sales pitch as Girly Air Force: cute anime girls and explosive aerial action. The two premieres even have similar levels of overall quality, so how's a person supposed to choose between them? For me, the key difference comes down to each title's initial strengths and weaknesses. Where Girly Air Force featured respectable character writing but failed to sell me on its action scenes, The Magnificent KOTOBUKI has the exact opposite problem. I like the planes, but I'm not sure if I care about the people flying them.
The issue with this premiere isn't that it does a poor job of character development so much as that it just doesn't do much character development at all. We get one whole scene of the main characters talking to one another, and it's barely long enough to get through names and basic personality traits. They don't seem particularly annoying or poorly written, but we don't get any tangible sense of who these girls really are or how they ended up as combat pilots for hire. The closest thing we get to meaningful detail is that Kylie seems to have a grudge against one of the pirates they end up fighting (or at least against the emblem on the enemy plane's wing), but even that feels remarkably bare-bones. As it stands, there's no truly compelling reason to care about what happens to any of these girls.
The good news is that this episode's lengthy action sequence looks fantastic. The planes are rendered in CG, which takes some personality out of the visuals but allows for an impressive level of mechanical detail. It also opens the door for some genuinely inspired direction; between the swooping exterior shots and the first-person cockpit views, there's some intense and immersive action here. There's also a much more convincing sense of realism in this episode than what we got from Girly Air Force, as everything from the takeoff scene to the way the planes move gives the impression that the creators did plenty of research. The closes thing I have to a complaint is that this scene could've done with some more dialogue; there are long stretches where all we hear is the background music and sound effects, and while both of those are impressive, they don't do much to convey the pilots' personalities.
If you only have time to watch one girls-and-planes anime this season, my subjective preference would be The Magnificent KOTOBUKI. Its action scenes are more convincing, and I like its “Last Exile meets Crimson Skies” setting more than the near-future world of Girly Air Force. On the other hand, it still has a lot of work to do in terms of establishing and developing its cast, and the CG character animation won't be to everyone's liking. If you're an aviation fanatic, this is your show. If you're more of a mecha person, go for Girly Air Force. Either way, you're likely to get a decent genre experience.
The Magnificent KOTOBUKI was the last of my highly anticipated winter shows, and that all came down to its brilliant director. Tsutomu Mizushima is one of my favorite anime creators, but his work tends to be a little different from many others. While some directors seek holistic, unimpeachable artistry in their work, Mizushima feels more like a craftsman, whose principle pledge is that the audience will always be entertained. Across works like Witch Craft Works, Girls und Panzer, and Shirobako, he has consistently made good on that pledge, offering some of the most fundamentally joyous shows of the last ten years.
The Magnificent KOTOBUKI is such an obviously Mizushima show that I had to laugh; not only is it essentially “Girls und Panzer but with planes,” but it's also more or less the show that the stars of Shirobako produced in that show's second half. To be honest, I wouldn't have it any other way; Mizushima's greatest talent seems to be his ability to find universal joy in the things he loves, whether it's playing with tanks or making anime, and seeing him mess around with fighter planes is a wonderful experience.
The dogfight that takes up this episode's entire second half demonstrates that clearly, as sequences from the initial launch of our planes to the heroine Kylie's final duel are executed with energy and grace throughout. The combination of CG planes and vaguely defined aerial backgrounds mean the camera is able to spin and swoop along with the ships, mixing perspective shots and wider establishing shots to neatly convey the moment-to-moment drama of battle. Little internal narratives are established, built to a climax, and paid off even within the course of a single fight - like our heroes' last-second rescue of the nicest jerk from the opening scene, or Kylie's apparent rivalry with that final opponent. It is an inherent joy seeing an action director who understands the dramatic curve of action and the fundamentals of visual drama this well ply his craft.
Offering energetic direction, a punchy script, snappy pacing, and terrific sound design, there's a whole lot to like about this first episode. My one major complaint would be the inescapably stiff CG character models, but even there, Kylie's final fight saw her showing a wide array of fun expressions and even some convincing body language. All in all, if you're looking for an energetic action adventure and don't mind the CG, The Magnificent KOTOBUKI is appointment television. It sure is nice watching a great director show off.
The Magnificent KOTOBUKI comes to us from Studio GEMBA, whose most famous (or infamous) recent series would be the all CG adaptations of Berserk, which have garnered controversy for some viewers on account of how they take a beloved property known for its wild visual creativity and make it look like a hot mess. The Magnificent KOTOBUKI is an original IP as far as I can tell, so it isn't in danger of besmirching a genre classic in the way Berserk has, and director Tsutomu Mizushima and his crew seem intent on learning from their predecessors' mistakes. The most surprising thing about this vaguely-fantastical tale of a WWII-esque setting dominated by a female-led crew of aerial dogfighters is that it's CG animation comes out looking halfway decent.
Well, I should say it's mostly CG animation – the most immediately curious thing about this show is how the core cast of pilots, along with their planes and such, are all animated in 3D using computer models, while most of the secondary characters are stuck in 2-D. I'm sure this is more of a budgetary issue than anything else, but it is still la distracting mishmash of contrasting styles. It's a shame too, because the CG here is actually pretty good; The Magnificent KOTOBUKI is no Land of the Lustrous by any means, but it holds itself together during the most action heavy sequences.
Speaking of which, action is most definitely the name of the game here. If you count the lengthy sequence depicting the girls' starting up their planes, a full fifteen minutes of this twenty-three-minute-long episode is devoted to a single battle scene. We see the cocky male pilots get taken down by the unseen enemy fighters, and then we watch as the Kotobuki girls show their mettle and dance through the skies with deadly grace. The scene as a whole suffers from some of the visual sameness that often drag down less skillfully directed aerial combat scenes, and the muted colors and muddy lighting occasionally made it hard for me to tell what was going on, but it was a generally effective sequence overall. The planes seem to have been modeled with obsessive accuracy, and the combat maneuvers the pilots pulled all felt realistic without losing their entertainment value. I don't know if future episode will be quite so heavy on the set-pieces, so it is hard to say how indicative this premiere is of what the rest of The Magnificent KOTOBUKI will actually be like, but I liked what is has delivered so far.
In the future, though, I hope the pilots themselves get more to do as characters, because we barely get to know anything about them in this episode. Kylie has the most opportunity to demonstrate her reckless brand of heroics, but this seems to be the kind of war story that follows the adventures of core group of soldiers, and those kinds of tales rarely work when said characters get so little to do. If it can do that, then The Magnificent KOTOBUKI might very well carve out a nice little action-adventure niche for itself this season.
I have to wonder who the animators thought the starring characters of The Magnificent KOTOBUKI were – the girls or the planes. I'm inclined towards the latter, because not only to the planes get significantly more screen time, but they look better, too. Perhaps we're just supposed to be excited that cute girls are the pilots?
In any event, this isn't a first episode that gives us a whole lot of information. The story seems to take place during the equivalent of the mid-20th century when cargo blimps navigate the skies and are easy prey for sky pirates. To that end, they appear to have hired wings of fighter pilots, and the Hagoromo has at least two – one of older guys and one of young women. The girls are the more accomplished of the bunch, despite the fact that they really don't look like anyone's preconceived notion of a good fighter pilot and each have carefully crafted cuteness points. (Kylie loves pancakes! The blonde one loves to drink! The silver haired one has zero expression!) So it comes as no surprise that the guys all get shot down – with possible exception of Adolfo – while the girls make it safely back to the hangar after taking out plenty of pirates. What's more interesting here is the fact that, as I mentioned before, we barely see the girls; just a few scenes of them in the cockpits with special focus on either their creepily smiling peaceful CG faces or hands manipulating the controls, which, as you may know, are located between the pilot's knees. As fanservice goes, that's very tame, but it still does feel quite deliberate.
The upside here is that the scenes of the planes have a wonderful swooping quality to them. In part this is because they're largely done from the pilot's perspective, so we're seeing the movement of the clouds as if we were in the cockpit. While the planes themselves are perfectly animated (and really, I don't know enough about aircraft to say anything beyond “they're monoplanes not biplanes,” so I can't speak to accuracy), the implied motion is very nicely done and scenes of flaps being manipulated add a feeling of at least mild realism. I do find it off-putting that most of the girls look so beatific as they're gunning down other planes, but presumably this was done for reasons of cuteness.
Until we get a better idea of what kind of story this series is actually telling, it's difficult to say if it will be worth sticking with. If you're not into planes, this probably won't be your cup of tea, because unlike Girly Air Force, that seems to be the true focus to the exclusion of other elements.
If you're prone to motion sickness from videos, then you might want to be wary about this series. It features a lot of first-person-perspective aerial combat, and the maneuvers that the pilots are using aren't tame. On the other hand, if that kind of thing doesn't bother you, then this is one of the most thrilling depictions of aerial combat I've seen in a long time.
Director Tsutomu Mizushima has a wide and heavily varied résumé as a director, but the credit most directly relevant to this project is the Girls und Panzer franchise. He's showed an acumen for handling depictions of warfare with conventional military equipment, but this one blows that series out of the water in terms of thrills. The operation of singe-prop planes is animated down to the finest detail; if you've ever wondered what the actual start-up procedure is for one of those planes, you'll get to see it here, from using the throttle to pump fuel pressure to how the starter switch works to even the external hand-crank needed. When the planes are in flight, the effect of air turbulence and even wobbles as the pilot straightens the plane out are accounted for. When the bullets hit wings or fuselages, they actually sound like bullets impacting metal; in general, this is some of the best sound design I've heard in an anime series.
The flow of the fight scenes is a real treat as well. At times we get either a pilot's eye view of the battle or a view akin to a camera mounted on a race car. The moves they execute during the battle footage are magnificent but still physically realistic maneuvers, as they try to either position for shooting down enemies or dodge opponents, and the perspective fluidly shifts around to highlight whatever is most interesting at the time, while still giving brief reminders of who the pilots are. More importantly, this is all fully animated; the downside for some will be that this is all done in CG, but don't let the fact that GEMBA animated this, the same studio responsible for the recent Berserk series, scare you off; this is a dramatic step up in quality from that past work. It makes the character animation in the downtime scenes look a little weird at times (I'd compare it to last season's Phantom of the Twilight), but that's tolerable for what we get from the fight scenes.
I've spent most of this preview talking about the technical aspects because there's not much to the first episode beyond that. The battle and the prep for it takes up more than half of the episode, and the content before that is mostly just a table of male pilots talking, then a table of female pilots talking, then one of the male pilots trying to hit on the female pilots before the alert siren goes off. The ending scenes establish a Wild West motif, though the girls themselves are more anime-standard in both design and character. Maybe they'll have interesting stories eventually, but the first episode pitches itself on its action and spectacle, which is more than enough to warrant recommending it for those interested.
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