The Winter 2019 Anime Preview Guide
VIRTUALSAN - LOOKING
What is this?
How was the first episode?
The premiere of Virtualsan – Looking, which is inexplicably not one of the season's short series, forced me to ask a number of questions over its half-hour runtime, including:
- “Who on Earth are any of these characters, and why are they doing the things they are doing?”
- “Is this trying to be an ironically bad anti-humor series, like Pop Team Epic?”
- “In the age of streaming platforms and digital media dominating the entertainment market, is there any meaningful difference between traditional ‘television’ and the personality-driven content of YouTube/Twitch culture that Virtualsan is catering to?”
- “Am I out of touch? Or is it the children who are wrong?”
I'm no stranger to the concept of the virtual YouTube personality; I've checked out a couple of vids from AI Kizuna and Sakura Fujima before. Virtualsan – Looking is just too much for me: too many characters I have absolutely no foreknowledge of, too many skits that amount to meaningless improv without any punchlines, too many ugly CG backgrounds. It's as if someone just made a mashup video of random clips from a dozen different virtual YouTube channels, and the only way to appreciate the show or even comprehend what is happening is if you subscribe to every last one of them.
If I squint really hard, I can see the kind of supremely random, intentionally awful comedy that made Pop Team Epic such a refreshing series not so long ago. The difference is a matter of curation and context. Pop Team Epic included plenty of inside-baseball anime jokes and totally ludicrous non-sequitur, but there was a baseline level of cohesion to the project that came from most of the skits being extremely well crafted, despite often trying to look as amateurish as possible. In Virtualsan – Looking, nearly every skit is just indistinguishable anime girls (plus at least one boy and a horse thing) flailing about against ugly CG backgrounds. Some of the bits feel more put-together than others, though none of them struck me as funny, and a vast majority felt like I'd wandered into the Second Life equivalent of a bad improv comedy club. Given that I have no clue who any of these personalities are, any jokes that might have been funny for fans surely flew over my head.
Then again, maybe I am the one who's out of touch. I know these virtual YouTube personalities draw in a huge audience, and I can absolutely understand how fun it would be to get all of your favorites together on a show so they can just screw around for half an hour each week. Twenty years from now, Virtualsan – Looking may even be considered a seminal work of post-postmodern multimedia genius. But in 2019, this is the first premiere that was damn painful for me to experience. I can't imagine a series I would want to watch less.
I was despairing about not getting to use this rating yet this season, but lo and behold! This bizarre production came along at the last minute and gave me a perfect opportunity.
Before doing some research for this entry, I wasn't even aware that Virtual YouTubers (Vtubers for short) were an exploding phenomenon in Japan. These channels use basic motion capture technology to create digital anime avatars to do all the kinds of things that regular humans do in YouTube videos and communicate with fans via Twitter. A couple dozen of the most popular ones are coming together for this anime series by brand-new production company Lide. The result is something akin to an anthology show like Saturday Night Live: characters answer fan questions, do skits, and generally goof off, all in the name of stream-of-consciousness entertainment that is definitely intended for audiences who delight in watching virtual Youtubers. Anyone who doesn't regularly engage in that content (like me) will probably be left scratching their heads and wondering what the appeal is supposed to be.
Actually, at least some of it is funny in a dumb sort of way. Each scenario is fairly bizarre and the girls aren't shy about making call-outs to established franchises; for instance, the space segment riffs on Attack on Titan (which makes as little sense in execution as it sounds), while the classroom scene involving the volcano has all of the girls dressed in school uniforms straight out of Neon Genesis Evangelion. In another bit of randomness, a veteran enka singer has been called on for the “Virtual Grandmother” segments. Six Vtubers are featured in this episode, but a few others pop up in cameo capacity and more are expected to be involved as time passes.
In the technical sense, most of the show is done in 3D CG but there are occasional scenes randomly done in 2D instead, including one that overlays a stuttered real-life background. One scene even carries a label indicating that it was deliberately done in stills and will be animated “later.” Frankly, I'll be surprised if that's the case, since being done in crude stills felt like the point of the joke. None of this is high-quality CG, and it's all using some degree of motion capture, so those normally averse to such things in animation should stay away. Naturally, trend-setting Virtual YouTuber Ai Kizuna provides the theme song, which will be used for the first half of the series.
Why this wasn't done in a shorter format baffles me, but then so does the appeal of the whole thing. Sill, there's some entertainment value to be had if you can tolerate the horrid CG, and it's a concept whose debut was probably inevitable.
So, this is it. This is the crowning achievement of the virtual Youtuber craze that people are apparently into these days. A hand-picked selection of what I presume are some of the most popular characters, assembled into a dynamic supergroup of viral comedy masters. If my inability to find any redeeming value in this poorly animated, poorly written premiere makes me old and out of touch, then so be it. Get off my lawn, you darn kids.
I usually have an above-average tolerance for CG character animation, but something about Virtualsan just gives me a headache. It could be the stiff motions, the constant issue of hair and accessories clipping through characters' bodies, the fact that everyone's apparently required to constantly wave their hands around, or some combination of the three. Honestly, though, I think it's the editing that really kills it for me. Between this episode's refusal to hold a shot for more than a second or two at a time and the surplus of on-screen text, it's just a sensory overload. Crappy production values can take on a charm of their own in an amateur video or livestream, but a professional production has no business looking this bad.
Then there's the writing, which presents us with a series of short comedy skits, ranging from the main cast arguing about getting killed by a volcano to a nun dispensing advice on how to do laundry. It's more or less equivalent to jumping between a bunch of different YouTube videos, which is actually a reasonable approach when you consider the show's premise. Unfortunately, none of the skits are funny, and by that I mean I sat through this entire episode without laughing (or feeling any other sort of emotion, for that matter). A bunch of one-note personalities talking over one another doesn't qualify as comedy unless there's an actual joke in there somewhere.
My knowledge of virtual Youtubers is fairly limited, but I suspect you're better off just watching your favorite character's channel instead of trying to make it through this disaster. The things that can make an individual vlogger or streamer appealing just don't work when they're transplanted into this format. As for me, I'll stick with professionally written anime characters and real human Youtubers for the time being.
discuss this in the forum (621 posts) |