The Fall 2020 Preview Guide
Warlords of Sigrdrifa
How would you rate episode 1 of
Warlords of Sigrdrifa ?
What is this?
One day, "Pillars" appeared on earth and became a threat to all life. The sudden appearance of a god called Odin was the only reason humanity survived. His method of fighting the Pillars was to grant flight via mechanical "hero wings" to chosen beautiful young girls called Valkyries. After many years, humanity's battle against the Pillars continues in the sky, with women fighting in their battle wings with men as their support staff. Japan is no exception, and when a Pillar appears on Mt. Fuji, three Valkyries confront it. They are joined by an ace pilot from Europe to continue the counterattack as Ragnarok grows ever closer.
How was the first episode?
On paper, Warlords of Sigrdrifa should be fine. It's got a fairly tired premise at this point, sure, but the setup of anime girls fighting magic monsters with warplanes is an easy concept to run with. The characters are certainly archetypal, but you can do a lot with broad personalities and there's plenty of room within the main four girls for a lot of fun and maybe a bit of sentiment within this fantastical war story. No, my problem with this premiere isn't in the concepts, but the execution. In short, the script is absolutely amateurish.
In part that's a problem exacerbated by this opener being double-length. Despite a lot happening across the 48-odd minutes, the writing is so repetitive that it feels like barely anything has progressed by the time credits roll. The first half features three different lengthy plane vs monster battles, each of which could easily have been trimmed down or combined and gotten the same results without feeling same-y. Every conversation among the principle cast has to repeat each character's most basic quirk every couple of lines to fill time – the worst offender being “lovable” idiot Miyako whose gimmick is constantly mishearing or mispronouncing words, ensuring every discussion has to double back at least once to re-explain something to her. It gets annoying fast, and that's not even getting into how main heroine Claudia feels the need to bring up her “Grim Reaper” nickname every time somebody speaks to her. All of these issues that would otherwise be petty nitpicks accumulate to destroy any sense of pacing or tension during the show's action scenes, leaving me begging for the characters to stop explaining each other's personalities to themselves. The show wants to be exciting and goofy but still hold a bit of pathos, yet all of it falls flat because of the patience-testing ordeal it is to get to those parts.
And that's a damn shame because there is room in here for a cool action romp. I'm not big on military/aeronautics hardware, but I get the impression there are some serious plane nerds working on this show and doing their best to capture the thrill of flying these classic warplanes. The worldbuilding is currently indiscernible from Kantai Collection or Azur Lane, but lead writer Tappei Nagatsuki has proven with Re:Zero that he can spin meaningful stories out of conventional materials. Plus, what's not to love about the climactic battle that ends with a character jumping out of her plane to divebomb the enemy with her katana? My hope is, now that the script doesn't have to fill double the airtime, it'll learn to calm down and get to the point faster than a snail sharpening a pencil, but right now this has left a pretty bad first impression.
You know what I love in my shows about cute girls doing improbable military things? A random scene of a guy clipping his toenails. Yes, nothing says quality entertainment like a close up of a guy's toes and a nail clipper, and when you pair that with a character's basic misunderstanding about her mythological roots, a god who randomly looks like either a kid or the spawn of Gandolf and Merlin, and biplanes fighting monsters in 2025, by god do you have…something.
In this case, that something is Warlords of Sigrdrifa, a show whose most believable element is the fact that some kind of alien or mythological pillars appeared to wreak havoc in 2020. Not that it actually needs to be credible to be good entertainment, but this double-length episode manages to feel like both a retread of other cute girls stories and its own special kind of weird. In all fairness, part of this is almost certainly due to the fact that this episode is more invested in making us interested in the world than in explaining how precisely it functions. While that's fine in concept, what it leaves us with is a story where the overarching plot makes sense, but the details feel cobbled together from whatever the original author of the source novels had lying around. So we have Norse mythology, antique fighter planes, and mild fanservice but no firm sense of why all of these things exist at once beyond “someone likes them.”
The Norse mythology becomes a sticking point when it comes to Claudia, who appears to be the main character at the moment. Claudia, who flies a 1930s biplane known as a Gloster Gladiator, was the Valkyrie assigned (by Odin?) to Switzerland before being transferred to what even the other Valkyries stationed there think of as a rinky-dink base in Japan. Claudia assumes that this is because of her reputation as the Grim Reaper, a name given by Odin that she believes she has acquired because her fellow pilots rarely, if ever, survive her missions. But the problem is, according to Norse mythology, all Valkyries are basically grim reapers: they're literally choosing who survives a battle and who doesn't. So either someone got confused somewhere in the story's writing or Odin is a bigger jerk than he looks like and is deliberately not filling Claudia in. Either way it was a potentially silly detail that sounded very off-note for me.
Mostly this episode seems to exist for the sole purpose of showing girls in short skirts flying old planes against monsters. Why the planes are uniformly of antique design (another is the Japanese WWII monoplane Nakajima Ki-44) is currently unclear, although them being called “Hero Wings” may indicate that the girls have all been assigned reincarnations of famously useful warplanes. Claudia, meanwhile, is one of the “Named,” which seems to mean that she has a nickname beyond the type of plane she flies or its color, although why this should be the case hasn't been explored. Simply put, this episode throws a lot at you while not bothering to explain enough of it to make it really work, and while things may improve later on, Flying with Girls in Planes is a story that didn't capture my interest enough to find out.
Let's start with a brief cultural lesson, as the name choice for this series is significant. “Sigr-drifa” is a compound word that in the Norse language meant “driver to victory.” It is also an alternate name for the Valkyrie Brynhildr (or Brunhilde) in the Poetic Edda. Hence it can be taken here for a double-meaning: both as a reference to Valkyries in general and to how they are leading the fight against the inscrutable menace of the alien Pillars. Unfortunately that's the most interesting aspect about this new original series, which has the further misfortune of coming out in the same season as the newest entry in its closest competitor's franchise (i.e., Strike Witches). Unless the rest of the series proves more compelling than this double-length first episode does, I can easily see it quickly fading into obscurity.
That's not to say that this first episode is necessarily bad; it's just not good enough to stand out. Also, the elements that are both good and bad about the series are tightly intertwined. The trio of Japanese Valkyries that Claudia winds up working with seem like an incompetent bunch at first, and their chatter is quite annoying at times, but each of them eventually shows a significant strength. Pink girl Sonoka is nice in person but a daring speed demon on the battlefield, while the somewhat tsundere-ish Azu is remarkably sharp and over-enthusiastic go-getter Miko is nonetheless quite capable of filling her assigned role. With Claudia's stability, maturity, and leadership, they will make a fine team. They still have a ways to go to be endearing, though Miko hand-slapping with the male pilots was cool and Azu was gradually growing on me by the end of the episode.
The action scenes are more of a mixed bag. The Pillars present little more than a standard Challenge of the Week kind of threat, and once they got organized the Valkyries did a good job of using teamwork to defeat them. However, that brings me to my biggest issue with the episode: the varied nature of the planes. Clearly someone behind this project is a plane otaku; could be first-time lead director Hirotaka Tokuda, but more likely it's lead writer (and associated novel writer) Tappei Nagatsuki of Re:Zero fame. Whoever is behind it, the series uses a wide variety of planes from across multiple eras for the Valkyries, to the point of being nonsensical about it. Why is Claudia flying a biplane in a battle which also features modern jet fighters and stealth bombers? The other Valkyries look like they're flying World War II-era fighters, too. Unless these planes have some kind of magical boosts, the differences in specs is too enormous; the Gloster Gladiator, which Claudia seems to be flying, had a top speed of 242 mph. Hence scenes showing them leading enemies that even modern-looking jet fighters are having trouble outracing seem ludicrous. The staging of the battles scenes and average-quality animation also struggle to make the fights exciting, especially the earlier ones.
The one other potentially interesting point here is that Odin feels like he's scheming something. I don't trust him at all. Overall, though, this is a lackluster start to a series I cannot see making much of an impression.
Hour-long premiere episodes are becoming more common for anime these days, and while I am theoretically on board for giving the creators more room to let their stories and visuals breathe than the usual twenty-minutes-and-change, I feel like I have yet to see a show that truly justified in packing on the extra runtime. Both Fate/Zero and Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works have forty-minute openers, for instance, and I had to start each of them at least three times before mustering up the energy to finish them. Warlords of Sigrdrifa comes from the writer behind Re:Zero, though, and in addition to its fairly successful original premiere, that show managed to recut its entire first season into a dozen double-length episodes, which worked out okay in my opinion. So, going into Warlords of Sigrdrifa completely blind outside of its length and its pedigree, I was hoping we'd get a premiere that was, if not a total knockout, at least mostly worth the investment.
Sadly, I can't say that I loved the hour I spent in the world of Warlords of Sigrdrifa. I didn't hate it either, hence the completely down-the-middle score, but it is never a good thing when my very first thought after finishing an episode is “No, seriously, why the hell was that an hour long?” It isn't like the premise of the show is especially complex: A bunch of decently cool-looking CGI alien/monster/demon things called Pillars come to Earth to mess stuff up, as they tend to do, and our heroines are all “Valkyries” who use their special magic planes to mess the Pillars up right back. Odin himself shows up to gift the Valkyries to humanity, and there's a whole mythic “Ragnarok is coming!” angle that is seemingly this series' only gimmick, but it doesn't amount to anything more than window dressing here. The planes could have just been fancy future tech, or alien devices retrofitted by human scientists, or whatever, and the end result still would have been “A bunch of anime girls dogfight CG monsters”. Maybe the supernatural angle gets exploited more effectively down the line, but you'd think it would have stood out more given all the extra time Warlords had to sell us on the idea.
Nope. Instead, we just spend about two episodes' worth of time introducing the half-dozen cast members who we'll be following in this story. Miyako is perky and enthusiastic, Azu is more serious, Sonoka is pink; you get the idea. Our main girl, Claudia, has a dark history that has labeled her as “The Grim Reaper”, and the closest thing this premiere gets to a hook is whether Claudia will find a place to belong on this new Japanese team that she's being transferred to. The answer is “yes”, by the way, as if that were ever in doubt.
It's the predictability of it all that killed my excitement for Warlords of Sigrdrifa the most. It plays out exactly as I would expect any show about a team of cute anime girls that fly magic planes and fight monsters, except it takes twice as long to get to the point. I get that not every single episode of the show is going to be such a slog (hopefully), but even then, I'm not sure why I should be enticed to check out the more normally-paced future episodes that are in store, when I already feel like this one outing with the Vakyries was more than enough.
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