The Spring 2020 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
What is this?
Arte is based on a manga. It's available streaming on Funimation, Saturdays at 10:30 am EST.
How was the first episode?
As someone who was effectively a History major with an emphasis in European History, a series set in 16th century Italy is bound to catch my attention. This one fits that bill all the more so because of its unusual subject matter: a burgeoning female artist in a time period when they were very rare. Given the series' and character's name, this is most likely loosely based on Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the few accomplished female artists of that era, although there are big differences right away: Artemisia was active in the early 17th century in Rome rather than the early 16th century in Florence. Also, she was the daughter of a painter rather than a noble, so she didn't have to go through some of the struggles that Arte will. (On the other hand, she did have to suffer some ugliness that Arte probably won't, but we'll see.) Still, there being a historical predecessor and namesake establishes that what the series is doing with the character isn't without precedent.
Based on the first episode, all signs point towards the series following a familiar pattern: a plucky, generally cheery girl of “almost 15” isn't going to let anything – including convention – stop her from pursuing her goals. In this case that means not just becoming an artist, but also establishing a way to determine her own future rather than reliance on marriage. (Given her comments about not wanting to be trapped in a bird cage, that she is initially seen drawing a bird is a rather pointed bit of either irony or symbolism, maybe both.) That's a compelling motivation, so understanding how it made an impression on Leo, who went through his own experience on trying to use art to raise above his background, is not hard. Arte's downside is that she does not think things through at all – as shown by her alarmingly hasty attempts to make herself not a woman anymore – and it could be interesting to see how much trouble that gets her in going forward. My one concern here is that Arte is chipper on the level of a genki girl, and I'm not sure how well that's going to fit. This is definitely a fully anime-fied take on the subject matter.
The artistic evident so far is pretty solid. While the animation is nothing special, the artistry is bright and attractive, with plenty of period detail on clothing, architecture, decorations, and even art. Looks like we're also going to get a lot of technical detail on the making of art as well. All of this sets up a series which could prove to be a good companion piece to Ascendance of a Bookworm 2.
I liked Arte — both the character, as well as the first episode of the show itself. If there is any issue to be had, it's that I can't have a one sentence review about an episode be the whole preview, and Arte is the kind of “good” that doesn't summon a lot of specific, meaningful enthusiasm. The art? It was good, which is befitting a story about a girl in 17 th century Venice who seeks to abandon her life as a noble to pursue a career as an artisan. The writing? Also good, in a straightforward kind of way that means every character lays on the themes and emotions of the scene real thick (The crappy artists in town scream things like “You can't be my apprentice; you're a girl!” and “I'll never let a woman into my studio!” before literally tossing Arte onto the street, and at one Arte herself just sings “I love art!” over and over). The overall impression the show leaves when its premiere is done is, you guessed it, pretty good. If you want a story about a spunky teenager who throws away her life of luxury to be mentored as an artist by a grumpy loner with a secret heart of gold, then by golly, is this the show for you.
From the moment Arte begins, I predicted literally every beat of the story down to the order they occurred in, and that is the stumbling block that keeps me from recommending this show wholeheartedly. The loving and supportive father who tragically died; the stern mother who doesn't support Art's dream; the sexist jerks who don't believe in Arte; the gruff mentor who tries to set Arte up for failure and is instead impressed by her success; Arte succeeding because of the purity of her willpower. It all fell in line exactly as expected, meaning that the only unique thing about Arte was the show's historical setting, and it's incredibly loose relationship with the real historical figures of the Renaissance movement. I'm not especially jazzed about Renaissance painters or the history of Italy, myself, so there's not much to keep viewers who didn't come into the series invested on the line.
Arte does what it does with competence and humility. It's nice. I don't know if “nice” is enough to keep me watching for weeks on end, though. In this day and age, we have access to more hours of anime that any one human could ever hope to possibly experience, and it comes in every genre and tone and style you could imagine. With so much to watch, and so little time, I'm more inclined to seek out shows that show me something I haven't already seen so many times before.
Arte's period setting and art apprenticeship focus stuck out to me long before this season began, and I was looking forward to seeing Arte's take on its compelling premise. Having watched this first episode, I'm left with mixed feelings about the result. Arte is certainly a perfectly competent take on its fundamental ideas - however, it also feels like precisely that and nothing more, offering little in terms of distinctive narrative ideas or compelling execution.
Arte herself is likely this production's strongest asset. Her hard-earned pride and understandable insecurities make her a naturally sympathetic heroine, even though we've yet to really see much of her unique connection with drawing. Her determination means this episode moves quickly through its initial setup, without creating a sense that we're rushing through conflicts or exposition.
That said, this episode also moves quickly and confidently because it's telling a story we've all heard before. “Noble girl dreams of independent, hard-won life,” “all the masters but one refuse to take her,” “final master gives her an impossible task, then sees his own younger self in her determination” - absolutely nothing this episode offered in a narrative sense was surprising in any way. Even Arte, likable as she is, is precisely the kind of plucky heroine you'd expect in a story like this. If this episode is anything to go by, every beat of this story is likely to be the most obvious available one - and the character writing so far isn't nearly distinctive enough to differentiate this from its many genre compatriots.
In visual terms too, Arte is basically just functional on all counts. Renaissance-era Florence is conveyed with minimal flourish, character designs are pretty generic, and there's little animation to speak of. Perhaps it's unfair to compare Arte to what may turn out to be the best anime of the year, but just last season we saw Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! illustrating the magic of artistic inspiration with incredible creativity and visual splendor. In contrast, Arte never actually dives into the appeal of art at all, and it feels like Arte's own journey could just as easily have ended at a bakery, or on a fishing boat.
All in all, Arte feels pretty much strictly functional, offering a naturally charming heroine, but doing little to differentiate her journey in either narrative or aesthetic terms. It is precisely “fine” - if the premise appeals to you, maybe check it out, if not, it's an easy skip.
Loosely based on the life of Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the few female Masters of the Italian Renaissance, Arte's first episode is equal parts good historical fiction and a fun story about a plucky heroine who will not be deterred from her goal. Since she's a fourteen-year-old noblewoman in the early sixteenth century who doesn't want to marry, that's a tall order, because unlike what would happen in the four hundred-odd years following the Renaissance, at the time art was not considered a decent pursuit for a young woman of a certain social standing. Essentially what Arte wants to do is stoop to actual work, and that's unthinkable both for her social status and her gender.
Part of what's good about this episode (and the source manga) is that Arte truly is the only person who believes that she's capable of pulling it off. Even Leo, the gruff older man who agrees to let her be his apprentice, doesn't truly believe in Arte – he initially sets her up to fail, assuming that a girl (and a noble one at that) will never be able to properly prepare twenty wooden panels for painting in one night. To Leo, Arte's flippant words that she wants to become an artist because she “loves art” smacks of dabbling, and since he pulled himself up by his bootstraps to become a Master, that offends him on several levels. What Leo doesn't realize is that Arte is just as trapped in her social situation as he was as a beggar on the streets when he was her age; the cage may be prettier, but she's expected to stay in it and do nothing that might cause her to stray from the path society has determined she should follow. That Arte isn't going to just sit there on her perch and look pretty and won't let some hand-ruining work stand in her way isn't anything that anyone has ever considered – even Arte herself doesn't quite know what she's let herself in for by agreeing to Leo's test. But this is a girl who was about to cut into her own breasts (if not actually attempt to cut them off) to be seen as the equal of any boy who went out seeking an apprenticeship; rough hands are not going to stop her.
As is appropriate, this episode has plenty of little Shakespearean references scattered around (Arte is around Juliet's age and her offer to “unsex” herself is very Lady Macbeth) and a good feel for the time and place. The original art is very detailed – think Kaoru Mori-style – and enough of that has carried over to solidly give a sense of sixteenth century Italy. That Arte does stop at cutting her hair and continues to dress like a woman is another piece worth noting, as it indicates that she doesn't actually want to be a man – she just wants to be herself, and she removed her womanly glory in frustration, not out of any real desire not to be female. She's also not unrelenting in her happiness; she does get frustrated and hurt and wonder if this is all worth it. It's the fact that she decides that it is at the end of the day that makes this journey feel like one worth taking with her, and so far this is shaping up to be something that I want to see more of.
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