The Spring 2020 Anime Preview Guide
Shironeko Project: Zero Chronicle
How would you rate episode 1 of
Shironeko Project: Zero Chronicle ?
What is this?
There are two kingdoms in this world – the Kingdom of Light on a floating island in the sky and the Kingdom of Darkness on the ground below it. Both are supposed to maintain the balance between Light and Darkness, but in recent times the King of Darkness has begun to fail in his duties. Frustrated by the deaths of everyone in his village due to uncontrolled monsters, a young man takes a dying knight up on his offer to go to the capital as his successor in order to become the Prince of Darkness. Meanwhile, in the sky, Queen Iris of the Light uses the powers of the Progenitor Rune to uphold her end of the bargain, even as the King of Darkness' inaction makes her battle appear futile.
How was the first episode?
Though Shironeko Project is another production based on a mobile game, this show is apparently adapting a key prequel event from the timeline of the game itself. What this means in practical terms is that rather than having an obvious “player character” protagonist and a generally open-ended narrative, Shironeko Project actually has a specific core cast, as well a clear story it is intending to tell. These qualities certainly help it stand out from its genre compatriots, though ultimately, this is still an altogether so-so production.
This premiere's greatest strength was likely the conversation that forms its centerpiece, a loose debate held between an impoverished boy who's busy burying his village, and the elderly knight who happens across his work. The exchanges between these two felt distinctive and passionate, and the elder knight's road to feeling genuinely invigorated by the young man's naive ideals felt thoroughly earned. Memorable declarations like “I'll teach you how to improve things without digging holes” are accompanied by some relatively fluid fight choreography, resulting in a sequence that effectively sold me on the protagonist's initial inspiration.
Unfortunately, the rest of this episode doesn't come close to matching the strength of that one sequence. The worldbuilding here hits that awkward mix of “overly convoluted in explanation, overly simplistic in practice,” and the show's central “light versus dark” conceit feels contrived throughout. There's just no sense of substance to this world; it seems unfair to say a videogame-based show's worldbuilding feels too much like a videogame, but if you want audiences to believe in the lives and feelings of these characters, you have to hide the game design seams a little more carefully than this. There are also visual issues throughout; the show's character designs possess little sense of internal congruity, and the characters rarely feel like they exist on the same plain as the show's underwhelming background art.
On the whole, Shironeko Project's premiere isn't exactly terrible, but it also doesn't inspire much interest in continuing the series. Even divorced from the immediate narrative of its source material, Shironeko Project just feels too much like a videogame; and with a world this unabashedly fabricated, it's hard to believe in the feelings of the people who live there.
The main character of Shironeko Project: Zero Chronicle is the edgiest boy around. He's so edgy that, when he watches his whole village get slaughtered at the hand of vicious monsters (including a bunch of children), he starts digging a mass grave with nothing but a pickaxe to bury every single one of them, a grave that he says “will be deep enough to reach the sky” — he's full of super deep sayings like that. The boy is so edgy that his hair has this super gnarly looking streak of red going right through it, like blood, and I bet he doesn't even dye it — he was just born that way. He's so edgy that nobody ever game him a name, and he never asked for one. It isn't like it matters anyway. Like the Edgy Boy says when a man named Skeers happens upon his dark and tragic existence: “Everyone's the same in the grave, anyways.”
Watching Shironeko Project's premiere is hardly what I would call a good time, because the art is cheap and flat looking, which isn't helped by the incredibly boring backgrounds, which range from such exciting locations as “a burned down village”, to “a cave”, and “some random grassy cliff”. Listening to/reading the show's dialogue is even worse, though, because every single line is determined to convince you that this is a super serious story about death, and revenge, and the never ending battle between light and darkness. Skeers, the old man who just kind of wanders into the unnamed Edgy Boy before challenging him to a fight an immediately dying, explains that the The Kingdom of Darkness is ruled by the King of Darkness, and in order to rid the world of suffering the Edgy Boy must take Skeers' sword and proclaim himself as the Prince of Darkness. Skeers gives Edgy Boy the sword because he failed to take the Throne of Darkness himself, and Edgy Boy assumes the Prince of Darkness mantle because, well, he literally has nothing else to do except for dig a giant grave until he dies. There's also a Kingdom of Light, and a Queen of Light named Iris, and the opening indicates that there is some sort of romance in the cards for Iris and the Edgy Boy, and even though the Queen of Light stuff takes up half the episode, I honestly couldn't tell you what any of it was about, since it all fell right out of my head the moment the episode ended.
By now this point it should be clear why Shironeko Project rubbed me the wrong way so much. It's like peeking at a notebook filled with the hastily scribbled story ideas written by a middle-schooler who has been up all night playing old RPGs and slamming cheap soda. It's a fatal mix of unearned confidence and glaring inexperience, so certain of its own badassery that it didn't even bother going for a second draft. Its really just as shallow and irritating that you would expect from a script that spends roughly half of its time tossing out variations of “light” and “darkness” with reckless abandon without bothering to think of a name for its main character. The first scene of the episode made me think this show was going to be about a war sparked by the star-crossed romance shared between two magical housecats; I'd much rather watch whatever that series might have been than sit through anymore of Shironeko Project.
Saying that this series is based on a popular, award-winning mobile game (which operated in English under the name Rune Story) is technically true but imprecise, as it doesn't feature any of the core characters from the game. More specifically, it is an adaption of the game's third anniversary event, which details the events surrounding a key legend in the game's setting's backstory. That explains why the first episode thoroughly has the feel of a fairy tale in action.
The basics are very simple and straightforward, even as fantasy stories go: there's a world of light and a world of darkness that are supposed to stay in balance and never mix, but one side (or rather, its ruler) is seeking to disrupt this by invading the other side. In the midst of that the newly-minted prince of the aggressor side, who disagrees with his king's actions, is going to encounter and fall in love with the queen of the other side. Since one of the couple is already a ruler, it's not exactly a “Romeo and Juliet” situation, but that doesn't make them any less star-crossed future lovers, and the characterization on the Light side has already made it clear that some of the Queen of Light's supporters won't take kindly to the pairing. Of course, I'm getting ahead of the story here, as the first episode is just laying the foundations for this and an episode or two could pass yet before they ever meet. Still, as retread as the story concept is, there are good reasons why it keeps popping up. Like many, I have always been partial to such premises, so I don't consider it a negative factor here.
And there are definitely negatives here, most especially a visual aesthetic which seems too artificial in a game-like fashion; even many VRMMO settings featured in other recent series feel more organic than this one does. (I am also not a fan of male protagonists who have off-color shocks of hair just to look cool, but that's a purely personal quibble.) Character designs are pretty enough but animation quality is mediocre at best, and the complete lack of graphic displays made certain scenes unconvincing. The one place where the visuals impressed was in the closer, where the reversed contrasts used on the clothing of the two protagonists (the Queen has white with black highlights, while the Prince has black with white highlights) is a neat effect.
There are some other problems as well – the old man dies a little too easily for someone who seemed robust just moments earlier – but those are balanced out by some potentially intriguing elements, such as the difficulty remembering the previous Queen of Light, which strike me as meaningful. Overall, I just can't be as harsh on this one as I probably should be, as the grand, essential story elements here and their presentation are just enough to keep the series afloat for now.
There's something very old-school fantasy about Shironeko Project: Zero Chronicle's first episode, and not particularly good old-school fantasy at that. As I watched it, my mind kept trying to come up with what I had read or seen or played before that it was reminding me of, and at last I was forced to simply go with the answer “everything.” (Except, ironically, the light novel I'm currently reading, which is also fantasy and involves a white cat.) The concept of a world of light and a world of darkness tasked with maintaining the balance between them is classic in that it can be traced at least back to Classical mythology, and that doesn't necessarily mean that it can't still be used well – it just means that if this episode isn't doing it, the show's got a problem.
Part of that may be the way the episode is divided between the two worlds' protagonists. On the ground we have an unnamed lad (we'll call him “Boy” since that's how most people refer to him) whose entire village is wiped out by a variety of stampeding toothy monsters, including the kids he was meant to be protecting. Boy is angry and depressed, as well he might be, so of course he has a chance run-in with fate in the form of an unfortunately named old man, Skeers. Meanwhile Queen Iris is up flying around on her angel wings protecting the Light from the fact that the Darkness is encroaching, only Iris is surrounded by people who love and protect her, specifically the siblings Phious, Sheama, and Theo. The differences between Boy and Iris are so stark as to be almost unintentionally comical; yes, Iris has a lot of scary work to do, but she's positively pampered when you look at the hell Boy's life is – I mean, he doesn't even have a name, for crying out loud. The disparity is so marked that it gives the episode the feeling of trying too hard to set up its world, as if it doesn't trust its viewers to be able to believe in its story without a lot of hand-holding, and that's not what I, at least, am looking for in my sword-and-sorcery fantasy tale.
There are a few unfortunate design choices as well, with the most obvious being Boy's shock of red hair, which is presumably intended to look like a red-winged blackbird (or give that impression) but instead looks like he has a major head wound. The darker portions of the episode are also a bit too dark in color, obscuring some details, and if you're prone to headaches, the contrast between the two halves of the world can be a bit much. (I'm also concerned by the lady in the opening whose breasts seem to move independently of the rest of her, but at least that's a familiar visual trope.)
From what I can tell, the anime is adapting the lore of the game (released in English as Rune Story) rather than the actual gameplay, so things may improve from here. I suspect a star-crossed lovers story is going to emerge, so that may make it worth following if you're a fan of that flavor of romance. But if you're looking for a solid fantasy adventure, I might suggest looking elsewhere.
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