The Spring 2020 Anime Preview Guide
Tower of God
How would you rate episode 1 of
Tower of God ?
What is this?
It is said that if you manage to climb to the top of the Tower of God, any wish will be granted. Rachel can't bear to live in darkness anymore and so, despite her friend Bam's wishes, she opens the door to the Tower to begin her ascent. Bam, in despair, follows her, only to learn that ascending the Tower isn't as easy as just walking up stairs. A strange creature named Headon tells him that he will have to pass tests to prove his worth, the first of which is evading a steel eel and breaking a black orb. Aided by Princess Yuri of Jahad and her companion Evan, Bam gains the magic sword Black March and is able to move on to the second floor. Rachel can't be all that far ahead – but what will it cost him to reach her?
Tower of God is based on a web toon. It's available streaming on Crunchyroll, Wednesdays at 10:30 AM EST.
How was the first episode?
Coming into the season, I was eager to check out Tower of God based on its production credits alone. Produced by the studio behind the most recent and quite excellent Lupin III series, the previews for this series showcased a sharp art style that was complemented by slick direction and music by Kevin Penkin, of Made in Abyss fame, who has the capacity to polish even the most dubious projects with his compositions (see Rise of the Shield Hero for a prime example). I had no idea what Tower of God was actually about, but by the time the opening credits wrapped up, I felt sure that this would be a show that is, if nothing else, fun to watch.
Now that Tower of God has gotten its introduction out of the way, the question that remains is whether or not the plot and characters will be able to live up to the expectations set by its visuals and soundtrack. Unfortunately, the jury's still out on that one, because what story we get in this premiere is a bit of a mess, albeit one with a lot of potential. The fairy-tale tone of the opening scene gets us off to a good start, introducing our hero Bam as he fails to stop his beloved Rachel from entering the titular tower, for she seeks the magical treasure that lies at its summit. Naturally, he wants to follow her, but this magical tower wouldn't be worth its salt if it didn't have some trials and challenges to overcome on the way up. All of this is explained by Headon, the mysterious guardian of the Tower, who proclaims that Bam must defeat the first floor's giant snake monster and retrieve the magical orb beyond it if he wants to prove his right to pursue Rachel.
As setup goes, so far so good, but this is where the script falls apart somewhat, chiefly because of the need to frontload the story with the rules and jargon of the Tower, instead of giving us context for the world of the story, and a reason to care about its characters. Bam learns from a princess of a land called Jahad named Yuri, about a device called a Pocket with a bunch of different modes and functions, including real-time translation, and he also gets a nifty magic sword from her called the Black March. We learn that outsiders like Bam are called “Irregulars” (though the subtitles read “Non-Regular” the first time I watched the episode), and that the whole Tower is organized battle-anime style, with competitors from all around vying for survival in the harsh planes of the Tower. There's also a magical woman that takes a liking to Bam and grants him some Main Character Powers for nebulous reasons, and another three or four characters from the opening besides who all get miniature introductions before the episode ends.
It's an awful lot of exposition for a twenty-two minute episode to handle, and I don't quite think it's successful. Bam's mysterious past feels like just another of the many tropes tossed into this premiere to build up interest, so he fails to make much of an impression outside of being our de facto protagonist, and Rachel is little more than a MacGuffin as of yet. I still can't really tell you what kind of world this is, what the stakes of this endless battle in the Tower are, or any number of other details I usually like to know in a story when it's starting out. To paraphrase Headon, though, I'm still interested to see what happens next, and I have no doubt at least some of my lingering questions will be answered in the coming weeks. Tower of God may not be the extravaganza I was hoping to kick off the season, but it looks like it will be a good time all the same.
If there's one thing that you can say about Tower of God's first episode, it's that it's very ambitious. It also may be trying to do too much, resulting in what felt like a very long twenty-five minutes as it attempted to do what ten years of online serialization has done – hook the viewer. The episode does that by basically throwing us in at the deep end, introducing protagonist Bam and his friend Rachel just as he's freaking out that she's decided to leave to climb the eponymous tower. That's not a bad way to pull people in per se, but in the case of this show, it feels like it would have been very helpful to understand their relationship and the world before just being immersed in the plot.
That does get touched on a little bit, or at least the relationship between Rachel and Bam does, but by the time it shows up fifteen minutes in, it feels too late to fully utilize it, to say nothing of being far too brief to actually help in terms of plot understanding. This is more or less the basic impression that this episode gives off: too many small pieces of a larger world diced up and simmered in a fantasy broth with no one flavor enough to really make an impression. Bam's single-minded determination to find Rachel would be touching if we knew more about them; likewise for Princess Yuri of Jahad (is that a country inside the Tower?) bending over backwards to help Bam succeed. Do she and Black March – the woman who embodies the magic sword in some unspecified way – really just want to help Bam because he has a cute face? If so, well, at least that's an interesting gender reversal for that sort of thing, but it also feels like a very thin excuse to build a case for a protagonist on. And what do they mean by Bam being a “Non-Regular?” More importantly, does that exempt him from the trial of the second floor, which involves whittling down the number of “Regulars?”
That's the biggest draw as of this moment – what precisely the whole Regular versus Non-Regular thing means and how it stands to impact Bam's ascent. There's clearly a lot of lore that's been developed over the web toon's lifespan thus far, and it may simply be that the anime is trying to implement too much of it right off the bat – or that reading at your own pace is an easier form of digesting this kind of story. With its uneven character designs and rough-edged art, this isn't really working for me visually either, but if you don't need all of your answers at once, it may be worth a second episode to see how it proceeds from here.
Based on a popular Korean webtoon, Tower of God was one of the most-anticipated properties coming into this season. Having watched the first episode, I can partially see the reason for the hype; Tower of God feels a lot like an alternate take on Sword Art Online, with an even more “gamified” premise, but more of a high fantasy touch. This episode offered a strong elevator pitch, and then proceeded to bury it in a mountain of tired cliches, leaving me with seriously mixed feelings about the production so far.
This episode's strongest qualities were likely its momentum and its visual imagination. Though the first half of this episode was unfortunately stuffed with exposition, once the terms of the Tower of God are established, we immediately jump into a series of unique challenges, as our protagonist Bam works to clear each floor's new hurdles. Additionally, the show's color work and background designs are diverse and evocative, giving a sense of fantastical grandeur to what could easily come across as watching someone else play a video game.
Unfortunately, while Tower of God's base narrative hook is quite compelling, its moment-to-moment writing leaves a lot to be desired. The show spends a great deal of expository time setting up a simplistic isekai-adjacent premise, and the writing is full of tired cliches, like Bam's position as an “Irregular,” his narratively convenient amnesia, and the fabled sword he bonds with just within this first episode. The show's characters, plot beats, and worldbuilding decisions all felt like overused, secondhand pieces; there was little here that gave me a sense of investment-worthy authorial vision.
Along with its writing issues, Tower of God's aesthetic is also wildly inconsistent. Though it's got plenty of neat visual ideas, the uneven linework and flat coloring of the character art rarely felt like it actually existed in the same universe as that background art, and the storyboarding was far less engaging than the imagery. The animation also felt quite choppy throughout this episode, which amplified the issues with the show's overall visual composite. Tower of God has plenty of interesting visual ideas, but makes for a messy experience as an overall show.
Still, Tower of God's engaging premise, speedy pacing, and persistent visual invention make for a fairly entertaining premiere, dodgy writing and visual issues aside. If you're an isekai fan, Tower of God's extremely game-like premise and general template should feel very familiar; and if you're an action fan in general, it likely at least deserves a look.
How much is too much to tell the audience up front, and how much is too little? That is a question that innumerable anime titles have struggled with over the years, and it is a question at the heart of this much-ballyhooed (by Crunchyroll, at least) addition to the Crunchyroll Originals slate. Its first episode throws out a lot of details and potential story hooks but does not ultimately explain much of anything, leaving the audience to flounder to catch up much like protagonist Bam seems to be doing himself. Of course, that may well have been the intended effect.
In a sense, this is a reverse scenario of Made in Abyss, one where the protagonist is ascending rather than descending. However, the big difference here is that this is a regulated scenario with death game elements thrown in for good measure. The tower is described in mystical terms; get to the top and everything awaits you. But rather than it just being an automated test, someone – or perhaps more accurately, some group – is controlling the tower and advancement up it, perhaps as some kind of testing grounds. But testing for what? And how does the princess and her royal family's privilege figure into this? Comments made here suggest that her family might be in control of the tower. Other tantalizing details also abound, such as the vastly diverse array of Regulars in the second test, the suggestions that maybe everything is underground, and the indication that Bam is an amnesiac.
Normally I'm not too crazy about this kind of scattershot dumping out of random tidbits, but it somewhat works in this case. Director Takashi Sano has only limited previous credits in the director's chair but he keeps things moving here at a brisk but steady clip. He successfully conveys the sense that Bam, in choosing to pursue Rachel, has thoughtlessly jumped into something where he's in well over his head, though he also seems to be a wild card in whatever is going on with the Tower. I can also say the same about the art style; normally I don't care much for the kinds of rough edges that the visuals use, but again, they somehow suit the production well, and the animation quality, which has more of an old-school feel to it, isn't shabby at all. However, the real production star here is the sizzling musical score. Kevin Penkin made a big name for himself with his work on Made in Abyss, and this is already sounding like another slam dunk for him.
Overall, the first episode throws enough potential hooks out there that I am cautiously optimistic about it.
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