The Summer 2020 Preview Guide
The God of High School
How would you rate episode 1 of
The God of High School ?
What is this?
The God of High School: an all-styles-welcome martial arts tournament designed to find the world's strongest fighter. Across the globe thousands of specially invited candidates are prepared to duke it out with fists, feet, swords, and anything else they can wield, all for the sake of calling themselves the strongest – and to have their greatest desire granted by the mysterious tourney administrators. Into this maelstrom of violence waltzes Jin Mori, an excitable young man with (literal) stars in his eyes and a thirst for strong opponents. He's ready to face an ocean of enemies across every fighting discipline known to man, but with the mysterious and supernatural tournament organizer waiting in the wings, Jin might just need powerful allies if he wants to survive.
The God of High School is based on a Korean webcomic series and streams on Crunchyroll at 10:30 EDT on Mondays.
How was the first episode?
Crunchyroll have been making some big plays in anime production. As major streaming platforms like Amazon and Netflix have taken a greater interest in anime licensing, Crunchyroll have responded by getting directly involved in the funding of new anime, appearing on the production committee of a variety of recent shows. One of the most dramatic examples of this trend has been their collaboration with korean webcomic portal Webtoon, which resulted in last season's Tower of God, and the current God of High School. So how does this latest international collaboration fair?
Well, so far, so flashy. In terms of pure animation, it seems hard to believe that any show this season is going to top God of High School's utterly action-packed premiere. With a premise that's basically just “high schoolers with different martial arts specialties all beat the crap out of each other,” this episode is free to devote the vast majority of its time to an energetic high-speed chase, along with a gorgeously realized battle royale. God of High School's action scenes are universally fluid and energetically directed, while also grounded in sturdy martial arts principles to such an extent that you can always follow the flow of the action, and parse the drama of battle in purely visual terms. It's not just God of High School's fight scenes that benefit from stellar animation. Sequences like an early flashback to protagonist Mori's childhood use a beautiful style of morphing background animation to represent his isolation, while this episode's one segment of genuine exposition is accompanied by gorgeous spinning fighters conveyed in a style evoking pure ink splashes. God of High School is an impressive visual production on basically all counts.
Unfortunately, the show's writing so far is nowhere near the equal of its visual execution. The clumsy opening sequence, featuring a bunch of businessmen laughing maniacally to inform you that they're bad dudes, felt like an early clue as to the level of storytelling I could expect here, and nothing else in this episode really shifted that impression. Mori's story is just one cliche after another so far, conveyed through jerky narrative shifts that feel more like a series of canned setpieces than an evolving narrative. And perhaps most frustratingly, the show's comedy is just a universal drag - reminiscent of manic early-00's anime like Soul Eater or Excel Saga, God of High School's jokes peak at “mercifully ignorable” and bottom out at “deeply, actively obnoxious.”
Still, if God of High School can maintain its current level of visual excellence, it might not even need a compelling story. Animating fights with this level of choreography, energy, and impact is a rare and special thing, and even if this episode's plot didn't thrill me, I was still plenty dazzled by the continuous battles. If you're a fan of action anime, God of High School looks like a must-watch this season.
I knew literally nothing about The God of High School going into it, besides the fact that, like last season's Tower of God, it is a Korean manhwa adaptation and Crunchyroll/Webtoon co-production. Having watched it's premiere, I'm not all that certain I know any more about the show than before, save for one thing: It's really damned pretty to look at.
Director Sunghoo Park and the anime industry veterans at Studio MAPPA are responsible for one of my favorite underwatched anime of recent years, GARO: Vanishing Line, and the crew are clearly putting all of their chips on the table when it comes to pure, action-packed spectacle, and in that regard The God of High School is easily the standout of the summer so far, rivaled perhaps only by Fire Force. About half of the episode is taken up with an extended highway chase sequence wherein our two heroes, Jin and Yoo, speed across a highway in pursuit of a purse-snatcher with reckless, superhuman abandon. Once that non-sequitur is out of the way, the two of them proceed to the main draw of the series, a glitzed out martial arts tournament that draws out all sorts of kooky contestants from all over to determine who will earn the title of “God of High School”. In both of these extended set pieces, we get eyeful after eyeful of slickly animated and well-choreographed action coupled with bass-thumping music and a sense of confident style that stands out as much as it pumps you up. The blush coloring that is applied to everyone's noses is not a touch I'm especially fond of, but the series is so hellbent on distracting its audience with flashy visuals and goofy sight gags that I couldn't be too irritated by such details for long.
My main issue with God of High School's premiere, as you might have guessed, is that there isn't much of anything to grab on to here once the dust from all of the action has settled. Outside of knowing which character that I'm meant to root for in the fights, I have no emotional or intellectual connection to anything that is going on. The setting, the motivations for the different characters, the stakes at play; all of these details, which I would think would be a season premiere's top priority when it comes to getting its hooks into viewers, remains exceptionally basic. I'm sure they'll be filled in by future episodes, but one shouldn't have to hope that a show does in two or three episodes what it very well could have taken care of in one. I'm enough of a fan of good animation for good animation's sake that I'll be checking out The God of High School for at least a couple more weeks, but I'll keep my expectations for the story in check until it gives me reason to do otherwise.
I am unlikely to follow this series week-to-week because this kind of fighting series isn't my thing, but I have to respect an opening episode which goes balls-to-the-wall on action and pulls it off. Purely on that basis, this is one of the most thrilling opening episodes I've seen in quite some time.
The premise isn't anything spectacular: there's a big almost-no-rules mixed martials arts tournament taking place, one whose recruitment methods are rather suspicious and whose top prize – having a wish granted – is even more suspicious. Also, fighters are injected with nanomachines so they can be instantly healed if injured? And the tournament organizers don't have a better use for something like that than a martial arts tournament? Also, an opening scene where the prime minister seems to have slapped a giant hand down on an island where some pesky manipulators were scheming surely has some connection to this; is he a past champion? And who in their right mind would participant in a martial arts events where a lot of leaping around and kicks might happen while wearing a miniskirt? (Granted, the girl in question may not have expected to be fighting immediately, but will she bother to change into something more practical next time?)
In other words, this series looks like it will work best if you turn off your brain while watching it. Do so and the first episode can be a lot of fun. Action scenes – whether it's the chase of motorcycle-riding thief, complete with all of its twist and turns, or the battle royale at the end – sizzle with intensity. Some of the credit for that goes to a hyped-up techno musical score, and more goes to the above-average animation effort by MAPPA, which allows viewers to see how the kicks and punches happen more thoroughly than many other titles out there. However, none of that would be enough without the sharp direction. Both the chase scene and the fight scene have good, continuous flows to them, something which we, unfortunately, do not see enough of in anime action titles.
That the whole thing is more than a little goofy also doesn't hurt; in fact, in this case, I think the series needs that element. So much of this cannot be taken too seriously that the sillier elements – such as the star-eyed guy's overactive imagination about his grandma or his stares at his smashed alarm clock – seem to reassure that it's perfectly okay for the audience to think that way. Not much can be said about the characters yet, but each of the three featured ones seems like they should comfortably fit into their respective niches.
The one thing which bothers me about this episode is the way noses are drawn in the character designs (especially the announcer's!), but that's a minor negative. I can see this one being pretty successful.
There are many different ways for a show to entice viewers with a premiere. Generally a good way to go about it is to set up your main premise, introduce your lead character and their general motivation, maybe give us a broad idea of the world of the story and let the audience's imagination turn into curiosity. The main goal is to give the viewer a strong idea of what they can expect from the rest of the show, to hopefully keep them coming back. In that respect, The God of High School both succeeds and fails spectacularly as a premiere.
It's kind of impressive how little traditional storytelling there is in this episode. While we meet our lead trio, begin the prelims of the titular tournament, and even get a foreboding prologue about the tournament's creator, there's remarkably little in terms of concrete character or narrative. We know Jin is an idiot with a heart of gold and fists of steel, but not what motivated him to join this tournament outside of a vague flashback about his grandfather. Heck I'm not sure if we even learn his name in this episode, I just remember it from reading the early chapters of the manwha. The same can be said of the stoic Han and sword-wielding Yoo – we know more about their respective fighting styles than we do their hopes or dreams, and the rest of the cast is just nameless character designs and quirky fighting moves. The world is similarly vague, with a number of hints at advanced technology (Nanomachines, son) and some supernatural elements at play, but it's hard to tell if those are outliers or commonplace. That nearly every lead character features superhuman speed and strength muddles it further, since it's hard to grasp what's cartoonish exaggeration and what's “real” more or less.
But for all it's lacking in concrete details, The God of High School more than makes up for with sheer energy. Whether it's a flashy and comedic motorcycle chase through the city streets or a battle royal smackdown with a hundred participants, director Seoung Ho Park delivers martial arts action with cinematic flair to spare. There's a concerted effort to mimic handheld camerawork in the action direction, with simulated shaky cam that threatens to be too much at times, but combined with the distinct physicality of each character's movements it makes for a sharp imitation of live-action martial arts films, all capped with some impressively exaggerated animation to sell the blows as they land. The majority of this premiere is pure action, and the delivery is enough to sell me on it for at least a couple more episodes.
I'm less sold on the character designs. While distinct enough to stand out, the way everyone's noses and ears are colored red makes it look like everyone's running a fever and in desperate need of allergy meds. This gets especially silly with the tournament's announcer who has an ungodly schnoz that resembles a ruddy anti-air missile. I'm also not huge on Jin's star-eyes; they make him feel distinctly inhuman and that distance turns his character into a cipher that's hard to root for. Which is a shame because, combined with the over-the-top idiocy of his co-leads, the show itself looks to be a ton of goofy fun. Hopefully if the script can hunker down and give me a reason to care about all the cool fights these characters have, but if not it'll at least be neat to look at for a while.
I really do respect a story that goes out of its way to be as ridiculous as possible while still managing to squeeze a more-or-less coherent plot in. That's The God of High School in a nutshell – its central conceit, that there's an all-South Korea mixed martial arts tournament where high school kids go all out fighting each other, is demonstrably insane, its protagonists are overpowered, and it just has such a good time setting all of this up that it's hard to write it off completely. There are Jojo's levels of physical insanity going on here: Mori's mad bicycle riding prowess, Mira's ability to tear up a road with her wooden sword, and Daewi's feat of punching a guy off a speeding motorcycle are all good hints of what's to come when the actual battles get started, as well as a nice indication of our protagonists' moral affiliation, since the aforementioned feats are all in the service of getting an old lady her purse back. That they're also doing it because of the sob story Mori made up in his head probably is a good indication of something else.
That said, this really does proceed at a breakneck, manic pace. There are small breaks, such as Mira admiring some guys' muscles or Daewi finishing his shift at the convenience store, but most of the episode is interested in cramming as much action as possible into twenty-three minutes. While the animation can mostly keep up, it's all a bit overwhelming and the quiet moments in between don't quite make enough impact to count as a breather. It's nice that we aren't shown every little detail – we're allowed to assume that Mori, Daewi, and Mira all realized they were headed to the same place without having that moment played out on-screen – but there's still a frenetic quality that makes watching the episode somewhat exhausting and there are a few too many extraneous characters, like the random rapping livestreamer.
The art could be a sticking point for some viewers as well. I'm not a big fan of the red noses and ear-tops that everyone seems to have, and Mori's cross-pupiled eyes are the most awful eye design I've seen since UtaPri's heroine. (It is interesting that there are other elements of his design that seem drawn from depictions of The Monkey King, though.) Backgrounds are impressively busy and offer a good sense of place, but that has the effect of making the characters sometimes feel too cartoony to really belong in it. Sometimes that works, such a Mira's encounters with poles and signs, but at other times it's more of a disconnect. It is worth noting that it goes out of its way not to sexualize Mira – no upskirts, no boob jiggles, nothing. Since we see the other notable female character does get some of these animations, that's interesting and hopefully isn't out of some idea of “purity” rather than just a decision to make Mira a character in her own right and not The Girl.
The God of High School certainly isn't perfect, but it could also turn into some good brainless fun. Even if the maskless crowd scenes give us pause in the world that is 2020, this may be the thing to turn on when you feel like turning your brain off.
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