The Winter 2020 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Darwin's Game ?
What is this?
Darwin's Game is based on a manga and is streaming on Funimation on Fridays.
How was the first episode?
It is never a good sign when you have to check how much time is left in a premiere episode multiple times, and each time you see how many minutes are left you cry out, “Aw, jeez, why!?” Darwin's Game starts off on the wrong foot with it's needlessly protracted double-length premiere, and its greatest sin is that it never once justifies the extended running time. There will likely be a lot of questions rattling around in the heads of Darwin's Game's viewers once this first episode is finished, and the only one that possibly gets a satisfying answer would be “How many overdramatic slow motion shots and dubstep music cues does it take to fill time in a forty-seven minute long episode?” The answer, as it turns out, is too damned many.
Darwin's Game is about as straightforward a killing game anime as you can get: There's an evil cell phone app going around, the titular game of Darwin, and anyone who joins it gets entered into a battle royale which pits them in a fight-to-the-death against any number of kooky strangers. After Kaname Sudo accidentally gets roped into the game when he clicks on an invitation sent by his recently murdered classmate, he finds himself first outrunning a bloodthirsty baseball mascot with a panda helmet who can go invisible, and then an even more bloodthirsty blonde bombshell named Shuka, who swings around her murder chains like Kratos of Sparta's long-lost Japanese schoolgirl daughter. The whole of this first episode is devoted to just barely introducing the characters at play, and then watching them laboriously chase each other around the city as they attempt to murder each other with their weapons and magic powers, which are called Sigils.
I'm not kidding when I say a solid 25% of these action sequences consists of the camera manically panning and zooming into Kaname's freaked out face, while ominous wub-wub bass drops get progressively louder on the soundtrack. Whenever anyone gets stabbed or maimed, geysers of blood erupt for the pleasure of the viewing audience. Darwin's Game feels positively convinced it will be the next great Hardcore Action Anime for Grownups, and the way it insists upon its own edgy coolness despite not offering anything exceptionally novel or interesting is what really kills this show for me. When Kaname manages to get one over on Shuka, and the episode ends with him waking up in a bed with her naked and propositioning herself to him, it just felt like another instance of the episode ripping from other show's playbooks, without having any new ideas to contribute to the genre itself. It gave me hardcore Future Diary or Big Order vibes, except Sakae Esuno's anime at least know how to get weird enough to make an impression. Big Order may be one of the worst anime ever made, but it was rarely boring. Darwin's Game is a well-animated and decently directed slice of nothing, and it almost put me to sleep, making it the first show of the season I wholeheartedly recommend skipping.
Though I grew to regard the series as a joke, I actually had a positive initial reaction to 2017's King's Game. To this day I regret rating its first episode as high as I did, but I suspect that I will have fewer long-term regrets about this one. That's because this double-length debut about deadly phone-related peril is not showing some of the common hallmarks of a bad series, like that one did: it isn't being unintentionally campy, doesn't depend on its characters being stupid, and most importantly, has more interesting and immediately likable characters. In fact, the series' first 48 minutes persistently defied my admittedly-low expectation.
The basic premise is just a standard update of the long-standing “death game” scenario: an ordinary guy gets dragged unawares into the bloodbath by carelessly clicking on a free app. (Have to wonder if some symbolism about the danger of clicking on things you don't know anything about was intended here.) He's forced to piece together the rules of the game while he's fighting to survive, as well as what his own power granted by the game is. There's also a hot girl who changes from trying to kill him to wanting to “make a family” with him (she's naked on top of him when she says this, so there's no ambiguity about the intended meaning) once she accepts that she can trust him.
Okay, so that last part is a bit sketchy, but I'm willing to overlook it because everything else about the first episode is executed well. Thanks to a combination of good use of a driving, techno and rock-based musical score, inventive scene framing and perspectives, and surprising good action animation, the action components sizzle with tension, so much so that I was quite surprised to discover that this was director Yoshinobu Tokumoto's first time helming an action series; these aren't the Hand Shakers chains that Shuka is tossing around in her attacks. Shuka also has a striking character design – especially with that red dress – and Kaname doesn't quite feel like your typical put-upon teenager. As stupid as the mascot-suited Banda seemed at first, he actually works in the long run as an intimidating presence as well. The episode also showcases a potential future ally and a probably enemy in the rather disgusting hoodlum who is clearly a player of the game as well. The opener suggests that Kaname will also meet and associate with a couple of characters who haven't been introduced yet.
If you do decide to check this one out, be forewarned that it is at least as bloody as you might expect for the type of series that it is; Funimation even resorts to some black-out censoring in a couple of places. If you can handle that, though, then this series has more promise than I would have expected.
There have been a fair amount of “survive the game that will kill you” stories in recent years in both anime and manga form. We could guess that they're a reaction to the increased power of social media and online interactions in people's lives, taking “social death” and turning it into a metaphor for something much more frightening and real. That none of these stories have done a particularly good job with the genre attests to the large amount of suspension of disbelief required for them, and although Darwin's Game doesn't change anything on that front (in some places it needs a bit more than its fair share), it certainly is executed better than a lot of the others in terms of both plot and production values. In part this is due to giving its introductory episode a double-length runtime. This means that protagonist Kaname isn't just thrown headlong into the eponymous mobile game; he's introduced to it and has time to slowly (but not too slowly that things start to drag) learn how dangerous it is before managing to avoid certain death based on his own skills rather than dumb luck. It isn't a perfect opening, but it's much easier to swallow than some other entries into the genre.
That's until you start to think too hard about some of the pieces and how they don't quite fit together as smoothly as they ought to. Some, like the idea that Shuka would wear a full, tiered skirt when her power involves slinging chains around and swinging from them (if you've never worn a dress with lots of skirt, it's very hard to keep it free from things like ropes, branches, or, I assume, chains), are clearly aesthetic choices made by someone who doesn't care about practicality, but others are a little tougher to swallow. Among those is the idea that no one would notice that a bloody panda mascot wielding a knife chasing a screaming high school boy down a busy street isn't likely to be a publicity stunt or that there's some sort of pixel art Banksy running around Tokyo creating body outlines at the same rate people are disappearing mysteriously. That no one figures out that Kaname's Sigil is duplication also beggars belief a bit (he goes from having no guns to two identical guns, come on) is also a bit much, but it's also more easily ascribed to plot blindness, which in all fairness is necessary for the genre.
It's still a concern if you're not necessarily a fan of survival game stories, because it indicates that Darwin's Game has no interest in appealing to anyone who isn't into the genre. That's well within its rights, and perhaps a bonus of cute-but-insane female characters aren't your cup of tea, because Shuka is one of the more irritating of her character type. If it is a genre you enjoy, however, this is definitely trying to put its best foot forward.
The superpowered battle royale is an anime staple, from Future Diary and Jūni Taisen to the various Fate incarnations, and this season the genre is represented by the app-centered Darwin's Game. Centered on a high school student named Kaname who finds himself wrapped up in one more battle to the death, Darwin's Game's double-length premiere takes us through his first two battles, as he races to figure out the mechanics of these duals before he gets brutally murdered. So how does Darwin's Game compare to its genre compatriots?
“Moderately well,” I'd say. On the positive side, Darwin's Game looks pretty good, and this double-length episode moves efficiently and energetically through the story's setup. Lethal battle royales, and even lethal battle royales specifically based on apps, have become common enough in anime that Darwin's Game doesn't really have to waste much time explaining the fundamentals of its premise. It's free to instead focus on Kaname's first two battles, each of which possess their own dramatic appeal - a mad, panicked scramble away from a faceless killer, and then a genuine dual with a chain-wielding pro. That second fight in particular is definitely the episode highlight, featuring some solid action animation, and proceeding with a real sense of urgency and discovery, as Kaname fights to unlock and manipulate his unique power.
On the negative side, Darwin's Game does almost nothing to distinguish itself in narrative terms, and will feel extremely familiar to anyone who has any experience with this genre. There's nothing novel about its worldbuilding or narrative setup more generally, and Kaname himself demonstrates virtually no personality beyond the default protagonist “I want to live, but I don't want to kill.” The one character who actually does demonstrate a personality makes me wish she hadn't: Shuka, Kaname's second round opponent, and a clear riff on characters like Future Diary's Yuno. I can accept the usual power fantasies intrinsic to narratives like this, but when you dip into indulgences like “the female heroine is an outright servant of the protagonist, and only wants to have his babies,” you're reaching a level of crass, character-defeating fanservice that makes it very difficult for me to care about your characters.
On the whole, I actually had a pretty enjoyable time with Darwin's Game, at least until it shot itself in the foot with Shuka's characterization. If you're a fan of battle royales, and characters like Shuka aren't a dealbreaker for you, I'd give it a shot.
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