The Fall 2021 Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Rumble Garanndoll ?
What is this?
In 2019, a rift to another dimension suddenly opens in the skies above, revealing a "turnabout" alternate world called "Shinkoku Nippon." This parallel version of Japan maintained its militarism and remains stuck in the Showa era. Shinkoku Nippon invades our Japan with its "Genmu" gas weapons and giant humanoid "Garan" weapons. The invaders immediately take over our government and all but conquer Japan. As a result, our Japan never ushers in the Reiwa era. A decade later, our Japan has been revamped as Genkoku Nippon, a puppet state of Shinkoku Nippon. Under harsh censorship, the once thriving manga, anime, idol, and similar sub-cultures have completely died off...or so it seemed.
How was the first episode?
I went into Rumble Garanndoll mostly blind. Here are my thoughts, more or less as they occurred to me:
“Hey, this looks pretty slick. Those colors really pop!”
“Wait, are those character designs by the The World God Only Knows guy?”
“Oh my god they're arresting a dude for having an eroge. This is one of those anime, isn't it?”
“OMG that robot is adorable.”
When I looked up the staff after the fact, I discovered that the series director is, in fact, Masaomi Andō, one of the most visually distinctive directors making a name for himself in anime today. I didn't realize because there were only a few instances of his signature panels within a frame, but his eye for color and frame composition remained. Also, I guessed right about the character designer! I've never seen The World God Only Knows or much of the Monogatari series that he also did, but his designs are eye-catchingly expressive and round without looking childish, so it's easy to spot his work.
And as for it being one of those series… well, that isn't totally clear yet. While some series go too hard on the clunky, “As you know…” style of exposition, Rumble Garanndoll goes a little too light. All I could tell was there was a militaristic government that banned escapist entertainment and maintained order using giant robots. Our hero, Hiromasa, is just trying to keep his head down and get through life by working as a host, a job that famously involves suppressing his own personality in order to be as appealing as possible to clients. He even conceals that by making clumsy, nervous flirtation part of his work persona in order to disarm the female clients. So when he and his loan shark get pulled into a mech that's powered by “passion,” what anime fans typically call BURNING SPIRIT (the all-caps is necessary), he has a hard time letting go enough to actually power the robot.
Have I mentioned that every boy I've ever loved has been able to recite the G-Gundam “Shining Finger” speech from memory?
Luckily, the emphasis this episode wasn't about the joy and spiritual necessity of moe anime to a functioning society; it was more about being fully able to embrace your dork side and enjoy a goofy fantasy. Too often that goofy fantasy involves girls acting like mewling kittens instead of human beings, so the super robot approach felt positively innocuous by comparison, enabling me to actually have fun with it. BUT…
Without spoiling it, the twist at the end of the episode threw me. I can't say that it'll ruin the series because I don't know how it'll be handled, but it brought up a lot of bad feelings about objectification and agency and so on because I am who I am, and who I am is someone who is permanently On One about female representation in anime. I want to go ahead and embrace the goofy joy, but Rumble Garanndoll has some serious explaining to do if it wants to win me back over.
While a bit silly, there's nothing inherently wrong with the core concept behind Rumble Garanndoll, which is that “kiai” (one's fighting spirit) can be used as a power source for a giant robot. After all, it is the same concept used by one of the all-time great mecha shows, Gurren Lagann.
What sets Rumble Garanndoll apart is that what generates the kiai is a “battery girl” independent from the pilot. In other words, the pilot must keep the battery girl motivated, otherwise the mecha becomes nothing but an unmoving pile of metal. The big joke in Rumble Garanndoll's first episode is that what motivates our battery girl, Rin, is when her pilot acts like the protagonist of a shounen mecha anime. Therefore, our main lead Kudo has to do things like shout his attack names and make cool-sounding speeches about his resolve in order to fight.
The problem with this setup is that Kudo is highly unlikable, not because he works in a host club, but because he doesn't even see his clients as people. We see this quite literally in the episode. Despite the show taking place in a world where contact lenses exist, he simply removes his glasses when he goes to work, turning the women he interacts with into featureless blobs. He does this despite the issues it causes—i.e., accidentally drinking from the wrong glass or having to ask each customer if they've met before. Oh, and the fact that he's a coward indebted to the mob who would sell off the person who saved him to wipe away his debt doesn't exactly make him endearing either.
Now, to be clear, I'm not against characters starting off as assholes and becoming better people over the course of their journey—that's a damn good character arc after all. However, there has to be something likeable about the character so that even at their worst, you want to root for them to become better. Kudo lacks this.
The other big turn-off for me is the chibi mecha design. It's just hard to see such cute designs as anything imposing—be that the hero's mecha or the enemy's dog-shaped ones. The whole “Japan without popular entertainment” angle doesn't really capture the imagination either. In the end, from top to bottom, this one isn't for me.
As I was watching Rumble Garanndoll's premiere, I became worried that the Preview Guide cycle and general exhaustion were finally starting to get to me, because I was having the damnedest time just trying to figure out what the hell the show was even about. The opening title indicated some sort of alternate history Japan, which, okay, I can follow that. Then, the nefarious Bad Guy dude that pops up throughout kept mentioning some vague cataclysm, and a “Fantasy Country” Japan that is in some way different from the “True Country” Japan, and all of this has something to do with a ban on otaku stuff, I think? Also, there's a shark-themed robot that fights a bunch of dog-themed robots, and it's apparently powered by…nerd vibes?
It wasn't until I read the summary at the top of this page where I decided that, no, there's definitely something off with how Garanndoll is conveying its exposition, because 90% of the information was news to me. It's easy to complain when bad anime writing leads to incredibly clunky infodumps between characters who sound like living Wikipedia pages, but while I give Garanndoll credit for possibly attempting to trust its audience to figure things out for themselves, it has to meet us halfway by actually being, you know, coherent?
Heck, maybe the exhaustion is getting to me, and you all are reading this and shaking your heads at how ol' James has completely lost it this time. Well, that may be the case, but I'd also wager that I'd have been more in tune with the show's attempt at world-building if Garanndoll had any characters that I gave a damn about. Until he meets sharky robot girl and learns to fight evil with the power of his “oppressed” nerd culture (*shudder*), our man Hosomichi is established as a cynical twentysomething that's been slumming it at the last host club in town. His jaded attitude is the point, I know, but the rule about casting a disaffected grouch as your main character is that, if you aren't going to make him likeable, he at least needs to be interesting. I don't think you could apply that descriptor to any person in the cast of Garanndoll, human, AI, or otherwise. Except maybe for General Bad Guy, but that's only because his name is Balzac, and that made me laugh.
Even though the premise of weaponized otaku fandom feels kind of trite in this day and age, when there are multi-billion-dollar industries established all over the world that exist purely to cater to the whims of nerd culture, there could be a good anime here in Garanndoll, buried deep down somewhere. I don't know if I have the patience to stick around and find out myself, but if this series somehow ends up being a surprise hit or something, I'm sure I'll hear about it one way or the other.
Welcome to Rumble Garrandoll, the show that dares to ask, “What if your AI's batteries were charged by how passionate you are about their product?” While there are some, if not many, shows that make us suspect that they were written by a group of very excited teenagers, this one feels as if it were written by a group of very excited college students or recent college grads – you know, the age group where all of a sudden you realize that the real world is bearing down on you and you do things like have your parents send you your old My Little Ponies so that they can have a showdown with your friend's Star Wars toys. (This is, naturally, a completely random example of something that never happened.) That's more or less the sentiment powering the mecha in this show: the so-called “garrandoll” can only achieve enough battery power to fight the evil army if the pilot is sufficiently enthused, preferably by something otaku-related.
Or at least, that's my understanding based on this episode. Our hapless protagonist Kudo lives in a hellish alternate Japan where things like “escapism” are broadly banned, resulting in a nation that somehow never reached the current Reiwa era, although how those two things are related is at this point unexplained. Kudo, who works at a host club despite possibly being 17, is present when a raid goes down, and as he's escaping, he finds an unpiloted mech, complete with VR headset, controller, and “battery girl.” That last, who functions as both the ship's power source and its mascot character, needs him to be all fired up about fighting in a super-suit and making the world a better place, and if he can drum up that enthusiasm by recalling a childhood favorite anime, so much the better, because then they can relate to each other. Honestly, it makes about as much sense as anything in this episode, which feels largely like a series of ideas just sort of strung together without a whole lot of thought as to what the end product will sound like.
What it looks like seems to have done a little better – there's a gritty dystopia vibe that works with the sort of fantasy-free world that the story is setting up. Neon contrasts with washed-out greys and blacks, and the candy-bright colors of the rebels (mostly their hair) stands out against the much more normal dark browns, greens, and purples of the soldiers. (Hey, it's still anime-normal.) The mecha all look a little on the silly side, but Shark Cavalier is certainly more fantastical than the army's Komainu designs; heck, the name even implies a soldier riding on a shark, which is about as fantasy-based as you can get.
So it's not that there wasn't any thought put into this. In fact, it may manage to shape itself into something enjoyably ridiculous as it goes on. But as far as first episodes go, it isn't quite working as it tries to cram all of its character and world-building ideas into one space, resulting in something that feels like a game that's only funny to the people who made it up in the first place.
The first thing Rumble Garanndoll reminded me of was Akiba's Trip, an anime from a few years ago built almost entirely around otaku inside-baseball jokes. That show wasn't exactly great, but had a distinct identity centered around not just liking or being into anime, but being neck-deep in the insular subculture surrounding Akihabara's famous font of anime merchandise. Garanndoll isn't quite as specific yet – it hasn't done anything as wild as referencing a particularly infamous pool used for pornographic photo shoots, for one – but it very much feels like it's playing to the same audience.
That's not inherently a bad thing, but it does leave me on the outside looking in on a lot of what it's playing at. It doesn't help that this episode does a pretty sparse job communicating its high-concept premise, despite featuring at least two scenes dedicated just to characters reiterating facts about their setting they should all already know. Looking up the actual synopsis gives more detail: an alternate timeline Japan that never moved past the militarism of the Showa era invades modern-day Japan and takes it over, and now an intrepid team of otaku must fight for their right to anime, idols, and sundry other otaku interests. Which is...not every interesting or compelling, if I'm being honest. It's not a bad premise for an action-comedy, but like I said, when our heroes' uniting factor is “liking anime” and the stakes are this high, it's hard to relate. A premise like the equally in-jokey Anime-Gataris worked because it started out as nothing more than some weirdos starting an anime club and diving into that subculture, and the high-concept apocalypse didn't start until episode 10 or so.
The emotional journey of this whole episode is at least a little better in its delivery. Closeted otaku Hosomichi is an expert at faking his personality to get by in life, but then is offered the thrilling yet embarrassing opportunity to embrace his anime-loving past when he winds up co-piloting a robot with a super-robot-loving gal named Rin, and is roped into joining the Otaku Liberation Army. He's constantly ping-ponging between embracing his hidden love for children's anime and being mortified at shouting out the silly catchphrases. But somewhere in the presentation it just falls flat. Maybe it's the protracted, repetitive fight sequence that makes up most of this episode, which drags out its action and jokes way too long. Maybe it's just the timing of the gags that makes them fall flat too often. Either way, I came out of this one with not much feeling or interest, and certainly not the passion it's trying to connect to.
I do at least like the visuals, which have a lot of bright and appealing colors that work well to blend the action and comedy halves of the story. The pudgy little sprite used to represent Rin when she's operating the mech is especially charming. The robots themselves feel like something I should enjoy more – I'm very much a fan of SD style mechs, and these have a lot of charm, but something in the busy and compact designs just doesn't click with me. And that's unfortunately the note this whole premiere hits for me. It's not unpleasant or amateurish, but it just doesn't manage to reach me.
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