The Spring 2021 Preview Guide
Cestvs: The Roman Fighter
by The Anime News Network Editorial Team,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Cestvs: The Roman Fighter ?
What is this?
At the height of the Roman Empire, Cestvs is a boy who is enslaved and placed in a training school for boxers to fight in the Colosseum.
Cestvs: The Roman Fighter is based on Shizuya Wazarai's Kentō Ankoku Den Cestvs and Kendo Shitō Den Cestvs manga and streams on Crunchyroll on Tuesdays.
How was the first episode?
Cestvs is an anime that I could really get behind in theory. I'm always down for a solid martial arts tussle between emotionally compromised battle boys, and I've come to consider myself quite the history buff (I've got plenty of podcasts to recommend for folks interested in learning more about Roman history). However, despite having all the makings of an ideal mid-grade time-killer, the only lasting impression that Cestvs makes is how awkward it is to constantly spell its hero's name with that anachronistic “v", even in the subtitles. Other than that, this fighter was linked before the first round even began.
A lot of this comes down to presentation. To be blunt: Cestvs looks pretty damned bad, both because of its uninspired artwork, and because it is almost depressing to behold in motion. Given the shoddy CG work at the top of the episode, I was expecting mediocre 3D animation to be Cestvs' Achilles' heel, but no. This first episode, at least, is largely animated in traditional 2D, though I think the show might have been better off to stick to looking bad in three dimensions. With the 2D animation, nearly every scene contains a shot or three that just looks wrong: Mouths go lopsided, body proportions are inconsistent, some poor sap ends up looking like the Tin Man when he walks or attempts a punch, etc. When Cestvs gets around to his big fight against Gidon, the storyboarding and character animation is so sloppy that it becomes unintentionally hilarious to behold.
Given that this is a series about gladiatorial boxing and, eventually, the mixed martial arts combat of pankration, it is a terrible sign that Cestvs' fight scenes already look so awful. The story isn't anywhere near compelling enough to pick up the slack. The premiere tries to introduce us to a large and dynamic cast, between Cestvs, the young Emperor Nero, the aged fighter Zafar, the proud Roman soldier Demetrius, and Demetrius' able son, Ruska. The problem is that not a single one of them seems even the tiniest bit more complex or interesting than their Plain-Jane character designs and mediocre dialogue would suggest. Given all of these shortcomings, I couldn't recommend Cestvs to anybody but the most devoted history/fighting anime fanatics. Even then, I think we all know that there's only room enough in this season for one boxing anime, and between Cestvs and Megalobox 2, well…yeah, no, it ain't even close.
Well, this is certainly a mess to close out preview guide on. I know that the way schedules work out this just happens to be the last show on the docket, but it really is a bit sad that after a number of interesting, ambitious, impressive premieres we have to close things out on one of the least competent first episodes of this nascent season. I'll admit I was already not all that into Cestvs just from the initial trailer. Netflix have already supplied me with more CG pugilist anime than I could ever want, so seeing a new one wasn't interesting. Still, even if I wasn't sold, there was still a chance to win me over if there proved to be something unique or special about this show, but that hope died the moment this premiere decided to be one long flashback that it absolutely was not built to deliver.
This is a full CG series, so all of our primary characters are, of course, CG rigs, and what little we see of them this episode is perfectly serviceable. The problem comes when having to animate any characters who aren't going to be around for multiple episodes, where it's more cost and time-effective to just animate them in 2D. And since this episode is built entirely around a flashback to younger versions of the main cast, that means 90% of this episode is clunky 2D animation that was either outsourced or worked on by a team who specialize in CG animation. The result is just abysmal to look at, cutting every corner possible in the desperate hope of holding on until they can get back to the 3D present day, and draining the multiple dramatic fights of any weight, energy, or visual coherence. It's a terrible idea executed poorly, and whoever planned this production should be kicking themselves.
That's a pretty insurmountable failure, but it's not helped by the frankly amateurish script. The idea of a historical drama based around ancient boxing is a neat one, and the setting of ancient Rome is certainly novel in anime. But shockingly little thought seems to have been put into this setting, even down to our protagonist's status as a slave fighter. That's a strong, potent backstory for our hero, but the show casually forgets about it whenever it needs to for narrative convenience, like when Cestvs is brought to Rome for a match and “gets separated from [his] group” while exploring the coliseum like he's a student on a field trip. For one, as a slave, wouldn't he have been chained to his fellow slaves from the moment they left their cell? For two, how does a slave casually go missing and nobody goes looking for him or suspects him of escaping, or even thinks to reprimand him? This is the most fundamental part of our main character's origin and the show just forgets it for a few minutes. It's baffling.
The real cherry on top though is the episode's doomed attempts at tragedy. This is aiming to be a dark, heavy drama where our hero must fight for his life and freedom, yet every fight also means either killing his opponent or dooming them to a death sentence for losing. Yet because the pacing and animation of this episode are bottom of the barrel, it all lands with a wet thud that has 0 chance of getting anyone invested. Cestvs himself also just comes off as unbearably annoying, which is almost impressive since he's not exactly short on justified reasons to be upset and emotional. But something in his performance and expressions is just so irritating that I wanted punch him myself by the halfway mark.
So yeah, this is a total mess that might get nominally better once we're out of the awkward, poorly animated flashback. But even if it does improve there's little here that seems worth staying around for. This is already a season with Megalobox's new season, and if you're hankering for CGaction you could just as easily watch Levius or Kengan Ashura and get the same thing but much more competently executed. Big thumbs down.
“In which Nero is not depicted as a beautiful busty woman in red.”
We all know about Roman gladiators in ancient Rome, battling each other or wild animals with various weapons in fights to the death. However, this was far from the only blood sport going on at the time. Boxing has been around since at least 3000 BC and was an Olympic sport in the time of the ancient Greeks. During the Roman Empire, boxing was so popular it's said that the first Emperor, Caesar Augustus, loved to watch both official matches and street fights—and even banished a man for interfering with his enjoyment of a fight he was watching. It's in this setting that we get Cestvs: The Roman Fighter.
The episode itself is all about laying a foundation. We're introduced to our hero, Cestvs, and his ultimate goal. As a slave fighter, his only hope is to earn his freedom by winning 100 boxing matches. Of course, if he loses even one, he will be killed by his master even if the Emperor or the spectators spare him.
Cestvs is not the strongest or most physically intimidating of fighters. However, all that is made up for by his speed and reaction time. It doesn't matter how powerful his opponents' punches are if he never gets hit. Likewise, it doesn't matter if he can't take a person down in one hit if he can hit as many times as he needs to in order to finish the job.
However, Cestvs has one major weakness holding him back: his compassion. He doesn't want to cause others pain. As we see in his introductory scene, he won't even fight for the limited food he and the other slaves are given. Likewise, in the test match to determine if he will become a professional fighter or not, he doesn't fight back until both his coach and opponent goad him into it. Things get worse once he hits the arena. He has problems winning as he knows that his opponent will likely die as a result—to the point where he puts his own life on the line to appeal to the Emperor in his opponent's stead.
Speaking of the Emperor, this episode also gives us a good introduction to Nero and the complex political situation of his early reign. At 16, Nero took the throne. However, his mother Agrippina was the real power behind the throne—steering her son where she saw fit with help from his closest advisors. This mix of political intrigue combined with an ancient version of a popular sport makes Cestvs: The Roman Fighter stand out among this season's other sports anime. And now that all the pieces are set up, I'm interested to see where things go from here.
I know exactly one thing about boxing: it's really, really helpful as therapy for my father's Parkinson's Disease. That, however, is next to useless knowledge when it comes to this show, because, despite his abiding love for Roman history, my father is not, in fact, an ancient Roman. (Just as well given that whole Masada thing and the fact that the first Jewish-Roman war happened during the reign of Emperor Nero, i.e. the guy in charge during the time period this show is set in.) Fortunately for those of us who aren't boxing experts, the form the sport took in its early years doesn't necessarily appear to have much in common with its modern incarnation – for one thing, no one has spikes on their gloves anymore.
As far as settings go, it's hard to beat this episode for historical interest. The story opens in the first year of Nero's reign, 54 C.E., and a lot of the details are really neat, especially the costuming and look of the city. (If you prefer you mostly-naked guys buff and scarred, forget Fairy Ranmaru – this is your show.) Regrettably, the animation is in no way up to the same standards, and that goes double for the ghastly CG in the opening moments. But in terms of history, Agrippina the Younger, Nero's somewhat infamous mother, also appears to be in line with surviving ancient texts, meaning she's portrayed as violent and aggressive in her attempts to rule over her seventeen-year-old son. Nero also seems to fall in line with history, which is to say that we see more of the person who opened his palaces to the people after the Great Fire of Rome rather than the man who supposedly fiddled while it burned – which would have been quite a feat since fiddles didn't get invented until about 1400 years after Nero's death.
The story, on the other hand, isn't looking like it has much appeal outside of its target audience. Things are grim, violent (though not bloody), and in this episode strictly focus on how Cestvs, a fifteen-year-old slave, is preternaturally gifted at boxing. We don't know how he got so good or why he's able to take down opponents who are much larger and older than he is, though, so you need to be ready to take it as given that he's awesome strictly because he's the protagonist. We get only the briefest of training sessions with his coach, Zafar the Numidian (Numidia is now Algeria), and most of what we know about Cestvs is that he wants to earn his freedom and he really, really doesn't want his opponents to be killed. Also the way his name is written is intensely irritating – why is he “Cestvs” when the other characters aren't “Rvska” and “Demetrivs?”
Apart from the history, this just feels like it's going through the motions. It may improve now that Ruska and pankration have been introduced, but I think I'd rather go re-read the SPQR mysteries.
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