The Winter 2021 Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Back Arrow ?
What is this?
A mysterious man who goes by Back Arrow appears, equipped only with the knowledge that he is from beyond the Wall. To the people of Edger village and Lingalind, this comes as a surprise, as the Wall is the guiding force and protection of their lives. Back Arrow sets out on a journey to seek the truth, all while battling with himself.
How was the first episode?
Is Back Arrow Planetes/Maria the Virgin Witch Goro Taniguchi, or is it Code Geass Goro Taniguchi? I had my suspicions going in, but this episode has made it abundantly clear: Back Arrow is Taniguchi fully in Code Geass mode, delivering an action-packed premiere that's kind of goofy, a touch schlocky, and above all else, a ton of fun.
Back Arrow is kind of a throwback, hearkening back to action-adventure science fiction anime of the '90s. It put me in mind of Nadia - The Secret of Blue Water, but with mech; or maybe Now and Then, Here and There but less grimdark. It's one of those shows that can trace its lineage back to Future Boy Conan, with maybe some Jules Verne in there too, but crossed with children's tokusatsu series. It is, in other words, a big science fiction pastiche, with all the strengths and weaknesses common to the genre.
The jargon flies thick and fast for the first few minutes of the episode, as apparent aristocrats in a high-tech command center communicate with their guy on the ground about something called a Rakuho. Two have appeared, which is unprecedented, and one is all the way out in a town called Lingalind in the boondocks of Iki Territory. There's some interesting design choices going on, as the courtiers appear inspired by dynastic China, but the Lingalinders' (I've decided that's their demonym) design draws more on the American West. It's not cohesive, but it does make the world feel more varied and broad, and adds some visual interest while they throw around unfamiliar terms.
Not that those unfamiliar terms seem to matter much, because at its heart, Back Arrow is a mecha series. Not a hard sci-fi, Patlabor kind of mecha, but the kind where technology is more or less another kind of magic. The idea of mecha where their forms and powers are determined by their “conviction,” which seems to be a personal catch phrase, is a powerful concept, and one I'm eager to see more of.
And then there's the issue of Back Arrow, our titular protagonist himself, who spends the entire episode naked and, at one point, has a small child try to literally eat his left buttcheek. He's a huge idiot and an extremely powerful amnesiac, and I get the feeling he's going to make or break the show for a lot of people. The show's series composer, Kazuki Nakashima, is a Studio Trigger guy and also wrote Promare and Gurren Lagann, so if you like hot-blooded, pure-hearted dumbasses, you'll probably appreciate Back Arrow as well.
You've really got to hand it to Goro Taniguchi. Over a decade ago he helmed the smash hit Code Geass, and has spent the years since cashing in all that industry clout to greenlight whatever weird, original production he wanted. I won't pretend ID-0 or revisions were underappreciated sleeper hits or anything, but they were the kind of kooky anime-original sci-fi I like to see every now and again. So far, that also applies to Back Arrow, a thoroughly eccentric science-fantasy story that dares to have its main character spend the entire premiere buck-naked AND title the episode after it. You love to see it.
Well, I love to see it, anyway. Whether or not that particular brand of goofball works will decide whether anything about Back Arrow is appealing at all. While there's some requisite world-building giving us the broad strokes of this fantasy world, it's all set dressing while the already large cast goofs and gaffes their way through the opening beats of what would usually be your typical "chosen one" introduction. Our hero falls to the earth in a magic space pod from heaven, but instead of emerging as a deity he's nearly cooked to death by the locals. He spends literally the entire episode naked until the sheriff reluctantly offers him her late father's speedo, which he loses 2 minutes later. There are special armbands that turn people into magic mechs, but those robots move and bounce with literal cartoon sound effects. Our hero picks his name, Back Arrow, from mishearing somebody calling him an idiot (baka yaro). There will doubtlessly be a story somewhere in all this silliness, but it's going to be sitting on the back burner, and if you can gel with that you'll likely have a good time.
In a lot of ways it reminds me of Shoji Kawamori's Last Hope series, an equally goofy sci-fi romp that most people didn't find nearly as charming as I did. We don't yet have anything as gloriously stupid as a transforming robot kung-fu fighting a cyborg hawk in the sky, but with the malleable and already ridiculous physics the robots are displaying, I have hope. I fully recognize this brand of inanity is not going to be for everyone, but until I get some more Macross in my life, this'll suffice.
Back Arrow seems to operate on the kitchen sink method of plot, as in, “The first episode of Back Arrow feels like it threw everything and the kitchen sink into a blender and decided that was the plot.” That may not be the case going forward as various elements come clear, but as of right now, there is way too much being thrown in our faces. That includes world-building, named characters, technology, jargon, and a smidgen of suspicion that most of the characters have been drinking the kool-aide for so long that they don't even know there's water they could have instead.
The basics appear to be that there's a world surrounded by a wall that over time has come to be worshipped as a god. Two countries live inside of it, and not only do they both hate each other, but they compete over “rakuho,” which are mysterious flying objects that contain important goods like the bind warpers that allow someone to don briheight. (See what I mean about jargon?) The prevalent belief, according to Ran, an aide to oracle Shu Bi, is that the rakuho are the seeds of the wall that have ripened and fallen to Earth, which frankly sounds like a load of hooey. (Ran, however, is willing to kill someone who contradicts her.) Things get really confusing for the faithful when not one, but two rakuho appear one day, one over Rekka territory and another in Iki, which is apparently in the Wild West circa 1890. And when the second rakuho opens up and instead of gear reveals a buck naked dude who insists that he's from the other side of the wall, some world views are going to be shaken.
I suppose it isn't all that strange that no one inside the wall ever questioned the prevalent beliefs about it, but it certainly sounds foolish if you're looking in from the outside. I don't doubt that's on purpose, but this grain of interesting plot is almost lost in the desert of everything else that's going on in this episode as well. Why did we need to meet General Kai and see him don his briheight (mecha) when later we'd see Sherriff Atlee do the same thing? Is there a point to Bit being a wimp who can't do anything right? Why doesn't the naked guy, who later takes the name “Back Arrow,” put on the underwear that Atlee gives him if he's so grateful? How many times does the episode use a crotch-height kid to hide his anatomy?
Back Arrow's first episode basically suffers from a surfeit of ambition. Starting at the halfway point with the villagers and Back's entry on the scene would have made this much less confusing, but here we are, full up on plot and jargon. If things slow down a bit so that we can appreciate the world and the story, this could work out, but as of this episode, it's just too much all at once to be truly interesting.
It is (or at least should be) a rule that each season should have at least one mecha series, and Back Arrow more or less qualifies as this season's entry. Rather than being some new-fangled series that concerns itself with depth or complexity, it quickly shows itself to harken back to a much older school of shonen action, one where brazen heroes armor up to go fight bad guys who are also armored up, all in high spirits. Who needs an inconvenience like memories to accomplish a task like that?
The protagonist who comes to call himself Back Arrow certainly doesn't. He only knows that he comes from a place which common sense in this world says is impossible and that he needs to get back there. A lack of memories is not a concern. A lack of clothes is not apparently a big concern, either, although he does feel he owes the girl who lent him some girl's deceased father's underwear. Or he could just be an exhibitionist by nature and not realize it. Whatever the case, he practically radiates free-spirited machismo, and that manifests when he uses the armband to go all mecha. Because he's a Mysterious Figure, that also naturally means that he can bend the normally-accepted rules for how those things work, both by not killing an opponent who would normally die automatically when defeated and by assuming a powerful form without having a firm, defined conviction.
That the mecha's form and power are based on convictions might sound trite but is actually the series' most intriguing point so far. The Briheights apparently gain abilities based on the specific nature of the conviction; one whose conviction is not letting targets flee becomes stronger while pursuing a target, for instance. That means that seeing how other Briheight user manifest their abilities could be quite interesting. The “defeat = death” principle is also a potentially interesting twist. The idea of the whole world being surrounded by an impassable wall is not as fresh, though the concept that nothing exists beyond it, and that the wall is a godlike entity to the land's inhabitants, is a little fresher.
The set-up for this world should allow for all kinds of colorful characters to appear, although I had to raise an eyebrow at the costuming for the one Western sheriff-like girl; sure, it's playing to an audience, but hardly credible. Overall, this one isn't off to a bad start for what it is, but I am unlikely to follow it.
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