The Winter 2021 Preview Guide
Heaven's Design Team
How would you rate episode 1 of
Heaven's Design Team ?
What is this?
In Heaven's Animal Design Department, designers create a variety of new animals daily while contending with the unreasonable requests of their client: God.
How was the first episode?
As a fan of the manga, I was really excited to learn that Heaven's Design Team would be getting an anime. This would grant it greater exposure, and who doesn't love an edutainment series about all the ways the animal kingdom is interesting, weird, and gross? But then, when I started watching it, I discovered something truly terrible. Something that would rock my love of the series to its core…
When localizing the series, Kodansha had changed the characters' names! And now, I'll have to learn their names all over again! I'm sobbing. Really. Just absolutely devastated.
Okay, but outside of having to now think of Neptune as Unabara and Venus as Kanamori (and yes I looked that up because the manga names are fixed firmly into my brain), this was a very strong premiere. The beauty of an edutainment series like Heaven's Design Team is that it doesn't have to strive to be anything more than it is: a comedy about a group of angels coming up with ideas for and testing out different kinds of animals. It revels in the weirdness that the evolutionary arms race has bestowed upon the animal kingdom, even providing little segments of factoids about some of the featured species. It doesn't hurt that two of my favorite animals, giraffes and secretary birds, were featured this episode.
There's a saying, “A camel is a horse designed by committee,” meant to comment on the inefficiency of committees and how finding compromise between everyone's input can take something elegant and make it hideous. That's what you would expect with some of nature's weirder creations, but the team's brainstorming sessions are usually productive and their dynamic as they help each other come up with and refine their ideas is quite refreshing. Of course, there are also rivalries; it's only natural that the guy who likes designing snakes and the woman who likes designing birds would be at odds.
With two different Cells at Work!! series premiering today along with Heaven's Design Team, I declare today to be “edutainment Thursdays.” Has learning ever been this fun?
I was immediately on board with the general premise of Heaven's Design Team when I learned what it was: Since God can't be bothered to create all of the creatures of Earth himself, he outsources the work to a design team of goofy angels that will do the job for him. I'll take a chance on any story that reduces the unknowable complexities of ancient mythological lore into a workplace comedy about divine bureaucracy (if you haven't watched the sitcom The Good Place yet, go do it right now. Literally, right now. You're welcome, in advance). It also didn't take long for me to jive with the colorful aesthetic and charming character designs on display in the show. The moment I knew that I loved Heaven's Design Team, though, came when it presented me with the masterpiece that is the Pegasus, aka the “mega-buff muscle horse that rapid fires dung all over”.
What makes Heaven's Design Team so fun is that, in addition to basically spoofing the lingo and culture of modern tech-research and marketing firms in order to anthropomorphize the process of natural selection, the show is genuinely educational. Each of the design team's experiments, whether they are deemed successful by God or end up as hilarious failures, come with a bevy of fun zoological factoids. Why is it that a giraffe's neck and legs are proportioned the way they are? What use does a tree dart frog have for those spooky-ass red eyes? Would a horse really be better off if it had all of its limbs removed, and got its butthole and genitals smushed into a single orifice? Yes, the answers to all of these vital questions are made plain in the silly banter of the design team angels, and then some! Come for the funny jokes about 'roided-out Pegasusses that machine-gun their horse plops all over the unsuspecting, earthbound plebes below, and stay for the insightful breakdown of just exactly why a sentient and quivering spicy sausage would make for a poor addition to God's bestiary.
In case it wasn't clear already, this series shot straight to the top of my seasonal watch-list as soon as the end credits rolled on this premiere. I suppose it is possible that the series might not be able to maintain its comedic momentum, but it has gifted itself with a setup that can be exploited nearly infinitely, so I'm not too worried on that front. If you, like a lot of us, are in need of a little more laughter and sunshine this January, then do yourself a favor and spend some time with Heaven's Design Team.
When does a gag-format show work better in short form vs. long form? That is a question that I found myself asking on a regular basis while watching this one, and by the end I found myself convinced that it might work just as well (if not better) as a 7-8 minute short. Despite the neat concept, the first episode lacks a uniting theme among its three significant parts, making the whole episode seem pretty random. This may not be as big a problem going forward, however.
The gimmick here – that God outsourced animal creation, so there's a diverse team of eccentrics assigned to do it – has a lot of potential for fun. Those on the team design animals, then have an engineer make a test version to see if the design is feasible. This can result in some quite amusing failures, but hey, that is part of any design process, right? Further, it can result in some cases that seemingly-improbably do work and thus become actual creatures that can be found in nature. The most interesting aspects come in the little details that have to be tweaked in order for the animal to be feasible, such as the developments in a giraffe to compensate for potential blood pressure issues related to their long neck or how a certain substance that would make an animal too spicy for some predators would not affect birds.
Each of the creators on the team has their own distinct personalities which affect the goals they have in mind when designing animals, but I found this aspect much less entertaining. One made the champion design of a horse and now is trying to put those features into everything else he designs (who that works in any creative endeavor doesn't know someone like this), while another regards snakes as a perfect animal, and there is also one who is entirely concerned with how the animal tastes. Some of this behavior is more obnoxious than others; the individual dressed in purple particularly got on my nerves, but that could just be me. The little side bits about which creations are real animals was a plus, however. Overall, I feel like I should have liked this series more than I did. The elements are there, and this is the kind of fare that I would have been fascinated with as a kid, but the whole here is less than the sum of its parts.
Let's face it – there are some really weird looking animals out there. I'm not even talking about things like the platypus; try showing a lobster to someone not from the coast and see their reaction. (Even better, serve them a whole lobster on a plate, which I of course have never done. Really.) While we know that there's a scientific reason for most of these animals to look the way they do, that's kind of a dull explanation for why things like armadillos exist. Wouldn't it be more fun if there was a divine design department up in Heaven that was in charge of such things?
That's the premise of Heaven's Design Team. It takes place in God's workplace, where he sends down requests for specific animals that they then try to fulfill. That the orders sound like something out of Samuel Johnson's 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language, wherein “horse” is defined as “A neighing quadruped, used in war, and draught and carriage” simply makes the whole thing better. The first order that the group is supposed to fill is for something that “eats leaves that are high up.” Our brains of course first go to “giraffe,” and ultimately that's what they come up with, but these are the people designing the first giraffe, so of course they have to go through some trial and error to get there. The fact that one of the designers is absolutely obsessed with his first success, the horse, only makes things weirder, because he's always trying to shoehorn horses into the requests. No one seems to be as sick of that as the engineer, who has to explain to him yet again why a Pegasus is just not going to work. Personally, I'm glad that super buff flying horses who rapid-fire poop so that they can stay aloft isn't one of the things I have to watch out for; fisher cats are bad enough. (And it had to be that Mizushima guy who came up with them.)
I was a bit surprised that this series is made up of full-length episodes, because the source manga consists of short chapters and would have worked well as short-form episodes. This does drag a bit in places, if only because some of the animals' stories just aren't as insane as the giraffe's, although the trial-and-error method of saving birds from snakes definitely has its moments. (I think more birds get eaten in this one episode than in any other anime I can think of.) The people who make up the design team aren't hugely interesting themselves, although that really stands to change as things go forward and we learn more about each of them and what they like to do. They're definitely under some stress, not only because of that one guy who wants to eat everything, but also because God tends to just randomly approve some things that they weren't even thinking about keeping. Talk about a boss you don't want to disappoint…
All in all, however, this is a really fun episode. It manages to put in some real animal facts as well that don't feel too much like an issue of Ranger Rick, and the premise is undeniably fun. It's a different take on the animal-centric show and on the workplace comedy, and for that alone it's worth checking out.
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