The Spring 2022 Preview Guide
Estab-Life: Great Escape
How would you rate episode 1 of
ESTAB LIFE: Great Escape ?
Community score: 2.9
How would you rate episode 2 of
ESTAB LIFE: Great Escape ?
Community score: 3.1
What is this?
The world population has begun to shrink after reaching its peak. The "Supernatural Renovation Project" splits Tokyo with towering walls into several Cluster neighborhoods, each with its own unique genetically modified populations, governed by artificial intelligence. Most people live their lives in their own unique Clusters, blissfully unconcerned with life beyond. However, there are some who seek to escape to the other Clusters. An outfit called Nigashiya helps those who wish to escape.
How was the first episode?
You've gotta hand it to Goro Taniguchi. In an industry that always hesitates to release original projects, he's leveraged the success of Code Geass into nearly a decade of making original sci-fi TV series. Granted, none of those creations have managed to be better than “just okay” – a streak that looks to continue with Estab-Life – but you have to respect the hustle. And while I probably won't be watching more of this one, I can at least say I had fun with these introductory episodes.
In a word, Estab-Life is busy. Busy in its aesthetic, with the mishmash of colors and designs that constitute our main characters, the design of the sci-fi world they inhabit, and the occasionally well-executed but largely workmanlike CG animation. Busy in its worldbuilding, as it throws concepts like slime girls and wolf men and “Gun Wizards” at the audience with not a second of exposition to clue you in, while only barely communicating its central conceit of closed-off post-apocalypse cities that our heroes help traffic people in-between. Busy in its tone, as these opening episodes attempt to balance snazzy spy action, goofy comedy, and quiet poignancy in ways that work more than you'd expect, but still not often enough to be effective. There's a lot going on here, and the show is never as graceful about any of it as you'd hope for.
That said, I'm a fan of offbeat sci-fi series, and that's very much the vibe I get from this premiere. The characters are simple archetypes with just enough personality to be likable, and they flit between the high-flying sci-fi action setpieces with just the right amount of energy. That's a good thing to have for what is likely to be an episodic series of missions and character pieces, and if the writing can deliver interesting individual stories it may just be worth keeping up with. I was actually pretty charmed by episode two, with the grizzled yakuza boss who yearns to escape Shinjuku's criminal underbelly and achieve his dream of becoming a magical girl. It's silly and it knows it, but there's an earnest feeling to the comedy that invites you to cheer for him and the other characters rather than trying to laugh at him. There's a central idea that it's ok, important even, to run away when you need to live a better life, and that compassion is a big part of what makes this whole scenario work so far. It's not deep, but it is heartfelt.
All in all this is still a pretty light watch. There's nothing all that compelling, but it has the potential for a fun weekly distraction if nothing else. Its biggest sin is the CG character animation, which isn't terrible but leaves a lot to be desired, especially for any character outside the main cast. I can't decide if the yakuza characters in episode two being identical sunglasses guys in suits is funny on purpose or by accident, but it most definitely saved production resources. But in a time when things like Rusted Armors can come out, I'm not going to complain about largely competent CG. Still, it's enough of a problem that I doubt I'll be sticking around for any more of this.
I feel like Estab-Life is the very definition of “okay.” The plot is contrived and silly, but okay enough to follow, the characters are basically clichés, but okay enough to pay attention to, and the animation isn't EX-ARM levels of bad, but okay enough to watch. It's not quite good enough to be middle-of-the-road, but okay enough to be relatively harmless viewing. The catch is of course that its conceit is on the weirder side of things and that it's animated in the sort of CGI that sends some people running for the hills, especially since “better than EX-ARM and Rusted Armors” isn't exactly a ringing endorsement. Personally, I'm more bothered by Feles' character design; I'd love to take a pair of scissors to that one hunk of hair that hangs over her eye. (Or possibly hedge trimmers; it looks awfully thick.)
While not a lot is explained about the story's world, it is easy enough to put the pieces together, and I do like that we aren't burdened with heavy amounts of exposition. We don't know what happened to break Tokyo up into “clusters,” but it seems to be similar to each ward turning back into its own small town, with the difference being that in the story's dystopian world, moving between them isn't easy and may be outright illegal. That's created the job our heroines do: extracting people from their present lives and moving them into a new one in a different cluster. As a concept, it's neat enough to work, and other bits of world-building thrown in gave it a bit of a fantasy edge from other dystopias, although I'm hoping I'm not the only one who thought of Dragon Half when Martes is revealed to be a slime half. I'm not sure what to make of Ulula the bipedal wolf/furry or some of the other oddball details like the client from the second episode wanting to become a magical girl despite being an old man. Some of them feel like they were just thrown in because they sounded funny to someone rather than having a distinct purpose to fill. (The girls' boss doing low-key dance moves to give them coded messages is another one of those moments.)
I think this may be one of those series that relies on viewer patience for its first third or so before it truly gets moving. The tonal differences between these two episodes, with the first being much more serious than the second, aren't a great sign that it knows what kind of story it wants to tell, and the characters really are pretty cookie-cutter, so if you aren't a fan of their archetypes, that could become an issue. But if you have the patience, I think this may be worth one or two more episodes just to see if it figures out where it's going and what it wants to be – and if the answer to the second question turns out to be something other than “just okay.”
A quirk of technology made it so that I accidentally watched the second episode of Estab-Life: Great Escape before the first, and boy howdy, you can probably guess how confused I was when the trio of strange anime girls, their robot, and their anthropomorphic wolf buddy helped an aging yakuza boss shoot himself out of a cannon so he could fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a magical girl. However, even the actual premiere is very much the kind of episode that is happy to let its audience stew in their confusion for a while as it drip feeds exposition and lore. This isn't a bad thing at all; it just means that even after a double dose of episodes for its premiere, I still don't really know what this show is about. It's pretty fun to watch the weird shenanigans unfold, though.
It also helps that, despite being a fully 3D production, Polygon Pictures has worked hard to ensure that Estab-Life isn't the kind of unholy trash fire that some recent CG anime have been. The facial animations are still plenty awkward, to be sure, and the character animation suffers from a lack of in-betweens to smooth out the transitions between different poses, but it is still a solid effort overall. The direction is efficient and adequately cinematic, and the show's color palette is sufficiently diverse and lush looking. The quality voice acting also livens up the proceedings too; Ekua, Feles, and Martes are all likable and interesting, even if we barely know anything about them yet (except for the fact that Martes is apparently made mostly out of slime, for some reason).
What remains to be seen is if writer Shoji Gatoh's absurd sense of humor is going to mix with the strange sort of pathos that Estab-Life is trying to get from the different clients that the Extractors are helping. Neither the mopey philosophy teacher nor the gung-ho magical girl yakuza boss was terribly interesting, but there's something about the show's nebulous tone that I can't help but find fascinating. I'm definitely willing to give the series another episode or two to see if it can get its hooks into me, but I won't get my hopes up too high, just in case Estab-Life collapses under the weight of its own eccentric ambitions.
This first episode is a bit of an odd ride. It simply throws us into the middle of things and never really explains itself. And honestly, there is an interesting thought experiment at the center of this: Apparently in the future, Japan is split up into autonomous city-states, each with its own unique laws and varying levels of authoritarianism. In the more controlling states, you can't even decide your own job, much less leave the city-state to join another. Thus, there are “extractors” who illegally help people escape and start new lives elsewhere.
This premise looks primed to be a framework for exploring feelings of entrapment in our daily lives: Sometimes it's in a job we hate. Other times it's in a relationship we know is wrong but just can't seem to leave. Hell, sometimes, it's being trapped in your own skin—feeling the “you” inside doesn't match the outside.
Which is why it's such a shame that Estab-Life fails in every conceivable way to live up to its premise.
For this kind of high-concept story, you need to make the viewer on focus the themes being explored. Bland, one-note, and frankly annoying characters only distract from this. There is no one to really empathize with, not the main characters and not even our disheartened teacher-turned-escapee. (Honestly, if your students aren't taking in your lessons, maybe you need to change how you teach!)
Then there are the visuals. I won't say it looks terrible—we are in the age of EX-ARM and Tesla Note, after all—though they are certainly subpar for what can be done with 3D animation. The real problem is the accidental visual storytelling. Our characters never take cover in gun battles and just stand in the open shooting, implying they are either stupid or invincible. Later we watch a 100 lbs. schoolgirl climb a 10-floor vertical glass face with a 150 lbs. man attached to her back using only her arms. Does she have super strength or is this just bad writing? In the end, it doesn't really matter. What does matter is that it's a distraction from the themes the episode is trying to explore.
To put it as simply as possible: cool ideas, terrible execution.
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