The Spring 2022 Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Tomodachi Game ?
Community score: 3.0
What is this?
Yūichi Katagiri, a young man with a perfect student life who has four friends with difficult lives. His peaceful daily life comes to an end when 2 million yen (about US$20,000) in school trip fees goes missing. Riddles unfold as Yūichi gets caught up in a mysterious game for money and must decide whether friendship or money matters more.
How was the first episode?
Any time a survival game anime pops up during Preview Guide, I get a little anxious. Not because I dislike the genre or anything—Danganronpa is one of my favorite franchises, as it so happens. The problem is that, for every smash hit like Danganronpa, it feels like there are a dozen would-be imitators that keep trying (and failing) to find new and fresh ways to mess with murder/betrayal/escape-room formula. To put it bluntly, a lot of survival game anime kind of suck. Tomodachi Game doesn't exactly suck, and there are even elements of this premiere that I find fairly interesting, but the overall package is just so wrapped up in tired clichés and mediocre presentation that it's hard to muster up enough energy to care one way or the other.
I'll give it this, though: It's nice that Yuichi and all of the other contestants of this weird game were all friends first. There's no amnesia, no cadre of bizarrely coifed and cartoonishly rendered strangers who all have to monologue about their backstories one after the other. The angle that Tomodachi Game is exploring is a tried and true one, but it's effective nonetheless. It asks, “How well do you really know your best friends? And how much pressure would it take, financial or otherwise, before the masks come off and even the closest of companions turn on each other?”
It's just a shame the game being used to exploit this premise is so ludicrously overcomplicated, not to mention heavy-handed as all hell. You know what makes an interesting thriller premise like the one above a lot less interesting? When a cast of vaguely defined characters are forced to participate in an inane game-show that is designed to have every single element of their experience literally scream, over and over, “CAN YOU TRUST YOUR FRIENDS? HUH? I BETCHA CAN'T!!” It kind of ruins the experience.
Don't get me started on the knockoff Monokuma, either. I get that all of these survival game anime feel obligated to include a “wacky" mascot character, but they really shouldn't try so goddamned hard just because Danganronpa and Assassination Classroom made bank on the concept. And no, I don't even care that Manabu-kun is actually voiced by the actress who played actual Danganronpa protagonist Hajime Hinata. I hate the little creep. He's goofy-looking and obnoxious, and the show does a terrible job of blending the interactions of the CG character model with his 2D counterparts. Every time Manabu was onscreen, I wanted to see someone toss him straight out of a window and into oncoming traffic.
Worst of all, I feel like I'm going to see most of the “shocking" and “edgy" twists of this story coming well in advance, so, unless something positively wild and unheard of is yet to come in this story, I'm happy to give Tomodachi Game a pass. There have been other, better riffs on this formula over the years, and I'd rather revisit those than stick it out with a mediocre-seeming also-ran like this one. I'm going to call it right now, though, with absolutely no prior knowledge of the series or anything: It was the meek girl that got all of the friends roped into the game. I bet she's also secretly a psycho yandere. Hit me up in a few weeks if it turns out that I'm right.
In general, I enjoy anime that focus on high-stakes, psychological games—be they death games or more gambling-focused ones. However, Tomodachi Game didn't excite me at all. When watching an anime set in a well-established genre, there is one question always at the back of my mind: What sets this show apart? In the case of Tomodachi Game, the answer is "nothing." It's totally bland.
The characters, at this point, are surface layer clichés. We have the uptight beauty, the cute girl, the serious one, and the frivolous playboy. Even the main character is little more than "the poor kid." The result is Kakegurui without a Yumeko—a show with drama but no one for the audience to care about on a personal level.
Yet, even that drama is lackluster. Not only does the show reveal the masterminds behind the curtain way too easily, but their lackluster commentary in no way replaces the tension that comes from having no idea what is going on behind the scenes. Then there are the constant blink-and-you'll-miss-it text dumps on screen that require you to pause to read. This effectively hamstrings the show's pacing. But even worse, it obliterates the audience's sense of immersion. You can't just sit back and lose yourself in the world Tomodachi Game is trying to create: you've got to be ready to hit pause and read exposition at a moment's notice or miss out on vital information—like the literal rules of the game they are playing!
All that and the episode doesn't even manage to stick the landing. While the game itself is easy enough to understand, the lack of resolution within the first episode is a hindrance. After all, a cliffhanger only works if you care enough about the characters or story to want to come back next week. I don't.
Ah, emotional manipulation. Such a charming premise for any show, so why not make it even more lovely by throwing in a couple of random evil high school girls running a death game for groups of, specifically, five friends? Bonus points if it turns out that the entire thing was set up to point out the shoddy, self-serving nature of friendship, but it's the girls running the game who learn a little something about true friendship along the way instead!
Despite that opening paragraph, my main issue with Tomodachi Game really isn't its premise. Survival games have been a staple of fiction since at LEAST The Most Dangerous Game, and very likely before then if I could be bothered to remember any. Likewise the idea of how trustworthy your so-called friends are is one of the founding principles of certain YA subgenres, so the show is on fairly solid ground with its group of five pals who are tased into a strange white space that turns out to be someone's twisted playground. Starting things off with stolen money for a field trip also works decently well, even if one of the group was the one who's most likely to suffer for the loss and two others are among those most likely to have taken it in the first place. (In reality, I suspect that the girls running the game are responsible.) Where things falter is in the execution of the story, which seems to be a bit of a theme for today's episodes. The main problem is that we barely know these kids and no effort is expended to remedy that situation. In fact, a card with their names and their basic stereotypes is displayed at one point, letting us know precisely which genre trope everyone fits into. (That I then spent the rest of the episode being disturbed that baby-voiced, utterly helpless Kokorogi was labeled “the sexy one” is an entirely different issue.) This makes the matter of who survives and who dies not all that compelling of an issue, because not only do we not like any of them, we don't KNOW any of them. At this point I'm voting for Tenoji to go first because his hair looks like someone took a bite out of it and that annoys me unreasonably.
The survival game genre isn't impossible to do well. It's perhaps not even particularly difficult to do well. But Tomodachi Game seems hellbent on getting in its own way as much as possible with its paltry introductions, explanations that go between “too much” and “not enough,” and some very lackluster visuals. Unless you love the genre and will consume all forms of it, maybe give this a pass.
I give isekai shows a lot of guff for being simultaneously ubiquitous and dull, but if there's one genre that can eclipse even that otherworldly monolith in pure tedium, it's death games. One of my biggest worries is the massive success of Squid Game bringing this already over-saturated story idea to the big stage. And while this show isn't strictly a death game – all that's currently at stake is money – it's just as much of a slog to get through as every other hackney edgelord parade that tries to come up with a new spin on the prisoner's dilemma.
The biggest reason for that is just how undercooked the “Tomodachi” part of its title is. This is meant to be a dark and gritty look at how five dear and loving friends can be pushed to betray each other for money, but the central friendships of the group are basically nonexistent. We get all of one scene of the five characters talking before they're thrown into this low-rent Kakegurui ripoff, so watching their tenuous friendship fall apart while they play the most obviously rigged game on the planet just isn't dramatic. These are people we've gotten to know mainly through a single screen of text explaining their personalities to us, and none of them have strong enough personalities to overcome that and make this whole ordeal interesting. When they start betraying each other it doesn't mean anything because none of them are real characters, so the entire tension of this game falls flat.
I'm also just so, so tired of every one of these having to bark up the same tree. Every single one of these things thinks they need their own Monokuma, but once you've seen a couple creepy-cute mascot characters who are secretly ~evil~ it loses its impact. As such, all the CG anime mascot character amounts to is a squeaky-voiced exposition machine with zero impact. Add in the random overseer girls who have to comment on everything from their surveillance room, smugly laughing about how their totally devious mind games will ruin another friendship and you have a story that's so insufferably impressed with its cut-rate edginess that finishing the episode is a feat of endurance.
The one and only bright spot of this premiere is in the very final moments, where it seems like our hapless protagonist has come up with some kind of plan to outsmart the Kokkuri-san game that his friends have all purposefully bought into. That, at least, could be a novel twist to this whole setup – our hero having to 4D-Chess his way into making his friends all play fair so they can clear their debts together, forcing a happy ending in the face of obvious psychological manipulation. I have very little faith that's where the show will actually go, but it would at least be a spin on this scenario that I haven't seen done a million times. It's still not enough to make watch more of this charmless bore, but it's something, I guess.
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