The Summer 2022 Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Spriggan (ONA) ?
Community score: 3.5
What is this?
In the waning years of the Cold War era, national governments and paramilitary forces are in a race to uncover the relics of an ancient alien civilization that once ruled the Earth. The alien technology holds seemingly miraculous powers, but in the wrong hands, this power could spell disaster. Only the ARCAM Corporation's elite special operatives, the SPRIGGAN, have what it takes to stand up against an international rogue's gallery of power-hungry cyborgs and gunmen who covet ultimate power. Brash and fearless Yu Ominae, a teenage SPRIGGAN equipped with ARCAM's strongest power armor, will do whatever it takes to keep the past's forbidden legacy buried away.
How was the first episode?
Spriggan is one of those stories that is very much a product of its time. With the original manga written in the late 80s/early 90s, it's no surprise that it's story takes place during the final years of the Cold War. So, when adapting it as an anime in 2022, the obvious question facing david production was whether to update the setting or not—and they chose to do so. Visually, this means that everything is much more cyberpunk-esque than the original was, with everyone wearing cyber suits complete with neon-glowing lights. But on a deeper level, the updated story also has to address the technology gap between the 80s and today. Cellphones, personal computers, and the internet were all in their infancy when this story was written. Because of this, the adaptation has to go out of its way to incorporate them into the story—or explain why these technologies aren't used when they logically should be. For the most part, the first episode handles this well—and it's actually quite fun if you've read the source material to see how technology changes the story.
Yet all these minor updates can't hide the fact that Spriggan doesn't feel like a modern-day anime in either style or execution. The complexity and nuance simply isn't there. The identity of our Spriggan hero is obvious from the moment we see Rie's computer screen, and his and Rie's interactions play out exactly as you would expect throughout the episode with nothing remotely resembling a twist. The same could likewise be said for the main villain and his evil plan to take over the world. The first episode unintentionally raises the question of where exactly the line between cliché and nostalgia lies? Perhaps there isn't one. In the end, I enjoyed seeing how the story was updated more than the actual story itself.
It's fair to say I was skeptical going into this new Netflix production. Not because of the source material – I'm only passingly familiar with the Spriggan manga – but because the last time Netflix produced a modern adaptation of a beloved sci-fi series, they gave us one of the worst god damn things I've ever seen. Thankfully, while this show certainly carries some scrapes from its journey into the 2020s, from a newbie's perspective it's come out the other end just fine.
For one, the show looks pretty nice so far. While there are some iffy moments of compositing, it largely does well integrating the CG and traditionally animated elements – something they absolutely need to do considering Yu's “Muscle Suit” is entirely CG. This could easily have been an awkward horror show of pasting a 2D head onto a 3D body in lesser hands. There's a keen eye for battle choreography across this whole episode, with each of Yu's blows feeling powerful and deadly even as he's going up against semi-immortal Spetsnaz fighters or cyborg military generals. These fights are uniformly bloody, deadly affairs, and the visuals capture that perfectly. There's a bit of disparity in the character designs, with Yu's maintaining that classic 90's energy while others feel a bit out of place in their modernity, but overall this feels like a damn good attempt at transplanting the original's appeal into a modern aesthetic.
Things are a little rougher in the writing department though. While the pacing of this first double-length episode is solid, and the overall premise is a great setup for creative sci-fi action, there are also some moments that haven't aged all that well. Most notable is Rie, the only woman with a speaking role in the entire episode, who gets kidnapped 2 ½ times in just 40 minutes, and despite being a genius linguist at age 16, spends all her screentime having things explained to her by others. Partly that's due to her role as the audience surrogate, our entry point for the ancient tech, but it means she's a totally passive character who eats up a lot of screentime with little payoff. She does at least have some decent banter with Yu, but it's not enough to salvage centering so much of this introductory story on a character with very little going on. I was also personally put off by all three of the bad guys in this episode expositing how their powers worked while they were fighting Yu. I know that's a positively ancient trope, but it just felt out of place to have our smirking villain explain how special and unbreakable his sword was while he was stabbing our hero with it.
But even with those warts, Spriggan seems like a solid good time, and is certainly off to a better start than the typical gritty sci-fi paste that Netflix dumps out. Yu, having both a jovial personality and the depth for more contemplative moments, is an engaging protagonist. The premise is rife for interesting action and creative adventures. And with the action delivering this much punch, this seems like a solid choice for a binge watch.
Let me get this out of the way – a spriggan is a fairy in Cornish mythology, and with many apologies to the good fictional sixeteen-year-old professor, the name derives from a Cornish word, spyrysyon, not Latin. It does mean “spirits,” and later scholarship did tie spriggan to the protection of other fey folk, but the series' title has a relatively tenuous link to British folklore at best, both in that sense and that the fairies guarded the barrows and other burials of dead kings. And now at this point it's probably worth mentioning that this is my first experience with Spriggan.
Even if you didn't know that the source manga dates to the end of the Cold War, it wouldn't be difficult to make that informed guess – Spriggan paints a picture of Russia and the U.S. in a battle to control the mysterious ruins under Mount Fuji in their race to become the world's greatest superpower. That's going to give this a “your mileage may vary” vibe even more than most other shows due to current political tensions, but that's not necessarily a bad thing – it's certainly a dynamic that's worth exploring in media that's free to point out the flaws in both (or all) countries involved. The issue, therefore, isn't with the political implications of who the “good” or “bad” guys are, but rather with the first episode's execution, which is a little sloppy. Despite the double- length runtime, the story feels like it's trying to cram far too much into too few minutes: we have characters to meet, an awful lot of specialized tech and language to learn about, and a true villain to suss out, and the result is that none of that quite gets the time or development it needs, especially since Yu's relationship with the professor doesn't do much for us and the apparent bad guy is taken out after revealing his cartoonish and out-of-nowhere ambitions. Honestly, I probably would have liked this better if it were ninety minutes rather than forty-five.
It does look pretty slick, though, and I especially like the characters' body language, particularly Yu and the professor. There's a decent amount of gore that's visceral without feeling overdone, and while the voice acting is good in general, Kyle McCarley's delivery in the English dub really stands out. I admit to having reservations about the specific use of Ancient Hebrew, but I also think that could just be due to me being hypersensitive about how things can quickly go wrong when my culture is brought into stories like this, and it was hopefully just chosen as a boilerplate “old civilization” stand-in. In any event, this was interesting enough while feeling like it was trying to do too much in not enough time. It could be interesting political commentary, but this episode doesn't give me a lot of confidence that it has the space for it.
If nothing else, Netflix's foray into the anime industry has made for great opportunities to dig into throwback anime revivals that might have been a harder sell in the more traditional TV. Watching Spriggan in 2022 makes for a very potent dose of nostalgia, indeed. This dark science fiction action story is based on a manga that premiered in the late 90s, and in animated form it still feels like it could have been picked off the shelves of one of the local video stores I obsessively frequented as a kid. It's violent, filled with exaggerated character designs plucked straight from the OVA era, and the script has more opaque pronouns and lore drops than it knows what to do with. Our main character is even a spiky-haired lone wolf with a mysterious past involving a long-lost childhood friend that plays an important role in the ongoing war for magical artifacts from the future, or whatever everyone in this show is going on about.
In other words, Spriggan is a lot of fun, so long as you're keen on inhaling those sweet, sweet old-school OVA fumes for an hour at a time. For the most part, I can safely say I wasn't ever truly bored, though I will admit that the double-length runtime of the episodes isn't entirely unnoticeable either. It helps that david production is working hard to keep the show looking slick and modern in spite of its slightly dated source material. The environments are appropriately dark and moody, the action is exciting and well-directed, and the CG elements are mostly well integrated against the 2D environments and character animation.
The show's biggest failing so far is that the story and characters are never anything more than perfectly adequate. I could basically follow the back-and-forth maneuvers of the ACARM vs. SVR battles, and the plot moved along at a brisk enough pace that I never felt the need to ask too many questions. As far as protagonists go, however, Yu is hardly the most charismatic or interesting hero that Spriggan could have gone with. His banter with Rie is serviceable action-adventure filler, but the absolute non-mystery of their past connection barely even registers. If that is the level of character development that we should expect from the remaining five episodes of the season, I won't hold my breath for Spriggan to suddenly become grade-A gripping television any time soon.
Still, Spriggan isn't attempting to change lives and inspire passionate online debate, or anything. It's the kind of show where a teenager in power armor can battle some community-college-professor-looking dude in the middle of a freaking volcano in order to protect the world from mysterious sci-fi MacGuffins. This is pretty much guaranteed to be a good time as long as it can keep from boring its audience, which is a perfectly fine bar to aim for.
Sometimes, a series really stops and makes me reflect on just what attracts people to anime. For a long time in the 90s and early 00s, all something needed to become a cult hit among US anime fans was violent battles with cool powers and choreography. Story and character were secondary, if they mattered at all. As long as it offered the kind of action that domestic animation refused to provide, people would pass their VHS copies around while whispering about how “hardcore” it was.
I bring this up because in the U.S., Spriggan was very much of this type of anime. I never got into it, but the second-hand impression I always got was that it was meant to show off the sickest fights in the manga without concerning itself too much about story. That's fine; it may not be for me, and it may not be “good” to my reviewer mindset, but it offers up exactly what some people want. The first episode of the new Netflix adaptation did little to shake that opinion.
The fights? They're pretty cool. david production makes heavy use of CG in the action scenes, which may or may not float your boat, but it's well-choreographed overall. The big climactic fight at the end of the first episode is genuinely beautiful, with its snakes made of fire. But the story and character writing are as thin as paper, mostly serving to string together action sequences. I have a feeling we haven't seen the last of Professor Yamabishi, but I also saw the twist about her and Yu's relationship coming from the moment “childhood friend” escaped her lips.
There's always a chance that the series ups the ante writing-wise, and that the first episode was planned primarily to pull in people who like to see people punch really good while slowing things down in the next. For now, though, this is a solid recommendation if you're into anime for the fight scenes, but not really otherwise.
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