The Winter 2023 Anime Preview Guide
Kaina of the Great Snow Sea
How would you rate episode 1 of
Kaina of the Great Snow Sea ?
Community score: 4.0
What is this?
In a world where the encroaching Great Snow Sea is swallowing land, humanity ekes out a harsh life above the Tenmaku that stretches from the roots to the tops of giant Orbital Trees. The story centers around Kaina, a boy who lives above the Tenmaku, and Liliha, the princess of the small country Atland in the Great Snow Sea.
How was the first episode?
It's very rare that I ever find myself wishing that an anime had a double-length premiere, but Kaina and the Great Snow Sea had one of those first episodes that got so close to hooking me, and might very well have done it if there was more time to sell me on its characters and story. The setting, I'm already down for. The eerie and desolate canopy that Kaina and his fellow villagers live on top of is one of those perfectly bizarre science-fantasy creations that is just rife with potential. I'm just not sure that a neat setting and some pretty color work with the backgrounds is going to be enough to get me completely invested for the long haul.
The biggest problem, for me, lies in the direction. The animation that Polygon Studios is producing here actually isn't terrible; it doesn't look anywhere near as good as Trigun Stampede, but the show looks perfectly fine. It's the pacing of the editing, the stilted and flat storyboards, and the overall lack of momentum in the camerawork that saps Kaina of some of the impact it might otherwise have had. This is a weird and ruined post-apocalyptic world with some heavy Nausicaä/Made in Abyss vibes, and it ought to be filling me with dread and wonder. Instead, whenever a new beasty shows up or a fight between the world's mysterious factions breaks out, I'm left feeling more “mildly intrigued" than anything.
That's a part of why a double-length premiere might have helped somewhat, even if we had to deal with even more of the sluggish direction. So far as heroes go, Kaina isn't able to make much of an impression, as we learn very little about him beyond his curiosity for the world below the Canopy and the fact that he can read. The princess that falls into Kaina's lap gets even less of an introduction: She's a princess of a country we know nothing about. That's about it.
That said, I'd be lying if I told you that I wasn't intrigued to see what the real story of Kaina is about, and I am fairly confident that there will be much more to dig into now that the most basic aspects of establishing the premise of the show have gotten underway. I'm going to tentatively recommend this one, but only if you have the patience to sit through some less-than-stellar setup. Who knows? This may well end up being one of the season's true dark horses.
Here we have an original anime penned by Tsutomu Nihei—the author of both Knights of Sidonia and BLAME. I don't know how this one flew under my radar, but honestly, I'm kind of ashamed it did. If you've seen either of those works, this show will feel awfully familiar—despite its different visual trappings. We have human society on the edge of collapse, with technology in decline and resources scarce. Then we have a male lead unfamiliar with the outside world drawn into a dangerous conflict by a woman who knows some of what's happening but only in her corner of the world.
While the setup is what we've come to expect in Nihei's stories, that doesn't mean it's not a solid way to start an adventure. On Kaina's side of the story, we have nothing but mystery. Why is he the only young person in the village? Why is he learning to read metal signs? What happened to the advanced society that made them? Why is the tree dying? Why is the bug population decreasing? Why are the holes in the membrane growing larger? It's clear that everything is connected in some way, but it's equally apparent that no one in the tree village has the answers.
Then on the other side of the story, we have Princess Ririha. Her people are dealing with an ecological disaster of their own: the snow sea is rising. At the same time, her people are at war with the Valghians, a people with metal armor and ships (and, oddly, bone weapons) who seem to outmatch them in every way. Hers is a desperate mission to find the sage who can somehow save her people. But, of course, we know that above the clouds, all there is are bugs, old people, and Kaina (though that's not to say he's not the sage she's searching for). Her side of the story brings action more than mystery and adds a sense of urgency to the story beyond Kaina and his village eventually starving to death.
All in all, the first episode of Kaina of the Great Snow Sea is mainly focused on establishing the world, our main leads, and the immediate troubles facing them. The story is the perfect mix of otherworldly and familiar that makes everything novel and exciting while never losing us in a sea of proper nouns. Now that we have our foundation, we're ready to travel down the timeless path of the hero's journey. And I, for one, am excited to see it all play out.
I really don't want to beat a dead horse here, but it's been over a decade since Polygon Picture entered the TV anime landscape with full CG productions, and they still manage to look worse than almost anything not named EX-ARM. Whenever they release a new project, I see at least a few people insist that they've improved over the years, but I have never seen it. Whether it was Ajin or those Godzilla movies we all agreed not to talk about, everything they've released looks like wet concrete. So while Kaina of the Great Snow Sea may have less jagged edges and awkward lip flaps than Knights of Sidonia, it's only baby steps from that nearly ten-year-old foundation.
This show doesn't look good, and I am somebody who's plenty open-minded about CG television anime. But here, there is an inescapable lifelessness to how every human and creature moves or emotes. Whether they're talking around a pot of stew, discussing ancient apocalyptic lore, or fighting each other with bone axes on a sea of snow, every person has all the grace of a department store mannequin. No matter how good any given vocal performance is, it's kneecapped by the character acting being stiffer than a high school freshman in his first play. It looks artificial in a way that's impossible to ignore; constantly visible strings moving jerky puppets around in jerks and fits that never feel authentic.
And the really infuriating part is that some really neat stuff is buried under the visuals' gruel. While the actual story of this premiere is threadbare and a bit too full of exposition, the world it takes place in is absolutely fascinating. I've seen countless post-apocalyptic settings, but nothing ever quite so alien as the unrecognizable Earth that Kaina lives on – or rather above. He and the elderly villagers all live atop these enormous trees that have encapsulated the whole planet in a canopy that reaches the edge of the atmosphere. But also, the trees gradually die, causing parts of that canopy to collapse and sending villages plummeting to the equally terrifying “sea” of snow on the surface. That's terrifying! And unique! Just imagining how humans have lived in such a treacherous environment is thrilling, and I instantly wanted to explore it all. There's a vast, imaginative, unsettling world out there, and I wish to death that the presentation could do it justice.
But what we have is a bunch of grey and brown vistas that wash out nearly all the majesty of the environments, populated by characters who'd look more at home in a PS3 in-engine cutscene. It's a frustrating clash of fantastic ideas and possibly the worst team to bring it to life. Combined with the thin characters and heavy focus on exposition that weighs down the story, you have an easy skip.
Calling something a slow story rarely considers the nuances between the various kinds of meandering plots. This is the good kind. The first episode takes its time to establish the world allowing us to make our own inferences about what brought it to the state that it's in - clearly, we're dealing with a post-apocalyptic space, where some great disaster has caused eternal snowfall and the freezing of the atmosphere at a certain level. At some point in the past, people migrated up from the frozen space, making their homes on giant spire trees connecting earth to sky. To those who remained below, the people above took on mythological proportions; those above, who have been dying off, are unaware that any remain below. This episode also makes it clear that there must be a reunion of canopy dwellers and snow dwellers if humanity is to survive.
Apart from the fact that this does quite a good job of showing rather than telling, it has moments of astounding unsubtlety. When Kaina rescues Ririha and brings her home to the only other members of his village to survive, who are all octogenarians, they are clearly beside themselves that the human he has brought home is a young woman and plotting grandbabies right before his eyes. Not that he necessarily understands this; Kaina seems to have the typical shounen protagonist's protective coating of obliviousness shielding his tender mind. The princess, meanwhile, struggles between being thrilled that she made it to the canopy and the slowly dawning horror that there is no such person as The Sage she was sent to find waiting to give her wise counsel. If you should never meet your heroes, that goes even harder for never meeting your gods.
This episode really feels like it's introducing an epic. It seems invested in building something greater than a mere adventure story, and it may be able to pull it off. I was ambivalent about this initially, but it has sufficiently piqued my interest and considering that I have not liked a single thing created by Tsutomu Nihei (the author behind this), that's a good sign. Or a bad one, if you like his previous works. Either way, it's worth checking out to see the story it is slowly building.
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