Reviewby Theron Martin,
Episodes 1-12 streaming
In 2035, an event called the Burst released a wave of Malignant Matter (an artificial biomass) which engulfed a research center in Japan and flooded down Kurobe Gorge. Two years later, the Matter is only barely being restrained by a series of dams, beyond which intrepid Divers trek on recovery missions. 15-year-old Aiko Tachibana suffered a bad car accident right before the Burst, losing her parents and her younger brother, and only now is she starting to regain use of her legs. The arrival of Yuya Kanzaki, a mysterious transfer student, upends her world and reveals troubling secrets about her true identity. Her special nature makes her valuable as the key to ending the Burst once and for all. Though uncertain, Aiko finds herself being escorted by elite teams of Divers on a dangerous mission to Primary Point, the place where the Burst started and the source of all the strange dreams she's been having.
This 12-episode ONA series is another of Netflix's original productions, this time in conjunction with Studio Bones. Like B: The Beginning, it was released in its entirety on Netflix exclusively, with subtitles and dubs in multiple languages. Between these two options, A.I.C.O. -Incarnation- is the better story, more cohesive in narrative and consistent in tone.
The strong cohesiveness of the series is one of its biggest selling points. A.I.C.O. never wanders off into goofiness, extended flashbacks, side stories, or tangential encounters; it remains laser-focused on its objective of getting Aiko to Primary Point, with various revelations along the way about the true nature of this mission. Even some elements that might seem peripheral, such as the comatose status of the daughter of one prominent scientist, eventually factor majorly into the main storyline. The slight downsides to this approach are that world-building and character development for the cast beyond Aiko are somewhat limited, but this is not usually a problem. The personalities of the supporting cast members are at least defined well enough to suit their roles and give a sense of character to their relationships.
The setting's premise is standard for sci fi: research into artificial biology goes awry when good intentions go awry to create a disaster. Some want to exploit the disaster, others want to fix it, and the military of course wants to incinerate it all. A seemingly ordinary high school student is the key to the middle option, so most of the series becomes about getting her to the place where she can solve the problem despite opposition from both human forces and the Matter which obstructs her path. Secrets are only gradually meted out, with the heroine only learning the full truth in the series' last third, after vague hints have been laid in the form of dreams throughout. This naturally results in a number of big plot twists as unexpected truths gradually come to light, most of which involve Kanzaki, but the pacing of revelations is good and enough clues are provided to unravel the mystery yourself at appropriate times. Extending one major plot to twelve episodes doesn't exactly make for a super-tight story, but the pacing never feels too slow either.
All of this makes for plenty of opportunities to show off advanced technology and the series' signature foe in the Matter. Things like realistic artificial limbs and padded plug suits abound, while more mechanical flourishes include combat suits with built-in skates and back vents that enhance jumping capability, specialized guns that can deploy specialized bullet types, emergency transport pods, and a multi-legged tank. Mechanical designer Takeshi Takakura has an extensive career designing technology for anime dating back to Martian Successor Nadesico and including the likes of Planetes and Macross Frontier, but this may be his best work yet. Not to be outdone, Kazuhiro Miwa does an equally outstanding job with Matter design. The Matter's particular flavor of gooey, gristly mass has just a bit more character and nastiness to it than similar efforts in anime.
None of that would have worked so well without an excellent animation effort. Its quality at least rivals Studio Bones' best productions, with lots of smooth action scenes, extensive detail work, and rock-solid consistency throughout the series' run. Sharp, vibrantly colored background art and character designs are also prominent features, along with fine integration of CG elements (except for maybe in the opening theme). The visual style – especially in the use of color – is probably most reminiscent of Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, which shouldn't be a surprise since they share the same director. All of this is supported by a solid musical score which depends heavily on slow, somber orchestral numbers for its more dramatic content.
However, the presentation by Netflix has one glaring weakness: the English dub. Rather than rely on the usual suspects, Netflix farmed the dubbing duties out to Iyuno Media Group, a relatively new Malaysian-based company that claims to specialize in dubs done by native language speakers at various branch studios around the world. Hopefully this is just a one-shot experiment, as the English dub immediately stands out as substandard to a level not commonly seen in modern dubs. The cast sounds like a bunch of novices, which makes sense given that only a couple have other anime dubbing credits to their names, and those are in languages other than English. The inexperience shows in stilted timing, stiff deliveries, and a script that sticks too close to the exact translation to sound smooth in English. This lack of naturalism is immediately evident from the first time Aiko speaks, and they don't improve from there. I normally watch a show with the English dub when it's available, but even I had to bail on this one.
Aside from that, the only other issues are a couple of logical gaps late in the series, along with an eleventh hour push and to turn one mild antagonist into a cartoonish villain. While the series doesn't do anything terribly exciting or innovative with its premise, the production is narratively entertaining and aesthetically impressive enough to be worth the watch.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Strong production values on all fronts, tightly cohesive storytelling
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