Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Apr 21st 2011
Episodes 1-11 Streaming
Clain is an antiques-loving boy who lives during an unspecified future time. Work is unknown in Clain's world. A system called the Fractale System provides for humanity's every need, freeing them up to pursue their every whim. Families splinter to the ends of the globe, members going their separate ways in pursuit of their separate dreams, communing only via digital avatars known as doppels. Friends meet only in doppel form, markets carry virtual merchandise to be bought by virtual shoppers. Genuine human contact is the exception, not the rule. Which is why Clain is completely floored when he meets his first real girl. That she arrives on a glider, chased by machine-gun-toting villains doesn't help. Phryne leaves almost as soon as she arrives, but not before leaving Clain with a serious crush and an oddly independent girl-child doppel named Nessa. Not long after Clain is neck-deep in anti-Fractale guerillas, as well as terrifying Fractale cultists who see Phryne and Nessa as necessary pawns in their plan to reboot the aging Fractale System.
There are two parts of science fiction, the science and the fiction. Too often a work will get one part right while wholly neglecting the other. In anime it's usually the fiction that's good and the science that gets shafted. In that way at least, Fractale is apart from the pack. It has a great sci-fi world at its core, along with discrete moments of excellence all throughout, but they're imbedded in a story that is too undisciplined and flabby around the middle to be truly compelling.
There are holes in Fractale's world, no doubt. No one ever explains why a girl, and Phryne specifically, is needed to repair the Fractale System, and how is it that the Fractale System provides for humanity? It's a system of satellites and nanomachine interfaces designed to fully integrate the virtual and the real. Cool, sure; but how does that feed and clothe people? How does it produce the goods they need to live, much less pursue lives of pure leisure?
That we care enough to poke holes in Fractale's world is of course backhanded praise for it—after all no one bothers to poke holes in, say, Flash Gordon. And, while the series' grasp of technological logistics is shaky, its grasp of technology's social ramifications is not. The culture it imagines, in which communications technology is taken to its logical extreme, where the ease of access has made the pursuit of leisure a full-time occupation and advanced remote communication has rendered human contact obsolete, is all too easy to imagine. And more importantly, asks hard questions about our own lives: When does convenience go too far? In relegating ever more of our lives to machines, are we losing part of what makes us human? And really, more than being technically rigorous or predictive, that's what science fiction is supposed to do.
It's just too bad that an interesting fictional world doesn't translate directly into interesting fiction. The show puts the Right Foot forward when it opens with the fateful encounter between Clain and Phryne. Their meeting has a classical adventure feel to it, as much Castle in the Sky as, oh, say Kannagi, which is director Yutaka "Yamakan" Yamamoto's other full-length effort. There're mysterious girls, aerial derring-do, bumbling black-clad villains, and a whole unknown world full of mythically-named institutions and large, potentially sinister hidden truths to explore. The show manages to maintain a semblance of that promise for a while. There is a little bit of Kannagi in how the early episodes revel in seaside breezes and gentle summer weather, and it mixes surprisingly well with the crowds of tactile avatars and occasional dogfight.
It isn't long, however, before it becomes clear that the show has no idea where its adventure should be going. It takes a mystifying graphic turn in episode 3, and juggles Phryne in and out of the storyline as if it's unsure whether she should be a major player or a maguffin-like motivation for Clain's journey. And then Yamamoto's slice-of-life instincts take over and things really go south. The series' middle stretch rapidly devolves into a disjointed run of one-offs about antiques-loving old men, desperate virtual city-dwellers, and doing laundry. Which wouldn't necessarily be a horrible, series-killing blight—if it wasn't for the filler stink all over them or how ineptly they try to cover for it by spritzing themselves with an unsatisfying mist of ongoing plot. Or how poorly their increasingly brutal sci-fi is integrated with their increasingly hackneyed slices of life. Or how their unevenness bleeds into the series at large, even as it returns to the main plot.
Once it unravels, Fractale never completely gathers itself back together. The series is the product of three very different and uncooperative aesthetics: Yamamoto's tendency towards whimsical and deliberately anti-dramatic fluff; a fondness for punch-to-the-gut drama that seems likely to be screenwriter Mari Okada's; and an intellectualism that embraces big social ideas and grand questions (accompanied by a predilection for shockingly extreme violence) that is probably social critic and original creator Hiroki Azuma's. Each has its moments—a few beautiful interludes, a genuinely upsetting revelation about Phryne's "qualification" to be Fractale's savior, a flash of insight shown by Fractale's imaginary world—but after their short-lived harmony meets its end in the lumpy stew of the series' middle third they never again gel into anything satisfying. Nessa, Clain and Phryne's sweet friendship gets slammed into an epic battle which in turn runs screaming into some very nasty drama about Phryne's past, and none of it ever meshes the way it should. What was once a promising sci-fi adventure is, by this point, an ill-formed disappointment.
Yamamoto's studio Ordet and A-1 Pictures Inc. maintain a fairly impressive level of artistry for most of the series. There's the inevitable slide in quality after the cleanly animated first episodes, with their pleasingly-rendered body movements and swarming doppel-markets, but on a whole the series remains quite beautiful. Sometimes it'll soak in the pastoral bliss of the open countryside, at others it'll warm you with Nessa's carefully-animated cuteness or take your breath away with the fantastical wonders of a "perfect" Fractale city. More instructive, however, are the times when Yamamoto and his crew slip up. Some slips are subtle and understandable—the overall loss of detail and movement in Clain and his compadres' faces, say—but some are blatant pokes in the eye. There are times when characters go completely off model, when lines get sloppy and movements grow ugly, when faces and bodies move in stiff and unnatural ways that are hideously at odds with the overall superiority of the animation. Even more than Yamamoto's obvious discomfort with the bloody action, those lapses in discipline speak of a growing gap between director and content, of a director grown dissatisfied, even jaded, with his creation. Which goes a long ways towards explaining why the show can't pull itself together.
The series has, by the way, a fantastic full-bodied score by Sōhei Kano and an equally superb opening (an atmospheric vocal number set to morphing fractals) and ending (a beautiful rendition of Yeats' "Down By the Salley Gardens"). Which helps, but hardly redeems anything.
In truth Fractale's story and its central idea aren't as independent as I make them out to be. Just as it is bedecked with unfinished plot threads and characters, so too is Fractale full of half-formed ideas and unanswered questions. As it plods carelessly through its middle and dashes heedlessly to its end the show never bothers to take its ideas anywhere truly interesting, never allows them to cross that line from intriguing to revelatory...or meaningful, or anything else that great science fiction and great science fiction ideas are supposed to be. And that's the series' true shame.
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Science fiction as it should be: steeped in big questions and frighteningly relevant to our own times; generally very good-looking; Nessa is cuter than a bunny in a bunny suit.
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