Reviewby Theron Martin,
Episodes 1-13 Streaming
Yukina Shirahane is the daughter of a U.N. Research project director at Kurobe Dam, where a team is investigating a strange cube and an Artifact (mecha) found buried underground at that location a few decades earlier. She laments that her mother is too busy with her job to act like a proper mother and wonders about a statement her father made before disappearing a few years earlier: that ogres would eventually come back to Earth to eat people. She learns what he may have meant when an apparent meteor strike turns out to be a landing party of alien mecha who attack the site instead. Though the Kurobe Dam installation has GAUS units that can fight off the small fries, the gravity control shields of the commander mech stymie them until an unexpected event occurs.
Yukina accidentally activates the cube, which releases a naked man who seems to be a samurai from a bygone era. He protects her and then drags her along to the Artifact, which he calls Kuromukuro, and proceeds to use it (with Yukina as copilot) to fight the “ogres.” The world has changed a lot in 450 years though, and the princess that Kennosuke (Ken for short) once strove to protect is gone, so with Yukina's sometimes-reluctant help, he must find a way to fit in this new world while still seeking vengeance on the invaders for past wrongs.
We've seen anime about a person from the present being catapulted into the future to become an ace mecha pilot before (see Buddy Complex, among possibly others), but a person from the past coming to the present instead? That's certainly a new twist. It's also the core plot element of this original mecha series from P.A. Works, which is using this project to celebrate their 15th anniversary. It is currently streaming in the U.S. on Netflix, but only in half-season batches of 13 episodes each at the end of each half's run.
While P.A. Works has done a fair number of action series over the past few years, they are not known for mecha series, marking this the first true mech show they're produced. Any concerns that they may not know what they are doing fade before the end of the first episode, however, as this series contains some of the most sharply-animated mech battles to date. These are active affairs full of complicated movements, like appendages sprouting from the backs of enemy mecha which can produce four-limbed whirlwinds of blades, be used to somersault, or help with martial arts-like throws and knockdowns. While these episodes do have some classic one-on-one dueling, most of the battles are more coordinated affairs, where the U.N.'s two GAUS units actively work together with Kuromukuro to overcome foes. Granted, a lot of this is more ad hoc coordination than actual tactical planning, but seeing the mecha overcome foes through cooperative effort while the two most hotheaded pilots play along is a treat. Even Yukina is not useless in this endeavor. She doesn't contribute much in battle beyond keeping Kuromukuro running with her presence, but her occasional bits of advice and insight are remarkably useful.
The technical merits beyond the mecha are not shabby, either. Background specialist Studio Easter produces some lovely mountain scenery, and the modern school and facility designs are eye-catching too. Beautiful character designs are also a treat, whether your tastes run more towards the muscular, athletic Ken in all his glory or the numerous female character designs which manage a pleasing combination of cute and sexy. (Overt fan service is limited to a couple of innocuous panty shots, some tasteful swimsuits in one episode, and some risqué cosplay Yukina's best friend does.) Character animation is also pretty good, and the integration of CG and non-CG animation is quite smooth, with one exception: Ken's “horse” looks a bit unnatural in the way it flies.
By comparison, character development is much more ordinary. The pouty and emotional Yukina does not handle the stress of being involved with the Kuromukuro too well at times, but that emotion also provides grounding for Kennosuke, keeping him from being too reckless and helping him to integrate into the future world more smoothly. Meanwhile, Ken is a fairly standard rough-edged but noble type who cannot entirely deny that he's using Yukina as a substitute for his lost princess. (They do look quite a bit alike, which becomes a plot point as this block of episodes ends.) The chemistry between them only gradually develops, but it is evident. Meanwhile, Yukina's friend Mika is a more free-spirited type who makes a perfect foil for her, there's another boy who's hopelessly but silently in love with Yukina, and another classmate who's a streaming video fanatic. The other pilots are a fairly standard bunch, although the gung-ho guy can be surprisingly practical and sensible at times. Most other characters make less of an impression but still fit fine, with the exception of Yukina's mother; the writing never seems quite sure how it wants to play her and thus never finds a good balance between her professional and family-oriented sides.
The story development also follows typical and largely predictable paths, with the possible exception of a couple of major twists late in this half. Yukina isn't keen on being pushed into helping to pilot the Kuromukuro, especially once she realizes that some of the enemies look human and may have to be killed. Ken isn't very cooperative at first either, having to be recaptured after multiple escape attempts, until he can be convinced to play along. The attackers come in waves, constantly underestimating their adversary, but they do at times show an ounce of creativity. A training camp happens at one point too, and enemy infiltrators nearly kidnap or kill Yukina. If all of this sounds familiar, Kuromukuro does carry distinct influences from Neon Genesis Evangelion and Aldnoah.Zero to a lesser extent. It even has two foolish classmates who nearly getting killed trying to get a closer look at the action, only this time the video recorder gimmick has been updated to livestreaming. The way that ordinary people use their phones to capture images of everything is also a recurring element – and while they are not as extreme as the one kid, smartphone users also sometimes act senselessly in their pursuit of footage. The phenomenon is portrayed negatively enough that I have to think a point is being made.
The drama aspects work only modestly well, with Yukina's reluctance to fight once she knows that killing is involved not resonating as deeply as equivalent content in other titles (probably because it comes across more like she's being petulant than truly upset), but for the most part, action carries the series rather than drama. That makes it all the more puzzling that the show goes two entire episodes at one point without putting someone in a mecha. The humor is also more effective than the drama. Yes, many of the jokes about Ken adjusting to modern life are quite predictable, but some of them are still funny, and other characters have their moments too.
The musical score is also a strength of the series so far, though it flirts with going overboard at times. Amidst electronica numbers and more traditional instrumentation are pieces featuring dramatic male vocals, reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings films. The opener and closer are both decent numbers but not especially remarkable.
Unlike previous anime featured on Netflix as “Netflix Originals,” this one is available only in subtitled form. That seems like an odd choice; getting the episodes only in half-season batches would make more sense (and make the wait more tolerable) if an English dub was forthcoming, and a mecha series with visuals this good should be a good enough gamble in the English-speaking markets to be worth a dub. It also has the unfortunate side effect of ending this block of episodes on one hell of a cliffhanger. Still, as mecha series go, this one is off to a pretty entertaining start.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Mecha action scenes, character designs, some meaty late twists
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