Reviewby Kim Morrissy,
No Game, No Life Zero
Six thousand years before Sora and Shiro were even a blink in the history of Disboard, war consumed the land, tearing apart the heavens, destroying stars, and even threatening to wipe out the human race. Amid the chaos and destruction, a young man named Riku leads humanity toward the tomorrow his heart believed in. One day, in the ruins of an Elf city, he meets Shuvi, an exiled female "Ex-machina" android who asks him to teach her what it means to have a human heart.
No Game, No Life Zero isn't like the No Game, No Life you've seen before. It takes all the interesting themes of the original TV series and peels away all the fanservice and frivolities, resulting in a tonally different narrative that outdoes the original in almost every respect.
Set in the world of Disboard six thousand years before the main story, No Game, No Life Zero features almost none of the same characters as the TV series. It's also a bleaker story, awash with crimson red skies, war-torn backdrops, and black rain that burns the flesh of humans. There's none of the thrills and gambits that the original series indulged, and none of the players here are geniuses. Instead, they struggle and fight to survive with their limited resources, betting their lives on the slimmest of possibilities that humanity will live on.
No Game, No Life Zero may have a much darker tone than the original TV series, but it does share the same themes about humanity's potential to overcome impossible odds. In fact, the theme is much more overt than in the TV series, which showcased more of Sora and Shiro's abilities than those of humanity as a whole. In the film, the community has much more focus; humanity is shown to live in underground caves, working together to ensure mutual survival. They are caught in the crossfire of a war between the powerful magical races, and their only option for much of the film's duration is to constantly evacuate whenever the fighting draws near. All in all, it's much easier to admire humanity for surviving despite their frailties when you can observe the hell they have endured.
Games are also still a focus in this film, though not in the way you'd expect. The plot is set before games became the primary means to resolve conflicts, so there's no practical purpose in playing them. Yet our protagonist Riku is strongly attached to the idea of games and continues to challenge his opponents to chess games despite losing every time. “When I was younger, I used to think that there was no such thing as an unwinnable game,” he muses at the beginning of the film. Despite knowing all too well how unfair his world is, he continues to cling to the idea that victory is possible. Games serve primarily as a motif here, which works surprisingly well as a way of characterizing the world of Disboard.
The film is a sharper, more concise articulation of the TV anime's main ideas, and the story is much stronger because of it. When Sora and Shiro talk bitterly about the unfairness of their world, the impact is somewhat undercut by the fact that we never actually saw them suffer because of it. Even in the brief time before they're transported to Disboard, we only see their gaming successes. In the film, however, every character is susceptible to failure, which makes their plight much easier to sympathize with. There's also none of the intrusive fanservice scenes from the TV series, which went beyond risqué and made the main characters look like unrepentant sexual harassers at times. No Game, No Life Zero lacks the potentially off-putting elements of the original series, making it easier to recommend to general audiences.
Given that so much of the film is different from the TV series, how much is actually similar? The film does share the same voice actor leads as the TV series, as well as similar character designs. (Too similar, perhaps—it does threaten to take you out of the story at times.) It's obvious that they're supposed to be “ancestor” versions of the present-day characters, if not directly then at least in spirit. Their roles don't entirely match their modern-day counterparts, however. Riku and Shuvi are not brother and sister in this story, and Shuvi doesn't intuitively understand Riku's emotions. As a result, their relationship plays out quite differently than Sora and Shiro's, with plenty of tension and interpersonal conflict. This works well for the film's length—the characters are similar enough that they don't require an extended introduction, but they also evolve in markedly different ways, making them feel like distinct people in their own right.
Even the few recurring characters from the TV series show a completely different side of themselves in the film. Unconstrained by the rules of the Ten Covenants, Jibril is a ruthless slayer in this story. It's completely in line with what we're told about her in the series, but seeing this side of her in action is nothing short of spine-chilling. It also helps that Jibril's scenes feature some of the best animation in the entire film, which is already full of breathtaking visual highlights. The moment when Jibril first appears is one of the standout visual and aural moments in the entire film, where all sound stops and the horror slowly sets in. Much like the world of Disboard six thousand years ago, this film's portrayal of Jibril is both beautiful and disturbing.
Overall, I'd count No Game, No Life Zero as a distinct improvement over the original TV series, as well as Atsuko Ishizuka's strongest work to date as a director. Her sense of visual storytelling and pacing is simply superb, arguably what made the original TV series so eminently watchable even during its weaker moments. Even the color work hits all the right marks this time around. The overly saturated color scheme was a somewhat divisive aspect of the TV show, but it feels more subdued and measured here, matching the overall tone of the story better. When the action finally returns to the present day, the stark contrast in color tone and shading is almost startling. In context, it's an uplifting and awe-inspiring scene, one of those moments where the visuals tell the entire story.
As much as I've praised the film, I should note that the show has its own unique appeal that is absent here. The fun of the TV series comes from knowing that Sora and Shiro will always win and figuring out how they manage it when the odds look so stacked against them. That sense of thrill and exuberance is now gone, replaced by a bleaker and at times heartbreaking narrative. As a No Game, No Life fan, I wouldn't want the entire series to be like this, but as a standalone prequel, I couldn't have asked for anything better. No Game, No Life Zero is a highly competent film in its own right and one of the best animated features to come out this year.
Overall : A
Story : A-
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A-
+ Improvement over the TV series in almost every way, characters and themes are well-articulated, great art and sound direction
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