Reviewby Theron Martin,
Pandora in the Crimson Shell: Ghost Urn
BD+DVD - The Complete Series
Ever imagine what a series would look like if it combined cyberpunk trend-setter Ghost in the Shell with wacky comedy series Excel Saga? This Winter 2016 series is the answer in both figurative and literal senses, as it is based on a concept by Masamune Shirow (the creator of the former) and a manga by Koushi Rikudou (the creator of the latter). The result is about what you'd expect: a mix of silly, frenetic humor with scheming based around advanced cybernetic applications. It also works about as well as you'd expect – in other words, not well at all.
From a storytelling perspective, the main problem with the series is that director Munenori Nawa (Locodol, Secret of Nogizaka Haruka) and series writer Tatsuya Takahashi (The Eden of Grisaia, The [email protected] franchise) are never able to achieve a smooth balance between the wackier elements and the more serious ones. Taken separately, these elements work fine; numerous antics throughout the series are genuinely funny, with some characters (the reporter in particular) existing solely for comedy relief. However, all too often those parts butt heads with any attempt to make more serious or involved commentary on various technological issues. The latter is at its most interesting when considering issues like how some people more naturally adapt to full-body cyborg conversion than others, how full-body cyborgs could be mistaken for androids, or the cool idea that anyone can ask any android to identify themselves and their model by using “code zero.” It even touches on things like how becoming “cyberized” might become a requirement for certain jobs. However, the series can never explore that angle too much because the pratfalls and SD art invariably get in the way.
The other big storytelling problem is that the plot is largely nonsensical. The frenetic first episode is a mess that seems to involve some of Uzal's former underlings turning on her, which then switches over to a vague backgrounded plot about a shadowy group's efforts to gain control of Uzal's dormant super-weapon. This plot only firmly crystallizes in the final quarter and requires shaky motivations for some of the characters involved. Meanwhile, the foreground mostly plays out in slice-of-life vignettes, many of which seem like opportunities for greater development; there's a recurring element about a camp for persons displaced by the disaster in episode 1, for instance, but the issues that could be raised there are largely pushed off to the side. There are also various vignettes that get out of control, such as a fire in a shopping mall that Nene and Clarion are visiting, where they randomly encounter the island's mayor in the process. Given how that plays out, there is a reasonable expectation that the encounter will impact later events, but nope, it's never brought up again.
What partly offsets all this is that the central duo is eminently likable. Nene is one of those typically perky go-getter types, while Clarion is the put-upon "straight man" who's hyper-sensitive about anyone touching her ears. She gradually comes to appreciate Nene and eventually seems to prioritize protecting her even beyond her programming. They make for a cute duo, and the yuri implications between them are not subtle. Also likable is Robert, a policeman who keeps popping up over the second half of the series (though Nene always encounters him in civilian clothes, so she never actually realizes that he's a cop). On the downside, Takumi is an obnoxious wacky stereotype and Uzal is too smug to be appreciable, while certain other recurring characters are amusing but forgettable. And let's not even bring up the annoying (but also occasionally funny) Buer, the supposed demon goat with five legs – and yes, his fifth limb is exactly where you'd imagine it would be.
The technical merits detract from the experience as well. J.C. Staff has produced some solid visual efforts over the years, but this isn't one of them. It does reasonably well with CG elements like holographic notices and the elaborate, magical girl-like transformation sequences when Nene uses Pandora, but character designs are commonly rough or slip off-model even from the very first episode. The series also heavily uses SD art, primarily when reducing Clarion to a vaguely catlike outline, and sometimes at odd moments. Also watch for some obvious references to Ghost in the Shell, especially the famous “opening the hatch” scene from the first movie.
The musical score is done almost entirely with low-key techno music, which on paper seems like a suitable fit for a series that heavily involves cyborgs. However, the music has very little impact in execution and makes some odd choices at times, such as randomly inserting operatic singing into certain key scenes in the final episode. Upbeat, piano-driven number “hopeness” makes for a suitable opener, while techno closer “LoSe±CoNtRoL,” by the seiyuu for Nene and Clarion, is most notable for updating in every episode and randomly featuring a Fibonacci sequence as the beginning part of its lyrics.
Funimation is releasing the series in a standard Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack with a slipcover. Its only extras are the clean opener and clean closer for episode one. It was simuldubbed during its initial run, and the dub presents no complications. Sonny Strait is magnificent hamming it up as Buer, and Megan Shipman has just the right kind of chipper delivery to make Nene work without being grating. All of the voices are pretty good fits for the originals.
Overall, Pandora in the Crimson Shell is actually entertaining at times, but it would have been better-served either not trying to explore anything serious or else toning its manic energy down much more. Not trying to be a quasi-magical girl series might have also helped. It might be worth a look if a yuri-leaning series about semi-magical cyborgs sounds interesting to you, but I can't give it a general recommendation.
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : C
Story : C
Animation : C
Art : C
Music : C
+ Likable female lead, some interesting concepts
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