Reviewby Jacob Hope Chapman, May 9th 2014
Robotics;Notes Complete Series (BLURAY+DVD)
The year is 2020, and the world is obsessed with robots. There are international smash hit robot anime like Gunvarrel on TV, massively successful online robot fighting games like Kill-Ballad, and business has never been better for high-end robotics corporations like Exoskeleton. Despite all of this, there's only two members of the Robot Research Club in a small high school on Tanegashima island. Kaito Yashio isn't interested in robots and only stays in the club to support his best friend Akiho, who is obsessed with them. Aki dreams of becoming a foremost expert in robotics like her older sister, who she hasn't spoken to in years following a strange disaster that left both her and Yashio with an oddly specific type of brain damage that affects their perception of time.
Unwilling to let her ailment or her sister's absence get to her, Akiho builds the club back up by building her own tiny fighting robot, entering in tournaments, and making slow progress on a life-sized version of her favorite robot: the hero Gunvarrel. Thanks to her endeavors (and Yashio's protective hand,) more members seep into the club from all sorts of strange backgrounds, and even JAXA starts taking an interest in their creations. Unfortunately, it's not just the good guys who have taken notice of Aki and Yashio's talents, as the specter of SERN looms over their every move and plots to use their creations to fulfill their dreams of global genocide and world supremacy.
Robotics;Notes is not a show of extremes, but the places where it succeeds and fails are harshly divorced. At the peak of its success, it's a character piece with strong, likable characters, which is a rare and precious commodity in high school anime. Don't let the lineup of two bros and a large cadre of ladies deceive you: R;N lives and dies by its character development, and there's someone to like for all audiences in the cast. Whether it be Akiho's struggle to live up to her sister's expectations, Daitoku's slowly-lessening fear of robots, or even Yashio's languishing apathy to the many changes around him, something in all these kids' struggles should ring true with the viewer. They're funny, complex, work well against one another, and keep the viewer's heart invested from beginning to end. This could be enough to make the show a memorable hallmark in some cases, but it turns out to be not quite enough for Robotics;Notes.
Unfortunately, at the pit of its failure, Robotics;Notes' story doesn't work at all. The harder the viewer thinks about the plot, the dumber and dumber the whole thing seems. It's not good for a show selling itself on brain-bending conspiracy balanced with plausible science to be most easily described as "stupid," but that's where we find ourselves at the beginning and it hasn't really changed by the end. Numerous story threads, all based around different technologies, appear and disappear with the goal of congealing together at the end, but it's just a melted mess. Robot fights, robot exhibits, online games, augmented reality, strange diseases that affect the perception of time, mechanized limbs, and a mysterious unfinished anime with subliminal messages in its finale all converge to form a finale of Robotics;Notes with not much to say, subliminal or otherwise.
Robotics;Notes is the third (and so far final) installment of 5pb's Science Adventure Series, following Chaos;Head and Steins;Gate. To its detriment, R;N is the first of these to feel more like science than adventure. Even though Akiho's determination in the face of the impossible is uplifting and engaging, it's hard for her arc to carry much weight when the reason behind her sister's cold dismissal is revealed to be a ludicrous left-field twist. Subaru is a charming goofball with some tragic abusive father problems, and Frau a sympathetically disturbed shut-in desperate to re-forge human connections, but once it becomes clear that both characters are being used cheaply for exposition and dramatic spikes before being shuttled off the main plot, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Worst of all are the bizarre, contrived fates of Airi and Mizuka. Their stories play out closer to paths from a soppy Key visual novel than anything with the conceit of crafty, deliberate plotting. Of course there are robots involved in both fates, and this brings us to the core problem of putting science over adventure. If the plot is flabby and unconvincing, and it definitely is, then the endless monologues explaining how technology factors into that plot become more irritating than engrossing.
That's not to say Robotics;Notes is a bad show, or even disappointing compared to its two predecessors. Science adventure #2, Steins;Gate, was a unique, clever, and thoughtful rumination on persevering through past mistakes to self-acceptance for its hero, while science adventure #1, Chaos;Head, was a nigh-unwatchable and downright myopic heap of confusing, ugly trash. Robotics;Notes sits between these two extremes largely because it has neither one's heightened stakes. It doesn't fire itself into the sun only to crash and burn, but it doesn't join a sparkling chorus of stars in fulfilled ambition. Robotics;Notes just sort of exists pleasantly for 22 episodes, and then it stops existing, and it's hard to say that anyone is better or worse for the experience.
Of course, it's not entirely fair to compare Robotics;Notes to the other two shows in the semicolon family, because despite all their sources being written by the same pool of visual novel creators, their anime adaptations have all come from completely different animation studios and directors. Chaos;Head was pit-of-their-powers Madhouse with a truncated length crippling its adaptation, and Steins;Gate was OLM spinoff house White Fox, who wisely poured most of their efforts into maintaining an engaging pace and playing with camera, lighting, and limited character animation to hide any production shortcuts. Robotics;Notes is arguably the most well-animated of the three, which is impressive in comparison to the solidly polished Steins;Gate.
Robotics;Notes' world of virtual reality tech and remote controlled robots is fittingly handled by Production I.G., who bring out the best in all the gears and motors of its world and setting. I.G. has consistently proven to be the anime studio most proficient at blending CGI with hand-drawn animation, and does pretty well here. The gang's pet battle-bot, the Tanegashi-Machine, is entirely computer-animated, but fits well into the setting, and the subtle little bobs and wobbly pivots of its motion give it a cute little life of its own. The character animation and designs overall are appealing, if not particularly unique, but they don't need to be. Robotics;Notes' visual re-imagining of the year 2020 is plausible, but also filled with a sense of wonder that's fun to indulge. It's a world where everyone has high-end Google-Glass-y tablets, but online fighting games and Twitter still exist, and people spend a lot of time discussing both their terror and fascination with robotic advancement from small companies and corporations alike. It all feels like something that could be just around the corner for our world, neither too fantastical or post-apocalyptic. It's not a peak I.G. work, but it's a warm, fuzzy and comfortable I.G. that is equally welcome.
The world of Robotics;Notes is visually well-realized, but the story is another matter. Production differences aside, R;N and Steins;Gate do share a head adaptive writer/showrunner whose approach to incorporating multiple game paths into two cours of episodes is nearly identical in both cases. The first half is all meandering setup, while the second half is a series of hard-hitting, wide-ranging payoffs. This structure is unbalanced, but as an effort to preserve the context of the original multi-pathed visual novel game, it can work very well. The technique worked for Steins;Gate because of its core ideas. The first half is filled with irresponsible actions by a bunch of kids that seem to yield no consequences, and the second half follows up with consequences so relentless that every meager action taken to avoid them becomes a race against time. Robotics;Notes has no such poetry to its structure.
The first half is so slow that it barely feels like setup for anything, and it's unclear what the stakes or long-term goal for the Robotics Club actually is, or if anyone cares about those goals aside from Akiho. Company names, past events, and acquaintances of acquaintances bob in and out of the story to no effect, producing ennui only multiplied by our passive protagonist. (Yashio turns out to be a good character over time, but passive protagonists work best with an active story.) Every time a new element is introduced, you wonder "Oh, is THIS the key that will unlock the main plot?" Nope. It's just another ingredient in what will turn into a giant fruitcake.
Once R;N's second half starts, you've boarded the crazy train. Emotions run insanely high, character arcs are resolved slapdash through episodic events that attempt to build to an overall plot but feel like histrionic digressions dovetailing each other, and the finish line is an anticlimax that reflexively cheapens Akiho's entire character journey. "If everyone can just band together and love giant robots as a team, all your problems will go away!" This can't possibly be the real message of Robotics;Notes but the package is such a tangled mess that it's hard to glean much else out of the disconnected jumble of platitudes that slosh over the finale.
Steins;Gate is a mobius strip with two sides that alternate to our perspective before cycling neatly back on itself. Robotics;Notes is an RC car that starts too slow and then at the sensitive push of a toggle, shoots off the end of its track to spin futilely on one side. With a shared universe, extremely similar structure and all the same original writers and adaptive ones behind the wheel, Robotics;Notes' narrative must inevitably be compared to Steins;Gate by viewers, and it just doesn't hold up either to its predecessor or on its own. Without the comparison to a much better tale of nerdy teens battling SERN conspiracy, Robotics;Notes has trouble holding even lightweight ideas up on its shaky little plastic legs, much less its more complex aspirations. At the very least, it's not the incomprehensible slush-bucket of Chaos;Head. There are good characters in this show, good moments, and strong episodes. It's just too bad that they're islands floating in a placid sea of boredom punctuated by typhoons of stupidity.
At least there's that winning cast of characters, brought to life by a competent cast of seiyuu in Japanese and an especially dynamite combination of English voices in the dub. Robotics;Notes' dub is nearly better than the show deserves, one of the most natural-sounding and meticulously handled in recent memory. The script is altered very little, strictly for dialogue flow, and the performances have a sensitivity to them that always sounds like listening to real people converse rather than anime characters recorded separately. Even the boundless energy of Akiho, played by Lindsay Seidel in the dub, rings closer to the energy of an excitable nerd girl than a flat moe trope painted on plastic, and this sincerity in performance makes her character much more likable. The same could be said of the other roles, from Clifford Chapin's colorfully apathetic Yashio to Leah Clark's tremulous Frau, who is always on the edge of caffeine withdrawal and rarely in a good mood. Important character details like Subaru's anxiety-induced lisp and Frau's constant reliance on l33tsp34k to express herself seem like they shouldn't work in English, but they do, and in both cases, they seem more believable in English than in Japanese. (If no less infuriating in the case of Frau's 2chan-language, but that's the point: she's supposed to be off-putting and barely understandable.) It's an excellent dub and the experience of watching it almost makes the series better. Almost. At very least, it humanizes the material more, and is highly recommended for its warmth.
Extras on the blu-ray set include the standard trailers, clean themes and english episode commentaries. There's also an hour of interviews/discussion with a collection of english dub team members from all three Science Adventure series to talk about the world and ideas of the "trilogy" on the whole. Despite featuring all clips from Robotics;Notes between the subject segments, the discussion inevitably becomes 90% Steins;Gate thoughts instead. After seeing all three anime series, it's not really a mystery as to why. Steins;Gate is the only one that really leaves a positive impact.
Robotics;Notes isn't a bad experience, it just feels incomplete. All the right seeds for a memorable story are there, and it's clear that a great deal of thought went into the scenario. In fact, R;N's problem is that it thinks too hard about all the things that don't really matter. Its writers have created this lovable collection of unique characters to play with, but ultimately decide to spend most of their time dabbling in conspiracy and less-than-high-concept schizophrenia, leaving those great characters' arcs half-fulfilled and muddying the themes of the story past all recognition or resonance. The Science Adventure series, and most stories in general, are at their best when they keep the subject matter human. Robotics;Notes could stand to back off on all the peripheral machinery.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C
Story : C-
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B-
+ Charming and hopeful vision of near future life and technology, endearing cast of characters, unique and lovable english dub
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