Reviewby Faye Hopper,
Shironeko Project: Zero Chronicle
The Kingdoms of White and Black have been at war for as long as the world has existed. The Queen of Light, fueled by the massive energy source known as the Progenitor Rune, sits in the skies above, soaked in the sun and her people never wanting, while down below, covered by dark clouds that can never be lifted, the King of Darkness rules over his subjects with an iron, unforgiving fist. It's in this world of perpetual black, where monsters are free to brutalize and devour at their discretion, that a young boy, through a chance encounter with a noble after his village has been slaughtered, becomes the new the Prince of Darkness, the one destined to seize the throne from the current king.
Shironeko Project: Zero Chronicle is bad. It's boring, poorly animated, putridly paced and half the time barely even comprehensible. And yet, watching it, I couldn't help but see the faint flame of lost potential, flickering behind the bad CG and awful dialogue. Because unlike a lot of its mobile game anime-adaptation contemporaries, the basic story here is a thematically compelling tragedy; about a false ‘balance’ that resigns some people to squalor and poverty and others to riches beyond compare, and how the end-stage of that society can only be destruction. But these ideological prophecies, this small glimmer of a better, richer story – remain unrealized. All we have is a show that is, at best, so bad it's hilarious, and at worst, so devoid of meaningful story developments that it is utterly tedious.
In abstract, Shironeko Project: Zero Chronicle is about an unjust social order. The Kingdom of White is perched high atop the clouds, drenched in radiant light, with flourishing plants and regal splendor and a comfortable, content population. The Kingdom of Black, meanwhile, is a place defined by perpetual violence; in the opening scene of the show, the soon-to-be Prince's village is massacred by monsters who are allowed to roam free, putting him on an equally violent path to eventually take the throne for himself. These two nations, one of opulence and riches and the other ruled over by a survival-of-the-fittest totalitarian in the King of Darkness, are at war.
Queen Iris talks about the war in terms of maintaining some sort of wordly ‘balance’. Over the course of the series, we come to see that this ‘balance’ is an unfair scheme much more about ensuring that light and dark stay in their assigned, designated places—one prospering, the other not—than helping people and stopping entropy. The King of Darkness's end goal is to upset this scheme, but not because he believes it's unjust. He simply wants more power, for his darkness to encompass the whole of the world.
There is so much potential in this. In a world where terrible ideas that abet an oppressive status quo are so often framed as ‘in the middle’, as ‘working toward balance and peace’; where our greatest monsters, the ones whose actions will destroy the world, are a direct result of how our social systems have been constructed to privilege one over another – these ideas are apt and essential. And yet, none of it resonates. Not once is the viewer struck by how the fairy-tale Kingdoms of Black and White resemble our world, nor do they parse the many, many circuitous philosophical dialogues of the show as anything but long-winded exposition dumps.
And it's all because of the extremely poor execution. For one, Shironeko Project: Zero Chronicle markets itself, in its opening and its promotional materials, as a Romeo and Juliet-styled romance between two star-crossed lovers unable to be together because of their conflicting social positions. But the show is so terrible at depicting any kind of connection between Iris and the Prince, romantic or otherwise, that this central hook of the show feels like it's not even present. The Prince of Darkness and Iris don't meet until episode 6. In the entire show, I think they have maybe three or four actual conversations—only one of which demonstrates any real, meaningful connection between the two (this being the conversation they have right before the King of Darkness invades and the climax begins)—in a span of maybe three or four episodes. There are occasional, furtive glances; silly fanservice moments where the Prince trips and knocks the queen into a pond. But these are nowhere near enough to sell the Earth-shaking, revolutionary shifts in worldview that are supposed to occur as a result of this connection. The Prince comes to realize that he values the life of the Queen more than his ability to seize the Throne of Darkness, while the Queen, through seeing the humanity and struggle of the Prince, realizes in turn that the scheme of ‘balance’ she has so long sought to uphold is one that must be destroyed if everyone is to truly be happy. What's in the show isn't nearly enough to justify these story developments, to portray romance this deep and cosmic and impactful; crucial character work is needed for these messages to be effective, and it's just missing.
This is only part of a broader problem that kills the series' ability to evoke emotion and meaningfully reflect upon our world: it's awful pacing. The series is based on the prologue to a mobile game, and the dearth of real story content is evident in how it mostly consists of padding. This is not a story that can sustain twelve episodes of a TV series. Maybe a movie. Maybe a 5-episode OVA. But in order to hit standard cour length, the show has to spend multiple episodes on a dress-up party and a vegetable hunt (plot arcs that could maybe work if there was any meaningful characterization, if the show emphasized ideology and the ways in which people from different walks of life identify and connect beyond liking soup, which there isn't and it doesn't); where the first half of the show is spent on stopping a demon who doesn't even have a presence in the final arcs; and where essential points of characterization (like the true loyalty of the Prince's retainer or the court mage's jealousy of Iris being the one who was crowned queen) are given so little attention. When a series spends most of its energy on things that are unrelated to the main plot and core themes, you have a serious, investment-diverting problem; doubly-so in the case of a show like Shironeko Project, where the whole point is to see how the humanity and ideology of these storytelling aspects pertain to us, to our lives and experiences.
The most baffling thing about Shironeko Project: Zero Chronicle is that it is a 12-episode prequel to the premise of a mobile game that doesn't seem to have much to do with the themes of this anime adaptation. A brief flashforward to a boy sleeping on a beach is all you get as resolution if the cycle of exploitation continues (and it seems like this flashforward is also mostly unrelated to the prologue, as the game from here on becomes an adventure narrative about visiting various islands). It leaves you wondering: what was the point of all that philosophical monologuing, if all it leads to is a traditional JRPG that we don't even get to see much of? Was it all just advertising for a phone game I'll never play? Who knows, but the one certainty is that Shironeko Project fails at everything it sets out to do, from beginning to end.
When you watch the first episode and see its flat, sterile colors, its stiff-as-a-board character designs that barely move, and hear its dialogue that rambles on endlessly, never coming to any real or lasting conclusions, you know any chances the series has of reaching past itself to say something rich and meaningful isn't going to happen. When the best thing about your high fantasy allegory for unjust social systems is that the music's ok, you know something has gone deeply, deeply wrong.
Overall : D-
Story : D-
Animation : D-
Art : F
Music : B
+ Not a bad story, kind of thematically neat, in abstract; music's ok
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