Reviewby Theron Martin,
Sword Gai: The Animation
Episodes 1-12 streaming
History is strewn with legendary cursed weapons. Those who bond with them can gain great power but are also prone to being taken over and going on bloody rampages; those who irrevocably become so are called Busoma. An organization called Shohidai is dedicated to collecting these weapons and finding a way to treat those bonded to them, even if that means putting them in cold sleep to slow the rate of their conversion to Busoma. Even the Shoshidai's own members aren't immune to the allure of the cursed weapons, as their director Miura gets sucked in by Zsoltgewinn, the most powerful blade. Meanwhile, a heavily pregnant woman comes into contact with the cursed sword Shiryu but takes her own life before the bloodlust can consume her. The boy she birthed beforehand is raised as Gai by a weaponsmith, but Gai's destiny is forever linked to Shiryu, which the smith uses to create an artificial arm for Gai.
Sword Gai: The Animation is the latest Netflix Original ONA series. It's based on a manga by Toshiki Inoue, a long-time anime script writer whose credits include the likes of Dr. Slump, Dragon Ball, Galaxy Angel, and Ushio & Tora; he also wrote this anime version of his manga. Unfortunately, this was definitely not his best effort, because Sword Gai is a narrative mess. It's not even a standalone story; the anime just stops as of episode 12 rather than coming to any kind of proper conclusion, giving the impression that this was planned to be a 24 episode series early on. (The second season is scheduled to be released later this year.)
The story has been described as “revolving around” Gai, but that's stretching the truth, as only about half of the content in these episodes actually involves Gai, and many of the other stories don't concern him at all. He doesn't even appear in the first episode until the last scene, as a newborn. The series seems more like an attempt at an ensemble piece, with Gai's storyline playing up his relationship with his foster sister Sayaka – or rather, Sayaka's attempt to have a relationship with him, as Gai refuses to get along with anyone.
That's hardly the only problem with his character. The lone wolf antihero is a popular image, but Gai has such an overwhelmingly crappy attitude that he's hard to like or find relatable. Granted, it's understandable that he might be that way given his link to a bloodthirsty cursed sword, but it doesn't make for the most inviting hero and he isn't cool enough to compensate for this void; he's just sullen. Even some of the show's antagonists have more charm than Gai does. It's rough when you wind up pitying Gai's wannabe-girlfriend for being hooked on someone so morose instead of rooting for the hero. Fortunately, most of the other good guys are more engaging characters with more interesting stories.
The focus of the series is also too diluted. The intent seems to be to chronicle various story threads that gradually converge, and the series accomplishes that to some extent as multiple threads come together in one battle scene near the end. However, several others have yet to show any signs of connecting by series' end; the best example of this is the episode that splits its focus between the hair stylist and the treasure hunters, with the two converging by the end of the episode but remaining unconnected to other story threads. In truth, some of these stories work better in isolation, like the series' best episode where Chakram wielder Ichijo re-engages with his long-time flame, a woman who has seen him only sporadically over the decades due to his long periods of cold sleep. The tale ends up surprisingly heartbreaking.
That leaves the series to rely heavily on its action scenes and graphic content, which the series at least delivers on. Decent use of both CG and traditional animation and competent fight choreography combine to create action scenes that won't blow anyone away but do at least entertain. Visual quality in general is middle-of-the-road, with few character designs that stand out but color schemes that effectively convey the mood. Quite a lot of bloodletting can also be expected – plenty enough to earn a TV-MA rating – although the visuals do not wallow in gore. It comes off more as standard dark action fare than the horror-grade material some might expect. The most effective aspect of the production is its musical score, which powers action pieces with dramatic orchestration and occasionally uses lighter numbers in less heavy moments. A forgettable rock opener leads each episode, while the more ominous closing theme plays over the credits.
Netflix relies on Bang Zoom! Entertainment for the English dub with the usual results. All roles are at least competently cast and performed and the English script sticks reasonably close to the original translation. No performances stand out, though the most noteworthy is probably the anime debut of Billy Kametz, who's better-known for American commercials and animation work. He gives Ichijo the kind of confident and laid-back sound that fits very well for anime dubbing. Netflix's standard set of alternate language and subtitle options is also available.
Netflix's portfolio of exclusive anime titles has been pretty solid to date, with more hits than misses, but Sword Gai is one of those misses, and I'd put it near the bottom of their portfolio. Maybe it will fare better in its second season, but this series isn't focused enough, thrilling enough, or compelling enough to overcome its many plot holes and conceptual flaws.
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : C
Story : C-
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B
+ Some good individual stories, lots of graphic content for gore fans
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