Saber’s Day Off: Fate in its silly season

[WARNING: SPOILERS]

The Fate franchise is in its imperial moment. Despite suffering an early and inauspicious adaptation of its central text, the 2004 visual novel Fate/stay night, Fate has lately found extraordinary success by the medium of anime, through which it has proliferated not only its essential works but many of its stranger iterations. Including Shirou Emiya’s overwritten hagiography, a mercilessly unending magical girl fanservice vehicle and the fee of tribute paid to Type-Moon’s kid-friendly iPhone casino Fate/Grand Order, the Fate name has been carried by no fewer than five different anime studios in the past three years; in the span of less than a year, A-1 Pictures and SHAFT have respectively adapted Fate/Apocrypha and Fate/EXTRA, two of Fate’s most thoroughly unnecessary spin-offs. This prostitution is generally considered a grave matter by the Fate enthusiast, who has received both anime as an affront to the integrity of the media franchise and thus cast maledictions upon them. Presently, their MyAnimeList scores hover around an even 7 (7! on MAL!).

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Made in Abyss and Houseki no Kuni: mirroring worlds

Besides their critical plaudits, Made in Abyss and Houseki no Kuni have much in common: both are science fiction/fantasy anime with heavy emphasis on worldbuilding; both develop unique and stylish worlds that stand out within their genre conventions; and both are coming-of-age stories about young characters whose lives take dark turns when they are confronted with the reality of their world and the conditions of their existence. They also both end midway through their stories, anticipating a second season. The execution of these anime diverges from there; whereas Made in Abyss presents a fussy and heavily detailed fantasy world with a narrow focus on a few bright and lively characters, Houseki no Kuni‘s world is sparse and post-apocalyptic, animated in CG and trading focus for a broader scope of mystery. Like the titular abyss that the characters explore, Made in Abyss draws the viewer inexorably towards the painful emptiness that awaits its adventurers with a lucid sense of inevitability; Houseki no Kuni introduces multiple interlinked threads that suggest rather than explain the nature of its world, but of which none permit a full image to be perceived. The deficiencies of character in Houseki no Kuni contrast with the richer and darker characters of Made in Abyss; the uneven pacing and sometimes jarring shifts in tone of Made in Abyss contrast with the meditative consistency that distinguishes Houseki no Kuni.

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The Demon Maid in the Dog Forest (Re:Zero is brain-damaged)

[WARNING: SPOILERS]

There is a particular kind of incompetence on display in Re:Zero. A popular 2016 isekai anime in the mold of Sword Art OnlineRe:Zero adapts a light novel series of the same name, and indeed its particular incompetence is frequently found in light novel adaptations, though I cannot imagine that it is improved in the original work. It is the incompetence of a story that has no idea what it is about but is determined to continue anyway. Re:Zero is notable for being among the worst offenders in this category of incompetence, because it is not wholly a disaster on an episode-by-episode basis, making its ultimate failures all the more glaring. There are moments of effective storytelling and touching characterisation, but all of those moments are wasted on this show. There is no catharsis for the viewer, no development that actually matters. Why? Because Subaru loves Emilia, obviously. At best, Re:Zero tells a story no one wants to hear.

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All under the loving grace of the cosmic Madoka

[WARNING: SPOILERS]

Note: this post assumes some familiarity with Puella Magi Madoka Magica and its full-length sequel Rebellion Story.

i. Debtors’ world

Puella Magi Madoka Magica is an anime of great personal significance to me, and the difficulties inherent to discussing such a work are compounded by its much broader impact. At a time when mass media is no longer able to maintain the illusion of a monoculture, anime has become similarly diffuse; Madoka Magica may be one of relatively few titles whose impact has the depth and breadth to qualify as really important to the entire form. A popular show like Sword Art Online may achieve a greater degree of ubiquity, but it is critically reviled and affected only superficial elements of genre, inspiring countless isekai light novel adaptations. A closer analogue to Madoka Magica might be The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, but its appearance was more a culmination of preexisting trends towards male-oriented slice-of-life manga and anime, dating back to the late nineties. Madoka Magica came in like a black swan, blindsiding the fan community and reinvigorating not only its own magical girl genre but spreading influence throughout the medium. Its contrast of surreal and gothic imagery with cute girl characters was emulated by shows inside and outside of magical girl, and after several years of endless visual novel adaptations (and more bizarrely, the occasional original anime plotted like a visual novel adaptation), relatively mundane high school settings with only limited nods to the supernatural, and slice-of-life nostalgia epitomised by the omnipresent K-On!Madoka Magica spotlighted more structured and dramatic storytelling in a universe dominated by its otherworldly environments. Moreover, like any black swan, in hindsight it seemed inevitable: Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha established a precedent for more adult-oriented magical girl in the early 2000s, and the success of aforementioned slice-of-life anime had proven that borrowing from girls’ manga would not necessarily repel otaku. Yet when Madoka Magica came out, there was nothing else like it. There is still nothing else like it, despite its army of imitators.

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Truth and mystery in Shinsekai Yori

[WARNING: SPOILERS]

Shinsekai Yori is that rare thing, an anime adaptation of a novel—not a light novel, but a novel, a capital-N novel—and it shows. The plot unfolds gradually and deliberately, free from the limits of episodic stories that reliably return their characters to the status quo. Indeed, characters age and develop over the course of years; romances, families, and individuals rise and fall. Its scope is panoramic: it creates a complete picture of an alternate world centuries into the future and a small community living there, allowing the writing’s focus to transgress from the psychological lives of the characters into disquieting political allegory while remaining thematically congruent. At the centre of these themes is the question of appearance vs. reality, truth vs. mystery. Are there truths that should not be known to the world? Can the things we love be used to control us and conceal the truth; and is it sometimes better to keep it that way? Up until the end, there are unresolved questions about the strange idyllic world of Kamisu 66, the rural town that is the fulcrum of the story, and it is unclear whether such questions should be resolved when their answers have such devastating consequences.

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Kanon and the consolation of memory

[WARNING: SPOILERS]

Note: this post focuses on the original Kanon visual novel rather than the 2002/2006 anime adaptations.

i. Harbingers of moe

Kanon was the debut visual novel by Key, released in 1999; alongside the extremely popular Clannad, it played a significant role in prefiguring a host of doe-eyed naïfs that would populate our screens for the next ten years. It is not news to most Western fans that anime subculture here has been divided on the virtues of Key. In the 1990s, the anime that initiated most Western fans into the fold were either shows airing on Adult Swim like the space western Cowboy Bebop (which suited especially American tastes well) or cult favourites like Akira and Ghost in the Shell. In the 2000s, the usual suspects were tense and masculine sci-fi/fantasy melodramas like Death Note and Code Geass. By the time Kyoto Animation adapted Kanon and Clannad, it was obvious that the scene was increasingly dominated by a different group of fans, and it was not to everybody’s pleasure.

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Doki Doki Literature Club! is too clever by half

The expression ‘too clever by half’ is a peculiarity of early twentieth century English whose usage was largely limited to the UK. It reads rather like an affectation today, more suited to a 1930s period piece or perhaps an article in the Spectator than a blog post about a visual novel.

But ‘too clever by half’ is, I argue, indispensably descriptive in this case. The subject of our first article at Ichigo Alternative is the visual novel Doki Doki Literature Club! (and I emphasise the ironic exclamation point), a game that is altogether too clever by half. It is a very good visual novel whose shortcomings are frustrating because of its obvious potential to be really great. Despite a lot of heart and stellar writing, it is let down by its cleverness.

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