Saturday, September 6, 2014

Anime break: From the New World

Watching From the New World is a bit like watching my twelve-year-old cousin argue: He’s talking about completely inane things gathered haphazardly from the stuff he’s seen on TV, neither he nor I have any idea where this is all going, and he expects to be taken seriously.

Frankly, it’s not interesting to talk about From the New World at all, in my opinion, but the anime is Exhibit A of Why You Need to Do Your Work. A.k.a., execution is everything. That is to say, all the cool, dramatic moments that the twelve-year-old remembers from the TV show and tries to imitate? They all need build-up. If you want to have a tournament in episode two, for example, you need to have already built it up to death all the way from episode negative three, which is why you can’t have a tournament in episode two unless you are set in 300 B.C.E Rome, at which point your show is called Spartacus. Anyway, the lame tournament in episode two of From the New World makes this mistake. It has zero build-up, zero stakes, all the while our main characters are absolutely, unironically dead serious about the outcome. If I knew why I had to care about this maybe I would have overlooked the requisite, utterly blah strategies and cheating in the matches but as it stands, I am going to talk about the requisite, utterly blah strategies and cheating in the matches, and how it’s emblematic of why this anime fails and of my pet peeve with fiction in general.

The problem is this: the second episode of From the New World doesn’t see all the build-up that ordinarily goes into fight sequences, it only knows to imitate the major scenes and the plot twists. In the episode, the main characters run around yelling and battling, discover that another team is cheating, and ultimately they emerge triumphant by exploiting a loophole in the rules because they’re just so smart. These are all staple beats of shounen manga tournaments. So what’s different?

First of all, if you want strategy, go back and rewatch that Kakashi versus Team 7 fight in the first couple of episodes in Naruto. This may surprise you, but shounen manga and anime are really shockingly good at writing effective fight sequences and strategy—so good, that it seems deceptively effortless. On paper it seems Naruto isn't doing anything drastically different from From the New WorldNaruto inhabits a world where ninjutsus and chakras are real, and in From the New World, people command telekinesis. Both anime are fantastical, but Naruto succeeds where From the New World doesn’t because From the New World does not establish itself as fundamentally a fighting show, rather, it is a dystopian mystery. The tournament in the second episode is tonally fucking weird in the first place. Also, the goal and the rules of Naruto’s fights are not merely clearly defined, they’re intuitive. There’s no cognitive overhead in order to understand them. From the New World has characters control attackers and defenders in order to roll a large ball into a large hole, over an earthy, grassy terrain, which can’t be tampered with, and one of the attackers can’t be attacked…which, you’ve already lost me. It’s not that the rules are incomprehensible, it’s that they’re too specific and there’s no time for viewers to get used to them, to feel out the confines and the intricacies of them, to make it earned when the main characters figure out how to sidestep the letters of the rules.

It makes the main characters’ strategic victory very silly. They solve a problem, sure, but it is a problem for which viewers are given no parameters and no context. The characters were never in a bind because the viewers did not know what bound them, what they had to work with within those bounds. I’ll say this right now, the strategy that they come up with is unspeakably dumb, made ever sillier by the dramatic music and the extreme close-ups of the characters’ faces that we don’t see the top half of. All of which, by the way, are played completely straight. Why so serious? Actually, we are not privy to that information. We actually have no idea what the stakes of the tournament are. Every emotional beat in this episode is false, unearned, and the five minutes of strategy in it is profoundly stupid. If you want a good laugh, in fact, just watch the first two episodes of this show and prepare for your jaw to be consistently slack, gaped in What-the-Shit-Is-This amazement.

Spoiler, it doesn’t get better. There’s an info dump delivered in the next few episode via a library that can talk. Let me reiterate. A library that can talk. We’re treated to a ten-minute segment of the history of how the telekinesis gene has destroyed the world, during which our main characters violently scream about how they can’t take it anymore. Look, if you spend the entirety of your running time on the uneasiness Saki has about her world, then you don’t fucking make her hysterical when her doubts are confirmed, okay? But you got to do what you got to do, right? I mean, the characters are only obviously meant to be our cardboard stand-in.

By this point, From the New World has demonstrated itself utterly incapable of nuanced storytelling, which sadly is what it fucking needs if it wants to take on the subject matter. There are pseudo-slaved creatures in this show’s universe, called queerats, and the show has them be barbaric, dumb, conniving, and then ultimately redeemed by being self-sacrificial? Are you fucking kidding me? There’s, by the way, another prolonged and painful stab at strategy in the five to seven stretch of episodes, which I chose not to write about because I checked out in the middle of it and I would kill myself if I had to watch it again.
Something happens in episode eight though, which actually requires some backstory.

You see, the only reason I had been able to make it to episode eight was because I was promised some hot boy on boy action, which apparently made some fanboys go bonkers and makes me go “Yes, please.” I waited, and I waited, and I was skeptical because there’s been zero romantic tension and/or chemistry between any of the boys so far but then again, the same is true with all of the characters, so I waited some more, until episode eight.

In episode eight, Satoru, the hot-headed boy, gets together with Shu, the shy one, and Saki, our main character herself, gets with Maria. It all is framed though, as a phase. There’s been no tension because they were always meant to break up. At least that’s how I read it. Shu is actually in love with Saki, who is in “unrequited” love with Shu while stringing Maria on, and in the end all the pairings are heterosexual.
At this point I rage-quit.

It’s frustrating, with a show like this one. It thinks it’s so clever, so it doesn’t explain the universe and some parts of the show is very confusing, but we already know that the show is dumb because it takes pains to drive home some spectacularly vapid reasoning that only a twelve-year-old would have deemed clever. We know better than to watch it and expect anything, but as with all twelve-year-olds, the show has some seeds of some worthwhile ideas, approximated from what it has seen its betters accomplish, but this is pale imitation formed from flash and bang, not stemmed from any true understanding. I know what the show is going for, but what the show actually does is not remotely how to go about doing it. And seriously, I don’t trust a twelve-year-old with complex genetic modification politics.

P.S. There's some unbelievably, comically bad animation in episode 5 or 6, stuck between a good color pallette and an amazing ending sequence so, yeah, mood whiplash seems to be this show's default mode.

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