No Game No Life

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12 episodes of praising Instrumental Reason doesn’t make for good fiction, but it makes it clear why the anime blew up so much. Popularity is never a result of quality, but of fitting in with the zeitgeist, the common biases and worldviews of an age. That’s why Game of Thrones is so popular since it shows a masculinity that’s dark, therefore intelligent instead of the happy-go-lucky nonsense of 80’s action films. As for this anime, its popularity comes from how blatant it is in showing Instrumental Reason to be the supreme reason. Imagine those vegans or marijuana advocates who think that their pet issues would solve all the world’s problems.

Before we discuss why this anime is so bad, let’s clarify what I mean by ‘Instrumental Reason’. I capitalize it because it’s a useful term. To use Charles Taylor’s definition, it is reason which is about efficiancy and problem-solving. It asks how fast we can solve a problem, what is the best way to solve a problem.

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Take the case of a busted wheel. When your wheel’s gone bust, you don’t ask what it means, what ramifications it will have on pop culture or on our perception of gender and reality. All that matters is that we change tires as quickly as possible, and that the tire will be good enough to last as long as possible. While there are theories dissecting the meaning behind games, when we play chess we don’t think what the game means. Rather, we asks how we beat the game.

In contrast, there is what I’d call ‘reason of meaning’. By that, you ask what is the nature of things. We don’t just ask how to end racism and poverty, but what exactly is racism and poverty. We’re interested in understanding these issues, defining them, understanding what is bad. Instrumental Reason leads to a lot of money for hi-tech buffons, but it cannot solve all problems since it doesn’t tell you what the problem, or the meaning of things is.

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Sora and Shiro are one pair whose world is in Instrumental Reason. While games have meaning, the meaning is related to the mere act of playing. We don’t question whether or not we should win a game and what is the nature of winning chess – the rules decide that. The world of Disboard is a world where every problem isn’t just solved by games, but by Instrumental Reason.

That means it’s a world that doesn’t have any meaning at all. The nature of any problem doesn’t matter, since there will be an arbitrary equation that must solved. Once we solve this equation, the problem ends. The anime tells the story of a megalomaniacal brother-and-sister who beat people in games, gain power and minions and occasionally pay lip-service to morality.

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Now, if the series was an examination of such Instrumental Reason, it would’ve been fine. If Instrumental Reason was merely a dominant storytelling tool, then it could still have a decent story. By that, I mean that the show works similar to Death Note and Code Geass. The story moves mainly by challenges facing the characters, and the characters need to solve them. The viewer gains pleasure from trying to solve the riddle along with the characters. However, the meaning of these challenges isn’t important.

Instrumental Reason is so dominant in this anime that these challenges don’t even pretend to have meaning. Death Note may have been a series of riddles, but underneath it there was supposed to be a story about the morality of executing criminals. It failed because it didn’t create situations where we examined the issue, but rather only asked ‘who will win?’. In similar fashion, the only question this anime asks is ‘how will Sora and Shiro win?’.

As a storytelling tool, it’s incredibly boring. It’s essentially watching a staged game. The whole thrill of watching sports is that you don’t know who will win and nothing is decided until the last moment. Stories which use Instrumental Reason make you watch a man playing chess against himself, only with more narrative fluff and (in the case of anime) pretty visuals.

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So as a story, this is a complete failure. Really, it’s about nothing. Only near the end it says something about the nature of games, but the whole thing happens in an alternative reality. Once the characters are thrown into it, no mention of the real world. Without admitting there is a real world where not everything is a game, it cannot explore the nature of games. Many throw the word ‘escapist’ around and it’s always debatable how escapist a show is, but can anyone debate this? The characters literally escape the real world so they could play forever.

If the story is an absolute failure, at least it could do well in other aspects. Sadly, it’s all bad except for the art. The art is easily some of anime’s best. It’s such a shame that a highlight in anime art is glued to a horrible story. Look at those vibrant colors, how every scene doesn’t have so much a depth of detail but a depth of color. It creates the feeling of a truly fantastical world. It applies to character design, too. While the series is shameless in fanservice, each character gets its unique touch, unique eye shapes and hairstyles. Shiro isn’t the best design, but her design is a good case in point. Her hair isn’t just long but has a distinct flow to it. Jibril is another excellent case. For a character who floats around half-naked, they sure thought about a lot of unique touches – the asymmetrical gloves, the gardient in the hair.

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Sadly, this is where the positives end. Some of the characters are good, but they need a different setting and a different storytelling method. Stephanie Dola could’ve been a light in the dark, a contrast to the world. Her emotional reaction actually could’ve added some ‘reason of meaning’, show us a character who thinks about other things besides winning. Too bad her role is to be slapped around, sexually humiliated and generally used as a tool. If so far you were convinced my rantings about ‘Instrumental Reason’ was just cranking about, here’s the final nail. The anime takes its one character who has a different view than constantly puts it down.

Sora is tied to this problem, and to the misogyny problem. He’s a 20th century masculine stereotype. Writing about transformation of masculinity in fiction is incomplete without him. We see how once the manly hero packed guns, now he’s shagging women and is being a conniving, selfish asshole. What defines Sora isn’t heroism like those in the 80’s movies, but his pure ‘Instrumental Reason’. All that matters to him is winning, all he can think about is winning.

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Occasionally he displays some moral code about being nice to those he lose. We never see the general ethics that guide him, though. Since he’s comfortable using everyone as pieces, he’s more like a Wolf of Wall Street, doing everything to win and using people as means to an end. It fits with the zeitgeist. Go to school, and they will teach you how the only important thing is making loads of money. Whatever technology you invent, whatever content you produce, it doesn’t matter so long as you get money. No surprise our politicians are so corrupt.

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Using people as means, besides pissing off Kant also gives the whole anime a strong misogynistic bent. You don’t just see women in sexy situations, but often humiliating situations. Stephanie gets the most of it. An episode is dedicated to treating her like an animal only to teach her a lesson. He also takes pictures of her nude without consent and there’s the whole ‘laughing at flat women’ thing. I don’t see anything funny about humiliating a girl, taking nude pictures of her and generally framing her as inferior and dumb. Worst of all, we’re meant to cheer for Sora and the characters eventually come to like him. I don’t see how his rise to power demanded treating Dola so awfully.

Contrary to the creator’s idea, I would rather have a beer with Stephanie Dola and not just because she’s a woman. No Game No Life is pure escapist fantasy for the hi-tech age. In an age where we want to just solve problems instead of thinking about their nature, it’s the ideal anime. I’m reminded of a story where some government officials asked how to lower the amount of poor people. Onc offered to change the definition to the American definitions, and then there will be less poor people on the count. Notice how the numbers change but no one asks what exactly poverty is and what’s the actual problem. It’s a comfortable mindset, but we don’t live in Disboard. Our world isn’t clean and ordered where each problems have clear laws. In this world, you have to ask what is the problem, what it means and the whole shebang. Also, you can’t go around treating women like Sora treats Stephanie. Somebody might come and get all 80’s Action Movie on your ass.

1.5 misogynists out of 5

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Another

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What we have here isn’t so much an anime, but an experiment. At least I hope it’s an experiment, because as an anime it’s quite an atrocity. It deserves a place in the bottom of the barrel, not because it’s awful in a unique way. There’s no content, nothing particularly offensive that stick out. It’s just a series of mistakes piling up on one another.

If this is an experiment, it’s an interesting and important one. In fact, as an experiment it deserves the attention of all literary scholars. Finally, a piece of fiction tries to answer the age-old question of what is more important – execution or the idea. Since the end result is closer to vomit caused by excessive drinking (which itself was a means of coping with an awful party), the answer is execution.

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“Execution” is an ironic word to use in the context of this crappy anime, both because a lot of characters die and the anime ends up killing its brilliant premise. Most creators don’t have any idea what ‘horror’ actually means. They think we experience horror when someone holds a knife against us and we need to fight them, but that’s not it. A dangerous situation where there are a few predictable outcomes, some of them bad is thrilling and causes adrenaline but it’s not scary.

People are afraid of walking alone in the streets and of being on the stage, yet no one is going to kill you if you deliver a speech (Unless you’re a politician). The common ground between two is the unknown, and more importantly a fairly hostile unknown. Horror is effective when we know or speculate there is something hostile there and don’t know its nature. The best of horror is striking a balance – having a good enough idea what kind of danger there is, but not enough.

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Horror fiction often features weak protagonists. In order to effective, the protagonists need to know little so they won’t really have a way to defeat the Big Bad. Stories are the scariest not at the climax – it means very little in this genre. Experiencing the unknown is what’s important. A shot of Michael Myers standing outside the house is scary, because we don’t really know what Myers is except the fact he kills people for some reason. More than any other genre, Horror isn’t about a tight structure but strong, atmospheric moments emphasizing how the characters view the world.

The creators commit the horrible mistake of thinking that what works in video games also works in fiction. So the main character isn’t actually a human, but a distinct organism only found in shitty stories called Plotus Moverus. Exploring a mystery on my own is one thing. Merely watching someone else do it is something else. Shows on TV that show you how to cook things have more narrative thrust, more personality. People actually remember all those dudes in TV who talk about food, yet I’ll only remember Kouchi because he starred in this horrible anime.

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Kouchi gives a point of view with less personality than a Wikipedia article, so already we lack any kind of framing for this town. Look at this as a self-insert character, and you get zilch. If Kouchi had a psychology or a personality that would react to the horror, then I could insert myself into him and feel like I’m experiencing the same thing. I could use this story not only to explore the nature of horror but how we can react to horrifying things. Kouchi only gathers data.

The scenary is now responsible to frame this story as scary, and at the beginning it’s actually quite good. People criticized it because ‘nothing happened’, but they just misunderstand the genre. Things don’t have to happen and it may be for the best if they won’t. What should go on is atmosphere. The art and especially the background is fantastic. The colors are varied, yet there’s a slight dark tone to everything – not enough to make it monochrome, but enough to hint there’s something bad going on underneath. This balance is difficult to attain but the series does it. Every scene in the beginning is imbued with uneasiness, empty streets of a small, isolated town and a dark shade over thing because disaster can strike at any moment.

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An episode which takes place at the beach is a perfect example of how well the atmosphere works. There is silence and uneasiness all over it. Every interaction is a bit more hushed. A game of fishing ends with people capturing nothing interesting but kelp and a blowfish. Romance is right around the corner, but everyone is too preocupied with the horror to go with it

Here you get why the premise is so brilliant. By its very nature it’s horror, it’s a premise where people know disaster strikes but not really its nature or how to stop it or how exactly it will affect. Reduce the genre to its bare bones and you get that. Now all you need to do is let the characters do their thing. Let them react to the situation with their personalities. Let it affect their relationship, the structure of the town. Show us the effect of death and the unknown on us, tickle our sense of empathy.

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Mentioning the Saw film at this point, because they’re an example of how this anime failed. The first Saw film featured two dudes locked in a rusty bathroom which is quite frightening, but that’s also because of the mystery – what the hell is that bathroom? The anime does contain a mystery, but instead of letting it be one they solve it in – get this! – one episode. No, really, there is no build-up or any psychological thrust to the discovery. One day a character info-dumps the whole equation. Now the characters only need to find the X, literally.

Remove the mystery and the psychology and all you have left is a dull process of elimination. The side-characters are slightly better than Kouchi but even they don’t do much. The last episodes consist of fire and brimstone and that hardly makes for an effective climax. As an action scene it might serve, but its main role is to revel and swim in the blood of the characters.

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What it reveals is what I tried to suppress all along – that the mystery isn’t actually a symbol for our fear of death, but a plot tool to kill characters. Instead of experiencing this anguish and angt, understand the meaning of fear and trembling and reflect upon the nature of death you enter a guessing game. Every episode is a game of ‘who dies next?’ until it ends with a massacre that might’ve been effective with a different build-up. Too bad it’s just has everyone smiling psychotically while chanting the same sentence.

In the beginning of the anime Stephen King is dropped, a popular writer with great ideas and horrible execution. Even he wasn’t that bad, but the series is loyal to his style. It took an idea so good you can use it to explain the nature of the genre and turned it into a who’s-gonna-die game. The final twist isn’t that surprising either and doesn’t add any meaning, although it could’ve lead to a powerful character moment if Kouchi had something resembling a personality. Write off the popularity of this anime as pure shock value.

1.5 spooky stuff out of 5

Sundays Without God (Kamisama no Inai Nichiyoubi)

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This is such a bizarre anime. I’ve seen anime and movies with trippy imagery. I’ve read stories with pages of gibberish, yet few works of fiction left me with a sense of culture shock like this. Such anime are so original it’s hard to make them truly terrible, since the novelty value is there. Creators also tend to be as confused as the viewer, so they rarely reach their full potential.

When you have a unique premise on your hands that doesn’t owe anything to any tradition, there are two ways to go about it. You can either go full retard, mine the premise for anything it has and throw the kitchen sink along with everything. Since you have no idea how your anime is supposed to work, all you can do is try everything and hope something sticks. There’s a famous anime who did this and it’s called Future Diary.

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The other route is the safer one. You let your story flow, but you never try too hard to understand it. You let characters interact and explore your world, but you refrain from anything too attention-grabbing. The anime will narrow its focus. Its structure will become almost RPG-like, giving the protagonist a basic objective to complete and finish it off.

Sundays Without God takes the latter route, but the result isn’t a complete failure. Despite not playing with the structure, its setting and premise are so weird that the feeling of culture shock is persistent. The stories that make up the anime are also good enough on their own and take advantage of the setting. You cannot tell them in any other context. Still, something feels off. It’s not completely weird, not completely normal and leans towards the weird without mining it too much. The result is anime that’s enjoyable like an ordinary anime while feeling weird.

The best thing about the anime is it unique setting and tone. It’s a perfect example of how you don’t need a lot of details to create a unique world. The world here is simple. God is gone, no one can get born and dead people don’t really die. It’s apocalypse in slow motion. We’ve had a lot of stories about what happens after the apocalypse and we tend to imagine it as something swift and fast. Here, the world is in the process of ending.

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Human beings are resilient things, though. Even if the sun will explode, we’ll most likely try to save something. Survival instinct is so strong that it defies rationality and free will. In this case, the world isn’t ending so much as life reaches its epilogue. Life isn’t bad, but it keeps moving in an ordinary pace towards its ending.

What do you do when you’re the last generation? The anime is essentially about this, but it seems so weirded out by its premise it doesn’t really explore it. The first stories deal directly with these themes – one character is about to be the last of the last generation, which is the worst isolation you can have. The city of the dead is an interesting expressions of the Metaphysical Rebellion – how we can rebel against our circumstances and reject them.

The structure doesn’t prevent exploration of these topics, since many shows used shorter length with depth. The method of storytelling gets in the way. There’s an objective to solve, and the characters spend more time trying to solve it. While the pacing isn’t thriller-like, it’s too fast for such a premise. It doesn’t slow down enough to show how characters exist outside the story.

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Characters’ existence outside the story is one of the best ways to convince us they’re real, to make us care about them and see their humanity. Stories are something humans create and we don’t live in just one. A focused storyteller shows snippets of other stories the characters can have, but then goes back to the main one. A master storyteller can imply these side-stories and connect them to the main plotline. The anime doesn’t do this. Its focus is too narrow.

It’s a shame, because the storytelling is quite excellent. The format is familiar – we have a good, well-meaning character visiting people and helping them. Ai isn’t just a vehicle to tell the stories of these people. Her personality and position is directly tied to her role. In a world where everyone’s ready to die or desperately fighting death, she’s a piece of light. She’s the youngest person alive, a possibility that there might be a future.

She’s not a lantern, though. When things go bad, Ai doesn’t say some nice things and the story ends. Often, she gives those pep talks but stumbles. The world is, after all, ending. Problems still exist and are hard to solve. Ai may be an optimist, but she’s a struggling optimist. We see her doubts, how much she tries to cling to her optimism despite everything.

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This is where the anime’s faults lay. Although this is an excellent usage of such a character, they don’t take it far enough. Ai struggles, but the creators put her so much in the role of problem-solver she doesn’t have time to ingest the struggling. There’s no time to see how the possible failures affect Ai’s psych. Stories don’t always end just like she wants them to, and that should influence her worldview. How do you stay optimistic when things don’t go as expected? Do you blind your own eyes? Do you become pessimistic, or do you accept things as they are? The anime never addresses these questions.

The themes of wishing does make its appearance, but the creators aren’t sure what to do with it. People wish for things. Sometimes they come true, sometimes they don’t and sometimes they come true but the result is painful. It speaks volumes when a messy anime like Big Order addresses these themes better. They’re present, but wishing is not a plot device here and there aren’t enough angles to explore this topic from. It’s just there.

The art style continues the weird nature of the quality. The character’s looks are distinct and memorable enough, but the art style itself isn’t. You can put these characters in a school anime and they wouldn’t feel out of place (except for the outfits). There’s variety in how everyone looks and the school arc lets them show off their designs, but nothing connects it. Characters shouldn’t just look distinct but there should be a style that connects them, quirks that make the design memorable and make you wonder what else you can do with it.

On the other hand, the color schemes and backgrounds are beautiful. The anime finally fulfills potential. The colors are balanced. Light and dark tones are mixed. A burning red or a cold blue is are the dominating colors, and they have just enough brightness to make the world seem normal. There’s also a little darkness in them that reminds you that the world is dying. It’s a balance that’s hard to get. You can easily find yourself in bland colors, but here they’re the perfect mix of darkness and lights that fit the weird tone of the series.

Sundays Without God is a flawed anime, but nevertheless an anime like no other. Its failures hold it back from greatness, and but their nature prevents them from being offensive. When it falls, it’s not because it does stupid things. Rather, it’s too afraid to play with its ideas. They stand on their own, and even as basic storytelling it’s good enough. Someone might one day run away with these and render this irrelevant, but until then it’s worth your time.

3.5 sundays out of 5