Hyperdimension Neptunia: The Animation

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The problem with Neptunia isn’t that the source material doesn’t translate well to anime. The problem is in the process after translation. The content translates smoothly, but there’s just too much of it and the creators can’t make sense of it.

They did make some brilliant decisions. The anime jumps headfirst into the story without exposition. It doesn’t need to. Introducing characters is pointless. If your characters are developed enough, just show them walking around, talking and doing things. We will learn about them as the plot goes on.

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That movie is brilliant and works. The cast is wonderful. Most of them are archetypes, but they’re deliberate. The key to making these archetypes work is how they relate to their environment. Blanc is your flat-chested stoic girl, but in a happy-go-lucky world she sticks out. Vert’s breasts are an extension of her motherly persona, which sticks out when everyone around her are children. Neptune is the embodiment of the franchise and, in a satirical way, the audience. She’s a lazy airhead who just wants to play games and can’t take anything seriously.

Even when characters are similar to each other, there are differences. Uni ┬áis a tsundere like Noire, but she doesn’t have her position of power. So she’s more friendly and easier to get along with. These personalities constantly clash and interact. Although the anime throws all kinds of external challenges at our cast, it never feels like they drive it. Every line of dialogue, every act is modified by the personalities.

That’s why the move to more serious ground isn’t stupid. You don’t need realism for effective drama, but characters who feel real enough. The cast of Neptunia is strong, but the poor pacing throws drama way too early.

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As developed as they are, we still need some time to get to know the cast. There are about 8 characters so, and you can’t make the audience know them in just 6 episodes (especially when there are plenty of action scenes). Already around episode 5 or so, we get dramatic scenes, the world on the brink of extinction and nobody laughing.

The drama is ineffective both because of its placement, and how it’s handled. The drama is too serious for its own good. The creators forget they’re dealing with a world inspired by gaming consoles. It’s not like the introduction of seriousness also comes with extra thematic depth. If your drama doesn’t add any depth, just make it as over-the-top as the show itself. It also appears too early, way before the viewer can get a basic understanding of these characters.

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A departure scene later in the series is great, but that’s because it doesn’t rely on the characters being serious. By the time it arrives we know the characters much better. We saw them on various adventures and learned how their relationships work. It’s also more subdued. The previous drama scenes were overly serious but not over-the-top. Since this one is more subdued by nature, it can tone the ridiculousness down without losing any effect.

The franchise’s premise doesn’t sound like it’ll be friendly with tonal shifts. Still, it’s easier to make you care about a bunch of weirdos than it seems. The pacing is too brisk though. The show keeps throwing events and interaction and jokes at you and there’s never time to take it in.

There are no build-ups. The story doesn’t build towards a single conclusion. Rather, it follows a collection of arcs that end with the a Huge Dangerous Object. If the series built up towards that conclusion, then the fast pacing would have been easier to take. Since the arcs aren’t really connect, it’s like a show is constantly on fast forward, jumping from one idea to next and showing only beginnings and conclusions.

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The brisk approach also works against the aesthetic. Neptunia‘s style is cutsie and bright, sometimes too much. The voice actors, especially Neptune’s/Peashy’s/Abnes’ are trapped with a pitch that’s too high. Their performance is suited well to the characters, but plenty of times I wished they’d put on some effect to lower the pitch. It was too much on the ears. Blank and Plutia are a blessing just because they speak in a calmer manner. If the series was a little slower, then the voices wouldn’t feel like an assault. It does get better in the second half though.

Despite this small bump, the aesthetics are still one of the franchise’s strong points. The character design is astounding. Every character looks distinct. Even characters who are meant to be similar have their clear and subtle differences which make them unique. The show is moe, of course, but it finds so many variations on it.

There’s also the aspect of fanservice. While there are a few uncomfortable moments, the fanservice is well-integrated most of the time. The character design is beautiful, and but the series rarely slows down just to remind us that. It always constructs scenes and shots that both advance the story/characters and let us enjoy the view. It’s also never too profane. The sexuality is elegant, never shoving itself in your face. The characters just happen to look good. The ‘fanservice episode’ is a great example how they do it, and also of the self-aware humor.

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One thing the anime lacks, compared to the source material is the self-aware humor. It surfaces occasionally and it’s always better than expected. The fanservice episode was great, poking fun at tropes but integrating the personalities into the humor. There isn’t enough of it though. I understand the fear of breaking the fourth wall. It can easily slip into trying too hard. Just look at Deadpool. Neptunia doesn’t have Deadpool‘s macho bullshit, though. It never pretends to be cool (It disregards coolness completely. That’s why everyone is feminine but also sexualized), so it can run wild with the self-awareness. It’ll just be a part of the general absurdity.

It’s a curious thing. Here in the West we want our heroines gritty and tough. We love Furiosa and Rey for how macho they are. They scream at men to stop holding their hand and don’t wear skirts. Yet here we have Neptunia, which is a big franchise where all the heroines are unbashedly feminine. There are no apologies here. How can they create a diverse cast of females with both great looks and great personalities while Hollywood directors struggle with one heroine? It’s so pathetic to praise Black Widow when we have the whole cast of Neptunia.

The anime is fun, but it feels like there’s more to do with the franchise.

3 plushies out of 5

 

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Sword Art Online

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What a glorious mess. Average should mean unremarkable. Average things can sometimes be worse than bad things, because they can’t make you react. At least something that’s offensively bad makes you angry. Sword Art Online is average because there’s a crappy, overly serious hero’s journey here mixed with a subversive, psychological sci-fi story.

Villains often want to make a change to the world, and that takes the form of destruction. Saving the world means not letting the villain destroy it, whether it’s a senseless bad guy or a specific idea. We rarely meet villains who are creators. We sometimes get the ‘death game’ creators (Saw, Death Race), but all they do is make other people destroy stuff.

Here, we get an actual creator. Our main villain is in a position of God. He created the world, he controls it and he doesn’t let people just easily exit. On paper, this sounds like an exciting adventure which will explore interesting themes like suicide and optimism. Harlan Ellison tackled the God-like character in his brilliant story about mouths and screaming.

Sword Art Online isn’t a death game like the aforementioned films. It’s a real world with slightly different rules. You can die in it just like you can in the real world, but unlike Death Race you’re allowed to do more things than fighting or dying. That’s why it makes sense when some people decide to stop trying to get out of SAO.

Instead of trying to Win at Life, they’d rather slow down and find a few things they like. For some of them, the world of SAO is far more exciting and beautiful. Then again, isn’t that why some people play video games and watch anime? They’re trying to escape from one world to another. Yet when they get trapped in that world, they want to escape back to the real world.

All of this sounds really clever, only there’s no character psychology to give substance to these themes. Akihiko’s motives for creating this world are, what? Just to observe people in action?

When Harlan Ellison created AM, who has the power of God, he tries to think what kind of power can do to someone. In his eyes, it would drive a person insane and made torture people because he got nothing better to do. I kept waiting for something like this in Akihiko, some motive that will make his actions make sense or how creating SAO affects him.

How does all this power affect him? What did he learn from his observations? Maybe he’s like Attack on Titan’s Hanji, a person who’s too caught up in his research to notice people? He delivers some speeches in the end of the arcs, but he might as well walked with a sign that says ‘a winner is you’. That would be funny and more clever.

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Wine bottles from Skyrim make a cameo appearance

It gets worse, though. Akihiko is an interesting character whose psychology was left on the floor of the board meeting. Sugou is just a cartoon. He’s evil for the sake of it. There’s no difference between him and your average Digimon Adventure bad guy, only he doesn’t look as cool. The package comes complete with grand speeches about evil ambitions, mind control research and slug-like creatues who want to molest poor Asuna. Just in case you didn’t get it, the bad guys are ugly slugs.

It was going so well until then. Some complained about the time skips, but I just see focusing on what’s important. The format of ‘This happened, and then this happened’ is boring. Storytelling is choosing what to include and exclude. In those Slice-of-Life-esque episodes, the creators chose stories that will illustrate how the world works and how people behave in it. This is how worldbuilding should be done.

Even the romance section wasn’t terrible. It was actually one of the highlights. A romantic story doesn’t end when the two get together. There’s a story to be told of how their relationships work. These romantic scenes make us care about their relationship because we see it in action. We see them laugh, think about the future and enjoying each other’s company. Put them next to the stories when they deal with death and it’s even more effective. Sachi’s episode remains hard-hitting, and the first episode hints at something unsettling like Digimon Tamers. We even get color schemes that echo the D-Reaper, and you can’t go wrong with that.

Then it degenerates into Rescuing the Princess. Kirito’s a Gary Stu, but it doesn’t become as annoying until that happens. SAO swings from a fun adventure to serious Sci-Fi without notice, which makes it just an admirable failure. When Sugou does his sexual molester stuff, the series just gives up.

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Personaliy + twintails. What a waste

I could tolerate Kirito in a more light-hearted context. He and Asuna are both pretty perfect, but there’s charm to his humble, yet powerful persona. He’s stuck in a show that keeps pointing to depth. Since we never get enough meaningful moments, the Gary Stu problem just makes it obvious how shallow it is.

I found myself more interested in Sugou than Kirito. We never get to see Kirito’s hard work. He’s doing nice things because it’s nice to do them. He never strives for something, but why should he? He’s an alpha male who get a beautiful girl and got some others going after him. He has all he needs in the world. Even the hard re-adjustment to the real world isn’t addressed. He just goes off to rescue the princess.

That’s a static character whose role is to mow down mooks, not to make things happen. Sugou is interesting. He doesn’t just react but acts, creates conflicts and his wants, needs and flaws.

Yet, even when this series gives up on itself you get a moment that reminds you of what it could have been. There’s a harem thing going on, but it’s much less prominent than people say. It also lets us see the rejected character deal with heartbreak and trying to get over it. The incest thing may have been out-of-place, but at least it’s handled well. Suguha isn’t cast aside, but reacts to the heartbreak.

Those moments were enough to make me curious to check the light novels, but the anime is just a collection of good ideas brought down by cliches. It’s Date A Live all over again, only less brave. It’s weird. Date A Live was more obvious in its harem, but it never settled on clear heroes and villains. Sword Art Online is a cool series that gives up on itself, tells the hero to go rescue the princess just because they’re sick of the whole thing. Someday, someone will remake this and fix these flaws. Until then, I’ll sit back and watch people get really angry over this on message boards.

2.5 swords out of 5