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Not That Bad

Time flies. It feels like it was only yesterday that I salivated over the announcement of new anime series for Kaiji and Gintama, and now one of them has aired while the other is waiting in the wings. The much-awaited spring anime season is now upon us, and as such, fans have gobbled up the first episodes of those that aired first. But for me, I haven’t even touched the final episodes of my winter shows yet, not to mention the only hold-over from fall 2010, Star Driver. Then we have the winter noitaminA offerings, which I just finished a few days ago, and only now have I decided to do a little something to commemorate the event. That’s how slow everything in this place is. There are practically a thousand more blogs to visit, anyway, so I’m going to leave the episodic blogging to them (aside from those series that catch my eye).

If you want your latest unnecessary anime commentary/reviews handed to you yesterday, then don’t come here.

 

crashed and burned, but it's not that bad, really

 

Fractale (A1 Pictures/Ordet, Yutaka Yamamoto)

To begin, let me just say that Hourou Musuko was, in my mind, the best show that aired in the winter season. It did well for itself considering its length, aptly cutting out and dividing the source material to fit the staff’s purposes. The series as a whole was well-paced. Each episode ended right where it should, and there’s hardly any superfluous episodes; all of them flowed quite smoothly from one week to the next. The drama was short and sweet, neither too understated nor too overplayed. Many people thought the omission of about five volumes’ worth of content at the beginning of the series hurt it, but I didn’t feel it did. It evoked the necessary sense of curiosity for the anime, and more importantly for the source material itself. It was a good business decision for them. So, to the point…

 

Now that I’ve said my piece about Hourou Musuko, let me get to the heart of this post. Just last year Fuji TV extended the noitaminA anime block to a full hour to accommodate two TV anime every week (which I guess was brought about by the unfortunate death of Noise). And as such, two new series aired in the slot for last season, one of them being more high-profile due to the ruckus it stirred even before it aired. The series then had the misfortune of being too noisy for its own good, which led to it having extreme reactions from fans way before episode 1 was shown. HM’s partner show for winter noitaminA, Fractale, attained a bit of notoriety because of the things its director spouted, namely his supposed retirement if the show ever failed. Well, not to worry Yamakan, your show did fail, but it didn’t fail spectacularly. But, this experience should tell you not to run your mouth like you did anymore.

Fractale was to me a mere victim of too much ambition and a severely bad case of hot air. It had a lot of things I felt that it wanted to show, but it ended up being hobbled by the fact there was just too little time for those ideas to be shown in full. The series had its share of good, highlight episodes that offered a glimpse as to what could have been, but they were weighed down and overshadowed by the forgettable and superfluous episodes in between. Mix in tons of hot air from the director here and there, and you breed notoriety which you didn’t even need in the first place. I’m suspecting that not a few people who watched the show were thrown off by all the things being said by/about the guy which then led to some nasty feedback.

The show itself looked great on paper. You have pretty character designs, plus a vast and inspired setting, throw in a nifty story and your scholarly screenwriter and you’d have a good, no, a great show, right? No, not really.The problem is, that those grand trappings remained there, on the drawing boards. Watching an episode gave you the sense that indeed the staff had some cool ideas behind the show, except you also come away with the feeling that it was still lacking. Conceptually speaking, Fractale was good. There’s a moral battle between the old and the new, trapped within a relevant scheme (the Fractale system), plus it had more than enough room for the occasional social commentary that anime seems to like so much. But even Mamoru Oshii‘s inclination for social commentary couldn’t hold the story up from the obstacles it faced: namely, the show’s length.

Eleven episodes just weren’t enough for the show to sell itself fully, which results in a very hobbled series. The Fractale system itself–its nature, the people behind it, its inner purpose–just couldn’t be fit well into eleven weeks. There’s an explanation here, and a depiction there, but they don’t come together in a well-realized and structured whole, which left me with no room to empathize with anyone living in it. I don’t see why I should care about characters whose circumstances are only shown in vague statements and scarce depictions. Although I admit that I’m not the most perceptive guy in the world, but still I could have used a tighter connection between episodes and characters. Though it could be argued that they could have their story just as well in eleven episodes if they tried, I still feel that giving Fractale 2 cours’ worth of time would have been the safest scenario for them. Like Dennou Coil, Fractale could have had more time to flesh out its world, tell its story well, and depict character growth the way they want to do it.

Many people have noted the similarities of Fractale to a Miyazaki film when it first aired months ago, and I thought it was a nice touch. Like I’ve noted in the past, there’s no better man to take cues from when it comes to well-designed and imaginative fantasy settings and scenarios than Hayao Miyazaki himself. But, the strength of the show doesn’t come mainly from its influences, but rather in its own realizations of the setting. The highlight episodes of the show were the ones that showed the world of Fractale and the Fractale system at their fullest (namely episodes 7 -8), where it covered the widest range of imagination when it comes to the setting. Episode 7 showed the Fractale system at its highest peak, where it was the most dynamism and the most creativity. The staff for that episode did a great job inserting their own ideas and showing glimpses of greatness. That was the episode where you could really immerse yourself in the setting of Fractale and let your imagination go wild at its many possibilities. Episode 8 showed Fractale at its most desperate, where it drove itself to fix its problems with the necessary amount of tension and drama. The episode itself was finely crafted and well-directed (in fact it’s the best ep in the series, in my opinion) but its strength comes from its wide contrast with the preceding episode. The two sides of the coin put side by side like that could have been the way the show presented itself–providing enough glimpses of the glory of Fractale and its decadent future. That’s what I would have liked to see.

(Though I also favored episode 7 because most of the episode staff came from Tatami Galaxy.)

I did like episode 3 at first, but it seemed like a throwaway episode just like the rest as the series went on. The rest of the episodes felt like they tried to achieve a lot in little time. There was the introduction of the main conflict (Lost Millennium), but even that didn’t have any kind of lasting effect because of the overall dullness of the episodes they were in. It tried to do something new with the setting, but the actual content seemed like more of the usual to me. The conflicts felt shallow and meaningless (especially at the end), and the characters dull and lifeless. Throw in a useless episode in there like the solo episode, ep #5, and that’s where the series falls on its face. It’s really too bad–they could have done so much more with the characters and setting, but I guess it’s just another case of too much ambition hampered by too little space to work with.

Clain was the only character I liked, though. In him the possibilities of Fractale are visible. What the show could have done with the rest of its characters are apparent in him. He started out as a clean slate, subservient to Fractale, and slowly and surely he learns of the world around him and adapts to it. He was the only one in the series to have really changed by the end. He matures, and it’s  shown episode after episode. The relationships he’d forged with Phryne and Nessa were given their weight and impact simply because of Clain’s growth. I cared about the two girls because I cared about him. If he had stayed a clueless boy week after week, the final few episodes wouldn’t have had as much effect as they had (even if they themselves were lacking and vague). To me, Clain carried the show on his back, and without him the show itself would have been worse.

Animation-wise, the series delivered. The characters moved well, much in the same way as other A1 shows. They do quality animation in most their anime, and they also give some leeway for loose stylings (see Birdy 1 & 2). The solo episode (#5) perhaps was the lowest point when it came to visual presentation, and the highlights were in episode 7 -8, #7 in particular. The world of Fractale was realized to its fullest there, after all. The backgrounds were creative, vibrant, and lush, and the various avatars walking around it also shared those same qualities. Well, I guess that’s just to be expected when you have the likes of Ryotaro Makihara, Nobutake Ito, Yasunori Miyazawa on board.

I did like the revelation as to the origins of the Fractale system right there at the end, though. And the final few minutes had their fair share of effective tension and drama to fulfill their purposes. Still, if only the show had a tighter focus and a more centralized direction, it would have been much better than it was. There are hints of a great show in Fractale, ready to be built upon and expanded. Hence the reason I don’t want to categorically say that it’s a terrible show. It’s not that bad, really. There are much, much worse anime than Fractale out there. It’s just that unnecessarily lofty expectations were born from the tirades and the antics of the director.

So next time Yamakan decides to direct another anime, he’d do well to pipe down and let his product do the talking.

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