The story centers on a little girl called Sana, who is one of the children that holds the power of "Alice's Dream," an ability that enables her to materialize anything she imagines. After escaping a lab where she was a test subject, Sana ends up in a normal world where she encounters an old man named Zouroku, but will he help her?
-- This review contains spoilers. Only read if you have finished the series. --
This was an anime that caught my eye from the very beginning. The way it presents itself could be alluring to anybody, yet the story felt as if though it lacked any creative direction. Our main character, who goes by the name Sana, is basically an experiment with luck on her side. After her escape from the depressing facility, as if by fate, she meets and ends up being taken care of by Zouroku. Like most people, Sana cannot escape her past and is forced to go head to head with
enemies... and then the second half of the story begins. This is where it essentially fell apart for me. Rather than focusing on what caught everyone's attention to begin with, it lowers itself to carefree almost slice-of-life-like daily events that do not seem significant initially. Another girl somehow magically attains the Dreams of Alice power and the last third of the show basically revolves around her and the birth of her friendship with Sana. This ended up achieving two things: Sana is no longer lonely, and we see a glimpse of the impact the Dreams of Alice has on the world - or at least Japan. However, at what cost did this underwhelming ending have on the show? Let's not forget how the expansion of Wonderland was ceased all at the push of a button, literally.
In terms of art, J.C.Staff has done better. With that said, it does portray a sort of childish atmosphere, and I can see why they went with this. I don't recall seeing dips in quality, either. For what it was trying to achieve, I would say it did a good job.
The music was different from what we normally hear. Overall, I would describe it as a happy-go-lucky adventure in itself. It mirrored the show, or to be more precise, Sana's personality.
When it comes to character development, I doubt there's much "development" a child can achieve in a show. But with Sana, we basically start from ground zero. As Zouroku mentions, everything is a first with her. Their relationship together can be seen as a grandfather and his granddaughter, or possibly even a parent and their child. His constant help really emphasizes how little she knows of the world, and throughout the show we end up seeing how she gradually learns. In comparison to the child characters, the adult characters received little screen time. If the show was longer, we could have gotten to know them a bit more. The show mainly focuses on the children, with the exception of Zouroku, and the things they learn throughout this journey. Zouroku himself is an honest man who wants nothing to do with corruption or what isn't deemed as the "honest life." His real granddaughter, Sanae, is painfully just there in the background most of the time. She seems like an airhead, but in reality she's just always cheery - much like Sana is.
In the end, there wasn't much to the story and characters as I thought there would be. If the show was expanded into more seasons, then I could understand. Unfortunately, it looks like they decided to give it its own ending. The final scene with grown-up Sana seemed rather cryptic as the fog that surrounded her and flowers she held immediately made me think she was at a graveyard, which possibly hints that Zouroku died about a decade later.
To me, the whole show seemed like a waste of a decent plot. Nothing was really achieved on a grand scale. The exception would be the Dreams of Alice being spread to other people, but we never really got to see more into that other than it happened. But who knows. Maybe that's not what the show was going for. Maybe it was just a story about a girl who desperately wanted a happy ending.
Most of us have at one point questioned our own existence. After all, knowing our reason for being can be among our most valuable assets. We desire meaning from our lives, so pondering questions like “who am I, really?” and “what is my purpose?” is only natural.
I bring this up not to go into some deep, pretentious analysis of this topic within the show, though there is some material there. Rather, I bring this up because Alice to Zouroku could have really benefited from taking a good, long look at itself in the mirror and seriously asking these questions.
Hereafter referred to as “AtoZ”, Alice to
Zouroku seems to face a bit of an existential crisis. The issue here is twofold: one pertaining to its focus as a whole - in other words, what it is - and the other to its appeal or value to viewers; its purpose for existing in the first place.
Genre-wise, AtoZ mainly functions in two sharply-contrasting halves. One half of it (technically closer to two-thirds) is mainly slice of life with some interesting fantasy elements incorporated, while the other is more focused on action and drama. It does eventually stick to the former, but much of its runtime is spent stubbornly refusing to commit to one or the other, which comes at the detriment of both halves not being as well-realized as they could have been.
This kind of balancing of vastly different genres isn’t the easiest thing to pull off, but here is one area where I’ll give AtoZ credit. While its choice to hedge its bets does limit its greater potential, the show actually does an okay job selling the shift between them. The show spends long enough between genre shifts (usually a full episode or two) to allow its desired tone to properly settle in. This means that when it’s in slice of life mode, it actually manages to feel like slice of life, as opposed to just “down time” between action set pieces. Meanwhile, the more dramatic points still feel like more than just diversions. The series manages better than most to have two personalities at once; one for exciting times and one for laid-back moments.
Even with only a 12-episode lifespan to work with, I’m glad it at least managed to explore the slice of life portion to a satisfactory degree, because that half is actually quite decent. The dramatic elements, on the other hand… well, to put it bluntly, they kind of suck. I’ll get back to that.
Unfortunately, for AtoZ, contrasting genres isn’t the real issue here. A more notable issue is a lack of any substantial standout qualities – something to make it appealing over any other story of its type, particularly with how many of its wildly varied ideas are commonly seen in other series. Pretty much every individual element – every idea and its exploration - in AtoZ ranges from decent enough to outright bad, and none of it comes together to create something greater.
Starting with the presentation, how are the visuals? They’re okay, I suppose. Color-wise? It’s fine. Character designs? They’re distinct-ish. Animation? Average to stiff. Level of detail? Not bad. Character expressions? Functional, but nothing more. There’s plenty of CGI, but it isn’t integrated very well into 2D scenes. There’s also an extended action sequence featuring some full 3D shots, and while it is decently dynamic, it simply doesn’t look that great (and that’s not even counting one hilarious animation error involving a moving background outside the parked car). What about the rest of the action? It’s nothing special. There’s no impressive choreography or impact, nor much emotional buildup, and little to no tension (as I’ll expand on later). There’s one exception that was actually solid, but the action as a whole isn’t much of a selling point.
So if the visuals can’t impress, then what about the sound? Well, the voice work is competent (subbed; haven’t seen the English dub), including vocal expression and delivery, but it’s not outstanding. Sound design? It works, I guess. Music? Actually, the soundtrack, while not that memorable in its own right, is often quite evocative in context, and I quite like the opening and ending themes. But does a modestly above-average OST do enough to make otherwise mediocre presentation great? It does not.
“But so what?” one might ask. After all, almost every aspect I’ve listed so far, while typically unremarkable, is still acceptable, including the show’s handling of multiple genres. At the end of the day, the presentation is nothing ruinous, and it doesn’t have to be great if there’s strength of substance being presented.
Sadly, this is where the show runs into a serious fundamental problem: AtoZ, at least during its non-slice of life moments, is straight-up poorly-written. Those dramatic elements I mentioned earlier are seriously squandered by persistently low quality of writing.
The series tries very hard during these dramatic scenes especially to keep things flexible and varied. On one hand, the show poses all sorts of questions about Sana, her existence, the facility she escapes from, and several characters, among other things. The show leverages these questions and finds a degree of success here in initially hooking viewers. Alright, seems fine so far.
But on the other hand, there are all the different powers that Sana possesses, and they pose a real problem: they’re too powerful. Their versatility is taken way too far to give the show any hope of telling a compelling dramatic story; creating matter to summon pretty much anything, mind-reading, flying, manipulating objects, teleporting with some control over the destination, and that’s just from episode 1. Later points introduce some other equally if not more broken powers. Sana can pretty much do whatever the plot demands, and that includes pulling new abilities out of thin air whenever convenient. Normally, the established powers are already enough to prevent the main characters getting into truly tight situations, but even in rare exceptions, Sana possesses so many convenient powers that there’s usually nothing stopping the series from just coming up with a new way out for her or others on the spot.
The only semblance of a limitation on Sana’s powers is her current energy level, which in practice ends up almost a non-issue for her. When it does come up, it can easily be fixed as soon as Sana gets a hold of some food. How does the series compensate? Simple: make Sana conveniently not have eaten enough since last using her powers.
This lack of sufficient limitations also creates all sorts of loopholes that quickly result in things falling apart. For instance, why can’t Sana just teleport out of every problem? The show only bothers to contrive an excuse about half of the time, usually something to do with food again, and even those aren’t always very well conveyed or thought out. Any other time, it’s like everyone just outright forgets. That’s a real tension-killer, and it’s far from the only tension-killer this series falls victim to.
There are other writing issues present, which include plot holes, other loopholes, inconsistencies, contrivances and so on that bring the whole thing down anytime it attempts something dramatic. I’m going to get into some plot/event spoilers for the first 5 episodes here to go over some of them; scroll past to skip them. Now, I want to be fair to this show, so only things I feel have at least a noticeable effect on either the show’s integrity or the viewer’s experience are included.
With that said, let’s begin!
*****SPOILERS FOR EPISODES 1-5*****
- The show tries to make Sana’s recapture seem like a huge threat, but her teleportation ability undermines this. Even if, somehow, she gets kidnapped, attempts to rescue her fail, AND she gets taken back to the lab… so what? As soon as she isn’t actively being pinned down, unable to use her powers (and they have to let her use her powers eventually or they can’t do tests with them), she could just teleport away! That is, assuming she isn’t “conveniently” too low on energy at the time for that to happen, but this was only the case on her initial escape. There’s just not enough sense of finality or decisiveness to the threat of Sana’s capture, which only serves to dampen the suspense even more than it already was.
- Furthermore, Sana gets a tracking device put on her for safety before her kidnapping in episode 3. Setting aside the fact that this leads to even less tension, even Sana’s successful capture would just serve to easily reveal where she and the research lab are located. And the show tries really hard to make this whole sequence dramatic. It doesn’t work.
- Episode 1&2: Sana, while a few normal pancakes away from fainting, was easily able to teleport both herself and Sanae to many random places in quick succession. This includes Antarctica, tens of thousands of miles away, and then she brings back a swarm of pigs along with them. This only serves to make the brokenness of her teleportation more obvious, while seemingly contradicting the “conservation of energy” rule established. (Apparently all those pigs combined have less energy value than a few normal pancakes.)
- Episode 1: in the car chase, there was no apparent reason why Sana and Zouroku couldn’t just teleport themselves away and use Sana’s powers to replace the car on the other end. She had enough energy to easily lift the entire car, drive it around, and detach her opponents’ giant chain - a quick short-distance teleport at least to a nearby hiding place should have been no trouble. But nope, got to keep the poorly-rendered car chase going!
- During the kidnap in episodes 3-5, instead of using her powers to teleport Zouroku to her, Sana could have just teleported away herself. Clearly neither a lack of energy nor her being pinned down was preventing her from using her powers, seeing as she manages to summon Zouroku, heal herself completely and then literally rewrite her situation mere minutes later to get rid of the hands pinning her down, all with no extra food. (And as mentioned before, this whole time we know Sana has a tracking device on her, so everyone is obviously going to have no trouble getting to her. The lack of tension continues!) At least the sequence led to some decent, if rather forced, character development.
- Sana can instantly and easily look into anyone’s head and find out everything about them and their background, including what their relatives are doing (episode 1; she finds out about Zouroku’s granddaughter). This makes the mysteries surrounding who characters are, the facility she came from, where that facility is, what their motives are, and who Sana herself is, become completely trivial matters. Sana should have figured all this stuff out, either while she was at the lab or after her escape, but the issue is never brought up.
- This anime’s plays for sympathy typically fall flat. The lab just does vaguely (very vaguely) “horrible things” to its subjects for energy experiments for which we’re given no context as to why they should ever have involve horrible things, because they’re the show’s generic evil organization figure which exists for the sake of weak drama and making us feel sorry for Sana. Minnie C immediately blows her clichéd “dead partner” backstory in an attempt to make her a sympathetic villain, except that we don’t even know her enough to feel any kind of attachment or sympathy. But hey, got to have an excuse to make her a menacing and villainous woman who is mean to children and shoots one in the leg without remorse to stop her from acting out of line.
- On that note, Sana getting shot in the leg by Minnie C is probably the show’s most egregious example of a failed sympathy card. “*gasp* NO! SHE SHOT THE CHILD!” the audience cries, only for it to barely matter 2 minutes later because it was instantly healed with Sana’s usual overpowered magic abilities while she simultaneously rewrites her situation so she isn’t even pinned down. Really? Neither one of these abilities was established beforehand, and 2 minutes later it’s like Sana forgets she ever got shot, with no effect on her personality or outlook. All that came out of it was brief shock value and another excuse for Sana to have low energy and require a delicious Snickers® bar to later recharge. It just ends up feeling like cheap plays for emotions because this poor, poor child is captured and pinned and scared and wetting herself and is in pain for a few moments. All this, while we know she’ll just be rescued shortly because of the tracking device. It’s overblown, ineffective in context, and too shamelessly manipulative. Yes, drama is technically manipulative by nature, but this show makes its manipulation mechanisms way too obvious to the viewer to be effective. It’s clear when the show is just playing for cheap sympathy points, and in many cases, it comes across as desperate.
AtoZ’s dramatic elements aim for flexibility, but ends up creating loopholes and relying on half-assed excuses. It tries to create suspense, and mostly fails because of said loopholes. When it goes for sympathetic, shocking or dark elements, they feel cheap, and there are overall hardly any successful dramatic scenes. As a whole, the quality of writing just isn’t up to standards, and at times, it gets plain annoying.
*********END OF SPOILERS**********
But with all those issues out of the way, is Alice to Zouroku an irredeemable show? Well, maybe not.
There’s a certain major development and shift that comes up in the middle of the series, almost out of nowhere. Some might call that another instance of poor writing. I’m going to call it a miracle, because it kicks of the “second half” of the story, where, at last, the series actually focuses on one thing! No more poorly-written pseudo-dramatic nonsense; just slice of life albeit more whimsical than average with some wonderland-fantasy elements. And the show definitely benefited from this transition, going from something I generally disliked to at least finding passable for the rest of it.
Despite all of the writing problems present in the dramatic portions of the show, the slice of life components fare significantly better. When the series opts to focus on the more down-to-earth relationship between Sana, Zouroku and Sanae, most of the writing issues don’t apply. Granted, the occasional questionable element still pops up; these are mainly smaller details like Sana using her energy-demanding powers to fly because she’s supposedly too tired to walk, or her saying she hadn’t eaten in 3 days even though she clearly ate a rice ball earlier that afternoon, but none of it is stuff that cripples the antics as a whole; at worst, it might affect a brief interaction that is quickly moved on from.
As for the antics themselves, they’re not going to blow anyone away, but they do offer a few decisive strengths.
While the supporting characters of Alice to Zouroku are straightforward and unremarkable, the chemistry among the main duo is actually fairly strong. Zouroku’s staunch no-nonsense attitude makes him stand out from your typical guardian-figure lead. For Sana, whenever she’s not reduced to a plot device (something thankfully exclusive to the dramatic elements), watching her try to understand the world around her can be interesting.
Ultimately, though, it’s the way these attitudes contrast and bounce off each other that make things endearing, and it also leads to the occasional bit of genuinely solid comedy. Most of the gags revolve around Sana getting confused or making a naïve comment because she’s still learning and/or Zouroku’s stubborn nature. While comedic subject matter itself is highly subjective, the show does fairly well in terms of setup and delivery. The jokes are fairly infrequent (I wouldn’t call this a comedy-focused series), but the ones it has are rarely predictable, well-timed, and never overbearing, nor do they get hammered in and outstay their welcome as if viewers are too stupid to “get it” otherwise (that last issue is a particular pet peeve of mine, so well played, AtoZ).
“Don’t stand on the chair!” will go down as a favourite of mine with the context in which it was said.
So, are these slice of life portions enough to save the show?
Like I said, they may be the more decent parts, but I wouldn’t call them exceptional. The show’s one real strength – its comedy – is sorely underutilized, and about a third of the show still consists mainly of poorly-written and almost entirely failed attempts at drama, action and suspense, so by the time it finally gets comfortable, its integrity is already compromised.
Still, passable is passable, and the show deserves some credit for managing to recover from its extended weak beginnings, albeit having to do so with near-complete abandonment of its original direction. By the end, it just barely manages to find itself, but the two halves and even ideas within each half are a bit disconnected. As for convincing reasons to recommend it, or strong justification for its existence, I’m a bit iffy on both accounts. This is one of those cases where I think the show genuinely improves over its runtime, and the show’s last few episodes were easily its strongest; it just does so by so frequently changing face that it often struggles to have a real face at all. It never quite reaches the point where I’m comfortable saying, “Yes, this is worth watching!” Your mileage may vary.
First half: 4/10 – Second half: 6/10 – Overall: 5/10
A large enough portion of Alice to Zouroku’s runtime is spent on its functional fantasy-slice of life antics that there is still some value in the final product, despite it having very weak dramatic writing in the first half. That said, the product as a whole is decidedly lacking in focus and cohesion, ultimately resembling a haphazard hodgepodge of theoretically workable ideas, forced into an oddly-shaped blender that couldn’t properly handle them all. When the resulting pulp gives off a murky, unremarkable appearance, fails to acquire any consistent standout elements, and clutters up what could have been its main draw, I have to question what it really offers over many other series in any of its veins.
Composed with precision, molded in the fashion of its peers, enhanced by the benefits of modern technology, and engineered for mass production, Alice and Zouroku is a meticulously manufactured project at its core. Among the multitude of shows this season that garnered attention early on before dissipating or self-combusting, like flashy fireworks on the 4th of July, Alice and Zouroku possesses the framework to achieve longevity (Don’t be surprised if news of a sequel arrives). With an astonishing 44 minute intro episode, a strangely mystifying opening scene, and an engaging premise (characters known as “Dreams of Alice” can conjure up anything they desire with the
“Mirror Gate”), Alice and Zouroku was virtually guaranteed to attract viewers. Any anime can display sparks of potential, as Re:Creators and Eromanga-sensei had before quickly falling out of favor in the public eye. The challenge is to somehow transform the sparks into an electric current, to maintain the hype (if not exceed it), and to craft and grasp a standard of excellence. This, my friends, is what Alice and Zouroku achieved.
A casual observer will most likely give this show a quick once-over, noting the cutesy character designs and simplistic promotional art, before turning away in disgust. However, as the adage goes, there’s more to this show than meets the eye. You see, Alice and Zouroku takes pride in its philosophical edge. Supported by an excellent script and a fascination with orchestral strings (especially in episode 4’s rescue operation), the deeper ideas and implications represented here are simply astounding in its amount of detail. For example, one character, deprived of self-worth, only senses fulfillment in helping and nurturing others (this character is rather deficient in the third level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) while another character is a prime example of the Resource Dependence Theory (the more love and support she receives, the more content she is; the less love and support she receives; the less content she is). Alice and Zouroku, above all else, crafts more than a few moral conundrums, appealing to the intellectual in me:
Is it OK to sacrifice individual needs for the good of others?
Do the risks of an endeavor outweigh the rewards or, vice versa?
Would you kill one person to save many?
Is isolating unique traits just as destructive as forcing these traits to assimilate?
If you flaws are detrimental, should you embrace them or seek to minimize them?
If special abilities existed, would it be acceptable for a controlled minority to possess them or should all of us have them?
Of course, Alice and Zouroku isn’t entirely intellectual nourishment; much of what constitutes this show is directed towards flaunting its inventive brilliance. Produced by J.C. Staff, which (judging from its involvement in Food Wars and Prison School) is no stranger to innovation, the visuals are unsurprisingly wonderful; the eyecatches, consisting of a spinning Mirror Gate on a blank background, are proof of this. However, it’s the cinematography (stunning establishment shots of the city), subtle stylistic touches (characters can alternate their clothes and hairstyles), and intriguing narrative techniques that truly showcase Alice and Zouroku at its best. There are quite a few narrative techniques in this show, like the occasional genre shift or the homages to Alice and Wonderland, but what really stands out is what occurs in episode 8. Here, the storyline shifts away from the protagonist, introducing a girl named Hatori (she’s a “Dream of Alice” as well as said protagonist), and it presents a fairy tale (“The Evil Witch”) that parallels the events of episode 8 (a story within a story, if you will) before reverting to the original plot halfway through the episode. It is this creativity that shines through in the second half of Alice and Zouroku.
The waning minutes of episode 5 is when this series adjusts its focus, from drama to slice-of-life, from flashy fight scenes to melodic midnight walks, from tracking devices to stuffed animals. The orchestral strings, once bombastic and frenzied, are smoothed out to project a relaxed, carefree vibe; the occasional accordion solos are quite easygoing in their own right. The show’s sense of humor begins to come into its own, as it’s less reliant on the protagonist to generate laughs (we’ll get to her in a bit) and more geared towards its expertise of the Fish Out of Water concept. The characters’ unawareness of social cues and elements is brilliantly executed (the segment where one character explains what marriage is to another is simply a treat). Yes, Alice and Zouroku can deliver unabashed excellence but it’s the little things, the more refined touches, which make this show worthwhile.
Alice and Zouroku can establish settings as well as anyone, it can provide substantial themes to its storyline, and it can handle pathos like few are able to (the emotional scenes are quite realistic, neither overbearing nor underwhelming). However, expecting this show to construct a respectable cast is out of the question. At best, the characterization is unfulfilled, with hints of depth and dynamics materializing on occasion. Practically everyone you encounter in the show will momentarily stroll into the spotlight, spare a few lines about what constitutes them as a person, perhaps mention a tragic past, conjure up some sort of connection with the main cast before vanishing into the background; this allows the spotlight to illuminate even brighter for the protagonist. Sana is said protagonist and she, to put it lightly, is a handful. Early on, Sana projects the utter arrogance of someone who is fully aware of the unfathomable power she wields. It is this arrogance that generates a multitude of the disasters, both insignificant and catastrophic, in Alice and Zouroku. When Sana encounters a pig puppet, she causes pigs to rain from the sky. When Sana encounters a “Dream of Alice” misusing her abilities, she handles it with all the poise and control of the 10 year old that she pretends to be. When the issues she’s created are resolved, Sana excessively emotes over it, delivering the waterworks and self-pity like an attention-craving prima donna. Really, the only person in this show that’s worth appreciating is the titular character.
The “Zouroku” in Alice and Zouroku is rather unconventional for a show of this nature. He’s irritable, socially withdrawn, and a habitual smoker to boot. Yet, Zouroku is also the only realistic character you’ll find here. In a show overcompensated with shallow, cutesy idealists, this man comprehends his limitations and shortcomings more than anyone else; in one climatic scene, Zouroku states, “If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that nobody in this world is perfect. We lean on each other to get by because there’s some things you can’t do alone, no matter how smart or capable you are.” With an admirable performance from the wildly underrated John Swasey (the star of this show’s dub), Zouroku lords over the cast, dispensing words of wisdom in his realm of dominance (“It’s more important to focus on the people close to you than [to] dream about things that are out of reach”). Sana may be this show’s poster girl, the marketable leading lady, the reason why future viewers will be interested in Alice and Zouroku, but it’s this guy that you’ll remember long after you finish watching.
More than anything else, Alice and Zouroku was released with the sole intent of achieving popularity, and (seeing that it’s among this season’s most discussed titles) it succeeded. Every character (excluding Zouroku), every song, every awe-inspiring fight, every heartwarming scene was beneficial for its cause. Even the most obvious of its missteps, the laughable CGI, helps in sparking conversations about the show as a whole. Mind you, this strategy isn’t necessarily flawed (in this day and age, eyeballs mean everything) but it reduced this show’s potential. Alice and Zouroku doesn’t do enough to establish its own identity; it never pushes boundaries, never introduces new concepts, and never expands horizons. Alice and Zouroku comprehends the conventional and thrives in it; for that I hold no grudge. I just wish it amounted to more than a solid yet redundant title. Its best moments are understated, like Sanae humming the theme song at one point, and I commend Alice and Zouroku for what it does accomplish. Philosophically, it’s fascinating. Musically, it’s thrilling. Cinematically, it’s enchanting. However, this title is hardly worthy of any admiration or fervor. Alice and Zouroku is a respectable work, as sharp and concise as a staccato rhythm. It is a jack of many trades and master of none; there are areas of this show that fascinate me but, as a whole, Alice and Zouroku leaves much to be desired.
Dark road, dimly lit up by the street lights. Rain falling down heavily. A small girl in a hospital gown suddenly appears on a camera, just to disappear in a matter of milliseconds after a mysterious object pops up above her head. A group of people desperately try to spot the escapee on one of the monitors. Finally, she stops, feeling tired and almost defeated she continues to move.
She has been found.
A woman catches up to her, riding on a giant hand coming from the sky. The little girl falls over. She is approached by the woman.
Sudden slice from the right. A new user has
appeared. Fight occurs. The little girl escapes into an unknown world, or at least unknown to her.
Enter Zouroku: an old, experiences yet grumpy owner of a flower shop. As he walks into a shop, like every other day, and there he notices a child grabbing food that she didn't pay for. He lectures her, after which she offers him a free wish if he helps her.... Bam! She's gone, nowhere to be seen. Filled with disbelief, he continues with his normal life. As he enters his car, he spots the same girl asking him for the same thing again.And then a giant wrecking ball appears.
Zouroku tries to escape but he can't. The child lifts up the car and they escape. Two other little girls start chasing them. A chase commences. A bunch of insane, incomprehensible stuff happens and when all calms down, this one, grumpy old man grabs those magical children and tells them to stop causing havoc. They disperse, except for the girl who was with him before.
Upon hearing her out Zouroku decides to let her live with him, taken by pity and pure compassion for a broken, hurt child, he takes her in, despite seeing what she brings. And so begins a tale of magic, both figuratively and literally.
*Slight spoilers included*
1. The magic of youth and the youth of magic
The premise of Alice to Zouroku is something that should work perfectly in concept. Think about this for a second: What is magic to you? If I'd ask this of you, I would most likely get those two responses the most:
a) A fictional, fantastical power that allows the user to do tricks beyond human comprehension, often performed by street artists through the usage of trickery and illusions
b) A feeling of wonder and amazement, something you'd never believe unless you've seen it with your own eyes, for example, "this wedding is magical"
Let's delve a bit deeper into the second one, shall we?
Now, I don't know about you, but I always considered my childhood to be the most magical part of my life. During my younger years all I wanted to do is explore, learn and see new things, every time I saw something amazing I could feel that exact feeling of magic. My first day at school? Magical. First time I saw anime? Absolutely magical. First time I played video games on my own computer? Filled with the essence of what the "magical" feeling is. I could go on and on, name my firsts and whatnot. The point is: Childhood is magical. And so is this show.
Sana, the little girl with magic abilities and the main heroine, encapsulates both the magic that you can only see in fiction and the feeling of magic every human has felt before. She's not actually human though, she's just a being in a form of a child, however she acts as human, thinks as human, learns as human and feels as a human would. Every time she sees something or learns a new word she asks about it, she's always curious, energetic, ready for new things. Raised in a cut-off, dark place where she had no access to the outside world, each discovery shapes her way of seeing reality. First thing she gets to experience is the cold, hard rain when she attempts to escape. She asks "is this how the outside is like?". Her first impressions are clearly negative, but she gets to discover normal human things with Zouroku and his granddaughter, ranging from love, to a hot bath, to the meaning of the word "mom". Seeing her learn those things, act like a child really reminds me of that little scrub that I was. It's magical. Combine that with the ability she possesses though, and you got an explosive combination.
Sana can do anything. Unlike other people with a similar ability, she has no constraints on her ability other than her vital energy which depletes whenever she uses it. She can summon things into the place she's in or teleport at will, so pretty much whatever she can wants to becomes reality. The things is, she doesn't know what exactly she wants most of the time. Her knowledge on human world is limited. For example, when she teleports, she rarely specifies the exact place, it's more like "take me away from here" or "take me as far away as possible", which results in her landing in places like the South Pole and being surrounded by penguins. Sometimes it leads to her riding a rocket. Sometimes it ends with her summoning a bunch of pigs. The list goes on.
As such, this show tackles the idea of giving immense, nearly limitless power to a being with the mentality of a child. Even the adults with that power have something of a child in them, one of them created her power by watching a TV show and the other is overly selfish and ambitious. This topic sounds pretty interesting, doesn't it? Well, it is presented in a pretty peculiar way though.
2. Gray area, or the lack of thereof
Alice to Zouroku presents two different sides in the initial conflict. One of them are the people over at the institute that initially kept Sana and other children trapped in order to use her as an endless energy source. They are ruthless, don't consider Sana to be a human and will proceed to injure and abuse her, all just so they can keep her in the lab. The other side is a secret agency who tries to find the institute and rescue the children inside. They believe that even if Sana isn't human, she can still in a normal society, just like all the other users of "Alice's Dream" no matter what ability they possess.
Obviously, if there's a way to include those people into society, they should have the right to do so. That's out of question, and the show clearly agrees with this by portraying the latter side as "the good guys", and the first as "the bad guys".
Yes, what I'm saying is that despite such a big potential for a multidimensional conflict with numerous layers and possibilities for convincing the viewer towards both sides, this show doesn't try to do any of that. There's only black and white, no gray, and it directly tells you which is which. There's pretty much no justification for what the "evil people" are doing, they're just greedy and want to create an infinite free energy source, and while this could be framed as something of an ideal, like it's an attempt at helping entire humanity survive or something similar, it's just that simple. Every person from that institute is evil, they have evil, selfish intentions that could be fixed by "the good guys" if they gave them a chance. There's no room for any thought, even if you can understand that some have their reasons, they're still wrong. It's a huge waste of potential for sure, there's no doubting that, but...
If you were to look back at the previous segment of this review, you might be reminded that this show is in fact, all about a child. And how do children see things? They see them as good or bad. That's it. They don't delve deeper into what goes into decision making and instead they simply choose based on what they think is right. If you think about it, it makes sense as to why it's presented this way, but that doesn't change the fact that there was some things that could be explored more, like other characters' point of view on things. I'm not talking about reasons behind their actions, those are touched upon here and there, but what I want is for this show to present some other opinions on the subject. It would be fine if this show was called "Sana" or "Alice", but it's called "Alice and Zouroku", and that old man should have more than enough to say about morality and such. Speaking of...
3. Crooked stuff and why we hate it
Zouroku has a very interesting take on reality, on the outside, a very simple one, but definitely fitting for the show and how it's presented. His motto is "I hate crooked stuff". It matches his job ethics, as a florist he has to keep everything nice and organized, symmetrical and beautiful, but he applies this to his private life as well. The first time he got a chance to properly talk to Sana, and was offered a free wish, he refused, because he wanted to be on the same page as her rather than having some sort of an advantage above a child. He's a simple man, he has lived his life for far too long to put up with all this in all honesty. He only wishes for everything to have flow that he can follow. That doesn't mean he doesn't have a heart, as he takes Sana in, but it's because he genuinely wants to help this lost girl who lived a horrible life before meeting him.
By saying all of this in episode one, this show introduces an idea into out head: Leave Sana alone, she has suffered enough, let her have a life, it's time for all of her mental pain to be repaid. Zouroku is supposed to be us, or at least tell us how to think. It's him that introduced this simple mindset. You're supposed to understand why something is crooked, but hate it because it's still crooked, perhaps want to fix it on your own. It's pretty simple, but at the same time rather subtle, I didn't even realize that this is why I missed how simple this show is for the longest of time.
4. Fuzzy is a good feeling
Thanks to Zouroku with his strict attitude and Sanae and her genuine love towards her, Sana slowly begins to properly grow as a person. Somewhere towards the middle of the show she is finally able to create a mindset. You might think it's a bit too fast, but she is not really human and her learning abilities prove that she learns much faster than anyone else, but fails to understand words because, well, she's bad at understanding things. She invented a phrase for the feeling when she can't quite understand or comprehend a situation, it's called "feeling fuzzy" and she uses it constantly after the first major arc, she's unsure about a lot of things after all. Sana is unable to make decisions for herself, she needs others to do that for her. She wants to do things, but doesn't know how to go about doing them, that's why she's the happiest around Zouroku who thanks to his experience and the ability to spout harsh reality to everyone, helped her numerous times when she was in dire need and when she just craved for some small favors. Not only that, but she's still learning about the world, finding out about new words, understanding the basic principles of a daily life, finding out how to make friends and what other people mean to her, and most importantly, she finally starts to think about something in colors that aren't just black and white.
Her first encounter with something bad after she properly settled down in Zouroku's house is another ability, another "Alice's Dream" that seems to have hurt her guardians Zouroku and Sanae. After living such a comfy lifestyle, she shows her weak side and fails to get a full grasp of what's going on. When she finds the person who's responsible for this, she immediately assumes she's a bad person, as she would normally. However, upon learning her story and her reasons for using that power, she starts to understand, which isn't something common for her. It pretty much completes her character as of now, at the point where the show ends, if it will ever continue it would require showcasing more moral problems or add something to her. As we stand now, the plot is technically incomplete, but the show itself pretty much is.
5. Alice in Wonderland
If you've ever indulged yourself in any form of art, then there's a really high chance that you have heard of a little book called "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland", or as we know it, simply "Alice in Wonderland". It's a pretty old novel that got adapted into many different mediums, there was an animated Disney movie, there were live action movies, there were many other works inspired by it. It undoubtedly had a huge influence on art, with such an inspiring and expressive world that the Wonderland was, with such amazing, memorable characters like The Mad Hatter and such an intriguing atmosphere it was doomed to become a classic sooner or later. Alice to Zouroku obviously takes away from that, but I think this is where it falls a bit short.
First off, the name of the power itself is "Alice's Dream", second, the bad people call Sana by the name "Red Queen" and third, the place where she was born was named "Wonderland". As such, if you know the books, you can quickly get a grasp on what does it mean in one way or another. Sana is the ruler of Wonderland, she was a part of it long before she existed as a being called "Sana". Nickname "Red Queen", who ruled of Wonderland in the novel, seems fitting, but my problem with all of this is that it's so poorly explored that it hurts.
Having one of the most legendary and probably one of the best settings as the inspiration of a show led to some amazing results before. Here, Wonderland is just a simple, green land with some simple images that Sana created. You can't even imagine my excitement when I heard that this world is not only going to be based on THE Wonderland, but it will also resemble the mind of an energetic child... but alas it was rather poor in content and mostly just full of randomness. Once again, this technically works, the world is incredibly random after all, but as a visual medium I would expect more, but all of this could probably be explained pretty easily.
6. Technical stuff
This show looks pretty awful. It has its charm and it keeps close to the original art style, but in motion it all looks clunky and very underwhelming. The character designs work well on their own, but when they move they look very stiff, even in the action scenes. Combine that with the heavy usage of CGI in certain parts, most noticeably in the first episode, where there was an entire chase sequence made entirely using computer effects, alongside such errors as a background moving while the car the characters were in was in fact not. Simply put, it is ugly, unpolished and poor. The directing is basically on par, but it isn't exactly bad. There were a lot of solid shots, but there were quite a few places that weren't properly established, even Kashimura's house where most of the show takes place lacks in that department. With that being said, it's not that surprising that the Wonderland looks like it looks, the people who were responsible for the visuals seemed as if they lacked passion in the first place....
The sound on the other hand is sincerely very good. You can hear the inspiration from it momentarily, each track has seems to have its own reference to "Alice in Wonderland". There are sparkly noises and upbeat, almost fantasy-like tunes being snuck into even the more modern sounding ones that were created for the fights or the scenes in the city. It tells a narrative on its own while keeping in touch with what's going on on the screen, which almost makes up for the low quality visuals. Almost.
7. Personal ramblings AKA Serious Spoiler Section
I'm pretty sure that the thing I like the most about this show is how it treats the idea of adoption and a single parent family. Technically, the lab that Sana was in was almost like an adoption house without the adoption part or the love part. People in there kept her alive, but they didn't care. Once she escapes, she is taken in by a caring father figure who is able to both keep her alive and safe and genuinely care for her. This became especially strong once Zouroku actually adopted Sana, the entire episode was focused on their everyday lives, with Sana blending into society despite her powers and the institute believing that she couldn't, almost like people not believing a child could get adopted, and with her finding things who she never even knew she needed to properly exist, just like a child that's up for adoption since birth. I might be reaching here, but the show does tackle the topic and does so quite nicely.
Another thing that I found to be interesting and charming is Sana's voice actress, who despite being a somewhat of a fresh name on the market, truly nails the sense of wonder and curiosity. She can even get a bit annoying at times, like a child would, but not to the point where it seriously influences the show's quality.
Now that we're done with the positives, I think the main problem I have here is that the show overall feels uninspired. I touched on this a bit when I mentioned the visuals, but it's not only that. The writing is solid and the themes are presented nicely, but there's a severe lack of direction with where it wants to go in terms of plot. It sort of misses itself in the middle, despite having some important moments. Don't get me wrong, I like the idea of an after story instead of prolonging one arc, but by doing so they had to add some parts of the characters we haven't seen before, creating confusion. Using timeskips usually ends up like this, because you can't tell if they developed it on their own or whether you missed something. There is a pretty clear reason for each storyline, but gluing them together seems to be the problem that really kept it from going anywhere other than just good. But I think being just good is fine, as long as people can build up on it. I surely got something out of this, I got to see more of some themes and developed a better understanding of them. Not only that but it was a good show on its own, so those things make it worth a watch, maybe not memorable initially but if I were ever to see a child character or another theme about what makes a human, this show would certainly come to mind.
Also, some of you may be on the offense with me defending the show because "it's about children so it makes sense that it's simple" (I could even do that for the art style with how it looks like a child drew it) to which I say that you might as well be right, but I think if it can even work, then this show would be the one to make it work. Unfortunately it didn't quite hit the homerun, but it feels as if it paved a way for some other project for the same director or writer in the future. Simplicity should be used more, you would be surprised how well it works with most shows. Just don't mistake simplicity with mindlessness.
Alice & Zouroku is not really a peculiar show, nor is it the most intriguing or special one that I've watched. Hell, even some of the more generic shows that aired the same season felt much cleaner than this did, but that shouldn't undervalue that things that it achieved. Creating a good main character who is also a child certainly wasn't the easiest task, making a plot that diversifies into territories outside of its own setting is commendable and its attempts at tackling its themes worked better than I imagined. The problem is, it feels as if this was always doomed to be some sort of a side project to J.C.Staff, from the animation that shows how tight they were on the schedule, to the rather poor creative vision with its setting designs, it all almost falls apart whenever it build on something. The fact remains though, this show constantly builds on something and just like Sana, it adapts as well as it can, at least I feel like it does with the way it was handled.
So with that I'd like to recommend it to everybody, maybe it'll miss your mark fairly soon, but I think it has a solid chance to grow if more people pick it up. Don't leave that cute, blonde girl hanging all alone on the cold, dimly lit street and pick it up to see what's this Werty guy is rambling about, and perhaps call him out for giving you false hope later. Who knows?
As always, this is purely my opinion. I recommend you to develop you own.