Reviews

May 15, 2017
Plasmatize (All reviews)
Preliminary
(Preliminary review as of episode 6; contains a clearly-marked spoilers section)

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.

Some may now be expecting me to go into some deep, pretentious analysis of this topic within the show, but no; I bring this up because Alice to Zouroku really needs to take a good, long look at itself in the mirror and start 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 genre as a whole, in other words, what it is, and the other to its appeal or value to viewers, i.e. its purpose for existing in the first place.

Genre-wise, AtoZ currently functions in two sharply-contrasting halves. One half of it is strictly slice of life but with a few fantasy elements, while the other is more focused on action and drama. It thus far stubbornly refuses to commit to one or the other, and this 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 limits its greater potential, it actually does an okay job selling the shift between them. The show spends long enough between genre shifts (usually an 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) while the more dramatic points 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. That said, I do still wish it would pick something and make the most of it, especially when the show only has a 12-episode lifespan to work with.

Personally, I vote for more focus on slice of life, because it’s actually competent. 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 substantial issue is a lack of any substantial standout quality period. Pretty much every individual element in AtoZ ranges from “decent enough” to outright bad, and none of it comes together to create something greater.

Let’s start 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 still doesn’t look that great (and that’s not even counting that one hilarious animation error with the moving background outside the parked car). What about the rest of the action? It’s normally 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 in a recent episode that was actually pretty solid, so there may still be room for decent action in the future. For now, though, the action isn’t much of a selling point.

So if the visuals can’t impress, 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 quite evocative in context, and I like the OP/ED. But does an above-average OST do enough to make otherwise mediocre presentation great? It does not.

“But so what?” one might ask. After all, every aspect I’ve listed so far is typically unremarkable, but 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 anything great if there’s strength of substance being presented.

Sadly, this is where we find a serious fundamental problem: AtoZ is a poorly-written series, plain and simple. Those dramatic elements I mentioned earlier are seriously squandered by persistently low-quality writing.

The series tries very hard 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. The problem? They’re too powerful. Their versatility is just taken way too far; creating matter to summon pretty much anything, mind-reading, flying, manipulating objects, teleporting with some control over the destination, among some other equally overpowered things. Sana can pretty much do whatever the hell the plot wants here, and that includes pulling some new ability out of thin air whenever necessary. 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 nothing stopping the series from just coming up with a new way out for her on the spot.

The only semblance of a limitation on Sana’s powers is her current energy level, which thus far has never become a serious concern. 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 offer a (generally lame or contrived) excuse about half of the time, usually something to do with food again. Any other time, it’s like everyone just outright forgets. That’s a real tension-killer, and it’s not the only one.

There are plenty of 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. From here on, I’m going to need to get into some plot/event spoilers to go over some of them. Now, I want to be fair to this show, not nitpick for the sake of it, so while not all of the following issues are huge, 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 1-6*****
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- In general the show tries to make Sana’s recapture seem like a huge threat, but her teleportation ability undermines this. Even if 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 hasn’t always been the case. There’s just not enough sense of finality to Sana’s capture, which only serves to dampen the suspense even more.

- Furthermore, Sana gets a tracking device for safety in episode 2 or 3. Setting aside the fact that this leads to even less tension, wouldn’t her capture just serve to easily reveal where she and the research lab are located?

- Episode 1&2: If Sana’s maximum teleportation distance is proportional to the energy she has, how is she, after a few pancakes not including the giant one she just made that caused her to faint, so easily able to teleport to many random places in quick succession, including ANTARCTICA, which is tens of thousands of miles away? This seems a bit inconsistent with her lab escape among other things, where it took at least noticeable energy just to jump a short distance.

- Episode 1: in the car chase, why couldn’t they just teleport themselves away, even if they had to replace the car on the other end (with Sana’s powers)? She had enough energy to lift the entire car, drive it around, and detach her opponents’ chain - was a quick short-distance teleport to even a nearby hiding place really too much when she seems to easily does it multiple successive times over far greater distance in episode 2 without much trouble?

- Then there was the kidnap in episodes 3-5. Instead of using her powers to teleport Zouroku to her, Sana could have just teleported away herself – she’d just eaten and presumably had plenty of energy for it. Yes, she was pinned down, but she again can’t be kept like that forever. Plus, if she could summon Zouroku, then obviously it wasn’t stopping her from using her powers, so what’s the issue? In any case, she didn’t teleport, and then she has to use up her remaining energy on another convenient excuse. (Also, the 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!)

- 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). It doesn’t seem to require much energy compared to other things. 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 seem rather unnecessary. Sana should easily have figured all this stuff out, either while she was at the lab or after her escape, but there’s almost none of this.

- This anime’s plays for sympathy typically fall flat. The lab pretty much does horrible things to its subjects just because they have to be the show’s evil organization figure. Limiting Sana’s food is excused, but what about everything/everyone else there? Saying it’s just the experiments is vague and isn’t very satisfying, because we’re never given any reason why one would need to do “horrible things” just to study a few powers as a potential energy source. It feels like it’s just there to make you feel sorry for Sana, or give the lab an unnecessary evil side for the sake of drama. Minnie C has a cliché “dead husband” backstory in an attempt to make her a sympathetic villain. This already-lazy backstory doesn’t really relate to her actions either, so it just feels like 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 the usual overpowered magic abilities. Really? It wasn’t even established that she had that ability, or the one that let her just “rewrite her situation” to escape the grip of the giant hands, so to speak. 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 all way overblown, ineffective in context, and too shamelessly manipulative. Yes, drama is manipulative by nature, but this show makes its manipulation mechanisms way too obvious to the viewer. It’s clear when the show is just playing for cheap sympathy points, and in many cases, it comes across as desperate.

AtoZ aims 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.

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*********END OF SPOILERS**********

That’s a fair list of issues, so while the series isn’t finished yet, I somehow doubt that all of them can be explained away in future episodes. I wouldn’t be surprised if the show ends up creating even more before it’s over.

But with all that out of the way, is Alice to Zouroku an irredeemable show?

Actually, maybe not, and I’ll explain why.

For all of the writing issues present in the dramatic portions of the show, that’s only one half of it. As I mentioned, the slice of life components fare somewhat 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. One might see the occasional questionable element pop up, like Sana using her immensely 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, watching her excitedly explore 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 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” (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? Unfortunately, no, they aren’t. Like I said, they may be the more decent half, but they aren’t anything exceptional, and the show’s one real strength – its comedy – is sorely underutilized. Even then, slice of life is, after all, only half of the show thus far, with the rest being poorly-written and almost entirely failed attempts at drama, action and suspense. This also limits the time allotted for proper characterization (the serious portion offers little of this). Sure, the main duo works off each other well, but they aren’t exactly detailed characters, and their development has been almost entirely superficial or inconsequential, with perhaps one exception that stands as the series sole brief dramatic success. I’ll stay silent on that one. Regardless, this once again functional but mostly unremarkable cast of characters means even the stronger slice of life aspects still aren’t able to shine as brightly as they should, and they’re stuck just being passable. The lack of conviction isn’t something I’m particularly fond of either.

Even so, passable is passable, and there is still a bit of value in the final product; a small glimpse of a purpose for existing. It’s not enough that I’d recommend watching it, but AtoZ isn’t as bad as I was worried it might become, just overall subpar and underwhelming. It could have been much worse. That said, when a show lacks any consistent standout qualities, fails to tell a well-constructed story, juggles two separate genres over its 1-cour runtime, and doesn't even benefit from a popular source, then I have to question who this was made for, and what it really offers over any other series in its vein.

Moving forward, I hope the series sticks mostly or entirely to its slice of life components, but somehow, I suspect it’s going to continue splitting its focal points.

My preliminary score for AtoZ sits at a rather disappointing 4/10, but could go up or down a bit. Hopefully, it finds purpose in itself soon.