Guilty Crown: Series 1, Part 1 Review

Some of the best anime series manage to tap deeply and imaginatively into the Japanese psyche in order to explore real-life matters and concerns of true importance in a highly distinctive visual fashion. Others just tap into or borrow ideas from the more distinctive ground-breaking anime series but, if you're lucky, there at least remains a semblance of what makes them great, albeit in a second-hand way. Guilty Crown would seem to be in the latter category, wearing its influences openly, but with enough visual flair of its own to suggest that it might have more to offer if and when it settles down and explores some of its own ideas.

On the surface at least, Guilty Crown has plenty of visual flair and would seem to address those familiar themes of the science-fiction anime series. Those concerns often relate to nuclear power, apocalyptic destruction and the dangers the previous generation have left as their legacy. There is however the unrealised potential of the younger generation (with the help of some superpower technology) to be the saviours of the nation. In Guilty Crown moreover, we have some reflection on the legacy of the War, of foreign military intervention, on the abuse of power and even on other related responses to this in the form of revolutionary terrorism. Unfortunately, while this does at least provide plenty of exciting situations to work with, what is more evident in Guilty Crown is its indebtedness to other series that cover these issues in a much more realistic and meaningful way.

Coming from Production I.G, you can at least rely on some terrific designs and good animation of these themes. The futuristic Japan is masterfully and stylishly designed, even if it echoes the look and feel of such other Production I.G work as Patlabor, Ghost in the Shell and End of Evangelion. Neon Genesis Evangelion comes to mind particularly in the character designs and the now rather dated looking 80s mecha designs for the Endlaves, huge Transformers-like robotic exo-skeleton amour manned by pilots that fly and fight in epic battles. More than the visual look and feel however, the real reason why you can tell that Guilty Crown relies on other series rather than creating anything new, is that it takes shortcuts to plotting and characterisation and expects you to fill in all the blanks from your familiarity with other series of this type.

Here, in Roppongi in 2039, ten years after Japan has been devastated by the Apocalypse virus (might as well call it something generic I suppose...) in what has become known as Lost Christmas (echoes of 'Careless Monday' in Eden of the East, another superior Production I.G creation), the nation is trying to get back on its feet as an independent country but are at the mercy of the GHQ, a foreign power (with imperialist American traits) who they are forced to rely on to keep even the nation's infrastructure together. They are clearly seen by the general public as a benevolent power, although the public are unaware of the more extreme measures they take to ensure that the outbreak of the virus doesn't reoccur, or how merciless they are in their dealings with any opposition.

That opposition mainly takes the form of revolutionary activity, or terrorist activity depending on your viewpoint, by a group known as the Funeral Parlour led by a charismatic individual known as Gai. During one of the Funeral Parlour's operations however, a young student, Shu Ouma encounters one of their agents who is being pursued by GHQ troops and Endlaves. Inori - a beautiful young waif-like girl obviously - has a stolen genome and due to the urgency of the situation, forces Shu to use it. The Void genome gives Shu the power to reach into other people, extract a tangible representation of their souls and use it as a weapon. As you can imagine, this can come in handy if you use the right soul at the right time, and Inori's just happens to be a huge powerful sword that can cut right through Endlaves and, well, anything else really.

If you didn't have previous similar series to go by, little of this (and what follows) would seem credible or even make much sense. The young schoolboy just happens to be able to wield this power like an expert samurai, and of course, he's expected to just join up with the terrorists. Of course it's not that simple, but having him go back to school the next day as if nothing had happened and continue regular activities (and romantic situations with some mild fanservice elements) with his friends while he indulges the odd reluctant bit of sabotage and revolutionary activities in his spare time isn't really all that convincing either. But it's expected.

Likewise, you are expected to just go along with all the other various shortcuts to characterisation and plotting, simply because you know that's how it works. You've seen it in other series, the attitude seems to be, do we really need to go through it all again? Who are the rebels? How are they funded? How do they have access to such powerful technology and how do they keep it all hidden from the authorities? Who trains them? Why has no one, even in the outside world, questioned where the Apocalypse virus derived from? Just don't ask. I'm not saying you need the answers to all these questions up-front, and I suspect that some of them might be answered down the line - there are already hints of bigger conspiracies at play here (although even that's a cliché) - but it seems clear that creating a consistent world based on a solid idea is not what Guilty Crown is all about, but rather it's more interested in creating a successful anime series based on other successful anime series.

Guilty Crown then relies then on comic-book logic. I don't use the term pejoratively, merely that it presumes a knowledge of back issue history and continuity, but here it actually assumes a knowledge of the conventions of other series. If you're prepared to go along with that kind of logic, then there is indeed plenty to enjoy in the series. The use of Voids, tangible souls as weapons, is a bit silly and overly convenient, but it's not without some sense of parody and satire (one soul even bizarrely taking the form of a fridge), but it inevitably leads to tense situations and excitement and loads of great special effects. Innovation in the area of CG digital animation is another hallmark of Production I.G and they do great work here, even if none of it is ground-breaking or original this time around. Music and songs also look like playing an important part of the series with the artist EGOIST written into the story.

At this point in the series, Part 1 consisting of the first 11 episodes that take us half way through the first series, it's tempting to predict that you know exactly how the rest of the series is going to play out, but - probably just as predictably - the series could easily leap into a whole other direction. There are enough gaps provided - intentional ones, not just the lazy ones - with a few mysterious and as yet unidentified figures appearing and one particularly powerful individual turning up in the Episode 11 here, to suggest that there are bigger conspiracies at play and that there might even be hope for the series to develop some personality and ideas of its own. So far however, the lazy and confused approach to laying out the initial situation doesn't hold out much promise of Guilty Crown delivering anything remotely original or surprising.

Guilty Crown is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Manga Entertainment. Both DVD and Blu-ray are 2-disc sets and contain the first eleven episodes which constitute the second half of the complete series. On DVD the discs are dual-layer DVD-9. On DVD the set is in PAL format and encoded for Region 2.
Seen only on DVD for review, the quality is nonetheless very good in Standard Definition. Colours and brightness are good, lines are stable and so is the transfer. It's fairly standard in this respect with the only sign that it's not HD being a slight softness and the skin tones looking a little murky in places. Colour banding issues are the only other issue you tend to have a lot of in modern DVD transfers, but there is very little problem with that in this particular title. I scarcely noticed any artefacting at all. Subtitles are white, as they should be, clear and easy to read. The audio tracks consist of an English dub in Dolby Digital 5.1 as well as the original Japanese track in Dolby Digital 2.0. I didn't sample the English dub myself, but the Japanese track is clear and resonant with a strong dynamic.

There are a good number of extra features on the two discs in the set. Disc One contains Commentaries for episodes 2 and 4 by the US Funimation voice actors. Disc Two gathers all 11 Episode Previews into the Extra features rather than have them at the end of the actual episodes. There's also a SD cartoon 4-panel comedy series based on events in the episodes (7.13) - in Japanese and featuring the original series cast - with its typically obscure and untranslatable humour. There's an interesting discussion Into the Void: The Creative Vision (9.41) with the series creators, where they admit references, but also talk about their intentions for the series. The remainder of the extras consist of the usual Textless Openings, Promo Videos and TV Spots.

As you would expect from Production I.G, Guilty Crown is good high quality SF anime, but everything feels just too familiar and derivative here. The futuristic SF situation is familiar, the school romances and crushes with mistaken intentions are standard issue, the obligatory mild fanservice elements (including shower scene, beach swimwear and hot-tub episodes) are blatant but not excessive. Blatant seems to be the watchword here actually. Guilty Crown provides exactly what you expect from a conventional teen SF adventure but is filled with more references than original ideas of its own. At this stage anyway. Events are however starting to escalate by the end of the first half of the series, so it remains to be seen whether it can deliver a strong conclusion. At the moment however, the indications are that Guilty Crown is pointing towards an entertaining if not entirely satisfactory resolution.

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