Review: "Robotics;Notes Part Two" - Hitting the Right Notes
WARNING: Spoilers for the first volume of Robotics;Notes are sprinkled in this review.
The problems with adapting visual novels to animation are plentiful. You need to satisfy a built-in audience who have their preferred routes in mind, along with any potentially preferred romantic partners for the lead character. You need to distill important plot elements that may be scattered all over those routes, and either make them fit into the narrative or discard them at your own peril. Finally, because the lead character is a blank slate, a stand-in for the audience, you must somehow come up with a personality for that lead character that suits the series and the lead character’s interactions with the rest of the cast.
The first half of Robotics;Notes showcased a lot of the issues with adapting a visual novel to animation. There was a lot of meandering around various plot points, and none of them seemed to be going anywhere, or even relate to each other. It wasn’t even until episode 3 that anything resembling a plot finally kicked into gear, and the show built itself from there. However, much like Akiho’s Gunvarrel contraption, it simply did not come together as a whole, and was collapsing in on itself.
The second half of Robotics;Notes seems to begin the same way. Episode 12 is Junna-focused, examining her personal issues with robots along with her relationship with her grandfather. Like many of the slow episodes in the first half of Robotics;Notes, there are charming moments and scenes that make Junna sympathetic, but ultimately very little seems to matter in the long run. And then episode 13 comes around.
It starts off innocuously enough. Then a solar flare fries Tokyo. Robots start going crazy and attack people. Frau’s online account is hacked and someone pretending to be her online takes responsibility for the crazed robots. It spirals out of control from there and ends with a surprisingly dark and melancholy moment for a series that until this point had been drenched in happiness and warmth.
The end result is a impressive charge to the finish that ties together all of the seemingly unrelated plot elements from the first half of the series, leaving only one mild loose end by the series’ conclusion. The long time spent on character development and interaction in the first 13 episodes pay their dividends as I suddenly felt pulled in by the story and the characters as they try to make sense of the world as it transforms around them. Multiple plot twists make the obvious villain heroic, and a different, innocuous character the bad guy all along. Ingenious use of science fiction ideas come into play, along with current-day elements like Twitter and Facebook (under bland name substitutions) as well as the actual Japanese space agency, JAXA. The result is a surprisingly engrossing cyberpunk-influenced tale that, despite the emphasis on bright colors and more optimistic protagonists, hits just as hard as its fellow noitaminA contemporary Psycho-Pass.
The transformation for lead character Kaito is natural and engrossing to watch, as he is forced to move beyond his apathetic attitude towards most things in life. Following a brutally life-changing moment at the end of episode 16, which makes the heightened stakes all too clear, Kaito begins to take action to prevent anything else like that happening again. He decides to find a way to use his health issue where he perceives a few seconds as several minutes (at the cost of heart problems), to his advantage, even if it puts his life at risk. This makes him significantly more dynamic as a character and more fun to watch in the later episodes of the series. Following up on his newfound desire to act instead of react, he also experiences romantic epiphanies with Frau and Akiho. Junna and even the older Nae are also given hints that they might be attracted to Kaito, and this is all pulled off without turning Robotics;Notes into a harem show. In total, the resolution to his personal arc is quite satisfying.
Director Kazuya Nomura takes advantage of the increased dramatic and action opportunities, making great use of them near the end of the series with expertly storyboarded action sequences and dramatic conversations that show off the quality of Production I.G. However, there are many off-model moments before the final stretch of episodes that suggest that Production I.G. was feeling quite stretched with having to produce Robotics;Notes and Psycho-Pass at the same time. While Psycho-Pass‘ issues were noticeable, they were generally somewhat mild and can be overlooked. Robotics;Notes, however, makes its budget shortfalls significantly more obvious, and it likely has to do with how so much of the show takes place in broad daylight, and how often the storyboarders don’t give an opportunity for Nomura to hide gaps in the budget. However, when Robotics;Notes’ animation is at its peak, it fires on all cylinders, and there are some great moments that are vintage Production I.G.
Jukki Hanada and his co-writers Masahiro Yokotani and Toshizo Nemoto also manage to up the stakes convincingly without leaving out a lot of excess information. They also take advantage of the multiple routes offered in the original visual novel to make viewers guess how the story would unfold. While it becomes quite clear that the “main” route got chosen, it seems like elements of all of the other routes were incorporated as well, with only a few mild plot holes and loose ends remaining. If only this success hadn’t meant that the first 11 episodes of this series would feel so slow.
The music, by Yuuki Hayashi and Asami Tachibana, also kicks things up a notch. The grandiose main theme of the series pops in more and more, and as things become more complicated and intense, the music changes appropriately and consequently begins standing out a little more. It is difficult, if not impossible, to tell what pieces each composer did due to how seamlessly they worked together on this score. In general, the producers use their pieces appropriately but it will be difficult to recall most of them after viewing the anime. The exception for this is the preview theme, which is a beautiful, optimistic number that perfectly embodies the themes of this series. It is also smartly used as in-series BGM in the final episode in a heartwarming fashion.
The opening and ending change with the first episode on this disc. “Houkyou no Messiah” by HARUKI fails to be anything more than a generic, rock-influenced J-pop number. The ending, “Topology” by Kanako Itou, makes a deeper impression with Ms. Itou’s strong voice propelling a well-arranged ballad. Neither the opening or ending animation impress either.
The English dub, led by director Joel McDonald, continues to be excellent. There are many highlights throughout this volume, and it’s hard to pick out standouts. Clifford Chapin brings more life to Kaito than Japanese counterpart Ryohei Kimura, which makes Kaito’s more energetic and passionate moments feel less out of nowhere. Brina Palencia’s Nae is warm and immensely likable, so much so that I wanted Nae to get even more screentime than she did. Perhaps the most impressive performance continues to be Leah Clark in the role of Frau, as Clark perfectly embodies the persona of a haunted, strange shut-in, right down to an awkward stammer, random fangirl squees, and surprising vulnerability in key moments.
The dub scripts by Bonny Clinkenbeard and Beth Featherstone also continue the faithful yet natural scripting from the first volume. Those who wish to write dub scripts should view Robotics;Notes before embarking on such a task. In general, Robotics;Notes remains a stronger watch in English than in the original Japanese, and perhaps no moment makes that clearer than the final minutes of episode 16.
Part Two does not come with as many extras as Part One did. What remains, however, is the high quality Blu-Ray visuals and impressive dub audio quality. My words about these elements at the end of Part One continue to hold true here as well.
In the end, Robotics;Notes’ second half does successfully elevate the series as a whole, enough for me to recommend watching the whole series in retrospect. However, the fact that Robotics;Notes took so long to finally get going can’t be discounted, and even at its best, a viewer of Steins;Gate will likely remain disappointed with Robotics;Notes as the series never manages to have the same effortless impact achieved by Steins;Gate. It’s quite telling that FUNimation’s retrospective on the entire “Science Adventure” saga (Chaos;Head, Steins;Gate, and Robotics;Notes) spends most of the airtime discussing Steins;Gate, with only a few moments dedicated to Robotics;Notes itself (and barely a namedrop for Chaos;Head). Robotics;Notes simply has a tough act to follow, and it doesn’t measure up to its predecessor. However, that does not stop Robotics;Notes from being a worthy watch. It manages to become an entertaining, meaningful show, and as long as you come in not expecting Steins;Gate Part Two you will be sufficiently entertained.
However, I can’t blame anyone for wanting more. Steins;Gate offered a uniquely satisfying experience, something fully, lovingly constructed. Much like the in-series reproduction of Gunvarrel even at its peak, Robotics;Notes has the “lovingly” part down, but the parts just don’t come together as well. It does, however, get the job done, and I enjoyed watching it to its conclusion.
But I still wanted more.