Review: "Robotics;Notes Part One" - A Slow-Burn With Little Fire
Production I.G. had two shows premiere on Fuji TV’s noitamina block in Japan on October 11, 2012. One was Psycho-Pass, and the other is Robotics;Notes. The two shows could not be any more different. Psycho-Pass is a dreary look at the future, a cyberpunk dystopia that is ever so thinly veiled as a utopia. Robotics;Notes looks at the future differently, with a bright, optimistic perspective, right down to the visuals of a sunny, green Japan on the verge of a gorgeous summer.
Robotics;Notes is also the third entry on the “Science Adventure” visual novel series by 5pb, following in the steps of Chaos;Head and Steins;Gate (and also takes place in the same continuity as those two productions). While the anime adaptation of Chaos;Head was ill-received, Steins;Gate developed a strong following, leaving Robotics;Notes’ own anime version the unenviable task of trying to follow in Steins;Gates‘ footsteps. For better, or for worse, Robotics;Notes doesn’t even try to follow Steins;Gate. Instead, it takes its own path, but in the first 11 episodes, the payoff has yet to be hinted at (while in Steins;Gate the promise of rewards loomed over the horizon at the halfway point).
The show follows Kaito Yashio, an apathetic gamer of an 18-year-old in his last year of high school, and is (initially) the only other member of his high school’s robotics club along with peppy, perky Akiho Senomiya. Akiho’s goal is none other than to construct a giant mecha in the vein of her favorite Japanese anime, Gunvarrel. However, as the construction of a giant robot is prohibitively expensive, Akiho has been unable to make much progress, even though she is clearly desperate to (and it turns out it was a project started by her older sister, and Akiho wants to finish it for her). What starts as a battle to get members and funding soon branches into several different plotlines at once following various characters. Conspiracies and mysteries grow, and the cast expands, and by the end of episode 11 (the last episode of the set), it’s clear something has been set in motion.
The problem is that very, very little of it is compelling.
What made Steins;Gate succeed is that even though it had a lot of episodes with zero plot progression, in those episodes a lot of fun time-traveling wackiness happened to make things fun and interesting. Robotics;Notes is so laid back in its pacing and plots that it fails to do the same. Oh sure, teenage video-game creator extraordinaire Frau Koujiro is entertaining with her constant spouting of l33tspeak (the closest thing there is to a living embodiment of 4chan). It’s fun to see a character from Steins;Gate pop in all grown up in a secondary role (and reprised by her Steins;Gate voice actress in both dubs, Ayano Yamamoto and Brina Palencia). And eventually things begin to get moving, hinting towards something powerful and dramatic, but we never get there. Not even close, by the time the final episode of the set concludes.
The show does manage many moments of entertainment. The character interactions can be great fun (though some situations are fairly generic). But unfortunately, things progress so slowly that I’m left wondering what the larger plot is, and whether any of these threads can be tied together in time. This is a frequent problem with visual novel adaptations due to the complications of merging (or selecting) the many, many plotlines that can happen in the original visual novel, and Robotics;Notes falls right into that trap. The end result is something mildly diverting but not addicting, and, especially early on, the show falls on the verge of being outright boring.
It also does not help that a consistent tone is not established. Before the beginning of every episode, a disclaimer appears, claiming “for realism real-world names and terms are used, but the story is fiction”. And yet, the realism is undercut at every turn by typical anime tropes like sweatdrops, pinched veins, and distorted faces. If you are shooting for realism (like Psycho-Pass did), it is best to leave such conventions out of your show. Yet, if these tropes were not there, the show would be even less exciting than it already is. It is a true Catch-22, so stark it can’t be ignored even if you’re willing to give the anime the benefit of the doubt.
This can’t be blamed totally on Kazuya Nomura’s direction, as it’s apparent that when dramatic events do occur on screen that he’s trying to make things as exciting as possible. Production I.G. also throws in a typical strong effort in the animation department, though the backgrounds are the true highlight, etched in beautiful, wondrous detail. The problem is simply the pacing. Jukki Hanada (series compositor) and his writers could have done a much better job showing the events onscreen so at least the illusion of pacing could be seen, but they fail in the task.
The background music is unable to summon any energy for the events onscreen, despite the involvement of three composers: Asami Tachibana, Takeshi Abo, and Yuuki Hayashi. The cues rarely repeat, and there’s a couple of decent tracks involving strings and oboe that caught my ear’s attention, but none of it is truly that remarkable.
The opening is “Junjou Spectra” by Zwei. While the visuals are nothing to write home about, the metal-edged pop makes for the strongest musical impression in this series. The closer, “Umikaze no Brave” by fumika, is much more typical J-Pop from an audio perspective and is accompanied by fairly innocuous visuals that fail to make an impact as well.
The English dub absolutely crushes the original Japanese, which is a stunning achievement. Joel McDonald, the voice director, assembles a strong cast of veteran and newer VAs who subsume into their characters, bring out layers not present in the Japanese dub, and successfully avoid the pitfall of pitch-matching (Bang! Zoom!, take notes). Lindsay Seidel sheds the generic moe tones of Akiho and instead makes her a adorkable nerd (which makes Akiho’s pep significantly more bearable, almost even charming). Clifford Chapin gives Kaito a sense of laziness over the lifeless apathy of the Japanese version, which lends him more of a well-rounded sound (and allows his occasional bursts of emotion to seem more natural in the process). Leah Clark is a true revelation as Frau, perfectly embodying a complete shut-in with all of her quirks, awkwardness, and surprising vulnerability. All those traits make Frau truly human compared to the caricature her Japanese interpretation tends to be. Monica Rial’s Junna is soft and gentle, instead of high-pitched and somewhat squeaky like the Japanese version. And finally, newcomer Jarrod Greene as Subaru does a fantastic job embodying a closet nerd determined to live his dreams, giving him significantly more character as well. Overall, the actors give off a sense they were all in the same room together bouncing off one another, which is a truly fantastic feat if you have any idea how dubs are typically recorded.
This is also helped by strong scripts co-written by Bonny Clinkenbeard and Beth Featherstone. The lines are faithful to the original script yet re-arranged in a way to be extremely natural in English (and expertly pulls off Frau’s many moments where she speaks l33t out loud). The dub script flows so smoothly that it no doubt helped the sense of natural interaction found in the dub. To me, there are long stretches where the scripts feel like they were written in English to begin with, with only a couple of minor moments where the show’s true origins betray itself. That’s as high of praise as a dub script can get.
Shockingly, despite being an Aniplex production, the show did not wind up at Aniplex of America. Instead, co-producer Fuji TV licensed the show to FUNimation (this is made apparent in little legal notes at the end of both the opening and ending themes). While, as I noted above, this turned out to be a fantastic twist of fate for the dub, it also resulted in a strong, affordable release for the Blu-Ray/DVD combo package. The Blu-Ray footage look and sound absolutely gorgeous in both subbed and dubbed forms, though there is the usual caveat of subtitles being locked, but the DVDs being packaged also allows for convenience (such as extracting images for a review *winks*). The extras tend to be typical of FUNimation (commentary and textless opening and ending), but the special edition also comes with art cards depicting the main characters.
Honestly, the effort FUNimation put into this release calls into question Aniplex’s practice of releasing prohibitively expensive singles or boxed sets with increasingly low bitrates for the dubbed versions of their shows (Fate/ZERO with 192 KBPS and Magi with 160 KBPs are the worst offenders). This release proves that we can have much better Aniplex home video releases here in the US as long as they’re not from Aniplex of America, which simply doesn’t provide an appropriate level of care and quality while commanding a significantly more expensive price. Robotics;Notes represents something from a bygone time, never to happen again unless Fuji TV in its grace licenses another Aniplex show to a third party.
Overall, however, the show remains too much of a slow burn for me to recommend highly. This may be retroactively changed once I review Part 2, as that release is the conclusion of the series. However, there are many charming moments and the stellar dub does successfully elevate the product. In the end, though, I question if that is enough. Right now, the answer seems to be “no”. However, Part 2 could very well change my mind.