After two episodes, I really have no idea what Gonzo is trying to accomplish with this continuation of the Last Exile saga. My sincere hope is that they do.
This is an odd series, and it’s inspiring some oddly ambivalent feelings in me. There were some encouraging signs this week, most notably that after a premiere that seemed more concerned with the next Saimoe competition than establishing story or character, things were somewhat grittier and darker this week. But there were quite a few worrying signs, too. The easiest to tackle is the visuals – while still impressive, there was a noticeable downgrade in budget this week. The CG was definitely less smooth and less well integrated. Indeed, there were moments when I felt like I was watching “ReBoot”. I don’t obsess over visuals normally and things were still quite striking overall, but given Gonzo’s financial history and that this is only the second episode, this is something to keep an eye on.
Of much greater concern to me is that they’ve pretty much decided to jump into the middle of a war without going through the trouble of establishing any connection to the characters, or indeed to the specifics of the situation. It’s obvious that Ades = bad and Turan = good, but why? How did we get here? It wasn’t until the end of the second episode that we were given the general premise of this conflict – the Turan represents the immigrants who returned on the Exile, and the Ades the ones who stayed behind and aren’t so glad to have them back. It’s a start, at least, and the most interesting thing that’s happened so far.
As to characters, it’s a shame that Gonzo have leapt into the full-on action without doing anything to make me care about them. There’s a sense that this story started in the middle, and if they wanted to do that why go with an all new cast? You can’t substitute cute and plucky and tsundere for real character development, and you can’t substitute emotionally suggestive BGM and hackneyed sob scenes with dying old men for real emotional attachment. Who are Fam, Giselle, and Millia, and why are they someone I should spend 24 weeks pulling for? Why is Hafez such an angry man and why am I supposed to dislike him? It was my hope that the idea was to make a big splash with a lot of shock and awe for the premiere, and then step back and give us some character time this week, but in fact it was just the opposite – this week was even louder and more bombastic than last.
Fact is, so far that’s what Ginyoku no Fam is best at. The large set pieces are very good, majestic and impressive in their scope. They’re well and thoughtfully choreographed, too, and the “Star Wars” reminiscent flight of the three heroines through the bowels of the Adess flagship is a great example. But it still feels like a promotional video for the series and not the series itself. There’s a natural and powerful pull to this setting that hasn’t gone away – the backgrounds, the set design, the tech – that draws you in. So the potential is there for the show to raise its game and become something of substance, and it has a head start over most shows that struggle a little out of the gate. But I need some reason to feel something more than awe. As of now, Fam is pretty much a stage prop, and Toyosaki Aki – a very good seiyuu – isn’t helping with her baby-doll performance. Yuuki Aoi is as stiff and bland as I’ve heard her as Giselle, and Millia as portrayed by Kayano Ai is strictly a Wikipedia tsundere princess.
When I hear really good voice actors giving flat performances, that tells me they’re not getting much help from what’s on the page. The writing was my biggest concern with “Fam” going in and I see no reason to feel reassured by what I’ve seen so far. If anything, the experience has been like watching “The Phantom Menace”. That film looked fantastic and was full of really good actors giving weak performances. Did all those actors jump the shark at once? Well, Occam’s Razor suggests that they were working with a poor script (and in that case, a director who didn’t care about actors). The original “Star Wars” trilogy had the benefit of writers like Lawrence Kasdan to take George Lucas’ basic story and turn it into something interesting on a human level. When Lucas did everything himself in the prequels we were left with a hollow shell, and no amount of cool light sabre duels and CGI could change that fact.
It’s still too early to write “Fam” off as “The Phantom Menace”. All it really has to do is step back and give us some time with the characters and a reason to care about them – sounds easy, right? I still enjoy the look of the series and I’m fairly confident the overarching conflict between those who stayed on Earth and those who left and came back will prove interesting. The last few minutes of the episode, where Hafez calls Exile (one of six Exiles, apparently) down to Earth to lay waste to the Turan capital, were probably the best of the first two eps. Is the influence of director Koichi-sensei enough to lift writer Yoshimura Kiyoko above what the track record suggests is possible and deliver a really compelling series? I suspect the answer won’t be apparent for a few more weeks at the very least, but no one will be rooting harder than me for it to happen.