Every so often, you come across a show that's truly mediocre. You know, those anime that aren't great enough to rave about but aren't bad enough to drop. In the strange interim after the end of Toradora! and before the start of an exciting Spring 2009 season, Chrome Shelled Regios (CSR) filled a space in my viewing schedule and proved just interesting enough to keep me watching through the end of its first season. CSR has an interesting setting, nifty superpowers, and some awesome baddies--all elements that go into any respectable sci-fi action anime--but where real innovation would make the show stand out, it falls on its face, pulled to the ground by its bloated plot. CSR's creative failings hobble the show more than cripple it, and this season manages to reach its conclusion having entertained when it must and being sufficiently pretty and intriguing to string the viewer along.
On the surface, CSR's premise reminds me a lot of Ergo Proxy. Ergo Proxy also tells the tale of humanity trapped in domed cities designed to protect the remaining population from a hostile environment of its own making. Instead of exploring this already cool premise, Ergo Proxy decides to waste a huge amount of time exploring the nature of humanity as it relates to personal agency and free will (or so I gather, I was in it for the setting the entire time). Seemingly the creative team for CSR uses Ergo Proxy as a starting point, removes all the boring bits and then fills the gaps with things they know will test well with the 12 - 18 crowd (add a high school, a tsundere character, DBZ-like fighting, and giant monsters). The result turns out less than stellar because, along the way, someone decided to needlessly muddle the plot.
Set on a post-apocalyptic Earth (the series so far is actually unclear on the issue, but the Engrish-language portions strongly point to Earth as the setting), CSR tells the tale of humanity struggling against a hostile desert environment and its insect-like inhabitants while riding on the backs of mobile cities. As intriguing as its premise could be, CSR suffers in its adaption from multiple light novels. The large-scale epic struggle of humanity against the legacy left to them in this post-apocalyptic world gets lost under the weight of accumulated minor plot points; for example, the Salinvan Mercenary Gang gets involved with Zulleni to help with the fight against the Filth Monsters, but much of the sub-plot actually focuses on Haia's need to challenge Layfon to duels. Meanwhile the actual machinery of the main narrative turns in the background through vignettes covering Leerin and Queen Alsheyra instead of remaining front-and-center where it belongs.
The large cast also drags down the narrative. CSR gives every character some cursory development and relates him or her to Layfon before moving the plot forward. Consequently, the significant events crammed into the final few episodes give the series' end a rushed feel.
In spite of the weak execution, I am a sucker for these post-apocalyptic eco-fables. The series' end is a little hurried and confusing, but I remain optimistic. With all of the introductions over and done with and the scenery sufficiently painted, the main conflict might get the majority of the focus in season two and actually improve CSR's storytelling.
It's a crime how decent CSR looks, because there certainly wasn't a lot done with all that pretty artwork. CSR has a clean, 21st-century look and well-integrated CGI, which for the most part enhances the person-to-person combat by providing the "kei" effects for attacks and movement. The color palate is varied and the character animation is generally smooth with an occasional perspective hiccup (sometimes, Layfon's face looks strange when drawn straight on). Similarly, the background artwork manages to give different flavors to each locale.
Of course, CSR's, fundamental problem of unoriginality surfaces again here. While the uniforms for the Military Arts students are attractive, nearly everyone wears them and the characters generally accessorize less than students in many other high school anime. The combat uniforms, which feature more prominently as the story progresses, are even more drab and offer even less opportunity for differentiating the characters from each other--only one Zulleni combat platoon shows any variation in the combat attire and it's merely a difference in color. The animators instead squander their limited inventiveness on the costumes for the Heaven's Blade Receivers who get very little screen time in comparison to the combat-suited Zulleni Platoon members.
CSR tries to make up for its sartorial homogeneity by providing its combatants with a variety of weapons (called "dite" in the series). However, CSR fails to sufficiently differentiate its army of warriors from each other and only the Heaven's Blade Receivers manage to fight in an interesting manner (you could argue that it makes sense from a world-building standpoint, but that explanation seems like an excuse). Regrettably, the lion's share of the screen time focuses on less interesting fights rather than showcasing the talents of the more skilled combatants. In the end, the fight scenes between people pale in comparison to the battles Layfon and others have with the Filth Monsters. Pulled right out of the Warhammer 40K Tyranid source book (not the Zerg, you tool, get your source material right!), these creatures are a delightful mix of insect and reptile: all pincers, teeth, carapace and wings. The few adult specimens that we see during the first season are formidable-looking, viscerally creepy, and terrifying in combat. The image of one tiny, combat-suited Layfon against an army of these behemoths forms the basis for some of the more exciting sequences in the series so far.
The show sports a well-suited if unmemorable soundtrack. CSR's standout voice acting comes from Nakahara Mai (Nola? Really?) who manages to invest Felli's controlled, dour whisper with delicious hints of emotion and Koyasu Takehito's Karian Loss who oozes an equal measure of sleaze and gravitas--a difficult feat. Koshimizu Ami (Horo? Really?) also provides an entertaining turn as Shante, but her character is tragically underused. CSR's music shares the same passable level of quality as the rest of the show. The first season's OP, "Brave Your Truth", an acceptable J-Pop tune, contains too much poorly executed Engrish for my taste. The ED's use a clever gimmick of individually featuring the female cast harmonizing with Layfon's seiyuu, but both the first ED theme and the second are a little on the sappy side for what becomes an increasingly action-oriented show as the season progresses. By the end of the season, I found myself regularly skipping through both the OP and ED songs.
There are too many characters here with too little realization. While the narrative requires at least three groups of characters for its main plot lines, few of these characters are particularly unique. Layfon is a typical reluctant badass hero, Sharnid the ladies' man, and the gear head Harley Sutton form the majority of Zulleni's Military Arts Platoon Seventeen, around which most of the Zulleni plot segments focus. Felli, the squad's psychic is extremely entertaining to watch as she punctuates her emotional growth with withering glances and spectacular shin kicks, but her development suffers in the second half of the season as the expanding cast dramatically cuts down her screen time. Nina Antauk likewise offers an interesting character dimension--she is a leader driven by her own inferiority complex--but midway through the season, the plot uses this particular trait to hijack all of her agency, and relieves her completely of opportunity for character development and growth.
The rest of the massive cast is full of the typical stock characters you can expect in an action anime: Haia and Gorneo harbor grudges against Layfon for his past (pre-Zulleni) actions, Savaris Luckens, the Heaven's Blade Receiver that follows Leerin around, wishes only to fulfill the wishes of his queen; Mifi Rotten thinks only of the Academy's newspaper, and so on. While the sweep of the narrative certainly requires a cast this large, the fact that few of these characters are multidimensional or receive any but the most cursory development makes it hard to view them as anything other than puzzle pieces--useful for their roles in the plot and little else.
This show takes no risks and therefore reaps no rewards. If the first season offers any promise, it's that the mildly interesting story will pan out into something marginally epic in scope. However, planting all of the necessary seeds in the first season definitely causes the series to suffer from inadequate character development and nearly drives the narrative into disarray. What is particularly disappointing here is that a slower examination of the existing material might have proved more rewarding: the tension between the inter-squad rivalry and the inter-city matches by itself would have provided a suitably fertile ground for an entire season, as would have an examination of the relationship between academy cities like Zulleni and the regular cities like Lance-Shelled Grendan. Instead, CSR barrels forward with its complicated narrative, painting the required players with well-known brushes as quickly as possible in a mad rush to get all of the pieces on the board before the second season can unravel the mystery. Fortunately the story remained somewhat engaging, otherwise this would have quickly fallen into my "skip" pile as a "been there, done that" anime.
Given the interesting premise set up by the first season, CSR could improve if the subsequent episodes answer all of the outstanding questions in style. Hopefully, the raised stakes will place more focus on the potentially exciting Heaven's Blade Receivers and sideline the less interesting citizens of Zulleni. CSR, while not a waste of time, only manages to be an acceptable mediocre action series to this point, engaging enough to bridge the gap from Winter 08 to Spring 09, but of little real merit. Maybe, just maybe, this show will surprise us in its second season.
In a post-apocalyptic world overrun with great beasts called Filth Monsters, a glimmering dome protrudes from the wasteland. This is Zuellni, a mobile city unique for having a consciousness in the form of ‘electronic fairies’. Moreover, Zuellni is an academy where the next generation of powerful Heavens-Blade wielders gather to pit their strength against each other in inter-platoon competitions. Nina Antalk, military student and leader of the 17th Platoon, is intent on recruiting only the best; thus, when mysterious Layfon Alseif transfers to the academy, she instantly recognizes his abilities and decides he’s the perfect candidate to join her group. However, with a secret past that won’t leave him alone, and unknown powers beyond the academy taking an interest in Zuellni, Layfon joining the team is only the start of all their troubles.
These days I load up on comedy, slice-of-life, and horror shows, but I'll watch almost anything that sports a good voice cast, an interesting story, or looks particularly pretty. I tend to relate anime I review to other shows I've seen, because that's just how my mind works. Whether my warped view on a particular show totally misses the mark or you believe I've hit the nail on the head, I'd love to hear from you and welcome feedback and intelligent discussion of just how wrong I might be.