There are two types of derivatives: fun, tacky ones that laugh at themselves and the more unfortunate ones that insist on selling clichés as though we’d never seen them before. Fractale lands firmly in the latter category, although, with such a plain, bumbling sincerity, it’s not the most punishing rehash anyone could watch.
Take the protagonist, Clain, a pleasant young man with manners and wits and all the natural gifts God gave him, but miserable because his life is boring. He reminds me a bit of Renton from Eureka Seven. But that’s just coincidence - the part that chafes is how everything else is also a bit like in Eureka Seven (…and Laputa… and Bounen no Xam’d). From roughly the first few minutes, viewers will begin to make certain guesses. What are the bets that he meets an even more miserable girl on the run from a self-serving organisation? What are the bets that somewhere along the line, he and this girl must unravel a devious plan to revolutionise/remodel/revamp/reboot the world? What are the bets that he stumbles across an airship of rebels with whom he will travel aimlessly for a while? And what are the bets that this story will meander via perfunctory tragedy and over-implied, barely-there romance?
At best, the show gums a reliable science fiction dilemma (I can’t quite say ‘sinks its teeth into’ because Fractale doesn’t have any): ‘perfect’ technology vs. flawed humanity. It pits tragic figures addicted to the luxury of the computerised Fractale system against those like Clain whose nurturing only suffered because of the system’s clinical embrace. It also has an intriguing blend of reality and virtual reality, in which people stroll through virtual cities using idealised bodies that don’t look anything like their real counterparts. Sadly, Fractale’s is such a diluted treatment of these issues that taking it seriously or even emotionally connecting hardly seems worth the effort. For all its profound themes (which are old news if you’ve already seen Toward the Terra TV) or mind-melting blend of realities (Dennou Coil), its execution is jarringly safe. Every other scene is a cliché, every other line of dialogue a clunky exercise in Because The Script Says So.
What saves the show like a reinforced airbag is its inexplicable cosiness, which I attribute more to its soft colour tones and quaint environments than the plot. Through sheer happenstance, it avoids feeling like that other Eureka Seven photocopy, Bounen no Xam’d, which, on top of being vapid eye-candy, is also gratingly pompous. At no point do the Fractale’s creators seem aware that they’ve created a derivative but I sense through their homely drama and comedy that their intentions were succinct entertainment rather than bombastic cinematic preaching. And that makes it tolerable, sometimes even comfortable to watch.
Besides getting the technical stuff right with fluid motion and convincing detail, Fractale looks like a fun place to explore. The world concept has a quaintness that I find highly attractive and comforting in the sense that it looks as though someone put a lot of thought into designing it. Aiming for something vaguely steampunk-ish, the people live several centuries into the future where underwear is apparently quite a mystery, but they still do things like hang Dickensian clothes on washing lines and fly high-powered ships with antiquated zeppelin designs. All the colours are warm shades and soft, and the character designs are charming without being distractingly beautiful.
I like the opening theme, ‘Harinezumi’ by Hitomi Azuma. It has a melody I can hear and some nicely held clear notes and a fun beat. It’s one of those songs I would gladly sing along to if I could speak a word of Japanese. The ending theme is also agreeable. But the fact that I struggle to remember any aspect of the in-episode score says everything about the limits of Fractale’s musical offerings.
Fractale features an ensemble cast that appear more like props than people. They drift through speaking their oh-so-familiar lines as if they were computerised, never convincing me that they’re worth investing actual emotions in.
The only ones not going through the motions are Clain and his holographic companion, Nessa. Their relationship works because both are uncontroversial likeable types, warm-hearted, good-natured, and innocent. Clain is defined by his parentless upbringing and compensatory desire for the simple life humans had centuries ago (he likes ‘ancient’ memorabilia like digital cameras). His appeal increases exponentially when considering what a gentle, unpolluted soul he is despite his childhood being largely devoid of human warmth. Nessa on the other hand barges her way into our hearts through unabashed pluckiness - she’s innocent and wild like a baby but also sensitive to the hurt of others at all the appropriate times. Their relationship describes a classic comedy, where one partner frustrates the other through well-intentioned idiocy but both maintain a strong loving bond. Clain and Nessa, in glaring contrast to everyone else, also seem most capable of infusing the dead-as-lead script with heartfelt warmth.
Fractale’s greatest crime is to lack imagination. While many shows borrow or adapt ideas from their predecessors, the sheer banality of Fractale’s achievement nonetheless leads to an overwhelming impatience; even though its events felt rushed and cobbled together, I was grateful they wasted little time on fleshing out its world or ironing out kinks in the script. I saw the ending ten episodes before it arrived, and when it did, I was just about satisfied.
Many centuries into the future, humans live as part of the Fractale system, a computer program that moderates their activity to ensure a free and peaceful existence. But while life is indeed comfortable, the cost of growing up in virtual reality communities filled with holographic people called 'doppels' means that it can also get lonely. For Clain living estranged from his parents, adventure finally knocks when he rescues a mysterious girl called Phryne, who appears to be on the run. She spends only a short time with him before hurriedly moving on but leaves behind an unexpected gift: the curious and frustratingly whimsical doppel called Nessa! As Clain learns to adjust to his new friend and survive the scrapes she gets him into, he discovers that she and Phryne are at the heart of a great conspiracy. If he is ever to gain a sense of purpose, Clain will have to leave his comfortable existence and challenge the only thing he has ever known, the Fractale system itself.
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