Also known as "Tv tropes: The anime".
Heh, this is one of those hard to judge. If, on one hand, I can’t but get pissed off at how poorly its characters and plot are ripping off other anime, at how contrived and poorly-explained its developments are, at how it looked like it was trying to cram in as many clichés as humanly possible, on the other hand I can’t but admit that for the most of its run I was genuinely intrigued and at times even moved, despite me going “are you fucking kidding me?” and “You’re really going there?” some too many times beyond the acceptable threshold for what I’d consider a “good anime”. So, let’s wrap up this introduction and dive in…
It’s 2039. In a Japan under martial law by an international organisation called GHQ (remind you of something?) after the outbreak of the so-called “Apocalypse Virus” 10 years earlier (remind you of something?), Ōma Shū is an insecure 17-years-old boy who always keeps to himself and feels useless in the world (remind you of someone?); one day he meets Yuzuriha Inori, lead singer of the band Egotist of which he is a fan, whom he discovers is also a member of the Undertakers, a rebel organisation aiming to liberate Japan (remind you of something?). Shū comes into contact with the Undertakers and obtains the “king’s mark”, a mysterious power (remind you of something?) to reach inside a person and extract a weapon from them. This will be the beginning of Shū’s involvement in the fate of Japan and the world…
Connect the “remind you of something?” and, as the words “Code Geass” and “Evangelion” come out, you’ll see the main problem this anime has. It’s only natural to take inspiration when creating something, but Guilty Crown goes well beyond "following a lead", for everything in it seems to be desperately trying to be like Code Geass and Evangelion, but managing neither to give it a new twist nor to even do it well. The mechas, the rebel organisation, the post-disaster scenario in which another apocalypse must be avoided, the dystopian Japan, the school setting, the protagonist, the power obtained through a meeting with a mysterious girl, the secret organisation pulling the strings, the characters, it took the superficial elements of those two but forgot to take what made them masterpieces. The plot follows a typical shōnen fashion with lots of battles and character interaction, which is not a defect of course, but it becomes one if the twists feel contrived and under-explained as they do, if the ending and so many of its developments are as predictable as they are, and if they throw in so many clichés of the genre taking them so painfully seriously. It looks like the script was written while browsing TV Tropes, for crying out loud! Some of them could have actually made for something interesting, if they were worked in better with more time and depth to not feel like something thrown in because it was contractually obligated to; was there really a need for a beach and a school festival episode? Was there really a need for an episode-long flashback right before the climax, as if the words “Fourth Apocalypse” weren’t reminding us of Evangelion enough? Mind you, this is not to say that the plot is uninteresting, on the contrary it manages to intrigue quite a lot, and they clearly knew what they were doing with the direction and the storytelling, the battles are also pretty intense and some emotional moments are surprisingly touching. But many elements that had a lot of potential are left underdeveloped if not completely unexplored; if that wasn’t enough, a couple of twists, especially the two leading to the surprisingly unimpressive ending, are really too far-fetched.
If I can forgive such a plot on account of it doing its job well, I can’t forgive such pretentiousness with the characters. The protagonist, Shū, is not like Ikari Shinji, he’s trying to be like Shinji, but doesn’t know how to, and doesn’t know that you can’t be like Shinji and like Lelouch at the same time. His development follows stages that could have been interesting, if the transitions weren’t so sudden (at one point he just goes Lelouch for a couple of episodes, and then reverts right back. I suspect DID.), if he wasn’t so inconsistent, and most importantly if the anime actually took the time to explore his psychology (you can’t show me a guy with lots of friends and an obvious childhood-friend-with-a-crush, with a loving relationship with his mother, with an hobby of his own, and then expect me to take your word that he’s weak, insecure, self-deprecating and afraid of being hurt, if you don't show me why, if you don't show me a bit of his mind and backstory). The female protagonist, Inori, is quite simply an Ayanami Rei expy, her entire development is predictable from the first moment she’s onscreen, and the few elements that could have made her something more than a walking plot device and sex doll are just those left unexplored (and I can see no purpose for her being a singer, it makes no sense given her origins…). Gai, the Undertakers leader, is probably the most interesting, and works well for most of the series, but a couple of the far-fetched twists I mentioned earlier regard him, so…
The secondary characters are for the most part the result of someone filling out a Code Geass character sheet minus the development, but the mix is well-balanced and well-done enough to work. The childhood-friend-with-a-crush, the school council president daughter of a wealthy family, the idiot friend, the rebels, they’re all there. Shū’s mother Haruka could have been an interesting character, if the writers realised that introducing an issue and solving it TEN MINUTES LATER (I'm not kidding, ten minutes of running time!) does not make a character deep just because you use the word “running away” once; Ayase does have some interest, as her development is at least carried out throughout the whole series with coherency, and so does Arisa, even though she feels a bit contrived (blind devotion to a man she met twice? That’s all you got as motivation?); but what I really hate is what they did with Tsugumi: her exploration is literally ONE line, “I was always alone”. Sorry, Guilty Crown, but throwing that in does not make her an Asuka. Why was she alone? What has she been through? How did that influence the cheerfully genki girl she is now, is she covering her weakness with a façade? How come she’s such good friends with everybody, especially Ayase? Nothing? Then stop being pretentious, darn it.
Most of the villains have a surprising interesting personality, especially Sagai, one hell of a creepy bastard (a shame the anime never got deeper into his motives…). One of them, Keido, is expanded upon quite nicely through an exploration of his backstory and some hints of psychological analysis, and two others, Yū and Daryl, are intriguing characters whose story, unfortunately, is only barely touched.
I wouldn’t say that the characters aren’t likeable, it’s a matter of tastes here, even I grew attached to some of them, but they certainly aren’t original, most are underdeveloped, and most of the attempts at giving them more depth fall tragically flat.
Well, there really isn’t much I can say here. The sceneries and landscapes are stunning, the battles are intense and just awesome, and even the character design, a field which seemed to have run out its creative vein long ago, is impressive and surprisingly original, at least on the main characters. Fun fact, it was made by one of the graphic artists of Supercell, redjuice. The only complaint I have is that the CGI on the mechas is quite wooden at times, but that’s it.
The scenes that managed to really touch me owe a lot to the soundtrack, which in most scenes is fitting and effective. “Most”, because at some critical moments it uses insert songs, penned by ryo of Supercell, which feel a bit out of place at times. The OP and ED songs, also penned by Supercell, on the other hand, do their job really well: the first opening in particular, thanks to some really expressive singing, is very catchy. The first ED is the obligatory sappy ballad, but aren’t they all these days?, while the second has more of a kick while retaining a melancholic tone.
I’ll state it clearly: if such characters manage to hold out, it’s thanks to the seiyū. Kaji Yūki, a rising star in the industry, doesn’t always manage to deliver the most difficult moments, but it clearly shows he’s doing his best, and in some scenes his performance is really stunning. Kayano Ai, too, does an awesome job with Inori, providing a subtle and intense performance that helps a lot in making such a flat and predictable character likeable. Naruto co-stars Inoue Kazuhiko (Kakashi) and Cappa Nobutoshi (Yakushi “magnificent bastard” Kabuto) are a guarantee by their names alone, and their portrayal of the villains Keido and Sagai is wonderful. Also worth naming, if only for their status as “newcomers”, are Shimamura Yu as Hare, Uchiyama Kōki as Daryl and Nishigaki Yuka as Yū (by God does she sound like Romi Park).
Despite its agonizingly stupid unoriginality, predictable plot, wasted potential and pretentious characters, I must admit that it has effort in other departments, and it’s genuinely involving to watch. Is it bad? Well, it’s definitely not good, but not a disaster either. It’s going to have to be your call depending on your standards. If large amounts of ripping off and overused clichés don’t suit you, just skip it. If you love character studies à la Evangelion, avoid it, you’re probably going to get pissed off. If you’re looking for some fun with a shōnen à la Code Geass, you may give it a try, if you don’t go in expecting something revolutionary. If you just like good storytelling, even if the story is a typical tale of overcoming one’s weakness and good versus evil, you’re probably going to like it. Hell, despite all my bitching, even I had fun watching it, going “that’s Utena!” or “that’s Code Geass!” or “that’s bullshit!”, getting pissed off at failed attempts at character development, and so on, so if you’re one of those who like to watch bad stuff once in a while, why not. Surely, though, it did not set a new standard as it was claiming.