Tower of God was heavily marketed as the first Korean webcomic adaptation as well as the beginning of a new era for anime. It wasn’t, buy we were constantly told that we had to support it, so they can make even more Korean webcomic adaptations. Consume product and be excited for next products. Aside from being from Korea there is nothing special about it, and as an adaptation it is below average in general, so it was just another case of hyping the source material and that spreading onto its subpar adaptation. Although it managed to be the most popular show during the season it aired in, it was only thanks to all the famous competitors (Sword Art Online, Oregairu, and ReZero) getting postponed because of the pandemic and leaving only Kaguya Sama as the only actual threat. Basically, it wouldn’t have made such a splash if Covid-19 did not sabotage the competition. Not many care about Korean webcomics, and the tv airings in both Japan and Korea were fairly low.
As much as the fans of the webcomic were saying it’s not another shonen, at the same time they were calling it the Korean One Piece, Sword Art Online, Bleach, Hunter X Hunter, and whatever other titles they could think of. Double standards aside, it really plays out like a shonen and does a crappy job at being one. Let’s go over the 8 elements of a perfect shonen for explaining what I mean.
1) The protagonist is a victimized fake underdog. The world is being unfair to him, he lost the love of his life, and he appears to be weak when in reality he’s super special, gets more powerful in an instant, everyone around him loves him right away, and he is constantly being plot armored. The wonderful double standards show as soon as the first episode begins, where he gets saved a dozen times, just because he’s the main character, and is given hax powers he did not earn, just because he is cute. Is it lazy writing that makes the hero not being worthy of his victories? Yes, but it’s a shonen, people watch it for illusion of deserving to win even if they cheat all the way to the top. And it would be fine if it maintained that illusion, but it couldn’t. The protagonist has no personality; he’s just a boy scout. Hell, he doesn’t even have a backdrop because he has amnesia. He’s left blank so anyone can self insert easier. He can also defeat anyone in without putting in any actual effort. There is nothing interesting about him; he is a piece of white toast and easily the weakest in characterization character.
2) The set up of the plot plays out like a coming of age sport story. Starting from the bottom and gradually improving as he gets to the top and slowly turning into a god (he doesn’t say he becomes one, but that is the name of the show as well as the endgame). He also has a love interest, he has mentors (although they are closer to indirect guides so far), and he has rivals who are after the same thing he wants. You got the perfect formula of Karate Kid right here and all the show has to do is not to stray off. Which it did. In a few episodes it became apparent that all you need is broken powers and betraying everyone. There is not sportsmanship whatsoever, the mentors have no life lessons to provide besides extra abilities, and the love interest just doesn’t exist.
3) There have to be dozens of peers who are training along with the protagonist. There is a large number of support characters, all of which seem to contribute something to the world and the plot at first. But they soon end up sucking as rivals. They are not posing any threat, because he can easily overpower them. They were all instantly surpassed because he instantly learns every special attack. In effect, the secondary cast became obsolete in a few episodes and doesn’t matter in the longrun.
4) Tournament arcs! We always need those and the whole show happens to be one. Too bad the rules mean nothing, since they are constantly ignored or are broken all the time. Anyone who gets some spotlight during a duel (which is what makes this sort of thing great) is instantly overshadowed by someone else jumping in and stealing the attention.
5) The pilot of the series must have something shocking for hooking the audience right away. It did, albeit by jumping around like crazy and by having a lot of weird shit happening. It manages to attract shonen fans with a mysterious world, but messes up along the way by being confusing as hell. One moment the characters are killing each other, the immediate next they act friendly to each other, and then they are shocked for being betrayed when they were killing each other not long ago. The infodumps and the explanation of the rules and how the powers work are also a complete mess, since it’s impossible to follow what is going on with the way it is cryptic and eventually not followed through since everyone either lies or cheats.
6) Constant emotional reminders of what every character aspires to do. The protagonist can’t speak two sentences without yelling he wants to find his waifu. Is it annoying and makes him one-dimensional? Yes, but it’s a shonen, people watch it to see guys chasing after their dreams and not thinking of anything else. Everybody wants to go to the top for various reasons and they don’t shy away from mentioning them. If anything, their willingness to betray each other for achieving what they want only made their resolve more distinct as the episodes go by, so well done there.
7) The power system. Big oopsie there. Everyone is using superpowers, but they don’t seem to be following any specific rules. They bend however it suits the plot and they are completely imbalanced. They literally summon wish granting spirits and teleport around like crazy in the first episode alone. And in every next episode new powers pop into existence with no explanation or foreshadowing, or when they are explained and foreshadowed, it’s very confusing to understand how they work. Anaak can use healing magic all of a sudden, although it was never established that she could do it. The dolphins, which are not dolphins, are nowhere to be seen as soon as the bull, which is not a bull, appears. The wild boars that are mentioned in the briefing never appear in general. And the guy who was chewed alive by the bull, which is not a bull, he appears in the last episode completely fine, like it had never happened. That makes every fight to be completely random.
8) A feel of adventure and discovery. It’s about going up a tower that has many different levels, each one with its own culture and environment. It seems to have a lot of room for the awe of discovery, but does very little with it. Everyone is busy passing tests without ever interacting with the society they are in. Whenever something new is brought up, it’s only because it’s part of a test, and it loses its importance as soon as the test is over.
Elements aside, directing and cinematography are terrible in general. Here is a list of all the major problems I can think off, although there are many more minor ones.
1) The pacing is super fast. The plot speeds through every event with confusing explanations and no time to allow you to get to like anyone or anything before it’s over. It is impossible to understand what is going on, because the director removed 50% of the explanations and there are many translation errors in the official English subtitles that change completely the context of various scenes. No, it’s not becoming an administrator; it’s having the administrator’s approval. No, that animal is not a dolphin; it’s a seal. No, that weapon is not a needle; it’s a sword. And that is why most web readers hate the anime and recommend anime onlys to read the webcomic instead. That’s right people, this show that is supposed to be the beginning of a new era of anime is disapproved by its very fans. They only made a badly adapted infomercial for promoting the webcomic.
2) But this does not mean it’s the studio’s fault alone. The source material is 90% people explaining what is going on instead of showing it. You are mostly reading about the characters and the rules instead of actually seeing a damn thing. The director of the anime basically chose not to double the amount of episodes by keeping most of the talking, because he knew the viewers would be bored out of their minds. He chose to remove them for the sake of keeping them entertained with the action. If they want explanations, they can always read the source, which was the intention all along. It basically comes down to the SIU, the creator of the webcomic, being completely incompetent at delivering exposition by showing things instead of saying it. And since everybody keeps saying he’s a genius for keep throwing in more and more convoluted nonsense that are told instead of shown, he was given no incentive for improving his writing. Which is why he made the alligator character small, just because he would be funnier that way and he wouldn’t have to draw him. What a great in-story reason for doing it. Being bored to draw your own characters, so just have them being chibi comic reliefs, and fill your pages with huge speech bubbles that infodump the story instead of having to actually show a damn thing.
3) The use of cliffhangers is fake tension. A lot of episodes end in a way that makes it seem like something crazy is going to happen in the beginning of the next episode, and nothing happens. It’s just lazy hooks for making you click on the next episode only for disappointing you. No, character X is never going to die when the episode ends by implying he will, and there is not going to be an amazing battle right around the corner.
4) Friendship and teamwork make little sense, because none of the characters actively chooses to make friends or allies. It’s always something imposed by a test. One moment they say ‘kill each other’, the immediate next they say ‘befriend each other’, and the characters do so in an instant, and in a way that feels like they don’t have free will and act however it suits the plot. Basically, they are all plot devices and whatever they do feels artificial. Nobody is a friend or an ally. They are brainwashed to act as if they are. Evident in episode 2 for the first time when ‘befriending’ someone means jumping onto him and claiming they are now friends, even if the other guy doesn’t want to be your friend. That’s not how teamwork works. Funnily enough there is no actual betraying going on in later episodes because of that. In order to betray someone you first need to be a friend or a teammate. And the characters are neither; they just call each other friends because a previous test told them to. And it’s hard to call them teammates when it’s a one-time thing where you pass the test by literally making everybody else fail.
5) Rachel, the protagonist’s main waifu, is universally hated for betraying him, when in effect she is doing the exact same thing everybody else does all the time. Hers was the fourth betrayal in 3 episodes and nobody’s complaining about the previous three, although they were equally vile. It’s almost as if they hate her because she’s the main waifu in Bam’s harem, and the only one who hurt the empty husk of the self insert that is the main character, and that ruined the power fantasy they were getting up to this point.
6) As an extension to the above contradiction, the tone of the series is all over the place. One moment the tower is a maze of death traps where everybody constantly kills each other, and the immediate next it’s a cheerful high school where everybody is having friendly chats at the cafeteria. Characters help out or feel sorry for people who backstabbed them, before forgetting it even happened in the first place. A character who was ruthless enough to murder all the people she grew up with just so she would have better meals, for no reason risks her life to save a girl that hates her throughout the whole show.
7) The tests are pathetically simple and nowhere near as sophisticated as they make them seem to be when they explain the rules (poorly). The show is constantly trying to sound smart in order to fool the watcher into thinking he’s watching something smart, but down to it, it’s a run of the mill fighting shonen with a lot of needless complications. There was no point in Khun creating a fake crown for fooling the others, when Rak instantly defeats them all a few seconds later. There was no point in stalking the goblins and running around like idiots when all it took was Khun sabotaging the underwater canals. There is no point in fighting a monster that is holding back the whole time and which can easily defeat them whenever it feels like it. There is no skill or tactics in passing through a water barrier, or opening a door. It’s luck, latent powers, and overpowering the enemy with raw force. Since the protagonist has a truckload of that, he effortlessly passes all tests; sometimes by not doing anything at all. I am not joking; he passed half the tests by standing still and doing absolutely nothing. As for the other half of the tests, he just uses a new superpower that he either pulls out of his ass, or copies in a second by looking at someone else using it. In effect, there is no tension regarding him surviving or not. Also, the tests are eventually not overcome by being good at whatever they require, but rather by making everyone else besides the traitor to fail. And since there is no penalty for cheating or backstabbing your ‘friends’ the tests are not even rewarding talent or skill. They reward ruthlessness and mean-spirited people. This is why every test is ultimately a waste of time and by extension the entire series is a waste of time. They could simply have a typical battle royale on the first level and nothing would change. The strongest and most ruthless would be the last remaining ones, they would become rankers, and that would be the end of the show.
8) There is a lot of videogame logic in the way magic and superpowers work, which can be very immersion breaking. Having character classes and earning points by passing challenges is like a low tier RPG. Using different words for describing classic videogame lingo is not saving face. Calling them positions instead of character classes, and light bearers instead of mages is not creative. And as before the videogame logic is useless, since down to it, it doesn’t matter what character class you are. As long as you are the strongest, nothing else matters. Which is the case with the white toast that is the main character, who for a millionth time passes every school test without trying, while everybody else exhaust themselves, break several bones of their bodies, and still do not perform as well as that white piece of toast. No wonder later on in the webcomic the positions become irrelevant.
9) The production values are mostly mediocre. For a show that is supposed to be unlike all other shonen and the beginning of a new era for anime, it received a subpar director, clucky animation, overall unappealing artstyle, and is in general way worse than a run of the mill shonen such as Demon Slayer, which does not try to reinvent the wheel. And on top of all that, when some episodes get outsourced to a different studio, which means they are made by a lesser team doing a sloppier job, they end up having better directing and animation. What does that say about the beginning of a new era for anime when the main director and the prime animation studio do a worse job than the guys who are supposed to fill in the blanks?
So as a whole, it’s a show that does not live up to its hype, looks bad, is very hard to follow, has no tension, no logic, and nothing to look forward to. A perfect summary of modern anime that are nothing beyond zero personality self insert OP protagonists forming a harem inside videogames.