So if you pay attention to news related to Japanese cartoons at all, you might be aware that the industry is in trouble. On this side of the pond and in Glorious Nippon, the people who make their livelihoods by producing, localizing, and distributing Japanese cartoons are absolutely terrified of the digital fansub revolution. Their shows are translated and distributed illegally through sites like Youtube for anyone to watch without paying them a dime, and worse, frequently less scrupulous individuals are getting paid for it! Some companies are fighting back by suddenly canceling all their future releases; others are fighting back by trying to convince American consumers to pay twice as much for half the content and then getting absorbed into their older, more-successful cousin.
This season, Studio GONZO has a new plan that’s just might be crazy enough to work: Officially translate and subtitle each episode of their new shows and then upload them to Youtube and Crunchyroll, a site which profits by offering fansubs for paid download, the same day these shows air on Japanese TV. That’s right – they can’t beat the bootleggers, so they’re letting them sell their product for a cut of the profits. What sort of show would they try such a crazy plan on? Why, a MMORPG tie-in, of course!
The Tower of Druaga: Aegis of Uruk (episodes 1-3)
Unless you’re Japanese and/or frequently play obscure arcade games from the 1980s, you probably haven’t heard of The Tower of Druaga. It was a clunky, ghoulishly hard stage-based role-playing game which was completely impossible to win unless you had memorized exactly what you needed to do to get the correct assortment of secret items. In the days before the Internet caught on, this required the player to have incredible patience, a whole lot of spare change, and a masochistic streak. For some reason, it’s fondly remembered by many Japanese gamers, and received a number of sequels and spin-offs over the years. To celebrate this year’s MMORPG spin-off, Namco-Bandai and GONZO have teamed up to produce a 13-episode TV series for some of that multi-media synergy that makes marketing take a cold shower. They didn’t exactly branch out with their staffing choices; Full Metal Panic! creator Shoji Gatoh, who never could manage to tell a compelling serious story, is on writing duty, and regular GONZO director Koichi Chigira fills his usual role with little flair.
Aegis of Uruk opens the series with the ever-popular Audience Fake Out Gambit. After opening with the stereotypical fantasy adventuring party preparing for combat with monsters, the show suddenly sidesteps into a oddly goofy bout of exposition explaining the setting, and then just into outright parody of every terrible cliché you’ve ever encountered in an RPG or fantasy adventure cartoon. He battles the serious male ally to get him to join the party (and complains about his choice of special attack name), he has a dramatic and tearful parting with the beautiful princess, one of his party members is suddenly and violently killed immediately after proclaiming that he’s going to marry his sweetheart once their quest is over, the party puts on protective eyewear before unleashing the required special attacks that bombard the screen with bright lights, and so on. As someone who has played entirely too many games exactly like this, it was delightfully cathartic to watch this episode drag some of worst the genre has to offer through the mud for our amusement. The Gurren-Lagann parody at the end was a bit much, but we’ll forgive it because it’s new and hip. Then you reach the end of the episode and the dream sequence ends. “Well,” I think, “I wonder what the actual show is going to be like!”
Turns out the joke’s on the viewer again. Much like how The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya turned out to be a mediocre high-school comedy about time-travelers, espers, sliders and aliens after mocking all of those tropes in the first episode of the TV broadcast, Aegis of Uruk is quite happy to indulge exactly the same type of material it mocked previously. The hero, being an incompetent newbie and therefore a liability, is promptly dumped from the party and wanders through town, showing off what an energetic and naïve optimist he is by standing in the town square and loudly proclaiming that he’ll be the one to conquer the tower, but he needs allies to do it! Because the show would go nowhere otherwise, he ends up recruiting a soft-spoken cleric woman (the love interest, since he accidentally witnesses her in a state of undress) and a strong, silent amazon. While they’re out enjoying the festivities (the king’s in town, you know), our hero eavesdrops on his former party in an alley. My goodness, they’re talking about a plot to assassinate the king! Our hero, being a sharp tack, immediately assumes his former comrades are the ones behind the plot, and moves to stop them, just in time to reach the king’s bedroom mid-assault. Guess who gets blamed for the crime? Boy, it wouldn’t be a crappy RPG if the hero isn’t thrown in jail at least once, preferably for a crime he didn’t commit!
When the show isn’t glancing over at its cheat sheet, it’s working in as many subtle references to the MMORPG it’s promoting as it can. It’s practically a primer on the game: you have to go yelling in the town square for a party, you need a balance of different classes, sometimes monsters will attack the town and it’s your job to defend it, make sure to get your gear repaired after going into the dungeon, etc. Their commitment to cross-promotion is admirable, but it doesn’t exactly make for enthralling TV. It’s entirely possible to make an entertaining show despite a reliance on stock characters (like the aloof magician, who appears to be in his late twenties and therefore is officially over the hill, and his sidekick, the preteen girl in gothic lolita attire), settings and storylines, and they just don’t manage it here. Add to that unremarkable art direction, middling animation, Hitoshi Sakimoto’s least remarkable score in recent memory, and stale humor when it’s not relying on mocking the genre, and you get a tedious viewing experience. It’s not just a bad show, it’s also boring.
But hey, you don’t have to take my word for it. Vote with your wallet, and watch this show for free online and never pay a damn cent for it! It’s the future.