Saturday, August 20, 2011

Anime Review: 'Gosick'

Gosick, directed by Hitoshi Nanda.  Starring Aoi Yuki, Takuya Eguchi, and Hidenof Kiuchi.  Studio BONES, 2011.  24 half-hour episodes.  Not rated.

At time of writing, Gosick is only available in English via live streaming through Crunchyroll.

It's me, Snuffles T. Dragon, and after a long hiatus because Deej had the computer with him in a mountain fotress guarded by trebuchets . . . it's a long story . . . I'm back.

I have just recently finished making my way through the 24-episode run of Gosick, based on a series of light novels by Kazuki Sakuraba.  Kalium at MegaTokyo describes it as more or less the best new anime series of 2011; I don't know if that's true because I don't waste quite that much time watching anime (I have to reserve some time for reading manga, listening to death metal, and shredding the Deej's American comic book collection, after all), but one way or the other, it's pretty darn good.  Gosick attempts to blend three genres:  murder mystery, political thriller, and more-or-less standard-issue magical girlfriend romcom.  These three often jostle each other on stage and frequently fail to get along, and the show's well-meant attempt at Deep Meaning™ ultimately falls flat, but the visuals are consistently beautiful and Gosick succeeds exactly where it might be first expected to fail:  In spite of its use of shop-worn tropes, it is an excellent love story.  Though weak in some areas, it accomplishes its main goal and does it with an unusual amount of class.

Our heroes.

The year is 1924 in an alternate universe where the timeline of the 20th century has been condensed for plot convenience, and the place is a fictional francophone European country called Saubure (or Sauville in some translations).  Like most anime, the story is set in a prestigious university-like high school with a curiously invisible faculty, in this case St. Marguerite Academy, which pulls in a large number of foreign students.  Our hero is the good-natured but somewhat befuddled Japanese exchange student Kazuya Kujo (Takuya Eguchi), more commonly known as the Black Reaper because the superstitious, ghost story-addled student body has decided that his black hair and Asian features mark him as the harbinger of death.  While exploring the academy's towering library (which has visuals apparently borrowed from the moving staircase of the Harry Potter films), Kujo discovers an arboretum on the top floor, which is inhabited by Victorique de Blois, a very weird girl with a nasty personality and an addiction to candy and books, who wears Victorian dresses and smokes a pipe, and who receives regular visits from her dimwitted half-brother Inspector Grevil (Hidenobu Kiuchi), who uses her superior mind to solve murder cases.

Kujo quickly becomes Watson to Victorique's Holmes, and true to the dire label he has received from other students, he has a remarkable propensity for witnessing murders, finding corpses, and getting otherwise caught up in intrigue, which Victorique is happy to solve as a way of staving off her perpetual ennui.  With a great deal of patience--and a lot of sweets--he also gradually manages to get on Victorique's good side, largely by taking beatings to protect her whenever their adventures get them into scrapes.

The softer side of Gosick.

Gosick likes to keep at least two muder mysteries going at a time and generally takes about three episodes to wrap up one story.  As the series progresses, the overarching plot involving a political battle between Saubure's Science Academy and its Ministry of the Occult starts to take over and by about the middle of the series, Gosick only faintly resembles a mystery show.  We get a lot of backstory involving Victorique's diabolical father, the Marquis de Blois (Takayuki Sugo), who kept Victorique locked in a stone tower through most of her childhood, as well as her mysterious mother Cordelia Gallo (Miyuki Sawashiro), whom the marquis apparently chained up in a basement and raped repeatedly (that's probably a spoiler, but I figure it's only fair to warn you about that one).  On top of that, World War II threatens to start a decade ahead of schedule.  The Marquis and the Ministry of the Occult have big plans to use Victorique as a pawn of some unspecified sort in a power grab involving alliance with Germany, and as she and Kujo grow closer together emotionally, they are nonetheless repeatedly torn from each other by events outside their control.

Whew.  I got tired just writing that.  Gosick is big and bold:  it wants to do everything, and it wants to do all of it in a mere twenty-four half-hour episodes.  That's innumerable murders, a love story, a lot of intrigue, several head-spinning plot twists, and a world war that have to be dealt with in only twelve hours, including commercials.  I don't know about you, but that's more than I've gotten done today.

Gosick's biggest fault is that it's rushed, which causes its various elements to bump against each other in such a way that they don't get developed properly.  Heck, even world politics get rushed in this show, with Germany invading Poland in 1925.  Some murder mysteries are solved so quickly and off-handedly that it's a mystery why they were introduced at all, while others suffer from an excess of complexity (and implausibility) delivered at too rapid a pace.  The overarching story has a few serious plot holes:  most importantly, we never learn what exactly the Marquis de Blois wants to do with Victorique, except use her as a sort of mascot or figurehead, which is nonsensical, considering that the marquis considers her mental prowess to be of such importance.  And though Gosick does a great job with its two central characters (more on that in a moment), it fails to develop any but one of the others.  The marquis is a mere cardboard villain, committing evil for evil's sake, and Cordelia Gallo gets few scenes and little exploration.  The most underused character is the blonde, blue-eyed, and bubbly English exchange student Avril Bradley (Noriko Shitaya), who develops a crush on Kujo, but, instead of becoming a proper third leg of a love triangle, ends up being merely a third wheel, getting no development and having little role in the story.  Only Inspector Grevil gets rounded out, turning out to be more than the buffoon he appears to be at first.

Anyone who holds his wine glass like that has got to be evil.

But even though Gosick leaves much to be desired in some departments and even fails to satisfy completely as a murder mystery show, it has such slick visuals and succeeds so well in developing its two protagonists that the failings barely matter.  This is surprising--or maybe predictable, depending on how you view things--since Kujo and Victorique are both pulled from the grab-bag of ready-made anime stock characters:  Kujo is the standard good-natured, bumbling Japanese schoolboy with inexplicable babe magnetism, and Victorique is the standard high-maintenance tsundere girlfriend with a magic power, though her "power" in this case is a knack for solving mysteries.  With a great deal of patience, chivalry, fortitude, and physical endurance, Kujo manages over time to break through Victorique's chilly façade, which we soon learn is not merely a romcom plot device, but the outcome of a lifetime of abuse.  Their relationship is never clearly defined as romantic and physically extends no further than hand-holding, but thanks to some sharp writing, excellent character design, and impressive voice performances, by the time the last half-dozen episodes roll around and Kujo and Victorique are struggling, perhaps in vain, against a combination of national politics and global war just to be together, their plight is both deeply moving and entirely believable.  You can, so to speak, feel the love.

This works so well in large part because the show is clearly in love with all that inspired it.  It gives unabashed nods to Sherlock Holmes (most particularly in Victorique's pipe) and without either snidery or lampshade-hanging, draws in classic murder mystery scenarios and Gothic trappings.  The environments are painted with beautiful detail, and Victorique's array of elaborate dresses shows evidence both of careful research and of a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in the animation department.  The show eschews fanservice and cheap gimmicks, and Kujo, while a bit thickheaded, consistently behaves with old-fashioned gallantry toward Victorique, sometimes suffering some severe beatings to protect her.  Some of the most simple and touching scenes are the ones in which Kujo picks up Victorique and carries her to avoid or escape some danger.

If Gosick is strongest in its wholesome display of love, it is probably weakest in its attempt to deal with Deep Meaning™ and Larger Issues™.  As is customary in murder mysteries, all supposedly supernatural happenings are exposed as fakery and parlor tricks, but as the main plot takes over, we get a battle between the Ministry of the Occult and the Science Academy, with the ultimate message, delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, being that Way Smart People don't believe in magic because SCIENCE!  That would be less annoying if the show could resist using magic as a plot device:  We learn that the Ministry of the Occult had, thanks to an especially gruesome form of augury, accurately predicted the outcome of the Great War, and when Victorique and Kujo are told by a necromancer channeling spirits that another great war is coming "many years from now" (which in Gosick's collapsed timeline apparently translates as "next month") that will separate them forever, they both believe it without question and rage against fate rather than dismiss it as poppycock.  World War II is even blamed on an excessive credulity toward fairy tales, and the show ends with a paean to science, technology, and progress, delivered unironically after scenes of aeroplanes carpet-bombing cities.

This war between science and magic is artificial; C. S. Lewis, who ought to know, points out that the two grew up together.  Besides that, this championing of technology is oddly misplaced, since the story occurs in an era when global war dashed naïve optimism in vaguely defined progress.  And let us not forget that eugenics, which the Nazis finally made unpopular, was widely accepted by the scientific minds of the day as sound science.

I would pass over this with a mere hand-wave except Gosick's war between Science and Occult always places religion in the Occult camp. This may be due to the same innocent ignorance that informs most depictions of Christianity in anime; it may be that some Japanese men looking at the West have a hard time distinguishing a Christian from a magician just as Western men have had notorious difficulty parsing Eastern religions and traditions.   It's also worth noting that Gosick evinces little interest in religion as such and only rarely mentions it directly.  Still, I find it unfortunate that the archvillain insists on dressing in a white cassock with a crucifix, and that one of the strongholds of occultism in the show is a Catholic convent (with the un-convent-like name of "Beelzebub's Skull," no less).  At any rate, this is backwards:  the Catholic Church has tended to take a high view of science and a low view of the occult; if a political battle occurred between the two, it's not hard to guess which side she'd be on.

Content:  Here's the little section of the review made with the Christian parent in mind.  We've decided we don't much like the "laundry list" style of describing potentially objectionable content, so please be patient as I deliver more essay.  Gosick contains no cheesecake or other prurient sexual content, and is in fact most restrained exactly when it has most opportunity to be exploitative.  As a show about murders with homages to Gothic fiction, it of course contains a variety of outré deaths, including beheadings, stabbings, poisonings, and so forth; violence is generally both brief and quite brutal, but not what I would consider excessive.  Rape, kidnapping, and child abuse are recurring themes, but are implied rather than directly depicted.  It's probably not for the smallest children.  Gosick's pro-chivarly stance and (apparent) anti-religious stance look about equal in my mind, so I leave it to the informed reader to make up his own mind about it.
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