DVD: £24.99; Blu-ray: £34.99
07 Oct 2014
In our review for part one of Robotics;Notes I remarked that it seemed to be setting itself up as a series of two halves - that it was difficult to definitvely judge the set-up of part one without experiencing the pay-off of part two. You need to download all of a file before the executable will properly run, so now that the connection is complete and the program fully patched, will it run smoothly or have we poisoned an evening's viewing with a clutch of viruses?
Life continues on the island of Tageshima, and despite the bitter disappointment of the failure of Gunbuild 1, the spunky and perky Aki is never one to be kept down for long and she bounces back up to persevere, now with JAXA's assistance. The result is the construction of a follow-up - Gunbuild 2 - for which she drags the rest of the hapless Robot Research Club along with her, of course. Kaito, as ever, is in the shadow of the growing robot, but for once it isn't just because he's preoccupied with Kill-Ballad. Even with Misaki's warning to stop investigating Kou Kimijima ringing in his ears, he still continues to search the island for the mysterious Kimijima Reports. The methods for accessing them seem increasingly bizarre and their contents are seem like outright fantasy - plots by an Illuminati-esque new world order to murder the sun and destroy the world... it sounds like a sci-fi game someone uploaded to the network. But as Kaito finds out as the fingers he's poking get bitten, more than a few people are taking those Kimijima Reports in absolute deadly earnestness... just what is going on here?
Robotics;Notes continues to look great, with a wide palette that remains leaps and bounds beyond the browns and beiges of Steins;Gate. There is great use of the "augmented reality" concept of viewing a new world through the window of a computer screen that isn't just a gimmick but becomes an integral part of the anime, and the CGI Kill-Ballad segments become a lot more active, varied and tightly-produced - really, they're put together so well I'm honestly surprised that there isn't a tie-in video game already being released alongside the anime. The number of landmarks that Kaito has to visit in order to unlock the Kimijima Reports (the launch pad of the Tanegashima Space Centre is also quite accurately and authentically recreated in the anime), along with the direct product-placement for the Japanese milk-based fizzy drink Skal, does give a strong impression of the anime's production committee pan-handling for a little otaku tourism - but the Pacific idyll is so pretty that I've no cause to complain, especially because this leads to some fun sequences in the first few episodes of this volume as Kaito uses a bit of lateral thinking to finagle his way around the challenges Gezi sets him to make the Kimijima Reports visible.
Unfortunately, that's about all I can say that's positive for those same first few episodes of part two. I've said in reviews for other titles that "forced drama" is a hackneyed term; that like "deconstruction" it is flung about with little appreciation for what it actually means by amateur commenters looking for superficial pejoratives; but nonetheless there are certain situations where, for as much as term is overused and cheapened, it does genuinely apply. A significant amount of the incidents in the third quarter of Robotics;Notes aren't so much forced as battered into you with a sledgehammer. A case in point is Subaru - he's badly injured in an accident when the Robot Research Club is testing Gunbuild 2. He could have avoided this just by moving five steps to the left or right, but he spends half a minute just staring paralysed in feaaaaaaaaar at the robot tipping over him... very... no, extremely... slowly. Maybe the fact that he ends up injured is more important for the interpersonal drama than how exactly it comes about, but it shows incompetent direction when solving it would have been as simple as having it fall over faster, or having it crush against and knock one of the crane's cables off its roller. This is especially so when, later on in a sequence, Subaru can dodge a crashing plane even when he's on crutches! The plane's crash itself is really dumb and completely gratuitous, again a directorial blooper. Fair enough that you want a dramatic arrival, but there are more fitting and contextual ways to do it, rather than having it just belly-flop onto the tarmac for... absolutely no reason whatsoever. Talking of misdirected action, these opening episodes must also feature the tamest and lamest robot uprising ever seen on television. The dialogue is telling us that chaos reigns in Tokyo as crazed malfunctioning robots are running amok and creating havoc, marching on the houses of parliament and causing panic and destruction all over the city... like a car getting its wing mirror knocked off. Yeah, this is nail-biting danger and exciting threat alright.
The members of the Robot Research Club also all have a number of personal problems that are thrown into relief as the stakes are raised. There's a rather glaring issue though that in these problems are utterly, pathetically asinine. When it was originally broadcast on Japanese television Robotics;Notes ran on Fuji TV's famous "Noitamina" programming slot; shows distinguished with that sort of position are usually regarded as being mature and advanced subjects for anime, but it doesn't seem deserved here as most of the cast's dramas would barely trouble a CBBC re-run of Playbus. Junna's strained relationship with Doc in particular is so utterly childish and insipid that I didn't find their reconciliation the least bit moving - I wanted to grab them both by the scruffs of their necks, bang their heads together and tell them to get over it already.
Subaru's difficulties with his father are so superficial they could be written on a postage stamp, and for too many episodes Aki's relationship with Misaki doesn't go anywhere beyond some unresolved sibling rivalry. Out of the whole club, the only member who really has a sympathetic reason for her hang-ups that I wasn't immediately rolling my eyes at is Frau, and her unresolved fears over her mother's disappearance. Even then, though, the tragedy is overcooked, and Frau's reaction to the notion that "someone is defiling Gunvarrel" is also silly despite the writers finding a creatively characterful way to escape the corner she was backing into.
There's also the problem that however desperate the situation might seem, we all know that everything is going to turn out just fine thanks to that completely unnecessary flash-forward to the anime's climax that we were shown right back at the start of episode one. I could understand the reasoning behind it as keeping the show light-hearted so that even in its darker moments the audience is encouraged and uplifted and borne on high happy spirits, but if they wanted a feel-good experience why sour it with all of these conspiracies and tragedies in the first place, particularly when they're going to be resolved with an appeal to love and justice anyway? As it is, it just keeps slapping you with mood whiplash.
That might seem to be a lot of negative comment - but it is concentrated in that third quarter of Robotics;Notes. As the anime enters its final arc it does make a significant rally and the quality of the drama markedly improves - even if the general arc has been set since episode one's cold-open, it still jigs a few squiggles along the line. Mizuka's incident when her walking-frame malfunctions could so easily have been ludicrously improbable melodrama but despite the director's other stumbles it actually comes across as genuinely harrowing - the sound of cracking bone when Kaito gets thrown off really made me wince. Despite the early spoiler we were given at the start of the series, that scene doesn't tip the hand about some surprising revelations about the true final purpose of the Kimijima Reports and the real will of some of the formerly-antagonistic characters which spins you around with enough of a twist to propel you on and past it. The final culmination, while it hits the usual expected beats of love, hard work and friendship, is nonetheless delivered with a lusty cheer. Sometimes it's not so bad to have a happy ending.
There are still a few issues though - a number of plot holes open up in the final chapters, as everyone appears to be informed of the villain's plan despite no-one communicating this information at any point; also, even if one plot is thwarted, everyone seems to have forgotten that there's a Committee of 300 who probably aren't going to let one setback tie them down. The monopoles which power Gunbuild through the finale are virtually a deus ex machina - they fall out of the sky, with no explanation! Throughout the series the anime also betrays its origins as a visual novel with a lot of tell-not-show that they didn't make the effort to rearrange, with multiple key revelations only being referenced after the event in dialogue (in particular the final fate of Frau's family) which again speaks of bad direction - if you won't adapt for the change of medium, just put up a Let's Play of the game on YouTube and leave it at that. The voice acting which relates this dialogue remains decent though. I was really far too hard on Frau's leet-speak in my review for part one - it's grown on me, and I regret dismissing it as loftily as I did earlier. Also, while I prefer the first half's opening and ending sequences, the music remains a strong accompaniment to the action - the theme they play over the animated menus on the discs is an pleasantly chirpy little ditty that I've just let run on and loop around and quite enjoyed listening to. Related to Frau's computer language is another thing that must be praised - the subtitling. With a lot of the action of Robotics;Notes taking place on computer screens and in chat room message prompts (not to mention the Kimijima Reports themselves) there is a great deal of text to read. It's an excellent effort from FUNimation shows the attention-to-detail that has been invested to translate and subtitle these messages, right down to small things like the names on food labels - having something to go back to and read on pause and frame-by-frame advancement is one of the advantages of the DVD medium and it's good that there are some features that can actually make use of it, improving value-add.
Speaking of value-add, the cast seem quite genuinely animated by the material in the episode commentaries, and the second half of the Science Adventure round-table discussion does become more specifically focused on the implications of Robotics;Notes in this release - it's good to see Western staff having this much direct engagement with the material because it reassures you that dubs and translations are not just a hurried dash-off and the sense of consideration adds depth.
Robotics;Notes makes an embarrassing number of errors in part two, and with cryogenic sleep and piles of magnetic monopoles like manna from heaven (a physicist friend of mine almost gagged when I told him what was being done with these things in the show, discovering real ones would be an essential step to confirming the great Theory Of Everything), the overall franchise's concept of a relatively-grounded "Science" Adventure is maybe becoming a bit strained. Robotics;Notes does make up for it though with a feel-good heart for its own personality, mustering itself for a burst over the finish line as a shonen adventure with enough drive to not be schmaltzy but stirring.