First Look: Mekakucity Actors

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Alternative titles: Kagerou Project, KagePro
Vocaloid song/Light novel adaptation by Shaft
Streaming on Crunchyroll

Premise

Shintaro hasn’t left the house for two years, spending most of his time grieving a girl he used to know and being annoyed by Ene, a nosey AI living on his computer. One day, an unfortunate accident forces him to go out shopping and even worse, he ends up in a hostage situation. Luckily, with some help from Ene and a mysterious other boy, Shintaro finds the power to fight back.

Aqua’s verdict: Just Talkin’ In The Database

I always envisioned Shaft as a rag-tag bunch of stoners who got together to digest their collective expulsion from pretentious art school and bathe in Bakemonogatari money. One day, however, someone found the entrance to their secret meth lab, grabbed the lot of them by the collar, slapped them around a bit and told them to put their talents to good use for once. The result was Puella Magi Madoka Magica, up to this date the only show not named Hidamari Sketch that managed to actually blend Shaft’s trademark visual symbolism with the story it was trying to tell. After said second infusion of delicious yens, however, Shinbo and co. soon reverted back to their early Animal Collective days, firing all their writers with actual talent and making show after show of psychedelic nonsense about glorifying incest and locking yourself in your room to browse the Internet all day long. Dressing the pulpiest, lowest common denominator schlock up in an artsy-fartsy wrapping is an aesthetic as good as any, but any artist knows that aesthetics tend to get old rather quickly. At risk of entirely disappearing up its own bottom, Shaft is in dire need of a new masterpiece. Mekakucity Actors is anything but.

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I want to like Mekakucity Actors. It’s the sort of obscure weird thing all the cool kids are into — for the uninitiated, Mekakucity Actors is the adaptation of series of a light novels, based on a cycle of Vocaloid music videos collectively known as Kagerou Project — and I’m always up for stylish urban fantasy shows about superpowered hipsters. Well, almost always. Yet Mekakucity Actors seems a far cry from the snazzy, character-driven show I’ve heard so much about. In fact, it’s much closer to what Bakemonogatari became after it stopped being fresh, a seemingly endless torrent of pointless, meandering dialogue, cutaways and annoyingly vague pontificating about the most irrelevant of subjects. Ene, creative as her visual antics may be, doesn’t stop blathering even when Shintaro’s life is in danger and the ending of the episode is complete, unadulterated nonsense. I’ve always found Shaft’s aesthetic to be absolutely fascinating, but the fact remains that symbolism for symbolism’s sake loses its meaning. No matter how edgy and clever it may purport to be, Mekaku City Actors, like many shows before it, lacks the wit to truly benefit from Shaft’s style.

What remains are two entirely different shows existing on top of each other in a world of their own: a bizarrely engrossing visual tour de force, and the absolutely banal tale of a loser who goes out shopping with the moe equivalent of Microsoft Office’s Clippy. Never do they manage to truly blend, and once the episode ending rolls around, neither of them can make clear to any but the most hardcore of viewers what the hell just happened. Was it all just a dream? Did Shintaro travel through time? Did the Third Impact happen? If symbolism fails to convey a symbolic story, it cannot justify its purpose. It’s what sets something clever apart from something artificial. Right now, Mekakucity Actors is artificial. The glue that’s meant to tie all of its aspects together simply isn’t there, leaving us with little else than a loquacious curiosity. It’s not what I expected it to be, but most of all it is nothing at all. Like Bakemonogatari, it confuses improbability with wit, talkiness with intellect and absurdity with depth. Yet I can’t keep myself from remaining interested in Mekakucity Actors. For all its hooplah, it has some interesting ideas, portrays Shintaro’s grief over the girl relatively competently and Shinbo’s directing remains as enthralling as ever, despite being the cinematographic equivalent of hot air. I’ll stick with Mekakucity Actors for a while longer, just to see what all the hype is about. I’ve seen worse things get immensely popular.

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Marlin’s Verdict: A Long Sentence with Nothing Said.

The parallels with many other SHAFT works is quite obvious when it comes to this show. Its propensity for ridiculous home design and tendency to let people shifting around count as action are in full display, and this time I don’t think it’s a good thing. For all its pontificating, Bakemonogatari at least usually had one of two goals with its weighty monologues. Either it was meant to explain a more nuanced part of the plot, or it was setting up for a joke. Mekaku City Actors seems to opt for neither, being somewhat flat and more than a little annoying. This is not helped by Ene, a walking nag machine that engenders no positive response every time she appears on screen. The very nature of the show has been left somewhat frustratingly vague as well. It’s to be assumed the various people in the ED have special powers. The thing is, what are they, and what’s their purpose? All this episode showed to us is that it seems like Shintaro can control earthquakes, and there are a bunch of random other dudes who also like to be smug and mysterious for no apparent reason. That said, I’ve wasted my time on worse things. I have liked a number of SHAFT properites, might be worth it to stick around for episode two at the very least.

Iro’s Verdict: Beautiful Nothing

Mekakucity Actors seems to suffer from the same problem as an unfortunate number of anime tend to nowadays: too much talking about a whole lot of nothing. It’s pretty, full of lavish backgrounds and fancy colors, but there’s no narrative substance here. When I should have been intrigued or interested, I was instead bored and annoyed by insufferable, otaku-pandering characters making small talk about pointless things. It very nearly put me to sleep, and I wasn’t even watching it alone. I guess I just have bad taste?

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Zigg’s Verdict: Lost Soul

Mekaku City Actors feels like it was a project designed and conceived by a committee. It’s beautifully drawn, with an eye to intriguing concepts and grand aspirations, and it’s executed with all the finesse and flair of a precisely targeted focus group. No matter how brilliant Akiyuki Shinbo’s artistic vision is (and it becomes less and less interesting the more we see it repeated), he can’t hide the cold unfeeling heart of what’s up on screen. Character writing is non-existant, with protagonist Shintaro the blankest of blank otaku surrogates, and AI waifu Ene perhaps the most irritating character to appear on my screen in quite some time. The show talks big and aims for intelligence, but it’s a false front – a lot is said but very little is actually conveyed, and a lot of things are hinted at but no indication is given as to why we should care. There are intriguing ideas at play here – Shintaro’s mystery girl is one plot thread I could see going somewhere with careful handling – but it’s too convoluted for its own good, wrapping its cloak of ambiguity around even basic tenets of storytelling. It’s a gorgeous paean to the Bakemonogatari set who will no doubt eagerly gobble up its false attempts at profundity, but to be any more than a curio it’ll have to demonstrate it can make me care, not jut make me coo.

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