First Look: Arte

Alternative title(s): Seriously, no one had the idea to name this Renaissance Girl?
Manga Adaptation by Seven Arcs
Streaming on Funimation

Premise

Following the recent passing of her father, a young noblewoman named Arte decides to leave her sheltered life behind and pursue a career in art. In 16th century Florence, however, that is easier said than done for a girl.

Aqua’s verdict: Ganbarenaissance

At first glance, Arte seems to kick off with the kind of premise connaisseurs desperate for anime to grow the heck up already would crave. Reading about Kei Ohkubo’s original manga, I immediately envisioned a gorgeous, yet ultimately nuanced deep dive into the complex world of ancient régime artisanship, the struggles that women could have faced in that era in spite of their class and the role that art played in the machiavellist political and religious power struggles of that era. Those expectations, however, failed to take into account just how tenacious anime tropes can be. An anime, in the end, is not a historical novel or a prestige television series. It has its own set of values and formalities, and from its very first minutes on, Arte makes clear that within these conventions, its premise is a lot less interesting that it could have been.

Rather than a layered period drama, what Arte ultimately is, is the story we’ve seen told countless times before — that of the spunky heroine whose passion, determination and eternal optimism helps her to overcome any obstacle and — as our own Jel would put it — “ganbare her way to the top”. On the sliding scale from historically accurate pragmatism to obnoxious idealism, this show doesn’t come especially close to being Ye Olde Love Live!, but the conventionality of it all is enough to drain much of my excitement.

The lip-service paid to the sexism a woman like Arte would face in the 16th century, for example, is both too shallow and lacking in intersectionality to be meaningful in any way, and too bland to genuinely make Arte the bold slice of revisionism it could have been. I honestly wouldn’t have minded the lack of historical weight if this show had given me, I dunno, Arte punching the pope in the face instead, but this milquetoast middle ground really doesn’t do it — or her, for that matter — any favours. Any hint of obstruction that could have persisted as a story in itself becomes yet another obstacle for Arte to dauntlessly bulldoze over, to the point where she overcomes so much in the span of just this one episode that it makes you wonder what the heck the rest of the show is going to be about.

It doesn’t help that the original manga’s greatest asset gets reduced to a dull facsimile. While Seven Arcs stay superficially true to Kei Ohkubo’s art style and the brightly coloured garishness of what we imagine the renaissance must have looked like, the texture and detail that make the source spring to life are gone. Seven Arcs’ Florence feels like a movie set, rather than the bustling, lived-in city it should be, and the less said about the music, the better. While the manga is able to hide its modern-day sensibilities underneath its evocative artwork, the adaptation exposes itself as a thematically somewhat incoherent slog that, at least for now, is as much about renaissance art as K-ON! is about class warfare. It’s not unusual for anime adaptations to suffer from having to hammer the manga’s original visuals down until they’re flatter than film, but the wound is especially deep for a story that is supposed to be all about beautiful art — especially if the many additional modes of meaning animation adds don’t fail to fill the gap.

In the end, this leaves us with a show that would have looked, sounded, been directed and even been written more or less the exact same had it been about a girl striving to become a philosopher in Ancient Greece, a knight in Medieval France or, heck, a pop star in modern Japan. Certainly, Arte is not a bad show by any meaning of the word. Folks who’ll gladly watch yet another overenthusiastic ingénue pluck her way through a series of petty hardships will find plenty to like here, and at the very least, Arte is not as obnoxious about it as shows like this tend to get. Yet that is not what got me interested in this series, and what got me interested in this series is barely even here. Never judge a book by its cover, they say. Unfortunately, that also works in ways you don’t want it to.

Artemis’ verdict: Exasperating Snoozefest

Whenever I watch any anime set outside Japan and taking place pre-1900s, I automatically prepare myself for the worst in terms of historical accuracy, like the laughably off-base clothing or the somehow still-distinctly Japanese mannerisms. After all, it’s not as though I expect an anime series to do the same amount of research or have the same kind of resources available as someone in charge of a live-action historical drama. But when the entire premise itself is this blatantly exaggerated (while still an unconventional role for an aristocratic woman, there were in fact a number of female artists in the Renaissance period – famously so, actually – and you’d think even an anime studio would be capable of doing a quick Wikipedia search on the topic), I just can’t bring myself to take the show even the slightest bit seriously. Watching the cartoonishly villain-ish renaissance artists literally tossing an aristocratic woman violently back out onto the street for even daring to cross their threshold was an eye-rollingly painful experience.

If this wasn’t enough, the tired stereotypes of our main characters had me sighing audibly at the screen. There’s the spunky female lead who, with hard work and sheer tenacity, of course, will eventually prove to everyone that women can do anything, even (gasp) paint for a living. There’s the gruffly cynical older male teacher figure with a hidden heart of gold who’ll intentionally set (nearly) impossible tasks, yet also eventually be struck by his apprentice’s instinctual talent and creative purity. On the sidelines stand the family naysayers who are just shocked, shocked I tell you, by this unseemly flouting of tradition. It’s almost like the story was written by a bot. Look, I don’t want to be too down on this series, because it’s mildly pretty to look at I guess, and promises to be both completely inoffensive and easy to digest. Maybe in these times, that’s exactly what some viewers are looking for. It’s definitely not for me, though.

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