A Very GLORIO 2022: Zigg’s State of the Union

I tend to begin this annual post by looking back to what I wrote in previous years, partly because it helps me wrap my head around the writing format, but mostly because it’s fun and intriguing to study the big picture trends in what I’ve watched and how I’ve felt about it. In the past few years, I’ve put a lot of emphasis on original shows and productions, as they felt very much at the vanguard of what was changing within the anime industry. In contrast, and possibly as a reaction to the COVID pandemic continuing throughout much of the year in Japan, 2022 felt like a year dominated by high-profile sequels, franchise entries, and adaptations. That’s not to say there weren’t original works of high quality, and we’ll get to those, but it was definitely a year in which ‘safer’, more commercial shows pushed back to the forefront of the conversation.

Any discussion about franchise works has to start with the big one, the first new ‘mainline’ Gundam TV show in seven years. It’s an interesting time for the Gundam franchise, with its profile worldwide rapidly growing following the highly popular Iron-Blooded Orphans, the increasing emergence of gunpla building as a mainstream hobby, and near constant Hollywood rumours swirling. In that context, I actually think The Witch from Mercury is fairly brave and fascinating creative choice, deliberately spurning the more gritty, hardbitten style of IBO for a lighter, female-led, and more overtly sci-fi story. My major criticism so far is that we’ve had a relative lack of weightier political drama, but the show has certainly planted plenty of seeds for that to occur in the future. In the meantime, its deft handling of character and humour, not always noted Gundam strengths, has been a pleasant surprise, and the show overall has a rather delightfully light and airy feeling, without ever straying into flighty or insubstantial. The creative choices seem to be working too, with the show attracting fans from far outside the usual mech fan circles, and it remains a must watch show even as it prepares to break before a second half later in the new year.

Studio Trigger’s Cyberpunk: Edgerunners occupies an interesting space somewhat adjacent to Gundam in categorisation, in that while it is clearly part of a big franchise it’s also largely an original story within that framework. The history of collaborations between big-name western properties and anime studios is a little rocky, but has been picking up in recent years, and this was yet another important step down that road. It probably helps that the project had some distance from the highly contentious source game too. Regardless, with Hiroyuki Imaishi at the helm, and the combination of Trigger talent and CD Projekt’s deep pockets, we expected visual fireworks and we definitely got those in abundance. Nevertheless, I have to profess my slight disappointment in Edgerunners, although at the same time I acknowledge that it’s a good, maybe even an excellent show. For me, what I really wanted was a little more narrative gristle, a little more ‘punk’ to go with the abundance of ‘cyber’. Sure, there’s lots of violence, pretty much everyone dies, and there are the requisite swipes at corporate capitalism and questions around transhumanism, but that’s basically entry-level stakes in the genre. It can be very hard to find something new to say about the themes that are endemic to the genre, so well ploughed are the tropes, but Edgerunners still felt a little surface level to me. There’s also the fact that Imaishi’s frenzied cartoonish-ness is occasionally a bad match for a genre that has always majored in dark noir, making a few scenes which are probably meant to be serious unintentionally hilarious as a result. With all that said, the show was still an utter delight to the eye and ear, and it’d be churlish to complain too much about a show which was never less than frantic and fun.

The manga adaptation world in 2022 was very much dominated by the shadow of two Shonen Jump titans premiering in the animated space, with Spy X Family beginning in the spring and Chainsaw Man topping the bill of the autumn season. While both drew huge support from their bestselling source, in many respects they couldn’t be more different. Spy X Family has rapidly ascended to become something of an anime poster child, a sweet, funny and friendly show that largely tamps down the darker edges of its premise, and instead focuses on delightful set-piece comedy. The balance between dry witticism and goofy slapstick is navigated perfectly, and in Anya we’ve got a face-pulling gremlin up there with the very best, a potential rival to GLORIO mascot Yotsuba for precocious superstar. My only real concern about SxF is how long they can keep the laughs coming from this setup – already the story largely sidelines Yor on the grounds it’s kind of hard to be sweet about contract killing – but that aside, it’s fabulous candy-floss entertainment that won’t make people look at you weird for watching it on the bus.

On the other hand, Chainsaw Man is the kind of show that should inspire that reaction. Everything about the show should be calling for a return of the moral panic brigade, a call to arms for the BAN THIS SICK FILTH coalition. Murder! Devils! Blood and gore! Tits! Smoking and drinking! Put all of that together and…it’s pretty boring actually. Chainsaw Man has been received near rapturously by a large proportion of the audience (and, just to be clear, more power to them) but reception has been frosty around these parts, and I think the big issue is a mismatch between the presentation and the material. MAPPA’s production aims for a slick, cinematic presentation that definitely makes the production stand out from the norm, and the action scenes are frequently spectacular, especially in the final few episodes. But the languid pacing and stiff, cold CGI characters render the show distant and uninvolving, and make the frequent jokes and misanthropic goofs fall flat into dead air. While I appreciate the attempt to go in a different direction than you’d expect, there’s only so highbrow you can make a story about a man made of chainsaws cutting up demons, so maybe it would have been better to embrace the inherent schlockery of the source material a little more.

While these were the biggest hitters of the adaptation game, there were plenty of lower profile projects of varying quality. Most notable, for us here at GLORIO, was the sad case of the Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer. While it’s not as defining a work for myself as for some other members of the crew, it’s a terrific manga with an abundance of excellent writing, and it deserved infinitely better than the ugly, lazy show that was tossed out to die. On the more positive side, despite plenty of problems, I did ultimately enjoy the latest season of Made in Abyss, though I think I said everything about it I need to say in my Final Thoughts piece. Related to the swathe of fresh adaptations was a wave of sequels and remakes, including some that you wouldn’t necessarily expect. I can’t say I was anticipating Urusei Yatsura or Tokyo Mew Mew remakes for example, or a new instalment in the Black Rock Shooter franchise.

What about new, original material? 2022 didn’t match up to 2021 in that regard, but given how strong last year’s slate was that was always going to be a tough call. Original shows that stood out to me included Mitsuo Iso’s return to TV anime with The Orbital Children, a smart, charming and thoughtful look at childhood, technology and artificial intelligence that acts as a solid companion piece to his seminal Den-noh Coil. It feels a little rushed and gets bogged down a bit in dense dialogue and ideas in the back half, but it’s still one of the most charming and intriguing shows of the year. Lycoris Recoil was probably the closest an original work got to being a breakout hit (as endorsed by Hideo Kojima!) but I never found myself liking it much – the peppy slice-of-life lesbians stuff just never meshes well with the pseudo-political action assassin stuff, and there’s much more of the former than the latter.

Really, all of that mainstream love should have been given to the utterly ludicrous Birdie Wing – Golf Girls’ Story, an absolute triumph of silliness over common sense, and proof that if you dedicate yourself entirely to the joke you can produce something both very special and spectacularly deranged. Sequences like the unforgettable ‘tears of a pac-man’ or the outrageous gangland execution scene wouldn’t be anywhere near as funny if the show didn’t present them with such an unerring straight face, but it absolutely does, while at the same time showing ample comedic craft and timing to make the jokes land that much harder. Truly a triumph for the much diminished subgenre of ‘Weird Shit that just makes you go what?’. Plus, there was a Turn-A Gundam cameo so I’m contractually obliged to like it.

In the world of tokusatsu, the year has been dominated by a pair of high profile anniversary projects. Shin Higuchi and Hideaki Anno’s much delayed Shin Ultraman finally made it to the screen, and while it’s a less ambitious and incisive film than their Godzilla reboot, the passion for the source material is immediate and obvious. Its attempt to condense the whole of the 1966 show into under two hours means that it’s a bitty,  obviously episodic production, which can be hard to follow without a grasp of the original, but it’s also full of wonderfully goofy sequences and loving in-jokes and homages which make watching it a real pleasure. Over on the streaming side, Kamen Rider BLACK SUN showed admirable bravery in re-imagining the beloved 1987 original into a nakedly political contemporary drama. Subtle it was not, but highly effective it was, and it proved that there’s still a place for grittier, more adult-oriented tokusatsu when done this well. On TV though, Kamen Rider Revice was a largely mediocre effort that plodded along without ever threatening to self-destruct to the same extent as Saber before it. Avataro Sentai Donbrothers did get pretty close to that level though, its awful CGI team members a self-inflicted wound from which even a decent show would find it near impossible to recover from. Tokusatsu even ventured into the animated realm this year with Fuuto Pi, a faithful sequel to Kamen Rider W that I enjoyed more than I thought I would, though I could probably do without the excess levels of horniness present.

As you might be able to tell from the scattershot nature of this post, anime has been all over the place this year. That’s pretty much to be expected though, as Japan and the world slowly creep back out into the light after a bruising couple of years. I don’t think that 2022 has had a defining show or a production that has really taken the discourse by the scruff of the neck, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s been a year to appreciate the vast breadth and scope of the anime world, to celebrate its diversity of thought and artistic intent. As ever, thank you very much for all of your support through the year, and here’s to a 2023 packed with great shows and great times.

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