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Review: “Guilty Crown Complete Series” – The Crime of Being a Mess

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Guilty CrownOn the surface, Guilty Crown has a lot of what it takes to be a spectacular sci-fi action series. It has a near-future societal outlook. It borrows liberally from recent headlines detailing biological outbreaks and social unrest (perhaps it even hits harder for Americans due to the increasing Ebola scare). It has creative, unique mecha design. It has a powerful, roaring soundtrack worthy of a Hollywood film. And it has a massive budget allowing for fluid animation in virtually every episode. Unfortunately, the pieces do not come together, and the ridiculous, resulting ludicrousness is a guilty pleasure at best, and a mind-numbing illogical mess at worst.

The series takes place in 2039, ten years after a devastating crystallization disease known as the Apocalypse Virus ravaged Japan, resulting in what became known as Lost Christmas. An international coalition led by China and the USA, known as GHQ, intervened to suppress the virus and restore law and order, but the end result is that Japan is independent in name only. Underground resistance groups, a prominent one being named Funeral Parlor, have risen up against the GHQ to re-assert Japan’s independence.

Sounds like a pretty strong sci-fi political thriller setup on paper, right? Unfortunately, it’s the characters and the manifestation of weirdness that derails this promising (if derived from Code Geass) world-building.

Guilty CrownShu Ouma is an antisocial high school student who happens to be a big fan of Inori, the lead singer for EGOIST, a young J-pop group who has taken the Internet by storm. While on the way to one of his favorite places to hang out in private, he conveniently discovers Inori, wounded and hiding in his hiding spot, before the GHQ comes and takes her. However, before that happens, Inori entrusts Shu with a device to take to a man named “Gai,” the leader of Funeral Parlor. Blaming himself for allowing Inori’s capture, Shu decides to head to Gai, but when he does, the GHQ makes a move on Gai’s headquarters, and Shu winds up being exposed to what he was supposed to deliver to Gai, a “Void Genome.” This sci-fi nano-whatsit grants Shu something called the “King’s Mark” on his right hand, which bestows the power to reach inside someone’s body and extract a weapon, or “Void,” from it. This power in turn is called the “Power of Kings”.

This science fantasy oddness deeply clashes with the geopolitical world-building we had been presented with. It does not help that shortly afterwards we descend into several moments of school slice-of-life dramedy, which causes several moments of total mood whiplash. Contrived conveniences also drive the plot to the very end (to describe them in detail would involve a heavy dose of spoilers). There is nothing wrong with conveniences, but relying on them to the extent that Guilty Crown‘s story does fails to add a sense of “everything is connected,” which was likely what the staff was going for. It’s the pure convenience of these connections, plus how often the story relies on Shu and Gai pulling things out of their proverbial asses, that causes this sense of “of course it’s this way!” instead “oh cool I can’t believe it!” Guilty Crown‘s downfall is ultimately due to a combination of the abuse of this storytelling method and the show’s failure to establish any sense of identity after the initial genre mish-mash.

Guilty CrownShu Ouma also proves to be a weak, illogical protagonist. There is nothing wrong with an apathetic, antisocial protagonist in a story; Robotics;Notes deftly demonstrated how one can be pulled off. However, Shu has no charisma, yet he’s counted on to be a leader. He seems to be brain-dead for much of the time, but then he winds up being thrust into a position to make important decisions. He is impenetrable to the the audience, impossible to identify with in the vein of Shinji Ikari (Evangelion) and Yukiteru Amano (Future Diary). And when granted with the opportunity to make a positive difference, he usually winds up making things worse. This is especially true after the events of episode 15, where Shu’s character undergoes a rapid transformation for the worse. It was difficult for me to not think of him as anything else other than a sociopathic dictator.

Perhaps it’s the show’s point that Shu is a sociopath, but this isn’t the kind of story to have that sort of character be our hero. When we are expected to choose a side to root for, this type of character as the hero is detrimental to the plot and to the show as a whole. It also forces the producers to make the GHQ cartoonishly-evil to compensate that the heroic side just doesn’t have that many heroic figures.

That’s not to say that sociopaths can’t work as lead characters. Light Yagami was a memorable mix of sociopathic and psychopathic tendencies in Death Note. But Light was also a villainous protagonist, and there were definite good guys working against him. Part of the joy in watching Death Note was seeing how Light would scheme his way out of every bad situation he wound up in, and seeing how the walls would finally close in and end his attempt at subjugating humanity. But Shu at his worst never manages to come anywhere close to the entertaining villainy that Light was able to provide.

Guilty CrownThis is a shame, because head writer Hiroyuki Yoshino and his staff managed to concoct a memorable heroine that connects with the audience, and who could have carried the series on her shoulders. Her name is Ayase Shinomaya. She is paralyzed from the waist down, but is determined to make a difference for a Japan and manages to pilot one of the mecha owned by Funeral Parlor, called an “Endlave.” She shows leadership and heroism in bad situations, with her disability serving as a source of both character strength and flaws, granting her layers and depth. There is an emotional resonance to her character arc, especially when it seems that she’ll take the main character role from Shu late in the show. Strong vocal performances in both Japanese (Kana Hanazawa) and English (Emily Neves) make her character empathetic and relatable. Shu only joins Funeral Parlor out of a desire to not hate himself. Ayase is doing it because she wants to help people and fight for what she believes in, which is a far more likable and personable reason. Late in the show, when it seems that Ayase will usurp the role of main character from Shu, Ayase proves that she could have carried Guilty Crown all along, and the show would’ve been better for it. Her determination to do what’s right, even if it means dragging herself across the ground to save her friends and potentially sacrificing herself, makes her someone to root for and care about. It’s too bad that she never truly gets the opportunity to shine outside of certain episodes and sequences.

Guilty CrownIn the end, despite moments of excitement and intrigue, the show never quite manages to pull itself together. Guilty Crown does manage to solve its identity crisis issue after the halfway point in the series, but the mish-mash of science fiction and science fantasy fails to hold up under close scrutiny. And, honestly, Shu having to reach into people’s chests to pull out weapons tends to weaken the drama in the series because how ridiculous it looks. It doesn’t help that both male and female characters seem to act like they visibly turned on by the pain of having stuff yanked out of them, which causes more eyebrow-raising than anything else.

Director Tetsuro Araki (the director of Death Note‘s anime adaptation) takes things at breakneck speed by the end, and he and Yoshino pull out stop after stop to keep you immersed and guessing what will happen next. Characters die and are resurrected. Some turn evil. Some turn good. A lot of them just die, many of them in messy ways. But none of it ultimately means a lot. It’s just violent noise and explosions, though the animation stays at a admirably high level throughout, with some truly breathtaking action sequences and near-seamless merging of CGI and 2d animation. Unique perspectives for action sequences are also found, and there are an admirable lack of shortcuts. This was a show given a lot of money, and its money shots are given a lot of love. It is too bad the story and the majority of the characters don’t receive the same love in the end. However, I do admit to enjoying the action sequences immensely no matter how illogical they became or what messy story contrivance caused them. I guess it is the same as loving Milky Way bars: great layered taste for the palate, but ultimately not that good for you and they’re over too soon.

Guilty CrownMuch has been advertised on the fact that J-pop star producer Supercell is involved in the music production. Despite getting billing on FUNimation’s own boxset, Supercell’s music contributions are to only to the opening and ending sequences and a few key insert songs throughout. The actual background music is composed by Hiroyuki Sawano. While this series predates Sawano’s famous Attack on Titan and Kill La Kill compositions, many hallmarks of Sawano’s later scores are found here. Sawano composes his own insert songs with English and German lyrics, and the instrumental tracks are a smorgasbord of Hollywood-style power anthems and delicate piano tracks. This is all centered around a powerful, soaring main theme that lends itself well to more tender rearrangements, the type of theme Hans Zimmer used to pull off in his sleep but has not managed to craft since his creative downfall began with Batman Begins nearly a decade ago now. The music is generally well-placed, though certain action cuts tend to repeat a lot, and by series’ end it seems that the rationale for the music placement is because they sound cool more than how well they fit the scene. Supercell’s insert songs, by contrast, seem to be picked purposefully for being dissonant with the events onscreen. Multiple times, a gentle Supercell song will play for scenes with a lot of gunfire, explosions, and other mayhem onscreen. It’s a useful tactic once or twice, but it is completely abused here.

As for the opening and ending sequences, the first pair, opening “My Dearest” (credited to Supercell) and closing “Departures” by EGOIST (supercell’s alternate identity, which has no bearing on the EGOIST seen in the show) make a much stronger impression than the second pair, “The Everlasting Guilty Crown” (EGOIST) and “Confession” (Supercell). This is not only true from a sonic standpoint, but visually as well. “My Dearest” in particular has some spectacular and creative visuals that feel like a theatrical film and not a television animation.

Guilty CrownBoth the Japanese and English dubs try everything they can to make the show work. Colleen Clinkenbeard, working off of Blair Rowan and Patrick Seitz scripts, directs a strong dub with some unique directional choices. Austin Tindle gives Shu a slight lisp that gives Shu a bit of vulnerability and calls attention to his anti-social tendencies. Some intentionally awkward delivery hints at Shu not being right in the head from the get-go. This actually makes Shu a more watchable character in English because he feels less flat in Tindle’s hands. Another surprisingly strong choice is Micah Solusod as Gai Tsutsugami, and Micah does a spectacular job playing an older leader-type figure that plays very much against Micah’s typical roles. One unconventional casting choice of Martha Harms as Haruka Ouma (Shu’s mom) doesn’t quite work, though. While Harms’ delivery is pretty much on the spot, the voice is clearly forced and tends to fluctuate between dissonant, unnatural tones. The rest of the English cast is a mixture of veterans and then-new voices who take to their roles well (and in the case of the villains with some nice slices of ham in spots). The Japanese cast is wholly professional and gets the job done well, though Tsuguo Mogami’s Dan Eagleman is a great source of scenery-chewing that makes that minor character my favorite out of the Japanese version.

Extras are plentiful. We get a pair of artbooks for each boxset that cover the entirety of the series, so they should be read after the series is over or you will come across many spoilers. Much thought was clearly put into the series judging by the detailed artwork and notes present throughout these books, which makes the end result even more disappointing. Episode commentaries and a gag “Guilty Crown 4-Panel Theater” round out the on-disc packaging. The Blu-ray HD video is visually gorgeous and further highlights the show’s impressive visuals. A strong 5.1 mix for the dub is icing on the cake.

In the end, enjoying Guilty Crown largely depends on turning your brain off and enjoying the outrageous, gorgeous action cuts. I was not able to completely do that, as I wanted to be brought in deep into the intriguing setting and be given a heroic character I could get behind. However, I admit that I enjoyed the action scenes immensely. I guess this means that in spite of my criticism of the show and how disappointed I am that it did not live up to its lofty ambitions, I got some guilty pleasure out of it. But in the end, Guilty Crown is simply guilty for being a narrative mess. And that is the bigger crime, the greater sin. It could have been so much more. How disappointing it was not.

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