Anime,  Reviews

Review – Cross Ange: Rondo of Angel And Dragon

There’s a dated joke in poor taste by internet cartoonist Natalie Dee. On a blog post she states her intent to swap out a problematic epithet with a replacement:

I am going to be replacing “retarded” with “rondo” from now on. I think that the word retarded is played out, and there is nothing more retarded than a Kia Rondo, so it seems to lend itself quite nicely.

I know that Rondo in the sense of this anime’s title is actually a reference to music, but the term isn’t used properly there either, so forget it, let’s go for broke.

I’m not sure why I decided to watch Cross Ange. I think it was one of those things where I came across a screenshot of the show, thought “Oh hey that looks kind of interesting,” saw that the show was on Crunchyroll, and figured “Well hell, how bad it could be.” 5 episodes in, I jumped over to MAL to see if it would get any better because at that point I had opinions and most of them weren’t good. I learned that when it originally aired in 2015, and when it was localized in 2016, it’s reception was exceptionally polarizing. Fans of the show cited everything from its fanservice to its action to just how over the top it is. Critics of the show criticized everything from it’s fanservice to its uneven animation to its schizophrenic nature.

Having finished it, I’d argue both camps definitely watched the same cartoon show I did, because yeah, this is a thing. It does a lot of things horribly, it panders to a very specific audience, and decides the best way to gain interest isn’t with cohesion but just continuing to amp up everything about the show far past eleven until there’s like two dimensions of show perceptions, one where the viewer’s sanity was destroyed by the experience and another where the viewer survived but at what cost? But it also manages to do all this while be engaging and entertaining. This is a show where how good it is falls away from any sort of objectivity and lands in the hands of the viewer.

The Premise:

The story starts in a world where there’s “mana users”, and then there’s fucking normies REEEEE “Norma” who can’t use magic. Norma aren’t even second class citizens, they’re an abomination and nobody likes them because mana is what keeps everyone safe and civil. This logic isn’t really explained very well in the first episode, but thematically out the gate it’s obvious that Norma are the disenfranchised and as such the underdogs but the thing about underdogs is that they are, by their nature, dogs and if you can’t eat dogs what are they good for anyways?

who knows?
Enter one Princess Angelise Ikaruga Misurugi, who is a Princess with a capital P who understands the pecking order and has the love of her people. In the first act, we see a child abducted from its mother because the poor baby can’t use magic, and Princess Angelise confronts the mother as she begs for her child to explain essentially “this is the way things are, and as they should be.” So it’s rather rewarding when, during her coronation, a plot by her brother shows that she’s actually been a Norma all along! She’s exiled to the staging base Arzenal, where she’ll be forced to spend the rest of her short days fighting dragons.

No, wait. Not dragons. DRAGONs. With capital letters and such. For what it’s worth, it’s an acronym for Dimensional Rift Attuned Gargantuan Organic Neotypes. This is a huge rabbithole we’ll slide down continually as I go through this review but for now we’ll leave it at “Because Anime.”

The first several episodes take a real harsh turn down misery porn lane, and the writers want the viewer to understand just how bad the main character has it. Everyone turns on her. She’s forced to go through a cavity search that throttles the definition of rape. She’s slapped around a bit. Almost everyone hates her, although some people respect her skill. She meets less of a friend and more of an admirer in the second episode, and the moment that character started talking I was like “Yeup, *she’s gonna die in 5 minutes.”

don't get attached to this character
I was wrong. The character Coco is introduced by name at timestamp 14:07, although she appears roughly 10 seconds before then. She dies at timestamp 21:39. That’s roughly 6 and a half minutes. I must be getting rusty because I was over a minute and a half off. Good on Coco for hanging on that extra little bit.

One of the hardest parts of discussing the premise of this show is that the premise proper is kind of all over the place and evolves from episode to episode, being weighted down with more ingredients that are thrown at it. Is it a mecha anime? A pulp sci-fi fantasy romp? Lesbian erotica written for men, with a Gary Stu thrown in to give certain male viewers an anchor point for their own self-insert fantasies? Yes, yes, and regrettably yes. The whole thing is a very uneven meal, but a good chunk of the beginning and very specific parts of the end are really rooted in how horribly other characters are treated.

Basically, there’s two worlds. One world was destroyed by war. The other war was created as a perfect world, but at the cost of enslaving the god of the DRAGONs. Princess Angelise, going by the name of Ange now that her kingdom has betrayed her, is going to have to assemble a cast of characters to Make Things Right ™, with the power of Ecchi and Friendship. Also early on she picks up a male love interest who is super capable with everything machinary, blade, or gun related but who is *super clumsy* and his face is magnetically attracted to Ange’s groin and crotch in that painful “joke” that only anime fans could ever thing is appropriate for actually funny. Ange discovers that the DRAGONs are people too, kind of, and that the God of her world is a guy named Embryo who decides he’s going to marry Ange literally because he has a history of wanting what he can’t have. Will Ange allow the two worlds to merge? Or will she create her own Brave New World where Everyone Gets Along? (TM) And can she deal with all this while being the objection of affection of two men AND multiple women?

Why it Works

It’s a god damned roller coaster and while the viewer has an idea of what to expect, it always ends up being larger than anticipated. Like, the show doesn’t feel original, but it feels loud and boisterous and that’s most of the fun. Also, there’ll be those who enjoy the fanservice and the way the girls flirt with and touch each other even though they’re never too lesbian to be with a man, so it’s like, non-threatening lesbianism? These are all girls who kick ass and take names but would also definitely let you, yes you male viewer, take them out for a date.

okay so maybe they won't date you
I do mean that last part rather condescendingly, but I do have to concede that’s part of the interest in the show.

There is strong drama between characters that is as much hit as it is miss, but does provide entertainment in a very soap opera sort of way. A lot of characters take the stage, some more memorable than others, and while it’s clear every one of those characters know that they’re in an anime and have to play their correct tropes accordingly they still manage to find some depth in doing so. I noticed a lot of individual plots between characters neatly tangled together and then tied up as the show concluded in a way that wasn’t particularly linear, which actually worked well for this show. There’s also a narrative of Attacking and Dethroning God that feels vaguely relevant to this time and year. The mecha fights don’t involve any real strategy but do feature a sense of urgency and power, making them interesting to watch even if they can be forgettable after the fact.

The sound design is catchy, and the soundtrack is on point. There’s some use of hymns that as plot devices are kind of absurd yet are rather pleasant to listen to and thematically appropriate. The music itself is an interesting mix of synth rock and europop styles, giving a an upbeat sense of adventure and action. It hits the right balance of feeling familiar and genre appropriate even as its representing a show that bounces around the genres it wishes to be in.

Why it Doesn’t Work

The animation and artwork is EXCEPTIONALLY uneven. Sometimes quality drops will be noticeably severe from action cut to action cut. This definitely wasn’t a stylistic choice. I found it most egregious towards the middle, and then towards the end before the last two episodes where the quality spikes back up again. It switches from a cell shaded style to a computer animated one during mecha fight sequences, and those fight sequences feel busy but aren’t always fun to watch. At least in these battles the animation feels consistently competent.
2 mecha enter 1 mecha leave
Stepping close to the story but not dealing with it direction, the first several episodes and at several points towards the final act the show goes out of it’s way to utilize abuse towards a character that is very clearly meant to be sexual exploitation for the viewer, and at at least one point towards the end is a literal attempt at rape. Using these kind of story elements can easily come off as problematic, and indeed a lot of reviewers were absolutely appalled less by their use in the show as by their implementation.

I’ll be honest – I was less concerned, and more bored. When these elements are used in a heavy handed fashion, I don’t feel the same connection to the characters and what they are going through, because I’m too distracted by the weight of what the story is suggesting and how poorly it’s used. It’s a flaw in my ability to criticize, as much as it is a defense mechanism for my own personal traumas. Frankly, the torture porn feels outright lazy in how over the top it is.

The use of force and rape, especially by the primary antagonist Embryo, may be thematically appropriate – as a God Embryo has created a world where everyone can be his plaything yet he’s grown rather bored with them all, and feels as entitled to Ange as a child to their sibling’s toys – but the use of these plot devices are still an issue, and it still comes off as being played more for titillation than horror.

I totally would understand why the first several episodes would turn people off from the show, and I don’t think I’d tell those people “just hang in there” because while the narrative does get better the cost of entry might not be worth it for them.

There’s also something to be said for just how over the top this entire show is. If the entire story were being written as the show was being produced I would be surprised, but less in a “but everything ties together so neatly” and more in a “woah, I didn’t see that, but that explains a lot.” There’s something to be said about a roller coaster ride that spends a lot of it’s time just doing loop-de-loops that strangely get larger loops as the ride progresses and not smaller ones. It’s kind of like a Lithuanian euthanasia roller coaster in that regard. Some of the acts and their reveals are less exciting as they are nauseous. Ange is like “there’s nothing I love more than killing dragons and making money!” and then suddenly oh hey, DRAGONs are people too (kind of.) Ange’s kid sister sure is a sadistic individual who gets her sense of power by abusing her citizens because she’s stuck in a magical wheelchair, even as it turns out the real issue is how it’s easier to lash out at others than it is to improve herself. Turns out the world the main character lives in is artificially created as part of a time rift, which feels less a plot device and more a way to handwave how Embryo got his powers while showcasing how evil “real” humans and their wars are.

Overall, what the fuck did I watch? No, seriously?
on the one hand it's over, but on the other its over
I get why people enjoy this show. I get why people despise this show. I get why it’s so controversial, and why there isn’t much middle ground. It is the very best, and the very worst, of Japanese animation. Worse, I can’t even say “watch the first few episodes and see if it’s right for you” because the first couple of episodes are so focused on treating the main character terribly to tear her down that it keeps the most important world building elements as come-to-realize plots for later.

Sometimes we throw words around like “problematic” to describe things about shows we don’t like, that don’t align with our personal beliefs and morals. And to say that this show is problematic would not be incorrect. But in it’s attempt to be over the top and so many things at once, it also manages to leave a lot of handles that different viewers can grab on to. Some might stay for the fanservice. Others might hold on because of the strong female lead that doesn’t let anyone keep her down, and doubles down on her stubbornness sometimes to her detriment. While I had some issues with how certain characters were portrayed, there’s no denying that the drama there would grab viewers’ interest as they wanted to see those story arcs play out. There’s also a rather interesting parallel in how the male romantic interest, Tusk, “gets the girl” as it were despite having no magical prowess, while a God who has it all including the power of mind control doesn’t win over the main character because he refuses to respect her wishes and sees her as an object more than a person.

I started this review quoting a joke that is in incredibly poor taste and also not that entertaining. If you could get past that crassness to read the rest of this review, you can probably get past the first several episodes of Cross Ange and find some reason to stick with the show until the end. Just know going in that it’s a convoluted mess, almost by design, and many who enjoyed the show see that as a positive.

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