DVD Review: FRACTALE, More Than Just A Pretty Anime-By-Numbers?
Many recent Japanese animation series look good on the technical front, but seem to have trouble distinguishing themselves from the many series which came before them. It's always the same jokes, the same plot twists, the same actions, and frankly a lot of these anime are populated with interchangeable stereotypes. And I haven't even mentioned the similarities in artwork and design which plagues anime in general.
But this is generally not the case with those series which are aired in Fuji Television's famed noitaminA slot. These are less obviously aimed at the teenage crowd, and most feature adult subject matters, differing art or both.
Which brings us to Fractale, an eleven episode science fiction anime which was part of noitaminA in 2011. Because for a noitaminA, Fractale seems very, very mainstream and not exactly too concerned with originality.
Distributor Siren Visual has a history of catching most of the noitaminA series for the region of Australia and New Zealand, and recently released Fractale on DVD. Time for a review!
A few centuries in the future, the world is managed through a social network called Fractale. People hardly need to work anymore, there are no wars and no pollution. Communication is often done through "doppels", which are computer-generated avatars.
Fractale itself is maintained by "The Temple", a church-like organization complete with priests and prophecies.
Clain is a teenage boy who is interested in history and collects artifacts from before Fractale existed. One day he meets a young priestess on the run from both "the Temple" and a band of air pirates, and on a whim (she's pretty) he decides to help her. Before she disappears she leaves Claine a little gift, something which can actually cause the end of the Fractale system.
Soon, Clain himself is chased by the pirates and discovering all sorts of nasty secrets about Fractale...
I'd love to start an anime review by NOT comparing it to another anime, specifically a STUDIO GHIBLI ANIME, but dammit Japan, you're making it too hard! Seeing a girl flying around on a jet-powered glider while wearing a blue dress, or a princess-figure with a dangerous magic locket being chased by pirates on an airship... I mean, I love Nausicäa and Laputa too, but come on! Does this series actively AIM at being derivative, even easily recognizibly so? And this is all in episode one for crying out loud.
Thing is, this happens after a really strong start which does a good job at describing the Brave New World Fractale takes place in, with its super-connected but lazy society. The use of social networks and augmented reality was perhaps done better in Dennou Coil, but that anime took place in the present (more or less), while Fractale shows what such a system might evolve into after a few centuries.
It's an intriguing set-up, and one which allows for all sorts of ethical questions. But while the series does kind-of show these questions, it doesn't dwell on them. Instead it opts for the epic adventure path, with a hero who helps bring down an evil corrupted empire. Most of the time in its eleven episodes is spent in justifying huge air battles, cities being wiped out, satellites crashing down, and (of course) a big nuclear explosion.
This is all done nicely enough, even if it is sometimes a bit too easy to remember similar bits and bobs in other anime. The animation is good, very good at times, and frequently uses cgi to help out with perpective views, especially on the giant airships.
What does hurt the series though is its lack of strong, memorable characters. Claine himself is mostly a passive onlooker, being abducted left and right, or running for his life at best. He provides us with a viewpoint at this decaying world, but he never becomes someone to root for. The ones who do act are often not held accountable for what they do, and a massacre early on in the story is disturbingly glossed over afterwards. Am I supposed to sympathize with a terrorist who guns down sleeping people, just because he happens to also be "adorably" clumsy? And just how hilarious is it, that the terrorists keep mistaking Claine to be some sort of naughty pervert, through a series of unfortunate misunderstandings?
But now I may be a bit too harsh on Fractale. While it may be shallow fare for a noitaminA, Fractale stands high above most recent anime series, both in scope and execution. Several of the main characters might benefit from more depth, but the "supporting cast" is huge for such a short series. Yet the roster never feels cramped. It is an ambitious effort, and it plays the neat trick of having most of the adventures play out in rural areas, a nice contrast with many other science fiction series which favor the urban look.
All in all Fractale is certainly an anime series which is easy to like. It is definitely pretty enough to hold the attention, and some of the subplots actually are disturbing and interesting. But the main storyline cannot disguise itself from being a patchwork, cobbled together from many of the TRUE classics. Which is ironic, seeing as how the series' central themes revolve around the evils of endless repetition...
While it never gets as epic, funny or profound as its makers seem to want it to be, Fractale is a fun enough series. Derivative though its separate elements may be, there is no denying Fractale has its own unique charm. It's just a pity that it hasn't gotten much more of it. At times the series is good enough to approach the status of classic, but at other times it squanders its appeal with plot holes and childish humor.
Still, there are definitely worse ways to spend your time and the artwork is often outstanding. Recommended!
On To The Discs:
Siren Visual has released Fractale on DVD only, which is a bit of a shame as some of the artwork would probably look even more glorious on Blu-ray. As it is, the image is already very good. The discs are coded region 4 (Australia and New Zealand), PAL format.
For sound we get a Japanese 2.0 and an English 5.1 soundtrack. English subs are optional and very good. As usual with Siren Visual, the discs default to the Japanese option with English subs, and as usual I love them for doing that.
Extras are a bit meager: a trailer, commentary tracks for two episodes, and clean (meaning textless) opening- and closing credits.
But the series itself is done justice, and this is a pretty decent release of a pretty decent anime.