Monday, September 2, 2013

Devil Survivor 2 The Animation

I thought that the anime industry was basically done with making Neon Genesis Evangelion rip-offs about 10 to 15 years ago, but here we are in 2013 with Devil Survivor 2 The Animation.

It starts with a high-school boy and his friend enjoying their time after a practice exam, whereupon they get murdered by a train. That's not a spoiler by the way, that's like the first 10 minutes. After that, demons appear, god has apparently said "fuck the world", and he's sent angels Septentriones to destroy everyone. A white-haired pretty boy named Kaworu Alcor gets awfully close to our main character (and isn't all that he seems!) and Gendou another white-haired pretty boy named Yamato also says "fuck the world" in pursuit of his own selfish ideal. There's also a giant weapon kinda hanging out. Daichi can be Asuka or something, who even cares.

Point is, Devil Survivor 2 The Animation has taken a fair few cues from everyone's favourite get-in-the-fucking-robot-Shinji anime, mercifully without the angst. Despite all the similarities, it's not without some originality and worth of its own.

Let's survive

Honestly, it's a little unfair to draw so many comparisons to Neon Genesis Evangelion. They're there, and really hard to not notice, but they're isolated and the actual plot of Devil Survivor 2 The Animation bears very little resemblance to that of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Certain plot devices - elements and figures of the story - are incorporated, sure, but certainly not the story itself.

The actual premise is that what could be called 'God' has decided that life should end, and humanity is now fighting for its survival before the end of everything in seven days. The characters are contacted by the mysterious website 'Nicaea', alerting them that a friend of theirs is going to die with a video of the future incident. At the start of it all, however, they are instead shown a video of themselves dying, moments before it actually happens.

So yeah, the main characters - Hibiki, the stoic lead, Daichi, the goof, and Io, the girl - are killed off almost immediately. Fortunately, Nicaea asks them if they want to survive, and after saying yes it turns out they survived! And now there are some demons coming out of dead people's phones and certain individuals can summon demons under their control through a mysterious phone app to fight the other demons.

Look, it's a Shin Megami Tensei story, demons and weird shit going on is basically to be expected.

"Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker's man "

From there, we learn about a mysterious organisation (there's a lot of mysterious stuff) that has been preparing for this for some time, helmed by a mysterious enigmatic young man named Yamato. He tells Hibiki and pals that these things called Septentriones are appearing and basically destroying everything. Fortunately, all the named characters get extra-powerful demons to summon (although they have to earn them) and it's up to them to save the day! Action, shocking twists, drama and the clashing of diametrically opposed views on what makes a human life worthwhile ensues.

There are some pretty good ideas going on here. The straight up death of everything makes for some good tension and motivation, and the tone it conveys as a result - the desperate struggle for life itself in the face of impending doom - leads to some otherwise barbaric decisions to be understandable and justifiable in the scenario. In fact, the moral and ethical questions raised in light of the threat become a bit more complex and ambiguous. When 'killing nearly everyone' is the only way that not everyone dies, is it the wrong decision? It's a shame then that more of this isn't made, and while it is the principle source of conflict between Hibiki and Yamato, it's not nearly as prominent as it should be. Similarly, by focusing so strongly on the core cast, the larger implications of this apocalypse are barely touched upon. The gravity of the situation is incredibly clear by the end, but it takes too long to get there.

I mean, what's the point of commanding the fight for humanity if you don't get an absurd control room?

Not that I can blame it for this; with only 13 episodes to cover a lot of material from what is generally regarded as a pretty damn good story in the game, something had to give. Reducing the amount of time spent dwelling on such matters is perfectly forgivable; learning what's happening to rather nameless characters outside of the key players is far from necessary, and as interesting as the questions raised can be, exploring them could easily throw the brakes on the plot progression. Less forgivable is the lacking explanation behind certain key plot elements, and the incredibly poor characterisation and development.

For the former, there are several times throughout that something with significance and importance is brought up, but said significance and importance is hardly explained at all. For example, there's a big ol' lance underground. It is apparently important. I never figured out why, and it doesn't really get brought up again. It had a name, but hell if I remember it, given how insignificant it basically was. But a lot of gravitas was given to the scene revealing it - it was confusing. More notably, is the very existence of Nicaea. Its origins are basically handwaved away, despite how prominent and important it is throughout; it feels as if it has no purpose beyond being a MacGuffin, forcing the characters to move when they otherwise wouldn't but having no greater meaning or role.

How Hibiki took him seriously when they met like this I have no idea

As for the character developmentif you've seen or played Persona 4 (which the vast majority of people familiar with Shin Megami Tensei have, I imagine) you'll know that one of its greatest strengths is the characters, their relationships, and the effective use of downtime to bring them closer and build their friendship in an entertaining, naturalistic way. Even though Persona 4 The Animation was hardly a perfect adaptation, it nailed that side of things. It's unfair going into Devil Survivor 2 The Animation with those expectations, as the Persona franchise is incredibly distinct from the rest of the Shin Megami Tensei canon (Persona 4 even more so), but even taking that into account it's hard to not be disappointed. The characters are enjoyable, sure, and there's a perfectly good narrative reason why they couldn't all just hang out at the mall between fights (the whole '7 days until the end of the world and everyone's dying' thing), but they're nonetheless underwhelming. The bulk of the character development is them finding the courage to survive at all costs which is in keeping with the theme of the story perfectly - but it doesn't go beyond that much at all. The likable cast are quite flat throughout.

Oh, and while it makes sense for there to not be any slice-of-life-esque downtime scenes in this series, somehow one or two are shoehorned in. They felt out of place to say the least, and didn't contribute all that much other than making the tone inconsistent. Pointless and confusing.

~wacky hijinks~ are character building

None of the above is actually massively detrimental to my enjoyment. It limits and dulls my engagement and enthusiasm, and leaves it feeling a bit shallow, but I can enjoy a series perfectly fine even with those issues. But what did hurt that was the pacing. It was kinda terrible. It was an issue in Persona 4 The Animation (oh hey same director) but due to the smaller episode count it feels far more pronounced in Devil Survivor 2 The Animation. Usual complaints about pacing apply - protracted expository scenes, episodes going past with little gains made, blitzing through a lot of important points before the audience could really take it in, you get the idea. But taking a wider view, it becomes clear that the first half is, well, not that exciting. A bit boring even. Lots of setting up plot points, exposition, etc. etc. Not unexpected, just not handled well enough.

It's a damn good thing that the second half is entertaining as fuck. It's not that it gets any cleverer, but the sheer scale of the apocalypse facing them becomes properly realised, injecting a much-needed sense of urgency into everything. And as the Septentriones become that much harder to kill, the fights become even more awesome to watch and BASICALLY there's tons of badassery from everyone involved. The writers also blatantly stopped giving a fuck about who gets killed off, so all your favourite characters are now in legitimate risk. The series really finds it feet at this point, and if it had done so much earlier I imagine the critical perception would be far more favourable.

"Yep, we're all fucked"

A common trend in many of the Shin Megami Tensei games is the sense of style and flair in the presentation. Persona 4, again, is one of the most triumphant examples of this, with the adaptation being a visual delight thanks to this even when the animation was shit. Devil Survivor 2 The Animation isn't quite so pronounced in this regard, but it's certainly still there. The use of bright blues and clean whites with pink highlights against an otherwise muted palette of browns, greys and bronze is attractive and distinctive, working nicely with the contemporary setting and focus on mobile phones as mediums for demons, but it's not all that exciting. Some of the other stylistic touches in the presentation of the series itself - for example, using the Nicaea dead-face video player for the previews - did a good job of unifying the look and feel of the series with its content, but more could have been made of it.

Somewhat off-putting are the female character designs. The male ones are rather unremarkable, getting the job done and not being too ridiculous, but all the women in this series have pretty large and perky breasts. Like, all of them. There's not all that much male gaze, so it's not like attention's being drawn to them, but it's an exceptional thing consistent across all the female characters and kind of out-of-place considering the goals of this series. Also, one of the female characters basically just has a strip of cloth hanging over her breasts for her entire upper-body wear. No support or straps or anything. It'sit's a bit jarring.

The 'Devil' is fine, but the 'Survivor' is alarmingly misleading

Devil Survivor 2 The Animation is pretty alright. It has some good ideas, charm, and a fair bit of personality; the Neon Genesis Evangelion parallels are more amusing than detrimental, but the shoddy pacing, poor characterisation, lack of explanation for certain key plot devices and a rather unexciting first half can't be brushed off so easily. I enjoyed this series more than most largely thanks to a really enjoyable second half - it got me very interesting in checking out the game, that's for sure - but it's rather forgettable, albeit not regrettable.

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