DVD: £24.99; Blu-ray: £34.99
25 Aug 2014
Last year's UK release of Steins;Gate was a sensational success, gaining rave reviews and heralding the rare release of a visual novel in professional English. There's naturally a lot of anticipation for the follow-up release of Robotics;Notes, but it must first be understood that Robotics;Notes is not a sequel to Steins;Gate. Along with Chaos;Head and Steins;Gate, it is part of the "Science Adventure" series developed in collaboration between the visual novel developers 5pb ("Five Powered & Basic", which also has its own record label) and Nitroplus (which is more of a dedicated VN producer but has a musical link with its busty mascot Super Sonico). These games all share the theme of awe in the potential of science and technology, but like Nick Frost's, Simon Pegg's and Edgar Wright's Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy, they are more linked by concept than story.
The essential detail to take from this is that Robotics;Notes is extremely different to Steins;Gate. Although the titles share some styles, most obviously in the system of title-formatting which has survived across all of the stories in the franchise, there is no real relation between the two - to emphasise this in an actually quite neat and efficient way to established fans, episode one begins with a flash of the dimension meter from Steins;Gate - giving a value well over 1.0000 to let us know that we're in a radically different world. Those expecting a direct continuation in style, plot and tone from Steins;Gate are going to be disappointed - there is a Science Adventure sequel in the works, but that is Chaos;Child, slated for release as a visual novel in November this year. Like all the other entries in the Science Adventure series I'm sure it will enjoy a long life with a clutch of adaptations and spin-offs (Robotics;Notes itself has six different mangas under its marquee, although none of them have reached the West yet), and although that might not be what Western followers of the series want you could carp on all day about what Robotics;Notes is not - the same goes for any piece of media. It's more constructive to focus on what it actually is. Chaos;Head was the "Delusional" Science Adventure. Steins;Gate was the "Hypothetical" Science Adventure. Robotics; Notes was marketed as the "Augmented" Science Adventure. With such a description, can this new story build upon the previous games and anime and show us more and greater things? Does Robotics;Notes condense the original visual novel into a clear and lucid schematic of story, or is it just a crumpled pad of scrawling smudged scribble?
Robotics;Notes opens far away from the Tokyo of Steins;Gate into the eternal summer of Pacific splendour that is Tanegashima. Kaito Yashio is an insouciant high-schooler whose only real interest is playing the mecha-combat video game "Kill Ballad", and is really only a member of his school's Robot Research Club because it's a quiet corner in which he can play his game unmolested for most of the afternoon. The rest of the space in the clubhouse has to be made up by the sheer noise and enthusiastic bombast of the club chairman (by default of being the only other member), Akiho Senomiya. She's a ridiculously effervescent girl whose abiding and overriding passion is restoring the moribund club to greatness, and she plans to do that by finishing the construction of a half-complete giant robot which has lain rusting in a hangar at a disused airport since the club's glory days eight years ago, when her older sister was chairman. The robot in question is a grand totem of "Gunvarrel", the star of an internationally-successful mecha anime which was so astoundingly and universally popular that it alone is credited with inspiring a technological revolution and a commercial explosion of practical robotics which now populate everyone's lives, from domestic help to injury-restoring prosthetics and kids' adoration for rock-'em sock-'em toy-robot boxing.
The wider success of this robot boom however isn't reflected in the club itself, which an unsympathetic school faculty is preparing to close down altogether as a waste of money. Akiho is distraught, but gamer Kaito shouldn't care less, right? Actually, although he'd never admit it, he does have an interest - he and Akiho share an unspoken bond as survivors of a mysterious incident that transpired on an ocean ferry back when they were children, something which they have a constant reminder of by the strange red aurora which hangs in the night sky, occasionally highlighted by the flares of rockets launching from the Tanegashima Space Centre. As Kaito works in his own understated way to keep Akiho's dream alive, though, he has to wonder if he himself is dreaming - his copy of "Kill Ballad" keeps glitching out, but is he seeing an image of a girl through the fuzz and screen artifacts?
The first thing that jumped out at me when watching Robotics;Notes is just how much more colourful it is in comparison to Steins;Gate . Tokyo is an utterly hideous city at the best of times and it is rarely more bleak than its depiction as the baking sun-scoured dessicated concrete desert of Steins;Gate. At times I found the earlier anime hard to watch precisely because the environment was so inimical. The South Sea island idyll of Robotics; Notes is immediately more rich, more lively and more varied, and much easier on the eyes - and while they do visit the big city several times in the story, at least their version of Tokyo has more variety in its palette than Seventies washed-out beige. The sun of Tanegashima refracts through jewels of the landscape rather than just melting foul slabs of bitumen, and on Blu-ray the environment looks splendidly detailed. The CGI works well for the little robots that the characters play with, and the robots themselves are cute as they waddle and jerk about with childlike indulgence - there's a real sense of enthusiasm in the roboteers' amateur antics, a bedroom workshop atmosphere that can't help but make you smile with its happy animated earnestness. Such animation is also visible in the art - characters are expressive and movement is slick, and the anime benefits from strong production values, probably the best of the Science Adventure series so far - Production I.G. reliably melding another capable synergy of drawn and computer animation to continue justifying their position as a key player in the business. Kaito's "Kill Ballad" actually looks really interesting as a game in its own right, even if the game footage does get noticeably recycled with him playing the same match repeatedly over the series, although as they're only used for brief asides and cutaways it's not a major problem. A lovely little feature, and an interestingly credible prediction about how fashion could genuinely develop in the near future, are the various bum-bags and holsters the schoolchildren wear to carry their ubiquitous tablets and smartphones.
Quite ridiculously, each episode begins with a piece of text informing us that despite the use of the names of some real-world institutions for a sense of verisimilitude (specifically the Japanese space agency JAXA and the perennial Science Adventure baddies, CERN - thinly fictionalised as SERN), the story remains a work of fiction. Geez, buddy, what gave it away, wasn't the genki anime schoolgirl indication enough, or did it take the giant robot before you cottoned on? While this isn't nearly as bad as Ga-Rei-Zero feeling the need to reassure its audiences that the ghost-busting sword-wielding government agents were not from a real-life ministry, it still feels pretty patronising and unless it needs to be kept in there for some opaque legal reason (are CERN really going to slapping down libel injunctions over a cartoon?) I can't imagine that even the most anally-retentive weeaboo on the internet would have made a fuss about these images being deleted and saving a minute of disc space for other content.
This first example of writing that hits you in the first shot of the first episode is actually a fair indicator of where the writing of the anime itself is going. Just as the introductory text wants to set things out for you, so too is this first half of the series very much all setup. It seems that Robotics;Notes is going to be an anime of two halves. This worked in Steins;Gate because the crazy revelations of the latter part of were pre-charged by the conspiratorial delusions of the hero, so that a shift into actual conspiracies wasn't quite as jarring. I fear though that the more laid-back nature of much of the first half of Robotics;Notes though, sauntering down its storyline like a pleasantly and inoffensively neutral and comfortably ambient high-school slice-of-life, will not work as well as you'd wreck your gearbox by switching right up from second to fifth. It's in this respect that Robotics;Notes' departure from the style of Steins;Gate actually works against it. It's a shame, because in other situations the determination to strike forth a new path rather than playing it safe with the overly familiar would normally be commendable, but it lacks the courage to go all the way with this - by trying to keep to the same melodic beats as the older show it looks as though it's trying to have its cake and eat it, be simultaneously new and familiar. Ultimately though there is a frustratingly speculative element to all of this because I'm still waiting for the pay-off. My worries about the later payoffs above could be unjustified cynicism or they could be perspicacious insight, but we won't know for sure until Part Two.
The need to get all the ducks in a row means that there's also a weirdly dissonant sense while watching that even as nothing much happens, the anime still feels rushed. This becomes most obvious when Akiho and Kaito attend a robot tournament early on in the series - leaving aside how they were able to invite themselves to the tournament just a fortnight before it took place (it must have very lax eligibility rules), a couple of country hicks getting to go to the big city for a national competition with tens of thousands of spectators would seem to be quite a big deal but even the characters themselves seem barely engaged by it, the whole tournament is elided to Round One and the Final and they're back home again inside of a single episode. In most other anime this could be an entire arc in and of itself. I suppose you could call it lean narrative efficiency, skipping over all the redundant flabby filler and getting right to the plot-advancing point of the final, but plot-advancing points have impact precisely because they stand out above the sea of their surroundings. On their own, a point is just a speck. It's here where you start to feel the needling worry that accompanies a lot of adaptations - are you watching Robotics;Notes or just Cliff Notes? Just what's been gutted from the story to fit into a TV half-hour? Are we watching a show or have we paid money just for a trailer of the game?
If the wider plot arc is not yet fulfilled then, can the ambling around Tanegashima be enjoyed on its own merits? "Comfortably ambient high-school slice-of-life" is perfectly capable of being enjoyable when its presented straightforwardly, after all. Robotics; Notes does acquit itself well here. In early episodes Kaito does just seem to be kind of a jerk but you can peel back the outer layers to reveal a sense of dedication underneath. Akiho's enthusiasm is infectious and she seems so guilelessly carefree that it's hard not to be carried along with her light and airy self. The "Elephant Mouse Syndrome" shared by the two partners is a strange bit of outright fantasy like the "Reading Steiner" ability of Steins;Gate, but it doesn't become too obnoxiously intrusive, even if it seems inconsistent in its application (Kaito's slower perception of time when his syndrome kicks in doesn't just make him slothful and unresponsive but apparently gives him bullet-time rapid reactions). Strong voice work benefits the entire cast - it's a capable dub. The rest of the anime is genially light-hearted. At first it seems like a risk that the opening sequence is overly revelatory and tipping the hand of later plot twists, but this is actually quite entertainingly finessed into a joke when Kaito sees through the disguise of a character challenging them in a tournament in an instant. It's quite easy to watch - the only real fly in the ointment being Frau's 13375p34|< (remember that?). It's fair enough that she should be unintelligible to the characters but not to the extent that it's unintelligible to the viewers too - Internet slang has been done better in other places (even in Megatokyo, of all things).
The extras are an intriguing bunch. We do have the obligatory minimum of clean opening and closing sequences present and correct, and I always enjoy commentary tracks so the two episodes covered here get a positive reception too. What's most interesting though is a round-table discussion from the cast about the themes and messages of the Science Adventure games. This was one complete video in the American release, but as the UK release has been split across two parts so too has this video also been cut in half. What we do have though remains fascinating, although there is a worrying indication that despite peppering the discussion with clips of Robotics;Notes the talking itself remains dominated by Steins;Gate - is this an admission that it's the only title in the series with real substance to it?
Overall, opinion on Robotics;Notes in up on the air and as frustrating as it may seem to have to defer to a final decision I can't yet make on the series until I see where it falls. Fans of Steins;Gate will find it difficult to hold themselves back from comparisons, but if this is your first Science Adventure then you should find enough anime high school tomfoolery here that isn't compelling drama but equally not ponderous either; nonetheless a gently relaxing watch.