We here at the UK Anime Network can encounter a degree of difficulty when reviewing ecchi anime and manga – such titles prove awkward to engage with, because the traditional British reserve finds all of this lascivious naughtiness so frightfully embarrassing. Even worse, I’m religious, which means that my good friend Catholic Guilt is now standing over my shoulder, patting a blackjack into his palm and wearing a big Cheshire grin, ready to cosh me into next week if I ever threaten to enjoy myself too much...!
It may not sound promising, but really all that renders me the most suitable person to review Crunchyroll’s stream of We, Without Wings; after all, if I can be titillated despite my hang-ups then the average viewer will be confident of a truly glorious night in!
We, Without Wings follows three of the city of Yanagihara’s overlapping social circles; that of the gentle and unassuming schoolboy Takashi and his blossom of classmate admirers; the underemployed copywriter Shusuke, who hangs around the Alexander bar and restaurant ribbing his friend the bartender for getting pinned into a marriage; and Shusuke’s sombre associate Hayato, as much a universally-recognised public fixture of the city’s nightlife as the clubs and takeaway-stalls as he maunders around looking for odd-jobs (but affecting a disdainful attitude which results in him turning down most of them) and practising his dour frown. Each of them is surrounded by a bevy of beautiful girls and make their way amongst them in contrasting ways – in calm reflection Takashi is borne along the current of affection but has quietly soulful eyes holding one love above all others in precious exclusion; Hayato tries to be hard-boiled and tough-shelled and dismiss it all as tiresome, but with enough gentle warmth he’ll come around sunny-side up; and Shusuke’s gregarious mateyness... well, gets him slapped.
Certainly, it sounds conventional enough, and with most members of the genre proceeding through the ritual stations of beach and bath-house episodes, memories of various ecchi shows can sometimes run into one another – indeed, with its pale-blue wing motif on the title card and character captions I first thought that I was watching a Heaven’s Lost Property or Sky of Connection spin-off. However, We, Without Wings does have ambitions of offering something more. There’s no early indication of this – the first episode of the show begins entirely as soap opera, as we are introduced to three characters and the girls attached to them with ties of varying lengths. With ecchi shows you naturally expect a pretty straight and open play, but you certainly can’t accuse We, Without Wings of tipping its hand too early in the round. I thought that I had the show pegged by the first episode’s advert break, and as its last act got underway I was already glancing at my watch and mentally drafting this review. Then, out of the blue, the schoolboy Takashi declares that he’s the prince of Garangard, a mystical kingdom that lies beyond the skies.
As I jerk up in my chair and shake my head back to alertness I discover that no, that wasn’t a gag – the ending sequence is a reel of the cast members auditioning for the second season of Legend of the Legendary Heroes. Credit to this show’s scriptwriters – as left-field plot twists go, this one certainly knocked me for six, and it did animate my curiosity to carry on to the next episode and see where that ball had been thrown from.
So, I click on to episode two. The cold open features a fan service segment of some of the Alexander’s customers feeling each other up as a consequence of a tabletop truth-or-dare game while Shusuke and the bartender are hopelessly unaware of a yearned-for fantasy actually unfolding under their noses. Unfortunately, any excitement this may have generated is punctured by the fact that Shusuke and the bartender are watching a porno together under the counter and are hesitant about tissue-paper etiquette, a detail which is not quite as wacky as the writers probably intended and is instead really god-damn creepy. Eager to dismiss that toe-curlingly uncomfortable image, I hurry on past the opening sequence (which is inoffensively generic) to be greeted by a promising scene of Takashi as a knight panting over a field of defeated birdmen, dissolving into Takashi the schoolboy standing over slumped and exhausted classmates during a PE session. It is a striking - even quite artistic - image, redolent of hidden potential with a breath of mystery in the breeze cutting across the playing fields.
It’s also all I get.
The rest of episode two involves Shusuke making an ass of himself in front of girls while in episode three Hayato diligently maintains his put-upon expression and manoeuvres his way around some bizarre street gangs. While there seems to be a thread connecting these disparate scenes – both Shusuke and Hayato end their misadventures by pronouncing the formula “may peace prevail in this world” with laboured portentousness – it’s so thin as to be invisible and is demanding a lot of effort to find and follow.
The show’s music does little to carry me along that path, either – this is proving to be another show of the season that’s aurally uninspired, with the only tongue of flair lifting up above a bed of vague noise being a brief bongo-beat that accompanies Hayato trudging around night-time Yanagihara. Hayato also encounters a rapping gangster but again, the aim has been misjudged – his "phat "choonz are not ironically bad, they’re just plain awful. Even if you could tolerate it, the fact that this individual says several lines spread out across a couple of scenes is a worrying indication that this is going to be a recurrent gimmick that will weigh down far too many more of Hayato’s scenes in future episodes.
Still, if you’re not enthused by the show’s own music, it is quiet enough to be easily overlaid with some saxophones and a heavy bassline in your browser’s YouTube tab – viewers are here for T&A rather than R&B. While I can’t boast of being the most raucous carnal adventurer since Sir Harry Flashman I’m not a timorous prude, nor am I a vacuous politically-correct milksop – if We, Without Wings tantalised me, I would give it a nod for a good effort; and to be fair to it, the art of the show is quite strong. Nudity is limited – the first episode teases us with a brief nipple-slip near the start but censor-bars roll out for the remainder of play – but even if the tills are not ringing with a jangling shower of money-shots viewing is not entirely a wasted effort, as the girls themselves are attractive with smoothly yielding and luscious curves. Character designs show quite interesting variety – the Alexander’s waitresses have some definition beyond the typical ‘meido’ with elaborated patterns in their dress – and these characters also recline in an appealing setting, as background art is colourful, detailed, well-shaded and naturalistic, while occasional chibi-style cutaways are bright and bold and suitably cutesy. Also, even though you would expect an ecchi show to content itself with slow pans up the length of a girl, when characters start to move they are actually splendidly animated, with fluid movement evident whether it’s Shusuke buzzing around the Alexander pretending to be an aeroplane or Hayato dodging hooks and slashes. I also can’t deny that seeing the hostess’s swimsuit peeling off at the end of episode three’s cold open made some neurones spark.
The evident care and attention that has been invested into the presentation here illustrates that while the producers of We, Without Wings could quite happily have just redrawn some of the CG screens from the original visual novel and called it a day, a sincere effort is being made to offer something more to hold our interest – the problem is, though, that it’s simply not enough. There is a great deal of dialogue between characters as they define themselves through conversation; Catholic Guilt is grinding his knuckles into the back of my neck here, insisting that I ought to praise this because it is thoughtful and stimulating, as one might sagely hearken to the wireless instead of being addled by the buzzing lights of the idiot’s lantern; it’s just that none of them are saying anything remotely interesting. Shusuke tries far too hard to be zany and while it is suggested that his screwball tomfoolery is just an exaggerated mask, the fact remains that I had to sit through two episodes of his increasingly tiresome gurning. Hayato’s scenes do generate some smiles – he wonders why so many of his odd-jobs involve delivering strangely heavy packages to random train station lockers, and his cold exterior is considered cute by the crepe kiosk owner, who’s got his act sussed – but while his tussle with the street gangs towards the end of episode three does enliven proceedings, when it comes so late in the viewing it injects just enough energy to lift me up off my chair and out of the room to put the kettle on. Despite his revelation at the end of episode one seemingly altering the entire dynamic of the show, Takashi has about three lines in the entire opening quarter of this series.
This is the critical flaw of We, Without Wings – a fumblingly inept incapacity to get a firm grasp on pacing. Scenes drag on, focus is blurred and watery, and the time dedicated to each of the three principals is completely, wildly, staggeringly imbalanced – whenever one character is on the screen I’m waiting impatiently for when we will move on to the other. Odd knicker-flashes are thrown in here and there, along with a few half-hearted fetish-trigger moments (a boy looking for ‘shimapan’ striped knickers, the gothic lolita, and a shot of ‘zettai ryouiki’ stockings) that no effort is spent lingering on, all presented to the viewer almost as concessions, as if the production team is all too conscious that the script is a clunky, clattering, ramshackle contraption of ill-fitting joints whose seams they’re trying to paste over; it gives the impression of creating wallpaper by stapling together A4 sheets.
There’s certainly something more than an ecchi comedy lurking under the shadow of this show’s folded wings – but I’m not quite sure if I’m all that mithered with finding out what it may be, and the show itself seems in no particular hurry to reveal anything to me, either. Appropriately enough, We, Without Wings is continuing to peck around its nest, dressing up the edges with pretty pictures and nice girls like a magpie messing with bits of tinfoil, but not taking flight.
You can currently watch We, Without Wings in streaming form right here at UK Anime Network.