Saturday, 17 May 2014

フラクタル/ Fractale

I start watching Fractale. It looks like a pretty normal anime. Nice characters. Looks like a Germanic world. Very classic. And then Clain’s parents appear. One of them seems to have a bowl of water for a head. The other is defined by giant lips protruding from either side of her robotic head. What is this?!

An anime like Fractale occasionally comes along and reminds me why I love anime so much. The kind of anime I instantly fall in love with and must watch through as soon as possible, and will stay with me forever. They’re usually accessible but with an element of high-concept, often with sci-fi elements. I think the last I had such a strong reaction to was Tokyo Magnitude 8.0, but Fractale very directly follows on from two recent anime I’ve adored and aired at more or less the same time: Dennou Coil and Kaiba.

Like Dennou Coil, Fractale explores the interesting concepts that arise from being able to project digital data into the real world, and create avatars as well as whole new landscapes. Like Kaiba, it raises the philosophical question of what humanity will do if given the chance to wholly choose their outward appearance – albeit to much less depth and without nearly so much darkness as that anime, which remains an all-time favourite. Fractale is slightly less ambitious than these, wrapping its ideas in a fairly conventional young-boy-meets-strange-young-girl-who-is-centre-of-a-world-changing-conspiracy-and-joins-a-rebellious-airship-crew-to-protect-her plot exemplified by Eureka 7 but also seen in the likes of Xam’d. At only eleven episodes, that noitaminA hallmark, it perhaps could have been given slightly more room to breathe, but in the time it has, takes us to a whole lot of interesting, thought-provoking places.

Clain is a pretty young adolescent boy who despite living in a world of great technological advancement, loves old-fashioned relics – mostly from our own era, which is cute. Unlike most in the world, he stays in one place – not even his parents live with him, as the possibility of digital avatars (‘Doppels’) means that it’s the norm for people to drift around the world wherever they please and interact with their loved ones only remotely. One day, he rescues a strange girl from some daft Team-Rocket-Meets-The-Blues-Brothers pursuers, falls for her, but wakes up to find her gone, leaving behind only a locket – which contains a very unique doppel, advanced enough to give tactile feedback and look like a real human.

While the world is pretty utopian – under the ‘Fractale’ system, nobody has to work or runs short of food – the fractale system is starting to go wrong and displace large numbers of people, and ‘terrorist’ groups try to espouse the virtues of living free of the system. Those behind Fractale are also pretty sinister, a group of priestesses who demand daily ‘prayers’ and are after our heroine. Clutzy, thoroughly adorable Clain thus ends up on a quest not only to find out the truth behind the young doppel Nessa, but to reunite with the girl Phyrne – and the only way to do that is to join up with the terrorists.

With A-1’s usual high standard of good design  and cuteness (in conjunction with the fledgling Ordet), doing what has rapidly become their hallmark of filling a cast with very cute teenage girls and at least one very cute teenage boy, it succeeds in making its lowbrow elements the comic relief and foregrounding the epic adventure, working rather better than, say, No. 6, which attempted something similar. It was certainly more consistent than Sword Art Online, if not such a big hit. Clain is also probably the most sexualised shota since Ciel Phantomhive, with a girly look reminiscent of Joey Jones.

For an eleven-episode series, Fractale was paced well. The expository episodes did a superb job making us like Clain and Nessa, though they’re both character types I love – well-meaning but goofy, pretty-faced young boy and naive, innocent, energetic, wholly good-natured little girl. When joining up with the airship crew and being made dogsbody, apparently a signature of these series, things did not drag and the simmering rivalry with the captain Sunda actually worked, as well as the comedy and cuteness from tsundere Enri. When there are losses in the ranks, they are actually deeply sad. And the ending, while it was never going to be that profound, is nicely open-ended while giving a sense of bittersweet closure.

If there were things I didn’t like, they would be Phryne’s ‘father’ figure, Barrot, who in his slimy, groping ugliness is a bit too exaggerated for the sake of trying to make Phryne more complex, and the fact that the ‘doppel’ system feels like it needed more exploration. I was also no fan of the opening – indifferent song over kaleidoscope images – or the ending – one shot, still until the end, with an awkward rendition of a Yeats poem. But these were far outweighed by how much I enjoyed Fractale, the world we glimpsed and especially the delightful characters we got to know. 

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