The first episode of Gunslinger Stratos was a breath of fresh air in an anime season filled with bloated sequels and outright duds. While the main character’s internal monologue can be a bit heavy, it highlights the type of world he lives in and what sort of person he is rather than simply clubbing us over our heads with a faux history lesson. The future-scape is believable, the characters are unique, and the action is in your face until the last second of the pilot.
The problem is that the second episode happens. The heady exposition cunningly left out of the pilot is jumbled haphazardly into Episode 02 where we get that faux history lesson after all. Of course, all of the students just happen to be taking a social studies class and it just happens to be a day when they’re discussing the history of Japan because that convenient plot point hasn’t been beaten to death in every anime with high schoolers. The series feels like Gattaca, Ender’s Game, Star Trek, and The Matrix all had an orgy and you aren’t sure who Gunslinger‘s real parents are. That’s not a negative — it’s actually high praise considering the series took the most unique elements of each of its forerunners and combined them in fun ways.
The story follows blue-haired blue-eyed Kazasumi Tohru and pink-haired pink-eyed (but-not-the-conjunctivitis-sort) Katagiri Kyoka as they dick about in a world where Japan is not so much a nation as a collective coprorate dictatorship. Citizens have their genetic code read at birth to determine their jobs for the sake of prosperity. Tohru is a lowly Class D citizen — tragically not referred to as a shitizen — but performs well above his rank. He is easily on par with the high-class Katagiri. Tohru begins to cause social ripples with elites (like Katagiri’s older brother) through his outstanding performances in gym class, where the students have gun and lightsaber battles because fuck you that’s why.
Meanwhile in the outside world, people have been randomly disappearing and Tohru has been seeing an image of a young girl beckoning him for help. As he and Katagiri chase after the apparition, they find themselves falling through a space-time rift into a future-present version of 2015 Japan. They are instantly thrust into a deadly gunfight and one of the murderous bandits reveals himself to be that dimension’s much more badass version of Tohru.
Sadly, this action is all reeled in by the strange exposition dump of the second episode. It’s explained that some timelord-things have appeared because [reasons] as crows because [reasons] to herald the end of the world which must happen for [reasons] and they will only help the world survive in whatever dimension successfully defeats the other dimensions in combat because [reasons]. But don’t worry, the humans were given a time machine because [reasons] and it only works on certain people like Tohru because of [reasons]. For once, we aren’t just satirically redacting actual plot elements. There truly are no real explanations for any of this. This is the sort of flimsy cardboard cutout of a plotline you usually get when an animation is based on a video game, so it’s to be expected. Still, it’s disappointing after the first episode’s quality writing. Considering the timekeeper crows are proving their knowledge by predicting when people will disintegrate into sand (because rea–you get the picture), it seems strange not to question if they might be evil masterminds who just like watching people fight and die.
Despite the plot being a jumbled mess, the series has a promising concept. The gunslingers who have been transported to fight their doubles must confront themselves on equal terms. They have to learn how to combat their own strengths and exploit their own weaknesses — not only in fighting styles, but as people. There is great potential in how this might play out. From the moment each character understands the nature of the situation, his growth will either match his double or the two will diverge on paths to becoming different entities. While the stakes to the world (dimension?) at large are high, the more intriguing aspect of the series should really be a focus on the character development. Whether Gunslinger becomes a series worth watching or not will hinge on whether the writing focuses on this.
The animation of Gunslinger is on-and-off. Some scenes are rendered with great detail to every little aspect, while important frames seem like they were thrown together by an intern the night of the deadline. The graphics team is on point, however, and the heavy use of CGI is hardly noticeable in most cases. It’s continuing with the current trend of rendering backgrounds and slapping hand-drawn characters onto them, but it has a keen eye for perspective and lighting that’s integral in keeping these backgrounds looking natural. The music can be a bit odd, but it knows when to duck out. The series uses silence to build suspence, city sounds to create environment, and plodding footsteps to generate a little socially awkward conversation lull. This is much better for driving the story than injecting pseudo-dubstep J-Pop at every turn to try and sell soundtracks.
If we had managed to crank out a review before the second episode landed, it would’ve been our first full-fledged recommendation based on a pilot. Unfortunately, with the grinding decline in momentum the second episode brought, we have to demote Gunslinger. We’ll still be keeping an eye on it as one of the more promising series of the season. With loose source material and a flimsy early plot, the series can still go in any direction and will be worth giving a few more episodes before you write it off.
Recommendation: Has potential!
Title: Gunslinger Stratos
Original Source: Video Game
Source Writer: N/A
Source Publisher: Square Enix
Director: Shinpei Ezaki
Writer: Norimitsu Kaiho
Music: Tetsuya Kobayashi
Studio: A-1 Pictures
Run Start: 04/2015
Review Date: 04/2015
Episodes Reviewed: 01-02