A.I.C.O. Incarnation – Anime Review
Synopsis: Everything Aiko knew was a lie. Now she’s joining a team of Divers to reach the place where the Burst began to stop it for good and save her family. (Official Netflix Synopsis)
Review (Warning: Minor Spoilers to Follow):
Netflix’s foray into the anime medium took a major turn this year as Netflix actively invested in anime production, securing true exclusivity for over thirty titles to come out over the course of the year. [Edit: To make this clear, Netflix is not the production studio behind A.I.C.O.’s creation, that’s Studio Bones, but they do have total exclusivity for the world wide streaming of A.I.C.O., making it one of their Netflix Originals.] They started things with a bang with Devilman Crybaby, which quickly became an early contender for Anime of the Year, wowing audiences over many of the other Winter anime titles. It was a tough act to follow, one B: The Beginning wasn’t entirely up for. It turned out a decent, if not good, series steeped in flaws. But B started a downward trend for Netflix’s exclusive anime offerings, and A.I.C.O. Incarnation does nothing to break from that path.
A.I.C.O. is a thoroughly average series, marred with its own issues, never amounting to more than pure mediocrity. On the surface level, A.I.C.O. generally looks good, with solid direction for the action sequences between the Divers and the horrific fleshy malignant matter that threatens to expand and engulf our would-be heroes.
The series focuses on Aiko Tachibana, a young high school girl who lost her family in the “Burst,” an explosion of malignant, ooze like matter, that swallowed the city she originated from. When she meets Yuya Kanzaki, a transfer student, who knows the truth of the Burst, Tachibana discovers she’s far more integral to the Burst’s origins than she ever imagined. Given a chance to save her Mother and Brother, whom she believed had died in the tragedy, Aiko and Kanzaki join a group of Divers, mercenaries capable of fighting against the malignant matter, in reaching primary point zero, where the Burst began, and putting an end to it for good. As Aiko and her seeming savior Yuya Kanzaki work to battle against this monstrosity, we’re treated to a wealth of action scenes. It’s by and large a feast for the eyes as our heroes battle it out against this fleshy ooze.
While the action sequences look great, and our primary characters are easy to latch onto thanks to their simply yet memorable designs, many other characters are not. By and large much of the cast suffers from unmemorable designs, too bland and forgettable to make many of these characters stick in your head. It doesn’t help that the writing beneath those lukewarm looks is hardly inspiring.
Characterization simply isn’t something A.I.C.O. excels at. Characters often undergo abrupt development, with little to no gradual build towards their heel turns. For example, one of the Divers, Misawa Kaede, a feisty, lively girl, takes issue with Tachibana’s passion to save her mother and brother. Misawa suffers from a tragic backstory, one she regurgitates on the spot, with no opportunity to tease or hint at her combative origins, and allow that traumatic event to flow naturally from her character. She just spits out how she was abandoned and can’t relate to Tachibana at all and that’s that. Later in the series she changes tune, coming to Tachibana’s aid in her darkest hour, but for what reason we’re never given an idea. Many characters are like that, seemingly against Tachibana as the series’ mysteries come to fruition, given then a sudden change in heart for our heroine without rhyme or reason. These characters aren’t entirely devoid of persona, many feeling like their own person, but remain so thin, so surface level that it’s hard to feel drawn to their involvement in the story.
Breaking up the criticism with a little praise, Aiko Tachibana is a solid if perhaps a little bland, lead. She’s determined, caring, and trapped in an increasing uncomfortable situation. She’s one of the few other highlights in the series and largely stands out as the most explored, and relatable character due simply to how much time the series spends focused on her. This allows her actions and decisions to make sense, as we become familiar enough with her that we start to understand the kind of young woman she is.
Other characters don’t seem to act as they should however, or lack justification for their personality shifts. Kanzaki, the young man who aids Tachibana in her quest to save her family and stop the expanse of the malignant matter, is cold, calculating and seems incapable of understanding human emotion (as the plot needs: sometimes he gets it, sometimes he doesn’t.) As mysteries come to light Kanzaki’s persona, the way he carries himself and interacts with people, makes less and less sense, not at all jiving with the character’s true origins. It’s tough to talk about seeing as the show’s one great element is in fact those deeper mysteries, and I don’t want to actively ruin it for anyone. While many of the additional cast feel thin, under explored, and more like plot devices than people, A.I.C.O.’s greatest boon is the sheer wealth of hidden agendas, secret dynamics, and greater reveals saved for the final five episodes.
But to get to those reveals one must wade through completely ho-hum progression. The show frequently misses opportunities to better explore the divers, the fighters that have accompanied Kanzaki and Aiko Tachibana. One example of how underdone they are is Minase Kazuki, a passionate and kind young man, who gradually falls in love with Tachibana. Except it isn’t gradual. Early on Minase talks about wanting to protect Aiko, coming off as a easily infatuated young man, quick to fall for Tachibana’s looks. It’s pretty much all the characterization he gets, half his dialogue something along the lines of “I’ll protect you, Tachibana” and little else. By series end he professes profound and intense love for her, but there’s little between these two events that showcases any real growth for the character or their bond. His love for her feels by and large superficial, making his cries in her defense as other characters turn on the poor girl, ring absolutely hollow. He’s the heart of the series’ side characters, their emotional core, but without the proper characterization he feels contrived and his words unearned.
The other problem is how often A.I.C.O.’s action sequences, that pepper the middle of the series, feel samey. It’s often the same progression for each sequence. Battle the malignant matter, discover their weapons don’t work on it, let Kanzaki synthesis new ammo, use the new ammo, subdue the matter and reach the gate that has a super weapon that kills off the matter in that area for good. There’s a little nuance here, a little nuance there, maybe a tease for a later reveal, etc, but it starts to feel like you’re watching the same thing over and over again.
Wrapping around the otherwise well-animated action is the political/business intrigue that’s going on outside of the contaminated zone. The series just doesn’t have the chops for this, often written in a not at all convincing way that leaves these events feeling boring and forgettable. Which is frustrating as it can feel like a third of the screen time is dedicated to this political mischief.
Two other things innately drag down the series, early developments that go no where and seem to do little more than pad for time, like when Tachibana is kidnapped by a rival group that’s working against Kanzaki, only for her to be recaptured before they’d had a chance to do much with her. The series also suffers from some rather convenient developments in its final few episodes in order to give our characters a happy ending, which feels at odds with the series tough choices and harsh realities it was dealing with right up until the show’s final episode.
Outside of these flaws A.I.C.O. isn’t awful. It’s serviceable and, if you’re hungering for Sci-fi, A.I.C.O. is a largely modest watch. Good, if repetitive action, solid mysteries, a generally likable lead, etc. That’s all assuming you stick to the subbed version however. If there’s one way in which Netflix’s latest exclusive is indeed absolutely god awful, it’s through its dub. A.I.C.O. offers a dubbed localization that feels decades behind compared to near ever other winter offering. Voice work is severely stilted, not only from uninspired, rough and emotionless performances, but from a localized script that fails to let the dialogue flow naturally. The script is so underwhelming that voice actors are forced to change the speed of their dialogue just to make the lip flaps work. One minute a character may be talking slow, with abrupt, unnatural pauses, and the next rushing through their lines to make them fit in an uncomfortable few seconds. The Japanese script itself is already a bit weak in places, but the dub compounds these issues, making the series either a chore to watch or a laugh a minute riot, depending on your point of view.
Again A.I.C.O. isn’t awful, but it’s easily Netflix’s weakest entry yet. With weak characterization, progression that can feel repetitive, and an ending that feels contrived, A.I.C.O.’s major boons are its well-animated action and intriguing mysteries. It’s enough to keep the series from feeling truly bottom of the barrel and elevate it to acceptably mediocre watch. I can’t find myself recommending the series, and certainly not the dub, but if you’re hard up for Sci-fi anime, and more in it for the mysteries than well-written characters, you could still do worse than A.I.C.O. But I seriously hope Netflix’s next title, Children of the Whales, launching today as this article goes up, manages to pull us back from this trend of diminishing quality.
A.I.C.O. Incarnation is available for streaming via Netflix.