SWORDGAI The Animation Season 1 – Anime Review
Synopsis: A young man becomes host to a legendary infernal sword and, with the fate of humanity now in his arm, wields its demonic power against his enemies. (Official Netflix Synopsis)
Review (Warning: Minor Spoilers to Follow):
When Netflix announced thirty exclusives titles for 2018, you wouldn’t have thought we’d hit a real stinker this quickly. Unfortunately SWORDGAI The Animation is just that. Based upon a seinen manga title, SWORDGAI is the story (sort of anyway) of one Gai Ogata. His mother, possessed by a demonic sword, killed herself just as Gai was born, causing the child to become intrinsically connected to this demonic weapon, the Shiryu. Now, fifteen or so years later, Gai loses his arm in a ritual to calm the demonic sword, causing his newfound family and master, Amon Ogata, to reforge the sword as Gai’s own arm. (Why you ask? Why not!?)
At least, that’s the through line. SWORDGAI seems confused on exactly what kind of story it wants to be. The very first episode instead opens by explaining the greater world at play here. We learn about the demonic swords, how weaker-willed people become possessed by these blades and turn into Busoma right away (Demonic possessed individuals that change into hulking armored monsters.) but those with stronger wills first become chrysalis, merging with the blades and retaining their sanity, for a time anyway.
Before we even get to the story of Gai Ogata we’re treated to a lengthy overview of the greater Busoma, Cursed Sword landscape, before finally delving into the events that would give birth to Gai and his unfortunate circumstances. But even once we’re onto what should be the meat of the story, SWORDGAI frequently pulls away to explore characters seemingly divorced from anything going on with the primary narrative. These individuals are all people who gradually come into contact with these cursed/demonic swords and merge with them, presumably to become players in this grand battle at a later date. It might work, if SWORDGAI had the writing chops.
A large part of the series problem is how underwritten or poorly written many of these scenarios are. Squeezing so many characters into these twelve episodes means, for one, there isn’t much time to do any of them justice. Gai eventually gets a mentor, one Seiya Ichijo, perhaps the most fleshed out and likable character. But he’s an oddity. Other characters get half an episode, with forced dialogue that cuts right to the heart of their situation, often stilted, abrupt and accidentally comical. Second the writing often feels simplistic, childish, taking sudden and ‘goofy’ turns, injecting this very bizarre sense of comedy into a story we were otherwise introduced to as a most serious and sullen affair. One particular instance involves a local priest who knows more than he initially lets on. Due to a misunderstanding Ichijo initially tries to capture Gai as his enemy, that is until the priest shows up and begins to sexually harass Ichijo, taking a intense sexual interest in Ichijo’s manly physique. That kind of comedy can work, but sits entirely at odds with everything we’ve seen up to that point, that didn’t contain a single comedic gag or break from the overtly dark atmosphere.
The shallow nature of SWORDGAI’s writing doesn’t help to pull audiences in, nor does the animation. SWORDGAI never looks bad, but lacks a clear sense of style and appeal. For a seinen title, SWORDGAI lacks the typical brutality expected in a series like this. Don’t get me wrong, bad stuff happens, blood spurts and limbs fly, but it all feels tamer, less detailed, and less visually impactful than you might expect. Part of this has to do with a visual shift away from the manga’s art. Gai looks decidedly younger, more youthful, almost approaching a pretty boy character design. It’s not to say Gai in the manga is all that gritty either, but he has a more adult air to his design, as do other characters who look in the anime like they’ve been drafted from some BL anime. Perhaps the worst offender of the visual shift is the Busoma themselves. The manga, at least early chapters, boasts a healthy number of interesting and freaky designs, non of which appear in the anime. Busoma are either redesigned or they only chose to adapt the most CGI friendly designs, meaning Busoma look more like power fighting suits from say Garo, or Tiger and Bunny.
But the adjustments from manga to anime don’t end there. SWORDGAI’s manga doesn’t have an official western license, nor any fan translating group apparently. Doing some digging I managed to find Japanese copies of the first couple volumes however. The changes are plentiful, right from the beginning. The way in which Gai loses his arm is different, there’s more brutality, and the story starts squarely focused on him, including several sequences that seem to have been cut from the anime in favor of showcasing the larger cast, who make no appearances in the first couple chapters.
Overall the series is a mess. The wealth of characters is too much for SWORDGAI, its weak, shallow writing unable to really instill quality characterization into any of its characters. It’s poor attempts at comedy only undermine things further, damaging it’s otherwise serious atmosphere, and the animation compounds all of this with visuals that are never awful, but fail to impress. SWORDGAI isn’t something I find myself recommending, feeling too half-baked an execution to make it worthwhile entertainment for anyone. It seems a potential shame that the manga has no western presence, as what little I’ve seen at least puts it ahead of its anime counterpart.
SWORDGAI The Animation is available for streaming via Netflix.