AICO – 04 – An Artificial-Bodied MacGuffin

I’ll give AICO this: it knows how to move things along. The Diver team run into far nastier resistance than they thought so early in the mission. It’s great to watch people on the job whom we’ve already met off duty. It not only affords us a look at their procedures and teamwork, and ability to keep up with their constantly evolving foe.

As for that foe, we get a decent helping of its various forms and behaviors. As a rule, any non-sentient “force of nature” villain has to evoke a certain degree of primal fear (in lieu of a personality), and I think that’s achieved here. There was a lot of jargon/technobabble being thrown around, but the brisk pace kept me from getting bogged down.

I also enjoyed the juxtaposition of the foreboding alien landscape that is the MatterZone with the so-far-untouched parts of Japan the other characters enjoy.

Sure, in each case they’re basically scenes of more exposition—establishing that Nanbara, Isazu, and Kurose were all college buds, and that Nanbara and now Isazu aren’t in a hurry to destroy a valuable resource.

But it’s just neat to cut from scenes where characters are fighting for survival while pushing through a hostile environment, to ones where they can hold a meeting, enjoy a tasty desert, or dote upon their comatose daughter without having to worry about being, er, mattered.

The show doesn’t forget that the individual sub-teams within the Diver team are competing for an achievement bonus. Kaede is probably guilty of the most unnecessary chatter of the whole crew, but probably gets away with it due to the fact she’s still quite young and also extremely talented.

Yet no matter how highly talented, trained, experienced, and armed the Divers are, it never feels like they can truly relax there in The Shit, and constantly have to have each other’s backs lest some tentacle of Matter end them in an eye-blink.

The first leg of their journey is marked by one of the giant dams, which also happens to serve as a massive three-bladed, electrical-shocking guillotine, which is one of the more original ideas AICO has served up. If this setup is an exact copy of something from a far better anime I haven’t seen before, well…ignorance is bliss, because giant dam guillotines are cool.

They’re also damned effective, if only temporarily so, as after the “slice” is made everything downriver dies, while everything in the immediate vicinity is paralyzed. But between the living Matter looking like miscellaneous viscera and the fact it’s apparently “learning” how to take a crude human form, there’s clearly no permanent fix for this scourge as yet.

Of course, ending all this is, supposedly, Aiko’s role…or it will be, much further up the river. If there’s one blemish on this episode, it’s that the protagonist is utterly sidelined this week; even more so than previous episodes. She mostly just reacts, once to the point of passing out. Simply being in such an inhospitable place clearly has a deleterious effect on her cyborg physiology.

Part of that is inevitable: she’s certainly not trained to fight the Matter, and I daresay I’d probably be much more freaked out in her situation. But let’s call an artificial-bodied MacGuffin a MacGuffin. The show could have avoided this by giving Aiko some training (and development) prior to the mission, but that would have killed the narrative momentum. For now, like Aiko, we’re along for the ride, so I suppose I’ll just enjoy it…and watch my six.

P.S. I’ve intended to skip the ED the last three episodes…yet I always end up watching it to the end. The end theme is very pretty, as are the sights the top half of Aiko walks through.

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AICO – 03 – After a Rescue, The Real Journey Commences

Aiko and Yuya have been captured by CAAC (Control Agency of Artificial Creatures), led by Director Nanbara, your obligatory Badass Director Lady giving orders in the back of a fancy car. She’s in frequent contact with Dr. Isazu, director of the Kiryu Hospital and once the doctor in charge of Aiko’s care. Clearly lots of people are interested in Aiko.

Thanks to a clever tracking strip in his paper airplane (activated when he goads a guy into crushing it), the Divers get a fix on Yuya’s location before the government takes harsher steps to interrogate him and fill Aiko’s head with lies (they insist her family is dead).

The Divers ambush the captors when they try to move their prisoners, in a decent action scene that demonstrates the Divers’ coordination and toughness, even in non-diving situations. That they were able to so easily infiltrate CAAC and retrieve their assets speaks both to their exceptional skills and CAAC not expecting an ambush.

With Aiko and Yuya back, the mission proceeds as planned—even as there’s a sudden flare-up of the Malignant Matter behind the Gate, spurring an increased military presence, which launches tranquilizer missiles over the gate that manage to calm the Matter down.

While preparing for zero hour, Aiko nods off and her dreams include the POV memories the other Aiko—her real body with an artificial brain. She and her double are connected. Not only that, the Matter is attracted to her artificial body; but Yuya hopes a certain drug will diminish that particular effect.

Aiko has decided to side with those who cultivate and embrace her belief her family is still in there, alive (the other Aiko seems to have encountered them, after all). We’ll see if she’s put her trust in the right people. The Divers are pros who will carry out their mission to the best of their abilities, but they also seem to have taken to Aiko and want to help her out, in addition to, well, trying to save Japan and the world.

Once she and the other Divers are suited up in their “Live Suits” (a process that reveals a lot of her and the Divers’ skin), they head to the Gate. Just minutes after they’re allowed through, however, the Gate is locked down by the government. There’s no turning back; if they’re going to do this, it’s now or never.

AICO – 02 – Getting Up to Speed, Running Away, Getting Nabbed

Aiko’s new “friends” dump a lot of info on her in an episode that gets us up to speed, introduces some other players, and sets the stakes, which are far-ranging. To sum it up, Aiko’s natural body was all but destroyed in a car accident, so researchers decided to put her brain in an artificial body they made when she was born.

However, the surgery that allows her to be standing there today caused the Burst: an overpowered proliferation of “malignant matter” that threatens Japan and the world. She’s also apparently the key to stopping it. Oh, and her mom and brother are still in ground zero.

It’s obviously a lot to absorb for poor Aiko, whose world has just been flipped upside down. She’s a lot like Neo during his sprawling introduction to the Real World, though she doesn’t throw up, she RUNS…nowhere in particular, just away from all this scary shit.

While running, she ends up falling through a roof, right into the lunch a redheaded Diver named Misawa Kaede is about to tuck into. Kaede’s colleague Kazuki assists Aiko when he learns she just wants to get away, but Kaede and the others corner her and bring her back to Kanzaki, Dr. Korose & Co.

Kurose decides to hire the 4-person Diver team to infiltrate Ground Zero in order to retrieve Aiko’s real body. Kanzaki will be their guide, they’ll be paid handsomely even if survival can’t be guaranteed, and whatever 2-person team from the quartet fares better by a certain leg in the mission, will get a bonus and be the ones to accompany Kanzaki to the final leg.

Now that the situation and the plan for dealing with it have been established, it looks like it’s time to impliment it, but the team hits a snag: a SWAT team busts into the hideout and snatches up Aiko and Yuya.

In two episodes, Aiko has been plucked from school by one party, given an infodump, freaked out and run away, picked up again, and then kidnapped by another party. I’m not seeing a whole lot of agency for the titular character, nor are there any indications she’ll be gaining any of it anytime soon.

That could be problematic going forward, as we’re dealing with a Netflix “Original”-style series that has been intricately formulated to check a lot of boxes and satisfy multiple audiences, but in doing so lacks any kind of basic originality.

AICO is (and will probably remain) watchable because’s it’s well-made competently executed, and isn’t gratingly gratuitous (likeDevilman Crybaby). But I like to think I’ve watched enough anime to make the determination that there’s no potential for AICO to be anything other than popcorn entertainment.

AICO – 01 (First Impressions)

Implacable organic masses don’t tend to be the most compelling villains…but we’ll see

Thanks in no small part to streaming services like Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix, there’s just too damn much television to watch. And if Netflix has anything to say about it, there’s going to be too much anime as well. A.I.C.O.: Incarnation is a Bones-produced original anime tailor-made for Netflix-style binge watching.

That’s quite evident from this first episode, which unloads an awful lot (and jumps around multiple genres) but doesn’t settle on any one thing, yet moves around at a good enough clip to entice you to watch more, provided you don’t get immediately irritated by the number of cliches that unfold.

A Bridal Carry? That was quick.

Mind you, many conventional network-airing anime give you this same kind of kind of thrown-into-the-deep-end, action-packed pilot, but it’s very much intentional here. There’s bits and pieces of characters and story in AICO’s first outing, but not quite enough to be satisfied with just … one … episode. You really want to watch on.

“You aren’t…a stoic Gary Stu by any chance?”

But it’s fairly late, and I typically like to space things out for the sake of my eyes and sanity, so I’ll be watching one episode at a time, unless I can’t resist to watch more for some reason. In that regard, I think I’ll be safe; thus far the presentation of AICO is such that I’d probably benefit from a slight respite between episodes, even if it goes against the Netflix credo of simply sitting in the same place until an entire season is done.

NOT THE FACE

Oh, sorry, I haven’t said much about what AICO is about, just how I felt about watching it. Suffice it to say, there’s a huge threat to humanity in the form of some kind of formless ambulatory mass of gore called “matter” that consumes everything in its path. It’s believed their only hope against this scourge is Tachibana Aiko, who at first appears to be an ordinary high school girl gradually regaining the ability to stand and walk after some unspecified injury.

The reality, however, is that Aiko no longer possesses a natural body; hers is an extremely realistic, intricate, and above all tough artificial body, in which any bruises, blows or cuts are quickly healed. A rake to her face with a knife shatters the knife. This all comes as a shock to Aiko, who already has her plate full as the lone member of her family to survive some kind of calamity likely caused by the Matter.

As I said, the show moves relatively well, even if it moves a bit too much in one sitting; it’s decent-looking enough and the music is adequately atmospheric. Perhaps I’ll take another look or two soon…just not all at once, as prescribed.

Witch Craft Works – 04

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Takamiya Honoka’s innate magical power is so great that when he’s in Kagari’s proximity, she’s virtually invincible. This begs the question: why hadn’t Honoka ever been attacked while Kagari wasn’t around? They’re close, but they’re hardly inseparable. This episode answers that question, both for us and the Tanpopo-led Tower Witches who make another ill-fated attempt to attack Honoka: someone else is protecting him. Namely, his little sister Kasumi (a very sharp, indignant performance by Kayano Ai).

In hindsight, we should’ve known Kasumi would step out of the shadows and margins of the frame and have a bigger presence, but we didn’t think it would be this fast or this big. Frankly, we liked the idea of keeping her in stealth-stalker mode for a few more episodes, but the whole reason she was doing that turns out to be because Kagari was stepping on her toes by hanging out with Honoka on a weekend. Kasumi is a jealous, possessive imouto who is resolved to protect her brother, who while slightly taller is far weaker in the magical tactics department.

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Faced with the intolerable prospect of more of her precious time with her beloved brother being sapped away by the Princess, Kasumi takes action, subjecting Honoka to a tense bathroom interrogation, then (successfully) guilt-tripping him by mentioning she’s being picked on by the masses at school upset with his closeness to said Princess. But when Tanpopo’s crew distract Kagari, it’s up to Kasumi to save Honoka, arriving atop a gargantuan stuffed bear. Tanpopo counters with a giant rabbit, and a huge, silly fight ensues, resulting in much destruction of property, but ultimately not as fun as last week’s broom ride.

Yet again, the baddies look like hapless fools, with two exceptions: Chronoire, low on mana after her first encounter with the “King and Queen”, smartly uses Tanpopo’s crew as pawns to keep the pressure on, and later collects all 30-odd Tower witches in town for a powwow. All the while, Tanpopo’s crew’s boss, Medusa, has escaped from SuperMax confinement, meaning we could soon see an “if you want something done right, do it yourself” scenario. Still, after their impressive displays of power and collective devotion to Honoka, we don’t expect Kagari or Kasumi to shrink in the face of whatever evil threats are converging.

7_very_goodRating:7 (Very Good)

Witch Craft Works – 03

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About those “larger and more organized attacks” we talked about? They don’t quite arrive this week, as an early-morning strike by Tanpopo and her girls is twarted in the blink of an eye by Kagari; almost too easily. But the focus here is the start of Takamiya’s magic training, and here the episode excels at evoking the awe and wonder inherent in such an exercise. While short-statured and not immensely strong, while wearing the magical garb Kagari personally selected for him, he can leap tremendous heights and even carry her with ease.

But we knew Chronoire Schwarz VI was planning to attack, and this week she finally does, luring Kagari and Takamiya onto a magic bus and quickly paralyzing Kagari. She then puts Takamiya in his first real spot, telling him to swallow something that will extract his mana, or watch his beautiful knight bleed out. But ends up not having to do much, as Kagari is able to overcome her paralysis and destroy Chronoire’s avatar (it’s assumed the body we see isn’t her only one). But he still has the mana-extracting candy, a symbol of the insidious threat Chronoire still poses.

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The threat of enemy witches aside, Takamiya is also finding himself particularly hated by everyone in his school, and we mean everyone. There hasn’t been so much as a bawdy male classmate to put Takamiya in a half-nelson for no reason; he’s literally friendless, except for Kagari, which is kind of sad. In this regard, the remainder of the student body is really just one uninteresting character that worships Kagari and curses the one she favors. Though it isn’t as if Takamiya was Mr. Popular before Kagari started doting on him.

The piece-de-resistance this week was the broom-flying lesson, a very majestically-presented scene that surely dulled the effect of the peer-hate for Takamiya. It’s also an opportunity for him to show initiative independent of Kagari, when he summons his own broom to save one of those peers from delinquents—despite not knowing how to fly yet. It proves to be another Tower witch trap that Kagari must swoop in and handle, but we like how Takamiya isn’t going to allow Kagari’s fear of him getting hurt stop him from doing what he feels is the right thing.

7_very_goodRating:7 (Very Good)

Witch Craft Works – 02

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It’s only been two weeks, but we have a good feeling about Witch Craft Works if it keeps up this level of quality. This was a complete episode: we got lots of tasty plot, colorful characters, explosive action, and even a little romance, as Kagari and Takamiya end up on what amounts to be a first date. We’re also consistently impressed with how funny this show is; since he’s “normal” like us, and a newcomer to the magical world, he can comment objectively on all the weird witchy stuff going on around him, with comical results.

And a lot goes on around him: turns out Takamiya isn’t as “normal” as he always thought: he’s a very “popular” young lad, and in the wrong hands he could start a war; a magical nuke, if you will. We see many of those wrong hands, the Witches of the Tower, as they descend upon Takamiya with talons spread. They’re vain, greedy, selfish, cool-looking witches who thirst for power, unlike Kagari, who’s a member of the Crafting (or Workshop) Witches, who build cities and maintain the natural balance and peace. It’s a neat little (actually, huge) conflict going on right under noses of the muggle multitudes, of whom Takamiya knows he’s no longer a member.

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Takamiya, meanwhile, continues to not be threatened by Kagari’s power, or opposed to being protected out of misplaced masculine pride. At the same time, he doesn’t want her to keep getting unnecessarily hurt for his sake (he quickly realizes her sudden scarf was hiding a wound). He wants to help her, and so asks to be her apprentice. Maybe once he learns a little magic, the Tower witches may think twice about spur-the-moment attacks, like the one Ai attempted at the mall. What’s great is that all of the Tower witches we’ve seen in action so far exude a dangerous malice despite their inability to lay a scratch on Takamiya.

They don’t come off as bumbling incompetents; it’s more that Kagari is such a badass that she makes dealing with them look easy. In fact, at this point they only seem to be poking around, assessing the prey along with its guardian. Kagari says straight up that she wishes she could protect Takamiya without him knowing anything, but that time has passed and there’s no going back. While teaching him magic is prudent, the witches are likely to keep hunting him with ever larger, more organized attacks, no doubt led by heavies like Chronoire Schwarz VI. Takamiya may find himself in a perilous new world with numerous targets painted on his body, but he can’t say he’s not enjoying the ride!

9_superiorRating: 9 (Superior)

Stray Observations:

  • Tanpopo mentions the Towers are only interested in Takamiya’s body; specifically, his…“white stuff.” Whatever that is, it’s apparently not the first thing one would think of.
  • Despite her always-serious face, Kagari does crack the occasional joke!
  • We love how sweet Ai acts when we first see her, then how coldly she tosses the child aside when she recognizes Takamiya. Bad witches hate kids; that’s science.
  • We techincally meet Takamiya’s little sister, who seems to be very interested in her brother’s goings-on. How do we know? Well, the episode smartly avoided any big “brother-complex” scenes, and instead kept her in the far corners of the frame or in the background, spying on his date with Kagari. Very subtly, cleverly done. I don’t think we ever saw her face.
  • The thing Kagari went shopping for? A smart warlock outfit for Takamiya. Awesome.
  • The ED, in which five witches are being tortured in various ways, strikes a fine balance between cute and macabre. The theme is quite catchy too.