Top 20 Anime of 2014 – #20. No Game No Life

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Intro and Honorable Mentions:
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Watch No Game No Life on Crunchyroll:

Ghostlightning on Guilty Pleasures:

The last five years have been a strange time for Studio Madhouse. Once responsible for countless original anime projects and known for high-quality production even in their adaptation work, the studio has increasingly abandoned original animation, as well as become more inconsistent in its choices of adaptations over the last few years, both as a result of monetary issues and corporate restructuring at the turn of the decade. This year has been a totally mixed bag of Madhouse productions; with Mahou Sensou being regarded as one of the worst shows of the Winter season, the largely negative response to Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei, and warmer reactions to No Game No Life, Hanayamata, and Parasyte. All of these are adaptations–three from light novels and two from manga respectively–but to the latter three, Madhouse definitely brought elements of their distinct and high-quality aesthetic into the work.

No Game No Life in particular was among the most aesthetically unique series of the year, heavily utilizing color and light filters to create a vibrantly detailed world divorced from the usual cliches of what fantasy and video game worlds look like in animation. One of the best ways to sell this type of setting is to create a world that looks cool enough for viewers to wish they could play in it, and I’ve read countless testimonials to the effect of, as well as experienced myself, the desire to explore this world in more intimate detail.

Attractive character designs are another huge bonus, though I found the design sense a tad inconsistent. Sora looks different enough from most anime leads to stand out, and his younger sister Shiro is easily one of the most memorable character designs of the year; with her long white hair that tapers into a multicolored gradient, gorgeously detailed deadpan eyes, and skimpy uniform which skews either cute or sexy depending on the viewer’s taste. There’s a good reason that one of the most sought-after PVC releases of the year was this fantastically colorful Shiro figure.

The supporting cast is kind of hit and miss, though. Jibril’s design feels a bit overkill with all the shit tacked onto her, while Stephanie Dola looks kind of boring and generic (though I guess in her case, that’s the point). Kurami Zell and Feel Nivalen have really nice designs, but the beast people are kind of all over the place. Altogether, I think the design sense was one of this show’s strongest elements, and the decision to use red outlines on all of the characters made them feel at home in such a visually resplendent world, which I suspect would have been impossible with regularly colored lines. Shouts out to another 2014 show which won’t be on this list, Nagi no Asukara, which did something similar by using blue outlines on all of the characters who lived in the ocean, which looked great in that show as well. Here’s hoping that we see more anime experimenting with colored outlines as we move into 2015!

Story-wise, No Game No Life was a show that always skirted between being really entertaining and really stupid, and there were times where I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep watching it, though in the end I enjoyed it enough that if they ever make a second season, I’ll be willing to check it out. A lot of my reservations which persisted through the early part of the series were sort of abated as I settled into the show’s groove and was able to appreciate what it has to offer without thinking too much about the things I didn’t like. This was helped by the structure tightening up in the show’s latter half and focusing more on the things that made it good.

No Game No Life’s biggest strength lies in the game segments, which create unique and interesting twists on games that we know, which always turn into bombastic set pieces by the end. It narrowly skirts the line wherein even though it sometimes feels like the writer is pulling things out of his ass, the things he pulls out are just wild and crazy enough to work, and the viewer finds themselves on-board for whatever madness unfolds instead of being exhausted. It pulls this off by utilizing a very tongue-in-cheek atmosphere and heavy use of comedy which convinces us not to take anything too seriously. Some of the best moments in the series come when a long sequence of goofy turns build into something legitimately clever, lending an extra level of radicalness to the conclusions of each game.

Where the series starts to falter a bit is in its structure and characterization. It’s not so much that the characters are poorly written or uninteresting, but as a viewer I often had a difficult time deciding whether or not they were people I wanted to root for.

From the very beginning, Sora and Shiro are portrayed as somewhat amoral, kind of terrible people. Sora especially, for the fact that he allows his younger sister to live the kind of lifestyle that she does, while ostensibly lusting after her in not-so-secret all the while. Sora probably wouldn’t come off as quite so irresponsible if he and Shiro were closer in age, or if it was clear that Shiro could take care of herself, but in spite of the series claiming that Shiro is possibly even more intelligent than Sora, it’s also clear that she’s less mature or capable, and that both of them have a lot of difficulty functioning in society at all. It would be one thing if these two were purely victims of circumstance, but considering that both are highly intelligent people choosing to live poorly and to generally be assholes to a lot of the people around them, it’s hard to see them as really decent people. This especially comes through in the way that both of them constantly victimize Stephanie Dola for comedy and fanservice, to the point where I sometimes felt like I was supposed to hate them.

And that would be fine, except that that doesn’t seem to be the show’s intention. In spite of their apparent moral greyness at the beginning, Sora and Shiro constantly end up being portrayed as Big Damn Heroes whenever the chips are down; saving the day while giving big, honest speeches about how much they love humanity, and earning the respect of everyone they do battle with. In spite of their almost despicable treatment of Steph and overall acting skeevy a lot of the time, we really are supposed to root for these characters and see them as heroic.

Over the course of the show, I gradually came to accept this and have fun with it. One of my favorite posts ever written about anime fandom was when ghostlightning wrote about how to him, a guilty pleasure isn’t about feeling guilty for liking something which other people don’t like, but about liking something which you know goes against your own sense of morals.

Early on in No Game No Life, I hated a lot of the scenes dedicated to victimizing Steph, but as the show went along I realized that I really only hated them because they were boring. A lot of the early episodes just aren’t that funny or clever, at least not enough to warrant dedicating an entire episode immediately after the climax of an awesome battle to walking around town victimizing Steph all day. However, as the show went along and started handling its pacing and comedy a lot better, especially with the introduction of Jibril into the main cast, I found I didn’t mind so much anymore, and I could root for these characters no matter how stupid and terrible they might be as people.

After all, at the end of the day, Sora is meant to be kind of a self-insert character. He’s a dumb, perverted otaku, which is exactly the audience that this show is aimed at. He may have an over-the-top intelligence that makes him cool enough to actually drive the show, unlike a lot of bland cookie-cutter leads, but he remains relatable through his immaturity and how he never manages to succeed too much in his sexual advances towards the other characters. No Game No Life is a wish-fulfillment harem anime, and to criticize it for being that would be to ignore the fact that yes, I would totally love to be Sora, and be this world’s genius hero who is constantly surrounded by gorgeous women. Yes, I do happen to like pandering, fanservicey otaku-oriented crap because I happen to be an otaku, if you couldn’t tell by the posters or the figure collection or the beard–just as long as those shows don’t insult my intelligence or bore me to tears. I’m not saying that No Game No Life makes me feel good about myself or anything, but I never felt like it was calling me an idiot so much as simply a pervert, and I can hardly argue with that. The show kept me entertained for twelve episodes and had some legitimately memorable scenes, so overall my guilt is barely worth listening to.

Whether you’re a skeevy, disgusting otaku like me, or just like to see over-the-top and uniquely creative ideas presented in an easily-watchable format, No Game No Life won’t waste too much of your time. Not all of it is excellent and it has no ending as of yet, but it does have one of my top five favorite opening themes of the year and a pretty impressive soundtrack, alongside memorable designs and a very distinct aesthetic. You can watch the entire series legally for free on Crunchyroll, linked below.

So what did you think of No Game No Life? Let me know in the comments below, and in case you missed it, click the annotation on screen to watch the introduction and honorable mentions video, and stick around on my channel to see what my nineteenth-favorite anime of the year is tomorrow.

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