Edited by The Davoo
Y’know, when I stop to think about it, The Asterisk War is basically just an incredibly shitty cyberpunk story. Aside from the fact that it’s missing a film noir aesthetic, it’s pretty much got all of the elements: advanced technology and science, information networks and cybernetics, a breakdown and radical shift in the social order of society, megacorporations, a near-future Earth, and being primarily focused on the marginalized members of its society… in a way. Given that cyberpunk is my favorite genre of fiction in general, it’s a little surprising that I didn’t realize it sooner; but then, cyberpunk is so heavily defined by its aesthetic that even with all of those elements, it’s still difficult to consider this show to be a part of the genre at all; and the funny thing is that I think that’s part of its problem.
Like every other aspect of its narrative, the setting of the Asterisk War seems like it was cobbled together from the ideas in a bunch of other, better stories, with no understanding of how or why the settings of those stories worked. To explain what I mean, I’m going to have to start with the broad strokes of the society described in the show’s narration and work my way down from there.
So, from the top, we’re told that the major event which put the Earth on course to become what it is at the time of the story was the Invertia–an unspecified catastrophe which apparently caused most of the world’s nations to rapidly decline in power, leading to the formation of one global superpower. It’s difficult to interpret exactly what kind of situation would lead to this, considering that this trope usually comes from all of the world’s nations uniting against a common foe more so than in the wake of a catastrophe; but whatever, it’s not a big deal–this is the kind of stuff I’m willing to suspend my disbelief over.
We next learn that the Invertia caused the birth of a new race of humans with superhuman capabilities called the Genestella. Whether this came about as some kind of genetic mutation or evolution is unclear–but that’s fine. The nature of these powers and their limitations are also unclear–which is lame, but not a deal breaker. Things start to get weird, though, once we get to the foundation of Asterisk City.
We are told in no uncertain terms that Asterisk City exists for the sole purpose of facilitating a yearly tournament of Genestella mortal combat known as the Festa. So if we’re thinking of comparisons, then I guess it’s kind of like an Olympic village that doesn’t move, and has an entire gigantic city built around it. You’d think that whatever goes on in all of those massive skyscrapers would’ve taken precedence by now–unless all of it is corporations tied into running these Festas, which honestly wouldn’t surprise me.
Here’s where things get weird: the combatants in these Festas are all students, who each attend one of the city’s six huge academies. These students consist of powerful Genestella from all over the world who are scouted for competition, or otherwise arrive in the city with the desire to compete. This is where they lost me.
Why students? Do I even need to ask? Is this not the obvious question? Why students? Why?
So, it’s kind of implied that the Genestella might be sort of a put-upon race of people in this world; but at the same time, it totally doesn’t seem like it. In fact, as far as I can tell, no one is actually being forced into these competitions. All of the main characters have very specific motivations for competing and seem to have arrived of their own accord. There doesn’t seem to be any particular reason for why the Genestella have to fight one-another besides that they want to.
So, uh, why students? Why? Why students? Why? WHY?
Whenever Julis talks about Asterisk City and the Phoenix Festa, she’s always sure to make a bunch of snide and disgusted remarks about how the Festas are what the people want, and how the city is run on greed and darkness, and how the world is a terrible place. So, like, I get the sense that the Festa is some kind of hyper-popular bloodsport competition that represents the twisted morals of this new society; but, uh… why students? Why students?
Let’s ignore that when it comes to most sports, one of the most exciting aspects is getting to watch a great athlete’s entire career. People who don’t like sports usually don’t like them because they don’t know enough of the narrative–whereas people who are into them are usually as interested in them as a storytelling medium as they are in the impressiveness of the sportsman’s physical accomplishments. It’s not easy to form an interesting sports narrative if everyone’s career is over the second they’re out of high school.
Let’s also ignore that even if this is purely a bloodsport and people just want to watch Genestella ripping each-other to pieces, then surely, older competitors would be stronger, more vicious, and more experienced as warriors, making for a much better show. At this rate, I can only assume that this society has become so twisted that they can only enjoy a bloodsport wherein teenagers specifically are killing one-another–never mind that according to the Wiki, the fighters don’t even necessarily HAVE to kill one-another, but serious injuries can be expected. I mean, I find that to be kind of a stretch, but I’m pretty sure that was also the plot of those Hunger Game things I never saw, so maybe that’s what’s in vogue right now or something. But here’s the rub:
In the Hunger Games, the teenagers HAD to compete. Their society was built around forcing random kids to kill each-other for the amusement of the rich–and all of the kids had to fight so that their slum would be able to eat; or something like that; my only exposure to these things is through internet analysis videos–I have a problem.
The reality is that this entire story concept is completely implausible. The answer to the question of, “why students?” is simply, “because light novel.” Because this author decided to simultaneously write in the genre of a typical high school harem action series, while also attempting to write a dystopian sci-fi story–and they fucked it up.
I wish I could pull back the layers on this whole system of government and society, but it’s difficult to do so because the setting is so poorly defined. We’re constantly being told how greedy and twisted this city is, but we barely ever see how or why. Like, I get that all the schools are viciously competing and often using underhanded tactics, but fucking everyone signed up for this. It’s not like anyone comes to this island just to go to class–they’re here because they’re supposed to be exceptionally powerful Genestella hand-picked for competition, right?
Well, that brings me to another question: why are the students, students? As in, why are they just going to school at these schools? I know there’s a bunch of training facilities and shit, and that the school provides everyone with weapons, but why even keep up the facade of the school at all? Are these students not here to become career warriors? Aren’t the best of them expected to compete with their lives on the line? Maybe they should be spending more time learning how to fight so they can fucking survive. Fat lot of good all that math is gonna do them when their ass gets killed in the Festa. Plus, the winner is supposed to be able to basically ask for whatever they want, so it’s not like they’re gonna need that knowledge if they do win.
There’s a part in episode three when Julis explains that the city is full of stages everywhere, both big and small, for people to have random fights; but the animation staff didn’t even bother showing any of them. Real fucking nice, guys, way to nail the setting details and really make this place come to life with its own personality instead of looking like any fucking generic city.
But therein lies another question: why are people fighting at random? Julis says that most people don’t even bother taking their fights to the stages–but why? The way I understand it, each school has its own ranking system, wherein people challenge one-another to duels and whoever wins a lot of duels gets a higher rank; and then the highest-ranked kids get to compete in the Festas and potentially fulfill their wishes. So I kind of understand the incentive to fight people from your own school, at your own school–but why would you ever challenge anyone from any other school out in the open? What would be the benefit of that?
Throughout the first four episodes, Julis is hunted by one of her classmates who is being paid by a rival school to try and take her out. The fact that this guy comes from her school means that he’s probably a much lower rank than her, considering that she’s one of the strongest students in attendance; so she’s probably gonna wipe the floor with his a–oh. Well, it would’ve made sense. But here’s what also would’ve made sense: if the other schools just sent their strongest dudes to fucking beat the shit out of her.
Sure, the whole “inside man” thing makes sense on paper; and if Julis was like barricaded inside the school and the school was under high security, then all of that would be understandable; but Julis doesn’t just make regular trips out of the school–she makes a point of it. She outright states that she doesn’t intend to let these attackers alter her daily routine; because, I guess, she sees them as some sort of terrorists. What everyone fails to appreciate is that a top-level school could simply tell their best guy to walk up to her in the middle of the road and slit her fucking throat.
To tell you the truth, I could go on like this all day long–but I feel like I’ve made my point; that the setting details are played so fast and loose in this story that you could easily break every narrative concept in a million different ways with about ten seconds of thought. The setting is such a load of nonsense that it’s difficult to take anything seriously or to care about anything that goes on. And that’s just the social structure–I haven’t even started on the technology!
According to the opening narration, the Asterisk War is set at least one-hundred years into the future, since the Invertia is said to have occurred during the previous century. Setting the story so far into the future, and creating a world in which a major cataclysm has occurred that completely upended the fabric of society as we know it, gives a lot of leeway for what the author could’ve come up with in terms of technology, and in terms of the abilities which the new species of humanity are able to tap into with their powers. This opportunistic setting is completely squandered, and we are presented with something that could just have easily been set like thirty years in the future with the cataclysm having occurred yesterday.
In fact, Asterisk city is virtually indistinguishable from any average nice-looking modern city. Apparently, whatever technological advancements did happen weren’t enough to change the way that people go about their daily lives. It’s good to know that even if the world gets destroyed by meteors, causing all of its nations to weaken and reshape into a new mega-nation over the course of more than a hundred years, we’ll still have McDonald’s serving up their same old combo meals. I guess it’s called WcDonald’s now though because the society has been inverted.
What technological advancements we do get to see are all so vague and ill-conceived that I’m still not entirely sure what’s tech and what’s magic–and I don’t mean that in the “advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” sense… or maybe I do? I’d be able to tell you if I knew which shit was tech and which shit was magic!
It seems like holograms are able to be manifested at all times in all places by all people, and that these holograms are controlled through mind powers. As difficult as it is for me to conceive of a computer so advanced that it can be controlled via telepathy to do anything as advanced as what it does in the series, I’d be willing to suspend my disbelief for such a concept because it’s cool and I want to live in a world like that; but you’d have to really sell me on the idea that that’s what’s happening, or give some hints into how the mind actually interfaces with the machines at least, before I’d be able to fully buy into it.
What really stumps me more than anything though is the hologram stuff. Where the hell are they coming from? Why can holograms just show up from thin air and be moved around and manipulated like this? I don’t see any projectors anywhere, and I’m sure the characters aren’t just like projecting shit from their pores or something. It confuses me because it might kind of make sense if this was explained as something that the characters can do with their powers, but it just seems so weird and unlikely. Why are these hologram windows presented literally as browser tabs? Do we need browser controls for a computer that you operate with your MIND? And what’s more, if it really was all controlled with super-powers, then why does it seem to operate on a shared network, like the internet?
Believe it or not, I was able to come up with a couple of ideas that honestly would have justified some of these issues for me and gotten me to stop asking questions. Maybe the whole city is full of some kind of airborne particles which can be manipulated through technology, sort of like if the air itself was made up of pixels, and the computer system is able to wirelessly detect the pixels around them and project light onto them or something. It’s farfetched as fuck, but I came up with that idea in five seconds and it’s a better justification than nothing. Better yet, what if the superpower kids were able to just generate some kind of light using their powers, and the computer in their brain projects itself onto that light like a monitor, I don’t know. I’m trying so hard to justify this technology that I’m writing an entirely new story in my head–all because it hurts my brain to imagine that someone sat down and said “it’s the future and people can make computer windows with their mind,” and no one ever raised their hand and asked them, “how?”
I just can’t believe how totally uncreative this entire setting is. The story is set a hundred years in the future, and all that’s changed is that you can open google chrome on the go without having to bust out your phone? Why in the fuck does Ayato have to sign documents on PAPER?! Why are those kids who film the fight in the first episode HOLDING the HOLOGRAMS that you CONTROL WITH YOUR MIND?! Why do the characters sometimes sit in front of the screens like they’re computer monitors, when they can open and manipulate them anywhere?! THEY ONLY DID ONE THING WITH THE SETTING, AND THEY DIDN’T EVEN DO IT RIGHT!!
Then we’ve got the whole superpower thing, and I don’t even know what the fuck is going on with this. It seems like everyone’s basically got the super speed and super strength abilities, but the stuff they fight with is like some kind of energy material called prana. [Show a clip from Legend of Duo of someone saying “prana.”] The school has a bunch of prana-channeling weapons that they hand out on the basis of whether a student has a strong compatibility ratio with it, which seems like it was intended as a way for all of the characters to have different abilities. Make it so everyone’s got certain weapons that they’re compatible with, and–since it’s heavily suggested that the weapons have some kind of mind of their own–I won’t ask how that makes sense–we’ve basically got an Evangelion situation, where each user is intrinsically tied to their weapon. Nevermind that most of those weapons are just swords.
But then, there’s also apparently a market for weapons outside of the school, given that Saya’s father is a weapons developer. Saya even uses several of her father’s weapons, which seems reasonable–like, maybe he knows how to make weapons that would be compatible with her–but then what about the weapons that he’s trying to sell through her promotion? I’m not going to try to answer that because I’m already sure I’ve thought about this more than the writers. Moreover, certain characters seem to have their own unique abilities which aren’t related to their weapons, like Julis’ fireballs–so I guess you can also manipulate prana without the weapons?
I looked it up on the Asterisk War wiki, and apparently Julis is a Strega, which is a certain female-only kind of Genestella representing 1.8% of the race, which has an especially high ability to manipulate prana, and each of them has their own random unique abilities. I… I give up.
I’m just gonna state the obvious here: Asterisk City is just a really shitty version of Academy City from A Certain Magical Index. Academy City was the world’s most advanced city, consisting primarily of schools which were dedicated to developing the scientifically-enhanced super powers of its students. It had the same kind of power ranking systems, the same kind of pristinely beautiful city with a weirdly specific, teenager-based focus, and it featured a mixture of magic and technology. Specifically, it had certain characters whose powers were considered to be the result of science, living in a world of incredible technological advancements that usually made sense, and then an entire secretive and conflicting culture of magicians. The story and characters were a bunch of goofy light novel cliches, but the setting was actually kind of cool; because unlike the Asterisk War, Index actually managed to use its cyberpunk trappings for one of the purposes that makes the genre interesting: portraying a world of chaos.
One of the ideas behind many cyberpunk stories is that with the advancement of technology the differences between individuals and how they interact with one-another begin to lose coherence. People with power and technology at their disposal become increasingly alien, while the cultures below them bleed into one-another and get left behind by the shifting cultural tide. As information technology joins people on the conscious level, and the cultures of the physical world blend together, the entire world becomes a sort of chaotic, amorphous mess, where everyone’s sense of self and individuality is simultaneously pronounced, and made irrelevant. You can’t tell a robot from a human, but you can tell a rich man from a poor man–and so on and so forth.
Index doesn’t really comment on any of those things, but at least it gets the melting pot right. Every single character has some kind of totally unique set of powers and circumstances, and the series constantly goes out of its way to explain random pieces of technology and artifacts of magic in as much detail as it possibly can. It pushes together a seemingly infinite number of different ideas into this one location and forces them all to play off of one-another, while starring a main character whose own ability is seemingly unexplainable no matter which culture you ask. This setting is interesting because it’s cool to see all of these different ideas, and to imagine a world with such a chaotic kind of individuality between everyone inside of it. I also wrote a video about Durarara and how that show basically did the same thing.
Now, I’m not criticizing The Asterisk War for not being just like A Certain Magical Index, or for failing as a cyberpunk story. What I’m trying to show you is how all of the ideas which the series has for its setting–the dystopian society where everyone gets off on watching high-schoolers fight, the combination of magic and technology in a next-century world, the corporate cutthroat combat culture–all of these ideas are at ends with the actual presentation of the setting.
If you’re gonna make a show about a fucked-up, dystopic world, you don’t set it in a city that looks like a shining monument to positive human progress and fill it with characters who are all motivated by personal desires for achievement. It’s hard to believe that there’s anything wrong with this world when it looks like this, and when its characters act like this. The only reason it even registers with us as viewers that the Phoenix Festa is a bad thing is because in our culture, watching a bunch of teenagers kill each-other is wrong… well, when it’s happening in real life, anyways; and also because Julis keeps telling us that this city is driven by disgusting greed–even though she, herself, is driven by her own desire for money.
If you’re gonna set a series over one hundred years in the future, then its technological advancements need to make sense as the logical result of the human progress which has been going on for the previous three centuries. You can pretty easily do some research to learn what kind of technological advancements are expected to occur in the next hundred years–or even just copy the ideas from a bunch of other near-future sci-fi stories–with the goal creating a world that the audience could imagine being real one day. I don’t care how much the moral structure of society has changed, I don’t think anyone’s vision of the future is that everything will be exactly the same, except there’s illogical holographic monitors everywhere and the occasional android.
Lastly, if you’re going to make a story about kids with superpowers, then explain how those powers work in some depth, and make sure that the powers are interesting and individualized. As it stands, there was no reason to make it so everyone had superpowers in the first place–you could have just given everyone a different kind of sword and it would be exactly the same. Maybe come up with a better reasoning for why some kids can use different magic, other than that they’re the same as everyone else except stronger for no reason. And if you’re going out of your way to include both magic and technology into your story, then make some clear distinctions between them, so we feel like there’s a reason for the presence of both elements. As it stands, there was no reason to make it so everyone had weapons in the first place–you could have just given everyone a different kind of superpower and it would be exactly the same.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the Asterisk War has one of the most boring settings that I’ve ever seen in a sci-fi action series, as well as one of the least comprehensible. And it’s funny that I’m even talking about it, because I probably wouldn’t have noticed that much if I wasn’t writing this analysis. I was so busy being annoyed by all the cliched characters, the complete lack of relevant story content, and the baffling construction of scenes, that it took until I was on my second go-through of the series before I really considered how shitty the setting was. I haven’t even started to cover the stuff that REALLY bothers me. And you know what that means…
Continued in part seven.