The Asterisk War Sucks [Part 9] or, How A1 Pictures Gets Away With It

Edited by The Davoo

Text version:

This video is an opinion piece and not a journalistic article. Nothing here should be taken as fact at face value, and I encourage you to research these subjects further before forming your own opinion.

Now that we’ve spent eight long videos thoroughly answering the deep questions of what the hell is wrong with the Asterisk War and other shows of its ilk, it’s time for us to try and tackle the far more difficult and complicated question: why is The Asterisk War popular anyways?

Back in part one, that seasonal chart I was looking at was organized by how many people have each series listed on their My Anime List accounts; meaning that by the site’s metric, The Asterisk War is the fifth most-popular anime series of the Fall 2015 season. Appearing on over 66,000 lists, it is more watched than the second season of excellent and popular sports anime, Haikyuu; the latest season of the very popular Monogatari franchise; A-1 Picture’s own far less awful series, The Perfect Insider; other less-terrible light novel adaptations like Heavy Object; excellent or otherwise interesting original series like Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans and Concrete Revolutio; infinitely more engaging fanservice vehicles like Valkyrie Drive Mermaid; and great sequels such as the new seasons of Gochiusa, Yuru Yuri, and Utawarerumono. The Asterisk War has also been the most popular show on Crunchyroll from pretty much the start of the season–to the point that they sent me a fucking email letting me know that I was missing out on it.

So what’s going on here? If this show is so obviously bad, to the point that I’ve been getting criticized for picking a “low-hanging fruit” by ragging on it, then why do people like it? Well, there’s a very easy answer to that, but I’m sure by now you’re aware that I’m not going to be satisfied with it, so get ready for fifteen minutes of follow-up. The short answer is: because cute girls and swords. The corollary to that being: because no one cares.

And that sounds glib, and I hate when people say it like that, but it’s basically true. You don’t even have to take my word for it–read some of the show’s positive reviews on the sites I mentioned.

“This anime has plenty of action and is fun to watch. The graphics of this anime is really good. The swords look real, and sometimes it makes you forget that this is an anime. Also, if you are looking for an anime with kawaii girls, this is your anime to watch.”

“If you are looking for a very unique anime, this is probably not for you, but I would suggest this to anyone looking for a cool dudes or hot chicks. Looks like the male is basically Kirito and the girl is basically Asuna and I guess that is pretty much all you need to know.”

“An anime with swords is what I like the most and the whole competition and school setting gives me in my opinion a good anime for me.”

“A1 Pictures is known to produce some aesthetically pleasing art, so if you enjoyed Sword Art Online, Gate, or Aldnoah Zero, expect something similar.”

“I find this art style very enjoyable and easy on the eyes.”

“In my opinion, I was pretty interested in it. The art isn’t bad i like the swords. The boobs makes me want to suck on them but yeah. What I’m trying to say is I love this show it makes me wanna find the porno manga version for it and just read it.”

“It’s a truly amazing anime with great and interesting characters. A great plot and story I’m glad I found this! Signed, the amazing 9 year old.”

Most of the positive reviews that I found either outright admitted to the series being generic, or were very defensive about pointing out the minor differences between it and other, similar shows. Even the guy who gave it an 8/10 only gave the story a six. With the exception of the amazing nine year-old, I find it difficult to imagine that anyone watching this series is seriously invested in the characters, or gives half of a flying fuck about the story. People like this show because it fulfills a basic craving that some of us have for cute girls and swords; and I get that! I like cute girls and swords as much as the next guy, believe me; but I still don’t think that this answers the question.

After all, virtually every single anime in existence is inundated with as many cute girls as can be feasibly crammed inside of them; and I’m pretty sure that 95% of Japanese creatives are physically incapable of creating an action-centric piece of media which doesn’t contain a single sword. If these were the only criteria, then every anime ever would be equally popular.

Obviously, something else is going on here; and it’s clear to me that it’s not simply an accident, or that The Asterisk War just got lucky. Sure, luck plays a part in any show getting popular, but you only need to take a look at A1’s track record of success with this kind of show to see that clearly there’s some element of strategy at work here. Like it or not, this studio seems to have their fingers on the pulse of the modern anime fan’s buying habits–and they’re going out of their way to milk that advantage for all that it’s worth. To get to the heart of what this studio is doing right, we need only start with the most common design element among all their works: that damn face.

A1 Pictures have boiled the anime face down to a fucking science. The mouth is a line with a break in the middle that becomes really weird when you stare at it, but otherwise is meant to basically suggest lips. The nose is a miniscule triangle. The eyes come in about six different shapes depending on the character type.

All of the emotions which the face can perform basically come pre-packaged–angry Kirito looks just like angry Ayato, etc. It’s like the design team at this studio just sat down one day and came up with a basic template for a face and then a specific optimal way of portraying each of that face’s emotions; and since then, the entire studio has been working from that template in animating each of their shows. Obviously some shows are exceptions–and we’ll talk more in a bit about A1’s paradoxically broad range of attempted styles–but the point I’m trying to make here is that this studio has created a standard for what an anime face is.

Likewise, the body types featured in most of their shows are what I’d call normal, standard, and sleek. In the last ten years, popular anime has very clearly gravitated towards a style which I would say was most firmly set in stone by The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. In terms of proportions and height, these characters tend to have pretty realistic bodies, even if their busts and the size of their facial features dive into the realm of fantasy. They’ve got these very soft, realistic skin tones, which, with simple two-tone shading, can make the characters look more real than they ever did back in the cel art days; and the use of lots of subtle gradients which are made easy by digital coloring does a ton to make these characters pop off of the backgrounds. Everyone has a pencil-thin outline, too, which makes them come off as less cartoony.

Likewise, the same coloring techniques can easily be used to make background art appear more detailed than it might otherwise. It’s a lot easier to throw some gradients and lighting effects onto the screen and make something look fancy and bright, than it is to actually hand-draw a detailed background and bring it to life.

A1 has figured out how to simulate the feeling of something being well-animated by making things very flashy and having stuff move around a lot. It’s easy to convince an audience that something is cool if it’s moving very fast and if there’s a lot of flashing lights. To prove what I mean, locate a nearby flashlight, then close your eyes and strobe the light back and forth in front of your eyelids. You’ll immediately become disoriented and have no idea what’s going on, but it’s kind of exciting for no particular reason.

None of these things are necessarily bad design elements; they’re just foundational blocks upon which the design of a series can be built. After all, I could say most of the same things about the shows made by Kyoto Animation, which I consider to be the studio producing the highest-quality TV anime of the current decade; but the difference between Kyoto Animation and A1 Pictures, is that KyoAni actually takes those foundational blocks and, you know, BUILDS on them; whereas A1 puts in the bare minimum acceptable amount effort.

But that doesn’t matter–because it works; and it works because it has become standard. I mean that both in the derogatory way that someone might call something “standard at best;” but I also mean it in the congratulatory way that someone might say that something has “set the standard.”

A1 Pictures have basically created what is now considered to be the standard look of modern anime. By flooding the market with a million shows that look exactly the same, they have set the tone of what anime IS in the current decade; and I can’t shake the feeling that everyone else is slowly migrating in their direction. Maybe that’s unfair, since it’s hardly like this studio was the first to do any of what it does; but it certainly feels like A1 Pictures are the most singular driving force behind shaping the cultural understanding of what a 2010s anime looks like.

And I’m not even necessarily begrudging the studio for that, because I totally get the appeal. It’s not like I looked at The Asterisk War and thought, “this show looks ugly;” it’s characters are plenty attractive, and its color design is really appealing. If it’d had some other studio’s name above it on that chart, then I probably would’ve walked in with some pretty high hopes for it in terms of visuals.

It’s not the individual design elements which bother me, though–it’s a combination of the lack of effort in turning those elements into a cohesive overall design, and the homogyny which has resulted from constantly making shows that look exactly the same.

In the process of watching this show like a million times in order to write about it, I have inescapably reached the conclusion that the girls are cute. There are no shortage of adorable little expressions, or tiny memetic animations, or finely-detailed fanservice shots whose appeal I can completely understand. I don’t doubt that a big part of The Asterisk War achieving popularity as both a light novel and as an anime series is because the original illustrations were by okiura, who designed for another, similarly popular series, called Infinite Stratos, which people enjoyed for exactly the same reasons. I’ve hung out in the Asterisk War threads on 4chan, and it’s almost nothing but people posting the cutest faces from whichever girl they like the most and then stating that said girl is, in fact, “best girl.”

There’s something incredibly base and bestial about the way that this series is consumed. It is watched because it is there. Because no number of cute girls is too many cute girls. Because even in a world where there are forty-five new anime shows debuting every three months, a lot of people just really have nothing better to do. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I can’t help but harbor a deeply-driven cynicism towards A1 Pictures. The A in their name is in reference to the fact that they are a subsidiary of Aniplex–which is Sony’s production firm that has had its hand in planning no shortage of hugely popular and fantastic anime with other studios– from Madoka Magica and Monogatari to Fate/Zero and Fullmetal Alchemist, and half of everything else you’ve ever heard of. A1 Pictures is kind of like a factory for producing new shows for Aniplex; and their methodology seems to be just pumping out anything and everything.

Ironically, in spite of how all of their shows look the same, the studio has no sense of identity at all. Most of their shows have totally different main creative staff pulled from all over the place; and when they make something good, it’s almost always because they managed to pull in some good people to work on it. It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of main staff who just straight-up work for the studio, the way you’ll find a core team of directors somewhere like old Gainax, or Kyoani, or Bones, or SHAFT–studios with extremely distinct identities.

From what I understand, A1 Pictures isn’t even any bigger than Kyoto Animation in terms of personnel count; they’re able to produce so many shows because they hire a constant revolving door of contractors. That’s why you get so many random animation cuts that look kind of cool, but totally different from the rest of the show–because they hire these animators from other studios to do work for them.

But what does any of it get you? There’s a part in episode five where a character is introduced via several animation cuts by Masayuki Nonaka, and it’s immediately evident that the entire style and tone of the animation has changed for these cuts. Besides being really weird in-context, I was immediately wondering why the hell they got this person to animate these random segments in particular. Most of Masayuki Nonaka’s work has been on Doga Kobo shows like Engaged to the Unidentified, GJ-bu, and Plastic Memories. She pretty clearly specializes in animating cute girls doing cute things–usually in lighthearted, cutesy scenarios. She can do dramatic and she can do fanservice, but in general, almost all of her animation cuts in all of the shows she’s worked on have a very distinct character to them and bring their scenes to life. But this stuff… this is just weird. It doesn’t seem like it was really necessary to go so far overboard with these particular cuts, or like Nonaka was necessarily the person for the job. It just seems like they hired her because they wanted to have some flashy animation happen when they introduced this character, and it wouldn’t have really mattered who it was.

I feel like I’m talking in circles here, but it’s hard to get this point across when this feeling is so personal and difficult to describe–but, if I can go on a tangent here, then maybe I can sort of drag you into the narrative with me. In October 2010, an animator working for A-1 Pictures committed suicide. The medical facility caring for him had recorded that he’d been working 600 hours a month. I don’t even know if I can completely trust that figure, if only because that would leave just 4 hours a day to have not been working–which doesn’t seem physically possible to me. Director Daiki Nishimura said in response to this that if it’s true, then it’s not a fault of A-1 Pictures, but a fault of the state of the industry as a whole, and of the poor working conditions for animators in general; and I’m sure he’s not wrong.

When people talk about Kyoto Animation and UFOTable and why these studios are able to produce so much higher-quality TV animation than any other studio, someone always brings up the working conditions. Both studios are known for having in-house cafes where the staff can relax, and for having better pay and benefits than many other studios of their size. These are studios which typically only take on one or two project per year, and who dedicate a lot of time to planning out each series carefully and managing their schedules exceptionally well. Kyoto Animation and UfoTable have neither more budget nor more staff than other typical studios–they are simply run better. In fact, this seems to be at the root of most high-quality anime productions– see the comments from One Punch Man’s director about how the show’s budget is completely normal, and the quality of the animation is entirely the result of having passionate staff work on it.

I’ve made the remark before that to me, A-1 Pictures is like the McDonald’s of anime–and I mean that in every possible sense. It doesn’t seem to me like a place where anyone really wants to work–or indeed where anyone who can afford to would take up residence. Sometimes I can’t tell if the studio is pulling in noteworthy directors just in the name of having them turn out something potentially good with the studio behind it, or if directors go there with stuff that they can’t get approved otherwise because the studio can just crank it out. Their willingness to vacuum up sequels to shows from other studios like Ore no Imouto, Nanoha Vivid, and Persona 4: The Golden certainly gives me that impression.

Everything about their work just comes off so assembly-line to me. By the end of the year, the studio will have cranked out eleven TV anime and one film–none of which are even remotely similar to one-another, yet all of which feel eerily the same. It’s like being in a village where everyone has different bodies but the exact same face: fucking creepy.

It wasn’t even like this from the start, and it’s also not as though A1 isn’t still trying to do interesting things. Back in the studio’s early days, they ran a set of original shows in a block called the Power of Anime, where they generated their best TV series ever, Sora no Woto, along with some lovably strange flops in the form of the watchable Occult Academy and the less watchable Night Raid 1931. Then they put out Fractale and Anohana back to back, and it was like the complete failure of the former and the gigantic success of the latter somehow caused the studio to develop schizophrenia. Around the time that both Sword Art Online and Shin Sekai Yori were both on television at the same time, I think the future of this studio became abundantly clear; from now on it was going to be this weird gumbo of talent and ideas circling the saucepan with an endless supply of terrible scripts and hollow attempts at making shit look modern for the casual viewer.

At the end of the day, even after hundreds and thousands of articles and studies about how McDonald’s is bad for you, and about how poorly their business is run, and about how much it sucks to work there; and after decades of being the punchline in jokes about having a shitty job and being dirt-ass poor; and after one of the most infamous documentary smear campaigns of the 2000s; tons of people around the world still eat at McDonald’s.

Because it’s convenient. Because it’s familiar. Because it’s there. Because it’s pervasive. Because sometimes, no where else is open and it’s 4AM and I’m starving. Because when I’m in a new town and I don’t know where to eat, I can see the golden arches on the hill and at least be aware that food is consumable there. Because sometimes, I don’t want to pay for a nice restaurant. Because sometimes, I don’t want to think that hard about what’s for dinner. Because sometimes, it’s all that I can afford and all that’s nearby. Because sometimes, against my better judgement, I just want it.

The Asterisk War is successful because it looks like anime. It has what you vaguely understand to be decent, up-to-date visuals. It’s got cute girls, and it’s got swords. No one is operating under the illusion that it’s a good show, or that they shouldn’t probably be watching something else. They watch it because it’s there.

Continued in part ten.

6 thoughts on “The Asterisk War Sucks [Part 9] or, How A1 Pictures Gets Away With It

  1. I like the McDonald’s analogy. I find that when I think of this in more of a business perspective, then everything you mentioned seems to make sense.

    I’d say A1-Pictures’ core strategy focuses on employing anime as a promotional tool for its source material. Of course, every anime promotes its source material if it has one, but I think this is central to everything A1 does.

    Poor working conditions that provide as little to workers as possible, employing temporary workers, the use of character design templates, and keeping initial series lengths to roughly 12 episodes all point to attempts to minimize costs wherever possible. Yet, in doing so, they have more to spend meaning that they can take on more projects, and riskier ones as well.

    That is, of course, exactly what they do. It looks like they prefer to put out a show that follows a formula that works (e.g. SAO, The Asterisk War) and then other shows that don’t. By producing a bunch of shows rather than just the one or two per year, they’re more likely to find one that “succeeds.”

    But this seems to work out for most stakeholders either way. A1 makes money for putting out a bunch of shows, fans get more anime, and the source material gets a big enough promotion with a pertinent surge in merchandising revenue. If a show is popular enough, then A1 is likely to continuing producing the series resulting in more revenue. If a show doesn’t perform as well, it’s not that big a deal because it was only about 12 episodes anyway, and it served its purpose as a promotional tool.

    It sounds like a relatively new business model in the world of anime production, but I suspect it works rather well for A1. The idea of focusing on one or two anime per year sounds better from an artistic standpoint. I suspect the notion is that by producing quality anime, it will end up paying for itself. From a business standpoint; however, that can seem pretty risky. A1-Pictures appears to have chosen to diversify their risk, by investing resources into shows with a working formula, and hedging those against shows they’re unsure about, all the while hoping that they’ll strike gold with at least one of the many shows they invest in.

    I’m not here to pump A1’s tires; I do believe the quality of their shows is questionable, but that’s just how I see and think about A1. I see a studio like KyoAni favoring a more artistic focus to anime production, with A1 favoring a more business focus.

  2. Oh gosh. You’re right.
    What makes me even more horrified is when I realized that lately, I haven’t been into anime as much as I’ve been used to. And I’m using the excuse that I can’t find anything newer that looks good to watch.
    But now, I’m thinking that it could be because of this. The fact that A-1 produces shows that “look” like good anime prevents me (though not as much of an anime person, admittedly) from recognizing a good show from a bad one from its first impression. So, I’ve just given up, unwilling to risk wasting my time.
    Tragic, as the influence of poor shows winds up being a two-way street. The tired and cliché expectations we have from bad anime can detract from how they’re implemented in good shows; at least they can on a surface level that would otherwise steer me toward or away from it after a first impression.
    Sad how a quiet, well-designed tsundere can be blotted out against the contemporary backdrop of a raging tsunderstorm.
    Though I suppose as much is only my experience.

  3. The sad thing about this show is that it’s not doing well in Japan commercially-wise, as I heard the first volume sold 2,477 copies, plus it even got shitted on by NicoNico and 2ch from what I went on /a/ threads about the anime.

  4. Your comments on A1 pictures might as well be directed to the Hollywood studios making all sorts of movies with no identity. The only exceptions are Disney and Marvel, with Disney being the KyoAni of Hollywood while Marvel is the Ufotable (okay the comparisons are rather loose, but you get my drift)

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