Second Impressions – Hikari no Ou

This is why we can’t have nice things.

Maybe it’s just the tax we have to pay to get non-traditional anime.  But I’d hoped that the I.G. Port connection would spare Hikari no Ou from the very worst of the crap production syndrome.  The results after one week suggested that might be the case, but the second episode made it feel like we dodged the bullet right onto a grenade.  This was pretty grisly – still shots, bad CGI, really poorly choreographed action sequences.  It’s surprising in that we do have some very big, experienced names involved here, but there’s not enough lipstick in the world to mask that this ep was a pig.  It actually put me in mind of Baraou no Souretsu (and sadly, shoujo/josei manga now fall under that “non-traditional anime” umbrella).  And that show also nosedived after a normal-looking premiere, as it happens…

Since there is going to be positive stuff in this too, I may as well get as much of the negative out of the way as possible.  The one narrative flaw in an otherwise excellent premiere was the clumsy exposition, and it was even worse this week.  It was a combination of straight-up narrator explanation and – even more annoying – characters making expository speeches for no reason which grind the narrative to a halt.  Exposition by explanation over still frames is a double-whammy of awfulness that’s hard to overcome, though there’s enough that’s good about this story and it’s very existence that it at least made the effort.

It’s kind of the opposite of that old “lipstick” metaphor, but there’s enough to this premise that even the terrible visuals can’t mask all of it.  If the original put me in mind of Moribito with a side of Shin Sekai Yori, this ep was the opposite.  The soundtrack was still very Kawai Kenji (though truthfully Komori Shigeo’s work is quite reminiscent), but the vibe was straight SSY.  A recognizably human civilization in a future where things have gone seriously wrong, and humanity is burdened with beasts (in my theory) of its own making.  Post-apocalyptic sci-fi and fantasy is certainly nothing new in anime (or any fiction medium) but it’s not always brought off this convincingly.  This all feels very familiar and too real, just as it did in SSY.

Maybe the SSY parallels go even deeper in that it too was a show with a visibly crap budget, though Ishihama Masashi and his team did incredibly stylish work to largely overcome that.  Nishimura Junji is not a director on Ishihama’s level but he is competent and very experienced with a good team under him, so hope springs eternal.  So far I feel like The Fire Hunter is a good-enough story to deserve a competent treatment.  The twin narratives of Touko and Koushi are both interesting, and now we see how they’re eventually going to intersect – Koushi is the son of the fire hunter who died at Touko’s village, Haijuu.

Life on the collection truck is no bargain for anybody, much less an unwanted guest like Touko.  Her bunkmates are three brides on their way to other villages, having been gratefully discarded by their own for supposedly bringing on curses.  All are bitter to an extent, but young Kaho (Koichi Makoto, warming up for Yahiko) is so angry she appears to be planning to starve herself to death.  Which is a good thing in that Touko is apparently not being given any extra rations for Kanata.  Touko is put to work scrubbing toilets, and pines for the kind Enji-san, sadly assigned to the other car.

As it turns out there’s a fire hunter on that car – and it makes sense collection trucks would have one to try and self-supply on such a long journey.  Kanata hears the dog whistle he uses, and on one of the truck’s stops the hunter recruits Kanata to help him hunt.  Kaho takes that opportunity to try and escape and promptly gets herself captured (and wounded) by a fire beast.  Touko goes to help, both hounds and the fire hunter manage to kill the beast, but he – and the engineer – are incensed that the girls defied the rules and put everyone in danger.  Touko is ordered to leave the truck at the next village, though I have to suspect that will be overturned at some point.

As for the capital, that invite to Koushi came from a man named Yusoichi (Miyake Kenta) – coincidentally, what happens when you walk through poison oak.  He’s what passes for a rich industrialist in this world, and presents himself as a friend of Haijuu (he says he’s “indebted” to him).  He seems nice, and offers to take in Koushi and his ill sister as members of the family.  But he wants something – the “skyfire” that Haijuu collected, and Koushi’s cooperation in harnessing it for his factories.  Skyfire, it seems, comes from fire beasts that fall from the sky (duh) and it far more powerful that normal beastfire.  Koushi protests that he’s just a kid and no expert, but Yusoichi is insistent that the boy is the one for the job.

If I were to speculate, Yusoichi is likely correct in agreeing with Haijuu that the social order is about to fall.  And the curses which brought the four women and girls aboard the collection truck are connected with that and each other (and obviously nothing to do with them).  But I trust Yusoichi as far as I can throw him (and look at the guy, not far).  Traditionally you’d see Koushi and Touko ground in the gears of a crisis much larger than them, likely as the ones who have the ability to prevent the coming disaster.  I like that setup, I’m very interested in seeing more – I just hope the production doesn’t crater so badly that truly enjoying Hikari no Ou becomes impossible.