Series Recap: Outbreak Company

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As with most shows, I go in blind. I do little research about manga or light novels for various adaptations.  I do this because….my first exposure to Inuyasha was through the anime. The same goes for Fullmetal Alchemist and Death Note. So while I did eventually go back to fully experience these works in their original forms, it was the anime that convinced me to do so. They were able to stand their ground, and I don’t think it’s a big expectation to demand other shows can do the same.  Sometimes it doesn’t work out so well (see: Unbreakable Machine Doll).  But others, like Outbreak Company, it left the surprises strong and there was enough talent on display that everything came together in a beautiful way that took my breath away. It was a very mature, advanced critical thinking series that took nothing for granted.  It challenged me as a viewer and critic to contemplate the actions taken.

Sometimes.

Yes, Outbreak Company is, on the whole, looking back on second viewing, mixed.  I sing its praises, but really? This accounts for maybe 30% of the total running time…the rest…ehhhh?

Okay, so it was not obnoxious to sit through.  A few uncomfortable moments where either, the humor gets lost in translation or you get frustrated that it won’t hurry the hell up.

So, what are the unintended themes that I noticed in this series?  Well let’s start with the sources of unending vexation.

A School with No Rules

Arguably the biggest hole in the series is one of its three main settings: Shinichi’s school. In more ways than one.

First: Shinichi’s school represents a shift in the narrative tone of Outbreak Company.  It is the shift from a more dynamic storytelling experience to one of status quo.  The show essentially has three phases: The Diplomat phase, episodes 1-3, the School phase, episodes 4-9, and the conclusion, 10-12.  This is not an inherent negative, beyond me just not liking the status quo kind of atmosphere.  Really in terms of the overall narrative, that middle part exists to show a passage of time.

But that is not getting into the very logic of the matter.

How does Shinichi’s school work? For example, he shows videos in his classrooms (or tries to), VIDEOS THAT WOULD NOT TRANSLATE THROUGH THE MAGIC MAGIC.  Further, many people are able to communicate in Eldant without the use of rings, even though in Episode 1 it was established that without them, Miusel couldn’t understand Shinichi and Matoba talking.  It was something that was established very strong in the beginning, but then? It was mostly ignored, until convenient for the script to show Miusel and Petrarca learning Japanese in various heartwarming and comical ways.  And that Miusel can practice SPOKEN Japanese without Shinichi knowing is crazy. At least with Petrarca you can say “maybe she has a private tutor from other Japanese missions to Eldant”.  Because, news is, when learning a language at an advanced age, you typically need some way to translate into your native language, be that text or spoken to you by a teacher.  All Miusel did was practice an alphabet, she didn’t learn the SOUNDS that go with various words (besides her own), and knowing three (those of her name) aren’t enough to extrapolate.  And that’s providing the laws of fiction: all languages use the same grammar.

This is not a series shattering point, but it just really, really irks me.

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Lost in Translation

Humor. Humor is hard to convey cross culture.  What you find funny may be completely unfunny to someone just across the border. Or may be hilarious, but for completely different reasons, some of which might shock you.

Outbreak Company is such a series, I think. I just did not find it funny a lot of the time.

This led to a breakdown in the “roman consul” style design. The first half of the episode would tend to be comedy, and the second half would be the heavier plot related stuff.  Ultimately the lack of relatable humor, to myself, made these first halves obnoxious, and I almost always wanted to get them out of the way.  But you can’t simply fastforward Outbreak Company, because the tonal shifts came at the drop of a hat.

Much like real life.

A Most Unfortunate Moral Choice

The climax of Outbreak Company was…mixed.  It was not the intrigue we had been hoping for.

It was also…very, very hard to glean the total meaning.  I mean…okay, Shinichi has been spreading “Moe Culture” in Eldant for some time at the point it is revealed it is a secret form of Japanese Imperialism.

Ironic, then, that most of these values are the direct result of Westernization in Japan.  Public schooling for the underclasses? A property-based system? The end of racism and child warriors? These are post-Meiji ideals.

Even stranger is that this comes from Japan. Japanese culture is….adaptive. It is very aware of its position as “the edge of the world”.

Take cars, for example.  An American made car sold in Japan will still have “CHEVY” emblazoned on the rear.  It’s not this way in China.  They have no qualms about using native kanji to label things.  China is more like Anglo-culture in this way, our tendency to bastardize everything in print. One could argue Japan’s uniqueness comes from this melting-pot approach to language and culture.  They retain their individuality by mastering the outside influences, such as the Meiji revolution that led to Japan growing from agrarian, wood and paper empire with guns 300 years old, to world superpower forty years later where they crushed the Russians and Chinese by -inventing contemporary naval tactics-.

This is to say nothing of the influence the Occupation had on Japanese culture and values.

So it makes it all the more confusing why these things would occur in Outbreak Company, when history shows so well how feeble such attempts at “cultural mastery” are.  Even the most battle hardened, entrenched of the cultural empires, that of Hollywood and American Media, has been decaying and eroding over the past few decades.  Anime, Bollywood, and the BBC have all become very famous/had resurgences internationally.  In a few more decades, it will be a very different landscape indeed.

Further, in the real world, such exploitation requires bad people.  The reason Coke is cheaper than water in many African nations is not because they have been culturally assimilated.  It is because a few bribes were paid to the right people in key positions to keep tariffs and processing fees subsidized for Coke.  And nothing I have seen convinces me Eldant can become such an empire.

Perhaps this is just my real world understanding leaking through and spoiling the plot for me.  But this “revelation” ended up being such a huge let down, and really, a waste.  But, that is where the worlds clash again, I suppose. I am far more comfortable in the realm of history and politics than I am in moe-moe, so the same reason the humor escaped me is at play, I imagine.

Personally…I would have preferred my theory, that the Japanese government was covering up its involvement in the Eldantan civil war.  Where brute force had failed, they were now going in for a gentler touch. A lot of the same plot points can apply equally well. Even down to Elbia being a spy, and that could tie into Japanese subterfuge in the years previous.

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A Good Man

We had three harem series this season, or series with harem elements; Outbreak Company, Strike the Blood, and Unbreakable Machine Doll. Of these, the former two managed to convey a genuinely decent human being with a personality. The latter…well you need only look at that recap to see the problems there.

Shinichi was different from Raishin because, as a person, he is compelled to do good deeds because his upbringing, his past, and his morals compel him to do so.  Raishin was nice because the script said he had to be. But he had no compelling reasons to be nice.  Shinichi is different, and even more refreshing, he has flaws. DIMENSIONS! THANK HEAVENS!  Kojo in Strike the Dick Blood had flaws too, but those were very subjective.  He had troubles fulfilling society’s expectations, but he had “an excuse” (being a vampire).

Shinichi has reasons he is not successful when we first meet him. But unlike Kojo these are buried.  They are in his PAST, and while important, they don’t get spouted at the audience in exacting detail.  Where you were born influences your attitudes and life, but you don’t go around telling everyone your city of birth, how much you weighed at seven years old, and when your first girlfriend was upon meeting people, right? Right. You don’t. Because you’re fucking normal. And Shinichi is normal, too (in this instance).

Also, I want to go back to that theme of “acceptance”.  Shinichi’s flaws are accepted by the story.  In STB, Kojo’s flaws are not. Kojo’s poor school attitude is written off “well, he’s a vampire, so it’s to be expected.”  Implicit in this reasoning is that if everything was RIGHT with his life, he might be “normal”.  That being an academic try-hard is desirable.  It is a kind of circular logic that depends on its own conclusion to prop up its argument.

Outbreak Company embraces Shinichi’s flaws.  It recognizes that they ARE flaws, and lets him stick his foot in his mouth from time to time, but it accepts them.  It embraces them. He is overzealous, he IS that nerd. The one who can’t stop talking about nerd things!

Tell a crowded game shop this: “I’ve never felt like watching Firefly.”

*KA-BOOOOOOOM*

Every dipshit in the room will tell you how awesome it is, and impress upon you the greatest severity to watch it as soon as you get home. You may feel free to play along, and string them along, even if you HAVE seen it. It’s good fun.

Shinichi is the same way. It is annoying. It puts people off.  It is abrasive, even. Just imagine people doing that to you with their religion. See? Not as fun that way, is it?

And yet at the same time, it wins over Petrarca’s approval.  Because it is -genuine-.  It is an honest love for all things moe.  He isn’t propping up a convenient excuse to win political favors or get rich quick.  He truly believes that everyone should embrace the “moe culture”.

It in this way Outbreak Company displays the flaws of our protagonist, and embraces them.  It is a part of who he is. The same passion that lends itself to trying to correct every little social injustice he sees, is the same passion that led to his fanatical devotion to all things moe and compel others to embrace it too. It is merely a quality, not a flaw, not a virtue, it is a component of the person known as Kano Shinichi.

And this trait is not exclusive to him, it is a part of everyone.  Miusel’s meekness causes her to be very kind, and she makes others lives easier by her nature.  She is a maid mostly by class (as say, black housekeepers in america prior to the 1950s), but she loves her job innately.  But that meekness also continues the oppressive system, because she refuses to speak out.

This is how Outbreak Company writes CHARACTERS, and not stereotypes. They have their highs and lows, just like real life.  While the characters are called out on their flaws, both directly (and how), and indirectly through the stories, they are rarely compelled to change those ways unless they are detrimental to the current situation.

Her Imperial Majesty

Petrarca was the best character of Outbreak Company.  She was handled a little…uneven, in the early outings.  Perhaps it was being loyal to the source material and this is a holdover from when the creators didn’t know what to do with her at first, or perhaps it was a poor understanding on the part of the script writers of her nature, but it led me to call her the weak link in the early episodes.

I was wrong.  I was so fucking wrong.

Petrarca evolved into the most fascinating, deep, and, I mean this in a purely artistic sense regarding the script of course, beautiful character on Outbreak Company over the course of the run. So much so that I wanted this show to be ABOUT her before the end.  She also exhibited the most growth, and arguably had to fight the most barriers to achieve it, which always makes for interesting drama.

Don’t get me wrong, the early missteps with her character are still missteps.  She should have been handled with a touch more subtlety.  But in the end? We got the complete picture of a girl who puts on a brave front, but her apparent ego and self-superiority are shown to be based in so much insecurity.  And the “big four” moments of Outbreak Company, as I see them, the Tea Scene, the Hostage Crisis, the end of the soccer game, and (entirety of Episode 8), these all revolve around Petrarca.

This character won me over in spades. She is the brightest point in Outbreak Company.

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Smarter than the Average Bear

The animation in Outbreak Company was stellar.  It amazed me how the atmosphere could handle the moods of coemdy, fanservice, action, drama, and soul crushing despair so masterfully within a single series.

But it was limited. Stuck, even, in its ways to make a lot of inroads.

There was a definite attempt to keep consistent tone at all costs….and the show suffered for it, I believe.  There were moments that Outbreak Company should have embraced the different moods and tone, clung to them tightly until the flame burned out…but didn’t.  Sometimes outright sabotaging its own mood in the process.

At the same time, though? It was a show that lacked contrivances.  It was a very organic series. In this sense it is more, and yet less, slice of life than any series we watched this season.

I have made no attempt to hide that I feel Episode 8, where Petrarca determines to become hikikomori, is Outbreak Company’s masterpiece.  Arguably one of the best stand-alone episodes of the year.  No other episode came even close to reaching its craftsmanship.  And it was all incredibly natural. You know, working past the 14 year old queen with elf-maid bodyguards.

And yet…that ties into the first point. I would have loved to see things from the elves’ point of view. How had their queen changed? Was she nicer than they remember? Or was she just growing up? But Outbreak Company’s lack of willingness to breach such topics is my real point of contention with the series.

Episode 3 also stood out, as did Episode 2.  These featured exceptional moments, the high watermarks for the series.

But everything else…

It all failed to live up to these moments. The experience of watching Outbreak Company was akin to watching a slow burning fire.  Boring, sameness, lack of activity…until those few moments where the flames shoot up and dance in a pocket of air, before settling down to hug the log again.

The Verdict

After all my praises…I find it very hard to outright recommend Outbreak Company.

It is because I like my recommendations to be about something….and while Outbreak Company has its moments, they are so few and far between it is, honestly, hard to justify sending a random anime fan in blind. Which is how I try to treat you, dear reader. A random anime fan. You’re welcome.

Certainly if you enjoy otaku-humor and a healthy dose of self-parody, this is a series you need to try.  If, however, you are like me and mostly regret watching comedy? Pause, and consider.

And yet, its brutally honest social commentary and genuine love for all peoples, of all types…how can I discourage something like that?

The best way to put it, is to quote SFDebris on the Doctor Who special “The End of Time”:

“It is forgettable, except for the parts that are incredible.”

And that is Outbreak Company to the letter.  I would not blame you for ignoring this series, but you would be missing out on some of the greatest moments of the Autumn 2013 season. I certainly felt enriched by my experience watching this show, and would not take it back if given the chance. It was worth it. And I guess that’s as good of a recommendation as I can give.

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