In art and media, there is a term that is used for something that, logically, you know you should despise, but otherwise can’t help but derive some enjoyment from. These are “Guilty Pleasures”, those things where, more than ever, we cling to our mantra of “it’s my opinion I don’t gotta justify shit”.
While I wouldn’t put Blade and Soul on that same level, as guilty pleasure might be too strong a feeling, as it has some truly atrocious episodes, I must admit that, on the whole, my sentiment is the same. I have sympathy, and am more willing to give a series the benefit of the doubt when it clearly aspires to greatness and (miserably) fails rather than shooting for mediocrity and succeeding (not to be confused with Black Bullet or Unbreakable Machine Doll, which shot for mediocrity and failed).
Also, this is a show everyone knows is bad, expected to be bad, and had extremely low standards going in. Unlike Machine Doll or Brynhildr, I haven’t seen dozens of people defending it as AOTS. Yes. People have told me with a straight face Brynhildr was the best show of Spring.
With these things in mind, I feel that a harsh hand is unnecessary here. So what sticks out in my mind about this show?
Reverse Refrigerator Syndrome
Oh yeah. If anything will come to mind regarding Blade and Soul it will be this. Male characters existed to die in this series, and how.
Now, to me, Refrigerator Syndrome isn’t a big deal in and of itself. Yes, yes, I’m familiar with the arguments against it. How it’s objectifying and such. But that doesn’t require it to have a special label.
In all, objectification makes something boring. And that is my problem. I don’t care that we kill off the male cast, I care that I am bored out of my fucking mind when we do. In that sense it’s not even Refrigerator Syndrome in this case, because that at least expects us to feel outrage at what was lost by tugging our heartstrings.
But I find it impossible to feel bad that Mori loses the people in her village when she can travel to the nearest shopping center and pick up ten more identical copies with the spare change from buying a soda in the vending machine. If the characters don’t stick out to me, why should I feel outraged at their loss?
In that sense, Blade and Soul cocked up royally by making it feel LIBERATING when the girls were invariably freed from their baggage. An emotional attachment runs two ways. If you tell me that Jane lives her life to help make other people happy, that does tell me something about Jane. But if you tell me it manifests into her being trapped in a marriage with an abusive alcoholic she thinks “needs her”, then I outright feel vindicated when that baggage is gone. Blade and Soul was much the same way. I get that these are attachments the characters have, but without seeing how it runs in the other direction, it feels like the female characters are being taken advantage of in their social relationships or, at best, immature exercises that they should have moved past years ago.
Moments of Brilliance
While I regard Episode 6 as Blade and Soul’s “masterpiece” (to really stretch the meaning of the word), flawed as it is, there were some genius moments that showed more going on behind the scenes than a pot-boiler adaptation.
I think one of the best examples was Episode 2, where Alka is wandering the streets. Rogue female hero traveling the city streets at night. Oh, you know how that runs right? Hell, we had it in Still the World is Beautiful this same season: the female must be assaulted and deliver an ass-kicking to her would-be rapists to show us she isn’t a delicate flower.
I may be disingenuous by pointing to that example, as they did try to play off the satire and absurdity of the contrivance, but that was just this season. It is such an overdone trope that it cannot be taken seriously anymore.
Blade and Soul just had, well, people behaving normally. Sure these people were gruff and on the fringes of law and order, but they generally went about their business and let strangers go about theirs. How amazing that this scene of normalcy comes in Blade and Soul, of all places. Sure, take a walk downtown and you might get a few cat calls, but these are exceptions and generally not the rule. Not to the level that fiction wants us to believe.
Like the Huffington Post.
Other such moments were Alka and Mori’s interaction in Episode 1. It was quite natural. Mori was a girl over her head, who thought Alka’s odd bodyguard behavior was “cute”, not understanding the dark necessity that bred such a specialist. This was never pointed out to us, it merely followed in the actions that we saw on screen. It was a hint of sophistication in the way they were trying to do their storytelling that gave me the briefest glimmer of hope after the premiere.
And there was some interesting subtext to a few of the episodes, such as Episode 10, where Alka is taken in by an old couple who lost a daughter to the Sword Clan. They claim they don’t want revenge on Alka, that they have moved past their grief. And yet, even the mother, who is the more peaceable of the couple, does indeed try to take revenge. She tells Alka to give up the way of the Sword forever. To throw away her weapons because they are tools of death. But that IS Alka’s identity. She “kills” the person who has been Alka to this point, for a new version to emerge and walk around in her body. But the show doesn’t address this directly, and it doesn’t need to. But it was a masterful stroke, and probably the best episode to incorporate the series theme of “Revenge” in an interesting way.
The One Shot at Greatness
And of course, Karen’s Face-Heel turn. I already went on at length why this was a gutsy, praise-worthy move. Just as much praise to the production side of things on this. They knew the choreography in Blade and Soul was just awful. But by giving us a delicious performance and character-drama for once, the Karen-vs.-Alka battle was probably the most engaging fight sequence of the series. It wasn’t so much the beating, but the undertones behind every time that Karen nailed Alka in the gut that made it engaging. That fight was sheer delight, even though I really didn’t give two shits about either of these characters at that point. It’s just a pity there weren’t any other fights with this level of interesting conflict behind them. While I stand by what I said, that Karen seemed petty just targetting the nearest source of her grief, I dare say in hindsight that this was the point. Karen realized she was taking what small revenge she could for revenge’s sake, not for any substantive reason.
I’m curious, now, as to how much creative control the studio had on this. Because the optimist, the side of me that wants to make excuses, can see perhaps where they had to make the series a sort of theme park for the game’s fans, which torpedoed a lot of the pacing. If we had been given more time to see Alka and Miharu bond, we could have made that tragedy carry the weight it deserved to drive Alka’s actions for the successive episodes.
I would have also liked to have seen Alka interweave with the theme of revenge more. Her code told her to take revenge on Jin, sure. But what about now? When Miharu’s death gets to her like it does, would she not struggle emotionally to fight the urge to take revenge for Miharu? I feel like that aspect was a missed opportunity. I would have loved to have scrapped the Jin resurrection and make Karen the final big bad. I realize she’s probably IN the game and couldn’t be killed off, but having Karen taunt Alka after she realizes her revenge was pointless, and only made her feel empty, to have a death wish as she taunts a righteously angered Alka “Do you hate me?” could have been a scene just as interesting as the first fight.
Instead we get some weird Aesop about reconciliation. Alka seems perfectly comfortable with the fact Karen murdered, well, frankly the girl who was ostensibly Alka’s best friend. Maybe even love interest by some of the shots. She just never seemed to react very strongly to that fact, and that was supposed to be the point, wasn’t it? That Alka was experiencing emotions now? Karen just kind of arrives, “I know I killed your friend but I taught you how to cope, so we cool, right bro?”
I just feel this angle should have been the series focus. Not only possibly making it an interesting tale, but making Alka into a lesbian hero. I mean if you’re going to populate your world with women, might as well go all the way, right?
Oh the Misogyny
Yep, have to address this bit. I have a near-3,000 word description of Episode 5, or as I should like to call it, Spring’s Lowest Moment. This wasn’t just casual, either. I let slip a LOT of things, both due to my own tastes and my own desire to live and let live. Like the elderly couple Alka encounters. One can SAY that “it’s sexist” by pigeonholing the wife into the role of peacemaker while her husband is more gruff and violent as men are supposed to be. But if they had reversed it, you could just as easily make the case that because they don’t attack Alka, that her husband’s peacenik ways were dominating his wife’s red-blooded desire for vengeance. At some point you have to stop looking for problems.
I can easily overlook bikini-armor, for example. Not just because it seems like a minor thing since, from the story side of things, it exists to cover naked bodies so the censors don’t get on your ass, but also because…if you want combat to work the way it does in fiction, you need to have bikini-plate. Slashing weapons are useless in full-plate armies, because when you wear full plate the objective is not to kill the enemy outright, but to break enough of his bones THROUGH the armor so that he is incapacitated. This is why late-medieval battles had such low causalities from battle compared to eras that preceded or followed. And the further back you go, the more naked you get, as that would prevent infections if you did get wounded.
If you want acrobatic sword swinging….bikini-plate (or Conan-loincloth) makes sense. And that’s not even taking into consideration that a big concern in many of these worlds is magical threats as much as physical ones.
I’m only saying that no matter which way you go it’s going to be less interesting. Either your armor will get laughed at, or your choreography will. And to say that one is “preferable” merely shows discomfort with the Human body, in my eyes. Now it does LOOK silly when many stories mix and match, but that’s a different point.
So setting that aside as to why THAT example doesn’t bother me, but Episode 5 did…well…just go back and read it.
But this was not isolated. Indeed the Reverse Refrigerator Syndrome could compound this issue. Female characters in Blade and Soul don’t take actions because they are driven, they can only do it to avenge a male character. Fantastic. That’s exactly what we needed.
Just the Little Things
For one, the fights. Fights in Blade and Soul were AWFUL. You’re based on an MMO! Imagine all the cool shit you could do if you were plotting out choreographed versions of your favorite video game moves.
Second the noses. My god the noses. What the hell, Japan? The hell…
I’ve already covered problems I had with the series not really embracing its theme. As it stands, the show just kinda wandered about aimlessly. Alka walked into random passers-by and destroyed their lives, then moved on.
It was always way too convenient how Alka ran into people who hated Palam, yet with such a groundswell of hate and opposition to the ruling body, how do these guys stay in such power?
And of course, Hazuki. Dear god how come I can’t reach through my monitor and strangle cartoons yet?
Blade and Soul is…bad. It honestly is.
And yet I found just enough to entertain me. There were obviously certain lows, but on average, this wasn’t a show I dreaded watching week to week.
If the positive elements I’ve described in this series interest you? It’s safe to check out. Adjust your expectations and it could even be, dare I say, enjoyable at times.
Though on second viewing it was harder to slug through. Perhaps it was the fact I knew it wasn’t actually going to get any better now. That faint hope snufffed out.
Either way, feel free to take your chances if this seems like something that could interest you.
If you’d like to see my (incomplete) journey through Blade and Soul, you may do so here.