Understanding the Importance of Setting: Concrete Revolutio & The Rolling Girls

Recently two shows that caught my attention were The Rolling Girls and Concrete Revolutio Superhuman Phantasmagoria (which is an awesome name).  What caught my eye as far as these shows were concerned was the art style.  In recent years I feel it’s been harder and harder to find shows that look bad.  Bad CG is getting more common each year but very few shows use a lot of CG, though the current season is a major exception, and more traditional animation styles are generally looking about as pretty and clean as they have ever been.  Mind you pretty and clean are do not necessarily make for good art per se, but at the very least you don’t find as many ugly characters and shows as you used.  Most animation today is what I would call safe, regardless of how well it or poorly it’s used it generally looks good enough that very few people complain about.  This is why I’m was so interested in The Rolling Girls and Concrete Revolutio.  In a time where so many anime were settling for pretty, clean and safe look, these two shows went for something more bold and original.  Unfortunately the shows also share a similar drawback, arguably the biggest drawback of both shows, a weak setting.  From here on there will be spoilers, you have been warned.

Now the setting is not the only problem either show has, there are inconsistencies or plot threads that are left unresolved to the detriment of the show.  However I’m of the opinion that most, if not all, of the problems in both shows’ storytelling stems from the overall weakness of their respective settings.  So what’s wrong with the settings you ask?  Well above all else the transition from our world to the world of the setting is never explained.  Both stories take place in our world, but both are also so wildly different from our own, that we the audience have a lot of gaps to fill in.  In Concrete Revolutio the appearance of aliens and other monsters helps fill in the gaps somewhat, but only in the broadest strokes, meanwhile all the details are left vague and unexplained beyond references to a war and aliens and whatnot.  In contrast, The Rolling Girls is worse about informing us how Japan came to be the way it is in the setting but it is ultimately more relatable and intuitive because basically every city becomes centered around one or two gimmicks or crafts that exist in our world today.  Imagine if every city became one giant-ass convention for one or two things and you have any given city in The Rolling Girls.  The real issue is that in both settings there are a lot of questions, questions about fundamental rules and events in these respective worlds that we have no satisfying answers to.  This is a problem because not only does it leave people like me constantly wondering what the fuck is going on in a big picture sense but also because this vagueness bleeds into other aspects of the stories.  Typically when a world is completely different from ours a good author will link together bits of world-building, character development and plot progression so that all of them build off each other.  But when the setting is so vaguely defined outside some radical new changes you can’t do that, instead the lack of information from the world-building starts to affect the character development which then affects the plot.  From here on I’m going to look at each show’s separately before hopefully tying them back together in a neat little bow.  Let’s start with the Rolling Girls.

Picking up right off the last point I made, one of the main characters is really hard to explain because we have no idea how she can achieve her goal because we have no understanding of the fundamental mechanics by which the world functions.  Hibiki Ai is one of the Rest, basically a normal person, trying to become a Best, a person with superhuman capabilities.  In order to do this she is literally told to level up and at one point in the story a giant 1 is superimposed over her which then changes to a 2… ok what the literal fuck is going on?  It’s explained that the Bests have received their powers from these sparkling pink heartstones, though later in the story they draw on their powers without the stones but whatever, so I can at least understand why the Bests have powers and why Ai is after heartstones.  But what is going on with the leveling thing?  May I remind you that this is not a game world, but a weird future version of our world, why do people have levels now?  And how exactly does this leveling up work, all of the main characters put in a fair amount of effort into something at some point so why does only Ai level up?  Is there some kind of basis of effort or courage or something that causes someone to level up?  Or do they somehow gain experience through some unknown means and then level up?  And the information we do have doesn’t make a lot of sense.  So the first two Bests we meet are crazy strong and have this amazing fight in beginning of the show, but after the fight they lose their heartstones and are stuck with normal human abilities.  But at the end of the show, without them doing anything besides travelling to find the main characters, they can suddenly use their full power without the stones.  What the fuck’s happening there?  I mean if the powers were never required the stones to work then how come the Bests got weaker after losing the stones?  But if the stones are required to make their powers work then how did they manage without the stones?  The only reasonable explanation I could think of was that the stones only acted as an amplifier while the power came from the girls themselves and that once they believed they no longer needed the stones, they could use their powers without them, but even that seems like a stretch to me.  Moreover what has caused this world to be so different from ours?  Like I know there’s a pair of giant robots standing over one of the cities and there was some period of total chaos not too long before the story started, but what happened that both our society and physical capabilities have gone through such an extensive redesign?  And what’s up with the aliens?  I thought the whole point of Misono Chiaya’s story was for her to reconnect with the alien dude who is in all likelihood her father.  But then she leaves in her spaceship while he stays behind, so what was the whole point of including aliens in the first place?  I know it looks like I’m tearing this show to pieces and to be fair I kind of am, but I want everyone who made it this far to know I actually liked The Rolling Girls, in fact I liked it quite a bit, and it just frustrates me to find this flashy, bold and interesting series that leaves me with so many questions I have hard time just sitting back and enjoying it.  Anyway how does Concrete Revolutio fare?

Concrete Revolutio is actually not as bad about it’s setting as The Rolling Girls.  The riotous array of monsters, technology, and aliens, the transition from our world to this one is more intuitive, not to mention more interesting.  In an old post about making adventure stories, I said one of the keys to adventure was diversity and Concrete Revolutio has diversity in spades, with beings from space, ancient beasts from earth, magic and technology all rolled up in one colorful show.  The sheer ridiculous and outlandish combinations of all these monsters and powers, actually helps because if they were more constrained or logical then, one of the questions I would have would be “well how did that come to be?” or something to that effect.  As it stands I don’t really care much about how humans developed superpowers, or where all the beings running around come from because it would such a chaotic spread of answers I can’t see it being helpful or pertaining to the narrative and it’s themes in any tangible way.  However there are some major things about which bother me.  For example, I kind of want to know what year the world of the story takes place in.  All the dates are like the “41st of the Shinkawa Era” or something like that which tell me fuck all, the only time these dates are useful is when a different part of the episode happens in say the “47th of the Shinkawa Era”, but even then I don’t know the exact length of time between the dates so it doesn’t help very much.  More importantly I want to know about the war and the arrival of Master Ultima.  The show is constantly making references to some terrible war where superhumans were experimented on and maybe used as weapons, that occurred roughly one generation prior to the start of the show.  And while the show does dig up into some of the experiments and nefarious behaviors of the war or which arose from it, the show doesn’t tell us the big picture stuff.  Like who all was fighting the war?  Who, if anyone, won the war?  Japan seems to be marching almost in lockstep with US as far a foreign and possibly superhuman policy is concerned, how did that trend get started?  What does the balance of power look like in this world?  What kind of geopolitical consequences does the rise of large and potentially dangerous superhuman populations have on the world?  Do all nations take a similar approach to Japan when dealing with superhumans or do they all deal with them differently?  Who is Master Ultima exactly and why does his counsel carry so much weight in international policy?  It can get frustrating to see a story that explores the consequences of all kinds of events extremely well in the small scale of the Superhuman Bureau and other notable parties but leaves us with no answers as to what they mean in a large scale perspective.  Because much like The Rolling Girls I liked Concrete Revolutio, and I’m looking forward to the next season of the show, but it irritates me to see a show that does something interesting have some glaring weakness like this that drags my overall experience down and changes what ought to be a great show to a merely good one.  Let’s wrap this up.

In summary both The Rolling Girls and Concrete Revolutio were shows I ultimately liked and was excited about when they aired.  Both shows are still pretty good and I would recommend them to anyone who is on the fence about watching them.  But the shows have a major weakpoint which may ruin and/or dampen the experience for some.  In stories like these, where the world is at once the know we know and so wildly different from our own it appears almost unrecognizable, the setting is just as much a part of the story as the plot.  We the audience need enough setting details to help us get our bearings and ground us in the show’s world so we can then get really invested in the actual plot.  I understand not all setting details will be relevant and striking a balance between exposition on the setting and advancing the plot is not an easy task, but I think these two shows highlight the importance of trying to strike that balance.  Because these shows stuck almost entirely to plot and made little effort to bring us into the setting.  In a generic universe like a high school anime or some bland medieval fantasy universe a show can get away with that, but in shows with such wild and creative worlds that just doesn’t work, and to be honest I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around a mind which is creative enough to make worlds like this and then fails to appreciate that it needs to explain them.  Anyway, thank you all for reading, I hope you enjoyed it and I’ll see you in the next one.

 

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