Monday, June 2, 2014

Anime Review: The Pilot's Love Song

Management here again, a combination of work, a book that I didn't have much to say about, and a stubborn head cold made me realize that it would be best to push back this past week's book review to this Friday instead of putting out something subpar. And the only reason this review is going up is because I already had 95% of it pre-written which hopefully makes up for it! 

I'm not sure why but this title first started popping up on the summer 2013 anime charts and I was rather excited when I saw it, the cover art for the light novel looked rather pretty and the premise sounded like it was high fantasy with an adventure, action, and people hiding secrets, excellent! I learned a bit more about the series as the months went on and had a chance to see The Princess and the Pilot movie at Otakon which was based on a novel by the same author and set in the same world. It's not necessary to see it, there's technically only one crossover character who I hadn't even recognized since they were produced by different studios (another character is name-dropped and the story strongly hints that a third is involved but those references are much easier to pick up on) and this story takes place afterwards (and possibly before and during since P&P took place over three days and this one takes about two years). Regardless, that made me even more excited for the show, even when I realized it was by a different studio and wouldn't have the same budget because hey, I can put up with some less than stellar graphics for a good story.

The Pilot's Love Song (Toaru Hikuushi e no Koi Uta)

The Balestros Empire has a rather strange creation story of their world, that a raindrop fell onto a flagstone floor and that created the seemingly mythical, floating Island of Isla which is destined to return to the Edge of the Sky one day. So the empire funds an expedition to the end of the world and joining as students attending the flight school on Isla are the commoner siblings Kal-el and Ari Albus and noblewoman Claire Cruz. But as expected on a journey with such a shady premise there are more than a few other secrets the characters are hiding from each other.

This is one of those stories where I really like the premise and the general plot points the story hits are all well and good but I really want to just take the story, gut it, and then completely rewrite it. The pacing is a bit strange, the first four or five episodes are a bit slow but mostly fine and then the rest of the story is a bit of a mess, it's too slow at some points and then glosses over what would normally be big, important reveals in favor of getting back to the character drama which frankly just isn't as well done as it was in P&P. I will say that one problem the series had was that most of the summaries of the story out there reveal two critical details which actually aren't revealed until three or five episodes in (in a 13 episode series) which I do think ruins the experience a bit. I'm avoiding even hinting at them in this review so don't worry about that but if you look at any other summary online be careful.

Now, as I already said my biggest problem with this series lies with how it was structured. While there is a rather interesting plot going on behind the scenes (regarding the Wind Revolution from a few years back, the fact that Isla is going to a dangerous place highly under-manned, that it sounds like the government never expects for them to return, and what they learn about the world on the way) the story chooses to instead focus on the students and their lives (primarily Kal-el, Claire, and to a lesser extent Ari) and it is perfectly fine to choose to tell a character drama against a very detailed background. However, despite all of the screentime they were given by the end of the story the characters still came off as incredibly flat to me, it's clear that they've changed but I was never convinced that what they went through was enough to change them. The story actually tries to give a lot of the minor students a chance in the limelight as well but there were multiple times while watching the show where I went "wow, this is clearly supposed to be a deeply emotional moment and the culmination of this character's arc and I feel absolutely nothing" which is bad also because I was thrown out of the story far enough to think that. Another thing that threw me out of the story was that, while I don't want to call it "casually sexist" the story centers around a mixed gender group (which has an equal number of guys and girls) at a flight training school to become fighter pilots and yet there are multiple times when the guys charge out and the girls are too scared to go and get shot up. It's another case where I can see what the show was trying to do, since this was mostly in character with what we had been told about the characters, but the execution was completely off.

The show tries to get you to like the characters by showing them eating ramen, going to the beach, serving ramen to make money for something, throwing themselves into battle, and possibly eating more ramen (I am not exaggerating how much ramen comes up, apparently the story even cut out one scene with Ari's ramen charming a foreign diplomat) and despite the fact that all of these characters are on screen and we get their basic backstory we still don't really get to know them. I felt this way about all of the characters, even Kal-el and Claire where we do get to see where they came from as well as their hopes and dreams and yet they felt like very generic characters who were acting the way they did because that's what this archtype does, not because they made choices in their life to bring them to this place. I think that if the pacing and minor events of the story had been changed then this could have worked, it might have been a good idea to focus on fewer side characters but I really feel like it could have been a much better character drama than it turned out to be. Also, I'm grumpy that yet again we have non-blood related siblings where one of them develops feelings for the other. As someone who actually has a number of siblings by marriage who I was not raised with (I was already an adult, aka the situation everyone swears would be the most plausible) let me just say a resounding no no NO that's not how it works, anime please stop with this trope!

Speaking of that missed ramen opportunity, this is an adaption of a series of a five book series which obviously means that some things will be cut from the story, that's expected. However it does sound like the novels work a bit better, like it gives an explanation for that big event in the 12th episode which confused me and everyone else I knew still watching and I honestly wonder how much was lost in the transition from page to screen. I said earlier that it's perfectly fine to have a story that focuses more on character drama and growth than plot but Love Song didn't do a really good job in that department and I feel like it therefore missed two opportunities since it didn't focus on the larger story very well either. Once the details of the setting are revealed it's rather interesting, I think the story might be rather similar to Last Exile actually, but the anime is so clumsy in explaining anything that I started wondering if P&P was a fluke or if the writers and director for this series were just that much worse at telling the story. And yet, this story doesn't end on a cliffhanger but it feels very unresolved plot-wise and emotionally dissonant, it literally introduces a few brand new ideas in the last episode and it feels very much like there should be a sequel series but, as far as I know, even the next series of novels don't touch on these characters again, which left me feeling completely frustrated by the end of the show.

Art-wise this story gives Samurai Flamenco a run for it's money for being the most-consistently off-model series in the winter season. From the very first episode we can see shots where the already simple character designs have been even more simplified and the faces look strange, and I'm not talking about far-away shots where someone has taken a screenshot and zoomed in, these are really obvious shots. I knew going in that the show wouldn't have the budget of the movie which was going to make having the arial fight scenes harder but even the ones we had just weren't that interesting to follow. I know nothing of how dog-fighting works so I thankfully wasn't as annoyed as some viewers by the fights but it was really weird seeing the students fly these planes which look nothing like any widely used plane on Earth (and I'm surrounded by planes every day so it actually became really jarring by the end). For the character designs, much like the general plot, I want to just scrap these current designs and redo them and simply make them more interesting. The student's uniforms just annoy me for some irrational, in-explainable reason (probably because of how un-detailed they are), their faces look too similar, and something just feels a tiny bit off about the coloring scheme. Weirdly enough in the last episode we get a good look at what the regular, civilian clothes look like in this world and those designs were actually interesting and had flair to them (I had wondered if that was going to be the case since Nina Viento's outfit always stood out for being just more interesting than all the other outfits and that design had to come from somewhere).

As I was watching the last episode I thought about how it in some ways perfectly encapsulated the show, while the art was just plain off for half of the episode the actual character, clothing, and setting designs were much more interesting (perhaps they should have just made the characters older from the beginning since they looked so much better). And while the show threw us a few interesting bones to think about with a few tantilizing hints about what might happen next it was also a complete non-ending, a "someday this story will end in happiness" ending and I half expected to see "to be continued!" pop up on screen. Heck, the most perfect line of the show, "some love songs don't get to be sung out" which is practically the title (and a huge theme in P&P) pops up and yet it's said by the wrong character for the wrong reasons. Even the characters were more interesting in this episode since there was a bit of a timeskip and everyone is closer to 18 now and has the life experience to be more interesting people than they were for the bulk of the show. I guess the best way to sum up this show is that it was a story with a huge amount of potential and almost none of it was realized, although I have seen some people who were also disappointed with the story but to a far lesser degree than I was. For anyone whose curious, the show is streaming on crunchyroll and is licensed by NIS America (the same people who have the license to the Princess and the Pilot movie which is also now streaming on crunchyroll).


  1. In comparison to some other "siblings, but not really siblings" shows, I found the relationship between Ari and Karl better handled here. But I agree, it's a strange circumstance that anime just can't help but play on romantically almost every time.

    I'm glad to see your thoughts here, and am hoping that some of these issues will be addressed should a second season ever come into play (which I have great doubt about). I have not yet seen The Princess and The Pilot, though I do have it on backlog for later viewing. Your praise of it over this series makes me more eager to watch it.

  2. I didn't enjoy P&P quite as much as some people did, I'm still wavering if I want to buy it and rewatch it for instance, but it was much more solid pacing wise and I really bought into the characters and their romance much more than I did at the end of this show.