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April 30, 2018

RE: Gundam Build Divers

I don’t understand how this anime can even exist.

…Is the line I would use to start this post if I hadn’t done that twice already in the past.  In all honesty, I have no problems believing that Gundam Build Divers exists, because it’s had two seasons to blaze a trail beforehand.  Granted Divers is its own beast on that front; the beauty of it is that it’s (seemingly for now) a franchise reboot, so you don’t need to watch Build Fighters or BF Try in order to understand what’s going on.  You should, because they’re friggin’ great IMO, but anyone who wants to jump on board now is free to do so.  Failing that?  Do yourself a favor and watch the 14-ish minute prologue to Divers.  No seriously, do it.

In any case, the anime fandom has this thing called the three episode rule.  That’s the grace period of sorts; any given show has three episodes to convince a viewer to keep watching, and/or justify its existence.  If it can’t, then it’s off to the shadow realm.  Given that, I think it’s time for me to take a hard look at Gundam Build Divers and see how it handles itself.  Don’t take me as an authority, given that I have a MASSIVE bias going in, but this is the first time I’m watching episodes as they air, rather than reacting to archived videos months after the fact.  I’m excited.

And what better to way to keep up that excitement than with a hype intro?  Play ‘em in, boys!

Okay, that was…kind of a cop out.  I mean, the animation is good, but the song?  Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.  It made me go “uuuuuuuuuuuuuugh” at first, but it grew on me to the point where I actively sought out the full version and put it on a loop.  I guess OP 2 will give us the Back-On we know and deserve.

Anyway, here’s the setup.  Fighting with Gundam models (gunpla) has always been a core part of the franchise, but now things have been taken to the next level.  Once a person builds their gunpla in the real world, they can dock it into a special station to pilot a 1/1 scale version of it in the virtual world -- Gunpla Battle Nexus Online, or GBN -- complete with an avatar to control and quests to complete.  Having reached the requisite minimum age to enter, Riku and his pal Yukki dive in with gusto.  It’s for the sake of enjoying the brave new world, but Riku also has a deeper ambition: he wants to be able to fight on the same plateau -- and stage, inevitably -- as the GBN champion and his personal idol, Kyoya Kujo.  But it’s a long road, given that Riku doesn’t even have a gunpla built at first.

It’s a pretty standard setup.  Main character wants to git gud, main character struggles to git gud and makes lots of friends and enemies along the way.  The formula is battle-scarred, to say the least, so it’s going to be up to the show’s execution to bridge the gap between quaint (if banal) conventions and the upper reaches of the quality-o-sphere.  What’s Divers going to do to set itself apart from plenty of shonen-ish fare before it?  It’s hard to know exactly what the production crew has lined up, considering that we’re only four episodes in.  Can’t say I’m hating the ride so far, though.

Still, if I had to guess?  Divers’ secret weapon is that it has a plot.

Vanilla Build Fighters had a plot, sure -- git gud and win fights.  There were underpinnings involving the secret behind gunpla battles (and apparently there’s a mafia devoted to plastic models…because of course there is), but it took a backseat to pretty much everything else for 75-90% of the show’s run.  BF Try’s plot was also “git gud and win fights”, yet focused even less on the underpinnings so it could prioritize the interpersonal drama between the building fighters.  Both shows succeeded (Try less so, admittedly) because what they did focus on was done decidedly well.  Yet there’s still a gaping hole the size of The O.  A strong narrative push can mask the fact that the main focus is “git gud and win fights”, and the fact that Fighters/Divers are unrepentant toy commercials.

…I mean, they’re toy commercials that work, I bet.  What I wouldn’t give to customize a Sandrock.  But that’s neither here nor there.

It’s early, but there are decisive hints that something is brewing under the surface.  Some of it makes me worried, to be perfectly honest.  Chalk this up to personal bias, but seeing Riku pal around with the mysterious waif Sarah puts me on edge.  She’s going to have a big impact on the plot, inevitably, and I can’t say I’m looking forward to seeing the cliches associated with her archetype play out.  Though I’m open for a subversion or two.  Hell, I’d stand up and cheer if it turned out that Sarah wasn’t some phantom AI attuned to the network, but a 47-year-old man who got in too deep with his RPs and has to commit to the bit.  Alternatively, give me Anime John Lithgow.

The crux of the show is --

I would also settle for Anime Danny DeVito.

The crux of the show is going to depend on how well it’s going to use its new backdrop of GBN.  The comparisons to Sword Art Online are as apt as they are inevitable; no one’s trapped in the virtual world yet, but the fact that we’re dealing with a setting dominated by a sprawling MMO rife with rules to remember and miscreants mucking about says more than its fair share.  Thankfully Riku’s not as overpowered as Kirito -- the show even makes a point of it by having him completely botch using his 00 Diver’s super mode to get out of a jam -- but it’ll be up to the characters and the world working in tandem to flesh out both.  Riku’s fine for now, but I’m more than ready to see him progress beyond Ash Ketchum Clone #652.  All things considered, he’d better do it soon.

But like I said, it’s all going to depend on how well it uses GBN, and what’s here is already brimming with potential.  In the first episode, the boys run into another player that’s pretty obviously out to gank and loot noobs.  Riku is confident enough to offer a helping hand to “someone in need”, but his naivete nearly lands him in trouble.  Yukki is savvy enough to suspect treachery immediately, but as the timid second banana, he can’t stop his pal from nearly falling victim to a low-tier cyber scam.

Not to go off on a tangent, but it seems like the relationship between Riku and Yukki is going to be a key asset for Divers.  It’s already started to take form, least of all because they’re the two central characters; seeing them in action reminds me of the Shake & Bake tactics of Talladega Nights, where Yukki does the setup and Riku goes for the finisher.  If you’ve seen that movie, you know that there’s a finite amount of sidekickery that the second bnana can take.  Maybe at some point soon, Yukki will get tired of Riku’s antics and they’ll have a falling out.  Until then, the boys are pretty much Bash Brothers -- partners like Sei and Reiji from vanilla BF, albeit with equal and active roles this time around.

Anyway, the net aspect.  Riku and Yukki aren’t even out of middle school yet, but now they’re willingly plunging into a sprawling network for good and ill.  Are they going to be able to stay safe?  While it’s true that dying in-game costs nothing but ranking points, there are more ways to run into hazards online.  Riku got scammed in episode one; what’ll he get himself into without parental supervision or common sense?  What if the avatars he converses with are just putting on an act to lure him to his virtual doom?

Speaking of which, let’s talk about the avatars.  It’s worth noting that outside of a costume change, Riku does nothing to alter his appearance from his IRL counterpart; outside of a different hair color and outfit, Yukki’s the same way.  It seems kind of a cop out to not have them explore the options, but it is justified in-universe by them needing to be able to recognize each other in their first outing together.  Besides, the other players are more than willing to pick up the slack.  Near as I can tell, Divers is NOT shying away from the furry/anthro side of things, nor is it afraid to get crazy with the character designs.

So basically, there are about 4.7 degrees of separation between this and VR Chat.

You would think that there would be about 85 different Lockon Stratus avatars clumped up in the same space, but given that this is the absolute easiest way to jam in as many cameos as possible, I don’t fault the anime for taking the route it did.  It does make me wonder if it’ll explore the depths of online personas and identities.  Who are the people behind those virtual masks?  More importantly, is anyone really who they say they are?  It’s discussed briefly when Riku runs into a masked Kyoya that it might just be a fan pretending to be him -- a legit concern, but one that gets snuffed out through the reveal that it’s actually him.  Is that a tease of more identity shenanigans to come?  Maybe so.  I hope so; it’s too ripe to pass up.

I won’t begrudge the show (not entirely) if it doesn’t follow through on what I envision, because it’s already doing its best to develop thematic heft on its own terms.  Just like its predecessors -- and maybe more so -- Divers presents characters with the goal of improving their craft and fighting heart-stopping battles.  Fair enough.  But what makes things a little different this time is that the show’s going to some decisive lengths to show the light and dark side of that drive.  The light side is that there are people like Riku and Kyoya who embody the spirit of competition -- the love of the game that pushes them to battle more, even if it’s born from a selfish whim.  The dark side is that there are guys out there who just want to win no matter what, earning “prestige” and bigger rewards in the process.  And they’re willing to do anything to get it.  Even relying on hacks.

That might actually be one of the more honest takes on battles that the BF canon has given us.  Not everybody is some wide-eyed child that’s in it for fun.  Some people just want to be assholes and cheat their way to the top.

All in all, I think that the name of the game here is “potential”.  I have faith in Divers, and trust that it can deliver thanks to the pieces it’s got in the toy box -- because it has before.  (I want to see either Riku or Yukki get pushed into using hax in a desperate moment, and the fallout that occurs once one confronts the other about his lust for power.)  If for some reason it can’t, then it’ll be a generic tie-in and a vehicle to push more gunpla.  That would be a travesty -- maybe not the worst thing ever, but as someone who holds it in high esteem, it’d be a deep cut for me.

And to be clear, I can see that deep cut happen if the crew rested on their laurels throughout production.  Will the characters evolve?  Will the setting elevate the story?  Will the scenario provide real twists and turns?  Crucially, will the visuals and audio hold out?  They sure as hell didn’t for BF Try, so I’m hoping that the gap between that season and this one recharged the crew’s batteries.

There may be a lot of ways for this anime to go wrong.  Maybe it will.  But I doubt it.  And it goes without saying, but you bet your sweet bippy that I’m still along for the ride.

Okay, now that all that early impressions shit is out of the way, let’s move on to what REALLY matters: gushing about your dream gunpla if you were a part of the canon.  For me, it’s obvious: my custom-made Sandrock DV (short for Death Valley).  Sandrock’s body as a base, with the forearms of Burning Gundam, and the mounted cannons of the King GM.  Since the BF canon has shown that any material touched by Plavsky Particles becomes a legitimate part of a gunpla battle, I’d fill Sandrock DV with -- you guessed it -- sand.

That would sacrifice mobility, sure, but in exchange?  It’d be able to fire blasts of sand at will, or better yet use its special ability: to create a sandstorm that obscures the battlefield and wars down other gunpla over time…which would make it easy pickings for my boy.  Granted my boy would have sand-resistant paint (or a plastic sheath, or armor, or whatever), but you get the idea.  Stepping into the ring with me means taking a trip to Death Valley.

I…may have put way too much thought into this.

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