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Shangri-La Frontier Episode #01 Anime Review

5 min read
Shangri-La Frontier gives us a charming protagonist with a quirky hobby and a beautiful world that makes us want to jump into the game made up for the story.
©Katarina, Ryosuke Fuji, KODANSHA/Shangri-La Frontier” Production Committee.

Haters gonna hate.

What They Say:
“What Do You Play Games For?”

The Review:
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
It’s funny, I have freebies from anime conventions with Shangri-La Frontier art on them, so I feel like I’ve seen it enough to already be familiar with the series. But that couldn’t be further from the truth, to the point that I didn’t even have the slightest idea what it was about until watching this episode. If I literally just read the full Japanese title, I’d know it was about video games, but up to now it’s always just been “the series with the guy with the bird head.” I had no idea that the head was a mask, much less that it was nothing more than a game avatar. Its title always reminded me of the otherwise forgettable early simulcast from Gonzo Shangri-La, though that certainly wasn’t my first exposure to the term either.

The series explores a concept I can’t say I’ve really seen covered before: enthusiasts of terrible video games. I have a friend whose greatest passion is terrible movies, and I’ve tried to understand his perspective for over a decade to some small measure of success. He says the same thing brought up in this premiere episode, that seeing the lowest lows can help you appreciate the highs more. I get the sentiment, and I can acknowledge the efficacy of such an exercise at times, but there’s so much great content and so relatively little time that I still generally try to avoid things I know will not be very good. For video games there seems to be an extra level to it, as explored in this series: gamers challenge themselves (well, some of them – you won’t find me engaging in any FromSoftware masochism, thank you very much), so having a game full of unintentionally impossible situations and bugs you have to get around just gives you a new level of challenge to contend with and prove yourselves better than perhaps even the team that made it. That’s where our protagonist finds his joy, and the series does a decent job making even me understand where he’s coming from, despite having no interest in bad media or even enjoying particularly hard games.

The series is most successful in drawing in an audience with its rich realization of the highly detailed fantasy world of the acclaimed video game our protagonist decides to check out as a change of pace. The studio C2C has never especially impressed me, so this feels like something of an ambitious project for them. I hope they have the resources to be able to handle it. After being blown away by the first episode of Zom 100 last season only to see its production fall apart for the next three months, it’s hard to get my hopes up just because one episode looks a little clean, but hopefully the studio having a bit more experience than a brand-new one will mitigate that risk a bit.

Like the studio, most of the main staff doesn’t stand out to me all the much, with the exception of writer Kazuyuki Fudeyasu, who also handled series composition for both Hajime no Ippo sequels (he had written scripts for the first season, along with many other great anime) as well as every season of Slime. Now that I know that this is a web novel about full-dive VR games, I’m slightly apprehensive about it going forward, but I felt that all of the character dialogue thus far has been very natural and eschewed the kind of cringe I expect from that kind of material. It may be an outlier, Fudeyasu may have helped in his adaptation, or both, but I do appreciate that that’s not a sticking point for me so far.

However, while I was waiting for the twist, for what the series was actually about, I realized that I wasn’t going to get it. Rather, unless they’re waiting until a later episode to reveal something completely different, it would appear that this is all there is to it. This is just a series where you watch a fictional character play a fake video game. It’s hard to imagine that being the most compelling narrative for a long-running series. Now it is of course my fault that I got into the series without doing this research and I have no obligation to continue it, but on the other hand I find myself enjoying the character and the world-within-a-world enough that I want to keep watching despite it sounding completely vapid on paper. Consider this my experiment in the same vein as Sunraku (that’s the protagonist, by the way – I’m not sure how relevant his real name will be from this point on). Just as he’s trying a good game for a change, I’m trying a series that doesn’t necessarily sound like my kind of show. Of course, my reasoning is that it does appear to be good in spite of that fact, but we’ll see if it surprises me for better or worse.

In Summary:
Shangri-La Frontier gives us a charming protagonist with a quirky hobby and a beautiful world that makes us want to jump into the game made up for the story. Once it establishes the possibility that perhaps we’ll be doing nothing more than watching this guy play a game, though, one can be unsure of how strong of a narrative we have to look forward to. Still, between the strong production and a skilled adaptive writer who can help smooth out some of the more obnoxious web novel-isms that may crop up, I find myself not only unusually compelled to watch more but surprisingly optimistic that I may end up enjoying the ride despite my initial misgivings about a concept that could make for a very bland story.

Grade: C+

Streamed By: Crunchyroll