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Is life not a game
Where there’s no one to blame
If the rules seem unfair
And the ends are the same?

You’re tempted to quit,
Raise your hands in forfeit,
For the game doesn’t care
Where the losers will sit.

But wait! None will mind
The misfits of mankind,
For the arrogant player
Is conveniently blind.

Who heeds the has-been
When his triumphs begin?
Those who haven’t a prayer
In the game can still win.

MPAA rating: PG-13

Although I’ve come to really enjoy anime movies over the last several years, I’d never seen an anime film in the theater. Thus, it was a special treat to see No Game No Life: Zero on the big screen, especially with it being such a visually spectacular film. After being impressed by the trailers for months before its July opening in Japan, I thought for sure I’d have to wait perhaps a year before I’d get to see an American release, so I’m grateful to Sentai Filmworks and Fathom Events for distributing the English dub so quickly.

I wouldn’t doubt that non-anime fans have no idea what No Game No Life is. It’s a series of Japanese light novels, but most in the West would know it from the anime adaptation that is surprisingly popular for having only a single twelve-episode season. It centers on the gaming prowess of eighteen-year-old Sora and his eleven-year-old stepsister Shiro, two genius-level shut-ins who are transported by the god of games Tet to a fantasy world where all conflicts are decided by wagering on games of any kind. Humanity (known as Imanity in this world) is the lowest and least powerful of all the fantasy races, so Sora and Shiro take it upon themselves to lift up the humans and conquer the world through the likes of chess, word chain, and first-person shooters. Just as WarGames fans say “Shall we play a game?”, No Game No Life fans say “Aschente,” the mutual pledge before starting a game.

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The show itself is played mainly for laughs and to marvel at the Sherlock-level strategy and foresight the siblings command even when at a disadvantage, but it boasts a broader fantasy appeal too, especially with unseen backstory about a horrific war that only ended when Tet became god and made the world game-centric. The characters and situations are quite entertaining for the most part, though No Game No Life isn’t among my favorite series for one simple reason: fan service. There’s plenty of sexual harassment, near-nudity, and risqué humor, mainly from Sora, and while much of it is funny, a lot is just uncomfortable and annoying. Plus, I’m not usually a fan of the kind of anime with silly faces and exaggerated reactions (I know that’s the majority of anime), which is why I lean more toward dramatic series or movies, which are usually easier to take seriously.

That’s why I was so eager to see No Game No Life: Zero, a film centering on an extended flashback of the pre-Tet war, a subject which lends itself to much more drama and emotion, and indeed the film is a complete contrast from the humorous tone of the series. (By the way, the Zero in the title seems to be an example of the naming convention for works that are connected yet somehow separate from an established series [e.g. Fate/Zero, Steins;Gate 0, etc.].) No Game No Life is notable, and sometimes disliked, for its hypersaturated colors, boasting more bright hues than a Crayola factory, and while the movie retains the same style, it limits its palette more to complement the darker storyline. Instead of the shiny fantasy land into which Sora and Shiro are literally dropped, this war-torn world 6000 years earlier is dominated by reddened skies and skin-burning ash, leaving no doubt as to humanity’s desperation, caught in the crossfire between the more powerful magical races. Just look at the contrast between the worlds below, the first from the show, the second from the film.

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Although there’s still a lot left unseen, the film wonderfully expands our knowledge of the war, showing us why the modern-day races still hate each other. Jibril, an immortal angel-like creature called a Flugel, was one of the best characters on the show, conceited and charming at the same time, but her appearance in the film fits the description of an “angel of death,” proving that those memories of slaughter she fondly reminisces about in the show were not exaggerated. The film also intentionally echoes the series with its “new” character designs. Riku, the leader of the remaining humans, looks a lot like Sora, just as Shuvi, an Ex Machina android intent on learning the value of the human heart, looks much like Shiro. (They’re even voiced by the same voice actors in the excellent English dub that I saw.) The main design difference may be that their hair colors are reversed, but these new characters have their own personalities and griefs that set them apart from their later incarnations, and instead of a brother and sister relationship, theirs is destined for love. I will say it takes a certain amount of disconnect from the series to accept a romance between two characters who look like the siblings we know, but the film spends a good amount of time developing their relationship, even if it starts on a very awkward note.

The trailers mainly focused on the romance angle and an epic fight between Shuvi and Jibril, but I was glad to see that the movie does explain the war’s formerly vague resolution. Instead of the explicit games of the series, the game concept, along with humanity’s struggle, becomes more of a running theme as the characters engage in a literal game of “Global Thermonuclear War.” Some have complained about the pacing of the movie’s final third, but that’s where I thought it truly found its stride and consistently impressed. I loved the way victory is snatched from apparent defeat, utilizing the fact that the Ex Machina are a lot like the Borg from Star Trek, and the sad circumstances became sublimely bittersweet by the end. It spoke to how the most important people in history often remain unsung heroes, their names sometimes only remembered by God.

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No Game No Life: Zero was a pleasure to watch in the theater, especially because it elevated the series it was based on, focusing on the fantasy with just a taste of the original’s humor and chucking the unnecessary fan service. (There’s still some stylized nudity, but it’s more forgivable here.) The animation is particularly stunning, especially during that epic battle I mentioned, and the score beautifully enhanced the emotions of each scene, with the lovely ending theme “There Is a Reason” earning entrance into my End Credits Song Hall of Fame.  By the end, as the film tied itself directly into where the series left off, I even found myself feeling surprisingly nostalgic and fond for a show I thought I only moderately liked. Many think this film is a prelude for a potential second season, and the movie will certainly strengthen that hope. No Game No Life may be a series I wouldn’t quite recommend to everyone, but, with the right background information, this movie is. (By the way, I’ve included the first teaser trailer down below to give a taste of the awesome animation and music.)

Best line: (Riku) “Yes, humans are fools, but it takes a great fool to not let that foolishness get themselves killed.”

Rank: List Runner-Up

© 2017 S.G. Liput
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