For me, it really is the best of times and the worst of times. It isn’t Madhouse or manglobe or even Production I.G. that epitomize anime for me. I realize that they’re all good production companies, but when I pick up one of their boxes I don’t know what I’m going to get. Each of their series are too divergent from each other. I don’t see any central vision to their stories. No similarities between their series. They are all good studios, but to me there are only two studios that will make me buy a series without thinking about it: Bones and Gonzo.
The funny thing is that no two studios could be more disimiliar. Bones focuses on telling an intricate story, revolving around a central theme or two. The characters are all rich and tend to walk on that moral tightrope between good and evil. I’ve never watched a Bones series with a true villian. Even Darcia at his most insane is completely understandable in Wolf’s Rain. The Peacekeepers in Scrapped Princess defend their positions with a cold logic that is both understandable and actually empathetic.
The animation and artwork seems to focus on this. Generally the characters remain central to the story. It’s rare that we get and epic scene of ships approaching each other in a Bones series. Even in the establishing shots, we see the characters moving through the landscape, whether it’s a city street or a snowy wasteland. Armies never stand face to face, milling over a muddy hillside, instead we see the generals agonizing over their decisions, hoping that they were the right ones. No matter how epic the series should be, the directors will find a way to make it intensely personal.
Of course, that’s why Bones sucks at epics. Their style simply can’t capture the vastness of the struggle. It’s one of the reasons why Scrapped Princess was good but not great. Instead of focusing on this monumental struggle between man and their alien occupiers, it shows that struggle through Shannon and CZ. The war is too personalized to really feel that the stakes are high enough for it to be truly epic.
Gonzo on the other hand, up and to recently, could do an epic like no other. Mostly it’s due to how beautiful their animation is. I still get chills thinking about Vincent standing on the bridge of the Urbanis as it’s pinned to Exile. The snow blowing in as he shouts up at the Sylvana to “give them hell.” The villians are truly atrocious. The good guys may be flawed, but are generally noble and heroic (or at least fighting on the side of good and right).
Even their more personal shows, like Gantz, Kiddy Grade and even Shana manage to capture that sense of epic so well that it causes a visceral response in me. The heroes seem like they’re in real danger. The stakes seem like they could be the end of the world. Even the establishing shots in The Count of Monte Cristo move away from the main characters, showing the grand vistas and the true immensity of it all. They’re more inclined to show the thousands of soliders on the muddy hill shuffling around rather than the generals. They will show dozens of ships squaring off, rather than one or two piloted by a particular character.
But even a show like Last Exile has soft spots when it comes to characters. In most Gonzo shows, the characters tend to be more flat. They’re pretty divided into good and evil. Even a show like Gantz, with its social commentary, is a show about epic characters doing epic things.
The problem is that one of them knows what they’re good at and the other studio doesn’t. Bones seems to always comes out with projects that are suited for their style. Even Scrapped Princess fits their style in a way, since the majority of the story focuses on Pacifica, Shannon and Raquel’s journey rather than any epic war. There are a few exceptions like Mars Daybreak, but generally they produce solid character driven shows.
But for Gonzo, they seem to be forgetting what makes them good (epic shows about epic people) and trying to diversify. The problem is that the work comes out uneven. Granted both Speed Grapher and Solty Rei had their high points and overall were good series. But they weren’t as good as they could have been.
On top of that, Gonzo seems to be losing their edge when it comes to artwork. While some of their shows are still good, a lot more of them are just okay and a few of them are really bad. I don’t know if their losing their talent pool, or if they just have been bringing in new directors. But it seems like they’re becoming just another studio.
And if you’ll pardon another literary reference, is enough to try my soul.