Shichisei no Subaru review: evidence that original does not mean good, and unoriginal does not mean bad

This is just a transition card but like, yikes! Why did they choose that filter? The show itself has such a nice, light color scheme…

[I’m a big fan of funny-bad and Shichisei no Subaru comes so close. I can’t recommend it as a genuine disasterpiece, but it was so comically unpopular both within Japan and without that I could only find three other reviews of the complete series beyond basic episode impressions! So, as someone who adores bad anime, I felt that I owed Subaru a loving shake – even if I’m six months too late and don’t really love it. Also, for whatever it’s worth, I do recommend my impression post on Subaru for a more serious thematic discussion on making meaning in an online world. Here though, I’m just having a laugh.]

There’s a fun quote often attributed (without evidence) to the 18th century writer, critic, and scholar Samuel Johnson in response to some “manuscript” he had reviewed and apparently disliked. It’s apocryphal, so the wording varies with the source, but it usually goes something like this:

Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.

Heh, that’s gotta be one of the sickest burns in all of literature. Beyond the insult though, I think there’s some hidden wisdom in the wit. I often notice an unfair impulse by casual critics to take “unoriginal” as a synonym for “low quality,” especially among online fan communities looking for “objective” reasons to review bomb something. But the quip does the opposite: it observes an instance for which original does not mean good and unoriginal does not mean bad.

Of course, since that’s just a baseless claim drawn from a pithy, unauthored aphorism, I’d like illustrate the idea with an example: the summer 2018 video-game fantasy anime Shichisei no Subaru (English: Seven Senses of the Reunion).

Back when it first aired, Subaru became an easy target for mockery because it so shamelessly imports the plot and characters from AnoHana into a Sword Art Online-style video game setting. A mysterious ghost girl with blonde hair and blue eyes returned from the dead to bring her five childhood friends back together? Yep, that’s AnoHana. And a overpowered swordsman with the personality of a brick wall traipsing through a virtual reality death game? Yep, that’s Sword Art Online …and um… apparently Subaru too. I mean, just look at the two lead characters and their likely inspirations:

I jest because plenty of anime characters look alike, but then they also have near identical personalities and narrative functions sooo… As I concluded in my impression post on the series last summer, Subaru is “not exactly bad… just astoundingly unoriginal.” Mind you, it’s not good either. To add another quip to the quote, the good parts (AnoHana’s premise) aren’t original, the original parts (Subaru’s genetically determined video game skills?) aren’t good, and the other unoriginal parts (Sword Art Online’s …Kirito) aren’t much good either. But even if the series as a whole doesn’t achieve anything better than a tepid “bleh,” that mediocrity makes Shichisei no Subaru such a perfect case-study to demonstrate my point: original does not mean good and unoriginal does not mean bad.

I think I’ll take a revised “good, bad, and ugly” approach here to break down Subaru into “the unoriginal good, the unoriginal bad, and the original ugly.”

Oh, and did I miss a category for the “original good?” Nahhh, ssshhh…don’t worry about it!

The Unoriginal Good

Subaru gets precisely one thing right: the character drama that it steals straight from AnoHana. For reference, here is a synopsis of AnoHana’s premise, quoted and condensed from Wikipedia’s summary of the first episode:

Six childhood friends used to belong to a group called The Super Peace Busters. However, the group leader (Jinta) accidently hurt one girl’s (Menma) feelings when he did not confess that he liked her. Shortly after, Menma died in an accident, causing the Super Peace Busters to disband and the surviving friends to grow distant. Back in the present, Jinta discovers the ghost of Menma. She has a wish: for the friends to come back together again. Menma encourages Jinta to talk to his old friend Anaru when she visits his home. However, Jinta gets into a fight with his other old friend Yukiatsu over Menma’s memory. Jinta runs off. Then, he decides to go check on the old Super Peace Buster fort.

<End Episode One>

Let rearrange the order of a couple sentences and substitute in some terms…

Six childhood friends used to belong to an <MMO guild> called <Subaru>. However, the group leader <Haruto> accidently hurt one girl’s <Satsuki> feelings when he did not confess that he liked her. Shortly after, <Asahi> died in a <difficult dungeon>, causing <Subaru> to disband and the surviving friends to grow distant. Years later, <Haruto> discovers the <online avatar> of <Asahi>. She has a wish: for the friends to come back together again. However, <Haruto> gets into a fight with his other old friend <Takanori> over <Asahi’s> memory. <Haruto> <logs> off. Back in the <real world>, <Satsuki> encourages <Haruto> to talk to his old friend <Asahi> when she visits his home. Then, he decides to go check on the old <Subaru> <guildhall>.

<End Episode Two>

And there you go, Shichisei no Subaru’s premise! Recognize it?

Subaru might be the most blatant rip-off I’ve ever seen. Anaru (=Satsuki) and Tsuruko (=Nozomi) trade personalities and Satsuki starts the story as the first scorned lover, but otherwise it’s an identical setup to AnoHana. However, here’s that theme again: unoriginal does not mean bad, and Subaru’s character drama remains modestly engaging right up ‘til the end. Though the AnoHana-esque ghostly grief theme tapers off after the third episode, Subaru replaces it with a few decent romance plots. It’s a bit messy, so let’s break out an MS Paint love polygon:

I guess it’s a love pentagon?

Not so complicated, right? Oh, and don’t worry about Clive or Elicia. They don’t matter. =(

Out of all the unrequited love plots, Satsuki’s especially excels (to mirror Anaru’s on Jinta from AnoHana). Satsuki pursues Haruto, hoping that six years and Asahi’s absurd status as a digital ghost will force Haruto to give up his own unrequited romance for a dead child (I’d laugh if it weren’t so creepy). But when Haruto declares his love for Asahi and she accepts, Satsuki sticks to her values, takes the heartbreak as well as anyone can, and moves on with her own life like a real adult. It’s not a great arc, but I had some genuine sympathy for her. Even better, Subaru felt just a little refreshing for resisting the harem-building trend in other video-game inspired fantasies like Sword Art Online. Though it could have turned Satsuki into Haruto’s second woman, it protected the independence of her character to keep them platonic friends.

To extend that point, even Takanori’s unrequited romance for Asahi (mirroring Yukiatsu’s on Menma) has some mediocre thematic value. It initially plays Takanori as a gross bully who feels entitled to Asahi’s love. But after losing to Haruto, he comes to recognize his own selfishness and learns to respect Asahi’s preferences. When the unrequited romance plot repeats again with Nozomi’s crush on Takanori himself (to mirror Tsuruko’s on Yukiatsu… catch the pattern?), he helps to bring her back into the friend group despite her attempts to betray them. Takanori’s conflict with Haruto and Nozomi’s betrayal result in some goofy fight scenes inside the video game. But in the character drama, the final confrontation between Nozomi and Takanori makes for a nice thematic capstone on the too-many unrequited love stories.

Nozomi after getting hit by the villain bat, flanked by her stuffed animal minions, a faceless cultist magician, and a killer clown… weird flex, but that’s Subaru’s original content for you

Subaru manages just one more unoriginal good idea: Asahi’s status as a time-lost child trying to reconnect with friends that have outgrown her has a tinge of real tragedy to it. In the six years since her death, they have matured and moved on to start careers or go to university. But she’s still trapped in her child’s mind, apparently held hostage by some kind of cult (or is it the evil corporation? or both? Subaru never elaborates on this…). Though the adult friends all remain implausibly committed to their childhood crushes, few of them care much about the game anymore (the notable exception is Takanori, who has become an insufferable PROGAMER, DKP-MINUS guild tyrant. I might miss WoW, but not that sort of toxicity…). Subaru quickly dumps any development for Asahi’s literal arrested development in favor of the the love polygon, but while it’s there, it’s interesting enough, I suppose. But, as with everything else in the series, the video game nonsense undermines the melancholy tone, bringing me to…

The Unoriginal Bad

Basically, this is anything from Sword Art Online. That’s not to say that Sword Art Online is bad… just that Subaru tries to do everything Sword Art Online does, only worse. If unoriginal doesn’t mean bad, it certainly doesn’t mean good either.

Subaru sets itself in a virtual reality video game called Reunion, which tries to mimic Sword Art Online’s death game by deleting player’s accounts if their character dies in-game. But compared to actual death, losing an avatar hardly counts as a threat, creating a bad tonal mismatch between the stakes Subaru wants to establish –gasp, will our heroes die!?– and the reality of just waking up in your room with a clunky VR headset on your face (and why play a game that bans you for losing anyway..?). For example, there’s an absurd high drama moment when Haruto’s avatar almost hits zero hit points while Satsuki desperately tries to heal him. But like… it’s just a game, guy. Sure, he’ll lose access to Asahi, but Subaru barely explores her status as a digital ghost-child and her separation from the real world makes her oddly peripheral to the unrequited romance shenanigans.

Most of the meaningful character interactions occur in the real world, like Satsuki’s conversations with Haruto and Takanori or the multiple graveyard scenes reserved to mourn Asahi’s supposed death. But then there’s a problem: Asahi is trapped inside of her avatar, meaning that the group always needs to return to the game to progress the ghost mystery plot. A single quote summarizes the whole problem to me: “We’ve got to hurry and log in!” Ha! So, in high drama moments, they’ll all dash home to put on their VR headsets, and then open the log-in screen, and enter their credentials, and wait for the loading screen, and clear their in-game notifications, and… Of course, Subaru doesn’t show any of those intermediary steps, but the huge distance between the real world and game world can badly diminish the drama in Asahi’s story.

However, the game setting causes an even worse disruption: after some important dialogue or triumph against a difficult boss, the adult characters all log-off and just like… go to bed I guess? Plotwise, that creates the unaddressed problem that they leave Asahi alone in the guildhall, opening the question “what does she even do all day in the game?” But more importantly, having the heroes switch in and out of the virtual world so frequently results in some awkward interruptions of the narrative’s momentum. For example, Takamori concludes Nozomi’s unrequited love arc by tracing her IP connection to confront her in an internet cafe. But if he could have just talked to her in real life first, why did Subaru go through the trouble of drawing out a fight scene with her across two episodes? Or in the overarching plot, why don’t the corporation/cult villains try to murder the heroes in real life …or do the easy thing and just ban their accounts?

(Aside: in my mind the comparison here is the excellent VR isekai anime .hack//sign. In hack, the mystery and character interactions almost all take place in the game world, to the extent that the real world seems almost dreamlike. From the perspective of the trapped-in-the-game character trying to reconstruct his self-identity in a virtual world then, friends logging off to go to work or school can feel like a unforgivable betrayal. By contrast, Subaru commits to neither world, leaving our ghost girl Asahi weirdly dislocated from much of the narrative)

Yelling makes me stronger!

And then there’s the Kirito in the room: Haruto. He’s a classic overpowered protagonist, eclipsing even his inspiration in the arbitrariness of his strength. His special skill, called “Fighting Spirit,” has no definition beyond “if I shout real loud and real hard, I can win.” Though he begins the series as total sad-sack with no passion for the game, by the third episode he’s already casting ultra-cleaves that can one shot bosses. It’s most ridiculous in episode six, when he single-handedly defeats I dunno… hundreds? thousands? of enemies from the top guilds in the game during a princess-in-the-castle style rescue for Asahi. After he retrieves his legendary sword from the bottom of the sea in episode eight (by the way, did the show even establish that he had lost it?), he practically becomes the god of war. Ohhh hooo, but then Subaru gets funny-bad. No, he’s not just a superhero in the game; the show reveals that the video game skills transfer into the real world, bringing me to…

The Original Ugly

Subaru tries to distinguish itself from Sword Art Online by adding a bizarre genetic component to the VR game skills. Only people with rare genetic mutations called “Senses” can even play Reunion and, like with actual population distributions, this results in vast inequalities between those players with weak and powerful skills. As one character puts it, “the Senses are the perfect example of something unfair and against the rules” (so um… why play the game, if it’s completely imba and players can ignore the rules?). Here’s the most ridiculous part though: through mysterious experiments carried out by the corporation/cult, it is revealed that players can unlock the hidden power of their game skills in the real world.

I’ve already described Haruto’s absurd strength, but Asahi can literally see the future and travel between alternate dimensions. It’s an insane escalation of the basic ghost mystery premise and appears so suddenly with so little explanation or foreshadowing that I thought I had skipped an episode. When a shapeshifting Clive-poser stabs Haruto in the back, Asahi becomes distressed and forces the timeline to change in order to save him. In that alternate dimension, Haruto meets Elicia, a mysterious 7th member of Subaru from yet another dimension who has the limited power to project herself into other universes. She explains that Asahi can become a near-divine being if she learns to control her Sense. That’s why the corporation/cult wants her: they can achieve world domination or something like it if they transform Asahi into a time-traveling, interdimensional goddess. When Haruto jolts back to his original timeline with that bombshell revelation, he decides that it’s time to reunite his old guild Subaru to “protect Asahi” …not to save the world or anything, but just because f-r-i-e-n-d-s-h-i-p. It’s… ridiculous.

Interdimensional travel!!! Do I need to comment?

Here’s my favorite part about Subaru’s funny-bad original content though: it’s barely actual content! Instead, it’s just a disjointed series of vague dispersions about dimensions and time travel and cults and super-powers. By the final episode, Subaru has settled all of the character drama romances ripped from AnoHana. The old gang’s back together, plus one with Elicia from her dystopian alternative dimension! But it makes almost no progress in the original ideas like Asahi’s apparent kidnapping or her odd status as a ghost or her even more bizarre potential as a goddess. It’s a classic “go buy the light novels” conclusion, but Subaru hasn’t been translated and I don’t care enough to try (even if those last four episodes had me laughing non-stop at the absurdities. Subaru finally becomes really enjoyable for that final third arc).

Subaru faces the interesting challenge of synthesizing two very different premises from Sword Art Online and AnoHana; because Sword Art Online will always do Sword Art Online better and AnoHana will always do AnoHana better, Subaru needs to find an interesting bridge between its obvious inspirations. It really tries with the wacky alternate dimension stuff, but original does not mean good and Subaru lacks sufficient commitment to its own ideas to follow through with them. It’s the essence of the best funny-bad disasterpieces: writers trying to fit original square pegs into unoriginal round holes by shaving the original stuff down into awkward, hyperbolic lumps to accommodate genre cliches rather than working the other way around to fit the cliches to their own stories.

But remember the other angle: unoriginal doesn’t mean bad. Subaru achieves mediocrity by imitating AnoHana well enough to produce a decently compelling romantic character drama. If it had cut the worst of the video game nonsense, it maybe could have succeed as an uncreative, formulaic genre piece like A Certain Scientific Railgun does with sci-fi schlock. However, stuck somewhere between “bad” and “good enough,” Subaru can’t achieve either acclaim.

Do I recommend Shichisei no Subaru? No. But did I enjoy it as a case-study conversation starter to introspect on why I keep returning to trashy video-game inspired anime (as in my first impression post) or to explore the intersection between originality and quality (as in this post)? Yeah, sure.

There’s value there — just in my own original thinking rather than Subaru’s.

Ah, that sounds pompous and mean! Deflect, deflect! I’m only bored — just having a laugh — and Shichisei no Subaru is pretty funny.

And meh, at least Satsuki’s pretty cute.

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