A show that would be totally amazing… in the 80’s.
In the future, we will develop a technology that surpasses known logic. A technology that, by all intents, is magic. Jushiki, as its called, has allowed us to do all sorts of things, even bridge universes! Those that have studied to use Jushiki to help them fight are called Offensive Jushiki-ists, and they are the most intelligent people in the world. People like Gaiyus Levina Soleil. He’s a meticulous little bookworm-y type, with an amazing girlfriend. He makes a living as a bounty hunter/private investigator in a small agency of his own…
…Along with his partner, Gigina Jardi Doruk Meleios Word Salad Ashley-Bufh. Gigina is also an Offensive Jushiki-ist, but his formulae are wrapped around melee combat. He can summon armor, increase the power of his rediculously huge and overdesigned sword, and grant himself superhuman strength and agility. He isn’t exactly human either. He’s an elf-like race called Drakken, who adore combat and focus their entire society around it. If that wasn’t “unique” enough, he’s got another quirk: he thinks pieces of furniture are people. That means his “wife” is a chair, and his “son” is an armoire he’s made. Otherwise, he’s the muscle of the pair.
The two of them are quite the odd couple, and pretty much hate each other despite making a great team in combat. They just agree to disagree… on everything. You can’t argue with how effective they are, though. Beginning of the first episode, they kill an enormous, super-powered, black dragon! This nets them the attention of some powerful political entities, who want to use them for their own purposes. Everything from a shady Cardinal, to corporations that have gotten involved with rebel factions in other countries. Can they navigate in this complicated world of magic and intrigue?
Dances With The Dragons makes overtures as a fantasy meets detective noir by way of science fiction. In and of itself the concept can work. Take a look at Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files series, or Blade Runner. Both of these show successful fusions of detective noir with another genre. However, they work because the creators understand how to write a mystery. They set that mystery inside of a fully developed world, where they demonstrate how their fantasy and sci-fi elements shape their world, have definite rules, and can be a part of the mystery because they are understandable. The team behind Dances With The Dragons lacks this approach. Looking around the world of Dances, it looks almost like ours, probably about ten or twenty years ago, only with holograms and magic-wielding sociopaths around every corner. Other than that, it’s simply a re-skin of the real world.
Why is this a problem? A world where you toss in a few differences, don’t really define them, then put a mystery in the thick of it becomes a breeding ground for bad writing. The convention in writing goes “Show, Don’t Tell”. You shouldn’t be discovering the plot and universe because one of characters sits there and lays it all out for you. Exposition is the enemy of plot. Instead, you should see the story unfold first hand. When you read a mystery, you should see the clues as to what is going on in as the main characters do.
Instead, Dances opts to have Gaiyus lay out information in steady bursts of two per episode. He sits there telling you all the information you don’t know about how these people interact, who this person is, why this is a bad thing, and so forth. He’s not even doing it to the viewer, he just sits there talking to people in the room about information they already know. THIS GETS OLD VERY FAST. Detective noir stories get away with the main character expositing because these stories are told in the first person perspective. The monologue occurs not to the world around them, but directly to the audience. This makes the story feel like it’s being told to you directly, and contains all the quirks about the characters, making the exposition personable.
But, that brings us to the actual plot of Dances. A mire of political intrigue grows and swells around our lead characters. I won’t ruin it for you… because the final episode does that for me. Every ounce of this story is completely negated by the ending. The actions of the main characters have no effect on the world around them. The actions of the antagonists have no effect on the world around them. The world is a static mess, spiraling down a drain at a snail’s pace. If this events of this series did not occur that world would have been no different. And that is bad writing.
Take a look at Blade Runner. As we see, the events of the movie change Deckard from a burnt-out cop to a man with a mission. In The Dresden Files, the actions Dresden took in the first book lead to a series of events culminating in a war that wiped out the vampires, weakened the wizarding community, and lead to the rise of the ancient evil Fomors from the sea. You can link that all back to a single, seemingly meaningless action in the first book. In these stories, the plot relies on the characters. Without them, the bad guys win, everything goes to pot, and children have no candy in the summer. Here, the heroes get involved, the bad guys STILL win, and then the status quo is maintained. There. Is. No. Point.
Which brings me to the next issue with this series. Jushiki. Jushiki apparently works due to a chemical catalyst in a bullet-sized capsule. Everyone runs around using gunblades and gunaxes and gunlances because that’s how you use Jushiki. However, the series never explores the mechanism behind Jushiki. They pull the trigger, a Jushiki circle appears either around them or at the tip of the weapon, and whatever Jushiki they plan to use just happens. We see none of how the intent transmits to the Jushiki, or where the energy for this comes from. Compare again with magic from The Dresden Files. Over the series, he shows magic consistently, and explains enough that the readers themselves feel like they could do magic. It feels like a deep universe. Dances, however, stopped at gunblades. The writers never explore the limits of Jushiki, and the power levels of these characters grow and shrink based on what the plot of the scene needs. At one point, Gaiyus holds the least Jushiki power of anyone in the room. A few episodes later, with no training or power-boost, he whips out a Jushiki so big its circle is the size of an island.
Tired of reading the word Jushiki? Yeah, that’s how I felt listening to the dialogue. That word holds all the meaning for everything in the series, despite the lack of definition. You hear it in most of the sentences, and apparently refers to the system of performing these “spells”, the technology used to catalyze and control them, and the unique frequency of energy within each person, but not the source for the “spell”. The word stumbles clumsily out of the mouth, and drunkedly into the ear. Worse yet, Offensive Jushki-ist. Otherwise known as a battle mage to anyone not in this moronic alternate universe.
To the Japanese audience, Jushiki means roughly “ritual”. To the English-speaking audience, it means “I want to have magic, but I don’t want to call it magic, so I’ll make up a word for it and feel creative”. This could have been solved in the English dub. You could literally call it Ritual, and it would not only be easier to say and hear, but it would convey the meaning of the word to the new audience. None of the on-screen text would have to change, since all writing is in a made-up language. So yes, this issue rests on the shoulders of the dub team, and it isn’t alone.
Holy crap, which dumpster did they pull the voice actors out of? Each character speaks in a single vocal tone. No alteration in their emotions, no quirks, no depth to the acting. Only one character actually displayed multiple emotional states. Jivenya, voiced by Megan Shipman, held the title of the best character in the show. She only got a few scenes every now and then. Most of the time, her screen time saw her worrying about Gaiyus. At other times, however, she stole the scene and forced two grown men with the power to level a city to bend to her will. She held more strength in her acting than the entire crew could dream. Aside from her performance, I could have gotten better voice acting by reading a picture book.
You know what else is better in a picture book? The animation. It starts off strong. The first battle against the black dragon impressed me and held my attention. It also blew the entirety of their budget, and they could only do garbage work from then on. It got to the point that I couldn’t tell if the animation was to blame, or if I had a bad stream. Eventually, I got to feeling like I didn’t care. It was just bad.
How to Watch
Don’t. It’s a waste of time. It isn’t offensive to me, like some other ones have been. It just bores me. If you must watch it, binge it with strong alcohol and a drinking game. Every time they say the word Jushiki, take a drink. Every time Gaiyus goes on a long exposition, finish the drink.
The average score for this show was about 4.6. Given how consistent it was with its bad writing, animation, and voice acting, I don't think the whole is even worth the sum. I give it three "Just Call it Magic and Be Done With It"s out of ten.