What is Fractale? To tell you the truth, I’m still figuring that out myself…
One of the latest additions to FUNimation’s incredibly robust online streaming repertoire, Fractale is being simulcast every Thursday on Hulu at 11:45 am (EST), one hour after the episodes premiere on Fuji TV in Japan…at least, that’s the plan. The simulcast was halted after the first episode when the show’s copyright holders demanded FUNimation take steps to stop piracy of the episodes. Once this was sorted out and the simulcast resumed, the massive snow storms and cold fronts sweeping much of America prevented this week’s planned simulcast of episode four (I know how you feel, FUNi – it’s cold here too!). Thus, this review covers the first three episodes of the series as part of a new plan on this site to review streaming content in ‘blocks.’ Fractale will only be 11 episodes total, so we’re planning two more reviews, each highlighting four new episodes, to cover the rest of the series as it airs.
Fractale is many things – nearly all of them good – but one word that kept coming to my mind as I studied these first three episodes was “fascinating.” It’s a series about very big societal ideas that opens on an extremely intimate scale, and by the time we hit the Theme Song in episode 1, it’s already established itself as thought provoking – though not, immediately, in a thematic sense. The first order of business is, in blunt terms, to figure out just what the hell is going on. Set in the far off future, Fractale showcases an entirely original world, society, and lingo, and it makes no attempts to hold the viewer’s hand as the story unravels. It’s jarring, initially, but ultimately works to the show’s benefit; you’re completely immersed in the experience, and once you do understand everything that’s going on, it all seems that much more revelatory and fantastic. Even by the end of episode 3, I still can’t say I understand how everything in this future functions, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
In this future, humanity has developed a new way of living through technology. The “Fractale system,” made up of several trillion networked computers, has brought mankind peace, stability, and contentment, all at a seemingly insignificant cost. Users install a Fractale terminal within their body, from which personal data is routinely mined as users pray to the mysterious “Day Star” at regular intervals. The Fractale system seems to have made the world into a Utopia, but….well, you can’t have a story without conflict, can you?
Our protagonist, a young boy named Clain (which you’ll probably hear as “Crane”), is one of the few in this world who seems discontent with his lot. The problem is, he just can’t put his finger on what exactly is getting him down, and the discovery of his inner turmoil is one of the major stories in these first three episodes. To the viewer, it’s clear that Clain is lonely. He doesn’t seem to have any friends, and his parents live in the house only as ‘doppels,’ extremely strange looking holograms that can be controlled by Fractale users. Most people use doppels in this time since, as Clain’s parents explain, it allows them greater freedom. Clain is one of the few who refuses to, and though he can’t admit it to himself just yet, he’d be a whole lot happier if his parents would just come home. Add to that the fact that Clain also happens to be an avid enthusiast of antique technology and it’s easy to see that he isn’t quite at home in this future. Clain’s baggage is exactly what makes him a likable lead – he’s got problems that many of us can relate to and sympathize with, but he’s far from your typical ‘angst-ridden’ teen.
As I said above, the series opens on an intimate scale. The first episode, “Encounter,” deals with Clain meeting a mysterious girl named Phryne, who arrives on a flying machine pulled straight out of a Miyazaki movie. The two immediately bond, though Phryne reveals little about herself, and after (innocently) spending the night together, she disappears as Clain sleeps. When he wakes up, he sees that Phryne has left him her brooch which, to Clain’s surprise, contains an extremely lifelike doppel named Nessa. The second episode, appropriately titled “Nessa,” is all about Clain’s new companion. She’s incessantly cheerful, speaks in the third person, and holds many secrets, some of which are delved into in episode three, “The Village of Granites.” Here, we meet a terrorist organization – The Last Millennium – living on the outskirts of society and determined to take down the Fractale system at all costs. They believe it to be oppressive and unnatural, and their assertions force Clain to rethink his entire way of life.
It may not seem apparent at first, but one of Fractale’s greatest assets is that it has a tremendous sense of direction. It’s not immediately easy to figure out what a ‘doppel’ is or what function the ‘Fractale system’ serves, nor does the story show its hand early on; three episodes in, the main thrust of the plot hasn’t yet become clear. Nevertheless, it’s easy to see that this story is going somewhere, and where it’s going seems pretty magnificent. The world is fascinating, the characters are all likable and intriguing, and most importantly, this is a series that makes you think.
Even early on, the viewer is confronted with big questions that don’t have an easy answer, at least not immediately. You can probably already gather that the role of technology in modern life is one of the biggest themes, and the creators definitely have something to say about how humans rely – or, perhaps, over-rely – on our precious technology. Clain’s parents make a haunting speech in the second episode about how their absence actually proves their love for their son. It sounds counter-intuitive at first, but what makes the sequence powerful is how directly the language is aimed at modern, tech-crazed humans like us. Their logic is actually completely understandable, even if it is disturbing, and the series has plenty more to say about the role technology plays in isolation. Lonely Clain, after all, is a direct byproduct of a world run by social networking – a world that, as we come to understand its many intricacies, doesn’t seem that far off from our own.
Yet I don’t think the series would be so thought provoking if it merely presented a ‘technology is bad’ angle. The first description of Fractale sounds like a textbook definition of the ideal socialist state, something that has never been historically implemented – real world socialism obviously doesn’t hold up to its idealized, philosophical standard. If Fractale could create this “perfect” Utopia where everyone is equal, happy, and has everything they need, are the downsides acceptable? A sequence in episode three demonstrates one of the clear, major benefits of the Fractale system: the flawless and instantaneous healthcare. The Last Millennium’s decision to forgo this benefit – especially considering the number of elders in their village – proves that their viewpoint isn’t entirely heroic. Nothing makes one question what would seem like foregone questions about the show’s morality more than the last sequence of episode three, which features an abrupt but powerful tonal shift into violent and disturbing territory, both thematically and visually.
In just three episodes, the series forces the viewer to think about some pretty hefty, real-world issues, and by the time those three episodes are up, you’ll have to rethink everything again. It’s not often I see a show – animated or not – that so directly challenges the viewer in this manner, and it’s an extremely rewarding experience. The key idea I’m left with after three episodes is this: loneliness is clearly a feeling we can all relate to, and it’s the core problem all the Fractale characters struggle with. But does this have to be part of the status quo? Do we really have to feel lonely in our most vulnerable moments, or do we impose loneliness on ourselves? Do we participate in societal trends to feel accepted, even while they may make us even lonelier in the long run? Fractale may be set hundreds of years in the future, but it forces us to ask questions that are absolutely applicable to contemporary life.
Of course, Fractale isn’t nearly as heavy as my review would so far suggest. Its thoughtful and intelligent nature is, I believe, its greatest asset, but taking all this out of the equation, it’s still a ridiculously fun and entertaining show with a great sense of humor. Much of the laughter comes from your typical Shonen-sexual-immaturity, but the interactions between the lively and endearing cast generate plenty of organic laughs as well. There’s a very funny group of antagonists in these episodes, led by a small, shrill-voiced girl, who consistently provide welcome comic relief. Tonally, the series blends the contemplative drama with lively humor and an occasional sense of whimsy without feeling unnatural – most of the time. There are moments where the shifts in tonality feel inconsistent, rather than organic, but they’re few and far between. I do wonder how well these elements will blend in future episodes, given the unforeseeably dark ending of episode three, but for now, rest assured that a splendid time is guaranteed for all.
Fractale features some truly jaw-dropping production values. I made notes about the animation during all three episodes, including ‘friggin’ gorgeous’ and ‘unbelievable,’ and while this hyperbole may be a bit much, the artwork really is beautiful. The use of color and detail, especially on the lavish backgrounds, is far sharper than in most weekly anime productions, and though I’m sure computers were heavily involved as in all modern animation, the art looks very classical. I was often reminded of Miyazaki’s films – the animation obviously isn’t on par with his work, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that “Laputa: Castle in the Sky” was one of the show’s visual inspirations.
The sound is just as impressive. The music is lovely and rich, and that extends to the theme songs as well; the music sets the perfect mood and is a big part of the show’s creative success. Meanwhile, the voice acting is strong across the board. I was particularly impressed with Clain’s seiyu, Yū Kobayashi; adult women voicing young men can often sound unconvincing, but she really does sound like a young boy, so much so that I felt compelled to check the gender of the seiyu. More than that, she instills plenty of personality into the character, handling the contemplative and silly moments with equal precision. The same could be said of the show’s other two leads, Minami Tsuda and Kana Hanazawa, who play Phryne and Nessa, respectively. Hanazawa in particular nails the character’s sense of playfulness and moments of despair incredibly well. There’s no clear weak link among the supporting characters, either.
On FUNimation’s side of things, I have to give a special shout out to the subtitles on these episodes. I wasn’t sure what I’d get with subtitles of a brand new series streaming online, but they are as good as any subtitle track I’ve ever seen. Fractale has its own unique linguistic rhythm and futuristic lingo that I would imagine is difficult to translate, but the point is always clear and lively without ever sounding mechanical. That’s what I love to see out of a good subtitle track, and Fractale doesn’t break FUNi’s streak of always delivering the (translated) goods.
In the end, I feel a little spoiled writing this – it’s my first review of streaming content and I’ve already stumbled onto a winner. Entertaining, exciting, funny, and thought-provoking, I wholeheartedly recommend Fractale, and there’s no better way to watch it, in America at least, than streaming on Hulu. Please don’t pirate this series – Hulu is free, it works flawlessly, and the video quality is absolutely DVD quality (though I have to say I’m excited for the eventual Blu-Ray release to see the art in Hi-Def). Support FUNimation here, because they’ve done a great job bringing this series stateside with an almost imperceptible turnaround time. It’s definitely something to be excited about.
Show (Episodes 1-3): A-
Streaming Presentation: A
Gallery and copyright information under ad.
Fractale is available to watch streaming for free at Hulu, Funimation Video, and AnimeNewsNetwork. The first episode is embedded near the top of this review for your convenience and enjoyment.