Utterly disarmed: A critical review of “EX-ARM” (2021)

On the flip side, Tonstant Weader, there are also some pretty awful anime from 2021 this blog didn’t see either. “Tesla Note” took some heat. I never did finish “Redo of Healer,” partly because tracking down individual episodes became tricky for… some reason.

However, the first anime to catch my attention last year was actually “EX-ARM.” And, in case the above paragraph did not clue you in, it was for all the wrong reasons. The trailer proudly declared it was “declaring war against all of the SF series around the world!!” If by “SF series” they meant “narrative common sense and visual consistency,” then it was a war that was won, as those traditional notions of quality have been buried under a mountain of bodies.

Like many good tales, “EX-ARM” begins at the ending, specifically of main character Akira Natsume’s analogue life. After a delightfully embarrassing death, Akira reawakens some 16 years later as the digital brain of a superweapon: the EX-ARM. Said weapon is picked up by a future policewoman/skater girl poser Minami Uezono and her pants-less gynoid partner Alma. From there on, Akira’s intelligence and personality lives on as a naked dude in a squawking box that can occasionally take control of Alma when duty calls (and when Minami maybe makes out with Alma in a fairly awkward flash of not-so-special effects, but more on that later). While the gang fights future crimes involving other superweapons, a conspiracy bubbles in the background, but… we already said more on that later, didn’t we? But that’s the nature of this series. It always seems like there’s something more, but you’ll need all the later you can get to wade through it.

This blog frequently likes to start with something good when critiquing the bad, and it’s pretty easy to get it out of the way with this series. The opening and closing songs are well produced pop punk tracks, and, if you like that sorta thing, they both get the job done in a rousing “I too listened to Hoobastank/Lifehouse/The Ataris back in the day” way. In fact, there is something rather charming about the straightforward unselfconsciousness of the ceaseless power chord guitars in the ED (“Diamonds Shine” by Dizzy Sunfist). The song is accompanied by a poster-ready manga-style image of the cast, which looks like a different anime that I’d rather be watching instead. So, yes, this blog’s favorite part of “EX-ARM” was its ending.

After that, there is so much that is “not good” to list it’s hard even to qualify how much of it is bad and how much is just unintentionally bizarre. In fact, reviewing my notes was like trying to remember the details of a half-baked acid trip. Was all of this true? Is any of this exaggeration or misunderstanding? Where even to begin? Most people start with the animation, so let’s follow suit.

Still, if you were paying attention to any sort of anime news at the top of 2021, you don’t need me to tell you how messed up this show looked. “EX-ARM” rapidly became notorious for its ugly and awkward CGI. The character design looks as if everyone’s limbs are made of rolling pins. The painfully stiff animation comes across at best goofy at best, and at worst like an insult to organic life. Everyone’s face seems to be locked into a single expression, a shell-shocked grimace, forcing each character to react to every bit of news with the same overblown-yet-disinterested melodrama.

As a side not, the design of Minami reminds me of a more kawaii attempt at Captain’s Daughter from “The Drinky Crow Show,” except I’m pretty sure that one was supposed to look like a jerky marionette. Y’know. Irony and the like.

Everything tries to come together during the fight scenes, which one would think are important in an action sci fi anime, but the choreography is beyond basic and the fight physics show a lack of understanding of what it means to be a human being. You’d get more realistic combat effects out of smashing your fingers with a hammer.

The awkwardness of “EX-ARM” is further aided by the fact that, while all the main characters are CGI, the background characters are 2D for some reason. Why? That’s just bad faith. Initially this feels like another goofball element, but once viewers are numb to that sort of thing, a slow realization creeps in: While the 2D characters are still pretty stiff, they are also kind of decently designed, distinct and pleasantly retro, and why the hell wasn’t everything animated this way? Or at least why were the background characters the ones relegated to the tolerable, even interesting, designs? I liked the tiny 2D trench coat cop. I would have gladly watched a poorly animated show about him instead, but I guess we already had “Cop Craft.”

Some media tried to pin the poor quality of the show on it being made by a studio that had only handled live action before and didn’t bother to tap any experienced animators, but that wouldn’t excuse the laughable attempt at narrative elements. There are some elements of narrative that transcend medium. For example, I can see how “characters should not float over other characters” could be a problem for the art department, but it seems like “characters should not vanish from shot to continuous shot” is an issue for common sense to correct.

But even if there is some quirk that I – not being an animator – do no grasp, I still fail to see why having a staff experienced in live action versus CGI or animation or anything else would be a reasonable excuse for the script. Blame bad translation all you want, likely fictional defender of “EX-ARM,” but those words had to come from somewhere.

The series starter is such a bizarre mash of cliches and non sequiturs. There’s a bit of suspiciously-similar-to-“Neon Genesis Evangelion” prophecy, but then we get to present day Akri, who is down on phones and chicks, but CGI stunned at his own ability to cook noodles. His inexplicably 2D brother comes in and gives him some motivational lecture. He leaves the apartment, immediately sees a woman about to be assaulted, decides to save her, and is conveniently hit by a truck, which is how he comes future Akira. So did the woman get assaulted? Did the show clear that up? I don’t remember.

What was your favorite episode? This blog sort of liked the second episode, where a cartoonishly evil priest is trying to blow up future Tokyo with his poorly defined cult that uses pillowcases for masks. I guess religion is on the table, because at one point, while scouring the city for remote control suicide bombers, one of the doll-faced CGI cops asks another out of the blue about the nature of heaven. Likely not the spot for theological discussion.

Later episodes have such original ideas as casino tournaments and combat robot French maids. Was “EX-ARM” taking cues from “Cowboy Bebop” as well as “Eva”? How about “Ghost in the Shell: SAC _2045”? Was it all coincidence? Or, more troubling, is “2045” starting to look good by comparison?

None of this is mentioning the childish scene transitions, the reliance on stock footage and reused assets during brainless expositions, the comically impractical sci fi tech, or the fact that the “Japanese police” – which presumably patrols the entire country – has to get permission to shoot at, uh, UN soldiers. And while they’re waiting for that permission to come in, tension is allegedly mounting. Man, the future’s rough. And whose idea was it to have the leading ladies kiss to activate Akira’s EX-ARM powers when they couldn’t even animate lips? Why wasn’t that swapped at some point? The studio used a glaring ball of light to mask the uncanny valley of it all, leaving the Internet to wonder whether it was homophobia or more crappy animation.

I haven’t haven’t even mentioned the high school episode yet. That’s where protagonist Akira’s consciousness is pulled back to high school like this is… was it “Bananas”? Is that the Woody Allen film where he regresses to awkward adolescence, and Diane Keaton does a killer Marlon Brando impersonation? Why am I bringing up Diane Keaton in an “EX-ARM” review? Anyway, he’s there and the CGI future cops have to pretend to be students to get him through it. It’s doesn’t make sense. It’s not thoughtful. It’s not even full of school uniform fan service since, honestly, the fan service in this show wouldn’t shock or intrigue anyone who wasn’t born on an Amish homestead.

You may say, but didn’t “Neon Genesis Evangelion” have a what-if style high school moment? It did. But it was only a moment, and it managed to be more lucid and thoughtful in that moment than this entire episode. “EX-ARM” not only fails to use its tropes to do something interesting; it fails to understand them. As previously said, the show takes a few cues from “Eva.” But while it’s not hard to find shows that have some “Eva” inspiration, it is odd to find their interpretation so clueless. It would almost be weirder if the creators said they weren’t influenced by “Eva,” that this all came about accidentally, but no weirder than anything else about this show’s production.

What’s left? The voice acting could be better. It’s at least energetic, which typically beats disinterested at faking engagement for the first few minutes, but that can only hold so long. Akira screams a lot. The sound sometimes mixes poorly. There’s a moment in episode seven where all the spoken voice and audio effects (intentionally) cut out, and the show had the unfiltered guts – or just lack of budget – to not play music either. Episode nine is called “Fallen Messiah.” Who is this messiah? From whence did they fall? I’m still not sure. There is a moment – I forget which episode – where a character confronts his mirror image, and the mouth animation is so poor it becomes frustrating to figure out which “him” is talking.

The final message of “EX-ARM” is to – I kid you not – live your best life. Which isn’t quite how things work out for Akira, as I recall. You too must decide if it is in your best interest to sink six or seven hours of your life into this thing. There is an undeniable fascination to how many things it fails to do. And there are moments when, if one is in the right mindset, it can be highly entertaining.

There are a handful of series this blog has considered giving the episode-by-episode analysis we gave to “Serial Experiments Lain” and “Boogiepop Phantom.” However, while we have typically considered them for their philosophical depth or artist merit, this show has recently entered the intellectual running for those sorts of metrics.

Don’t tempt me, tonstant weader. I might just do it.