No Game No Life: Zero (Cert 15)
1 Disc DVD/Blu-ray (Distributor: MVM) Running time: 108 minutes approx.
You might recall the TV series No Game No Life which appeared on UK shores back in early 2016, about two siblings dragged into a virtual reality world where disputes and settled via games and not violence. Based on a series of light novels, a second series has yet to arrive so instead we go back in time for this movie prequel.
It begins with Tet, the God of Games playing chess with fox girl Izuna, both recognisable from the TV series. Tet decides to tell Izuna about the origin of Disboard, the world they inhabit, a story set 6000 years in the past when life was torn asunder by a brutal war which saw humanity under threat by the Old Deus, as they battle to become the One True God.
Leading the few human survivors is Riku Dola, a young man who refuses to believe the gods are the future and wants to create a brighter, conflict free utopia for mankind. As the destruction worsens the refugees are constantly on the move, and it is during a recce to the remains of an Elvish city that Riku finds an Ex Machina who has been exiled by her Cluster for wanting to explore human emotions.
Naming her Schwi, Rika lets the Ex Machina join him although she is a burden at first, but her android skills and his quick wit prove a successful combination in keeping one step ahead of any trouble. Growing closer they begin to understand each other, leading them to formulate an audacious plan they hope will end the Great War and create a new, peaceful society for humankind.
Every story has an origin which will feature some notable differences to the later version we are more familiar with, yet they usually contain something to connect both of them, be it a visual motif, a callow version of a prominent character or a shared concept. No Game, No Life: Zero bucks this trend by going in the opposite direction by presenting us with a world and characters that is as alien to fans just as Disboard was upon seeing it first time in the TV series.
By the time the story concludes this is all made clear (well, clearish – this is a fantasy anime after all) but it is a brave gamble by creator Yuu Kamiya to essentially wipe the slate completely clean in going back to the beginning. Except the way the story is told, there is a prequel required to this prequel to explain in considerably more detail who the Old Deus are and why being the One True God is so important.
Similarly, the history of the Ex Machina is something lacking in this narrative, as is how Riku, a mere 18 year-old lad, is the leader of the remaining humans and not someone older and more experienced. And where did they come from? And why is the Great War affecting them when it isn’t their fight? Why can’t the all powerful Old Deus fight in space or somewhere else?
Perhaps it’s just me but it seems this prequel tends to leave us with more questions than it does answers, not that there seemed a pressing need to learn more about Disboard in the first place. Kamiya obviously felt the need to tell this tale though, as it makes up the sixth novel in his series, but the anime adaptation hasn’t reached that far so there is something quite presumptuous about this film’s existence at the moment.
Aside from a fresh cast, new concepts, and an unrecognisable world, this film also boasts a much darker tone than the TV series, while thankfully eliminating the intrusive fan service and gauche harem set up. A little bawdiness is sadly present in Schwi’s first meeting with Riku, where she asks if she can procreate with him to understand love, but he shuts that quickly enough in explaining that it is not how it works.
Being an cyborg, Schwi works on a computerised logic, making her cold and categorical at first but in many ways she acts as a cipher for the audience allowing Riku to impart his philosophy on life and humanity, which he is fighting to maintain during this time of war. That the cyborg Schwi should fall in love with Riku is a stretch but this is a result of her being “programmed” by Riku’s humanity, whilst in turn he falls for Schwi presumably because she is a loli.
The central game conceit of Disboard only appears here via the rounds of chess Riku and Scwhi play, mostly to pass the time or to settle a dispute, usually with Schwi winning but granting Riku his wish anyway. With this being mostly absent, with the focus on dialogue and only one battle scene for the climax, the title of No Game No Life feels bitterly ironic in this instance.
Madhouse once again handles the production, replacing the gaudy colours from the TV series with a dark, brooding palette of blood red skies, post-apocalyptic greys and sullen blues. That Riku and Schwi bear a distant resemblance to the TV protagonists Shiro and Sora is deliberate yet character designs are still largely generic. The animation astounds during the battle finale, but given the sluggish pace and heavy chat this might be too late for some.
If anything stands out about the story it is that it didn’t need to be attached to this particular franchise per se, the intrinsic philosophy of finding an alternative way to settle disputes other than war having great merit and could easily work under completely separate circumstances, and at a brisker pace.
As a standalone entry in this series the interest and appeal of No Game, No Life: Zero is likely to be limited to existing fans only, provided they can accept the totally different and paucity of elements they enjoy about the series. Better than the series for this writer but only just.
English Language 2.0
Spanish Language 2.0
Japanese Language 2.0 w/ English Subtitles
Japanese Language 2.0 w/ Spanish Subtitles
Behind The Scenes with Sentai Filmworks Staff and Cast
Limited Edition Only:
80 Page booklet
Rating – ***
Man In Black