Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Log Horizon: Season 1 (2013)

I’ve mentioned in other reviews that anime studios pull the same stunts that Hollywood studios do. You’ll get multiple studios attempting to tell similar stories in a couple years span. I saw it first hand with the space cowboy boom of the 90s that gave us Cowboy Bebop, Outlaw Star and Trigun. But it happened more recently with two series that tackled the concept of pulling a group of gamers into their favorite video game. I watched Sword Art Online a few years back and enjoyed it well enough. But a friend of mine told me to check out Log Horizon. It came out a year later and took things in a unique direction.

One minute Shiroe (Takuma Terashima) was playing the video game Elder Tales, the next minute he was in the game. He is not alone. Anyone who was playing the game at that moment suffered the same fate. For some players this is a dream come true, for others it is nightmare. As the players begin to explore the world and learn how the new rules work they realize one thing – they can’t be killed. This opens up all kinds of ways characters can exploit the game and each other.

Shiroe is a strategist but he is also a decent guy. He joins forces with like-minded players in attempt to bring some order to the chaos around him. But new wrinkles appear where he least expects them. Are the non-player characters more than simple programs? Why does all the food in the game taste like stale crackers? Where did all the newbie players disappear to? And will the Goblin King quest still run even if no one is playing participating? Joining him in his journey is the cute ninja assassin Akatsuki (Emiri Kato), the loud and horny warrior Naotsugu (Tomoaki Maneno), and the elegant cat duelist Nyanta (Jouji Nakata). Together they form a team that will change the shape of the world. The guild’s name is Log Horizon.

Good Points:
  • Creates a detailed world of game rules and mechanics – then uses them as story elements
  • The story elements come together to create some surprising moments in the series
  • Isn’t afraid to slow things down and have a key climax occur at the negations table instead of the battlefield

Bad Points:
  • The visuals, sound and music are all pretty average
  • Some of the characters fall into obvious anime tropes that are a little tired
  • Viewers who haven’t enjoyed or don’t enjoy role playing video games may find this series difficult to get into 


Log Horizon isn’t about the action and adventure of questing in the world of Elder Tales. It is about how people deal with this surprising shift of realities. At first the series feels like it is going into too much depth on how this fictional video game is played and how players interact with each other. But as the series continues you realize that many of the throw away episodes were actually building up to the big turning points in the series. Shiroe is an interesting character, one that thrives on challenge and uses his brain to overcome obstacles and help others. The series is worth a watch for anyone who enjoys role-playing video games and doesn’t mind a series that goes light on action but heavy on dialogue and strategy.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 3
Sound: 3
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 3
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review
The horizon that inspired the team name.
I don’t’ think Log Horizon is going to work for everyone. You see the characters holding their swords, magic staffs and fantasy garb and you expect some kind of high fantasy adventure saga like Record of Lodoss War or Fairy Tail. Or maybe you’re expecting something closer to Tron or even Sword Art Online, which told a purely fantasy adventure in a video game environment. But Log Horizon goes even deeper than those two films with the setting. Sword Art Online used the game world to provide unique visuals and interesting characters to interact with. Log Horizon uses the game world to build the story.

Here is an example. When the players eat food in the game, they notice that it all tastes like dry stale crackers.  All the wine, beer, or fruit juice tastes like water. But isolated ingredients have flavor. So if you pick up an apple and eat it, it tastes like an apple. But if you eat an apple pie – it tastes like stale crackers. Pretty darn annoying.

But our resident cat-man duelist, Nyanta, has a chef skill in the game. He discovers that if he uses the regular player menus to make the apple pie – stale crackers. But if he actually attempts to make the pie with his own paws, step by step, it tastes wonderful. Turns out that if you use the menus you get only the bare minimum of the skill you attempt to use. But if you physically attempt the task, and if you have a high enough skill level in the game, you can achieve amazing results. This doesn’t just go for food, but for any skill – including combat skills.

The setting is a mix of fantasy and modern decay,
The whole deal with the food becomes a major plot point. Few players know this secret. Shiroe uses it as a bargaining chip to get what he wants out of the other players and non-player characters. This is the kind of show Log Horizon is. There is action ,combat and fantasy creatures. But it explores the ins and outs of how this world works and how the characters (and Shiroe in particular) attempt to resolve the problems.

In order to do this concept justice the series moves pretty slowly. You get a whole episode focusing on game mechanics, so you get an idea of how a round of combat works in the old game and how it works in this new world. You get about half an episode talking about in game communication and how players can speak telepathically (using an texting type feature) but non-players characters cannot use that skill and see it as magic. Then you have the reveal that even though the players can’t truly die in the game, if they are “killed”, when they respawn in the cathedral, they actually lose some of their memories of their previous life.

Log Horizon has whole episodes that are mostly discussion and planning. Shiroe puts together the pieces of his latest puzzle and then executes his plan. We watch it all fall into place (or even go in an unexpected direction a couple times). Some of the most impressive plot climaxes are negotiations and political outmaneuvering. It is a rare thing to see in a fantasy series of any type. And I admit, I found the change of pace refreshing.

Akatsuki leads the charge into action!
Not to say that the series is devoid of action. Shiroe learns a lot during his first quest to rescue a friend from a hostile city. There is plenty of standard combat and explorations in these episodes. But they also provide vital groundwork for game mechanics that play into the series later on. Even silly episodes dealing with a local faire or a day spent on a farm with a non-player character are actually a tutorial of sorts.  From a writing point of view this was something I really admired. It takes some serious planning to go in this direction. There are no filler episodes, but they manage to vary the tone of the episodes to give things a little variety.

There is a drawback to this approach, and it comes in uneven pacing. I enjoyed the variety, but I can see some people finding the series too slow or filled with padding (which I would argue isn’t the case at all). The slice of life episodes do an interesting duel task of developing characters and telling us more about the world and game mechanics.

A hero or evil genius?
Alas, the characters aren’t terribly interesting. I mentioned that Shiroe is the bright point of the show, and he really is. He’s a nerdy guy with a keen mind and a good heart. But his plotting often puts him at odds with others. He’s an introvert who finds it hard to interact with others, and yet he is often forced to interact with Kings and powerful merchants. He’s a pragmatic guy, one that is willing to live in this strange world and figure it out. He doesn’t waste time in trying to figure out why this happened or how to get back home. Instead he focuses on making the best out of his current state and helping as many others as he can.

Some of the other characters refer to him as the Super Villain because of his plotting and planning. And like any good strategist, Shiroe attempts to see several moves into the huge chess game. Part of the fun of watching Log Horizon is seeing how these plans play out and how far Shiroe planned and had contingencies in place.

Yes there is a lovely princess, but
will she help or hinder the players?
Aside from Shiroe you have some stock characters that support the adventure. Akatsuki is a cute assassin who is dedicated to protecting Shiroe after they first meet.  Because he helps her deal with a difficult situation she declares her fealty to him like a classic ninja. There were some interesting angles this character could have gone, but they pretty much just make her the short, cute love interest. She ends up competing with the shorter and cuter love interest later in the show for a pretty dull love triangle.

Naotsugu is the hulking warrior who is also a bit of a clown. Here is another character they could have delved into a bit. But mostly he’s around to hit on the girls, make comments about breast size and get kicked in the face by an offended Akatuski.

Rounding out the guild is the cat-man Nyanta. He’s debonair, skilled with the blades and a pretty good dancer. He seems to be Shiroe’s trusted advisor. But other than him saying “Nyan” (which is Japanese for Meow) a lot we don’t get to know too much about him.

Instead we have a second tier of adventurers in Log Horizon who we get to know a little bit better. They are newbies that Shiroe encounters early in the series and they end up taking up larger role as the series progresses. This is fine because they are actually pretty interesting. Minori (Nao Tamura) leads this other band. We learn a lot about the game and the world through her eyes as a new player. She idolizes Shiroe, and following his teachings she becomes a valuable member of the guild. I liked her interactions with her brother Toya (Daiki Yamashita). In the real world he was confined to a wheelchair, but here he is a samurai with some impressive skills. The series could have dug a little more into that, but what you get is enough to invest you with these two.

Players can see the stats for everyone they meet.
Their band makes some interesting decisions during the course of the series. They are young and impulsive, so they don’t’ quite know all the rules. When they perform an action that was impossible in the old game, they reveal that the game has actually changed.  They also have an interesting adventure with a non-player character that leads to one of the big climaxes of the series. We learn that with enough skill a player may be able to write their own rules for the game!

That said there is no main villain in Log Horizon. There are challenges that the group and Shiroe face. Sometimes they come in the form of a physical threat, like the Goblin King in the middle the series. But most of the time they revolve around working with or against other players. Or dealing with the non-player characters like kings and merchants. Unfortunately, the final story arc is little hollow because it feels like it is all set up for Season 2.

The visual design of the series is solid but nothing that really stands out. It looks like they took a standard Japanese role playing game and used that style for the clothing and character appearance. It seems a little slap dash in places and certainly lacks the intriguing details of something like Vision of Escaflowne or Record of Lodoss War.

Even though players can't die, there are consequences
for losing a battle.
In addition the animation in Log Horizon is pretty standard as well. Since much of the series is dialogue and planning, they didn’t really have to stretch the animation budget. Some of the combat scenes are well executed, and the Goblin King battles are the best of the bunch. Nothing is horribly animated, but really I’ve seen better work in older shows.

Sound work is pretty much were you expect them to be. Some cool sounding effects for the magic attacks and the fantasy creatures. Plenty of clashing and clanging for the swords on armor battles. The music by composer Yasuharu Takanashi is solid. There is a theme that reoccurs for our heroes. It supports the scenes well enough, even getting a little silly for the slapstick moments (which are usually when the perv Naotsugu is getting kicked in the face by Akatsuki). A good score but not one that grabbed me like Yoko Kanno’s wonderful work on Vision of Escaflowne. But that may be the gold standard for anime fantasy music.

The Japanese acting works fine. The voices seem to fit the characters, and some of them are obviously having a really good time. There is an English dub of the first season, but I didn’t get a chance to sample it.

Cat man vs. electro man! Cat man will prevail!
With a bunch of average scores in many of the more artistic areas of the series, it almost sounds like Log Horizon isn’t worth seeking out. But I really enjoyed it. Looking at the construction of the series from a writing point of view was intriguing. I liked the character of Shiroe and seeing how he solved the myriad of issues he encountered. I love how the writers used the game’s actual mechanics to create and solve problems. I also liked how this series showed some realistic effects of being pulled into a virtual world. Some people just can’t handle it, and start lashing out at each other. Some completely give up, but since they can’t die they end up losing their minds or becoming subservient to other players. Then you had the non-player characters and their reaction to these “immortal beings” wandering around among them. Some are suspicious of the players. Some are cautiously friendly. Others are just plain hostile. It will be interesting to see where things go in season two between these two groups.

So yeah, I’m keen to see the next season. There are plenty of great story opportunities there. As I mentioned many of the characters have great potential for interesting stories too, so I hope we get beyond the tropes that were established in the first season. But I’ve learned one thing from anime series sequels and that is you usually get more of the same. But in this case that will be fine, because season one was very entertaining.

The adventures prepare for the next season...
I mean quest!

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  1. Not everything has to be great to enjoyable, whether on page, on screen, or in sound. Serviceable and workaday are fine most of the time. This brings to mind an early Elaine May bit at the 1959 Emmy Awards. She announced the winner of the Total Mediocrity Award:

    1. Yeah and I don't want to see "Log Horizon" short. The writing and story construction are really innovative and pulled me into the series. I just wish some extra time had been used to craft more fleshed out characters and maybe a visual design that was a little less standard. if this series disappoints at all, it is because with a little extra care I think it could have been great and something that is easy to recommend.

      I would say it is better than middle of the road anime. I've seen those series. Something like "Sacred Blacksmith" which I honestly don't remember much about at all, except for the sword that turned into a cute girl. "Log Horizon" will always be memorable because of the story construction and use of game mechanics to drive the plot.

  2. I think you hit the nail on the head at least for me, talking about interest waning. Most of the series anime just seem too drawn out for my taste. I prefer the anime movies. I did enjoy Lodoss War and other anime that are more concise though.

    I'm currently watched Nights of Sidonia, and so far I've enjoyed it. But even then I want it to hurry up and answer all the questions, and also it's a giant mecha storyline so they aren't exactly inventing the wheel. I wish some of these anime studios would just do some adaptations of some lessor known SF novels, but it doesn't look like that's in the cards.

    1. Yeah the pacing can be a real problem, especially with modern anime. I think that "Neon Genesis Evangelion" started that trend of slowing the pacing down, but I think it worked in NGE because the character building was an important part of the theme of the story. In most modern anime the pacing issues turn into more navel gazing and silly cliche moments than actual story of character development. There are exceptions, and I think you could say "Log Horizon" is one of those, but even something fun like "Fairy Tail" had some serious filler episodes that didn't do much at all.

      Tighter storytelling was something more common in 80s and 90s anime, but sometimes it would go the other direction. You'd get scenes that would happen without any context, or plot points coming out of nowhere. Some of those 80s OAVs and movies are nearly incoherent at times. Energetic, but confusing as hell. (Part of that may be the poor translations).

      But then you get something like "Ninja Scroll" which balances character, storytelling and action almost perfectly - with huge amounts of gore, but still it moves at a great pace.