The idea of club participation in Japanese schools is a common theme in anime and one that is typically found in sport dramas, here however it’s used as the central point of a show that covers everything from slice-of-life school drama to science fiction. Set in 2019 the prevalence of robotics and technology in society is commonplace and demonstrated through a couple of welcome touches such as the holster style pouches everyone has to carry their ‘PhoneDroid’ tablets (not all that dissimilar to what we have today, but shown here to be a device with a common OS and features that is the standard for everyone) to the exoskeleton physical aid one of the side character’s utilises that enables her to walk. Beyond these notable aspects of everyday life the rural island setting of Robotics; Notes is a relatively normal sleepy seaside locale, albeit one where a giant robot is in production...
The show has a wonderfully seductive central character in Akiho, a teenage girl in her final year of high school with an infectious passion for the Robot Research Club she chairs. Addicted to the Gunvarrel anime which has inspired the life-size robot her club is attempting to build, the way she frequently slips into a character from the show, striking a pose and delivering a heroic sounding piece of dialogue to the dismay of her friend and fellow club member Yashio is always a delight. As is her only useful quality (to her mind anyway) – an unwavering optimism and belief in doing the impossible. She’s quite the opposite of Yashio, a teenage boy also in his final year of high school who spends all his time playing an online fighting game. When we first meet him it’s hard to fathom just why he’s a member of the robotics club as he seems to have zero interest in it, or in helping Akiho. In his words the clubhouse is the perfect environment to play his game, and more often than not that’s what we see him doing.
The first few episodes deal with their – rather, Aki’s - attempts to keep the robotics club alive, as its extortionate budget requirements and lack of members aren’t a favourable combination to the school’s vice principal. They’re given a chance though, it just requires winning an upcoming hobbyist robot competition (and a sizeable cash prize), and it’s through their preparation for this that we are properly introduced to the central duo. Akiho was an instant charmer for this viewer, her personality laid bare early on and through this early sub-plot we learn a lot about her never-give-up ideology. Yashio on the other hand continues to puzzle in the early stages, but he clearly has affection for Akiho – along with a connection to her through some mysterious incident in the past – which sees him stick by her, acting like a sibling almost. He always comes through for Akiho, he just does it in the final hour with the least amount of enthusiasm possible. It can be a little annoying at times but the pair really clicks and as the story progresses we start to learn more about how their lives are intertwined by more than just the robotics club.
Childhood friends Aki and Kai (Yashio’s shortened first-name) are linked in numerous ways, the two most significant being Aki’s older sister Misa, and the Anemone incident. Misa is seen sparingly in the show at this stage, but her influence upon the lead characters and their motivation is abundantly clear. Former chair of the robotics club her younger sister now runs, Misa is something of a rock star on the island of Tanegashima where the show primarily takes place. Aki and Kai both look up to the inspiring girl they once knew but are largely ignored by who she has become, a character who appears cold and distant, even to Aki whom she ignores calls and emails from. What little Aki sees or hears from Misa comes through press conferences and news bulletins on TV involving the robotics company she now works for in Tokyo. The Anemone incident meanwhile occurred some nine years ago, an unexplained event which the pair were caught up in and left them with strange side-effects they’ve dubbed the ‘Elephant-Mouse Syndrome’. When they become overly tired or stressed they’re prone to suffer these side-effects in the form of painful, uncontrollable attacks. In the case of Aki time speeds up, whereas for Kai time slows down. These shared links are mostly there as background at this stage in the show, but it's clear they will both play a larger role as the series reaches its conclusion.
Subsequent to the initial plot thread of keeping the club alive there are two main branches to the story. The first focuses on continued development of Gunbuild-1, Aki’s dream of building the full-size robot her sister drew up the blueprints for. This largely involves her securing additional funding by harassing the local space research centre and a profitable local sweet business, using her trademark can-do attitude and the help of anyone willing. The second story thread sees Kai happen upon a mysterious AI seemingly roaming the local park and only visible through the tablets it chooses. After catching a fleeting, ghost-like glimpse of the human form this AI takes when viewed through your PhoneDroid tablet, Kai falls down the rabbit hole that is local urban legends as he tries to make sense of what he saw. After he locates the AI – better known as Airi – he is given access to a hidden document – the first of seven – which talks of a grand conspiracy with global implications. Subsequent documents can be unlocked by completing unique high-tech scavenger hunts which plays into Kai’s love of games and makes for fun viewing especially when he partners up with others for the task. Initially paying little heed to the discovery, even Kai and his nonchalant attitude to anything and everything can’t help but question the startling accuracy of some of the foreshadowing found in the documents that are over a decade old.
Each of these story threads is also supported by the introduction of a trio of new robotics club members, some more willing than others. Subaru Hidaka is the first to join – blackmailed actually in one of Kai’s cooler moments – he’s none too happy about the situation at first but has a genuine love for robotics and an amusing personality trait that sees him go from introvert to extrovert with great gusto on occasion. Jun is next in line, a shy but passionate young lady who kind of just slips into the club after helping Kai out with his urban legend AI hunt. She becomes fast friends with Aki and has the necessary IMPACT to get the club’s Gunbuild-1 project back on track. Last up is Frau, genius programmer and reclusive creator of the Kill Ballad online fighting game Kai is hooked on. She’s also a high-school student who moves to the island and ends up joining the robotics club after meeting with Kai whom she knows of through the Kill Ballad leader boards. Frau is probably best described as an online otaku, somewhat hyper she lives online and this bleeds through to her speech which is littered with internet shorthand. She’s also not shy about expressing her fondness for adult images and scenarios that make the men in the club a little anxious!
These additional characters get pulled along on the Aki and Kai train, each bringing a little something to the table but they also have their own issues bubbling under the surface. Subaru’s strained relationship with his father, Jun’s unwillingness to meet with her grandfather (the feisty owner of the local robotics store that Aki loves to barter with) and Frau’s reason to be on the island are all touched upon at some point in the initial 11 episodes. These elements combine with the central plot strands to deliver a story where almost everything and everyone is inextricably linked, creating one big juicy puzzle under the surface of teens chasing their dreams and forming lifelong bonds along the way.
The 1080P transfer here is excellent throughout with crisp, clean colours, deep blacks and plenty of detail. There were no obvious signs of compression artefacts, edge enhancement or even that common anime problem of banding. Similarly the audio options offer a clean lossless representation of the languages available, with the English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD a little bolder and more enveloping than the Japanese 2.0 Dolby TrueHD. Both do an excellent job though so it’s really down to your personal preference rather than any technical superiority. English subtitles are automatically displayed when you choose the Japanese audio option and are displayed in a clear white font with a black outline. Spelling and grammar appeared flawless but I did notice two lines of dialogue that went by untranslated – one in episode five and another in episode eight. Hopefully they’ve caught this in time for the retail release but if not I doubt they’ll cause anyone much trouble as it’s easy enough to figure out what is being said.
Regarding the translation – this is the point in the review where I try and be clear that I do not speak Japanese but I can pick up on certain words and I made a point to check up on the translation of Frau’s dialogue. As noted in the main review I enjoyed her internet shorthand speak but it seemed quite apparent to me this was not always accurate. From what I can tell she does use this kind of language from time to time (and is generally very short and abrasive) but in this translation they’ve taken this and, well, gone a little OTT. Once again I enjoyed it but it’s something I felt was worth pointing out.
Lastly there are a few user friendliness factors I like to mention in my anime reviews and Robotics gets it right for the most part. On the plus side there’s just a 20-second wait from inserting the disc to the menu, episodes feature chapter stops that allow you to easily skip through the opening credits, closing credits and previews, while the discs also support the resume function on your player. On the down side you can’t switch audio or subtitles using the dedicated buttons on your remote, and subtitles are either on or off depending on your audio selection.
Oh anime extras, why are you so lame? Beyond the standard textless opening and closing and US Trailer for the show, we also get audio commentary by some of the American voice cast on two episodes and a featurette with the ADR director for the show and writers on the English/American dub. I managed several minutes each on the commentary tracks which feature the actors either discussing the characters they play (be it what they think of them, how they approached the role or how they relate to the character) or talking about their careers. The commentary track with the actors portraying Akiho and Subaru is particularly bad as the pair explain they’ve literally just met, a fact which is abundantly clear by the awkward silences and getting to know you type questions they start posing each other. You have to wonder what the extras co-ordinator was thinking when he put this one together!
As for the featurette, it mostly just wound me up. I’ll admit I have a tendency to approach English dubs with a ‘bad until proven otherwise’ mentality and these guys do themselves no favours when they constantly talk about writing the show as opposed to translating it. There’s zero acknowledgement of the original language version and absolutely no time given over to discuss any creative choices they made with the English dub. Instead they simply talk about the show as if it’s their own creation and left me reminded of why I only bother with these types of extras when I’m reviewing.
Enticing characters, intriguing stories, good humour and a mystery that builds with significant pace are just four reasons I’m looking forward to seeing how Robotics;Notes concludes. The distinct possibility the mystery and its grand conspiracy theory angle could go off the deep end is the only reason for concern, but as this show is from the creators of the excellent Steins;Gate – and more specifically the same screenwriter – I have good reason to believe it won’t. Whatever happens it won’t change what an excellent start the series is off too here and this Blu-ray release by Manga offers a top notch presentation so comes easily recommended.