Last week, I gave a brief overview of this show and the problem I have with it, I.E. that it suffers from the phenomenon known as tonal whiplash. The first half-dozen episodes aren’t actually that bad. There’s some weirdness there, for sure, which I’ll talk about momentarily, but overall it was fairly standard anime fare.
Then a certain scene happens and bam! The whiplash kicks in. It’s actually pretty rare in the grand scheme of things for a show, movie, game, or whatever to so clearly have a moment where it jumps the shark. So when it does happen, it tends to stand out.
For now, let’s talk a little about the smaller things, the little tells that, on repeat viewing, actually stand out more than they initially did. For example, the very title of the show, Release the Spyce. Seems fairly innocuous, right? It’s appropriately pithy and catchy, and the misspelled spyce relates to an in-universe concept.
Specifically, a drug the teenaged girls use to enhance their physical fighting prowess. Wait… what? A performance-enhancing drug? In my silly teen girls fighting bad guys anime? Huh. It even goes out of its way to address the issue of drugs losing effectiveness over time.
The first time through the show, chances are you’ll simply roll with it. Compared to some of the things I’ve seen in anime, this is actually pretty tame. It’s standard Anime Bullshit™, nothing all that out of the ordinary. But then you get to that tonal whiplash turning point a little later and suddenly things start taking a darker turn, and the things you might’ve rolled with initially begin to stick out like a sore thumb.
There’s a concept in writing and fiction that doesn’t really have an official name, but I call it ‘story collapse’. This term was coined (as far as I’m aware) by Shamus Young, a game blogger who writes long-form critique of game stories. He writes great content, you should check his site out if you like that kind of thing.
Anyway, story collapse effectively boils down to losing trust in the writer. Plot holes, inconsistencies, fridge logic, there are all sorts of ways a writer can destroy the reader’s trust in them and their story, but like so much in life, it exists on a spectrum, and can be affected by all manner of little blemishes in the story, characters, or setting.
A reader (viewer, player, whatever) might gloss over some small amount of logical inconsistencies in a story, if everything else is working for them and they still trust the writer. They’re emotionally invested in the characters, fully in the grip of the story, and that one scene where something seemed just a little bit off didn’t bother them at all.
But what if that one scene becomes two scenes? Consciously, you might not notice it at first, it’s just a minor issue, a bit of continuity that doesn’t seem to line up with what was previously mentioned in the story. No big deal. But then it happens a third time. Then a fourth, fifth, or sixth time.
Now the reader is scratching their head, wondering why they feel… off. Something about the story isn’t working any more, somewhere deep in their subconscious. This can go on for quite a while, but will often be followed up by that one scene, the jump the shark moment where it all falls apart and the story just breaks. Trust is lost.
Now, instead of being fully immersed in what’s happening, the reader is irritated. They’re looking for inconsistencies and plot holes, they expect things to be wrong, because their trust in the writer has just gone away, never to be seen again.
Mass Effect is a perfect example of this type of story breakdown over time. The first game introduces you to this amazingly detailed sci-fi world, filled with interesting characters and a metric crapload of lore to learn. It was the very definition of a details-first, Star Trek style story with some definite influences from other sci-fi shows such as Babylon 5.
Then Mass Effect 2 happened, and the talkie and techie style world was changed to be more of an action-oriented affair, focusing on edgy dialogue and bombast, with a severely dumbed down main story and so many inconsistencies and contrivances that it actively took me out of the experience. But the rest of the game was still mostly great, especially the character moments/missions involving Garrus and Tali and the rest.
By the time Mass Effect 3 happened, my trust in the writers was already teetering on the edge, especially knowing that the people responsible for all the stellar work on the first game’s world and story were either gone or relegated to secondary roles. It hadn’t hit the point of outright story collapse yet, and the game had some truly standout moments, especially wrapping up the genophage plot-line, but it was getting there.
And then we got to the ending. If you’re into gaming at all, you most likely know what I’m referring to here. I’ll just say that the ending was the point where the story collapsed into outright singularity for me. I was already annoyed with a lot of the third game, but the ending… that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
So why have I just spent 600 words talking about story collapse? Because Release the Spyce’s tonal whiplash falls firmly under the this basic category of story failure. The tone of the story starts out one way, though with some small scenes here and there that definitely hint at things going off the rails, then shifts so dramatically towards a completely different tone that it collapses the whole story for me.
At first I trusted the writers of the show, because while I’m a connoisseur of good stories, I also enjoy Japan’s sillier ideas where cute girls beat the shit out of bad guys using crazy technologies, or magic, or whatever.
I’m more than used to the wacky curveballs anime likes to throw at the viewer. It’s par for the course with this particular medium, and frankly it’s one of the main reasons I love it. But even taking into account my overall tolerance for anime shenanigans, sometimes a show manages to break even my willing suspension of disbelief, putting paid to whatever trust I might’ve had in the writers.
Now, that’s not to say that a sudden tone shift in a story can’t work. In fact, it can work extremely well, if handed properly by people who know their craft. I’ll give a perfect example of this in next week’s post. For now, let’s move on with the next couple of episodes.
I mentioned last time that we have a new girl being introduced to the ninja group, so let’s cover her briefly, since she’ll largely be fairly irrelevant for most of this exercise. She’s our point of view character, a fish out of water through whom we learn more about the world these characters inhabit. As such, she doesn’t actually have much to do with the tonal shift that’ll be happening soon.
In any case, Momo is ostensibly the main girl, and she wants to be a policewoman, indicating a general sense of duty and responsibility. Story-wise, that’s good, no problem there. It sets her up as a heroic person who, regardless of her physical prowess right now, has a solid idea of what’s right and what she wants from her life.
She also has a unique ability to tell what people are thinking/feeling by tasting them. You didn’t expect her to just be a regular girl, did you? In an anime? Each of the other girls has something unique about them, and Momo is otherwise entirely normal, so giving her a unique trait is fully expected.
As for why she has this particular ability… if I was a cynical person, I’d say it’s for one reason: in order to have a cute girl licking other cute girls. Good thing I’m not a cynical person, huh?
Later in the episode, Momo is out and about at night, happens upon a crime scene where a policewoman she knows and admires is in trouble, and rushes in to intervene. This shows her willingness to put herself in harm’s way in order to save another, and is how she ends up joining the ninja girls who—of course—are on their own mission to deal with the current situation.
After this, Momo is invited to join the girls’ organisation, primarily thanks to her unique taste ability; having someone who can tell with a high degree of accuracy whether someone is lying is pretty helpful, after all.
Over the next few episodes, Momo is brought under Yuki’s wing as a trainee ninja. Yuki is the stoic sword girl who appears to have some sort of difficult past she’s yet to get past and is the current leader. They make for a fun pairing due to their completely opposed personalities.
With Momo on-board and beginning her training, we get the usual early days events you’d expect from a show like this; some basic training, some fun slice of life stuff that keeps the tone light-hearted, and a couple of challenges that Momo must overcome before she’s truly accepted into the group as a ninja.
Episode 3 in particular has Momo tasked with being the bait in a sting operation to capture a nasty criminal… and that is where we get our first hint as to the upcoming tonal disaster, so let’s cut this off here and we’ll look a bit more in-depth at episode 3 onward next week.