Let’s get this out of the way right now: Daughter of Twenty Faces is an anime that has some fairly surprising twists as it develops, and you wouldn’t thank me for spoiling them. Because of them I’m going to be much vaguer than usual when reviewing it, especially in terms of plot, characters, etc. I’m not even going to apologise for that, but if you want something concrete to stand on going in to all this then I can tell you what it isn’t. It’s not a mystery series, no matter how much it thinks it wants to be. It’s not an action-adventure series either, although it looks at times like it might have toyed with the idea. It’s not a dessert topping, or a floor wax. If I was going to characterise it as anything, I’d call it a coming-of-age series. But the details of how it gets there… ah, now that would be telling.
This review is actually only one part of a (possibly ongoing) series. As something of a continuation of last year’s Watson Watches series, Artemis and I decided to each write a review for the same anime. We watched the show separately but roughly around the same time period, and then wrote our reviews without discussing the anime with each other or comparing notes – primarily in order to see how our thoughts on the show might differ and what similarities might pop up. Both of our reviews are largely spoiler-free. You can see Artemis’ review here.
The first thing that struck me about the show was that it looks somehow old. Daughter of Twenty Faces is set in an alternate 1950s, which requires certain stylistic choices in the art, but it’s more than that: a lot of the locations seem to have been pared back to little more than their essential details, and the same is true of many character designs too. It all reminds me of cartoons from the early 90s to a degree, despite being produced in 2008.
Staying with the visuals, there are also some genuinely impressive moments of cinematography. The shots that stand out most are generally exteriors, which makes me think that CGI might have been involved along the way, but they’re effective nonetheless. It isn’t often I find myself nodding at anime and thinking “now that is a nice piece of camerawork”.
The other technical aspects mostly didn’t stand out to me. The animation is smooth enough without being exceptional, the sound and music were fitting but not particularly remarkable. I do want to credit the voice actors though: at a couple of points they’re required to speak foreign languages (ie: not Japanese), and they do so in a convincing manner. They sound smooth and natural enough that it is easy to believe the characters in question speak those languages, which is a nice touch.
The real meat of the show lies elsewhere, however. As mentioned previously, the setting of the show is an alternate 1950s. It’s not a particularly fanciful alternate history, though, so most people shouldn’t have too much trouble suspending their disbelief. And to its credit it is consistent – if an element of historical knowledge becomes important, you can be sure that its future occurrences will be in keeping with what was established the first time around. A certain amount of the show depends on events being cast in a different light as more information is obtained, and this works particularly well simply because of that attention to consistency in the setting and action. A word of caution, however – some events don’t get much in the way of explanation and remain fairly mysterious. Personally I was able to write this off as being necessary for the show to keep it’s even pacing and not really important to the story in any case, but it required a conscious effort of will to adopt that attitude. Be prepared to make some allowances as you’re watching.
I also especially want to praise the characterisation. They benefit from the same consistency that is applied to the setting, and when that is departed from you can be sure there’s a good reason for it. All of the major characters (and many of the minor ones) receive development as the show progresses, revealing more about them as individuals with their own circumstances. Sometimes this is fairly subtle, but this can be an advantage as the show avoids beating viewers over the head with what is happening to each person.
One thing that bothered me about the characters, however, was a tendency to fit them into pigeonholes. There seemed to be a fairly specific list of roles available for each age and gender combination, and this is one of the things that might have contributed to the slightly dated feel. I don’t think this is something that was forced on the show either – I’m starting to suspect that it can be applied to anime in general. It certainly wasn’t obtrusive enough to detract from my enjoyment of the show, but it surprised me because it didn’t seem to match the rest of what seemed quite careful characterisation. Perhaps there’s something I missed. One major character also becomes rather less sympathetic as the show goes on, which has an undeniable impact.
The plot is one of the things that I think Daughter of Twenty Faces handles best, and this is all the more remarkable because there are so many points where it could have gone wrong. It undergoes distinct changes in nature several times, any one of which could have been accompanied by a jarring tonal shift. The fact that not only do they avoid that but that the changes never seem forced speaks well of whoever crafted the whole structure. Thanks to that the show manages to cover a good deal of emotional ground, allowing viewers their moments of catharsis before moving on to its next stage. All in all, the plot is well-handled.
But – and it’s a big but – the basic material is at best competent. There are surprises, but many of them start to become familiar after a while and the underlying storyline is not exactly inspired. It serves well enough as the basis for an action story, however while it avoids tonal shifts due to events the scope of the plot contracts in a way that is inconsistent with its expected impact. This leads to an uncomfortable dissonance between what would have been narratively satisfying and what the plot actually did. Again, I can’t see that this was forced on the creators, and so I’m forced to conclude it was a deliberate stylistic choice. If so, however, it’s one that simply doesn’t work very well for a foreign audience.
The show as a whole, in fact, is an example of excellent implementation of an uninspired design using ordinary materials. It’s a bit like having a team of expert craftsmen assemble your discount warehouse furniture: it all fits together perfectly, nothing is wasted, and it’s about as good as discount furniture is going to get. At the end of all that, however, it is still discount furniture, and it still has all the characteristics of that design. If what you want is discount furniture, then you’re going to be delighted. If you were hoping for something that would stand up a bit better, on the other hand, it’s likely you’ll be a little disappointed.
I’ve praised Daughter of Twenty Faces a fair bit during this review, and I do honestly like it. Its successes are in areas that are important to my enjoyment of a show, and its failings are possible to overlook. But it does have failings, and you have to be willing to let them pass in order to get the most out of watching it.
Seven cunningly executed heists out of ten.
Question of the Post: What is the best “coming of age” show you’ve seen? What did it get right?