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No Game No Life – Review

by Anthony Sulwer

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No Game No Life’s first season of twelve episodes hits the ground running and doesn’t let up until the screen goes black at the end of the season finale. Great characters, a well thought out, seamlessly executed story, and enough plot twists to make your head spin with gleeful delight makes No Game No Life one of the best shows of the year.

Directed by Atsuko Ishizuka (Top Secret – The Revelation, Hanayamata) and written by Jukki Hanada (Tatakau Shisho, Robotics;Notes) No Game No Life pulls no punches and pushes plenty of the expected anime boundaries. So, sit yourself down and get ready to play the some of the most wildly entertaining, unpredictable, captivating, intriguing games in a fantasy world created by The One True God looking for the ultimate opponent.

The first season of No Game No Life starts with Sora, an eighteen-year-old NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) who, along with his eleven-year-old sister, Shiro, make up the online gaming team known as “『  』” or “Blank.”

Blank is an unbeaten team of online players who have never been defeated. The two stepsiblings alone operate four separate characters, none of which can be matched by any other gamers in the world. Shiro and Sora are an inseparable team… literally. For reasons not fully explained in the first season Shiro and Sora are unable to be more than a few feet from each other at all times.

In the first episode, “Beginner,” a shadowy, mysterious competitor shows up on Blank’s computer screens, challenging Shiro and Sora to a game of chess. Playing as a team – as they do with all of their games – Blank defeats their opponent. Upon their victory, the mysterious player announces Blank the winner and himself to be Tet, the One True God.

Tet – appearing as the form of a young boy – offering Shiro and Sora the opportunity to be reborn in a fantasy world called “Disboard” where all disputes are resolved through playing games. Bored of the world they never venture out into anyway, Blank accepts Tet’s offer. After their rebirth Blank quickly sets out to take over all of Disboard as Shiro and Sora have only one goal: “To defeat God.”

In Disboard, there are sixteen different races knows as The Exceed, with each being represented by a chess piece. Humanity is knows as Imanity – the last ranked race – and is represented as the King in chess. Sora explains the King represents Imanity because even though it is considered the weakest player, the King is also the most strategic.

At the outset of Blank’s journey the Imanity’s last city, Elkia, is in danger of a full collapse. The previous King of Elkia has died and decreed a massive poker tournament to determine his successor. The final two players in the tournament are Princess Stephanie Dora (granddaughter of the previous King) and a black haired, quite player named Kurami Zell. Kurami cheats in order to win the throne and is challenged by Shiro and Sora before she is crowned during her coronation.

This sets up Episode Four, “Grandmaster,” in which both sides play the most imaginative, capricious, craziest, most insane round of chess ever to be played between the classic white and black pieces. It is this episode in which the viewer truly sees why No Game No Life is an incredibly imaginative, well thought out show. “Grandmaster” achieves several different things in this single episode; the individual strengths of Shiro and Sora are well defined, as well as why they work so well as a team. Additionally, the audience is made privy to the subtle differences of how games are played in Disboard versus the real world including the intricacies of The Ten Rules that govern all games played.

Both Sora and Shiro have an almost superhuman intelligence. Shiro’s strengths are her calculations with her weakness being strategy. Sora, by contrast, is able to strategize considerably far in to the future based on the information he has.

At the conclusion of “Grandmaster,” Blank’s plans are shared with the addition of now permanent cast members, Stephanie and Kurami. They are now convinced of Blank’s abilities and become willing participants in their future plans and schemes.

The remainder of the first season is spent with Shiro and Sora developing machinations to declare war on, and eventually challenge the Werebeasts stronghold of the Eastern Federation. The Werebeasts seem to have the supernatural ability to read the thoughts of their opponents. This means no one ever challenges them or their lands out of fear of losing.

The complex video game played between the Imanity and the Werebeasts in the last two episodes, “Killing Giant,” and “Rule Number 10,” culminates in so many unexpected twists and turns I found myself genuinely afraid for our heroes and yelling at the screen when it didn’t go the way I had hoped.

After the final game is over, after the spoils are divvied out amongst the winners, the second half of the season finale sets the stage for the second season.

The first season of No Game No Life is easily carried by its highly intelligent premise, characters impossible to predict, and games taking on a life of their own in ways no one could expect. This isn’t to say there aren’t irreverent jokes, explicitly and sexually charged teenage slapstick, impossibly proportioned female characters with animal ears and tails, and at least one gratuitous panty shot per episode. These lowbrow jokes and scenes ensure No Game No Life never takes itself too seriously while unabashedly pandering to its target audience.

No Game No Life has just about everything you could want in an anime. The animation itself – provided by Madhouse (Beyblade, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, Trigun, Tokyo Babylon) – is colorful, bright, intricate, and some of the best to appear in the past five years. All the characters are beautifully animated, well defined, and perfectly indicative of their personalities. The races – or Exceeds – have their own symbolic animation specific to their attributes and personalities. Whether they’re a Werebeast, Elf, or one of the other fourteen Exceeds populating the varying landscapes of the fantasy world, each has their own internal politics struggling with the other races of world as a whole, and how they go about trying to gain more ground and resources.

If Season One of No Game No Life is a representation of where this particular genre of anime is headed, then sign me up for as many seasons as this show – and any others like it – coming down the pipe.

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Author: Anthony Sulwer

A freelance writer living in Denver, Colorado, Anthony fell in love with anime while working part time jobs at video stores in the 90s. Nights off were spent watching Akira, Ninja Scroll, Fist of the North Star, and anything else to appear in the small "Specialty" section of the large chain stores.

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