Rewrite is available to stream on Crunchyroll. An expanded version of the original game is slated for a future release on Steam.
I’ve been a huge fan of the anime adaptations of Key Visual Arts’ visual novels for over nine years now, particularly those produced by Kyoto Animation. Kanon (the 2006 adaptation, a.k.a. “The Only One We Acknowledge”) got me intentionally watching anime as a hobby, and CLANNAD – especially its deservedly-acclaimed second season – is one of my all-time favorite stories in televised format, period (although the source material’s 70-hour read time keeps it firmly in Backlog Purgatory). Others in the series have ranged from great-but-not-my thing (Air) to something I’d keep in a casual-watching rotation (Angel Beats).
But as time’s gone on and Key moved on to other studios to produce adaptations of their work, I’ve become less and less enticed by each new show under their brand, to the point that I’ve watched some series more out of goodwill and nostalgic fondness (a funny thing to have for a totally-new-to-you property) than because I felt attached to the show itself.
Hey, I never claimed to make good decisions all the time.
Even after Key’s writing contributions to the oddly-paced and hardly-affecting Charlotte, though, I still held out some measure of anticipation for the following season’s Rewrite.
Which is a bit of an odd thing to say, because I didn’t even totally like Rewrite when I read through it. The plot takes forever (okay, about fifteen hours of reading, but bear in mind that’s longer than most people take to read the first two Harry Potter books combined) just to get past its first-act setup, at least one route’s writing proved was a total swing-and-a-miss for me, and its viewpoint character was burdened with that trying-too-hard-to-be-cool swagger that’s plagues the majority of protagonists even parallel to a shonen series.
But at the same time, Rewrite leaned heavily into a conflict with the supernatural and, as a result, had its more dramatic moments punctuated by fanciful and frequently-intense action sequences. Plus, without its story splitting in the middle into five routes with five different authors, the writing was bound to me more consistent and would have to fit inside about 9 hours of television rather than spreading itself all over 1¾ the length of War and Peace. Surely its particular trappings were the sort that would benefit from the jump to a more rigidly-structured animated adaptation, right?
It turns out that missing the point did the series even more damage than what repair it was positioned to do.
Right off the bat, the show’s action sequences are awful.
You just won’t believe how thoroughly, horribly, B-movie-CGI awful it is
I mean, you may think it’s a drawn-out process to watch through a Dragon Ball fight, but that’s just peanuts to Rewrite.
And that’s doubly a shame, because I’m broadly all for combining digital effects with traditional animation. Historically, series like Fate/Zero and even Kado have used blending of the two to tremendous effect, and embracing new methods can help grow the medium overall in what it can accomplish. But one of the bigger problems with Rewrite being a visual novel was that its static images just couldn’t sell the kind of exaggerated, unrealistic fight scenes that it was trying to peddle. But that’s something that TV anime are basically infamous for, which should have given the show the upper-hand against its source material.
Instead, we got something that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Babylon 5 nearly 20 years earlier.
The more traditionally-made sequences didn’t fare any better, either, seeming to be stiltedly animated at half the show’s normal framerate at times, cut as short as necessary to get a point across at others, and even jumping between 2-D and 3D-made versions of the same character within the same scene.
Some individual cuts work perfectly fine on their own – predominantly those involving only humans (no items, Final Destination), but in context they can feel like they’re just covering what’s required by the script to so they can move back to characters talking at each other (moreso than usual for action anime, at least). And with it being just so-so on the one thing most in its wheelhouse, the Rewrite adaptation doesn’t have much of a high point to start descending from.
But the show’s bigger – albeit less-forward-facing – challenge was the massive structural problem facing basically the majority of visual-novel-to-screen adaptations: most games in the genre have some point in the middle where the “common route” ends and story branches in a handful of inherently conflicting but mostly-equal directions based on prior dialogue choices. It’s like trying to retrofit a choose-your-own-adventure book into one end-to-end sequence without shortchanging the readers who chose to fix that monster back on page eighty-seven.
Sometimes it’s easy enough to get around this problem (Higurashi and Steins;Gate have a story-based ways of sidestepping this, School Days infamously embraced a neutral ending and hedged focus across its cast), but more often than not writers have to choose what to keep and what to prune (read: spin off into a bonus episode to get you to buy the series’ DVDs, you sucker). And Rewrite in particular would be a tough nut to crack, with its various endings being aggressively incompatible beyond what is typical for the genre.
So the character that the anime does choose to thrust into the main spotlight is, of course, the personality-less living plot device.
The closest thing to a central female in the promotional art for the show, Kagari, is one of those characters who, despite being central to the shared story in the game, remains almost entirely off-screen until the third act in most routes (not even until the last couple of scenes in a few). In fact, she’s barely even present what’s supposedly her own route within the game. To put it in the most non-specific terms, she’s a force-of-nature character with a particular end goal, but otherwise written to be as pointedly neutral and indistinct as possible.
A perfect choice for the main heroine in your television drama, right?
The problem Rewrite has with filling in Kagari’s previous lack of character (which is less troublesome when given context) is that, despite being able to mostly invent traits wholecloth, the writers still have to play the character as safe as possible to protect the central conceit of its plot. What that leaves is a character who is “generically cute”, but otherwise with virtually no defining features. There’s nothing there that they can get away with developing, and so the actual story beats still have to happen around her rather with her as an active participant, which in turn relegates the show’s remaining heroines to an underutilized “move-the-plot-forward” crew.
Which is a shame, because out of the seven episodes before The Personality Void shows up, the show can’t commit to wading too deep into any of its other potential heroines. For if you do, you shall lose sight of the non-heroine who has been assigned to the anime, and there shall be no switching characters here!
Take Lucia, for example. Her character arc truly takes off after the reveal of her powers, and her story route in the game does a superb job at borrowing the spirit of series like X-Men and (early) Heroes in showing exactly why most people probably don’t actually want superpowers.
In the anime? All exploration of Lucia’s anxieties and limitations gets dropped the moment her plot utility is exposed to the audience, after which the show casually begins the next episode focusing on a largely-unrelated series of events. It’s not unlike the irritating tendency for rom-coms to roll credits the instant that a couple gets together, except that Rewrite will repeat its engage-and-promptly-forget-a-character-hook dance at least three more times (avoiding this trap one of the strengths of CLANNAD: After Story, by the by).
Granted, we do get minor “flashbacks” in the second season portraying later scenes in the game’s various character-focused routes, which provides each of them with a little bit of flavor. But not only do these exist in a vacuum robbed of their context, but at that point, it’s too little, too late – the characters in question are relegated to the background thereafter, rendering what little contribution these brief scenes might offer moot except a window into what the show might have been.
As noted previously, coming to a compromise for Rewrite’s story would have been a challenge to be sure, and not being a scriptwriter makes any ideas I might have as a workaround unqualified at best. But surely there was some way to follow the heroines of the novel for longer, following through on their stories up to the latest point where they could resolve without impacting the others, instead of pulling the ripcord at the first sign of something interesting.
I’m mainly not angry with Rewrite, though; I’m just disappointed.
Well, okay, I’m a little bitter.
This was one of the few cases where an adaptation was poised not just to grow an audience, but to truly improve upon its source material by offering something that the original lacked by definition. Unfortunately, the Rewrite adaptation accomplished neither of those things. But I suppose there’s a reason why “the book was better” is such a universal statement that it’s trite at this point.
Except The Princess Bride. That movie’s just a gold standard.
(Fun fact about the shot about the visual novel running longer than War and Peace? There’s a wiki for that. I’m a huge advocate for War-And-Peaces as a standard unit of word count; this article is around 0.003WnP)
(Additional fun fact: Baldur’s Gate II is the only non-Japanese game that breaks the top 20 for games that have solid data on their script length.)