Disaster Report: DRAMAtical Murder

Adapting visual novels to animation is not an easy task. There have been dozens of shows over the years that have tried their hands at it and the results have been decidedly mixed. How do you condense hours upon hours of story and multiple romantic (if not outright sexual) routes into something comprehensible, suitable for television, and able to comfortably fit into one or two seasons’ worth of half-hour installments? I don’t know if anyone will ever come up with a perfect formula for adapting visual novels to television, but there are plenty of examples of how NOT to do it. One of the more recent examples is 2014’s DRAMAtical Murder. Don’t recall it? I don’t blame you. The summer of 2014 was one that was loaded with many big name shows that are still worth remembering: Tokyo Ghoul, Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun, Barakamon, Terror In Resonance, just to name a few. That’s not even counting the sequels and second seasons to shows like Space Dandy, Sword Art Online, and Free! It wasn’t even the only boys’ love series airing at the time, as the genuinely delightful Love Stage!! debuted in the same season. Its only distinguishing qualities were the unique qualities of its source material and how badly it bungled everything it had to offer. Our own Tama covered half of it during our seasonal coverage of that season and was far from impressed.  Having seen it all, I can say with some degree of authority that he only scratched the surface of this show’s badness.

DRAMAtical Murder started out as a BL dating sim released for PC by Nitro+Chiral in 2012. While it has never been officially released in the West, it did manage to find fans on both sides of the Pacific amongst both boys’ love fans and visual novel fans.  Its fans praise its original sci-fi setting, its handsome yet eccentric cast of characters, their elaborate yet tragic backstories, and the promise of seeing them enjoy some explicit man-on-man action with Aoba.  If anything, the game has gained some degree of notoriety on the internet for the weird, dark, and abusive elements of its bad endings. We’re talking about a game where you can have sex with a guy who is both your robot dog companion and part of the hero’s consciousness and that’s one of the least weird and rapey sex scenes possible.  Still, plenty of smutty visual novels have been turned into perfectly watchable and TV-appropriate series, so the news of DRAMAtical Murder receiving one wasn’t all that shocking.  There were warning signs of its quality before its premiere, such as the fact that it was animated by a fairly new studio known mostly for in-betweening and a director with plenty of animation experience but none before (or since) in directing an actual series.  Still, no one could have expected how bad the results were to turn out.

The show takes place on the island of Midorijima, which is dominated by the giant, shining dome of the futuristic pleasure palace Platinum Jail.  Overseen by its founder Toue, its residents want for nothing and live in bliss.  Meanwhile, the island’s residents are forced into the cramped, run-down buildings of the Old Residential District.  There gang wars rage in the alleyways alongside sessions of an immersive fighting game called Rhyme, but for our protagonist Aoba Serigaki things couldn’t be more normal.  He’s content to live his days with his grandmother, his robotic pet companion Ren, and his job at the local junk store.  His peaceful days are ended when a game of Rhyme uncovers secrets hiding within Aoba’s mind.  To find the truth behind these secrets, Aoba must master the mysterious power of his voice and infiltrate Platinum Jail, and heal the secret mental trauma of his impromptu man-harem:  childhood friend Konjaku, Noiz the hacker, Mink the freedom fighter, and a weird gas-mask-wearing man known as Clear.

So that’s the plot in a nutshell, but how does it work as an adaptation?  Well, I can’t speak to the specifics seeing as I’ve never played the game, but I can say that the pacing is positively dreadful.  The first half is incredibly slow in no small part because Aoba keeps resisting the call of the plot.  He ignores the turf wars, he’s indifferent to Rhyme, and he doesn’t seem all that interesting in wondering why his hair can feel pain, why he gets such frequent headaches, or why everyone seems so fixated on his voice.  He mostly just hangs around town with each of the guys until the plot forces his hands with a kidnapping, a whole bunch of infodumping, and some rather convenient invitations from the villain. Just as Aoba sets out on his quest to save the day, the show then pulls the brakes hard by dedicating the next four episodes to the routes for each of Aoba’s potential semes.  Not even the ending is fully satisfying since it relies largely on a few more nonsensical plot twists and the fact that the villain all but lays down and dies to get out of Aoba’s way.  It’s no less ridiculous than anything else on the show, but not ridiculous enough to take it into so-bad-its-good territory.

That’s far from the only narrative problem.  It also has one that’s all too common to visual novel adaptations: it never knows when to shut up.  Anytime that any sort of exposition has to be delivered, the scene must stop dead in its metaphorical tracks so that someone can all but talk directly to the audience as the camera slowly tilts up.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of things for them to explain, be it the rules of Rhyme, the politics of the turf wars, or Aoba’s ridiculously convoluted origins, and every time it happens it grinds the show to a halt.  Things don’t get any better once the boys get into Platinum Jail and Aoba has to use his super-special voice powers to perform some impromptu therapy on the supporting cast.  Now I’m sure that their backstories were very affecting in the original game, as some of them deal with serious issues like abandonment, learning to be human or goddamned genocide.  The problem is that most of them have not spent enough time with Aoba previously to make any sort of emotional connection.  In some cases, their interactions mostly consisted of beatdowns and cryptic answers.  You simply can’t turn a few conversations into an actual emotional connection when you’ve only got 25 minutes or so to work with, no matter what sort of trippy dream imagery or trauma you might throw at the audience.

Of course, some might argue that the target audience wasn’t watching this show so much for the plot, but for the promise of hot BL action.  Surely you would think that this show would deliver some manservice for those thirsty fujoshi in the form of stolen kisses, suggestive dialogue, and compromising positions.  Alas, the joke was on them, as there is virtually nothing in the way of BL content in the entirely of the show.  What few moments are there are brief, poorly framed, and delivered with all the raw eroticism of a tuna fish sandwich.  This absence might be forgivable if the story was better written or better adapted, but the story is handled so badly that it just makes the absence of romance all the more obvious.  You can all but see the points where the sex scenes used to be and they haven’t been replaced with anything of substance.  It’s clear that the show’s staff was not comfortable with the fact that this was a boys’ love show at all.

So where did all the show’s smut go? Why into the thirteenth episode, an OVA which is exclusive to the home release!  Through means of a sort, I was able to watch it.  Having done so, I wish I could take it back those precious 24 minutes of my life.  This isn’t an epilogue to the series or even a missing episode, but instead a disjointed collection of some of the bad endings from the game put to animation.  While they are all brief and heavily censored vignettes, they all seem to end in nothing but blood and violence and each is more disturbing than the last.  There are bloody beastly blowjobs, a scene where Aoba’s head is literally torn off in an act of affection, a scenario that’s far too reminiscent of Boxing Helena for anyone’s sanity, and more than one scene where Aoba is taken by force by animals that are not quite animals.  I spent nearly every single moment of Episode 13 staring aghast at the horrors playing out before me.    I sincerely dread any soul who looked upon this episode and thought it was ‘sexy.’ 

Of course, if you got that far into the series, you have already survived the horror that was the previous twelve.  If you know anything about this show, particularly as it aired, it was that it had some notoriously bad animation.  There’s no way I could sum it up in a single screencap – there are simply too many instances to count.  There’s the jerky walk cycles, like that found in this particularly memetic clip.  There are the bizarrely unfinished backgrounds that either have incredibly inconstant perspective or made of bizarre bits of cheap CGI that make the characters seem to float.  Even when the setting is on-model, it tends to spend most of its time in dark, dingy alleys that add nothing to the atmosphere.  One of the few things that the show strives to retain is the games’ original (and deeply ridiculous) character designs.  Their faces are nothing special, but their costumes are a hilarious mish-mash of club kid wear, bizarre elements like one-sleeved dusters and gas masks, and bad Auron cosplay.  Sadly, their faces tend to suffer for that attention to their costumes.  Aoba in particular has a bad tendency to go off-model on a regular basis throughout the show’s entire run.  The animation got so bad that by Episode 3, the show’s official Twitter feed made a public apology for the quality and promised to redo the animation for it and the episodes before it. Keep that in mind if you dare to watch this series on Crunchyroll or The Anime Network: what you’re seeing is the IMPROVED version of the show, and it still looks godawful. 

At least the Japanese voice direction is competent; the same cannot be said for Sentai’s dub.  Despite the fact that it was directed by veteran dub director Christopher Ayres, it’s a shockingly amateur affair that’s largely derailed by Gabriel Regojo’s incredibly wooden performance as Aoba.  The highlight of both languages are the actors playing Clear, as both Masatomo Nakazawa and Greg Ayres lend the character a lot of innocent charm and some genuine pathos at points.  Former site contributor Lilac goes into much more detail on the DRAMAtical Murder dub as part of the
Dub Cast podcast.  I could go on and on nitpicking all sorts of details, but when taken as a whole it all adds up to an inexperienced studio and director that weren’t comfortable with the material, weren’t good at adaptation, didn’t have much to work with on the animation front, and lacked the talent to overcome these limitations. 

Naturally, the show flopped in Japan, as it barely managed to push a couple of thousand units with its first volume and only got worse from there.   It was licensed by Sentai Filmworks here in the West, but why would anyone bother with this series when the same company can provide both the previously mentioned Love Stage!! as well as No. 6?  The latter in particular is a far better example of a show that combines the notion of a YA-friendly sci-fi dystopia with a gay romance that’s actually well-handled and isn’t horrendously rapey.  It’s bad enough that BL anime has a largely bad reputation thanks to some notorious old hentai OVAs and far too many seasons of garbage like Junjo Romantica and Super Lovers.  We don’t need to add a disaster like DRAMAtical Murder to that list to make that reputation even worse.


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