Gate is an incredibly jarring anime experience. Watching the opening episode with no real knowledge of the series that followed, what begins as a loosely-comedic otaku outing – with protagonist Youji Itami (Junichi Sawabe/David Wald) making his excitable way towards a doujinshi convention – transforms into all-out war as fantastic creatures – orcs, dragons, a horde of medieval soldiers – are unleashed upon modern-day Japan. Itami – who somewhat implausibly turns out to be a decorated Japan Self-Defence Forces soldier – helps to save the day in the wake of serious casualties.
The series that follows is exactly as odd and tonally disjointed as that sounds. About half of the series is that perverse but good-natured comedy often found in anime; when Itami leads a contingent of JSDF soldiers through the eponymous gate to the fantasy world on the other side, the catgirls, elves and Lolita-demigoddesses found within provide fodder for the sort of ecchi antics you would expect. To whit: there’s a flame-haired princess called Piña Co Lada (yes) who’s more interested in collecting yaoi manga than protecting her kingdom.
The other half of the series is a mishmash of fantasy tropes – dragons terrorising villages, absent-minded wizards – and wartime politics, all executed with a liberal dose of blood and death. The Empire on the other side of the Gate are mercilessly mowed down by machinegun fire. Innocent villagers are immolated by dragonfire. On our side of the wall, meanwhile, the series concerns itself with geopolitical machinations as foreign powers look to manoeuvre their way into controlling the Gate.
I suppose this all could work. It’s an interesting enough setting for a comedic series, certainly, and a substantive serialised plot built around it is a suitable springboard for gags and fanservice and the like. Alternatively, I can imagine an anime where such serious political hypotheticals (think, say, the overly-dry Log Horizon) is zhuzhed up by some silly comedy here and there. But instead Gate falls into this awkward middle ground where its two tonal poles clash against one another rather than propping them up.
I suspect this is an adaptation issue. The politics here are too undercooked to support a series; it’s the kind of show that resorts to making all of its antagonists eye-rollingly stupid rather than mount an interesting ideological argument. The stakes of the war are frustratingly vague, as is a lot of the plotting – you get the sense that this was clearer on the page, but the particulars have been sanded down as it moves to the screen. About the only subplot that sticks is the uncomfortable flirtation between Itami and the aforementioned Lolita-demigoddess Rory Mercury (Risa Taneda/Molly Searcy), a centuries-old servant of a Grim-Reaper-type with a preteen form; while the flirtation is thankfully never consummated, it’s a storyline that would have been better avoided.
The ninth episode of the first season – “The Hakone Mountain Night Battle” – exemplifies why the series didn’t land for me. The climax of the episode occurs in a hot spring inn. Inside, the main characters play and flirt; outside, competing spec-ops forces kill one another in combat. If the combat had been swift and bloodless, it could’ve served as a counterpoint to playful fanservice; instead, the show’s insistence on depicting the soldier’s deaths in gory detail – while making no effort to develop any sense of threat against our protagonists – characterises the show’s tonal incoherency.
While I haven’t read it, I understand the manga is much darker, more gruesome. By pulling its punches, the Gate anime series is neither compelling as a wartime drama nor a comedy.