I’ll say right here that I haven’t played much of the Disgaea games. I have Hour of Darkness on the DS, but have only played past the tutorial so far. But just from that little bit, it seems to me that an anime based off this would be great. I love demonic settings and characters, and the game’s sense of humor paves the way for fun demonworld nonsense, without sacrificing a compelling narrative and characters.
Unfortunately, there is a Disgaea anime, Makai Senki Disgaea. And I made the mistake of watching it.
After a drug induced sleep, Netherworld prince, Laharl is woken up by Flonne, an angel trainee sent to assassinate Laharl’s father, King Krichevskoy. But to the surprise of both of them, Krichevskoy died two years prior, and the Overlord’s throne is now awaiting a new ruler (it’s a finders-keepers political system). Demonically chipper at the news of his old man’s death, Laharl demands that Flonne and the demoness Etna be his vassals as he tries to claim the throne and all of the netherworld in his name, fighting demons, little sisters, and 37th Defender of Earth Captain Gordon along the way. Meanwhile, humans and Celestians has a different future in mind for the Netherworld.
This is a monster of the week show gone wrong. Though, despite the Netherworld setting, there aren’t many monsters, just things that happen for a while before the runtime is up and everything falls apart just enough so that the characters can move on to the next episode without a fuss.
The characters can be grouped in two separate arcs, one for Gordon and his group, the other for Laharl and his fellow demons. The Gordon arc is notable not because of what it is, but because of what it could have been. In it, several characters are involved in a grandiose conflict about betrayal, love and rivalry, but instead of playing this straight and building these characters, it was made into a joke. An attempted satire of what if could have been the never makes its point. Sure, the whole thing was cheesy but at least theres a story in it, instead of a pointless 2 episode filler in an only 13 episode show.
But stepping back to the main story, the three main characters are Laharl, Flonne and Etna, and they’re the closest thing to appealing this anime has to offer.
The reason Flonne sticks around in the Netherworld after learning that her job is done is that she wants to make Laharl realize the importance of love. She’s an angel, and naive as it gets. But she’s also sincere in her beliefs that everyone has a heart, and love conquers all, and the rest of that silliness. Her character never really develops, however she is tested on just how kind she can be, and in the end that in itself becomes her strength.
Equally dull, yet far more disappointingly, is Etna. Initially she’s a conniving impish girl, who’s only following Laharl around as part of a plan to become overlord herself. But eventually she becomes loyal to him and is boring from then on. It’s a shame because I actually liked her character, and hoped she would be more of a badass. But optimism is the wrong approach to Disgaea.
Finally there’s Laharl, the evil-bastard who spits in the face of love and cheers on the death of his father. And I actually kinda like him. One of the biggest weaknesses of Disgaea is that Laharl is completely overpowered, so there’s never really any conflict. Most episodes consist of him getting more an more irritated with something before he finally decides to just blow it away. But in this there is some catharsis. What’s annoying to Laharl is also annoying to watch. So by the time he’d boil over and prepare to strike back, I found myself cheering him on. Being on his side, even if it was the side that hated every second of watching this thing, made it more fun to see him kick ass.
The animation is pretty much as bad as it gets. Movement is minimal, most scenes limited to South Park level lipflaps and maybe an arm raising, or a frozen character cut out sliding across the background. And even those still images don’t look very good, and are near constantly off model. Not that the characters really lend themselves to ever be on model.
And worse than that, Disgaea was made at a time when some animators thought CG was a good way to make a lot of moving entities quickly. The result is perhaps the most horrifying example of how overused CG is lifeless and mildly soul crushing.
Accompanying this is second animation, which is used for the humans and Celestials in the show. It’s reminiscent of some late 80s animation, where character designs and areas of detail are made to look more western (ie. more pronounced facial bones and more realistic features like eyes). Early on it’s only really present in Captain Gordon and his crew, but in some later episodes it is the primary style used. I generally I don’t mind this style, but that’s because I generally only see it hand drawn. Done by computer; the lines are just bold when they should be harsh, the lack of movement is even more noticeable, and the paint-bucket tones lack the depth of hand-drawn shadows and gradient. This style worked well with the technology of its time, but recreating it like this just showcases the things computer animation can’t do, at least, not as efficiently as hand-drawn animation.
I do have to give the animation one solitary compliment though, and believe me, I wish I didn’t. It manages to integrate the two styles well, the cheap marketing tool style that’s used for the majority of the show, and the 80s style used for Captain Gordon and the humans. They’re both executed in the cheapest, most minimalistic way, but at least manage to coexist without clashing or bleeding into one another. And if the story were executed better, the distinction in animation could have worked to portray opposed yet interconnected thematic moods.
Makai Senki Disgaea is a bad series that hits it’s worst stride at a detour near the end. Even when not bothering to uphold what little care the rest of the series had, the filler arc is riddled with plot holes. Eg: to get to the Nether World, humans need to use a dimensional rift made from within it. So they send Gordon and his crew to make that rift. And if your brain hasn’t already imploded in on itself from the massive plot hole here, then good for you. But why did the humans want to go to the nether world to beginning with? Why to plunder it’s resources of course! Nevermind the fact that they used fucking space travel to get there! harvesting from uninhabited planets within out own dimension is apparently too difficult, so let’s just break the goddamn universe, and fight demons while we’re at it! And what the hell is that ending?!
The show wastes its potential for both fun and substance, and instead is a boring mess. Don’t watch this show.
Don’t Lose your Way.