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Reaper's Reviews: 'Hand Shakers'

Ilan is a huge fan of anime and video games since he can remember himself. He is also an aspiring author who wishes to write fantasy novels.

Production: GoHands
Genre: Action/Drama/Romance
Format: 12 episodes + 1 OVA
Release: January 10, 2017 – March 28, 2017
Source: Original

Tazuna resolves to defeat his opponents Break and Bind after unlocking his Nimrod.

Tazuna resolves to defeat his opponents Break and Bind after unlocking his Nimrod.

Some anime may have a solid narrative or likable characters, but their main draw quickly becomes apparent as neither. Instead, it’s the aesthetics that shape both the personality and general mood of the series.

Some may see it as a case of style over substance, but a unique visual approach to the art direction and animation style of a show can give it an unmistakable sense of self that not only sets it apart from the competition, but also enhances both the storytelling methods of the anime, as well as its entertainment value.

A few primary examples can be found in shows such as Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo and Mononoke, both notable for using static wallpaper-like plaids for their character designs. You also have Katanagatari with its gorgeous, stylized art direction, or the slick CG animation of Land of the Lustrous for a more recent example.

But what happens when you rely so much on your visual department that, at some point, you realize you took this notion too far? I think that most of you, my precious readers, will realize that today's subject is an example of that. How did this happen? Why was this allowed to pass approval? We may never know the exact details, but we will talk about what Hand Shakers has to offer, the good and especially the bad.

So without any further delay, let’s review and discuss the 2017 anime series jointly directed by Shingo Suzuki and scriptwriter Hiromitsu Kanazawa, and produced by studio GoHands: Hand Shakers.

Story & Setting

Koyori comforts a distressed Tazuna after Professor Makihara debriefs him about his current situation.

Koyori comforts a distressed Tazuna after Professor Makihara debriefs him about his current situation.

In the near future, Osaka becomes the stage for what can be best called a battle royale-style competition between several two-person teams called “Hand Shakers”; Hand Shakers are people who can manipulate weapons called “Nimrodes” (or "Nimrods"; translation is inconsistent) by holding hands together. These clashes of power occur in an empty parallel world called “Ziggurat”, and the couple who will manage to defeat enough opponents (or all of them; the series doesn’t make it clear as far as I remember) will receive the right to meet God. Beyond that? I’m unsure.

The story revolves around Tazuna Takatsuki, a kind high-schooler who doubles as a part-time mechanic. One day, while working at a university for an eccentric doctor called Makihara, Tazuna comes across a comatose girl called Koyori Akutagawa, who reminds Tazuna of his deceased sister. It’s through this encounter when Tazuna founds out that he is a Hand Shaker, partnered with Koyori - who will die if she won’t hold Tazuna’s hand for a certain period of time.

It is here where the story really kicks off, as Tazuna realizes that he has no option but to challenge God and potentially save Koyori, whom he obviously becomes attracted to.

Unfortunately, nothing really grows out of it. While a battle royale competition to reach God isn’t necessary a trite concept in anime (although it does bring similarities with the Fate franchise), and trying to mix it with Biblical references and symbols is interesting, Hand Shakers simply fails to build a compelling or even coherent narrative out of its ideas and themes.

Perhaps the reason for Hand Shaker’s issues lies with time; at only 12 episodes (plus a bonus OVA), Hand Shakers has little time to flesh out its setting and explore the possibilities of its story. The supposed goal and purpose of God, the true nature of the Ziggurat, explanations to the entire Hand Shaker deal… By the end of the series, nothing actually comes to a close. Nothing is properly answered or developed, making one wonder what was the purpose of it all.

Hand Shakers’ story is mediocre at best and suffers from a clear sense of direction. Tazuna must fight against fellow Hand Shakers because otherwise Koyori will die, but aside from one occasion or two he and Koyori just live out their lives together without trying to pursue for answers. They don’t even try to actively hunt down other Hand Shakers, acting more like prey waiting to be slain. If they weren’t the leads, this would have already happened in the first episode.

I would have understood this lack of action if winning was only possible through killing, but for some unknown reason this is not the case; Hand Shakers remain perfectly fine when defeated. Sure, I understand if reluctance from depriving opponents from their wish, but even Koyori’s overly dramatic death threats don’t breathe tension or urgency into the plot.

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Hand Shakers also does a common mistake in many battle royale anime: another reason all tension is lost is due to the focus on a single couple instead of all competitors. Opponents come and go almost every two episodes, with little build-up or focus until it’s the moment to roll in. They also all conveniently find and target Tazuna and Koyori as if no other Hand Shaker team exists.

And the series never really makes it clear how many Hand Shakers group are there; hell, counting everyone mentioned, there might be over a dozen in just Osaka alone. We’re just told that a few Hand Shakers were already defeated by Tazuna’s opponents, but as I mentioned in the synopsis, it is also never made clear how many Hand Shakers need to beaten to confront God. Is it all of them? Is it just a half of them? Is it everyone near your hometown? Hand Shakers simply shrugs it off to introduce a final antagonist.

Even outside of its battle royale elements, Hand Shakers is disappointingly unremarkable. As a setting, Osaka is devoid of culture and personality. It is a little more than a cardboard stage for the Hand Shaker battles that fails to tie into the narrative or just feel lively enough outside of the protagonists’ spotlights - ironic considering multiple, repetitive shots of residents walking through landmarks and streets.

Hand Shakers enjoys spewing a few philosophical debates here and there, but I doubt the writers have any idea what they were trying to convey; I certainly have no idea if Hand Shakers attempted to explore some complex themes about faith, purpose in life and mortality. Perhaps it is a series not meant to be taken very seriously or into depth, but if so, then I am clueless as to why Hand Shakers takes itself so seriously.

What is probably the pinnacle of Hand Shakers’ lack of understanding its own references is having a character directly quoting famous men of wisdom and infamy. Anime is no stranger to lack of subtlety, but spewing half a dozen philosophical ideas and lines without tying them into themes or even appropriate context is not just lazy characterization, it’s downright bad writing that comes off more as pretentious than “thought-provoking”.

Some scenes, events and even bizarre symbolism either make little sense or are just plain cringy in their execution. Tazuna’s parents just swiftly fall to a very bad lie that the Japanese named and strangely pale Koyori is a Brazilian exchange student and so agree to show her hospitality at the request of Tazuna’s zany mentor - all as if they accept complete strangers into their home on a monthly basis. Oh, and have I mentioned already that Koyori looks almost exactly as their deceased daughter? It’s a wonder how they managed to reach into adulthood and raise two kids.

Aside from the poorly placed philosophical shout-outs and odd scenarios, Hand Shakers also throws in a few Tarot references for good measure. One of the characters seem obsessed about reading them when she is not busy having an incestuous subtext with her little brother. It’s not a central aspect of the series, but just feels like another little element the writers added to make Hand Shakers seem sophisticated.

From a narrative standpoint, I have to admit Hand Shakers reminds me a lot of Guilty Crown; both shows just seem to take ideas, concepts, themes and elements from other, better shows without putting much thought or effort into their derivative stories. Just like Guilty Crown takes cues from Code Geass, Ghost in the Shell and Gurren Lagann, so does Hand Shakers with series such as Fate/Stay Night, Psycho-Pass, The Future Diary (which is not even that good) and Persona - all without making those separate elements click together.

And as for the ending, I already made a not so subtle jab at how it doesn’t really tie things up, but I can’t say I hated it. It was arguably the best ending one could give to an already lacking narrative, as open-ended as it was. Even then, I don’t appreciate the sequel-baiting scene in the end, especially as I doubt a series such as Hand Shakers can be salvaged with a successor series.

But hey, with all of those issues, I bet that at the very least the characters can redeem the series, right? Well, not exactly.

The Characters

An agitated Chizuru is held back by her partner Hayate after Professor Makihara made an off-hand comment about age.

An agitated Chizuru is held back by her partner Hayate after Professor Makihara made an off-hand comment about age.

While I don’t necessarily hate the characters presented in Hand Shakers, I can’t say that I particularly love or care about them. Even including our main duo, the cast is either pretty dull, cringy or both.

I already touched a little about Tazuna and Koyori in the story segment of the review, but to tell about them in more focus.

Tazuna is your typical good-natured student with brains, whose defining traits primarily include his knowledge in electronics and his willingness to help everyone. He is also very kind and morally upstanding and… He’s pretty bland overall. I did find myself rooting for him, but Tazuna is pretty much just the vessel of the story to unfold. He doesn’t really grow as a character and by the end remains mostly the same.

Koyori, as is the norm with such shows, fares slightly better than her male counterpart. She starts off as little more than a blank plate whose main characteristic is her stoic cuteness and lack of vocality, but slowly becomes more aware to the world as well as getting comfortable with society. By the end she acts more like a human being, even if she’s still quite unremarkable in comparison to other notable Rei Ayanami clones such as Yuki Nagato from Haruhi Suzumiya.

I will, however, say that their bonding throughout the series was rather compelling to watch. They have enough chemistry between them to make a possible relationship work, and their gradual evolution into a couple far surpasses their individual character arcs. Truth to be told, Tazuna and Koyori’s relationship is the best aspect about Hand Shakers.

There isn’t much to say about the rest of the cast. Well, the vast majority of the cast, anyways.

Perhaps the third most important character is that of Nagamasa Makihara, the zany professor who comes to take care of both Tazuna and Koyori. While the series does foreshadow and eventually tries to make his character more serious, he is ultimately a fairly annoying comic relief that becomes more tiring to watch than entertaining.

Then you have the rival Hand Shakers, who split into five couples. But, truth to be told - with the exception of one character, they are an incredibly underwhelming bunch with cookie-cutter personalities and underdeveloped - or somewhat disturbing - motivations.

The worst of the lot are the first couple Tazuna and Koyori are forced to face against. The abusive Break and his masochistic girlfriend Bind - who represent everything wrong about Hand Shakers in general, being thinly written, poorly executed, bland and unsympathetic. They barely have any impact on the story and the next time they reappear they’re suddenly all lovey-dovey despite the fact Break physically abused Bind for the sake of their fight with Tazuna.

Moving on, you have the one other light of Hand Shakers besides Tazuna and Koyori’s dynamic: Chizuru. She is the very short - childlike in appearance (AKA she’s a loli) - manager of a restaurant in Osaka, and another Hand Shakers alongside her partner Hayate. Now, I don’t really care for Hayate - although he’s not a terrible character in his own right.

But Chizuru herself is always a joy to watch; despite her short temper, she is a hardworking woman with a witty sense of humor that never lets anything make her feel down. Even her backstory, involving her struggle to be accepted as a respectable businesswoman, is rather touching, and she remains a fun comic relief and moral support long after her arc is concluded.

Unfortunately, it just goes downhill from here, as the next Hand Shaker couple is the more or less incenstuous Riri (or Lily; depends on the translation, I guess) and Masaru. Frankly their relationship annoys me less than their personalities, with Riri being a ditzy and meek council president whose sole purpose is to be the series’ resident fanservice pack while Masaru is just an arrogant prick obsessed with his card game.

Their backstories are genuinely interesting, shading light on serious topics such as divorce, parental neglect and favoritism, but the actual show does little with that and they soon lose their relevance besides a few minor roles in later episodes.

And then you have Kodama. Oh, Kodama. In a series populated by an abusive boyfriend, a wannabe Yugi Moto and a girl who never learned about a piece of clothing called bra, she easily ranks as the worst character in the show, if only because she is such a shallow character - the writers decided to “add depth” by making her dialogue consist of countless, balant quotes of philosophers and Renaissance men.

As with Riri and Masaru, her past is genuinely interesting and sympathetic, being an idol who is constantly shunned by her agency, yet she still tries to get noted. But it’s just impossible taking her seriously when she has no personality besides a philosophy geek who has no idea what she’s talking about when she mentions people such as Napoleon and Caecus.

She also has a chubby manager called Hibiki, but it’s safe to say he’s not that important.

Finally, we have our true main antagonists of Hand Shakers. I wouldn’t spoil their identities (even though the opening does), but as the final opponents of Tazuna, they are rather lacking in screentime.

One of them gets a short scene with Tazuna early on to establish him as a character, but he quickly disappears from the story altogether and only reappears near the end of the series as the final boss. Sure, their motivations are revealed at that time, but they are as generic as they come, with a cold and ruthless attitude coupled with a stoic demeanor.

With very few good exceptions, a good main villain is one who is established relatively early on, has some unique quirk or nuance to humanize them, and maybe some odd sense of humor to spice up their personality. They are ones you either begin to root for due to their own journeys, or just find endlessly entertaining due to the execution of their actions. Hand Shakers doesn’t have such villains.

Animation & Art

Tazuna and Koyori finds themselves in a hard place as Masaru’s card-based Nimrod attacks them.

Tazuna and Koyori finds themselves in a hard place as Masaru’s card-based Nimrod attacks them.

If you were aware of Hand Shakers' existence before this review, then the one thing you will know for sure about this is series is its odd art direction and bizarre animation.

Hand Shakers was produced by GoHands, a studio whose most well known works include the K franchise and the Mardock Scramble trilogy - neither of them I’ve watched, but from what I understand the latter is often praised for its art. Hand Shakers marks a novel attempt by GoHands to try something new in anime, and I do applaud the studio for the effort.

Unfortunately, at some point a studio needs to know when to stop, and GoHands’ frenzy work on Hand Shakers is what I can only refer to as ultimately a failure.

Let’s tackle the big one first: the CGI. Good lord, the CGI doesn’t mesh with the series’ backgrounds and character designs at all. From the savage chains used by Brick and Bind, to the bizarre gear blade wielded by Tazuna, the CGI is obvious, stiff and ugly - it’s just distracting and off-putting. Not only it clashes with the cel-shaded character designs, it also makes otherwise decent fights look clunky and exhaustive.

It’s not just the upfront CGI that hampers the series; Hand Shakers’ backgrounds look like they were made for a purely 3DCG series before some executive revealed that they will use 2D models, and the result is exactly what you’d expect: a few lovely backgrounds aside, the hyper-realistic environments look like they belong to a different series altogether, and this doesn’t even touch on the Ziggurat scenes which use bizarre color palettes and laughable wallpaper imagery. It makes the Ziggurat look silly, not alien or mysterious.

You also have annoying bloom and lighting effects throughout the series. And those god awful fire effects.

As for the actual animation itself, I won’t lie: it’s not bad. It’s not stellar either, but there are a few slick shots here and there. And then you have the direction, which just viciously abuses the camera to truly nauseating levels. It’s just so busy and shaky with its constant movements and spins in a futile attempt to feel like The Matrix.

The character designs are serviceable, for the most part. I can’t make my mind about what to think of the colors used for the hair and clothes, but aside from a few tiring fanservice baits such as Riri, Bind and Kodoma, they’re not too offensive.

GoHands clearly poured a lot of money and effort unto their little project, but I think that as a studio, they lacked enough talent and restrainment to make Hand Shakers work. By restrainment I mean that it looks like they tried to apply so many different styles and aesthetics that it all just fell apart due to inconsistency and lack of focus.

Every once in a while, Hand Shakers showed some potential with its odd art direction, and I’d argue that the series does get better as it goes, but never once I stopped and thought that it was done better than any of Hand Shakers’ possible inspirations.

And I have to admit that if it wasn’t for the series’ visuals, I would have at least been somewhat less harsher on Hand Shakers, but the animation and poor blending of art styles just weight down on what is already a barely mediocre show and rob it of possible spectacle enjoyment.

Audio & Sound

Kodoma performs a private show as she defeats a fellow Hand Shaker team.

Kodoma performs a private show as she defeats a fellow Hand Shaker team.

While I wouldn’t go and say that the soundtrack for Hand Shakers is amazing, it is by far the best part of the entire show. Composed by GOON TRAX, which I honestly never heard before this series and Google failed to help me learn more about this group, the soundtrack is adequate.

The various pieces have a clear preference for the piano, and I’ve been told they borrow a lot of cues from GoHands’ previous project K. I don’t find the different pieces remarkable, and if anything, there is some lingering mechanical feel to them, but they’re not downright awful. Maybe unfitting in some action scenes, but I don’t hate any of the tracks.

The ending song “Yume Miru Ame” by Akino Arai is a slow-paced and rather forgettable ending theme. The opening song, “One Hand Message” by a team-up called OxT, is not the greatest anime opening by any means, but I found myself listening to it on repeat after watching the series. It’s also worth noting that it’s one of the few times where an opening song uses clips from the series itself, which often doesn’t happen.

Now here is something interesting about Hand Shakers: it has an English dub. I’m not sure how it happened - maybe some Funimation executive liked the poster - but out of hundreds of anime titles deserving an English dub, Hand Shakers got one.

And it’s a pretty solid dub, too. Kudos to the cast for doing the best they could with the lackluster script and flat dialogue, because you have some pretty solid names attached to it such as Monica Rial and Bryn Apprill. And how voices Tazuna, you ask? Justin Briner, of course! Yes, that Justin Briner.

If you ever plan on watching Hand Shakers out of some odd reason, do yourself a favor and watch the English dub.

Final Verdict

Tazuna and Koyori enjoy a meal the latter cooked after a successful school festival.

Tazuna and Koyori enjoy a meal the latter cooked after a successful school festival.

Despite the fact Hand Shakers fails in almost every aspect, I don’t hate the series even a bit. As disastrous as the final product is, Hand Shakers didn’t insult or annoy me nearly as much as some other series - some ranked slightly higher than it. Frankly, I’m just disappointed. Hand Shakers had every ingredient to succeed and become - at the very least - an enjoyable action series. But no hefty budget or a passable premise could predict an underwhelming anime such as this. Hand Shakers is the unfortunate end result of a studio having no idea what they are doing.

It lacks tremendous amounts of polish to its script and its characters remain so underdeveloped the writers resort into giving them philosophical quotes and tragic backstories that simply ring hollow. Its supposed selling point - namely the animation - is a painful catastrophe of color and design that undermines the whole thing even further. This is clearly a series with high ambitions, and I certainly give Hand Shakers praise for trying to be something different, but the series as a whole is a tragic end result of a production team going too far for their own good.

The Good:

  • Tazuna and Koyori's relationship is genuinely sweet to watch, and they have a nice dynamic.
  • Chizuru is so fun to watch, she deserves her own show away from this series.

The Bad:

  • Abysmal art direction and awful usage of CGI brought down even further by an oversaturation of art styles.
  • Poorly explored setting alongside a thin story and vaguely explained concept.
  • Bland characterization to both the main protagonists and supporting characters.

& the Ugly:

  • Looks like someone went to studio DEEN's class of how to use CGI dragon hands...

Alternate Recommendations:

  • Fate/Zero - Let's get to the real deal. Fate/Zero is everything Hand Shakers isn't: it makes the most of its concept and premise. It has a wide array of interesting and complex characters. It has tension, drama and action. And it knows how to blend several different styles to curve its own identity. Fate/Zero is very much the anti-Hand Shakers, and a must if you haven't watched it already.
  • Guilty Crown - 2011's Guilty Crown is not a recommendation because it's so good - in fact, it's rather mediocre. Rather, it's another example of a series bogged down by its lack of identity and derivative nature. On the other hand, it's still an incredibly fun watch, and unlike Hand Shakers, it rewards lasting viewers with great action and a gorgeous soundtrack. To be fair, it was either this or Future Diary, and I'd rather avoid recommending that series to anyone.

© 2019 Raziel Reaper

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