To anyone who have told themselves “I mustn’t run away from my problems,” Caligula’s premise is a response saying “no, run away, I will help you be happy.”
The Caligula Effect was not a good game. It reviewed poorly, with many reviewers citing issues with the battle system, repetitive dungeons, poorly implemented social link knockoff and writing issues. While I did not play the game, I did watch the anime. It was also not a good anime. It was poorly paced, sometimes bland, sometimes nonsensical, much of the time having average (or worse) production values.
It is a shame because the premise for Caligula has a lot of potential. µ is an A.I. that constructed a virtual world called Mobius and trapped a number of individuals in it, granting them whatever they desire in order to be happy. A group of high school students realize the falsity of their environment and seek to escape back to the real world. It sounds almost like a Matrix rip off (except with benevolent A.I.) that reinforces the adage “ignorance is bliss,” especially when the player starts looking into the backstories of the various characters.
When faced with hardship, the cast of The Caligula Effect all made the decision to run away from their problems. This idea is familiar to anyone who has ever faced hardship; maybe it would be easier to turn away from the problem and run in the opposite direction. This is best exemplified by Evangelion’s Shinji Ikari, who famously tells himself “I mustn’t run away. I mustn’t run away. I mustn’t run anyway.” Caligula’s premise is effectively a response saying “no, run away, I will help you be happy.” Caligula’s form of escapism is not new or original, but it could still explore the importance of facing reality, despite any and all consequences. However, Caligula’s execution left much to be desired. The majority of the cast’s personal stories remained unexplored which severely limited any impact the show could have with its message about facing reality head-on.
Spoilers for The Caligula Effect, no spoilers for Evangelion (except for the run away line).
For a 12 episode series, Caligula’s cast was far too large. Between the 8 members of the “Go-Home” club, and the 8 members of the Ostinato Musicians, who serve as the bosses in the game version, there was simply not enough run time to do these characters any justice. Yes, other series, such as One Punch Man, also had casts that very quickly grew large; however that series focused primarily on a couple of individuals, not expecting us to care about the rest of the heroes aside from them looking cool. Caligula’s cast all have interesting backstories that deserve better treatment.
Take Shogo for example. Like every other speaking character, he appears like any other high school student. However, it is later revealed that in reality he’s a 31 year old shut-in, a NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training) that closed himself off from the world after his friend invited him to commit suicide together. He didn’t go and she died by herself, with Shogo feeling guilty ever since. Sure sounds interesting, except that’s all the show ever really gives regarding Shogo.
It’s a wasted opportunity that could’ve been used to delve into survivor’s guilt, or explore how Shogo reacted to reliving his high school days (the Japanese have a fixation on high school because it’s the time of adolescence and potential before getting shuttled into adult life, hence why so much anime are set during high school) before realizing he needs to move on with his life.
The rest of the cast suffer similar treatments. In Mobius, Tomoe is tall and brash, but in reality he’s a little orphan boy in grade school who lost his parents due to an accident. He wants to grow strong in order to protect people, but he wants to do it now, instead of waiting to…actually grow up. Kotono, the character who acts a bit more motherly to the group than others, is an actual, single mom in reality who grew to despise having to raise her son by herself. On the villains’ (Ostinato Musicians) side, SweetP appears as a little girl but is actually a (relatively) obese male food critic. Shadow Knife, who appears as a superhero from a show, sought to torment his real-life bullies by subjecting them to Saw-like machinations (without the murder) in Mobius. Wicked, the explosives maniac, seeks murder and destruction against others because, in real life, she’s (implied) to have some sort of physical disability (maybe quadriplegia?), with her family resenting her over it. Again, these are pretty much all the anime gives regarding the personal stories for the cast.
By not delving more into character histories or motivations, Caligula’s message is severely blunted as the audience is expected to simply find sympathy or relatability through one-dimensional characters. This becomes increasingly strained as the series continued and the lines between the “good guys” and “bad guys” became increasingly larger. For the Ostinato Musicians, they got what they wanted to make them happy, whether it was monetary wealth, adoration from the opposite sex, violent “justice” or pure anarchy. For them, they have no motivation to return to reality when they can simply enjoy the life that they feel they deserve, anything their hearts desire being gifted by µ, the A.I. controlling Mobius. In contrast, the Go-Home club members realize that their fake lives are not a substitute for reality itself and seek to return home to face it. Notably, they are also “gifted” anything they want from µ; Mifue for example, wished for her mom to eat dinner with her so µ created a different mom (yes it’s as abrupt as it sounds). The anime (and perhaps the game) could have taken time to examine what would motivate someone to face a harsh reality that they hate, but instead we never get more out of the Go-Home club members, the audience is just expected to join them as soon as they say “it may not be glamorous, but it’s my life!”
It would not have been narratively difficult to do so either, as long as they followed the adage of “show, not tell.” Kotono, the single mom (who only tells the group she’s a single mom in the middle of the last episode, before the final battle), could have used fully realized flashbacks to illustrate the hardships of childrearing on her own. Even if the audience feels disgusted by Kotono’s mindset that she does not want to be a mother, they could at least understand why she feels that way. The show could then follow Kotono as her guilt and sense of responsibility comes to a head, making her realize that she has to return to reality to protect and give her son the mother he deserves (for the record, the son is seen in the care of someone else in the ending, maybe grandma?). Instead, by relegating her backstory to a single line of dialogue, Kotono is just a very unlikable character and any sense of her taking responsibility for her own life is minimized, if not outright absent if not for the voice work that makes the character slightly more sympathetic.
Notably, as stated above, it is only the majority (the vast majority) of the cast that get little in character development or backstory. The main protagonist, Ritsu Shikishima, does get more – though when the bar is set at one line of dialogue, the bar is quite low to jump – and it showcased the potential the show had. In reality, Ritsu was a developer researching…something (it is never quite elaborated on) but never got along with his colleagues, preferring to be a loner. He helped to develop µ and spent a lot of time talking to her, developing a friendship of sorts with the A.I. Of significance is that when Ritsu goes into Mobius, he changes his appearance to look like his team leader, who was far more popular in the team. Only when he returns to the real world do we see his real face and get his backstory.
As the audience saw how isolated Ritsu was, they could, partly, understand his motivation to run to Mobius and hide away where he had a second chance in life. Unfortunately, prior to the backstory reveal, Ritsu is a very bland, very boring character...so even having a second chance did not do much to help his situation. To add insult to injury, his reasoning to try and “fix” the situation with Mobius is because he feels responsible for what has happened to µ, which sounds fine in theory but the connection between the two was not developed much at all. Nevertheless, it’s something admirable in its own right and does provide some impetus for someone to face reality and the consequences there within. However, once again due to poor development over the course of the series, Ritsu taking responsibility for himself lands not with a bang or thunderous applause but a thud…a very dull, boring, thud.
As The Caligula Effect continued its showing each week, I found myself thinking why I was drawn to this show, despite practically everyone having some level of dislike to it. Then I realized that Caligula’s idea of escapism was the response to Shinji Ikari muttering to himself “I mustn’t run away, I musn’t run away.” While many in the fandom laugh and chastise Shinji for saying such words, I found Shinji’s character arc sympathetic (yes, even in the Rebuild movies). µ and Mobius represented a response to Shinji’s mutterings, telling him it’s ok to run away and live in a happy ignorance. However, as an adult with responsibilities, I know it’s not ok to run away. I know it’s important to take a stand and face reality, no matter how horrible it may be. As a result, I would’ve loved to see the anime adaptation of Caligula to tackle these ideas head on. It’s a shame they didn’t, because as the ending showed, it could’ve been something special. It could’ve had a strong message about running away. Instead, well, the proof is in the pudding.
Players of the game say that the anime had a lot of original content, but also cut a lot of things, especially related to some of the cast. The anime was effectively Ritsu and µ’s route. However, many reviews for the game still state that the cast is still severely underdeveloped, so I doubt there is anything worthwhile in it. If you’re still interested, note that NIS is localizing Caligula Overdose next year. It’s the same as Golden was to Persona 4 (or FES to Persona 3).
EDIT July 14, 2018 - changed lede paragraph to keep it viewable. I usually prefer my ledes to be taken from the article itself, but it was too wordy.