#1 Overambitious writing
This isn’t criticism I like to give, because I find it commendable of the writer to have the desire to tell an intriguing story. Somewhere along the line, however, ambition has to make way for all sorts of realities like tight deadlines, and that is where it sadly turns out that the skill to deliver the story is not present.
I found my time with Cluster Edge nothing short of confusing, as the story leaps around between all sorts of events that feel like they have little cohesion or build-up. Too many different threads are handed to the viewer, each of which has at least some appeal to it, but the slow pace at which all of these advance kills the enjoyment fast and it often feels like you are watching multiple different shows at the same time. The anime is about a post-war world where controversial science has led to the creation of artificial human soldiers that now want human rights, but then it is also about the prestigious school life of a bunch of kids, while also telling a story about some guy attending this school that uses magical powers to help everyone he meets.
In one of the first episodes we are spending time on a train as characters interact with each other in preparation for starting at their new school, which then suddenly transitions into a high-stakes air battle. It’s baffling writing like this that left me constantly confused, as all the different things the writer wants to tell you are inelegantly glued together and forced to cooperate. And while the story dashes around trying to juggle all its story beats, basic questions the audience needs to know like who the characters are and on what sides of the conflict they find themselves on are left unanswered for far too long.
#2 The artificial humans are just silly
The idea of cloning people and deliberately modifying DNA to guarantee a superior person is born are topics that I feel we will soon have controversial discussions about in our real world. They are interesting to talk about and could be a great topic for a politically-driven show like this, but their execution I feel is unfitting for the rest of the anime.
Most of the time Cluster Edge feels like a show grounded in some semblance of reality, as characters go to school, have a daily life, and bicker with their teachers about the mathematics of aviation. Episodes deal with the suffering of the common man after the war has concluded or explore complicated family relations among the country’s nobility. But when soldiers appear on the screen with their guns trained on a character, all this slow, methodical storytelling is discarded as character dash around at lightning speed, swing swords at each other, and dodge bullets. In one scene main character Agate leaps into the air so high that he winds up hijacking a helicopter and despite this all taking place in an early 20th century setting, many times we’ll see the artificial humans rocking lasers and other sci-fi equipment.
And while sometimes I can be in the mood for a show where ninja dudes cut steel towers apart with their swords or punch their way through reinforced metal doors, seeing it pop up here just completely takes me out of the slow-paced story. Again, this all feels like we are watching distinctly different anime, one post-war European drama and one action sci-fi romp, which doesn’t at all help make the series as a whole any more tolerable.
#3 Recap episodes EVERYWHERE
Many people complain about recap episodes in anime and personally I am no fan either. Cluster Edge manages to take this minor frustration to a whole new level however, featuring a whopping four recap episodes by my count. While it boasts a respectable 25 episodes, episode 7 is already a recap episode that glosses over all the core characters, followed by a second recap at episode 9 that summarizes the entire story so far, all of which of course completely recycles animation from the actual episodes without showing anything new.
Episode 14 is a more sensible point to put a recap episode at, but still feels wholly unnecessary and is followed by episode 15 which also recycles a lot of older content. If this were a plot so massively complicated you’d need a spreadsheet and wikipedia to keep up I may have seen the use for more recaps, but Cluster Edge isn’t complex, it’s poorly delivered.
#4 The directing
The writing having way more ideas than the staff could realize is definitely a factor, but another reason why the ambitious plot falls flat is because many scenes are just bizarrely structured and delivered. I gave an example earlier with the train scene suddenly transitioning into an air battle and that is just the start of it. Most baffling of all were the many times soldiers would assault the students of the school, with not a single trace of doubt. At one point soldiers outright bombard the school ground while their own military academy students are there as well, then promptly show up at the refuge center to stand guard over the wounded. Who writes this story???
It’s not just that the scenes are baffling, it’s that many of them are repeated all the time. Soldiers just keep attacking students, but still show up to guard the school gates the next day. Another common setup is two opposing factions meeting, getting into a short scuffle, and one of them fleeing. Nothing relevant is said or done, yet we see scenes like that happen all the time. They had 25 episodes to try and make sense of the story, and instead wasted it by meandering around.
By far the worst scene in the show, however, is the mass burial that takes place at a village after soldiers (yes, again) bombarded the church because they thought Agate was there. By all accounts it’s a tragedy, yet the way they decided to portray it is with a bunch of villagers standing around in the graveyard looking bored. No emotion, no impact, just some old people looking melancholic.