#1 Overambitious writing
This isn’t criticism I like to give, because I commend any writer with the ambition to tell an intriguing story in this medium. Somewhere along the line, however, ambition has to make way for all sorts of realities—like tight deadlines. 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. The story constantly leaps around between events that have little cohesion or build-up. Too many different threads are handed to the viewer at the same time. 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. Except it is then 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 made getting into Cluster Edge a chore. All the different things the writer wants to tell you are inelegantly glued together and forced to cooperate. And while the plot 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.
A lot of setpiece moments make no sense whatsoever or are shamelessly repeated several times. And I am not even talking general themes here, but specific scenes that just keep happening in slightly different contexts. It’s so transparent and weird, it makes you wonder how they expected people not to notice the repetition. And even the scenes that aren’t copy & pasted are so weirdly presented that they fall completely flat. It’s genuinely one of the worst-directed anime that I have ever seen.
#2 The artificial humans are just silly
The idea of selectively cloning people is a topic that I feel we will soon have controversial discussions about in our real world. It’s interesting to talk about and could be a great topic for a politically-driven show like this. Or it would be, if Cluster Edge didn’t budge its execution so badly.
Most of the time Cluster Edge feels like a show grounded in some semblance of reality. 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, all this slow, methodical storytelling is discarded. Suddenly everyone dashes around at lightning speed, swinging swords at each other and dodging 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.
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 though. Again, this all feels like we are watching distinctly different anime. One a post-war European drama and one action sci-fi romp.
#3 Recap episodes EVERYWHERE
Many people complain about recap episodes in anime. Personally I am no fan of them either, but it’s rarely an actual issue. 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. Both of which of course completely recycle 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. This is then 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, then I may have seen the use for more recaps. Cluster Edge isn’t anywhere near that complex though—it’s just poorly delivered.