Tower of God opens on a vague promise: those that rise to the challenge and ascend the tower can become “God,” granting them any desire. Based on the popular manhwa and webtoon from South Korea, ToG quickly became one of the hottest new anime of Spring 2020 in large part due to the existing fanbase, along with being Crunchyroll’s first real test into their suite of “Crunchyroll Originals” following the previous In/Spectre at the time the new branding was announced. Though the series was no doubt a commercial success following an aggressive marketing campaign by CR, did the series reach the heavens or fly too close to the sun?
Our story begins as Twenty-Fifth Bam awakens in a dark cave and finds himself at the base of the titular Tower of God, where he is given the opportunity to ascend the tower following a dangerous preliminary exam. Searching for his only companion, Rachel, who had left him behind to climb the tower and “see the stars,” he makes his way to the testing chamber, determined to find her at all costs. From there, ToG quickly introduces more participants into the mix as the tests escalate into more complex machinations, requiring more than brute force to ascend to the next level.
Now, it’s at this point I have to address the comparisons to Hunter x Hunter, which if you’ve read any other post about ToG, you’ve likely heard some variation of this argument. But when you start to look behind the surface-level comparisons of its tournament-style setting and start to look into the characters, narrative, and world building, ToG slowly begins to crack under the weight of its ambition. Whereas HxH was defined with an increasing cast of characters with their own motivations and an intricate power system (Nen), giving way to wilder stories beyond the initial tournament arc while giving Gon and company a sense of progression, ToG throws most of its interesting ideas from the onset and quickly discards them to move to the next major story beat without any buildup or satisfying resolution.
Let’s start with the characters.
One of Shonen’s oldest tropes is the ridiculous amounts of characters introduced only to utilize only a handful of them at any given moment. It’s a problem as old as the genre that has only grown in usage with series like Naruto popularizing the trope. And while several of the major Shonen hits including My Hero Academia and Black Clover all suffer from this issue to varying degrees, many have gone on to carve an identity around it. In a series like One Piece or Hunter x Hunter, it makes more sense as the setting changes locales at any given arc, but when your story is set in a central area for a long period of time such as Assassination Classroom, you need a really compelling cast of characters to maintain momentum and give the narrative focus.
At a glance, ToG is a mix of colorful characters filled with interesting designs that give the world a lived-in feeling. Despite the lack of character development for the supporting cast, there are a few standouts hidden behind the desolate world of the tower. From the cunning, yet troubled Khun to the barbaric warrior Rak, you’d be hard-pressed to not walk out with at least one or two favorites. It’s clear that some characters were given priority as the show dives into the complex hierarchy of the princesses of Jahad and the forces that govern the world of ToG, notably single horned princess Endorsi and reptilian girl Aanak. Had the show been primarily about these smaller group of characters, ToG might have made for a more consistent narrative. But for every one of ToG’s interesting characters, you get at least a dozen or so lesser characters who mostly serve to take up space, and unfortunately, interesting characters cannot make up for the lack of motivation or reason for the audience to care about them.
To further illustrate this point, I’ll let you in on a little secret. My favorite character is Yuri. Coming into ToG with no prior knowledge, I was honestly convinced she was the main heroine given the hero’s end goal of finding his childhood friend which (*minor spoilers*) I had assumed would not happen early on. Being the first person to meet our protagonist at the tower’s starting point, ToG draws inspiration from the age-old trope of “boy meets girl,” a common staple in many anime (or JRPGs if you feel so inclined). Yuri is even featured prominently on the cover art and grants him her prized weapon, the Black March, so it seemed clear that she would be an important character, if not a participant of the tower.
In reality, she sends him on his way and only resurfaces again near the end to pick up after her sisters when they run into trouble during one of the trials. To put it in perspective, if you’ve watched Fire Force and were disappointed that Maki was relegated to background character status and had exactly one full episode to get to be a complete badass, this is that same scenario, except worse as it extends to almost every character the show introduces. Yuri is just one example, but like many of ToG’s extended cast, very few of them actually get to do anything meaningful beyond serving as a punchline or a one and done scenario.
Notice I’ve neglected mentioning the main leads by name since I moved onto this topic. That’s because ToG is actually about these two:
As frustrating as some Shonen leads can be, Bam is a special case. In the 25+ years I’ve been exposed to the medium, I don’t think I’ve come across a more boring, emotionless character than Bam. For starters, his full name is Twenty-Fifth Bam, a fact I don’t remember coming across in the anime itself or was vaguely referenced. The only reason I know this detail is because someone on our Discord casually brought it up during one of our discussions. Due to the rapid pace of the anime, not a whole lot of time is actually spent devoted to developing Bam’s personality despite primarily revolving around him. For the bulk of the show, he stands back as his friends do the talking, strategizing, and grunt work, yet the show expects you to suspend disbelief that he won these people over because they shared a meal once. I’m quite familiar with the “power of friendship” trope, but you have to earn those moments first.
To again use HxH as an example, Gon continuously won people over by putting himself and his stubborn beliefs in action, sometimes to the point of extremes. Bam, on the other hand, sits on a literal throne while his teammates handle the fighting, only to introduce a mysterious power-up that will never be referenced again following a less-than-surprising reveal. Even when the show attempts to build around its other members, these moments further highlight Bam’s general lack of presence in his own story. During one particularly well-crafted episode, we get Khun’s backstory in greater detail. I’ll avoid spoiling it here, but Khun’s emotional turmoil and tragedy is tacked on as the reason he begins to look after Bam in order to help him climb the tower, a guy whose worst day was that his pseudo girlfriend/caretaker left to “buy some smokes” and never returned. I get making a new friend from a random encounter, but that the bulk of these characters would willingly risk their lives for a guy they met in the lobby/cafeteria is a major leap of faith, even within the confines of the genre.
My other issue with Bam is his objective. Much of ToG’s central premise revolves around Bam’s search for Rachel to an unhealthy degree. Early on, you get a glimpse of how far gone his state of mind is. When Khun is introduced and the two decide to team up, he asks Bam about his wish. Without directly revealing his exact answer, it paints a disturbing picture of a boy with no sense of self-preservation and chained reliance to his friend Rachel. From Bam’s perspective, his existence is solely for Rachel who had left him behind to pursue the tower for unknown reasons, vaguely hinting she wanted to see the outside world and was unable to do so with him. On its own, this could have been a good story point by presenting our lead’s abnormal relationship and building on it. Even a dysfunctional relationship, such as the main leads in this season’s Gleipnir, could have been another jumping point for ToG to try and establish its leads, if not build a foundation. But a relationship, good or bad, is always built around two people which brings us to our most controversial character of the show.
Earlier, I said I had no prior knowledge of ToG. That was partially true. If you’ve spent enough time online or browsing the comment section on any public forum, you likely already know where the Internet stands when it comes to the ToG’s main heroine. To its credit, ToG does not attempt to hide the fact that Rachel is hiding her own secrets as it is quickly established she is participating in the exams, albeit under a false identity. There is a disturbing, lingering sense of unease when the two finally reunite as they live in entirely different worlds than the bleak, dark cave they originally lived under. ToG attempts to build around the pair, but when each character is vaguely defined and share little to no chemistry, many of the show’s greater plot twists do not hit with the intended emotional impact they were aiming for.
A lot of concessions were made to fill 13 episodes with about 80 chapters worth of content for one season. This is felt overtime as the show continues to introduce new characters, new exams, and new concepts without ever stopping to expand or explain the significance to the audience, leaving it up to them to fill in the blanks or have some familiarity with the source material. ToG feels like a prologue to a much larger story stretched out far too thin right until the very end where it is revealed that the true antagonist was behind us all along:
I oftentimes feel bad for the characters that people call villains. I think that every character has to be able to leave a legacy in order for their role to be complete.
As for villains, once they’ve completed their role, I have an urge to tell them, “you worked really hard.” — SIU
Adapting an ongoing series is no easy task, and it is often the existing readers who are the most critical and outspoken when one fails to capture their “ideal” version of what the anime should look like. Personally, I think it’s more important to be able to judge a work on its own merits rather than how aligned or “faithful” it is with the source material. For any medium, people tend to use the original work as their ultimate guide for determining adaption quality, so while I was watching ToG and reading some of the comments from people more familiar with the webtoon, I came across a recent interview from series creator SIU. I’ve been seeing a lot of people using the “it gets good after X” argument, but when you start to look at the source material’s origins, along with the fact that it took almost 80 chapters to reach this point of the story, it’s pretty easy to tell ToG’s production issues began before this project was greenlit.
To begin with, SIU (his pen name, Slave In Utero) is something of an enigma, never quite committing to his ideas and seemingly misdirecting the audience or having to overexplain his own world’s rules with supplemental material on his personal blog. His involvement in the anime’s production was largely unrestrained with little to no demands as far as the direction. And up until the recent interview in the paragraph above, he mentioned Rachel was his favorite character. Either he’s being the biggest online troll and pulling a fast one on us or he has no idea what kind of story ToG wants to be.
But let’s ignore everything above and suppose I take your word that ToG eventually finds its footing. You can have the best animators, the best source material, and the best access to resources, but we still haven’t addressed the single largest factor that will determine if ToG the anime will improve. To answer that, we need to look outside the confines of the series, starting with the very first visual we see before the start of every episode:
Since the start of the year, Crunchyroll has found itself on the defensive, attempting to market their new line of original programming to make up for the lack of acquisitions in recent seasons, despite some strong titles in their rotation already. Last season, Funimation exclusively acquired Kaguya-sama season 2, a popular series that CR was running ads for a while after it won big at their own 2019 awards show. When that came to an end, CR shifted gears and started promoting their Crunchyroll Originals as the next generation of animation. I’d like to revisit this subject in greater detail once the bulk of these shows have finished their runs, but for now, let’s focus on the current slate.
Both In/Spectre and ToG are based around existing properties and adapted from manga and manhwa, respectively. Each of them got 12–13 episode runs, were heavily promoted by CR, and were produced by notable studios, Brain’s Base (Durarara!!) and TMS Entertainment (Megalo Box). They also both ended with no further mention if the anime will continue, which is not uncommon, but curious as this implies they are testing the waters with these Originals. Then there is the rate at which these originals projects are running. Next down the pipeline is Onyx Equinox, The God of High School, and Giabate. Though the episode list has not been revealed, it’s safe to assume these will be one cour a piece. This is all speculation on my end, but with CR investing in multiple originals almost simultaneously, including the future ones not mentioned here, they seem to be adapting and acquiring new IP at an alarming rate, which paints a major red flag as to how the quality of some of these adaptions will turn out. In other words, CR is seemingly following Netflix’s model.
While Netflix managed to find success with this approach, for every mainstream success like Violet Evergarden, Devilman Crybaby, and the recent Dorohedoro, it’s important to note what the rest of their library looks like — the stuff that Netflix doesn’t show you. With their aggressive push to license and acquire everything and anything, it can be a nightmare to open the app and find something to watch without endless scrolling or at least some idea beforehand of what you’re in the mood for. While the argument can be made that this does eventually bring us “good” anime and shows if there is more to watch, hence more subscribers, it paves the way for complacency, reducing the overall quality and value of content if not handled with care.
Unlike Netflix, Crunchyroll is in a unique position as their business is primarily anime and are more involved in the production of several of these projects, as opposed to just licensing them for broadcast. Though it remains to be seen how the rest of these CR Originals will fare, the company will have its fair share of obstacles to overcome within its infrastructure if they want to present themselves as more than the place you can watch Boruto. Even if ToG ends up being the title that paves the way to more foreign content, if it comes at the price of subpar adaptations, then I guess we have no one to blame at the lack of variety.
Despite ending on some very mixed feelings, a part of me wants to believe there is a decent Shonen hidden in Tower of God. While I wouldn’t call it a bad anime and was entertained enough to see it through, it’s held back from a significant lack of character growth, vague world building and concepts that are sidestepped to get to the next action piece, and a troubled source material backed by a platform trying to reforge its current identity. By this point, I usually like to end these posts by highlighting at least one element or redeeming quality — something that a particular series does better or makes it stand out from its sea of competitors. Even now, I’m struggling to find a reason to maintain my original recommendation stance during the seasonal AniTAY post.
If all you want out of a Shonen anime is some decent action, then I suppose you could do much worse that ToG. That said, it’s hard not to feel a tad bit disappointed it only puts in the bare minimum effort as the genre continues to evolve in recent times. ToG asks you to stay invested in Bam’s journey with the promise that there is something incredible waiting at the end of it. Instead, we’re back where we started, only now able to see the tower for what it really is: a false hope for those seeking something greater.
Special thanks to Shade for editing and offering suggestions for this post.
All screenshots taken from Crunchyroll.
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Originally published at https://anitay.kinja.com on July 7, 2020.