ESTAB LIFE: Great Escape is an especially bizarre anime, and not just for the reasons you’re probably already expecting. Sure, the anti-panty cults and commie penguin armies are…a lot, and don’t think for one second that this anime isn’t proud to get weird and stupid whenever it gets the chance. It’s just that the show is also bizarre for being the rare kind of anime that is somehow far better than it has any right to be, while also frequently falling short of its own wacky potential. It’s a critical paradox.
The good news, though, is that ESTAB LIFE: Great Escape is, well, good, for the most part. The inconsistent CGI animation was a red flag for many viewers when the series first premiered, but Polygon Pictures actually accuit themselves well pledged Estab-Life, for the most part. It’s not the prettiest CG anime ever made, but the world is vibrant and strange enough to keep viewers interested, and the characters are all just well-animated enough to avoid taking you out of the story.
Speaking of the story, this absurd concoction of sci-fi tropes and unabashed insanity could have easily flown off the rails, but the biggest and most pleasant surprise regarding Estab-Life is how consistent and well-rounded its world-building is. It isn’t until the end of the series that we’re offered any proper explanations for just why in the hell this world is filled with anthropomorphic animals, mafiosos, magical girls, sentient slimes, and barely articulate wolf dudes, and the exposition we do eventually get admittedly kind of clunky. Still, it’s an impressive achievement that Estab-Life is able to hold itself together as well as it does throughout its mostly episodic structure. As bizarre and seemingly random as this world is, it’s always easy enough to just go with the flow and enjoy the series for the goofy roller-coaster that it is, even when the jokes aren’t laugh-out-loud funny (the extended gag about Feles not wanting to go commando is definitely not strong enough to carry an entire episode, no matter how hard the series insists otherwise). I’m always wary when approaching a franchise designed to be a multi-media branding exercise like Estab-Lifeand to give this show credit, writer Shoji Gatoh puts in so much more effort compared to many of the idol anime and gacha game also-rans in the business.
It also helps that our core cast has good chemistry, since everything around them is a constantly swirling whirlwind of weirdness. Feles and Martes make for good comic foils, and Equa helps to balance Feles’ high-strung stoicness and Martes…well, everything about Martes. Also, I should note that I really enjoyed the English dub of the series, even though it hasn’t finished adapting the final two episodes of the series as of the time of this writing. I’ve found that bizarre and somewhat experimental comedies like this benefit from a well-executed localization, as it helps endear you to the characters and settle into the overall “vibe” of the project. Julie Shields, Alexis Tiptonand Sarah Widenheft do a great job making Equa, Feles, and Martes come across as believable characters, no matter how preposterous the circumstances become.
However, this is where that critical paradox comes in, because for all the credit I’ve given to Estab-Life for indulging in its weird, hyperactive, and often downright stupid sensibilities, I never felt like the series was able to go far enough. I know, I’m criticizing the anime with a middle-aged-yakuza-turned-magical-girl and a hive-mind lesbian slime creature for playing it “safe”, but I honestly spent the whole series just waiting for Estab-Life to just absolutely go bug-nuts bonkers and let its freak flag fly, but that moment never came. The revelations about M and the true nature of the Extractors world in the final episodes were fine, but predictable. The 3D action of even the most climactic episodes was serviceable, but never fist-pumpingly badass. The surprising visuals and cartoonish settings of the clusters were often unexpected, but they never made me go “Hot damn, I never expected to see something like this!” The potential was there from the very start, but Estab-Life is just lacking some essential spark, that indefinable oomph factor that would have set the franchise apart and elevated it out of its status as a well-liked but not truly beloved cult comedy.
All of that said, while ESTAB LIFE: Great Escape is not the kind of sleeper phenomenon that will become an all-time great contender or anything, it’s got more going on than you might suspect. With a movie and a mobile game on the horizon, there’s still a chance that the franchise will gain the attention it missed out on this spring, but in a season so lacking in the typical action-adventure genre fare, Estab-Life probably deserves more than appreciation it got. I’d wager that most of the folks who wrote Estab-Life off on account of its intentionally dumb jokes and its middling visuals would be surprised to hear that the show is worth giving a second chance, but it absolutely is.