Aside from Madoka Magica (arguably), Fractale is surely the winter season's most talked about series prior to its airing, with the usual excitement reserved for noitaminA scheduled shows topped with what sounded like an intriguing concept worked on by some top-notch (and in some cases decidedly unexpected) staff.
Fractale certainly wastes little time in introducing us to its 22nd century world, and a land where seeing and communicating with other real people is pretty much a thing of the past. No, this isn't thanks to Twitter, but rather via the ability for people to use "Dopplers"; what effectively appear to be AI replicas of real people, given some kind of bizarre avatar and a capability to appear, disappear and interact with their surrounding environment at will. This is all good and well, and has various uses from parenting through to trading illegal goods and so on, with the former proving the case when it comes to our protagonist Clain, a young boy who is bored yet somewhat satisfied with his lot in this world where everyone is provided with enough to get by, and a lad who has a fascination with old technology and the like.
This simple, effortless life looks set to be disrupted however, as Clain's peace is disturbed by the appearance of a girl flying some kind of weird contraption whilst being pursued by another trio of characters in an equally odd flying machine. Eventually, the girl in question leaps from her craft to evade her pursuers, and it's at this point that Clain steps in to rescue her and help her to tend to her wounds. From here, we learn that the girl's name is Phryne, although we really learn little else about this mysterious lass as she has to evade her would-be captors once again, before leaving Clain with an interesting gift which looks set to take up the focus within episode two most likely.
Let's get this initial comment on Fractale's opener out of the way immediately: "Oooh, it looks a bit Ghibli-esque, doesn't it?". Although you've probably heard this a thousand times already, it does stand up as a valid comment - the shows setting has just the kind of feeling you might expect from a Miyazaki-directed piece, its general "vibe" certainly feels like something that could come from that studio, and let's face it Phryne's introduction could have been lifted straight out of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Now we've got that out of the open, perhaps we can discuss Fractale on its own terms, and judging by this first episode is certainly seems well and truly deserving of such a treatment. Although some of its minor elements seem frivolous (why not make Dopplers look like they're real-life counterparts if you have so much technology at hand?), these never detract from the almost indescribable feeling that this is something special. Despite its influences this feels fresh, by TV anime terms at least, while this episode and its characters never ceases to be entertaining even though we're far from clued in on what the show is building up to at this point in time.
It's never a good idea to judge an entire series on its first episode, so I'm not going to risk looking foolish by calling this out as the best show of the winter 2011 season by some distance, but it certainly has more than enough in its locker to force these words from my lips (or rather, from my keyboard) in a couple of months time.