Known online as the undefeatable "_" (blank) teenage Sora (voiced by Yoshitsugu Matsuoka) and his kawaii kid sister Shiro (Ai Kayano) are obsessive gamers. They will play anything: chess, cards, RPGs, rock-paper-scissors. And always win. While Shiro is a child genius who can out-think, strategize and calculate anyone, big bro Sora is a master manipulator. He can cheat his way out of any situation and shrewdly psychoanalyze an opponent to his advantage. Even with these uncanny abilities nothing prepares Sora and Shiro for being yanked through cyberspace into a trippy candy-coloured dimension ruled by childlike god Tet (Rie Kugimiya).
Intrigued by their abilities, Tet invites them to test their skills in a mind-bending fantasy realm where violence is outlawed and conflict between rival kingdoms is settled through games. The pair strike up a love-hate alliance with hapless, voluptuous Stephanie Dola (Yoko Hikasa), a princess of Imanity (a.k.a. Humanity) the lowest ranked kingdom on the global pecking order. As Sora and Shiro rack up wins in various games they become de facto rulers of Imanity. From there they take on Steph's enigmatic rival Kuromi (Yuka Iguchi) and her Elf ally Fil (Mamiko Noto) in a life-or-death game of cards, tame Jibril (Yukari Tamura) a gorgeous angel (in both literal and Victoria's Secret terms of the word, judging by the constant fan-service ogling of her lingerie-clad bod) who controls a library with all the knowledge in the world and battle potty-mouthed but oh-so-cute cat-eared waif Izuna (Miyuki Sawashiro), champion of the bestial Warbeasts, in a first-person shooter/love simulation game (?!). As Sora humbly puts it: "We'll start by conquering the world but our ultimate goal is to defeat God."
No Game, No Life embodies Japanese animation's unique ability to pander to the masturbatory fantasies of adolescent viewers and simultaneously stimulate their intellect. On the one hand in adapting the series of novels by Yuu Kamiya (pen name for controversial Japanese-Brazilian writer-artist Thiago Furukawa Lucas) the creators are shamelessly unsubtle in their efforts to hook the young male audience. Not just with the tried-and-tested The Last Starfighter-by-way-of-Tron wish-fulfillment fantasy but also a parade of jiggling breasts, pert derrieres and girl-on-girl fondling. The series yokes a great deal of Carry On-style comedy from various sexual shenanigans. Not to mention the strange co-dependent, borderline incestuous relationship shared by Sora and Shiro who is very much a stock soft-spoken Lolita-archetype of the sort wildly popular in Japanese pop culture. At the same time No Game, No Life counterbalances its baser instincts with a disarmingly cerebral story. Far from clueless nerds thrust into a fantasy world they cannot comprehend, gaming makes Sora and Shiro remarkably shrewd and savvy.
The game set-pieces are the show's driving force. Each showdown puts an ingenious spin on everything from first-person shooters to rock-paper-scissors. With friendships, lives and the fate of entire civilizations dependent upon the gamers' skills, the plot puts the emphasis on strategy and analysis as a window into the human soul. Trust also comes into play as the story shines a light on Sora and Shiro's intense symbiotic relationship and develops their bond with supporting characters in surprisingly moving ways. It also feeds into a deeply Japanese concept: the idea of gaming as a means to understand each other and grow. Both as individual people and a culture. Shifting art styles to parody other famous manga and anime (blink and you'll miss an amusing one-shot gag spoofing Hayao Miyazaki's classic Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)), No Game, No Life walks the tightrope between slapstick silliness and cerebral storytelling in a surprisingly sophisticated way. It pokes fun at its own artificiality with an abundance of meta humour but also springs the odd mind-bending twist that makes us question the reality of everything we have seen.
Fluidly animated in dazzling psychedelic colours the show boasts fabulously evocative production design. In terms of spectacle the show outdoes many a live action science fiction fantasy. If its impact is somewhat diluted by hit-and-miss prurient humour, the story is still capable of taking a left turn into the unexpectedly profound. Like Game of Thrones, No Game, No Life is unafraid to venture into fascinating sociopolitical territory. Only its outlook is fiercely optimistic as the heroes empower an underclass and embolden the weak, even though it is only a byproduct of an agenda driven by their own cockiness and raging libido.