(13 episodes, 1999)
My previous exposure
This is the first review I’m doing because it’s been recommended in this thread. Beyond that, I don’t know much about the series, aside that (1) it’s grim, and (2) the main villain has been compared to Fractale‘s.
What’s it about ?
Shu, our protagonist, was just an ordinary middle-schooler until he met bizarre blue-haired girl Lala Ru. Before they can have a proper conversation, though, they’re transported into another world and captured by soldiers from Hellywood, the main baddies of the series.
To say that Hellywood is a hellhole is an understatement. This desert fortress is ruled by Hamdo, a raving madman, and ultra-professional yes-woman Abelia. They replenish their army by raiding the villages around them and enrolling the boys by force. (They also take the women and girls for, er, a more long-term approach.) They seek Lala Ru because she holds the power of creating water out of nowhere, which is obviously a hot commodity on this dying desert world.
Other major characters include Sarah, an American girl Abelia mistook for Lala Ru and captured before noticing her mistake ; and Nabuca, the kid leader of the brigade Shu is thrown into after interrogation.
I had to double-check the date of production, as the artstyle and character design are something I associate much more with the early 90s or earlier than 1999 (it certainly doesn’t look like any other late-90s show I’ve ever watched). But then, that’s probably the point : it lures us into a false sense of security by looking like “safe” children’s entertainment before wheeling out the torture, mass-slaughter and rape. It takes some getting used to, but the animation is perfectly okay.
The soundtrack comes courtesy of my favourite composer, Taku Iwasaki (you should have told me !). While it’s way too early for him to be randomly inserting rap lyrics everywhere, he’s still very recognizable thanks to his reliance on big sweeping violins numbers and those weird water-y percussions that should be familiar to any watcher of Witch Hunter Robin or Read or Die. It’s sometimes a bit clumsy, but his brillance at establishing mood was already clearly in effect.
What did I think of it ?
Well, this is certainly a grim series. My DVDs include an interview with the director where he states he was inspired by documentaries about African child soldiers, and it certain shows. All of the ways Hellywood perpetuates itself and the cycle of violence are distressingly realistic, and the series doesn’t shy away from explaining the specifics, up to and including institutionalized rape (although it stops just short of depicting it graphically). No character escapes unscathed…
… With the exception of Shu, whose boundless optimism and energy staggers disbelief. (Climbing up ventilation shafts just after being tortured and shot twice ? Uh ?) I can’t complain too much, though ; without him around to protest about how horrible this world is, and actually trying to make things better, the series would fall into an inescapable pit of despair. (Lala Ru’s pretty much resigned herself after thousands of years of being fought over, and Sarah, while perfectly capable of saving herself on her own, was well on her way to join the circle of violence if Shu hadn’t stepped in.) His presence, however implausible his resilience, is the catalyst for change.
And this is where we hit the series’ weakness : while it’s very good at depicting this hellish world and characterizing how nearly everyone is part of the problem, it doesn’t offer much depth beyond that. The whole narrative is subservient to its “war is hell” message, and however good a rendition it is, it doesn’t manage to really rise above it. The issue may be with the characters, who remain mostly one-dimensional throughout.
This is certainly a show worth watching ; but its shortcomings prevent it from really winning a place among my favourites.