(26 episodes, 2001)
My previous exposure
It’s another of the many series from Spring 2001 I checked out in this previous post. The first episode was so bizarre I knew I had to view it in full eventually.
What’s it about ?
The year 2070. It turns out that a little Japanese town has been a hub of alien activity for thousands of years, with numerous “diplomats” (read : spies) lounging around conspicuously. The reason for this is Shingu, a huge mecha-like weapon of tremendous power hidden there, that obviously everyone and their mother would like to get their hands on (or at least not to fall into anyone else’s hands). The biggest faction around is the Galactic Alliance, who have made sure to keep Earth as a “primitive reserve” with no public alien presence for so long, although obviously that status quo won’t stand for much longer (especially after the big showy alien incursion defeated by Shingu in the first episode).
Our point of view character is Hajime, a middle-schooler whose family has been living in the small town for a few years (so he isn’t initially aware of the ancient conspiracy). Other major characters include the members of the Absurdly Powerful Student Council, who are not-so-coincidentally this generation’s Shingu controllers (the previous generation got wiped out 11 years ago in an incident nobody likes to talk about), and especially Nayuta, the tsundere vice-president who does the actual controlling.
Oh, and there’s this Muryo dude, who comes from another village with its own ancient alien conspiracy, is better than everyone at anything, seems to know a lot more than he should, and still remains annoyingly affable about it. I can’t fault people like Nayuta finding him unbearably frustrating. And his sister is even more annoying (I’ve never seen super-speed used more effectively to needle people on playfully).
There are basically two major parallel story threads interwoven together : the kids having a (nearly) normal school life and occasionally fighting stuff (also : angst ! but only for a few of them…), and the adults discussing stuff diplomatically and providing the required exposition about the context needed to understand the actual plot. They’re mostly disjointed from each other, mostly because the complex diplomacy stuff is way over the kids’ heads.
What did I think of it ?
This is a very bizarre series. Objectively we’ve got a complex and convoluted plot with tons of factions that don’t trust each other one bit, some very violent (and well-staged) fight scenes, some very high stakes indeed… but most of the screen time is shared between (1) inoffensive school hijinks and (2) people politely discussing the plot over a cup of tea. Indeed, most of the action sequences are preludes to bringing one or more parties to sit down and calmly discuss matters. (The exceptions are usually morons making a hasty attack and getting crushed for it.) As a result, the overall mood is very sedate indeed.
For once, I (mostly) approve of the complete name change by the US localization. This show is definitely completely about Shingu, while Muryo mostly stays on the edges of the story and barely ever contributes anything to the plot (the story may even work without him being there at all). And that’s a deliberate choice on his part in-story, too. This series is full of very powerful (and backstory-important) characters who prefer staying in the background so as to not wreck the carefully-established equilibrium, only stepping in when needed. It could be infuriating, but the show mostly pulls it off.
There’s definitely a charm to it, as one easily gets involved into the growing Hajime/Nayuta relationship (or even Kyoichi/Harumi – I’m a sucker for awkward characters voiced by Tomokazu Sugita). On the other hand, it’s hard to really get into the complex diplomatic talks, because so much of it happens off-screen and makes it impossible to guess exactly what’s happening (one particular very belligerant faction gets no explanation whatsoever – everyone’s puzzled as to who they might be, and they get obliterated too early in the climax to get relevant). Most of the characters play their hand very close to the vest, hiding whatever they’re up and whoever they’re really affiliated to under layers of deception. (The king of this being Ziltosh, the loud and affable Hawaian-shirt-wearing alien who seems to be working for everyone at once.) I sometimes felt like the show wasn’t really playing fair with this, as a lot of it consists of red herrings hiding the actual climax brewing.
So, does it work ? Not entirely. It certainly gets points for attempting something completely different with the “mecha fights off alien invasion” genre. The characterization work is impressive : most characters (including the aliens) feel very human indeed, with one glaring exception (Muryo, who stays an enigma throughout). But there are definite pacing problems, from awkward “did I miss an episode ? Ah, no, here’s a flashback to fill me on this pointless in media res opening scene” moments, to a not-so-successful handling of rising tension (which sometimes deflates far too quickly). And while a lot of it is quite funny, there are a good number of jokes that feel entirely alien. And I’m not convinced the ending really works.
There’s a lot to like here, but the show doesn’t manage to strike the perfect balance. Nice try, though.