One of Gonzo’s biggest hits, especially on Western shores, has been Saikano, an anime with the kind of premise that unfortunately contributes significantly to the occidental preconceptions of what an anime is. Admittedly, summarising the show makes it sound utterly ludicrous: in war-torn near-future Japan, a teenaged boy called Shuji is dating a cute, clumsy young girl from his school named Chise, only to find out she has a secret – she has been experimented on by the military to make her THE ULTIMATE WEAPON, capable of going into a trance, growing techo-wings and developing an angelic luminosity, then shooting out loads of ROCKETS AND STUFF. Contained within her is enough firepower to level whole cities.
Uh-huh. That’s pretty silly. But while the concept is the biggest problem with Saikano, it’s also what really defines it. I don’t mean that it makes it profound, full of Freudian symbolism about anxiety over female empowerment – I’d really call that projection, or shoehorning. But the way the concept is treated is what makes Saikano interesting.
For most of the series, this isn’t really about a girl who’s full of nukes. It’s about a girl with a job she’s ashamed of, and the way that affects her relationship. It could have been, say, that she had to take off her clothes for saucy modelling or striptease, or that she worked in a morgue, anything that would make her angsty and teary-eyed so that the everyman boyfriend could assure her everything was fine and he would always protect her. Okay, we’re less in Freud’s territory than in Jungian ground here, but it’s a well-known fact that the feeble, childlike girl being protected by the taciturn alpha male sells to the young male Japanese market.
But as I was saying, it’s the way that the weapon-girl plot is somewhat peripheral until it provides a typically 90s-anime apocalyptic, faux-philosophical climax at the end that makes this an interesting experiment, and Gonzo are famous for taking risks. Overlaying what is essentially a typical seinen romance story, in which the male lead is tortured by doubt, angst and temptation while his girlfriend is going through problematic times, with this extreme story of WWIII (the enemies all speak English, though it should be remembered that in anime, ~90% of all foreigners are English-speaking (9% of the rest are Chinese), and it often seems as though foreign=American) very much in the background makes you take the idea seriously – but then you just think, ‘Why not make their problems about something less daft?’ Gradually the focus shifts to the war, and you realise that nothing else could really bring out such extremes of emotion as, well, massacring whole cities, over and over again.
In the end, though, it’s too much, too extreme, too silly. How can you identify with that? Can you really believe someone going through that can just sniffle a bit and find release having sex with their boyfriend in an adorably coy way? It’s an interesting treatment of an extreme idea, but in the end, it comes up short, and emotionally it’s far too shallow. I’m not sure it could’ve been done any other way, except to make it a real-world story, without the war…and then the show would’ve been just another romance story, coming and going without anything to hook people in. It was a brave attempt, but for me, at least, it didn’t work. If what you want is nothing more than a veneer of the cerebral, some explosions and a submissive, mewling teenaged girl looking cute and vulnerable, then perhaps you’ll like Saikano more than I did. Hey, if you watch the utterly superfluous OVA, centred on Chise’s predecessor, you can even see some boobies! That amply demonstrated for me just who the target audience for this show was.
The art is distinctive but in my opinion, those round noses and soft cheeks were kind of ugly, and the animation is very plain, other than some interesting flight-n-fight animations and a great CG tidal wave towards the end, which was somewhat ahead of its time. Gonzo would go on to much greater things, like Last Exile and Gankutsuou, but this was a classic at least worth watching, if not re-watching.
(originally written 16.2.07)