The best thing about this screwy comedy is that we never know when it is lying. The direction is a massive exercise in sleight of hand, the script a riddle within a puzzle, and guessing what the hell is going on becomes the most compelling reason to keep watching.
Level E smells suspiciously like Men in Black, with a backdrop of aliens who immigrate to Earth for various reasons and live among unsuspecting humans. But instead of counting down to an epic intergalactic crisis topped with macho laser battles, it narrowly follows the social chaos that occurs when one self-absorbed and utterly brilliant alien, Ouji of Dogura, throws misadventure and misfortune in everyone’s way. Indeed, this is comedy played any way but straight, and it relies mostly on the Prince being a complete dick while the rest of the cast try not to implode with frustration.
With no substantial stories and just a string of misadventures and non-sequiturs, there is really no point to Level E except to give Ouji a platform to fuck around. Veering from parodies of Power Rangers to moral parables on the ethics of poaching before swerving back to dubious character arcs, Level E simply relishes its moment in the viewers’ attention to do whatever the hell it wants. Any uncharacteristic sober lapses, for instance, quickly dissolve in the face of troll jokes.
This is a delightfully creative work and one of the most intriguing uses of aliens I’ve seen in recent years (although the manga is from the 1990s when this topic was trendy). But Level E is also a textbook case of fizzling out. Between the stunning introductory episodes, which arguably deliver the biggest laughs, and the final episode, which has the most fulfilling surprises, there lie a few misfires. One oddly sentimental diversion follows a mermaid-alien as she fights nasty poachers with the help of school children, while another has the heroes trying to prevent a nasty alien race of insect-like females marrying a human. These instalments do not, frankly speaking, make the grade, although they act as tolerable padding for a show this short and eclectic.
Level E doesn’t deserve the animation it gets - with such frenetic, schizophrenic content, I would have assumed a lackadaisical cartoon style to match. But Studio Pierrot has given it a sober, clean appearance and borderline bishounen character designs that seem altogether too pleasant. Admittedly, the budget doesn’t stretch as far as sassy-looking action or intriguing environments, but it looks deceptively sophisticated.
The soundtrack is modest and barely noticeable; apart from complementing scenes or adequately book-ending the content, it makes no significant impact.
If Level E can be said to be about anything in particular, it would be Ouji. His eccentricities not only dictate much of the comedy but also set the tone for the story. Simply put, things happen in Level E because the Ouji wants them to. It’s always gratifying to observe a narrative so wholly absorbed by one personality (the last example I remember is Light’s performance in Death Note). What makes Ouji a powerfully attractive protagonist is his enigma: all his words are lies nestled in truths or just plain lies, and sometimes he will speak the truth in a manner that looks suspiciously like a lie. The source of amusement (and his co-stars’ frustration) is the act of detangling his speech and behaviour to minimise collateral and psychological damage. In one sense, Level E becomes an extended character study of this individual so utterly removed from our reality not just biologically, but also mentally.
Ouji’s only rival for attention is the long-suffering bodyguard, Kraft. Kraft’s eye-reddening, vein-popping, twitching rages as the Prince systematically ruins his life fill in the gaps of relatable emotion where the Prince has no reach. As for the others, don’t get attached to them; none make any significant contributions except to get caught in Ouji’s madness and often exit the story as inexplicably as they enter it. Yukitaka Tsutsui is a particularly curious case as he appears to take the role of half of the comedy duo from the start only to be pushed aside two episodes down the line as the show runs in new directions.
Level E is an example of what happens when you come up with a great character and cater to his every whim. With snappy, on-the-beat comic timing and an eagerness to astonish the audience, Level E declares in a triumphantly addictive howl: ‘Just fuckin’ with ya!’ It is insane and unpredictable in a way that is simultaneously easy to relax with, although that same inconsistency means it guarantees only a smile a minute and maybe a laugh every ten.
Yukitaka has just left Tokyo, eager to transfer to Kisaragi High where he's been recruited to play baseball. However, upon entering his new apartment, the boy is met by a man with long blonde hair who claims to be… an alien?! After initially scoffing at the notion, Yukitaka discovers that the alien – Ouji – is for real, has amnesia and, what's worse, now wants to live with him in his apartment. The fact that scientists and mysterious guys in black suits are after Ouji becomes the least of Yukitaka's problems as his new guest turns out to be more than a handful to handle!
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