Why are aliens so attracted to Earth? It's a question that many fans of science fiction have pondered at one time or another, and there have been a number of different answers - vacations, natural resources, food and water, building a hyperspace by-pass, enslaving the population, experiments and general curiosity (to name a few). Of all the possible explanations though, boredom and baseball are two that probably wouldn't spring to mind.
Togashi Yoshihiro is a name that fans of Yu Yu Hakusho and Hunter x Hunter will recognise, and as popular as those two franchises are, like every mangaka he has a few skeletons buried in his closet, one of which is Level E. The original manga was serialized in Weekly Shounen Jump from 1995 to 1997 for a total of sixteen chapters, and in a very weird irony (or maybe it's fate), since 2003 Gintama has also been serialized in the same magazine, and it's a good bet that Sorachi Hideaki found some inspiration from Togashi's earlier work.
The story begins with Tsutsui Yukitaka, a young man who is due to attend Kisaragi High School in Yamagata in order to play baseball. Unbeknownst to him, aliens from across the galaxy have come to live on Earth, and while they are all aware of each other, humanity has little to no knowledge of their presence (thanks to some fancy disguises). Tsutsui's troubles begin when he finds an elegant young man sitting in his new apartment, wearing his clothes, reading his books and drinking his tea. He is Baka Ki El Dogra, an alien who has crash landed on Earth and is now suffering from amnesia.
What follows is a story about the beneficial relationship built up between aliens and humans by bonds of trust, respect, friendship, and all those other nice things.
And if you believe that then you probably watched E.T. instead of Level E.
Now at first glance it may seem like the plot is focused on simply telling short stories over the course of thirteen episodes, and to a certain degree this would be a fair assessment. That said, one of the things that is generally overlooked is the overarching theme of the series as it isn't immediately obvious. The reason for this because there is very little in the way of continuity between story arcs, and even with "subtle" reminders viewers will often forget that this tale is really about boredom, and the lengths to which a person will go in order to be "entertained".
There is a serious side to proceedings though. Level E features some dark topics which can sometimes seem at odds with the fact that it's a relatively lighthearted anime, but like Gintama these act as a foil to keep things interesting while offering the viewer some food for thought (the whole thing with the baseball stadium being one example of this). The apparent lack of any real direction to the storyline is also purposeful as it allows for a style of situation comedy that many shows have attempted over the years, but few have actually mastered. The quirky blend of parody, slapstick and satire can sometimes be reminiscent of a good episode of Blackadder or Red Dwarf, and Togashi's distinctive sense of humour has been retained, refined, and on a few occasions, improved upon.
Which rather neatly leads me on to the visuals.
Level E has had quite a face lift from the realistic designs of the mid 1990s, but this is actually an improvement as anyone who has read manga will know that in terms of looks, it hasn't aged well. The characters are particularly noteworthy as rather than completely re-inventing them, Takeda Itsuko has instead decided to retain specific physical traits from the original design, and simply update clothing, facial structures and features, etc. Now offering praise here may seem counter intuitive to some, as the generally accepted rule for adaptations is that aspects like character design aren't that important as much of the work has already been done. The truth is that completely redesigning or simply adapting from a different medium is easy in comparison to making something look fresh and new whilst retaining key elements of the original work, and that applies to almost everything in this anime, from the characters and backgrounds, to the aliens and their spaceships.
One of the more surprising things about Level E is the quality of the animation, especially the sometimes exaggerated actions during comedy sketches. The irony here is that while the characters generally move very well, it's Baka's cartoon-like antics and deadpan delivery that really steal the show. In addition to this quality of the CG is pretty good, but not without fault as there are a few odd moments that do stand out. That said, special attention has been paid to spaceships and visual effects to create some rather imaginative set pieces that add a different dimension to the series.
The opening theme, Cold Finger Girl by Kuriyama Chiaki, features a decidedly pop art styled sequence that, aside from the aliens, has almost nothing to do with the main theme of Level E. In essence the OP is nothing more than a joke on the viewer as it is designed to make you think this is a serious anime, and in that respect it reminded me a little of the trick played by Renkin San-kyuu Magical? Pokan. The ending theme, (Yume) ~Mugennokanata~ by Vivid, features a more traditional sequence that focuses on starry skies, planets, UFO sightings, cattle abductions, and close ups of Baka's face as he looks windswept and interesting.
To be honest, there's so much cheese in the ED that you could easily start a business, yet like the OP one can't help but think that somebody, somewhere, is having a laugh at the viewer's expense.
As for the background music, there are a variety of suitable tracks on offer that remain rather subtle, but add definition to particular scenes. The score and audio effects are well choreographed, but it's the acting that takes pride of place, thanks in part to the lack of background music in many scenes. Namikawa Daisuke hasn't had many lead roles in comedy anime, which makes his portrayal of Baka Ki El Dogra truly surprising as he excels not only in terms of timing, but also delivery. The rest of the cast perform to a very high standard as well, but in a very real sense they're nothing more than the stage upon which Namikawa's Baka frolics, dances, and generally amuses himself.
Now given that this is a comedy series one might still expect a degree of character development, but that isn't actually the case. What Level E does have though, is characterisation, and lots of it. Everyone is clearly defined as an individual from the outset, with all the quirks and foibles that come with being a free thinking individual who is subject to no man or alien overlord.
Except for when they're dealing with a certain blond haired, blue eyed humanoid.
Baka is quite simply the dynamo that drives everything in Level E, and his indefatigable spirit, unbreakable will, and towering intellect are ever present in his constant search for something amusing or interesting. In many respects his entire personality (barring the intelligence), is very similar to Guu's (from Jungle wa Itsumo Hale Nochi Guu), in that both really do care little for the people that get dragged into their schemes, and both really seem to enjoy making their closest companions have a nervous breakdown.
Level E's humourous approach to alien/human relations is something that may initially sound like a straight copy of Gintama, but don't be fooled. While the two bear some similarities, at their core they're as different as chalk and cheese. The irony is that this series actually makes a great introduction for those who want to know how funny Gintama is, but are daunted by 200+ episodes. Then again, maybe it's only natural for their to be some link between the two given the history of the original manga. Suffice to say that anyone who likes comedies about aliens on Earth, or strange little girls who tend to eat, well, everything (and I do mean that), will probably find something appealing in this series.
That said, as enjoyable as this show is, it's unfortunately more of a blip on the radar than a sign of changing trends in the anime industry. Sadly the future looks set to contain more high schools and harems, which is a shame as Level E is a fine example of how good manga, novel or game adaptations could be, especially if the source material is up to standard.
Still, it's better than having Baka in charge, so I suppose we should count our blessings.