Dementia anime were scarse back when this show aired and made quite an impression for that reason. It is also a surprise to come from a studio such as Pierrot, since it is not yet another silly shounen adventure. Its production values though are poor, as the norm goes in most of their titles.
Like a Picasso painting, it is symbolic and artistically speaking the series is exceptional. At first glance, it has no attractive artwork, eye-catchy character figures or even originality in the backgrounds. Yet if you start to notice what’s going on under the surface you find various optical tricks and imagery to actually make you feel what the characters feel. The teaser in the beginning of every episode and the intro song are breath taking, without using explosions and other fancy but otherwise pointless visual effects. Fast camera changes, insane grimaces, serious tone of voice, mute characters moving while the sound of spinning cogs is heard, weird body mutilations, eerie songs and many more truly make you feel the anxiety, sadness or madness the characters experience. Forget about those ridiculous splatter movies that try to be scary by having a monster chasing and killing naked chicks. This series is scary by simply looking into the eyes of someone or even by the darkness enveloping the action.
The visuals are of course quite dated after all these years and many new viwers will have a hard time to watch the show. If the whole thing feels rather dull and crude, then try to see it this way. As in any good mecha series, you care about the pilots as much as you do about the cool robots. This series is not of the mecha genre but has robots. You are not supposed to care about how cool they are drawn or how great they fight (they are pretty ugly and slow to begin with). You are supposed to stick to the symbolisms and the body language, which tend to be rather subtle half the time. The show simply looks nice (in an artistic way of course, as it has lots of dementia that screws with your mind).
The series is, amongst other things, also about pop idols. It has nice songs that are not deified in any way as in other titles that promote singing. They don’t even do a playback most of the time so they feel more natural. Also, the voices vary from emotionless to over the top, so they have both variety and fit with the personality of their character.
The premise is very interesting and the story is philosophical and allegorical; exploring the things that make us human, set us apart from machines and turn us into monsters. It is a blend of Pinocchio, Ghost in the Shell and Looking for the Full Moon all in one. A girl that is considered to be a robot is raised by a mad scientist. The scientist dies while leaving a message that tells her to become human before her batteries run out. She must make 20.000 friends in order to do that so the only way she can think is religion or becoming a pop idol. She is aided by two people, a girl they grew up together that has inferiority complex, and the scientist’s aid. She is hunted by a secret organization that wants to use her for acquiring the technology to fuel terminator-like androids and monopolize the war trade. She faces another pop idol and her teacher, both of which went insane on power and fame. Even a mystical priestess that controls spirits comes along to make things even weirder than they already are.
Another great feature is how the story flips back and forth amongst the cast, making the story to unfold in a non-linear way. All the characters affect the story; even the minor ones. And all of them have a different feeling to add to the whole. A good way of coloring the story this way.
As artistic and mature as it may feel though, aesthetically speaking the series is quite bad. It has a really erratic plot that fluctuates from being very interesting to becoming very boring. Half the time, it feels like dead time instead of an emotional or scenario build-up. The characters will be standing idle, with weird grimaces and pondering about the meaning of life for half an hour … instead of just telling the truth, pressing the trigger, or just running away and ending all their troubles in 2 seconds. It has events that are left unexplored and others that begin and end out of the blue.
Another problem is how the peaking moments in the story are resolved in a silly magical way, which border Deus Ex Machina. And sure, it fits with the theme but it is still far fetched. Every time Key is in danger, her human supernatural side awakens and solves everything in a fairytale-like way. It almost feels like the villains in the story had no chance of winning in the first place.
It even fails to have a proper episode count, since it ends abdruptly in episode 13 and has two extra OVAs working as a finale. Said OVAs are very rushed and wrap up everything in a half-baked way, as if the show was supposed to get a second season that got canceled. Thus it is leaving you with a feeling of stupidity for expecting something sane to come out from such a great story. We had to endure Key turning into some sort of witch and making the bad guys go away and the good guys come back to life with a wave of her magic wand… Ok, it didn’t really happen like this (no spoilers) but you could easily do the parallelism with what truly happened in the end and the result would be the same. There is an ending (which in the anime world is rather rare) but it feels stupid (which is the norm of most stories, anyway).
The characters are drawn very generic so they are not attracting in the way they look. Their presence is felt by their actions and talking (which is a good thing). They all have distinct personalities, different mannerisms and various goals, making them rather realistic.
I say “rather realistic” because in times of anxiety or battle, they act like idiots. Indeed, a weird plague that has afflicted most anime, the cast acts out of place and does unreasonable things even when the course of action is pretty much obvious. Perhaps some will excuse this by saying that the characters are insane and don’t act properly under pressure. Or don’t act in obvious to an average viewer’s ways in moments of passion. Whatever the reason, you will feel like their reactions to something are stupid or unreasonable. Imagine having a mastermind of a multi-corporation in the form of an insane old man who likes to gut little girls and laugh like a madman while treating his employees like dirt. Or a muscular henchman who brakes orders every 5 minutes and wrecks havoc just because he feels like it. Or robots with super-strength that are supposed to be the top weapon on the block and yet move like snails and go haywire in every episode, making more trouble than providing results.
“You didn’t obey my orders and jeopardized my entire secret operation that will affect the future of humanity. I will punish you by giving you everything you need in order to make sure this will not happen again.”
Oh, well, dementia anime seem to dig this sort of characters…
Beyond all these ridiculous reactions, the characters do act in an appealing way. Key truly acts like a robot, with spaced out eyes and dry speech. Her friends truly act sad and depressed. The villains truly are megalomaniacs and crazed on power. If only they made sense too…
A generally ok watch. Still, by today’s standarts has little hopes of being very likable as dementia series have improved a lot in the last decade.
Ghost In The Shell
Battle Angel Alita (the manga)
Palme no Ki
And now for some excused scorings.
ART SECTION: 8/10
General Artwork 2/2 (artsy)
Character Figures 1/2 (generic)
Backgrounds 2/2 (basic but fitting with the feeling of the series)
Animation 1/2 (basic)
Visual Effects 2/2 (artsy)
SOUND SECTION: 7/10
Voice Acting 2/3 (corny but fitting with the feeling of the series)
Music Themes 3/4 (not great but fitting with the feeling of the series)
Sound Effects 2/3 (ok I guess)
STORY SECTION: 3/10
Premise 2/2 (interesting)
Pacing 0/2 (very erratic)
Complexity 0/2 (rich context)
Plausibility 0/2 (none)
Conclusion 1/2 (solid but cop-out)
CHARACTER SECTION: 6/10
Presence 1/2 (generic)
Personality 2/2 (rather cheesy but well founded)
Backdrop 1/2 (generic and simplistic but it’s there)
Development 1/2 (overblown but it’s there)
Catharsis 1/2 (overblown but it’s there)
VALUE SECTION: 3/10
Historical Value 0/3: Forgotten.
Rewatchability 0/3: The erratic plot ruins most chances of watching it again.
Memorability 3/4: It packs a great story and has partially interesting characters. Generally, something worth remembering.
ENJOYMENT SECTION: 5/10
Art 1/1 (looks artsy)
Sound 1/2 (I liked the songs)
Story 1/3 (interesting premise but presented in a very messy way)
Characters 2/4 (they are interesting but tend to act silly half the time)