Saturday, February 28, 2015

:anime: Final Impression:: Alien 9

You can expect a lot of this…

[Also February's Free/Low-Cost Anime Pick!]

Review: Alien 9
Alt. Title: Alien Nine

Additional Links: ANN Entry, MAL Entry, HD's After-Review
Video {Free [Streaming]}: Hulu

Debuting in 2011, Puella Magi Madoka Magica captivated scores, even non-fans, with its gripping and emotional tale about "magical girls" and what it truly meant to be one. Its subversion of the genre, depth, and level of mastery led to being considered among the best anime ever made. Its approach of the subject was novel, as well, but Alien 9—a now-obscure TV special/OVA made a decade prior—not only compares favorably to it, but perhaps surpasses its poignant heights.

Yuri Otani is an ordinary, wishy-washy sixth-grader who is starting the new school year off on the wrong foot. Namely, she is elected class representative…for the hunt of stray aliens wandering the school grounds. Joining her in the school's "Alien Party" are two fellow sixth graders: the tall, mature Kumi Kawamura and eclectic, all-around overachiever Kasumi Tomine (both of whom, unlike Yuri, volunteered for the task). The three girls are not alone in their efforts, as each are paired with a small, symbiotic, winged alien organism called a "Borg", which they affix on top of their heads. They lend their assistance in finding and corralling the wayfarers and help protect their hosts, and in return, they are allowed to consume the waste of their host (their sweat usually suffices). While Kumi and Kasumi form quick bonds with their Borgs, the whole experience proves more tenuous and uncomfortable for the easily-perturbed Yuri…

Though Alien 9 is technically not a magical girl show, by form-and-function, it largely is. Seeing that type of yarn play out against the backdrop of "everyday sci-fi" lends the series a certain distinction, a vibe buoyed by an expressive color palette and production design that gives its world a feeling that is familiar, but otherworldly; real, yet incredible; warm, but isolated. "Dichotomy" is at play through the very crevasses of Alien 9, not just in its aesthetics, also with its characters, setting, and the story itself, as not everything, everyone, or every situation is what they appear to be at face value. Cutely-designed girls rollerblading with lacrosse sticks and weird aliens on their heads is bizarre, yet innocuous and straightforward enough, at first. The girls and their group dynamic seems pegged down, at least, from the outset. What type of story it will all be seems assured. Yet, what appears to be a nice, "out-there", "magical girl"-ish show proves to be a tale that is very emotional, personal, psychological, and in a number of ways, tragic.

That mangaka Hitoshi Tomizawa (Battle Royale II: Blitz Royale, Yume Nikki) is a big aficionado of Gundam creator Yoshiyuki Tomino (the artist formerly nicknamed, "Kill 'Em All"…) may give one an indication of what to expect in Alien 9. The anime adaptation is very faithful to the original manga, though it only covers a little less than half of the three-volume series—or, ostensibly, Act 1 of 2 (not including its single-volume sequel, Alien 9 Emulators). That does not diminish the strength or the impact of the story that is told in it, though its ending, unsurprisingly, may not sit well with some. Regardless, the adaptation does an excellent job at developing and delving into the lives and minds of the three girls through the four episodes allotted (roughly two hours in total). In spite of their whimsically-unorthodox designs (whose mileage may ultimately vary), the trauma and internal struggles they go through feel very real, and the series does not shy from getting gritty or going deep into their psyches and fears. The lion's share of its success on that front goes to the voice actresses in both the Japanese and English versions, who deliver laudable and completely authentic performances, particularly during the more distressing moments in the series. As a whole, you can't go wrong with either language option, as both are outstanding and worth a listen to, however your preference.

Though predominately a dark and dramatic work, Alien 9 still is able to find a good balance between that and more lighthearted elements, such as Yuri coping with her Borg, her sublime dream sequences, and naturally, some of the alien hunting. Though Jiro Fujimoto gets the billing on the disc release, character designer Yasuhiro Irie (future Kurau: Phantom Memory, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, CODE:BREAKER director) helmed the rest of series past the first episode, with screenwriting great Sadayuki Murai (Millennium Actress, Perfect Blue, Boogiepop Phantom, Knights of Sidonia) and Seishi Minakami (A Certain Scientific Railgun, No. 6, Birdy the Mighty: Decode, Paranoia Agent) splitting writing duties odds-and-evens, respectively. Given the talent involved and their credentials (both prior and after), there is little surprise that Alien 9 manages to attain that particular balance and atmosphere, while bringing the source material to full life. Like many masterworks, it succeeds at not only hitting all of the right notes, but surpassing them as well, making a lasting impression in the end. J.C.STAFF's (Nodame Cantabile, A Certain Scientific Index / Railgun, Revolutionary Girl Utena, Toradora!) production fits that bill as well and is suitably high—to be expected of an OVA-level show, even in spite of its age—and Kuniaki Haishima's (Macross Zero, MONSTER, Blue Gender) ever-unique music style fits a show like Alien 9 like a glove. The peppy opening by the seiyuu of the Alien Party and the melancholic ending by en avant further demonstrate the anime's overarching dichotomy and are quite good in their own rights (especially the ending theme).

While Alien 9 enjoyed some popularity and notoriety in the early 2000s, it largely faded away amongst the crashing waves of other digital animations appearing on the scene in subsequent years. It may have also been a product that was likely ahead of its time, as its quirky nature and designs and its darker thematics likely lent it a more difficult attach rate than if it had come out today. Having viewed it multiple times, Puella Magi Madoka Magica has more than deserved every bit of praise and accolade it has received, and I would not rank Alien 9, which I recently watched again after a few years, ahead of it as a whole body of work. The latter ranks close under it and they certainly share many similarities and traits, but the former is too exceptional and special to deny its place; it is simply better. However, I do believe that Alien 9 is the more emotionally-powerful and impactful of the two, quickly reminding me of why I was so enraptured by it long ago at its conclusion. That is to take nothing away from Madoka Magica's own effectual strengths, but even so, the 2001 anime has the edge over it in that regard. In a sense, they are akin to being two sides of the same coin—and to say that alone in respect to the most celebrated anime in over a decade should be indicative enough of what Alien 9, all these years later, remains capable of.

(Watched Alien 9? Stop by for some additional thoughts at the "After-Review", here!!)

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