Reviewing Un-Go and some thoughts on anime overall

ungoSiren Visual have re-positioned themselves over the last couple of years as an impressive second voice in Australian anime licensing. A few years ago their anime focus was hentai and the occasional mainstream title, but they’ve since identified a valuable niche: off-beat anime that isn’t easily categorisable, in contrast to Madman’s preference for more established genres and styles.

That’s an overly reductive assessment of both companies, but Siren’s approach clearly leans toward bringing less conventional anime to the Australian market. Some titles like Casshern Sins and Tiger and Bunny are more ‘mainstream’, but Siren have gone as far as releasing titles completely unavailable in English-speaking countries as subtitle-only editions. They brought the highly acclaimed Kaiba to Australia last year after most territories no doubt saw its hallucinogenic fusion of Tezuka-style character design and SF spirituality as too uncommercial a prospect. Likewise, the younger-skewing but thematically rich augmented-reality SF series Dennou Coil was released here late last year. Siren is no doubt prompting anime fans in the UK and US to now start looking to Australia for anime imports.

I admire Siren for taking a chance on material that bigger companies have rejected, and without having any financial figures to hand it certainly seems to be paying off for them, with a steady stream of quality titles hitting the shelves.

Siren have also teamed up with Anime News Network to stream anime series within a day of their broadcast in Japan in advance of an eventual DVD release. Thanks to websites like Crunchyroll and the big US licensors like Funimation, instant streaming is becoming a fixture in order to combat piracy. Madman have streamed certain series for Australian fans for a couple of years now.

One of these shows from Siren/ANN is Un-Go, part of the Noitamina line-up of shows on Japan’s Fuji Television network. Noitamina is intended to showcase more experimental and unconventional anime, so Siren has naturally licenced several of its shows. Un-Go is one of the most traditional Noitamina shows I’ve seen, but it fits with the block’s ethos by cramming in a bewildering array of concepts.

Un-Go has the framework of a mystery series, as Shinjuurou Yuuki–the Defeated Detective–solves crimes in a contemporary Japan that has recently been ravaged by war and terrorism. His assistant, or boss, is Inga, a young boy who inexplicably transforms at certain points into a buxom woman capable of drawing the truth to a single question from anyone she asks. Why the two work together is a key mystery, but they have a mutually beneficial agreement of some kind.

Most episodes stand alone, but elements from those stories are gradually grafted on to the central arc. Unfortunately, that arc is nearly incomprehensible because the script crams in backstory and secondary characters to breaking point. A recent war or calamity is almost an anime cliche now, so maybe a sense of obligation led to its inclusion here. Otherwise, there is little reason for it that I can discern because it has virtually no bearing on the plot. So many elements of this show fail to cohere, partially because eleven episodes is not enough to do justice to the story the team establish here in brush strokes. Anime stories–particularly their conclusions–can be emotionally and instinctively satisfying even when the narrative isn’t understood on first viewing (see Evangelion and RahXephon), but there have to be enough episodes to build the story and characters to that point.

Plus, key elements of Un-Go lay limp. Shinjuurou is an inert protagonist, the typical stern-but-stylish anime dude, so the stories frequently fall flat because it’s hard to feel anything for him. Inga’s talent for questioning is also utterly contrived, similar to how Death Note‘s many arbitrary rules undermined the authenticity of the narrative.

The parts of the show that do work unfortunately race by so quickly that we have no time to understand or engage with them. Un-Go has a number of intriguing elements, such as an imprisoned novelist trying to alter reality (I think…) and the gender-shifting duality of Inga, but they are addressed too rapidly to make much impact. This speed also sabotages any emotional investment. As with much anime, overly emotive characters are here felt to be a valid substitute for involving the viewer emotionally. Combined with the breakneck plotting, you’re just left to sit and observe rather than truly watch.

I’ve watched anime more over the last couple of years than I typically have since I first encountered the medium in the late 90s with Evangelion and Akira, and I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that the aesthetics and concepts of anime are frequently more appealing than the shows themselves. Although I haven’t watched an exhaustive amount lately, the anime shows I have seen have mostly underwhelmed, with the exception of Eden of the East, RahXephon, and Paranoia Agent. Even Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex didn’t grip me as I expected, despite having so much to offer aesthetically and conceptually.

I’m coming to the conclusion that anime is spending more time on the presentation of the meal than the meal itself, and I don’t merely mean the design and other aesthetic elements. A lot of time is clearly spent on concepts and ideas, but rarely do the scripts bring these ideas to fruition. Little time is spent on characters who genuinely resonate so they can deliver those ideas to us.

I’ve been left wanting enough times now that I need to be more picky with the anime I watch, not just watch the shows that are available through the excellent service that is legal streaming just because the service is there. With so much out there, part of me just wanted to have a ton of great stuff to comprehensively gorge on, as serious anime fans clearly do based on online discussions. But I’ve luxuriated in the compelling aura of anime enough now to have had my fill of anime-as-experience, and now want to devote the anime time I have to the truly good works that come along rather than persevere with shows that feel half-baked.

Besides, there’s still more great shows out there than I probably have time to watch in full, but I need to wait a while to see how they’re received by reviewers I trust. Un-Go passed the time, but not enjoyably enough that I should have watched all eleven episodes. I salute Siren for providing this service and will sample any interesting shows they provide (I adored what I saw of Usagi Drop, for instance, and will buy the DVD), but Un-Go has been a valuable experience in being more judicious.

Anime is special and it’s easy to think it’s consistently great because of the impact it’s had on Western pop culture and the passion of its fanbase, but it’s just as susceptible to Sturgeon’s Law as any other medium.

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