SaiKano: Dark, Dank, Depressing Anime

SaikanoI was, for many, many, many years, a huge anime fan.  In fact, I was a fan before it was cool.  I started watching it in the late 70s, I ran one of the largest anime fan groups around, I had one of the biggest independent collections of anime in the U.S., etc.  However, in recent years, Japan just hasn’t been putting out much that I’m really interested in, I’m a big sci-fi fan, particularly of mecha anime, but that’s gone largely out of style and so, I just haven’t spent much time watching it like I once did.  I pick up a couple of series here and there that look interesting, virtually all of them with some sort of sci-fi bent, but it’s rare that I’ll sit down and watch one.

This week though, I had some time so I pulled out the 2002 series SaiKano, “The Last Love Song on This Little Planet”.  The description seemed somewhat interesting and I figured that at 13 episodes, I couldn’t go wrong, right?

Well, not quite.  First off, this is primarily a love story, told against a backdrop of war, not the other way around.  There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, I knew it going in, but it turns out that the war and death and destruction really aren’t all that important, except as a means to split the two lovers apart, and the two lovers really aren’t that exceptional to begin with.

But first, the plot, and warning, I will spoil everything.  Read on at your own peril, if such things bother you.

The story starts with childhood friends Chise and Shuji.  They are attending a high school in Hokkaido and Chise decides she wants to be Shuji’s girlfriend.  She’s small and weak and not very good at school, she’s clumsy and quiet and shy, but she likes Shuji and thinks it’s time that they dated.  He agrees, although he’s not much better, he’s not terribly social, and really, while he likes Chise as a friend, isn’t so sure about being in a relationship, he thinks it’s more trouble than it’s worth.  That said, she gives him a relationship diary, something that they’re supposed to write their feelings in and exchange back and forth every day so they get to know each other better, although Shuji is very bad about writing in it, to the great consternation of Chise and her best friend Akemi.

Of course, there’s a war going on in the background.  We never really know who is fighting or why, some people have theorized that it might be the French, after all the opening scenes are littered with French text and the fighters look suspiciously like Eurofighters, some have also said maybe the Americans, since there is a scene in a later episode where an enemy pilot speaks a line or two in English, but it’s never made clear and I suppose it doesn’t matter.  They also never say what the war is about, although in a later OVA, they do explain that somewhat.  So this unspecified war, with unspecified combatants, seems to be far-off most of the time, but occasionally, enemy bombers will come in and destroy a civilian center, as happens when Shuji and his classmates are shopping in Sapporo.  Separated from his friends, Shuji sees a glowing object destroying enemy planes and as he watches, it lands in front of him.  It’s Chise, although not the Chise he’s familiar with, this one has metallic wings and a cannon grafted to her arm.  She tells him that she’s been turned into the ultimate weapon by the military against her will and is the last hope for peace.

Of course, we never know where the weapon system comes from, I’m going to assume that it was alien for a number of reasons.  It seems too advanced, considering all of the other weapons we see in the series are pretty much modern issue.  Also, as we find out in the OVA, Chise was chosen because her body was the most compatible with the system, although there was another girl they tried first who was less compatible.  It seems a little silly to think that the military would build a massive weapons system and then attach it to the first 17-year old school girl that walked by, but hey, this is anime, you never know.

Now I’m not going to go into all of the minutia, the storyline revolves around Chise and Shuji’s growing feelings for each other while the weapon system gradually drains away Chise’s humanity.  The war is a backdrop as we see the whole world going to hell.  All of their friends are dying.  One of Shuji’s friends, Atsushi, has a crush on Akemi and joins the military to protect her.  Akemi, however, is in love with someone else.  Take and Yutari are boyfriend and girlfriend, but when Take is killed in the Sapporo attack while shopping for a present for Yutari, she declares she’ll never love again, but spends the rest of the series hating the enemy, right up until she encounters one in the woods (the aforementioned enemy pilot speaking English) and they shoot each other.  There are also massive earthquakes shaking the countryside, after one particularly nasty one, Shuji discovers that Akemi has been fatally wounded and that he was the one she was in love with.  She dies in his arms.

Shuji really isn’t a good boyfriend though, he never really wanted to be with Chise initially, but over time he grew to love her, quite the reverse of Chise, who initially loved Shuji, but over time decided that it was too dangerous for them to be together and rejected him.  Shuji met up with a former teacher’s assistant that he once had a crush on and learned that her husband, Tetsu, was in the military, in fact, he was the head of the squad that used the “Chise weapon”.  Fuyumi said that Shuji reminded her of her husband and they ended up in bed together.  Great boyfriend there.  Meanwhile, after Chise’s humanity started to wane and she was killing just as many of her own men as the enemy, Tetsu ended up the last survivor of the squad and he tried to have his way with Chise.  Actually, nobody in this show was very honorable or admirable, now that I think about it.

In the end, Shuji comes back to his home town after having tried to hide with Chise in a neighboring seaside village.  Chise left a diary for him and it asked him to go to the observation deck where they had first kissed and once he does, he finds a whole series of diaries where Chise had described her time as a weapon and the war and their relationship.  Apparently, the whole series was just a series of flashbacks of Shuji reading these diaries.  Chise arrives, her humanity almost completely gone, drawn by the last vestiges of her desire to be with Shuji and they finally make love overlooking the city.  The next morning, she tells him that things are worse than she’d let on, their village is the only one left in the whole world, she had destroyed everything and everyone else and the enemy was coming for a final assault that would destroy the world.  She offers to humanely kill everyone in the village to spare them the horror that was to come, but Shuji tells her that everyone wants to live and she should fight for them.  She does, but a tsunami floods the town and kills everyone.  Well, everyone but Shuji, who wakes up in a totally white world.  Everyone else is dead and a small part of Chise lives on in his heart, she’s saved him so they could be together.  She provides him with an illusion of the world but it’s not real.  Fade to black.

saikano2077Okay, the ending sucks.  I’ve already said several times how I want hopeful endings and this just doesn’t qualify.  The whole of humanity is dead except for this one guy who is going to slowly starve to death while he lives deluded in his own personal holodeck?  Seriously?  And maybe even worse, the ending is completely selfish.  Shuji spent his time screaming “I want to live, save me!” and Chise wanted to be with him so they just used each other.  That’s really part of the problem that runs through the entire series.  I want to believe that these characters truly cared for each other and wanted the best for each other, but in reality, it appears they were just using each other for their own emotional needs.  There’s a lot of reference to sex in this series, often at the most inopportune times.  Chise is dying, having used up all of the drugs that kept her condition under control and Shuji brings up the fact that he wishes they had done it before she died.  Seriously?

There really was no hope in this series, no matter how many times they tried to offer up some little bit of sunshine, it’s almost immediately crushed beneath the gloom and doom of impending disaster.  This becomes worse as the series goes on, as we see Shuji becoming more and more dedicated to Chise and she becomes less and less capable of returning his love.  I kept watching, hoping that something would happen, she’d win the war, she’d get changed back into a human, something… anything… that would make the ending positive but it didn’t happen.  It spiraled down into a flaming disaster that turned out horribly for everyone involved.

As for the animation, it comes from Studio Gonzo and unfortunately sucks.  Gonzo has done some decent stuff in the past, but unfortunately, this wasn’t one of them.  The voice acting was similarly problematic, especially Shuji, who spend the whole series, even when he had tears streaming down his face, begging Chise to survive, in a boring monotone.  Perhaps the one thing I hated the most, probably most surprisingly in fact, is the whole “ultimate weapon” concept.  It was just silly.  It reminded me of Loony Toons.  Chise would erupt into a mass of tentacles, she’d have missiles and bombs falling out of her skirt, all the while begging for nobody to look at her.  She had this weird scar on her chest that grew and shrank at will and it never really had any particular use except for her to angst over.  “Oh, I’m so ugly, I’m a weapon, hate me!”  And maybe that’s the biggest problem with it.  We’re supposed to care about this love story, but the war aspect got really silly, she’d fly around glowing and shooting rockets out of her butt and by the end of the series, she was so utterly and absurdly over-powered, it’s no surprise she blew up the planet and killed all of humanity.  Were we supposed to feel sorry for them?  I didn’t.  That said though, I was never bored with it, there was a lot of action and a lot of drama and the show rarely sagged, although there was a section in the middle that could have used a bit of work.  Shuji and Chise worked great when they were together, but when they were apart, their stories weren’t nearly as interesting.  Would I recommend this show?  It depends.  If you want to be depressed, sure, jump right in, but keep the local suicide prevention number handy.  If you’re looking for a good sci-fi show with some dramatic elements lumped in, no.  This is a sci-fi backdrop for an angsty teenage romance gone horribly wrong.  It wasn’t awful, it wasn’t what I was expecting or hoping for and a lot of people I’ve talked to say the same thing.  Some rave about the love story but most just shake their heads.  I have to fall into that latter camp.  I’d like to like it a lot more than I do, I know that I’d have done it differently.

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