Full disclosure: I backed Under the Dog on Kickstarter at the “special agent” level. Look for my name in tiny print in the credits!
Just two years ago, I sat in a packed ballroom at Otakon, waiting to hear the good news about Under the Dog. I'd been passing stand-up displays hawking this mysterious thing all weekend, and I was here to see the producer of the project, Hiroaki Yura, so I could get the dirt on what exactly this Under the Dog thing was. Turns out that Mr. Yura had some serious plans. He was a big fan of action, he didn't think much of the anime scene's ongoing obsession with cutesy-wootsy moe shows, and he wanted to buck the traditional funding models for anime and get his own kind of action show funded, with greater creative control. He showed us a shit-hot trailer loaded with guns, explosions, and a mysterious blonde femme fatale, announced that he had some of the best talent in the business ready to go, and said that together, we were all going to save anime.
That's a hell of a proclamation, and it came off as kind of cute in light of the fact that Under the Dog wasn't really all that subversive - it was only going to raise a fraction of its production costs via Kickstarter, getting the rest of the dough from traditional sponsors. The Kickstarter campaign, like so many these days, was really more of a means to gauge interest in the finished product, and a marketing stunt. But it worked. A month later, Yura's company, Creative Intelligence Arts, had nine hundred thousand dollars. They were all set to deliver Under the Dog by December 2015.
The final product is here, but it's taken a winding road to reach us. Early on in production, Yura and CIA abruptly stepped down, citing major creative differences between CIA and the rest of the production committee. Animation studio Kinema Citrus, on hand to create the show's visuals, stepped up and took the lead. This led to a merry stretch of catty tweets from Yura (later deleted) and an anonymous Reddit post (also later deleted) that claimed that Yura had gotten grabby with the funds. This was actually genuinely concerning—a sudden switch in production companies can really derail a creative project—but the new bosses at Kinema Citrus kept their noses to the grindstone and kept backers updated as the show neared completion.
I totally agree with some of the points that Yura laid out in that original Otakon presentation. There's always a need for more action anime—more solid, entertaining fare with brilliant animation and broad appeal that'll hook casual viewers in droves and help old-timers like me remember why we started watching in the first place. I also think that, specifically, Masahiro Ando needs more work. This is a bit cruel of me, as Ando's been hilariously busy for years, leaping from project to project with little time in between to rest. But he's the best action director in the business—his work on fare like Snow White with the Red Hair and Blast of Tempest exhibits both a zest for kinetic, explosive motion, and a compelling sense of place—nobody stages an action scene like Ando, who studiously tracks every detail and always knows exactly when to cut to an exterior shot while someone's getting shot or a closeup while a punch is being thrown.
Under the Dog’s story is mostly boilerplate stuff: a schoolgirl with a shadowy past and a cool gun has to fight off U.S. military special forces; each side are in pursuit of something mysterious called Pandora. There's a schoolboy in the mix, a hapless kid dragged along against his will. There are mysterious commanders watching glowing displays and dispatching orders to field agents, who snipe and sneak attack bad guys. Story-wise, the production breaks pretty much no new ground whatsoever.
But then, Under the Dog kicks into high gear and sets itself apart. First of all, there's the action, featuring well-drilled U.S. special forces (voiced with engaging stiffness by actual westerners) with wave after wave of air support and light armored vehicles squaring off against mysterious assassins with fancy weapons. Secondly, there's the stakes: as protagonist Hana reveals first obliquely and then directly, she's under incredible pressure to succeed. If she fails, her bosses will kill her entire family. (Her family seems to know this, too, which just adds to the pressure.) Finally, what binds this production together magnificently is the music by composer Kevin Penkin. He's got an excellent handle on the show's mood and turns out auditory bridges for the scenes effortlessly. It's been a while since I've seen a production like this where the soundtrack really stood out, so this aspect was a treat.
One big selling point that I have to touch on is the violence. It's both spectacular, with loads of headshots and explosions, and oddly clinical—there's very little truly graphic violence, and in many shots the characters’ blood is colored purple. This strikes me as both an interesting stylistic choice and a way to blunt the incredible violence on display a bit. There's still a lot of great stuff on display, and Kinema Citrus strike a nice balance between herds of CG Humvees and choppers buzzing around the school and those same vehicles animated lovingly in 2D as they explode and get ripped to shreds. When Under the Dog gets going, its level of action is hard to match.
At Anime Expo 2016, BONES chief Masahiko Minami confessed that there wasn't yet a sequel to Masahiro Ando's magnificent 2007 film Sword of the Stranger, because they couldn't find the money for it. In light of that, it's been interesting to watch the slow march of crowdfunded anime. I've been a participant since the beginning, backing Masaaki Yuasa's Kick-Heart, and I've taken special delight in being a miniature “producer,” also chipping in financial support for TRIGGER's Little Witch Academia 2, Mirai Mizue's WONDER, Masashi Kawamura's Diary of Ochibi, and Kenji Itoso's Santa Company, to name a few. Under the Dog’s gestation has been longer than some similar projects—LeSean Thomas's Cannon Busters, itself a fine tranche of action animation, was funded a few months after Under the Dog, but still crossed the finish line first—but it's well-formed and healthy. Ando and his team took the time to do this properly, and it shows. My only complaint, beyond pointing to Jiro Ishii's rote, safe story, is that Under the Dog is a bit short at 30 minutes long. Despite that, I had a lot of fun watching it. In the end, anime didn't really need to be saved, but I'm still glad that we were all able to get together and find the money for Under the Dog.