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Buried Treasure

by Justin Sevakis,

To quote the second opening from GTO, "The future looks a lot more mundane than we imagined." Here we are, nearly a decade into the 21st century, and while some aspects of life are quite a bit different than they were 20 or 30 years ago (mostly relating to computers and the internet), the big things have barely changed at all. We still drive cars, kids still have to do homework, adults still go to work, governments are still comprised of bureaucratic messes, and then we go home and park our tired butts in front of the television. Moms still cook, little girls still fall in love, and most of all, quiet suburbia is still quiet suburbia. Chalk it up to yet another case of the anticipation of something being more fun than actually getting it.

It's in this spirit of the future that director Tatsuo Satō shows Shingu, a remarkably down-to-earth sci-fi that might have been pitched as an Evangelion clone, but really feels much more slice-of-life and genki than Eva's characters would ever know what to do with. I like to describe it as "Evangelion, where all the kids are happy and well-rounded and Nerv sponsors a lot of picnics on the beach."

Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars
(a.k.a. Gakkou Senki Muryou)

It's the year 2070, and life for Hajime Murata, a fairly normal kid going to school at Misumaru Middle School, seems fairly normal. Or rather, things seemed normal until aliens invaded, and angular monster appeared from out of nowhere and saved the Earth. Nobody in his quiet oceanside suburb of Tokyo really seems to have any idea what to make of all this, so everyone pretty much goes on about their business.

The next day, there's a new transfer student at school. His name is Muryou Subaru, and though he seems pretty friendly and charismatic, there's something kind of... off about him. He insists on wearing an old fashioned school uniform (even though nobody has worn uniforms at all in decades), seems to have no past, and seems to excel at pretty much everything without even trying, all with a seemingly permanent smile affixed to his face. Hajime, being a nice guy, makes friends with him, and soon finds that he's joined the student council as well. Then he sees Muyou battling a student council member, both of them using psychic powers.

Slowly, the people around Hajime start letting him in on secrets... lots of them. On the surface, everything seems normal. Hajime meeets Muryou's grandfather and big sister. His own little sister, Futaba, quickly falls in love with the guy and tries to insert herself into her brother's group at every opportunity. Nayuta, the short-tempered student council vice president, can barely stand the guy. And yet, they all seem to disappear when the aliens come back and the Shingu comes out to kick its butt. There's also a few odd people around town, and while they all seem harmless enough, nobody can really explain what they do. There are weird things going on, and they all seem to be happening right under Hajime's nose.

Of course, it should come as a surprise to few anime fans that the school and its council are really covers for the Galactic Federation's defense project, the odd people make up other parts of its body, and they're the ones behind both the Shingu and Muryou, who has superpowers to match the student council's. Nayuta is the core of the Shingu, and along with the other student council members, she must fight as the Shingu to protect the earth from Alien invasion. But it's not just as simple as an "invasion" -- there's a boat load of politics involved (broken intergalactic treaties, diplomatic considerations and the like), and Hajime's dad is involved too. (Luckily, the Galactic Federation seems to be made up of some pretty chill people). Soon, Hajime realizes that he has a role to play in this as well, and that he'd better get his act together if he's going to help his friends.

Despite all these politics, all the dire consequences and the whole "intergalactic war" thing, people seem pretty happy in general. There's still enough time for the kids to gossip, to play around, and to do homework. The Galactic Federation spends a lot of time on the beach and enjoying the out-of-doors. And for Hajime, he gets a chance to really get to know Muryou, Nayuta, and the other members of the student council. Throughout the course of the series, they eventually build what seems like a warm, lasting friendship.

Things are more or less the same in this Japan of the future; the advances seem more subtle and social in nature, rather than the epic-making paradigm shifts we tend to visualize in science fiction. Most of the changes are in media and social interaction; Misumaru Middle School has a school-wide television network with robust production values and has flat panel monitors pretty much everywhere. Computers, all of them now about the size of a Macbook Air, can pop up holographic monitor panels around the user's head. Even in the way characters speak, the very sentence structure has changed slightly to become more Western, almost as if it were a dialect. (It's impossible to translate this without sounding ridiculous, and Right Stuf's production doesn't even attempt to do so. But if you're learning Japanese, see if you can hear it.)

Light-hearted slice-of-life science fiction is not exactly new territory for Tatsuo Satō, having previously helmed rauchous Nadesico TV series and later Stellvia, but here he seems to have taken his image of an idyllic future to its conceptual limit. Technology, its use and its issues take a far back seat to the more pressing matters of daily life, routine and having a good time. As much time is spent with the crew playing their paper sumo video game as is spent discussing the Shingu. The school festival is easily as important as saving the world from invasion. Upon introspection, it is somewhat absurd just how many anime series involve children pilots that seem to entirely forget that they're children at all. Shingu sets itself apart by simply not making that mistake. According to the liner notes, the show's nostalgic tone comes from his designing the city of Tenmo after his hometown, and the mundane feel of the Shingu comes from wanting to explore the concept of "god" in the Shinto sense -- not so much as an entity but as the energy that permeates every aspect of life.

But perhaps even more importantly, the show doesn't forget to create real characters, rather than archetypes. Nearly every person in Hajime's sleepy oceanside town seems to have their own motivations, their own quirks, and their own distinct path in life. Fellow student council member Shun delights in provoking feisty Nayuta (preferably via the school's closed-circuit TV news), the hot-tempered student council member Moriguchi has a crush on treasurer Harumi. All these personalities bounce off each other amusingly as the school bands together in its various pursuits, from Field Day to restoring the tradition of the Tanbata Festival.

The show is a Madhouse production from 2001, one of their last produced on film with traditional cels. This means that the art and animation maintain their quality, and at the same time exude a warm, hand-made feel that we just don't get today. I love the Japanese cast -- Veteran voice actor Issei Miyazaki finds a likable "normal kid" in Hajime, and Kenji Nojima's Muryou strikes a perfect balance between mysterious and approachable. Other notables include Rie Kugamiya as the precocious Futaba and fan favorite Romi Paku as the fiesty Nayuta. Unfortunately, the English version doesn't fare so well; while Headline Sound has improved a little since its earlier days (those produced under the manic tutelage of the late Jeff Thompson notwithstanding), Joe Digiorgi's direction still suffers from stiff reads, an unwieldy minimalist rewrite and unnatural timing. Billy Regan isn't as effective as he could have been as Hajime, having resorted to unnaturally choppy, breathy reads. Daniel Harrison is simply bland and ineffective as Muryou, reading lines with little passion and a bizarre rhythm, and most of the cast follows his lead.

Shingu did not do well in Japan, having been beaten into the ground in the ratings from nearly the first episode and finally truncated to 26 episodes (from its originally planned 39). I think the character designs may have also played a part in this -- though most of the characters are cute and fun, few of them are particularly attractive -- and some are downright funny lookin'. The show's lackadaisical pace and emphasis on daily life and tradition probably turned off sci-fi fans, who likely tuned in hoping to see stuff blow up. The music, which varies from elevator music insert songs to the numbingly slow easy-listening opening, can't have done the show many favors either. With next to no buzz on the title, it hasn't exactly burned up American DVD charts either. The show's early cancellation forced the series to a bit of a rushed, albeit still somewhat satisfying, conclusion.

That said, Shingu is a lot of fun, with its emphasis on quality time spent with endearing characters and subtle nostalgia. It's hopeful and full of energy. After all, what good is living near a beach if you only use it to bring about apocalypse?

A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

How To Get It:
Right Stuf recently re-released Shingu in a 5-disc thinpak, in the process preserving the copious liner notes and cultural references from the original packages. These are essential reading; when one watches a lot of anime he quickly forgets how many things he hasn't been exposed to and would never notice. (Also included are a handful of 4-panel Shingu gag comics that, like most Japanese 4-panel gag comics, are completely random and nonsensical.) The thinpak is absolutely dirt-cheap and of good production quality, so there's really no excuse not to buy this one.

Screenshots © Sato Tatsuo / Madhouse / Team MURYOU. All rights reserved.

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