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Buried Treasure
Alien Nine

by Justin Sevakis,

I've been working hard lately on new stuff that's coming down the road, but that means Buried Treasure will be a little more erratic than normal for the foreseeable future. I'll try my hardest to keep to an every-other-week schedule, but I predict that I'm going to fall down occasionally. Just think of me as the columnist with an inner ear problem.

Meet Borg. Borg is a brightly colored talking alien thingy that looks like a frog with wings. He talks, lives off of your sweat (which he prefers to eat by licking your naked back), and joins with your cerebral cortex. At some point you may mingle consciousnesses, which might have some ill effects. He will protect you by shooting metal screws every which way. He will sit on your head while you rollerblade around school with a lacrosse stick, trying to capture aliens that are breaking into the school with alarming regularity, attacking the younger kids and their classrooms, and which may very well kill you.

There is something clearly very maladjusted about Alien Nine, a mix of concerned empathy and wicked glee in how it treats its poor, terrified protagonist, a 6th grade girl named Yuri Otani. Yuri is a normal girl, but she's been elected by her class to become an alien fighter. So, more or less against her will, she's introduced to her Borg, and expected to fight genuinely scary, dangerous aliens. Yuri isn't as effective as her overachieving peers in the group. In fact, she spends most of her time crumpled to the ground sobbing in utter terror.

The other two alien fighters are quite a bit tougher. There's tough and independent Kumi and the giggly overachiever Kasumi, both of whom are completely dedicated to the team and are there by choice. Kumi in particular has little patience for Yuri's uselessness. Despite their differences, the girls begin to form a deep friendship.

Actually, nobody feels particularly sorry for Yuri. The alien fighters are treated like they're advanced students; their advisor Ms. Hisakawa is clearly pushing an agenda on them, perhaps too fast, and seems to be part alien herself. But we never really get a clear feel of her motives, or what she's up to. She's simply there, with an unearned expectation of trust, preparing the girls for something they clearly aren't ready for. Even though at first Yuri is the only terrified one, sooner or later they all reach the limits of their emotional endurance. I don't wish to spoil any visual surprises, but let's just say some very unsettling, very wrong things happen.

As the show dips deeper and deeper into surrealism, reality becomes harder and harder to suss out. The cheerful guise of everyday school life starts to take on a nightmarish alternate meaning. The aliens penetrate the girls' minds, and start playing horrifying psychological tricks on them. And yet, the world of Alien Nine expects the girls to be happy, to somehow find fulfillment in this ugly, terrible task. Most of them are happy to try. Only Yuri seems to realize how wrong all of this is, but the viewer is the only thing that's on her side. Not the teachers, not the parents, not the classmates... not even the music or the cinematography.

The anime, directed by Jiro Fujimoto for the first episode and Yasuhiro Irie (Kurao Phantom Memory, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood) thereafter, follows the first half of the manga quite closely in content, but has a stylishly surreal tone all its own. I quite like the English version, which is written and directed by Tom Wayland and features the debut performance of Kelly Ray, who, despite being cast in a handful of latter-day CPM titles, never really made it in the voiceover scene and has since moved on. Ray is essential to the film, turning Yuri from a potentially annoying whiner into someone genuinely sympathetic.

Visually, the series is pretty great to look at, with solid, fluid animation, combined with a few 3D effects here and there. Much attention is paid to staging, particularly its use of lighting and shadows, which give the show a sense of foreboding and intimidation. And yet, the guise of being a kid-friendly romp is never betrayed, even though its bouncy opening theme strikes an occasional discordant note. Its inventiveness in creating the tone of a kids' anime gone slightly off-kilter is really quite brilliant.

The series doesn't really come to an end per se, even in the manga. It's just as well, since there's really no contiguous narrative. Rather, it treats the deeply disturbing adventures of the alien fighters as if intending this to be just another slice-of-life series. Even as they're reduced to writhing, screaming, terrified children over the course of the show, the narrative pretends like nothing is wrong.

Which, of course, is the central brilliance of Alien Nine. It takes what is easily the most nightmarish school-based fantasy one could imagine and treats it as if it were the most normal coming-of-age in the world. It's a simple formula, but combines with the look of the show, with its bulbous, adorable character designs and the pastel color palate to lower our defenses. As a result, each horrifying moment stings the consciousness. Some have speculated that the series is about recovering from sexual abuse, or even an indictment of modern society's effects on the innocent.

In any event, Alien Nine works both as shock amusement and as art. It's merciless in its treatment of its characters, and though it's not ultimately any more disturbing in its content than, say, Evangelion, something about it cuts deeper. It feels more calculated, more menacing in its intent. It most certainly makes an indelible impression.

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.

Where to get it:
The now-officially-dead Central Park Media released this on a single DVD back in 2003, and it still looks pretty good today. In addition to the single disc release, CPM also released it in a box with all three volumes of the manga, since the OAV really only covers up through its halfway point. The good news is that in the company's years-long death spiral both releases clearly have been liquidated, so you can find both releases for dirt cheap on the mom 'n' pop market, either at anime conventions or on Amazon Marketplace or half.com.

Update: Tom Wayland e-mailed me to let me know that Kelly Ray is an entirely separate person from Christina Rodriguez. The above credits, along with some other typos, have been corrected. That'll teach me not to rely on Wikipedia over our own encyclopedia...

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