Anime has been plagued recently by a disturbing glut of “robot girlfriend” shows. Young boy finds and/or inherits a sexy female android who is solely devoted to her new master, protects him from harm, flaunts her assets for the camera, does his laundry, cooks his meals, and flaunts her assets for the camera. Some of these series are not without their merits, but at their core they are little more than hormonal adolescent fantasies put to celluloid, and the formula changes little from show to show. But All-Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku is refreshingly different. It's one of the earliest entries in the genre--an Inspiration rather than Imitation. It lacks the ecchi angle of its spawn; Nuku Nuku's relationship to Ryunosuke is that of a nanny or big sister, not a love slave. And it's got a tremendous amount of heart.
“Nuku Nuku's” top priorities are comic battle sequences between scantily clad female combatants, and the heroine is often ogled by salivating male admirers, but it never descends to the fanboy fantasies of other series in this vein. Unlike the competition, “Nuku Nuku” doesn't feel like it was made exclusively for gawky teenagers who are too shy to get a date. The key difference is the dynamic between Nuku Nuku and Ryunosuke. Prepubescent Ryu has no sexual designs on his robotic guardian, nor does she for him, and their mutual affection is innocent and pure. She also provides Ryu with a stable family environment (if one can call the explosions and mass carnage that follow in her wake stable). Taking on the duties of the boy's absent mother, Nuku Nuku fills a void rather than fulfills a fantasy.
To my mind this is the only anime series to tackle to very serious subjects of divorce, custody battles, and their effects on children, ironic subject matter given “Nuku Nuku's” zany tone. But underneath all the wackiness this is a surprisingly honest portrayal of a broken family's trials and tribulations. Kyusaku and
Akiko are not mere good parent/bad parent stereotypes; they both have their strengths as well as their flaws, and though Akiko is no doubt the more diabolical of the two, the blame for the failed marriage cannot be placed solely on her shoulders. Kyusaku is quick to disparage his wife despite her best efforts to be a good housewife when they temporarily reconcile in episode three, and his condescending nature almost justifies her fits of rage. Though Akiko's tactics are ruthless, her love for her son is genuine and her desire to be with him is admirable, even if Kyusaku is the more ideal guardian. Ryu finds his mother's actions reprehensible, but his love for her never wavers, and like any child of divorce his only desire is to see his parents together again. This heartfelt underlying story of love between parents and their children gives “Nuku Nuku” an extraordinary level of warmth and emotion.
It could have done much more with the material, though. The makings of greatness are plainly here, but the emotional potential is not fully tapped, and character-building scenes between the Natsume family take a back seat to Nuku Nuku's slapstick confrontations with Akiko's mecha monsters. Little effort is made to resolve the divorce/custody battle plotline one way or another, and in the end viewers are left with a show that is enormous fun but never really goes anywhere. The story derails from its course midway through the series with the addition of Eimi, an obnoxious android out to steal Nuku Nuku's superior hardware. And though they are great characters in their own right, Akiko's blood-lusting, scene-stealing henchwomen Arisa and Kyoko further divert the spotlight from Ryunosuke's troubled family.
What “Nuku Nuku” does deliver to its fullest is incredible comedic carnage of Project A-ko proportions, not surprising since A-ko's Yuji Moriyama lends his talents as Director of Animation. Taking obvious inspiration from that film, Nuku Nuku tears through the city at supersonic speed on her way to school with Ryu in tow, and her battles with her various oddball opponents reach a ridiculous fever pitch, often resulting in the destruction of the entire city (always rebuilt by the following episode). Moriyama of course has plenty of experience bringing these displays of collateral chaos to the screen, and he does so brilliantly. He also has an exceptional talent for animating fanatical tirades--enraged characters screaming, fuming, and pointing threatening fingers at one another--and as “Nuku Nuku” features a cast full of fanatics, Moriyama is a huge boon to the production.
“Nuku Nuku's” fanatic antics have been entertaining American audiences for many years, but not until this DVD release has ADV put together an English dub for the series. It represents a curious new trend in English dubbing: gearing the translation more toward established anime fans. Assuming viewers are already familiar with basic Japanese language conventions, the English Nuku Nuku calls Ryunosuke's parents “Papa-san” and “Mama-san”, and words like “chibi” and “sempai” have made their way into the dub unchanged. As for the vocal performance, this is another quality effort from ADV, but it doesn't match the exuberant delivery of the Japanese original, though Allison Keith's feline pitch is a perfect match for Megumi Hayashibara's Nuku Nuku.
Another older catalogue release from ADV, all six episodes of the series are included on one disc. The visual transfer is not as dazzling as some other series' more recent digital prints, and it shows its age. But short of a digitally remastered special edition, this is as good-looking as an anime from 1992 is going to get. The menus are done in imitation of Kyusaku's computer screen, and the Windows 3.1 layout is a trip. Extra features consist of a promotional art gallery, ADV's “Nuku Nuku” trailer, previews, and textless versions of both “closing animation” sequences. The term “closing animation” must be used loosely, since there is no actual animation in the closing credits! Neither of the opening sequences is included text-free--though made almost entirely of clips from the series proper, they at least feature some actual movement, and Megumi Hayashibara's great opening songs are some of the best anime themes from the era, especially “Happy Birthday to Me.” They are certainly more memorable than the closing numbers.
With loads of higher-profile releases like Noir and .hack//SIGN coming out around the same time, “All-Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku” will probably go largely unnoticed. This is unfortunate, for few anime can match its wild action or especially its emotional center, and it's the only anime of its kind to avoid the
ecchi-fantasy stigmata. It may lack the sparkle of the competition, but this is without a doubt one of the most thoroughly enjoyable anime series ever created.