Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Aug 28th 2014
Red Data Girl
Izumiko is a sheltered girl who lives in a deep forest shrine. Cared for by attendants, driven to school by a bodyguard, and rarely able to see her busy parents, she's painfully shy and very isolated. She's guarded and treated like a very rare, very fragile treasure. Though she doesn't question her life, having been raised into it, she knows that she's not quite normal. She shorts out any computer she touches and she regularly experiences odd, altered states. Elders treat her with respect bordering on reverence. Wanting to change, Izumiko begins to assert herself in little ways. She cuts her hair. She uses the internet. She refuses to go to the Tokyo academy her family has chosen. And in a cascading of cause and effect her life does change—in sometimes frightening, sometimes wondrous ways.
If all of Red Data Girl was as good as its opening three episodes it would be a serious contender. Those episodes form a mostly self-contained arc, a dreamlike supernatural mystery where magic and menace are insinuated rather than stated, where mood and atmosphere are the currency of choice and the truth is glipsed only in fragments. It's haunted by the sense that Izumiko's world is somehow drifting off of its stable axis, that forces sinister and unnatural are marshaling themselves just out of sight, eyeing their tender prey and waiting their chance.
The arc's too smart to let us know exactly what those forces are—no knowing breeds quality dread—but it gives us plenty of unsettling hints and likely suspects. There's head attendant Sagara, a smiling sack of vipers who forces his estranged son Miyuki to serve as Izumiko's watcher/protector. There's Wamiya, an eerie boy who's taken an interest in Izumiko that may be romantic and may be something else altogether. There's a terrifying trip to Tokyo, where Izumiko is stalked by smoky black specters that may or may not be figments of her phobic imagination, followed by an unsettling communion with a godlike spirit.
Eventually revelations are forthcoming (not too forthcoming) and it all—Miyuki and Izumiko's evolving relationship, Izumiko's true nature, Wamiya's unknown intentions—leads to a confrontation in an ancient forest. A confrontation that manages to be very cool while having hardly an iota of actual action.
In short, it is, all of it, purely and simply excellent. It's never less than ravishingly beautiful, with nebulous magic rooted in traditional Japanese mythology and in the wonder and terror of nature, and never anything but coolly intelligent. Characters run strong; events rarely progress in a wholly predictable sequence. The resolution of the forest battle comes down to wills and not spells, neatly side-stepping the Tarzan-rescue-Jane turn that you think you see coming and leaving achingly vulnerable Izumiko in a position of quiet strength.
If only the series could have stopped there. That's not to say that the nine episodes that follow are bad—far from it—but never again does the series achieve that fine balance of magic and unease, mood and character, mystery and revelation. It continues on from the opening arc as if surprised by its own longevity and uncertain what exactly to do about it. So it does something obvious. It enrolls Izumiko and Miyuki in a special high school for magically-talented teens.
This is an unfortunate move on several levels. To begin with it's simply trite. Everyone and their half-werewolf superspy cousin goes to a school for special teens. Secondly it's just an inferior setting to move to. A modern complex nestled amidst meticulously groomed groves hasn't the same primeval resonance as an aged shrine lost in ancient forest or a small town on the edge of wilderness.
But mostly the new setting offers too many distractions: political struggles amongst the student body; new friends with new problems; class trips and school festivals. The arcs that follow too often feel like side-stories—detours away from the show's heart, away from the mystery of Izumiko's existence, designed to chew up time that the series doesn't have. Arcs two and three deal wholly with Izumiko's new friends—namely twins Mayura and Manatsu—and the final one only turns towards Izumiko in its second half.
As it neglects its heart, the show's other strengths start to slip. Top student and total slimeball Takayanagi is a villain without mystery or ambiguity. Izumiko and Miyuki start sliding into ordinary protector/protected roles, even going so far as to end the final arc with a rescue-the-princess battle against undead hordes. The magic gets too concrete and familiar; characters use defined magical systems, draining the mystery and menace from the supernatural.
Still, enough of the opening arc's strengths carry through to make for good, solid fantasy. Izumiko continues to strengthen and open up. Miyuki continues to warm and mature. Mayura and Manatsu maintain the general strength of the supporting cast. Their family dynamic in particular—with ghostly brother Masumi and their in-denial mother and perceptive father—borders on the heartbreaking, and they aren't so simple that they lack dangerous edges of their own. When the focus does return to Izumiko, it uncovers a backstory that's a match for the mystical epics of Osamu Tezuka in both scale and tragic consequence. A backstory that, in good RDG style, opens as many avenues of inquiry as it closes.
And then, of course, there's the art. The show leans heavily on its art, using gorgeous backgrounds and carefully-controlled atmospherics to do everything from artfully ratcheting up tension to unmooring Izumiko from everyday reality. The series' lushly illustrated arboreal spaces are standouts, but even its human spaces—especially the crumbling grandeur of Izumiko's shrine—are lovely. With its thoughtful framing, frequent immersion in nature, and meticulous attention to mood, the opening arc is a definite step above the rest, but the series is a feast for the visual cortex all the way through. Character designs are less important, but no less attractive, with good lines and clean beauty to spare. Izumiko, with her braids and red specs and frighteningly fragile physique, is particularly noteworthy.
Animation is spottier. Action scenes are frequently pedestrian, content to pep things up with speed-blurring and other cheap alternatives to actual motion. Movement fares better when detail and finesse and not energy are the focus. The palpable shift in Izumiko's body language when she's possessed (which is frequently) is animation of a high, subtle order.
When that kind of motion combines optimally with the art and Masumi Itou's delicate classicist score, the results can be jaw-dropping. The first arc's concluding scene, in which Izumiko eases the passing of a powerful spirit with a beautifully austere dance, is among the most perfectly realized sequences in recent memory.
Funimation's dub is a workmanlike affair, the kind with few mistakes but also few rewards. ADR director Joel McDonald reins in the cast's energy and pitches the performances down the middle, giving the dub a low, even feel that matches the original's tone pretty well. Unfortunately, the strategy also ends up flattening out the performances, clipping the high and low emotional ranges and leaving only the stolidly effective middle. Bryn Apprill's game but strained Izumiko and an under-invested supporting cast also dampen the overall effect. The rewrite is minimally invasive, with only the occasional drift away from strict translation, which also contributes to the not entirely natural flow of dialogue.
Funimation's release is pretty much par for their course, spreading twelve episodes over two DVDs in a standard two-disc snapcase. Video quality is standard for the episode count, which is to say acceptable but fuzzy enough to make you wish for a Blu-ray edition. Extras follow the usual Funimation pattern: dual episode commentaries—a rambunctious one for episode 2 with Apprill and Micah Solusod (Miyuki), and a more sober one for episode 7 with McDonald, Kristi Kang (Mayura), and Chris Burnett (Masumi)—plus clean versions of the misleading otome-game opening and Itou's typically charming closing. All told, don't buy it for the extras. Buy it for the show. It's not perfect, but it's worth it.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B-
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Amazing opening arc; strong cast and interesting mysteries; straight-up gorgeous.
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