Reviewby Theron Martin,
DVD - Parts 1 [Limited Edition] and 2
50 years after the Second Great Kanto Earthquake, the world is being ravaged by global warming and Tokyo has become a collection of isolated communities intermingled with an expanding, lethally-poisonous forest. In this setting the carbon market, which apparently allows countries to trade and/or pay for carbon emissions credits, has become the ruling force in world finances and Atlas Corporation is building a humungous edifice to ultimately house all of Japan's population in a more livable environment – although the process of bringing people up to Atlas is a slow one regulated by a lottery, which leaves many “outliers” living a hard life in poverty on the surface. Amongst these harsh realities and grand plans three girls play prominent roles, each unaware of the true scope of her potential impact: Karin, a lonely computer whiz who teams up with other “neocarbonists” and their pet AI Medusa to make massive amounts of money raiding the world carbon market; Mikuni, a girl with a deadly aversion to sunlight who is treated as a classical Japanese princess and has the power to turn anyone who lies to her into a human pretzel; and Kuniko, a petite, boomerang-wielding teen who is a natural-born leader and the reluctant heir to the leadership of Metal Age (a land-based organization that is equal parts terrorist network and service group). Kuniko's release from a two-year stint in “juvie” marks the beginning of a journey for the trio, those around them, and the young soldier Kunihito Kusanagi which could ultimately affect the fate of the entire world.
Anime fans often complain about series inelegantly tossing out big chunks of information at the beginning rather than smoothly working them into the story content (the so-called “info-dumping” practice). This 24-episode 2009 series based on a light novel actually has the reverse problem: it so carefully and deliberately releases only snippets of information over time that one has to go deep into the series before any of it makes much sense. That is a crippling early blow against a series which floats out many interesting concepts and colorful characters but doesn't seem to understand how to properly integrate them and struggles to find a comfortable tone. And those aren't the only writing and directing flaws the series shows, either.
Central to the series' problems is its effort to try to do and be too many things at once. The Kuniko arc (the stories of the three lead girls, though intermingled in their tellings, interact very little prior to episode 17) heavily apes Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, with the spunky, thoughtful Kuniko being a virtual stand-in for Nausicaä, but beyond the recurrent hail storms the accompanying environmental themes regularly go into hiding unless needed as a plot device, such as the whole business with the daedalus plants. Karin's arc, which focuses on complex financial issues nearly worthy of a Spice and Wolf story arc, is a little more successful, as its cynical take on the way that efforts to curb greenhouse gasses can be manipulated for financial profit is applied more consistently, but until the late stages of the series it seems more like a side story than an integral part of the overall story. Mikuni's arc, contrarily, embodies the mysticism which underlies certain aspects of the series and has an uneasy relationship with the more scientific aspects. Touching upon all three arcs is a fourth which focuses on what the amoral Atlas leader Ryoko and her immediate underlings are up to. Exactly where all these arcs are leading to, and how they might ultimately combine, is not clear until very late in the series and fully preposterous in execution, leading to a multifaceted climax that is clever in some aspects but very disappointing in others.
The tone and approach of the series are also too fickle. At times the series seems to want to play primarily as a more mature, serious story, one which has little explicit graphic violence but still engages in massacre, torture, (effective) human sacrifice, and sado-masochism, yet it also has a trio of goofy old otaku as recurring characters, has one character explore Akihabara in a bear costume, and features a brassy transsexual who overcomes and frightens off soldiers with wet, sloppy kisses. It makes references to the Doomsday Clock (including a couple of nicely-handled symbolic ticks near the end) and alludes to the devastating firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945, yet features a brief cameo by Godzilla and has the whip-using transsexual character (yeah, that's subtle!) make constant double-entendres and sex jokes. It goes out of its way to avoid showing Kuniko's panties or figure despite the miniskirt she normally wears, yet characters make regular references to her panties and minimal breast size. It teases with hints of a romance between Kuniko and Kunihito yet never goes anywhere with it in the end; the same with the appearance of a certain ghostly character about halfway through. It shows Karin as being practically terrified of direct contact with others at one point, but later on has her running a gang in hands-on fashion without providing much foundation for how she advanced to that stage. Some rough scene transitions in places further mark director Makoto Bessho's limited experience in that role. (He had extensive Episode Director and Animation Director experience prior to this one but had never helmed a project solo.)
The overall writing is a further letdown given the solid cast of characters the series offers. Kuniko may occasionally display hints of superhuman abilities and is a lovably plucky, free-spirited soul, but she is no stereotypical action-oriented hothead; she is quite capable of carefully thinking things through and making reasoned decisions, and while she sometimes seems too unflappable, she does have her emotive moments, too. Karin, in a more insular role, has such a deep, implied loneliness that her only regular companion is the bear she talks through – and the series is so careful never to show her talking when the bear “speaks” that it seems to imply almost a split personality. Mikuni is not quite so fleshed out, but in her adopted transsexual nanny Miiko and guardian Sayoko, who dotes on her but is a sado-masochistic bitch to everyone else, she is surrounded by a strong supporting cast. Kuniko likewise has a likable supporting cast, including Momoko, her over-the top transsexual older friend/protector (yes, the series features two prominent trannies); Takehiko, the older Metal Age devotee who is protective of Kuniko and intensely uncomfortable with Momoko's antics; and Kuniko's supportive like-aged friends Yuri and Tomoka. Ryoko is deliciously bitchy in a mastermind fashion and has a few interesting characters in her direct service, too, including her timid, masochistic servant Shion and (less directly) Kunihito, a young soldier struggling to keep his head above water as powerful forces swirl around him. Lord Hiruko, the possessed boy who only speaks in screams, is suitably creepy.
The artistry is the other strength of the series. Seeing Kuniko in a schoolgirl-themed outfit in a setting which does not otherwise use them is the series' main otaku concession, but the designs for all of the prominent cast members are appealing and memorable. The regular hair and outfit changes that Momoko undergoes – she looks different almost every day in series time - is an artistic effort that can easily go underappreciated, while the background art more directly impresses by mixing low-tech urban sprawl and jungle-covered ruins with high-tech sci fi, classical Japanese-flavored fantasy, and more modern-flavored horror settings. CGI effects are used liberally with varying degrees of effectiveness, and the quality control of the rendering also varies, but the animation trends towards the good side. A muted color palette prevents the content from looking shiny and glossy in all but a few pyrotechnics scenes, but that never detracts.
The musical score is not as strong. Though widely-varied in the selections it uses, many of the choices are odd ones for an anime series, ones that seem designed to evoke the feel of a Hollywood thriller in some places and a low-key, action-oriented live-action TV series in others. In the weightiest moments the score rarely feels up to the task of drawing out the full dramatic impact. Opener "Kimi Shinitamō Koto Nakare" by May'n (the singing voice of Macross Frontier's Sheryl Nome) is a well-performed and well-animated production which sells the series better than its actual content does, while the closer alternates between a more energetic and a more soulful song throughout the series but keeps the visuals constant for each cour, excepting the final episode.
Funimation's dubbing team faced some stiff challenges with this one but pulls it off admirably. The casting choices, which depend very little on long-established Funimation regulars, are uniformly superb; Lindsay Seidel is a promising, up-and-coming voice actress who is a perfect fit for Kuniko, and Jad Saxton (Baccano!'s Eve Genoard, Strike Witches' Perrine) and Apphia Yu (only bit roles before this) are equally good fits as Karin and Mikuni, respectively. The star performance is unquestionably Kent Williams' ribald, saucy interpretation of Momoko, although Randy Pearlman is nearly as good in what could be a career-making performance as Miiko and newcomer Heather Walker deserves mention for convincingly handling Lord Hiruko's perpetually screaming delivery. Really, though, one would have to go deep into the minor supporting roles to find even a mediocre performance. The dub script made some interesting but usually wise choices, such as putting the dialogue of Mikuni and those who speak to her in a vocabulary and cadence done in a Shakespearean style, and the direction makes the fitting choice to have Jad use two different voices when conversing with her bear. (Original seiyuu Yuka Iguchi used essentially the same voice both ways, which made the conversations a little hard to follow.) Curiously, the dub script mutes much of the swearing visible in the subtitles but goes all-out at playing up Momoko's sexual references and inserts some appropriate American-style slang, such as Kuniko referring to the Confinement Center as “juvie.”
Funimation is simultaneously releasing both halves of the series on DVD only, with the first half coming in a Limited Edition version that offers an artbox design to house both halves. Other Extras include clean versions of the opener and both closers, a (fake) promo for a movie based on the Akihabara Fairy character who can be heard in the background in a few episode, and English commentaries for episodes 1, 10, 15, and 23 – in other words, one per disc. Each features ADR Director Tyler Walker with either his fellow writers (episode 15) or assorted major cast members (the rest), with the one involving writers J. Michael Tatum and Patrick Seitz being the most entertaining. Some do delve into spoilers for later content, so listening to any of them without having finished the series is not recommended.
Overall, Shangri-La has the pieces necessary to be a good series but the assembly process instead produces something which looks and feels more awkward, like what might result if the instructions on a kit are not followed precisely and so some pieces end up out of alignment. All of its good features, like the bevy of big plot twists it throws out or the way it develops Kuniko's friend Tomoka and the initially wimpy Miiko as the series progresses, are balanced out by negative ones, such as letting certain characters who have done heinous things off way too easily at the end and poorly mixing mystical and scientific elements. Ultimately the series had more potential than it lives up to.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C+
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B-
+ Excellent English dub, strong cast of characters, balances different arcs well.
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