In television writing there's an old adage about manipulating the emotions of your audience; there are various permutations on it, but the most common one is known as “kicking the puppy”. This refers to a hypothetical situation in which a writer, desperate to wring some feelings out of his audience but unable to do it through deft character interaction and carefully constructed story threads, instead puts a puppy on screen and has someone violently kick the little guy. People react really poorly to animal abuse, so this is guaranteed to upset your audience. The adage is a warning against that kind of writing; it's cheap, it feels forced, and it rarely actually gets your audience to care. It's as if you were a bad comedian whose material kept bombing, so you resorted to tickling your audience in order to get a laugh. It doesn't really count if you do it that way.
SaiKano, subtitled ‘The Last Love Song on this Little Planet’, is the equivalent of an entire kennel full of puppies (maybe it's an animal hospital – ailing puppies being kicked would be even sadder, right?) being kicked endlessly in a Grand Guignol orgy of puppy-kicking.
This show, shoddily produced by Gonzo back in the olden days of 2002, was a critical darling; I myself praised it on this very site. If I could go back in time and pick my own brain, I'd love to know what in the world I was thinking when I first saw this thing. Maybe there was something novel then about an anime that did absolutely nothing but try to make you cry; whatever it was, I fell for it, and upon revisiting the show 12 years later thanks to Sentai Filmworks’ DVD-only rerelease, I can only sit back in mystified wonder that I ever thought She, The Ultimate Weapon had any redeeming qualities beyond being unintentionally hilarious.
This show is awful.
SaiKano wastes no time at the beginning of its threadbare story; we're introduced to Shuji, a high schooler roughly 7 feet tall with gray hair and glasses that make him look like he's in his mid-30s, and his clumsy little proto-moe girlfriend Chise, who was apparently designed to look like one of those Precious Moments toddler angels, just a little bump for a nose, a full 3 feet or so shorter than her enormous, stoic lover. Inside the first episode these two unlikely lovers confess their feelings for one another and start dating, but it isn't long before the military kidnaps Shuji's idiot preschooler girlfriend and stuffs her full of bizarre, unexplainable, potentially alien weaponry that enables her to fly through the air and obliterate the unidentified enemy forces ravaging Japan in the blink of an eye. We're also introduced to Shuji's friends, a collection of troubled high school lovers who will all feel the heart-rending pain of war soon enough. There are a few other factors at play, too – Shuji is emotionally constipated over his feelings for his first love, Fuyumi, and this gets in the way of his ability to fully commit, body and soul, to Chise.
If SaiKano tried to contain its pain fetishism to just the two lead characters, it's possible the show would've had something to work with, but it's in such a hurry to rub your nose in melodramatic angst that there isn't a single character in the show who isn't part of some horrible tragedy. Every single character introduced in the first episode (and every new character after that) goes through some unimaginable pain and grief that's usually compounded by something even worse happening as a result of the war. First there's Take, one of Shuji's buddies, high on the thrill of first love with his girlfriend Yukari. He's killed early on in one of Chise's skirmishes, and his girlfriend goes on to get herself gunned down by an enemy pilot she rushed off to murder without knowing how to use a gun. Isn't it ironic? She wanted revenge, but now she's dead because in her bloodthirsty haste she forgot to turn the safety off. DEAD! Aren't you sad? Aren't you saddened by this tragic turn of events, SaiKano asks, cramming its face into yours, checking with clinical precision to see if you're crying or not.
Yukari is the only female character in the show to get an end that dignified – everyone else, including Akemi, Shuji and Chise's mutual friend, and Fuyumi, his first love, goes through some manner of sexual and emotional humiliation at the hands of Shuji, who they all claim to love, apropos of nothing. This is one of the show's slimy little secrets – it isn't just a badly-written tilt-a-whirl of hilariously manipulative tragic scenarios, it's also hiding a harem story in there. Akemi is the first to go; she's critically injured in one of the many foundation-shattering earthquakes, lying broken and bloodied in a hospital bed when Shuji comes to her side. She always loved him. She wanted to take his virginity. She still wants that now. “Don't look at me! This isn't the body of a woman!” she cries, while Shuji unbuttons her hospital clothes and straddles her, staring at what's left of her destroyed naked body. He peels her off the bed, blood sticking to his hands. They're crying – everyone in this show is crying all the time – as she slowly dies, Shuji whispering to her that she's beautiful. All she ever wanted was his love. For some reason. Yukari gets it just as bad – near the end of the show, her husband gets killed in the war and she immediately throws herself at Shuji, rubbing her breasts up and down his body, begging him to screw her in this last desperate hour. Shuji can't handle it – Chise needs him! – so he starts getting rough with her, shoving her to the floor and yanking at her clothes, and she starts pleading no. Not like this, Shuji! NOT LIKE THIS. She slaps him and leaves him for dead. Are you crying yet? You'd better be crying!
All of this is supposed to add some sort of weight or depth to Chise and Shuji's eternally-challenged love but it just plays out like a crappy harem fantasy sneakily bolted on somewhere in the middle, once they realized they needed some manner of complication beyond “Chise is an uncontrollable destructive force who grows and changes daily, seems constantly on the brink of death, and she wants nothing but to be young and in love with her dopey boyfriend”. Which isn't a bad premise at all and it might've worked if the writing here had any sense of subtlety or nuance to it, but it's criminally lacking in either of those things. The show's emotional hooks are so obvious and thudding that they lose you almost immediately, which leads to an even bigger problem.
The total breakdown of the show's emotional center, pressurized to the breaking point thanks to over-the-top melodrama and tragic circumstances being stuffed into these 13 episodes like a dangerously overfilled clown car, triggers an unintended response: you start actually paying attention to the sci-fi elements of the show, which, based on the way they're executed, isn't something you're supposed to do. See, typically, when you're writing a show like this, the apocalyptic sci-fi premise is just window dressing for the emotional fireworks on display. You get people with the sci-fi hook and then nail them to the wall with your nuanced and relatable character writing (see: District 9, Children of Men, Cowboy Bebop, et al). You can get away with shaky science fiction and even some pretty big plot holes if the audience believes in your characters and is interested in the emotional theatrics first; all that science fiction doesn't really need to make perfect sense, it just needs to hold it together long enough to deliver an emotionally satisfying climax. SaiKano fails at the human drama thing so quickly that you can't help but start thinking about the sci-fi elements, which leads to questions like:
Why did the military choose a naïve, emotionally fragile, oafishly-clumsy high school girl who looks like she isn't a day over 12 to stuff full of experimental weaponry?
Once they do this, why do they keep letting her go back to school like everything's normal? She has missiles that randomly start falling out of her back.
If they have this ultimate weapon that can literally erase a town in the blink of an eye, why are they bothering with ground troops?
Chise keeps escaping the military to go on dates with Shuji. How is it that a top-secret military weapon that looks like a battered high school girl is allowed to just wander around town? Why do they have to hunt her down later? Wouldn't they install some kind of tracking system?
Later on there are these tentacle things that emerge from her back that speak with their own voice. Enormous metal wings emerge from the sky, and it seems like Chise is controlling them but it's never clear why they're external to her. Why are you even showing us this if you have no intention of explaining any of it? None of it should be important; if the show was functioning as intended, we wouldn't even notice this stuff. It wouldn't matter. The drama would draw us in. SaiKano's engine doesn't work – the emotional stuff fails, so you start noticing that the tires are cracked and the transmission is faulty too.
All of this is made worse by the show's incredibly poor artistry. SaiKano was produced in a terrifyingly low resolution back in the early 2000s, a digipaint nightmare made to look good on CRT TVs and nowhere else. Sentai Filmworks did the best they could with this, but it was produced in such a low res that you can't even make a properly anamorphic widescreen disc for it – this show is letterboxed, which means it appears in a little box surrounded by black bars on your TV, unless you're still rocking a 32” Zenith like it's 1998. This isn't Sentai's fault – the show was produced like this. It's aliased to hell and back, and the cheap, clumsy digital animation looks even worse when it's swimming in jaggies. The show has a particular problem where characters are routinely drawn with accidentally enormous feet, which makes their walk cycle look completely off. As expected, this is a barebones release on 3 discs that also includes the bafflingly amateurish dub (vintage 2003), chock full of unknown actors for whom this is largely their only anime VO credit. The show's melodrama doesn't work in Japanese, and it becomes even more comical when you bring in a host of English voice actors who either didn't understand the material, weren't given good direction or maybe just weren't very good actors. Either way the dub's a total mess. The two OVA episodes, SaiKano: Another Love Song, aren't included. I was relieved.
The one saving grace SaiKano has is that it's unintentionally hilarious (I suppose the music is fine, too). The show is a trial to watch – it is an endless phantasmagoria of crying, screaming, wailing, chest-rending heartbreak and tragedy, but it goes so far over the top so quickly that you can't help but laugh. Unfortunately, that is its only saving grace, and it isn't funny enough to recommend watching with friends and a six-pack. Really, this is dysfunctional, poorly-made tragedy porn. Like pornography, it services only one emotion and nothing else, and like pornography, it's profoundly uncomfortable to watch in a room with other people, so the idea of getting together with your buddies to laugh at all the dark-hearted angsty gnashing of teeth is unpleasant at best. I wish I knew what in the world I saw in She, The Ultimate Weapon lo those many years ago. I can say unequivocally that in 2015, the show is best left forgotten.