Earth Girl Arujuna
Finally, after much longer than makes any reasonable sense, I got to see the whole of this series. Naturally, given the gap, this means I watched it again from episode 1. I also watched it on a viewer, so no screen captures at the moment. It remains an interesting title, but a little more specialized than I thought it would be.
This series begins with us meeting Juna. While she is a high school student the focus is much more on her as a young adult, someone about to leave school and find their place in the world. We meet her as she is practicing Japanese archery at school, part of which revolves around finding the proper spirit and concentration to become "one" with the target. Since all she manages to do is drop the arrow it's pretty clear the whole focus thing is not her strong point, she seems to have a lot on her mind. Meeting her "sort of" boyfriend Tokio, and watching them interact, confirms this. Neither of them are sure exactly how they fit into the confusing, crowded and somewhat uncaring world in which they live.
As it turns out Juna is rather impressively wrong, the world actually cares a lot about her. Specifically, and in extremely dramatic fashion, Juna discovers that the planet is, in some fashion, alive. It's also in a state of crisis, sickly, crawling with parasites and heading towards an inevitable collapse that will destroy the world. Only a single chosen individual, able to gain power by synchronizing with the worlds lifeforce, has any chance to stop the destruction. It's not a simple task, to succeed Juna must understand both her potential and the nature of her enemies, before one or the other breaks her.... or the planet.
This will sound incredibly simplistic, and it is, but the core formula behind this anime is pretty clear. At heart it is a combination of magical girl show and new age philosophy. Juna is a normal girl who discovers she has magical powers without actually seeking or wishing to have them. She also has the familiar duality, her new "magic" disrupts her attempts to live a normal life. At the same time the fact that she is a normal girl can make it hard to adjust to a magical reality which operates based on very different rules.
The particular "magic" is interesting too, and has a very large effect on the structure of the show. It's based partially on mysticism, the idea of the planet having a "spirit" derived from all the life it supports. Add in the ecological angle, that our modern human civilization is slowly killing the planet, and it is a very small step to suggest this would also pollute and corrupt the spirit / energy of the world. It's a relatively novel combination, at least for anime, and actually works really well. It means that the "battle" has meaning, it's for the fate of the world, and that the "monsters" are more a symptom of corruption than just enemies to power the episodes.
The other nice thing is that this magic flows backwards and affects Juna herself, which is amplified by the fact that she's a relatively mature and fully formed character. More precisely the power she has been given conflicts with who she actually is at the moment, and her changes in adapting to this new power make her see life in a very different way. Some of the very best drama comes from this subtle conflict, and the disruptions in her relationships as those around her (especially Tokio) have some trouble dealing with how weird she has suddenly become. Although since we see it through her eyes we know the reason behind it.
But... and there's always a but, this power is not without a cost. In order to emphasize the intensity of the drama a whole raft of ecological issues are dragged out. Pollution, the restricting effects of human society, nuclear power, chemical pollution, energy wastage, genetic engineering, pesticides, modern food production and a whole bunch of other ideas from the extreme end of the "green" spectrum are brought out to play. These are serious issues, but because they are presented at such a rate and with such intensity its almost too much. It can feel a bit like a propaganda piece, accentuated by some very dodgy science and some rather smug and shallow observations from the cast.
Which leads up to the conclusion. It's quite impressive and dramatic in scale, once again leading to some interesting scenes at the risk of being a little too much. The nice touch is that the rest of the cast suddenly get a feel for what Juna has been seeing hints of for some time. One problem is how to actually end it, after all the scale is so massive and the problems are systemic, it's not like one person could actually be expected to "fix" anything so complex. Although of course that is more or less what happens, it reverts back into the "spiritual" and we get an impressive showdown to wrap it all up. To an extent this weakens the mood and the message the show had been building up to this point.
It's still worth seeing though, it's a novel premise and has an interesting atmosphere and some good dramatic scenes. Not a great deal of action though and the story does wander a bit, touching a lot of bases but lacking coherence in addition to the somewhat unsatisfying conclusion. Most seriously if you're sick of people going on about green issues then this show's focus on them does have the capacity to irritate a little. If you're not, or really do have the feeling that modern society has drifted a bit too far from natures balance, then you might enjoy it even more.
I should also mention there's a whole heap of spiritual references for those amused by such things. They don't actually end up meaning that much to the story though.
The production is quite interesting, and clearly had some decent money behind it. Character art is well done, distinctive designs and quite expressive in how they move and emote, almost to the extent of suggesting live capture. The focus on movement (or the computer assistance) does mean the characters are sometimes simplified, seeming to lack detail, but it works well enough. The environment, which is such a focus of this show, is well depicted and some of the "spiritual" insights are also well represented. Action tends to be relatively rare, simple and static... Juna's "attack" is drawing and firing a "spiritual" arrow which isn't really that exciting. What is not so good is the computer animation, there are various entities in the show (including the transformed Juna) done primarily by computer. They tend to look pretty bad, ultimately too simple in their design and animation (especially Ashura). Also odd is the lack of closing graphics, instead it uses some live action footage which primarily shows just how plain real Japanese people can look compared to their animated versions. The voices didn't strike me as being that strong, but this is possibly because they're intentionally trying for a certain reality in how dialog flows, more natural, halting and less staged at some cost in the power of the presentation. The music was either forgettable or I just wasn't paying attention, since Yoko Kanno is involved I strongly suspect the latter.
A normal magical girl gets "cute" powers and some clearly delineated bad guys to Zap. Juna must have outgrown that, because she gets burdened with all the ecological tragedies of the modern world in addition to a power that mostly makes her incapable of living in it. It's an interesting show, a bit too strong in its "message" and with some weak computer graphics, but quite watchable with a number of strong scenes.
For a 5 year old series there's not all that many finished reviews...