I must offer personal thanks to David Robb for lending me the DVD's so I could watch this title. I hope he's not too annoyed that I personally found it a very strange mixture of contents that is going to be exceptionally hard to make a judgement on. I have a category (weird) that lets me wimp out, but at the same time this is actually quite a direct series. I should also mention I watched this straight after the vaguely similar (same creator I think) and superb Haibane Renmei, so this probably got a harsher viewing than most.
This story centers around a single character, Mayuko, and the life she leads. And that life is, in anime terms, incredibly ordinary. The things that fill her day are mundane, her life is neither massively sad but at the same time it's hard enough that cheer and pleasure can be hard to find. She's supporting herself, with mundane jobs in an economically depressed area, and spending much of her non-working time in cram school studying for the university entrance exams. But she's also strong enough, and there is enough kindness in her life, that we can believe she will manage.
Oh yeah, she also has an alien creature living in her closet and eating her food. This is no big deal though, an alien mothership crashed pretty close to where Mayuko lives so seeing aliens, who are perhaps too human for their own good, is really no big deal. And this particular alien, named Niea and an "under 7" which is the lowest social rank the aliens have, spends most of her time sleeping or building UFO's out of random junk. Whereas Mayuko is sedate and disciplined Niea is filled with wild energy and without any concern for limits, as such they both complement and antagonize one another.
This is a very strange piece. One element of this should have already been clear from the synopsis. The purpose of a synopsis is to give an idea of the story flow, but you'll notice this one only really talks about the characters. This is because, in the broad sense, there is absolutely no story. By the end of the anime the situation is not really changed in any way from where it started. We have explored Mayuko's life, and her outlook has developed a little throughout the story, but it's an awfully subtle and understated progression. This is a series where you need a tolerance for subtle character drama to even see the change, let alone enjoy the experience.
I also had a thought while watching it, an odd familiarity with some of the content. There are some similarities between this drama and Maison Ikkoku. Yusaku, the poor and repressed student of that title is echoed in Mayuko, although she's far more passive and even less economically stable. Meanwhile Niea has exactly the same role as Mr Yotsuya in that title, even to the tendency towards casual property destruction. And if you think Niea being alien makes a difference then you haven't seen how weird a character Yotsuya is. The important part is that both of them represent free, and unrestrained, energy compared to the nervous discipline of the mains. They seem to be magically free of the social bounds that weigh so heavily on the mains. And they seem to acheive this primarily by a boundless self-confidence that, in some ways, the main characters envy even as they dislike. Even the environment, and the seeming intent to have some subtle, character driven, domestic drama are strongly similar.
At the same time I can't help feeling this one has some failed elements to it. It doesn't have the light touch and perfect timing that Rumiko Takahashi can do so well. It is also without a true story, Mayuko never really finds the thing that can give her a goal, direction and a change in the life she leads. As a result this show does drift quite a bit, and a lot of the episodes are pretty stupid and many of the lesser characters fail quite badly. For being an alien Niea, in theory the title character, really isn't all that interesting. The other aliens, especially the atrociously unfunny Indian references, are just dire. They don't do anything of interest, they don't develop and Niea never seems to really have any depth to her relationship with Mayuko. In all honesty Niea and many of the other characters could be written out of the script without actually losing anything of value. And that's a fairly harsh criticism.
There is, however, a balance. While it has too heavy a hand to really pull off a quirky comedy/drama like Takahashi can churn out it does gain in depth. After all part of the reason Niea fails so badly as a character is because Mayuko has such a wonderful sense of complexity. We spend a lot of time with her, exploring her character and learning to read her expressions. When she is down, and she has no shortage of potential material in that department, we naturally empathise with her. When her insecurity drove her to miss an opportunity it had a very poignant sense of sadness to it, possibly because we've all done something like that. When she finally smiles, and an ambiguous and subtle smile it is, because by the end of the anime she has reached a sort of balance but not a solution, it can be very warming for those perceptive and patient enough to see it.
So basically your enjoyment of this title resolves down to how interested you are in the very mundane life of a struggling, mildly depressed and insecure student. The action and excitement people aren't going to make it. Those hoping for wacky hijinks and comedy are very likely to end up disappointed. And some people are going to like it because the silence and space it provides, largely from the other story elements failing, really let us concentrate on just how interesting an ordinary human life can be. That said I'm not going to be overly kind in my judgement of this title, there are some precious moments to be had but it makes you work pretty hard for them. Meanwhile some of the stupid elements, and the false focus of the packet advertising, are distateful. For example the DVD set I have talks about the "curry wars" on the back, which is actually a very minor, and idiotic, event with no particular meaning in practice.
The animation is very easy to watch. The characters are a little bit "low definition" in terms of detail, but express their character well and look quite good. It moves well, including some super deformed action mixed in, but there's not really all that much action to keep the eyes busy. There's rather a lot of bathing, since Mayuko lives and works in a bath-house, but it's almost frighteningly mundane and completely without erotic potential. The actual strongest part of the animation is the surroundings that frame Mayuko's life. There's quite a few places we spend a lot of time in and they're extremely carefully designed and wonderfully depicted. Indeed the town itself has a very believable sense of place and gritty realism too it. The voices are good, the music is interesting and the ambient sound is well done. It certainly offers no problems on the production side.
I have some suspicious about what this show was meant to be, but it doesn't really matter because most of those elements don't work. What does work is Mayuko, an impoverished, repressed, mildly depressed, cram school student. She's not really the most expressive person, she's not confident enough for that, but we end up spending so much time sharing her life that by the end of the series it's possible to feel that we've come to know her, and even perhaps admire her. Mind you, patience will be required and I suspect a lot of people are going to consider it too much work for too little return.