She: The ultimate weapon
So rusty, it's been so long since I penned a review (or even watched Anime). Writing up my PHD took a hell of a lot longer than I dreamed possible. But now it's over, and I get to review a title whose cover I'd often stared at in the stores, catchy picture that it is.
As with so many fine anime the story starts in a school-room. Young males and females no longer children but not quite adults. And questions of the heart, of friendship, and of the future give an intensity to even the smallest events of the most ordinary daily lives. And amongst one of the most ordinary is Chise, a bumbling, plain looking, shy young girl who on a dare proposes to one of the cooler, scary looking guys in the class, Shuuji, who seems to have it all together. That he unexpectedly says yes, and is actually a lot more uncertain than his facade indicates, provides a good foundation for some romance.
However the title, and the artwork, has already given part of it away. The world is moving towards a military crisis, and the sheltered world of the school is already beginning to crumble. The reason even this much peace survives is because Japan has unleashed the traditional ultimate weapon, super-powered cyborg school-girls. Needless to say, as befits the wacky science of anime, this force is if anything a little bit too powerful. The show, however, focuses on the human element. How does a person, no longer entirely human, find balance... especially when she is at the front line of a brutal and massively destructive war... much of which destruction is her doing.
The first thing to say is that it has a substantial number of traditional elements. The fascination with super-powered military hardware, and brutal fire-fights, combined with sexy young school girls (ideally in form fitting bodysuits) could have produced a very, very different sort of anime. One in which the power of a super-science is glorified, and the usage of it reveled in. This is definitely not that sort of video. We very rarely get to see much action, and if so it's always at a great distance. Chise isn't really that sexy, spends a great deal of time being shy, and her outfit remains a plain school uniform invariably damaged from the stresses of her life (ooh, how symbolic).
Indeed it is almost fair to say that the war exists, and is shown in detail, only for dramatic effect. The horror of war is after all one of the prime drivers for the personal events. Even when we are shown a firefight it is more about the fear of war, and the physical and mental destruction it brings, than the actual war itself. This works quite well, war pushes some pretty primal buttons, but at the same time it is curiously hollow. The war comes and goes at the convenience of the story, there is only barely a sense of continuity or logic about it. If a bomb needs to fall from the sky, a character get messily written out of the story, or some stress added to life then the war comes in, plays its part, and leaves.
And that's really the problem I have with this show. Some of the drama is really quite intense, not to mention physically brutal. At the same time it's more than a little forced. It has the sort of maudlin energy that if some young guy starts talking about how much his girlfriend misses him then he's probably going to get splattered all over the place in the next scene. It switches from peaceful schoolyard to war-zone in a fashion that is somewhat hard to actually believe. And Shuuji and Chise's weird relationship has exactly the same feel. It zips all over the place from stable, to psychotically weird and back again, without actually feeling terribly justified. It achieves a great deal of power, and some of the scenes are incredibly touching, but it's not nearly subtle enough to hide the fact that you are being manipulated.
And ultimately this steals a lot of the power from the show. It is so driven by external, and frequently unlikely, effects that the depth of the characters is sometimes reduced. For example Chise has several personalities throughout and Shuuji wanders all over the emotional landscape. Events happen for seemingly no reason other than to provide a shock and the world and the characters don't feel quite solid enough to carry it. This accelerates towards the end of the show to the point where I just lost the energy to care. The ridiculous manipulation of events just got so silly I couldn't take it seriously anymore. A more skilled handling of the material could have provided more emotional power, and character insight, with half of the spectacle. So a lot of the rating depends on how you relate to this. If you can take the dramatic high-points, and ignore the rest, you might find this quite moving (although it is something I cannot imagine wanting to watch multiple times). However if you wanted deep characters, meaningful actions that speak of the growth within those characters and a consistent and coherent world it might not work as well.
My suspicion is that the source material for this show is actually pretty slim. Perhaps something like a single volume manga, or perhaps even a computer game, and as a result they've had to stretch the material out. However they haven't used the opportunity to fill in the gaps, they just skip them, which is why there are a variety of voids in the shows logic. This also explains why the characters lack consistency, and it uses external forces so strongly, it needs to keep the leads off balance to extend the show. For example there's some, unsupported, suggestion that Chise has a dual personality. But this personality is only used to "reset" the character or say something brutal in order to traumatize Shuuji again. A flame from Shuuji's past serving exactly the same purpose in the other direction.
From a production point of view it is not terribly impressive either. The best tech design are the stills on the cover of the box. The character animation is fairly soft, low detail and weakly colored. It doesn't really look all that great by modern standards. Enough to tell an emotional story, and at times Chise is very well observed, but certainly not enough to represent action which it does not even try to attempt. Even casual motion, such as walking or at school, is relatively simple and uninteresting in its execution. The voices are good, the script sometimes a little weak and the music unimpressive.
A combination between high school romance and the gritty horror of war is not an obvious one (well, outside of anime) but provides some fairly intense dramatic potential. Nervous hearts on one side and scarred souls on the other. However the show lacks consistency, both in character and plot, that means the manipulation of the story for maximum effect is too obvious, which reduces immersion. Has its moments, but I can't imagine wanting to watch it again once the ending is known. The production is also nothing special, and the show lacks the action many will think the cover promises.