To steal a line from Spike Spiegel, there are three things I hate: crying kids, incompetence, and strange, unidentifiable fluids. So tell me, why has Alien Nine gathered them all in one place?
The show begins well. The character designs are cute. The utter mismatch between the main character and the job she is selected for is comical. It’s also nice to see a refreshing change from the usual paradigm of “magical girl revels in it;” the reasons behind Yuri’s ambivalence are very clear and plausible. She’s a middle school student and simply not cut out for any sort of conflict, even when equipped with a deus ex machina.
The problem is that, much like Shinji’s whining in Evangelion, it grows old amazingly fast. Yes, we get that you’re not very willing to fight. Yes, we get that you are, if anything, the antitype of the brave buke that epitomized Japan’s warrior ideal: you hate conflict rather than embracing it; you hate duty rather than wanting to prove yourself, and rather than having drilled intensely, you are in fact rather out of shape. Now can we please move on with some sort of character development? I really dislike it in real life when people whine repeatedly about their situation and make no effort to improve it; how much less should I be willing to tolerate it in my entertainment?
Alien Nine manages to be so pervasively obnoxious that I would much rather have seen aliens battling it out non-stop without any plot (Ultimate Girls style) than put up with the tripe that passed for a storyline. You know what really would have made Alien Nine interesting? Make it about maturity and the abuse of power. Do they grow up, or do they remain kids who refuse to control themselves? Or make it about peer pressure and social issues, and cut the crying and fighting out entirely. The show continually hints at the ostracism and social ineptitude of the main character, who essentially gets no respect from anyone except her alien partner. That could make for an interesting drama, as Yuri struggles to maintain her own self-image and gain the respect of her peers. But please, don’t have 5 minutes of crying per 20 minutes of animation. Yuri cries when she’s sad. She cries when she’s happy. She cries when she’s scared. If I wanted to watch crying that much, I’d babysit and get paid to do it.
Viewers may suggest that the premise isn’t that different from Naruto – but Naruto at least had his own initiative and tried to be cool, even if he failed nearly all the time. And in all fairness, he was always trying to improve, even if his successes were rare. Yuri’s tale is one of unmitigated failure, not only as an anti-alien fighter, but as a human being. If there is a grand scale of human achievement from 1-10, Naruto might start at a 2 and climb to a 10 eventually. Shinji starts at a 1, climbs to a 5, and crashes. Yuri starts at a 1 and goes nowhere.
Obviously, on some level Alien Nine functions as social commentary: Japanese culture forces everyone into the same mold, and some people fundamentally aren’t cut out for the tasks demanded of them. However, repeatedly presenting crying children is not the way to go about making a sophisticated point about society. There are much better ways to do social commentary. Azumanga Daioh, and later Pani Poni Dash, dealt with stereotypes in school and the social consequences of skipping grades. They were hilarious. Bleach made a point about sticking out rather than conforming, and Naruto made a point about ostracism. Barring filler arcs, these shows were entirely watchable. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex dealt with individual rights, identity, and corrupt government officials. It was excellent. Kiddy Grade‘s entire backstory was about the fundamental inability of governments to deal with corruption at their highest levels, and how that problem is exacerbated by technology and size. It got a little unwieldy, but the show had style. The same could be said for Daphne in the Brilliant Blue, or Solty Rei.
So there you have it. Social commentary has been done before, with varying degrees of seriousness and competence. I normally don’t advocate unoriginality, but the writing in Alien Nine was so horrible that the writers, if they insist on remaining in anime, should really just start copying others. It would have been a tremendous improvement. Alternatively, don’t focus on the miserable one. There were two other main characters, a cheery tensai and a grim masegaki. Focus on them.
This is not a difficult concept, okay? Don’t cause viewers suffering. I’m glad we cleared that up. Now, who wants some cake?