Alien Nine: Utter Alienation

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?

Don't kill him! We need him to pay the dry cleaner's bill!

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.

She has not eyes, but portals to a wellspring of limitless tears.  She could irrigate the Sahara Desert.

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.

Queen of Tears, do you have enough crying scenes?

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?

It's a lie, you know.

15 thoughts on “Alien Nine: Utter Alienation”

  1. “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.” ——–-LOL!

    But seriously, you really don’t like the story’s main plot d’yah? I did enjoy watching this 7yrs ago. I mean, the ending really made me kinda ‘shocked’ as to what happened to Kumi (the big sis-figure for the three). She was killed. I haven’t read the manga yet though.

    But anyhow, Alien 9 is one of the anime that I’ve grown to love and would want to re-watch it again. I sure hope Animax would re-air it. :)

    “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex dealt with individual rights, identity, and corrupt government officials. It was excellent.” –True. An eye-opener. :)

  2. Oh, god, Yuri and her whining….

    It’s been so long since I’ve seen this series that some of the plot development is confused in my mind with the manga — but the theme of abusing power does enter into it some with the blonde twin-tailed character, who grows to like fighting aliens a bit too much.

    One frustrating thing about the series (and the manga), is that the adults supervising the alien-cleanup crews are themselves alien-symbionts, and part of what is happening seems to be some sort of selection process or experiment.  It’s hinted at in the anime, explored a bit more deeply in the manga, but never fully developed — I’m not sure that the manga wasn’t cancelled prematurely.

    The artist does some interesting, but disturbing, things with imagery in this and his other works, but it’s like a mixture of lolicon, Hieronymous Bosch, and superflat.

  3. @dm: No, Alien Nine wasn’t canceled prematurely.

    The concept of comparing Tomizawa’s work to shit like Bleach and Naruto is incredibly hilarious, as is the suggestion that it should have stuck to some generic and overwrought “theme” throughout.

    Tomizawa’s works are genius because they have no discernible message and are free to be interpreted by the author as he or she wishes. I’ve read the Alien Nine manga probably 10 times and I still have no idea what Tomizawa intended the series to be.

    And that’s why it’s so great.

  4. Thanks for the comments!  Understand that my complaints are directed not at the manga, but at the anime.

    @rollchan
    – Upon reflection, my dislike for the anime might have more to do with how the story is presented – with lots of whining and lack of development, which is to say, with lots of whining for no discernible reason.  I  get that the character is going to whine a lot, but you don’t have to force the audience to suffer through it every time.  They could cut away each subsequent time she starts whining and just leave you with the idea “she cries again” instead of tormenting you with it.  And they don’t have to build up every expectation that she will improve slightly only to tear it down.

    @dm – It’s hinted at but it’s not the focus of the show.  Whatever artistic merit is in the anime – and I liked the character designs and such – is completely overrun by the annoyingness of the main character and the presentation decisions which focus on and exacerbate this annoyingness.

    @Moogy – As I said, this was simply not watchable.  So, no matter how bad you find those two works – I find Alien Nine worse.  Think of it less as my glorifying popular anime (which I didn’t – reread my comments) and more as my statement of how terrible Alien Nine was.

    It’s not that I can’t appreciate random work.  It’s that this has neither the comedic genius of Excel Saga nor the sheer zaniness of FLCL.  And it’s not that I hated the manga.  It’s that the anime was really that bad. I suspect that you saw the manga first, but I came at the anime with a clean slate.  It happens from time to time that short anime adaptations of manga really do not stand up – witness the travesty that was Psychic Academy.

    Any work is subject to viewer interpretation (I assume you meant that, rather than author.)  You don’t have to make an anime horrible and unwatchable to attain that status.  Was the anime trying to defy convention? I’m happy for it.  It still doesn’t make it watchable for me.  There are other works (like the aforementioned) that defied convention and managed to be entertaining, or at least less of a tiresome chore to watch.

    On the other hand, it could just be that (as I stated at the start) I hate kids crying, whereas for other people kids crying is moe.  Since that was the main factor in making the show unwatchable for me, I guess my opinion would improve if I liked that rather than hated it. But of course, that has no bearing on my review.

  5. Alien 9 is not a moe anime (intentionally anyways). Maybe it helps to watch the show in the context of some kind of feminist critique, at least it made awesome sense to me that way. And the work does have a couple levels of interpretation from the satire angle. At least. AFAIK the manga and the anime are thematically similar enough that they could be combined in this discussion.

    The one real problem I have with the review is not recognizing the point of all this whiny crying. Children cry, it’s natural. By not knowing why, it’s like, you’re the product of the society Alien Nine ridicules!

  6. @omo

    I acknowledged above that children cry in my discussion of the setting and premise, and in particular, that Yuri has reasons for her reaction.

    “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.”

    However, it could have been handled in a way that left the show watchable.  It was not.

    I assume that the fundamental obligation of those who make an anime is to make it watchable, and hopefully enjoyable.  This takes precedence.  If you don’t hold to this assumption, I guess you won’t mind unnecessary and repetitive crying.

    There was nothing the story gained by showing the crying after the initial couple of times, yet it persisted.  This is the problem I have with it.  Let’s take another example: If you have a show with a character who explains she’s a ninja when she’s first introduced, that’s okay.  If, on the other hand, she does it every time she’s on screen, that’s no longer okay.  That’s repetitive, and there had better be a reason for it, or I will be annoyed.  The same holds true for Yuri crying in reaction to everything.  The point has been made; the horse has been beaten to death; the well is dry.  Nothing is gained from repetition.  Thereafter you could just show her starting to cry and cut away to something else.  Don’t torment us with it.

  7. It’s definitely watchable. If not I doubt you would have finished it…did you? I didn’t read about it.

    Enjoyable, is a separate question.

    And yea, you definitely don’t get why she cries. I think you think you do, but when it’s obviously incompatible with what the show is doing, wouldn’t it be wise to reexamine your premise?

    Children cry; children remain as children will continue to cry; when they stop, it’s because something has changed. Welcome to a typical story about adolescence.

  8. @omo

    I think you and I are going to have to fundamentally disagree on the necessity of unpleasant things in stories. I will agree that there is some literary precedence to horrible volumes of whining – I remember Holden Caulfield as well as the next person – but I just don’t think anything is wrong with calling out the staff on it in a review.  It wasn’t pleasant; I didn’t like it, and I felt that it wasn’t justified.  I don’t watch anime to torture myself.

    In fact, let’s take the Catcher in the Rye comparison further. I can force myself to finish a book full of Holden whining, but that doesn’t mean I would consider such a book readable if someone asked me what to recommend, just as I wouldn’t call Alien Nine watchable if someone wanted me to recommend them anime.  Yes, they are literally readable/watchable, as is any object not from the far realms beyond sanity and coherent geometry, but so is paint drying.  Make no mistake – I get what Holden Caulfield is complaining about, why he’s self-destructive, and why he deprecates everything.  This in no way changes the fact that he is an unpleasant person to be stuck with for the ride.  At a presentation level, Caulfield is not the way he is because he must be; he is the way he is because the author could not find a better way to get the point across. Getting that he is who society made him and accepting that we must be saddled with him as a main character are two very different things.

    Does Alien Nine have artistic merit?  Maybe. But that’s a separate consideration from whether or not it’s watchable.  Pretty Cure has no artistic merit in the sense of making a statement, but it’s perfectly watchable.  I don’t give someone carte blanche just because they are trying to do something at some level other than base enjoyment; balancing out appeal and artistry is the job of those who make anime.  That I find something unwatchable is an indication to me that the makers of an anime have failed in one or more of their duties.

    This sort of thing has been done lots of ways and just because I see what someone is doing doesn’t mean I have to accept it, like it, or agree that it’s necessary.

  9. I don’t know if the anime is particularly watchable — I have a copy, but I’ve only watched it once.  And Yuri’s crying (and the audience’s inability to do anything about it) that makes it hard for me to watch.  I went on to buy the manga because I was curious about all the hints contained in the anime (the manga doesn’t really go much further, as far as explanation is concerned, but it’s far more explicit about how the symbiosis can progress.  The manga is certainly much more readable.

    I don’t see a feminist critique in it as much as a criticism of the way that adults use children.  The alien-fighting squad is like a parody of after-school activities and class-representative tasks.

    I wouldn’t go so far as Moogy and call Tomizawa a genius, but I will say that his other works — Milk Closet, Propeller Heaven are full of the fantastic and the cute-grotesque in a way that I find interesting in a way that Junko Mizuno (for example) is not.

  10. I respect your opinion on what is watchable and what is not, but I don’t believe there is any merit in using that to evaluate the quality of the work. I mean, maybe you’re being sarcastic but Holden Caulfield was not that annoying IMO.

    That is what I mean by enjoyable. Seriously, just because you hate calculus (or any other discipline of your choice) doesn’t mean it’s valueless and not worth pursuing.

    Unless by quality you merely mean its mass appeal value. Pure entertainment. And I can agree with that; but that’s totally not reading into the social commentary which A9 is pretty pin point about. And who knows, some enjoy that crap.

  11. @dm – The feminist reading, inasmuch as I can see, is “once again society dictates how the female body is used, how she should think, and how she should act.”  Which is truly there, except that boys as well as girls are being controlled and used as pawns in these machinations, so it is, as you said, more a case of children being used by society.

    @omo – That second line is the crux of the problem – you personally don’t find Holden or Yuri “that annoying” but others, such as myself, might.  To me, it is possible for a work to be so unpleasant that I cannot watch it despite any other merits it may have.  To you, this may not be so.  I don’t think there’s a right or a wrong in it; it’s a question of how much we’re individually willing to tolerate.

    And let me reiterate – that judgment is separate from whether or not the work has artistic/educational value or intrinsic merit.  The work may indeed have it, but sometimes the extraction process involves so much suffering that extracting the value is not worth it.  To borrow a metaphor from thermodynamics, it doesn’t matter how favorable a reaction is if the energy required to start it is not attained.   I love social commentary, but I don’t love it so much that I would pull my own teeth out for it – especially not when most other works of social commentary do not require this unpleasantness to experience them.

  12. It’s certainly detailed.

    You may have missed this point, but my critique has never been that Alien Nine doesn’t make sense. I simply hate being stuck with kids crying, and I’m not alone in this. This is not missing the point of the animation; it is saying that there are less irritating ways of getting the author’s ultimate point across.  Refusal to capitalize on better methods constitutes failure.

    Alien Nine wants to show us some unpleasant things about society.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to be made to suffer.  If I hear someone was beaten, I can feel bad for them without having to undergo a beating myself.

  13. I hope you didn’t watch through the entire thing..as I did with Air and several other series.. normally if I realize that the show early on is meant to make the viewers suffer, then I would just put a cease on the series, but if the series leads me to some idea changes, I’ll probably go back to watching it…

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