Shintarou is a shut-in, and hasn’t even left his house in two years. He considers his computer his lifeline, although it’s currently being inhabited by a mysterious cyber-girl called Ene who appeared in an email attachment one day. She’s loud, pushy and annoying, often deletes his files without asking and makes him order things he doesn’t want or need, but she seems to be the closet thing he has to an actual friend. One day her on-screen antics cause him to accidentally spill cola all over his keyboard, ruining it for good. Even worse, it’s during the Obon holiday period, so no stores will ship him a new keyboard immediately. Not wanting to go five days or so without his computer, he decides to finally venture outside, Ene riding along in his smart-phone, to buy a new keyboard. However, of all the days for him to venture outside, it just had to be the one where a terrorist group attacks the department store, and he soon finds himself as a hostage (and with no keyboard to boot).
But there are also some mysterious other Cool Teens hanging around the place who Know Things, and it looks like Shintarou is about to get caught up in it all. Plus, cryptic flashbacks about schoolgirls with red scarves!
Alright, let’s get the background information out of the way. Mekaku City Actors is the latest entry in the mixed-media Kagerou Project, which started as a bunch of interconnected Vocaloid songs/movies about teenagers with eye-based powers or something by a producer called Jin. It’s also got novels, merchandise and at least one manga adaptation I know of, is one of the most popular Vocaloid-related things at the moment, and was inescapable in almost every anime-related store I went to when I was still in Japan. Given that I’m The Big Vocaloid Fan I knew it was my responsibility to review the latest anime based on something vaguely Vocaloid-related. There’s kind of a problem though….. I do not care about Kagerou Project. It’s true I haven’t actually heard/seen all of the songs outside the 10 second or so previews clogging up the Vocaloid Ranking every week, but the ones I have heard just honestly didn’t grab me at all. I didn’t find Jin’s songs all that great, I found the character designs equal parts uninteresting and ‘trying too hard to be cool and unique’, and the whole ‘QUIRKY COOL TEENS WHO ARE TOO COOL FOR YOU’ aura so popular with middle-schoolers these days that it projected just drove me further away from it. It wasn’t even that I actively disliked it, I just had a strong reluctance to have anything to do with it, solely because it seemed to be aimed squarely at people who are not me, and I just honestly never had the time to prove myself wrong (or right) by actually sitting down and viewing every song. But, recently Kodansha released an app for reading free and legal manga chapters called ‘MangaWalker’ which featured the manga version of Kagerou Project as one of its series. I decided to give the first chapter a shot, and was surprised to find that I was actually pretty interested in it in comparison to the songs. Maybe there was a decent story buried under all that pretension and quirky coolkid character designs! Then, I learned that the upcoming anime version (aka Mekaku City Actors) was not only going to be animated by SHAFT, but directed by the legendary Akiyuki Shinbo, and I honestly started getting exicted about this. What could possibly go wrong?
Uh, well, a lot of things apparently.
I don’t like to use the term ‘jumped the shark’ lightly, but it came immediately to mind. What makes SHAFT’s ‘unique’ aesthetic in their anime nice is that usually each of their series still retains some distinct look of its own – Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei does not look exactly like Bakemonogatari, which does not look exactly like Madoka Magica. Then there’s Mekaku City Actors which literally plays like some kind of parody of the tropes SHAFT uses in their anime. A pretentious eye closeup here, a head-tilt there (I am not joking, I counted about five dramatic head-tilts in the first nine minutes alone), some dramatic high-contrast lighting here, a ridiculously futuristic interior of a room in side-profile there. This is potentially really visually exciting if you have actually never seen a SHAFT anime, but for me it honestly just felt phoned in. Another reason I took issue with it is that for the most part, none of it was even necessary, and it especially shows after reading the manga. The story about this kid with a digital fairy inside his computer is interesting and quirky enough, there is literally no reason to try to emphasize this with these attempts at ‘artiness’ that, for SHAFT, are quickly becoming cliche.I was left with the sense that at this point, SHAFT are just putting in these animation tropes because they’re SHAFT and people expect them to. The blatant ART!iness actually just complicates things far more than necessary. Also, what’s with Shintarou’s needlessly high-tech computer setup? In the manga I read, he had a pretty standard computer, which made Ene appearing on its screen a little more interesting and whimsical to me. When you give him what looks like a holographic display that seems to fold out like a giant map, with a secondary screen as large as the window (which takes up the entire wall of his ludicrously large appartment), something about the magic and mystery of the girl-inside-the-computer is lost. And so long as we’re talking about differences between this and the manga I read, I certainly don’t remember Ene being this annoying. Of course, in the manga I can’t hear her voice, but I never got the impression that she doesn’t shut up. But the anime seemed to really stretch these talking scenes out as much as possible, and a lot of this ‘quirky’ dialogue was invented for it. And then there’s the issue of Shintarou looking and acting almost exactly like Araragi in Bakemonogatari, an impression I didn’t have before, and it all kind of comes full circle like some kind of self-cannabilizing SHAFToboros.
It’s kind of ironic that the manga made me a little more interested in Kagerou Project but the anime I was actually anticipating only made the whole thing out to be even more ‘2COOL4U’ and pretentious than I initially feared. But mostly I feel let down because this was the one show I was counting on this season to actually be good. It’s been a really lacklustre season for me, and at this rate I don’t even know if there’s going to be a show I want to blog for the next three months. However, Mekaku City Actors is still getting the benefit of doubt, and I’ll be giving it one more episode to decide if its worth following. Maybe its just the SHAFT fan in me stubbornly denying that they could possibly jump the shark, despite all evidence.