The fact it took nine years from being aired to getting a UK release made me wonder if Ground Control to Psychoelectric Girl might be an oddball misfire snuck into the release schedule (unlike many releases this seemed to have a relatively short announcement to actual release window) in the hope Shaft fans would be intrigued and pre-order.
For yes! Ground Control to Psychoelectric Girl (hereafter GCtPG) is a Shaft production, with chief director Akiyuki Shinbo (series direction is credited to Yukihiro Miyamoto) and it’s saying something that I waited a while before buying this despite being an enormous fan of the Monogatari series and Madoka – both of which sit firmly in my top five all-time list – and then once the blu-ray arrived it sat about for a couple of weeks before I gave it an airing and even then it was because I was trying to watch other things, failing, feeling tired and generally unable to concentrate. It’s telling then that I finished the whole thirteen episodes over two evenings.
Assuming you’ve not seen the series I’ll bet you’re wondering what it’s all about. Well now, let me help you with that:
His parents having taken jobs abroad, Makoto Niwa moves to the city to live with his aunt, Meme Towa. Only she has a daughter, Erio, Makoto knows nothing about. That’s not to mention Erio is continuously wrapped up in a futon, claims to be an extra-terrestrial and had the year before had disappeared for six months to who-knows-where. But that’s OK, Madoko is looking for the excitement of adolescent life and accepts what life throws at him.
Not surprisingly for a 13 episode series (actually 12, but the blu-ray release includes the OVA), GCtPG doesn’t take long to introduce Erio, nor does it take long to take an eccentric tone not unlike that of Shaft’s early Arakawa Under the Bridge. Considering I had worries beforehand for GCtPG, my worries flared back to life with the eagerness of the worst kind of desperate 4 in the morning wide-awake stressing over nothing insomnia session, when I recognised hints of Arakawa. It took me two attempts to watch Arakawa and I felt it never really went anywhere, contained almost zero story or character development and seemed to rely on the audience finding that the succession of ‘eccentric’ characters it introduced were enough to keep you interested. Shaft got that one wrong.
Thankfully GCtPG is not a misfire, though admittedly for several episodes I did have niggling doubts but that belied the fact that the series was positively flying by and I was enjoying it enormously, almost without realising that I was.
Yet in my head GCtPG was unconsciously being measured against Monogatari and Madoka and that is always going to be a problem for any series, let alone GCtPG. So it’s worth stating that GCtPG is not in the same league as either of those series, both of which for me hit moments of sustained greatness, not to mention visual gorgeousness. GCtPG though doesn’t try to be either (just as Shaft’s later March Comes in Like a Lion doesn’t) and GCtPG turned out to be a genuine diamond in the rough, despite the fact that much of what comprises GCtPG can be seen to be all a bit rote:
• Odd girl cousin who thinks they are an alien and a is bit of a shut in; oh and she believes she has powers she couldn’t possibly possess (no, Erio, you really cannot fly)
• School transfer student who finds himself the centre of attention for a number of girls, who are themselves more than a little bit odd
• Flirty, sexualised aunt having a mid-life crisis (yes, she’s about to turn 40 - but looks mid-20s)
• Low level fan service and the occasionally unnecessary lingering shot of a short skirt
• Eccentric grandparent who thinks they’ll die soon but know will outlive the lot of them most likely
Yet Shaft manages to pull the series off. Visually, you can tell its Shaft. The title sequence, with the juxtaposition of precise black and white images overlaid with bold, striking colour is exactly what you expect from Shaft though I suspect it was made on a lower budget than some of their other work and so visually it hasn’t quite the same flair to it that Monogatari or Madoka have but again, few series do. There are moments visually it pulls out the stops but then again, visual overload isn’t what GCtPG is looking for, as at heart it’s an honest slice of life series. Instead it has good honest fluid animation, which introduces moments of visual sparkle (literally) in a way that is meaningful to the story or link the characters together.
Anyway, GCtPG is a slice of life, so is all about its characters and though Makoto is our protagonist and the dynamic with Erio is the central pivot of it all the series doesn’t forget its supporting cast. Arguably Makoto is nothing new: 16 year old boy wanting to enjoy his youth (most episodes end with him totting up his adolescent points won or lost and the running total based on his experiences to date), but his attention to helping his cousin overcoming her lock-in syndrome, futon clothing obsession and even find work, emphasises how he’s a slice of life version of Monogatari’s Araragi. Makoto wants to help and not because he is going to get anything out of it but because he cares about Erio, and willing to stand with her even if it might mean he’s alienated. There’s a quiet thoughtfulness, even a gentleness to Makoto, and in fact almost all of the characters, including Erio, who though never fully leaves her futon obsession behind, moves forward as a character and in doing so manages to engage with Makoto’s newfound friends Ryuko (who has a running gag on her name) and Maekawa, and even gets involved in sports. So, unlike Arakawa Under the Bridge, where the characters pretty much stay the same as episode 1 (or whichever episode we meet them), both Makoto and Erio evolve as characters, while being true to their obsessions. Yes, Makoto will always tot up his adolescent point but he’s also willing to put aside adolescent things to support Erio, just as Erio learns confidence from Makoto and is more willing to embrace the wider world, well city anyway.
But of course there’s also a little harem-ing going on in this slice of life (and why not?) though it’s nicely balanced. Ryuko fancies Makoto (who just about gets it) and Makoto, well, I think it’s left slightly ambiguous where his heart lies: Erio or Ryuko. The ambiguity in another series could be mistaken for laziness, but in GCtPG adds to the sophistication of series, because I can see how other viewers could read the dynamics differently. My reading added to the sense of quiet emotional seriousness of the series, as I felt that Makoto felt about Erio like you might about your best friend who just happens to be the opposite sex, and that he does like Ryuko but is having to manage his relationship between both of them. He refuses to single out one or the other but tries to ensure both are made as happy as he is able. Others may disagree and therein lies the strength of the characters (the old, would people think Hamlet such a remarkable character is we knew definitely if he is mad or ruthless). Again, there’s some ambiguity if Maekawa, again a bit of a trope, loving cosplay and is unusually tall, likes Makoto. I took it as not but like Makoto’s feelings, I suspect others will read it differently.
Maekawa and Ryuko, with their eccentricities (Ryuko is a fruitarian, obsesses about bicycle safety and forces herself to project enthusiasm) for all their tropeishness (did I invent a word there?) again come through as characters that you genuinely want to invest time in. Again, both have a quiet seriousness: Ryuko approaching Makoto about Erio’s past is careful to warn him how the city may shun him if he stands by her yet is cautious not to offend him or push him away but recognises she might just by warning him. Ambiguity again is introduced. Repeated references are made to something that Erio has done in the past that makes the city think ill of her. What this may be is not revealed and again the series is stronger for this. If we’d find out it was some classroom screaming fit we’d think: so what? So what has this apparently eccentric yet shy girl done that could have led to such disapprobation? Was this the cause for her to disappear for six months? We simply don’t know and so free to unleash our imaginations as to what may have happened. Also, arguably it doesn’t really matter, it’s a MacGuffin, and it’s to the credit to the writers that they didn’t allow such backstory to bog them down. To know something happened is more than enough.
Arguably the series does have a few issues. Though the fan service is minor, I’d argue it’d be better for removing it for the most part. Like the end credits (which settle down to a pattern about episode 3) that initially focus on the hem of Erio’s short skirt. I ask myself: why? It just seems a bit unnecessary, like Shaft feel they have to include it. I guess it depends on how you take your fan service. I’m not generally a fan, except say when it is then subverted (think when Shinji has to deliver schoolwork to Rei’s apartment in Evangelion). Equally, does the aunt, Meme really need to taunt Makoto sexually? OK, she’s about to turn 40 and wants to remain youthful (don’t we all) but I’m not sure what it adds; Meme is more interesting when mining her past, how she’s had a child out of wedlock and kept her a secret, also her thoughtfulness at how she could have handled and guided Erio better once she reappeared with her alien delusion, rather than allowing Erio to withdraw (literally into a futon).
Also there is a lot made of Makoto moving to the city. The city is going to offer all sorts of possibilities to learn adolescent points he tells us, yet the city feels more like a small town, where people all know one another. It doesn’t quite add up. That said prominent in the latter half of the series is the introduction of how the city is divided into the shopping centre and the new city. The shopping centre being a more traditional area, and so maybe why the series tends to feel more like Makoto has moved to a small town because we see the shopping centre and it is more close knit. That said this could be simple fault finding, take your pick.
It’s a phrase I use a lot but I think it’s true that GCtPG is definitely more than the sum of its parts. Yes, with Maekawa’s foodstuff cosplay obsession (though I thoroughly enjoyed her suddenly appearing dressed as the alien in Alien, complete with sinister shadow) and there’s the flirty aunt Meme, and Erio is an eccentric shut-in, but the way that the characters relate to one another, how they are each given time and space to evolve, develop and mature - the supporting cast all get an episode that manages to be theirs - means you can emotionally invest yourself in them and this results in a slice of life series that’s more than what superficially it appears to be on the surface.
I suspect the real problem some people may have with GCtPG is also its strongpoint: it doesn’t reach for greatness so doesn’t transcend the slice of life genre, but that also means that it enters the marketplace as an extremely strong and competent contender. But that makes it a hard to sell (unlike Madoka that I originally watched because of the phrase “the Evangelion of the magical girls genre” and normally I’d not have touched magical girls with a barge pole).
So is GCtPG worth your time? Absolutely. It’s a polished, extremely solid piece of work with glimpses of Shaft’s characteristic visual extravagances. For me the fact that the full thirteen episodes flashed by sums it up: like a good bottle of red wine that you just keep having to pour another glass of, it’s a source constant pleasure.
Oh and those aliens might just be real. Or are they?
And somehow I made it through the whole review without citing David Bowie.