It’s no secret that I’ve always been a huge fan of MVM’s previous releases of Serial Experiments Lain, Haibane Renmei and Texnolyze (of which the world very desperately needs a Blu-Ray release even if it doesn’t know it – hint hint), all of which have been touched in various ways by Yoshitoshi ABe, and so finally to have a release of the anime based on his manga NieA_7 (read: NieA under 7) crafted in 2000 was something to celebrate.
I knew nothing about the content, something I like – coming at anything cold is often the best way, so not to be burdened down by expectation, though to be fair the Abe connection certainly created some expectation.
Perennially penniless, cram-school student Mayu lives in a countryside bathhouse her family once owned. Between school, a paper-round, delivering meals for an ailing local restaurant, life would be normal, except an antenna-less alien, NieA, lives in her cupboard, and the bathhouse overlooks the crater where the alien mothership crashed, and is still visible, foggily in the distance. Within the crater live many within the alien community who are trying their best to integrate themselves into everyday life thank you very much. Life would be normal even if NieA is a slacker who occasionally builds UFOs and mainly hangs around for free food where she can get it.
Our protagonists are quickly set up as a bag of life’s potential losers - though that’s not really fair: Mayu is introverted, often frustrated at NieA’s apparent thoughtlessness and always working hard with little to show for it financially; the bathhouse owner Kotomi is equally penurious and trying to work out how to get the bathhouse out of the red; Nenji the boilerman is a pyromaniac; NieA cannot see beyond her stomach and the trash she builds into UFO's often come with catastrophic results; Genzo, an old friend of Mayu’s cannot tell her that he fancies her; not to mention fellow cram school student and UFO lover, Chiaki who blogs real time about her life or it isn’t happening; and don’t mention Shuhei and his daughter, Chie, who are trying to make a go of their restaurant, but like the bathhouse the monthly figures never quite add up. Along the way we meet a plethora of other aliens, who have often taken on their own identities, one who identifies with China, another who is described as cosplaying an Indian (who, yes, runs a local shop).
There’s a real tonal shift from the existential techno-angst of Serial Experiments Lain in NieA_7, and to an extent NieA_7 foreshadows some of the happier, occasionally idyllic aspects of Haibane Renmei, as well part of that that series’ darker aspects of our souls, but I think it’s fair to say that most of the first half of the 13-epsiodes that make up the series is often quite light in tone. A kind of gentle humour runs through much of the beginning, often revolving around Mayu’s slight awkwardness but more often her lack of money for food and NieA’s outrageousness. Occasionally it touches close to a series like Aria, but without the same calming feeling, and as much as I enjoyed the start of the series I did feel that it was treading water a little, the humour tended to revolve around one-off scenarios like the need to have a gimmick to get the bathhouse out of debt, and NieA especially being obsessed with food and how others should be feeding her, could easily have become a little wearisome – it never does but much of each episode exists in a vacuum without much development, which when you consider Serial Experiments Lain etc. seems quite a change. Nevertheless, importantly, NieA_7 situates you in the world that I liked a lot because it never tries to explain itself, we are allowed to work out that aliens are here, accepted, and often a bit odd, there’s nothing patronising in the storytelling or world building (unlike the first episode of Trigun Stampede I started to watch after this, where it immediately Has To Try Explain Shit to YOU! Immediately! - very irritating, very lazy) and lets you absorb the world you’ve found yourself in. Also, I liked Mayu's characterisation, and especially young Chie, who is more perspicacious of what is wrong with her father’s restaurant than he can and has a sense of fairness well beyond her years.
Some aspects sat less well, mainly Chada, the alien cosplaying an Indian; cliché of running the local shop aside, often gets the cruder humour that felt out of place. Yet some aspects felt quite ahead of its time rather than the retrograde vision of Chada, such as Chiaki having to - in real time - document her life on the internet, long before Facebook or blogging had became a reality. She’s so excited she just has to slam her experience online (whether or not anyone else is reading).
Though the first half of the series is entertaining, it is a little meandering where the latter half felt much more rounded and developed. NieA becomes less of a selfish alien (something that to my mind has only so long a shelf-life in a series) and her relationship to Mayu, and Mayu’s to the world, is pulled more sharply into focus. The tone becomes a little more melancholy, often due to Mayu’s difficult social situation and how she does or does not fit in with her fellow students in the city and those she lives amongst in the countryside; as life shifts around her, bringing surprises her way allows her to become more rounded and less of a character defined by her frustration at NieA. And again, NieA_7's lack of explaining things comes to the fore, some aspects of NieA’s character, and changes that occur in the world, are hinted at but may be in the mind of the viewer – or not - and it adds a richness that we see in the later Haibane Renmei series, where much is suggested but a lot is left for us to imagine or explain in our own minds, yet always within the framework of a world that exists and is unfurled before us. It’s not lazy writing, far from it, it’s writing that opens up spaces and allows us to finish it, furnish it, provide our own definitions and there is no right or wrong but endless possibilities. The humour is still here, in the final episodes, but it is balanced with a richness that the first half of the series lacks and it allows you to understand why Mayu could live with NieA (where had I been Mayu could easily see myself strangling the annoying git).
Visually, I noticed aspects of Lain in Mayu and Chiaki (who I did wonder might be named after ABe’s sometime collaborator Chiaki J Konaka), and most of the characters felt somewhere in design between those in Lain and Haibane Renmei, not surprising really as it seemed much of the production team had worked on Serial Experiments Lain. Considering it’s age, the animation can sometimes be more simplistic than we would expect of today but like Haibane Renmei the straightforwardness and elegance of the design more than makes up for this. It’s age certainly never gets in the way of your viewing pleasure.
Honestly, I watched NieA_7 over two nights when I was in a strange mood, tired, I think a little depressed for reasons I couldn’t really describe, and unlike most nights when I can demolish films, I wasn’t really feeling like... anything... Yet I decided to take chance on NieA_7. Much of it I enjoyed, though to a lesser degree of ABe’s other work, I suspect many out there will enjoy the first half more than me as I felt the series really took off when the more emotionally substantial second half took shape, without ever losing the humour, but using it to say more about how Mayu especially related to others, and may also have found her own strange place within the world. With aliens. Even an alien like NieA, a wastrel who wants nothing more than bento. A free bento.
Did someone say free bento?