If the measure of a second episode is to be better than the first, then this week’s UN-GO certainly passed the test. What it didn’t do is finish the job of convincing me that this is going to be a compelling series.
There are some interesting trends in anime this year, and some of them are showing themselves in UN-GO. We’ve obviously had a rash of episodic detective shows, and we’ve also seen quite a few series grope with the subject of domestic terrorism and a general sense of powerlessness as it relates to Japanese society. We’re seeing both those themes pop up in both halves of the NoitaminA block. Does this represent a sort of national malaise where the Japanese people are feeling threatened by increasing internationalism? That seems to be a growing political trend everywhere, and it’s certainly the backbone of Ishihara Shintaro’s xenophobic political movement in Tokyo. Of course it could all be coincidental, but it’s an interesting question to ponder.
As for detective series, what I take from that is a hunger for nostalgia, because there’s nothing more traditional than the detective yarn. In many cases the nostalgia is literal, as shows like Gosick and Dantalian are set in the years before WW II. The irony for me is that while UN-GO is set in the future, in terms of structure it’s actually the most traditional detective series of the lot, despite the surrealism surrounding Inga and the technological trappings. This is a story written in the 1940’s and while BONES has given it a new suit of clothes, the essence of the source material still shines through. If it reminds me of any of those earlier detective anime from this season it would be Dantalian, with it’s chilly emotional palette and hints of mysticism.
UN-GO may suffer from some of the same problems that Dantalian did too – a lack of overriding story and an inability to form a deep emotional connection – but it’s too early to tell. The mystery was certainly far better than in the premiere this week, and the pacing and direction was far better too. I especially enjoyed the whimsical POV shifts as the facts of the case were being played out near the beginning of the episode. The story superficially surrounds “Dol-lpli” or voice idols – “not like that ancient Vocaloid thing”. They’re a kind of cutting edge VR evolution of the idol industry (one which one suspects may not be all that far off even as we speak) and they’re connected to the murder of an agency executive, Osada Hisako (Matsuzawa Chiaki).
The mystery that follows is interesting and well-crafted by the standards we’ve seen in anime, 2011. The reclusive genius Rinroku crafts a theory that blames the victim’s transvestite lover, and a trail leads Shinjuro and Inga straight to two members of the disbanded idol act Yonagahime. But the truth lies at the feet of the victim’s daughter, frustrated singer An (Yasuno Kiyono). The human drama here is relatively interesting, but – and this is clearly the pattern – it’s really a sideshow to the main event, which is a kind of dystopian idea control that Rinroku and the prosecutor Koyami Izumo are up to their necks in. We have a national tragedy (“The attacks of 12/23”) being exploited for propaganda, and used as an excuse to trim individual rights. This appears to be our recurring storyline – Shinjuro’s quest for the truth, always to be thwarted by the propaganda machine run by the alarmingly fascist central government. There’s serious potential there – but will it get tiresome to see the same ending to every mystery, if indeed we do?
Based on premise alone, I think we’re seeing the makings of something pretty interesting here – a story that was written during the halcyon days of fascism being adapted for the Ishihara era (“Internet Information Privacy and Protection Act”, anyone?”). I’m still not sold on the characters though. The government dogs are sock puppets for now, though we may see them fleshed out later. Shinjuro is something of a loser, to be honest – waiting in line to buy software to earn extra cash and always being foiled when he discovers the truth of a case. I don’t doubt he’s smart, but what’s his motivation to keep going through that? What is he passionate about – or is he passionate about anything? He seems to take the suppression of the truth that ends his cases pretty stoically, at least so far.
And then there’s Inga, still the wild card in this deck, seemingly the MacGuffin of this series. Our hint this week was Shinjuro’s comments about promising to show Inga “what a real human is. Real human truth.” Of course we fundamentally don’t know what Inga is, though “human” is pretty far down the list of possibilities. Of more practical concern is whether Inga is a good character, and the jury is still out on that. The female form – his “demon” side, for lack of more definitive information – is actually sort of scary and unpleasant. Fortunately the child form is more agreeable and certainly cute, though we haven’t really gotten past the mugging for the camera phase yet. Between Inga and Shinjuro, whether they break out as characters will determine how far UN-GO can go as a series.