There’s no Fall anime that guards its secrets as closely as UN-GO, and none that makes you think so hard almost every week. Whether you consider that a positive or a negative probably determines how much of a fan of this series you are.
I’ve actually had to think quite a lot about just how I wanted to review this episode (and its successors) in fact. UN-GO “Episode 0” was released in Japanese theatres this week, and while I haven’t seen it I have reviewed the summaries. Fact is, it contains some exposition that would be hugely helpful in understanding the events of this episode, and it’s easy to see why the release was timed as it was. But while it’s very tempting to use that information to explain away much of what happens here, I’ve decided against it, which means I’m going to review the series as if the theatrical episode didn’t exist unless and until it’s released and subbed. Those of you who wish to be spoiled can find plot details easily enough, and I’d request that any comments that make reference to those details please use spoiler tags.
So what we’re left with is an extremely cryptic and even confusing episode which picks up right where the last one ended. After Shinjuro’s encounter with Kaji Yuki’s Novelist – and the mysterious silent girl in his cell – he tries to walk away but is overcome by a dizzy spell and passes out. All he was able to get out of The Novelist was that he’d been “chosen” as the world’s last great detective, and that the entire Yajima case has been set up by The Novelist. When Shinjuro wakes up, the world has changed – he appears to be a cameraman on a film, which stars three young actresses in lingerie and tells the story of a war that seems very familiar to Shinjuro but is in fact entirely fictional. The director Mitaka Kichitarou is an abusive tyrant who appears to be having an affair with one of the girls. And Inga is nowhere to be found.
As so often with this series, the tone is much more old Hollywood than typical anime. There’s a Hitchcock-like, paranoid feel to the scenes on the movie set, in which Shinjuro inhabits a world that appears to be very real but that he somehow realizes isn’t quite right. There are brief visions of characters who aren’t really there, bizarre apparitions of people he doesn’t know but seem oddly familiar, a mysterious bar code on his neck. There’s a voice in his headphones telling him to “solve the mystery”, and strangely familiar faces on the internet. But there’s also Shinjuro going through the mundane aspects of his job and lots of casual conversations with the actresses. This show continues to feature some of the best dialogue anywhere in anime this year, and the scene where the three girls discuss their various interpretations of a line from the movie script is the best of these.
UN-GO has been a roll in terms of giving us one conversation every episode that’s jaw-droppingly smart and provocative, and this scene is the winner here. The script dialogue – “We should’ve sucked off war more. We should’ve wrapped our legs around war and rode it until it was worn out. Sucked it more, gotten more tangled up with it…” is incredibly potent in itself, and I’m guessing directly taken from Ando’s story. But it’s truly fascinating to see the three actresses debate its meaning. One feels that it’s an expression of how tired everyone is of war, how ready to get back to their normal lives. Another feels that it gives voice to the notion that some people secret enjoy war, people whose greatest enemy is boredom and who’ll do anything to bring excitement to their lives. And the last – perhaps most interestingly – feels that it means everyone is going to be put on trial for the war, which senselessly killed people both good and bad. “We all all die the same.”
The whole episode is obviously a matter of twisting reality, and there are layers upon layers of illusion and fantasy at work here. While it seems clear that the movie set Shinjuro inhabits isn’t “real” – probably a fantasy somehow generated by The Novelist – it seems that everything that happens there is symbolic of events in his world, including the war film, and there’s no indication that the people inhabiting the fantasy aren’t actual people. The director refers to the actresses as “prisoners”, interesting in light of the fact that The Novelist is in prison when Shinjuro meets him. And when the director of the movie is brutally murdered, it’s Rie – proclaiming herself to be a Metropolitan Police detective – who arrives at the set along with Izumi to arrest Shinjuro (who believes himself to be guilty) for the crime. Finally, we see Inga arrive at the “real” prison looking for Shinjuro, and being refused permission to see him. He can, however, “smell her” – with “her” seemingly being The Novelist’s sidekick.
For me, one of the telling signs that UN-GO is special is that unlike most series, my opinion of the episode I’ve just watched is always higher after I’ve had some time to consider it. The show not only holds up well to analysis, but in fact continues to reveal small and subtle elements whose significance only becomes clear after reflecting on them. It’s certainly far from the easiest series to watch, and it’s not the most exciting during the process of viewing it, but there’s no other series quite like it. I think that it’s only when we see an anime adapted from a thoroughly atypical source material, as UN-GO is, that we realize just how limited our expectations are when we watch so many derived from the obvious sources.