Tuesday, June 11, 2013

cowCase Reviews: NieA Under 7

Representing about a 60:40 ratio of contemplative slice-of-life to lighthearted comedy, all blended and dropped into a slightly sci-fi setting, my first thought about NieA Under 7 was this: It is one tough show to classify.

It's evident that, from an artistic standpoint, this is a pretty bare-bones production. Expect relatively flat backgrounds, lacking any real depth or detail. Movement is regularly stiff and unnatural looking. The character designs bear the obvious stamp of the esteemed Yoshitoshi ABe, and they're just as distinctive as anything else that he's made, but their quality fluctuates, sometimes becoming more blocky and rough-looking on a scene-to-scene basis. The closest, most direct comparison I can make is to Haibane Renmei; if you've seen that, expect a similar or slightly lesser degree of visual quality from this. NieA's art is never offensively bad, just decidedly shaky and awkward at times. In its defense, I'll say that we're hardly dealing with an action-packed thriller or anything that would have truly benefited from eye candy. A little more consistency in the presentation would be nice, but I personally don't see the budget-afflicted art as a significant detriment to the series. Make of it what you will; I'll leave it at that.

The bulk of the music seems to be devoted to the quieter, more contemplative moments of the series. It's slow and meditative, often consisting of a few gentle notes played on a pair of stringed instruments, or even a lone acoustic guitar. That's not to say it doesn't have a little bit of range in it to meet the interjections of comedy; some tracks are more upbeat, and an intentionally lackluster “trumpet charge” effect that plays during some of those moments adds a nice bit of sarcasm to the score. Like much of the series, it's all a little minimal, but in some spots it's a surprisingly good soundtrack, and it always consistently matches the tone of what's happening onscreen.
The aforementioned humor isn't terribly high-brow. Goofy slapstick is par for the course, and when the humor is verbal or situational, some of it isn't particularly clever. Gags centering around Niea's massive appetite or Mayuko's status as a broke student are common, and none of these represent a breakthrough in comedy. But the characters are endearing and defined well enough that it's easy to laugh along with jokes that might otherwise be labeled as disastrously typical. And, truth be told, there is a certain uncanny, understated bit of wit present in some of the goings-on; for example, an obnoxious alien's antenna accidentally picking up a radio signal from a Chinese restaurant, or Niea trying to fly away in a UFO using a cord to an electrical outlet as the power source. The best jokes in the show aren't complicated, they're just simple, well-timed, effective plays on the setting and underlying concept of the show, often laced with a bit of gentle sarcasm that some will appreciate greatly. There are plenty of hits and plenty of misses, but on average I found myself liking the lighthearted, chuckle-inducing aspects of the show. They balance nicely against its weightier side, seldom feeling out of character.

For all of its general weirdness, ultimately the elements of NieA that work the best are its down-to-earth characters (pun, please believe me, not intended). In particular, the lead, Mayuko, is a surprisingly complicated individual, likable and relatable in the first degree. She's a top student who balances multiple jobs against crushing amounts of schoolwork, yet it isn't through any ambition of her own. She lacks real direction, and her own desires elude her. Constantly on the cusp of being penniless, she has no idea what she wants from life, so instead she does what she needs to do to survive. Her shy and humble nature hides fierce independence; it hurts to watch her take a handout of food from a friend, knowing that she's trading her innate pride for pragmatism. In short, she feels like a real human being, internally confused but trying hard to gather herself. I must admit that I had no idea what to expect from NieA Under 7, and this instance of high-caliber character writing was a wholly welcome surprise.

Niea herself doesn't receive quite the same treatment, but as a point of comparison for Mayuko, she's also a valuable character. She's simple-minded and childish, without a worry in the world beyond what her next meal will be, seemingly lacking any ambitions or grand desires. And therein lies some cleverness; part of what makes Mayuko and Niea so interesting is that they're two sides of the same coin. Both are adrift, without goals, surviving rather than flourishing, but Niea grins and clearly enjoys every minute of it with an air of freedom while Mayuko always looks like a bird in a cage. As time wears on, the series twists and plays with this relationship in increasingly strange ways; Niea, haunted by the alien mothership that floats near the town, slowly becomes more despondent and begins to act differently, further amplifying the intrigue. It'd be easy to mistake the pair as the archetypal “normal girl and weird friend,” but the saving grace of the show is that there's much more to them than that. It's always great to see something complex hiding within something that seems simple at first glance.

I can't ignore a key fault, though; specifically, the series is haunted by incompleteness in several aspects. Some elements of the setting go largely unexplained. It's an interesting world, but one that's not put to full use. The ending feels anticlimactic and overly explanatory, but paradoxically, it resolves very little. NieA takes frequent jabs at social problems such as discrimination and class warfare, but it feels like it's scraping the surface of these themes rather than delving into them at any real level of significance. Perhaps worst of all, the series periodically hints at an additional point of comparison that could make both of the lead characters shine even more—actually a pretty elegant and potent metaphor—but it takes a step back at the last second and pulls its punch, which is a real bummer. I derived plenty of enjoyment from the series, but I also can't shake the feeling that it's essentially two-thirds of a show. It's missing some things that could have elevated it substantially.

And yet I recommend it. I don't quite know who to recommend it to, because it's in a strange no-man's-land of genres, but I'll recommend it anyway. Occasional moments of less-than-great comedy and some degree of incompleteness hurt my impression of NieA Under 7, but the show is just so darn charming and, at times, so surprisingly clever that it's impossible for me to actively discourage anyone from watching it.

Score: 7/10; general recommendation.

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