One of the things I like and respect about anime is the willingness of so many of its producers to tackle unusual stories and situations. Unlike most American productions, which even at their most challenging often trot out the same few very familiar character types and situations, anime series aren’t always afraid of baffling viewers with opaque plot lines or character motivations. The thinking seems to be that as long as something interesting is going on, the viewers will stick around long enough to figure it all out on their own. And if the viewers never do figure it out? Well, they’ll still probably like it as long as it is all sufficiently interesting.
Shangri-La is a good example of how this kind of gamble can pay off. It’s a hard series to summarize, not because it is complex, but because it contains lots of pieces that don’t obviously fit together, and whose meaning, even in isolation, isn’t often apparent. It doesn’t tease us with a mystery–so you’re not likely to feel angry when your sense of puzzlement goes undiminished–but it does keep you watching from episode to episode as one damn thing happens after another.
The story’s one big concession to cliché is its setting: It’s another one of those post-apocalyptic plots where Japan has been cataclysmically devastated and people are fighting to survive in the ruins. Society has become bifurcated between those who get to live in Project Atlas–a rebuilt, hyper-modern metropolis–and those who are stuck in outer slums which are being encroached on by killer jungles. Our heroes are members of “Metal Age,” a band of idealistic fighters whose lightning raids secure supplies for the slum where they live without going so far as to provoke a harsh crackdown by the government. The “heiress” to Metal Age is Kuniko Hojo, who is another concession to cliché: a tomboyish teenage girl who is a smart, sassy and very skilled fighter. Luckily, she has just enough vulnerability and believable adolescent confusions that she never becomes insufferable. Her closest cohorts are the transsexual Momoko, the burly engineer Takehiko, and her own grandmother.
This side of the story is easy to digest. Far harder to understand is the stuff going on inside Atlas, which seems to be divided into various powerful cliques whose relationships with each other never gets an adequate explanation. At the top of the project is the ruthless and deeply unpleasant Ryoko Naruse, who sadistically dominates and exploits her compliant male staff while running various conspiracies whose only object seems to be the Orwellian-like oppression of everyone else in Japan. She is far and away the weakest thing in the show–the kind of villain who would buy a dog just so she could kick it–but at least you know where she stands. Odder is Mikuni, a little girl who seems to be some kind of princess with a severe light allergy. Like Ryoko, she rules her palace staff through fear, but being a child she is much more unpredictable, and it isn’t even clear that she has motives for doing any of the things that she does. And there’s yet another little girl, Karin Ishida, who despite being around ten years old (it appears) is a mover and shaker in the world economy, which she manipulates from her laptop computer
That’s another place where the series baffles: In addition to natural disasters, Japan and most of the other world economies are hostages to the “carbon market,” which appears to be some kind of trading scheme put in place to control carbon emissions and global warming. Much of Karin’s skullduggery involves staging market raids on sovereign economies, forcing them into bankruptcy and reorganization with the touch of a button. Again, none of it is explained, and mostly it seems there so we’ll see Karin and her friends as George Soros-like boogeymen.
So there’s a lot of hurly-burly. Kuniko and her cohorts get in fights and sneak into Atlas. They battle the military, but sometimes they run into the soldiers when they’re off-duty and trade flirtatious insults with them. There are comedy scenes. There are heavy-handed portents that never get explained: Kuniko has a dagger that has been separated from a matched set; and there is some kind of zombie-computer running things at the heart of Atlas. People get thrown in jail, and then they escape. Friends separate and then meet up again under unexpected circumstances. Moment by moment, everything that happens makes sense. But there is no real, series-long momentum; no sense that we are going anywhere in particular, or that we want the characters to wind up someplace in particular.
So, in Shangri-La you have to take your pleasures where you can. At least the cast is eccentric enough that you won’t feel like you’ve seen them all before, and they have a talent for saying smart and sarcastic things. It won’t test your patience, exactly, but it might test your diligence: It took me two months to get through these episodes because once I paused them I had little incentive or interest in getting back to them.
So in addition to being an excellent example of a certain kind of anime series–the kind that is provocative and entertaining without being satisfying–Shangri-La is also an excellent example of the kind of thing one should rent before buying. If it hooks your interest, you can add it to your collection. If it doesn’t, you won’t regret the time you spent with it.
That’s not my idea of Shangri-La–Paradise–but it’ll do in the circumstances.