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Alien Nine
Reviewed by Kevin Pezzano, © 2003

Format: Anime
By:   Central Park Media
Genre:   Sci-Fi/Horror
Released:   July 8, 2003
Review Date:   September 03, 2003
Audience Rating:   R
RevSF Rating:   7/10 (What Is This?)
'I got that trophy for first place in a piano recital, that's from a ballet competition, and that over there is from a robot simulation competition.' -- Kasumi shows off her eclectic range of extracurricular awards

Iëve seen a LOT of anime in my time. There's not a lot out there that can shock or disturb me any more. I've devoured the horror psychodrama of 'Evangelion', sat engrossed during the bloody child trauma of 'Kite', and watched in excited awe for the enigma wrapped inside a puzzle that was 'Serial Experiments Lain.' And none of it, no matter how shocking or bloody or weird, had any effect on me that lasted beyond the time it took to remove the DVD from my player and snap it back into the case.

Until, that is, I saw 'Alien Nine.'

It seems that in the first couple decades of the 21st century, contact has been made with life from other planets. Instead of big-eyed anal-probing grey dudes, though, the aliens turn out to be strange, often cute animals (like odd crosses between tribbles and parrots). These aliens periodically land in giant biomechanical pods on the campuses of elementary schools, and some of the students are picked to nab the rogue endomorphs with tranquilizer guns and lacrosse nets. Yeah, that's a good idea. Anyway, whiny crybaby Yuri Otani is elected by her classmates to be the Alien Fighter for her sixth grade class. Along with her fellow electees, the tall and bitter Kumi and the mega-cute but suspiciously overeager Kasumi, Yuri gets to roller blade around her school and capture the rogue aliens that are infesting her school buildingÖ and to wear an alien symbiote called a Borg (which looks like a bat-winged frog molded into a batting helmet) to help in their alien-combating duties.

Unfortunately, Yuri HATES aliens, and tends to faint dead away during the more dangerous or grosser moments of her alien fighting experience -- and there are a LOT of those. As I mentioned above, the girls are tasked with capturing, not killing the aliens (which does make a bit more sense for 12-year-old-girls than engaging these interstellar beasties in bloody duels to the death), but Yuri's fear and revulsion often causes her Borg to act on its own, using its extendable drill bit tentacles to kill the aliens in often-messy ways. This means, of course, that the more terrified and repulsed Yuri gets, the worse her Alien Fighter experience is, making for a classic and rather nasty feedback loop. Yuri is not allowed to quit, though, no matter how bad things getÖ and they get very, very bad during the course of this series.

Why did this simple four-episode series have such a powerful effect on me, when anime like 'Perfect Blue' slipped right off my sensitive psyche like a fried egg off a Teflon pan? Well, the incongruity of the setup and the resulting storyline had a lot to do with it. 'Alien Nine' is disturbing, silly, gross, heartwarming, tragic, and sweet in equal measure. The characters are cute little girls, with an adorable puffy round Charlie Brown look to them (especially in their facial expressions), but they have such horrible things happen to them. The color scheme is all pinks and pastels, except when the dark spooky scenes of violence result in thick spurts of blood, both human and alien.

But what made the most impact in 'Alien Nine' was the characters. They are slowly developed over the four episodes (including one that's JUST character development, no aliens or fighting) so you get to really know and like them. Yuri may be a whiner and a crybaby, but considering what happens, her fragile emotional state is justified, and it's hard not to feel sorry for her. Kumi was always the leader in her class, and she's sick of everyone relying on her. Being an Alien Fighter means that her classmates are no longer demanding things from her, and she doesn't want the mostly-inept Yuri to start pleading for her helpÖ but she may just be changing her mind a little. And Kasumi is an oddball, who ostensibly is an Alien Fighter just for the kicksÖ but she hides a deep pain over being abandoned by her beloved absent older brother, which makes her all too vulnerable to the emotional attacks of the aliens. All of these characters, and even some of the aliens, are portrayed realistically and sympatheticallyÖ and then they're subjected to such physical and psychological devastation that it'd make Hideaki Anno go 'Dude, aren't you taking things a bit far?' This whole series is like an emotional sucker punch. A HARD one. Right in the nads.

Whether or not this sort of emotional mind game is a good thing or a bad thing (and I'll get to that in a bit), at least no one can doubt the quality of the 'Alien Nine' DVD itself. The animation is excellent, combining CGI with traditional cels seamlessly, and I've already mentioned the effective color palette and character design. The dubbing is brilliant, with the usual cast of CPM veterans like Veronica Taylor and Rachel Lillis. In fact, the dubbing results in one of the coolest extras ever on a US DVD: a dubbing diary. This is a day-by-day video chronicle of the recording process is, put simply, brilliant, covering everything from casting decisions to specific performances to the problems that arise when your leading lady gets a cold. Combined with a nice art and sketch gallery and some Japanese TV ads, it makes for a really fun diversion.

Because after watching 'Alien Nine', you're gonna NEED a diversion. Despite its cutesy trappings, this anime is extremely disturbing. It's not the sort of anime you can just pop in and watch one lazy Sunday afternoon. It will leave you shaken, distressed, and quite possibly sobbing. That's the reason I can't wholeheartedly recommend 'Alien Nine'. Yes, it's an excellent show with well-done animation, a deep story, and realistic characterization. But it sure ain't much fun to watch.

Letís face it: Anime Editor Kevin Pezzano is just a big wuss.

 
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