No. 6

Feb. 18th, 2017 10:26 pm
type_wild: (Tea - Masako)
[personal profile] type_wild
This story starts sometime in 2014, I think, when see this collection of images of what I think is two boys.

I don't know the series, I *think* it's fanart because it's really slash-looking but for some reason I also think it's not? - and there's something about it that really captivates me. I save it, and wonder if I'll ever know where it's from. It's not something I ever feel strongly enough about to go plastering up all over social media going HAVE YOU SEEN THESE KIDS BEFORE. But I remember it, from time to time, and wonder what kind of story it was from.

Come 2016 and the Yuri on Ice discourse. Specifically the part about how uh no, they didn't "hide the kiss because of censorship" because there's been gay stuff in anime since the nineties at least and IF that thing in YoI was a kiss, then it sure as hell wasn't the first time a same-sex kiss had been shown between main characters in a non-BL anime. Guys, No. 6 happened like five years ago.

I probably wouldn't have ever gotten to know where white-haired kid and is-it-a-girl-or-a-guy came from if a certain subset of the anime fandom hadn't believed in Yuri!!! on Ice like middle America believed in Donald J. Trump, and for that reason alone, I guess I'm grateful for it.

I mean, and JJ.

Once upon a time - like, the mid-to-late nineties by my estimate - WWIII happened and humankind was almost wiped out, but survived in six areas that weren't a nuclear wasteland. Best and brightest of these citystates is the titular No. 6, where our hero Shion is about to discover that there are fucking bees laying their egges in peoples bodies and the fucking government is just covering it up like what the hell, and that's just the beginning.

So my experience with dystopian sci-fi is more or less limited to Battle Angel Alita and the first Hunger Games film, but I'm pretty sure that this is a very run-of-the-mill take on that genre. Great plot? Eeeeeh probably not, but a fascinating one, nonetheless, since unlike the previous two examples, this one starts out with one of the elite of the elites falling from grace when he - at the ripe age of twelve - helps a wounded boy hunted by the government. Four years later, the favour is repaid when Shion discovers the abovementioned governmental conspiracies and is about to be neutralised for it when Nezumi - the boy he once saved - takes him to the world outside. The citizens of No. 6 live in peace and material comfort and have no reason to question their rulers because no-one, after all, thinks too much about the fact that outside the walls surrounding them, there are others living in utter misery. When Shion becomes a fugitive, his only refuge is in the slums, and his only friend is a boy whose singular goal in life is personal revenge on the rotten core of No. 6. This is kind of a problem since Shion-the-sheltered-child-genius just wants everyone to be friends and would really, really like to do something about that whole killer bee situation happening inside the walls.

(ALSO: I love the OP)

Is No. 6 a masterpiece? Yeah, no. There's nothing extraordinary about the production - design, animation, directing, music, it's all fine but except for a couple of glorious action scenes, nothing that makes you sit up and take notice. As a very personal nitpick here, there are a couple of scenes where the action happening is characters singing, presumably a capella but inexplicably with full orchestral backup anyway. MAN did that throw me off - also, the otherwise passable English dub kept the songs in Japanese. Ouch.

The plot, as said, feels pretty been there, done that, and has some pacing issues just to top it all off. So the singular thing that made me not only watch the anime twice, but hunt down and read all ten novels afterwards, and order the bloody manga when I'd finished that, was Shion and Nezumi and the impossible mess that is their relationship to each other.

In one of the ANs in the novels, the author claims that she set out to tell the story about the city of No. 6, but somehow ended up writing the story about Nezumi and Shion. And dear Lord does that show. One of my big complaints about Yuri on Ice was that there was too little attention paid to giving substance to Yuri and Victor and the transcendental bits. In No. 6, some might say that the problem is the exact opposit: There's this huge drag in the middle where new information about the killer bee slash government conspiracy very slowly trickles in, while the story lingers on this recurring back-and-forth between Shion and Nezumi about how

a. Shion wants to save the people in No. 6
b. Nezumi's only life goal is to burn that shit down and dance on the ashes

Obviously, these two things cannot be reconciled; either Shion gets what he wants, or Nezumi does, and of course - which one is right? Shion, who wants to save the people living in ignorance, or Nezumi, who wants to punish those who for so long have oppressed others? What struck me reading the novels, was how so much of the things explicitly verbalised in them were things that I'd already picked up on in the anime, just hadn't gotten confirmed. The view into Shion and Nezumi's heads makes clear what the anime also shows: whatever it is that is happening between them, it's something that profoundly changes the very core of both characters, their goals and wishes in life, their views on themselves and on the world. In the DVD commentary, the producer talks about how they had a "Nezumi and Shion relationship barometer" for every episode. The great development in this story never was "plucky kids take down autocracy in the name of human rights", and this story gets that one relaionship right even if the rest of the characters are pretty meh.

More critically, the story has some issues carried over from the novels that aren't fixed here, and since it kinda feels like they left them in on purpose, I guess I'll have to talk about them. And I have to preface the following comparison with saying that I mean the narrative focus and general themes, not the quality.

If you were to ask me to compare No. 6 to anything, I'd say that it's like the love child of Studio Ghibli and the 2003 Fullmetal Alchemist anime. It reminds me of Ghibli in that the plot ends up feeling like it's not the point. Yes, it has holes like a block of swiss cheese and ends on what is pretty much a deus ex machina (differently in the novels, but not really... better, in that regard). Spoilers unmentioned, there's a third player introduced that set off my Ghibli radar, and thus my suspicion that the ambitions behind telling this story never was to tell a new-fangled post-apolyptic sci-fi. No. 6, the city, feels like a very blatant allegory of today's western world, with our history of violence against outsiders seen as less developed, and the way our economy is funded on the destruction of the natural world and on excluding the the developing world from our wealth. If the allegory is indeed the pillar carrying the weight of the story, then the story gets to exchange realism for symbolism and important motifs. Weird shit happens with no explanation, because its existence is the important part, not the explanation of the logic behind it. It works for Miyazaki, steeped in myth and fairy-tale like his stories often are. Unfortunately, I'm not so sure it works here; I even suspect I'm being more lenient on it than it deserves just because I was so engrossed in the Shion-Nezumi going ons. The afterwords in the novels makes a lot of references to the international political climate of the early noughties - something that I've heard more than once was a considerable RL influence on FMA 03 - so I don't think I'm very far off with this interpretation of events.

At the same time, particularly the novels were reminiscent of FMA 03 in a lot of the moral conflicts cropping up. The government is bad while pursuing lofty ideals. The poor suppressed are assholes because that's the only way they can survive. Don't use science to fuck with the natural order of things, nature will come back and bite you SO BAD. The hero wants to do good, but is forced to look into the mirror and honestly answer what good would truly come out his naive idealism. And in the middle of his philosophical struggles is his wish to stay close to this one person, this person who means so much to him that he'll lose touch with all his ideas about right and wrong when they are threatened. And again: It works in FMA, where Edward's simultaneously selfish and selfless and at either rate highly personal ambition becomes entangled in big politics and ancient conspiracies. In No. 6, it's fairly easy to predict exactly which moral questions Shion will have to face - and again, it feels like the morals aren't in fact the point, but their highlighting Shion's and Nezumi's personal growth is. (which then becomes a different can of worms entirely if we're supposed to read Nezumi and Shion as symbols of the political conflict going on here, but that's a story for another day)

If the previous two paragraphs made this anime seem like it's "deep", then I apologise - it's not. It might try to be, but it doesn't hit hard enough to make any clear political statements, and it doesn't have the balls to make effective use of, well, what looks like the beginnings of allegory and symbolism ends up having no real message beyond the most banal and plot-convenient. Worst of all, it doesn't have the guts to take the fundamental conflict between Shion and Nezumi to its ugly core: although Nezumi fairly early on points out that Shion will have to make the choice between No. 6 and him, Shion never gets to face that decision. The choices of the hero are driven not by his own wishes and fears, but by outside crisis, so that the story doesn't have to touch onto questions that might paint him in a less pure - but certainly more fascinating - light. There are a lot of ethical questions being raised by the setting alone, but this is not the anime that wants to spend time on difficult answers. And so the entertainment ends up being the end mission after all, and then we get hung up on how the plot suffers and how characters are kinda one-note when they needn't have been and wait what's up with the intelligent mice again and -

Oh hell. I love it, I love it a lot, but rest assured that there's a number of other anime I'd rather tell people to watch then this one. By all means - it's up on Crunchyroll, give it a try. You might like it for the reasons I'm able to overlook it's faults and just love it absolutely.

And this I will say: For a story where more or less all the relevant action rests on the relationship between two people, romance is the least important part of it. And yet, pretty much every "revolutionary queer representation" thing that people will credit Yuri on Ice for doing, No. 6 actually did. It's non-BL, and presented as entirely natural - the narrative never draws attention to its queer nature, nor does it question its authenticity. Unlike YoI, it's unambigous and non-fetishy. No supernatural lip gloss, no gratuitous butt shots, no weird romantic-looking scenes that are later NOHOMOed. It's two boys who save each other over and over again, and also they kiss.

ETA: Or just read the manga


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