This Week: Alien Nine
So the holidays are all over, a new year has begun, and we may as well start it by being terrible to children.
This is a little series I had virtually forgotten about for a number of years now, only reminded of its existence due to seeing it on the shelf of a relative at one point over the last several weeks. A little three volume manga from the late nineties converted into a timely four episode OVA by J.C. Staff, with cover art depicting smiling elementary school girls with roller blades, lacrosse equipment, and little alien helmet creatures with angel wings. They hunt aliens for their school, you see! Yes indeedy, to the point of this being classified as a horror series.
Our adventure, then, follows around the Alien Countermeasure Party. Essentially elected to it much like a class would decide something as necessary as a homeroom representative or designated nurse aid (which is to say, even if nobody runs, someone is still getting elected by the class anyway), our team consists of three sixth grade girls of different abilities. To their credit, the advertised perks of being on the team include not having to do any homework, never having to participate in class cleanup duties, as well as being able to leave class whenever an alien shows up on school grounds (which is incredibly often). We primarily follow around Yuri Otani, who most definitely falls into the I Do Not Want To Fight Aliens Because This Is Terrifying school of thought, and spends most of the show scared out of her mind and sobbing uncontrollably.
Admittedly, she has quite a bit to cry about. Everyone treats her having to chase around all manner of alien threats against her will as something totally normal, from her mother to the kids at school to the administration. It may as well be like whining you need to clean the blackboard erasers, as folks either tell her to just suck it up and do it or basically go “that’s nice dear” as the complaints go through one ear and out the other. Alien arrivals as they run amok on the school grounds are treated with all of the attention from the school announcements system that one would give to reading off what was on the cafeteria lunch menu that day.
The program is loaded with juxtapositions it wants to dance with, such as playing delightful music over horrible sequences and it has a number of rather distinct nightmare scenes that are all done up with a lot of really bright and colorful fields of flowers. There is a feeding sequence where the three girls of the team are in a gym locker room, and their symbiotic helmet creatures are licking their backs for food (they feed on human sweat), and the other two members of the team are just reading a book and listening to music on their headphones with all of the normalcy of sitting on the bus, while Yuri is really uncomfortable.
It works really well at keeping things lively, dynamic, and moving along as this could have very easily turned into a real slogfest given how much crying Yuri actually does. This could have been a really insufferable series, had the direction been different or more morose. It is a fun little bit of direction choices, as she really is blubbering through almost the entire program. Even if one is aware that she is crying quite a bit, one can easily let it slip their mind as to how much.
Gainax was called in for some production assistance side work for certain segments, and it is easy to see why. This is around the same time as FLCL, and you know the third episode in particular? The way in which things like the primary creature of the episode sways and moves around with a notion of gangliness and weight? A lot of the aesthetics of Alien Nine has that similar sense of motion. The aliens in all of their various shapes and sizes have a great sense of being a delight to just look at, how they are designed and interact with the school environments. Original manga artist Hitoshi Tomizawa has gone on to be featured in modern superflat genre art galleries and the like, and a lot of that early development shows here.
On the negative front, well… despite this being four episodes and the source material being just three collected manga volumes, Alien Nine only covers about the first half of the story it had to work with. On the one hand, it does mean that the episodes we have are rather well paced and designed, but also means it can leave quite a bit to be desired at the end.
The symbiotic Borg helmet creatures the girls have, for instance, are totally able to talk and provide commentary or advice but feel more than a little underutilized in that capacity given that we are essentially seeing the developmental first half of their associations and relationships with these partners. The studio seems to have been rather aware there was no way they were going to be able to finish this story either, so even the final end credits sequence is cramming in a rather narratively critical chain of events from a little later on in the story. But without dialogue or what the context is that leads into that event, it feels at least a little confusing or potentially mildly frustratingly over what we could have had.
On the one hand, this is a really great example of what very close OVA adaptations for a short manga series can be. It looks much better than what this would have been as a television show, it does not need to concern itself as much with censoring content, and it does not have any excess material or bloated filler it may have needed had it been a full program. At the same time, should the production be interrupted for any reason (consider the years of delays in the Hellsing Ultimate project, for instance), things can be left hanging or feel incomplete.
The executive producer has said for years that they would very much like to raise the funds to finish the anime for Alien Nine, but it has been so long that this will likely never actually happen. Even the sequel entry of the manga, the one volume Alien Nine Emulators, is more than a decade old. Maybe it could be rebooted as a franchise in a post – Madoka world and the like, but even that has likely been considered and tossed out the window.
Despite all this, I would still recommend it on the whole. It has structural problems due to being effectively unfinished, but aside from that (large) hurdle the material we do have looks and works great. It is from a pre – Madoka and even pre – Princess Tutu design space regarding what it wants to do with its moe girls, and in that respect has some particular historical interest in terms of how it wants to go about puberty, the coming of age, and running us through the wringer.
Mothballs is a weekly write-up of already completed anime series I have either removed from my backlog or have recently revisited. A crash space for my immediate thoughts and personal processing, these are not intended as full reviews.