Red Data Girl is two-thirds of a great show. Not in the sense that it's terrific up until about Act III and then peters out, but in that of three major components for a show — story, character, and plot — it fumbles the ball only with the last of those three. Despite all the mistakes it makes and all the foolish dead-ends it builds in for itself, this is still a good show — good because it attempts to treat its material with gravity and intelligence, if not because that material is unfolded in a plotline of the most compelling variety.
At least some of what makes Red Data Girl as good as it is should be chalked up to the source material, a series of novels by Noriko Ogiwara. Her good-to-great Dragon Sword and Wind Child books were published by VIZ in English some time back, and they reminded me of the way the Moribito series revisited and re-examined Japanese mythology and history. Red Data Girl is set in the present day, when the spiritual ways of the past have either become museum relics or died out completely, but certain strains of it are still alive--not in the forms of specific rituals or artifacts, but specific people.
The specific person in this story is Izumiko Suzuhara, a 15-year-old girl who grew up under the roof of the venerable Tamakura Shine. The modern world seems to be at fundamental odds with her: she can't use any electronic device for fear of inadvertently destroying it. Friends have to make phone calls for her, and a class research project involving the Internet nearly has her in tears. But behind those clunky red-rimmed glasses and those chunky braids is a power — one of the last of its kind in the world — that could serve as a bridge to the incarnation of a great spiritual force, the "Himegami". (The "red data" of the title is an oblique reference to her status as a sort of endangered species.)
That makes Izumiko a target, and in order to protect her from danger, it's arranged for her to live in a special school with a guardian her age: Miyuki Sagara, a somewhat sullen young man who's been training as a yamabushi or mountain monk. He brings to the fight a set of spiritual powers that are as distinct from hers as, say, karate is distinct from judo, but isn't fond of the idea of serving as this girl's chaperone. Izumiko's just as dismayed by her own weaknesses, and wants to do something about them--to grow into becoming her own person. But out of that comes a tension that gives the story real weight: every step she takes towards that goal makes her that much more susceptible to control by the Himegami as well--and to give the Himegami unbridled control over her could mean the end of the human race.
That tension is the part of the show that, without a doubt, works and makes it something special to watch. I also admired how much of Izumiko's power is tightly coupled to its mythological origins: e.g., a key way Izumiko gives rise to her power is through dancing, and at one point she has to use that to lure the spirit of one of her friends out of a cave as per one of the Japanese foundational myths. That and the tone of the show is spot-on: this stuff is taken seriously from start to finish, and not simply a springboard for the kind of exaggerated tropesmanship that most anime use as a cultural decor job. It's not just for style. Even a detail like the handling of Izumiko's hair has its roots, pun unintended, in genuine Japanese attitudes towards such things. It all gives the show a sheen of respectability that another, more outwardly frivolous would never know what to do with.
But that right there is also where the show falls short: the way it doesn't seem to know how to give Izumiko and her friends something interesting to actually do. Too much of the plot is busywork of the sort cobbled together from the usual kit of anime high school clichés. I did enjoy how the school is secretly a hotbed of different competing spiritual paths, with more than one student not actually being human, and with some clashes erupting from that. The other problem I have with this plotting is not just that it's straight out of countless other high school stories, but that it doesn't give Izumiko the right kind of conflict and tension to really force her character to confront things. Most of that ends up being engineered through a plotline that takes up the last few episodes of the show, where other students (the usual "rivals") take control of the ghosts of some feudal-era soldiers that still dwell on the premises, and Izumiko has to put up a fight without succumbing to her worst impulses. It works, but not as well as it ought to.
What does work, though, is less the specific story details than how they are executed. I mentioned before the tone of the whole project being crucial. Most critically, the jokey, everything-a-punch-line atmosphere so common to anime is battened down a great deal. The first few episodes do such a good job of setting up Izumiko's predicament and making us care about what happens to her, that it's almost a shame the show isn't able to think of a plotline to do that justice. But the things it does well, it does well enough to make me wonder if the inevitable sequel (the door's left wide open for one) can fulfill what this show only promises at. And two-thirds of a great show is still two-thirds more than we get most of the time.