Here is a show that is, in the immortal words of Harlan Ellison, crazy as a soup sandwich. Its plot is risible, shot through alternately with goofus mysticism and eye-rolling coincidence; its storyline is crammed with more material and concepts than it can properly do justice to; it's peppered with silly anime-fandom baiting. But it has one thing that few other shows have, even genuinely good ones: the complete and unrepentant courage of its nutty convictions. Under the same roof in this show, and presented with a straight face, are: Tokyo being turned into a CO2 sink to offset global warming; a teenage leader of a terrorist group whose weapon of choice is a boomerang; a kid hacker manipulating the world's emissions trading market; a whip-wielding transsexual; a prison escape that makes the one in Papillon seem under-engineered by comparison; and a girl priestess who can kill liars with a glance. You can stop counting on your fingers now.
I know this isn't a good show, in the sense of one I would recommend to people as an example of anime at its finest, or even roughest. I do know, though, that it is an entertaining show, one outlandishly eager to remain interesting to the viewer. It doesn't quite exist on the level of something as roof-raisingly outré as Gurren Lagann (an enduring favorite of mine for that reason and a number of others), but it's a more enjoyable experience to actually watch than some other shows that are better constructed if nowhere nearly as fearless. There's a lesson to be learned here — one for creators, fan audiences, and critics alike.
And a child shall lead them
For a show as preposterous in the specific details as Shangri-la is, it's remarkably prescient about the general ones. Not too far into the future, the planet's oceans have risen, and industrial civilization has engaged in a massive carbon-trading market system to keep things from getting any worse. Tokyo has become lush and green, in big part as a way to sequester some of the carbon (a drop in the bucket, if you ask me), but not everyone appreciates this state of affairs. One resistance group, "Metal Age", has sprung up in the slum city of Duomo to counter the government's drastic anti-carbon stance — even so much as setting a single fire brings the wrath of the security forces down on their heads. The rich and privileged don't have to live with such restrictions. For them, there's "Atlas", a massive arcology-like structure where a lucky few from the outside get to emigrate to if their number comes up in a lottery.
Metal Age's future is in the hands of one Kuniko Hojo, a juvenile delinquent just now getting out from a two-year stay in the hoosegow for domestic terrorism. She's a firecracker, one more interested in striking out on her own than leading others to revolution, but she also knows shirking her responsibilities will only injure her friends all the more. With her high-tech boomerang (a distant echo of the killer yo-yo wielded by Sukeban Deka's Saki Asamiya), she and her compatriots are able to hold security forces at bay when they're persecuted for starting a small fire — although when one of the soldiers counterattacks with a strange dagger, it unleashes a bizarre, apparently destructive resonance.
What's that all about? Ask Mikuni, the young aristocrat/high priestess with a similar dagger of her own, and who possesses a kind of psionic lie-detector power. BS her, and you'll be twisted up telekinetically like a garbage-bag tie. She and her underlings are have inscrutable designs on Kuniko, but she also lives as a physically frail recluse and hungers for personal contact. Kuniko, on the other hand, has no end of good friends to depend on — mainly, Momoko, the transsexual bar mistress who's been Kuniko's self-appointed guardian (mother and father in one, it seems), and Miiko, another transsexual hostess at Momoko's bar who wins the Atlas lottery and ends up becoming handmaiden — and confidante/fifth column — to Mikuni. Kuniko and her friends will need all the help on the inside they can get, as they have taken it upon themselves to break into Atlas, learn its secrets, and perhaps throw open its doors to more than just a select few.
But Wait, There's More! Aside from a vast tangle of plotting taking place high up within the power structure of Atlas (with Mikuni involved), there's hijinks afoot elsewhere as well. Girl-genius hacker and recluse Karin Ishida has been manipulating the carbon markets with the aid of a specially crafted AI, all from the comfort and safety of her apartment while her parents are away. When she discovers a Western technology conglomerate named "Serpent" is apparently up to the same kind of no good, she's drawn into the galaxy of conflicting interests around Atlas (and motivated to finally leave her house) — but her AI winds up unleashing its own destructive agenda on the world.
But Wait, There's More! I haven't even gone into the genetically modified plant breed named "Daedalus" that threatens to turn the Tokyo carbon sink into an expanding ocean of green death. Or the clandestine camouflaging technology, or the mothballed stealth bomber that Kuniko obtains for Metal Age to perform strikes on Atlas — which, by the way, she rides on top of at one point so she can destroy incoming missiles with her boomerang. Or the prison break Kiniko engineers right before she's sentenced to death, one involving a hydrogen balloon. Or the ...
The good, the bad, and the clumsy
The first time I heard someone use the term "hot mess" as a pejorative description for a work of entertainment, it was to describe Terry Gilliam's Brazil. I'd use it here, too, and it would fit most of the case, but I am not sure I want to use it wholly as a pejorative. A show this overstuffed, sprawling, contrived, and, well, messy — it ought to be a complete failure. But the fact I watched it all the way through, with growing curiosity about what was going to happen and who it was happening to, reflected better on the show than originally seemed possible.
The "who" of it is a big part of why the show works as well as it does. I'm always drawn to shows that have broad, teeming, diverse casts — diverse not only in appearance, but walk of life, philosophy, age, and so on — with a few key characters serving as the linchpin. Kuniko has the kind of energy and sheer force of personality needed to be at the center of a show this complex and sprawling, and her comrades — especially Momoko, who radiates enough sass to power her own show — help fill in the gaps where Kuniko herself isn't always able to. But she's irrepressibility incarnate, and that goes a long way towards keeping us involved. She also grapples as best she can with the moral quandaries that comes her way: when Atlas provides them with supplies and the possibility arises that life inside that dome isn't really all it's cracked up to be, she wonders aloud: "Is happiness just a chocolate bar whenever you want one?" (Momoko's comeback: "Not when they go straight to your thighs, dear.")
The show's setting and world-building are a mixed bag, although they both start off on-target — the environmental devastation and in-universe carbon-trading scheme are all shades of things happening around us right now. At one point I realized the way the real world has outstripped fiction might well be working in the favor of stories like these: when you have teenaged kids calling SWAT teams on each other, the fact that one of the rogue traders gaming the system is a barely-teenaged girl (Karin) seems less like like playing to the fanbase and more like being barely ahead of the facts. That said, the way the story deals with her in the long run — and with most of the rest of what goes on — is pure soap opera, not just over-the-top but downright over-the-mountain. (Armageddon! Spiritual transmigration! Evil AIs!)
I should add, in the interest of fairness, that this all constitutes less of a net negative than it sounds like it ought to, if only because Shangri-la does declare its hand fairly early on. Big, broad gestures are the point, not a by-product or a drawback. Such an approach always runs the risk of toppling over into silliness, but it's nothing if not consistent with the overall plan to take the story's ideas and go big or go home. There's even room for a certain amount of moral ambiguity, as when Kuniko and one of the Atlas soldiers (a chap named Kunihito, the one wielding the aforementioned mystic dagger) get into a heated argument about the merits of terror versus taking Atlas's charity. Both sides have their points, although the show is less interested in testing the validity of either argument than it is in having all such arguments rendered moot by a much larger, mutual enemy. I'm still on the fence as to how wise that is as a storytelling strategy, especially when the Big Bad turns out to have a quasi-supernatural element — something existing anime fans may have less of a problem with than people coming in from more conventional dystopian SF.
Some things about Shangri-la are, unfortunately, bad by any standard. Momoki and Miiko, the two transsexuals, are deeply shaky: they're presented sympathetically and are likable and interesting, but the show keeps trying to wring humor out of them that just plain doesn't work. Worse, it's not the sort of humor an actual transsexual might use to defend herself or clear personal space; it feels like gags written by a male audience, for a male audience — e.g., Momoko knocking out a male Atlas soldier by deep-kissing him. Miiko fares better, in big part because of the way her growing emotional bond with Mikuni deepens both of them as characters; the humor that comes from her character actually comes from her character, instead of being dumped on it from above.
Getting it half right
The more a series works despite its very obvious flaws, the more endearing it can become, and in Shangri-la's case I don't think there was pity involved on my part; it wasn't like I was shaking my head in endearment at how thoroughly the show's makers blew off their toes, shins, and kneecaps. I winced — mainly at the way Momoko was handled — but I also kept going, and found myself admiring the show's sheer brio.
That said, when I mentioned up at the top of this piece that this wasn't a "good" show, I wondered how many folks out there were about to follow one of the paths Noel Murray outlined in his essay "The Lure of the Pan", where he examined the morbid fascination modern (mostly young) audiences have with awful, awful movies. "What makes lousiness so compelling that even reading that a film or TV show is terrible is enough to make some of us cancel all our other plans?" he wrote, and he ascribed such magnetic fascination to one of two things: the ability to construct a ritual around the resulting car wreck, or the sheer novelty of the thing.
"Most 'bad' movies aren’t that bad at all," wrote Murray, "they’re just routine, uninspired, and hampered by budgets that keep the acting weak and the action weaker. But whenever a bigger film with name stars features some stunningly awful ideas or dialogue, it’s an odd bird that demands a gander." I wouldn't call Shangri-la "stunningly" awful — it's more of an ambitious, well-intentioned mess — but odd bird it most certainly is. For sheer novelty, the show has plenty to spare — you can't call the whole of it unoriginal — and as for morbid fascination, there was some of that early on, when I kept watching just to see what outlandishness would be committed next. And while there was no shortage of outlandishness — the stuff in the final stretch of the show is, how to put it, as anime as anime gets — there was also no shortage of curiosity on my part about how it would resolve what it had set up, and no shortage of vision and ambition on the part of the show to feed my curiosity.
The easy lesson I could draw from this is how we need more crazy-as-a-soup-sandwich stuff, how anime needs to take more risks, etc. I think anime already takes more risks per inch than many other popular art forms have in a square yard. What needs to happen is for those risks to be the right ones, and for each bit of crazy to be accompanied by something that we can connect with and feel connected to. Shangri-la gets about half of that right, which is half more right than I see most days.