Sometime last year, I posted a whole lot of froth about Studio BONES’s new digitally-distributed pay-per-view cartoon, Xam’d: Lost Memories. I had high hopes for this sometimes beautifully animated cartoon about an ordinary high-school student who survives a terrorist bus-bombing and becomes a transforming monster. I was worried that the animators probably wouldn’t be able to keep up the amount of motion in non-action scenes and that the show would take too many cues from its spiritual predecessor Psalms of Planets Eureka Seven and confuse the viewer thoroughly by neglecting to provide key information on the world’s factions and motivations that shape the events of the story.
I was right.
(This post is contains spoilers. If you’re one of those people who gets really bent out-of-shape about them, Nakiami is the only important character who actually sorta dies at the end. There, I’ve already ruined it for you, so feel free to keep reading!)
Like Eureka Seven, Xam’d tosses the viewers into the middle of a multi-sided conflict and proceeds as if they are as familiar with world politics and mythology as the characters. Getting them to figure out what’s going on along with the characters can work well — see Overman King Gainer and, to an extent, Turn A Gundam — but at some point the writers will have to stop and fill in some of the gaps. Xam’d doesn’t provide key information about who’s doing what and why until the last few episodes of the show, and by that point the writers seem to be rushing to resolve what they can and throw in the action scenes the show’s been lacking lately.
Perhaps this was all kept cloudy for a reason. To summarize the main plot: an evil god was sealed away a thousand years ago. One group of creepy cultists are anticipating his arrival and the “cleansing” to follow, while the other group is busy manipulating events to prepare an appropriate sacrifice and spiritually strong monster-dude to seal him away again. Apparently the easiest way to find hearty host individuals for their monster-seeds is to suicide bomb public transportation with ‘em and hope it sticks to somebody. And there are also some armies fighting over possession of the evil god’s sealing chamber, presumably for their own benefits, and bombing the heck out of everyone along the way.
Even when motivation is clear, it doesn’t make the characters particularly interesting, or, frequently enough, even relevant to the plot. Before long, the show becomes a series of overlapping and colliding arcs, mixing entertaining characters (Akiyuki’s separated parents) with a host of bog-standard archetypes. The crew of the postal airship our hero Akiyuki is dragged to by
Nausicää Nakiami early in the series are clearly important to Nakiami’s past and growth (and, briefly, Akiyuki’s), but after the plane crashes around halfway through the series, the crew cease to play a meaningful role in the events of the story. Ship’s captain/war veteran Ishu and her love interest, Raigyo, yet another one of the titular “Xam’d” transforming monsters, continue to run around shooting and hitting things for a while, but given that the evil god is resurrected in spite of their efforts, they probably should’ve just stayed at home.
Now, Sentan Island is where creativity truly goes to die. Following the terrorist attack and military assault in the first few episodes, Akiyuki’s friends Furuichi and Haru join the military to defend their homes — and, in Haru’s case, to try and track down Akiyuki, who she’s awful sweet on. Unfortunately for the audience, Furuichi is the Unrecognized Romantic Rival who’s always had feelings for The Hero’s Girl, and her continued (and tiresome) devotion to The Hero pretty much drives poor Furuichi nuts. So he angsts it up, becomes a monster, angsts it up some more, and then kills himself in a hilariously gruesome fashion shortly after Akiyuki kicks his ass.
We’re doing pretty badly already, but it gets worse — Haru has a crippled little sister, who the military transforms into a particularly hideous monster! The morally ambiguous military commander guy is one of the only survivors of a famous battle from the last war, and he has a snarky female secretary who holds an unrequited love for him! The ethnic minority mad scientist working on the monster experiments at their base tries to reconcile what he’s doing with his faith and frequently clashes with the commander! Also, there’s some giant robots! Goodness!
There are all sorts of other things I could mention, like how in the epilogue nine years later only the children have changed their appearance or station in life at all, or the incident where Akiyuki loses his memory and wanders around an assisted-living facility, et cetera, et cetera. But if I just went on listing them, we’d be here all week, and I don’t know about you, but I’ve midterms to fail.
Maybe I’m being a bit hard on Xam’d. Sure, it’s filled with stock characters stumbling around in a plot that only makes sense in retrospect when one stops to write about it on the Internet, but it’s pretty and sounds nice! Damn catchy theme song, you know. And we Americans got it first, before even Glorious Nippon! Banzai! But it’s just not the show it could’ve been. If it had been a bit less reliant on recycling existing character types and dynamics, if it had more carefully weaved together each character’s plot threads so it felt like the whole story, I think Xam’d could have really been something. It’s definitely possible to make an entertaining story out of weaving together a bunch of character arcs loosely connected by a center “focus” character (or characters — hi, Baccano!), but in order to do that you need to make the arcs feel important — not just time-wasting or excuses to drop in some exposition — and the focal character can’t be such a goddamn bore.
In the end, it just feels half-baked and derivative. It’s definitely not the worst show I’ve watched recently, but Xam’d is one of the most disappointing, joining both seasons of Birdy The Mighty: Decode and, depressingly, Rideback.
This is a good thing. It tells us that the story is about the characters and not the politics. Politics in anime is always tedious and trite so I'm glad I didn't have to sit through episode after episode of teeth-grindingly dull exposition. It becomes a problem near the end when the series realises that there isn't enough substance to its characters to make their own personal drama carry the story to its conclusion without external intervention. Bad writing.
Furuichi's suicide was really well handled. It was one of those moments where you start out laughing and then your laugh cuts off half way when you realise he really did just decapitate himself outside a corner shop. More of this kind of thing, please.
"Also, there’s some giant robots! Goodness!"
Yeah, I could have done without that, but then I'm pretty anti-mecha generally. They always seem stupid and implausible to me anyway (sorry Gundam).
"In the end, it just feels half-baked and derivative."
There was a derivative half to it, but there was a gloriously mad half that didn't fit into anything else that's going on in anime. It had a director who was incorporating elements of Robert Altman and old new wave and kitchen sink realist directors into his style, albeit rather subtly, and it had an approach that held back on the cheap melodrama that substitutes for real characterisation in most anime.
Unfortunately the extra realism in half of the production highlights the standard, unrealistic nature of the other half. This is its tragedy and its triumph. This was Masayuki Miyaji's first series as a director and writer, and I personally hope he gets plenty more chances to hone his style and skills.
Perhaps I'm the only one.
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