Never mind gift-giving, mistletoe, snowmen and all that jazz, there's only one true meaning of Christmas - the anime 'blogosphere's Secret Santa! Kindly organised once again by the smooth criminals at Reverse Thieves, the Anime Secret Santa gives entrants the opportunity to pick three hitherto unwatched anime series or movies for an unwary recipient, which said recipient can then watch and 'blog about before the arrival of Christmas itself.
This time around I was handed a trio of decidedly tasty morsels, all of which I was keen to watch, but time being what it is I only found the opportunity to watch two of the Secret Santa choices proffered to me - without further ado then, on to choice number one!
Given my love of Serial Experiments Lain (to the point of literally buying the t-shirt) and my general sense of apathy towards Haibane Renmei, I found myself chomping at the bit to check out another of Yoshitoshi ABe's works when NieA under 7 appeared on my Secret Santa list.
After the complexities and serious nature of Lain, NieA under 7 is clearly a very different kettle of fish at first glance - a slice of life comedy of sorts... if that life involves living in a Japanese town where an alien mothership has crash-landed and extra-terrestrials quite happily live and integrate themselves alongside the human populace.
We're introduced to this world via Mayuko Chigasaki, a bright and diligent but poor student who lives in a room within a bath house that used to be the home of her parents - a room who she shares with NieA, an ill-regarded alien who really couldn't be more different than her room-mate. While Mayuko spends her days toiling over either her studies or the various jobs she works to make ends meet, NieA prefers to laze around like some kind of over-sized cat, always on the look-out for a free meal and only occasionally foraying out in the hope of collecting enough junk to use in her latest UFO-building project.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given this chalk and cheese leading duo, the first half of NieA under 7 is all about comedy, and decidedly madcap much of that comedy is. The energetic and brash NieA's contrast with the courteous yet short-tempered Mayuko works perfectly in itself, but the show is often stolen by the series supporting cast, not least some of NieA's alien cohorts who range from a haughty girl whose signals received from her antenna often get scrambled with a nearby Chinese takeaway to a wannabe Indian who can't quite grasp the fact that "nice jugs" isn't the kind of compliment to throw into polite conversation. Couple this with some more grounded employees at the bath house and Mayuko's UFO-loving friend Chiaki, and there's plenty of room for hearty laughs - something that the series delivers on capably with its episodic structure making the most of its set-up to deliver comedy.
If you're preparing yourself for laughs all the way however, be prepared for a shock as the series enters its second half, and things suddenly become far more melancholy out of the blue. Slapstick largely goes out of the window at this juncture, replaced by Mayuko's ennui in particular as her constant daily grind gives way to those timeless questions: "What's the point of it all?" "What am I doing with my life?" "Where does my future lie?" and so on. This slump also negatively impacts upon Mayuko's relationship with NieA, who has some problems of her own to confront about her identity and place in the world.
This surprising and sudden change in tone works better than you might expect - Mayuko's dilemma in particular is one that it's easy to identify with, and her inability to properly voice her emotions or the importance of her friendship with NieA is both heart-rending and believable right the way through to its conclusion as Mayuko manages to find some peace to her emotional turmoil. You could argue that the series is lazy in not making the cause of Mayuko or NieA's troubles explicitly clear, but contrarily the fact that the show doesn't feel the need to spell things out to you grants it a maturity and trust in the audience that's all too rare in anime.
Overall, NieA under 7 feels like a series that deserves more than single review - its first half is a wonderfully frivolous comic romp that hits many of the high notes of good comedy anime, while its second half is an introspective piece that has a lot to say about both society as a whole and how the pressures of that society impact upon people on a personal, individual level. There are few other series (Sayonara, Zetsubou Sensei aside perhaps) that can boast success on both of those levels, which makes NieA under 7 a gem that I'm very much glad I was prompted to watch, and a show that is perhaps deserving of wider recognition than it's been afforded in comparison to ABe's other works.