The term “emotional manipulation” isn’t quite on the level of the word “pretentious” when it comes to canned, overused, and empty criticism. However, it is down there.
The problem with the term stems from the fact that all stories in some way aim to manipulate emotions. Where we to draw the lines is when for some reason or another, we the audience begin to see the cogs spinning. Characters then become plot devices to us, and plot-holes become impossible to ignore, as does the desperation to get a reaction out of you from the script. Once things like these take us out of the experience, we see can see a lousy story for what it really is, and it just so happens that the show in question here is is extremely manipulative, to the point where you’d might as well watch the puppy-beating scene in Elfen Lied for four straight hours instead. Saikano really wants the audience to cry, and if it has to do so through repeatedly and savagely insulting the intelligence of the viewers until they bawl in submission, then so be it.
The issues with it essentially boil down to the fact that it tries to frame a tragic love story through the lens of a war setting with sci-fi without any idea how to handle said setting or sci-fi elements. The story is literally about a 10 year- old-looking high school girl and how she fell in love with a male classmate (that looks like he’s 7 feet tall and in his thirties) only to be abducted by the Japanese military, enhanced with a bunch of bizarre enhancements that enable her to fly and drop nukes everywhere, and allowed to wander free. The purpose of all this for them call her up to bomb faceless enemies that they’re at war with part-time. It’s about as ridiculous as it sounds and there’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Why would the Japanese military implant weapons into a civilian? Why allow an extremely dangerous military secret walk freely when she can accidentally blow up entire cities? Who the fuck are they at war with anyway? It seems as if the original manga artist had this idea that sounded really cool and decided to pursue it in the most threadbare way imaginable. It’s not like a premise like this is impossible to work with. Gunslinger Girl had a story that I largely expected to give me the similar result as with Saikano, but it managed to somehow make its ridiculous torture porny-sounding premise work really well since the author knew that good world building would make the story easier to believe, and thus easier to connect with. Such nuance however, is strangely lacking in Saikano. If the world of a story creates a tragic scenario for the main characters, let it be because of how said world is understandable yet unfair, not because it’s fucking stupid.
I think I’ve harped enough on how the senselessness of the script caps the emotional investment Saikano is going for, but the anime doesn’t particularly shine as a character study either. The cast here is about as simple as one can imagine for a story of this nature. The female lead, Chise, for example, is a character you can know almost everything about by reading the brief synopsis I gave above as she’s really just an ugly moeblob in love that just so happens to be able to destroy the world. This segues into a massive problem I have with romance as a central focus in storytelling, and that’s when the romance is all that matters to the characters. I like to see love stories that are more than about “will they end up together and have babies?”. Give me characters with conflicts that are external to their love-lives. A lot of what goes into making a relationship interesting is to see who said relationship affects other aspects of the lives of the characters involved. I have no idea what kind of person Shuji was before meeting Chise or what he wants out of life besides Chise. This is why I don’t particularly care to see characters clearly fall head-over-heels for each other from episode 1. Beginning the story by fleshing the main characters out in other ways first will give me a reason to get emotionally involved with them. I want to know why he and she complete each other. This is a principle makes a romance like Kare Kano great since it gave us an interesting look on both sides as to why Arima and Yukino are drawn together, and what implications their relationship have on all aspects of their character. The difference here is that Saikano sets its sights low by wanting to be a story about just love, whilst Kare Kano aims more broadly at being a story about people.
This problem extends across rest of the cast. Side characters in Saikano don’t exist but to do anything other than be a part of unrequited, and sometimes taboo (I forgot to mention, there is a fair amount of cuckoldry in this anime) relationships, and then die. I’ve already established why throughout the entire series I could never bring myself to care about Shuji and Chise’s relationship, so why should I care when even blander archetypes with less screentime get to take center stage? All of them at some point are put through physical and emotional straits with random tragedies taking place, such as airstrikes or even an earthquake. Yes, an earthquake. It’s about as random as killing off a character by having him or slip and fall down a flight of stairs. As if the unconvincing romance between side characters isn’t enough for you, a few of the girls fall in love with Shuji. I’m sure this was meant to add depth to the central relationship, but it felt like I was watching a playthrough of a shitty visual novel in which the player had a bit hesitation when it came to picking a route, but ultimately goes for the moeblob cyborg that dispenses bombs like Pez and cries all the time anyway.
About more or less as faulty as the show’s awful script and pleads to emotion is the overall presentation. Saikano is definitely as far on the wrong side of the 2000s Gonzo visual quality spectrum as possible. The visuals are ridiculously drab and murky which likely stems from the fact Saikano was 1st made back when digital animation was considered new but was from being mastered. The character designs are about as unappealing as the artistry as the proportions often lack consistency and the characters look blobbish to the point where with the in profile shots, you can see Chise’s forehead slants directly into her nose, and her nose to her chin. Not improving anything, of course, is the lousy CGI, but that goes without saying as this is Gonzo after all. The show I imagine never looked particularly good when it first came out I imagine, and as of now its aged about as well as a glass of milk left outside for a week. I chose to watch most of the show with English audio, not because it was good (the story is unsalvageable so it’s not like good acting would matter in the least anyway) but because it made the overall experience that much more unintentionally hilarious. Seeing these greenhorn actors (that haven’t done much of anything since) try their best and fail miserably with their ridiculous sounding voices was the closest I came to having a good time with Saikano. Chise in particular always sounded as if she was about to burst into tears, even if the scene didn’t call for it. If this review plagues you with the bug known as “morbid curiosity” then the dub is the way to go. If you want decent acting, however, then you probably want decent writing and characters too, in which case, you’re obviously better of forgetting this anime exists.
Saikano is easily one of the most thoughtless, plot-hole filled schizoid hodgepodges I’ve ever seen in anime. It’s not as if using shaky and vague sci-fi elements to serve as a conduit for the journey of flawed characters can’t work (I do consider Neon Genesis Evangelion to be a masterpiece after all) but goddamn where was the effort? In Saikano however, any kind of pathos to be found feels woefully undercooked and hamfisted, and its all wrapped up with plot elements that solely exist to extract as much suffering out of the characters as possible without context or reason to care.