Kuniko Hojo lives in a backwater town named Duomo. It is, in fact, literally a backwater; in the flooded Earth of this globally-warmed future, access to what were formerly districts around Tokyo is exclusively by boat. Everyone wants to move to the advanced (and apparently spacious) city of Atlas, but Atlas's sadistic ruler, Ryoko Naruse, wants no part of Kuniko and her riffraff fellows. Kuniko, after some vacillation, decides to formally join Metal Age, a revolutionary group seeking to gain access to Atlas by force; but she and the rebels don't know that glittering science and technology isn't all that birthed and maintains Atlas; there are plenty of dark arts behind it too.
Parts of Shangri-La reminded me of numerous other dystopian-future anime series; two are in the Recommendations. One I don't wholeheartedly recommend, but which also reminded me a lot of this show, is The Skull Man: both shows have a LOT of stuff going on toward the end; both meld (or maybe just don't always distinguish between) science and the supernatural; and some of the characters in both sometimes make incomprehensible decisions. More on that later.
I suppose you could argue that there are four major parties in the saga of Shangri-La, each with a principal representative. For the salt-of-the-earth working-class folk, we have Kuniko and her Duomo friends. Her weapon of choice is a boomerang, of all things; those have never struck me as terribly practical weapons, but Kuniko can make hers do things like pierce armor plate, so I guess it works for her. The Metal Age rebels, who are based in Duomo, regard her as the natural person to be their leader for some reason, and for her part she often joins them on raids, yet at first she denies she's one of them; a young Atlas soldier named Kunihito Kusanagi quite justifiably confronts her over this bit of hypocrisy. She finally does formally assume leadership over the rebels, though she demonstrates some incredible stupidity in her first formal operation against Atlas. She and the rebels launch an assault on the city, but it's easily defeated by Ryoko's defenses. Despite Ryoko's tendency, in other circumstances, toward gratuitous mass murder (especially toward anyone associated with Kuniko), she amazingly lets the Metal Age rebels simply leave; but somehow Kuniko decides it's now OK for her (Kuniko) to stay for a while in Atlas, undisguised mind you, and sightsee. Who could predict that this would not go well for poor Kuniko? (Well, practically anyone could. Still, it won't be the last time that Ryoko, despite being a vicious psychopath, shows amazing restraint toward the provocations of her mortal enemy. Other times it's a VERY different story, of course. I never really understood these mood swings of Ryoko's; it's almost like they come and go just for the convenience of the plot.)
I gotta mention Kuniko's guardian and chief comrade-in-arms, Momoko. Momoko is a statuesque transgender woman who, along with another transgendered woman named Miiko, used to run a drag club. I'm not sure if the show always treats Momoko that respectfully- and she, herself, often acts a bit too campy, as well as being self-deprecating- but there's no doubt that she's both a sympathetic and an admirable character, facing danger at Kuniko's side and possessing some extraordinary capabilities, including using a whip for the same purpose Tarzan used to use vines, AND having an impressive natural resistance to being drugged.
As for Miiko, she ostensibly wins a lottery to live in Atlas, but the lottery is rigged; she's just chosen because a babysitter is needed for a little girl named Mikuni, who, with her retinue of blindfolded (?!) shrine maidens, seems to rule the lower depths of Atlas, and constitutes the second of the four major parties. You just HAVE to be honest with Mikuni (because being otherwise can be lethal.) Mikuni looks about six years old (give or take a year), and becomes as dedicated to Miiko as Kuniko is to Momoko, willing to risk it all to save Miiko when Miiko is changed, NOT for the better, by Atlas. (This has got to be one of the more bizarre rescues in anime, and I have to admit I was curious to see how it ended, though I didn't get my hopes up.) Mikuni, like vampires and gremlins, doesn't do well in bright light.
The third major party in our story is the Neo-Carbonists, led (I guess) by Karin Ishida. The world of our series has instituted penalties against burning fuels due to climate change (though the system doesn't seem to be working; sea levels are still rising.) Penalties and credits, for more or less use of fuels respectively, are actually traded as a commodity called "monetized carbon" by online "brokers" of a variety of ages; Karin herself is only ten years old. Their trades are VERY high-stakes, and can not only make THEMSELVES filthy rich- or dirt poor- but can do the same for whole countries. A few comments here. First, my comprehension of economics, anime or otherwise, doesn't extend much beyond what you can glean from Spice and Wolf, so I REALLY didn't understand a lot of the trading. Second, while you know that all the characters in a show like this will meet eventually, the circumstance under which Kuniko and Karin first meet was genuinely surprising. Third, Akihabara, the notorious otaku-friendly shopping area in Tokyo, seems curiously unchanged by time, and maybe the fact that several characters from an anime (THIS one) end up taking refuge there is kind of fitting. Fourth, I was pleasantly surprised when we finally met Klaris and Zhang, two of Karin's fellow Neo-Carbonists, in the flesh. Throughout the show, everyone in Karin's virtual-reality world is represented to her as an avatar, as is also Medusa, the program Karin used to assist in choosing her investments. Trouble is, Medusa actually has TWO avatars, one of which is associated with a will of its own, and in which mode it can co-opt some pretty fearsome resources. (By the way, since this gets mentioned at one point, unless I'm mistaken "nuclear winter" wouldn't immediately reduce sea levels. Reduction in sea level is associated with movement of ocean water by precipitation to land and its retention as ice there. If you reduce global air temperature immediately and severely, by blocking sunlight, you'll certainly allow the retention of ice, but you'll also severely reduce precipitation, so the water wouldn't get to the continents in the first place. To make global cooling work, you'll need somewhat shorter summers coupled with longer, colder winters. A case could be made that this was indeed where the world was going until humans started substantially raising the CO2 levels 250 years or so ago. (Re the "hockey stick").)
And now we come to the fourth major player in our saga, Ryoko and her entourage (in terms of significance to the plot, the entourage is mainly her "pretty boy" house servants and Atlas's army.) She reminds me a lot of Dyanne Thorne's Ilsa character from the violent sexploitation film series of the 1970's. I know, children, Grampa is reliving the days when HE was young again, but some in the audience might be old enough to recognize the reference. The resemblance struck me especially when Ryoko becomes the warden of a women's prison just for chuckles (and to indulge her sadism, which is what MAKES her chuckle.) She's even DRAWN evil, in the anime manner (long face, angular features.) Like Ilsa, she also seems to dress in lingerie a lot, either to sexually titillate her male servants, or (more likely) to arouse the males in the show's audience. (The old "Fourth-Wall Tease", if you will.) I'm sure Momoko would note that Ryoko has terrible taste in makeup, especially that black lipstick. Ryoko, as it turns out, has her fingers in nearly all the pots of wickedness there are, and EVERYONE in the cast will sooner or later have reason to hate her. (A slight aside: since I mentioned Momoko's taste just now, I have to say that attributing Kuniko's wearing a mini-skirted school uniform to Momoko seems just wrong; it's more like the kind of outfit a perverted otaku would have chosen for her.)
The final episodes of Shangri-La have Kuniko trying to manage one rapid-fire crisis after another. It all gets almost as hard to follow as it was to understand Karin's online transactions. (OK, almost; NOTHING else can actually be THAT hard.) As with The Skull Man, I wish the show had stuck with fewer plot points, but developed them with greater depth.
An epic, sure, but an overly complicated one, and I never could figure some of the choices the characters made. — Allen Moody
Recommended Audience: Well, we have a sadistic dominatrix type who lounges in Victoria's Secret-style undies, and people get shot, stabbed, beaten, crushed (I think), and disturbingly transformed, so let's say not for younger viewers.
Version(s) Viewed: Region 1 DVD
Review Status: Full (24/24)
Shangri-La © 2009 Studio Gonzo
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