Sion is a bright teenager living a comfortable and promising life inside No. 6, one of the six remaining city-states created by The Babylon Treaty after the last great war devastated the world. On the evening of his twelfth birthday, an injured adolescent who calls himself "Nezumi" breaks into his home while on the run from the authorities, and Sion decides to treat and shelter him. For helping a fugitive, Sion is stripped of all his privileges, including his inclusion within an academic program for "gifted" students, and is sent to live in a less desirable part of the city. Four years later, Sion, now working in the sanitation department, witnesses the outbreak of an epidemic in which the human body ages rapidly and mysterious parasitic wasps emerge from the corpse, and he encounters Nezumi once again, who proceeds to take him outside the city to the impoverished "West District". Sion begins to understand the truth behind this supposed utopia as it becomes clear that people are disappearing and that this epidemic may in fact have been engineered by the government, becoming involved in Nezumi's attempts to destroy the city even as he insists that it and its people can be saved. (Adapted from ANN.com)
Although the cyberpunk genre often serves as anime's vehicle for dystopian stories, examples of negative utopias in anime and manga are relatively rare. The idea of an ostensibly flawless society masking an underlying system of oppression has not, to my knowledge, been a major topic of discussion in Japanese media as it has in that of Europe and The United States, perhaps because of lingering unease over the country's legacy of wartime propaganda. While examples do exist, most anime and manga nonetheless make a clear distinction between dystopian societies and those that are, if not utopian, at least tolerable places in which to live. No. 6 is thus interesting in that it attempts to tell such a story, but its potential to say anything profound about the roles of censorship and ethnic cleansing in the maintenance of "order", as it tries to do, is ruined by bland characters and the absence of any underlying depth. No. 6 has all of the basic ideas needed to outline a negative utopia, but cannot use those ideas to say anything thought-provoking, the end result being that the series completely fails to find a reason to exist.
A fundamental part of No. 6's failure lies in its inability to effectively create a unique setting or evoke any sort of distinct atmosphere. The art is of high quality, admittedly, for the futuristic cityscapes of No. 6 are breathtaking at times and the character design, while not especially remarkable, is nonetheless pleasant, with the combination of attractively-drawn males and shounen-ai undertones forming a draw for fans of "boys love" stories. For the rest of us, it is a pretty series whose aesthetic does not evoke any strong responses, a fatal flaw for such a story. Indeed, the city of No. 6 is neither creepy, eerily calm, nor home to any anachronisms, and the fact that there is nothing to build the viewer's unease forces the series to verbally explain precisely what is bad about it. We're forced to take the story's word that the city is a corrupt dystopia built on the foundations of excessive surveillance, genocide, and a secret police force, and yet it appears merely as a blandly beautiful and futuristic city, diluting the effectiveness of this message. The writing also stumbles badly as it makes some inconsistent statements regarding the nature of the surrounding landscape, initially describing it as a devastated and uninhabitable wasteland but later depicting it as a series of slums that most inhabitants of No. 6 appear to know about, and such carelessness hints at this show's disinterest in establishing any sort of unique setting.
Indeed, this disinterested attitude extends to the characters as well. Sion is yet another unfortunate example of the cipher-protagonist, and while he becomes somewhat more assertive later on the extreme politeness and timidity he initially displays is such a blatant example of this trope that I took an immediate disliking to him. Nezumi, meanwhile, is little besides an angsty, misanthropic teenager trying to escape from a generically tragic past, in this case the status of being the last remaining member of a massacred "Forest People." While he is at least less dull to watch, his reasons for rescuing Sion and plotting the destruction of the city stem from little besides a desire for revenge, and while this motivation is understandable, it is not compelling given its overuse in television. His back-and-forth with Sion amounts to a Cato-like figure insisting on the destruction of the city at all cost arguing against a character naively convinced it can be salvaged, and there is little to their relationship besides that and the vague and unsurprising undertones of affection between them. His backstory is similarly ill-defined, the "Forest People" being little besides generic "noble savages" and the notion that he and the others in the "West District" are more "cultured" due to their not being under the city's surveillance apparently being a weak reference to the freedom of 1984's "proles". Some of the side characters, in contrast, do represent rare moments of creativity, with an androgynous information broker known as "Dogkeeper" being the most interesting of several denizens of the West District and Sion's friend Safu being the show's lone likable figure. Indeed, Safu's overly formal speech mannerisms and use of technological terms to express emotional concepts represent the only attempts made at depicting any "weirdness" in the inhabitants of No. 6, and she is a far more effective lens through which to view the city's state than is Sion. She, unfortunately, is treated worse than anyone else in the series, and the arbitrary reasons behind this treatment, which include being hauled off for horrible experimentation, ultimately left a sour taste in my mouth.
Sadly, No. 6 constantly suffers from this attitude that whatever advances the plot must be included, no matter how arbitrary it may be. So many of the events have no clear reasoning behind them, including Sion's decision to help Nezumi, his subsequently being sent to live in an undesirable part of town, Nezumi trying to recruit Sion later on, and the series of kidnappings and disappearance that later occur, and so much of it appears to have been inserted simply to move the story along, or for shock value, that this series just can't be taken seriously after a point. Since No. 6 attempts to present itself as a show worthy of analysis, this flippancy towards its plot elements is not something that can be overlooked. It is a series that wants to startle the viewer and make him or her feel anger, but the world it presents just doesn't make enough sense for me to feel anything towards it. While I can enjoy an entertaining drama that has nothing especially deep to say, a negative utopia story is not something that can survive this lack of a coalescing theme, even more so if the story isn't even especially compelling. What plot elements it doesn't lift from better thought-out examples of its genre it instead lifts from maudlin dramas such as SaiKano, its emotional appeals and cliched plot device of having the conclusion consist of one character being forced to give up their humanity for the sake of everyone else being blatant examples of this. Needless to say, it fares about as well as basic entertainment as it does as a societal critique.
I don't hate No. 6, but neither do I respect it in the slightest. Aired on the noitaminA block alongside such fascinating series as The Tatami Galaxy and Wandering Son, this was clearly intended to be a "sophisticated" show worthy of the attention given to its peers. It is nothing of the sort. While I have no sense of whether the parent light novel is any better, the anime adaptation of No. 6 is one to skip, and the lack of good science fiction anime produced in recent years is not reason enough to forgive it of its blandness.
A series that desperately wants to be viewed as profound but has nothing to say. If you enjoy shounen-ai then you may add a star, since it is a recurring undertone throughout the series and it may stave off your boredom somewhat. — Nicoletta Christina Browne
Recommended Audience: It is just fine for teenagers and adults, but the graphic depiction of human bodies rapidly aging and a scene of a town being razed and its inhabitants massacred will make this inappropriate for children.
Version(s) Viewed: Stream courtesy of crunchyroll.com
Review Status: Full (11/11)
No. 6 © 2011 Atsuko Asano - Kodansha / No. 6 Production Committee
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