(no spoilers until the point marked)
Neo Ranga is one of those ‘great shows that no one’s heard of’, only this time it’s underrated as well as overlooked. According to MAL, only one of my friends has seen the show (No Name, whose seen everything) and only a small number of total members as well. What’s more, the collective score is only 6.63, and the results are similar on ANN. Why? How could a show so great get so overlooked? Actually, I’m pretty sure I know.
Neo Ranga is, without a doubt, one of the outright strangest anime I’ve seen. Which is funny, because at the same time, it’s not very far off from other anime of it’s length – the plot progression, general themes, and especially the ending are all pretty familiar to anime fans, but the presentation is totally unique. Neo Ranga is composed of 48 half-length episodes (effectively a 24-ep series) which are paced like a raging fucking tornado. The best way to describe the sheer speed and deftness of events in Neo Ranga is ‘brutal’, and this is the series’ greatest strength, right up until the end. What’s more, the series is utterly unexpected in the way it handles it’s themes and wordview, which is to say, it takes them really seriously. …Or does it?
Neo Ranga’s pace takes some real getting used to. The series begins with Neo Ranga itself, an enormous kaiju, stomping through Tokyo, with exactly the kind of reactions and presentation you’d expect from a Godzilla movie. As it turns out, Neo Ranga is a god, and three parentless Japanese girls are the ‘owners’ of this god, thanks to the fact that their older brother, who left home 10 years ago, became the king of a souteat Asian autonomous kingdom called Barou which had worshiped the god to this point. And then we get a whole smorgasbord of themes presented in the most flawless method imaginable.
Neo Ranga covers everything. Military politics, religious politics, psychology, ambitions, morals, the minds and actions of each of it’s characters, social issues, world issues – everything. It starts off with a huge maelstrom of emotions and actions as the whole world has to deal with the sudden appearance of a god and, more importantly, three young women have to deal with being it’s masters. However, it’s not like this show is stiff and serious – on the contrary. The show’s drama is met with an equal force of comedy, tongue-in-cheek, and lightheartedness, but because of the ingenious presentation, it never lessens the blow of the drama. Actually, it enhances it, because it humanizes it. The drama of politics can sometimes seem like a silly and overblown game, but it’s effects are still very real, and something that can seem comically-timed one moment can turn out to have gruesome consequences the next. And this show never, ever ignores the consequences of it’s actions.
This is, however, what makes the show hard to get into at first, because it demands you be attentive and not take anything at face value. This is the point where I feel I should tell you that it’s taken me around 2 and a half years to finish Neo Ranga. The first time I tried watching it, I got through 7 episodes before the stream I was watching fucked up, and I was unable to continue. The second time, I downloaded the series, and I watched 18 episodes of it before I stopped, and while I had never stopped liking the series a lot, I didn’t feel a huge urge to continue. My reason was that I was finding the series terribly confusing. I mistook the constant changing between what felt like serious scenes and comedic scenes to be the series’ simple quirkiness and didn’t look for anything deep in it, so I just took it as one of those series that is memorable for the same reasons it is flawed, sort of like Futakoi Alternative (no to knock that great show, but it’s pacing is an issue just as it is an asset.) However, now that I’ve finally watched all of Neo Ranga on the box set I bought some time ago, I can safely say that I was wrong about my initial impression.
Neo Ranga requires attention. It is so fast, so merciless, and demands such an extent of ability from the viewer to understand what is going on, that it requires real concentration. Unfortunately, though, this incredible strength is also what magnifies the series’ biggest weakness. As I made my way through Neo Ranga, I began to wonder why it was that this show never got to be remembered as a ‘classic.’ I knew it wouldn’t have had a chance to be an Eva-level classic, even though I think it was easily presented as well as Evangelion, but I would have thought it could at least have reached Martian Successor Nadesico-level cult status. And then I got to the ending. Neo Ranga has one of the most disappointing endings I’ve ever seen in anime. In truth, there was a point during the last 8 episodes wherein I thought ‘if it ends right here, it can still be totally satisfying’, but Neo Ranga does a stupefying move in using the last four episodes to rush through a truckload of new twists and plot points that drained all of my interest and eventually had me begging for it to hurry up and end before it got any worse. The last episode doesn’t even have time to provide a resolution to the series, leaving a horrible taste in my mouth.
However, this should not have been enough to defeat the series. Even Martian Successor Nadesico had a pretty disappointing ending (albeit still better than Neo Ranga’s) and there are series like the infamous Escaflowne who fucked their pacing throughout the entire second half of the series and swan-dove into an unbelievably terrible ending, but still got remembered as a classic. There is definitely a lot more to like about Neo Ranga than there was about Escaflowne, and that’s saying a lot.It’s possible that the series never got big in America simply because it aired between 1998 and 1998, and from what I’ve heard, there is a sort of vacuum from 98 to 02 that for some reason, many of the shows that came out in that period in Japan went totally unknown here. someone help me if that’s true of this show.
As per my usual methods of dissecting what I love about a show, I’ll start with the presentation itself. Neo Ranga is the kind of show that could only be some creator’s darling lovechild, and the viewer will certainly notice original creator and writer Sho Aikawa’s (no, not that Sho Aikawa) name all over the place. Indeed, Neo Ranga is spectacularly directed, animated, and storyboarded, but I think the writing is the true force of greatness in this show. The script and the way that events are sequenced have an airtight, brilliant cinematic quality, as if the show was more intent on being a live-action movie or series all along (a fact that seems even more pertinent when you consider the segments in next episode previews wherein characters sometimes talked about how they ‘filmed’ certain scenes.) A lot of the early episodes heavily involve yakuza, which is why I guess it’s no surprise that they are directed like Battles Without Honor or Humanity. This is definitely a show that I think cinemaphiles can get into.
Actually, one movie that I think makes a great comparison to at least the early episodes of Neo Ranga is my favorite movie, The Dark Knight. They are similar in that they are directed like gangster films and deal with all sorts of socio-political issues, from an angle wherein completely overblown entities exist and ideals are blasted around with full force and wide-open hearts.
I think what I really wanted from Neo Ranga was for it to last much, much longer. I loved the way that it studied socio-politics from right in the thick of it, and how it ran these issues through the minds of it’s characters, developing them with each new occurrence. The reason that the ending was so disappointing wasn’t just because it came so suddenly and ham-handedly, but because there was so much left for this series to cover. The characters had made progress, but there was still so much more they needed to learn, and do, and become. There were a ton of potential relationships in this show that were left totally open-ended. Every character had something that they were missing, that they were trying to find, and in the end, we not only didn’t get to see anyone to the end of their path, but we didn’t even get a solid view of where they’d be going.
Did Aikawa know this? Did he intend for his series to be much longer, but couldn’t afford it? Neo Ranga was apparently split into two separate seasons, divided at the 24 episode mark. I want to say that while the entire series was great, the first half had just a bit of an edge over it the second. There were fewer of those moments of sheer brilliance in the second half, even if it continued to be great until it’s sudden, rushed, and botched ending. Was Aikawa disappointed? Did he half-heartedly try to get as many of his points across as he could before having to end his series? Did he purposefully cram the ending into the last few episodes because he wanted more time to flesh out the things that mattered in the series? I can’t ask him, and with the amount of recognition that Neo Ranga has after 12 years since it finished airing, I doubt anyone cares enough to fight for an answer. That’s what makes Neo Ranga the epitome of a ‘cult classic’. It never got the chance to be a fully-realized epic, so all we have left is to take the great things that it gave and try to use our own imagination to see what it could have been.
(Spoilers past here.)
There were so many great characters in Neo Ranga that I wouldn’t know where to start talking about them, but my definite favorite was the youngest sister, Yuuhi, who I very easily identified with. Which is really strange – I am the eldest of three brothers, so it would seem like I’d be able to identify with Minami best, but I think there’s a huge difference between us in that these characters had no parents. If I thought of Minami more as parental, than it would make sense that I not identify her, and what’s more, the way that Yuuhi treats Joel and especially Laburey as younger siblings is far closer to my attitude towards my little brothers. While their personalities don’t really match, if I thought of Minami as my realist mother, and Ushio as my idealist father, then it all falls into place much more easily.
Yuuhi was sort of an ‘evil genius’ type of character, which is quite impressive for a sixth grader. It’s not a big surprise that Yuuhi matured quickly, having no parents, and the fact that I arrived at her mindset just a couple of years later sells her character to me. Yuuhi understands the societal and psychological implications of all of the events that transpire pretty much instantly. She analyzes everything around her, and comes to her own conclusions about what she wants out of the world. She has very destructive tendencies, and she doesn’t really care about morals – if anything, she wants to crush them; it’s less her desire to kill the actual people who she decides to kill, and more about her desire to express her ability to do such. When Yuuhi is confronted with the power to take over the world, she immediately wants to do just that, and I am exactly the same way. If I had Ranga in my clutches, I would fuck over humanity faster than you can bat an eye. However, one thing keeps Yuuhi at bay quite often, and it’s the same thing that keeps me at bay from going all-out.
That thing is satisfaction and love. Yuuhi really does love her sisters, and while she hates the nature of the world and hates that she has to suffer it, she can’t deny that there are things in life that she enjoys and while she might not mind loosing them in favor of her potential future, she also would not want to get rid of them if not pressed to do so. Yuuhi is continually and, in many ways agonizingly, forced to face her own happiness and hold herself back, which is what I’ve had to do as well. Is it fulfilling? I don’t know. However, when I saw a particular episode of the girls remembering happiness, and remembering how they couldn’t let themselves loose it, it resonated with me deeply. I have been /very/ suicidal lately, and when you are desperate to die, the things that make you happy only become a nuisance. When I saw Yuuhi once decide to try and enjoy the happiness instead of being antagonized by it, I felt like I really wanted to do that as well. In the future, when I rewatch this series, I will skip the ending, and allow for these feelings to stay in my heart for as long as possible.
Ushio was the show’s shining idealist, and no doubt some will find her annoying. Even I was a tad put-off by how far they pushed her idealist tendencies sometimes, but it’s not like I didn’t totally understand her, and more importantly, Ushio does a lot of developing over the series. As she starts to realize that even if her morals are just her own set of guidelines, she will follow them out of her own desire, I began to enjoy her character more. However, Ushio was made totally confusing by the ending, like everything else. Her development became rushed and it was hard to tell exactly where she came out of this all at the end, but I think it’s pretty clear that she learned the importance of living by her own rules.
Minami was also made confusing by the ending, but otherwise was a fairly great character. It was less that I liked Minami for personal reasons, though, and more that I enjoyed her writing, and her place in the story. She had some truly great moments, and she was definitely the character with the most need to grow and to find more of herself. However, one of the disappointing pieces in the entire show was learning that she didn’t seem to be interested in the director guy who ends up being the girls’ biggest comrade and easily the most compelling side-character in the series. Instead, it turned out she wanted to fuck her brother, which came out of nowhere and got nowhere, and since we didn’t get an epilogue, we can’t find out if she ended up with the director or not. God damn it!!!
Fujiwara was a hilarious and awesome villain. I thought it was great how he was like the best friend who was secretly the worst enemy, and then when it is revealed that he is the villain, he still hangs out with the sisters anyway. There are scenes of him trying to thwart and kill them, failing, and then driving them home in defeat, which was awesome. Also, he was literally in love with Yuuhi, amazing! I love it! I would seriously pay to commission a doujin of Yuuhi using him as her sex slave. That would be the best.
And… that’s all there really is to talk about – there were a ton of amazing side-characters, but what makes them so great is all right there in the narrative. There were a number of awesome episodes and scenes, like the episode where Ranga literally tries to save Christmas, and the many awesome god-vs.-god and god-vs.-mech fights, but there’s not much to say other than ‘damn it was awesome.’ All of the opening and ending themes and videos were great, which is why I’ve littered this post with them. There are certainly a lot of fond memories built in this show.
Neo Ranga – Completed (8.9)
This score could have been higher. If it weren’t for the ending, I could have scored it at least a 9.1. If the story had gone on longer, I might have had more time to really get emotionally invested in it to the fullest and scored it even higher. Like most cult classics, Neo Ranga could have been much better, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the great that there was.