Season Review: RDG: Red Data Girl

I must apologize for not getting episode reviews in for the final four episodes of the season for RDG. I will include a screenshot slideshow for those episodes at the end of the review, but I will leave off the episode highlights, as they are some of the best episodes of the season with some significant plot developments that I wouldn’t want to spoil for anyone who hadn’t watched yet, so perhaps it is for the best, as I tend to get verbose when discussing the show…

RDG is one of the finest shows of the season, in my opinion. There are several reasons that it impressed me, but the primary aspect of the show that puts it above most of the others is atmosphere. That is a hard thing to define, but something that I know when I see it. RDG had atmosphere to spare! Each episode had a sort of tension and mystery that kept me on the edge of my seat, despite the fact that there was frequently little action or any overt reason to feel that tension. It was a “raising the hairs on the back of your neck”, tingling in your spine, stepping on eggshells kind of feeling, where the overriding sense of “weird” pervaded every cell of the show, making you wonder when the next piece o’ strangeness would be revealed, even though you consciously were aware that there weren’t actually going to be any big revelations, with the exception of a few points where it was clear that the plot was about to thicken. Perhaps my perceptions have been colored by my level of interest in Japanese traditional beliefs, realistic modern fantasy, and devastatingly cute girls with long black hair (did I say that out-loud? oh, WTH… I married one! LOL!). None the less, I found the show to be delightful and well worth the time invested in watching it. Now to the details:

Synopsis:

A painfully shy girl who wears her uncut hair in long twin braids and has lived a sheltered life, Izumiko Suzuhara wants to change herself. She has grown up living at the Tamakura Shrine, a protected World Heritage site, and has the peculiar problem of causing any cell phone or computer she uses to fail. When she is about to enter high school, a friend of the family, and virtual guardian for her absentee parents, Yukimasa Sagara brings his estranged son, Miyuki Sagara, to live at the shrine and attend Izumiko’s middle school. Miyuki is a disagreeable boy with a sharp temper, a clear dislike for his father, and a chip on his shoulder about this “plain” girl that he is having to move to accommodate. It seems that Yukimasa is of the opinion that he and Miyuki were placed on this earth to protect and serve Izumiko and her mother, an opinion that Miyuki rebels against. After some interesting events transpire, it is discovered that Izumiko is a yorishiro, or spirit vessel, and possibly the last one for a divine being named the Hime-gami. In addition, Yukimasa and Miyuki are both yamabushi, a type of ascetic monk sometimes referred to as a “Mountain Monk” or “Mountain Hermit”, though Miyuki is still in training. Miyuki appears to be destined to be Izumiko’s protector, whether he wants to be or not.

Eventually they enroll in the high school suggested by their fathers, Hōjō Academy (which is named after the “Late Hōjō” clan of the late Sengoku period, the last clan to be defeated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the man who unified Japan under one leader, paving the way for the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Edo period.) At Hōjō Academy, they meet many other students who have special powers and the mysteries surrounding Izumiko’s powers, the Hime-gami, and why Izumiko may be her “last vessel” are slowly unveiled. Izumiko merely wants to live a normal life as a normal girl, but that may not be possible, since it appears that the fate of the human race may lie in her hands.

Art:

One of the absolute strengths of this show, and PA Works shows in general, the art is amazing in every frame of this anime. The backgrounds, in particular, are so detailed and well drawn that you sometimes feel you are being sucked into the scene, especially in the opening sequence where you are viewing the mountains around the Tamakura shrine. The art never falters in the series, living up to the reputation that PA Works has developed over the past few years.

Particularly noteworthy were the transitions between the normal world and the spiritual planes. Sometimes simply subtle shifts of tone were used, then at other times the shifts were more dramatic, like the “video conferencing” scene in the first episode. The way the artists successfully portrayed a sense of strangeness entirely with visual cues was very well done.

The animation is also generally at an extremely high level, though there were some shortcuts used in a few of the action scenes that drop the animation down to the level of really good instead of excellent. The character designs are uniformly well done, with original character designs by the illustrator for the Kamisama no Memouchou light novels and original character designer for several anime, including Hanasaku Iroha, Kamisama no Memochou, and So Ra No Wo To, Mel Kishida. (He also did the illustrations for the light novel re-release of the Red Data Girl novels, which were originally released as mainstream fantasy novels as opposed to the more otaku oriented light novel label.)

An impressive feature of the character art is the aging of the main characters (see the selected pictures in the “Characters” section for good examples). The changes are subtle, almost unnoticeable at times with Izumiko, similar to the way a child gradually ages and changes, always looking like themselves to the people closest to them, but looking back through an old photo album reveals the changes over the years. Both of them become less childlike and more adult, with Miyuki growing in height and having a stronger jaw, wider shoulders, and more defined features. Izumiko’s face slims, though it is still rather rounded, and her figure changes from “little girl” to “petite woman” as the episodes progress. By the end, she no longer looks like an elementary school girl, especially in a yukata.

One of the most interesting features of the character art is the subtle changes to Izumiko when she is possessed by the Hime-gami. The character design remains the same, with the exception of the braids coming unfurled and frequently an iridescence or “divine light” that emanates from her. However the animators clearly indicate the change with subtle changes in her facial features, giving her a knowing look of wisdom, with a touch of impishness and mischievousness that is totally foreign for the open, innocent, naive Izumiko. The appraising glance that she passes over the partially clothed Miyuki the first time the Hime-gami appears is priceless. It would be enough to send a fully grown “man of the world” scrambling for a shirt to put on in embarrassment.

  

Characters:

The characters and character development in RDG is well handled, for the most part. The primary characters, Izumiko Suzuhara and Miyuki Sagara, are especially well developed. Izumiko gradually becomes more self-confident and outgoing as the series progresses, with a bit of a lapse here and there as the events that occur cause her to doubt herself, frequently for very understandable reasons. Miyuki, on the other hand, has the opposite happen in many ways. When we first meet him, he comes of, frankly, as a jerk, and that is putting it politely. While it is clear that his misdirected anger is clearly aimed at his father, who does appear to be a first class bastard with a side of jackass, it mostly hits Izumiko, who is both angered by and oddly accepting of his opinions. She isn’t that fond of herself at the time and is actively seeking to change herself. As the show goes on, Miyuki becomes less confident in himself, at one point wanting nothing more than to graduate from high school, go to college, and get a normal job without any of this mystical junk in his life. As he and Izumiko become closer, however, he begins to see how much she means to him. This is driven home mostly through times when she is possessed by the Hime-gami.

The other characters are considerably less developed. Yukimasa Sagara, Miyuki’s father, is only rarely present and mostly seems to be brought in to slow the relationship development between the main pair down, as Miyuki can’t stand to be around him and avoids Izumiko when Yukimasa is spending time near her, and Yukimasa tends to belittle his son at every opportunity, driving him further away. At one point, Izumiko actually chases after him after a round of Yukimasa’s baiting and practically begs him to ignore his father and not go back to ignoring her. His response speaks volumes, as he indicates that he knows precisely what Yukimasa is doing and won’t abandon Izumiko over it. He just can’t stand the jerk!

Similarly with Izumiko’s parents, they are only around in a few episodes, and usually as plot points, not developed characters.

Before entering Hōjō Academy, the only other character of note is Wamiya. His development is interesting, because he is intentionally left as an enigma until the reveal about his true nature. After that, he fades into the background, for a while at least. Of the characters at Hōjō, only the Souda siblings, Mayura, Manatsu, and Masumi, get any serious development. These three do see a good amount of development time, especially Mayura. I love the way they show us first the bright, happy, cheerful friend to Izumiko, then they delve into the confident, calculating, competitive Mayura that is trying to best Takayanagi in the World Heritage Candidate competition. Finally, after the incidents that occur over summer break, the vulnerable, scared, and somewhat desperate Mayura is revealed. I really got the feeling that all of those personality traits are there all along, which suggests that the writers did a good job of foreshadowing and of presenting a rather complex character in a limited amount of time. The fact that, even for the space of a week, thanks to a nasty cliffhanger episode ending, they managed to make me seriously wonder if Mayura was truly Izumiko’s friend or an enemy impressed me.

The other “major” characters that are featured in the OP are Honoka Jean Kisaragi, Hodaka Murakami, and Ichijou Takayanagi. None of them really get any development time beyond their basic roles in the plot. In a sense, this is where I feel RDG was weakest and could have used more time to make the characters more real. However, the limited cast size and lack of in depth development of these characters strangely fits the storytelling style of the show, since much of the story is being told from the perspective of Izumiko and she is an incredibly shy girl who would not have become close to more than a handful of people at school. This small group of friends is all she really can handle: Miyuki, who she is frequently angry with but clearly longs for; Mayura, her best friend, roommate, and eventually confidant when things look bleakest for her; Manatsu, her classmate, best friend’s brother, and faithful friend; and Masumi, who I will refrain from describing for fear of spoilers. Oh, and Wamiya is also a bit of an ally as well, but in the latter part of the show he really becomes more marginal, except when he is central to the plot.

If the show had more episodes to work with, perhaps the minor characters would be more fleshed out, but I’m not entirely convinced that they would. I guess, in a way, I’m suggesting that the story doesn’t need the other characters to be better developed and gains something by keeping them mysterious, to a certain extent.

Story:

Possibly the most controversial aspect of RDG is the comprehensibility of the story. Time and again I have read message board posts by people stating that they have no idea what is going on, that the writing is horrible because they never tell you what is happening and what things mean, and that they feel that the writers rushed too much into too little space. At the same time, you see a nearly equal amount of complaints about the show being to slow and nothing really happening in various episodes. Interestingly, I have made the very same contradictory complaint about another show this season, Arata Kanagatari. However, for RDG, I cannot agree with these complaints. Over the course of the season, I never felt lost at the end of an episode. Where there plot points that were unclear at times? Yes. But in almost every case, I could tell that the plot points were not unclear due to lack of care by the writers, but rather the opposite. The things that were unclear were intended to be mysterious at that point in the story.

The reason for this is the way the story is told. For the most part the story is told from Izumiko’s perspective, with the obvious exception of the times when Izumiko is possessed by the Hime-gami. At any given point in the show, you know only what Izumiko knows about the events that are shaping her life. In many cases, that is precious little, as she is a girl who was “destined to be protected by a large number of people”, including being protected from the truth about her family, her families “friends”, or more properly “retainers”, and, most importantly, about herself. It is her intention to change and grow as a person that drives much of the story, as she becomes more confident and more adventurous, we learn more about the people around her, the events occurring both in her personal and school life, and the nature of the strange powers she seems to possess, though we never really find out why she destroys electronic devices. With the relatively early revelation of her nature as a vessel of the Hime-gami, and Yukimasa’s insistence that Miyuki, like himself, is destined to serve Izumiko without any choice in the matter, the mystical world of ancient Shinto legends comes alive amidst the hustle and bustle of modern society and the intrigue and back biting of a fiercely competitive, highly selective high school that caters to people with the ability to “commune with the divine.”

In general, I felt that the show followed one of the mantras of good story telling: show, don’t tell. So often, I see people use that phrase after an “infodump” (like in the first episodes of Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere or Fate/Zero or episode 9 of Suisei no Gargantia.) While the story telling is low, though not entirely lacking, in exposition, it is also absolutely loaded with information. It seems like almost every scene in the show is important to the overall story, with no wasted space. Even scenes that seem like pure humor sequences drive the plot forward. Facial expressions, body language, and subtle tones of voice all have import in this story. Nothing is done without purpose. If you are among the people who were taken aback by the low information story telling style, I would strongly suggest re-watching the episodes, and possibly looking up some information about the specific shrines and “mystic” groups mentioned in the series, such as the Kumano Shrines World Heritage Site, Togakushi shrine, and the Yamabushi, or Mountain Monks. With those tools in your possession (pun intended) you should be able to follow the story and appreciate the complex, mysterious, and intense world of RDG. At the absolute worst you will still be able to enjoy the absolutely stunning background art again!

Music

The music for RDG was well done. The OP, “Small WorlDrop” by Annabel, is a powerful tune with an ominous yet optimistic presence that sets the mood for the show quite well. The ED, “Yokan” by Masumi Itou, has a very “traditional” feel to it and a rather infectious tune. The incidental music during the show is uniformly well done, and the song that Izumiko sings when she dances is beautiful. One of the best uses of music in the show, however, is the variations on themes from “Small WorlDrop” that show up in the background during quiet moments, usually accompanying a private conversation between Izumiko and Miyuki and often when they are becoming closer to each other in some way.

Overall Enjoyment

Similar to “The Hulk”, you wouldn’t like Izumiko when she’s angry!

A common criticism I have seen for RDG, as well as many other adaptations, is that it feels incomplete. Knowing that the source material continues for another novel after the end of the portion that was adapted, I sympathize with that sentiment. However, I don’t feel it is a huge problem for RDG.

I have come to grips with the fact that the anime business is cruel to fans. It is dreadfully expensive to produce animation, particularly animation at the quality level that PA Works has made their reputation providing. In any adaptation, there will be portions of the story that have to be trimmed and decisions have to be made about how much of the story will be adapted given the number of episodes the powers that be have allotted to the creative staff for a particular adaptation.

Given the portion of the story the team chose to cover, I feel that the story resolved nicely. Is it complete? No. Does it come to a satisfactory resolution, given the amount of story they creative team chose to adapt? Yes. Sure, it would have been nice to get the whole story, but not at the expense of quality in either visuals or storytelling. Any more of the story in the 12 episodes the show was allotted would have been deadly in terms of pacing and comprehensibility.

I guess what I’m trying to say is: Just because the adaptation is not complete doesn’t diminish the quality of the portion of the story that has been adapted. If PA Works, or some other studio, never pick up the ball and finish the adaptation, I will be disappointed. However, the end of the story in the novels is not an issue that impacts my enjoyment of the anime. I feel that the story was well told, with amazing visual quality, an impressive level of detail in the storytelling, and a pervasive atmosphere to the show as a whole that made it enjoyable on a visceral level and made me greatly anticipate each weeks new episode while the series progressed.

My rating: 9+ of 10, or 9 with a bullet, to be transformed into a 10 for the franchise as a whole if, or I hope it is not too brazen to say “when” the rest of the story is adapted.

 

If the slideshows below don’t load, try again later. The site was undergoing maintenance when I posted…

 Slideshow of screenshots from Episodes 8 through 12:

Bonus slideshows: 

Episodes 1 through 3:

Episodes 4 and 5:

Episodes 6 through 8:

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