Room 801/Curio Corner: This Boy Can Fight Aliens

The auteur is a surprisingly rare individual in the anime industry-whilst some shorts, such as Daicon have been produced by small groups of individuals, a short produced by a single individual is a rarity-Makoto Shinkai’s She and Her Cat is one of them, a short assembled on a single computer, with Shinkai directing, drawing and voicing one of the characters (aside from one character, and the music, Shinkai created every part of the short). However, even more ambitious than She and Her Cat, is This Boy Can Fight Aliens by the equally auteurish Soubi Yamamoto; supported by Shinkai’s own Comix Wave Films, it’s an altogether more ambitious and boy’s love tinged OVA, with one boy, suffering from amnesia, the single person standing against never-ending waves of aliens, as he battles for his planet and his own meaning in a tight knit, personally driven work. It may be idiosyncratic in execution and style, but it’s an interesting, if unusual piece.

The short begins, with, essentially, what little backstory the amnesiac Kakashi (the titular Boy of the title), has. He’s found by Arakawa, works for the tiny government agency Arakawa and Shiro work for, fights aliens, and…that’s about it. After fighting, as he has done for the four months after he was found, the alien of the day (it’s briefly explained that he’s the only one who can fight them after they mysteriously appeared one day), he takes a rest with Arakawa under a tree, and wakes up late for dinner. Stern task-master Shiro complains, they eat and we generally get a sense of the interrelationship of these characters-Shiro is the well-meaning stern task-master, Arakawa is kind and caring, and Kakashi snarks whilst trying to work out what his role in the world is. Up on the house’s roof, he begins to wonder whether he’s actually alone, coming to the conclusion that “his voice will never reach anyone”-he seems, via his message, to regard the world as “not nice to me”. Waking up, the trio go through their morning routine, and, despite Awakawa’s bad cooking, Kakashi refuses to tell him so. Kakashi kids himself, hollowly that his cellphone will receive loads of messages, that he is not alone, whilst in his head he seems to realise that he is trapped, alone, memory deprived and friendless, and that, in fact, his existence is the very reason the aliens attack. Shiro himself seems to realise that if Kakashi were not to exist, the world might not end.

Slowly going off his food, Kakashi finally hands Shiro his phone, and again, we get a sense that, below his exterior of someone who believes he has friends, Kakashi is increasingly stuck in a loop of existence, his existence perpetuated by his ability to fight aliens, before Kakashi finally walks in on Shiro, overhears that his parents are dead, and that, with no messages on his phone he is painfully, deeply, alone. Kakashi running off, Arakawa turns on Shiro for letting him run off, and for suggesting that the world “might be protected if Kakashi became a victim”, whilst Kakashi’s thoughts turn inward, wishing the world where he is alone and in emotional pain to end, then realizes that he needs help from Awakawa. His dark thoughts physically tint the screen monochrome, as he seems to give up and lose. Awakawa appears, and Kakashi finally pours out his heart to the other boy, Awakawa finally telling him that he is not alone, and produces the cellphone, the colour bleeding back into the screen, as Kakashi finally receives a text. The dark inner thoughts too become coloured, the one text becomes hundreds, represented by their senders, before a video from his friends finally arrives, and Kakashi realises that he is not alone, that he has friends, that Awakawa loves him. He takes to the sky, defeats the aliens, and the credits roll over tearful reunions. Ah…aliens? Bringing peace? Maybe the world isn’t such a bad place.

In short, (and this is short, at under 30 minutes), This Boy Can Fight Aliens is about isolation, and someone trying to make someone feel wanted. In the simplest way, it’s a story about connections, whether romantic or friendship, and at the core of this work, it’s essentially Arakawa trying to show, through his care for Kakashi that he loves him, and wants him to be happy. It’s also, at least from my reading, about depression-Kakashi is trapped in a routine, trapped within the confines of the garden, and, in a sense, trapped in his own thoughts; it is Awakawa’s love for Kakashi that breaks through this depression, defines him in a way other than simply fighting aliens, simply carrying out the  same day to day motions, gives him something to hope for. One could easily substitute the aliens with other people, or inner thoughts; Yamamoto almost hints at this, with suggestions that, were Kakashi to lose, it would be him who would be personally affected, or if Kakashi were no longer to exist, then the aliens would not attack; Clearly, the idea that he’s tired of fighting the aliens/depression seems to run throughout the work, and that it is only Awakawa (and by extension his friends) that bring him round from a self-destructive path.  It’s, for a directorial debut, a well-rounded character piece, particularly between Kakashi and Awakawa, but also between Kakashi and Shiro and and Shiro and Awakawa-this small, tight-knit and almost intimate trio’s interactions are the basis for almost the entire plot, and through them, Kakashi, (both hoping/realizing he has friends and realizing he is alone and slowly hurting himself) is buffeted by their respective personalities, representing the two forces that vie for control of his mind.

But is it boy’s love? Kinda. Whilst certainly much of the marketing of this series, both in Japan and in the west daubs this Boy’s Love, and Yamamoto has subsequently gone on to do a lot of more overly BL series under the “This Boy/Kono Dan” banner, this is BL in the broadest of brushstrokes. The characters clearly are friends, there’s an overt suggestion, right at the end that they may be more than friends, mostly from one line of Kakashi’s asking Arakawa to stay close to him and their physical closeness, and that’s pretty much it. It may use the character design, tone, colour pallet and effects of a lighter BL visual novel or doujinshi, but it’s BL by a whisker. That said, subtext sells, and boy there’s tonnes of it; they share a bed, Awakawa clearly does care for Kakashi, even if it is only as a friend, there somewhat of an almost-kiss right at the end, and I’ve seen entire BL anthologies based on less canon character interaction. They’re a cute couple, this series is a nice toe-dip in the BL ocean, and I could think of far worse works to introduce the genre to people with-it’s certainly a nice precursor to Yamamoto’s other work.

Yamamoto’s art style is perhaps the most obvious idiosyncrasy; slightly sketchy, with more than a touch of CLAMP about the general facial and body-design, with long, gangly limbs and sharp, shoujoish chins, it clearly owes a debt to the general shoujo/doijinshi style (heck, this entire short could equally have ended up as a short comic or visual novel, and Yamamoto, as with Shinkai seems to have a background in the visual novel tradition). The colouration of the characters is bright and polychromatic, starting with Kakashi’s hair, but occasionally, due to the digital colouring of the series, occasionally seems a little flat- Shiro, particularly suffers from this, as his largely dark clothing lacks depth and definition in some darker shots. Hair and clothing are both clearly defined-it’s extremely easy, even in very long or action-heavy shots to tell each character apart, and some of the best “idling” animation is upon characters’ hair.  Perhaps the most unusual part of her character design  is eyes-Kakashi’s eyes are dark tight squiggles, particularly notable in closeups, whilst Shiro’s eyes are, whilst similar, narrowed in a more adult style; in comparison Arakawa’s are very detailed and shoujouesque, poly-chromatic and complimenting the surrounding colour pallet. The aliens themselves are a well-designed motley crew, with interesting and varied design, appearing largely as  threatening black silhouettes, with their craft, seen only a few times, are your typical, if well executed B-Movie flying saucer. Equally, Kakashi’s school friends, largely seen as line art, with a few briefly animated sections, are similarly well designed, despite their brief appearance.

In general, the animation and visuals for the work are similarly impressive, and here the computer-based production of this work lends it a vivid and striking appearance-many of the backgrounds use a similar technique to Gankutsuo-Count of Monte Cristo, with static, occasionally photographic images, or sections of text-Kakashi’s own room seems to use photographs, drawings, sections of text, whilst the kitchen/living room’s stark whiteness, with spreadsheets, bar charts and reports across the walls, contrasts heavily with vivid, often dark skies-equally, the tone and colour of the room changes with the mood of the series, whilst the clutter of signs and the city, suggests the distance of humanity in the work. Whilst the interiors of the series are monochromatic, and stark, the yard (a huge expanse of greenery) is vivid, colourful, with dark, swirling skies, seemingly using actual footage of cloud scapes, becoming increasingly vivid and stormy over the short. I'm one section, towards the end of the short, colour bursts from monochrome, a stormy sky to blue, to echo the sudden shift in Kakashi’s emotions, and even the aspect ratio shifts suddenly. Yamamoto’s landscapes clearly act to reflect and compliment the emotions of its three characters.

Her animation is equally impressive for a solo project; whilst limited in some sections, it serves the story well, with the fight scenes between Kakashi and the titular aliens given particular focus; some scenes are somewhat sketchy, although this again serves her story impressively; when things need to happen they happen vividly. Basic character animation is well produced, and for a short, there are no animation issues that I spotted-the limited animation on some sections of their evening meal would have been nice to see fully animated, but it’s a minor gripe, rather than a huge issue

Perhaps, however, Yamamoto’s best work in this entire short is that of what I’m loosely going to call Kakashi’s inner thoughts-dominated by computer imagery, Gainax-esque text on mono-colour backgrounds (which often remains unvoiced), and shadowy, dark static, reflecting the turmoil in his heart-whilst it clearly shows the influence of Studio SHAFT upon her work, it’s well executed, particularly for a short with this level of production values. In particular, the shadowy, box wearing staticy figure that appears, as Kakashi also does, within a mobile phone screen in these inner thoughts, suggests a fear of being alone, of somehow trapped, and unable to communicate, his inner fears turned into an inner dialogue with this shadowy other self-an apt depiction of depression in the digital age. Equally, the usage of screens, of messages and emails, echoes the wish for Kakashi to be contacted, to have some connection to the world outside the garden. It’s a perfect, and very modern way to show how Kakashi is cut off and alone, until the short’s pathos-heavy ending, where the screen is almost drenched in text messages and figures, spilling out as Kakashi realizes he is not alone.
Dub/Sub wise, This Boy is also remarkably solid; unusually for a short with no theatrical release and a limited Japanese print, it’s been dubbed; both English and Japanese voice tracks are solid, (heck, this is a short with a cast of three for most of its 28 minute run time), and the translation from Japanese to English is a good one, (serious kudos to Sentai for actually picking this up at all) with most lines either word-for-word, or very close to their Japanese. If I had to pick one over the other, it’s probably the Japanese; either way, both voice casts are remarkably impressive for an indie short. Kimura Ryouhei (mostly famous for voicing a number of pretty boy supporting cast characters)’s Kakashi is well voiced, moving from jocular to self-loathing, and delivering his lines in the final scene with a little more pathos than Blake Shepard (also mostly employed to voice supporting character pretty boys)-that said, Shepard is more than passable and only his final scenes are better in Japanese than English.

Shiro (voiced by Daisuke Hirakawa in Japanese, David Matranga in English) is suitably stern yet caring in both tracks, and honestly both play their role very well, whilst Arikawa (Greg Ayres in English, Toshiyuki Toyanaga in Japanese) is arguably the best voiced character of the trio; Ayres in particular adds emotion to the final scene, a sense of desperation in his voice, whilst Toyanaga sounds more upset-there’s subtle differences but both actors are clearly pouring a lot into their performances. The soundtrack is…ok. There’s a nice version of Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie No 1 (also used in Disappearace of Haruhi Suzumiya and a few other anime to great effect), the ending song by Akiko Shikata is decent, otherwise there’s little incidental music that I could discern other than some nice incidental piano pieces. Otherwise you get typical Japanese summer cicadas, and that’s about it. Decent sound-design overall, and from a nigh amateur, really damned good.

Overall…This Boy Can Fight Aliens is a nice curio; largely self-produced works of this magnitude, even with the backing of a reasonably large studio such as Comix Wave, are unusual, and self-produced BL works even rarer outside of a doujinshi/VN sphere-it’s an ambitious piece, all kudos to Soubi Yamamoto and it mostly pays off. Yamamoto has a unique style, her characters are identifiable and likable, the pathos of the ending is worth the watch, and despite being a BL work by the skin of its teeth, it’s nonetheless a well-plotted if short work. Whilst not an essential watch, there are worse ways to spend half an hour.


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