Under the Dog: Episode Zero

Under the Dog has had a strange and oddly long journey for a 30-minute OVA. Starting as an idea for a 26-episode series in the mid-90s when Ghost in the Shell was one of the big influences on the anime world, it was mothballed until it was brought back by Japanese companies Creative Intelligence Arts (CIA) and Kinema Citrus animation studios, hoping to capitalize on 20 years worth of nostalgia. It succeeded with over $850,000 in funding thanks to a trailer that featured some well done futuristic action in a surprising colorful and detailed metropolitan landscape. After a few short Q&A updates and random congratulations and endorsements (Including, perhaps ominously, Keiji Inafune), the project went silent for a few months before the producer made an update where he stated he was leaving the project and dropped a press release that revealed CIA, the entire company managing the product, was gone as well. This was all delivered in the casual tone of Julie Hagerty in Airplane! asking the passengers, "By the way, is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane?"

Kinema Citrus animation took over production with much of the same creative team on board (though there has been a seemingly revolving door of people writing the script from Jiro Ishii's original story, settling on Keigo Koyanagi in the final credits). Over a year passed and last April, this trailer dropped, revealing a potential other protagonist who less resembled badass blonde project mascot Anthea and more Lain with an assault rifle (I'm game for that, but I am also a gigantic Yoshitoshi Abe fan). So, what is the final result, at least with "Episode 0" that dropped on August 1st? Will it make us cry like an anime fan on prom night? Let's find out! DISCLAIMER: For the sake of full disclosure, yes, I am one of the Kickstarter donors. Use that information as you will.

After all this hullabaloo, what is Under the Dog? There is more straight-up information made available in a 40-second trailer if you pause at the right time, but we'll go with the anime's more scenic route. We start on transfer student Hana who is seemingly fretting over her first day at a new school. As she gets closer to school, we realize it's not first day jitters that have her fidgety as she puts in a communication earbud during her walk and nervously pulls a gun in a bathroom stall. A blatant sign things are not as they seem occurs when the U.S. army lock down the school and raid it while Hana suddenly turns to classmate Shunichi and pulls pulls him out of the room, saying, "Stick close... or you'll die."

Hana is a member of a task force/assassination team called Flowers, named such because they're made up of pretty teenagers who die young, or something like that (Original creator Jiro Ishii surprising listed Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go about teen clones who are raised to be organ farms. This makes a little more sense within this context). They are one of the "fortunate" ones who control the Light of Humanity, which are special powers vaguely set up here. Hana can overpower small groups of trained military and jam their rifles with her mind, but it's not completely clear what it does as of yet. What is clear is that the Light of Humanity can change to Pandora energy in some people or can corrupt the Light of Humanity powers if they are strained., turning them into nearly unstoppable monsters. The Flowers try to keep Light of Humanity users out of the hands of various countries that are using them as some kind of the power play, especially the test subjects whose results turn out "white," marking them as the saviors of humanity (If the test is black, they put a bullet in them as quickly as possible). Lest you think Hana and her ilk are doing this for the good of humanity, the organization in charge of them is literally holding Hana's family hostage and will murder all of them if she fails in her task, dies, or her power is turned into Pandora. Poor Shunichi is a test subject whose color hasn't been revealed yet, but has so much potential to be white that the American military felt it was worth invading a foreign country and leveling a school to get him.

Episode Zero is pretty much a sampler platter of what to expect from the franchise should it become something more. It doesn't over commit to a full vision, but it definitely sets a tone and that tone is BLEAK. You can see the darker, nineties origins within it as you'd be hard-pressed to call any of the parties "heroes" and oh yeah, the gruesome, ferocious violence. Hana has to defend herself against the military and she rarely shies away from blasting brain matter on the walls. That's not to mention a Pandora creature eventually tears through the school while the cat-and-mouse game is afoot, tossing about quite a bit of misplaced limbs and torsos. The best analogue for this series would not be Ghost in the Shell, but Blood: The Last Vampire with beasts ripping apart an area surrounded by American soldiers while one super powered girl who works under a very gray organization tries to fight their way through.

In a departure from the introductory trailer, the colors are toned down, the locale changed from a mammoth cyberpunk metropolis to an island schoolhouse, and the object depth scaled back. Despite this seemingly being a betrayal of concept, this is really no problem as it's a prologue to a main story that doesn't exist in consumable form yet, and the animation is in constant motion in ways you don't see in modern anime.  If you've watched a decent amount of anime, you know it tends to value art design over motion and there are shortcuts taken with projects on very limited budgets and severe time restraints. Under the Dog has very few scenes where it feels like they're trying to get away with hiding mouth flaps or skimping on motion. It's very fluid and most of the scenes are set up to showcase the animation rather than work around it. The blood and gore is there and fairly detailed, but it feels like it exists to properly portray the level of physicality and seriousness of the parties involved rather than exploitation. Even the choice to make gray the dominant color unifies the style to keep the focus on what's happening as well as making the 3-D work by Orange Co. (Ghost in the Shell Arise) blend with the rest of the animation as much as possible. The only thing that didn't work was the Pandora creature, which feels like a mishmash of monster designs that prompts questions more than it ignites fear (Where the hell did all the eyes come from?).

For those who were sold the Major's equally effective little sister as hero and seem to have been given Gunslinger Girl instead, no worries. Anthea is present and assumes the role of main character by the end of the episode. They choose to slow play her in order to show the world not through those more embedded in it, but the ones who get caught up in the hurricane as a matter of circumstance. The episode is heavily bent on the sympathy generated by Hana as an unfortunate pawn trying to find a way out of a seemingly impossible situation with Shunichi, a normal kid ensnared in an international game that is way beyond him. They give humanity to exceptionally dark material which keeps it from being nihilistic. The trick this series is going to have to make if it continues is bringing that same balance to characters who are morally ambiguous and at home in these dire times. We get glimpses of the established Flowers throughout the episode, including a sniper who responds to being forced to put someone down with the cavalier delivery, "Darn it. He's handsome."

One aspect that stands out is the American troop dialogue is all done in English, In a primarily Japanese production, this used to be an eyesore with poor performances given to people with no ear to understand what's wrong. It's gotten better over the years and this is on the higher level of that upswing. I'd put this at the level of Eden of the East where the knowledge of the language is competent, but there is still some stilted delivery or incorrect tone in regards to what's being said. At one point, a soldier reacts to a Flower being in the school with, "Goddamn underdogs! What the hell are they doing here?!" in a manner that Hana had shown up at a party wearing the exact same outfit. It's not too distracting, though. While we're on the audio side of things, the music by Australian Kevin Penkin is the most consistent aspect from the original Kickstarter trailer to the finished OVA, providing melancholy and occasionally stirring accompaniment that hits the mark without calling too much attention to itself.

Under the Dog's initial effort may not be a precise replication of the trailer used to sell the venture (I'm guessing the creative differences that caused CIA to split had something to do with it), but it's a slick, action-packed 30 minutes that will make most content with the money they sunk into the project. Since it's supposed to be the beginning of a series, much on how this stands up on its own will depend on if those follow-up episodes are coming down the pipe or not since it's merely the appetizer. For now, it's a good setup to a hopefully greater payoff, and perhaps an entry point to more quality anime the people want funded outside the usual otaku machine. The journey wasn't smooth and some of the contents may have shifted, but a safe landing is all that matters, right?


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