NieA_7 (2001)

Of all the things resurrected for a physical release from the early 2000s, one of the last titles I expected was NieA_7. With the corpse of Pioneer/Geneon containing so many licenses that could be scooped up, maybe it shows up on Crunchyroll unannounced one day after its license is purchased for a song. But taking the materials from an early 2000 digital animation with mixed reviews, little financial success, and releasing it on Blu-ray in 2018? Are you mad, Discotek Media/Eastern Star? If  you're reading this, Discotek, I am very grateful for the services you provide in rescuing classics and choice obscure picks, but you guys do need money to run like everyone else and don't just have a lead-to-gold alchemy racket in your basement, right?

NieA_7 was the follow-up to the cult series for illustrator Yoshitoshi ABe (As always, the capital B is intentional) with producer Yasuyiki Ueda, and was sold as such. Most fans of the surreal, cyberpunk classic didn't follow them down this aliens-as-race-metaphor-meets-slice-of-life-meets-Looney-Toons path, and many MANY unsold copies were left on shelves to rot until they were hastily thrown together into box sets and eventually peddled by desperate dealers at anime cons for 15 bucks in an era where 3-4 episode DVDs sold at $39.99 MSRP were the norm. Even as ABe found more acclaim with Haibane-Renmei and Texhnolyze, NieA_7 didn't get much of a second glance. Let's put it this way, Lain, Texhnolyze, and Haibane-Renmei are #10, #2, and #1 on my list of favorite anime series, respectively. I haven't even thought about this show in ten years and there would still be heavy amounts of dust on my DVDs if I hadn't moved three times. But hey, let's take this opportunity to revisit NieA_7 on its own and shed the expectations its brethren bring.

Emblazoned with the Engrish tagline "domestic poor animation," this comedy follows the life of student Mayuko as she tries to survive pre-college cram school in the city while handling multiple jobs and paying her own rent living above a failing bathhouse in the slowly dying countryside area Enohana. Mayu's financial circumstances are left mostly in her hands after the death of her father, and she is not helped by literal alien squatter NieA discovered in Mayu's closet when she moved into her apartment who will not leave. You see, the aliens' mothership crashed into Japan years ago and aliens have since become a normal sight. They're mostly like humans except for large ears and antenna. The antenna designate their caste, with the larger antenna indicating a more important member of their society. Since NieA is ranked an "under 7" with no antenna, she is considered garbage by her society, living off whatever she can swipe from Mayu and get-rich-schemes, sometimes involving attempts to hawk junk as "alien technology" to Mayu's fanatic blogger pal Chiaki. Mayu's "charity" is continually strained by NieA's constant nagging and desire for large servings of exotic food.

The episodes are mostly self-contained stories working off the slowly building cast of characters slung into wacky circumstances. Usually it involves Kotomi, the head of the flagging bathhouse, trying to find a way to stay in business and the plan to do so going haywire. There are character threads that are built up, but as a person watching this multiple times talking to likely a person watching this for the first time, let me do you a solid: Do not get too attached to the idea of the larger elements paying off or resolving. This is a period of time in the lives of these folk, and while everyone has ultimate goals, there are larger mysteries, and characters have issues between each other that need to be addressed, almost all of it is not resolved in a matter typically expected of such a show. Even with the sci-fi elements and zany comedy, it's really on-the-nose slice of life.

Okay, brass taxes time. NieA_7 is an anime that is EASY to hate. I don't blame anyone for it, and if you can't make it through the first four episodes, I understand. It mixes slapstick Western comedy (and literal Hanna Barbera sound effects) with the obnoxious parts of anime humor where louder is better and the same joke playing on a character tic can't be used enough. The threads getting abruptly cut off can be frustrating because there are actual human elements I want to follow. Early in the show, Mayu has a dream about her father, but her image of her father is slowly becoming less concrete, worrying her she's going to completely forget him. There are powerful and touching elements crafted by a group of people more than capable of exploring them. Then most of the main characters are involved in a massive Wile E. Coyote explosion. Oh yes, I get the frustration. I could go on for hours about how Haibane-Renmei changed my entire outlook on life, and during my first run through of NieA_7, I only wondered, "Did they just rip off a joke from Alf?"

Deep breath. I promised the series I'd give it a fresh look. I get the zaniness has to be put up front to give an idea of what the physical reality of this series is. You can't just pull out the fact that people can survive being in an explosive UFO that decimates a roof five episodes in or so. The mix of old-school cartoon noises and royalty-free sound effects from 90's shareware computer games not only clues into the attitude, but to the poorness of the people that their sound effects are greatly worn and overused. That was a major light bulb for me this time 'round. In fact, the series is built on a style of humor called "hetare," or lame. Bad jokes, out-of-date references, puns that kill conversations, it's all intentional down to Mayu and Niea bickering, and it might not translate all the way through because puns usually don't and this wasn't made to snag the "cool" audiences of 2001.

What still bothers me early on is it doesn't know when to stop early on. The entire second episode involves trying to find an alien oil to attract new customers. The result find the bathhouse getting decimated and large crews are required just to clean up the damage. It sets up that the bathhouse has been in debt for a long time and needs something to turn it around soon. This is one of the major focuses of the series and it's hard to maintain this as actual stakes when the result of this episode is the near-complete destruction of the bathhouse and nothing about the situation changes even into the next episode. They must have one hell of an insurance policy.

I know I know, it's a cartoony cartoon. I shouldn't think too much about it, and that kind of overtly bombastic payoff tapers off after the first few episodes. However, there is a tonal disconnect between the separate elements that never quite gels. The opening is probably the easiest example. The song choice is gravelly singer SION similar to the ending theme to the much darker Lain (and one I skip because that art of Lain they choose for the credits is a little much). The animation is curiously cluttered with solemn imagery fighting with the obvious gags. While the show proper is better at keeping the animation's tone in sync, the story does seem like it's getting pulled in different directions, like there were two or three people who had separate visions of what it's supposed to be. Nowhere is this more apparent than its alien metaphor about race and class.

Oh boy, we're taking about race now. As most people are aware, Japan is not the most racially diverse country in the world, so when they tackle race outside of their own, it can be awkward and shallow (Though to be fair, the same thing happens with most white, male screenwriters who deal with race *COUGHCOUGHBRIGHTCOUGHCOUGH*). NieA_7's approach is to look at India's caste system, turn it into alien antenna, and say, "Well, that's silly." While that may be so, it's easy to sit back and take potshots at another country. It does get to make fun of how some Japanese are frozen in fear by merely seeing someone who looks drastically different, such as when Mayu freaks out almost every time she sees Chada, a dark-skinned alien who has styled himself out of a stereotype Indian convenience store owner (Even owning one called 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Get it?). Chada's character serves as a parody of those people who are overly fanboyish over certain nationalities and cultures, yet only have enough understanding of them to be grotesque caricatures. I think we all know some baka desus like that. That's not to completely let it off the hook as it seems like a sideways attempt of the Japanese makers to still make fun of Indian tourists as Chada is constantly confused about what proper customs are. That in itself isn't too bad, but Chada making notes about "showing people your butt and asking to be butt buddies is sexual harassment" is pushing it. At least they have actual Indian guy Dalgit at the episode previews who is something of a shitposter before shitposting became a thing.

There doesn't seem to be a point to all of this except to poke a bit of fun at everyone (Even the Americans get theirs in a throwaway gag about how us big-nosed, blonde-haired people tell horribly inappropriate, homophobic jokes). It all feels like a half-formed, missed opportunity, but there is something underneath if you do a little poking. Everything's slow moving in this series, which is how progress in such matters feels. These aren't problems that are solved with one meeting, one crucial realization, or a plan, and often feels like everything's going in circles. In a narrative, that's a tough sell, and whatever thoughts the series seem to have on the matter vanish as it goes along and merely just presses the same character prejudice buttons over and over for humor. Then there's NieA.

While I'm ripping bandages off: NieA is the cliched version of the worst things people say about minorities. A squatter who does nothing of value to earn their keep except trying to swindle others out of buying garbage and consumes all the resources of a roommate who actually works. Even in her feud with a snobby alien named Karna who thinks they are the de facto leader of Enohana's aliens because she has the largest antenna, Karna actually holds down a job. What's worse, while Karna's attending to her serving job, NieA eats a bunch of food and charges it to her, getting it garnished off her paycheck. This is a main character I'm supposed to be invested in, and without spoiling too much, I have to be emotionally attached to in the final few episodes. I kept waiting for some kind of turn, some kind of revelation. What happens to NieA is an external force that has potential to do that, and Mayu has to navigate a system that literally does not acknowledge under 7s as even existing. Like much of the ending, drifts off with the symbolism that everything eventually must change in a series where not a whole lot does at the finish line. You can just hear the scissors snipping the story threads as it concludes.

Despite all of this, there are quite a few aspects I admire about this series. ABe's character designs always have an amazing way of communicating everything about the person in a few detailed strokes. They're replicated in animation well enough (With ABe himself doing some key animation for the show). Even when it's not, "domestic poor animation" covers its backside a good amount, though there are some awkward closeup shots with characters in serious moments. Mayu is pretty great as a main character and the crisis she goes through is ever so relatable. She spends so much time trying to simply exist that she never considers where she's going or how to be one with the classmates who seem to live in an alternate universe from her. It's a shame her roommate never develops much past a comedic foil (The ending even says Mayu may never figure out what goes on in NeiA's head). As a comedy, there are a few good straight comedic episodes. The alien rival bathhouse episode has a well-tread payoff, but by golly, it works! The relaxing Hawaiian/bluegrass music fits the relaxing atmosphere to a t.

I still wish this came together more for me. There is a plenty to like here and I don't really have any negative feelings save the endless bickering between Mayu and NieA. If I may end my own little restriction of not comparing it to other ABe series, Haibane-Renmei has plenty of unanswered questions, leaves the viewer to fill in the spaces, and "life goes on" at the end of that, too. But it tells a complete narrative between the leads and the show is built to make the viewers' own experiences tie into how they interpret the story. NieA_7 feels like visiting these characters rather than following a story. Maybe that's the point and others will prefer the approach more than I do.

It's a near-miss. I certainly wouldn't discourage anyone from checking it out once the Blu-ray hits (No, I did not do this review with those. Right Stuf didn't ship this particular anime weeks ahead of their street date like a good amount of their product). However, it is the most light and minor piece in Yoshitoshi ABe's anime collection, and the relaxed tone with repetitive comedy may not be particularly filling, especially with the world of aliens living among humans not explored nearly as well as some would like. ABe's doujinshi "I am an Alien. I Have a Question" about an ant-loving, shapeshifter extraterrestrial disguised as a quirky redhead would've been better fodder for an anime with a similar concept, but I guess we'll never know. NieA_7 is a curiosity worth being curious about and there are dozens of titles over the past 17 years that are far more worthy of being shot dead and buried in obscurity than this one. Leave that bullet in the head of titles like Maburaho. Seriously.


  1. I watched this in 2014, what I liked was the English dub featured two actresses from supporting roles in R.O.D The TV, my favorite anime, as the two leads, so that was nice.

    As for the show itself, I thought it was agreeably laid back, but nothing great, I'm struggling to remember a whole lot of details about it even though that was only a few years ago that I watched it.

    1. Oh yeah. I'm one of the biggest fans of ABe out there, I've watched this thing at least three times, and none of it would've stuck for a review if I hadn't been taking notes. It's so light, it just drifts off into space with nothing to anchor it. Anyway, thanks for reading!


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