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.hack//Sign gives off all the signals of a once-popular series that hasn't aged well. It was one spoke in a giant merchandising wheel made to rope in consumers with an elaborate world that was spread across several anime, video games and manga on launch. It is a cartoon about a massively multiplayer role-playing game from a time that pre-dates World of Warcraft. It is a digitally animated work back when the industry was still getting familiar with how to use these new tools. And it was one of many, many new series to crowd the market during the boom years in the early Aughts. But I was curious what it was about .hack//Sign that made it such a common sight several years ago. By the time I finished the series, I was still curious, because the problem with Sign isn't that it hasn't aged well, but that it wasn't very good in the first place. It's an ambitious series that's weak in all the places it needs to be strong, and at least three times as long as it needs to be.
There is a large gap between the kind of series .hack//Sign wants to be and what it is. It's not an action series by design, even though everyone carries around a weapon, since most of the drama is introspective and depends on character development. There is an evil to be defeated, but it's not one any of the characters- especially our hero Tsukasa- can fight without becoming better, more mature people. This is a noble idea; the problem is that it takes too damn long to do it. It's not unusual for TV series to have to contort their story to fit their scheduling, but Sign is an especially grievous example of this problem. It takes a small set of ideas that could easily fit a short OVA series and stretches them into twenty-six grueling episodes. Every significant event in each episode could be summed up on the back of a postage stamp, and sometimes, that stamp would be left blank, since the series plants a lot of red herrings into its mystery to inflate the length. This isn't an unfixable problem though- I've seen slow series that still succeeded because of a good script with solid dialogue that would flesh out interesting characters. Aria is a good example of this: the series is slower than business at a Christmas shop in July, but it works beautifully because it languishes in a fascinating world filled with loveable, well written characters.
There might have been a time when the setting of The World seemed rich and fascinating, but that time is decidedly past us. The World is composed of the basest elements of a large scale MMORPG: quasi-European towns, treasure chests, dungeons and large, empty fields. In 2002, before World of Warcraft came out and only the hardest of the hardcore PC crowd even knew what a MMORPG was, this setting might have seemed like the full realization of a fascinating idea to American audiences. Today, when Cataclysm has just wowed the gaming community and developers continue to develop and experiment with the genre, it's a dull background. The buildings and some of the characters have a unique and distinctive design, but those are the bright points of a dull field. And the lowest point of its visual design is what I call The Barbell of Doom, a floating slime that looks like a barbell and attacks characters with generic tentacles that pop out of its shiny mass and slap people around. It doesn't look threatening, or eerie, or frightening, but in the story, it's a terrifying monster that can rend strong heroes apart with ease. The contrast between the effect of the design and the intent is almost comical.
Director Koichi Mashimo handles all these elements like he handles everything else: with a flat style and a dulled sense for drama. If you didn't care for Noir, Tsubasa Chronicles or any number of bad Bee Train TV series you won't like .hack//Sign either. Like Ito, there's a large gap between the talent he once was and the work he produces today. But where Mashimo directs, there is also a soundtrack composed by the famous Yuki Kajuira, and Mashimo makes sure to highlight it. And it is worth your attention: it has dreamy melodies that heighten the mood of every scene, and often not so much highlighting the mood as threatening to overpower it. And sometimes it does- Mashimo has commented before that he would do that on purpose to heighten tension, which is an interesting idea if true. It's certainly worth putting the spotlight on: it's deeply emotional music, written in an Engrish that's nonsensical but somehow still makes its point.
Ratio of people talking to stuff actually happening is too damn high. Add a star if you really like philosophical ponderings, but I think we can all agree now that this series deserves to be buried and forgotten. — Bradley Meek
Recommended Audience: No sex, and any innuendo is too mild for us to truly notice (though there's plenty of skimpy outfits). However, adult themes, intensity, and fantasy violence make this out of the range of young children. Recommended for teens and above (primarily the gaming set).
Version(s) Viewed: Region 1 DVD release
Review Status: Full (26/26)
.hack//SIGN © 2002 Project .hack
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