C: The Money and Soul of Possibility
Only a select few know about the "Financial District," an extra-dimensional world existing parallel to our own where fortunes are won and lost, reshaping our reality in the process. Kimimaro's father was one, and after he disappeared, abandoning his son at a young age, Kimimaro never forgave him, even if he didn't understand his father's secret. Now he knows all too well the horror and wonders of the Financial District. After living the impoverished life of a student drowning in debt, he's been offered a Faustian bargain by a mysterious demon from the Financial District. Kimimaro stands to make unimaginable millions in weekly duels known as Deals, and with the help of a cute demon named Mysu and a veteran player named Souichirou, he could go far. But he's in way over his head, and with his own future held as collateral, the political maneuverings and backstabbing may cost him more than he's willing to pay.
noitaminA, an hour-long television block on Fuji TV, has established itself as a reliable place for interesting experiments in animation and mature stories aimed at audiences left out of the calculations of more commercial series. Their biggest successes have been josei and seinan titles like Nana, Honey & Clover and Monster, but for the last few seasons, their projects have been getting increasingly political, socially-minded and esoteric. Fractale may have been a disaster, but there's no denying that its core premise is a timely rumination on the consequences of interfacing with the world entirely with digital fantasies. Bones' new series No. 6 is currently airing in C's old time slot, and it's essentially a homoerotic rework of the BBC's The Prisoner, itself no slouch when it comes to explicit political messages. But C chose a topic that had the greatest chance to be a timely, relevant work of art that also explored new ground when it comes to socio-political messages: macro-economics. A couple years after the success of the much more light-hearted Spice and Wolf comes another anime about the dismal science. But, whereas Spice and Wolf was fascinated by economics and those who play a part in it, C is a more serious-minded affair, heavily relying on metaphor and symbolism to talk about modern economics, even if its premise is a bit more ridiculous than an anime about a wolf goddess and her merchant lover. Director Nakamara has clearly put years of thought into his first project's setting since the critically acclaimed Mononoke, and even hired an economics professor to advise the story.
That setting is rich enough that it's worth penning a primer here, if only to straighten my own thoughts on its complexity. C is set in modern-day Tokyo, but the heart of the series is in the extra-dimensional Financial District, which it hints is the true heart of power for every business and political titan on Earth. There are at least several Financial Districts, one for each major economic powerhouse region, from East Asia to the Americas, and each is run by a grinning demon dressed like the CEO of a clown college. These demons grant humans access to the Financial District, making their choices of who gets a chance at a once-in-a-lifetime Faustian bargain seemingly at random. These lucky humans become Entres- short for Entrepreneurs, a challenging word even for native English speakers- and compete with each other to make as much of the Financial District's money as possible by competing in Deals. In concept, these Deals are simple, monster-arena duels, the same fantasy battles that have made billions of dollars for Nintendo's Pokemon and its imitators. In execution, they're one of the great things about this series.
Each Entre exchanges their future as collateral for the Financial District's Midas Dollars, and also gain an Asset to assist them in Deals. These Assets somehow embody their Entres' future, and are the main combatants in Deals. Assets can take any form, allowing for some very imaginative monster designs and battles. Very few of them are "monsters" in the traditional sense, since most of them are short on slime and claws, and only notable exceptions follow anime's traditional route of being very cute mascots. Deals play out like a turn-based strategy game, with Entres having to choose how to use their Asset's special powers and make calculated risks. A lot of the fun in watching C comes from watching these Assets battle it out, and figuring out how their surreal design hides a lethal weapon.
But the most impactful detail about the Finicial District is that it affects The Real World in the most profound ways possible- wins and losses in the District alter reality on Earth. If an Entre loses everything in a deal, he loses his future. A vague term, the show acknowledges, and that makes the consequences all the most sinister. Companies that the Entre had built from the ground up for over thirty years could go bankrupt overnight. Pregnant wives could suddenly be barren. Or a well paying job could become a shift as a night clerk at a 7-11. And, in especially dramatic circumstances, entire countries physically disappear, as if they never existed.
It doesn't take a lot of economic know-how to draw the lines from C's metaphors to real world economics. And, as you'd rightly suspect, the series gets more complicated, with secret agents from the IMF and Entres making political alliances. Each detail about the Financial District seems to reference some business strategy or macroeconomic phenomenon. It makes all these references in rush, perhaps relying on an unknown fanbase to eventually comb through and find meaning in, say, every individual Asset's attack. But all this work goes to waste without a compelling story.
One of the problems with a metaphor-heavy story is that sometimes the characters simply become pawns to those metaphors, their motivations reduced to whatever the story needs to make its point. Or worse, they have no motivation to call their own, and like the children in Narnia, stumble through their symbolism-fantasy-world until the point of the story has been sufficiently hammered in and we can all go home. That isn't quite the case here- in fact, as if recognizing that flaw, the series makes sure the characters and their decisions, good and ill, drive the story. But whether or not any of those motivations are relatable or interesting is something else entirely.
One example of this is Mashu, Kimimaro's Asset, whose inclusion is a clear concession to the demands of modern anime audiences. She's cute as a mewling kitten and just as clueless about things like hunger and love, both of which she'll learn plenty about by the end of the series. So yes, even though Kimimaro originally signed on to becoming an Entre to impress a real live human girl, he falls for his own Asset, and spends most of his Deals trying to keep her from being harmed. You may have seen this condescending habit of male characters in anime before- they couldn't arm wrestle a baby bear, but decide that they just have to pointlessly sacrifice their lives for women who actually what the hell they are doing in a fight, preventing them from doing anything useful, because, y'know, honor. And it is very honorable, and equally stupid, and sucks most of the drama from the action. "Sucking out the drama" becomes more common as Kimimaro and Mashu's relationship matures into full-blown l-o-v-e: the virginal Platinum Girlfriend learns to love, the perpetual loser finally gets a kiss, and the audience gets really bored. They've seen this trope too many times.
But if it isn't a cliche that deadens the impact of a storyline, then it's probably confusion. One complicated storyline involves a spy from the IMF who wants to take down the Financial District, and while she's important to the story, her primary purpose onscreen seems to be giving the audience details about the Financial District and its history with her inner monologue, sometimes accompanied by a wee bit of lascivious fanservice. The details pile on about her mission and the District, and it isn't long before it becomes difficult to put all the details together into a comprehensible threat and her motivation for wanting to see the District destroyed is obscured.
Broadly, the problem with C is that it populates a fascinating world with cliches. Hell, the core reason for C's great economic disaster in its climax is because one character wanted to protect his sick little sister, even if it meant sacrificing the rest of the world in the process. C is intellectually fascinating, but emotionally empty. In art and entertainment, familiarity can and should cause contempt. It's certainly a source of disappointment here, especially since, sometimes, you get a glimpse of a more relatable story. The reason Kimimaro became an Entre, for example, was perfect for any young college boy. Or quiet moments like when an Entre has to deal with the consequences of having his future taken from him, and contemplates suicide. It's like a building with lovely architecture but a weak foundation.
As for What It All Means, and one would assume that anything that was so inspired by modern economics would surely have something to say about it, it's hard to say. My best guess is that it can serve as a broad treatise against modern economics and globalism, especially the heavy reliance of large economies on their financial markets. The anime almost certainly takes a dim view of how financial markets distribute capital, but doesn't seem to offer any alternatives. Or perhaps Nakamara was simply inspired by a science that has fascinated intelligent minds for centuries, and wanted to create a fantasy world based on some of its ideas. Perhaps I don't know enough about to economics to understand this series. Perhaps I'm missing context from Japanese politics that would make things clearer. Perhaps C simply didn't do a good enough job explaining its ideas. No matter, because without a better story, this can only qualify as an interesting mess.
Has plenty of interesting ideas and visuals, but bad writing keeps the series from reaching its full potential. — Bradley Meek
Recommended Audience: Some violence, and Mashu wears a very short skirt.
Version(s) Viewed: Streaming video on funimation.com
Review Status: Full (11/11)
C: The Money and Soul of Possibility © 2011 C-Committee
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