By the 21st century, humanoid aliens of unknown origin have arrived on Earth and live among humans, although by this point in time, everybody is pretty much used to it. In sleepy Enohana, the penniless cram-school student Chigasaki Mayuko finds herself living together with Niea, a low-caste ("Under Seven") alien stigmatized for lacking the electromagnetic antenna most others of her kind possess. While Mayuko and the other tenants of the run-down bathhouse she lives in struggle to make ends meet, Niea appears to be blissfully and infuriatingly unconcerned with serious life. As the odd couple throws off the expected sparks, other aliens vainly push for reforms, the bathhouse staff find perpetually more outlandish ways to save money, and the wrecked alien mothership looms in the background.
(Adapted from Anime News Network's Synopsis)
How a show as good as this one was ever lost to obscurity, I will never comprehend.
NieA_7, arguably the least-known of the various Yoshitoshi Abe shows, succeeds exactly at what many, many shows clumsily fail at, namely the attempt to mix the humorous and the serious. Whereas many others simply make an incoherent and inconsistent mess out of the mixture, this series uses the different tones to complement each other and yet always stays tied together by a clear, distinctive, and unbreakable sense of self. NieA_7 is both one of the funniest and most subtly poignant anime I've ever encountered, and the fact that it has been shoved so far to the side is, in my opinion, a terrible shame.
A show's success often rests on the strength of its characters, and indeed, NieA_7's greatest achievement is its boundlessly lively and likable cast. I always took joy in watching Niea's antics and the interplay between her and the sharply more serious Mayuko, and the two are the perfect pair of comic foils. It's pretty obvious that the freeloading, hyperactive, endlessly voracious, and impulsive Niea and the perpetually penniless, overworked, unhappy, and anxious Mayuko would make a bad match, and the show both made me collapse from laughter at Niea's silliness, particularly her building of semi-functional spacecraft (with emphasis on 'semi'), and empathize with Mayuko and her frustrated state. The series, however, takes several extra steps in terms of their development, and I give it the highest praise I can because of this. Their purely comic relationship evolves into more of one between two frustrated friends, with Mayuko's academic, social, family, and monetary stress driving her to snap and Niea's apparently seamless comic facade showing cracks both at the sight of Mayuko's deep pain and at her sometimes unkind behavior. Indeed, Mayuko, who at first appears to be the show's 'straight man', becomes the main focus of the second half, and the most satisfying part of the series is the point where, just as her anxiety becomes almost unbearable and even irritating to watch, she begins to smile more, her default nervous expression giving way to a more serene one. The two even experience a temporary personality switch of sorts, with Niea having some dark moments and Mayuko's usual stoic politeness giving way to both outright meanness in calling Niea derogatory names, which she herself begins to feel ashamed of, and becoming happier and more social as a person. The show completes nobody's transformation, and yet it leaves us at a place where we know that we can let each person off on her own having seen that they are on the right track.
NieA_7 doesn't skimp on its secondary characters, either, and while the short running time takes screen time away from some, there's hardly a single person who doesn't feel fully fleshed-out. There's the long-suffering but devoted bathhouse manager Kotomi, the closest thing Mayu has to a confidante, and Yoshioka, the kind but pyromaniac boiler man whose expeditions (together with Mayu and Niea) into 'alien' territory to find cheap fuel for the bathhouse prove to be comic gold. We find an otaku-personality turned alien-enthusiast in Mayu's energetic friend Chiaki, a clueless but somehow admirable single-father entrepreneur named Shuhei and his much-more level headed daughter Chie, and then Genzo. And in spite of his short screen time, I just have to give a shout-out to him. He is, simply, up there as one of the most likeable teenage boys in anime, and I say this as one who often finds the standard personality of awkward politeness to be annoying. An enormous, reserved, but kind-hearted childhood friend of Mayu's, he's arguably the only person in the series for whom her presence, and her presence alone, serves any importance, and while it's clear that he has some of the same inhibitions she does, if manifested differently, he eventually serves as the spark that allows Mayuko to change. In a moment that would usually call for comic fan-service drivel, he, upon entering the woman's bath by mistake, merely says 'excuse me. I was looking for Mayuko' with no change in expression even as the customers hurl insults and physical objects at him, and if there's a scene that speaks 'good man' more than that, I don't know what it is. And while nobody's character arc 'completes', meaning that no couples form, nobody moves out, and Mayu and Chiaki never take their exams onscreen, everybody has depth, and the show is basically a window into an arbitrary time period in the lives of several lovely but flawed people. And I don't mean this as a bad thing -- if every American 'sitcom' were this charming, I would probably watch more American television than I do. In fact, the show's only failings come with it's two most gimmicky characters, a hypocritical alien 'activist' who is the closest this show can come to having a tsundere, and another alien masquerading as an Indian convenience store owner, but although they (and the jokes surrounding them) soon become annoying, the show thankfully never lingers on them long enough for them to ruin anything.
The most surprising thing about NieA_7 is how unconcerned it seems with its own science fiction backdrop and the origins of the aliens themselves. As indicated, it begins as a situational comedy, and really, words will probably fail to express the degree of gut-wrenching laughter I experienced while watching this series. NieA_7, however, experiences a shift to a more serious tone about two-thirds of the way through, and while I wasn't initially sold on the change, the show eventually reconciled the two segments so well that I came away feeling entirely satisfied. It does not, however, give us anything on the origin of the aliens, the status of their homeworld, or the exact nature of their arrival, and what little we see of the things that they have brought with them (namely the relict that was their mothership and some extraterrestrial carnivorous plants) gets very little time to itself. At this point in time, the aliens are just there , and it bears many similarities to the relationship between the humans and the Haibane in Haibane Renmei in this regard. Just as in that show, the aliens and humans mostly live apart, but the humans don't seem to mind the alien presence, and the outlying Chiaki notwithstanding, very few of them seem to care anymore. The show, in fact, tells us that the aliens treat each other like crap more than anything else, giving us light but tangible hints that their class system is as rigid and inescapable as the Indian Class system and that high class aliens, even children and those that claim to seek 'betterment' for their race, universally look down upon 'no-antennae' like Niea. This potentially heavy-handed social critique doesn't overwhelm the series, and in my opinion it gains quite a bit by lightly touching upon it, with Mayu growing noticeably as she becomes aware of it. But although it nicely complements the show's outward lightheartedness, it isn't the point, and the show thankfully never becomes so wrapped up in it that it forgets everything else. Indeed, NieA_7, at heart, is a simple but lovely story rather than a grandiose tale, and while this may turn off some potential viewers, I personally found its lighthearted deconstruction of the endlessly-trod 'alien landing' tale to be quite refreshing.
The technical aspects of the show are exemplary, with Yoshitoshi Abe turning out a host of lovingly-rendered designs and background paintings that make this show look like none other (bar his other works, of course). This time around, however, the humorous nature allows him to stretch himself with distortions, comic surrealism, and exaggerated facial gestures, and he and the other artists are as fantastic at this as they are at creating the summer evenings and gorgeously realistic sunsets. The animation is solid, and from all I've heard about this being a low-budget production, it never once falters, indicating that the creators had a good sense of putting money where it was needed (although the lack of action scenes probably helped as well). I was always enamored with the music, a combination of guitar and lightly orchestrated pieces, and the subtly psychedelic and raspy opening theme and the steel-drum laced folk closer fit the atmosphere perfectly. Combining these aspects with excellent writing and superb voice acting (with Niea's seiyu taking the cake), we have a show that has as much for the eyes and ears to revel in as it has humor to give.
NieA_7 is simply one of the most likable anime I know of. I'm surprised that not even a gimmicky 'from the creators of Serial Experiments Lain' hook could save this show from obscurity, because it deserves all of the attention it can get. It succeeds with a combination that many shows utterly bungle and packs in more development and humor in thirteen episodes than most shows do in twenty-six. Do yourself a favor and try this series. You, like Mayuko, may come out of it feeling the slightest bit happier as a person. I certainly did.
Perhaps remove a star if this show it too quiet for your tastes, or if the combination doesn't quite suit you. It suited me perfectly. — Nick Browne
Recommended Audience: Other than the fact that most of this takes place in a bathhouse, and a couple of characters get tasted by man-eating flowers, this series is pretty tame. In spite of the setting, there is no fanservice, and the only remotely objectionable humor involves one bawdy joke related to sodomy and another regarding marijuana use. Many of the themes, however, will fly over the heads of very young children.
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD (Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (13/13)
NieA_7 © 2000 yoshitoshi ABe / NieA Project
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