You know the way stories like to big-up what children can do? Those stupid adults, they can’t fight off these alien monsters. Give it to the children. We’ll set up a club, or pilot a giant robot, or gain magical powers, and then we’ll show those baddies what for. Occasionally though, along comes another show that subverts that formula (apparently the word ‘subversion’ is a dirty word in anime reviewing circles, but I can’t think of a better word and making self-important nerds angry on the internet is fun so I’m going to use it anyway) and demonstrates what would actually happen if you gave a child that amount of power and responsibility. Evangelion does that with mecha. Madoka does that with magical girls. Alien 9 does that with a little girl being chosen to fight aliens.
The story is set in a world where aliens are invading, of which they’re not doing a particularly good job of because they keep sending down the equivalent of dogs and bulls instead of laser wielding elite warriors. Or maybe they have no intention of invading, since they have aliens who sit on humans heads to protect them from monsters and helpfully lick their backs for them. Alien 9 is based on a manga that wasn’t completed when the anime was made, so not an awful lot is explained about the setting.
The important part is Otani, a 12 year old girl drafted in her school’s Alien Defence Team. She only got onto the team because nobody else really wanted to, which the club supervisor points out is surprising. I mean, you get off class when aliens invade. You get an awesome pair of rollerblades and a sweet hat. OK you have to fight off aliens in who are intent on ending your life and keep exploding with green blood everywhere, but that’s OK because your hat will keep you safe with its drill tentacle things.
The set up is very much like an awesome kids show where the children join a club and beat the smelly aliens. In reality though, when faced with these scary, angry, vicious aliens, Otani is petrified. Not simply frightened, but complete deadening fear where she can’t be calm as long as she has this post. The show really does drive home how much terror she feels towards aliens, to the point that she can’t function properly as a human being.
What the show probably does best is showing her interactions with other characters and how they treat her fear. Her teammates and friends think they can help her by being supportive, but that completely underestimates the extent of her fear. There’s that truly scrawpy moment where her feelings are channelled directly into the other two’s minds (I think it was through some kind of mindshare the aliens they wear on their heads enable? As I said, not much is explained about the world in this show) and the two of them collapse on the ground in utter terror. The subsequent looks on their faces when they see Otani again show how little they understood of her fear before then.
The club supervisor’s treatment of Otani is a stark contrast to Otani’s feelings. She treats Otani as though she’ll obviously eventually get over it if you just treat her normally, poo-pooing her requests to leave the club. She keeps hold of this idea that eventually she’ll be a good enough fighter by the end of the year when they ‘need them’ (for what reason they need fighters I don’t know, probably have to read the manga for that). It leads to these scenes where you’ll have Otani in a petrified state lying in a heap on the floor as her friends scream her name, followed by the supervisor balancing her pen between her nose and her mouth, being lightly scolded by the school principal for allowing the aliens in captivity to be killed.
Alien 9 does have some obvious issues, such as the one I’ve been alluding to frequently in this post. It’s only a 4 episode OVA and it’s part of a much longer manga, so very little is explained about the world. This also means there’s relatively little development of the characters, beyond them getting even more petrified as it goes on. To be honest though, this isn’t as much as an issue at I’m making it out to be. The story is primarily about how absolutely fucking petrified Otani is, and the show does a fine job of getting that across. The rest is just set dressing.
No, my real problem with this anime is that…well, I didn’t enjoy watching it. It achieves exactly what it sets out to do in portraying this character having her life deadened by fear of a role she has been pushed into, but the experience of watching that play out isn’t enjoyable. Otani is such a wimp at everything in life that it’s difficult to feel any attachment to her. The story has no emotional highs or pay-off at the end. It’s just deadening fear the entire way through. There’s plenty of anime that are gruelling and harrowing to sit through that I absolutely love. Berserk, Infinite Ryvius, heck even the two I referenced at the start, Madoka and Evangelion. Those anime have things like narrative arcs, character progression, thrilling visuals, humour (no, really), emotional payoffs. The gruel and suffering bring about these feelings, while Alien 9 doesn’t. It doesn’t even try to because it’s so focused on the feeling of fear.
Alien 9 probably won’t make my top anime of 2001 (although that’s more a reflection of a surprising amount of quality anime in 2001). It achieves what it sets out to do. It’s definitely left an effect on me too, as proven by the fact that simply hearing the BGM when I went back to take screencaps made the hairs on the back of my neck rise. But the experience isn’t particularly enjoyable. It’s for a similar reason I don’t really have any intention in checking out the manga. As a short OVA series, it’s effective at getting that feeling across it’s supposed to be portraying, but I don’t know if I could handle any more without getting tired of it.