I remember a few years ago seeing artwork from Gonzo's Shangri-la. It was a gorgeous depiction of a young girl with a giant futuristic boomerang and it instantly grabbed my attention. I identified the design as Range Murata, an artist whom I love, and vowed to check out the series one day. Purposefully I didn't read reviews, check opinions, or even find a summary about the show. I wanted to enter it blindly because I felt that if Murata and Gonzo were on a project together it would be something I would inherently enjoy. Boy, was I wrong.
Shangri-la presents a somewhat interesting premise. The world's economy has shifted from stock market exchange and trade and commerce to a carbon emissions index. It's a bizarre setting as countries, cities, and towns reduce their carbon footprint in order to lay low under the military's radar. As a result technology is not pervasive, though it's quite advanced. Another byproduct is an abundance of greenery. Forests have overgrown countries and whole cities have been swallowed up by plant life. In fact some of the plants are poisonous and product noxious fumes that prevent people from entering without special gear.
Taking place in Japan, the denizens of Tokyo live in two distinctly different places. There's a massive, and I mean MASSIVE, citadel named Atlas that has been created miles above and around the jungle growth. This is where the higher up in the food chain population lives, and it can hold only a limited amount of people, so very few are allowed to reside there. On the outside looking in are the poor schlubs making due trying to scrape by and not starve to death, attempting to stave off the impeding poisonous plants, and working as slave labor for the construction of Atlas.
In addition to this setting there's also quite a bit of mysticism. There are people with strange powers, people with artifacts with seemingly magical properties, and the moon and sun seem to work in unison with these beings. Add to that a pervasive sense of history in the world that's never adequately explained and you have a mystery wrapped in an enigma and peppered with illusion. You can never put your finger on what's going on and it doesn't stop there. The show never nails down when it takes place and it doesn't satisfactorily cover why things are the way they are. It just is what it is and if you don't accept it, then tough noogies.
It's in this cluster-frak of a world that we're introduced to Kuniko, a pink-haired peppy young girl with a sweet boomerang. She's recently released from prison for a crime (it's revealed later in the show what the crime was and it's mildly important to the kind of person she is) and eventually makes her way home to Duomo in the ruins of Tokyo. There she finds that in two years her town hasn't changed much. Her transsexual friend, Momoko (hilarious voiced in English by Kent), Nagiko her grandmother, and rough and tumble leader of a rebellion known as Metal Age, Takehiko, all welcome her with open arms. A slew of other characters come into play as well with other people from Duomo and Atlas clouding the roster.
The first part of the show really tries to cram way to freaking much into the twelve episodes. All this bizarre stuff keeps happening in Atlas and it's clear that everyone in the city has more than a few screws loose. Metal Age continues to strike against the city in some ways, and there's a little back and forth that winds up putting Kuniko square in the middle, where she displays her can-do attitude and willingness to stick it to the man. It's also revealed that she's someone known as the "Sun", which is a person of importance, and eventually she comes close to the "Moon", and the "Land".
To be quite honest, the whole narrative is a mess. Shangri-la can't decide what it wants to be. From what I understand the source material, a novel by Eiichi Ikegami, encompassed all of these elements, but something was lost in translation. I enjoyed the series for the characters and their fun interactions and development as the show went on. I got a headache whenever I tried to wrap my mind around all the quirks, innuendoes, and references that made absolutely no sense whatsoever.
You want to push a green message? Fine. You want to throw in mysticism and supernatural powers? Okay. You want to throw in class warfare and rebellion as well? Sure! Just do it in a way that takes the viewer along and doesn't just let them pick up the pieces as you go. Things start to fall into place as the episodes progress but it's all left to extrapolation. Toss in some pacing issues and seemingly pointless dialogue from episode to episode and you have a bloated disorganized mess that lacks direction. If the series just got to the heart of the matter and adequately explained things it would have been much better, but the fact is it didn't and what's left is a collection of ideas that never becomes cohesive.
Shangri-la is presented on DVD with 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio. The show looks good, but it's not exactly a top of the line presentation. The animation is clean and solid overall, displaying Murata's designs in good form and only occasionally skimping on the production values. Lines are strong, colors are bold, and contrast is noteworthy in this series. There are compression artifacts in the transfer and many scenes have a fair amount of noise worked into them, though it's not too distracting. A blu-ray up-conversion may have spruced up some of the quality and cleaned it up a little, but for what it's worth the DVD presentation is solid. It just doesn't product a "wow" factor.
Japanese 2.0 stereo and English 5.1 surround are the mixes that you get with this series. In both cases the audio is presented well and on par with expectations. There's never any drop out or distortion, presence on the soundstage is solid all around, and fidelity is good. The Japanese track is worth watching, but the English dub is actually the better of the two in terms of language, at least in my opinion. FUNimation's cast really outdid themselves with bringing life to this show and it's clear they had a lot of fun with it. Great job guys!
The first part of Shangri-la comes with two audio commentary tracks (one per disc), clean animations, trailers, and a promo video for "Magical Gina the Akiba Fairy", which is a reference to something in the show.
I really, REALLY wanted to like Shangri-la. All the pieces are there for it to be something special from concept to design. It's unfortunate that it's in the execution that things got muddled up. Like I said, by the time you get well into the show things start to get explained and make sense, but getting there is a struggle. I literally felt like I was trudging through episode after episode and I was getting nothing out of it other than a headache. The characters are entertaining and there's a lot of nice development, but the lack of explanations and fact that all the different facets are disjointed really leaves this one difficult to recommend. If you're a Murata fan, or are familiar with the material consider it a rental.
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