Kazuki can see dead people! No, I've got that wrong. This is anime, so actually he sees giant robots wrecking the city and pounding each other into scrap. They use apartment blocks as baseball bats. The problem is that he must be mad or hallucinating, since no one else can see these robots and the city is as it always was. Unsurprisingly Kazuki thus doesn't like to talk about it, but keeps himself sane by writing it up on a website instead.
Someone's been reading this website. She's Mitsuki Sanada, the most popular girl in school and the daughter of a mad scientist.
Dual is another sister series to Tenchi Muyo, described by its creator Masaki Kajishima as a parallel universe version. You know, since Tenchi Muyo didn't exist in enough versions already. Kajishima loves linking up all his different series, even hentai like Spaceship Agga Ruter. Dual might not appear to use any Tenchi characters, but it feels similar enough in the later episodes that fanboys have wasted much time wondering which Tenchi and Dual characters are parallel-world equivalents of each other. Personally I'd say there's a closer mapping between Dual and Tenchi Muyo GXP, to the extent of a crossover in episode 24 (Parallel) of the latter, but don't let that put you off.
No, what was worrying me was El Hazard. That's another Masaki Kajishima series from AIC with parallel universes and vague Tenchi links, but despite encouraging reviews I was seriously disappointed. Even on its good days, it's no more than shallow fun. On its bad days, ouch. Unfortunately though I'm a completist. Despite having been burned once already and reviews that made it sound formulaic, Dual was still looking dangerously like a must-buy. It was going cheap. What the hell. I slapped down my money. At least I wouldn't have any false expectations. I started watching, expecting only to explore new realms of self-plagiarism and then sell off the discs.
Boy, was I wrong. It's an impressive show in its early episodes. Admittedly thereafter it drifts downhill to a ho-hum conclusion and a tacked-on OVA episode that's downright painful, but as a giant robot show I liked it.
To address the obvious problem first, it's about parallel universes. Surprisingly this doesn't wreck the show, which instead is making genuine attempts to do things with the concept. El Hazard never really did anything with its alternate realities, which might as well have been magic doors to a fairy kingdom. Dual though gets down and dirty with the implications of sucking Kazuki into another world. He doesn't exist. No one knows him, not even his parents. They also have fun with the contrasts between mundane high school life and giant robot apocalypse. The first episode even kicks off with the divergence event that split the universes, which is cool. Note that the worker who finds the alien artefact is called Yotsuga and is thus presumably the father of our hero, his full name being Kazuki Yotsuga. The show never mentions this again, but it raises all kinds of possibilities.
Unfortunately halfway through it starts degenerating into sub-Tenchi harem bollocks. What's more, I say that as someone who likes Tenchi. Imagine it as "El Hazard meets Neon Genesis Evangelion", although of course even Evangelion was only riffing off an entire genre of giant robot anime that stomped all over the world in the 1970s. Giant robots are fun. I'm less keen on harem bollocks, especially from a cast that's less entertaining than it should be and strictly reminiscent of Kajishima's second-string shows. Kazuki is largely passive and more like El Hazard's Makoto than Tenchi Masaki, while Mitsuki's mad dad Professor Ken Sanada is basically El Hazard's Fujisawa pretending to be Evangelion's Gendo. However that's a good thing since he's the show's best character. I'm going to downplay the GXP similarities, since no show deserves that.
The result is that Dual is two shows in one. When exploring hard SF ideas, it's great. The giant robots are impressive, especially when first glimpsed against the backdrop of the real world. That's a striking image. Something's clearly going on and you want to know more, although what you don't know is that the ultimate explanations are actually a bit technobabbly and disappointing. However while we're still dealing with effects rather than causes, we see Kazuki having to cope with alienation and the stuff of paranoid fantasies. In the early days, his situation is played for real. He's stranded in another universe with no food, no money and no family. He's less real even than the dead. What's more, as a giant robot show, the opposing sides in the war are fairly evenly matched and so you honestly don't know which will win.
They also do the obvious thing that El-Hazard never did. You'll see alternate versions of the same character put in different situations, which points up the contrasts for dramatic effect.
However the harem nonsense has little to recommend it. It's not painful, but it's bland. Kazuki's lecherous schoolmates are tedious. Professor Sanada's fun, but as a father figure he doesn't get involved in sub-romantic shenanigans. I say "sub-romantic" because these are schoolchildren and thus the show doesn't even have the guts to follow through on all this attempted romance. What happened to anime's reputation for depravity, eh? The Mitsukis are one-note, Kazuki is wet and Yayoi is unnecessary, although I liked "D".
All that was my reaction to the thirteen episodes of the TV series. At that point I still thought quite well of the show. The 14th OVA episode is what really soured me on it, with the help of a puppy and love letters in Kazuki's school locker. I'd like to think I've been cured of my completist urge to hunt down the OVA sequels to an otherwise good TV series, although of course I haven't. Wow, that OVA was annoying.
Overall, it's okay. It has a stunning opening, one of the best high concepts I've seen in anime, but doesn't make the most of it. Even leaving aside the harem silliness, the giant robot stuff alone loses a lot of steam over the course of the series. Episode 13 isn't bad, but it's also not particularly good. A kick-arse climax could have turned this into something special. Nonetheless I'll be keeping my discs, since it's an inoffensive, competent time-waster with enough virtues to stop you from feeling you wasted your time with it.