It's a show I'd had at the edge of my consciousness for years. It intrigued me, but it was hard to nail down from the reviews. Some comments made me eager to watch it, others sounded offputting and none really gave me much idea of how I'd personally react to it, despite having a pretty good idea what it's about. I didn't buy the show, but I was asking other people if they had the discs.
People usually call it "NieA Under 7", by the way.
In the end, my ambivalence was well-founded. This is a deliberately quiet little anime in which nothing happens. That I don't mind, but it also lacks focus. It starts out with some fascinating themes... which it then drops for silly and slightly pointless comedy filler episodes. However halfway through it acquires a bit more depth, as you'll often get in anime, and a completely different set of themes unfold. However right through to the end, the series remains low-key, understated and happy to spend time pottering on trivialities. In fact, that's the whole point.
The plot is easy to... no, actually it doesn't really have a plot. Instead it has a situation. Mayuko is a desperately hard-up cram student, scraping a poor approximation of a living from part-time jobs as she works at her studies. She has to count her pennies to ensure that she can catch the bus home. She's not really enjoying her life, but you can't say she's not putting in the hours. However she has a problem. There's an alien living in her closet. Its name is NieA and it's an Under Seven alien with no antennae, which means it's from the lowest caste of all the aliens on Earth. There are lots of them living here, looking more or less human and trying to fit into society... except for NieA, who's a shameless freeloader who eats Mayuko's food, smashes holes in her apartment's roof and makes UFOs out of junk.
I'll divide the anime into its different stages.
STAGE ONE -- the initial theme is assimilation. For the first three episodes or so, I was fascinated. The aliens are immigrants, which of course is just as big a deal in Japan as in other countries, and they're really pushing the parallel of aliens with real-life foreigners. "You can hardly tell them from humans." "Humans make the best wives." Many aliens go so far as to pretend to have (non-Japanese) national identities, while there's a bizarre live-action bit after each episode's closing credits in which an Indian guy tells us about Indian customs in Japanese. My favourite story points involved the alien stuff and what it meant for this world. You can see their mothership from Mayuko's roof, for instance. It hasn't done anything in decades, mind you. That's simply where they all landed, which today is a huge crater that has substances oozing from the ground and a population of man-eating plants.
STAGE TWO -- themes, what themes? These are the comedy episodes, usually involving ludicrous schemes to attract more customers to the Edohana bath house where Mayuko and NieA live. These can be funny, but nonetheless episodes 5 and 6 had me reaching for the fast-forward button.
STAGE THREE -- genki-nai? This is where I need to explain the all-purpose Japanese word "genki", which means energetic, healthy, cheerful and other such positive things. What we have here is an exploration of genki and un-genki. It would be too much to say that certain people (in particular Mayuko) have depression, but genki-nai describes them perfectly. She's down. She's doing her best all the time and she's getting the results in her school grades, but her life seems pointless. What's more, this condition is affecting other people too, with the state of the economy making it hard for both the Edohana bath house and the restaurant where she works. It's not the fault of the proprietors. They're working hard. They're just not getting rewarded for it. It's as if Japan isn't genki enough either. What's more, this is being contrasted with the happy-go-lucky characters (e.g. NieA, Chiaki) who are unstoppably genki and don't seem to care that they could be working harder.
STAGE FOUR -- sayonara.
STAGE FIVE -- the thematic conclusion. It's about being happy and making the most of the time you have, especially if you know it might not last long. Mayuko reaches a kind of zen in which she can enjoy the simple things. This is a story for people in hard times. It has people who often lack self-confidence and are dealing with something that's not a million miles away from depression, but they're taking this somewhere optimistic. There are no magic solutions to everyone's problems and NieA is still a brat, but that's fine. The show's at its most entertaining when Mayuko and NieA are bickering.
It's a gentle show with a lot of charm. It has a lot of sombre tones, but it's also light and fun. It's from the team behind Serial Experiments Lain and it seems that this was their way of letting off steam afterwards with something light-hearted. It also has quite a few interesting themes, except that it doesn't want to get too intense with any of them and can sometimes be a bit random and trivial.
The art's attractive too. The style is realistic, but done with clean lines and bright, crisp colours. The painted backgrounds in particular are a pleasure to look at. The only problem is that the budget starts slipping towards the end, with scenes in which the line art is amateurish and ugly. Look out for the conversation between Mayuko and her landlady on the roof in episode 11, for instance. That was a shock. It's still basically a lovely show to look at, but I've got to knock a few points off for the penny-pinching.
Meanwhile the blues-style incidental music is pleasant, being basically just a man with a guitar. However the opening theme is being sung by someone who smokes 350 a day and has just been punched in the throat.
For me this series would see-saw between "intriguing" and "a bit pointless". Everything about it I like except the looseness of its grip on the reins. Its themes are well developed, but they're not always foregrounded and quite often instead we'll just be hanging out with its characters and/or watching comedy filler. I suppose this goes with the message of Stage Five. However I admire the gentle pace, the small-town life and the confidence of the show. It takes courage to be this relaxed. Does it work? Not always, but I'm still glad I watched it. Me, I thought it was nice. For some people, I'm sure it'll resonate much more strongly.