It's the future and Kurumi, Saki and Karinka are living together in a quiet apartment with their bespectacled landlady, Excelia. They seem to have only each other... until one day Kurumi comes home with a story of having met a man. She likes him. Unfortunately there's a complication or two.
My completism made it inevitable that I would buy the last bit of Steel Angel Kurumi anime I hadn't seen, but I was nervous. The previous three series had been lovingly released for Western audiences in an extra-laden seven-disc set, but Zero for some reason had been overlooked. Why? Was it rubbish? It's not as if the original Kurumi series had been Citizen Kane to start with. But what the hell. It was three fifteen-minute episodes. It was staring at me from the "Used" shelf of my local Japanese video store. I bought it.
Now I know why Zero wasn't licensed, but it's not because of quality issues. It's scarcely believable that the wilfully silly Kurumi franchise spawned something like this. Saki and Kurumi get naked in episode one, but otherwise the animators make no concessions whatsoever to the established audience. There's no comedy, no gags and no fight scenes. All three episodes are set entirely in the Steel Angels' apartment, so when Kurumi goes outside we neither see nor hear from her until she returns. It's a stage play, basically. This script would be perfect for an intimate venue in the Edinburgh Festival. It even has the classic three-act structure!
The tone is serious and melancholic. Kurumi meets a man she likes, but we don't know who he is and nor does she. That's exactly the kind of one-line set-up that would normally produce slapstick, sentimentality and fanservice, but not here. Instead we get the pain of a girl who perhaps feels things all the more deeply because her forte isn't thinking things through. We never even meet this man, but instead see Kurumi, Karinka, Saki and Excelia spend three episodes just talking. I'm sure the established fanbase wondered what the hell they'd bought. With such an understated story, there's no opportunity to showcase Kurumi's brainless energy, Saki's shy charm or Karinka's chirpy obnoxiousness. Even the title sequence has abandoned the franchise's adorable theme song for a haunting ballad.
One might reasonably ask why this story was animated. It has one location, four characters and no action scenes. There is admittedly a futuristic cityscape to look at through the window and a water motif (rain, tears, bathwater) that is occasionally exploited for some startling effects. The character designs remain faithful and the animation quality is easily up there with the original series, but at the end of the day this is a talking heads story in one limited setting. It looks fantastic, considering. However that's a big "considering".
Personally I thought this was fascinating. It took a shallow, silly cast and built a serious drama out of them. It's emotional and moving. For the first time I even thought the fifteen-minute episode format worked, giving the show a natural three-act structure but never outstaying its welcome. Admittedly it's probably best viewed as a stand-alone drama rather than as the conclusion of the franchise. It would be inappropriate to end such a fluffy, lightweight series on such a sombre note. I can see completely why lots of Kurumi fans have slammed this as lifeless and downbeat, but I'm delighted that I bought it.