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Under the Dog (2016)

Hana Togetsu appears to be your typical 17 year old high-school transfer student.  Or at least she was until you see her with a gun in the toilets.  Meanwhile two girls on the roof of a building, one a spotter the other a sniper, are discussing and describing people as either "black" and "white" (and how cute they are) prior to what can only be described as an "hit".  During lunch at school Hana hears a voice in her ear telling her something is going down, she needs to find the target and get him to safety.  She grabs Shunichi Nanase and her mission is to keep him safe.  Welcome to the world of Under the Dog.

The Under the Dog Kickstarter was launched on 8 August 2014 and successfully met its funding goals to create an original animation 30 minutes in length.  For me, its main selling point was that it was being directed by Masahiro Ando who had previously directed the action extravaganza Sword of the Stranger.  It is a science-fiction thiller from the mind of Jirō Ishii who originally conceived of the idea in the 1990s as a TV series.

On 1 August 2016 the kick-started anime production Under the Dog was released to its backers as a digital download. Those of us who backed it, based on a cool trailer and an idea, have been waiting 2 years for the final output. Has it been with the wait? Does it live up to expectations? Is it decent animation?

With regards the plot and storyline the lead in paragraph above is a reasonable synopsis of the opening act.  To go into more detail would really spoil it.  It has a great set-up which I would expect from the director of this production.  It drops you right in the middle of "something" which is described in sufficient detail on the Under the Dog website.  Apart from the trailer and some of the design work I saw in the project updates I went into this episode cold, knowing nothing about the context and background.  When reading it afterwards it provided something extra around what I had seen and on a second viewing the extra information really didn't make much difference.

The character designs are pretty good.  Each of the characters fighting against this unseen enemy (the Flowers) is distinct but you can definitely see that Anthea (above) is the main one who also happens to look the coolest.  That said Togetsu, who we spend most of our time with had a nice clean, unassuming design.  She looked like a typical girl.  I really liked that she and the other female characters were not sexualised in any way, by which I mean they were not there to be ogled over.  This could easily have gone down a fan-service route as other shows might have but it stayed the course delivering well constructed, well-designed characters who actually felt the impact of what they were doing.

The backgrounds and structures look good.  There is a lot of detail to take in from ongoing construction, reflections and the general cityscape.  The skies are luscious too.  The houses are well realised and the high-tech school is believable as something that could exist.  All of this creates a great world for the characters to inhabit.  The interactions with this world felt real and had weight.  My usual issue with ground-based vehicles was present but it was over so fast that it had minimal impact.  (I think I also am always looking for it which I should really stop doing.)

There is a phenomenal amount of detail on the mechanical designs.  A lot of attention has been paid to the guns and military hardware.  Quite a lot of time has been spent on developing the equipment Anthea and the other Flowers use.  The bike in the trailer is pretty cool and her "flying machine" in this episode is cool.  Its design very much reflects its purpose.  Of course there is are futuristic designs for weapons but they are so simple in their appearance that you see them but they never detract from what else is happening on-screen.

It is all well and good to talk about the components of the show (or any show for that matter) but what was the impact?  What kind of response did it create?  Did I enjoy it?  Once I had got over the initial excitement of its release there was a definite sense of "wow, it looks *good*".  Everything seemed to fit and work together.  The build into the story is paced well.  There is no exposition dump, information and details emerge as they are needed for the other characters.  It just drops you into the action, no explanation as to why a family might act strange or why there is a school-girl with a sniper rifle, another with a pistol and discussions of "black" and "white" that result in life or death.  It just expects you to get on board and go with it.  I felt that the interactions of the two main characters in this episode, Shunichi and Togetsu (the Flower), were believable.  There is both hope and uncertainty in their relationship.

When the action kicks off, my word does it go for it.  Then Anthea turns up and it goes up another notch.  There is a sense of urgency, of lives hanging in the balance and as a result it, whatever is going on, has a purpose.  By the end it all made sense even though I had a lot of questions I wanted answers to.  Yes it is fantastical but at no point did it not feel consistent and that everything belonged in that world.  It has a quality that just carries you along, it is a joy and is effortless to watch.  All in all, I want more of this and would happily show it to others, it is a great gateway into animation.

At times the episode reminded me of Gunslinger Girl, but only because of the "girls with guns" motif.  These characters seemed a bit more in control, a bit freer.  But who knows what might be going on or what could be revealed with more episodes in the future?  It evoked memories of Ghost in the Shell  and Macross Plus, two titans of anime and also two of my favourites.  The level of detail in the new mechanical designs, weapons and real world interactions (like a bullet hitting things) is what make me think of GitS.  Macross Plus has some wonderful scenes of missile release which this kind of pays homage to.  Actually, it also has a lot in common with Sword of the Stranger, Masahiro Ando's feature film.  As in that outing we are just dropped into this world with balletic combat scenes, a weight and urgency behind everything that builds into a climatic encounter.  As much as I really like these animations, at no point did I want to be watching them instead.  So Under the Dog definitely delivers.

Under the Dog definitely delivers.  I *really* enjoyed watching it.  It's an old-fashioned action-packed sci-fi story that gives you just enough information so keep up, lets you come up with what you think, and then gives you a visual spectacle.  Based on the trailer and the individuals involved I had high expectations and they were met.  The animation is smooth and fluid.  The characters appear to have had plenty of time spent on their designs, especially Anthea.  A lot has gone in to making everything sit and belong in the world created.  It reminded me of anime that I can watch anytime without me wishing I was watching them instead.  It did a wonderful thing - it left me wanting to watch more of it.  I want to see the world developed, the characters fleshed out, to see more crazy action scenes and more importantly, I want to see where this story goes (and then it might get that extra star).

UNDER THE DOG is currently only available to backers and will screen at OTAKON 2016. 

P.S.  You'll notice that the review is a bit light on images from the recent release.  Backers of Under the Dog were given access to images and obviously the animation but it was requested that we didn't spread them around.  Otherwise there was no benefit to being a backer.  If you want to see more you can find clips and other stuff at the Under the Dog site, including a more detailed description of the story.