Secret Santa Project – Figure 17 Review

In spite of only needing to watch and review a single title for the Secret Santa Project, the chance of discovering excellence a second time after Noein convinced me to squeeze a second series in. I chose Noein because it’s staff later did one of my favorite anime, Birdy the Mighty Decode, but I lacked such a clear indicator for the second choice. On one hand I had an anime called Figure 17 – which I’ve never heard of – and on the other was an anime called Simoun – which I remember hearing some positive buzz for. I decided that picking Simoun wasn’t in the spirit of the Secret Santa Project and went with the older and unknown Figure 17 as my second pick.

I popped the first episode in and I thought …

… Wikipedia must be wrong; this is a much older series then a mere 10 years old.

A few months ago I wouldn’t let this bother me and would continue watching but recently I’ve been trying to delve deeper into understanding the influence of the staff on an anime and I couldn’t wait for the end of episode 1. So, I stopped the episode and started reading up on staff and the production.

I won’t bore those reading with everything I found but there were a few things that I found genuinely interesting.

The director of Figure 17, Naohito Takahashi, had previously directed Berserk and been relatively busy in the 90’s but after Figure 17 the only thing he’s directed was Agatha Christie’s Great Detectives Poirot and Marple in 2004. I don’t know if the director ended up getting kicked higher up into producing or eventually decided to retire or what. Whichever it is, I find it a shame that’s not more recent anime series that he directed. And it reminded me that I should finally get around to watching Berserk before the new movies come out.

Then there was the case of one of the little animation studios that had the in-between animation farmed out to it. It’s name probably meant nothing to even the more hardcore anime fan back in 2001 though in a mere five years after Figure 17 even the most noobish anime fan knew the name of Kyoto Animation with the release of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. With just in-between animation there’s probably no indelible mark that fingerprints their work in Figure 17 but I wonder: did KyoAni do a good job? did this job help convince producers that they could be trusted with animating a series themselves? was there any lasting influence on the animators of KyoAni after working on this project? Maybe if I had the Japanese language competency I’d go all old-fashioned and write them a letter asking this.

A look of  the voice actors and actresses revealed the now very famous Rie Kugimiya voiced a minor character in Figure 17. At the time of Figure 17 she was just starting out as a voice actress and was still 4 years away from the role that would define and immortalize her (as much as anyone can be immortalized in the ever-changing world of anime fandom). The role was, of course, Shana the red-haired hunter. Nowadays she often gets typecasted voicing a Shana-clone character so I was interested to see what type of character she was voicing before Shana. In hindsight, the answer was an obvious one; she plays a loud, short-tempered, abrasive, fourth grade girl or more simply a proto-Shana role (a Shana role from before she was Shana). Once again I got to wondering if this role influenced her later career.

With my intellectual curiosity sated, I popped Figure 17 back in and started watching.

Story

Figure 17 can be broken down into three distinct storylines. The first centers on the main character Tsubasa and her coming-of-age. She starts the series as a shy, introverted girl that hasn’t handled the recent move to the northern island of Japan, Hokkaido, from Tokyo very well. Her life takes a turn when she witnesses a meteor fall near her house and goes to investigate. She walks right into the second storyline, though she doesn’t know this at first. She encounters a humanoid alien, DD, who has to collect several dangerous alien monsters that escaped his crashed star-ship. His job is made much harder because something about the Earth mutates these monsters into creatures much more deadly then he’s prepared to face. Luckily for him and humanity, our main character shows up to help.

I know what your thinking, what can a fourth grader do to help.

One of the cooler pieces of alien tech our friendly alien DD has is sentient armor suits that encase the wearer in a near indestructible shell, when needed, and stored in a handy liquid state, when not needed. Upon initialization these suits scan the wearer’s brain and creates a digital copy of that person consciousness which the suit then uses in conjunction with it’s superior reflexes and senses to augment the wearer’s combat abilities.

Tsubasa stumbles upon a spare armor suit and activates it by accident. Her being human somehow alters the sentient armor suit and the resulting Figure (which is what the person plus the armor suit is called) is much stronger then DD’s Figure (try not to chuckle too much) and she’s able to stop the alien. How altered Tsubasa’s suit is after coming into contact with a human becomes apparent when they go to separate and the suit takes on the appearance Tsubasa instead of returning into a liquid ball. This creates a problem for DD. He’s not supposed to interact with the locals yet he needs the help of  Tsubasa’s Figure and somewhere to put the suit which is now an almost exact copy of Tsubasa without raising suspicions. He decides to use his ability to erase and add memories in people to make Tsubasa’s family think he’s a friend of the family that’s staying with them and that the suit is Hikaru, twin sister of Tsubasa.

The addition of a more outgoing “twin” to Tsubasa’s life gives her the opportunity to slowly blossom into a more self-assured person that her classmates like.

The third storyline is Hokkaido itself. As opposed to so much anime that takes place in big cities, Figure 17 is set in an area of Japan so sparsely populated that it makes even Shiki and Higurashi look like they were set in urban areas. Throughout the show we see the change that the slow cycle of seasons impart on the characters, surroundings, and the story. And we get to see all four seasons because the aliens monsters present a much more insidious challenge then just the quick roundup that DD initially thought.

Thoughts and impressions

Thank you Secret Santa!

How did you know I love intelligent SF series that don’t skimp on characters and story or that that I was depressed over Steins;Gate ending with no anime this Fall season that could really replace it? Both Noein and Figure 17 were perfect picks.

There is, however, one caveat to my praise of Figure 17 that I feel I should mention. The overall 90’s look to the anime was not that difficult to get into and did not slow my enjoyment of the series but I found the character designs of the kids to be downright ugly from certain angles. The worse was the side angle which made the kids look like bullfrogs getting ready to ribbitt. Kids are almost universally cute, it’s an effective survival strategy on their part and one that should be replicated when coming up character designs unless there’s an artistic reason in not doing so. Someone should have said, “You’re doing it wrong,” and had the character designs redone.

Eventually, the shock was no longer that shocking but it took many episodes to get to that point. I want to mention this because in spite of this Figure 17 is still a very excellent anime; don’t get scared away do to this minor issue.

Past that I have nothing but praise for the show.

I most liked how the creators where able to make Figure 17 work as an alien invasion story and a coming-of-age story and a travelogue of Hokkaido and as an introspective thinking story both independently and weaved together.

To make the alien invasion compelling Figure 17 used alien monsters that could adapt and quickly evolve based on information it gathered about the Earth and how their brethren were killed. This escalated each encounter. The heroes never knew if the new weapons and strategies that they came up since the last fight would be able to defeat the latest and more deadlier monster. There were no shortcuts to victory.

To make the coming-of-age story interesting Figure 17 treated the kids as actual characters and not just as a group of cliches and tropes meant to cover all the bases in anime fandom. The result was a refreshing change of pace that helped me actually care about the characters.

To make the location relevant and engaging Figure 17 remembered to include the small things and also to effectively use it’s unorthodox format. For example, the harsh winters of Hokkaido force the people to build their houses differently then those living down south like around Tokyo and these differences, like sloped roofing so the snow slides off, get shown throughout the series. I’ve yet to mention that each episode of Figure 17 runs for a full hour (with commercials or about 45 minutes without) and was originally released once a month. This gave Figure 17 the time to feature the surrounding and do the character building and include at least one alien fight each episode. If this had been split down into 30 minute episodes the creators would have faced the decision to either try to include a fight into each episode at the cost of everything but the alien invasion scenes or to bounce between “action” episodes and “character-building” episodes and somehow keep the show feeling coherent and paced well.

To make the introspective, thinking angle not boring Figure 17 let the characters and story dictate when the viewers were meant to think about the topics presented. It didn’t try to brow beat us into contemplating the ethics of DD in forcing the family of our main character Tsubasa into believing she has a twin sister or the rights that the sentient battle suit deserves after effectively becoming a person with a lifetime of memories or any of the other questions raised because the creators know if it’s done naturally the viewers will do without a second thought. Fans of Dr. Who might have thought that the story behind the sentient battle suits was reminiscent of the recent two-part story dealing with “The Flesh” and you’d be right. However, it was handled much better here.

I could ramble on but it would probably be a case of diminishing returns at this point so I’ll close by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed Figure 17 and would definitely recommend it.

Figure 17

Final Series Score: 11.5/12 Near Perfect
Rewatchablity: 3.5/5 – Medium
Ending:
4.5/5 – Sublime
Animation: 2.5/5 – Average

This was part of Reverse Thieves’ 2011 Secret Santa Project. Go here for links to other reviews by other anime bloggers.

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3 thoughts on “Secret Santa Project – Figure 17 Review”

  1. Glad you liked it!

    How did you know I love intelligent SF series that don’t skimp on characters and story

    The Anime for the SF Fan tab at the top of the site was a big hint. 🙂 You were actually pretty easy to recommend for, I just chose the best sci-fi you hadn’t seen. And Simoun, which if you get a chance to see I think you’ll love, unless you’re thrown off by yuri.

    I ended up learning a lot from you about Figure 17 too, didn’t know anything about the cast or KyoAni’s involvement. I’m glad I could discover your blog, you should keep writing! I wanted to comment on your Last Exile post but didn’t want to reveal myself. 🙂

    And you’re right, the nose and upper lips of the characters in particular looks really strange from the side.

    Like

  2. A lot of animation studios seem to have issues with profile looks. Some of my favorite character designs look horrible when second or third hand artists attempt to do the profile of them, working off the base 2 d front portrait. I saw this in FSN the tv series when the character designs somehow seemed a lot less lively than the visual novel’s graphics. The way visual novels handle it is to keep hammering in the point that this is the “2d” world not the “3d” world (constant joke in Japan’s fan community). So when their characters turn around, the 2d image “flips” on an axis. So they don’t have profiles… It takes a particular artistic talent to be able to draw profile portraits of humans well. Most studio expertise is still on the 2d frontal look, because that’s what pays in games and visual novels.

    Like

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