Ambition and personality can often build up the most impressive narratives, but they can’t sustain them for long without help. That… actually sums up my feelings on UN-GO pretty nicely. But this wouldn’t be much of a post if I just left it at that without giving my reasoning, so here’re the rest of my thoughts on UN-GO.
From the start, UN-GO was a series laden with problems. It had that curious noitaminA problem of trying to fit a tome’s worth of content (We’re talking around the length of The Stand) into a single cour, doing an admirable job at developing things until one final plotline threw all that careful planning out the window in order to wrap the series up in a characteristically unsatisfying way. While the last arc was wonderfully written and a far cry from wasp cyclones, I hardly felt attached to any of the events, something that points toward a decided failure.
Even though the length is its biggest handicap, it could have easily been worked around if the characters had personalities and conflicts to make the show interesting. Usagi Drop’s a perfect example of a show that did wonderful things with its restraints, even if it was adapted from, rather than based off of a previously established story. So while it could have been much longer and allowed us to immerse ourselves in the vaguely dystopic world of post-terrorist attack Japan, it had bigger issues with giving the audience a reason to form an attachment to the characters and conflicts presented.
Much like the rest of the world around him, we’re left watching from a distance as Shinjuurou reasons and deducts his way through the cases presented, and our attachment to him doesn’t grow any closer.
Despite presenting various interesting cases (Including one involving previously illegalized androids and a murder case vaguely reminiscent of I, Robot), there’s hardly anything left to the imagination as the events are regaled with the help of Shinjuurou’s ever-present explanations. It’s not a hallmark of a great mystery series when everything is explained to you right away, leaving nothing to think about.
This issue persists for the entire series, but lets up just enough to let the second half, which could have been directed by the late great Satoshi Kon with how much it integrated the supernatural and the psychological into one strange amalgamation over the course of two arcs. It’s this second half that convinced me UN-GO had something up its sleeve, but just as I was getting engrossed it pulled me right out of the action in time to close up shop. And thus I came out of it unsatisfied and slightly bitter, wondering just what the hell happened.
Aside from the last two mysteries, nothing is really strong enough on its own, each disparate element clashing with another as I’m left with question after question regarding some issue that should have been resolved or at least brought up several episodes earlier. However, if there’s one area where UN-GO shines above its competition, it’s in setting the mood. Despite each case not being amazing on its own, it all adds up to a surprisingly fleshed out setting, painting the world of post-terrorist attack Japan as one that’s still recovering. From the android boom several years earlier to a mysteriously banned wartime song, the elements that lead up to each of the show’s mysteries prove much more fascinating than the mysteries themselves. This mood is helped by stylized animation and a soundtrack that fits like a glove, making it by far one of the most fully realized settings that’s ever come about in an eleven episode series.
However, there were still several questions that I felt would be answered, but were instead only given knowing nods toward and never brought up again. What is Inga’s significance, aside from being a Get Out of Jail Free Card for Shinjuurou? Why the sudden bent toward the supernatural when the science fiction setting was being so deftly established? Why everything else?
My experience with UN-GO wasn’t always the best. There were some weeks, especially early on when the series was just finding its niche, where I wanted to drop it. Hell, I often scheduled it just after each weekly episode of Penguindrum so I’d be able to ride that high long enough to get through the drudgery of science fiction mysteries.
In the end, UN-GO was the best kind of failure. It tried to be something fresh and different and it very nearly succeeded at what it set out to do, even if none of the elements came together into anything spectacular. If it ran at around twice the length, it would have easily been one of the best shows of the year. Sadly, it was a high concept that was let down by too little room to work its magic in, and that’s how I’ll remember it: Not going out with a blaze of glory, but with a squelch that attempted class. That, and a pretty cool ED.