Title: Figure 17
Length: 12 episodes (approx 45 mins each)
MPAA Rating: PG
My Rating: 4.5/5
(Another personal 5, but the slow pacing and odd plot premise will put some people off)
Tsubasa is a chronically timid ten-year-old girl living in Tokyo alone with her father following her mother’s death. Her father decides to take a job training as a baker on a ranch in rural Hokkaido, and Tsubasa is forced to leave her friends in Tokyo behind, and struggle with starting a new school in an unfamiliar place. One night shortly after arriving, Tsubasa sees a light in the forest and goes to investigate. She finds a crashed alien spacecraft. The humanoid pilot, who has been injured, was transporting six Maguar eggs, ferocious alien monsters who have managed to escape and have now fallen to the ground around Hokkaido. As Tsubasa finds the wreck, one of these monsters attacks her, and she flees into the spacecraft. Inside, she inadvertantly comes into contact with a Ribers, which forms a protective humanoid battle-suit around her called a Figure, and together with the Figure she is able to kill the alien. When the fighting is finished, Tsubasa and the Ribers seperate, and Tsubasa finds that the Ribers has taken on a form identical to hers, a twin complete with Tsubasa’s memories but her own personality, called Hikaru. Together the girls must join together as Figure 17 to battle the remaining Maguar, while at the same time learning to navigate the ups and downs of growing up in rural Japan.
I picked up Figure 17 with a little trepidation. The cover, with two smiling little girls, looks more like the sort of Saturday morning cartoon aimed at 10-year-olds, and was I actually being a bit dodgy by watching it? The idea of schoolgirls who live normal lives by day and fight crime/aliens/demons by night has been done to death in anime and is, well, quite frankly a little fetishy sometimes too. So I meandered into the first episode ready to call it a day if things got bland, samey, or downright ecchi.
Let me say, in case you get bored and don’t read any further, that Figure 17 is a beautiful, beautiful story, and bares no resemblance to the sorts of cliches I’ve just described in the previous paragraph.
The plot is a little schizophrenic, there’s no way around that. Each episode is forty-five minutes long or thereabouts, which is a refreshing change from the normal 23-minute bursts of entertainment, which means that about three quarters of each show is dedicated to the every-day lives of Tsubasa and Hikaru as they attend school, make friends, and explore the postcard-perfect Hokkaido landscapes, while the remaining quarter is dedicated to killing bad-ass aliens. The line between the two parts is quite solid, as the girls transition from being ten-year-old twins to a somewhat creepy and very athletic female battlesuit. The show at times feels almost like two completely different genres stapled together. In fact, while the main narrative is that of the girls growing up together and the development of their relationship, the sci-fi aspect provides the underlying driver that moves the plot forward and is not simply the context to allow the story to happen in the first place. This becomes increasingly apparent as the story unfolds.
The artwork is pretty, if a little dated (2001 vintage). Figure 17 is a gently paced, slow-moving story which takes time to celebrate the Hokkaido landscape with loving water-colour-styled scenes tall mountains, quiet forests and rolling fields. As the story progresses, the seasons change, and the atmosphere that each new month brings is beautifully portrayed, sensitive and detailed. Likewise the character animation is excellent, particularly in the childhood story-arc. I like my anime ‘real’ (recognizing the stylistic approach of the artwork)- and Figure 17 has some of the most realistic characterisation I’ve seen, with faces and body-language that capture the subtleties of non-verbal communication superbly. The children in the story move and act like children, and expressions are full of believeable emotion- crucial as the story moves towards a series of relational cruxes. The action-sequences aren’t anything hugely original, but they move well and the animation is alright- though the Maguar can be a bit stilted. The aliens definitely stand out as being some of the more horrific creatures brought to the small-screen, with a creative range of disgusting features that actually bring a dark twist to what is otherwise a very gentle show.
The music is nice, if a little repetitive. There is one central theme that gets a lot of tread through much of the twins’ story and which is quite pretty, but does get overplayed. The key-change winds me up a little. The opening theme is a rocky ballad that works quite well, and the action is accompanied by a couple of quite decent tracks. The sound itself I found I liked more. In keeping with the country setting, there’s some lovely atmosphere sampling that goes on, while the juicy slurping alien sounds are as grotesque as their visual appearance. However I particularly enjoyed the voice acting (in Japanese), as both Tsubasa and Hikaru have their own very distinct voices which do an excellent job of portraying their characters. Supporting characters, of which there are a good number, are also well voiced, and I found the dialogue natural and smooth-flowing.
It’s the story’s gentle charm, however, that is makes Figure 17 something special in my books. While I picked this up with the expectation of finding some good alien battle scenes, once I got stuck in, I found myself enjoying the girls’ lives far more than the obligatory Maguar-slaughter at the end of each episode. Tsubasa and Hikaru are, simply put, two of the most endearing little characters ever put to brush and inkwell. While Tsubasa’s chronic insecurity can get a little frustrating on occasion, for the most part her sweet nature and believable character balance this out. By contrast, Hikaru’s confident can-do attitude and her selfless love for her ‘sister’ makes her an all-out star and competes with Noir’s Kirika for my all-time-favourite anime character.
Yeah, I sound like a geek, I know. But you really get drawn into these things.
The joy of this show for me was watching how cleverly and subtley the show’s production team wove together a story that genuinely reflected the life of these children as they grow up. A huge amount of the plot revolves around the girls’ year-four classroom, and although paced very slowly, you are sucked right into the place and get immediately involved. The relationship the girls have with their classmates, and the increasing complexity of their own interactions as they begin to mature, are meaningful, realistic, and full of nostalgia and poignance. This is a sweet, gentle show in many aspects, but at no point does it ever become sickly or sugary, and for walking this line the writers have my respect.
Although it sounds like a children’s series, in fact I think Figure 17 is more sophisticated than that. It sits in a niche that I don’t really know what to name, nor do I really know who the intended audience is. The alien-oriented action-sequences will be a turn-off to many viewers looking for a gentle childhood story and would also be quite scary for younger kids, while the slow-paced tale of the girls’ daily lives will bore many teenagers and lovers of the action/adventure genres. The emotions that the show deals with- including issues of death, insecurity, seperation and loneliness- are all serious, while the tremendous sense of nostalgia and poignancy that haunts the second half of the series, and the growing sense of malaise, would well be lost on younger, less attentive viewers. While there is some gentle humour in the series, it’s really just the sort of quiet chuckle elicited from watching the characters interact, and not based on running jokes, visual gags, or characters who fly off the handle with temper-tantrums.
To be a fair reviewer, I do need to touch on the show’s weaknesses, none of which took away from any of my enjoyment, but which others may find more unforgivable. The series is very, very slow (you may have picked this up already), and while I enjoyed the 45-minute episodes for the time they let me spend getting to know the characters, if this isn’t your thing then you’ll be fidgetty very quickly. A couple of episodes on the first disc do tend to drag just a little bit before the characters and their relationships get into stride. Some people complain about the extreme natures of the two protagonists- Tsubasa’s seeming inability to grow a spine, and Hikaru’s insufferable optimism (including a very bold speaking voice which apparently annoys some). The sci-fi aspect of the plot itself definitely has some holes, and some very convenient ’fixes’ that wouldn’t fly in any real sci-fi show (did we maybe overuse the mind-control cop-out one too many times…?), so if you’re a fan of that genre you may find Figure 17 frustrating unless you can accept that this aspect is really there to allow the plot to keep unfolding.
Ultimately, what makes Figure 17 something special for me is the way in which the artists have brought Tsubasa and Hikaru to life, with genuine thoughtfulness and emotion. The love that they develop for one another is deeply touching and so well animated- the crew have really given these characters soul, and if you’re the emotional type, then you’ll need a box of tissues handy on more than one occasion. Heck, I’m not the emotional type, but a few episodes of this show even left me feeling pretty drained. But please don’t tell anyone…
I loved this anime. If you’re looking for a touching story with believable, lovable characters, attractive artwork and an engaging narrative, Figure 17 hits the mark as a truly beautiful piece of animated fiction, right down to the final scene. It’s warm, has heart, and manages to be sweet without ever crossing that bubblegum line into cutedom. The story is very slowly told over the twelve 45-minute episodes, so don’t expect to be rivetted to your seat by action. Nor is this a sci-fi tale in the true sense of the word, rather this is about two little girls becoming friends. It’s tender, it’ll tug at your heartstrings, and if you don’t break a tear at this one, you clearly have no soul. This rates right up at the very top of my list of good things I’ve watched, whether anime or live-action, and if the pitch appeals to you, please watch it.
Figure 17 is for the most part very gentle, but the alien-monster scenes are actually quite gross and definitely scary for youngsters, hence the PG rating. There’s not much [human] gore (though the Figures do take quite a beating sometimes), but the sound-effects and visuals accompanying alien demise can be quite, erm, messy, and there are definitely moments of light horror, especially when you remember that our protagonists are ten-year-old girls. There’s no bad language and no sexuality (they’re primary-school kids, people), and when Figure 17 isn’t chopping aliens into bantha fodder, it’s sweet and entirely unoffensive. That said, the show deals with subject-matter such as the death of parents and children, and there are some very emotional scenes that youngsters may find upsetting, or will simply not enjoy.