Texhnolyze certainly has a reputation. The show comes courtesy of one of anime’s great creative supergroups; with a screenplay by Chiaka Konaka, character designs by Yoshitoshi ABe, and Yasuyuki Ueda on board as producer, it features the same core team that gave Serial Experiments Lain such a vivid personality. The three clearly had a strong relationship of some kind; Ueda was actually the producer who first hired ABe (they also worked together on Haibane Renmei), and Konaka and ABe were known as friends as well. Discounting the absence of Ryutaro Nakamura (who directed Serial Experiments Lain and Ghost Hound, and was intending to work on the never-released Despera with ABe and Konaka), you’ve got all the key players of one of the 00s great anime lineups.
And beyond its all-star creative team, Texhnolyze is also known to be either one of the most philosophically rich or pretentious shows in anime, depending on who you ask. This first episode makes that particularly assignation seem inevitable, given the fact that it only contains about ten lines of dialogue in twenty minutes of “action.” But even if this first episode doesn’t directly spell out basically anything, it definitely has a lot to say.
The show’s opening lays out many of the core assumptions of the aesthetic. The show features a sepia, near-grayscale palette that feels very characteristic of ABe’s works, though here it’s applied to a show with a more classic sense of “cool” than Renmei or Lain. There’s brash electronic music, dudes with guns, and vaguely threatening punk rockers fading into the static dissolve. The only reliable images seem to be two figures, an older man and younger girl, before we see the episode title: “Stranger.” So who is this stranger?
The opening minutes don’t offer many clues, but they do create an incredibly firm sense of space. Dynamic shots at strange angles employ heavy use of negative space, creating a sense of off-kilter claustrophobia. As a mysterious man trudges down a hallway, the sense of entrapment builds through these tiny windows into his movements. Progress is slow, but tension is high; natural sounds like a fan sweeping overhead or electronics humming in the background create a heavy sense of atmosphere in spite of our near-total lack of information. This world is cold, dark, and clammy, a place where humanity drags its heavy limbs through the spindling arms of ever-present machinery.
As the man washes his bloodied hand, we flash back to some kind of boxing match. Here, it’s the utter white of the background that creates a sense of uneasy emptiness, but the result is the same. The whiteness and static overlay impress upon us the vague violence of these memories, like they’re being viewed through a splitting headache. A woman approaches his current self, and whispers some secret we can’t hear. He’s being offered a deal, but at some unhappy cost.
The aggressive direction is almost overwhelming in the next scenes, as the boxer seemingly sells his body for some unknown gain. The spinning shots that defined the fight scenes are now applied equally uncomfortably to a different physical exchange. Shots make graceful but unnerving transitions using angles or sound, like a railroad’s hum shifting into a blowtorch roar. Shots of eyes are omnipresent, with another match cut from the old voyeur to the doll implying the seemingly artificial nature of many of these bodies. And the grossness of the boxer’s physical actions is emphasized through the cross-cut to another man, a new, masked figure, eating unknown mush in uncomfortable intimacy. We feel the boxer’s discomfort, and so it’s no surprise when he pushes the strange half-machine woman away.
Texhnolyze’s claustrophobia lets up for the first time in the next scene, as the boxer crosses an old man’s path out in the sunlight. We see a full shot at last, detailing a bleakly sunlit city, and the background music shifts from cold electronics to natural guitar. Smart use of multiple planes creates a real sense of depth in this world, and then the boxer is contrasted with the man in the gas mask again, as a shot of one in the water fades into the other. And then the girl in the fox mask appears.
That covers the first half of the episode, and the time up to where a character finally speaks. But even this doesn’t provide much context; we see a pair who seem clearly villainous lounging on a couch, giving orders and then being directly associated with the robotic eyes. The train gains some significance now, as a man with a sword hangs up the phone. Clearly the episode is building towards this confrontation, but that narrative rise doesn’t require words – the simple juxtaposition of the moving train and the lurching of the boxer and masked man provides all the necessary tension.
The masked man meets with the girl, and she leads him to a home that’s seemingly just come under attack. More match cuts imply the links between the three men; an ominous eye fading into a streetlamp, the falling guard landing as a discarded coat. Things move faster and faster as the attack approaches, the masked man fighting back, the boxer running for his life. Pursuers shout vague codes as the episode crescendoes, each man cornered by their attackers. The masked man aims and fires. The boxer is cut in two.
It’s all sounds and symbols and atmosphere in this first episode, but it certainly establishes a vivid world. It’s obvious why many people might not respond to this style of storytelling, but that’s very different from it actually being ineffective. This episode was a mood piece, but it was also absolutely full of information – virtually every scene told us something about either the world this takes place in, or the narrative parallels being drawn between the core characters. It’s a confident and unique thing. It’s a very strong first episode.
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