You know that a place is bleak when you’re introduced to it by way of a little girl stepping out of a two-year stay in a brutal prison like it’s no big deal. That’s how we’re welcomed to SHANGRI-LA, a recent entry into the post-apocalyptic genre from Gonzo studio. In this particular version of the future, global warming has wreaked havoc the planet, Japan has been all but destroyed, and it’s up to pink-haired Kuniko Hojo and her pals in the revolutionary outfit, Metal Age, to keep their country from sliding even further into the dark.
Metal Age’s fighters reside in Duomo, the now-overgrown remnants of a ruined Tokyo. Like the favelas of Rio, colorful paint has been splashed across otherwise pitiful dwellings in an attempt to hide the suffering within. This place is home to all those who can’t afford entry into Atlas, an affluent but corporate-controlled city nearby. And to make matters worse, financial recuperation for the people of Duomo is all but impossible, thanks to that damned cap-and-trade carbon emissions tax that is preventing them from jump-starting their economy with some good old fashioned fossil fuel!
Yes, I said “carbon emissions tax.” That loud whooshing sound you hear right now isn’t smoke billowing from a dusty chimney. Instead, what you’re hearing is all of the fun and excitement rushing out of SHANGRI-LA every time they get going on about the economy - - which is far, far too frequently to endure pleasantly.
It’s not enough that there is a child-queen living in the dark underground beneath Atlas who has the power to tell truth from lies and puts the dishonest to death with her mind. Or that a young soldier who encounters Kuniko carries a magic dagger with the power to resonate like a tuning fork and bring meteors down from the sky. No, the show cannot go on until you’ve seen yet another scene about the global economic theory behind carbon emissions trading.
With several interesting plotlines happening in this series at once, it’s unfortunate that they all rely on such a boring mechanism as cap-and-trade to keep them moving. But in SHANGRI-LA’s brand of pollution-ravaged near future, economics rule everything, and the only market that matters is emissions.
Enter Karin, a computer prodigy who controls a wonderful little program named Medusa. Taking the form of a virtual serpent, Medusa travels the emissions exchange, sniffing out weak portfolios and devouring them with dishonorable (but legal) trade practices.
Serpents aren’t usually known for their trustworthiness, and Karin is just a short-sighted little girl, so you get a pretty good idea early on what SHANGRI-LA thinks about modern capitalism (hint: it’s dangerous!). And this kind of commentary is not unwelcome; surely, there is a lot to be said about the disastrous potential of an anonymous global market operating at the whim of faulty automated trading systems.
However, these huge concepts are just set dressing, and are never explored to their full potential. Rather, the entire global warming/carbon emissions concept feels like nothing more than an attempt to make this show “current” - - an achievement undone by the simple passing of time since it originally aired.
Thankfully, SHANGRI-LA sings when it comes to production quality, and the combined merits of its art design, characters, and humor will be enough to push some viewers through the unfortunate market metaphors. The show is a pleasure to look at, and the characters are each drawn uniquely and animated smoothly.
There are fun adventures to be had, as the good guys try to break into Atlas and bring the system down from within, discovering quite the blood-soaked conspiracy along the way. Among Kuniko’s gang is a whip-wielding transsexual named Momoko and an enthusiastic rebel named Takehito (both of whom provide top-notch banter and have heroics to spare) and Kuniko herself survives the cliched role of selfless hero though sheer lovable enthusiasm (a la Naruto Uzumaki).
I only wish I were as happy to be in SHANGRI-LA as she was.
Alexei Bochenek is a lifelong tech nerd and film buff based in Los Angeles. He writes for various online publications and edits the Los Angeles events website LALookout.com. Follow his Twitter: @alexeigb.