Worse than a bad story is a good one made bad. Worse still is one screwed up by pretension. That’s Texhnolyze in a nutshell – a story with great potential made in such a pretentious and distancing fashion that you’re either bored or confused.
The story is bog-standard sf – an underground city, an exploited underclass, cyborgs. Stuff you’ve seen a million times and will see again because it satisfies. The first episode (which has no dialogue for the first fifteen minutes) is intriguing because it shows everything I’ve told you without revealing it. We are given the genre foils from within. Texnolyze starts better than most anime. But right from the start, problems arise. Ichise, our hero, is some sort of brawler. After a fight, he’s given a prostitute. In media coitus, she jams a fingernail into his eye. Or it looks that way. In later scenes, his eye is not hurt, and I guess he punched the hooker, but that’s not very clear either. We know that his arm and leg are chopped off in retaliation. Eventually, they’re replaced with mechanical, Texhnolyze parts.
From here, Texnolyze doesn’t know what story it’s telling. Rather than have individual arcs that build to a larger, more coherent story, Texhnolyze seems to start over and over. First it’s about Ichise struggling for life. Then it’s about the city’s factions warring with each other, instigated by an outsider. Then it’s about texhnolyzation as the next step in human evolution – then the revelations of the overclass – then the prophet girl who runs the city.
Texhnolyze isn’t as complex as the narrative warrants. The routine narrative device is to show us something (say, Ichise killing a man in a bar), and then explain it to death. You don’t get the pay-off retroactively, and if we’re told in a linear fashion about Ichise (to make us believe it happened before the story made it necessary), there could have been some resonance to his action. But no such resonance exists.
What makes this both disappointing and (perhaps) inevitable is the show’s pedigree. Chiaki Konaka wrote the story, and the character designs are by Yoshitoshi Abe. They collaborated on one of my favorite shows, Serial Experiments: Lain. There, obfuscation and confusion were the name of the game too, but they were central to the story and mood. Lain is complex, requiring a complex narrative – subtext and text are inversed, and the resulting confusion is the point. By comparison, Texhnolyze is simpler, more Manichean. It has much more of a direct antecedent in sf. Gussying up a confused narrative doesn’t make it better, because it needs clarity for impact.
Did Konaka miss the point of the genre elements? A genre exists to set up the expectations of the audience, and the strongest expectation in sf is to be shown something new. For a filmmaker, this is a great opportunity to confirm or surprise – as long as he gets a fix on the material. The danger with sf is that metaphor and reality are not delineated strongly. Literalness has to be in place, so that we know how to react. When the hooker sticks her nail in Ichise’s eye, we think it happens. When it appears to be some sort of symbol, metaphor or non-occurrence, the whole series is thrown into doubt. For Lain, that was the point, because the show was based on the idea of a fluid, non-set reality. Texhnolyze is not (the story means nothing with that kind of fluidity). Pretending so undermines it.
I understand Texhnolyze. I know the story, and I kind of like it. But it cheats our emotions by refusing to explain a world in which we have no experience. Had we any sort of expectation as to what might happen, the last episodes would be mesmerizing and powerful. Instead, because there’s no foundation on which to base our interpretation of what is happening, the things on screen have no meaning. A tale told by an idiot, someone who doesn’t understand (or respect) the genre in which he works.