FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*
Over the years I've admired the many bizarre concepts that have flowed from the Japanese manga/anime empire. Whereas a lot of American SF has a reputation for being sober-sided, the Japanese have been known to bring an antic quality to their fantasies, sometimes bordering on the manic. Yet most of the time this penchant for wild humor doesn't undermine a basic respect for establishing the logical parameters within which weird things happen.
DATE A LIVE, though, is a peculiar exception. Like many modern manga/anime productions, this one had its origins in a series of "light novels," the Japanese equivalent of "young adult fiction," albeit with a lot more sexy fan-service. I don't know if the light novel series fills in any of the logic-gaps I found so prevalent in the two seasons of the DATE A LIVE anime series. Nevertheless, the anime-makers seem so blissfully unconcerned with laying out the parameters that I suspect their source-material wasn't too helpful. Both the light novel series and the anime series appear to have been monetarily successful-- though attempts to launch a manga-adaptation fell apart for various reasons-- so it may be a case of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."
The minimal setup establishes that for thirty years previous to the present, the planet Earth-- seen only from Japan's corner of it-- has suffered intermittent destructive quakes. The tremors stem from a group of otherworldly humanoids called "Spirits," who are all ravishingly hot young women. Nothing is ever revealed about the provenance of the Spirits or their world; they simply show up, flying around the skies of Earth and triggering quakes with their powers before going back wherever they came from. During those 30 years, various Earth-agencies seek to find ways to destroy or control the Spirits when they appear. An organization named Ratatoskr, named for a mythical squirrel in Norse myth, comes up with an answer: if the female Spirits can be made to fall in love with a human male, their powers will be "sealed" and the catastrophes will cease.
This idea sounds pretty ridiculous even for a Japanese "harem comedy." In this comedic subgenre, the setup must usually find some excuse to surround a young man with several ladies, all of whom compete for the male's attention. Nevertheless, even the wackiest of harem comedies still show some concern with plot and characterization, notably Ken Akamatsu's LOVE HINA, which I wrote about in this essay. DATE A LIVE sets up an absurd situation but does nothing to explore its possibilities.
Ordinary high-schooler Shido Itsuka is drafted to be the guy who has to approach one of the Spirits, without weapons and depending only on his masculine charms. Shido's not a player in the least, but his easygoing nature immediately intrigues the first Spirit he encounters. She, unlike some of the others that follow, has no name, so he gives her the name "Tokha," which refers to the date on which they met. While Shido attempts to befriend Tokha, agents of Ratatoskr speak to him via a com-link, trying to play Cyrano to Shido's Christian, counselling the young man about how to impress the Spirit-girl. This is the principal and most repetitive gimmick of the series, as the people on the other end of com-link comically debate what Shido ought to say next. Despite this dubious "help," Shido's influence "tames" Tokha, and in subsequent episodes has the same effect on other gorgeous Spirit-girls, most of whom become part of Shido's harem, even though Tokha remains pre-eminent. For good measure, a couple of Earth-girls show inordinate interest in Shido as well, and one of them-- as if to fulfill a quota for *ecchi* content-- is Shido's adoptive younger sister, Kotori.
That's pretty much the whole ball of wax here. One Spirit isn't as easily tamed as the others, and becomes the closest thing the series has to an antagonist, but her character isn't adequately developed. Sister Kotori has the greatest symbolic potential of any of the characters in the harem, especially since anime serials in the last ten years have milked the "brother-sister love" theme so thoroughly that it's almost a de facto joke in any harem-series. The Kotori subplot is complicated by the fact that when she first appears, she appears to be an ordinary, somewhat air-headed teenager. Then, with no rationalization whatever, two major revelations come down the pike. First, at some point in the past Kotori, despite being an Earth-girl, became possessed by a Spirit. She instantly began destroying things with her out-of-control power, but something happened between her and her brother Shido that 'sealed" her powers. The two of them then completely forget what happened to them, but somehow Ratatoskr finds out, after which they enlist Kotori to join their organization. Thus, the real reason Shido is enlisted to romance Spirits is because of his experience with Kotori, whatever it was. There's a vague reference to him having kissed his sister during her possession, and this transgressive act is apparently what both of them have succeeded in forgetting-- though Ratatoskr found out just enough to use the information in their "girl-taming" program.
Shido, for his part, has no interest in his sister even though he knows they're not related, so this subplot seems to be something of a non-starter, even when Kotori-- somehow no longer a ditz, but a competent paramilitary commander-- seems jealous of his Shido's other conquests. Compared to a more nuanced work like LOVE HINA, the jealousies of the harem-members are just as repetitive as Shido's guileless quasi-seductions.
I might not have written about DATE A LIVE at all, except that I had to ask myself, "Is this a combative comedy?" It's true that roughly every other episode depicts a situation in which the psychological "seal" on a Spirit-girl's powers breaks down. Then she flies around, blasting power-rays and fighting either other Spirits or military personnel. Yet these combat-scenes are usually transitory, because the raison d'etre of the series, such as it is, is that Shido's plain-spoken honesty can always soothe the termagant tendencies of teenaged drama queens.
Usually, even the looniest conceptions in Japanese anime have some enlightening psychological quirkiness worth exploring. In this regard, though, DATE A LIVE is more like "the date from hell."
ADDENDA: It belatedly occurred to me that DATE A LIVE is sort of a comedic take on NEON GENESIS EVANGELION. I can't remember if that series ever gives an explanation for the titanic "Angels" that start menacing Earth, but this threat forces the Earth-government to exploit several young people to pilot huge robots to counteract said threat. EVANGELION's male hero is much more the "dramatic" type, having major daddy-issues, whereas Shido is blithely without flaw. DATE A LIVE more or less shifts any implied trauma to Kotori, though apparently the author left it vague as to what the "trauma" was!