Out of all the series to be announced in the Spring 2009 line-up to be broadcast in Japan, Shangri-La was certainly up there amongst those with the most potential. For starters, it re-unites Gonzo's animation studio with Range Murata on character design duties (a combination last seen in Last Exile, which probably speaks for itself), it boasts an opening theme performed by May'N (of Macross Frontier fame), and it also promised to deliver a fascinating plot.
Notice how I worded that last statement in the past tense? More on that later... Broadly speaking, Shangri-La is the story of Kuniko, a young girl just released from a stint in prison (no ASBOs in this world) to much celebration from the "Metal-Age" organisation of which she is the heir apparent. This group struggles against the existing government, who have left the majority of the populace living in poverty while they enjoy the high life in a placed named "Atlas", a huge structure into which lucky citizens are occasionally allowed to enter and live within as chosen by regular lottery draws.
The wider backdrop for this story is a future Earth where climate change has reached drastic levels, requiring equally drastic action to try and restore balance to the planet via replacing the sprawling concrete masses of major cities with trees and forests, creating a literal "urban jungle" while the entire global economy seems to revolve around carbon credits, with emissions and quotas being juggled expertly by some groups in order to line their own pockets.
If this sounds like the preamble to some kind of 21st century version of Captain Planet, then prepare to be surprised by Shangri-La - Although it does do its part to promote the dangers of rampant climate change (running from potentially deadly hailstorms to the abject poverty of the majority), this is balanced against the depicted need for humanity to continue to produce goods and power for itself to maintain some kind of quality of life via food and medicine. Indeed, the Metal-Age group which are the heroes of this show rail against the government's tight control of carbon output by running their own power stations and the like, attracting the attention of the military in the process.
With all of this going on, and as I mentioned in the introduction, Shangri-La is all set up to offer a compelling, intriguing and complex story - All of the various factions are in place, we have our young female hero fresh out of jail, and a handful of mysterious characters and events are injected into the proceedings. Yet at this point, the series somehow manages to take all of this potential and turn it into a near-monumental disaster.
For starters, almost every character in the series is either a well-worn cliché or simply incredibly irritating - We have evil Lady Ryoko, who is like some kind of Cruella de Vil on steroids and Mikuni, an equally evil child with a penchant for killing her servants every two minutes, while on the other side of the fence Kuniko is looked after by a transsexual named Momoko who manages to turn every scene into a farce thanks to her penchant for twisting everything into a double-entendre or comment on her gender. Kuniko at least looked like being a solid character from the first couple of episodes (largely on account of her ability to take out tanks using a boomerang), but by the third episode even she seems to have been transformed into that whiny thick kid who has to ask "Why?" to everything you say.
As if that wasn't bad enough, those much-vaunted Range Murata character designs are given no real scope to strut their stuff with low-quality animation and artwork seemingly the order of the day - Some of the action sequences are actually excruciatingly embarrassing to watch, recalling the days of cheap Saturday morning cartoons, while you can forget about any attempt at subtle facial expressions or the like. Even the series attempts at a Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex-esque "hacking" sequence ends up looking more like Puff the Magic Dragon as drawn by a four year-old than serious anime.
In fact, you can pretty much forget about subtlety from this series full stop - The humour from Momoko might as well be broadcast via a loud hailer, while the villains of the piece are comically so while Metal-Age just blunders along with no real goal in mind. This concoction makes for anime that is tepid at best and absolutely shameful at worst; leaving us with a series that is best avoided judging by this early triumvirate of episodes despite the very occasional moment of interest. A real shame given what this show had the potential to be.