"This is just a game…isn't it?"—Mimiru
.hack//SIGN is the sort of anime series where you either get it, or you don't get it. By "it," I mean the entire .hack multimedia family, which at this point includes two TV series, OAVs, video games, manga, novels, and of course, T-shirts. Set within a MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) universe known as "The World," the story (itself based upon a Playstation 2 game) is told from the perspective of the avatars (in-game characters) of the "real-life" characters playing on a global network from all over the world.
If at this point you're thinking, "What the hell is he talking about?" you may want to stop reading now, because it ain't getting any easier. Login, the first DVD volume of the .hack//SIGN series (comprising episodes 1-5), may be the introduction to this fantastical world, but unless you're willing to throw yourself (and your wallet) feet-first into .hack in all its incarnations, you may find yourself bewildered—and bored stiff—by this slow-moving and enigmatic series.
Facts of the Case
With the exception of a few brief glimpses of the "real" world, this series takes place exclusively inside a fully immersive fantasy RPG game world called, crazily enough, "The World." The characters are characters within this game, although of course they're online representations of "real" people, resulting in such incongruous moments as a spiky-haired, bare-chested "Heavy Spear" fighter type bounding into a castle and announcing that he's just gotten back from a "business trip in Indonesia." In a way it's like being at an anime convention, but with better production values.
Still with me? Okay, let's take it nice and slow.
A boy named Tsukasa, a Wavemaster (basically a wizard), is confused. So are we. Who is he? Why is he there? We don't know, but that's okay because neither does he—he's suffering from amnesia. He's also being followed around by a ghostlike, floating cat named Maha (mistranslated in the subtitles as "Mother," in case you're not confused enough), and a gigantic floating dumbbell-shaped…something…called the Guardian.
The other players are confused, too. They don't know who this Tsukasa kid is, or why the Guardian that accompanies him everywhere appears to be all-powerful in defiance of the rules of the game, or if Tsukasa is a hacker who has altered his online character. Tsukasa, for his part, isn't saying much. Every time the characters try to confront him, he says something enigmatic and teleports away. This confuses everyone even more.
What's even worse is that Tsukasa, for reasons that at this stage of the story remain unknown, cannot log out of the game. Like many America Online chat room habitués, his consciousness is plugged into the game 24 hours a day, and he doesn't even know if he has a "real" body anymore.
Pretty soon, the whole "World" is abuzz with stories about this strange kid. Everyone wants to get hold of him and find out what his story is. Mysteries, as they say, abound. Complications ensue.
For the uninitiated, the main problem with .hack//SIGN is that it drops you right into the thick of the story without preamble. The effect is not unlike that of joining a group of role-playing gamers who all know each other and have been playing the same campaign for years. You don't know these characters, you don't get their inside jokes, you have no frame of reference for their anecdotes.
What's more, unlike the average anime series, .hack//SIGN doesn't ease you into the flow of the story with expository scenes or rousing action sequences. Instead, characters mostly sit around chatting with each other. If you're new to .hack, the main challenge will be following the conversations and, most importantly, caring about what's going on. This is where the series probably loses the most viewers; since we haven't been formally introduced to these characters, we don't know who they are, don't (as yet) care, but are asked to pay attention through lengthy discussions of characters and aspects of the story we haven't been exposed to yet.
Now, I'm no enemy of subtlety or ambiguity. I loved the incomprehensible final episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Sure, it's nice to relax and have fun with something accessible and simple like Ranma 1/2, but sometimes you want to give your brain a bit of a workout with something more challenging. In that sense, .hack//SIGN is the Soloflex of anime. It's minimal, it's quiet, and it stretches you to the limits of your tolerance.
The true test of your ability to see this series through to its end (if this multi-format storyline can be said to have a conclusion), however, is the central character of Tsukasa. Weird, petulant, and thoroughly pathetic, Tsukasa is one of the classic Annoying Protagonists of Anime. Viewers familiar with Evangelion will recognize Tsukasa instantly; he's basically Shinji, without Shinji's charisma and dynamic personality.
.hack//SIGN, or at least this volume, would have been much easier to swallow, too, if the characters didn't take themselves so damned seriously. Admittedly, many online gamers behave and converse in just this way, but unless you're already immersed in that world, the solemn tone can be distancing or even unintentionally funny. The lack of tongue-in-cheek humor is keenly felt throughout these episodes, since the relatively low-stakes action (it's hard to care much if anyone gets killed, knowing that they'll just respawn) tends to undercut the drama. There are scattered moments of comic relief, but some acknowledgment of the absurdity inherent in the premise—given that what we're watching is essentially an illustrated transcript of a role-playing gaming session—would help welcome non-RPG fans into the story.
This volume of .hack//SIGN contains a fairly routine set of special features: textless opening/ending sequences, a sparse gallery of character art, a trailer for the Playstation game, and, especially welcome for fans of the eclectic music of .hack (ranging from moody electronica to what I can only describe as synth-polka), an isolated score audio track.
The look of the episodes is fantastic, with a gorgeous, sharp image free of artifacts, and high production values giving the whole thing a luminous, varied color palette with highly detailed artwork. In visual terms, this is anime at its best.
Audio options include Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround in English and Japanese, along with available English subtitles. The English dub is passable and at times more evocative than the subtitled translations, but overall the subtitles seemed more faithful to the tone and spirit of the story.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Yes, the story is slow and difficult to get into, but it's definitely worth your time to watch all five episodes. Eventually the mystery begins to come into focus, and as you get to know the characters and familiarize yourself with their world, .hack//SIGN grows on you. As odd as it is at first to see conventional fantasy genre characters talking like AOL chat room types, it's a refreshingly original change of pace from the norm. By the cliffhanger ending of episode 5 on this disc, you'll either be hooked and dying to find out just what the "hack" is going on (sorry), or you'll know for sure that .hack isn't for you.
For those who choose to stick it out, there's a wealth of pleasures to be had. The eye candy is sweet indeed, with beautiful, dynamic cel animation and CG; and the character designs are exceptional—each character has a distinctive, appealing look, similar in style to Evangelion (natch, since the same artist, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, worked on both). Even if you're waiting a while for things to happen, at least it's a pleasant wait.
It's said that .hack//SIGN is an anime that you either love or hate. I'm not sure I agree completely, since I fall somewhere in the middle of the two extremes, but it has certainly polarized most anime fans. For me, there's as much pulling me into the series (captivating visuals, compelling mystery) as there is pushing me out (slow pacing, annoying main character). By the end of this first volume, I was intrigued and curious, but I suspect that I would have been really hooked if I were a fan of MMORPGs or a regular viewer of what I like to call the "silent enigma" genre of anime (best represented by Serial Experiment Lain).
If you're curious about .hack, I would recommend renting or borrowing this DVD before investing any money into it. Either you'll save yourself 25 bucks, or you'll join the .hack legions and doom yourself to draining your bank account in obsessive pursuit of every .hack-related product out there. Either way, you're in for a strange and unique experience.
Judgment is withheld pending further presentation of evidence…and an expert witness who can explain to me just what the heck is going on.
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