Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, gather ’round and listen well to the story I shall tell! Once upon a time, not so long ago… the internet did not exist! No, seriously, it just wasn’t there. It hadn’t developed. I may still have a few years left until I am officially “old,” but I am witness to a great deal of its advancement.
I remember when Disney produced Hercules, and it was such a cool thing that they had tiny, two-word sound bites on the website. (“CRUSH ZEUS!” which I didn’t think it would be that short, so I was wondering why I wasn’t hearing anything, turned the volume WAY up, clicked again, and apparently scared the crap out of our dog… who was upstairs at the time) And now we’ve come such a long way so quickly, where phones have apps, email, browsers, GPS, and more; kids have iPods and iPads, and tablets with touch screens (I hate touch screens) are everywhere; and gaming has practically become a way of life, with Halo, Call of Duty, Warcraft, League of Legends, and everything else, connecting people in teams with members all across the planet.
The stories we create are a reflection of the society in which we live. The adventures of our superheroes speak of troubled times and indomitable human spirit. Fantasy proclaims hope and faith in the face of darkness. Science fiction speaks to the future, the fears we still have to the face, the issues we have yet to solve as we examine the human condition. Dystopian stories warn us of dangers, especially that of a single way of thinking coming to dominate a world where everyone is connected. With the world changing so drastically and dramatically as it has, it was only a matter of time before someone created a story about a person getting trapped in a game.
What’s impressive, I think, is that this story was produced back in 2002, when it was much more far-fetched. It was also conceived in a unique way, a single franchise, one overarching story, designed to stretch across an anime, a manga, and a game series. It was ambitious, and unique, and it had never been done before. Of course, I don’t think it’s been done since then, either, so that might say something about the experience of consuming said story. Nonetheless, it was bold, new, fresh, well-crafted in every technical sense, and it was something of a cult hit. It may not be in the spotlight much anymore, but I imagine people still remember it by name. It was, and is, a cultural phenomenon, and there is no doubt as to its influence and legacy.
And with that rather lengthy, ponderous introduction, I present: .hack//Sign.
And there is actually some method to my madness with that intro. See, .hack//Sign was among the earlier anime I ever watched, and it was unique among them in the fact that it had a lot of talking about issues and whatever and very little actually happening. It’s not like it was any more boring than Dragonball Z, which is the epitome of “dragging things out,” but, I’m going to be honest, it was not thrilling. I spent most of the show waiting for stuff to happen. But I also learned that there is some value in there being less action, depending on what you’re trying to do, and what this anime was trying to do did not really need much action at all.
The story is about Tsukasa, a young boy who wakes up somewhere inside an interactive virtual reality MMORPG game called “The World.” Unlike any of the other players, he is actually in the game, a part of it, experiencing it, and he can’t log out. He doesn’t much mind at first, in fact he finds it liberating and empowering, to be free from that ridiculous real world where he suffered abuse at the hands of his father. Then, slowly, he comes to learn that what was done to him was part of something much worse, and the entity which did it, which has no physical form in the World, is anything but his friend. The fate of many may hinge simply on whether or not Tsukasa can form real relationships with people, and choose to live without fear in the real world.
Now, one could easily argue that the story did not need nearly so many episodes. The plot advances slowly, most character interactions are just conversations, the characters are developed slowly as well, if at all, the information presented can be unreliable, and it takes its sweet time dealing with such psychological issues as anxiety, escapism, and interpersonal relationships.
One could also argue that the story takes the time it needs to make the story feel realistic and important in some way.
Personally, I think there are flaws in the narrative, especially the pacing, but they still manage to follow a number of threads that come together every so often, and something important happens pretty much exactly when one is most tempted to drop the show. It could have used some editing and trimming, perhaps, but there’s still some serious skill at work here. For all that so little happens, they keep you coming back for more, all the way to the end. It’s an unconventional method, but one that worked.
It has to be said, that could not have been done without the masterful, entrancing soundtrack produced by Yuki Kaijura, who is a powerhouse in the business of anime soundtracks, and, coincidentally, would produce the soundtrack for Sword Art Online, a definite successor to the motif of trapping people within games, a full decade after the success of .hack//Sign. The music is just so haunting and gripping, it gets under your skin. Fifteen years later, and I’m still listening to that “Key of the Twilight” song on a regular basis, it’s one of my favorites.
For me, my biggest complaint is my usual pet peeve: the anime ends before the story does! It ends practically before the story begins! This is the launching point for the manga and the games, and they finish the story. But, as for Tsukasa, it does finish his part of the story, at the very least.
I suppose .hack//Sign is much like many classic anime, and classic stories in general: often flawed, but riveting.
Rating: 8 stars out of 10.
Grade: solid B.