In a future where global warming has caused mass
devastation, the world has implemented a carbon-exchange mechanism to control
the amount of carbon produced. Japan has become largely desolate, either
underwater or covered in a vast forest. The people live in partly ruined
buildings, a shadow of their once great civilisation. The exception to this is
Atlas, a large tower that rises high above the Tokyo skyline. The ultra-modern
society that dwell there are in stark contrast to the ordinary citizens below. The
only way they can reach this tower is by winning a lottery. The series begins
with Kuniko Hojo (Mikako Takahashi) being released from jail. She is greeted by
Takehiko (Kenyu Horiuchi), Momoko (Joji Nakata) and Miiko (Hochu Otsuka). They
are part of Metal Age, a revolutionary group that aim to take down Atlas and
allow the ordinary people to enter. Atlas itself is ruled over by Ryoko Naruse
(Rei Igarashi), an authoritarian with sadistic tendencies. Also residing in
Atlas is Mikuni (Yui Ariga), who lives the life of a princess with her handmaidens
and attendant Sayoko (Rie Ishizuka) and Karin Ishida (Yuka Iguchi), a computer
genius who has developed a programme to disrupt and profit from the carbon
market fluctuations. She spends her time blackmailing foreign governments and
amassing a vast wealth while the people outside the tower struggle.
“Shangri-la” is directed by Makoto Bessho (Death Note) with a script by Hiroshi Onogi (Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne) The series is based on a science-fiction novel by Eichi Ikegami, also made into a 2009 manga, and has some really interesting ideas. The premise of a world that is ruled by a carbon market as a way to tackle the climate crisis is one that is timely and inspired. It allows for the perfect set-up of the elites and the commoners, both in Atlas and in the outer city of Duomo. The series is also forward-thinking in having two strong transgender characters, Momoko and Miiko, who play an important role throughout. Momoko especially is hilarious, able to laugh at herself, resilient and fiercely loyal to Kuniko. There is a huge cast of characters and all are given plenty of time to shine. Many do take typical roles, such as the schoolgirl heroine Kuniko, with uncanny martial abilities; the almost dominatrix-esque Ryoko, with her harem of male attendants; the curious Mikuni, who early on seems to be in the wrong series entirely, speaking in antiquated dialect and surrounded by pre-industrial décor. The show fits comfortably the expectations of a particular type of anime fan. One example of this is the inclusion of Akihabara and the three old men who are running a shop there: one a military obsessive, one an idol obsessed camera-man, and the other dressed in schoolgirl clothes and speaking primarily in cutesy anime phrases. These three provide a lot of comic relief and it is fun to see that even in the apocalypse Akihabara, the holy site of all that is geek culture, has still survived.
Akihabara is one example of the fantastic design of the
series. It shows a different angle to the one usually presented, as we see the
recognizable billboards rising above streets that are underwater. The idea of a
heavily forested Tokyo is also one that is unique and appealing, doing away
with the normal depictions in favour of something that is more primeval, with
overgrown foliage and dense treescapes. The depictions of Atlas in contrast are
slightly lacking, being all shiny walls and sparse office space. This perhaps
is an indication of the brutalist, money-obsessed, culture as opposed to the
bustling real-world outside. The animation certainly has its high-points,
particularly in the sequences involving bombing raids.
One of the weirdest things about the series is that it seems
like two very different stories jostling for position. The early episodes set
up a conflict between the outsiders and the elites of Atlas. We also see Karin
as she makes stacks of money off the carbon markets. It seems that everything
is set up for a socio-economic satire of capitalism and the climate crises.
However, part way through the series we are introduced to several other plot
strands. The introduction of Hiruko is where this comes through the strongest.
Hiruko resides in a dark chamber in Atlas, with grotesque eyes looking out from
the walls. He seems to be swimming in a vat of what may be blood and is covered
in ancient scraps of parchment. We learn that he survives by possessing the
bodies of poor unfortunates who are thrown to him when the previous body can no
longer survive. This second strand of the story, with a magical element,
involved Mikuni (known as the “Moon Child”) and increasingly becomes the
central strand of the plot. While it is a fascinating story, full of twists,
and with a complex history worked out, the focus on this mystical thread does
mean that the ideas established early on do fall by the wayside. The story
becomes much more a story of a “Chosen One” than a revolutionary tale. “Shangri-la”
also has a couple of sudden tonal shifts that make it hard to understand
exactly what it wants to be. One of the most jarring of these follows a daring
escape from a prison yard via hot-air balloon. This kind of bizarre feat is
something that happens a lot to the characters, who are rarely troubled by
logistical or even logical concerns. However, it is followed by a moment in
which the other prisoners are violently gunned down. It is shocking and
unexpected, but it feels that the lack of a consistent world in terms of tone
means that some of these moments perhaps don’t hit as hard as they should.
All that being said, there is a lot to recommend Shangri-la.
They throw in a lot of interesting ideas, a large cast of characters, fun
dialogue and some great action moments. It’s main failing is perhaps in
attempting to do too much and following common tropes. It is clear that the
creators had some excellent ideas and it would have been good to see them push
these original concepts a little further.