Sky of Iriya, Summer of UFO

What would you do if you were an average guy and Rei Ayanami from Evangelion wound up in your homeroom class? That's the conceit behind Sky of Iriya, Summer of UFO, a six-episode OVA series from 2005 that combines the mental anguish of being a teenage mech pilot who has to save the world with the humdrum of Japanese school life. It should be a fascinating mash-up, and the idea really intrigues me. I liked it quite a bit, though it doesn't fully live up to its potential, primarily because the high school drama elements have been done to death and beaten with a dead fish long previous.

Asaba is a prototypical Japanese male, slightly shy and unsure of himself. His dad's a barber, and so he's learned how to give members of his journalism club haircuts. He's spent most of the summer hanging out with his good friend Suizenji, the head of the club, who also happens to be a big conspiracy buff when it comes to UFOs and the nearby military base. But his world changes one night when he sneaks into the school pool only to find a mysterious girl there by the name of Iriya. Surprisingly, she doesn't know how to swim, so Asaba gives her lessons on the spot, creating a small but mutual crush in the process. They're caught, but there are no ramifications...seems it's just a crew from the base come to take her back home.

Asaba is surprised a few days later, then, to find Iriya in his homeroom class. While she was friendly enough to him one on one, here she's distant and moody, wanting nothing to do with the other girls in her new school. Asaba seems to be the only one who can reach her...and pretty soon, it becomes clear that she is part of something far larger than herself. As the city's residents prepare for the possibility of war, Asaba learns that Iriya is in fact a pilot, perhaps one of only a few who can fly a particular craft. Is she fighting aliens? Does she really want this life? As the twosome get closer, Asaba realizes that it may be up to him to save Iriya from her violent destiny.

Sky of Iriya, Summer of UFO is a difficult show to pin down tonally. The first few episodes are pretty straight-forward, but the second and fourth veer off into comedy. The ending two episodes are highly dramatic in comparison. While tonal shifts are not unheard of in anime -- I still remember how Video Girl Ai managed to have two funny episodes, two romantic ones, and two mindwonk concluders -- Iriya doesn't quite pull it off. That's not to say that the humorous sections don't work; in fact, they were my favorite part of the whole thing. It feels more like the staff wasn't sure exactly what they were working with, and so the comedy, romance, and drama sometimes smash into each other too quickly. It's also difficult to accept just how different sections of the show are, with goofiness in the first half of episode four followed by strong violence in the second half and an off-screen but bloody rape attempt in episode five. It's not enough to make the show unwatchable, but it will confuse and annoy some, particularly those who think they've gotten into a lightweight dramedy.

My other real issue with Iriya is that it's an interesting premise wedded to a banal cliche. I mean, the idea of having to save a slightly deranged mech pilot who attends your school could be full of possibilities. But instead, for quite a while we're watching a standard Japanese schoolyard drama, right down to the school festival! Could any one prototypical event be more overdone in anime?  (Maybe hot springs episodes, I guess, but that's beside the point.) Thankfully, the humor worked for me, which kept the stereotypical material from being too dull to watch. About halfway through, it becomes a different show, far darker but more intriguing. But it takes too long to get there, and it does it with characters who don't have a huge amount of personality anyway. Had Asaba and Iriya been more fully developed, I would have probably thought more of the show.

Nevertheless, I did enjoy Sky of Iriya, Summer of UFO. I appreciated the concept. The artistic style worked for me; there were a variety of beautiful scenes throughout. Although the only significant aerial combat comes in the opening animation, the show moves quickly enough. Some secondary players, such as Suizenji, are highly enjoyable, and many bits (such as two "rival" groups eavesdropping on a date between Asaba and Iriya) were really good. I can't give it a high recommendation, but I'd watch it again. Maybe I've seen all the cliches so many times that the twist Iriya gives to them makes them palatable. And to its credit, Iriya plays with important moral and ethical underpinnings, not always giving the "right" answers.  That intrigued me, too.

I can't say I know who the target audience for Sky of Iriya, Summer of UFO really is. Mechheads will be turned off by the lack of actual mecha within the show proper. Romantics will be turned off by the violence, and comedy buffs will find the ending far too dark. Maybe that's why it's gotten little attention -- who can best appreciate it? But that does the show (and its potential viewers) a disservice. Like Evangelion before it, which started off rather bubbly until all hell broke loose, maybe those shifts in dramatic style are part of the journey. It's well-made and quite easy to watch; it might cover familiar ground, but it's not dull. And maybe I'm still intrigued by the core question: would you choose love over saving the world?

Sky of Iriya, Summer of UFO -- very brief nudity, violence, attempted rape (mostly off-screen) -- B