Yugo the Negotiator Vol. 1

The devil, as they say, is in the details. Only a few small bits of minutiae can make the difference between a wholly believable show and one that falls short of the mark. The difference between Donald Trump's salary and mine is only a couple of zeroes...well, truthfully, as a seminary student, my salary is completely composed of zeroes. But what a difference a couple of zeroes make! And such is the case with the first volume of Yugo the Negotiator. I am actually quite happy to see this show, which is one of the few recent attempts I've seen at creating a realistic, intelligent program that adults would appreciate without a lot of violence or sexuality on display. The premise is solid and the first episode quite promising. From there, though, Yugo starts a slow but steady descent into unbelievability. Not enough to kill the show, mind you, and I still like it, but it could be better than it is.

Yugo, our title character, makes a living getting people out of sticky situations. As the show starts, a hostage situation in Pakistan turns deadly when rebel bandits known as dacoits kidnap a Japanese businessman and murder the negotiator sent by his company. Problem is, the Pakistani army wants to be aware of any negotiations, eager as they are to put down the dacoit rebellion. When the businessman's daughter contacts Yugo for undercover negotiations with the dacoits, he's already been planning for the possibility. But it's not enough to just know all the contingencies of the situation; Yugo has to be able to make it to the dacoit hideout without the Pakistani army's knowledge. And when he finally arrives, what will keep the dacoits from killing him the same way they did the first negotiator?

What makes Yugo worthwhile to watch, even despite its holes and flaws, is that in its best moments, it's an intelligent adventure thriller. In my experience, it's rare to find an anime that tries to take on real-world situations in real-world countries. I was thrilled by the possibility of seeing someplace in actual existence outside Japan, a feat that even the vaguely realistic BlackJack has never really attempted. And in the first episode particularly, it's clear that Yugo knows what he's doing. The setup is a little slow, but it's nothing short of brilliant. And even in the second and third episodes that stumble, Yugo is resourceful and bright without becoming Superman or MacGyver. Yugo is like the flipside of Golgo 13, just as smart but thoughtful, less reticent, and moral. I like the idea of Yugo the Negotiator a lot. Combine that with two enjoyable jazzy themes for the opening and closing, and you should have a great show.

But it's in the realization of that idea where things start to break down. When you're dealing with a realistic premise, you are bound to it. For all it tries, Yugo is great while it stays in Japan but woeful when it comes to the details of Pakistan. Yes, the characters look and dress like what we think of as Muslims. Yes, the windswept desert looks appropriately sandy and windy. But what makes this Pakistan? What makes this anything different from a generic country that could appear in any anime at all? There isn't anything, and that's disappointing. When you go to a foreign country, there should at least be some local flavor, but I never picked that up. A plain vanilla Muslim nation just isn't enough when you're trying for realism.

I also have to say that this show plays on Islamic stereotypes fiercely, and it troubled me a bit. [I'll discuss a few of those bothersome bits in the rest of this paragraph, but they may contain very mild spoilers, so be warned.] Now, before I go on the defensive, let me say that I am a Christian, one who's studying to become a pastor at some point, and I do not believe in Islam or any of its major tenants. That said, Yugo plays on fears of the Muslim world. Muslim men in this show, even the good ones, have violent tendencies and appear vaguely untrustworthy. The lone woman who shows up in the feature is being bought and sold as property, and she's had her tongue cut out. There's also the concept bandied about that Yugo, as a Japanese man, could never be an Islamic believer in the minds of the Pakistani dacoits. Yugo can tell any story it wants, but I would have been far more impressed if it didn't typecast its Muslim roles.

The animation is a mixed bag. It's minimalistic, but I've seen many television anime with similar production values, so that's not the problem. However, at a couple of points, the animation is so poorly chosen that it disrupts the feel of what's going on. In one scene, one of the characters smiles in such a way that it looks comedic -- not a good thing for a strikingly serious program. It's one of the only anime I've seen that's hampered not by terrible artwork but some bad choices by the director that hamstring the mood. On the other hand, Yugo often covers its budgetary problems well. I was impressed with some animation tricks they used in Pakistan to set a mood (if not establishing the country itself) that required less backgrounding work. For every time that the director let through a groan-inducing shot, another choice made me think, "That was a unique and daring choice there."

I'm complaining a lot for a show I'm still going to reservedly recommend. It's because these problems are significant. However, there's plenty here to enjoy as well. Yugo himself is a strong character, and I'll return to see how he gets himself out of what he's gotten himself into. The show has plenty of potential for redemption. And despite my nitpicking, it's a refreshing change from the normal anime genres. I caution you only that it is not as good as it could or should be; it's proof positive that just because an anime suits a higher-brow audience, it isn't necessarily wonderful. But as a rental, I expect you'll at least find it interesting and entertaining, if not always wholeheartedly believable.

Yugo the Negotiator Vol. 1 -- violence, adult themes -- B