The problem of interpretation: what I indirectly learned from Alien Nine
(There are spoilers here for Alien Nine.)
Once upon a time there was an anime called Alien Nine, which was a four episode OVA series about three gradeschool girls who are 'volunteered' to be their school's alien control officers. Especially it's the story of Yuri Otani, who really hates everything involved with the job; she hates the symbiotic Borg that now lives on top of her head, she hates the dangerous alien animals that they have to fight (and ideally capture alive, and then the girls have to tend to them too), and so on. Although it looks cute and has perky songs, Alien Nine is in many ways an almost unrelentingly brutal series; for all the pastel colours, these are sixth graders being forced into significant danger and the show does not pull its punches. Yuri doesn't deal well with the situation at all while the other two girls hide their own secrets which the series peels back over time.
The series builds to a crescendo of character tension and explosions, reaching its height at the end of the fourth OVA episode. The ending of the show has one of the girls rollerskating faster and faster through the school corridors, then the show cuts to the other two girls reacting in sudden alarm; they burst outside to find the first girl's body lying on the ground. Cue the end credits. That's it, that's the end of the fourth and last episode. When you watch the anime, this is a huge 'wait, what? what just happened?' moment.
Once upon a time I read an analysis of the Alien Nine OVA which ran down all of these events and came up with a solid, convincing explanation of what was going on and what happened (I think it was this one); the short version is that the first girl snapped and ran out of reasons to live. It's frankly a great explanation and makes perfect sense all through.
There is only one problem with this beautiful interpretation of Alien Nine: it's wrong. Alien Nine was a manga before it was an OVA series, and the OVA series is very faithful to the manga. Too faithful, because the OVA series ends abruptly halfway into a manga storyline, and of course the manga storyline continues on to explain what happened to the first girl. And what's going on is nothing like what the analysis came up with from the OVAs.
Reading the analysis (even the first time around) was a very salutory bucket of cold water to me, because by the time I encountered this analysis I'd already read enough of the manga to know it was beautiful, convincing, and incorrect. I of course already knew that our interpretations of anime are filtered through our own views and we may be reading things into an anime that aren't there, but this was the first time I saw it so very vividly happen before my eyes. And it's not as if the interpretation is wrong, in a sense; everything that the person writing it saw in Alien Nine really is there, either in fact or if looked at from the right angle. It's just almost certainly not what the actual creators of the anime intended to be there.
I am far from immune to the problem of interpretation myself, and ever since then I've tried to bear this in mind. What I see in an anime may be far from what the creators put there, especially with the cultural and translation gaps. In the worst case, I may be basing my flights of fancy on a translation nuance or mistake that's not even present in the original Japanese.
(I don't know why Alien Nine was only a four episode OVA and ended in such a bad place. Possibly it was planned for more episodes but didn't sell well enough.)
Written on 04 February 2012.