Chise struggles to keep her humanity and her relationship with Shuji alive in "Saikano."

Anime couple undergo
ultimate test of love

Here at Drawn & Quartered Central, we aren't immune to the changing of the holiday seasons in the outside world.

That's why as a public service, we'd like to offer this friendly reminder: For those of you who have significant others, there are 15 days left until Valentine's Day. For those of you who don't, there are 15 days left until Singles' Awareness Day. Which means there's going to be a whole lotta talk about love in the coming days -- enough to either make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside or make you nauseous from all that sappy lovey-dovey stuff.

Love and the various stages of relationships have been a theme in many anime, mostly of the "clueless dork stumbles into awkward situations with a bunch of babes with big, pillowy chests" variety. So when a complex and intelligent tale of love gets released, one that makes lovers snuggle closer to each other and makes even the most jaded and lovelorn among us believe that love really is possible in this cold world, it's certainly worth promoting.

"Saikano" is one of those stories. This 13-episode series, which aired on Japanese TV in the summer of 2002 as "Saishuu Heiki Kanojo" ("She, the Ultimate Weapon") and is available in a four-volume DVD set from Viz in the United States, touts itself as "the last love song on this little planet."

A bold proclamation? Considering the story's setting -- Japan in the midst of a hopeless war that is slowly destroying the lives of millions of people -- it might not be.

In the midst of wartime destruction is the tale of two high school students, Chise and Shuji. Chise is your typical shy anime girl, somewhat awkward and clumsy and apologetic for everything she does. She has a crush on Shuji, a former member of the track team who can be a bit emotionally distant at times.

Although they've been friends since childhood, Chise has been hesitant to admit her feelings for him, fearing that he'll turn her down. It takes the nudging of their common friend -- Akemi, playing the role of "brash, bold, complete polar opposite of the shy girl" anime stereotype -- to bring them together. And even then, there are a few rocky moments before their relationship finally takes root.

So far, this seems like a textbook anime romance. But then a group of men in black show up as Chise walks home one night, and things get much more interesting.

As it turns out, Chise is transformed by this group into Japan's ultimate weapon of mass destruction, able to destroy enemy squadrons in seconds and level cities faster than any Godzilla vs. Insert-Name-of-Lumbering-Godzilla-Nemesis-Here smackdown ever could. The procedure -- which is never seen throughout the series, only hinted at -- leaves horrific scars all over her body and turns her into an individual that has elements of humanity floating around computerized weapons systems. Calling her Chise version 2.0 wouldn't be too far off from the truth.

Only Shuji, who stumbles upon Chise in all her fully armed glory in the aftermath of a bombing raid, learns her secret. With that revelation, the dynamic of their budding relationship is changed forever.

THE POWER of this story is drawn from how Chise is such a powerful tool of war who is struggling to keep her humanity and her relationship intact yet cannot escape her destiny or deny how the weaponry is gradually overtaking her soul. Shuji struggles as well, trying to come to terms with the fact that the shy, clumsy girl that he fell in love with is now a tool of destruction.

It creates an atmosphere similar to one seen in "Romeo and Juliet" or "Titanic": You root for the couple, you pray that there will be a happily ever after for them, but you just have a feeling that you'll have to go through an entire box of tissues by the time the credits roll in the last episode.

Yet Shuji and Chise's love story isn't the only factor that drives this series. The drama of war has a way of creating compelling side stories, and "Saikano" becomes all the more bittersweet as tragedy piles upon tragedy. The tone is set in the first episode when one of Shuji's classmates -- the first guy in his circle of friends to get a girlfriend -- is one of the civilian casualties in the same bombing raid where Chise first shows her new form.

Many people whom Shuji and Chise care about, or who care about the couple, die in similar ways. The death of one of their friends in the latter half of the series, and Shuji's reaction to seeing this person die, is particularly heartbreaking to watch.

Granted, all of this heartbreak and tragedy can get a bit melodramatic and heavy-handed at times. In addition, the ending, while understandable, has undoubtedly sparked debate on many Internet discussion boards as to whether it actually makes sense. (In this reviewer's opinion, it does. Barely.)

But even with its flaws, the entire package is worth watching through at least once -- preferably with someone you love.

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