Fantastic Children is a series that like so many anime uses its opening episodes to establish mysteries to draw the viewer in; it is arguably a hallmark of good fiction to be able to open with a story in media res or laid out in such a fashion that all the pieces of the puzzle are not immediately discernable. Many anime attempt this but too often either the resolution of the mystery is inadequate payoff for the time spent reaching it, or the mystery is spun out for too long prior to its resolution, meaning the impression is given that the characters are dragging their heels needlessly. Harder still to pull off is a series that plays dramatically with the audience’s empowered position as capable of seeing sides of the story the characters cannot.
I would say one of the best animated examples of this latter type of story I have seen is Rahxephon; that is a series that is self-consciously hostile to the viewer in its use of time, knowledge and often visual and audio language that could only work in communicating to the audience of a television series. Revolutionary Girl Utena is another good example, although there the focus is a little different; allegory is much more heavily used and the visual language and subliminal cues are as much thematic hints to its messages as narrative progression. What these series do is give a strong sense of progression even as the mysteries unfold; the act of unfolding the mystery is something proactively pursued by the cast as part of some other narrative beyond the metafictional level. If the idea of a mystery plot can be seen (as I feel it often can) as a sort of game played on the viewer where the enjoyment comes from trying to work out what is going on and why, the communication of information becomes vital. If the story is a conspiracy – as, ultimately, Rahxephon is – then there is a natural dramatic tension. The conspirators know more than the outsiders. The outsiders need to realise there is a conspiracy, work out what it is, and stop it. Rahxephon complicated this by having various parties in the fiction misunderstand the conspiracy – Isshiki’s hollow “victory” as he finally works out how to defeat the Mu militarily at the point where a military victory achieves nothing, for example.
Alternatively, if the story is one of self-discovery (as, ultimately, Utena is), the process of revelation is tied to the protagonist’s progress; it redefines their goals as they learn more about what is happening. Utena begins with one concept of what duelling means and why people do it, and ends with learned knowledge upending this and – again – both parties in the “conspiracy” changing their tune. Change is key here. Utena and Anthy’s relationship changes, the student council’s plots change. New players appear on the scene. Similarly, Ayato’s understanding of himself, his family, Quan and the nature of TERRA and the Mu changes even as they themselves change. So, what then is a bad conspiracy or mystery story in anime terms? Three examples that readily spring to mind in the science-fiction genre are Comet Lucifer, Macross Delta and Captain Earth.
The first series fell prey to two simple flaws; its conspiracy plot was not very interesting and its cast was not interesting enough after a point to make a simple and predictable story of a basic conspiracy anything beyond forgettable fluff. I enjoyed watching the series, the earlier episodes (when it hinted at being a moderately good exploration-fluff series) more than the latter, but in retrospect it was very bad at being what it emulated. The second established some interesting concepts that were given conspiratorial weight to a viewer familiar with the series’ place in a longer timeline (what to the characters was coded and unclear was clear to an omniscient audience) but ultimately failed to develop its conspiracy at any kind of reasonable pace and so simply restated its one or two good ideas over and over again until their dramatic weight was lost. The third was similar, but somehow worse; it attempted to redefine its conspiracy in the manner of Rahxephon but did not have the cohesive writing and technical proficiency to do this, meaning in the end it felt interesting angles were simply written out and their replacements inadequately introduced.
So, where does this tie back to Fantastic Children? After two episodes I believe it is setting up to be an interesting and compelling conspiracy/mystery series that has shown it is at least trying to avoid the common pitfalls. It moves slowly, in a way, but this decision feels measured and carefully-constructed; the series is withholding information not to make sure the characters remain stupid, but to ensure the audience knows why the characters justify acting as they do, but not why this matters or what it actually means. The core premise involves a group of silver-haired children who exist, apparently, out of time; the series opens with an investigator driven mad by their presumed immortality, follows their strange code of honour in being immortal, and then in the second episode redefines this slightly; they are being pursued by something beyond the apparently human authorities, something supernatural. And they themselves are not only supernatural beings, but also apparently possessed of some kind of technology which protects them from the well-understood limitations of their immortality. I could not say with any confidence why any of this matters, and I could not speculate on what the main plot of Fantastic Children is, but at least two episodes in I have a solid idea of what the “Fantastic Children” are and how they believe they work. I think what aids this is the fact the series is not action-based. Rahxephon, Captain Earth and Macross Delta all had to use their conspiracy to justify fighting. The conspiracy involved learning who various aliens were, and why they mattered – and ultimately how they could be beaten.
My next argument in favour of Fantastic Children is the understated way it handles a multiple timeline plot. No explicit expository link unifies the story of Thoma in his tropical archipelago with the silver-haired children in Scandinavia and Holland a hundred years previous – until they, without explanation, turn up in Thoma’s world. There has been an implicit link – a young girl trying to escape a sinister children’s home draws images similar to the works of an artist the Children are obsessed with – but little else. The timelines are merged as an episode climax that gives the same sense of exciting wrongness as Ayato leaving Tokyo Jupiter or seeing his mother’s blue blood for the first time (both key events in the opening episodes of Rahxephon.) What this has done – especially as apparent protagonist Thoma does not see any of it – is shown how the various groups of characters are pursuing their own lines of thought. This is not a simple matter of “who are the bad guys and how do we stop them”, it is two stories that can implicitly be linked, that are nevertheless being pursued by their characters.
The Children are on the run, and in the process touch the lives of those around them (apparently also accidentally spurring scientific discoveries). Thoma is curious about the Chikao home escapees, but at this stage is unable to do much about it. But there is a proactivity here; these are not intentionally heel-dragging ignorants there to make the audience feel clever for working out the implicit clues before they do. The heroes are aware that there is a wrongness – and the series is exceptionally good in design terms at communicating wrongness and the uncanny even in a colourful tropical island. They may not fully understand it, but they are investigating it. Their investigation may not be the one the audience feels is the right one for explaining clearly what is happening, but it is driving the plot. Rather than ultimately feeling like a metafictional game, I get the impression from Fantastic Children that I will watch the actions of Thoma and the others in trying to figure out the mysteries before them, and in the process I will be enjoyably misdirected.