.hack//Sign is one of those animes which you can watch as an adult and not feel like you’re indulging an immature guilty pleasure.
Released in 2002, this anime series is one of the few that you can call rather mature (for an cartoon) and possibly profound.
By “mature,” I don’t mean lots of nudity and violence. Instead, I mean the themes and restraint the series shows in telling its story.
.hack//Sign takes place in 2007, two years after an event shuts down the the Internet, causing chaos worldwide which nearly led to a nuclear war.
Yeah, I totally remembered when that happened.
The writers probably would have been better off pulling a version of the Max Headroom “20 minutes in the future” by saying something like “five years from now.” That tends to work a little longer considering we mostly miss those markers when it comes to science fiction. By pulling the Max Headroom trick, you kind of bought yourself an extension until all the stuff in your story actually comes to pass or technology makes it look dated.
Anyway, by the time 2007 rolls around, people are beginning to come back online and a game called simply “The World” is very popular. “The World” is a totally immersive MMORPG that uses virtual reality technology.
The creators were a bit off on that one too.
“The World” is a rather generic fantasy setting with players choosing to be any number of fantasy races and fantasy classes, like barbarian and wizard. It’s kind of like what you’d expect from a VR version of World of Warcraft or Everquest.
Yeah, so far sounds kind of ho-hum. After all, we’ve already seen these MMORPG stories before.
But, .hack//Sign is a bit different. The story is not about hacking and slashing through computer monsters to save the world or stop some sort of computer virus.
Instead, it’s a layered story, built around a mystery with characters who are each escaping to “The World” to flee some aspect of their offline life.
Things kick off with a character named Tsukasa, a “Wavemaster” (aka a wizard), who not only lacks a memory of who they are, but they are also trapped within the game. The end of the first episode reveals that Tsukasa collapsed and comatose at their computer. Things build from there.
Since it’s been 15 years since this anime was released and more than a decade since it’s been on Cartoon Network or any other network in the U.S., I’m not going to spoil things past that.
But, I will say as the characters pursue the mystery of Tsukasa’s entrapment, they find “The World” becoming more and more a reality.
You get to know characters like the Blademasters (Barbarians) Bear and Mimiru, Longblade (fighter) Crim, Waverider BT and Axeman (actually Axelady) Subaru. All of these characters work together to solve the mystery of what the heck is going on with “The World.”
As you go through the series, you’ll find that all the characters are escaping something. Some are fleeing complicated family lives that have left them miserable, others are simply lonely and one is in a body that leaves them mostly immobile.
We do get glimpses of the real world. But these glimpses are staticy and black and white, as opposed to the colorful immersion that “The World” offers.
This juxtaposition shows you where these characters really feel alive.
Most importantly, you get to understand and empathize with these characters. Though, a couple remain mysteries until the very end, giving you a chance to try and figure out who they are in their real life.
And that’s part of the fun of the series, guessing who these characters are away from “The World.”
Unlike most fantasy stories, this one really de-emphasizes the combat, making it more of an afterthought than something the story builds toward, which is what we’re used to in anime.
This buildup does have a satisfying payoff, but is also open-ended. I’ll say that the story is over for the cast of characters we get to know in .hack//Sign, but it is picked up by characters you play in a video game trilogy, just called .hack , which is on the Playstation 2. I own the first of the games, but haven’t had the chance to really play it as I went through some big changes in my life shortly after I bought it. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to play the full thing because the games are quite expensive from what I understand.
I would also mention that the soundtrack to the series by Yuki Kajiura is excellent. Kajiura blends electronic soundscapes with Celtic music here, which fits into the whole fantasy-virtual reality feel of the series. The intro and outro are particularly good.
There have been several other .hack animes since .hack//Sign, but none of them really match up to the original. I’ve found these sequel series, as well as their clown Sword Art Online, to be rather droll hack and slashers, where the fighting in the virtual world is the main focus of the show.
Anyway, .hack//Sign is definitely worth watching, whether you be young or a little bit older than young. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone that isn’t a teen who thinks Bleach and Naruto are “great.”