How come I must know, where obsession is to go?
How come I must know, the direction of believing?

Yes the title is correct, ".hack//SIGN" is a brand new anime that is currently screening in Japan. It is read as "dot hack slash slash sign", written as ".hack//SIGN", (all lower-case hack, all upper-case SIGN) but commonly referred to as just "Hack Sign". The series started on April 3, 2002 and is screening on TV Tokyo Channel 12. At the time of writing, episode four was the latest episode to be screened. After only seeing the first four episodes my initial opinion is one of awe and anticipation. This series is fantastic. It revolves around a fantasy based MMORPG, one which takes your completely inside of it and is only ever referred to as "The World". Within this world there is a character Tsukasa who has discovered that he cannot log out. I can't really say more about the plot at the moment, I am waiting for the next episode to come out, however as it stands after the first four episodes it has completely drawn me in.

The animation is fantastic, everything is in a fantasy setting, in "The World" and the attention to detail is terrific. The character designs, as expected from someone such as Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, are superb. The characters all have a distinct feel and at this stage each has a very specific fantasy class motif. While the visuals catch you straight away it is the music that really draws you in. Kajiura Yuki, who was responsible for the wonderful Noir soundtrack is back with an even better score. Those familiar with his style from Noir will notice a number of similarities (heavy use of strings for instance) however everything has a distinct fantasy slant on it which makes the atmosphere of the show that much better. Both the opening and closing themes are distinct and addictive, particularly the opening theme which is completely in English, something very strange for a Japanese anime.

Overall this is one of the most promising new anime I have seen for years. I have heard it described as a mix of Serial Experiments Lain and Noir, but I think it is still too early to make such a comparison. Let it be said though that I have high hopes for the rest of the series. If the quality of later episodes is anything like the first few then I am sure it will reach a place among my top few favourite anime of all time. At the moment unless you live in Japan or can get a friend to tape each episode and send them over then there will be a long wait before you can get a hold of this series. I don't think any conventional fansubbers have looked at it yet, however I have heard about a digisub release if you really want to get a hold of the series (though expect a degradation in quality).

Credits
Original Story: Project .hack
Director: Koichi Mashimo (Popolocrois Monogatari, Irresponsible Captain Tylor, Noir)
Series Script: Kazunori Itoh (Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor)
Character Designer: Yoshiyuki Sadamoto (Neon Genesis Evangelion, Nadia)
Character Designs: Akira Osawa / Yukiko Ban / Yuko Iwaoka / Minako Shiba
Acoustic Supervision: Koichi Mashita
Music: Kajiura Yuki (Noir)
Music Production: Victor Entertainment
Production: Bandai Visual

Randofu has just reminded me that along with the ".hack//SIGN" anime there is a computer game called simply .hack for the Playstation 2 which although similar to the anime (in that they are both set in "The World") has a different plot (or so I've heard, I haven't played the game and I've only seen up to episode 4 of the anime). The .hack w/u has more details about the game. There is also a .hack Manga in the works, to be published by Kadokawa Publishing. The story in the manga is by Hamazaki Tatsuya and I had heard that Yoshiyuki Sadamoto was actually going to draw the it though I haven't been able to confirm that. Sadamoto still hasn't finished the Evangelion Manga yet so I don't give much credit to that rumour.

Update:
Bandai Entertainment have licensed both the .hack game and the .hack//SIGN anime series for release in the US. A release date hasn't been set yet for the series but Bandai are generally very good at getting their releases out quickly. At the time of writing this update I have seen up to episode 9 and I stand completely behind everything I said in the above review. .hack//SIGN is a fantastic anime where the end of every episode leaves me hanging out for the next one.

Update:
Well I just finished watching the series. I must say that it didn't live up to all my expectations, in my opinion it suffered from serious pacing problems. The ending made up for it though, I thought it was fantastic. It also leaves questions in the mind of the viewer about what actually happened. A next series seems to be in the works, which I am eagerly anticipating.

Update:
.hack//SIGN has begun screening on Cartoon Network. Thanks to doopokko for the heads up.

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