Watching Allison & Lillia, Madhouse's anime adaptation of Sigasawa Keiichi's Allison light novels, I was drawn in absolutely by the idyllic and beautiful, yet also strangely bleak, depiction of the not-quite-1930s-Europe fantasy world in which the story is set. Coming from the pen of the author who wrote Kino no Tabi (Kino's Journey), that the world is whimsical and faintly unreal is no surprise, but it's nevertheless pleasing.
The other intriguing aspect of it is the detailed recreations of real aircraft of the era, from Allison's beautiful yellow DeHavilland Tiger Moth to the Sikorsky S-42 flying boat and Focke-Wulf 190 fighter that appear later in the series -- also credit to the show's makers for showing a visible and believable development in aeronautical technology from the biplanes of the Allison segments to the WW2-era planes of the Lillia episodes that occur 15 years later.
What throws this care over the show's atmosphere and attention to the show's detail into sharp contrast is the lack of care and attention over the characterisation.
That the plot is also utterly ridiculous could also be a source of consternation, but taken in the context of the way the world of Kino no Tabi defiantly clung to its own internal logic throughout, I think there is a sort of consistency in Allison & Lillia too. Almost no one is ever killed, pilots shoot out the engines of opponents and destroyed planes are always accompanied by gently billowing parachutes. Villains are almost never considered beyond redemption, and deeply rooted feuds between families or even nations are easily solved by what seem like the most absurdly simple reasons. This is Sigasawa's world, and he decided with Allison to create the kind of charming, dreamlike world where these situations are everyday reality.
Now in a simplistic world, the characters should also be simplistic, and few could be more simplistic than feisty blonde air force pilot Allison herself. Allison is one of the loveliest and most likeable characters you will ever find in anime and woman-loving (but not womanising) enemy pilot Carr Benedict is as dashing a fighter ace as you could ever wish to meet -- of particular note was a wonderful scene after the time-skip where a palace retainer accidentally catches Benedict and his wife Fiona (by now Queen of the mini-Russia Ikstova) in a passionate embrace. They simply continue kissing until they have finished, and then turn to the retainer and continue their business completely unabashed. In an anime world where the slightest hint of outward affection or an honest display of one's feelings usually results in furious blushing, laughter and frantic rubbing of the back of one's head, their lack of shame is truly refreshing.
The problems with characters begin with Allison's childhood friend Wil. He is in many ways a typical Japanese male character in that he is utterly, ignorantly oblivious to Allison's feelings for him, to the point where she eventually has to wrestle him to the floor and demand he kiss her to make her feelings clear. However, this is mitigated for the most part by the fact that in other ways he's obviously pretty intelligent and many of his actions reveal an obvious affection for Allison, and partly simply because Allison likes him and her being such a likeable character herself, it naturally rubs off on him. He makes one particularly selfish decision just before the time jump, but again mitigates it just enough that you can keep liking him.
Wil and Allison's daughter Lillia and her pathetic boyfriend Treize are the shitstorm that ruins the series though. Replacing the lovable Allison and the flawed yet just about forgiveable Wil as the main characters after the time jump, they turn the story from a whimsical and faintly surreal meander through a 1930s fairy tale into a predictable run-through of anime romantic comedy's worst cliches.
Where Allison was fiesty, direct and forthright in her desires, Lillia is like every ditzy anime schoolgirl -- selfish and cruel in her treatment of Treize, and prone to acts of unbelievable stupidity. Treize is no better, constantly dithering about the "right moment" to tell Lillia the truth about himself (he's the secret "backup" prince of Ikstova, dontchaknow, and darned if he doesn't want Lillia to be his princess!) but instead breaking into fits of nervous laughter, blathering inanely, and, yes, furiously rubbing the back of his head. Needless to say this brash, loudmouthed pandering to cliche is kryptonite to the fine balance of the show's charm.
There seems to be a subtext in the presentation of male lead characters that being emotionally retarded and suffering from a crippling inability to express yourself is somehow a desirable character trait and evidence of one's inherent integrity. If the love you feel for a girl is deep and true enough, goes the thought process, you should be unable to express it without the most unbearable trauma. If it's the kind of thing you can say easily, then you can't mean it enough. Since we're in the business of making drama here, this argument carries some weight, but only if the characters are otherwise believable and well-written. If the characters have no obvious depth in any other aspects of their characters, how can the audience be expected to suspend its disbelief and accept that there is depth in this one?
It's telling that the two most refreshing characters of the series, Allison and Benedict, are the two who are most emotionally self-assured. Allison's strength also serves to make her moments of uncertainty, where she lets flickers of the 15 year-old girl beneath the impetuous air force pilot show through, all the more touching and believable, and it's largely the lack of any of the traditional character conflicts that is what makes Allison's half of the series so much the superior of Lillia's.