In anime reviews for this month, Chris Feldman takes a look at Tokko, Volume 1, Best Student Council V.1 "A New Home" and Air Gear V.1 "East Side Showdown."
Tokko, Volume 1
TV series, (four episodes), 2004. Director: Masashi Abe. 100 minutes. DVD bilingual $29.99. Distributor: Manga Video.
Tokko comes from the awesome mind of incredibly talented Tohru Fujisawa of Great Teacher Onizuka (GTO) fame. In Tokko, Fujisawa makes a total departure from the light-hearted and oddly romantic comedy style of GTO. This time around instead of GTO's high school high jinks and poking fun at the Yakuza, we have a sexy mind trip exploding with demonic battles and carnage. Fujisawa weaves the story of a young man named Ranmaru Shindo who is trying to solve the mystery behind who killed his parents and slaughtered the other 382 people living in his apartment complex in Machida five years earlier.
The series opens with a strange sort of montage that shows Ranmaru and his sister Saya coming home from school to find a horrific scene of scattered body parts from floor to ceiling and more blood smear than paint on the walls. The montage then blends into a dream like sequence where Ranmaru is being chased by demonic creatures and is eventually saved by a mysterious girl with a sword who appears before naked and blood soaked. At this point Ranmaru suddenly awakens from fear, and he begins a narration tells us that this is a reoccurring dream that he has had ever since the massacre. It appears that the dreams have become more frequent and clearer to Ranmaru lately, as if foreshadowing of what is to come.
All of the intensity of the dream sequence is broken by the introduction of Ranmaru's sister, Saya, who is a bit too flirtatious with her brother for both my comfort level and Ranmaru's. Saya is largely the comic relief that is badly needed to help balance out all the angst and violence of the series. Often her silliness, while blatantly cheesy, is a welcome ray of light in the otherwise oppressively dark story. But she is not the only one who adds humor to the story. We also have Ranmaru's boss, Kunikida, who makes up for what he lacks in common sense with yelling and fire power. Just from the small amount that Kunikida appears in these first episodes, I am afraid that he may be a bigger danger to Ranmaru than the actual demons that are haunting him.
The first episode continues in a very expositional fashion. Ranmaru has recently graduated with his friend Ichiro from the Special Mobile Investigation Force Academy and have become part of the Tokko division. Several characters are then abruptly and haphazardly introduced. I found this to be a bit frustrating because the poorly constructed character introductions left me confused instead of having a better understanding Ranmaru's world. This includes the introduction the girl that has been appearing in Ranmaru's dreams. Tokko's tendency to rush through the story line and get to the action is probably where this anime is the weakest. In just a few minutes the story glances over several key characters introductions and backstory about a special section within the Tokko force that is made up of elite officers that deal with the supernatural.
Honestly, it was just easier for me just to keep watching and hope that I would be able to figure everything out as the story continued to unfold. Thankfully as the mystery surrounding Ranmaru begins to unveil itself things become easier to understand. On the bright side, this rush to move through the meat of the story let the fans get right into some of the bloody demon slaying action in the first episode. And that is always a good thing. In a sort of ironic twist, the on the fly explanations within the fighting are easier to understand than the hurried character dialogue in the expository scenes.
At the end of the first episode we find out what Ranmaru is up against in his search for the truth behind what happened to his parents. While investigating his first murder scene with Ichiro, Ranmaru is taken back by the fact that his first crime scene looks a lot like what he saw five years ago. Hearing screams Ranmaru and his fellow Tokko officers rush in help only to find zombie like men tearing some police officers to shreds with their bare hands. They open fire to bring these guys down but guns seem to have to no effect on them. The flying bullets eventually tear the zombies clothing to reveal small faces that have grown out of the bodies of these zombified people and appear to be controlling them.
At the last moment, when Ranmaru and his fellow officers are overrun by these zombies the mysterious officers in the second division of Tokko show up with their bladed weapons to bail them out. Awesome hero poses abound as each of these zombies are dispatched with ease by different members of the second division. After these zombies are eviscerated it is revealed that those little faces are really bug larvae like demons that use people's bodies as hosts. And Ranmaru comes face to face with the girl from his dream who gives him the warning that the survivors of the Machida massacre are all being hunted.
Overall this series is very dark, which is exactly what I would expect from an ultra violent demon slaying anime. It feels very much like the older Doomed Megalopolis anime where there is a certain claustrophobic feel to the world that our characters inhabit and that the evil that is being fought is like a freight train on a collision course with our hero. The animated fight sequences are pretty cool and there is a ton of detail in the gore and environments. All the movement is very fluid with some cheating here and there. Masashi Abe does a good job of keeping the tension within the battles despite the fact that we know our hero will make it. So many times in shows like this one, the tension is lost and then quickly become a snoozer.
There is some cel-shaded 3D animation that appears in weird spots and can actually be distracting because it isn't consistent. For instance in one scene a car will be heading toward the camera and it is obvious that they are just scaling the car up to give the impression that it is getting closer. In the very next scene a different car will pass by the camera but this time its perspective shift is so accurate that it is very apparent that a 3D car was used for the shot. It's a small thing I know, but it was enough of distraction that I couldn't help myself from noticing. Unfortunately the advanced screening disk I was given to review only had an English dub audio track on it, but as it turns out it was actually pretty good. There is a little awkwardness between the intensity levels of the characters voices in some of the scenes that pulls the viewer out of the moment and some of what feels like forced dialogue. But for the most part it is forgivable. One nice touch that Tokko has to offer is the addition of Fujisawa's style of humor. A lot of the same sexually charged humor that is so apparent in GTO makes its way into this story, as well as a hero that is often flawed.
I find it really refreshing to be able to laugh a little at the hero instead of him being the cookie cutter type tough guy. I really feel that it makes Ranmaru more believable and helped me to care about him and his struggle to understand everything that is happening around him. As a fan of this genre I found Tokko to be a good deal of fun and I would recommend it. While I don't feel it is an instant classic, it is fairly sophisticated enough for the seasoned anime veteran, and lots of eye candy filled action for the attention deficit disorder crowd. So if you are in the mood to kick some demon butt, check it out.
Best Student Council V.1 "A New Home"
TV series (ongoing), 2007. Director: Yoshiaki Iwasaki. Five episodes/125 minutes, DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: ADV Films
Lately it feels like there is a lot of anime coming out that seems to fit into a specific genre giving the fan exactly what entertainment value they would expect from that anime. In other words anime that has a cookie cutter or formulaic approach as to how they are produced. As a result, there is a great deal of anime that has the feel of quality but sadly falls into mediocrity. I suppose that in some small way the formula story works in anime. After all how many times have we all watch five friends in mechs save the Earth and loved every karate chopping, energy sword-slashing minute of it. Personally, what I think that makes a series work within a set formula is when the creators take their formulaic plot line and approach it in a totally different and fresh fashion. I am very pleased that Best Student Council from ADV films is one of these animes. The producers at J.C. STAFF of Azumanga Daioh fame and Yoshiaki Iwasaki who directed Love Hina join forces to create this truly unique series.
As a fan of both Love Hina and Azumanga Daioh, I had a certain level of expectation when I started watching this DVD. Usually this spells the doom of any series, anime or not, in my mind because so often the product does not meet expectation. Thankfully this could not be further from the truth when it came to Best Student Council. The first episode opens and very quickly we get to know the main character Rino Rando as she writes a thank you letter to her papal, Mr. Poppit. She writes about how it has been a year since her mother has died from an illness and how grateful she is to him for taking care of her enrollment in the Miyagami Academy. From her tone in the narration Rino is portrayed as a very honest and optimistic person.
After a bit of tugging on the heartstrings to help with the bonding to Rino, the character of Pucchan is introduced. Pucchan is a puppet that is perpetually attached to Rino's hand and is quite possibly one of the most original characters I have seen appear in an anime in a long time. This little guy by himself makes Best Student Council worth checking out just because he is just that awesome. Pucchan seems to act as a sort of conscious for Rino as he regularly speaks to her with very blunt honesty. One of my favorite things about Pucchan is that he usually chimes in with his comments just as I was thinking them. For instance, in the beginning we find that Mr. Poppit paid for Rino's school and housing without ever actually meeting her. Just as I finish thinking that Mr. Poppit is just probably some dirty old man trying to take advantage of Rino, Pucchan literally says out loud exactly what I was thinking. Pucchan appears to have all sorts of abilities that a puppet shouldn't have such as being able to eat, and to actually be able to control Rino instead of the other way around.
As the first episode unfolds, an impressive array of characters is introduced. I literally took two pages of notes on characters alone during the first episode because there was that many. The major characters in Best Student Council are a group of young girls who apparently have more power and authority than any of the faculty members. These girls are known as the Miyagami Academy Maximum Authority-Wielding Best Student Council or otherwise known as Best Student Council. They make up an organization that is part student council, part ninja attack squad, and part "it" girl crowd.
The Council is divided into what appears to be two squads. There is the attack squad that acts as a sort of police force type agency that helps handle issues at the academy and the surrounding peninsula that the academy is built on. Then there is the covert squad that is more akin to an intelligence agency that gathers information, spreads disinformation, and sets traps for the bad guys. The first time these ladies are seen in action is when they are thwarting a pyromaniac that the local police have been unable to catch. They show off their skills, which range from swordsmanship to martial arts to bring the pyromaniac to justice. And a little Pucchan skills also lend a hand, but that really needs to be seen to be believed.
Life at Miyagami Academy pretty much revolves around these girls. They live in a special dormitory where they have the nicest rooms, private dining room, and everything is paid for. Of course every girl at Miyagami Academy wants to be on the Best Student Council, but the one open position left gets to go to Rino. Obviously this causes a fair amount of jealousy toward Rino amongst the student body and one of the Best Student Council members in particular, Kaori Izumi. Early on Kaori becomes Rino's rival, but the only problem with that is Rino is so pure, or naive depending on your interpretation, that she is completely unaware of Kaori's competition with her.
Best Student Council is a fun and energetic anime. There is a lot of humor packed into each show because instead of having a singular character play the funny one; Best Student Council makes each character funny in their own way. For instance Kaori Izumi is a tough martial artist who tries very hard to prove her worth on the assault squad, but her plans to stand out and become one of councils executive members are continually foiled by Rinos bumbling. There is another girl named Sayuri Hida who is very skilled with her bokken and when she draws her sword, the fear she puts into her opponents is often enough to defeat them. That is until Sayuri's glasses fall off and she can't see her own hand in front of her face. A good mixture of physical humor is balanced with wit helps keep the story fresh and not too formulaic. The story lines themselves add to the humor as well with random and often nonsensical plot twists. I don't want to spoil the fun but beware of the youth canon.
Character designs are solid and very cute. One small nitpick about design is that girls who are in the same grade often appear to be the same girl just with different color hair. Normally I wouldn't care if the generality of character design was just in the background characters but I found myself sometimes getting confused with who was who. Then again I suppose a lot of kids the same age tend to look alike since they often wear the same kind of clothes and hairstyles to fit in. There is a definite difference in character design between the older and younger students. This is a nice touch of detail because Miyagami Academy has students from eighth through the 12th grades and it helps to sort out the complicated cast. Fans of RPG's should appreciate all the detail that was put into making each of the characters personalities unique.
The plot line of Rino losing her mother and having to be so reliant on others has the danger of becoming heavy and depressing, but Rino's upbeat personality and her attitude toward others helps to counter any negativity. Rino also seems to have some amazing luck on her side, which is never a bad thing. Some aspects of the plot are downright touching. Such as how at one point Rino fainted and the student council president, Kanade, is caring for her by resting Rinos' head on her lap while unconscious. The first person she sees when she opens her eye is Kanade and Rino mutters how pretty Kanade is and how she looks like her mother. After that Kanade takes special care of Rino and really tries to help her fit in. The show is a lot of fun to watch and should have something to offer for most everyone.
There is a little sexual humor like in the "Payapaya" episode where certain actions are implied but it is nothing that wouldn't make it onto the Cartoon Network. Special features include clean open and ending animation and a character art gallery. The character gallery has the added feature of each character in an alternative outfit, which I always think is a nice touch. Japanese sound track is good with well time subtitles. The English dub sounds a little awkward at times with voices sounding strained when trying to keep up with some of the rapid intensity changes. In the end Best Student Council lets fans take a fun little ride with Rino and her Pucchan as she makes new friends at her amazing new school.
Air Gear V.1 "East Side Showdown"TV series (ongoing), 2007. Director: Hajime Kamegaki. V.1 Four episodes/100 minutes. DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: ADV Films
As a film student one of the first things a person learns is that it is important to view as much material as possible. And that includes watching not only the best stuff but also the worst stuff as well. After all, how is someone supposed to know what makes a good film if they have never seen a bad film? So when this title landed on my desk the before mentioned lesson popped into my brain. When I saw the cover I immediately thought of Poochie character from The Simpsons and how this title could be an opportunity for me to continually expand my horizons. My first thought was that here is an anime that was created to feebly tap into the extreme sports counter culture that so many crappy children's drink ads try too. But as I fired this one up I realized that I am an idiot. I approached this title not based on its own merit, but rather I saw it through my own cynical and (I hate to admit it) sometimes elitist eyes. Without having any prior knowledge about this anime I let my assumptions guide my opinion. But in the end I was grateful that I got the opportunity to see Air Gear because it rocks.
The first big indicator that Air Gear isn't going to be the average run of mill title is the opening sequence. The opening shot is a dynamic upward view of Tokyo Tower and as the camera pushes in toward the top of the tower the opening music "Chain" by Back-on begins with a pleasant acoustic guitar. That's for the first five seconds, and then the viewer is blind sided by this ferocious electric guitar riff. I was so taken back that I actually restarted the episode to make sure that I wasn't getting any audio signal bleed across the audio inputs of my home theater receiver. Once I was sure that the audio was in fact the opening theme I restarted the disk. To my surprise the opening theme really rocks. It is not often I will hear the first 25 seconds of an opening theme and think "man I hope I can get this sound track." From here on, the tone for this anime was set, and my initial snobby negative opinion of this title was now completely blown and I was ready for more.
Characters are introduced quickly, but simply. As each of the main characters is introduced, they each appear in a hero pose with their stats listed on the side similar manner to a baseball card. Well I guess you could call them stats, it's more like the notes next to a model in a men's magazine. Each characters name, height, bust, waist, hips, family relation and odd personal fact is listed. I guess this is intended as a bit of joke but it was hard for me to tell either way. Our hero of sorts is Itsuki (Ikki) Minami, a 13-year-old eighth grader who is called the "baby face" of Shinonome Higashi Middle School and leader of his crew the East Side Guns.
He is living the Tenchi Muyo fantasy as he lives with the four Noyamano sisters. There is Rika who is 22 and has not served a purpose yet other than becoming very scary when she snaps. The second daughter is Mikan, a 17-year-old 11th grader with an affinity for ramen. Ringo, the third daughter, is 14 and she is a classmate of Ikki's and spends her time looking after him, and poorly hides her feelings for Ikki. Finally there is Shiraume, a 10-year-old fourth grader who really likes gorgon puppets. Character designs are really beautiful. In fact every one of the ladies is fan boy crush worthy. Well with the exception of the owner of the Glum Slum, but I try not to remember her.
There is interesting mix of characters and styles but all of these characters work together and are believable. Some of the character designs are more reminiscent of older classic anime styles like that of the original Super Dimensional Fortress Macross. While some of the other people we meet are much more modern in appearance. And there is even a mix of blue oyster bar leather clad effeminate people with hyper muscular macho types. Pretty much if someone is into a particular style or fetish of a character archetype they are sure to find what they are looking for in Air Gear.
Air Gear takes place in the near future where science has enable manufactures to create a small four-kilowatt motor that can fit into a roller blade. To put that into perspective, GM uses a 4.8-kilowatt motor to power their hybrid automobiles! So in other words the power of an electric car motor has been shrunk and installed into a pair of blades. I remember when roller blades were first really taking off in popularity. My friends and I would mow lawns and do odd jobs to save money to buy better bearings and wheels. I could only imagine if we could have had the opportunity to install small micro motors that would have allowed us to travel fast enough to make vertical climbs up walls. I probably would not be alive today to write this review, but I digress.
This powered style of rollerblading is called Air Trek and the moves and races look a lot like the game Jet Grind Radio for the Sega Dream Cast. Jet Grind Radio was outstanding and watching the races in Air Gear gave me the same open end flying feeling as playing the game did. This is where some really nice 3D work really shines and helps add to the experience. Most everything you see in Air Gear has a 2D digital cel feel to it, but when it comes time for the really dynamic skating 3D environments are creatively introduced and really give the impression of flying. On a big screen it actually gives a bit of vertigo, but that only helps draw the viewer into the intensity of the race. There is a scene where Ikki grinds down a fence rail and the camera is a POV shot from the skate. The shot is barely a few seconds long but when it was over all I could think was, whoa, that was cool.
Skaters' organize themselves into teams such as Rez Boa Dogs and Skull Sabers. Every person who skates Air Trek or AT is organized into a pyramidal class ranking starting with the lowest rank of F and the highest rank of A. These teams and class ranking supply the great majority of the meat of the story. Battles between teams are often violent and the defeated team could lose parts for their skates or even worse, be forced to disband. The competition to raise a skater's rank is fierce and Ikki finds himself caught right up in all the craziness. There also appears to be a special police force assigned to deal with these extreme skates called the Countermeasures Against Reckless Use of Aviation Footwear Department lead by Kaito Wanijima. Kaito appears to have a sinister partner named Agito, both of whom we only see very briefly in these first few episodes, but thanks to foreshadowing, I think we can expect them to become a big part of Ikkis' life.
Overall, Air Gear has a lot to offer. A good balance of humor and action throughout each episode really helps keep the pace moving and interest high. Personally, I liked the fact that the hero, while talented at using his Air Treks, is not a pro right from the beginning and he gets better as he continues to battle and practice. The story is simple but does have a certain degree of depth to make it entertaining to a wider age range audiences. The uncut version does carry a MA rating but after watching the show I am not totally convinced that is warranted. Violence is limited to marital arts and there is very little bloodshed. There is some sexual content, but most of that exists as parts of the shows humor, but it is really more akin to fan service as opposed to mature content. Some harsh language is used from time to time, but nothing that wouldn't be heard in an R rated film. Most of the harsher language used is only in the English language track.
As far as the English dub goes the voice acting is actually really well done. Luci Chistian handles the character of Ringo very well and getting that voice right was crucial to keeping the viewer in the story. If not handled correctly the English Ringo could have been out right irritating. I do have some complaints about the English script. It really drives me nuts when lines are changed to make the characters sound more hip or random bits of dialogue are added. It always, always sounds forced and to be perfectly honest it really is irking to someone watching the English version with those dialogue changes. Like a parent trying to sound cool talking to his kids and sounding like a fool instead. Honestly, it's really insulting to anyone watching and all it succeeds in doing is continuing the stigma about English dubs of anime.
It is also a little disappointing to find that the Japanese soundtrack is in only encoded in 2.0 stereo, while the English track is in 5.1 surround. The English subtitles are well paced with the on screen dialogue and it is a nice touch that they are in yellow. Special features are kind of sparse with only clean versions of the opening and ending credits. Hopefully next volume there will be some character modelsheets at least.
All in all, I really enjoyed Air Gear and thought that it was a great deal of fun. When it was done I wanted to go for a ride but it is winter in Chicago and therefore there aren't many options for outdoor activities. So if the chance to pick it up comes by I suggest it. I have to go dig out my Dreamcast and my copy of Jet Grind Radio out of the basement.
Chris Feldman is a freelance 3D modeler and animator whose work has been featured in television, games, and manufacturing. He is an active member in the pop art community as well as a long time staff member/promoter of anime and comic conventions. In his very finite spare time he volunteers teaching animation to kids.