Taylor Jessen profiles the five animated shorts nominees for the 2007 Academy Awards.
Le Chevalier D'Eon V.1
(2007) Four episodes/100 minutes. Director: Kazuhiro Furuhashi; from TV series (24 episodes). DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: ADV Films.
A flagship (noun) is defined by Merriam-Webster as the finest, largest, or most important one of a series, network, or chain. It is the flagship that is the measure by which everything that follows it will be judged. Only the very best or greatest of things could ever carry the title of flagship. An example of this would be the Mercedes-Benz S65 AMG sedan. At a cost of $180,000+ it is the most expensive (standard retail market), with a 604 hp V12 motor the most powerful, and with every possible amenity, the most luxurious Mercedes has to offer. Truly the S65 AMG defines what the title of flagship signifies. Le Chevalier D'Eon is ADV Films' flagship in every sense of the word. It will set a new standard for series anime production that few will be able to follow much less surpass. Production I.G, of Neon Genesis Evangelion fame, has really pulled out all the stops to bring a truly epic anime home.
I find myself struggling where to begin with this one, because it is really that impressive on so many levels. My overall impression of Le Chevalier D'Eon is that it is mislabeled as a TV series. Rather, a better description would be a collection of theatrical quality animations. Each episode is produced in the widescreen format that is found in movie theaters and the newest HD screens. Every scene, in fact every frame, is composed not for a television set, but rather with the theatrical format in mind. The wide aspect ratio frame provides a greater freedom and creativity for shot composition and camera blocking. And the added screen real estate helps boost the excitement and dynamics of fight scenes. Kazuhiro Furuhashi, who is known for Rurouni Kenshin, really takes full advantage of the wide aspect ratio that gives the world of Le Chevalier D'Eon the open and expansive feel of live-action films.
The story is not the typical sort to be found in an anime. Le Chevalier D'Eon could have been easily one of Hollywood's next big summer blockbusters. Writing is very slick and mature with the original story by Tow Ubukata and chief scriptwriter Yasuyuki Muto. The setting is 18th century France where a beautiful young woman in a casket, with the word Psalms written on the lid, has been floating downriver and has finally washed ashore. Her name is Lia de Beaumont and her death is a shrouded in mystery. The church has denied her burial, because her body is filled with mercury and, therefore, unable to decompose.
Her brother and our hero D'Eon de Beaumont is outraged at the fact that no one knows what has happened to his sister. He decides to find those who are responsible for his sister's death. From here Muto has the story unfold and introduce its characters as D'Eon encounters them. I found this to be particularly effective in immersing me into the story, and the well thought out layers of subplots and political espionage became very engrossing. It shows that the writers really spent some time researching 18th century France and its aristocracy. Within the courts of Versailles real historical figures are used as major players in the story and they exist in their proper roles to a lesser extent, such as Marquise de Pompadour, King Louie the XV's mistress. There is this feeling that everyone at Versailles has an agenda and that all these agendas are geared toward the single purpose of controlling France.
Once the major players are all brought into the story a major shift in direction happens. In a complete 180º turn, the story switches from loyalists trying to protect their king from rebels, to a truly unique type of occult horror story. The spiritual undertones of this new direction are made up of an amalgamation of several major world religions. There are influences from Christianity, Judaism, Daoism, paganism, wizardry and even the alchemy that was practiced during the Renaissance. The major story arc includes hidden manuscripts of the bible that are referred to as the Royal Psalms.
These Psalms are different from the canonized Psalms, which are mostly a collection of songs and poems written largely by King David. These hidden Psalms are more like incantations that can be used to do extraordinary things, like turn the living into the walking dead, called "gargoyles," and turn D'Eon into his sister. That isn't a typo. Through a chant that D'Eon is told to find by Queen Marie of France, D'Eon actually physically turns into his sister and boy does she open a can of whoop ass. I suppose if I was murdered and then unable to rest, I would kind of cranky too when I was resurrected. The story then regularly switches back and forth from espionage to the occult, thereby delving deeper into the subplots with a secret police named Le Secret du Roi, and the Philippe d' Orleans trying to use magic to oust his cousin Louie XV. This continual rotation keeps everything interesting and avoids the often "filler" story that is used to pass the episodes' allotted time.
On a side note Queen Marie seems to have a strange little friend that she carries around with her. It is a skull that appears to be inhabited by the spirit of a little girl and who acts as the queen's eyes and ears in the spirit world. The queen keeps the skull fully dressed (à la Norm Bates) in her bedroom and spends time talking with the little girl spirit to find out information that the queen can use for her own means. I find this to be wonderfully creepy and bazaar.
The animation of Le Chevalier D'Eon is wonderfully done and breathtakingly detailed. Character designs are top notch and full of individuality, personality and life. Throw in the details of the environments, props and background characters, and it almost seems as if it may have been easier to film this story in live action. The women's dresses alone are enough to make an animation tweener want to stab someone in the neck with a pencil. Every dress is beautiful and couture with layered details of flowing lace, volumetric ruffles and small colored accents. And the most impressive thing is that everything moves. To draw all of that even at 12 frames a second would have been a daunting task. Production I.G is a collective group of miracle workers.
The best part is that this level of detail carries over into the action. Fencing scenes are visceral and frantic. Camera angles and blocking constantly change between audience style side views, close ups, and even point of view of the fencers. I was hard pressed to find any cheats during these scenes, and many of them looked as if they were rotoscoped. At certain points, I even used the frame-by-frame playback function on my DVD player to scrutinize the animation and it was plainly visible that the fighters would rotate their blades as they moved from defensive to offensive postures. That is simply incredible to actually animate that kind of detail. I would bet that odds are maybe one in a hundred would even notice that, but, in the end, that kind of detail, even if largely unnoticed consciously, really adds to the realism and believability.
I suppose if I had one complaint about the animation it would be that certain scenes where 3D is used, it isn't incorporated as seamlessly as I would have liked. 3D is becoming so common that having it stick out like a sore thumb gives a feeling of being unfinished. But what 3D is used looks gorgeous and does a wonderful job of illustrating the majesty of places like Versailles.
Sound for Le Chevalier D'Eon is award-winning caliber work. There is nothing out there animated or live action that the sound work done on Le Chevalier D'Eon can not compete with. Footfalls change with speed of travel and surface the characters are on, clinging of different sounding glasses and conversation in the background at pubs, these are just a few examples of the tons of audio layering that was done. Anyone with a high-end home theater will really appreciate it.
Opening and ending music is top notch and Over Night by Aya I found to be especially groovy. Both English and Japanese audio tracks are in digital 5.1 surround thankfully. Subtitles are colored in eye friendly yellow and paced well with the dialogue. The English language version is (I am almost afraid to say it) very well done. I think a special praise should go out to translator Amy Forsyth who did an outstanding job with what had to be some incredibly difficult dialogue. At no point did I feel insulted by the "Americanizing" of the dialogue and I felt the voice acting was right on. My hat is off to the entire cast for the outstanding work they have done here.
The disk itself is wonderfully produced. It comes in a paper sleeve that is nicely embossed with gold and far more interesting to look at than the actual DVD cover. Inside, the DVD is thoughtfully produced for a change instead of just a chintzy postcard graphic insert. The insert, or rather booklet, includes credits, character relationship flowchart, character designs complete with model sheets and a written interview with chief writer Yasuyuki Muto. For any indie animators and cosplayers out there, it is an eight-page script complete with director's notes, and, finally, director Furuhashi talks about the mise en scène (breakdown of a scene) for two specific scenes and his words are accompanied by storyboards. Special features on the disk include historical accounts of the historical figures in the story. I found the interpretation that Tow Ubukata had of the hero D'Eon to be very interesting as compared to the real person.
There are in fact two commentaries on this disk for episodes one and two. The work that goes into anime is so immense that most fans have little clue to what goes into bringing anime here to the States. Both commentaries are very interesting and it just isn't for animation and film students. There is also a Japanese promo video, as well as Japanese trailer, and clean versions of the opening and ending credits.
ADV Films really has a special anime on its hands with Le Chevalier D'Eon. I began this review talking about what a flagship is and I see this anime as a flagship for ADV. I can see Le Chevalier D'Eon becoming a big draw at anime conventions with this release, and those involved with it on both sides of the pond should look forward to critical acclaim. This anime should be classified as a must own by any anime fan, and could very well be used to draw in new fans. Those who are curious about anime, but don't want to read the subtitles, would find this title very approachable. Plus its content, maturity and quality would do a lot to break some of the negative stereo types of anime. Anyone who happens to run across it, have a friend whose birthday is coming, or owns a DVD player should buy this because it is that good.
Noein: to your other self V.3
(2006) Five episodes/125 minutes. Director: Kazuki Akane; from TV series (24 episodes). DVD bilingual $19.98. Distributor: Manga Video.
One of the best things about the so called "hobby" of being an anime fan is that every once in a while a little gem will inadvertently catch your attention that would be otherwise lost in the vast sea of titles on the store shelves. When that happens, I personally feel a certain satisfaction when I find one that is a little under the radar, but totally deserving of being right out in the open. Noein is one of those little gems that for the most part doesn't appear to have a great deal of fanfare for its release aside from the fervent word of mouth of its hardcore fan base. Director Kazuki Akane, of the Vision of Escaflowne series and movie fame, does a brilliant job at bringing the world, or should I say worlds, of Noein to life.
What makes Noein so outstanding is its story -- and I hope that everyone is ready for a mouthful. The series begins with the simple enough love story between two elementary school children named Yu and Haruka. They are contemplating running away from home together when they meet a man named Karasu who is part of a group known as the Dragon Cavalry. He is from a dimension named Lacryma, which exists as a parallel dimension to our world, but only 15 years into our future. This other dimension that Karasu comes from is war torn and people are forced to exist underground, living off of insects. Lacryma was destroyed by those from the dimension of Shangri-La. Those from Shangri-La seem to live and fight for the singular goal of annihilating all space and time. The only hope for the people trapped in Lacryma have in stopping Shangri-La is in something called the Dragon Torque.
The members of the Dragon Cavalry are searching all of time and space for it. This is where Noein's story starts to really shine. Haruka, our very cute protagonist, just so happens to be the key to the Dragon Torque, and, in a brilliant twist Karasu, our stranger from the future just so happens to be Yu, but the version of Yu 15 years in the future. When Karasu recognizes Haraku he makes a promise to protect her for as long as he lives. I realize at this point things may be a little confusing and so did the writers of Noein. In volume three we start off with a bit of a heady translation of how this whole dimensional thing is working. This series is using quantum theory as its framework -- specifically quantum teleportation.
Here is a quick breakdown of quantum teleportation that won't make any physics teachers very happy, but it will help the vast majority of viewers get more out of Noein. A quantum (quanta plural) is an indivisible entity of energy, such as a photon. A single photon is the smallest chunk that light can be broken into while still remaining light energy and therefore indivisible. After a lot of math and theorizing, physicists came up with the idea that quantum energy relates to the total amount of matter and energy in the universe and how it is all connected. This connection of all things at such a elemental level allows for an infinite number of dimensions in the universe that all exist at the same time, and every one of these dimensions exist by sharing its matter and energy with every other dimension. In other words, in a very literal sense, all matter can occupy the same space in time within infinite number of dimensions, but because since all the matter that are occupying the same space are on a different plane of existence there are no collisions.
But what if there was a way to align the energies of different dimensions and punch a hole into another plane of existence? You would get Noein. Since time is constantly moving forward and can never be stopped or reversed, the only way to travel through time would be to jump into a dimension that has its time at a different point than your own. So I can't jump into my Delorean time machine and go forwards or backwards in time, but I could build a machine that is capable of aligning energies to allow me to sync up to another dimension that is parallel to my own, but out of time sync with my dimension. This is possible because multi-universe quantum theory says that all the dimensions are intertwined.
Think of it as a big ball of string made up of different lengths. Each string is different with an infinite number of variations are possible. This is how Karasu and the Dragon Cavalry are able to jump to and from our word. And, conversely, it is how Shangri-La plans to destroy everything. Since everything is connected to one another, if one dimension is destroyed it will take all the other dimensions with it. Existence will cease for all things simultaneously. But in a ray of hope there is the possibility that the Dragon Torque can be used in our world to stop Shangri-La and help to heal Lacryma.
Aside from all the physics, there is a wonderful human element to the story. As I mentioned in the beginning, there is the love story between Haraku and Yu that transcends time and space, and is illustrated through Karasu's devotion to protect the Haraku of this world. Intermingled within the love story are the relationships and struggles that Haraku and Yu have with their friends. For a nice dose of reality, the failed marriage between Haraku's parents plays a big role as well. The story does a really good job of peppering all these believable social interactions throughout each episode. Which goes a long way in adding some nice variety and it really helps to keep all the characters from being forgotten.
The environment designs are some of the best I have seen in recent memory. There is detail, color and texture everywhere. In fact, I found in some of my research that the city of Hakodate is a real city in the Hokkaido prefecture, and that different landmarks in Hakodate were actually recreated for certain scenes. Noein makes excellent use of some of the best melding of 2D and 3D animation I have seen. It was often difficult to tell what is drawn and what was rendered. Fight scenes are outstanding and thoroughly satisfying. In some of the really epic fights, the art style switches to a pencil test type of look. The seemingly rough and unpolished animation of these fights gives a visceral and frantic feel to them. With the striking movements and constantly changing line quality, it gives the impression of incredible speed and power that these characters have, but it the fight isn't so frantic that the movement is confusing. Very cool stuff and it is nice to see a change from a static character screaming as the background streams by.
Character designs are simply wonderful. There is a ton of variety and individuality. One nice touch in the character design is that the cast can be grouped together, such as Yu and his friends, and that group has a given style. Everyone from the future has a very cyberpunk look with rags as clothes and boots are the standard footwear. Present day fashions are current, but general enough that it won't date the series. And, even in flashbacks, there is enough attention to detail to separate the way that the characters looked back in the past then with their modern day selves.
Special features are a real treat on this third disk. Noien is presented in that wonderful widescreen theatrical format that I love so much. There is the third installment of the interview with Kudo Haruka and Akane Kazuki, which is actually kinda dull. But don't tell them I said that. And one of the coolest special features I have witnessed on an anime DVD is the production breakdown of a few animated scenes. First they show the finished shot, then the same shot, but in a storyboard animatic denoting keyframes and timing, and then, finally, they show what the animation looks like with all the tweens added in. It is an excellent resource for animation students, as well as animation teachers. Strangely, there is also a photo gallery that is just a bunch of screenshots. I have no idea why that is in there, but I guess I can't really complain about it. And there is the obligatory trailers section to round out the goodies.
English and Japanese language tracks are available in both 2.0 and 5.1 encodings. As an added bonus to the English subtitle track, which is done nicely, there is also a Spanish subtitle track. The Japanese voice acting is great and really does a great job handling the gamut of emotions that all the characters experience throughout each episode. The English track leaves little to be desired. Even if someone is not a fan of reading subtitles, I would still suggest that they see this one in Japanese and tough out the reading. Trust me it is worth it. The English track can be a little grating at times and the Americanized changes to the dialogue often make difficult to understand scenes seem even more confusing.
All in all, Noein is one great little title that is worth the time to pick up. The best part is that it is easily watchable for a second or even third time, one right after the other. Couple that with the fact that volume three has five episodes on it at a price point of less than $20 -- how can anyone not be sold on this one? With its deep storyline and conversation inducing sci-fi backdrop, I can see this one as an anime convention panel favorite. So turn in the change that's under the couch cushions and run right out and pick up this soon to be classic.
BoBoBo-Bo Bo-BoBo: Bo-nafide Protector V.1
(2006) Four episodes/80 minutes. Director: Hiroki Shibata; from TV series, DVD bilingual $19.98. Distributor: Westlake Entertainment.
Acronyms are wonderful little bits of language shorthand that really helps express ideas in a quick and timely manner. For example, a big one I tend to use a fair amount is S.O.P., which stands Standard Operating Procedure, or A.F.K., which is of course Away From Keyboard. As I watched BoBoBo-Bo Bo-BoBo, another popular acronym popped into my mind. That would be W.T.F., because it was better than the Work Time Fun that I am used to. Toei Animation has brought the Shonen Jump Manga to life in all of its satire and craziness. BoBoBo-Bo Bo-BoBo was recently featured on Cartoon Network's adult swim in edited form, but Westlake brings it to DVD in its full version.
Director Hiroki Shibata, who is probably best known for Sailor Moon faithfully brings this er... um... story to our televisions. As I begin this review, I am faced with a bit of a dilemma, because BoBoBo-Bo Bo-BoBo is nowhere even close to being a normal anime. There isn't a coherent story, nor any very well defined character relationships, and the hero, Bo-BoBo, isn't even really a hero. But what we do have is one of the quirkiest animes to come out of Japan. Basically the entire premise behind BoBoBo-Bo Bo-BoBo is to make fun of all anime and its conventions. No anime is safe from the satire that is BoBoBo-Bo Bo-BoBo, and some of fandom's most beloved series take a beating.
This first DVD introduces us to our hero Bo-BoBo (yes that is his name) and the nonsensical mess that is the story. The year is 3001.5 and Earth is controlled by the Chrome Dome Empire. Czar Baldy Bald the 4th has ordered a worldwide hair hunt to make everyone bald and flaunt his power over his foes. Our boy Bo-BoBo has decided that he will stand up and fight against Czar Baldy Bald and the follicle destruction.
From the opening narration it becomes clear the point of BoBoBo-Bo Bo-BoBo is not necessarily the plot, but rather its humor. Amongst all the wackiness that is BoBoBo-Bo Bo-BoBo, there is a ton of lampoons on anime fandom. Just a few of the series being parodied are Fist of the Northstar, Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z and Naruto. And, on top of that, stereotypes of Asian dramas are peppered throughout each episode. Since BoBoBo-Bo Bo-BoBo is relying on its humor to carry the show, one can expect a continuous flow of jokes, wacky situations and slapstick throughout each episode.
One of the best reoccurring jokes is the fighting style of Bo-BoBo. He uses a carefully honed martial art of nose hair control to defeat his enemies. That's right; Bo-BoBo can extend and retract his nose hair at will to slap his foes back to childhood. These specialized nose hairs, combined with the fairly large amount of animals that seem to live in his Afro performing Asian soap operas, enable Bo-BoBo to bring down the Chrome Dome Empire and protect the hair of all mankind. And with the help of his friends, Beauty and Don Patch, he might just learn what it feels like to be a hamburger. Don't ask, everyone will just have to see BoBoBo-Bo Bo-BoBo for themselves to understand.
My biggest issue with this release of BoBoBo-Bo Bo-BoBo is the awful subtitling. The first episode has some of the worst sync I have seen. The dialogue for the show is written at a fifth grade level, but each line is flashed so fast on the screen that you must be able to read at an accelerated college level to be able to keep up. To make matters worse, more often than not, the subtitles are on screen either a little while before or a little while after the dialogue is spoken on screen. The plot is crazy enough to keep up with and doesn't need anything more to increase the difficulty of following along. The biggest audience for a series like BoBoBo-Bo Bo-BoBo is the more hardcore anime fans. And hardcore fans live and die by the subtitled Japanese language track on their animes. It is a little frustrating and makes the show difficult to get into. Thankfully, they do get better in later episodes on the disk, but there is really no excuse for how bad the subtitles are in first episode.
On the bright side the English language track isn't half bad. The English language track does lack the vocal range of the Japanese track, but, for the most part, it does track fairly well with all the zany action on screen. The overall translation is fairly impressive, because a lot of the jokes in the original Japanese have to do with wordplay. Any type of gag that is very language specific, such as a pun or onomatopoeia, is nearly impossible to translate properly. Honorable attempts are made at these jokes and the effort seems to track with the overall tone of BoBoBo-Bo Bo-BoBo. Not an easy task, but I think it was executed fairly successfully.
Special features are almost totally nonexistent. There are three trailers available, but that is about it. With a title such as this, something to help highlight the fandom specific humor in the special features would go a long way to help enlighten those who are not familiar with the different series being spoofed would have been nice to see. Those who are new to anime or do not have the most extensive library of anime would be almost completely lost on most of the humor. It may have also been interesting to see where some of the series' ideas came from, although, I think that the majority of them may have been the result of some chemical imbalances in the animators' brains.
BoBoBo-Bo Bo-BoBo is a fun and quirky title that excels at making fun of not only itself, but almost every single over the top anime that takes itself too seriously. Those who have seen a lot of anime and Japanese drama will have fun picking out all the random references and homages. At the very least it is worth seeing for the sheer insanity and randomness of the story, and, at its retail cost of only $19.98, it won't bust the bank.
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.