In this month's batch of anime reviews, Chris Feldman takes a look at three very different shows.
2006, TV series (four episodes). Director: Masashi Abe. 100 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $24.98. Distributor: Manga Video.
Here is the second installment of Tokko. It is so hard to believe that this series came from the same awesome mind of Tohru Fujisawa, known for Great Teacher Onizuka (GTO). Tokko is a complete departure for Fujisawa and his proven success with GTO. Exploding with demonic battles and carnage, Tokko is a wild ride for those who follow along. Fujisawa continues to weave the story of 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 first episode opens with what appears to be a mundane dream about Sakura's childhood. It is before the tragedy at Machida and she is sitting on a swing enjoying the day when she notices a strange man standing off to the side. Intrigued, she gets off to investigate who he is and is shocked to discover that he is carrying a sword. He winds up and with a powerful overhand swing slices right at her. There is a splash of blood and suddenly Sakura wakes from the dream sweating and shivering. Dreams seem to be the only keys to the truth that the members of Tokko have. And this dream seems to foreshadow what is to come.
Volume 2 is fairly expositional and covers a lot of history for Ranmaru, Sakura, Kureha and Ryoko. By the end of the first disk many characters were introduced and the episodes in the first volume concentrated more on how each character relates to the others. Ranmaru is the center but unaware of his significance, Sakura is somehow bound to Ranmaru, and all of the members of Tokko are survivors of the Machida. This volume is more interesting because it starts to delve into the why. Where the first four episodes of this series seemed a more straightforward demon-slaying title, now there appear to be deeper interlocking layers that make the plot more sophisticated. Plus the excitement gets ramped up as Ranmaru begins to understand his purpose.
In a departure from the first four episodes, the humor has really been dialed down. There is the occasional chuckle now and then, especially where Ramaru's chief is involved, but these episodes are far more serious. The harsh realities of what it takes to be a member of the mysterious second division costs Ranmaru more than he may have bargained for. Strange people call Ranmaru's home in the middle of the night offering to help him take revenge, but they are really trying to set him up; a mysterious organization has taken notice of Ranmaru and has warned him to stay away from the second division or else he will regret it; the demons appear to have help from those in the human world from those who seek power; and Ranmaru is forced to make a decision that he doesn't fully understand.
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 the characters inhabit and the evil that is being fought is like a freight train on a collision course with the hero. The animated fight sequences are pretty cool and there is a ton of detail in the gore and environments. All of the movements are very fluid, with some cheating here and there. Masashi Abe does a good job of keeping the tension in the battles despite the fact that we know our hero will make it. So many times in shows like this one, the tension gets lost and the film quickly becomes a snoozer. On a cool note, these later episodes are a step up in the 3D cell shaded department. As in the previous episodes, it is primarily used on vehicles, but now these vehicles are very well done as they seem to be instances of product placement. If the quality of the integrated 3D animation stays at this level, I say bring on more product placement.
The audio for Volume Two is tricked out to offer both English and Japanese language tracks in not only 2.0 stereo, but 5.1 surround as well. Thank goodness someone has at least tried doing this. It is so frustrating when one language is neglected to "save space" on a disk. Funny how there is always room when a production company actually decides to do it.
The Japanese language is very well done, with nice expression and intensity, and the English track is not half-bad either. There is a little awkwardness in the intensity levels of the characters' voices in some of the scenes that pulls the viewer out of the moment, and sometimes what feels like forced dialogue. But for the most part it is forgivable. One complaint I do have is that the English version uses the F-bomb way too much. When used too often, it loses its intensity and in these episodes it is used all over the place. The heavy use of that four-letter word makes the dialogue sound like kids who don't know how to cuss trying to sound tough. Music is on a par with the previous volume and the 5.1 soundtrack does make good use of well-placed home theater equipment.
As a fan of this genre, I found Tokko Volume 2 to be a good deal of fun and I would recommend it. While I don't feel it is an instant classic, it is sophisticated enough for the seasoned anime veteran, and has lots of eye candy-filled action for the attention-deficit disorder crowd. The opening animation for the menu screen is pretty tasty and that kind of production design is always appreciated. There is plenty of fan service in this one, so, for those who don't mind their kids watching people being horrifically slain, but are offended at the sight of breasts, consider this fair warning.
Red Garden Vol.1 Live to Kill
2006. TV series (four episodes). Director: Ko Matsuo. 100 minutes. DVD, bilingual, $29.98. Distributor: ADV Films.
GONZO Studios, the lovely people who brought fandom Hellsing, Afro Samurai and Gantz, have serialized another unique story for the small screen. This time they have tackled a fan favorite from the monthly magazine Comic Birz called Red Garden. And ADV Films has managed to bring yet another off-the-radar, but noteworthy, title to the United States for release.
Red Garden is a bit strange. Initially I didn't know what to think of it. Each of the episodes on this disk has a sort of all-over feeling to it. It is like each episode is a weird combination of different types of anime, with no single genre standing out. Think of each episode as the baby of the combined DNA of Witch Hunter Robin, Tokko, Revolutionary Girl Utena, and a sprinkle of The Sound of Music. That is not a typo; I did in fact say The Sound of Music. I know it sounds strange, but give it a chance. Like fine wine, certain things improve with time, and Red Garden deserves a chance.
The story begins rather enigmatically, if not disorientatingly. Dark roads, mysterious people clad in black, unconscious young girls being transported by car somewhere. Suddenly one of the cars is ambushed and destroyed by a group of men using their bare hands. The beautiful young girl inside is taken away by the attackers. The following morning, the story picks up as the rest of the girls all wake up late for school and feel ill the next day. Each of these girls attends a private and very securely controlled high school on an island off of New York City. There is Kate, a member of Grace, the school's self-governing police of sorts and the social elite. Rachel is a part of the party crowd and is always going to crazy parties and wearing the trendiest clothes. Rose is a quiet and intelligent girl who cares for her little brother and sister while her mother is in the hospital. And finally there is Claire. Living on her own and working to pay her own rent, she is easily the most independent and put-together of the group. What ties all of them together is a friendship with a girl named Lise. Lise is a bit of a mystery; all that is really known about her is that she met a boy with whom she was enthralled and the other girls' trouble is tied to Lise's disappearance.
While the four girls are still recovering from their illness, an announcement is made at school that Lise had been found dead in a forest. Lise's death is ruled a suicide, but the detective investigating the incident has a hunch that there is more going on because Lise's death seems a bit too similar to five other suicides that have happened recently. That evening, Rose, Kate, Claire and Rachel all see butterflies that only they can see and feel compelled to go to a park. There they are shocked to find that none of them can remember the night before. At that moment, a strange woman and man walk out of the shadows. They tell the girls that they will be their teachers. They go on to say that the other night they all died and were brought back to life. Now they must fight and kill if they want to continue to live. Pointing to an approaching man, they tell the girls that they must kill him with their bare hands. The man begins to change before their eyes. Eyes glowing, moving on all fours, the man is transformed into a vicious doglike creature. He attacks the girls with the fury of a rabid animal. The girls, who have no combat training, must rely on their will and each other to defeat this beast and stay alive. The horrifying part comes when the girls find that this is what they have to look forward to for the rest of their lives.
As I mentioned earlier, I didn't know what to think of Red Garden. It is almost as if the anime clashed mentally for me. Take the opening titles, for example. They're in a '70s American TV retro style with flat color and vibrant colors and animation revealed through cut-outs. Visually it's very interesting, but it conflicts with the opening title music. And initially I found the music irritating because it seemed like the beat was not fixed. Kind of like a riffing live jazz quartet, only with a singer trying to keep up with the changing music. And the visual style of the series itself is a bit shocking. The characters are way too tall for their heads. Some of the characters are also far too emaciated, compared to others in the series. And probably the worst part is the singing. That's where The Sound of Music ties in. There are actual scenes in which they are just singing as if it was a musical. Normally that would be fine, but the singing isn't so great on either the English or the Japanese language track, and the lip sync is terrible. All the lip syncing is just random lip-flapping that isn't in time to the music or the words.
But please give this one a little time because, when it finally clicks, it is good. The story does start a little slowly, but as soon as the third episode comes on, it is like the blinders are off. Everything that seemed pointless or drawn out suddenly has a meaning. The conflicting personalities of the girls, which at first seemed irritating, now define the hierarchy of dominance within their little group and reinforce the undertones of social class and status. It is also cool to see how the Japanese view the youth of America. Rachel is very much in the mold of Lindsay Lohan and the others appear to be American schoolgirl stereotypes right out of classic teen summer movies. There is even a reference to the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld. My hat is off to the character designers for the sheer number of outfits all of the characters wear. I don't think there are fewer than three outfits for each character in every episode.
Once everything picks up, even the music, which at first seemed misplaced, really gets good. The ending titles even have a pretty rocking song. Music is used thoughout each episode to really set mood and tone. The Japanese-language version is very well done, but all the crying makes it a bit harsh. Where the crying and singing are concerned, the English-language version surpasses the Japanese. This is mostly because in the English-language version they don't sing as much. The subtitles are handled well and everything is explained sufficiently so as not to leave the audience confused.
Special features are kind of sparse, with only clean opening and ending credits available and some previews of the other offerings for ADV. This title would very much appeal to the gothic Bishonen anime fans out there who like a little mystery with their eye candy. For those who are looking for fan service, there isn't much to speak of aside from a few miniskirts with no peeps. Mixing of action violence and dialogue is handled with a good amount of balance to keep the story moving. It will be interesting to see what the purpose is of these battles in which the girls are forced to participate.
Gunbuster OAV Series
2006, OAV series (six episodes). Director: Hideaki Anno. 190 minutes. DVD, Japanese language w/English subtitles, $64.99. Distributor: Honneamise.
Back in 1988, some fanboys who turned animators worked for a tiny studio called Gainax and they decided it would be a good idea to rethink the mecha anime genre. Their little groundbreaking OAV series was called Gunbuster. Now, for the first time, Gunbuster is being released in the United States on DVD with re-mastered video and sound. In a first for mecha anime at the time, the protagonist was a female and every effort went into infusing the story with real dramatic content. What Gunbuster turned out to be was an anime classic that had great animation, awesome battle sequences, cute babes, and a plot that succeeded not only in reaching a new emotional level for anime, but turned out to be an allegory of fanboys(girls) growing up.
While the story of Gunbuster begins in fairly typical anime fashion, it becomes evident early on that there is a special something about how this story is told. In an effort to build believability into the story, actual scientific theories form the foundation of the world of Gunbuster. Those who have not had high school-level physics classes, or are not rabid astronomy hobbyists, will most likely get lost in the more technical plot devices. Thankfully, with a little understanding of the speed of light, everything will fall into place. Without this understanding, the scale and timeline of this series will be hard to grasp and the plight of our pilots will be lost. For each episode there is a cute little science-content animation that attempts to explain technically what is going on, but, due to the length and silliness of these explanatory episodes, they are still rather confusing. So I will attempt to present a severely watered-down summary of what is happening, and it should be enough to allow viewers to fully grasp what is going on. Please, no hateful letters from all the professors out there for my liberties.
Thanks to Einstein, we know that the universe has a speed limit of about 670,000,000 miles an hour, better known as the speed of light. A light year is roughly the distance light can travel in about 365 earth days, which is in the neighborhood of 6,000,000,000,000 miles. Parsecs, which are about three light years, are the units the army in Gunbuster uses to measure its distances from home or the enemy. This becomes significant because the first sortie against the enemy takes place about 10,000 parsecs form the earth. This is obviously a long, long, long way away. Traveling these immense distances only becomes possible through bending the fabric of space through a warp system. I think there are enough fans of Star Trek and Noein out there such that warping doesn't require an explanation.
Rocket booster technology has also improved by leaps and bounds because earth's military is capable of traveling near light speed. One postulation of the theory of relativity is that as an object approaches the speed of light, time will slow down for that object and appear to speed up at its point of origin. Think of riding in a car on the highway. If a car were to be traveling at speed behind another car it will appear to someone in the car to be moving slowly; but to someone standing on the side of the road watching the approaching vehicles, they will both appear to be moving very quickly. The same idea applies in Gunbuster. Our heroines travel in space at incredible speeds, but, due to this "Rip Van Winkle" effect, months and even decades pass on earth while only hours or days pass for them.
So now that the formalities are out of the way, allow me to talk about the story a little. It begins with the introduction of Noriko and her father, who is an admiral in the earth's space fleet. What starts out as a cute tribute to her father turns into a sad memorial after he's killed in action while in space. Her father's death solidifies Noriko's resolve to go into space as a pilot herself. Jump to the year 2023. Noriko is a freshman at an all-girls high school that is designed to develop young women to become space pilots. At school, Noriko finds that, despite her physical aptitude, her mechanical skills are lacking. Not the most advantageous arrangement for an aspiring mech pilot. But she finds a mentor in upperclassman Kazumi (One-sama) and their coach, Coach Ohta. Eventually the three of them go into space to battle a powerful alien species that threatens to wipe out human existence. The only real defense that humanity has against these aliens is the power of the Buster Machines. After all, it would take some serious weaponry to be any good against an enemy that grows inside stars.
Gunbuster has held up well over time and, although it is approaching close to 20 years in age, the writing is so good that its subject doesn't seem dated. What does slightly date this series is its pacing. The '80s gave the world parachute pants, new wave music, and the all-important montage. For those who are not in the know, a montage is a storytelling device consisting of multiple shots strung together that quickly spans a length of time. In the '80s it seemed that every movie released had to have a montage about training or getting dressed. Often big box-office movies had both. Occasionally Gunbuster suffers from the overuse of this plot device as the story tries to follow Noriko as she trains to become a better pilot. One thing that I found odd and rather funny was that most of the training in the mechs consisted of doing calisthenics while in the mech. I suppose that it is more interesting to watch robots doing jumping jacks than people sitting in simulators. Aside from these trifling complaints, Gunbuster's story is golden. Screenplay writer Toshio Okada skillfully interweaves plot elements of love, loss, and family to keep even the most cynical anime fan wanting to see what happens next. I suppose the argument could be made that it is too short and should have been longer, but that is only because the audience is left wanting more. The best special feature in this box set is a booklet that shows concept artwork as well as main character bios. And there is an episode breakdown that has commentary discussing interesting little facts and that goes behind the scenes of each episode.
The artwork for Gunbuster is totally outstanding. With almost exclusively hand-animated elements, the level of detail is mind numbing. There are some cheats but, for its time, I can't blame them. On the spaceships' panels, wires, pipes, even rivets are all drawn in. It probably took a week just to draw a single image; at 24 frames a second, the anime would never get finished before the studio went bankrupt. The figure motion studies are amazing. The character movement is so fluid and solid that I was in awe. Battle sequences are intense, with plenty of frantic tension and excellent editing. Some of the most interesting stuff happens in the cockpits. Unlike a lot of the Gundam and Macross animes where the pilot appears to be floating in a virtual environment, the Gunbuster pilots are surrounded by moving dials, gauges, and monitors. Combine that with all the flashing lights and creative use of lighting and the cockpit scenes become incredibly energetic. Be ready for a lot of fan service. There are plenty of courtesy breasts bouncing around and even a Sharon Stone leg-crossing scene in the bath. So parents should consider this fair warning.
Audio has been re-mastered, but thankfully they didn't bow to the home theater god and drop in a 5.1 surround track just to say they have it. So many animes recorded in stereo and then transferred to DVD have a pretty poorly re-mastered 5.1 surround encoding. There is no point in having a separate rear channel recording when it is not utilized or it's just simulated. In fact the audio actually tends to sound a bit anemic on these 5.1 mixes that are generated from a 2.0 master. It is better just to listen to the 2.0 channel recording with the Dolby Pro Logic setting on the receiver. So I thank Honneamise for retaining the quality of this series. There is only a Japanese-language option available, which is fine by me because the voice acting is so awesome, and the subtitles have been updated as well. As an added feature, there is an option for just the dialogue subtitles or for the dialogue and signs as well.
This revisited classic anime is definitely one for all the collectors out there. Even those with Gunbuster on VHS will want to pick this one up. It comes in a slick folding box set with custom artwork that can be displayed all by itself. Plus the included booklet will be most appreciated by fans. There are some pretty avant garde elements to Gunbuster and it is worth seeing where ideas happened first. And it might be fun to have a contest with friends to see how many series you can name that have been influenced by Gunbuster. They really thought outside the box to make this series great. Take the final episode, for instance. It is done entirely in monochrome color and then the final fight sequence is animated as a pencil-drawn animatic. I am quite sure that many folks would check to see if their monitor is broken, but in fact this is entirely intentional. Gunbuster offers a ton of original storytelling and great artwork. At its price, this box set is a steal. It may have a relatively short running time, but its replay value is one of the highest out there.
Chris Feldman is a freelance 3D modeler and animator whose work has been featured in television, games and manufacturing. He is an active member of 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.