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Anime Reviews: Memory of The Flame & Ghosts

For this month's trio of anime reviews, Chris Feldman checks out The Flame of Recca, Vol. 10: The Final Showdown; Kurau: Phantom Memory, Vol. 1; and Zipang, Vol. 2: The Ghosts of History

The true heir of Hokage ninja clan is decided in The Flame of Recca Vol. 10 The Final Showdown, concluding the series once and for all.

The Flame of Recca, Vol. 10: The Final Showdown

(1997) TV series (five episodes), 1997. Director: Noriyuki Abe. 100 minutes. DVD bilingual $24.98. Distributor: Viz Media.

Here is the 10th and final DVD of the Flame of Recca series. It is the perfect culmination to this series because once and for all the true heir of Hokage ninja clan is decided. For those out there who are not familiar with this series, allow me to bring you up to speed. This is a story about a high school boy named Recca Hanabishi, who is enthralled by all things ninja. In fact he takes the whole idea of being a ninja so seriously that he often gets himself into fights, and afterwards boasts that he will serve as a ninja to whoever can beat him. Of course Recca has plenty of raw talent to back up his boasting. It turns out that Recca is in fact a descendent of the Hokage ninja clan that was destroyed over 400 years ago, and he was sent to the future by his mother in order to save his life. Recca is not alone in his ability to control flame. He has a half brother named Kurei, who has the ability to capture the soul of a dead person in his flame. The entire series is funneled toward a sudden-death martial arts tournament, with the culmination of the series being the clash of these two titans of flame.

Flame of Recca initially started out as a manga, serialized in Shounen Sunday back in the mid-90s, that ran for seven years. Two years into the manga's run, the anime was created and ran for a year. Viz has licensed not only the complete 42-episode anime series, but the manga as well. Volume 10 contains the last five episodes, which are really more like a single episode broken into five parts. In episode 38, we have Recca's team Hokage finally getting the opportunity to do battle with Kurei's team Uruha in the finals. But not before the appearance of a mysterious old man, who seems to have fight advice for team Hokage. Good thing that old man appeared to lend a hand, because Domon is in for the fight of his life and his mind. Episode 39 has a mysterious caped man slated to fight Fuko, but a last-minute fight card change puts Tokiya in the ring. How can this stranger use the same techniques as Tokiya, if Tokiya is the only one who can wield the Ice-Crest Sword? And where has Recca gone off to? The truth behind Tokiya's sister's death is revealed at the startling conclusion of this second bout. Moving on to Episode 40, Fuko finally gets her chance to rumble. This time she is facing an opponent who is as devious as she is brutal. Fuko is forced to make a choice and face her true feelings, but will the strength that she gains from her friends be enough to enable Fuko to survive? Going into the last two episodes, 41 and 42, the climax of the series is reached. Recca will have to learn how to fight without using the power of his fire dragons if he hopes to beat Kurei. The tournanment, Recca's friends, and the life of Yanagi, the woman he swore he would protect, are all on the line with this final bout.

Those out there who are fans of Yu Yu Hakusho, Inuyasha or Naruto would enjoy Flame of Recca. The battles are paced similarly, with brief periods of exposition to keep the story moving or to surprise the audience with some sort of revelation. Special moves are all flashy, with some sort of glow, smoke, or other type of special effect. Each fighter takes an incredible amount of damage during a fight, with blood spraying, body parts twisting, and debris flying. The motion is handled nicely and the fights are a blast to watch. A lot of effort has gone into giving each movement a weight and strength. Sometimes it's kind of tough to watch the fighters beat on each other because the pain combined with the sound effects really seems like it hurts. Probably some of the best animation in this series is the flame battle between Kurei and Recca. When they are powered up and their fires are raging, there is such an impressive sense of ferocity and power. But Flame of Recca is not all fistfights and battles; there's a more fun side to it. Several of the female characters are rather kawaii, with super-deformed versions of themselves popping up randomly. And there is a humorous side, with lecherous jokes and judges for the tournament even acting as a bit of anime satire, dressed in fan service costumes that pay homage to the studio's previous works such as Urusei Yatsura.

This is a bilingual DVD, so Japanese and English languages are available in 2.0 stereo. I would avoid the English dub if possible. The Japanese voice acting sounds so much tougher and the English voices sound pretty cheesy. Viz did a great job on the subtitling for this disk. The subtitles are in white, but they are outlined in black to make things a little easier on the eyes, and the pacing of the subtitles never gets out of hand. Background music is well done, with nice musical punctuation on action and comedy. One issue that I had is that it seems that a lot of the sound effects are taken from other well-known sources. For instance, there is a lift that brings the referees to the ring. It is the same exact sound effect used for the drop ships unloading from Starcraft. First of all, it seems like such a random sound effect to use and, secondly, the drop ship effect sounds nothing like a hydraulic personal lift. There are other goofy sounds like this on this DVD and it just kind of struck me the wrong way. Overall the sound is good, but those few goofy sounds really cheapened it for me.

The extra features are pretty limited, but what is offered is pretty cool. The single special feature is a sketches section, in which, by using the arrow keys on the DVD remote, 27 different pencil sketches of the characters are available. The artwork is some really outstanding stuff. Really simple cross-hatch shading with really intricate line quality make each sketch a real work of art.

All in all, this DVD is a pretty good value. Its price point is slightly cheaper than the average anime DVD and, with five episodes on the disk instead of the typical four, there is added value. Fans of martial arts anime and manga will enjoy this one a great deal, but I would definitely buy and watch the other disks first, because volume 10 is mostly all spoilers. So, to sum up: good value, rockin' action, cheeky humor, and some decent eye candy all add up to a pretty good addition to any anime collection.

Kurau Phantom Memory defies classification. It's not really a sci-fi story, nor is it a love story; in fact, it's easiest to say that it is a lot of genres rolled into one. All Kurau Phantom Memory images courtesy of ADV Films.

Kurau: Phantom Memory, Vol. 1

(2007) TV series (four episodes). 2007. Director: Yasuhiro Irie. 100 minutes. DVD bilingual $29.98. Distributor: ADV Films.

Probably the single greatest reason for anime's continually growing and fiercely loyal fandom is the intricate stories that serve as the cornerstone of each show. Ask even a modest fan of anime about his or her favorite movie or series and they could speak endlessly about its plot and describe in great detail all of the subtext. Ask a hardcore fan the same question and it would be incredibly difficult for them to give a synopsis of the story in just a few sentences. Most of the stories used in Western animation suffer either from a repetitive plot design that really has no three-act structure or from being a rehash of stories that have already been told umpteen times before. The depth and emotional resonance of good storytelling is the reason why hardcore anime collectors always seem to have video collections big enough to rebuild the Great Wall of China, but are lucky to be able to afford a car. Studios that understand this create some of the most enthralling and epic anime series available. ADV Films has yet again licensed another awesome anime here in the states, so that it can be discovered by American audiences.

Kurau Phantom Memory is one of the few newer titles that can actually be called original. Others have unique qualities, but really have ties to what has more or less been done before. To be totally honest, I don't even know how to classify this series. It's not really a sci-fi story, nor is it a love story; in fact, it's easiest to say that it is a lot of genres rolled into one.

A typical father-daughter relationship takes an unusual turn when Kurau interacts with an experiment conducted by her father's research team. As a result, she disintegrates into tiny bits of light and then suddenly reforms.

The series starts out with a typical father-daughter relationship, noting that the protagonist, Kurau, has lost her mother, and that she and her father live in a futuristic world on the moon. The relationship between Kurau and her father is beautifully laid out in the series introduction. Out of guilt for almost forgetting his daughter's birthday, Kurau's dad, Dr. Amami, decides to bring her to work so that they can spend the day together. This of course makes Kurau jubilant and she plans a very special day for the two of them. Dr. Amami heads a research team that's developing an alternative energy source. Initially the experiment that Dr. Amami is conducting goes smoothly; then the unthinkable happens. Two energy anomalies that were produced during the experiment collide with Kurau and she disintegrates into tiny bits of light right before Dr. Amami's colleagues. Then, as suddenly as she disappeared, Kurau reforms out of the tiny lights. This new being is not just the daughter that Dr. Amami once had. Now she lives in a symbiotic existence with a life form called the Rynax.

This rebirth endows Kurau with amazing superhuman abilities, dubbed Rynax powers. She is able to pass through walls and can even fly. Unfortunately these powers don't come without a cost. The Rynax exist as pairs and when the pair produced during the experiment merged with Kurau one of them became dormant. The result is that Kurau has superhuman abilities, but constantly feels a horrible sense of loneliness. The story then jumps 10 years ahead and Kurau is now a young woman living on earth. Making full use of her powers, she works as an agent-for-hire dealing with everything from industrial espionage to rescuing pilots from an out-of-control space freighter. Then, one night, the dormant Rynax inside Kurau wakes up and materializes as the 12-year-old Kurau who first encountered the Rynax. Again a pair, these two different Kuraus try to live together, all the while attempting to hide their Rynax powers from those who wish to exploit their abilities.

Kurau's rebirth gives her amazing superhuman abilities -- Rynax powers. The powers, of course, don't come without a cost.

After a rather slow start, the anime picks up in the second episode, hinting at the plot's epic scope and vision. The story seamlessly and continually crosses between the worlds of earth, moon, and quantum space. The idea behind the Rynax stems from particle physics. Atomic energy that is created by forming or destroying atoms is where Dr. Amami's research started. Some real-life physicists believe that the building blocks of atoms - quarks -- may hold the key to interdimensional windows. In this story, the alternative energy released when the particles are combined turns out to be the Rynax, brought into this world through a dimensional portal. The story's depth doesn't end at the scientific idea behind the Rynax. Everything in the world is set in a believable future, complete with hovering cars and mechanized artillery that looks functional -- not out of the Gundam school of mech power suits.

The audio is outstanding. Music is perfectly chosen and scored for this series. I can definitely see the opening theme, "Natsukashii Umi," becoming a favorite on the anime convention karaoke stage. Lots of great sound effects, subtly used, adds to the real-world feeling. The Japanese language track is great, with a lot of well-known voice actors lending their talents. The English language track is passable. Actually, the only English voice that doesn't sound natural is Kurau's; however, I can't really blame anyone for the awkwardness, since the character is very complicated emotionally and therefore incredibly difficult to voice.

There are also some translation issues for which I don't think there is an acceptable solution. For some strange reason, it was thought to be a good idea to name the younger Karau "Christmas," which sounds like a goofy name that a star would give her kid. In my book, it's not a very fitting name. I guess that the significance of the Christmas holiday is different in Japan.

There is a great deal of attention given to the face of each character in Kurau Phantom Memory. A lot of effort went into building emotional expression, and vocal actualization is very acute.

One other strange thing about Kurau Phantom Memory is the quality of the audio. The Japanese language version is in 2.0 stereo and the English is recorded in 5.1 surround, but there isn't an audible sense of surround sound. I don't see the point of going through the audio re-mastering process to create a 5.1 surround track that doesn't utilize the surround aspect of the playback.

The visual style is a little different from what is expected in anime. While characters are still stylized, there is a great deal of attention given to the face of each character. Typically faces in anime are rather flat, with only four or five mouth positions for lip-sync. The faces in this series have a much more life-like feel. A great deal of effort went into building emotional expression into each face, and vocal actualization is very acute. Another departure in visual style is that the body types of the characters are much more proportional and true to life. Take Kurau, for instance. While she does have feminine physical attributes, her hair, clothing, and frame have a more androgynous feel to them. It's almost as though there was the specific intent to have the character's body retain the 12-year-old Kurau frame, despite the fact that she has grown into an adult. 3D elements are integrated very smoothly and are not easily recognizable. I suppose the only real complaint I have is that the color palette is a little too blue. I don't necessarily mind a cool color pallete, but in this case it feels a bit much and it makes the environments feel heavy. There are also cool bits of detail throughout the environments. I always find little bits that give nods to the production company and Easter egg-type inserts that are fun to spot.

Special features are a nice treat. There are clean opening and closing animations, which are cool to have when the music is as good as it is here. A promotional video is also included. The promo is neat to watch, but it's really just an extended trailer. The real treat is a rather lengthy production artwork video that has tons of stuff in it: character model sheets for what seems like every character in the series, plus environments, vehicles and weapons. Another nice addition is a section called keywords. Since the viewer is pretty much tossed head first into the world of Kurau, things can be a bit disorienting. The keywords section has explanations and backstory for the events on this first disk and will be of great interest to anyone who wants a more in-depth understanding of Kurau's world or someone who is just a little confused about what is going on. And of course there is an ADV previews section, as well as DVD credits. An added bonus is the DVD insert. The insert contains the original cover art plus brief interviews with Ayako Kawasumi, the voice actress for Kurau; Aya Yoshinaga, the scriptwriter; and Tomomi Ozaki, the character designer.

Kurau Phantom Memory is a very solid title that has a lot to offer. It has a mature storytelling style combined with sci-fi elements and a more realistic design. Layered plot elements and detailed environments make this title worth seeing over and over. Drama is very thoughtfully done and stands up over multiple viewings. However, Kurau Phantom Memory won't necessarily appeal to the strictly eye-candy crowd. What this title does have to offer is superior storytelling and fresh new ideas about what anime can be. At its price point of $29.98, and being only a six-disk series, it is well worth the investment.

In Zipang, Vol. 2, the time-traveling Mirai comes to grips with its unique situation. The story doesn't concentrate on the technological superiority of the destroyer, but rather the crew's knowledge of the future.

Zipang, Vol. 2: The Ghosts of History

(2006) TV series (four episodes). Director: Kazuhiro Furuhashi. 100 minutes. DVD bilingual $24.98. Distributor: Geneon.

World War II is a topic that never loses interest for both the East and the West. Countless movies, video games, books, and other media have been about the war, or have had it as their backdrop. Maybe it is because of the scale on which the war was fought, maybe it is because the end of the war marked the beginning of the nuclear age, or maybe it is because, for many of us, we still have personal ties to it. One particular group of World War II stories that I personally find interesting has to do with the idea of traveling back through time with modern war machines. In a 1980 movie called The Final Countdown, the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Nimitz encountered an electrical anomaly while at sea and was transported back to 1941 right before Pearl Harbor. The captain and crew are faced with the dilemma of whether to intervene to save American lives and risk significantly altering the future, or letting the events of history play out as they should.

Zipang follows a similar idea, but in a much more interesting way. The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer the Mirai sets sail from Hawaii to participate in joint operations with the U.S. Navy. Near Midway Island the Mirai encounters a strange meteorological phenomenon and loses contact with the other ships in the fleet. After regaining their bearings, the crew soon realizes that they are headed directly toward the battleship Yamamoto and that they are no longer in the present day. In this second volume, the story moves on from the shock of suddenly being transported back in time 60 years and begins to explore the ramifications of the intervention. So far the description of this series is not unlike any of the other stories that have explored this idea. But there is a very significant difference between those other stories and Zipang. The other stories concentrate on the use of technological superiority to change the balance of the war effort. Take the before-mentioned The Final Countdown. The carrier Nimitz, with its 90+ fighter jets and attack helicopters, would easily have decimated the Japanese Imperial Army in battle, but not for the length of the war. The price paid for technological advantage is that there are high maintenance costs. Back when frigates ruled the seas, when they took on damage, all they would need to do for repairs is find the nearest forest and find suitable timber to fix the ship. The nuclear-powered Nimitz and the aircraft on it require sophisticated equipment just to keep them running, let alone in repair. Even if they were able to successfully link up with the American military for assistance, the ability to do the required maintenance would be at least another 40 years in the future.

So in a far more practical approach, Zipang doesn't concentrate on the technological superiority of the destroyer. Rather, the focus is on a far more devastating weapon, the knowledge of the future. So far in the story, the Mirai's major focus is resupplying its food and fuel, not turning the tide of the war. It is interesting that the cause for the crew's conflict over whether or not to intercede in the war effort is mostly fear: Fear over what it will do the future and to their families. Changing the outcome of the war could significantly change the future Japan, and the thriving industrial nation that it is today may not come into existence. Everything that the crew knows and holds dear could be undone by their interference. And they do not wish to harm or allow to be harmed any of their fellow Japanese. These fears often seem to clash with one another because by not doing anything they allow Japanese to be killed, but if they save Japanese lives, then they could change the future. The well-written dialogue and smart exchanges between characters are very engaging, making each episode feel much shorter than it really is.

The animations and artwork are of theatrical quality. It is very obvious that some real time and money were spent in this production. A large number of 3D elements have been skillfully blended with the hand-drawn work. Each battleship and aircraft is packed with detail and realism. Volume 2 has a short battle between a variable-wing aircraft from the Mirai and two Zeros that is very well done. Air battles are difficult to make interesting, especially when there are so few aircraft involved. So my hat is off to director Furuhashi for his efforts.

The character designs leave something to be desired. There is little variety, and a lot of characters look alike, which I find to be strange for such a character-driven piece. Also, none of the characters is particularly attractive. Environments are lush and are used creatively to imply space, whether it is the claustrophobic jungle or the emptiness of the sea. There is some cheating with static frames by panning around the frame. Most of the time it really isn't noticeable, but there is one cheesy moment when a downed Zero pilot is looking up at his adversary in fear, and it just looks dumb because he never moves, despite all of his screaming.

Sound is also of theatrical quality. Both opening and ending themes, while melancholy in tone, would be right at home in any epic Hollywood film. Background music is tastefully placed and composed to optimize tension. Sound effects are very well done too, with cannon fire and plane hits sounding very realistic. The Foley is outstanding, with little bits of detail -- like the tips of pointers scratching against maps and all the little sounds of an aircraft warming up for takeoff -- all added in. The recorded languages of English and Japanese are both in 2.0 stereo. I wouldn't recommend viewing this one in English because the difference in acting is so great that it really changes the viewing experience. There also appear to be some problems with the translation, because "officer" is translated as "Lieutenant," and there are some other discrepancies as well. I guess the translator wasn't too versed in military lingo. Another interesting anomaly is that the English-language version is full of different accents. It is normal for there to be differences in accent between those from the north and south, but if they are all supposed to be Japanese, why do some of them speak with Japanese accents and some with American?

Sadly, the special features are pretty anemic. All that is offered are clean opening and ending animations, English version and DVD credits, and three Genon previews. At first I was a little apprehensive about this title. I have seen plenty of military animes that are really just propaganda against the American military. But Zipang is quite different. It has a developed storyline and explores the real conflict, both emotional and physical, that would face the soldiers on board the Mirai. Excellent audio, despite the lack of 5.1 surround sound, and well-done animation make this title a pretty engrossing series. Dialogue that avoids the clichés of military drama mixed in with intense action sequences really holds the viewer's attention. For those war buffs out there who enjoy historical fiction, Zipang is one series to pick up.

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.