Thursday, June 17, 2010

Outlaw Star

Have I got a special treat for you this week. A real classic. Most American anime fans know of Outlaw Star as one of the shows that helped bring about what some fondly call Toonami's golden age on Cartoon Network, when the network was brave enough to bring out an explosion of fresh, new, entertaining and sometimes edgy programming such as Tenchi Muyo, Sailor Moon, and of course, Dragon Ball. It may have been shorter than some of the others people still talk about, but it's no less memorable. So strap yourselves in and prepare for liftoff.

Outlaw Star was based on a Manga of the same name that was penned by Takehiko Ito starting in 1997. It was popular enough that Sunrise took it up as a 26 episode series in 1998 and it eventually gained notoriety in the United States as one of the series that made the Toonami bloc the erstwhile home of anime programming on cable TV. I even still remember some of the commercials they did for Toonami that for a while still had clips from the show even though they had cancelled its run at the time I started being seriously interested in the medium. But I remember just watching the commercials and wishing I could find this show because I was really curious about the strange girl in the blue light who was asking all the questions. "Why was I made? Who made me? And what did they make me for?"

The story starts off with the two main characters, Gene Starwind a hardened mercenary with a past and his intelligent kid sidekick Jim Hawking as they get a job from this mysterious lady who wants them to purchase some parts for her and provide her some protection while she's in their city. However, it turns out that her name's  Hilda and she's actually an outlaw on the run from some pirates (there is a difference in this universe) because she stole something from them. At first the guys are reluctant to help, but then they learn what the pirates are after. In a case by her ship there is a girl frozen in cold sleep. Upon waking up it turns out that her name is Melfina, a bio-android who is intimately connected with a ship that Hilda hid on an asteroid near a star. Gene and the others are forced to come with Hilda when it becomes no longer safe on their planet of Sentinel, as she determines to go back and activate the ship. The pirates follow them and in the course of a space battle, Hilda gets pulled into the star along with the pirates, leaving the main cast alone with the brand new state-of-the-art ship which Gene decides to name the Outlaw Star. They are eventually joined by the space samurai assassin Twilight Suzuka, and Aisha Clan-Clan a member of the Ctarl-Ctarl alien race (she's basically a cat-girl) as they search out answers to the mystery of Melfina and the Outlaw Star's origins, while trying to stay financially afloat. This is not the least of their problems either. They also have to deal with pirates, other Outlaws, soldiers, other assassins, and then there is the elusive search for the Galactic Leyline. All of this doesn't come at you at once however, so there is a little bit of time to digest the important parts while still leaving enough unexplained to keep you wanting more and glorying in the way the key characters develop over time.

Among the things that make the show interesting, is the level of detail within the universe that the characters inhabit. It's a big galaxy out there, with planets and stars and all sorts of space stations and stop-offs to be found, not to mention interesting races. Earth, the home of the Terrans (read as "humans") seems like its a long way away from the action, though it does exist, but there are also two or three other alien races running around, such as the bird-like Silgrians, and of course, the previously mentioned cat-like Ctarl Ctarl. Often a narrator at the beginning of the episodes will helpfully offer a little information about the universe or the plot so that the rest of the story doesn't have to deal with explaining it. While this may seem a little distracting, most of the info is quite informative and relevant to what's going on. Such as in the episode where Gene poses as a prisoner at this penal colony on a planet with 3 times Earth's gravity. From the beginning, you know that no prisoner has ever escaped, and so you know Gene's got his work cut out for him from the moment the doors to the space elevator open. The universe looks even better thanks to the gritty look of many of the backgrounds which, much like the appearance of many space ships in live films such as Star Wars, gave off the impression that these locations were lived in. There also appears to be a decent amount of thought put into the history of this universe, at least the human portion of it as we consider what cultures became dominant over time. (There's no small amount of Chinese influence to be felt here). Even so, there is still a significant portion of the universe out there that is unknown, which can be seen in the development of the locations they encounter that are connected to the Galactic Leyline. The level of technology that the characters have access to is also pretty interesting, though I will be first to admit it's a little odd that Melfina has to interface with the ship in the nude to provide it with the necessary system data. I dunno, maybe clothes interfere with the connection? (But then again who am I to argue with the guys in the audience?) In all fairness, it does make for a helpful plot twist that the interface tube in which she does her thing could also be used as a portable medical apparatus, such as when Gene is poisoned in episode 8 although it does leave me to wonder how common such interface tubes are. And do they also regularly serve that secondary purpose? The tube on the McDougall Brothers' ship seems to do that too, but at the same time, it may be a fluke spawning from them having access to the same scientist that built the Outlaw Star. It's an interesting question for another time, I guess. 

I especially liked this show for the development that's devoted to the main characters. Rather than having the viewer looking everywhere at once, the writer zeroed in on them and worked really hard to put together the main cast in such away that you could easily find them believable. Like Gene, who often tries to put up the image of a hardened tough guy with a lecherous streak but really is quite vulnerable and sensitive in many ways. This is often demonstrated by his interactions with Melfina whom he never seems capable of raising his voice with, and they almost never fight. He also doesn't like space travel much at first and is really squeamish about it in the beginning. Jim on the other hand is a child prodigy who is mature beyond his years (a fun contrast to Gene that leaves them constantly at each other's throats in spite of their partnership), but even so, he is still in the throws of coming of age and you never forget that he is still very young, in fact in some episodes, this is emphasized very poignantly. Such as in episode 20 where he meets a girl in a park on a space station and then sets up a meeting with her later, not realizing she's a Kei pirate he's about to take part in killing. Melfina is also a fascinating character because once you understand what it means to be a bio-android in this universe, and that she really is more like a human than most will admit, it's easy to empathize with her sense of confusion and loss as she's trying to figure out her origins, of which she has no memory at all. Aisha and Suzuka also have their secrets and their quirks. Aisha is really short tempered but also very hard-working, and while Suzuka seems initially to be a very cold and calculating as befitting of a samurai assassin, the rest of the group seems to grow on her a little. Even Gilliam, the ship's computer is entertaining to listen to, as Gene and Jim will often talk back to him, much as I sometimes talk back to my Garmin when it tells me it's recalculating because I took a wrong turn, except that Gilliam definitely has a much higher level of awareness than any GPS.. 

Perhaps my favorite character so far in this series however, didn't even survive to the end. I generally try to get hold of subtitles, but for this series I found the dub from Bandai's release first, and that was perfectly okay with me once I discovered that Mary McGlynn, (known for doing the voice of Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell) does Hilda's voice and boy does she give weight to this character. This is important, since Hilda dies early in the series and the writer obviously wanted us to care about her enough before that happened to really feel it when she died. Not only is she a strong character in her own right, with her own values and views on life, but she also served as a guide for the other main characters and a support to provide them with the know-how and psychological stamina to survive long after she left. Because of this, you feel her influence as well as her absence long after she dies at the star where she hid the ship and that is the mark of good writing in my book.

The adversaries they face are also pretty interesting. Like the McDougall brothers, one of whom has a crush on Melfina and is a few bricks shy of a full load though he does manage to redeem himself somewhat in the end. Then there are the Kei pirates, who were initially chasing Hilda because she had stolen the ship from them. Many of them specialize in a kind of chi magic called Tao that may seem a little out of place in a world where hard science seems to reign supreme, but these enemies are no less deadly for their weird chant. I don't think I'll ever get that creepy thing out of my head. "Pagua sanfa pagua sanfa pagua sanfa..." (*Shivers* Why won't it stop?!) In all serious the Kei pirates are a very real threat, so real that Gene decides early on to leave their territory for a while to hide out and gather resources. Even then, they are doggedly pursued by the pirates right up until the end when they reach the Leyline and figure out what it is.

Even the filler episodes are pretty entertaining and most of them fit pretty well, as Gene and Jim go through the rigors of searching for more money, even though they include many of the tropes for which anime filler is famous (or infamous depending on how you see it), such as the male lead being dressed up as a girl, and of course, the hot-spring episode. (A word of warning, guys: You may want to hide the kids before you watch that episode as Cartoon Network found it too sexually explicit for their usual viewing audience and decided not to air it.) However, I think my favorite happened to be the episode about the hypno-cactus that was subliminally telling people to buy ice-cream (yeah, pretty dumb, but funny just the same). If anything was worthy of a demotivator, that would be one. "HYPNOCACTUS: Fear me, lower life forms."

Even some of the problems add to the entertainment to a degree. Like for instance, when they're transitioning between scenes, the dissolve they use is that of a gunshot sound accompanied by a bullet hole and a flash. When this happens, I find myself tempted to make dumb jokes, such as: *Bang* "Oh god! They killed Jim!" Not to mention, some of the space combat made me want to laugh. When Gene activates the ship's combat mode and his heads-up display screen pops up, you get this brief representation of where the ship is supposed to be in relation to its surroundings, but I can't help but look at it and think (RPG fan that I am) "Hey, it's a battle map! Where's my game controller so I can set up the attack?" Once the combat actually ensues we find ourselves treated to the Outlaw Star coming out with grappling arms that look more like robotic hands, and sometimes they even hold guns. When would that ever be practical? I mean, someone could just shoot your arms off and then you're defenseless! And what about the guns themselves, couldn't you just carry more ammo and use your missiles more?  That'd make more sense, I'd think. Instead of potentially losing your weapons because some jerk ripped them off your robotic arms. Even so, the only thing I found truly annoying about the series was Aisha Clan Clan's voice in the English dub. Her character was probably supposed to be a bit of a pain to begin with, but the voice actor makes her sound like she's losing her voice in places, and it's like listening to nails on a chalk board.

One of the best things this anime accomplishes that many others sadly fail to, is providing a satisfying conclusion. This series has a final endgame that ties up most of the loose ends for our heroes but leaves just enough leeway to wonder what might happen next. The Galactic Leyline is found, and it turns out Melfina is also the key to opening the door. (Apparently it's a distant relative of the Hijutsu from Nabari no Ou in that it uses some ancient super-technology to give you what you want, without the risk of melting your brain). Although I don't want to spoil the whole ending for you as it's definitely worth a watch.The whole series is a nice package tied up even more nicely by the catchy theme-song they have at the beginning. I've still got it stuck in my head as I write. There is also a song that Melfina sings that's pretty nice to listen to even though they probably won't make a symphony out of the rest of the sound track.

Overall, Outlaw Star is a fun and satisfying story, and you'll definitely find some good laughs along with the story-telling. If you haven't seen it before, check it out. Now. You'll be glad you did. 

The Images utilized in this review are all from Outlaw Star

Monday, June 7, 2010

Air Gear

So yeah, about Air Gear. If the folks who made Jet Set Radio had made an anime, it might have been something like this except without the graffiti. We've got kids in roller blade street gangs that fight each other for emblems and parts. It's an anime for you guys out there who are into anything that involves a challenge, especially a violent one that is incredibly dangerous and very likely to get you into a wheelchair as a reward for epic failure. But don't take my word for it (although by reading this you probably are); let's take a look.

Like so much of the anime out there, Air Gear was based on a manga of the same name. It was first published by a mangaka with the writer's handle "Oh! great" in Shonen Weekly. (That is his name, I'm not kidding.) It was taken up by Toei Animation as a TV series and ran for 26 episodes on TV Tokyo in 2006 and in America, it's licensed by Funimation. It even briefly enjoyed a stint on Cartoon Network for a while. The premise is not far removed from a generic sports anime. You've got the main character, Ikki who has entered the world of being a Storm Rider (that's what they call these roller blade gangs) and wants to be the best he can be. He's joined by a group of friends, friendly rivals, and family members in order to help him achieve that goal. That's fine. There are plenty of anime that do perfectly well with that plot, but then you add the extra mythical aspect to the whole thing and it gets a little silly. There's this whole overarching junk about the 8 kings of roller blading that at one point got to the top of this place called Trophaem Tower and took these special wheels called regalia and supposedly they are ordained by these special wheels to rule over the world of roller blades like...   kings I guess...  hang on a second while I compose myself. *several minutes of uncontrollable laughter* I mean, they treat it so seriously when talking about it, it's like the wheels were granted to them by God or something.

The story starts with Ikki getting beaten up by a local street gang that is also a group of Storm Riders. After stealing a pair of roller blades (oh sorry, I mean Air Treks,) off one of his older sisters/guardians/female roommates (it's not entirely clear what they are to tell the truth) he discovers a Storm Rider emblem in their stuff and accidentally uses it to set off a parts war with the same group. The girls pull his fat out of the fire and he decides to form his own Storm Rider group and go to the top, which takes up the rest of the story. As far as the plot is concerned, much of it is rinse and repeat. They come across another Storm Rider team, they are the underdogs and have a difficult time, but somehow they pull out ahead at the end and earn the respect of the rival team, along with the rival team's emblem, which forces them to disband unless they wagered parts instead. (Seems a bit harsh in my book, but that's how it works.) While there are a couple of points where he has to contend with difficulties like acquiring the consent of the girl who owns his house (who incidentally, is also an AT king.) or deal with the authorities, most of it is rather predictable even up to the point where Simca the Swallow, one of the most powerful local team leaders decides to follow Ikki's Storm Rider team bringing the biggest team in the region under his beck and call.

That wasn't the biggest problem I had with the series. Even though the viewer knows it's all a bunch of bung, the characters take themselves way too seriously. For instance, there are several points where Ringo, the character who is supposed to be Ikki's best female friend/love interest, doesn't want to tell him stuff that might be relevant, just because 'she's afraid she'll have to face him one day' and even though it's probably true, I don't see why it's that big a deal. They're just motorized roller blades. Okay, so she's an AT king too, well, that's really cool and all, but in the grande scheme of things, it probably won't change anything if Ikki knows. If anything, he'd probably respect her even more. Rika, the head of Ikki's household, is also prone to this sort of "not telling him what he doesn't need to know" trope. Her reason was a little more practical, because she's afraid he's going to get himself hurt like her boyfriend did (he's a former AT king in a wheel chair now) even if she contradicts her motives by pounding him into a pulp herself. 

Nudity and sexual innuendo abound in some areas of this series, and I was expecting that from the get-go, but, there's also some other points where things happen that have you wondering "Where did that come from?" Like there's a point in one of the challenge sequences where one of Ikki's team members uses his perverted nature as a weapon against his female adversary. This is also the first series I've seen where the characters actually acknowledge an animal or icon used for censorship. There's this little crow that flies around in the series and covers offending body parts and at one point, one Storm rider sets up an agreement with Ikki that the crow is the item he puts on the line in a parts war since he doesn't have an emblem yet at that point in the series. And then there's the stuff that you wish wasn't there. Like the fact that the teacher at the middle school everyone attends acts like she wants to be raped and that this alone seems to be the purpose for her existence. *inches away from the computer screen*

Innuendo and censorship are not the only head-scratchers either. Never mind the laws of physics (I gave up on that in anime years ago), how is it possible that the police would have a special Air Trek unit with fully equipped riot police on roller blades and with helicopters and humvees, and not be the laughing stock of Japan? Adding that the leader of the unit regularly keeps his little brother Akito/Agito (another AT King) caged like an animal through the early part of the series (child abuse!) until Ikki rescues him...  yeah, pretty crazy.Come to think of it, there are really way too many AT kings in the neighborhood.  It's like it's some kind of royal hub, or something. Regardless, there's a reason Akito/Agito is wearing a straight jacket, as we can definitely add him to the legion of anime characters with Multiple Personality disorder. His mind is separated into that of a homicidal maniac and an innocent little boy (with homosexual tendencies it seems), only kept apart by an eye protector, which determines what personality is active by which eye it covers. He's a piece of work to be sure. 

And then there are the costumes some of the other Storm Riders wear. Where do I begin? Like the main characters are okay in this department, but once you get into the rival teams you start bordering on the ridiculous. Many of them remind me of the flunkies of a rejected Batman super villain. They wear things like skull masks or helmets in the shape of animal heads, and even the less creative ones are bizarre. Take the team that Buccha had before he joins Ikki's group for instance. I mean seriously guys, Buddhist break-dancers on roller blades? If I'd wanted to see a bunch of guys with paper bags over their heads get down...  never mind, I never wanted to see that. Often the leaders are even more flamboyant. Like the leader of the Rez Boa Dogs who has a helmet shaped like the head of Doberman Pincher,  which he often uses to knock out people who cross him, and it gets worse. Once he takes the helmet off, well, see exhibit A below.

Eeek! Now that's a scary hairdo! There's also the matter of the regalia themselves, which apparently have some kind of special powers, that no one really explains. They're just there and they have powers. I don't know if half of my gripes were ever explained in the manga, but they sure as heck ain't here. Although come to think of it, some of those powers are pretty awful. Like Agito's Fang road, the premise of which is 'to carve your road into the bodies' of the people you beat up, or Rika's Thorn road which is designed to force victims into submission.

That doesn't mean the series doesn't have some good points. There are one or two action sequences that are kind of cool, as the characters handle challenges such as rail grinding and getting to the tops of buildings, among other things. There are even a few giggles here and there among the gratuitous violence though I can't say I was particularly howling at anything (aside from the stuff that I assume was supposed to be serious). Also there are several remixes of the opening theme song "Chain" that are used throughout the series at various points that are done pretty well although hearing the same notes again and again might get a little annoying if you try watching the whole series in one sitting. 

Overall, I guess it's okay if you're into a bunch of boys overloaded with testosterone trying to carve their way through each other on roller blades while spouting crude humor (oh, and did I mention breaking stuff?), but I don't think I'll be buying the DVD. There's just too much pointless stuff going on, and they don't even bother to get him to the Tower before the series ends. They could have at least done that.

The images utilized in this review are all from Air Gear.