Tag Archives: Mecha

Giant robots do battle, often with a pilot inside.

Vision of Escaflowne – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Tenkuu no Escaflowne

 

Related: Escaflowne the Movie (alternative version of series)

Similar: Avatar – The Last Airbender

Gundam SEED

The Twelve Kingdoms

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Fantasy Action Adventure Romance

Length: 26 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Van, the [actual] protagonist, is a strong character with his head on straight.
  • The world has a great blend of magical technology and medieval roots.
  • Surprisingly deep with its character webs and backstories. Cat-women with literal luck flowing through their veins are a cool idea.
  • The mech duels have a sense of weight and power behind them.
  • A soundtrack that inspires epicness.

Negatives:

  • Hitomi, the [supposed] protagonist, doesn’t do enough considering her position in the series.
  • Certain aspects of the animation shows their age.
  • English dub sounds awkward during moments without music or effects.

When Hitomi is practicing sprint at high school one evening, a beam of light opens a portal, summoning a young warrior and a dragon on to the track. The warrior, Van, slays the dragon and teleports back to his planet of Gaea, accidentally taking Hitomi with him. Having slain a dragon, Van ascends to the throne of his kingdom, but alas, the Zaibach Empire obliterates Fanelia. They seek Van’s unique mech, Escaflowne, powered by the heart of a dragon. His country in ruins, Van must flee, bringing Hitomi with him and hopes to rebuild upon his return with allies.

Vision of Escaflowne was the first series to show me that the anime had a high level of sophistication with fantasy. Until I saw this, it was nothing but superpowers, sci-fi, or high school settings when in the real world. The universe of Escaflowne is fully realised with more depth than necessary, which is exactly what every good fantasy has – detail and more detail. We see several kingdoms of different cultures, each based on the major empires of our medieval time, fictional races such as Beastmen, and magical technology that fits in the world. The standout in lore for me is the mecha (referred to as Guymelef) with their Da-Vinci-like inner workings. They are extensions of the warrior, each movement tracked one-for-one by an exoskeleton of gears and cables. Every movement, every swing of a giant sword has weight behind it, selling the size and power behind these machines.

On their adventure, they meet a wide array of characters, most notable of which is Allen, a charming knight from the neighbouring kingdom of Asturia. Hitomi swoons at the sight of him. He may look like a ponce, but he’s a good character. He breaks the mould of his archetype by understanding that there is nothing honourable in fighting a losing battle, just stupidity. Similarly, the main villain hounding Van and crew, Dilandau, fits into the young and bloodthirsty psycho category, but his emotional dependence on the subordinates he abuses brings an extra layer to his character.

Most impressive of all though is Van. I like his indifference to Hitomi at first. A girl doesn’t instantly distract him when he has responsibilities as king. It shows a maturity uncommon in young adult anime. Hitomi has several instantaneous crushes throughout the series, which also make sense, as the greatest dilemma she has faced so far in life is getting her first kiss. Van’s care for her, at first, doesn’t extend further than owing her for warning him of danger with her power to see the future. While Van is impetuous and inexperienced as king, he has no delusions about what it means to be king and knows his responsibilities to Fanelia. It’s good to see the writer didn’t make him a high school kid that we are somehow supposed to accept is king. He is competent; I like competent characters.

Hitomi is a bit of a let-down, sadly. Her power of precognition and the fact that she operates outside of the destiny machine used by the Zaibach emperor to control the tide of battle is crucial to the plot and Van’s quest, but she doesn’t do much beyond that. She spends much of her time as an onlooker to the battles. And for the love of magic, are you seriously going to stay in a school uniform for such a dangerous journey?

Vision of Escaflowne is very much a character story with its relationship dramas, flawed personalities and tenuous alliances. Van and Hitomi must contend with fate in a war-torn world littered by death.

Art – High

The art is good, despite age, though not on the level of Trigun or Cowboy Bebop. Fight animations look great (love the PoV shots from within the cockpit) with weight behind the attacks, but smaller details, like mouth movements, are comparatively poor. Why does everyone have a nose that could spear a rhino?

Sound – High

Excellent soundtrack of chants and choir with the occasional light string or flute pieces. The dub is awkward during several moments without music. You can “hear” the dubbing; the voices seem to come from forefront of the screen, not the characters. It’s alright, but the Japanese spatial audio is better. Also, in Japanese you get Tomokazu Seki (Sagara in Full Metal Panic, Brandon in Gungrave) as Van, one of the best in the business.

Story – High

Van’s struggles to reclaim his kingdom with a group of allies by his side make for an engaging war story infused with fantasy. Hitomi could have stood around a little less as the protagonist.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: An easy anime to recommend. Vision of Escaflowne is a classic of anime that mixes action and romance in a world of magic technology and mysticism bound to the machine of fate.

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Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive: 

Great Music

Negative: None.

Voices of a Distant Star – Review

Japanese Title: Hoshi no Koe

 

Related: 5 Centimetres per Second (same director)

The Place Promised in Our Early Days (same director)

The Garden of Words (same director)

Similar: Pale Cocoon

Gunbuster

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Science Fiction Romance

Length: 25 min. OVA

 

Positives:

  • The tragic narrative hits the right emotional notes with its interesting premise.
  • Beautiful environmental art, especially the grand shots of the cosmos and planets.

Negatives:

  • The use of CG for aliens and mechs looks out of place, never mind the ugly designs.
  • Character art looks unfinished.
  • Little is established. How did the girl become an elite pilot so quickly? Where are the aliens from? What does the boy actually do?
  • The voice work in English is monotone for much of the time. Japanese isn’t much better.
  • Prediction of flip phones as the standard in 2046. I jest, I jest.

Having recently watched Nolan’s Interstellar, I was reminded of Voices of a Distant Star, first anime feature of director Shinkai Makoto (of Garden of Words and 5 Centimetres per Second fame). Both Interstellar and Distant Star make use of time dilation to create drama with its characters. Distant Star tells the story of a fifteen-year-old girl who joins the space fleet in the fight against aliens, leaving her boyfriend behind on Earth with text messages as their only means of communication. The further she travels into deep space, the longer messages take to transmit – days, months, even years – and because of relativity in light speed travel, a couple of days for her is equivalent to years for him.

This story is a tragic one dealing with love separated, literally, by time and space. Distant Star is a powerful piece when it hits its emotional highs; I felt for these two characters. Unfortunately, the side story of the galactic conflict distracts from these heartstring moments. The writer needed a catalyst to launch the girl into deep space, there’s no disputing that; however, a galactic war isn’t a small plot point. It needed more time and space, so to speak, to develop into a full-fledged plot line. We get no backstory on the war, no information about the aliens, and nothing on how the girl became an elite pilot so quickly. (Aside: How is she allowed to wear her school uniform in the mech? I am guessing that it’s a metaphor for her wanting to be back with him during their school days.)

 

Shinkai could have chosen a simpler premise such as the exploration of distant stars to act as the catalyst rather than a war. This would allow more time to focus on the relationship. All we know about these characters is that they are in love. We know nothing about their interests, strength or weaknesses – who they are, really. Then again, they could have extended the runtime to explore each aspect in depth; at 25 minutes, Distant Star is too short for what it tries to achieve.

When it comes to the art, the war causes more problems. Poor CG was used for the mechs and their alien opponents, which is nothing but jarring, and it doesn’t help that their designs are awful. The cockpit view is cool though, using a lone seat with controls floating in a holographic interface.

Despite all that I have said against Voices of a Distant Star, I enjoyed my time here. The premise alone was worth a watch, and even if you don’t enjoy it, the short length means little time is wasted.

Art – Medium

Beautiful environments and lighting unfortunately tarnished by jarring CG for the hideous alien and mech designs. The character art seems to be in its draft stage.

Sound – Medium

Decent voice work in Japanese, monotone in English. I understand that when people are sad, they speak in sombre tones, but full monotone sounds dull. There are no moments of negative energy, no passion in the words. Half the music doesn’t fit the theme. Also something off about the Foley sounds at times.

Story – Medium

A tragic story of long distance love amid a galactic conflict, which results in neither aspect getting the development they deserve.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Worth 25 minutes of your time for what it does right. Voices of a Distant Star is a nice piece of anime that could have done with a longer runtime to develop the relationship and the war further.

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Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive: None

Negative: 

Hollow World BuildingShallow

ZOIDS New Century Zero – Review

Japanese Title: Zoids Shin Seiki/Zero

 

Related: Zoids (same setting)

Zoids Genesis (same setting)

Similar: Mobile Fighter G Gundam

IGPX Immortal Grand Prix

 

Watched in: English & Japanese

Genre: Action Science Fiction

Length: 26 Episodes

 

Positives:

  • The mecha Zoids are cool in design.
  • Fights are interesting and varied.
  • The English voice work is great.
  • Plenty of humour.

Negatives:

  • Doesn’t explore character and narrative as much as it could have.
  • A couple of reused attack and transformation animations.
  • Dumb luck and contrivance wins some fights.

I first watched Zoids New Century during its release stint in English. My younger sibling was obsessed with the show, which inadvertently got me interested in the series – not that I had a choice with only one TV in the house as a teen. Watching it again a decade later for review, I wasn’t expecting much. I theorised that any positive opinion I had regarding the anime was likely nothing more than nostalgia. Battle anime aimed at a young audience don’t incite high hopes. However, it turns out that Zoids NC is a good show, far better than anticipated.

Zoids New Century is set 4000 years after the classic Zoids series, and other than the use of robot Zoids, the two series have little in common. Where the classic had an adventure narrative, New Century is closer to traditional battle anime with fights lasting an episode or two – this is one of Zoids’s strengths; the fights don’t drag on for a dozen episodes each. In its twenty-six episodes, Zoids has more battles than Dragon Ball Z does in a hundred. These battles centre on protagonist Bit Cloud, pilot of the Liger Zero, and his supporting pilots Brad the mercenary, Leena the rage machine, Jamie the timid tactician, and Doc Toros the Zoid engineer. Together, they make the Blitz Team.

The premise is simple. Teams fight against each other in sanctioned battles, usually 3 vs. 3, though it varies on occasion. Bit infiltrates the Blitz Team and steals the Liger Zero, a temperamental Zoid that refused to allow anyone to pilot it due to its stubborn and impetuous AI. After winning a battle for them, the team allows him aboard (not before Leena rages at him for taking the spotlight in the battle).

The battles have good variety with each opponent bringing their own strengths to overcome that shape the battle’s theme. While not overly strategic, each battle has good back and forth, and not the typical smash faces together until someone wins. The main flaw is that dumb luck wins a few fights early on, but this isn’t a big problem. It also helps that the characters are fun. Sure, they may not have incredible emotional depth or tortured souls, but they bring life and enthusiasm to the narrative, especially in the English voice track, and don’t have anything stupid about them.

The narrative never gets heavy handed, keeping its focus on the battles. Even when the villainous Backdraft Group comes in (similar to Team Rocket – not Jesse and James) humour remains with their focus on cheating to win, even so far as to bring in their own snarky robot judge to favour the villains. Harry Champ, a man destined to be king, is a hilarious antagonist, who keeps trying to defeat Bit with his expensive Zoids because he thinks Leena is Bit’s girlfriend, and Harry has the hots for her.

The creators knew what made for an engaging battle anime and stuck to it. While Zoids is safe, it works and is an enjoyable watch.

Art – Medium

Zoids makes great use of CG for the mechs, blending them into the standard art, one of the early examples to do so successfully, even if repeated on occasion. At first, you may notice the CG, but it doesn’t take long to fade.

Sound – High

Battle sounds and Zoid roars work well. Ocean Group (Vancouver studio known for Black Lagoon and Gundam) did a great job with a strong cast of actors that brought out their personalities much more than the Japanese had. Bit and Leena in particular have much greater range and emotion.

Story – Medium

Though safe, the characters are good enough to carry the show and bring life to the narrative.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: A good show for anyone looking to have fun with a fast-paced battle anime about dinosaur robots beating the snot out of each other.

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Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Positive Recommended English Voice Track

Negative: None

Asura Cryin’ – Review

Japanese Title: Asura Cryin’

 

Similar: A Certain Magical Index

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Contemporary Fantasy Action

Length: 13 episodes.

 

Positives:

  • The spell effects and mech summonings look nice.
  • Well-designed and animated mechs.
  • Good opening and closing sequences (that likely setup false expectations).

Negatives:

  • Frame rate drop in character animation.
  • A poorly setup start that quickly loses focus, ending in a weak finale.
  • Generic high school side plots.
  • Several androgynous characters, while pretending that they aren’t.
  • Muddled lore rules.
  • Many useless side characters, particularly the harem.

Asura Cryin’ is one of those shows you know is incomplete. It feels like they had a good idea and some general framework around it, but in the end too much was missing to have a solid final product. Rather than waste their time designing too many side characters, shoehorning in generic scenarios and random sleaze, they should have focused on the core concept.

Three different groups battle over a mech known as Asura Machina owned by Tomo, a wimpy high-school student. The mech is bound to him because of spirit girl Misao, who follows him around like a lost puppy. She’s still obsessed with fashion, even though she’s dead. So, Dark Society, the Divine Guards, and a demon faction all require this mech, ready to fight to the death. That is, until three episodes in where they’re all chums going on picnics, having casual chats while taking a leak…you know, the uje… Then the focus is on preventing Tomo and a demon girl Kanade (human in every way except with large fun-bags – how creative – and can use fire magic) from…getting busy…because the resulting contract plus his mech would create some powerful evil. More characters are introduced at this point – all of them female – until…they become ‘best buds’ and all’s cool despite having just tried to kill each other. Don’t confuse this with development, as no event changes these allegiances; it just happens.

More useless and irrelevant side characters enter to fill time, all the while, anyone who is relevant breaks the rules established by the world. A character’s powers seem selected at random. One has the ability to drain ‘luck’ from something by biting it (with no comprehension of how probability works); another can somehow fight these supposedly all-powerful mechs with nothing more than a sword; there’s even a guy who invents powers as he goes, and yet, somehow forgets he has them the next battle where it would be a free win. This plot doesn’t take itself seriously enough and is all over the place in its tone.

The concept and acquisition of the mechs is interesting, along with the idea of various factions vying for control over them, but beneath that, it’s just weak. For example, the demon’s mention they control the city, but this translates to nothing in the plot. Similarly, the Divine Guards work for the douchebag pope to eradicate demons; however, this too is worthless as they’re chums like no other. And Dark Society? You never see them, nor hear about them, or anything useful.

On the character front, it’s no better. Tomo and the ghost are decent enough. The Dark Society woman with glasses is a cyborg with the ability to pull guns out of nowhere (ones even bigger than her) and is a sleaze to a creepy degree. Sleaze is a common trope in this show – not to the extent that most straight up harem anime have. Kanade’s sole purpose is to pitch Tomo’s tent several times an episode; oh yes, she does fight…once.

Dialogue is hilariously bad: “It’s a forbidden existence that shouldn’t exist” – you know they were trying to be deep but failed miserably. Some forgettable girl says, “The world was created from an explosion once, correct? Well then, that means that an explosion carries with it the entirety of the world.”

Asura Cryin’ does have some redeeming qualities. The music is good, especially the opening and closing themes, accompanied by nice visuals in a heavy palette of purples and greens – this scheme translates to much of the show.

Asura Cryin’ can’t seem to avoid a dozen awful things for every one good choice in the same field. A sequel season is out for this, but I doubt I will get around to it unless requested, since I don’t see improvements on the horizon. What a waste.

Art – Medium

Animation and visual design is a mixed bag. Environments, mechs and spells look great using dark colours when necessary. The mechs remind of Warmachine’s Cygnar Warjacks, which is nothing but praise from me. A character’s shadow turning to dark matter from which the mech grows is a particularly cool effect. Where it falls is with the characters. Every male has girlish attachments to their hair, and styles are inflated. While the mechs have great animation (though at times you see more CG than anime) the characters suffer from a low frame rate in action.

Sound – Medium

I don’t know why I enjoy the opening song’s techno and ethereal lyrics – catchy. Background music consists mostly of brass instruments and violin with the occasional pipe organ, with electronic added for the action sequences. Rubbish acting.

Story – Very Low

Doesn’t know what to do with all the magic lore, supernatural factions and mecha it created. Pathetic characters.

Overall Quality – Very Low

Recommendation: Not worth your time unless you’re desperate. Asura Cryin’ needed a few more months’ incubation before being ready for production.

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Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive: None

Negative:

Atrocious PlotAwful DialogueIncoherentUseless Side Cast