Black Lagoon, One Piece, and Freedom
a semi-weekly column by Todd Douglass, John Sinnott, and Wen-Tsai
Well, hello there! It sure has been a while hasn't it? Things have been relatively slow on the anime front, but we've amassed enough reviews to put together a good sized column. Granted it took about a month to do just that, but at least we've got something to show for it!
The anime industry is still operating at a relatively slow pace compared to how it was a couple of years ago. Then again, with the way the economy and business is going I suppose that's nothing surprising. Even so there are still plenty of great shows out there to buy, rent, and watch online. Stuff like Claymore and Ghost Hunt are just getting their feet wet, while other shoes such as Black Lagoon, xxxHolic, School Rumble, and Blood+ continue to please fans. WTK is back with his bargain section as well and this week we are featuring a guest review for the Blu-ray edition of Freedom.
With the demise of Geneon, several series were abandoned in mid-run, much to the dismay of otaku here in the states. Luckily FUNimation stepped up and obtained the rights to many of the orphaned series and is now finishing off these shows as well as making the earlier Geneon volumes available once again. One such orphaned series is Black Lagoon, a rip-roaring adventure show that is filled with deep characters and some kick-ass action. Volumes one, two and three are now available once again which is great news since this show is a real winner.
Speaking of FUNimation, they are really leading the way when it comes to marketing anime. For years fans have been clamoring for shows to be released in reasonably priced season sets and FUNimation is doing just that (nearly.) They've released a few shows in half-season sets, which is close enough for this otaku. Their latest half-season release is Ghost Hunt, a supernatural investigation show. While it's not nearly as scary as I was hoping, this program has some interesting characters with a nice mix of humor, mystery, and just a dash of romance.
Monkey D. Luffy, the boy made out of rubber, is back in One Piece - Season One Voyage Two from FUNimation. One of the most popular and longest running anime series (currently at over 370 episodes) One Piece is an irreverent and fun filled romp that's sure to please young and old viewers alike. In this set Luffy continues to fill out his pirate crew and starts one of the most enjoyable story arcs in the series: his search for a cook and his encounter with the Baratie restaurant.
Bandai Visual continues to release Haruka: Beyond the Stream of Time in three episode volumes. In each of volume five, six, and seven, otaku get a trio of episodes that are mostly fun. Fun, but not great. The problem is that story just isn't as urgent or pressing as it should be, and it still has a generic fantasy anime feel to it. That's not a horrible thing, as fantasy anime can be quite enjoyable, but for the price that these discs are being marketed ($29.98), I was hoping for something really special. As it is, the show is an enjoyable, if fairly forgettable, look at another world where demons and gods dwell and fight.
While we're on the topic of Bandai Visual, the final volume of Super Robot Wars (Volume 9 for those keeping track) has arrived and with it the final battle with the alien Aerogaters. This concluding set of shows has a good amount of action and some nice resolution, but it ends up being too little too late. With a thin plot and a cast of over a dozen main characters and countless secondary ones, it's hard to really care about what happens to anyone.
The third volume of Blood+ has come and gone, and once again Sony's latest anime property offers up a fantastic installment. If you skipped on the complete season, then don't waste any time picking up the individual releases. This show is nonstop vampire action with loads of blood, tons of story, fascinating characters, and an all around sleek production. This latest volume brings Saya and her team closer to the trail of the Diva, and we finally see a glimpse of Saya's true form. I can't recommend this show enough!
On the subject of good shows on the market today, FUNimation has finally released the first volume of the long-anticipated Claymore. This new property offers up a finely developed fantasy world where demons masquerade as humans, and a group of women give up their humanity to become demon hybrids for purposes of hunting. This first volume introduces us to the characters and world of Claymore and in its final moments we get a nice glimpse at a boatload of character history. With lots of gore and a somber tone, this one feels very similar to Berserk, so if you enjoyed that anime you'll definitely want to check this one out.
Fan favorite Negima may be awaiting its second season here in the States, but the OVAs Spring and Summer were recently released by FUNimation. If you enjoyed the first season then you'll want to check these ones out, but since they are weaker episodes with no explanation of the franchise, newcomers will want to pass. Both of the episodes included in this release are entertaining for what they are, but they simply don't reach the levels that the original series itself did. In addition to continuing properties by FUNimation, School Rumble's second season hit store shelves recently as well. With two discs and 13 episodes, fans of the show will undoubtedly find themselves tickled pink.
Just before Geneon died, there were a few series that seemingly went the way of the dodo. Luckily the good folks at FUNimation did their part to save several of these series from anime obscurity. While some of the series are fantastic releases such as Hellsing and Black Lagoon, other shows such as Elemental Gelade made their way into the mix as well. This particular series is about as generic and redundant as anime can get, and while there are a few interesting elements, by and large the show is a disappointment. On the opposite end of that spectrum, however, is the fantastic science fiction piece, Ergo Proxy. This moody glimpse into the future captured audience when it was released thanks to its unique future gothic atmosphere. Both of these particular shows have been released recently in full collections.
More Dragon Ball Z is a good thing, right? FUNimation has just released two more films from the classic anime franchise and while they aren't exactly shining examples of the franchise at its best, they aren't bad. Both of the Cooler films bring Frieza's sibling into the fray as he tries to bring down Goku and get revenge for his brother. With a run time of about 45 minutes, both films are basically just extended episodes from the show. Because of that, this dual pack is for diehard Dragon Ball Z fans only.
If you appreciate original shows, then Jyu-Oh-Sei is definitely one to pay attention to. This short 11 episode series takes place in the distant future where man has colonized the stars. The story focuses on a pair of brothers as their parents are murdered and they are ushered off to a penal colony. The catch here is that the prison is a primitive planet, where it's kill or be killed. The tone is very Lord of the Flies in nature and the series itself takes place over the course of several years. I thoroughly enjoyed the show, but would say that for what it tries to do the run time is far too short. More time was needed to pull this one together and the robust universe definitely would have benefited from additional episodes.
xxxHolic's final volume has come out. Well, ok, it's not necessarily the "final" volume, but rather the end of the first season of the show. This is another decent installment for the show though it's not exactly the best that it has had to offer. The end for the season is fitting, despite the somewhat imbalanced nature of the included episodes. Fans will appreciate the final episode more than the others, and everything definitely leaves you hungry for the second season of the show.
Retail Price: $99.98, 80% OFF!
by Adam Tyner
Following a series of catastrophic wars that left the planet a smoldering, uninhabitable cinder, the survivors of Earth carved out of a new society in a series of colossal domes on the moon. On the surface, Eden may appear to be as idyllic as its name suggests, but this futuristic metropolis is governed by the heavy hand of the Citizens Administration Council. This oppressively totalitarian group refers to its people by a series of cold, detached letters and numbers, shoves them into lifelong careers that may or may not be of the least bit of interest to them, and covertly restricts their movements and the flow of information.
The council first clashes with a fifteen year old named Takeru as he distracts himself from his impending regimentation into the status quo by racing a Lunar Terrain Vehicle. Takeru's LTV has been dramatically souped-up with the help of his friends Bis and Kazuma, and after his illegally raced lunar rover bursts into flames and causes him to miss curfew, his punishment is to skulk around outside the dome and verify the integrity of the arteries of pipes and cables leading into Eden. While unsupervised outside the dome, a hopelessly frustrated Takeru spots something careening to the lunar surface and bounds over to take a look. Inside the crater, he stumbles upon a photo of a beautiful teenage girl standing in front of a lush field of grass and some sort of launchpad, and a message reading "We are safe. Is anybody out there?" is scrawled on the back.
The first arc of Freedom is geared around a dark Orwellian future, and that dystopian sense of uneasiness and distrust is infused with energy through a series of hyperkinetic underground races and chases from armies of monstrous cybernetic spiders. The series takes a jarring shift in setting and tone as it settles into its fourth volume, though. Takeru and Bis spend half the episode piling onto a psychedelic VW bus with a man-ape, a Jimi Hendrix knock-off, and some schlub in a beer hat, with their road trip followed on a kitschy map with the names of cities and Route 66 logos bouncing around to some country-fried electric guitar lick. There's much more of an oddball sense of humor this time around, including an kinda-sorta-not-really-intergalactic dance party and a bit with Takeru practicing his romantic chops by having Bis squeak away in the role of a nameless girl in a photograph. It's literally a world removed from where the series began.
I'll admit to really disliking this stretch of the series when I first watched Freedom on HD DVD, and I think it's really just because it's essentially an entire different show. I'm sure that's the point, even: to contrast the distrust and cold technological bent of the lunar colony of Eden to a society that's archaic but practically utopian by comparison. It just seems awfully anticlimactic to open a series with swarms of teenaged racers
Even for those disappointed by the direction the series' second arc takes, Freedom is back at full strength by the time volume six rolls around, nimbly weaving together the present, faded memories of the past, and a future still to come. The characters' personalities are drawn more sharply, Freedom's themes and underlying message come much more into focus, and it starts to toy again with the concept of what freedom represents and the layers of mystery swirling around this dystopian future. I didn't have a chance to watch the series' double-length finale until this boxed set arrived, and I was thrilled to see Freedom come to such an outstandingly strong conclusion. The seventh and final volume brings these two very different arcs together, all of the lingering questions are at long last answered, and there's a sense of scope and enormity that eclipses anything Freedom has offered up to this point.
I definitely enjoyed Freedom. Its earlier volumes held up really well even the third and fourth times through, and I found myself having a much greater appreciation for its second arc when I rediscovered the series on Blu-ray. It doesn't quite ring true that the story hinges on a fifteen year old going to these mindbogglingly absurd lengths purely because he has a crush on a girl in a picture -- something that's smirked at late in the series -- but Freedom is anchored around an effective blend of shadowy intrigue, hyperkinetic action, and breezy fun. Freedom won't redefine the way you look at anime or anything, no -- although it may leave you aching for some Nissin Cup Noodles that get an awkward closeup or two every volume -- but this OVA is worth seeking out on Blu-ray. Recommended.
Video: Bandai Visual has given Freedom a new set of AVC encodes for this Blu-ray release, and the series looks incredible. The linework in the cel-shaded CG animation is exceptionally sharp and crisp, worlds removed from the limited resolution of a standard definition DVD. The 1.78:1 image is frequently bright and colorful -- it opens in a metropolis named Eden, after all -- and the occasionally painted backdrops add a layer of texture and personality that meshes
I'm really not left with much to complain about at all. There is some light aliasing along with a bit of banding, although both struck me as less distracting on Blu-ray than in the DVDs and HD DVDs I've watched of Freedom. I spotted one nasty instance of shimmering during a vertical pan early on, but nothing like that ever reared its head again. Even nearly a year and a half after I first caught Freedom on HD DVD, I'm still impressed by how wonderful the series looks in high definition, and it's appreciated that Bandai Visual went to the extra effort of re-encoding these seven volumes with Blu-ray expressly in mind.
Audio: Each volume of Freedom features its original Japanese audio in 24-bit Dolby TrueHD, and these lossless soundtracks are outstanding. There's a noticeable distinctness and clarity to every element in the mix, and the voice acting is especially clean and clear, never overwhelmed even in Freedom's most chaotic moments. The low-end is colossal: the roar of the souped-up LTVs, booming rocket thrusters, a violent hurricane, a few titanic explosions, and a remarkably punchy soundtrack. The series is littered with silky smooth pans from one channel to the next as the LTVs scream across the screen and swarms of spiderlike robots skitter in chase, swiping with enormous metal claws. Freedom takes full advantage of the six channels it has at its fingertips, and it's very welcome and completely unexpected for the series to be presented at such a high bit-depth, trumping much of what considerably larger studios have been releasing day-in and day-out.
Freedom also includes English and French dubs in Dolby TrueHD, although these lossless soundtracks are 16-bit, lagging behind the 24-bit Japanese audio. Subtitles are optionally offered in English and French as well. Each disc opens with a language selection screen -- Japanese, English, or French -- which defines the text for the submenus along with the default soundtrack. Pausing the episode and fiddling through a few submenus is a bit of a headache for those of us who don't speak Japanese but still want to watch Freedom in its original language.
Extras: There is one
"Talking About Freedom" is divided into two sessions with director Shuhei Morita and writers Dai Sato and Gichi Ohtsuka, focusing primarily on the first four installments of the series. Unfortunately, there's not really a followup delving into the other three volumes. The first session (17 min.) discusses the intermingling of an OVA with what amounts to a feature-length commercial and discusses the significance of what the Apollo program represents. For the most part, though, the emphasis is squarely on the writing process: how the series came together, the collaborative approach behind the assembly of the first arc, the integral roles that Katsuhiko Chiba (Outlaw Star; Gundam Wing) and Yuuichi Nomura (Gundam Seed) played, and the personalities and growth of Freedom's central characters.
The other session (21 min.) reflects on the first arc, touching on the expressiveness of these CG characters, the momentum that snowballed as the project went along, and Freedom's tendency to emphasize visuals and sound effects over dialogue. The three of them devote a fair amount of time to discussing the fourth episode of the series, including concerns about taking Freedom in such a dramatically different direction and laughing about their favorite scenes.
Sato and Morita are featured again in "Freedom in the USA". The first installment (11 min.) follows the two of them as they promote their OVA at Anime Expo '07 and as they briefly visit Route 66, a highway that plays a fairly prominent role in one volume of the series. In the second half (13 min.), Sato and Morita explore the National Air and Space Museum, researching the backdrop for one of Freedom's later volumes. Their awe and enthusiasm is infectious, marveling at sketched schematics, space suits, rockets, and lunar modules, and they're constantly relating these exhibits to Freedom's characters and storylines.
The Apollo program is also the focus of two other featurettes. "Fly Me to the Moon: The Apollo's Journey" (10 min.) uses an enormous amount of vintage footage and narration to cover the evolution of technology that led to the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, paying particular attention to Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocketry who as far back as the 1920s believed it was possible to propel a rocket to the surface of the moon. This featurette is followed by "From the Apollo to Freedom" (14 min.), which explores the triumphs and tragedies of the Apollo program, early experiments with unmanned probes, as well as the Gemini tests that laid the groundwork for men to walk on the moon.
"Fly Me to the Moon",
Several short snippets of additional footage have also been included, among them a handful of characters from Freedom who thank viewers for watching the series (2 min; 1080p). "Freedom: The Hope" is a minute and a half breakneck tunnel race set after the final volume, and a second race is featured in a 74 second proof-of-concept introduction with a very different visual style. Both of these short clips are presented in 1080i. The 90 second 'digests' that recap each volume of Freedom, presented in 1080p, are on this Blu-ray set as well, along with a windowboxed compilation of all of the Nissin Cup Noodle TV spots. A nine and a half minute reel of 'next episode' trailers rounds out the extras.
Each of the four discs in this boxed set comes packaged in what's otherwise a traditional Blu-ray case, only these are a very striking opaque black. These discs slip into a sturdy plastic shell over a cardboard sleeve, and the box includes a booklet on heavy stock excerpting 20 pages of the manga "Freedom: Just Short of Heaven's Gate".
Conclusion: Bandai Visual has done a commendable job bringing Freedom to Blu-ray, improving on the HD DVD volumes that slowly trickled out in virtually every way possible. This four-disc set boasts completely new video encodes, a slew of lossless soundtracks, a more extensive selection of extras, and a sticker price that's a fraction of what the HD DVDs were going for. Freedom can be kind of uneven, and I'll admit to really disliking its second arc the first time through, but I thought a lot more of the series when I had a chance to watch it in its entirety in one sitting. Its mix of hyperkinetic action in a dystopian future while still being light, breezy fun works really well, and although Freedom's asking price is high enough to still be kind of daunting, this OVA is worth discovering on Blu-ray. Recommended.
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