Movie: Fans of modern anime sure have it good these days with a number of companies competing for your hard earned dollars. Never in the history of the DVD format has there been so much available in so many genres and that probably makes reviews even more important in order to allow you to focus your collections accordingly. One of the most popular genres of anime over the years has been that of the large mechanized robot suit, piloted by a human, used to fight various combat missions (which vary according to the story). Within that subgenre is a set of series that have all but proven the pinnacle of achievement, not so much for the advanced nature of the anime style itself but for the depth and breadth of characters. Those series fall under the name of Gundam and range over many years in terms of continuity (to be fair, not all of the series take place within the same time line or Universe though). The latest release of this group is Mobile Suit Gundam F-91: Special Edition, coming out on DVD as one of the more interesting anime movies. I had the pleasure of reviewing it although many of you will have far greater background knowledge of the series than I do (I've seen many of the shows but not all of them and I'm not that obsessive about the nitpicky details as slavering fanboys are). The movie is set in the year 0123, decades after the events in the previous series I enjoyed that ended in 0083, and started off showing the good life enjoyed on the floating colonies located in space. Earth is still recovering from hundreds of years of environmental damage (like those in Megazone) and animosities over past events have risen yet again. Within minutes of the opening, civil war breaks out with the usual two sides; the democratic Federation and the aristocracy of the Vanguard competing for control.
The Vanguard launch a surprise attack on the colonies, killing many people as a result (this isn't a cleaned up version where no one dies; even small children bite it here in an effort to show war as something less glamorous than usual) and the Federation proves less than effective in stopping the advance. A group of students, led by a grumpy old teacher, lead a military resistance effort with the help of the lead character, Seabrook Arno, a seventeen year old student who's mother was a weapons designer in a class all her own. Seabrook, an archetypal character in the same vein as Ayato from the RahXephon series, Ryu from Argentosoma, or Hikaru of Macross, is the reluctant young warrior who is thrust into combat against his will but carries on to protect his family, friends and colony from the enemy that would destroy everything he holds dear for opportunistic reasons.
Seabrook has a unique ability to pilot the advanced prototype Gundam (aren't they all advanced prototypes in these shows?) that even he doesn't understand but the reason the show was so excellent had little to do with the mechanics of the fighting; it had far more to do with the storytelling and depth of the characters. While Seabrook was the lead, the other characters were far from dismissible, from the girlfriend with a past far more intriguing than originally believed, Cecily, to the royal Ronah family intent on protecting what they see as the future against the lackadaisical Federation, few of the characters were two dimensional (unlike the majority of anime shows made in more recent days). I'm not going to spoil all the fun for you (although I doubt many Gundam fans have missed this one in one manner or another) but if you're truly a fan of Gundam, anime in general, or interesting adventure movies, you'll probably agree with me that this DVD set was worth a rating of Highly Recommended. The way the complex themes about war were explored (something many of us have done of late given the situation in Iraq), the way inter-personal relationships were handled and even the dynamic of the politics involved made for some serious discussion with my friends; not bad for an anime movie made so long ago.
Picture: The picture was presented in a 1.78:1 ratio as originally made. It wasn't anamorphic but it did look substantially cleaned up from previous presentations and the plethora of bootlegs found on the internet. The colors were accurate, the grain and video noise minimal, and aside from the occasional print scratch, I have to admit it looked better than I had a right to expect. I watched both versions of it (each DVD had a version of the movie; disc two had the enhanced soundtrack and director's commentary tracks although I didn't notice any differences in the movie itself) and they appeared to be the same in terms of the video. Aside from the anime style employed that "looked" like it was made nearly 15 years ago (it was made way back then), you'd never know from the quality of the print that this was the case. If only all the anime companies would clean up their older titles, we'd all be winners.
Sound: The audio was one place where the show really shined above and beyond the call of duty. Each track was presented with Dolby Digital and you could hear the original 2.0 Japanese track (with optional English subtitles), a new 2.0 English dub, or a splendid 5.1 surround English dub. In terms of the vocal audio quality, I'd have to give the slight advantage to the original track but the effects and music sounded substantially better on the 5.1 track. For the most part, snobs that hate dub tracks will be disappointed to learn that the English language tracks were very well done and added a lot of value to the show. In the 5.1 track mentioned, I noticed a fair amount of separation between the channels and while I know that it was the result of some modern-day audio engineering, the mix was superior in almost every way to the other two tracks. It's good to see the extra effort go into a new release and as a fan more than a critic, I'd like to see such enhancements take place in the future.
Extras: The Special Edition came with two discs in order to keep the movie looking good and the main extra for me was the Producer's commentary. It had the dub director, Tony Oliver, its producer, Eric Sherman, and one of the original Japanese creators, Nobuo Masuda, all contributing comments throughout the movie, giving pointers on the series, anime in general, and some of the thematic discussions about how this release differs so much from domestic anime. I found it one of my favorite anime commentaries, right up there with Matt Greenfield's commentary on Megazone. The other extras were more standardized, including a set of trailers, some production sketches, screen shots, and character biographies but one thing I really liked was the time line for the Gundam Universe. This is something a lot of other series would benefit from, and while I wish it had more detail, it certainly helped guide me in terms of putting this movie in perspective. Heck, I'm of the opinion that discs should include such a feature when a season is broken up into individual discs as a means to keep some sort of continuity going but that dream will live for another day.
Final Thoughts: If a story that handles mature themes (not to be confused with sexual themes by the way) about life and death, war, and politics is what you're looking for; you'll do well to consider this as a must have. Consider it a better written, more advanced form of Aura Battler Dunbine and you'll be on the right track. The battles all make sense in the context of what takes place and the writing rarely takes precedence over the visual eye candy other companies focus on. It could be argued that this is the best Gundam available on DVD at this time for what it offers but that's a fight you can join in on elsewhere. For me, I just thought the show had tremendous replay value and the way Bandai enhanced the movie (be it the cleaning of the picture or the better audio) really made a difference.
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVDTalk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime article!