Background: If you ask most people who is the world's best known spy, they will likely tell you that James Bond, AKA 007, is their pick and for good reason; there have been scores of popular movies starring the Ian Fleming character over the last four decades, many of them really fun to watch. The idea of a spy able to kill to achieve their goal is nothing new though given the climate of world relations where scraps of intelligence can literally make the difference between winning and losing at very high stake games of power, domination, and financial gain. Well, Japan is no stranger to the spy genre either and I was lucky enough to get an early look at a title you may well recall as part of the country's initial anime output (though in an updated form) with today's review of 009-1 V1. The story of a sexy female spy with hidden capabilities is simply an update of the tale that gets pulled out from time to time, this incarnation proving to be one of the best done to date.
Series: 009-1 is the episodic story of a gal named Mylene Hoffman; a gal in her late twenties that gets sent on missions with her associates to maintain the delicate balance of power existing in a world not too far off from our own. Mylene is the field commander of an elite group known as the Zero Zero organization, having been groomed for the spot since she was a little girl. More machine than woman, she is outfitted with various parts to enhance her ability to serve the organization, her mind is her greatest asset to those that know her; serving her well in her dealings with agents from other parts of the world. The Cold War never ended in this world and the Eastern Bloc foes she comes in contact with show her no mercy just as she, in return, shows them none in this dog eat dog world where the only rule is to survive.
The opening volume of the series really did not go into great detail about the past of the characters, not Mylene or her associates that serve to stabilize the world order. The episodes were 1) The Infiltrators, 2) Holy Night, 3) Hard Boiled, and 4) Invitation From An Old Castle. For my purposes, the 3rd episode showed more about Mylene than any of the others as she pitted her skills against a notoriously efficient hitman that is so obsessive compulsive that he never misses and always gets his man (shades of The Man With the Golden Gun). She had no problems playing the game he set up and the two of them ended up with the obvious conclusion, but it showed that she had a determined state of mind that did not cater to societal perceptions as she did whatever it took to get the job done (saving her life as she was his target). Episode 2 showed her humanity when she encountered a mutant girl with unique abilities that scared Mylene's allies from another agency; a dynamic of hunting down those with special abilities for the threat they posed. The underscored ideas that Mylene was gifted in a similar way, making her a potential threat to some too, was briefly brushed upon but also kept in the front of the mind as she watched all those involved in the project get what they truly deserved. The other two missions were mainly designed to show she could work with a group of coworkers and face members from other countries while efficiently doing whatever it takes to achieve her goals. Here's a look at what the back cover had to say about the show:
"In a world where the Cold War never ended, East and West continue to battle for technological and political supremacy. Mylene Hoffman, field commander of the elite Zero Zero Organization, exists in this world with her eyes open and her body always ready to do battle. She puts the intelligence into "intelligence agent" and her body into "body of evidence"! Liberating benevolent scientists, tagging along with would-be monster-slayers, meeting her match in the world's most hard-boiled assassin and navigating a deadly labyrinth of horrors are all in a day's work for Mylene. There's no problem she can't solve with the proper application of high explosives, fast-talk, deceptive jewelry, make-up and the right moves behind closed doors! In a world of spy mystery and intrigue... discover who she kisses one minute and kills the next."
The show uses a retro look but also appears to provide some updated thinking as to how the world of spies should work in the real world, with the sensibilities proving to be far more sophisticated than the original material from the manga that came out four decades ago. The plots did not need to be watched in order (making it great for serialized release) and were simple yet offering a lot of replay value; particularly compared to some of the previous releases where the lead was a race car driver that ended up on the operating table after a deadly crash (similar in theme to the origin of Steve Austin in The Six Million Dollar Man). As the half season series continues, I hope more of Mylene's origin is unveiled but it really doesn't have to be given the simplistic manner in which the episodes unfold. It might not be earth shatteringly new territory but it handles it so well and even looks like it came off the drawing board from decades ago that I couldn't help but appreciate it a lot (the characters even looked like numerous recent releases for those who care). This said, I thought the volume was worth a rating of at least being Recommended or better, given the care that was shown on the dub and extras too.
Picture: 009-1 V1 was presented in an anamorphic widescreen color presentation in a 1.78:1 ratio effort as directed by Naoyuki Konno. It was crisp, clean, and I found little to fuss about here as the minimalist approach served the thematic material well; especially given the retro nature of the roots of the show. Some of the visual effects mirrored those of mainstream movies fairly well too, serving almost to mimic portions of a few James Bond movies I've seen in the past (talk about an homage to the genre!). In any case, there were a few moments where the choices did not work as effectively as usual but they were so scattered and far between that you probably won't care. The blacks also looked to contain true black, making the night scenes look better than average; a fitting tribute to the genre since spies tend to do so much of their work at night.
Sound: The audio was presented in the usual selections of the 2.0 Dolby Digital Japanese track and an improved 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround track in English as directed by ADV Films regular Charles Campbell. In terms of the special effects and music, the dub was superior on a couple of points, particularly the separation and dynamic range but also in terms of how well the audio tracked the character movement. The vocal casts each offered a different experience and while I'm not taken to favoring either on a general basis, I thought most of the English language characters were nicely cast for their roles, even if a couple sounded like they were trying to be too over the top at times. It was a good job in terms of the audio though so you'll want to listen to both unless you're a snob.
Extras: The trend by many companies is to provide lame extras thee days so I was happy that ADV Films tried to incorporate some decent perks to the disc. There were the usual trailers, clean opening & closing, and some background about the gear the spies carried. My favorite was the lengthy interview that discussed the origins of the show as well as what went into making it in the current form; the spoilers not common but still present so watch the show before you check it out. I also liked the 16 page booklet with the artwork, interview by the director and the writer, and character descriptions. If you go to the company website, they have even more for you to enjoy too.
Final Thoughts: 009-1 V1 was a nice tribute not only to the original manga but the spy genre in general. The idea of keeping it simple in order to convey a sense of power was clearly evident and I appreciated that the dubbed version was as good as the original language track (if f not better when you include the technical improvements made). As far as the writing of the included four episodes is concerned, I found that while basic, even borrowed from other genre releases in some ways, it came off like an update that gave the nod to the origins of the show rather than completely update it in the fashion that some companies have tried to do with similar titles of late. Give this one a look when it comes out next week; you won't be disappointed if you like fine quality anime.
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVD Talk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003, Best Of Anime 2004, Best of Anime 2005, and Best of Anime 2006 articles or their regular column Anime Talk.