Background: The future as displayed by anime shows tends to be really negative, usually showing the political leanings of their creative staff willing to extrapolate certain trends in order to make more dramatic points about humanity and how things have advanced in some ways but reverted in others. One of the most popular themes using this dynamic is that of the cop show where the rights of criminals and their ability to avoid capture advances faster than the ever shrinking budgets public funding allows the good guys (as seen on shows like Alien Nation). In anime, there have been numerous shows that explored these ideas with Heat Guy J: Complete Box Set being one of my recent favorites for the colorful manner in which the good guys have to deal with their structured limits (political and economic mostly) while avoiding many all too unpleasant endings at the hands of their foes. Here is a quick look at the boxed set, noting that it contained all the episodes of the series and a supplemental disc of extras that came out in the limited edition release of the first volume when it first came out years ago.
Series: Heat Guy J is set in the futuristic city of Judoh; a coastal city where the people have it better than in most future shows by virtue of technology and a society set up to provide the common conveniences of life. Immigration is strictly controlled and most people make ends meet but do not have the financial wherewithal to live extravagantly. The lead characters of the show are Daisuke "Dice" Aurora and his partner J. Daisuke was born to a politically connected family and as a result, he works for a special group of police called the Special Forces unit of the Safety Management Agency. The agency is charged with all forms of public safety and his division, led by his older brother Shun, has the task of handling the more exotic crimes and missions, typically related to those involving the expansive mobster presence in the city-state. J is his android partner specially commissioned to serve the public trust in a world where most androids have been outlawed due to events involving their misuse years prior. J can fly, exhibits super strength, logical reasoning capabilities, speed, and is nearly invulnerable to small arms fire; helpful in a time when handguns are also outlawed and even the police (like Dice) have to sign them out for specific purposes. J is programmed to obey the law and serve as Dice's partner in order to keep him out of trouble, a task that proves to be too much for the android far too often.
The pair rely as much on Dice's instinct's and knowledge of the thriving underground economy as they do on J's abilities, the populace finding the pair to be helpful even as they mostly distrust androids for the previously mentioned events of their past. The majority of the 26 episodes dealt with the team fighting mob related crime but as the show progressed, a larger menace also appeared on the forefront too. Initially, the mob was led by a psychopathic successor to the crime throne in the form of Vampire (a title of nobility more than a description of supernatural powers) Clair Leonelli. His father is killed early on in the series and Clair's hold on power is tenuous at best as the rest of the established mob is constantly trying to take his spot. Thankfully for Clair, his intellect is second to none and his lifelong preparation for the role supersedes his eccentricities for most of the underlings; keeping him in power most of the show. The biggest thorns in his side are Dice and J who manage to thwart his schemes all too often, causing dissention in the mob that force Clair to deal with them. The attempts to stop Dice and J include direct attacks with superior firepower (as history has proven every single time, outlawing guns only elevates the status of the crooks who sport the latest weaponry at the expense of public safety whereas Dice must go through channels to sign out a handgun with which he is usually assigned a couple of bullets), hiring mercenaries like the genetically altered Boma (a werewolf looking man that has some special powers of his own), to employing campaigns of lies in order to get J's exclusionary status revoked politically. Needless to say, the team fight off most attempts successfully, albeit showing that they are not all powerful, not as connected as they should be, and always subject to the whim of the distrusting public that is so easily manipulated.
Along the way, the audience is introduced to a plethora of secondary cast members of varying types, including the boss's secretary Kyoto that harbors a crush on Shun, a young capitalist Monica (who always seeks more money by any means possible and sports a crush on Dice), as well as numerous others that serve on both sides of the conflict. These interactions typically involve J or Dice saving the day using their wits as much as their action skills but the amount of heavy duty action sequences never seemed truncated from what I saw. They deal with immigration issues, military threats, doppelgangers of the pair, and the ever increasing likelihood that their special unit will be shut down for political concerns as much as their going over budget so often. There were several arcs of related episodes and unlike some anime produced these days, there was a definite order to be followed lest you miss out on minor developments that mushroom from time to time. The biggest arc of all ends the show with a bang during a coup de tat that shows some shady character from the past to be trying to wipe out the existing order (both the legitimate authorities and the mob) in order to make things out in his mold. Needless to say, this helps get all the major players working together to stop the threat; a threat that might have some merit to it if you look at the crime, corruption, and evil still readily in evidence in the society.
The themes explored in the show were all capably handled and while occasional episodes were not as strong as the majority of them, it was clear that certain ideas were important to the writer. The ecological impact of certain events, the population control of a centralized government, and police authority over that of citizens' rights were common. All of the characters, Dice and J included, were flawed to some degree (though our heroes were decidedly short changed in the flaws department for most of the series) and this lent texture to the way they handled various issues that arose as a result of their duties. Some of the humor was dry and understated while the colorful elements seemed out of place at times during the darker moments (like the killing of officials, assassination attempts, and how much pain some of the bit players were forced to go through). It wasn't always consistent in that sense but I found it to be a fun show worthy of being rated as Highly Recommended more often than not; especially for those of you that like futuristic cop shows set in semi-realistic scenarios such as this one provided. Here's a list of the episodes for those who care, noting that I'm focusing on the English titles in case someone wants to discuss them in the forum (I've kept this as spoiler free as possible):
Picture: Heat Guy J was presented in the original 1.78:1 ratio anamorphic widescreen color it was hot in by director Kazuki Akane as originally created by him and Satelight in Japan. The show is a few years old now but largely held up nicely as the lack of true black in the picture was offset by the minimal compression artifacts in the episodes. The anamorphic processing certainly assisted in giving the show more detail and my only complaint was the relatively colorful look of the show despite some of the admittedly adult material (from the hookers Dice was so friendly with to the blood, guts & gore of the violence displayed). It was a decent transfer and the pattern noise of a few episodes where the lines were too close together was so infrequent as to be merely a nuisance that most won't care about. The animation itself varied substantially in terms of frames and the fusion of CGI, while clunky at times, was a treat compared to lower grade shows of a similar nature.
Sound: The audio was offered up in the standard choices of the 2.0 original Japanese language track or the similarly processed English language dub. The amount of separation here was minimal, even during action packed fighting scenes, but the music was decent and the quality of voice acting was pretty solid on both versions. The dub sounded best when it came to the main characters whereas the Japanese track sounded more consistent but alternating between the tracks as I did (it wasn't an exact translation of the optional English language subtitles either) revealed the original had the edge in vocals while the sound effects were punched up a bit for the dub. The dynamic range was not all that special in either case, a fact that more recent releases have handled better in many ways but it was still a fairly nice mix overall. If you get a chance, there is an optional soundtrack floating around too, and it sounds better by a wide margin than what I heard on my home theatre on the series tracks.
Extras: Given how many companies take off the extras to release barebones series sets these days, I was pleased to find the extras intact, including the original supplemental disc from the limited edition version of volume 1 to be an integral part of the package here. The eight discs were the same as originally released with all the same artwork on both sides and episodes packed together in two boxes that showcase the characters. Aside from the usual artwork, trailers, and clean openings/closings, the extras included some behind the scenes look at the production of the show that I really liked. They were not long but managed to show the cast at work during some radio show bits as well as during some of the action parts where they mimicked the actions on screen to give a more realistic effect. There were also commercials from Japan, a music video with the ability to sing along karaoke style, and some bloopers where the cast had some fun playing with the lines as written as much as what they wanted to say. This was followed by character art and biographies, some technical information about J's android body, and other standardized material. Most of the volumes between #2 and #6 had generic extras but the seventh program disc (eighth in the set) had a set of cool stuff similar to the opening supplemental disc, advertising as over 60 minutes of material. There were creator interviews that detailed some of the liberties taken from the original manga, special textless bits for the later episodes, promotional matters from Japan where the cast stayed in character before a live audience at a convention in Japan, and a Q & A session that provided even more background for the show.
Final Thoughts: Heat Guy J was enjoyable on several levels for me; from the partnership dynamic, to the limits of modern day government and police, to the way humans will probably never change in terms of their attitudes towards many subjects despite adverse circumstances. Those of you looking for a light show to appreciate will find it as appealing as those willing to look deeper at the themes addressed, making it a winner for multiple generations to talk about (potentially serving as a learning experience). In that sense, the subject matter was decidedly adult at times but never got as explicit as some of the other shows I've reviewed of late, making Heat Guy J: Complete Set a choice selection for fans of this kind of anime. I only wish that a sequel had been commissioned given the majority of anime being so geared towards the lowest common denominator audiences that frustrate those of us who have seen some really gifted talents working on shows of similar appeal.
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.