Background: If you've ever watched shows like Heat Guy J, Ergo Proxy, or Daphne in Brilliant Blue, you will know how women are not second class citizens in most anime; often leading the pack in terms of getting the job done and being ruthless when needed, while managing to show a little extra skin as part of their arsenal. This was certainly the case with the Burst Angel series, too; my latest review being concerned with Burst Angel 4: Hired Gun. If you read the review to Burst Angel 3, you will know how the series is starting to evolve in good ways, the team of female mercenaries finding larger puppeteers pulling the strings as time wears on so here's a brief recap to fill you in to where we are now with the series:
Series: Burst Angel is my favorite type of show in production terms as it is released by industry leader FUNimation here in Texas and was originally made by Gonzo in Japan. I know of no other consistently reliable companies that can say that; making the thematic matter all the more poignant if you catch my drift. The show is about a small group of gals for hire that came out in 2004 in Japan under the name Bakuretsu Tenshi; later adapted by David Haynes who took the original work by director Koichi Ohata and writer Fumihiko Shimo. Reminiscent of so many mercenary for hire shows (as well as powerful ladies in charge of things), the show started off with a distinctively western vibe to it, as in the American West to be more specific as things opened up without much explanation. Mankind appears to be largely landlocked on Earth and it is set several decades in the future where crime is out of hand and the authorities have all but given up; effectively handing control over to large corporations. Most people are firmly in the lower and middle classes but there are always those willing to take shortcuts to get ahead. That's when other people hire agencies to take care of things for them or at least protect them now that guns have been made legal in the once prohibitive Japan. The government still plays a role in suppressing the violence though; an agency called RAPT (Recent Armed Police of Tokyo) acting like Dirty Harry's meaner brother with a seeming policy of shooting first and asking no questions later.
In episode 1, Hell Comes Silently, the main character is a young culinary arts student named Kyouhei who dreams of becoming a pastry chef after he trains in France. Kind of lame and effeminate, he seeks a job that will allow him to save his money, nearly being killed by crossfire on the way to his interview. Once hired, he ends up in the thick of things when kidnapped by some mobsters that don't appear to know how determined his new employers are to fulfill their missions (and eat his wonderful cooking); four ladies by the names of Sei (the boss), Meg (the cute gal always in trouble), leading fighter Jo, and the youthful pain in the rear Amy. It doesn't take long for Meg to show her role is usually limited to being kidnapped and Jo to seek her rescue (an understated connection between the two that expands with the series), and cold, calculating Sei always wanting to put their missions first as Amy flip flops between wanting to goof off and get first dibs on all the cool stuff.
Then in episode 2, The Heartless Gunfighter, we get a better understanding of Jo and the large Mech robot she pilots (called Jango) when her hand to hand combat skills simply aren't enough. It's clear that she will sacrifice anyone and anything to save Meg when she is kidnapped, even putting Kyouhei in great peril as a result. That moves into episode 3, City Where The Beast Howls where a couple of brothers are on the cutting edge (some might say the bleeding edge) of biological research gives the ladies their latest mission; find the brother with the answers. This is a two parter that ends with episode 4, The Brothers Die At Dawn but it shows the main cast all involved in what they do best as the large pharmaceutical company tries to cover up it's human experiments that result in a modern day werewolf ripping bodies to shreds. At least this time, it is made fairly clear that Kyouhei is a secondary character to be called on as needed with the ladies handling the action far more efficiently by themselves.
The second volume opened up with episode 5 Mansion Where Lurks The Demon and episode 6 Wash This Garden With Blood!, a two part arc where Meg is going undercover at an exclusive girls prep school. As Amy monitors from the safety of their distant van, Meg follows her instincts right into the heart of the matter where young gals are killing themselves for no apparent reason. Figuring out an exclusive club is behind the matter; Meg investigates but runs afoul of the leader of the group after a promising start; spilling hot tea on the gal by accident and otherwise ending up in the thick of things. The class president and a roommate Meg saves from a horrific ending are only two pieces of the puzzle that drag her in when she is attacked by a menacing stranger. Jo, unable to leave her friend unprotected, assumes a secondary role as the story arc continues, with Kyouhei finding himself in drag for an all too lengthy stay as he delivers foodstuffs to the gals. It furthered Jo's protectiveness of Meg yet again but showed it to be something more innocent this time than the implied sexual relationship of the previous volume.
The next two episodes were also arced together and I think it was a well handled idea throughout the series as it gave more time for development but not so much that it bored me when certain elements didn't quite fit. This time, in episodes 7 Black Sky and 8 The Wounded Outlaw, the group is injected into the fray by a serial attacker that preys on young gals. It takes the form of a large crow and sweeps Meg away, in her usual fashion, while Kyouhei watches helplessly. Jo goes ballistic and the efforts of the team are balanced by an important mission that takes on a new meaning as Kyouhei is forced into becoming a courier for a biological weapon that will kill him if it is not removed very soon. Racing against the clock, the team dynamics are fleshed out really well as each of the remaining partners walks their own path to combine into a fighting force; showing some of the borrowed elements to be very nicely handled (the "bad guy injected you with poison so you must find him" idea has been done a lot in recent decades but in anime, usually not so well). When both missions intertwine, as expected, all heck breaks loose when the weakest member of the team has to decide if he will sacrifice himself for his new friend; or even if he'll have the choice thanks to Jo's inability to risk Meg.
The third volume in the series was initially surprising due to the expanded role of Sei in episode 9 Party of the Dragon since so little had been spoken of her past. Her affiliation with a powerful mover and shaker in the international market as granddaughter (and sole living heir) of a major faction of the Black Lotus Clan becomes something of interest when she is asked to marry a rival warlord's son in order to reunite the clans. He seems a little too perfect to Meg and Amy but that leads to more intrigue as all sorts of secrets are uncovered when the friends become involved over their heads; and Jo is not present to assist them. Will some ancient Chinese secret be able to give Meg the kind of boost she needs to take on an entire mob of goons or is she once again destined to be a hostage? You might be surprised watching this one.
That led to episode 10 Uncharted Cyberspace where Amy is put in the spotlight with Kyouhei when a computer hacker ruins her reputation and makes her look like a goofus on an outing. While not typically the brawny type, Amy shows she is more than up to the challenge of some miscreants that think she is to be trifled with; Kyouhei both coming to the rescue and being rescued while Amy gets a closer look into a possible future where she would rule. Then in episode 11 Eastern Angel, Western Hawk, Jo's mission to guard a star athlete goes awry and she is forced to rely on a detective that she neither knows, nor trusts in order to protect her charge. As the plot thickens, a larger enemy is on the verge of being thrust into the limelight, Jo pulling out all stops to bring Jango into the fray. The volume ended with episode 12 Tower of Tears where the series starts showing deeper signs of an overall plot. RAPT's elite team, Hawk Squad, and their captain, Takane, find Jo a bit too unwieldy to deal with so they start putting the pressure on her. As Sei deals with the issues involved, a new threat to the world appears in Osaka, a mutated critter and the firepower to tear the city down one building at a time if need be. Unlike other volumes though, this one ends on a cliffhanger as Jo is nearly killed by superior firepower that even mech tech Leo couldn't have predicted.
The fourth volume of the series finished the cliffhanger from the last volume with episode 13 Showdown in Osaka as a busted up Jo finds strength in her teammates and some unlikely allies that she had nothing but contempt for previously. Showing that a smart warrior can look beyond the emotionally tainted knee jerk reactions of the past in order to incorporate what works as the philosophy of the day, Jo then sets out in a juiced up Jango (courtesy of Leo's brilliance and hard work) with a fleet of meter maids and biker babes on the look out for the secret lair of the madman Iriki. With scores of civilians enjoying traditional holidays, Jo had better ramp up her game accordingly or a lot of people will join the rubble of Osaka that begets larger issues.
The series then takes a break for a flashback scene that finally gives up Jo's origins (in large part) as she fights a nearly indestructible counterpart in a flashback sequence in episode 14 Wild Kids where she meets Meg and a group of youngsters scratching out a living through petty crimes in a slummy area of the city. The gang of children is quick to adapt to the ever changing city and struggling across an amnesiac Jo seems like a godsend at first given her abilities but the wrath of the military forces seeking to reclaim her is such that they find out the price of harboring a fugitive; nearly ending their lives before circumstances give Meg a chance to make the ultimate sacrifice for her newfound pal, cementing their destiny forever. Then the entire group, including a weary (and skimpy suited Leo-ewwww), take advantage of some down time at a newly finished seaside resort built on a platform in what would have been the "hot spa" episode 15 Slingin' Oil; where a luxury resort becomes the subject of great controversy and danger when the gang is left to fend for themselves as a raging fire and powerful monster cut them off from escape. I liked the fan service almost as much as the humor (often at the expense of the men) but it proved to be a bit weaker in terms of advancing the larger story in the background.
The volume then closed out with episode 16 The Man With No Name, a take off on the Clint Eastwood westerns that so much of the show seemed to emulate on a deeper level. This being another cliffhanger ending to be resolved in the next volume (which I didn't get yet), the team is after a killer of children and while successful something goes wrong with Jo's programming. The ensuing chaos causes a lot of friction and it's tough to pin down exactly what will take place next with Jo on the run. Is she gripped with hysteria over her counterpart (Maria) coming back to reclaim her, is she finding that her programmers have a built in safety switch, or is something even more sinister on the docket for the powerful young being?
So, with the end of the fourth volume, I passed the half way mark to the series and gave it a Recommended, again held back largely due to the manner in which it ended though I found this new turn of events to foreshadow a lot more based on having watched so much anime in recent years. Asking more questions than it answered, the final episode was troublesome but the background data provided in the earlier episodes did manage to cover a lot of territory so keep your hats on and your panties from bunching up as you continue watching the show.
Picture: Burst Angel 4 was presented in 1.78:1 ratio anamorphic widescreen as shot by director Koichi Ohata for airing on broadcast television in Japan back in 2004. The mixture of CGI and more traditional looking anime was well done in the spirit that Gonzo usually offers up. There was not as much fluidity in the characters as a larger budget movie but it was perfectly suited for the kind of show this was meant to be; action packed and always on the move. Does that mean there were no static shots or single frames swept across the screen to simulate movement? No, there was a fair amount of that but again, it tended to work thanks in no small part to the tight manner in which the characters were written into their scenarios and any visual elements not quite in line with the better parts of the show were minor compared to some contemporarily released shows.
Sound: The audio was offered up in a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround with the usual choices of the original Japanese or the English language dub provided by FUNimation. Each track offered up a solid experience that I could not truly pick one being better than the other; merely different. The music and sound effects were aggressively separated this time and it was one of the few recent releases (even at two years old) that employed the rear speakers as effectively as possible. The dynamic range of the music was above average, if slightly repetitive, and my biggest complaint was how the subtitles got in the way of some onscreen text (it wasn't common but it was a pain). The dub actors were slightly on the shrill side and the Japanese actors were more polarized (exaggerating their responses to such a degree at times that it struck me as comical) yet fans will be familiar with both sets of voice actors and I honestly would like to find the time to listen to both continuously instead of alternating as I did for this review. In short though, kudos to FUNimation's David Haynes and other creative staff for keeping up with their Japanese counterparts in a relatively rare display of offering a subtlety different story but maintaining a level of quality I can appreciate fully.
Extras: With several lesser companies taking the "less is more" approach to re-releases, it's easy for anime fans to become hardened and expect lame extras when the price is reduced. Thankfully, FUNimation has kept the disc extras this time and provided something enjoyable to appreciate in the form of an interesting audio commentary track, and a radio drama. There were also some trailers, clean opening/closings, and a paper insert for those who care. There was also one of those popular (with me at least) episodes of the Mr Stain in Junk Alley features; the crazy hobo and cat finding a refrigerator but no means to open it as they and the lizard start looking tasty to one another. Okay, the commentary track showed the dub cast laughing it up with Monica and Kaitlyn. Chris was again in charge and able to provide more background, Monica sounding as giddy as ever (she's a favorite of mine) with Kaitlyn pulling the listen's collective legs by goofing with Monica. The radio dramas with the original Japanese cast (Meg and Jo) were more like interviews for the fanboys but I couldn't stop listening any more than I could stop last time; this time reminding me that they would have been better if a new set of characters were brought in as their antics were getting a bit old by this point in time.
Final Thoughts: Burst Angel 4 had some of the best ideas of the Burst Angel series and some of the weakest attempts at expanding the larger elements but I still found it to be a winner in overall terms thanks to the manner in which the writing did seem to provide more background and depth. It was far from perfect but as the rest of the show has proven, the futuristic exploits of the team meeting a lot of action packed adventures in the crumbling society of Tokyo was too much to ignore as anything less than appealing. The Western themes aside, the show was a whole lot of fun to listen to and watch so keep looking for the last two volumes to appear on my doorstep to finish out my look at the series soon.
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.