Background: One of the fun things about anime is how it is so often used to explore numerous ideas more fully than mainstream titles seem able to do. This might look like copying or liberal "borrowing" but it can be as much an homage to the creative process trying to tell a story using established elements as well. One such story from the earlier days of anime on DVD is a show reviewed here called Lost Universe: The Complete Series as directed by Takeshi Watanabe in Japan. The show was made about ten years ago and derived from a popular manga that detailed the exploits of a small space ship full of technology from a bygone era (shades of Andromeda, though it came first), a heroic Captain yielding a psychic light saber, a holographic computer interface, and a passenger they pick up to add some zany comedic exploits. I imagine most of you could list a dozen shows using at least some of these elements already but give me a moment to briefly outline the series with as few spoilers as I can; my promise being that I won't spoil it for you if you might be interested.
Series: Lost Universe is set in a futuristic location where humans have traveled far & wide across the galaxies using space ships to colonize the universe. Each planet has a unique set of circumstances and the governing body is the Universal Guardians; their fleet of ships deployed across the vastness of known space in military fashion with a distinctive mission to keep the peace. Not all of the military is particularly competent but the regulations that govern them keep them in general favor with the majority of the population with little civil strife and few wars getting in the way of progress. As with all large societies, the orderly nature of the military and other law enforcers leave some cracks in the system to be exploited by crooks and those looking to exploit people. To deal with them, a small number of people have devoted their energies to assisting people for pay; be they called bounty hunters, private detectives, body guards, or what have you. Such a life is led by a particularly interesting young man by the name of Kain Blueriver, a youthful man at the helm of a powerful space ship called The Swordbreaker. His ship is older than recorded time and has abilities that many envy, giving him a decisive edge in his numerous exploits across the galaxy. He is accompanied by Canal, a hologram based on the ships processing power in the form of a young lady; able to assist him to a limited degree outside of the ship.
The opening act of this 26 episode adventure had the pair on a mission that made them cross paths with Millie Nocturne, a quirky little over achiever whose goal in life is to be the best at everything. Yes, she has a psychological complex that forces her to become extremely competitive in all she tries her hand at, her latest mission being to become the best detective as she investigates a crime syndicate. When Kain and Millie find themselves looking for answers on the same case, they end up joining forces and the resulting map cap humor becomes a mainstay of what makes the series a "typical" anime comedy-drama but adds some intrigue as well. Millie and Canal endlessly squawk at each other, as much like romantic rivals for Kain's affections as their personalities not allowing anyone to upstage them.
Once the initial mission is over, the trio team up to continue their alliance in what looked largely as if an episodic series with little continuity. As time progresses however, hints of the past for all three of the leads come into play, eventually pitting them against legendary forces of evil that possess even stronger forms of lost technology led by dark masters intent on destroying the universe as a ritual cleansing that takes place periodically. As Kain grows into his savior role his powers with the psychic blade manifest themselves in other ways, proving powerful enough to attract the attention of the evil lord who makes him an offer to join forces. If he does, he will be spared the fate laid out for the rest of humanity but if he doesn't, he'll be painfully crushed along with all those he cares about.
This is the dichotomy of the series; it starts off as light hearted and full of comedy but evolves over time to show a far darker action story. My own take is that a lot of the early episodes were disposable and even many in the middle seemed made more to flesh things out then serve the storyline but this is more common in anime these days overall too. The number of clichéd aspects borrowed from other shows have lent a lot of fodder for forums to discuss the miniscule nods here (some unique to the dub itself but many quirky bits tossed in by the Japanese team too) and I have to admit that watching the episodes in a single sitting made some of the transitions a bit tougher to appreciate yet it bore some replay value too. I watched several episodes in both languages to see if the dub held up (it did) and noticed that the variations between the two versions were interesting. For that alone I could have rated it as Recommended but as a fan of the Slayers series previously, I found that even the weaker aspects bore out some discussion. It may not be the most original offering from Japan to make its way over here in the last few decades but in a value added package such as this, I found it a worthy double dip for the upgraded subtitles alone; never mind how it reminded me of the experiences I had with it so long ago (when it first came out). While flawed, Lost Universe also catered to my core appreciation of anime so give this one a look and I think you'll find that it was probably the first time ADV Films didn't completely screw up an anime release on DVD; leading them into the future where they have had several more successes with the passing of time. This upgrade by Right Stuf proved to improve on the original too; though not quite as effectively as some of their other efforts to date.
Picture: Lost Universe was presented in the same 1.33:1 ratio full frame color as shot by director Takeshi Watanabe for eventual release by ADV Films (IIRC, this was also the first directorial effort of Charles Campbell for the dub; largely hailed as one of the company's saviors years ago after a string of lousy efforts by their other directors) and now Right Stuf. The show is now ten years old and it looks more like twenty as the Slayers influence is so undeniable in every frame of the animated adventures before me. The show actually pays homage to Slayers near the end of the series as well, leaving room for two more related series that were never completed; historical buffs might like to know. Okay, the loose anime style was low on frame count and there were a myriad of issues arising from the sloppy manner the original was produced but the compression artifacts and moiré aside, the show was colorful and appealed on a base level to me. I've been watching anime since Kimba and Astroboy were in syndicated markets so I'm not going to gloss over the weakness of the visual elements but they combined with the audio to offer something better than the sum of the parts involved. The modern CGI aspects did not fare too poorly but did manage to look thrown in at the last minute as completely unrelated at times; the character animations limited but just right for the comedic aspects of the series in most cases. The blacks were not truly black and there was some limited video noise; my HD set up showing the flaws a lot more than my standard definition television so perhaps a future upgrade might make sense there like the subtitles touted as Right Stuf's forte in fixing the damage done by a competitor years ago. If you like Slayers though, you'll find this in the same visual ballpark.
Sound: The audio was presented in a 2.0 Dolby Digital with choices including the original Japanese or an English language dub. The dub was handled by then-audio engineer turned director Campbell, the man making a name for himself in local anime circles for how deftly he brought the characters to life. At the time, the company was floundering with an extremely poor reputation for dubs and it wouldn't be too large a leap to say that Campbell helped elevate their entire studio to near professional status thanks to efforts such as this and how he worked with the voice actors a lot more than was deemed prudent by the powers that be. The original language track was superior in terms of the vocals and how the cast "fit" their roles but the dub was not even close to being as bad as previous releases by ADV; surprising even audio snobs in the process. The effects and score sounded similar on both tracks though, perhaps a slight advantage to the dub's use of expanded headspace and field with some cleaning up done on the sly. The bass was definitely better on the dub too so while there was little separation between the vocals, it was ahead of its time to a degree in how modified series were upgraded sonically by engineers seeking to respond to the different audiences encountered. Also interesting in how some of the bit roles stood out in the dub, it gave the appearance that more than a couple perfect fits were placed there while the original used stock performers of lesser caliper. The benefit on this re-release is as much on price but also on the newly commissioned subtitles that were cleaned up and far more functional (my original volume copies are available if some sucker is in the need of them though).
Extras: There really weren't many extras included this time, perhaps the biggest value derived from the entire series included in a value packed boxed set. There were character biographies, some trailers, and limited liner notes but the newly remastered subtitle tracks alone are worth a double dip as far as I'm concerned.
Final Thoughts: Lost Universe isn't a series I'd compare to some of the blockbuster titles of late from Viz Media or FUNimation but it did remind me of a time long ago when ADV Films was still on the rise as a player in the domestic anime field. They may not be as highly regarded these days to many of you but if you look long and hard enough, you'll still find they release some quirky titles like this one to merit attention. Lost Universe itself proved they could provide a reason for buying anime outside of Japan in the first place so now that I look at it years later, I find myself hoping they stumble across their next directing genius or worthwhile project that combines elements of popular movies like Star Wars, Red Dwarf, and a horde of other series in such a manner that elicits a smile and a wink at the same time as this one did. The technical improvements by Right Stuf aside, I wish that better extras could have been added in but perhaps a future HD version might show the company more progressive than usual as the marketplace evolves to address the desires of the fans (their loyalty waning on companies that don't take care of them).
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.