NOTE: The screenshots contained in this review come from the DVD version of "RideBack."
One of the best thing's to come from my time reviewing films is the chance I've gotten to experience the anime genre. For many years I wrote it off as either pretentious drivel or cutesy garbage for little girls. While I'm far from an anime nut, I do now have a healthy appreciation or respect for it, including the stuff that is definitely not marketed toward me. The 2009 12-episode series of "RideBack" walks the line between the darker, more intense anime I've come to love and the lighter fare that I choose to ignore. Based on a popular manga series of the same name, it's a series that is as ambitious as it is safe, taking common genre themes and mashing them together in a satisfying but slightly hollow package.
Structure wise, "Rideback" follows a fairly solid three-act saga, focusing on the life of Rin, a young schoolgirl whose hopes of finding fame in the world of ballet are dashed by a crippling injury. Moving forward with her life, she finds a second chance for greatness at school through the world of racing Ridebacks, futuristic looking motorcycles with small robot like arms capable of functioning as standard racing vehicles or for the more daring, fluid extensions of the rider's body. For Rin, a former dancer, the graceful elegance of the machine is a natural fit and she astonishes her friends and veteran racers alike on the heavily modified Rideback dubbed Fuego.
The first four episodes of "RideBack" set a character arc that will eventually be realized by series close, using the standard "rise to fame" arc that many sports movies utilize. Rin is the obvious underdog and a few episodes in she's thrown into a huge Rideback race for seasoned racers. Naturally, her graceful movements on the dance floor give her the edge with the Rideback, allowing her to take corners in ways other riders could only dream of, however, lurking in the background of her and the other racers' life is an impending political conflict. The GGP a military backed controlling power sees the Ridebacks a potential future weapon to keep the citizens of the world in line, it's not long that Rin's entry into the world of Rideback racing ends and her life as fugitive and rebel figure begins, perfectly coinciding with the series' transition into the second act or four-episode grouping.
Such a workmanlike approach to storytelling is a large part of why "RideBack" never truly achieves greatness. A constant slave to time, the balance of narrative and action payoff are all over the board, with some episodes winding up incredibly mythology heavy, which for a 12-episode series is precious time spent when some of the characters factored into this mythology aren't nearly as developed as Rin or the captain of the Rideback team, Tamayo. Having to condense six years of printed page into 12, 25-minute episodes doesn't help matters and while I applaud the series for setting a firm schedule to tell its tale, a few more episodes might have made "RideBack" a more memorable piece of work.
One aspect that is undeniable, is that "RideBack" is a beautiful piece of entertainment. It blends traditional animation with CGI (most noticeably the Ridebacks) and the director pushes the animation to the limits to dazzle viewers on a visceral and emotional level portraying the mechanized wonders as graceful dancers (admittedly a bit heavy handed) and nimble warriors. Without spoiling any details, the series' last act ramps up the intensity of the story and isn't afraid to pull at heart strings and certain emotional events are intensified by the wonderful animation. Likewise, the voice work is earnest on both sides of the pond, with the English dub holding up on a professional level alongside the original Japanese audio track.
"RideBack" doesn't reinvent the wheel (veiled pun) from a storytelling point. It merely takes what works and attempts to make it work for 12-episodes. It's safe entertainment that should appeal to younger teens as well as adults, although the viewer well versed in the notion of citizens rising up against oppressive governments or the classic saga of an unlikely hero realizing his or her potential is going to find "RideBack" tedious and uninspired at many junctures. Ultimately, "RideBack" left me satisfied but not chomping at the bit to revisit its universe anytime in the near future.
The 1.78:1 1080p AVC encored transfer is a nearly flawless piece of eye candy. Colors are vibrant and intense, with nary an issue with noise or compression. Fine detail is a little iffy though, likely a decision in the original animation process, but the blend of CGI and traditional animation suffers slightly with the former looking much sharper than the latter. Overall, the image has a mildly soft look to it, but that ultimately doesn't detract from the beautiful nature of the show.
On the audio front, I'm torn. On one hand, the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 English dub is a sonic treat. Surrounds are used to great effect, especially during the races in the early episodes and the action set pieces towards the end of the series. Voices are correctly balanced with effects and music, and overall it's a rich full track. Likewise, the English dub itself is pretty good and perfectly worth listening too. However, for a purist like myself, the original language Dolby TrueHD 2.0 Japanese track just can't hold up to the dub. It's a much more dialed back affair, impressive, but not nearly as much as it should be. So, fans will be forced between original language OR the best possibly aural experience, not both. English subtitles for dialogue as well as a separate track for on-screen text translations only are included.
In the extras department, a pair of commentary tracks on episodes four and ten are the highlight. They both feature members of the English dub and are generally light and disposable efforts. Textless versions of the intro and closing titles are included. A keychain of the series' logo is included in the oversized outer box.
Additionally, the entire series is included on two DVDs, which contain the same extras, a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer (which is quite stunning on its own) a standard Dolby Digital 5.1 English dub and a Japanese 2.0 track as well as the same dual English subtitles.
Visually stunning both artistically and technically, "RideBack" is a relatively safe excursion into Rin's world of futuristic motorcycles, oppressive governments and heroes waiting to rise up. The flaws of the series are apparent, but are lessened by the moments when the story is on-point and emotionally engaging, just don't expect it to be that way the majority of the time. Those looking for distilled genre entertainment that doesn't leave a bunch of narrative gaps, give "RideBack" a shot. Recommended.