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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Freedom: Volume 1 (HD DVD) (HD DVD)
Freedom: Volume 1 (HD DVD) (HD DVD)
Bandai Visual USA // Unrated // June 26, 2007 // Region 0
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted June 22, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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Commissioned by Nissin Cup Noodles as part of an enormously successful 35th anniversary promotion, the six part OVA series Freedom is making its way stateside exclusively onto HD DVD/DVD twin format discs courtesy of Bandai Visual. Freedom is set in a far-flung future in which Earth has been abandoned, and its survivors have established a new society in a series of mammoth domes on the moon. The supposedly idyllic metropolis of Eden is governed by the heavy hand of the Citizens Administration Council, a group that wields the power to carve out the paths that the graduates of its schools must follow. The council clashes with a fifteen year old named Takeru as he distracts himself from his impending regimentation into the status quo by racing his heavily modified Lunar Terrain Vehicle against his rivals in Team Moonshine.

Considering that this 24 minute episode is the first of a six volume series, I'm not left with much more to review than that. It's an introduction to this world and these characters -- which also include a potential love interest, a wizened mentor, a whiz mechanic, a best friend, and an arch-rival -- rather than a story with a complete beginning, middle, and end. This initial episode offers too cursory a glance at its dystopian future to be fully engrossing, but as a teaser for the five volumes to come, Freedom is compelling enough to keep me on-board. The design of Freedom's characters and futuristic world are guided by the skilled hand of Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira; Steamboy), and the episode's two racing sequences are thrilling, particularly the climactic square-off that sent memories of playing S.T.U.N. Runner at the arcade flooding back.

The trouble with attacking the first volume of a set, particularly one this short -- minus credits, this initial installment of Freedom barely slinks past twenty minutes in length -- is that it's like trying to review the first chapter of a novel. Its goal is to establish the series' characters and overall premise, and although Freedom does this quickly and competently, there's not much else for me to discuss at this early stage. This first episode is intriguing enough for me to want to give future discs a look, and I guess that's really all I can hope for. Although some fans may grouse at Bandai Visual staggering the release of the series over six rather pricey volumes, the company has gone to great lengths to make the HD DVD experience as remarkable as possible; I've had a chance to look at nearly two-thirds of the HD DVDs on the market now, and Freedom is among just a tiny handful that genuinely feel next-gen.

The Disc: Freedom is the first twin format release that I'm aware of on these shores. Unlike the combo discs from Universal and Warner which have a high-definition presentation on one side of the disc and a standard definition version that'll function in any traditional DVD player on the other, this is a single sided disc containing one HD DVD layer and one DVD layer. This means that Freedom can play in both HD DVD and DVD players while still offering screened art on one side of the disc, although the capacity is limited compared to what a combo release can potentially offer. After placing Freedom in my HD DVD player, I was prompted to choose between the HD DVD and DVD layers. Following the usual set of corporate logos, the episode played instantly from there.

Nearly HD DVD up to this point that I've seen has been packaged in a small translucent red case. Freedom comes packaged in a transparent, oversized jewel case with a cardboard slipcase that fits neatly over it. The twin disc is black on one side with a lengthy 284 word synopsis of the backstory printed on it, and that combination of paragraphs of tiny white text against a solid black background reminded me of the similar design of XTC's sophomore album "Go 2".

Video: Freedom is presented at its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1, and like the majority of HD DVD releases to date, the 1080p video has been compressed using the VC-1 codec. The high definition animation is a significant improvement over the DVD, offering considerably crisper lines and a much stronger sense of definition. For example, Kazuma is seen at one point on the exterior of the lunar dome peering at a monochromatic computer display. The tiny characters on the display are clear and distinct in high-definition but are reduced to a muddy blur on DVD. The image is razor sharp, boasting bold, vivd colors and robust black levels.

Only a couple of easily ignored flaws were spotted throughout Freedom, and those appear to be a factor of the source material. Some banding is infrequently visible in the sky, particularly in the orange and purple gradients in the first race, and one of the backgrounds of the lunar dome exhibits some heavy aliasing in both the high definition and standard definition presentations of the episode. Sometimes extremely thin lines in the animation, particularly around characters' mouths, partially fade away, and movements are occasionally stuttered and jerky, but this is likely an issue with the cel-shaded rendering of the 3D models rather than the encoding of this HD DVD.

Freedom shows how much 2D animation, even if much of its imagery has been rendered in a server farm somewhere in the East, stands to benefit from the additional resolution of high-definition, and I hope to see much more of it released on HD DVD and Blu-ray in the coming years.

Audio: Freedom defaults to Japanese Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio with English subtitles enabled. A Japanese 2.0 LPCM track has also been provided, and the subtitles are, of course, removable. The aggressive multichannel audio sounds fantastic during the racing sequences, boasting the muscular bass, exceptionally strong directionality, and smooth pans from channel to channel expected from a series that screams along at such breakneck speeds. The mix is understandably more subdued when Takeru and company aren't racing, and even though much of this initial volume of the series is anchored around dialogue, the voice actors' line readings are rendered clearly and cleanly. Very nicely done.

Extras: All of the extras on this twin disc are available exclusively on the HD DVD layer; when placed in a traditional DVD player, the disc doesn't offer anything more than a simple menu and the episode itself. Freedom seems to have been designed expressly as a showcase for next-generation interactivity, and much of what's offered here does impress.

First up is a high definition trailer for Freedom's second volume that runs right at a minute and a half in length. Another feature displays a 'computer graphics simulation' in a picture-in-picture window that plays throughout the entirety of the episode. This glimpse into the production of Freedom shows test renders of the 3D models before they were cel shaded along with backgrounds sketched in pencil and notes scribbled in the margins. The size, placement, and opacity of the picture-in-picture video can be adjusted by the buttons on the face of the remote.

The opening and closing credits of the episode aren't subtitled, but a press of the 'A' button minimizes Freedom into a smaller pane alongside a vertically scrolling list of the cast and crew. The episode can be rewound and fast-forwarded without affecting the credits' upward crawl. I personally don't find a list of names to be especially compelling, but I'm sure enthusiasts appreciate its inclusion. Pressing the 'B' button at any time throughout Freedom brings up a storyboard comparison, similarly condensing the video. The presentation of this feature is particularly striking; the layout is exceptionally attractive and even includes a counter and a note of the playback speed. It's worth noting that the translated credits and the storyboard comparisons cannot be viewed simultaneously. The disc also allows users to bookmark their favorite scenes.

Freedom is perhaps most noteworthy for being the first HD DVD release with any sort of online interactivity. Admittedly, the online aspect is oversold; three of its "online" features are already on the disc, and users are merely downloading a key to unlock them. The first of them is a high-definition promotional trailer, running a short 73 seconds and sporting LPCM 2.0 audio. A six minute prologue to the series better fleshes out Freedom's backstory, and it too is presented in high definition. For whatever reason, this is presented as two separate extras: once with a Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 soundtrack and again with LPCM 2.0 audio. Each of these three options require downloads of a lean two megs a piece. The only of the four extras that's actually downloaded is a short Japanese TV spot for the DVD, presented in 4x3 and 480i. This blink-and-you-miss-it advertisement runs 15 seconds and requires 15 megs of space.

Even if the Internet connectivity ultimately seems unnecessary, the implementation is fantastic. The interface is clean and intuitive, and the downloads are near-instantaneous. However, my Toshiba HD-A1 reported 132 megs of storage available before I started downloading any of these features. I'm not sure how other players stack up by comparison, but that seems to suggest that downloads on future releases will have to be fairly tiny, somehow streamed to the player, or downloaded onto an external drive. Freedom's downloaded extras can be deleted through the disc's interface if you find yourself needing to free up any of that space.

Conclusion: This initial volume of Freedom is intriguing enough for me to be interested in taking a look at future installments of the series, and I was certainly impressed by its presentation on HD DVD. Its approach to picture-in-picture video and storyboard comparisons in particular outclass what I've seen from every other studio to date.

Still, no matter how eye-catching its bells and whistles are and regardless how wonderful the animation may look in high definition, it's hard to ignore that this is an episode of a series that barely breaks the twenty minute mark minus credits yet boasts a hefty sticker price of $39.99. Even after the usual online discounts, Freedom still clocks in at more than a dollar per minute. Despite all of the care that clearly went into encoding this episode and compiling its set of next-generation extras, the price tag is too high for me to enthusiastically recommend that anyone other than particularly rabid anime fans buy this disc. I'd suggest renting this first volume of Freedom or holding out for a somewhat more reasonably priced boxed set as future installments become available. Well worth a look, but Rent It.
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