Genre: Drowned planet sci-fi submarine action (Drama)
What’s in it?: Gunfights, Submarine Combat, Speedboat/robot fighting, Mass Destruction (well, retroactively), Beasties, Super Technology, Super submarines (traditional ones, too), Big Robots/Mecha, High speed boating.
In the near future, the situation isn’t so far from Waterworld. The sea level has risen, drowning what were once the major cities of the world. Humanity is now at war with the Zorndyke: a race of water dwelling creatures with powerful war machines. But humanity is fighting back with high tech submarines and aquatic assault craft. At the forefront of the fleet is Blue 6 and her crew.
As the story beings, we meet Mayumi Kino, a young and talented pilot. Blue 6 is preparing to do battle, but they’re missing a vital element, Tetsu Hayami, a master pilot who now hires out his skills as a freelance salvager. Hayami has no intention of rejoining the military, but when the Zorndyke suddenly attack, he might get pressed into service anyway.
To begin with, the series is a short one, and it certainly doesn’t waste time in throwing you into the action. The first thing we see is a confrontation between the two protagonist pilots moving quickly into action, and with the exception of an establishing shot or two and a brief bit of banter, there was essentially no set up about the world or the characters whatsoever. The second episode starts to put things together, but is still rather jarring, and the series doesn’t seem to establish solid footing until the third instalment. This style seemed partly prompted by the short runtime, and although I thought it generally worked well, once the plot started to develop a little depth I would have liked a little more time taken on it. In any case, the more distinctive feature of this production other than the pacing was its “arty” feel; I can’t explain exactly what made it that way, but a lot of effort seemed to be put into crafting unusual or disturbing images and thought provoking contrasts, and there was a very definite message being delivered in the story. From the visuals (a variety of unusual camera angles and handheld-style action) to a less than ordinary villain, to the jazz soundtrack, almost everything was a bit different from the norm. Fortunately, although the creative flair was sometimes a little heavy-handed, it was by and large very effective. Perhaps not the most artistic show you’ll ever see, but there was definitely a vision driving it, and I found several scenes quite engrossing.
Moving on to the specifics of the story, the initial set up is a classic sci-fi formula (come to think of it, it’s almost identical to Agent Aika, without the humour and perversion). The heroes and villains also seem pretty obvious at the start, but as it moves on, the underpinnings of both the characters and their world start to look murkier than their surface. This less-than-obviousness wasn’t just for the viewer – the situation was also a little more complicated than most of the characters see, or want to see, and that was where the series started to get good. True, people stuck in a war without a clear good guy or a chance for victory is hardly a new theme in anime, but I thought it was pulled off quite well in this story, and the message was clear, but not so blunt that it was annoying. The misleadingly simple start also supported the contrast between the two main characters: a jaded, world-wise pilot and a blindly idealistic one. These two (particularly the former) had some real personality, as well as conflict that was neither cheesy nor overly grating (again, it would have been nice to have more time for it to develop, though). Mutio also played a significant role, and she was most notable for the fact that she couldn’t speak. The scenes of nonverbal communication that resulted were emotionally complex and visually engaging at the same time, and to me at least were probably worth watching the show for. There weren’t many other characters, but a couple of the supporting cast had distinct, relatively realistic personalities as well. One thing I did notice (and liked) was the relatively mild mood and reasonable pacing in the non-action parts. As short as each episode was, most of the significant plot scenes were deliberate, unhurried, and the dialogue (or lack thereof) wasn’t overwritten (though, again, it would have been nice if there had been enough time for more of them, particularly the scenes with Mutio). About the only real down side to the plot is that the philosophy gets pretty thick as the series builds to its conclusion, and the very end was a bit too opaque for my taste. I would have liked a slightly more satisfying (or just clear) conclusion, because I am very simple-minded *grin*.
All that said, there is also a lot of action in this series, particularly the first two episodes; about half of the 25 minute run time of the first episode was action, and good action at that. This series made heavy use of computer animation for anything that moved (other than the characters, which were digitally coloured and composite cel art), and the result was, although not perfect, quite impressive. The action was almost completely computer-generated undersea combat, and it was fast, smooth, and exciting. Although there was a little bit of the “soft” look that plagued early computer-generated action attempts in the first episode, the animators found their footing and by the end it felt very solid, which I really liked. In fact, even early on, when a robot took a spray of machine gun fire or slammed into something, for example, there was a good sense of mass and impact that I really enjoy seeing in action scenes. The underwater scenes were equally impressive – some really beautiful (and quite realistic) work with the sense of mass of the large ships (and creatures), absolutely fantastic underwater explosions, and cool bubble effects. On the down side, some of the early CG action scenes were a bit too chaotic for their own good (though they involved a funky handheld camera-style look that worked very well). There also wasn’t a particularly good level of match up between the cel art and the 3D computer graphics – when things were rendered 3D, you definitely could tell – but both usually weren’t onscreen at the same time, and since the backgrounds were done more or less the same regardless of the animation in front of them it fit together pretty well. By the end I didn’t even notice the difference.
Speaking of which, the backgrounds were very impressive. There was a lot of attention to detail in the ruined cityscapes and especially in Hayami’s place, and the way the water was done looked great too; there was a very definite sense of depth to a lot of the standing water, with buildings wavering below the surface and into the depths. Actually, all the water was handled well (a good thing, since this is a series about submarines). There was a lots of spray and splashing, and again, the underwater stuff looked very cool. The cool visuals weren’t limited to the action, though; as mentioned above, the cinematography is quite unusual. Conversations usually involve a variety of camera angles, and there were a few scenes with interesting, out of the ordinary settings. That brings us to the only other thing to mention, the cel art, which was as good as the CG end of things (a good thing, since all of the plot was hand drawn). The cel art, although done in a rather simple style, was very sharp, with distinctive character designs and costumes, and the character animation was even better; realistic, expressive, and done with the same attention to detail that went into some of the background scenes. My one complaint would be the designs of the half-animal villain Verg and some of his minions; I believe having them look so obviously “evil” was intentional, but they looked a little too cheesy for their own good (way too close to Saturday Morning cartoon villains) to go with the otherwise grim, realistic visuals and the personality that even they develop.
The acting in Japanese was great, but the only real standout performance was Zorndyke’s eerily calm voice (on the down side, going with the visuals, Verg was too whiny to take seriously enough). The English acting was equally as good, and although a bit stiffer sounding overall, quite decent and even better in parts. Zorndyke’s voice was quite well matched with the Japanese version, and Hayami, although a bit cheesy-sounding at times, sounded powerfully and believably shaken in some of his most dramatic moments (more so than the Japanese version). They also did a fair job of making Verg sound a bit more fitting to his appearance, though he lost some of his growl. On the other end of the sonic picture, the sound effects were at times quite impressive; eerie noises under the sea, thudding explosions, splashing, and all manner of mechanical noise (they even used a proper delay for distant sounds in a few shots). The music, on the other hand, was…well, inappropriate. The action themes were either drowned out by the sound effects or with very loud, upbeat jazz. Although this certainly was out of the ordinary, it was also completely out of place with the extremely dire situations. The end song was equally unusual, but a little better. A jazzy, melancholy tune that I thought was nice and pretty. In contrast, the dub didn’t have either – the vocals were loud, but all the background sound effects and music were sort of dull and faint sounding, taking a bit of the punch out of the battle sequences.
In all, this is a solid, unusual series. It has good action and plenty of it, creative visuals and settings, interesting characters, and a more-than-it-seems, thought provoking (if a little formulaic) story. Check it out if you like the sound of a thoughtful war story heavily seasoned with underwater combat, or if you’re in any way a fan of slick action or computer animation.