"Freedom" Blu-ray Boxed Set: It's Not Always Nice. But It's Awesome.
I am sure it caused no small amount of anguish at Bandai Visual when Toshiba threw in the towel on HD DVD, since they had placed an early bet on the format with Freedom, a hard-science-fiction story about a futuristic city on the moon that was released in six hybrid DVD/HD DVD volumes (read my earlier reviews of vol. 1-5 and vol. 6). Fans of the series will be happy to know that the series reaches a marvelous conclusion in a terrific Blu-ray boxed set, even if the prospect of spending $100 or more to buy a lot of material that they already own may be a bitter pill to swallow for the privilege.
The lead character of Freedom is Takeru, a teenaged boy living in the city of Eden on the moon in the 23rd century. Originally intended as a waystation for missions to terraform Mars, the city of Eden became the last refuge of humanity after a horrible accident made Earth uninhabitable. Unfortunately, Eden is a gilded cage of totalitarian control, and these restrictions chafe at the rebellious Takeru tremendously. High-speed motorbike races are the outlet for his subconscious frustrations, with his hot-rodded lunar cycle built with the help of his friends: the level-headed Kazuma and the brilliant but cowardly Biz. After Takeru finds a photo of a girl standing in a grassy field that’s definitely not on Eden, much larger events are suddenly set in motion. Before long, Takeru is on a rocket bound for Earth on a quixotic quest to find the mysterious girl in the photo (who we eventually learn is named Ao), with the discovery of the truth about Earth’s fate being a distant second priority to him.
Freedom is definitely a series that is best absorbed in large doses. Watching the whole series at once makes the three acts of the series much clearer and better defined, revealing the fundamental tension between the highly technological, extremely regimented, and safe world of Eden and the pre-industrial, anarchic, and dangerous world of Earth. This presentation properly preserves the breakneck pace of the first three episodes much better than the original releases did. Watching the series all together also makes the transition from Eden to Earth feel more like a natural storytelling transition instead of a sharp turn out of nowhere, and makes the almost arbitrary twists of the latter three episodes seem more like the anarchic sensibilities of Earth applied to the storytelling.
However, it’s the double-length concluding episode that ties everything together, managing the neat trick of telling a gripping story while also illuminating much of what has already occurred and resolving the underlying tension between the need for order and security and the spark of life that only comes from freedom that borders on anarchy. The ideological division between Earth and Moon informs nearly everything in the final chapter, and the series very pointedly refuses to accept either side as perfect. Most totalitarian governments in science fiction are easy self-justifying bogeymen, and while there is a degree of self-justification to the heavy hand of the Guidance Council, their rationale for their iron grip on society is plausible, and even marginally sympathetic. In the end, though, it’s Takeru and Ao who truly bridge these two worlds and heal the schisms between them, even if the only resource they have is their stubborn naiveté. In fact, one might even argue that it’s only pure, stubborn naiveté that can bridge these worlds, since it resolutely refuses to accept the artificial limitations of Eden or the natural limitations of Earth. They are the ones who balance both sides for their mutual betterment, and it was precisely that kind of optimistic stubbornness that drove mankind to reach for the stars in the first place. Takeru may seem like a fool for traveling more than 238,000 miles just to meet a girl, but in hindsight, it’s at least as good a reason to make the trip as “Let’s Beat the Commies,” which was the rationale that eventually got Apollo 11 to settle in the Sea of Tranquility. The final episode does contain a few rough edges and a plot hole or two, but the way it so masterfully resolves the series and gets us so caught up in the moment makes those flaws quickly forgiven or forgotten.
The new Freedom Blu-ray boxed set addresses some of the weaknesses of the earlier DVD/HD-DVD volumes, but not all of them. The initial releases felt meager at a half-hour per volume, and as mentioned earlier, the release schedule tended to make watching the series a rather herky-jerky experience. Each Blu-ray disc in the boxed set contains two episodes of the series instead of just one, with the double-length seventh episode occupying the fourth and final disc. Presenting the series in this way definitely makes for a better viewing experience, although one still wonders why the box isn’t at least one disc shorter, since most Blu-ray discs seem able to hold twice as much material without any significant loss in quality. Unfortunately, anyone who bought the DVD/HD DVD releases will be forced to re-purchase material they already own just to get the conclusion to the story. This may not be as serious an issue as it seems, though, since the high price tag of the original releases and the low market penetration of HD DVD probably means not many people bought Freedom in the first place, and those that did will need to toss their HD DVDs eventually anyway. Still, those that bet wrong in the high-definition DVD format war are either out of luck or out a little more than $100 if they want to know how the story ends. It is also still a mystery why Bandai Visual insists on releasing this series only in high-definition, effectively limiting potential sales of this wonderful series to an even smaller niche of the niche anime market.
My complaints about this set end there, though. The box itself is strikingly beautiful, with a translucent plastic sleeve encasing a paperboard box of concept artwork from the show. I was not able to watch the original release in high-definition, so I can’t do any kind of comparison between the old and new transfers (for that, I defer to fellow Toon Zone staffer Adam Tyner, who compares the HD DVDs and this set in his review for the DVD Talk website). However, I can say that Freedom in Blu-ray is a ravishingly beautiful piece of work. This is definitely a series to keep handy for when you want to show off the quality of your home theater setup. The series uses cel-shaded CGI to appear like hand-drawn animation, and while the seams still show a little bit in the earlier episodes, the later ones are a technical marvel. The series is chock full of gorgeous eye candy from start to finish, and all of it is rendered in stunningly sharp and vibrant 1080p resolution. The Blu-ray releases also come with new English and French soundtracks to go along with the original Japanese, with all of them presented in sparklingly clear 5.1 TrueHD sound that reproduces dialogue clearly and really brings out the subtlest touches in the show’s excellent sound design. The English dub is quite good, with Michael Sinterniklaas providing an appropriately thick-headed performance as Takeru and Robbie Sharp keeping Biz’s whining from being too annoying. About the only disappointment is Stephanie Sheh’s Ao, whose performance is fine but whose voice seems pitched a bit too high compared to Ao’s original Japanese voice actor Sanae Kobayashi. Much of the animated bonus material, including the prelude chapter on disc 1, is not dubbed into English, so don’t panic (as I did) when you pick the English soundtrack and the prelude insists on giving you subtitled Japanese anyway.
Extras on each disc are fairly minimal until you hit disc 4. All volumes contain two “digest” videos, which sum up the action of the episodes on the disc. The first two volumes also include mildly interesting conversations between director Shuhei Morita and series writers Dai Sato and Gichi Ohtsuka about the making of the series. I’m not sure if it’s the language barrier that keeps me from getting too involved in them or if they really don’t have a lot of value to say. Far more interesting are the special features on volume 3, which include a visit of Morita and Sato to Anime Expo 2007 in Los Angeles and an amusingly disappointing visit to the California terminus of Route 66. Apparently, nobody knew to tell them to travel in the other direction, as their fellow animators at Pixar did in preparing for Cars. The second featurette on volume 3 puts the two on the opposite coast as they visit the Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, which figures prominently in episode 6 of the series. This is one of the most interesting special features on the disc, partially because the Air and Space Museum is such a cool place to visit, but also because you can really feel the palpable sense of awe that Morita and Sato give off as they stand in the presence of space travel history.
The final volume gets a collection of all the “next episode” trailers, a highly compressed documentary on the space race from Sputnik to the first Moon landing (inexplicably split into two separate 10-minute segments), a quick little epilogue to the series that involves another space bike race, and an adorable bit of fourth-wall breaking where several of Freedom‘s characters give personalized messages to thank you for watching. Virtually all these special features are also in high-definition, although the resolution varies slightly and the documentaries reveal the limitations of the grainy historical footage with pristine digital clarity. The last extra is a 28-page booklet printing a manga prelude to the series, fleshing out Takeru’s deep-seated dissatisfaction with his life in Eden and expanding on the series’ running association of octopi with catastrophe. This latter bit is more meaningful than it sounds, since it actually explains the design of the Guidance Council’s multi-legged robots and one throwaway gag at the start of episode 6.
At heart, Freedom‘s loyalties lie with the low-tech, analog heroes that put together the original Mercury and Apollo space programs. With a fraction of the resources available today, and when being off by a few decimal places would have led to a miss by thousands of miles, these teams managed to achieve one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind with slide rules, computers with the power of today’s pocket calculators, and a whole lot of blood, sweat, and tears. Technology made the missions possible, but it was the spirit of the people involved that made them succeed, and it’s that same adventurous spirit that both drives Freedom and is celebrated by it. Until we can launch trips to the Moon, Mars, and beyond, Freedom will make quite an acceptable substitute.