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Katsucon 2011: Premiere Impressions

The weekend of Katsucon 2011, FUNimation Entertainment screened
English-dubbed premieres for multiple titles well in advance of their
releases on home video. I was there for the film Eden of the East:
King of Eden
and the TV series Hero Tales and RideBack.

King of Eden is the first of two movies continuing the story
of the Eden of the East television series, previously reviewed by Toonzone. It earned itself many fans and a deservedly strong
reputation for its attractive main characters and ideas both original
and intriguing; on one level the budding relationship between amnesiac
lead Akira Takizawa and Saki Morimi was a draw to the show, on another
the high-stakes “game” being played by him and the other eleven
“Selecao” to supposedly “save” Japan packs enough mystery and intrigue
to keep people interested and guessing. I think a series twice as long
and no less interesting could have been made just exploring what these
“players” do with ten billion yen and a callable agent that can fulfill
just about any request, but as-is it was a good view worth anyone’s
time. Contrary to some of the negative buzz I’ve seen, I’d have to say
that as the beginning of the end King of Eden continues that
appeal. It doesn’t answer or resolve much and a lot of time is spent on
Saki finding out what happened to Takizawa after the end of the TV
series, but the plot does develop in some surprising ways and the viewer
ends the first film with the sense that things are entering the final
stretch. And yet much remains to be done; the architect of the game,
“Mr. Outside” remains enigmatic and at large, and of great interest to
me is the fact that the ending of the TV series, while the best one
possible under the circumstances, left Japan in a diminished state that
is no better by the time King of Eden ends. Whether and how such
issues are resolved will be interesting to see; anyone who enjoyed the
TV series should definitely spend the time to find out.

Hero Tales wasn’t exactly a disappointment, though I didn’t
leave the room eager to see what came next either. It’s something of a
period piece with a Chinese motif, but rooted in fantasy to allow for a
familiar-looking action adventure story. Taito is a martial artist out
to challenge the villainous shogun Lord Keiro, who stole a sacred blade
said to be the legitimate “Sword Of Rule” and slew many of Taito’s
fellow monks in the process. It turns out both the hero and villain are
two of seven warriors blessed with special power from stars in the
heavens, only they’re polar opposites and therefore–of course–fated to
clash with each other. Naturally fate doesn’t deign to let Keiro draw
the Sword Of Rule and claim the legitimacy to unseat the sitting
Emperor, so he opts to take what he wants by force while letting people
think that he truly owns the blade. Meanwhile Taito sets out on your
standard heroic journey with his sister Laila and one of the other
divine warriors in tow, who resolves to train Taito for his imminent
rematch with the Shogun. To its credit, the adventure proceeds at a
decent enough pace and doesn’t waste time introducing the other divine
warriors that are out there. It’s all well and good, it’s just not
anything that anyone hasn’t seen elsewhere and done just as well early
on. Taito is a well-meaning but quick-tempered hero that probably won’t be making
any all-time list of great heroes, but he does benefit from a solid
English performance from Newton Pittman in one of his first starring
roles. It further helps that the English adaptation has a welcome contrast from the
Japanese track, where Taito repeats what he says every time he loses his
temper. It was a quirk that starts out not very funny and quickly becomes annoying and overdone. All in all, though one could do worse than this title I’d recommend trying before buying.

In contrast to that lukewarm impression, I walked away from the
first four episodes of Rideback immediately wanting more. On the
surface it sounds like such an odd concept–a washed-up college-age
ballerina discovering the joy of driving a transforming, robot-esque
motorcycle? Yet in practice, it’s all portrayed as if it’s the most
natural thing in the world. The titular machines benefit from highly
imaginative design; they can “stand” on two wheeled legs and a driver
can even make use of attached appendages. This is a bit of a stretch,
but the genius of it is that the Rideback possesses so much vehicular
identity that they appear strange yet realistic and familiar, as if
they’re just a generational leap or two away from actually existing in
the real world. Just as impressive is the animation work done by studio
Madhouse, which has done some of the best blending of 2D and CG animation that I’ve seen. Thanks to her impeccable balance protagonist Rin Ogata turns
out to be a natural Rideback driver after she stumbles into the chance
to try one out, and it’s a satisfying to see the joy she takes in this
that she feels she can no longer have with ballet after foot injury she
sustained years earlier. After three episodes one might be fooled into
seeing this as a racing show, but then the fourth episode hits and Rin
takes the initiative to rescue her best friend from a dangerous hostage
situation. It’s an engaging action episode, and one that starts
seriously developing an ongoing plot thread regarding a repressive
global order and the insurgency fighting it. Between Ridebacks being
applied for military use and Rin’s gutsy intervention attracting media
and Government attention, the show appears poised to take this
tale forward in what could be a fascinating direction. My only complaint
is that June is just too long to wait to have a refreshingly novel
series like this on my shelf.

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