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"Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040": Wreck of the Robots

ImageAs its title indicates, Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040 is a sci-fi series set in the medium-near future, some time after a devastating earthquake has leveled Tokyo. The metropolis has been mostly rebuilt and neatly maintained, though, thanks to the “boomers,” which are specialized automatons manufactured by the Genom Corporation. Unfortunately, these boomers have the odd tendency to occasionally go rogue, mutating and attacking human beings. These periodic crises are handled by the AD Police (a special branch of the police force with ties to Genom) and by the Knight Sabers, a shadowy vigilante group of mecha-clad fighters.

The very first episode drops us directly into the story with the arrival of Linna, a naïve country girl, in Tokyo. She’s working in an office but harbors secret dreams of joining the Knight Sabers; thanks to a few lucky coincidences, she quickly becomes acquainted with the team and is soon suiting up and joining them in battle.

The first eight or so episodes are structured as battles of the week, but lots of continuity and back story get planted as well. The Knight Sabers are funded by Sylia Stingray, a fearsomely wealthy young woman whose hatred of boomers initially has obscure roots but is clearly related to her late father, who was one of their inventors. Other team members include Priss, the taciturn (and rather butch) lead singer in a rock band, and Nene, an AD Police dispatcher who is even younger and perkier than Linna. Their sometime antagonists include the AD Police themselves (represented by the lunkish Leon McNichol and the brainy Daley Wong), who resent the Knight Sabers for always showing them up. Their long-range antagonists include Genom’s CEO, Quincy Rosenkroitz, who seems to be nurturing the boomer technology for possibly nefarious ends, and Rosenkroitz’s underling, Brian Mason, who is secretly exploiting and double-crossing his boss for ends that are even more nefarious.

The first half of the series is all very sneaky and soap opera-ish because it plays its long-range plot very close to the vest. But conflicts are clear: girls vs. rogue robots and girls vs. guys with guns. The underlying story, though veiled, gradually and logically clarifies. The battles are varied and reasonably exciting, and the robot antagonists–which have a disconcerting ability to mutate and expand in alarming ways–always have a surprise or two up their sleeves. The characters are sharp but easy to grasp, even if (as is especially true of Priss) we’ve seen their types in lots of other anime series.

ImageBut things gradually grind to a halt once the real big baddie emerges. It turns out that boomers are a simplified version of an advanced bio-mechanical breed that had to be buried when it threatened to turn into an Omega-level threat to humanity. Mason, who is one of those psychotic idealists always threatening to destroy the world in the name of a greater good, releases that threat, which takes the form of a little girl whose bio-psychical link to machinery threatens to turn to the world into a Cthulhian mass of seething robotic tentacles. She dispatches both Mason and Rosencroitz, quickly and none too tidily, and then it’s up to the Knight Sabers and the few remaining members of the AD Police to stop this Nipponese Borg Queen from engulfing the world.

It’s all quite epic, but things slow to a crawl; the last dozen or so episodes aren’t so much discrete or even overlapping stories as one excruciatingly drawn out and complicated battle. Characters stop developing, and even start to regress. Priss becomes very metallic; Sylia becomes very haggard; Nene turns into a shrieker; and Linna (who initially is very winning because of the conflict between her earthy sense of reality and her slightly loopy need to put on a metal suit and punch things) becomes a cipher. Their humanity retreats rather than expands as it becomes menaced by robotic assimilation.

And this is a real problem, even though it doesn’t come full force until the last half of the show. It’s a temptation that too many robot-centered science fiction shows have fallen victim too, at least since Blade Runner: to concentrate on the hardware and the ideas behind the hardware at the expense of the characters. But you have to possess a Ridley Scott level of genius to make a story in which the robots are more interesting than the people, and to make the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo engaging instead of college-dorm stupid. Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040 starts off with some reasonably attractive characters, but it winds up steamrolling right over them.

ImageProduction values are quite good, and it’s an especially nice relief to watch something that looks like it’s been colored by hand and not by computer. I would like the English dub better if the characters didn’t sound like voices (if not necessarily like actors) I’ve now heard in at least a dozen other anime series.

I have no idea why it’s called “Bubblegum Crisis,” and it would probably be unfair for me to complain that around about episode ten it stops feeling like bubblegum–soft and sweet and juicy and chewy and lots of fun–and turns into something more like bad Kubrick: cramped and metaphysical and neurotically consumed by its rather mediocre conceits. But at least there’s some fun to be had along the way.

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