Review: "Texhnolyze" DVD Boxset Reissue: Still Highbrow Yet Hardcore
During the anime of boom of the late 1990s to early 2000s, weird shows were par from the course. What Evangelion started became one of the dominant trends during the boom, as shows like Serial Experiments: Lain and Boogiepop Phantom focused around strange, intellectually complex tales in bizarre, almost-surreal worlds with heavy doses of paranormal activity, psychoanalysis and science-fiction futurism. Late-2003 to mid-2004 may have marked the apex of that trend when Geneon USA prelicenced both Texhnolyze and Paranoia Agent from their Japanese parent company. Paranoia Agent ended up the more well known of the two, in large part because it was created by the late, great Satoshi Kon, and that notoriety scored it a spot on [adult swim]. (It’s also a great show.) However, for hardcore otaku of the era, Texhnolyze was similarly anticipated as it had quite an outstanding pedigree itself. Reuniting much of the creative power team behind Serial Experiments: Lain, Texhnolyze again bought together yoshitoshi ABe, Yasayuki Ueda and Chiaki Konaka, and did so at the legendary Madhouse Studios.
However, anyone who then expected something as accessible as even the notoriously cryptic Lain were about to have their minds blown. The show is visually driven almost to a fault: the first episode contains maybe five lines of dialogue. The largely male cast–itself a shift from previous works from this creative team–only adds to the dark stoicism of the series. While it may be a product of an era, it’s also unlike any of its contemporaries in the same stroke by being so visual. Obfuscating its message further, Texhnolyze is also quite a personal work as anyone familiar with the creative staff can spot their fingerprints all over it. Many of the visual metaphors and elements of the setting aren’t just chosen for their significance, but also because the people involved just happen to like certain things (such as Frank Lloyd Wright architecture.) There are also callbacks to other works from the creatives. The setting, especially given the divide between haves and have nots and the usage of separated/enclosed cities, calls to mind both ABe’s Haibane Renmei and Konoka’s The Big O. Where Texhnolyze diverges from these prior works provides yet another layer of mystique. As a whole, it wouldn’t be unfair to say it’s almost too obscure, given the lack of easy access to character motivation and symbolic meaning.
Yet, I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I’ll tell you why.
I suppose I should summarize the story at least a little, so here’s the key, fairly-spoiler-heavy points. In what is heavily implied to be the future (given the aforementioned Frank Lloyd Wright architecture,) humanity appears to have been reduced to living underground in the dank city of Lux. Trapped in a brutal world that at a glance seems to be a mix of a walled-off elite, professional yakuza and biker gangs, we open with our male Ichise in the middle of a brutal prize fight. After crossing one of the factions who run Lux, Ichise loses an arm and a leg, but is then taken by one of the elite and given prosthetic limbs called Texhnolyze. In case the show wasn’t bleak enough, the energy source that runs Texhnolyze limbs is Raffia, which is derived from flowers grown on dead bodies. This would be a pretty harsh situation to start with, but it turns out there are still people who live above ground, and one of them, Yoshii, has grown bored with the stagnation of the surface world, so he has decided to start gang war in Lux. Somehow, it falls to Ichise, with the occasional aid of a young oracle, Ran, to avert disaster. If that all seems simple, trust me, the execution is anything but. Besides the complexity of the relationships between people and the gangs, the very nature of Texhnolyze prosthetics, and the relationship between the surface and subterranean peoples are all weirder still. Like many shows of the era, Texhnolyze poses some interesting existential questions about what humanity’s direction and nature is, especially in regards to necessity of violence for progress and similarly the embrace of technology, and whether the rejection or acceptance of that comes with its own moral imperatives. However, to go any more detail about how they get to those questions and how they answer them is beyond the scope of this review. I’ve spoiled enough.
And really, it’s worth seeing the story for yourself. I say “see” because so much of this show is told visually. After a barrage of light novel and visual novel adaptions for the past decade, the vast majority of which are driven by their dialogue, coming back to something created for the medium of animation is quite a treat in itself. Even classic storytelling aspects like inner dialogue are replaced with visuals from the lead character’s perspective, and it works shockingly well. The design of Texhnolyze, from the characters to the backgrounds, is gritty but entrancing, but the true genius is that those visuals drive the story, even when the show delves into more hyper-violent moments. Letting the grotesque often stand on its own wordlessly, sometimes almost silently, gives it so much more impact. Yet, as much the action scenes communicate volumes, even subtle choices such as moments of art deco design and 1950s Americana imbue otherwise static scenes with another layer of meaning, even if it is also a moment of the creative staff indulging their own interests. In spite of the self-serving elements of some of the callbacks, it’s all welded solidly into storytelling rather than acting like red herrings as was the case at points with Lain. The animation is quite clean as well, with some rather clever usage of digital effects and storyboarding to help underscore what it is like to see the world from Ichise’s perspective.
The dialogue itself may at points feel a bit stilted because so much effort is put into using the visuals, but ultimately, it makes some scenes much more realistic. Said realism in dialogue is enhanced by some very natural performances from both voice casts. In Japanese and English, this show lacks any moments that feel like they were “acted” so much as “expressed naturally.” The lack of stylization or sass or spice is the style, and fits Texhnolyze well. In fact, even when you’d expect something more ostentatious, the disassociated calmness of the voice acting during conversations about brutal subjects like murder details just how broken the world of Texhnolyze is. It also makes the few moments of emotional outbursts seem that much more unnerving. When someone does finally break down and cry, it’s clear given that previously mute context that they have truly fallen apart. Similarly, the soundtrack holds the same balance: music is used very sparingly and in very specific places. Much like Samurai Jack or certain moments of Tarentino’s Kill Bill, Texhnolyze will often just let the sound effects and ambient sound carry the tone of a scene to grand effect. That’s not to say the soundtrack isn’t fantastic: a great rave techno cut from Juno Reactor opens the show, the incidental music is subtle and is never used in a maudlin way, and even the closing pop-ballad theme from Gackt works well.
As to the quality of the release itself, I have to say it’s nice that FUNi has put the entire series across only 4 discs, and that it keeps the interview with Ueda and ABe from the Geneon release that was done at SakuraCon in 2004. However, the menus are a little dull relative to the menus on the old Geneon release. Packaging-wise, Geneon’s release was one of my favorites from the era, as it had a lovely set of lenticular inserts with the single DVD releases, and this is just in a simple pair of cases in a lightweight cardboard slipcase. Further, while it was digitally animated in 2004 and so likely without an HD source, it would be lovely to see it get an official HD upscale if nothing else. That said, it’s a bargain compared to the Japanese reissue, and unlike that reissue, it has subtitles and a dub. I have to note, though, that FUNimation also has the whole show up on FUNimation.com as a free stream, so if you have any interest after this review, give the first few episodes a shot.
On the whole, I’m glad Texhnolyze has been kept in print, even if existing fans have no reason to double dip this on this release. With the impending deluxe Blu-Ray/DVD combo reissue of Serial Experiments: Lain incoming, interest in other ABe/Konaka/Ueda works may see a resurgence, and it’s great for those new fans to have a way to experience their other series (barring NieA Under 7, which needs its own reissue at this point.) In a era where countless series tried be cerebral, dark and philosophical, Texhnolyze is one of few that nailed it, and there is a possibility we will never see another quite like it. If you’re not adverse to pensive moments mixed barbaric yet cultured violence, and you’re not picky about HD releases, Texhnolyze may be for you.