Review: "Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters" Rises to the Challenge
I’m not sure if it’s properly calibrated expectations or just plain fickleness of mood, but either way I have a much more positive impression of Kaijudo after a second look. The first five episodes of the show are available on the extensively named Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters – Creatures Unleashed, and probably the best compliment I can pay to the series is that the DVD is disappointing because I found myself wanting more immediately after finishing the fifth episode.
Fourteen-year old Ray Pierce-Okamoto suffers the usual slings and arrows of high-school life, with his mixed-race heritage luring the attentions of his school’s moronic bully Carny and his gang of buffoons. His only allies are the privileged Allison “Allie” Underhill and the sweet-tempered nerd Gabriel “Gabe” Wallace. A run in with Carny accidentally causes a giant, rhino-like monster to come to appear, seemingly from straight out of Ray’s sketchbook, but the bigger surprise comes when Ray seems to establish some kind of intuitive connection with it. The encounter brings Ray and his friends to the attention of Hector Chavez, a subdued master of the art of Kaijudo (the Way of the Strange Beasts). Through Master Chavez, the three kids learn that in an ancient era long past, people shared the world with kaiju, gigantic beasts with extraordinary powers that came from one of five civilizations: Water, Fire, Nature, Light, and Darkness. When strife broke out between the two races, the world was threatened with extinction until a small faction of people wielded powerful magic to create the Veil, permanently splitting people and kaiju into different dimensions to keep the peace between them. These were the first masters of the art of Kaijudo, and Ray’s natural affinity for the art causes the current five masters to invite him to join their order. Unfortunately, Ray’s skill has also lured the attention of the Choten, a former Duel Master with an eye for conquest and domination of both human and kaiju alike. The three-part premiere, “The Natural,” also introduces the powerful Tatsurion the Unchained, the ill-tempered kaiju that Ray first summons who quickly becomes Ray’s partner in battle.
Kaijudo is impressive for the way it keeps things moving and communicates so much information on the fly rather than stopping for lengthy exposition dumps. There are a few of those, but they’re generally few and far between and they’re the few times when the show gives away its provenance from a card game. This alone would elevate it above nearly every other game-based show, such as the execrable Bakugan, which feel compelled to stop every few minutes for someone to exhaustively detail exactly what powers and abilities some other character is using. Kaijudo is sufficiently good as a show that if you didn’t know it was based on a card game, I’m not sure you would be able to figure that out from the show itself. That alone already places it head and shoulders above most other game-based cartoons.
“The Natural” also leaves enough plot threads dangling to provide plenty of raw story material for the rest of the season. In addition to “The Natural,” this first disc also includes the episodes “Om Nom Nom” and “The Hunted.” In the first, the kids have to take on a creature called a Burn Belly as Gabe struggles with a squirrely Water beast that the kids nickname Gargle. The second puts the three kids at school after hours in detention, where they have to take on the Choten’s lieutant Alakshmi to keep a baby kaiju out of her clutches. Both episodes are fast and fun diversions with worthwhile moral messages that aren’t hammered home too blatantly. As one example, I quite liked the way the premiere uses Ray’s mixed-race parentage as a plot element without making it his only defining trait. It’s also fun to realize how that element of his character affects other plot elements in subtle ways; the fact that he summons a hybrid kaiju of the Fire and Nature civilizations is both a manifestation of his natural ability while also reflecting his own heritage. As a side note, I’m also quite pleased that the show seems to have made an extra effort in its unusually racially mixed cast (both on screen and in the voice actors).
One of the best things about Kaijudo is that it maintains a sense of humor about everything, even as it’s making it clear that something is at stake and the kids are often at risk for genuine bodily harm. I think the way the show balances those two drives is best embodied in Razorkinder Puppet, the chosen kaiju of Alakshmi. There’s no escaping that a kaiju resembling a clown marionette is patently preposterous, and yet its misshapen head, jointless movements, and razor sharp claws make it as threatening and dangerous as it is ridiculous. When Ray, Allie, and Gabe are on the run from it in “The Hunted,” it is very easy to believe that they’re in real trouble, which in turn makes it that much more satisfying as they work out strategies to counter it. All of this is managed exceptionally well to make for a tense, exciting episode with lots of surprising twists and rude shocks to make for good, solid entertainment.
One of the other features that really sets Kaijudo apart from most other game-based shows is the sterling quality of the animation and voice acting. The show is animated by MOI Studios, with results that fall just shy of the studio’s best efforts on shows like Cartoon Network’s Young Justice or Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra. It is quite a beautiful show to watch, standing head and shoulders above most other hand-drawn animation on TV right now. The character designs are also loaded with little grace notes that are barely noticeable but definitely do much to add depth and distinctiveness to the human and kaiju cast alike, such as the stillness in Master Chavez’s expressions, the slight sneer visible on Master Nigel’s face, the subtle hints that Alakshmi chafes under the Choten’s thumb, the sense of weight and bulk in Tatsurion the Unchained and the even bigger kaiju, and the aforementioned silly/threatening blend in Razorkinder Puppet. The show also gets a sterling voice cast, led by Scott Wolf’s enthusiastic performance as Ray that pairs nicely with Kari Wahlgren’s spirited Allie and Phil LaMarr’s soft and pudgy sounding Gabe. I’m also fond of the silky, seductive kind of evil that Oded Fehr lends the Choten, as well as the edge Grey Delisle gives Alakshmi.
Like all of Shout! Factory’s other Hasbro releases, this DVD provides top-quality video and sound, including a potent 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack where well-placed low-end subwoofer rumbles really help to give the kaiju more of a sense of weight and substance. Bonuses are a quick EPK-style featurette on making the show, featuring a nice cross section of the cast and crew talking about it, and an exclusive Kaijudo trading card. If I have a complaint about the Kaijudo: Rise of the Duel Masters – Creatures Unleashed DVD, it’s only that a show like this would really be better served by a more substantial release instead of the five-episode “soccer mom” DVD we get. For a show that is clearly aiming at a serialized narrative, a five-episode disc (more than half of which is the premiere) feels more like an appetizer than a truly satisfying meal.
Kaijudo is another example of how the Hub network counters accusations that they’re just making half-hour toy ads by making really good shows. I have yet to encounter an original show on the network that isn’t accessible and reasonably enjoyable, and they have had more than their share of real home runs considering the youth of the network. I might have been a little thrown off by Kaijudo initially, but a second look on this DVD places the show firmly into the upper echelons of Hasbro Studios’ efforts, right alongside My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Pound Puppies, Transformers Prime, and G.I. Joe: Renegades. As mentioned above, the only disappointment to be found here is that there are only five episodes on this disc, the last of which definitely leaves us wanting more.