Review: "Towanoquon" - A Fascinating and Successful Experiment
Towanoquon is another entry in a increasingly popular trend in Japanese animation: take what would be a 12-13 episode anime series and turn it into six short theatrical films (45-50 minutes in length) released every month or so. The music gets a budget boost, the backgrounds get more detail, better-known voice actors are cast, and more in-betweens are put into the animation to justify the theatrical release. The hope is to not only make more money by going theatrical, but ensure a bigger slice of the pie by cutting out the middleman of a Japanese TV network. Unless your anime is called Naruto or One Piece, Japanese TV networks must be paid for airtime in Japan, and that usually means a fairly bad late-night timeslot. Theatrical releases can mean more exposure, and making people pay for movie tickets generates a lot of up-front revenue, hopefully justifying the added expense to upgrade certain elements in the films. Finally, it also potentially cuts down on piracy.
This trend has been around since Giant Robo back in the 1980’s, but its recent rise popularity can be attributed to the acclaimed Kara no Kyoukai film series. Broken Blade, Time of Eve (technically an Original Net Animation that charged people to download new episodes), and now Towanoquon have all followed since then. Unlike Kara no Kyoukai and Broken Blade, Towanoquon is an original property, created by the late Japanese director Umanosuke Iida (whose credits include Hellsing, Vandread and Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team) , who died during the series’ production. Replaced by Takeshi Mori, who is credited as “assistant director”, each film fittingly ends with a dedication to Iida-san. Towanoquon was licensed by Sentai Filmworks as the films were being released last year, and Sentai’s turnaround time in getting a physical release here in the United States was surprisingly quick.
When the films were released, those in the West who saw it compared it to X-Men or S-Cry-Ed, an anime that ran on Adult Swim in years prior, and the comparisons work. Towanoquon is essentially about mutants (here called Attractors) versus a quasi-governmental force packing sci-fi weaponry (here called Custos), just like the X-Men versus the Sentinels. Like S-Cry-Ed, many of the mutants can have their powers take on odd, or even disturbing, forms, often crossing the line into total loss of control and causing painful transformations that threaten to put Tetsuo’s infamous transformation in Akira to shame.
How Towanoquon tries to differ itself from the pack is in the little details, and significant changes in the plot after the original episode. Towanoquon aims to explore its characters to a depth not seen in S-Cry-Ed, and frequently not seen in various X-Men incarnations either. Quon, the main character, seems like a likable, youthful guy at first, but it’s quickly revealed that underneath the veneer, Quon is still badly traumatized from a massacre of his kind nearly a thousand years ago (brutally told in a surreal flashback in episode 3). Yuriko, Quon’s best friend and closest thing he has to a love interest, initially seems to be a flirty “Ms. Fan Service,” but this is also shown to be a mask, as Yuriko is struggling to move on from a childhood of abuse. Similar revelations come to light as we meet all of the principal members of Fantasium Gardens, a theme park-like place where Attractors hide in plain sight as employees. Some Attractors overcome their problems. Others do not and go into complete mental breakdowns, resulting in their deaths, as clearly shown in the climax of the second film. Quon poignantly says that he has only been able to save the lives of fifty percent of new Attractors since forming Fantasium Garden, and the consequences of his repeated failures wear on him deeply, as shown multiple times throughout the films.
Perhaps this is the most important part of Towanoquon. A frequent mistake in anime is relying on the viewer to understand things simply by being told things rather than shown them. Many Gundam series have made this mistake, as has Naruto, Bleach, and many other famous shonen released here in America. Towanoquon tells, certainly, but the film series takes the time to show it too. Without worrying about network censors/interference, Towanoquon is free to show everything it wants us to see, helping us emphasize and sympathize with everything the characters are going through. It is a noble attempt, and while not every character has this pulled off perfectly, at least the attempt shows good intentions by the staff.
Expecting Studio Ghibli-esque animation out of this short film series is a huge mistake. The animation was produced by venerable Studio BONES, and is generally pretty good, though it usually makes Towanoquon look like high-end TV series more than feature films. At the same time, the mixture of 2D and 3D visuals is handled much better than, say, Broken Blade, and BONES also has fun with changing the art style during certain key instances (such as the surreal flashback sequence I mentioned). The character designs (by Toshihiro Kawamoto, who also did the designs for Wolf’s Rain) have a bit of a retro appearance, harkening back to the early 90’s in a lot of ways. They’re simple enough to animate well but not so simple that they lack details.
Audio-wise, the music, composed by Kenji Kawai (Gundam 00, Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit), lacks the “oomph” delivered by Yuki Kajiura in Kara no Kyoukai and Yoshihisa Hirano for Broken Blade. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong about the music, since it supports the scenes decently enough, but Kawai’s style has stayed so consistent over the years that I wonder if he has much inspiration left. His work here sounds like a carbon copy of his compositions for Gundam 00, except missing the electric guitar that gave those compositions some personality. Annoyingly, Kawai’s music has a tendency to repeat a lot, particularly his action cues, which doesn’t help matters. I don’t mind music repetition in anime, it’s to be expected to some extent, but I think a film series should be above that level.
Sentai went with Seraphim Studios for the dub, and that means yet another directing effort from Stephen Foster, who has received a mixed reception from anime fans over the last few years. Foster’s work for Sentai has run the gamut from good (CANAAN, Xam’d: Lost Memories) to sloppy (Highschool of the Dead, The World God Only Knows) to downright awful (the second half of Guin Saga, Angel Beats). Stephen Foster also usually writes his own scripts, and they have had a tendency to be very loose, even moreso than FUNimation’s famously loose, freewheeling scripting style.
Perhaps it was Towanoquon‘s status as a film series that motivated Foster, but the dub effort here is more like CANAAN and Xam’d than his sloppier efforts. The English script occasionally fumbles (usually in the case of a sentence that makes zero grammatical sense), but it flows well most of the time and doesn’t stray too far from the original dialogue. The actors uniformly perform their roles with a professional air and there’s no casting issues (Monica Rial is a highlight with an uncharacteristically gentle tone as Tei). An initial exception is Jessica Boone as Yuriko, since she takes a highly lackadaisical approach during the first film that reminds me of her half-assed Rei from Highschool of the Dead. However, Boone’s performance dramatically improves as Yuriko starts getting more serious and heroic as the film series goes on. Overall, this isn’t a superlative dub, but it gets the job done.
The Japanese cast, from what it sounds like, generally does a pretty good job, but I am not a good judge of how well the Japanese performance is. Annoying, Sentai’s habit of typos in subtitles continues here; a particularly noticeable example is “trespassing” misspelled as “tresspasing” in the first film. This trend has been going on since Sentai was created, and at this point I’ve virtually given up hope on Sentai fixing this quality control issue. It would be nice if they did, though.
Extras are nothing to write home about. The most significant is a dub commentary on the final film that obviously should not be viewed until you’re done watching the film series.
Overall, Towanoquon is another entry in a fascinating experiment by anime studios, and this one pulls it off pretty well. While Towanoquon isn’t perfect, and I get the feeling it would have been better if the original director had lived to finish the project, it’s definitely a title that is worth owning, if only to see what could be the future of original anime projects at the rate things seem to be going in Japan. It’s a project that could fit pretty well on Toonami if it weren’t for the short film format, providing plenty of action but also enough heart to keep the series from being a superficial entity.
And that is something you can definitely write home about.