"Kiddy Grade": Much More Than Fanservice
I recall first hearing about Kiddy Grade when it was originally broadcast in Japan back in 2002. Like an increasing number of science-fiction anime, it seemed to feature quite a lot of young women in fanservice-friendly costumes. Based on this first impression, I dismissed the series and never sought it out. I’m now grown-up enough to admit that was a mistake. Since then I’ve seen several space-opera type anime series that nodded to obvious commercial considerations by including attractive female characters. Said shows, like Vandread and Starship Operators in particular, all had intriguing premises, though they mostly squandered them. The same certainly cannot be said for Kiddy Grade.
Taken as a whole, Kiddy Grade is very much a series in three acts. The first act introduces a bright future world where mankind has colonized many planets and created a Galactic Union (GU). As ever, this utopia contains undesirable elements, and it falls to the Galactic Organization of Trade and Tariffs (GOTT) and their Shadow Members (ES Force) to act as field troubleshooters. Éclair and Lumiere are the two main characters, and they and their awesomely-named (male) auditor Armblast set out to clean up the GU.
Those of you with longer memories might well think all this very much an imitation of the sadly still-unlicensed Dirty Pair TV series and novels from over twenty years ago, and you’d be right. Éclair and Lumiere, though ranked as the lowest-level members of the ES Force, do get the job done—although along the way we get to see their many idiosyncrasies, such as Éclair’s habit of wearing scene-appropriate costumes and Lumiere’s attraction to her “grape juice” drinks. There is also their playful banter, usually consisting of the very much more mature Lumiere insisting that the far more immature-minded Éclair act more elegantly as a lady. It is a bit of a shock, on the other hand, to see that these obviously fun characters truly take no prisoners: one scene in particular shows Lumiere gunning down two gang-members without flinching. Specialist operatives who are fun characters and actually competent? I wish more series had characters like that!
These opening episodes are also very much told in an episodic style, with little references between them—a refreshing change, as I’ve gotten somewhat tired of so many series trying be a complete, continuing “epic” rather than a set of stand-alone, entertaining stories. This way of telling the story means that quite a few different aspects of the universe can be seen and explored, and it is a nice world-building exercise that sets up events in the later part of the series. And many of the early episodes also feature cyborgs of distinctly Boomer-esque design (although they disappear later in the series). Clearly, the series’ makers looked to such older series as Dirty Pair and Bubblegum Crisis for at least a little inspiration—and as far as I’m concerned, they looked in the right place!
The initial episodes are also not overwhelmed by fanservice elements. Indeed, although the character designs are unquestionably attractive, they’re also much more realistically proportioned than other contemporary shows, a choice that again hearkens back to older series. Also, although the story obviously concentrates on our two heroines, the rest of the show is not totally dominated by female characters, which is in surprising contrast to other, latter-day anime series that are all too keen to sacrifice creativity for misguided commercialism.
As noted, the series changes tack a third of the way through and becomes essentially character-driven rather than story-driven. As Éclair and Lumiere go on the run from GOTT after disobeying orders, they’re forced to go up against their former ES colleagues. For me this was a very interesting change, even if it was somewhat clichéd, with the protagonists rebelling against their employer due to being forced into clearly unethical actions. Thankfully, the series’ makers obviously realized this potential for unoriginality as well, and so this section is the shortest of the series’ three acts. That said, there are some interesting surprises in the middle act, one in particular that shows that our heroines are not sufficiently powerful to fully protect themselves or their sentient equipment. This is a pleasing change from the unbeatable heroes seen in other series.
The final act picks up on a plot point touched on in a couple of earlier episodes and reveals that a certain faction of the GU is taking matters into their own hands with an immense spaceship being built for their own secret agenda. This section of the series is lighter in tone than the proceeding one, and it employs some interesting science-fiction elements seen in other past anime series, the main one being a giant transforming spaceship! On that particular point, I was impressed that the show’s makers actually sought to think about what might happen if an object so big came into close contact with another planet, without the spaceship even directly attacking the planet. The actual conclusion of the series is, as with many aspects of the show, surprisingly traditional in execution, and ultimately leads to a thoroughly satisfying ending that ties up most loose threads while leaving room for more adventures. No half-hearted endings designed to spur interest in another season!
All in all, Kiddy Grade is quite the fulfilling roller coaster ride from start to finish, with an excellent balance of fun characters who also have a lot of depth. Also very much worth noting is that the different acts of the series make it quite a mainstream-targeted experience, in that the series does not particularly gravitate towards either the slight, full-of-fanservice or the hardened and pretentious psycho-dramas that typify a lot of modern anime. Like older, generally more successful science-fiction anime of years past, Kiddy Grade takes the middle ground, and is all the more entertaining for it. As for the animation, digital studio Gonzo truly excelled, producing work that is uniformly excellent, and you can really tell they put a lot of hard work into making the series look as good and as fluidly animated as possible. This even extends to altering the opening and end credits to address a key plot point seen later in the series. Other visual touches include the unique eyecatch pictures seen in each episode, usually depicting Éclair and Lumiere in different artists’ styles. I can’t recall seeing anything quite like that before, and it was a nice little Easter Egg to look forward to in each episode.
The DVDs I reviewed came in FUNimation’s Viridion Collection. While its cardboard packaging is indeed attractive and environmentally friendly, it may very well not survive being sent through the post. I’ve since had another Viridion collection that was crushed in on the right-hand side due to the box design. If you’re a perfectionist, keep that in mind. Thankfully the DVDs themselves are unchanged from the original single releases—that is, they haven’t been subjected to “extras-stripping”, so it’s all well worth the price. I also appreciated the alternate angle functions for the opening and ending credits (more shows definitely need to do this), and the addition of closed-caption subtitles for the English track.
The series did a great justice to the characters and world of Kiddy Grade, certainly fulfilling their potential, and even had a satisfyingly ending that still left room for exploration. Another series is supposedly in the works, and whenever it eventually emerges, I’ll be sure to check it out.