Reviewby Carlo Santos, Nov 5th 2004
Aquarian Age - Sign for Evolution
DVD 1: Awakening
Kyouta is a typical high school guy: he's got his girlfriend, Yoriko, and he's the lead vocalist in a rock band with his pals Shingu and Junichi. On a New Year's Eve in the near future, Kyouta's band is playing a gig outdoors when he sees a fleeting vision of strangely dressed girls fighting in the sky--and they seem to be fighting over him! He ignores it, though, and when the concert is over, a representative from the Cosmopop record company wants to sign his band to their label. It seems too good to be true, but
soon enough, he's sharing studio and stage with Japan's hottest idols.
But for all his growing fame, Kyouta's world is unraveling. The visions get stronger and stronger, with some of the strangely dressed girls even addressing him directly. Then Yoriko starts acting like she's never going to see him again. She works at a shrine, but could it be that their mysticism reaches far deeper than just traditional customs? And what about that vision Kyouta had of the Cosmopop agent being some kind of alien? Kyouta may not realize it yet, but he's about to become the central point of an arcane celestial battle: the dawn of the Aquarian Age.
You know how ADV includes information booklets with its DVD releases? Well, when you open your Aquarian Age DVD, make sure to go through the booklet first and read the "Glossary of Terms" in the back. It'll make understanding the show a lot easier.
This is not to say that the plotline of the first five episodes is confusing. If anything, it's a carefully crafted story arc. The problem is that there's an entire Aquarian Age universe behind it, consisting of five warring factions: the Arayashiki (users of Eastern magic), Wiz-Dom (users of Western magic), Darklore (ancient mythical creatures), E.G.O. (modern-day psychics), and Eraser (space aliens). While this has the makings of some second-rate fantasy sci-fi amalgam, it all takes a back seat to Kyouta himself. That's why the story itself is easy to follow--it's basically about a guy in a rock band, and his girlfriend--yet the background seems far more complex than it needs to be.
Aquarian Age: Sign For Evolution succeeds because it takes what could be a clichéd anime formula and subverts the viewer's expectations. You come into the show thinking, "So, in the first episode the main guy's going to discover these magical powers he never knew he had." Instead, the first episode is mainly about Kyouta preparing for and playing the rock concert. From this point, it might threaten to become a romantic melodrama, but it never does. Kyouta and Yoriko's relationship is surprisingly healthy: Yoriko has a will of her own and chooses to love Kyouta for who he is, while Kyouta is a slacker whose heart is in the right place--he looks out for his friends and the band, and makes plenty of time for Yoriko. The most amazing thing, though, is that despite the apocalyptic scenario, Kyouta doesn't throw a punch, swing a sword, cast a spell, fire a gun, or pilot an advanced vehicle. He just continues about his life, yet we sense that something big is about to happen to him.
While this lack of hard-hitting action in the early episodes may strike some viewers as slow-paced, the idea of an anime taking time to develop its central characters before sending them off to battle is a refreshing one. There's actually a lot going on in each episode with Kyouta, his friends, and his girlfriend--it's just that none of it involves explosions and fighting.
A carefully crafted storyline demands carefully crafted visuals, and Studio Madhouse is up to the job. You'll never mistake the characters of Aquarian Age for one another (although figuring out who belongs to what faction is still going to take time, despite their flamboyant costumes). The colors are vivid yet realistic, and even incidental objects like cell phones are rendered faithfully. The main faults of the visuals are the occasional CGI that hampers the excellent 2-D work, and a tendency to avoid large, complex motions. When it happens, they do their best to make it convincing, but because Madhouse's animation style tends towards the detailed and realistic, there's an awful lot of reliance on pans and mouth-flapping conversations.
From an audio standpoint, this is one of the few anime dubs that can stand toe-to-toe with the voices on the original track. Chris Patton's performance as Kyouta creates quite a different character from the Japanese original, yet it's just as effective and adds appeal to the role. (The original Kyouta is somewhat monotone and sullen.) The English-language cast, as a whole, comes up with a more varied palette of voices than the Japanese cast, and while some of them are hit-and-miss, the choices made in the dub make this a very respectable voice acting job.
Having a quality story and quality visuals, it should come as no surprise that the music for Aquarian Age was provided by Yuki Kajiura. When the warring factions get busy, you'll hear the urgent tribal-drums-and-choir sound that is Kajiura's trademark, and on the other end of the scale, those sweet Kyouta and Yoriko moments are punctuated by sensitive piano solos. In a clever touch, the ending song is also the signature song of Kyouta's band, a melodic power-pop number that complements the more peaceful opening ballad.
Aquarian Age: Sign For Evolution is one of those rarities that's low in fandom, yet high in quality. Those who come to this series looking for white-hot apocalyptic battles from the outset will be disappointed, but those who want good storytelling and a likeable, well-developed core of characters will find it right here. It's pleasant to the ears and eyes, and the understated slice-of-life approach to the ultimate battle for Earth is a welcome surprise. Let's hope that this unique sensibility doesn't get overshadowed by the complex fantasy universe that will be central to the rest of the series.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B
Art : A
Music : A-
+ Well-developed story and characters; excellent visuals and music
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