Reviewby Theron Martin, Mar 21st 2008
DVD - Season 1 DVD Box Set 1
The Shadow Angels of Atlandia have arisen from their 12,000 year slumber to wreak devastation on humankind, including harvesting humans for the living energy known as Prana. To combat this threat, special organization Deava was created with the intent of reviving the Mechanical Angel Aquarion, a relic of the battles of 12,000 years past. Siblings Sirius and Sylvia are two of the young Elements being trained to pilot the three Vectors which combine to form one of the three possible versions of Aquarion, but in the animalistic newcomer Apollo they find a young man who may well be the reincarnation of Solar Wing, the Shadow Angel who once fought against his own kind to protect humankind. He was also the lover of the ancient human warrior Seliane, for whom Sylvia may be the current reincarnation. As they and other Elements gradually train for their battles against the Cherubim Soldiers sent against them by the Shadow Angels, they must learn to work together (or not) to defeat their foes and overcome personal problems.
With its release of Aquarion, Funimation has taken an approached rarely used in first-run American anime releases: they have compiled the first half of the series – 13 episodes in all – onto three thin-cased disks and assembled them as a single boxed set priced equivalent to two normal anime volumes. Some fans have long clamored for just such an approach, so it will be interesting indeed to see if this experiment proves to be the wave of the future or just an aberration.
Packaging aside, the first half of Aquarion struggles partly because it tries to take itself seriously in places where it shouldn't, turning what could have been a quite fun exploitation of classic mecha ridiculousness and cheesiness into a pretentious mess of a series. Although the early episodes have their moments and can be entertaining viewing, watching them is just as often a groan-inducing and eye-roll-provoking experience.
The other big problem lies in the series' commitment to being all things to all mecha fans, which prevents it from fully succeeding at anything or firmly establishing its own identity. It wants to revel in the inherent preposterousness of old-school mecha while still updating the combining-mecha gimmick for a new generation. It wants to be high-spirited, yet also poetic and symbolic; serious, yet also playfully silly. It wants to spout philosophy, toy with reincarnation, and indulge in mysticism, while also using its mecha battles to allow its pilots to combat personal demons. In other words, it wants to be Escaflowne (both the series and the movie), Neon Genesis Evangelion, RahXephon, and Vandread all at once, and borrows elements from Revolutionary Girl Utena, Noein, and sCRYed on top of that. Stick those series in a blender along with every other mecha series ever made, hit the purée button, and you basically have Aquarion.
Even so, the series can still succeed if it ever decides on a focus and tone. Does it want to be a silly series with the occasional serious moment, or a serious series which throws in a few light-hearted scenes for sake of levity? Does it want to focus more on the action, character development, or mysticism? The third disk, which covers episodes 10-13, seems to settle the series into SWOL (Serious With Occasional Levity) mode as it starts to develop a more involved plot, but given the series' lack of consistency so far, this could be only temporary. After all, this is the same series which literally “shoots the moon” at one point, has its pilots behave like they're having an orgasm when they Merge (yeah, nothing's being implied there), and devotes most of one episode to “how it feels the first time” (explicitly referring to Merging but, of course, strongly implying something else).
A lively and diverse, if fairly typical, array of characters does its best to carry the series through its weak points, although some prove more annoying than entertaining. The diametrically contrasting but equally egotistical Apollo and Sirius provide the internal conflict, while spunky Sylvia, despite her obsessive Big Brother Complex, looks like she might ultimately become the obligatory woman caught between them. The series likewise has its obligatory weird, cryptic girl in the wheelchair-ridden Rena, its obligatory lead female scientist, its obligatory nerdy character, and its obligatory hard-nosed, philosophy-spouting commander (although this one seems to speak almost entirely in philosophical terms, which gets tedious after a while). More interesting and unusual is Reika, a troubled young woman who feels like a magnet for misfortune; Tsugumi, a timid new recruit with the peculiar, uncontrollable ability to make things explode when she gets too excited; and Pierre, an eager, confident soccer jock. More irritating is the operations director, who must have no sense of imagination or awareness given how often things shock him.
The characters and weak plotting may not be able to carry the series on their own, but the visuals certainly can. With this production Satelight has taken the ground-breaking combining-mecha CG work done by Gonzo in 2000's Vandread and elevated it to the next level. The result is a spectacular display of CG wizardry which represents some of the finest mecha artistry ever put into an anime series. Enemy Cherubim Soldiers dance and dodge with elegance impossible with traditional cel animation, the various Aquarion configurations have sharp, refined looks which put all previous CG renditions of mecha to shame, and launch and combining sequences, though ultimately repetitious, glitter with all manner of CG goodness. Perhaps most importantly, none of it feels quite as artificial as CG renderings stuck into an anime series normally do. The non-CG animation sometimes looks awkward if you watch closely, but the regular artistry easily holds its own, especially in its excellent character designs. Human characters mostly avoid stereotypical design elements while also uniformly looking appealing, with Sylvia being the female highlight and her brother Sirius being the bishonen ideal for female viewers. Shadow Angels complement them nicely with their unique, inventive looks, including the freaky woman with four different-colored eyes. The brief bits of fan service sparingly scattered throughout the series are limited to undefined nudity in the Merge and teleport scenes and the occasional risqué shower scene; none of the female characters ever dress in revealing clothing or sport improbable endowments.
Yoko Kanno directed the ambitious musical score, which provides a wide array of sounds and musical styles in creating a mix that avoids repetitiveness and adjusts itself well to the changing moods of the scenes. Her work here shows a penchant for mixing in dramatic vocals and occasionally going overboard in some scenes, the latter of which is unusual for her projects. Opener “Sousei no Aquarion” by AKINO is a pedestrian anime theme that comes out slightly above average in execution, while closer “Omni Magni” by Yui Makino, with its music box sound and wind-up effects, offers a very different song which may grow on viewers. Curiously and disappointingly, it is not subtitled in any setting, nor does it use Funimation's normal practice of having the Japanese credits roll when the Japanese dub is on.
The English script has the looseness typical of Funimation dub jobs, including a couple of factual discrepancies with the subtitles where the script seems to be the accurate one. Beyond that, one would be hard-pressed to find significant fault with the English dub production. All of the roles are appropriately cast, with Christopher Bevins being an especially good match for the original seiyuu for Apollo, and acting performances generally equal the Japanese originals. In fact, the English performances are actually slightly better in scenes where “Go! Aquarion!” is shouted out, and the English dub cast certainly does a better job of pronouncing Apollo correctly. (The seiyuu skip accenting the second syllable, leaving the Japanese speaking of the name sounding flat to Western viewers.) While the English cast can occasionally be fairly accused of hamming things up, at times the content demands it.
Each of the individual thin cases contains interior artwork and an episode-by-episode synopsis on the back cover. The box also includes a pencil board and wrap-around art. All of the on-disc Extras have been relegated to Volume 3, but among the ones found there are textless songs, a 16-minute piece from the 2005 Tokyo Anime Fair promoting the series, and four editions of the short “Tsugumi's All About CG!” in-character bits, which provide brief but useful detail on the Cherubim Soldiers and three Aquarion configurations. Also present is a short interview with the director.
Taken as a whole, the only deficiency the first half of Aquarion has is in its writing, but unfortunately that's a big one. It certainly looks and sounds great, so those coming into the series expecting nothing more than that should find it entertaining, but so far it is too much of a hodgepodge of elements borrowed from a myriad of mecha and non-mecha series for it to establish a compelling identity or assemble an especially interesting story.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : A-
+ CG artistry, soundtrack (when not done to overkill), English dub.
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