Reviewby Theron Martin, Aug 1st 2008
DVD - Season 1 DVD Box Set 2
The battle to protect humanity from the Atlandian Shadow Angels proceeds apace as Deava strives to counter each new threat. Not all of the problems come from the outside, however; one Element must battle a curious addiction, another is suspected of being a vampire, still others harbor secrets which call their loyalties into question and/or must resolve where their feelings for other Elements lie, and the U.N has its own scheming afoot. In addition to continuing to harvest humans for Prana, the Shadow Angels strike at the Elements' food sources, perceptions, and loyalties, but a key turning point comes when human forces manage to capture one of the Shadow Angels. That sets in motion a series of events which leads humanity into its most dire situation yet and brings the Angel Toma's dreams of drawing Solar Wing back into the fold and rejuvenating Atlandia much closer to fruition. But just who is the real reincarnation of Solar Wing, anyway?
The March 2008 release of the first half of this series as a box set seems to have initiated a trend, as companies beyond Funimation have since begun to use this approach. If production of future seasonal sets meets the impressive standards set by these Funimation releases – i.e. thinpacked discs in a storage box, with plenty of Extras and at a price roughly equal to two normal DVDs – then this approach should have a bright future, as it is certainly a release strategy that many fans have clamored for. (On the downside, such releases are problematic for online mail-out-the-discs rental services.) Is it a solution to the problem of stagnating anime DVD sales, though? That still remains to be seen.
The content itself is an entirely different matter. With the release of the series' second half we once again return to the realm of philosophizing so pretentious it becomes a (deliberate?) joke, sexualized mecha merging scenes (really, this is such a natural allusion that it deserves to be parodied far more than it has), kooky filler stories, complicated reincarnation themes, mysticism, and messy plotting, all of which come close to wasting some truly wonderful visuals and an outstanding musical score. Throughout its first half the series struggled to settle on a consistent tone, but for the second half it has made a clear decision: kill several episodes with lots of inanity mixed in with minor amounts of legitimate character development, then turn completely serious when the time to focus on the central plot arrives, which occurs around the middle of episode 20. For a while afterwards the writing improves significantly as it tones down its side distractions and focuses almost exclusively on some much darker themes, and it does produce a nice surprise about the truth behind the whole reincarnation scheme, but ultimately it devolves into a mess of mysticism, retread story elements, and mecha merging gone mad as it rides out to the end.
The series does have some fun in getting to that point, though, and does have its moments. A lot of sexual innuendo can certainly be read into the “Merge addiction” story in episode 15, and the vampire story in episode 16 takes a decidedly weird turn. Episode 17 takes a sometimes-comical, sometimes-serious look at dieting, overeating, and famine before resolving the problem much too easily and neatly, and episode 19 twists perceptions around with deliberately distorted artistry. And then there's episode 18, appropriately titled “Cosplay of the Soul,” which features various characters cosplaying as various other characters. Some of those scenes are riotously funny. Sylvia also has a few nice moments in finally figuring out where her heart lies, though most of the time she is still too annoyingly stuck in Big Brother Complex mode.
Problems show elsewhere. Although the second half of the series does fare better on this front than the first half, the series never does find an acceptable balance between high-spirited fun, self-parody, and seriousness; one need look no farther than Gurren Lagann to see a series which does get it right. The relentless emphasis on the “Gattai” elements, which lie at the core of the series, also ultimately becomes detrimental. Creator Kawamori Shoji, according to comments in the included behind-the-scenes documentary, specifically built the series around the concept of multiple merging mecha options, but in the later stages of the series they start to get in the way of the storytelling rather than complementing it.
How sad it is that better writing could not be mustered to “gattai” with the remarkable efforts in sound and visuals! Satelight has created some of the best visuals ever seen in mecha series animation, with CG renditions and animation of mecha units being so good that every other similar effort pales by comparison; a viewer can start to take their quality for granted by the late stages of the series, but the Cherubim/Aquarion battles are still spectacles to behold even through to the end. Inventive Shadow Angel designs and sharp regular character designs also contribute, as does impressive use of color in the Tree of Life and other scenes. These episodes add further visual tricks to the series' repertoire, such as crazy dream sequences and the way the artwork dramatically and deliberately distorts from the norm in the reality-warped episode 19. Also watch carefully for a very brief, but very cool, scene about six minutes into the last episode which shows Sylvia standing before a reflective metal surface while Seliane is shown in the reflection.
The series also sports a beautiful, powerhouse musical score by Yoko Kanno, one full of soaring orchestral pieces and dramatic vocals. In may, in fact, be a little too powerful since it sometimes overshadows the series itself and occasionally feels wasted on the material; it would certainly be a catch as an OST release. Original closer “Omna Magni” continues through most of these episodes, with alternate art in episode 16, a replacement by the first opener for episode 26, and replacements by one-shot songs for episodes 14 and 25. The dynamic new opener “Go Tight,” also sung by AKINO, replaces the original opener for episodes 18-25.
If the casting and performances in the English dub have a flaw, it's that Brina Palencia's Silvia and Colleen Clinkenbeard's Reika sound almost indistinguishable at times. The English cast otherwise has the characterizations and performances down exactly right, especially the gasping, moaning, and battle cries, and may even outshine the original Japanese performers in their enthusiastic declarations of merges and special attacks. The script, by comparison, takes a lot of liberties, enough so that it may make those of a more purist bent uncomfortable when watching the dub with the subtitles on, but it does, at least, sound smooth.
Despite cramming thirteen episodes onto only two discs, Funimation still manages to include a wealth of Extras. The first disk contains an English commentary track for episode 15 that is only accessible through the Episodes menu. The second disk includes the clean version of the second opener, the clean version of the episode 16 closer, a collection of Japanese DVD advertisements, a collection of AMVs featuring songs not from the soundtrack, and three more unusual features. One is a series-themed Stage Drama apparently filmed live at a 2005 Japanese convention, another is an odd little piece about 3D-modeled versions of certain characters called “Manga-Style Silent Movie,” and the third is a 21 minute behind-the-scenes piece focusing on creator/director Kawamori Shoji; the most interesting revelation from the latter is the key role Legos played in the 3D design process for the Vector Machines. Both volumes also sport bonus interior cover art in thinpack cases, allowing the entire boxed set to be only slightly thicker than a typical DVD case.
Overall, the second half of Aquarion can be seen as an improvement on the first half, though not a big one. Too many problems from the first volume still linger and it spends too many episodes just killing time while waiting for its end run to begin. It certainly offers some legitimate entertainment value and a good amount of creativity, but aside from its mecha visuals and soundtrack it is ultimately forgettable.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C+
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : A
+ Cutting-edge mecha rendering and animation, awesome musical score.
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