Reviewby Mike Crandol, Feb 2nd 2003
DVD 1: Another Reality
College student Takuto Kaneshiro only wants to be with his sweetheart Maki, but she spends most of her time working on a secret government project to revive a giant alien being which crash-landed on Earth recently. So when Maki taps Takuto to help in the experiment, he reluctantly agrees. Unfortunately the attempt to revive “Frank”, as the creature is known, backfires with disastrous results, and Takuto is the only survivor. Frank escapes and forms an unlikely bond with a young Montana girl named Hattie, who bears a striking resemblance to Maki. Hattie and Frank are then taken into the custody of FUNERAL, a military group in charge of defending the planet from alien attacks. Takuto assumes the alias Ryu Soma and joins FUNERAL to get close to Frank and wreak his vengeance on the monster for destroying his life. But when giant aliens show up to ravage the planet, Ryu must team up with Hattie and Frank to save the day.
Argento Soma is the latest in a long line of “Secret Military Organization versus Giant Aliens” shows. You'd think after so many years this anime cliché would be dead on its feet, but the creative staff at Sunrise has managed to once again work wonders with the old familiar setup. Argento Soma's premise is nothing new but it is an extraordinarily well put-together show, and there are enough creative spins on the formula to keep things interesting. Aside from some horrendous character designs and a really stupid closing theme, this is solid entertainment.
The series skips around quite a bit at first but gradually weaves its separate threads together over the course of these first five episodes. Starting with Takuto's disastrous experiment, the story then jumps to the little girl Hattie and her encounter with the giant Frank. From there we go to the agents of FUNERAL, and then the convergence of the three parties. Along the way there is plenty of characterization, and the audience gets to know who these people are, not just what they do. Takuto/Ryu's quest for revenge is complicated by Hattie's friendship with the monster and soon enough the two are reluctant allies as Hattie's ability to control Frank becomes a key element in staving off further alien attacks. The contrast between the anger-driven Ryu and the innocent girl gives the show a lot of edge, and the supporting cast is great fun, particularly the mysterious Shakespeare-quoting benefactor who gets Ryu into FUNERAL.
It would be even more fun if this weren't such an ugly-looking production. The animation is a mixed bag, with plenty of fully-animated action sequences and just as many barely-animated ones, but the design work is terrible. Character designer Shukou Murase, of Gasaraki and Gundam Wing fame, takes his penchant for drawing characters without noses to an extreme, and Argento Soma's players look less like humans and more like some species of alien themselves. The creature known as Frank, or EX-01, resembles nothing so much as a big heap of random geometric shapes. This wouldn't be so bad except the audience is obviously supposed to identify with the creature's feelings, and his lack of a face or anything like one makes it difficult. FUNERAL's requisite transforming fighter planes/robots, known as SARGs, are pretty cool, but the aliens they're sent to fight look straight out of Ultraman. That's probably intentional, but the rest of the show takes itself so seriously that these hokey aliens look decidedly out of place. This is one of the most visually unappealing series this reviewer has ever seen. It's nowhere near as crucial an element as story or character, but a more sensible artistic style would have made an already good show even better.
The music is wanting as well. Every time there is a dramatic moment or revelation it is accompanied by a ridiculous series of notes that sound like they're being played on a Casio keyboard from 1985. But that's not half as bad as the laughable closing theme: a bouncy, upbeat number that is totally at odds with the series' overriding dark tone. This cheery song about space exploration plays as the credits roll over a picture of a cheesily-grinning astronaut, and it cracks me up every time I see it.
No complaints are to be had with either of the show's vocal casts. Familiar Japanese seiyuu such as Jouji Nakata and Houko Kuwashima are matched in English by talents like Beau Billingslea and Crispin Freeman. Bandai continues to be one of the front-runners in bringing high standards to English dubbing and making sure that every anime they put out sounds just as professional in English as it does in Japanese. Both casts are obviously having a lot of fun with this material, as the scripts' smart character building allows for lots of dramatic opportunities.
This is also another class-act DVD release from Bandai. While not packed with bells and whistles, this disc is five episodes of top-picture-quality entertainment, barring some slight screen jitter in the last episode. A credit-free version of the opening is included (too bad a clean version of the closing theme isn't here as well, I wanted to laugh at that grinning guy again), as is a tech file detailing the design of the SARGs. Presumably future volumes with include data on other vehicles and characters featured in the series.
Argento Soma has arrived suddenly and with little fanfare, but it is a pleasant surprise. Its obtuse design work does not disguise the craftsmanship that went into its conception and realization. With a fine cast of characters and some canny script writing, Sunrise takes the same old formula and makes it feel new again.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : C
Art : F
Music : D
+ inventive plotting and some interesting character dynamics give a fresh feeling to a cliché story
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