Reviewby Theron Martin, Jan 25th 2012
On the continent of Cruzon, virtually everyone has some degree of innate ability to telekinetically manipulate quartz (which is referred to as “magic”); this ability is the basis for much of the land's technology, from projectile weapons which shoot quartz bullets to vehicles to even farm implements. 25-year-old farmer Rygart Arrow and his younger brother are the extremely rare exceptions: they are Un-Sorcerers, individuals who completely lack any such ability, which both effectively handicaps them and makes them outcasts. Despite that, Rygart made a close circle of friends with three VIPs during his days at Assam Military School: Hodr, the reluctant future king of Krisna, Rygart's home country; Sigyn, a “Mad Scientist” who becomes Hodr's wife (and thus Queen of Krisna); and Zess, a scion of a prominent family from the neighboring nation of Athens who was the best (mecha) pilot candidate Assam had ever seen. Four years later Rygart gets called to the Krisnan capital of Binonten, where Sigyn seeks his unique lack of ability because she suspects that he may be able to do something that no magic user can: operate an ancient Golem (i.e. mecha) unearthed during a mining operation. (Operating Golems normally requires a strong magical ability.) While there, Hodr confides in Rygart a dark truth: Athens has recently brought Assam under its control and seeks to do so to Krisna next. While Hodr would just as soon surrender to avoid bloodshed – a path the peace-loving Rygart also prefers – the secret condition that surrender would result in the execution of the Royal Family (and thus Sigyn) troubles him even more than the fact that Zess seems to be at the forefront of the assault on Krisna. Though Rygart initially gets drawn into piloting the ancient but very advanced Golem on accident, he proves able to not only activate it but also quickly master it. With Sigyn's life on the line (unbeknownst to her or Zess), Rygart tries to confront Zess to stop the invasion, but ultimately finds that all he can do is reluctantly battle to protect two friends he loves against forces aligned with the other.
Broken Blade is a series of six short movies released between May 2010 and March 2011 which average a bit over 50 minutes in length and are adapted from the six-volume manga by Yonosuke Yoshinaga; the first four volumes of the manga were released in the States by CMX before it shut down. Sentai Filmworks licensed the series in late 2011 and plans to release it, complete with an English dub, on DVD and Blu-Ray in late February. This review is based on the dubbed version available exclusively via VOD services on some major cable systems.
In some respects the concept for this curious blend of fantasy and sci fi follows one of the fundamental mecha story patterns: a young man finds himself ideally and singularly suited to pilot a special mecha, which he must do – despite peace-loving inclinations – to protect those he cares about, even if that means opposing a former friend who's an elite striker on the enemy side. (Shades of Gundam Seed, anyone?) It also shares the common mecha devices of the hero being able to link to a product of lost/alien technology (many mecha series), battlefields being ruled as much by superior units and pilots as actual strategy (ditto, especially Gundam titles), and one side calling on a criminally ruthless former military commander when the going gets tough (Eureka 7 and possibly others). Broken Blade sets itself apart by taking those familiar concepts and elements and blending them with some much fresher twists, the biggest and most important of which is the novel and fascinating concept of a technology base, from mecha to even basic tools, dependent on a quartz manipulation ability that everyone is expected to have. In this world the strength of a mecha pilot's magic ability literally translates into the strength of his mecha, as those with stronger magic can manipulate more quartz ligament bundles in their Golems. Making one of the protagonists special for what he doesn't have, rather than what he does, is also an intriguing notion, and one not without consequences in the story. Having a story where most of the main mecha pilots are adults (a couple of members of Zess's strike team are younger, but they have smaller roles) is a refreshing change of pace, too.
The story told across the six movies is very basic and straightforward: larger Athens covets smaller, resource-rich Krisna because Athens' own quartz mines are projected to be depleted in a few years. Many mecha battles ensue in the desert canyons of western Krisna as Athens takes the aggressive approach and Rygart struggles to come to terms with being a soldier. Aside from the tension amongst the former Assam Academy friends, that's pretty much it. The writing tries to populate both sides with colorful characters – such as the half-mad Athenian pilot Nike, who has the body and behavior of a 12 year old but is actually 25 (another character, oddly, is almost the exact reverse) – but the only character drama which sticks in a big way is Sigyn's evident feelings for Rygart, something which both Rygart and Hodr quietly seem aware of. Flashbacks suggest that Sigyn settled for Hodr because Rygart avoided being available as an option; being the wife of an Un-Sorcerer would be a hard life, after all, and given the way Sigyn exploits the resources and opportunities for research and development that being a Queen offers her, one has to wonder if she could have truly been happy leading such a mundane life. She and Hodr are never shown as being close, though, and that creates the kind of faint underlying tension between the three of them that gossipmongers feast on.
The real attraction of the movies, though, is the mecha battles, and in that the series has few equals. For all of the wonton destruction which goes on during them, mecha battles have rarely felt as violent or brutal as they do here, and at times these can get quite graphic. A combination of excellent battle choreography, an operatic musical score, and highly detailed animation regularly generates an exceptional degree of tension and intensity, especially in one key battle in the third movie where Rygart's pre-magic mech, the Delphine, charges around the field like a highly-mobile battering ram, literally plowing through some of his opponents. Mecha make dynamic battle maneuvers, shed armor and limbs, crash into each other, and regularly smash shields and melee weapons as they engage in a mix of hand-to-hand and projectile combat, all lovingly-rendered by a partnership between Production I.G and Xebec. The great attention to detail on battle damage and normal wear and tear gives the mecha battles a grittier, earthier appearance, too; you will not see here any shiny all-CG mecha battle without apparently laying a scratch on one another prior to one or the other's complete destruction.
The rest of the artistic effort is solid, too, although not quite top-tier. Art director Toshihiro Koyama, who has distinguished himself on titles like The Big O, Cowboy Bebop, InuYasha, and Spice and Wolf, produces some of his best work here in crafting backgrounds heavy on rocky terrains and designing impressive fantasy cities, including both the Athenian capital and Binonten. Details shine in simple ways, such as the massive three-layered front gate of Binonten, distinctive architectural styles based on rock and stone rather than wood, and interior room designs. (Although the bed the Sigyn uses is fantastically oversized and varies a bit in proportions depending on what angle one sees it from.) Character designs show Athenians as generally being fair-skinned, dark-haired people, while residents of Krisna are much more racially diverse, including both dark-haired and dusky-skinned folk (Hodr, Narvi) and more Aryan types (Rygart, Sigyn, General True) mixed with those with more Athenian appearances. All of the character designs have distinctive looks but few distinguish themselves; Rygart looks a little too much like Ichigo Kurosaki, for instance. Aside from aged-related anomalies like Nike and Cleo, the most appealing designs are the elite Golem pilot Narvi, General Baldr (who embodies the “cool old guy” look), and Sigyn, the latter of which has a more down-to-earth beauty than the typical glossy-looking princess types but certainly looks sharp in a red, peaked-hood cloak which stands in stark contrast to the dark blues worn by the technicians who serve under her. She has a good enough body under that robe that nearly all of the series' limited fan service focuses on her, with bedroom shots being fond of showing her stripped down. An occasional shot also shows her with glasses to satisfy the megane-fetish crowd, a point which actually gets commented on in one movie.
Yoshihisa Hirano crafted the dramatic, occasionally over-the-top score used in Death Note and gets a lot of mileage out of using a similar style here. The battle scenes simply wouldn't achieve their full potential without his enthusiastic effort, and he has a nice touch in more purely dramatic fare as well. “Fate” by Kokia is a lovely song to use as the opener, with its own flair for dramatics and nicely-complementing lyrics, while closer “Serious-Age” brings each movie to a good finish.
The Japanese dub was not available for review, but the choices for the English dub generally seem like good matches for their characters, with possibly one exception: Greg Ayres as Rygart puts a certain interpretation on the character with his vocal style which may not set well with everyone. (On the other hand, Emily Neeves seems like a particularly good fit for Sigyn, as does Rob Mungle as General Baldr.) The performances are not collectively amongst Sentai' best dubbing efforts but none of them work to the material's detriment, either.
Broken Blade does have some definite flaws. Scene transitions are not always the best, the artistry does lapse in spots, and Zess is gone from the picture for a good chunk of the second half; perhaps not coincidentally, that is the stretch during which the plot seems shakiest. The series also leaves several plot strands dangling at the end (even though it does come to a partial resolution) and does include some concessions to common mecha and general anime conventions which seem out of place in the setting. However, what the series does right is done so well that shortcomings elsewhere can easily be overlooked. This is one series which definitely should look spectacular on its upcoming Blu-Ray release and is well worth a look by any mecha or fantasy fan.
Overall (dub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Fantastic mecha battles, background art, some novel concepts, opener.
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