Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, May 20th 2008
DVD - Set 1
Like a certain pompadoured punk, Kazuki's tale begins with his death. He is killed while saving a girl from a monster behind his school, only to find that the girl didn't need his help at all. Tokiko is an alchemical warrior tough enough to make nails look wussy, and she ends up saving poor Kazuki's dead bacon by planting an alchemical weapon in the hole where his heart used to be. To his, and maybe two or three viewers', surprise, he awakes to find he has gained something. Unfortunately it isn't a pompadour, but rather the ability to summon a powerful lance capable of destroying homunculi like the one that killed him. Someone, it seems, is creating the human-gobbling nasties, and in order to protect his cute but obnoxious sister Mahiro and his not-so-cute but still obnoxious friends, he joins forces with Tokiko to fight Papillon, the perverted, purple-loving creator of the monsters. Unfortunately for him, and for the world of fashion, Papillon isn't easily defeated, especially once he joins an organization of homunculi determined to resurrect an all-powerful warrior-alchemist traitor. Luckily Tokiko's boss, the Warrior Chief, is on hand to provide backup and to offset Papillon's purple tights with a snazzy trench-coat-and-cowboy-hat ensemble. Not so propitious is his insistence on being called “Captain Bravo.”
Of all the entertainment atrocities committed by anime against its audiences, perhaps none has had so many victims as the shounen fighting formula. If brain-dead, repetitive entertainment could inflict corporeal wounds, then shounen fighting shows would fill hospitals. Some, like Mar and Beet the Vandel Buster, would skip the hospital altogether and send their viewers straight to the grave. The formula is so codified that series born within its boundaries must struggle like straight-jacketed magicians in a shark-tank to carve an original niche for themselves. Occasionally the results of that struggle are maddeningly addictive, explaining to some extent the formula's ability to stay perennially popular. Buso Renkin isn't one of them. It's content to float merrily atop a choking wave of clichés, never exerting itself more than absolutely necessary. But unlike its less fortunate brethren, Buso Renkin has the advantage of having been written by Nobuhiro Watsuki (Rurouni Kenshin), a veteran of the formula who knows better than to take himself, or his chosen genre, too seriously.
The series isn't entirely without distinguishing characteristics. Or at least one characteristic: It has Tokiko. Tough, independent, and unrepentantly ruthless, she's an oasis of feminine strength in a genre more remarkable for its monster-bait femmes. It's not often that a shounen series has a female protagonist with a tag-line like “I'll splatter your guts out!” Whenever Tokiko loses control, laying down her own brand of brutal justice, the series gets darned close to being exciting. But unfortunately, Tokiko didn't just drop into Kazuki's life from out of nowhere, she dropped in from another series altogether. Kazuki takes main-character blandness to new lows, and the remaining characters are human-shaped gags. Tokiko's a stranger in a strange land, a distinctive, (relatively) complicated character surrounded by goony one-note guys and monster-bait femmes, more often playing straight-man to the antics of others than creating the kind of dramatic momentum that a character of her caliber should be capable of.
Derivation and poor character development hurt of course, but the real killer is the fighting. While it isn't terribly surprising that the interplay between dramatic flair and action-anticipation is beyond the amoebic ambitions of the series, what does surprise is the lazy treatment of its action. In a genre where lameness is lethal, Buso Renkin reeks of it. Kazuki's weapon—a chubby lance with a fluttering kite tail—is lame. The character designs—so generic that they'd shame a dating sim—are lame. And director Takao Kato's action choreography—while decently animated by Xebec—is also lame. His timing is prosaic, the movements repetitive, and the presentation unimaginative. His imagery is dull, and his use of the solid action score blunderingly obvious. Outside of the scenes saved by Tokiko's feral energy, the action is fatally lacking in enthusiasm. Couple that with the series' inability to properly build up the stakes and the result is superpowered brawling that's about as exciting as the Antiques Roadshow.
Shallow, lame, and oft boring it may be, but no one can accuse Buso Renkin of having no sense of humor. Much (crude) fun is had with Papillon's horrifying fashion sense and the seemingly bottomless storage capacity of his g-string, and it's hard to resist cracking a smile whenever someone utters the words “Captain Bravo.” It takes some time to look past the painfully uninspired opening and notice the affectionate, often quite funny, parodies lurking under the series' hackneyed surface, but once you do the series becomes infinitely easier to enjoy. The humor doesn't always work—the endless antics of Kazuki's buddies are so unfunny that one suspects they're actually a parody of unfunny comic relief—and whenever the series gets too straight-faced its entertainment value plummets, but it's hard to fully dismiss any show with a scene in it as downright hilarious as the one in which Papillon and Captain Bravo, in full regalia, order hamburgers from a horrified fast-food waitress.
Luckily the English language version is aware of this strength. The cast is obviously enjoying themselves, creating a sense of fun that at times actually exceeds the original. Spike Spencer is an endless fount of outrageous behavior as Papillon and Patrick Seitz's Captain Planet intonation as the Warrior Chief is spot-on. Kazuki is unremarkable, as he should be, and Karen Strassman manages to make Mahiro's strident delivery sound natural. The rest of the cast is nearly as perfect, but the real standout is Tara Platt, who plays Tokiko with husky conviction, delivering her trademark “I'll splatter your guts!” with a delicious snarl. The script sticks to literal translations too often to flow entirely naturally—though it makes changes when necessary—and the performances break down during Kazuki's fight with a pair of twin homunculi (this set's only truly affecting moment), but otherwise the dub is exemplary.
With three episode-length commentaries by the English staff and a fairly lengthy behind-the-scenes documentary, this box set provides a wealth of information for dub fans. Occasionally the commentaries devolve into goof-off competitions (particularly when Spencer gets on a roll), and the behind-the-scenes featurette isn't as interesting as it could be, but the information imparted more than compensates. Unfortunately clean versions of Yoshiki Fukuyama's high-energy opening or the frankly boring closing aren't provided.
It may seem faint praise to say that Buso Renkin is pretty funny in spite of being dramatically flat, viscerally uninvolving, and so completely derived that originality shuns it like a leper, but the humorous little winks are at least enough to leave one vaguely bemused rather than reaching for the psychic first aid kit. Which is more than can be said for many of its kin. Now when can we expect a Buso Tokiko spin-off?
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : D
Animation : B-
Art : C+
Music : B-
+ Tokiko is cool; can be pretty funny; has a character named Captain Bravo.
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