Reviewby Theron Martin,
As private academies go in its world, Cluster EA is the elite of the elite. Its students, drawn from many countries, undergo rigorous schooling in all aspects of academics, arts, and sport to become the future leaders of their generations in their home countries. 15 year old Beryl Jasper, the very proper scion of the well-respected Jasper family, is on his way to Cluster EA when he encounters a compellingly unusual boy he later comes to know as Agate, who will for a time become a fellow student. Agate doesn't stand out just because of his breezy, affable nature, either; he has power – almost God-like power, in fact – which seems in some way to be connected to the world's long-standing tradition of developing Artificial Soldiers (human-like warriors bred and trained only for battle), a practice which has been banned as a result of the most recent peace treaty but which still left a number of Artificial Soldiers at loose ends. Chalce, a Cluster EA alumnus, had taken up the cause and research of Artificial Soldiers, but his apparent death has left one group of Artificial Soldiers who had been partly humanized by him seeking retribution, while the military and a religious sect seek to track down and pin down Agate (who has his own connection to Chalce). As the two storylines intermingle, affairs back at Cluster EA involving Beryl and Fon, a student whose associations include both Beryl and Agate, also get messy.
Cramming a bunch of neat ideas together without a clear sense for how to actually integrate them is rarely a recipe for success in anime, and this original, 25-episode 2005-2006 Sunrise production is no exception. Director Masashi Ikeda may have pulled off Mobile Suit Gundam Wing and the first (and arguably best) quarter of InuYasha, but here his efforts falter, partly because he tries to keep too many different storylines in play but mostly because many of the series' first dozen episodes simply aren't executed well. The result is a sloppy first half which does improve markedly in its later stages but struggles to get by until then on the strength of its bishonen character designs. And unless one is primarily looking for pretty boys, that isn't enough.
At its best the first half of the series poses some interesting questions about the role – or lack thereof – of artificially-created soldiers in a peacetime setting. This is hardly a new theme to action, science fiction, and fantasy media; Pumpkin Scissors is but one of several anime which touches on it, and the 1998 Kurt Russell movie Soldier heavily focused on it, amongst others. Thus this series tries to take a fresher angle: it treats the matter of Artificial Soldiers as a social as well as military issue while also having a major supporting character turn practically into a terrorist to further their cause. The positive developments that the series tries to build on this front are sabotaged by the portrayal of the Artificial Soldier group led by Chrome, however, which results in them coming off like a bunch of older kids in fantasy garb who are rejects from some shonen action series.
The setting, while not necessarily bad, does have an awkward balance of technological levels. Clothing, vehicle, and equipment styles strongly suggest a setting based on Europe or America in the 1930s, but the process of creating Artificial Soldiers – which the story intimates has been around for many decades, if not centuries – is an immensely more scientifically advanced development if one assumes that no magic is involved. References to genetic material are also a couple of decades premature (longer, if one considers that this is not apparently a recent discovery), although references to secret development of rudimentary jet engines are actually not out of line, since experiments on jet engines were being done in the 1930s. More anachronistic are advanced tiltrotor VTOL designs, racing boats which look decades too advanced, sidearm-sized hand guns used by the Artificial Soldiers which can take out tanks in one shot, and shock-staffs used by warriors of the religious order. Going the opposite way is the other equipment of the Artificial Soldiers, who walk around in armor and capes and wield swords, all of which look like hold-overs from the Reformation era. The net effect suggests that the designers just loaded up on what they thought looked cool without bothering to evaluate whether or not it all worked together. Granted, the bird motif in some of the plane designs is an inspired and entirely practical touch, but development of an original and distinctive technological base does require a certain amount of internal consistency, and this series has yet to show that.
Spreading the focus so thin also causes problems. At some points the series is bouncing back and forth amongst at least six characters significant enough to have their own storylines, and that's without factoring in the religious cult, Chrome's Artificial Soldier underlings once he gets separated from them, and other guest appearances. Granted, some of these storylines periodically overlap, but the thinned-out focus still hurts in some cases, especially with Beryl, who is implied to not be as much of a stick-in-the-mud as he appears but is not given enough time to develop this. Agate gets focused on the most, but his character development is still thin enough that it falters when the series attempts to show his irrepressible cheeriness (he's actually happy at one point when he gets turned over to authorities for a ransom because of how much the people who turned him over are going to be helped by the ransom) being shaken by the violent actions of humanity. His powers, rather than being clearly-defined, seem to be “can do whatever he wants/needs to in a given situation.” Chrome is inconstant in character, one teacher who gets focused on simply isn't that interesting beyond his past relationship with Chalce, and Fon is only slightly better as the diminutive young man who struggles through bullying and other difficulties. Only the young nun, who gets focused on in one of the late episodes, actually has a well-written and interesting story, but she shows no indication of being one of the key overall players.
All of the series' storytelling flaws ultimately come down to one thing, however: execution. The course of events is unevenly-paced, the writing typically seems more interested in flair than practicality, attempts to be very serious rarely carry the weight that they should, and the sparse attempts at humor are typically weak. While the writing does improve in the last 3-4 episodes (especially in the parts focusing on the nun and her church), viewers must muddle through a long stretch of substandard material to get to the good stuff.
The one plus that the series offers for some viewers is its broad array of bishonen characters; in fact, from midway through episode 1 through the end of episode 7 only one female character even has a line of dialogue, and she is a very minor (but recurring!) bit part. The designs represent essentially all of the common bishonen archetypes, from the flowing hair of the Artificial Soldiers and certain adults to the more severe and proper bearing of blond-haired Beryl to Fon's boyish look. The series has yet to provide any overt suggestions of BL content, but fans of the genre would not have a hard time imagining some adorable pairings here – and doubtless this was intentionally done.
The artistic effort comes courtesy of Sunrise, but this project was apparently not done by their “A” team, as it pales in comparison to the better Sunrise productions from the mid-2000s and instead has more the quality hallmarks of their early 2000s productions. It does offer some interesting vehicle and airship designs, good use of color in outfits, and nicely-drawn settings, but the animation is often very limited and a bit stiff even in action scenes, character designs are generic, and the character and vehicle rendering quality lacks in both consistency and sharpness. The musical score functions on about the same level of effectiveness, though it does start each episode with the likable number “Fly High” by surface.
Sentai Filmworks is not providing a dub for the series, and is thus releasing it only on DVD, but they are including a full load of Extras – enough so that a third disk is included just for them, in fact. Some of them are regular fare like clean opener and closer and TV commercials, but they also include two “bonus episodes” that are actually just full-episode-length recaps from different points of view. The highlight Extra is the quintet of “Secrets of Cluster EA” shorts, which are 2.5-3.5 minute bits featuring Fon and other characters elaborating on various points about the setting and events in the series, much like the “Naze Nani Shana” bits in the Shakugan no Shana DVDs. They reveal some interesting details that are not explicitly clarified in the regular series content, such as how Artificial Soldiers come in regular types (who cannot talk) and Command Class types (who can).
Save for episode 12, which is mostly a recap, the last quarter of this set partly salvages what was otherwise a very forgettable series; why this one didn't get licensed and released before now is no big mystery. Thus patient viewers will be rewarded, but whether or not the improvement is enough to encourage viewers who are not completists to continue on to the second half is debatable. While calling this an awful series would be a stretch, so would calling it a good one.
Overall (sub) : C
Story : C-
Animation : C+
Art : B-
Music : C+
+ Lots of bishonen to ogle over, some interesting vehicle/aircraft designs, gets better late.
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