Reviewby Carlo Santos,
DVD 2: Ultimate Sacrifice
The mobile island of Alvis gets a double surprise when the mysterious Festums attack two places at once: a Neo-U.N. ship and the island itself. Kazuki heads out to tackle the U.N. threat, but who will protect the island when the second Festum arrives? Sickly child Shoko goes against her mother's will to pilot a Fafner unit, but her bold gesture leads to a shocking tragedy. As officers and students alike cope with the aftermath of the Festum attack, another battle-equipped island shows up on the radar. An expeditionary force heads out to investigate, but what they discover underground may be too dangerous to handle—even with Fafner to back them up.
At a fundamental level, Fafner is still a rip-off. This isn't the first time we've seen towering robots straining the limits of technology, confused high school kids thrown into wartime situations, shady government dealings, and of course, technical jargon with a mythological/cultural theme (in this case, Norse mythology and the Siegfried legend). Now you can add teenage angst to that list as Shoko's grand sacrifice sets the emotional tone for Volume 2. In an unusual turn, this futuristic action series puts action aside and focuses on the characters and their feelings. They talk, they reflect, and they realize that human life is more than just a warm body in a mechanical suit.
What Fafner does best—at least in these episodes—is to take the political and make it personal. The attack in Episode 5 starts out as humdrum monster-of-the-week stuff, but as it segues into the next episode, it becomes a tragic drama between mother, daughter and friends. The impact is so great, in fact, that the entire episode after that explores the emotional aftermath of what happened. Not the military's reaction, not the government's reaction, but everyone's personal reaction. The drawback is that the big heartbreaker happens so early, it feels like an emotionally manipulative trick. Aren't we supposed to get seriously attached to a character before terrible stuff happens to them? And now that they've done it, how are they going to create dramatic impulse for the rest of the series?
At least the characters are defined enough to actually have a dramatic moment this time. At the end of the first volume, Fafner's cast list seemed to be just a gaggle of nondescript schoolkids thrown into a military program where two guys get to do all the fun stuff. Shoko's plunge into battle changes that, and it also fleshes out the other characters who are affected. Shoko's boyfriend Koyo Kasugai takes the hardest emotional hit, and his unstable temper will probably have dire consequences later on. Meanwhile, Kazuki—whom Kasugai blames for what happened—agonizes over his apparent failure as a robot pilot. Not everyone is fully developed yet, though—Shoko's best friend Maya seems to get screen time for no other reason than because she's in all the promotional art. Her role, along with other supporting characters, will need to become clearer in later episodes.
Studio XEBEC maintains its high animation standards in these episodes, although the staff probably breathed a sigh of relief knowing that they wouldn't have to animate that much action. Subtle techniques make the animation believable—a shift in facial expression, or some detail moving in the background. Battle scenes, however, play out smoothly as well, like in Shoko's fight with the Festum. Rich backgrounds also enhance the visual quality, contrasting the grim subject matter of the series against Pacific blues and greens and soft lighting. It works particularly well in rainy day scenes, where vividly colored characters stand out against the grays. The character designs aren't quite so nuanced; everyone has an unchanging, vaguely angry expression, and the similarity of features makes them hard to tell apart except by hairstyle (and even then, some of the boys look like girls).
Because of the more subdued moods in these episodes, the music loses some of its Wagnerian bombast from the first outing, but instead replaces it with tenderness. Tsuneyoshi Saito creates heartbreak with a subtle approach, weaving threads of sound around solo piano lines. The theme songs by angela also reflect these powerful emotions with strong vocals and sweeping melodies.
The English dub from renowned studio Bang Zoom! is a confident performance that really sounds like it comes from the characters, rather than actors just talking over visuals. The matter-of-fact style of speaking is as natural as they come, and nobody ever sounds like they're trying to fake a different voice from their own. Furthermore, the script is a faithful adaptation of the translation that even converts some lines word-for-word. If there's anything to complain about on this dub, it's that the female characters sometimes put on too much of a singsong tone, but that's balanced out by solid, believable dialogue everywhere else.
Fafner goes for a quick punch in the gut in Volume 2, dishing out a major plot twist that will shock viewers as much as it shocks the characters. Although that turn in the storyline finally brings out the personalities of the island's inhabitants, it also comes off as a cheap trick to stir people's emotions. Is it enough to save a series that walks down the oh-so-familiar giant robot path? Slick visuals and a touching music score can give a good first impression, but as the middle of the series approaches, the plot will have to pick up significantly or else fall into a sinkhole of boredom.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ A shocking event forces the characters to consider their own feelings, rather than just raging into battle.
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