Anime Programming in the US
Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
In the 23rd century mankind has firmly entrenched itself in a moon colony which originally was intended to be a stepping stone to Mars but became a permanent refuge when a global catastrophe wrecked the environment of Earth. Built into a domed megalopolis called Eden, it now serves as a peaceful place for people to live out carefully-regulated lives. 15-year-old Takeru, on a period of freedom between his compulsory education and mandated future position, wastes his time racing bikes with his friends and against a rival biker group. When an accident earns him outside “volunteer work” as punishment, he discovers a picture that seems to have fallen from the sky, one which intrigues him with the image of a pretty girl and suggests that the supposedly-barren Earth may not be so uninhabitable anymore. That picture sets him on a course which threatens to shake Eden to its foundations and send him flying across space to find the girl in the photo.
Freedom is the kind of series which makes a good argument for anime fans to have online rental accounts like Netflix or RentAnime, ones where they can get anime temporarily shipped to them for an economical monthly fee. Although it is a series of exceptional merit, not even that can justify plunking down an MSRP of $39.99 each for volumes with a single 25 minute episode which lacks an English dub, song subtitles, or any Extras and has translated credits available only on volume 3 – unless you have an HD DVD player, that is. Each disk comes imprinted with both DVD and HD DVD versions, and while the regular DVD version is an exercise in extreme minimalism, the HD version apparently is not. A plethora of neat extras specifically designed to exploit HD DVD capabilities can be found on that version, including content which can be downloaded directly into your player if it has an Internet connection (which is believed to be a first for HD DVD releases worldwide), and it also features upgraded sound, too.
Even with all the cool HD DVD options, though, one still has to question Bandai Visual's pricing scheme. (This is one of their Honneamise label releases.) Its cost-to-value ratio is not good even on the HD DVD side, and certainly not worthwhile on the regular DVD side. This series should be seen, but a fan is far better off signing up for one of the above services and plunking down $20 or so to rent the three volumes. That still shows legitimate financial support for the industry and at a much more conscionable price.
Once you get past the price issue, though, Freedom swims in anime goodness. It offers some of the year's sharpest and most spectacular animation and artistry, craftsmanship which even takes great pains to fully animate characters talking (rather than showing them at angles where their mouths cannot be seen, as per the norm) and animate background characters, too. Movements of both people and machines are movie-caliber smooth, and the series certainly provides ample opportunities to show off; the chase scenes involving the multi-legged red metal spheres in episode 3 not only thrill with their exceptionally dynamic action but stand amongst best-looking action scenes in recent memory. The motorcycle race in episode 1 impresses less, but episodes 2 and 3 prove that the series can deliver big-time. Such a frenzy of movement populates the visuals that one dare not take their eyes off the screen for a second lest they miss something good.
The artistry matches the animation stride for stride. Takeru is such a dead ringer for Akira's Kaneda in appearance, attitude, movements, and biker mentality that he must be a future reincarnation, and indeed many of the character designs harken back to that classic title - but given that Katsuhiro Otomo is the character and mecha designer, that shouldn't be a surprise. The beautiful background artistry is at its best in depictions of moonscapes but never falters elsewhere, and renditions of characters and equipment nearly always look sharp. The coloring occasionally seems a little on the pale side in the tunnel-racing scenes, but that is the series' worst visual flaw, as it shows an exceptionally good integration of 2D and 3D animation.
The writing for the series provides an excellent example of how good execution can overcome recycled story concepts. Even setting the obvious Kaneda parallels aside, we have seen restless characters like Takeru several times before in sci-fi series, but somehow his brash, youthful enthusiasm, act-before-you-think approach to life, and think-with-your-groin behavior seem just a little fresher, a little more interesting. The same could be said of the rest of the recurring cast, too. These are characters you can actually believe might exist in such circumstances. The plot of the first episode centers so much around the bike racing that one might initially think the story is headed in a typical shonen direction, but the discovery of the picture at the end of episode one spins the story off down a road at least a bit less traveled.
That's also the point were the storytelling hits full stride, as from that point on the series becomes a progressively more intense and exciting race to determine who the girl in the picture is, where it was taken, why discovery that Earth may be inhabited is such a threat to Eden, and how Takeru can reach the girl even if she is on Earth. Even though the end of episode 3 is mostly predictable, the lead-up to it plays out so well that foreknowledge reduces none of the thrill. Throughout that run the key action scenes truly shine.
The soundtrack, which often resembles a computer game score, serves well enough to play up the tension of the action scenes and more dramatic moments but does not especially impress. The opener “This Is Love” is a well-performed song with an interesting beat and spectacular visuals which look liked colored, animated manga pages occasionally transposed with real-world approximations. The heavy and dramatic instrumental closer sounds like something ripped from a darker Hollywood blockbuster.
As mentioned before, no dub is available, but the Japanese performances generally hit the mark. Their one notable flaw is the consistent mispronunciation of “Eden,” which the performers give a flat rather than long initial “e” sound.
The series' packaging (jewel cases with a cardboard slipcover?) and pricing may leave a lot to be desired, but the content itself does not. A merely pretty good opening episode improves into very good second and third episodes which will doubtless leave viewers wanting more. Unfortunately no word has yet been heard about the possible releases of the remaining volumes, although 4 and 5 are supposedly already available in Japan. And for those wondering about the prominent “Cup Noodles” product placements throughout the series? The series is actually a promotion project for Nissin Cup Noodles' 35th anniversary, so expect to see more of them in the future.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : B+
+ Superior animation, excellent artistry.
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