This week brings pitches for dungeon treks, alien bug raids, and a nightmare long thought over. Plus Silent Hills, BlazBlue, and the results of an anime-editing contest!
Reviewby Theron Martin, Oct 2nd 2006
Thirteen-year-old Aoba Tsuzaki is a mecha modeling fanatic who lives with her grandmother. Shortly after her grandmother's passing she finds herself abducted by a cross-dresser, who takes her to a secret organization named Angel, which has developed mecha named Jinki to fight invaders called Ancient Jinki in the table mountains of southern Venezuela in the year 1988. Though excited about being close to mecha, Aoba finds herself in the presence of the mother she hates, who directs Angel and has less-than-savory motives for wanting Aoba there. Aoba soon discovers that she is a cognate, a person with an affinity for Jinki, and steps in to take the place of one of the co-pilots of the Jinki Moriboto 2 when he is badly injured in a fight, much to the consternation of her adult co-pilot Ryohei. Even younger Rui Kousaka soon proves to be a potent rival for the coveted pilot seat, while Kouse, the pilot of a rival Jinki, soon proves to be an enemy – or is it love interest? And can Aoba come to terms with the fact that piloting Moriboto 2 may ultimately mean fighting and even killing people?
Meanwhile, in 1991, the Japan branch of Angel tries to recruit young Akao Hiiragi to pilot a Jinki and help them combat enemy Jinki, while the mysterious girl Shiva looks on.
The first couple of episodes of Jinki:Extend give off a very old-school mecha vibe: a young teenager stumbles across a giant mecha that the teenager quickly demonstrates an affinity for and ultimately becomes its pilot in a classic coming-of-age story. In a rare twist for mecha series, though, the singular 13-year-old lead is a girl rather than a boy. The biggest impact of this twist so far has been the expanded opportunities for mild fan service that it allows, which on average comes up about once per episode, although some impact can be seen in the slightly different way Aoba is treated compared to how a boy in the same role would be treated. It also allows more friction to build up between her and Ryohei. That Aoba's modeling hobby explains her enthusiasm for mecha also partly shields the title from criticism that it's an otaku-oriented lolicon fetish piece – but only partly.
That's where the straightforwardness of the series ends, however, for the overall picture of Jinki:Extend offered up by its first five episodes is very muddled indeed. That would be fine if the episode content ever bothered to clarify that the main storyline focusing on Aoba and the side story focusing on Akao are taking place three years apart instead of at the same time, a fact that is only revealed in the Extras. Without that crucial bit of knowledge, the appearance of at least four characters in both storylines and certain other tidbits connecting the two don't make sense. Even knowing that hardly solves all of the mysteries, but this is a 13-episode series (assuming the final OVA is included, and 5 episodes on the first volume suggests that it will) so that leaves lots of juicy details to be sorted out.
Although it has a few light-hearted moments and many classic mecha story elements, Jinki:Extend never gets truly silly, nor does it ever fully embrace the high-spirited enthusiasm of classic mecha. It is, instead, a more serious and even-tempered tale than most mecha series or than one would expect for a story focusing on cute girls. At many times it feels like it's taking its cues from Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Aoba's mother Shizuka is certainly a graduate of the Gendo Ikari Charm School. Among the rest of the cast, Ryohei looks like he's being set up as the crass “big brother” figure, while Genta is clearly the understanding father figure. Jailbait Rui, who acts awfully mature for supposedly being only 11, serves as both the rival to Aoba and counterbalance to Aoba's more childish swinging between emotional extremes. How exactly Kouse is going to fit into the picture remains to be seen, as he and Aoba hit it off really fast and hard but circumstances look to be forcing them to become enemies. Most other characters merely fall into common archetypes, even Rui's playful (at least in the 1988 storyline) mother Minami.
Mecha designs for the series are nicely drawn but not particularly original, while the enemy Jinki are almost ridiculously clunky. Aoba is suitably cute and Akao is suitably attractive, but none of the rest of the character designs distinguish themselves. Disconcertingly weird, concentric eyes are the norm for female characters, while the disheveled hair of the typical male character makes one wonder if any male in this case knows what a comb is. The girls aren't free from hair quibbles, either, as Aoba's blocky-looking hair is so lacking in definition and decent color that its artificialness is bothersome. In fact, color schemes are often oddly dull except when depicting the exteriors of mecha. Some of the background art is quite good, the aforementioned animal masks look impressive, the PG 13-rated fan service is nicely-drawn, and there are no integration problems, but overall this is not one of the more visually impressive mecha series. Lackluster animation, especially in one sword fight, doesn't help.
What the series lacks visually it more than makes up for audibly. The orchestral background music, which is occasionally interspersed with synthesized numbers, carefully reinforces the tone of the series, while a deep, driving base beat sometimes vaguely reminiscent of American Indian themes leads into action sequences or otherwise amplifies building tension. The deep, thundering sounds of the mecha sound great on a surround sound system, and less vibrating sound effects are done equally well. The opener by the group unicorn table is a solid and lively J-Rock number, and it's nearly matched by a quality J-Rock closing theme by angela and KATSU.
The vocal performances are equally good. Most of the English cast is composed of long-time ADV veterans, including Jon Swasey (who also directs) as the natural pick for Genta. Their casting and performances are generally on the mark, but the performance that truly carries the dub is Brittany Karbowski's rendition of Aoba. Her voice doesn't have the pitch to match the role's seiyuu but does very convincingly sound like an American teenager, and she delivers the tone and spirit of the character well. The English script is a bit loose but not enough so that it's likely to bother any beyond the more stringent purists, and it makes a nice interpretation of “aobaka” (an insulting play on Aoba's name frequently used by Ryohei) by translating it as the fitting “Aobimbo.” The only place the dub fails is in the laughably bad Next Episode bits, but that's a very minor consideration.
Included amongst the numerous Extras are notes on the Venezuelan locations used in the 1988 setting and a brief Glossary of Terms, which can help with understanding the series, although the former does contain at least one spoiler that goes beyond this volume. Also present are the clean opener and closer, a 15-minute interview with the Japanese sound director and two lead seiyuu, and the first on-air opener and closer, whose visuals differ from the ones used for the episodes on the DVD. Included on the back of the cover are print interviews with Fumiko Orikasa, the voice of Aoba, and character designer Naoto Hosoda. An additional insert also includes a Character Relationship Chart which is not only quite helpful but has been edited to avoid spoilers for future volumes. (An unedited version can be found on ADV's website.)
Despite lolicon tendencies and artistic mediocrity, Jinki:Extend has enough working for it to be worth a recommendation. It mixes old-school feel with more modern sensibilities about plotting and casting to produce a surprisingly serious story about cute girl mecha pilots and the people and machines around them. It packs enough plot twists, unanswered questions, and intrigue in amongst its mecha action and character development to keep things interesting. Fair warning, though: the TV-PG rating given by the packaging is misleading. A 13+ rating would probably be more appropriate.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B-
Art : C+
Music : B+
+ Excellent sound and music, good English dub.
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