Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jun 30th 2009
Law of Ueki
DVD - Complete Series Box Set
Kousuke Ueki is an odd duck. Laid back to an apathetic extreme, he has an inviolable code of ethics that, when violated, prompts him to quick and often violent action. It's that code of ethics that attracts the attention of his teacher Mr. K. Mr. K is actually a Celestial, and is on the prowl for a junior high student to be his champion in a tournament that will determine the next king of the Celestial World. He chooses Ueki, who agrees with characteristic carelessness, and grants him the power to turn trash into trees. Armed with his new power and pursued by hyperactive classmate Ai Mori (who initially believes him to be an alien), Ueki plunges into the tournament. The competition, particularly psychopathic frontrunner Robert Haydn, is tough but Ueki befriends many of them, including hot-springs-obsessed tactician Seiichirou Sano, insecure explosives expert Rinko, and jolly prankster Hideyoshi—all of whom, along with poor Mori, eventually join him in the grueling final rounds held in the Celestial World itself.
The Law of Ueki is basically a checklist of shonen action tropes. A hyperactive checklist. Whether you find the enthusiasm with which it tackles things like training episodes, team bonding and lengthy tournaments annoying or endearing will largely come down to a matter of taste, but one thing is undeniable: it's rarely boring.
How could it be when it crams about a hundred episodes worth of shonen action into a fifty-episode run-time? The opening half is a pinballing rush of battles, character intros, revelations and leveling up. It touches on everything one expects from a tournament-based action series: Ueki's unplumbed potential and mysterious origins, the comrades and protective instincts that motivate him, and the evil nemesis who goads him on. There are distinct power rankings (Eight Star Celestials and level two power users) and rules regarding the use of Celestial powers. Lots of rules. And with the pace set somewhere between “hectic” and “manic” and the energy level cranked up to eleven, there's little time for even the most familiar of the material to rankle. Rare is the episode that doesn't have a fight against a hip-hop punk or a room full of giant cats, and even rarer is the minute without a pratfall, punch-line or bizarre character quirk.
The pace does slow some in the second half as Ueki and his companions enter the Celestial World and the series itself enters full-on tournament mode. The fights begin extending over multiple episodes, and lengthy flashbacks to the tragic lives of Ueki's opponents become more and more common. The downshift isn't beneficial—some of the fights are downright frustrating—but counterbalancing the loss of ADD energy are the interesting ways that the fighters manipulate tournament and power-specific rules and the fact that somewhere in the jitterbug knocking about of the first half, the characters actually grow on you. By the time the extended tournament matches take over, the outcomes genuinely matter—particularly once the stakes hit life-or-death heights. There's no better example of this than Mori, who begins the series as a nattering annoyance and somehow ends up both an emotional lynchpin and the source of the series' most unpredictable (and often hilarious) fights. The revelation of her Celestial power, by the way, is probably the series' best non-disco-related joke.
If nothing else, Ueki's visuals are married well to its content: they're every bit as messy and hopped up on their own jagged energy as the writing is. The designs are deliberately rough around the edges; distinctive and even attractive in their own untidy way. As ever the most striking visuals involve the unusual CG textures given to rocks, natural backdrops and Ueki's trees, but the series' main visual impression is one of riotous cartoon color: boldly colored characters and bright, almost over-detailed (and often very strange) settings thrown eagerly together. Quick and canny editing and lots of odd camera angles and distorted, smartly-deployed stills keep the energy level high without busting any budgets, and even do a decent job of distracting from the frankly minimal animation. Like the series itself neither art nor animation will inspire fanatical devotion, but they are conducive to a shaggy good time.
As is the score. Produced by avex mode, the guys behind the pulsing soundtrack for Initial D, its over-the-top techno backbeats complement nicely the similarly overblown visuals. It is at its most obvious and most enjoyable when telegraphing coolness with electronic beats, but also uses variations (some quiet, others thundering) on the two opening themes in bludgeoning but effective ways.
Less conducive to a shaggy good time is Geneon's dub. A curiosity in the prevailing professionalism of the modern dubbing world, it's an honest-to-goodness bad dub. It begins with an uninspired rewrite, one that values fidelity over liveliness and conversational flow. It compounds the flat script with poor casting choices—in particular deep-voiced Cole Howard as Ueki and bratty Sean Broadhurst as main villain Robert Haydn/Hanon—and then polishes the job off with a big dose of unadulterated bad acting. The primary culprits are Howard and Lori Barnes-Smith (Mori), both of whom turn in halting, poorly inflected performances; any impact the final showdown has (and depending on how one feels about Mori, it can be considerable) is completely destroyed by their combined emotional ineptitude. Some of the secondary players are better—at the very least aware that they're expected to bring on the ham—but even with their support the English version has none of the driving energy of the original.
For all the tongue-in-cheek humor (check out Sano's ultimate finishing move) and Cliff's Notes versions of shonen clichés (training episodes that last only a half episode?), Ueki isn't a parody. It isn't clever enough for that. It's just a tournament show that tries to cover for its lack of originality with pure spunk and, oddly enough, succeeds. Light, peppy fun throughout and unexpectedly satisfying in conclusion, it's an underdog of a show that manages to win in the end. What could be more appropriate?
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C
Animation : C+
Art : B-
Music : B-
+ Good-humored, self-contained shonen action series with enough manic energy to power a small town.
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