Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Feb 21st 2010
Linebarrels of Iron
DVD 1 - Part 1
Put-upon wimp Kouichi Hayase takes a shortcut through the woods while on an involuntary errand for a bunch of bullies, whereupon a giant robot and a naked girl fall on him. A bit fuzzy about what happened, Kouichi is surprised to learn that he has been given the power to pilot the machine by the naked girl. Surprised, but not at all upset. Kouichi has always wanted to be a self-styled "champion of justice" and with unlimited (and unwarranted) power finally in his hands, he immediately steps into the role. He even has a world-conquering evil foe to defend against. The only problem? Kouichi, fueled by years of humiliation, is an uncontrollable steamroller of hatred and misdirected righteousness every bit as dangerous as the foes he faces. Even his friends, particularly childhood friend and regular protector Yajima, whom Kouichi immediately turns on with the fury of years of sublimated resentment, can't stand him, to say nothing of his fellow mecha pilots. Can Kouichi stop being a self-involved ass long enough to save the world? Not without a lot of help, and none of it friendly.
Need a demonstration of the power a main character wields over a series? Watch Linebarrels. Kouichi is a vicious, self-absorbed prick with delusions of grandeur and nary a whit of empathy, and his very presence makes the first four episodes of the series nearly unwatchable. There is a train-wreck fascination to watching a series with such an utterly vile lead, and there's no denying that the poisoning of Kouichi's mind by constant humiliation and the consequent brutality of his reaction to empowerment ring a lot truer than happier takes on the same material do. But so repulsive is he that the series is intolerable so long as he holds sway. Not even the show's knowledge of exactly when to kick him in the balls can change that.
Only when Kouichi himself changes, thanks to a vicious little plot twist, does the series get sufferable. Unfortunately it also loses its spine, giving itself over completely to soggy harem comedy and unelaborated us vs. them warfare. Excruciating as they were, the episodes where Kouichi rampaged his hateful way across the screen had ambition and a sort of unpleasant magnetism. With Kouichi sanitized, the series becomes nothing more than another fan-service-laden save-the-Earth mecha bore. It gains a sense of humor, albeit one dependent on tentacle monsters and "oops I saw *insert name here* naked" snafus, and dabbles amusingly in romance, but it's still a snoozeful letdown. Not that the show had much in the way of options. The choice between a series that's an object lesson in the need for a sympathetic lead and a series made flaccid by an ambition vacuum is truly a rock-and-hard-place kind of choice. And even if you wish the series had chosen the rock, if only because it has character, you can't really blame it for settling on the hard place.
If relative effort is anything to go by, Linebarrels' animators weren't enamored of either option. Hisashi Hirai's typically precise character designs are sloppy and poorly differentiated throughout, Gonzo's 2D animation is even more careless than usual, breasts balloon and shrink, faces fluctuate drunkenly, and after episode one action sequences are slapped together with little concern for comprehensibility. After a small post-debut dip Gonzo's trademark 3D mecha remain consistently sharp and fluid (if not particularly pretty) and the exploding stuff is sufficiently neat, as are the urban settings, but that's as far as the animators' enthusiasm goes, regardless of which stage—boring or painful—the series is in.
Musically it fares little better, though its auditory woes owe more to messy eclecticism than to a lack of artistic engagement. Some musical snippets are good (generally when Kouichi is thumping something) but many are bad, layering on dopey 50s sci-fi noodling, ill-considered techno, and ascending strings that are intended to communicate mecha coolness but sound instead like musical escapees from a Murder She Wrote climax. The opening by the Ali Project, like everything in their unique oeuvre, grows on you, and Maaya Sakamoto's closer is so easy on the ears that it may go right through them without imprinting the gray matter in between.
Through a combination of scenes mildly mussed in translation and Josh Grelle's well-meaning rounding of Kouichi's more abrasive edges, Funimation's dub manages to soften the opening episodes, bringing them more in line with the duller, easier to swallow later ones. Lost in translation is the passive-aggressive disdain in Kouichi's exchanges with Yajima, along with much of his self-satisfied grandiosity and self-pitying petulance. Which makes his rampages much easier to watch, but also throws the tone of the opening act slightly off and weakens the contrast between pre- and post-episode-four Kouichi. Other characters have similar shifts in personality, but being non-essential have less impact on the series. The comic episodes for their part are played fast and loose (just the way I like 'em) and Barry Yandell's boisterous take on Kouichi's unhinged boss is great fun, but the dub still leaves less of an impression than the original—Grelle's excellent wigging out notwithstanding.
Amidst the usual extras detritus (clean OP/ED, trailers, promos) is a commentary track for episode six featuring ADR Director Caitlin Glass, Grelle, and Alexis Tipton (Emi), all of whom get along boisterously well. Fun and info abound, though some will bristle at the comparison of Linebarrels to the infinitely superior Godannar. (Grr).
Messy, ugly and mercurial, the potential for sudden change is never far from Linebarrels' surface. In a series that is only interesting when it is impossibly unpleasant, that potential is one of the few things to inspire hope. Hope that the next corner it whips around leads to greener, or at least less painful and more challenging, pastures; and hope that we'll be able to hold on until they're reached.
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C
Animation : B-
Art : C+
Music : C
+ Believably nasty take on "Joe Shmoe acquires mecha" tropes; superior 3D artistry.
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