Reviewby Theron Martin, Sep 13th 2011
Mardock Scramble: The First Compression
In the future, life has dumped Rune Balot, a 15-year-old prostitute and incest victim, at the bottom of the heap, leaving her searching for reasons to stay alive even though she is certain that she does not want to die. That conviction is her saving grace when her most recent sugar daddy, the psychopathic casino manager Shell, burns her alive as part of a mad scheme to make gemstones from the compressed ashes of his victims, as it allows former military tech researcher Dr. Easter to legally swoop in and rebuild her under the provision Mardock Scramble 09, which authorizes using otherwise-forbidden technology to preserve a victim's life – in other words, she comes back a cyborg, one unable to speak directly but able to manipulate electronics around her (and thus speak through them). With the help of Oeufcoque, a shape-changing “universal item” whose natural state is that of a talking, very intelligent golden mouse, Balot tries to piece together some meaning to her new life while Dr. Easter pushes forward a legal case against Shell. However, Shell has his own formidable right-hand man in the form of Boiled, who has no compunctions about resorting to drastic measures to end the case. For Balot, quickly learning to take advantage of her new fighting skills and partner soon becomes a matter of life and death.
This 65 minute late 2010 feature is the first of a planned trilogy of movies which adapt the like-named 2003-2010 novel trilogy by Tow Ubukata (Le Chevalier D'Eon, Fafner's novelization, Heroic Age's series composition), which was released in the U.S. in omnibus form by Viz Media in early 2011; a manga adaptation is also being released concurrently by Kodansha Comics USA. Despite the presence of a borderline magical character (Oeufcoque), the movie is tailor-made to appeal to fans of the kind of grimy future pioneered by Blade Runner and later built upon by the cyberpunk genre. In anime and manga terms it is more a spiritual successor to Battle Angel (especially its manga version) than Ghost in the Shell, as it more mirrors the former's sensibilities on perversions of technology and a search for purpose and meaning to a cyborg life than the latter's focus on cyberspace and definition of identity. However, this first installment does share one important trait with Ghost in the Shell: it is exactly the kind of graphic, explicit, imaginative, and super-charged fare which got many current anime fans enthusiastic about anime in the first place.
At first glance the premise seems fairly standard for the genre: a young woman is brought back from the brink of death and turned into a cyborg with superhuman capabilities, in part so she can get revenge on the creep responsible for trying to kill her. Even the notion that the heroine was damaged goods to begin with is hardly unique; see Gunslinger Girl, amongst others. This story does differ in the way that it handles its heroine, however. Balot's experiences in life so far have left her aching for some reason to keep on living, some justification for the bitter tenacity with which she struggles to survive. That makes the scenes where she almost desperately tries to connect with Oeufcoque, who also seeks justification for his existence, both compelling and very sad. A driving need for vengeance or justice is, surprisingly, not part of this scheme; at first Balot fights only to protect herself, and the comparatively lower-key nature of the first major action sequence is a reflection of that. Only during the last action sequence, as she starts to fully appreciate what she is now capable of doing, does her vengeful side arise – but when it does, it strikes with a fury of raw emotions about the way that men have taken advantage of her over time. That such action does not come without consequences helps make it an especially powerful scene.
Most of the first two-thirds of the movie focuses on establishing the franchise's premise and characters and thus may not terribly excite those itching for sci fi action. The way that the story reveals relevant details sometimes borders on info dumping, although the writing does also proscribe to the common cyberpunk penchant for requiring viewers to make assumptions based on the esoteric terminology being thrown around. More effective are the combined use of brief flashbacks and a courtroom scene to delve into Balot's ugly past and the way a chase-heavy action scene and the courtroom scene combine to foster Balot's interest in developing and exercising the more offensive capabilities that she has been given.
The first sign that the movie is truly capable of something special comes two-thirds of the way along, when Boiled visits the Bander Snatch Livestock Company to employ its disgustingly twisted psychos, who horrify in a fascinating way. (The guy who makes a necklace of severed fingers is actually the least disturbing of the lot.) The training sequence which follows finally achieves the eye-popping level of spectacle that one would expect of such a title, but the action only ramps up further into the orgy of violence, gore, and ridiculous displays of skill and technology which composes the movie's succession of close-out action scenes. Those scenes pack all of the flash, intensity, extreme graphic content, and clever stunts that any sci fi action fan could possibly hope for. Perhaps most remarkably, they do so while maintaining Balot's character development and without sacrificing the soul that the movie had so diligently developed up to that point.
Production studio GoHands has extensive supporting animation credits but is making only its third lead effort with this project; previously they have done Princess Lover! and a kids' show. Based on the results seen here, this won't be their last. The art design diligently captures the stark contrast between high-end tech and low-end urban decay seen in movies like Blade Runner and gives everything a grungy look more typical of older OVAs, an effect which works well here and certainly contrasts with the cleaner, brighter look more commonly seen in animation from the past several years. GoHands occasionally tosses in some choice imagery, too, such as the late pictures of a bleeding gun, and gets imaginative with tech items like a rental car. The character designs convincingly portray Balot as girlishly sexy but also intensely vulnerable, giving her an initial Goth-flavored look that later changes into a more typical cyberpunk style (though she actually looks most appealing in the formal dress she wears for the courtroom scene). Most other characters beyond the Bander Snatch psychos get distinctive but less remarkable looks, although this is one of the rare anime which actually portrays an African-American character with appropriate racial features. The Bander Snatch psychos, on the other hand, have to be seen to fully appreciate their grotesqueness. The artistic and animation quality do well enough through the first half, including an action sequence that leans heavily on a CG-animated car chase, but the overall quality does not truly sizzle until the late action scenes; clearly the biggest chunk of the budget was assigned to the last 15-20 minutes.
The soundtrack also saves its best effort for last. Music director Conisch makes some odd and eclectic choices which vary widely in effectiveness for most of the movie, but the rapidly-paced, hard-charging numbers which back the late action sequences help give them a pulse-pounding intensity. “Amazing Grace,” which is used straight-up and in variations as backing for the closing credits, stands as a pointed contrast to the extreme intensity of the movie's final few seconds.
The Japanese dub calls upon the venerable Megumi Hayashibara for the lead role of Balot, while Seraphim Digital's English dub counters with long-time veteran Hilary Haag. Both fit the generally soft-spoken nature of the role well, and both versions give Balot's voice a suitable level of electronic resonance for a character who normally speaks through speakers. Relative newcomer Norito Yashima does well enough in the other lead role as the Japanese Oeufcoque, but Andy McAvin, who typically draws villainous or supporting roles, completely outshines him by giving one of his career-best efforts in a performance which finds an excellent balance between a moderated tone and hints of emotional expressiveness. Amongst supporting roles, David Wald's rumbling voice fits well as Boiled, while Rob Mungle and original performer Tomohiro Waki are equally (and intensely) annoying as Flesh the Pike. The English script increases the profanity a little bit but otherwise stays close to the original; the fact that the two central characters rarely have to lip synch doubtlessly helped with that.
Sentai Filmworks decided not to wait for the Blu-Ray masters to become available before releasing this one, so this time around they are only offering a DVD release. (A Blu-Ray release is planned for 2012, however.) The picture quality has a slightly grainy look to it at times, but otherwise the production is clean and the subtitles error-free. It contains no Extras beyond company trailers.
Mardock Scramble is absolutely not a title for the kiddies. Its TV-MA rating is well-earned, as the movie features extensive nudity, implied sexual situations, implied drug use, incest, prostitution, gory violence, obscene graffiti, foul language, and at least one supremely wrong character design. It also ends on probably the most dramatic anime cliffhanger since the end of the first Code Geass series, but at least more is known to be coming; the second movie was slated to come out in Japan in early September 2011 and Section 23 has already licensed the whole run. Despite a comparatively slow start, this first installment pushes all the right buttons in the end and does so without selling its soul, assuring that viewers will be left both caring deeply about Balot's plight and breathlessly anticipating the next movie. And what better could the first part of a trilogy actually do?
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : A-
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Spectacular late action scenes, central character is well-realized, some great visuals.
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