Reviewby Theron Martin, Apr 20th 2014
Mardock Scramble: The Third Exhaust
Rune Balot and Doctor Easter's quest to recover the million dollar chips containing Shell's removed memories continues, this time at the blackjack table. With Oefcoque's help Rune defeats a dealer who tries to stack the deck against her in response to a winning streak, but new senior dealer Ashley Harvest proves much more formidable. As Doctor Easter, Bell Wing, and everyone else watch, the duel of cards and wits also becomes a duel of philosophy as well. Just as challenging for Rune is what comes after: having to actually sort through Shell's memories looking for clues to his motivations, and what Rune finds is very disturbing indeed. Boiled is not about to give up on a chance to eliminate Rune (and thus recover Oefcoque), either. A final reckoning amidst the three of them awaits as Rune strives to put her case to rest and find a way to move on with her life.
No sane anime director would normally deign to devote half of an anime's 60 minute running time to a battle of wits over blackjack. Yet that's exactly what director Susumu Kudo does in adapting the third and final book of Tow Ubakata's trilogy about a gravely injured teen prostitute revived and enhanced through advanced cybernetic technology. Remarkably, it actually works, resulting in a cerebral, multilayered battle quite nearly as intense as the movie series' stand-out action scenes. Even knowing that Rune has to ultimately win for the story to continue, the intricacies of how she confronts dealers who are specifically out to make her lose (and it doesn't all come down to card-counting and cybernetic trickery, either) can be fascinating to watch, and one can learn quite a bit about blackjack in the process, too. The Japan Casino School is listed for “Casino Sequence Supervisors” in the credits, and that expertise shows even in details like how the dealer flipping his cards is animated, which is done exactly the same way a professional dealer used in one of the Extras demonstrates.
Even more important than handling the blackjack correctly is the delicate balancing job that the movie does in utilizing its heroine. Simultaneously making a female character both bad-ass and achingly vulnerable is a difficult task to pull off, one that in anime usually results in giving the heroine improbable weaknesses. Rune Balot is the rare exception. She practically radiates fragility; everything about her – character design, her demeanor, the way she talks, even her body language – suggests it, to the point that Ubukata and Kudo occasionally have characters comment on her toughness, as if they feel the need to remind viewers that she is, indeed, tough. That they do not have enough confidence that the audience will correctly interpret her toughness from her actions is one of the movie's few writing flaws, and an unnecessary one, too; we all know that she has literally been through fire, that the actions being asked of her are very demanding and potentially both physically and psychologically harmful, and yet she still faces those challenges. She plunges into the darkness of one twisted man's soul, and if she does not come out unscathed, at least she comes out intact. She faces down an opponent that she knows outmatches her and pulls herself back from the brink of even the most visceral temptations. No, we do not need to be reminded about how tough she is, or how vulnerable; both are plain to see. And that is what makes her one of anime's greatest heroines. The fact that she looks quite sharp when she dresses up does not hurt, either.
Like the latter part of the second movie, this one is also prone to wax philosophical. In earlier scenes between Rune and Ashley and Bell, this can get a little cumbersome, even forced, as they talk about determination, the value in having assistance from others, and so forth. Later on, though, the writing does bring up a more interesting philosophical point: if one removes the memories of an upsetting experience, but not the emotions associated with it, then that could leave the person in question unable to understand those feelings and thus prone to expressing himself through horrible actions in order to come to terms with those feelings. And could returning those memories cure the person of the desire to commit such acts?
Unfortunately the movie runs out of time to finish exploring that issue because it must, of course, find some way to get a serious action element into it. Aside from a couple of other minor scenes, that is limited to the final confrontation between Rune and Boiled at the end. Like in the previous movies, the action is quite the spectacle (Boiled at one point seems to make his pseudo-gravity relevant to a piece of falling glass), though it does not have quite the bite of the climactic scene from the first movie. It also does not have anywhere near the gore factor. The movie still offers plenty of very harsh content in its second half, though, enough so that it easily earns a TV-MA rating in multiple ways, and the action component is does have is largely satisfying.
Production values and technical merits remain consistent with those seen in the previous two movies. As before, uses of color create some impressive visual effects in unexpected places, though it still retains somewhat of a hazy look throughout. The true visual mastery is the camera use and scene framing; its deft manipulation goes a long ways towards helping to maintain the tension of the blackjack sequence in particular, although it never disappoints elsewhere. Nudity is much more limited this time, with only a couple of brief shots in the theatrical version and one more added for the Director's Cut. The musical score is possibly even more robust this time, as it worked hard to use its eclectic mix of electronica, orchestration, and a well-timed use of “Amazing Grace” to nail the audio support for nearly any given scene. Closing them “Tsubasa” by Megumi Hayashibara (who voices Rune) is a lovely number which provides a fitting end to the trilogy.
Sentai's English dub, which is directed by Janice Williams, has shone brightly in previous movies but may be at is best here; in fact, this is arguably one of Sentai's best dubs of recent years. All of the casting choices and vocal performances are spot-on, especially Andy McAvin's continuing brilliance as Oefcoque, and neither Hilary Haag (as Rune) nor Leraldo Anzaldua (stepping up from bit parts to replace Kalob Martinez as Shell) will be found lacking in the parts that require emoting, even compared to an anime luminary like Ms. Hayashibara. The dub script exactly follows the Japanese script whenever lip-synching isn't required and is never far off otherwise.
Sentai's Blu-Ray release of the title includes both the theatrical version of the movie and its Director's Cut, which adds roughly three minutes worth of scenes scattered in snippets throughout the series. (They have conveniently marked where those extra scenes are in the Scene Select menu option.) A couple of those added scenes do clarify some points that the theatrical version leaves hazy, while others are just additional flavor. Extras include a couple of special promos and a trio of subtitled Japanese featurettes: a “Path to the Premiere” piece taken from a convention, a “Memorial Talk” featuring Tow Ubukata and Megumi Hayashibara reminiscing about the movie trilogy, and a “Blackjack Showdown” piece which features franchise staffers competing for the right to play against dealer Tow Ubukata in blackjack (an event apparently held for the second year in a row). The latter is particularly educational about how blackjack is played, as the professional dealer for the qualifying rounds takes pains to explain the game as they play. Original Japanese credits for the movie are retained, with translated and English credits following. The video quality isn't bad but isn't among the sharpest for anime Blu-Rays beyond its color saturation, but the audio is fully up to par on both tracks (albeit with a slight echoing effect noticeable in places on the Japanese track).
The end of the movie is not exactly a happy one, as it conveys the impression that this was more a trial of survival and self-determination that was passed rather than a true victory. But the final scene with Rune and Oefcoque are fitting ones that give the franchise a proper send-off. It is the only reasonable conclusion that a franchise like this could have.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Surprisingly tense blackjack scenes, Rune Balot as a character, well-used musical score.
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