Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Sep 28th 2008
DVD 4 - Inferno
In spite of their reputation as a slacker unit, incidents keep piling up at Section 3's doorstep. Under-aged princess Settiam of Rodelia ends up in the care of an off-duty Martis after she dumps her chaperone, a meeting that will teach both a little something about how the other half lives. No sooner than the princess business is swept neatly under the carpet, Alice and her entourage wade up to their necks into a drug-dealing conspiracy that is callously exploiting the hopelessness of a group of refugees that lives in the sewers beneath the city. And as their luck would have it, Section 3's anti-drug push unknowingly puts them on the tail of a larger, deadlier secret, one protected by another of Oland's invisible wartime comrades, one for whom killing—in the most brutal way possible—is the only release from the ravages of his wartime experiences.
Now two-thirds finished, Pumpkin Scissors is officially one of those countless series that carry on the infuriating dance between the truly uninspired and truly interesting that anime seems to do so well.
The princess episode, with its tired retread of Roman Holiday territory and complete dearth of the series' main draws—its unusual focus on post-war rebuilding and the plights of combat veterans damaged by lives of endless carnage—is a direct continuation of the series' bland second and third volumes. If the episodes on those volumes weren't enough to convince one of the thin supporting characters' ability to carry an episode on their own strengths alone, then Martis's complete failure in propping up this episode will certainly do so. Even twenty minutes is an impossible burden to shoulder for a character who consists largely of an awkward earnestness wrapped in an over-sized pair of glasses. And the princess's imperious-yet-vulnerable loli-bait schtick doesn't lessen the burden.
It's episode fourteen that precipitates the roundelay of piqued interest and dismay to spinning again. It kicks off with a mission bearing all the earmarks of another disposable “Section 3 does some good in a bad, bad world” one-off story, but then parlays it into something far more interesting with the introduction of a flame-throwing fiend from another of the armies' secret battalions. Without warning the series is back on its firmest footing, dealing with Oland's struggle with his murderous conditioning and the other ugly little secrets that lie buried in the unwritten history of warfare. It isn't good enough to be called heady stuff, but it's a sight more interesting than it perhaps should be. The scenes in which Oland fights his bloodlust are overwrought yet creepily effective, and the two major action set-pieces are barn-burners that at their best achieve a kind of shamefully nerdy cool (Alice's unveiling of her secret weapon should not be as awesome as it is).
Ruthless little touches abound, in stark contrast to the sometimes grating optimism of previous episodes. This volume's final three episodes touch on the soul-degrading effects of endless slaughter, have Oland's snaky army physician matter-of-factly describe a gut wrenching workaround for the side-effects of sustained flame-throwing, and also feature a very graphic representation of the effects of extreme heat on the human body. Director Katsuhito Akiyama allows his visuals to follow the story into darker territory. The depictions of dereliction and privation are excellent, the sometimes grotesquely exaggerated facial expressions prove that they can be turned to more nefarious ends than light humor, and the staging of the flame-throwing scene is downright nauseating. There's a rat-like drug-dealing merchant who is far too cartoonish for the role he is meant to play, but he's soon outweighed by eye candy such as the action choreography, which is slick without being ostentatious (or completely bereft of budget-friendly stills).
However, the depressing thing about a roundelay is that it always comes back to where it started. Whenever the series starts getting too good, it's quick to cut the increase in quality short with the surgical insertion of some sad, overworked cliché. Section 3's drug case gets its big break thanks to an excruciating emotional farce starring Martis and Oreldo as self-sacrificing heroes. The last episode opens up a three-way battle between Section 3, a fleet of military assassins, and a drug-dealing rat-man with his pyromaniac bodyguard, but first must slog through mysterious allusions to an evil secret society led by a masked man whose identity is embarrassingly obvious. Back and forth it goes. Good, bad. Inspired, sad. Military action with heart and conscience, fatuous fantasy with treacly dialogue and unexamined optimism.
Unfortunately ADV decides to bury even the inspired bits under acting so hammy that just watching it violates a kosher diet. ADV often has a vein of ham underlying their English adaptations, which is fine—it is animation after all—but with Pumpkin Scissors the vein becomes a blanket that can smother some fine scenes. For all of the varying tones the actors bring to their roles—an assertive edge to Martis, a rumbling aggressiveness to Oland—none of the main cast violates character, but they seem to be under constant pressure to emote a little too hard, to trample subtlety like a herd of acting elephants. The unfortunate German-like accent of Oland's untrustworthy physician is a mistake that should have been nipped in the bud during the planning stages, and the supporting cast is hilarious at exactly the wrong times—keep an ear out for a murderous masked soldier who does a dead-on 1980's Keanu Reeves. On a whole its an even broader and coarser experience than the already broad Japanese version. It isn't enough to turn away hard-core dub fans, but even tolerant fence-sitters will want to opt out.
The only things this volume that might pass as extras are clean versions of Yoko Takahashi's opener (which proves again that she has some of the finest pipes in the business) and the silly, fun closer, which is finding itself more and more often diametrically opposed to the dark tone and orchestral bent of the background music.
Wildly vacillating quality is no reason to dismiss a series out of hand; it's too soon to tell if Pumpkin Scissors will crystallize into something that transcends its lapses in imagination a-la Solty Rei or Chrono Crusade, or whether it will rest in oblivion with its forgettable uneven comrades. When this volume ends, the prospect of the next is a pleasant one, which is a start.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Story arc returns to the themes of reconstruction and postwar readjustment that set the first volume apart, all while ramping up the action quotient.
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