Rave Master would look a lot less mediocre if it weren't overshadowed by so many better, similar shows. Want to see a young man on a life-changing quest? Go watch Fullmetal Alchemist. Looking for some thrilling sword fights? Rurouni Kenshin has you covered. Do you like white, fluffy animal mascots with ridiculous appendages on their heads? Magic Knight Rayearth has the inimitable
Mokona, who could kick Plue around any day of the week. Rave Master's position in the overcrowded pantheon of adventure anime isn't too illustrious, because it's a series where the elements are in the right place but none of them stand out. Add in Tokyopop's fit-for-Toonami-only dub production and this average show suddenly becomes a whole lot worse.
Although there are many possible variations on the heroic quest, Rave Master plays it safe and tells the straightforward story of
Haru's journey as he searches for the Rave stones. It's a predictable format that has served adventure tales well for years: sidekicks fighting off lesser goons, followed by the hero dueling with the key villain, which can be repeated as many times as needed. The real substance of this show comes from its backstory, which is revealed piece by piece as characters talk to each other during breaks in the action. The connection between old Musica's family and the ruthless Lance is a classic one, providing the emotional impetus behind their conflict and giving Haru a chance to muse on revenge versus mercy. Surprisingly, it's these tense, quiet moments that really pull you into the story, as the action scenes keep getting derailed by dialogue. Apparently, if you need to take a breather during a battle, just start explaining crucial information to your allies, and the opponent will patiently stand there and wait—even though, in that time, he could just as well walk around and stab you in the back.
With Haru already established as the typical young hero, the second volume of Rave Master dedicates itself to the development of the side characters. In particular, the connection between Musica the blacksmith and Musica the thief is explored, since there ought to be a really
good reason for having two characters with the same name. On the other hand, Haru's friend Elie gets a pretty lousy deal in this story arc: she's held captive by Lance at first, then has to settle for being a cheerleader while the guys get all the action. The biggest fault among all the characters, however, is that they lend nothing distinctive to their given roles. Everyone's going through the motions—hero, friend, villain, tough-guy-turned-good, mentor—without bringing anything new to the adventure formula.
Stock characters and story aside, what really hurts Rave Master (besides Tokyopop's packaging) is Studio DEEN's uninspired animation. The character designs themselves aren't too bad—Haru, Elie and young Musica all have an appealing contemporary look—but watching them in motion is like going through a catalog of cheap anime shortcuts. The action scenes, which ought to be the most dynamic part of the show, are more like exercises in speedlines and special effects. Technical aspects like frame rate and color brightness are rendered well, but without purposeful directing and strong camera angles, the visuals just don't come to life. It's a shame, because these characters have weapons and magic attacks that would look terrific if the animation weren't so bland.
Equally bland is the background music in Rave Master, but for a different reason. Listen closely—doesn't it sound a whole lot like the music for every other Saturday-morning cartoon out there? That's because it is! In editing this work for American television, Tokyopop chose to replace Kenji Kawai's original score with the musical stylings of TV/film composer Glenn Scott Lacey. If you've ever seen the dubbed Digimon or certain varieties of Power Rangers, you know this man's work. Most of the repertoire consists of clichéd orchestral passages and rock guitar tracks, which is no excuse for stepping all over Kawai's music (who is probably best known from that little movie called Ghost in the Shell). Worse still are the cheesy English-language pop songs that bookend each episode. Sorry folks, but "Rave-olution" is not a real word.
Tokyopop's careless treatment of this anime doesn't stop with the music, however. The dub script is a cringe-inducing barrage of puns and jokes that are funny only to the writer. When young Musica is trying to break into Lance's castle, for example, a guard holds a gun to his head and sneers, "Don't move. Tell me what you're doing here!" Musica's reply? "Selling girl scout cookies." Also keeping in with the tradition of sanitized dubs is the use of "destroy" in place of "kill," often in the most jarring and awkward phrasings possible. Meanwhile, the quality of the voice acting hovers at the below-average level, and Yuri Lowenthal has a particularly hard time as Haru with all the primal screams of his sword-fighting style. While this kind of production might be fine for Toonami's young audience, more serious fans will have to wait until Tokyopop comes out with an unedited, subtitled DVD (if ever).
Rave Master has certain things going for it—a likable core of characters, substantial back-story for most of them, and the beginnings of an epic adventure. What stops it from being anything better than average is that these likable characters fit too easily into anime stereotypes, and they're stuck in an action series where the action isn't all that exciting. The worst part, however, is that Tokyopop has done their best to turn this into an Americanized children's show. If they wanted to drive away audiences over the age of 12, changing all the music and littering the dub script with bad jokes would be the way to do it. Maybe those who have seen the Rave Master fansubs can attest to it being a fairly decent anime series after all. But with these dub-only, kiddie-fied DVDs, the rest of the English-speaking world may never know.