Reviewby Theron Martin, Feb 12th 2008
SOS! Tokyo Metro Explorers: The Next
While looking through old boxes at home, 5th grader Ryuhei discovers his father's school journal, which details forays into Tokyo's vast network of underground passages in search of a World War II-era treasure. Excited about the prospects of treasure-hunting, Ryuhei gathers three friends from an online chat room and, along with his tagalong younger brother, sets out on a grand adventure beneath Tokyo's streets. What they find instead is an entire underground community of eccentrics who have either abandoned life on the surface or come down below for particular reasons. Among them is a senile old man who claims to be an Imperial Japanese soldier assigned to guard one of Japan's treasures. Could it be what Ryuhei and crew are looking for, or is the delusional old man just trouble waiting to happen?
Based on a one-shot 2006 manga by Katsuhiro Otomo, Tokyo Metro Explorers is a 41-minute movie released in Japanese theaters in 2007. (“The Next” in the title comes from the fact that the movie is actually technically a sequel to the manga, though that will not become apparent until near the end of the movie.) Bandai Visual USA has released it in the U.S. in both regular and Blu-Ray versions as part of their deluxe Honneamise label, which naturally means that it comes subtitled-only and ridiculously overpriced by American standards (i.e. $54.99 for only 40 minutes of animation). Even the inclusion of a solid set of Extras does not come close to justifying the price, but this is yet another of their titles which warrants membership in Netflix, RentAnime, or a similar service. It tells a worthy story in classic kid-adventure tradition while also throwing in plenty of bones for adults, and it looks fantastic in doing so.
The basic premises vaguely resemble a cross between the 1985 American movie The Goonies and the Morlocks of X-Men fame: a group of kids in search of treasure find adventure and danger as well as an entire metropolitan underground community of societal outcasts. The plot amounts to little more than that, but in grand adventure stories like this one depth and complexity are hardly necessary. What matters most is that Ryuhei and crew have several interesting encounters and get to do lots of interesting things, including fleeing from rat hordes, getting caught in a pitched battle, and getting to ride something through subway tunnels that one would never expect to see in subway tunnels. (What is it? Ah, that would spoil the surprise.) Even in calmer moments the movie maintains a sense of spirited adventure and the wonder of discovery embodied in classic adventure tales; that screenplay writer Sadayuki Murai also worked on Steamboy, as did director Shinji Takagi (who was the animation director), should be no surprise.
The shortness of the piece and overpowering emphasis on action and adventure leaves little room for more than the most basic character development, which may be the movie's one major flaw. Ryuhei is the leader-type, Shun is most defined by his camcorder, Yoshio is the heavy-set kid whose key personality trait is a compulsion to close anything he opens, and Sasuke is the pesky kid brother. Momoyo, aka “Mr. Acid Rain,” is the obligatory girl, and an odd one at that. Unlike the others, she has three defining traits: a snotty attitude, a penchant for using speaking patterns far beyond her age, and her inexplicable habit of carrying around a hand-held power saw. (She also apparently has a high degree of mechanical aptitude, given the elaborate process she goes through to lift up a manhole cover at one point.) She gives more the impression of a conglomeration of traits thrown together than a fully-rounded character, however. Granted, the brevity of the format limits what can be accomplished here, but that cannot entirely excuse the pedestrian effort.
The visuals are in no way pedestrian, however. According to interviews in the included liner booklet, SOS! Tokyo Explorers was the project Sunrise worked on in the stead of Steamboy 2 when that project got delayed. As a result, it premieres cutting-edge digital artistry and animation techniques originally intended to be used on Steamboy 2. The stated goal was to produce 3D animation that still retained a traditional 2D cell animation feel, complete with new notions about use of shadows and character movements, and in this they have succeeded spectacularly well. It shows none of the contrast one normally sees between CG and traditional animation, and once one gets used to the look of the animation (which may initially seem a little awkward), it flows along smoothly and fluidly, with great attention to detail in background animation and the inclusion of casual movements and gestures not normally animated in anime. Faces are perhaps not as expressive as they could be, but when even the movement of eyes gets animated such a minor flaw can be overlooked.
The artistry complements the animation by providing gorgeous background art rich in detail and texture, which also seamlessly provides a 3D feel without being obvious about it. Character renderings are also done exceptionally well, though some may find the red-nosed, rosy-cheeked, but also very realistic, style for the boys to be a little off-putting. Momoyo lacks that but is instead spectacularly homely as anime girls her age go, and some of the eccentrics in the underground settlement stray into the realm of the thoroughly bizarre. The artistry also offers lots of hidden detail, some of which will sail over the heads of even hard-core veteran anime fans; subtle references to an infamous 1968 heist and 1970 student protests will be lost on American viewers, for instance (and certain scenes late in the movie make more sense if you know about those references), although they may spot figures from the Gundam franchise, My-HiME, and other past Sunrise efforts on the desk of Ryuhei's father in one early scene. The closer also shows off technical wizardry by taking a fairly standard scene of the main characters marching along and zooming around to show them from multiple different angles.
Much of the movie does not actually have a musical score, and where it does it proves effectively rousing but not especially noteworthy. One insert song about halfway through, “Tomoyo Yo,” is a 1968 folk song commonly used during the 1970 protest movement, and the inclusion of the Engrish version of “When the Saints Go Marchin' In” is not casual, either; it was popularized in Japan by a 1960 movie, shares its name with another manga created by Katsuhiro Otomo, and its name may be a subtle play on words with one key component of later action scenes. The closing number is a light-hearted military style march.
Bandai Visual's production offers no dub and, annoyingly, no on-screen translation of the credits, although a translation of key credits can be found on the back cover of the liner booklet. It also includes introductory comments, comments on converting the manga into anime, character profiles (which offer far more detail than can be found in the movie), and three-page round table discussion with Takagi, Otomo, and Ohara. Its most interesting inclusion are the “Did You Know?” notes about individual scenes. The disk itself has a Japanese commentary track that can only be accessed through the Set Up menu, a 9-minute interview with key production personnel, and an 18-minute “Making Of” feature that alternates live-action commentary with what sounds like computer-generated Engrish descriptions of various production aspects. (Yes, this sounds as weird as the description suggests.) A Blu-Ray version is also available.
The Age 7+ rating on this one may be just a little on the low side, as the action does get fairly intense at a couple of points, but in general this title is more kid-friendly than most – or would be, if it had actually been given a dub. It is hard to imagine kids that young being able to handle watching something only subtitled, so Bandai Visual is losing some of its potential audience by releasing it in a format only conducive to older anime fans. Still, it is a title well worth checking out if you can find a cheaper way to do it.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : B+
+ Fantastic visuals, entertaining story.
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