Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
DVD 3: The Phantom Thief
Some kids, having found themselves in possession of a giant robot, would be out having fun with their newfound ferrous friend, but not Shotaro. Instead Shotaro fills his days foiling villains. From a rogue Super Human, to a phantom thief, to a shape-changing extraterrestrial blob, no evildoer is safe from the iron fist of Shotaro's justice. Unfortunately for Shotaro, no one is ever quite as villainous as they first seem...
Those familiar with this incarnation of Tetsujin 28 will already know this, but newcomers shouldn't be fooled by the Early-Disney-esque, Osamu Tezuka-styled characters with their round eyes and faces, chubby limbs and big buttons, nor the goofy robots. Tetsujin 28 was, and still is, more concerned with exploring the haunting effects of World War II on its particular version of postwar Japan than with providing easily digestible moral fables for tykes or giant robot wish-fulfillment for young boys.
That said, the show is in a lull here in the third volume, as the Super Human Kelly story comes to an end and the show moves into a series of entirely independent stand-alone tales. The time constraints of one-episode stories inherently limits audience identification with characters, as well as the complexity of the stories. The episodes tend to follow fairly predictable paths, and when every episode features the villain becoming the victim of his own machinations, the proceedings can't help but feel contrived. The formulaic stories do feature just enough sharp writing to keep them from entering snoresville. Episode 13 executes a genuinely unexpected twist that radically changes the meaning of the entire episode, and the dilemmas and flaws that drive all the villains are cleverly drawn from experiences likely to be common to most viewers, making for a crew of surprisingly sympathetic bad guys. The love of family versus duty to the greater good, the allure of an impossible dream, the growing distance between parent and child, the guilt of the survivor—Who hasn't experienced these sensations in some measure? Nevertheless, the abrupt shift in attitude towards the antagonists never feels entirely justified. Being able to understand why someone does awful things is a laudable achievement, but it doesn't mean that what they did was right, or even forgivable. As such, the outpouring of sympathy that the show seems to expect upon revealing the villain's motivations always rings a little bit false.
The dark undertones, explorations of the effects of war, and moral ambiguity aren't the only factors in the (slight) elevation of Tetsujin 28 above your average children's fare. The understated, yet occasionally expert execution certainly helps things. Veteran mecha director Yasuhiro Imagawa knows how to intercut actions for added tension and has a firm grasp of how to use music to heighten the impact of a scene without being overbearing. Episodes are peppered with memorable images that are always firmly rooted in the concerns of the narrative; Tetsujin's fundamental amorality is highlighted as his emotionless eyes watch a man burn to death; Kelly's disintegration drives home his devotion to his dream; a tracking shot through the blatantly metaphorical bars of an empty zoo visually presents the mental state of a primary antagonist.
However, without a continuing narrative to bolster interest, these qualities have to fight an uphill battle against the drawbacks of the show. In addition to the aforementioned narrative shortcomings, the animation is less than impressive; it suffers from a lack of detail, and is fairly stiff and uninteresting outside of Tetsujin's battles. Shortcuts (mainly stills and looped animation) are fairly extensively used, if not to the point of distraction. Some poor integration of the smooth, simple characters with their more detailed and complex surroundings sometimes make it look like they're sliding over the backgrounds. Other irksome elements are the hideously annoying Miss Takamizawa, and Tetsujin's preposterous design. Setting aside the problems of a machine that can perform hand-to-hand combat controlled by nothing more than two levers and three buttons, it's still impossible to take seriously a mecha that looks like Oz's Tin Man on an all-twinkie diet. Those not accustomed to the classical anime designs used here may find the cartoonish character designs distracting as well, but they are less problematic than ol' pencil-nose. On the plus side, the backgrounds are realistic and detailed, and successfully evoke the world of postwar Japan, and Tetsujin's battles feature smoother and more detailed animation than the remainder of these episodes.
The music is another positive aspect, consisting largely of subdued orchestral work, delving occasionally into more powerful compositions for the suspenseful scenes. While not outstanding or distinctive, it is effective and effectively manipulated. The opening and closing songs are a pair of deliberately retro pieces of male choral work. The onomatopoeia-laden opener is particularly fun.
Geneon's dub is afflicted with many of the minor gripes that sub fans have had over the years with dubs (Shotaro's delivery is stiff and somewhat unnatural, and the pronunciation of Japanese names and words is slightly funky), but is a serviceable interpretation overall. The translation is quite faithful, while straying just far enough to annoy purists. With a few minor exceptions, all of the English performances are well-matched to their characters--even Miss Takamizawa's grating delivery is successfully transferred. Unfortunately, Geneon, in a throwback to the bad old Trigun days, fails to designate what roles the English actors were responsible for. It's a shame, as there is some fine work on this disc (special mention goes to the sublimely hammy Dr. Black).
Excluding the usual trio of Geneon previews, this disc has no extras.
Even if it is experiencing a mild case of the mid-season doldrums, Tetsujin 28 remains surprisingly effective retro entertainment. It's not A (or even B) list work, but for all its flaws, in the balance, it still manages to edge out on the positive side. Not bad for a show whose robot protagonist looks as if his greatest enemy is a can opener.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : B-
Animation : C+
Art : B
Music : B-
+ Dark, serious-minded giant robot show for retro-compatible viewers.
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