Reviewby Carlo Santos, May 25th 2006
The Law of Ueki
DVD 1: The Battle Commencement
Kosuke Ueki has a unique ability—he can turn trash into trees! Every power comes with a price, however: Ueki must battle other young "power-users" on behalf of his schoolteacher Mr. Kobayashi. "Mr. K" is one of 100 candidates vying to become the Celestial King, and to win that honor, his power-user must defeat everyone else's. If Ueki wins, he gets a reward too: the "Talent of Blank," which can be any power he desires. However, using his powers on non-combatants will cause his existing talents to disappear. Gradually, Ueki learns the ways of battle as he meets other rivals with strange powers: turning water into flame, turning towels into iron, turning cotton into stakes. But none of that can prepare him for a power-user who fights with physical ability alone.
With consumption on the rise and a limited area of useable land, Japan faces a unique challenge in waste management. Government authorities try to stress the importance of "eco" living, and the garbageman won't even pick up your trash if you forget to sort the recyclables. It is in this context that Ueki's power seems especially appealing—wouldn't it be great to single-handedly turn unsightly waste into greenery? Unfortunately, a run-of-the-mill plot and ridiculous characters quickly turn this into a mind-numbing mess. Wild energy can be fun, but too much of it just dulls the effect. If only Ueki had the power to turn a shounen cliché into an interesting story.
Now, there is a way to enjoy The Law of Ueki. Just accept the sheer insanity and take it as an exaggeration of everything that typifies the shounen action genre. Why does Mr. K want to be Celestial King? Just because! Why do Ueki's opponents all have really petty reasons for wanting the Talent of Blank? Just because! Seriously, when a guy is turning towels into iron so that he can one day earn the talent to dig a hot spring, this has clearly crossed into non-sequitur territory. The tournament itself seems improvised; combatants are constantly explaining the rules to each other in this bizarre world of talents and powers and candidates. Slap it all together and what do you get? A series so incoherent that the only thing holding it together is the fact that, ultimately, Ueki will end up fighting everyone.
And therein lies its weakness. A fighting-based action series, even with the most absurd powers and pointless goals ("I want the talent to run!"), is still a fighting-based action series. By Episode 4, the hilarity has already worn off, descending into a snooze-inducing battle between Ueki and the physical fighter. It's anyone's guess whether this story will have enough depth to carry it through extended storylines and dramatic arcs; Ueki's opponents have such simple, exaggerated personalities that the only thing they're good for is being defeated. There are no rich back-stories or emotionally intense rivalries; even Ueki's female sidekick Ai is more of an annoyance than any sort of potential romantic interest. Our own hero Ueki is something of a careless slacker, and this four-episode beginning embodies that quality—it slacks off on telling a decent story because it's trying so damn hard to be as crazy as possible.
This mad, frantic energy also manifests itself in the visual style, which explodes with bright colors and over-the-top action. Trees shooting out of Ueki's hands are a genuine thrill, and his opponents' bizarre attacks are equally captivating, but the fights themselves fall into the generic pattern of charging up and charging at each other. (After all, there are only so many variations on getting spiked by a giant tree trunk.) Brash, distinctive character designs make it easy to tell everyone apart, with hatched lines adding some nuance to the look as well. However, the artwork has trouble staying consistent from scene to scene; the carelessness of the animation staff guarantees that you'll never see Ueki drawn the same way twice. This wild, action-intensive style may look cool at first glance, but the sloppy drawing drags it down.
An energetic dance-pop song by the popular Hitomi Shimatani provides an ideal opening theme, but the ending ballad is surprisingly effective as well, with its sweet melody and low-key attitude (a welcome break from the constant hyperactivity). Aside from these two theme songs, there isn't much else—light synth-pop dominates the rest of the soundtrack, apart from the battles, which go into synth-classical. It doesn't add to any of the scenes, but it's not painful to listen to either, generally just fading into the background where it'll be ignored and forgotten.
An exuberant show like this one calls for high-energy voice acting, and the English dub is certainly a spirited performance—but grates horrifically on the ears. That thin line between excited speech and straight-out yelling is constantly overstepped, and the worst offender is Ai, who gets the most lines in the show and mangles them spectacularly. (To be fair, the Japanese audio reveals that she's just as bad in that language too.) On a more positive note, the dub script is a fairly close adaptation of the subtitles, but the dialogue is just inherently Ai constantly states the obvious, and combatants are always yelling bombastic threats at each other.
If there is one thing to be learned from The Law of Ueki, it's that the Laws of Shounen are not to be violated, even when you're being as absurd as possible. The hero is always an undisciplined teenage boy who must learn to master his abilities. The girl in his life is always a no-nonsense type who keeps him in check. The final goal will give him near-godly powers, but he will have to fight everyone else on earth to get it. If these are the kind of rules worth living by, then go ahead and check this series out—but beware the underdeveloped story and characters, along with sloppy artwork and repetitive fights. Like its titular hero, The Law of Ueki seems energetic and full of promise, but right now lacks the necessary self-control to succeed.
Overall (dub) : D
Overall (sub) : C
Story : C-
Animation : B-
Art : C
Music : C
+ Bizarre and crazy enough to be entertaining at times.
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