Reviewby Theron Martin, Jun 29th 2006
This Ugly Yet Beautiful World
DVD 1: Falling Star
Lackadaisical Takeru is a high school student who lives with his aunt, uncle, and cousin and works with best friend Ryou in his uncle's delivery business. One night while returning from a delivery, Takeru and Ryou have a close encounter with a strange light which ultimately splits and impacts in the forest. Upon investigating, they discover a naked girl who takes the name Hikari and, oddly, looks exactly like Ryou's sketch of Takeru's ideal woman. Takeru's oath to protect her is put to the test when a prehistoric monster attacks and he discovers the ability to transform into a monster himself to combat it. Explaining who Hikari is to his family and friends is even more of a challenge, especially since Hikari doesn't remember much about who she is or where she came from. Matters are complicated further when Ryou also encounters a girl in the forest, who takes the name Akari and ultimately goes home with him. Further making things interesting is the arrival of Jennifer Portman, a boozing American scientist who becomes a boarder in Takeru's house and poses her own theories about the nature of Hikari and Akari.
Cute/sexy alien girls/women who wind up cohabitating with boys/young men that they have fallen in love with has been a common anime plot device at least since Urusei Yatsura in the early '80s, and at first glance this series seems to be just another installment of that tried-and-true theme. The creators even acknowledge the connection by putting in blatant references to Urusei Yatsura and Please Teacher! (among other titles) in the second episode. With the exception of the refreshingly calm, even-tempered Ryou, the cast is also very typical: a good-hearted male lead who's not so skilled with the ladies, the cousin/childhood friend who's secretly in love with the male lead, the innocent busty girl, lively male and female friends, and so forth. Sure, the thing about Takeru transforming into a monsterish warrior is a twist for a series like this, and the balance is a bit more on the serious side than the norm for a romantic comedy, but beyond those factors there doesn't appear to be much in the first volume which distinguishes this series from any of a dozen other titles of its ilk.
But this is a GAINAX series (their 20th anniversary release, in fact), so things aren't as simple as they look.
More depth is present here than may be initially apparent. It's strongly implied that Takeru has some serious abandonment issues buried beneath the surface, so is it a coincidence that a girl named by him and apparently physically patterned off his image of an ideal woman also has a clingy, needy personality? That the girl Ryou finds and names has a temperament very similar to his supports the notion that, whatever Hikari and Akari may really be, they took their cues in every way from the first people they met on Earth. This sparks speculation on how the powers both Takeru and Ryou gain might also be related to their temperaments. Hikari also clearly has a much nastier side that only briefly appears once in this volume, which will leave one to wonder what her purpose on Earth really is, especially given the nature of the monster that attacks her and Takeru in the first episode. And what is Jennifer's real game here?
Because this first volume is primarily concerned with setting up the story, it generates a lot more questions than it answers. But it's still early in the series, so that can be forgiven. The two most important things to note at this point are that it's not as action-oriented a series as the first episode might imply (Takeru doesn't transform a second time in this volume) and that, as viewers will find out later, there aren't any casual details here. Anything that's not there purely for fun is there for a specific purpose, and that includes the prologue and all the butterfly references.
That this series was made by the same people who made Mahoromatic will be quite obvious to anyone who's seen Mahoromatic, even without the sly reference to it in the second episode. The cast structure and sensibilities about fan service in both series are very similar, and the artistic styles are nearly identical, especially in the character designs. The artistry here is a bit sharper-looking and more refined than in Mahoromatic, however, both in its lines and its use of colors, and is highlighted in this volume by the striking, highly-cosplayable outfit made for Hikari. Couple that with animation good enough to support a smooth and impressive action sequence and you have what is, overall, one of GAINAX's better technical achievements to date. It isn't even close to being on the level of a typical GONZO series or the better efforts of Studio BONES or Production I.G, but GAINAX always has emphasized storytelling over technical quality.
The musical score, while not especially distinctive, shows great skill in setting the tone and mood for a given scene, whether it's action, comedy, placid drama, or unpleasant remembrances. It distinguishes itself most in scene transitions, such as one place in episode 1 where a discordant fade-out of a gentle lovey-dovey piece marks the arrival of danger. The closing number is an upbeat but fairly ordinary J-pop number, but the opener is something special. Set against a generic visual structure is the wonderful, string-laden song “metamorphose” by Yoko Takahashi, whose lyrics speak more to the content of the series than might be apparent from this volume alone. Ms. Takahashi is best-known to American anime fans for singing “Cruel Angel's Thesis,” the all-time great opener for Neon Genesis Evangelion, and here she has another song of equal caliber.
TUBW is not an easy series to translate because some of its important context and meaning wouldn't normally survive translation. ADV has compensated for this by including some translation notes in the Extras, but in a highly-unusual move they have taken a cue from fansubbers and put a couple of brief translation notes in the subtitles themselves. Doing this makes sense, as it's critical to understand that the reason Takeru said “Hikari” upon first seeing the light in the tree is because “hikari” means “light” (as does “akari”), but I cannot recall another case where ADV has done this in the regular subtitles. The dub script plays with the wording quite a bit but does try hard to retain the original meaning, such as by translating “Ryou-sama” as “Ryou darling” or “Ryou baby” in an effort to approximate the sentiment being expressed within context. A less successful effort involves translating “Takeru-san” or “Mari-san” as “Mr. Takeru” or “Miss Mari” in an attempt to simulate Hikari's off-key use of Japanese naming conventions (one wouldn't normally attach “-san” to a given name), but it's questionable whether that could have been pulled off without explanation.
How one judges the quality of the English dub depends heavily on whether it's being evaluated on its own merits or compared to the original Japanese. The former case gets an “okay but not stellar” result, while latter fares worse. That's partly due to an initial overall struggle to match the tone of the original Japanese dub, which results in a couple of performances (especially for Takeru) that may sometimes sound too loud and brash by comparison. Purists are also unlikely to care for the Americanizing of the vocal styles of a couple of the supporting girls. Hikari and especially Akari are dead-on by either evaluation, however, and “Eileen Dover” (aka Shelly Calene-Black) is an especially good fit as Jennifer. In fact, a lot of the English cast uses creative pseudonyms in the credits (Goldie Fawn? Circe Nightsade? Ditzie Hightower???), although it should be pretty obvious to serious dub fans as to who the VAs really are. This is another unusual move by ADV.
In addition to the aforementioned translation notes, extras on this volume include a clean opener and closer, Japanese CD and DVD promos, and ADV's standard “Next Volume” preview.
Calling the series This Ugly Yet Beautiful World was a brilliant stroke of marketing by GAINAX, as it's not only one of the all-time great names for an anime title but should attract attention based on the intriguing name alone. The name isn't idly chosen, either, although why it fits the series so well is only slightly hinted so far. While it isn't likely to blow any newcomer away, this first volume does have a respectable fun factor and enough underlying mystery to suggest that there's a little more to it than your typical fan service-laced romantic comedy-drama.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Outstanding opening song, a bit deeper and more subtle than the norm for its type.
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