Reviewby Theron Martin, Mar 2nd 2009
DVD - Season 1 Part 1
An apparent disruption in the mystical Dragon Stream has led to a variety of odd incidents across Tokyo, including numerous deaths, plagues of walking dead, a handful of teenagers suddenly gaining mystical powers, and crows attacking people at the direction of a demoniac rock god. Behind it all stands a tattooed man who ultimately seeks to take revenge for grievous past wrongs and a young girl with a penchant for powerful tantrums. Standing against them is a group of six empowered teenagers, loosely affiliated at first but gradually coming together as a team: the delinquent Kyouichi; the quiet, monkish transfer student Tatsuma; wrestling captain Daigo; archery captain Komaki; student council president Aoi; and Kisaragi, an assistant to Aoi's wealthy father. Along the way they gain aid from other sources but also find one of their members corrupted by the power they oppose. Along for the ride is aspiring student journalist Anko, who tries to find out why an utterly disparate group of fellow students are now associating with each other and ultimately finds herself caught up in their business – for better or worse.
The series known in Japan as Tokyo Majin Gakuen Kenpuchō: Tō is based on the 2002 Playstation game Tokyo Majin Gakuen Kenpuchō and features characters who are descendants of the video game's cast. (This fact is entirely irrelevant to the anime series, however.) ADV licensed it, shortened its name to the more practical Tokyo Majin, and released the first three volumes of the series in individual volumes before ultimately losing its license in mid-2008. Funimation picked up the series and is now rereleasing it in a pair of boxed sets: this volume, which covers episodes 1-14 on a pair of thinpacked discs, and an upcoming March release that includes the not-previously-released 2nd Act (i.e. episodes 15-26) under the label “Season 1 Part 2.” This move will doubtless please fans aching to see more of a title that had, for a while, looked abandoned.
But how many people actually missed this title? Episodes 13 and 14 round out the first major story arc, with only a Next Episode preview suggesting that there is more to the story. (In fact, a full TV season passed between the original broadcasts of the first and second seasons, suggesting that popularity sufficient to sustain a second season was not initially anticipated.) Granted, the series throws out enough flash, style, and blood to attract attention, but it is hardly one of the gems among ADV's former properties. As much as it tries to pretend that it has depth by establishing conflicted and damaged pasts for some characters, the series really just comes down to yet another excuse for graphic super-powered action.
Of course, that isn't necessarily bad. Dynamic action and impressive displays of pyrotechnics can go a long way towards making a series with a paper-thin premise enjoyable, and this one does have its moments. All of the principle heroes have powers appropriate to their natures – the archer can fire special arrows, the girl who wants to protect everyone can throw up defensive shields, the brawler has melee-related powers, and so forth – and their foes can throw at them abilities ranging from fast-moving zombie puppets to sound manipulation to lightning attacks to dreamscapes to magical blasts, all with a swift, fierce approach that leaves no doubt as to what the series focuses on. Good guys and bad guys alike get their butts kicked, people meet gruesome ends on screen, and some get dragged away screaming to meet horrible fates off-screen; in other words, everything that makes a monster movie what it is.
The action can only sustain so much, however. The main ensemble sees little development beyond one-note portrayals, partly because the action and mystical components take up so much time that little is left to do anything with the characters and partly because the writing simply fails to take much advantage of the opportunities it has. Thus the core cast defaults into their standard archetypes: the fight-loving thug, the quiet one, the bashful big guy, the tomboyish borderline lesbian, the prickly but dedicated knowledgeable one, and the passionate-in-spirit but reserved-in-action pacifistic idealist, who seems entirely too meek to be a Student Council President. Two of them are special beyond their base powers, and one does get turned bad for a while because of that special nature, but that hardly passes for character development in this case. The supporting cast is actually more colorful, including a fiery, motorcycle-riding female teacher, a mammoth doctor, and Bipolar Girl, a villain who is normally bored with everything but has a serious anger management issue.
Bigger problems lie in the plotting and editing, which use poor scene transitions and have a bad tendency to jump around, resulting in a story which lacks a smooth flow or progression of events. The worst example of this is the hectic and confusing first episode, though the problem lingers throughout the initial Dark Arts arc. Several side characters are used prominently without ever expanding on their role or purpose, such as the detective and morgue worker, and though Bipolar Girl appears often, what exact purpose she is supposed to serve is never made clear. Doubtless some of these questions will be answered in the second season, but as is the story seems to have been haphazardly compressed from a much more involved original concept.
While the series may have its problems in its writing, its artistry stands as a strength. This collaboration between AIC Spirit and BeSTACK certainly does not lack for effort or inspiration as it tosses out inventive variations on established monsters, flashy magical effects, and fight scenes loaded with swift, thrilling (if occasionally stiff) movement. Its core cast all get very standard designs, but once beyond them character designer Jun Nakai, in what seems to be his first primary effort in that role, delights in experimentation, so much so that the look of the series never gets boring. Daigo's wrestling team consists of nearly ludicrous caricatures, the main female teacher looks like a retired rock band groupie, old men walk around with lightning bolt-shaped hair and narrow, improbably long beards, and the demoniac musician transforms into a fantastic crow creature. Even his zombies look good (as zombies go, anyway) and the exaggerated enraged looks of certain characters are a delight. Only in his little kid versions of certain core cast members do the designs at all disappoint. It is not a visual style that will suit everyone, but it definitely gives the series a distinctive, if sometime quirky, look. The one downside to the artistry is a muted, hazy effect to the coloring which almost gives the impression of watching the series through a filter.
Each episode opens and closes with a hard rock song by ACID that might initially seem to set the tone, but the hard-edged sound actually only prevails in the episodes about the demoniac guitarist. Elsewhere the musical score wanders all over the map, sometimes featuring classical music pieces where violin solos predominate, other times relying on electronica numbers and common spooky themes. Call it flexible or call it scatterbrained, but it can never be accused of dull repetition.
ADV's English dub uses a script that remains as close to the original as is feasible for an English language translation, and remarkably it does not sound as stiff in execution as one might expect. The cast mixes seasoned veterans like Christine Auten and Vic Mignogna in with prominent up-and-comers like Brittney Karbowski and Stephanie Wittels and several fresher faces, but they combine for an overall solid effort. The vocal styles and performances consistently fit the performers, and in at least one case improve upon the original by artificially deepening the pitch on one character to reflect her massive size.
Funimation's release of the title only includes the clean opener and close found on ADV's original release of volume 1. As has become typical, the two thinpack cases come in an appropriately-sized artbox.
Tokyo Majin tinges its action and horror elements with an occasional bit of goofiness, but that is more than outweighed by its heavier elements, including considerable graphic content and the odd English swear word in wall graffiti. Its first season may give some temporary excitement and make an impression with some of its stylistic elements, but ultimately this is a forgettable production that falls well short of what it could have been due to its writing flaws.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Eclectic but effective musical score, interesting artistic style, plenty of flashy action.
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