Reviewby Theron Martin, Jan 24th 2012
In a world where human mutation has created an offshoot race of (oft-super-powered) mutants, the X-Men stand as an elite mutant strike force dedicated to promoting peaceful coexistence with regular humanity and combating threats posed by less principled mutants. As the series begins, though, they have been disbanded for a year over the suicide of one of their own (Jean Grey, aka Pheonix) when her Omega Class powers went catastrophically out of control in a battle against the evil Hellfire Club. Founding telepath Charles “Professor X” Xavier, who also operates the school for mutants that the X-Men use as their base, reassembles the team when he learns of a string of mutant disappearances in the Tohoku region of Japan, including Hisako Ichiki, the daughter of a friend. Since his mutant-detecting Cerebro unit cannot scan the area for some reason, he sends the remaining X-Men – Wolverine, Storm, Hank “Beast” McCoy, and leader Scott “Cyclops” Summers, who's still in a funk over the loss of girlfriend Phoenix – to investigate. There they discover not only Hisako and some of the missing mutants but also the dastardly U-Men (an organization of cyborgs with a penchant for assimilating mutant body parts) and a seeming plague of out-of-control mutations. They also find Emma Frost, the former White Queen of the Hellfire Club, as a prisoner of the U-Men, but is she even still their enemy? That and the truth behind what is actually going on in the Tohoku region are mysteries which will tax the capabilities of both the established and newly-recruited X-Men to their limits.
Marvel Comics' X-Men have gotten numerous animated adaptations over the years, from the 1989 one-shot Pryde of the X-Men to the long-running '90s series X-Men: The Animation to X-Men: Evolution in the early 2000s to 2009's Wolverine and the X-Men. Though each dealt with core X-Men themes such as responsible use of powers and racial prejudice, each of the previous entries also skewed a bit younger; the last series, for instance, aired on Nicktoons. Those who cross over between Marvel Comics and anime fandoms have long wished for a more mature version crafted by a top anime studio, and in the spring of 2011 they finally got their wish when the Mad House-produced X-Men anime hit Japanese TV. The result is a darker product clearly made with older, established fans in mind, as it offers no conceptual set-up to make it accessible to newcomers and its events, character references (it mentions Magneto a couple of times without explaining who he is), and use of canon elements (e.g. Cerebro) assume at least a general familiarity with X-Men lore. If this is your first exposure to Marvel's mutant titles then your learning curve will be very steep indeed.
The X-Men rosters have featured only two specifically Japanese characters over the years, so Mad House was left with limited canon options for inserting a character that would appeal specifically to Japanese viewers. Since Sunfire has made only made irregular appearances over the past four decades (and, frankly, always behaved like an arrogant ass), that left the teenage Hisako, aka Armor, who is a better fit anyway given the X-Men's unusual but long-standing tradition of having an early-to-mid-teens girl as a junior member. Setting much of the story in the Tohoku region of Japan and revamping some X-Men history to turn characters that were originally from other countries into Japanese equivalents (Yui Sasaki is essentially Moira McTaggert and Takeo is an amalgamation of Proteus and Legion) gives Japanese audiences a further hook. (Yes, Tohoku is the same area hit by the earthquake and tsunami last spring, and yes, the series starting its broadcast in the immediate wake of those disasters was so incredibly awkward that Mad House reportedly added an animated well-wishing to the residents of Tohoku by the cast members at the front of several episodes in the original broadcast. That has not been present for the American broadcasts on G4, however.) These changes are unlikely to cause much heartbreak for Western fans, who have long been used to Marvel characters periodically being reimagined anyway. Retaining the essential essence of most of the X-Men used in the series also helps, and the rendition of Hisako is likeable enough that it should ruffle no feathers.
In two cases, though, changes made to characters could be a source of consternation for American fans. Although Storm's character design is faithful to the shorter-haired looked she had on occasion in the comic books, her personality is not. Since her inception in 1975, Storm has long been one of the strongest personalities amongst Marvel's female heroes. Even when she went into a punk mode for a time back in the mid-to-late '80s, she still retained a proper, dignified air and tenacious resolve, one which allowed her to simultaneously lead two mutant groups even while depowered. This rendition has none of that, instead making her into a very casual soul. She was also always among the most powerful female mutants, but here her powers are so regularly neutered by one contrivance or another that she barely participates in some of the battles and is arguably the least effective member. Emma Frost's powers and appearance remain constant but her attitude does not; she's simply too nice here, with only faint occasional traces of the hard edge, sardonic wit, and sexuality which made her interesting to watch when she did start playing on the side of the angels in the comic books. Cyclops is also more commonly a morose jerk here (even factoring in the business with Phoenix), but that is less detrimental and objectionable because his original personality would have been difficult to portray simply in animation – unlike, say, Wolverine's.
In an odd approach, the series begins with a variation on the single most famous and defining moment in Marvel mutant lore: the climax of the Dark Phoenix Saga. Cyclops' inability to save his lover shapes his attitudes and behavior for the entirety of the series, although sometimes the writing goes overboard in impressing that point. The writing also presents a nuance-free interpretation of the state of human/mutant race relations, although (thankfully) it does not dwell too heavily on this point and overplays the reticence of one key supporting member to reveal crucial information about the cause of the phenomenon in Tohoku. Otherwise, though, the adventure is straight-up X-Men fare in the classic sense: full of action, opportunities to show off powers, dastardly villains, and pseudo-science, with a few touches of the mutant fight for acceptance thrown in for good measure. Like many anime series (and comic books, for that matter), the writing does have a tendency to have people to stand around and talk about things at inappropriate times, but when it does get around to action – which is typically multiple times per episode – battle and power use choreographies zing. The fights may be tweaked a little more in favor of Armor than they should be, but hey, this was technically made for a primary Japanese audience, after all.
The character designs for the series come from two artists who have little or no other anime design credits beyond this series, but collectively they create some only slightly stylized renditions of the relevant characters which remain true to the comic book designs except in one respect: they draw all of the adult female mutants extra-busty, giving the impression that big breasts are inherently linked to the mutant gene. All are well-drawn and gorgeously-colored, with Hisako even getting subtly different skin tone and vaguely Asian slant to her features. (This does not stay consistent for other Japanese characters, however.) Background art, monster/bad guy renditions, and power displays – especially Hisako's psychic armor – also tend to be very good. The animation can be quite good at times, and loves to show off some interesting perspectives on Wolverine's trademark claws, but it also too often resorts to shortcuts and stiff movements reminiscent of striking poses. Overall quality control also slips in places but is not a big or consistent problem.
Although the artistry is usually strong, applying Tetsuya Takahashi's musical score to it is akin to using a Spirit Bomb on a Red Ribbon Army minion. It is heavy, voluminous, and all too often overblown as it tries to hype up any present tension and draw out every possible ounce of melodrama. Its ridiculously overdone opener “Reassembly” is a good sample of what to expect in the episode content, and some taste of that can be heard in the closer, too. If you want to hear what a score made with too little restraint sounds like, this is it.
Only G4Tech TV's broadcast of the English dub was available for review, but given that most of the main characters are not Japanese it's hard to imagine that the Japanese dub could have done better. Animated renditions of Wolverine require an iconic tough-guy sound with a gravelly quality, and long-time veteran Steve Blum does that very well. Fred Tatasciore (who also voiced Shingen Yashida in the Wolverine anime) does even better in an impeccable take on Beast which hits just the right intellectual tone, while Travis Willingham has exactly the right kind of smarmy evil for Mastermind. Cam Clarke isn't Patrick Stewart but he does well enough as Professor X, Stephanie Sheh is also a nice fit as Hisako, and Ali Hillis and Matthew Porter are acceptable as Emma Frost and Cyclops, respectively. Supporting performances are generally that good or better, too. The only casting choice and performance that sounds off is newcomer Danielle Nicolet as Storm, but that could be a problem more with the way the character is written than the way she sounds.
For all its action, flashy power use, and undertones about racial tolerance, this animated adaptation is ultimately more an involved story about coming to terms with loss and moving forward, and about never giving up on people in even the worst of circumstances, than anything else. That certainly makes it more ambitious than previous animated versions but also less easily approachable. It cleaves too closely to long-established comic book themes to be regarded as original, but if you want a more adult take on iconic super-heroes then this may nicely fit the bill.
Overall (dub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : A-
Music : C+
+ Sharp coloring and character designs, ambitious themes, good action.
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