by Justin Sevakis,
Koichi Mashimo has directed quite a few popular action fantasy anime over the years, from Noir to the .hack// franchise. While few of them are notable from a directorial standpoint, one must admit that the guy can turn in consistently entertaining work. That said, there are a few titles in his catalog that don't quite fit the mold; slightly off-the-beaten-path works that I find far more interesting.
Perhaps the most esoteric title in his catalog, however, is Eat-Man. The story about a tall man in red Yoko Ono glasses who wanders around doing odd jobs and eating screws, bolts, and whatever bits of metal are lying around. And it's not a comedy. At all.
Like I said, esoteric.
In a slightly dystopian distant future (one, like so many brooding fantasy anime, seems to be made up of disparate city-state nations), there are always strange things happening. Possibly the strangest thing is a man named Bolt Crank, the aforementioned "Eat-Man" that may or may not be human. Certainly, his diet consisting of metal parts, machinery, guns and motor oil would kill most people. At any rate, the guy is something of a jack-of-all-trades, doing odd jobs ranging from bodyguarding to janitorial work.
Bolt doesn't talk much. Rather, he prefers to blend into the background, quietly observing the people around him. When occasion calls for it, he'll speak -- with razor sharp precision, so as to neither waste syllables nor leave any doubt as to what he means. This bluntness usually catches people off-guard, as they've often mistaken him as shy or not noticed him at all. On even rarer occasion, he smiles.
And what of all that metal he eats? Well, Bolt has a certain super-power. Whatever he eats, he can regenerate immediately from his hand in, more or less, whatever form he wants. When things get a little hairy (and they often do), Bolt will zip into position with lightning speed and draw a gun out of thin air, stunning his opponents (and whatever friendly forces are present). Other than this, the man is an utter mystery, and his presence -- both in each story as well as in general -- is left completely unexplained. He simply is.
It says something about this strange alien future, then, that nobody really seems all that shocked by the man when he enters their lives. At worst, he's a mild amusement. These characters are busy with their own lives and problems. If Bolt's around, it's usually because he's been hired to do something.
In vignette style, each episode features a different woman whose life is at some sort of important cross-roads. We watch as one woman, a mercenary, angrily turns down a simple hit-job in a mysterious city walled in by glass. In another, a scientist hires him as a bodyguard while visiting an island of genetically recreated extinct animals, and she slowly reveals that she has a very personal reason for wanting to help them. In still another, Bolt observes a young, newly married man attempt to demolish a large, floating aircraft while his wife quietly worries about how much danger the job puts him in.
The very nature of Bolt as this aloof sort of nondescript presence in peoples' lives make him seem like something of a god, and this is the bit of symbolism that the series wraps itself around. Different characters react to him differently; some try talking to him while others quickly get frustrated when he doesn't do what they'd expect. One thing he can be counted on for is some measure of protection (from outside forces or from oneself), and when he's called upon it's usually by somebody in some amount of trouble. When he's not called upon, he simply observes benignly. In times of trouble, he lends a quick, unexplainable hand, but there are inevitabilities that even he can't do much about. If nothing else, he's a quiet pillar of support.
Eat-Man was a 12-episode late-night TV anime (before that was such a common thing) that originally aired back in 1997. It was fairly unpopular among fans (many of whom felt it didn't do justice to the manga, a more literally coherent work from which the anime takes only the title character), and a second series sprung up a year later, Eat-Man '98. This time, a different director was brought on board with the expressed intent of sticking closer to the manga. Though similar in tone and style, I didn't connect with this series on nearly the same level; it had none of the original's sly sense of foreboding, none of the visual symbolism that made the original as much of an enigma as its namesake. It was, simply, very literal. (Though it seems to have been better received, the fact that only two episodes were dubbed before Bandai pulled the plug seems pretty telling.)
I'm not surprised at how unpopular Eat-Man is. It's slow, quirky, and suffers from obvious budget constraints. The action promised by the premise barely ever happens, or happens off-screen. Moreover, almost nothing is explained, leaving many viewers asking what the point of it all was. The more meditative viewer, those who can patiently ponder the atmosphere of the show and reflect on it may be able to find a bit more, as I did.
The music is a highlight: an early Yuki Kajiura work that's heavily reliant on hard-edged synth, which gives the series a grand sense of worldliness. The opening (which is pretty much only credits) features an absolutely ludicrous hard rock anthem by King-Show, and its lyrics quickly descend into silliness. The animation by Studio DEEN, is minimalist and washed-out looking like every shoestring-budget mid-90s anime.
Eat-Man is a strange piece. It shares many traits with its hero: unexplainable, quiet, reflective. How you react to either often says as much about you as the piece. Those who go in with a pre-defined idea of what you're expecting to get out of an anime will likely end up frustrated and dismissive. However, those who are able to go in with a patient soul, a clear mind and the ability to relax with their own sense of wonder will be rewarded with some interesting deep-thinking material. It's the anime equivalent to a Tsai Ming-Liang film.
|A||Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.|
|C||Common. In print, and always available online.|
|R1||US release out of print, still in stock most places.|
|R2||US release out of print, not easy to find.|
|R3||Import only, but it has English on it.|
|R4||Import only. Fansubs commonly available.|
|R5||Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.|
|R6||Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.|
|R7||Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.|
|R8||Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.|
|Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.|
Where to get it:
Eat-Man was released Stateside by Bandai Entertainment in their earliest days, when they were still calling themselves AnimeVillage.com. It was a sub-only VHS release, and I imagine sales didn't exactly set the world on fire. It's long out of print and I'm told its license has expired. This was the only anime in their catalog that never got a DVD release that I cared about, to my extreme disappointment. (The others that shared this fate included the cavity-causing Clamp School Detectives, the unwatchable AWOL and the almost-as-bad Ehrgeiz. Clamp School Detectives has since been relicensed.)
The Bandai VHS release can still occasionally be found used online. There are two different packaging versions, including the classy plastic clamshell modeled after the Japanese packaging that was only available through their website, and a more traditional VHS box that went to everybody else. I'm not sure the clamshell existed past volume 3. In any case, DVD releases exist in both France and Japan, but neither has English subtitles. A fansub was released a few months ago.
Eat-Man '98 got a brief North American DVD release in a cheap 2-disc set some years ago, but is now out of print. (Only the first two episodes are dubbed.) Meanwhile the manga was released by Viz years ago, though I can't tell if graphic novels were ever made or if the series was only serialized in the then-standard 32-page comic books. In any case, it's long out of print.
Screenshots ©Yoshitomi Akihito • MEDIAWORKS/BANDAI VISUAL.
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