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New York Anime Festival 2010
Mardock Scramble: First Impressions

by Todd Ciolek,

Mardock Scramble has a history. Director Susumu Kudo's new film is actually the second attempt at turning Tow Ubukata's successful novel into anime, as Studio Gonzo canceled their own version back in 2006. It's easy to understand why after watching Kudo's Mardock Scramble: The First Compression, which debuted this Friday at the New York Anime Festival. Mardock Scramble was never going to sparkle with mainstream success or make deprived geeks feel better about their lives and toy collections. Mardock Scramble is much more interesting.

Rune Balot is a morose young prostitute, casually mulling over her own death as she rides through the glowing energy highways of a semi-futuristic city. Her companion, a white-blond man named Shell, screws her on the floor of his limo and then gives a bizarre speech about turning her ashes into a blue crystal. Moments before Balot realizes that he's serious, Shell locks her in the car and blows it up. Balot drifts through a liquid dream of resurrection, and she awakens, intact and mute, in a run-down laboratory.

Her saviors are a former space-exploration scientist named Doctor Easter and an intelligent, shape-changing weapon named Ouefcoque. The two revived Balot so she can testify against her own killer (and turn them a small profit), and the process leaves her with new abilities. She commands electrical surges around her, and she's plagued by troubling questions about whether or not she even wants to be alive.

Her revenge isn't a simple matter, either. Shell has a curious affliction that regularly wipes out his memories, and he's in good with the city's criminal sector. Before long, Balot's hunted by a corrupt investigator named Boiled, and she turns to Ouefcoque. He can transform into all sorts of weapons in Balot's hands, though she prefers to make him a golden mouse when not in battle. And even the little rodent-weapon has secrets: Boiled is his former handler, and the two aren't on the best terms.

Mardock Scramble's first episode is awash with intriguing concepts: Balot was apparently brought back to life after Easter and Ouefcoque questioned her subconscious, and her struggle for identity goes deeper when she's made to speak through electronic devices and Ouefcoque himself. Shell's another puzzle, a sadistic pretty-boy whose random memory loss leaves him soulless and cruel. If anything, the first episode has too many ideas, resulting in a good ten minutes of Ouefcoque and Balot discussing their predicament over and over.

And then all of those ideas are blown away in a rush of graphic, unnerving revelations and rapid-fire violence. Balot's testimony brings up her horrifying past, and Boiled forces her into a confrontation with a band of serial killers. While it's a modern anime creation in appearance, Mardock Scramble owes a lot to the 1990s brand of lurid OVAs. Balot's city may resemble a modern one with a few science-fiction touches, but the imagery recalls the original Ghost in the Shell, from the glowing yellow ribbons of highway to Balot's watery rebirth. Susumu Kudo (whose largely unremarkable resume ranges from sex comedies to children's shows) makes it all dark and crisp, yanking along the episode's climactic battle with breakneck panache. It's a little bit Matrix and a little bit Battle Angel, and it's always striking.

Yet there's more to the series than dank hallways and exploding psychopaths. As the core of Mardock Scramble, Balot is perched between a victim and a slowly awakening heroine. She's at first a moe-eyed nihilist, but she emerges as a genuinely disturbed individual struggling with sexual abuse and desperate for affection. Her violent rages and blunt despair give her a uncomfortable resonance, though Ubukata's script sometimes plays it for bathos. And then there's her frequent nudity. The director apparently saw nothing distasteful about panning over her in the shower minutes after delivering shocking details from her young life.

In fact, the whole of Mardock Scramble embraces both tough storytelling and mawkish exploitation. To its credit, the tale never flinches, refusing to romanticize anything about Balot's life or the turns that led her there. Then again, it often tries much too hard. The soundtrack's gripping for the most part, but the closing rendition of “Amazing Grace” is a bit overdone. The whole thing veers toward comedy when it introduces the killers that Boiled sends after Balot and Ouefcoque. They're lunatics who take pieces of their victims' bodies: Medium the Fingernail steals fingers, mince the Wink implants eyes all over his body, and Fresh the Pike grafts female breasts to his/her torso. Their leader is named Welldone the Pussyhand, and that tells you all you need to know.

Mardock Scramble: The First Compression cuts off right at its climax, leaving much to be shouldered by the remaining two episodes. Even if they never live up to that challenge, this is an introduction worth seeing. It blends the grotesque and the fascinating in ways that don't always work, and yet there's substance to it. This is one anime creation that offers us something other than escapism, in-jokes, or false self-satisfaction, and for that it's remarkable. In all its vicious melodrama, Mardock Scramble doesn't look away. For now, neither should we.

Mardock Scramble: The First Compression will open in Japanese theaters on November 6. The next film in the trilogy, Mardock Scramble: The Second Combustion, is tentatively scheduled for the fall of 2011, and the final movie, Mardock Scramble: The Third Exhaust, for the fall of 2012. Viz Media's Haikasoru imprint will release the first Mardock Scramble novel in North America this January.

All images (c) Tow Ubukata/MS Committee.

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