Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Japan, the final years of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Hiwou, a young clockwork engineer, and his family and friends live peacefully in an isolated village of Machine People: clockwork engineers who build wind-up dolls for festival entertainments. When his village is attacked by a group of evil clockwork-manipulating ninjas, he, his sister, three brothers and two friends escape aboard the village's giant clockwork masterpiece Homura. Naturally, they begin an endless journey to find their long-absent father, pursued all the while by those pesky evil ninjas.
Clockwork Fighters is another of a small group of relatively unknown television shows that Bandai licensed and entrusted to Odex Private Limited. for dubbing and DVD production. The success rate of these shows, in terms of their original quality, has been somewhat spotty. Fantastic Children was excellent while Dan Doh!! was, to put it charitably, crap. Clockwork Fighters falls somewhere between the two, although in terms of its target audience and overall tone, it most closely resembles the latter.
That it was originally intended for the younger demographic is attested to by virtually every facet of its production: the preadolescent protagonist, the cute, simple character designs, the uncomplicated structure, the lack of objectionable subject matter, the educational-supplement narration, the moral lessons that cap off virtually every episode. It literally screams children's entertainment. And while children may well be entranced, adults will be left wanting.
The good news is that the show avoids many of the pitfalls of children's shows. The show rarely talks down to the audience, the leads are strong-willed yet vulnerable, and not every episode is structured exactly the same as the previous one. And the story doesn't shy away from portraying the psychological (if not the graphic) effects of the death of loved ones. Heck, the history lessons in the narration are even worth listening to (for anyone with a passing interest in Japanese history).
The bad news is that it's still a show for kids. There are no subtleties to be uncovered here, either emotionally or narratively, no layers to be peeled back, nothing beyond what is readily available on the surface. The idea of Japan developing its very own technological system (the clockwork dolls) is interesting at first, but quickly devolves into an excuse for robo-battles. Children's stories don't need to be simplistic, but Clockwork Fighters seems content with presenting easily-digestible tales (with easily-digestible morals). It succeeds as light entertainment, but like a light meal, it'll only leave you craving substance.
Given its intent, the show has better production values than one would expect. Budget-saving strategies abound, of course. From the "charging still" that begins each enemy's rush, to burning background buildings that don't actually burn, to speedline obfuscation of background details during action scenes, all of the standards are in place. The fights obviously consume a disproportionate amount of the budget and are consequently more animated than most other sequences (Homura's various transformations are particularly fascinating), but smaller details get attention as well, especially the meticulously mechanical movements of the smaller clockwork dolls. The art is a similar mix of the good and bad. Settings are sufficiently detailed to be differentiated, but aren't evocative, atmospheric, or just plain pretty enough to warrant extra notice. Mechanical designs are very interesting (more so for Homura than for the generic steam machinery of the evil ninjas), even if it is physically impossible for Homura's movements to be powered by a mere spring. Characters are childish and simple: sometimes ugly and caricatured, but just as often damned adorable.
The most memorable music are the opening and closing themes, a jittery, restless almost wordless tune, and a pleasant pop ballad, respectively. The BGM is composed of a limited number of themes repeated over the course of each episode. It is mostly guitar-based and often in the same restless vein as the opening, but occasionally delves into more era-appropriate flute and string themes.
The stiff, awkward dub is graced with a very faithful script, but squanders it on a group of actors who, while superior to non-professionals and high-school drama clubs, are a far cry from the level of professionalism one has come to expect from English adaptations of anime titles. The actors appear to have been chosen for their similarities to the originals, so they tend to be good matches for their roles (with the exception of the much-younger narrator, who sounds terribly out of place), but their delivery is often halting, unconvincing, and generally lacking in conviction and strength. It won't shred your eardrums or make your brain bleed, but it will most definitely impact your enjoyment.
There are no extras on these discs.
The "clockwork" concept, some unusual mecha, and a touch of family drama add spice to this largely formulaic "let's take a journey" children's show, but unless you're really hard up for some light entertainment (or are a child yourself) then this show won't set your world afire.
Overall (dub) : C-
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C
Animation : B-
Art : C+
Music : C+
+ An interesting initial concept; diverting in a lightweight, childish way.
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