Reviewby Theron Martin,
Cross Ange: Rondo of Angel and Dragon
Blu-Ray - Collection 1
The Empire of Misurugi is a nearly ideal society, one free from war, poverty, and hunger. The source of that prosperity is the nearly-universal ability of humans to use Light of Mana (basically magic), so the rare girls born without the ability to use or be directly affected by Light of Mana are called Norma, treated as monsters and threats to society, and summarily imprisoned out of sight, usually from a very young age. The much-beloved Princess Angelise also publicly espouses these beliefs, but she is completely unaware that she is, in fact, a Norma herself. Her ambitious brother Julius makes sure that their parents can no longer hide that secret when the gala celebration of her 16th birthday (and thus ascension to politics) comes up, which quickly turns the bewildered Angelise's life into a living hell. She soon discovers the grim, top-secret fate of the Norma: they are confined to the distant island fortress Arzenal, where those old enough must prove their worth to society by using Para-Mails (fliers which can transform into mecha) to fight off DRAGONs who periodically invade through dimensional portals. Stripped of everything including her name, the newly-minted Ange must find the will and ability to survive, get along with her fellow Norma, and accept who and what she actually is.
Cross Ange is an anime-original series which focuses on sexy female mecha pilots and is squarely aimed at a male audience. Yona of the Dawn is a fantasy series based on a shojo manga and decidedly skewed towards a female audience. Despite the differing origins, genres, and target audiences, the two series actually tell essentially the same basic story, which makes the fact that they aired at the same time (24 continuous episodes over the course of the Fall 2014 and Winter 2015 Japanese TV seasons) an interesting coincidence. Both feature a titular, initially-naïve princess who, on her 16th birthday, is forcefully deposed in a coup orchestrated by a relative, during which she witnesses first-hand the death of one of her parents. Both eventually discover, to their dismay, that the public is largely either indifferent to or in favor of this (albeit for dramatically different reasons), though they each still have a fiercely loyal supporter who was close to them at the palace. After initially being overwhelmed and traumatized by the experience, both eventually pick themselves up, toughen up, and become warriors as they learn how to survive. And in both cases dragons are integrally involved, with a special trait each of the former princesses has playing a big role in the dragon involvement (though in the case of Ange, the extent of that special trait is only lightly touched upon in the first half of the series).
Each series takes a completely different approach to executing that basic structure, though. Unlike Yona of the Dawn, Cross Ange is a deeply crass work predicated on a fundamentally pessimistic view of humanity. Most characters in the story are defined much more by their negative traits than their positive ones, and the titular heroine is no exception; she is initially a bigot, and clings fiercely to that belief even when her survival practically depends on her eschewing it. In fact, bigotry and the way it can twist even normally-sensible people into ugliness is a strong and recurring theme throughout the 12 episodes covered by this release, to the point that the writing sometimes beats the viewer over the head with it. It even goes as far as showing how a nation can be united in mind and will by oppressing a minority group and dumping the blame for anything that's wrong onto them. This is basically what Hitler did with the Jews in Germany in the mid-to-late 1930s (a comparison that I suspect was intentional), with the only difference being that the oppressed are defined by (lack of) ability rather than race. The oppressed group even gets sent to the functional equivalent of a concentration camp and they are forcibly put to work to support the ideal society, though in this case society depends heavily on their actions for its own security (and more, as well be seen in the series' second half).
In fact, irony is the other prevailing theme of the series, especially in this half. The bitter irony that Ange is what she was prejudiced against is only the beginning, while the reality that society cannot function without the element that it regards as monsters protecting it is one of the more delicious ones. The way that Ange's relationship changes towards another pilot in the later stages of this half is also steeped in irony, as is a human ending up serving a Norma or Ange's resolve being galvanized by being on the receiving end of a second wave of bigotry. Other deep ironies, which get revealed late in this half and are of a more spoilerish nature, also arise.
At the center of everything is Ange. The writing takes a big gamble here, as she is not initially a very likable character. Though she radiates a kind aura as a princess, she is just as deeply prejudiced as everyone else and does not initially adapt well to her change in circumstances, including rubbing both potential friend and foe alike the wrong way from the moment she arrives at Arzenal. Even once she starts to adapt, she becomes a bitter loner who is difficult to work with. However, due in large part to one fortunate encounter, her character continues to progress as she gradually grows into a strong, resolved young woman ready to not only take on the world but also bring it down – and on her own terms, too. By the end of this half she has become the kind of heroine whom you can root for without feeling like you're obligated to do so by her position in the story.
Unfortunately the crassness I mentioned earlier also manifests in some potentially problematic ways. As the “sexy female mecha pilots” label suggests, this is a fan service-heavy series, starting with the skimpy flight suits that the pilots wear. While not pervasive features, nudity, near-nudity, and strongly implied lesbian sex scenes are peppered throughout, as well as one implied hetero sex scene. None of that is problematic in of itself unless you're actually expecting to see nipples in the uncensored version, as this title is a surprising throwback to an era when undefined nudity (i.e. fully-exposed breasts but no nipples drawn in) was more common. However, the series also has a penchant for mixing violence in with its sex, including one attempted lesbian rape scene and another scene where a barely-clothed Ange gets whipped. The series' most infamous scene, one at the end of episode 1 which created a firestorm of controversy when the series debuted, appeared to show Ange being forcibly violated but has (mercifully) been clarified in both the subtitles and English dub from Sentai Filmworks to have been a less-than-gentle body cavity search. Even so, the scene is cast in lurid, sensationalized fashion reminiscent of women's prison exploitation films. In fact, that impression pervades the first half of the series if one looks for it.
Though the series mostly takes itself very seriously, it does leave at least a little room for humor. The way Ange thwarts some bullying attempts is good for a chuckle, as is the odd means of stress relief for one of its major supporting characters. Some of the interactions between Ange and Tusk are also on the light-hearted side, including the running joke about how he continually accidentally faceplants in her crotch. (And this joke never goes away, for those who quickly find it irritating.) A few other lighter moments also pop up, though they are never allowed to be distractions.
And oh, yes, this is still a mecha series, and so it does have substantial mecha and non-mecha action components. The Para-Mail designs are provided by Junichi Akutsu, who designed mecha for both Code Geass and several Gundam properties, and here he has produced sleek, sharp vehicles in both flier and mecha forms. Transitions between the two modes are quick but convincing, and details shown about controls in flier form suggest a motorcycle influence as well as providing a more convincing sense than normal about how these craft are maneuvered. Para-Mail action is well-animated and thrilling, though non-Para-Mail actions scenes impress much less. As Sunrise mecha titles go, this isn't a top animation effort but it definitely is among their better ones.
Other technical merits are also solid. Well-detailed backgrounds are never a disappointment, nor are CG effects in things like the dimensional portal design and animation. Character designs tend to make characters look a bit older than what they actually are (most of the main pilots are supposedly in the 16-18 age but could easily be mistaken for being older) and succeed unusually well in make the characters look sexy without overly sexualizing them; perhaps this is the influence of a female rather than male character designer? These also are not stock designs, either, with Ange in particular standing out with her combination of short blond hair and athletic build. The default animation style has a slightly rough-edged feel, which makes infrequent incidents of being off-model a little less conspicuous. It is also quite graphically violent, which combined with the sexual content makes its TV-MA rating well-justified.
The musical score uses a mix of gentle piano pieces, heavier synthesized pieces, and even ominous vocals to create an effective, heavily dramatic sound. Unlike many series, themes are not commonly reused, resulting in a soundtrack which (according to the included interview) has more than 60 individual pieces. It also uses two insert songs, one of which recurs multiple times in different forms. Opener “Forbidden Resistance” by Nana Mizuki (who also voices Ange in Japanese) is a fitting – and fittingly energetic – synthesized number, while the gentler piano and orchestration of closer “Rinrei” by Eri Kitamura (who voices Salia in Japanese) provides a more mellow but still suitable ending for each episode.
The Japanese cast is practically an all-star collection, so Sentai's English dub had a lot to live up to. The result is tolerable, but only just. Everything depends heavily on Emily Neves being able to manage Ange's changing moods, and while she does fine in gentler or more compassionate scenes, she does not come across as strongly when a harsher voice is called for. She also does not dub the songs. Supporting roles are a mix, with Christina Kelly (Akame ga KILL!'s MINE) making a surprisingly good Ersha, Brittney Karboski being a natural choice for Vivian, and Carli Mosier making a great Hilda, but veteran Kira Vincent-Davis never sounds quite right as Salia and some minor supporting roles suffer. Chris Patton has limited lines in this half as Embryo, but he should be a good fit going forward, but I am more concerned about Juliet Simmons as Salamandinay. She was unimpressive in the few lines she has in this half but has a much bigger role in the second half. The English script makes few significant changes, except as noted above.
Sentai is offering the first 12 episodes separately on both Blu-Ray and DVD. The disks include ordinary Extras like Japanese commercials and clean opener and closer, but the second disk also has “Interview With Momoka,” a half-hour long interview hosted by Sumire Uesaka (the Japanese voice of Momoka) and featuring the series' director, creative producer, and planning producer, along with brief appearances by other key staff members. This is a highly recommended view for any fan of the series, as it provides interesting insight into the creation of the series and some of the choices that were made, including the series' overall intent; for instance, a conscious effort was made to emphasize the “bitterness of human relationships” and how important accepting the evil in humanity is for character growth, two principles which do come through quite clearly in the story content. Fair warning, though: the interview includes some second half spoilers, and while one is marked in such a way that it is chapter-skippable, a couple of others are not.
Overall, the first half of Cross Ange is not the easiest stretch of a dozen episodes to watch, as some scenes are difficult to sit through even if you do not find the content objectionable. However, it is a coherent and fully-realized work of storytelling, one which has little extraneous content, a consistent story progression, and very substantial character development and growth to go along with its fan service and mecha battles. Revelations both big and subtle which are dropped in episodes 11 and 12 (the way Emma first reacts to meeting a dragon face-to-face is easy to overlook but very consequential, for instance) set the stage for the second half but only provide a taste of the Big Picture, so if this half works for you then you have a lot to look forward to in the second half.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Ange's character development, mecha designs and animation, included interview.
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