Reviewby Carlo Santos,
DVD 1: Arcadian Project
The idyllic paradise of Tatsumiya Island is disrupted when the Festum—a mysterious being that's part technology and part mythology—appears over the island and threatens to destroy it. The island government quickly sends out the giant robot Fafner to battle the Festum, but only certain high-schoolers can sync with the machine. Kazuki Makabe is the first one to pilot the robot, and his mission ends in retreat, but he gets a second chance when the monstrous being re-emerges a few days later. Meanwhile, several of Kazuki's classmates have been taken to the military base for training, and then the government decides that it's time to move the island away from prying international eyes. Can this have anything to do with the glowing red girl that seems to have "awakened" and is hiding in the lowest levels of the military base?
Ah, to live in the shadow of Evangephon. Or is it RahXelion? It takes a lot of nerve to produce a dramatic giant robot anime these days, when every attempt at the genre is instantly compared to the masterworks of BONES and Gainax. (Gundam gets a free ride because it's a subculture unto itself.) On its own, Fafner presents an interesting enough story in a slick package, but seasoned fans will know it all too well. Here's an anime that does such a good job following the template set by its predecessors that it becomes exactly that—a copy of something greater, and one that's not as easily accessible, either. Can it go beyond that after this opening story arc?
Fafner goes for the hook early and starts out with a battle scene, and then jumps back to the events leading up to it. It's a common narrative device, but here it seems almost like bargaining: "Watch past the first episode, and we'll eventually show you this bit!" It takes a full episode just to get Kazuki into the robot, and getting there is a drag—for several minutes it's like having walked into a boring school drama, at least until the sci-fi stuff starts up. Even then, the sense of compelling adventure is strangely absent, due to the aspects of the show that make it difficult to follow. Futuristic military and technical terms pop in without explanation, characters casually refer to events and ideas that won't make sense until later on, and people do things with unclear motivations. Brushing up on Northern European culture might help, though, as everything is named after Norse and Germanic legends (i.e., anything that appeared in Wagner's Ring cycle), but the world of Fafner is still a tough one to get into.
Those who do manage to immerse themselves in this world may soon find it to be a déjà vu experience. Isn't this the giant robot storyline that's been explored so many times before? A young man chosen to pilot a supremely advanced machine, fighting a mysterious enemy, while other political and military forces clash and a strange girl with unknown powers wanders around. Fafner does have some features that set it apart: placing the story in the middle of nowhere rather than in Japan, and introducing the other young robot pilots early on instead of just starting out with Kazuki. However, the latter setup is one that works against the series, as it crowds the exposition of Kazuki's character with all the other kids. With classic protagonists like Amuro Ray and Shinji Ikari, it doesn't take long to know exactly where these guys are coming from and what they're all about, but that same feeling doesn't come with Kazuki. His classmates keep jumping in on the action, and it's one more obstacle to understanding Kazuki's personality—and understanding the series itself.
Although the inner workings of the story need improvement, the visual presentation is commendable. The environment of Fafner is a vivid, eye-catching vision of the future, much like Studio XEBEC's previous youth-and-robots series Stellvia. This time, it's an oceanic paradise instead of gas-tinted space, with beautifully colored sea and sky. The character animation and battle scenes are rendered proficiently as well, moving smoothly from moment to moment with hardly any drops in frame rate. The characters themselves are a matter of taste: fans of Gundam Seed will recognize the work of character designer Hisashi Hirai, whose love of big, intense eyes and hatch lines on the cheeks may be a bit too idiosyncratic for others. It's a certain kind of look that says "giant robot series" all over it, but sadly isn't unique to this show. (Hey! When does Kazuki get to pilot Freedom?) Meanwhile, Fafner the robot itself isn't all that striking, and some might actually call it cheesy—maybe that's the biggest fault of the animation, having a giant robot series where the robot isn't cool enough. Nonetheless the visual style is pleasing and thankfully avoids taking shortcuts.
In a series where everything is named after Norse and Germanic legends, it's not too surprising that the music score turns out to be some kind of Wagner Lite. Although it doesn't quite match the virtuosity of the 19th-century masters, the soundtrack certainly has a dramatic and epic quality worthy of the full orchestra that's playing it. Kazuki's battles against the Festum are all the more stirring thanks to the music, which manages to add emotional weight to just about anything that happens in the series. However, the theme songs performed by Angela aren't quite as catchy and memorable as the ones they did for Stellvia.
Although Bang Zoom! Entertainment already has a strong reputation for its quality dubs, they've outdone themselves on this disc with an English track that shows no faults from start to finish. The characters don't always have unique, individual voices, but that's really more a fault of the story than the voice acting; the entire cast does a solid job of performing the serious, militaristic dialogue in this series. Even in emotionally charged moments, nobody falls into the trap of overacting, and the young characters all sound natural and realistic. This would have been a great DVD for a voice actor interview/commentary/making-of section, but instead viewers will have to settle for a cleaning opening and ending as extras.
Fafner is an anime that gets all the external aspects right: strong visuals, great music, and for the English-speaking audience, a terrific dub. However, it seems reluctant to break out of the mold set by the genre, and lacks the heart of a true giant robot adventure; the detached characters and complex political/military system just don't have that instant appeal. Four episodes in, and things are as mysterious as when they began. It's hard to feel a lot of sympathy for Kazuki, who lives in a frustrating world where you want to know more, but they refuse to explain anything. And even if they do explain matters, is anyone going to be surprised when it turns out to be just like the shows that inspired it? Fafner's got the style, but the substance sure is confusing.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C
Animation : B
Art : B-
Music : B
+ Solid in all technical aspects: animation, music and the dub.
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