Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Dec 27th 2013
Galilei Donna - Storia di tre sorelle a caccia di un mistero
Episodes 1-6 Streaming
There are three Ferrari sisters, all descendants of the legendary astronomer Galileo Galilei. Genius inventor Hozuki is the youngest, reserved martial artist Kazuki is in the middle, and law student Hazuki is the eldest. The whole family, including their estranged parents—put-together mom Sylvia and flighty dad Geshio—are currently the targets of a corporate conspiracy as well as some ragtag pirates. All because someone believes that they inherited a treasure called the Galileo Tesoro from their storied ancestor. Naturally they have no idea what that is. So the sisters go on the run in Hozuki's homemade mecha, the Galileo, rushing to find the Tesoro before the unsavory types who are after them catch up.
Yasuomi Umetsu, the one-man band behind the short-form action gems Kite and Mezzo Forte, is a talented director. Extremely talented. He's an action auteur on par with the best; a director who sponged up all the right lessons about framing, editing, and cinematic excess from the likes of Luc Besson and John Woo. But clearly the man just doesn't know how to handle serialized television. His first stab at a television serial, Mezzo TV, had a great first episode or two but quickly ran afoul of loosening directorial control, cheapening animation, and a run of forgettable one-off adventures. And any hope that he learned from the experience is definitively squashed here, as Galilei Donna runs afoul of the exact same litany.
Like Mezzo before it, Galilei Donna comes out guns ablaze. From the bravura opening sequence, which cuts three unfolding crises into one beautifully calibrated run of ratcheting tension, to the dizzyingly weird aerial duel at the end (with its transforming mechanical goldfish), the episode is a reminder of how skilled direction brings a show to life. That opening sequence is a master class in the use of cross-cutting and attention to detail—the jumps from girl to girl as mysterious forces close in; the futile kicking of Hazuki's legs as she flails to free herself from a much-stronger adversary—to put the screws to your audience. Later, careful character animation and an accumulation of tics and traits allow the Ferrari family's nature to emerge effortlessly as they bicker and fight. Umetsu highlights the frightening vulnerability of the girls in the face of their ruthless enemies, revels in the divorced-family drama of the Ferraris, and lets loose with a delirious CGI-assisted mecha finale, all with the same thrilling mastery of cinematic technique.
The result is nutty to be sure. Already the show's predilection for treasure-hunting Da Vinci Code silliness is evident. The goldfish mecha, with its happy-go-lucky goldfish AI, is downright odd, and the mixture of hard-edged menace and misfit-family comedy is uncomfortable to say the least. Umetsu throws in sci-fi speculation (the ice-age setting and the unfolding energy wars it triggers), a hint of romance (for Hazuki), and a healthy dollop of dark corporate conspiracies just to complicate the mix. It's a strange and messy concoction, but Umetsu's mastery of the material is so keen that we're willing to follow wherever it leads.
Unfortunately it leads, through a swamp of declining production values and diminishing returns, to a mishmash that only sporadically recalls the wild, sharply-assembled charms of that opening salvo. The slide into mediocrity is probably most evident in Umetsu's visuals. The show's animation flattens out, getting more linear and less polished. The girls' animators start short-changing their subjects, subtly simplifying their designs and slowly draining their bodies and faces of mobility, curtailing both physical and emotional expression. Umetsu's framing and camerawork (or simulated camerawork) grow increasingly pedestrian, his action cheaper and less imaginatively staged. He obviously is not planning or storyboarding with the same care. Too often scenes are desultory in their presentation; lax and predictable in their delivery. He starts using Shiroh Hamaguchi's score as a cover for his slackening direction, beefing important sequences up with musical flourishes whose embarrassing obviousness actually has the opposite effect. Only the CG mechanical designs—especially of Hozuki's endlessly cool goldfish tech—remain strong throughout.
Why Umetsu's direction self-destructs is open to interpretation. The specific way his television series fall apart suggests that he's the cause, but is it because he doesn't know how to manage a budget? Because he can't handle the time pressure of producing an ongoing series? Because he loses interest after a few episodes or doesn't have the energy to keep his labor-intensive style running long-term? Does his well of creativity take too long to recharge for it to be viable in a weekly serial? Is it some combination thereof?
Whatever the case, it's systemic and it's lethal. The show hasn't strength enough in its plotting or scripting to survive without the spark of life that Umetsu brought to the table. It doesn't die immediately, mind you. The second episode, which focuses on an increasingly frayed Hozuki using her girl-inventor knowhow to break her family out of jail, manages to keep the show alive in the short term. It has focus, built-in tension, and the wonderfully loony sight of Hozuki laying waste to prison guards in a goldfish-themed power-suit.
But eventually the downward slide sets firmly in. The show makes its first serious misstep by sidelining the girls' parents (and their divorce drama, the only romantic subplot with any real promise). Their wonderfully dippy father is separated during the jailbreak and sent into hiding. Their smart, acid mother is taken out by an acute case of amnesia (seriously). Immediately afterwards Umetsu establishes a muguffin-hunting episodic rhythm as the girls head off to collect Galileo's sketches and get to the bottom of the whole Tesoro thing. The girls become fixed in their personalities, reiterating their central traits—Hozuki's dreamy sweetness, Hazuki's fixation on justice, Kazuki's sisterly tundereness—with an insistence and regularity that is highly annoying.
The formula—girls arrive, befriend the locals, and escape pursuers or locate a sketch—is changed up in ensuing episodes, but clumsily. Almost offensively so. There's the episode where the locals involved are a couple of painfully obvious sacrificial lambs, and another where the show tries to flesh out the frosty corporate enforcer who's after the girls but only succeeds in making him into one of those humanity-hating, delusions-of-grandeur villains who do awful things because it's "in humanity's best interests." Ugh. In the meantime, the show's dark edges feel increasingly and uncomfortably tacked on. The occasional gory massacre and rampant skullduggery come to seem a lot less like essential parts of what is basically a goofy treasure hunt and a lot more like unnecessary concessions to the show's adult-oriented programming block (Noitamina).
By the end, the series hangs onto only enough winning weirdness and sisterly charm to remain a kind of fitfully functioning diversion. Which is good enough to keep us on board for the second half, but is a bitter disappointment after the rollicking good time promised by the opening episodes.
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C-
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : C
+ Opening episodes are a nutty sci-fi action blast; sisters share a believably prickly chemistry.
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