Studio Gonzo, known for their top-quality production values and seemingly endless string of hit shows, has received a massive amount of acclaim from fans and critics alike for their various attempts to blend experimental storytelling with experimental animation. Creators of shows like Last Exile, Hellsing and Vandread, there's an incredible amount of goodwill towards the studio and an outpouring of support for whatever they do. Unfortunately, they were going to turn out a bomb at some point, and that bomb is Zaion: ~I Wish You Were Here~. Originally broadcast in short segments over the web and on TV, Zaion is a woefully undercooked and dull bit of science fiction claptrap.
OVA series generally have different storytelling requirements than long TV shows. We have to learn a lot about a (hopefully) small cast of characters in a relatively short amount of time. Generally, romances don't work so well in this format, since you aren't given much time to watch the love blossom. It's difficult to care one way or the other about the on-screen relationship if you're only shown a few minutes worth of character development. Zaion suffers from this problem. Yuuji and Ai fall in love after maybe four minutes of on-screen woo-flinging, and suddenly they're making rash decisions in each other's favor. Yuuji is an Angst-Ridden-Renegade-Special-Forces-Guy, while Ai is your basic Rei Ayanami type, with very little emotion besides a few different variations on the blank stare. Who wouldn't want to spend a few hours watching these two awkwardly refuse to confess their misbegotten love for each other? Halfway through the second episode, after Ai refuses to save people's lives in the heat of battle for some reason (further distancing her totally unsympathetic character from an already alienated audience), Yuuji risks his life and his career to drag her out to the forest on his Angst-Ridden-Renegade-Special-Forces-Guy motorcycle. As it happens, Yuuji contracts a new form of the M34 virus that can destroy the nanomachines in his blood, the same ones that form his Mighty Morphin'
Virus Fighter suit when he's on duty. Now, the organization that made them both must hunt them down like dogs, retake their secret weapon, and bring Yuuji down.
The show wouldn't be quite so miserable if the design wasn't as poorly handled as it is. The potential for coolness is certainly here, and the basic human character designs are rock solid, even if they are a tad on the generic side. Although the concept of a young girl being the ultimate war machine has been done more than a few times before, it's always interesting to see what the designers come up with. Not in Zaion's case. Ai turns in to a poorly-rendered CG version of Earth Girl Arjuna, complete with big, flat, funny-looking hands that look like they're straight out of a Rodney Greenblat video game. The M34 virus first mutates people into strange rock-looking creatures, which isn't too awful. Once the virus starts changing, however, the monsters turn in to giant lumps of Silly Putty with faces and arms. The NOA soldiers look like something straight out of a sentai show, complete with matching biomechanical outfits that are all outfitted with faceless masks and breeding hips. Imagine watching a squad of Power Rangers fight a big blob of Silly Putty, and you've got Zaion.
Adding insult to injury is the animation, which looks like they had the Gonzo intern do it on weekends when he had some spare time. The 3D CG in this show is incredibly sloppy; any of it could have been rendered many years ago in some ancient MS-DOS modeling program. The frame rate is all out of whack, contrasting with the poorly done, choppy 2D animation. It's like trying to marry a dead duck with a bowl of week-old cereal. They're both miserable enough on their own, but they're made so much worse by being forced together. Gonzo clearly has problems maintaining a high level of quality and only certain shows can manage a consistently polished look; Zaion was obviously an afterthought during their budget meetings, and the show suffers because of it.
The one bright spot Zaion has to offer (aside from being the only science fiction series to include the name ‘Zaion’ that doesn't feature a ten-minute rave sequence or Laurence Fishburne) is the soundtrack. Both the score and the English dub are very well handled. The music is performed by the irreproachable Kenji Kawai, the mastermind behind the score to Ghost in the Shell. It's haunting, beautiful and minimalist, and is a truck stop of pleasure on the highway of pain. The dub is fantastic; ADV hired a lot of excellent voice talent to drive this show, and the result is a professional, natural-sounding dub laced with some fantastic line readings. The dub almost makes the show worth watching, since… well, no it doesn't. The best acting in the world couldn't save this show from being the megaton bomb that it is. The cast deserve kudos for making lemonade with extremely sour lemons, but it's a shame such talent was wasted for a totally mediocre pile like this.
Avoid Zaion. Unless you're a Gonzo collector and simply must have everything the studio churns out, stay away from this show. Sometimes even the best talent will misfire and wind up releasing something that just isn't special no matter how you frame it. It's a marvel ADV put as much effort in to this title as they did; it comes with a fancy full-color booklet, beautiful packaging and a load of DVD extras. If only they'd put this much in to a show that's actually worth watching. Perhaps they should rename the show Zaion: ~You'll wish you were dead~.