Reviewby James Beckett,
Part 1 BD/DVD
Jyugo has spent his life breaking out of the most secure prisons around, but he may have met his match with the ultra-secret Japanese facility known as Nanba, the most formidable lockup in the world. He's joined in his escape attempts by Uno, a British lothario with a penchant for gambling big, Rock, a tough and short-tempered American, and the mischievous anime-loving American named Nico. Though all four of these boys harbor their own secrets and criminal histories, they get along famously, much to the chagrin of Nanbaka's staff, including the ever-vigilant Officer Hajime. Whether it's dealing with a new ninja cellmate, competing in a ridiculous prison sports festival, or trying to uncover the mysteries behind the unbreakable shackles that bind Jyugo's body, there's always some colorful kind of madness to be found when inmates at Nanba Prison are running the show.
Nanbaka is one of the most flamboyant anime I've ever seen – this may be a show about a gang of rapscallions trying to bust out of jail and annoy the prison guard, but I'll be damned if Jyugo and the gang don't all look good doing it. Every character in this show rocks multi-colored hairdos, painted nails, and ripped bods – the only guy who doesn't look ripped straight out of an alternate-universe fashion magazine is Officer Hajime, and that's because he's in uniform and also bald.
Oh, and did I mention the sparkles? In addition to the gonzo color scheme and stylized art, every frame of Nanbaka is filled to the brim with sparkles glittering in the foreground; and I do mean every single frame. Nanbaka's entire aesthetic is both immediately memorable and a little much to take in all at once. Once you get past the seriously absurd amount of sparkles and neon though, you discover an anime comedy that actually has a lot going for it. The central cast of Jyugo, Uno, Rock, and Nico have an easygoing chemistry that blends with the madcap comedy of the show's decidedly unique setting.
Nanbaka's first half works well in taking what could be a straightforward thriller or action premise and turning the whole thing into a workplace comedy, where half of the employees are responsible for keeping the other half behind bars. The first act of Nanbaka's premiere episode does the show a disservice by spending too much time introducing the main cast via one of their escape attempts – the animation by Satelight Inc. is decent, but it's not dynamic enough to make the lengthy escape sequence all that exciting as an action sequence, and the overreliance on sight gags and expository dialogue might initially give you the impression that Nanbaka is a more action-based anime than it really is.
When the boys end up inevitably recaptured, Nanbaka's voice comes more sharply into its own. Jyugo and the others get comfy in their cell, content to bicker and banter and form cozy love-hate relationships with the prison staff. Hajime may hate their guts, but he's quick to point out to his cowering assistant Seitarou that the easiest way to mollify the boys of Cell Block 13 is to treat them like pampered guests at a resort. Nico just needs some Japanese snacks and anime, Rock just wants good food to eat (or even a menu to look at), Uno is so obsessed with the opposite sex that he can be entertained with cutouts of women's' magazines, and Jyugo gets bummed out when his distracted friends won't join him on an escape attempt, so Hajime can usually get by on “sentencing” him to a nap.
So Nanbaka is really a hangout sitcom, which means it lives or dies on the strength of its cast. Thankfully, the show makes a solid effort to give its characters a lot of material to work with. The core four Cell-Block 13 members all play well off one another, and characters like Hajime and Seitarou help add flavor and diversity to an already wacky ensemble. Some stories, such as an extended festival/tournament that sees Hajime and the Cell Block 13 boys competing in games and sporting events, give everyone just the right balance of humor, heart, and even a little suspense. Other times, Nanbaka will introduce characters such as a bafflingly incompetent ninja or a terrifying prison warden who hides the secret personality of a lovestruck girl, who all somehow manage to be even goofier than the usual bunch.
The main area where Nanbaka falters is its handling of plot and tone, because while show does try its hand at some mystery and drama, the results are mixed. The central mystery involves the anonymous scarred man who bound Jyugo in his shackles, but this eventually spirals out into introducing a series of inmates who all demonstrate real superpowers, which is somehow connected to some human-experimentation conspiracy. While I appreciate the show's attempts at taking this universe more seriously than expected, I could never get myself invested in these plot developments or cliffhangers. Funimation's first volume of Nanbaka only contains the first thirteen episodes of the overall 25 (plus an OVA), which means I might find myself more endeared to this aspect of Nanbaka's story later on, but for now it's my least favorite element of the show.
Funimation's Blu-Ray/DVD combo release of Nanbaka comes with the usual fare you might expect: respectable audio/visual specs, a few trailers, and an English dub. Aaron Dismuke handled both the scripting and the direction for the dub, which plays a little loose with the accuracy of the translations, but that's almost a necessity with fast-paced and pun-laden dialogue like this. My favorite performer was probably Ian Sinclair as Hajime, who holds his own against the series' wackiest delinquents and manages to be pretty funny, even when he's stuck with the less flashy role most of the time. Daman Mills, Justin Briner, Alejandro Saab, and Jarrod Greene all do great work as Jyugo, Niko, Uno, and Rock, respectively; this is the kind of series that's very much at home with archetypal voices and performances, and the main quartet serve all of those roles admirably in both languages. I'd say I preferred the English dub simply because I often find comedy easier to hear than to read, but both tracks will serve fans of Nanbaka well.
I didn't know what to expect from Nanbaka going into its first half, and I'm glad to have been so pleasantly surprised. While the show's technical foundations don't ever do much to stand out from the crowd, the sparkly art and character designs mesh well enough with a fun and inventive script, which makes it easy to get on board with Nanbaka's proudly goofy and flamboyant content. I don't know if the overarching plot will end up justifying all of the detours from the comedy, but I enjoyed Nanbaka Part 1 enough to remain interested in how things will end up for our not-so-bad guys.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B-
Art : B+
Music : B-
+ Endearing premise and fun characters make the comedy easy to enjoy, incredibly unique art style, so many sparkles
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