Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Nov 18th 2010
Oh! Edo Rocket
DVD - Season 1 Part 1
Medieval Edo: The Tempo Reforms have curtailed all forms of entertainment, including fireworks. Young fireworks prodigy Seikichi Tamaya dreams of launching the world's largest firework. He'll get his chance sooner than he thinks. When one of his masterworks inadvertently saves the life of an alien monster, she takes on the form of a beautiful girl to conscript him into making a firework that will carry her to the moon. Unfortunately, in doing so, Sora, as she calls herself, inadvertently drags Seikichi into an extraterrestrial struggle that will set him at odds with prejudiced policeman Nishinosuke Akai and most of the local government. And a blood-sucking galactic serial killer. And a troop of funkily-clad Men in Black. And perhaps even his neighbor, dissolute playboy-with-a-heart-of-gold Gin. Explosive!
If the busy cartoon art on the cover didn't tip you off, the illegally infectious opener announces the intent of Oh! Edo Rocket with foot-tapping clarity: to deliver an energetic good time. And, a few hiccups aside, it delivers most generously.
From its first minutes, during which it hops hyperkinetically from grueling beast action to period-film slapstick, it's obvious Edo Rocket is one odd duck of a show. Its Edo is a funhouse amalgam of period architecture and modern culture, much the way its plot is a free-wheeling mixture of deadly intrigue and base physical humor. Some characters are proper humans, while others, who admit freely to being comic relief, are caricatures so extreme that they're only nominally human. Real history combines amiably with shape-shifting extraterrestrials and cheerful anachronisms, while outrageous character shtick alternates with unpleasantly authentic psychology. Wind that all up to a fever pitch and throw it off a cliff wrapped in visuals that push Madhouse's supple animation to loony extremes and you have Oh! Edo Rocket. And man is it fun to watch.
The curious thing about it is that its pedigree doesn't really suggest fun. Its primary writer is Shou Aikawa, the mind behind the solemnly ridiculous Ayakashi Ayashi. Its director is Seiji Mizushima, best known for his bleak adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist, on which he collaborated with Aikawa. And Madhouse isn't exactly famous for comedic excess. Where the anarchic comic impulses come from is a bit of a mystery. Until you look at the original creator. Edo Rocket, it turns out, is based on a play (yes, a play) by Kazuki Nakashima, the scribe behind...wait for it...Gurren Lagann. Suddenly things make a lot more sense.
Mizushima has an easily overlooked flair for comedy—some of the best, and most technically accomplished, sequences are the ones involving rocket-boats and exploding feces—but funny business isn't where he or Aikawa makes their presence most felt. A whiff of professorial discourse aside, Aikawa's script facilely blends fact and fiction, grounding the plot's lunacy in very real concerns about making a living and retaining one's self-worth under the crushing weight of autocratic repression. Mizushima, for his part, treats those concerns with an earnestness rather at odds with the series' bright cartoonishness and cheeky reflexivity. And with surprisingly effective results. The negative symmetry of Gin and Akai's paths, as one awakes from dissipation to purpose and drive and the other succumbs to bitterness and descends into murderous hedonism, is the closest the series ever gets to being a thing of real beauty.
That said, the wacky/sober balance is far from flawless. The serious developments that escape the self-parodic chopping block can wend on too long—specifically Gin's decision to join the Men in Black—and a couple of comic characters are given freer reign than they should have been. The mouth-headed roof tiler in Seikichi's row house is one of them, though even he pales in comparison to Tetsuju the Fuse, a grotesque collection of twitching pecs, rubbery lips, and overblown ego whose torture of Seikichi, and us, is allowed to continue for a criminal stretch before he is blessedly launched into oblivion atop a makeshift rocket. At other times certain elements sit ill together, most notably when Akai shifts between explosions of diseased hatred and sympathy-garnering pratfalls.
The stresses of adapting a madcap play into a 26-episode television series also make themselves known. The series uses repetitive behavior and events to pad out the plot, cycling through several iterations of Sora's fight with her criminal countrymen and more explosions and failed tests than anyone would care to recount. Seikichi mistakes Gin and Sora's relationship, mathematician Genzo frets about his social non-presence, little brother Shunpei is confused by his illogical heart, and mouth-face gets abused by his mouth-faced wife—all of it repeated over and over again as the main plot, namely Seikichi's rocket, advances in short, contrived spurts. The often substantial subplots notwithstanding, it isn't what you'd call a sophisticated narrative.
The beauty of it, of course, is that none of that matters. Edo Rocket's purpose isn't enchanting storytelling; it's unbridled fun. Yes, that requires a certain level of intelligence and a solid, likeable cast to get behind, but beyond that, who cares? Sora's fights are perfect opportunities for Mizushima and his Madhouse collaborators to break out the slick animation and cool monster designs (somehow monster-Sora manages to be both scary and loveable). The cycling character shtick is fertile grounds for meta-humor about anachronistic language ("that phrase didn't even exist back in these times") and the convenience of an animated life. ("Weren't we also s'posed to use it in episode 13?" one character asks about an exploded barn. "Hey, this is anime. All they gotta do's draw a new one," another replies.) And the whole thing—padded plot, tonal missteps, annoying characters and all—is so good-natured and playful that even when it stumbles it's impossible to hate.
No-holds-barred comedy, a self-referential bent...that's right, Edo Rocket is yodeling from the top of Funimation's favorite mountain. And, as you'd expect, the dub gets up there and yodels right along. Meta-jokes are added, a snappy comic rhythm is developed, and the humor takes on a distinctive tenor: verbally nimble, perpetually self-aware, and eager to seize upon sexual innuendo. It isn't necessarily funnier than the Japanese, but it is distinct and worth a listen even for non-dub fans. The serious parts are adapted with utmost fidelity and surprisingly well-acted for a comedy, while the hairier translation issues are sometimes handled in novel ways (rather than replace one of Sora's puns, the script leaves it intact, to which Seikichi snaps: "That makes absolutely no sense in English!").
Extras are limited to clean ending and opening animation, which is fine since any chance to enjoy the theme songs is a good chance. The ending, a catchy pop number built around a surprisingly bluesy guitar riff, is the lesser of the two, while the opener finds famed pop duo Puffy schooling anime whippersnappers in real pop infection, dressing irrepressible good cheer in mischievous switch-ups in tempo and needlessly virtuosic bubblegum vocals. Both songs fit well with the smart, rollicking rumba 'n' swing score.
Crammed to critical mass with whacked characters, self-referential anachronisms, and pure cinematic chaos, you could call Oh! Edo Rocket a post-modern historical action-comedy, but frankly it doesn't really fit into any category, even one invented for it. That's no guarantee of quality—as its uneven tone will attest—and certainly no guarantee of universal appeal. But it does guarantee an experience unlike most. And in Edo Rocket's case, it happens to be a good experience.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : C+
Animation : B+
Art : C+
Music : B+
+ Like a cross between a history class and a pyrotechnic frat party; highly inventive and more emotionally grounded than expected.
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