Reviewby Theron Martin,
Unbreakable Machine-Doll [Limited Edition]
In a version of the early 20th century where “Machinart” (i.e., controlling specially-built dolls using magic) is well-established and commonplace, Raishin Akabane has come to a prestigious school in Liverpool, England to study its well-regarded Machinart program – or so he claims. In actuality he partly seeks revenge on the individual responsible for the death of the rest of his family, an older brother whom he believes to be at the school, and partly is working on orders from Shoko Karyusai, a legendary Japanese puppeteer who is also connected to a secret magic organization and who was responsible for saving Raishin's life. At Raishin's side as his doll is Yaya, a seeming petite girl who is one of Shoko's masterpieces and who is so utterly enamored with Raishin that she is constantly trying to become his wife in name as well as practice. To get what he wants, Raishin soon learns that he must become one of the top 100 students and thus qualify for the Walpurgis Night tournament, but that doesn't stop him from coming to aid of assorted damsels in distress along the way (much to Yaya's chagrin). First up is Charlotte, a powerful but friendless English noblewoman who seeks to restore her family's fallen status and runs afoul of a ploy involving a serial killer. Next is Frey, a buxom girl who clumsily tries to assassinate Raishin on multiple occasions. Last is Henrietta, Charlotte's suicidally-inclined younger sister, who has become a veritable hostage in a ploy to kill a prominent figure at the school.
This entry from the Fall 2013 TV season is a 12-episode series which really should have been 24 episodes long instead. This is not a case of the production trying to cram too much into one series, however; based on the episode naming conventions, the animation probably covers the first three of the 14 light novels to date, and that feels like about the right pace. No, this is more a case of the story simply not covering enough ground to feel like much has actually been accomplished by the end, especially with the Walpurgis Night tournament (which is apparently meant to be the backdrop for most of the story) only in its early stages as the credits roll for episode 12 and the ones who will presumably be the main overall antagonists only recently introduced.
At its core, Machine-Doll is a fairly typical “battles at magic school” kind of series, complete with each student having his/her own gimmick (in this case the dolls, which can be anything from human form to animals to mythological creatures to even robot-like constructs), a ranking system to distinguish the elite, and an outsider with special talents coming in to shake things up a bit. The educational aspect of the school is practically an afterthought in this case, as there are no training sequences and only a couple of scenes which actually take place in classrooms. There are, of course, plenty of sexually-charged comical misunderstandings, as Yaya tends to promote them with the way she says things; for instance, one running joke in the second half of the series involves Frey thinking that Raishin is into bestiality (with her dog-dolls!) based on comments made by Yaya. Few other attempts at levity fare much better, but the humor (such as it is) is just a minor sidelight rather than a focal point. Fan service is also a part of the picture, to the extent of including small doses of nudity in both the series content and the closer, but it rarely predominates and certainly never ascends to the level of the racier titles out there.
No, the series instead focuses much more on action and plot development, with a fair emphasis on world-building along the way. Its action scenes are crisp and fast-moving, with few dramatic pauses; clearly the animation budget was overwhelmingly focused on them, as elsewhere animation in scenes where characters are just talking is minimized to an annoying degree. The fights also offer a good variety of moves and dramatic flair, too, although exactly what Raishin's power-ups do to enhance Yaya in each different version could be clarified much better. In fact, “could be clarified better” is a recurring theme in the world-building, as the writing takes such pains to minimize (though not completely eliminate) info-dumping that it sometimes fails to adequately explain some other points, too, especially what affect Machinart has had in changing the nature of warfare in that setting. (It is vaguely implied but never detailed.) On the flip side, one of the included OVA shorts actually devotes itself to an in-depth look at the mechanics of how magic works, even down to theorizing that it is based on the manipulation of specialized elementary magical particles. While a very interesting approach, some details of that discussion are probably anachronistic unless the series is set much farther into the 20th century than what it appears – in which case other elements become anachronistic.
The series is divided into three four-episode arcs that are not entirely independent, as elements of the first have a distinct impact on the third and characters introduced in the second (especially Frey and Loki) play significant roles in the third. The first arc deals heavily with classism, while the second (and to a lesser extent the first) delves into the ethics and morality involved with scientific and magical research and experimentation; this is also a general theme for the whole series due to the frowned-upon existence of Banned Dolls, which are dolls created with some degree of biological component. The third arc, contrarily, is vaguely about the value of family but much more about one new villainess just delighting in screwing with people under the pretense of getting revenge for an allied noble family. The series suggests that she may have grander goals, too, but runs out of time before that can be explored. The events here are nothing too novel, nor is the character development, and the play-out does suffer on occasion from inexplicable sudden jumps, as if scenes were edited out. It also occasionally suffers from some logical breakdowns, such as how people looking for someone riding a dragon would not notice a huge dragon perched on a tower. Still, there is at least a little more beef here than might be initially expected.
The artistry leans heavily on CG elements, especially in action scenes, and the blending of the CG elements with the regular animation is not always the smoothest. A couple of scenes involving buildings collapsing look particularly awkward, as does one scene where a character crashes through a glass window. Architectural and doll designs are both solid, but character rendering too often has that “I was drawn and colored using a computer program” look and the designs themselves are nothing special beyond Yaya and Shoko, and those are mostly because of their vivid Japanese-style clothing. Flashback scenes do, however, use some nice coloring gimmickry. The fan service content is accompanied by some graphic violence, but this is not one of the bloodier titles out there, either.
The musical score, on the other hand, does its job well. Piano and symphonic pieces ably support both action and gentler dramatic scenes and opener “Annica,” sung by Hitomi Harada in a much lower pitch than she voices Yaya, gives a hard-charging, rock-themed start to each episode. Closer “Maware! Setsugetsuka” is sung by the seiyuu for Shoko's trio of masterpiece dolls and features them in a catchy, fast-paced rap-style number where one of them is singled out as a focal point in each of the three versions; in two of the cases this does involve nudity.
Since this is set in Great Britain, the English dub not only goes full-bore for English accents but even tries to vary them to account for regional differences, such as a character being from Liverpool as opposed to Manchester. The effectiveness of this varies, as not all of the voice actors are equally-good at producing such accents; for instance, the very versatile David Wald (Guin from Guin Saga) is great with the Scottish accent for Charlotte's dragon-doll Sigmund, but Monica Rial struggles much more with Charlotte's sister Henrietta. Japanese characters and those whose countries of origin are ambiguous are left unaccented, allowing Clifford Chapin and Bryn Apprill to shine in the lead roles of Raishin and Yaya, respectively. Dialogue is adjusted appropriately to accommodate British phrasing, slang, and cadence, making for an overall solid dub effort.
Funimation's Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack release does not skimp on the Extras. Each disk type gets its own case with its own reversible cover, and bot come in an artbox. Also included in the box is a booklet feature bonus artwork heavy on fan service. On-disk Extras include English audio commentary for the first and last episodes (which go into detail about the use of accents), a collection of promo videos and commercials, and clean versions of the opener and all three variations of the closer. Also present are all six omake from the original Japanese disk releases, which average about 4.5 minutes in length. Unlike similar features for most series, a vague, serious story thread runs through all six, and only some of them are primarily fan service vehicles; others fill in informational and/or storytelling gaps.
Overall, Unbreakable Machine-Doll is not the smoothest of productions and does have significant flaws. (One not brought up yet is its incredibly annoying habit of having certain characters endlessly resort to catch phrases.) However, it does also play out a little better than might initially be expected, even if it is painfully incomplete.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : B
Art : B-
Music : B+
+ Action sequences, some interesting world-building aspects, musical score.
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