Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
DVD - Ultimate Collection
Somewhere in space is the planet Tarak, an ugly world populated entirely by men. Subject to a brutally hierarchical military state, it treats its lower-class citizens with cruelty and contempt. Hibiki is one such citizen. Goaded by his peers and determined to prove himself, he sets out to steal a Vanguard, the military's state-of-the-art mecha weapon. He's caught in the act, but before punishment can be meted, the ship is assaulted by pirates. Female pirates. Faster than you can say "war of the sexes" the situation explodes, sending him and a handful of other males hurtling to the other side of the galaxy along with their fair captors. When they stumble upon an alien species bent on "harvesting" their respective planets, the sexes must join forces to return home before the alien hordes set upon their homelands. Given the new and exotic feelings that contact between the sexes gives rise to, that's going to be hard. Let hormonal storm commence.
Boy raised in all-male world is captured and held by a pirate crew comprised of women from an all-female world... You can smell the geek wish-fulfillment on that premise from a mile off. It's one of the peculiar traits of anime, though, that poor premises often yield surprising results. At first glance Infinite Ryvius was a "Lord of the Flies in space" joke, and what was Evangelion but another in a long line of alien invasion stories? Given the dark wit of its opening sequence, during which an interplanetary war is couched in terms familiar to anyone who's had a spat with a spouse, Vandread would appear to be in their company (if less seriously so).
And many of its better qualities seem to bear that out. It establishes its sci-fi credentials early on, setting up social systems and reproductive strategies for the male and female regimes, touching on issues of living machines (which it explores later), and creating a believable—and horrifying—reason for the sexual divide. It doesn't forget its emotional core either, keeping its sights set firmly on the hearts and minds of its protagonists. Nor does it forget that internal strife, be it political or personal, is as dangerous as any organ-harvesting alien. It even manages to use its pulp premise to add a few refreshing twists to romantic comedy tropes. Lead premise, anime alchemy and bang! entertainment gold. Right? Half-right. It certainly pulls the right strings to keep its wish-fulfillment reigned in, but as it turns out, Vandread's premise isn't its problem. Its problem is that it just isn't that good.
The series goes nowhere that isn't fully expected (though the reasons for the sexual divide come close). It clings with dispiriting vigor to established fight structures: the hero faces enemies of escalating power, pulling from within (with the help of comrades) the gumption and pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo necessary to beat down each successive challenger. The cast doesn't fare much better, with Hibiki (the fiery-souled, constantly shouting teen mecha pilot) leading the pack of irritating stereotypes that range from the ditz to the ice queen to the tough-talking mechanic with the swarthy complexion and penchant for chewing on a stalk of...something. They do grow as the series progresses, though whenever they do someone always has to blurt out "boy you've changed!" like some characterization-heralding foghorn.
Even the series' better qualities come with caveats. Those social systems and reproductive strategies? Give the series props for actually having them, but take them away for relying on broad and often offensive generalizations in their construction. Male society as dunderheaded military dictatorship? Given past propensities, I'll buy that. Women's as an escalating game of "One-up the Joneses"? Some effigy-burning may be called for.
Now none of that necessarily rules out a good time. And indeed the series has its moments, most of them when it is exploring the tentative and surprisingly powerful relationship between Hibiki and his uber-ditz paramour Dita. One episode even manages, by turning the crew into love-triangle addicts, to draw uncomfortable attention to the inherent voyeurism of our own enjoyment of their relationship. Usually, though, the series is at its best when darkening romantic comedy fluff with the painful fallout of the main characters' emotional incompetence (nothing screws up a relationship like being raised to think your significant other is a different species). When combined with some gorgeous mecha mayhem, the mix can be great fun.
The show, however, wants very badly to be more than that. It longs to be about something, and in striving to, fails to play to its strengths. The angst-spiced, action-leavened romantic comedy fun ends up weighted with unwieldy existential coming-of-age gunk and long stretches of dead time during which free will and other subjects are discussed in juvenile terms cribbed from thousands of other anime. Ambitions are great if you're, say Hideaki Anno or RahXephon's fleet of brainiac screenwriters. If you're Takeshi Mori, a guy best known for bishojo behinds, not so much.
Not that I'm knocking bishojo behinds. Say what you will about the digital-happy era it was animated in, they knew how to do fan service then. Sure the mecha look like plastic toys tugged through space by invisible child's hands, and some of those hairdos are now don'ts, but for curvaceous titillation the series is hard to beat. The girls are uniformly attractive, just scantily clad enough, and animated exactly right in exactly the right places. Progressive it ain't, but it's enough to resurrect the teen boy in the hoariest of men. And if the girls don't do it, the explosions of space dust and exceedingly pretty light shows that punctuate the battles will.
Yasunori Iwasaki's score, which dabbles in goof, bombast, and sonic heartbreak with equal journeyman skill, does a fine job of distracting from the duller stretches of dogmatically clichéd philosophizing, and the wonderful dance-beat openers by Aki Kudou and Salia get the mood of the series just right, even when the series itself doesn't.
Funimation's re-release retains Geneon/Pioneer's original dub, which isn't only a financially, but also an artistically sound decision. It's a fine and faithful adaptation, marked by generally intelligent casting, minimal script alterations (mostly for lip-flap), and solid acting all around. Of course a lot of the dialogue comes across as cheesy, but you can't blame the dub for the failure of the original. After all, even brilliant thespians can't make "the real enemy was within" speeches anything but painful clichés. The two "never before released" OVAs aren't dubbed, but as they are compilation films rather than original works (though they have a smattering of interesting new scenes) no one will likely be watching them anyway.
A veritable blast when running on silly romantic complications and pure fan-service, and an irritating drag when regurgitating shonen philosophies in hopes of gilding itself in substance, Vandread is the definition of a mixed bag. Luckily it's been around long enough that most of those interested will know whether the mix trends positive or negative for them. If you don't know, you may want to give Mori's superior Stratos 4 a whirl instead.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B
+ Amusing twist on romantic comedy conventions, good action, fine fan-service, and not nearly as trashy as it sounds.
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