The Mike Toole Show
What Price Freedom?
by Michael Toole,
A couple of columns back, I mused on a set of anime productions with heavy and generally realistic themes of space flight. (Yes, I'm referencing something I published just a few weeks ago. This is the real life version of when you're watching an anime TV episode and there's a flashback… to something from earlier in the episode.) Amongst the feedback, a brave few souls fired up the dreaded YOU FORGOT TO MENTION-mobile and brought up Freedom, a glossy but largely forgotten OVA series from the mid-2000s. That show had spaceflight, and lunar bases, and some very strong and direct references to NASA's Apollo program. So why hadn't I seen fit to mention that, when I'd taken the effort to exhume dusty old Nora?
Freedom does indeed feature some surprisingly realistic spaceflight, because an awful lot of it is copied almost exactly from NASA documentary films. It's got some frankly jaw-dropping visuals. It's got an interesting all-CG look to it, a production staff with some big names, a somewhat troubled history, and a really unlikely origin. I suppose that's really why I didn't write about it in my prior column— Freedom was simply too interesting to reduce to two or three paragraphs. So let's shoot for seventeen or eighteen.
See, here's the thing: now that Justin Sevakis has pivoted away from the “hey, let's focus on this particular single old thing that nobody remembers” angle, his thunder is mine for the stealing. Freedom's not as buried a treasure as some titles—you can still bag the DVDs in the secondhand market for twenty or thirty bucks, and as of this writing Right Stuf has the fancy blu-ray set for a hundred smackers. But Freedom started life on home video in 2007, the very first anime title to hit North America on the still fairly new HD-DVD format. Remember those ugly red keepcases?
As you can see, Freedom wasn't the only anime HD-DVD. There was also a pricey Royal Space Force set from the same publisher, the notorious B.V.U.S.A., plus a perfunctory release of Appleseed: Ex Machina from Warner Bros. Over in Japan, a small handful of additional titles, including Afro Samurai, The Place Promised in Our Early Days, and Brave Story got the HD-DVD treatment. It wasn't too much later that the format's progenitor, Toshiba, weeping in frustration, strangled HD-DVD in the crib at the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show. I'm employing particularly tasteless imagery here because seeing a format die like that was grim and fascinating; the company waited until the absolute last second before canceling expensive parties and press engagements, with showcases for their format disappearing completely from the event. But the most remarkable thing? Despite the format being completely dead, Bandai Visual USA doggedly continued releasing Freedom on HD-DVD, one OVA episode at a time. They probably would've completed the 7-episode release, too, if they hadn't gone out of business and been absorbed by Bandai Entertainment. BVUSA made a lot of dumb mistakes, but I'll give them credit for trying desperately to avoid cheating their customers who'd bought the pricey discs.
I'm not really here to discuss the format, though. I'm here to talk about noodles. Instant noodles, of the variety that you cook up with hot water and flavor packets. You know, the kind that go a long way when you're kinda broke and just need calories to get you to your next payday. It turns out that these noodles were invented in Japan by a guy named Momofuku Ando. He sold this exciting new product through his food company, Nissin, and in 1971 Nissin introduced a fascinating new packaging innovation: a foam cup to hold the dried noodles and mix. Just pour in hot water, re-seal the top and let the steam cook the noodles, and presto: food, more or less. Thirty-five years later, Nissin felt like they needed some sort of mixed media project to celebrate the 35th anniversary of their now world-famous Cup Noodle. That's where Freedom comes in.
On April 25th 2006, the first commercials for FREEDOM-PROJECT, featuring Nissin Cup Noodle, aired in Japan. This was good-looking stuff—featuring a theme song by the still very popular Hikaru Utada, the commercials told, in slick cel-shaded CG, a brief tale of kids on a lunar colony racing, rebelling, escaping, and finding the shocking truth of the future on Earth. Interestingly, these scenes tended to involve Cup Noodles a lot. Stifle your giggling at this incredibly obvious product placement, because product placement is literally the whole reason Freedom exists. After acclaim for this advertising campaign mounted, Nissin and Sunrise broke the news on July 6th: there would be an entire FREEDOM-PROJECT OVA series, telling the whole story of the commercials.
On the surface, the production had a lot going for it. Character designs and concept artwork had been turned in by the legendary Katsuhiro Otomo. The series would be directed by Shuhei Morita, a relatively new talent who'd proven his skill with CG animation in 2004's Kakurenbo. Dai Sato would create the story outline, and the scripts would be written by himself, plus Katsuhiko Chiba, who'd injected Gundam Wing with great drama and skillfully adapted Takehito Ito's Outlaw Star to TV anime. The first episode would be helmed by Big O director Kazuyoshi Katayama. Everything about Freedom looked and sounded good.
At the root of Freedom is a boilerplate tale of youth in rebellion, with malcontent, thrill-seeking kids squaring off against stiff, humorless authority figures. The series begins on the moon, in a sprawling domed city called Eden. Centuries prior, Eden was supposed to be a waypoint on a great project to terraform Mars, but a catastrophe derailed the project and rendered Earth largely uninhabitable. The survivors left the planet, breaking for the relative safety of Eden. The lunar megalopolis's authorities, consumed with preserving order and stability to keep the last bastion of mankind safe, crack down hard on any signs of dissent—even if that dissent amounts to riding cool lunar terrain vehicles around the maintenance tunnels underneath the city.
You look at these maintenance tunnels underneath a massive metropolis, these streamlined but filthy subterranean thoroughfares, with exposed pipes everywhere, and it all just seems to ooze Katsuhiro Otomo's style, the same one that he'd wowed the world with in Akira. Then you see the government's enforcement robots, which look like updated versions of the hapless construction bots from his Order to Stop Construction theatrical short. And then there's the motorcycles, complete with an opening shot of the protagonist's rival that seems to echo the arrival of Akira's antagonist Clown motorcycle gang. It's pure Otomo, right?
Yes and no. You see, while his name was hyped in the early stages of Freedom and the character and mecha designs are very obviously the products of his work, Otomo started to back off from the whole thing when episode 1 started production. He got very busy with his film Mushi-shi, and after a certain point, he declined to discuss his involvement in Freedom at all. A colleague of mine at one of the few remaining US anime magazines was obliged to drop a story on the series because he'd gone on at length about Otomo's involvement and pedigree in his draft, and the production committee had begged the magazine's editor to not mention his name in conjunction with Freedom in the article. It seemed kind of ridiculous; after all, Otomo's name was right there on the box! Eventually, Nissin explained that he'd only been involved in pre-production, and had left the project early. It was one of those deals where Otomo had provided some character artwork and suddenly his name was on the marquee. Even the ANNcyclopedia incorrectly credits him as storyboard artist on the project. It was Kazuyoshi Katayama who drew the boards for Freedom's first episode.
That wasn't the only bit of weirdness in Freedom's production, either. Scribe Dai Sato, in an on-disc interview, giddily confesses that he'd written the entire six-episode series outline (the need for a seventh finale episode would emerge during production) in a single month. He acknowledges that this might not have been good for the scripts, but he felt comfortable with veteran writers like Chiba and Eureka Seven scriptwriter Yuuichi Nomura by his side. Still, while there's some snappy and funny dialogue, Freedom's plotline frequently feels rote, by-the-numbers.
Freedom's hero is Takeru, a normal, well-adjusted kid who chafes under Eden's rule. He loves to race through Eden's maintenance tubes on his converted lunar trike, but can't seem to win against his rival Taira. He's backed up by his quiet, steadfast friend Kazuma and his nerdy ace mechanic Biz. An unsanctioned race leads to a busted bike and broken curfew, which lands the three kids in community service (or should that be coMOONity service?!). But that very service is how they meet up with Alan, a nutty old guy (you can tell he's cool by the way he wears a sideways baseball cap) who runs one of Eden's wards. Alan's neighborhood is loose and welcoming, and the old codger himself is full of stories and ideas about old planet Earth. His curiosity piqued, Takeru starts trying to sneak a look at the planet—but then he receives a message in a bottle… from Earth.
Before I go further into Freedom's themes and ideas, I just want to point out some of these screengrabs I got. Freedom isn't perfect, but it has some seriously amazing production design—design that, according to director Morita, was an endless source of frustration to his staff, who had to divide their labor between making cool, sprawling Otomo-esque cityscapes with jets and robots, and bombed out American southwestern landscapes with junky old cars and dilapidated buildings. The visual luster of Freedom still improves episode by episode, because, according to Morita, they'd gotten underway without enough staff, but the gaps were filled by a whole bunch of former Steamboy staffers. Visually, Freedom is very often full of strange magic.
Through the character Alan (whose small stature and Otomo-fueled character design makes him look a bit like one of those preternaturally aged little kids from Akira), Earth's spacefaring past, in particular NASA's Apollo rocket program, is framed as nostalgia and a mystery for Takeru and his pals to unravel. I have to credit Sato and Chiba for tossing the laconic Kazuma aside and sending Biz down to Earth with Takeru instead. There, they find a ruined but livable world, filled out by scattered enclaves of hopeful, friendly people. It's honestly a refreshing change from the usual post apocalyptic “mohawk guys want to murder you” scenario. It's on earth that Sato shifts Freedom's tone and focus; what started as pulsing dystopian SF turns into a classic rock-fueled road movie, as Takeru and Biz set out to find the girl who had sent them the message via a homemade rocket. Eventually, they—HEY, WAIT A MINUTE
Nice easter egg, there. (Google the names if you don't get the joke.) In some ways, Freedom, with its themes of hope and youthful rebellion, is kind of the anti-Akira; in Otomo's classic, both the authorities and the street gangs are forces of destruction. Here, the Eden leadership may be paranoid and authoritarian, but they're not ruthless. But that lack of ruthlessness is a bit low-stakes and silly; late on in the show, when Takeru faces off against one of Eden's agents, the bad guy hisses “When you have big dreams, you take big risks!” wholly unaware that he's saying something that Takeru and his friends would happily agree with, and then commit to taking those risks. Freedom's story and characters are all starry-eyed and ham-fisted.
At one point during his talk, director Morita muses, “what is CG good at showing?” He's got the right idea. CG is great at showing stuff like launch sequences, motor sports, sweeping vistas and landscapes, and deep-space rocketry painstakingly copied out of archival films from the Smithsonian. If you've been watching CG in anime for a while, you know that it's great for depicting damn near anything except people. It's here where Freedom is a bit surprising—after some clunky moments early in the first episode, the series does quite well at depicting its characters. You won't be fooled into thinking it's 2D, but it still looks good. This doesn't stop writer Sato from smirking and adding, “it's better if we don't imagine the characters in CG.”
Bandai Visual USA debuted Freedom at Anime Expo 2007, which is chronicled hilariously in a documentary included with the home video release, where Morita and Sato sign autographs, hang out at a really expensive-looking booth, and have conversations with fans that occasionally appear to be staged. It's during one of these candid moments that Sato reveals Freedom's biggest mistake: Route 66.
I'm not talking about the classic TV show, but the highway itself, the legendary road that once linked Chicago to Los Angeles in the days before President Eisenhower introduced more widespread and efficient interstate highways. In his vision of Freedom as a road movie, Sato pictured Takeru and Biz setting off on the famous road, unaware that Route 66 had been decommissioned ages ago. “I started that story arc with a lie,” Sato confesses, “but I had to keep it in there.” Such a mistake is completely understandable, It's also kind of the story of Freedom, a facile but nevertheless fun OVA, a hackneyed but slick production that burst forth out of nowhere from the steam rising over a Cup Noodle soup.
You can follow Mike Toole on Twitter here at @michaeltoole.
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