Review: Patlabor – The OVAs (U.K. DVD)(originally published in MYM Magazine #20 December 2013)

For the last few years I have been writing reviews (mostly anime, some live-action) for U.K. print mag MYM Magzine. What follows is the text of the submitted draft reviewing MVM's U.K. blu-ray release of classic SF cop/mech show Patlabor. To read the final version as edited by David Axbey please buy back issue #20 of the magazine.
71arl1sE9fL._SL1010_Title: Patlabor: OVA Series 1 The Early Days Collection
Out: 18th November 2013
From: MVM
On: DVD; also on Blu-ray
Price: £24.99 (Blu-ray also £24.99)
Rating: PG
Stars Out of Five: Four
Standfirst: The classic 1989 mecha cop franchise debuts as it means to go on, with character comedy, philosophy, action and realistic mechs.
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Another 80s classic makes its way to remastered high definition ahead of a live-action version. Less well known today, its reputation amongst older fans is at least as high as 90s gateway shows like Trigun, Bebop and Evangelion. If you’ve only ever seen the bigger-budget features, then these OVA episodes might come as something of a shock; for fans, however, this has been high on shopping lists for a while. How does it measure up?


It may seem weird to modern mech fans, but for all the love of technology and the attention paid to designing mechs possessed of a significant degree of realism, Patlabor is not a mech show first. It’s a cop show, or to be more precise, it’s a workplace sitcom that also happens to be a cop show, set in a world where mech tech has become everyday. Think Hill Street Blues with mechs, or for a 2013 reference, Brooklyn Nine Nine plus mechs. The title derives from the phrase “patrol labours,” as standard mechs are named “labours” given they’re labour-saving devices. This means they’re not capable of martial arts or anti-gravity feats; the wrong height bridge can be a serious obstacle to overcome, while using them as police units has all sorts of potential for collateral damage, something that is explored to frequent comic effect through this 7-part OVA series.


Creative collective HEADGEAR, who came together for this and the other entries in the franchise, knew what they wanted to get on screen here, and went about doing it in a way that suggests a creative freedom hard to find in the modern anime business. Director Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell, Sky Crawlers), script writer Kazunori Ito (.hack, Dirty Pair), mecha designer Yutaka Izubuchi (Eureka Seven, Mobile Suit Gundam franchise), character designer Akemi Takada (Kimagure Orange Road, Urusei Yatsura), and manga creator Masami Yuuki (Birdy the Mighty) have all done great work since, but deserve a place in the all-time Hall of Fame for going their own way with mecha anime to such gloriously entertaining effect. Characterisation is crucial, and one gets to know the team with all their quirks before putting them in real danger, raising the stakes. The OVA series climaxes with the sort of big plot, political discussion and action that would characterise future outings in both the franchise and Oshii’s own features.


The DVD screeners MVM supplied look superb upscaled; if this is a downconvert from the new high definition master, then the blu-ray must be simply spectacular. The OVAs have never looked this good, with crisp lines, clear colours, and well-defined movement. This was a time when an OVA meant a reasonable budget to play with, as opposed to the more limited weekly TV budgets, and the quality of the animation is done full justice here. We get the original Japanese track and the 90s U.S. dub; the former has the better performances, but the latter occasionally nails the comedy dead on. The only extras are three Madman trailers for recent shows; compare with the OVAs to see how different modern anime series are, not always for the better.


Review: Perfect Blue (U.K. BD)(originally published in MYM Issue #19 November 2013)

For the last few years I have been writing reviews (mostly anime, some live-action) for U.K. print mag MYM Magzine. What follows is the text of the submitted draft for my third commission back in 2013, reviewing the Anime Limited U.K. blu-ray release of feature Perfect Blue.  To read the final version as edited by David Axbey please buy back issue #19 of the magazine.

91-EsxEWRrL._SL1500_Title:  Perfect Blue
Out:  30th September 2013
From: Anime Limited
On: Blu-ray/DVD combi pack, also DVD only
Price:  £xx.xx (DVD £xx.xx)
Rating: 18
Stars Out of Five:  Five (Two if you think anime should only be kawaii TV series)
Standfirst: The late Satoshi Kon delivers a masterpiece as his feature debut.

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It’s simple really.  In the pantheon of truly great talents to have stridden across the anime world, Satoshi Kon was in there from the moment he made this highly-regarded feature debut, and only cemented his place with every subsequent project.  The story of a J-Pop star leaving her singing trio to try other work, the film chronicles the breakdown of both her career and seemingly her mind.  It has more in common with films by Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski than with the science-fiction anime features that were all the rage at the time, but marked a huge step up in international appreciation of the medium after Akira and Ghost in the Shell.  This was a release international film festivals could programme, something film critics could get to grips with on their own terms, and marked a new appreciation for what could be done for adult viewers with anime.


Looking back on it now, the period quality of the animation makes no difference whatsoever to the way the film envelopes you in its world, playing with your assumptions, examining the nature of otaku, stalkers, and the careers of those they worship before turning up the tension for a classic thriller climax.  This new remaster cleans up the colours, tightens up the balance, and makes full use of the new resolution available. It seems a little darker in places than one remembers, but comparisons with the DVD show that the film has always looked that way.  The new DTS HD-MA 5.1 Japanese soundtrack is a definite step up, with the music and fx noticeably clearer and well-placed; there is also a Japanese LPCM 2.0 track.


For those requiring an English dub, the original is available in lossy Dolby Digital 5.1.  There are options for full English subtitles, signs only, or none.  The interview with the Japanese and English voice casts are retained, as well as the music recording sessions, but the jewel in the crown is still the interview with the late Kon himself.  Recorded at his work cubicle, he talks at length in detail about the film that would place him on the global animation map and mark the minds of fans and film-makers alike – no-one who has seen Perfect Blue forgets the experience. (Darren Aronofsky bought the rights for a live-action remake, but seems to have poured its influences into Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan instead.)


If you do not already own a copy of Perfect Blue, then you’re highly unlikely to take the plunge now, but it is without doubt the best way to experience this classic psycho-thriller for the first time.  If you own the Manga DVD, then you already have the extras in about the same quality, so the only question is how much do you want to own the film in high definition?  Given the way Kon wielded his casts and crews like a great composer conducting the orchestra playing his own work, all his films should be available in the most film-like presentation, and this Blu-ray certainly provides that for his still-unnerving debut.


Review: Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works (U.K. BD)(originally published in MYM Magazine Issue #18 October 2013)

For the last few years I have been writing reviews (mostly anime, some live-action) for U.K. print mag MYM Magzine. What follows is the text of the submitted draft for my second commission back in 2013, reviewing the Manga U.K. blu-ray release of feature  Fate/Stay Night:  Unlimited Blade Works.  To read the final version as edited by David Axbey please buy back issue #18 of the magazine.

MANB8121_BD__Fate_Stay_Night_3DTitle:  Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works
Out:  30th September 2013
From: Manga Entertainment UK
On: Blu-ray
Price:  £24.99 (DVD £14.99)
Rating: 15
Stars Out of Five:  Three (Four if you’re a Fate/Stay fan)
Standfirst:  Blades, blood and brutality in style.
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With the original Fate/Stay Night TV series having been released by MVM in 2010, and the prequel Fate Zero now licensed by them, fans will be able to complete their Grail War collection thanks to Manga UK.  However, is this flashy big-budget affair going to bring in those who haven’t seen the original series?

For those who don’t know, the original Fate/Stay Night was an adult visual novel, i.e. a fantasy porn adventure videogame, although more like semi-animated choose-your-own adventures than a full-on RPG.  By no means the first one to be transferred into another medium jettisoning all the adult content, the problem faced with dropping the sex is the shows still have harem-like character set-ups, with a central male surrounded by loads of female characters who need more to do to be interesting now they’re not about to be possible shags for the player.  Good writing and plotting can get around that, such as with Utawarerumono, and Fate/Stay Night’s following outside of Japan attests to the success of the TV version.


Fans of the latter need to be prepared for a feature that is more like a remix than a remake, although not as literally as the TV reproduction OVA.  Fans of the original visual novel, however, may be more interested here, as this makes use of other story strands from it, creating something more like an alternate retelling of the original source.  The set-up is the same:  the Fifth Holy Grail War kicks off involving Magi competing for the wish-granting Holy Grail, each with their own Heroic Spirit warrior summons. Teenage mage Shirou ends up in the middle, and is saved and adopted by the Heroic Spirit Saber.  Siding with him is schoolmate Rin, from a powerful magus family, whose servant is Archer and will be more important in this version


As with the TV series, the visuals and music are lovely and stylish, and remain the biggest draw.  The characters are still recognisable, but the problem here is that, in an attempt to create a version that newcomers can follow, most of the plotting & characterisation developed over the series is crushed into the first third, effectively dashing through the first half of the TV version to get everyone in place for an escalating series of bloody battles.  However impressive and dramatic the latter are, and they are, there is something of a risk of angering fans of the TV series/manga who expect to see more of their favourites than just these glimpses.  The radical re-alignment of magi and servants in this storyline means fans will be shocked and surprised throughout the latter two-thirds, as blades rain down upon them and blood spills everywhere.

The blu-ray from Sentai Filmworks looks and sounds spectacular, although it does the blockbuster thing of having the FX/music track boost during the actions while dialogue remains quiet.  No extras are included, which is a shame given the history of this franchise.   With nary a trace of fan-service, no real romance, but gorgeous visuals, fights galore, and blood spraying all over the place, this certainly will appeal to traditional Manga UK fans.  Franchise fans may be divided, but rest assured it’s nowhere near as bad as the Escaflowne movie in that respect.

Review: Hellsing Ultimate Vol.1-4 (U.K. Blu-ray)(originally published in MYM Issue #17, August 2013)

For the last few years I have been writing reviews (mostly anime, some live-action) for U.K. print mag MYM Magzine. What follows is the text of the submitted draft for my first commission back in 2013, reviewing the Manga U.K. blu-ray relese of  Hellsing Ultimate OVAs 1-4.  To read the final version as edited by David Axbey please buy back issue #17 of the magazine.

MANB8106_BD_Hellsing_Ultimate_1-4_3DTitle:  Hellsing Ultimate 1-4
Out:  29th July 2013
From: Manga Entertainment UK
On: Blu-ray
Price:  £34.99 (DVD £24.99)
Rating: 18
Stars Out of Five:  Two
Standfirst:  Vampires, Nazis and BLOOD EVERYWHERE

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With this adaptation of Kita Hourano’s globally popular manga, digimation pioneers GDH return to the franchise they made into an international success with these first 4 OVA episodes, originally released from 2006 to 2008.  Britain’s Protestant knights, the Hellsing order, defend the Kingdom’s borders from supernatural threats, deploying their secret weapon - the original vampire Alucard – under the direction of Sir Integra Hellsing, descendent of the original hunter.


It is otaku heresy to suggest that the Hellsing Ultimate OVA episodes are anything less than the apotheosis of manga-to-anime adaptation, perfect in the eyes of fans and the original creator.  Sadly, everything that made the original TV series entertaining and popular – fine animation, good writing and direction, a great soundtrack, restraint, class – are here dispensed with in favour of spectacular chunks of simplified modern digital animation, slavishly adapting the original manga in excruciating detail.  All the fan-favourite tropes are present and correct: the characters, the flowing costumes, the gun porn and the immense swathes of blood. The big addition is more humour, including the super-deformed comedy sequences from the manga.


Watching the episodes all at once rather than drip-fed over years causes distinct viewer fatigue, crowned by the utter bore that is the TEN MINUTES’ WORTH of Nazi ranting and singing at the end of episode 4 - a fifth of the episode’s total running time!  The show indulges its newest Big Bad to such a degree that it goes from a simple villainous turn to the best advert for National Socialism since the last EDL recruitment drive, topped off with a bonkers SD ED sequence that is as tasteless as it is unfunny.  The soundtrack is depressingly generic.  Events frequently grind to a halt for digital blood to splash everywhere, or long speeches placed in static dullness.  Presumably the latter were to make for some affordable scenes in-between the costly ones, but if the “rivers of blood” shots jarringly halt the combat sequences just as they get moving, then the dialogue sequences break up the overall flow of the episodes.  All together they create a stop-start effect that destroys any build up of tension.


The video and audio on this blu-ray are first-class, with the episodes and English voice cast commentaries on disc 1 and the rest of the extras on disc 2.  These include:  two hours of English voice cast interviews filmed with the commentary teams; footage from Anime Expo 2007; promo videos; textless songs; Japanese TV commercials; trailers; and, in case you actually enjoyed the dreadful finale of episode 4, you can relive it with the original Japanese ED and a karaoke version of the Major’s speech.  We kid you not – you too can play “Fascist Dictator Monthly” in the comfort of your own home, if that’s your cup of Fachinger.


All in all, this release is a technically impressive outing for one of the most popular anime ever. It’s just a shame that, like the film versions of 300 and Sin City, the raw pulp thrills on the page dissipate when the comic is transferred too faithfully to the screen.