Review of Madlax: Vol.1 - Connections
Those invested in the anime phenomenon, whether it is the industry, or fandom in general, have a worrying habit of shooting themselves in the foot. The latest insanity to come up is that of one of the more unpleasant Bit Torrent sites that charges a membership fee for the privilege of downloading fansubbed and illegal anime material, has just received investment from venture capitalists to the tune of $4 million. We hear about how piracy and fansubbing is killing the industry, but rather than working to stop it, they`re helping it grow.
This absurdity infects all levels of anime when you stop to think about it. I`ve long held the belief, as have many others, that anime is a valid, and vital entertainment medium, that is unfairly belittled by the `cartoons for kids` prejudices. If it would get a fair chance, it could prove itself on mainstream television as being as good as, if not better than some of the live action series that clutter primetime. Then I look at some of the genres and my heart sinks. `Grown up` entertainment offers, sci-fi, thrillers, drama, romance, noir, and more. Anime gives us giant robot, mecha, harem, fan service, magical girl, and super deformed, and worse. There is something utterly juvenile about these categorisations, and they even serve to belittle the shows they describe. They may be accurate when talking about a show`s immediate visual impact, but there is no reason that romantic comedy can`t be used instead of harem, sci-fi instead of mecha, Baywatch instead of Fan Service! The one that gets my goat is the `girls with guns` genre. There`s something prurient about it that sticks in the back of my throat. You may as well say "Pre-teens with phallic symbols". It smacks of playing to an unsavoury audience, and breaking taboos. The truth is that the final result may vary from a cheesy eighties action flick, to something surprisingly thoughtful like Gunslinger Girl. You can sell an animated action movie, or a thriller, or horror to an un-savvy network executive, but `girls with guns`… You could try Men and Motors I guess.
Madlax could fall under the girls with guns label, but as is so often the case with anime, it`s nowhere near as exploitative as that sounds. In the real world, I guess you could call it an action drama, and coming from Bee Train, the creators of Noir, it has quite a pedigree. Madlax is an efficient and deadly assassin, who receives her assignments from the mysterious SSS, and winds up weaving a tapestry of death in the world`s deadliest war zones. Margaret Burton is an orphaned aristocrat who attends a private school in an idyllic part of Europe. There couldn`t be two more unalike people, but Margaret has a mysterious past, and is haunted by horrific visions, and for some strange reason, she has a connection to a killer she doesn`t even know.
The first four episodes of Madlax are presented on Volume 1 - Connections from ADV.
Madlax parachutes into the volatile country of Gazth-Sonika to retrieve some valuable data before it falls into the wrong hands. The disc is in the hands of the Galza Elite, a minority group trying to escape from under the military yoke. A squad tries to sneak across a checkpoint in a truck before coming under fire, and the Lieutenant gives his young co-driver Pete the disc, ordering him to hide while the rest of the men distract the military. Hiding in a tunnel, Pete is about to fall into the clutches of the enemy, when Madlax rescues him at the last minute. She takes him to safety, and takes the disc, but when he turns back to rescue his comrades, she finds herself drawn into a fight she didn`t want.
Margaret Burton would seem to live a tranquil life, resident in an impressive mansion, and taken care of by an idiosyncratic maid named Elenore. She attends an exclusive school, and lives in a beautiful town in the nation of Nafrese. But her sleep is haunted by nightmares, and her past is a mystery. She`s an orphaned aristocrat, who is strangely detached from life, easily distracted and prone to odd unexplainable feelings. Her neighbour Vanessa Rene has returned after a couple of years away, although Margaret can`t recall her. Vanessa is visiting an auction looking to buy a curious artwork for her company. It`s a piece of amber that winds up selling for a ridiculously inflated price to a mystery buyer from Gazth-Sonika. Vanessa invites Margaret to her office, but when Margaret runs into the winning bidder, she is strangely unsettled.
Madlax is back in Gazth-Sonika on another mission. She is to assassinate the head of the military, a man named Guen McNichol, but contrary to her expectations, it isn`t the Galza who are paying her fee. The man behind the hit is Guen McNichol himself. She has to find out about this man who is committing an elaborate and public suicide, and that means meeting him face to face. Meanwhile, the Gazth-Sonika security forces are on full alert, given the rumour that the agent Madlax is in town.
A prominent politician is murdered in Nafrese; the prime suspect is his daughter Anna, who falls to her death in the street below. Margaret and Anna were friends at school, and unsurprisingly Margaret winds up answering a few questions from police detective Maclay Marini. Maclay uncovers something disturbing when he finds data on Anna`s computer overwritten with the repetitive phrase `Elda Taluta`. It seems as some powerful organised crime figures are behind it all, and soon there is pressure from up above to drop the case. When Maclay insists on continuing the investigation, his identity begins to be erased.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is excellent. It`s clear and sharp, and the distinctive look of the anime comes across well. Other than the smallest of NTSC-PAL telltales, it`s free of any artefacts or visible compression signs. The animation itself is of high quality, fluid and energetic, with pleasant world and character designs. It has a subdued, slightly pastel look to it that suits the more serious tone of the story, but it doesn`t venture so close to utter severity that the occasional comic moments don`t look out of place.
You get a choice of DD 5.1 English and DD 2.0 Japanese, along with translated subtitles or signs. The stereo does a fair job in creating a pleasant aural experience, with the action and the music represented effectively. The 5.1 is the track of choice if you want the extra oomph that goes with it, but it does mean putting up with the dub. I sampled it, and nothing I heard offended my sensibilities too strongly. If English is your language of choice, you probably won`t have anything to complain about.
The show`s music comes from Yuki Kajiura. Her choral and orchestral pieces are distinctive and work well with the animation, although at times can overpower the action. She`s also something of an acquired taste, and it helps if this is your first experience of her anime work. It`s my third, and I was having a hard time remembering if I was watching Madlax, Petite Cossette, or Tsubasa.
There are some grammatical clangers in the subtitles that really should have been picked up in QC.
ADV try to pack in value for money with their releases, and that means sleeve notes in the Amaray case, where you will find interviews with producer Shigeru Kitayama, and screenwriter Yosuke Kuroda to read.
The disc gets the usual animated menus and jacket picture common to anime releases, while on the disc you will find the clean credits, Japanese Promo spots, a 2-minute Design Sketch slideshow, the unused opening sequence, and a preview for volume 2.
Trailers on the disc are for Cromartie High School, Elfen Lied, FMP: Fumoffu, Get Backers and Peacemaker. These are presented in the wrong aspect ratio.
The most prominent extra is the Conversation with SSS featurette. This lasts 8 minutes and allows the English voice actors to goof off. Having your wisdom teeth extracted would probably be funnier. Think Scott Mills` phone pranks on Radio One and you`re there, only these are scripted on both sides.
It helps in anime, indeed any television show, if the first episode can grab you instantly; provide an electric jolt of inspiration that sets up a momentum. You want the audience to be invested by the end credits, and desperate to find out what happens next. I`ve sat through four episodes of Madlax, and I`m still up in the air about the show. It doesn`t help that it has a pitiful opening episode, with one of the dumbest introductions for a main character that I can recall.
Madlax is an uber-assassin, an operative of unparalleled skill, and we join her on a mission to retrieve vital data, which she does in fairly sensible gear, shorts and a combat top. But when it comes to actually taking on the bad guys with a view to a slaughter, she takes the time to change into formal eveningwear, and dressed in an expensive dress she climbs into a tree to face off against the Gazth-Sonika army. Thousands of bullets are headed in her direction, and she manages to avoid all of them, then with her pistols, she manages to wipe out her opponents, not wasting a single bullet, but without even having to look where she`s aiming, dancing through the trees with an angelic look on her face. There`s stretching credulity, and then there`s just blowing it out of the water, and I came mightily close to switching off at this point.
It looks like Madlax`s penchant for dealing death in posh frocks is a character trait that won`t vanish anytime soon, but I`m glad that I did stick with the show. These first four episodes are about introducing the characters and setting up the situation, and they alternate between Madlax`s missions and Margaret`s circumstances in Nafrese. While there is a briefly interesting dynamic between Madlax and Pete of the Galza, her second mission in Gazth-Sonika is a much more rewarding affair. Her seeming invulnerability is tested when she goes up against the Gazth-Sonika elite, but more important is the insight to her character, when she is presented with an unconventional assassination to accomplish. There`s something of a romantic soul beneath that mercenary exterior that compels her to find out why McNichol is intent on suicide, and that unconventional interaction with her target makes it worth watching.
There`s more of interest at this point in Margaret`s story, albeit infused with the oft-aired anime cliché of amnesia and dark pasts. Margaret seems to have a perfect existence, but it`s one tinged with horrific nightmares and dark memories. When we meet her, a pair of red shoes in a shop window fascinates her, and seeing this Vanessa buys them for her as a present. But Margaret is nonplussed when she receives them. The red of the shoes had actually provoked the memory of a blood soaked picture book that she keeps among her possessions. She`s obviously a fragile, damaged child who is having difficulty engaging with the world, and it becomes clear that her friends know more about what happened to her than she does herself. Meanwhile the situation in Gazth-Sonika impinges on her life more than once. The first time is when Vanessa attends an auction to buy an artwork for her company but is outbid. The winning bidder is acting for a buyer in Gazth-Sonika, and he unnerves Margaret when she sees him. We then see him later in the next episode, in the hotel where Madlax is stalking the General. The final episode concerns the murder of a politician with vested interests in Gazth-Sonika, but the factions behind his death are powerful and hidden, and apparently capable of mind-control. Given Margaret`s fragile mental state, it certainly raises a few questions.
The big twist is the apparent connection between Margaret and Madlax, which at this point is just hinted at and unexplained. They appear to share the same memories, but more mysterious is the apparent psychic link between the two, with one reacting to what the other may be experiencing.
In terms of character, Margaret is getting the better development at this point, with Madlax remaining mostly inscrutable, when she isn`t griping with her handler SSS. Margaret has some interesting friends, with Vanessa an obvious mother figure in her life, but Elenore steals every scene with a delicious line in sarcasm and world-weariness.
I`m interested in how Madlax will pan out, but I`m not hooked yet. I find the tone a little uncertain, as it seems to walk a thin line between cutesy and dark. It just about gets it right here, but if it wavers, it could go too far in the wrong direction. It certainly appeals in its alternate world view, with Gazth-Sonika a thinly veiled allegory of the Israeli Palestinian situation, and through these 90 odd minutes, it has been profligately sowing seeds of plot, hinting at ideas and concepts and offering little narrative nuggets in isolation. If even half these seeds blossom, and if the writers succeed in tying all these strands together, then Madlax could be something special indeed. It`s just that on the strength of this first volume, it`s not something to get too excited about.