Solty Rei: Volume 1
Well, here we are again. Solty Rei is another Gonzo anime, of which we see so many brought over to the West. Unsurprising really when you consider their reputation for excellence in animation, as well as their usual action packed storylines. But, Solty Rei is yet another cyberpunk action anime, set in a future post-apocalyptic Japan, with plenty of dark conspiracies and mysteries at its heart. It's also brimming with a large cast of characters to lose track of. In other words, it seems on the surface to be like every other Gonzo anime that has been released in the UK, most of which I have reviewed. So why review another one? Witchblade. It was Witchblade last year that reminded me that there is a reason why Gonzo do constantly make variations of this story, it's because they are so good at it when they get it right. On the surface, Solty Rei looks like an anime that has had a good deal of thought put into it, and feels like it should be one of the good ones. The downside is that it was made in 2005, the year Gonzo made Trinity Blood and Black Cat, two shows that demonstrate what they can do when they get it utterly wrong.
The Blast Fall devastated the city, a mysterious event twelve years ago that cost the lives of thousands. It's effects are still visible today, an Aurora Shell that arcs overhead, preventing anyone from leaving the ground or even the building of high-rise towers, interfering with communications, as well as the number of cyborgs known as Resembles roaming the city, survivors who have had their bodies repaired with technology. It's the Reestablishment Universe Committee, the RUC that is at the heart of the city's reconstruction and the proliferation of cyborgs. Roy Revant works in this city as a bounty hunter for the Maverick Hunters Company, although his hard-bitten brutal approach means that he pretty much works alone. He's been hunting ever since the Blast Fall, in which his daughter Rita vanished, an event that eventually claimed the life of his wife. The loss and grief still prey on him; he's still looking for his daughter, or maybe just salvation, when one day it literally falls from the sky.
Following the pattern of the US release, this first volume of Solty Rei comes with a meaty six episodes.
1. The City Where the Aurora Falls
The chase is on! Actually two chases are on, as while Roy Revant hunts a couple of criminals in the dark alleys below, up above a couple of women in powered suits pursue a mysterious hooded girl, bounding across the rooftops. For Roy, capturing Dale, the first criminal is easy, but his partner Grey decides to put up a fight. In fact, with his cyborg arms Grey has the advantage over Roy, and is about to finish the job when the girl falls from the sky, saving Roy. The fact that she survives the fall is because she is a Resemble of course, but she is a remarkable one. Her whole body is cybernetic, and her ears are as green as her hair, long and pointed, and prone to wagging. Roy has enough gratitude in him to take her back to his apartment until she wakes up, but he isn't too pleased when she latches onto him like a newborn chick imprinting on her mother. It's hard enough tracking down criminals without a girl in tow. Meanwhile Grey has broken Dale out of custody, and the two are looking for Roy with payback in mind. Roy is about to learn that the girl isn't the meek looking lost lamb that she appears to be.
2. A New Dawn
Miranda Maverick is the president of Maverick Hunters, the company that Roy works for. Miranda was a close friend of Roy's late wife, which is why she cuts him a little more slack than her other employees, even though he loses in the popularity stakes. Her daughter Kasha insists that they drum up some more business, and Miranda's latest ad has started airing. Unfortunately it's caught the attention of one of her rivals, a rival with a sniper rifle, and Miranda is suddenly in need of a bodyguard. It's a good thing that Roy lives in the same apartment building. He's still trying to ditch the green-haired girl, but when Miranda and Kasha find out about her, they do the obvious thing, take her shopping. It isn't the best idea when you're being sniped at. Meanwhile, the RUC Special Security Division, the powered up women who were chasing the girl across the rooftops, have spotted the green-haired Resemble on a security camera.
3. The Girl In Blue
Roy's bowed to the inevitable, and accepted the girl, who he has named Solty. It's Miranda and Kasha who have adopted her though, registering her as a city resident lest she be taken in by the Protection Agency. At least that was the plan, until a bureaucratic mix-up leads to Roy being named as Solty's stepdad. It's just provisional though, until Solty can have a complete physical check-up. Conveniently, Roy's next job is at the hospital, so they can go together. Roy is being hired to protect a valuable case belonging to the hospital director, ensuring it gets to its eventual destination. A gang of resourceful thieves, the Anderson brothers and Rose, The Blue Meteor has already targeted it. Meanwhile, Solty is undergoing examination at the hands of Resemble engineer Yuto K. Steel, who's falling in love with what he sees on the monitors. His enthusiasm tasks the hospital systems to the limit.
Yuto has a new job, working as an engineer for Miranda Maverick, although it's an opportunity to examine Solty that he's most looking forward to. He eagerly tells everyone that Solty is unique. The average Resemble is no more than 60% machine, but Solty is a full 100%, a completely artificial being. She's behaving like a little girl though, exploring the city, and making friends. Meryl Tyler got lost shopping for her sick mum one day, and Solty helps her get home. The two become friends and spend time together, with Meryl even advising Solty on what to say to get a stern, grumpy dad like Roy to act nice. Meanwhile the RUC Security division are tracking a dangerous resemble through the city. Jack McLean was a test subject for the RUC, a human with an unprecedented 78% cyborg conversion, except he's escaped and dangerous. As luck would have it, he meets and kidnaps Meryl, and when Solty goes to rescue her, captures her as well.
5. Waterside Panic
Rose Anderson, the Blue Meteor is back, and this time she's stealing a priceless emerald from the RUC Museum of Art. Only she sets off the alarms and has to hastily stash it somewhere. It's why she's working as a waitress at a nearby resort complex the next day, when Roy, Solty and the others turn up for a day of relaxation and gratuitous swimsuit use. It would be an easy thing to retrieve the emerald, if only Rose wasn't so bent on announcing her presence to her potential foes. Then the ladies of the RUC Security Division also turn up to take their ease, and a competition to recover the emerald commences. When Solty hears the reason why the emerald was stolen in the first place, she makes an unexpected choice and takes sides.
6. Beloved Daughter
The city is a world of haves and have-nots, in this case the Competenters and the Incompetenters, the registered citizens, and the detritus. Roy's next job is to capture one of the incompetenters, Vincent Greco, who just stole a fortune in valuable energy crystals. But that's quickly forgotten when he gets a phone call. It appears that someone has located Rita Revant, his daughter missing for the past twelve years, and all that's on his mind is the reunion. He, Solty and Yuto head to an isolated house in the outskirts of the city, where a blind girl in a wheelchair meets them. Rita was grievously injured in the blast fall, and unable to afford the resemble treatments; she has been taken care of by her uncle. But when that uncle arrives home, Roy and Solty are torn, as he's none other than Vincent Greco.
Solty Rei gets a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. I often have a whinge about Gonzo titles on DVD, finding them particularly afflicted with odd compression artefacts, most often a bizarre vertical striping effect. Solty Rei has none of this. It has on the other hand one of the worst NTSC-PAL conversions I have seen of late in anime. The image is uniformly soft, prone to ghosting, and whenever there is a pan or scroll, the playback suffers from regular judder. The best thing I can say about it is that it's consistent through the disc, and the thing about consistent flaws is that the brain can quickly tune them out. It doesn't ultimately prove detrimental to the viewing experience.
Solty Rei is a bright colourful anime, plenty of vibrant colours and daytime scenes, although the future world, while distinctive and accomplished, certainly isn't memorable. The character designs are up to Gonzo's usual standards, while CGI is liberally used to enhance the 2D animation. Some of the mundane objects like cars aren't all that impressive, but when it comes to the fantastic, like mecha and robots, Gonzo's traditional design ethic comes through well. Weighing up the two options, I'd rather take the weird artefacts and compression over the NTSC-PAL ghosting
Sound comes in the form of DD 5.1 English, and DD 2.0 Japanese along with optional translated subtitles and signs. I found no problems with my usual preference of the Japanese track, while the dub is one of the really good ones, well cast and with distinctive characterisations. I was very impressed with the English voice of Roy Revant. The show gets the usual catchy j-pop themes, while the incidental music owes a fair bit to those old US cop dramas, with a noir-ish edge.
The usual suspects apply here too, with the textless credits sequences, and trailers for Desert Punk and Daphne In The Brilliant Blue (I see they finally got rid of the credits from the opening sequence used as the trailer for the latter).
The sole significant extra on the disc are the Character Cast Auditions, which are nothing of the sort. There aren't any audition tapes to be heard here. Instead, ADR director and voice of Roy Revant, Christopher Sabat offers a 12-minute commentary on the actors cast in the various roles, as well as what he was trying to bring to the English version of the show. There's a bit of mini character slideshow gallery going on in the background of this piece.
It's a big fat ditto with Solty Rei. If you've seen one futuristic action sci-fi mystery from Gonzo, it could be argued that you've seen them all, but on the other hand it's all in the execution. People can like uniformity and regularity in their entertainment, it's why soap operas are so popular, and there's something to be said for getting exactly what you expect from an anime series. Gonzo also manage to inject a good deal of individuality and character even while essentially reworking the same story over again. Burst Angel was a Spaghetti Western themed story, Trinity Blood very Gothic, Kiddy Grade went all out sci-fi, Blassreiter played with the Zombie theme, although I haven't yet been able to figure out where Black Cat lies. Solty Rei has a film noir detective story aesthetic to it, admittedly more in the music than the look of the show, but also Roy Revant's hard-bitten bounty hunter with a tragic past practically invites a main character narration. It's almost a shame that there isn't one.
I must say that the PR blurb is a little misleading regarding the tone of the show. "Solty Rei combines sci-fi, action and drama", "Stuck in a deep rut of misery, Roy is searching for a miracle that will give him some hope of happiness and salvation." and "in this post-Blast Fall world, pain and alienation are never too far away." Not on the strength of these six episodes. In fact, like most other Gonzo stories, Solty Rei is designed to appeal to a broad audience, and have something for everyone. This isn't the bleak, hard-bitten post-apocalyptic drama that I was expecting, no meeting of two contrasting characters working to heal the gaping wounds in the other. Instead Solty Rei is played mostly for laughs, with the operative word being 'daft'. It's a daft show, with over the top characters, ridiculous situations, and moments designed to stretch the credulity of the viewer. It's not meant to be taken seriously, it's meant to be fun, and it manages to do that with ease, even getting the obligatory swimsuit fan service in early.
It does start off nice and bleak, with a merciless Roy Revant chasing down a fugitive in a dark alley, but within seconds we cut away to Solty, bounding across the rooftops, pursued by a couple of women in powered suits. Before I could wonder why I was watching Bubblegum Crisis, it became clear that Kenichi Sonoda (of BGC fame) worked on the concept designs in Solty Rei as well. With that appearance, any sense of tension and drama quickly drained away. In fact it turns out that Roy is pretty much the only serious character in the show, he's depressed, still mourning the loss of his family in the Blast Fall, and as you would expect, hardly moving forward in terms of his life. He's grouchy, grumpy, takes crap from no one, and he's surrounded by comic relief. His employer Miranda Maverick is bright and breezy, hardworking and friendly, and totally dominated by her precocious daughter Kasha. Yuto K. Steel quickly joins them, a medical technician whose interest in Solty ventures towards the perverse, inviting constant chastisement from Kasha. Solty herself is a replacement figure for Roy's daughter, perfect for filling that gap in his soul, and one that he reluctantly begins to accept in these episodes. She's also sweet, innocent, and comically naïve, and a lot of the humour comes from her social faux pas. She's also a 100% Resemble, an android essentially with an advanced AI, she's bulletproof and strong enough to punch through steel and throw tanks into the air. She also has a mysterious hidden side, and a past that has the eyes of the RUC trained firmly in her direction.
It's fortunate then that the RUC Security Division aren't a malign dangerous force for evil. They're the four girls who are the Knight Sabers incarnate. Silvia, Accura, Accela and Integra are more apt to spend time bickering than they are focussed on their jobs, and while they go about that work with a ruthless efficiency, it's soon seen that they have soft and playful sides as well. In this post-apocalyptic world of haves and have-nots, you also need some Robin Hood characters to balance things out, and robbing from the rich to give to the poor, acting for the little guy when words are not enough, are the Anderson siblings, Rose, Larry and Andy. Larry and Andy may not get much exposure in these episodes, but Rose makes up for that with a great overabundance of self-worth, a need to announce herself wherever she goes, and an inability to grasp the essentials of a situation. She is in short, an idiot, but a charming one regardless.
As you can see, Gonzo begin the character overload early on in this series, but for a change, they are all striking and memorable characters, and all seem to have a purpose and a place in the story that is developing. There is scope for the drama and darkness that the series promises, as the mysteries about Solty's past, and the fate of Roy's daughter will no doubt need to be resolved at some later date. How that will fit in with the initially comic tone of the show is hard to anticipate. As it is, this first volume is a prime example that daft can be entertaining too. Solty Rei may not be the best that Gonzo have ever offered, but it's still a pretty strong showing. This bumper volume of 6 episodes will go a long way in helping make up your mind.