Aquarion: Volume 1
Someone has finally noticed the dearth of mecha anime in my collection, and has apparently decided to remedy that fact. MVM are releasing 2005's Aquarion to the UK, and guess who's the lucky fellow who gets to review it? You see, mecha anime rub me the wrong way. There's something about giant robots being piloted by teenagers into battle that just seems, well fanwanky. It's juvenile wish fulfilment on a grand scale, especially when you consider that Gundam is supposed to be the Japanese Star Trek, with the original anime generating spin-off after spin-off, as long as the world spins on its axis. For me, it's a worn out and tiresome trope, far too reminiscent of the Power Rangers series that blight Saturday morning television. So far, I've steered clear of the pure product, other than Robotech that is, only able to tolerate mecha in a diluted form, in shows like Burst Angel, and Kiddy Grade. Of course, I have seen the reinvented granddaddy of them all, Neon Genesis Evangelion, but that was the exception. But this year, I have been dipping my toes into the genre once more, and have been surprised and entertained by the Patlabor movies, and not immediately repulsed by Gunparade March. Perhaps there is room for a little mecha in my life after all.
Then I read the blurb for Aquarion… after 12000 years slumber, the Angels reawaken and attack the Earth. Eleven years after the Great Catastrophe that devastated the planet, there is hope in the form of Mechanical Angel Aquarion, fortuitously discovered in an excavation. The pilots have to merge their souls to fight effectively… You're kidding me right. This is Evangelion redux! But then again, with a soundtrack by Yoko Kanno, I'm sold.
The first six episodes of this 26-episode series are presented on this disc from MVM.
1. Memories of Heavenly Wings
In Holy Genesis Year 0011, the Shadow Angels of Atlandia attack an Earth already weakened in the Great Catastrophe, after 12000 years of slumber. They seek the prana energy that every human possesses, and the weakened inhabitants of the world have no defence. No defence, except the Mechanical Angel Aquarion, which was rediscovered by Fudo Gen, and has been put to use in defending against increasingly devastating attacks. The Aquarion is a giant robot, comprised of three vehicles or vectors. Each vector has to be piloted by a unique individual with a multi-dimensional aura, an Element User, and these Element Users are in short supply. When they merge their souls in perfect harmony, they can combine the elements of Aquarion to create an unstoppable fighting machine. But harmony is difficult to achieve. Silvia and Pierre are two such pilots who are looking for a third for their team. Their search leads them to a ruined city, where feral children survive by looting food. One of those children, Apollo seems to possess the multi-dimensional aura, and it's even been prophesied by Seer Rena back at base, that he is the reincarnation of Apollonius, the greatest warrior of them all. Silvia is apparently the reincarnation of Apollonius' love Celiane, but she's none too impressed by the foul-smelling, animalistic youth that they find. Then one of the Cherubim attacks, and a Mythic Beast starts harvesting humans.
2. Beast of Darkness
The discovery of Apollo has had repercussions reaching up to the Upper World, where after a 12000-year catnap Toma has reawakened. He laments the lower world being overrun with wingless humans, and he laments even more that Solar Wing Apollonius is down there. Apollo is currently in the tender care of Deava, the group in charge of protecting the planet, and he's spending his time between a prison cell and an interrogation, to determine if he truly is the reincarnation of Apollonius. Silvia and her brother Sirius are discussing merges, and how they felt in the previous battle. The first joining was joyous, harmonious, if unsuccessful, but when Apollo joined the link, it became brutal and wild, even scary. Sirius does not approve of Apollo, regardless of who he may possibly be. But Apollo will get another chance to prove his worth when another, even more powerful Cherubim attacks. But this time, Toma has come along for the ride via Astral Projection, and he isn't too impressed with Apollonius' new body.
3. Element School
It's a new day at school. Yes, even Aquarion pilots have to attend school, although new recruits Jun Lee and Tsugumi Rosenmeier have no idea what they are in for. It's Apollo's first day behind a desk as well, although his feral nature soon asserts itself. He's eager to rescue his best friend Baron from the clutches of the Angels, and his impatience causes confrontation with Silvia and her brother Sirius. They may have been lovers in a past life, but in this life, Apollo and Silvia are causing more friction than Pierre's football fire-kicks. It gets even worse when there is next a scramble, and Apollo sneaks aboard Silvia's ship. Now there will be four people in a merge where there are only supposed to be three.
4. Barefoot Warrior
In the Upper World, Toma makes a triumphant return, and shares his vision of a world reborn, devoid of the wingless ones, following the return of Solar Wing Apollonius. Back on Earth, the Aquarion pilots are undergoing training, and unconventional training at that. Fudo Gen wants to look at their feet, and check their balance. It turns out that he can read feet like a fortuneteller can read palms. What will Apollo's feet have to say, and can Fudo Gen bear the smell long enough to find out? It turns out to be timely and essential training when the next Cherubim attacks.
5. King of the Underground Labyrinth
Apollo's single-minded determination to rescue his friend Baron keeps causing problems. This time he's gone missing, presumably to steal one of the Aquarion Vector ships. But the Aquarion secret base is a veritable warren of underground tunnels, cul-de-sacs and dead ends. Worse than that, there are a profusion of traps down there as well. Of course Fudo Gen decides that this would be the perfect training for the rest of the Aquarion Pilots, and orders them to hunt Apollo down.
6. To The Other Side Of Emotions
Silvia is getting jealous of Reika spending all that time with Sirius, and that isn't helped by today's training regime, mind over matter. The pilots are to pair up, and one is to try and move the other with the power of thought. The snag is that it's over 1000 metres between the two. Silvia's aim is seriously flawed, and she keeps hitting Apollo with a mental punch. Apollo on the other hand has too much power, but can't figure out how to unleash it. While poor Sirius is on target, but keeps falling short. You'd think that the three might find some way to work together, wouldn't you?
Aquarion gets a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer, as befits a modern anime. As you would expect, it is an NTSC-PAL standards conversion, although there isn't a major prevalence of softness of ghosting in the image. What you probably will spot is the judder in the pans and scrolls. Aquarion is a Satelight production, the same people who made Noein and Heat Guy J, so there is a comfortable familiarity in the character design style. However, for a comparatively recent anime, it does seem dated in the way that it blends, or rather fails to blend CG animation and traditional 2D stuff. The kick ass mecha and villainous Cherubim are depicted in bright, shiny, geometrically exact CGI, while the character designs are plainly 2D, and they don't go together all that well. On a rare occasion, one of the characters would sprout polygons, and become CG him or herself, to better fit in a 3D background, a little like Vexille or Appleseed, and I'd be left scratching my head, wondering what had just happened. All that said, if you can put Aquarion's visual oddities aside, you'll also find that it's a vibrant, and fluidly animated show, lacking in those static moments that I usually associate with anime, and instead showing the results of a higher budget and a greater number of man hours spent at the computers.
You have a choice between DD 5.1 English and DD 2.0 Japanese here, along with optional subtitles and signs. I can tell you that as usual I was happy to listen to the original language track, but I did sample the English and found it to be one of the good ones, with a decent cast and good performances. I think Aquarion is one of those rare anime that I'm happy to watch in either language, and given the action packed nature of the show, then the 5.1 soundtrack is definitely a plus. Besides, with Yoko Kanno's great music accompanying this show, you want to hear it all at its best.
A bumper disc filled with six episodes, and there are extras as well. Why MVM, surely you spoil us!
It's a fairly normal presentation for an anime disc, with the clean credit sequences, and trailers for Samurai Deeper Kyo, Slayers Try, and the 5-minute Disgaea promo video.
There is a 6-minute interview on this disc with director Shoji Kawamari, and he talks about what is unique in the series, and how its worldview works, among other things.
The Tokyo International Anime 2005 Talk Show features a panel with Shoji Kawamari again, with Takuma Terashima (Apollo), Sanae Kobayashi (Reika) and Hiromi Sato (Rena) as they introduce the show to a gaggle of fans, and talk about the story and the show's characters. This lasts 19 minutes.
Then finally there are four Tsugumi's All About CGI featurettes, looking at the designs of the Solar Aquarion, Cherubim, Aquarion Luna, and Aquarion Mars, and how they work in the show. These run to 2 minutes apiece.
There you have it, I have watched another mecha show, and my stomach didn't churn, I didn't feel the urge to throw anything at the TV, nor did I swear in derision and utter contempt. In fact, despite my previous tendencies, I actually enjoyed Aquarion. Don't worry, I won't make a habit of it, but I do think that this show bears further examination, after all, if something that I'm an avowed loather of actually entertains me, then there must be something odd going on under the bonnet, and more than just the Yoko Kanno soundtrack which as usual elevates all that it touches to above the mundane.
In fact, you can't get more mundane than Aquarion. It's the perfect distillation of all that goes into mecha shows, and I was just as rankled as I usually am when the same clichés appeared. A teenager is plucked from obscurity to pilot a giant robot, alongside other children (only children pilot mecha, adults just watch and give sage advice), he can pilot the robot instinctively, without any prior training, and without even reading the instruction manual. The villains attack one at a time, each one marginally stronger than the last, and the good guys always win through superior willpower.
The episodes are pretty repetitive too at this point. Other than the first two episodes, which set up the story and introduce the characters, what you usually get is about half an episode of goofing around, training, and character interactions, at which point one of the Shadow Angels will attack and start hoovering up humans and their prana energy. Thus Aquarion will be scrambled, the three vector ships will head to the battle, mop up the small fry, and when the big arse Cherubim attacks, they'll have to combine into one of Aquarion's three forms to battle it out, robot to robot. Of course there's more than just nuts and bolts to this linking. The merge happens on the emotional and spiritual level as well, and any male pilot will be all fired up and energised, while any female pilot will have an orgasmic interlude. The transformation sequence also requires a momentary disrobement for no obvious reason. The battle begins; Aquarion will be on the back foot. But lo and behold, the very thing that they were learning in the first half of the episode will prove essential to help them beat back the odds.
I ought to loathe this, abhor this, despise this. But it's so damned fun! Aquarion takes all that has come before in the mecha genre, and turns it up to eleven. A big part is the animation, which is of high quality throughout, no matter what you may think of the disconnect between the 2D and 3D elements, and the music is a big attraction as well. But where Aquarion really excels is in the characters. They are interesting, larger than life, and full of energy and vitality. Clichéd and stereotypical they may be, but there's something about Apollo's feral nature, Silvia's pleasant obnoxiousness, Sirius' slightly effeminate elegance (I believe the technical term is bishonen), Pierre's wild optimism, and Fudo Gen's energetic Yoda are just elements that seem to fit together perfectly. The only complaint I really have is that the villains of the piece just aren't fleshed out enough in these episodes, just hints and suggestions really. No doubt that will be rectified in subsequent volumes.
This isn't the only mecha series I've experienced this year, and I did sample some Gurren Lagann (the show that's supposed to reinvent the mecha genre as Evangelion once did). I'm one of the few that found Gurren Lagann unbearable, dripping with postmodern irony, and winking so furiously at the audience that it seemed to have a palsy. Not so Aquarion, which works by taking what's best and most loved in the genre, and having as much fun as possible with it. Aquarion is to mecha, what Buso Renkin is to shonen action. It's silly, it's dumb, it's utterly forgettable and disposable, but it's effortlessly entertaining in the process. Switch off your brain and enjoy.