Review for 009-1: Volume 1
Damn it! Just when I was in the mood for some new James Bondery, they went and cancelled the forthcoming flick. The recession, coupled with MGM's woes, means that there won't be a new James Bond movie in the foreseeable future, and Daniel Craig's tuxedo clad pout may have had a short-lived tenure. But to be honest, I stopped enjoying James Bond movies quite some while ago, at least I don't enjoy them as much as I did when I was a kid. For the last twenty odd years they've been missing their greatest star, the Cold War. Living in fear of nuclear war may not have been fun at the time, but there's something more meaningful about Cold War brinkmanship, greater stakes being played for, and a conflict of equals that made the earlier Bonds edgier. Spies may be fun, but spies versus spies are infinitely more interesting. Fortunately to sate my desire for constant edge of nuclear annihilation entertainment, there is the work of Shotaro Ishinomori. He created 009-1 back in 1967 (not to be confused with the same author's Cyborg 009 from 1963), a manga series about secret agents fighting the Cold War, and it was adapted into an anime series in 2006, with ADV bringing it to the West a year later. But this is a world where the Cold War never ended, the West Bloc clandestinely fights the East Bloc 140 years on, and the secret agents are cyborgs.
Following ADV's demise, 009-1 is getting pretty scarce now in the UK, so I went and imported from the US. Incidentally, this is one of those series that was picked up by Funimation in the States, and they've re-released it without extra features or added goodies. If you are interested, try and find the original ADV single releases as I did. This first volume offers the first four episodes of this 12 episode series.
Mission 1. Infiltrators
Dr Zond Soyuz would be a defector, except that he's already fallen into the hands of his Eastern Bloc paymasters. Soyuz has made a monumental discovery, a revolutionary new energy source, and on the eve of a nuclear disarmament treaty, Deputy Director Ivan Godunov of the East Bloc security services, is determined to shift the balance of power Eastward. He's putting pressure on Soyuz to reveal the secret, but Soyuz is obeying his conscience. It's only a matter of time before he breaks though, and led by agent 009-1 Mylene Hoffman, it's the 009 group's mission to find and rescue him, and to complete his defection. But the East Bloc security services are anticipating their attempt.
Mission 2. Holy Night
It's a rare Christmas holiday for Mylene Hoffman, and she's looking forward to easing the trials of a training session with a luxurious soak. But a series of unexplained deaths necessitate a change in plans. She's to shadow the Mutant Disposal Unit to ensure that the Genetic Mutation Extermination Law is being enforced. That means working with the obnoxious Captain Double Gomez, hunting down dangerous mutants and ensuring the safety of society. Except that this mutant is a child with a terrifying ability that defeats even the most secure of psychic shields, and the East Bloc Doctor Green has a certain macabre interest in children with such talents.
Mission 3. Hard Boiled
A sniper with a craving for eggs is in town, reaping through West Bloc agents. Four are dead already, one sacrificed in an unsuccessful attempt to turn the tables on Egg as he is known. Now it's Mylene's turn to take this lethal marksman down, which is convenient, as someone has taken a contract out on her. She heads to a resort island, out of season, to minimise the chance of collateral damage. There's not much chance of that though, as Egg is a murderous artist with a code of honour. He'll kill his target within two weeks of taking the contract, he operates only during the day, he only needs one shot, and he'll only kill the target. Mylene has no code of honour, but it's still a stalemate between the two, and as their battles continue during the day, they have to do something to pass the time at night.
Mission 4. Invitation From an Old Castle
A prominent scientist, Dr Satonaka has been kidnapped at the second attempt. 3 years previously, the East Bloc made an attempt on him, but were beaten back by West Bloc agents. This time suspicion may fall on the East Bloc, but something strange has happened. Mylene is one of three agents contacted by a man named Phantom, and invited to a remote 'haunted' castle where they will be offered information on Satonaka's disappearance. They're surprised to find three East Bloc agents have been invited as well. Phantom is an information broker working for the Golden Bat group, but this time he is actually selling Satonaka, who's being held in the castle cellar. Phantom's devised a game for the rival agents to play, but when they choose not to play by the rules, the game turns lethal.
009-1 gets a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer, NTSC of course, as befits a Region 1 disc. The transfer is clear and sharp, and I didn't notice any immediate flaws, beyond those that usually present themselves on anime DVDs, minor aliasing and the like. It's a curious blend of old and new for the anime, in all respects really, but also with the visuals. The character designs are very much of the period of the manga, stylistically appropriate to the 1960's, and a far remove from the character designs that are more prevalent today. That means a simpler design ethic, less detail in the faces and fewer nuances in the animation. You'll also find plenty of funky camera angles, as befits a 1960s spy show. But the world designs are detailed, the animation is energetic and fluid, and CGI is used to its usual fine effect in bolstering the 2D animation. In that respect it's very much a modern anime show. It's worth mentioning the costume designs, as this isn't a show where characters wear just one costume throughout, and Mylene has a large and stylish wardrobe to hand.
You have a choice between DD 5.1 English and DD 2.0 Japanese, along with optional translated subtitles and a signs only track. It being an action led show, the temptation would be to opt for the Surround track, but while the main cast was solid enough, I did raise my eyebrows at some rather clichéd Eastern European accents. My preference as always was for the Japanese track, and the stereo manages to keep up with the bullets, lasers and explosions well enough. Taku Iwasaki provides the music, and it's a suitable accompaniment for a techy, futuristic spy series. However I do feel that his best James Bond riff can be heard in the soundtrack for Read or Die.
009-1: Volume 1 comes in an Amaray style Case, and the disc gets the usual animated menus and jacket picture. The disc autoplays with skippable trailers for Newtype USA and Anime Network.
On the disc, the biggest extra is a 17-minute interview with the show's Director and Staff. The director, producer and Japanese voice actress for Mylene Hoffman talk about the show, and there is plenty of behind the scenes footage as well.
There are 4 pages of text detailing on How The Manga Became an Anime, and there is some interesting detail worth reading on the original manga property, as well as some of the changes that were required to make a 40-year-old story relevant for modern audiences.
17 pages of artwork and text detail the weapons and gadgets used in the show, particularly the four episodes on this disc.
You get the clean credits as per every anime disc in existence.
Trailers on the disc for other ADV shows include Le Chevalier D'Eon, Kurau Phantom Memory, Gantz, Gilgamesh, Air Gear and Gravion.
In the Amaray case, you'll find a 16-page booklet, 009-1 Secret Instruction Report: Volume 1. There's a run down of the main characters in the show, as well as the characters you'll encounter in each of the episodes. There's also some background to this Cold War world of the future. You'll find some staff interviews, one with director/character designer/chief animator Naoyuki Konno, and one with series composition/scenario writer Shinsuke Onishi. This is a nice detailed booklet and well worth a read, as it supports the episodes well.
009-1 is definitely a show that you mustn't take at face value. At face value, what you will see is a set of rather dated character designs, a dated story, and some really daft character names. I ask you, a sniper who like eating boiled eggs, with a bald head shaped just like his favourite food, codenamed Egg. It doesn't require a lot of brainpower. But beneath the surface 009-1 has a lot going on, with interesting and thoughtful characterisations, and plots that don't lead the viewer by the nose, actually requiring a modicum of thought and effort from the audience. It's smart and sophisticated writing that is admittedly rare for the medium, albeit served up with a nice helping of action and fan-service that is a lot more common. It's the best of both worlds.
There is something nostalgic about the Cold War scenario, even if it is a fanciful alternate history, where the Cold War lasts 140 years, allowing the series to be set in a sci-fi inspired future. The stories are infused with the cold war jitters that existed when the manga was created, but there seems to be something so appropriate about spies and superpowers, nuclear brinkmanship and totalitarian states, that makes this series appealing in a way that the James Bond movies haven't managed in quite a while. Also, with the current world situation a new Cold War between West and Middle East, different ideologies, and different comparative strengths maybe, but still the same ultimate goal to impose one worldview over another, the show suddenly doesn't seem so outdated. And when in the same week that I write this review, Russia and America have a spy exchange, I have to wonder if the Cold War really did end.
In this first disc, we get four separate stories, the first introducing the 009 team and the world in which they operate, while the others concentrate more on009-1, Mylene Hoffman. Defections, genetic experimentation, assassins and kidnapping, it all seems perfect fodder for a futuristic spy series, but from the first episode I realised that unlike the average anime, this isn't a show to drip-feed information and carefully guide the viewer through the plot. It's a story told in a montage of disjointed scenes that follow a fractured narrative, which only slowly comes together to reveal the plot. It makes you work for it, but it's really how a spy mystery should be imparted. The first episode is also the most akin to a James Bond movie, with plenty of spy stuff, sex and violence, a potentially lethal doomsday weapon at stake, evil East Bloc spymasters, heroic West Bloc cybernetic agents, and a climax aboard a rocket. But with the second episode it turns out that this isn't as simple and as gung-ho action as a Bond flick, and there's an ongoing story developing in the background of the episodes. The world is certainly more complicated underneath the surface, and most importantly, the 009 agents aren't always successful in their missions. In this clandestine conflict between East and West, the balance shifts from one side to the other depending on the story, and it does make watching an episode a little more edge of the seat an experience than I initially expected.
The third episode on the disc, Mylene's encounter with the sniper who follows a code of honour, is perhaps the daftest episode on the disc, and not just because of his idiotic moniker. While the series obviously has had a 21st Century makeover to its stories, this one seems resolutely old-fashioned, with a threat from an assassin becoming a one-on-one battle, whereas it would have been more realistic for it to be presented as something of a spy-hunt, a police action against a state sponsored serial killer. There are still vestiges of the 60s storytelling style in the other episodes as well, but it's at its most prevalent here. Finally there is the story of the scientist's kidnapping, which turns out to be a whole lot more complicated than that. Mylene and two other agents encounter three of their opposite number in an attempt to purchase the information, and there is a bit of professional courtesy and friction to the encounter, before it gets out of hand.
As mentioned, there are hints of an over arching story dropped in these episodes, with the impression that the spymasters from the first episode may make a reappearance later down the line, as well as some development from the energy source that both sides were pursuing so desperately. The second episode adds the West's hatred of mutants, apparently it's a capital crime to have some kind of psychic ability, while we also meet the East's Dr Green, who is experimenting on mutants trying to harness their powers. Finally there is the introduction of the Golden Bat group in the final episode, a spy group that is playing both sides against the middle, while Mylene meets, and hits it off with the East Bloc spy, Loki. They certainly seem to work well together for sworn enemies.
Perhaps what I most appreciate about this show is the more mature approach taken with the characterisations and the stories. While this future world may be bright and shiny, the gadgets may be plentiful, the look of the show decidedly retro, and the stories unafraid to wallow in some decidedly dated psychedelia, there's no getting away from a dark and gritty storytelling style, and some edgy concepts and ideas. The second episode with its search and slaughter mission targeting a telekinetic child is a case in point. Also, Mylene Hoffman is a character that appeals more to the adult audiences. She's a very internalised character, hard to accomplish in animation, but successfully done here, in that she only shows cool professionalism on the outside, while hinting at a rich back story beneath the surface. Also the story may be about cybernetic secret agents, and with a sixties sensibility you'd expect mini-skirted fan service at every opportunity. It certainly isn't absent, indeed one of Mylene's selling points are her machinegun breasts. It sounds crass and puerile, except that the director doesn't dwell on the cybernetics; he focuses on the character. Mylene is definitely a secret agent of the old school in that respect, very much like Bond, in that she's professional, lethal, and merciless, confident and self-assured, as well as prepared to do whatever it takes to accomplish her mission, including sleeping with the enemy. It isn't often that you see an anime character with an active sex life, but it makes sense in terms of the character and the story, and is a refreshing change from how anime usually deals with the subject of sex.
The dated visuals and the admittedly dated story concept means that 009-1 is something of an acquired taste. But I do believe it is an easy taste to acquire. It updates just the right elements to make it appeal to modern audience sensibilities, while infusing the show with oodles Cold War of 1960s nostalgia. It recalls the best of the Bonds, but actually offers a richer and more varied set of stories. Not every spy story has to end in a secret lair in a volcano. I'm already anticipating the next volume.