Review for Kiddy Grade: Complete Collection
It's hard to believe now, but back in 2004, I was in two minds as to whether I should partake of this anime stuff once more. A few years previously, before the invention of DVD, I had indulged in a particular corner of this medium with the aid of Manga Video and its singular output of teen male sating sex, violence, profanity and tentacles. By this point I had outgrown most of that, and wanted something a little broader from my anime. It was also at this point that the first few titles were beginning to creep out on DVD, as the niche companies began to exploit the new technology. I'd dipped my toe into a few anime, and had come away totally underwhelmed. I'd tried a pre-Michael Bay Japanese take on Transformers and found it completely juvenile, I'd suffered through a couple of discs of Warners' hack job of Dragonball Z, and also found similar disappointment in Sailor Moon.
It was a triumvirate of titles from MVM that finally convinced me to embrace this medium once again, and the rest is history. Vampire Princess Miyu was distinctly old school, a tamer version of the stuff that I used to furtively purchase from Manga Video, but it had some good stories, and technically they were the first discs that showed me that anime would achieve on DVD what it never could on VHS. I marvelled at menu screens, chaptered episodes, alternate angle titles, and best of all, multiple language audio with optional subtitles. Then I found Love Hina, which was something I had at the point never associated with anime, comedy. But it was this title, Kiddy Grade, which sealed the deal for me. It introduced me to a whole new set of tropes, it's where I began to appreciate the new methods, the greater imaginative scope available to animators, and it's where I saw what the storytelling was really capable of (let's face it, most of those Manga Video titles fell completely flat when it came to narrative). At 3 episodes a volume, and at £20 each, collecting anime back then wasn't easy, or cheap, but I was still avidly glued to Kiddy Grade.
MVM have had a quiet few months when it comes to new anime, but they have been diligent in reacquiring old licenses that have lapsed, ensuring that certain titles remain on the UK market. So far this year, they have re-released Chobits and Fruits Basket in complete collection form, shows which still appeal to fans today because of their unique stories and appealing animation. But, stray volumes of those titles were still on the market until quite recently. Also Fruits Basket was one of the Funimation licences that MVM lost to Revelation, and the Revelation boxset, expensive though it was, was still available to purchase. Not so with Kiddy Grade. It too fell afoul of the shift of Funimation titles to Revelation, and even back then its volumes were exceedingly scarce (mostly due to a factory fire that saw the masters destroyed). It hasn't been available on the UK market for several years now. The difference is that unlike Fruits Basket or Chobits, Kiddy Grade isn't exactly unique. Studio Gonzo took its template and applied it to every futuristic sci-fi action show they subsequently produced, and the storytelling style became very familiar. So in a market saturated with shows like Solty Rei, Trinity Blood, Black Cat, and Burst Angel, can Kiddy Grade still hold its own? Incidentally, if there is one positive to be taken from the demise of the high street home entertainment sector, it's that you'll never have to go up to a shop counter and ask for Kiddy Grade again, without worrying about being arrested.
In the distant future, the galaxy is united, sort of. Mankind has spread throughout the cosmos and has established the Global Union, but when one world deals with another, trade disputes are inevitable. For that purpose, the Galactic Organisation of Trade and Tariffs has been set up, and when things get especially hairy, the ES operatives are sent in. Cybernetically enhanced and possessing amazing abilities the ES agents are the final arbiters of justice in the most trying of circumstances. Two of the lower ranked members are C-Class agents Éclair and Lumiere. Kiddy Grade follows them on their adventures, travelling from world to world in their trusty spaceship La Muse, with the mecha Donnerschlag at their beck and call. They are also occasionally hampered by the auditor Armbrust. But all is not well in a galaxy divided into the normal humans, and the Earth descended Nouvlesse that govern all, and even as the Nouvlesse embark on their greatest ever achievement, conspiracies are underfoot all the way up to the highest levels of the GOTT and the GU. If that isn't all, Éclair becomes assailed by memories of a past life, and faced with the same situations as before, it may be she winds up making the same mistakes all over again.
MVM collect all eight discs of Kiddy Grade into one Complete Collection, and the 24 episodes are distributed thus.
20. Lost Days
24. As Time Goes By
The picture is presented in the original 4:3 format, and the transfer is perfectly adequate. Kiddy Grade was an early television anime to move away from the traditional ink and acetate to wholly digital animation, and that does show at times in the simplicity of the shading and the regularity of the designs. In the years since then, digitally animated works have regained some of the organic naturalness of hand drawn animation. However, all this soon fades from the awareness, and even after all this time, Kiddy Grade's world design and the scope of the animation does impress. The character design is simple but distinctive, and the realisation of the future world is intricate and well thought out. Space elevators and orbital rings, as well as gargantuan warp gates are all realised with a grand sense of scale.
There is a fine choice of soundtracks here, DD 5.1 and DD 2.0 English as well as DD 2.0 Japanese. As per usual, my preference is for original whenever possible, and the dialogue is clear throughout. Kiddy Grade also has some nice pop lite tracks for the credit sequences, and the incidental music has a sense of scale and orchestration more often associated with feature films. These are some of the rare anime discs that offer you translated English subtitles to go with the Japanese audio, and should you select English with subtitles, you'll get the dubtitles that follow that track instead. There's no signs only track, but as the written lingua franca of the distant future is English, there's very little on screen text to translate.
These are the same discs as were released originally, with a couple of minor differences. You get the same video and audio transfer, the same subtitles, and the same extras. The menu screens offer you the same choices, you still get seamlessly branched alternate language credits, depending on which language you select to watch in. There are no jacket pictures on the discs this time around however. One error that is still there is that the Japanese opening credits to episode 6 are truncated by 30 seconds. An error that has been fixed is that the episode select screen on volume 4 now lists the correct episodes. Otherwise the only difference is that volumes 1-4 now have the MVM logo display when you insert the discs.
The extras on the discs are mostly universal and pretty forgettable, with textless credit sequences, character profiles and image galleries common to all the discs. Scattered here and there you'll find the odd collection of adverts, a promo video or two, and one or two Easter Eggs.
It's been eight years since the first release of Kiddy Grade in the UK, and in that time, there have been compilation movies released in Japan, a pilot episode for a sequel with the same characters, and eventually a full sequel series set long past this era, with a whole new batch of characters. Kiddy Girl-AND has not yet been released in the West on DVD, but it is available to view on Crunchyroll. I've seen it, and it took out the heart of what made Kiddy Grade special, and instead kept the superficial, the fan service, the egregious panty shots and booby bounce, the mascot characters, and then dumbed down the story and the characterisations, while increasing the clichés and anime tropes. In other words, it was made to cater for the otaku demographic, and instead wound up like every other anime show out there. After watching Kiddy Girl-AND, it made me thankful that I could watch Kiddy Grade again, and recall how inventive and original anime could be once upon a time.
Of course, I'm biased. What is it that they say about first loves? I have a nostalgia for the show that turned me onto anime again, one that will blind me to most of its flaws every time I watch it. I still believe now, as I did when I first watched it, that Kiddy Grade should have ended at episode 20, that the final four episodes feel like an afterthought, and take what was good about the story, blow it out of all proportion, and push the show into realms of ridiculousness. Over the years I've come to appreciate the conclusion a little more, find elements that charm me, but I still think it's superfluous. But up to episode 20, I enjoy Kiddy Grade as a great action adventure, a visually inventive, light sci-fi series that plays loosely with several interesting concepts, and then pulls it all together to deliver an emotionally resonant and meaningful character story, developing an interesting conspiracy storyline set in the distant future.
This time I did try and step outside of myself, to try and watch Kiddy Grade as if I were watching it for the first time now, with all the experience I have had with sci-fi anime over the years still in place. I wasn't entirely successful, but I could see that in comparison with other shows, and even with other Gonzo sci-fi shows, Kiddy Grade isn't all that impressive. Since the release and the success of Kiddy Grade, Gonzo have taken the format and the structure of the show, the futuristic setting, the episodic early character development stories, the gradual addition of the conspiracy storyline, and the grand 'throw everything at the screen' climax, and applied it to several of their subsequent series. Seeing that same storytelling style in shows ranging from Black Cat and Trinity Blood, Blassreiter to Romeo X Juliet, tends to make you more aware of the structure than is comfortable to really appreciate each story on its own merits. Kiddy Grade may have set the standard, been the pioneer, but the repetition does tend to diminish it. Shows like Black Cat and Trinity Blood wound up as worse than Kiddy Grade, while Romeo X Juliet and Solty Rei transcended it. Kiddy Grade now seems very middle of the road as a result.
One thing that I definitely noticed this time is just how unevenly Kiddy Grade is paced, and how obvious the structure of the show is. The first nine episodes are all about setting the scene. We get introduced to this future world, the galaxy spanning union of planets, the warp gate technology, the space elevators and the planet spanning artificial rings that come straight out of an Arthur C. Clarke novel, and we get some idea of the society and the structures that govern it. The series centres on the ES members Éclair and Lumiere, and much of the time is spent developing their characters, as they go about their various missions for the GOTT. During these missions, we get some idea of how the GOTT works, its head Eclipse, her secretary and Éclair and Lumiere's friend Mercredi, as well as the auditor Armbrust (Armblast in the English dub) that accompanies them on some of their missions.
The various episodes also reveal the other ES teams working for the GOTT as the missions unfold, and most of them conform to what I've since come to understand as anime stereotypes, although I didn't know it at the time. The arrogant and self-centred Alv and Dvergr play a large part in the show, but Un-Ou and A-Ou are initially introduced as the more antagonistic rivals only to be revealed as the clichéd "Remember, I'll be the one to kill you" close friends. Dextera and Sinistra are the pretty boy pairing designed to appeal to the girly squee audience, the Lolita Viola and her taciturn tall partner Cesario appeal to another very familiar stereotype, and it's really only the characters of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, a brother and sister pairing that break beyond the borders of their tropes. During these cyberpunk adventure episodes, it slowly becomes clear that Éclair has a problem with her memory, and that there is something in her past which haunts her. Then along comes episode 10, and with a great clunking noise, as if the show's changing gears, we switch to the ongoing storyline, where the secret behind Éclair's past is revealed, as is the conspiracy that lies at the heart of the story.
Éclair and Lumiere are now in conflict with their former employers. The story switches back and forth, as reversal and plot-twist follow in quick order, as the girls seek justice. I won't share too much about the storyline at this point, as this really is the better part of Kiddy Grade, even if the pacing still remains a little uneven. Often things slow right down when you would expect a burst of action, and the reverse is also true. But episode 19 takes us to a suitably explosive climax for the storyline, which is really quite satisfying. Episode 20 would have been the ideal place to end the show, as it's a standalone, reflective piece, which sees the girls come to terms with the events of the story, and it also fills in the final gaps regarding Éclair's past, the GOTT, and the history of the galaxy.
Unfortunately, quiet and reflective isn't good enough for Gonzo, and they instead pull out an absolutely ridiculous conclusion featuring a planet sized spaceship that turns into a planet sized robot. Aside from the fact that truly expressing the scale of such engineering in an anime is impossible, it just overeggs the pudding with yet another conspiracy, the theft of the spaceship by an enigmatic and tragic villain with a link to Éclair's past, before it is hijacked by an angry and resentful villain in turn to unleash its terror on the galaxy. The only way to defeat it is to throw everything at the screen, which means practically all of the characters we have encountered over the series return to take part in the final battle. Kiddy Grade ends in one spectacular flash of fan service and by doing so sets the template for half the Gonzo sci-fi shows that followed. It's just the characters, and the empathy that the audience that has built up for them, that redeems the conclusion of Kiddy Grade in my eyes.
In the end, my opinion of Kiddy Grade really hasn't altered all that much. It's just that I have seen sci-fi anime that is so much more accomplished, so much more agreeable over the intervening years that it becomes harder to recommend. Kiddy Grade isn't the best such show out there, but it is a solid, entertaining action adventure show, for the most part at least, which is very easy to watch.