Behind one of the odder titles in recent memory lies a very good show, if not quite a great one. Pumpkin Scissors has a flawed final stretch and some elements that don’t quite work, but put those aside and what’s left is really original and endearing. It’s not about ludicrous magic powers or giant war ‘bots; it’s rooted in something resembling our world, and so there’s that much less distance between you and what’s going on.
The setup: The “Royal Empire” (an allegorical variant of post-war Germany, or maybe post-war Japan itself) has lost a war to one of its neighbors, the Republic of Frost. The shooting has stopped, but the Empire is still a wreck. Jobs are nowhere to be found. Hunger and despair are on every face, black markets are legion, and what’s left of the native army has lost its morale. To fight this grim picture, the army has established a special public-relations unit, the “Pumpkin Scissors” — but they’re widely regarded as a cheap publicity stunt, not an effective military unit.
Second Lieutenant Alice Malvin, the XO for the Scissors, doesn’t see it that way. She joined the army in defiance of her own upbringing and her family’s noble blood — in short, because she had something to prove. The Scissors are the arena for her to show the world that a few people in the right place (including her), doing the right thing, can contribute to the greater good in ways no one believed possible. Too bad few other people around her seem to buy it, and so her work is a constant struggle against the doubts of both the civilian and military populations.
Before long, she gains a compatriot — Corporal Randel Oland, a giant, scarred bear of a man with haunted eyes and a gentle heart. The scars are more than physical. Oland was a member of a special unit, the stuff-of-legend 901st anti-tank battalion who used a gigantic single-shot gun to take out the tank’s driver. Oland’s occasional dementia is not mere PTSD, either; as Malvin learns, he may be the product of an army program to produce soldiers capable of things no other soldier would dare attempt. This subplot is followed up on, but not in a truly definitive way. We learn some details about the program and even have a rather disturbing run-in with one of Oland’s fellow soldiers from a parallel program — a flamethrowing-wielding monster who on closer inspection is more of a damage case than a demon. But by the end of the set, the whole situation is left more open-ended than not: presumably there’s more that could be explored in future seasons.
The end of the season is a bit of a mess, although not for lack of trying. It’s a Mexican standoff between Malvin, corrupt noblemen, angry peasants, sadistic assassins, the kitchen sink and a partridge in a pear tree. The underlying idea isn’t a bad one, though: most of what’s wrong with the country after the war has sprung forth from the chasm between the moneyed classes and just about everyone else. It’s the execution that’s lacking — it’s too tangled, and it goes on and on and with such interminable slowness that all the power drains out of it. Worse, there’s the use of a trope I’ve seen before: the idea that a mob (an angry mob to boot, replete with pitchforks and torches) can simply have its rage drained away with the right speeches. As someone else once said, you can’t talk someone out of what they were never talked into in the first place.
The show’s an original digital master, so there are no problems with chroma noise or other analog conversion issues. My main complaint is something that’s pretty common with TV shows and therefore hardly fatal: no flagging for progressive playback, so you may see some interlacing artifacts on a home-theater-style TV or computer monitor. It is presented in 16x9, though, and like pretty much all the other ADV titles I’ve seen, well-authored and -compressed.
The production itself courtesy of Gonzo (the folks who gave us Basilisk and Welcome to the NHK), so both the designs and the animation are topnotch work for a TV show. Vehicles and some of the backgrounds and environments are rendered via CGI rather than hand animation, something that’s fast become the norm for most TV, but it doesn't look too cardboardy or stiff. I also liked the care taken by the design team to evoke the time period used as inspiration for the show, in everything from the architecture to the vehicles. (At one point the Scissors crew board a hybrid amphibian car that was apparently derived from one like it in real life.)
As is typically the case with hybrid-audio releases, Pumpkin Scissors comes with English 5.1 and Japanese 2.0 audio. Both are mixed at about the same volume level, so there’s no dashing for the volume control if you decide to switch language tracks during a viewing session. The menus are nothing too special, just static slates with simple text in a “secret military file” theme, but I’ve never been a fan of animated menus anyway. (They also had the good sense not to use a terribly jarring music loop for the menus, another pet peeve of mine.) Extras are minimal: trailers for other titles and clean opening and closing tracks.
The subtitles are the more literal of the two translations on the disc, but the liberties taken with the English dub are well-chosen and give the dialogue the natural cadence and flow it needs. The English voice actors, despite being relative unknowns (at least to me), are also quite decent: Kaytha Coker, as Alice Malvin, makes the character sound spirited without being screechy, and Adam Dudley serves as an appropriately reserved Randel Oland.
If I nitpick this show, it’s only because what there is to like I like a great deal. I liked the first volume of Pumpkin Scissors back when ADV put it out, but then ADV went foof into the ether and that seemed to have been the end of it. Then FUNimation stepped in, as has been their wont with many ADV and Geneon titles, crammed the whole thing into a single 4-disc set and saved the day (yet again). This show’s a nice change of pace from the flood of unashamedly shōnen action-related material that comes out every season.