Burst Angel is aptly named: the girls look great, but the story pops like stale gum. It’s a chicks-with-guns action vehicle bolted together out of parts recycled from a dozen other places—the kind of show you watch in the background while doing something else, because the more attention you give to it the less you get back.
Call it another “mid-Pacific” production—a work calculated to appeal as much to the export market for anime, maybe even more so than the domestic market. The problem is such projects often end up being terribly bland, a mixture of cynical second-guesses about what’ll appeal to a demographic instead of a story with confidence in its own narrative.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Angel was assembled from notes left behind by someone who never lived to see the project completed. But this wasn’t a salvage job, and that makes it all the more depressing. Ugetsu Hakua (of Tower of Druaga fame) contributed classy-looking character designs, and veteran mecha designer Koichi Ohata (Gunbuster, Blue Gender) took the director’s chair and added some equally striking 3D CGI machinery to tear things up. All they forgot was a screenwriter, and a tale worth spinning.
Angel loots two basic kinds of stories for ideas: a) dystopian future-city stories like Blade Runner or The Fifth Element, and b) Westerns where men of honor protect the innocent in frontier towns riddled with corruption and vice. In this case it’s Tokyo itself that’s become the Wild West. Firearms are legal, and the baddies who don’t get mopped up by freelancers are promptly executed by R.A.P.T., the “Recently Armed Police Taskforce”, whose working philosophy apparently is shoot first, shoot often, and forget about asking questions. Anyone with half a brain has either armed themselves or readied their passports for greener pastures.
The heroines-for-hire at the front and center of the show are an equal mix of wild-Western and cyberpunk tropes. There’s Sei, the cool and disciplined ringleader for the crew; Meg, the perky and frivolous gunbunny; Jo, the silent and brooding expert killer and pilot of the Angels’ mecha “Django” (itself a gunslinger); and Amy, the giggly pre-teen hacker genius. Into the midst of their world comes Kyohei, a kid in college who haplessly answered their ad for a cook and now finds himself surrounded by a quartet of dangerous women who don’t wear nearly enough. By the end of his first day with them he’s been kidnapped, shot at, nearly blown up, and frog-marched through some of the worst parts of town. All he wants to do is graduate and go abroad to study pastry-making in France, and now he wonders if he’s even going to live long enough to fix them a proper dinner. (The show mostly forgets about him over time, another annoying storytelling lapse.)
Eventually a larger plot accrues, one involving a series of monsters engendered from a bunch of glowing brainlike objects. These they fight with anything available: Meg’s arsenal, Jo’s two-gun Chow Yun-Fat assault or her commanding Django into combat, Sei’s connections, or Amy’s digital wizardry. Tensions rise both within and without the group, since Sei stands to inherit the throne of Bailan, a major local crime syndicate (and competitor with R.A.P.T.), and with each passing day her responsibilities to Bailan clash that much more with her loyalty to her friends. If you need to guess which set of sympathies wins out, you’re reading the wrong review.
Apart from inflicting massive collateral damage, the Angels also cross paths with a whole rogues’ gallery of toughies and baddies, although they add up to little more than an assembly line of walk-ons (and walk-outs). Best of the bunch is Takane, the Osaka tough-girl detective. She’s daughter of the chief of police, she wields a mean bokken, and commands a whole battalion of girl-gangsters on motorcycles. She doesn’t just steal the show, she pawns it for fast cash and buys herself lunch. Jo’s about the only one not fazed by Takane: at one point Takane swings at Jo’s head with her trademark wooden sword and the other girl parries it … with a spoon. Everything perks up that much more when Takane’s around, and sags when she’s not. Someone should do the smart thing and give her a show of her own.
What character development there is mostly revolves around Meg and Jo. Jo doesn’t give much of a damn about anything except Meg (and only shows that grudgingly); and the one big thing in Meg’s life is Jo, come hell or high income taxes. Their backstory gets filled in during one flashback episode, but like so much else in the show their relationship isn’t developed much beyond that one basic stance. Meg gets kidnapped / put into peril / does something idiotic; Jo’s resolve for Meg is tested; Jo busts in and shoots a way to freedom for both of them. Second verse, same as the first. It’s not so much development as it is reiteration.
The bottom really falls out when Jo gets sucked into a timeslip and ends up spending two whole episodes in Japan’s feudal past. Or maybe it’s a dream sequence; the show tries to have it several ways at once, and winds up effectively choosing none of them. Annoying. At least we get some definitive answers about Jo’s past, predictable as they might be—and the last couple of episodes, involving Meg and Jo almost exclusively, are touching in a way that most of what came before wasn’t.
Most of the fun in watching a show like this is twofold. One is in seeing what pieces were raided from where and how they were stuck together. Consider the Angels’ giant mecha, itself a gunslinger—and named “Django”, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the coffin-dragging anti-hero immortalized in Sergio Corbucci’s cult Western. Both Django and the various mechanical and biological monsters it squares off against have been brought to life with CGI—really impressive CGI, actually, which forms the second half of the fun. The robot/monster battles are good enough that they single-handedly raise the show that many more notches whenever they come onscreen. They’re a welcome slew of bright spots in a show where all the pleasures seem to be fleeting ones.
This being one of FUNimation’s first Blu-ray releases, I was initially iffy about the picture quality—something I’ve learned is largely dependent on the original elements provided from Japan. Some have claimed this show was upsampled from a 720p master, but I’m not positive that’s the case: for the most part the show looks pretty crisp, but occasionally there will be a good deal of jagginess whenever CGI-rendered objects like mecha or vehicles show up. It’s entirely possible some individual shots were first rendered at 720 lines for the sake of speeding up production, then upsampled to match the conventional hand-drawn animation. This aside, the picture quality’s definitely several steps up from the DVD edition, although I doubt anyone would use this as their hi-def demo disc. Audio’s more or less identical to the DVD edition—English (TrueHD) and Japanese (DD) audio, with a spirited English dubbing job that’s become the norm for FUNimation releases.
FUNimation also did the smart thing and kept the bonuses from the original DVD, and while they don’t make the show itself any less thin, they’re enjoyable. The episode commentaries, for instance, wherein the audio engineer tells how he learned the deadly-serious Jo was voiced by “the last person you’d ever guess”: the normally chirpy Monica Rial. (Rial’s Jo is the highlight of a very good dub cast; you’d never believe for two seconds this was the same woman who gave us the whispery Hyatt from Excel Saga.) Fun stuff, and proof that anime, too, can be subjected to the Siskel Test: is this show as interesting as a documentary of the same (voice) actors having lunch?
Among the bonuses are the entire Burst Angel Infinity OVA, wherein Meg and Jo head back to their native New York City and immediately manage to get into trouble. It’s essentially an extended episode of the show with a different locale, and entertaining enough in that regard. (As a New Yorker, it’s always amusing to see how my hometown gets interpreted, reinvented and sometimes outright mangled not just in anime but in plenty of other places.) A good add-on, but only because charging for it as a separate product probably wouldn’t have made sense at this point.
The other bonuses are generally good, like a ten-minute gag reel that has a few moments that are far funnier than anything in the show itself. Some, like the “Battle Record of 24 Episodes” or “The Lightness and Darkness of Jo” are just copy-and-paste jobs where excerpts from the show are edited together. More interesting is the “Ugetsu Hakua (Character Designer) Special”, which plays like a demo-reel version of the show’s opening credits with primordial versions of all the major characters. It’s interesting to see how much difference there is between this and the final product. (Another segment, a short interview with Hakua himself, sadly doesn’t cast much light on that particular part of the process.)
With a better script, this could have been a genuinely enjoyable show—no classic, but at least something worth coming back to. What we got, though, is a show barely worth watching once and not even with one’s full attention—and which is only intermittently a good showcase for what the Blu-ray format can do. I know that anime can be and often is mindless fun, but that’s no reason to not aim higher.
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