Mardock Scramble

“I wish I was dead.”

Spoken by 15-year old prostitute Rune Balot, these are the first words that set the dispirited tone of the anime movie trilogy Mardock Scramble. The story is set in Mardock City, a cyberpunk world where the skyline is filled with skyscrapers, cars glide on fluorescent green roads, and everything sparkles like champagne. It’s a stunning place to look at, but it’s also a savage place where cruelty and crime are often left unpunished.

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Homicide has become so rampant that the government has authorized a controversial procedure to resurrect victims from the dead to help track down and testify against their assailants. This is one of the several unusual, and perhaps implausible, concepts in Mardock Scramble, but it’s presented with such conviction that it’s not too difficult to get caught up in the moment and suspend disbelief.

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The central plot-line, which is essentially about Rune’s revenge, is likely just a catalyst for weightier themes. There are some fantastical action sequences, but the series tends to be more of a character study than a typical action-adventure. The conversations are philosophical, covering a wide range of topics such as the nature of memories and regret, free will, finding a purpose in life, and rebirth.

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There’s a lot of hidden symbolism to keep your mind busy if you choose to look for it—such as the egg references that frequently appear. The doctor who performs the resurrection procedure is named Dr. Easter; “scramble” is, of course, one of the ways in which eggs are cooked; and there’s a yellow shapeshifting mouse named “Oeufcoque”, which is French for “soft-boiled egg.” What all these egg references mean, I’m not sure.

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Mardock Scramble has a consistently abrasive aesthetic. The art is usually intensely bright, shrouded in shadows, or textured by noise that must’ve been hell for the video encoders to deal with. GoHands doesn’t appear to have cut any corners or expenses with the animation, which, especially in the action sequences, looks painstakingly detailed. And an electronic and ambient music soundtrack rounds everything off.

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If you like science-fiction fantasy with a psychological twist, strong and stylish animation, and don’t mind scenes with graphic violence, mental and physical abuse, and nudity, you should definitely check out Mardock Scramble. If you haven’t read the synopsis yet, don’t. The less you know going in, the more surprised you’ll be. Just sit back and get pounced by it.

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Agent Aika

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Agent Aika opens with a leisurely tour of the waters that are now covering Saitama. This Japanese city—along with 95% of the world’s land—was submerged after a worldwide disaster twenty years ago. Salvaging work to recover valuable goods and data from these abandoned areas has become a booming profession.

An attractive fighter and submarine pilot, Aika Sumeragi, and her spunky megane partner, Rion Aida, pursue salvaging work at the K2 Corporation that’s headed by Rion’s father, Gozo Aida. Rion is frustrated with her father’s overly generous business practices that have lost profits for the company. Through Aika’s intervention, they agree to a shady business proposition to collect data on a new energy source being developed called Lagu. Unbeknownst to them, Rudolf and Neena Hagen, siblings who were contracted by the military to research Lagu, also have a vested interest in this energy source, and they’re willing to kill to obtain it for themselves.

The fanservice, which—let’s be honest—is the whole point of this series, is brash by the more restrained standards of modern anime. I often see people today complaining about small bits of service that pale in comparison to what this series defiantly shovels into your face. Gratuity aside, I couldn’t help but appreciate the inventiveness of the choreography and shot compositions. The fight scenes are practically balletic in their staging, accented by service that isn’t confined to comedic or sexual situations. The camera itself turns the viewer into a voyeur, giving you a sleazy first-person view of the “action.”

The non-service cinematography was also done well. By episode five, the series starts to demonstrate an impressive play on perspective and depth of field as typically seen in live action crime thrillers.

For a series that likely started as an excuse to fill the screen with panty shots, the animation is surprisingly detailed. The characters are proportionally realistic, and, for an ecchi anime, the premise is appropriately simple. With the support of an eccentric array of characters, my interest was sustained outside of the service.

Agent Aika was clearly a labor of love, something that the creators believed in, and wanted to see for themselves. Many of the people producing anime nowadays—and media internationally in general—don’t seem to have this kind of passion. They simply paint by the numbers laid forth by focus groups, steering clear of anything that could be considered too weird, offensive, or unprofitable. Agent Aika on the other hand didn’t give a damn. It did what it wanted to do, how it wanted to do it, and it did it with style.

Casshern Sins

347549-casshern_sins02“Ruin is the salvation of man and machine.” 

Beneath the flamboyant exterior of fast action fight scenes and fancy shot compositions are some deceptively complex themes. The director, Shigeyasu Yamauchi, who has a propensity for stylish psychological studies, uses Casshern Sins as an opportunity to deconstruct death and hope. 

The first episode establishes the premise with a satisfying level of badassery. In the distant future, Robots have evolved sentience, and can feel emotions like humans can. A global “Ruin”—with a capital R, implying that it’s more than an action—was prompted when Casshern, a highly skilled and gaudily dressed fighter, “killed the Sun named Moon.” Now both humans and robots are on the brink of extinction. 

The robots hadn’t appreciated their lives until death became a reality for them. Having been immortal up until the Ruin, being confronted with the realization that their existence would soon end terrifies them. For some, particularly the humanoid robots, this fear is quelled by love, community bonds, or passionately engaging in their interests. For others, this fear is expressed violently through random acts of desperation and senseless cruelty. 

Everyone except Casshern is affected by the Ruin. As the bodies of the other robots quickly deteriorate, Casshern’s body remains new, and regenerates when it’s damaged. There’s a rumor that the one who “devours” Casshern will become immortal. Consequently, when many robots encounter Casshere and learn of his identity, they have no qualms with abandoning their “humanity” to seize an opportunity to regain their immortality. 

By the halfway point of this series, listening to bleak soliloquies on death and hope—but mostly hopelessness—became mildly taxing. To be fair, the trepidation expressed by these robots is understandable when we consider how new of an experience death is for them. Humans have had over 200,000 years to develop coping and denial mechanisms for death anxiety. On this level, I was able to feel some pity for the robots. 

There’s some sentimentality and melodrama that’s usually, but effectively, scored with slow strings or an acoustic guitar. You can see the emotional chords that they’re trying to pull, but it’s not too hard to go along with it. The action scenes are scored more aggressively, often utilizing tremolo strings or heavy horns like those heard in 90s era historical-action films. Sometimes there’s no score at all, and the scene is simply textured with sounds of wind, rain, or debris. 

The overall style is retro by modern standards, which is to be expected from a director who’s been in the anime industry since the 80s. Unfortunately, this old school style is accompanied by some unflattering old school stereotypes that may annoy some viewers. The one unambiguously black character is a lustful degenerate, and the leading female characters are either manipulative or easily love struck. Even Ringo, an overly cute loli robot who looks like a 4-year-old, fawns over Casshern when she first meets him. 

Casshern Sins has brilliant ideas and beautiful animation that are hampered by some repetition, occasional missteps in characterization, and plot holes. The faults aren’t enough to ruin the viewing experience, but they do hold it back from being the psychological masterpiece that it could have been. With all that said, I still recommend this series if you’re looking for something dark and thoughtful to watch.