Bounen no Zamned anime review

Bounen no Zamned anime review
Enter Sentan, a lush, tranquil island encased in war between the military and those with Hiruko, known as X'amd. On one of these warlike days, Akiyuki Takehara heads off to school and gets caught in a raid by the creatures. Through a series of events he is transformed into a X'amd, and with the help of a Tessikan woman Nakiami along with his highschool friend Haru, Akiyuki is forced to learn to live with the Hiruko or faces the danger of losing his self-control and turn to stone.

Xam'd represents something of a breakthrough in series anime: a major production whose original release was not via traditional methods such as TV, movie theaters, or hard-copy video release. Instead, it debuted as part of Sony's inaugural launch of the PLAYSTATION Network video download service at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in the U.S. in June 2008. It did receive a Japanese TV broadcast in April of 2009, but its first exposure as a download effectively makes it an ONA (original Net animation). Doubtless it will not remain a unique case for long. It further distinguishes itself by being one of the first initial-release anime titles to be dubbed by Sentai Filmworks, reaffirming a long-overdue return to dubbed initial-release anime for the company.

While Xam'd is technically an original Bones production, the influence that past anime titles have had on this one is eminently clear in nearly every aspect of the story and artistry. A veteran anime fan cannot watch the series without drawing parallels between Nakiami and Miyazaki's Nausicaä; the sky sled (called a kayak) which Nakiami flies around on even evokes memories of Nausicaä's glider. Miyazaki influences are also in evidence elsewhere, especially in the cat/rabbit Roppa and the designs of certain spirit-like creatures. Numerous story elements are more than just vaguely reminiscent of Bones' own Eureka 7, while some of the vehicle designs, building designs, and animation styles may remind some of Wings of Honneamise. Other story elements have popped up in numerous other anime, including best friends who become enemies essentially over mutual interest in a girl, a young woman who helps a young man manage powers which can monstrously transform him, joining the military with the goal of pursuing a lost loved one, and bioweapon-centered fights. In fact, for as fresh and interesting as the series looks, it actually does very little in its first half that is fresh.

Akiyuki is ostensibly the main character, and definitely gets the lion's share of screen time early on, but as the first half of the series progresses it gradually moves towards a near-even split between what is happening with the crew of the Zanbani and what is going on back on Sentan Island. The former, for all of its attempts to be lively, is pretty formulaic stuff save for the distinctive way that Nakiami goes about dealing with Humanforms and Xam'd. The latter primarily focuses on either Haru and Furuichi or a military officer who comes to Sentan Island to supervise a secret project involving Xam'd, though it also finds time to showcase Akiyuki's parents, too – and that, in fact, may be the series' most unusual move, as anime protagonists of late-high school age with intact and involved parents are actually fairly rare. The vaguely religious Ruikonists, with their creepily similar appearances and unfathomable goals, pop up in both settings to provide interesting complications, though they are present too little in this run of episodes to determine how they fit into the bigger picture beyond turning certain characters into Xam'd.

While the writing may not offer much to entice prospective viewers, the visuals are the series' bigger draw anyway. Though Bones dials back on the animation effort level in later episodes, the earliest episodes are wonders to behold. It isn't so much that they do anything visually spectacular as that they feature a richness of motion typically only seen in movies and other top-budget titles; compare the first couple of episodes to a typical anime TV series episode, with its time-and-budget-saving economy of motion, and the contrast becomes clear. The high-quality animation allows for some impressive early action scenes and respectable later ones, all done with little or no obvious reliance on CG effects, while also showing nice touches on a smaller scale in the unusually animate faces of many characters.

The conceptual visual design of the series also helps set it apart. This is a distinctive setting whose general tech level is equivalent to the mid-20th century but which is spiced up with hyper-advanced biological warfare capabilities, mecha-like fighting units, and flying ships powered by some quasi-magical element. Simple things like buses show a great attention to creative detail, airship designs are inventive, and the background artistry is not shy about using extremely cluttered settings. Designs for the Humanforms are quite eye-catching, with their rounded, bloblike shapes, bold color patterns, and unusual methods for making ranged attacks. (Their implosive attacks are also quite the spectacle.) The Xam'd designs are also distinctive but less special, except for the big one which looks like it has a baby in a kangaroo pouch; it is, in some respects, reminiscent of the aliens in Noein. Of the female character designs, the only one which truly stands out is Nakiami, whose melding of Princess Mononoke's San and Nausicaä gives her a simple, earthy beauty which does not have to rely on flashy costuming or fan service displays to appeal. The Zandani's crewman Akushiba, with his lanky, athletic build and long, thin face, stands out most among the male designs. Other efforts are more typical, though almost invariably well-drawn. Unfortunately, Bones also continues its long-standing practice of struggling with consistent quality control in its character rendering, even in the featured early episodes.

Music director Michiru Oshima, whose previous projects include Fullmetal Alchemist (the first TV series and movie) and Le Chevalier D'Eon, turns in another strong job here. Her soundtrack deftly mixes orchestrated and symphonic pieces (primarily in tense scenes) with recurring folksy themes (primarily in calmer, day-to-day events), creating a tone that is equal parts dramatic and laid-back rustic. This DVD release uses the same opener used for the TV series broadcast, the English-lyrics number “Shut Up and Explode” by Boom Boom Satellites, whose techno sound is so slick that it may captivate even those not normally fans of techno music. TV broadcast closer “Just Breathe” by Kylee closes out each episode with a solid rock beat set to English lyrics which aren't quite as finely-sung as the opener's.

The English dub pulls in some familiar names from the ADV talent pool who have not been heard much in the past couple of years, including Andy McAvin, Hilary Haag, Jessica Boone, and Rob Mungle. Casting decisions here are more interpretive than normal; Luci Christian actually gives Nakiami a softer-pitched voice than the original seiyuu did, while newcomer Adam Von Wagoner uses an obnoxiously droll (but still fitting) vocal style for Akushiba and relative newcomer Chris Hutchinson gives Tojiro Kakisu (the commanding officer) a speaking style which hits the tone of the character right but uses an even, raspy delivery which may not sit well with some. By contrast, Blake Shepherd's Akiyuki is quite conformist. The English script should certainly raise no objections, as it sticks as close to the subtitles as is feasibly possible.

For the DVD release, Sentai Filmworks splits the 13 episodes across two disks. (A Blu-Ray version is also being released simultaneously but was not available for review.) The Extras, included on the first disk, consist of clean versions of the opener and closer used for this release and also for the alternate opener and closers used for the original PSN releases; though those alternate versions are decent numbers, they also feature graphics more squarely from the second half of the series and are completely upstaged by their TV broadcast counterparts anyway.

Xam'd: Lost Memories is probably going to list as a mecha series but actually has a feel more akin to a supernatural or fantasy series. Despite its tendency to ape other series and some bland stretches, it does sport some respectable writing and couples its visual appeal with a concerted effort at character development. That is enough to carry the series for now.

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