Isn’t it great the way just about any subject can automatically be made better and given new freshness and originality just by setting it in futuristic science-fiction environment? It seems like there isn’t anything that can’t be improved with the words ‘In Space’ attached. Think of how the samurai genre can be taken in a new direction by locating it on a distant planet in Samurai 7. Samurais In Space! Or consider how the glamour of the espionage thriller can take on a new guise in something like Space Adventure Cobra, or Leiji Matsumoto’s intergalactic pirate adventure, Captain Harlock. Pirates In Space! And then there’s Cowboy Bebop which manages to put everything from westerns and noir to blacksploitation into a futuristic space setting. Even Planetes manages to make garbage collection a little more of an attractive proposition when it involves picking up satellite and space debris in a tricky and often dangerous zero-gravity environment. There surely must be limits to how far this can be taken, but I haven’t come across any yet. Kiddy Grade however gives me cause for reconsideration. Anyone for Customs and Excise officers in Space?
Kiddy Grade proves the point that just about anything works better in outer space by managing to make an anime series about the work of auditors, customs officials and tax officers the occasion for a great deal of adventure and glamour by setting the head office of the Galactic Organisation of Trade and Tariffs (GOTT) on the planet Aineias in Star Century 0165. Consequently, serving a legal document - as in the very first episode - to allow arbitration over a trade dispute between two rival planets becomes a little more exciting when the party involved has one of his robot units fry the court order with a laser beam, or when the officers have to deal with a "gravity bomb" in the second episode while on a mission to uncover the trade of illegal goods. You also have to be very careful - as the third episode reveals - that the people you are investigating and transporting for infringement of trade laws don’t have an "insurance policy" that involves rescue from rogue elements. The premise then, as it is outlined in the first few episodes, makes a persuasive case that tax evasion and trade disputes can be fun if approached in the right way.
That right way of course also involves having an attractive buxom young teenage GOTT officer like Éclair flashing her panties now and again as she wields a lipstick whip and exhibits other strengths and powers against the criminal elements, cyborgs and spacecraft that attempt to evade their tax revenues and financial obligations towards the Galactic Union. Along with younger partner Lumiere, the characterisation goes a long way towards making this work and the differences in approach between the glamorous, reckless, hot-headed, action-oriented 16 year-old GOTT elite ES Officer (trainee C-class) Éclair and the tech-savvy coolness of Lumiere have the necessary abilities to deal with most situations that come their way, and are consequently strong enough to be a good centre to the series, but you need a little more than that and more than an episodic 'auditing the books in outer space' idea to sustain a full 24 episode series. There are at least three other crucial elements needed to ensure that Kiddy Grade has all its books in order and signed-off in triplicate.
There’s no problem with the first requirement - strong well-defined characters, distinctive character design and, as a bonus, good supporting characters and villains. The attractions of Éclair and Lumiere have already been outlined above, and there are plenty of other figures with diverse talents introduced in the GOTT team for them to interact with, many of a higher ES-Class like Alv and Dverger, Caserio and Viola, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Mercredi and Eclipse - the head of the force. There’s a high number of females in GOTT, and they are certainly the ones who carry the most authority and ability, but there are some intriguing male characters like the auditor Armblast 'The Wizard' with his unwieldy large black case of tricks, who has a more important role to play that at first seems apparent. There are plenty of characters and personalities then to provide a good amount of rivalry, conflict and variety to prevent the series simply becoming repetitive, and those personalities and allegiances change over the course of the series in interesting ways. There’s also some variety in the different planets that they come into contact with, the science-fiction element allowing for extraordinary technological weaponry, with cool spacecraft and cyborg powers to keep things interesting.
Any series however needs to expand on its initial premise in order to be more than just the sum of its episodic parts, and while Kiddy Grade does eventually get around to this - introducing a thrilling plot development almost half-way in - it’s not in the most original of ways. Up until the turning point, the series does indeed appear to be little more than just a repetitive formula of missions for Éclair and Lumiere, jetting off in their spacecraft Wirbelwind (with has its own consciousness), encountering different customs and social rules in each planet they visit that challenge their investigation. It’s a little bit like Kino’s Journey in this respect, although thankfully without the simplistic morals applied, Kiddy Grade aiming more for entertainment through the action sequences in the battles that inevitably ensue. There are hints dropped here and there that there’s more to the background of the characters and the setting up of the Galactic Union and the GOTT, and this does eventually come to the forefront later, but the conflict that occurs in Episode 11 that sets the series off in another direction does seem a little bit manufactured, without sufficient groundwork being laid as to the nature of the Galactic Organisation of Trade and Tariffs and the extent of their policing role.
The third element that isn’t quite distinguished enough is the animation itself from the Gonzo studio. The character designs in this 2002 series are strong enough and the animation, although often static, comes to life fairly well in the action sequences, but there’s little that impresses in terms of overall look and design or in the layouts. The space technology and the interplanetary ships are good but not particularly imaginative. In look and feel, it lies perhaps somewhere between Galaxy Express and Cowboy Bebop, but without the artistry or originality of either. Actually, up until the final episodes, there's little even made of the outer space setting, and for all the variety in planets visited by the GOTT investigators across the Galactic Union, the series never manages to give the sense of having formed an expansive worldview (or galaxy-view). With each of the planets in the system populated exclusively by similar-looking Pan-Asian/Caucasian humans who all speak English (or Japanese depending on which language track you listen to), and with no aliens anywhere in sight, the usually infallible '...In Space' idea isn’t really exploited fully, and for the earlier part of the series at least, Éclair and Lumiere might as well be investigating corrupt corporations on Earth. By spaceship and with superpowers though, so even this is by no means entirely a loss.
If there are weaknesses in the design and fluidity of the animation, and a not entirely original or credible twist in the plot development that isn’t backed up with strong enough groundwork, Kiddy Grade does however take on an entirely new lease of life after Episode 11 in a manner that renders these considerations relatively minor. Any good anime series should have you hooked by the mid-point and eager to see what comes next, continually presenting new challenges and rising to meet them, and Kiddy Grade, at its turning point, does this marvellously. For a brief period at least, you find yourself in that 'just one more episode' state when a series really starts to take off.
A really good anime series however should build on this and continually push the plot in unexpected directions, breathlessly taking the animation and the action to greater and more explosive lengths. Kiddy Grade really does make the effort, the second half of the series even going as far as to almost completely rewrite the initial premise and present some amazing twists upon the characters themselves, but while this fulfills the entertainment factor requirements, the weaknesses in the unimaginative setting and consistency of the worldview in the first half aren't really strong enough to sustain all the twists in the second.
The complete 24-episode series of Kiddy Grade is released by MVM as an eight-disc set, with three episodes on each disc. The discs are each single-layer DVD5, in PAL format and encoded for Region 2.
Although some of the promotional material included in the extra features indicates a widescreen format, the series is in 4:3 aspect ratio. This however seems to be the original aspect ratio, and it looks to be all there in full-frame with no cropping, but I can’t confirm this with any authority other than by going on the appearance that it looks fine and there are no obvious framing issues. There are some minor standards conversion artefacts, some mild colour banding and interlaced frames that will only be evident in freeze-frame, but to all intents and purposes, the video quality is fine, the image clear and sharp, the colouration strong, the transfer stable.
The original Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 track is an option here, as well as English dubs in Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0. All of the audio options are fine and a matter of individual choice. I went with the English dub version myself on this series and it worked fine, with good characterisation from the US voice-actors.
If you prefer going with the Japanese language track, you have two subtitle options. One is a literal translation, the other a transcription of the English dub. The literal translation fits better with the spoken Japanese dialogue - the English dub adds some lines of its own where nothing is spoken and cuts dialogue in some places where it’s not obvious any one person is speaking (crowd scenes) - but the translation is really, and I mean really, stiff. The English dialogue and dubtitles have a much better idiomatic flow. Both subtitles options are in a yellow font and are clearly readable. Personally I’m not a fan of yellow subtitles, so the good English dub made that the choice for me, but to each his own.
The extra features don’t add up to much. Disc One has most of them - an Image Gallery, Character Profiles, Promotional Video (showing 16:9 ratio), Original Commercials, Textless Song and Trailers. The remaining discs have some of the same extras on each and few minor additions here and there, but nothing of significance.
Kiddy Grade makes a creditable effort of making the not entirely appealing prospect of following the adventures of Customs and Excise Officials in Space rather more entertaining than you might believe, extending the initial premise of episodic auditing missions to distant planets to incorporate a much grander conspiracy. While this provides the opportunity for plenty of action and twists, little of it rises above the average for expectations one might have for this genre, not really fully or imaginatively exploiting the potential of the setting or the characters. There's still plenty to enjoy nonetheless across the full 24 episodes of the complete series included in this fine 8-disc set from MVM.