Mardock Scramble: The First Compression Review

Tow Ubukata’s novel ‘Mardock Scramble’ (published in English by Viz Haikasoru) is a strange science fiction novel – darkly violent, psychologically probing of its characters, philosophical in its outlook, with religious references and surreal imagery – so it’s no surprise that, since the author also writes the screenplay for this three-part film, the anime adaptation is also somewhat strange and surreal. Originally published in book form in Japan in three parts (it’s one huge brick of a book in the English translation), Mardock Scramble: The First Compression follows the division of the Japanese publication, which means that there’s only one-third of the weirdness of the work covered here, with some further surprising turns and changing of pace as the work evolves across its three parts.

‘The First Compression’, the opening section of the series, is in some respects then a fairly standard origin story for a manga/anime, relatively fast-paced and energetic, with explosive action and violence, but it also takes time to bring across some of the moody introspection and psychological depth of its central character, a young woman known as Balot. Balot is recruited by scientist Doctor Easter and Oeufcoque, a small technological creation that usually takes the form of a mouse, who are investigating the activities of Shell Septinos. The investigators are aware of Shell’s business as a Show gambler and casino manager, but suspect that his October Corporation is involved in other crimes for which his casino business is just a front to launder money. Even Shell is unaware of all of his crimes, since he has a condition that allows him to have his memory regularly wiped as a precautionary measure against his activities being uncovered, and perhaps even as a way to wipe away any residual guilt.

And you can see why. Rune Balot is due to be the next victim of one of Shell’s more heinous crimes, picking up vulnerable young women, using them, killing them and having their ashes compressed into blue diamonds that he wears as rings. Easter and Oeufcoque manage to intervene however before Balot is consumed by the fire started by Shell’s bodyguard and associate, Dimsdale Boiled. Badly burned, the only way Easter can help Balot recover from her serious injuries is through the use of Scramble 09 technology, technology that has been banned after the war, but which is permitted by the Ministry of Justice if it can assist in special cases. Easter believes that Balot’s testimony can help them bring down Shell, and with the new experimental skin and abilities that she has been given – she can control electrical devices in her vicinity, has improved speed, agility and strength and can partner up symbiotically with Oeufcoque – she might even be able to survive the inevitable attacks that Shell and Boiled are about to unleash against her.

Having previously read the original novel, my expectation for the anime version of Mardock Scramble, for Part One at least, was that it would be more focussed on the spectacular action-battle sequences that it gradually builds towards. Certainly, those sequences live up to everything that is there in the book, stylishly animated in the Blade Runner-influenced, colourful, neon-lit, futuristic science-fiction city of Mardock, but I was surprised by how much of Balot’s background and the events that account for her mental condition and strength of character make it successfully through to the animated movie. A victim of childhood abuse and trauma, Balot is “damaged goods”, which on one hand gives her strength of character, but it also makes her capable of extreme behaviour that introduce an element of unpredictability into her actions.

This inner reflection is brought through into the anime in a more conventional and visual way – through cross-cutting and flashbacks – but the inner dialogue that occurs between Oeufcoque and the traumatised girl who is unable to speak is also there, the two combining to create a mood of dark introspection that permeates the whole feel of the work. It may be difficult to follow in places, but all the clues are there, as well as a strong graphic visual depiction of those events and their significance. As this might suggest, there is strong adult material here with nudity and sexual situations, and in some respects the visuals conform to certain stylisations in Balot’s wearing a skin-tight suit when she transforms into her new 09 status as a killing machine, but it’s all relevant to the psychological make-up of the character, her awareness of her own body, and the sometimes metaphysical considerations that the story touches on with regard to the relationship between mind and body.

…or maybe not. One of the interesting things about Mardock Scramble is this ambiguous line it runs between being an all-out action SF anime and being a rather more moody piece, between being exploitative and being a bit more thoughtful in its consideration of the moral, ethical and scientific questions it raises in relation to the use of science, technology and weapons, particularly when placed in the hands of deeply flawed human individuals. The series however takes some unexpected turns in the following instalments – Balot considering questions of chance and probability when they take the investigation right to Shell’s casino business in part two – and it will be interesting to see how those ideas are translated visually, but at the moment, and particularly with the author’s involvement as screenwriter, this looks like a very successful adaptation of an intriguing work.

Mardock Scramble: The First Compression is released by Manga Entertainment on DVD and Blu-ray, the first of a three-part film. The disc is dual-layered BD50, the encode AVC at 1080/24p. The Blu-ray is playable evidently on Region B players, but hasn’t been tested for multi-region capability.

The Blu-ray release has been produced by Kazé for release across several territories. On start-up the disc “loads” into the BD player memory and takes over the controls, which may introduce difficulties depending on your player and whether it has the latest up-to-date firmware. You are then asked to choose the language for your territory French, English, Italian or Dutch. When English is selected, there is an option to view the original Japanese track with English subtitles or to watch it in the English dub, but you can’t access any of the other languages – should you even want to – from your remote control. Switching between English and Japanese with subtitles is however available from the pop-up menu.

The main menu also presents the option of viewing two different cuts of Mardock Scramble: The First Compression – a Theatrical Cut (1:05:26) and a Director’s Cut (1:09:36). The differences are not merely a matter of there being cuts between one version and the other, but certain sequences are actually redrawn and reordered. There is still nudity and violence in both versions, but there seems to be an effort in the Theatrical Cut to reduce the impact of violence in a sexual context. Most of this occurs in the opening sequence, where the differences between what is shown is most evident in Balot wearing skimpy clothes in the Theatrical Version and being entirely naked in the Director’s Cut, but there are other scenes later in the film that are also reframed. The changes are evident but don’t, it seems to me, significantly alter the tone or the content of the film.

The image quality is excellent, even if it doesn’t particularly distinguish itself in the High Definition format. It’s relatively clear and stable, with some visible grain, but nothing that causes any real problems. Strangely, there appeared to be faint “ghosting” images visible during the black screens of the opening credits of the Director’s Cut (I didn’t notice these on the Theatrical Cut), but there’s nothing that causes any such issues during the actual series itself, or at least nothing that is visible to the eye. Overall, the image is relatively stable and colourful, the CG animation, employed mainly for technology and particularly during the car chase sequence, is smooth and well-integrated into the overall look of the animation.

The Theatrical Cut comes with the original Japanese audio track in DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 (48kHz) and an English dub, also in DTS HD-MA 5.1. The Director’s Cut comes only with the Japanese DTS HD-MA 5.1 track with obligatory subtitles. The quality of the audio tracks is good, the surrounds used well for the music soundtrack and ambience, the sound dynamically sparking to life in the action sequences.

Subtitles are white, are clear and easy to follow. They are available automatically when the Japanese tracks are selected, and because of the controls used, they cannot be switched on/off from your remote control.

Extras consist of nothing more than teasers, trailers and promo videos. They’re all in High Definition.

Mardock Scramble: The First Compression gets the three-part film off to a good start, faithfully translating the original book to the screen in a way that manages to capture its quirky mix of SF action anime and moody introspection and maybe even strike a better balance between them. There are similar challenges to be met in the rather different tone of The Second Compression, so it will be interesting to see how the series develops. There are a few minor quirks also with Manga Entertainment’s presentation of the series in High Definition, but generally the quality is very good, the disc including both Director and Theatrical cuts.

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