Tiger & Bunny - Volume 1 Review

It's perhaps surprising for a comic and animation entertainment industry that encompasses just about every genre imaginable - and one that is particularly strong on science-fiction themes often featuring young adolescents with superpowers - that the traditional form of superhero adventures hardly feature at all in Japanese manga and anime series, and certainly not to the extent that they dominate the US comic-book and, lately, movie industry as well. Featuring the exploits of an intriguing bunch of Japanese-styled superheroes, Tiger & Bunny attempts to redress the balance in its own way, but evidently - as acknowledged in the interviews included on the extra features - it's also a means to appeal to and reach out to larger worldwide market. From the first seven episodes alone, Tiger & Bunny doesn't take too long to make its intentions clear, striking a good balance that provides plenty of spectacular action and humour, delivers some amount of self-referential reflection on the nature of superheroes, but it also suggests that there are other interesting areas still to be explored here.

It's not entirely surprising then that, initially at least, this Japanese spin on the genre starts off by attempting to define a world where superheroes exist and, rather than simply being in thrall to costumed crusaders and their colourful evil adversaries, it tries to more "realistically" (not to mention humorously) consider how they might operate in the real-world. As the opening action sequence of first episode that introduces the various characters here quickly establishes, there would be heavy media coverage whenever the costumed superheroes are in action. Here in Tiger & Bunny the public are glued into the Hero TV channel, watching live broadcasts of the heroes' latest adventures combating crime and rogue 'Next' incidents in Sternbild City. Inevitably, in today's modern world, there would also be considerable commercial interests wrapped up in sponsorship of the more popular and successful figures (each of them earning points for their work), which is likely to lead to a certain amount of competitiveness in the cut-throat business world. Or at least in some parts. Some use their powers for the sake of the greater public good while others clearly just like dressing up in costumes and enjoy all the attention and adulation of the public. Others are just a little bit barking mad.

There's consequently any number of angles - humorous, adventurous and serious - that can be considered in this set-up and Tiger & Bunny manages to do well to take in most of them. At the centre of the series is indeed, a superhero crime-fighting duo consisting of Wild Tiger and Barnaby Brooks Jr, who Tiger quickly dubs Bunny on account of the extended ears on the helmet of his costume (the costumes, incidentally, rather more high-tech and 'mecha' than the more traditional US-styled superheroes). It's an interesting duo that has indeed been formed with commercial interests in mind, Tiger being the jaded veteran who has been relegated to the status of sidekick due to a lack of popularity with the younger generation of fans, while Barnaby is the rather more glamorous, media-friendly, intense, moody, high-flying achiever whose motivation stems from a Batman-like childhood trauma at the killing of his parents by a mysterious organisation. The initial episodes also take time to establish the X-Men-like context of the Nexts - children who start developing mutant abilities - and cover the existence of other colourful superheroes - Blue Rose, Fire Emblem, Rock Bison, Dragon Kid, Origami Cyclone and Sky High - who exhibit a wide variety of powers and abilities, as well as interesting personality traits.

The main emphasis in Tiger & Bunny however is evidently on the conflict between the personalities of the glamorous and serious Barnaby Brooks and the wisecracking irreverent anarchy of Tiger. The opening seven episodes of the series handle this aspect well, if not exactly bringing anything new to the table, creating a series of exploits that seriously challenge the team while at the same time bonding them together as a strong working unit. More than just being a series of superhero adventures however, the series is of course at the same time a parody of superhero world reality. There is however nothing particularly new in that either, with the nearly 30 year-old Watchmen series already having opened up and exposed the cracks beneath the surface of the superhero personality and rivalry, and the theme extended further developed in relation to the modern-day media and business obsessed world through Kurt Busiek's Marvels, Astro City and Brian Michael Bendis's Powers to a such a point that it's almost impossible nowadays to return to the naive simplicity of comics being simply high-minded noble heroes with complex personal lives battling evil villains and alien invaders. The challenge is to try and find something deeper in that while retaining the essential glamour and adventure of the original idea.

So far, Tiger & Bunny doesn't quite succeed in that but we are indeed only seven episodes into the series and there are intriguing possibilities starting to open up. The existence of the dark Ouroboros agency may relate very much to the Batman-like mythology of Barnaby Brooks' background, but there are indications that there could be much more to this and, at least from an action point-of-view, it/they certainly prove to be a powerful and dangerous adversary whose capability for causing chaos is high and whose motivations are as yet still unknown. Where this leads to remains to be seen, but at the moment, there's still plenty to entertain in this opening set of episodes, with a good range of characters. The types may be a little stereotypical, but are clearly well-developed, with strong character designs and personality traits established for both the superhero personas and the actual people who lie beneath them. The use of seamless flowing 3-D CG effects - particularly in the animation of the men in power suits - also establishes a strong look and feel that gives the production its own character and keeps the action fast and dynamic. Plenty here, in other words, to entertain while showing enough potential to intrigue the viewer into following up where it might go Next.

Tiger & Bunny: Volume 1 (of 4) is released as a three-disc BD/ DVD combo set by Manga Entertainment, in a slipcased digipack with 3 collectors cards and 3 collectors mini-magazines (packaging not seen). The Blu-ray is a BD25 disc, with an AVC encode at 1080/24p, that contains the first seven episodes of the series. The Blu-ray works for Region B (UK and Europe), but was not tested for multi-region compatibility. The same seven episodes are spread across two DVD5 DVDs in PAL format which are encoded for Region 2. Extra features are on the DVD set only.

On Blu-ray, Tiger & Bunny looks fine, but it's not an animation series that benefits greatly from High Definition presentation. On the other hand, while the DVD presentation is also of a very high standard, the Blu-ray does very definitely have the advantage in being a little clearer and more vibrant in colour and contrast, and a little smoother in fluidity of movement, which counts for something here considering the amount of fluid CG effects. There are no noticeable issues or artefact problems with either the BD or the DVD however, and both presentations here are of the usual high standards.

Prepared by Kazé for Manga Entertainment, both discs have the usual lockdowns in terms of what you can and can't do in terms of selection of soundtracks and subtitles. The soundtrack options on the BD are for the original Japanese track or an English dub, both presented in LPCM 2.0 48k/16bit. On DVD these are both standard Dolby Digital 2.0. The subtitles are white, and come on automatically with the selection of the Japanese track. Rather pointlessly, you can't select or switch between audio track or toggle subtitles on and off. Although a higher-specification surround track would have been a little more dynamic, the audio is nonetheless strong enough for the demands of the series - which inevitably is quite explosive in places. In terms of voice acting, I think the Japanese fits the characters better and has a little more character - the English dub sounding comparatively samey with the standard voice-actors - but with there being so much going on visually, I went with the English dub and found it worked very well for a series that doesn't have a typical anime look and feel.

That's certainly the intention of the makers of the series, who admit as much in the 24-minute Making of extra feature on DVD Disc 2. There's a big deal made of it being an anime for adults, an attempt to retain an audience in the 20-30 age bracket who might otherwise move away from the children-based series, but the intention is to appeal to a wider global audience also. Most of this feature is interview based, but there are insights also into the designs and the use of 3-D CG animation. The only other extra features, again only on the DVD set, are the expected textless Opening and Closing sequences.

The first seven episodes of Tiger & Bunny try to cover all the bases and it does so reasonably well, appealing to younger audiences with superhero action and adventure, aiming to retain the interest of an older audience with some self-referential comedy and real-world considerations on the nature of superheroes, but also settling on an animation style that is less big-eye anime stylised and more internationally accessible. At this stage, there's nothing particularly new in the nature of the series or its intentions, but it achieves everything it sets out to achieve and even holds out some promise that it could have a few interesting developments of its own in store in future volumes and seasons.

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