To - 2001 Nights Review

Based on the science-fiction manga by Yukinobu Hoshino, 2001 Nights, To – 2001 Nights consists of two of the ten or so standalone stories that I first read when they were serialised in the English-language edition published by Viz in the USA back in 1990. The individual stories are not directly interconnected, but each progress forward with the extension of humanity’s knowledge and experience as they head further out into space, the Great Advance in the middle of the 21st Century providing the technology and the means to explore beyond the solar system. The technological advances have been made, but man – initially at least – isn’t quite ready for the challenges that these new frontiers present, finding it difficult to adapt, change and evolve, held back by Earthbound human impulses and the old social, political and religious enmities that have lead to the Earth being partially devastated by war.

The stories in the original series are fascinating works of classic science-fiction storytelling (the title making reference to 1001 Arabian Nights), taking in commerce, civilisation and colonisation to another scale entirely where the rules are very different, and the laws of physics and time have to be considered anew in the context of space phenomena that stretch human sensibilities and relations to their very limits. In both its manga version and in the adaptation of just two of the stories for this animated 2-episode OVA from Fumihiko Sori (director of Appleseed and Vexille), To – 2001 Nights takes its subject very seriously, intelligently and realistically considering the possible impact of this new experience on the human psyche, but also not neglecting to make the stories thrilling and entertaining action adventures. Mixing hard science-fiction and pulp works quite well as the stories present a thought-provoking situation, often ending with a clever little twist, punch-line or moral to be considered.

The first story, ‘Elliptical Orbit’, considers the practicalities of maintaining a presence in the far reaches of space, being based on a supply transport station in space, an outpost that is there to pass on necessary supplies to off-world research colonies and ships. It’s a vital task, necessary to sustain the lives of many people and keep extending the range of human progress and scientific exploration, but it’s also one that consequently can be vulnerable to attack from terrorist groups and factions arising out of the troubles on Earth. That occurs just as the station receives a visit from a mysterious ship, ‘The Flying Dutchman’, working so far in deep space that they only dock every 15 years, and the reappearance of the ship’s young female captain is equally as disconcerting to Dan, the chief of the station.

The second story, ‘Symbiotic Planet’ goes out further into space, to the fifth planet of a distant star, 21 light-years from Earth, Beta-Hydri. Alena, a young Russian woman, and Ion, an American, are scientists working for the opposing Eurasian and American-Euro colonies doing research on the mould-like fungus that covers much of the planet and sustains life there. The ill-feeling from the war on Earth and competition to discover a planet that could be habitable for humans has however created tensions that make any possibility of the young couple being able to explore the attraction they feel for each other almost impossible. When Ion is exposed to the spores of an unknown fungus while delicate negotiations are going on, it not only presents another impediment to them getting together, but also leads to a potentially dangerous stand-off between the two colonies.

The animation for To – 2001 Nights – depending on your taste for entirely computer-generated human figures and motion-capture techniques – is either stunning or dreadful. Personally, I like it and, most importantly, it’s well suited to the material. Yukinobu Hoshino’s original manga was drawn realistically rather than in cartoon style, and CG is perfect for capturing the sense of movement and presence of humans in an alien, high-tech environment, as well as the brilliantly designed and animated science-fiction space vessels, machinery, planetary landscapes and space phenomena. It’s brilliantly realised, the motion-capture simulating movements well, with floating camera angles that render the whole 3-D aspect of space well. Facial expressions are surprisingly nuanced, reflecting emotions, character and spoken dialogue. Yes, there is a little bit of stiffness and movements can be rather slow and deliberate, but it’s not live action and it’s not meant to be. It’s still animation, and as far as animation techniques go, To – 2001 Nights works very well, if it's not quite state of the art.

To – 2001 Nights is released in the UK by Manga Entertainment on DVD and Blu-ray. The BD release is presumably Region B only, but with only a checkdisc provided for review, so I can’t say whether it will play in other regions. The disc is encoded at 1080/24p.

On Blu-ray, this looks incredible. To – 2001 Nights is made for High Definition and it shows off the superb designs, the CG special effects and the sense of movement to tremendous effect. Detail is excellent, and if there are any issues with gradations of colour and shadow, they are down to the limitations of the animation tools and, presumably, budget. Realistic detail isn’t strived for however in either skin tones or hair, which are blocked in and don’t show much movement, but this is a choice of the animators and it comes across well. I had a few pixilation issues on an older Blu-ray player, but it worked perfectly fine on any other players I used, and I can’t imagine anyone having trouble with this. The clarity and detail present in the transfer is superb, the movements fluid, and there are no noticeable flaws.

There are two audio tracks, one in English and another in Japanese, both Dolby Digital True HD 5.1. Personally, I would have liked to watch this one in English and be able to take in animation in all its glory without the distraction of subtitles, but while the voice-acting is fine in the dub (and it’s somewhat more pleasantly colloquial than the rather stiff literal translation in the subtitles), it doesn’t match the mouth movements quite as well as the Japanese track. In fact, dialogue is so closely lip-synced to the Japanese language track that, although traditionally done, it looks like was animated to fit the Japanese voice actors. In terms of quality, the sound is fine, clear and well distributed, packing a punch as you would expect on the explosive battle scenes that take place.

English subtitles are in a white font and, given that there is an English dub option, obviously they are optional. There are no problems with the translation, which is literal, but it comes across as a little formal in places and not as colloquial as the English language dub. The thin font however with the lack of border could make it a little difficult to read in places.

The main extra features are two 30-minute interviews. One features director Fumihiko Sori and voice actors Akio Ohtsuka and Romi Park from ‘Elliptical Orbit’, the other the director, and actors Jun Fukuyama and Aya Hirano from ‘Symbiotic Planet’. The most interesting comments inevitably come from the director, who says he use what he calls “3D Live Animation” here as it would otherwise be impossible to make a live-action science-fiction feature in Japan at the moment. It’s clear that given the choice he would rather shoot live-action, but would love for CG to eventually be so good as to be little difference between them. The title “To”, incidentally, was thought necessary to update from the year 2001, which is of course now in the past, and it just means “to” as in moving in a forward direction towards – outward, in the case of space. Other extra features are made up of various promotional material – promos, trailers, teasers and TV spots for the two episodes.

Fans of traditional animation may not be pleased with Fumihiko Sori continuing to push the trend for entirely CG animated series and features, but the techniques are brilliantly, dynamically and effectively employed in To – 2001 Nights, in a way that is appropriate to science-fiction anime and entirely faithful to the subject of Yukinobu Hoshino’s original manga. Two intelligent 40-minute science-fiction stories that blend ideas with action, the only disappointment is that they only make up two of the writer/artist’s stories in the greater story arch of human space exploration covered in the 2001 Nights series. This will no doubt leave you wanting more.

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