Riding Bean Review
I can tell I'm going to get into trouble with this review. Why? Because from what I can gather from my background research on the history of Riding Bean, this show is almost universally adored by animé fans. One small problem... I've watched it through and have to disagree with anyone who grades the actual story above 'mediocre'. (And that's me being generous.)
What's not to like? You want the short list or do you have a few hours free? OK, the short list it is then...
First, there isn't really that much story to begin with. At just under 46 minutes total, Riding Bean's creators apparently felt a bona fide plot would only get in the way of the mindless action. So the entire show feels like something you chanced upon while channel-surfing on TV, discovered you had missed the first half of, and – after staring in trance-like fascination at the seemingly-random events flickering past at high-speed – realised wasn't ever going to make any sense now, and flicked off. The show simply doesn't have a proper beginning or an end... just a middle. Yes, I think that's the most diplomatic way to put it: Riding Bean feels like the middle of some show that might actually have been good, but we'll never know.
Second, there's a really amazing disregard for characterisation in this piece. Sure, 46 minutes doesn't leave a lot of time for developing characters, but it's hardly the audience's fault that the project team chose this miserly length. Even in an action short like this, it's a standard rule that you at least try to flesh out the protagonist a bit... if no one else. Otherwise, why on earth should the viewer care what happens to him? And there we touch upon another major problem with Riding Bean: I just couldn't bring myself to care about any of these characters. (Not that there are many characters to begin with, either.)
The eponymous hero (what kind of name is 'Bean' for a merc, anyway?) is an extraordinarily talented driver who likes to kick back in his kevlar duds (yeah, really comfy, those) and burns up the road in the kind of car James Bond has wet dreams about. Being such a specialist, his minimum fee runs a cool $40,000, whether you want the best getaway driver in the business for your bank heist or a courier for some extremely dodgy goods you need ferried cross-town. His cohort is a gun-toting lass called Rally (yes, the same one who reappears in a slightly modified form in Gunsmith Cats). So far, so good...
...except, erm, that's it. Want to know how Bean got into this line of work? Where he learned his amazing driving skills? Why he holds out for jobs in Chicago despite being desperate for cash and having an utterly insane detective in the CPD gunning for him? How he can take a point-blank shot to the face without dying? How and when he hooked up with Rally? What's her angle? If the two of them are romantically interested in one another? Well, too bad... these characters have no more depth than the previous paragraph paints for them. They have no past. They have no future. Enjoy your 46 minutes.
Third, the antagonists in this show are all utterly one-dimensional. (You know, the 'Bwahaha! I'm doing this for no reason except that it makes the hero's life harder!' variety.) Back at the Police Department, some wild-eyed detective named Percy has it out for Bean, and will go to psychotic lengths to 'get his man'. What did Bean do to this guy to send him sailing over the edge and into la-la land? Sorry, that would be characterisation; we'll have none of that. But this pales in comparison with the absolutely gratuitous violence that is the main villain's trademark. (She's named Semmerling after a handgun manufacturer. Ah, so very clever.)
Semmerling is supposed to be the criminal mastermind that drives the plot of Running Bean (what plot? it's more like a hasty sketch), but she instead seems to be just your run-of-the-mill ruthless thug. Well, perhaps not entirely run-of-the-mill... there is something downright disturbing going on between her and the child she has apparently enlisted to help with her crimes. (Again, an explanation is not even hinted at, so forget it.)
And I do mean disturbing. When in the space of a minute this little girl gigglingly goes from announcing that a grown woman is her 'lover' to offering to 'help' a middle-aged man urinate (because his hands and feet are shackled – you work it out), and then gets backhanded across the floor by Semmerling for being too 'friendly' with their hostage, it just leaves you with an uneasy feeling. It's not as if this is a psychological thriller or anything. It's marketed as – and most of the fans seem to take it as – a light-hearted action piece. So why these dark sexual overtones that don't advance the action, don't develop the characters, and are never followed up again in the storyline? It's all a bit worrying, frankly, and suggests to a cynic such as myself that the author just tossed it in in the hopes that it would make the piece feel more 'gritty'.
Anyway, that will do for a 'short list' of serious flaws with this show. Even the aspects that seem most often praised by fans – like the car-chase scenes, for instance – don't strike me as anything we haven't seen before (ignoring for the moment that Bean's souped-up 'Roadbuster' can drive sideways if necessary). For example, there's a long chase sequence that is practically an exact replica of the one from The Blues Brothers where Jake and Elwood are desperately trying to get to the courthouse in downtown Chicago to pay the taxes on the orphanage. You'll get serious déjà vu just watching it. (But perhaps I'm being too harsh, and this was meant as an homage.)
A lot of other reviewers have described this show as 'mindless fun' and 'a 46-minute action scene'. I'd like to combine these comments and label it 'a mindless 46-minute action scene'. Despite being more or less technically sound on the picture and sound fronts, this just isn't good animé because the story's such rubbish. About the kindest thing I can honestly say about Riding Bean is that the creators obviously did extensive location research of Chicago, because the city all looks spot on. But that's hardly a recommendation of the show.
Now, having read all of the above, you may be shocked to learn I have a few good things to say about Riding Bean. For instance, the video quality is excellent. This is a sharp, bright transfer that really grabs you by both eyeballs and doesn't let go. The black level is nice and deep, the colours are truly vivid, and there's no hint of macroblocking in the entire piece. There is a little bit of dust in the video source material, but it's such a minor thing in a show this old (1989).
(In case you're wondering, the man responsible for this piece is none other than Sonoda Kenichi, the one who brought animé fans such greats as Bubblegum Crash, Otaku no Video, and – the closest match for overall tone – Gunsmith Cats. Visually, this is another nice piece of work in the same vein.)
The audio quality, too, is fairly impressive. The Dolby stereo mix is really quite punchy, which is more important here than in most animé because the project team hired some American musicians to compose the soundtrack for Riding Bean so it would be loaded with authentic-sounding songs. This aspect of the DVD really works... the songs feel right at home in a Chicago car chase flick, and they would almost certainly work just as well if used in a similar live-action film.
Adding to this that there are various points where stereo directionality is used to good effect, and lots of little tricks with acoustics, and it really gives this show a nice and lively sound. It's clear these guys didn't skimp on the production values... just the writing.
However, even though the original Japanese language track seems perfectly OK, there was one very obvious place where the English dub drops the ball. Ignoring for the moment that I'm not sure how fond I was of the actual English voice acting itself, in the scene where Percy (the CPD detective) is being assigned a new case by the police chief, the dynamics are completely off. The police chief has been recorded at a really low level, so to hear what he is saying you have to crank the volume way up. But you can't do that, because Percy's been recorded at a really high level, so everything he says comes across as a deafening shout unless you turn the volume way down.
I honestly don't know how something like this could have slipped past the proofing stage at the dubbing studio. AnimEigo should have a few choice words with the brave lads at Southwynde Studios.
I'm afraid that's pretty much it for the highlights. The menus are rather bland and boring, with the main menu itself being a static shot of Bean and Rally with the Roadbuster... they didn't even bother to put in a sample loop of the great soundtrack music to make things more interesting. The scene selection menu is marginally better as at least they bothered to include animated clips rather than stills of the eight chapters. (Yes, eight... that's what, one breakpoint every six minutes?)
There are ostensibly two 'special features' on this disc, but neither is going to wow you. First, there's an image gallery containing about three dozen pictures, almost all of which seem taken directly from the show. I'll confess that even though they chose to frame this image gallery, the framing job comes across well (hands holding a stack of photos – see below).
The trailer is short and a little pointless – hey, much like the show! – and is actually worth watching just to laugh at the main selling points the narrator throws out, like 'Lots of explosive car chases and violence!' (Woohoo... violence, you say? Well, sign me up!) Anyway, fans may be disappointed when they discover that this isn't an original trailer from the early release days but rather one recently done for the Japanese DVD release.
What's the Japanese for 'avoid'? Honestly, people, I really can't recommend this show to anyone except perhaps completists who simply must have every last thing Sonoda Kenichi has done. Even if you like 'crazy car chases', there must be better animé shows out there for that. (I dunno, at this point even bloody Speed Racer strikes me as a step up from this dreck.)
To be fair, I'll stress again that a lot of people love this show. I'm just not one of them. As I stated above, both the video and audio (with one small glitch) are top-notch, so it's not as if this show is painful on the eyes or ears... just the brain. I hope this review proves useful to someone. Now I go prepare for the inevitable flames to pour into the comments section and my inbox.