Gokudo (Volume 1: Swordsman Extraordinaire) Review
'OK, OK, I'll admit my dark secret... I laughed at Gokudo. A lot. But for God's sake don't quote me on that; I've got my rep as an intellectual to protect.'
Many viewers of this series may find themselves in a similar position to the (entirely fictitious!) person quoted above. This is a fantasy show that revels in low-brow humour and physical comedy (yes, replete with fart jokes) in a way that aspires to the same sort of animated parody as South Park (minus the barbed social commentary and extraterrestrial anal probes, of course).
The show's creators have unflinchingly portrayed an anti-hero with no redeeming features whatsoever. The eponymous lead character is base, crude, rude, greedy, conniving, dishonest, thoughtless, and really not very bright. He seems to spend every idle moment doing something unsavoury with his hands, be it picking his nose, cleaning the wax out of his ears, or what have you. He's the kind of guy who would sell his mother for a few gold coins, and who's tried to swindle every person he's ever met. He doesn't believe in friends, so he's more than happy to betray anyone foolish enough to rely on him. An all-around nice guy, you know?
'So,' I hear you ask, 'why on earth would I want to watch a show where he's the protagonist?' Two reasons leap to mind... 1, the series may be named after him, but the core cast is already up to half a dozen people by the end of this first disc, and these characters more than make up for his (many) deficiencies; and 2, it's great fun to watch Gokudo get his comeuppance again and again (in various inventive ways) throughout the show.
In fact, I think that's the underlying secret to this series' success. Gokudo is a despicable excuse for a human being, but things never truly go his way. He tends to get what's coming to him... over and over. (The fact that these setbacks never seem to dim his conviction in his own eventual success are either a sign of some latent optimism in his nature... or further evidence of his own overweening stupidity.)
He's surrounded by a wide spectrum of associates, every last one of which is a better person than he is. Much of the show's comedy derives solely from his interactions with them; while he treats them as poorly as you'd expect, they seem to take almost perverse pleasure in forcing friendship on him. Gokudo desperately wants to be rid of them, but they are unshakeable. He endeavours to swindle them, and it always backfires. He attempts to threaten them, and he gets laughed at. He tries to impress them with his only bona fide talent - swordsmanship - and finds out he's utterly outclassed by a tomboy princess who views him as a chaos attractor (and therefore a free ticket to interesting adventures). And so on...
The great characters really are this show's primary strength. I would say the interpersonal chemistry in Gokudo absolutely shines by comparison to other fantasy/comedy animé series, such as Slayers, Dragon Half, or Ruin Explorers. Of these, the closest show in feel would certainly be the first, but it would be a bit unfair to suggest that Gokudo is derivative of Slayers. Not only does Gokudo seem to delight in laying waste to every sacred cow of the standard epic fantasy genre (whereas Slayers spends much of its time pursuing a serious fantasy backstory), but Lina Inverse is not all that bad a person, despite her temper and her gluttony.
Of course, the flip side of this is that Gokudo is not a show that takes its storyline very seriously. Concepts are introduced, experimented with, parodied, twisted into amusing balloon-animal shapes, and discarded in favour of the next batch of wild ideas. The writers are clever enough not to draw out any particular plot arc to the point where it might grow stale, and confident enough to use and then throw away appealing sub-plots that might have formed the basis for an entire series of their own.
Nor is the pace of the show any slouch, either. In every way a match for Gokudo's own frenetic demeanour (and the fact is, he's an incredibly animated character and is entertaining to watch in his own right), each episode barrels along at a remarkable clip. You've heard the phrase, 'We do more before breakfast than most people get done all day'? Well, Gokudo's like that. Absolutely relentless. (The difference between this show and the people who came up with the above expression is that Gokudo has a lot of fun doing it.)
For example, the series absolutely thrives on wonderfully anachronistic in-jokes. When an important bit of exposition is undertaken, the show will cut to Gokudo munching on popcorn at a cinema or watching the backstory presentation on a widescreen TV. At one point we see an Arabian genie use an answering machine to screen one of Gokudo's summoning requests. Also popular is the computer game motif, as when a particularly heavy battle sequence is swapped for a simplistic arcade game version 'due to budget constraints', or when the series' cute bunny girl can be seen playing a Legend of Zelda-like RPG representation of Gokudo's current journey.
This first DVD volume, entitled Gokudo: Swordsman Extraordinaire, contains a generous allotment of five episodes, which fully cover the first 'story arc' and part of the second. As usual, there are bound to be spoilers in the following synopses, so if you want to see the show with a completely fresh eye, you may want to skip down to the 'Picture' section of this review.
1: 'Suddenly, I'm a Girl!'
Enter our (for lack of a better word) 'hero'. We find Gokudo in some random medieval dive, trying hard to brush off an old foretuneteller who's warning him that the Magic King is out to kill him. To really set the tone for the series, we watch him: 1, con a free meal out of her; 2, nick her coinpurse; and 3, make good his escape by way of a vile burst of flatulence on his way out the front door.
The joke's on him, though... not only does her purse turn out to contain a rock (instead of the gold or gems he was more or less hoping for), but when he throws it against the nearest wall a genie (not so imaginatively named Djinn) pops out. Gokudo promptly wishes for fame, gold, and 'hot babes', which only results in the genie launching into a moral lecture about the human condition and why the former shouldn't squander his wishes on such base desires.
And that's just the first few minutes of the episode. To give you a better feel for the blitzkrieg pace of the show, we then proceed quickly through: the abduction of his landlord's daughter, Gokudo's extortion of him for rescue of same, his battle with mysterious knights, the acquisition of a magic sword, his attempts to sell same once he discovers that he can summon it back at any time, the discovery that Djinn likes a good drink (or twenty), the transformation of Gokudo into a woman by said drunken genie, their kidnapping by evil forces, and the usual 'vestal virgins about to be sacrificed' chat with their fellow abductees in the dungeon cell.
2: 'Sappy Sidekick, Bracing Appearance'
We learn that his cellmates include Rubette (a bona fide princess who's a lot more interested in a good swordfight than in waiting for Prince Charming to show up), Asuga (that landlord's daughter he was paid to rescue, but blew off instead) and Mora (a mysterious 'hot babe' with a preternatural awareness of magical traps). While searching for some way of out of the Magic King's parlous castle, they run across Seigi, your typical 'Prince Valiant' style caricature... handsome, gallant, charming, noble, and bland. While Asuga swoons, Gokudo's ready to vomit, and it's only through further manipulation by Mora (mainly by appealing to his endless greed for gold) that he agrees to help the others kill the King. Oh, yeah, and Gokudo's actually a 'prince' himself. Well, sorta. Fortunately for him, this revelation is made by someone in a position also to revert him back to his male self.
3: 'Please, Grant My Last Wish'
In the final episode of this three-part arc, our heroes converge on the throne room (only after contending with a hall of enchanted mirrors and Gokudo's abortive attempt to throw in with their enemies). The Magic King apparently didn't get the memo that Gokudo's rotten to the core, though, because he attacks the party with a knockout gas that only affects people with 'a good heart'. While his mates fall into a drugged stupor, Gokudo merely laughs and cuts loose with his very own 'gas attack', which, erm, 'revives' the lot of them. (I did warn you this wasn't an intellectual programme, right?) In the end, this whole epic combat turns out to be a marital spat between the Magic King and his 'lovely' wife... the same wrinkled crone that Gokudo ripped off two episodes back, who's also the genie's boss.
4: 'The King's Race: Ready or Not, Here I Come!'
Starting off a new adventure (and ditching Seigi and Asuga, thankfully), this episode has the rare distinction of killing Gokudo in the first few minutes, as he gets accidentally shoved off a cliff by Rubette, who had been dogging his steps since he escaped from the Eschallato empire. (For the curious, he used his last wish to get Djinn to turn him back into a commoner after a frightening bout with the strictures of royal life.) But he's still interested in getting filthy rich, so it's not hard for one of the three princesses of Parmette - after resurrecting him, natürlich - to convince him to sign up for something called 'the King's Race'. Not that Gokudo has a clue what he's getting himself into. Highlights include a confrontation with the 'Dumpling King', a restaurateur-cum-martial-artist whom Gokudo (unsurprisingly) gipped out of a sizable meal at some point in the past.
5: 'The Riddle of Sphinx'
Here's another good example of what's endearing about Gokudo. Take your basic fantasy premise (Parmette is a land awash with magic, but something has gone terribly wrong with the natural order of things), focus on a ridiculous consequence of same (the mythical beasts of the region have lately been metamorphosing into preposterous hybrid monsters, like the 'fearsome' sand parrot), and then do an anachronistic take on the situation (the kingdom derives most of its revenue from tourism, with people travelling thousands of miles to gawk at Parmette's weird creatures... which are now so silly-looking that no one wants to see them and the royal coffers are dangerously close to emptying).
Of course, this episode also manages to work in a wisecracking unicorn, a Sphinx that gets so annoyed at Gokudo that she demands a 'moon drop' instead of asking a proper riddle, and a little demon masquerading as a monk of wisdom called Ikkyu, who is so taken with how evil Gokudo himself is that he actually compliments the guy. (You know, the usual stuff.)
Gokudo is presented in its original TV aspect ratio of 4:3, and there's nothing wrong with the picture quality on this disc. Releasing the show on dual-layer DVDs, it seems that Media Blasters left itself sufficient elbow room to set the bitrate nice and high. I didn't notice any rainbowing going on, nor any colour bleeding despite the show using a very vivid palette. Aliasing was limited to a very few instances during camera pans, and there weren't any instances of ugly macroblocking as far as I could tell. There were a couple of places where I think CGI may have been used, but if so it's not jarring and seems to blend in well with the otherwise 'cartoony' character of the animation. About the only minor problem was the usual one for animé DVDs: subtle background grain.
As for the animation quality itself, it's solid but nothing extraordinary. One thing that might vex fans of epic battle scenes is the fact that Gokudo takes them about as seriously as it takes everything else... which is to say, not at all. I personally find it quite refreshing to have the animators continuously come up with new and inventive ways of breezing through what would otherwise be lengthy combat sequences. However, it's only fair to point out that these amusing brief cut-scenes are being used as a shorthand not merely because they're funny, but because they're a lot easier to animate than the alternative. Perhaps Gokudo didn't have a particularly large budget when it went into production.
In fact, most scene changes are handled by an adorable little bunny girl done in SD [super-deformed] style, who inevitably seems to have a life of her own that interferes with her (apparent) job of keeping all of the show's transitions running smoothly. She's very entertaining to watch, but in Gokudo so much is happening in the actual story that you won't have time to wonder what she'll be getting up to next time you see her.
Although ostensibly a stereo presentation in both the original Japanese language and the English dub, I found personally that there seemed to be not only better stereo separation but also improved directionality on the Japanese track... particularly during fight scenes, where it helps flesh out the battle. The English track seemed a bit flatter (and, by the way, louder) by comparison, but this is really the only actual drawback to it.
Yes, you read that correctly. I, who normally am dismayed by the general quality (or lack thereof) in English dubs of animé, found the one on Gokudo to be fairly appealing. Particularly good is Gokudo himself, which is carried off with panache by his North American voice actor. In fact, although there are some ups and downs when it comes to the various VA's deliveries, there just aren't any bad voices in this dub. (You know... the kind that set your teeth on edge and cause you to fumble blindly for the AUDIO button on the DVD remote control.)
I still slightly prefer the Japanese language version, but it's a much closer thing that usual. Speaking of which, if you do watch the show in Japanese, be prepared for quite a few typos in the subtitles. Although Media Blasters have given us extremely legible subs for this show (a yellow-on-black font with nice thick borders), a proofreader might have come in handy, as I spotted at least half a dozen obvious mistakes in the episodes on this disc.
The music and sound effects are also competently done, but neither the OP or ED song is something you're likely to be humming to yourself down at the shops. (Although it has to be said, the staccato 'Wake up!' intro to the latter is definitely good for a few laughs.)
The main menu on this first Gokudo DVD has a nice looping animation clipped from the show's end credits sequence, with our hero hightailing it across the landscape with Rubette and Djinn in hot pursuit. A nice sample of the show's music plays underneath. Otherwise it's fairly unremarkable, offering only the most basic of options ('Play', 'Setup', 'Scene Access', and 'Trailers').
Speaking of which, although there's nothing wrong with the 'Setup' sub-menu (which gives you the usual four combinations of Japanese/English language and subtitles on/off), the 'Scene Access' one could use a bit of work. Not only does it not bother to name any of the five episodes included on this disc, but the menu itself is somewhat clunky to navigate... particularly if all you want to do is step forward to one of the later episodes on the DVD. In its defence, however, it does provide five chapter stops per episode... which means, for example, that you can easily skip the opening theme music if you like and jump right to the start of the show.
As for special features... well, I'm afraid there just aren't any. There's the standard pseudo-extra of a handful of trailers for other Media Blasters properties, but even that doesn't quite work properly. When you go to play them, there's no sound. (No, really... it's the strangest thing.) I even tried pressing the AUDIO button on my DVD remote in case it was something silly like they had been recorded on another audio track, but still all I heard was the sound of silence. (And not the Simon and Garfunkel tune, either.) Oh, well.
As for the packaging, it's your basic black Amaray case with a colourful piece of cover art featuring several of the main characters in an action pose. Definitely looks eye-catching, but what's with the rubbish insert they've provided? On one side is an advert for other Media Blasters releases, and on the other is a breakdown of the chapter stops on the disc that doesn't even name the episodes in question. Whereas other distributors commonly provide one- or two-sentence synopses of each episode on their DVDs, here we are only treated to numbers. An oversight, albeit a minor one.
What can I say? Gokudo is funny as all hell. At first I didn't know if I'd be able to get past my dislike of the protagonist, but by the middle of this DVD I knew that wasn't going to be a problem. As I've said, the cast (which got off to a slightly shaky start) quickly developed into a character dynamic that's great to watch. The stories aren't anything likely to win literary accolades, but they are clever and fast-moving; this show never gives you a chance to get bored. Add to that the zany anachronistic humour, the bunny girl, and Gokudo's entry into the 'Most Evil Grin in the Known Universe' competition, and I think we may have a winner here.