R.O.D. The TV Series (Volume 5: The Darkest Hour) Review
In 'The Darkest Hour', volume 5 of 7 in MVM's DVD release of R.O.D. The TV Series, we witness a reprise of the 'cliffhanger-to-cliffhanger' format of the previous disc. (That is, the DVD opens with the conclusion to previous volume's cliffhanger and then makes sure that it concludes on a brand-new one.) Whilst ostensibly this all sounds very exciting, one mustn't forget that there are two episodes sandwiched in the middle... and in this case, both of these are relatively quiet affairs by comparison, so I wouldn't really class this an 'action-packed' instalment of R.O.D..
Having (just) escaped the clutches of the British Library's Special Operations unit - whose vast overarching control of every aspect of the globe make the Illuminati look like a bunch of bumbling amateurs - our protagonists take a little break in the countryside, hook up with Junior, and enjoy another one-and-a-half episodes of flashbacks because the writers obviously feel that this is the only way to drive home their point about Yomiko's tragic past. That exposition conveniently out of the way, only then do Mr Joker et al remember that, 'Oh yeah, maybe it might be a good idea to capture them and get that book thingy we need back so we can reincarnate Mr Gentlemen and push through our plans for UK world domination.'
Normally the last episode on this disc would make up for the shortfalls of the previous three by ending on a jarring note (as this one does), but the problem here is that the audience doesn't believe for one minute that the writers would kill off five of their principal characters in one pointless go, so it all feels hollow and artificial.
I'm disheartened to admit that my enjoyment of this series is gradually waning with each new DVD release. Not only has the show's content moved away from the elements of R.O.D. that I most enjoyed (the interesting character sketches, the focus on the semi-comic interpersonal dynamic between Anita and her sisters or the Paper Sisters and Nenene, the sweet one-off stories that - despite being occasionally formulaic - succeeded in telling a good tale well in a single episode, etc.) and towards the aspects that are by far the most problematic (e.g., the preposterous overarching plot which calls not so much for a suspension of disbelief but rather a complete unfamiliarity with what 'disbelief' might be, the clumsy exposition of 'necessary' backstory, and scriptwriting which becomes more sloppy the further along one ventures). All I can say is that it's a good thing I still love the characters; even the 'paper master' battles are starting to look a bit stale, as if the writers and animators couldn't think of any new wrinkles on this visual device.
17: 'Sweet Home'
Following directly on from the action of the previous episode, this one sees our band of plucky heroines - the Paper Sisters, author Nenene Sumiregawa, ex-British agent Yomiko Readman, and her charge Nancy - face off against Wendy Earheart over the Book of the All-Seeing Eyes in Jinbo-cho and then scarper as Mr Joker and the backup forces of the British Library's Special Operations draw near. Luckily for them, Yomiko's old mate Drake turns up to help spirit them out of the city and to an old house in the country she used to own. (Of course, not going directly to a known prior residence when you're on the run from your previous secret agency employers would probably be obvious to anyone with the IQ of a lawn chair, but I guess they never got around to teaching Yomiko commonsense in spy school.) Junior, assigned by Wendy and Mr Joker to case the place, makes a grab for the Book of the All-Seeing Eyes but fails to get away with it... particularly when, in the course of a standoff at gunpoint, Yomiko reveals who his mother really is.
Since the gals are so nice, after a bit of a talking to Junior is welcomed into the household where he continues his somewhat tentative friendship with Anita. In 'not so happy' news, an angst-ridden Yomiko has locked herself in an upstairs bedroom, her only companion a concerned Nancy. (No, no one knows why she won't talk about whatever it is that's eating her up inside.) Meanwhile in Gotham City, Mr Joker is calmly issuing orders to both the US President and the UK Prime Minister regarding the control of media distribution channels, so, erm, that's OK then. And Wendy (who of course knows exactly where Junior was assigned before he mysteriously stopped reporting in) wants to go after him herself, but is told to prepare an important briefing for every publishing company on the planet to adhere to from now on. (Good grief.) And back on the home front, Yomiko reveals all about what happened six years earlier when she 'resigned' her post at the British Library, so prepare for some heavy flashback action.
17: 'The Family Game'
The full scope of Mr Joker's plans for Junior now revealed, he sends in a team led by 'Mirror Man' (an agent who can make himself look like anyone else or even turn himself invisible by subtly altering the way light refracts around him) to recover not only the Book of All-Seeing Eyes, but Junior as well. When a sneak attack in the middle of the night incapacitates the others, it's left to Yomiko and Anita to regain the upper hand and rescue their friends.
17: 'Bonjour Tristesse'
A bonding episode for Anita and Yomiko, who have been somewhat at odds ever since a flashback in the previous episodes revealed that Yomiko's explosive departure from the services of the British Library's Special Operations unit may have been what sparked Anita's latent abilities as a 'paper master' and in the process wiped out any trace of Anita's past life before that day. Of course, just when things are looking like there might be a mending of the ways between the two, disaster strikes. The helicopter they believe to be carrying Junior, Nenene, Maggie, Michelle, and Nancy explodes in a fireball just as they manage to catch up with it. Cue cliffhanger until disc six.
Same drill as with the previous four volumes of R.O.D.: pristine video in its original 4:3 non-anamorphic presentation, great character designs, fluid animation during the fight scenes, and very minimal cross-colouration and generally non-existent background grain. Likewise, the soundtrack is crisp and clear whether you select the Dolby 2.0 or 5.1 Japanese or the 5.1 English dub. Voice acting is above average for the dub crew, with no cringeworthy performances.
Save the intro menu transition, the disc menus are static and utilitarian, but get the job done. The special features available on volume 5 include the now-standard commentary (by the English dub staff, not the original Japanese VAs) on one episode, an art gallery containing 14 images total (and which seems to be scraping the barrel now, with most of those being random pencil sketches of characters which do not even appear in these episodes), the text-free ending animation that accompanies the end credits scroll, and - by far the most charming extra - Japanese previews of episodes 18-21. (These are listed on the disc as for '17-20', but since they originally appeared at the end of those four episodes and are actually previews of 18-21, I consider this somewhat misleading.) These previews aren't just your average, stale, 'Join us for next week's exciting episode, where X does Y and then Z!' Instead, the Japanese VAs are brought in to record a freeform narration over some random scenes from the next episode, which they haven't been told anything about save its title. They chat amongst themselves in character (so Anita's VA is addressed as 'Anita-chan' by the other actresses, and so on) and speculate randomly and amusingly on what next week's instalment could possibly be about. Very funny stuff.
I've had to mark down the 'Film' score (again) because R.O.D. has problems that need to be addressed. I know a lot of people love this series to death, and I'm sorry because I warmed to it at the start as well... but shows that insult my intelligence and go from a strong start to mid-series lazy writing and direction don't really cut it for me. Despite there still being a lot to like about the characters, with the way things are going at the moment plot-wise, I can't imagine R.O.D. ending on anything resembling a satisfying note. So it is with a certain amount of trepidation that I look forward to the sixth and penultimate DVD release in a few months' time.