If you want a really good hookline for the premise of Freedom, you could best describe it as ‘Akira on the Moon’. That’s a little bit simplistic as a definition though and not entirely accurate, but if it summons up an exciting image in your head, then you won’t be disappointed by the fast-paced, souped-up bike chases through a classic science-fiction setting and the idea of a huge conspiracy that is uncovered by three teenagers who have lived all of their lives under the tight restrictions of the authorities governing the 23rd century Moon colony of Eden. Starting out life as a television advertisement for a brand of Pot Noodle, you could be forgiven however for thinking that the concept might be somewhat over-extended as a three and a half-hour, seven episode OVA – and you could be right – but there’s still much to admire in the animation and the neat symmetry of the series’ construction.
Personally speaking, I was won over right from the Katsuhiro Otomo inspired opening credits of Freedom which capture the artist’s drawing style, technical detail, and shading. Otomo’s input to the series is actually quite minimal – contributing nothing more than the character and mechanical designs for the original television advertisement – but the concept and the designs carry through well to the writer/artist/director’s trademark anti-authoritarian characters in the global conspiracy sci-fi storyline that has been developed into a series. Even in the regular animation throughout the Eden episodes – with its moonscapes and spacesuits, cables, structures and technological detail – the CG techniques enable the animation in Freedom to mimic exceptionally well the feel of Otomo’s drawn line work, while the space sci-fi premise is closer to Memories than it is to the author’s own movie of Akira.
Despite its inauspicious origins then as an advertisement for Nissin Cup Noodle (which are annoyingly still plugged throughout every episode), the concept behind Freedom has a strong enough base that is boosted by the input of writer Katsuhiko Chiba for the first half and Yuuichi Nomura (Gundam) for the second half of the seven episode OVA. Set in the 23rd century, Eden is a Moon colony that was originally set up as a base for planned terraforming of Mars. The disaster of a space station hitting Earth in 2101 however has left the colony to fend for themselves, with Earth now barren, highly radioactive and out of reach. With no communications to the home planet and a sketchy history of the past and the origins of the Moon colony, Eden however has developed into a highly evolved society in its own right – but its citizens consequently are unaware how much is being hidden from them and how much control is being exercised by the authorities over their lives.
Three young teenagers however – Takeru, Kazuma and Biz – who build and race their own bikes, begin to suspect that something about the official view of history handed down by their overly-protective, authoritarian and secretive government doesn’t ring entirely true. When artefacts turn up that suggest that the Earth – which, living on the far side of the Moon, they have never even seen with their own eyes – might not be completely destroyed, they are determined to try to uncover the truth. This is classic paranoia conspiracy science-fiction material, and it’s handled exceptionally well from an animation point of view, the plot and the characters involving, the creation and realisation of the Eden world absolutely stunning to look at. What’s not to love about that?
Well, the problem is where to take it. Inevitably, and giving away as little as possible here, while the first half of Freedom sets up the idea brilliantly, the down-to-earth reality of the second half when some of the boys actually reach Earth (a far-fetched enough concept in itself) becomes rather less compelling. The first half depiction of a futuristic society on the Moon is by no means any more original than the vision of a post-apocalyptic society on Earth in the second half, but the advanced technology scenes are handled with a great sense of pacing and style, the flat (as opposed to 3-D) CG animation giving it all a wonderful sense of movement and fluidity. While the characterisation stays fairly consistent – Takeru having a Kaneda-Kay style crush that drives him to reckless actions – the story becomes rather less interesting when he encounters the object of his affections with surprising ease and the story settles into standard romantic-comedy routines.
With six episodes split fairly evenly then between the space science-fiction, and post-apocalypse Earth episodes, the double-length concluding episode has rather a lot on its hands to bring everything together. While it certainly delivers on the fast-paced action, thrills and spills, the credibility gap – to say nothing of the actual distance covered in space travel – is far too wide to bridge, resulting in some strange character developments and overly convenient turns of events. Worse, the final episode – like the Earth-bound episodes – is burdened with heavy-handed and close to nauseating ‘why can’t we all live together’ messages, grandstanding speech-making and noble, self-sacrificing behaviour. All of which suggests the imposition of a committee-agreed resolution that caters to mass consumption and convention rather than being the product of a unique vision which might let the story and characters evolve in more original or even realistic direction. More Cup Noodle than Otomo then...
Freedom is released in the UK by Manga Entertainment on DVD and Blu-ray. The Blu-ray is available as a Double-play BD/DVD boxset. The BD is encoded at 1080/24p and is presumably locked to Region B only, but this cannot be verified from the checkdisc provided for review.
The 16:9 image looks terrific in High Definition, the picture bright, clear and stable, with excellent colour and contrast tones. There is some slight banding of colours, which can be noticed mainly during fades to black, but whether this is down to the animation tools or the transfer isn’t obvious. It’s not an issue that is going to trouble or even be noticeable to most viewers however.
There are of course both English and Japanese soundtrack options. Both are DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and both sound exceptionally good, so you have a choice of whichever option you prefer. The American English track might be more authentic in this case, as written on-screen messages are in English text and it’s hard to imagine the citizens of Florida being fluent in Japanese. The animation however is obviously lip-synced to the original Japanese language track. The Japanese track unfortunately seemed to go noticeably out of sync by as much as a full second in the second half of Episode 4, which can be quite irritating, and is fractionally out-of-sync to a less noticeable degree in Episode 7 also. I didn’t listen extensively to the US English dub, but there didn’t seem to be any problems with it on Episode 4 at least.
I would point out again however that this is based on a viewing of a pre-release checkdisc, so the problem may well have been corrected. If anyone has any further information on whether this is evident in the retail copy, please add a comment to this review below.
English subtitles are in a white font and are optional for either soundtrack. They are literal and consequently don’t match the English dub. The font is thin, but I didn’t see any problems with readability.
The extra features are numerous, but most are worth your time. The Freedom Digests, Next Episode Trailers, Messages from the Characters, Opening Credits and Closing Credits are all standard fare and of limited interest (although the Opening and Closing Credits here are in English rather than the usual Textless, while on the episodes they are just in Japanese), but there are some good interview and documentary features.
Talking About Freedom, divided into two parts for the two halves of the series, totalling about 40 minutes, has Shuhei Morita, Dai Sato and Gichi Ohtsuka in a round table discussion reflecting on the origins of the project and how it was developed. Freedom in the USA, in two parts totalling 25 minutes, features Shuhei Morita and Dai Sato on a visit to the AX Anime Expo in LA and on a visit to the Smithsonian gathering research materials and getting very excited by the historical artefacts of rocket development and space travel. There’s also a very good 2-part factual documentary, Fly Me To The Moon, on the space race and Apollo missions, but – again perhaps a peculiarity of my checkdisc, I couldn’t get English subtitles for the second part.
All extra features are in Standard Definition PAL (576/50i).
I’m tempted to suggest that Freedom might have been a better series if it had ended at Episode 3 and been left open, as there is very little in the subsequent three episodes or the resolution that lives up to the initial premise. There are however other compensating factors in the design and craft of the series, the story superbly storyboarded and magnificently realised with fluid and not overly evident CG animation. Even if it were just for the first three episodes, Freedom is close to brilliant, and – who knows? – you might even be more satisfied with the remainder of the series than I was.