There's a familiar age-old science-fiction concept at the heart of Fractale - that of science versus nature, of technology being a benefit to mankind only until we reach a stage where we become over-reliant upon it and it starts to dominate or enslave our lives. At what point do we surrender our freedoms for life within a guilded cage and - most importantly - is it too late then to do anything about it? There are many variations on this theme and Fractale doesn't perhaps have anything original to bring to the table. Directed by Yutaka Yamamoto, the director formerly from the Kyoto Animation studio and the creator behind Kanon, Lucky Star and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, working with A1-Pictures, you would at least expect a certain amount of style and care in presentation and a freshness of approach to familiar themes. Fractale is no exception to the rule.
Fractale is the name of a vast global computer network in the 22nd century that ensures that everyone's needs are taken care of and people want for nothing - not even the presence of other people. Clain, for example, is a young boy who lives alone in a remote part of the west coast of Ireland, his interaction with his parents limited to the presence of "doppels", computer-generated avatars that don't look particularly human. Most people in fact don't even live in a fixed location, but prefer to move around in caravans and not be tied down. Clain however likes old-fashioned stuff, lives in a house, dabbles in old technology and doesn't really enjoy being alone. It's not natural for humans to be alone surely?
That situation changes rapidly one day when a girl in a priestess costume drops in. And when I say drops in, well it is literally out of the blue. Chased in her flying machine by a pursuing craft, Phryne abandons her craft and is rescued by Clain, who nurses her back to health. Clain is unable to find out just who this enigmatic girl is, but before she leaves Phryne entrusts him with a precious object. Incredibly, when Clain examines the object using his old computer technology, he unleashes a doppel with the very human characteristics and the personality of a 10 year-old girl called Nessa. Even more strangely, he is able to actually physically touch this doppel, even though she clearly appears to be a computer simulation that can only be seen when connected to Fractale.
There are, evidently, people who are looking for Phryne and Nessa, who you will probably not be surprised to discover, turn out to be a "key" that can save Fractale or destroy it. Who would want to destroy a beneficent system that takes care of every human need? Well, there's the Enri, the young troublesome girl in the airship with her two Blues Brother henchmen who were chasing Phryne. Enri and her brother Sunda are members of the Lost Millenium terrorist organisation who live outside of what they consider the "enslavement" of the Fractale network according to the old traditional ways, setting themselves up in violent opposition to the work of the priestesses who govern the devotions to Fractale.
It's not a particularly new idea then by any means, but where Fractale differs from most science-fiction works that explore this concept is that it doesn't see things in straightforward black-and-white terms. Sure, everyone knows that too much reliance on technology will undoubtedly be regarded in a bad light, but are the terrorist activities, murders and ruthless behaviour of the Lost Millenium organisation against Fractale-connected citizens really necessary and justifiable? Not everyone is as innocent as they seem, nor indeed is the world quite what it seems in Fractale and you find your own position and sympathies changing and wavering as the series progresses.
The key to making the ambiguities within the series work is in the quality of the animation. Fractale, like just about every series I've seen from the A1-Pictures studio, looks gorgeous in its creation of the world and it populates director Yutaka Yamamoto's world with fully-realised personalities in attractive character designs. A1-Pictures do tend to excel however in working with familiar themes and genres, borrowing ideas here and there where necessary but only taking from the best. It certainly borrows heavily from other similarly themed series for specific effects. There's a little bit of Miyazaki's Porco Rossi in the female characters and their flying aircrafts mixed with a little bit of Otomo's Steamboy and even Akira in the child-like "key" that is capable of unleashing powerful apocalyptic devastation, and you'll even recognise elements from The Matrix in the overall SF concept and Star Wars references are of course inevitable. The real skill of the animators however is in helping Yamamoto's characters come to life and express the ambiguity of their position in subtle expressions, gestures and movements.
With a strong concept, a credible worldview and realistic characters who you are capable of sympathising with, characters you can recognise as being fully in possession of individual personalities that are not just a mere conglomeration of stereotypical mannerisms, you're half-way there. Fractale however also has exactly what is needed in terms of pacing, planning and plotting to deliver the action, the excitement and the revelations in the most thrilling way. At only eleven episodes however it's all over much too soon, and you might find you would have liked to spend a little more time with these characters and explore more facets of this unusual new world before it's all inevitably changed, but that could just be the Fractale implant in me talking.
Fractale is released in the UK by Manga Entertainment on DVD only. The complete 11-episode series is collected as a 2-disc set. The DVDs are both dual-layer DVD-9 discs. The set is encoded for Region 2.
Apart from the bright yellow subtitles, there's not much wrong with the transfer. Fractale mostly uses a lighter palette, but there is bolder colouration in certain sequences for effect. All the colour schemes come across well in the transfer, the image is clear and sharp and there are no significant issues with colour banding. Generally the series looks well in the Standard Definition format.
The original Japanese soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 only while the English dub is Dolby Digital 5.1. Both are reasonably good, but the English surround mix evidently has a little bit more of an edge, and it means you can do without the horrible yellow subtitles. With the series opening in what appears to be Ireland, I found the American accents a little off-putting however and settled for the original Japanese audio myself. Authenticity of accent and language is hardly a question however since we're talking about the 22nd century here and we could all be speaking Japanese or English with an American accent then. Who knows?
The only extra features on the set are American cast Commentaries for Episode 1 and Episode 7 and a US Trailer.
The outcome of any science-fiction series that deals with the themes of technology running out of control and taking over our lives is somewhat inevitable, but Fractale at least has more than a few strengths in its presentation. It's director Yutaka Yamamoto and A1-Pictures who are undoubtedly the main forces behind the success of the series, and like the best examples of this SF subjectFractale manages to repackage old ideas with considerable style, freshness to deliver an exciting adventure. The DVD from Manga Entertainment collects the entire 11 episodes of the series in a fine 2-DVD set.