Brigadoon (Volume 1: Marin & Melan Blue) Review
One of TOKYOPOP's more recent animé properties, Brigadoon tells the story of teenage orphan Marin Asagi living in an alternate-history Tokyo of 1969, and how her life is thrown into disarray with the appearance of a bizarre world in the sky (the eponymous 'Brigadoon') from which issue forth hordes of 'monomakia' (hybrid organic/mecha creatures) that seem bent upon her destruction for reasons unknown to her. Fortunately she stumbles across another monomakia (calling himself Melan Blue) who has a slightly different agenda... protecting her at all costs. And let's not forget the presence of a time traveller apparently sent from the future to keep an eye on her (or maybe merely to watch how events play out, who knows?).
You'd be forgiven for thinking that this show exhibits certain parallels with, say, Terminator 2, but Marin is no Sarah Connor. For one thing, she's only 13. She lives in a tenement house with a ragtag collection of stereotypically kind-hearted folk who are eking out an existence as best they can (but doing so extremely cheerfully, mind you). She goes to a public school where she is teased and bullied for her poverty, but where by some happy chance she has struck up a deep friendship with the richest person in her class, a perpetually wistful-looking girl named Moe who seems hopelessly infatuated with Marin. Our heroine is also unflaggingly industrious, working a paper route among other odd jobs in order to help support the wacky residents of the tenement house.
So there you have the basic concept, but where did it come from? Well, this is a 26-part series initially broadcast on Japanese TV in 2000. Originally called Brigadoon: Marin to Meran ('Marin and Melan'), for its Western release TOKYOPOP has shortened the title to just the first word, which may cause the show to be confused – at least as far as casual Web searches go – with its more famous live-action predecessor in stage and film. (Though it's safe to say there are no Scottish accents in this animé!) Brigadoon's pedigree is fairly secure, coming as it does out of Sunrise, one of Japan's better-known animation studios (the same outfit responsible for massive hits like Cowboy Bebop, Gundam Wing, Outlaw Star, etc.), and with several luminaries on the production staff, including art direction by Takashi Nakamura (Akira, Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind, Robot Carnival).
'Yes, yes,' I hear you saying, 'but what's the show actually like?' Fair enough. Frankly, it's a bit weird, but definitely appealing and eminently watchable. In fact, the only thing it really has going against it is a lack of focus... or perhaps I should say inconsistency of mood. You see, it seems clear the writers never quite decided whether this was going to be a 'serious' show or one hinging on comical hijinks. For instance, one of Brigadoon's recurring schticks is the fact that Marin always seems to imagine the worst possible outcome of any tense moment. (And when I say 'worst', I mean amazingly pessimistic visions of the future that seem utterly incompatible with Marin's usual sunny disposition... generally going so far as to feature her own death.) Alas, these sequences are animated in exactly the same way as the rest of the show, so the first time you encounter them, you naturally assume that what you're being shown is actually happening. And then it happens all over again, differently. (And sometimes it happens a third time, and only then for real!)
So whilst the storyline as presented on this first DVD volume (episodes 1 through 5) tries to feature 'worthy' elements that imply the presence of an ominous backstory and a somewhat dark and uncertain future for Marin, it's hard to take these very seriously when they are constantly intercut with Marin's wacky and completely over-the-top antics. Further, it's an odd amalgam of science fiction (specifically the 'mecha' sub-genre of animé) and something that's almost like a 'magical girl' show, but with the magic replaced by technology. On the other hand, the actual episode structure works more like a 'monster-of-the-week' show, with an apparently-endless series of monomakia assassins showing up to take a stab at Marin... and each time being stopped dead in their tracks by Melan Blue.
It would be hard to argue that Brigadoon isn't a unique experiment, so I look forward to seeing how the series pans out over the coming discs. But for now, on to the episode guide, which should give you a slightly better idea of what you're dealing with here...
1: 'Blue-Coloured Introduction'
Meet Marin, our plucky heroine, as she wends her way down her daily newspaper delivery route. But things get weird right away, as she spots a bizarre cat-like (alien?) creature larking about at the local temple. Following it in typical White Rabbit fashion, she discovers a hidden shrine on the grounds before she's booted out by the caretaker. (This will become important later.) So back to school she goes, where we get a feel for how generally friendless her life away from home is... but today's session of teasing is cut short by the abrupt manifestation of a gargantuan floating world which blots out the entire sky from horizon to horizon. (Indeed, it is not only over Tokyo, but visible from every part of the Earth.)
Now events really kick into gear. Issuing forth from this new world is a sinister robotic contraption that makes a beeline for the tenement house in which Marin lives, and is clearly designed for one purpose only... to kill her! While she scarpers for her life, she somehow manages to make it back to that shrine at the temple, finds a mysterious blue ampoule secreted there, and uses it as her last line of defence against the robot assassin... not realising that it contains Melan Blue, the legendary monomakia knight to whom the shrine was built after he fell to Earth 100 years ago.
2: 'Deep Blue Monomakia'
This episode pauses for a breath... and a bit of exposition. After returning Marin safely to her (justifiably-concerned) friends in the tenement, Melan Blue takes the time to clarify a little of what's happening: namely, that he's a monomakia – a 'living weapon' hailing from Brigadoon, the glowing world that has replaced Earth's sky – and that his only mission is to safeguard Marin. Vexingly, he doesn't go on to explain just why Marin is important to Brigadoon or why the other monomakia want her dead.
Moving on to her next day at school, we see Melan Blue overreact to some bullying by Marin's schoolmates by whipping out a sizable laser gun and blowing holes in the surrounding shrubbery, which sets in motion a chain of events which will lead to serious repercussions by the end of this disc. But that's for another day; at the moment it's about time to cue the arrival of the next set of monomakia assassins... rather inconveniently for Marin just after she scolded Melan Blue for his behaviour, causing him to slink back into his ampoule in shame. In fact, it's only thanks to a timely warning from Lolo (that weird cat-like thing) that she's not at home when the trio of robotic killers pop round her home.
3: 'From Dark Grey Clouds'
The action really begins to ramp up as the local authorities get involved, investigating the scene of the previous monomakia assassination attempt and it's clear that it won't take them long to link the mysterious goings-on to Marin. While her adoptive family scrambles to adapt to Melan Blue's presence while providing what other defence they can (for instance, the tenement's mad scientist type comes up with a completely useless invention which I won't spoil for you), Marin's trying to pretend everything's still OK and heads to school accompanied by her (only?) friend, a timid girl named Moe.
Alas, this is merely setting the stage for a repeat of what happened the previous day, as more bullies attempt to attack Marin and in the process injure Moe. About the only bright spot in this confrontation is when a pink-haired female upper-classman named Midori (apparently a member of the school's kendo club) tosses Marin a wooden sword to fend off her assailants. This leads later in the day to the inevitable showdown between Marin and her antagonists, and again Melan Blue takes a dim view of this and almost lays waste to several classrooms... and you can see by the frightened looks in the eyes of the other children that this incident isn't going to just go away.
4: 'Searching For the Rainbow'
So with things going from bad to worse, Marin decides she can't face the other kids at school and bravely hides under the duvet. She tells Melan Blue off for the destruction he wrought the day before, and suitably chagrined, he disappears back inside the blue ampoule, saying he'll wait until she summons him. So, rather stupidly, she leaves it in her room and goes off for a wander, despite the fact that her teacher is supposed to be coming round later that afternoon for a chat.
Interestingly, the first person she runs into is an odd green-haired boy who seems to know more than he's letting on about current events. Then it's on to the park... where she meets Midori again and has a quick heart-to-heart chat with the older girl just before all hell breaks loose in the form of the next monomakia to try wiping out our Marin. This time it's a curious water-based lifeform (like something from The Abyss, but quite a bit angrier) that seems impervious to normal attacks. While she flees in terror, 'back at the ranch' Grandma is having an interesting discussion with Marin's schoolteacher and Moe turns up just in time to hear that Marin is defenceless unless someone can get the blue ampoule containing Melan Blue to her in time...
5: 'Under the Soda-Coloured Sky'
The cops decide to turn up the heat on Marin, having connected her to Brigadoon and the monomakia, and when two unpleasant detectives turn up at her school, it's clear she's in very serious hot water. But before they can bring her back to headquarters, the latest monomakia assassin (in a ludicrous form that must be seen to be believed!) blows the police car off the road and she escapes with the help of Melan Blue.
Here the show takes a moment to provide some welcome backstory regarding Melan Blue himself, the nature of Brigadoon, and what it is like to grow up as a living weapon. While the authorities scour the streets for Marin, she ducks into a library and discovers the green-haired boy (called Makoto, apparently) doing some research on the legend surrounding the shrine at the temple, which makes for very interesting reading indeed. But things look very black for our heroine when she tries to return home to the tenement house, and this time it's not because of a lurking robotic killer, either...
As mentioned earlier, Brigadoon is a fairly recent Sunrise production, and as might be expected looks really gorgeous. TOKYOPOP didn't drop the ball when it came to the DVD encode either, as this is a dual-layer disc with a suitably high bitrate to ensure that all five episodes come across as picture-perfect. The colour palette of the show is rich and vivid (at times almost 'cartoony', but I'm convinced this is intentional), the backgrounds are free of macroblocking, and the lines are crisp and clean with nary a hint of 'jaggies' or rainbowing. This is a genuinely beautiful transfer whose picture quality brings to mind another of TOKYOPOP's DVD releases, Real Bout High School. Utterly pristine.
In the way of character design, the series is most striking for its contrasts. It's as if there were three different schools of animation all vying for the audience's attention: the ones responsible for the highly-exaggerated child designs, the ones working on the slightly more realistic adults, and finally the team that decided to pull out all the stops on the monomakia. This is not a bad thing, but just be prepared for a bit more variance in the character depictions than you might normally be used to in animé.
Although we're presented with a Dolby 2.0 soundtrack in both the original Japanese as well as the English dub, don't look for a whole lot in the way of left/right directionality when it comes to Brigadoon's many fight sequences... apparently this wasn't a high priority amongst the production teams. This is hardly a major failing, however, as the audio is crystal-clear across the board and the show's music doesn't hesitate to take advantage of stereo separation. Speaking of which, there are some great little tunes to be found in Brigadoon; from the haunting, pseudo-choral OP (opening) theme to the bouncy, addictive whistler that plays over the closing credits, it's catchy stuff.
As for the voice acting, I'm happy to report that listening to the Japanese version is a pleasant, fairly-easygoing experience, with nice voices across the board. However the English dub is a different matter, and honestly the blame for once can be laid at just one person's feet: Marin's VA. While there are a number of good performances among the North American voice cast (including Melan Blue himself, 'Grandma', and the tenement's resident inventor type), you'll probably never get to hear them because Marin's screechy/squeaky/whiny voice dominates every episode and you may find yourself reaching for the AUDIO button on your DVD remote before you ever meet the other principal characters. As for content, there's not many critical changes, although the English dub's dialogue does seem to oversimplify some of the plot elements... and also, annoyingly, changes Moe ('moh.ey') to 'Molly'.
The menus on this DVD are in perfect keeping with the feel of the TV series itself... in other words, they're bright, cheerful, and a little bouncy. While they don't employ any whiz-bang modern menu effects, all of this disc's menus are nice to look at, extremely responsive, and simple to navigate... so they got the canon down, at least. The main menu also features the cute quirk of pretending to be a static screen until the music is about to loop, at which point the drawing of Marin 'leaps' off the screen and back on again. The scene selection menu offers easy access to all of the episodes and a generous number of well-placed chapter breaks for each.
The only actual special features on volume 1 of Brigadoon are the ever-welcome text-free versions of the show's opening and closing segments (the former being particularly lovely, while the latter aims for 'cute and amusing') and a few minutes' worth of out-takes from the English dub of the show. After that, we're reduced to the usual set of extras advertising other DVD releases by the same company, although these are split between the more standard previews (this time around for Real Bout High School, GTO, Reign, Vampire Princess Miyu, and TOKYOPOP's well-respected '100% Authentic Manga' line) and two other adverts in the form of a music video for Initial D and something called GTO: School's in Session.
I like what I've seen of Brigadoon thus far. It's a quirky little TV series with lovable characters and an interesting concept, and (particularly after the cliff-hanger that closes this disc) I'm definitely looking forward to seeing what happens next. It's early days yet, but there's unquestionably lots of elbow room for the writers to move about in, and this animé is certainly a treat visually. While the DVD might not be jam-packed full of special features, it's a good start and hopefully there will be meatier extras yet to come on succeeding discs.