Bubblegum Crisis Collection (Box Set) Review
The 1980s was a decade which saw the appearance of many of the archetypical animé series that have since gone on to be regarded as 'classics', particularly amongst Western viewers. It was a period where shows were being produced that would actually be viewed soon after by an audience outside of Japan... and not merely by a handful of 'first wave' fans, either. If you've been following Japanese animation for more than the past 5 years and you didn't grow up in Japan, then chances are good your first exposure to animé was through one of those quintessential 80s series, such as Macross, Dirty Pair, Ranma ½, Kimagure Orange Road, Urusei Yatsura, Vampire Princess Miyu... or Bubblegum Crisis.
For those out there who haven't run across this 8-part OVA (original video animation) series yet, the title probably leaves you wondering just what sort of crisis could be precipitated by bubblegum, but please put any such thoughts from your mind. The core premise behind Bubblegum Crisis is that, in the wake of a devastating earthquake that lays waste to Tokyo in 2025 (from the number of times Tokyo is razed to the ground in animé, you begin to wonder if the Japanese have some sort of secret death wish for their capital) a massive new megalopolis is constructed, primarily on the backs of a new type of workforce: the 'boomer'. An innovation that melds robotics, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology, boomers are the creation of GENOM... perhaps the world's largest corporation (and, as is par for the course, one that is vastly more concerned with profits than the safety of the citizenry).
So it comes as little surprise that this nascent technology of rushed-to-market worker androids has more than a few wrinkles that need ironing out. In a plot device worthy of, erm, I, Robot (the film, not the collection of short stories by Isaac Asimov on which it pretends to be based), boomers in 2032 have a distressing tendency to run amok and go on human-killing sprees. At times like these, the citizens of Mega-Tokyo look to a special boomer-control division known as the AD Police to safeguard them from harm... but our boys in blue are criminally underfunded (no pun intended) and thus easily outmanned and outgunned by their murderous cybernetic quarry.
Luckily for everyone (except the boomers, that is), another force has appeared on the scene to quell the chaos and protect the populace: the 'Knight Sabers'... a secret group of four women from different walks of life who are ready to climb into powered - and did I mention, flight-capable? - battle suits at a moment's notice to combat boomers gone berserk. Led by Sylia Stingray, brilliant daughter and heir to the fortune of the scientist in charge of GENOM's boomer development programme (who perished in a laboratory accident many years earlier), the team also includes: Nene, an electronic warfare specialist whose day job as an operator at AD Police HQ gives her the inside scoop on boomer-related trouble; Linna, a close combat specialist who works as an aerobics instructor by day; and - last but not least - Priscilla, an assault specialist whose public persona is that of the lead singer in the popular rock group 'Priss and the Replicants'. (And yes, this is an homage to Blade Runner.)
And there you have it. Whilst there are a handful of other protagonists to be factored in, such as the dashing Leon McNichol (an experienced member of the AD Police who spends most of his spare time trying to chat up Priss) and Mackey Stingray (Sylia's younger brother and 'jack of all engineering trades'... although there's quite a lot more to him that isn't revealed until the follow-up series, Bubblegum Crisis 2040), you'll get along just fine knowing that our cheerful quartet of vigilantes will do everything in their power to save the day. And, when you're going up against the fiendish arsenal of GENOM, that's saying something.
This is the first time Bubblegum Crisis has been made directly available to the UK market, as the previous Western release of the series on DVD (by AnimEigo) was US-only. With a street date of 2 August 2004, you should be able to find the new version by MVM (AnimEigo's UK distributor) in your favourite video shop immediately after reading this write-up. However, there are a few things to bear in mind in this regard.
MVM has announced that the 4-disc version of the Bubblegum Crisis box set (containing the 8 OVA episodes spread across three single-layer DVDs plus a bonus 'Hurricane Live' disc containing two collections of music videos from the series) will be a limited release, with only 1000 copies going to print. After those have sold out, future distributions of the box set will only include the first 3 discs (the third of which, by the way, does include 4 music videos, though nothing like the selection provided on the 'Hurricane Live' disc).
As an incentive to propel fans into ordering early, this is a good thing. But I confess to being slightly sceptical of the long-term impact of this marketing ploy, and primarily for one reason alone: the new 'limited' MVM release, as far as I can tell, is precisely the same as the old AnimEigo release, but featuring a new region code (R2) and vastly-improved packaging. Yes, the actual content of the 4 DVDs appears to be precisely the same, right down to the original menu designs.
Bearing in mind that the AnimEigo release has been available for many years now and that it was warmly received when it first came out (with the exception of the packaging, which apparently consisted of blank jewel cases instead of Amarays, housed in something akin to an oversize cardboard 'computer game' box), it's not necessarily a bad thing if only the packaging - and not the actual content - has been upgraded.
However it should be noted that the old version has recently been withdrawn from sale on the AnimEigo website, and a notice there informs visitors that the company is currently preparing a new version. To quote: "We hope to have BGC back on the market soon in new packaging, featuring an updated video transfer and possibly some extra goodies as well."
Which leaves matters slightly in limbo for dedicated Bubblegum Crisis aficionados here in the UK. Should you buy the current MVM release (which is, by the way, perfectly acceptable both in quality and content)... or should those of you with multi-region DVD players hold out for untold months on the off-chance that AnimEigo will turn out an even better version sometime next year?
1: 'Tinsel Town'
Getting the series off to a good start, the early parts of this episode cut back and forth between a performance by Priss and the Replicants and a developing boomer threat that both the AD Police and the Knight Sabers begin to mobilise for. Since this means we get to see all four of the heroines shift from their 'public personalities' and don full mecha-style powered exoskeletons, it's a good all-round introduction. Having put down the rogue boomer quite handily, the ladies are soon contacted indirectly by the USSD (essentially the agency in charge of the world's space defence grid), who seem inordinately keen to rescue Cynthia, a little girl who has been kidnapped... and who is, naturally, much more than she seems.
2: 'Born To Kill'
Continuing the scenario begun in 'Tinsel Town', after the near-disastrous battle that concluded the first episode, the USSD belatedly provides a bit more information regarding 'Cynthia'... namely that she was an advanced military prototype with the ability to control hundreds of satellites in orbit, each armed with a particle beam weapon that could be aimed anywhere at the surface of the Earth. (Which, hey, you'd naturally make look like a little girl, right?) Although Cynthia was rendered inoperable by the battle, her 'black box' survived and the USSD wants it back. Unfortunately, GENOM's salvage team beat them to it...
3: 'Blow Up'
Things come to a head between the Knight Sabers and GENOM (and, most specifically, chief executive Brian J. Mason), as the megacorp's plans for obtaining ownership and redevelopment rights to large swaths of the city (by terrorising the rightful residents with combat boomers) begin to rub our gals the wrong way. This episode concludes the first major arc (sometimes referred to as 'the Mason arc') of BGC.
4: 'Revenge Road'
In a respite from the more 'serious' material that came before, the story here seems slightly better suited to You're Under Arrest: namely, a mysterious classic car (the Griffon) has begun making nightly appearances at the haunts of various motorcycle gangs, having a penchant for thrashing them in high-speed altercations on the roads of Mega-Tokyo with no regard for the lives of innocent motorists that might get in the way. Of course, it's only when the Griffon makes Priss eat tarmac that the Knight Sabers get personally involved.
5: 'Moonlight Rambler'
Returning to the cyberpunk feel of the first arc, this episode also picks up on several of those early plot threads. Whilst the core story revolves around four women in a desperate bid to escape Genaros, the SDPC's orbital supply station for humanity's moonbases, the real action gets underway when it is revealed to the viewer that the shuttle they've stolen contains something GENOM desperately wants to keep secret... a 'super-boomer' named Largo, incorporating Cynthia's 'black box' and an AI mind based on none other than the Knight Sabers' arch-nemesis, Mason!
6: 'Red Eyes'
And where would a series like this be without the obligatory 'frame up' episode? Whilst Largo continues to pursue his megalomaniac dreams of ruling the world directly rather than through anything so mundane as the GENOM corporation, he realises he has to get rid of the Knight Sabers once and for all, and so arranges for some look-alikes to be mocked up to give the ladies a bad reputation and turn their allies against them.
7: 'Double Vision'
As if having only one rock star as a mover-and-shaker in the Bubblegum Crisis universe wasn't sufficient, here we are introduced to 'Vision', an American performer who has just decided to come out of semi-retirement and embark upon a new world tour starting in - you guessed it - Mega-Tokyo. As usual, she has a darker agenda and one that is closely linked with the manoeuvrings of GENOM. But the real question for the Knight Sabres is... is she friend or foe?
8: 'Scoop Chase'
In this slightly silly conclusion to an otherwise decent series, the Knight Sabers are stalked by a young reporter who wants to expose their true identities, whilst yet another force within the GENOM organisation decides to make a name for himself by wiping out our heroines with a special 'technique-learning' boomer.
This OVA series was produced for television broadcast and is presented in the standard 4:3 aspect ratio. Whilst there's nothing actually bad about the video quality of the 8 episodes, neither is there anything particularly praiseworthy. The truth is, this is a 1987 production and the animation really does look dated. The colour palette is restricted (although perhaps this was a stylistic choice, with all the drab greys and blues meant to underscore the gritty 'cyberpunk' feel of Mega-Tokyo), fight scenes aren't precisely overflowing with detail and fluid movements, and for an OVA series it doesn't appear all that much money was earmarked for trying to get '3D effects' animation right. The print, although in mostly good condition, does exhibit some dust and scratches here and there (albeit mostly in the early trio of episodes) and from looking at it, it's safe to say no video remastering work has been done on it.
I know the above sounds predominantly negative, but there's a lot of good to counterbalance these minor failings. First off, the character designs are quite passable, establishing early on a unique and easily-identifiable look for each of the four heroines (something that's pretty important in a show like this, where you don't want to be confusing the principals). Similarly, the mechanical designs and general backgrounds (city buildings, transit system, etc.) are well-rendered (if not super-detailed) and appealing to the eye. As is not surprising on what is essentially an AnimEigo release, the optional subtitles are superb throughout, coming in different colours and with a strong outline to make them readable against any background. (Interestingly, they are provided in both English and French!) And finally, the encode looks very good considering that these are all DVD5s, with only occasional instances of rainbowing and absolutely no macroblocking visible in areas where a solid colour predominates. Overall, a better-than-average showing and certainly nicer looking than the old VHS releases.
The only comment I should add before moving on concerns the three 'live music videos' included on the bonus 'Hurricane Live' DVD. Although I'm convinced it's the fault of the source material and not the DVD authoring process itself, it has to be said that the live footage from the stage performances is of mediocre quality at best. It has the look of something filmed with a personal camcorder and you won't find a single crisp image there even if you freeze-frame and step through each of the videos tick-by-tick. But for a bonus feature, it's good enough.
In the audio department, things are again fairly workmanlike. Being a late 80s production intended for the TV, it's not entirely surprising that the two included soundtracks are both limited to stereo. I don't believe an attempt was made to 'jazz this up' for the DVD release, either... or at least, I didn't detect anything in the way of rear effects coming from my surround speaker setup either in the original Japanese or the English dub.
Ahem, speaking of the English dub... it's actually a little depressing to listen to, and after the first episode, I couldn't bear it anymore and only watched the remainder of the show in Japanese. 'Is the voice acting that atrocious?' I hear you ask. Well, yes, it is, but that's not the whole reason I turned my back on the English version... it's what they've done to the music. Allow me to elaborate.
Any fan who has seen Bubblegum Crisis will only need to hear the opening strains of 'Kon'ya wa Hariken' ('Tonight a Hurricane') to wax nostalgic for what was a very appropriate and quite catchy Japanese soundtrack. But you won't get to hear it if you watch the dub... because in a bizarre executive decision, the company decided to hire American singers to perform a dodgily-translated English version of the opening song. Why? My guess is temporary insanity, but that doesn't make the result any less of a bastardisation. And it doesn't help when it happens again and again throughout the series. (The English version of the end credits theme is particularly risible.)
Anyway, I'd like to say the voice acting makes up for this in some small way, but I'd be lying. The voice actors working on the English dub went so far over the top that they achieved escape velocity and never came back down to Earth; most of the performances just have you wincing and wondering 'How did the ADR Director think this sounded good enough to keep in the final cut?' About the only good thing that can be said about the dub is that the dialogue can be heard clearly and there's no hiss or drop-outs.
The menus on the first three discs, provided by Studio M2K, are actually quite nice, particularly considering their vintage. As this was an early release by AnimEigo, it's not surprising that the full gamut of bells and whistles isn't rolled out for all to see, but the menus do have a nice 'heads-up display' theme to them, with fast access times and an understated video and sound loop that doesn't prove too distracting. Uniquely, the scene access sub-menus provide the specific times for each of the chapter breaks on the disc... something I've never seen before. Bearing in mind that the first two discs each contain 3 episodes, it's not surprising that all of the special features are reserved for the third DVD. More about them in a minute.
The menus on the bonus 'Hurricane Live' disc are more utilitarian, with static screens (excluding the intro transition) and a not terribly appealing look to them. But as you're not going to be looking at them long before you jump into the music videos, that's not a big concern.
With the exception of the whole raft of music videos on the 'Hurricane Live' disc, the special features included with this particular box set are definitely on the slim side. Once you get to the third DVD, you find the last two episodes of the series bundled along with an art gallery containing about three dozen images from the show that play in typical slideshow fashion with some music underneath. There's also a sub-menu containing 4 music videos: 'Rock Me!', 'Mad Machine', 'Soldier of Roses', and 'Victory'. Like most of their counterparts on the 'Hurricane Live' DVD, these four were created by editing together bits of video footage from the show and timing it to match the music of each song. Not bad, but not terribly exciting, either. Finally, there's an easter egg I found by accessing the production credits pages (off to the right of the screen) from the music video track listing menu and accidentally pressing 'OK' on my remote twice... a brief excerpt of one of the live stage performances found on the bonus DVD.
How well the 'Hurricane Live' disc will compensate you for the dearth of extras on the first three DVDs will depend entirely upon how much you enjoy watching music videos of animé songs. If you're a big fan of this sort of thing, then you'll be in hog heaven with no fewer than 15 music videos, including: 'Tokyo 2032', 'There's a Hurricane Tonight', 'Mad Machine', 'Wild and Scarred', 'Victory', 'Touchdown to Tomorrow' (two different versions), 'Crisis - Run with Anger', 'Devil and Angel's Kiss', 'Say Yes!', 'Soldier of Roses', 'Rock Me', 'Jumping Heart', and 'End Credits' (two different versions).
Whilst most of these take the usual animated form, three ('Touchdown to Tomorrow', 'Say Yes!', and 'Jumping Heart') actually include live footage of stage performances by the singers themselves, and this is where I derived the bulk of my amusement from this disc. You see, it's so 80s that it's actually slightly painful to watch... from the glittery, sparkly outfits and ones consisting of ripped tank tops and striped spandex... to the cheesy, forced choreography... to the extremely serious and self-important-looking backing musicians... I'm afraid it's all here. These videos are reminiscent of many of the things we'd all like to forget about music groups of that period; it's just a bit of a shock to see that, if anything, they had it even worse in Japan.
That said, I'll relent and admit there's something ever-so-slightly endearing about seeing how earnestly the three girls belt out the lyrics to these songs and how proud they are of getting their coordinated dance moves perfectly in time with one another. Of course, then along comes 'Jumping Heart' (where they literally bounce around the stage, cheering encouragements to the crowd in a cloyingly-sweet way), which is genuinely, frighteningly bad... even if two of the actual voice actresses from the series do come out on stage at the very end to bid fans a fond farewell.
Regardless, the problem here is assigning a single 'Extras' score to something with such a split personality. In the end, I simply decided to assign it a dead average rating as the weaknesses of the three main volumes seem adequately offset by the strengths of the bonus disc.
As the review copy I was provided with did not come in the complete retail packaging, I can only give you my best guess from checking on Play, Amazon UK, etc. The good news is that, unlike the US release by AnimEigo, this MVM version puts the four discs in proper Amaray cases, each featuring a nice, bold bit of cover art where pinks and purples predominate. (It does seem that whoever chose the artwork had a Priss fetish, however, as out of the four Knight Sabers, her image graces two of the first three cases.) The reverse of each Amaray is pleasantly laid out and contains the usual useful information. Although I only have a check disc of 'Hurricane Live' in a jewel case, from what I've been able to turn up, it too gets its own Amaray case, with cover art featuring all four gals playing musical instruments.
There's also apparently going to be a cardboard slipcase to put the individual Amarays in, which features a stylish white box with the image of one of the Knight Sabers' battle suits posed on the front. How exactly this will change after the first 1000 copies of the box set are sold, I'm not entirely sure.
Bubblegum Crisis is an acknowledged classic in the world of animé and a series that has really stood the test of time. Although many of the ideas it incorporates weren't new at the time and certainly have been used in other films and TV shows since, the actual style and presentation of these OVAs is something which certainly influenced a broad spectrum of later animé. The stories that comprise the 8-part series are still an enjoyable watch after all these years, and the J-rock soundtrack is something that many will recall fondly. The video quality of the DVDs is as good as could be hoped for, even if the animation itself seems a bit dated... and whilst the audio is let down by some dubious decisions for the English dub, the original Japanese version has no problems worth mentioning. About the only downfall of this box set is its reliance upon music videos to flesh out a rather weak selection of extras, but if you can stomach this, then this release may well have a place on your DVD shelf!