Young kids display mutant powers in this futuristic sci-fi from Umanosuke Iida (Gundam).
It must be hard to do a science-fiction anime series about kids with superpowers without it either being influenced by or compared to Akira. Kids with extrasensory powers with the potential to cause global apocalyptic destruction were by no means new by the time that Katsuhiro Otomo came to develop his groundbreaking manga serial and direct his internationally successful feature film, but it came to set a standard by which everything else is subsequently judged and usually found wanting. Certain similarities in the premise and the look and feel of Towanoquon suggest that Akira seems to have been a reference for at least the starting point and the end of Umanosuke Iida’s six feature series, but even though it takes a different approach in the development of those themes, it doesn’t manage to do so in a way that is quite as structurally strong or thematically consistent.
It’s an unfair comparison to impose on any series, but it’s impossible not to think of Akira when the opening scene of Towanoquon features a young boy running scared through the streets and parks of a futuristic Tokyo, pursued by a high-tech military unit. The boy is exhibiting strange powers that could be potentially dangerous to the general population, his right arm mutating (Tetsuo-like) into grotesque proportions. The boy is rescued however by a formidable figure known to the military unit as Insania, who takes the boy to a secure and secret place where he will be allowed to come to terms with and learn to control the strange changes that his body is undergoing. It’s here that Towanoquon starts to move away from the direction that Akira takes, but instead moves towards what looks to be another major influence on the series – X-Men.
In this future world, anyone exhibiting such mutations – teleportation, healing powers, the ability to speak to animals – is regarded as a freak and a threat to the social order. Or indeed a threat to The Order. This powerful organisation has set up a task force known as Custos, whose job is to monitor for the emergence of such activity, acting immediately the moment they detect any ‘larva’ signals when such power is activated. To assist in such difficult and dangerous work they have a number of cyborg units with amour, weapons and the technology to eliminate the subjects if they can’t be captured. There is however a haven for these misunderstood teens, an amusement theme part known as Fantasium Garden, where Quon (the figure known as Insania) and his team help the children, each of whom seem to have suffered some trauma in their lives or have been rejected as outcasts. Quon however isn’t always able to save all the children, and it causes him great pain when he fails. So far however – and it’s hard to imagine how – Custos haven’t been able to trace Insania or any of the children he rescues back to Fantasium Garden, but that’s about to change…
For the first half of the storyline covered in the six 45-minute films, the situation doesn’t develop a great deal. Custos vigilantly monitor for signs of ‘larva’ activity, swoop down on the young person whose powers have exploded, only for Quon/Insania to arrive in the nick of time, battle the military and cyborg units, and bring the rescued child back to the theme park to be looked after by other ‘Attractors’ who have awakened to their inner powers. There are however two other main aspects that prove to be significant as the storyline develops. Since many of the characters have the ability to manipulate memories and dreams, flashbacks are a key feature to draw out the backstory, particularly as it relates to Quon, his younger brother Towa, and a traumatic incident that marked both their lives. The other aspect of note is the power that Quon is gifted with. Apart from his exceptional fighting abilities, Quon can’t die. That doesn’t mean however that he can’t suffer the pain of death constantly in his battles with Custos.
These two features are significant then in how the story develops and in the treatment of the subject by Umanosuke Iida (Gundam, Devilman). On the one hand, Quon’s “gift” (to say nothing of an elaborate suit that is clearly useless as far as amoured protection is concerned) means that he is subjected to quite sadistic levels of violence in his encounters with the military cyborg units. It’s quite brutal stuff, and there are quite extreme scenes of torture, bloodletting and violent death elsewhere. Such extreme violence is unnecessary really and really gives the series an unpleasant tone. The other aspect – the backstory of Quon and Towa – eventually leads us back to Akira territory, with characters escaping from a military complex and the revelation of …well, let’s just say an Akira-type young figure of extraordinary power, and a dangerously Tetsuo-like person prepared to use it to highly destructive ends. That person – it’s giving nothing much away to say – is the Commander of Custos. I say it’s giving nothing away that he’s Quon’s nemesis because he employs every evil-villain grimace and expression in the book and I believe he even laughs ‘Bwa-ha-ha!’ at one point. It’s far from subtle characterisation.
If the Manichean divisions between the Christ-like suffering of Quon and the evil of the Commander of Custos are somewhat over-emphasised, there is however a little more ambiguity and – it transpires – humanity expressed in Shun, one of the cyborg units who becomes caught in the middle of this battle and starts to have doubts about his mission and indeed, his own nature. There are also some strong secondary characters introduced on the ‘Attractors’ side – each of them with their own unique powers and abilities which they have to make work together as a team, but this isn’t ever really developed enough and often arrives in the form of a ‘just in the nick of time’ rescue.
The overall quality of the animation is good, but under noted animation director Toshihiro Kawamoto (Cowboy Bebop, Fullmetal Alchemist) it’s not always consistent in terms of the character designs or animation direction. The futuristic Tokyo is well developed, the animators creating some impressive cityscapes and locations for the action to take place in. The figures however seem to all come from different types of anime series, some looking like Miyazaki figures, others – particularly the ‘Marine Boy‘ appearance of Quon go back to an older Tezuka-style. The over-elaborate armoured suits also look like they are out a Mobile Suit Gundam feature or, less kindly, a Rob Liefield X-Factor comic. If it doesn’t have a distinctive style of its own, the character designs are nonetheless strong, as is the animation itself. It’s a little bit static and unimaginative in ‘normal’ scenes, but it comes to life quite dynamically in the action sequences and in the employment of special effects when powers are unleashed.
Towanoquon is released by Manga Entertainment as a two-disc set on DVD only, containing the six 46-minute feature films of the entire series. The discs are both dual-layered. The release is in PAL format and encoded for Region 2.
On DVD, Towanoquon looks and sounds good. The films are transferred widescreen enhanced at a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, the image is clear and colourful and there are few signs of the usual problems that animation is prone to exhibit. Some banding can be seen in darker sequences, but it’s much less evident than normal. The original Japanese audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and there’s also an English dub in Dolby Digital 5.1. Both soundtracks are robust and dynamic, making good use of the low frequency range and the surrounds. The English dub works reasonably well for this series with good voice acting. Subtitles are clear in a bold yellow typeface, with white subtitles translating signs and background dialogue. When watching the Japanese soundtrack, the subtitle track to translate signs only is automatically selected, but all subtitles are optional.
There’s not a great deal of interest in the Extra Features. There is a Commentary (English) for the final film, a Original Japanese Teaser and Trailer, Extended Previews and Textless Closing Songs.
The inevitable comparisons with Akira don’t do Towanoquon any favours, nor does the cackling evil-villain characterisation or the rather painfully brutal scenes of violence that make it difficult to watch in places, but in terms of delivery of its futuristic science-fiction storyline across six episodes, Towanoquon gets the job done reasonably well. If the story starts to seem repetitive over the first half, with the divisions between the opposing forces as obvious as they are unlikely to be able to coexist, the developments in the second half provide plenty of variety, action and intrigue, with explosive situations and impressive animation.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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