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Column by Scott Green



Anime Spotlight:
Birdy the Mighty: Decode
Birdy the Mighty: Decode 02
Available on DVD and online


Birdy the Mighty: Decode's 13 episode first season is fairly entertaining action sci-fi. The 12 episode Decode 02 (there's a one episode, after the fact bridge OVA).... as far as unexceptional anime go, it's been a while since I've seen one that I enjoyed as much. "Unexceptional" is not to say that Birdy is garbage, dumb anime. I'm saying that it is simply not transcendent. It doesn't challenge or advance the form. It's not anime to show to people to convince them of the form's virtue. It's just a favorite anime that does what anime is supposed to do: present likable, fun to watch characters in exciting, visually interesting circumstances.

Masami Yuki (part of the Headgear group that developed notable realistic police robot series Patlabor with Mamoru Oshii) first introduced Birdy in a 1985 one volume manga series that originally ran in Shonen Sunday (for reference, Ranma 1/2 was running at the same time in that anthology). In keeping with the character of anime produced at the time, Madhouse launched a four episode OVA adaptation in 1996 with Ninja Scroll's Yoshiaki Kawajiri directing and Serial Experiments Lain's Chiaki J. Konaka writing.

In 2003, Yuki relaunched the manga. This time it wound up in seinen anthology Young Sunday (home of Inio Asano's Solanin, Ichi the Killer creator Hideo Yamamoto's Voyeurs, Inc. and Usamaru Furuya's Short Cuts) and ran 20 volumes... before a brief hiatus and a relaunch in 2008 as the currently ongoing Birdy the Mighty Evolution in Big Comic Spirits (the classic home of Rumiko Takahashi's Maison Ikkoku, Kazuo Koike's Wounded Man and more recently, Motoro Mase's Ikigami).

Despite the brevity of the initial outing, Birdy is an unsurprising subject for all these revivals. She's the kind of character well suited to serve as the engine for a genre serial: a gender swap version of Ultraman (or 7 Billion Needles, or even closer to Rick Jones/Mar-Vell Captain Marvel).

Birdy Cephon Altera is an Ixioran Altan (a genetically engineered, super-capable version of the human-like Altan extraterrestrial race), serving as an investigator for an interstellar Federation.

While law gives Birdy direction, a considerable part of her appeal is a rule breaker vibe. Her bubblegum pop star pink and white hair and blue swim suit-like space-cop outfit more declares her light and free than heavily antiauthority. Beyond this initial impression, it's certainly not the laws of physics that she enforces as the athletic young woman leaves trails of blue sparks parkouring across the city. Bright and agile, she plays the standards well. Any deficit that might be incurred by a lack of originality is compensated by the sort of spirited spectacle of seeing dive off a roof top to clobber a foe.

She pursues froggy alien criminal Geega to Earth, and, in the midst of a dust-up, the impulsive Birdy throws a hasty shoryuken at the wrong object coming towards her, accidentally killing human teen Tsutomu Senkawa in the process. This is a serious, but not insurmountable problem for the Federation. What's left of Tsutomu's body is packed off to where the proper facilities can rebuild it, and, in the meantime, he and Birdy arrange to share a body, swapping identities to live Tsutomu's scholastic and social lives and undertake Birdy's criminal investigation.

Decode elaborates on the identity overload, with Birdy earning some money on Earth with her own alter ego: up and coming idol Shion Arita. And, in that persona, working as a model, Birdy professionally plays stupid and adopts speech affects.
The manga occasionally overdoes the teen boy/attractive young woman sharing a body sexual humor element. The '96 OVA had a propensity to leen in that direction too, also really hamming a humor take on Tsutomu cartoonishly jackass nuclear family (absent in the 08 version, except for his older sister, who turns up get sloppy drunk). Decode has a reasonable sense of humor that isn't quite adult, but isn't overly juvenile either. While it does feature episodes that veer into goofy territory, it's never overdone.

That Birdy is well suited to conventional sci-fi adventure seems to have a mediating influence on the staff working her anime. Though it was anything but dull, her time with Kawajiri was marked by little of his famous excess. Watching her dance the roof tops, knowing it was Kawajiri directing, you can spot the director's imprint on the work, but not knowing, most Ninja Scroll/Wicked City fans might not guess that they were seeing something from the same director. (On the other hand, it doesn't receive much emphasis, but there is a surprising element of the 96 OVA: it features a fictionalized version of the human experiment war crimes of Imperial Army Unit 731. Manga is generally more ready to approach verboten subjects than anime, and when Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service brought up Unit 731, English language edition editor/manga guru Carl Horn noted how exceptional it was for manga to approach the subject. In Birdy, the mad scientist element isn't something that you'd necessarily think twice about it, unless you knew the charged history being evoked.)

Shoji Kawamori is tied to one of anime's top mainstream successes in Macross/Robotech, but he's also developed a reputation for going off the deep end with works like birdperson populated prequel Macross Zero and environmentalism agitprop Arjuna. Birdy the Mighty: Decode is a collaboration of several Kawamori partners in crime. Director Kazuki Akane worked on Escaflowne, a soaring, broadly appealing take on the girl transported to mystic world story that was sent off a cliff by an abbreviated episode count and its increasingly bewilderingly spiritual take on determinism. (Notorious flop Heat Guy J was his baby. He also worked on Gene Shaft, a sci-fi that obnoxiously overdoes stereotypes). Writer Hiroshi Ohnogi worked with Kawamori on Macross Zero and Aquarion, the mecha anime that featured pilots orgasming when their transforming planes combined into a robot. Ohnogi also created and wrote the purposefully gratuitous RIN ~Daughters of Mnemosyne~.

I was astonished that, here, Shoji Kawamori cohorts Kazuki Akane and Hiroshi Ohnogi never went off the deep end. Birdy the Mighty: Decode has no world trees or Heisenberg uncertainty or macro biotic eating. While these can be interesting topics, this crew has often showcased them in a way that makes few concessions to the audience, often present to the detriment of the work.

The story of season one is conventional, and it shows that Birdy the Mighty can be a bit too tempered. Chasing Geega leads Birdy down the trail of the Ryunka - a weaponized life form that possesses a being before maturing into a form that can wipe out an entire planets. The story is mostly driven by Tsutomu, the less exotic, less compelling part of the team. Though, to the show's benefit, as his type goes, Tsutomu isn't a bad character. The purpose of his role is to allow the viewer to project themselves into the situation of sharing a body with a hot, wild girl, but though he's bland, Tsutomu is at least bland in a credible way. He's not an over bleached cipher and not acting overly put upon, there's a sense that he's a good guy.

Decode's writing is a bit off the mark, and sometimes that out of shape character suits the anime well, and sometime it doesn't.
The Ryunka posses a classmate of Tsutomu's, and it happens to be the one with which he develops a mutual crush. The arc captures a nice little love story, mostly because the imperfections suit the youth of the characters.

However, in season one, the gap is a net drag on the anime. The sloppiness results in missed opportunities and flimsiness. It doesn't play up the symmetry of the two possessions or Birdy's layered identities. The pursuit of the Ryunka is more a blind stumble than a very coherent investigation/chase.
Furthermore, the weaknesses crack the anime when thought is applied. Before being vitalized by the Ryunka, Tsutomu's buddy was the sickly charge of a fabulously wealthy corporate overlord. Tsutomu and a number of peers visit her mansion, and, demonstrating how the Ryunka has changed her, she shocks her grandfather and the household staff by swimming (she had been deathly afraid of water) and eating meat (she formerly eschewed the stuff). It's obviously quick short hand, but it's quick short hand that crumbles when considered. The elderly grandmaster has no surviving children, and this one cherished grandchild. If she's so afraid of water, why is his landscape marked by a giant swimming pool? Why are they serving meat at her social event? Even if explanations can be thought up, the damage is done.

Yet, when Birdy does throw down, the series delivers on the promise established as soon as it named itself after a colorful, two fisted heroine. Beyond its flawed aspects never proving to be fatal, this kinetic energy is what keeps the series afloat. The sci-fi accoutrements to its set pieces pull together the right notes of retro, clever and illogical, with high speed space chases featuring sea mammal looking ships, space suits featuring rabbit ears and heels and dog aliens in Anubis shaped power army. Into that mix stomps "Berserker Killer" Birdy, ready to walk into a hive of scum and villainy and bust things up. (Later, the "Berserker Killer" moniker picks up some implied significance that does scour off some of its coolness, but, all things considered, it's still pretty bad-ass).
In most situations, Birdy is just about the strongest thing around, and when she's moving or outclassing her foes, the anime conveys a great sense of power and freedom. Scenes of Birdy leaping buildings or running past cars through a high way tunnel are as physics exhilarating as they should be.
Even, better, when the fights do heat up, Decode demonstrates a real vision to its choreography. When the space cops and criminals begin butting heads in earnest, the character of the engagements hits a note marked by fighters lashing out with skill and training, but also desperation. As limbs fly and bodies crash, rapid improvisation is mixed with instinct and experience in spectacular chaos. The intense scrapes are a discernable step about the blow-for-blow exchanges of lesser anime action.

The story of season two is conventional. A band of dangerous criminals (associated with the weaponization of the Ryunka) break out during a prison transport, make their way to Earth, and with the help of masking technology, go to ground. While Birdy seeks to apprehend the fugitives, a person from her past begins hunting the group with the aim of violent retribution.

Again, the writing has issues. In particular, the correction to an early gawking, light hearted approach to mass destruction and the consequential flood of refugees is as iffy as the initial view. But, this time, the season is Birdy driven, and that counts for a lot.

There are overarching story elements that are not dealt with by the season. The villain behind the villains shows up a few times, with her significance ever only being suggested. That tease is somewhat problematic considering that there aren't any announced plans for more Birdy anime. Then again, I don't think that there's been an incarnation of Birdy the Mighty where the heroine has gotten the drop on nemesis Christella Revi. Birdy's contentious relationship with a Federation pontiff gets some screen time, and yet never really goes anywhere.

However, that's almost nitpicking, because Decode 02 does satisfyingly flesh out Birdy, from her history to her Shion Arita persona, and does satifyingly pay odd the introduction of most of its rather large cast. Much of this is curved into an implicitly political edge to the sci-fi. Earth serves as a hiding place for disguised criminals, some of whom have chosen to go native. However, Altans look human, and with their lower caste status in the space federation, backwater Earth becomes a place for aliens seeking escape from prejudice or outright pogroms. As an Ixioran Altan, Birdy was well cared for, but raised as an instrument of the governing power. While she had her own, related tragedy in her past, she's part of the system, and distanced from the Altan plight. It's not explicitly stated, but Birdy's impulsiveness seems connected to an upbringing that would not encourage her to go deep into the implication of matters. She's the muscle for the organization and as such spent more time reacting than considering the significance of even her own history.
To an intriguing extent, the second season of Decode is characterized by this sort of provocation without concretely laid out parameters. It implies, then neither ignores nor deeply explores. The revenge element for example. It's horrific; staged in a way that is too brutal to be cathartic, but not in such a way as to present the revenge driven associate as simply corrupted. When the highs and shocks are all said and done, the net reaction has to be ambivalence.

Decode 02 delivers on showcasing Birdy, in delivers on culminating plot elements, and, it delivers on its action. I'm certainly a fan of cel based animation, and think, especially as action oriented sci-fi goes, anime OVAs were a real highlight... lamented in the move away from cel based animation and lamented in the economics of anime shifting away from OVA production.
There's a pivotal moment in Birdy's life that is flashed back to in the OVA and in Decode 02. It's ... again, implied... that this was when Birdy got branded the "Berserker Killer." It's a reasonably attention grabbing scene in the OVA, enough that Decode 02 evidently borrowed some cues from that version, but wow, the Decode 02 version is far more attention seizing. In an approach that image boards love to screen capture and laugh at, the animators loosen the character models and focus on motion; meaning stills might look off, but the cumulative effect is animation that is markedly more dynamic. Norio Matsumoto (some of the more impressive fights in Naruto, also did Decode 02's opening), one of the masters of this, is at work here; as is a crop of younger Matsumoto-ish animators, who came into the scene through gif animation work; including Shingo Yamashita, Kenichi Kutsuna, and Tomoyuki Niho. The style of animation is a perfect complement to the style of action. With evident desperation, super-powerful, capable individuals fly into action. Whether its running up a wall or turning a dodge into a kick or tossing one robot into another, the magnitude and the impact of the spectacle is fully established.

The attractive qualities of Birdy the Mighty: Decode are the qualities that attracted many North American fans to anime in the first place: striking characters, striking visuals. The bold, colorful Birdy is the perfect subject for highlight reel action. While the first season didn't utilize all of what the character had to offer, the second worked in implication well and effectively balanced drama and action. You'd hope that most anime produced would be at least this good. Birdy the Mighty: Decode shouldn't be an outlier. As such, I don't want to oversell the series. It's not the next great anime. But, it is the next, broadly entertaining, highly recommendable one.

Anime Spotlight: Oh! Edo Rocket
Released By FUNimation
Available on DVD and Online


On the flip side, here is an exceptional anime series. It works in interesting range of visual techniques and an element of that is rough, comic strip like stylization. Stumpy figures with permanently open maws probably are not going to serve Oh! Edo Rocket well for all fans and a lot of anime watchers aren't necessarily going to be dazzled by this kind of work at first glance.
And yet, I trust that most will find the series consistently entertaining. The period goof about a sort of rocket ship rebellion against a fun hating government, based on a Kazuki Nakashima (Gurren Lagann) stage play, directed by Seiji Mizushima (Fyll Metal Alchemist) is superlatively smart. Think of something like Masamune Shirow, but more coherently packaged and humor focused. It has a density of ideas that is really more often found in manga than anime. Especially for a TV series, especially on the length of Oh! Edo Rocket (26 episodes), especially with as many cooks in the kitchen as it has (Shou Aikawa - writer of some personal favorites, including Martian Successor Nadesico and Gad Guard - handled about half the scripts, with Kazuki Nakashima, Soul Eater's Akatsuki Yamatoya, Sakura Wars' Hiroyuki Kawasaki, Ninja Attack illustrator Yutaka Kondo and others crowding the writing staff), it's remarkable to see anime maintain such a brainy head of steam.

Set during the Tenpo Era, (the term of emperor Ninko-tenno, from 1830-1844), Edo (what becomes Tokyo) has been placed under an edict by shogunate councilor Mizuno Tadakuni, compelling thrift and banning all forms of entertainment. This means hard times for young firework maker Seikichi Tamaya, who finds himself living in the run down Furai Row-House along with similarly out of work circus performers, inventors, carpenters and the like.

What happens next conflates a couple bits of Japanese folklore... actually the same ones that get pulled into Sailor Moon. Firstly, rather than a man on the moon, Eastern folklore interpret the shapes of the moon's surface as a rabbit pounding a mortar and pestle. Secondly, there's the story of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (there's a plan to adapt it into a Ghibli movie by studio co-founder Isao Takahata) in which moon princess Kaguya comes to Earth and is found as a baby inside a bamboo shoot.

In Oh! Edo Rocket, a pair of large and kindof monstrous, but also rabbit like alien creatures crash on Earth. There's a blue one that is more savage and desperate, and a white one trying to apprehend it.
Japan had a solid isolationist footing at the time. Five years before the events of Oh! Edo Rocket, the American merchant ship Morrison was repelled from Japan by cannon fire, and, firing cannon at foreign ships will play into Rocket. With extraterrestrials even less welcome than human foreigners, magistrate Torii Yozo (voiced by the incomparable Norio Wakamoto, who also has his voice distorted in the role of Birdy's skeleton faced dinosaur martial instructor) leads a sort of, black armored X-Men known as the Men in Black (the American pop-culture overloaded reference is on purpose) against the blue and white pair. Blue is seemingly defeated, but white manages to escape.

After a night of clandestine firework testing (as contradictory as it sounds, and including some law eluding follow-ups), Seikichi returns to his dirty, cramped apartment to find a mysterious, blue haired girl who literally has stars in her eyes, lighting off some of his supply of sparklers. Learning that Seikichi is a fire work maker, the young woman introduces herself as Sora ("sky") and requests that Seikichi build her a rocket that will take her back to the moon. (She doesn't tell Seikichi, but Sora, who gets a bit associated with Kaguya, and who is the white, rabbit like space monster, is in fact a sort of space law enforcement officer, who is pursuing and seeking to apprehend the blue beast, and now hopes to bring it back to an outpost based on the moon).

Oh! Edo Rocket is structured around episodic stories with a running plot. Some watchers are more bothered by it than others, but it's hard to argue that the climax isn't misplaced. The emotional peak comes with about a fifth of the run count left and plenty left to say. Still, the series manages to admirably structure all that it wants to work with. Especially on a rewatch, the series' opening does effectively outline a course through the upcoming storm. From the start, it's considering how people relate to their professions and how they relate to art that doesn't serve an obvious, utilitarian purpose. And it's casting Sora and Seikichi as a sort of combination long married couple/comedy routine pair.

Bucking the character of its setting, Oh! Edo Rocket is extravagant and free. It spills out far beyond its core themes and central characters. Between the row house denizens, the government officials and their agents, aliens, animals that become human, and other associates and encounters, the sprawling cast finds itself twisted into a convoluted network of relationships. For example, one of the hubs, Gin the Locksmith is Seikichi's neighbor, privy to the secret of Sora's alien form, working for magistrate Torii and the unreliable lover of Edo's wealthy pawn shop queen, who was once his partner in a masked revolutionary crime spree. The confused and combustible farce finds its players swapping masks and occasionally pulling weapons on recent allies.

The anime series smart, sometimes acerbic, sometimes sentimental voice keep paces with and governs this madcap dervish. While the anime is confident enough that little beneath is it - there is an episode the crux of which is the characters being turn into cats and singing show tunes, it is marked by an interested, engage mindset. It's delighted to play with history, finding excuses to work in Hiraga Gennai, a Benjamin Franklin like figure who met a bad end 80 years before the events of Rocket. It loves anime industry shop talk; it's opening theme is by Puffy and the anime itself jokes about their attempt to break into the North American market with Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi. References to other period stories like Toyama no Kinsan and Mito Komon are probably going to go over the heads of a lot of English speaking viewers, but, even in those case, the evident depth is sure to spice things up.

Fundamental from a sound track that frequently drops in swing music or Spanish guitar on out, the anime delights in being grimmingly inappropriate. This is after all a show about building a lunar rocket in Edo Japan. For example, it finds strange clever and sometimes bewildering ways to use anachronistic gags for interludes and framing devices; the most simple and consistent of which is a running motif of episode recap segments shown on video screens, whether they're post war public television installations, hidden flat screen sets, or characters finding their earlier antics pirated on youtube.

Along with the complex kaleidoscope of characters, Oh! Edo Rocket dances between ideas. In a favorite, a sort of Kenji Miyazawa-ish galactic railroad episode tracks into character's memories, meanwhile... the episode's animation tracks back through anime product into animatics and storyboards. You can see the old row house landlord producing the anime being and at end, there's a credit role. Script, direction, everything is credited to the old man, except In Between Finishing, that's by "Dr Movie" (a Korean studio frequently taped by anime producers, including Rocket's Madhouse).

Oh Edo Rocket! seems directed by real curiosity and artistic interest, and not just a stream of try anything jokes. But, beyond that, what keeps Oh Edo Rocket! meaningful is that emotional ligaments are present to tie it to a soulful skeleton. Early episodes might joke about abduction and torture, but they also establish that the government in power is genuinely oppressive. In its depiction of the hard times, A samurai comes into the row and presents the out of work cast with a haiku concerning his musing on why poor people who can't afford to buy anything have such trash strewn streets. As the cast struggles, they don't always know what's right or even what they want. The meaningful elements get dark, dangerous and interesting, and that's why there is some displeasure at the series' premature climax.

The story of a wild cast conspiring to send an alien back to the moon could make for just another anime series, but Madhouse seized on the opportunity to chatter about history, art and anime making, did so with heart, and did so with creative visual flare. Not only did the production crowd a lot into the tent, it did so with smart minded direction. Anime sometimes seems to have developed a propensity to disappoint. Halo Legends wasn't anything to turn gamers onto anime. Eden of the East was certainly well made and entertaining, but not the great "fantapolitical thriller." Given its history and staff, I went into Oh! Edo Rocket hoping for something special, and I got that. Anime is inevitably going to produce more Edo period wackiness at some point, but not with the unconventional stage pedigree of Rocket, and not with the wit and creativity poured into this anime. It's a one off. Something unique. There will not be another Oh! Edo Rocket, and there shouldn't be. As such, I'm glad that the Oh! Edo Rocket that we did get was as delightful as it was.


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