|A rare ADV release that didn't alter the title splash...|
Debuting in 1994, the manga Yugo by Shinji Makari (story) & Shu Akana (art) ran in Kodansha's Afternoon magazine for ten years. The year it ended a reboot/sequel manga called Yugo ~Koushounin~/Yugo the Negotiator debuted in Evening magazine (where it still runs to this day), and the first two story arcs of the original manga were adapted into a 13-episode TV anime series using the new manga's title. Completely breaking from tradition, though, the anime had two different studios produce each story arc, with the only things staying the same being a couple of seiyuus, the music, and producer or two. Because of this, instead of reviewing the entire series at once, I've decided to split up the review into two parts, so technically Yugo is getting two reviews. With that in mind, let's look at the first six episodes, which makes up the 1st Negotiation: Scorching Bonds: Yugo the Negotiator in Pakistan.
Yugo Beppu is a master negotiator, with a near-100% success rate. If there's someone that's been taken hostage & the captors are willing to negotiate then Yugo is the person you want. A Mr. Iwase has been taken hostage by Yusuf Ali Mesa, the leader of an anti-government group in Pakistan, and is demanding a ransom for Iwase's freedom. Unfortunately, Ali will only agree to negotiate with a "hero" that has been chosen by Allah and doesn't have anyone following him, so when Iwase's company teams with the Pakistani government to supply a negotiator, who has a mic on him, Ali has no problem killing the negotiator. With nowhere left to go Iwase's daughter, Mayuko, acts on her own & tries hiring Yugo, hoping he can rescue her father without getting the government involved. Yugo agrees to take on the mission, partially because it reminds him of his first negotiation, which has been his only failure & resulted not only in the death of the hostage but also the death of Yugo's best friend.
The stories in Yugo the Negotiator each flow very much like a long movie, so each episode ties into the next, letting the story & characters take center stage. In this story arc that means that the first three episodes are all about Yugo getting hired, heading over to Pakistan, meeting his connections that will get him where he has to be, & then finally getting to his target (Yusuf Ali Mesa, in this case). Though Yugo himself is the main focus, there is a fairly large amount of secondary characters, all of which are important to Yugo's mission. First there's Mayuko Iwase, who lives in Yugo's apartment/office on his order so that he can contact her, and though she at first is mostly simply worried about the mission & the well-being of both her father & Yugo in the end she becomes determined to make sure she's there in Pakistan when there's word that the mission might be successful. Then there's Reiichi Kogure, a radio/communications expert, who helps keep Yugo in contact with Mayuko & also acts as Mayuko's protector. Rashid helps Yugo get his first lead on where to go & who to talk to when he gets to Pakistan, & in the end he has to go to Pakistan, with Mayuko, in order to help finish the negotiation.
Over in Pakistan there's Haji Rahmani, a sheik who made the pilgrimage to Mecca who was once shamed by Ali by losing a fight to him & having his forehead split open, the "mark of a coward", & his son Ahmad, who helps Yugo get started on his journey to Ali's location. Finally there's Laila, a female dancer who Yugo & Ahmad end up buying from a prostitution seller in order to free her. Laila had never seen a happy life until then, having had her tongue cut out by her parents, leaving her mute, & potentially being sold for sex until she's saved, and afterwards she sticks to Yugo like glue. In other stories, Laila could come off as nothing more than a useless sidekick who's more annoying than anything, but here Laila actually does come in handy for Yugo, even saving him on more than one occasion. Yusuf Ali Mesa is an intimidating force, ready to kill on a moment's notice, with his second in command Lall essentially being the force that keeps Ali in check. In terms of "villains" the big one is Lt. Col. Shadle, a no-nonsense army leader who doesn't flinch at the prospect of killing innocents if it means that his mission, keeping this third-party negotiation from happening, can succeed.
And then there's Yugo himself, who is obviously the man to remember. Yugo always maintains a sense of understanding & thinking about him, even when plans have to change due to circumstances. He never wavers from the plan he has in mind, but he never becomes like a madman when angered; even when he screams it's reasonable in tone. Sure, there is a bit of unrealistic measures here and there, especially when it comes to the lengths Yugo goes to, but at the same time one must remember that anime, like most other visual mediums, is made for entertainment. Unless you're watching a documentary there is always the need to accept things as they are to an extent; similar to how Yugo has to believe in Allah to help him survive the viewer must believe in Yugo to accept what is seen.
One reason why most people tend to remember Yugo, though, is because of the torture scenes. See, in order for Yugo to gain the trust of the people he has to talk to, he is willing to do almost anything, even if it's against his will. In this story, Yugo & Laila end up getting captured by Ali, who can't believe that a "hero" chosen by Allah can be Japanese. Ali decides to slowly kill Yugo by having him chained to a flat rock in the middle of the village, where he'll be tortured & dehydrated by the Pakistani sun's heat. Yugo, in turn, purposefully makes the torture worse by telling Lall to tear his shirt off so that the rock heating up can sear his skin. Yugo knows that if he can put his mind into a transcendental state & asking for Allah's help then he can survive the torture & potentially gain Ali's trust. Though the torture, which makes up most of episode 4, is an instantly memorable moment in the story, it's not as if it's the high point, because the last two episodes definitely bring about an excellent climax, complete with a confrontation with Shadle's forces & even a final meeting between Haji & Ali, letting everything come to a definite end. Among all of this is a very excellent amount of respect shown towards Pakistan & its culture; it really feels like Yugo is in the actual Pakistan rather than someone's own personal idea of what Pakistan is like. The moments of prayer are done respectfully, there's a fair amount of Arabic that is spoken (or maybe it's Urdu... I'm no expert on these things), and overall you can tell that homework was done on being accurate to the environment, no doubt due to Shinji Makari's original script for the manga.
For this part of the anime, the studio in charge was G&G Direction, a Japanese/Korean studio mostly known for key & in-between animation; in fact, the only other title that they were charge of was Jinzo Konchi Kabuto Borg VxV, a children's anime from 2006. Directed by Seiji Kishi (Angel Beats!, Carnival Phantasm, Devil Survivor 2 the Animation) & composed by Kazuharu Sato (Colorful , Hareluya II BØY [script], Fate/Zero [script]), this show features some definite moments of limited animation (mostly when it's simply characters talking), but there are few repeated shots & the mostly-muted color palette actually works really well for the sunbaked desert climate of Pakistan. The torture scene in episode 4 especially comes off very well, with the seared skin tearing off of Yugo's arms looking just as harsh & squeamish as one would expect it to look; they may be a "second-string" studio, but G&G did a great job here. I especially found the fact that the episode titles were never shown until the end of each episode interesting, since each episode title specifically came off of the main theme of its respective episode. The character designs for this arc were done by Takehito Matsumoto, generally an animation director for shows like Aria the Natural & Tentai Senshi Sunred (also overall director), who kept the characters looking very realistic & didn't really rely on a "traditional anime look", if you get what I mean. This is definitely a show for adults, and it shows.
The music was done by Susumu Ueda, who you might have heard me gush over back in the past when I reviewed each season of Ring ni Kakero 1 (he's also worked on Narutaru, Re: Cutie Honey, and Toei's recent Asura movie). The music in Yugo, while not as instantly memorable as his work in RnK1, is still fitting for every scene its used in, with most of it being slow & brooding songs as well as a nice number of excellent piano pieces. The opening & ending themes, "[modern size]" & "[kitty]" respectively, are both performed by Eiichiro Taruki and are really excellent & jazzy themes. Sure, they may not exactly fit the subject matter of the show, especially in episode 4, but they are both insanely catchy & are two of my favorite anime themes of all time.
The voice cast for both the original Japanese and ADV's English dub are well done, but both have their faults. Yugo is voiced by Takashi Hagino (Takeshi Asakura/Kamen Rider Ohja in Kamen Rider Ryuki) & Jason Douglas (Ilpalazzo in Excel Saga, Aoikiji in One Piece), and both definitely deliver in making Yugo come off as calm, cool, & collective, even in the face of danger; even when Yugo screams neither actor comes across as over-exaggerating. Yusuf Ali Mesa is voiced by Banjou Ginga (Souther in Fist of the North Star) & Chris Ayers (Shingen Takeda in Sengoku Basara: Samurai Kings), both of whom definitely deliver a true tough guy demeanor for the leader of the government's enemy. In the Japanese version Yumi Kakazu (Renais in GaoGaiGar FINAL, Kula in The King of Fighters) voices both Mayuko & Laila, while in the dub Mayuko is voiced by Christine Auten (Izumi in Fullmetal Alchemist [both versions]) & Laila is voiced by Monica Rial (Sakura in Tsubasa:Reservoir Chronicle). All three women perform their characters very nicely, though it's obvious that Kakazu also voiced Laila due to the fact that the character can't say anything & only does sounds more than speaking, so it's odd to see Rial get cast for a role where she barely says anything. Rounding out the cast are the likes of Susumu Chiba & Jay Hickman (Kogure), Hiroshi Yanaka & Vic Mignogna (Lall), Kenyuu Horiuchi & Guru Singh (Ahmad), and Masaaki Tsukada & Marty Kleck (Haji).
While the casts themselves are both fine, the faults are mostly in execution, though the problems are mostly unavoidable things. For the Japanese audio the moments when the Pakistani people go into prayer the lines like "Allahu Akbar" don't really sound all too believable, though the English dub tends to get it right; other moments of non-Japanese lines tend to sound fine, though. For the English dub the main problem comes from the fact that some people might feel a little awkward at listening to the Pakistani characters, mainly because ADV tried to keep them sounding like they were Pakistani... Which means that there's a big chance that some of the performances might come off as a little too stereotypical. That's not to say that the dub actors pull off bad Pakistani accents, some of them are actually pretty good, but there are a few that really come close to sounding a little offensive. For example, David Born's performance as Lt. Col. Shadle not only sounds a little too stereotypical, but since the character is often angry due to how things don't always go his way it can come off like Born was trying too hard to do an "angry Pakistani" voice. Overall, both casts do a great job, but the Japanese version might lose a little bit of authenticity due to the moments of heavy Arabic/Urdu speaking, while the English dub might come off as a little too offensive to some people, depending on how well one can handle Americans doing Pakistani accents.
Overall, the 1st Negotiation of the Yugo the Negotiator anime is an excellent start to the series. It has plenty of nice twists in the story that keep it from being easy to guess what happens next, the supporting cast is easy to get into & understand, & Yugo himself is a great character to see in action. It's definitely a different kind of anime than one would expect, and I will even go as far as to say that if this anime was made now it would never be licensed, probably not even simulcasted; remember that while most of the anime that gets made now gets simulcasted, there are still plenty of titles (mostly in super-niche genres) that get left behind. Yugo is definitely a title that won't immediately appeal to most people & obviously needs a certain mindset to get into. ANN's Bamboo Dong once compared Yugo to 24, and though I haven't seen any of 24 I don't think it's an unfair comparison. Of course, this is only one half of the entire anime; the second half features a different setting (Russia), a different studio (Artland), and a nigh-completely different cast (only Yugo & Kogure carry over). From the next episode preview of episode 7 alone it seems like a completely different show...