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Monday, April 22, 2013

Yugo the Negotiator 2nd Negotiation: In Russia, Mouse Chase Cat!

When going from the first story arc of the Yugo the Negotiator anime to the second, it becomes immediately apparent that a completely different studio is behind it now. The animation looks better, Yugo (& Kogure) are visibly different, & even the entire feel of the show changes to an extent. Does that make the 2nd Negotiation better, or does the first half still win out by being different? Let's find out...

Yugo is called upon by Andrei Sergeivich Romanovski, the son of Prince Sergei Romanovski, the last ruler of the East Siberian Trade Company before the Russian Revolution of 1917. Andrei has discovered that he has a niece, Nadenka, who he wishes to have emigrated over to Japan so that they can live together. Nadenka also has half of a special ring that Sergei split into two parts and gave to each of his sons, Andrei & Vladimir. The problem is that the Romanovski family, due to Sergei's escaping to Japan after the Revolution, has become a political enemy of Russia, so Nadenka is under constant watch, which complicates the job. Yugo agrees to take on the request, but underneath all of this is the mystery of the two rings, behind which lies the legacy of Sergei Romanovski, which the Russian government wants for themselves, and Yugo has his doubts about Andrei's true intentions as well.

It's immediately apparent upon the beginning of this story that the Russia Arc is a much more complex story than the Pakistan Arc. Right from the start, Yugo is wary of his employer's motivations, and the inclusion of Olga Elenova, the personal secretary for Sergei (& then Andrei) for the past eight years, only complicates things further when she's quickly revealed to be a KGB agent. The story features a lot of trickery & mind games that are played by both Yugo & the KGB, when it comes to finding out the secret of the rings, with the way Russia coming out of the collapse of the Soviet Union playing a big role in the motivations of Olga & her boss, Supreme Commander Garrachova; remember, the manga debuted in 1994, so the USSR had only died out a few years prior. Whereas the Pakistan Arc was a fair bit easier to simply get into & enjoy, the Russia Arc definitely goes for more of a puzzle-solving execution.

Yugo still has support in this arc, but much like puzzle pieces are only good for their immediate placement most of their importance is shown early, with their effects becoming seen only when more of the puzzle is revealed. For example, though Kogure returns for this arc he is only important in the first episode, where he gives Yugo a powerful GPS that can work even in -20°C; after getting his job he asks Kogure if he can modify it to work in Siberia's -40°C environment. Mariko is a radio announcer friend that Yugo uses to tell if Olga has made a move shortly after entering Russia, while Yoshi is a former rock climber that lets Yugo stay in a storage freezer for training, & gives Yugo the best cold gear he can wear, but in the end they are seen only in the first couple of episodes & then forgotten, their importance coming in later through the help they give Yugo. While it is a shame to not have as important of a supporting cast here, this lets the focus be kept on the fight between Yugo & Garrachova's forces. In Russia, Yugo does get the help of Lyuba, a Russian history college student, and she does get more importance than Yugo's Japanese friends, but even she gets taken out of the story by the half-way point, though in a much harsher & plot-driven way.

Alongside Garrachova & Olga, there are two other important members of the KGB: Lt. Col. Shekin, who is in charge of catching Yugo & deporting him, & Lt. Viktor, a master interrogator whose torture methods are simple but chilling. Oddly enough, there is a long-haired officer who is never named yet has some importance as Garrachova's personal second-in-command; he's literally just called "Blonde Officer" in the credits! These characters help make this story just as much of a cat-and-mouse game as it is a game of deception, which really makes it a very different experience from the previous story. As much as Nadenka is the catalyst for why Yugo is hired for this job, she isn't really brought up or shown until the final episode, where she becomes essential in solving the mystery of the rings. In the end, while the Pakistan Arc is more about the characters & how Yugo brings all of them together, the Russia Arc is more about the journey & what move each side plays against the other.

Of course, it wouldn't be Yugo if there wasn't any torture scenes, & this story features three of them. The first one is when Yugo gets captured by the KGB, who wants to know where he hid Andrei's ring (Yugo had a fake made that got stolen by the KGB). This scene has Viktor torture Yugo slowly in an isolation chamber by strapping him to a chair fitted with shock straps to get him to talk. If Yugo starts losing consciousness, he's injected with stimulants & forced to smell a chemical that messes with his senses. Though Yugo manages to slip out of the chair & picks the door lock, he only finds a stone wall behind the door, realizing that he can either talk or potentially go crazy. The second one is mostly self-delivered, as Yugo decides to traverse the length of a riverside overnight in a -40°C blizzard in order to sneak into Olga's apartment in an attempt to see whose side she's on, Garrachova's or Sergei's final will regarding the legacy. The final one has Yugo hung by his hands while Garrachova injects him with truth serum so that he can reveal the secret behind the rings, which she thinks (nay, "knows") Yugo has found out. While the second scene is similar to the one in Pakistan due to their "man vs. nature" executions, the first & third scenes are very psychological in the way the tortures are handled, making them feel more like battles between Yugo & his human adversaries. The ways Yugo gets himself through both of these tortures are actually really ingenious & unexpected (the third one, especially), making them big highlights of the arc.

The change in tone that this story arc utilizes is only hammered down even stronger by the change in studios. For these last seven episodes we have Artland (Earl & Fairy, Tytania, Tantei Opera Milky Holmes), and the change in execution is so immediately obvious that it's like watching a different show at times. Directed by Shinya Hanai, episode director for shows like Tenchi Muyo! GXP, BECK, & the first Hunter X Hunter OVA, & featuring series composition by Kenichi Kanemaki (the Hell Girl series, Natsume's Book of Friends), it's apparent right from the start that the larger portion of the show's budget went to Artland. The animation is crisper, cleaner, & more fluid, the colors are more vivid, and overall it looks more like what one would identify as an "anime". The character designs by Kenichi Imaizumi, animation director for shows like Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Mushi-Shi, & Reborn!, are also more along the lines of what one would expect from anime, with Yugo being given a slight change in design that one might even call "bishonen". Even the way the show is handled in more subtle ways are more traditional, with episode title splashes shown shortly after the opening footage & even a more traditional eyecatch that uses character drawings (the Pakistan Arc simply showed the name of the story). Note that I am not saying that any of this is a bad thing, per se, but it is a noticeable change in execution nonetheless and is still worth bringing up.

Susumu Ueda stays as the music composer, and no music from the previous episodes have been recycled. The songs used here are similar to before as they still stay slower-paced, but there are much more piano pieces than before, as well as a neat synth beat that's used alongside the first & third torture scenes that really help seal the mood. The opening & ending themes have also been kept, but they aren't the same exact songs. "[modern size]" is now a really cool dance/house remix while "[kitty]" is an acoustic version that also sounds really soothing. In terms of the voice work, Yugo is still the same, so let's focus on the Russia-exclusive characters. Olga is voiced by Michie Tomizawa (Roberta in Black Lagoon, C-Ko in Project A-Ko) & Joanne Bonasso (Akiko Minase in Kanon [2006]), who both make Olga sound tough, but can also deliver her more vulnerable moments. Nadenka is voiced by Yui Horie (Hitomi in the Dead of Alive series) & Luci Christian (Kaname in Full Metal Panic!), who both do good work with the little heard but important little girl. The Japanese cast is rounded out by Jun Karasawa (Garrachova), Yuki Kaida (Mariko), & Akemi Okamura (Lyuba), while the English dub also features George Manley (Viktor), John Gremillion (Shekin), & Illich Guardiola (the "Blonde Officer"), among others on both sides. Overall, both versions are good performances, though the dub still might rub some people the wrong way with all of the faux-Russian accents. To its credit, though, the dub does try to keep more of the Russian language intact, with "Da" commonly replacing "Yes", though the original Japanese balances out by keeping the proper pronunciation for Nadenka intact, i.e. using a "dzh" sound rather than a hard "d".

The 2nd Negotiation of Yugo the Negotiator is definitely the more complex story of this anime series, with a really neat cat-and-mouse game that's played between Yugo & the KGB that makes for some really fun viewing, plus some pretty intense torture scenes that really let you get a look into how Yugo conditions himself, both physically & psychologically. That said, the supporting cast kind of gets the shaft for the most part by the second half, and the more traditional execution Artland went for makes it lose some of that "different" feel that the 1st Negotiation had. Though I really loved watching both stories, if push came to shove I would have to say that the Pakistan Arc wins out, but I can definitely understand why others might prefer the Russia Arc. As a whole, Yugo the Negotiator is an awesome anime series to watch, as there really isn't too much like it out there; the fact that the two stories are both interesting & engaging only adds to it. Though it isn't available over at The Anime Network now, which likely means that ADV's license has expired, the show is still easy to buy for a good price; expect to pay roughly $15-$20 for a complete collection, which is a steal. Seeing this anime really makes me wish that we got the manga, because from what I can tell Yugo later goes to places like Hong Kong, the U.K., Los Angeles, Hungary, & Indonesia, among others. It's titles like Yugo that really show off the idea that "Anime Can Be Anything", which is a big part of why I love this medium.

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