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Monday, March 31, 2014

Buso Renkin: Love, Shonen Style!!

Name: Yoshiki Fukyama
Nicknames: "Fuku-chan", "Basara Nekki"
Date of Birth: September 14, 1963
Debut Year: 1982 (as part of Doolin Dalton/Kougyou), 2000 (solo)
Iconic Song: The Entire Discography of Fire Bomber, "King Gainer Over!"
Catchphrase: "Ore no Uta wo Kike!/Listen to My Song!" (as Basara)

"Saving the Best for Last"... Well, it certainly wasn't on purpose (I was simply following the order of JAM debuts), but if you were to ask me who my favorite member of JAM Project is I would have to say it's Yoshiki Fukuyama. During the 80s he was a part of cover band Doolin Dalton & comedy rock band Kirenjaku, but eventually formed the rock band Maps with his friend Toshiyuki "Rocky" Furuya. In 1988 Maps was renamed Humming Bird and found some success, but in late 1994 the band got a gig that would transform not just HB but Fukuyama forever. As the first sequel to Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, Macross 7 would feature an entire rock band, Fire Bomber, as the source of the anime's music, and Humming Bird was chosen to be the sound behind the group, with Fukuyama being the singing voice of main character Basara Nekki (female lead Mylene Jenius was sung by Chie Kajiura, who wasn't part of HB). Though Macross 7 is a love-it-or-hate-it anime, everyone loved Fire Bomber, instantly making Fukuyama an anison legend. Humming Bird would later be used for anime themes starting with Next Senki Ehrgeiz ("Dream Jack") and City Hunter: Good-Bye, My Sweetheart ("Ride on the Night"), followed by Karakuri Zoushi Ayatsuri Sakon ("Hikari Naki Yoru wo Yuke", HB's last single) & the video game Macross VF-X2 ("Get Free") before disbanding in 2000; there was a one-night-only reunion in 2011 to celebrate Fukuyama's 20th Anniversary in the music industry. Now a solo act alongside his work with JAM, Fukuyama has sung themes for anime like Overman King Gainer ("King Gainer Over!"), Kamen no Maid Guy ("Work Guy!!"), & L/R: Licensed by Royalty ("Always"), but to me Fukuyama's greatest solo work is attached to one of the best love letters to shonen action.

Nobuhiro Watsuki was essentially a made man by the end of the 90s due to the success of his debut serialization Rurouni Kenshin; it's sometimes said that Shonen Jump didn't "die" after Slam Dunk & Dragon Ball finished because of Kenshin. Unfortunately, it's notoriously tough to follow up a mega hit like that & Watsuki's wild west action title Gun Blaze West ended after only three volumes in 2001; GBW's production itself is enough of a story to detail in a separate review. Anyway, in mid-2003 Watsuki came back for a third try, fully admitting that this would be his "final shonen manga". From what I remember hearing, Buso Renkin/Armored Alchemy was initially popular with readers in Japan, but after a certain moment in the story readers kind of lost interest, resulting in the manga's cancellation in 2005 (though Watsuki was given a lot of time & pages IN Akamaru Jump to give it an actual ending). Still, it had its fans, which got it included into both Jump Super Stars & Jump Ultimate Stars for the Nintendo DS, and in October 2006 (more than a year after its cancellation) Xebec debuted a 26-episode TV anime adaptation of the entire manga. The main thing to remember, though, is that while Rurouni Kenshin will always be Nobuhiro Watsuki's iconic creation, Buso Renkin might be his most loving.

Kazuki Muto investigates a mysterious light coming from the abandoned factory in his town, only to see a girl about to get killed by a monster. Kazuki tries to save her, but instead gets killed when his heart is stabbed through by a giant snake's tail. Luckily for him, the girl is named Tokiko Tsumura & is an "Alchemist Warrior" & has on her a "kakugane", which is not only replaces Kazuki's heart (giving him a new life) but also gives him access to a weapon formed by his very spirit. He's also told that what killed him was a homunculus, and that the town may be filled with them after being "born" by a mysterious "Creator". Though he's recommended to use his new life & power to protect himself & those he holds dear, Kazuki decides to become a warrior himself & help Tokiko stop the homunculi before anyone else dies at their hands.

As mentioned, Buso Renkin is one giant love letter to shonen action. Nothing about it is exactly original in any way, and the show has a sense of winking & nodding at how it works, but the overall execution is done with absolute love for what it is & what came before it. This is, simply put, a shonen action title made by a man who loved the genre & what it can offer, and the anime adaptation follows through on what Watsuki started. Sure, there is comedy mixed in and sometimes the occasional jabbing at a general shonen ideal, but this title stays absolutely committed to Shonen Jump's three "keywords": Yuujou/Friendship, Douryoku/Effort, & Shouri/Victory.

Naturally, what carries those keywords the most are the characters. Kazuki is your traditional shonen lead (headstrong, dedicated to his cause, but not quite the smartest), but manages to rise above that traditional-ness to his character & keeps your attention through his non-stop energy & never-say-die attitude; in most shonen titles the lead is usually not the "best" character, but this might be one of those exceptions. Alongside him is Tokiko, the battle-hardened & serious female warrior, though she has her silly moments (usually as the brunt of silly thoughts from Kazuki & the others). One of the best parts to this show, actually, is the relationship between Kazuki & Tokiko, which shows a slow & growing sense of not just camaraderie but actual affection towards each other. It isn't simply "Tokiko is going to be Kazuki's girlfriend, obviously", but rather a true evolution from Tokiko making sure Kazuki lives to Kazuki wanting to protect her to the two really wanting to be with each other for as long as they can. As crazy as the action can get you end up watching Buso Renkin just as much to see how Kazuki & Tokiko's feelings for each other mature & grow.

Also introduced early on is Koshaku Chono, a sickly student who is actually the "Papillon Masked Creator" of the initial homunculi who is trying to find a way to live eternally before he dies from disease. It's not a major spoiler since it happens relatively early on, but the end of the first story arc ends with Chono becoming a humanoid homunculus & takes the name of Papillon (only Kazuki can call him by his real name). Simply put, Papillon is downright insanity mixed with fabulousness, with his skin-tight outfit (& even more revealing underwear!), never removed papillon mask, over-the-top posing, & obsession with killing Kazuki; Papillon is awkardly, amazingly awesome. Introduced in the second arc is Captain Bravo, a "Warrior Chief" who leads Kazuki & Tokiko against the League of Extraordinary Elects, or LXE for short, a group of humanoid homunculi lead by Papillon's great-great-grandfather "Doctor Butterfly". Similar to Papillon, Bravo is over-the-top in execution, but in Bravo's case he is outright manliness as defined by his steadfast resolve, intense training, & love of keeping things secret about himself because "it's cooler that way" (though there's a real, sad reason for his secrecy). Finally, in terms of major heroes & villians, there is Victor, who 100 years earlier became a "third existence" (one that's neither human nor homunculus) & nearly took out every alchemist warrior before going into hiding. Victor becomes the main antagonist for the third & final story arc, but like his Frankenstein namesake has a sad story behind him that makes the viewer feel sorry for him. Honestly, there are so many important characters in Buso Renkin that it's seems logically impossible to really care for or develop most of them in some major way, yet it does. To talk about any more in detail, like Kazuki's friends or the other alchemist warriors, would just come off as rambling more than anything.

Even with all of that, though, another big appeal to this series are the buso renkin themselves. Since each one is the physical representation of its user's fighting spirit, they are all very different from each other & it's here that Watsuki's imagination was allowed to roam free. For example, Kazuki uses a lance that's eventually called Sunlight Heart that features an ornamental cloth that can gather energy to make strikes stronger, while Tokiko has the Valkyrie Skirt, which are a series of blades that attach to her legs and can attack from all directions. Bravo has Silver Skin, which is a jacket-like armor that can deflect any & all attacks yet also has offensive-ish uses as well. Papillon has Near-Death Happiness (gunpowder butterfly wings that he can send at his opponents & explode at will), LXE member Moon Face (who's face is a literal crescent moon) has Satellite 30 (which allows him to create clones of himself, one for each minor phase of the moon), and Gota Nakamura (who Tokiko helped train) has Motor Gears (a pair of gear-shaped chakram that can utilized in many ways). These are far from the craziest buso renkin, though... Hell, one of the characters has a literal giant robot at his beck & call! The sheer imagination Watsuki showcases with these weapons is just another reason to continue watching this show; you want to know what kind of crazy weapon is used next!

Still, even with all of this insanity & utilizing of previously existing ideals, Watsuki still ends up telling a great story with Buso Renkin. The beginning that focuses on Chono is fun & a good start, but everything really gets going when the LXE are introduced. The execution doesn't change much, but this is when the various buso renkin start appearing, not to mention wacky villains like Doctor Butterfly & Moon Face making their debuts. The first half of the show has a very exciting & fun execution to it, much like titles such as GaoGaiGar & G Gundam. Once Victor debuts, though, the story shifts over to a more serious & sometimes somber feel. Without spoiling much, Kazuki becomes a wanted man by the alchemist warriors (due to the circumstances behind his resurrection at the beginning of the story), and the story shifts over to Kazuki, Tokiko, & Gota trying to figure out how to stop the manhunt while also stopping Victor's inescapable "energy drain" that could kill any living being (it's a regular behavior for him, like breathing). While this part of the story still has the fun of seeing all the crazy buso renkin everyone uses, there's also a great sense of immediacy for what's going on, with the stakes getting as high as they could. While Watsuki could have just stuck with the homage aspect & just had fun with the concept, he instead did all of that while also telling a great story filled with tons of memorable characters.

For the anime adaptation, Xebec definitely put their effort in. Takao Kato (Zoids: Chaotic Century, Over Drive), as admitted in the booklet included in Viz's second boxset, completely utilized the youthful embrace that the story focuses on, and with his lead never falters from a production standpoint. Similarly, series composer Akatsuki Yamatoya (Gintama, Blue Dragon TV; misnamed as "Gyo Yamatoya" by Viz) managed the adapt all 10 volumes into 26 episodes with very little removed; in turn, though, the pacing never lets go, but never feels rushed. The character designs by Akio Takami & Hatsue Kato stay true to Watsuki's striking & sleek style, but it also shows how Watsuki's style did evolve when compared to his Rurouni Kenshin days. To keep with the epic, over-the-top story, characters, & weapons Xebec brought in the legendary Kouhei Tanaka, who delivers a truly bombastic & orchestral soundtrack; the battle themes heard here easily match up well against those from GaoGaiGar & G Gundam (see, there's a reason why I referenced them earlier). The opening theme is "Makka na Chikai" by Yoshiki Fukuyama, and can only be described in one word: Perfection. The sound fits the show ideally, the lyrics are like an anthem to the "never give up" attitude of shonen action, and Fukuyama's performance is one of his best. It's not just one of the best shonen anime themes of all time, but it's also the magnum opus of Fukuyama's entire solo career. The first ending theme, "Hoshiakari" by Jyukai, is a great slow song that fits the budding relationship between Kazuki & Tokiko excellently & even appears again in the final two episodes, even more fitting than before. The second ending theme, "Itoshiki Sekai" by Aya Kagami, is an absolute 180 turn by being a dark, unsettling anthem for Papillon. Oddly enough, though, even though the lyrics are all about Papillon the eclectic beat and mix of piano & harpischord, with some orchestral background, really fits the more serious second half.

The Japanese cast is also very well done. Kazuki is voiced by Jun Fukuyama (Lelouch in Code Geass, A-drei in Valvrave), who brings out his inner hot-blooded boy & delivers a great performance; as someone mainly familiar with his deeper, more serious roles I was pleasantly surprised by him. Tokiko is performed by Ryoka Yuzuki (Ino in Naruto, Satsuki in Kill la Kill), who brings her experience in voicing dead serious characters to great use for the "battle girl". Almost stealing the show, though, would be Masahi Ebara (Bolt Crank in Eat-Man, Guy in Naruto) & Mitsuaki Madono (Kon in Bleach, Soldat J in GaoGaiGar), who voice Captain Bravo & Papillon, respectively. Ebara proved his hot-blooded style with Guy previously and he delivers a similarly entertaining style with Bravo, while also doing a great job with the character's truly serious moments, while Madono obviously had a ton of fun voicing his character, because nearly every line coming from Papillon's mouth is seemingly filled with absolute honesty & love, regardless of whether it's deadly serious or ridiculously bombastic. With so many other characters to mention I'll end off with some honorable mentions: Katsumi Chou (Doctor Butterfly), Rikiya Koyama (Victor), Shinji Kawada (Gota), Tomokazu Seki (Moon Face & Warrior Chief Hiwatari), & Sho Hayami (Great Warrior Chief Sakaguchi). Hell, Nobuhiro Watsuki even voices a quick cameo by his pig-drawn personal image in episode 7!

To be fair, though, the English dub by Salami Studios & Rene Veilleux (Honey & Clover) is really damn good, too. Kazuki is by Steve Staley (a.k.a. Steve Cannon; Ippo in Hajime no Ippo, Hitsugaya in Bleach), who delivers a very honest & heart-felt performance; Staley may not have the same hot-bloodedness as Fukuyama, but he makes up for it in other areas. Tokiko is voiced by Tara Platt (Temari in Naruto, Caster in Fate/stay Night), who honestly sounds a little too old for Tokiko (i.e. the character is 17, but Platt sounds about ten years older), but like Staley more than makes up for it with tons of emotion. Similar to the Japanese cast, though, Bravo & Papillon nearly steal the show with their voice actors, Patrick Seitz (Franky in One Piece, Sky High in Tiger & Bunny) & Spike Spencer (Shinji in Evangelion, Akito in Nadesico), respectively. Seitz's Bravo completely embraces the superhero motif that the character sometimes gives off, while Spencer's Papillon is just as bombastic as Madono's is (if not more at times)... It's actually really hard to choose which language to prefer for these two characters. Filling in the rest of the cast are the likes of Yuri Lowenthal (Victor), Christopher Smith (Moon Face), Kyle Hebert (Hiwatari), & Liam O'Brien (Gota). If there's only one nagging issue I have with the dub, though, it's that some characters try a little too hard to maintain a "Japanese sound" to foreign names & words instead of sticking to a more casual style (i.e. saying "Buso Renkeen" instead of "Buso Renkin" or "Kazooki" instead of "Kazuki"); this is mainly a personal nitpick, though. Viz's DVD release also includes audio commentaries for three episodes on the first boxset, and both sets feature behind the scenes specials for the dub.

Buso Renkin is one of those rare titles that manages to not just be an homage but also its own creation. Essentially, the bigger a fan of shonen action you are the more you'll notice all of the usual ideas, executions, & concepts, but at the same time Nobuhiro Watsuki didn't simply stop with that. Instead, he told what would be, in his mind, the ultimate "boy meets battle girl" story that sometimes poked fun at some shonen elements, but overall embraced them with a giant hug & screamed "I love this stuff!" Xebec's anime adaptation is a perfect adaptation of this story, even with a couple of minor flubs by Viz's release (the subs on the last DVD have two or three errors, and they didn't sub the final credits footage, which quickly adapts the final epilogue chapter of the manga). If you're a fan of Shonen Jump then you owe it to yourself to check this series out, and either manga or anime is a great way to do so. There are so few titles out there with as much imagination, spirit, & love for the medium as this one, and hopefully as time goes on more & more people find out about this title; it's already a bit of a cult classic, so let's turn it into a full-blown one.

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