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Saturday, August 16, 2014

AWOL -Absent WithOut Leave-: You Inglorious Bastards, You Read No Book!

It's finally time for Review #150! When I did Gundoh Musashi for #50 I knew it was bad (oh so bad), but I wanted to give it the full, complete review that it never had, and when I did Robotech the Movie for #100 I had heard of how bad it was but I didn't actually know, first hand, how poor the final product ended up. For #150 I'm tackling a series that I have had some minor experience with prior, but I never wanted to spend money to see all of. Due to some circumstances though, specifically its odd release history in both Japan & North America, I broke down & bought all of the VHS tapes needed to see the show in full. I worry I have outright wasted money that could have gone to much better things in life...

"原作/Gensaku (Original Work/Concept): et" is such an enigma to me when it comes to anime, & not just because I have no idea how to actually pronounce it ("ette"? "ee-tee"? Why do I even care?). Who or what is et, exactly? It's nigh impossible to research because of how short & simple a name it is, not to mention you have to ignore all of the results that talk about a certain Steven Spielberg classic. One thing I can confirm about et, though, is this: Only two anime have ever had this credit, and they were made one after another. The first was Next Senki/Record of Next War Ehrgeiz, which was the third review I ever wrote for this blog & is an anime that I still am completely willing to defend and admit that I really enjoy. It's also still one of my ten most viewed posts, with my absurd "battle" between it & the video game of the same name recently making it into the Top 10 as well. The other production to be conceived by et, on the other hand, is just about as super-obscure as Ehrgeiz but has no one to defend it; aside from me, Ehrgeiz at least has a Japanese fansite. Hell, those who live in Japan can at least watch Ehrgeiz online via the Bandai Channel, since it doesn't have a DVD release (VHS & LD only); can't say that about this other et anime. At the same time, though, there aren't any reviews online that actually talk about this anime in detail and explain why it's so bad; most out there either only cover a couple of episodes or are little more than a blurb. Therefore, I will bite the bullet & review the entirety of this series, even if it may rob me of my sanity. I have seen the first two episodes before, so I have some vague idea what I'm going into, but I wonder if even that will be enough to prepare me...

This is AWOL -Absent WithOut Leave-, and may God have mercy on my soul.

The Allied Nations watches over a small system of planets, each of which is involved in the Planet Link Project, or PLP for short, a series of satellites outfitted with lasers to defend the planets from enemies. When the PLP system for the peaceful Cyress shuts down for four seconds, though, a mysterious ship sneaks into the planet & causes mayhem. They steal seven PDB missile carriers for their own use, each one capable of destroying a planet. This terrorist group, calling themselves Solomon, is lead by Duran Gash and has one more surprise for the Allied Nations: Peat Culten, the only man who can control the PLP, has gone AWOL & joined the terrorists. This now means that Solomon not only has the power to destroy multiple planets, but they also can use the AN's PLP against them at any time! Major Jim Hyatt is chosen to lead a small group to bring back Culten, & stop Solomon if possible, and with no options left he is given the go to recruit whoever he chooses for his team, which includes relying on a couple of AAA-grade criminals who are presently incarcerated. Unfortunately, Solomon's defenses seem impenetrable & the government itself has its own ideas for stopping these terrorists, leaving Hyatt & his team in a much trickier conundrum.

To be quite honest, the immediate first impression AWOL gives is actually fairly positive; the concept alone is pretty original, at least in terms of anime. I've heard it compared to the 1967 film The Dirty Dozen, and though I haven't seen the film myself the ideas behind both of them (a ragtag team who have to save the day via a near-suicide mission) are definitely similar. It's also very much a serious story, with Solomon meant to feel like a truly unpredictable & dangerous presence that has to be stopped & almost no comedy at all. The characters themselves are a nice mix as well, especially Hyatt's crew. There's an expert pilot (Dana McLaren) & her trusted mechanic/co-pilot (Zack Landice), a dead-eye sharpshooter (John Bishop), a smart-mouth hacker (Chris Sheldon), a quiet but poignant bomber (Nelson the Bomb), a communications expert (Rachel Hurst) & the experienced trainer of the anti-terrorist squad himself (Jim Hyatt). When the crew is put together they have their nice moments of banter & they all have nicely defined personalities; even if they all don't get much development, you can understand how each of them act quickly. True, this concept & execution isn't exactly original in media in general, but among anime it's kind of tough to name many others like AWOL.

So how does such a promising concept become ruined? Easy: The pacing, and by that I mean the sheer absence of it. What exactly do I mean by that? Well, let's talk about pitch for a moment...

For those who don't know, pitch is a viscoelastic resin that has an interesting characteristic about it: It looks like a solid, but can be funneled like a liquid. A pitch drop experiment showcases how long it takes for pitch to fall, one drop at a time, and what makes it interesting is that it can literally take years (somewhere around a decade on average) for a drop to fall. How does this relate to AWOL? Well, the way the story plays out is much like a pitch drop experiment in that it takes an insanely long time for any sort of actual advancement to occur. This is blatantly obvious from the first episode, which is all about how Solomon invaded Cyress & stole the PDB missiles. The second episode, in turn, is about nothing more than the government sending in an initial anti-terrorist squad to retrieve the missiles, only for them to all die. That's right, the first two episodes accomplish nothing outside of introducing the main conflict, with Hyatt only being shown in a literal handful of scenes (which probably only total a couple of minutes) where he has absolutely nothing to do with the plot outside of knowing that one of his students died in episode 2's skirmish. In fact, you don't even find out what Hyatt's name is until the very last seconds of episode 2, and that's not even the worst of it... Duran Gash's name isn't revealed until episode 5, even though he's shown in most of the episodes up until that point, Peat Culten's name isn't revealed in full until episode 4, and Gash's second in command Amanda Kessler isn't outright named until episode 9 (and even then it's only her first name)! Yes, the end credits do reveal everyone's full names in every episode they are in... But you shouldn't have to rely on the credits to find out what to call a major character!! Oh god, I'm already having to rely on bolding for emphasis, and I haven't even gotten past episode 2 in terms of how non-existent the pacing in this show is.

Yes, the pacing problems don't stop after episode 2. In fact, episode 3 is absolutely, positively, indubitably pointless! It's about Hyatt in action, showcasing him leading a squad in rescuing a foreign dignitary, but it's only when they're about to save him do they realize that the dignitary in actually working with the kidnappers. How does any of this relate back to Solomon? In no way at all. Technically, the episode is meant to introduce Hyatt as being the only man capable of bringing back Culten, but you could honestly skip the entire episode & not lose a beat; outside of a throwaway line that barely references it, this incident is never brought up again in the show. The craziest thing about episode 3, though, is that you wouldn't want to skip it simply because it's one of the best episodes in the entire show! The rescue mission is cool to see in action, the storyline of the dignitary being part of the scheme is handled nicely, and the pacing is better than anything that came before it. In fact, the ending even delivers an excellent example of the "Show, Don't Tell" concept by having Hyatt remove the medals he earned for the rescue due to the circumstances behind it. Hyatt's actions & emotions completely covey his sense of justice & duty really damn well in the episode's last few minutes.

So, after this complete left turn detour the show takes, episode 4 brings the focus back to the actual story, and the pacing problems return in full force. By the end of this episode, which is the one-third point of the show (totaling ~96 minutes, including OPs & EDs), all of major importance that's happened is this: Solomon stole the PDB missiles & Jim Hyatt has chosen his team to stop them. Like I said, this show is an absolute son of a pitch. It's not until episode 6 that we finally get an episode that's paced fairly well. Sure, it's not much at this point but it has the first encounter between Solomon & Hyatt's team, even if only indirectly, and when it's not about that encounter there's some nice banter between Hyatt's crew that helps give them all personalities. Still, come the halfway point we've only had one actual interaction between the heroes & villains, and it's mostly the heroes trying to chase the villains down until they're forced to retreat from the laser assault of the PLP satellites. It's really kind of sad how long it takes to get through, what's essentially, the first act of the story (plus maybe the very beginning of the second act).

While I'm at it, maybe I should actually talk about the major characters, no? The show's pacing is so slow that I might as well take a sudden detour as well, after all. As serious of a story that AWOL is, there are some larger-than-life characters spruced about, and they honestly do help make the show watchable, even if only in short bursts. The best example of this is Peat Culten, easily. This guy is a madcap technical genius who's almost always chomping on a candy bar of some sort & is so full of energy, constantly calling his computer prowess "magic" & often giggling like a scratchy-voiced schoolgirl. He's almost at odds with how ramrod stiff nearly everyone else is in the show, and especially so with his fellow Solomon cohorts. On Hyatt's side the most entertaining characters would be Chris, Bishop, & Nelson. Chris is a cocky hacker who's either thinking higher of himself or showcasing tons of silly weaknesses, like how he suffers from motion sickness very easily & almost can't hold his lunch anytime Dana goes into hyper drive. Bishop, in turn, is a very vocal soldier who's quick to act as the counterpoint to Chris' complaining, but also shows a strong sense of justice & protecting others. The latter sense comes into play a little when Hyatt is willing to let a planet get hit with a PDB missile if it means that they can actually start hunting down Solomon; Bishop very visually shows how he's against that idea. Finally, Nelson barely speaks but is simply always fun to watch due to his facial reactions. When he does talk, though, it's usually something important (or some sort of bomb talk, like a countdown). While there are other signs of nice personality among the characters, like Dana having to deal with her pilot pride being damaged when things go wrong or Rachel's steadfast dedication to Hyatt, but they're aren't quite as pronounced as the four I mentioned above.

Unfortunately, the seriousness of AWOL does result in a strong sense of stiff personalities, with some of them being the main characters themselves. Main villain Duran Gash is almost always stuck in such a nigh-unemotional state that it's hard to get a read on him, and anything about him is impossible to figure out. In fact. outside of episode 5 talking about his past as a decorated soldier, you learn nothing about the man & the reasons for everything he's doing are a completely mystery. He doesn't have any demands that he wants fulfilled; he simply wants multi-planetary destruction. On the one hand that does make him inherently "evil", and the moments when he transmits messages to the military he shows some hint of personality, but overall it's simply hard to get a read on this guy; I can't even tell if this was the story's intention of not. Amanda Kessler is only slightly better because she interacts with Culten a little more & she has a neat "teasing" personality, but not much else. As for our hero, Jim Hyatt, he's almost a blank slate. His face almost never shows any variable emotion, he's steadfast in his decisions & doesn't falter or change his mind, and he's very much an "ideal warrior" in that he knows what to do & knows that he can do it. At the same time, though, Hyatt has this inescapable presence about him. As much as I want to not give a damn about him because of his relative blandness I can't ignore him... I really can't explain what makes Jim Hyatt such a magnetic force. It's kind of scary, actually.

The absolute worst of the characters would have to be the military & government heads. Simply identified by their positions (General, Staff Officer, Mr. Secretary [of Defense, I would guess], & Deputy [to the President]), these guys are almost always an absolute bore in every scene that's about them. The unfortunate thing about them, though, is that they are somewhat important to the story. While Hyatt is getting his crew ready & then finally set out, the Deputy claims that the President is angry over the lack of results in stopping Solomon, since there's a natural worry from the general public about their safety, and ends up taking control of the situation. This results in the concept of Hyatt's team having to not just worry about Solomon but also having to watch out for the government's potential intrusions, especially when they become unable to contact the General. In theory this lends the series some idea of political storytelling, but it more or less comes off as padding that does nothing but waste time. In no way am I saying that none of the scenes involving these characters should have been included, as they do have their importance in moments, but they really didn't need to have quite as much screentime as they actually do.

Going back to the story, something interesting happens after episode 6: The anime starts getting honest-to-god good. With all of the introductions out of the way & the sides finally being established, the main attraction, at long last, begins. The next four episodes have some nice execution to them, mixing together a bunch of action movie standards with some good action set pieces & even some nice character moments. When Gash is willing to send an attack force out to act as a decoy to be bombed, Amanda showcases really good personal attachment to her soldiers & willingly joins the decoys, hoping to finish the mission without them dying. Meanwhile, the military & government heads continue bickering and the military term "AWOL" finally comes into play, even if it's more or less tenuous. The last two episodes give the story a proper finale, even squeezing a twist or two at the very end. If anything, the only real problems with the end are that it is a bit of a sudden finish (i.e. there's only a little aftermath shown) & we are never truly given a real reason for Gash's actions. Culten is mainly shown off as a psycho who thinks he's "magic" & everything is a "game", but Gash remains an enigma all the way through; the General does say that Gash "wants everything", but that's the most we get in terms of a reason for Gash blowing up planets & generally being evil.

Still, as much as the second half of the show heavily improves on the slog & chore of a watch that the first half was, I must admit that the pacing could have still been tightened just a little bit. Unfortunately, such tightening was likely impossible to do, and that's because of the biggest flaw of AWOL: It's form of existence. To put it simply, there was absolutely no need for this anime to be a TV series made up of 12 episodes, each of which had to run ~24 minutes. This concept in & of itself just simply doesn't work as a TV series, as it requires a feeling of there being a time limit. Having to stretch itself out across 12 episodes, totaling close to 300 minutes, is just too much for it to maintain that sense of urgency. The massive difference in quality between the first & second halves showcases this perfectly, as it's quickly made obvious that the second half was meant to be the "main attraction", while the first half was only the set-up. There was really only so much that could be done to make an idea that obviously wasn't meant to be a TV series into that kind of long-form format.

That's not to say that the staff certainly didn't try to make it work. In fact, the staff for AWOL shares a lot of people with Next Senki Ehrgeiz, no doubt due to the fact that the former debuted the week after the latter ended, and it gives me a theory as to who "et" may be. The biggest similarity is in the director & series composer duo of Toshifumi Kawase & Atsuhiro Tomioka, respectively. Along with Tomioka bringing in the same exact writers with him to script the show, I really think that et was simply a pen name for Kawase & Tomioka as a duo. Considering that the odd name never appeared in anime after AWOL, and the only other anime to have the two together would be Eat-Man '98, I think it's a theory that makes some sense. Anyway, as much as the first half drags along, Kawase doesn't simply let the visuals bog things down even more. It's easy to see that he tried his hardest to keep the show moving visually, with shots rarely lingering or relying on easily repeated animation cycles. One way the anime does this is by simply showing a moment via multiple camera angles. In episode 1, for example, when the first PDB missile carrier drives off you see it moving in about three or four different angles, one after another. Kawase also tries to give the show some visual flair by sometimes going for moments that look visually enticing, and the anime in general actually doesn't look terrible. Sure, it's limited animation, but that was generally customary of anime made for late-night in these early days of what's now common, and this show honestly has no notable errors. It can be argued that it's all for naught in the long run, but I will commend Toshifumi Kawase for trying, at least.

Also sharing similarities with Ehrgeiz is having Isamu Imakake do the character designs, along with "guest" designs by Takahiro Umehara (Akagi, One Outs, Iron Man) & Wataru Abe (a key animator & animation director), which are honestly pretty good. It's a simple, yet sleek style that works for the grounded realism of the show, though it's still easy to identify everyone; Zack's flattened mohawk looks kind of silly, though. Takahiro Yamada also comes over from Ehrgeiz for the mech designs, this time teaming with Shinobu Tsuneki (Gyrozetter), but here it's mainly for things like missile carriers & spaceships; they look neat & futuristic, but otherwise aren't exactly noteworthy. Finally, the last staff carry over is music composer Shiroh Hamaguchi, marking his solo debut here (in Ehrgeiz he teamed with fellow newcomer Akifumi Tada). It's obvious that Hamaguchi wanted to showcase what he could do on his own, because the music in this show is honestly a highlight; probably one of the biggest highlights, honestly. There's a lot of music that tends to simply exist to feel moody, which works well here, and Hamaguchi's command over an orchestra is always very strong. He also mixes in a nice assortment of synth beats that sound pretty cool, too, as well some catchy & exciting tunes that work well for both tension building & complete exertion. If you're curious what Hamaguchi's earliest solo work is like, Amazon Japan actually has it available for listening online, but only in 30 second bits. Though not on the lips of fans as the likes of Kenji Kawai, Yoko Kanno, or Kouhei Tanaka, I do think Shiroh Hamaguchi is up there as one of anime's finest maestros, and AWOL (astonishingly enough) can never be faulted on its music because of this. Well, it's not just because of Hamaguchi...

The opening theme is "Rocket Dive" by hide, the former lead guitarist of the legendary band X Japan who sadly took his own life just a month after AWOL finished airing. Working with his studio band Spread Beaver, "Rocket Dive" is not just an excellent song that showcased hide's own musical talents, but rather it is easily one of the best Japanese songs I have ever heard. It's nonstop energy, insanely catchy hooks, & masterful performances, both by hide & his band, are simply second to none. While it's lyrics aren't exactly fitting for the type of story AWOL tells, it's sound does fit the show oddly enough, and the opening footage that plays along with the song, done by opening animation pro Tokuyuki Matsutake, is a perfect fit for the song itself; I even named this OP one of 12 that deserve more love last September. The ending theme, "DON'T ASK ME WHY" by ZEPPET STORE (who just joined hide's music label LEMONed at the time), is similarly excellent by being a great compliment to "Rocket Dive"; rocking, but soothing at the same time. Again, I can't vouch for the lyrics fitting the show or not, and that's mainly because the North American release of this show doesn't sub either theme song, which was a definite rarity even back then. I always find it such a whiplash to hear how excellent AWOL's OP & ED are, yet they're attached to a show that is so problematic. It's probably one of the biggest gaps between quality of the show & quality of the music attached to it.

The voice cast is very much like its cast in that it's filled with a lot of serious & realistic performances, but mixed in are some really nicely done characters. Much like his character, the best performance would be from Ryusei Nakao, who voices Culten with all of the zaniness & psychoses that the computer genius seemingly has; any scene featuring him is a sight to behold. Similarly, Daiki Nakamura (Dayakka in Gurren Lagann) performs Chris with a lot of ego & panicking, helping make the character fun to watch. Shinichiro Miki voices Bishop, and his general style of wisecracking works very well for the character. Nelson, in the moments were he actually talks, is done by Jouji Nakata with his usual dark & gloomy cadence. Coincidentally, Gash is voiced by old-school seiyuu Kouji Nakata, who does an okay job with Solomon's leader; he does sound uncaringly evil, at least. (By the way, are the two Nakata's related, like father-son? If so, that would make Nelson admitting to having interacted with Gash in the past a nice bit of family allusion) Finally, to cover notable performances, Hyatt is performed by Tessho Genda, and I think he's the main reason for why Hyatt ends up working as a character for me. Genda delivers such a commanding performance, and by that I mean he really sounds like a determined leader. His performance just gives the character a really attention-grabbing & trusting performance.

When, who released AWOL on VHS, became Bandai Entertainment this show was given a dub for the first two episodes, also much like Ehrgeiz (& Eat-Man '98). Unfortunately, it's a very dull & workmanlike English dub, even having most of the lines be literal readings of the subtitle translation, with the only changes being done to match lip flaps. It's not exactly a terrible dub by any means, but it just sounds so absolutely boring, which I guess fits those first two episodes just fine. Also, the fact that only a few of the major characters are actually voiced here, mainly just Solomon's heads & the military/government people (Hyatt only has like five lines), kind of makes it hard to really judge; it's just simply exists. To be fair, though, Culten's voice actor delivers a performance very similar to Nakao's, which is cool, and I think Wendee Lee voices Amanda, but without any sort of official cast list I can't really tell. It's a perfect "Dub That Time Forgot" for Mike Toole to show off at a con, if anything.

AWOL -Absent WithOut Leave- can be best described with one simple word: Lopsided. I've certainly heard of, & seen, shows that start off with tons of promise and potential but wind up bombing after some episodes, but this one is the complete opposite. The first six episodes are a complete chore to watch, with slow-as-pitch pacing, lots of talking that doesn't accomplish much of anything, & meandering so pointless that an entire episode can be skipped over with no repercussions at all (yet said episode is actually the best one in the entire first half!). When bringing up AWOL briefly during one of his old Buried Treasure articles, Justin Sevakis called it "unwatchable", which is very close to true; I still strongly disagree with calling Ehrgeiz "almost-as-bad", though. Upon starting the second half, though, the show rebounds astoundingly. The pacing, though still not quite perfect, is overall fine & the story becomes focused and completely watchable. It's very likely that et (a.k.a. Kawase & Tomioka, in my opinion) originally conceived AWOL as a shorter OVA series, but with late-night anime becoming more of a thing, & TV Tokyo wanting content to fill in new time slots, it's possible that AWOL was simply forced to become a TV series as part of an agreement that got Next Senki Ehrgeiz the green-light. At least, that's what it feels like, since the second half was obviously the part of the story that was meant to be focused on, while the first half was simply the introduction that was given no other option than to stretch it out beyond reason. Even though the first half has glimpses of enjoyment in it & the second half is actually pretty good, I just can't recommend AWOL -Absent WithOut Leave-. It's not as constantly horrible as Gundoh Musashi nor as conceptually ruined as Robotech the Movie, but it's still just way too lopsided to be worth watching by anyone but those with way too much free time on their hands.

Still, I'm not quite sure if I want to sell my complete, 7 VHS collection of AWOL (including the dub), even though I recorded this show onto DVD while watching it. Why? Well, the staff knew how bad AWOL's pacing was, so when it got released on home video the original TV version was not what they got. Yeah, that's right, the VHS tapes we got is the only release of the TV version in the entire world! In fact, these VHS tapes haven't even been ripped & uploaded online yet; even Ehrgeiz had that happen to it. I honestly can't think of another instance where North America got a version of an anime that Japan never got themselves. Because of this, the prices for these tapes over at Amazon Japan are actually pretty high, ranging from a low of ¥4,800 to a high of over ¥15,000! In fact, Volume 4, & sometimes Volume 6, in general is kind of hard to get because it's rarely on sale, even on our Amazon. I feel like it's a bit of a collector's item, so I'm now hesitant to get rid of it. Anyway, if Japan didn't get the version of the show we got on home video, what did they get? Well, to fully comprehend what they got I'm going to do something I've never done on this blog before: I'm going to review a show twice, because what Japan got was apparently a re-edited & "remixed" version of AWOL. This milestone Review #150 is going carry over to Review #151 with AWOL Compression Re-MIX!

1 comment:

  1. Cool article. This sounds like one of those things that I'd watch and just revel in how odd/bad of a title it is. This also sounds like a show that no one will ever, ever, ever post rips of unfortunately. It's interesting to hear something write about it, but undoubtedly not the same as watching the show myself. And the chances of it popping up somewhere decrease as time goes on.