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Thursday, August 21, 2014

AWOL Compression Re-MIX: Not Quite The Anime Expendables, But I'll Take It

The image you see below is a short prequel manga for AWOL -Absent WithOut Leave- titled Lady Steady Go! (get it?) that was drawn by character designer Isamu Imakake. It tells the story of how main character Jim Hyatt met future team member Rachel Hurst, as she was already with Hyatt when she debuted in the anime. According to production assistance studio Ehrgeiz (who in fact helped out with AWOL and, yes, Next Senki Ehrgeiz), this manga released on April 30, 1999 was only available as a bonus to people who bought all of the anime on home video when it was released in Japan; naturally, it's now intensely rare (I've never seen it for sale online, at least). 


Why do I bring it up? No real reason, honestly, other than to say that I've now covered everything AWOL with this review. Speaking of which, let's recap a little with the subject of Review #150... You know, the anime that's a son of a pitch.


The AWOL that ran on TV Tokyo in late-night from January 7 to April 1 of 1998 can be described in many different ways. Justin Sevakis called it "unwatchable", I called it "lopsided", and its sheer difference in quality between the non-existent pace of the the first half & the more focused second half was a true blue instance of an anime pulling a Dr. Jekly & Mr. Hyde, only in reverse. The end result felt more like a short OVA series that was forced to be turned into a weekly TV series, which is kind of the opposite of what usually happened during the OVA boom (i.e. aborted TV series got turned into OVAs). This TV series really felt like the equivalent of a professional runner doing a false start yet still kept running, simply because that's all this specific runner is good at. Eventually, everyone just lets this runner finish the race that never even got started simply because they feel sorry for him/her; they might even play "Chatiots of Fire" by Vangelis just to make the runner feel special. Japan's only interaction with the original TV version of AWOL would be via the airwaves, because the staff involved knew that no one would buy this show on home video in the form it originally aired in; that didn't stop d-rights from licensing the TV version to AnimeVillage.com, though. What Japan got instead was something called AWOL Compression Re-MIX, which truncated the entire production from twelve 24-minute episodes into four OVAs which were released on VHS & LD from August to December the same year; episodes 1-3 are around 53 minutes long, while episode 4 is around 43 minutes. Taking into consideration the fact that the OP & ED are only used four times instead of twelve, roughly four episodes worth of content was removed to compress everything! Does that make AWOL actually watchable now? Hell, is it as "speedy & powerful" as it's claimed to have been made into?

Well, to be frank, it does... It really does. That is proven right from the first volume, which really showcases how being a TV series was the weakest part of AWOL. Just from an episode content breakdown it sounds like a great improvement. Volume 1 covers the first four episodes, detailing from Solomon's assault on Cyress all the way to Hyatt's team being begrudgingly approved by the military. In the TV series this took close to 100 minutes to cover, so how does Compression Re-MIX cut it down by half? First, episode 1's footage is cut down to roughly only 18 minutes, focusing solely on Solomon's attack & abduction of the PDB missiles; Hyatt's pointless scenes are completely excised. Second, episode 2's footage amounts to only about 15 minutes, completely removing the useless sub-plot of Marrius, Hyatt's student who joins the anti-terrorist squad in their attempt to retrieve the missiles. Technically, Marrius is still shown & named, but he comes off now more as just a normal soldier & not a person who was given some sort of fake importance. Also, the reduced amount of footage showing the anti-terrorist squad is a benefit, as episode 2's excess ended up failing in making Solomon's forces look strong simply because the episode made the anti-terrorist squad look pathetic; not giving the future-dead soldiers focus makes Solomon look dangerous. Finally, and most importantly, episode 3 is skipped over completely! Not one second from it is shown, proving my short rant from Review #150 correct. Compression Re-MIX's first volume simply showcases the footage from the first two episodes and then introduces Hyatt via the footage of him running that originally opened episode 1, followed by using all of episode 4. If there was any footage cut out of episode 4 I really couldn't notice it, but I wouldn't be surprised if there were very minor cuts done solely to keep the pacing tight. Yes, I just said that AWOL has tight pacing. Truly a miracle has happened.


Another good change made from the original TV series is that the footage wasn't simply run in order after the cuts were made. Instead, footage is sometimes placed in different spots than before, like how Hyatt's running footage was moved from the beginning of episode 1 to after episode 2 is covered. Another little change is the use of the avant, or footage that's shown before an opening sequence; it's also known as a cold open. While every episode of the TV series started off with the OP footage, every volume of Compression Re-MIX starts off with some sort of story-focused footage before going to the OP. For example, Volume 1 starts the story off in media res with the scene from episode 5 where the President's Deputy tells the General & Staff Officer that the President will now be calling the shots. Whereas the TV series simply throws the viewer into the show without any preparation, Compression Re-MIX instead gives new viewers something to chew on while the OP plays. "The President's in command?"; "PLP?"; "Terrorists?"; all of these are viable questions that someone could have if they started watching AWOL via Compression Re-MIX. It makes for a neat teaser of things to come, honestly. After that the avant is used mostly to recap what happened in the previous volume, which makes sense since there was a month-long gap between releases here, compared to only a week between each TV episode. Oddly enough, the original TV series didn't even bother to use recaps until the last two episodes... It would have been a perfect way to waste time during that production, honestly.

From a storytelling perspective, this "compression" also results in many superfluous plot points being removed, helping to streamline everything. I earlier mentioned Marrius from episode 2, and the entirety of episode 3, but Compression Re-MIX also completely excises things like the idea of a planet being the source of most of the planetary system's electrical power and half of the training regimen that Hyatt's team goes through in episode 5, all of which had no real impact on the original story. Even hacker Chris Sheldon's motion sickness is less explained & more showcased visually, which is a nice touch. All of this makes AWOL feel more like a mini-series than a full-on TV series, and that's all for the better. While this probably could have been edited even more & turned into a 2-2.5 hour movie-length production with no major issues, turning it into a 4-episode mini-series, of sorts, allows the pacing and sense of urgency to still be maintained while also giving the story and characters more time to establish everything & feel more fleshed out.


That said, some of the issues with AWOL are just impossible to remove, especially when no new scenes were added in. For example, it still takes way too long to have Solomon's second-in-command Amanda Kessler's name be mentioned (here it's Volume 3), and the scenes featuring the military & government heads are just about as boring as before. There is definitely less meandering going on, but those scenes featuring the General & Deputy bickering back & forth will always be the worst parts of the story; even Peat Culten pokes fun near the end at how useless they are at getting anything done. Also, there is still that feeling that the pacing could have been tightened just ever so slightly more. Pretty much, instead of having the first three volumes last 52-55 minutes, the staff probably could have pruned them down to around 48-50; nothing major, but just enough. The last volume, though, works the best of them all. Since episodes 11 & 12 were the climax they featured the best pacing in the original TV version, so nothing was really removed. Instead, the direct end of episode 11 was replaced with the recap from the beginning of episode 12, which then advanced into the new footage of the finale, and the end result works without a hitch. Unfortunately, the ending is still just as sudden & (mostly) epilogue-less as the TV series was. Finally, just to nitpick, the avant in volume 3 is literally repeated later in that volume, which makes me wonder if it was meant to be a recap & someone made a stupid mistake. Oh well, you can't have everything be perfect.

Oddly enough, though, the pruning & "compression" that this production does to the original TV series does result in a good bit of Toshifumi Kawase's more visually interesting establishing shots being removed. Sure, there were a lot of moments of simply repeating a moment via different angles, but there were some that looked kind of cool. Clips like Gash's upper body being repeatedly shadowed & lit while going up the elevator with a PDB missile in episode 1 or Hyatt sneakily watching Culten's recon helicopter in episode 10 did admitteldy give the show moments of visual flair, so removing them makes Compression Re-MIX look a little more normal in comparison. Still, I'll admit that I won't miss them horribly when, in exchange, I get an actual sense of pacing to the entire story & not just the second half. Also, on second listen, Shiroh Hamaguchi's soundtrack is really fitting & a great showing of how good he was even in his earliest work; I even bought the OST off Amazon Japan because I liked it so much (also, it was dirt cheap).


I covered the best overall performances from the voice cast in the TV series review, but there are some other noteworthy ones to mention. Of special note are the major females, Atsuko Tanaka (Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell, Lisa Lisa in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure TV), Yayoi Kazuki (this show being her biggest role), & Shinobu Adachi (Kayra Su in Mobile Suit Gundam: Char's Counterattack). Tanaka voices pilot Dana McLaren and does a great job at showcasing her character as a tough woman who could very well kick your ass; in fact, she may be typecasted into that role, considering what else she's done. Kazuki's Rachel is similarly tough, but mixes in enough of a caring side to feel a bit more relatable. Finally, Adachi's Amanda gets a fair amount of variation in her role, with moments of teasing, dedication, pride, & anger, all of which she delivers well. In fact, it's pretty cool to see the major females come off just as tough as the men here; everyone's treated equal here, and that's deserving of some credit. To fully cover Hyatt's team, Zach Landice is voiced by Ryuzaburo Otomo (Crocodile in One Piece, Bear Walken in Gungrave), who does a fine job with the big guy of the team, delivering both sillier & more serious moments. Finally, to round out the major cast, we have the nameless military/government heads, voiced by Ikkyuu Juku (President's Deputy), Seizou Katou (General), Taihei Yamamoto (Staff Officer), & Tamio Ohki (Secretary of Defense). They all do okay jobs considering their roles, but I just couldn't care about the characters they were voicing.


If "lopsided" was the best possible word to describe AWOL -Absent WithOut Leave-, then the best word to describe AWOL Compression Re-MIX would have to be "impressive". I was expecting it to be a better production based solely on how much footage was cut, though roughly one quarter of it was due to the removal of an entire episode (3), but I am honestly surprised by how much of an improvement this re-edit is. It essentially took what was a show that was obviously stretched much, much longer than it ever should have and turned it into the OVA series that it seemingly was meant to be in the first place. Now, yes, upon watching this final product one could argue that the pacing could have been tightened a little more & maybe even turned into more of a movie-length production, but the end result still reduced a story that took roughly 4.8 hours to get all the way through into one that was done in about 3.38 hours without having to create new scenes... That's amazing. One could also argue that such a concept didn't need to be done via animation (this could easily have been a live-action production), but I think that does end up being part of the charm of AWOL. It's yet another example that anime can truly be anything, and I that's why I love watching this medium. Overall, my opinion of AWOL has most definitely improved after watching this Japan-exclusive redo. It's not quite a "hidden gem", but it's better than you might think; just avoid the original TV version, even though that's the one we got over here.

Unfortunately, Compression Re-MIX is not available with English subtitles, though there are "raw" LD rips out there online, but all one would need to do is take the original AnimeVillage.com subs for the TV series & use them to know where & when to time the subs... Just don't look at me for it. At least, I wouldn't share it online if I was to ever do that; that's illegal you know.

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