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Monday, July 11, 2016

Demo Disc Vol. 6: Illumitoon's Illusive Investment

Anime licensing companies have come & go in the history of the North American anime industry, and when they do go away it's usually in one of three categories. Some, like Bandai Entertainment, Central Park Media, or Geneon Entertainment, leave behind a legacy of greatness & maybe even innovation. Some others, like AnimeWho or ArtsMagic, die quietly after only a few releases, only to be brought up by oddball wannabe historians, like myself. Others still, though, wind up being remembered for having absolutely no idea as to what they were doing in the first place. A perfect example of that last category would be Illumitoon Entertainment. Formed in 2006 by FUNimation co-founder Barry Watson, Illumitoon's "Not-So-Rise & Absolute-Fail" was something I covered back in 2011. In the short couple of years the company actually mattered, it managed to get one DVD out for three of the anime it licensed (Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo, Beet the Vandel Buster, & B't X [this one got two]), but there was a fourth anime picked up by Illumitoon that never saw any sort of release in North America, or at least one on home video. It did see a year-long stint on The Anime Network in 2008 when it was still an On-Demand TV cable service, alongside B't X, but even that was dub-only & lasted for only 14 episodes.

I think it's time to finally give AM Driver it's (partial) due, because Illumitoon never did.

Running from 2004-2005, Get Ride! AMDriver was a 51-episode TV series that actually ran in a prime-time slot on TV Tokyo, 18:30/6:30 pm, replacing Croket! before being itself replaced by The Law of Ueki. Animated by Studio DEEN & directed by Yuji Yamaguchi (the man behind DEEN's Fate/stay night anime productions), under the name Isao Torada, the anime was part of a multi-media franchise that featured a kids manga & even a PS2 game & toys developed by Konami; some of the staff involved in the toys would go on to work on the Busou Shinki product line. In terms of attention outside of Japan, there was a single episode fansubbed back in the day (to my knowledge, at least), showing that next to no one really cared about it. There was a Hong Kong bootleg DVD set, though, that covered the first 13 episodes, so while I prefer to not have to rely on bootleg English subtitles anymore, I have absolutely no other choice here; at least the subs here work well enough, if maybe a little too literal. Sadly, the dubbed episodes are nowhere to be found, so I can't judge that product, nor can I cover episode 14, but let's see if there was even any potential to be found in the first quarter of AMDriver. Did Illumitton put money down on this anime because of any actual quality, or was Barry Watson simply hoping for a multi-media product, like it was in Japan?

It's been ten years since the Bugchine, a mysterious race of monster, invaded Earth. To combat the Bugchine, an organization was formed that was made up of armored warriors named AMDriver. Instead of simply being a combat troupe, though, AMDriver is a government-funded cadre of various "depots" made up of small units of AM Drivers that both work together as well as compete with each other. Units that do the most Bugchine destroying get more funding, not to mention become more & more popular with the general populace due to their battles being televised live. After two years of training, Jenus Dira, Ragna Laurairia, & Sera May officially join AMDriver's Little Wing depot, where they quickly learn just how the various AM Drivers themselves handle their jobs. When a trio of other armored warriors make their moves against the organization & a force called the Justice Army comes in, though, Jenus & his friends start to wonder... Is AMDriver really about protecting the people from monsters, or is it nothing more than a way to placate the populace & keep them under the control of the government?

(Yes, I'll be using the space when referring to the armored warriors, & omitting the space when referring to the organization.)

I have to state what might seem obvious, but AMDriver is a show that was made to shill toys to young children, first & foremost. All of the characters are grouped into small, color-coordinated units, minus Jenus & Ragna, & each has his/her own style of helmet when donning their armors, not to mention ride floating boards for travel, making them perfect action figures. Episode 5 introduces the Binary Silhouette Armor, "Bisar" for short, which is a series of vehicles (motorbike, giant floating board, glider, etc.) that the AM Drivers can use & even combine with to create new forms, giving kids even more cool toys to play with. The show is also rather fast in introducing the Bisars, with episodes 5 through 8 all being (mostly) dedicated to showing off a brand new Bisar for the characters to use, & the OP footage's use of the theme song's chorus is mostly about showing off an AM Driver using a Bisar before combining with it, acting as a perfect animated commercial. Without a doubt, Get Ride! AMDriver was made to promote a line of action figures in Japan, & these episodes in particular can feel especially blatant about that at times. I'm getting this out of the way early, though, because there is something more this anime by the time you get through episode 13... It just takes it slow for most of this quarter of the show.

The first seven episodes take it easy, introducing the characters & the concept for the show, & telling stories that delve into the early themes of the story. The most notable theme to notice here is balancing being a public hero & doing the right thing. The most successful unit at Little Wing, for example, is the trio of Scene Pierce, Kook "K.K." Karland, & Rochetes Kiss, who focus on getting the most Bugchine kills & then play to the crowd after winning masterfully; in turn, they tend to have the most budget to afford Bisars. Sera joins the unit made up of Paf Shining & twins Julie & Jun Frum, who wait until the last possible moment to increase tension & add to the suspense of them saving the day; Sera, in turn, finds that too risky for civilians. Finally, there's the duo of Dark Kalhole & Taft Klemar, who prioritize in-your-face, meleƩ beatdowns. Jenus & Ragna, in turn, try to focus on simply doing the right thing, with Jenus eventually not caring about gaining public approval & even going against his fellow AM Drivers, so long as he feels it's the right thing to do; his actions still wind up being praised, though. Part of that it is due to Mary Fastia & Nick Kio, a reporter/cameraman duo who broadcast the battles of the Little Wing depot & sometimes even help everyone out. It's a neat dichotomy that helps make AMDriver feel just a little different from other anime featuring power-armored warriors.

That being said, there is a slight annoyance to be found, and it's mainly in how "hip" & "cool" the anime desperately wants to feel, especially to its intended Japanese audience. As indicated, everyone has some sort of Anglicized name, and not even common ones at that, every single episode title is in Katakana-stylized English, & there's an abundance of English tossed in to nearly everyone's vernacular. The worst offender in this regard is Ragna, who constantly throws out English words with abandon, not to mention loves screaming out "Allons-y!" (French for "Let's Go!") whenever he goes into action; they are all used in proper context, mind you, but it comes off more as absurdly silly than endearing. Luckily, Ragna's a generally harmless character who dreams of being a big shot but in reality is easily outclassed by his comrades; it at least gives him some nice drive in his actions. As for the crazy Anglicized names, they don't stop with our heroes, either. The mysterious villains that are shown in these episodes aren't much better, whether it's the leader Ivan Nyrguise or the loose cannon Gangrid Diglahze, names in AMDriver are so crazy in a "These are obviously not named by people who speak English traditionally" way that I had to go to Konami's official website just to know what the official romanized spellings are! Probably the most natural sounding is for Shasha, the female cohort of Ivan's who takes a shining to Jenus early on. Thankfully, this feeling that AMDriver gives off in regards to how "cool" it wants to be didn't annoy me so much as just came off as a bit ridiculous, but I'm sure it would drive others insane.

Luckily, a notable change in the status quo comes about, with the impetus occurring in episode 8. It starts off with Diglahze making his first appearance in front of AMDriver & the public, absolutely dominating Scene while he's using the Bisar that just debuted in the same episode, while the others have trouble with a new type of powerful Bugchine. The next episode shows some really nice teamwork between all the AM Drivers as they try to stop Diglahze & his forces from reaching the Little Wing depot, but after that the real **** goes down; in fact, the episode 10 preview is only a few seconds long, so as to not spoil anything. That's because this episode shows what exactly makes Get Ride! AMDriver different than first impressions give by showing the absolute decimation of Little Wing. In what you would expect to have happen maybe half-way through, if not simply for the series finale, the anime changes things up once the episodes hit double-digits. Diglahze's assault, combined with his partner-in-crime Jean-Pierre Jinauvesais, a politician with a real alphabet soup of a last name, decrying AMDriver for "lying to the people", brings about an interesting twist to the formula. Even though episodes 12 & 13 return the relatively upbeat nature after a pair of pretty serious episodes, there's now that constant thought of "Is AMDriver really in the right, or is it nothing but a giant sheet of wool over everyone's eyes?" in both the viewers as well as Jenus, Ragna, & Sera.

This essentially leaves all of the major characters with some neat arcs & development. Jenus is left wondering what "truth" to fight for, Ragna wants to feel like he's an essential part of the team (him being the only real gunner does help him), & Sera wants to stick to the book but is slowly getting used to breaking the rules when needed, but probably the most interesting is actually with Scene's team. Being the most popular unit, Scene has had this feeling of being naturally superior & having everything come easy to him, but ever since his loss to Diglahze he becomes less sure of himself. He even becomes a bit of a pawn to Kathy, his unit's "roadie" that tries to do everything to make sure Scene looks the best like always, and she winds up having a sheer hatred for Janus when he tries to simply help out. The last major character, going off of the OP sequence, is Dark Kalhole, but he's nowhere to be found after episode 10, where he & Taft perform a seeming heroic sacrifice to allow Jenus & the others to escape Little Wing when it's attacked. Obviously, Dark will return, but I can't speak about stuff I don't have any idea about; that's why this is a Demo Disc piece, not a review.

Speaking quickly about the staff & cast, the character designs by Eiji Suganuma (Maze, Ninja Cadets) are sleek & stylish, even giving enough a slight bishonen look for the girls to fawn over. The mechanical designs by Kenji Teraoka (Aldnoah.Zero) & Shinobu Tsuneki (Zoids Genesis, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex) are simple but appealing, with each AM Driver having a separate yet overall unified look & the various Bugchine types being similarly simple but effective; oddly enough, the villains have wildly complex armor designs. The music by Kazunori Maruyama (Bomberman Jetters, Kamen Rider Ryuki) is generally upbeat & fitting, though the more serious compositions for the later episodes work well, too. The real gems of the music, though, are easily the opening & ending themes found in these episodes. The OP, "SILENT MOON" by Hiroyuki Takami (lead singer for the band access, performing here under the name HIRO☆TAKAMI), is a really good rock song with a slow burn verse before hitting hard with the chorus. However, the ED, "STRAIGHT FROM MY HEART" by Northern Bright, is easily the best song out of them all. Also a slow burn of a song that hits harder for the chorus, the ending theme here is simply an excellent way to finish off each episode. It's uplifting sound both fits the more traditional style of the earlier episodes as well as acts as a great reminder of what the characters are fighting for after the status quo changes up in episode 10.

The Japanese cast features some slight guest casting, i.e. using stage actors instead of just voice actors, with Jenus & Dark being performed by Kousuke Kujirai (Kaoru Kaidoh in live-action Prince of Tennis) & Teruaki Ogawa (Jotaro Zaizen in Zaizen Jotaro, Black Knight & Ninja Red in Super Sentai), respectively. While Ogawa has done some voice acting before, this is Kujirai's sole leading anime role, but he pulls it off well enough; he even manages to not have that odd cadence that most stage actors have in voice work. Also, Shasha is voiced by myco, whose only other anime role was that of Mitsuki Koyama, the main character of Full Moon wo Sagashite. Shasha in particular has a purposefully stunted form of speaking, saying less than the absolute minimum to get her point across, but myco manages to make it work. The rest of the cast featured in these episodes includes Masaya Matsukaze (Ragna), Risa Mizuno (Sera), Koji Yusa (Scene), Isshin Chiba (Taft), Kazunari Kojima (Nyrguise), & Masami Iwasaki (Diglahze), among others. Overall, the constant use of silly English doesn't really detract from the fact that the cast as a whole is pretty good.

Having never heard the English dub Illumitoon produced, outside of a super-short clip The Anime Network's website had to promote it, I can't really judge it. From what I remember of the clip, though, it did sound as though Illumitoon did keep Maruyama's soundtrack, which went against the company's usual habit of replacing all of the music. Also, I'd imagine it was, at the very least, competently done, seeing as it featured some of the usual Texas talent, like Todd Haberkorn (Jenus), Caitlin Glass (Sera), Vic Mignogna (Ragna), & J. Michael Tatum (Nyrguise). Really, having regular access to experienced anime voice actors was Illumitoon's only real benefit.

Technically, these episodes cover up to Vol. 4, but there's no good image of that cover.

Sadly, that's all there is to be said when it comes to Get Ride! AMDriver. Illumitoon's dub went one episode further, which looked to be a Scene-focused episode from the preview, but this was a show that came about in Japan, did its thing as much as it could, but was essentially ignored outside of its home country, for the most part; there was a Tagalog dub for the Phillipines, but that looks to be all there is for a (possibly) complete dub. Since the anime was a 51-episode production, it could take its time to get to the major reveal that changes up the status quo, and by the time you get past episode 13 it had only started to really find its groove. Yes, it starts off a little bit too traditional in some aspects, & it introduces way too many characters in the first episode, but I'll admit that I am a little sad that I can't see anymore AMDriver, because it was keeping my interest more & more as it went on.

Was Illumitoon (i.e. Barry Watson) hoping to make it into the kind of multi-media product that it was meant to be in Japan? I'm pretty sure that was the plan, but at least there was a strong inkling that it may have been turning into something more as it went on. If anything, it helps show that Illumitoon Entertainment didn't die out because it was releasing bad shows, because all of them were good anime, but rather it was because the people running it had absolutely no idea what the hell they were doing.

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