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Sunday, June 11, 2017

éX-Driver: All thé "É"s Must Bé Accéntéd!

As anime entered the new millennium, the industry had mostly moved towards using popular music for advertising purposes when it came to opening & ending themes. Ichiro Mizuki, the legendary anime song singer for themes to series like Mazinger Z, Tekkaman, Captain Harlock, Mechander Robo, & too many others to name, wanted to "Leave the 'Soul of Anison' with the 21st Century", and decided to found a anison supergroup. Joining him was Hironobu Kageyama (of Dragon Ball Z & Saint Seiya fame), Masaaki Endoh (of GaoGaiGar fame), singer/seiyuu double-threat Rica Matsumoto (of Pokémon fame), & Eizou Sakamoto (of Animetal & Anthem fame). Together the group would be called Japan Animationsong Makers Project, and the five would debut as a group in 2000. While the supergroup would quickly become associated with giant robots & superheroes, though, JAM Project's debut anime was nothing of the sort. In fact, in place of the style of Go Nagai was the looks of Kosuke Fujishima.

From 2000-2001, the creator of You're Under Arrest!, Oh! My Goddess, & character designer for a good portion of the Tales Series (i.e. whenever Mutsumi Inomata isn't doing them) teamed with Bandai Visual & animation studio Actas (making its solo debut) to produce a six-episode OVA series about sweet cars & the people who drive them. Titled éX-Driver (yes, the "e" must have an accent above it), the OVA would be a mixed-media production, with a manga version done by Fujishima & a light novel side story, subtitled Road to Pride, written by Hiroshi Amon & illustrated by Kenichi Hamasaki & Hiroaki Kobayashi. So let's see what the original OVA series, which saw a North American release by Media Blasters in 2002 on VHS & DVD (plus a two-disc complete collection on DVD in 2003) was like.

It's (you know,) "the future", and people no longer drive cars. Instead, the populace utilize AI-controlled electric vehicles to go from place to place, simply telling the car where to go; it even makes reservations on its own, if needed. Unfortunately, Artificial Intelligence still occasionally glitches out, which can result in vehicles going rogue & essentially holding its passengers hostage. When that happens, a call is made to éX-Driver, a group of people who are trained & capable of driving gasoline-powered "reciprocars" the good old-fashioned way. Lisa Sakakino & Lorna Endo are two high school students who also work as éX-Drivers for the Tokyo region, often having to leave class to tackle runaway car incidents. When a third éX-Driver, a prodigal young teen named Souichi Sugano, is added to the team, though, Lisa takes offense at the thought that she & Lorna aren't good enough on their own. Regardless, AI cars will go rogue, & it's up to the éX-Drivers to save the day.

While one might expect there to be some sort of underlying, overarching storyline to éX-Driver, maybe involving a larger number of AIs going rogue, that's mostly not the case whatsoever in this OVA series. For the large portion, each episode is its own standalone story involving our three leads, with the only uniting factor being that they do happen in sequential order due to some character development-related bits. The first episode introduces the concept & ends with the debut of Souichi, the second has the trio stop a runaway van that holds the test that they actually have to take at school later that day (which gives Lisa conflicting feelings), the third is about a well-known producer filming an exposé on éX-Driver, the fourth has the group (specifically Souichi) work with free agent éX-Rider (the motorcycle variant) Rei Kazama, & the last two episodes are the only ones to actually tell an overarching story. In them the éX-Drivers have to deal with a quartet of gasoline car-driving rebels lead by Joe Todo, a former éX-Driver who felt restricted by the job & wanted to be free to drive how he saw fit.

Though the concept is primarily about car chases, & each episode climaxes with a well done chase sequence, each episode actually puts the focus on showing the characters as they are, either outside of their job or as it relates to their positions. The main trio do mesh well together, with Lisa being the impetuous & easily excitable hot head, Souichi being the car-loving prodigy who treats his & everyone else's cars like living beings that need love & care, & Lorna being the level-headed big sister who has to sometimes keep Lisa in check. Naturally, with their clashing personalities, there is a budding relationship between Lisa & Souichi as the series goes on, but it's very subtle & doesn't become overt in any way. The supporting cast see some likewise subtle characteristics, like mechanic Ogawa having a (likely unhealthy) obsession with cars, lead operator Nina A. Thunder (a former éX-Driver who worked with Rei & Todo back in the day) having a wide assortment of stuffed animals around her desk while working, & commander Kei Munakata slowly showing his understanding of what it means to be an éX-Driver in a world where almost no one drives their own cars. Granted, some of this is implied than shown, but for the most part the supporting cast's identities can be inferred on your own, as minor as it can be.

Still, each episode's story & character development is meant to lead into what are essentially the co-stars, which are the cars themselves. Utilizing real makes & models (Lotus Europa, Lancia Stratos, Caterham Super Seven, etc.), the team at Actas hand drew every single moment the cars are on screen, and they do look nice, with the resulting chase sequences generally doing their job very well. The method by which the éX-Drivers stop runaway AI cars is fun & utilizes some various formations & ideas, like chaff to interfere with GPS systems & blocking the corner sensors to make the car stop completely; Rei just outright smashes the sensors. It's all rather non-destructive (minus Rei's style), and even though Todo's group does introduce some (nicely drawn) vehicular destruction to the mix, even the final conflict itself is dealt with rather nonviolently. I could see that some people might find the final battle to end in a anticlimactic fashion, and it admittedly does, but at the same time it stays true to the basic concept of éX-Driver as a whole. This isn't a series about raw power & driving skill, one where showing "who's better" is the main goal, but rather it's about protecting the populace from dangerous rogue elements with as little damage as possible, one where the éX-Drivers themselves are simply doing their job, rather than wishing for more & to prove their worth in a world that, should AI technology finally not glitch out, really doesn't need their skills. That's why Todo's wish to show his superiority is shown as villainous, & Lisa's competitive nature tends to be more problematic than anything, because being an éX-Driver is, as Munakata describes in the last episode, "nothing special". Doesn't mean that said car-focused sequences aren't any less enjoyable, though.

Coincidentally enough, this OVA would mark the beginning of an interesting relationship between JAM Project & a certain director. After taking the reigns of Getter Robo Armageddon following the "departure" of Yasuhiro Imagawa, Jun Kawagoe would go on to accumulate a directorial resumé heavy in two things: Go Nagai & JAM Project. In fact, only five franchises done by Kawagoe (Cyborg 009 [2001], Innocent Venus, Transformers Energon, his two Anpanman movies, & his sole Lupin the 3rd TV special) would feature neither Nagai nor JAM. éX-Driver marks his first time working with JAM, something he would go on to do six other times, seven if you want to retroactively include Getter Robo Armageddon, which featured openers by Mizuki & Kageyama. Anyway, this OVA is also Kawagoe's first time directing a series from start to finish, and overall it's solid, with smooth animation, well done set pieces, & consistent drawings. The script by Shinzo Fujita (Mazinkaiser, Shin Getter Robo vs. Neo Getter Robo) works well, giving the main trio just enough development to keep them from being utterly generic, with the futuristic AI-driven world actually making more sense today than it did 17 years ago. While Fujishima initially designed the characters, they were adapted into animation by Kenichi Hamazaki (Super Robot Wars OG: The Inspector), who did a good job maintaining Fujishima's generally attractive & iconic visual aesthetic; even today, there's just a bit of a timeless look to Kousuke Fujishima's drawing style.

The music is credited as a joint effort between JAM Project & Hikaru Nanase (Galaxy Angel, Canaan), though I think that's only because of the numerous insert songs & the like. All of the instrumental background music is solely the work of Nanase, but it definitely fits the rock vibe that JAM would become so iconic for. Admittedly, it's not the most memorable soundtrack out there, but at the very least it never feels out of place & does it's job in enhancing scenes when necessary. The opening theme is "Kaze ni Nare" by JAM Project featuring Rica Matsumoto & Hironobu Kageyama, the supergroup's first ever single, with the "featuring" meaning that Matsumoto & Kageyama primarily sing the song (though Matsumoto sings the most of it), while the rest sing back up during the chorus. Nowadays, the song is far from one of the group's most iconic, but it still holds up extremely well, with a very fun sound & (like most JAM songs) is very good to sing-a-long with; a very strong first showing from Ichiro Mizuki's creation. Still, the real jewel of the soundtrack is the primary ending theme, "Sniper" by MILK, an energetic yet soft rock song with an infectious beat to it, & MILK's vocals fitting perfectly. Alongside the use of the éX-Driver name, with episode 4 even having it change to éX-Rider, it's the real theme song for the OVA. It's (fittingly) not used for episode 5, where it's replaced by "Akogina Futari Tabi Daze!!" by Hironobu Kageyama & Masaaki Endoh, an acoustic song that's all introspection, with the series of photographs showing each character's development into the drivers they become helping add some subtle development. There are also five insert songs heard throughout the various episodes (episode 5 is the only one to not feature any), and they range from soft rock by M-Rie to JAM-style rock by Masaaki Endoh. Essentially, if you're not a fan of rock then the entire OST might turn you off pretty hard.

Both the Japanese & English voice casts are well done, though the English dub takes an episode or two to really get into their grooves. Lisa is voiced by Miki Nagasawa (Maya Ibuki in Evangelion) & Lia Sargent (Shion in Xenosaga), who deliver slightly different yet similar takes on the character, mainly in their general voices; Sargent has a rougher, more wild tone, while Nagasawa is more energetic. Lorna is performed by Yoko Asada (Juri in Digimon Tamers) & Philece Sampler (Beauty in Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo), who both go for the standard "big sister" role; they're easily the most similar in execution. Souichi's two voices are Yumiko Kobayashi (Kazuma in Yakitate!! Japan) & Joshua Seth (Tai in Digimon Adventure), with the former giving the supposed lead character a very young voice, while the latter is (for better or worse) the standard voice you'd expect from Joshua Seth; both are still good, though. I'll hold off on covering the supporting cast due to there being more productions to cover, but I'll finish with Todo, who is fun to listen to in either language, with Shinichiro Miki & Steve Blum (under his old David Lucas name) both delivering fittingly evil performances.

Finally, Media Blasters' DVD releases do feature some nice extras. For dub fans there are outtakes on the second DVD, which are fairly standard but still enjoyable, while all of the extras from each individual Japanese DVD release are included across both DVDs. There are the standard clean opening & ending footage & interviews with the cast & staff, but the most enjoyable are the races. Fitting with the driving theme, the voices of the éX-Driver trio, Shinichiro Miki, Kageyama, & Matsumoto all competed against each other in a go-kart race, with the latter three absolutely trouncing the actual leads of the anime, while the leads also have a radio-controlled car race, which Yoko Asada wins. They are fun mainly because you get to see the people involved just be themselves & enjoying themselves, even if the éX-Drivers themselves didn't actually have driving licenses or even much driving experience in general at the time; also, hearing Kobayashi rip into herself as Souichi is amusing. Sadly, getting all of the same extras as the Japanese releases isn't always a guarantee (even today), so seeing the ones for éX-Driver make to trip over is cool.

I won't mince any words or exaggerate in order to prop up something when it doesn't need it. Therefore, éX-Driver is not some forgotten classic or an overlooked gem in any way. What it is, however, is a very solid & enjoyable OVA series that delivers exactly what it set out to do, which is showcase some cool driving done by two attractive ladies (& a cool kid) in a world that might have seemed plausible back in the year 2000. In fact, if anything, the world of éX-Driver is more relevant today than it ever was nearly two decades ago, with things like self-driving cars actually existing & a large focus being put towards alternative fuel like electricity. Seriously, give it another couple of decades & we could very well be in need of people who can actually drive when AI cars go haywire & need stopping. When I was first really getting into anime in 2004, this OVA series was one of my earliest experiences; it was definitely my introduction to JAM Project, at least (I'm positive I saw Shin Getter vs. Neo Getter later). Now, all this time later, my feelings towards éX-Driver are more or less the same as they were back in then; not everything has to be a "classic" in order to just be good & a fun watch. If you're curious, Media Blasters' DVDs aren't too hard to get on the secondhand market, with the DVD collection itself going for ~$20 still.

What I wasn't a fan of back in the day, though, was the movie sequel, so it's time to see if that still stands... Even if JAM Project didn't really have much involvement with it; might as well just get all of éX-Driver out of the way now, right?

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