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Friday, June 16, 2017

éX-Driver "Double Feature": A Burst of Turbo Accompanied by a Dead Engine

JAM Project's debut anime, the six episode OVA éX-Driver, seemed to be a bit of a hit release in Japan, so it only made sense to create more of it. The interviews made to go with the final episode, which are on Media Blasters' DVD releases, announced that the éX-Drivers would soon make their theatrical debuts, and the wait wouldn't be too long. The final episode of the OVA series came out in September of 2001, while the movie, simply titled éX-Driver the Movie, started running in theaters on April 20, 2002, but that's not all! Running alongside the movie was a special OVA prequel, subtitled Nina & Rei Danger Zone, which had its own director. Interestingly enough, Media Blasters did not license & release these two, but rather it was Geneon Entertainment, which released the Movie & Danger Zone on a single DVD. Therefore, rather than make two separate reviews, let's make this a Double Feature, where you get two reviews in one! I haven't done one of these in roughly four years, so let's see how it goes.

Probably one of the most interesting subjects that got brought up in the extras of the éX-Driver OVAs was why the cars were traditionally animated rather than done via CG. Director Jun Kawagoe went into some nice detail about the subject, stating that utilizing CG would be tricky (especially at the time), because either it would make it tougher to properly animate the characters inside the cars, or they would also have to be done via CG, which in turn wouldn't look quite as appealing. In comparison, hand animating everything, though requiring more work to get the detail right, allowed the staff to be in complete control over every single frame & moment. I bring this up because éX-Driver the Movie does what Kawagoe brought up by doing the cars via CG, but with the characters traditionally animated. With Kawagoe only in a supervisory role here, does this change in visual style help or hinder the movie? Hell, is it even a good hour-long story in the first place?

Lisa, Lorna, & Souichi head to Los Angeles to represent Japan in an international race between éX-Drivers from around the world. Upon arrival, though, they stop a runaway car that holds Angela Gambino, the daughter of a pasta magnate who's helping sponsor the éX-Driver race. Angela feels that her father, Rico, is participating in illegal gambling with the race, though, so she's trying to find ways to either stop the race or keep her father from getting involved... But is Rico Gambino really the villain in this supposed gambling ring?

Let me just get straight to the point here, especially since I have another review later in this piece... éX-Driver the Movie is not a great successor to the OVAs. That's not to say that it's a bad anime in & of itself, though, so let me bring up what works. First, the CG actually holds up better than I thought it would. There's a little bit of cel shading involved, which helps make it mix with the traditional animation, & the effect of having animated characters inside the CG cars does work. Still, there are shots where the cars are hand-drawn, and they still look better on the whole; there's also a rough shot of two characters done in CG, but it's quick so as to not make it obvious. Second, the returning characters still gel just as well as they did in the OVA... Too bad it's just Lisa, Lorna, & Souichi (plus some cameo appearances from Caine Tokioka, the reporter from Episode 3). Really, what kills the movie is that the story just isn't one that fits what éX-Driver's about. Taking aside the whole concept of competitive racing, which kind of runs counter to what this concept's about (but can still work if done right), this movie is really more about the idea of dirty gambling & how it's making Angela hate her father. The whole idea of the éX-Driver Cup is really more of a visage for the story to work around, and even then the story is actually a slight bit more convoluted than it needs to be. Granted, it's not a bad story & works just fine on its own, but it just doesn't feel like a proper continuation of what came before.

In fact, if I can play fanfiction for a moment, remember when I brought up the idea of having a large amount of AI cars go rogue in the OVA review? That's what this movie should have been, & it could have still fit what the movie actually went with to an extent. Have a proper gambling ring bet on the Cup, make the villains part of a hacking group that steals the money & they try escaping by making a bunch of AI cars go rogue, requiring having all of the international éX-Drivers actually do their jobs & save the day. While that last part is done in the movie, it's rather poorly done because we got next to nothing from who the other éX-Drivers even are, aside from David & Kelly from Team USA (& even then they barely glide by on their personalities alone). Sure, my idea is rather simplistic, but at least it would have fit the concept of éX-Driver much better than what we got.

Again, Jun Kawagoe was just a supervisor for this movie, leaving the directing to Akira Nishimori (Zombie-Loan, Hitohira), who does an overall serviceable job. Really, the biggest problem with the movie on a visual level is that it's only just a bit above the quality of the OVAs; this just doesn't look theatrical-quality. That's not really due to Nishimori, though, so I won't harp on it more. The writing by Takeshi Mochizuki & a returning Shinzo Fujita is fine, though there is a bit of a lull when Shouichi & Angela get kidnapped at one point, but my main complaint with the story has already been covered. Hikaru Nanase's music is actually not quite as good as the OVA, either, going for less of the rock style & more of a standard "theatrical" sound, and though JAM Project has no involvement in this movie as a group, Masaaki Endoh does contribute an insert song, "Let Me Go!", early on that's sadly over with rather quickly. Finally, the ending theme is "crucial spirits" by MILK, which isn't anywhere near as instantly memorable as "Sniper", but works fine as a winding down song.

I don't know if this was shown before the movie when they ran in theaters, though I'd imagine it was, but éX-Driver: Nina & Rei Danger Zone either makes for an improper set up for the movie, or makes for a fine desert after a lackluster meal. In other words, this short is leaps & bounds better than the movie it's packaged with. Interested why? Well keep on reading, then...

Nina & Rei are on the hunt for a seeming phantom AI car that's causing problems, only to find a remote controlled car behind the trouble. This isn't any simple RC car, though, as it's a miniaturized version of Nina's Roadster, complete with a mini Nina housed inside, and it's just as fast as the real thing! While the RC car is being controlled by Mark, a stalker who's obsessed with Nina, the man behind the man is even more dangerous... And even closer to Nina & Rei than their RC-using foe.

This one image shows so much more emotion than the entire movie ever does.

Seriously, the difference in quality between the Movie & Danger Zone is utterly astounding, especially because they utilize the same exact animation quality & CG vehicles. Whereas the seeming main attraction never really went too far beyond standard, though, the seeming secondary feature looks astounding, with tons of exciting shots, clever scene transitions, & a never-ending sense of personality to it; Rei is never seen riding her motorcycle, though, as they obviously didn't want to CG that. In fact, Nina & Rei themselves work off of each other so well & exude so much confidence & emotion that they kind of make the Lisa/Lorna/Souichi trio look a bit blasé in comparison; Danger Zone really makes you rethink Nina, who was rather simple in the OVAs. There's a fun "good cop/bad cop" dynamic between the two (Rei is almost always without restraint), though neither is exactly hesitant to rack up costs for damages, making them a variant on the Dirty Pair, as well. Not just that, but the story here is 100% an éX-Driver story, fitting the concept of the series perfectly while actually delivering a similar twist as the movie, but in a much more understandable & reasonable fashion; no unneeded convolutions to be found here.

So who was able to make this short work as director? That would be Shinichi "Nabeshin" Watanabe, the man behind comedy classics like Excel Saga, Nerima Daikon Brothers, & Puni Puni Poemy; naturally, the man himself makes a cameo early in the short. Nabeshin just has a knack for kinetic movement & letting his characters show their personalities to match the moments. For example, once Nina & Rei realize that they've been chasing an RC car, they deliver silly faces that only Nabeshin would actually go for, and it works perfectly. Mixed with that is the writing by Kazuhiro Sato, who I can't find any other info on, but he matches Nabeshin's visuals ideally, mixing together a rather serious story concept with a nice amount of levity & humor; Rei's constant jealousy over Nina's popularity with men, even Mark, is amusing. Hikaru Nanse's music is a bit more exciting than what she did for the movie, but the short double downs on MILK, who is featured twice here. "Sniper" returns shortly for the intro, while the closer, "Target", is a fast-paced & energetic theme for the old guard of éX-Driver.

Though a different company released this double-feature, Geneon was smart to maintain continuity when it came to the English dub, so once again we have Lex Lang-directed Bang Zoom! dubs to match the Japanese casts. For the movie, the main trio are completely reprised (& deliver good performances), so let's just move on to the movie-exclusive characters. Angela is voiced by Miyuki Sawashiro & Lynn David (the latter of which seemingly never acted again), and both women deliver fitting performances for the girl who does rough things for good reasons. Rico Gambino is performed by Masane Tsukayama & Michael McConnohie, and while Tsukayama goes for a general gruff voice, McConnohie goes for a little more of a stereotypical mafioso voice, just minus the heavy Italian accent. Oddly enough, Shinichiro Miki returns for this movie, but as a completely different character with Inspector Ralph, a cop who plays a (rather useless) supporting role, and he works fine here; Jameison K. Price's performance (under the name Taylor Henry) is fine, too. The rest of the casts for both sides are rounded out by Kozo Shioya & Joe Ochman (Rico's rival Wang Somin), Ryotaro Okiayu & Lex Lang (Caine Tokioka), Bin Shimada & Tony Oliver (Joe, Rico's subordinate), & Kotono Mitsuishi & Wendee Lee (Kelly), among others. Overall, it's solid voice work in either language, but nothing exemplary, mainly because of how little everyone's given to work with.

In terms of Danger Zone, Nina is voiced by Michiko Neya (Mao in Full Metal Panic!) & Mela/Mia Lee (Rin Tohsaka in Fate/stay Night), with both playing the straight woman of the duo very well; both really show their chops compared to how little they had in the OVAs. Rei is performed by Mami Kingetsu (Elena in Gun X Sword) & Mari Devon/Jane Alan (Haruka in Love Hina), with both delivering great loose cannons who show no restraint in reacting to situations. Mr. Munakata has Unsho Ishizuka & Richard Epcar behind his throat, with both being fitting for the stern & taciturn leader of the éX-Drivers, & this short lets us see how Munakata reacts when annoyed due to Rei's damage-friendly actions. Shigeru Chiba & Kirk "Sparky" Thornton both voice Mark in an appropriately insane fashion, though it is hard to top Chiba when he goes completely psycho. All in all, either audio track for Danger Zone really adds to just how much better a product this short is compared to the movie; they really make you wish for more.

After I had seen the éX-Driver OVAs all those years ago, I went straight to the movie sequel, and wound up pretty disappointed in it; it just felt so dull compared to what came before. Re-watching it in 2017, I have the same exact feelings, though I will admit that the CG holds up a little better than I remember. Still, the fact that I didn't enjoy the movie as much made me not want to watch the Nina & Rei Danger Zone short, and now I realize that I made a giant mistake in the process. While éX-Driver the Movie isn't a great successor, Danger Zone is the opposite by being a superb prequel. In fact, Danger Zone is so damn fun & excellent that I wish that more éX-Driver was made just focusing on the exploits of Nina & Rei; they could have even expanded on how they worked with Joe Todo before he left the team. The being said, the movie still isn't a bad product in the grand scheme of things, it's just lackluster, and if you've seen the original OVAs then it's still worth seeing both the movie & the short. If you only want to watch one, though, then it's Danger Zone all the way. At the very least, Geneon's double-feature DVD is hyper-cheap nowadays (it's less than $10 over at Amazon), & both the Japanese & English voice casts are solid.

Did more éX-Driver deserve to get made? Maybe not, unless it was more Nabeshin-directed fun like Danger Zone, but what is out there still holds up well today, and at least fans of JAM Project can enjoy the franchise as the origin of the supergroup itself.

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