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Friday, March 30, 2018

Run=Dim: CG=Too Soon?

While the large majority of anime that Idea Factory self-produced were released in the form of "Original Video Animation", i.e. they went straight to home video, the video game company didn't wait too long to enter broadcast television. Debuting back in 2000, Run=Dim (you don't pronounce the "=") was a short-lived series where you took control of giant robots, with three entries to its name: 2000's turn-based combat game The Mechsmith: Run=Dim for PS2, 2001's strategy RPG Run=Dim as Black Soul for the Dreamcast, & 2002's 2D shoot-em-up Run=Dim: Return to Earth for the WonderSwan Color. Idea Factory wasn't the only company involved with the series, though, as Seoul-based Digital Dream Studios was involved from the very start, and Yuki Enterprise (now known as Examu) handled development for Black Soul.

Both IF & DDS had grand plans for Run=Dim, though, as in between the releases of The Mechsmith & Black Soul was "the first full 3D CG animated TV series in Asia" version of the series, one that IF & DDS co-produced & animated. Running for 13 episodes during the Spring 2001 season on TV Tokyo (yes, this aired on mainstream television on Friday mornings!), the two companies had hopes for this to only be the beginning. As indicated via the Wayback Machine, DDS was advertising a theatrically-released movie later that October, plus a second season the following July. Unfortunately, the anime that, according to DDS, "was praised as one of the finest 3D CG animations by the Japanese and Korean press," never received more than that single season of anime, & the later WonderSwan game didn't even feature Idea Factory's name in it, whatsoever. So only a single questions remains now: How the hell did an all-CG TV anime series produced by a couple of game companies fare back in 2001?

At the end of the last century (you know, the past), global warming resulted in the polar ice caps melting, creating titanic tsunamis that completely flooded various nations of the world, including Japan, completely changing the way humanity operated. It is now the year 2052, & the Japan Established Security Army for Space, JESAS for short, is in the midst of a battle with the UN-supported Green Frontier over who will take command of expansion out into space. This battle is a literal one, too, with JESAS having to rely on young teenagers who possess potential with humanity's 6th sense, which they've called "AI", to pilot giant robots called RBs to take on Green Frontier, which has a yellow RB named Run=Dim as its trump card. One of these teens is a boy named Kazuto Moriguchi, but after being deemed expendable when an experimental weapon named the e4 is fired during a battle, he defects over to Green Frontier, even if it means having to fight those he had started consider to his friends.

Because just one image isn't enough to showcase the horror...

I'm not one to put visuals at the forefront, but Run=Dim is a case where you simply can't try to ignore talking about the visuals for later. While obviously not the first time anime has used computer-generated imagery, this is definitely one of the earliest TV series that was made completely without drawing any sort of "traditional" animation... And it shows. I'm sure most would point out that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within came out the same year, and in reality the movie had its premiere about a week after Run=Dim finishing airing in Japan, but to do so would be completely unfair. Spirits Within wound up costing about $137 million, or about $1 million/minute of footage (on average), while Run=Dim likely didn't even cost $1 million/episode to produce, so it's not like Idea Factory & Digital Dream Studios' end result was poorly done for the time it came out in. Quite honestly, it's generally decent, made-for-television CG for its time, with smooth character animations, emotive faces, and even very accurate lip synching (especially for anime). In fact, Run=Dim's CG looks about as comparable as what cult favorite ReBoot was doing in its final season that same year, and I that applies in both in the good & bad...

Unfortunately, that means that it's also aged very harshly with time, and that's partially due to how much it tries to do. As mentioned, the models all move very smoothly, but therein lies the problem: It's too smooth. While this type of motion works fine for mechanical objects like the RBs, it results in human characters having a very unrealistic & awkward look to their movements. Anytime characters walk around, it doesn't look natural in the slightest, and when their faces show any sort of notable emotion it winds up looking more freakish & disconcerting than believable. Also, there's an almost fetishistic obsession with teeth, which makes some emotive faces look downright scary, when they obviously aren't supposed to. Really, it all comes down to interpolation, which acts like the in-between animation you'd see in traditionally produced anime. In short, IF & DDS made sure that the CG here moved as cleanly & smooth as possible, but in turn it results in the entire anime coming off as intensely awkward, visually. Admittedly, you do get used to it after a couple of episodes & overall the CG becomes more consistent, though some of the faces never stop looking freaky, but it never really feels "right".

Use of full-CG aside, though, how is Run=Dim as a mech anime? For lack of a simpler way to put it, it's more or less your average story for the genre, though it does do some things in a notably different way. The first few episodes set up the plot & major characters, mainly Kazuto, main love interest Kanna Asou from JESAS, & rival Ken Muller from Green Frontier, but the series really doesn't hit its stride until after Episode 6, when Kazuto wakes up at Green Frontier, following JESAS effectively leaving him to die as a martyr when the e4 cannon is unleashed. It's at this point that the story actually goes into full gear & we see some neat development. Kazuto goes through some existential crisis about feeling conflicted between wanting revenge against JESAS for leaving him to die, while not wanting to fight the pilots who has come to call his friends. Meanwhile, Yu Mirai, Ken's love interest who welcomes Kazuto to GF, winds up getting caught in Kazuto's crisis, as he starts getting feelings for her, due to her showcase of friendship. Meanwhile, JESAS' higher ups Yagihara & Mayuzumi start to slowly initiate more of their plans of launching the e4 into orbit, making them into outright villains (especially Mayuzumi), though Ohira, the man who trained Kazuto & his group, really comes off as an unknowing pawn, since he's just just trying to do what he feels is right, while slowly realizing who people he works under really are like, and if their plans are really what's best.

Unfortunately, once Kazuto joins Green Frontier, his JESAS friends are kind of given less to work with. Kanna gets the most, indicating honest sadness that she never really reciprocated Kazuto's feelings for her, instead teasing him to be able to protect himself before vowing to protect her. The other teenage "players", as RB pilots are called in this anime, are shown as having some sort of relationships & whatnot, but none of it really was properly established early on, so you don't feel much of anything about their lives. Even Masao & Hitoshi, who actually get an entire episode to hang out with Kazuto, are next to impossible to remember by name! In fact, we get more development for Kazuto's father, who works for JESAS as an RB mechanic, than any of the other players, minus Kanna. In comparison, Kazuto's switch in sides results in Ken & Yu getting some more development. Ken is a purple prose-loving warrior who has no qualms about "using" Kazuto to help out GF, but at the same time isn't doing so in a malevolent fashion. Yu, in comparison, is simple but relatable in that she has feelings for Ken because of how being around him makes her feel stronger & more courageous, but at the same time she finds Kazuto's innocence endearing. Considering that the actual battles between RBs are rather simplistic in execution, & the overall story isn't anything special either, Run=Dim has to rely on its characters & their relations to each other. Unfortunately, while the Kazuto-focused storytelling is decent enough, none of it really feels all too compelling, especially when the supporting cast doesn't get much to work with. Granted, it's not badly done, but it's also nothing more than decent or average.

So Kazuto's "inner demon" is Baphomet?
Sure, let's go with that...

Compared to Idea Factory's self-produced OVAs, which were prone to all sort of problems from a visual perspective, Run=Dim is rather consistent, and that's likely due to Digital Dream Studios possibly doing the actual animation work. Still, IF had the rest of the major staff positions, with Taisuke Katou leading it all as director. Personally, Katou is a bit of an enigma, as he was responsible for both what I consider the absolute worst Idea Factory anime (Gakuen Toshi Vara Noir) & the one that's actually pretty damn good (Kingdom of Chaos - Born to Kill), and with this TV anime he worked with IF co-founder Yoshiteru Sato to storyboard & episode direct every single episode in this series; at least, that's what the credits indicate. In the end, it really kind of shows that both Katou & Sato, plus IF co-founder Shingo Kuwana's writing, tends to be nothing more than competent, at best. Sure, they have their moments when they deliver something way better than expected, as shown with the Kingdom of Chaos & Generation of Chaos III OVAs, but overall they were never quite as talented as they possibly thought they were, and it's only more pronounced with 13 episodes of content, compared to just one or two. This is backed up by Hiromi Furuhara & Sayuri Suzuki's characters designs & Hirofumi Sugimoto's mechanical designs, likely all IF employees, which are all equally decent, but not especially memorable; hell, even the hand-drawn designs for the characters don't have much to them.

In comparison to all of this, though, is the music by Kuniaki Haishima (Monster, Master Keaton), which honestly can be argued as being "too good" for this anime. In a series which is filled with characters, plot, & scenes which feel decent but workmanlike, every single piece of Haishima's orchestral score is filled with personality, emotion, & passion. In fact, there are plenty of moments where the music actually makes a scene work fairly well, almost in spite of itself. Similarly, the opening & ending themes are actually rather memorable. OP "Legend" by Legolgel is a bit of a hypnotically engrossing song, while ED "Heaven Knows" by Nana Mizuki is an instant earworm by way of its fast-talking verses, followed by beautifully sung bridges & choruses. As for the voice cast, it's perfectly fine, with Kouki Miyata & Moyu Arishima putting in good performances as Kazuto & Kanna, respectively. Likewise, Ryotaro Okiayu's voice matches the constant purple prose of Ken excellently, while Miki Nagasawa's Yu is very welcoming & kind. Finally, Yurika Hino plays a pretty good evil woman in the form of Mayuzumi. Amongst them are a small cavalcade of well known seiyuu who plays smaller roles, like Showtaro Morikubo (Hitoshi), Banjou Ginga (Yagihara), & Jouji Nakata (Ohira), plus Takeshi Kusao, Mami Kingetsu, & Kazuya Nakai (JESAS players Shun, I'an, & Shinpei).

See, I told you that the hand drawn designs are honestly really generic...

Taken just as your usual mech anime, Run=Dim is decent, with its main flaws being that it doesn't really aim to be anything more than what it's meant to be. In fact, I'd argue that if this was twice the length, then it could have told an interesting dual plotline, focusing on both Kazuto over at Green Frontier & Kanna over at JESUS, which would have allowed for the supporting cast to actually feel somewhat important. Not just that, but there's next to no epilogue for the final episode, but having now found out that there were plans for both a sequel movie & a second season, I can sort of understand why the story ended the way it did. But, let's face facts here, what people are going to remember Run=Dim for is the fact that it's a full-CG anime from the year 2001, and I mean that in any possible way you can take it. I won't say that it was "too soon" to produce a full-CG anime at that point in time, but I won't deny that it has aged rather roughly in the 17 years since it first aired. If nothing else, Run=Dim is an interesting point in the history of CG as used by the anime industry. In fact, I introduced this title to AniGamers' Evan Minto years ago, & he's since used it as a reliable part of the History in CG in Anime panel that he does on the con circuit. As a mech anime, though, it's not terrible, but it's also nothing special.

Of course, considering how low the bar has been for Idea Factory anime, Run=Dim's average-at-best nature does put it above most of the other productions. So now, after these four reviews, I have only two more Idea Factory anime to cover, Spectral Force Chronicle Divergence & Mamimume Mogacho, but since those are extremely hard for me to get a hold of, & I'm not exactly jumping to own most of these things on DVD, I can only say that I may review them one day... But no promises.

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