animefringe march 2003 / reviews

Betterman Vol.3: Seeds of Death
Betterman Vol.4: Inhuman Nature
Format: bilingual DVD, 4 eps., 100 min. (each)
Production: Bandai / Sunrise / Hajime Yatate
Comments: Still creepy, but steadily shifting into the realm of science rather than mysticism.
Animefringe Reviews:
Betterman Vol.3 & 4

Betterman can be one heck of a confusing anime series. This show was written by Hajime Yatate, the pseudonym for the creative team behind a number of major series, including Mobile Suit Gundam, Escaflowne, Outlaw Star, Brain Powered, Cowboy Bebop, and The Big O. In this series, some crazy events go down in the first ten episodes and viewers are left wondering exactly what the point of everything may be. Luckily, by the time we get to the third and fourth discs, some answers begin to arrive. This time around, however, there are more answers given than new questions raised.

It's about time!

This show follows Head Divers Keita and Hinoki, two young schoolmates with a psychic proclivity for piloting an all-terrain mech manufactured by Akamatsu Heavy Industries. Recently, a strange phenomenon called Algernon has swept the planet, bringing about insanity in a number of humans. Everything from the biological to the mechanical seems to be taking on a mind of its own, posing a threat to the human race. As usual, the general public is not quite aware of these events, and a faceless organization known as Mode Warp is pulling the strings of the outsourced Akamatsu Industries. Despite Keita and Hinoki's innate skills as Head Divers and the considerable resources Mode Warp and AHI have to draw upon, the Algernon phenomenon would have probably spread out of control if not for another mysterious party - Betterman. In these episodes, we learn far more about Betterman Lamia, including more about his brethren...

It's also worth noting that these eight episodes add a very strong element of biology to the series. All of a sudden, events that seemed to be supernatural and spooky have a very down to earth explanation, only slightly bordering on science fiction. While it's nice to have some questions answered, it's a bit anticlimactic to find out that it can all be understood scientifically. However, there's still plenty of mystique remaining in this show, and the characters are becoming more fleshed out even as the foggy plot clears up. Betterman mixes up horror, humor, science fiction, fantasy, and romance in unique ways, but for the most part, I've found it enjoyable.

Similar to the previous episodes, the show still features unbalanced animation. Some scenes are very smooth, while others are simple still shots. CG is used here and there, and it stands out significantly from the rest of the visuals. The show tends to be dark and muted, with a soft look that most likely is intentional. For all the darkness, the animators manage to keep everything visible. It's also presented in a widescreen format, making the show even darker due to the black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. I actually enjoy the widescreen ratio more than the typical 4:3 television ratio, so this was an interesting choice for the creators to make. This time around, we get a new opening and ending animation sequence, though the musical themes stay the same.

The music for the series is appropriately moody, highlighting the emotional scenes and action scenes skillfully. Sound effects are good, and the Japanese voice actors have a knack for sending chills up my spine. This is especially true for Junko Iwao, who provides the voice for Sakura. I'd mention the performers and roles they played for the English dub, but for some reason, only a list of names was given in the credits. I couldn't find a list that matched actors with characters in English...which is somewhat odd. The English voice acting is above average, but the crew over at the Ocean Group presents things with a more reserved detachment that makes most of them sound like surgeons in the middle of an operation. The performances sound believable, but they lack the subtle flavor of fear that accompanies many of the Japanese actors and actresses. Also, Hinoki and Keita sound quite a bit older than they're supposed to be, but that's a common occurrence in English dubs. Apparently, there are no young voice actors in North America.

Once again, these discs are packaged with a shiny reversible cover. The cases are numbered and named, and the episode numbers are given for each episode included. This sounds like a simple detail, but you don't know how annoying it can be trying to figure out which disc comes first in a multivolume series. There's nothing worse than buying a DVD and discovering that it's actually the fifth release in the series. Both the Japanese and English track are in Dolby Digital 2.0, and I think if this show was remixed in surround sound, it might be too scary to watch alone at night. "Seeds of Death" features Sakura and Lamia on the front and Chandy on the back, while "Inhuman Nature" gives us a sexy image of Kaede and Lamia.

While we're running through the technical aspects of the release, perhaps the single most bothersome aspect of every disc released in this series is the menu system. It's navigable, and everything loads quickly (with only a slight delay to show some video), but the background music and sound effects on the menus seem to be ten times louder than the actual show. This is not bad when you first turn on the TV and the volume's low, but after returning to the menu, it's painfully loud. On a regular television, it hurts, but when listening to the show with a fairly powerful stereo system with a 150 watt subwoofer...let's just say that's something I never want to experience again. Just to be safe, I mute the system whenever returning to the main menu, for fear of melting my ears. Boy, would THAT be awkward.

The extras on the discs are pretty much the same as before. There are some new Mode Warp files (explanations of the show), trailers, and production art galleries. Both discs also came with a foil card featuring main characters from the show. These aren't the best extras I've ever encountered, but an extra is an extra, and I'm sure I'll find a use for those cards someday...

For the most part, Betterman is easier to recommend now that I've seen enough of it to have a clue where it might be going. Of course, things may change before the ending, but at least now I feel as though I'm walking towards a closed door through a lighted tunnel as opposed to simply taking a trek in the dark. Sure, I can't see the end from here, but at least I know where I've been. If you like biology or horror, then this is an entertaining show to pick up. It has its muddy moments, and if you're not a patient person then the payoff may not be worth the wait, but I prefer shows that unfold slowly, so I can't complain. At the very least, this is an interestingly original twist on quite a few elements that have been done before, and I really want to see how it all turns out.