animefringe may 2003 / reviews

Betterman Vol.5: Despair
Format: bilingual DVD, 4 eps., 100 min.
Production: Bandai / Hajime Yatate
Comments: This stylish show keeps viewers guessing to the very end.
Animefringe Reviews:
Betterman Vol.5: Despair

Five down and one to go. It's not that I want this series to be over soon, because it really has kept me entertained over the past five months or so. However, I really want to know exactly what the heck is going on.

This show, created by the team of writers that brought us Cowboy Bebop, Brain Powered, and Escaflowne, is darker and creepier than any other anime series I've seen in a while. Admittedly, I don't seek out horror anime on purpose, but Betterman isn't merely horror, anyway. While it may look like a dark fantasy at first, this is really something closer to hard science fiction than anything.

In the first few volumes, seemingly supernatural events kept occurring around the main characters caused by a mysterious force they named Algernon. Yet, as the show progresses, scientific explanations are provided for every "magical" event that the characters encountered.

Luckily, knowing what causes all of the bizarre happenings in Betterman doesn't take much away from its creepiness. This is a dark show, presented in widescreen, and it has thus far successfully maintained a mood that gets to you if you're watching it alone at night.

For some reason, Algernon seems driven by a need to exterminate humanity. The main characters, funded by a group called Mode Warp and supplied by the technology developer Akamatsu Heavy Industries, use a combination of empathic powers, mechanical might, and biological know-how to try and unravel the mystery of Algernon. However, as the title of this volume implies, they don't seem to be getting anywhere fast.

Volume five maintains the same standard of visual quality set by the previous releases, and the animation for these four episodes is no worse or better than before. As I said, this is a dark show, and everything is purposely illustrated without much clarity to add to the spooky mood. The animation is not silky smooth, but fight scenes move along well and for the most part, the visuals complement the series admirably. Some of the characters are empathic, and they can speak to each other using telepathy. That means that the animators can get away with static scenes of two characters staring at each other while they "talk" with their minds. However, it's an ability that is important to the plot, so it can be forgiven. Yet, there are many other static scenes set down for mood-setting purposes, as well, and these tend to work, so I don't mind them too much, either.

The sound effects are particularly good in Betterman, with a nice assortment of screeches, screams, mechanical squeals, and other spine-tingling sounds. Frequently, sound effects play a pivotal role in this show, for the aforementioned mood-setting static images don't really portray much without accompanying sounds. For example, the sound of a monitor smashing will be heard and then the camera will cut to a scene depicting a monitor, in pieces, on the ground. Stuff like that happens often, but so long as the audio lets me know what's going on, I don't mind.

However, it does bring to mind something I didn't think of until I saw a fansub of Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro (I'm not buying the domestically released dub-only version). In the version of Totoro that I saw, it was more of a track for the hearing impaired than a sub track. In shows like Betterman that have heavy emphasis on sounds to let viewers know what's happening, it would be nice to have the option of a hearing impaired subtitle track. It's something that I'd never use (unless something horrible happens to me in the future), but would probably make anime fans with hearing problems very happy. I'm not saying that Bandai made a mistake by not including such an option, but perhaps producers should begin thinking about making it as an extra subtitle selection.

Well, it's time to get away from wishful thinking and return to the review.

The voice acting remains fun, and while the show boasts a better than average dub, it's hard to match Iwao Junko's great performance as the weak-constitutioned Sakura in English, however. Iwao, incidentally, has played a number of significant roles in all sorts of other anime series, such as Ceres in Ayashi no Ceres, Fudou Jun in Devilman Lady, and other shows such as Rurouni Kenshin, Vampire Princess Miyu (TV), and X. It's hard to replicate her cute and yet extremely eerie voice in any language other than Japanese. Still, the English voice acting really isn't bad in this show.

Betterman's music also adds a great element of suspense to the series, and some new themes are put to good use in this volume. It's quite possibly the first time the background music has stood out this much, and I enjoyed it. Hopefully, I can hear more of it before the show comes to a close next volume.

As with previous episodes, the menu music is painfully loud. This is perhaps my only technical gripe, and I'm not quite sure why the menu authors chose to make it this way. Just make sure you remember to mute the disc when it's loading and adjust the volume after the show gets started, otherwise you run the risk of blowing apart your speakers.

The extras on this disc are nice, if not incredibly exciting. There's another Mode Warp file (a series of pages explaining a certain plot-centric detail of the show), a few trailers for other Bandai productions, and a production art gallery.

So, once again we're left hanging, but at least this time we only have one more disc to wait for. There are still plenty of paths the story might take, and even if the show has been unnecessarily mysterious so far, it remains an interesting series. Let's just hope that it stays that way through the end.