A human soul in a man-made body…He carries a sorrow none of us can ever understand.
You will find Android Kikaider either an archetypal anime series or a thoroughly generic one. It captures the ineffable sorrow and spirit of anime, showing a likeable, distant hero alone in an emotional minefield. We experience true pathos, frantic action, weird characters, and cerebral themes. We also experience anticlimactic battles against predictably "odd" robots. A recycled transformation animation graces every episode. The villain is haughty and not much else. And the themes are unceremoniously ripped straight out of Western literature. Android Kikaider represents the good, the bad, and the ugly of anime.
Facts of the Case
Android Kikaider is an animated Pinocchio riff with decided overtones of Dr. Frankenstein's Monster. Renowned cybernetic scientist Dr. Komyoji creates Jiro, a human-like android with great power and strength. He grants Jiro a form of conscience through a "Gemini Circuit" that allows Jiro to know right from wrong. But the Gemini Circuit is faulty and could steer Jiro catastrophically astray. When the evil Professor Gill invades Komyoji's laboratory to destroy Jiro, Jiro winds up alone but free. Komyoji's comely daughter Mitsuko looks after Jiro, but decides to destroy him. Jiro's bad day continues when agents of Professor Gill come knocking. It seems that everyone wants Jiro dead.
There is a lot to like about this anime. Android Kikaider kept me engaged through the first four episodes and hinted at more to come. The almost mythological story of Jiro and Mitsuko is surprisingly compelling. Moments of emotion and pathos pepper the tale, bringing it to a higher level. I saw comprehension dawn in Jiro's eyes and instinctively felt protective.
Android Kikaider is a throwback in many ways. The story is as old as dirt. The animation is homage to the old style, updated with modern stylistic devices but retro at the core—think Speed Racer with splashes of Cowboy Bebop. This blend is comforting to us anime old farts who enjoyed anime in the late 1970s and early '80s. Despite the throwback style, patches of animation are fluid and moody.
The mood is accentuated by great music and neo-gothic elements of horror. For example, one striking sequence has Mitsuko dreaming about Jiro in a blue haze. He turns slowly, only to be impaled in a shower of blood. These moments work through human drama, haunting music, and edgy animation. Android Kikaider is powered by this mood of sorrow and alienation. It reaches peaks of anime goodness several times during the first episodes. The best parts are the non-action scenes, and they stick with you.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
"Lonely Soul" is an apt subtitle: this anime has soul, but the soul gets little companionship from other elements. There is a lot to frustrate viewers.
The aforementioned retro animation is cool enough when movement occurs. However, Android Kikaider features long stretches of still imagery. In Mitsuko's case this is particularly aggravating, because many of her defining scenes are still shots. The animators also overuse long pans over static backgrounds. A neat trick when used judiciously, but overuse such as this causes stagnation.
Inexplicably, digital noise reduction seems to have been used, which causes frequent twitter along the edges. I fail to see why DNR was necessary in an animated work. There is no edge enhancement that I could discern. The black levels weren't very deep, though colors were even and stable. This isn't an awful transfer, but it isn't great either given the recent vintage.
I admit some disdain towards the heavy reliance on literary themes. The opening is a direct rip of Frankenstein's laboratory. References to Pinocchio are frequent and heavy-handed. I did admire the creative integration of these themes, and many times the story was enhanced through multilayered reference. Yet one of my pet peeves is the assimilation of Western stories into Japanese animation. Everything else is so novel, why cheapen it with an unoriginal story?
Sadly, the worst is yet to come. Fragile moments of poignant emotion are coupled with bland and lifeless battle scenes. One day an animated mantis comes knocking, the next day it is an ant. One robot is green with glowing red eyes, the other is orange with glowing white eyes. But none are gaudier than Android Kikaider himself: half red, half blue, with translucent panels of circuitry and golden trim throughout. In a word, he is fugly. It doesn't help that we see the same transformation four times in a row.
The apathy that audiences showed towards The Matrix Reloaded confirms it: battles in which the outcome is certain are not interesting. I have no doubt that Kikaider will emerge unscathed from his battles. This apathy extends to the villain and his indistinguishable henchmen. The villain is so lacking in character or interest that he seems secondary. Also, I'll bet you twenty bucks that a major character will mysteriously reappear at the end.
Finally, the extras are abysmal. I've never been much of a fan of art sketches: after all, we can see the results in the actual episodes. The trailers aren't for Android Kikaider, but other series. In other words, sketches and commercials.
For those starting their anime journey, Android Kikaider might be a good choice. It reaches depth of emotion and ambience through a central sadness. The music is great and the animation is often interesting. But there are generic elements that will leave seasoned anime viewers apathetic.
Jiro and Mitsuko are free to go. The rest of you are sentenced to personality therapy. You can only be released upon proof of developed character signed by your audience.
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