Argento Soma is the latest contender in the "giant robot" anime universe, and it stands ready to duke it out for the top prize with all its contenders. Argento Soma: Another Reality (Volume 1) is a fairly strong debut for an anime series; while it may lack the compelling drama or spiritual ruminations of its counterparts, it stands on its own two feet well enough.
Facts of the Case
Takuto Kaneshiro, a gifted young man studying space engineering in college, is fairly content with his life, despite the fact that the world is at constant war with alien robots. (I guess you learn how to deal with that after a while.)
He has a beautiful, if somewhat aloof girlfriend, Maki, he scores incredibly well in his studies, and he is a genius in the field of metallurgy. But all is not what it seems (hey, it never is).
Turns out, his girlfriend has been involved with a clandestine project within the university to assemble a giant robot from alien pieces crashed on Earth. Not only that, but the professor in charge of the project has targeted Takuto and his skill in metallurgy as the remaining piece of the puzzle he needs to complete his work.
Takuto, realizing he has no choice but to comply, agrees, and the three begin work reviving the giant cyborg, nicknamed "Frank." (It's short for something. Take a guess.) But, during the secret experiment, something goes terribly wrong (doesn't it always?), the entire laboratory is destroyed, and the monster escapes.
On the loose, "Frank" encounters a young girl named Hattie in the forest. They have an odd affinity for one another, and the robot even listens to her commands. When a mysterious government agency arrives to capture the renegade cyborg, they speculate they can capitalize on this "special" relationship, and take them both into their custody.
When he awakens, Takuto finds himself in a hospital, disfigured and close to death. His girlfriend, killed in the explosion, haunts his visions. Now, more than anything, he wants revenge for her death, revenge against the cyborg monster that killed her. And, a mysterious man quoting Shakespeare appears and offers him exactly that—a chance for revenge.
So, he lays his old life to rest, and becomes reborn as Ryu Soma. Now, with his deformed face and new identity, he has infiltrated the ranks of FUNERAL, the anti-alien government agency that battles the constant barrage of alien robot attacks—and keeps "Frank" and Hattie secretly in their care.
Takuto is dead. Now, Ryu lives only for vengeance against the monster that destroyed his life. And he will stop at nothing until he gets it.
In case you hadn't figured it out, let me come out and say it: Argento Soma is an amalgamated version of Frankenstein told through giant alien robots destroying futuristic cityscapes. Got it? Good.
This really need not be discussed too deeply. Ryu, as the creator figure, now hates the monster he created for killing his loved one, and vengeance and rage blinds him towards the creature's obvious development and independence. Hattie is the small girl who grows the sentimental attachment to the monster, despite it obviously being guilty of being a monster, and counteracts the hatred of the doctor…er, Ryu.
The aliens blowing up the city fits in somewhere, I'm sure, but I haven't finished reading these pesky Cliff Notes yet. I'll let you know.
Like any good episodic anime, the first DVD in the series is always an adventure in coherency. You have no idea what's going on, but that's okay—you sit back and enjoy the ride. Argento Soma is problematic, however; you can figure out the fast moving storyline fairly well, but it just doesn't make good sense from a writing point of view. It feels like there are no mysteries to uncover, no past demons in the lives of the protagonists, no allegorical references to events past or present—just a storyline that feels like it wants to get to the action in a big way.
Things feel incredibly rushed. Within the first ten minutes, things are going down in a big way, and the brain reels trying to catch up. Takuto, who was adamant about being against the "giant robot" career, suddenly, is neck-deep in it, and the transition is a confusing one.
The episode titles are named aggressively and full of malice. For example, this disc contains the first five episodes, entitled "Rebirth and Death," "Death and the Maiden," "The Maiden and the Meeting," "The Meeting and the Hatred," and "Hatred and War."
Despite that, the tone of Argento Soma is not a dark one. Nor is it a particularly cheery one. To be honest, it doesn't seem to have much of a tone at all, so far; kind of the same way that Robotech was kind of toneless—just good ol' fashioned robot battles, you know?
The comparisons, both graphically and story-wise, to Neon Genesis Evangelion, are almost more apparent than the Frankenstein connection. While it may have a lot in common with other "military application robots piloted by students to combat giant alien robots" anime, Argento Soma owes a tremendous amount Neon Genesis Evangelion (especially in the alien robot designs). What it lacks, however, is the character intrigue and the spiritual ruminations that elevated Evangelion to its lofty standards of anime excellence.
The character designs are fairly interesting, and unique enough that the characters stand out well from one another. The animation style lacks a certain grace and sophistication, and appears oddly crude at times, but the characters have an odd fluidity and charm all the same. They have strange face shapes, and, for some reason, when viewed straight on, have no noses.
The colors are nice and balanced, not especially vibrant but not especially washed out. The picture is nice, most of the time. Unfortunately, the visual quality fluctuates between sharp and defined and well balanced, to hazy and indistinct and grainy. When it looks great, it definitely looks great, no doubt; and the scenes of deteriorating quality are few in number.
Still, in the world of anime, it is an ever so slightly disappointing presentation—Bandai, in particular, have released some fantastic looking anime on DVD in the past. While this title may not qualify for the championship belt, Argento Soma: Another Reality (Volume 1) is still a great looking DVD.
The English voice actors are incredibly involved and dramatic, either whispering their lines in tear-jerked monologues, or howling in rage and anger, waving invisible fists in the air, all with a wide range of faux-accents. Actually, it's not that bad—it sure beats the normal, disinterested corniness of most English dubbed anime tracks.
Both English and Japanese audio tracks sound good, though compared to its counterpart, the English language audio sounds thinner, like a tin can. The Japanese track sounds louder, more aggressive, with the dialogue being significantly louder and more distinct, well-rounded and pleasing bass levels. It sounds quite good, though in both tracks, the music feels too overpowering in the mix. The music is highly dramatic and involved, with off-kilter orchestra scores, heavy on the sweeping strings and syncopated synth-clarinets.
It is nice to see five full episodes on this disc, though; with so many anime titles coming out with a measly three or four episodes per disc, this is something to be happy about. Of course, Bandai compensated by skimping on the extra content (merely "talent" files and a textless opening) something fierce.
I guess you can't win 'em all.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I was looking forward to the development of the metallurgical angle in to a reoccurring theme in Argento Soma; it was mentioned once and never picked up upon again. First, "Frank" was referred to as Prometheus, reborn through the fire that imprisoned him in chains, then Takuto/Ryu making allegorical references to each metal corresponding to a Greek god, and the demons that lay within—and then suddenly, it never went anywhere.
A shame. It seemed like a very cool angle to develop further. Maybe they will get back to it down the road. You never know.
But what the heck is up with the closing theme? It sounds vaguely jazzish, vaguely big-bandish, and something the Rat Pack would consider but then reject as a song. Okay, Sunrise, I get it; the upbeat jazz theme worked for Cowboy Bebop. But it doesn't work here. Not only does it feel completely at odds with the tone of the show, it flatly contradicts with the slower, somber, melancholic opening theme, and the orchestrated music that runs throughout.
On this first DVD, Argento Soma seems to lacks both the political intrigue and the philosophical ramifications that made Evangelion stand out in the world of giant robot anime. Hopefully, as the series develops, these similarities will become fewer, and Argento Soma will develop into a unique anime experience. It has the promise to be something quite interesting, and based on this first DVD, it is absolutely worth a rent if you are a fan of big crashing robots flying through buildings and the like.
Argento Soma is basically Frankenstein on anime steroids. It is also something of a poor man's Neon Genesis Evangelion. Despite the obvious borrowing from two superior sources, Argento Soma is far from terrible—just a tad redundant.
The court hopes Argento Soma can develop fully on its own and develop its own characters and issues strongly, and escape the overbearing shadow of its predecessor.
This judge will now hear the case of Argento Soma: Getting Even (Volume 2).
Court is adjourned until then.
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