"Fortunate are those that remember the tale of Byston Well."—Narrator
Back in the days of bootleg VHS tapes with no subtitles, we used to watch a lot of anime and try to figure out what the heck was going on. A lot of fuss was made about Mobile Suit Gundam, a complex 1979 space opera from Yoshiyuki Tomino. I was never much of a Gundam fan, but many of my friends loved the show's attempt to portray war in a fairly adult fashion for a cartoon. Lots of other people liked it too. Tomino's hit show has spawned an endless franchise of sequel shows, "side-stories" (alternate universe tales), theatrical features, and enough model kits to keep Bandai in the black until the end of time. Some of them have been good (Char's Counterattack, the live-action G-Saviour) and some have been bad (G Gundam). But they never stop. Never. And even Tomino finds himself coming back again and again, seemingly trapped in the Gundam universe.
For a brief moment, Tomino thought he could escape. After the success of the original series, he turned his attention to something fresh, something so far from the space opera of Gundam that to even describe it sounds a little bit mad. In fact, he did not even want mecha in it, until Bandai insisted he provide the obligatory merchandising tie-ins. See if you can follow this: Show Zama, budding motorcross star, is magically transported to a medieval kingdom filled with magical creatures. As a visitor from "Upper Earth," he is immediately put to work as the pilot of an organic armor suit, powered by magical energy ("aura") and built by fellow Upper-Earther Shot Weapon. Show quickly finds himself caught in the middle of a civil war between the treacherous Lord Drake Luft and Neal Given, whose royal house was assassinated by Drake. For 49 episodes, we get battles, romantic entanglements, shifting allegiances, and a war filled with gray areas.
Sound a lot like Gundam?
The most surprising thing about Aura Battler Dunbine is not its much touted mecha design (sort of insectoid) or its action (the animation, from 1983, is rather dated)—it is the intelligent writing. Of course, this is difficult to spot in the first episode, in which Show is thrown into this alternate world and accepts every crazy event without question. The lack of exposition and continuity is enough to make a viewer give up right from the start. But the series backs up in episode 2 and begins to round out its characters and world. The characters are driven (and often misled) by their own ambitions and rationalizations, giving them some psychological depth. And Tomino even throws in a little ethnic tension between the Japanese Show and his American rivals: quite unusual for an action cartoon. And if you think about it, the show takes on an added depth 20 years later: it is really about Tomino himself, as Show cannot escape his vague destiny or the world he has been sucked into.
The premise of Aura Battler Dunbine is initially somewhat hard to swallow: Gundam meets A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. But viewers who can keep up with the enormous cast (ADV helpfully provides liner notes—you'll need them) and the labyrinthine plot may find this an interesting series. ADV does not offer much in the way of extras—the aforementioned liner notes, original opening and closing sequences, and a short production art gallery—and they package too few episodes on a disc. At $30 for five episodes (four on subsequent discs), this series is going to suck all the aura out of your bank account. But Gundam fans who have only recently discovered the franchise from one of its imported incarnations on the Cartoon Network will find Dunbine worth their attention.
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