Judge Adam Arseneau would give three dollars to know the truth. No, wait, four dollars. Final offer.
What would you give to know the truth?
Frustrating, enigmatic, awe-inspiring, and hypnotically compelling, Broken Saints combines the schizophrenic ramblings of a Philip K. Dick novel with the heavy spiritual viscosity of a graduate-level religion degree, with some Nietzsche and The X-Files thrown in for good measure. A graphic novel come alive on DVD, its delivery and presentation style will turn off more than a few viewers, but the patient and curious will be rewarded with a surprisingly complex and rich viewing (err, reading) experience.
Facts of the Case
Four strangers located in different parts of the globe are suddenly rocked by similar visions of apocalyptic complexity and spiritual devastation. Confused and bewildered by these images, they are inevitably drawn towards one another, fearful of the images that haunt their minds.
Shandala (Janyse Jaud, InuYasha, Ranma ½), an orphaned girl washed up on the shores of the Fijian islands and raised by a tribal chief as his own daughter. She finds contentment in the sand and the sun, until a white man in a ship shows up with photos of a young girl lost in the ocean as a child. Curious about her origins, she travels with the man, but things soon take a cataclysmic turn.
Raimi (Kirby Morrow, Dragonball Z), a computer programmer at Biocom, the world's largest biotechnology and telecommunications company, begins snooping around company data out of boredom and frustration. What he discovers is a conspiracy of mind-numbing proportions, tied into the military and a global network of satellites. To his surprise, the president of Biocom (William B. Davis, the Smoking Man from The X-Files) promotes him to a special project, one with military ties and terrible implications for the future of mankind.
Oran (Michael Dobson, Transformers: Armada), an Iraqi soldier and Islamic fundamentalist is discovered by American troops in the desert half-mad, quoting the Koran and slicing at his own wrists with a knife. Haunted by ghouls and monsters only he can see, his grip on reality and spiritual identity are shaken to their core. Oran is "volunteered" to participate in a top-secret military project back in America …
Kamimura (Colin Foo, Dark Angel) is an elderly Shinto monk, devoting his life to the practices of the arcane and the study of the mystic. An ex-Buddhist, he is tasked with the protection of a sacred relic from his temple, even at the expense of his own life. He travels to America, searching for the answers to the visions in his head …
Haunted by a singular vision of a blood-red eye floating in space, all four are drawn towards an inevitable conclusion, a singularity of fate and oneness that will define their relationships to one another, to God, and to the universe itself.
Oh, also, the world looks like it's going to end. Just so you know.
"God is all, you are nothing; God is you."
Debuting on the Internet in 2001, Broken Saints was originally released as a Flash animation project, intended to be a hybrid of new multimedia technology and the established (yet fading) format of the graphic novel. The series grew in popularity, with new chapters released every few weeks, even turning a few heads in the online film division of the Sundance Film Festival. After receiving a grant from the Canadian government, the project upgraded to DVD form, its artwork recreated for the new medium with upgraded high-res images, improved animation sequences, special effects, and professional voice narration by talented voice actors they could not afford to pay.
Divided into 24 chapters, Broken Saints will feel immediately comfortable to anyone who has spent time with graphic novels or more ambitious comic book auteurs like Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, or Grant Morrison. The animation style is a hybrid of still image and simple movement, transitioning between comic book frames with basic stop-motion movement or sweeping fades, with dialogue printed on-screen in comic book font and narrated by voice-over actors. The story itself is strong, confident, but enigmatic; it takes a good eight or nine episodes before the background gives way to the actual events in Broken Saints. If the idea of watching a comic book on-screen is perplexing, I admit, the presentation style takes some getting used to. We have all been unknowingly conditioned to be visually entertained when we sit down in front of a television screen. Reading a comic book on-screen, even one partially animated, goes against couch potato instincts, breeding restlessness and boredom. However, after a few episodes, the complexities of the plot take hold and your brain adapts to the medium surprisingly well.
More than reminiscent of the dreamlike hypnotism and complexity of Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, Broken Saints is an ambitious venture, an all-encompassing conspiracy of religious philosophy, political discourse, and social criticism. The plot is dense, labyrinth, complex, and intense, a virtual crash course through a hyperbolic chamber of Shinto, Taoist, Gnostic, and Christian ideology;technological anxiety; scathing political commentary, and government conspiracy. With over 12 hours of material, the pacing of Broken Saints is slow, almost frustratingly so, the verbosity downright intimidating, but once Broken Saints gets its hooks into you, be prepared to give up a few hours of your time, because the show is addictive as hell.
True to its comic roots, Broken Saints is above all else an exercise in masterful storytelling; the animation is merely backdrop to the all-encompassing tale the series spins. As the show developed slowly over the months and years, the length of each episode increased exponentially; early episodes run a scan ten minutes in length, while the final episodes clock in at over an hour. By the end of the second disc, you literally cannot wait for the next episode, so addictive the show has become. Much of the introspection is rooted in popular culture, often riffing directly from well-established canons like Twin Peaks, The Prisoner, The Matrix and even The Wizard of Oz in humorous animated intros, substituting the characters of Broken Saints into easily recognizable movie scenes. The series is heavily intertexual, featuring numerous tie-in Web sites (like Raimi Matthews's site, featured in-episode and also available online) and lacing each episode with poetry and quotes from popular culture, philosophical works, or famous speakers.
Of the four main characters, Raimi is the easiest to identify with, his ruminations on the nature of the world bitterly sardonic and easily approachable. Kamimura is as often delegated to comedic relief as he is to mystery, while Oran's spiritual crisis is simply too confusing and disturbing to fully appreciate. Shandala…well, the less I say about her, the better. The character designs are strong and unique for the most part, although some of the minor characters are a bit too derivative, like the army soldiers that are oddly reminiscent of Street Fighter characters that will go unnamed here. Gorgeously illustrated with lush backgrounds, the series has an unforgettable visual style and surprisingly vivid imagery that will haunt you for days afterwards.
There are some deus-ex-machina plot points, but in a narrative this surreal and metaphysical, it cannot be helped. The sheer scope and ambition of the series is boggling, doubly so after completing the journey to the end. It is rare to discover something that actually blows you away, but Broken Saints is truly a majestic project; a slow, laconic buildup of X-Files paranoia, Matrix-style revelations and technophobia, religious zealotry, philosophical ruminations, and everything in between.
Coming from all-digital source material, Broken Saints looks fantastic on DVD, with sharp and precise detail, great color depth, and solid black levels. The transfer is letterboxed and non-anamorphic, which is unfortunate, but the high image quality and pleasing presentation cannot be faulted. The stylized artwork and archetypal comic book framing translate well to DVD and give off a flawless presentation.
The audio comes in two flavors, a narrated 5.1 surround track, wonderfully ambient and responsive with excellent LFE range, and a 2.0 track, virtually identical in performance to the surround, but sans voice acting. I appreciate the thoughtfulness in providing a narration-free choice for viewers, preserving the wonderfully atmospheric music and environment noises that heighten the viewing experience. The score, a haunting, distant piano medley interjected with ambient soundscapes create a unique and memorable experience. My only complaint is that one easily tires of the same score repeated endlessly over the episodes.
Broken Saints comes in the oddest packaging, a four-cornered cheap cardboard-and-plastic throwaway vanity box that you will end up fishing out of the trash when you realize that you need it to keep the set from falling apart. The epitome of "great looking vs. makes no flipping sense whatsoever" design, it screams impracticality, requiring a bewildering combination of gentle prodding and brute strength to release it from its nasty plastic shell. Not sure what they were thinking with this one, unless keeping people out of the DVD was their goal. Still, this is a minor point, especially when considering the absolute treasure trove of material within.
A lot of hard work and love went into this ambitious project, and this sentiment is reflected in the fantastic offering of supplementary materials. With over five hours of DVD-ROM features, interviews, featurettes, behind-the-scene glimpses, fan films, press montages, and assorted other awesomeness crammed into Broken Saints: The Animated Comic Epic, a metric ton of goodies awaits. For starters, commentary tracks on every single episode with creator Brooke Burgess and his team are included, a superb offering in of itself. The creators recount the sheer financial difficulty in pulling off a project of this scope and depth, especially when operating on a budget of zero dollars, and how the success of Broken Saints is due large to a magical combination of tenacity, time, and sheer luck. Extremely informative and entertaining, they make for great listening.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is nothing casual about Broken Saints. Existing somewhere between the writings of a bipolar schizophrenic and a philosophy grad student, Broken Saints alternates between deeply profound ruminations on the nature of God, man, and the world around us, and intellectual psychobabble, pretentious claptrap, and, as one character wryly puts it, "Socialist new-age bull@#$%." Rarely have I discovered a DVD that's such compelling and fascinating experience, yet so inherently riddled with frustration.
With enigmatic, meaningless dialogue like "The beast flocks are angry, flapping steel wings in terror's face" and "The emperors and quiet kings lay sun's eggs and fry the darkness," making heads from tails in Broken Saints can be an aggravating pastime. As you watch, you feel simultaneously overwhelmed by the complexity and depth of the writing, saddled with the inescapable feeling that you are being jerked around.
As much as I loved it, Broken Saints isn't for everyone. Its laconic pacing and enigmatic development will deter many from committing to the series, giving up before the show pays off its dividends. For the record, the show more than redeems itself with the ending, a stunning tour-de-force finale that actually reaches out a hand and grips you, but, I admit, Broken Saints tested my faith at times.
Spiritually complex, philosophically challenging, and more slow-paced than any animated feature has any business being, Broken Saints will try your patience as well as your mind, but, oh, what a glorious thing waits for those who can truly dive into its depths. For those with the discipline to peel away its deep, introspective layers, a surprisingly complex and ambitious animation epic awaits beneath.
With a miniseries and video game on the way, odds are you will be seeing a lot more of Broken Saints. Put simply, the series is incredible. I've never seen anything quite like it.
Challenging and vexing, but absolutely fantastic. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Full Series Audio Commentary Tracks with Brooke Burgess, Andrew West, and Ian Kirby
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