Judge Bryan Byun could be a cool, dragon-fighting anime hero, too, if only he had spiky blue hair. And fighting skills. And if dragons were made out of delicious waffles.
Kouhei has stolen the Dragonite!
By the time we get to the sixth volume of the Dragon Drive series, we have left Earth and its virtual "D-Zone" (a game world in which players control their dragons in tournament fighting) behind entirely, and ninety percent of the action takes place in Rikyu, a world where dragons are just as real as humans, instead of just particles in a virtual reality game.
Reiji Ohzora is the unlikely hero in this series, a former slacker who found religion when he discovered Dragon Drive and his dragon, Chibisuke. Rei's new can-do determination when it comes to upping Chibi's seemingly weak fighting skills is a surprise to all of his friends, and when it is later discovered that Chibi is in fact the legendary dragon Sennko Coola, the Guardian Spirit of Rikyu, Rei is as proud as a new father. He knows Chibi is a superstar and will do just about anything for the well-being of his dragon friend.
Volume Six opens at the end of the "Dragonic Heaven" tournament, which concluded with rival Kouhei making off with the Dragonite, a key that is required to revive Shinryu, a powerful dragon who is sealed away in a shrine. Kouhei and RI-ON, an organization dedicated to dominion over Earth, want nothing to stand in their way. Meanwhile, Chibi undergoes a powerful transformation and is "reborn" as a stronger fighter. This is still not enough for Ensui, the wise old woman whom Reiji, Maiko, and Daisuke are staying with while they are in Rikyu. Ensui wants Rei and Chibi to face Sinn Saber, an extremely powerful dragon that will, it is said, transfer its power to whomever manages to slay it. Ever willing, Rei dutifully marches off to find Sinn Saber, leaving the others to prepare for Kouhei's return from Earth. In an interesting development, Ichiro Sumishiba returns and asks to join their team, fighting against Kouhei. As he was originally on Kouhei's side, everyone is suspicious of his intentions, especially since he seems very interested in Meguru for reasons that he is revealing to no one.
Volume Seven finds Hikaru (an intense, but gifted, fighter who followed Rei to Rikyu) and Rei facing off for a battle that Hikaru has been pushing for since first seeing what Chibi was capable of during the D-Zone matches. He is the only thing standing in the way of Rei reaching Sinn Saber, but their battle awakens the dragon, who comes out in full force. Rockaku has his hands full with a mysterious new stranger who seems intent on killing him, though he doesn't know why. Complicating things further, Kouhei returns and starts destroying shrines in search of the resting place of Shinryu. As Rei becomes more and more confident of their ability to defeat Kouhei, his arrogance and impatience blind him to Chibi's worsening health. When he goes off with Sun Wols to find the Shrine of the Four Sacred Dragons, they run into a disturbing woman known only as Bloody Mary, who captures dragons and entombs them in a special film that keeps them alive, but frozen in place as a living statue. It seems Chibi is her next target.
Geared towards younger kids, Dragon Drive is, on the surface, pretty much exactly like your standard Pokemon derivative—a game/anime crossover in which players are encouraged to build up the stats of their fighters and test their skills against their peers. Rei, the hero of the story, has an unbreakable spirit that influences everyone around him, especially Chibi, who wouldn't have realized his full potential without someone as dedicated as Rei by his side. This, too, is a tried-and-true formula, and the producers of Dragon Drive seem to feel that if it ain't broke, why fix it?
The surprise of Dragon Drive is in the enormous cast of regular characters (close to twenty in volumes six and seven) and the expansiveness of the epic quest they are on. Typically, stories like this are found in anime intended for a more mature audience. Rather than unbalancing a simple plot, the character subplots help to break up the monotony of what might otherwise be nonstop dragon fights interrupted only by travel between match locations. That is not to say that dragons don't fight often, because they do. The fights are beautifully choreographed and animated, with a blur effect that is used well here to make visuals more interesting, and a surprisingly good use of extreme wide-shots and perspective close-ups to suggest scale—clearly the animators were thinking things through and taking care to create compelling dogfights.
Where Dragon Drive goes wrong, then, is in the abundance of stereotyped characters. There's the spastic adolescent, the wizened old woman who knows all the right legends and puts the warrior on the path, the cute girl who has a part to play, and the cool loner whose only enduring facial expression is a moody grimace. Multiply this by five and you have the entire cast. Rei and Daisuke, who get a majority of screen time, are exhaustingly intense. They are constantly on the edge of hysteria, and when they get excited it's even worse. It isn't so much of an issue when watching episodes in single doses, but watching a DVD full of episodes can set your teeth on edge by the intermission of the second one. More prolific than intense characters are cool loners looking to prove themselves. Rei is constantly running into the brooding Hikaru, who challenges him every time. After a while, this can get very old, but it is at least handled with a bit of humor. Around the tenth time Hikaru demands that Rei fight him Rei says, "I've got my very own stalker!" Even when Daisuke goes off on a fantasy rant about how he might attract Maiko's attention and nudge Reiji out of the picture, it's played for comic relief, which helps to break up the heavier moments as the war between RI-ON and the people of Rikyu escalates.
Bandai has given these volumes a decent transfer to show off the bright colors, and the sound is great—nice echoes and use of stereo surround during battle scenes; the sound is bigger than you would think for a 2.0 Stereo mix. The on-disc extras are light—some production sketches and trailers—but a 3D pencil board is included in each volume, and this little number is pretty cool, with a 3D design that actually works from most angles (rather than dissolving immediately into incomprehension, as most lenticular images do). Volume Six features Canopus, and Volume Seven even features Chibi in his Sennkoh Coola form; kids (and probably a few adults) can't help but dig these inserts.
In the end, Dragon Drive is probably best suited to those who like adventure stories that have a bit of mystery and intrigue thrown in for good measure. Nothing here is too advanced for younger viewers, but it keeps pace for older viewers who are bored with the typical game/anime fare.
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