"Shocking first bullet!!"—Kazuma
s-CRY-ed? Between this and .hack//SIGN, I'm wondering if anime creators are having a hard time coming up with catchy, original titles. Whatever happened to the good old days, when anime series had normal titles, like Genesis Climber Mospeada or All-Purpose Cultural Cat-Girl Nuku Nuku?
Facts of the Case
In the near future, a massive earthquake devastates Japan, plunging the country into chaos and radically altering its geography. This literal upheaval splits off a portion of the country and transforms it into an elevated plateau. This new island is dubbed the Lost Ground and made an independent state, policed by an organization known as HOLD.
In the aftermath of the catastrophe, strange things begin to happen to the residents of the Lost Ground. People begin developing the ability to mentally manipulate atoms and rearrange them to form an Alter, an object of amazing power whose shape and nature is drawn from the user's psyche. A populace fearful of domination by rogue Alter users turns to HOLD for protection. HOLD forms a special police force, dubbed HOLY and made up solely of Alter users, to monitor the "Native" Alter users and keep them in line.
Flash forward 22 years. Kazuma is a teenaged Native Alter user living in the ghetto section of the Lost Ground. Kazuma's a good-hearted but troubled teen, not surprising given that he's a mutant growing up in a post-apocalyptic ruin. His Alter power turns his right arm into a big cyborg appendage with a punch that makes Mike Tyson look like a malnourished kitten. He's angry, he hates authority, and he likes making trouble. And as any adolescent male with anger issues and a superpowered robotic limb might, Kazuma uses it to kick ass, peddling his Alter services when he's not doing odd jobs around the Lost Ground. Unlike many anime heroes with special powers, Kazuma knows what he's got, and he likes it, channeling all of his rage into his Altered arm.
(By the way, if you're catching the whiff of a, um, symbolic undercurrent in the image of a teenaged boy who just can't stop whacking things with his oversized right arm—did I mention that horns also grow out of his back?—you're right. Phallic imagery abounds in s-CRY-ed, most explicitly in an über-macho villain whose Alter power is to create a huge…gun, of which he leeringly declares, "it's big…it's hard…and it's out of control!")
Given Kazuma's animosity towards authority, it's only a matter of time before he collides spectacularly with HOLY.
The description above only covers part of the sprawling s-CRY-ed tale. It's a big story with a large cast of characters, and this opening volume does a good job of spooning it out in easily digestible chunks. While the flurry of character introductions feels a bit rushed, they're all distinctive, intriguing figures. Unlike in many anime series, these characters don't feel generic or cut from the same overused cloth. Even familiar types like Kazuma's ne'er-do-well good guy come with quirks that lend unexpected shades to their personalities.
One of the strengths of this series is that it doesn't simply divide the world into good and evil and tell the story from the good guys' point of view. Aside from the occasional goon, there are no clear-cut villains in these initial episodes. The closest thing we have to a bad guy is Ryuho, an Alter user and HOLY leader who quickly becomes Kazuma's nemesis. Ryuho is a cold, withdrawn young man, but as flashbacks tell us, there are reasons for this.
This manga-based series is often compared to X-Men, and in addition to the mutant premise, it does have an appealing superhero comic-book feel. If you're looking for complex socio-psychological discourse on the level of Evangelion you won't find it here—s-CRY-ed never strays far from the action—but it's far more grounded in reality than Dragonball Z, with which it's also often compared.
In fact, the most surprising (and appealing) thing about s-CRY-ed is how strongly character-focused it is for an action-oriented anime. Emotion and inner conflict drive the plot and motivate the characters' actions. The HOLD/HOLY/Alter plot elements make for an interesting puzzle, but they're not at the forefront of the story. It's this quirky, character-based narrative that elevates s-CRY-ed from the pack of run-of-the-mill post-apocalyptic kiddie flicks, and turns it into something special and entirely captivating.
Visually, s-CRY-ed is a treat, with an appealing art style that avoids the busy, glossy, garish look of much action-based anime in favor of a more simplified, emotionally expressive style. For some reason, the art reminded me of Tintin—maybe because of the emphasis on earth tones and clean lines. (A friend of mine said it reminded her of Miyazaki, for similar reasons.) In any case, the look of this anime is vibrant and bright, with striking backgrounds, and the CG is well-integrated into the cel animation.
S-CRY-ed is also blessed with a pristine transfer that looks terrific, with a spotless print and no glaring defects. About the only issues I could detect were a few mild instances of shimmering in the highly detailed backgrounds, and some slight but noticeable image distortions during particularly active scenes. Audio is fine, presented here in English and Japanese pro-logic tracks that are fairly active in the front channels but don't make much use of the rear speakers.
The English dub is lively and expressive, with appealing vocal performances. I find I prefer the dub to the subtitles for this series, as the subtitles are a bit dry and prosaic. One nice detail is that phonetic English transcriptions of the opening and closing songs are provided, which is a plus for viewers who like to follow along with the lyrics.
The openings and closings of the episodes are available in textless form as special features. Extras also include a Lost Ground Express text feature that provides detailed notes on the history and nature of the Lost Ground, and a design gallery that provides descriptions and conceptual designs of the series characters. Both provide useful background, and are highly recommended if you want some exposition before jumping into the story.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
About the only complaint worth noting that I have with s-CRY-ed is that important plot information tends to get folded into action scenes and other intense moments, where they're likely to be overlooked. While this is good in some ways (at least they don't just sit around discussing the plot), it can lead to some confusion. I caught a lot of things the second time around that I'd missed completely in my initial viewing.
Also, and this is more of a personal peeve, I find it really annoying when characters in fight scenes do the Final Attack Yell. You know, when they announce their upcoming move—"Annihilating second bullet!"—as they're leaping at their opponent. I know it's an anime staple, but for some reason it stood out for me here.
I didn't expect to enjoy s-CRY-ed. Upon hearing the premise I expected to see a derivative hash of X-Men, Evangelion and Dragonball Z, but while there are elements of all those stories in s-CRY-ed, this deceptively quirky and engaging series stakes out its own territory. It may not be groundbreaking stuff, but it's certainly different, and offers strong writing, well-developed characters, and pleasing visuals.
S-CRY-ed is found guilty of having a weird title, but is acquitted on all other charges.
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Scales of Justice
• Textless Openings/Endings
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