In a DVD Verdict exclusive, Judge (and occasional voice-over actor) Brett Cullum takes us behind the mystery that is Houston-based ADV Films. And he reviews this new special edition of a classic anime film, too.
"…the most kick-butt action anime film ever released!"
Don't let anyone fool you—"spriggan" is not a Japanese word for "striker" (that was the US title of the manga this movie was based on). It's actually a Cornish word for a fairy (much like a leprechaun), that according to legend either steals babies or protects other fairies by turning into a giant when threatened. Both contexts apply here to the plot of Spriggan (orphan warriors fighting in super suits), which has just gotten a new "special edition" release from ADV. It's an action-packed anime the Houston-based ADR house originally released two years ago in a fine package. So the biggest question is whether expanding this fairy spriggan is pure magic, or is it just a nice little illusion to fool us into buying it twice?
Facts of the Case
Big, loud, violent, and fast come to mind whenever you describe Spriggan. It was directed by first-time director Hirotsugu Kawasaki and supervised by Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira). It's heavy on gory action and short on plot, but there's plenty to tell you in the way of a summary. Noah's Ark is discovered by a team of archaeologists in Turkey, but a team of scientists reveal it's not a wooden boat that's only forty some-odd cubits long. No, this Ark is a space-age looking craft which appears to be alien in origin. Two teams rush to the site in order to find the secret the Ark is holding. One group comes from America, and is led by a psychotic gray-skinned telekinetic child named Colonel MacDougall (voiced by a very young Houston actor named Kevin Corn, who was 12 when he recorded the part). They want to grab Noah's Ark for a mysterious military purpose. Then there is ARCAM, an organization that seeks to hide ancient mysteries from the general public who they think can't handle the truth. They want to keep the Ark a mystery, and not exploit it but keep its secret buried in the mountain. ARCAM is an international organization that employs an elite army of warriors called Spriggans (special ops agents trained from children ripped away from their parents). One such Spriggan is Yu Ominae (Houston-based stage actor and committed vegetarian Chris Patton) from Japan, who seems mysteriously destined to have a showdown with MacDougall at the Ark site. He is also aided by a French Spriggan named Jean-Jacques Mondo (voice-over veteran Andy McAvin sporting a French accent). Will the Spriggans be able to stop the evil American team from exploiting Noah's Ark and using it for their own nefarious purposes? Let the bullets fly and the blood splatter as the race to control Noah's Ark is on.
Spriggan sports some pretty conventional anime trappings, including a seventeen year-old Japanese hero, gray skinned telekinetic children who can blast people with their minds, cyborg assassins, mousy scientists, dinosaurs, an alien and religious artifact, not so subtle criticisms of American imperialism (look at the villains Fat Man and Little Boy, named after US bombs dropped on Japan during World War II), and a plot that incorporates the environment and how we are destroying it (global warming always seems to pop up in anime). The difference with Spriggan is it's more action-oriented than most anime, and has a lot of Western symbols American audiences are going to have an easy time recognizing (from Noah's Ark to a Houston Rockets baseball cap sported by MacDougall throughout the film). Some fans of the anime genre call it simple-minded and too direct. Spriggan plays out like an Indiana Jones movie or maybe a James Bond adventure, and never gets too convoluted or complicated. I see it as a great introduction to the genre if you haven't been an anime fan before, or an enjoyable entry in the form that emulates a typical action film. Some snootier anime fanatics gnash their teeth whenever anyone mentions Spriggan in the same breath as Akira or Ghost in the Shell, but it's certainly been an easily accessible title ever since it premiered in 1998. Why does ADV regard it so highly? It was the first film they had to prepare for a theatrical release in the United States. It was a big project for the unassuming little anime voice-over house based in Houston. They pulled out all the stops, and tied up their entire staff to produce the film at a theatrical level, so Spriggan is something they are quite proud of (and rightly so).
AD Vision is located in the middle of a very run-down strip mall off a small side street in a dilapidated low-rent neighborhood of Houston, TX. The building is junky and brown, and there is no signage to let you know a studio is there, other than a small logo on a glass door. Inside the office, ADV is about as generic as their exterior. Beige walls and nondescript carpeting give way to the occasional oversized poster sporting titles like Princess Nine or Bubblegum Crisis. They have a handful of recording studios that are pretty bare except for a booth and a sound bay. Many of the voice actors refer to one booth as the "meatlocker," since it is notoriously thirty degrees colder than anywhere else in the building (the a/c is generally spotty throughout the building). Spriggan took up about eight weeks of the studio's time when they originally produced the voice tracks and remastering for American audiences. That's a long time and a significant investment for a company that usually cranks out several volumes of an animated series within a week with workhorse-like speed. They've certainly done some awesome work here on Spriggan, both on the voice acting and technical elements of the movie.
The transfer by ADV for this special edition is similar in quality to their original release (I noticed only slight improvements in a comparison of the two). It looks like a Hollywood film rather than just a digital transfer, and it incorporates cel and CGI animation. A typo on the slipcover and Amray case claims the movie is in "1:1.85," but it's really an anamorphic 1.85:1 aspect ratio enhanced for widescreen televisions. It looks glorious despite being heavy on the blues (a hue that often leads to poor anime transfers). There is some grain, but that is a stylistic choice made by the Japanese animators, and any corrections would lead to a loss in detail. The only problem with Spriggan's transfer is it may give viewers with progressive scan DVD players some ghosting now and then.
Being an American ADR house, ADV really delivers the goods in the sound department. This new special edition includes a speaker-melting DTS surround track in English. If you flip the two-sided disc over to side "B" you can find the movie in a 5.1 Dolby surround mix, in both English and Japanese. The English mix is more active than the original Japanese source track—this is one of the few anime discs where I actually prefer the English recording. It's a demo-worthy track that is sure to impress your friends and annoy the neighbors. There is a lot of action in Spriggan, so all speakers get engaged quite a bit throughout the entire movie.
There are two commentaries found on the disc as well. The first was also found on the original release, and features ADR director and Vice President of ADV Matt Greenfield and his ADR engineer Christopher Bourque. They turn in a pretty active lesson on the history of the project, including the origins of Spriggan and how they made this new American voiced version. I called it the "geeks in stereo" track, since they prattle on at great lengths about the Dolby process and how they wowed Dolby technicians with how far they pushed the sound mix. A new commentary was recorded for this edition, with voice actors Chris Patton and Kelly Manison accompanied by Matt Greenfield, along once again for the ride (although he is not mentioned on the box as a participant in this track). Greenfield needlessly repeats a lot of what he said in the other track, but it's nice to hear the actors weigh in on how they labored on the movie. It's a less informative track, but pretty entertaining considering everyone in the room had probably not seen the movie in a couple of years. Matt and Chris dominate the discussion, leaving poor Kelly to just say "Wow!" now and then. Unique to this special edition is a soundtrack CD. A nice little added value item of swag, it has twenty-seven tracks of some pretty dramatic (if generic) anime music. It would sound great in a sushi bar, or when you want to drive around pretending you're a mysterious anime hero on a mission to save the world from American corruption and global warming.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I wouldn't recommend the special edition for people who own the previous release. Unless you feel incomplete without the DTS track, there isn't much here to entice you into an upgrade or double dip. The new commentary offers less insight than the original, and the CD isn't anything you can't live without. This new edition is missing the sketches of the original art found on the first release. Spriggan itself is a debatable classic. It's certainly drawn well, but the fact is it relies so much on action that it may not be a disc you'll want to watch again and again like Akira or Ghost in the Shell. It's a good idea as a gift for someone you want to convert into an anime fan. It's mindless, but also quite accessible thanks to its simplicity. It's also heavy on the animated gore and was rated "R" in its theatrical release. Squeamish viewers and small children aren't the target audience here.
If you like violent action blockbuster movies, then Spriggan fits the bill nicely. This new special edition is a cool package, but not one you'll want to upgrade to if you already own ADV's first release of the film. The movie itself is still a blast to watch, and clocks in at a nice tight hour and a half. The artwork is beautifully rendered, and it certainly never lacks in the visual or sound department. ADV has done some great work here, and it pays off. My only gripe is calling it a special edition when it only offers a sonic upgrade and a simple commentary from the American voice actors. Featurettes would have been nice, or a more vibrant DTS upgrade to the original Japanese soundtrack for purists. For new buyers this is definitely the way to go, but others should hold on to that first edition (unless the soundtrack CD is tempting).
Spriggan is a fun, bloody ride that isn't guilty of anything but being a pretty good action movie and a well-drawn anime. ADV has certainly delivered the goods in transfer and soundtrack, but ought to rethink the "special edition" title until they come up with a little more to offer. Spriggan is the best voice acting they've produced out of their brown bunker in Houston, and is certainly a notch way above most anime releases. So we'll let them slide this time.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: ADV Films
• Audio Commentary with ADR Director Matt Greenfield and ADR Engineer Christopher Bourque
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