"You have control, Lt. Fukai."—Yukikaze
The DVD cover and the title Danger Zone make one thing clear: Yukikaze is a military-themed anime featuring Top Gun-style dogfights. Yukikaze does dogfights and does them well. Fortunately, the writers had the grace to make the stuff in between the dogfights interesting too. The result is an aerial action adventure with surprisingly mature underpinnings.
Facts of the Case
Thirty-three years ago, a misty funnel cloud opened up over Antarctica. This cloud brought a fleet of alien fighter planes that wiped out the international research station and started an intergalactic war. The portal proved stable, so Earth mustered a counterforce and went on the offensive. The battle wages on three decades later.
The other side is known as Fairy Station, a massive military base that houses Earth's collective forces. Given the protracted nature of the conflict and the unlikely return of their forces, nations have stopped sending the best and brightest. Fairy Station is now peopled with a mix of elite troops, private citizens, and borderline degenerates.
Lt. Rei Fukai is one such misfit. Reticent and insubordinate, he acts of his own accord and says little about it to anyone. Only his superior officer, Major Jack Bukhar, has been able to connect emotionally with Rei. The two share a deep bond and trust one another.
Aside from Major Bukhar, Lt. Fukai trusts one other above all: Yukikaze, the artificial intelligence that powers Rei's fighter jet. The plane and the pilot seem to be one. In fact, Rei trusts Yukikaze above his own perceptions in times of crisis. Will Rei's faith in technology save mankind, or doom us at a critical moment of weakness?
Craftsmanship is immediately evident in Yukikaze. The animation is a visual treat. Three-dimensional animation blends seamlessly with 2D. The colors are bold, the lines crisp. More impressive are the computerized effects that blend seamlessly with everything else. Shading, blending, lighting, and texture all show great attention to detail. The viewer is never jarred out of the action by incongruous effects. In some of the more demanding sequences, I prepared myself for the inevitable video flaws. They never came. This is state of the art anime.
This show not only looks good, it does so in challenging sequences that will really draw you into the action. One thrilling dogfight takes place in a narrow canyon reminiscent of Independence Day and/or Star Wars. The action strikes just the right balance between pumping adrenaline and pausing to let the viewer understand precisely what is happening. As Rei flies for his life, we get a true sense of where the enemy is and what the enemy is doing. This makes Rei's aerial acrobatics seem even more desperate and impressive.
The audio in these sequences is noteworthy. Realistic sound effects were captured at a Japanese air base and mixed seamlessly. The action comes at you from the front, the rear, the side, or all three at once. When you consider that the creators weren't actually filming live action, this detailed soundfield is even more impressive. When the missiles land, it rocks the house (if your subwoofer is up to the challenge).
Sonic mayhem doesn't give the audio a free pass, however. Dialogue often sounded unnaturally tinny, as though people were speaking from within a metallic tube. I tried to see if there was a reason for this effect in the show, but I didn't find any explanation. The best I can figure is they left the center channel free for separate language versions and had trouble integrating the words with background effects. Many of the conversations sounded hollow and artificially centered, but not enough to seriously detract from the narrative.
The best part is that we get four language options. It is always a treat to experience Japanese 5.1 because you get the best of both worlds: original language and surround sound. But in this case, the point is almost incidental. Yukikaze is a visceral and conceptual experience, so the dialogue takes a back seat in explaining the plot. For those who complain about English dubs, there isn't much to quibble about here.
Danger Zone contains parts one and two of a five part OVA (Original Video Animation) that is still being finished. As such, the "here and now" flavor of the anime is front and center. For one thing, you can't look up on the Internet to see how it ends. Yukikaze is drawn in the hazy style that Judge Mike Pinsky calls "the style du jour for high end anime." This style is somewhat ridiculous in interior scenes, but in the outdoor scenes it works well. Afterburners kick up waves of heat that distort the background. Fighter jets stream through alien clouds with trails of mist floating behind.
Afterburners don't make a story. Underneath the fancy military technology is a tale of…well, it's hard to say.
On the surface, Yukikaze is a straightforward action story about defeating the aliens. Once you get past that surface layer, there are many subthemes that are not as easy to discern. One subtheme is the reliance of man on technology. When is it appropriate to trust yourself over the machine? When can the machine outperform you? Another theme is paranoia/alien conspiracy. Rei learns firsthand that the aliens can take human form. This fact frames many of his interactions in a suspicious light. Another theme explores what drives men who are alienated from society. The main characters are alienated both physically and socially from others, yet they fight on. None of these themes are fully articulated. They drift just within your perception, teasing you with their importance to the overall direction of the narrative. This sophisticated delivery makes Yukikaze a more mature anime, requiring effort on the part of the viewer. It does err on the side of cryptic, so we have to maintain hope that later episodes will clarify.
The central theme, mood, and style strongly remind me of Voices of a Distant Star. I can't help but feel that Japanese studios are scrambling to catch up with Makoto Shinkai's stellar debut. The parallels are hard to ignore: a hero sits in the cockpit of an advanced fighter craft, tracking down an elusive enemy that attacked Earth. A predominant mood of despondency is formed through a withdrawn, introspective posture and plaintive piano music. The animation features cockpit readouts superimposed over the protagonist's painful expressions. Even the alien skies look similar. Perhaps Yukikaze and Voices of a Distant Star both draw from the same pool of inspiration. Regardless, if you like the style and mood of one, you'll probably appreciate the other.
The extras are comprehensive for an OVA. The half-hour making-of featurette is light on explanation, but does pack in an impressive amount of detail. We get to see the various artists, actors, and engineers engaged in their craft, learning from Japanese military officers or taking sound samples in the field. It isn't too glossy or promotional, which is a welcome change from many anime extras. The rest of the extras are text-based but thorough. There are the obvious military hardware spec sheets, which I didn't delve too deeply into. An 18-page glossary describes the various acronyms and maneuvers used in the show. Finally, the mission briefing clarifies much of what is going on in the story.
Yukikaze packs a lot into these first two episodes. It all feels unresolved and indistinct at this stage, but that's only because it is unresolved and indistinct. One thing is clear: Yukikaze delivers on the action front. If you don't find yourself drawn into the fireworks, then you must have played way too much Descent: Freespace.
The verdict is suspended until the court determines whether Gonzo Digimation is going to clear up some of these loose ends. Personally, I don't relish the thought of being enslaved by an alien race.
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• Yukikaze Making Report
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