The first anime DVD to…be just like all the other anime DVDs.
Zaion: I Wish You Were Here tries really hard to convince everyone that it is something new. This mysteriously titled OAV was to be released simultaneously via broadcast and internet. It features a "sad love story" intermingled with deadly mecha combat. The animation is a bold mix of cel and CGI, with an unusually reticent protagonist and soldiers with nanobot armor. Trust us, the producers say, this is something new.
Unfortunately, the show was not released simultaneously via broadcast and internet. The name is a compromised mishmash of two working titles. The "bold" mix of cel and CGI is unimpressive; this mix has been done already with more success. The love story, protagonist, and nanotechnology are bland and vaguely familiar. Zaion is an overhyped but underdeveloped concept that would have fared better with less fanfare.
Facts of the Case
Yuuji belongs to a team of fighters with nanobot armor that protects them from trauma. Yuuji is sick of watching his teammates die in combat against humans mutated by an alien meteorite. Hope comes in the form of Ai, a young girl who can project a holographic warrior. Ai is the result of a top-secret research project and lives a cloistered existence. But she and Yuuji meet eyes in the hallway, which somehow means they are in love. Yuuji will need love to get through the strange transformation occurring in his bloodstream.
Allow me to stress that Zaion isn't bad. There are a couple of nice action sequences, the characters are well drawn and interact well, and the premise is somewhat entertaining. If marketing hype hadn't protested so loudly about how new and spiffy Zaion is, it might have accrued a small cult following and kept its self respect. But the more I ponder this effort, the greater my discontent.
Zaion doesn't go out of its way to explain anything. One approach, which was unsuccessfully taken by Kai Doh Maru, is to be completely vague and mysterious and hope that people psychically absorb the complex subtleties. Zaion is not that discourteous, thankfully. This story is told through cinematic shorthand in lieu of back story. Yuuji is a nonconformist malcontent; we know this because he sulks and wears his hair in dreds. Ai is a result of uncaring scientific research; we know this because her keeper is a pasty datahead who leaves potato chip crumbs on the keyboard and gets mad when the little numbers don't line up. He stores Ai in a glass room and tells her to "perform tomorrow." Ai and Yuuji fall in love because the frame zooms in on their eyes when they first meet. Teammate Tao is jealous of Ai because her eyes narrow when Ai and Yuuji are together. Zaion tries to set a quick pace by not explaining things, but the subsequent reliance on clichés is much more damaging. I felt tired watching it, because it all seemed done. There is no investment in the characters because we don't get to connect with them.
This effect is most noticeable in the enemies. The team fights against zombified humans. The enemies are brown colored blobs with pale faces stuck on at odd angles. They are formless, characterless, and uninteresting. Almost immediately, these zombies self-conglomerate into a huge super zombie. It is like the third act of another anime tacked on to the beginning of this one.
Every single character suffers from one-dimensionalization and lack of history. In some animes, I try to care about poorly rendered characters, but in Zaion I didn't. The writer didn't put forth effort to develop the characters, so I didn't put forth the effort to care about them.
This apathy is particularly damaging to the love story at the center of Zaion. Most of the dramatic tension hinges on a quickly established bond between two characters we don't know. When Ai is taken away from Yuuji, it isn't particularly worrisome because they just met five minutes ago. Time isn't the reason for failure, either. Zaion fits the entire story arc into four half-hour episodes, which is shorter than most animes. But Voices of a Distant Star tells a very similar story, and compresses its bitterly touching love story into a 25 minute timeframe.
So far, none of this evidence is conclusively damaging to Zaion's case. But there's more.
Front and center is ADV's inexplicable decision to release this two-hour OAV in two discs. There is absolutely no reason for this, which makes ADV look greedy. The series will fit, uncompressed, onto one DVD. There aren't enough extras to warrant separate discs. In comparison, Manga has recently released the fantastic three-hour OAV Orguss 02 on one volume.
Audio is presented in a clean Japanese 2.0 track. The subtitles are often hard to read and creep up far into the image. The 5.1 English mix sounds virtually indistinguishable from the 2.0 mix played in Pro Logic mode. In other words, I can use my receiver to hack a reasonable facsimile of the 5.1 mix. There are few true 5.1 effects, so it is puzzling why a 5.1 mix was created save for marketing purposes. The voice acting has some clunkers in both versions, but they are magnified in the dub. Every time the whiny military/scientist/ bureaucrat opened his mouth, I wanted to hit the mute button.
The video quality is good for the most part, with solid, rich colors and deep blacks. There were several moments of awful twitter, such as when Yuuji is in the recovery room and the black lines on the white sheet shimmer wildly. There are also many cheesy moments of computer animation. In one cherished sequence, a scientist is looking at Yuuji's blood sample under a microscope while the nanobots battle an alien virus. I cannot describe the corniness of this confusing segment. The video is non-anamorphic, which is puzzling considering the recent vintage and stress on being "new."
Perhaps it was my growing ire at the series, but the extras seemed apologetic. Everyone involved in the interviews stressed what they had intended to do or what they tried to do. I admire striving for something. I can admire a visionary effort that fails, and appreciate the try. What I don't like about Zaion is that they claimed to be breaking new ground when in fact they were not. This makes the interviews seem hollow or promotional. As the director and writer talked further, the uncertainty about what they were trying to accomplish became clearer. The promotional clip lacks substance; it is a graphical kaleidoscope of shapes that don't indicate what Zaion is about. The interview with GONZO President Showji Murahama was simply mystifying. The main thrust of his talk was that since Zaion was to be released on the internet, fans could use the provided website to learn more about the story and talk about the episodes. Isn't that what fans of every anime series use the internet for? In fact, isn't that what you are doing right now as you read this review?
Allow me to again stress that Zaion isn't bad. There are a couple of nice action sequences, the characters are well drawn and interact well, and the premise is somewhat entertaining. But unless volume two breaks serious ground, this court will find Zaion guilty of mediocrity.
Zaion is guilty of overmarketing and bad DVD value. At over 11 bucks per episode, this is perhaps the most expensive anime series ever released. This court finds the price way too high for what is delivered.
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