Nov 09, 2007 - 04:28 PM
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Arjuna vol. 1
 Mike Toole  rates it:    

When director Shoji Kawamori does something, I tend to sit up and take notice. Kawamori got his start designing mecha and directing episodes of the monumentally popular and influential Macross, before tackling directing duties for the Macross feature film. He'd go on to helm more excellent projects, like the superlative Macross Plus and Vision of Escaflowne. As such, when he got together again with musical collaborator Yoko Kanno and started work on a new series called Earth Maiden Arjuna, I was very, very interested.

A couple of years later, the twelve-episode series has been dubbed and is about to hit stores, with the title condensed to simply Arjuna to make it a little easier for stores and fans to track the video release. How does it rate? Does Arjuna compare favorably with the talented Kawamori's past works? Well... that's a good question. A very good question indeed. After seeing the first fourth of this series, I have to say that my feelings about Arjuna are very mixed. But let's go over the usual stuff before I get into that.

Juna Ariyoshi is a refreshingly normal girl, a teenaged resident of Kobe who decided she'd take up archery as a hobby to annoy her parents. Her good disposition and low-key good looks have netted her a boyfriend, an affable young man named Tokio. Things suddenly go sour when Juna and Tokio decide to head north to the beach (their own waterfront, you see, is simply too polluted)-- while on the back of Tokio's motorcycle, Juna has a strange, disorienting vision, and tumbles off the back.

When she comes to, Juna makes a terrifying observation-- she's looking down at her own dying body, laying on an emergency room operating table. She struggles vainly-- director Kawamori makes near-death seem unpleasantly like being drunk, in the Hitchhiker's Guide sense-- before having her attention drawn away by a mysterious boy. The boy, Chris, has a deal for Juna-- he'll use his own power to give her back her life. But in exchange for his sacrifice, Juna must rid the world of a destructive race of demons using her newly-awakened spiritual powers, in a plot twist ripped rather brazenly right out of Yu Yu Hakusho. Not wanting to die, the girl quickly accepts-- and that's when Arjuna starts to have problems.

I know from observing his past projects that Shoji Kawamori is a very meticulous creator-- hundreds of hours of research and observation went into both Macross Plus and Escaflowne-- and he loves sticking very close to set themes in his work. In Arjuna, Kawamori's theme of choice is environmentalism-- but he pushes it so hard and so obviously that it quickly gets tiresome. It's easy to understand that environmental destruction is a problem when Kawamori repeatedly presents the viewer with images of dead and dying wildlife in lakes and rivers-- but he takes it much farther than that. His camera lingers on an unncessary air conditioner, a character wasting food, and an entire episode centers around a nuclear power plant malfunctioning, in which one of the characters more or less declares that nuclear energy is a menace. One of the things I really liked about Princess Mononoke's environmental message, heavy-handed as it was, is that it was still pragmatic-- it posited that the relationship between humans and their environment is a pretty gray area. Not so with Arjuna, which seems convinced that any amount of waste or negligence by people is a great, unspeakable evil.

Beyond the overwrought environmentalism, Kawamori has infused Arjuna with glaringly obvious Hindu references at almost every turn. Juna has the ability to summon a giant golem called Ashura, for example. She wears an ancient shamanist charm on her forehead that's been known all over Asia for thousands of years. One of her more powerful attacks is the "Aura Wave", and the top-secret paramilitary group (I'll get to that in a moment) which monitors her even has a handy digital readout of her chakras, and focuses specifically on her third eye.

The other really silly thing about Arjuna is that, in many ways, it resembles nothing so much as Ultraman. Juna herself isn't a towering hero, but she does transform into a pink spiritual form, which flits and darts about nimbly. Her demonic opponents are huge (and vaguely resemble the ghostly enemies of Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within), and seem to appear as a direct result of human pollution, just like in Spectreman. Unfortunately, the bad guys, dubbed the Raaja, aren't led by an evil space monkey in a lab coat. Cementing the whole kaiju vibe of parts of the show is S.E.E.D., a weird paramilitary organization who are dedicated to curing enviromental ills and opposing the Raaja.

If there's one other thing Kawamori is known for, it's visual punch-- and he scores a knockout with Arjuna. Despite some pretty obvious CG work, the series looks vivid and gorgeous-- the character animation, designed by Takahiro Kishida (Serial Experiments Lain), is smooth and bright and distinctive. The show's color design, a wild mixture of soft earth tones and flourescent blasts, is also a standout. Most interestingly, Kawamori peppers the series liberally with actual photographs-- sometimes as visual elements directly related to the story, and sometimes simply for mood's sake. It's a minor touch, but it adds to Arjuna's already considerable visual arsenal.

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The DVD is decent, but it's not without its share of odd problems. The video quality is excellent-- both the menus and the series itself are presented in excellent 16:9 anamorphic widescreen. The dub, provided by Ocean, is adequate, but not particularly memorable. My biggest complaint about the Arjuna DVD is actually with the extras section (helpfully referred to as "Extras Material" in the menu-- d'oh!). First off, the "Arjuna Dictionary" liner notes are helpful, but the instructions on the disc for navigation are actually backwards-- a minor but humorous gaffe. More importantly, it looks like all of the next-episode trailers are stashed in the extras section rather than placed at the end of each episode, which is where I'm assuming they originally were. This isn't a huge problem if you like watching your discs all at once, but I prefer watching one episode per day-- and not having a trailer at the end is a little vexing. Other than that, there's a nifty brief interview extra featuring Maggie Blue-O'hara (voice of Juna) and Brad Swaile (voice of Chris). Overall Arjuna is more quality work from Bandai.

Judging by my words above, it's safe to say that I find Arjuna rather silly and almost nauseatingly ham-fisted in its message. The combination of an almost hysterical environmental message and goofy Hindu references make for a series that feels like new-age catalog propaganda sometimes.

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And yet, despite that, I can't say that Arjuna isn't a worthwhile show. Kawamori's visual touch and very human characters are great to watch, and as usual, Yoko Kanno's dense, haunting musical score elevates the quality of the entire series. Despite the goofiness, there are hints of magic in Arjuna's schlock. In the end, I can only compare it to Brain Powered-- another series that's gorgeous and promising, but also enormously frustrating. I might have a better idea of Arjuna's overall quality after the second disc arrives, but for now, I'm really on the fence-- Arjuna is a beautiful gem of a series, but a very flawed one.

Added:  Friday, October 17, 2003

Related Link:  Bandai Entertainment
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