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Aura Battler Dunbine Volume 1: Tales of Byston Well
Reviewed by Kevin Pezzano, © 2003

Format: Anime
By:   ADV Films
Genre:   Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Action
Released:   July 15, 2003
Review Date:   November 04, 2003
RevSF Rating:   8/10 (What Is This?)

"Hey! Keep your filthy hands off my bike!" - Show attempts to keep some medieval peasants from messing with his Honda motorcycle.

Yoshiyuki Tomino may be best known these days as the father of the epic "Gundam" saga, but that's not the only anime to which he's lent his not-inconsiderable talents. After the first "Gundam" series (before it become the franchise phenomenon that it is today), Tomino created and directed a relatively obscure anime named "Aura Battler Dunbine". Thanks to ADV Films, "Dunbine" is now getting a US release, letting us see this "lost" work of Tomino's. Even though "Dunbine" is an entirely separate work, it covers a lot of the same thematic ground as the "Gundam" saga, especially in its exploration of the brutality of war, its high character body count, and its annoyingly whiny protagonist.

That protagonist is a young Japanese motorcycle racer named Show Zama, who during a high-speed jaunt home finds himself suddenly sucked into a strange alternate fantasy world and tossed right into the middle of a budding global war there (just like Hitomi from "Vision of Escaflowne", only not as cute). Show quickly discovers that he's not the only Earther sucked across the trans-dimensional borderline. The country of Ah, led by a power-hungry and imperialistic baron, has developed humanoid battle mecha called "aura battlers", and these technological marvels allow Ah's forces to easily defeat their medieval-technology-level opponents. However, these machines are called "aura battlers" for a reason: they can only be activated by people with strong auras. And the only people with auras strong enough to effectively pilot the aura battlers are those from "Upper Earth": our world.

Show and the rest of the recruits summoned from Upper Earth are told that they won't be sent home unless they fight in Ah's war of conquest, so they reluctantly join the army of the Lord of Ah. Naturally, though, there's a lot more going on behind the scenes than Show ever suspects, and the dark cruelties of Ah's forces during their crusade to unite all of Byston Well under their banner cause him to rethink the deal he struck with them and go AWOL. But the "rebels" he joins have their own reasons for fighting Ah, reasons that Show many not like any better. And does ANYONE in Byston Well have the power to send him home again, or is he doomed to remain forever a pawn in a war on a planet that isn't even his?

Like "Mobile Suit Gundam" before it, "Aura Battler Dunbine" is an examination of war and its effect on people. The "bad guys" are not totally bad, and the "good guys" aren't always exactly good, which makes "Dunbine" surprisingly realistic for an anime about giant fairy-winged robots. There's a lot more to the political maneuverings of both sides than either is letting on, and Show is in for some serious angst the longer he stays caught between the two sides.

This definite gray shading in the characterization makes for a fascinating and rather unpredictable storyline. The Lord of Ah is a brutal man, true. But his warmaster, Bern, is smart enough to realize that atrocities in war are usually counterproductive, but his concern for individuals is overridden by his ultimate desire for power. The rebel leader, a young noble named Neal Givens, is a headstrong, lovestruck jerk and an extremely poor leader. Show himself is confused and strong-willed, inexperienced but not at all stupid (though he does have a tendency to whine about his situation an awful lot). There are no obvious heroes or villains here, so it's almost impossible to tell who will win, who will lose, or who will even survive after everything's all over. At least, not in this first volume. It definitely leaves you wanting to see more, in classic cliffhanger fashion.

Of course, things aren't perfect in the land of Byston Well, even setting aside the whole angsty war thing. There's that goofiness factor I talked about before. And considering that this anime was made in the early 80s, there's more than enough goofiness to go around. The marks of the Golden Decade are ALL OVER "Dunbine", from the limited animation and simplistic character designs to the purple mullet sported by the Cute Rebel Princess. Going along with that is a nice chewy dollop of Japanese goofiness, particularly in the names. It kind of breaks the melodramatic tension with people named Shot Weapon, Marvel Frozen, and Keen Kiss (and let's not even talk about the giant robot named the "Dannae O'Shae"!). I
know it's hard to make up good "fantasy" names, but its not THAT hard. If "Record of Lodoss War" can do it, surely "Dunbine" could have done it! Then again, maybe it's a Tomino thing; a later "Gundam" series features everyone's favorite anti-hero, Char Aznable, going by the embarrassing pseudonym of "Quattro Vagina". And I don't even want to speculate about what the inclusion of an almost offensively stereotypical obnoxious, violent American as Show's main nemesis among the other aura battlers from Earth really means.

As for the production values of this DVD itself, it's a pretty mixed bag. ADV has packed five full episodes onto the disc, which is definitely good, but the extras leave a lot to be desired. The animation is dated, but considering its age, I think it deserves a little slack (and in the battle scenes, which are nicely kinetic, it's actually rather good). And the dubbing, written and directed by "Robotech" mastermind Carl Macek, is REALLY good. It's very immersive, actually improving on the sub script without changing any of the essential meaning, and there's only a few annoying and exaggerated voices. And, most importantly, the end credits sequence features a naked running fairy girl. But that may just be me.

The surprising depth "Aura Battler Dunbine" shows vastly outweighs its dated animation and goofy moments and D&D-with-giant-robots setting. It's a serious look at individuals in wartime, filled with complex political maneuvering, plenty of mysteries to explore, and a surprising amount of brutal (though not graphic) violence. Fans weaned on anime like "Gundam
Wing" and "Trigun" will probably have a lot of trouble wrapping their minds around the extremely dated look and feel of "Dunbine", and that's a real shame. Like the classic "Gundam" series that failed in the ratings when Cartoon Network tried to run it a while back, "Dunbine" has a lot more to offer than cheesy animation and purple-mulleted princesses. If story and
characters are really all that matter when it comes to determining quality, then "Dunbine" truly deserves its classic status.


Anime Editor Kevin Pezzano has disturbing fantasies about Tinkerbell, too. Ask him about them sometime.


 
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