"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
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
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.