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CyanideBlizzard's Betterman Tv Review

Betterman tv Review

Story & Characters

I wanted to try something new. Something to not only get myself back into reviewing, but perhaps to engage those who also do reviews or have considered doing them. What happens to be this so-called project? The Summer of the 90s! For myself, the late 90s served as a springboard to my discovery of anime. It holds as a fond memory to me, and some incredible viewing experiences. While most of the shows that really helped me to get into anime have already been reviewed, I wanted to cover some of those that have not. Be it those that were simply not popular enough, those that were never televised, or those that just never caught on. While it may not exactly be summer yet, I wanted to start this off with something that I’ve been meaning to watch for awhile.

For those of us that lived in the US, anime was rather difficult to come by. You could buy it, but DVDs weren’t sold in collection packs like they are now. It was very rare to come across one, and when you did you were more than likely shelling out an arm and a leg for one. DVDs weren’t much better, with a singular DVD costing up to 30 USD. Given that some series spanned roughly 8 DVDs, this became an incredibly costly endeavor. If we didn’t use a computer, we were left with only two other options. Borrowing from friends, and watching on television. If it seems like I’m rambling on endlessly, I’ll get to the point. Back during the early 2000s, two program blocks were to go-to for anything anime. The more popularly known Toonami and Adult Swim Saturday night block, and Anime Unleashed on the then TechTV (G4). It was a great way to not only sample a show, but to also broaden your tastes. Some of my favorite shows were introduced on these blocks, and some of them I always wished to return to. One of those was Betterman. I finally had a chance to recently, and I honestly wish I had visited this sooner.

Betterman, created in 1999, was a bit of a side project from the staff that worked on the GaoGaiGar series. Created by Sunrise’s internal Studio 7, and directed by Yoshitomo Yonetani, Betterman ranks up there as probably one of the most unique and complex shows I’ve seen. Dealing heavily with biological themes and Jungian symbolism, Betterman remained rather low key in terms of popularity despite its pedigree and US televising. Even after viewing the show, I can’t exactly describe how I feel about it. However, we should get into the plot first before I get into that.

Betterman mainly revolves around a young man by the name of Keita Aono. Keita is unlike any protagonist I’ve ever seen. He’s a nerdy looking guy who’s a bit bizarre, but at the same time he’s got strong morals and values. However, he never stops being a human being. He gets terrified and lets him fear control him, yet at the same time he’s willing to stand up for what he believes us.

Keita is a high school student. He leads a pretty normal life and is a bit of a military otaku. However, all of this changes when his childhood friend, Hinkoi Sai, transfers into his class at school. He tries to warmly greet her while the rest of the class is asking her questions, only for her to get a call and then up having to leave the school. Ketia, curious about the newly appearance of his childhood friend, finds himself going back home on a rainy day before accidentally falling down several flights of stairs on his awesome-looking scooter. Where does he find himself? Outside the entrance of an underground theme park. He then finds himself asking more questions, like why wasn’t the theme parked blocked off. There was a major accident that was reported on the news early that day, so why was no one there? What exactly happened there? After a series of events, he finds himself face-to-face with a young lady strapped to a machine. She seems weak and timid, with a very soft voice. What is she doing there? Suddenly, the vehicle she’s in starts to descend, and before Keita knows it he finds himself meeting his childhood friend again. What is she doing down there? And then there’s the matter of the giant robot she’s in. What’s that all about? So many questions that Keita has, but all he can think about is protecting himself. but what he is protecting himself from? What is Algernon?

Betterman wastes no time getting straight into the meat of things. Already within the first episode we’re deeply immersed in it’s atmosphere. The theme park that Keita stumbled upon? It was suppose to open that day, but mysteriously 200 people were killed. The girl strapped to a machine, she’s part of a crew specially composed to find out and combat this mysterious threat. What’s more, his childhood friend is part of this group. This recent discovery then creates a spiral of events that slowly transcend into chaos and the possible extinction of humanity itself.

One of the biggest benefits, and possibly negatives, of Betterman is that there is a lot of information to soak in. Limpid Channels, Neuronoids, Algernon, Betterman himself, and so many other things are thrown at us throughout the show. Normally, one would think so much information would result in an overload or become overbearing to the viewer. However, Betterman not only takes it’s time in explaining, but also offers a simplification as well. Keita serves as a great fish-out-of-water character in the series. He has absolutely no clue as to what is going on, and as he learns about it so do we. It’s not uncommon for the show to take time to offer more scientific explanations, but to also break it down in a matter that’s relatable to anyone. In my opinion, this is truly where Betterman shines. There’s a lot of science that goes on in the show and it could've been very easy for the show to leave a lot of things a mystery and instead have the audience research it on their own. While there are some things that most likely will spark a greater curiosity to research on your own, as previously mentioned this show is very biological heavy sometimes. There is also so much that is explaining and makes it more than easy to follow along. However, this also means that you can’t turn off your brain while watching this show. Sadly, this also starts to fall apart near the end of the show when things start to take a more meta approach and some key factors are either left open ended for the audience to decide upon, or else quickly put into place without giving the viewer much time to think about it.

It is with consideration to all of this that I believe Betterman is meant to be a very deep psychological look on the human condition itself and I felt that they really handled the majority of that aspect in a great manner. While another individual may have a different impression, this was a constant impression that I kept coming back to during my viewing.

This also brings me to another great positive of the show itself. The story. While I would more than love to continue to tell you about all of the cast and characters; like the Bio-Engineer Miyako Asami, who seems to have a deeper connection to what’s going on and some of the personnel involved. Or someone like Shigeru Akamatsu, who is the head of the Akamatsu Industries and inventor extraordinaire. The real joy lies in discovering these characters and growing with them. Simply telling you about the cast and crew does them no justice. They’re all unique in both personality and in belief and each of them, for the majority, bring a strong element to the story. It also is because in order to explain certain characters or events, I have to get into other information that is covered, which ruins part of the experience and in some cases results in major spoilers.

There’s also aspects like the Neuronoids, which require two individuals to operate them and only those with Dual Kind abilities can pilot them. Finding out what Dual Kind is and how Neuronoids operate really is part of the magic behind the show and simply spelling it all out not only ruins the fun, but the experience itself. It’s one of those rare shows that really rewards the viewer for watching it fully through. However, it can also create confusion. I remember during my introduction to this series, I didn’t catch it at the beginning. Needless to say I was completely confused and lost, and while certain pieces were put into place a lot of it was just a giant, jumbled mess. In some cases, missing certain aspects of the plot can completely hamper the overall experience of the series.

Betterman also takes place on a variety of different locations and set pieces. Sunrise wasn’t afraid to take us to different locals and it certainly shows. Each piece, more importantly, also serves as a set piece for progressing the plot.

So with all I’ve explained, and with Sunrise being involved one would think that Betterman is a mecha based show that’s about fighting monsters and villains. Well, not exactly. Betterman is more along the lines of Action, Horror and Suspense with Mecha mixed in.

One of the things that always intrigued me from what little I viewed of Betterman was the set up of the show itself. Betterman is not violent. Not in the traditional terms of using gore or blood to establish a horror setting. Rather, it relies on music, lighting, and voice work to really make a scene stand out. Each of these elements work nicely for creating an atmosphere that was both tense and enticing. Yet, at the same time the series itself isn’t so drenched in horror that someone who isn’t a fan of the genre couldn’t get into the series. It’s more like horror-style elements were utilized as part of the story itself as oppose to simply being aimed at scaring you. Essentially, the elements are simply an ends to a means for telling the story, creating suspense and drama.

However, this also comes to one of the problems (or benefits) of the show. Betterman is sort of all over the place when it comes to tone. While Keita is general the focal point, the series felt the need to give us some fanservice scenes early on. More of it isn’t so much in the way of panty shots and can be simply viewed as a young teenage male being a young teenage male (one of the scenes he’s carrying the young girl who was strapped to a machine, Sakura, and they have a little moment around that). These shots themselves are also rather rare, resulting in only about a handful of times. While some of the time they were more than an acceptable form of breaking the tension and lightening the mood, others just felt random and came across as forced comedic moments. It was a great way of reminding us that Keita was just a young man and made him far more human, yet these scenes generally felt out of place with the rest of the series despite all of that. Thankfully, comedy and drama and both nicely done and don’t come across as forced or ruin any moments. They’re a nice break and give us time to get comfortable or relax until something happens again. That is, until the end.

This, by far, is my greatest complaint. The ending. While rather difficult to discuss, the ending itself feels like a combination of being rushed, and trying to resolve everything at the same time. This was the one time where everything being explained didn’t have the same luxury of being well explained and given enough time to soak in. We’re barraged with an enormous amount of information regarding key characters, as well as the deaths of several main characters. Suddenly, the show has gone from strategically using horror-elements to tell a story, to fully embracing the horror to bring out a much darker plot. While I’m not sure if it was the creator’s intention, there are several questions left and one giant head-scratcher at the end. I can’t help but to feel that some of the aspects handled really just felt rushed. It was sort of like they knew how they wanted to end the show, but didn’t know how exactly to go about it or didn’t have enough episodes to work with. Where as some other elements are left completely open ended. While I gather that this was simply so that the audience could deduce whatever they felt was the possible choice, I feel that too much was left open-handed instead of giving us at least a bit more to work with.

This also bleeds into my second problem. There’s a large part of the show that focuses on something in particular, Algernon. From the research I’ve done, it sounds like the interpretation itself is left up to the viewer, but there are so many questions in regards to it that it’s hard to accept just that. While the general feel of the show makes this perfectly acceptable, I can’t help but to wish for a bit more information. We learn a lot in regards to Algernon, but so much for interpretation. Normally, I love it when shows let me imagine my own ending, or breed my own answers based upon what I know. However, I can’t help but to feel that Betterman wanted us to essentially assume how the show ended with the information we’re given and in this case, it was too little for generally something that we’ve been constantly informed about.

At the end of it all, though, Betterman is still a rather solid viewing experience. It falls in a similar category that another show I reviewed did in that either some people will really get into the depth covered by the show, or else some people will just not care for it at all. Personally speaking, I feel that it will fare a bit better than the other show, being that Betterman helps it’s audience understand far better and more importantly, keeps things consistent. At least until the end of the show.

Rating: 8

Art

In my previous paragraph, I discussed very briefly upon the art. As mentioned numerous times, Sunrise handled the animation and my goodness does it show. While the show is well over a decade old, and it certainly shows in some aspects, the show looks incredibly good for its age. Still imagery is used to a much greater extent, and some choices of effects are just plain weird and do not work. Or at least they didn’t work nearly as well as they may of wanted them too.

When it comes to the overall look of the series, it’s superb. Betterman strongly resembles a good portion of anime from the late 80s to early 90s. Everything has a much darker look to it, with a much greater emphasis on shadows. However, the entire show itself is not dark and some parts are rather colorful, especially when they go to other locations, the general tone the series has a more older vibe to it and it pays off in spades. What makes Betterman such a treat to watch is just simply to see what they’ll show next. The animation, for the majority, is absolutely stunning given it’s 1999 date. While there are dips here and there in terms of quality for the animation, and on the DVD releases I have some of the scenes later on actually look blurry, the overall look is surprisingly good. This 26 episode series looks better than OVAs I’ve seen around from that time. It’s also worth mentioning that the show was done in Widescreen, which made it surprisingly ahead of it’s time and further showcases it’s beauty. I really cannot stress enough how good this show looks when it’s setting a scene and how effective it is to the overall mood.

Characters are also a strong point as well. Artwork was handled by Takahiro Kimura and boy does it look stunning! There are a plethora of good looking designs in this series, ranging from character base, monster base and mecha base. This series definitely has a great appeal, and it’s even better in terms of dramatic angles and lighting on the characters. By far, the strong point of the series is just the visual flare everything seems to have.

Alas, just like with the story, there are some strange choices for the animation itself. While the mecha itself look stunning and battles are generally quite a spectacle to behold, there are some very weird choices of effects. There will be some scenes that will show mirror images slightly overlapping each other and have them turn in a 360 degree. There’s also some really interesting choices they did for other visual distortion based effects that, honestly, took me out of the show. It’s rather apparent that this series was meant to be extremely experimental in terms of visuals to accompany the events in the story, and for the majority it paid off. Within all this, some of the scenes just came across as completely out of place and raised an eyebrow more than once.

It’s just a shame, with that in mind, they chose to lazily do the intro. The intro composes of just an underwater live action scene going from point A to point B, with stills of the characters dissolving in and out of the scene. Half way through the series, it changes to add a few more characters and changes some of the stills, but it’s essentially the same introduction. While being rather creative and understanding the point of it, it comes across as horrifically lazy. Given the attention to detail paid to the series, it’s really shocking that our first introduction to Betterman is this terrible intro.

However, the ending itself received a far greater amount of attention. I’ll discuss more of that in the sound section, though.

Rating: 8

Sound

Despite with how strong everything else in the show was, I couldn’t help but to feel that voice acting was sub par for the majority. I watched Betterman by watching one episode in English, and the other in Japanese. Three episodes were watched in both languages to get a good comparison and feel, while other scenes throughout were re-watched in both languages to get an even better grasp. To whom the spoils go towards?

The Japanese dub!

However, this was by no means a landslide victory. While the voice acting quality overall was much greater on the Japanese track as oppose to English, I felt some voice actors did a fairly good job. Keita Aono was voiced by Kappei Yamaguchi (This guy has been in virtually everything in the past two decades, most notable for InuYasha and Teddy from Persona 4) was probably the most consistent characters. While his dub counterpart, Matthew Erickson did a rather decent job he lacked the consistency that is Japanese counterpart had. Now, you may be asking, why is the Japanese dub barely scraping out with a victory over a cast that seems to bounce back and forth in terms of quality? Well, the biggest issue is this. English. See, for the Neuronoid to be piloted, it responds to English comments. You Have Control, I Have Control, Synapse Attack, G-Set and so forth. While being an interesting mechanism, I can’t help but to find it almost comical. Akamatsu Industries, which is a Japanese Company, co-built these things and yet for some reason the base commands only respond to English. It’s even said, during the second half of the show when a different model Neuronoid comes to Japan from France, that they had to change the vocal commands from French. This part just struck me as odd, and unfortunately it greatly reflected in the voice acting too. While not everyone struggled with this, it was incredibly noticeable. Sadly, this happens whenever there is a sequence that involves the Neuronoid being piloted. Hats off to whoever came up with the concept though, because I really dug it. It’s just something that sort of throws out the mood of the show that’s established and almost makes it slightly comical. What’s worse, is it’s not the Engrish but the voice commands themselves. Definitely a part where more practice with the dialogue in advance would've helped the actors become far more comfortable with the phrases.

However, this can be overlooked slightly when it comes to sound. Background music, for the majority, is beautiful. Could this be? A show where I finally like the music? Well, maybe if we’re just talking about the background music and some of the pieces.

I really have to mention that the soundtrack to this show greatly helps set the mood of the series. Generally speaking from my personal experiences, what really makes horror or thriller visuals so exciting comes down to the lighting, and mainly the music. One of my favorite video games is absolutely terrifying to play because of how well sound and music is used in it. The same can be said about Betterman. There will be periods of dead silence, or when you’ll simply just hear something in the background as a sound effect. It creates a fantastic mood, followed by some rather well done scores. You aren’t just watching something, you are experiencing it. This is especially notable during the first half of the show. By far the best part of the sound section.

With that in mind, the opening and ending. Well, I didn’t mind the songs. Matter of fact, the ending itself was one of the few anime songs I sought out when I was younger. This especially helps with the fact that the visuals and the ending song really fit with the series itself. While the introduction is very calm and soothing, it’s the ending that really fits the theme of the show itself.

Rating: 8

Presentation

By today’s standards, Betterman may not look nearly as well. It may also not be nearly as appealing due to the amount of material it covers both in terms of symbolism and in terms of biology. Alongside the experimental style some of the show uses to tell it's story, it definitely paints itself as one odd ball of a series. However, Betterman stands up far better than most shows from that time period. Superior visuals, a haunting soundtrack and an incredibly interesting in-depth story keep it in high standards. I’d go so far as to say that Betterman is probably one of the few series from the 90s that still looks fairly good by today’s standards.

It’s with that in mind that I have to say I was truly surprised at how good Betterman actually is. When I first watched the show, I found it to come across as a bit convoluted and full of itself. It also struck me as a huge mess. Yet, when I had the chance to watch the show and catch every single episode I found that not only was that completely off base, but wrong. While some may find this show to be a bit much, and the ending certainly supported that, the overall experience is incredibly enjoyable. It offered me an experience that is non-existent in this day and age. By no means was the show perfect and there were more than several hiccups, Betterman truly surprised me with how much I enjoyed it and more importantly, how good it was. Even if the second half of the show wasn’t nearly as strong and by the end it lost some of it’s steam.

Betterman, essentially, gives people a chance to really sit down and think about humanity itself. It’s a rather interesting outlook and for those who are open to it, they’ll enjoy it. Bear in mind that this show isn’t light when it comes to information, and the show does get slightly dark near the end as well.

By far, it exceeded any expectations I could've ever had, and made for a fantastic start.

Rating: 8

Final Verdict

8.00 (good)

Reviewed by CyanideBlizzard, May 13, 2013

Comments

  1. SnickerdoodleNinja Retired Moderator May 29, 2013

    First off, great review! While the story section was a bit much for me to handle in one sitting the information and insight you provided were both great, and I love to see reviewers showing some love in the sound and art sections. Nice work!

    I might have to check into this one at some point. I usually love the kind of show that makes you think about humanity and deeper themes, so this one is probably right up my alley, though I would probably be as frustrated as you at the ending.

    Hope to see more from you on the Summer of the 90s! I intend to do a bit more reviewing myself this summer. :)

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